Wednesday, July 30, 2008

all about me

Blue and Late for the Sky. I have complicated relationships with Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. Much of what I’ve read and heard about the two of them would suggest that they’re both assholes. Jackson strikes me as being pompous, self-righteous and smarmy, and Joni seems like a bitter egomaniac. But I’ve never met either one of them, so the ‘complicated relationships’ really refer to my connection with their music. Besides, I’m sure a lot of the music I cherish comes from people I wouldn’t like if I met them. In the cases of Joni and Jackson, the best parts of their careers make me forgive everything else that may or may not be true about their personalities. They are (or were) both supremely talented songwriters, so much so that their songs create alternative personae – people you want to talk to, question, and get to know... For me, the gap between the people they ‘really’ might be and the people they become in song widens even more because they both represent a part of L.A.’s history I’ve been obsessed with ever since I moved here…

When I grab my body board and drive to County Line in my Mustang, I like to play Joni’s Court and Spark on the car stereo as I drive down to PCH from Kanan Road. Something about the way she sings ‘breaking like the waves at Malibu’ makes me picture myself as Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, walking through a sunken living room and out a back door that opens onto the golden sands of Paradise Cove... If I sit at home and try to conjure up other images of early 70s L.A. for my book, I often turn to Jackson Browne’s first album. I know it’s bland, but it’s a blandness of a very distinct, melancholy sort. The record is like a blurry snapshot of this city, shrouded in yellow smog and haunted by ambiguities of the 60s...

I am a dizzy dinosaur in this age of gadgetry and instant gratification, hopelessly nostalgic for a place and time continually fading into the distant past. Neither Joni Mitchell nor Jackson Browne can take me back to that time entirely, but they both give me a window into its state of mind…

The ‘fitful dreams’ of the Love generation lay in ruins at the end of the 60s, and one very common response was to withdraw into downbeat self-examination. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is not the first singer-songwriter album in this vein and isn’t even Joni’s first crack at it. By the time she recorded the album in 1970-71, she had already made several records and enjoyed some moderate success with Ladies of the Canyon. But in my opinion, Blue is worth singling out as the ultimate representation of the hippie mind turned inward at the dawn of the 1970s. Listening to it, I feel as if I'm privy to Joni’s most intimate ruminations on the highs of giddy romance, the lows of love lost, and the inextricable connection between the two. ‘I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had’… Joni allows herself to be more nakedly vulnerable on Blue than on any other record she made over the course of her career. When she sings ‘I wish I had a river I could skate away on’, or tells the child of “Little Green” that 'there’ll be icicles, and birthday clothes, and sometimes there’ll be sorrow', I can't help but go down to those despairing depths with her. The stark emotional authenticity is what distinguishes Blue from a lot of other singer-songwriter fare. I just don’t respond in the same way to James Taylor, or Carole Klein, or Linda Ronstadt…

On “California”, one of the upbeat songs on Blue, Joni sings, ‘They won’t give peace a chance/That was just a dream some of us had.’ This is one of the only instances on the album where Joni moves outside herself. The irony is that, in a way this is Joni trying to tell us why she has retreated into such profound introspection.

Next Time: Jackson Browne...

Friday, July 25, 2008

more mc5 and groovies

MC5's High Time, the follow up to Back in the USA, turns the dark passage between the late 60s and the early 70s into an occasion for an apocalyptic party. The music may not be as easy to absorb at first, but the album's chaotic atmosphere eventually sinks in, evoking a sense that compromise with the powers that be is very much a thing of the past. 'Atom bombs, Viet Nam, missiles on the moon. And they wonder why their kids are shootin' drugs so soon...' The album is ominous sounding but somehow still has infectious enegy. You will be hard pressed to find a song that rocks more furiously than High Time's opening track, "Sister Anne", the anti-hero of which has 'the ten commandments tattooed on her arm' and is the personification of a new and freeing amorality. 'Sister won't you tell me where I went so wrong/I used to say my prayers baby all night long/I'd listen to the gospel ringing in my ears/Come on sister Anne save me from my fears/if you can...' The songs on High Time tend to be longer, a bit looser in places, and sometimes even unhinged sounding, all of which suggests that the band was knee-deep in drugs at this point. But this seems to intensify the fierce desperation of "Baby Won't Ya", "Future/Now" and "Poison", and it adds twisted incisiveness to the album's dark wordplay. 'Viet Nam, what a sexy war, Uncle Sam's a pimp, wants us to be whores...' In the end, High Time swings between resignation and an ongoing commitment to convulsive deliverance, but this conflict only adds to the album's explosiveness and makes the whole affair unique amongst the music of the Great Collapse.

Although The Flamin' Groovies keep things fairly primitive on Flamingo and Teenage Head, the band's sound becomes harder and more aggressive. The two albums dabble in many aspects of the Collapse - drugged out paranoia ("Comin' After Me", "Teenage Head","Headin' for the Texas Border"), rustic escapism ("Sweet Roll me on Down", "32-20", "Childhood's End"), moral and sexual depravity ("Jailbait","Second Cousin"), and burnt-out exhaustion ("High Flying Baby", "She's Falling Apart", "Whiskey Woman"). More so than even MC5's High Time, Flamingo and Teenage Head have a druggy quality about them that leaves you feeling like you're swimming in the social decrepitude of the early 70s. This may be depressing to hear on one level, but there's something perversely appealing about it, too. I cringe when I think about all the mainlining that must've been going on (I'm squeamish about needles and veins), but there's a part of me that wishes I could have been there and participated.

The Flamin' Groovies went the way of many victims of The Great Collapse after the release of Teenage Head, disappearing into a black hole of self abuse, but not before releasing an angusihed song about it in 1972, "Slow Death". The band disappeared for a few years and and then returned in 1976 as a Power Pop Beat revival group. Their Dave Edmunds produced gem from that year, Shake Some Action, is an outstanding collection of Anglophilic jangle, with harmonies that harken back to The Searchers, The Dakotas, and The Beatles... In the late 60s, the Groovies looked to the 50s for inspiration. Then in the mid 70s, the band looked to the mid 60s. I find Shake Some Action completely irresistible. It's one of my 'default' records - something I put on when I can't think of anything else I want to hear. But listening to it is also a strange experience because it's an album from the 70s that tends to bolster my somewhat unhealthy belief that the years from 1962 through 1966 represent the absolute peak of Western Civilization...

*Quick Note: I will probably be posting a little less frequently from now on - maybe like 2 times a week. I am going back to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a two-week residency starting at the end of September, so I really need to try and get going on my book again. But I will definitely continue to post, so check in periodically, if the spirit moves you...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the primitives

Supersnazz * Flamingo * Teenage Head * Back in the USA * High Time

A friend and I had a conversation a few nights ago about our mutual fascination with American Graffiti... The Great Collapse cast a long shadow over American cinema in the 70s. American Graffiti ends right before the 60s become the 60s, at least in the popular understanding of the decade, and the film’s elegiac sentimentality for Malt Shop USA creates a sense that everything was fine until the 60s got out of hand and fucked it all up… We got to talking about how American Graffiti touched off a whole trend of TV nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s. There's Happy Days, of course, the title of which speaks volumes... And remember when they gave Sha Na Na that awful TV show? ...Even the TV version of MASH is set during the Korean War - never mind that the subtext is Viet Nam, or that the male characters somehow evince post-feminist sensitivity.

Nostalgia for the 50s in movies and on TV was really about the 60s. Something similar started to happen a few years earlier in music, a kind of pining for primitive (often 50s influenced) rock and roll. Aside from The Rolling Stones and The Stooges, the best examples I can think of are The Flamin' Groovies and MC5. The throwback element of the music was motivated by the same circumstances that influenced the backward looking aspect of the rural turn, but the nature of the reaction to the Great Collapse was different and had different consequences.

Supersnazz, the first full-length album from The Flamin’ Groovies, came from out of left field in 1969. It’s hard to believe that music this basic could come from a place as muddled and self-important as late-60s San Francisco. The Groovies lacked the reckless ferocity of The Stooges, but much of their music during this period was just as crude, in the best sense of the word. While mainstream pop and rock made increasingly hollow statements about love, war, peace, hate, and so on, The Groovies took a few very large steps backwards to an era when pop music was much less self-conscious and much more fun. “Love Have Mercy” sets the tone on Supersnazz with a melody line ripped off from “That’s All Right,” and then the band pays tribute to the likes of Eddie Cochran, Al Dexter and Little Richard with adoringly rendered versions of “Somethin’ Else”, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”, and “The Girl Can’t Help It.” The two-chord flippancy of “The First One is Free” ratchets down the refinement even further, as does the cartoonishness of “Bam Balam.” …Supersnazz mostly tries to take Rock ‘n Roll back to its roots, but the record also features a few somewhat more sophisticated songs with great guitar playing and even some strings (“Laurie Did It”, “Apart from That”). Listening to the album recently, I wondered if The Groovies wanted to give listeners a few glimpses of their ability to play more ‘evolved’ music. Either way, the glimpses are small and the band mostly keeps things uncomplicated, as if to insist that difficult times call for simple music…music the way it used to be...

MC5 also turned the clock back to a more rudimentary style, but in the process they rocked much harder and were more direct in their social commentary. The band's Back in the USA is a proto-punk classic. No flute solos. No Court of the Crimson King. Nothing too pretentious. Just cranked up guitars, great two and three-minute songs, and a bottomless supply of raw passion that makes you wanna dance and scream and get laid.

'...OK Kids, it's ROCKIN' time...!'

Actually, to reduce MC5 to a party band is an oversimplification. They were involved for some time with John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, and their live shows frequently provided a platform from which to spew hatred for The Man ('a lot of honkies, with a lot of money...'). Along with the good times on Back in the USA, there are flashes of social protest. 'They told you in school about freedom,' Rob Tyner sings in "The American Ruse", 'but when you try to be free they never let ya.' There's also an acute awareness of the 60s gone bad with the anger and violent imagery of "The Human Being Lawnmower" and "Call Me Animal", though it's the band's simplified approach that speaks most clearly about the Great Collapse. The album's bookends, Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti", create a perfect context for what MC5 wanna do - inject old fashioned hedonism into the muck and mire of '69 America in terminal stasis.' ...The failure of the revolution was accelerating in 1969, but with the boppin' ecstasy of songs like "Tonight", "Teenage Lust", "High School", and "Looking at You", Back in the USA retrieves the original elements that made the youth insurgency crackle and spark.

Next time: More on The Flamin' Groovies and MC5...

Monday, July 21, 2008

rama lama fa fa fa

In the summer after I finished 10th grade, I got a job working as a gopher in a New York City photography studio. The work was not at all glamorous, but I had a nice time being around friendly and creative people. Drew Carolan, one of the photographer’s assistants at the studio, made the summer especially fun. Unfortunately for Drew, he was charged with the task of finding menial things for me to do – things that normally wouldn’t get done if there wasn’t a 16-year-old around willing to do them for minimum wage (cleaning windows, reorganizing cabinets, clearing junk out of closets, etc.). But instead of being resentful about having to deal with me, Drew treated me kindly. He showed me the ropes around the studio, joked with me, asked me questions about myself, and took an interest in me in a way that made me feel like somebody actually gave a shit.

As we became more comfortable with each other, we found that we shared a love of music. Drew used to buy albums at Freebeing records on 2nd Avenue, near St. Mark's. He'd bring them to work and crank them on the studio stereo. I really admired the range and adventurousness of Drew’s taste. Without his ever knowing it, he taught me to cast a wide net when it comes to discovering and appreciating music. He turned me on to a lot of what was then called “New Music”, bands like REM, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen and Aztec Camera (remember Roddy Frame?), but also older stuff like The Turtles and The Mothers of Invention…

…Drew also introduced me to the MC5’s first album, a raucous live recording called Kick out the Jams…

There are a couple of songs on Kick out the Jams that I still have a lot of fun listening to today (“Ramblin’ Rose”, “I Want You Right Now,” Motor City is Burnin’,” “Kick out the Jams”), but what I loved most about the record back then was the insane and hilarious banter between songs. A manic emcee at the start of the record introduces the band. “Are you ready to testify?” he yells, “I give you a testimonial... The MC5!”… At the end of a song called “Come Together”, one of the guys in the band (I think either Wayne Kramer or Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith) says, “thank you, and we hope you all did come…together.” …Elsewhere on the record, the same guy sounds like he's foaming at the mouth as he yells, 'I hear a lot of talk, by a lot of honkies, sittin’ on a lot of money, tellin' me they're high society. Well, I'll let you know something. If you ask me, this is the high society! This is the high society!”

But the best part of the album is when Rob Tyner announces that, ‘right now, right now, right now, it’s time to…KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKER!!!

I doubt any of this translates all that well when I try to describe it in writing now, but believe me when I tell you that this was exactly the kind of talk I wanted to hear when I was 16, and I think Drew played Kick Out the Jams for me because he knew it would be right up my alley. For the remainder of the summer, we spoke to each other in the language of the MC5. If he saw me crossing the street, he would greet me with ‘right now, right now.’ …If I had to call down to the darkroom where Drew was working, I would call him on the intercom and ask, ‘are you ready to testify?' ... This would go on all day. Those are some of the nicest memories I have from that time in my life.

Sadly, I lost touch with Drew after that summer and we didn’t reconnect until he shot me an e-mail from out of the blue last year. In that long time between, though, Drew became a much sought after photographer, filmmaker and music video director. He is currently working on a book titled Matinee, a collection of amazing photographs he took in the mid 1980s of young punks at the CBGB weekend hardcore matinees. If you’d like a little taste of how intense these photographs are, go to ...You can also view a great video about the project.

After I got the e-mail from Drew last year, I went to visit him at his home here in L.A. I remember driving across town and wondering if he’d even recognize me since he hadn’t seen me since I was 16. I look a little different now than I did then…I parked the car and crossed the street, looking for Drew’s house. Then I heard a familiar voice calling out to me for the first time in 25 years, but it picked up right where we had left off...

'...And right now, right now…'

I originally wanted this post to be about The MC5 and The Flamin’ Groovies. But thinking about the MC5 diverted me, so I’ll hold off on the rest until next time.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

paradise waits

Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. The Grateful Dead had already been touring continuously for almost five years, first as The Warlocks and then as The Dead, when they began to bolster their live repertoire in the fall and winter of 1969 with songs from what would become Workingman’s Dead (“Uncle John’s Band”, “Black Peter”, “Easy Wind”). The prototypes for those songs sound great today, but they give only a small hint of the direction the band would take on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, released within five months of each other in 1970.

The two albums together chronicle the trajectory of the rural turn. Workingman’s Dead is the first and darker of the two, with its tales of ordinary men – miners, cowboys, railroad engineers, rock breakers - living heroic if also tragic lives. The album’s tone, at once foreboding and wise, is the result of a perfect union between the traditional texture of the music, the mythic American archetypes in Robert Hunter’s lyrics, and the world-weary expressiveness of Garcia’s singing (as well as Pigpen’s on the incomparable “Easy Wind”). ...The well-known line in “Uncle John’s Band”, ‘when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door’, sounds like a life lesson you might get sitting at Uncle John’s knee. It also expresses the washed out hopes of a generation disillusioned in the wake of Manson and Altamont, each of which is alluded to in “Dire Wolf” and “New Speedway Boogie.” In the latter we hear Garcia pleading for a way out of what the 60s have become. ‘One way or another,’ he sings, ‘this darkness got to give.'

American Beauty points towards an escape route from the madness of the Great Collapse. Hunter supplies impressionistic word paintings that create a sense of organic unity between man and nature, elevating the redemptive potential of the migration back to the land, or back to a place ‘between the dawn and the dark of night.'

‘…Walk into splintered sunlight, inch your way through dead dreams to another land…’

‘…Going home, going home, by the riverside I will rest my bones, listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul…’

On both records, Garcia handles Hunter's poetry with just the right shades of benevolence and vulnerability, and the words seem to become naturally entwined with the band's intuitive feel for folk and country music. ...Listening to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty back to back, one walks away - maybe in spite of knowing better - with a hopeful yearning for freedom and human connection. I guess this is the source of their power and longevity.


My experience has been that there are those of us who adore The Grateful Dead, those who can’t stand them, and there’s very little in between. The polarization has its roots in the Great Collapse. More than any other band, The Grateful Dead exited the 60s as an island unto themselves, taking their legions of fans with them to a place offering shelter from the storm. The band made some utterly phenomenal music in front of the audiences who remained behind the band’s protective walls. The period from 1970 to 1974, in particular, is arguably the most exciting five-year stretch of live Grateful Dead. But while the band gave rise to a community based on brotherhood and great music (at least in theory), there’s something conservative about the decision to 'opt out' from the craziness of the world... from responsibility... from the constraints of 'normal' living... etc. This is not only true of The Deadhead scene, but also the rural turn more generally. ...It doesn’t surprise me that hippie living has become more and more of a commodity in the marketplace of lifestyle choices as the 60s have receded further and further into the distant past. In a perverse way, the lifestyle is a kind of white flight or gated community for people who have been conditioned by the 60s, either directly or indirectly, and could never stand to live in dreary suburban tract homes, surrounded by people who aren’t Patagonia Progressives…

‘…Honey, don’t forget to pick up some organic tomatoes on the way home. Take the Prius, and call me on my iPhone if you need me…’

This gets to the heart of why there's that other group of people, too, those of you who hate The Grateful Dead (and/or hippies) with a passion that burns... I'm ambivalent. The Grateful Dead and the rural turn provided an escape that formed the basis for some of my favorite music, but they also held within them the seeds of some things I find distasteful.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I lived in England for a year and a half, right around the time of the first Gulf War. I remember it as the most miserable time in my life – a shame since I was in my early 20s and should have been enjoying the freedom of youth. I was free all right, but more in the Existentialist sense of freedom, ‘condemned to be free.’ I felt terribly lonely and isolated in a strange new place. English winters have the peculiarity of feeling equally damp whether you’re inside or outside. The sunless days made my struggles with depression and anxiety torturous. Thankfully, I never thought about offing myself (because I have a very low threshold for physical pain), opting instead to smoke tons of hash and drink several pints of beer every night at a grim local pub... When I reflect back on that period now, many of the distant memories are murky at best, but I mostly recall myself being perpetually sad, stoned and nervous.

But every now and then good things happened for me. I walked into a rinky-dink little bookshop one afternoon and found a used compilation cassette tape of Byrds songs, distributed by some weird company out of Germany. The cover featured a sepia toned photo of one of the band’s more obscure, latter-day line ups, and while the tape offered great songs like “Here Without You”, “Goin’ Back”, and “Chestnut Mare”, some of the smash hits were omitted from the collection (no “Turn, Turn, Turn”, no “Eight Miles High”, no “So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Star?”). Maybe it had to do with some kind of European licensing problem. Who knows? Who cares? I took the tape home with me, rolled a joint, and the love affair began…

I already had some passing familiarity with The Byrds because their more conventional Greatest Hits from Columbia Records was one of the goodies I found in my dad’s record collection when I was a kid. …At some point, I might write a post on the scattered treats my father had sandwiched between piles of Stephen Sondheim, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. …Anyway, England is really where I first encountered The Byrds for real. They had a magical effect on me during that difficult period. The ringing sound of Roger’s 12-string Rickenbacker; the beautiful 4 and 5-part harmonies, with David singing the top end so angelically; the pop perfection of the arrangements; Gene’s sad love songs, all the more heartbreaking when played at a sunshiny tempo… The Byrds lifted me out of my stupor that first winter and gave color and life to those bleak English months.

As much as I adored The Byrds back then, in retrospect I don’t feel like I really understood their music at a deep level until I moved to Los Angeles. A real connection with The Byrds only comes after driving in the L.A. canyons, through the passes, and down the long, electric boulevards, at dusk, with the sky lit up in incandescent colors, and the tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. L.A. has heightened my appreciation for The Byrds ten fold, and The Byrds have heightened my appreciation for L.A., knowing that this is where those celestial voices came from, and understanding, at long last, that they couldn’t possibly come from anywhere else…

Funny thing is, I really don’t love Sweetheart of the Rodeo. To me, it’s the least Byrdsy of all their albums. I guess I’m just not all that keen on Gram Parsons when you get right down to it. I love his notion of ‘cosmic American music’, and I think his image and the mythic tales about him are cool aspects of L.A. lore. But his music has never done it for me. I like a few tracks from The International Submarine Band, and the same goes for The Flying Burrito Brothers, but I still don’t see why GP and Grievous Angel are such revered albums. They’re OK, but they’re not worth wetting yourself over, are they? I have friends who practically have to change their drawers every time they hear those records.

Gram’s presence dominates Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I compare the Byrds with Gram Parsons to the Byrds after Gram left and Clarence White joined as a permanent member, and I find that I much prefer the latter. Clarence wanted to be a Byrd, whereas Gram wanted to do his own thing.

OK, I’ve traveled pretty far from what I originally wanted to do in this post…Must focus… I may not feel all that connected to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but there’s no question that it represents The Byrds version of the rural turn, even though the band had already been dabbling in country music for quite awhile before the album came out in 1968, thanks to Chris Hillman and Gene Clark.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released some months earlier in 1968, is a masterwork of psychedelic pop. It could very well be my favorite record, period. There’s still some naïve sentiment scattered throughout the album (“Change is Now”, “Natural Harmony”), but you can really hear the 60s starting to take the “left turn” Hillman talks about in that interview I alluded to a few posts ago. 'Do you really think it’s the truth that you see?' McGuinn asks in “Artificial Energry”, a cautionary song about speed, 'I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me.' …David Crosby was fired during the making of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but he added some brilliant flourishes before he left, conjuring up images of the 60s at their apotheosis and beyond (“Tribal Gathering”, “Draft Morning”). …”Wasn’t Born to Follow”, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole Klein, is an incredible piece of songwriting both in terms of melody and its naturalistic lyrics about the refusal to conform. But is it a rejection of the establishment or of a counterculture that by then was starting to look and feel exhausted? Goffin and Klein additionally wrote “Goin’ Back”, a song that pines for the innocence of childhood while also giving a hint of an immanent retreat with the line, 'A little bit of courage is all we lack, so catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back.'

Sweetheart of the Rodeo came along less than a year later with a drastically different sound. In place of cutting edge L.A. pop, the band recorded the album in Nashville and turned in a collection of songs drawing from Country and Western and other traditional American influences. The album's timing and frame of reference places it in the same category as Music from Big Pink. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in fact, features two Dylan songs from his 1967 (Basement Tapes) sessions with The Band (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, “Nothing was Delivered”). ...There are admittedly some great moments on the album. I love the pedal steel on “100 Years from Now,” and I love the way the interpretations of Dylan maintain a long standing Byrds tradition. I’ve also always found something quite nice about Gram's rendition of "You're Still on my Mind." But still, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is an album I reach for only rarely. It is arguably the quintessence of the rural turn in rock, but for me it’s first and foremost a Byrds album that somehow just isn’t a Byrds album.

I know I promised Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty this time around, but I’m fighting fatigue so they’ll have to wait until next time...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

the rural turn

The Basement Tapes * John Wesley Harding * Music From Big Pink * The Band * Sweetheart of the Rodeo * Workingman’s Dead * American Beauty

The late 60s migration ‘back to the land’ was a reaction to the Great Collapse. In making an exodus to a more elemental and organic way of life, communally minded hippies hoped to escape the race riots, drug freak outs and bloody assassinations. The musical corollary was the transition from psychedelia to a simpler, more rootsy vibe, resulting in a return to the mid 60s fusion of folk and pop, but giving it a more rustic inflection. I don’t know if it can be said definitively that this shift originates with Bob Dylan, but for me the songs he recorded during the summer of 1967 with The Band, which later became known as The Basement Tapes, are a good place to start the conversation.

Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was the most emphatic expression of the increasingly cosmopolitan point of view he developed between The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963 and Blonde on Blonde in 1966. The year 1967 marks the start of Dylan’s ‘rural turn’. Although some songs from The Basement Tapes still express the modern anxieties of city dwellers (“Tears of Rage”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere’, “Nothing was Delivered”), a number of other songs evince a shift to the perspective of forgotten people living in small towns (“Tiny Montgomery”, “Crash on the Levee”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Please Mrs. Henry”). More to the point, The Band helps Dylan cultivate a more rag-tag sound, with slapdash piano, twangy guitar and rough, imperfect harmonies, calling to mind whiskey drenched poker games at the old saloon. The music travels back to pre-urban America at precisely the moment when the social fermentation in America’s cities is at a tipping point.

John Wesley Harding, recorded immediately after the songs comprising The Basement Tapes, is that rare work of art that communicates enormously complicated ideas with deceptive simplicity, often speaking from the point of view of drifters, hobos, and simple country folk, again as if to insist that the cosmopolitan vantage point has become irretrievably corrupted. The album is a billion light years away from "Like a Rolling Stone.” Interpreting Dylan’s intentions can be treacherous, but I read his use of biblical and mythic metaphor (“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, “The Wicked Messenger”, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augistine), along with the opacity of the personae he adopts, as a way of expressing ambivalence towards the counterculture and of insisting that the social and cultural fissures of the period are more ambiguous than they seem. The richest instance of this is “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”, which some reviewers and commentators have seen as a shocking lapse and example of small-minded bigotry, but is in reality a portrait of the heart that beats beneath the reviled perspective of a backwoodsman.

The Band continued the rural turn they started with Bob Dylan and made it more direct and accessible on Music from Big Pink and The Band. The underlying idiom on these albums is undeniably late 60s rock, but the songs derive their distinctness from heavy dosages of traditional music and an idealization of agrarian America that’s even more explicit than anything found on the songs comprising The Basement Tapes. Tracks like “Across the Great Divide”, “Kingdom Come”, “Rag Mama Rag” and “King Harvest” conjure up images of plain folk in frontier towns, living off the land but also faced with a growing threat of encroachment from the modern industrial world. But the nostalgic nature of The Band’s entire enterprise on these two albums – mirroring the sentimentality of those who would escape the growing chaos of urban life – is at its most striking on “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, where the fall of the Old South is lamented in all-too-human terms, from the standpoint of a vanquished confederate soldier.

Next time: The Byrds and The Grateful Dead… What could be better than that?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

juiced up and sloppy

Sticky Fingers. I read a quote from Chris Hillman recently where said “the 60s took a left turn in 1968.” True enough, but I wonder whether what he’s talking about is really the sharpening of a turn that began earlier. Thinking about The Rolling Stones made me reflect on this quote because of the way their sinister image seemed to predict the ‘left turn’ several years before it happened. It’s commonplace by now to point out that there’s always been something sinister in the air with The Rolling Stones. Still, starting on Beggar’s Banquet, released at the presumed beginning of the left turn, their darkness becomes more manifest, with the Nietzchean historical scope of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and the violence, rape and decay represented in “Street Fighting Man”, “Stray Cat Blues”, and “Dear Doctor.” The balefulness is then ratcheted up a notch on Let it Bleed. 'I’ll stick my knife right down your throat,' Mick spews at the end of “Midnight Rambler,” one of the album's two or three genuinely scary songs. …The Summer of Love was only two years in the rear view mirror by then, but the notion of ‘letting it bleed’ (or bloodletting) must’ve made that world of peace and flowers seem distant and quaint.

If you could choose only one Rolling Stones album as their definitive Great Collapse record, a great case could be made for either Beggar’s Banquet or Let it Bleed. But in my mind the distinction goes to Sticky Fingers, the third volume in this ‘Collapse Trilogy.’ Part of this is just personal preference. When I’m in the mood for late-60s Stones (which is an important distinction to make), Sticky Fingers is usually where I go. But the reason I love the album as much as I do is that it’s their most fully realized expression of the period. It all starts with the statement of intent made with the notorious bulge ‘n zipper album cover, an assertion of the primacy of unbridled libido, Mick’s cock symbolizing debauchery as the only thing that matters anymore. “Brown Sugar” continues the blithe depravity with its sharp, choppy riff and lyrics using master-slave imagery as a metaphor for interracial sex. The line, ‘brown sugar, how come you taste so good?’ still brings a smirk to my face, (one part guilt, one part sly satisfaction), as does the story I once heard that Mick and Keith initially wanted to call the song “Black Pussy.”

Although Rolling Stones records going all the way back to Aftermath, if not before, are all probably soaked in drugs, this feels especially true of the albums in their Collapse Trilogy, and I think the druggy vibe reaches a peak, at least as a creative force, on Sticky Fingers. But we are no longer talking about the hashish clouds hanging over "Ruby Tuesday"and "She Smiled Sweetly", nor the psychedelia of "Dandelion" and "2000 Light Years." Instead, Sticky Fingers paints a scene of people with ‘cocaine eyes’, speaking ‘speed freak jive.’ What’s amazing to me – admirable even – is how aware the band seemed to be of their own decadence at the time. ‘It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway’ is one of the greatest stoned harmonies you’ll ever hear from Mick and Keith. Part of the self-awareness, though, entails a harrowing recognition of consequences. 'You know and I know in the morning I’ll be dead,' Mick cries on “Sister Morphine.” …Maybe the greatness of ‘Collapse-period Stones’, and Sticky Fingers in particular, is that they know they’re inching closer to the abyss, but they embrace it lovingly, as the realization of their destiny.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

the wasteland

Who’s Next. Who’s Next was one of the first ‘serious’ rock records I bought with my allowance money when I was a kid. I got it at a little record store/head shop called Record Connection on 86th and Lexington in New York City. It’s the kind of joint a kid would never be allowed into today. But back then I poured almost every cent I could get my hands on into records from that place. I’d walk through the jingling front door and the heavy sounds of Blue Oyster Cult and Deep Purple would fuse in the tight air with some weird smell I couldn’t identify. The guy working the cash register, Mitch, would appear from behind a beaded curtain with bloodshot slits for eyes. “What’s up ‘lil buddy?” he would say with a slight giggle every time he saw me. He could never remember my name.

A camp counselor turned me on to The Who. Let’s call him ‘Buddy Green’, a fitting pseudonym for sure. Buddy and I were only in each other’s lives for two months, but that precious eight week period, some 30 years ago, proved to be pivotal for me. He introduced me to so much great music, and to some other things too, but that’s maybe a conversation for another time...

Of all the music Buddy played for me, The Who had the most dramatic impact. It’s difficult to convey now because years and years of radio overkill have snuffed out much of the pleasure I used to get from some of the greatest Who songs. These days, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Pinball Wizard” sound like annoying muzak when I'm sitting in rush hour traffic and they come on the Classic Rock radio station. But then again, “Substitute”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “The Punk Meets the Godfather”, and “You Better You Bet” never get old…OK, that last one was a joke…There are also Who songs that haven’t been played nearly as much which still sound great (some of my favorites are “Circles”, “Tattoo”, “So Sad About Us”, “Pure and Easy” and “Naked Eye”).

Who’s Next was my favorite record. Everything about it seemed so cool and mysterious and epic. The strange pee pee sleeve; the moog, piano and crashing drums at the start of “Baba O’Riley”; the freedom radiating from “Goin’ Mobile”; the rockin’ deftness of Pete’s guitar playing on “Bargain”, along with the way Roger’s voice rises when he sings ‘the best I ever had’; the soaring majesty of “The Song is Over”; the fire and rage of “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”…

Today, Who's Next strikes me as an amazing distillation of the Great Collapse. ‘She was the first song I ever sang,’ Pete sings at one point, ‘but it stopped as soon as it began.’ In one way or another, the record as a whole has always made me feel like I'm experiencing a passage from one world to another, a transition laden with loss (“The Song is Over”), desperation (“Bargain”), loneliness and isolation (“Behind Blue Eyes”), and the need for transcendence (“Goin’ Mobile”). More explicitly, “Baba O'riley” seems to suggest that the legacy of the 60s – the ‘teenage wasteland’ - should be left behind (‘put out the fire and don’t look past my shoulder’), and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” offers an even more stinging indictment (‘the world looks just the same, and history ain’t changed’)…

But you can’t really do Who’s Next justice without talking about the sleeve photo… Pete, Roger, Keith and John stand in the midst of a rocky, grey (teenage?) wasteland. It looks like a strange battlefield with a nondescript piece of concrete emerging from the ground, against which the four men have just finished relieving themselves. I used to look at the photo for hours, wondering what had happened in and around that field, eventually concluding that it was some kind of stormy event or series of events, leaving only a monument in its wake. I look at it now and have a very similar reaction. The 60s have come and gone. Their impact has been imposing and will be memorialized and celebrated for a long time to come, but there is a sense of anger and betrayal among what were once some of the most fervent True Believers.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


The Stooges and Funhouse. What could be a bigger slap in the face to self-important hippie fantasies than hearing some bored dolt sing words like,‘Well it’s 1969 okay/ All across the USA/ Another year for me and you/ Another year with nothin’ to do...? If there’s an accidental message running through The Stooges and Funhouse, it’s that the 60s generation has become “No Fun." Nihilistic self-gratification is the new order of the day. 'Every little baby knows just what I mean,' Iggy sings on "Funhouse", 'livin’ in division in a shifting scene/Hold tight - callin' from the funhouse.' …With tracks like "I Wanna Be Your Dog” (‘So messed up, I want you here’), “Loose” (‘I’ll stick it deep inside’), and “1970” (‘Beautiful baby be my love/All night til I blow away’), Iggy stakes his claim to a new vision in which the only thing that matters is getting stoned and getting fucked. In the midst of the rising number of war casualties overseas, and with growing social and cultural strife at home, Iggy barks 'I feel all right' over and over again on Funhouse, each time with more taunting defiance. Compare this with the self-deluded pomposity of contemporaneous offerings from bands like Jefferson Airplane (Volunteers) and Crosby Stills Nash and Young (Déjà Vu), and it becomes clear that, in spite of the dim witted pose he was so fond of adopting, Iggy must be considered one of true visionaries of the Great Collapse.

Friday, July 4, 2008

primal scream

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. Just what exactly did Phil Spector do to earn his ‘produced by’ credit for John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band? I ask the question like this not to be snide or dismissive but instead to underscore the record’s minimalist feel, which may or may not have come as a bit of a surprise to those expecting cloying string arrangements and a fulsome Wall of Sound. As far as I know, the tracks feature John on vocals and guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo on drums. Billy Preston adds some understated piano on one song as well. But that’s it. It sounds like Spector simply pressed ‘record’ and captured the players doing the songs live in the studio. The stripped down immediacy allows John to return to his rocker roots and create a collection of songs that are confessional, acutely aware of the historical moment, and nothing short of devastating.

Throughout John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, the sparse sound works to emphasize the exhaustion of a grandiose era, and it gives John room to welcome the Great Collapse in terms that are at times barbed and dripping with ridicule. ‘I told you before,’ he snarls on “I Found Out”, accompanied by a jagged sounding guitar, ‘stay away from my door, don’t gimme that “brother, brother, brother.”’ So much for love and togetherness. …Even on the songs that are less directly about John’s place in a changing public world than they are about his psycho-emotional predispositions, there’s a confrontational violence to the approach, the beginnings of which admittedly date back to the White Album, but which now unequivocally express a rejection of pacifistic naivetee. With the ungodly primal screams unleashed on “Well, Well, Well” and “Mother”, John works to exorcize personal demons, but he’s also purging the history he’s played such an enormous role in making. But the climax of the purge, if it can be put this way, comes on “God” when he sings, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles’, which is among the most jaw dropping lines he ever wrote and one which made it possible for him to also say what by then was ever more obvious… ‘The dream is over.’

Happy Fourth of July to all my friends and family.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

the music of the great collapse

What are the best and/or most significant pop albums or songs of the Great Collapse? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time with the help of a very dear friend of mine, but it’s still not an easy question to answer. I’ll try and do one or two Great Collapse albums per post over the coming days or possibly weeks, depending on my energy level. They'll be done in no particular order of importance. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions along the way...

Abbey Road. Compare the awakening and discovery ringing out from the tracks on Rubber Soul and Revolver with the sense on Abbey Road, released only three or four years later, that something magical has come to an end. There’s still a good bit of 60s righteousness (‘Come Together’) and sentimentality (‘Here Comes the Sun’), along with a few cringe making tracks (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Octopus’s Garden). But Abbey Road also features some of the best, most poignant and most fascinating moments in Beatledom. …The strung-out desperation of ‘I Want You’, with John and Paul singing “she’s so heavy” against a backdrop of furious guitar, organ and bass, was not merely John’s passionate lust letter to Yoko, but also a clear indication that smack had replaced LSD as the most appropriate form of chemical escape, a protective shield grizzled hippies could use to numb themselves against the pain of disillusionment and unrealized aspirations. …Then there’s the medley on Side 2, which John hated for reasons I can't fathom (other than that it was Paul's brainchild) becaue it's such a remarkable string of melodic fragments, all held together by what is arguably the most passionate playing those guys ever committed to record. They clearly knew the end was near and they wanted to go out in memorable fashion. …When Paul sings openly about the collapse of the Beatles (“and in the middle of negotiations, you break down”), isn't he also singing more generally about the collapse of the 60s? In a lot of ways, after all, The Beatles are the 60s. I think this is why I still get chills when I hear Paul sing, “soon we’ll be away from here, step on the gas and wipe that tear away.”

…What’s incredible to me is that I’ve probably listened to Side 2 of Abbey Road a thousand times since I was seven years old, but I still love it every time I hear it. Sure, there’s no longer the same mixture of fantasy and wonder that’s sadly limited to the way a child hears music (I’d give almost anything to get that back), but I still manage to catch something exciting every time I put Abbey Road on the 'ol turntable, even though I can sing every word, hit every one of Ringo’s excellent fills, and play air guitar to every Leslie toned note.