Tuesday, August 26, 2008

transformers, four

I received a thoughtful e-mail from a woman in Vancouver who got routed to this blog while doing research on Bob Dylan. She had some kind and flattering things to say, but also noted that I "seem to have a weird porny fetish for pictures of men and their guitars..." The comment gave me pause, but after thinking about it for a few days the only thing I can say is...

...guilty as charged! Trouble is, images like the above photo of Marc Bolan say more about what music ought to be than anything I could ever hope to express with millions of words... Which brings me to my main point. The thing I love most about Glam is its unrestrained passion. It's impossible to listen to early Roxy Music, or Bowie, or the first Eno album, etc, etc, without being moved by the raw emotional energy of the performances. Glam is also compelling to me because, in more than just literal terms, it's a post-60s phenomenon, conveying a sense that the time for the serious business of changing the world has passed. Some saw this condition as the tragic outcome of missed opportunities. But Glam filled the void with a libertine spirit and enthusiasm that fueled some of the most exciting music you'll ever hear.

On T. Rex's Electric Warrior and The Slider, two of my favorite Glam records, Marc Bolan retains his penchant for spacey psychedelia. But with an increasingly assured Tony Visconti in the smoky control booth, and a full band now playing behind Bolan (including completely daft backing harmonies from Mark Volman and Howie Kaylan of The Turtles), the dreamy feel of the music gains a renewed sense of purpose on standouts like "Ballrooms of Mars", "Cosmic Dancer", "Mystic Lady","Planet Queen" and "Rock On." One listen to the flaming guitar solo in the latter - virtually one note played repeatedly with furious abandon - is all you'll need to be convinced that Bolan was out to offer a sexed-up, raucous alternative to the clouds of depressed stagnation hanging over the early 1970s.

T. Rex takes us to a place where dirty sweet girls boogie and ball all night in lizard leather boots. It's a world I really enjoy visiting, especially when Bolan accentuates the lusty rhythm of his own language.

'...Mild mouthed Rita, she's a chevy chase cheetah, loves everyone, everyone...'

'...You diamond browed hag, you're a gutter gaunt gangster, John Lennon knows your name and I've seen his...'

'...Girl you're good and I've got wild knees for you, on a mountin range I'm Doctor Strange for you...'

On those rare occasions when deeper meanings accompany the guitar spangled euphoria, they tend to affirm the freedom of a new unrestrained way of life. 'I danced myself right out the womb, I danced myself into the tomb, what's it like to be a loon?' This perspective, along with the unmistakable druggy feel pervading the two records, holds within it the seeds of the Glam scene's eventual self-destructive streak, but for the time being the music sounds liberated from the heavy yoke of the late 60s. 'Life's a gas,' Bolan sang as he stood on the threshold of T. Rextacy and all the excess it would entail, 'I hope it's gonna last.'

Next time: Lou, Iggy and David...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

transformers, three

T. Rex, Electric Warrior and The Slider. After Marc Boaln and Mickey Finn changed their name from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex and recorded "Ride a White Swan", a crackling gem of a single, they went on to make the first album under their new name. T. Rex, which continues and solidifies Bolan's great creative relationship with producer Tony Visconti, is essential listening for those of us interested in hearing the 60s become the 70s. The twee-hippie stylings of Tyrannosaurus Rex are still there on "One Inch Rock", "Suneye" and "The Wizard", and we are even graced with a meditative 'om' at the end of "Children of Rarn." But with "Beltane Walk", "Root of Star" and "Is it Love", the album also offers preliminary tastes of the fuzz toned wah wah dream fog that later became more commonly associated with Bolan at the height of T. Rextacy in Britain... Listening to T. Rex recently, it struck me that its most memorable songs straddle the line separating Bolan as winsome folk gnome and Bolan as God of Glitter. "The Time of Love is Now" has a throwback flower child message, weedy acoustic guitar, and Tolkeinesque lutes, but the song's hand claps and insistent chord progression offer a small taste of nascent T. Rex Boogie. Similarly, "Jewell" and "Summer Deep" feature the elfin vibratto that was such a distinctive part of Bolan's style with Tyrannosaurus Rex, and yet the songs are propelled forward with the kind of filthy hooks that would shortly make Electric Warrior and The Slider so irresistible. ...T. Rex is an aural bridge connecting two periods. 'One day we changed from children into people', Bolan sings on "Seagull Woman." The album seems to recognize transformation in the air, but the nature and significance of the changes have yet to be fully absorbed. I know there’s a metaphor somewhere in here involving dinosaurs, archaeology and evolution, but it's probably a bad metaphor, and I’d rather just say that, while uncertainty can sometimes be paralyzing, the sense of flux and interstitial ambivalence that comes across on T. Rex contributes mightily to the record’s appeal.

More on T. Rex next time...

Monday, August 18, 2008

transformers, two

Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I can’t remember who said, “if you want to know about the 60s, listen to the Beatles.” These quotes always sound better at first than they really are after you take some time to unpack them, but I suppose you could equally say, 'if you want to know about the 70s, listen to Daivd Bowie...'

Hunky Dory is very much a programmatic album in that it represents the watershed moment in Bowie's career when he realized that creative innovation could and should be an end in itself.   There were already hints of Glam on Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World, but Hunky Dory is Bowie's first sustained attempt to carve out a vision that heralds the end of the 60s and anticipates a new spirit of exploration. While “Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan” pay tribute to those iconic figures of the past, they're performed with the retrospective pathos of a man bidding farewell to a fallen age. But it still isn’t altogether clear what the future will bring ('is there life on mars?'), and tracks like “Quicksand” and “Bewlay Brothers” derive their mysterious power precisely from the way they embrace the ambiguity of a transitional moment in history. This ambiguity, of course, extends into the sphere of sex, and tracks like “Changes”, “Queen Bitch” and “Oh, You Pretty Things” point to sexuality as the next great frontier of experimentation.

The first thing I notice about Ziggy Stardust when I play it (and I still do so quite often) is just how great the record sounds. The album rings from the speakers in sonic waves of celebratory ecstasy. Bowie's singing is utterly impassioned as he completely unleashes the fullness of his expressive range. Ronno's guitar snorts and snarls with balls out distortion, and yet the riffs are addictively tuneful and catchy at the same time... I can't imagine what life would be like without Ziggy Stardust... 'Wham bam thank you, ma'am!'

Ziggy Stardust's narrative arc, loosely chronicling the rise and fall of a rock star from outer space, is much less compelling to me than what the album says about life in the aftermath
 of the Great Collapse. So much (though not all) of the 60s countercultural impulse was premised on fostering a freedom of expression that would allow people to be who they really are. But once this became distorted and went down in flames, notions of authentic living and a brighter future seemed naive. Maybe this is what Bowie means on Hunky Dory when he says that 'homo sapiens have outgrown their use' and complains that he 'can't take his eyes off the great salvation of bullshit faith.' With Ziggy Stardust, the 'bullshit faith' that leads us to live for tomorrow is fully jettisoned ('five years, that's all we've got'), and the kids are told to freak out in a moonage daydream of drugs and infinitely twisted sexuality. In this new world, where all meaning is ephemeral and nihilism is fused with the pleasure principle to create a new religion, the crash and burn of rock 'n roll suicide is an inevitable rite of passage.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

transformers, one

Velvet Underground and Loaded. I’m not old enough to have been there at the inception of Glam in the early 70s, but it must’ve been a heady experience for kids when they first came across androgynous men performing testosterone drenched rock. Glam was a twisted bit of business, appropriate to the confused, transitional era in which it emerged. Its brilliance lay in the way its sexual ambiguity - the make up, the clothing, the fey theatrics - served to reinforce the utter masculinity of the whole enterprise. Slade, Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls, Sweet…they all seem so, well, ballsy when their crunchy riffs come blasting out the speakers. But then you watch their performances on shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test and Midnight Special, and the bands appear to be comprised of ugly girls and cross dressing trannies. Still, there’s never any question that but you’re watching men play their phallic Les Pauls through powerful Marshall stacks…

Glam has roots in some of the fruitier elements of 60s psychedelia. But whereas mid-late 60s dandyism tended to accentuate a kind of prim and elegant foppery, the androgyny of Glam in the early-mid 70s turned into something more raw, more openly sexual, more decadent, and more confrontational. Compare the look, sound and vibe of, say, early Move or SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things with the first few Roxy Music albums or Bowie during the Ziggy and Alladin Sane period. The change reflected the quest for more sensational degrees of spectacle after the collapse of the 60s and the allure of amorality as a response to the drift into uncertainty.

Notwithstanding the allusion in "Sweet Jane" to 'Jack in his corset and Jane in her vest', it might be a bit of a stretch to categorize The Velvet Underground as Glam. But because Glam artists like Bowie, New York Dolls and Iggy Pop assimilated VU’s mondo bizarro skepticism towards the 60s, I tend to think of VU as a precursor to Glam. In turn, Bowie and Mick Ronson were hugely instrumental in launching the Glam years of Lou Reed’s career.

Velvet Underground and Loaded are actually quite a bit less avant garde the previous VU albums (The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat), but with songs like "Jesus", "I'm Set Free", "Rock and Roll" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'", both records sound like epilogues, as if they're trying to lay the aspirations of the 60s generation finally to rest. ...The songs on Velvet Underground are especially atuned to the Great Collapse and the cynical thinking prevailing in its aftermath. 'There are problems in these times,' Lou Reed sings in "Beginning to see the Light", 'but none of them are mine'. He strikes a similar tone with the line, 'I'm set free to find a new illusion.' There's no hiding the palpable emotion in Lou's voice when he sings these lines, yet they seem to be such flippant and dismissive statements. The interpretive possibilities are vast, but the sentiment undoubtedly signals the movement into 'the beginning of a new age', one in which everything becomes artifice (or 'illusion') and notions of authenticity, truth and progress dissolve into thin air. Welcome to the age of Glam...

Next time I'll be sinking in the quicksand of my thought...

Friday, August 8, 2008

take it easy

My book-in-progress, provisionally titled Canyon Fodder, is set in Los Angeles and tells a series of intersecting stories about three musicians who live through the Great Collapse. I took my initial inspiration from three sources. The first was Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., a film that in Pauline Kael’s words “looks drugged.” She intended the remark as criticism, but for me Welcome to L.A. has the same dreamy, fragmented feel as some of Robert Altman’s best movies. Rudolph, incidentally, worked very closely with Altman for many years and Altman produced Welcome to L.A., which is loosely centered on a singer-songwriter, played by the great Keith Carradine, and is about the precariousness of meaningful romantic connection in the splintered metropolis. The film drips with decadence and should be viewed, in my opinion, as one of the definitive representations of West Coast-style 70s malaise… The second source of inspiration for my book was Easy Rider, arguably the ultimate Great Collapse movie, and the third was Jackson Browne’s song, “The Pretender.”

“The Pretender” is Jackson Browne’s most explicit statement on the death of the hippie dream. ‘I wanna know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring/Were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?’ The song deploys remarkably evocative poetic symbols to express the disillusionment of Baby Boomers who watched the communal ideals of the 60s morph into empty materialism and dull suburban routine.

Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender

Where the veterans dream of the fight

Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams

Begin and end there

Much to Jackson Browne’s credit, the acquisitive protagonist in “The Pretender” is not an object of derision or scorn but instead is depicted sympathetically as a person trying to navigate forces beyond his control, ‘caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.'

“The Pretender” elaborates on ideas scattered over Jackson Browne’s previous albums, Jackson Browne, For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. I’ve always been compelled by Jackson’s ability to communicate broadly relevant problems with a personal, confessional style. He also keeps things mellow and understated, as if to underscore his milieu’s need for quietude after the turbulence of the 60s. While “The Pretender” is my favorite song of his at this level, my favorite collection of his songs is Late for the Sky, an album that, as Stephen Holden wrote in his 1974 review for Rolling Stone, explores “romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse..." What emerges from the songs on Late for the Sky is a portrait of a man and a generation adrift, having lost all sense of identity and meaning 'after the deluge.' How long have I been sleeping? Jackson asks on the album’s title track. ‘How long have I been drifting along through the night?’ What makes the album so affecting is the way Jackson balances sadness and dislocation with hope and a faith in renewal. ‘Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around’, he sings in “For a Dancer,” ’go ahead and make a joyful sound.’ I wouldn’t describe the sounds Jackson makes on Late for the Sky as ‘joyful’, but his humanistic impulse gives you reason to believe - or reason to want to believe.

Running on Empty, released about one year after The Pretender, is a ‘life on the road’ album, as in ‘life on the road is so damn hard.’ I find this hackneyed rock theme pretty tedious. Every time I watch The Last Waltz, I wince when Robbie Robertson tells Martin Scorsese that touring is “a goddamn impossible way of life.” How impossible can it be, really, when the record company is paying you tons of money to bask in mass adoration and get fellated by a different woman every night? Coal mining is an impossible way of life. The life of a rock star is comparatively easy… Having said this, though, Running on Empty is a pretty great record. The album features a number of solid songs (“The Road”, “Rosie”, “You Love the Thunder”), all recorded during live performances, sound checks, and in hotel rooms. The most well-known track on the album – and I think the most famous song Jackson ever wrote other than "Take it Easy" – is “Running on Empty.” The song is one part road exhaustion (‘I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels’) and one part post-60s disillusionment (‘In ’65 I was 17 and running up 101 / I don’t know where I’m running now I’m just running on’).

Running on Empty was Jackson’s last really good album. He called his next album Hold Out, likely a self-congratulatory reference to his increasing social activism and ongoing belief in the values of the 60s generation. Hold Out has one or two good songs, but the record as a whole gives the impression that Jackson was, by this time, truly running on empty.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

a child in these hills

Remember “Buddy Green”, the camp counselor I mentioned a few weeks ago? Buddy was probably 17 or 18 when we knew each other. He loved rock and wore his black hair in a stoner bob, just above his shoulders. I thought he was the coolest. I remember this recurrent thing he'd do with me where he'd look at me very seriously and say, "I don’t suppose you would remember me, but I used to follow you back in ’63.” I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded fuckin’ great and I thought I was hot shit when I turned around and did the same performance for my friends… Buddy introduced me to albums like Who’s Next, Quadrophenia (obviously), Houses of the Holy, After the Gold Rush, and Let it Bleed. He also exposed me to Jackson Browne.

It’s funny how certain isolated, seemingly trivial episodes can take on larger than life meanings in retrospect. One afternoon Buddy and I were in the bunk together, just the two of us. Buddy played Jackson Browne on his eight-track tape player. Other than "Running on Empty", a big hit at the time, I had never heard Jackson before. I was too young to grasp what the words were about, but something in their sound and meter captivated me, especially coupled with the mellow tunes and sweet backing harmonies…

'…Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender...'

“Who is this?” I asked.
“Jackson Browne, man. We’re going to see his concert tonight at Tanglewood.”
“Tanglewood? I thought that was for classical.”
“Naw. They have rock.”
Buddy reached into the back of the wooden cabinet where he kept his underwear and t-shirts and retrieved a plastic bag containing a strange looking greenish-brown block of some sort. Then he sat down on his bed and stuck his nose in the bag. “That’s some good shit,” he said, looking at me with a serene smile.
“What is that?”
“Is it grass?”
No answer.
“Are you gonna smoke it?”
“How? I’m gonna roll it up and smoke it.”
“Of course not. Tonight, at the concert.”
“With Daisy?”
“Do the other guys know you smoke grass?”
“No, and you better not tell them.”
Buddy’s girlfriend, Daisy, was an arts and crafts counselor. Even now, 30 years later, I still remember Daisy’s enchanting summertime beauty. She had sandy blonde hair and lovely freckles. Daisy may be the reason freckles on a woman have always sent my heart racing. She used to come up behind me as I sat at the pottery wheel, and she’d press her chest against my back. Then she’d reach around and guide my little hands over the wet clay as it spun round ‘n round...

"What kinda stuff do you do with Daisy?” I once asked Buddy.
“What’d’ya mean, what kinda stuff?”
“Do you kiss?”
"What do you think?"
“I don't know. Have you ever seen her boobs?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Have you ever seen her pussy?”
“Hey! None of your business.”
“Come on, tell me. Have you ever seen it?”
Buddy paused for a few seconds to consider his response. Then that serene blissed-out smile flashed across his face again. “I’ve seen it, and I’ve tasted it.”

When I think of Buddy nowadays, I hear Jackson Browne's music, and when I hear Jackson's music my mind turns to Buddy. That summer occupies such a sweet and pivotal place in my memory that I’ve never been able to let go of Jackson Browne, even when it became completely uncool to be into him... I embraced “New Music” in high school and loved me my Husker Du, Soul Asylum, Minutemen and X, but I somehow also made room for Jackson Browne. “What is this wimpy shit?” my friends would ask impatiently before changing the tape to Black Flag’s Slip It In or The Replacements Stink

I moved to the Southland in the spring of 1992 (three days before the riot). Being an Eastcoaster, I had never really connected Jackson Browne to California, but I quickly grasped that his music was the soundtrack to 70s LA... For me, Jackson is to the 1970s what The Beach Boys are to the 60s. While Brian Wilson saw and felt the darkness creeping into the sunshine, Jackson Browne teased a little bit of sunshine out of the darkness. The shift reflects the changes taking place over ten years.

Jackson, the ultimate troubadour-singer-songwriter, used personal, often confessional words metaphorically to capture L.A.'s spiritual evolution during the transitional years after the Great Collapse. In Jackson's songs, Los Angeles becomes a solitary yet romantic place. When I hear "Late for the Sky", "The Pretender", "From SIlver Lake", or"Fountain of Sorrow", I just want to get in my car and drive in the atomistic vastness of the city. No matter how somber his songs get, hearing them makes me feel that I may spend most of my time alone and lonely, but I'm still blessed to be living in the greatest city in the world.

More on Jackson Browne next time...