On Health Care: George Carlin Called It

gc

Nine years ago today we lost not only one of our better comics, but one of our most vital and intelligent voices.

George Carlin was incendiary, he was hilarious, he was often the smartest dude (and biggest smartass) on the block, and he was a national treasure.

He was a “political” comic the way George Orwell was a “political” writer. And as Orwell famously declared: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Like Orwell, Carlin told big truths, and as we’ve seen throughout our human experiment? — ?especially in America? — ?the truth often falls on obdurate ears.

When celebrating a deceased icon, particularly one as full of wisdom as Carlin was — ?it’s typical to say “we could use that voice today”, or similar such sentiment. And while it wouldn’t suck to have Carlin around, assuming the spectacle of President Trump didn’t make him spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer, the sad fact is he already predicted much of what’s happened (and what might be coming, soon).

He made a career of putting political weasels and their fake piety and false promises in his sights, but it was toward the end when he pulled the fewest punches and dropped a bomb that’s still smoking, more than a decade later.

Check it out: when this, his last, special aired, I remember critics, even fans, suggesting that maybe George had gotten too cranky; that his cynicism had overwhelmed the better (or calmer) angels of his nature, or worst, that he wasn’t even funny anymore. He was funny, but not quite the way he used to be (some people would call that the evolution of a talent, not to mention an already-awakened conscience). Times were different and different tactics were required. Carlin was on the case.

This bit in particular, about the so-called “American Dream”, made for painful listening, but also essential viewing. Remember, this was in 2005, a few years before the (totally predictable) financial collapse, the subsequent refusal of Obama to do anything of consequence to the bad guys, and the impunity with which the Republicans have mostly acted, ever since.

Full of piss and vinegar, sure, but also prescient. Depressingly on point.

And, not for nothing: nine years to the day after he died, we see footage of disabled citizens being physically dragged away from lawful and peaceful protests. Why? Because the Republican politicians are too cowardly to face them. Why? Because in an act of cynicism that didn’t just jump the shark, but the entire ocean, these cretins are quite aware how deeply unpopular their health care “repeal” is. As such, they intend to pass it as quickly as possible, with little to no scrutiny. The media is finally making some noise, albeit too little and possibly too late. And you’d think something like more than twenty million people losing coverage so the rich can have a tax cut might warrant some headlines. Same as it ever was, only more so.

And here’s the thing. Normally I’d reckon that this footage would make for some pretty compelling political ads, come mid-term time. (Or now, for that matter.) Especially with some stats flashing across the screen that detail the number of Americans who could (or will) be devastated by this hideously destructive policy.

And then I think: they’ll get away with it anyway. They’ll shirk responsibility, or blame Obama, or the Democrats. And the sentient amongst us will shake our heads, either furious or shell shocked (or both), while the Republicans, having retained control of the House and Senate, will set about dismantling Social Security.

And we won’t be able to say George Carlin didn’t call it.

Share

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: Celebrating Sgt. Pepper

PepperShoot

It was fifty years ago today…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To get a proper handle on how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, it’s imperative to appreciate how far pop music came in such a remarkably brief span of time. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also undeniable that after June 1, 1967, nothing was ever the same again. Needless to say, this is a very good thing.

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.)

Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From its earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture).

Around the same time, and across the pond, The Beach Boys were busy crafting best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Seemingly out of nowhere, and driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—front man, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge with Revolver (showcasing a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import and restlessness regarding convention). “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit, accordingly.

But before The Beatles helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, they released what’s arguably the most transcendent single of all time. Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

So, full of confidence, bristling with ambition and, make no mistake about it, eyes staring straight into the sun, the Fab Four did the Icarus routine. Suffice it to say, they not only survived, they transcended. Or something. And for the millionth time, it’s not necessarily how great the album is (and track by track, it’s arguably aged less well than ones that came before and after it, like many other efforts from 1967), it’s the not-so-simple fact that The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be and appraised as art.

And while a song-by-song reassessment would seem superfluous (even this modest essay practically answers its own inevitably rhetorical question: do we really need more words written about Sgt. Pepper?), it seems necessary to remember that, as overplayed and overanalyzed as certain songs have been, some of the boys’ best work is nevertheless represented. Imagine hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time, today. Or, even if you’ve listened to it too many times to count, savor the loping basslines McCartney uses to anchor “Getting Better”. Or, if Lennon was coasting a bit on “Good Morning Good Morning”, with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” he gave the uninitiated a soundscape for psychedelia before most of the world knew what was soon to hit it. Even the unfairly maligned “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” should be noted—in addition to being a clever tone poem invoking other times and places—providing a showcase for the way the studio could (and, subsequently, would) be utilized, combining technology and ingenuity to literally create new sounds.

Or how “Fixing A Hole” somehow seems to slip under the radar, or be dismissed as a lightweight effort. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop virtuosity (ho hum), it’s an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality—kind of a bookend to Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. Macca, establishing himself in the driver’s seat during these sessions, may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he didn’t need to. In one of the seminal years in rock ‘n’ roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave. If “Lovely Rita” and the insufferable “When I’m 64” wore out their collective welcome many years (decades) ago, we must still marvel at the economical, emotional devastation of “She’s Leaving Home”, a composition that manages to be in front of women’s lib and anticipates the generational pushback the Hippie years would engender. And while the sitar sounds at once calculated and quaint today, let us never sleep on the role George Harrison played in bringing world music to the fore: like just about everything the group did, their work helped enlarge and expand how we understand (and hear) music.

And, for this writer, five decades has only cemented speculation that “A Day In The Life” endures as perhaps the most perfect (not to mention important) song in rock history.

The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, did not just issue their own indelible statement of purpose, but provided a spotlight, and credibility, for other acts, not to mention inspiring countless others to rally behind the trail they blazed. Getting to a place, inconceivable only years before, where rock music might be acknowledged as art-with-a-capital-A, is not something The Beatles did all by themselves; they were simply the biggest, loudest and most successful spokesmen for the cause. They didn’t make what happened next possible so much as they made it inevitable.

For that, we must always appreciate them, and celebrate Sgt. Pepper. A splendid time, lest we forget, was guaranteed for all.

 

Share

Memorial Day: A Poem

md

Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

Share

The Moon is Glued to a Picture of Heaven: Ten Thoughts on Chris Cornell

Chris-Cornell-Web

i.

In Bull Durham, the cranky and overachieving Crash Davis, at once in awe and envious, explains to the preternaturally talented but callow Nuke LaLoosh why he should appreciate his good fortune. “When you were a baby,” he says, “the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.”

When Chris Cornell was a baby, the Gods reached down and turned his vocal chords into a golden vessel of sound. The Gods made the baby a Golden God, or something. Cornell was straight-up central casting. First the hair. Then the eyes. The attitude and intelligence, always incidental to a mediocre rock star, seemed instinctive. And then the voice. That voice. It doesn’t matter whether or not he was the best vocalist of his generation. Suffice it to say, he’s on the short list.

ii.

I think one of the reasons grunge grated, lasted so briefly and, for the most part, has aged poorly, is how affected and solipsistic it often seemed. Dudes in flannel whining about how unfair life was. And worse, rich dudes in flannel whining about how unfair fame was. Wah. One of the reasons I’ve always loved hockey is because you hear any of those guys talk and they’ll acknowledge that if they weren’t playing the game they love, they’d be pumping gas or working in a coal mine. Maybe a little more acknowledgment of the minimum wage jobs Fate kept them from would have made Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain slightly more tolerable. Maybe not.

iii.

Is grunge all or nothing? No more than any genre is. Do we have to lump all prog rock bands together? All punk, etc.? Of course not, and the only people who do are usually attempting a facile dismissal of an era or aesthetic they never cared for or couldn’t understand. Still, it seems both fair and accurate to say grunge had more than its share of poseurs. Or maybe it was just the time: the early ‘90s were a transitional time in pop culture. Like the beginning, middle or end of any decade, only more so. Synth pop to hair metal to Hip Hop Lite (hello M.C. Hammer), and then, the earliest days of a new music mostly coming out of Seattle.

Two things. One, with the increased benefit of hindsight, it’s farcical to insist all these bands were copycats, stylistically. Taken with two decades and change of recycled fads and uninspired rock clichés, it’s very difficult to lump this flannel-covered vault of goodness (and badness, and ugliness) all together, or dismiss it out of hand. There’s as much variance and growth (even in a relatively short period of time) amongst bands like, say, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden as could be found with any other “movement” bands. Soundgarden was never the biggest and likely will never be considered the best, but they always seemed least encumbered by whatever ethos grunge was supposed to attain, or attempt to mimic. They were at once above it and beyond it.

Two, while mileage will vary regarding the earnestness, opportunism, honesty and integrity of heavyweights like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder (and middleweights like Layne Staley and Scott Weiland), there was never any faking it with Soundgarden in general and Cornell in particular. He was clever, literate and—importantly—self-aware enough to translate that unhappiness and intensity into something lasting.

iv.

Exhibit A:

Close your eyes and bow your head

I need a little sympathy

‘Cause fear is strong and love’s for everyone

Who isn’t me

So kill your health and kill yourself

And kill everything you love

And if you live you can fall to pieces

And suffer with my ghost…

You don’t write lyrics like this unless you’ve a more than casual acquaintance with pain. Anger boomeranging outward and in. That makes you mortal. To use that angst and your talent to make unique and uniquely urgent music? That’s art. Using your frailty to empower other people? That makes you a hero.

v.

Exhibit B:

Don’t you lock up something/That you wanted to see fly…

It saddens, and kind of sickens, me that we will always hear a song like this with an irretrievable regret and a sense of foreboding-in-hindsight. But I will continue to celebrate it as a very human, and awesome shout of defiance, and use it to help me in the battle.

vi.

Cobain. Staley. Weiland. Cornell. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of anguish and a lot of exceptional men leaving the world entirely too soon.

vii.

The gifted, wounded Cornell checking out the same day as the fetid, corpulent and soulless husk of a human Roger Ailes seems like a necessary reminder, an admonition from the Universe: your mission, here, is to leave the world, if not better, at least kinder, happier and more expansive than it otherwise would have been. I can hardly conceive of two people who used their talents to such contradictory ends.

viii.

If he’d done nothing else, his contributions to this miniature epic (which, as time passes, seems certain to solidify its position as one of the best and most significant songs of the ‘90s), Cornell would demand attention and approbation.

ix.

Exhibit C:

Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try

Nothing is closing my eyes Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight

And nothing seems to break me No matter how hard I fall nothing can break me at all

Not one for giving up though not invincible I know…

Whatever the opposite of Jesus Christ pose is, that’s what Chris Cornell was. What he’ll always be.

x.

Would you cry for me, you sang. (You asked. You cried.) Of course we will. It’s the least we can do. More importantly, we’ll remember you. And celebrate all you left us with.

 

Share

Every Day is Mother’s Day

mom

I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person that gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate; but these occasions are not capable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I am mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy times and my relative good fortune—despite what is obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I am humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny, or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.

***

Any time I need to be reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

What child cannot recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world quickly came to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well-raised didn’t need to wait that long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status one strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them; to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.

***

Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I am inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She will never be forgotten; in fact, she will never be gone. This is what helps and it is also, at times, what hurts.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That is the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing this, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Every day is Kid’s Day, and who would hope to change that?

Every day, for me, is Mother’s Day. And on my birthday, I don’t celebrate myself so much as acknowledge—and appreciate—the one who did the most to help me get here.

* Excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

Share

Murphy’s Laws: 47 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 47

47-mel-blount

“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 47 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 47 judgments, opinions and observations.

thMAYX3ZKT

47. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

3. A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

dog cone

7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

ali

16. I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import — be it artistic, social, political, cultural — opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s often says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter. Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loudly and saying little? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

25. The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it’s the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

newmarcatwoman1

34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

47. Marriage is indeed work and, if you’re lucky enough to find the right person, it’s the most fulfilling job you’ll ever have.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

Share

B-Boys To Men: Check Your Head at 25

bb

At first the Beastie Boys were brats, then they were bratty; with their third album Check Your Head they dropped an ebullient bomb that is both heartfelt and soulful.

Any discussion of Beastie Boys’ third album is likely to divide fans into two camps: those who contend that Paul’s Boutique was?—?and remains?—?their masterpiece, and those who feel that their second album, while amazing, was also a necessary gateway for their best material. Put another way, they had to make Paul’s Boutique, and once it was out of their systems, they could embark on new challenges. This reviewer thought Check Your Head was a surprising and refreshing leap forward in 1992, and the passing of 25 years has done little to diminish its enduring appeal. It remains vital and engaging, in part because of the way it documents a particular moment when the band embraced the past while anticipating the future. A forward-looking album that establishes a distinctive ‘70s-era soul vibe? Only this band was capable, at that time, of pulling off such an ostensibly paradoxical achievement, and bringing the masses along to the party. That the group was able to establish a foundation from which their future work would flow was only slightly more momentous than the ways in which they turned a white-hot light on the myriad influences they wore so gleefully on their sleeves.

When the boys picked up instruments and actually proved they could play them it was intriguing; that they produced an album brimming with original, occasionally indelible material remains something of a revelation. Who woulda thunk it? This is the same band that announced themselves (quite successfully) to the world as wiseass clowns on Licensed to Ill. They rallied the underage troops to fight for their right to party and, beer bongs in hand, a nation of nitwits made them millionaires. But there was always a sense that this was a naked, calculated ploy for commercial success. To their credit, it worked. So it was impressive and, frankly, astonishing, to see how quickly they put away childish things and got busy concocting Paul’s Boutique. Indeed, the prepubescent fan base deserted them as quickly as it had embraced them, and their second album earned instant street cred simply for not being a retread of what had worked so wonderfully the first time.

Although it eventually became a cult classic, Paul’s Boutique was deemed a commercial dud when it dropped in 1989. It was such a departure from the simplistic, goofy boys-just-wanna-have-fun shenanigans of their debut, it obviously alienated some, and left many indifferent. By refusing to ride the gravy train, the band drew a line in the sand and has never retreated. It took a while for fans to catch up with them, but enough people eventually gravitated to Paul’s Boutique to ensure they had indeed made an astute decision, artistically and commercially. And so, some of these newer fans must have been shocked when, three years later, Check Your Head appeared, signifying another radical musical makeover. The response this time was immediate and undeniable, with the album breaking into the Billboard Top Ten. The first single, “So What’Cha Want” was so good, and so fresh, it managed to turn haters into backers. It was, and still is, a magic nugget of pop perfection.

Not everyone loved this release, and a critique that resurfaces to this day is that the album lacks cohesion; that it’s an uneven mess with some great moments, some weak moments, and some middling material. Another way of looking at it is to suggest that the rap-to-rock kitchen sink methodology works just fine, and is in fact an ideal strategy that allowed Beastie Boys to embrace their disparate interests and obsessions. The authentic DIY sensibility wins style points while augmenting what was, at the time, a burgeoning aesthetic integrity. If they couldn’t acquit themselves on their instruments, or their composing chops were weak, all of this would have been exposed and the album would have been a failure. By taking off the sample-phile training wheels, they effectively boxed themselves into a corner and put the onus entirely on their collective creativity. Where they once relied (too much?) on a hodgepodge of pirated pop culture treasure (courtesy of the justly venerated Dust Brothers production team and their set the controls for the heart of the sample M.O.), Check Your Head places the band itself in the spotlight and the focus is evenly split between music and mood.

Not to worry, the rhyming and stealing is still on display, but ultimately the words are part of a much bigger picture: where Paul’s Boutique was an elaborate comic book, Check Your Head is like a successful remake of an old B-movie. The music itself is the star attraction, with Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz handling the guitar, Adam (MCA) Yauch on bass and Michael (Mike D) Diamond doing drum duties. It is worth remembering that these gentlemen first formed a group in 1979, so it wasn’t as if they had never played instruments before; of course, it was as a punk/thrash outfit that they first gained attention. The best supporting actor is keyboardist Mark Ramos-Nishita (Money Mark) who makes crucial contributions throughout, adding color, flavor and sometimes a whole foundation the band builds on. It is difficult to overstate how important the organ player’s presence is: Money Mark is the fourth member of this outfit in much the same way George Martin functioned as an indispensable fifth Beatle on much of their later work.

The songs that retain their capacity to impress and amaze are the same ones that opened eyes all the way back in ’92: the instrumentals. Altogether, there are three tracks without any sort of vocals, a handful with minimal vocals and a couple where the vocals function as a part of the music (the chanting on “Something’s Got to Give” and the practically whispered words on album-closer “Namaste”). All of these songs are successful: once the novelty of these clown princes of rap playing instruments wears off, it quickly becomes evident that they also can compose memorable tunes. They have gone from sampling Curtis Mayfield (on Paul’s Boutique) to creating bona fide slinky ’70s soundscapes. And yet, even as they are taking fairly giant strides forward, the band can’t help looking (lovingly) backward: many of these tracks invoke the aforementioned ’70s soundtrack vibe (“POW”, “In 3’s”) while others recall the past as a springboard for the band’s unique vision (“Lighten Up”, “Gratitude”). And then there is the funkified anthem “Groove Holmes”, an unadulterated tribute to the jazz organist generally considered one of the forefathers of acid jazz. It was never this good before, and never got this good again.

Of course, there are some rambunctious reminders of the good old days, with marble-mouthed rapping front and center on songs like “Finger Lickin’ Good”, “Stand Together”, “The Maestro” and “Professor Booty”. The highlight of the band’s rap-and-roll 3.0 is the tour-de-force “Pass the Mic”, where they demonstrate that they can still pull off what worked best on Paul’s Boutique. This is their tightest, most authentic rap song, a tag team effort crammed with ideas and energy, incorporating everything from Jimmy “Kid Dy-no-mite” Walker to James Newton (a five second flute sample that inspired an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit). Obviously words can’t convey what sounds achieve, and the best way to “feel what they’re feeling” is to  listen.

Sample junkies can have a field day with what could (should?) have been a simplistic throwaway, the infectious “Funky Boss”. In actuality, it is a clinic of sound-collage adrenaline, from the bongo beat/cop-show theme introduction to samples ranging from Barrington Levy, Ohio Players and Richard Pryor?—?all in just over 90 seconds. “Finger Lickin’ Good” goes all the way from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Sly and the Family Stone to…Bob Dylan (!). Speaking of Sly Stone, the band’s cover of “Time for Livin’” is like a brick through the window: a short, sharp shock wherein they manage to represent their hardcore roots while working in some borrowed lyrics from the immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry. And here again is an opportune time to reiterate why this album somehow manages to be slightly better than the sum of its parts. An entire album of (or, even a couple more) punk rock workouts would be entirely too much of a not-so-good thing; but coming as it does between the droll “The Biz vs. The Nuge” (sampling Ted Nugent’s “Homebound” with the irrepressible Biz Markie’s serenade) and the almost shockingly subtle “Something’s Got to Give”, it explodes as a one minute and 48-second smoke bomb.

What about the obligatory goofball quotient? The balance is just right, proving that the boys, no longer brats, could still be bratty. The gleeful sample from (actual album?) On Wine?—?How to Select and Serve is a refreshing change of pace, and the faux night club noodling of “Live at P.J.’s” is amusing enough, while showcasing Money Mark’s flawless organ embellishment. But the ultimate inside joke is the opening section of “The Maestro” which utilizes an actual voice mail left for the boys by someone who called the number for “Paul’s Boutique”: “Yo Paul…you can kiss my ass, I ain’t interested in you anyhow…”

Special mention must be made of the group’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the moment when all of these elements come together. “Jimmy James” is certainly one of the ultimate opening statements of any album made in the last two decades, and it still reverberates as the shot heard ‘round the record industry. Listening to this one, then, was an immediate announcement that we weren’t in Brooklyn anymore, and listening to it, now, is an unnerving reminder of how many bands (the good, the bad, and the awful) tried to imitate this hardcore rap rock amalgamation, with little success. Of course the boys themselves emulated the great Run DMC. Obviously they understood they could never sound as authoritative (or make it sound as effortless, think “It’s Tricky”). On the other hand, “Jimmy James” sounds quite unlike anything anyone else had done (or has done): building a sound structure from the ground up, all on a groove from an obscure Curtis Knight song (“Happy Birthday”, featuring a young Hendrix). It anticipates Beck and the full fruition of live music married to samples on Beck’s (Dust Brothers produced) Odelay. Here, the sick sounds of the B-Boys’ science coalesce: the raw scratching and brilliant sampling interspersed with their newfound joy of playing music. Interesting trivia tidbit: Unable to get approval from the Hendrix estate, the original version was “refined” and the actual Hendrix snippets (from songs like “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”) were smoothed over; although even in the album version you can hear the split second of “Foxey Lady” that spins the song out.

So why now for the deluxe reissue treatment? 2009 being the 20th anniversary of Paul’s Boutique, which itself was remastered a few months back, means there is no time like the present to spruce up the best of the back catalog (their next album, Ill Communication will follow this summer). Frankly, the sound on the original CD was top-notch (much credit should be given to co-producer and engineer Mario Caldato Jr, aka Mario C.), so while you can certainly hear all “eight bazookas” on this edition, the real draw is the second disc chock full of B-sides and remixes. There is plenty of throwaway material here, but for fans who never splurged on the 12-inches, here is an opportunity to get all the detritus in one place. There are some interesting, if inferior versions (and/or remixes) of the mega-hits “Pass the Mic” and “So What’Cha Want”, and there are some tasty nuggets, such as “The Skills to Pay the Bills”. The true highlight is that “original original” version of “Jimmy James”; you can hear all those Hendrix samples and the groove is as aggressive and gnarly on this take.

As always, the material left on the cutting room floor tends to put the final product in appropriate perspective. The fact that they decided to omit a song like “The Skills to Pay the Bills”, which is, by any reasonable criteria, a better “song” than “Live at P.J.’s” or “Mark on the Bus” is ultimately not the point; it wouldn’t have fit into the flow as well. Each song on Check Your Head eases (or crashes) into the next, coming out guns blazing with “Jimmy James” and drifting off to serenity with “Namaste”. It might be said that this is one of the first CDs that truly approximates the feel of a double LP: it has the ups, downs and (importantly) the in-betweens that ultimately add up to an artistic statement: if nothing worthwhile is being said, it’s forgettable, when the material is tight and timeless, it endures as a stylistic and soulful milestone.

*This piece originally appeared in PopMatters on 4/29/09.

Share

Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

monk

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here.

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

Share

Levon Helm: Five Years Gone

Levon Helm, seen in this 1970 file photo, a singer and drummer for the rock group the Band, has died, April 19, 2012 at age 71. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.

There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.

It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.

Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

Share

The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 5: 20-1

in_the_court_of_the_crimson_king

  1. Yes: “Awaken” (from Going for the One)

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going for the One. “Awaken” is, along with Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” by Rush, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

  1. King Crimson: “Lizard” (from Lizard)

The music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It is not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to defy trends and commercial-minded fashion often is created without any of those considerations in mind. King Crimson, like all of the best-loved prog rock bands, consistently shaped and revised variations of a unique conception, and arguably created a whole new type of music. Take the title track from 1970’s Lizard (upping the progressive ante by featuring guest vocalist Jon Anderson, of Yes): nothing like this exists on any other record from any other genre. It is a seamless integration of jazz, classical and rock, the sum total making complete sense once you accept it on its own terms. At the same time ELP was mimicking Mussorgsky, King Crimson utilizes Ravel’s “Bolero”, employing session musicians to embellish the sound with trumpets, oboes and an English horn. The results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Led by the creatively restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; on this not immediately accessible but indelible track they transcend it.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Echoes” (from Meddle)

Most everyone would agree that The Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd the first (and last) band in space, but not as many people might appreciate that, if it were not for 1971’s Meddle, there would have been no The Dark Side of the Moon. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group (a very positive development), forging an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound. The point that cannot be overemphasized is that “Echoes” is not so much an inspired product of its time as much as it is the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward with each successive effort. “Echoes” unfolds deliberately, with carefully structured precision. The merging of Gilmour and Wright’s voices—a harbinger of good things to come, although on “Time” Wright sings the choruses while Gilmour handles the verses—is appropriately mesmerizing, and the two remain uncannily in synch on their respective instruments. “Echoes” also signals a minor step forward for Waters lyrically (the major step would be the aforementioned, and unavoidable, The Dark Side of the Moon.

  1. Genesis: “The Carpet Crawlers” (from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)

Genesis invoked an older Britain with both whimsy and resolution, culminating in their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound. While it’s true that for their next effort, they (take your pick) took things a tad too far even for their own ambitions and abilities, took prog rock to another, unprecedented level, made an album that was ostensibly more straightforward and yet more out there than anything they, or anyone, ever did, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway takes place, of all places, in previously unexplored territory: America. Except when it doesn’t, including the myriad left-field excursions that occur somewhere outside time and space. Or something. The album is “about” the split personality of a homeless kid named Rael, adrift in New York City, like Moby Dick is about a whale. Whether the convoluting and extremely challenging narrative lends clarity or increases confusion, one thing is certain: it’s a hell of a ride and boasts some of the band’s best work. Any number of songs could compete as representative of the whole, but “The Carpet Crawlers” seems to synthesize everything that is so weird and wonderful about this collective, and also an apotheosis of sorts in terms of where they had been headed and could (and, ultimately, couldn’t) go. (Seriously: one almost fears contemplating where a mind has gone to envision such images, yet remains forever indebted that they are part of our permanent record: “A salamander scurries into flame to be destroyed/Imaginary creatures are trapped in birth on celluloid/The fleas cling to the golden fleece/Hoping they’ll find peace.” Wow.) It would be impossible, not to mention pointless, trying to isolate Peter Gabriel’s most incomparable performance (with Genesis or afterwards), but “The Carpet Crawlers” helps bolster a compelling case that he has few, if any, rivals as a frontman.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Pictures at an Exhibition” (from Pictures at an Exhibition)

That ELP had the audacity to not only invoke classical music (as King Crimson had done with Holst on “The Devil’s Triangle” from In the Wake of Poseidon) but to actually “cover” a celebrated masterwork was not surprising. This band had the ego and indifference necessary to conceive such sacrilege; importantly, they also had the ability and vision to pull it off. A band like ELP not only invited critical venom, they practically begged for it (when they titled a later album Works it signified, possibly, the shark-jumping moment of the decade). On the other hand, they did not pander and they could not be pigeonholed: none of their early albums sound especially alike, and they were really interested in satisfying nothing else but their own curiosity. It is debatable that the only thing that pissed off the purists and prigs in the “critical establishment” more than their homage to Mussorgsky was how wonderful they made it sound.

  1. King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be terrifying), and then, after the bird calls and an incantation to the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

  1. Rush: “Cygnus X-1 Book Two: Hemispheres” (from Hemispheres)

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly clicking, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Dogs” (from Animals)

No band besides the Beatles departed (or progressed) more radically from their initial sound than Pink Floyd. After the kaleidoscopic whimsy of their early work and the meditative space rock that followed, Floyd followed up the unfollow-up-able The Dark Side of the Moon with an album that may have been even better, Wish You Were Here. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten summed up the prevailing mood when he insolently scribbled “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. Whether or not any of this had to do with Floyd’s next album, lyricist Roger Waters shared one thing in common with the punks: he was pissed off. He was also erudite and technically proficient as a musician. The result is the darkest, most literate and (arguably) timeless entry in the Pink Floyd catalog, Animals.

The album’s centerpiece, “Dogs”, might represent the zenith of the always uneasy, increasingly tenuous creative alliance between Waters and David Gilmour. Waters writes some of his most scathing (and brilliant) lyrics and Gilmour sounds like a different person altogether than the man who sang “Echoes”; his guitar playing is huge, at times oppressive and then soaring. This indictment of greed and the “dog-eat-dog” social code that is endorsed in the workplace and venerated in such vulgar fashion on reality TV will never lose its relevance, because it will always describe the con-artists and crooks who come, inexorably, to distinguish each subsequent generation.

  1. Yes: “And You and I” (from Close to the Edge)

Let us now praise famous men.

As it pertains to all-things-prog, Yes, to invoke A Few Good Men, is the band we want on that wall; the band we need on that wall. Easy to mock, not as easy to dismiss as some might wish, they are also, perhaps more so than any band, the genre’s best citizens. Yes, during their glory years, were arguably the most compelling ambassadors for this genre, which did—and does—confuse, exasperate and electrify listeners like no other. Like many of their peers, they made what might lazily be described as “music for music’s sake”, but while it sacrificed nothing in terms of integrity for the pursuit of filthy lucre, it managed to attract millions of listeners for the simplest (and purest) of reasons: it was too exceptional to be ignored.

As a case study, “And You and I” is a song where one can study every sound, every single second, and find something to savor (even after so many decades, and to the most familiar ears, it somehow manages to surprise and delight). It might be suggested Yes never sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Suffice it to say, both Steve Howe and the indefatigable Jon Anderson do career-best work, as though their confidence and purpose could not be contained. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

  1. Jethro Tull: “A Passion Play” (from A Passion Play)

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the requisite flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

  1. Genesis: “Firth of Fifth” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Peter Gabriel was the Alpha and Omega, and while Phil Collins had the fortune (or karma) to become more successful than would have seemed reasonable, Genesis wouldn’t have been Genesis without those other guys. That’s obvious, but it also requires persistent reminding. Michael Rutherford must, unfortunately, endure as perhaps the most overlooked bassist (and 12-string guitar player!) of the prog era, and while there’s considerable love for both keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist Steve Hackett, perhaps it’s impossible to overpraise them. “Firth of Fifth” is an unqualified stunner from start to finish, and Banks, who sketched out the initial composition and whose piano/organ dominates it, makes perhaps his decisive contribution to the progressive canon. But it’s the extended soloing from Hackett, mid-song, that places this one in rarefied air: with swirling notes from Banks (and furious, locked-in interplay from Collins and Rutherford), Banks states a theme (established nicely by Gabriel’s flute), then restates it, then states it again, ratcheting up the emotion in the service of a feeling that’s seldom been equaled, in prog rock or any rock. At times it sounds like a guitar god broke into a Bach recital, at others like Hackett is exploring a theme like a jazz soloist, but mostly it’s a strange and wonderful achievement, a rare instance where popular music attains an “otherness” only the best art, in any medium, even aspires to.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Time” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

There is a simple reason The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it’s one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you’re not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy and mixed blessing of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Tarkus” (from Tarkus)

Debate still abounds regarding the great American novel. No such discussion occurs when it comes to the terrible British prog rock album. Fans and foes alike have aligned and rendered a verdict: Tarkus. Look at the cover for Christ’s sake. Therein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror” and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (or idiots) like me call… the horror! (But in a good way.) Listen, some prog rock bands (like Rush) had a penchant for reimagining or reinterpreting classical literary legends like Apollo and Dionysus (see #14) while others (like Rush) would create their own mythical heroes (By Tor, Snow Dog, etc.). Looking at this cover art, and seeing song titles like “Stones of Years”, “Manticore” and “Aquatarkus” (not to be confused with “Aqualung”), many music fans ask for the check, understandably. Here’s the thing, though: all the armadillo tank drawings and semi-preposterous titles –and lyrics– are just window dressing for the artistry that occurs once these well medicated, undeniably brilliant musicians throw down. And throw down they do, in ways that make myopic pinheads lament how a man with unrivaled keyboard skill—like Keith Emerson’s—might have made so much better use of his talents had he dedicated his life to playing Bach recitals in sparsely attended concert halls.

  1. King Crimson: “Starless” (from Red)

You want an epic? “Starless” is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision (even at twelve minutes), and the final word on mellotron as MVP of prog mood enhancers. Even from a band that made a career perfecting closing tracks, “Starless” is possibly unsurpassed in terms of its depth and darkness; it could only be the last song from the last album King Crimson made in the ‘70s. Robert Fripp, of course, could do fury and he could do calm, and he often balanced everything in between; on no other song does he quite establish trepidation, crank it up to consternation, and then release it like the motherfucking Kraken. “Starless” builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the (bible) black; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

If prog dipped into the murky waters of jazz and classical music, King Crimson, never content with half-measures, went full free-jazz (think Ornette Coleman, with Mel Collins and a fortuitous cameo by Ian McDonald, as well as Bill Bruford hitting the skins like a wrecking ball) and Wagner, not as a cheesy invocation from a lazy critic, but all out Götterdämmerung: Twilight of the Progs. Rock music was never, with the possible exception of In the Court of the Crimson King, at once this frightening and exquisite: “Starless” is ugly beauty of the first order. The band was never the same, nor could they be, after this swan song of sorts, and that’s only natural. The listener, no matter how intimate they might be with this material, is never the same after each and every listen, and that’s something of a miracle.

  1. Rush: “2112” (from 2112)

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn Rand-inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing—an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. (Also: did any of these critics take a look at what the band was wearing on the back cover?) In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush—in general and prog rock in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Thick as a Brick” (from Thick as a Brick)

Jethro Tull were on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick As a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, never outdone in terms of scope and ambition.

  1. Genesis: “Supper’s Ready” (from Foxtrot)

Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure. An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Peter Gabriel was always amongst the most theatrical of performers, and during his tenure with Genesis he created innumerable characters he (and we) live vicariously through. The creative schizophrenia of the “Willow Farm” section alone could ensure Gabriel was remembered fondly amongst prog fans, and it’s a godsend of sorts that we have live footage of this material being presented in a live setting. Incidentally, although this is, in many ways, Gabriel’s piece de resistance, it’s a complete band effort, and each musician makes some of their most significant and cherished contributions.

This is prog rock’s Ulysses: a superhuman effort that can confound and enthrall you, often at the same time. The question is not what “Supper’s Ready” is about, it’s what isn’t it about (tentative answer: Everything?). Peter Gabriel’s own two cents? “(It’s) a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible….I’ll leave it at that.” That succinct description, like the song itself, is satisfactory while still begging for more…much more. But, one of the reasons this particular track ranks so highly (indeed, there will likely be folks furious it’s not given the top slot on this list) is that, like all successful art, it works in spite—or because of—an inability to easily explain it, and it leaves itself open to interpretations, any of which may be unassailable in the eyes of beholder. “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?”, the fourth section of the song inquires. It’s a rhetorical question. It’s also the question and answer of this song, this band, and, at its best, this genre.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (from Wish You Were)

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after The Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics—so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to the completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

  1. Yes: “Close to the Edge” (from Close to the Edge)

In a feature written several years ago wherein I searched for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of elation that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it’s a gold standard that was never surpassed.

Every aspect of this, the consummate Yes song, in terms of conception and delivery, is virtually flawless: from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On albums before and after, there were many individual moments that can be isolated and treasured, and more than a handful where the entire outfit outdoes themselves; “Close to the Edge” maintains an unprecedented (and unparalleled) force of conviction that never flags: it’s just under nineteen minutes of ceaselessly renewed ecstasy.

  1. King Crimson: “The Court of the Crimson King” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “The Court of the Crimson King” remains the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid is the same kind of simpleton who hears Charlie Parker and envisions a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back.

“The Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/31/17.

Share