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

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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.

 

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Every Day is Mother’s Day

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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.

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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B-Boys To Men: Check Your Head at 25

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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.

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

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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…

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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.

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

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  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.

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So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Ten Years Later)

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Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations. Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife. They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades. Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated. It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 4: 40-21

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  1. Jethro Tull: “Heavy Horses” (from Heavy Horses)

Meanwhile back in the year… 1978? It’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they’ve probably never even heard this song. Of course, the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ‘70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history. Back to basics? How about back to the 18th century? That is the vibe Jethro Tull was emanating circa 1978. The band that dropped not one, but two single-song album suites had evolved into a proficient troupe of professionals that incorporated strings, lutes, fifes and harpsichords into their repertoire. To put it more plainly, the same years the Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were establishing a radically new and brazen rock aesthetic, Ian Anderson appeared on an album cover flanked by two Clydesdales. The title track is a typically literate—and unironic!—tribute to the working horses of England that, much like prog rock, were soon to step aside, their demise having less to do with trends and tastemakers than technology.

  1. Colosseum: “The Valentyne Suite” (from Valentyne Suite)

Vibraphone and saxophone? Yes! Dave Greensdale, who supplies the vibes as well as some remarkable organ work, gets the drop on ELP, delivering keyboard-dominated prog before Keith Emerson made himself a household name. A bit jazzy, a tad trippy, it’s still incredibly tight and multi-dimensional; at one instant frenetic and the next almost tranquil, this is mood music for those uninterested in paint-by-numbers performance. Released the same year as In the Court of the Crimson King, this album and especially the title track seem influenced by no one, but set a standard that would be frequently imitated but seldom surpassed.

  1. Renaissance: “Song of Scheherazade” (from Scheherazade and Other Stories)

One need not know who Scheherazade is or what One Thousand and One Nights is, but being aware of this famous character and text will help the listener appreciate what’s going on –and perhaps marvel at Renaissance’s audacity for putting their spin on this, well, epic tale. And what better way to condense an epic than create an epic, multi-part track? As usual, vocalist Annie Haslam provides vocals and lends a very appropriate feminine voice to the “story” of Scheherazade. Renaissance seldom lacked for purpose, but this track, more than any other, represents the triumph of ambition met with worthy material.

  1. Camel: “Rhayader Goes to Town” (from The Snow Goose)

One more from Camel’s masterpiece. “Rhayader Goes to Town” is mostly a showcase for the criminally unheralded guitar virtuoso Andrew Latimer. On this track he shreds like vintage David Gilmour, but with soul to spare and a technician’s control of his instrument. Some (okay, a lot) of music from the prog genre was conceived as anti-commercial, as challenging to digest as it was to execute. And for the most part, this was laudable, and in accordance with the savvy and discipline the music required (for both bands and fans), but too much of the music, either not discovered in the first place, or lumped in with all the good, bad and ugly, warrants a second (or first!) listen. The Snow Goose is certainly not easy listening, but it’s easy to be enraptured by; for anyone seeking fresh insight about how prog sounded, when it was lean and mean, “Rhayader Goes to Town” could not be more strongly recommended.

  1. Yes: “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Regardless of intent or method, prog rock could be quite dark and often heavy, as a cursory examination of cover art and song titles will confirm. That said, there was, of course, a vast amount of gentler, even elegant music. Few bands worked together in unison the way Yes did during their prime, each individual an imperative part of the whole. And while, at various times, Bill Bruford, Chris Squire and especially Rick Wakeman made unforgettable contributions, the classic sound was mostly defined by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitar god Steve Howe. “Starship Trooper” is perhaps the definitive showcase for Howe, allowing him to illustrate his utter mastery of the instrument (both acoustic and electric), and when he and Anderson multi-track their guitar/vocal interplay, it’s as close to heaven as prog rock ever got.

  1. Traffic: “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (from The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Traffic will never be known as a prog rock band. This is a testament to the fact that Traffic can’t be easily defined—or dismissed—as part of any particular genre; their interests were too wide-ranging, their abilities too matchless. Having mastered psychedelic rock in the late ‘60s and a more jam-based jazz-rock on the masterful (but not-proggy) John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic became a bit of everything on their masterpiece The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. One look, at the title, and the hipper-than-hip album cover tells you all you need to know: these were some cool cats. Steve Winwood, of course, was the resident prodigy, but the sax and flute contributions from Chris Wood are crucial. On this super laid back track, Jim Capaldi turns in some of his finest drum and percussion work, proving that prog could, on occasion, be groovy, if not entirely fashionable.

  1. Soft Machine: “Moon in June” (from Third)

From the Canterbury scene in the late ‘70s to full-on freak jazz in the early-to-mid ‘70s, in between Soft Machine got their prog on. Third is at once experimental in the extreme, but a very controlled and deliberate sort of experiment. The jazz and fusion influences are undeniable, but even with extended instrumental workouts, the results seldom seem like aimless jams or braggadocio. The passages with vocals have perhaps not dated so well, but there’s a pulsating energy that drives the piece. This is music from the underground and it’s probably best understood, and appreciated, as art that makes no apologies, but welcomes all who come to it with open ears, and minds.

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

Originally an instrumental intended for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (and rejected for the eventual soundtrack), this Richard Wright composition found new life a few years later. The lyrics by Roger Waters not only provide a “story” but evidence a stunning maturity in the band’s approach. Associations with outer space, which were always superficial in the first place, are now ancient history as Waters & Co. are setting their sights on the hearts of our darkness. Continuing a growing preoccupation (which would later become an obsession) with war and soldiers, like his father, killed in conflict, Waters exhibits a concision that’s able to leave a permanent mark: “’Forward!’ he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/And the General sat as the lines on the map/Moved from side to side.” Wright’s piano solos and organ provide a solemn but beautiful foundation, and Gilmour’s world-weary delivery is by turns hopeful and heartbreaking.

  1. Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies” (from Foxtrot)

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’s most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

  1. King Crimson: “Fracture” (from Starless and Bible Black)

Percussionist Jamie Muir, whose wonderfully ragtag percussion contributions gave Larks’ Tongues in Aspic its proper right-at-the-precipice atmosphere, departed, leaving King Crimson a quartet. Always up for a challenge, Bill Bruford simply expanded his repertoire, adding his own, more refined, percussive touches. These are put to ideal effect on album closer “Fracture”, particularly the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for The Simpsons. John Wetton locks in with Bruford to establish a sludgy groove, and David Cross subtly counters Fripp’s ominous grinding, which builds Crimson’s patented quiet-to-chaos dynamic before all Hades breaks loose courtesy of what may stand as Fripp’s most ferocious solo. Everyone doubles down (the beautiful brawling between Bruford and Wetton would continue to excellent effect on the subsequent recordings for Red), and Fripp—as if it’s even necessary at this point—makes his case for all-time prog guitar guru. When one realizes most of the material from this album was recorded live or grew out of improvised jams, it only adds to the import of what Fripp, the ultimate perfectionist, was capable of when he shifted into high gear.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the tune (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing. The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Take a Pebble” (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer)

The centerpiece, and masterpiece from ELP’s debut is Greg Lake’s twelve-and-a-half minute “Take A Pebble” which, as well as any song from the era, epitomizes the all-in ethos these bands were running up the flag pole. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps (that you can almost dance to) and an extended piano-led excursion that stands alongside any progressive music ever made. If certain bands seemed to try a bit too hard, or were so serious they sucked any joy (or life) out of the music, this was seldom an issue with ELP: they positively revel in their shared purpose and can barely check their enthusiasm. As a result, the passion is at once refreshing and exhilarating.

  1. McDonald and Giles: “Birdman” (from McDonald and Giles)

If, in a sense, King Crimson never fully recovered from the loss of founding members Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. Still, hindsight has confirmed that everything about In the Court of the Crimson King was sui generis; it couldn’t be duplicated and it would have been silly to try. More importantly, the departure of McDonald meant, from that moment forward, Fripp was the prime mover and the personnel changes and various stylistic shifts that ensued were inevitable, and quite welcome. More still, Crimson’s temporary attrition led not only to McDonald and Giles presenting the world with their quiet masterpiece, but also gave us Emerson, Lake & Palmer!

In any event, McDonald’s playing and artistic flair were all over In the Court of the Crimson King and that prodigious talent is apparent throughout McDonald and Giles. By necessity, and perhaps to retain the control he coveted, the duo was content to soldier on mostly alone (there is support from brother Peter Giles on bass and a brief contribution, on organ, from Steve Winwood), but in addition to drums and vocals from Michael, Ian handles guitar, piano, organ, saxes, flute, clarinet and zither. To their lasting credit, the results are anything but minimalist; indeed, the same type of color and flair that brightened Crimson’s debut are in abundance throughout these proceedings. Lacking neither determination nor drive, McDonald and Giles made their stab at a near-obligatory side long statement. It’s an unqualified success, and the presence of friend and lyricist extraordinaire Peter Sinfield helps up the ante. While In the Wake of Poseidon is a stunning and almost entirely satisfactory follow-up to the debut, McDonald and Giles provides an opportunity to hear Crimson 2.0, or what the other half (McDonald, with Sinfield, being the alternate visionaries), given their druthers, could achieve.

  1. Rush: “La Villa Strangiato” (from Hemispheres)

Fans, of Rush in particular and prog in general, already understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is endlessly enjoyable slice of perfection. Better still, it’s the ideal option for anyone who can’t stomach Geddy Lee’s voice or Neil Peart’s lyrics. Even (or especially) when they were crafting suites about fountains and necromancers, few would deny the collective musical prowess of this trio. Still, where certain proficient acts (ranging from Zappa to, in later years, Rush themselves) could on occasion be accused of being a tad too clinical, a tad too perfect, it may surprise non-believers to know that Rush always had both humor and restraint, when the situation called for it. While there’s nothing especially restrained about “La Villa Strangiato”, it never tries to be anything other than what it is. What is it? Foremost, a showcase for Alex Lifeson, who everyone knows can shred, but not enough people appreciate as the skilled and dynamic player he is. It’s possible that the band never exhibited this much joy on a studio album before and certainly after; it’s a ten-minute celebration of partners in crime who possess superhuman ability, but also healthy enough egos to understand they’re all better working together than with anyone else.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Melancholy Man” (from A Question of Balance)

It’s Justin Hayward’s voice on most of the hits (and many excellent non-hits), but The Moody Blues were very much a collective in every sense of the word. Presenting the other extreme to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction (showcased on the brilliant “Question”, from the same album), Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint, it might be the best thing the band ever did. The the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

  1. Camel: “Lady Fantasy” (from Mirage)

Whether or not this signifies Camel’s finest moment is less important than the fact that it’s probably the most successful distillation of their singular aesthetic. All the crucial prog elements are in place: tricky time shifts, an irresistible lull from mellow to frenzied, and a sound that’s at once non-commercial but immediately pleasing. What separates even the better bands who can write and play mind-blowing music is the feeling; some can’t conjure it, others can’t help but do so. It’s pointless, with words, to try and pin down precisely what it is, but on “Lady Fantasy”, guided as usual by Andrew Latimer’s guitar wizardry (and, on this track, vocals), Camel makes one of the more compelling cases for why prog rock matters and, at its best, how it needs no excuses or elaboration.

  1. Gentle Giant: “The Advent of Panurge” (from Octopus)

It’s unadvisable to teach someone to swim by tossing them in the ocean during a thunderstorm. Likewise, it’s foolhardy to hope anyone would take to prog rock by sampling practically anything by Gentle Giant. As the band itself boasted, they were an “acquired taste”, and some of the time went out of their way to prove it. So what? If there had to be one band that put a line in the sand and effectively defied people to dig them, Gentle Giant was consistently up to the task. So, while it’s tough to determine where even a listener amenable to prog rock might begin to tackle the Gentle Giant catalog, Octopus is as safe a bet as any other album. Not for nothing, it might also be their most consistent and satisfying release. Perhaps the most unheralded aspect of this band’s contribution –aside from the outstanding string of albums—is the way they set a bar for other, better-loved bands to follow, and aspire to; Gentle Giant were the unacknowledged legislators of the progressive movement and, if enough fans weren’t paying proper attention, it seems safe to suggest many of their fellow acts were. It really can’t be said enough that Gentle Giant deserves extensive respect and kudos for remaining utterly uncompromising and committed to their demanding but gratifying objectives.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother)

Pink Floyd was still an underground band of sorts (albeit a very successful one) circa 1970, mostly because they didn’t bother to write hit singles. For the fans that didn’t jump ship after Syd Barrett’s departure, the efforts between 1968 and 1972 were transition albums from a prog rock icon in progress. The title song from this 1970 work clocks in at over 23 minutes and has everything from trumpet fanfare to orchestrated choir. Originally and appropriately dubbed “The Amazing Pudding”, this opus crams in ideas (and serious shredding from Dave Gilmour) that would resurface on their ultimate breakthrough, The Dark Side of the Moon: the multi-tracked voices, reprises, odds, sods and half-assed grandiosity are shot out of a cannon and remain unabashed and untamed today. It sounds very little like what Pink Floyd would shortly become; it sounds like a band from another planet which, after all, was more than half the point in the first place.

  1. Genesis: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout Selling England by the Pound is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. For this opening number (did any prog band begins albums with more of a bang than Gabriel-era Genesis?), Gabriel pulls out all the stops, with poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time. Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. Everyone involved is en fuego, at the height of their individual and collective abilities. For people who want to know where Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping technique originated, look no further. For people who don’t understand, or would never believe Phil Collins was, at one time, a first-rate drummer, check this out. And, well, nobody is daft enough to doubt the glory of Peter Gabriel, right? The angst, anger and, finally, euphoria his voice channels is (once again) all-time, for the ages.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (from Pawn Hearts)

Every prog band wanted to add at least one undisputed classic to the canon; some failed, some came close, and some made multiple contributions. Van der Graaf Generator (the name itself almost a dare) tried and, depending on one’s level of faith, succeeded. But no one who knows anything about this genre would dispute that this album is their masterpiece, and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is their crowning achievement. On this sprawling and elaborate composition, crucial contributions are made by all, but keyboard wizard Hugh Banton and vocalist Peter Hammill are way out in the stratosphere. This as music as drama, as statement, as vocation.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/30/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 3, 60-41

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  1. Rush: “Cygnus X-1 Book One: The Voyage” (from A Farewell to Kings)

Rush is now, rightly, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (not that this dubious honor from a very polemic institution signifies all that much, but in terms of street cred from the so-called establishment, it’s noteworthy, and warranted enshrinement), so the battles waged over their merit aren’t waged with quite the rage they once were. That’s mostly a good thing. But whether you think they are Ayn Rand worshippers (you’re wrong) or Neil Peart is an overrated drummer (you’re wrong) or his lyrics are rubbish (wrong again), and especially if you care to debate the merits of their musicianship (give it up), one thing is overlooked, and requires pointing out: Geddy Lee, for a skinny, nerdy white man, is not only a brilliant bass player, but when the situation required it, he could flat out groove. His work alone on “Cygnus X-1 Book One” makes an eloquent case for his expertise, but of all Rush songs, this one features the most frequently sited reason so many people can’t deal: his voice. Over time, and of necessity, his high pitched histrionics were relegated to time capsules of the ‘70s. But by the time the intensity is ratcheted up to the point of explosion, his wail is prog’s version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Deal breaker for some; addictive for others. This song, were it an instrumental, would be capable of converting many naysayers, but of course, it needs the singular paroxysms Geddy delivered, as a matter of course, circa 1977.

  1. King Crimson: “I Talk to the Wind” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

Virtually every note on King Crimson’s debut at once originates and defines the prog rock aesthetic. This was, in every possible sense, an entirely new sort of music: a collective of superlative craftsmen, united in the effort to create art so original, so unmotivated by commercial appeal, so honest, it couldn’t not be transformative. If the progressive movement would, for both understandable and perhaps inevitable reasons, become insular to the point of near-suffocation with its one-upmanship, navel-gazing and self-indulgent geekishness, no such criticism could be applied to both the material and attitude that inform In the Court of the Crimson King. (Interesting sidenote: this song was initially attempted on 1968’s The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, featuring vocals by Judy Dyble). As a part of the whole, “I Talk to the Wind” is an ideal transition, calming the waters after the incendiary “21st Century Schizoid Man” and setting up the concentrated dejection of “Epitaph”; as a standalone track, it’s a stunning tone poem of melancholy—somehow it manages to be somber and gorgeous. Each individual musician is indispensable (on this song; on this album), and while drummer Michael Giles’s subdued but industrious embellishments shine, this might be Ian McDonald’s finest moment: his flute, clarinet and shared vocals (a duet with Greg Lake) are astonishing; an unending well that will satisfy and inspire even after countless listens.

  1. Renaissance: “Mother Russia” (from Turn of the Cards)

More literary references? Yes please. This time, tribute is paid to Russian writer/dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As such, the lyrics deal with the (ongoing, at this time) bad old days of being “back in the U.S.S.R.”. Driven by John Tout’s stirring keyboards and Annie Haslam’s ardent vocals (another rare instance of any kind of female presence in the mostly all-male prog genre), complete with only slightly melodramatic string ornamentations, “Mother Russia” effectively doles out the emotion along with the intellect.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Welcome to the Machine” (from Wish You Were Here)

Roger Waters, illustrating curmudgeonly tendencies as early as the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon (captured for posterity in the remarkable Live at Pompeii documentary), but having axes to grind—and never too carefully, Eugene—going back to “Corporal Clegg” on A Saucerful of Secrets (’68), was really hitting his sardonic stride by the middle of the ‘70s. Importantly, though, while he shoveled out the scorn like few before or since, it would be wrong to label Waters a misanthrope; certainly he’s happy (or miserable, for that matter) to point out the myriad foibles of mankind, but there was always hope, if never quite optimism, lurking beneath the surface. By the time of Wish You Were Here, Floyd had perfected their presentation: the music they created suitably complemented Waters’s acerbic lyrics. On “Welcome to the Machine” an acoustic-based song is soaked with sound effects, Rick Wright’s one-man-band of keyboards and suitably disaffected vocal from David Gilmour. It’s to Waters’s credit that the song can function on several levels: as an obvious shot at the music industry (amusing sidenote: the lyrics for “Have a Cigar” were so astringent Gilmour declined to sing them, which led to Roy Harper stepping in for his famous cameo), it’s another in a series of touching tributes to Syd Barrett (“you dreamed of a big star/you played a mean guitar”), and a coruscating ode to estrangement. No band made alienation sound so alluring.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “Man-Erg” (from Pawn Hearts)

We’ll never see Van der Graaf Generator getting the Spinal Tap or Flight of the Conchords treatment. It’s impossible, because this stuff is already beyond parody—and that’s meant in a (mostly) good way. For those who find the most out-there Gabriel era Genesis and Gentle Giant too compromised, this is the stuff. Vocalist Peter Hammill presents an all-or-nothing gauntlet thrown down and, like Gabriel, he has eccentricity to spare. Bonus points for David Jackson’s sax playing; normally an embellishment or anomaly, in VdGG, the sax was part of the package.

  1. Camel: “Lunar Sea” (from Moonmadness)

The last song on the last album from the original line-up, “Lunar Sea” is a fitting way to close out a classic quartet of albums. Unsurprisingly, the playing on this instrumental piece is top notch, with obligatory time signature shifts and plenty of room for each musician to stretch out. Andrew Latimer’s work is typically tasty, and while some of his fellow guitar heroes tended toward effusiveness, he’s always a study in concision. This one also features some of keyboardist Peter Bardens’s best work.

  1. Gentle Giant: “In a Glass House” (from In a Glass House)

Of all the prog bands who dabbled in classical music, either as inspiration or point of departure (and in some cases, lame imitation) Gentle Giant did the most to make it their own, resulting in a sort of chamber rock, high on proficiency, short on easy or accessible “hooks” and enduring as the epitome of integrity, for those with the attention span and interest. Amongst aficionados, In a Glass House is generally considered one of their more accessible efforts (as such, a recommended starting point for the uninitiated), as the band seems at once more confident and secure: where we had almost too many notes per square foot in previous works, the band is mostly content to “merely” pack every second with ideas and sounds, but all in the service of a specific mood or expression. As usual, the musicianship is impeccable, and the title track works as well as any other Gentle Giant song to summarize this band’s idiosyncratic sensibility.

  1. Steve Hackett: “Shadow of the Hierophant” (from Voyage of the Acolyte)

What does a guitar god do when his band drops one of the decisive (and weirdest, and challenging, etc.) gems of the oeuvre, and then the singer abruptly departs? Carry on with the first of many solo efforts, naturally. Steve Hackett, even after the exhausting recording of and tour that followed The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was obviously in too much of a zone to consider either time off or sulking about Peter Gabriel’s bridge-burning exodus. The result is, at once, a worthy inclusion in a long string of brilliant albums, but also a statement that the “sound” of Genesis during the first part of the ‘70s owed much to Hackett’s splendid influence. On “Shadow of the Hierophant” (look up “Hierophant” and nod, approvingly), Hackett pulls out all the stops: another epic in the style of “Firth of Fifth” (especially the extended outro), appropriate as he had able assistance from bandmates Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, the real bonus comes courtesy of the vocals from Sally Oldfield (sister of you-know-who). Not that any of Hackett’s previous work with Genesis felt constrained, but being in command here, he feels free to go wherever his restless mind—and fingers—take him, and it’s an endlessly rewarding trip.

  1. Genesis: “The Musical Box” (from Nursery Cryme)

Speaking of both Genesis and trips, “The Musical Box” is the opening salvo of the first Genesis album to feature Hackett, and it’s as wonderfully out there as anything anyone did in the prog era. Gentle Giant, as previously mentioned, perfected their “chamber prog”, but for better or worse, it still seems somewhat impersonal or unreachable; “The Musical Box” still sounds like an old nursery rhyme (or cryme) come to life. Peter Gabriel, on stage in the early ‘70s, solidified his status as resident eccentric with a variety of costumes and hair styles and, mostly, just being wonderfully weird. Much of what makes the work Genesis did during this era so remarkable is the way the compositions conjure up different times and places simply with words and music. Hackett’s schizophrenic shrieking throughout suggests the darkness lurking beneath what begins as an almost tender ballad. It is also astonishing that, with one song and just under ten minutes, Genesis explores more moods and emotions than many bands could cram into a career.

  1. Curved Air: “Marie Antoinette” (from Phantasmagoria)

Like much (too much?) prog rock that tried so hard, if appraised as poetry, a song like “Marie Antoinette” would likely be condemned as precious, self-parody or…pretentious. Much of that potential judgment is assuaged by Sonja Kristina’s placid vocals and the friction of Francis Monkman’s guitar. Bands like Curved Air serve as necessary reminders that, in between decade dominated by pop music and the punk deconstruction that followed, music needed to take itself a bit seriously; it needed to assert itself as an art form before it was possible (and necessary) to scale things back and establish new paradigms.

  1. Jethro Tull: “My God” (from Aqualung)

Even though, to this day, Ian Anderson insists Aqualung is not a concept album, there’s no question it focuses on a handful of recurring themes, to devastating effect. The first side explores man’s predictable inhumanity; the second side sets it sights higher (pun intended) and is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?). On “My God” Anderson gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image. Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets has only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Martin Barre’s larger-than-life chords. Then, in the extended middle section, we are treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects: it is an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also functions as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.

  1. King Crimson: “In the Wake of Poseidon” (from In the Wake of Poseidon)

So what’s this one about? How about everything? Well, it’s not not ambitious, and with name-checks of Plato, bishops, kings, slaves, mad men and earth itself (indeed, “In air, fire, earth and water/World on the scales” proves that this particular song is a prescient ode to the environment). Resident lyricist Peter Sinfield outdoes himself on this, the title track of Crimson’s second album, and remains a rare prog opus that can work purely as poetry. The band is up the challenge, ratcheting up the intensity (including some of drummer Michael Giles’s must furiously rewarding work) courtesy of more mellotron than is normally advised or healthy. And if the hands are heavy (even for this ear!) on the mellotron, any complaints are akin to a sports fan suggesting too many punches were thrown in Ali and Frazier’s “Rumble in the Jungle”. Greg Lake, with one foot out the door (about to embark on his adventures with Emerson and Palmer) does not betray any ostensible lack of commitment; his vocals are among his rawest and most emotive. Not many singers could credibly put voice to such solemn and bleak words, but he turns the proceedings into precisely what is required: an all-in offensive against cliché and conformity. Not for nothing, the list of couplets that sum up the malign influence of religion as well as this one is exceedingly small: “Bishop’s kings spin judgment’s blade/Scrach “Faith” on nameless graves.” This is disillusionment with a clear intention, and it succeeds on all levels.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Karn Evil 9” (from Brain Salad Surgery)

Speaking of Mr. Sinfield, he joined old colleague Greg Lake to contribute lyrics to this song, which manages to be epic, convincing, overlong, indulgent, and over-the-top. Just what the doctor ordered, right? (Speaking of the doctor, the album title is an appreciative nod to a lyric from Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”.) Always a fan of word play and packing as many words and potential interpretations into a piece as possible, it’s a title like “Karn Evil” (Carnival) that caused certain eyes to roll, and certainly a song that is even longer than one album side is either extravagant or awesome—mileage, as always, will vary. What can’t be denied is that for only three men, ELP crammed as many instruments and effects into a single song as would seem imaginable. There were more “works” (see what I did there?) to come, but this album—and song—signals the last time ELP made a convincing statement worthy of their considerable aspiration and egos.

  1. The Nice: “The Five Bridges Suite” (from Five Bridges)

Perhaps the most successful distillation of Keith Emerson & Co.’s fly-paper approach, incorporating classical, jazz, blues, rock and any or everything else he could ensnare in his musical net. On Five Bridges the band covers Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and…Bob Dylan, and that’s just the second side of the album. Side One is occupied by “The Five Bridges Suite”, which features sections like “Fantasia”, “Second Bridge”, “Chorale” and “High Level Fugue”. And here’s the thing for haters: this work was actually a commissioned for the 1969 Arts Festival in Newcastle, where it was premiered with assistance of a full orchestra. Sign of the times, certainly, but also indicative of the street cred Emerson already had, getting “serious” musicians to perform with him. The piece itself, as one might surmise, is a romp full of pomp and pretense cut by humor and if there’s a bit of bombast, so be it. Emerson was already setting a high bar, and the story of his life is that, for many years, he was the only person interested, or able, to meet the challenges he threw down as a matter of course.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Pantagruel’s Nativity” (from Acquiring the Taste)

Taken from the original liner notes, let’s allow the band themselves to explain what they were after, and what they anticipated: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought—that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Presumptuous? Check. Defensive? Check. Alienating? Check. True? Check. Commendable? Check. Bonus: this song calls out Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.

  1. Kansas: “Song for America” (from Song for America)

Appropriately entitled for one of the (inexplicably?) rare prog bands from the United States. Kansas, like ELO and Supertramp, would eventually break through with less experimental and more accessible music, but they paid their proggy dues, with various degrees of success. Many of the hallmarks of the genre are ably represented here: tight and proficient chops, varied time signatures, string embellishments and, well, lyrics like this: “Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder.” Again, if much scorn and occasional ridicule can be placed at the feet of the progressive movement, it can never be claimed that the hearts and minds of its practitioners weren’t in the right place.

  1. Supertramp: “Crime of the Century” (from Crime of the Century)

An opus in miniature, this remains one of the most successful of Supertramp’s prog statements. As an album closer, it works wonderfully, summing up the themes of alienation and disenchantment explored throughout the album; as a single statement, it’s both moving and compelling. It’s also perhaps the best example of co-founders Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson working together, united as songwriters with a focused aim. It seems clear the band had been paying careful attention to both ELP and Genesis, but their vision is unique and, with the long sax serenade courtesy of John Anthony Helliwell, indelible.

  1. Yes: “Heart of the Sunrise” (from Fragile)

As much as any other band, Yes epitomizes prog rock, and as such, they are entitled to the praise as well as the disapproval that accrues from this (at times, dubious) honor. Certainly this band, with the possible exception of Rush, gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind that (like Rush) its musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have very played. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion; his mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from the fruitful era that produced their “holy trinity”, The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge. “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Jon Anderson’s nonpareil vocal workouts. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but none of them pack as much emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, that it manages to please—and even, on occasion, shock—four decades on.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “Scorched Earth” (from Godbluff)

Especially recommended to those for whom Peter Gabriel, circa ’71-’74, wasn’t theatrical enough. Peter Hammill brings his very British, very unconventional bag of tricks, and the band checks in, mid-way through the decade, with a leaner and more resolute set of songs. Not to worry, the passion is ratcheted up, and we get tasty contributions from flute/sax player David Jackson. There is a concentrated ferocity that reaches a boil but never overwhelms, and while fans may prefer the earlier work, it remains impressive that Van der Graaf Generator was able to evince development and dexterity where many of their colleagues were choking on their own bloat.

  1. King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

The first song from the first official (and best?) prog album, ever. Locked-in and cranking on all cylinders from the start, “21st Century Schizoid Man” helps slam the iron gate shut on any vestige of the hippie era with a song that’s equal parts discourse on Vietnam and unflinching nod to Orwell’s 1984 (in spirit if not literally). Influential, sure, but what continues to impress is the way this song still sounds fresh, timeless and nerve shattering, almost a half-century later. Greg Lake’s processed and distorted vocals, like a machine shriek, and the surreal interplay of Robert Fripp’s guitar lines and Ian McDonald’s squealing sax contribute a vibe that goes for the jugular and leaves the listener gutted. The rest of the album would be, in turn, bucolic, surreal, strange and disquieting, but the opening volley is a straightforward scorcher, serving notice that this was still rock and roll, but it was quickly being taken to a deeper, much darker place.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/29/17.

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