All Hail the King: Chuck Berry Reinvented Music, and America

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It’s not important whether or not Chuck Berry “invented” rock ‘n’ roll, and the crucial thing isn’t that he perfected it. It’s that we call rock ‘n’ roll would sound much different and be a lot less unique and ecstatic if not for the template he provided.

As large as Berry looms in American music history, getting a handle on the immensity of his importance has, until now, been somewhat difficult. Certainly, the Matryoshka Principle applies, as it must with any progenitor: when you’ve indelibly influenced the artists who have influenced the artists who have influenced the artists, this succession of homages (intentional or not) is at once unequivocal but somehow insufficient. When we stop and consider the masters, whose earliest stuff sounds ancient, even derivative (think The Beatles’ earnest but stiff efforts, or even The Rolling Stones’ more convincing but still saccharine and stylized imitations), as desperate attempts to replicate Berry, it puts things in more appropriate perspective. Chuck Berry is pater familias of a whole new American music; he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll—he just made it inevitable.

To younger ears, some of the hits may sound a tad redundant, variations on a recurring motif. If so, the same could be said about the parables within the New Testament. And like that slightly momentous text, these themes are meant as both foundation and instruction manual. All of which is not to say Berry wasn’t an extremely perceptive and versatile pupil: he’d studied the blues, jazz and country music that, thrown into an aesthetic blender, rock music overflowed from. Henceforth, it would forever be a gumbo of competing and complimentary source points, but Berry’s first-person flights of fancy still represent its most undiluted potential.

Recorded in May, 1955, “Maybellene” signifies the proverbial Big Bang: a blueprint for the type of music that became rock ‘n’ roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and myriad opportunistic white boys tried their damnedest to evoke that singular sound. In addition to being the first salvo, it’s arguably the most significant, as it merges much of what came before and hinted at what we’d be hearing much more of—from Berry and others: some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar; a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock ‘n’ roll song, this is rock ‘n’ roll.

While Elvis seems to have a stranglehold on the spurious “King of Rock” crown, history won’t forget that Chuck Berry did not simply (!) write the modern songbook from which a million simulations sprang, he himself was the prototype, the complete package to whom all contenders must defer. For example, where both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis played piano, Berry stood center stage, yielding the instrument that would underlie rock’s evolving ethos: electric guitar. His guitar is like an M.C., introducing each of those consequential early singles, and it rides shotgun, rhythm and lead, equal billing to Berry’s confident voice. Never a work-in-progress, Berry arrived fully-formed, like a clay god formed on Olympus. Another crucial distinction: Berry sang the songs he wrote, becoming in effect the first rock frontman, incorporating swagger, charisma, perfect hair and the devilish glint to offset the angelic voice. Or, if you like, all the assets of Lennon/McCartney (or Jagger/Richards) rolled into one.

Enough can never be said about the fact that Berry was the original triple-threat: musician, singer and lyricist (add in the stage antics, including his epic duck walking, and you have the magic recipe emulated by diverse legends ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to Prince). While justly celebrated as rock’s first “poet”—and certainly a prototype for subsequent singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan—the whole “elevating lyrics to poetry” approbation is not erroneous, but it still misses the mark: Berry’s songs are straight-up short stories. What transpires in the three minutes (or less!) of condensed pop perfection like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “You Never Can Tell” is narrative. The song serves as a vehicle for adventure or escape or deliverance is something Bruce Springsteen has made a career out of, and compared to the early work of The Beach Boys, Beatles and Stones (all of whom covered or outright copied Berry), what Berry achieved between 1955 and 1961 seems like literature.

The smart money, then, predicts that time will only affirm and reinforce Berry’s place at the top of the pantheon. With his death, it also seems likely we’ll get a more thorough and nuanced assessment of Chuck Berry’s cultural importance, which runs the clichéd spectrum of good, bad and ugly. Before, during and especially after his commercial peak, Berry was at once a trailblazer in matters of race and perhaps racist America’s most conspicuous casualty.

Did Berry, often depicted as his own worst enemy at times, simply pay the price for breaking a law (however racially inspired and enforced)? Or was he another irresistible target for a white establishment intent on keeping black men—regardless of or else because of their popularity—in their place, like Jack Johnson before him and Muhammad Ali after him? Is there any reason it isn’t a bit of both? If any icon of the 20th Century could be said to contain multitudes in the Whitmanesque sense, it’s Berry.

Let’s hope that Berry’s indiscretions and defects, somewhat glossed over since most of his life occurred before the proliferation of tabloids, not to mention the internet, will not now dominate discussions of why his music will endure. However understandably, we hate being reminded that so many of our best artists tend to be repugnant people. As such, it would be more than a little ironic if a man who paid the price in all the most hackneyed, but very real, ways—whether against “the man” or white bands making millions from his formula, or being yet another musician cheated out of more millions by the charlatans who’ve often run the music business—ends up being posthumously besmirched for character flaws too many white artists have had overlooked or forgiven.

Much has been made of the fact that Berry, embittered and paranoid, showed up, alone, at gigs, demanded payment (in cash) up front, and didn’t care if amateurs he’d neither met nor rehearsed with shared the stage. Was he selling out, or just honest enough to acknowledge he was already an oldies act, and shrewd enough to know that he was the draw? To be sure, audiences would not have continued showing up, decade after decade, if he routinely dispensed incompetent performances. Plus, what does it say about a man who didn’t want, or couldn’t abide, either the comradery of regular bandmates or hangers-on? Perhaps Berry lasted—and thrived—as long as he did because he was tough enough not to need anyone else. Not unlike Jackie Robinson, Berry broke barriers, and while he made good money during his career, his American Dream extracted a heavy toll.

How much easier would it have been if he’d been willing (able?) to play the game; if he could ingratiate himself the way we demand of our artists, and athletes? That he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—isn’t a tragedy; if he had, it’s worth wondering whether he would have made the same music. Every time his amply documented quirks and recalcitrance are recalled, we should never forget the original line in “Johnny B. Goode” was not “country boy” but “colored boy”. With a combination of talent, dedication, and tenacity, he willed himself to be that brown-eyed, handsome man, a king within a segregated state.

We never could quite catch him, and now he’s gone…like a cool breeze? No, that’s too easy, but also inaccurate. The cool breeze is what he became; what he invented. That was the persona he perfected, equal parts shield from and artifice for the world, a world that could never fully fathom or appreciate what he meant, what he signifies, as an artist and American. He was the cool breeze. But he took that air with him and what’s left is an arid void, silent, and more than a little sad. It’s also something awe-inspiring and unconquerable.

This article originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/24/17.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

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Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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David Bowie: The Man Who Owned the World (One Year Later)

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ONLY THE BEATLES. That’s the sole comparison that comes to mind when compelled to name a musical act with similar impact and importance. The Beatles, as we all know, changed each year during their still indescribable run, effectively owning the ‘60s. David Bowie, on the other hand, built an entire career on changes, even as he became the peerless satellite so many others orbited around.

Also like The Beatles, Bowie put in his time before lifting off and then, once he really broke through, he kept on breaking, and changing, and winning. A great deal, understandably, has been said about these changes, with inevitable if ultimately reductive words like chameleon and shape shifter tossed into every encomium. David Bowie elevated reinvention to an art form; he was a genius of changing.

About these changes. They weren’t simply haircuts and costume changes (hello, Madonna); they were entirely new identities. And yet and of course, every new character was thoroughly and undeniably David Bowie. This, among so many other things, was what enabled him to remain an innovator who couldn’t be imitated (how can anyone imitate you if you never imitate yourself?). Nor were any of these characters cursory; Bowie transformed himself as well as his music. Although diminished by comparison, none of his better-known acolytes, from envelope-pushers like Eddie Izzard to opportunists like Bono, could have conceivably negotiated their alternately awkward and unabashed milieus without the example set by the Thin White Duke.

Champions of the avant-garde are often bored with, even incapable of conventional thinking. Bowie managed to be several steps ahead of the avant-garde, probably because even he couldn’t have imagined where he was headed next. The thing is, when most artists make profound, if indulgent changes (think Neil Young in the early ‘80s), it alienates fans and inexorably seems either forced or facile. Bowie? He changed the world and took everyone with him, and he did it year after year. Even someone unfamiliar with the music need only look at the cover art from album to album. That’s the same person? Well, yes. And no.

What was that all about? It seldom seemed calculated or strained; indeed, it’s as though he needed to jump-start his own peripatetic sensibility, and these often eccentric, always endearing identities were delivery devices for the brilliance bubbling beneath the pin-up pretense. Red, bleach blonde or brown, his hair—although forever awesome—was window dressing, his clothes more a nod to his impeccable fashion instincts. Make no mistake, it was always about the music.

About that music. “Space Oddity”, “Life on Mars”, “Changes”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel”…these aren’t merely songs, or even (merely) anthems, they are cultural signifiers, queer escutcheons that at once shield and embolden the outcasts and “others”. Bowie, being the Alpha Outsider, was brave and brilliant, and adamant enough to become The Other, and the changes that followed changed others, allowing others to become something other than the others they might have otherwise been destined to be.

There are so many wonderful illustrations, any of which could make a case for why Bowie was more than a pop musician, why he mattered and why he’ll be so desperately missed. For me, it’s a deceptively simple track—from what may be his most consistently satisfying album Hunky Dory—that encapsulates everything he managed to be. “Oh! You Pretty Things”, his little anthem to oddness (and the inevitability of ch-ch-ch-ch-changes) continues to delight, excite and inspire me, even today, as a middle-aged straight white male. I can scarcely fathom how many confused and scared souls Bowie salvaged and empowered. What an artist he was; what a hero he’ll always be.

Significantly, Bowie was not simply a front-man, although to be certain he was one of the incendiary stage performers of the last century. He was a musician. Yes, he could play multiple instruments and he could write the songs (nevermind the singing and lyrics, which we’ll never tire of extolling), but his acumen was unassailable, if unconventional. Consider two easily studied examples: the direction he gave Mike Garson for the title track of Aladdin Sane, or the story behind how his uncanny collaboration with Queen during the “Under Pressure” sessions.

About those lyrics. Yes, they’re sometimes inscrutable, endlessly open to interpretation (intentional, obviously), but there can be no question that multiple meanings are a result of the layers: he was easily one of the most intelligent—and articulate—wordsmiths of our time. A random sample from the top shelf: “And the stars look very different today”, “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy”, “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when”, “Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise”, “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch”, “The shrieking of nothing is killing”, “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about”…

Debate can—and should—now rage forevermore about what Bowie’s post-‘70s legacy means: did he exhaust himself or continue to make boundary-breaking music? A bit of both seems the safest and soundest answer, but opinions and mileage will vary, as they should. Let there be no question whatsoever, though, that he was utterly locked in during the ‘70s. Did anyone own the decade like David Bowie? There were historic runs by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The Who were going strong, at least until the air went out of the Moon; The Rolling Stones acquitted themselves nicely, for the most part. But from first to last, the string of masterpieces Bowie unleashed is unlikely to ever be equaled. Again, only The Beatles put out so many works with analogous import and influence.

Like The Beatles, Bowie didn’t only innovate; he wrought aesthetic and stylistic changes and, like an irrepressible Pied Piper, people followed him wherever he went. Secure prediction: time will only increase our collective appreciation for the extent of what Bowie achieved between ’70 and ’80. This music, for the most part, does not sound dated but remains utterly of its time—including the alternately surreal and intractable Berlin trilogy—and over time, it will define the times in which it was made, the way all our best art manages to do.

Take “Aladdin Sane”, please. This miniature masterpiece employs everything brilliant about progressive rock (the musicianship, the audacity) and distills it into not only an accessible, but irresistible package. If one can hear Joy Division and Iggy Pop in the Berlin trilogy, it’s difficult to deny that many varied hitmakers were paying close attention to this uncanny freak with paint on his face. Prog rock started to wear out its welcome for a million mostly good reasons by mid-decade, but the wise ones, especially Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel, were paying attention, if not taking notes. Across years and styles, it’s impossible to imagine groups (prominent in their own right) ranging from The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys to Duran Duran, onward to Radiohead and Lady Gaga, without Bowie’s blueprint.

Bowie was indefatigable and, seemingly, unconquerable. That’s why his death (from cancer, that most banal of diseases) not only astonishes, but offends. If Ziggy Stardust is mortal after all, heaven help the rest of us who may still be kidding ourselves. Where would-be epoch defining entities like John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain—all of whom forged specific connections with him, incidentally—didn’t have the luck or wherewithal to withstand Life on Earth, Bowie did: for himself obviously yet also, one suspected, because he understood it was all bigger than him. Remarkably, as beloved as he became, he got the joke and that was arguably the secret (so impossible, so perfect) to his longevity.

In our devolving era of social media attention spans and controversy stirred via electronic one-liners (often anonymous, natch), recalling the courage of Bowie’s convictions is instructive. First and foremost, the closet exodus heard ‘round the world: “I’m gay, and always have been.” That was 1972, and even if, in the moment, this was an act of calculated provocation, it’s the stuff revolutions are made of. Cheers to him for taking the piss out of Andy Warhol way before it was either safe or acceptable (much less imperative). Pivoting from glam to soul and becoming one of the first—and only—white artists to be considered cool enough to appear on Soul Train. Being brazenly ahead of the pack in calling out MTV for its congenital honky-itis in 1983. Appearing in movies by A-List directors like Scorsese (as Pontius Pilate (!) in The Last Temptation of Christ) and Nolan (as Nikola Tesla (!!) in The Prestige). And, all those years later, Bowie being Bowie while sending up an enchanted Ricky Gervais.

He was our Oscar Wilde, obviously. Or better yet, a postmodern Dorian Gray, through the glass brightly: bigger than Jesus and not dying for our sins but celebrating them, or else suggesting, quite convincingly, that there were no sins and nothing to be ashamed of. And speaking of shame, where the legions of imitators and fakers have gotten it wrong this millennium, mistaking shamelessness for substance, Bowie endures as s secular saint of the dispossessed. He will remain revered because he was unashamed, and encouraged others to be as well, whoever and whatever they might happen to be that particular day.

It’s sunrise and millions weep a fountain. The Black Star has returned to Space. Now he’s gone; now he’s immortal.

This article originally published at The Weeklings on 1/14/16.
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Coltrane: Ascent

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First there’s the solo by Jimmy Garrison; actually it’s a soliloquy, as eloquent and convincing –urgent yet calm in its confidence– as any extended statement on bass by anyone in the idiom: five minutes; its own statement but still, obviously, an introduction, like an MC announcing the main event. Then, the sly, almost flirtatious overtures from Elvin Jones (suddenly the silent right channel becomes a reassuring friend in a dark alley), and finally, he establishes a swinging accompaniment, and they’re off. But as soon as they accelerate they slow down…and stop. Enter Coltrane, with one of his ultimate top-of-the-mountain sermons. There is, as usual (and this being late-era Coltrane, one of the final recordings from the “Classic Quartet”), brimstone, hail, and chunks of molten energy shorn from the sun. And by the time McCoy Tyner climbs aboard (like Elvin, capable of opening the floodgates at any time, but here content to ride shotgun, providing comradery via counterpoint), the engine’s already cooling off, the race already run, and won. Then it’s a Garrison, alone again, making sure you’re safely grounded on terra firma. You try to account for what just happened, at once reckoning and reconciliation, believing once more in a miracle truer than Truth as the ship ascends into ether, leaving orange contrails glowing in its wake.

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Big Log

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1983: I remember when this first dropped, during summer break before 8th grade (and then getting massive radio play that winter) and I was mostly underwhelmed. It was…aight. But it wasn’t the Mighty Zeppelin I knew and loved. It was mellow and articulated a weary world wisdom I had neither the experience nor perspective to understand, much less appreciate. I was, in short, too young and dumb to get it. Now, decades later — and older than the singer was when he recorded it– it somehow sounds ahead of its time and also…timeless in the best way the rarest music can. The subtle synth touches I tolerated as obligatory early-80s embellishment now seem to represent something organic; a no-longer novel instrument of its era employed with precision and purpose. And unheralded guitar hero Robbie Blunt with a tour de force of compressed restlessness (his second solo, especially the sublime 8 seconds that occur between 3:43-3:51, devastates me *every* time), seems less a solid replacement for Jimmy Page and more the perfect foil for a Golden God starting to go gray, and resigning himself to whatever is coming down the road. I listen, in late 2016, and it sounds to me like the melancholy of nostalgia not quite able to overwhelm a defiance to endure. 

Sensing too well when the journey is done
There is no turning back — on the run…

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John Coltrane at 90

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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’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their 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.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

In his compositions, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

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Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

A quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

Coltrane reached a point where he attempted to achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration. He then went even further and sought to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

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Led Zeppelin: Day by Day

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Imagine Led Zeppelin in our contemporary culture, with smart phones and social media documenting their every activity and utterance—a ceaseless spectacle. It’s impossible. Literally; obviously. But it’s possible that the legend, the mythology of Led Zeppelin would never reached such heights in today’s social-media climate. The sui generis nature of Led Zeppelin’s lore is that they were at once the biggest band on the planet and—to their considerable credit—the most secretive.

More, they disdained singles, rarely granted interviews (this was especially relevant, and came to augment their street cred, considering the near-universal hostility they encountered from the press during the first several years of the band’s existence) and for better or worse, gave no quarter. As such, for a band virtually everyone knows of, relatively little, at least of substance, is known about Led Zeppelin. Certainly, after the spuriously-sourced and sensational Hammer of the Gods (the unauthorized and mostly discredited 1985 biography of the band by Stephen Davis), all bets were off, and many of the more outlandish rumors (Jimmy Page as shady fan of the occult, Plant’s young son dying because of a botched deal with the devil, etc.) were accepted as fact.

In short, if ever a rock band epitomized the famous quote “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” (from the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), it’s Led Zeppelin. Fortunately, there have been some corrective steps taken to restore a more balanced, not to mention factual, perspective. When the band showed up wearing tuxedos to receive their Kennedy Center Honors, that likely did much to normalize them in the eyes of the average, less-interested citizen. The recent book Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin allowed fans to review the official record, courtesy of interviews given by the band itself.
Still, for such a beloved, influential and obsessively bootlegged band, a proper—if dry and exacting—document relating the day-to-day has been elusive. For fans more obsessed than simply curious, it’s been difficult to ascertain where the band was and what they were doing from the first rehearsals to the day they called it quits.
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For these fans, Marc Roberty’s Led Zeppelin, Day by Day will become an enduring bible: the good times, the bad times and even the boring times are all documented here, along with tons of color photos and visual curios. Concert promos, press releases, recording session specifics, concert reviews and, for completists, set-lists of every gig. These days most, if not all of this detail and detritus is readily available via the web, but it’s to Roberty’s credit that he was able (and willing!) to assemble everything in one aesthetically pleasing package.

Taken strictly as a historical document, it’s instructive to remember that even though the band was a super group of sorts (Page and John Paul Jones are both well-regarded session musicians and Page, recent guitar god in residence for the Yardbirds), their success was anything but guaranteed. (Of course, as most fans know, the name itself—initially Lead Zeppelin—was a sardonic prediction of how they might be received.) It’s therefore amusing to see an advertisement from December 1968 listing them as “Len Zefflin”, supporting Vanilla Fudge.

On the other hand, eyewitness testimony at the time confirmed that the Mighty Zep would be an unstoppable force. More than one concert review speculated how long they would continue as an opening act, and before long, commentary suggests they were blowing headliners off the stage. The bass player from aforementioned Vanilla Fudge is quoted as saying “There’s no way we can follow that,” as his band rather sheepishly started their own set.

It’s also fascinating to be reminded, considering the Golden God Robert Plant would become, that the group was Jimmy Page’s and, in the early days, he was acknowledged (within and without the band) as the leader. Considering how admired he was as a musician, even by naysayers of the band’s albums, it’s extraordinary how humble—bordering on reticent—Page has always been. Always content to let his art speak for him, Page remains a role model for our TMI era.

Unfortunately, not all the sordid stories are without some basis in fact. We see, even in the initial years, certain shows being lackluster, or canceled altogether due to John Bonham’s various health crises. Bonzo, as was known long before Hammer of the Gods, struggled mightily with alcohol and his antics were a recurring tribulation the others had to deal with. Still, like his compatriot and sometime partner-in-crime Keith Moon, Bonham was seldom boring. One high (and/or low) light is Zeppelin being banned for life from the Tokyo Hilton after a 1971 incident where Bonham massacred his hotel room with—wait for it— a Samurai sword. (When in Osaka…)

Even the most hardcore haters will be hard-pressed to not admire the band’s consistency and (yes) professionalism, confirmed by set-list after set-list. Led Zeppelin built their status, in part, by giving three-plus hour concerts at a time when 90 minute gigs were standard. It’s also telling to contemplate the way famous acts are obliged to play the same songs every show: that Zeppelin was capable of playing “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” virtually every show for a decade is laudable. Again, once the hysteria and hype is stripped away, the secret to success isn’t particularly complicated: put the fans first, and make meaningful music.

Led Zeppelin has, for many years, been all-things to all people: loathed, loved, copied, scrutinized, glorified. For most, the songs are all that matters; for those who can’t get enough and can’t help needing to know it all, Roberty’s book should scratch that itch. It’s also a refreshing throwback of sorts, having this coffee table book with color photos in the service of recounting how Led Zeppelin became the biggest and most enigmatic band of their time.

 

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Bobby Hutcherson: Thanks for the Good Vibes

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Bobby Hutcherson was not just a major, and positive force for good in the jazz idiom, he was a genuine innovator. Before him, the vibraphone was largely considered a novelty instrument and, despite the obvious advancements of the incomparable Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, Hutcherson was part of the post-bop vanguard, and he made the vibes not only acceptable, but cool.

And, of the many accolades Hutcherson deserves, being cool defines both the man and the era he became an indispensable part of. After the high water mark of 1959, the avant-garde moved, increasingly, to the forefront and with this “new thing”, epitomized by Ornette Coleman and the polarizing free-jazz he pioneered, jazz became, take your pick: less cool, less accessible, more adventurous, more encompassing. It was all those things, and many more.

If Miles Davis and — at least for a couple of years before he blasted into the stratosphere — John Coltrane, were ambassadors for the future of this music while remaining mostly within the orthodox or accepted bounds of jazz, the aforementioned Coleman along with, just to name a handful, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, were already straining at convention and taking jazz places even ardent fans found difficult to follow.

Somewhere in the middle, another young breed of innovators arrived on the scene: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson were among the better regarded (and received) practitioners of new jazz with old(er) school appeal. And like Shorter and Hancock, Hutcherson established himself first as an invaluable session player (doing remarkable work with Jackie McLean, Grant Green and Eric Dolphy) and, eventually, emerging as a leader to be reckoned with.

In hindsight, Hutcherson had the perfect approach for the perfect instrument: his work has aged extraordinarily well (not unlike Shorter’s and Hancock’s, for that matter) and what once pushed some boundaries now seems accessible without feeling conservative, it’s conversant without a hint a cliché, and it’s mellow without ever being predictable. This is the type of jazz you can put on for the proverbial dinner party (assuming anyone has dinner parties or listens to jazz; if anyone listens to jazz at dinner parties, please invite me.) In short, it’s cool.

His work is worth exploring, and will reward even a slightly sensitive listener. Virtually any session he led or participated in throughout the ’60s is recommended without reservation.

Speaking personally, the pleasures his work has provided me are too extensive to count; suffice it to say, I’ve cherished him and will continue to do so, while being grateful we had him amongst us as long as we did. Here then are five personal favorites, any of which should prove addictive.

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Forever Never Changes: Remembering Arthur Lee (Ten Years Later)

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Arthur Lee died ten years ago today (August 3, 2006). I not only am keen to remember –and celebrate– his life and work, I also appreciate the fact that the piece I wrote (below) to commemorate Lee was the first work I published for PopMatters, a relationship that has been incredibly positive and invigorating ever since. For anyone interested (hardcore fans or the unitiated looking to learn more) I wrote a more detailed appraisal of the band, and that piece can be found here. A few key snippets, directly below:

One is tempted to suggest, if sardonically, that now is the time for a reappraisal of Love. But that is unlikely. It’s never been time for Love, then or now, and this one-two punch of bad timing and bad luck tends to encapsulate the band’s maddening legacy. Love could never quite get over, and this certainly contributes to the enigmatic air that hangs over their history.

To a certain extent Lee’s defiant nature is understandable, or at least explicable. When you are that naturally talented, it has to be more than a little challenging to jump through the necessary hoops in order to connect the dots of pop star accessibility. Many years later, Lee acknowledges, and regrets, his self-defeating intransigence. To Holzman’s credit, he flew Lee out to New York City, but the singer was the opposite of Woody Allen in Annie Hall: he was allergic to the big apple and only felt comfortable in L.A. Lee begins to sound like rock music’s Jake LaMotta: he understood the game, but because he saw through it, or felt above it, or was willfully sabotaging himself or—most of all—he simply couldn’t be bothered, he never seized the gold ring that was gleaming right in front of his face.

Lee left his mark, and he knew it; and before he died, he had a decent opportunity to witness the collective appreciation. That he was able to tour the world in his last years is just, that he was taken before he could add to his legacy is regrettable. That old fans and, hopefully, legions of new listeners will continue to discover his work is exactly as it should be.

August 3, 2006.

It’s equal parts ironic and appropriate that Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, two avatars of what we recall—mostly with fondness—as the Summer of Love, have gone on to that great gig in the sky within a month of each other this summer. Of course, any discussion of 1967 must begin and end with the Beatles: As has been well documented, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band moved the avant-garde to the mainstream at a time when our culture was perhaps most open to receiving it. All of a sudden, albums could—and quickly did—become statements, and rock music was elevated to the status of art seemingly overnight. So while Sgt. Pepper is the alpha and omega, it is as significant for the possibilities it created for others as for its own sake.

But as is always the case, the most interesting and enduring creations occur in the margins. Pink Floyd, darlings of the burgeoning London underground, arrived at Abbey Road studios in early 1967 and began recording their debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn at the same time the Fab Four were assembling the sonic puzzle pieces of Sgt. Pepper. Both masterpieces arrived in time to describe and define the Summer of Love, or at least its distinctly British component. Across the pond, another debut helped capture the sounds of that time: The Doors were to Los Angeles what Pink Floyd was to London, a lean and hungry band that had taken the time to cultivate a cult following and had a breakthrough single (“See Emily Play” and “Light My Fire” respectively) that shot them into the stratosphere. But the band that Jim Morrison hoped to emulate was the then heavyweight champion of the L.A. scene: Love, led by Arthur Lee, who was also a mentor to a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.

For a variety of reasons, some typical, some inexplicable, Love seemed to implode just as their ship was set to sail, and they never quite fulfilled their limitless and possibly unparalleled potential. While other bands made history during the Summer of Love, Love was busy living through incendiary months, and on the album that resulted, Forever Changes, Lee documented in real time and in living color the Daily Planet of the hippie scene, or at least its underbelly—which is perhaps the same thing. In other words, the album stands as the most accurate American version of the era, post Monterey and Haight-Ashbury.

 

Forever Changes failed to connect, though, and the band disintegrated shortly after its completion, with Lee soldiering on in increasing obscurity, his moment come and gone. How then, has his magnum opus, so insufficiently received, managed to inspire such loyalty and enchantment over the decades among its admirers? For starters, it is worthy of repeated listens; it deepens and intensifies well after you’ve made the initial connection. (Quick, when is the last time you listened to Sgt. Pepper all the way through? How deep do “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” seem?) Although none of the songs on Forever Changes crept onto the paisley playground of its time, it is impossible to quibble with the confident brilliance of miniature gems like “Andmoreagain” or “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”, which showcase Lee’s immutable gift: his voice, which had an almost extraordinary sensitivity and authority.

Sound like a contradiction? That’s the genius of Arthur Lee, plainly put. For all his quirks and contradictions, Lee was a taskmaster in the studio. Listen to the demo version of “The Good Humor Man” and compare the sparse acoustic take with what the song would become with understated brass and strings, and the longing in Lee’s delivery. If you don’t get it, Forever Changes will never speak to you.

But it’s not enough (nor should it be) to merely gesture toward an art work’s ineffable qualities. What makes Forever Changes indelible is first and foremost its unmistakable honesty. The Los Angeles streets that broiled with heat and inspiration brought intimations of a severity largely absent from the rose-colored commentary that emerged from San Francisco. The songs on Forever Changes have a soul and sly élan that most of Love’s contemporaries were incapable of conjuring. Lee described what he saw with deceptively simple, disarmingly straightforward lyrics that always evoked the feelings of an outsider. Lee, a black man, recognized what Chris Rock would later articulate, that no matter how many people profess to admire and envy you, few, if any, white folks would choose to trade places with you. This keeps the distance between what should be and what is foremost in one’s mind; no amount of applause or plaudits or utopian hippie thinking can compensate for that disparity.

But the sad staying power of his somber vision is unassailable. The music on Forever Changes is by no means morose, though the merciful scarcity of saccharine free-love fantasia augments its staying power. Part of the album’s perverse charm lies in its contradictions. For instance, its most assured and ebullient songs are belied by Lee’s lyrics. On this album, Lee—like Barrett on Piper—displays an uncanny facility for concision, capturing a larger truth somehow by not quite saying it. Lee’s audacity, at 22, in employing non sequiturs creates an unfiltered vision, revealing a lack of cynicism and trust in his abilities as well as those of his listeners. “And I’m wrapped in my armor / But my things are material./ And I’m lost in confusions / ‘Cause my things are material ” The lines may not make immediate sense, but Forever Changes is a treatise from the trenches, capturing the dodgy promise that anything is possible. The Summer of Love, after all, was the American Dream redux, replacing all that boring humility, hard work and redemption of the Horatio Alger story with a strategically ingested tab of acid.

Lee not only captured what he saw on the street, he anticipated the darkness around the corner, so it’s understandable that the more starry-eyed in his audience weren’t trying to pick up what he was putting down. Though Forever Changes doesn’t conform to the nostalgic picture of Summer of Love as drug-fuelled ecstasy without consequences, Lee managed to relate the less sexy banality of the morning after before most hippies even knew what was about to hit them. You never know when you might awaken from your reverie with snot caked against your pants, as Lee sardonically sings about in “Live & Let Live”. Lee depicts the big high and the lesser lows—or what the more pragmatic among us might call actual life. And it is this gray middle ground between compromise and revolution that provides Forever Changes its appeal. If it’s hot or you’re hungry or you have the rest of your life to sort out, then a concert or a hit record or the sudden insight to see through the charade may not be enough to get you safely to the other side. “All you need is love / love is all you need.” Okay. “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow”? Ouch.

Stop and think about that, from Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel.” That could well be the most succinct—not to mention prophetic—articulation of the so-called counterculture, circa 1967. Youth protest at Vietnam any made-for-TV melodrama or sentimental movie soundtrack sprung from the money-making minds of Madison Avenue. It’s pretty safe to conclude that the times aren’t a changin’. “And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game: / Do you like the part you’re playing?” This question, from the optimistically named “You Set the Scene,” is directed at the listener as much as the artist, and Lee’s answers, which end the album, reveal he had no intention of turning his back on the promised land, even as it splintered into a billion bad trips. The full orchestral freak out that concludes the album and ushers it into immortality has a classic literary flourish, bringing full circle the motifs introduced with the innovative trumpet stylings that accompany the opening track, “Alone Again Or”.

“The Red Telephone,” which ends side one, is the album’s centerpiece; its brooding, apocalyptic imagery captures that three-month moment of 1967, while remaining possibly more applicable to the here and now: “They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key, / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” Those creepy chanted lines were prophetic, not only when you consider that Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid 1990s as a result of his own recklessness as well as California’s controversial third-strike laws. The lyrics anticipate the aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples, those that ingested and distributed the chemical vehicles to Valhalla, who would end up pulling harder time than our white-collar charlatans face for fleecing employees and the country out of millions of dollars. The lines are also a commentary on Americans acting un-American, looking back to the internments of Japanese citizens and forecasting the so-called enemy combatants rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy. As Lee sings in the same song, “Sometimes I deal with numbers, / And if you want to count me: Count me out.”

If Arthur Lee had been savvy enough to pull the businesslike burn out or the fortuitous fade away or—cleverest career move of all—die in some spectacular fashion in, say, early ‘68, it would be safe to bet that Forever Changes could have become a central part of the collective consciousness. That is the only rite of passage we ask of our best artists: Die so we can wake up and get around to appreciating what you accomplished. It’s what we talk about when we talk about the lack of love and the fact that forever never changes. Hopefully, Arthur and his very American dream now have that chance, for all the right reasons.

Got more Love if you want it.

And more, if you can handle the truth.

This essay appeared in PopMatters on 8/10/06, and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

 

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