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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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 2, 80-61

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  1. King Crimson “Red” (from Red)

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ‘70s. <i>Red</i> is the paradigm that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. Robert Fripp, who has never been boring or unoriginal, outdoes himself while John Wetton and Bill Bruford do some of their finest work as well. It’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Hey You” (from The Wall)

Even if you believe The Wall isn’t overstuffed and self-indulgent (you’re wrong), there’s absolutely no doubt that some of Floyd’s finest work can be found alongside the hysteria and hubris. Not coincidentally, many of these moments feature David Gilmour on vocals. Still, the reason “Hey You” remains so powerful, unsettling and ultimately…uplifting is because it is Floyd doing what they do best: operating as a functional unit, playing to their strengths (Waters’s lyrics, Gilmour’s voice and guitars, solid support from Mason and Wright). Not yet consumed by his cynicism (and ego), Waters channeled his sullen but sound poetic sensibilities into a song that contains some of his most consoling, hopeful (!) lyrics: “Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light/Don’t give in, without a fight”. And, while his towering solo from “Comfortably Numb” deservedly steals the show, Gilmour’s succinct but soaring work here is to be celebrated.

  1. Strawbs: “Hero and Heroine” (from Hero and Heroine)

This is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons come to life, complete with mellotron. “Hero and Heroine” is notable for packing practically a full album of aspiration, mood and progginess into a remarkably brief three and a half minutes. These lads had paid proper attention to early Genesis (indeed, this could almost work as an outtake from Trespass. Like so much excellent music from this genre and this time, it’s difficult—and ultimately irrelevant—to ascertain whether this song is more imitated or imitative (in a good way), but despite many telltale prog touches (the bombast, the emotions amped to eleven, etc.), it’s a very distinct, and convincing effort from a band that doesn’t get nearly enough love.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Proclamation” (from The Power and the Glory)

Whenever one listens to any song by this band, two things are obvious: it’s prog rock, and it’s Gentle Giant. Certainly, like so many of their compatriots, there are obvious musical and stylistic threads connecting them, but it could be argued that Gentle Giant remains the most idiosyncratic of progressive groups. This has not always been a blessing: their take-it-or-leave-it sensibility, reveling in their own abilities, is simply not for everyone. Suffice it to say, admiration of Gentle Giant can be somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition; you’re in or you’re not. “Proclamation” is a confident opener to one of their best-loved albums, and it demonstrates the power and the glory this band had at its disposal throughout the early ‘70s.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Baker St. Muse” (from The Minstrel in the Gallery)

Perhaps the finest distillation of Ian Anderson’s reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, “Baker St. Muse” showcases the band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for David Palmer’s string arrangements, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

  1. Curved Air: “Piece of Mind” (from Second Album)

Unapologetically pretentious, with pastoral imagery giving way to movie soundtrack melodrama, complete with frenetic piano and whirling strings, “Piece of Mind” is equal parts art for art’s sake and a big middle finger to convention. Grand designs and determination only take any artist so far, and like all the successful acts, Curved Air had the collective ability to back up their lofty objectives. As ever, Sonja Kristina’s vocals supply the exceedingly rare feminine presence in the prog genre, and “Piece of Mind” features one of her most affecting vocal performances. This one also boasts one of keyboardist Francis Monkman’s (look him up) finest workouts.

  1. Caravan: “Nine Feet Underground” (from In the Land of Grey and Pink)

Some bands (like non-proggers who nonetheless dipped their toes into proggy waters at times) were content to drop Tolkien-esque allusions in their lyrics; others, like Caravan, quite literally put the LOTR aesthetic right on their album covers. In the Land of Grey and Pink pulls no punches and, ahem, gives no quarter to accessibility. But that’s not to say the music, even on this twenty-plus minute opus is not welcoming, in its way. While the sentiment may seem from Middle-earth, “Nine Feet Underground” is less whimsical and more unwavering. Pye Hastings, on electric guitar, turns in some career-best work, and even while (in classic prog fashion) the tune is broken into eight separate sections), the momentum never flags and by the time the aggressive outro fades away before a suitable bang, the mission here is very much accomplished.

  1. Supertramp: “Fool’s Overture” (from Even in the Quietest Moments)

Roger Hodgson is nothing if not earnest, and his vulnerable, immediately recognizable voice lends a human element many would claim is sorely missing from so much progressive rock. In terms of themes and concerns that resurface throughout their albums, it could be said that Supertramp is among the more “human” prog bands—whatever that actually means. For one thing, both in terms of instrumentation and production, there’s a certain clarity that tends to distinguish them from their more-is-more prog brethren. To be certain, the wind effects, Floydian “found noise” and mellow-to-urgent energy, “Fool’s Overture” is anything but mellow. Still, more than much prog (and for better or worse), this album closer sounds like music made by fallible (and sensitive) human beings.

  1. Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (from Face the Music)

If Supertramp, during the ‘70s, was “human”, what did the other extreme sound like? “Fire on High” would represent the other extreme, with mastermind Jeff Lynne, who never heard an instrument, sound effect, sample or inside joke he didn’t like, pulling out all the stops. This, of course, is the one that cheekily employs backmasking (for the record, the mumbled “vocals”, when played backwards, intone “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back…”). Is that a snatch from Handel’s “Messiah” you hear? Of course. Are there string trappings and cymbals crashing? Obviously. Is there, beyond the histrionics, a brilliant, even catchy tune that emerges? Most definitely. Even though they already had radio success and would go on to more commercial things, this was a last gasp of pure out-there experimentalism by Lynne, who used a studio to his advantage like few others.

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

A Salvador Dali painting put to music. “Cirkus” is a dark, brooding masterpiece stuffed with surreal imagery. The lyrics, courtesy of the ever-reliable Peter Sinfield, are astonishing and the music perfectly creates a mood suitable for the topic: spooky, intense, yet oddly beautiful (kind of like much of Crimson’s output). Possibly an allegory for the postmodern human condition, it works on a literal level as a harrowing assessment of what we do to animals for our entertainment (“Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk ate the floors of their cages/Strongmen lost their hair, paybox collapsed and lions sharpened their teeth”). Heavy on the mellotron and what sounds like Mel Collins’s sax filtered through a Leslie speaker, and suitably gloomy vocals from Gordon Haskell, “Cirkus” is a definitive statement that the hippie dreams of the ‘60s are over and done with.

  1. Genesis: “The Knife” (from Trespass)

Brilliant in its own right, Trespass can now be best appreciated as a warm-up of sorts for the string of masterworks that would follow. Both a departure from the more pastoral tone of the songs preceding it, “The Knife” is also a template of the sound that would soon come to the fore: propulsive keyboard flourishes from Tony Banks and insistent, even aggressive rhythm (and though drummer John Mayhew acquits himself nicely, snagging Phil Collins was a significant upgrade for Genesis; ditto for the replacement of the serviceable Anthony Phillips with the indispensable Steve Hackett). “The Knife” (like the subsequent “Battle of Epping Forest”) has a discernible British vibe, and in addition to being an obvious live favorite, one could imagine hearing this song piped into a football stadium or rowdy pub. Peter Gabriel uses this material to…sharpen his act, and the world soon would see what else he had up his sleeve.

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

You can tell a great deal about an artist by the type of songs they’ll cover. Naturally, entirely too many opportunistic rock bands take beloved tunes and provide a paint-by-numbers update, long on commercial aspiration and short on soul (and shame). For those who whined that ELP plundered classical music for their purposes, two things need be stated: one, props that they actually knew, much less could play, these challenging compositions; two, not even many snobs would be able to namecheck Alberto Ginastera. Keith Emerson deserves credit for undoubtedly introducing tons of listeners to more obscure masters, ranging from Mussorgsky and Bartók to Ginastera. And nevermind what the snooty critics and haters have to say, the maestro himself endorsed and approved Emerson’s outside the box recreation. As usual, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake offer outstanding support, but this one is truly Emerson’s baby.

  1. Camel: “Dunkirk” (from The Snow Goose)

Several selections from this largely underappreciated masterpiece could be chosen to represent the whole, but “Dunkirk”, with its martial beat and slow but inevitable build-up to explosion, is a highlight. Very much a concept album, it being an all instrumental affair cuts down on the pretense substantially and what results is a cohesive, superbly executed work. The group interplay is seamless and uncanny, but as usual, keyboardist Peter Bardens and guitarist Andrew Latimer make consistently inspired contributions.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Isn’t Life Strange” (from Seventh Sojourn)

No one could get Medieval quite like the Moody Blues. Of all their songs that invoke other times and places, “Isn’t Life Strange” might be balance the past and present (or, days of future passed). The languid strings provide a baroque backdrop, and Ray Thomas’s flute ups the pastoral ante, but it’s the soaring chorus, shared by John Lodge and Justin Hayward, that put this song in the stratosphere. Posing a rhetorical question with literary illusions (“a turn of the page/can read like before”), this could be incidental music to the best novel Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote.

  1. Kansas: “Magnum Opus” (from Leftoverture)

Like Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas had greater commercial acceptance in their immediate future, but for years they labored in the fields of prog. Like any aspiring prog-minded act, they threw their hats in the ring with album covers that could go toe to toe, in terms of awfulness, with anyone. And like all progressive bands worth taking seriously, they were more than competent musicians, and had determination to spare. Stacking violin on top of multi-tracked guitars and the mandatory keyboards, “Magnum Opus” is a song with a title that could be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, or unbearably pompous, but even if it’s ultimately a bit of both, it’s a worthy addition to the prog canon.

  1. Soft Machine: “Slightly All The Time” (from Third)

For those, assuming there are any, for whom most prog isn’t prog enough, whatever that means. Soft Machine unabashedly flexed their jazz muscles and stretched out extended compositions that seldom resort to noodling. Mastermind Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and sax player Elton Dean lock into a groove that’s at once hypnotic and insistent, but mostly mellow in all the right ways. “Slightly All The Time”, undoubtedly influenced by Miles Davis and Mahavishnu, is as “out there”, in its way, as the best prog of its time, but it’s also locked in and slyly cerebral; it’s serious music for serious—and adventurous—listeners.

  1. King Crimson: “Sailor’s Tale” (from Islands)

To his considerable credit, Fripp has always relegated his often peerless technique to the greater good of the song; on the first three Crimson releases, Fripp adds texture, color and occasional muscle, but seldom strides into the spotlight. On “Sailor’s Tale” he serves notice (as if it’s necessary) that he’s not merely one of the genre’s supreme technicians, but he can also flat out shred. In truth, the entire outfit is on fire throughout, with astonishing interplay between Boz Burrell (bass) and Ian Wallace (drums) and Mel Collins (sax) blasts in like an abbreviated tornado. All of this sets the scene for Fripp’s extended solo, which is, without question, a tour de force: it’s like a mechanical monster rising out of radioactive sludge, but instead of laying waste to the city it cries out in despair, some kind of warning for mankind, before disintegrating into the noise of itself.

  1. The Nice: “Rondo ‘69” (from Nice)

Before Keith Emerson became Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he was (just?) Keith Emerson, of The Nice. For a variety of reasons, all unfortunate, The Nice tend to slip under the radar, eclipsed perhaps by the bigger (better?) things Mr. Emerson went on to do. But in addition to making some proto-prog albums, The Nice became a full-fledged prog monster before calling it quits. Emerson, of course, was the ring leader, and the same sweeping range of influences and inspiration that cropped up on so many ELP albums are very present throughout his work with The Nice. In fact, he and his cohorts were even more unabashed, regularly working in “covers” of classical music ranging from Bach to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. For “Rondo ‘69”, the model is jazz, the immensely popular “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck. In a sense it’s a cheeky move, as Brubeck’s tune itself was not straightforward jazz so much as a mash-up of jazz and traditional Turkish music (in 9/8 time). Emerson’s interpretation first appeared on the band’s debut (The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, from 1967) but became a staple of The Nice’s (and later, ELP’s) live act, where it became even more experimental and incendiary. The Nice, in sum, may have been too many things for too few people to fully appreciate, but it’s safe to say many other bands were paying close attention and taking notes.

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

Greek Goddess that seduces and then eats young men? Naturally. If ever prog went down the rabbit hole where sanity struggles with psychedelic fever dreams, The Lamb may be the sine qua non and apotheosis, all contained in one sprawling, all-but-impenetrable opus. After this one, and for understandable reasons, resident genius Peter Gabriel figured he’d done all he could (should?) do in the prog genre, and moved on to more accessible pastures. Whether or not it makes sense (the song; the album) is almost beside the point (it does make sense, but it requires a great deal of effort and generosity on the part of the listener, which is prog music taken to its outer limits), the results are astounding. One of a handful of centerpieces, “The Lamia” certainly showcases both Gabriel’s uber-literary acumen and the band (particularly Banks and Hackett) as focused as they would ever be. It’s a gorgeous composition, but is exceedingly strange, sensitive and almost unknowable. It’s perfect.

  1. Yes: “The Gates of Delirium” (from Relayer)

Some fans will insist this is where Yes continued to lose the plot (after Tales from Topographic Oceans, possibly the single most divisive of all prog albums); others assert it’s a return to form. In any event, it’s, at best, several steps removed from their “holy trinity” (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge). Whether or not Jon Anderson’s lyrics signify the nadir of prog rock banality, there’s no doubt the dude was well-read; where he used Hesse’s Siddhartha as inspiration, on “The Gates of Delirium” he turned to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (talk about “going for the one”…). The results are, at times, stimulating (Steve Howe simply could not help but be brilliant during this era) and, at times, both cacophonous and exhausting.

This piece originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/28/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 1, 100-81

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Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends.

After gamely, if humbly attempting to track the 25 best old-school progressive albums of all time, it’s inevitable to turn our attention to the best songs of the genre. In the spirit of more expansive representation and to avoid, as much as possible, redundancy, I’ve tried to limit selections to one track per album though, of course, this proved impossible in several cases. To remain consistent with the previous installment, I’ve maintained my own arbitrary criteria and kept consideration to English-speaking bands and only songs released during the decade of 1969 to 1979. And again, while the more obscure cuts the better, there’s an honest effort here to celebrate songs that represent the best of the genre, meaning some (very) familiar friends are invoked. Believe me, if I were choosing my personal favorites, this list would look pretty different, if indulgent.

To repeat a prior admonition: you’re not going to agree with this list. It’s possible you’ll abhor it, and that’s the point, pretty much. I’ve never seen a list of this kind that I concur with, which is one reason recalcitrant writers roll our rocks up that hill. If my word’s but a whisper, your deafness is a shout, etc.

  1. Yes: “The Revealing Science of God” (from Tales from Topographic Oceans)

Inexorably, this list has to begin with Yes and of course it must include a song from perhaps the most maligned album in the prog canon. It could (should?) be chosen just because of its title, which—like many of the subsequent selections, for good, bad and obvious reasons—epitomizes much of what makes progressive rock beloved, misunderstood, mocked and mostly ignored. Where many of the elements making this band such a force to be reckoned with—or wrecked—all congealed on their previous three efforts, it’s difficult to deny the blokes set up more draughts than they could drink on this overstuffed, undercooked double album. Those same elements, including the remarkable individual abilities of each player, the focus, drive and naysayers-be-damned desire, are all accounted for, but despite typically solid vocals from Jon Anderson and the always-reliable guitar exploits of Steve Howe, Tales from Topographic Oceans is like Jackson Pollock doing Dali, in the dark, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or Something. Unlike so much denigrated or willfully misconstrued prog music, this one actually is everything everyone says it is.

  1. Curved Air: “Vivaldi” (from Air Conditioning)

Sure it’s pretentious and more than a little earnest. It’s also brilliant: an extended violin and electric guitar workout, a quirky but compelling tribute to, well, Vivaldi. If the music, much less the execution, was in the least bit sloppy or uninspired, it would crumple under the weight of its own pomposity. Ripe for ridicule and like many prog rock compositions, almost inviting ill-will—especially from the elitist types who sniff condescendingly at any invocation of sacred cows like the creator of The Four Seasons—a band like Curved Air wrote and performed a song like this for the most obvious of reasons, which at once explains and inoculates it: because they wanted to; because they could.

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

With two key elements (the guitar sound and the vocals) solidly established on this mature, confident album, a final one—Roger Waters’ increasingly mature and topical lyrics—comes to fruition on the third track, “Fearless”. This tune, which could be viewed as a poignant nod to Syd Barrett, is definitely an early installment of a growing Waters obsession: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against (or reeling from) a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as an early blueprint for the sound effects and ironic employment of actual voices used on later albums, specifically The Dark Side of the Moon.

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

Perhaps the most mellotron-y of prog songs from the most mellotron-y of prog bands. A few words about the mellotron: its sounds may be undeniably dated, kind of like movies without CGI—which helps explain why certain folks have an unapologetic nostalgia. Put another way, the mellotron was a novelty instrument replacing proper string sections the way auto-tune and overproduction are de rigueur these days. When used judiciously (which may seem oxymoronic, but bands like Crimson and Genesis did not use mellotron to replace other instruments), this odd device was best utilized as a layering effect, and for the occasionally otherworldly sounds and feelings it could invoke; a hallucinogenic edge that “authentic” instruments could never approximate. Robert Fripp, clinical, obsessive, even cold or at least calculating, honed the capacity of conjuring up profoundly emotional sounds and sensations, and “Trio” illustrates that machines (and machine-like men) can convey—and possibly have—soul(s). On this number, recorded live, the restraint from all musicians is notable, especially drummer Bill Bruford who had the good sense to lay out and, because his instincts were so sound, Fripp insisted he receive co-composer credit.

  1. Genesis: “Ripples” (from A Trick of the Tail)

Gabriel, gone? They could not go on. They went on. And, for a while, more capably than any reasonable fan could have expected or hoped for. Phil Collins, as it turned out, was not only a suitable, but almost perfect replacement for the former frontman, albeit—at least through the duration of the decade—in a subtler and more self-aware fashion. “Ripples” is as close as the band came to a thoroughly convincing, and satisfying, mini-epic post-Gabriel, and it remains one of Collins’ most effective, and affecting, vocal performances.

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

Ian Anderson upped his already impressive lyrical game on Jethro Tull’s breakthrough masterpiece, Aqualung, a song cycle that remains as scornful and relevant as the year it was recorded. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely–if ever–been improved upon by other mainstream acts. Anderson arguably saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive –or sentient– person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.

  1. Caravan: “C’Thlu Thlu” (from For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night)

You can discern everything from a hint of Sabbath to a touch of Dead and a smattering of Genesis, with Peter Gabriel in full freak mode. It seems a certainty that Blue Oyster Cult was paying attention, and everyone from Randy Rhoads to Metallica owes at least a partial debt. Matching mood to lyrical and thematic content was something every prog band hoped to achieve, but only the best practitioners could pull it off with consistency. “C’Thlu Thlu” (Google “Cthulhu”) is a case study in creeping doom, a song that could only come from this genre, yet anticipating so much of what was to come.

  1. Camel: “The Snow Goose” (from The Snow Goose)

In a sensible world, this band would get a lot more love. While any number of their albums warrant reexamination or discovery, The Snow Goose stands not only as their masterpiece, but one of the first-tier concept albums from the prog genre. The title track ably encapsulates what is essentially a free-flowing suite connected by “chapters”, using only music to narrate the band’s interpretation of Paul Gallico’s novella. If all this sounds like impenetrable mish-mash to the uninitiated ear, the music is almost surprisingly accessible. A dreamlike production influenced equally by classical music and film scores, it’s possibly the closest prog rock ever got to Ennio Morricone—and yes, that’s intended as the highest form of praise.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Nothing at All” (from Gentle Giant)

Possibly the most controversial of all prog rock outfits, Gentle Giant has indefatigable supporters, semi-enthusiastic fans, and everyone else who’s never heard of them. This, of course, is not fair, and the band did enough exceptional work over an extended period of time that they should be name-checked more frequently, both in and outside proggy circles. It should go without saying that on this song (like the album it’s taken from; like most of their other albums) the musicianship is top notch. An acoustic-based number, its charms are reserved, somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from Gentle Giant’s typical more-is-a-half-measure modus operandi. Of course there are some mid-song explosions and an extended drum solo, among other things. Probably as appropriate an introduction to this outfit’s intimidating oeuvre as anything.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Have You Heard?” (from On the Threshold of a Dream)

On the Threshold of a Dream is definitely The Moody Blues’ Progressive-with-a-capital-P album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass. The band goes for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

  1. Rick Wakeman: “Catherine of Aragon” (from The Six Wives of Henry VIII)

Wakeman looms large as a prog deity, providing memorable keyboard handiwork throughout the ‘70s for Yes. But as more than a few people know, he was also busy with other projects. His solo efforts at once validate his status as a prog monster, and provide plenty of ammunition for haters who, taking one look at the album titles, would dismiss him as a monstrosity. As much or more than later works Journey to the Centre of the Earth and (take a deep breath) The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, his arrangements on The Six Wives of Henry VIII are an ideal vehicle for his seemingly unlimited range and, yes, ambition.

  1. Rush: “Xanadu” (from A Farewell to Kings)

After three albums the band itself would declare full of hits and misses, everything came together during the recording of 2112. After that, Rush did the most prog thing possible: upping the ante and doubling down on the determination. Using the all but requisite literary reference as point of departure, lyricist Neal Peart did not half-step, selecting “Kubla Khan”, a poem by Romantic heavyweight Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Whether or not old Samuel spun in his grave or headbanged in approval, “Xanadu” gets full marks for concept and execution. Love or loathe them, Lifeson, Lee and Peart are among the better players in all prog-dom (Lifeson’s extended solo during the song’s climax features some of his all-time guitar heroics). While they were gradually getting away from side-long marathons and easing into more straightforward snippets of song, in 1977 they were somewhere in the middle, stretching out with confidence but also expressing maximum feeling with something that could almost be called moderation.

  1. Traffic: “Roll Right Stones” (from Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory)

If their earlier stuff was, by turns, more folk and jazz oriented, in the early-to-mid ‘70s Traffic was incorporating multiple elements and idioms and crafting something decidedly prog-like, albeit funky as all get out. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and creative dynamo Steve Winwood was on a hell of a run by the time Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory dropped; if this one gets less love and wasn’t as radio-friendly as the previous efforts, there is a darker, at times deeper vibe in effect. Piano, organs, sax, flute and those vocals: this is the soundtrack for a trip that need not be augmented with drugs or lava lamps; Traffic was always more substantial than any simple reduction, and they never pushed the boundaries of what was possible quite like this.

  1. Pink Floyd: “The Great Gig in the Sky” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

It wasn’t so much that Pink Floyd “got” prog better than other bands, in part because everyone on the scene was making it up as they went along. Rather, they were the outfit that, arguably, used the idiom to its fullest effect, showcasing musicianship and experimentation with (increasingly) mature and, yes, universal themes. For The Dark Side of the Moon, the Alpha and Omega of concept albums, Roger Waters & Co. explored the pressures of modern, mechanized life and the devastating effects it has on us all, especially the ones “hanging on in quiet desperation”. The title here, like those of the other songs, makes it clear what the song is “about”. However, using no vocals, only the off-the-cuff caterwauling of Clare Torry, the most deliberate prog band (possibly excepting King Crimson) embraced improvisation, and between Rick Wright’s mournful keyboards, David Gilmour’s solemn slide guitar and the aforementioned Torry, this track goes somewhat beyond its already ambitious subject matter.

  1. The Alan Parsons Projects: “I Robot” (from I Robot)

Already a minor prog legend for his involvement as engineer on The Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons went on to make significant contributions to prog rock before becoming somewhat of a household name in the early ‘80s. I Robot, like the album the preceded and followed, might be classified as “thinking man’s prog” or prog that moved keyboard-propelled formulas into territory that, while borrowing a little from Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, also anticipated the synth-laden music that would dominate the next decade. Like Eno, the Alan Parsons Project proved that one could be both meticulous and curious, and like his most lauded and disparaged compatriots, Parsons was unabashed about being intelligent, driven and willing to take risks, all in the service of art that took its audience as seriously as it took itself.

  1. King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)

At times cerebral, others sullen, always extraordinarily sensitive, make no mistake, Robert Fripp could throw down and wail with the aggression of a caged honey badger. On an astonishing album that contains a bit of everything, for the final number the band follows Fripp’s lead into the abyss. Like the best Crimson, there are moments where the tension threatens to overwhelm and absorb everything, and then, there’s release; here, courtesy of David Cross’s surreal violin stylings. Anticipating grunge, there’s a feel here that shifts from far-East to outer space, but with Bill Bruford and John Wetton (barely) keeping the back-end stable enough to avoid lift-off, this is a roller-coaster of wrath and control.

  1. Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)

This song almost single-handedly ensures that even the most intractable cynics can’t dismiss everything about progressive rock. A musical marvel, it is by turns self-assured and over-the-top, and it has an almost sing-along appeal (even if no one joining in has any idea, as ever, what the hell Jon Anderson is on about). Interestingly, this is likely the gateway drug for neophytes who quickly and wisely head for murkier waters, “Roundabout” remains almost impossibly fresh and unsullied, even after decades of radio overplay. Courtesy of Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, the song sounds at one moment like something from medieval times and the next like robots getting electrocuted. Special mention for Bill Bruford who somehow managed to be the busiest, most unorthodox and inventive drummer in rock.

  1. Genesis: “Return of the Giant Hogweed” (from Nursery Cryme)

God bless Peter Gabriel. Appearing on stage dressed like a flower, or a fox, or with a faux-hawk, he had brilliance to burn. Still a tad rough around the edges, Gabriel’s earliest work with Genesis mixes heady ambition with elements of rock’s most admired iconoclasts: there are pieces of T-Rex, David Bowie and Roky Erickson in his approach, but the entirety of his artistic personas is utterly unique. This song, about a giant hogweed (obviously) only hints at how wonderfully weird Gabriel was before he became Peter Gabriel. What is generally—and unforgivably— overlooked is how incredible this band was all through the early ‘70s. The song bristles with anger and energy, and while the atmosphere is unquestionably of its time, everyone seems (and sounds) dead earnest.

  1. Egg: “Long Piece No. 3” (from The Polite Force)

A delight for those who find even the most anarchic time signatures in progressive rock too conventional, and who like a side of keyboard with their keyboards. This is another one that more or less sums up all extremes of all-things-prog: indulgent, interminable, incredible. Perhaps not the ideal point of entry (the shorter pieces, particularly the better known “A Visit to Newport Hospital”, might be safer sledding), this at times seems like the band asked “You know that organ solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? That was too short,” and at other times, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mahavishnu or Weather Report album.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “The Endless Enigma” (from Trilogy)

One way of looking at the complicated case of ELP: easily distracted, or thrown off-course because they had too many ideas and were too talented to do anything the easy or easily predictable way, they turned into a home run hitter who strikes out too much. But when they got hold of one, there was no doubt. This, which on earlier (or, amusingly, later) albums might have been unwisely stretched into a side-long suite, is, at just over ten minutes, a convincing and even economical min-epic. Never willing or able to do half-measures, there is a discernible beginning, middle and end here, and it combines the usual audacity (I mean,“The Endless Enigma”?) with a sort of hero’s quest narrative scope, in miniature (the first time the word “miniature” has ever appeared in any consideration of anything by ELP). And, in the end, it’s always all, and only, about the music. Here, the lads are locked in and letting their boundless proficiency do the talking.

This piece originally appeared on PopMatters on 3/27/17

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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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