The Past is Calling: The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ (Revisited)

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Most popular Who album? No.

Most important Who album? No.

Most influential Who album? No.

Best Who album? Definitely.

More: Best album of the ‘70s? Probably.

More? Best rock album, ever? Possibly.

Quick question: have you ever heard this? (This song; this album.) Do yourself a favor: drop everything and give this a listen. It will change your perception of The Who. It might change your life.

Let’s break it down.

Quadrophenia is an album that has something for everyone and everything for some people. It concerns itself with virtually all the themes that have defined rock music through successive generations: alienation, rebellion, redemption. Sex. Drugs. And rock ‘n’ roll, as well as Mods, Rockers, punks, godfathers, bell boys, drunk mothers, distant fathers and fallen heroes. The sea, sand, surf and suicide. Rain, uppers, downers and drowning. Zoot suits, scooters, school and schizophrenia. Dirty jobs, helpless dancers, pills and gin. Stars falling, heat rising and, above all, love. Love of music, love of life and the love of possibility. Faith and the attempt to make a cohesive—not to mention coherent—statement on the meaning of all these things. And more.

Is that too much? More like it’s not enough.

Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who album that has best defied time and fashion (one crucial criterion for measuring the ultimate impact of a successful work of art is how it fares over time), a guitar-playing tour de force, and Pete Townshend’s most realized conceptual effort. This is it: he was never this energized or inspired again; this is career-defining music. A double LP that is not as immediately approachable as Tommy, it takes a while but once you get it, it gets inside you—and never leaves.

The Who – “Cut My Hair”

 

“A beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real”

The Who’s masterwork could almost be described as accidental beach music. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod who also could represent just about any teenager who has ever lived. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic (“Can You See The Real Me?”) and claustrophobic (“Cut My Hair”): the story of a sensitive, chemically altered kid uncomfortable inside his skin. There are few releases, and even the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll can’t always be counted on.

The one place where he feels safe and free is at the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with the electrified air of a summer storm. In between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself, rising and falling like the moods of adolescence. Eventually, inevitably, the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves to be) is certainly the sum of its parts, but also warrants, and welcomes, song-by-song scrutiny. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next (both masterpieces in their own right), Quadrophenia is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and indispensable) than both of those excellent albums.

Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream. Everything Townshend did, in his entire life up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia.

It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

The Who – “I’ve Had Enough”

 

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a twinkling self-deprecation; this, after all, is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked and articulated in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age Cri de Coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout (isolating Moon and Entwistle on any track is a process that can yield ceaseless wonder and bewilderment, and provides a clinic for how multi-dimensional each player consistently managed to be).

From the extended workouts like the title track and “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged-in version of Tommy’s “Underture”, to slash and burn mini epics like “Dr. Jimmy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15”, the band is flexing rhythmic and textural muscles that are as big as any band’s ever got.

The attention to detail is striking and, for the time, remarkably innovative: consider the “found” sounds of the screeching scooters, the rain, the surf, the bus doors clanging open and, on “Bell Boy”, the sound of Keith Moon’s howl merging into the synthesizer (a technique later used to excellent effect on “Sheep” from Pink Floyd’s Animals).

There are the subtle yet masterful touches that are still capable of providing added pleasure after all these listens: the winking but ingenious meta of “My Generation” (in “The Punk and The Godfather”) and “The Kids are Alright” (in “Helpless Dancer”) as well as “I’m The Face” (in “Sea and Sand”). These are not just clever self-references, they are historical notes—from the history of The Who and, by extension and association, rock ‘n’ roll.

Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Graffiti and London Calling are also on the dance card), the combination of sheer quality and precision still manages to astonish, all these years later. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced.

Some of the numbers on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Helpless Dancer”, “Sea and Sand” and “Drowned”.

The Who – “The Punk and the Godfather”

 

And then there’s the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones); that would be “The Punk and the Godfather”. That song more than adequately advances the tensions of Jimmy’s unfolding story, but more than that, it also serves as an epitaph—for Townshend, and every rock legend that had the audacity to not die young—to the decidedly anti-rock notion of growing old, selling out and achieving some manner of satisfaction:

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…
We’re the slaves to a phony leader
Breathe the air we have blown you!

Although the well-known “Love Reign O’er Me” is the ultimate coda for this, or any, album and a showcase for one of Daltrey’s most deliriously intense vocal performances, it’s the song that closes Side Three that still functions as the pinnacle of what this band achieved on their finest outing. If “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” is a mini rock opera that’s heavy on the humor and light on the pretense, while Tommy is a serious and (at times overly) ambitious Rock Opera, “Bell Boy” takes the best elements of both works and distills them into a rollicking epic that clocks in at just under five minutes(!).

The devastation of a younger kid bumping into his one-time hero who is now kissing ass for tips and working for “the man” is undercut by the inspired decision to let Keith Moon “sing” the forsaken idol’s version of events: “I got a good job and I’m newly born / You should see me dressed up in my uniform”. It’s not a confession, really; it functions for the listener as mordant commentary, delivered with a wink and a pint.

The Who – “Bell Boy”

 

The Who were rightly regarded as one of the top live acts of their time: their patented perfection of “Maximum R&B” is rock music’s own barbaric yawp and no one did it better. What they don’t get enough attention or credit for is what remarkable technicians they could be. From the canny and prescient incorporation of radio jingles on The Who Sell Out to the early and innovative use of synthesized sounds on Who’s Next and Townshend’s ability to seamlessly build songs using acoustic and electric flourishes in multi-tracked glory, The Who were not only some of the best musicians, instrument for instrument; they took full advantage of technology and Townshend’s edgy vision to create work that mattered. They combined their best material, most inspired playing and urgent sense of purpose to craft an album that challenges and convinces like few others in rock. Lyrically, sonically and emotionally, Quadrophenia endures as an uncanny exploration of the anguish and ecstasy of being alive and bearing witness.

One might wonder, with 2013 being the 40th anniversary of this album, why we are getting this latest reissue in late 2011. Simplest answer: Why not? Actually, according to the press materials, Townshend and Daltrey are planning on hitting the road in 2012 with a show based around Quadrophenia (something they last did in 1996/1997).

Further, we have a double-disc “Deluxe Edition” and a multi-disc “Director’s Cut” hitting the streets just in time for holiday wish lists. Both releases boast remastered sound and previously unreleased material (the two-disc set has 11 extra songs; the multi-disc set has 25, plus a 5.1 surround-sound mix of eight tracks). The sound is definitely top-notch, though not dramatically different from the mid-‘90s reissue.

Hardcore fans, like this writer, may be disconcerted to realize that the original mixes were not utilized (long story short: the most recent remaster has several minor but glaring “edits”, notably adding some sound effects to certain songs and removing them from others, such as the barnyard noises toward the end of “The Dirty Jobs”…meaning this does not sound like the original album. The quibbles might be minor, but Townshend has bragged about creating the “definitive” experience and while he’s within his rights to tweak the original mixes, that should be advertised up front.)

On a happier note, the demos and various works-in-progress are crucial additions to a fuller understanding of how this tour de force evolved from concept to completed product. As usual, Townshend had sketched out rough cuts of virtually all the final songs, and he handles the initial vocals. These provide not only an interesting contrast to the definitive versions, but also reveal how much depth, grit and balls Daltrey brings to the table. Of course on the final product Townshend’s vocal embellishments function as honey undercutting Daltrey’s rum punches.

Also, on the songs where Townshend handles lead vocals (such as “I’m One”), he acquits himself brilliantly, as always; even on the songs where Daltrey is up front, Townshend is yelling, crooning and cooing in the background. These demos, in sum, illustrate once again how even the most inspired creative minds need to hash out their ideas and let the elements sufficiently coalesce before they get their final take(s).

If, for whatever reason, you’ve never added Quadrophenia to your music collection, it simply can’t be recommended more unreservedly. Even after four decades the music is so urgent and alive that listening to it remains an exhilarating experience. Combining the band’s best playing and capitalizing, fully, on Townshend’s encompassing aesthetic that fuses raw punk energy and refined compositional prowess, this album is an essential cornerstone of the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

There is sound and fury, signifying everything: it’s incredibly smart, but fairly oozing with soul; it’s nostalgic and, almost impossibly, prognostic. It’s the material Townshend was placed on this planet to make. Let the tide in and set you free.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in the new collection Murphy’s Law, Vol One.

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Shine On You Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett, 10 Years Later

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When he died in 2006, after decades of cult-figure status and willful anonymity, Syd Barrett was arguably better known as the person who inspired one of Pink Floyd’s best albums, and not the man who once led and named them. Certainly, the fact that he put out two albums, even after (and/or during the continuation of) his epic—and archetypal—drug-induced disintegration has always seemed more of an afterthought than fans in the know find acceptable.

Perhaps the release of An Introduction to Syd Barrett, a generous sampler of selections from those two albums, along with highlights from Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and a handful of singles from 1967, will signal a long overdue reappraisal. When it comes to Barrett, it’s not so much a matter of whether the time is right. Syd was infamously unfashionable by 1970 (when both of his solo albums were released), and that music has always been difficult to attach to a particular time or place. While this fact ensured that the albums were marginalized and misunderstood then, they remain, as much as any pop music made four decades ago, timeless.

This collection begins, appropriately, with the single “Arnold Layne”, a song sufficiently original and compelling to land Pink Floyd (then called “The” Pink Floyd, and named by Barrett after semi-obscure blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) an offer from EMI. The single—which hit number 20 in the UK—concerning a cross-dressing clothesline thief, still astonishes with its wit, poetry (“doors bang / chain gang”) and brazen finger in the eye of buttoned-down British sensibilities (“takes two to know”). It signaled the arrival of a significant and utterly unique talent. That promise was realized on the follow-up single “See Emily Play”, which, with its shifting tempos, sped-up pianos, backward taping, and Technicolor trippiness, provides an authentic English counterpoint to the hippier and dippier Flower Power singles being cranked out across the sea in 1967.

With considerable confidence, Pink Floyd entered Abbey Road studios to record the debut. Across the hall, the Beatles were busy tinkering with the album that remains the most talked about work from the Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The results, remarkable in and of themselves, assume an added layer of relevance when considered as primarily the result of one man’s singular vision (as opposed to the Four Fabs, or five if you count George Martin—and you should). The three selections, “Chapter 24”, “Bike”, and a remix of “Matilda Mother” (an early version with different lyrics) are an adequate overview, but anyone who wants to more fully understand Pink Floyd, 1967, psychedelic rock, and one of the more consistently satisfying debut albums ever is obliged to acquire The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Oh, by the way, this one’s Pink. With due respect to Waters, Wright, and Mason, the band’s first effort was Barrett’s baby. His lyrics, ranging from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, reveal an erudite and eccentric wordsmith, more light than dark, more ebullient than enigmatic. Piper, in short, is a happy explosion of creative potential, producing fruit that flourishes more than 40 years on. And intriguing as Barrett’s words and voice are throughout, the real revelation is his songwriting. The compositions, with the notable exception of the extended space-rock jam “Interstellar Overdrive”, are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on the single “Apples and Oranges”, adding just enough quirky edge to give it the signature Floyd sound (that, and the “quack quack” after the line “feeding ducks in the afternoon tide”—a classic Barrett embellishment).

Considering Piper and the handful of singles and outtakes, one could make a reasonable case that Barrett’s diamond shined as bright as any artist’s in 1967. (And beyond: Although not included in this set, consider the fey, teasing vocal performance on “Candy and a Currant Bun”—formerly “Let’s Roll Another One”, a title the band was obliged to change for obvious reasons—which is worth noting for the template it provided the young David Bowie.) The world had every reason to think that Pink Floyd was going to make game-changing music and be around for a long, long time. As we know, they did, and were; albeit without their front man, who was asked to leave the band less than a year after Piper was released. It was unbelievable then, and remains difficult to completely comprehend now.

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

With this in mind, listening to “Jugband Blues” (the only Barrett track to make it onto Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets) and the way the song shifts from buoyant to desolate could almost be considered a case study of psychosis as it was happening. But it is, of course, more than that: It is also a tape recorder running while a brilliant, fragile musician screamed his last scream. And even in those moments the case for Barrett’s madcap acumen is powerful. On “Jugband Blues”, he made the puzzling decision to bring a Salvation Army band into the studio. What ensues is at once hilarious and harrowing, and by the time the din dies down and it’s just an acoustic guitar and Syd’s somber voice (“And what exactly is a dream? / And what exactly is a joke?”), you wonder how he made it work even as your heart breaks.

Considering he was the one who benefited most (artistically and financially) from Barrett’s exodus, it is at once fitting and touching that David Gilmour probably did the most to help his old Cambridge mate. After his songs “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” (both widely bootlegged, but never available for official release, and presumably unavailable—due to legal or copyright issues—for this collection, though they would both be welcome and essential additions) were rejected by the band during the A Saucerful of Secrets sessions, Syd was mostly absent from recording studios and the public eye for the better part of a year. After some aborted sessions in ’68, Barrett resumed work on a collection of songs that eventually became The Madcap Laughs (released in January, 1970). Jerry Shirley (drummer from Humble Pie) was recruited, along with members of the Soft Machine. Toward the end, with the proceedings in danger of falling apart, Waters and Gilmour stepped in to help finish (playing bass, producing, and, one imagines, prodding).

It is unlikely that anyone hearing these songs (or the songs from the follow-up, Barrett, released later in 1970) for the first time will know what to make of them, particularly with Piper as the presumable point of reference. Obviously, that was the comparison listeners would have made, by necessity, when these albums arrived, and the differences between what Barrett achieved in ’67 and what he created in 1970 are universes apart. That said, this is, for a variety of obvious reasons, challenging, unusual music that requires an investment of time and patience. Once it is received on its own terms (and this simply may not be possible for some people), a flow reveals itself and most of the material makes quite a bit of sense in its own uncanny way. The songs range from the gorgeous and hypnotic “Terrapin”, which features only an acoustic guitar and Syd’s inimitable croon, to the almost unbearably raw “If It’s in You” (the latter likely to be either majestic or nails on a chalkboard, with little chance of middle ground). The upbeat “Love You” comes close to capturing the ’67 whimsy, and “She Took a Long Cool Look” picks up where “Jugband Blues” left off, the plaintive yearning replaced by a frosty resignation.

The two highlights remain “Dark Globe” and “Octopus”, and both warrant further scrutiny. The latter might be described as a deceptively sanguine jaunt into the mouth (or mind?) of madness. Non sequiturs and stream of consciousness combine with the upbeat music to take the listener on a guided tour of Barrett’s tattooed brain, where “the madcap laughed at the man on the border”. Two couplets in particular leave little to the imagination, and one realizes that, at least when he wanted to or could be, Syd was in complete control of his fac, his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s:

Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood
Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood meant even less to me than I thought…

The winds they blew and the leaves did wag
They’ll never put me in their bag.

“Dark Globe” is like a man singing an epitaph for the person he’d been and who he had become. It is a remarkable achievement and remains unbearably poignant: “Please lift a hand / I’m only a person” and “Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” As difficult as it is to hear those words today, one wonders what it was like for Waters and Gilmour that day in the studio.

On balance, the songs from The Madcap Laughs are neither as formless nor disconsolate as one might expect. Likewise, the collection of songs on Barrett contain some head-scratchers and a few moments that are as sublime as anything he—or anyone—ever did. Exhibit A, “Baby Lemonade”: featuring brilliant imagery (“In the sad town / Cold iron hands clap the party of clowns outside”), the welcome presence of Rick Wright’s organ, and a cleaner overall sound (the drums are clear and Gilmour’s bass gives the sound a palpable bottom), this song actually could be said to transcend even Barrett’s best previous work. Two of Syd’s most well-known songs, “Gigolo Aunt” and “Effervescing Elephant”, indicate that the wordplay and humor were still intact and affective. Consider the hilarious “Bob Dylan Blues”, wherein Barrett takes the piss out of Dylan by (gently?) mocking his too-easy-by-half rhyme schemes and streak of self righteousness: “Cuz I’m a poet, don’t you know it? / And the wind, you can blow it!”). Finally, there is “Dominoes” (check out David Gilmour’s hear-it-to-believe-it story of how Barrett envisioned and pulled off his guitar solo). If “Dark Globe” told us where Syd had been and where he was, “Dominoes” previews where he may have been headed, if the subsequent silence and unwillingness to engage with his past or the world is any indication:

It’s an idea, someday
In my tears, my dreams
Don’t you want to see her proof?
Life that comes of no harm
You and I, you and I and dominoes, the day goes by…

And here’s the rub: real Pink Floyd fans have little choice but to thank the heavens for this complicated chain of events. Put plainly (if coldly), no Barrett breakdown, no Gilmour. The sound that Floyd subsequently perfected was a combination of accident and inevitability, while the collection of increasingly confident transitional albums is a prog-rock treasure trove. Which brings us to Dark Side of the Moon, the first album to directly invoke Barrett (“Brain Damage/Eclipse”). And of course, we literally wouldn’t have Wish You Were Here, Waters’s meditation on madness and mourning inspired by and dedicated to his old friend. Finally, the story, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again.

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality? Or did he contentedly turn his back on the machine that once welcomed him? By most accounts, his final decades (spent mostly with his mother at the house he grew up in) were without turmoil. Certainly, the strain he put on his system had permanent psychological effects, and perhaps we’ll never know if his voracious consumption of chemicals accelerated the onset of a profound condition. In the end, the most pertinent, if unanswerable question is, does it matter?

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters on 11/10/10 and is featured in the new collection Murphy’s Law, Vol One.

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The Doors: Our Star-Spangled American Band (Revisited)

the_doors

If the discussion is going to turn to American rock bands, it would be impossible to avoid R.E.M. Fortunately, I already dealt with their legacy and am on record declaring them the greatest American band, ever. (And if that isn’t enough, I rank their best albums, here.)

But if we are going to discuss the ultimate American band, and all this entails (the hype, the myth, the good/bad/ugly, and mostly the results on record) we could do worse than The Doors. I’ve written about this band in some detail over the years, and below a case is made that The Doors deserve the title as The Star-Spangled American band.

The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.

One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.

Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?

(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)

What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.

I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training (A lot more on him, here). Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body.

This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

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God Is Not Dead: The Jimi Hendrix Re-Issues (Revisited)

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Get excited. There is a new Jimi Hendrix album fully comprised of previously unreleased material.

I know I was excited when I first heard the news of Valleys of Neptune, which takes the name of one of Hendrix’s most widely bootlegged tunes. I was, in fact, so excited, I caught myself reconsidering the concept of Intelligent Design and felt the existence of Santa Claus was, all of a sudden, conceivable. Then I actually heard the album and am now here to tell you about it.

Get excited, but don’t get too excited. Here’s the deal: Valleys of Neptune is not, as some of the early buzz is incorrectly reporting, the last material Hendrix was working on before his death in September, 1970. Nor is it a collection of polished or even complete studio sessions; rather, it is a smattering of assorted jams, sketches and works-in-progress—some of which would be repurposed on Hendrix’s posthumous album, the one he was working on just before his death (of which more later). On the other hand, this is new, previously unreleased music by Jimi Hendrix! That alone is cause for unrestrained celebration, and the arrival of this album is—and will remain—one of the significant musical stories of 2010. And there’s more: in order to properly commemorate the occasion (and the fortieth anniversary of Hendrix’s passing), all of the original studio albums are being reissued with the deluxe remaster treatment, including bonus DVDS (of which more later).

It would be understandable to assume that Valleys of Neptune represents Hendrix’s final recordings, and, again, it’s disconcerting to see this release erroneously being described as such. In fact, the songs are mostly culled from a series of sessions in early ’69, more than a year before Hendrix laid down his final tracks. Fans will recall that the double-album Hendrix was unable to complete before his premature departure from this planet was released posthumously in as faithful a fashion as possible (first as the single album The Cry of Love and much later, and more satisfactorily, as the double-album length CD First Rays of the New Rising Sun).

These sessions do represent the last occasions that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded together, and bassist Billy Cox, who would replace Noel Redding, can be heard for the first time on several songs. The press materials describe Valleys of Neptune as “12 fully realized studio recordings”. That is not exactly a misnomer, but it’s misleading. Again, this is Jimi Hendrix material recorded in the studio which means, by definition, it is serious stuff. But in the interest of accuracy, these are mostly rough, unfinished and occasionally unfocused cuts. If that sounds like semantic nitpicking, it is offered out of deference to Hendrix: not for nothing, but these recordings were all in the can many months before Hendrix died, and there are good reasons none of them, in their existing form, made it onto an album before now.

While listening to the new songs repeatedly over the course of a week, I kept thinking how revelatory they would be to watch as much as hear. If this studio footage had been caught on video, it would offer a fortuitous chance to see Hendrix (and his band mates) testing out material and taking the creative process for a test drive. As they exist, these tracks should best be received, and appraised, as the interesting and often quite worthwhile results of typically inspired jam sessions. Also interesting, if not especially illuminating, is the opportunity to enjoy Hendrix revisiting some of his famous songs. The set kicks off with “Stone Free”, a significant song that was the B-side of Hendrix’s first single, “Hey Joe”. As is the case on all 12 tracks, the guitar playing is, unsurprisingly, astonishing. It will be interesting to see how many aficionados feel this, or any of the other new versions improve upon the originals. For my money, they do not come close (“Stone Free” lacks the dangerous and almost desperate vocals, while “Fire”, incredibly, sounds almost tame and misses the machine gun ferocity Mitch Mitchell employed so indelibly on the debut album).

The results are more compelling when Hendrix updates two songs that were (and, based on his live performances, remained) crucial stepping stones for his rapid development, “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’”. The former gets slowed down and dragged out for more than eight minutes, featuring the full spectrum of Hendrix’s dexterity and imagination. The latter, heretofore best represented as an acoustic blues, gets the plugged in and amped up live-in-the-studio treatment. Both songs are triumphant and illuminate the ways Hendrix continued to utilize traditional blues in the service of his ambitious but sophisticated acumen. Another concert staple, the band’s aggressive interpretation of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is a launching pad for Hendrix: for almost seven minutes he employs many of his favorite tricks, toying with tempo that at one instant echoes the original, stops on a dime, and veers off into entirely other places. The other cover is a spirited update of the great Elmore James’s “Bleeding Heart” that splits the difference between sloppy and inspired, just as one would expect (and hope) for from a jam session.

The highlight of the album has to be the title track which, of all the songs, comes closest to standing alongside Hendrix’s better material. It is immediately evident that the close-but-not-quite version we hear is the result of considerable work, and the liner notes confirm that it had evolved over time from a solo demo. The ethereal drone and cymbal wash that introduce the track recalls “Angel”, but the gears shift and the guitar soars into the main melody, full of the clean, crisp pyrotechnics we associate with vintage Hendrix. The lyrics are a tad half-baked (this was, after all, 1969) and it’s intriguing to imagine how this song would (should?) have worked as in instrumental.

The rest of the songs feature sounds and motifs that would resurface on subsequent work. For instance, “Ships Passing Through The Night” is an early run at “Night Bird Flying” and “Lullaby for the Summer” would eventually coalesce as the superior “Ezy Ryder”. “Lover Man” is based on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and “Mr. Bad Luck”, which would mutate into “Look Over Yonder” is in fact a holdover from Axis: Bold As Love. The set closes with the instrumental “Crying Blue Rain” which leaves the proceedings on a tentative, softly hopeful note. And that seems just about right, aesthetically and historically. As we know, Hendrix would continue to work with Billy Cox (and Buddy Miles, captured for posterity on the seminal Band of Gypsys set), and he would revisit some of this material to great effect in the final months of his life. Valleys of Nepune, then, is not the Holy Grail, and it doesn’t need to be. That already exists anyway, and it is celebrated in spectacular fashion with the deluxe CD/DVD reissues of the four proper alums that preceded and followed these ’69 sessions.

It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

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

1967: there are the immutable opening salvos, those hit singles that remain radio-friendly four decades on (“Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, “Foxey Lady”) and the moodier harbingers of what lay ahead (“Manic Depression”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Love or Confusion”) and then there are the outright masterpieces. Consider “The Wind Cries Mary”: written the night before, brought to the studio the next day and captured in one take. An example like this underscores the seismic shift that blasted an unsuspecting world when Are You Experienced hit the streets, the unambiguous arrival of a major, scary talent. But (as the companion DVD details in a series of interviews with engineer—and unsung hero—Eddie Kramer) it is the subsequent embellishment, courtesy of five overdubbed guitar parts, that move this track from mere classic to one-of-a-kind epic: the mood and feeling of melancholy Hendrix conveys calls to mind Poe’s edict about the totality of effect.

Then there is the psychedelic space jazz of “Third Stone From the Sun”: the ways Hendrix navigates an almost surf-rock elegance with proto-thrash distortion and makes it sound not just natural but inevitable, is part of why the first album continues to merit consideration as the most fully realized debut album in rock history. Finally there is the title track, which truly is one of those instances that defy time and description on so many levels. This song could only have been released in ’67, but it still sounds unsettling and slightly ungraspable in 2010. Perhaps more than any of the other tracks, this one signified the summation of Hendrix’s strategy at that stage: backwards solos, restless feedback and subtly effective piano plinks build up the tension like the song was programmed to detonate. And by the time anybody knew what had hit them; Hendrix was already back in the studio.

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup. Indeed, the only gripe about the bonus DVDs is their brevity; I could easily listen to Kramer and Chandler tell war stories for hours on end without getting bored, and I’m certain I’m not alone.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

By 1968 Hendrix has relocated from London to New York City and it was during the open-ended and generally unrestrained Electric Ladyland sessions that Chandler, ever the taskmaster, famously fled the scene. “Gypsy Eyes” alone allegedly required forty different takes before Hendrix was satisfied, an intensity surpassing obsession that literally drove Chandler out of the studio. This circumstance was inevitable, and frankly necessary. Hendrix absolutely needed and benefited from Chandler’s mentoring, but now he had more than come into his own and nobody could keep up with him (he could scarcely keep up with himself). The results scream for themselves and to say that Electric Ladyland is yet another major advancement (how do you improve upon perfection?) is of course a pallid understatement.

Just as little from Are You Experienced hinted at the next installment, Axis: Bold As Love seems almost pedestrian and conservative compared to the staggering triumph of style and sound that is Electric Ladyland.

This is Hendrix’s masterpiece, and it is on this double album that practically every trick in his oversized bag is employed to its fullest extent. The storytelling skills are displayed on tracks like “Crosstown Traffic”, “Long Hot Summer Night” and “House Burning Down”. The compositional prowess is evident in every note, most especially on the song suite that covers side three and spills over to side four. What Hendrix was able to achieve, despite the contemporary limitations of old-fashioned recording equipment is, on a song like “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, heroic. It also offers the best evidence we have of what he saw and heard inside his always-teeming imagination.

What remains vital, and compelling, all these years later is the way Hendrix appropriates blues music, creating a template that copycats are still trying, in vain, to emulate. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and the live-in-the-studio riot of “Voodoo Chile” are rock music touchstones, and nothing anyone has attempted has come particularly close to them. Hendrix himself puts it best when he boasts “Well I stand up next to a mountain/And chop it down with the edge of my hand.” That is exactly what he did, and he remains king of the mountain he scaled, and then razed.

From “Purple Haze” to “Rainy Day, Dream Away” in less than two years still seems inconceivable, even impossible. But it happened. And, of course, Hendrix continued to broaden his scope and incorporate more styles and sonic experiments (check out the full, funky brass accompaniment on the title track from South Saturn Delta), pushing past the boundaries he had already blown away. The material collected on First Rays of the New Rising Sun represent many of the songs Hendrix was assembling for another double album in the summer over 1970, just before his death. Noel Redding is gone and Billy Cox, having already worked with Mitchell and Hendrix during the Valley of Neptune sessions, is a liberating presence that allows the band to spread out and chase the guitarist as he soars above, around and beneath them. With all due respect to Noel Redding—and nevermind the rumors that Hendrix simply played all the bass parts himself—one of the tantalizing prospects remains what avenues would have continued to open with Cox freeing Mitchell to incorporate his jazz stylings into the mix.

Back to the genius thing and how to wrap our minds around the extent of Hendrix’s gifts: Eddie Kramer analyzes “Dolly Dagger” and uses the console to demonstrate the fastidious attention Hendrix devoted to every second of every song, down to his ability to multi-track his own vocals, knowing in advance exactly where each note and inflection was meant to go. When Kramer isolates the guitar tracks on “Night Bird Flying”, it’s not just a matter of how great each one sounds and the ways they complement each other; it’s more the uncanny way each one could easily and convincingly stand alone as a fully formed statement. Many of the songs, like “Izzabella”, “Stepping Stone”, “My Friend”, “Straight Ahead” and “Astro Man” are loose and as light as Hendrix had been since some of the tracks on Axis: Bold As Love. Then there are irrepressible gems like “Ezy Ryder”, “Dolly Dagger” and “Belly Button Window” that bring the band directly into a new decade. Most of the material has a fresh and unfettered sound: much less overdubbing and Hendrix’s infatuation with “phasing”—which he took to its logical limits on Electric Ladyland (think “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently Gently Away”)—is now discarded in favor of a more straightforward assault. This direction is nicely encapsulated in the instrumental “Beginnings” where there are no frills or tricks, only a scorching a workout that showcases Hendrix’s ability to create fire with any smoke.

Of course, there are also a handful of tracks that elevate themselves above the rest and go to that other place. “Freedom”, the perfect album opener, is just a clinic of where rock and roll had gone, and where it might have continued to go; “Room Full of Mirrors” is a tour de force of multi-tracked guitar bliss (including cowbell!) and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” is, or will have to be, as suitable a farewell statement (“May I come along?”) as we could hope for. And finally, the one-two punch of “Drifting” and “Angel”, that, not that it’s necessary to quantify, might represent the most beautiful work Hendrix ever recorded. Inevitably, some measure of outright hyperbole is unavoidable: if there is such a thing as beyond perfection, it is achieved on “Angel” and “Drifting”.

And then he was gone. The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/11/10 and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

 

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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown: Remembering Michael Jackson (Revisited)

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How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

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I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

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We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

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Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

This essay originally appeared in Popmatters on 7/6/09 and is now in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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Roky Erickson: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Preface

You’re Gonna Miss Me is an instant classic and will likely be regarded as essential years from now. Two critical things it has going for it: one, its subject, Roky Erickson, is a filmmaker’s fantasy—the type of character who could never be adequately fictionalized because the story outstrips imagination, and two, instead of being overwhelmed by the material or trying to either sensationalize or sterilize it, director Keven McAlester, by simply standing in the right places at the right times, captures success, insanity, disintegration and redemption. It’s almost impossible to imagine the viewer coming away from this documentary without a better understanding of popular music, mental illness, frailty and faith. It’s likely viewers will something about themselves, as well. What else could one ask for?

I. Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)
There are a handful of artistic archetypes we know and love—or loathe—in cinema, literature, and music, especially rock ‘n’ roll music. To take just a sampling of some of the more obvious ones, there is the cautionary tale (see Keith Moon); the tragic hero case study (see Jimi Hendrix); the unrecognized master (see Shuggie Otis); the posthumously recognized master (see Nick Drake); the redemption song (see Brian Wilson), et cetera . And yet, has there ever been an individual who encompasses several of the above, creating an entirely unique category? Yes: Roky Erickson. Who? Exactly. Roky Erickson is indeed many things, all at once. The greatest singer not many people have ever heard. The saddest could-have-been-a-contender parable in the annals of rock. An authentic icon who, while written off even by those who at one time followed him, attracted artists such as R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope and The Jesus and Mary Chain to take part in the excellent 1990 tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye .
So, who was Roky Erickson? Envision a psychedelic era band that combined the darker energy of Love and The Doors with the bluesy kitchen sink vocal assault of Janis Joplin, alongside the musical proficiency of The Yardbirds or The Mothers of Invention. That amalgamation begins to approximate what the 13th Floor Elevators, from Austin Texas, sounded like before the Summer of Love. When they eventually (inevitably) headed up the coast toward the burgeoning Bay Area scene in 1966, they blew the minds, so to speak, of many of the groups who were still cultivating a more mellow, folk-based sound. The Elevators were heavier, edgier and more exotic, drawing on an electric blues foundation that at once assimilated the aggression of The Who and the more cerebral introspection of Dylan. It was anything but a simple, hit-seeking sound, yet their first album yielded a song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”—featuring the full range of Erickson’s vocals and the trademark electric jug playing of Tommy Hall—that caused some excitement, reaching #55 on the charts.
Much like seemingly everyone else on the accelerating edge of the rock scene, Erickson found stimulation, solace and eventually (inevitably) distraction via the LSD he ingested like lemon drops. Along with his better-known acid casualty compatriots Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, Erickson fell to earth. Chronic behavioral and legal issues ensued. Unlike Wilson, who headed for the relative security of his sandbox, and Barrett, who — after turning on and tuning in — dropped out entirely and disengaged from the outside world, Erickson returned to Austin and found himself the target of an overly enthusiastic police department anxious to make an example out of him. Popped for possession of marijuana joint and facing the possibility of serious jail time, Erickson’s lawyer proposed the dubious stratagem of pleading insanity, which led to an eventual confinement in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He remained there for three years.

II. Roller Coaster
You’re Gonna Miss Me traces the early adventures that led Roky to Rusk, and fills in the following decades, which have mostly been a tragic void for all but the most dedicated fans. Erickson may have been gone, but he was far from forgotten, as evidenced by the commentary provided by an impressively disparate array of musicians, including Billy Gibbons (of Texas legends ZZ Top), Patti Smith, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers). It is a documentary that unfolds like a mystery story, each anecdote and interview revealing another layer that helps explain who he was, who he became, and who he is now.

III. Slip Inside This House
Seminal scene number one: Roky Erickson, now under the exclusive care of his mother back in Texas (circa 1999), enters his modest and messy apartment. He turns on the radio. Then he turns on a second radio. Then he turns on a television, and another. Then he turns on an electric Casio piano. Eventually he has plugged in or turned on a beehive of competing sounds; the room is a cacophony of random stimulation. He puts on a pair of sunglasses and announces in a soft voice (barely audible above the chaos) “Okay, I’m gonna lay down now.” His mother, who had presumably seen it all before, remarks matter-of-factly: “He falls asleep with all that stuff on…it’s when I turn it off that he wakes up.”

IV. If You Have Ghosts
A few things that the assembled evidence seems to render indisputable: Roky Erickson was, and remains, a sensitive and sweet human being; he was blessed with an extraordinary voice and had an intense interest in music very early on; his upbringing was complicated, even when measured against the understood assumption that some dysfunctional families are more dysfunctional than others.

V. Earthquake
Seminal scene number two: The camera pans down a long, empty hallway with white walls. A voice speaks; it is Roky, taped in a 1975 interview: “I felt like a male Jane Eyre in that place…all I had to look forward to was (being told) ‘You’re still insane.’” Back-story: June ’68, Roky abruptly returns home from San Francisco. He is filthy, scab-ridden and incoherent. Alarmed, his mother takes him to a doctor, who promptly, if blithely, declares him an incurable schizophrenic. He is subsequently “rescued” by one of his band mates and they hitchhike back to the Bay Area, where Roky eschews LSD for heroin. He begins hearing voices. Upon contracting serum hepatitis from a dirty needle, he returns to Austin, and that fateful marijuana bust. In a matter of months Roky has gone from the center of a psychedelic summertime to bunking up amongst the profoundly disturbed, and violent, residents of Rusk Hospital.

VI. Fire Engine
The similarities between Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett, while obvious, are nevertheless extraordinary. Barrett was more popular, his story more often told, and he was more missed once he was gone. But once Syd was gone, he stayed gone: after 1975, when he shocked his old mates by showing up at the studio as they were putting the finishing touches on the Barrett-inspired Wish You Were Here, he retreated to the care of his mother and abandoned all interest in music. Erickson, despite a similar appetite for acid (not to mention the heroin abuse) and regular shock treatments at Rusk, never stopped thinking about music. Unlike Syd, the fire of creating and making music never died inside Roky and was, ultimately, inextinguishable.

VII. Unforced Peace
Seminal scene number three: Bob Priest, Rusk’s resident psychologist, recalls how Roky played in a makeshift band that included a rapist, and two murderers. “Most of the time he’d have a yellow legal pad, sitting in the hallway writing music…he was a real nice little guy, he didn’t have a whole lot to say; he wanted to write his music, he wanted to play his music — and that’s all.”

VIII. I Walked With A Zombie
It’s 1972: finally released from Rusk, Rocky begins making music, but is plagued by paranoia and the aftereffects of what was, to say the least, his not exactly salubrious recent environment. Increasingly, he is convinced that he’s an alien and conniving humans are “zapping” his mind. His attorney takes him to the dime store several times to buy toy laser guns so he can zap them back. It does not work. Finally, she hits upon the idea of preparing a document declaring that Roky is, in fact, an alien, with the hope that whoever is sending telepathic shocks to his head will stop. It works.

IX. Starry Eyes
Seminal scene number four: A man out of time, he looks like it’s 1969, he sounds like it’s 1969, but it’s actually 1983. The same year synth-heavy pop was lip-synched around the clock on MTV, the man who may have invented psychedelic rock is in his mother’s house, being videotaped as he strums a song he wrote for her. He is disheveled and most of his teeth are now gone. It is poignant, but also more than a little painful to watch. And yet. That voice, those eyes, the honesty. As Melville wrote “You cannot hide the soul.”

X. She Lives in a Time of Her Own
At this point you are thinking: his mother is a saint. She took him in when no one else would, and every indication suggests that she accepts him and genuinely loves him, without reservation. If her rigid distrust of doctors and medication is unfortunate, it is also understandable, considering how she has seen her eldest son suffer. Certainly, she is eccentric; she could easily be the focus of a captivating documentary herself, recalling how Robert Crumb’s brothers occasionally, if chillingly, stole the spotlight in Terry Zwigoff’s justly celebrated film (speaking of controversial, odd artists). When Roky is interviewed at one point he confesses, sounding not only vulnerable and guileless, but childlike, “I wish I could be somewhere else.” The door of domestic unease creaks open and one wonders: how much of a good thing is this arrangement, after all?

XI. Don’t Slander Me
While the documentary keeps the focus firmly on Roky, the broiling undercurrent of familial tension (past and present) moves to the forefront when Erickson’s younger brother, Sumner (who plays tuba with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) asserts that years of therapy have helped him understand how domineering their mother has always been. While at first his sentiments seem more driven by an obsession to exorcise painful childhood demons, Sumner’s intentions to assist Roky are made touchingly clear when he offers to let his brother come live with him.
Eventually, it is up to a judge to determine who is best able to help Roky: his mother correctly claims to have helped him out when nobody else was able or interested; his brother insists that Roky now deserves the opportunity to help himself. The judge ultimately concurs with Sumner’s assessment that his mother, by refusing to let Roky take any medication, is effectively suppressing any possibility of improvement and, intentionally or not, keeping him in a state of dependence. The documentary, at this point, has portrayed enough candid incidents and interviews that the viewer will likely endorse the judge’s decision, but it is still an uneasy resolution.

XII. I Have Always Been Here Before
Seminal scene number five: After the court rules that Sumner can take his brother back with him to Pittsburgh, their mother silently leaves the courthouse. She stops by Roky’s apartment and, one by one, turns off the machines he’d left on when he left home, leaving her behind.

XIII. Splash I (Now I’m Home)
One year later, Roky is preparing to return home to visit his mother for the first time. Sumner, who seems wary whenever her name is mentioned, acknowledges that she probably did the best that she could to provide for her son. Nevertheless, Sumner’s influence has been profound, and positive: Roky’s teeth are fixed, he has been prescribed (and is taking) modern meds, and he is seeing a therapist, who encourages him to play songs. He seems happy and healthy, sitting outside on a balcony, playing his guitar again. The voice is still not of this earth, but there can no longer be any doubt, if there ever was any, that Roky Erickson is indeed an earthling. The greatest ending of all is that the story has not ended.

(Postscript)
Special mention must be made of the extra features, which are generous bordering on mind-boggling. In an era where, unfortunately, one almost expects to get less for more (if there is material for two albums, try and stretch it into three; if there are any leftovers, package them up and push it for the “deluxe” edition), the bonus footage could comprise another full documentary—one of equal value and interest.
Huge kudos to McAlester and company for doing the right thing for the fans, and for Erickson: newcomers who see this footage will almost certainly be inclined to check out some vintage 13th Floor Elevators, as well as the unconscionably overlooked post-Elevators music Erickson made. In addition to an incredible collection of vintage performances from over the years (mostly solo acoustic), there are deleted scenes and readings of original material by Roky and his mother.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, at least one more amazing chapter is presented here: the documentary wrapped in 2002, but Roky’s astonishing recovery saw him performing live for the first time in almost 20 years at the 2005 Austin City Limits Festival. To watch the reception he gets, to hear how great he sounds, and to behold how fulfilled he appears, it is not possible to be unmoved. “It’s a cold night for alligators,” he sings. Damn right it is.

— 9 August 2007

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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ALL HAIL THE KING: Happy Birthday, Chazz!

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Today would have been (and, still is) Charles Mingus’s 94th birthday.

I’ve written about him often and I’ll continue to write about him, not only because he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but his work warrants mention and constant attention.

As readers of this blog know, while I don’t go out of my way to convert the uninitiated, I am always happy to commence the conversation. If you consider yourself even somewhat open-minded, and a moderate fan of music, you need to get your mind around jazz. You don’t need to have a special appreciation or understanding of it (though that’s likely to take care of itself, once you open the door), but you do need to acknowledge it. Disabuse yourself of any ridiculous stereotypes, like how this is whacked out music by drug-addled freaks (a long-standing critique that is wrong-headed as it is racist), or else corny music by old-time bands that could not possibly translate to 21st Century sensibilities. Wrong. This music is engaging, intelligent and utterly alive. Indeed, it is ageless the way classical music manages to be: few, if any words and just a direct line from instrument to ear, conveying things language can’t approximate. It aims for the gut, but gets you in the head and heart. There is a feeling jazz music conjures that nothing else can touch (especially performed live).

Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

Above everything else, he endures.

I’ve written a great deal about Mingus, and in 2009 I did my best to properly appreciate his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um. The piece is entitled “An Open Letter to the 20th Century” and it explores not only the nuts and bolts of one of music’s great albums, but the man who was put on this earth to make it.

ahum

1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.

Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie). Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.

His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.

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The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.

Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.

Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.

Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.

For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.

For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.


“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.

For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.

A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.

A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.

 

Extra bonus for the curious, but uninitiated:

Shafi-H

(*Saxophone player Shafi Hadi, born Curtis Porter, is best-known for his association with jazz legend Charles Mingus, and played on the seminal recording Mingus Ah Um, from 1959. He dropped out of the scene in the early ‘60s and the reasons why, and his current whereabouts, are unknown.)

i.

Those sounds, not falling on enough ears
Then. Inaccessible, unknown, unwanted—now.
Today, where audiences vote for winners
hand-picked by specialists called consultants and
Marketing departments with both barrels aimed
Beneath the bottom line, a nothing-in-common
Denominator for something once considered sacred,
Art—or was it something else altogether, something
Important? Jazz was actually a matter of life and death,
Beautiful but always too short: the note, the feeling,
The connection, the song, the show, this life.
Made in America: a way to relate invented
By the people, for the people, for sale, forever.
Because it was meant to last it could never last,
At least long enough to survive our obsession for
New things and the old-fashioned notion of
Interests and attention spans that are longer
Than shadows cast in a smoke-soaked nightclub.

ii.

Who did we become? Over-rehearsed and under-employed,
Outcast or worse, obscure enough to not warrant a second
Look: unrecognized in familiar places no one knows about
Or bothers to go because nothing happens there anymore.
Where did we go? Into used record bins and basements,
Burn-outs or bums, teachers or else repurposed as working
Stiffs, at offices or in asylums or out on the streets, the ones
Who knew they were never going nowhere,
Tripping always over those sticks and stones that
Kept us high and put us under the earth,
The slings & arrows of outrageous misfortune: All
The Effort, All The Energy, All The Discipline, All For Nothing.
What did you think? We could eat the air and drink up
The Nothing like nourishment? No, it was sketchy enough
When we looked into the dark and eyes looked back at us,
Two-drink minimums and overpriced appetizers keeping
The front of the house solvent for a few more evenings.
Even then we shuffled & scrapped and kept hoping that
These works-in-progress—also called our lives—would
Mean enough to enough of you that we could keep
The act intact long enough to do something more than survive,
Or else avoid seeing the light that meant everything was
Over: the gig up, the profits gone, the sounds expired.

iii.

What the hell, I say, the world never owed none of us
A living, and who said anyone should feel sympathy
For men making sounds no one asked to hear?
For solidarity with a handful of humans exploring
The spaces in between us and what we used to call
The underground: that backstage some are born into,
Asking, Are great artists born or made? Or else,
Who cares, the best ones find their way, always, or
Get found, discovered, rescued, rehabilitated even
After they die. But what about the ones left behind
The seen, the ones keeping the beat or blasting
The melody, the ones on the front lines behind
The Man, side-men no one would know, in the grooves or
On the bus: How could you say you know me when
I don’t even know myself (no more)? No more time,
No more chances, No more luck, No more life.
So when do we go? Is it that same old song
And dance with Death? The unhappy ending all of us
Nod off to, humming some tired tune when time’s up and
The band plays on around us while we stumble or stretch,
Happy, blind, scared or sensing something sort of like bliss,
Into the dark? Is it, in the end, the opposite of that sound we spent
A lifetime learning and playing and loving and lamenting?
The one sound we all reckoned would still linger
After the last encore of the greatest show on earth:
Silence.

My gratitude to Empty Mirror for publishing this poem on 3/10/15.
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Ten Songs From 1967 That Shaped Prog-Rock (Revisited)

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1. “Heroes and Villains”, The Beach Boys

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia (of the infamously aborted SMiLE sessions) is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

2. “The End”, The Doors

If not The Doors’ best song, it’s definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway To Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Manzarek and Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents, certainly at the time of its recording, an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.

3. “Nights in White Satin”, The Moody Blues

Strings! Poetry! Pretension! All of the above, and above all, the glorious vocals from Justin Hayward. There is such a uniquely British sensibility to this, something that still sounds like it should be heard over the radio. The Moody Blues would come to epitomize some of the worst excesses of the prog era (mellotron overload, mediocre poetry recitations on each album, a preciousness at times rivaled by an overbearing strain for profundity) but at their best –and for my money, there are at least one or two essential songs on each subsequent album– they pushed rock music in a more positive, enduring direction.

4. “Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum

This, like so many other classics of its era, has been overplayed on radio and overused in movies to the point where it’s lost much of its import. But it must be acknowledged for what it is: a brilliant, brooding masterwork of mood and economy. (The epic drum fills were game-changing.) And between the Bach references and the Chaucher name-checks, this has many ingredients that future prog-rockers would utilize, sometimes to excess.

5. “The Red Telephone”, Love

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

6. “Section 43”, Country Joe and the Fish

This as much as any single song, distilled the whole LSD-in-a-bottle (or blotter) extended moment of ’67. It eschews saccharine, feel-good sentiment; indeed, it avoids lyrics altogether. It does not need them, it extends its vision of dread and release: a trip that could go bad or end up being the best thing that ever happened and, like too many acid trips to count, it is probably more than a bit of both.

7. “Interstellar Overdrive”, Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on this extended jam (which would get twice as long, or longer, played live). This song, like several others on this list, is utterly of its time, but it still sounds fresh and vital: it really is the essence of psychedelic exploration (and whimsy) summarized in under ten minutes, and serves as a very hip, across-the-pond companion to the Summer of Love soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, this one (and “Lucifer Sam”) could almost be used as incidental music for a James Bond flick, assuming it was a stirred, not shaken 007.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, Cream

Now we’re talking. Allusions to Greek literature, the lysergic swirl of Ginger Baker’s patented drum rolls, some of Jack Bruce’s more impassioned vocals and, of course, the apotheosis of Eric Clapton’s wah-wah pedal pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP were paying careful attention: “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is, in a sense, the blueprint, succinctly rendered, for the more ambitious (and/or pretentious and long-winded) progressive epics that would follow.

9. “Broken Arrow”, Buffalo Springfield

Neil Young would, of course, go in entirely different directions (ranging from the folk-rock of his solo debut to garage-band glory with Crazy Horse to the acoustic stylings of After The Gold Rush and the perfection, if not invention, of country-rock on Harvest, and then into the proverbial ditch for a string of albums that may represent his best work), but his contribution to the prog-rock ethos is undeniable. Unbelievably ambitious, painstakingly assembled and full of sociopolitical import (an unblinking look at our treatment of Native Americans –a theme that would resurface in his later work– juxtaposed with an increasingly out-of-control contemporary world), “Broken Arrow” is, in its way, an inimitable document of what rock music could do (in ’67, or ever).

10. “Waterloo Sunset”, The Kinks

It’s impossible to overstate how important this song was, for both Ray Davies as a songwriter, and the many disciples who followed him. Of course, this song, and The Kinks, were/are much less popular and appreciated in the states, which is at once typical, sad and expected. The Kinks were not just a British band, they were the British band. More, they were Britain, and no single band has composed as many songs celebrating, explaining, lamenting, and personifying all-things UK. This is their charm and it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many lesser acts connected in the U.S.A. while The Kinks have always been (at best) a second-tier band, commercially and otherwise.

Everyone from Peter Gabriel to Pete Townshend was influenced by the formula Davies perfected here: local color relayed by an everyman, albeit a wistful, lonely and exceedingly sensitive fellow. This is, perhaps more than the better known “A Day in the Life”, a true reflection of a typical day, an eyewitness account laced with melancholy, hope and acceptance. It manages to invoke the past, fear (or at least resist) the future and immortalize the present, however quietly or unintentionally. Lyrically and conceptually, you can take Davies’ strategy and anticipate the ways Genesis and Jethro Tull (to name two of the more successful) would expand on the autobiographical possibilities to create sprawling, literate and emotional works (think Selling England By The Pound and Thick As A Brick).

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