Led Zeppelin: Day by Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2006.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got more Love if you want it.

And more, if you can handle the truth.

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

 

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Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’: A Love Letter to the Process of Making Art

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In Dostoeyevsky’s Notes From Underground the self-loathing narrator proposes that every man has secrets he will only reveal to friends and secrets he must keep to himself. And then there are the things he is afraid to admit even to himself, and the more decent the man, the more things he will find himself unable to confront.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. As he explains to his enthusiastic assistant (the always-excellent John Cazale), he is uninterested in the personal lives of his clients or what their motivations might be—he just wants to get the job done as only he can do it.

Caul, who claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. And from his old-fashioned eyeglasses, coat and tie attire or the see-through slicker he wears rain or shine, he projects the look of a professor or librarian more than efficient sleuth. This is entirely by design: by making himself as ordinary as possible, Caul believes he can keep others from intruding on his personal space—which we quickly understand is, for him, sacred. As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. He is a quiet man with an urgent dialogue endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere façade.

Gene Hackman, to be certain, had his work cut out for him here. How to take a character that is so intractable and ultimately unknowable, and manage to make him engaging, even sympathetic? Hackman, despite his renowned acting abilities, struggled to fully understand and depict Harry Caul, a role so dissimilar to previous assignments (this is the man who played Popeye Doyle, for God’s sake!) and his own personality. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.

As a result, The Conversation is a tour de force, but it’s a quiet tour de force. In fact, it is just about impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today. Few directors would trust—perhaps with good reason—that audiences would embrace the deliberately languid pace and lack of resolution. In fact, while critically successful (then and now), this movie did not fare well commercially at the time of its release.

Of course, the movie is impossible to separate from the early ‘70s in several important ways. For one, its inescapable political implications (Watergate, wire-tapping) and its art house aesthetic sensibility (The Conversation is one of the more durable experiments to come out of the “new wave” of Hollywood bad boys who briefly had—and took—the opportunity to make movies they way they needed—and wanted—to make them). The Conversation, perhaps more than any of his celebrated films, makes the purest case for Coppola’s genius. The movie’s disconsolate message is tempered by its director’s lack of cynicism (a refreshing trait early on that ended up marring his later work with excess sentimentality and preciousness). Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, is perhaps the only director of that era sufficiently unselfconscious to depict a protagonist so self-conscious he is in constant danger of suffocating.

Also worth mentioning is the film’s uncanny similarities to Chinatown (also released in 1974). In both, an essentially respectable man has seen his best intentions harm others, and vows never to repeat his mistake. In both, a man realizes too late that he has gotten involved (and invested) in something far larger and more dangerous than he imagined. Both films are virtually flawless, from the script to the ingenious structure, the direction, score and acting. Especially the acting. Certainly in the ‘70s there was plenty of “acting” going on, which is why so few (if any) movies have aged (and seemingly improved) with time as The Conversation and Chinatown.

“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. Throughout, we see more than his colleagues, his girlfriend (who he considers overly inquisitive when, after many months, she would like to know where he works, where he lives and why he does not seem to own a telephone), his priest and—most significantly—he does. But the sum total of these subtle insights (the way he avoids swearing, the time he picks up a cookie and studies it for several seconds before putting it back on the plate, his diversion of playing saxophone alongside an LP recording) ultimately shed insufficient light on what makes him tick. This is actually the secret of the film’s success.

In less capable hands we would know everything at the outset: what his back-story was, what he was looking for and what he needed to achieve so we could root for him to “win”. There are, of course, no winners here, but the message of the movie is not nihilistic. By the time it concludes, the culmination of events has slyly served to confirm all of Caul’s skepticism. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.

The comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. But he is not broken, yet. That dissolution is saved for the last scene, a final indignity wherein Caul’s most unimaginable apprehension is realized. After receiving a phone call on his unlisted number, he suffers the humiliation (and terror) of hearing his own apartment being bugged. Panicked, he promptly reduces his apartment to splinters in a fruitless attempt to find the hidden microphone. In what has to be one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, the camera pans over a desecrated aftermath where Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage. What earlier in the movie might have been construed as a bit of a contrivance (the one-man band playing along with a pre-recorded tune) now symbolizes this man’s lonely disintegration: his record player (along with all his other dispensable possessions) destroyed in the rampage, he must finally face the music, while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.

Even once the crucial twist is understood, the film remains elusive. It is a darkly affecting drama, but what else? Also an allegory for Watergate (not likely, despite the rather facile, if pervasive critical analysis, considering the screenplay was written in the mid-‘60s)? A commentary on political chicanery? A love letter to the painstaking process of assembling a work of art, bit by technical bit? Some of all of these, to be certain, and several other things, for sure. It’s never quite the same experience once you’ve seen it the first time, but The Conversation warrants repeated viewings. Like the very best films, fresh nuances and details emerge and a deeper understanding and appreciation accrues. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection was the role Hackman was born to play, but his embodiment of Harry Caul should be celebrated as the best work he ever did.

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

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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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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson (Revisited)

taxi-driver

Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters on 1/26/11 and is now in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

M LAW cover

In this collection of essays, reviews and ruminations, best-selling author Sean Murphy attempts to tackle the world in writing, one topic at a time. Selecting a sampling of his most popular pieces as well as some personal favorites, Murphy ranges from music to movies, literature to politics, sports to tributes for the departed. At his blog, Murphy’s Law, and as a columnist for PopMatters and contributing editor for The Weeklings, Murphy has combined enthusiasm and proficiency in the service of short and extended analyses. Throughout this compilation he shifts seamlessly between culture, the arts and an ongoing interrogation of American society.

Why is Robert Johnson the most influential American musician of the 20th Century? How—and why—did Dennis Miller go from being one of the better comedians in the world to a humorless hack? Why are even the most gifted novelists unable to write convincing sex scenes in their fiction? Was the first round of Hagler vs. Hearns in 1985 the most exciting three minutes in sporting history? Is it reasonable to suggest that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made? What does it mean to declare Stephen King the Paul Bunyan of letters? Is it possible we don’t adequately celebrate either Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? Why should everyone consider cancelling their subscription to The Washington Post? Does nostalgia play a defensible, even necessary role in one’s art or life?

Equal parts reporter and raconteur, Murphy brings an informed acumen to essays mercifully free from academic jargon and pretension. His subjects cover so-called high and lowbrow and just about anything in between, and it’s obvious throughout that his only agenda is to celebrate, or castigate, or cross-examine his own impulses and predispositions. By turns studious, confrontational, hilarious and philosophical, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One will leave readers better informed, provoked and, hopefully, inspired to discover the work of some geniuses who’ve fallen outside the lower frequencies.

***AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE FRIDAY, APRIL 29***

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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A Portrait of the Boss As a Young Man

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There is one key question that arises whenever a new box set of previously-available material is released: is it necessary?

With Bruce Springsteen’s eight-disc The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984, the answer is an unequivocal, “Yes!” For one thing, five of these seven albums have, unbelievably, never been remastered. For those of us who own the original CD pressings, or have not particularly fond memories of how they sounded on vinyl or especially cassette incarnations, this sonic overhaul is not only very worthwhile but quite overdue.

Take it from an old-school Springsteen fan: the clarity on these reissues is game-changing. If it’s now obligatory, when talking remasters, to mention sounds never before heard and nuance not previously detectable, all of the usual, positive accolades apply here. The two that needed this treatment most, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The River, in some ways sound like new albums. Presumably, Bruce disciples need no cajoling, but anyone on the fence can be reassured that this is not the typical window dressing disguised as an (expensive) upgrade. These suckers needed some TLC, and now they’ve gotten it.

A (very) few words about the accompanying booklet: it is underwhelming, to put it kindly. No interviews, no essays, no new nuggets of information or detail about the various recording session are included. None of these things are imperative for the box set’s success, but considering that such features usually accompany reissues of this sort, and Springsteen has so much history to pore over, these omissions are curious at best. Aforementioned sonic upgrades aside, and taking into account the cost of this set, the bust of a booklet is a bit of an embarrassment. That said, it’s all about the music, and this music is more than capable of telling its own story.

Those Romantic Young Boys

Believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t always the Boss. In fact, he paid persistent and less-than-productive dues for years as a work-in-progress. The breakthrough success of Born to Run, which landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975, seems inevitable, even preordained. The reality is that fame and fortune were elusive, and by the time his debut dropped in 1973, he was an exceedingly experienced veteran of tiny clubs up and down the east coast.

Knowing what was to come, his uneven but promising first two albums reveal the work of an audacious if imperfectly formed voice. More than anything else, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle convey the enthusiasm we still associate with Springsteen’s legendary live performances. It’s a passion for creating, playing, and connecting that could scarcely be contained by hit singles or three-hour concerts.

Critically embraced but unable to catch fire commercially, his debut is really more like a first novel than a first album. The young narrator is trying to cram together everything he’s witnessed, everything he’s tasted, smelled, imagined and dreamed about. At times the explorations feel ill-suited to the format, shoehorned as they are into three-and-four-minute snippets of song. Of course, there were the unavoidable—and not entirely unwarranted—comparisons to Bob Dylan. For the most part, however, these early songs sound less like an homage to his hero than an experiment to see how many marbles he can fit into his mouth (see: “Blinded by the Light” and “For You”).

Interestingly, as it was released during the same year, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is rather like a toned-down Quadrophenia for the Jersey Shore, with its litany of losers, hustlers, teenage theatrics and the tension between masculinity and creativity and how, if harnessed with sufficient care and talent, it can be translated into sensitive art. Occasionally indulgent (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”), sometimes anthemic (“Growing Up”, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”), it’s when there is a lack of self-consciousness that Springsteen hints at perfection (“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”).

The one-two punch of “Spirit in the Night” and “Lost in the Flood” combines many of the obsessions Springsteen would spend the rest of his albums investigating: haunted veterans of real or imagined wars, along with hoodrats and wannabe heroes with goofy nicknames (Wild Billy, Hazy Davy). In an album full of fantastic lines (“I said ‘I’m Hurt’ she said ‘Honey, let me heal it’” and “Tainted women in VistaVision perform for out-of-state kids at the late show”), the young boss delivers an opening salvo that would become his aesthetic Holy Grail: “And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”

For his follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, it’s a double-down of sorts, more Van Morrison than Bob Dylan, more funk than folk, more sounds than words. In most regards, this is all for the best; with hindsight, we see how things were moving irresistibly to the bigger and more brazen enterprise of Born to Run. We get another program full of characters (Sandy, Kitty, Rosalita, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, etc.) looking for love, or each other, or themselves, etc. A little of this goes a long way, and since there’s a lot of it, we can see how and why Springsteen struggled with ways to harness and hone his indefatigable determination.

On The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, there is more attention to detail, and the musicians, especially the brilliant keyboardist David Sancious, get plenty of space to stretch and assert themselves. Bruce, who gets less credit than he deserves as a lead guitarist, does some tasteful shredding on “Kitty’s Back”, and the use of strings (“New York City Serenade”) and both tuba and accordion (“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”) give the proceedings a panoramic sweep. If the debut at times sounds like a cherry bomb inside a soda can, the follow-up is the soundtrack of summer evenings on a fire escape after the rain stops.

If it wasn’t for the masterworks that followed, certain songs on this album would likely be more highly regarded. Certainly we have the concert-friendly “Rosalita” and “Kitty’s Back”, as well as the ebullient and odd obscurities of the title track and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. “New York City Serenade” strains for profundity and, with the aforementioned finesse of Sancious, it nearly succeeds.

“Incident on 57th Street”, on the other hand, is a abundantly-realized mini opera. This is the first instance where one can imagine even Van the Man and Dylan perking up an eyebrow and thinking “Who the hell is this kid?” Likewise, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is at once a summation of what Bruce was trying to do to that point and a preview of the muscle-ballads to come. (The song also has arguably best line of the album: “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do?”) Even though neither album was enough to put him over the top, it’s hard to claim anyone had a more productive, enduring year than Springsteen did in 1973.

The Promised Land

In a rather counterintuitive turn of events, the fact that the first two albums didn’t make as much noise as they could (or should) have ended up being the best possible thing that could have happened for Springsteen as an artist and us as an audience. Instead of packing it in, Springsteen quadrupled down and spent many subsequent months agonizing over every second of every new song, making the recording that ensured nobody would ever forget his name.

As has been amply documented, it was the lack of big-time success that ultimately convinced Bruce he had to put not only his oversized heart, but his mind, his soul and bone marrow into a tour de force no 25 year old had any business making. It could be said that the go-for-broke inspiration the Boss became legendary for providing in his songs initially sprang from the most authentic source: himself. As he grappled with how to translate the music he heard in his head, he gradually attained the ideal balance of more-is-more lyrics and epic scope with rawest and most honest emotion. The resultant material revolves around a theme that is basic as it is elusive: everyone wants to be fulfilled.

Every element comes together in the creation of rock’s mid-decade and post-Watergate response to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows, making mistakes, or trying to escape their environment, on Born to Run, many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the Romeo in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s the One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

There are also those unlikely to get away or win, those who already have the deck stacked against them and are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving pulse of “Night”, where the everyman escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and irksome commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere at night with the yellow lines racing by beneath him, we know these flights are fleeting.

While the restrained bordering on elegiac musical backdrop (just piano, bass, and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across the River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand, there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. The track neither ironic nor patronizing; the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and there is little doubt what’s at stake: “We got ourselves out on that line”. We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.

What else? Not much, except this masterpiece arguably has the best opening and closing songs of any album, ever. With “Thunder Road”, Springsteen condenses a full record (a full movie, really) into just under five minutes. Getting a proper handle on “Jungleland” would require more than a paragraph or even a full review, really. I took a crack at it a few years back, and even that feature hardly does it justice.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became the Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Streets of Fire

We have an understandable tendency to regard our biggest and best artists (and athletes) as fully-formed entities, miracles of evolution that, by their example and very existence, necessarily set them apart from us mere mortals. The reality is that while many of these icons are endowed with extraordinary gifts, the ones who make sustained and durable contributions invariably put in the work, and the work does not always, if ever, come easily. Put another way, our most successful innovators figure out what works by experimenting to determine what doesn’t work. When we consider artists like Michael Jordan or John Coltrane, it’s easy to assume it was destiny, and not discipline, that placed them in the pantheon.

Springsteen had done all any rock musician could reasonably ask or even hope for all by the time he set out to make his fourth album. For that reason, and certain other ones that have also been well documented, he took his time trying to follow Born to Run. Springsteen is now so huge and so ubiquitous that it almost seems disingenuous to mention, but the fact that he was even willing, much less able, to step into the studio again warrants a measure of admiration.

With Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce cemented his legacy as his hero for some, while crossing over into unforgivable pretension and posturing, for others. In this author’s view, the folks in the latter category miss the mark—but more on that later.

Here’s the deal: Springsteen found fame, fortune, and acclaim. Then he made his darkest album yet, one that put him solidly on the side of society that didn’t inherit money or get blessed with good luck. The haters will say this was rich dude’s guilt or, worse, blatant slumming to earn solidarity and record sales from a blue collar audience. Once again, it would seem apparent to anyone who’s read the lyrics or followed the man’s career of putting his time and energy where his mouth is, that these are risible notions.

Some critics and many fans think Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best album; this critic and fan does not agree. If it signals the beginning of a new era where a more mature artist addresses more adult, real-world crises, it’s also the advent of too many songs that are overproduced and too slick by half, featuring music that does not always match the often somber material. Perhaps a starker soundscape would have made the album intolerably bleak, but the carnivalesque elements, prominent drums (consider me possibly the only person who has wondered how much better things would have been had the Boss retained the services of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez), and bombast make it occasionally difficult to savor. This formula would reach its intolerable fruition on “Born in the U.S.A.”, which proved that the team’s commercial instincts were astute, even at the expense of making what should have been one of Springsteen’s most harrowing tunes an arena-ready anthem.

This is serious music, and there is definitely darkness here. There is also resilience bordering on optimism, notably in “The Promised Land”, “Prove It All Night” as well as the scorching title track, a song that deftly combines individuality and defiance. There is the righteous fury of “Adam Raised a Cain” (taking us from Asbury Park to the Old Testament), the straightforward rock triumph of “Candy’s Room”, the weary stoicism of “Streets of Fire” and the aforementioned tribute to the lunch pail crew in “Factory”. And then there’s the ballad “Racing in the Street”, one of Springsteen’s best, which could be considered a stripped-down continuation of pint-size epics like “Lost in the Flood” and “New York City Serenade”, or perhaps an apotheosis of the emotional heft achieved in “Incident on 57th Street” and “Jungleland”.

The River is, in some regards, a bigger but ultimately slighter continuation of the moods and themes from the previous album. Indeed, several of the songs were outtakes from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. Like so many double LPs, debate can rage regarding whether a better set would result from it being pared down to a single album, as Bruce initially intended. And like all great and debated double LPs, it’s the messier and (debatably) less successful bits that bestow an extra staying power, not unlike the way that fat makes for a well-marbled slab of steak.

Perhaps to lighten the tension or, heaven forbid, indulge in some good, old fashioned feel-good rock, the material shifts from ebullient to the intense. Revealingly, some of the softer material provides a template for his chart-crushing Born in the U.S.A., while a few of the heavier numbers sound like blueprints for Nebraska. For evidence of the former, consider the disarmingly upbeat “Hungry Heart”: like “Badlands”, only less so, the buoyant music undercuts the cynicism (“We fell in love I knew it had to end”), the desperation (“We took what we had and we ripped it apart”) and the immutability (“Don’t make no difference what nobody says/Ain’t nobody like to be alone”) pumping that hungry, restless heart. For evidence of the latter, consider “Stolen Car” or the title track.

It would be too easy to characterize this as “Jungleland” writ small, but if anything, it cuts deeper and has that universal resonance, because this is a story everyone has seen, heard or experienced. And that is the essential import of Springsteen: he became Superman by singing, compellingly, about the most average, unremarkable people and problems. If American rock music has a poet laureate, it’s Springsteen.

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…

Game, set, match. After this Bruce was, for all time, the Boss. He had nothing left to prove. Nevertheless, he would go on to make his most personal and possibly important album, after which he became a decade-dominating supernova.

Deliver Me From Nowhere

Perhaps because of what followed—the next album, the acclaim—Springsteen’s decision to make the ultimate lo-fi album seems even more prescient, appropriate, and perfect. If Darkness on the Edge of Town was a, well, darker departure from Born To Run, then Nebraska, after the mostly genial proceedings on The River, was like a belly flop into the abyss.

Nebraska carries with it death, despair and the electric chair—and that’s just on the opening song. If Springsteen had carved out an affirmative niche, cataloging the difficult paths traveled and infrequent respites rewarded to our working stiffs, he now turned his sights on the dispossessed, the down-and-outs, the embittered outcasts and the irredeemable hard-cases. On Nebraska, he’s not simply telling their stories (often without apology or unease), he is also using their seemingly preordained fates as a commentary on the things that don’t get mentioned when we talk about the American Dream. Nebraska is not a dark album so much as an album filled with voices calling out, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, from a vast, inescapable darkness.

After more than 30 years of declining middle class wages and a major recession that saw taxpayers bailing out the cretins that caused it, much of what Springsteen sings about seems familiar, quaint, and perhaps even a bit naïve. That is why Nebraska is still important now, and why it was radical in its time. Springsteen might not have been the first major artist to call out the Reagan Revolution as the farce it was, but he certainly had the biggest bullhorn. Nebraska could only be called a political album by those who consider an examination of cause and effect a political act.

This is, in so many ways, Springsteen’s most human album, not just because of its stripped-down aesthetic, but because each song deals directly with the themes he’s made a career stalking like a stenographer: the would-be criminals, the convicted, the could-be champions. and the ones born beneath the underdog, to quote Charles Mingus. Nebraska joins the ranks of essential but demanding albums, like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. This record is not one you return to for pleasure, though the pleasures are manifold; instead, it’s one you return to in appreciation, to savor and pay witness. Like all great art that tells us what we need to know and don’t necessarily want to know, we must be thankful that someone else, using fiction, has created a kind of reportage that is truer than newspaper truth.

Nebraska remains a work that insists on being absorbed in a single setting, each song anticipating and in some cases commenting upon the next. The immortal line “I got debts no honest man could pay” turns up twice and the notion of inevitability, be it debt or death, is a running leitmotif throughout all ten songs.

Still, the single line that unifies the whole is another that surfaces in two separate songs: “Deliver me from nowhere”. The narrator of the title track, recalling The Misfit from Flannery O’Connor, is resigned to his fate (“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”). The man staring down life in prison in “Johnny 99” has an indictment for those indicting him (“It was more than all this that put that gun in my hand”). The aimless driver who may or may not be describing a felony-in-progress (again recalling the Misfit) offers the ultimate J’accuse! to an indifferent universe (“The only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life”). Yet after the various encounters and carnage have unfolded, the Boss—both judge and jury—offers up a refrain that defines his very American sensibility: “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.”

Glory Days

As anyone who drew breath between 1984 and 1986 recalls, Springsteen was ubiquitous in the mid-‘80s. For numerous reasons, Born in the U.S.A. was the right album at the right time. For many understandable reasons, it’s the single album that appealed to the largest group of people. Being indifferent to it, then, and having no stomach for it now, is not a cantankerous badge of honor, or mean-spirited attempt to seem old school. The fact of the matter is that much of this material made many fans extremely happy. More power and props to all involved.

For this fan and, presumably, at least a handful of folks who knew who the Boss was before “Dancing in the Dark”, there is very little of lasting value on this absurdly radio-friendly monstrosity. To be certain, Nebraska was (intentionally) unsophisticated, but its heart is off the charts. On this, we have the most simplistic formula on repeat cycle: unsophisticated songs on the lyrical and musical front, and a production gloss that will give your ears cavities. The hyper-amplified and overplaying Max Weinberg alone is a deal breaker, but the synthesizers suck the life out of everything. (Yeah, okay, it was the ‘80s).

Worst of all, for once, the “working man” motif actually does feel like shtick. To take but one example, “Working on the Highway”: listening to it 30 years on—like Alex from A Clockwork Orange with ears pried open—one wants to like it, and can almost appreciate how it invokes Eddie Cochran… but then the cheesy synth comes in and it becomes half-assed rockabilly filtered through a cotton candy machine. Only “I’m on Fire”, “I’m Goin’ Down”, “Downbound Train” and, barely, “My Hometown” salvage this from the über-commercial scrap heap.

Mileage varies, obviously, but for me, Born in the U.S.A. takes the softer sheen of The River and the sporadic gloss of Darkness on the Edge of Town, puts the mess on a cycle of steroids with a cocaine chaser, and the result is MTV Eden.

And then there’s the whole issue with the title track, easily the most misunderstood song of all time. Any defense of Springsteen’s intentions can and should point to the lyrics, but there is simply no excusing the chest-thumping, insipid sing-along music, which predictably led simpletons (like George Will) to try and appropriate this as a “Go America!” theme song. (A lot more on what was and what should have been, here.)

No Surrender

Here’s the thing about Bruce Springsteen looking back over 30 years after his biggest album dropped: he seems content, and he has every reason to be content. He is no longer a young man, but he’s kept after the same issues and injustices that inspired his best work. That alone absolves him from the cynics, skeptics, and all-purpose haters.

Some final words should be said to the self-satisfied conservative sorts who love pointing out how an opportunistic Springsteen has gotten wealthy by offering up feel-good platitude. (Kind of like Ronald Reagan, an irony entirely lost on these True Believers). Springsteen puts his time and money where his heart is, and he has done more for this country, as an artist and an advocate than just about any politician. He remains a man amongst boys, and if some of his work has not aged well or his later work at times inevitably disappoints, he himself presents a model for how to advance through life with dignity and integrity. He is and always will be the Boss, and America has produced very few artists who have depicted and appraised their country with more passion and purpose.

This article originally appeared in PopMatters on 2/6/2015.

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Why Not Pink Floyd? (Revisited)

pf

The Pink Floyd Discovery Studio Album Box Set

I. See Saw

I have recently listened to every single song from every single Pink Floyd album, so you don’t have to.

The question is: Should you?

The answer: I’m not sure.

Pink Floyd occupies a curious and somewhat unique place in rock history. Certainly it would seem ludicrous to suggest that this celebrated band has not received sufficient attention. Still, most of their approbation has been focused, not unjustly, around the streak of albums they made starting with 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon through 1979’s The Wall. That these works are among the best-loved and best-selling of all time is not a matter of dispute. That this run ended just after (or just before, depending on your perspective) Roger Waters’ exodus—a move he considered the de facto final act of the band’s career (he was wrong as it turned out)—and set the stage for more than two decades of bad blood, recriminations and music that, to put it charitably, does not sit comfortably on the shelf with what came before, is pretty well established fact.

As such, Floyd became infamous for the feuding and ever-bloated arena tours, and not since The Beatles (or possibly Led Zeppelin) has such anxiety, hope and expectation been wasted deliberating whether a reunion—however strained—was inevitable. In the meantime, the work the band did before Dark Side has tended to get overlooked or else dismissed as middling by people who have never provided much evidence that they’ve bothered to listen to the albums in question.

With the possible exception of their 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which featured original songwriter Syd Barrett, and Meddle, which preceded—and anticipated—Dark Side, the first band in space’s early output has existed in a critical (if not commercial) black hole. This can’t be helped, but it could be rectified. And so: the occasion of yet another exhaustive reissue campaign should provide necessary incentive for some exploration by the uninitiated.

II. Pinks (Three Different Ones)

There were, really, three different Pink Floyds: the first one named—and led—by Syd Barrett; the one obliged to carry on after Barrett’s acid-fueled disintegration (which brought his old mate David Gilmour into the fold), and the one that eventually made those string of masterpieces commencing with Dark Side. Casual fans may not realize that Pink Floyd made more albums before The Dark Side of the Moon than they did after it. Some fans might not realize that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon.

Thinking about Floyd’s chronology, and how they got from the alternate Summer of Love soundtrack of their debut all the way to Dark Side—an effort many consider the ultimate, even perfect rock album—required several years and six albums, none of which sounded especially alike, a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each album, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece which at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the pyramid in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from Piper), “A Saucerful of Secrets” (from the second album of the same name), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle). As the band has indicated repeatedly over the years, each of these pieces built on one another and brought them closer to the sacred ground they were stalking. Certainly the post-Piper efforts were practically by definition transitional albums, but that is inevitable when the ultimate destination is The Dark Side of the Moon.

And herein lies the enigmatic, if seemingly paradoxical assessment that a great deal of Floyd’s work has long gone unscrutinized and underappreciated. If the band had not made their incomparable string of albums, the early work would arguably be more fondly recalled. But since the majority of albums, by Floyd or anyone else, will suffer in comparison to the mid-‘70s masterpieces, it seems like crying over spilled champagne.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Rating: 10

III. Point Me at the Sky

You don’t need to know anything about Syd Barrett to fully appreciate The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. But if you know his story, his iridescent rise and spectacular fall, it will invest those albums with additional layers of import, and impact. It remains difficult to imagine what Floyd would have sounded like had Syd managed to stick around for two rather obvious reasons. One, the more musically-oriented direction the band went in owed much to David Gilmour, who was hastily recruited once things with Syd began to spiral. Two, even the subsequent work Barrett did (two difficult but addictive solo albums) sound nothing like Floyd’s debut.

It is possible that The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was such a fully-realized burst of sui generis psychedelia that it could never be equaled or imitated. Following the success of the singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” the band (then known as The Pink Floyd) set up shop at Abbey Road Studios, across the hall from the Fab Four, who were assembling Sgt. Pepper. Evaluating the results in last year’s feature on Syd Barrett, I wrote:

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.

 

IV. Let There Be More Light

The follow-up album did—and will—inevitably disappoint anyone looking for a repeat of Piper. The bad news: with the exception of one song (the harrowing “Jugband Blues”, equal parts peak inside the cuckoo clock and a resigned J’accuse to his bandmates), Syd Barrett is gone, baby, gone. The good news: David Gilmour is now on the scene. Even on this effort, at times tentative, grasping and assured, there are hints of the sounds and obsessions that would indelibly color the Pink Floyd canon. Take the sardonic if jarring “Corporal Clegg” for a first glance at Waters’ disdain for war and society’s treatment of veterans; the solemn heavy-handedness he would later succumb to is undercut with a claustrophobic barrage of voices, sound effects and a sing-along chorus featuring a kazoo(!). Richard Wright attempts to capture the lysergic whimsy in songs he later dismissed but which, more than 40 years later, hold up in their way… if semi-shoehorned lysergic whimsy is something you like in your saucer.

A Saucerful of Secrets
Rating: 7

Two tracks stand out and obviously indicate directions the band would move toward going forward. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (featuring brilliantly restrained mallet work from drummer Nick Mason) is the first successful “mood” music the new Floyd created. The band doubles (triples?) down on the ambition for the title track, which succeeds as a piece of avant-garde, music concrete and early prog pretension (see the manipulated “celestial voices” during the coda). From the ominous plucked piano strings to the percussive chaos to a slowly unfolding finale that achieves a genuinely affecting release, this is the track the band would, in a sense, keep revisiting until it was better, different, perfect.

In 1969 the band made two albums, both of which served as stepping stones toward a slowly evolving sound. The first, a soundtrack for a film few people seem to have seen called More, remains very much an overlooked gem, overwhelmed by the volume of quality Floyd recordings. From a purely historical perspective, More is an important album as it illustrates a template for the aesthetic the band would refine in the following decade. Gilmour in particular strides to the fore, assuming primary vocal duties and uncorking a guitar tone that is no longer lost in the haze and sheen that sometimes bogs down A Saucerful of Secrets. The elements of (take your pick) psychedelia/space-rock/trippiness, executed to greater effect in their live recordings, abound but are sharpened by a less guarded (less calculated?) Gilmour, who liberally sprinkles in his blues roots and a rawer, less refined sound.

Soundtrack from the Film More
Rating: 8

The album can be broken somewhat cleanly into two parts: the slower, acoustic pieces—mostly written by Waters, and the lucid, icy grandeur of the instrumentals, dominated by Wright and Gilmour. The acoustic tracks are worthwhile (particularly the hallucinogenic “Cirrus Minor” and “Green is the Colour”) but ultimately don’t rank with the band’s better work. It’s the dream sequences, at once evocative and mesmerizing, that make More an indelible album in its own right. If you take the laid back confidence of “More Blues” and combine it with the aggressive, almost abrasive energy of “Ibiza Bar” you can almost predict where Meddle came from. Likewise, Rick Wright’s uncanny ability to create mood is showcased on “Quicksilver”, which anticipates “Echoes” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. On “Main Theme” and “Dramatic Theme” Gilmour and Wright lock into a groove and Waters and Mason flex some nice rhythmic muscle.

It’s possible that Floyd would never sound this human again, and if they had to move on to bigger and better things (they did), there is sufficient evidence here that Floyd could balance raw and fresh and achieve a coolness without being chilly. Of course, no one could do light and dark with the dexterity of Floyd in their prime, and they make it sound easy here, perhaps because, for them, it was.

Ummagumma
Rating: 6

So while the live-in-the-studio experiments achieve a seemingly effortless air, the sense of purpose and inexorable pretense is more than slightly palpable on Ummagumma. Now this is a transition album. First, a very welcome live set which proves Floyd could credibly cover Barrett (“Astronomy Domine”) and improve upon earlier material (“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” is longer, more intense, and satisfying than the single). “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “A Saucerful of Secrets” demonstrate the band’s comfort with stretching out already ambitious material—a process that would reach fruition during the recording of the Pink Floyd at Pompeii film, which boasts definitive versions of these three non-Barrett tracks.

The second disc is an exercise in indulgence, adventure or embarrassment, depending on what you read. In actuality, it is the result mostly of a band feeling pressure to record new material while tailoring their collective compositional chops. Typically, there are elements of the aesthetic that would continue to crystallize in the coming years. Each member has a set of “solo” songs and while none are flawless, we can hear the way the craftsmanship is coalescing and the confidence is building. The band is unquestionably stretching out, and the best elements of this experimentation (Waters’ and Mason’s flair for the absurd; Wright’s and Gilmour’s more structurally sound tunesmithing) would be retained and improved upon in short order.

V. Childhood’s End

Back when Pink Floyd was the biggest underground band in the world, they remained mysterious—and hip—by being invisible. With few exceptions their faces weren’t on the album covers, which underscored the obvious: it was always all about the music. For a band that would come to suffocate on its seriousness (or, the seriousness with which Waters regarded his work, and his place in the band served to suck the air—and life—out of the later work), Floyd displayed a subtle sense of humor for a spell. Take the ingenious cover for Atom Heart Mother: at once a non sequitur, it is also disarming; a close-up glamour shot of a cow, with no mention anywhere of the band. This could be regarded as the band taking the piss out of the critics (and themselves) while also announcing that the ‘60s were over not only literally, but figuratively.

Atom Heart Mother
Rating: 8

Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work yet, the entire first side is taken up by the 20-minute-plus opus (excuse me, suite). Using a chorus, an orchestra, their growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable elan concerning the art of the segue, Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes.

To be certain, this is not easy listening, particularly for fans looking for first drafts of future hits like “Time” and “Money”. Although, if you’re rightly mesmerized by the truculent calm of “Mother”, Waters’ doleful acoustic track “If” is a precursor or sorts, and the eerie drill noises that follow the lines “please don’t put your wires in my brain” certainly anticipate “Brain Damage”. “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, while being more than a bit of a lark, still features the type of strategic repetitions, eccentric spoken passages and—believe it or not—gorgeous interludes by both Wright and Gilmour. Speaking of Gilmour, his ultra-mellow “Fat Old Sun” succeeds as the pastoral arrangement Waters gamely attempted on Ummagumma’s “Grantchester Meadows”, and features a tasty guitar solo to boot. Gilmour’s tone is fuller and fatter throughout, and first-time listeners will likely experience the shock of recognition scattered like breadcrumbs throughout certain songs.

Meddle
Rating: 9

Meddle, from 1971, was the first full flowering of the Pink Floyd sound—increasingly melodic and balancing precision with the ethereal. While in every regard a group effort, Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group. The observation that cannot be overemphasized is that Meddle was not so much an inspired product of its time (though it is indeed that) so much as the realization of a style the band had been inching toward with each previous album. A fairly extensive track-by-track evaluation of the album was attempted a few years back.

In addition to Gilmour’s (and to an only slightly less dominant extent, Wright’s) sonic imprint, we see the notable development of Waters’ skills as a lyricist; his words are now more mature and topical—a welcome and necessary development. On the third track, “Fearless”, there is another nod to Barrett but also a next installment of a growing Waters concern: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against —or reeling from—a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as a blueprint for the ironic employment of actual voices that pepper subsequent Floyd albums.

Just before breaking ground on their (first) masterpiece, there was a second soundtrack to contend with. Obscured By Clouds benefits from a loose yet confident air, the last time the band would proceed informally in the recording studio. The results, recalling More, are split between straightforward songs (with lyrics and vocals) and incidental music for the film (all instrumental).

Obscured By Clouds
Rating: 8

Not surprisingly, Obscured By Clouds in many regards summarizes what led up to it and previews what is about to happen. Gilmour is still front and center, taking most of the vocal duties and his guitar works as heat lightning cutting through the surreal smog. Wright’s keyboards are at once unobtrusive yet omnipresent: the band is soaring, but requires Wright’s foundation and flourishes to get it airborne. (Challenge: listen to any Pink Floyd track from ’67-’79 and try to isolate all of Wright’s contributions; without him their unique sound is inconceivable.) It’s instructive to hear how the Gilmour/Wright alternating (and/or synchronized) vocals, so effective on “Echoes”, work together on “Burning Bridges” to prefigure “Time”. Lyrically, “Free Four” anticipates the concerns that would dominate Waters’ later work. Special mention for “Wots… Uh the Deal” which also functions as an aperitif for the showbiz laments Waters would make a specialty; here Gilmour alternates acoustic and electric guitar to beautiful effect while turning in one of his best vocal performances. Floyd was almost there: with a little more care, attention and inspiration a song like “Stay” would become “Us and Them”; “Childhood’s End” and “Burning Bridges” would combine to become “Time” and the extended instrumental passages would resurface, in refined form, on the next four albums.

VI. Welcome to the Machine

The Dark Side of the Moon is rightly recognized as one of rock music’s most perfect achievements. It also tends to (not unjustifiably) get singled out as the pinnacle of Pink Floyd’s career. While this may ultimately be the case—and who wants to argue the point?—a more accurate appraisal might be that the group, starting in ’73, locked into a virtuosity that has not been equaled by many, if any other outfits. The four albums released between 1973 and 1979 are among the most discussed, beloved and influential of all time; their collective import remains impossible to overstate.

Dark Side, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Perfect opening song. Perfect closing song. No, even that is not quite sufficient praise. No other album begins and ends as sublimely as this one does. From the opening heart beats to the sardonic assertion “There is no dark side of the moon, really…as a matter of fact it’s all dark”, this is rock music’s visionary apex. Dark Side represents the ultimate balance of aesthetic and accessibility—demanding yet consistently satisfying—that The Beatles initiated with Sgt. Pepper. 7 41 weeks on the charts and it somehow remains invigorating; it is still capable of surprising you, whether it’s the reverb of Gilmour’s slide just before the (improvised) caterwauling on “The Great Gig in the Sky” or the ceaselessly rousing climax of Waters’ understated poetry in “Eclipse” (“And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon”). This is it; it’s all in here and it never got better than this.

The Dark Side of the Moon
Rating: 10

Of course, some listeners contend that Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd’s supreme achievement. An extended meditation on loss, the lyrics certainly address Syd Barrett and serve as equal parts explanation (of) and apology (for) what really went down in 1968. But Waters’ words are expressive enough to welcome additional, deeper interpretations. Certainly songs like “Have A Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here” speak to Loss with a capital L: loss of innocence, loss of intimacy or loss of connection(s) to others as well as oneself. If the two-part suite “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a rousing elegy for Barrett, “Welcome to the Machine” manages to condemn stardom, the system (military, corporate, entertainment) and the eventual disenchantment that follows success, all while creating a seven minute soundtrack to make Dystopia sound at once inevitable and irresistible.

Interestingly, while the two albums that preceded it and the blockbuster that followed it receive—if demand—most of the attention, Animals is arguably the most cohesive and satisfying concept album Pink Floyd recorded. Neither as immediately arresting nor as alluring upon repeated listens, Animals is, among other things, the last time all principle songwriters came together in the service of a project that superseded ego and personal ambition.

Roger Waters was steadily asserting himself as the Alpha Male, which is ironic considering the lyrical subject matter. Separating the human species into three basic groups, Waters assails the cultural systems of hegemony: the power-crazed minority that craves and enforces the jungle code and the puppets, who are either uncaring or oblivious to the ways they are subjugated. Utilizing a bilious indignation that, for the time being, was just on the side of healthy, Waters get politicians, corporate strivers and their timid victims into his sights.

Wish You Were Here
Rating: 10

Gilmour and Wright, working gamely within this structural framework, lend some of their best support, helping turn what might have been an irredeemably dark and disconsolate work into something that illuminates the filth without wallowing in it. Gilmour’s talk box pyrotechnics (on “Pigs”) lend a perfectly mordant touch to Waters’ sneering diatribe against the opportunism and prurient hypocrisy that did (and does) dominate the political scene on both sides of the pond. Wright’s synthesized shrieks (on “Sheep”) convey the apprehension, fear and helplessness of lambs being led to the slaughter, beers and bibles in hand. For “Dogs”, the last (almost) side-long track the band would attempt, all elements are in accord, resulting in the only song that can possibly challenge “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” in terms of impact, effect and staying power. It still sounds like every single trick and skill the band had learned and mastered, going back to the ‘60s, reach their fullest flowering in this grim but redemptory tour de force. By the time Waters rhetorically sneers “Who was dragged down by the stone?” it is as though his contempt has produced an exorcism of sorts, enabling him to deliver the definitive words on subjects that had preoccupied him for so long. As it turns out, he was only getting started.

Animals
Rating: 10

VII. The Thin Ice

If Animals was somewhat of a tough sell, offering three songs exceeding the ten minute mark (and two short acoustic tracks to bookend the proceedings), The Wall has no such issues. Their longest work since their last double-album, Ummagumma, The Wall actually contains only three songs longer than five minutes, and more than a handful that managed the previously unthinkable by becoming radio hits.

The Wall is regularly heralded as another masterpiece and in some circles it is considered the masterpiece in the Floyd canon. There is no denying that some of the band’s finest work is on display (“In the Flesh?”, “The Thin Ice”, “Mother”, “Hey You”, “Comfortably Numb” and the concert-ready classics “Run Like Hell”, “Young Lust” and “Another Brick in the Wall”). There is also ample evidence that Waters had long since set his ego for the heart of the sun and, on far too many tracks, the glare—at times pompous or misguided—is too much to bear. Not unlike the Beatles’ White Album, had Floyd sliced off some of the fat this could have been a truly killer effort; also like the White Album, you would be hard-pressed to find two fans who agree which songs are filler and which are exceptional.

The Wall
Rating: 8

Oh by the way, which one’s Pink? If your view is that Roger Waters was the genius behind the scenes (an opinion Waters would share), this—and the next—album provide ample evidence for that claim. If, on the other hand, you believe that Waters’ lyrics, vision and compositional acumen needed the finesse and artistic reliability that Wright and Gilmour lent to each previous recording, The Wall signifies the beginning of the end of Floyd’s miraculous run. Indeed, both camps sensed that things had run their course, albeit for different reasons.

The Final Cut, while in some regards is Waters’ most lyrically mature effort, probably should have been his first solo recording (something he would have been happy to accommodate). One need not invoke any albums from the ‘70s to illustrate this album’s shortcomings; its flaws are abundant and easy to itemize without comparisons. Short and not-so-sweet: way too much Waters, not enough Gilmour. On earlier works Waters, as a vocalist was most effective in small doses (see Dark Side and Wish You Were Here). Or, if Gilmour was not such a superior singer, Waters (and Wright) could have handled the task and the results would have likely been adequate. Even on The Wall there are several songs where one can imagine the improvements more vocals by Gilmour would have made; yet it’s difficult to imagine hearing (or wanting to hear) Gilmour singing about waiting for the worms and being filled with the urge to defecate.

This subject matter was intensely personal and meaningful to Waters, but he was not able—or willing—to comprehend that similar themes were explored to exceedingly richer and more varied effect on songs like “Us and Them”, “Free Four” and even the frenetic, experimental “Corporal Clegg”. This is somber material and it’s ludicrous to suggest it needed to be lightened up; rather, it needed to be fleshed out. Indeed, Gilmour has recalled listening to the demos and recognizing tracks that didn’t make the cut for The Wall, giving this album’s title a rather unfortunate prescience. It could be called an uncompromising work, but it’s also a narrow and overbearing one that comes close to suffocating on its own self-righteousness. Whether or not the band (now sans Rick Wright) should—or could—have done things differently is impossible to imagine, and largely irrelevant. Waters charged on, content to go it alone, and Gilmour, after releasing his second solo album, licked his wounds and bided his time. There was nothing left for Pink Floyd to prove, unless it was that they could soldier on without Waters and make a shitload more money.

VIII. Us and Them

There is little Pink Floyd could do to tarnish their near impeccable brand, but they certainly gave it their best shot, having one of the ugliest and most protracted divorces in the history of popular music. Practically from the moment The Final Cut dropped it seemed like a matter of time until it became official, and Waters made no bones about his desire to move on, free from the meddling and cumbersome presence of his band mates. The others mostly kept quiet; that is until the small matter of whether or not they were still entitled to be a band without their lyricist and self-proclaimed leader. Long story short: Gilmour recruited Mason, and then Wright (and a few dozen friendly session players) and set about to prove to the world (and Waters) that he could make it happen.

The Final Cut
Rating: 5

“You’ll never fucking do it,” as Gilmour claims Waters told him, may be the words Waters will always regret uttering. He may also have come to realize his comments to the press, which increasingly belittled the role the others (particularly galling were the accusations that Gilmour was mostly along for the ride) played set the stage for what happened. What happened was A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the album that sailed up the charts and catapulted Pink Floyd back into the public consciousness. The subsequent tour made the already rich men wealthy beyond their most brain-damaged dreams.

So, while it seems silly to quibble over whether it’s truly a Pink Floyd album (the simple answer is yes… and no), the more important question is whether it’s a worthwhile album. The simple answer is… yes and no. It certainly sounds like Floyd, at least more so than the stark and sallow Final Cut. Opening track “Signs of Life” is practically a paint-by-numbers reproduction, in miniature, of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. Only it is smaller in scale, ambition and import. Waters derisively called the album “a pretty fair forgery” and there is some merit to that assessment; it is an earnest, if half-assed approximation of what the band was capable of more than a decade before. The music is back to being mostly front-and-center, which is just as well as the lyrics are, for the most part, embarrassing. But beyond that, there is something missing, and that something is Roger Waters. If it was easy to pinpoint exactly which musical elements Wright and Gilmour brought to the classic recordings, the role Waters played (his own opinion notwithstanding) was much more than bassist and lyricist. If he was an abrasive taskmaster, he was also a perfectionist, a tinkerer and an unbelievably driven artist. Hopefully it does not sound too harsh to suggest that without Waters, the band sounds like a talented football team determined (or forced) to play without its coach, calling its own plays and having fun, but ultimately not able to execute at a high level.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason
Rating: 5

It was hard to begrudge Gilmour and company: they wanted to do it, they were told they couldn’t do it, and to their credit (and the credit the assorted cast of characters brought in to help), they did it. But in the end, the same complaints leveled against The Final Cut can be made here: it’s a Pink Floyd album and the world is ultimately better for it, but something significant is missing.

Bully for the boys, they were game for another go, and in 1994 they released their (as of today) swan-song, The Division Bell, and embarked on another mega-arena tour. Like the previous effort, the album (mostly) sounds like Floyd, only less so. Gilmour’s voice is still pleasant enough, his guitar still has an edge when necessary and the panache he brings to any proceedings, and Wright is more noticeable, definitely a good thing. Nevertheless, while it’s not a failure, it’s a pretty forgettable album. Very little engages the listener, and there is certainly nothing here that challenges or confronts.

The Division Bell
Rating: 4

Not all of this can be attributed to the absence of Waters; it was now two decades after Wish You Were Here and the band had long since become dignified, middle-aged men. Each of them had other hobbies and passions (Mason race cars and Gilmour flying, to name two big ones) and, understandably, the single-minded fixation that is necessary to produce great and lasting art had long since left the building. On the other hand, Waters did not seem to lose any steam and his focus was still ostensibly laser-like, yet he has never come anywhere close to making an album that sounds anything remotely as impressive as the work he did with Floyd. Is it possible that at a certain age rock stars simply can’t compete with their previous work? The long (and growing) history of still-living legends who sound more comfortable, if less convincing, playing oldies instead of coming up with new material only bolsters this proposition.

Not unlike the Beatles before them, Floyd needed one another to create the idiosyncratic sounds they patented in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More, those albums (by Floyd; by everyone) needed to made during those decades, a time when progressive rock was not yet a joke and the best bands in the world took their art very seriously indeed. It’s less important to wonder if they could have recaptured (or might still rekindle) that unique magic than to acknowledge—and celebrate—the not unremarkable fact that they performed at such an astonishingly high level for as long as they did. Pink Floyd, as much as any band, consistently upped the ante and they never repeated themselves. We have the evidence to prove it, and we will never grow tired of listening until the day when there is no room upon that hill.

IX. Postscript: We Call It Riding the Gravy Train

Why Pink Floyd? That is the name of the campaign accompanying this remastering (or re-remastering or, if you really want to be technical, re-re-remastering) of the Floyd discography. Hopefully this feature has helped the undecided determine if there are indeed old albums they should revisit or check out for the first time. For those who own all or most of the catalog, the inevitable question must be addressed: is this just another cash grab by a famous band? This question comes up regularly, in part because at this point so many groups have had their catalogs revamped so many times.

On the plus side, the albums have never sounded better (especially the older albums: there is nuance and detail that was difficult to detect in previous versions). On the lame side, there is zero bonus material: no out-takes, no live cuts, no demos, nada. If this stuff simply does not exist—however unlikely that would be—then there is nothing to be done. It does seem fair to inquire, however, whether or not the band/label is waiting for yet another opportunity to soak the consumer with yet another unveiling on repackaged material, this time with “extras”. Simply put, the more than casual fan is advised to consider which, if any, discs they’d like to hear as they’ve never heard before (and the differences are not that earth-shattering), or if they are content with the versions they already own. For those who don’t yet own some of these discs, now would seem an ideal time to pick up a copy.

In terms of the bigger picture, the question could easily be why not Pink Floyd? If any band warrants the love and attention, it’s this one. Moreover, if there happen to be people out there who have not experienced Animals or even Wish You Were Here (not to mention the pre-Dark Side works), now is as good a time as any to let them hear what they’ve been missing. If this occasion, in sum, tempts someone to discover any of these albums for the first time, it’s a victory all around, and that is a much more important consideration than dollars and cents. Whatever one ultimately makes of the business rationale behind these releases, their artistic merit is unassailable. Pink Floyd is perhaps the first truly underground band that cultivated a sound that was too remarkable to remain obscure. They willed themselves to be huge, and their influence is undiminished today.

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Never Say Nevermore: A Reappraisal of Edgar Allan Poe

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If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passé for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original.

In any event, Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Sid Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

Some might claim Poe gets too much credit for perfecting (if not inventing) the American short horror story and detective story. The fact is, he doesn’t get enough.

Perhaps the best way to gain historical perspective on the proper scope of Poe’s achievements and influence is to consider an abbreviated list of legends who stood on his doleful shoulders: French poet Charles Baudelaire (who both championed and translated Poe), H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and a trio of tolerably impressive non-Americans: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud. Suffice it to say, if your work has any part in shaping or inspiring authors who make significant contributions to the canon, your status is more than secure.

Arguably, no American figure has influenced as many brilliant—and imitated—writers as Poe. The entire genres of horror, science fiction and detective story might be quite different, and not for the better, without Poe’s example. More, his insights into psychology, both as narrative device and metaphysical exercise, are considerable; he was describing behavior and phenomena that would become the stuff of textbooks several decades after his death.

He also happened to be a first rate critic, and his insights are as astute and insightful as anything being offered in the mid-19th Century (his essay “The Poetic Principle” comes as close to a “how to” manual for aspiring writers as Orwell’s justly celebrated “Politics and the English Language”). Oh, and he was a pretty good poet, too.

When assessing Poe, 150-plus years after he died, it’s imperative to interrogate and untangle that fact that not all clichés are created equally. Or, put another way, we must remember that before certain things became clichés, they were unarticulated concerns and compulsions.

When we talk about old school we typically call to mind an era that was pre-TV and even pre-movie. Well, Poe was writing in an era that was pre-radio and practically pre-daguerreotype. With no Snopes or MythBusters, encyclopedias not readily available and religion the common if inconsistent arbiter of moral guidance, Poe was not after cheap frights so much as uncovering the collective unconscious. Put more plainly, this was a time when being accidentally buried alive was something that could conceivably occur.

The reason Poe remains so convincing and unsettling is because he doesn’t rely on goblins or scenarios that oblige the suspension of belief; he is himself the madman, the stalker, the outcast, the detective and, above all, the artist who made his life’s work a deeper than healthy dive into the messy engine of human foibles, obsessions and misdeeds. He stands alone, still, at the top of a darkened lighthouse, unable to promise a happy ending and half-insane from what he’s seen.

Here we celebrate Poe’s ten greatest tales, but first, a brief sample of tales that don’t quite make the cut, but warrant attention and approbation.

First and foremost, the almost unclassifiable (and Poe’s only novel-length work) “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”. Jorge Luis Borges loved it, Jules Verne was undoubtedly influenced and without this model, we may not have gotten our great (white) American novel. If it’s good enough for Melville, it’s good enough for everyone.

“Berenice” and “Eleonora”, two character studies of doomed women, both epitomizing some of Poe’s most persistent fixations (teeth, premature burial). There’s also the whole “cousin thing”.

The type of story O. Henry would make a career of, “The Oval Portrait” is an early “shocker” even though contemporary audiences will see the conclusion coming a mile away. Like “Pym”, this one makes the cut if only for the eventual masterpiece it influenced, in this case Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It might be a stretch to say that “Hop-Frog” presaged all the slasher dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s definitely a quite satisfying prototype of the abused outcast getting his revenge, equal parts Michael Myers and (Black Sabbath’s) Iron Man—with grating teeth.

Finally, “A Descent into the Maelström” is rightly credited as being an early attempt at a proper science fiction study, and the technique of an older, wiser sailor recounting his tale as narrative is an obvious antecedent to Conrad.

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10. “The Gold Bug”

You almost have to transport yourself back to a time without electricity to fully appreciate Poe’s achievement here. In terms of influence, Robert Louis Stevenson merrily declared he “broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe” (for the creation of Treasure Island), and the bug bite instigating heightened awareness anticipates both “Spiderman” and “The Fly”. The extensive use of ciphers—cryptography being a big fad of the time—also may have inspired Zodiac (the killer and the subsequent movie). Even the appallingly dated dialect of Jupiter is a prelude for the cruder moments of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The sheer effort of imagination alone in seeing this one through requires that it be regarded as an important work.

9. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

Another one that must be properly appraised as a product of its time, the fact is that, upon publication, this tale caused a public uproar because it was sufficiently believable. This tale employs the ostensibly scientific case study of a hypnotized patient who, in his mesmerized state, is able to exist in a surreal, inexplicable condition where he’s dead but… still alive. Once again, as preposterous as this sounds, today, and as outlandish as it clearly was, even in 1845, it’s a credit to Poe’s masterful description, pacing and use of suspense that he actually pulled it off.

8. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Celebrated as the first modern detective story, Poe’s hero C. Auguste Dupin is featured in two subsequent tales, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”, but “Rue Morgue” is the most famous, and best of the three. One of the many Poe efforts made into an inferior, and terribly dated, film, it works best on the page. Using his powers of deliberation, Dupin is an undeniable model for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe is in full command of his considerable powers here, employing the process of investigation and discovery, cleverly employed humor and terror, and a character who proves he’s smarter than everyone else.

7. “William Wilson”

It seems impossible to prove that Dostoyevsky was directly influenced by Poe, but it’s difficult to believe early novel The Double was not in some way informed by this compact tale that manages to invoke class, the concept of the doppelgänger, split-personality and the self-corrective of one’s conscience (all themes Dostoyevsky would make his calling card, culminating in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov).

In only a handful of other stories was Poe so deftly able to balance shock and humor, albeit of a very dark variety. Cognizant that the narrator is a scoundrel, it’s difficult to pity his plight even as we shudder at the humiliation he suffers. Although not often described as such, “William Wilson” is a tour de force psychological case study of an unreliable narrator tortured by a deservedly conflicted sense of self.

6. “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Darkness. Torture. Rats. Any questions? How about a slowly descending, foot-long razor ever-so-slowly descending from the ceiling, giving you plenty of time to think about how it will eventually (and ever-so-slowly) slice open down the middle? And that’s just a basic summary.

Here is a one of Poe’s most fully realized attempts at “totality”. Poe creates a complete atmosphere of terror, where the narrator and reader understands it’s not random, his captors are very aware of the conditions they’ve created, making the tension difficult to endure. Where other stories describe, in often excruciating detail, the anguish inflicted on an overly sensitive individual, in this one Poe makes the reader acutely aware of their own senses: unable to see inside the pit, smelling the rats as they gnaw at the ropes, hearing the deliberate hiss of the pendulum, feeling the sweat frozen by the fear of death.

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5. “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Another one that’s easy to imagine Dostoyevsky studying, this time in the construction of his underground man (Notes from Underground): an unreliable narrator, or a narrator so reliable – -and truthful—that he indicts himself in the attempt to be understood, and pitied. As a study of horror, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, perhaps Poe’s most (in)famous story, seems tame to contemporary audiences. But as an examination of obsession and psychosis?

An amazingly compressed rendering of a pathology pushed to irrational extremes, Poe laid the groundwork for everyone from Fantômas to Norman Bates. The real fear an adult can derive from this story is not the narrator’s brutality or even innocence, but his insistence that he’s sane.

With understated irony, Poe decodes the self-deceived stratagem of our most dangerous sociopaths.

4. “The Masque of the Red Death”

Although if only considered an unrivaled allegory of death (and its inevitability), that somewhat superficial analysis still sells this one short as a blistering critique of social stratification. Here Poe uses a rampant disease to illustrate not only the behaviors but attitudes of the haves toward the have-nots: actively walling themselves inside a fortified castle while misery wipes out the countryside, the superbly named Prince Prospero and his court can’t be bothered with empathy for the afflicted, they have lavish masquerade balls to attend.

A masterful clinic of the Gothic aesthetic ensues as different-colored rooms are described, the air of revelry undercut with hourly reminders of mortality, courtesy of the ebony clock. Finally, there’s the spectacle of a silent intruder who mockingly moves from room to room, until finally confronted by the unfortunate prince.

And then, comeuppance courtesy of one of the great closing lines in literary history: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

3. “The Black Cat”

Self-loathing? Poe, at times, makes the Grunge and Goth movements look like an ecstasy-addled rave. His irredeemable spiritual desolation was rooted not in anything like the info-overload pressure of too many choices we confront today, or finding the perfect partner or job, but fear of poverty, hunger and the unremarkable ailments that preyed upon humanity for so many centuries before sufficient medical advancements were made. He lived in a time when even libraries might not have the information you needed, so you wrote it down or took to sea or went insane as a matter of principle.

In “The Black Cat”, when the narrator’s abuse of the bottle becomes unmanageable, it seems not autobiographical so much as an expression of the author’s greatest fear: that his appetite for alcohol would poison his personality and override his ability to create. It’s also Poe’s first extended interrogation of PERVERSENESS (all caps here, just like the story), which is described as an “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature.” The image of the corrupted narrator, hanging his beloved cat with tears streaming down his cheeks, remains among the most pitiful, and genuinely haunting images in the Poe catalog.

Once more, it’s tantalizing to contemplate the ways Dostoyevsky may well have been developing the possibilities of an irresistible perversity driving one to self-defeat (which Poe himself expanded upon in “The Imp of the Perverse”) in both The Double and Crime and Punishment. “The Black Cat”, while quite successful as a spooky tale with an outrageous ending, presents Poe the psychologist at his most incisive—and unsettling.

2. “The Fall of the House of Usher”

If “The Masque of the Red Death” features one of the all-time great closing lines, “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains one of the most sublime opening passages: in one extended paragraph containing 417 words, Poe provides an enduring showcase for his “unity of effect” theory. Practically every image, every action, every word is dedicated toward the invocation of dread, and the suspense careens toward a conclusion that is literally shattering (in several senses of the word).

The tale concerns itself with the narrator and his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, as well as his twin sister Madeline. And yet the main character is the house itself. The narrator feels a palpable sense of dreariness and decay as he approaches the family mansion, a foreboding that comes full circle as the house collapses into itself in the final scene.

It’s the effect the house has on its tenants, however, where Poe couples supernatural suspense with a human frailty to devastating effect. Sensitive to the point of intolerance to sound, Roderick has become an imploding specter of nervous energy and despair. As he confesses to his friend, “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”

With astonishing economy (this story could—and likely would, by a lesser writer—have easily been stretched into a novel, albeit with lesser impact and effect), Poe manages to invoke his enduring preoccupation of live burial, split personalities, ruminate on the sentience of inanimate objects, and complicate the notions of art imitating life and vice versa, all while steadily orchestrating the ultimate confrontation (twin vs. twin, brother vs. sister, human vs. house, life vs. death). Tragic and absurd as the events become, the narrator is content to leave it as a family matter, hastily escaping as the history of the house and its occupants sink into nothingness.

1. “The Cask of Amontillado”

We’ve discussed a perfect opening section and a perfect closing sentence; “The Cask of Amontillado” is just perfection, period. It represents the consummation of so many of Poe’s aesthetic innovations, crafted so each sentence builds upon the next (like an expertly tiered stone wall…), amping up the humor, irony and, finally, horror. Not a word wasted, an image unnecessary, a line of dialogue inessential and yet, despite the formal symmetry at its heart, a mystery.

What is the insult that drives Montresor’s homicidal rage? It’s never clear, and that only adds an element of menace. Is Montresor, like many of Poe’s most inscrutable murderers, more or less insane? Put another way, it’s difficult to fathom, since he and Fortunato are still at least superficially cordial, any offense that would warrant live entombment.

As with “The Masque of the Red Death”, Poe nimbly operates on multiple levels: there’s an element of class disparity and resentment seething within the dialogue. When Montresor insists that he is, in fact, a mason (one of the delightful ironies, as he pulls out his trowel), it’s easy to overlook Fortunato’s offensive disbelief (“You? Impossible! A mason?”).

There’s also the not inconsiderable matter of Montresor’s family crest, wherein “the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” It’s simple to imagine Montresor is the foot smiting the serpent, but it’s possibly more appropriate to consider Montresor as the snake, refusing to die or, if he’s to be defeated, fighting to the death. The motto “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit” (You will not harm me with impunity”) is at once appropriate for his character, yet repugnant.

A writer has succeeded if, in creating a story, a single unforgettable image is imprinted within the reader’s mind. How many such scenes exist in this one short tale? The image of a drunken Fortunato (that name!), in motley—playing the clown, being played for a clown—insistent on proving his expertise, as he’s drawn deeper into the catacombs; the aforementioned passage concerning whether Montresor is, in fact, a mason (producing the trowel, one of the great incidents of foreshadowing in fiction); Montresor, the mason, hurriedly piling brick upon brick; Fortunato, finally comprehending his plight, screaming inside the depths of his crypt, only to have Montresor, full of malevolent confidence, screaming back at him (no one will hear us down here, my friend).

And finally, the most cold-blooded line in Poe’s collected works: “My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Is it, finally, the pang of human remorse? Or is it one last twist of the trowel, one final act of impunity to repay the insult made more than 50 years before? Like the insult itself, we’ll never know.

 

*Originally published at PopMatters on 10/29/15.

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Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Revisited)

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Cont’d:

PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The second (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Woods, from Sleater-Kenney. It looks like this was their swan song and, if so, it’s a hell of a note to go out on.

Exhibit A:

Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00?s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation.

The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour: a wonderful anomaly that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Exhibit B:

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks as hard and drops jaws as low as anything anyone else did this decade. It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as explode into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place and made a defining statement.

Exhibit C:

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