RIP Walter Becker, Your Work Here is Done

Walter-Becker

RIP Walter Becker.

Not many musicians were involved in a run as productive and consistently sublime as Steely Dan’s. My life, in short, would make much less sense without his work.

Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.

Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still fantastic.

Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ‘90s and making new music in the new millennium.

Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday,” for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ‘70s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro—to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.

Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ‘70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.

And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else—the ultimate sign of dubious immortality—born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. As such, it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation, which are just enough to render the glory days more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.

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

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  1. Yes: “Awaken” (from Going for the One)

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going for the One. “Awaken” is, along with Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” by Rush, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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

The music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It is not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to defy trends and commercial-minded fashion often is created without any of those considerations in mind. King Crimson, like all of the best-loved prog rock bands, consistently shaped and revised variations of a unique conception, and arguably created a whole new type of music. Take the title track from 1970’s Lizard (upping the progressive ante by featuring guest vocalist Jon Anderson, of Yes): nothing like this exists on any other record from any other genre. It is a seamless integration of jazz, classical and rock, the sum total making complete sense once you accept it on its own terms. At the same time ELP was mimicking Mussorgsky, King Crimson utilizes Ravel’s “Bolero”, employing session musicians to embellish the sound with trumpets, oboes and an English horn. The results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Led by the creatively restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; on this not immediately accessible but indelible track they transcend it.

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

Most everyone would agree that The Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd the first (and last) band in space, but not as many people might appreciate that, if it were not for 1971’s Meddle, there would have been no The Dark Side of the Moon. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group (a very positive development), forging an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound. The point that cannot be overemphasized is that “Echoes” is not so much an inspired product of its time as much as it is the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward with each successive effort. “Echoes” unfolds deliberately, with carefully structured precision. The merging of Gilmour and Wright’s voices—a harbinger of good things to come, although on “Time” Wright sings the choruses while Gilmour handles the verses—is appropriately mesmerizing, and the two remain uncannily in synch on their respective instruments. “Echoes” also signals a minor step forward for Waters lyrically (the major step would be the aforementioned, and unavoidable, The Dark Side of the Moon.

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

Genesis invoked an older Britain with both whimsy and resolution, culminating in their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound. While it’s true that for their next effort, they (take your pick) took things a tad too far even for their own ambitions and abilities, took prog rock to another, unprecedented level, made an album that was ostensibly more straightforward and yet more out there than anything they, or anyone, ever did, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway takes place, of all places, in previously unexplored territory: America. Except when it doesn’t, including the myriad left-field excursions that occur somewhere outside time and space. Or something. The album is “about” the split personality of a homeless kid named Rael, adrift in New York City, like Moby Dick is about a whale. Whether the convoluting and extremely challenging narrative lends clarity or increases confusion, one thing is certain: it’s a hell of a ride and boasts some of the band’s best work. Any number of songs could compete as representative of the whole, but “The Carpet Crawlers” seems to synthesize everything that is so weird and wonderful about this collective, and also an apotheosis of sorts in terms of where they had been headed and could (and, ultimately, couldn’t) go. (Seriously: one almost fears contemplating where a mind has gone to envision such images, yet remains forever indebted that they are part of our permanent record: “A salamander scurries into flame to be destroyed/Imaginary creatures are trapped in birth on celluloid/The fleas cling to the golden fleece/Hoping they’ll find peace.” Wow.) It would be impossible, not to mention pointless, trying to isolate Peter Gabriel’s most incomparable performance (with Genesis or afterwards), but “The Carpet Crawlers” helps bolster a compelling case that he has few, if any, rivals as a frontman.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Pictures at an Exhibition” (from Pictures at an Exhibition)

That ELP had the audacity to not only invoke classical music (as King Crimson had done with Holst on “The Devil’s Triangle” from In the Wake of Poseidon) but to actually “cover” a celebrated masterwork was not surprising. This band had the ego and indifference necessary to conceive such sacrilege; importantly, they also had the ability and vision to pull it off. A band like ELP not only invited critical venom, they practically begged for it (when they titled a later album Works it signified, possibly, the shark-jumping moment of the decade). On the other hand, they did not pander and they could not be pigeonholed: none of their early albums sound especially alike, and they were really interested in satisfying nothing else but their own curiosity. It is debatable that the only thing that pissed off the purists and prigs in the “critical establishment” more than their homage to Mussorgsky was how wonderful they made it sound.

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

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be terrifying), and then, after the bird calls and an incantation to the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

  1. Rush: “Cygnus X-1 Book Two: Hemispheres” (from Hemispheres)

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly clicking, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Dogs” (from Animals)

No band besides the Beatles departed (or progressed) more radically from their initial sound than Pink Floyd. After the kaleidoscopic whimsy of their early work and the meditative space rock that followed, Floyd followed up the unfollow-up-able The Dark Side of the Moon with an album that may have been even better, Wish You Were Here. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten summed up the prevailing mood when he insolently scribbled “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. Whether or not any of this had to do with Floyd’s next album, lyricist Roger Waters shared one thing in common with the punks: he was pissed off. He was also erudite and technically proficient as a musician. The result is the darkest, most literate and (arguably) timeless entry in the Pink Floyd catalog, Animals.

The album’s centerpiece, “Dogs”, might represent the zenith of the always uneasy, increasingly tenuous creative alliance between Waters and David Gilmour. Waters writes some of his most scathing (and brilliant) lyrics and Gilmour sounds like a different person altogether than the man who sang “Echoes”; his guitar playing is huge, at times oppressive and then soaring. This indictment of greed and the “dog-eat-dog” social code that is endorsed in the workplace and venerated in such vulgar fashion on reality TV will never lose its relevance, because it will always describe the con-artists and crooks who come, inexorably, to distinguish each subsequent generation.

  1. Yes: “And You and I” (from Close to the Edge)

Let us now praise famous men.

As it pertains to all-things-prog, Yes, to invoke A Few Good Men, is the band we want on that wall; the band we need on that wall. Easy to mock, not as easy to dismiss as some might wish, they are also, perhaps more so than any band, the genre’s best citizens. Yes, during their glory years, were arguably the most compelling ambassadors for this genre, which did—and does—confuse, exasperate and electrify listeners like no other. Like many of their peers, they made what might lazily be described as “music for music’s sake”, but while it sacrificed nothing in terms of integrity for the pursuit of filthy lucre, it managed to attract millions of listeners for the simplest (and purest) of reasons: it was too exceptional to be ignored.

As a case study, “And You and I” is a song where one can study every sound, every single second, and find something to savor (even after so many decades, and to the most familiar ears, it somehow manages to surprise and delight). It might be suggested Yes never sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Suffice it to say, both Steve Howe and the indefatigable Jon Anderson do career-best work, as though their confidence and purpose could not be contained. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

  1. Jethro Tull: “A Passion Play” (from A Passion Play)

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the requisite flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

  1. Genesis: “Firth of Fifth” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Peter Gabriel was the Alpha and Omega, and while Phil Collins had the fortune (or karma) to become more successful than would have seemed reasonable, Genesis wouldn’t have been Genesis without those other guys. That’s obvious, but it also requires persistent reminding. Michael Rutherford must, unfortunately, endure as perhaps the most overlooked bassist (and 12-string guitar player!) of the prog era, and while there’s considerable love for both keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist Steve Hackett, perhaps it’s impossible to overpraise them. “Firth of Fifth” is an unqualified stunner from start to finish, and Banks, who sketched out the initial composition and whose piano/organ dominates it, makes perhaps his decisive contribution to the progressive canon. But it’s the extended soloing from Hackett, mid-song, that places this one in rarefied air: with swirling notes from Banks (and furious, locked-in interplay from Collins and Rutherford), Banks states a theme (established nicely by Gabriel’s flute), then restates it, then states it again, ratcheting up the emotion in the service of a feeling that’s seldom been equaled, in prog rock or any rock. At times it sounds like a guitar god broke into a Bach recital, at others like Hackett is exploring a theme like a jazz soloist, but mostly it’s a strange and wonderful achievement, a rare instance where popular music attains an “otherness” only the best art, in any medium, even aspires to.

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

There is a simple reason The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it’s one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you’re not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy and mixed blessing of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Tarkus” (from Tarkus)

Debate still abounds regarding the great American novel. No such discussion occurs when it comes to the terrible British prog rock album. Fans and foes alike have aligned and rendered a verdict: Tarkus. Look at the cover for Christ’s sake. Therein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror” and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (or idiots) like me call… the horror! (But in a good way.) Listen, some prog rock bands (like Rush) had a penchant for reimagining or reinterpreting classical literary legends like Apollo and Dionysus (see #14) while others (like Rush) would create their own mythical heroes (By Tor, Snow Dog, etc.). Looking at this cover art, and seeing song titles like “Stones of Years”, “Manticore” and “Aquatarkus” (not to be confused with “Aqualung”), many music fans ask for the check, understandably. Here’s the thing, though: all the armadillo tank drawings and semi-preposterous titles –and lyrics– are just window dressing for the artistry that occurs once these well medicated, undeniably brilliant musicians throw down. And throw down they do, in ways that make myopic pinheads lament how a man with unrivaled keyboard skill—like Keith Emerson’s—might have made so much better use of his talents had he dedicated his life to playing Bach recitals in sparsely attended concert halls.

  1. King Crimson: “Starless” (from Red)

You want an epic? “Starless” is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision (even at twelve minutes), and the final word on mellotron as MVP of prog mood enhancers. Even from a band that made a career perfecting closing tracks, “Starless” is possibly unsurpassed in terms of its depth and darkness; it could only be the last song from the last album King Crimson made in the ‘70s. Robert Fripp, of course, could do fury and he could do calm, and he often balanced everything in between; on no other song does he quite establish trepidation, crank it up to consternation, and then release it like the motherfucking Kraken. “Starless” builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the (bible) black; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

If prog dipped into the murky waters of jazz and classical music, King Crimson, never content with half-measures, went full free-jazz (think Ornette Coleman, with Mel Collins and a fortuitous cameo by Ian McDonald, as well as Bill Bruford hitting the skins like a wrecking ball) and Wagner, not as a cheesy invocation from a lazy critic, but all out Götterdämmerung: Twilight of the Progs. Rock music was never, with the possible exception of In the Court of the Crimson King, at once this frightening and exquisite: “Starless” is ugly beauty of the first order. The band was never the same, nor could they be, after this swan song of sorts, and that’s only natural. The listener, no matter how intimate they might be with this material, is never the same after each and every listen, and that’s something of a miracle.

  1. Rush: “2112” (from 2112)

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn Rand-inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing—an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. (Also: did any of these critics take a look at what the band was wearing on the back cover?) In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush—in general and prog rock in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Thick as a Brick” (from Thick as a Brick)

Jethro Tull were on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick As a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, never outdone in terms of scope and ambition.

  1. Genesis: “Supper’s Ready” (from Foxtrot)

Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure. An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Peter Gabriel was always amongst the most theatrical of performers, and during his tenure with Genesis he created innumerable characters he (and we) live vicariously through. The creative schizophrenia of the “Willow Farm” section alone could ensure Gabriel was remembered fondly amongst prog fans, and it’s a godsend of sorts that we have live footage of this material being presented in a live setting. Incidentally, although this is, in many ways, Gabriel’s piece de resistance, it’s a complete band effort, and each musician makes some of their most significant and cherished contributions.

This is prog rock’s Ulysses: a superhuman effort that can confound and enthrall you, often at the same time. The question is not what “Supper’s Ready” is about, it’s what isn’t it about (tentative answer: Everything?). Peter Gabriel’s own two cents? “(It’s) a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible….I’ll leave it at that.” That succinct description, like the song itself, is satisfactory while still begging for more…much more. But, one of the reasons this particular track ranks so highly (indeed, there will likely be folks furious it’s not given the top slot on this list) is that, like all successful art, it works in spite—or because of—an inability to easily explain it, and it leaves itself open to interpretations, any of which may be unassailable in the eyes of beholder. “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?”, the fourth section of the song inquires. It’s a rhetorical question. It’s also the question and answer of this song, this band, and, at its best, this genre.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (from Wish You Were)

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after The Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics—so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to the completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

  1. Yes: “Close to the Edge” (from Close to the Edge)

In a feature written several years ago wherein I searched for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of elation that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it’s a gold standard that was never surpassed.

Every aspect of this, the consummate Yes song, in terms of conception and delivery, is virtually flawless: from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On albums before and after, there were many individual moments that can be isolated and treasured, and more than a handful where the entire outfit outdoes themselves; “Close to the Edge” maintains an unprecedented (and unparalleled) force of conviction that never flags: it’s just under nineteen minutes of ceaselessly renewed ecstasy.

  1. King Crimson: “The Court of the Crimson King” (from In the Court of the Crimson King)

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “The Court of the Crimson King” remains the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid is the same kind of simpleton who hears Charlie Parker and envisions a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back.

“The Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/31/17.

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

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  1. King Crimson “Red” (from Red)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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