Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

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

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

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

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

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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A Portrait of the Boss As a Young Man

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

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

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

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

Those Romantic Young Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streets of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver Me From Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Days

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

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

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

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

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

No Surrender

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

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

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

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Why Not Pink Floyd? (Revisited)

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The Pink Floyd Discovery Studio Album Box Set

I. See Saw

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

The question is: Should you?

The answer: I’m not sure.

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

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

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

II. Pinks (Three Different Ones)

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

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

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

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Rating: 10

III. Point Me at the Sky

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

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

The results, remarkable in and of themselves, assume an added layer of relevance when considered as primarily the result of one man’s singular vision (as opposed to the Four Fabs, or five if you count George Martin—and you should). The three selections, “Chapter 24”, “Bike”, and a remix of “Matilda Mother” (an early version with different lyrics) are an adequate overview, but anyone who wants to more fully understand Pink Floyd, 1967, psychedelic rock, and one of the more consistently satisfying debut albums ever is obliged to acquire The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

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

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

 

IV. Let There Be More Light

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

A Saucerful of Secrets
Rating: 7

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

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

Soundtrack from the Film More
Rating: 8

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

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

Ummagumma
Rating: 6

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

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

V. Childhood’s End

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

Atom Heart Mother
Rating: 8

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

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

Meddle
Rating: 9

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

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

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

Obscured By Clouds
Rating: 8

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

VI. Welcome to the Machine

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

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

The Dark Side of the Moon
Rating: 10

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

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

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

Wish You Were Here
Rating: 10

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

Animals
Rating: 10

VII. The Thin Ice

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

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

The Wall
Rating: 8

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

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

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

VIII. Us and Them

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

The Final Cut
Rating: 5

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

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

A Momentary Lapse of Reason
Rating: 5

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

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

The Division Bell
Rating: 4

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

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

IX. Postscript: We Call It Riding the Gravy Train

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

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

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

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Never Say Nevermore: A Reappraisal of Edgar Allan Poe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10. “The Gold Bug”

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

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

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

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

8. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

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

7. “William Wilson”

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

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

6. “The Pit and the Pendulum”

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

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

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5. “The Tell-Tale Heart”

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

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

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

4. “The Masque of the Red Death”

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

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

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

3. “The Black Cat”

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

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

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

2. “The Fall of the House of Usher”

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

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

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

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

1. “The Cask of Amontillado”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Revisited)

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Cont’d:

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

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

Exhibit A:

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

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

Exhibit B:

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

Exhibit C:

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Iron And Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog (Revisited)

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

I contributed a couple. The first (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Shepherd’s Dog, from Iron & Wine. A masterpiece that I return to often.

Exhibit A:

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

Exhibit B:

It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream—it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

Exhibit C:

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

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

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012.

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Reappraising Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’

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Jethro Tull, again? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

The reason Tull warrants continued discussion is because unlike just about all other prog rock acts of the mid-‘70s, they were—in their businesslike, seemingly obligatory fashion—cranking out one masterful effort each year.

In 1975, progressive rock was, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, already on its way to the dinosaur pit. Pink Floyd was, arguably, hitting their prime stride, releasing possibly their most cohesive and satisfying album Wish You Were Here, but many other acts from the great old days were on the ropes, running out of steam or gone altogether. Yes was on a hiatus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and The Moody Blues were not dead but shells of their former selves, Rush was just getting into the game, and King Crimson had called it quits. Genesis soldiered on, and made a string of respectable albums with Collins at the helm (and then made a longer string of increasingly commercial, successful albums), but many would agree that things were never the same once Peter Gabriel rolled up his freak flag and went it alone.

So, aside from Pink Floyd, who were now an album every-other-year (at best) outfit, Jethro Tull were the kings of the hill, in terms of consistency and quality. The benefit of hindsight makes their proficiency, and the quality of the work, more obvious and more important to acknowledge. Where some (much?) of the material from prog rock’s heyday is decidedly of its time (for better or worse) and, lyrically, is often acknowledged with a wink and a shrug, Jethro Tull’s work in general, and on Minstrel in the Gallery in particular, needs no defense nor any nostalgia to be appreciated.

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One of the reasons the genre seemed stale or at least more than a little played out, circa 1975 (hello Emerson, Lake & Palmer), is because the formula was no longer sufficient to inspire fresh work, or at least be heard with fresh ears. Indulgence for indulgence’s sake was rightly losing favor with a wider audience, and at the mid-way point of a new decade, new approaches were necessary. As the first punk bands proved, a radically different approach would be rewarded. Punk, with its lo-fi lack of proficiency or pretense, was in almost every regard anti-prog (for better or worse).

So Jethro Tull, never especially fashionable, soldiered on without much regard for critical acclaim from the so-called establishment, powered by the industrious engine of Ian Anderson, who was just hitting his stride.

Discussion of Anderson’s lyrical prowess is inevitable, and appropriate, and mentioned in previous reviews. Where he did not shy away from autobiographical elements (especially on Benefit), his specialty was linking the personal with a reporter’s eye for both absurdity and the universal (especially on Aqualung); on Thick as a Brick he displays a sociologist’s eye for societal mores, and in his inimitably impish way, took his sledge hammer to all manner of very British sacred cows (class, religion, etc.); on A Passion Play he used every tool in his musical and intellectual arsenal. On Minstrel in the Gallery we have less of the sneering post-adolescent angst and rage and more of the wizened perspective of an adult who has toured the world, seen some things and is able to comment accordingly.


If the title track is a bit too literal (get it? The musician seeing himself in the crowd…), it’s also a tour de force of sorts that, in Andersonian fashion, takes the piss out of the cult of self/celebrity while also offering some quite poetic observations on the ways artist and audience interact:

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run
And he threw away his looking-glass
He saw his face in everyone

Anderson, who has always been an underrated acoustic guitar player (most folks, understandably, see him as the wide-eyed and one-legged flautist), started pushing himself, notably during the band’s Holy Trinity. While his work, pound for pound, on A Passion Play may be his best, Minstrel in the Gallery represents his most singular and sustained acoustic achievement: his work throughout is memorable and masterful.


It would be a mistake to describe this as either an acoustic or restrained affair, as evidenced by “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (containing some of Martin Barre’s tastiest shredding), as well as the rocking sections of the title track and “Black Satin Dancer”, but the acoustic is ever-present and it’s easy to see how these tunes grew from solo excursions to full collaborations. If it’s once again necessary to single out drummer Barrie Barlow for the way his busy sticks augment and embellish the proceedings to delightful effect, than let it once again be stated.

The secret weapon here, more so than any earlier album, is David Palmer, previously employed to judicious and exhilarating effect (think the soaring orchestral flair toward the end of Thick as a Brick, or the subtle, gorgeous string embellishments on “Reasons for Waiting”) is now a full equal; for the first time it’s both appropriate and accurate to draw comparisons to what George Martin was doing for The Beatles: not “merely” adding dignified touches here and there or inserting informed color commentary at key moments, but completely in the mix, the orchestral effects as important as the guitars and keyboards. (Not for nothing, either, since this album is so heavy on the acoustic touches, the fastidiously remastered sound does, indeed, bring out nuances and touches not previously detectable.)

Palmer takes already remarkable compositions to that rarefied “other place” on the album’s twin highlights, “Requiem” and “Baker St. Muse”. On the former, a gentle tone poem, we can now appreciate, courtesy of the previously unreleased early version, the way this simple (sounding) song evolved from whimsical allegory to a fully realized and devastating take on the clichéd romantic break-up. (Initial lyrics describe a leaf; the final song replaces the leaf with a bird, which of course works as British double entendre for a woman).

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train time-table blurred
Close behind the taxi stand:
Saw her face in the tear-drop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go,
And taking in the morning, heard myself singing, “Oh Requiem”
Here I go again, it’s the same old story…
Well, I saw a bird today, I looked aside and walked
Away along the strand.


As with previous Steven Wilson-supervised special editions, we get refined sound courtesy of the 5.1 surround and remix, as well as a truly generous and authoritative booklet complete with lyrics, anecdotes and interviews. Much of that material ranges from quirky to superfluous but, of course, insight from the actual band proves priceless. Most fans will concur that Minstrel in the Gallery seems as autobiographical as any Tull album, before or after, and there is a vulnerability and sensitivity that the songwriter (obviously, with hindsight) was simply growing into.

Anderson himself provides salient insight into his writing process, and also does a service for anyone who has tried to understand (or explain) the impulse to turn the “personal” into something less self-involved and applicable: “As a lyric writer I think that leaving some space is an important ingredient, that you don’t answer all the questions in the lyrics, you do leave the listeners to put something of themselves into the scenario and think about it in the light of their own experiences, or indeed experiences they’ve not yet had.” (Liner notes.)

Perhaps the finest distillation of the aforementioned reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, is “Baker St. Muse” which, put plainly, showcases Anderson and his band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Barre and Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for Palmer, 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.

For anyone curious, but unsure, about whether this 40th Anniversary edition is a compulsory acquisition, consider the (requisite) bonus discs. As mentioned, there is the 5.1 remaster and the Steven Wilson remix; there’s also a complete concert from July 1975 (Paris) that has never before been available. On one hand, it’s yet another sampler of hits (“My God”, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and, of course, “Aqualung”) but on the other, it’s a document of one of the best Tull line-ups. There are also the odds and sods of demo versions and out-takes (like the delightful lark “Summerday Sands” and, even though, like the master take, it’s less than one minute long, the alternate version of “Grace” is a special treat for Tull enthusiasts.

To summarize, these annual remaster projects are appropriate because Jethro Tull was making an album every year in the ‘70s; they are necessary because even people who tolerate prog rock or give it a courteous mention still limit themselves to a handful of “classic” albums that few people will protest. One need not be a prog aficionado to understand that many outstanding efforts were produced as a matter of course in the early and mid-‘70s; Minstrel in the Gallery is one of them and it’s a crime to think fans who think they know aren’t aware of this near-masterpiece.

*Originally published 8/5/15 in PopMatters, my latest installment for my series on prog rock, The Amazing Pudding.

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Talking Jive, Mingus and John Goodman

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Today is the day. For John Goodman, that is.

And for you, if you are inclined to check out his new book, Jive-Colored Glasses: A Jazz Memoir.

And you should be inclined.

Here’s my take, blurb-style. (Full disclosure: I happily received an advance copy of the book and even more happily offered up my praise, accordingly):

We live in curious times, where we fondly recall and/or fictionalize some of our favorite things from the so-called good old days, where Old-Fashioneds were both drinks and philosophies, but the soundtrack is something contemporary and clueless–nostalgia without the nuance and names dropped without the knowledge. So how refreshing, and timely, to have an authentic guide from the old school to explain what mattered and why. John Goodman was there, and we are fortunate to have a first-person account of the great old days, someone with the inside scoop, who can articulate what we did right, what we still haven’t figured out, and why being engaged and bearing witness is our collective obligation. Our understanding of the proverbial then-and-now is profoundly insufficient without this vital document.

More on this project, and its author, at his blog.

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In July 2013–just about exactly two years ago to the day–my review of Goodman’s book, Mingus Speaks, dropped at PopMatters. Check it out, below.

Charles Mingus did not do small.

He was a big man, with big appetites, big ambitions, big grievances, big passions, big skills, and above all, a big vision.

By any reasonable criteria, he easily ranks as one of the foremost musicians and composers in American history: the scope of his recorded works is vast, varied and awe-inspiring. He can—and should—be included on any list alongside his hero Duke Ellington, and only Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk led as many remarkable bands and produced such a staggering body of work.

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved.

That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

It is, therefore, instructive to learn more about the forces that drove Mingus, and the impulses that, at times, derailed him. He could be his own worst enemy, as the burnt bridges, ruined relationships, and botched business deals demonstrate. Still, if he occasionally terrified the musicians in his employ, he frequently drove them to do their best work. The list of artists and industry veterans who stood by him (some of whom, like his widow Sue Mingus, actively promote his legacy to this day) is considerable.

John Goodman’s Mingus Speaks is a collection of previously unpublished interviews and recollections from bandmates, club owners, and jazz critics. While the various biographies on Mingus (Gene Santoro’s Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus is especially recommended) are illuminating, and the liner notes from his albums occasionally revelatory, there can be no substitute for hearing the colossus account for himself. Beneath the Underdog, his infamous autobiography, is required reading for any Mingus (or jazz) fan, but its digressions and frequent forays into obvious fiction fail to provide sufficient perception or clarity.

In these collected interviews, mostly conducted in the early ‘70s when Mingus was rebounding from years of turmoil, we get everything we’d expect: tall tales, candid insights, score settling, and the full range of topics that fascinated and inspired him. We get, in short, Mingus’s side of the story, which is particularly poignant considering he would succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979 (at the entirely too young age of 56).

For people like myself, who can never get enough of Mingus, much of this book is an exhilarating ride, an essential addition to our understanding of what made him such a unique and enduring iconoclast. He accounts for his proficiency, and the decades of practice, false starts, frustration and triumphs. He also takes every opportunity to discuss the men who encouraged him, ranging from obscure or unheard of to acknowledged masters like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. His theories (some fascinating; some preposterous) on everything from the Watts Riots to his controversial eviction from his loft (in 1968) are like many of his compositions: breathless, all-encompassing, unswerving. His consummate abilities (as a bassist, songwriter, jazz ambassador) are acknowledged by everyone who speaks of him.

Here are a handful of the literally hundreds of quotes I could pick from, which confirm what we know and, if anything, add additional layers to a man whose heart hung on every utterance—yet often managed to remain an enigma:

Mingus is a peculiar combination of perfectionist and… someone who always wants to experiment (Dan Morgenstern).

Well, Bud (Powell), Fats (Navarro) and Bird—they’re like saints to me. They gave everything. I think they really thought they were telling the people…the message, the spirit to live (Mingus).

I don’t think there is anybody in the music field who… he has not threatened to kill at one time or another, including his best friends (Dan Morgenstern).

He’s such a beautiful man. I’m glad he doesn’t talk, man, he says more with his silence and his music (Mingus, on Monk).

I feel a divine connection with eternal life when I write. I feel like something better than me is coming out of me (Mingus).

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

What more needs to be said?

(Speaking of Mingus, readers of this blog will know I’ve had more than a little to say, and as those of us in the know already know, enough can never, ever, be said of Mingus. Get hit in your soul HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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‘Pedro’ Is a Glorious Romp Full of Stories That Only Pedro Martinez Can Tell

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Any public figure, particularly an artist or athlete, is assured notoriety and immortality if they are known simply by their last name (think Bird or Beethoven), their nickname (think Bono or Babe) and, in rare instances (such as Elvis), their first name. Pedro Martinez, undoubtedly the preeminent pitcher of his era, did not take long to ensure he would be loved, loathed and feared, and during his career (especially his never-to-be-equaled run in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s), if someone said “Pedro”, there was no question who was being discussed.

As such, Pedro is a natural if inevitable title for his autobiography, written with veteran baseball scribe Michael Silverman. Anyone who worshipped at the mound Pedro dominated during his heyday understands he mostly let his performance on the field speak for him. Certainly, “Petey” was seldom timid to express himself, defend a teammate, or blast an opponent. He was also one of the wittiest and most amusing superstars of his time. Still, as smart and opinionated as Pedro has always been, fans—especially Red Sox fans—have been waiting impatiently for him to write about his experiences before, during and after he terrorized and, at times, owned, major league baseball.

A quick summary that scarcely does his achievements justice: eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young winner (could, and should have been five Cy Youngs), World Series champion. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians.

This book does not disappoint: Pedro discusses the privation of his homeland in the Dominican Republic, his odyssey through the minor and major leagues before becoming the King of Fenway Park, when each of his starts was an authentic event. Like so many future legends (Michael Jordan leaps to mind), Martinez was inspired by his setbacks, and he used the slights and doubts from myopic coaches and talent scouts as the motivation to prove himself. Pedro’s status was in flux for many years, and everywhere he went he encountered the same uncertainties: too skinny, too temperamental, insufficiently durable, a diva. The list goes on, and Pedro had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Green Monster, especially before he commanded the accolades and awards.

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Pedro was not only one of the best pitchers ever, he was one of the most savvy (with an injured arm he nevertheless came on in relief—using smoke and mirrors when his fastball was unavailable—to shut down the Cleveland Indians and get the Sox to the ALCS in 1999, one of the gutsiest and most memorable outings in postseason history) and unquestionably one of the most stubborn and, at times, inscrutable. As such, his memory is as sharp as his tongue and while he’s quick to name names (the haters, the skeptics), he also extols virtually everyone who helped or encouraged him, including coaches, host families and other players—especially older brother and role model Ramon, and the catcher with whom he worked to become the self-described “alpha male” of the American League, Jason Varitek.

Always fearless, Pedro never shies away from discussing the various controversies that dogged him. He feels he never got a fair shake with the Dodgers, the team that called him up from the minors, and he relishes every opportunity to remind (fellow legend) Tommy Lasorda how wrong the Hall of Famer’s assessment was. Traded to the Expos, Martinez came into his own, but also developed a reputation as a headhunter. Understanding the need to pitch inside, Pedro was never shy to back someone off the plate, and like Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson, if chin music was called for, Pedro was always happy to send a message. Considering his lithe frame and the fact that, early in his career in the National League he had to come to the plate several times each game, no one can say Pedro did not walk the walk.

Pedro’s direct and unflinching assessment of the steroid era, and the big-time players whose legacies are forever damaged by it, is a highlight. Also delicious is his recounting of the time he infamously assessed the ludicrous “curse of the Bambino” and offered up an epic quote for the ages: “I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” The import of this bravado for a snakebitten, suspicious Red Sox nation can never be underestimated, and Pedro will forever have all-time hero status for his (large) part in facing down the Yankees and flipping the script on the “evil empire”.

Like any renowned athlete, Pedro is revered for his results on the field. Like only the most exceptional public figures, it’s his personality that makes Pedro one of the most beloved players on a franchise filled with authentic legends. It’s debatable if any pitcher (or athlete?) combined such intensity and ebullience and whose very presence was so irresistible.

The only complaint, which is probably inevitable with any co-authored book, is that we don’t get Pedro’s unfettered perspective. We miss his “voice”, both the figurative in reading, and the literal: his unique accent and mischievous streak are best appreciated in hearing him talk. One wonders if hearing Pedro on an audio book would be more satisfying; one also wonders how much better (if less formal and official) this work would be if Pedro discarded convention—which would be utterly appropriate for him—and gave us a less filtered account. Naturally, we know when Sullivan is behind the wheel, as the clichés pile up like discarded dip in a dugout. Of course, no one is reading this book for the prose so much as the stories.

Pedro is a control freak to the end: while his candor is most welcome, anyone looking for trash talk or the inside scoop on his years in Boston will be disappointed. In the end, Pedro insists on being totally in control, and we get only what he wants to offer up. Perhaps because he, understandably, remains so confident and is content, Pedro has no axes to grind, and it’s to his credit that we don’t get score-settling or unnecessary minutiae. Nevertheless, some fans will probably come away wanting more (more scoop, more controversy), and that is, of course, precisely how Pedro wants it.

*This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 6/20/15.

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