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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us now praise famous men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Rush: “2112” (from 2112)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. King Crimson “Red” (from Red)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 24th annual honor was awarded last week and Erri De Luca takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Day Before Happiness. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of the worst passage from 2 years ago, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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The Weeklings: Solutions for Oncoming Political Darkness

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In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

–Bertolt Brecht

I –and my fellow editors and compatriots at The Weeklings— share thoughts about awareness, resistance and, yes, the ceaseless need to create and proliferate art. My contribution is directly below; please follow the link to see the rest of the excellent pieces.

 

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

This immortal quote, from the always-reliable and never irrelevant George Orwell, is as important today as it’s ever been. Never mind the very real macro concerns about the environment, civil liberties, and crucial social programs, we are already witnessing despicable—and, let’s face it, heretofore inconceivable—signs of impending trouble, on micro levels. Every spray-painted swastika, each threat (uttered aloud or under the cowardly cover of social media) and every implied or explicit appeal to censorship is a sign, a lone holler seeking imitation to serve as oxygen. Intolerance needs collaboration to sustain it, like a carcass feeding maggots. As such, many of the simple acts of personal and artistic expression we’ve been fortunate to take for granted (particularly as whites, most especially as white males) are now likely to be scrutinized, decried and, if possible, curtailed. It goes without saying that any American with a functioning moral compass will confront acts of aggression and intervene peacefully but without compunction. As writers, it’s incumbent upon us to bear witness and engender solidarity, by any means necessary. Creativity in the face of repression is always indispensable, but on a fundamental level, every gesture of ill-will and ignorance must be met with an urgent refusal to countenance it. Retreating into the relative safety of silence (or worse, apathy) is not an option.

In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.

Orwell, again. We’re finding ourselves in a time where we can rely on neither the press nor politicians to inform us or inspire the better angels of our nature. This is a degradation of the American experiment, but it need not be a tragedy. History seems intent on recycling its ugliest examples, and we owe those who sacrificed, then, and those among us, now, who are most vulnerable, to meet this challenge with dignity and resolve. During times of darkness, our best artists have dedicated their gifts, if not their lives, to exposing duplicity and promoting enlightenment. Imitation of their audacity, in the days to follow, will be the sincerest—and most vital—form of flattery.

Read the rest, HERE.

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Led Zeppelin: Day by Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2006.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got more Love if you want it.

And more, if you can handle the truth.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14, and is featured in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

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My First Time (Revisited)

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It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

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My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

 

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last. In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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

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Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

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

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

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

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

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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