RIP Walter Becker, Your Work Here is Done

Walter-Becker

RIP Walter Becker.

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

Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

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Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Two

SONNY

Wherein five jazz saxophonists “slum” and make truly indelible contributions to five well-loved and much-played rock songs.

Considering one of the all-time ALL TIME greats (Sonny Rollins) is on this list, an anecdote from the sessions seems in order:

MICK JAGGER: “I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”

5. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”:

4. Dick Parry on Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”:

3. David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”:

2. Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”:

1. Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”:

Bonus insight from Jagger (EPIC!!!):

“I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

lisasimpson1

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question  that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Two

Wherein five jazz saxophonists “slum” and make truly indelible contributions to five well-loved and much-played rock songs.

Considering one of the all-time ALL TIME greats (Sonny Rollins) is on this list, an anecdote from the sessions seems in order:

MICK JAGGER: “I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”

5. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”:

4. Dick Parry on Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”:

3. David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”:

2. Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”:

1. Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”:

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a  knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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If Two Jazz Fans Fight on the Internet, Does Anyone Hear It?

Kind of like two trees falling in the forest, right?

Well, for anyone (and I mean “one”) who may wonder what it sounds like when two jazz fans fight, here is the ugly, unvarnished tale of the tape (to be cont’d?).

Brief back story: in June I took the opportunity to express my (not particularly controversial) opinion that Miles Davis’s second great quintet was the best band of musicians to ever assemble in one group, here (the piece also appeared at PopMatters). Here is some of what I wrote:

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

And then, after discussing the merits of the individual players, lamented that Wayne Shorter still seems to get short shrift when all-time greats are mentioned:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

So then, about a week later, I went ahead and sang the praises of Wayne Shorter in greater detail, here (a piece that also appeared at PopMatters). This is how I concluded the piece:

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

I’ll confess I did not think anything I offered up was particularly debatable or objectionable. But when it comes to the so-called jazz intellegentia, all bets are off. Sure enough, a very hip(ster) reader of PopMatters felt obliged to chime in and (I have to hope unintentionally) misinterpret both the literal words and –more egregiously– the entire spirit of where I was coming from and why I was writing.

His letter, which prompted a response in kind, are below.

Him:

I am sorry, but I find your article very stupid.

I am a jazzman, I love jazz and I can’t live without it, but when I see sentences like, if you don’t like this, then you don’t like jazz, I can say anything but “stupid”.

First, you can love basie or billy without loving modern jazz. Jazz rythm is the most important thingin my life but it can’t be different for other people.

Twice, I know hundreds of people who like jazz and lots of them don’t like Wayne that much and it doesn’t mean they don’t like modern jazz. Moreover they may be much more advanced in their tastes than you, when it comes to real jazz ( they love Cecil taylor, the last thing of Coltrane and so on…)

You can give your opinion and as you say you are here for that, but don’t do what you are fight against. Let people have their own tastes and enlarge their tastes, not the contrary.

Best,

Serge

Me:

Serge,

Appreciate the thoughts and while I’m disappointed you found the piece “very stupid” I’m glad it provided you with the opportunity to vindicate the honor of those *really* misunderstood and sophisticated jazz aficionados (presumably for whom Wayne Shorter is simply too conventional).

Unfortunately, and more than a little ironically, your protestation kind of misses the purpose of my rather tongue-in-cheek point. Which is: the proposition that if a person, who has never taken the time (for understandable and legitimate reasons) to check out jazz does not find much to like in these rather accessible and representative post-bop recordings by Shorter, it’s unlikely that they will find much in the more free and “out” works of the last half-century (and for the record, I endorse Cecil Taylor, thank you very little, but find that there are two primary reasons I don’t recommend him first when talking to would-be jazz fans: one, however much I dig ‘Silent Tongues’, in my experience it’s not exactly an ideal aperitif for the uninitiated; two, dropping late period Coltrane (which I actually discuss in a recent appraisal of Trane’s career) or Cecil Taylor or Henry Threadgill as proof of my avant-garde bona fides would make me precisely the insufferable poseur I excoriate in this piece).

That said, I reckon there has to be at least one or maybe three people out there who ‘Speak No Evil’ would not speak to, but who would connect, at first listen, with Sun Ra’s ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy’. Likewise, I am sure there are more than a handful of folks who just love pre-bop jazz but don’t care for anything after Coleman Hawkins; the problem is, they are all 130 years old.

The central impetus of this piece (and the previous entry on Eric Dolphy, and whatever subsequent ones I write) is to hopefully turn on a handful of open-minded listeners to some great music that—whether because of some insidious stereotypes that still exist about jazz, or because they encounter uber-hipsters who feel that John Zorn sold out after ‘Naked City’, or Albert Ayler sold out…by dying, which understandably confirms the worst clichés about how *real* jazz fans roll—they might find worthwhile. It is a humble endeavor that I imagine artists like Wayne Shorter might even appreciate—perish the thought!

Cheers,

Sean

For even unconvertable jazz haters, Mr. Shorter casts a long shadow –and you’ve probably heard him before, even if you don’t realize it.

Steely Dan’s “Aja” (featuring Wayne Shorter):

Portishead’s “Strangers” (which features two samples, particularly the DOPE one that opens the tune, from Weather Report’s “Elegant People”, composed by Wayne Shorter; that’s him on the sax…):

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question (as Marjorie pointed out) that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line

I’ll learn to work the saxaphone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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