The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share

The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share

The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shamelessness and out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, accordingly and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. (However: if karmic justice could be rendered in cartoon fashion, Robert Plant should have noisily imploded the second he whined about the Beastie Boys sampling Zeppelin, appropriately on a tune called “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”.) In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share

The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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Honing In On Hendrix (Again)

December 2010: If you had told me one year ago that I’d have not only one, but two opportunities to write feature-length pieces on Jimi Hendrix I would have been excited, inspired and intimidated. And not necessarily in that order.

(Since writing this original post, I’ve had occasion to write yet again about Hendrix, the following December, on the occasion of the Live at Winterland box set HERE.)

In March 2010 I happily grappled with the newly remastered deluxe editions of the official Hendrix catalog here.

The long and short of my piece follows, directly below:

It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

In August I took the opportunity to take exception with Gibson’s list of all-time best guitar albums, with Hendrix at the top of my alternate list. Here is the key takeaway from my assessment of Axis: Bold As Love:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

I’m currently devouring the latest release, and gift for Hendrix freaks, a four-disc, one DVD box set called West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology. (Finished review HERE.)

Interestingly, (at least to me) is that, while the first disc specifically looks into the oft-overlooked, or altogether forgotten/unknown work Jimi did as a sideman before the incendiary double-dose heard ’round the world in 1967, I am finding myself utterly agog (again!) at how perfect a drummer Mitch Mitchell was for Hendrix. I should not be surprised since, a little over two years ago, I wrote about Mitchell (a couple of days after his death, whereupon he became the last of the three original Jimi Hendrix Experience mates to depart our planet) in a piece entitled “The Perfect Engine“. Considering this is some of what I had to say, then, I can’t help but be amazed by how repeated listenings (when it comes to this material and my ears, we’re talking a more than a quarter-century of heavy rotation) only deepen and augment the impression of how perfect Mitchell was on every single song:

Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve–he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.

Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.

A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less. Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.

It is unadvisable (and impossible) to not pay attention to Hendrix on any song (his guitars, his voice) but if you focus as much as possible on the drumming you’ll get an ideal overview of Mitchell’s stunning acumen:

So this is what Hendrix does for me: truly the gift that keeps giving.

As I said, I was excited –and intimidated– enough earlier this year to wrestle with his recorded legacy. I was intimidated and possibly overwhelmed at the notion of doing critical battle with an entire box set, but for understandable reasons, it had to be done. And so as I wallow in all-things Hendrix, in addition to all the new and previously unreleased music (!!!) I’m absorbing, I’m also being driven, once again for the millionth time, to the versions many of us know and love so well.

It is an aesthetic vertigo that only music can so fully and consistently deliver, and obliges me to quote T.S. Eliot:

We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Here is how I concluded my feature in March, when I figured I had written the last word. I should have known better. There will always be more to say, especially if there is even more music in those vaults:

The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

To be cont’d…

(A few words about “Pali Gap”: This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.)

Finally, for now: more on Hendrix (very) soon.

So yeah, to be continued, as always.

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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share

The Top 10 Albums of 2011, According To Me (Part Four)

1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

“You cannot get the news from poems”, William Carlos wrote. “But men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley famously declared poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Of course this was during a time when people actually read poems. Believe it or not, people used to write them as well. Poets, of course, are also the legislators for the unacknowledged: their observations and protestations are, aside from any and all aesthetic considerations, a shout from the silence; a candle for the dark places.

Throughout our time on this often-dark and occasionally silent earth, poets have cried out on account of the dispossessed, the least of our brethren who can’t or won’t speak for themselves: the elderly, the impoverished and those unfortunate souls sent out to fight our wars. These mostly undecorated and forgotten folks who are obliged to finish the fights started by people in high and heavily fortified places. As such, poems (and books, movies and songs) about war will always be relevant and timely because war is always with us. These days, it seems, we can’t find enough enemies quickly enough.

Enter Polly Jean Harvey.

The simple description of 2011’s Let England Shake is that it’s an album about war. The slightly less simple description is that it’s an album about war and the toll it has extracted on the people and land of England. The more complicated –and accurate—description is that it is an extended meditation on the conflicts England, its allies and its enemies have found themselves ensnared in, time and again. It is not an anti-war album as such; it dispenses altogether with sloganeering and simplistic appraisals. More, it’s not political so much as its personal: it concerns itself with the usually nameless soldiers and citizens who pay the ultimate cost, time and again. Another way to put it is that this is the album Roger Waters has always wanted to make.

What PJ Harvey is after here is slightly beyond ambitious. Let England Shake is a statement of purpose that strains—and succeeds—at articulating observations that are not unique to any country, party affiliation or language; in other words she is grappling with universal themes yet rendering them in ways that are deeply personal. Somehow, she manages to speak for—and through—dead soldiers, she weaves in her own (mostly dispassionate) reflections and, throughout, she embodies the voice of History, which does not render judgment so much as evidence of the events it has recorded.

This work would be a significant achievement just as words on paper, or recited lines. Adding the music and the full arsenal of voices Harvey can peerlessly conjure up, the results exemplify the distinctive and profound impact musical expression conveys. In addition to the crucial support of long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey, Harvey adds zither and saxophone to her usual guitar and piano. The resulting music is quietly forceful, and insistent yet restrained: like the lyrics, they are ostensibly simple, but reveal multiple layers after repeated listens.

The strategic touches, clever and cheeky, provide added depth, humor and pathos to the proceedings. For instance, incorporating a reveille into “The Glorious Land” is intentionally jarring; it’s totally out of place and should distract from the menacing undercurrent—but it doesn’t because it’s a sly and subtle commentary on the rush (literal and figurative) to fight that precedes and follows a declaration of war. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” she asks. “Its fruit is orphaned children,” is the solemn response, making those trumpet calls both ironic and heartrending. On the title track she ingeniously incorporates the old chestnut “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” as a comment-within-comment about lost empires (real or imagined) and textbook epochs that ceaselessly recycle themselves. A similar effect is achieved on “Written on the Forehead” by sampling Niney Nine’s classic “Blood and Fire”: Let it burn, she chants, an avenging angel and/or the battle-weary lament of a scorched landscape.

The album comes out swinging and never stalls for a second, but there are three songs (the fourth, fifth and sixth tracks) that especially stand out, in the context of this work and everything else PJ Harvey has done. “The Words That Maketh Murder” uses a propulsive beat that would seem to belie the lyrics, until one realizes the tempo is appropriate for a battlefield scene, a racing heart or a shell-shocked brain. Harvey’s child-like voice is used to disarming affect (pun somewhat intended): in a sing-song cadence with a pleasantly chugging rhythm she recalls a unnamed soldier seeing “arms and legs…in the trees” and her repeated chant of the word murder is a declaration (this is what war is) and an indictment (this is what war does). As the song ends it invokes the throwaway line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (What if I take my problem to the United Nations?): it is and, for the most part always has been, a sadly absurd, rhetorical query.

The centerpiece of the album is “All & Everyone” which, like many of the songs, concerns itself with World War I and the brutal Gallipoli Campaign. Of course this event literally invokes the aforementioned Constantinople, and still resonates as a particularly bloody and, arguably pointless conflagration. The pace is appropriately somber, almost funereal, with a languidly creeping tension that builds up to the moments that resulted in massacre: “Death hung in the smoke and clung/To four hundred acres of useless beachfront,” Harvey intones, employing a venom that is used judiciously, if strategically, throughout the work. As plaintive organ, sax and percussion march, like the helpless soldiers, into a resigned silence, her ethereal voice croons the preordained verdict: “Death to all and everyone.”

“On Battleship Hill” again invokes Gallipoli, albeit from the perspective of the present day. Naturally this calls to mind comparisons with current, controversial escapades that have left grieving widows and mind-boggling body counts. A whiff of thyme (a spice traditionally utilized in funerals for its pleasing scent and alleged spiritual properties) in the wind reminds the singer that “cruel nature has won again.” Commenting on the “caved-in trenches (and) jagged mountains…cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, Harvey once again uses the scarred land as an explicit reflection on the physical toll (on our countries; on our people) war inexorably extracts. The plodding pace of the song is like Nature itself: relentless, non-negotiable. After a propulsive introduction all sound ceases and it’s just Harvey’s voice: that siren wail, lustrous, fragile, immortal. Her voice, as those in the know can attest, is one of the miracles of modern music. Acquiescent and almost operatic, she sings out for the fallen soldiers, buried in the hard earth and rendered history by the unlucky circumstances of their ages and the age they lived in; the age we live in still. As the song spins itself out from the past into our possible future the doleful refrain “Cruel Nature has won again” is a requiem for our recklessness, which is unending as it is unnatural.

In the final analysis one is tempted to say that PJ Harvey has created a musical equivalent to Tim O’Brien’s celebrated collection The Things They Carried. Of course, being music, it’s different, and where O’Brien offers a first-hand account from the fields of fire, Harvey immersed herself in source material to give voice to people who never had a chance to account for themselves. Music and voices lend a solemn, ultimately beautiful import to words meant to shake and redeem.

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S. Eliot’s despondent narrator laments “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.” On Let England Shake PJ Harvey has willed herself to become one of those mermaids, and this elegiac cycle of songs is her lone voice crying out to all those anonymous spirits. It is an act of witness and it is a call of defiance: against folly, against forgetting.

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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:Mingus:All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:Ooh My Head:Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:Shake ‘Em On Down:Bring It On Home:Bring It On Home:

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Honing In On Hendrix

If you had told me one year ago that I’d have not only one, but two opportunities to write feature-length pieces on Jimi Hendrix I would have been excited, inspired and intimidated. And not necessarily in that order.

In March I happily grappled with the newly remastered deluxe editions of the official Hendrix catalog here.

The long and short of my piece follows, directly below:

It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

In August I took the opportunity to take exception with Gibson’s list of all-time best guitar albums, with Hendrix at the top of my alternate  list. Here is the key takeaway from my assessment of Axis: Bold As Love:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

I’m currently devouring the latest release, and gift for Hendrix freaks, a four-disc, one DVD box set called West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology.

Interestingly, (at least to me) is that, while the first disc specifically looks into the oft-overlooked, or altogether forgotten/unknown work Jimi did as a sideman before the incendiary double-dose heard ’round the world in 1967, I am finding myself utterly agog (again!) at how perfect a drummer Mitch Mitchell was for Hendrix. I should not be surprised since, a little over two years ago, I wrote about Mitchell (a couple of days after his death, whereupon he became the last of the three original Jimi Hendrix Experience mates to depart our planet) in a piece entitled “The Perfect Engine“. Considering this is some of what I had to say, then, I can’t help but be amazed by how repeated listenings (when it comes to this material and my ears, we’re talking a more than a quarter-century of heavy rotation) only deepen and augment the impression of how perfect Mitchell was on every single song:

Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve–he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.

Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.

A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less. Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.

It is unadvisable (and impossible) to not pay attention to Hendrix on any song (his guitars, his voice) but if you focus as much as possible on the drumming you’ll get an ideal overview of Mitchell’s stunning acumen:

So this is what Hendrix does for me: truly the gift that keeps giving.

As I said, I was excited –and intimidated– enough earlier this year to wrestle with his recorded legacy. I was intimidated and possibly overwhelmed at the notion of doing critical battle with an entire box set, but for understandable reasons, it had to be done. And so as I wallow in all-things Hendrix, in addition to all the new and previously unreleased music (!!!) I’m absorbing, I’m also being driven, once again for the millionth time, to the versions many of us know and love so well.

It is an aesthetic vertigo that only music can so fully and consistently deliver, and obliges me to quote T.S. Eliot:

We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Here is how I concluded my feature in March, when I figured I had written the last word. I should have known better. There will always be more to say, especially if there is even more music in those vaults:

The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

To be cont’d…

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Got A Beef? Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do

As T.S. Eliot portentously opined: April is the cruelest month.

Apparently someone once pulled an April Fools’ Day joke on him too.

What’s really sad is I saw this one coming almost before I finished reading it, so my burgeoning excitement was tempered by the lesser but wiser angels of my cynicism. A quick Google check confirmed the farce: there is no Captain Beefheart reunion in the making. Stuff like this is, alas, way too good to ever be true:

The legendary Captain Beefheart, whose last foray into the music industry was in 1982, has recorded a new album and will be reconvening his Magic Band to tour behind it…The opening act is to be P.J. Harvey…in recent years, P.J. Harvey and Beefheart somehow struck up a correspondence and established a kind of confidante-mentor relationship. There’s no official word from either artist’s camp whether or not this had anything to do with the good Captain’s re-emergence, but certainly Harvey’s encouragement and support didn’t hurt.

And while I would pay money to see the good Captain anytime, anywhere, I would be delighted to simply know that he is doing well and enjoying life. For Christ’s sake, for all the joy he has provided to so many of us, the least Fate can do is smile on the man and let him find ease and comfort in his old(er) age. Hell, while we’re at it, let him be happy. Reunion or not, I’m quite content to return to Beefheart’s albums as often as possible. And really, what better day to celebrate Don Van Vliet than April Fools’ Day?

The Black Keys doing an incredible version of Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly” (also on their great Rubber Factory album):

Don Van Vliet: I Love You, You Big Dummy (To myself I say this):

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