The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

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Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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Alligator Lizards in the Air: In Search of the Sublimely Awful Lyric (Revisited)

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

I can think of a lot of rock bands who have written some laughably awful lyrics.

So can you.

Part of rock and roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From it’s earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to…you get the picture). Eventually, the pop sensibility evolved to the point where if you substituted “rock” for “fuck” this constituted a secret decoder ring to figure out what 90% of the songs were about. Particularly ambitious bands were able to multi-task, as the eternally sophomoric Kiss epitomized when they crafted their anthem dedicated to the proposition that one could not only rock and roll all night, but party every day.

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(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The aforementioned Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am The Walrus” is a million miles from…anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired –or both– wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million karaoke performances. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome . Eventually the four horsemen of the pop culture apocalypse came calling: Punk, Disco, Drug Overdoses and Rehab blew into town and burned down this overgrown forest…only to see it grow back harder and longer in the shape of a mullet less than a decade later. Regardless of how it did or should have played out, it’s impossible to imagine prog rock existing in the ’80s, just like shag rugs and Battle of the Network Stars only really exist –in our minds if not actuality– in the ’70s. And the ’70s is when rock lyric ridiculousness reached its full flowering, pulling up from strong roots in the ’60s and stretching toward the sun, leaving a shadow we exist under even today.)

So, when it comes to identifying truly awful lyrics that are the result of neither idiocy nor ambition, it’s best to consider the soft and gooey center between those two poles. It’s not terribly fun, or rewarding, to pick on the pointy headed prog rockers or the boneheaded pop posers, unless stepping on ants is enlightening. Put another way, I defend the bands who tried a little too hard and could care less about the entertainers who are genetically incapable of insight. Put yet another way, as it pertains to the sublimely awful rock lyric, sometimes having a tiny brain is worse than having no brain at all.

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When it comes to worst ever, I can think of a lot of lyrics that might compete for the crown.

So can you.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

For starters, I can’t bring myself to beat up on the bands who crawled out of the primordial ooze in the early ’70s, hash pipe in one hand and “Lord of the Rings” in the other. I won’t even name names; I’ll simply wave my magic wand and exonerate King Crimson, Rush, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Santana (for starters) from any alleged sins, real or imagined.

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But one group should be singled out (with love and squalor) for elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of…real art. Of course I’m talking about Yes, whose work between 1971 and 1975 is the Rosetta Stone of our prog rock apotheosis. The jester in this court (of the crimson king) is, of course, Jon Anderson who –depending on one’s perspective– would be responsible, or guilty, for writing the lyrics. Here’s the thing: he sings them so effectively (so indelibly — yeah I said it), it doesn’t much matter what he is babbling about. And babble he does. Here is but a brief sampling of his ouevre:

Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are,
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are,

Lost in summer, morning, winter, travel very far,
Lost in musing circumstances, that’s just where you are.

Move forward was my friends only cry,
In deeper to somewhere we could lie.
And rest for the the day with cold in the way,
Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away?

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

Wish the sun to stand still.
Reaching out to touch our own being
Past a mortal as we
Here we can be
We can be here,
be here now.
Here we can be!

(From “Yours Is No Disgrace”, “South Side of the Sky”, “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken“.)

Yes has earned an unrivaled place in the pantheon, but there is no hating, here. Listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera: the words are –or may as well be– in a different language; it’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. This is ecstatic stuff and I’ll hoist my air guitar with clear-eyed pride and wonder.

Enough. Let’s get down to business.

What song contains the worst lyric of all time?

I’ll give it a shot. But again, it’s as important to eliminate the pretenders as it is to celebrate the contenders. Therefore, it’s ridiculous to consider anything filed under Hair Metal because picking on that genre is like making fun of kids at the Special Olympics. Ditto the Top 40 status seekers: that claptrap is like bad electronics, it’s designed to fall apart and be discarded after it’s been sold. And we should not confuse atrocious lyrics with unlistenable songs. There are tons and tons of terrible songs that don’t necessarily have bad enough lyrics to merit consideration (and again, bad enough meaning lyrics that weren’t written by an imbecile or someone trying to shoot higher…and that incidentally eliminates would-be prime candidates Oasis and Creed because, again, the songs have to be by bands actually worth listening to).

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10. Let’s come out of the gate swinging and take aim at one of the most beloved radio anthems of all time: “Stairway To Heaven”. Remember that time (hopefully before 6th grade) when this song contained all the deep and murky depths of the universe? This song was about nothing less than existence, and who was that dude with the light on the inside cover? God? The Devil? Did it make more sense if you played the nonsensical lyrics backward? In hindsight, maybe.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Dont be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the may queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder…

It makes me wonder, too. Is that a bustle in your hedgerow or are you just happy to see me? To be a rock and not to roll? I have no idea, to this day, what that means, but it uses the words rock and roll, so it’s got that going for it. Led Zeppelin, despite Robert Plant’s early Tolkien obsessions, did grow in brisk, dramatic leaps like The Beatles post-Rubber Soul. Nevertheless, the ascension of “Stairway To Heaven” is, come to think of it, not unlike the ’70s: you had to be there to appreciate it but you can’t really explain why it’s so great.

9. Sticking to the ’70s (literally), a rather obscure known tune by a beloved band demands attention. It’s bad (if true) enough to point out that Kiss kept to a strict regimen of pussy songs throughout the ’70s (and I would say after, but who listened to Kiss after the ’70s?). It’s worse (and true) to point out that this was all for the better. When they attempted to think outside the box (so to speak), things got ugly in a hurry. Exhibit A is “Goin’ Blind” by noted poet and philosopher Gene Simmons. If taken at face value, the lyrics convey a self-pitying farewell from a 93 year old man who has been inexplicably banging a 16 year old girl. Creepy? Check. Weird? Check. Improbable? Check! Senior citizen statutory rape, or Simmons envisioning his post-rock, Viagra-rolling golden years?

Little lady, can’t you see
You’re so young and so much different than I
I’m 93, you’re sixteen
Can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…

In fairness, and consistent with the criteria for this list, the song is still quite worthwhile, and features one of Ace Frehley’s better early solos. (The tune was also covered in all its muddy glory by the great King Buzzo on Melvins’ incredible album from 1993, Houdini.)

8. Respect of irony prevents me from quoting any of Alanis Morissette’s signature song. Suffice it to say, yes, it is ironic (if unintentionally so) that a song about irony uses examples that illuminate the songwriter’s inability to understand what irony is. Don’t ya think?

7. Domo. Arigato. Mr. Roboto. (Enough said.)

6. Artist: Lenny Kravitz. Song: Whichever.

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5. Bono and Sting could have a battle royale (with cheese) to see who committed the more greivous sins in the ’80s but since Bono has been more prolific, and more self-righteously insufferable, in the decades since, we may have to give him the Edge (take him, please).

Bono!

I cant believe the news today
Oh, I cant close my eyes and make it go away…

Sting!

Hey, mighty brontosaurus,
Don’t you have a lesson for us
Thought your rule would always last,
There were no lessons in your past
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb
Would they say that we were dumb?

Bono!

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside…

Sting!

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
The only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind
And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me…

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4. Poet laureate of semi-retarded rap rock, Anthony Keidis! Everyone knows this clown was known for wearing a sock over his dick. Many people would agree that his dick could probably write better lyrics. Possibilities are endless but the perusal is too painful, so let’s go with what we know:

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your mama

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your papa

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your daughter

You do a little dance and then you drink a little water…

3. Duran Duran. Boy did these guys make some terribly great songs (and VIDEOS) in the early ’80s. And like those commercials from the early ’80s say, “It doesn’t get any better than this” :

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand
Just like that river twisting through a dusty land
And when she shines she really shows you all she can
Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande…

Respect!

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2. The list, to this point, has not necessarily been in any particular order, although the final two candidates are, for my money, unassailable representatives of lyrical suck. First up is Steve “Guitar” Miller who is also known as Steve “Lyrics” Miller by exactly no one. And there is ample reason for this. He is a one man tour de force of farcical phraseology. Let’s start with the pompatus of love. Actually, let’s leave that alone: if you are cool enough to make up a word and feature it in a hit song that everyone who listens talks about, you’ve more than maximized your fifteen minutes of fame. And that was only the beginning. His 1976 classic Fly Like An Eagle is a clinic of lazy lyrics and shoehorned rhyme schemes. It could be the basis of a successful workshop (once again, there is no hatred here: it’s a very good album and the title track captures that ethereal ’70s vibe as well as any other rock tune). On that track the lyrics are facile but his heart is in the right place: I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea/Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me. “Rock ‘n Me” is another innocuous FM radio staple, and it is one of the “replace rock with you-know-what” testosterone anthems. No harm, no foul. Where the proceedings really take flight (so to speak) is on the other radio favorite, “Take the Money and Run”. This is one for the ages, where we get “watch the tube” rhymed with “cut loose” and “great big hassle” with “his castle”. Nothing to see here. But then it happens: the sine qua non of rock non sequiturs. Take a deep breath and enjoy the magic:

Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is,
He aint gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin off of the peoples taxes…

Texas, facts is, justice, taxes. What more is there to say? (Other than this: “Take the Money and Run” is probably the single song from the ’70s that no fans were tempted to play backwards because there was absolutely no conceivable way it could get any better than it already was; fans were afraid it would make more sense if it was played back in backward gibberish).

Miller was not done with us yet. Honorable mention could go to “Jungle Love” or “Swingtown” (Come on and dance/Let’s make some romance/You know the night is falling/And the music is calling), but special attention must be paid to “Abracadabra”:

Every time you call my name/I heat up like a burnin’ flame/Burnin’ flame full of desire/Kiss me baby let the fire get higher.

That’s nice, but this is where Miller stakes his claim for immortality. Ready or not, here it comes:

Abra-abra-cadabra
I want to reach out and grab ya.

Okay, that is bliss. That is miraculous. But it gets better. How could you possibly top rhyming cadabra with grab ya? Easy. Rhyme cadabra with…Abracadabra!

Abra-abra-cadabra
Abracadabra

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1. So, it can’t possibly get better than that, can it? Oh it gets better. For their invaluable contributions to the unintentionally atrocious lyric, I nominate America for a lifetime achievement award. It’s hard (some might say impossible) to knock Steve Miller off this throne but bear with me. America did a lot with just a little and they are the gift that giveth much. (One sentence description: blending folk influences with “socially-conscious” songs, America had a string of indelible –and ubiquitous– hit songs in the first half of the 1970s.)

Exhibit A: “Ventura Highway“:

The whole song (irrepressible as it is) is dead-on-arrival, lyrically, with such gems as Joe/Snow, sunshine/moonshine, name/same. But in move that should make rhyming dictionaries illegal, America anticipated “Take the Money and Run” with the rarely-attempted four-line grand slam:

‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
and the days surround your daylight there,
Seasons cryin’ no despair
Alligator lizards in the air…

Alligator lizards. In the air.

Or should I say: ALLIGATOR LIZARDS. In The Air!

Exhibit B: “Sister Golden Hair

In addition to a riff ripped off from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (which itself was considered a sufficiently brazen reworking of The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” that it generated a lawsuit), the lyrics achieve the ideal balance between half-assed inspiration and typical rock-star laziness:

Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed,
Now I ain’t ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine…

Exhibit C: “Tin Man“:

But Oz never did give nothing to the tin man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have,
And cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.

I’m loathe to infringe upon the perfection above, so I’ll simply add my name to the list of folks who have wondered: what the fuck is the tropic of Sir Galahad? And can I find the pompatus of love there?

Exhibit D: “Horse With No Name”.

Oh God. Hold me.

What can anyone possibly say about this song that the band does not already say in the song itself?

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

(Editorial note one: “Plants and birds and rocks and things”. Editorial note two: “The heat was hot”.)

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note one: “In the desert you can remember your name”. Editorial note two: “CAUSE. THERE. AIN’T. NO. ONE. FOR. TO. GIVE. YOU. NO. PAIN”.)

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

(Editorial note: “After three days in the desert fun”.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note: “In the desert you can remember your name” –in case you had forgotten, the lyrics or your name. Oh, and by the way: There. Ain’t. No. One. For. To. Give. You. No. Pain.)

After nine days I let the horse run free
cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love…

(Editorial note: Still plants and birds and rocks and things.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain…

To recap: in the desert, you can remember your name. ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

My work here is done.

So, what did I miss?

Let’s get this party started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, Really: Jeff Beck is God (Revisited)

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6/15: Happy 71st birthday to the great Jeff Beck.

 

3/11: Since it happened to be Keith Relf’s birthday, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute to him on Tuesday. Plus, as I attempted to articulate in that piece, he warrants celebration as a unique and influential singer (and harmonica player).

That said, the issue of the guitar players in The Yardbirds still necessitates elaboration. For perfectly understandable reasons, people assume or don’t realize they are wrong to think Eric Clapton was the primary –and most important– guitarist in that group. Simply put, this is not the case. Clapton was there for the very early blue-sy recordings and Page was there for the short and sloppy swan song, but it was Jeff Beck who played on all their essential songs. Put simply, Jeff Beck was The Yardbirds, with all due respect (and I offer tons) to the other members.

Jeff Beck demands more attention, since he’s not gotten nearly enough of it over the decades. Not for nothing: he is the only guitar god who roamed the earth in the ’60s who is still very much active (and in top form) today. He is, pound for pound, the best living guitarist right now. I can’t think of anyone else who can begin to match his proficiency, his gob-smacking ability and his track record. He is an inspiration in terms of integrity and dedication (he does not just naturally get better; he is committed to his craft and treats it like it’s the most important thing in his world, which it clearly is).

Here is a brief career-spanning sampler of his greatness.

“Steeled Blues:

“Jeff’s Boogie”:

“Freeway Jam” (he manages to make fusion sound…cool):

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (I can’t think of another, or better way to put this: the original, by the immortal Charles Mingus is one of my all-time favorite compositions –from one of my all-time favorite albums– and I sometimes think Jeff Beck almost takes it to another level. There is no point, or need, to compare –and for the record, Jeff Beck is God but Charles Mingus is GOD– but I only hope to underscore the fact that it takes more than audacity and goodwill to cover uncoverable songs, like this, and make them arguably better. As we’ve heard, Jeff Beck can shred like nobody’s business, but he also can play slow and soulful perhaps better than anyone else who has ever strapped on a guitar. It is, as is often the case when talking about the best of the best, extremely difficult to avoid cliches: but check out the feeling and soul oozing out of every line; this is something beyond sublime):

“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (I can’t recommend the recent DVD Live at Ronnie Scott’smore enthusiastically; in addition to being a fantastic concert, it is filmed and produced wonderfully, affording constant close-up action on the magician going to work in a live setting and showing that musical deities can age gracefully and even improve (!!) as they get older):

“A Day In The Life” (Having always been overshadowed by Clapton (and Page), it was wonderfully fortuitous that Clapton was unable to MC the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert: finally the world had an opportunity to witness –because it could not ignore– the brilliance that has been woefully unappreciated for entirely too long…and speaking of uncoverable songs…getting better? Only Beck could do this once; only Beck could do this twice):

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The Day The Music Died, Redux (Revisited)

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(12/9/2010)

It was thirty years ago today…

Where were you?

I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias — the other devastating death of the decade– flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

What else is there to say?

There’s probably been more written about Lennon’s death than any other public figure from the 20th Century (except, possibly, JFK), and there is nothing anyone can say to make his premature passing sensible or acceptable. Certainly, his legacy was –and remains– quite secure and as PopMatters recently proved, it seems impossible to say too much about The Beatles. I’ve said it before and I’m obliged to say it again: where the younger fan might ask “What kind of God would take a person like this?” the older fan should answer “The same one who gave him to us”. That’s not good enough, not by a long shot, but Lennon blessed us with as much remarkable music (and joy, and inspiration) as any artist we’ve seen or heard, so it is childish to begrudge what we didn’t get: we ought to celebrate what we did get.

I’m not going to invoke “Imagine” or “A Day In The Life” or “In My Life” or (insert appropriate, but entirely-too-obvious Lennon song here). I was thinking about which songs resonated with me, and were distinctly John Lennon songs. Necessarily, these were post-Pepper compositions as that was when the band began increasingly going their own way. I could think of other examples, so could anyone else, but for me –for now– these five seem to sum up everything great about John Lennon, the artist.

“Across The Universe”

“Dear Prudence”

“Julia”

“Revolution (1)”

“Don’t Let Me Down”

McCartney’s shell-shocked, refreshingly curt response (everyone wanted to hear what he would say, and the reporters were, I reckon, only doing what they get paid to do…but one watches this now and appreciates the guarded and honest reaction: no camera-friendly crocodile tears or mawkish speechifying; this was one-half of Lennon/McCartney coping with the staggering news that his artistic soul mate (sorry Linda, sorry Yoko) had been killed: in many regards, the day that Lennon died was the first day of the rest of Paul’s life).

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9” you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, ( not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

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In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

Check this out: “Hey Bulldog” (a rare YouTube instance of archival video that consists of actual footage from the recording session and not clever cut and pasting: this was one of the unfortunately rare instances when the band filmed themselves in the studio). This, above all, is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: it is priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.

If you’re lonely you can talk to me…

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The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

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Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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Muhammad Ali’s Biggest Victory

Muhammad Ali Punch

Question: What cultural figure of the 60?s best represents you–the way you dress, act, create, see the world, or wish the world saw you. It can be Chuck Berry or Chairman Mao. It can be Betty Friedan or Betty Rubble. More importantly, why?

Answer: I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import, be it artistic, social, political, cultural, opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter.

Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loud and saying nothing (unlike, say, the cat who wrote that song)? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

Is there one figure (don’t say John Lennon) who humanizes, epitomizes, the racial, sociological, human upheaval of the era? Here is the rarest of folks who was the best in the world at what he did, at the height of his ability to make history, and money, willing to sacrifice it on principle. And more: a cause that every year is proven more prescient and unassailable on both moral and military levels. April 28, 1967, a little over a month before Sgt. Pepper initiated the Summer of Love, Ali made a statement as brave, audacious and impactful as any of that—or any—decade.

Look: we live in a time where we can boast about our beliefs and have our righteousness measured by likes and follows, all from the safety of an overpriced coffee shop. As such, I’ll continue to be humbled and inspired, as a dude with big hopes and modest abilities, by the icon who stared down doubt, ignorance, security and compliance. Ali is the exception to the way we’re ruled, and how we roll, and like the rest of us mortals, his biggest fight took place outside the ring.

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for the same question. Check it out!

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Love Is Old, Love Is New: Another Appreciation of ‘Abbey Road’ (Revisited, “New Shit” Edition)

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“New shit,” as the Dude said, “has come to light.”

I was unaware of this, but have now seen the light. Let it shine until tomorrow. Let it be.

I don’t even have a question, but here is the answer:

Whenever I listen to Abbey Road, I find myself feeling grateful that the collective world of musicians did not, upon hearing it for the first time, throw up their hands and get day jobs. Why bother? they did not ask, allowing us to remain thankful for everything that keeps filling our ears, all these years later. But what must it have sounded like, to mortals simply trying to occupy the same planet, when this one originally dropped?

Abbey Road is not Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper or even The White Album;it is merely The Beatles’ best album. Ironically, it’s not a perfect album (if such a thing could even be said to exist — a fun debate for another time, although the dicey proposition has been discussed in brief here); like I said, it’s not Revolver. It does what the rarest of artistic creations can do: it is more than that. How, for instance, could any album containing “Octopus’s Garden” possibly, under any circumstances be appraised as perfect? (Well, for starters, two words: “Yellow Submarine”, also, of course, sung by our beloved Ringo.) The point is, an album with such an overabundance of riches (Question: is such a thing possible? Answer: yes) does not only compensate for the sore spots, it overwhelms them with its sheer force of being. You could drop a teardrop in a river and nobody will taste the salt.

And, for the record, I not only unashamedly endorse the much-despised “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I relish it (It’s a sing-along song about a serial killer for Christ’s sake; could anyone pull this off with such aplomb? And if Paul was a tad too sentimental and sappy at times, it helped cut the self-righteous solipsism that Lennon was more than a little guilty of, albeit often in the service of stunning art; consider some of the best and worst tracks from The White Album for examples of each). So suck on this, haters:

Of course, even this album is not without controversy. Even within the band, Lennon (who, let’s not kid ourselves, had a more than moderate envy of Macca’s prodigious and, circa 1969, unfathomable compositional facility) could scarcely stomach the second side (the extended “suite” which certain fans –like this one– consider a towering achievement in any music, ever). It’s hard to quibble with Lennon’s work on “Come Together” and the hopped-up anguish of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which bookend the first side(and it’s worth noting the latter features astounding bass lines throughout courtesy of The Walrus).

Just as Lennon possibly edges out his mate, song for song, on Revolver and The White Album, Mac is the prime mover on Abbey Road (as he was on Sgt. Pepper). One somewhat overlooked track that continues to intrigue me (aside from the obvious fact that it rules) is “Oh! Darling”. Lennon allegedly was salty that Mac opted to sing lead vocals on this one, since the style of the song was, ostensibly, more suited to Lennon’s skill-set. Well….Paul could scream with the best of them, and while I would love to hear a version of this song with Lennon taking a crack at lead vocals, I think this remains one of Mac’s enduring performances (the entire tune is a tour de force). And, not to mince words, I don’t think even Lennon could have pulled off the last line (I’ll never dooooooooo you no haaarm!!) as indelibly as his partner in crime did.

Oh, you want more?

So why, in the midst of discussing one of the great albums, am I falling into the trap of even entertaining the whole Lennon/McCartney thing?

Well…with the (unimaginable) prospect of Lennon’s death approaching its 30th anniversary (seriously, how is this possible?), get ready for some overly earnest, over-the-top and mostly well-intended attempts to elevate him even higher (is that possible?) into the artistic and human pantheon. I will mostly welcome such endeavors, but some of us will be obliged to inject some perspective on the whole JOHN WAS THE BEATLES! hysteria.

I had a bit to say about this last year, on the occasion of anniversary #29:

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9″ you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

This band is like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

More (too much more?) on The Beatles, here and here.

To be continued, I’m sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces

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Shamelessly utilized other artists’ work, didn’t bother to acknowledge the source material most of the time, became famous, influential and wealthy, is celebrated years later as a creative force without peer, is, in fact, synonymous with an entire genre. Undeniably a mercenary, a self-promoter, possibly in league with the devil.

I’m talking, of course, about William Shakespeare.

But seriously. I can also talk about the ink—and crocodile tears—spilled cataloging the sins of the generation-spanning iconoclast who allegedly has taken all kinds of freedom with hymns, poems, blues songs, all while scoffing at the mere intimation of plagiarism.

But enough about Bob Dylan.

You get the picture, I hope.

Talking about Led Zeppelin is never uncomplicated. But in 2014, with lawsuits (however unpersuasive) in the news, and the Internet making it easier than ever to understand—and hear—the instances where Zep was less than scrupulous about crediting some of their predecessors, whose songs they purloined or improved upon (depending on one’s perspective), it’s at once an ideal and odd time to reassess this great band’s first three albums.

They are here, in remastered form (yawn), but for the first time since the two-part box sets in the early ‘90s, sporting previously unheard material (woah!). As is the case with so many classic acts who are in the semi-regular routine of recycling their back catalogs under the guise of ever-improved sound, this latest round is available via modest—and reasonably priced—reissues and deluxe multi-disc productions.

Let the verdict be succinct and unambiguous: the sound quality is astonishing. If you are still rocking the now-ancient first edition CD releases (which would make you, like this writer, ancient), the first two albums in particular have desperately needed a sonic overhaul that these issues deliver: you can almost taste the lemon juice running down Robert Plant’s legs. Say this about Jimmy Page: in addition to his incontestable guitar skills, he was also a first-rate producer; if new technology enables increased fidelity, who are we to argue? Each “deluxe edition” features two discs; one with a remastered original and a bonus disc with the aforementioned “new” material. These are as no-brainer as it gets for casual fans and especially fanatics.

About the previously unavailable stuff. Who, exactly, needs bonus tracks with isolated vocals on songs like “Ramble On”? Everyone and anyone, obviously. If you are hardcore or have a cursory interest in the history of rock and/or the genesis of riffs repeated and ripped off so many times they seem artificial themselves, this is all very necessary. The question will arise: is there even more material in the vaults? Undoubtedly. But for now, this is fresh Zeppelin. Any Zeppelin is good Zeppelin; previously unavailable Zeppelin, regardless of quality or novelty, is priceless in its way.

Your mileage, obviously, will vary. You can, for instance, experience “Friends” as an instrumental track, or “Since I’ve Been Loving You” a first draft of the eventual tour de force; you can also hear “Whole Lotta Love” with isolated vocals and guitar(s!) which is not unlike being inside the studio to marvel at how these Gospels got written and recorded. It’s probably worth the time and money to hear “La La”, which features the band jamming not quite aimlessly, but in a way that will make aficionados appreciate the ways some of these snippets and formulations resurfaced on later tracks.

The first album’s bonus disc is a live set recorded in Paris during their ’69 tour. Like the bonus tracks on the other two discs, some of the material has been bootlegged or available online, but now it’s finally, properly presented in official form. Again, as a curiosity, this is all worthwhile; for anyone who has spent decades worshipping at the altar of the Golden Gods; this is like India Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant.

On Led Zeppelin II the bonus tracks are variations on works-in-progress or “rough mixes with vocal”; on Led Zeppelin III there’s more of the same, only more so. The rough mix, for instance, of “That’s The Way” reveals what a technician Page was: the multi-tracked acoustic guitars and mandolin are clear and lively and we can appreciate the augmented—and wistful—feelings the subsequent slide guitar brought to the proceedings. Like many of Zeppelin’s more subdued tracks, it is deceptively simple; even on these restrained outings, Page was a gentle, astute stickler for detail.

A few words, of course, are necessary to put this material—particularly the first album—in better perspective, four and a half decades after its release. For starters, Led Zeppelin is not a debut album; it’s not even merely a revelation. It’s a reckoning, a realignment: things were simply never the same and audiences owe a perpetual debt for all that came after—including the ugly and unlistenable imitators.

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, cynical, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums—especially the first one—the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming 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 all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair—has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often 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 debut album more than half the songs are borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from old blues legends; they used Joan Baez’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as a launching pad for their soon-to-be-patented (and, ironically, imitated) soft/heavy sensibility. “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” were initially claimed to be original compositions, but the band at least had the sense to not even attempt denying Willie Dixon full credit for both “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

While the band can—and must—be castigated for being too rapacious to do the right thing regarding royalties (until legally compelled to do so), there is a significant disparity between being brazen and being uninspired. To be certain, all of this 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. Put another way, Zep’s remakes have an originality and élan that the songs British Invasion bands covered largely lack.

True, those earlier bands gave credit where credit was due, but their motives, ironically, were arguably less benign. Give me a band with deep roots in terms of appreciation and understanding a breadth of music spanning multiple genres as opposed to opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name two, were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating sources like Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell into their arsenal, 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 yet another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles, unlike the saccharine covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Put still another way, if I want to hear classic blues reimagined, give me Mr. Plant over Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Jagger.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of proper attribution, it could be—and probably never convincingly has been—argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work by anyone not named Eric Clapton to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the early ‘70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they loved this music, they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies.

So, after the shame and all the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influence and they have been repaid, indelibly and perhaps karmically, by being copied by thousands of eager, inferior mediocrities. When it comes to art that matters, there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, those that came before them. These touchstones can—and should—become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin to (insert every ‘70s and ‘80s band here) to The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

In the final analysis, what really matters? The music that endures seldom needs anyone to describe or defend it. With the exception of The Beatles, no other band has loomed quite as large, to the extent that we’ll never have enough accolades. There are a limited number of bands that provide a blueprint for how to do it, even if everyone acknowledges there is no conceivable way it could ever be duplicated, much less surpassed. The first three Led Zeppelin albums are as sui generis as any documents in modern rock, and the dust will never settle because their impact can’t be exhausted and we’ll never cease to wonder how they happened in the first place.

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