Thursday, September 9, 2021

When I'm in chaos

For a recent road trip from Illinois to Maryland and back I put together a 740+ song playlist of Detroit and Detroit-area rock and roll. The Paybacks' three superb albums were on there, of course, and muscled their way up through shuffle-play with ferocious tenacity. I fell in deeper love with Wendy Case's songs on that trip. The Paybacks were one of the great rock and roll bands of the aughts, and the tuneful roar of their songs has weathered the fallout from that era well. Two tracks in particular, "If I Fell" from the band's debut Knock Loud (released in 2002) and "Can You Drive" from their second album, Harder And Harder (2004), struck me again with their powerful blend of swagger and vulnerability, a poignant, paradoxical itch in the human condition that Case excels in scratching. Much has been written about Case's extraordinary voice, which can travel the long road from hoarse and raw to honeyed and nuanced, sometimes in the same line. A powerful, explosive singer, she can howl like a guitar cranked through an overdriven amp, the rawness of it all especially moving when she's singing about emotional spaces where she's been left surprised and unguarded.

"If I Fell" sets the stakes: if I fall for you, will you fall for me? A hedge against lowered defenses. That's the game, and the guy she's singing to is firmly in her sights, and possibly up for it. She persuades him that though this is dangerous stuff, it's worth it to be singed rather than duck for cover. "Say my name," she sings to him in the song's hottest line, "you're gonna do it anyway." She knows he wants to try it, but he ain't convinced yet, so she offers:
Love is like strip poker
and you never know what cards you're going to draw
until you get it, and you might live to regret it
but it's better not to fight the only game you can never win
Who knows if her amped seduction works as last call arrives, but to my ears it would seem awfully hard for him to resist, given the singer's sexy playfulness, her cajoling insistence that he must want her, too, and her willingness to fall with him. The great Jim Diamond produced Knock Loud with Steve King and the band—joining Case on guitar are John Szymanski on bass, Marco Delicato on guitar, and Mike Latulippe on drums—which provide the raw, pummeling soundtrack to Case's winking pitch.

~~

Case had a raucous past, and she's been honest about her drug and alcohol abuse. Asked in an interview with The Center for Punk Arts about lessons learned from her early rough days, Case responded, "Lessons huh? Well... let's see..."
I learned how to run scrips on Chinese pharmacies, I learned how to break into a hotel room with a knife or a laminated bus pass and I learned how to tell when you are under surveillance by the man. I learned how to shimmy down drainpipes and fire escapes and I learned that jail sucks. What did it mean to me musically? Not much... I didn't start writing good music ’til I stopped doing drugs.
The astonishing "Can You Drive" (co-written with Delicato) sounds like a missive from those days, a desperate song about the limits of friendship, and how those limits can be tested under the duress of need. Here, the truths feel harder-won than on the edgy if comparatively upbeat "If I Fell." The singer's had a few beers and she needs a place to crash, so she asks him for help. They can walk. Or can he drive? "I'm just keeping it alive," she confesses to him. 

That "it" is the song's central mystery—the night? her high? her life?—and Case sings as if she needs the song to keep moving forward, or else. He's a got a girlfriend, but she could care less; she doesn't want to hear that noise, she came to play with the boys: she just needs a ride, the one thing that will keep it alive. In the song's middle—it feels like we're in the car now—things get gentler, and Case's vocals are just a marvel: shrugging in her beer, she sings that she thinks he'll do alright, whether that means getting her safely to wherever they're going, or something else, it's unclear, until the next line, where within a sliver of vulnerable candor in the dim interior light she admits that he looks good in the night. The way she sings the word "night," beginning with a growl and ending with a soft vibrato, is everything that's sensational about Wendy Case. Her band on this track (Syzmanski and Latulippe again, with recently departed Delicato returning to pitch in on guitar) knows enough to dial back the decibel levels and let Case work her way through the surprise on that ride. "In the night," she repeats again and again—before a powerful guitar solo takes the song to its end—while looking through that windshield, blurry with drink, aroused by the circumstances, at something maybe unexpected

It's an amazing song, one of Case's best. A decade ago she spoke to Beer Melodies about songwriting. “The best ones happen in a rush in about five minutes," she said. "Lyrics and music come together at once. It’s pretty awesome when that happens."
I just wish it happened all the time. Sometimes I’ll start with nothing but a song title and build on that. I only really write anything decent when I’m in chaos. So I wait around for the other shoe to drop ‘cause when I’m happy I write retarded cute happy songs. There’s got to be genuine passion.
In Case's hands, backed her extraordinary band, the passion in "If I Fell" and "Can You Drive" is as genuine as that often overwhelming feeling can get in rock and roll. Turn it up and learn something.

The Paybacks
~~

After the Paybacks called it quits a decade and half ago following the release of the terrific Love, Not Reason (which I hope will be reissued on vinyl one day), Case stepped away from music. She's reunited the band to play live on several occasions, and has been writing and recording new material recently with Brian McCarty in Royal Sweets. Different vibe. Same truths.

Middle photo of Case via Dick Altavista (flickr)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Reclaimed

Clare, Illinois
Remains of the foundation of the Wilkinson Station, a train depot built in the late 1880s, operated through the 1940s, as a switching station and place for passengers and freight to exchange. The ruins exist in the Wilkinson-Renwick Marsh in Clare, Illinois.

Below is a photo of the original station, via the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District (from which I adapted the text above).

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

How did it feel?

As I wrote a bit about recently in my latest essay for The Normal School, I've spent a good part of the last few decades catching up with artists and bands that I was too provincial, scared, or otherwise tone-deaf to appreciate when I was in my late teens and early 20s. There were few bands back then that drove me off of the dance floor, and sometimes out of the bar, more than New Order and the Cure. Though I've never entirely warmed to either band, I've come to deeply respect the talent, nerve, and originality in each; pulling wide decades later has allowed me to appreciate their lasting and deep impression, and their sizable influence. But I won't hold back: I detested New Order's "Blue Monday" when it was released, and subsequently began popping up in every dj's arsenal at whatever bar my friends and I would drink and dance at. Its synthesized, processed, metronomic beat stood for everything I disliked about much '80s music, even that emanating from very cool scenes, and in the case of New Order, from the ashes of a highly original band. (It took me a while to come around to Joy Division, too.) I don't think that I minded the song's inherent darkness—a mood I'd often indulge in—rather I bristled at what I felt was its programmed aversion to messiness and spontaneity. I craved loud, sloppy guitars, stirring changes, indelible hooks in my rock and roll—I wasn't having Sumner, Hook and Morris's chilly approach to the stage, the antithesis to what I felt were the sonic promises made by rock and roll. Now I'm embarrassed, and I lament my stubbornness (read: immaturity), which didn't always put me in kind company with my friends and acquaintances, who likely were bored with my narrowness. Rightly so.

There was more brewing in my exaggerated distaste. On more than one occasion I recognized, with adolescent melodrama, that my dislike of New Order, the Cure, and others was often overpowered by my envy for those who loved that music, who danced to it at Poseurs, Cagney's, Back Alley Cafe, and the other D.C. joints that we haunted on the weekends, with genuine and joyful abandon, often, it seemed to me, coming alive before my eyes on the dance floor under black light and strobe while I mock-fumed in the corner, or at the bar in studied cool, all the while lamenting my inability to let go to the very music I was cold to. I didn't admit this to myself as much as I let it roil inside of me, yet another nameless, just-beyond-words discovery added to my overpowering emotional confusion at that age.

~~

Today in the car, I tuned in to Sirius's 1st Wave: Classic Alternative Rock channel, and "Blue Monday" came on. Nostalgia's a funny thing: though I don't think I'll ever fully warm to the song and the traditions it mined and trails it blazed—some part of taste, it seems to me, is inextricably lined in one's DNA—I melted in the memories. At once, the guys and girls dancing in my mind's eye weren't antagonists, or foils, but kids finding their true moments and joy on the floor, alone or in couples or threes, moving in whatever blend of adolescent miseries or triumphs, family dysfunction, romantic politics, and weekend drinking or drugging that drove them to the club and that tortured, or animated or inspired them, throughout the drudge of their week. The feeling was stronger than a fleeting song-as-time-machine memory: surprised, I mournfully recognized myself in those kids, the ones I rolled my eyes at way back then: we're all, then and now, dancing because we can, whatever the music is that's moving us. Nostalgia really means the deep desire to return to a home that no longer exists—that ancient, vexing paradox—and those kids' homes, both their complicated bedrooms and the dance floor with its bone-simple pleasures, became vividly clear to me as I idled in my car, in the lousy Hy-Vee parking lot, a thousand years later. So too did the opening verse of "Blue Monday" become clear, told, as I was now by those long-gone kids now firmly in middle age, how it did feel, and who they are.

Photo of Cagney's matchbox via eBay.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

End of August

We took advantage of a break in the heatwave to follow Puff around in the woods for the first time in a while. We're all ready to put August behind us.





Saturday, August 28, 2021

Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

"I hate leaving home." Charlie Watts once said. "I love what I do, but I'd love to go home every night."

It's beautifully appropriate, then, that Watts's final performance with his old band mates occurred as he played—air-drummed, really—from the quiet, secluded comforts of his own home. Watts loved playing music, but he might've loved being home with his family and his quirky accumulations even more. Rest in peace, Charlie.


Friday, August 27, 2021

Back at it

I taught in a classroom for the first time in seventeen months this week, the longest stretch I've experienced professionally sans students, including my sabbatical, since I started teaching in 1988. These first classes have been...tough, for students and for teachers alike. My university has sensibly mandated vaccines for all students and faculty members as well as mask-wearing in all buildings, and HEPA air filters have been installed in each classroom. Grateful as I am to my university's proactive concerns for its employees and students—"Protect the pack" is the phrase the school has adapted—the industrial-grade filters are very loud, even when set on low, and masked students are having great difficulty hearing me and each other. (The typical late-August heat and stuffiness in the rooms don't help matters.) Shy and softer-speaking students are adrift. Hearing-impaired students, already at a disadvantage unable to read masked lips, are now doubly blocked-out of discussions, which is unacceptable. My struggles teaching compare palely to those who are enduring work in hospitals, or long shifts in stores, factories, or in customer service suffer, let alone teachers facing all-day schedules K through 12, yet writ small the classroom reflects the vast difficulties that we're all enduring in the pandemic. My students and I did, and are doing, our best—as is the university—but the situation's rough. Perhaps a renewed, and renewing, sense of empathy might come as a result of all this.

Though teaching remotely has its considerable advantages, it's been great to get in front of students again, to vibe off off the collective energy, muted though it is, of a group of people eager to hang with each other and to think, talk, and write. I began my Creative Nonfiction 1 workshop by imitating a cluster that I'd produced earlier, to help the students generate material for subject matter. In my exercise, I'd found myself taking a detour from a subject that I'd hoped to explore toward something unexpected, different yet revealing, and hopefully more valuable in the long run. Here's hoping that this difficult semester takes an equally surprising turn for the better.

~~

I enjoyed some measure of normalcy a couple weeks ago during a brief solo cross-country drive to visit my parents and few close buddies, who I hadn't seen since 2019. On the way east I caught a Clippers game in Columbus, Ohio, on the way back a Mud Hens game in Toledo. Few in attendance were masked, and I tried to keep my distance, yet being outdoors, drinking a beer, enjoying a slice, watching competitive baseball, did wonders for my general psyche. Viva Minor League Baseball. Viva science. We'll get through this. 

Fifth Third Field, Toledo, Ohio

"Knothole Gang," Toledo

Huntington Park, Columbus, Ohio

Huntington Park, Columbus, Ohio

Photo of Reavis Hall via Northern Illinois University

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Through the eye of a Beatle

I'm recently obsessed with "Fifteen Hundred Miles (Through the Eye of a Beatle)" by the Frost, a late-60s Detroit band I wrote a bit about here. Written and sung by bass player Don Hartman, the song appears on the band's third album, Through The Eyes of Love (1970); it had been recorded live at the legendary Grande Ballroom in Detroit the year before for the band's second album, Rock and Roll, but didn't make the cut. There's so much I dig about this of-the-era track, yet much of it's just beyond my grasp. It's a fantastic driving song—that is, it's a great song about driving that's great to drive to—and in its laudatory air, it's kind of a tribute song, and kind of a novelty song, yet it's greater than those two limiting tags might suggest. I emailed Hartman at his website for some insight, but I haven't heard back; perhaps one day he can enlighten me as to just what he was trying to get at with this song. 

What's it about? Let's examine: 
1) Take a ride
2) "Do you wanna go?"
3) "C'mon, c'mon"
4) A hundred miles high
5) You won't come down
Standard period stuff. A rockin' road trip. Or a drug trip. Both? Are we cruising through the desert at dawn or the verdant paradise of our minds? Then the kicker:
Fifteen hundred miles through the eye of a Beatle
Say what? What does this mean? (Check the back cover and label; it's not a typo, we're not driving around in a VW.) Have we somehow inhabited a Beatle and are seeing things through his eye? (Which Beatle?) Or have we mainlined enough of their songs that we're elevating now to cruising altitude, aiming for a horizon as endless as the last chord of "A Day in the Life"? A road trip soundtracked by the "White Album" and endless "Paul Is Dead!" debates? Is the Beatles music blasting in the car our delivery system, and are the drugs coursing through us allowing us some measure, some rarified glimpse, of a Beatle's Perspective? And what will we see through his eye? What's curious is that there are no explicit, or, for that matter, even implicit, references to the Beatles beyond the song title. No lyrics punning on famous Beatles songs, no passages echoing famous Beatles melodies. Few clues. Just a trip. Through the eye of a Beatle.

As you can see, all I really have are questions. But any way you read it, the song kicks ass: a driving (pun intended), fuzz-guitar, amped-up acid rock blast that could not have been written, or likely even conceived of, a few years earlier, not only because at the dawn of the Seventies the Frost were plugged into new radical sonic and cultural currents, but because the Beatles wouldn't have yet achieved the kind of God-like status that vouchsafed a fifteen-hundred mile trip through the winding roads, ebbs and flows, and major and minor notes of their consciousness (though they were getting awfully close). 


The version recorded at the Grande was eventually issued by Vanguard. It's a minute shorter, faster and rawer, uncluttered by the arrangement that the band wrote for Through the Eyes of Love, in a way more direct, yet lacking the kind of end-of-the-decade, Rock Music Will Save Us grandiosity that the song, and its ostensible subject, demands. I love both versions, and I hope I never get to the bottom of them.



Photo of the Frost via City Pulse.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

At home

I've been swimming again for the first time in many years. When I entered the pool at the local YMCA a few weeks back and began laps, I felt instantly at home, as if entering through the doors of a long-vacated safe place. I took to swimming easily as a kid, taught, I think, mostly by my dad at the public pool, with my sister pitching in. If I had official lessons—which seems logical—I don't remember them now. Rather, I remember my dad's large arms and hands holding me afloat in blue water under a sunny sky as I began paddling. (An image reoccurs: me swimming toward my smiling dad as he's kicking his legs in the water as the melancholy "Nadia's Theme" plays. I haven't figured that one out, yet.) I loved swimming (though not competitively), filling my lungs with air and then skimming the floor on long sweeps down a pool's length, coming up for air, repeating. My wife, who I taught to swim, likens me to a river otter. I do feel purely, innately creature-like in the water, with little permeable boundaries except the obvious—I can't breathe, I have to fight not to float, I exhaust myself and have to rest, etc.. These facts mean there's a finite time that I can spend in water. Yet when I'm there I feel placeless, and the very gesture of the crawl stroke feels ancient yet familiar.

Boundaries of a different sort describe another place where I've aways felt at home: the dive bar. Let me wander into a small, dark, not necessarily old, joint, sit on a rickety stool near the door (on which, preferably, there's a diamond window), allow my eyes to adjust, order a round of cold cheap beer and a shot, control a killer jukebox for a dozen or so songs, and I'm at peace. If there is a TV, it's on but low, hopefully tuned to a baseball game, if we're in season. (In my beloved pub the Oasis, in Rockford, Illinois, the TV's busted, and hangs dark from the ceiling gathering dust.) I'll make small talk if I'm in the mood, but I'm usually not, preferring to gaze into my beer as my own company, and follow the current of my my thoughts. Here, I feel comfortable, whether I'm a regular who the bartender knows or whether I've ducked in to this appealing looking place in a city I'm visiting for the first time. I'm careful to guard against over-valuing the buzzed epiphany, trusting that, as the afternoon or evening lengthens, any worthwhile philosophizing I might mutter to myself will be replaced by simple grooving to a good song on the jukebox.

I'm all too aware that romanticizing bars can be dangerous. A decade ago I wrote about my attraction to bars and drinking, and my wariness of both, in "Barfly on the Wall," an essay for Junk: A Literary Fix; revisiting the piece, I'm struck by how little my attitude has changed, and how my discovery near the end of the piece feels even more urgent to me now. "I’d like to think that I’m in recovery, but I’m not so sure." I wrote. "Addiction to romanticizing, addiction to sentimentalizing, can be dangerous lifetime habits. As an addict is wary of his next sip, her next pain pill, so am I wary of the next indulgent slip into idealizing, because it could be fatal to what I might call the Mature Life."

While an addiction to romancing debauchery is certainly better for my physical and mental health than actual debauchery, it poisons in a different way: I can place a dive bar on a pedestal high enough that all I really see is its appealing shape, its blurring borders in Ideal Land, the pretty wink of neon signs. Romanticizing a bar is like falling for the Platonic promise of model homes at new housing developments, or the house façades on a movie set. The crisp front walk and neat green hedges, the clean white paint and trim, the shimmering bay windows present the family within as cast by Woods-Were-Once-Here Corporation. When we walk into a stranger’s home we know the odd smells and psychological histories, the muttering corners and emotionally weighted heirlooms, actual realities, the flawed families inside not reading from scripts, but improvising daily.

The limitations of indulging bar romance are considerable, then. I guess one can over swim, but the excesses of that pastime aren't nearly as corrosive as overstaying, by years, one's welcome at the corner joint. 

~~

What of the connections, if any, between swimming in a pool and drinking in a bar? Both allow me to feel innate and untroubled when I'm on the road—we love visiting local Y's in whatever towns we're staying in on long road trips; hitting a good dive in a strange city, I feel uncannily at home. Both allow me some measure of solitude in public; both encourage the kind of pleasant, essayistic ambling of the mind from thought to observation and back again; both create a kind of cocoon for me to be present and apart at the same time. I won't indulge in more symbolism or psychological insights than my predilection for pools and dives deserves, except to admit to a certain ambivalence recognizing that, though I'm a social creature, if an introverted one, and a happy, solid husband and a friend to my friends, I often find my most authentic self in my own head.

Photo of pool via iStock; photo of International Bar in New York City by yours truly

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Puts me in my world

A stack of 45s landed mysteriously in my family's suburban basement sometime during my childhood. Likely they were a pre-packaged gift my parents bought on a whim at, say, Korvettes, or perhaps one or three of them came into our possession via neighbor kids. All I knew was these singles arrived as a kind of sonic miracle, and were a blast to jam and to dance around to, and it turned out they were my gateway drug into a lifelong love affair with music. A decade or so ago my younger brother Paul burned a handful of them onto a CD-r as a gift for the family; our childhood party included Ted Taylor's "Honey Lou," Little Milton's "If Walls Could Talk," Ohio Express' "Roll It Up," Joe Tex's "Wicked Woman," Vik Venus's "Everybody's On Strike," Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra"—what a bill! Among the particularly irresistible tunes were Charles Spurling's "Popcorn Charlie" and Jean Knight's "You Think You're Hot Stuff," yet the flip side to Knight's was the number that really got my and my brother's attention. With its humor, sublimely funky bass line, winking, knowing background singers, and wickedly catchy chorus, "Don't Talk About Jody" was pure catnip, sending us around the basement dancing and laughing. Now I can attach names to the musicians who delighted us, who played a tight arrangement so loosely: Jerry Puckett supplied the infectious funky guitar riff; William Laverne Robbins played bass; drummer James Carey Stroud held everything down with cool aplomb. The song was cut at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, and Wardell Quezergue arranged and produced. These names and places mean a lot to me now.

Of course what I was too young to get beyond an understanding of who made these cools sounds was the singer's sexy confidence, her proud, dug-in defense of her man, the one "we girls know can satisfy," whose goodness, fidelity, and dependability—his dimensional, lasting sex appeal—put flashier guys to shame. And yet, somehow, much of that joy, swagger, and confidence came though to me anyway, years before the words, and my own maturity, caught up to the groove. Before my perspective widened enough to understand the playfully aggressive sexual politics at work in the song, its movement, catchiness, and joie de vivre were already saying a lot to me—I just didn't have the language to translate it into anything other than joyful movement. And I didn't need to. My kid perspective isn't cringy now when I listen to the song, and love it evermore, as is sometimes the case when you take stock of the naiveté and innocence of your childhood take on things—rather, it adds layers to the song, still. How does music do this?

I recently found "Mr. Hot Stuff," on which "Don't Talk About Jody" appeared, released on Stax in 1971, and now can listen to and truly embrace the breadth of Knight's gifts, from her fun and funny funk to her dead-earnest and powerful ballads; "A Little Bit Of Something (Is Better than Al Of Nothing)"—wow. Because we had the 45, we never saw the album—but I bet we would've had a hell of a rollicking response to the original, fabulous cover, too!

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Time will go and you're free

Yesterday was gray and rainy, the perfect weather to further indulge in one of my favorite records from the past year. 11:11, the Kundalini Genie's latest release, is a mind-bending trip of heavy psychedelia, a soundscape journey into interior states propelled by loud, fuzzy guitars, mammoth drumming, and airy vocals in dreamy arrangements, the sound saturated and reverb-rich. Chord changes come as if moving underwater, keyboard flourishes arrive like glimpses of high-flying birds, cymbal crashes move in slow motion, drum fills spill unhurriedly like men gamboling on the moon. I'm new to the Glasgow, Scotland band, and was in a local record store when an employee played this album. Crate digging, I found myself swallowed by the opening track, "Mantra," its blend of sitar, rock and roll backbeat drumming, and loud, driving, searching guitars riding atop a drone for seven astonishing minutes. I was utterly transported by the experience of listening—as the best music does, it altered the environment I was in—and after the full album played I bought it on the spot.


The epic sound on 11:11 is created by Robbie Wilson, the primary songwriter, on guitar, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards and vocals; Jack Getty and Jason Shaw pitch in on guitar, bass, and vocals. (A larger collection of Genie musicians come and go, and fill out the sound on stage). The tradition the band mines is clear, and has been maintained before them in various textures since the second half of the 1960s in numerous psychedelic and neo-psychedelic bands and movements. To my ears, the clearest source on 11:11 are the trippy, guitar-heavy songs John Lennon wrote and recorded with the Beatles in the April and May of 1966. "Tomorrow Never Knows." "I'm Only Sleeping." "Rain." "She Said She Said": these psychedelic masterpieces are sonic templates for Wilson, who filters Lennon's passive, dreamy plugged-in perceptions through his own harmonic sensibilities, drenching them in contemporary, but sympathetic, production and presenting them new again. (His voice sounds uncannily like George Harrison's in places, too.) Lennon and Harrison's guitar sounds in particular seemed to have really galvanized Wilson: 11:11 is a deceptively loud album, or sounds great when cranked, anyway. 

My favorite song on the album is "Sunrise," a dimensional, and surprisingly moving, track. For all of Wilson's gentleness, there's an icy remove to much of 11:11, the songs' dwelling in interior states and extended, languid musical passages bordering on late-Pink Floyd styled self-absorption—gorgeously rendered absorption, it must be said. But the seven-minute "Sunrise" feels different. It begins against a characteristic lazy strum and yawning pace with an invitation from the singer to dig his mind, to lose the sense of temporality, as he does in his nightly "silver dreams," until the morning brings sun, a freeing journey of colors and textures. Against spacey keyboard washes and epic reverb, the last verse appears:
'Cause when I lay down in my bed
I never feel as though I'm alone
'Cause all my friends, they're in my head
And I know they'll never let me down
So just leave me alone flying up in the sky, don't you know
I'm happy there...can't you see?
It's everything you want, you just have to believe
It doesn't matter how long, 'cause time will go and you're free
And then you'll see...
For all of the song's irresistible, narcotic-like entreaties, that line about friends stops me: the singer will never feel let down by his friends because they exist only in his head, where he's happy though eternally alone, defining that peace in part by the faithfulness of his friends who aren't truly there with him. The paradox is startling, and melancholy, sharp-edged in the midst of the pillowy dreamscape that the song conjures. It's brilliant, powerful stuff, and surprising, and like the best discoveries in a song, it subtly changes, or puts in revealing context, everything you heard before and after it.


~~

Robbie Wilson
Is the end result solipsism or is it Oneness that the singer drifts slowly toward? "Sunrise" doesn't satisfyingly answer that question, though Wilson, in a recent inteview with Klemen Breznikar at It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine, explored the possibilities and the difficulties of the ego. "Basically my understanding of ego is that it’s your lens through which you experience the material and sensory world," he said. "Having said that, I, like everyone else, have it within me to be extremely egotistical. A trait you need to be in touch with to be able to create good art. That said, like anything, it’s a tool to be used and put away when you’re finished with it, (I believe), and so it can be dangerous.If you let yourself get carried away it can cause all sorts of problems, you need to be able to take it off like a jacket at the end of the day or you’ll spend your life in a constant struggle to satiate it, which of course, by it’s very nature it never can be."
...Do what you can, if you even make one small change to improve your life, the lives of those around you and the planet, then you’re doing it. The only issue is consistency, you have to consistently be able to ‘take off your ego’ and try to act from a position of empathy consistently, it’s not enough to do a few good things. You have to make it part of you. When you do that, things happen, there’s a force like gravity in the universe, maybe it’s karma, that notices that and suddenly doors are open that were once shut, a path starts to reveal itself and you know it’s what you have to do. It doesn’t have to be massive, just something. It has to be you. No one else can.
He adds, "Psychedelic by the very definition of the word (Psyche: ‘the human body, mind or spirit’. Delos: ‘the bring forth, to manifest’) means the human spirit manifest, and so the type of people who are attracted to it are often people who are aware of this, and the infinite variations of it in their own personal lives and viewpoints."

Though thoughtful and articulate in his songs, Wilson chooses to give the English philosopher Alan Watts the last word on 11:11, literally. The final song—the epic "You Had It All"—closes with a two-minute snippet of a recording of Watts, date and source unknown. As the musicians hold and gently riff on chords on a keyboard, Watts espouses on birth, death, and the infinite oneness of all creatures—"And wheresoever beings exist throughout all galaxies, it doesn't make any difference, you are all of them"—ending with amazement at the fact that humans need not be aware of this miracle: 
You don't have to know how to shine the sun, you just do it. Like you breathe. Now doesn't it just astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing? And that you are doing all of this and you never had any education in how to do it? Never learned, but you're this miracle? The point of it is, from a strictly physical, scientific standpoint, this organism is a continuous energy with everything else that's going on. And if I am my foot, I am the sun.
Watts's generous and startling way of seeing the universe and the unity of all creatures moving through it, arriving as it does at the end of the album as a kind of clarifying dawn, marks 11:11, a remarkable collection of songs about the human spirit that evoke the furthest edges of insight and invite us along on the journey.


Photo of Wilson via Psychedelic Underground Generation

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Surprise, Surprise


Few popular artists have guarded their public image as rigorously as has Paul McCartney. In the countless interviews he's given over the past fifty-plus years, he's been careful to present a demeanor that is part optimistic, part innocent, and part humble, with the odd winking cockiness for seasoning. Fans have rolled their collective eye at the routine anecdotes McCartney hauls out for each and every interview. To his immense credit, he shares each story as if he's telling it for the first time or the interviewer may be hearing it for the first time, yet the problem with a charming person who's confident in his charm is that it becomes difficult to determine when he's bullshitting you. His charm follows from his sincerity, or it seals off candor.

My favorite moments in director Zachary Heinzerling's engrossing, highly entertaining series McCartney 3,2,1, airing now on Hulu, come when McCartney looks genuinely astonished or startled; unsurprisingly, those reactions occur not during a well-worn story, but during the breakdown of studio tracks, the most compelling and irresistible moments in the series. Rick Rubin and McCartney huddle over the mixing board like kids playing with a cool toy on Christmas morning, and, listening to a Beatles or a solo recording, McCartney's quite literally in the moment; though he's presumably heard these songs countless times, he reacts more candidly and unguardedly than he does during the sit-down interview portions (as amiably "off the cuff" as they appear, given, again, McCartney's legendary charm). These are glimpses into McCartney vulnerability that we don't see that often. He's humbled a bit. I love when, during a playback of "Another Girl" from Help!, McCartney reacts to the fuck-ups in his lead guitar playing—botched notes that I've smiled at since I was a kid—and is forced to acknowledge for a second that a Legend messes up for all to hear. Watch his face during these scenes—the breakdowns of "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "A Day In The Life" are also great passages—and you'll see not only fondness and joy as he listens to his band's superb ensemble playing and inventiveness, but affection for his and his band's mistakes, also. 

A component of McCartney's appeal has long been his self-deprecation, yet that modesty often feels affected ("The Beatles were a good little band, weren't they?"), part guarded deflection, part-Northern self-effacement. A great exchange occurs after Rubin and McCartney have listened to "Another Girl." Rubin—who must've had a difficult time deciding which pose to take with McCartney; ultimately, he vacillates between seasoned pro and gushing, wide-eyed fan—assures McCartney that keeping his guitar mistakes in the final master of the song was a bold move. McCartney shrugs. They really had no choice, he says, given their pressing studio schedule.

Rubin: That's real!

McCartney [chuckling]: That's real alright. 

Rubin: It adds to the energy of the track, it's so cooking, oh he can barely even play it! You know what I mean? Like, it's running away.

McCartney [returning to the board]: OK, I'll go with that explanation. [takes a beat] I wish I had you in school. "No, he didn't make a mistake, he's just enthusiastic." Yeah.

Roger Angell once observed that baseball players, even all-stars and veterans, enjoyed not only talking about their accomplishments, but about when things went wrong on the field, the inevitable mistakes and comic disasters being an equal ingredient of the game they love. The moments in 3,2,1 when McCartney grins at an old-fashioned screw up are among the most pleasing, and, yeah, charming in the series.