Tuesday, June 30, 2020

An empty Bottle

"An empty drawer is unimaginable. It can only be thought of." So says Gaston Bachelard. But what of an empty rock and roll club? Courtesy of these wonderful, melancholy photos, I don't have to try to imagine it. I can see it.

I certainly never wanted to think of the Empty Bottle as, well, empty for the foreseeable future, but here we are. (You can contribute to the venue's Reopening Fund, Staff Fund, or Music Friendly Distancing artists here.) These photos capture something beyond the atmospheric hour-after-last-call or the busy few minutes before a joint opens up: they evoke stillness and quiet, a noun and adjective one rarely associates with a raucous rock and roll club. Gorgeously photographed with a blend of light sources, the long bar, the dance floor, and the adjacent room (whither goest thou, merch tables?) look beautiful and artfully appointed, because they are; over the decades, the staff at the Bottle have created a warm and lived-in feel at the place but the aesthetics, not to mention the often striking artwork on the walls, are often lost to dim lighting, and in another lifetime, to swirling cigarette smoke. These noiseless photos create an alternate mood, homey, rich even. All that's missing are the patrons, the bands, and the virtually-visible music reaching into every corner. The images are pleasing yet heartbreaking, most of all to the struggling owners and the unplugged bands who were primed to visit the little Ukrainian Village corner joint from a few neighborhoods over, or the other side of the country, or another continent. I want so badly to pull up a stool here, order a beer and a shot, people watch, stroll the place, and ignore, or fall in love with, the second of three opening acts who I'd never heard of before. In the meantime, I'll wait. The music will come back one day. In a silly way, I'm grateful for these evocative photos even as they do what all photographs do: welcome me in while keeping me out. See you soon, down at the rock and roll club.

Photos courtesy of Empty Bottle

Monday, June 29, 2020

Less human noise

It might be my imagination, but it appears that the animals around me—birds, deer, even the fireflies at night—are less fearful, more approachable. I wonder if this is due to the pandemic, if wildlife is feeling fewer vibrations of human activity and, instinctively, feel emboldened, or anyway more comfortable, venturing out. The deer in the woods in our backyard come closer to us and don't bolt off as suddenly; birds are more plentiful and full-throated, it appears, and have taken to landing very close to us when we're out on the deck. Fireflies have returned at night; they've been scant the last few years. A couple of months back, ABC News ran some photos documenting this new "roaming," for better and for worse.

Again, I might be imagining this, but even so I take comfort in the apparent ease with which the suburban wildlife around us are spending their ordinary days, blissfully unaware of our ugly, self-created problems, and vibing off of the new clearness within which they silently move, perhaps feeling, and fearing, less human noise.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Magic Sam's secret heart

I'm astonished at the places singer and guitarist extraordinaire Magic Sam goes in his version of "My Love Will Never Die," one of the great obsessive love songs in blues history. Willie Dixon wrote the brooding tune and released it in 1952 with his Big Three Trio. After Otis Rush and others, Magic Sam recorded a version at Sound Studio in Chicago with his Blues Band for his debut album West Side Soul, released in 1967. Mighty Joe Young aids and abets on guitar, and Stockholm Slim on piano, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Odie Payne on drums round out the band, who play—surrender to, really—the compulsive 12/8 time as if they have no choice: the song arrived, and well, that's it, you may as well not play it like might you stand out in the rain and stay dry. The music masters the musicians, even as they master its dilemmas.

I'm not a musician, nor am I an actor. But like every human being in existence, I present a different persona for any given time of the day. We get into roles and we play them. What's brilliant and unsettling is how Magic Sam navigates words he didn't compose, lyrics which dramatize either a pathetic and delusional man or a brave and noble one. Sam amazed with his expressive guitar, but I keep coming back—on this record, his equally great follow up Black Magic, and the terrific Magic Sam Live—for his voice, which can leap into a falsetto so graphic in its expressiveness that I'm startled nearly every time. What Sam lacks in finesse he more than makes up for in gruff urgency; he's too close to the mike at times, the needle in the red just a corollary to his own heart pounding. He's steeled by the song's insistent, coiled beat, which gives the impression of a brave march, yet the minor key gives away his desperation and weak bargaining position. "You've done me wrong for a long, long time, and all you've done still never changed my mind," he—asserts? wills himself to believe?—and those dozen or so words lay out the song's problem to solve: she's hurt him, yet he still loves her. Now what? The last verse—
These flowers grow where I lay and rest
And these colored blossoms darling, hold to your breast
And darling, I know it's my mind breaking out
From inside my love for you will never die
—says that he's here for the long haul, but to what end? Does he believe that his declaration will win her back? (And why would he want to?) Doesn't he realize that his feelings for her, however noble and earnest, might look like neediness to her, or, worse, as tiresome and creepy obsessiveness? Yet either way he's singing, he has no choice, and that's what's both moving and exhausting about "My Love Will Never Die." The more he sings, the further she moves away, until he's alone at the end, clutching little but his continuing, baffling affection for a person who's hurt him. How to solve that age-old dilemma.... The strutting time signature has its knees taken out by the sadly knowing minor key; Sam's needful vocal is undercut by the helplessness of the very words he's singing. No matter how many times I listen to this remarkable performance, my sympathies remain at war: the singer's tired yet confident, resolved yet weak, emboldened yet haunted, assertive but owned by a weepy tremolo that he can't keep out of his voice. Of course, this is what I hear, with my own history, biases, and needs—you might hear something else.

Magic Sam's performance cut in this studio on this day in 1967 is timeless, and reveals a surprise or two with every listen. Like all great art, "My Love Will Never Die" remains in many ways unresolved. Joyce Carol Oates, who knows a thing or two about the dark heart, says “Lovers of pristine harmony, those who dislike being upset, shocked, made to think and to feel, are not naturally suited to appreciate art, at least not serious art, which, unlike television dramas and situation comedies...does not evoke conflict merely to solve it within a brief space of time."
Rather, conflict is the implicit subject, itself; as conflict, the establishment of disequilibrium, is the impetus for the evolution of life, so is conflict the genesis, the prime mover, the secret heart of all art.
It's an observation as old as dirt, sure, yet the paradox that Magic Sam tries to sing himself out of sounds and feels desperately fresh every time I listen. In the eternal present tense of the song's finish, he's battling a problem so ancient that it's as new as yesterday.

Trying to figure it all out


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Surprise

Years ago, Amy and I planted a Serviceberry tree by our front walk. We only recently learned that the fruits are edible when ripe. So this morning we picked a cup full and baked some muffins. It's restorative these days to be able to walk outside, pick some berries, and an hour later have a plate of muffins. 
 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

If a band plays in an empty club...


DOWN AT THE (VIRTUAL) ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Well, at least I didn't have to wait in line for a beer. Otherwise, like many others, I wish I'd been there.

Last night, the original lineup of Reigning Sound played a twenty-three song set at B-Side Memphis; the show was streamed via GonerTV. As when I'd caught them in Chicago three months ago—the last show I attended before the pandemic restrictions—the band was warm and loose and clearly enjoying themselves, and like the bunch of old buds they are they looked back fondly and bemusedly as they revived the very songs that scored their shared past. "Hey Greg," bass player and good-natured nostalgist Jeremy Scott said to band leader Greg Cartwright between numbers, "do you know that in August it will have been twenty years since we recorded our debut album?" Cartwright smiled and muttered something about how some folks have had to suffer him for even longer than that. Good jokes, great songs.

The set was divided among the band's first four albums, with a few covers thrown in, notably the 1960s-era Memphis band Tommy Burk and The Counts' "Change Your Mind," and a wistful version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Memphis In June." Head-down, eyes closed, and committed to his material, Cartwright was all business (when he wasn't tuning up; he'd needed to borrow Goner Records co-owner Zac Ives's guitar, the strings' heavier-weight gauge of which caused him some troubles.) The rest of the band—Scott, drummer Greg Roberson, and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Greene—confidently muscled the songs and/or held them gently aloft, depending on the mood the songs created. By necessity there was very little vibing off of the crowd—because there wasn't one, apart from the venue's staff and maybe a few friends. (One or two "Happy Birthdays" were offered from the stage.) "Wow, a studio audience!" Cartwright crowed at one point, peering between songs into the venue's barely-peopled dark. "I never get to say that. The best kind of audience, too, a captive one." Grins all around.

A couple of months ago, Rob Sheffield wrote a terrific piece for Rolling Stone about his live-show withdrawals in this pandemic era (a suffering that I share with him). Recounting both the joys and the tedium of going to shows, he recognizes that the gulf between the two experiences is what gives shows their dimension, and often their surprises. He writes, "I go through my phone scrounging for karaoke photos I meant to delete, though now I’m glad I didn’t—proof I have friends who don’t run in terror when I’m on my sixth 'Shallow' of the night. Was it just a couple months ago in late February when I got up to karaoke 'People Who Died'? And everyone danced and nobody felt a single pang of fear? Did this all really happen?"
I chew on these memories like a crust of prison bread. They nourish me. They also torment me. I think of all the crappiest bands I’ve seen live, and picture myself crawling through broken glass to hear them tune up. I think of the lamest bands I’ve walked out on, even worse than the ones I hear in my sleep.
He adds, "Even more than the great shows, I find myself missing the mediocre ones. The nights when you drop by on a whim, run into friends, enjoy the music in the most transitory way, then walk home, stop for a slice on the way, maybe forget the band the next day. What a luxury."

Live streams like last night's do no small part in helping soothe things. And I'm thankful for the bands and artists who can manage to put on events like these, singing into empty studios or venues or their own living rooms, eager to help the many listening and watching to sing along, to dance and move again, to elate in favorite songs and onstage fuck-ups and the odd new arrangement of a classic tune. The silence in between songs was odd to listen to—I clapped at home, watching in my music room/office—and I'm sure even more odd for the band. I was grateful for every song. The advantages of watching a streaming show (I'm home already, there's all the beer I want in the fridge a few steps away) are finally outweighed by the losses (the intimacy of a crowd of friends and strangers, the excitement of a dark club, the decibels) but the contest was a friendly one; I enjoyed having a favorite band playing for me in the comfort of my own home, and I really wished I could've been there plugging my ears against the din.

There was no merch table, There were far fewer bodies in the room and hugs and slaps on the back. After the show, as the DJ played Merle Spears's "I Want To Know," the camera lingered on the stage as Greene stood and wrapped a bandana around his face; across the room, Scott opted for a more conventional mask, and the two stepped off of the stage into the dark into the new normal.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ironies in Pleasant Valley

Listening to music can nearly always become an ironic experience. Context is everything: one song's uplifting lyrics might bedevil a listener's down or anxious mood; another tune's downbeat words push stubbornly against the listener's elation, creating in that moment a kind of perpetual motion machine of intention and effect. This can happen on the dance floor, when a song's ugly words rise to your consciousness only when you're at the bar, thirsty, after having danced your ass off to it; this can happen when a mix tape suddenly sings very different songs after a breakup, or a joyful reconciliation; this happens when a song that mattered to you when you were a carefree fifteen-year old matters a whole lot less when you're an encumbered adult; or it may mean more.

This morning I was outside watering the front and side gardens. We've planted loads of ajuga groundcover in the front, and some coneflowers, and a hummingbird vine, etc., and all need careful tending in their early days. So, out this morning with a cup of coffee and the hose, I watered. As often occurs when I'm out in the yard on a pleasant Sunday, the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" starts playing somewhere in my head. Soon I'm singing along. Recorded in Hollywood by the Monkees and studio musicians across two sessions in June of 1967, the song was issued a month later, and went to number three on the Top 100. Gerry Goffin and Carole King's song was inspired by Pleasant Valley Way, a street in West Orange, New Jersey, where they lived. I love the tune, have always dug the earnest "local rock group down the street" gamely serenading the "weekend squire" out cutting his grass, Mrs. Gray's roses, Mr. Green's multiple television sets, mothers complaining, their kids a generation gap away, and growing. But I usually find myself singing along to the song dryly, not without some qualms, having found myself, in a long journey, on a street in a Status Symbol Land of sorts, enjoying the garden and yard yet also fighting my native resistance to "creature comfort goals" that "numb my soul," even as I grimly acknowledge my civic duty to maintain appearances.

Anyway, with bemused half-grins on our faces, Goffin, King, Micky Dolenz, and I sneer as we go. I usually bring the song inside with me when I'm done, offer a few sardonic bars to Amy, who gets it but is then annoyed with me for planting the day-long earworm in her head. Today, that level of irony, and my grinning enjoyment of it, feels absurdly inconsequential. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests of police brutality, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting physical and economic suffering, ugly, ugly politics and the spread of fascist ideologies and brutal enactments, enjoying, however acerbically, a sunshine AM radio hit from the Summer of Love that unthreateningly satirizes suburbia feels the very definition of privilege. There are millions in the world who'd gladly take a cup of Pleasantness right now. Yet the song plays unbidden in my head, pop music's pleasures pushing against bitter truths, larger savagery, and generations' worth of injustice. A queasy incongruity that's impossible to ignore.

"I hate to pop your balloon about 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'," Michael Nesmith said to a reporter a decade after the song was released. "That song was actually written about a mental institution." I don't know whether or not Nesmith was joking.


Gerry Goffin and Carole King




Photo of Goffin and King via Los Angeles Times; 45 picture sleeve via Discogs

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Bodies, faces, voices

Amy and I lent our bodies, faces, and voices to today's peaceful but rousing protest in town. The chants were righteous and moving, the faces masked but loud. With the pandemic in mind, being a part of a crowd is not an easy choice to make, but this is important, in fact essential, and we tried to maintain social distancing. Hand sanitizer was freely distributed.

As we were pulling out of our parking space to leave, a police officer drove into the lot in a large vehicle, stopped to block traffic, and got out. He walked toward a small group of protesters with signs near the edge of the lot. We got worried, and alertly watched as he approached them. He asked the group if they had a camera, and when they handed him their phone, he gave them time to pose with their signs. He snapped a picture, returned the phone to them, and said, "This is a good cause." A very nice ending. We're proud of DeKalb today.

Say his name: George Floyd.







Thursday, May 28, 2020

Fran the Fan (from Liverpool)


This advert appeared on the back of the Beatles' "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out" 45 sleeve, issued by Parlophone in England on December 3, 1965, the same day as Rubber Soul. I recently picked it up (I'm collecting the original Beatles U.K. singles, long-overdue) and was knocked out to see this narrative playing out on the back sleeve, an of-the-era advertisement for a Morphy-Richards hairdryer. "Fran" and "Kate," two Liverpool lasses, are inspired to start up a fan club for the Frantics, a fictional northern band destined to be "the biggest group in the country next year." (We'll see.)  The girls are far more interested in the Frantics' "Walt" and "Pete" than in their own boyfriends. Who's the moody, arty one with the goatee? Anyway, the girls are amped to be the band's first real fans—"practically their best friends!" Kate enthuses, helpfully holding the dryer as Fran composes a careful letter to "Sam Bruce, the Frantics' manager."

All innocent fun and enthusiasm, of course, yet the girls' wide-eyed hopes of securing relationships with a rock and roll band, as embedded in an ad for a hair dryer, evokes the era in pretty graphic ways. Gender role playing, the power of the beauty-industrial complex, biological determinism playing out in the bedroom as "Day Tripper" spins on the hi-fi, that sly song's teasing, one-night-stand, weekend girls playing out another, dirtier story altogether. Ah, pop music.









~~



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Six to eight weeks

In 1988 I moved from the Washington D.C suburbs to Appalachia, specifically Athens, Ohio. The area's honeysuckle air, verdant, surrounding hills and hollers, and winding rural roads were a world away from the bustling region I'd left. Let's just say that the recoil was awesome, though it didn't take too long—a couple of months—for me to adjust, and ultimately to fall in love with the town, now one of my favorite places on earth. Yet it had its drawbacks in the beginning, among them a certain pre-Internet cultural isolation that left me feeling very alone, positioned far from the kinds of places—rock and roll clubs and record and used book stores, in particular—that I'd taken for granted in Maryland and D.C. Athens had a couple of good used record stores (which later became very good) and Columbus, Ohio and its cache of terrific stores and clubs, not to mention the 'hood surrounding the Ohio State University (this Bobcat won't capitalize "the") was an hour and a half away, but my car was a piece of unreliable junk that I didn't much trust.

So I turned to mail order, and introduced myself to such outfits as Estrus, Get Hip, BOMP, and Norton Records (whose wonderful co-honcho Miriam Linna was crushed to learn, after I'd put in my first order, that, no, sorry, I wasn't related to that Joe Bonomo). Suffice to say that those early orders, which were few and far between given my pitiful graduate student bank account, were the start of a long relationship; I still get a buzz from putting in the occasional record order through those and similar-minded vinyl-junkie outlets. And in this current quarantine and subsequent shuttering of so many record and book stores, mail order business is more vital than ever. Consider putting in an order. Many labels and stores are offering some sweet deals.

Which is to say that I have, and always will have, immoderate affection for this little tune by a band I knew nothing about, but whose name and song title caught my eye as I leafed through the grainy pulp pages of a catalogue. (The now-defunct My Old Kind Of KicK blog subsequently filled me in on the band's history, which was far more lively than I was aware at the time.) I can't now rank the single up there with the best of the best in my collection, but when it arrived at our house in the wilds of tucked-away little Athens, the horizon expanded and brightened a bit: I knew now that I could order tough-sounding rock and roll via the mail, and six to eight weeks later I'd be spinning discs. This single kept me a rockin' boy. Thanks, Clint Clinton, wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Walter Lure survives












To Hell and Back: My Life in Johnny Thunders's Heartbreakers, in the Words of the Last Man Standing, written by Walter Lure with Dave Thompson, is an ideal rock and roll memoir. Reading it gives the impressions of having stumbled upon Lure in a talky, generous, above all clear-eyed mood, eager to share and to tell the truth. What Lure may lack in intense self-interrogation he more than makes up for in forthrightness. His book is very much a junkie memoir: foregrounded ultimately is the quest to score. A quarter of the way into the book—which primarily covers the first two years of the Heartbreakers' existence—Lure's already an addict, and when he's off the stage, his main preoccupation is getting more drugs, through the generosity of friends and strangers, via dwindling advances from record labels, or the cash drummed up by the various and many "rent parties" that he and whatever lineup he's in throw. 

The Fleshtones' co-founder and bass player Marek Pakulski, himself a survivor of heroin addition, once put it to me this way: "Heroin...obviates the need for people, whereas alcohol allows you to be present in social situations. Heroin says: You don’t need that anymore. You and whatever your income is, the guy you buy your drugs from, and your house: this becomes your little triangle." What rescues To Hell and Back from the potentially narrative-deadening routine locked within that triangle is the happy fact that in the late 1980s Lure cleaned up for good, and while in the clutches of heroin kept a regular diary. Hence, in writing about the fog of smack addiction, dateless days, and preoccupations, he can lean on some structure. There are evocative details about visiting London and recoiling from the culture shock, the dynamism of playing onstage, well and poorly, both the conflicts and the camaraderie with like-spirited U.K. punk bands, good sex, anonymous sex, and fraught relationships, and the infamous recording and mixing epic of the Heartbreakers' sole album, the fantastic L.A.M.F.. In Lure's telling, Johnny Thunders, who Lure had known off and on before joining his band, fully lives up to his myth/image as the gloriously decadent junkie surrounded at all hours by disciples and hangers-on happy to hook him up, hopeful that some of Thunders's "glamour" might rub off them. Thunders is To Hell and Back's mercurial figure—as infamous when he's not around as when he is—frustratingly circling above Lure's more comparatively down-to-earth desires to get, and to keep, working,

Even given the relative assurances of diary entires, what's especially appealing about Lure is the dry skepticism he directs at his own past as that past as been remade my myth-makers. The venerable CBGB, long accepted as the hallowed ground of NYC punk, was just that, Lure acknowledges, but also something else. "'Punk' history tends to regard CBGB with a lot more affection than it perhaps deserves," he writes, adding, "Hilly Kristal himself merits every kind word that has ever been said about him—without him, and his vision, New York would never have seen the musical explosion that followed."
That’s true, but for me, mention of CBGB conjured another memory entirely, of the Sunday afternoon a couple of years earlier when a college friend of mine invited me down to a dive bar in the East Village to watch his country band play a show. I went, and it was a dreadful place, the kind you never wanted to think about again‚ which, at the time, seemed very likely because country was CBGB's specialty. But it wasn't mine. 
Of course, it didn't turn out that way, and returning there for the first time only revealed that CBGB had only gone downhill since my last visit. It was a shithole, and just as you don’t think kindly of your cat’s litter box, no matter how much you love your cat, that damp, narrow room with its barbed-wire acoustics and broken-glass ambiance was a place you visited under sufferance not for fun.
A rock and roll lifer fan, Lure has attended (and remembers!) many shows in his lifetime, including seminal early gigs such as Humble Pie's 1971 Fillmore show and Woodstock (where, improbably, he ran into Thunders) and his love of 1950s and 1960s AM radio rock and roll is as palpable in the Heartbreakers' songs as it is in Lure's fond, if tempered, recollections of singers and bands. About his own band's legend, Lure acknowledges that their reputation as a great live outfit was (mostly) accurate, yet he's bemused at the way history can be re-written and accepted as gospel. Shaking his head in front of his open diaries, Lure writes, "To be honest, and I'm going to have to confess to this on a few occasions later, as well, the various history books and lists of our gigs include a lot that I have no memory of whatsoever and didn't note in my diary, either. Meaning, either I’ve always been forgetful or, and this is equally plausible, they’re shows that perhaps were scheduled and announced but didn’t ultimately take place for some reason." He adds with a smile, "I must admit, though, I especially enjoy reading about the shows we are supposed to have played around England when I know for a fact that we were elsewhere on that date." This leavening of hyperbole with dry fact serves Lure's memoir well, and underscores the simple fact that the story he tells is less about the making of legends than it is about men working hard, or trying to, dealing with the pitfalls of the recording and touring industries and their own bank-depleting addictions while trying to remain passionate about making music. 


By necessity and through luck, Lure ultimately discovered other ways to survive. He was an employee of the Federal Drug Administration during the Heatbreakers' early days—that he doesn't have to make too much of the irony for it to resonate indicates just how absurdly thick that irony is—and in the last, harrowing days of his addiction, and for decades beyond, he worked on Wall Street, an equally improbable job for a smack-addict who wore bandaids on his face and played rock and roll in dim, sweaty clubs. Yet this work ethic, exploited early on to maintain his addictions, kept him alive. At the end of the book, he writes soberingly (in more ways than one), "if [the Heartbreakers] had gotten any bigger back then, we all might have died a lot earlier, given our proclivities at the time, and I include myself in that. One of the main reasons I survived was the fact that I had to go out and get a job. Johnny, Billy [Rath], and Jerry [Nolan] never had to do that—Johnny never worked a day in his life at a regular job."

~~

Lure's happy fate is his book's happy ending. Near the end, he makes a simple but startling observation that casts so much of what he'd experienced, and written, in sharp relief: "Boredom was a relatively new sensation for me, and it was ugly. Powerful, too, in a sinister way."
It drives people to the most extreme lengths in an attempt to avoid it. I know “boredom” was very much a part of the punk ethic, and it was incredibly hip to claim you were bored—but actually being bored, as opposed to affecting weariness with the world, is a very different emotion.
A striking insight, simply stated, and one that goes to the heart of To Hell and Back: Lure survived Punk in part because he was able to make the crucial distinctions between myth and reality, between posturing theatrically and living authentically. That so many of his contemporaries, battling image and truth and drugs, couldn't, or wouldn't, see that clearly, is a testament to Lure. And now, standing, he gets to look back.


Lure, left, with the Heartbreakers at Max's Kansas City, 1978

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Revisiting Roxon's Rock


I've been dipping into Lillian Roxon's influential Rock Encyclopedia lately, eager as always for on-the-ground reportage of the late-1960's rock and roll scenes. An Australian, Roxon was dubbed the "Mother of Rock." She wrote pop music criticism and journalism before turning her attention to sexual politics and feminism. Born in 1932, she died of an asthma attack in 1973.

The massive Encyclopedia was published in 1969 (and revised in 1978). Roxon's entires, ranging in length from single sentences to multiple pages, blend journalism and wit, and are equal parts forthright and idiosyncratic. She was slightly older than the Beatles generation, and perhaps her point of view—appealingly skeptical, fan-ly yet clear-eyed—was shaped by that. What's especially captivating in hindsight was the Encyclopedia's appearance at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s. Many changes on the rock and roll landscape were forthcoming, not least of which the rise of virtuosity, "progressive" ensembles, more baroque stages, and the widening gap between performer and fan—nearly all of which Roxon smelled in the air as she was working on these pieces. ("Multimedia is moving in and the rock light show will be a big part of it," she predicted, correctly.) And yet: as she wrote, Brian Jones had only just died, and Gene Vincent, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin were all very much alive, the latter three buzzing with the promise of bold futures. Tommy and Led Zeppelin II had just been issued, too close to Roxon's deadline for their track listings to appear, though the Four Seasons' psychedelic political concept album made it in. "Groupies" earned a respectful entry. Neil Young had just hooked up with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and "Supergroups" were all the rage. The Encyclopedia begins with an entry on "ACID ROCK" and ends with one on the Zombies, who'd released Odyssey And Oracle the year before. So, the quote-unquote 1960s were still very much alive. After all, the Beatles were (still) together (barely). 

In her author's note, Roxon complained of the inherent frustrations in writing about musicians and bands at the end of the decade: "Trying to get the rock world to keep still long enough for me to take its picture was one of the most difficult tasks in putting this book together," she writes, adding, "Groups split even as I wrote of their inner harmony, and got themselves together just as I had acknowledges their tragic demise."
Too many people blinked when I clicked the shutter—but then, isn’t this restlessness exactly what rock is all about? The madness and desperation and constant shifts of power. I wanted to record the facts without losing the feelings. In the end, though, the music itself has to tell the story. This book is the companion to that story.
If the landscape was constantly shifting, many of Roxon's observations were thoughtfully weighted—one ear to the past, one to the future, and she's always careful to (attempt to) place artists in context. Already the Grateful Dead, with only two albums under their belt, "were not so much a band as a social institution." With their "natty striped blazers," the Cyrkle offered "crystal-clear college rock" (what a difference a generation would do to that term!). Turned on by the ongoing dynamism in the air, Roxon often made bold predictions concerning the legacies of certain bands. About Jefferson Airplane, she wrote, "Years, or maybe centuries from now, someone will discover that there really was a music of the spheres, and it will sound not unlike the music the Airplane plays in the moments of its highest flight." (One wonders what Roxon would have made of the high-flying Starship.) Soft Machine "have been called the Futuristic Beatles," she notes, "and years from now, when we fully understand their combinations of John Cage, Stockhausen, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, we might agree." She made the same guess about the Fugs' eventual place in rock history. And what of the Rolling Stones, who at the close of '69 were ascending into the far reaches of their peak years? "The group is still strong and together," she observes. "Jagger is becoming a film star (Performance and Ned Kelly)." Alluding to Jones' death, she added, "But nothing is the same. How could it be?"

Altamont hadn't occurred yet. One ear on the past, one to the future.

~~

My favorite entry in Rock Encyclopedia belongs to this upstart band of kids:


Word is, they're in the studio now.

~~

Roxon's wide-view take on scenes and developments are worth reading, as well. About "Electronic Rock," she observed, regarding the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, that "only with electronics can you get those eerie nonhuman sounds, echoes, distortions, sound effects, and only in a studio can you produce them." She notes that "People had experimented with electronics in rock before...but until [Pepper] the mechanical tinkerings tended to take away from rather than contribute to the emotion of the music."("Was it a Beatle triumph or an engineering triumph or both?" she asks smartly.) She goes on to reference the United States of America, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, the Silver Apples, and the Byrds, bands that designed their own electronic equipment "so they could create studio effects on stage in live performance." "Interest is growing," she reports, "and the day will eventually come when bands will bristle with electronic equipment and use tapes, gadgets and trickery to get a variety of noises not yet heard on the rock stage." (Alas.) She takes on "Head Music" and "Acid Rock," dryly reporting that "some music is more appropriate to certain chemical states than to others." Interesting also is her excitement about the "Discotheque," then a relatively new development. Joints such as Le Club, Arthur, Cheetah, the Electric Circus, Trude Heller's,  the Scene, Ondine, Salvation, The Barge, and Whisky A-Go-Go weren't only intimate venues to hear live bands, many of which were getting a foothold, but also "meeting places of just about anyone you've ever wanted to see. If you can find them in the dark, that is." This entry was followed by the helpful command, "(See the TWIST)." One ear on the past, one to the future.

Speaking of The Future, Roxon's entry on "FUTURE ROCK" is especially interesting, and worth quoting in full:
Some people believe that by 2001 rock will be entirely machine-made. Machines will be programmed so that combinations of different sounds will be left to chance. At-home listeners will have controls that will make it possible for them to “produce” a record—speed it up, slow it down, make it louder and softer, and separate the tracks, adding, subtracting, overdubbing—to create their own version if a hit. There will be no live performances, no stages. Music will be heard with a small circle of friends, not with a group of strangers. The sound will possibly be closest to that of the United States of America, an electronic-rock group. So many groups of the sixties have gone after a future-rock sound, however (the Byrds in their explorations of jets and space; the Jefferson Airplane in its explorations of the mind), that 2001 may very well bring a reaction against these “prophetic” sounds and move into something quite different, perhaps more along the line of Oriental music. Already the sitar, which was regarded as “boring” by musically uneducated westeners, has been taken up—and discarded. Thousands of fads are sure to come and go before 2001. There will probably be no more records, just tapes sold in combinations that can be mixed and mingled. And there will be Sunday producers (like Sunday painters) playing with sound on their home sets. Then it will be possible to have the Byrds and Beatles singing together with the New York Philharmonic. Or Aretha Franklin an Donovan and the New Lost City Rambles.The sort of thing that has been happening informally in jam sessions, and more formally on the SUPER SESSION albums, the mixing of performers who don't usually play together, will be taken for granted on tape.
Well, 2001 came and went. And thousands of fads did come and go. GarageBand and other online home studios proliferate. The average fan can in fact digitally manipulate any track they upload, whether it's theirs or someone else's. Live performances never went away (sob), but 1s and 0s allow studio "duets" to magically occur between the living and the dead alike. Records did go away (kinda), but came back—hey, so did cassette tapes. Like any bold prediction about the future, a third of Roxon's claims here are quaintly archaic, but the vast majority of her encyclopedic enthusiasms and sober reckonings have aged very well.



Photo of Roxon at the launch of Rock Encyclopedia in 1969, via NFSA