Saturday, January 25, 2020

Knowing I'm to Blame

Everyone knows the groovy, funky, funny title cut from Johnnie Taylor's Who's Making Love, the singer's second album for Stax, released in 1968. Today I'm struck by what I overhead later on the first side. I love stories told in songs. In "Woman Across The River," written by Bettye Crutcher and Allen Jones, the singer's lamenting what he once had, a selfless woman whom he lied to. Now she's gone, and other men are treating her the way she deserves. He's narrating all this from the lousy banks of the river, his view of her world altered permanently. The pace of the song is slow, measured, unlikely to quicken in any version, so resolute are its discoveries and grim acknowledgments: I fucked up. (I love the organ stab at the line "she was mine," the past tense so vivid and shuddering.)

But maybe there's a chance at redemption. I don't know how much time has passed since the singer reckoned with his shabby behavior: a week, a month, a year. The pace of "I'm Not The Same Person," written by Homer Banks and J. Lately, is only slightly quicker, but it's enough to suggest an awakening of sorts. He's not the same person he used to be, he's different now, as different as sunshine from rain, because even the full winds, they change sometimes. A good argument, linking his new maturity to the timeless elements. It's his nature. Yet he's not all poetry and bravado, he's learned something too: back then, on the other side, he was grown up in age, but he wasn't grown up in mind. Now he's back and asking for forgiveness, his epiphany sharper even than the resplendent suit and cuffs he's wearing at her front door. Something in Taylor's performance in "I'm Not The Same Person" convinces me of his sincerity: his assured vocal, yeah, and the simple, declarative chorus shorn of showy similes or a player's wordplay, but also the confident, easy-going Stax band behind him—a bunch of sympathetic old friends, the Memphis Horns' brassiness bucking up Taylor, given him some swagger—and those female backing singers, who I have fun imagining are the woman's friends whom Taylor's enlisted to help his cause. The story's as old as the river between Taylor and the woman, of course, and who knows how it will end, whether she'll forgive him or say never again. This is the man, after all, who—on the same album—asked another dude to contemplate who's making love to his old lady while she's out making love, so he knows the story well, has probably lived both ends of it.

I picked up this album for a few bucks last week, the cover worn (lovingly? in sorrow?) but the vinyl clean. Three hundred pennies for an eternal story sung and played by masters of the old game. You can't top this stuff.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The sheer presence of electricity

He never let go
Iggy Pop, from I Need More, on the escape from Midwest provincial trailer camp life that was rock and roll, specifically the currents that it runs on:
Plus I was in love deeply, was completely hooked on the apparatus itself. Just the sheer presence of electricity in large doses has always made me feel real comfortable and calm, especially the way a very large amplifier with an instrument plugged into it will push air, the way the speakers push air—that’s basically what amps do, they push the air and push me too. And even just the beauty of the microphones appealed to me. And the beat of the drums. It was like, I gotta get out of here, I gotta get out of here. I hate this life! I hate everything about it! I can’t live with it. It hurts me. I feel odd around these people, and music is the only place to hide. The refuge, really.
The refuge, really



Botom photo via Stooges Forum

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

I liked

When listening to the "Liked Songs" playlist on Spotify, seven out of ten songs I'll ask myself, The hell was I thinking? A liked song seems, in my case at least, to be an indicator of what mood I was in when I heard it, less a bet for ever liking the song again. Apparently I was in the mood for this song on that day—was it my state of mind? Was I depressed? Elated? Sometimes it appears that I liked a song because I dug the ending—on that day, I needed a Baroque finish to things, on another day a brusque, fuck-you collapse of an ending. On another day I needed Merseybeat pop, or maybe an approximation of Merseybeat—was I in a generous mood? On anther day I apparently needed lo-fi punk, its mean attitude soundtracking things perfectly. And I guess I was in the mood for an eleven-minute mood piece on another day—that doesn't seem much like me, but on that day I was him. The day before I liked a two minute DIY pop gem that felt unbearably twee to me a week later. Will I ever like these songs again as much as I needed when I pressed the heart? Which begs the question, or more: what songs do I like that that transcend the moodiness of, say, a rainy Wednesday afternoon when I feel trapped, ennui like water over my head? What songs do I like that I'll like no matter my mood, or my age or time in life, or state of mind? You have your list, I have mine.

And I wont bother to name the bands on my Spotify "Liked" list because I don't want to offend an artist or group that today meant nothing to me as I listened in the car while choring, because tomorrow they might speak to me, might soundtrack a given moment, more urgently and with more force than ever. We'll see.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Homemade things

hapless youths
As I've written here, here, and here, I tend to lose interest in Big Rock Star memoirs when the (usually early) years of struggle give way to mammoth success and its attendant trappings. I have a possibly perverse interest in conflict. Give me Bruce Springsteen in a shitty studio apartment playing Phil Spector records obsessively while conjuring "Born To Run," a record he needed to make for many urgent reasons, over playing the Super Bowl halftime show. It's privileged of me to feel this way, but I found reading about Elton John's early days as a backing musician in Bluesology and an anonymous studio session player, not to mention his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse and his fading commercial star, far more interesting than his later-life meet-ups with celebrities or his enormous rooms in his mansion stuffed with priceless objets d'art. (That said, Me is a charming, funny book and I recommend it.) I don't begrudge anyone their success, of course, and comfortable material achievement is certainly not their problem—or perhaps even a problem—but the slackness in conflict and tension that such success tends to bring with it might be a problem for their memoirs, a worrying common thread I'm noticing in these books.

Which I why I love these lines from Iggy Pop. It's the mid 1980s, and he's in conversation with Barney Hoskyns, the British writer, about Pop's book I Need More, which he'd published in the early 80s. (The conversation's reprinted in Hoskyns's terrific Ragged Glories: City Lights, Country Funk, American Music, published in 2003.) Hoskyns remarks that there appeared to be some missing years in Iggy's account. "Yeah. It was hard to write about those years," Iggy responds. "My intention originally in writing that book, and I veered a lot off course, was..."
well, put it like this: when I saw the movie The Rose I was so incensed by the intimation in the script that what was important about rock ’n’ roll was the helicopters and the sycophants and the adoring crowds and the limos, and I thought no, no, no, no, no, this is not what it’s about, and I thought I would like to set this straight. In the end, the book became a kind of an autobiography, but what I wanted to show was that the most interesting things about rock ’n’ roll are the homemade things, before the band ever gets its recording contract, when they gotta carry their own amps, when they’re still naive and have ridiculous dreams, when they have giant holes in their thinking. That’s what’s really important, when something like that actually takes root and starts to grow. Suddenly these hapless youths find a voice and make waves in the society around them.
So many great phrases here: "homemade things," "ridiculous dreams," "giant holes in their thinking." Giant holes filled with what? Well, those ridiculous dreams for one, and a sense of promise and limitlessness that even the smallest, crappiest stage, or the smallest, least generous crowd, can't erase—might even inspire. I try to remember this when I'm catching a local band on an off night in front of no one but me and the band's friends. Behold the future, which is sometimes less interesting than the present.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Hey kids, nothing's changed!

Rereading Elvis Died For Somebody's Sins But Not Mine, the extraordinary collection of the late Mick Farren's music journalism, fiction, cultural criticism, and song lyrics, I was struck by two paragraphs. In "Rock—Energy For Revolution." which appeared in the October 3, 1970 issue of Melody Maker, Farren makes the earnest, of-the-era argument that rock—pardon, Rock—might save us yet; Woodstock had occurred over a year ago, and the fumes from Max Yasgur's farm were still redolent across the pond. Yet Farren was too smart, or cynical or tough, to accept Woodstock Nation as face value, and he recognizes something deep and insidious in British and American culture. He still believes that music can create surprising and lasting bonds within ever-growing communities bent on peace and good will, yet he champions all of this with some knowing, and growing, doubts. "Despite differences in British and American societies, both are based on the same principles and the same sickness is present in both." he writes, unblinkingly.
In the two cultures there is a definite need for a real alternative to the life-long, mid-twisting routine of office or factory. In both cultures a large minority does not get enough to eat, and have inadequate homes. Both cultures increasingly curtail personal freedom, both are overcrowded and in the process of poisoning the air, the water and the soil. Our parents are making only meager attempts to cure the sickness in their society and so, by default, the responsibility shifts to this generation.
One of the unique products of this generation is rock'n'roll. Our music is already a source of energy and a means of generating solidarity. The crowd at Woodstock had to treat "the next man as their brother" in order to survive the weekend. They had no choice. It could be that we won’t either. In addition to energy, rock is also a major industry which earns millions every year. This money can either increase corporate dividends and artists’ and promoters’ personal fortunes, or it can be put to use so our generation can be put to use and can begin to try to solve the problems that are closing in on us. It is too late for any of us to cop out. There is now a choice none of us can ignore. If we carry on as we are now we are a frightened overcrowded species on a dying planet. If we work on the principle (and this is really the only revolutionary principle) that the man next to you really is your brother, and that you need each other in order to survive, then maybe, even at this late stage, we may still have a chance to become a free and dignified people.
The more things change..., goes the cliche, a truism that became shopworn because of its brutal timelessness. Substitute gig economy, identity politics, #OKBoomer, or Greta Thunberg wherever you want in those paragraphs: what's revealed is how little has changed since Farren wrote, that what he was worrying about and alerting us to half a century ago ago has only grown in dimension, its dangers louder than ever, from crippled and diminishing natural resources and a shitty economy to growing gaps between the have and have-nots and monopolized greed among record label owners in the streaming era. 

As we usher in a new year and decade I wonder, does music still inspire the potential for change? Does music suggest that in its language-transcending, communal power it can affect real difference, unite us in a way that politics and our parents never can? How have the changing ways we listen to music since 1970, from vinyl to downloads to streaming, affected our attitudes about what music can do, besides turn us on, reflect us back in private, startling ways, and get our butts moving? Around the time Farren was writing, Pete Townshend was worrying about the same stuff, obsessing over a "universal chord" that might unite and elevate us all out of our petty and destructive politics, both personal and global. Ancient history, that. As relevant as Farren's writing is in its grim assessment, it feels irrelevant in its innocent, urgent belief that music might unite and save. Maybe my own cynicism or naiveté is getting in the way.

October 3, 1970 issue of Melody Maker (l); Farren's collected (r)
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