Friday, January 31, 2020

All noise is interesting

I like where Ellen Willis lets herself go in "Stranger in a Strange Land," her "Music, Etc." column that ran in the December 27, 1969 issue of The New Yorker. (It's gathered in Out of the Vinyl Deeps.) Writing from Colorado Springs, Colorado, "an uptight military reservation" where she's hanging with members of the local radical community and enjoying the mountains and fresh air, Willis notices that her music listening is being affected by her new, sky-high environment. "My reactions to music, and to rock in particular, have always been very much influenced by the context in which I hear it—by the place, by the people, by the medium (records, radio, dances, concerts), and by the variety of music available at any given time," she writes. Her "usual context" had been New York City, where she was becoming "increasingly selective about what I wanted to hear and less and less patient with sounds that did not immediately reach out and grab." In Colorado, she was surprised to see that her feelings about rock music had changed considerably. "I have new needs that music can fulfill, and some of the old needs are at least temporarily absent. Right now, I am closer to the ecstatic blues freaks at the Fillmore East than I have ever been before. And though I will never really be where they are—and don’t particularly want to be—I’ve learned some important things about music and about my own head."

In particular, Willis found herself attracted to what she called "pure noise," a Rocky Mountain High of sorts that she wasn't prepared for. "Although I am by now means completely uncritical," she remarks, "I am more willing to follow a song where it leads and suspend judgment for a while," adding, "practically all noise is interesting in some way." When she first arrived in the West, she'd been listening to an album, "doing a little creative drumming with a pencil and an album cover," when she recognized with a start that she'd been grooving to Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On, which, she acknowledges, "must be one of the worst albums ever made." And yet: "At the same time, I realized that it didn’t much matter; I felt like drumming anyway." Further revelations follow:
In the past couple of months, I have begun to enjoy the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, which I had dismissed as too polished, too sentimental, and too soft, in the Simon and Garfunkel manner. Now the romanticism of songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” doesn’t bother me; if anything, it strikes me as a positive quality. I am also more receptive to white blues. I couldn’t listen to the Blind Faith album in New York; now I listen to it fairly often.
However buttoned-up is Willis's tone, this is good critical advice, it seems to me: let your environment guide you, especially if it leads you to strange and surprising places. I can't quite get on board with Willis about CSN, yet I love the image of the New Yorker music critic rocking out to the Fudge, mildly embarrassed, resisting, or at least reassessing, her critical urges, and having fun all the same.

Vanilla Fudge, getting under her skin

Photo of Willis via Forward; photo of Vanilla Fudge via Ultimate Classic Rock via Fulton Archive/Getty Images

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Rock and roll is dead? A rebuttal.

I read Dominic Green's "The Year The Music Died" in The Critic, a tough go as it was hard to focus with my eyes rolling toward the ceiling so often. Green's argument: "To anyone with ears, it’s clear that rock completed its natural development decades ago and has been fading away ever since. Popular music retained by right the cultural centrality it had assumed in Western societies in the nineteenth century, a right prolonged by the ubiquity and wealth of the twentieth-century entertainment business. But the music, like most of its successful practitioners, was a haggard and stupefied ghost, mechanically repeating its youthful glories."
Even the fans admit that Rock was rotten in the Eighties. Naturally they blame the adults: for not producing enough little rockers as the baby boom ran out, for the deindustrialisation that dissolved the class systems of Detroit and Liverpool, for the geopolitical bungling that pushed up the price of oil and vinyl singles, or even for inventing the compact disc. The material explanation is true, but incomplete. Rock died because it had played out its natural span—not three minutes, but the three-step dance of all Western art forms: classical, romantic, modern.
Green cites the Clash's London Calling and Bruce Springsteen's The River as albums that bookend the brief period when rock and roll perished. London Calling and The River are "magnificently vital and varied" still, Green observes, as both albums "set rock’s classical virtues, the economies of songwriting form and the small-group sound, in the romantic and programmatic format of the double album. Modernism in its expansive mood, these records are monumental summaries. They are stylistically retrospective, immersed in their history as surely as the national historians of the nineteenth century were in theirs. Yet they are optimistic that immersion in the past will allow them to recover the pagan energy that will, as Ezra Pound said, 'make it new'."

Yet Green goes on to argues that, though both London Calling and The River distilled and updated rock and roll's best qualities into epochal works, as a result both the Clash and Springsteen discovered that they had little left to express that might trade on the gains made on those albums. As Green puts it: "To their credit, both Springsteen and The Clash sensed that in successfully reviving the spirits, they had killed themselves off. Both acts quickly tried to revive themselves."
In the space of a year, The Clash went from producing one of rock’s best albums to one of its very worst. Two days after [John] Lennon’s killing, they released Sandinista!, an addled and pretentious triple-album whose main significance lies in anticipating three of the worst trends in Eighties music: white rap, paper-thin production, and attempted revivals of rock’s cooling corpse with shots of what would shortly be sold as “world music”. Their last album, Combat Rock (1982) was an agreeably absurd Vietnam costume drama with lashings of rockabilly and a cameo from Alan Ginsburg.
As for The Boss, Green feels that Springsteen's legendary Nebraska, which he dismisses as "a set of generally miserable acoustic demos," indicated that Springsteen was "apparently having second thoughts about becoming a stadium parody of his earlier self," adding, "He then surrendered to his management and became a wealthy and futile stadium clown."

Sandanista! one of rock and roll's "very worst" records? Springsteen post-The River is a "futile stadium clown"? (Even as a self-described fameist, I grant that Springsteen's exhaustive and spirited stadium shows are hardly futile.) I won't engage Green on the absurdity of those two claims, but I'll push back on his claim that rock and roll died in 1980. He's baiting me and other readers here, and he found his hook, but he suffers from the tyranny of taxonomy and his definition of rock and roll is too narrow. Anyway, I won't waste time listing the many brilliant, challenging, "making it new" bands and artists who have created and played urgent and culturally valuable rock and roll in the last four decades. My problem with Green has to do with his academic insistence that unless rock and roll albums and songs somehow engage with "the great Western youth revolt which began with Romantic poets and revolutionaries, ruined European civilisation as its children rallied to fascism and communism, and then played out its final stage as radical entertainment in America," those albums and songs lack value. Yet consider the bands and artists who were explicitly or implicitly inspired by the Clash —from Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, and the Mekons to Sleater-Kinney, Public Enemy and Green Day—and by Springtseen—Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, the Hold Steady, Silver Jews—and you can virtually see the linkages from the urgencies of London Calling and Ihe River to the urgencies in so much music that came after. And, like you, I hear and experience rock and roll in small clubs every year, where bands of kids get up on stages and bash out their dilemmas and problems and revolts in the form of radical entertainment for audiences of hundreds or of dozens, on weekends and weeknights. 

Rock and roll may have disappeared from the national conversation, Billboard, and awards shows, but that doesn't mean it's not being discovered, rediscovered, detonated, and moving men and women now—mattering deeply to them now—in clubs and at basement shows, and in bedrooms and apartments. I'd like to ask Green if, as he cites, both the Clash and Springsteen were inspired and emboldened by the music they loved and that preceded them, why can't that occur with those artists inspired by Strummer and Bruce and, down the line, generation to generation? Can't rock and roll matter on daily basis still? Is Green's bar too high? Mine too low? If innovation and synthesis must be the highest attributes of rock and roll, then a lot of fun and emotional experience will be left behind.


Here's the great Lester Bangs, who, though he wasn't strictly a rockist, knew a thing or two about the genre, writing in the same era that Green cites as rock and roll's official time of death: "What is more American than the garage band? Call up a bunch of your buddies, get some six-packs or some weed, plus a guitar or two, a bass or drum kit, and you’ve got instant fantasies about instant stardom."
Of course, at certain times and places, fantasy and reality have intersected, and that is part of what rock is all about. Given that the greatest garage bands could barely play, we may assume not only that virtuosity has nothing to do with the form, but also that the utopian dream of everyman an artist can come true right here, in our suburban land of opportunity—the ultimate proof that rock & roll is the most democratic and all-American of art forms.
Characteristically, Bangs nails something eternal: in this case, the unquenched call to make music, to make rock and roll, whenever and wherever the impulse. That urge—faced right now in basements with guitars and in living rooms with GarageBand and on busses with music-making apps and in clubs via openers and headliners alike—that urge is rock and roll, and that urge is what matters, whether the music is making headlines or not, whether it's reshaping the past in startling ways or bringing tears to the eyes of fans of a cover band somewhere on a Thursday night. 

Photo of CBGB stage via Flickr; photo of Lester Bangs via San Diego Reader.

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 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)