Friday, September 23, 2022

Gig


Since 2012, I've been stoked to be the music columnist at The Normal School: A Literary Magazine. The folks there have now set up my own page, and I'm pleased that my earlier print-only pieces will be moving into the digital domain in the future. Please bookmark!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

737 comin' out of the sky...

There's a moment in the new Netflix documentary Travelin' Band: Credence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall when drummer Doug Clifford's on a balcony in Paris, knocked out that he's spending his 25th birthday in the City of Lights, gushing about having visited the Louvre and Lois XIV's "playground" like a wide-eyed tourist. Which he was. Though in the Spring of 1970 Credence Clearwater Revival were in rapid ascension, the band members were still appealingly untutored in the ways of the world. And, in some ways, on stage as well. John Fogerty mentions to an interviewer that his band isn't progressing as swiftly as he'd like, that they're still clocking in the hours at The Factory in order to learn and grow as musicians. You wouldn't guess that by watching the Albert Hall performance, which is tight, grooving, and, in several places, transcendent. My favorite moments occur during an excitable "Fortunate Son"—the air's crackling in the Hall despite the overly polite audience—as the band members make eye contact among each other, grinningly in awe at the rock and roll they're making. 

Narrated sparingly by Jeff Bridges, who's wise to step off of the stage as CCR hits theirs, Travelin' Band is part biography, part tour film. The editing suggests that the two Albert Hall gigs were the pinnacle of the European Tour, when in fact they sat in the middle of the eight-show swing, which also saw the band playing Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Sweden, Essen, West Germany, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The show's sequencing is altered as well: if Setlist is to be trusted, the twelve-song show began not with the fiery "Travelin' Band" but with the swampy "Born on the Bayou." No matter, the band's at their peak in whatever order they're delivering the goods, white-hot and tight, and the newly-mixed sound is superb, Stu Cook's bass and Fogerty's searing leads in particular standing out warmly and clearly. Well rehearsed, the band doesn't push their songs into the red or recklessly careen into improvisations; one or two songs pick up a tick in speed versus the studio versions, but mostly this band's about delivering solidly. You can see the smile growing on Fogerty's face as the set progresses: he knows that his songs kill.

Pull wide, and the Albert Hall gig can be seen as a peak of antoher sort. Travelin' Band refrains from commenting on the band's rapid and ugly demise the following year, during which Tom Fogerty would leave the band, and CCR would carry on as a bickering three-legged dog. The documentary ends with the boys smiling on couches in their rehearsal space while miming to "Looking Out My Back Door." What they saw out that door was a startling three-year span that saw CCR become, indeed, "the biggest band in the world." The view through the front door was far murkier, but the credits roll before that view becomes clear. For that, we should be grateful: the thankfully-full performances of songs that comprise the film's last hour allow us to marvel at one of the finest American rock and roll bands at their commercial and artistic peak.

John Fogerty comes across as characteristically guarded in his interviews; he smiles the least, but perhaps that's because, as he'd reveal in interviews down the decades, he was under the most pressure at the time. We know now that during this time his band members were eager to contribute more in the studio, but Fogerty, assuming the role of gifted but burdened task master, wouldn't let go of the reins, stubborn in his knowledge that the key to the band's considerable success was in his capable songwriting hands. (For the full story, I'm eager to read John Lingan's new A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as Lingan's Homeplace was a terrific read.) 

My chief takeaway is the marvel that is drummer Doug Clifford (seen left). From his guileless reactions to visiting the Old World for the first time to his appealingly friendly interviews to his commanding drumming onstage, where he's somehow both locked-in and blissed-out, he's an utter delight to watch. All of the band members are young and beautiful, and hairy, laughing as they're digging the world that's arrayed at their feet. Travelin' Band ends as the band's final act begins. Enjoy the moment.

~~

Another reminder in this film is just how timeless CCR's best songs are, transcending the era's fractious, political theater into the realm of Platonic rock and roll. The songs' deep imagery of the South (where Fogerty hadn't stepped a foot) evokes an eternal landscape devoid of dated sloganeering. Fogerty's more pointed anti-war, anti-Establishment songs, hollered in his inimitable way into the oddly-quiet dark of Albert Hall, aren't time- and date-stamped as are many of his peers' because of the immediacy of his band's blues-based, black-influenced playing, conservative, yeah, but steeped in ages-old lore. Nary a psychedelic note is heard, yet Fogerty, a backward-looking traditionalist in many ways, was reflecting his times and singing as directly to his audience as were Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the rest.

That said, several of my favorite moments in Travelin' Band off the stage do issue from the era:

Stu Cook, basking in the liberating breezes of Europe, where culture is "like shades of gray compared to America, where things are really getting...black and white. People don't get all pissed off at what you look like, you can get a job and you can, like, advance, with long hair! In the States, man, to get a job you've got to cut your hair. You can't even have sideburns! It doesn't matter how many degrees you have or what your trip is, or any of that."

Tom Fogerty, excitable in the van en route to Berlin, "I'd like to go to [the Berlin Wall]. It'd be great. The wall, is it barb wire? Or is it thick? I was thinking about setting up there, you know, set the equipment on roof the wall, and aim it that direction, you know? We can aim it in both directions, how about that, and bring every up on it and dance and maybe the wall would come down!"

And his brother John, dryly relating to an interviewer his hopes for a more a considered rock and roll, "I want people to know when I'm really saying something serious, and when I'm just being an entertainer, you know? But it's also important that I don't appeal to basic motivations, and I don't start, you know, 'Hey all you hippies, join together and let's smoke dope!' I mean, people are gonna dig that, a certain element of society, but I don't want 'em digging it for that. I want them to look a little further than just, 'Hey, OK, we're all together, brutha!' and all that crap," adding, 

"Who'll Stop the Rain," and some of the others, too, but especially that one, I tried to stay away from, "Hey, he's a Left Wing Radical Crazy or he's a super Bircher," you know. Because both sides can take it and use it as their own rallying cry. Same as "Fortunate Son," really.

How prescient. One side or the other will always manipulate a song in order to hear what they want to hear. Yet, happily, a half century down the line we'll also always want to watch a kick-ass rock and roll band kick up some righteous noise.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The appeal and the limits of Mod

I recently finished The Sharper Word: A Mod Anthology, a gathering of writing devoted to the history of the Mod lifestyle edited by Paolo Hewitt. With a few exceptions, Hewitt selected of-the-era pieces about the 1960s—he ignores the Mod Revival of the late-70s/early-80s—presenting looks, takes, and reminiscences of a unique and short-lived era that continues to resonate. "Modernism has longevity because it recognises two absolute facts," Hewiit writes in the introduction. "True style and quality never ever dates and that as long as there’s a money-go-round, there will always be someone wanting to dress up to fuck off a world that constantly wants to put you down." Nik Cohn, Richard Barnes, Colin MacInness, Alan Fletcher, Tom Wolfe, Pete Meaden, and others write in tones varying from adoring to skeptical, and in styles from personal to sociological. Their approaches are enlivened with details, reportage, and interviews from the era. 

The Sharper Word was first published in 1999; I'm glad that I couldn't have read this book in my late-teens, as I would've suffered some measure of anxiety. As I wrote about at length a few years ago, my teenage infatuation with Mod was deep and intense but limited by my own skepticism and unwillingness to commit to an ideology (an expensive one, at that). I never felt as if I could belong with the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. Mods in the 1980s in part because I was stoking a native, stubborn resistance to joining; I didn't dislike belonging to a group or community, but I resented having to follow certain explicit, unbending rules to maintain membership. I grudgingly admired those in the area who fully committed to the right clothes, the right Scooters, the Right Look, but I also found them slightly ridiculous in their slavish devotion. (Or was it jealousy? Envy of their dedication, which I knew took work I wasn't ready to do?) 

Pete Meaden, early Who manager and major Mod scenester, who's probably most famous for defining Mod as "clean living under difficult circumstances," was asked by NME writer Steve Turner to explain the 60's Mod revolution. "My Mod revolution was an undefined revolution against commodities and people," he insisted (emphasis added). "That is people were commodities, my parents treated me as a commodity, and Modism to me was a release, sweet release, relief." Later he's asked:

The mod thing was style as opposed to content, wasn't it?

Yeah, in as much as you can dismiss life as having no substance, there was no substance. But if you can put life together as having substance, a reason to believe, then you have Modism, which is where it was, which was via having a pill, having a few drinks, via having music to listen to, and a style of your own, so succinctly beautiful and self-contained, where privacy was everything, and no-one ever disturbed your privacy, because you are all the same...

Appealingly, Meaden also remarks that nurses can be "the best Mods of all." What if they're on night duty, Turner wonders, unable to reconcile all-night pill popping with all-night care giving. "Well, they'll come out in the daytime," Meaden enthuses, "go shopping with you, and they'll have the short haircuts, and nurses are about the best Mods of all, because they're actual practical people," adding, "Can't you understand, that's what Mods are all about." Meaden logic. What an interesting if tragic character he was.

One of my favorite passages, excerpted from Parallel Lives, a memoir by Peter Burton, a queer Mod and journalist, nails what I found so moving about Mod: its timeless appeal to youth, energy, and sensation. "As we danced along to Motown’s idealistic songs, we fell in love." Burton wrote. "We fell in love every weekend. Often affairs were brief—started on Sunday morning, over by Monday night. But the high obtained from the speed, the music and the companionship meant that these transitory flings were passionate and intense. And who is to say they were any less valid than romances which last for weeks, months, years?"

Great stuff. A common thread through many of the pieces in The Sharper Word is the thrilling liberation many original Mods felt while speeding on pharmaceuticals, delivered, however recklessly and finitely, from the rigors of dour class expectations and middle-class fear disguised as complacency. Many Mods who danced and, foaming at the mouth, sped all weekend from clubs to diners to clothes stores and back again were acting out freedoms that they felt society had denied them. They endured, indeed accepted with a kind of stoic pride the dreary day jobs that allowed them their purchase on The Weekend. Hewlitt reveals that there was an intellectual and philosophical underpinning to many of the more thoughtful Mods' weekends: they strove to look good (and to stay looking good) as a way of distancing themselves from their gray parents's gray lives, those who'd seemingly settled for what life meagerly offered, an all-too possible future. There was indeed something culturally revolutionary in many of the Mods' ways of behaving: the gobbled-by-the-handful Purple Hearts just got them there quicker, even as the infamous Sunday come-downs brutally reinstated the realties they were zooming from.

"Mod has been much misunderstood. Mod is always seen as this working-class, scooter-riding precursor of skinheads, and that’s a false point of view." This is Steve Sparks, a 60s Mod quoted in an excerpt from Jonathon Green's Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971. Sparks adds, "Mod before it was commercialised was essentially an extension of the beatniks. It comes from ‘modernist’, it was to do with modern jazz and to do with Sartre. It was to do with existentialism, the working-class reaction to existentialism."
Marc Feld (who became Marc Bolan) was an early example of what was the downfall of mod, which was the attraction of people who didn’t understand what it was about to the clothes. Mare Feld was only interested in the clothes, he was not involved in thinking. 
He added with a wink: "Mind you, it’s quite hard to think on twenty Smith Kline and French Drinamyl [both infamous Mod-era pharmaceuticals]."


And yet. The pursuit of liberty paradoxically came at the cost of individuality, that absurdist riddle that I had trouble accepting, or was afraid to try and tackle, when I was younger. Hewlitt, to his credit, included several pieces that aren't shy about taking aim at the Mods' obsessive attention to the shallowness of fashion. (In his brief intro to Nik Cohn's contribution, Hewlitt dryly observes, "I don't think he particularly liked Mods.") Though he reverently describes Richard Barnes' 1979 book Mods! as "the bible," Hewlitt's smart to excerpt this passage from Barnes's book about the the light foolishness of some overly-striving, Continental-worshipping Mods:
Another of Willie and Johnny’s friends took it all a bit too seriously. "We never smoked but would light up a Gauloise just to be seen with it. We all got into the French films and magazines, but Les went berserk. He used to wear a striped jumper and a beret and eat garlic and everything. He started to learn French. We saw him once sitting in Aldgate Wimpy holding up a copy of Le Soir. When we went in and joined him we saw that he was really reading the Sunday Pictorial which he had concealed in between the middle pages. It was all a pose. There was even a time when we saw him walking along wearing his beret and striped jumper and carrying a loaf of French bread under his arm."
Here's Alan Fletcher (whose novelization of the Quadrophenia film, by the way, is surprisingly good), in an excerpt from his novel The Blue Millionaire, perfectly capturing the consuming attention to manner and look endured by many Mods. "In pursuit of the true Mod style of riding the bike Dazz sat at the front edge of the seat and tucked himself in closely behind the front leg shields, his knees touching the gentle curves of Piaggio’s carefully sculpted panel lines. The side of his shoes rested against the point where the running boards met the front panels’ upward sweep. His toes hung out to the side of the bike. The geometrical relationship twixt tip of shoe and running board was of particular significance (it followed the lines laid down before). The shoe could be positioned at whatever angle you wished, providing it was exactly 45° to the horizontal! Jed knew that to conform with the decreed way of riding pillion he should be leaning well back over the rear wheel of the scooter, arms folded or behind his head; the snag was that the bike didn’t have a back rest—yet. In a flagrant contravention of all the interests of safety he refused point blank to put his arms around Dazz’s waist—so he gripped the bottom of the seat and was thus whisked white knuckled, around Nottingham."

And poet Andrew Motion, in an excerpt from his memoir The Lamberts, succinctly defines a certain "version of Mods—a suddenly coherent section of young England which was, in [The Who singer Roger] Daltrey’s phrase, 'the first generation to have a lot of money after the war’, and were using it to have good clean fun" that was "strikingly at odds with the original flavour of the Goldhawk Social Club." Motion adds, quoting Cohn, that "the Mods’ rebellion had a more threatening aspect too."
"The archetypal Mod," said Nik Cohn, the rock and roll commentator and entrepreneur, "was male, sixteen years old, rode a scooter, swallowed pep pills by the hundred, thought of women as a completely inferior race, was obsessed by cool and dug it. He was also one hundred per cent hung up on himself. On his clothes and hair and image; in every way, he was a miserable narcissistic little runt."
I guess Cohn didn't particularly like Mods.

Photo of dancing Mods via Pinterest; images of target from the 1999 edition of The Sharper Word