Thursday, February 6, 2020


The Grand Trine -Color You

Image result for color you-- the grand trine

Color You, an alt-rock unit residing in the sparky interiors of Los Angeles , awards its new album the heady appellation The Grand TrineStepping beyond the title’s intent to perplex and bewilder, we learn through a swift Google search that the phrase indicates “ …a planetary pattern composed of three or more planets in a chart located at the vertices of an imaginary equilateral triangle. Usually all three planets are in the same element (fire, earth, air or water)…”
 The attraction to the phrase and the concept it allusively describes is understandable, as it’s been an unwritten rule since rock and roll became abbreviated to the more serious brevity of “rock” in the Sixties and young bands , taking after the cowpoke existentialism of Dylan and the elegant gentrification of the Beatles’ music and lyric approaches, need to conceptualize on a more ambitious scale: esoteric thematics, abstruse lyrics, bits of incidental noise and anything else that saves the 4/4 from being mere dance music decorated with moon/June cliches. As with most bands trying to get across something more between-the-lines than curb-side specific, the Color You’s idea to suggest something metaphysical is afoot separate from what’s happening in the street is a tad pretentious , and the band’s decision to include what sounds like spoken word snippets to bookend the start and finish of this album underscores the impulse to seem profound .

It’s an empty gesture, and unneeded, but we’re fortunate that as alt-rockers fashioning themselves after power chord savants like the Pixies, Nirvana or Modest Mouse at their most engaged, Color You has the flair,the panache, the raining megaton guitar grit to move the reluctant listener quickly past their objections and land them in a hook-heavy stream of fine, riffing teenage angst, confusion, ire and irony. 

There are no bold innovations in the form here, no musical adventures geared to dismantle and reconstruct rock and roll as we know, and that is an aspect that is the band’s strength. Members Ben Ross (vocals/guitar), Brian Han (bass/vocals), Drew Stutz (drums) and Theo Eckhardt (guitar/vocals), above all else, put together first-rate rockers, propulsive guitar riffage that propels, sweeps along and drapes over the material , major , minor and diminished keys highlighted as the materials’ simple but effective demand, with a solid thump and push of bass and busy drums making this wall of sound tilt, swerve and rock in turns of emphasis that are unexpected and wonderful. Superb lead vocals from Ben Ross make the difference as well, the array of approaches being convincingly servile, nervous, raging, or crooning romantic as need be, often times in the same song.

Ross’s singing provides a focal point through this album's sweetly distorted chord variations, apply a tangibly human expression to the constant grind of a hard rock tirelessly replicating the dynamics of a world that will not stop because you’re confused, angry, hurt, or even in love to the bone. Ross is the voice of a young man making sense of his life through whatever paces daily life can put him through. Down to it, Color You is credible mainstream rock, unpretentious, riveting, varied, packing a wallop. I am hoping their penchant to package themselves as deep thinkers pass. For rock and roll, whatever the pedigree, it’s best to keep it real than to make it profound.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Banking on The Beatles

Banking on The Beatles

The marketing of the Beatles continues with undelayed urgency, with the advent of Beatles Rock Band video game, and now the remastering of many Fab Four recordings in a flashy, bulky, expensive package. I cannot see myself having my history sold to me yet again; my memories ought not be what breaks the bank account.I was born in 1952 and was , more or less, a perfect wwitness to the Beatle phenomenon as it happened. From here , I'll the dulling recollection of what they meant to me and my generation and will not wax on their dually over rated and under appreciated qualities--few popular bands have ever been subject to the kind of exaggerated elevations and damnations than these guys have--and instead cut to the quick; the subject of the Beatles bores me stiff. We gone through an endless series of repackagings of their music since their 1970, none of which has made their great tunes sound any greater, nor made their slightest songs gain any more credibility. I refuse to live up to Tommy Lee Jones' groaning admission in Men In Black ; I will not buy the White Album songs again, no matter how crisp and clear the new versions are promised to be. I'm fine with my copies of Yesterday and Today, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road ; this was their finest string of albums, brimming with new melodies, wonderfully elliptical lyrics and wholesale genius in the vocals. To get these albums again would make me a mere fetishists, not a fan. But a fan I remain, and in the time since the rise of the Beatles and my tour of duty as a working music critic for several Southern California publications, my tastes have changed. Not "matured", not "improved" or "gotten more sophisticated", just changed. I remain a rock and roll fan, a Beatle fan, an encourager of loud guitars and passion, but the point of being interested in arts , as the cliche goes, is to broaden one's world, not to continually spend cash money on refurbished tunes in an attempt to relive what is past. I don't want to shut the door on the past, of course. I'm just annoyed that someone my age is expected to go out and buy again the music that I already own.

Exile on Main Street

“Happy", included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess,something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare what there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands' Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I've been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it's amazing how this albums just seems to deepen with the years: it's one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape

It's a tough call because both Exile and The White Album have strengths that are unique. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it's an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clenches it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone and mood of the album can't be denied. It is their last great album. I'd say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings

The point , though compressed, isn't mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick , professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their own music, namely rhythm and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It's all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of "audio noir", and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles' re-imagining of the foundations of the bands' sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject matter, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.

Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was l in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones' senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed", "Stop Breaking Down", "Sweet Virginia", "Ventilator Blues", "Shine a Light", "Soul Survivor", even the bouncy and rocking "Happy" all, in their own manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala "Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud", "Play With Fire", "Stupid Girl" or "Street Fighting' Man", potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up world view that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.

It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a bohemian community , along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and cluster phobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city and the period were decadent over all, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he's done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies.

being depressed is not art

The title of Vince Grant’s recent EP pretty much gives the game away as to what the album contains, the story of an earnest singer-songwriter trying not merely to make his self-admitted malady the basis of a transcendent art, but also, more crucially, critically, desperately, to actually deal with a condition that continues to bedevil him. The depression-as-subject matter is a slippery slope in any event, an easily romanticized condition that the less awareness among readers, listeners, and lovers of theater and film consider a prerequisite to being an artist worth considering.This is an idiotic presumption to start with, but it’s one that’s filtered through our culture for centuries, even in the critical discussions that are ostensibly intended to uncover, though, close readings, how a poem, a novel, a play works as art; the thinking, however, has largely focused on what issues the poet has, on the depth of his or her depression, and how the perennial melancholy inspired reams of beautiful downcast poems and lyrics. It was for the longest while that one couldn’t read a biography or critical essay on the works of confessional poets along the lines of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, or Robert Lowell without the obsession with their depression outweighing the merits of the works as writing: while one couldn’t rightly exclude a mental disorder in regards to discussing what informed a writer’s tone and worldview, the consensus seemed to be that such an artist, confessing details of a life that is slipping increasingly into grey areas that are harder to emerge from as time goes by, achieves success only if they perish, commit suicide, due to the increasing isolation depression places them in. 

This is morbid thinking and a form of self-fulfilling the prophecy that sees the artist less as someone creating art than as a victim vainly thrashing about with words and motion as a means to cure themselves of that which curses them daily.Vince Grant, a seasoned singer-songwriter who has long contended with depression, doesn’t entertain the notion that he will eventually conquer, transcend or “cure” himself of his depression with his music. In his publicity materials for My Depression is Always Trying to Kill Me, he’s quoted as saying “…I write songs to cope. I’d like to say I write songs to heal, but that may be asking too much.” Any alcoholic and addict who’s down a “fearless and thorough inventory” of themselves with the aim of finding a means to deal with a damning condition they’re powerless over, Grant, in his music, understands not just the bedrock permanence of depression the emotionally crushing, seldom relenting feeling of feeling that an invisible but none the less impenetrable wall surrounds him, separating him from the world, but that dealing with it is something the sufferer does one day at a time.The album is a story of sensations, the cold gloom at the bottom of the dark hole he finds himself, the recalling of dreams, lovers, friends, opportunities taken from him from him by his depression and his attempts at self-medicating with booze and drugs, the attempt to rise from the mire and move toward the sunlight, to re-enter the world of sound and motion, to become part of the great parade of in the life he has, to be a citizen, just for today. 

It’s one step forward, another step, forward, a step back, a stumble, arising after the fall, a step forward, another step, one day at a time.One can be cynical about the simplicity of a philosophy that is likely culled from twelve-step programs, but what we have with Grant’s songs is a pervasive honesty that doesn’t add the element of “the Hollywood Ending” that assures the listener that hope wins overall; that would be dishonest to Grant’s truth. He does not deny the pain his condition creates for him, he remembers vividly that what he copes with is still present and can take him out if he grows lax in his efforts to keep himself about the waves that threaten to overcome him.The paradox of this review is that Grant’s honesty and unpretentious testimonial about his struggles and small victories is an effort that impresses and inspires me to a great degree; I cannot say, though, that I enjoyed the songs as much I wanted to. Coached in the anthemic style of U2, REM, and Manic Street Preachers and Counting Crows, Grant’s material, musically, is more a collection of borrowed gestures, lacking a distinguishing sound of his. For songcraft, he repeats the worst habit of early U2, which was to dispense with ingenious hooks and the niceties of beginnings, middles, and ends and instead rely on layering three or four chord guitar strums with little discernible movement ; acoustic guitar, a persistent bass figure, the addition of a brash electric guitar, additional percussion, the music in volume, diminishing in volume, the volume rising again, a chorus repeated until the whole arrangement, such as it is, fades. Grant’s earnestness comes through, his ragged vocals convey the humanity of his struggle against the darkness that follows him, but that is not enough to make up for the feeling of things borrowed without that crucial spark of reinventing the riffs that have influenced him.

Miles Davis casts a spell

Image result for sorcerer miles davis
Sorcerer --Miles Davis (Sony)
Sorcerer, the 1967 album from Miles Davis, has been in my CD player the last couple of days and, to pun badly, I've been more than a little entranced by how amazingly well these improvisers,all of whom are distinct and potentially dominating in ensemble efforts, work so cohesively as a group.There's a perfect kind of modal combustion here, with Miles Davis contrasting his spare and fairly angular sense of improvisation with the formidable resourcefulness of this album's principal  ensemble, Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (double bass) and Tony Williams (drums). The music is a unusual  combination of  the unforced and the aggressive, resisting the temptation to either go slack in their pace or stray toward the harsh vicissitudes of anguished, strident experimentation,  a pulsing course of off-accented rhythms, musical swaths of varying tones and colors, and ingenious interlacing between primary soloist Davis, Shorter and Hancock. Ensemble exploration at its peak, it seems, as the three of them actively listen to and anticipate each other's ideas during the respective solo spots. This is what the great Davis groups did, find unexamined nuance and moods in the musical tones. 

 Davis and Shorter in particular offer up a few exquisite moments of dialogue as they answer, query, interrogate and respond to musical propositions put forth by the other. As great as the previous occupant in the saxophone chair had been, the redoubtable and effusively  brilliant John Coltrane, Shorter was a better fit for Davis' ideas for the ensemble at the time,  1967, when this disc was recorded His solos are less galvanic than Coltrane's were, more composed, filled with lithe and delicate phrases , wonderfully respondent to the rhythms and pulse Williams and Carter provided and the full range of ideas underscores and textures the sound with.Davis is at his best, lyrical, on the edge of atonal, bracing when needed, the tone of his notes isolated and longing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

FREE RANGE JOHN LENNON and other notes

Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I had a dim view of the putzy, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work. He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member. For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce, or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name, icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others, has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result. Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that, in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. I think such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music; it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. 

This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. It's only business, nothing personal. And that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon’s' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory. It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make-believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his clich├ęs as some of the contemporaries had. Yoko did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with egomania that overrode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft-headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. 

The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game. The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music. put Lennon's decline much sooner than the house-husband thing and it seems to me that Ono hindered his work directly and rather obvious. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his love for her wasn't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just too bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his attraction and love for her weren't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just to bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. "In My Life" is simply one of the finest songs of its kind has ever done, a marvelous melody, sterling harmonies, and an elegantly stated lyric that suggests dually an appreciation of memories for their equal measure of bliss and pain, but also an acknowledgment that on the present and future times matter. The song smoothly sidesteps a noxious nostalgia that would have been easy to slip into and makes the song reflective, places it on another level. Sorry, but the early Beatles albums have some great songs, but are marred by sappy, dippy love songs like "It's Only Love," "Love Me Do," etc., and too many perfunctory covers -- for every "Twist and Shout," and "Money" there's a "Mr. Postman" and "Besame Mucho." The late period albums are more consistent. Sappy and dippy, or straightforward and fresh in their alertness to their real, unvarnished yearnings?

More than ever, the early Beatles songs have a vibrancy and directness that no longer exists in rock and roll, and though one may prefer the later, mature work, the earlier albums remain unique and, for the most part, great rock and pop music. And the Beatles covers of oldies are anything but perfunctory. No one ever did Carl Perkins, The Isley Brothers, or Chuck Berry, et al, like they did. The sound was unique. This is an era where both Lennon and McCartney shined especially well as vocalists. grant the importance of the Plastic Ono Band album, and regard it as a one-off, when the blunt-speaking egotism and skeletal instrumental work achieved a bracing statement about what it means to be a celebrity in a culture that demands genius with every new turn, but it was a direction that rapidly went sour, redundant. Lennon had been passionate about the one thing he knew really very well--being rich and famous and beset with demons no one could imagine -- and after that, the limits of his worldview ran aground. His utopianism was sincere, no doubt, but he wasn't particularly interested in the way he came to write about peace and harmony--give me "Across the Universe" for better poetry, better singing, a better imagination about a better world. My point was that the admirable gustiness of releasing an album like Plastic Ono Band does not compel me to listen to the album again. I never replaced the vinyl with a CD.


That's the problem with dead musical geniuses who die abruptly: we're left guessing what direction they've might have taken, and left as well to wonder if that direction would have been worth the wondering. Lennon might well have found something new to write about, as other songwriters his age have, such as Lou Reed, Bowie, Randy Newman. You can't count someone out while they're still breathing. But it is the mootest of moot points. 

Charlie Watts is a great rock and roll drummer, a timekeeper with sharp instincts of where to lay down the stick on the drum head. He isn't the flashiest or the most technically advanced, but he is absolutely perfect in his field, not a wasted beat or stroke, every motion adding to the unexplainable greatness that the Rolling Stones have been: the Hemingway of Rhythm. Much the same applies to Ringo Starr, someone else who's often dismissed as more loveable oaf than real musicians. In either band, both were exactly the right fit for the music that was being made. McCartney was certainly a better drummer than Micky Dolenz, but in comparison with every other drummer on the planet, he came up seriously short. He usually sounds like he's hammering nails. "Adequate" is almost an exaggeration, and I wouldn't be surprised if Buddy Miles himself took a sneaking pleasure in knowing that there was an even less-capable celebrity behind the skins. 
With the exception of parts of Hearts and Bones and Graceland, Paul Simon has been unexceptional. His work for the last decade has been boring in the extreme. Boring to you, perhaps, but Simon, in fact, has been quite clever and adroit in the last decade, with much of Rhythm of the Saints and Music from Capeman being among the best and varied work of his career. Not being in a rush to release new albums keeps his averages high. Granted, although saying that Simon's work in the last decade or so has music is "... among the best and varied work of his career" isn't an unreasonable statement, since in my skewed take there is more than a little that’s on a par with his best work, career wide. It's a reasonable statement. Simon easily beats the rap of being a dull artist for the last decade. "Boring in the extreme" is implausible, taken as a whole. But no matter. Comparing Lennon, or anyone, to Simon hardly amounts to a description of decrepitude. But it's not likely Lennon would have been anything remotely like Simon: it's a bad comparison when hazarding that kind of guess about what he would have sounded like if he lived. The elliptical feel to some of Simon's lyrics isn't quite the same as him being obscure, a quality in lyricist that too much of the time is ploy by lesser lyricist that disguises a lack of anything to say, or at least an interesting way of talking about what it is they think they know about the world. "Evocative" is the better word for Simon. I like a good number of the songs you've mentioned precisely because he selects his images and detail well, and creates a strong sense of the personality and tone of his situations rather than telling us how we're to respond. 

Again, a listener has a fighting chance of bringing their own ideas to the narrative span in order to complete the scene and the sentiment. It's not always a success when he undertakes this, but there is little of the abstruse density you find in Dylan, or Beefheart, or Cobain, the saddest of all the sad cases. In any case, writing about marriage needn't be Hallmark cards: it's one of the central events in anyone's life, a consolidation of the complicated strands that make up love between two folks, and marriage is indeed a place to find even more inspiration as one finds out more about oneself in relation to the world. It was within Lennon's scope as a feeling artist to suss through these matters: it's a bigger shame that he never had the chance to express more of what he might have found out. You sit and wonder, after listening to the engaging, if unspectacular love songs on Double Fantasy, what interesting moods might have pushed him into his next Great Period. Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Costello are songwriters who entered into new and interesting areas of writing as they came into the later periods of their life, each after some time wallowing and casting about with albums that seemed undecided, repetitive, played out. In each case, some things in their personality and personal circumstances gelled finally and gave them the legitimate voice they sought, the rebirth. Double Fantasy was a transitional album, I think, and one feels the cheat of an honestly seeking and imperfect artist finding that set of riffs and inspiration that would have enlarged his life's work.

My life became richer after over fifteen years of constant record and concert reviewing simply because I survived the accompanying trappings of what I thought a critic needed to have; certainly, plain old burn-out is a factor: what I loved was killing me, and the habits I had to enhance the listening experience became mere habits, after all, booze and copious drug taking. I was a drunk, rattled, a chain-smoking wreck of a pop pundit by the arrival of the early eighties, scarcely able to keep my rants on Monk, Beefheart or Phil Ochs on separate tracks, I couldn't keep deadlines, and I couldn't show up at interviews my editors had scheduled. As the free albums stacked up and my trash can filled with empty vodka bottles, nothing really seemed worth having a passion for. Anyway, I sobered up eventually, taking note of friends and others I knew started to turn up dead by various means and checking into a world famous drug and alcohol treatment center in California. In any event, let us just say that my life is richer because I'm still breathing and I've had the benefit of being the rare alcoholic who has a chance to start over and reappraise what's really of value. Music, indeed, is a richer experience for me, wider and far more curious than it had been, and there is a freedom from not having to construct an instant analysis of usually unattractive people who make exotic sounds for a CD release. Another benefit is that friends don't cross the street when they see me coming since I'm not in the habit these days of laying on them spontaneous rants about Miles Davis' racial theory regarding drummers, or how Wallace Stevens' notion of a Supreme Fiction undermines Steely Dan's surface post-bop cool. It's been more fun actually talking to associates about music (or art, books, film) rather than attempt to deliver a lecture every time I opened my mouth. I'm even invited to places these days. I

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


What really killed rock music wasn't rock critics, but rather fans who bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listeners retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown explicable, or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make the album go double platinum. Calling Robert Christgau, a racist simply because he not favorably disposed toward a particular Aretha Franklin album is ludicrous--I remember the review as well, and I recall that his points were subtler than you make them.
Punk is racist because it eschews black influences? It may be a matter of style, and that preference may have its roots in some lumpy, swirling matrix of cultural forces one may term "racist" in some inconclusive, knot-headed reliance on aimless lefty jargon, but the exclusion of African American influence in a music does not make it "inherently racist" as you rather narrowly maintain, nor does it make it "stupid". Given the particulars, that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy, partisan fans can imagine-- may choose, non-vindictively, non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap.
I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if someone has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music intact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the meantime, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurs, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artist’s work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything.
But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.
My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty-five years gasping experience in sometimes bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or let's say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.
Rock, like the blues, it's closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Lit Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-mike drums, and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip-hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to withhold. Feel. Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or otherwise. The Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, and that, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is demonstrably empty of content.
Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop alongside the growth of an industry that started recording and disrupting increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen market shares. The hand of the businessman, the soul of the capitalist machine has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us.
There has always been a marketplace where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and new technologies. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the act of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a soundboard jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed.
I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and wiil mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise.
Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarisms of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems, thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.