Monday, October 29, 2018


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I realized on a day in 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the release of Love's seminal record Forever Changes, an occasion that I couldn't let pass without a tribute listen to the revered 1967 album. I was mesmerized all over again by range of materials—acidic rock guitar, marching rhythms, sad Mariachi horn sorties and Spanish guitar and tango beats, lush arrangements, MOR pop jazz and the skill  to write the private lyric that drew the listener closer to the speaker to hear the words, but which denied a comforting assurance. An album full of wide roads, sharp terms, idyllic optimism, there were menacing undercurrents, under the fleeting elegance. It was as if vocalist and principle songwriter Arthur Lee absorbed every note of music, from every style that poured from Los Angeles radio, blending them will, providing a true, original thing, something no one had heard before.  It remains a fascinating and dramatic document; it’s damn good music. The way this disc moves from one mood to the next, quickly but not jarringly, from upbeat, dance-happy jazz to the serene yet melancholic textures, shades and tonalities the orchestrations create as they play over the solid rock band base, remains amazing and, I think, unequaled. The Beatles were antecedents, of course, in the employ of diverse musical styles in their songs and mixing those up in ways rock and roll songwriters hadn't imagined up to that time. But a major element of Lee's and Love's success in diving headlong into the choppy eclecticism is their avoiding the limitless disasters of others who attempted their own versions of Sgt Pepper.  Naturally, not all on Forever Changes has aged well. Lee’s lyrics sometimes become a murmuring stream of hippie Know-Nothings. The guitar solos, though brief, likewise cringe-inducing, atonal fuzz tone blasts that sour these albums’ otherwise sublime arrangements.  Where were Hendrix and Clapton when you needed their savvy on the frets? 

All told, this is only nitpicking. The record is of- its- time and still creates a spell fifty years later. Arthur Lee, as well, was one of the greatest of rock singers an ironic commentary on identity politics; we see this in his beautiful crooner style, which echoes the under-considered talent of Johnny Mathis and Sammy Davis Jr., two pioneering black performers who honed singing styles that were smooth, gallant, and acceptable to large white audiences, and also in the way Lee mastered the grunting, gravelly, slurring style of British singers like Mick Jagger and Eric Burden, two singers who tried to replicate the sound of their heroes Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf but who, lacking the vocal apparatus, wound up creating a style of singing that was itself appealing and a means of personal expression. Lee was equally smitten with both styles and mingled them throughout his oeuvre, the silky croon and gruff belt combined for an unexpected effect, mysterious and suggestively unique. Two songs particularly have remained with me these fifty years since first heard this record, melodies and chords and winsome vocals that echo still amidst the accumulated memories, the opening song and the final song of the album. The first , “Alone Again Or”, begins as faint, volume slowly increasing, a Spanish guitar and a sharp, insistent report of a small drum kit, simple and elegantly finger picked chords that bring us a confession of a kind, a soul reaching, out to a lover who leaves him alone in his isolation. The second verse is a declaration, a statement of personal purpose: 

 “I heard a funny thing /somebody said to me /you know that I could be in love with almost everyone I think that people are/The greatest fun…” 

As the melody charges, segues into a stirring horn solo and again fades off and then builds momentum again, we have the genius of the album, a mix of insight and naiveté trying to balance them out, contained in a gorgeous, simple framework. Arthur Lee’s best writing was about the battle of a man trying to bring clarity to the many sensations his senses brought him. The albums last tune, Lee’s masterpiece, is “You Set the Scene” a fascinating stitchery of the kind of rush discotheque pulse where everything is noticed, and reality becomes a druggy collage. Details are word fragments, phrases and images do not follow each other in logical order; it is as good a description of an acid trip as I’ve listened to. The trippy pulse of the of the first section segues into the steady, marching stride of the second portion. Horns blare a hearkening fanfare, drums kick in with a steady, even gait, and the narrator seems to have become a man who has crashed from his high after a vision and now allows his eyes to scour the hillsides and valleys and consider, finally, the kind of future he’d to live in. 

“ Everything I've seen needs rearranging /And for anyone who thinks it's strange/Then you should be the first to want to make this change/And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game/Do you like the part you're playing?”

 Yes, I realize these smacks of the old counterculture conceit, the young man, smitten with The Truth, saying farewell to parents and old friends to become genuinely authentic. But Lee’s imagination prevents this from becoming a preposterous demonstration. Lee’s voice soars, croons, quivers, strains effectively on high notes, floating with confidence over the increasingly dynamic horn arrangement. This is a march into the future; it astonishes me how magnificent this music still sounds fifty years on. Forever Changes, Love's third album, is considered by many to be the best American response to the Beatles bar-raising disc Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As is too often the case, Lee’s greatest creative period was short-lived; drugs, jail, eccentricity and erratic behavior prevented him from regaining the heights he reached with Forever Changes

Sunday, October 28, 2018


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Phil Ochs hanged himself April 9,1976, a fact that makes the second disc of this double record collection even more morbidly fascinating. At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer/songwriter during the Sixties, an able rabble-rouser 'at peace rallies and civil rights marchers who . could fire dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes, still, the white knight of worthy causes were considered, passé, and his' music became an object of Instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his last few albums (Pleasures of tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material getting buried under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments--a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming no just slight, but ineffectively elitist.

His later songs, at their best and most penetrating, were haunting encapsulations, sketching the displaced anomie of his generation found itself in a new set of cultural conditions where people would rather dance than organize, and eerily foreshadowing Ochs' own sense of self-apocalypse. “Tape From California", the song, is a rocking Sojourn through an activist's shattered psyche, someone woken from being from a long sleep and find  a terrain not by a community of authentic people working to change the society for the better, but  rather by hippies, drug freaks, record company PR men, hip magazine writers, scene makers, blow job artists, flunkies, junkies, alcoholic poets without notebooks and self-declared painters of all sorts who never touched a canvas, everyone one of them feigning art and culture by looking , in truth ,all of them, for a cheap thrill to last until the garbage trucks arrive.

"The Crucifixion", Ochs' masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and Kennedy); according to the figures the best virtues they'd like to see In themselves, and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed. a process that begins once the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here Is, blessedly, live, free of the special effects clutter that ruined the studio original. Ochs' voice Is plaintive an~ unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. "The War Is Over", first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, turns out instead to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.

The final number, "No More Songs", concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he enumerates the people he's known, the things he's believed in, the lovers he's had and moans that all was In vain. With the past being meaningless, he moans that they're" ... no more songs", and then his voice recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. the first record, comprised of his strictly protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone's present state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs' idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing. 

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his last album, the ironically titled "Greatest Hits". Ochs had taken, late in his career, in dressing up in a gold lame suit and famously told a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, and that that wouldn't have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara.  Ochs, who was a deep romantic in the belief that Great Men with Great Ideas can change the world for the better and who was likewise an alcoholic and a man given to depressions that only deepened as he age, seemed to be writing a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. Ochs did, in fact,  take his own life in 1975.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he's dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called "Upbeat", hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop-soul bands who performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he a protest singer by trade and mentioned that with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt by the US and North Vietnamese Government to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed "No More Songs" live, on acoustic. I remember this being one of the few songs that made haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades. At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet, someone who could easily be the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath , writers of odd mental activity that they were compelled to write their demons into verse form in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls, a project, it's been suggested, is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without means to grow stronger and find hope and sunlight. It's been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one's own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieves their reputation and legitimacy as a poet.

This was something that had repulsed me when I was studying 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality and every sensation this skin we have has us subject to. I didn't read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one's preferences as an arbitrary standard each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, it manifested its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence, and it was under no requirement to make our lives better,  let alone save our selves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone's fate is their own and no one else's. Most live more or less normal lives, where ever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just....doomed, in some respect. Again , I am reminded of Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world,  the quality of being nothing more nor less than human, struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality. The job of the poet isn't to instruct others in how to live a full life, but instead chronicle the unending problematic situations of the life were are constantly trying to negotiate a contract of conduct with , only to find , again, endlessly, that life is pure, unceasing process, churning, burning, destroying, creating from the ash and mire; the poet records the ironies that will not stop coming, the lessons that will always be taught again to the same romantics, adventurers, would be saints and dime store dictators. It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media, all the time that the subjects of protest songs, those songs that are very specific to a cause, to a particular injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward the better world the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs' politics, though. Chord of Fame scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now,' with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. One hopes we weather future changes better than Ochs managed to do.


The biggest problem with David Bowie's music was that his songs sounded nothing alike album to album. Those of us inclined to classify musicians into categories with definitions that sharply defined (and limited) a discussion of an artist's range had a hard time with Bowie, who didn't play their game. Bowie was his own man, listened, read, and viewed what it was he liked in the broad spectrum of the arts and literature and, surely, skillfully, often brilliantly, brought the elements to bear on the music created, which was mesmerizing, challenging, subtly, artfully layered with a crosscurrents of musical influence. His genius, above all the other talents he possessed, was as a synthesizer. Apart from most other rock musicians who took from a variety of sources but seldom rose above the feeling of being merely clever and, Bowie, in fact, produced something new. Rock, rhythm and blues, folk, Kurt Weil, science fiction, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Philip Glass, Philly soul, musical theatre, Blue Note-style jazz, the proto-punk of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges--these were sources that caught Bowie's ear and which he brought together in relationships that, in their best expression, gave us a stirring, unsettling, daunting form of pop music that was of itself, a stand-alone body of work that influenced artists to come. There seemed to be nothing he wouldn't try, and the results were not always his most captivating work. I wasn't a hardcore fan either, and was, in fact, annoyed by what I regarded as his pretentious manner. He seemed, in some sense, an eclectic master-of-none. But although not an instrumental virtuoso nor a composer/lyricist of dazzling harmonic and poetic gifts, he radiated the aura of the divinely inspired amateur, the savant who could be figured out how matters worked musically and theatrically. He applied what he knew, bits and pieces and whole swaths of information about varying aesthetic principles and the styles that fall within the standards and composed something unique. New sounds emerged, new ways of applying the eternally persistent rhythm of popular music took hold. I remember a caffeine-fueled bull session in the Mesa College Cafeteria in the early to mid-Seventies when I offered to the late Reader music critic Steve Esmedina, a Bowie partisan, that the future Thin White Duke hadn't had an original musical idea so far in his career. Blubbo, his preferred endearment, didn't argue the point, stating smartly that what's fascinating , exciting , worth talking about in hipster circles and beyond was his particular genius as a synthesizer of genres and emerging trends and taking command of the materials like any true artist would, deconstructing, reshaping, fusing styles and sensibilities together into new kinds of sounds, the influences intact and vital-- Broadway musicals, hard rock, funk and disco grooves, experimental electronics, William Burroughs and Bertolt Brecht--while having Bowie's characteristic imprint on it all. My smart-ass assertion was false from the start, since what David Bowie was creating fusion music in the truest sense of what "fusion" is, taking different elements together and coming up with something new, previously unseen or unheard. I could go for the obvious Miles Davis comparison that's lurking in the wings of this career praise, but instead I'll stay with the deservedly much-discussed element of style and fashion in the late artist's work and say that he was one of those creatures radiating the personality that could try on any outlandish article of fashion from any designer's rack and wind up owning the style, making it his; something of great value was added when he liked a style and wanted to work with it. The famous quote attributed to Ritchie Blackmore about accusations that he stole guitar riffs from black American blues artists that "the amateur borrows, the professional steals" is instructive. The amateur treats what they've borrowed with too much gentleness and respect, as though they might drop the expensive China they've dared lay a finger on. The results are a species of gutless pretentiousness that glutted an awful lot of art rock in the post -Sgt. Pepper years, music by those who hadn't an idea what they were doing nor the imagination (or nerve) to pretends they did. The thief likes something and just takes it without permission, absorbs into his or her being until it becomes part of their nervous system , adding their own licks, reshuffling the influx of music styles heard , assimilated, until there is a sound where constituent parts of rock drums, jazz keyboards, atonal guitar skronk, horn funk and Euro serial music emerges, a sound that hadn't roamed over the airwaves or blasted the clubs and concert halls of until the moment when the Thief, the absconder of musical forms, decides that he or she is finished in the creation and releases into the world, fresh, loud, moving as no music before it. This is what Bowie had done, loving art enough to abuse the formalisms that defined the length and limitations of a genre and make them do more than most had assumed possible. We are living in a world of music that has been formed in large measure by Bowie's decades-long search for new music he wanted to work with. But living long enough to know better has its benefits, certainly, in that I found myself liking quite a bit of what Bowie was putting out. If the whole Spiders From Mars period seemed and arch, overwrought and lumpy collection of influences associated by force of will rather than inspiration, inspiration came soon afterward; the songs became looser, his choice of collaborators was unexpected and gave us music that was unlike that we'd heard before, his sense of what styles were emerging was always ahead of the curve. Best of all, he was one of those who could not just bring unlike elements together; rather he fused them in the true meaning of the word "fuse", he made something new, unique, unlike anything else. Bowie was pretentious to a degree, but his, after all, was a career of making the what he imagined become real through music. He was an artist, a master of artifice, a man who , though revealing little in the way of self-revelation or even an arguable view of the world listeners could construe as a philosophy, Bowie's tales of skewed characters relating the consequences of their life in a world malformed by each one of the seven deadly sins had a lasting, lingering effect all the same. He wrote for effect, and the effect was profound. Even so, his music had many more hits than misses and even the lesser efforts, the slightest of his concepts, demanded attention and truly did not bore, the cardinal sin any popular artist can commit. It is Bowie's greatest work we will be playing for the years to come, the decades yet to pass; his influence will be felt in much of the pop music yet to be written, sung, recorded and sung again by young men and women looking for a hero. His influence, I think, is nearly as extensive as that of Elvis, of the Beatles, of Dylan. He prepared popular music for the 21st century in more ways than I can count now. His loss is a major one. RIP.

Saturday, October 27, 2018


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Truthfully, I had to walk away from a conversation in late December that rock and roll are was dead as a boot;  saggy skinned Boomers like myself have the feeling that last bit of authenticity ended as we came into our late twenties and had replaced avocations with careers. I’m  just tired of anyone declaring whole art forms as “deceased” merely because they’ve gotten older; rock and roll seems healthy to me, as it goes, and however large a segment of the marketplace it holds, those who play it and those who listen to it, young and not so young, think the music is alive and, well, kicking ass. The complaints come down to this, The Fall from Grace; the Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone. Regardless of musical terms and the perfumed detritus terms that are tossed about like unraveling  throw rugs over a  lumpy and foul-smelling assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is the least convincing of expression of what is, at root, matters so trivial in the larger scheme of what ought to concern is that it wouldn't rate as dust. It's less an argument than a Leviathan of overstatement those who make wish would materialize through a sheer act of collective self-pity, tall, heavy, portentous and haphazardly mounted, and wish further that it would topple over and smash the dull reality of adulthood to bits. Make the world go away, Eddy Arnold sang
...And get it off my shoulders

Say the things you used to say

And make the world go away

Do you remember when you loved me

Before the world took me astray
If you do, then forgive me
And make the world go away
Make the world go away
And get it off my shoulders
Say the things you used to say
And make the world go away
I'm sorry if I hurt you
I'll make it up day by day
Just say you love me like you used to

So we have men in their 60s and 60s, blowhard know-it-alls like myself, walking around in long grey hair despite receding hairlines and the gradual erosion of jawlines as they are absorbed by folds of flesh that are cursed with lines, ruts and rumors of veins that make parts of our once taut testimony resemble nothing so much than a collection of old road maps folded the wrong way too many time for too many years. Aerosmith, Yes, J.Geils, the goddamned Stones, the Grateful Dead, fucking Bob Dylan, the poets and prophets of our youthful idealism reduced to corporate logos sponsoring one overpriced nostalgia tour after another. Our best memories are sold back to us, authentic as Bakelite gemstones. Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop alongside the growth of an industry that started recording and distributing 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. Some of us are vaguely, and snottily mournful for an era when only the music mattered, and something inside me pines for that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naivete, and consciously arguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actually worked would be an exorcize in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignore available facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its loosely packed foundation. I suspect that for the typical young music listener now, this is the Eden they expect never to end, which means that it’s the best time in the world for rock and roll for some mass of folks out there.


The release of new Dylan albums wouldn't interest me normally--five and a half decades later it's safe to say that I reached my saturation point with his work and the passionate nonsense that crowds around both his best and worst writing. Conceited to say this, perhaps, but I like to believe that I had "moved on" to new things, new kinds of music and art, a new life, new love, new interest. But the buzz around his disc, named Tempest, that I had to give a listen . Admittedly, I was curious about what the man had come up after being so long out of the gate. There are some pioneers, some esteemed geniuses that a generation of record reviewers (and a generation of critics after them) don't want to let go of, let alone admit that the later work isn't as interesting as the material that drew you to the artist, to begin with. There is a problem with reaching one's zenith so early, in that everything you do afterward is compared with the singular work you'd done years before. It's not fair to the particular artist, whether great or mediocre. For Dylan, though, the generally solid reviews that he receives for his stream of albums seems an irrational response from someone who hasn't demonstrated more than the capacity to be mysterious and inscrutable. Mystery and inscrutability are qualities that in themselves that do not make for something that will turn my head ahead and cause me to cogitate beyond reasonable length when the disc is done playing. I don't know what the fuss is all about other than it seems to be a recurring outbreak of Everything- Dylan -Does-is -Genius fever. Musically it is solid, well produced, and the musicians have a disciplined grittiness that has more polish than the cluttered and slapdash quality of much of Dylan's recent work and yet avoids sounding slick and corporate. It is obvious that sometimes was spent over the soundboard adjusting the mix. The pity is that Dylan is far from his best form here; for all his striving to write with an idiomatic tone his bucolic phrase making has nearly always seemed practiced, rehearsed too much in a mirror. What is obvious to me is that Dylan continues to traffic in cliches; he is, as Lester Bangs remarked, selling off what is left of his charisma with under-constructed songs and ideas.

Much of the lyrics for this album seem like a parody of an aging musician long past his brilliant work doubling down on bad version of himself; there is an art to sounding as though your lyrics are from a vernacular, but the magic happens when the listener, the witness, forgets the contrivances and believes, for a moment at least, that the voices are from an era and place forgotten . This is what Robbie Robertson did with the Band; lyrics giving elliptical tales a plain-speaking, direct address from within the narrative line, not from without. There is something genuinely conversational and intimate in the best of the Band's rustic workings, no large message or grotesque rumbles of philosophical swell. Life is too short and interesting to try to make sense of it and the characters Robertson and his bandmates are rather too busy telling everyone what just happened, what happened before, what things were like  before any catastrophe, cataclysmic event or history altering debacle made the tides rise and the price of gas to go up.

The reviews have been absurdly positive while the music is merely passable. The lyrics, though, are what's truly abysmal. Smart pop music critics, especially younger ones eager to reinforce the conceit that Dylan is untouchable, have tripped over themselves to praise "Tempest" when in point of fact what Dylan does with this disc is resort to the cliches, tired tropes, and convenient moralism that he proved in the sixties could be abandoned altogether. Once or twice, as in an effort like "Self Portrait", you could argue that the songwriter was being supremely ironic, daring his followers to find sage advice, worth and significance in the banality that album is marked by. Forty years worth of raiding the Prison House of Chestnut Schematics, though, indicates not irony but a bad habit. Some writers are brilliant in their old age, managing a new style to meet their tested experience; Dylan is only vague and pedestrian in his narratives, without a quotable line for the effort.
"They battened down the hatches 

But the hatches wouldn't hold 

They drowned upon the staircase 

Of brass and polished gold. "

The fact that Dylan cannot seem to write anything that does not include hoary prophecies that are more smoke than thunder, nor stay away from convenient phrases that seem more author notes in a screenplay-in-progress, late Dylan is only another workman in the field, dutiful but not brilliant. Dylan wants to write parables of indefinite place and time, but his linguistic invention, his ability to mash up idioms from folk traditions, hip argot and Modernist poetry--TS Eliot, prime period Allan Ginsberg, Rimbaud--is gone; as with Norman Mailer's famously baroque prose style constructed in the 3rd person, I think his ear for that kind of writing has gone deaf. Unlike Mailer, Dylan did not create, for the most part, a compelling replacement. He is a shadow of what he was and stalwart fans pay him a fortune to be precisely that, a stick figure reminder of their youth, not an aging artist who has managed to remain interesting on the merits of his later work. Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius. Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker" writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless,nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. 

Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses.Like Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Track, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.

I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.Dylan wears his age as if it allows him to say what he wants because he has wrinkles you can hide your money in-- he stands apart, saging about, the voice that is too busy documenting feats and folly:  it fits neatly into the covert self-mythologizing Dylan has turned into his secondary art. His principle art, his music, and his lyrics are what Andy Warhol foretold decades ago--art is anything he can get away with. What I hear, though, is a slovenly , lazy, uninteresting filter of the creaky, eyebrow-raising cliches and obvious transitions ; there are no amazing associational leaps of fancy here, no "Desolation Row", no "Memphis Blues Again", nothing as truly brilliant as the succinct parables in "John Wesley Harding";  the man who gets the credit and the blame for expanding the pop lyricist vocabulary  is now involved in convincing his audience that the contrived, the hackneyed, the severely corny and portentous are, in his hands, masterful reworkings and reinventions of old forms. I think it more apt to say that he makes me think of a bankrupt interior designer who is constantly rearranging the same old broken, tattered, torn furniture in a wan hope that few will notice how tacky the whole thing actually is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


This fan video of Elvis Costello's beautiful song "Indoor Fireworks"  was posted on Facebook the other day, and there came along a dissenting voice in the comment stream that Costello was anti-women. Not an atypical response to Costello's work, his early albums especially, and none too subtle either. The conversation got to the point where the Costello critic remarked that the intensity and persistence of songs about anger, rage, and hatred revealed a homoerotic tension.

Indoor Fireworks
We play these parlour games We play at make believe When we get to the part where I say that I'm going to leave Everybody loves a happy ending but we don't even try We go straight past pretending To the part where everybody loves to cry (chorus) Indoor fireworks Can still burn your fingers Indoor fireworks We swore we were safe as houses They're not so spectacular They don't burn up in the sky But they can dazzle or delight Or bring a tear When the smoke gets in your eyes You were the spice of life The gin in my vermouth And though the sparks would fly I thought our love was fireproof Sometimes we'd fight in public darling With very little cause But different kinds of sparks would fly When we got on our own behind closed doors (chorus) It's time to tell the truth These things have to be faced My fuse is burning out And all that powder's gone to waste Don't think for a moment dear that we'll ever be through I'll build a bonfire of my dreams And burn a broken effigy of me and you 

Elvis Costello is not anti-woman, as any number of love ballads from his prolific pen attest; one might as well say that Dylan is anti-woman, or John Lennon  (for "Run for Your Life") for that matter. People seem to have a hard time when a lyricist goes beyond the usual ABC's of love songs and explore the darker issues, the sources of anger, the true sting of friction between two people. The point is not to make the listener comfortable with some warmed over platitudes about true love and the heartbreak of it all, but to have the listener recognizes the conflicting passions in themselves and to grapple with their own demons. His aim is true. You are ignoring huge swaths of Costello's work which, although noted for its anger and recrimination of failed relationships, has also shown a plentitude of emotional perspectives. I don't know about homoerotic tensions as it applies to his work--it is a reach (and not a reach around) to say that his aggressively male viewpoint in his early tunes hints at a gross case of denial and submersion. It is more accurate and more coherent and less obfuscating to say that his anger is the product of a young man who nursed his hurts, as young males are won't do.I would offer up that Costello doesn't sugar coat the emotions that most of us are prey to with the contrived resolutions that make discussing this thing acceptable in mixed company. This is not Ricky Nelson's neighborhood; Costello, following no less an example than Dylan (and Lennon) creates another metaphorical system over the ache and anger, something closer to the truth. Art is meant to create catharsis, to raise the first thing we garner from an introductory aesthetics lecture, and catharsis is something that Costello creates more often than not. But we have to examine the work further in light of an accusation that Costello is a misogynist by default. He, or his narrators, indicts himself/ themselves in a good many of the songs from the period, and as his career progressed and he got older, his lyric stances in terms of relationships became broader, more nuanced. The song in question, "Indoor Fireworks", shows this, as he speaks in terms of "we", "us", et al. Costello's narrative concept of problematic relationships became much more subtle, centering on the notion that relationships/unions/marriages work out or fail on the energies, talents, expectations and willingness (or lack of willingness) on the part of two people.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


300x292 PianoI dislike smooth jazz, which is not to say that I dislike jazz performed with smoothly executed technique that is in service to what the romantics of the world champion as "art making". A technique is an element any real artist worth a conversation with should have lest their boldest ideas and most expansive projects are called something akin to crass amateurism. Virtuosity is the means to the end; as I love difficulty of all sorts in the jazz I play in my domicile, it's nearly always a revelation that after some minutes I continually find myself forgetting the whole issue of how fast and accurate a musicians fingers are and listen in wonderment at the note selections set against difficult tempos in the course of an improvisation. That is what a great artist does, makes you forget the skill level, makes you forget the technique and brings you into the whole conception of bass, piano, drums, saxophone, the collectively spontaneous composition. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John  Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard,  et al are "smooth" in the utmost execution of their respectively impressive techniques, which means, for this grouch at least, that they can summon their best abilities at will and spontaneously compose harmonically, rhythmically and euphoniously nuanced improvisations upon a suitably provocative melody or composition. That inadequate sentence does not take into account what is now a substantial history of development in jazz, which has became much more than dance music, as all manner of mood, emotion, and states of being have found profound and exciting expression from the hands of various masters who've come along over the decades to forge new paths for the form. "Smooth jazz", as I mean it, is an Industry marketing term, a genre that strips elements of jazz, blues, funk, soul to the simplest technical components and proffers mid-tempo instrumentals that are melodically constricted; no strange chords or transitions, no thematic development. The solos, in turn, don't strike you as improvisations at all--to use a horrid cliché-- every solo sounds like the one before it and the one coming after it. 'Smooth jazz", as I define it, is not about a command of one's technique, but how little of one's know-how a musician utilizes in search of sounds that are merely marketable. We have, in essence, another case where perfectly useful words are corrupted and meant to convey the contemptible instead. "Smooth" need hardly be synonymous with "mindless". I would quince my thirst for what's smooth in the Pat Metheny Group, who have interesting compositions, or good old Chet Baker, both in the tradition and an improviser with the best-muted trumpet tone this side of Miles.

Monday, October 22, 2018


A Costello review from the 80s, just to show that I once regarded him as the artist who could save rock and roll.

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GET HAPPY--Elvis Costello and the Attractions
sizeable wedge of the unstoppable herd of reviewers and assorted ill-cultured taste mongers have exhausted their supply of superlatives in justifying rock critics defending their declaration that  The Clash's London Calling record the hottest double record set since Exiles On Main Street, I've been tempted to retaliate with an only a half-facetious declaration. Elvis Costello's new record, Get Happy!! (I would have written) is the greatest double rock record since Blonde On Blonde. With the gauntlet thrown to the floor, warring factions would man the ramparts and try to pick each other off with sniper-tongued pot-shots. Nonsense on two counts. First, despite the fact that Get Happy!! contains 20 songs, it is, in fact, a single record with 10 selections per side, where Dylan's double set Blonde On Blonde, with several songs going well over three minutes, holds less material. More importantly, however, is the nonsense rock reviewers in general (myself included) indulge in when they sling about comparisons that pale once separated from the heat of the moment. Common sense and sober thinking show that the Clash is an earnest band who haven't developed the stylistic subtleties that the Stones used to manage and that Costello, apart from a shared genius for non-sequiturs, has little in common with Dylan. This brings us to what Get Happy!! really is: neither a masterpiece nor a landmark to be prematurely canonized, but instead a firm confirmation of the major talent his audience suspected he possessed. The major revelation on Get Happy!! is that Costello, like many had hoped, has transcended the slight trappings of new wave and has become a songwriter, an artist with a firm grasp on his material who can write songs using an encyclopedic array of song styles to their full measure. The 20 songs on Get Happy!! comprise something of a brief course in the history of pop music style. Costello, it should be pointed out, is hardly a new wave dilettante who plagiarizes other people's art because he's unable to develop his own voice. Rather, Costello shares methodological affinities with the patron saint of the French New Wave film school, Jean Luc-Godard. Godard, who through his young life had been surfeited with American genre films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, and other Hollywood directors, took to making his own films during the late 60s, using many of the same camera stylistics of his American influences. Godard, aware that he was a French intellectual first and that he couldn't make "American" films no matter how much he admired the visual gracefulness American directors occasionally managed, ended up subverting the genres, inserting heavy doses of philosophy, Marxist literary criticism, semiological dissertations on language, and other notions stemming from the French proclivity for spinning theories, concepts that Godard's American film influences would doubtlessly stand gap-mouth at. Film genres to Godard, then, were a medium he could use, alter, retool, change, subvert. Costello is a songwriter of course, and one wouldn't belabor a comparison between him and Godard beyond a simple point: like Godard, Costello shuffles music styles and makes use of them the way he wants. He does this through his lyrics, which along with Steely Dan's are the most disturbing, dense and difficult in rock. Often times, Costello enjoys writing a lyric with no literal meaning against a melody that evokes something else entirely. In "Secondary Modern," with a soft croon over a melody that could pass for some of the blander efforts of Jackson Browne, Costello sings: "This must be the place / Second place in the human race / Down in the basement / Now I know what he meant / Secondary modern / Won't be a problem / Til the girls go home..." The melody, as pleasing as anything else could be, says one thing, but the lyrics, full of sparse details and indirect innuendo, deny that pleasure. Costello's aim seems to be to set us up in the visceral plane, and then to pull the rug out from under us once the words sink in. Dangerous activity.Lack of space makes it impossible to go into a song-by-song account, but here are some of the choice tracks. "Motel Matches," set in a gospel vein, is abstracted teenage heartbreak, an implied story of a lover's concern for his girlfriend's loose ways. "Opportunity," a jaunty tune in a stiff gallop tempo that concerns, incredible enough, the Hider and Mussolini baby boom campaigns. "Man Called Uncle," is an excellent hard rocker where Costello condemns beautiful people who've resigned their free-will so that they could become mere sexual playthings to rich people, and expressing a tacit yearning for real love without usury. Costello's main theme throughout is that he's against anything that keeps people from becoming the human being he'd like to see them become, against those institutions that divide people, denatures them, turns them into a mindless horde that consumes, kills, and continually destroy each other.

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THE DELIVERY MAN--Elvis Costello and the Imposters
I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD, "The Delivery Man", would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply writ lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no,that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately, I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now, and I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just back when they cared. One way or the other it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a very slow game of chicken. It's been long enough to wait for Dylan or the Stones decide that they want to make music again that sounded like they still enjoyed their work as much as the money they make from it. Costello isn't that old, and he hasn't lost his talent; his ambition just got in the way of it. The songs are wandering bits of amorphous mood setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory", is irresolutely medium tempo collection of muzaked dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bachrach's work is marked as much by quirky, uptempo tunes) meets the pulseless shoe-gazing sniffling of "North".Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer, but unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Simon, through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with an especially strong sense of pop structure, a matter that forces him to make each song the best he can do at the moment. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more interesting, verbally dexterous lyricist, but it is his lack of care that sinks him here and throughout most of his output in the 90's. Tom Waits, his closet in terms of sheer talent, does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique and reapplying himself is exactly what is called for. The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing being indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold, or what mood and psychology he wants to get across are enough to evoke Hamlet-like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on key narrative points. He sounds like he's trying to be artfully oblique, but what Costello forgets is that his greatest talent was his ability to absorb the styles of fifty or so years of rock, pop and rhythm and blues styles and then compose a fantastically buoyant music that was at once subtly argued in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. Costello must not like to dance anymore, and has entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, more diffuse, more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude. There are those die-hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against, but all the same, this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man". Even if it were so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.
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and and Burt Bacharach 
Two pop music-wise guys team up for a vehicle that should have been a tour-de-force from start to finish but which got stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning, engine roaring uselessly. There is an insistence on medium ballads or funeral march ballads, sadder-than-dead fish torch songs, and though there is merit to a good number of them, the torpor wears you out. Costello continually tries to hit the high notes at seemingly the exact same moment in each song, with his pitch being the equal of having a live magpie taped to your face. It's a horrible, piercing experience before long, and the rationale that it's a brave thing he's doing by using his limited apparatus for the lofty points on the sheet music won't cut ice. Bacharach, I recall, wrote a good number of spry up-tempo songs as well, and had a sense of humor. Perhaps he felt he needed to get serious now that he was getting some serious attention from critics because of the acclaimed Costello designed to work with him. The album is dour, gloomy, utterly depressed in the long run; it would have been best if they canned half the songs here and released only the truly memorable work. It would have been better if they remembered to bring their sense of humor to the sessions when they recorded this thing.