Monday, March 30, 2020


This is the one of the few of the many McLaughlin albums I have no use for. It seems a case that JM had a bunch of new guitar synth toys and had not yet figured out a way to make them remotely attractive in their modulations, and that he had to put a band together pronto with little rehearsal time. Especially the compositions, which recycle riffs from the previous two studio albums or spend time abruptly moving from tonal muddle-headedness, ersatz classicism, or the dreariest of vocal chorusing . The band was not ready for prime time, distressing considering the talent in the band, with Stu Goldberg (keyboards), Ralph Armstrong (bass) and Narada Michael Walden (drums); all these players are superb in executing the roles the sessions require of them, but no one shines here, which is a shame. I saw this line up of musicians in 1974 for the tour supporting the orchestral Apocalypse album (another least-played disc in my JM collection) with the addition of Jean Luc Ponty (violin) and Gayle Moran (keyboards), and experienced a wholesale blitzkrieg of fusion brilliance. It was a refreshing reminder how often the musicians achieve  those levels of adlib brilliance in live settings, especially from a studio effort that collapsed under it’s own portentious weight. This is a note that McLaughlin is a worth composer of small ensemble composition, but lacked, at least at the time, the where with all to score a piece for full orchestra.   None of that was evident on the 1976 release Inner World, and even JM seemed overwhelmed by all the noise that resulted. Fortunately for the world, McLaughlin is one who liked to move from style to style has remained an inspiring artist. To this day, decades after he first rattled my tooth fillings, it still takes one of his guitar solos to put me in touch with that instinct that wants to transform rage and fury into a heady, fast thinking lyricism. He has been that brilliant.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Rolling the stone uphill

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the CrossroadsAuthor Greil Marcus made a name as a rock critic by insisting that the tide of history is directly mirrored by the pop music of the period. This can make for exhilarating reading because Marcus is, if nothing else, an elegant stylist given to lyric evocation. But it is that same elegance that disguises the fact that he comes across as a middling Hegelian; the author, amid the declarations about Dylan, the Stones, the Band, and their importance to the spontaneous mass revolts of the sixties, never solidifies his points. He has argued, with occasional lucidity, that the intuitive metaphors of the artist/poet/musician diagnose the ills of the culture better than any bus full of sociologists or philosophers and has intimated further that history is a progression toward a greater day. Marcus suggests through his more ponderous tomes—Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Dustbin of History—that the arts in general, and rock ‘n’ roll in particular, can direct, in ways of getting to the brighter day, the next stage of our collective being.
Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads is an attempt to assemble a history of the pivotal song, bringing together well-worn facts about dates, names, and incidents that have been amply discussed in many previous studies of Dylan’s life and work. The idea buzzing underneath Marcus’ account of the people, places, and things that led up the creation of “Like a Rolling Stone,” the six-minute transitional masterpiece that made rock and pop musicians do a hard left turn, was that Dylan was the hero in history and was not aware that he would be a hero. Known and more obscure facts about Dylan’s life and writing are presented breezily. Brought to us are short, sharp glimpses of how Dylan moved from being an imitator of Woody Guthrie and backwoods balladeers to a hero of the civil rights movement. He was fascinated with French Symbolist poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and the Beats (especially the barbed-wire prose of William Burroughs).
The diffusely presented elements eventually lead to Dylan’s controversial decision to abandon folk music and “go electric.” It’s conceptually intriguing for Marcus to focus on the titular song and the entire album it was drawn from, 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. The incidents, the details, and the exchanges—real and imagined—of who Dylan was working and socializing with at the time of the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” are fascinating in themselves. Still, the elliptical style is frustrating as one finishes one chapter and starts another: you begin to wonder when the data begins to cohere into an argument for what it all means. Marcus prefers a gestalt approach, to have his topic appreciated from the many obscure incidents instead of having everything presented in complexity theory. The reader is likely supposed to understand what he’s getting at without the professor’s hand directing him back to the chalkboard diagram. An admirable trait in more skillful writers, but Marcus is often lost in the smallest implications of any one piece of evidence. The lack of even the slightest thesis statement, the failure to follow through on an intriguing idea that arises from his research is maddening.
Lucky for the reader, Marcus is an engaging prose writer, and one can forgive to a degree for not being clearer with what he was getting at. His preferred method seems to be inference rather than careful argument; there is something in his tone that seems to be inspired by the early poems of Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Like them, he seems content to let the “sense-making” to the reader. I suppose everyone knows a character like Marcus, a smart person who makes smart declarations about large, expansive topics but lacks the skills or willingness to make a formal argument.
Marcus, though, isn’t the one to draw us the map. But what has been aggravating with Marcus since he left the employ of Rolling Stone and began writing full-length books and essays for cultural journals is that he chokes when there’s a point to be made—he defers, he sidesteps, he distracts, and he rather gracelessly changes the subject. Again, this can be enthralling, especially in a book like his massive Lipstick Traces the Secret History of the 20th Century, where he assumes some of Guy DeBord’s assertions in Society of the Spectacle and situates rock ‘n’ roll musicians in a counter-tradition of groups that spontaneously develop in resistance to a society’s centralized ossification and mounts an attack, through art, on the perceptual filters that blind the masses to their latent genius.
He never quite comes to the part where he satisfyingly resolves all the mounting, swelling, grandly played generalizations that link Elvis, the Sex Pistols, and Cabaret Voltaire as sources of insight geared to undermine an oppressive regime. Still, the reader has fun along the way. Marcus wants to be a combination of Marcuse and Harold Bloom. He rarely accomplishes anything, the singular criticism either of them produced in their respective disciplines, political philosophy, and literary criticism, but he does hit the mark often enough to make him a thinker worth coming back to.
Marcus has written so much about Dylan or has absorbed so much material that he can produce a reed-thin critique on one song and pretend that it is much more than what it really is. The problem is a lack of thesis, a conceit Marcus at least pretends to have with his prior volumes; he depends entirely on third-hand anecdotes, half-recollected memories, and a flurry of details gleaned from any one of the several hundred books about Dylan published over the last 30 years. This amounts to little more than what you’d have if you transcribed a recording of the singer’s more intense fans speaking wildly, broadly, intensely amongst themselves by passing coherence for Sturm and Drang. For the rest of us with a saner appreciation of Dylan’s importance, Like a Rolling Stone is a messily assembled jumble of notes, press clippings, and over-told stories. Marcus, obviously enough, attempts an impressionistic take on the song, but the smell of rehash doesn’t recede, ever.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Bob Seger before Night Moves

Image result for seven Bob Seger
SEVEN- Bob Seger
 Bob Seger's SEVEN album is  are rare item, a mature rock and roll statement at a time when rock stars, the megastars that is, were becoming a species of Professional Celebrities in their late careers. It seemed the rock stars one admired for verve, passion and invention had lost the talent for redefining themselves and reassessing what they could create with their gifts as they aged and instead issued mediocre albums, bad volumes of poetry and starred in elaborately awful movies as they lived off the remains of a what was once charisma. Now many were merely famous, better suited for Hollywood Squares. Our friend Seger didn't get that summary of middle aged duties though; a deep if not profound thinker, the singer here reflects on what he's done so far, seems the length he still needs to go to achieve his career goals, and with the songs on Seven, lets his audience know he's more than a bit burned out, more than a little cynical, just a little pissed off to have toured, recorded and endured so much grief in the search for American success for so little gain. The songs reflect it, and this is ,I believe, a fine bit of wit and honesty gere. He's a bit of an asshole, a jerk, a heart of gold that can sometimes go cold and become brutish in spirit , not kind, giving, not a hippie ethic in sight. He is not Lou Reed nor Dylan , but rather more like Chuck Berry or John Fogarty if they dropped the crowd pleasing grins and shared some of their culminated aggravation with their respective crowds of fans.  Seger doesn't wear funny hats, tight pants showing the width of his rig, or bandy about the stage gasping and wheezing, acting like the power of the music has possessed his soul. No, Seger is content to sing his hard rock straight forward, letting the rough-edges supply its own excitement. 

And Seger is a singer of such manic power as to lay to rest forever all the inept rabble-rousing Slade, Foghat and Humble Pie indulge in. Seger has his finger on the rock and roll pulse—beat. "Get Out of Denver “opens the album, a Chuck Berry chop done the way Berry meant it—fast, intense and over with, quick. The truck driver as dope smuggler theme makes a believable image of a Semi hauling ass down a Midwest highway from a slew of county sheriff’s cars. "Need Ya" is a great lift from the Faces' "It's All Over Now." Seger's voice is breathless and hoarse, laden with an obvious base desire while some slippery slide guitar from Jim McCarty riffs under it. "School Teacher" is the weak link in the album's progression. Neither the rapid redundancy nor Seger's all stops pulled grate manage to salvage this nothing exercise. Fortunately, this fluke is one of a kind, and everything that follows is an ecstatic upward climb. "UMC (Upper Middle Class)" smacks of brilliance. Brandishing a mocking Mel Torme blues scamper while fine-tuning a witty, Mose Allison outlay of mid-century consumerism, Seger announces that he wants All the Money and everything it can buy.Why not? One can sing the blues convincingly if one's led a wretched life to back up bragging about hard times. But who sings about wanting to be poor? Seger at once lampoons his white culture and expresses a universal aspiration anyone with an eye for better things can identify with. 

"Seen A Lot Floors" is a great rock and roll touring song, a terse blues grunt whose matter of fact lyrical sparseness amplifies its meaning. "Seen a lot of flooooors....Seen a lot of dooooors " shouts Seger, letting the words drop into an oblivion of existential negation. The details of toad life—the motels, the groupies, the larger than humanly tolerable concert halls— all become an amorphous drug drenched blur. A Jim McCarty guitar solo starting with a ruthlessly stretched harmonic enters, followed by  drawling, rasping sax solo, returning bluntly to Seger's bone-tired voice. Indicative maybe that after a while even the music ceases to have meaning, that it becomes part of the systematized routine that earns the artist a living. "Floors" is great. "20 Years from Now" is the only let up in the up tempo phases of SEVEN, a mawkish love song crammed to the gills with Van Morrison phrasing. But the song is worth the listening effort, if only to hear Seger squeeze his words in an affected (but effective) Otis Reddingisms. 

The last song, "All Your Love," again cops from the Faces. The guitar chords are chunky, metallic without approaching heavy metal, and Seger's phrasing cleanly takes from Rod Stewart without once suggesting imitation. Bob Seger is his own man, able to take from any number of mainstream rock sources and use them to his own best advantage SEVEN fires no innovating trails in the history of rock and roll, but at least it's honest, which is more than you have a right to expect from a scene dominated with disposable personas.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

sometimes the good music finds you

Image result for Miles Davis and Sonny StittIn the seventies, while a young man appropriately bored with the slamming two-dimensional dynamics of late-period jazz-rock (which had morphed into a stylized arena of tick-rock riffing termed "fusion" that was monotony incarnate), I ventured forth into older jazz forms, bop, swing, big and, Ellington, Davis, Mingus, people who swung over unpredictable tempos and fantastic chords. It was a love affair that never hasn't stopped yet. Curiously, though, I formed jazzbo attitudes about artists I hadn't heard, a phenomenon not uncommon among some of us desperate for a hip reputation. 

You followed the herd-thinking. What I heard was that alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt was nothing but a low down Charlie Parker imitator, technically adept and adroit in extemporizing over a 6/8 time breakdown of a popular tune, but he was a technician only, without a soul. I went with that for years and dug into my Miles Davis phase, binging over a the late eighties and nineties on as Much MD as I could afford, everything from what he'd done as a sideman with Bird and through his various labels as band leader, from the hard bop session he'd done, through the modal experiments and into the blistering jazz-rock he created., noting , as well, the history of his saxophone players, a fine fettle of reed geniuses: George Coleman,Cannonball Adderley,Gerry Mulligan,John Coletrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Dave Leibman. Nothing but the best for Miles. I was one of those who scoured the used CD bins, looking for my preferred artists and one day, lo! I came across a record titled "Walkin':A Jazz Hour With Miles Davis" on released on the now-defunct economy label Laserlight. Featuring a previously unavailable live performance in Europe in the Fifties, this was not the classic earlier studio album "Walkin'" (a one of MDs many masterpieces) , but so what, it was Davis live and on sale. Reading the personal, all seemed worth the purchase despite the misdirection of the title, as it highlighted, worthies like pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on drums, Jimmy Cobb on drums, on saxophone...Sonny Stitt?? The plagiarist , the rip off artist, the Parker wannabe? The man I relegated to the minor leagues without endeavoring to hear what he played like? With Miles? 

This wasn't so earth shaking a revelation as I might want to make it sound and , of course, I didn't ask myself that sequence of disbelieving questions presented in incomplete sentences. I was curious and bough the record. I was more than pleasantly pleased with the hard bop brilliance of the band--Miles Davis of this period is essentially flawless as he applies to his muted, modulated, middle register approach to the hard charging changes this fine band challenges him with--and came to the conclusion that Sonny Stiff had been given the short shrift as a musician. The resemblance to Parker are there, undeniable, and it's understandable how jazz snobs of the time, wanting to consecrate jazz as America's art music in opposition to the tradition of European classicism and establish both canon and criteria for our best gift to the world, would deride particular players, diminish them in stature without fair estimation in an effort to create standards for an emerging aesthetics. Understandable and unfair, because what I discovered was a musician of envious fluidity and lyric invention within his scope as an improviser who could negotiate steeple-chase tempos and obstacle course chord progressions with precision and yet never, or at least rarely lose a song's melodic nuance ; for all the high-velocity bravura bop-related jazz musicians are known for, Stitt had a ribbony, sweetly undulating method of teasing notes and shading their sounded presence with variations within the pitch, a legacy from the blues that maintains a vocal quality, a sharp note of surprise as the solo unfolds. Stitt, in any regard, was not a soulless technician.Whatever debt he owed to Charlie Parker is nearly besides the point; the style is something Stitt took possession and made it his means to express something that, in itself, was beyond race, economics and the general ugliness mere existence weights us with; it is simply beautiful and exciting music made by a musician who deserves to be reexamined for his best recorded moments.