Thursday, July 22, 2021
Wednesday, July 14, 2021
Rock is subject to and suitable for analytical methods derived from literary studies and criticisms. It was proclaimed that rock and pop lyrics were the new poetry in the Sixties, and though not many writers have made a big deal over that issue lately, the close reading, interpretation and subjective critique of lyrics is central for the majority of rock writers to this day, regardless of the genres they prefer. There are areas where musical knowledge is helpful in assessing how well a band writes songs, does its arrangements, and how well (or how poorly) their instrumental skills accomplish their intentions. All that , though, is in service to matters of attitude, world view, social impact, the expression of experience. Rock lyrics, like real poetry, try to express the unexpressable in terms of the unforgettable, to paraphrase John Ciardi.
Audiences want songs they can "relate" to on some visceral level, and applying literary habits of mind to the lyrics seems the surest way to comprehend what a lyricist is trying to tell the masses. Jazz is pretty much a different matter, as it has been around for over a century constantly evolving, morphing, with succeding generations of jazz players adding their innovations to a rich and complex history. As jazz players and composers constantly cite, musically, works and styles that came before them and adapt them for more contemporary use, writing about jazz, either as journalist or critic, requires a working knowledge of the forms, the styles, the players ...one could on and on about this.
Jazz has become America's Art Music, our own version of the European classical traditions , and though it might come across as knee-jerkingly elitist to say, I think it's the obligation of anyone who wants to write competently rendered reviews and analysis of jazz to know the music evolution and history, have familarity with styles, to know the canon, the landmark recordings, the iconic innovators. Rock and roll criticism can be as rigorous as one wants to be, but there is a large amount of room for hot-takes and other ways of winging it ; the impulse of many rock writers through the decades has been to become known as literary writers of some measure, hence a lot of prose has been written under the guise being a critique that is more about the writer's emtional life than the actual music or the artist. This approach borders on outright autobiography, and is valid only if the writer has had a life quite different than most people, and if they write sufficiently well to hold a reader's interest. Lester Bangs kind of exhausted that method (not always to good effect).Jazz writing leaves no room for those indulgences or flourishes. One can study and speak of jazz in larger cultural/political framework, but that is a matter done best if , again, the writer has knowledge, more than passing, of musical traditions and how jazz was an effective element in changing the musical and social landscape.
Tuesday, July 13, 2021
I have a number of live Cream bootlegs, and the quality of the playing from night to night varies wildly. Much of that is due to the fact that Bruce and Baker considered themselves jazz musicians above all else and were going to play around with three , sometimes four chord changes the way they would approach more complex and subtle things by Mingus or Dolphy. They played around with the beat, playing every coherent note that related to the chords, rather than lock into the changes like must rock rhythm sections did and give the singer / lead player a solid and dependable backing while they performed. I give Clapton credit for what he was able to do with the dueling improvisations Jack and Ginger were tossing at him.
On Spoonful, I'm so Glad and especially Crossroads (WoF and Goodbye releases) he upped his game and at times made his limitations a virtue. His machine gun ostinatos, rapidly picked, created excitement . But the bootlegs reveal the limits of the approach when you have a guitarist who is technically outclassed by the rhythm section. He repeats his ideas, his energy level obviously drops , his playing becomes messy, bad enough that you wish Larry Coryell or John McLaughlin were in the guitar spot and not poor Eric. And, lets be clear that Clapton was using an awful lot of heroin back in the day, a drug that never gave anyone musician a long term benefit.
A big guilty pleasure of mine is live Cream, especially this track, Spoonful, from Wheels of Fire. Sixteen minutes of loud, plodding, colliding, rolling, intermittingly brilliant riffing based on the two-chord Willie Dixon masterpiece. Jazzbos Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker , by Bruce's own admission, wanted Clapton to be their Albert Ayler. Clapton, alas, was just a blues guitarist with a great tone and solid sense of phrase and skilled in creating tension and release during a solo, but he wasn't a jazz player. He had, in fact, a pretty limited scope as a player, but in concert Bruce and Baker went to town on their lead player, shifting rhythms, playing counter melodies, weaving bass and drum patterns around Clapton's stunted -albeit gloriously expressed riffing. The style and temperament of the guitarist would have made for a different sound, for sure. Bloomfield could play the blues far better than could Clapton, but he was definitely jazzy, a man who does not get enough recognition for his contributions to jazz -rock fusion's creation with his work on EAST/WEST. The long improvisations would have been more fluid, jazzier. Something like I'm So Glad, for example, might have the guitar sound resemble Bloomfield's guitar break in the Electric Flag's "Another Country".
The maximal improvisations of Bruce and Baker forced Clapton to play harder, faster, slicing and dicing his minimalist blues playing, creating, in their best moments of hyped up jamming, a beautiful mesh of sonic assault. Spoonful is a amorphous mass of rampaging dissonance struggling to break free into some free jazz phantasm , but never growing the wings to soar as they must. The beauty was in how hard they tried to b e something more than a blues based band, encumbered by the fact that the blues wouldn't let them go. I get mocked for liking their live records much more than their studio efforts, but I don't care.
When your mother sends back all your invitationsAnd your father, to your sister, he explainsThat you're tired of yourself and all of your creationsWon't you come see me, Queen Jane?Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent youAnd the smell of their roses does not remainAnd all of your children start to resent youWon't you come see me, Queen Jane?Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Now, when all the clowns that you have commissionedHave died in battle or in vainAnd you're sick of all this repetitionWon't you come see me, Queen Jane?Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Sunday, July 11, 2021
Saturday, July 10, 2021
Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry is a song I go back to at times and wind up rediscovering what an amazing song it is all around, from the sad, simple melody, Gentry's smoky , country embossed vocal and the subtly insinuating string arrangement that actually manages to enhance the lyric's feeling of a small town's buried secrets.
While much has been made trying to decipher a lot of sophomore surrealism in the early years of lyrics-as-poetry , focusing on songs and albums that honestly haven't aged well over the decades, Gentry's stanzas are simple but not dumb, being convincingly idiomatic, a first person narration with a encroaching oddness worthy of Flannery O'Conner or Carson McCullers. Hemingway would have been impressed with the deceptive ease of the writing; there is no poetic language to adorn this tale, no lead-footed adverbs, no creaky stabs at philosophical sophistication. It's a one act play, nearly, in the guise of a single narrator's voice which recollects the gossipy tone, the snotty opinions on the behavior and character of others, the sudden intrusions of gestures or abrupt interruptions . "Ode to Billy Joe" has an intense air of the things, the facts, the truth of things not said . Someone in this room, around this table is doubtlessly dying to utter what will not be named , but the silence is maintained, the pact is kept. What is unsaid seems to suck the life out of the room, reducing family talk to empty, distracted banter.
It's a wonderful telling of a world we recognize, it has the quality of an intriguing conversation or snippy gossip we might lean closer to overhear. The setting of a family meal as the present tense location and the telling details--pass the black eyed peas, wipe your feet--and the fragmented chatter about Billie Jo McAllister which subtly brings you back in time to some blurrily recollected event--have a cinematic effect.There is a tragedy in this narrative that begs to be revealed, but Gentry, like the discussants in the song, isn't offering the big reveal. What works for the alluring mystery is that perhaps the song's narrator does not herself know anymore than anyone else around the or in the community. She tells what she knows in simple, effective language Hemingway would have admired, perhaps withholding information, keeping secrets, compelled by various small town mores to keep her mouth closed. This element of does-she-or-doesn't-she know something makes this song even more confounding.
Saturday, July 3, 2021
The Sixties died when rednecks starting wearing their hair long, and you knew that the bloom was forever off the rose for British rock and roll when the shag haircut morphed into the mullet, a style intended for the ambivalent white twenty somethings stranded between a gas station and a pancake shop just off the interstate who couldn't decide which was a better ideal to live up to, military respect or rebel-yell hoo-hah. As with a conflation of two bad choices, we have results that are worse than if one chose to do nothing at all. The mullet does not look good on anyone, at any time, in any era. Like much of American life itself, where the fabled opportunities and boundless avenues of choice have shrunk to the most scant options, the mullet is a haircut that isn't selected to someone so much as assigned, like a military issue. It's symbolic of one's willingness to dedicate themselves, in order, to family , flag, and God and yet retain the revolutionary spirit of our country's founding, a nice trick if you can manage it, but too often what we see are listless and angry young men working against their own interests, ready to bash gays, blacks, beat wives, girl friends, any one they suspect of being a terrorist merely because they don't resemble them in skin tone , speech, or accent. And perhaps also because they aren't wearing a mullet.