Overall, the whole phenomenon of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer was a fever that took too long to run its course. For all their mechanical onanism, they did at times amuse or impress me to an extent. After all, musicians as good as these fellows were had to be do something appealing from time to time. Tarkus, their second studio album, was such an extreme example of unplayable, undanceable, unlistenable, jig-sawing time signatures that I wound up respecting it as something wherein we have a band that accomplished exactly what they set out to do, produce a loud, grinding, smoke and spark belching bit of unloveable Avant gard music. I would assert that if a college music department had their resident experimental music ensemble take up this album as a proposed project in search of some grant money, it would come pouring it. That is to say that its very unlovability fits right in with much more contemporary noisemakers at the edges of listenability. Also, these fellows had the chutzpah to take Copeland's sacrosanct "Hoe-Down" and turn it into a keyboard-dominated speed metal blitz. We must all insist that Copeland be played as Copeland wished, and yet one must also admit that it's often great fun to speed something up from it's intended tempo and observe how well the framework holds.
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Friday, September 24, 2021
Those hungering for a history of rock and roll's glory days, ala the Sixties, should latch onto a copy of Ed Ward's book Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero. Ward, a long-time music historian, and journalist, was one of the original record reviewers in the early days of Rolling Stone is direct, concise, accurate in detail and brimming with breathtaking insights for their clarity. Ward's no-fuss, no-frills style serves his subject well, as Michael Bloomfield, arguably the first guitar hero, is a nearly forgotten man in the discussion of how rock guitar evolved.
While Eric Clapton won praise and glory for his chops in 1966 as the featured player on John Mayall's Blues Breakers album, Bloomfield was already turning heads with this spiky fretwork on Dylan's 1965 effort Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan had abandoned folk for rock, and Bloomfield was instrumental in creating a new kind of music; it was nothing anyone had heard before. Later that same year, he was highlighted on the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band record, an integrated band out of Chicago that brought black blues back into the spotlight.
It was an unbeatable and volatile combination. Bloomfield's fluid, biting style dominated the disc; audiences and reviewers raved and wrote about the guitarist, not the bandleader. Bloomfield was the marvel, the toast among fans and critics, a white Jewish kid from Chicago suburbs who'd learned his trade from the Masters. It's an old story; somewhat stale as you approach it to create a narrative, but it has the benefit of being accurate in considerable measure. Bloomfield was that good a musician; he was that important an innovator, his blend of blues-raga-jazz-and traditional was that far ahead of its time. It was a fast rise to the top, a sequence of memorable albums and live dates, and then a long slide into comparable obscurity. Ward makes the case that Mike Bloomfield is an artist whose influence still matters today.
Ward accomplishes setting up a story of the young Bloomfield, a young man in the Chicago suburbs and the son of a successful businessman, discovering the blues and seeking out the musicians who played it, Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, and B.B.King. Always restless and impatient with his progress, Bloomfield jumped between many styles, from Chuck Berry rock and roll to Chicago Blues, country blues, and jazz, learning the riffs, the phrases, and the subtle embellishments of each style. Particularly fascinating are the variety of circumstances with which he became acquainted with other white musicians obsessed with black blues music, in Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravesites, Charlie Musselwhite. In quick succession, the guitarist was in the spotlight for his work with Dylan and the acclaimed he drew for his blistering fretwork on the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album. With the release of that band's second album, East/West, the consensus seemed to be that Bloomfield was the finest guitarist on the planet, with the band in considerable measure leaving the traditional blues styles they'd been interpreting behind and extending themselves in extended improvisations. Key to this was a swinging workout on Nat Alderfly's "The Work Song" elevated by Bloomfield's fluid single-note lines. But what closed the deal on Bloomfield's reputation was the title track, a 13-minute raga/drone improvisation influenced by John Coltrane's integration of Indian classical music techniques into his register-jumping flights. The center of the piece was Bloomfield, extemporizing in a manner that was a curious but entrancing mixture of both his jazz and raga influences; this was the guitar solo that raised the bar perilously high for other players.
Ward goes through Bloomfield's career highlights and low points, using a series of effectively placed quotes from those who knew and worked with him to contextualize the problematic musician's life. He was a manic personality, perpetually ill at ease, starting projects and abandoning projects in quick order, blazing through stints with Butterfield, The Electric Flag, Muddy Waters, Al Kooper, KGB, John Hammond Jr., and Dr.John. There were so many promising starts, so many abrupt departures. Audiences took him for granted; critics started awarding him negative reviews. By his admission, Bloomfield's heroin use eroded his skills as a guitarist to the extent that he ceased playing altogether for a period. Ward details the effects of drugs on his work and admirably resists the urge to sermonize, lecture, or otherwise wring his hands over the murky circumstances about Bloomfield's death from a drug overdose in 1981. The loss of a gifted musician too early in his life is effectively conveyed. Ward has laid out the progress of Bloomfield's life of music-making, from a naïve but engaged kid from the suburbs seeking out his heroes in the bars of Southside Chicago to an artist making his way through the mad eddies and inviting distractions of the Sixties to counter culture. Detailed, wise, free of babble and cant, Ward represents this master musician wonderfully and respectfully. He does not sensationalize this life but celebrates the music; Michael Bloomfield played a blues that still moves the soul.
Bob Dylan performed at New York's esteemed Carnegie Hall, for which he additionally wrote the program notes. Titled My Life in a Stolen Moment, it's a long, rambling length of free verse poetry that is an intriguing example of Dylan juvenilia. A self- conscious and entirely awkward combination of Beat style first-thought-best-thought idea and the unlettered eloquence of the deep feeling poor white, it purports to be the true telling of Dylan's upbringing in small-town Minnesota.It's not a reliable document. As an autobiography, I wouldn't trust a word of it. Dylan embellished his story from the beginning. Inconsistencies and incongruities in his stated timeline were noted early on. I remember that Sy and Barbara Ribakove were suspicious of Dylan's accounting of his life back in 1966 with their book "Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story." All the fabulation has certainly given a couple of generations of Dylan obsessives much to sift through and write books about. It's a poem, of course, but not a good one. What had always irritated me about Dylan's writing was his affectation of the poor, white rural idiom. It's dreadful, unnatural sounding as you read it (or listen to it from his early recordings). While it's one thing to be influenced by stories of hobo life, the Great Depression, and to use the inspiration to find one's uniquely expressive voice as a writer or poet, what Dylan does here ranks as some of his most pretentious, awkward, and preening writing. One can argue in Dylan's defense with the vague idea of negative capability, but that holds water only if the writing is great and the writer is possessed by genius. Of course, Dylan is/was a genius, but this was something he wrote when he was merely talented and audacious. Genius hadn't bloomed yet. This bucolic exercise has always been an embarrassment, juvenilia that sounds juvenile.
Friday, September 3, 2021
(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour in 2017. Used with kind permission).
The aspect of Page’s singing that grabs me is the way he varies his emphasis, line by line, never losing the golden tone but seeming to sense how a change how a line is sounded, waxing poetic with a quivering warble on one image and then undercutting his own regret with an ironic aside by lightening his approach, lifting his voice up to an optimistic pitch. It is, over and over, Page’s theme that we’re wedded to the past and cannot forget who and what we have loved and lost, but those memories cannot be allowed to turn us into bitter and grouchy layabouts.
More than once, he declares the fundamental lesson that our experiences make us who we are and that there is nothing to do but go on and embrace the life that unfolds in front of us. He is, of course, and speaking for himself and his own fanciful recollections and insights, but the songwriter-songwriter is so adept at his craft and presentation that there isn’t a hint of self-pity. Page is a fatalist, perhaps, but he is not a defeatist.
The album’s title, So It Goes, is a refrain from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse 5, repeated at various points when the story’s events undermine the vain philosophies of the protagonists; despite plans and preparation, life itself upsets one’s agenda and puts one in a position to reflect and rethink and create a reason to get back in the game.