Monday, November 22, 2021



Hey, Joe by the Byrds on their 1966 Fifth Dimension album. This song was recorded by too many bands over the decade, and there is not much difference among the 50 or so versions I'm aware of. The reason I was drawn to the song as a naive teen was because it broke the mode the cycle of love-sick Gene Pitney/Leslie Gore pop melodies and melodramas that dominated my conscious mind at the time and gave me and other unsuspecting youth a taste of a real tragedy concerning the consequences of cheating on one's partner. 

In this case, the cuckold wasn't going to sob and bleed all over the carpet as would be the metaphorical case for Pitney or Gore. Instead, this fellow answers questions from an inquiring pal about what his game plan is, and Joe makes it plain, he's going to get a gun and shoot her dead. That's getting proactive in the worst sense of the word. I was aware that it didn't put women in the best light and would hardly suffice as an example in problem resolution. Years later, after bitter experience and summary reeducation by sharp females who tolerated my foibles, I became aware of the idea of misogyny, the outright hatred of women. I've been trying to mend my ways ever since. 

But at the time, I was engrossed by the sheer drama of it all, the portrait of a lonely guy so anemic in self-esteem that he would rather kill his cheating girlfriend than calm down, feel the feelings, and seek another less destructive path. The one thing I would say as regards anything resembling a defense of the song's treatment of women was that it was an introduction to the idea that emotions are not only dramatic but infinitely and witlessly complex as it goes. It was part of education. But as we say, quantity changes quality, and the surfeit of versions of the renditions leeched the drama from the lyrics and made the ascending chord progression less a measure of tension building than it was a model of metronomic monotony. 

 But the Byrds version is unique concerning the tempo, which is jacked to nearly punk-pogo dynamics and David Crosby's vocal, which is breathless and sounds winded and excited on adrenaline as would a criminal who had, as the lyrics let on, shot his wife. Forget the sultry and soulful writer of the ballads Everyone's Been Burned or Guinivere, the tunes of sensitive minstrels rhyming away life's ironies. Hey Joe is a blunt revenge fantasy, and Crosby sounds wicked, a man who wants blood. But the biggest payoff is Roger McGuinn's twelve-string work, which aligns itself with that Coltrane-inspired note clustering he did for Eight Miles High. He riffs throughout the tune, swift, jabbing riffs, odd chord accents, more jabbing and dissonant riffing, a busy counterpoint to the pulsing bass, the earnest cowbell throughout, the bated vocalisms: this has the drama that comes at that moment when watching a two-story house on fire and the structure collapses in unredeemable sparks. This is the best version of the song ever released.

Sunday, November 21, 2021



It wasn't hip at all to like Blue Cheer when their 1968 debut Vincibus Eruptum was released. It was the usual accusations as the established critics expressed their disgust. Out of tune, they cannot play their instruments, unbelievably bad imitations of Hendrix and Cream. Some of us liked what these three guys were doing, though.I liked them precisely for the reason that others hated them for, for being atonal, loud, feedback, distorted in ways that had nothing to do with conventional ideas of texture and musical color and everything to do with making you aware of the nature of the sound, which sheer electricity wielded by some angry and impatient men eager to make a noise where there was stultifying silence previously. Blue Cheer was the perfect band for the coming age of speed freakery. The chemical essence wants to take things apart and then reassemble them rapidly, haphazardly, inspired, and excited momentarily by new combinations of components be had from that which was gutted. Like it or not, something new was occurring here, and it was something that could only happen if the players--Dickie Peterson bass and vocal, Leigh Stephens guitar, Paul Whaley drums--had more than a competent grasp of their instruments.

I was introduced to the solar skronk and abrasive swing of Sun Ra at the time through many visits to the Grande Ballroom and developed a taste for the mind fuckery of free-jazz that came from Coltrane Pharaoh Sanders, Ayler, Coleman. It helped that WABX, the FM underground station in Detroit, played some black Avant grade music. So I found similarities between what Blue Cheer was doing and the esteemed black musicians who (may have ) influenced them. The band may well have had no idea of what they were doing conceptually, and the conceit is mine alone. Still, all the same, Blue Cheer handily deconstructed the entire power trio format, pushing into to its three or four-chord limit with long jams that were groaning, grainy, belching, aggressive nonlinear improvisations keyed to only emotion.

They were to the power trio what Neal Cassady was to drive. I consider Dick Peterson an able, if not great, bassist. Still, unquestionably, one of the most terrific white-blues screamers of all time--his singing was rage, self-pity, and uncontrollable impulse fused in each frayed, corrosive syllable he spat out.
  His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the groundwork for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTORHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk, couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electrified abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strings of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations were the perfect match, screech, rasp, and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch. His was the rusty yowl that deserved to be praised and dreaded for the unflinching combination of fear and rage it represented. 

Leigh Stephens' broadsides were genuinely beautiful cascades of dissonance, pulverizing atonal breaks, the emphasis on pulverizing. I saw these guys at the Grande as well. It seems to me that I think about it decades later that this was not a man of sub-competence flailing and noodling about the frets, but someone who knew what he wanted to sound like and could get the result he desired, and that he was someone who could duplicate that sound on command.

Paul Whaley, in turn, had the most expansive, most enormous, most sledgehammer-like drumming style of the period. His sound was of every building and bridge that ever collapsed under its own weight. This is to say that I think the first two Blue Cheer albums need to be reconsidered.

Saturday, November 13, 2021


Soulful, soul searching, soul-bearing, soul matching, all terms to describe the singer-songwriters who write tunes less as candidates for hard rotation on the radio or various streaming services and more like updates on their status psyches. Much of it is endearing and attractive, depending on the artist's melodic craft and canny poetics we might be considering. Joni Mitchell? Yes. Paul Simon? Of course. Jackson Brown? Perhaps, provided what here from him is low dosage and brief. A little bit of information from the annals of someone’s psychic equilibrium goes a long way. There is a propensity among many a self-revealing artist to overshare, to dwell, to paint their remembrance in thick coats of idealized colors. Ecstasy or perpetual despair. 

Made in Ojai by the duo Smitty and Julija (Smitty West and Julija Zonic), it is a tuneful disc, well-produced, lushly arranged, and highlighting the soulful vocals from the pair. The record is a mixed bag of results, with a few of the songs taking a long time to evolve into something more intriguing. “I Just Wanna Sing this Song with You” begins with doleful piano, simple arpeggio figures that dwell a shade too long, with the song easing in slowly to some crystalline vocal harmonies from West and Zonic. It is, though, a longish ballad of laying one’s heart to the glorious presence of another. The duo’s harmonies elevate the words and soar over the hesitant piano in the choruses, infusing the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. This song, though, drags when, I think, it should pick up the pace and rhythmically engage a listener in their joy, and regrettably, this is an element that hampers many of the other songs. Particularly the next song, “Let Her Go,” where the philosophical lesson of letting go of past loves, regrets, and missed opportunities to grow are lost in what becomes inevitable tedium.

Zonic has a fascinatingly vulnerable voice, suggesting a quiver, a quake, a certain fragility that suggests a trammeled soul that has gathered its wits and finds the words, the voice, the eventual wisdom to push on over the horizon. One wishes the song were more melodically proactive in the sentiment and less dirge-like. A listener exhausted by the excess of earnestness through these songs can take a rest with a nice bit of amusement, a tune called  “Trust Fund Hippy.”This is a  suitably and incisive dig into an obnoxious hipster indulging his counter-culture aesthetic with inherited money, oblivious to his own absurdity. Following suit, the music is up-tempo, with an old-time feeling, rather remindful of the Phil Ochs classic “Outside a Small Circle of Friends.” There is quite a bit to enjoy and admire in Made in Ojai, but one does wish they would have varied the fare, taken it beyond the confession box they seem comfortable in, and engaged their wittier instincts.

Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021



In a feature in the current issue of Slate, Jack Hamilton adds some lighter fluid to the controversy slowly boiling over who was the better wordsmith for the Beatles, Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Not coincidental with the release of the pricy two-volume, slip-cased set The Lyrics where McCartney describes his authorship of  150 songs both for the Beatles and other projects, Hamilton, as one could expect, bucks conventional wisdom and argues that Sir Paul was the superior lyricist. Do you remember any time in your younger life when you wax incessantly, continuously, and oppressively about one album, one particular album, was the greatest album ever made and that super-great album is a work of art unlike any other we've ever seen as a species and the likes of which we will ever seen again? Do you remember forgetting about that extra-fantastic disc and then listening to years , maybe decades later, and then realizing it hasn't traveled through the ages as well as you claimed? And remember what you said at the time? 

I remember my hyperbolic tantrums arguing the genius of many records I have since abandoned to resale shops long ago. That is what Hamilton's defense of McCartney's lyrics for the Beatles read like, a gushy mash note. Of course, the man had a way with words, but...please calm down... Like anyone else obsessed with what the Beatles have accomplished and how it was that they created a body of work without peer, I've dived into the weeds to determine who had the more outstanding mind and pen, John or Paul. After much scrutiny, cogitating, late nights scanning lyric sheets wearing headphones while the Beatles blared loudly and made my hearing even worse than it was, my conclusion is that it's a draw between the two. 

As for songwriting partners and as lone authors of single songs while in the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney seemed an evenly matched pair as lyricists, with McCartney having a substantial edge for composing engaging and deceptively simple melodies. Lennon, to be sure, could write a lovely song as well and do so throughout the band's lifetime, but  McCartney has the advantage. As Beatle lyricists,  one can strongly argue that the two were equal for fluidity and agility of expression. Their distinct personalities gave the metaphorical Beatle Universe (with some exemplary additional contributions from George Harrison) a remarkably fresh and finally unpredictable take on the human experience.  McCartney was a fine lyricist with the Beatles, and I'd even agree brilliant at times. Still, I believe the old saw that Sir Paul's best abilities as lyricist and melodist may well have remained dormant if Lennon hadn't become such a significant presence in his creative undertakings. And yes, I would agree Lennon might have remained yet another Rocker doomed for inevitable anonymity if he hadn't made McCartney's acquaintance.  This will, without doubt, be argued about till the end of time.  Notably, McCartney has been showing concern over his legacy as he approaches his final curtain, wanting the world to realize the weight of actual contribution to the Beatles' longevity, perhaps even a desire to take Lennon's reputation as the superior lyricist and intellect down a peg or two. 

'Though fueled by resentment, I suspect,  there is no getting away from the fact that the solo efforts by Lennon and McCartney, including struggles with Plastic Ono Band and Wings respectively, are depressingly substandard considered against the work they'd done for the Beatles.  Of course, both bodies of post-Beatles music have pockets of the old magic, charisma, wit, and melodic bite. Still, Lennon had descended from the ranks of an artist to becoming merely a Professional Celebrity, an amazingly clueless personality whose lyric acumen was now little else but sloganeering no more subtle than a bumper sticker. McCartney, in turn, couldn't seem to write a cohesive song anymore; his song structures were erratic, jarring, disjointed, too often coming less well than office buildings abandoned during construction. His lyric writing was gibberish, and those who want to defend the words he wrote for Wings are doomed to come off as foolish wishful thinkers.