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.
The album is to be felt, not understood. It's a visceral experience. The lyrics defied literal interpretation but still resonated with you in ways that made you think of your circumstances that defy the easy explanation. “Queen Jane Approximately”stands out for the opposite reasons; the language is simple, direct, and sharp. The lyrics, with only the lightest surreal tint attached to them, investigate a purely human experience. The stanzas are an inventory of interpersonal failures, the collapse of a world upon someone who imagined they were the center of it. Being the center of the universe is too much because gravity will eventually crush you.
When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father, to your sister, he explains
That you're tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
The basic idea is that we have a personality at the center of this entreaty, someone suffering the agonies of frustration, unfulfilled dreams, incredible, horrible ennui who, it seems, has been in stasis for a very long time. We are hearing someone assessing how their life has gone wrong and what choices made have to make it a different and more beneficial situation, a contemplation so severe that we witness, I suspect, the "paralysis of analysis." The estrangement of even the most severe narcissist from the self-gratifying, self-admiring activities that gave them their most precious reason to live which drags one to the bottom floor of their devastated justification to continue breathing the same air as the rest of us: a life in tatters, shattered, cursed with an acute view of self-designed schemes, agendas, world-classifying agendas that failed one after another, Queen Jane, we suppose, is slump-shouldered, smoking too many cigarettes, engaging in various means of self-destruction by the inch. Dylan's narrator, a former lover, perhaps, a jilted suitor who realizes what a full-blown mess this person is and yet still desires company, intimacy, still strives to be a rock to anchor her despair upon, offers himself, his fellowship, his support quite despite all the sharply described failures he recounts as he makes his offer.
Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
This is Dylan's lyric writing at its best, a bit disgusted, surreal in ways that match the speechless experiences of the soul without the lard of banal introspection. There is an endearing and enduring. This is fatalism and "Queen Jane Approximately" is discreetly the song of a man who is a glutton for punishment. Even without the profession of unconditional love, there is the sense of a young man deep in his intoxication. He imagines himself as a saint, a martyr for a more significant cause, the delicious delusion that one has an inexhaustible store of patience to accept the consequences of loving a person committed to making decisions based on self and garnering misery and self-pity as the reward. This is a preview of a tragedy under construction. The suitor being as damaged as the woman he is making his overtures.
Now, when all the clowns that you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you're sick of all this repetition
Won'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.
Friday, June 4, 2021
Rock snobbery has been going on ever since the first white kid ventured into the black part of his home town and bought some obscure black music from a record store where the good tunes were available, and however the music is distributed there is going to be a permanent and localized set of zealots who think their enshrined and personally blessed musical canon is not to be fucked with, never to be questioned, never to be to surpassed. In many ways it is no less intense and crazy as music, except with better guitar solos.
It’s been debated for years as to what caused rock and roll’s fall from grace , that source that caused a revolutionary force for change become no more than more material for Corporate minds to sell us back our own history. It had been though that intellectuals were the source, the critics who wanted rock and roll to be more than a Life Force and become instead an adjunct for literature, philosophy, political discourse. All the troubles that were aroused in American during the Sixties seemed to constitute the formation of a Great Resistance to what were seen as the connected and overlapping sins of War, Oppression, and morbid materialism, and it was rock and roll that united all the energy and shaped into an energy with which positive altering of the world could be made. Or so the thinking went as the writers went to work, mapping out rock and roll’s guiding lights in a prose that borrowed from many an abstract discourse.
The problem, as remarked by Barry Alfonso, isn't that rock has fallen from favor or has died, but is, rather, no longer at the center of a fan's universe. With the advent of the internet and the technologies that have made access to styles absurdly convenient, the generation defining sturm and drang is merely another flavor on the menu of musical genres that listeners listen to. From appearences and what I've heard , the music is as furious and impassioned as it ever has been--the ferocity of amplified chord bashing speaks across generational lines. The difference is that virtually no one thinks that particular albums or emerging artists constitute an Historical Moment, an Epochal Event. Albums get reviewed, the notices appear in small comment boxes on internet portals, and the music is downloaded, hopefully purchased, just as likely not, and that's it. The rattle and thrash goes right down the sink hole, although one can barely discern the sound of guitars, fading drumbeats and a screaming lead singer dissapating as the experience of the increases. We don't remember what it is we've just listened to. But still go about our way acting like this stuff still matters it used to, when there were only television and the movies to compete for our entertainment dollars.
Somewhere the life force and vitality was sucked out; it was no longer about what you felt from a drum beat or a pounded chord on an electric guitar; rock and roll was no a catechism you had to learn. What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, weren’t rock critics, but rather fans that bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listener’s retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience whose tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown explainable or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make album go double platinum. But let’s forget that everyone gets old, the brain is rearranged in endless ways since the time of youthful impulse, the world requires a more pragmatic approach to changing it. Living within the world becomes more important. It could also be as simple that our tastes change.
Punk is racist because it eschews black influences? It may be a matter of style, and that preference may have its roots in some lumpy, swirling matrix of cultural forces one may term "racist" in some inconclusive, knot-headed reliance on aimless lefty jargon, but the exclusion of African American influence in a music does not make it "inherently racist" as you rather narrowly maintain, nor does it make it "stupid". Given the particulars, that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy , partisan fans can imagine-- may chose, independently , non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap.
I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if some one has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What would be more useful is some harder thinking, less flame-throwing generalities, and crisper distinctions, starting here.
What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
Rather, I think its criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine futurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit / Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise. My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.
Rock, like the blues, its closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Literary Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel. Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivity of art making, be it music or something else.The crux of the argument is that the Garden of Eden was nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, and that, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is demonstrably empty of content.
Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop along side 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 business man, 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 market place 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 the thinner skinned among us are stressed 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 exorcise 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.
It's my suspicion 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. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. As music and musicians have always done.
Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarians of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.
Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo's portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.
Monday, May 31, 2021
Unresponsible Black Nite Crash
the united states is Not soundproof – you might think that nothing can reach those tens of thousands living behind the wall of dollar – but your fear Can bring in the truth … picture of dirt farmer – long johns – coonskin cap – strangling himself on his shoe – his wife, tripping over the skulls – her hair in rats – their kid is wearing a scorpion – the scorpion wears glasses – the kid, he’s drinking gin – everybody has balloons stuck into their eyes – that they will never get a suntan in mexico is obvious – send your dollar today – bend over backwards … or shut your mouths forever
the bully comes in – kicks the newsboy
you know where – & begins ripping away
The book goes on like this, one-liners of light bulb brilliance extended to the breaking point of where all associations are gone, and the brain is dead with the ravages of whatever drugs were being passed around the tour bus and found their way into the hotel room. All that can be done in the center of the night when the rest of the hotel room is either asleep or murmuring their own serenades to the dawn no one is sure will for them is to type, even more, an attempt to fill the page with a verbal world that is rhythm, cadence and shattered images crushed together in a representation of the existence that assaults the senses when exhaustion is passed by. Consciousness seems to hover by a delicate string between one last grand illumination and the final resolute darkness.
Well, yes, if you made through that tortured sentence and its unhinged and perhaps uninteresting associations, you correctly detect a hint of parody in my construction or lack of building. This is to suggest that the fault of the Dylan book is not his exuberance as word slinger or the genius he has at his most manic moments to come up with a punctuated stammer that resides very close to poetic genius--no, the fault is the mistake many a young man or woman jacked up on drugs and coffee and unfiltered cigarettes, that is the attempt to live in a permanent present tense. No past, no future, just right now, always, just us, the things in the room or in the street, things with names or no names, just us seeing, uttering names, and slapping the labels on anything that does not match. Good poetry takes time to...catch its breath, reflect, to...discover things, ideas, connections, what have you, the would-be bard hadn't the slightest idea existed in any sense. As startling as Tarantula's language seems at first, it stops surprising you even in the book's short length because the writing itself seems the very thing from which writing, as a process, was supposed to for a period free you from distractions. The writing seems a distraction. One might compare the book entirely to the proverbial over-stuff pantry that finally bursts open through the doors.
He needed to wrap up his investigations into his more obscure imaginings. He gave you something to talk about. Tarantula was written on the road, in hotel rooms, on tour, rattled off in high doses of speed, and maybe other drugs too inane to bother talking about, and it certainly reads like it, snub-nosed Burroughs, Kerouac without the jivey swing. Some parts make you laugh, some good lines abound. Still, it suffers in that readers wanted their hero, the poet of their generation, to write a genuinely good of poetry or some such thing, with true believers tying themselves in self-revealing knots to defend the book that is interesting as an artifact to the historical fact of Dylan's fame and influence and not much else. There is a part I like, effective as poetry, a bit of self-awareness that shows that Dylan realizes that his persona is false, a conspiracy between himself and the major media and that somewhere in the future, he might have to account for the construction of the whole matter.
Friday, May 7, 2021
Live at the Bee Hive - Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Columbia)