Saturday, April 29, 2023

Short notes


I witnessed Wall of Voodoo for the first time at the Urgh concerts in Santa Monica in 1980, sharing the bill with Pere Ubu, Dead Boys, Magazine,a wholly transformational encounter. The band applied the ticktock reductionist rhythms with a sense of apprehension. It was almost Hitchcockian, as in any scene when a nervous protagonist under duress hears an overly loud clock ticking away . "Ring of Fire" was masterfully drawn out, and Stan Ridgeway seemed to me the best talk-singer since Lou Reed , a flat, hardened monotone , leering and braced by a slight ironic tone, reflecting LA Noir no less than Marlowe. "I Can't Make Love" was my takeaway from the entire night, an underrated lament of A loser, battered on both sides by the lure and dispatch of the affection he craves. This is a lament of someone so saddled with self loathing that he can't complete a sentence. The pleading refrain of "I'm a nice guy" as the song fades is stark and stripped of illusion, it is Lear without the poetry. The abject despair and self-pity that's revealed is equal parts moving and repulsive, which is a remarkable accomplishment.


The Band's rendition of Tears of Rage, cowritten by Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel, ranks as one the greatest interpretations of a Dylan lyric ever to meet the public ear. One of Dylan's most subtle, evocative, and melancholy lyrics. It exhibits every strength he possessed as a wordsmith when he was at the height of his power, elliptical, diffuse, surreal in the way it can be a snapshot precise in detail and yet remain elusive as to final meaning. Richard Manual's melody, a brooding, and morphing tone poem with quirky shifts in emphasis and patterning and yet maintaining a gospelish flavor, and his vocal I find utterly heartbreaking in its suggestion of a rural family tragedy, incest, insanity. His singing is soulful and mournful , equal parts soul and country wail. He gives Dylan likely the best reading of one of his lyrics to grace vinyl.


In his 1969 book Rock from the Beginning, corrosive critic Nik Cohn maintained that Dylan wrote his best lyrics when he was being mean spirited and out to settle accounts in his rhymes. I'm inclined to agree in part with that; the Dylan who wanted to slay dragons, deliver payback and indict the previous generations for the foulness of the world they brought him into is the Dylan that wrote the most memorable lyrics and are the foundation to claims for his genius. In many ways, Like A Rolling Stone was a prototype for what eventually became rap , where the talking blues tradition Dylan emulated early on morphed to the sardonic talk-sung bray of "Rolling Stone" . And of course, there are several Dylan songs from the time that would fit the same description, Its Alright Ma, Masters of War, Gates of Eden, Desolation Row. But I thought Like a Rolling Stone in particular begged for a hip hop rendition, to how Dylan's dread, anger and agitated rhymes would hang with different generation's beats. 


1998's Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory was a project that should have worked but tragically did not. It seemed like a sure thing, two pop music masters in a team up that ought to have been magic .Instead, the enterprise got stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning, engine roaring uselessly. There is an insistence on medium ballads or funeral march ballads, sadder-than-dead fish torch songs. There is merit to a good number of them, as Bacharach is the Beethoven of ageless heartache, but the melancholy turns into a stupefying torpor. It had been remarked on point that Bacharach found his perfect vocalist in Dione Warwick, a singer with range, timing, and tone who could seamlessly negotiate the deceptively tricky turn arounds in his melodies. Not so with Costello, who overestimates his vocal abilities. Each song he sings, he attempts to hit the high notes at seemingly the same moment, as if he had a live magpie taped to his face. It's a horrible, piercing experience before long, and the rationale that it's a brave thing he's doing by using his limited apparatus for the lofty points on the sheet music won't cut ice. Bacharach, I recall, wrote a good number of spry up-tempo songs as well, and had a sense of humor. Perhaps he felt he needed to get serious now that he was getting some serious attention from critics because the acclaimed Costello deigned to work with him. Over time, the album is dour, gloomy, and utterly depressing; they should have canned half the songs and released only the truly memorable work. It would have been better if they remembered to bring their sense of humor to the sessions when they recorded this thing.

A better album, much better, is an earlier EC disc from 1986, King of America. Costello loves rummaging around in many genres, most of it being half-baked, over wrought, or atmospherically formless for the last decade. With country and western, his has been a case of trying too hard to get that stoically restrained emotionalism that is the genius of the truly great singers. This song, though, is where he gets it right. The melody is doleful , on the downbeat and yet brisk in tempo, the lyrics are a nicely constructed metaphor that sustains itself through each chorus, and Costello's singing is tuneful and free of the vocalistics he often mistakes for emotional dynamics. Here he sounds matter of fact, clear-headed, a little choked up as he admits the larger truth of a doomed love affair. The quivering near sob on the last lines is perfection.


Friday, April 28, 2023


 Honestly, I love critics who are smart and love the sound of their prose so much that they soak their subject in overripe, purplish grandiloquence, which makes getting to their usually inane insights a fun adventure in well-managed if excessively mannered evaluations of popular culture. The present example is the photograph accompanying his piece, a review of an Elvis Presley album by a G.C. Burke, no relation, in the May 1957 issue of High Fidelity magazine. (My thanks to music writer Mark Miller, who posted this intriguing specimen in a Facebook group dedicated to music journalism.) 

Perhaps not so oddly, I feel some kinship with Mr. Burke and wonder if he’s a distant and likely belated relation. I read John Simon for years in New York Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and The National Review, and often marveled at how a man of such obvious erudition and flawless prose ability could be so magnificently elegant in expressing amazingly pedestrian opinions of books, plays, films, and movies. His vitriol couldn’t elevate his sour takes on the arts from the routinely knee-jerk reaction. I wager that Simon’s vocabulary and acerbic virtuosity buffaloed his readers and editors with the flashy pyrotechnics of his word-slinging; what I thought of as Simon’s conspicuous ineptitude as a critic of cultural expression was summarily overlooked.

Burke obviously wants to consider himself a public intellectual, a mission much greater than being a mere record reviewer, and here attempts to pigeonhole the ill-making cultural habits of the times that are spoiling the rest of us. Sophistry itself, this amateur sociology and such, but what fun it is to read a smart person use every weapon in his arsenal to swat a fly. But again, honestly, quite honestly, quite vainly, G.C. Burke’s makes me think that those of us sharing the last Irish-borne surname share a genetic fascination for padded hyperbole. (Forgive me my indulgence if I’ve elevated myself to the likes of Edmund and Kenneth Burke, genius scribblers both.) Obviously, it would seem, that I’m inspired to indulge my verbal excesses after reading G.C. Burke’s energized dalliance with the philosophical broadside. Perhaps I can find a collection of his further thrashings of pop musicians of his time and become insufferable myself.