Monday, January 29, 2024

SOME NOTES ABOUT SOME THINGS: Greil Marcus, The Pretenders, The Rolling Stones, the Love of Music As We Age

Of great interest to readers of rock criticism is a recent an essay by Greil Marcus about why he writes criticism. Although the article mentions that Marcus is a cultural critic, one realizes he remains a rock critic fully invested in the thrill of first hearing the bold assertions of the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, always Dylan. Marcus mentions that he aspires to create something the equal to the music/art that inspires him, an interesting project that he's pursued for many decades. Towards the end he takes up where Mike Bloomfield leaves off after the guitarist's is quoted that something in music or otherwise has to move him in very visceral way; the author takes the same route , insisting that some element, any element, in a work of art has to grab him the seat of his pants and throw him down the stairs. In essence , Marcus has been intellectualizing his raw responses, his method of euphoric recall, and the results, I think, are always intriguing but decidedly mixed. At his best, Marcus performs a kind of Magic, a Ken Burns style that captures period, sound, origins, emotions, and their connection to an overarching American aesthetic and spirit. At worse, it's not that his books are sometimes unreadable, but more that they are unfinishable ; the lack of stated thesis makes his accumulation of data merely an anecdotal stream that do more to detour and distract than reveal. Anyway, Mr. Marcus in his own words:


1984 brought us the monumental Learning to Crawl by the Pretenders, which, to my mind, established Chrissie Hinde as belonging in the upper echelons of rock singer-songwriters. The songwriting is guitar based and tough, easily matching the esteemed Tom Petty for keeping riffs simple, effective and memorable, and the persona Hinde sustains through the songs is someone looking back with equal measures of regret, fondness and disappointment, but curious about the road ahead , someone taking stock of what she's learned and willing, again, to make the most with the life she's yet to live. This makes her sound too much like The Boss, I suppose, so it's crucial to point out that her experiences, sung in that low, oddly inflected voice that effectively conveys drama, sadness, and a prevailing sense of irony, avoid Springsteen's impulse to make life on life's terms so operatically Spectorish. Hinde's writing is effectively terse, reflective but without wallowing, defiant sans without killing a mood or emotion with bathos and such effects. Not a little like the best of Hemingway, the songs retain an efficiently splintery edge--professional but hardly slick by any means--and the tales pour forth in lean, memorable lines . There is a grit here I find very fine, resilient and appealing through the decades that have past.


At the height of the Blues Revival, spearheaded by young white artists like Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Clapton and of course John Mayall, there formed an obsession among a sizeable chunk of the audience, it seemed, about what guitarist had the best chops and most outstanding speed. Everything seemed stalemated at the presence of Alvin Lee who, it seemed, exhausted the speed gimmick and turned white blues guitar into a gross parody of the form. Then Johnny Winter's second album, a three sided set called Second Winter, rewrote the rules of the game. His first Columbia album met with mixed reviews and bland receptions from the many who were expecting the next Jimi Hendrix. It was a good blues album, not the best, but not bad. Winter seemed like a continuance of what could have been an Al Capp caricature, a Caucasian albino playing the music of black people. Well ,they all laughed but weren't laughing for long , since the three sides displayed a blues virtuosity unheard of til this time. Winter showed that he had full absorbed the styles of those he considered his guitar masters-all three Kings, Buddy Guy, T-
Bone Walker , Chuck Berry, Luther Allison, Hubert Sumlin--mixed his influences together and created something unique and brilliant in its own right from what he'd borrowed. It was a genuine triumph, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of slick technique, rhythmic invention and rawbone energy.


There's a difference about caring less about music and no longer loving music that provided the soundtrack of your youth. You may be simply tired of songs and albums that have been overplayed for decades. In that sense, it matters little if I ever hear any Pink Floyd records again, love them thought I do. And half the Led Zeppelin songs can also be consigned to the dustbin. Well, maybe not half, but at least two album sides of tracks I no longer get a thrill from, or songs that were weak to begin with. When you get older, your heroes from yore are no longer bulletproof, considering that by the time I turned 71 I had experienced the situations, loves, traumas , celebrations and catastrophes our friends Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, Young et al adroitly crystallized in their tune craft. Many of us in the day sat around dark bedrooms and dens with the lights off, stoned or unstoned, listening to the heaviness of the message and thought we were really learning something about life. Aging, though, is the great equalizer , a very efficient means of changing the status and emotional attachments untested youth had on their record collections. Gauged against a few decades of actual lived experience, some songs still resonate , while others pale with revisiting. It helps if you've been a music writer and critic , a habit and occasional part-time job I've indulged myself in over six decades: the unreasonable standards I bring , standards hardly set in stone, has allowed me to have a private canon I can rely on when mood and manners require an unsullied equivalent of the prevailing zeitgeist. Also, it's not necessarily a matter of being uninterested in new music artists as such, as its simply an issue that new music striving for the love of the masses are written for young people and , damn it, I am no longer young. But I do have a considerable record collection. Let it be said that it's a wonderful thing when I can add a new and younger artist to my collection , though the instances are rare.


The flip side of the Rolling Stones' bad-boy masterpiece 'Jumping Jack Flash" was a vexing yet alluring tune called "Child of the Moon". It was , if I recall , the band's final dalliance in a particular British Psychedellic Pop, an period they flung themselves headlong into with the Satanic Majesties Requests album, foremost of many a band's effort to produce their own Sgt. Pepper. Child of the Moon works perfectly well.A perfect paen to drug-addled mysticism, if you had to call it anything. Rather like that Charlie's drums are upfront and clamoring, maybe even a bit impatient, and the piano and organ work by Nicky Hopkins bob and weave between the hard strummed acoustic guitars. Jagger sounds like a wasted sage struggling to make a pronouncement to a room full of the equally wasted. The song is a perfect example of what the Rolling Stones have done effectively for decades, which was to accentuate their supposed instrumental deficiencies and cut tracks that couldn't imaginably have worked in more "professional" versions. This song has the feeling of you coming into the practice room just when a meandering jam hits its groove and everything gels splendidly for a bit--the tempo has the feeling that it could go astray at any minute and the instruments , while locked in simple themes that produce an attractive audio, don't sound locked into their parts. It could all just collapse , but yet it doesn't , and the result here demonstrates the band's ability to achieve a high aesthetic while never losing that element of being stoned-ruffians with too much cash.