Live Music: 2012 in Review

January 1, 2013

By Michael Katz

Los Angeles, CA.  Looking back over the year’s worth of live performances I covered, mostly in jazz, is a bittersweet experience. There are surely enough terrific moments to fill a column, but in a city with L.A.’s diversity of talent, you can’t help wishing for more. Our club scene is struggling, with only Catalina Bar & Grill consistently booking major touring acts for extended stays. In the Valley, Vitello’s  has done a nice job of showcasing the best of our local talent and the occasional national stars, and downtown the Blue Whale has presented an intriguing mix of fresh talent and local mainstays. As for the Westside, the best news was that the light rail Metro Line finally made it to Culver City.

Now, if I could only get to Culver City.

On the concert side, the Hollywood Bowl brought lots of talent to its band shell on summer Wednesday evenings, mostly in combinations for retro theme nights, but its directors don’t  seem to trust anyone on the current scene to headline a show. UCLA Live (newly renamed the Center For The Art of Performance) presented an eclectic program that included the Mingus Dynasty septet, Bill Frisell and Hugh Masekela.

How anybody finds out about this music is another problem. (Unless, of course, you visit iRoM). Our local newspaper covers only a scant sampling of the jazz spectrum, while our jazz radio station has narrowed its daily programming range to the Old, the Dead and the Smooth.

But enough grumbling. Here’s a few of the superb performances that still resonated in my mind, months after the last note had died out.

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater

I never saw a full set of Dee Dee Bridgewater, but when she stepped onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl during the Ray Charles tribute last summer, she simply took over.  She began with “Hallelujah I Love Him So,” backed up by the great Houston Person and finished with “I Got News For You,” her ringing, soulful vocals augmented by Terence Blanchard and George Duke. A few months later I caught her in the closing set of the Monterey Jazz Festival with an all-star group that featured Christian McBride, Benny Green, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lewis Nash and Chris Potter . She opened the set in a nimble duet with McBride on “Do What You Want To Do” and brought the crowd to pin drop silence with “Don’t Explain.” This group will be at the Valley Performing Art Center on January 23, so don’t miss them.

Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval

I saw a number of outstanding big bands this year, but the most memorable was led by Arturo Sandoval, in support of Dear Diz, his Grammy nominated CD and my favorite disc of the year. I caught them at The Federal, which hopefully will expand its presentation of jazz in 2013. Sandoval is clearly one of the world’s elite trumpet players, his tones piercing and his leadership swinging and joyful. His collection of mostly Dizzy Gillespie tunes featured sharp new arrangements, including a wonderful take on “Bee Bop” by Gordon Goodwin and a rollicking “Night In Tunisia.”

John Pisano

John Pisano

LA is the home of some of the world’s great guitarists, and I was lucky enough to catch a few of them live. At the top of the list is John Pisano’s Guitar Night. He keeps moving it farther away from my digs on the Westside, but I did manage to catch one of his last shows at Vitello’s with Anthony Wilson. Watching the two of them riff through two sets, testing their imaginations and dancing around familiar standards  reminded me that Guitar Night remains one of LA’s great treats.  I hereby resolve to make it out to Lucy’s 51 in Toluca Lake to see Pisano and friends in 2013.

Dori Caymmi

Dori Caymmi

Meanwhile, there were other great guitarists, including Dori Caymmi presenting a night of Brazilian music at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in what we hope is a prequel to the new Jazz Bakery, still in the planning stages next door. For jazz deprived Westsiders, it cannot come soon enough.  Pat Metheny played two sets at the Monterey Jazz Festival, my favorite being a trio performance with bassist McBride and percussionist Jack DeJohnette.  And then there was Mimi Fox, who we don’t hear nearly enough of, doing a lovely Saturday matinee duet at MJF with flutist Ali Ryerson.

Mads Tolling

Mads Tolling

As usual there were some unheralded performers that caught my attention. Here’s to a couple of fiddlers: Sara Watkins and Mads Tolling. Watkins, late of Nickel Creek, shone during an LA performance of Prairie Home Companion, dueting with host Garrison Keillor on “Let It Be Me” as they strolled through the crowd, and later burning it up in a fiddle showdown with Richard Kriehn. Tolling, a veteran of the Turtle Island Quartet, fronted his own group on Sunday afternoon at the Garden Stage at MJF. Whether plucking in tandem with his guitarist or racing through a tribute to Jean Luc Ponty, Tolling was a revelation. His live CD, A Celebration of Jean Luc Ponty, was another of my favorite discs.

Monterey, as usual, had lots of highlights for me, including some wonderful trio work by pianist Mulgrew Miller, a rousing vocal performance by Gregory Porter and a Cal Tjader tribute led by pianist Michael Wolff, featuring Warren Wolf on vibes.

Luciana Souza

Luciana Souza

And finally, there was Luciana Souza, opening the season at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, singing warm renditions from her two CDs that would later be nominated for Grammys, Duos 3 and The Book of Chet.

So what are my resolutions for 2013? For one, I resolve to catch Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. For another, I resolve to brave the traffic (and the absence of chairs) at the Blue Whale and see what is happening downtown. And finally, it is long past time for me to get to New York and check out the great jazz scene there. Perhaps if we can avoid the fiscal cliff, I can get some federal funding for a trip East. Sort of a reverse Lewis and Clark Expedition culminating in a week or so in the Big Apple. I plan to get it tacked on to an appropriations bill. I’m sure no one will notice.

Happy New Year to all.

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

Click HERE to visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, Katz of the Day.

Arturo Sandoval and John Pisano photos by Bob Barry


On Second Thought: “Night of the Lepus”

October 27, 2010

The irrepressible Brick Wahl joins our hardy band of commentators just in time for a Halloween look back at one of the oddest horror films of the ’70s.

By Brick Wahl

I stayed up way late last night to watch the epic Night of the Lepus once again. Janet Leigh, Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, Bones and a whole bunch of huge, crazed, carnivorous rabbits.  We’re talking late night early 70′s eco-horror at it’s finest. Or to quote the sheriff:

“Ladies and Gentleman, there’s a herd of giant killer rabbits  coming this way and we desperately need your help.” Delivered straight. High beams flash and horns blow in appreciation.

I have to say that it’s been 35 years since I first heard that line and it still packs a punch.  I was young then, a smarmy teen, and laughed in hysterics when I first heard it… Last night I listened in admiration at the hapless little fuck of a nothing actor forced to utter it (through a megaphone no less), and wondering about who the talentless hack was who wrote it, and how could he have ever written it, and was he drunk at the time, or suicidal, knowing full well that this was his one shot at the big time, any kind of big time, and all he could come up was a line about giant rabbits.  Audiences must have laughed themselves silly. No one blamed the actor…who was far enough from the camera to maintain a degree of anonymity, thank god…but only the youngest children in those seats, popcorn all over their laps and ssssshing their giggling older brothers, could not fail to see just how pathetic that sentence was.

Now, though, I’m older, lots older.  I’m not a rock star, or President, or a world famous writer or world famous anything. I don’t live in one of those big houses on the hill. So I can feel the pain of the actor with that megaphone. He needed the bread. He had bills to pay, mouths to feed (and not rabbit mouths). We all do humiliating things. We have all uttered warnings about metaphorical herds of killer rabbits.  Or something to that effect.  Just not so incredibly stupid.

The wife and I drove across the lonely stretches of the Colorado Plateau this past summer.  It’s that highland, arid, dry grasses, sparse, so lonely, that stretches from the northern third of Arizona to the Rockies, and north into Utah and Colorado. There’s nothing there. Cattle, lean and weather beaten. Some small towns, abandoned farms. Nights are vast and black and full UFO’s and other scary things. Days are haunted by long vanished Indian civilizations. I love it there. This was the setting for the movie. Way out there. At some point on a trek, when we get off the interstate and head off on some state highway or county road and things get really empty out there, I think of Night of the Lepus. To me, the high Arizona desert and those goddamn rabbits are permanently enmeshed. And at some point on the trek, I find myself saying aloud that there’s a herd of giant killer rabbits heading this way.

Which kinda wrecks the whole mood, since it’s the stupidest line from the stupidest critters-gone-wild flick ever. Dumber even than Frogs, where the vicious racist wheelchair-bound Ray Milland gets his karmic comeuppance from a house full of just regular sized frogs who apparently will kill him in some unexplained way (I swear, they’re just regular ol’ frogs), or dumber even than a terrified Marjoe Gortner asking Ida Lupino where’s she’d gotten that big chicken (it was a big chicken).

But there is nothing so profoundly dumb as killer bunnies. Huge fluffy killer bunnies. Not even DeForrest Kelly can make it believable. And he dealt with Lizard Men, salt creatures, and hortas. He just looked sad in that little mustache. I hope Janet Leigh was nice to him.

But I digress.


On Second Thought: “Disraeli Gears” (1967)

September 21, 2009

cream_disraeli_gears-front

By Dave Gebroe

If Eric Clapton ever gave a second thought to Disraeli Gears….

“If you were a 21-year-old kid stumbling around London with a guitar on your back, greeted at every turn by graffiti reminding you that you were the Almighty himself, I’m sure you’d like to think you’d remain supremely unaffected by the adulation. But the stark reality is, it’s impossible for it not to seep in at some level and screw with your sense of self-importance. You can take my word for that.

At least that was my experience. With all these years of recovery behind me, and the veil of illusion and self-deception lifted so as to make the truth of my life and career painfully apparent, I can look back on my stint in Cream with complete clarity. Yes, I’m well aware of the high regard in which we’re held—I can’t help what you all think, I just know I need to report the facts as I see them. If I was to do otherwise, I’d be putting my sobriety in jeopardy. With that in mind, and under my sponsor’s specific direction as part of my step work, it is incumbent upon me to lay bare the sad, pathetic truth about my old band.

The mess of my life can be traced back to the moment when everyone started making far too big of a fuss over me, which had the unfortunate effect of reducing John Mayall and his wonderful Bluesbreakers to nothing more than a breeding ground for future supergroups. Believe me, I still feel guilty about that. From this point forward, everything that happened in my career was based on the discomfort I felt toward this overenthusiastic fawning, and subsequently my reaction to my reaction, and so on. But there may have been no more abhorrent response to the swooning of the masses than my initial one. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this phase of my acceptance “You are right…I am God.”

Of course, in order to fortify my stance on the matter, it was imperative that I join up with a couple other like-minded megalomaniacs who, too, believed their hype. Enter Bruce and Baker. The three of us got some way-out perms and donned ourselves in all the hippest, most swingin’ Carnaby Street duds, fluffing ourselves up like a gaggle of dandy fop poodles. And there I went, careening off the rails so regrettably far away from my true roots in the blues. In order to create a musical world in which the flamboyant limp-wristedness of our sartorial flair could comfortably exist, myself, Jack, and Ginger took the stark authenticity of the Blues and dolled it all up unnecessarily like bored little schoolgirls during playtime. Imagine Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads wearing a pink, ruffled satin shirt with a frilly collar and an ascot and maybe for just a moment you can step outside the blind idolatry you’ve all endowed us with over the years.

After our more basic 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, we mustered up the perfunctorily paisley Summer of Love offering—Disraeli Gears. Roundly considered our masterwork, these days all it takes is one quick peek at the cover to produce a gag reflex in me. Looking back with the clarity of a sober music biz veteran, I can tell you with unmitigated honesty that it’s the work of charlatans, attempting desperately to pull the wool over the medicated multitudes with its cod oil blend of oogaboo trash-psych and watered-down white-boy blues. Remember the band Blueshammer from that movie Ghost World? They easily could have been responsible for a work as godawfully uninspired as Disraeli Gears. As tossed off and unremarkable as music gets, to this day even the songs that’ve risen to legendary status make me hang my head in shame each and every time I hear them blaring from a radio. “Strange Brew” and “Sunshine Of Your Love” sound to me like a bunch of sneering kids steamrolling over the concept of free love with misogynistic glee and commandeering the blues form as a stamp of validity to justify their cause. Many a night I lay awake in horror at the musical sins I committed simply by taking part in recording those wretched, wretched songs. Come on, seriously…that riff in “Sunshine” was groin-grabbing garbage. And the fact that you all went gaga over it made it damn near impossible for me to create anything of substance for a long time. I’m not saying it’s your fault—if anything, I’m entirely to blame. Somewhere deep inside, I just couldn’t overcome the fact that if you were prepared to lap up anything I churned out, then why even bother trying?

Most of the rest of the songs on the record barely even warrant a mention. “SWLABR” is the most ludicrously pedestrian piece of twaddle to ever slither its way out of the psychedelia movement, and I can barely mention “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” without shuddering. That could be the worst song I’ve ever written. At least I was able to foist the vocal off on Jack so I could sidestep being too closely associated with it. Good decision, that.

So why, then, were we considered so important? Of all the luminaries from that time, we seem to be held in as high regard as Janis, Jimi, and the rest of the lot. I still can’t figure out the logic behind this. Frankly, we were no better than Vanilla Fudge, only with a slightly more psychedelically tainted cucumber shoved down the fronts of our jeans. These days, I try not to be too hard on us. We were kids. And besides, we really didn’t have much of a choice in who we’d become. We’d been showered with wealth, fame, and women, and we reacted as any three pompous, ignorant kids would have. We ate it all up. You’d have done the same.

Unfortunately, the end result of us believing that hype was Ginger’s sixteen-minute drum solo on “Toad”, the version from 1968’s Wheels Of Fire. Admittedly, we all went along with that, in fact we thought it a brilliant idea at the time, as we’d felt about all our other harebrained musical notions. I don’t have many regrets in my life, as they primarily tend to be a waste of energy, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t actively regret contributing to the propagation of self-indulgent non-musicianship that comes along with progressive rock. Although I’ve never disclosed this fact, I wound up pleading with the record company years later to re-title the track “Toad-ally Masturbatory” on all future pressings, so I could do my part to clear my name. Unfortunately, they laughed off the request as the booze-soaked ravings of a once-relevant artist looking to reclaim his glory days by tinkering with the past.

You see, once upon a time I do believe I did actually have talent. And I used that talent sparingly, with economy and passion. My days in Cream taught me how to put that talent to waste, by overdoing it in grand style. I don’t at all blame Jack and Ginger, they didn’t know any better either. Hell, they still love what we accomplished back then. They think every note we played was pure gold. In fact, they’re still adamant that we actually were a band, and not three guys solipsistically jerking off into our own individual black holes. See, they never got with the truth, like I did. Hell, I had to…my life depended on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have overwhelming gratitude on a daily basis for the fact that you’ve all allowed me to make my living through music. But I’m under no illusions, I know I’ve done nothing of any groundshaking importance since the moment I made the decision to step foot from my junkie crash pad and rejoin the world of the living. A shame, that. But honestly, I wouldn’t go back and change a bit of it, as I’m comfortable in my own skin today. I don’t need to take the world by storm, or accomplish anything of any towering significance for that matter, in order to wake up, look in the mirror, and be okay with Eric today. I love myself. Recovery has taught me, amongst many other things, to not get all caught up in the outcome, and so no matter what I churn out to glut the shelves of the local compact disc megastore, I retain a sense of gratitude for simply being. And for now, I’ve come to accept that I have no choice but to settle for that.”

Editors note: The entire above commentary came from the wildly imaginative mind of Hooligan Dave Gebroe. Eric Clapton had no part in its writing.


To read more of Dave Gebroe’s “On Second Thought” posts click here.


On Second Thought: The Beach Boys – “Carl & The Passions…So Tough”

August 8, 2009

Beach Boys Carl and The Passions - So Tough

By Dave Gebroe

There is this strange phenomenon that occurs, wherein bands who’ve fallen out of touch with current trends, whose salad days are now naught but a series of scrapbook clippings, attempt to get with the times and take up a more commercial direction…and wind up unintentionally creating the least commercial music of their career. If you’re a true music nut, a diehard to the core, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never heard of Carl & The Passions…So Tough, then I know I’ve got your attention.

By 1972, the Beach Boys were an antiquated notion at best. The world had no idea what to think of them, these hopelessly square signifiers of a dead age, the band with the most cloddishly silly name possible who were now trouncing about clad in meditation robes and long, filthy beards, their travails inspiring all manner of tales involving drug abuse and madness. The world just wanted to get it over with already, flush these guys down the toilet and forget the whole thing ever happened. Over time, the band had frittered away their credibility to the point where it didn’t at all seem conceivable that they could work their way back into the black. The long-promised Smile project had never materialized back in 1967, nor did it appear five years later following yet another “boy cries wolf” round of public statement pinky swears. And after several purposely under-produced and hit-free (yet totally brilliant) records closing out the decade, Brian Wilson opted to sit out the Seventies, handing over the reins to the rest of the band, mainly brother Carl. The band’s response was to move ahead, fashioning new artistic directions that felt, to them, more in step with what was going on in the world around them.

There had already been signs of this shift underway. The band started writing ecologically themed songs on 1971’s Surf’s Up. They’d bandied about the possibility of shortening their name to simply “Beach,” to optimize the chances that the world would take them seriously without the baggage of their past weighing them down. And manager Jack Rieley was pushing hard for the band to take a hard rock direction, a style they were about as adept at as The Stooges were at square dance-style country waltzes. This suggestion, coupled with the discombobulated weirdness in the band, inspired resident uber-nerd Bruce Johnston to pack up and split, and Carl…well, he did what anyone would’ve done at a turning point like that: he drafted in a couple of funky black dudes. Enter guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar (later of Beatles parodists The Rutles), the latter to pound skins for Dennis Wilson while his hand recuperated from an accident. Both of these random additions to the whitest group on planet Earth had been spotted by Carl in London back in ’69 while playing in a band called The Flame.

Strangely, with their push to pursue a more progressive, contemporary direction, the title they chose for the record is possibly the most old-timey sounding of their entire oeuvre. Carl & The Passions was supposedly an early band name possibility, and its usage in the title intimates a surfeit of songs that deal with hanging out at malt shops and cruising the strip. But there’s nothing of the kind anywhere on this record. And the phrase “so tough” couldn’t describe with any less accuracy the sounds found within. But that’s okay, because it’s all part of the album’s unintentionally crazed charm.

So Tough could actually be my vote for the most schizophrenically disjointed album of all time. This record has no clue whatsoever what it wants to be. But its rather insane collection of disparate styles actually allows it, in some kind of weird, ass-backwards way, to cohere into a singular statement of in-the-moment purpose. Where there was a cohesive direction in their artistic arc under Brian’s direction, once he dropped out everyone saw the band as something other than the next guy, and So Tough illustrates quite clearly that there were now four very, very separate and distinct visions of what the Beach Boys should be. Mike Love saw it as a mouthpiece for the Maharishi’s teachings, Dennis as a showcase for his newly burgeoning talents as a string-drenched balladeer, new members Blondie and Ricky as a smooth, hip R&B unit, and Brian…well, Brian did what he could, which at that time was by all accounts pretty limited.

There are eight tracks on the record, with two examples each of the record’s four totally unrelated styles. The weakest of the batch is “Here She Comes” and “Hold On Dear Brother”, the Blondie/Ricky cuts. But I happen to love their inclusion on the record for two reasons: they sound absolutely nothing like the Beach Boys in any of their various guises; and the latter track has the gall to seem to be striking a position of brotherly concern for Brian’s mental health, coming from what amounted to nothing more than two peripheral neophytes on the scene.

Then comes the duo of TM tunes. “He Come Down” is their stab at a Baptismal, testimonial-style gospel belter, an interesting addition to the Boys’ canon. “All This Is That” is something else entirely, one of the most gentle, ethereally beautiful, and underrated Beach Boys songs in their entire catalog. With its soft, billowing harmonies, beds of pulsating keyboards, and burbling, percolating bass supporting the band’s most eloquent description of the Transcendental Meditation experience (many others of which stands as awkward or just plain embarrassing), “All This Is That” is a contender for the best song on the album.

Dennis’s pair of ballads is a real surprise, both astoundingly vulnerable and so heavily orchestrated as to seem eager to edge over into Disney-style bombast, stopping just short of being ludicrously over the top. “Make It Good” is the superior of the two, a heartbreaking love song with Dennis’s croak of a vocal selling the honesty behind the sentiment without a speck of doubt. “Cuddle Up” isn’t too shabby, either. Both songs wind up swelling to such melodramatically intense emotional peaks that it almost inspires laughter. The guy was obviously in a lot of pain, and nowhere is this more apparent than on his contributions to So Tough.

And then there are Brian’s songs. Somehow, even in the depths of battle with his inner demons, Brian pulled a couple of classics out of his ass. An amazing feat, that. “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” kicks off the record with a throaty, gut-bucket growl of a Carl vocal that renders him virtually unrecognizable. This track feels like the most apt application of what were then contemporary tics to the Beach Boys formula. There’s just enough classic harmony and structural touches to make it obvious which band was behind the thing, but then it’s also something of an R&B ass-kicker with unique dabs of banjo and violin thrown in for good measure. Brian’s other contribution, “Marcella”, is a stone-cold classic, and the most Beach Boys-sounding track of the bunch. No surprise there, seeing as the melody’s been reduxed and tossed a couple times over, originally as an outtake from 1964 called “All Dressed Up For School” and then again during the 1970 Sunflower sessions when it was known as “I Just Got My Pay.” Of course, Brian’s songs were the ones released as singles. Not that they made anything even remotely resembling a dent in the charts—“Mess Of Help” sank without a trace, and “Marcella” shot to #110 with a bullet.

It isn’t much of a surprise, considering the confused (yet glorious) mess of styles on display, that Carl And The Passions…So Tough only made it to #50 in the States. In fact, I’m shocked it was that successful. It didn’t really stand a chance. A large part of the reason for this was that, for some bizarre reason, the Beach Boys decided to pair the record as the second disc of a two-album set with their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. That was a recording with a uniform style that supported it with delicate grace through a song cycle of unparalleled beauty. It was flat-out suicide to group it with Carl and the Passions…So Tough, a move akin to a forty-year-old using college photos to represent himself on matchmaking sites and then wondering why his dates all seem so disappointed when he shows up.

I suppose, in retrospect, that this move made sense. Nobody cared about this band anymore. Yet, although they were indisputably past their prime, they were still a relevant act making solid music worthy of consideration. And pairing one of their oddest and most overlooked records with what is roundly considered their magnum opus must have been their way of shouting out to anyone who’d listen that, “We still matter, damn it! We had something to say back in the day, and we still do, no matter how differently we choose to say it!”

There would be only one more record (1973’s equally fascinating Holland) from this odd, mid-period incarnation of progressive-minded Beach Boys before they abandoned the uphill battle of attempting to convince the world that they were a valid artistic concern, and instead conceded to acting like the sun-and-fun puppets the world had wrongfully assumed they were. And thus the lead curtain of nostalgia came crashing down, and that was that. After all, in the end the general public tends to get what it asks for, which in this case—as in many, many others—is a damn shame.

To read more of Dave Gebroe’s “On Second Thought” posts, click here.


On Second Thought: Pink Floyd “Animals”

July 26, 2009

Pink Floyd Animals CD

By Dave Gebroe

Animals is an ugly record. The music is cold, coked-out aggro-prog, possessing none of the light, playful touches that made much of the Floyd’s previous work so alluring and transportative. The lyrics are depressingly downbeat and glum, and its grotesquely off-putting misanthropy remains almost unparalleled in the history of popular music. This is where uber-successful rock star Roger Waters’ vision became clouded over with his miserable hatred of humanity. Was the record-buying public turned off by the sudden about-face? To the contrary, they in fact followed him down this dark alley like the lemmings he’d already presumed they were. No wonder a couple years later he was trafficking in images of schoolchildren falling into meat grinders. How could he possibly work up any respect for an audience willing to lap up such abject curmudgeonliness?

Animals was quite obviously inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Waters must have felt that cloaking his influence with any more subtlety would have sent it sailing way over the heads of the stoned-out, cough-syrup-swilling zombies who bought his records. As in Orwell’s high school syllabus perennial, Waters has various societal types represented by different types of animals (the businessmen are dogs, the corrupt leaders are pigs, and the clueless hoi polloi are the sheep, of course). This highbrow set-up is perfect for Waters. He gets to sheathe his contempt for humanity within his effort to pull down a degree of literary respectability, thus having his cake and stuffing his face with it, too.

Pink Floyd

The problem is, Roger’s hang-ups aren’t just limited to hating the world and the ways in which it works. My gut tells me, in the midst of the now legendary power struggle within the band and Roger’s far less than grateful attitude toward Floyd’s massive success, that beneath it all the venom is directed toward Gilmour, Wright, and Mason, as well as anyone who’s ever bought a Floyd LP or 8-track. This is exactly the kind of hateful, solipsistic, ego-driven monomania that ushered in the punk movement. Ironically, Animals actually seems to be a concession to a certain kind of sneering punk attitude, but really what it does in the final analysis is confirm the need for punk’s brevity and connective, audience-bonding philosophy to puncture the bloated hide of stadium rock pomposity and drag the carcass back home where it belongs: at the feet of the fans who love the music so passionately. Animals makes the divisions inherent in Waters’ vision quite clear—band up here, audience down there.

Of course, The Wall would only further confirm this notion, proving once again that we want that which we cannot have. Like a guy who’s got it bad for a girl who won’t give him the time of day, we imbue the unattainable with all the power in the world and elevate it to mythic status. Once Waters gave his audience the snub, his self-fulfilling prophecy was set into motion and the swaying masses followed him hither and thither. Thus an attitude of bite-the-hand derision—interpreted by their devoted following as “honesty”—elevated Pink Floyd to legendary status, and made them one of the biggest bands in the world.

Lest we forget, back in the day when they referred to themselves as “The Pink Floyd,” Waters had no songwriterly vision to speak of. Their brilliant debut Piper At The Gates Of Dawn contained only one Waters original, the utterly laughable “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk,” by far the worst song on the record. It was only as a direct response to acid-addled bandleader Syd Barrett’s relinquishing of the reins that Waters took it upon himself to work toward anything resembling a vision, and frankly—for all the great work that he wound up producing in the 1970s—that vision was primarily piggy-backed off of Syd. In the end result, with all the hatred directed out at the rest of the world, Animals feels like it’s also promoting a strong sense of self-hatred. The bile that Waters spewed, and in which he eventually drowned, may well have originated with his frustration in being unable to stand on his own two feet aesthetically. Dark Side Of The Moon was in large part a Barrett-esque treatise on madness, and of course Wish You Were Here was about their dear departed leader from top to bottom. By 1977, I’d have been resentful at myself as well. Anyone would have.

Animals also marks the moment when Waters began to impose himself creatively on the rest of the band. But to what end? The record is basically just three bloated, noodly, sub-standard Floyd tracks, sandwiched between an unconvincingly optimistic pair of intro/outro snippets that would have us believe that somehow there’s meaning to be found outside of the insanity of everyday life. I couldn’t be any less sold on the idea that Waters actually believes this.

Musically, Animals is pure monotony. Although similarly insistent in its nihilism, at least The Wall would have plenty of variation in its motifs and musical styles. Animals, on the other hand, is a real slog. The band sounds uninspired, and there’s a surfeit of tired stretches that seem to be promoting some kind of bad-ass, cock-grabbing stance. It’s all a load of bottom-of-the-barrel, Seventies Stadium malarkey.

This era of contemptuous disgust in the Floyd ultimately swelled to a bursting point, leading as it did to the infamous “Spitting Incident.” Roger tells it best, in a quote scrawled up graffiti-like on an exhibit based on The Wall at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland: “…Success overtook us and by 1977 we were playing in football stadiums. The magic was crushed beneath the weight of numbers. We were becoming addicted to the trappings of popularity. I found myself increasingly alienated in that atmosphere of avarice and ego until one night in the Olympic Stadium, Montreal, the boil of my frustrations burst. Some crazed teenage fan was clawing his way up the storm netting that separated us from the human cattle pen in front of the stage screaming his devotion to the demi-gods beyond his reach. Incensed by his misunderstanding and my own connivance, I spat my frustration in his face. Later that night, back at the hotel, shocked by my behavior, I was faced with a choice. To deny my addiction and embrace that comfortably numb but magic-less existence or accept the burden of insight, take the road less traveled and embark on the often painful journey to discover who I was and where I fit. The wall was the picture I drew for myself to help me make that choice.”

So, in essence, instead of seeing this horrifyingly dehumanized gesture as a clear sign that the time was nigh to address his shortcomings and attempt to become a better person, he chose to capitalize on it as a validation of his alienation aesthetic and base an entire double album around it.

It would not be much of a surprise, then, if while writing “Pigs” Waters snuck a peek in the mirror when he wound up with “Ha ha, charade you are.”

To read more of Dave Gebroe’s “On Second Thought” columns, click here.


On Second Thought: Love — “Four Sail” (1969)

April 22, 2009

love

By Dave Gebroe

A while ago, I came across a description of the quandary Arthur Lee found himself in after releasing his undisputed masterwork, 1967′s “Forever Changes.” Although I can’t recall the source, it’s since come to stand as my lasting image of the man. In 1968, Lee walked out the door, stepped onto the lawn, and turned to wave goodbye. Many years after shutting the door, we took a peek outside and there he was, still on the lawn, still waving good-bye.

“Forever Changes” is a curious case. Above and beyond the truly remarkable music, it came to represent the dangers inherent in an artist creating a definitive statement. Lee was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he was going to die after he completed the record, so he made sure he said everything he needed to say, and communicated it all with striking urgency. To top it all off, he somehow found a way to sum up everything and its mother with the brilliant closer, “You Set The Scene.”

But Lee didn’t die. (Not for a while, anyway). So, instead, he killed the band, erecting in its place a new version of Love. The new band had more testicles than the older, more classic incarnation, keeping Lee’s unmistakably skewed poetic perversity intact but opting to follow the Cream/Hendrix template (Lee was old buds with Jimi, having been behind the boards the first time he set foot in a recording studio). Gone was the orchestrated, almost show tune-like influence of Bryan Maclean’s songwriting, which leant a mesmerizing tension to the greatness of those first three records. Without Maclean around to keep things freakishly diverse, Love progressively became a progressive concern.

This may be the very reason the Love story with their fan base ended here. Along with the death of the classic line-up came the disappearance from their music of so many of the unique signifiers their fans had come to love. The baroque, jazzy arrangements, delicate Spanish accents, and touches of MOR sensibility that brought out the depth in their approach — all of it, gone. Instead, along with old friends and previous bandmates Jay Donnellan (lead guitar), Frank Fayad (bass), and George Suranovich (drums, with Drachen Theaker guest-whacking on three tracks), the subtlety of their previous sound is smashed to smithereens with a powerhouse, virtuoso approach that greets the idea of space and restraint with utter contempt, cramming solos and drum fills into every last inch of tape. Suranovich, especially, is all over the damn place, sounding every bit like a musician with everything to prove.

So conclusive was “Forever Changes” in the Lee canon that most see it as the last stop on the Love train. That’s simply not the case. Although it is indisputably their best record, and their days as a great band were certainly numbered, the flashes of inspiration to come were enough to see them through to the end of the decade. However, “Four Sail” is the last time it all came together full-throttle for Arthur. This thoroughly overlooked gem stands as their final release before the magic of their early days had been fully shaken off.

After Lee had assembled the new band, they entered a makeshift studio in a Los Angeles warehouse and recorded three LPs worth of material. Elektra Records were owed one more record before the expiration of their contract, and “Four Sail” contains the ten tracks that Elektra hand-picked. (The remainder came out on the Blue Thumb label four months later as the intermittently brilliant double-LP “Out Here.”) The album’s title is a cynical double entendre, referring both to their jumping ship from Elektra and the product-minded mentality of the music industry.

There are many words one could use to describe Lee’s new direction, but “product” definitely isn’t one of them. There isn’t a bad song here. Kicking off the proceedings with sledgehammer ferocity is lead-off track “August,” which in a way is a kitchen-sink template for everything late-era Love had to offer. A mysterious Spanish-style guitar intro leads in to an almost laughably bombastic power-trio assault; delicate, folk-style verses; and a crazy jam-out middle section that features drumming so busily fill-intensive that Neil Peart himself would beg for it to be taken down a notch. “August” is one of Love’s best songs, and proof positive that they hadn’t said it all with “Forever Changes.” If anything, they now had an entirely new vocabulary in which to articulate their life and times and overdriven Marshall stacks were certainly more era-appropriate by this point than flutes, horns, and strings.

Next up is “Your Friend And Mine – Neil’s Song,” a jaunty, almost Lovin’ Spoonful-like ditty about Love roadie Neil Rappaport, who, as legend had it, sold a bunch of the band’s equipment for drugs, on which he then overdosed. Lee gets in a sly nose-thumbing at him here, revealing both compassion and an “I told you so” schoolyard cruelty. The brilliant disparity between the song’s whistle-worthy melodic sprightliness and dark subject matter is a perfect example of Lee’s inimitability.

Elsewhere, we’re still on solid turf, not at all the work of a songwriter on the way down. “I’m With You” and “Nothing” are gorgeous quasi-throwbacks to earlier Love, melodically wistful and with a more folk-rock lean than the other songs on the record. “Singing Cowboy,” with its passionate drum-fills and finger-picked intro, thrusts you headlong into Lee’s vision of himself as an old-time gunslinger. “Good Times” is just that, another Lee classic. “Robert Montgomery” is a hard-rock re-imagining of “Eleanor Rigby.” And “Dream” is an awesome bit of Arthurly free-association, replete with the classic lyric, “I just stepped in from New York at 10 a.m. / International Airport / and now I’m here with all my friends again / Wonder if there’s a God?”

And then along comes “Always See Your Face,” a “Forever Changes”-style throwback with French horn backing. In its own inscrutable way, it serves as a fitting elegy for Lee’s ride into the sunset. Over a lazily urgent, galloping rhythm, Lee waxes eloquent about obsession, depression, and the necessity of unmasking oneself. It’s a little-known masterpiece in Lee’s canon, one that says goodbye to the old Love in its own understated way, without the lyrical grandiosity of “You Set The Scene”‘s “get it all in before the fade” approach. It’s a mysterious fare-thee-well with a question mark hanging over it, simultaneously managing to be quite moving and a truly tough nut to crack.

Lee wound up shooting his load in that warehouse studio with this incarnation of Love. After “Out Here” was released, he assembled a new Love, and went on to smaller and lesser things. Although there were scraps of greatness to be found on his way out, “Four Sail” was Lee’s final hurrah. With his stubbornness over never touring outside LA, compounded with his drug problems and inability to keep a single line-up together for more than the blink of an eye, Lee set himself up for both long-term failure and one hell of an interesting career. Unfortunately, he was too mesmerized by the pendulum-like swing of his waving hand to notice that the world had already shut the door on him.


On Second Thought: U2 — “War” (1983)

April 12, 2009

u2

By Dave Gebroe

Whether it be from a priest, a rabbi, an outspoken relative, or the Almighty Bono Vox himself, my knee-jerk impulse to being preached at is exactly that: to knee that jerk, right in the groin.  Along the same lines, I also don’t look fondly upon Greenpeace pamphlets being thrust in my face as I walk into an overly expensive stadium show.  I just don’t care for activism in my rock.  None of this explains why at fifteen years old I went to see U2 on “The Joshua Tree” tour, nor does it explain why the show left me in a state of slack-jawed awe at the mystical intensity of the U2 experience.  The long and short of it is that this gaggle of stylistically-challenged Irish rockers contained the perfect level of grandstanding self-seriousness especially during the Eighties-for a zit-faced, teenage doofus like myself to truly call my own. 

No matter how many permutations they manage to force out of their once-vital band, for me the longstanding image of U2 will be their performance of “Silver And Gold” from that hot-air epic of Americana-seeking douchebaggery “Rattle and Hum.”  Dressed in a cowboy hat, of all things, Bon(z)o needles the audience with a mid-song anti-apartheid rant.  When he catches himself drawling on interminably, instead of poking fun at his own sermonizing tendencies (something at which he became more proficient during the “Achtung, Baby” era), he actually has the brass-balled audacity to implicate the audience!  “Am I buggin’ ya?  Don’t mean to bug ya.  Okay, Edge, play the blues!”  And the unintentional punch line, especially in light of the band’s obsession with uncovering the essence of what makes America tick, is that what comes rippling out of The Edge’s amps is as authentically bluesy as the theme song to “Sesame Street.”

Rewind five years and we have the dubious pleasure of bearing witness to the birth of Bono as caricature.  There he is, that quaint, mullet-sporting crusader waving a white flag and whipping up a “No more!” call-and-response with the “Live At Red Rocks” crowd.  Looking back now, I see some dude trying a little too hard to capture his place in the American spotlight after two albums hadn’t quite done the trick. 

Those albums — 1980′s “Boy” and 1981′s “October” — still stand today as powerful works from a band that hadn’t yet discovered its voice, and was all the better for it.  “War” (recorded in the summer of 1982, and released in February, 1983) was the fulcrum point at which U2 ceased to be an Echo & The Bunnymen-derived New Romantic outfit and began striving after its own sound and tackling its own messages, however weighty they tended to be.

For some strange reason, “War” is considered the high-water mark of their early work as a band.  It replaced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the top of the charts, becoming the band’s first #1 album in the UK. There were three huge singles in America and the record was eventually ranked number 221 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Objectively, “War” was U2′s worst album until 1997′s “Pop” came along.  Admittedly, the first three tracks are excellent.  The record kicks off with the martial-drum intensity of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” then segues into atmospheric nuclear nightmare “Seconds,” and…yet another atmospheric nuclear nightmare (not to mention one of their best songs), the classic “New Year’s Day.”  At this point we’re running full steam.

The record then promptly drops off and never recovers.  “The Refugee” sounds like what might happen if Bow Wow Wow had a political conscience.  And yet, somehow, it’s even worse than that comparison implies.  “Like a Song…” was apparently intended as a response to those who believed the band was too worthy, sincere, and not “punk” enough.  Unfortunately, it’s too worthy, sincere, and un-punk to carry its message.  “Red Light” is a lame ditty about prostitution.  And so on and so forth, each tune wrapping itself around an issue and passing itself out like a pamphlet.

This might be a good time to mention that I typically try to ignore lyrics.  There are exceptions, but I have a great respect for the limitless interpretive possibilities inherent in good music.  When you take in the lyrics, it’s unavoidable that a definitive singular meaning’s going to stamp itself into concrete.  It’s like the old-time radio serial lovers who resented the advent of television; once the whole picture was available, with all the blanks filled in, the work had already been done and your imagination was no longer invited to the party. In that mode of thinking, political lyrics typically tend to be outright anathema to me. 99 times out of a hundred, it skews toward the nausea-inducing if the words are at all distinguishable. 

“And we love to wear a badge, a uniform / and we love to fly a flag / but I won’t let others live in Hell” (from “Like A Song”)

How am I supposed to get a groove on when some young rock star hopeful’s enunciating these putrid lyrics clear enough for me to hear?  Even “Two Hearts Beat As One,” ostensibly “War”‘s love song reprieve from the relentless political proselytizing, kicks off like Bono forgot he was stepping away from the pulpit for a moment: 

“I don’t know, I don’t know which side I’m on / I don’t know my right from left / Or my right from wrong” (from “Two Hearts Beat As One”)

Christ, even his love songs from this era were framed in a context of political opinion.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that “New Year’s Day” started life as a love song Bono wrote for his new wife, but was promptly rejiggered into its current state as an Armageddon ditty inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement.  What an incurable romantic!

This sense of weighty grandiosity all starts with that album cover; it sports the same kid from “Boy,” but his childlike wonder’s gone the way of the dodo.  Check him out, scowling at us, admonishing us for the poor state in which we’ve left the world he’s inherited.  Hey, come on!  What the hell did I do wrong?  How did I get implicated just by picking this record up off the rack?

Like many important artists through rock and roll’s long, storied history, U2 is sensitively attuned to the tweaking of their aesthetic strategy based on what’s come just before.  But there’s something about their approach that feels more like a marketing plan than an artist’s bid for mercurial, outside-the-box thinking.  Their entire journey of “growth” can be traced back to “War.”  After this record, there was a lyrical de-emphasis in favor of ambience (“Unforgettable Fire“), followed by a maniacally grandiose lyrical re-emphasis (“Joshua Tree“), which prompted a nose-thumbing at themselves, beating the wags to the punch in their attempt to control the depth to which they were satirized (“Achtung Baby”), etc.  In retrospect, all these moves seem suspiciously calculated to keep any and all detractors of the band at bay.

There are apparently those close to U2 who feel as I do, as can be evidenced by producer Brian Eno coercing Bono to tear down his mulleted crusader image by fully improvising a set of mumbled lyrics for “Elvis Presley & America” on their next record.  Although I do dig the tune, so begat a career of low-rent about-faces designed to keep the record-buying public convinced that they were still the best damn band in the world.  The grand sum of this people-pleasing bobbing and weaving leads me to believe that they must have felt more than just a passing feeling of kinship with Sally Field as she took the stage at the 1985 Oscars and immortalized herself by admitting that, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

U2 — “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” US Festival, 1983:


On Second Thought: Sly Stone — “High on You” (1975)

April 1, 2009

sly 

by Dave Gebroe

In the early morning hours of August 16, 1969, Sly Stone held hundreds of thousands of love children in the palm of his hand.  Watch the “Woodstock” documentary, and see for yourself.  More than any of the other performers, Sly nailed it. He owned that audience.  He then promptly hunkered down, picked up a nasty drug habit, reassessed the good-time vibe he’d been propagating, and released the groundbreaking “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” Then came a couple more records, and in 1974 Sly went insane or succumbed to a drug overdose that left him catatonic.  No, wait…actually, he died.

Or so history seems to have been rewritten to have you believe.  Somehow, in the course of things, Sly wound up burning so many folks in the music biz, and souring so much of the positivity he’d been single-handedly responsible for creating, that his career no longer stood a chance.  It didn’t matter how bad or good he was, whether he had more to say or nothing left in him, that was irrelevant.  The world was done with him and it was hard to argue with the reasoning behind the collective decision to pretend he didn’t exist.  After all, it was easier than dealing with the monster he’d become.

1974 was Sly’s last year as a high-profile star.  In June, he played a show at Madison Square Garden during which he married girlfriend Kathy Silva.  It was a ploy to help boost ticket sales, and it worked.  The wedding took place in front of 20,000 guests.  The marriage wasn’t nearly as successful as the performance, though; Silva filed for divorce four months later.  The back cover of the record the band released that year, “Small Talk,” depicts a bleary-eyed Sly lying in bed, looking wasted beyond all reasonable conception.  That record included his final top 40 hit, “Time For Livin’.” 

Live bookings had plummeted quickly for the band since 1970, seeing as Sly was skipping out on almost as many shows as he played.  The final straw came in January, 1975, when the group booked itself at Radio City Music Hall.  The venue was only one-eighth occupied for the gig, and the band had to scrape together money to make it back home.  That was the end of the Family Stone.

Then Sly just…disappeared.  It’s no wonder he’s been called “the J.D. Salinger of funk.”  However, it’s arguable whether he consciously went underground or was coerced into extinction by a world sick of his wayward antics.  After “Small Talk,” Sly released four more albums of new material.  The first (and only record billed to Sly Stone solo) was “High on You.”  “Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back” came out in 1976, followed by “Back on the Right Track” in 1979, and “Ain’t But the One Way” in 1983.  It’s a shame these records have been written out of history, as there’s a lot to be said for them, both in the fascinating context of Sly’s failure to live up to his promise and as good, solid funk music.

“High On You” is Sly’s eighth album, and includes only two remaining members of the Family Stone — perennial Sly cheerleader and trumpetist Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Jerry Martini.  No, this record is not as important as “Stand!” or “Riot,” but there is plenty to recommend it.  In fact, except for tossed-off instrumental “Green-Eyed Monster Girl,” there really isn’t a bad song in the bunch.  The strongest material is front- and back-loaded, kicking off with the fantastic one-two punch of “I Get High on You” (a #3 R&B hit) and “Crossword Puzzle,” the latter unquestionably the best song on the LP.  It’s a classic, and certainly the hit that never was.  Over a mischievously descending bassline and nursery rhyme keys, Sly’s vocal about an illegitimate child is grittily on point.  It sounds like he’s actually singing out the side of his mouth. 

There are also a series of great songs that wind down the record.  “My World” is a wonderfully woozy mute-trumpet ballad, in which we seem to get some kind of glimpse into what it must be like to be Sly at three or four in the morning.  

“So Good To Me” is a great little funk tune featuring a dash of fuzz bass lifted from the “Stand!” days.  Then there’s “Greed,” a powerhouse tune that kicks off with “fe fi fo fum!” muttered over percolating percussion before a wall of trumpets burst in to mock Sly’s all-too-human failings.  What a way to go out.

“High on You” is a lot more cleanly produced than the the gritty, labored-over tape hiss of his early ’70s classics.  There’s also far less counterpoint in the melodies; what you have here is simple, straight-up funk.  My guess, although admittedly a stab in the dark, is that he wanted a slicker sound to banish his newfound reputation as the king of darkness, and thus return him to his roots as Smileyface McGee.

Unfortunately for Sly, it was too little too late.  What’s most disturbing about Sly’s post-”Riot” output was that the cat was out of the bag. This was the new Sly, and the news wasn’t at all good.  So the series of unconvincing about-faces that followed didn’t fool anyone.  Sly frittered away the last ten years of his career doing his best to convince the world that, as his drug habits and isolationist tendencies worsened and the Family Stone fell to pieces in a morass of guns, bulldogs, and PCP, everything was fine!  Better than ever, in fact!  You don’t believe me?  Check out my album titles!  “Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back!”  “Back on The Right Track!”  I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an unreleased album from that era called “I Don’t Do Drugs Anymore, So Trust Me When I Say That Everything’s Cool!” 

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of real, true consensus on whether Sly’s post-1973 output is bad or if it exists at all.  Although a lot of confusion exists over the later material, one thing’s for certain: Sly never was able (or maybe just never bothered to try) to reach the dazzlingly murky depths of “Riot” again.  That’s the kind of work that colors everything else an artist releases, and even recasts his prior work in a whole new light.  That record was a stick of dynamite that blew Sly’s entire discography apart, and contextualized his every move.  “Riot” laid it on the line: Sly was dying, this was how it was, and for better or worse this was how it was going to continue to be.

What we get in “High On You” are little glimpses, tiny hints here and there of the obvious horror-show that was still going down in Slyville.  Sly was too much of a true artist to spend the entire duration of a record selling the listener on his rehabilitated gentlemanliness.  So, however fleetingly, the truth does manage to slip out: “Some of us will go astray (repeated four times over in “Greed”); “Jimi tried to pull me round, but I can’t let it bring me down (from “So Good To Me”).

And then there are Sly’s desperate and ultimately listless attempts to reconnect folks with his once-relevant position in the pantheon: “Different pills for different thrills, different days for different ways, different freaks for different weeks” (from “Le Lo Li”).

These reminders backfired gloriously on Sly.  They underscored how redundant he’d become in his insistence on cowering in the shadow of his former self.  They made it quite clear that he’d been reduced to running off at the mouth, repeating himself, condemning himself to uselessness.

The world might have gotten its wish in making Sly go away, but you can’t change the fact that he kept making records.  Those records are just as relevant to understanding the man as anything else he released. Are they as good as the early stuff?  You be the judge, but the godfathers of rock criticism saw fit to prematurely write him out of the picture, and Sly deserves better than that.

Mid-70s Sly on television. Looks good in red and sparkle.


On Second Thought: The Kinks — “Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part One” (1970)

March 26, 2009

lola
by Dave Gebroe

Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round, Part One was the Kinks‘ most successful record on both sides of the Atlantic since the mid-60s. It single-handedly elevated them to arena band status in the U.S. Its title track became their legacy, an FM standard that refuses to die. Ask any classic rock fan what record springs to mind when you say “The Kinks,” and 99 times out of 100 they’re going to say “Lola.”

But pull back the curtain and look a little closer. “Lola” planted the seeds for a once-great band’s creative demise, as tremendously gifted songwriter Ray Davies began spinning a solipsistic cocoon that eventually led to him simply floating out to sea. Starting in 1970, Ray’s choices seemingly began to be made solely on whether or not he wanted to convey the impression of giving a shit about being appreciated. During the first half of the decade, he apparently couldn’t have cared less (much to new label RCA’s chagrin). After “Lola,” Ray escaped into himself, finding comfort inside concept albums whose last priority was musical excellence. They were mainly dopey nostalgic forays that made it clear that Ray Davies was now a man who felt extreme discomfort in his own skin. Precious little of the output from this period (1972-1975) holds up as listenable and I’d only loosely define much of it as music. Then, after 1975, Ray flip-flopped and spent the remainder of the decade pumping out generic stadium rock in a listless concession to the idea of “giving the people what they want.”

 

Ray’s utterly conflicted, thoroughly bizarre knee-jerk reaction against commercial acceptance can be traced back to 1965, when the Kinks were banned from re-entering the U.S. by the American government. For four years, one of the greatest, most creative bands on the planet all but disappeared from America, focusing instead on following their muse and creating distinctly British masterpieces that had the unfortunate effect of thrusting them headlong into a sales slump. By 1969, their star had fallen precipitously. They needed a hit to bring them back in a big way.

 

Ray later talked about wanting to write a song that would “sell in the first five seconds.” Enter “Lola,” their new single. Based on a real-life experience of Ray’s back in 1965, “Lola” was an instant smash, reaching #1 in the New Musical Express in the U.K. , and #9 in the U.S. This wasn’t just a shot in the arm for the Kinks — it was necessary for their continued existence as a band. Their last album, 1969′s brilliant “Arthur,” had topped out at #105 on the charts. This was it and Ray Davies knew it.

 

With the prospect of an honest-to-goodness comeback looming ahead, Ray shaped an entire concept album around the song. In a particularly strange gesture, when considered side-by-side with the years of struggle they’d just endured, the LP created around the 45 flat-out rejected and negated the success that seemed within their grasp as a result of that very song! This insistence on biting the hand that fed them at this crucial juncture in their career is, arguably, the fulcrum point between the undimmed brilliance of the Kinks up to that point and the extreme musical self-indulgence of their output from 1970 forward.

 

The basic concept: a struggling band makes a go of it, releases a single that tops the charts, achieves huge success, and has to contend with the faceless, soul-crushing behemoth that is the music industry. The funny thing is that at its root the true concept of “Lola” is something of the inverse of that — a well-established act releases a huge hit and shoots themselves in the foot in a misguided attempt to prove their integrity.

 

I wouldn’t say the record’s a total disaster; “Lola” truly is the great single it was created to be, and “Get Back In Line” and “A Long Way From Home” are two of Ray’s most poignant, affecting ballads. “This Time Tomorrow” isn’t bad, either, communicating with great economy the whirlwind isolation of life on the road, a topic that would be far more laboriously explored on 1972′s double-set “Everybody’s A Star.”

 

However, what saps “Lola” of its power and its message is the acerbity that lingers in the listener’s ear. Somehow, during this period, when Davies attempted to express himself with bitter resignation, his ability to connect emotionally was awe-inspiringly on the money (i.e., the twin-ballad attack mentioned above, “Celluloid Heroes,” “Where Are They Now?”, etc.), but when he stripped that bitterness of its resignation he had a tendency to come across as shrill and ungrateful.

 

Is the man allowed to whine? Has he earned the right? Sure. But, as his career path eventually revealed, once a rich, famous rock star begins bitching and moaning about his woeful existence, it becomes a chore for the listener to relate. Let’s face it, Ray had already shown signs of being a crotchety old man in the 1960s. On “Lola,” he finally got to yell at his audience — and the music world at large — to keep their collective ball off his lawn.

 

Although the material on “Lola” is quite varied — there’s folk, music hall, even metal — much of it is blunt, generic, and uninspired. Right off the bat, there’s “The Contenders” — a piss-poor attempt at blues rock that comes off sounding like a generic Ten Years After outtake. The second single, “Apeman,” sounds like what might happen if “Weird Al” Yankovic took a cod-Calypso stab at “Lola.” Dave Davies‘ “Rats” sounds as pseudo in its intent to rock out with its cock out as “You Really Got Me” felt like the real deal and the seething swipes at the music industry — “Denmark Street,” “Top Of The Pops,” and “The Moneygoround”—barely qualify as songs.

 

Indicators for all the various, half-hearted dead-ends the band were to barrel down thereafter were there for the seeking on “Lola”: the throwaway music hall whimsy, Ray Davies’ lyrical over-reliance on autobiography and the compulsion to populate his records with villainous character-types…even the desire to take twice the time to say half as much (as can be surmised by the title, a part two was originally intended). The essential Kink konundrum can be found in the lyrics to its closing song, “Got To Be Free”:

 

“Got to be free to say what I want
Make what I want and play what I want”

 

What a beautiful declaration of artistic independence! Unfortunately, from this definitive fork in the road of Ray’s musical concerns, we’re able, now with the benefit of hindsight, to trace the outcome of this pronouncement. He took that freedom and promptly utilized it to transform himself into an inebriated music-hall stooge. Within two short years, Ray had bottomed out in a confused mess, leading to this stunned, momentary insight of the music-hall insanity he’d come to embrace:

 

“If my friends could see me now, dressing up in my bow-tie,
Prancing round the room like some outrageous poove,
They would tell me that I’m just being used
They would ask me what I’m trying to prove.
They would see me in my hotel,
Watching late shows till the morning,
Writing songs for old time vaudeville revues.
All my friends would ask me what it’s all leading to.”

(from “Sitting In My Hotel,” 1972)

 

Unfortunately, in Ray Davies’ case, what it led to was a great band being flushed down the toilet in a sacrificial gesture to one man’s bold yet increasingly diffuse vision.

 

 


On Second Thought: Bob Dylan’s “Self-Portrait” (1970)

March 17, 2009

self-portrait

by Dave Gebroe

I can remember very clearly the experience of discovering Bob Dylan’s mistakenly lambasted double-LP, “Self-Portrait.”  I was but a mere babe in the rock ‘n’ roll woods at the time – no more than thirteen – and while I’d heard of the record, what I mainly knew was that it was notBlonde on Blonde.”  If anything, it was the anti-”Blonde on Blonde.”

I unwrapped my vinyl copy, staring with stupefaction at the supposed Bob likeness that (dis)graced the cover.  In a 1984 interview, Bob admitted that he “knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes.  And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album ‘Self Portrait.’”  Although its title insinuates full disclosure, tellingly this is actually the first Dylan album that doesn’t feature his face on the sleeve.

Flip the jacket over, and there he is gazing up at a bunch of trees – you know, just your ordinary, everyday country bumpkin.  Open up the bizarre gatefold, and one of the pictures that greets you is Dylan kneeling down next to a bunch of chickens.  Oh, so he’s a farmer now.  Put the first record on and what lightning bolt of genius greets you?  A group of female background singers warbling, over and over, “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any riding [writing?] done?”  We wait for Dylan to come in.  We keep waiting.  Bob doesn’t come.  We’ve now officially tipped over from bad into WTF territory, but then we’re drenched in a thick, syrupy layer of Mantovani-like strings and  shoved beyond WTF-ville into a state of morbidly acute fascination.  It’s nothing less than a dare to the listener to bother hanging in there for the remaining 23 tracks.

If this all strikes you as overly strange, if the images and sounds are too far at odds with the notion of Dylan-as-genius for you to cozy up to, it’s possible this record’s not for you.  Frankly, you’d be missing the point entirely. “Self-Portrait” is probably the most fascinating release by a major artist in the history of music, a perversely misanthropic, fanbase-alienating, contemptuous flip of the bird to all who’d ever had the gall to put this or any other artist on a pedestal.  The only record it can be compared to in its seething antagonism toward its audience is Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.”

The most interesting thing about “Self-Portrait” and “Metal Machine Music” is that while musically dissimilar, they achieve the same effect. The artist wants you to hate it so badly he pulls every ace from his artistic sleeve to produce the end result of making you get up and remove it from the stereo.

Is that you who just asked, “Where the hell’s the appeal in that?”  Admittedly, it does help to be a big Bob Dylan fan to like this collection, but if you’re not a big Dylan fan you’ve got far greater issues to sort out than not comprehending the perversity of cherishing what may just be a purposely terrible double album.  The typical Dylan fanatic’s debate about “Self-Portrait” generally centers around “Sure, it’s conceptually fascinating, but are the songs anything to write home about?”  This is an almost impossible debate.  The record is like performance art; it’s all about intention.

The songs themselves are like a parade of preening sideshow freaks daring you to point and laugh.  It’s a grotesque blend of queasily disparate ingredients: a hodgepodge of covers by other Dylans (such as Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon), four limp live tracks from the Band-backed, 1969 Isle of Wight performance, alternate versions of songs thoroughly undeserving of alternate versions, and a smattering of unimaginably listless originals, instrumentals, lifeless jams, and easy-listening curios.

A few of the low-lights include:

  • “In Search Of Little Sadie,” a gloriously crappy, cornpoke room-clearer that sounds like your drunk uncle whipping out his guitar at two in the morning;
  • “Woogie Boogie,” contender for most half-hearted effort in Dylan’s entire catalog.  This is possibly the lamest blues jam in existence, replete with sock-hop sax belting its way through a party atmosphere so thoroughly ersatz it practically undergoes rigor mortis before your very ears.  I just have to believe that he was conscious this sucked;
  • “The Boxer,” wherein Bob tries awfully hard to do his poorest possible impression of both Simon and Garfunkel, harmonizing in a mind-bogglingly out-of-tune manner that makes you think it has to be a parody…except that at that time Dylan was palling around with Simon in New York and out on Fire Island;
  • “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo),” in which Dylan farts out his first released version of this classic song in the form of a yelpy, honky-tonk rendering suitable exclusively for driving home drunk from mid-western strip clubs;
  • “Wigwam,” at the very least a glimpse into what a fly on the wall might be subjected to while Dylan showers;
  • Last and, yes, least, “Alberta #2″ takes the cake as the very definition of “limping to a close.”  This is no grand statement of badness, that would be too good.  Instead, Dylan goes for the kill with something thoroughly tossed off and redundant.

To throw off the scent of having enacted a purposeful act of musical terrorism, Dylan was careful to also include a small handful of classically good songs, like “Days Of ’49″ and “Copper Kettle.”  He then insured a sense of consistency for the listener by coating the entire enterprise in a suffocating blanket of Muzak-y strings and generic female background singers.  But he proceeded to make mincemeat of that consistency by hopscotching back and forth between two distinct singing voices: voice-of-his-generation Dylan and the froggy, nasal whine he’d previously affected for “Nashville Skyline” the year previous.  So…will the real Bob Dylan please stand up?

Or, better yet, sit out.

To understand “Self-Portrait,” you have to understand where Dylan was at this point in his life and career.  Having created such an impressive body of work, he was saddled with the baggage that comes with straddling the cusp between man and myth. When people are gaining notoriety for simply rifling through your trash for “clues,” you’ve officially got problems.

Here’s Dylan in 1984 again:

This was just about the time of that Woodstock festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit.  And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented.  So we couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere.  I got very resentful about the whole thing…There’d be crowds outside my house.  And I said, ‘Well, fuck it.  I wish these people would just forget about me.  I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to.  They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person.  He ain’t sayin’ it no more.’

Of course, it wouldn’t be Bob Dylan if there weren’t also indications that contradicted the idea as “SP”-as-joke.  For example, in Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 bio “Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography“, Dylan says flat-out: “It’s a great album.  There’s a lot of damn good music there.  People just didn’t listen at first.”

This kind of kaleidoscopic reasoning may strike some as endlessly aggravating, but back in 1970 Dylan was laying the groundwork for the mercurial, you-can’t-catch-me approach that artists like Eminem later took, defying their audience to peg them down with each turn of phrase.  To a true artist, this is a crucial step – not just donning a series of costumes, a la Bowie, but confounding expectations to a point where all that one has worked for is potentially razed to nothing, to be built back up from scratch.  Forget aesthetic truth, this seems like an imperative to the maintenance of sanity when a level of fame like Dylan’s is taken into consideration.  If he’s not one step ahead, if he just doles out all the answers like a good little monkey, we will swallow him whole, given half a chance.

Thus, “Self-Portrait” is as crucial and important a record as “Blonde On Blonde.”  The latter built the house, and the former knocked it down.  And “New Morning” was, well…a new morning.  Those with discerning taste know all too well the difference between “good-bad” and “bad-bad.”

In a 2005 interview, Dylan said, “Well my wife and kids and me would sit around after supper on a Saturday night, and we’d all put ideas into a hat.  I picked a slip of paper out of the hat, and that would be the week’s activity.  One time it might be to get myself photographed at the Western Wall so people would think I was a Zionist.  Another time it might be to get a job pumpin’ gas in Paramus, New Jersey, so the press would report I was crazy, or a sicko, or a Mormon.”

On the week of August 31, 1969 , Dylan seems to have pulled a particularly interesting slip of paper out of the hat.  I’m guessing it read “Desecrate the classics.”  The “Self-Portrait” version of “Like A Rolling Stone,” in particular, truly captures an artist setting fire to his muse.  It’s in this deflation of his biggest classic that the album is best captured in miniature.  Only three short years after utilizing the provocation of the notorious “Judas!” heckler to reach celestial heights with the same tune, backed by the same Band, Dylan reclaims “Rolling Stone” as his possession fully, to do with what he will.  Whether that means bestowing upon us the incendiary fulfillment of rock’s potential, or mischievously scrawling moustaches on his own Mona Lisa, it’s a decision that is only Dylan’s to make.  Here, he’s bringing it all back home, all right. He drives the song into the ground, underscoring the valid point that if an artist can create a masterpiece, it should be entirely up to him to fuck it up if he should so desire.  What better way for mojo to be recycled back into the canon of artistic creation than to create fertilizer out of it?

P.S. Even stranger than anything involving the actual “Self-Portrait” is the fact that there’s another album called “Dylan” that’s actually partially composed of “Self-Portrait” outtakes!  That’s like taking out your trash, deciding it stinks way too bad to be placed with the rest of your garbage, and finding a whole new dumpster in which to throw it away.

The story goes that Columbia released “Dylan” in 1973 as a revenge tactic after Bob changed labels.

But me? I’d like to think it was Dylan’s decision.


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