Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Real Boy: The Jackson 5: "I Want You Back"

When I was a pre-schooler, probably still in nursery school, I was taken to see a movie. (This was before DVDs, before videos, when the only ways to see a movie were on tv or in a movie theatre; only rich cinephiles had home movie theatres, then.) My father’s job was as an animator, so of course he would take me to see animated movies, Fantasia being one that was (as was Disney’s wont) re-released for a new generation to enjoy. I got through that one just fine.

But Pinocchio? Like my mother, as I much later found out, I could not take it. I began crying – I forget at which part, it’s a distressing movie and so there could be many – and would not stop. My father, always respectful of the audience, led me out of the theatre, and we went home. If the part that started me crying had been one of suspense – something I’m not good at dealing with, in life or cinema – then that would make sense. But maybe I was more horrified at the idea of a little boy being made of wood, period. That, my crying, shocked self would have explained, if I’d been able to speak, is the worst thing. Death-in-life; a life given to others completely, who can do what they like with you, including throw you in a trunk if you don’t behave…how can he be real and not real at the same time? What horrors does he have to endure just to be a real boy?

Both of these were 1940 Disney classics, and I wonder if Michael Jackson saw either of them at the time – or perhaps as a superstar, he had other things to do. I was all of four when I saw it; Michael, had his parents taken him to see it, would have been thirteen. The very edge of adolescence, when the rigors of school, the absence or presence of any crushes, the whole bildungsroman of life starts out. Teenagers are supposed to be dumb, arrogant, passionate creatures that make mistakes. Even if you spent most of your adolescence either in school or at home doing homework, otherwise preoccupied with music and pop culture, that is more than enough to figure out a whole lot of things; add in friends, dances, movies, trips, and so on, and some kind of path will present itself, even one that says that staying true to yourself is not going to be easy, but that life (whatever it is) is a living death, as easy as it is for others to follow. It’s not yours, and no one is going to reward you with becoming ‘real’ at the end; you already are real, and it’s your main job to stay that way. (Michael, as you may already know, wasn't really allowed to make mistakes.)

But if you show signs of being gifted, then adults – the whopping majority of whom are talented perhaps but not ‘gifted’ – will treat you differently, with a kind of awe on one hand and impatience on the other. I was never regarded as ‘gifted’ myself; I and a few others got to skip Grade 4 as we were tested and judged able to do so, and we were a happy little flock the day we got our letters and told the good news. We still went to school just as usual, but had a year taken off, to stifle boredom, more than anything else. (In Grade 6 I wanted to know how to spell déjà vu and my teacher, Mrs. Myers, dutifully went to the classroom where the gifted children were being taught to find out. A year later I was in junior high, reading a learn-as-you-go book of French wishing I could take a class in it, and maybe wishing I was gifted.)

Michael Jackson’s gift was his voice, though; and as it was part of his body it was available to improve upon day and night. He had no chance to skip a year, to want to study something just because it was pleasurable, in and of itself. The voice is there, something that dominates a singer’s life, which they have to protect and train as best they can. Control over the voice becomes a big thing, using it to surprise others, to surprise yourself. But if you are a child and your gift is your voice, then you’re going to have adults – parents, coaches, any other interested parties – wanting you to become ready, skilled, and adept. In Jackson’s case he had a whole family to please, from his father on down, and multiply that awe and impatience several times and there’s Michael, having to learn fast, learn from his mistakes, to work hard and be the star of the Jackson 5, out there gigging and trying to get someone’s attention, and then being signed and groomed by Motown in 1968.

A child has some control over himself, but is still the ward of his parents; a gifted child is monitored hourly and as the gifts are honed and refined, possibilities become realities and what was first hailed as near-miraculous now has to be produced on a regular basis. I don’t know how much of this song could be called improvised or spontaneous, on the part of the performers or the songwriters (who went by the retrospectively kinda-creepy name The Corporation). Motown prided itself on being like a factory, the musicians working long hours, songwriters ditto, the whole thing very professional and demanding. So of course they would want these kids to rehearse and polish and rehearse some more, until they were ready and could do this complex song so easily, it sounds as if it just came to them, more or less.

That the whole thing kicks the 70s off is the least of the surprises – the backwards piano like curtains being flung open, the window opened to this most welcome dawn chorus, Michael leading the way, his four brothers harmonizing behind him, as he tells this story of love, which sounds awfully mature for someone who is only eleven. “When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around” is adolescent arrogance, and his admitting he was wrong to dismiss her, blind to let her go. So many pretty girls, so little time, already. Trying to live without her is unbearable, and he wants to show her that “I know wrong from right.” (Even here Michael has to show that he is good and worthy, and his voice is as loud and insistent as a robin*.)

The song stops and starts and leaps all over the place, piano and strings in front, the song constructed so it has hope and determination and freshness built right in, along with anxiety and flat-out fear. Will he get her back? Can he convince her he’s changed? There is no resolution, just yelping and screaming of Michael at the end, after he climbs up the word “go” as if he is swooping up to the top of the tree, a feat that is astonishing in anyone so young and afterwards disconcerting. How did he learn about how to do this? What is he calling upon – beyond sheer talent – to get that desperate? His “hah” towards the end is more a signal that he has done what he wanted to get done singing than any real confidence that he can get the girl back. Because he hasn’t had time for even the most childish of romances, this song can’t help but feel premature, unbelievable – he sees his girl in another man’s arms? This is not playground love, hopscotching and jump-rope rhymes (though the music makes it seem that way) but adult stuff, or at least adolescent, but what can Michael know of this?

I don’t know, but day-in day-out rehearsing and training can make anything happen, can make a voice – obviously young, haplessly able to dominate, even if he doesn’t want to – do anything, if only for the time it takes to sing a song. (How many songs sound convincing that were sung with no real passion and in some cases utter dislike?) The care and consideration undertaken in launching the group with this song (which took a long time to write – well over a year) meant they could not fail, they could only succeed; and they did, taking over pop and launching Michael out like a satellite (he had his first #1 US hit in 1972 with a song about a boy’s love for a rat – who thought this was a good idea, exactly?) and yet keeping him close, still that gifted student who has to be hot housed on the one hand and forced to prove his worth on the other.

The pressures on Michael pushed him towards life faster than he could assimilate it, towards the 70s before they had even begun; this fresh breeze of a song knocks the late 60s out like a cartoon character, as if to say “I’m the 70s, get out of my way!” That a child who has been all but exploited is leading the way should give anyone pause, but cuteness and naiveté are disarming things, to say the least. Michael Jackson was five when his gift was apparent, and by now he’s a pro at twelve. How can he keep up this momentum without something going wrong? Will he ever get to be a real boy?

“A bird mostly sings to hold a territory, and most birds hold a territory only in spring when they breed; at other times of the year they adopt a different strategy. But the robin’s game plan is to hold a territory throughout the year: a place where he, or she, can feed and stay safe, and survive throughout the hard weather.” (A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion, Simon Barnes, 2005.) It may seem odd to compare a child to a bird, but why else would he do “Rockin’ Robin”? Michael had to hold his territory all the time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pitching In: Canned Heat: "Let's Work Together"

And now we stand on the very threshold of the 70s; we are close enough to press our ear to the wall, hold our breath, and hear what it portends. It portends a great deal, but the first sound that can be made out is...boogie.

No other decade owns this word quite as much as the 70s. It is only fitting that the kickstart here comes straight outta the blues, the bluesmen being from Los Angeles, all having knocked around the scene, starting as collectors of blues sides and then deciding to make some music themselves, in their own way.

Canned Heat brought the boogie far and wide, like blues birds, from Newport to Monterey, Woodstock to their own home town. Hippies loved them, blues fans and blues musicians loved them, and there's a good reason for that; they did this song but only released it after Wilbert Harrison's version (which was a reworking of his own "Let's Stick Together from '62) had had its time in the charts. The song is a crunchy blues that evokes blue collar workers, granola, long hard hours of searching for blues records in dusty shops, and a worldwide call to arms to get up and do something and to do it together, as the power of the collective (as opposed to the individual) was something hippies and others could equally grasp.

After so many sad songs, this blunt and friendly song essentially says that no matter who you are, you've got to do your part, however small it may seem; there's no point in just sitting around, you've got to have something to do. Even if it's for "two or three hours" (clearly Canned Heat understand how tiring picking up litter/writing polite but firm letters to politicians/planning or going on demonstrations is) it is worth it, and just as the blues is for everyone, so is the effort. There is something tough and indomitable about boogie, after all, something humble as well, that says "Hey, this isn't so hard, once you start doing it - you might even find it calming, enjoyable and worth doing again."

Thus the 70s are about to start with a request to make another smile and laugh, to pitch in, to quit feeling sorry for yourself and the last decade and make something new right now. Boogie doesn't care about hipness, it cares about the groove, and respects those who created the boogie groove in the first place, but boogie can't continue on its own; the blues requires dedication, sure, but that dedication is automatic and lifelong, and is like good bread - nourishing, crusty on the outside, comforting and absolutely essential*. And at bottom, utterly simple - and simplicity is what the overwrought late 60s needed, as much as anything else.

Though the band would lose members (most tragically, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, who sings lead on "On The Road Again**" - Bob "The Bear" Hite sings lead here - died in September of 1970, weeks before Hendrix), they are still around - still playing for those who remember this period as one of seemingly endless boogie shuffles, good times and good-natured determination to make a difference and "make life worthwhile."

As this gruff cheer fades away, there is a pause; something that has been in the works for some time - like an elaborate fireworks display, perhaps, or a spectacular painting - is about to be heard, and the world, a bit tired and bleary still, is about to be amazed.

* Dr. Atkins, I would guess, was not a blues fan, nor a man sustained by boogie. Too bad.

** Later covered by Sloan on their epochal Live At A Sloan Party! EP, merging perfectly with Stereolab's "Transona Five" - yes, even French Marxist-Situationists can get down with the boogie. I wonder if Canned Heat have ever heard this...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Time To Say Goodbye: Peter, Paul & Mary: "Leavin' On A Jet Plane"

And so we step from swirling drama to plainspoken fact. The 70s are almost upon us and it is time to leave; even if we enjoyed it, it is over and the future is coldly blank, empty, as empty as a departure lounge once a plane has left; as empty as a life feels without that other person to share it.

What genre of music has been there, lurking in the background, the whole decade, ready to step up for this moment of separation and brave steps into the unknown? Why, folk of course.

And what is folk? That is something I have been pondering, and it’s a tougher question than I expected. It’s far easier to say what it isn’t; it’s not multiple costume changes, strobe lights and elaborate sets; it’s not a category on The X Factor/American Idol; it’s not exactly enamored of show business.

Folk music is of the people, for the people and by the people, hence its name. It celebrates and laments ordinary life, life as lived by the person(s) singing it, whether the story being told is personal , historical or observational. The great songwriting teams dutifully pounding away through the 60s at Motown, the Brill Building or elsewhere had not much to do with folk, though they certainly observed it – all the social struggles of the 60s had a voice in folk, indeed folk led the way (I am counting Bob Dylan as folk, for all intents and purposes here). The early 60s folkies got into rock simply as a way to (literally) amplify their message, and once that had been accomplished, reverted back to their folk/roots/country sounds by the end of the decade. Others just kept strumming and didn’t go rock at all, as it simply wasn’t for them; by far the most famous was Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a lovely hit (amongst many) with their self-deprecating “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” which wasn’t rock at all.

This song was recorded in 1967 (written in 1966 at the airport in Toronto by one John Denver*) and released in 1969, perhaps as a fond farewell of sorts to the decade; no doubt they had been performing it - both Peter, Paul & Mary and The Chad Mitchell Trio (Denver standing in for Mitchell). The song is direct and simple in its way, Mary taking the lead and giving the story - she's sad, she wants forgiveness and unity, but has to go, against her will. Anyone who has had to leave someone at an airport - Toronto or otherwise - will know the sad acceptance here, the longing, the necessary is a hushed song, an uneasy one, but Peter, Paul & Mary had been around since 1961; before the psychedelic paisley freak-outs, before the go-go boots and paper dresses, before the British Invasion, even. They were the ones who helped to make Bob Dylan famous, and they are here to help say farewell to the decade (this was a #1 in the US, sitting neatly between two other songs of promised reunions, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye**" and "Someday We'll Be Together"). After the agonies of "Ruby" and "Suspicious Minds" - country and rock - comes the actual departure with folk.

All music is folk music as Lester Bangs says, but I've always thought of it as music that is open, direct, perhaps a bit mysterious and poetical at times, but more than anything, immediate and public, earnest and funny at turns. Folk was there to wake people up, protest, empower, encourage and console; it was only right, at the end of a troubled decade, for it to come back and acknowledge the loneliness and longing at the end, when there was no choice (the 70s being that taxi honking its horn) but to leave. The future is calling, the past is gone, perhaps to be resolved in the future. But for now, a kiss and hug, quiet words, and then distance, the plane taking off into nothingness.

Whether people wanted it to end or not, the 60s were gone, but as we will see, that doesn't mean they will be forgotten; far from it. 1967 in particular haunts and reminds, popping up and flashing back when least expected. One time cannot help but grow and progress from the seeds of another, and folk continues on, true to itself, even if it's not getting into the charts as it once did***. What is left? For many, it's the only option left: the blues. Boogie is up next, but it's boogie with a purpose.

* I can only wonder if he had heard Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" and wanted to write something like it.

** A personal aside: I always find myself crying at the end of this, even though it's not a sad song, really. The fact that it's sung by fans at the end of games kind of makes it a folk song, in that people are singing it for their own purpose (as opposed to team songs, which are kind of like unofficial anthems).

*** That said, Bruce Springsteen's latest album Wrecking Ball is most certainly folk; as he first was an aspiring folk singer himself back in the mid-60s, this is no surprise.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Unboundedness: Elvis Presley: "Suspicious Minds"

"The panther's tread is on the stairs
Coming up and up the stairs."

"Pursuit" Sylvia Plath

…the advent of vinyl meant you could listen to a song whenever you wanted; you could of course listen for it on the radio, but with vinyl you could just listen to it over and over. The needle would be placed on the opening groove and the spiral nature of the groove would do the rest; the needle would lift at the end of the groove, ready to go back to its stand or be placed right back at the start…eventually a record was cut so that the needle would never leave, though, and that was called a locked groove; Sgt. Pepper ends with one, for instance. Theoretically, a locked groove could play forever, or as long as the listener could stand to hear the same thing over and over again…

…and over and over again, but there was something else the Beatles did too; fade a song out and then fade it in again* - “Helter Skelter” deals with a spiral descent, a relationship of hide and seek, indecision, and if it had been released as it was done in the studio, would have gone on for half an hour…

Music tries to reach infinity however it can. One piece is being played over several centuries**; but pop music was stretching out around this time too, from Jimmy Webb to The Beatles to Isaac Hayes. The go-go 60s where songs had to be around three minutes were still around, but to truly get into a song, to really be carried by it, more time was needed. This stretching of time implies many things; more time to explain, to have orchestral passages, to suggest that what is being said is big and important...which suits the end of a decade and what some may have sensed as the end of an era...

But yes, infinity. That which means "unboundedness" and loops around itself, swinging and returning, not so much a spiral as a length and a curve, a length and a curve...pop singles may be long but they are not infinite; the needle always dutifully leaves the end groove, and it is up to the listener as to whether they want to hear the song again. There is probably a limit to the number of times anyone could hear a song, even one they love, in a row***; but then there are songs that seem to keep revolving of their own accord, that could be listened to repeatedly, looping away, but even that will not work. They will just keep going, like a heartbeat, long after the record player is turned off...if the listener is trying to get a song into or out of his/her system, well, this one will just stay.

There is no beginning, as such; the situation is laid out pure and simple, as if you are walking into something that has already been going for some time - here is infinity, and now you are conscious that you are part of it, that you are (however obscurely) part of the "we."

It is dark; the very middle of the night; when time is not really the point. He's singing about himself, about her, sure, but he is singing so urgently that you can't help but become involved, and as it's an ever-looping situation then you can bet you're taken in, you are part of it whether you like it or not. You become her in a way, are that suspicious and disbelieving mind that will not rest and thus will not let him rest. Throw the clock away: you are like this all the time.

In the infinite world, so much of ordinary life becomes transitory, meaningless. Or almost impossibly stable; it was this way, it is this way, and it will always be this way. One constant - love - meets another one - jealousy - and neither can ever budge. There is no escape, there are only tears, tears that you cannot see, because men aren't supposed to cry in pop songs...can his love conquer her disbelief in the end? Our own dubiousness? How can either of them prove the other is wrong? It loops and loops, slowing down, he begs for their love to survive, praying to her, praying to the infinite itself to slow down, praying for something to break through...

...and then fades out...

...but it is still the night, still the middle, the endless stretching out until it cannot be seen or heard anymore, inaudible but there. The narrator in "Ruby" knew he was going to die and the question was how to take her with him. Death is not an option here; and there is no end to the song. Sure, the needle will leave to go home eventually, but hearing the song again will not prolong anything, because it's already there. Not even fading it out will work, not even the song technically 'ending' will do. The infinite has opened up and makes a mockery of things like 'endings' and for that matter, 'beginnings' - and you are part of it now, witness, if not actual participant, in the whole relationship here, with its looks and accusations and tears and pleas and insomnia...

...and of course this comes from the same writer (Mark James) as "Always On My Mind" - there he is in another kind of infinity, one next door to this one - the Other is not suspicious there as lonely and ready to break up, to go. But here there is no going, he can't go even if she does, and the only sign of any resolution is in her least she cares, even if her caring is making him a nervous wreck.

Elvis is caught in a trap; how poignant that sounds, coming from a man who has just proved to the world once again that he is indeed the King; how poignant that he recorded this in a studio that no longer exists (not at home in Graceland, which would have been just too much). The song was recorded to approximate how he did the song in Las Vegas, the fade-out/fade-in in particular; it is a song that could in theory be sung forever...everyone is on it here, playing and singing as if they are just as desperate as Elvis is...he may well be caught in a trap - a trap of his own making, hapless...but he's going to make art out of it, one way or another...and he laughs at the end, happy, having escaped the song, if not the situation... is a cliche, I feel, to say that music keeps going long after the musicians who created it; a lot of music gets forgotten, lost, after all. Musicians themselves forget lyrics, songs, whole albums (i.e. Robin Gibb and his Sing Slowly Sisters). Here Elvis presents us with a song that is right in the middle of everything, a song that once again everyone can understand (the old "Elvis is everyone/Everyone is Elvis" idea), that too many people have been caught in...and he rollicks through this live, like a figure in a great painting that knows it's in a great painting...happy to be in the infinite.

And here in the infinite is where I leave Elvis: but really, do I leave him here? He returns again and again in the charts and in music so much as to be part of the infinite himself, always indisputably there if only in theory, a monarch perhaps for twenty years but much longer than that in the imagination. (There are future #2s for Elvis, but they are all previous #1s and so I won't be writing about them.) It is only fitting to end here, end with him having reclaimed his right to rock, to sweat it out onstage and live out the music, to sing a song that never really ends (which he plainly understands)...a song that continues even after it ends, an ur-song, if you will. A song that everyone, including poets, understands:

"And you will never know what a battle/I fought to keep the meaning of my words/Solid with the world we were making./I was afraid, if I lost that fight/Something might abandon us."

"Fidelity" Ted Hughes

*Jimi Hendrix did this as well, on “Manic Depression.”

**Though not composed as such until 1987, Cage's work was, I'm sure, being thought of before then; the longest symphony in the regular orchestral repertoire is Mahler's No. 3, which can take up to one hundred minutes to play. Cage's work can be played much faster, of course, but even at its fastest takes nearly fifteen hours.

***How many times have you listened to a song the whole way through? Not because you had to, but because you wanted to...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sunshine Punch: The Cuff Links: "Tracy"

And so the 70s begin, not overnight but trailing along in the wake of '69, like baby partridges following their mama partridge (as one tv show's opening credits would have it). The first few songs here - before the 70s start properly and the colors of this blog change - are about separation and unity in their ways, and as a nod to the happy face that beams out amidst the still-disconcerting chaos the 60s left, I am starting with an NME #2 from that haven of thumbs-up American goodness, bubblegum.

The biggest non-human (so to speak) single of '69 was "Sugar Sugar" - by The Archies, who in reality were a studio band put together by Don Kirshner, who wanted a band that wouldn't rebel on him like The Monkees did. Ron Dante was the main man in The Archies, but since no one knew who he was, he could just as easily become the lead singer (or really, the only one) of another band, and thus were born The Cuff Links.

And this is textbook bubblegum, ba-ba-bababa-ing along, horn-heavy and high on sugar and sunshine like a third-grader drinking his/her first Coke on a warm day at lunchtime. But it's also very much a product (written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who had written "Catch A Falling Star" amongst other hits) and with Dante doing all vocals it was done very quickly; and since it was a huge hit, a whole Cuff Links album was recorded in a matter of days, done as quickly as possible to capitalize on "Tracy"'s success. All the songs were by Vance and Pockriss, who had written more than enough songs for the purpose, and they hired a young guy, Rupert Holmes, to arrange the songs, just to speed things up even more*.

If the whole thing sounds commercial - or even like a commercial, as if it's pop made just to make money and nothing else, then that's true; and you'd think that this music, as opposed to The Monkees, would be reviled by the baby boomers who take music so seriously (at least The Monkees wanted to be real; The Archies/Cuff Links were just musicians getting paid for studio time).

But they didn't, and still don't, as this is music so ephemeral as to be trapped in its time period (I began seriously listening to AM radio in '78 and never heard this, not even on good old KRLA, who would play anything), evocative of that cheery sunny time when the decade was shiny and had that new decade naivete to it. The Cuff Links, as you can see, were a real band, as such, but they were put together by the songwriters, and Dante was forbidden by his new solo contract with Kirshner to tour with them; Dante had to get his considerable royalties for his work by confronting Vance in person; a second Cuff Links album was recorded with a new singer, and that was pretty much that for Ron Dante and The Cuff Links, whose second album featured Rupert Holmes, instead.

So much ugliness sits behind this bouncy song, and yet it is a bubblegum classic, not that anyone thought what they were doing was anything special - just simple pop for kids, kids only vaguely aware of the more 'serious' music forms, content to eat their Pop Tarts and drink Tang and so on. Nothing that nourishing, but pleasurable and now nostalgia-inducing, churned out just as mechanically but feeling like sunshine, with that longing that fuels all bubblegum...

Next up: a song that has no end.

*Holmes also wrote songs as well as arranged them - working with everyone from The Partridge Family to Dolly Parton, Gene Pitney to a new singer on the New York scene, Barry Manilow. He eventually had a #1 hit in the US at the other end of the 70s, virtually inventing yuppies before they existed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Turn Around: Kenny Rogers And The First Edition: "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"

She looks in the mirror, tousling her hair a little it, just to make sure it doesn't look too much like a helmet. She still does her hair, unlike those hippie girls; she's not one of them. She wears short skirts, sure, but everyone does by now; but she goes out wearing stockings and heels, not bare-legged with sandals. She is looking for a man - who he is, she's not sure yet, she'll know him when she sees him. She dresses this way once a week, doing her nails and powdering her face more regularly - he knows mainly by her hairdo where she is going. She has heard his protests before, is inured to them - but what is she supposed to do? Where is she supposed to go?

Her lipstick and nails match; her stockings are straight; she has chosen her necklace to go with her dress, and thence her earrings to go with all of that. She is young and needs attention - the kind of attention that he can't, or won't, give her any more. If only he understood. For him it's that he thinks she wants sex, but sex is only really part of it. There is so much that leads up to it, so much flirting and small talk and just the good feeling of being with someone who is paying attention to you. Doesn't he notice these romances don't really go anywhere? It's not like she has a lover, another man, in particular. And it's not like she does this every Saturday night, either, though's been that way.

It's familiar, this feeling. She feels as if she is two places at once. She knows she should be with him, that he really doesn't have long, and then she can do as she pleases. Perhaps she should stay home with him; she sees a vet on crutches going down the main road and has to stop and pause, because he's not alone - his woman's with him, and there they are, talking away, going to a movie or restaurant maybe. Sigh. It's his legs that make him want to stay home she thinks, and he can't really go anywhere in his wheelchair.

She pauses again and continues on, refusing to go back. She will sleep on it and resolve herself, give herself up for now, and quit acting like he doesn't exist. Like the war existed just to ruin their relationship, which was a good one. She will try to have a good time, though tonight her heart is in her mouth; that song is on the jukebox, the meanest one in town, but she will withstand its sting one more time, daring fate to give her a better man. If he turns up tonight, then that's that...if not, I'll live with him until he's gone. She is not one for giving up, but she cannot live without romance. Without that zing in the air, that fun. He's got to understand that, right?

He sits and waits. He's murderous; he's resigned - if she dies, then that will be on his conscience too. Doesn't she know he still loves her, still needs her around? Maybe tonight she'll change her mind, come back at a reasonable time, and not late and drunk. As long as she comes back early, he can stand it, just. One day he'll be dead and she'll be sorry, she's got to understand that. She is his soul; his living link to the rest of the world. Sure she can have fun, but he needs her far more than she can comprehend. Maybe tonight he'll tell her nicely, not get angry. Can he do that? He's tried before...he'll have to try again. There is nothing else he can do, and silently suffering is not for him. Neither is breaking up, there's no point.


How hopeless they both are; how he said vs. she said are their views; how has this war and decade changed them both. The old world is slipping away, the madness of war has come into their own home. Both armed for battle, one way or another. She is silent, determined; he sounds older than his years, weary, vaguely threatening and scary. This is the anger of the decade bubbling up, a deathly decade that has to end. Maybe he will live longer than they said; maybe she will be faithful. Both will grow either tired of the same routine, or become like stone, unable to move, to grow, to evolve. Perhaps one day she will push him down the street, they will go out and begin to be a couple again. But that's for the spring, when it's warm enough and the flowers are out, the ones he once planted for her.

End of An Era: Stevie Wonder: "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday"

For many, the end of the 60s must have been something of a cross between the ending of a particularly good party and the physical uneasiness after getting off a twisting and turning funfair ride - wobbliness and an odd feeling of being slightly above the ground, feet only sort of connecting with it. There was disappointment as well, a haplessness - that so much went wrong, that the warmth and optimism and high hopes instilled by JFK - his death being the first of many blows - were as transitory and disorienting as that ride, a ride that (if you will) included just about everyone who cared about anything in the 60s, from the students in Paris to the antiwar protesters to civil rights activists. You did not have to be involved directly in the 60s to have this unease; the 60s, even for the most mild-mannered of bystanders, was compelling and involving, inspiring and exhausting.

Here Stevie Wonder sings as if it is the decade itself that he is breaking up with; it is as if the time and the people are bound into one, so much so that when he sings, acutely, "I had a dream" you know he is signifying more than just his own dream, but Dr. King's as well; while Wonder might well be singing specifically to his American audience, it's not as if people in the UK didn't pay attention - everyone did, and this song is big enough to include them, and also big enough to realize that there were "games" played that were more destructive than constructive; and that the world "we once knew" has been lost, a world where everything seemed to turn out right, where everything seemed possible.

That is an awful feeling, I think you will agree, dear readers - and this song, while a bit cloying with its use of "yester"s, gets to the point. The decade is gone; hopes have vanished; time has inevitably passed. Did anyone at this time actually look forward to the 1970s? I do wonder about that, but as so often happens, a decade ends and another begins, with not much noticeable difference at first. One person, however, who was looking forward to the next decade was Wonder himself - still a teenager at this point, he had to do things the way Berry Gordy wanted them done; and for that matter, the sing the songs he wanted him to sing. (Compare this pretty ballad with what Norman Whitfield was doing with the Temptations ["I Can't Get Next To You"] at this time, and Wonder comes off as a little old-fashioned, though not as melancholy as Robin Gibb or stoic as The Bee Gees.) For Motown Wonder was the prodigal teenager, but soon he would be old enough to do what he wanted, and his work would change drastically.

But this is a bittersweet farewell, a goodbye baby and amen to a relationship, a time, a tumultuous ride that I expect more than a few were glad to see end, at least chronologically. Souvenirs are packed away, sights and sounds are bid adieu, and crying starts, or stops. That is that, Wonder says, and it's sad. But it's gone, and the puzzle is, as another Motown group sang once, where did our love go?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Happiness Is Not At Home: The Tremeloes: "Call Me (Number One)"

We are now at the end; as the 60s become the 70s things are starting to unravel, new threads are opening up for the next decade. If the most of the 60s is dominated by The Beatles - who by this time only really exist in name - then this is but a small fragment of what they were taken to stand for at this time, just as psychedelia flourished when they released "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever."

The Beatles play on the roof of the Apple building in early '69, as if to prove they still exist*, and here we have the Tremeloes playing in Trafalgar Square, mostly to tourists and a few passers-by and local office workers. Hey! they seem to be saying with their long hair, beards and plain clothing, we are hip to the whole back to the basics thing now, we wrote this song and everything! And there is a stomp-stomp simplicity to this that makes this a product of a near Venn diagram intersection of proto-stompy rock, European appeal (they stayed popular in Europe long after having lost favor in the UK) and bubblegum catchiness. The song is all about wanting to be on the road, despite knowing that she is miserable at home (rain, as ever, is shorthand for misery here) and wanting to bring her out with him on the road, where he is happy and presumably the sun always shines. They will be happy and she will be happier with him than without him.

Whether this reflected the lives of the band members I don't know, but the tug-of-war lyrically reflects that late 60s/early 70s trope of home vs. the road, with some resolving to make the road their home, only to find they then really have no home. (The rather uneasy can of worms here is what bands get up to when they are on the road, which I will get to in the fullness of time.) The sing-a-long (lead by Dave Munden, on drums) is cheery and a bit laddish and it sounds to me as if sure, they miss their wives/girlfriends, wouldn't it be cool to bring them along, but can you imagine the reaction any of these women would have to the idea? Why can't they call their guy number one as it is?

I almost feel as if I am making too much of a simple song, but there is a tension here that Alan Blakely and Chip Hawkes have revealed about musicians' lives once they have families and obligations, and that is that the gang comes first. Maybe a romance is being rekindled here, but why is he afraid to go home? And if she is miserable there, can't he go home and fix it there? Nope; he's on the road, and if she wants him, she can just go and meet up with him there, at the hotel/inn/motel wherever the band is staying. Can she do this happily? Will she enjoy being on the road? Hmmm...

This is a jaunty song that has many awkward sides to it, revealing just how little has changed in the 60s; how profoundly masculine the music business was (and, some might say, still is), for instance...and the video shows how straight-laced the public was in general, compared to the band, who look almost immediately suspect, as if they have been photoshopped in at a later time**.

The 70s, whether we like it or not, are upon us; next up is a goodbye to what once was, as the pastels turn to hues and people try to grapple with the new realities once more. That it's sung by someone who will be huge in the 70s makes it all the more complicated...

*Nearly two decades later U2 do the same sort of thing, also to prove they are 'real'; "Call Me (Number One)" is at #2 behind a completely unreal group, The Archies, which leads me to wonder who the Archies of 1988 were.

**They look, quite frankly, like they could be extras for this classic video.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Guiding Hand: Fleetwood Mac: "Oh Well Part 1 & 2"

There are times - they are rare - when, in the midst of turmoil and dissatisfaction, there is nevertheless a startling and still subtle sense of change. Something, you might feel, is going to happen; it is in the air; a harbinger or sign appears and it is as if all the molecules in the room shift, ever so slightly, in a different direction. Things may appear the same on a day-to-day level, but really, deep down, something is happening.

At times like these, people, ideas, chords seem to manifest, disappear, and reappear; the future reaches back to reassure the present that no matter how things look now, everything will turn out as it should. That doesn't always mean it will be pleasant; in fact, terrible things can occur along the way. But the promise of the present will be fulfilled.

Fleetwood Mac practically embody this with this single (I count it as one song on two sides of a single) to an uncanny degree. From the start they sound utterly on it, demonically all in gear, Fleetwood hitting the cowbell as if he's hitting a glass at a wedding for a speech. Peter Green pulls no punches: he knows he isn't much and warns you that if you want his opinion, he's going to give it, warts and all. There is nowhere to hide here, as the band rocks along tightly to the last verse - that he is close to God, God cares for him, but again, don't ask God his opinion either; you might not like what he thinks.

Then things take an utterly backwards - or is it forwards? - turn. The drums disappear, leaving only guitars and a cello, which meander along poetically, then dramatically, a recorder coming in now and then, kind of like Ravel meeting the Shadows. All is slow, meditative, very beautiful. It's not really rock or the blues as such; even as the piano climbs in to widen the scene, this is more cinematic than anything else; fit for a western, maybe one where there's no good guys, just lesser bad men.

Then a crash, the drums come in, the single solitary figure coming back, maybe from the near dead. It is as if it is a soundtrack to a soul lost and then found; someone who has suffered and survived.

Only Fleetwood Mac could have pulled this off, this split single, schizophrenic you may call it, and it sounds as if the future Fleetwood Mac is coming into shape with part 1, and part 2 is a more delicate, female forecast of what is to come. And yes, this all comes from the underworld of Peter Green, so it is prophetic in that way too - the sudden, unpredictable side of him, the one which wanted to be holy, to give money away. Green had been taking LSD and changing, changing so much that on one trip he went with a roadie to a party in a commune in Germany (where the band was touring at the time) and wouldn't leave the commune afterwards. The band got him out eventually, but Green left the band a few weeks later, as spiritual experiences were what he was after, and not musical fame and fortune. So by spring 1970, just a few months from "Oh Well"'s success, he was gone.

He did continue to make music, even touring with his old band when they needed him, but by 1973 he...disappeared*. Fleetwood Mac brought in Christine McVie and Bob Welch for a while; another original member, Danny Kirwan, left in 1972. Things got so strange for the band that a fake band claiming they were the 'real' Fleetwood Mac popped up, which didn't exactly help the tense and troubled group, who managed to keep recording and touring anyway. And then...

...Bob Welch (who basically made them a California-centered group) left, tired of the legal and touring hassles (the fake group being dismissed), left. Enter Mick Fleetwood, scouting for a good recording studio in Los Angeles, and enter soon after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had recorded their album there. Fleetwood heard it, liked Buckingham's playing and asked him to join; he said yes, but only if you take Stevie on as well. Christine was delighted to have another female to talk to on the road and elsewhere, and the rest is pretty much history. That Buckingham was another guitar demon who grew up listening to early Fleetwood Mac is either destiny or fate, however you look at it.

Here is the new Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well"; this is the sound of a band reborn, claiming its roots, realizing; yeah, this is going to work; this song was made for us. It's a link from the past that the group keep doing, no matter who is there; a gift from Peter Green for the ages...

But what about the second part? The eerie quiet, as if something is about to happen...well, Green was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, given treatment for it (electroshock therapy, I believe) and generally had a troubled 70s, he managed, with his brother's help, to get himself together enough to get a record deal; he was friendly with Fleetwood and Fleetwood invited him to help out on Tusk's "Brown Eyes"; and thus the spiritual father of the group came by, amidst his own troubles (his first and only marriage was breaking down at the time) played and then left. He turned down a big contract (the band was eager to have him record again for Warner Brothers) - Green was happier to work on a smaller, humbler level. To stay out of trouble was enough for him, I suspect; having big deals after gaining some sanity would be too much for him. He was always helped out by his family and Fleetwood when needed, and he continues to play now and then, content to devote himself to the blues.

That is the second part - the trials, travails, and eventual welcome return, a return that not all ex-band members from 60s groups could handle**. This no-nonsense song, about truth, about being an outsider, about judging others but knowing you are also being judged just as fiercely by God - has a joy to it as well, a freedom, not just in the first part but the second; as if after turmoil there is peace. Green wrote this song perhaps to show there was more to him than the blues; perhaps to give a coda to the 60s, a hint that things were going to change, for himself and his band, and that ultimately all would be reunited, in ten years' time. The promise was fulfilled, after all...

*Jeremy Spencer, another original member, just up and left the group to join the Children of God, so Green stepped in.

**I tend to think Syd Barrett's prescence on Wish You Were Here is audible, even though he didn't play on it. For Green to help, even a little, on Tusk shows that the band still cared for Green, and maybe needed his own subtle influence while making the album.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Higher Love: Lou Christie: "I'm Gonna Make You Mine"

Now, a zen question. When is a bubblegum song not a bubblegum song? When it comes accompanied by this startling video. There is nothing colorful about it; you can imagine that even if it were in color, it would be a palette of grays, blues and browns - and yet here we are in an industrial landscape, with a song about romantic determination, a handsome young man ambling about, in the cold evidently, with no one else around...

...and since he is from Pittsburgh, I am guessing that this is where the video was shot; as if to say, this is where I'm from. The song doesn't need the visuals of course, but the utter groundedness here points to something Christie would do in a couple years' time - release an album about the US called Paint America Love. Tony Romeo, a bubblegum producer straight out of the Buddah Records corral, wrote "I'm Gonna Make You Mine" and contributed two songs to Paint America Love; the rest were written by Christie and his constant co-writer, Twyla Herbert, a songwriter/mystic in the best Stevie Nicks tradition. I point to the album in part because there's only so many songs about romantic love anyone can sing (Christie's biggest hit being the octave-leaping "Lightning Strikes" where he indeed sounds as if he's being controlled by Mother Nature*), even songs as slightly intimidating as this one. (To those who are free souls, he sounds awfully controlling; but it's not that far from Motown's "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," for instance.)

But Paint America Love is about Christie's love for a beleaguered and polluted nation, one that needs a big hug and even if it's not SMiLE, exactly, it is a statement, and a moving one, that I didn't expect to be nearly as good as it is. ("Campus Rest" and "Waco" are my favorites but all the songs are great, even the ecological "Paper Song.") Bubblegum-like as this song might be, Christie had greater ideas in mind for his music than others, and there is a warmth to his voice (even at his high range) that is somehow reassuring.

Not everyone stepped from doing a Buddah pop song to a disarmingly great album, but he did; the young man from Pittsburgh stayed true to himself, and moved that romantic love up to embrace a whole country. Never mind that not everyone heard it at the time; it has and will keep finding the right ears.

Next, a return to the underworld, before all hell breaks loose.

*Funny how Dr. Paglia, who champions all things Italian-American in particular, never mentions Lou Christie, who by 1971 was putting his real last name, Sacco, after his stage name.

Monday, March 5, 2012

There Were Two: The Bee Gees: "Don't Forget To Remember"

And now the pace picks up, if only a little. We are in the world of Barry and Maurice Gibb, with Barry, I believe, taking the lead. And it's a country weepie; strings, acoustic guitars, hurtin' lyrics, a piano to ground it all. If Robin has left, to stray into increasingly odd and baroque areas, the other two are playing it utterly straight, ignoring that whole scene altogether. I cannot help but think this song must go back to the country they grew up hearing (in Manchester and Brisbane), the plain-talking that's-the-way-hearts-break music that was the root of so much to come, the seemingly paradoxical no-nonsense attitude it has matched equally with sentimentality.

"You're the mirror of my soul so take me out of my hole" is perhaps a bit much, but unlike so many Bee Gees songs there are no awkwardnesses here, no lines broken down or phrased so oddly as to sound translated from French. Nope, this is about as plain-speaking as The Bee Gees ever got, depicting the smooth misery of an aching heart, a photo on the wall, a whole world that is both present and remote as the stars themselves. The two do a fine job with this song; if it was written to get them a hit, then it did its job; though it wasn't a hit in the U.S. (this is the first time I've heard the song - and the first time I've heard the previous entry's song as well). It was the single from Cucumber Castle (there was a UK tv special to go along with its release, starring Lulu and Vincent Price amongst others) and proved the two could get along just fine without Robin if they had to...though they didn't, as it turned out, have any success with the next single in the U.S. either, which caused Barry and Maurice to part ways themselves for a bit, though by the end of 1970 all three were together again.

So much of what was happening with these three brothers was happening with so many families; fights, reconciliations, experiments and triumphs...the 60s emboldened folks to go it alone, and then being alone was the thing; but the pull for a home is always there, and after one too many strange and disturbing nights, too many bad trips and so on, the pull to go back home looked less like giving up and more like common sense. Maybe the brothers Gibb had to pull themselves apart to appreciate each other more, to sense their own strengths and weaknesses; to realize indeed that for them three was the magic number and what they could do together was far greater than what they could do apart. I can imagine Robert Stigwood shaking his head at them fondly, wondering what took them so long to figure this out.

From these rather slow songs things start to pick up, as '69 comes to a close*...

*I should note here that I won't be writing about M. Gainsbourg et Mlle. Birkin as the same recording that got them to #2 also got to #1; I will eventually write about French music here, but not just yet.

The Black Sheep: Robin Gibb: "Saved by the Bell"

And now, dear readers, we turn away from big statement singles recorded live to the more mundane world of family struggles and "you're too beautiful to suffer" sentiments. Despite all the big happenings of the summer, there were still those who wanted a sad ballad and a pin-up for their locker; Robin Gibb was as likely a candidate as anyone (so he felt) and he was tired of having to squabble over who sang lead on Bee Gees songs. When a song of his was demoted to a b-side (the a-side being Barry's quite good "First of May"), he left, determined to have a solo career, knowing the audience for him was already out there. He was the runaway child of the group, the one his parents threatened to have made a ward of the state. His parents must have had second thoughts on this, and instead the whole family watched as he went his own way, musically and otherwise.

Thus, I cannot be too harsh over this song. Sure it's clunky; sure, Robin is as usual singing like a particularly lost lamb.

Even if there was no evidence of drug use, no one puts out a single like this totally straight; and the more I think about it, the stranger the song gets. Who is this "two" he mentions - him and his ex-girlfriend, or himself and some other guy? Has he had to lie about who he is in order for her life - a "carousel" of men - to continue peacefully? The whole aura here is of a man who is sacrificing himself to someone and then bleating about it, as if that would, or could, change things. Will this other man love her? He is crying for both of them, just in case he doesn't. Oh Robin, where will you go? "Now I'll walk down heartbreak lane" he sings at the end, needlessly*, rhyming with nothing else in the song. (Is it me, or does he also sing "heartbreak place" as well? And are either of these near a certain hotel on lonely street? Ah the mysteries of music.)

This is, in essence, a wail of a song that was simple enough to be a big hit and yet, for all that, not quite enough. Robin's Reign came next but was not a success; and Gibb doesn't recall making his next album, Sing Slowly Sisters at all, which may well point to stresses that the music itself was unable to ease. "Saved by the Bell" was the whole high point (commercially, at any rate) for Gibb, who returned to the Bee Gees in 1970, having had his say and said his piece (even if Sing Slowly Sisters wasn't ever officially released; I think bootlegs of it must have appeared in the 90s, but I'm not sure).

For a while, Robin Gibb got to make his own music, pained and melancholy and beautiful, in its own way. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, walking alone; a mixed-up kid, learning the hard way that independence means sacrifice and isn't always the joyous thing it's made out to be. For now he walks alone, apart from his brothers...who are next.

*By the overly orchstrated near funeral march pace, we already know this is a song of heartbreak, though not in the Housewives of Valium Court style, exactly.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Perfectly Imperfect: The Monkees: "Daydream Believer"

(This is an edited version of a piece I wrote several years ago I'm posting in the wake of the death of Davy Jones. It was a #2 in the NME.)

"We did play, we did perform, we did make music and we made music recently. It's not like we weren't anything. We weren't nothing. We were something."

Peter Tork

If anyone ever stopped me on the street (politely) and asked me what I thought of Rolling Stone, I would have to say that it is run by someone who hates The Monkees. Everything it fundamentally stands for flows out of that...

Back in the 90s I was interested in the idea of the 'canon' and I read as many lists of books as I could find, including the Harold Bloom tome The Western Canon. What I discovered surprised me. At first, going way back to the Greeks and Romans, everyone agreed, almost monolithically, maybe differing a little here or there. But once the lists got closer and closer to the 20th century, the more and more the various lists began to diverge. The 20th century (when attempted) was always indicative of the truth of all canons: they are founded on the personal taste of the compiler.

The same thing stands with music, only music seems much more hasty as of late to make itself canonical instead of waiting for time itself to sort out what will last and what won't. There is a good reason for this of course; music (even with the longer cds) is a much more compact experience - somehow much more immediate - than a novel. And a lot of music writers (I am thinking of how Hornby described how he chose what to write about while at the New Yorker) are not willing to take chances, chances that they are supposed to take on behalf of their readers, not to mention themselves. Thus the phenomenon of the 'instant classic' and the presumed genius of people, which sometimes is correct and sometimes, not. Thus also a dislike of music for music's sake, as the horrible onerous burden of writing about music dictates that you take yourself and the music very seriously, that you be provocative (kind of) and portentous (sometimes) and even when praising pop, say that it 'rises above' the usual mish-mash of pop already available. 21 is the new catch of the day; clearly superior; it merits time spent with Adele as she goes about her penchant for black clothing and medical woes, instead of actually thinking about the songs and how they might compare to other female artists in an associative way, as opposed to making up football-style leagues or tiers...oh but that is tiresome; one must sit down and listen, flatter some, make comforting noises, as if no other great albums by British women had been released in the year, after all pop's memory is so short... short that if The Monkees somehow happened now, there could be no backlash. Every artist of any worth who is somehow discovered on a reality show owes something to The Monkees. They are like the pioneers who were noble and struggled and and bickered amongst themselves and others and turned a Hollywood version of a town into a real actual place to live, a place others could inhabit in their own ways, in their own times. You only have to look at the various Idol winners to see how real talent will win out over time (Kelly Clarkson vs. Clive Davis shows just how short the leash is, even now, and how what the Monkees fought for has to be fought for again and again; once more, short memory)...

The Monkees themselves imploded & expanded - the series (apparently never a big ratings-grabber, only watched by their fans) ended in 1968, Head was released haphazardly to mixed reviews, and the band was more or less done by 1970. But in another sense, they never really went away. Just as The Beatles meant something to people - something maybe a bit too complex to put into words - so did The Monkees. There's no way their music could have lasted otherwise, with or (as it stands) without the help of the 'canonical' folks at Rolling Stone.

"Daydream Believer" was the soundtrack to happy Christmas shopping in 1967 and it again balances the cold, stinging realities of life with the more rosy, idealistic tenor of the year. Yet there is some sadness to it, a sadness that has to be seen as warm and perspective-widening. The chorus - "Cheer up sleepy Jean! Oh what can it mean to a/Daydream believer and a homecoming queen?" both acknowledges that the world isn't perfect, but little problems should remain just that - little- the quotidian problems and situations are always there, but what can they mean to those who have bigger ideas and hopes and each other to nestle in? Despite what I have read here & there, this is not a hard song to understand. Is the world perfect? No. But why should it be? The Monkees, to start, weren't a 'real' band. Well, why should they have to be one in the first place? (The deepest irony in the whole business is that even though they did gain a remarkable amount over control over their music, they still couldn't please the rockists. Real rock bands, in the meantime, paid close attention to them, the ones who could learn from them, anyway.) Kevin Rowland did a cover of this on My Beauty that digs into the song and shows how much it meant to him, and to many others. It is a warm song, heralding perfectly imperfect happiness, a determination to be joyous - this song represents 1967 every bit as much as all the others I've written about.

I wish I could write more about The Monkees, but I have yet to see Head and have yet to hear more of their music. But I will leave things for now with one more Davy Jones-lead song. Come on, pilgrim you know you love them...

No group ever had a theme song that so foreshadowed what they were going to do. They didn't just come to your town, kids, they built it. Yay Monkees! And rest in peace to Davy Jones, whose cuteness combined with a sweet toughness that girls of all ages fell for, and will always fall for.