WHY IT REALLY IS IMPOSSIBLE TO RANK ART (Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #10)

This week I did something I used to do on an almost obsessive basis and rarely do at all anymore.

Amidst a lot of exhaustion and hurly-burly, I sat in my den and listened to four straight albums.

Just like that.

Propped up a chair some time after midnight, set a coke on the coaster behind me (that’s the way the den is set up…to have the coaster behind me when I’m sitting in front of my speakers…it’s best not to inquire too closely into why, but one of the main reasons is because, well, I don’t sit and listen to four albums in a row much anymore.)

There are practical and impractical reasons why I used to do it a lot–the salient one being that I was chasing both healing and understanding, two concepts that are not necessarily bound to cooperate with each other.

And there are practical and impractical reasons why I don’t do it much anymore–the salient one being that, at my age, I’ve probably given up on understanding as much as I once hoped to and achieved as much healing as is likely to occur on this particular plane of existence.

The four albums I ended up listening to were not chosen entirely at random. I really did listen after the old fashion. I picked the first one because something (I honestly don’t recall what) had brought it up this week (oh, wait, now I remember, it was Dave Marsh’s appreciation of Lou Reed in the latest, far-too-long-in-coming edition of Rock and Rap Confidential) and made me want to do that thing I do far too seldom anymore, which is grab a great record and JUST SIT AND LISTEN.

So I pulled out the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (that was Reed’s final album with his original band for those who might be wondering) and, like I said, pulled up the chair and let myself feel the music and enjoy it after the style of days gone by.

It definitely helped that Loaded is an album I know front to back. I could sing along or pick a little air guitar or tap my thighs to the rhythm (bass or drums….or both) as the mood struck me.

And the whole while, I’m thinking what I always think (what I assume most people think) when I’m in the presence of something that is both bottomless and perfect–something that reveals itself anew after hundreds of encounters and which forges (and then constantly reinforces) a logic so powerful it’s hard to conceive of a moment when it didn’t exist or a moment when anyone would imagine wanting to change a single small element of it.

By all of which I mean I’m thinking: “What could possibly be better than this?”

But I was also thinking (again after the old fashion): “Oh man, what’s next?”

So my mind, which barely operates on one track these days, was suddenly alive enough to run on two tracks and somewhere in there it became completely obvious that the next album I had to listen to was Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays (a record I know pretty well, though not nearly as well as Loaded) and the album I had to listen to after that was Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks (an album I really only got into in the last year or so and don’t know that well at all).

And some time during What We Did On Our Holidays, it became obvious that the album I wanted to listen to after Blood On the Tracks was that one by the Isley Brothers I got not too long ago that starts with a stunning medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (which, in its original, sounds like a Neil Young record and was released under the aegis of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and ends with a stunning cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (which, in its original, sounds like a Crosby, Stills and Nash record and was released as a Stephen Stills’ solo), the journey–any journey–between those two things amounting to my idea of a “concept” record all by itself.

I had to look up that last one because I got it in a box set of five cheap Isley Brothers LPs from the late sixties/early seventies and–I cannot tell a lie–I can’t yet tell one title from another.

Turned out it was called Givin’ It Back.

I went ahead and dug it up between Holidays and Blood on the Tracks–you know, just in case I forgot and then had to spend the rest of the night trying to remember which album I knew I wanted to listen to next!

Having pulled it out of its little 5-LP box (guessed it on the second try) I almost put it on first (sorry I still use record player terminology–I know the proper phrase for the digital age is to put it “in”). Then I resisted the temptation to mess with my preconceptions and played the albums in the order I had originally thought I would.

And what did I learn, exactly?

Or, more accurately, of what great, standing truth was I thus reminded?

The fragility of both Fate and Judgment, I’m afraid.

See, if you asked me to “rate” or, better yet, “rank” these four albums, I would put them in the order I played them:

1. Loaded
2. What We Did On Our Holidays
3. Blood On the Tracks
4. Givin’ It Back

And I would know–after listening to them all running together in one night–that such a ranking is arbitrary if not downright silly.

I’d put Loaded first because it’s the one I know best. I know it best because I’ve known it longest. I’ve known it longest because I happened to be in the mood to try it one night thirty years ago (or so) and picked it over any one of dozens of other records I could have chosen that same night.

Simple as that.

If some trick of fate–some impulse in that record store (or some other) thirty years ago had caused me to pick up Blood on the Tracks instead (I doubt the others would have been available in any record store I was likely to visit back then–I’m pretty surprised Loaded was) and I had put off picking up Loaded on CD until a couple of years ago because every time I was in a mood to try it, it wasn’t available (or was available in the far less than pristine, though definitely cheap, vinyl copy of Tracks I did pick up five or six years ago but then played only once because, well, it was cheap and used and I got what I paid for) and every time it was available I wasn’t in the mood for more Dylan–well then, there’s a real good chance (though by no means a certainty) that I would rate Blood On the Tracks higher now.

Simply because I knew it better.

I mean, I’ve heard it enough these last couple of years to know it’s a great album. Maybe no Highway 61 Revisited (not much is) but darn close.

And generally speaking, that’s what value comes down to–our very particular experience.

In a perfect world, I’d live long enough, have time enough, to let all these other albums I know less well than Loaded acquire the same sort of weight through repetition. In a perfect world, there would be enough time to know these four albums–and a few thousand others–well enough to know how they really stacked up against each other.

In a perfect world, I might know for certain whether or not the presence of “Who Loves the Sun?” (answer: “not everyone” of course) on the first album I listened to on a particular night led me not-so-coincidentally to an album which contained among other items (like “The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place?” and “Nottamun Town,” the sound of the latter being way scarier than the title of the former), a song called “Tale In Hard Time” which begins with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise.” And that listening to a couple of albums filled (along with some good old rock and roll) with those and many other, rather similar sentiments, might lead me to an album which I know just well enough to know contains a song called “Shelter From the Storm.”

Yes, in a perfect world, I’d certainly have the kind of time on my hands required to figure all that out.

Then again–if the world was perfect–I probably wouldn’t need lists that ranked things or notions that linked things and neither would you (assuming you are, like me, the unenviable kind that has ever needed them at all).

These thoughts aren’t exactly new even with me–and they aren’t even close to new with lots of others.

But this week, they hit me a little harder than usual.

Maybe because, after all that, what came bleeding through with the greatest possible urgency and clarity wasn’t even Ohio native Ronnie Isley singing about the dead bodies at Kent State as though he’d been invited to their funeral (i.e., not at all the way Neil Young sang it, which was as a call to arms and appropo enough in the moment), but his singing–immediately after and maybe not by coincidence–James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

It bled through–and kept on bleeding–even though the first minute and half is misconceived from a production standpoint and the final bit repeats the misconception. Misconceptions didn’t matter when I heard it this week. I don’t mean I was able to set them aside (as sometimes happens). I mean, they just plain didn’t matter.

Robert Christgau reviewed Givin’ It Back when it was released in 1970 and opined that “soul is wasted” on “Fire and Rain” and that the song was more powerful in its “understated” original.

That’s a very reasonable judgment, as long as you assume that Ronnie Isley was after the same thing James Taylor was after.

The judgment is less compelling if you suspect that Ronnie might have been after one of the things James Taylor couldn’t hope to reach for (or, very probably, even imagine).

That “thing” doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of a freed slave searching for a lost relative after Appomattox, which is what I keep hearing in it, but it almost certainly isn’t the kind of expiation of purest self-pity Taylor intended (and which he, incidentally, very much achieved–I’ve been close enough to where Taylor reportedly was when he wrote the song to know how thoroughly he achieved it, though, believe me, my reasons were no better than his and I’m not nearly as proud of ever having gone there, let alone of having come back).

And it’s no knock on Christgau–or anyone–if they don’t hear that in the song.

But I think it does speak to just how fragile the notions of “what we hear” really are.

I mean, if Blood On the Tracks had been the first thing I reached for the other night–as it well might have been if I had started living with it thirty years ago instead of a year or two ago–I might not have played Givin’ It Back at all.

And who knows what I would have heard in “Fire and Rain” some other time?

And who knows if I’ll ever get close enough to either album (or even to What We Did On Our Holidays, which I am, in fact, already a lot closer to than I had previously thought) to move one or the other up on some ranking chart where I can call it an all-time favorite and sing every word?

You know. Like Loaded.

All I can say for certain is…I should live so long!

In sequence then:

 

 

 

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