LIVING IN THE PAST (John Glenn and John Lennon, R.I.P.)

Well, now they’ll share a death date. It’s not likely they shared much else, except being representative–even definitive–icons of two generations that were destined to clash.

Lennon was literally born with German bombs falling on Liverpool. Glenn was one of those duty-bound to save a space for him to dream in. I wouldn’t venture to guess what, if anything, they thought of each other.

I put most of my feelings about the dichotomous impact of the “greatest generation” and its offspring here, the last time an astronaut and a sixties’ singer were linked in death. Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn punch at about the same weight, but John Lennon was a far greater figure than Scott MacKenzie, though, perhaps for that every reason, no more representative of my points, such as they were.

Like millions of others, I got the news of Lennon’s horrible murder from Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football. You can measure how long ago that was by noting that MNF was still a big deal, airing on a major broadcast network. You can get a further measure by noting that “major” and “broadcast” are not concepts that attach to any television network these days. The cultural and political coherence that made winning the space race and Beatlemania simultaneously plausible has now shattered in every possible way.

Other than the real horror in Cosell’s voice, the lasting memory I have of Lennon’s death was the numbness–“Hell, it wasn’t like he owed me money,” one of my college friends said, when another one asked us what we thought about it and I couldn’t articulate a reply. We all laughed and shrugged. Ronald Reagan had been elected to put a happy smiley face on our futures a month before. No sense getting all spoony about a hippie being shot down in the New York streets he, having once been a Beatle–some would say the Beatle–had become sufficiently deluded, perhaps by the dreaming he did in that space all those John Glenns had won, to believe he could walk without a body guard.

But that didn’t come close to the numbness I felt when one of the thirty-something NY natives interviewed on television promised Lennon’s death would be way-y-y-y bigger than Elvis’s. Struggling to put into words just why this was inevitably so, he didn’t mention that Lennon’s death had been truly shocking, while Elvis’s had an air of sad inevitability. He didn’t mention that the people who served the media (as opposed to those who ran it, who had no dog in the hunt) had a thousand times more love and respect for Lennon than they ever had for Elvis (Jann Wenner, then still editor of Rolling Stone, rather famously had to be convinced that Elvis’s death would even be a big deal…I doubt he needed any such assurance concerning Lennon).

No, he said: “I mean, they play the Beatles in elevators!”

Turned out, he thought the real reason the death of a Beatle would produce a longer and deeper mourning than that of Elvis, was because his music (or Paul McCartney’s anyway…I’m hearing “Yesterday” in those elevators) had met the bar for Muzak.

I predicted right then that Lennon’s death would generate nothing like the outpouring of grief that Elvis’s death had done, either right then, or in the future.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it didn’t and it hasn’t.

Me, I always remember, if only for the same reason I’ll always now remember when John Glenn died.

Stuff sinks in a little deeper when it happens on your birthday.

FUNK, FUNKIER, FUNKIEST (Segue of the Day (1): 7/20/15)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve listened more and more to harder sounds. More funk. More hard rock (though not much metal or punk, neither of which I’ve considered “hard” in any sense of the word). More hard-hearted harmonies (which is basically the Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac’s late seventies’ mega-period and whoever’s either backing Patty Loveless or duetting with her).

Of course none of this is to the exclusion of everything else. It’s more a shift of emphasis. And this is mostly the past few years, so things could shift again, now or in the future.

Mostly, though, right now, it’s hard sounds for a hard world.

And the hardest sound–the one I turn to when the world’s at its hardest–is funk.

Hard sound. Harder politics.

Simultaneously sounding the warning and providing the map to how we got here.

Mostly, when I’m not listening to somebody specific (which might include all three of the acts I’m about to mention, plus all the usuals from James Brown to Ohio Players)  I listen to one of the two great 4-disc box set overviews I happen to own, Hip-O’s let’s-avoid-overtime-in-the-marketing-department-titled The Funk Box or What It Is, Rhino’s label-specific “deep cuts” collection of Atlantic and Warner Brothers’ sides.

Frankly, they’re both too deep to ever get to the bottom of, but I keep trying.

This week, though, for a change-up I started pulling the individual discs from In Yo’ Face, Rhino’s six-volume collection that deftly combines the best of both worlds, mixing the obvious with the not so obvious.

I’ve had all six volumes for a while (usual story, had them all back in the day, sold them all in the great CD sell-off of 2002, gradually repurchased them until I have them all again, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, ooh, shah, shah), but for some reason I don’t think about them much.

Which means I don’t really have any of the sequences in my head. So, for now at least, it’s like listening to the radio. No idea what’s coming next.

What that meant last night was these three coming out of nowhere and going straight up side my head.

Whap!

Whap!

Whap!

Regarding that map from there to here, all three of these bands had politics, overt and covert. P-Funk (meaning George Clinton and whoever he had rounded up for company at a given moment) put some covert singles on the charts and enjoyed massive critical success with that part of White America which loves hearing the overt from Black America, as long as it stays on the albums and off the radio.

Keeping the radical stuff on the down low lets everybody know how brave they are.

Earth, Wind and Fire, put lots of covert singles on the charts, downplayed the overt without completely disowning it, and received at least the measure of critical praise black groups can expect when they aren’t too in-your-face and sell a bajillion records.

War, by contrast, put their overt politics in their singles.

And they had hits. “Me and Baby Brother” marked their fifth straight trip to the Pop Top 20 in two years, a run that began with “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto.” Those titles explain themselves and, if anything, “Me and Baby Brother,” was/is even more explicit.

Put another way, you could listen to every single P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire ever put on the pop charts and not really understand why Black America seethes with anger forty years later even when the “baby brother” who was just shot was knocking over a convenience store ten minutes earlier.

“Me and Baby Brother” doesn’t let you misunderstand. It speaks out loud: Just because somebody deserved it today, doesn’t make up for yesterday or guarantee tomorrow will be any different.

Of course that doesn’t explain everything let alone excuse anything. No one factor explains or excuses everything.

But it does serve as a reminder that every version of Black America has a history very different from every version of White America. Police shoot way too many people, white and black (something War understood long before your average Libertarian seized it as a talking point–that “for me and for you” in “The World is a Ghetto” was neither meant to be race specific nor received that way).

And, yes, some who get shot are deserving…white or black.

Among the undeserving, the imbalance may or may not be as great as some people claim. But, however unreliable PD statistics are, I don’t think there’s much doubt the injustices tip considerably one way. And, short of somebody proving otherwise–which nobody has ever done–every version of Black America is bound to sit on the volcano that War, while hardly alone, nonetheless wrote and sang about better and longer than anyone else who had access to the pop charts in those decades when the pop charts were the center of American culture, white or black.

There are those who contend that War–at least as great and epic a band as P-Funk or Earth, Wind and Fire and a far braver one–are still sitting outside the portals of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their old rivals have long since been ushered inside (along with similar “visionaries” like Public Enemy who told the Jann Wenner crowd exactly what they wanted to hear, made them “uncomfortable” in just the way they prefer)–in spite of their courage.

You can never really prove these things, but if there were some place you could put money on it, I’d make the safer bet and say War have been left hanging not in spite of such qualities but precisely because of them.

BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

OUTLAWBLUES

Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

Now, If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, well he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh from the front line, takes.

I also found hindsight even more than usually useful.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation, probably affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those piece were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

All that said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting himself.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Believe me, few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Sixteenth)

(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s All Right” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.

(Greil Marcus, Real Life Top Ten, The Believer, March/April 2014)

I’m trying to imagine:

Bob Dylan if he never made it out of Minnesota. John Lennon if he never made it out of Liverpool. Mick Jagger if he never made it out of London. Bruce Springsteen if he never made it out of New Jersey.

Now, with all that fixed in my head, I permit myself to wonder if Marcus–or any other member of the crit-illuminati–would ever dream up some other life where any of them just naturally become a vicious, racist murderer and then try to pass if off as a compliment?

I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe. Or Johnny Burnette. Or Billy Lee Riley.

After all, we all know what those working class hillbillies from the mean streets of somewhere or other are down at the bottom.

Don’t we?

Especially the ones who never bother to respond to any potential crushes that might develop among the pundit class (as Dylan has to Marcus himself, Lennon and Jagger to Jann Wenner, Springsteen to Dave Marsh, etc., etc., etc.)

Bear in mind that, among the taste-mongers, Marcus counts as one of Elvis’ principle defenders (and interpreters). A lot more than once I’ve seen him described, by folks who are very comfortable with the idea of Elvis-as-racist-murderer, as an Elvis “apologist.” (If you want another fun exercise, try and imagine Bob Dylan or John Lennon needing any such thing.) Such are necessary with Elvis, of course, because we all know that he–unlike so many of those others whose careers he made possible–needs apology.

Hey, with friends like these…

Anyway, here’s the murderer: