ALTERNATIVE VISIONS (Segue of the Day: 11/26/15…Thanksgiving Edition!)

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I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.

Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II  (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem

I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant.  You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.

I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.

Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.

Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.

So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!

I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?

What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you  don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.

Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.

Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.

There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.

That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…

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were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.

What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.

What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.

Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…

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I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.

She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.

And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.

That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.

She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.

You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.

Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.

Happy Thanksgiving!

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Beatles at High Tide and Linda Ronstadt in Germany)

You know me, I like starting new categories. I don’t know if something will impress me every week, but I hate to keep letting things go by when they do just because they don’t fit anywhere else!

So, this week:

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966)…yes, them again!

I thought reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography last month would put me in a Beatles’ mood and it sort of did, but I didn’t really dig below the surface until this week.

Granted, when it comes the Beatles, I’ve never found much beneath the surface to begin with. I just have to keep granting that it’s an awfully compelling surface.

And, listening to the crystal clear, remastered, original-English-running-order versions that are now pretty much what’s available (with Revolver somewhat the better for it and Rubber Soul significantly for the worse–Ringo’s vocal on “What Goes On” is so doltish it makes his work on “Yellow Submarine” sound like Otis Redding)–I was knocked out by a lot of the guitar work on these two albums. So much so that I was all prepared to give Boyd’s gloomy-visaged hubby (that’s George Harrison for those of you have may have inexplicably found more interesting things to do with your time than keep up with my monthly book reports or Beatle marriages!) a big shout-out, until I started checking the usual references and found out that most of the stuff I was really impressed with (particularly the lead guitar parts on “Drive My Car” and “Taxman,” the two tone-setting album openers) was played by Paul McCartney.

So now I’m thinking maybe all those Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who keep saying McCartney was the really talented one–not because they know or care anything about talent in general or the Beatles in particular, but because he wasn’t a pinko-commie like John Lennon–have accidentally stumbled onto something!

Oh, the humanity!

Harrison did, among other things, contribute the effective sitar on “Norwegian Wood” and the attack-mode lead on “She Said, She Said.” So it might be that what we should really be giving George credit for in this period is pulling John Lennon’s increasingly bitter (and, it must be said, increasingly sing-songy) chestnuts out of the fire on more than one occasion.

Anyway, we all know what happened next. The Beatles soon gravitated from art to artiness and thenceforth to solo careers which, excepting Lennon’s first solo LP and a handful of monumental singles here and there (“It Don’t Come Easy,” “What Is Life,” “Jet,” “Band On the Run,” “Watching the Wheels,”–I think that about covers it), have meant less and less as the years go by.

I guess the miracle wasn’t so much that it came apart as that it held together as long as it did.

The Beatles “Drive My Car” (Studio Recording)

Linda Ronstadt: Concert in Offenbach, Germany, 1976

There were/are those–then and now–who liked to say she couldn’t rock or something. I’d say she was one of the few who understood what “rocking” actually was in its post-“Heartbreak Hotel” sense, which was a place for the various mighty rivers of American music–not to speak of the American zeitgeist and just plain old American life–to run together and either fight it out or learn to live together accordingly.

So, in 1976, in Germany, clearly worn-but-not-beaten by the road, she stood in a spotlight in a place called Stadthalle Offenbach and, without moving more than a few feet the whole night–or more than a few inches on the majority of the songs–she did what I’ve always thought a real rocker should do: melded folk, rock, country, soul, shlock, all those good American things, into a unified whole.

That particular night it meant measuring herself against Buddy Holly and Lowell George and Neil Young and Patsy Cline and Smokey Robinson and the Everly Brothers and Ry Cooder and Warren Zevon and Paul Anka and the Eagles and she hung all the way in there with every single one of them (and got past not a few).

If she didn’t quite come up to Tracy Nelson on “Down So Low,” well, all I can say is no one ever has and no one ever will.

And if she didn’t quite come up to “Heat Wave,” I’ll just say not having the Funk Brothers (or the Vandellas!) behind her probably had a whole lot more to do with it than many folks (including the famously nice Ms. Ronstadt herself) have generally been willing to admit.

These days, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can, with a little patience and some basic software, download a pretty decent copy of the whole thing and piece it together. That’s assuming you don’t want to pay the $199.99 it’s going for on Amazon at this moment.

Linda Ronstadt “Love Is A Rose” (Live Performance)

 

 

JUNE BOOK REPORT (6/13–The Sixties…Refracted)

The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1964)

A re-read.

Mid-level MacDonald, which means as good or better than anybody else’s high level except Chandler’s or Highsmith’s, the only American “thriller” writers who rate a legitimate comparison.

I first read MacDonald’s oeuvre (much of it two or three times) in the eighties. I was a lot younger then and was mostly impressed by his coiled spring plotting, which isn’t matched by any writer I know of, irrespective of genre or level of stylistic acumen.

If anything, my respect for that element of his books has grown. I’m a long way past thinking “plot”–let alone true, complex narrative–is easy.

But these days, I’m even more impressed by the clarity and nuance of his vision.

There’s a tendency among the crit-illuminati to apply the word “noir” to virtually anything that involves crime and is the least bit ambiguous. I’ve seen it applied to MacDonald plenty of times.

But noir is fantasyland and a particular kind of fantasyland at that. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels take place in a world which, if it isn’t quite real, isn’t quite unreal either. (I can speak with some authority on the matter because I partly grew up in a world–Central Florida in the sixties and early seventies or, more specifically, working class communities stuck between trailer parks in the literal shadow of NASA’s rockets–that left a very definite impression on my formative mind, an impression of being both real and unreal in ways that MacDonald’s books, set in Southern California around the same time, capture perfectly.)

Maybe it was because I read the final chapters of this particular book with Thunderclap Newman’s Hollywood Dream for background music (and never was there a more perfect soundtrack for any literary experience), but the weight of both the looming apocalypse and the more troubling seeds of long term erosion are present in MacDonald’s books to a greater degree than anything else I’ve encountered from that period or any other.

I never thought he was less than a fine writer and I’ve never taken any fine writer for granted. But working my way back through his books these days I’m becoming convinced that he achieved something rarer and better.

He wasn’t just good, he was right. (So good and so right that I can readily forgive him for being very, very wrong when he–or Archer anyway–once said rock and roll was “music for civilizations to decline by”…I’d say rock and roll was more like the last thread holding ours together, but, hey, we all make mistakes!)

Thunderclap Newman “Something In The Air” (Trippy period television performance!)

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor, 2007)

Boyd’s an accomplished woman in her own right. She was the era-equivalent of a super-model when she married the “quiet” Beatle in the mid-sixties (he soon made her quit), and, in the years since she finally detached herself from Harrison’s snake-in-the-grass buddy Eric Clapton in the late eighties, she became a gallery-worthy photographer.

In the space between–the years when she inspired most of the great music either man ever made and, thus, the reason so many folks bugged her for so long to write this memoir–she served as the principal muse and personal doormat for two dry-stick Englishmen who had been rescued from life’s humdrum by a bit of luck and their considerable talents.

Why and how she managed to draw heights from them they rarely, if ever, approached otherwise is surely a story worth telling.

Alas, one cannot find that story here.

Pattie seems to have been (and to still be) what used to be called a good egg. It’s her defining quality and one way to stay a good egg is to keep seeing the good in people who deserve less.

I can’t deny there are moments to behold here–an underlying narrative yearning to breathe free:

“While the Beatles were recording the White Album, George wrote a song called ‘Something,’ which he released as his first A-side single with the Beatles. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful–and it turned out to be the most successful song he ever wrote, with more than a hundred and fifty cover versions. His favorite was one by James Brown….My favorite was the one by George Harrison, which he played to me in the kitchen at Kinfauns.”

That’s a genuinely lovely passage that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s general paint-by-numbers, as-told-to approach. It’s the entirety of what she has to say about inspiring one of the greatest love songs ever written (you can take Frank Sinatra’s word for it if you don’t care for mine) and by itself it could hardly be bettered.

But the same style of understatement is pretty much applied to her entire life. That might have been a refreshing approach if she had stuck to momentous occasions. But when so many anecdotes hinge upon some variation of “my self esteem had never been lower” or “we drank far too much” or “Barbados is such a lovely island” or “the view was breathtaking” or “we had no idea how much damage drugs could really do,” or “I should have left much sooner but I thought a woman was just supposed to put up with such things,”** the mind does go a bit numb and the eyes do develop a tendency to glaze.

Don’t get me wrong. Much as I wanted somebody to shake her by the collar and tell her to stop letting famous men wipe their feet on her, I had empathy for Boyd throughout. Mostly because her famous husbands frankly creeped me out:

“What I didn’t know [about Clapton’s sudden proprosal of marriage, several years after he had wooed her away from Harrison and long after he had established a pattern of treating her like dirt, begging her to take him back yet again, and writing a song about it] until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house in Finley Green and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Eric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, then gossip columnist on the the Daily Mail, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on March 27 in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning, the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two went into a total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding; the only person who didn’t know was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call–and the desperation for an immediate answer.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing, so, when I wasn’t nodding off, I found myself frequently wanting to drag the not-much-better George Harrison’s ghost back from Karma-land so I could give him a good reaming before I went off to punch Eric Clapton in the face.

But the reason this supremely cautious entry in the beleaguered annals of styleless, say-nothing prose exists is because its author was, with Michelle Phillips, one of the two great “muses” in the history of rock and roll.

And between reading it cover-to-cover and putting Layla and Other Love Songs–made in direct response to Boyd’s initial rebuff of an advance by Clapton that included a threat (subsequently carried out) to start shooting heroin if she didn’t relent and, to my mind, the only truly sustained greatness of his career–through the headphones one more time, I’m afraid I can really only recommend the latter.

Derek and the Dominoes “Anyday” (Studio Recording)

**Time presses and I don’t do this for money, so I didn’t go back and look up these “exact” quotes. Trust me, the redundtant sentiments are accurately captured even if the words are not.

 

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #13, Beatle Wives and John Lennon, Working Class Hero)

“Brian (Epstein) had seemed interested in what the Maharishi had to offer but it was a bank-holiday weekend and he was committed to spending it with friends at his house in Sussex. He said he would join us later. Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, the two roadies who had looked after the Beatles since the Cavern Club days and went everywhere with them, were not there either so we had to carry our own baggage and fight our way through the crowds onto the platform.

“In the rush Cynthia (Lennon) was left behind–she was probably carrying the suitcases while John, empty-handed and thoughtless as ever, made a dash for it. And so the train pulled away and I shall never forget the sight of Cynthia running down the platform shrieking at John to wait. But Peter Brown arranged for Neil Aspinall to drive her to Bangor in his car and she arrived not long after the rest of us.”

(Source: Pattie Boyd, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me, 2007)

Magical Mystery Tour was launched by a party whose lavishness held no doubt of Sergeant Pepper-like success. The Beatles specified fancy dress. John Lennon came as a teddy boy, accompanied by Cynthia in Quality Street crinolines. George Martin came as the Duke of Edinburgh, Lulu as Shirley Temple, and Patti (sic), George Harrison’s wife, as an Eastern belly dancer. John, that night, made no secret of powerfully desiring Patti Harrison. He danced with Patti time after time, leaving Cynthia so disconsolate in her crinolines that Lulu was roused to sisterly indignation. The climax of the party was the moment at which a ringleted Shirley Temple, clutching an immense lollipop, confronted the chief Beatle in his greaser outfit and roundly berated him for being so mean to his wife.”

(Source: Phillip Norman, Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation, 1981)

“I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair. But in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”

John Lennon, on the writing of “Norwegian Wood.”

(Source: David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 2000)

None of this is news, of course (though I’m reading Boyd’s memoir just now, so that little anecdote was at least new to me).

And I frankly don’t care all that much about the private lives of famous people. Lots of my favorite artists–Lennon included–were less than admirable human beings all around. Just because I would probably want to punch them in the face if I met them for five minutes doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy, or even love, their art.

But I’ve always wondered if Lennon’s intensely slavish fan-boys in the rock press (and for inspiring slavishness among the rock press, even Bob Dylan comes a long way second to “the head Beatle”) admired him in spite of his cruel, whiny, brand of misogyny or because of it?

I mean, I know it wasn’t really the chord changes, so it had to be something….Right?