NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

WHAT IS POLITICS?

Here’s three post-election attempts to understand “those people” through a pop culture lens:

From Observer:

How Bruce Springsteen cost Hillary the Election.

Key quote:

“Imagine this:

“What if Bruce Springsteen had gotten into a van and trailed Donald Trump to every campaign stop over the last four weeks (or even the last two). Imagine if every time Donald Trump set up to speak, Bruce got out of his van, strolled to a street corner or park a few blocks away, strapped on an acoustic guitar, and began to sing. Maybe he would sing songs about the working men and women who have always been his constituency, or maybe he would sign songs of Boardwalks or Vietnam, or maybe he would sing the old songs of freedom and unity that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger sang.

“Imagine that.”

From Slate:

How Miranda Lambert could save us all.

Key quote:

:If you have any curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with, how they become jaded day by day, Lambert can tell you.”

From The Federalist:

When the ghost of Ronnie Van Zant stalked New York.

Key quote:

Libby and I both stopped and looked at each other. “Seriously?” said my wife, a very disappointed Clinton supporter. She started gripping her soft Tomme Crayeuse a little too hard. By the time Ronnie Van Zant’s drawl started in with “Big wheels keep on turnin’,” everyone in the store was standing in shock. Brows were furrowed, people mumbled to each other. The song seemed to get louder as one of those New York moments happened, when everyone was thinking the exact the same thing.

One reason I’ve always tried to read across a broad spectrum of political views is so I don’t forget anyone’s existence. If I keep myself sufficiently up-to-date, I find the world holds very few surprises.

So none of this is surprising.

But boy is a lot of it dumb. I linked the full articles. You can read them and make your own judgments.

My take:

For starters, if Bruce Springsteen ever really was the voice of the working class that Tim Sommer seems to think he still is (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), he traded that status for standard Limousine Liberalism a long time ago. That no one ever worked harder at resisting the change (well, except maybe Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) is proof of how seductive–maybe just plain inevitable–some changes are.

For Springsteen to connect with Donald Trump’s voters, would have meant sounding a lot like Donald Trump, no?

And who would trust him then?

Maybe Miranda Lambert’s fans?

Maybe. But who’s to say they aren’t Springsteen fans (i.e., not Trump supporters!) already?

If the audience Carl Wilson is writing for at Slate had any real “curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with” they would have made Miranda’s idol and dear friend, Patty Loveless, a crossover superstar twenty years ago. And if the Country Music Association has lauded Lambert with six Female Vocalist of the Year awards (which is six times more than they awarded it to Loveless), it’s precisely because its voting members know that she goes down well at The Village Voice and all the other organs of hipsterism that the people who buy most of Lambert’s records don’t give a rip about. Right or wrong, everybody at Slate is pretty sure they know who Miranda Lambert voted for. With Patty Loveless–the singer who caught the spirit of the “White Death,” which drove Trump’s support more than the next ten factors combined, two decades before it started showing up in statistical studies–who could ever tell?

I mean, could you trust her to toe the line?

May-y-y-y-be.

But then you never really know about these hillbillies, do you?

Which brings me to Ronnie Van Zant. The Federalist writer, David Marcus, attempts to explain that he personally gets it. There’s the usual stuff about how the origin of “Sweet Home Alabama” is way more complicated than is usually understood, etc. and more of the stuff you’d expect from someone who is more enlightened than his fellow good liberals because he thinks maybe the hicks have a point here and there, or that, at every least, the idea should be entertained. It’s all very familiar.

What Marcus does not quite do is admit–or perhaps understand–that Ronnie Van Zant would never be easily pigeon-holed into any neatly composed narrative. Not the way Bruce Springsteen and Miranda Lambert, for all their fine personal and artistic qualities, have been. Missing that, he’s really just substituting one easy formula for another. A really political moment in that Brooklyn boutique grocery store he’s describing would involve telling at least one person–his wife maybe–that you should listen to Ronnie Van Zant, the real life Huck Finn, a little more, not because it will help you understand Trump voters, but because, like listening to Bruce Springsteen or Miranda Lambert, it will help you understand the world.

Good luck with that.

THE NOT QUITE EXPLICABLE MAN (Pete Seeger, R.I.P.)

God knows there was much to answer for.

It took him decades to renounce Stalinism even in the most tepid terms (which meant that for a very long time there, twenty million corpses just proved Stalin was a hard-ass doing a little necessary herd-thinning). The odds that he flat-out stole the wildly profitable copyright on “Wimoweh” (later turned into the even more wildly profitable “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from an obscure African songwriter are way better than even. And he could no more avoid carrying in his very bones the air of insufferable priggishness that has done far more damage to modern liberalism than Rush Limbaugh ever could than a Model T can motor down the road without an engine.

I certainly never could tell whether he actually regretted anything, mostly because he so rarely said he did unless it was a tad convenient.

In my world none of that matters.

As the great philosopher Mattie Ross liked to say: “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?”

Every real or imagined wrong thing is cancelled for me because he was at the root of one particular record, which (not the least bit ironically) was rising on the charts the week the brass sent Hal Moore’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment to the central highlands of South Viet Nam–where, in the first full-on engagement of the Viet Nam war, the Seventh won one of the hardest fought and most improbable victories in the history of the American military–then pulled them out and left the ground to the enemy, thereby announcing our political leadership’s commitment to waging that particular new kind of war which guarantees the permanent absence of both peace and honor (and the permanent gnashing of teeth among the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who are still blaming the hippies for an on-going state of affairs which hippies had very little effect on even when there actually were hippies, the better to avoid their own failures of principle).

This particular record hit #1 two weeks later and has never been off the radio since.

You can hear it now as hope always being in the ashes or the end always being in the beginning. A promise of the better world waiting or a warning that we will never get there.

Take your pick.

Either way, it’s my favorite record and my pick for the greatest record ever made (by my pick for the greatest band that ever was). And, on the day Pete Seeger died, I’ll just say it’s a time to remember and celebrate the best of him…and to thank him:

For good measure (and lest we forget that he sometimes had good reasons to be stubborn in his convictions), here’s Mary Travers, virtually single-handedly bringing Seeger back to relevance after a decade on the McCarthy-era blacklist (and taking the Civil Rights movement to white suburban places where Martin Luther King, sadly, wasn’t likely to get a word in edgewise):

And, of course, we should not forget the roots of the tree:

 

 

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION? (Vocalist of the Month–Mary Travers RIP Redux)

[NOTE: As usual, things are goin’ on, so I’m a little late with my Vocalist of the Month for May. I intended it to be Jerry Butler and I got most of the piece written, but I’m still an organized thought or two away from finishing it, so I’m going to cheat a little and use this as an excuse to post my obituary for Mary Travers, which Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute on the net in the wake of her passing. The piece has been slightly modified to sharpen a phrase or two but, from where I stand, what I said then, regarding either Mary or the world, isn’t any less true now–except that the “draconian powers” I mention below have indeed been “assumed” by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it will almost certainly take a replay of the sixties, which we are almost certainly not up for, to assume them back. Goodbye us.]

In the days leading up to the Iraq war nothing made that modern media invention–the conscience-stricken hawk–quite as queasy as the spectre of the “Peter, Paul and Mary liberal” turning the new adventure into “another Viet Nam.”

That kind of insight was, of course, less than brilliant on infinite levels, but there was some justice in the basic underlying unease: the special relationship between music and politics that’s now called to mind by the catch-all phrase “the sixties” was not, after all, just some weird accident.

The stark, unsettling contradictions that boiled to the surface in that generation have been wallowing in the American psyche since the beginning and are with us still, while the notion that musicians and other artists should confront them is, if not quite that old, at least far, far older than the recording industry.

By contrast, a reality where this very confrontation could produce gold records–and the powerful, insidious, ear-worm relevance in modern American life that this generally implies–was entirely modern and called forth very specifically by three earnest folkies who, as if to prove history really does have a sense of humor, were assembled by a quasi-corporate process not all that different from the ones that later produced the Monkees and the Back Street Boys.

Partly for those reasons, the group was something of a punching bag among the hipper-than-thou left–particularly that part of it which gave up on the dream long before Peter, Paul or Mary did–even before their massive success began to haunt bigots and mad bombers alike.

At least some of that was envy, but for art to work as politics the art has to come first and P,P&M had two elements of genius. The first was the magical “other” that is created when the members of any great harmony group blend their voices.

The second was Mary Travers.

It was Travers who gave the group’s sleek sound the gravitas it needed to become a dividing line and a cultural force that went far beyond selling records. A lot of what Peter, Paul and Mary did–children’s songs, stale stage-patter, tiresome renditions of “true” folk songs by way of Merry Olde England–was innocuous or worse and can safely be consigned to the nostalgia bin if not the dust bin.

What’s left are a number of fine performances that include a couple of dozen diamond-pure sides that did what art very, very rarely does–changed things.

Nearly every one of those sides featured Mary Travers as either lead or de facto soloist.

It was her voice that put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time (not scraping the charts, incidentally, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” all the way to #2); her voice that brought Pete Seeger back to the top ten after nearly a decade in blacklisted exile–not with Weavers-style balladry but with a political anthem; her voice wailing on the key line in Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” that makes it sound even now like something college kids really would call forth as naturally as breathing when they were being beaten with night-sticks and tossed into paddy wagons at the “liberal” Democratic Convention in 1968.

The paraphrased poetry of “the whole world is watching” was Dylan’s but it was almost certainly Travers who Middle America heard when the fragment echoed across evening news newscasts or turned up in quotes in the morning newspapers, just as it was effectively Travers, almost alone, who first put “protest” music into the proverbial million living rooms where Martin Luther King might as well have been the antichrist.

It wasn’t for nothing that Civil Rights paragon Ossie Davis–as righteous a defender as African-American culture will ever have–called her white-bread folk group “the movement set to music.”

All of that would make her one of the most important voices of the century but she could be even better.

“500 Miles” was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.

And where “500 Miles” was a pure abstraction–a reach for something that could be grasped but not quite held–“Leaving on a Jet Plane” was utterly prosaic. Travers simply took John Denver’s best song–a fine, if conventional take on that most jealously guarded male prerogative, i.e., the freedom to come and go and have the little woman wait for you to make up your mind–and turned it inside out.

What was left was possibly the strangest hit record of the entire rock and roll era. At once thoroughly radical and profoundly reassuring, recorded just as the women’s movement was taking off, it made no grand statements in the manner of “Respect” or “I Am Woman,” or even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” but instead simply took for granted everything genuinely useful such a movement might achieve (all the more remarkable since Travers had recorded it in 1966–the same year as the brassy “Boots” and well before the others. Where others proclaimed, Travers simply made the most powerful assumption of all. That the right to make the most profound decisions in a relationship was no more than her–or anyone’s–just due. She called special attention to nothing–and missed nothing. The freedom and attendant responsibility that lay behind her bold assumptions got exactly the weight they deserved and no more, lessons that have been missed by generations of male rock critics and elite “feminist” scholars alike, but were likely not lost on the wave of female singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, et al) who were about to leave their own deep mark.

It was perhaps appropriate for “Jet Plane” to hit number one in the last month of a decade synonymous with tumult. It seems at least possible that after a deluge of assassination and war and riot, the culture simply took that highly symbolic occasion to draw a deep breath and reach back for some sense of itself, for some reminder of the bedrock that would be waiting when the brick and mortar stopped flying. If cultures can do such things–and if ours did such a thing at that moment–it is both supremely ironic and completely unsurprising that it was Travers’ voice (on a by then three-year-old album track) we reached for.

The critic Ralph Gleason once famously called Peter, Paul and Mary “two rabbis and a hooker,” and to be honest that’s one of the funniest things any critic has ever said. But the real joke is that it was the hooker–not the rabbis or the critic–who turned out to have the biblical voice.

Before her, the great voices of American protest music remained in the underground or on the sidelines. Before her, if a “folk” group had a really big hit it was “Good Night Irene” or “Tom Dooley” or, “Michael” (as in row the boat gently and safely ashore). Before her, if Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it could scrape the charts for a week before being banned (and effectively ending the singer’s substantial career as a hit-maker). Before her, there was no way Woody Guthrie singing “Deportee” or Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” or, for that matter, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” could get anywhere near a chart.

After her, there was no way “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son,” or “Ohio,” or “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” or “Born In the U.S.A.” or “The World Is a Ghetto,” or “What’s Going On” or “Fight the Power” could miss.

As we head into an age when the party of “limited” government (which, laughably, still goes by the name Republican) has laid the groundwork for an assumption of draconian federal powers which the old House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Pete Seeger would never have dreamed possible, the American music charts are, in most ways, as free of pointed, topical relevance as they were in 1961 and every year prior. These days even so-called “hardcore” rappers and punks confine their protests to their albums. Few others bother with even that much.

I’d like to think that the moment is always right for some new version of Mary Travers to stick a fingernail in the side of today’s newer, tougher version of plastic culture and slit a seam that will allow for a new blast of fresh air.

I’ll keep on hoping for it, but I won’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, be holding my breath.

Truth is, the blonde chick in Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to her reward and I have a funny feeling they only made one of her.

Mary Travers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Live on Television, 1982 Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion Special)

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/22/12)

Kingston Trio/Kingston Trio

My riding around music this week is the Trio’s four-disc box set The Capitol Years. Newly acquired. Lots I haven’t heard. Promises to be bottomless. (God forbid I should ever be able to afford the Bear Family boxes!)

And, hey, after a Friday-night-into-Saturday-morning when the channels I usually surf were bouncing back and forth between mourning the slaughtered innocents in Newtown, replays of the NRA’s principal spokesman advocating for an even more massive police state than the one we already have to “proctect” us (all in the name of preserving individual liberty of course) and Quentin Tarantino stuttering about his new movie (which I gather is going to finally explain slavery in such a way that we’ll all have to stop feeling good about it–at least I think that’s what he was trying to say)–that is, between variations on the unbearable and the merely vile–I needed something bottomless!

So mostly I was just smiling and humming along, going about my errands today.

Then, in the middle of Disc 3, I hit the new-to-me “Jesse James,” which begins with a recitation that insists if you spent your childhood “foraging” for rutabagas and roots, you’d be mean, too, and ends with the priceless aside “Killing 19 people doesn’t make a boy all bad,” delivered with the kind of cheery aplomb Randy Newman and Warren Zevon could only dream about in later days.

Then it dropped straight into the long-remembered chords of their version of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” Pete Seeger’s prophecy of the Viet Nam Syndrome (released months before the first Kennedy assassination and thus years before we thought of Viet Nam as a war, decades before we thought of it as a Syndrome and half a century before we realized-without-necessarily-admitting its incurability) which has the kind of mournful aplomb only folkies ever really master.

And when the song played on, I was reminded that this was the one time they mastered mournfulness to such a degree that even Mary Travers couldn’t compete.

Merry Christmas, America, it seemed to say.

If you haven’t shaken it off by now, you never will!

Boy, do I find odd ways of cheering myself up….

The Kingston Trio “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” (Video)