JIVE PRINCE (Walter Becker, R.I.P.)

(For my more expansive thoughts on Steely Dan, you can go here.)

Steely Dan were rock’s consummate pedants, the kind the music was liable to produce if it stayed around long enough–which, rock and roll being what it was, and Rock and Roll America being what it was–meant too good to be ignored.

In the world that came spinning out of the 50’s revolution (the real revolution college bound white boys were bound to take credit for sooner or later, even if they had to draft working class Brits for front men–at a certain point, anyone would do, as long as they weren’t blacks or hillbillies, it was only a fluke that the Beatles really were geniuses), even the pedants were better than anyone had a right to expect.

I never shared the thrill so many others bought when Walter Becker and his partner, Donald Fagen, started releasing their pointillist masterworks in the seventies. I loved a few of their records (the musical highlights of which–David Palmer’s haunted vocal on “Dirty Work,” Elliot Randall’s cascading guitar line on “Reelin’ in the Years,” Skunk Baxter’s stinging/healing licks on “Change of the Guard” and “Old School”–were provided by someone other than Becker and his partner, who soon turned exclusively to hired guns anyway), but, really, their entire essence was in their first album’s two lead cuts.

Not to say the essence didn’t have it’s merits–considerable even–but, despite all the accolades, the only thing that reached deeper than a mordant surface after the first album-and-a-half was a cover by the sort of group Steely Dan was meant to erase from history.

I can’t offer the kind of love Becker is getting elsewhere on the occasion of his passing (Terry Teachout called Becker and Fagen “the Stephen Sondheims of rock”…God love him, he meant it as a compliment).

But this is enough to stand for any man’s epitaph….

THE RISING: BATTLE OF THE L.A. BANDS EDITION (Fifth Memo)

Los Angeles in the 70s: Who would you trust?

becerkandfagen2

WAR2

Steely Dan….or War?

H-m-m-m.

Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.

I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.

Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.

Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.

By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.

First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.

Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:

Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.

In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.

Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.

I’m not sure I could blame him.

It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.

I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer

The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.

About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.

Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.

*   *   *   *

They had a lot in common besides that.

They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:

War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.

Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)

That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.

I’ll lay into that in a bit.

But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:

Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).

Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).

Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).

Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.

Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.

Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).

And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.

So it goes.

None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.

So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.

It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.

Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.

How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?

Hm-m-m-m…Could be?

Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.

*   *   *   *

Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:

WARALLDAYMUSIC

CANTBUYATHRILL

I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.

I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.

Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?

All of the above?

None of the above?

Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).

And if it takes reading Donald Fagen’s biography to find out, I’m probably never gonna know.

A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.

In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.

This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.

The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.

Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.

Unless, of course, we just want to give up.

*   *   *   *

And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?

Maybe recognition of something elemental?

Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?

That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.

What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.

Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.

Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.

That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.

Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.

The way black people just naturally are.

On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the  Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.

They were thinkers by God!

Philosophers.

Artiste‘s even.

And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…

Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…

And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”

Ha, ha, ha.

That’s one side.

And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:

“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”

Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”

That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.

*  *  *  *

Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.

Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.

Ever.

Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.

They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.

Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.

It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)

And they did not do so “instinctively.”

They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.

Quite the opposite.

*    *    *   *

Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.

Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.

Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.

And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.

So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.

Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.

In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.

In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.

But War went further.

Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.

There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.

By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.

They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.

But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?

Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.

Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.

So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.

To be fair, War faded as well.

Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.

Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.

Hardly cosmic.

It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.

Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.

But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.

Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:

Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.

The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.

The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.

The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”

War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.

And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.

In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.

They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time

*   *   *   *

War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.

Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”

The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.

And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.

Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.

It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.

Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.

And if there is no judgment?

Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.

And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.

SMALL CHANGES, BIGGER PLANS…AN UPDATE

Sorry the posting has been slow for the last couple of weeks. Usual mix of work-and-finance pressure drop bringing me down (with the usual U.S. Open hangover thrown in for good measure). I should be back to normal in the next few days.

Meanwhile the traffic has stayed strong, thanks in part to my post for the Republic Pictures blogathon which got a nice response and managed to focus my concentration for a day or two at least! Many thanks to all who participated.

I’ve made a small change to the blogroll. Unfortunately, April Lane’s fantastic site devoted to John Ford is no longer up. She was hacked and the effort required to rebuild the site was too massive to undertake, so I’ve removed the link. You can still find her facebook page by searching for directedbyjohnford facebook on your engine of choice…I’d link it, but my own relationship to facebook is spotty and I’d likely screw it up. If you have any interest in Ford or old Hollywood generally, I strongly recommend finding and following her.

On a positive note, I’ve added Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, which offers constant updates on releases of classic films and related products, as well as incisive reviews and reports from live screenings.

Finally, after some really serious consideration I’ve decided to keep the link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ site at Atlantic Monthly, at least for now. My original reason for linking to the site a couple of years back was because Coates was then blogging a lot about the books he was reading, the music he was listening to, and the influence hip hop, in particular, had on his life, past and present, all things that more or less relate to this blog’s interests. As of now, he’s taken to writing exclusively about politics. Nothing against that, but frankly, I haven’t caught anything from him on that score that War and Sly Stone (not to mention James Baldwin) didn’t say better a couple of generations back, and to a much larger audience. In any case, though I have a habit of reading everything from Counterpunch to Lew Rockwell.com myself, I have a policy against linking to political sites that don’t also have a large cultural component. On the chance that Coates will get back to that mix, I’m going to stay linked and monitor the situation for a while. I’ll revisit in a few months and make a final decision then.

When I do get back to business here, I have a couple of book reviews for BWW coming up, one on Charles Manson and one on the Beatles…purely coincidental I assure you!

In the works: long posts on the Go-Go’s, a battle-of-the-bands piece on War and Steely Dan, a “boyhood” essay on the Fleetwoods’ “The Great Imposter” (for the How Much Can One Record Mean category) and an “I swear I’ll make it happen somehow” promise to get back to John Ford’s People and Elvis in the Fifties, both subjects having been neglected for far too long.

As always, I do not promise when…only that all these and more are coming…some day!

In the meantime, the real message, as always (and no matter how cranky I might seem)…

 

WRONG WORD, RIGHT WORD (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #46)

If, per Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, then I wonder what the difference between the right word and the exactly wrong word is?

Illumination and darkness maybe?

For about twenty-five years, I’ve heard the first lines of War’s “Southern Part of Texas” this way:

She’s from the southern part of Texas/And she was born in a hurricane

You know her mama died for freedom/She got hung like Jesse James

As part of some research I’m doing on what I hope will be a long piece for The Rising category, comparing War with their L.A. contemporaries Steely Dan, I recently started looking up some of their lyrics (unlike a lot of the bands whose lyrics nobody would ever bother looking up, War didn’t print theirs on their LP sleeves).

Which led me soon enough to the always mysterious “Southern Part of Texas,” (which is bound to remain mysterious whether or not any kind of “hanging” ever had anything to do with the murderous sociopath who was shot in the back by Robert Ford).

…Which led me straight to a lot of sites with “partial” lyrics that may or may not be reliable.

…Which made me wonder if those partial transcriptions that read “hung BY Jesse James” were accurate (as they were certainly no less mysterious).

…Which led me to YouTube, as good a place for a close listen as any, in hopes that somebody had managed to transcribe the lyrics there so I could read them while I was actually listening.

…Which led me to the realization that, evidently, nobody had.

What I found instead, was this:

…Which not only makes the lyric perfectly clear but adds “He hung her by the neck.”

…Which, if it’s on the record (included on their Deliver the Word LP, not as the estimable, and usually flawless, Don Cornelius says in his introduction Why Can’t We Be Friends), is buried even deeper than all those other interpolated lyrics that changed or deepened or subverted War’s meanings with such dizzying speed years before rap showed up to shift the margins to the center (and teach white-boy critics to pay attention to such things). So deep, in fact, it can’t be heard even as a suggestion.

But, lightning strike that it is, you don’t really need the Soul Train interpolation.

Hearing that single word properly–“by” instead of “like”–tells me what I should have known all along.

The men in War–among so many, many other things, the sharpest political band of the rock and roll era–knew their Jesse James from their Cisco Kid.

And, mystery or no, “Southern Part of Texas” was no-wise intended as a joke.

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Fifteenth)

“‘‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,’ Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. ‘Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.’ Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that?”

(Nick Hornby, reviewing Eminent Hipsters, a memoir by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, in The Believer, March/April 2014.)

I could be snarky and suggest that admitting the white guy who was completely full of himself did indeed have more in common with the black guy who was completely full of himself than the white guy who was a truly restless seeker and a truly artful dodger had in common with either is maybe not the precise combination of praise and put-downs Fagen intended or Hornby salutes.

But why get complicated?

This thing’s juicy enough on its own. It’s certainly the first instance I’ve come across that could fit equally well in the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” and the “It Isn’t Only Elvis They Say Stupid Stuff About” categories.

And it’s also the first instance–in either category–where two men are struggling for the right to have their names entered as permanent additions to the “Stupid Stuff” file and I find myself struggling to choose between them.

Well, Fagen is “that guy from Steely Dan,” and they always were patting themselves on the back for squaring and cubing things that would have otherwise been completely beneath them. (That’s the long way of saying they were jazzbos, though I hasten to add they were also the kind of jazzbos who were way too smart to play, write, arrange, produce or sing like jazzbos until they had made a run of brilliant albums, a name for themselves and a boatload of dough–naturally they called this integrity.)

So I gotta give him the upper hand.

Okay, listen. Ray Charles was a genius. Tennessee Williams was a genius. Elvis was a genius.

None of them ever remotely tried to be–or remotely wanted to be–any of the others.

In point of fact, the only one who ever really tried to be somebody else at all was Charles, who started his career by trying very hard to be Nat “King” Cole, most especially the Nat Cole who appealed most readily to White America (and he was, incidentally, pretty darn good at it).

He gave that up soon enough, though, and went on to be something even better than a first class Nat Cole imitator or maybe even better than Nat Cole–which was, you know, Ray Charles.

After that (though before Charles began to appeal so readily to White America himself) came Elvis–who never tried to be Ray Charles or anybody but Elvis.

Before that came Tennessee Williams, who also never tried to be Ray Charles (not even all those years later, when he had actually heard of Ray Charles) or anybody but Tennessee Williams.

So the only remaining question–besides why Fagen is making such an ass of himself in the first place by acting as though he, “a musician who can think and talk like that,” really can’t think or talk at all–is why Tennessee Williams is “maybe closer” than Elvis to being “the white Ray Charles” rather than the other way around?

I mean, since Williams had already written the plays for which he is most remembered well before Ray Charles even got to the point of trying to be the new Nat Cole, why doesn’t Fagen ask whether the Ray Charles he is referring to–the one who did eventually become both himself and a genius–is “maybe” the black Tennessee Williams?

Is it maybe because then he would not only be a guy being praised–by the likes of Nick Hornby–for making stupid assumptions rather nakedly rooted in the notion that the black genius (more by dint of his blackness than his genius) must have been inherently superior to any white genius who walked the same turf (only with the distinct disadvantage of being white), even if the white guy walked it much earlier and it wasn’t even really the same turf at all, but also be a guy in danger of being accused of being, well, a racist or something?

Could that be it?

Well, he is Donald Fagen.

And he does like to cube things so that he won’t be caught looking down.

In this case he cubed himself into a corner–the corner where the benighted liberal intellectual makes curious assumptions which, under the surface, where it counts, are hardly distinguishable from those of the white (or black) supremacist.

Fagen’s statement–meant to assure us that he’s living up to the title of his book–is actually a return to the most primitive of the primitive basics–to the notion that race comes first and foremost in all considerations that seek to codify human character and (by extension) genius.

The sort of thinking, in other words, that the revolution Elvis led, Ray Charles sort of reluctantly (though also brilliantly–reluctance was his signature) participated in, and Tennessee Williams never really knew quite what to make of, sought–however naively, given the vicissitudes of human nature–to challenge and overturn.

Oh well.

That was the thing about jazzbos.

They always thought rock and roll was somewhere underneath them, when really they should have been looking up.

Case in point below…(Nice lyrics, though–and, hey, notice who constitutes his own category):

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Christian Bale Emerges From the Holiday Shuffle….By Disappearing Into Someone Else)

Busy, scatter-shot week this.

–Saving Mr. Banks was actually charming (I feared it would only be pseudo).

–YouTube revealed that the reason Jennifer Aniston’s pseudo-strip scene in We’re the Millers fell flat in the theater was due to incompetent editing…Whew! I was worried that Jen had lost it there for a minute.

–The pseudo-hardcore of The Wolf of Wall Street proved, once again, that Marty Scorsese is the Norman Mailer of film directors (that is, an artist whose reputation for seriousness, or even basic competence, is completely mystifying) and also reminded me that he’s the only director who manages to get me actively rooting for his characters–all of them–to die. Not so much in hopes that they’ll go to some just reward as so that the movie will mercifully end. At least it was a notch up from the last time I subjected myself to one of his masterpieces in an actual theater. In that one he had me rooting against Jesus.

–Finished a biography of John Knox which I should be able to review next week and started the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection which has put me in the exceedingly rare state of looking forward to getting up mornings.

What rose to the top out of all that–besides a lovely Christmas–was Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle, which is so lived-in, intense and finely nuanced that he actually drags the whole movie to a level of awareness I’m pretty sure its makers didn’t think remotely possible.

The director, David Russell, is known for being quirky and here, that doesn’t really jibe with the story’s more or less classically “redemptive” structure. But, through all the stops and starts (high point, directorialy speaking, is the eerily effective use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over a slo-mo beginning, so good it survives being cut off a good minute too soon; low point is the disco scene which is not-quite-right on so many levels that explaining why would require its own post), Bale’s immersion into character somehow keeps the movie’s pulse beating.

Eventually, he literally pulls everyone else into themselves and elevates the whole enterprise. No small feat in a movie about con-men where Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper–who might not be the two shallowest performers on the planet but are certainly in the running–are the other main players and Jennifer Lawrence is laying on one of those walk-throughs (much lauded, I notice) that feel like a screen test delivered by an Oscar winner who can’t figure out why she’s being bothered when everybody knows she’s going to get the job anyway.

Like I said. It stops and starts.

Sooner or later, though, they all have to come up to Bale’s standard. It’s almost as if he left them no choice–as if his character’s reality finally became theirs.

I say this as someone who thought Bale made the perfect Batman for Christopher Nolan because he seemed so completely devoid of all remotely human qualities–just the kind of black hole that Nolan’s “vision” needed. I assumed Bale was basically a well-chosen cabbage, but this performance opens up the possibility that he was actually acting, which–even as a possibility only–certainly puts me in my place.

May have to go back and give those a second look.

Meanwhile, I wish American Hustle had found the sense of tragedy it seems built for (but then resolutely fails to deliver). In that respect it reminded me of the recent version of What Maisie Knew and was, finally, a bit of a letdown.

But the Method so rarely delivers what it is forever promising that it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge how far it can go when it works. Granted I don’t catch a lot of movies in theaters (only caught these because I have a friend who was exceedingly generous with AMC gift cards for the Holidays) but this was by far the best performance I saw this year.

God, I may end up having a rooting interest on Oscar night.

Very disorienting.

I better cross my fingers and blow out some candles. The New Year hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing hob-goblins everywhere!

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Go-Go’s On the Radio and Spinners On the Headphones)

Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (1984)

When the Go-Go’s broke out in the summer of eighty-one I was in college and ripe for the sort of world-weary conversations hep young people have when they are certain they–and they alone–truly know the score.

More than a few people (not all of whom had the ready-made excuse of being world-weary collegians) were insisting in those days that there were bound to be a whole lotta really BIG all-female bands coming down the pike now that there was finally one.

And I, having at least some idea of how unlikely they really were, used to echo some version of my sad refrain:

“Not if they have to be that good there won’t.”

Which usually made people smile indulgently and roll their eyes.

The Go-Go’s? Seriously?

So this week I’m running errands some sunny afternoon, listening idly to the radio and “Head Over Heels”–their last big hit before they broke up in eighty-four–comes on in the middle of an Official Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Lineup consisting of ace grooves from Bruce Springsteen (“Glory Days”), the Bee Gees (“Stayin’ Alive”), U2 (“With or Without You”) and Steely Dan (“Peg,” much better than I remembered–already loved all the rest).

Naturally it jumps up and runs away from everything else. Even the bass-line on “Stayin’ Alive” can’t quite keep up, which is something I bet I’m never gonna say about the Beatles or the Ramones.

Or the Bangles for that matter.

You know, the one really big all-female band that actually did come down the pike.

Which brings me to one of my old stand-by maxims.

If you want to be right about the future, be dire…be very dire.

Be dire, even about the things that make you smile.

The Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (Live in L.A. 1984)

Spinners “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1973)

Spinners (for some reason, there was no “the” in their Atlantic period) were my winding down music this week. This, from their first album on the label, was the side that grabbed me in a new way, mostly because it’s sly and cool where Wilson Pickett’s epochal hit version (one of his very greatest records) was pleading and desperate. A fascinating aside, then, into the conversations Black America sometimes has with itself while White America listens in.

And I’m not sure there has ever been a better distillation of Black America’s existential dilemma–to assimilate or not to assimilate.

When Philippe Wynne sings about wanting his woman to stay “right here girl in these big, black arms of mine” it cuts about seven different ways because it’s entirely possible that it’s a con, entirely possible that it’s not and entirely possible that the singer himself has lost track.

What is that woman looking for anyway? Sung by even the greatest white singer we would pretty much know. Sung by a black man wearing as many masks as Philippe Wynne, there’s just no telling.

Not that I intend to abandon the search. It’s just that it got a lot more complicated. There are no safe places in rock and roll if you keep you’re ears open.

Spinners “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (Studio Recording)

THE HISTORY OF SPEAKING UP…

That’s the definition I gave rock and roll here (discussing a song which, just oh-by-the-way, I consider more “adult” than any broached below).

A few posts back I also mentioned Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s praise of Donald Fagen’s recent solo album as an example of another definition of rock and roll–children’s music very occasionally redeemed by a fellow collegian.

I meant my own comment somewhat sardonically but Teachout has, sadly, doubled down in an article titled “How to Be an Aging Rocker,” which manages to be a sort of perfect summation of certain falsehoods that were born in rock’s early dawn and have been repeated with such numbing regularity–by friends and enemies alike–that they have long since achieved the force of government sponsored propaganda.

By all means read the whole thing, but the basic argument is distilled in the following sentence:

“One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people.”

Oh, my. Here we go again.

First, let me reiterate that I’m not down on Teachout, Fagen or Steely Dan, all of whom I admire.

But goodness, talk about pulling out all the usual stops:

Aren’t you embarrassed by that stuff you listened to when you were young?

Did you know that Steely Dan used to employ honest-to-God JAZZ musicians who could really play on their albums?

Have you noticed that the Rolling Stones really suck these days?

Mind you, Terry was a serious young man. He assures us his teenage musical diet was filled with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane. I’m guessing if he had gone in for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (the way I did, a decade later, when it was really uncool, though not nearly as uncool as my affection for the likes of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John!), he would probably have shot himself by now.

Which would be a real shame, because when Teachout is blogging, i.e., writing in a genuinely personal way, he’s quite astute and charming.

When he’s writing for hire, alas, he is prone to bouts of moral and mental paralysis.

Thus are dubious thought processes that happen to coincide with the prevailing interests of even more dubious establishmentarianism sustained, generation by generation.

So the article–couched in the false assumption that, compared to other art forms, “rock n’ roll” has aged badly–leaps from one zone-of-safety-falsehood-disguised-as-hard-risk-taking-truth to another.

All the usual methods are deployed:

There’s the straw-man argument. To which, what can I say?

Yes, the Rolling Stones really do suck and have for a long time. Of course, band inspiration is notoriously hard to sustain–much harder than individual craft and/or genius. So why not compare Fagen to Neil Young or Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen or late-period Bob Dylan, to name only the most obvious candidates? Maybe because, making the argument that they have spent decades making specious, “immature” music is quite a bit harder to sustain (even if, like Fagen, they may not have quite sustained the brilliance of youth)?

Well, yes, that could be it. Maybe. Or probably. Or certainly.

(That lays aside of course the argument that the Rolling Stones earned the right to suck because they once reached and sustained heights Steely Dan never even aspired to, heights far beyond mere “maturity.”…I’m laying it aside because I think that’s another argument.)

As for a statement like “Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups.”

Even if, by chance you don’t think say “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is a better “amalgam” of rock, jazz and soul, than anything Fagen has ever managed (and even if, by chance you find the attachment of the word “soul” to Fagen’s music a bit odd), you might want to consider another question or two.

Like whether the Nashville cats who played on “Heartbreak Hotel” way back when would have had any trouble keeping up with a Steely Dan session? Or whether the “country” lyricists of such immature music–or the Memphis hillbilly who turned a hot-musical-trend into a full blown cultural revolution by his manner of presenting them–had trouble comprehending Dan-style irony?

You know, way back when.

And if you know the answers to those questions (respectively, “no” and “no”)–as Teachout and oh, so many others doubtless would if they were allowed to maintain the habit of thinking for themselves all of the time instead of just some of the time–then you also know whether it’s the rock and rollers who should be embarrassed by their absence of “maturity.”

(Incidentally, if immaturity there must be, let it be as below…Sure wish we had torn down those walls. And let us also remind ourselves that somewhat different ideas of where that whole notion of an “amalgam of rock, jazz and soul” actually came from do still exist:)

Jefferson Airplane “We Can Be Together” (Live in Studio, 1970)

(And, of course, here are the Rolling Stones, being all blunt and “garage-band” sounding as they take the next-to-the-last-step to the place from whence they could not, would not, did not return:)

Rolling Stones “Moonlight Mile” (Studio recording…with unusually excellent photo montage)

 

SOME THINGS ARE CERTAIN…DEATH, TAXES AND…

encountering statements like this…:

“This is rock for grownups, wholly adult in its musical language and emotional concerns.”

….And knowing that whenever one encounters the phrase “rock for grownups” it will almost certainly involve one college-educated white male praising another college-educated white male (in this case, Terry Teachout, touting the latest solo effort from Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on his blog, “About Last Night.”)

I like Teachout’s blog and follow it regularly. I’ve got nothing against Fagen.

But sixty years after the slurs against rock for being merely “teen” music (back when few could imagine how far it would outlast Tin Pan Alley) began, the pressing need to reassure the public that one’s own cultish tastes are “adult” is eye-rolling.