ELEGY REVISITED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY CHURCHYARD….

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)

Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…

(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.

Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).

WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).

WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).

At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.

That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.

I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.

But I don’t like to run from the past either.

If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.

Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen”  was an old man in the army of the CSA.

And it’s not like I have to project.

When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and ended in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.

From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.

But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.

Even from this distance.

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”

Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.

Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.

 

OKAY, I’LL PLAY…

I don’t want to make a habit of this. I prefer to generate my own ideas/content. But the more I thought about this, the more the challenge/absurdity made me smile….So, again from one of those memes that’s going around…(tried to link live versions where available.)

The 30 Day Song Challenge…(I think the idea is to name the first song you love that comes to mind. Anyway that’s the spirit I’m taking.)

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

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I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

THE REAL ALI…AND THE “MYTHIC” SOUTH (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #77)

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By far the best thing I saw in the ubiquitous coverage of Muhammad Ali’s passing this weekend was a rerun of a seventies show with Howard Cosell which had the champ analyzing footage of great former heavyweight fighters, from Jack Johnson forward, and explaining why he would have beaten them. (He hemmed and hawed only when he got to Rocky Marciano, which is where everyone should hem and haw because Marciano’s ring style was, in its way, as improbable as Ali’s own…plod like a dumpster, hit like a truck…keep hitting until whatever’s in front of you goes all the way down and stays down.) It was as funny as it was serious and vice versa, with both Ali and Cosell at their considerable best.

The best thing I read this weekend was a link back to Gerald Early’s appreciation of Ali in The Muhammad Ali Reader, which can be found here. It recognizes and contextualizes Ali’s real achievements without glossing (as so many did the past few days) either Ali’s relatively smooth ride (for a black man in America, that is) or his own often virulent race-baiting, most pointedly directed at blacker-than-he-could-ever-hope-to-be opponents like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.

The only thing in Early’s fabulous essay that I found a little bemusing was this:

Ali has been compared to a number of famous people, from Oscar Wilde to Jack Johnson, from Elvis Presley to Jay Gatsby. I think he bears no small resemblance to our two finest jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and perhaps his genius might be best understood in relation to theirs. Like both of them, Ali was a southerner. Like Ellington, he came from the border South and so did not experience the most brutal sort of racism, but like Armstrong, who came from New Orleans, he came from a mythic southern place, Kentucky, with its Thoroughbreds, its bluegrass, its mint juleps, its colonels, so he experienced a deeply self-conscious white South, which may explain why he felt the oppression of racism so deeply without having to endure a great deal of it

Just curious, but isn’t “mythic southern place” a redundancy? I mean what part of the south isn’t mythic? Appalachia? The Delta? Charleston Bay? Ole Virgin-i-a? Memphis? The Bayou? The Glades? Miami Beach? The Redneck Riviera? Tex-ass? Tobacco Road? Rocky Top? Shiloh? And yes, Ole Kain-tuck and N’awlins, too. Funny thing. If the physical, moral and spiritual battles that determine what your civilization will look like get fought on your ground, you end up being mythic, whether you like it or not.

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(Ali, Tom Parker, Vernon Presley, circa 1978)

MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)

The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.

The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”

I couldn’t tell them.

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(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)

I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.

All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).

And that was all I was ever able to do.

Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.

She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…

 *    *    *    *

My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).

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(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)

There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.

The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):

Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”

“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”

I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.

By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.

 *   *    *    *

You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).

But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.

In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.

And a smart aleck.

One day, in my full-blown smark alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”

And then?

One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.

Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.

As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference….Right away.”

By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”

And, God help me, you could.

That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.

But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.

She taught me.

One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.

And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.

Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).

Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:

One day I was listening to this…

…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”

Voices.

Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…

My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”

Voices.

Another day, this…

…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”

Voices.

Another day, this (just out on the radio)…

The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.

Voices. Or maybe just sounds.

Another day, this…

My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”

Voices. Or sounds.

Another day, it might be this…

or this….

And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!

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(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)

Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…

And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.

Voices.

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(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)

Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.

They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.

They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.

They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten year old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.

If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.

And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.

Here’s to then….And to Voices. And sounds.

Happy Mother’s Day!

(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)

VAN MORRISON, EGOIST (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #59)

Van Morrison’s a big favorite of mine, which doesn’t exactly make me unusually insightful or anything, but it does make this archived column at Greil Marcus’ site more than usually interesting. Here’s the bit that caught my attention:

Nearing the end of the late show on the second night of the gig, Morrison opened up space in “Caravan,” an encore; he slowed the song almost to a stop, as if daring the crowd to anticipate his timing. He’s done this sort of thing for years, and the effect is always dramatic, disconcerting; here the audience responded with unison clapping. For the first time that night, save for his introduction of the band, Van talked to the crowd. “Shut up,” he said. “Just shut up. We do the work here, not you.”

Funny thing about rock and roll. It gave voices to more people–whether performer or audience–than any art form in the history of the world. And perhaps for that every reason it was a place where supreme loners often found a home. I don’t think any loner was more supremely alone than Van Morrison. But his attitude toward the crowd that had paid to see him perform and therefore presumably had some right to command his respect so long as they respected him (and he was giving them something worth respecting…past that, it gets complicated) on that night in 1978, is really just an extension of what I wrote about at length here, an event in which Morrison participated, though with a twist.

As I said in the earlier piece, Muddy Waters, Old Show Biz Pro that he was, was the only performer who was insufficiently hip to attempt engaging the audience that night, i.e. the only performer who inherently understood that if you carry on like this, you’ll make something like punk necessary, and also that from that moment forward it will be all downhill.

The other performers seemed secure in their permanent relevance, to know they were there to be celebrated and that the audience was a prop made up of people who knew perfectly well that if they really mattered they would have been up on the stage. Whether Martin Scorcese’s cameras merely caught that very specific essence of mid-seventies’ rock star elitism or (as I suspect) enhanced it, is a matter for speculation.

What isn’t speculative is that Morrison was the only performer besides Waters  and Neil Young (who at least engaged in unabashed hero worship) to project a kind of integrity.

Everybody else except Young and Waters looked down on the audience.

Morrison looked down on the audience and everybody else on the stage.

Which is probably why, without even trying, he left everybody but Muddy in the dust:

Might as well have said “Shut up. I do the work here….Even if I have to put up with the Band.”

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 2: The Seventies)

Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.

Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines.  That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.

To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)

So without further adieu:

Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)

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Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc.  and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.

Pick to Click: “Something In the Air” (going obvious for once because the times demand it…theirs and ours)

Lulu: New Routes (1970) and Melody Fair (1970)

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.

The quote at the top of that piece still cuts.

Picks to click: “Feelin’ Alright” (New Routes) and “After the Feeling is Gone” (Melody Fair)

Swamp Dogg Total Destruction to Your Mind (1970)

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Note: A straight soul version of Revelations. “Did concrete cover the land? And what was a rock and roll band?” No, really.

Pick to Click: “The World Beyond”

The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)

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Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.

Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)

Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)

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Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.

Pick to Click: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”

Jackie DeShannon Jackie

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Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.

Pick to Click: “Full Time Woman”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

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Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.

Pick to Click: “Part Time Man”

Big Star #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974)

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Note: In the CD era these have been released as an incomparable two-fer and that’s the way I’ve become used to listening to them. In their day they charted a future that eventually came and even charted (see R.E.M.) without ever sounding quite as good or quite as ready for any punch the world could possibly throw. I wrote about Big Star and the music on these albums (plus a few other things) here.

Picks to Click: “Feel” (#1 Record) and “You Get What You Deserve” (Radio City)

Dobie Gray Drift Away (1973)

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Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.

Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)

Raspberries Starting Over (1974)

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Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?

Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)

Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

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Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.

Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.

Boston (1976)

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Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.

Pick to Click: “Hitch a Ride”

The Persuasions Chirpin’ (1977)

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Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.

Pick to Click: “To Be Loved”

Boston Don’t Look Back (1978)

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Note: Wait. They did it again? Exactly the same? That must surely make this the funniest “up yours” title ever….the end draws nigh.

Pick to Click: “A Man I’ll Never Be”

Tanya Tucker Tear Me Apart (1979)

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Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)

Pick to Click: “Shady Streets”

Third and final installment on the Eighties to follow…Don’t worry, if I haven’t lost you by now, I’m sure I’ll lose you then!

TANYA TUCKER’S MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT (Segue of the Day: 4/11/2015)

Of the select group of singers who have been known to keep me up all night (you know, get me thinking I’ll just listen to an album or two round about midnight and still be on the player when the sun comes up, which is, believe me, the only way I ever get to see the dawn), only two have kept me up trying to figure them out.

That’s a very different quality than loving someone’s voice, though of course that has to be the foundation. I’m not gonna spend all night with somebody I merely like a lot. All three of my friends can tell you….I’m just not that kind of guy!

Anyway, one of those singers is surprise, surprise, Elvis Presley and over the years I’ve at least come to some sort of conclusions about his place in the Cosmos, some of which I’ve shared on this blog.

Somewhere along the way, I flat gave up on Tanya Tucker.

I even stopped listening to her all night (though admittedly this has something to do with how little of her best music is available on CD and the mysterious curse on my string of den-ready record players). I never forgot mind you. Never forgot how good she is, or how strange she is. And, before I stopped listening all night, I had long since dismissed any notion that she was merely eccentric, after the manner of Prince or Dr. John or Frank Zappa, not only because that style of studied accentuation of a persona never much appealed to me but because it just didn’t suit her at all.

She was great enough to be as great as anybody and strange enough to take all kinds of purely musical risks, not a few of which left her flat on whatever a singer falls on when they slip on the proverbial existential banana peel.

Also great enough and strange enough to find that little space the ordinary genius doesn’t find.

In other words, a lot like Elvis (who, yet again being uncannily-astute-even-if-he-was-just-being-polite-too, once called her the female version of himself).

On record this quality might have showed itself as subtly as the way she dug in at the very end of an otherwise note-for-note copy of Linda Ronstadt’s by then standard arrangement of “When Will I Be Loved” and not only cut away the difference between her very good voice and Ronstadt’s spectacular one but actually upped the ante.

Or it might have showed itself as completely devoid of subtlety as the in-your-face way she called up the harsh, pitiless desperation in John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which a singer as fine as Bonnie Raitt had essentially treated as a folk song about an old person we ought to all feel sorry for and which even Prine had sung from the outside looking in.

It might have even come from as far out as the absolutely natural way she leaned on the key lines in this…

…which would have been a joke–or a folk song about a young person we ought to feel sorry for–coming from anybody else who ever lived. Coming from her (a superstar prodigy who hadn’t lived in “the real world” from the age of thirteen and hadn’t exactly lived a normal existence for a long time before that) it cut straight under the scar tissue covering the soul of every wild child you ever tried to look down on because you could take one look and know she was going to wind up in a Tanya Tucker song some day.

I don’t know. Seemed like worth staying up all night for to me, trying to get to the bottom of all that.

But, as I say, at some point I let it go.

I still listen, of course, but I never got a handle on her.

And I never will.

Last night I was running around YouTube, trying to piece together some sort of theme relating to why all my favorite living country singers are women just a few years older than me: Jeannie Kendall (b. 1954), Pam Tillis (b. 1957), Patty Loveless (b. 1957). And, of course, I was going to put Tanya (b. 1958) in there somewhere.

Then I ran across something that stopped me cold because it was the old, weird Tanya again, smoking up an Orlando club some-time in the eighties. I’d seen some of the footage from the concert before (there’s a version of “San Antonio Stroll” from the same concert which I’ve always been fond of that beats Miley Cyrus’ latest career moves by thirty years and every other kind of way).

I might have even seen this before.

But I never really heard it.

Maybe I had the not-quite-there version from her 1982 live album, (so familiar from those long ago all night sessions, which were by no means limited to what I liked because with Tanya half the time I didn’t even know what I liked), too firmly lodged in my ear.

Maybe YouTube isn’t the best venue for critical reassessment. Maybe the fact that she used Joan Baez’s folk-song lyrics instead of the Band’s hard-scrabble history lessons (“so much cavalry” for “Stoneman’s cavalry,” “I took the train” for “By May the tenth” and so forth) was calling up the rock snob in me.

Maybe no man could be expected to pay strict attention to the way any woman is singing when she’s getting away with an outfit that wouldn’t sell ice-to-an-Eskimo on anybody else the way it does on her.

For whatever reason, I probably listened before, but I definitely didn’t hear.

I heard it this time.

I very especially heard the way she finally put the rebel yell back in the song.

I heard what Levon Helm deliberately suppressed (he wasn’t in a position to let any Yankees think he was talking about them…not in 1969 with a review in Rolling Stone pending that might make the difference in whether he died rich as a rock star or poor as Virgil Caine) and what Joan Baez (a fair candidate for the Yankeeest Yankee in Yankeedom) couldn’t have conjured even if she had somehow imagined its existence.

In other words, the girl who had sung the New South anthem, “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again” (oh, but not the way we thought it would back then) and the neo-Confederate anthem “I Still Sing the Old Songs” (where the south that the singer wants to see rise again is precisely the one “we” thought about back then) with equal spine-tingling conviction, had come to a place where a setting that was half Vegas-warm-up and half barn-dance-stomp seemed like as good a chance as any to assume the position that Dixie never got drove down at all and to hell with you if you think it did.

Believe me when I say that it’s a rare white Southerner, however enlightened, who doesn’t get this, just as it’s a much rarer white Southerner than you might think who isn’t secretly glad the Yankees won.

And lest you think it’s even that simple, bear in mind that, if you flip around YouTube a little longer, you’re likely to run across this next video, which I confess I had all but forgotten about and which sprang from the Rhythm, Country and Blues project in the nineties.

That was one of Nashville’s periodic attempts to pretend the hard, segregated line its generations of suits (with admittedly some collaboration from artists and audience, though that’s complicated, too) started taking almost ninety years ago doesn’t really exist.

Little Richard, one of the artists the particular line drawn in the late fifties had been especially designed to exclude (a line so rigid it left Elvis and Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers on the far side of it, kicked to the curb so to speak, even though they were Southern whites recording in Nashville with the same producers and musicians everybody else used and were, basically, the biggest pop stars in the world), was finally to be invited inside the tent.

And if you didn’t want that to be fake, or awkward, or embarrassing in either the musical or political sense, there was exactly one Nashville hit-maker you could call.

Gee, who do you think that was?

The female Elvis maybe?

More especially if you hoped to sell ice-to-Eskimos live on television with a thoroughly bemused let’s-all-try-to-get-through-this-now Vince Gill introduction…

 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #2: The Last Waltz)

The Last Waltz
Director: Martin Scorcese (1978)

During his days doing commentary for NBA games, I recall basketball great Bill Russell once being asked to compare the relative physical strength of two players. I don’t remember who the players in question were, but Russell’s answer has stuck with me: “Strength is like money. Once you have a certain amount, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

“Greatness,” is sort of the same way. Once you reach a certain level, ranking it is pointless.

Like a lot of people, I think the first two official albums released by the Band reached that level.

Also like a lot of people, I don’t think they did more than occasionally flirt with transcendence thereafter. Fine music, yes. Immeasurable greatness? Not really.

The Last Waltz is an extremely famous, much-lauded documentary of the star-studded 1976 concert that effectively served as the group’s swan-song.

It’s a measure of just how great those first two albums (and their work backing Bob Dylan’s early electric phase and joining him on The Basement Tapes) were, that they were still hip enough half-a-dozen light years later–rock and roll time moved so differently back then that 1976 was very much further removed from 1970 than 2012 is from, say, 1984 (Orwell’s or Reagan’s)–to call on Martin Scorcese to direct the proceedings and also to have the concert itself attract an amazing array of talent.

Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton.

Like that.

I first saw the film some time in the eighties, then again on an intriguing VH1 double-bill with Abba: The Movie some years later.

Just recently I watched it a third time and had the same impression I had the first and second times.

A lot of good music, a lot of arty camera work, a sense of thankfulness that certain things had been preserved for the record–and the inescapable conclusion of having been asked to accept a very disturbing premise.

A kind of spiritual divide had been opening up in rock and roll’s relationship with the large and small screen at least as far back as A Hard Day’s Night–likely the first movie to take a stance that treated the music’s audience with as much suspicion as affection. In those heady days, some of the darker implications of that division were obscured because the Beatles’ female fan base took matters in their own hands, screaming and carrying on in theaters as though the Beatles themselves were present. (“Just in case you thought your band was cool,” Steven Van Zandt has said “the girls were running down and kissing the screen.”)

But Beatlemania had another, less effervescent side. It was the main catalyst for a sort of youth intelligentsia (hardly made up solely of young people) that developed side by side with the music. And that intelligentsia, along with the musicians who inspired and guided it, found itself confronted by a difficult question: How could the music be cordoned off from the malign aspects of mass acceptance?

This sort of quasi-reactionary thinking eventually reached its natural apex with Kurt Cobain’s suicide but it had represented a real dilemma all along. If there was going to be a rock and roll intelligentsia it was going to have to come to terms with two groups of human beings intellectuals tend to recoil from reflexively in all times and places: Young women and the insufficiently hip.

These were, alas, the two groups that just happened to give rock and roll its central place in the culture to begin with.

Problem there.

I discussed some aspects of this tricky relationship here but The Last Waltz is a more direct evocation of the problem.

It’s the first important concert movie to treat the audience watching and listening out there in the dark–whether of a concert hall or a movie theater hardly mattered–the way dorm-boys and other tribalists had done all along.

As both the unofficial enemy and an afterthought.

This latent hostility cuts deeper than it might have because it’s a fair bet most of the audience actually present for the filmed concert of The Last Waltz was made up of precisely the right sort of folks. Mostly white and–if not all boys–at least people who tended to read the right books (a point emphasized by the presence of beat poets on the bill).

I think I know this group pretty well because I am them–exactly the audience the film’s movers and shakers had in mind.

But the film’s inherent elitism still creeps me out a little. It presents the audience in the hall as an inner circle–and then presents the performers as a circle within the circle.

The general experience is as stratified as a frat house or a Wall Street bank.

Of course, for mitigation, there’s some wonderful music and a few truly electrifying performances (Muddy Waters and Van Morrison in particular). Heck, even the poets are entertaining. But the overall impression I’ve had each time I’ve seen it is along the lines of: “If you really mattered, I guess you’d be up here on the stage with us.”

How much of this attitude sprang from the Band’s own Zeitgeist, how much from Scorcese’s and how much from a meeting of kindred spirits, God only knows (the sentiments expressed by Scorcese and Robbie Robertson in the feature documentary about the making of the film are contradictory to say the least, but Scorcese does probably give the game away when he says he wanted it to be about “what was happening on the stage,” a clear implication that what happened in the rest of the hall was secondary at best).

No doubt some of this just came from the fact of Scorcese being a major film maker whose usual concern was with mastering and representing his art form’s fourth-wall abstraction–something an actual concert, which links performer and audience in ways film can’t, inherently denies. Still, looking at the film world that had preceded it and even the one that surrounded it in the late seventies, The Last Waltz stands–for all the wrong reasons–as a disturbing portent.

The landmark concert films that had come before–The T.A.M.I. Show, Monterey Pop, Woodstock–had all made their audiences central to the experience. So, for that matter, had Abba: The Movie, which came out around the same time. They derived their considerable power–a power The Last Waltz ultimately cannot lay claim to–from the assumption that we’re all in this together. That’s not just a basic rock and roll principle–exemplified not just by those films, but also by the important television appearances of Elvis and the Beatles, participatory dance shows like American Bandstand, and natural prime-time variants like Shindig and Hullabaloo!–it’s a basic human ideal. Music is, after all, the most inherently participatory art. There’s a cost for rearranging its hard-won, life affirming rituals.

And, to be fair, there are moments in The Last Waltz when it feels like those rituals are on the verge of being reaffirmed: in the loose, off-beat feel of the poetry readings; in the slightly abashed, honored-just-to-be-here smile on the face of Neil Young–the man whose priceless advice Kurt Cobain would eventually misinterpret–when he walks on the stage (and in the awkwardness of his departure, as if he knows he has given the only performance of the night that will feel like it came from something deeper than craft and isn’t quite sure he did the right thing); even in the ready-made video insert of the Band performing “The Weight” with the Staple Singers, where Mavis Staples makes a better vocal foil for Levon Helm than anyone in his own group ever could and Scorcese–here in his true element, with the audience being imagined rather than felt–creates a nice basic textbook for the next decade’s music video directors to study.

So the film has worth–the question is how much its very real strengths matter when weighed against the airless spirit its overall approach pioneered.

These days, I can rifle through my video collection and pull up concert items from all over the ensuing decades–Earth, Wind and Fire, Tom Petty, Lulu, Cyndi Lauper, Prince–and the wall The Last Waltz built between the stage and the first row feels ever-present and impenetrable.

The Band and Martin Scorcese had started their respective careers as promising extensions of an opposing spirit–leaving every indication that they were going to pick up where Chuck Berry and John Ford left off. This film feels, more than anything, like a retreat from that promise, a document of the moment when that oppositional energy entered a state of exhaustion and collapse.

Whether the Band and Scorcese were perpetrators or victims, whether the collapse itself was real or imaginary, cynical or sincere, a bit hokey or genuinely painful, are questions that are probably bound to blow permanently unanswered in Bob Dylan’s wind and I know I can’t entirely dismiss the film’s best moments.

But I can’t quite embrace its central ethos either.

It feels too much like it’s rebuilding the very tribalism rock and roll was always meant to tear down. And, in its core concert footage at least, too much like it succeeded.

 

THE THINGS THAT SHOULD CHANGE SO RARELY DO….(Levon Helm and Poly Styrene R.I.P.)

The Band “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (studio)

X-Ray Spex “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (studio)

Searching for information on the death of Levon Helm (drummer and foremost lead singer of the Band) I found one of those “this time a year ago” links to the April, 2011 passing of Poly Styrene (principal writer and lead singer of X-Ray Spex).

Before this accidental mash-up I don’t think much ever linked these respective cults in my brain or anyone else’s.

Even the size of the cults was substantially different. The Band got gold records in their heyday. That’s how far rock had got by then. A very few years later, punk of the sort Styrene epitomized helped change all that. It was the hammer that–for better and worse–eventually smashed the rock world the Band personified into atoms.

And any linkage that exists now, in this everybody’s-internet-my-brain moment, will undoubtedly fade within days or weeks, as it surely deserves to.

But one thing that sticks in my mind right now and might stay stuck there for a while is the utter absence of even the slightest hint of flash or style or wit from the numerous tributes the atomized culture tossed up to either artist in their first hours on the other side of the greatest divide.

In an hour or so of dispirited searching, I found nothing in April, 2011 or April, 2012 that suggested the best music made by either Helm or Styrene left even the slightest alteration in the numb voices that are hired to provide contextual gauze on such occasions. Thus, a year ago, we got  “her simple but powerful message was that it was OK to be different because everyone is special.”  (From Dave Simpson at The Guardian), or, last night, “Watching him, it was easy to believe his mighty groove and massive grin could burn off any disease. For a while, it seemed, it did.” (From Will Hermes at NPR).

Switch a pronoun or two and one tribute could be substituted for the other.

Perfectly representational statements. Perfectly sincere and perfectly hollow.

I never got close to Poly Styrene’s music, but the message of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was anything but simple and in no way reducible to a simple declarative statement of any kind–not even to suggesting that anyone who caught thinking of it’s “okay to be different because everyone is special” as any sort of actual message is just the sort of hopeless maroon who deserves a beat on the obit-desk in this world Germfree Adolescents failed to change nearly enough.

Wherever Poly Styrene is, I hope she’s not amused.

As for Helm–well, all I can say is that every time I heard or saw him in the last ten years, he looked and sounded like he was at death’s door, a very long way from being a threat to “burn off any disease.” And–for this non-Yankee at least–his long-held “professional Southerner” pose didn’t wear any better in his creaking, twilight years than it did in the three or four or five decades prior.

That doesn’t take away from his real accomplishments, which ranged from being the sort of drummer who could actually keep the sprawling elements of the Band’s best music strung together in some sort of cohesion to the only man alive who could ever have made “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” bite all the way into the bone back in ’sixty-nine to the only artist on last year’s fine Hank Williams tribute who could keep up with Patty Loveless (that is to say, the only artist who did more than could be expected–sometimes, being at death’s door has its advantages).

The idea that Helm or Styrene might have been in any way complicated, failed, possibly unblessed–either as artists or people–seems to have been completely submerged long before either passed away and it’s probably unrealistic to expect their deaths to be an occasion for reassessment. It seems sacrilege now (especially among the nonreligious) to suggest that their rare moments of brilliance got their very sting and might from their proximity to failure–from being measured as they were against all those vast, becalmed stretches of non-stinging, non-mighty, not-brilliance.

From being, in other words, one vital part of the essence of what rock and roll has always meant to so many who were born to be kicked.

I may or may not ever write at length about “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”–but they’re the sort of records I started this blog to celebrate. Idiosyncratic, revelatory, disturbing, surprising, potentially life-changing. Not foreseeable until their existence made them seem inevitable. All that sort of thing. And I know there are probably lonely voices on the internet right now celebrating Helm and Styrene as they deserve to be celebrated–as the sticky wickets they actually were.

It’s just too bad–all these years down the road, with plenty of examples to guide us–that such voices still can’t quite seem to reach the middle of the stream.