One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.
9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)
Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.
8) Cyndi Lauper:Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)
Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.
7) Otis Redding:Pain In My Heart (1964)
I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.
6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)
The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”
5) Various Artists:Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)
Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.
4) John Mellencamp:Words & Music (2004)
Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.
Stick it in the CD player and drive.
3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)
Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.
And we all know the reason.
2) Prince:The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)
He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.
1) Manfred Mann:The Best of
I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!
And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on! But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?
Especially before J.T. Taylor joined, they flirted with a kind of anonymity: each member interchangeable within the collective and the collective interchangeable within the form (which in the beginning was funk, funk, and nothing but the funk–meaning the white boy intelligentsia was all too happy to define them out of existence).
They were too good for that to last and, over the long haul–which this strictly chronological delight traces step-by-step–they helped define funk, disco, even the new R&B ballad style. And, for all that, there’s no way to get to the bottom of “Celebration,” which seems lighter than air the first hundred times you hear it on the radio or some comp and, here, late at night on the headphones you wear so you won’t wake up the neighbors, reveals itself as one of the greatest and deepest arrangements in the history of rock and roll. Meaning, around these parts, the history of great and deep arranging, period. Try it some time.
9) Desmond Dekker Rockin’ Steady: The Best of (1992)
A recent re-acquisition (among several on this list that were lost in the Great CD Sell-Off of 2002)–and I can’t even believe how much I was missing. My vague memory was that, after all the early Leslie Kong-produced stuff everybody knows are great (“007” “The Israelites” “It Mek”) there was a bit of a tail-off. If anything, he got better. This is the most readily available comp and, while I suspect it only scratches the surface–nobody this consistent on the singles, across decades, ever fails to have hidden depths–it’s still a lot to take in. For at least these twenty cuts, Dekker belongs in the company of the reggae giants, with Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert.
And, lest we forget, it was he, not they, who broke the music off the island.
8) Patty LovelessUp Against My Heart (1991)
Between 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel and 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome, which preceded her first unofficial retirement, Loveless released seven albums. This is the only one that didn’t go gold or platinum so naturally it’s my favorite…not to mention one of the greatest vocal albums of the twentieth century. The significance to her career–and the direction of country music ever since–was not slight. This was her fifth album and fifth albums are about where sawdust-on-the-floor acts are supposed to give a little.
It must have occurred to somebody that she was digging in instead of selling out. A label change, throat surgery and her first “comeback” were in the offing–and she would take digging in further than anyone has in these modern times, (when it really has become gauche), eventually winning every major award, without bluster, without giving an inch, and without playing any way other than nice.
But I still wonder what would have happened–to her and the country–if, with Bill Clinton’s unctuous combination of Sanctimony and Sleaze lurking just around the corner, somebody had the nerve to release “God Will” to the radio….and it had taken off.
7) War All Day Music (1971)
One of the great albums of the seventies. I’m starting to think it might be even greater than its mind-blowing followup The World is a Ghetto, which was the best-selling album of 1973. It’s conceptual, and the concept stretches from “All Day Music” to “Slippin’ Into Darkness” to an early, live version of “Me and Baby Brother,” (called here just “Baby Brother”)–from the afterglow of the just-then-receding Civil Rights movement, to the ominous warning of a present already being robbed of the light, to a future that must, of necessity, betoken a reckoning.
And it flows, brothers and sisters. It flows.
Never more so than when snatches of cross-talk at the beginning of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” recreate a camaraderie every living human can envy as prelude to a lyric that drops us into a situation far too many of us would sell our souls to avoid having to deal with personally.
6) The Mamas & the PapasDeliver (1967) and The Papas & the Mamas (1968)
Speaking of slipping into darkness, it’s funny how one album puts you in a mood for another. I listen to these albums as the second disc of a box set, where they make a seamless transition that amounts to a blessing on the sixties’ present (represented by several stunning re-imaginings of R&B classics on Deliver) turning into a curse on any possible future that might result as The Papas & the Mamas wanders along.
Over the course of these, their last two albums (not counting a listless reunion effort in the seventies), Cass eventually takes over on her way out the door–with a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that wastes every pre-rock Pop singer to a husk, with a “Midnight Voyage” that closes down the album and the group as swiftly, surely and seductively as “Safe in My Garden” and “Twelve Thirty” (which novelist Steve Erickson once accurately described as an ode to the Manson girls) close down the sixties. And that’s not even taking into account the single line where she sing’s Get on your pony and ride which might be her finest moment.
These days, I listen to this disc a lot.
I mean, with the End so near, why wouldn’t you?
5) Earth, Wind & FireGreatest Hits (1998)
Funk’s most formidable hit machine and this is all of them, rolling one right after the other. (Mix-disc advice: Stick “Serpentine Fire” next to the Beach Boy’s “How She Boogalooed It.” Strap down your mind first. Thank me later.)
People who think EWF lack street cred (mostly white people who mistook George Clinton’s slave humor for Old Testament commandments–as with the Stax/Motown debate, the opinions of actual black people, including George Clinton, are rarely taken into account unless they conform to certain necessary preconditions) function as useful idiots. There’s more evidence on their albums and box sets. I invite you to explore…but this is proof enough.
4) The TokensWimoweh! The Best of (1994)
Another recent re-acquistion–disappointed that it didn’t have “He’s in Town” (though that at least proved I hadn’t somehow missed or, worse, forgotten it, and gave me an excuse to add it to the Diamonds in the Shade category). What’s left after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still pretty spectacular. One can hear how, with a break or two, they might have been much bigger. Maybe not as big as the 4 Seasons, for whom they cleared the ground…but bigger.
Instead, the sixties happened. This is a nice trip to the land of what might have been.
3) The SkylinersSince I Don’t Have You(with Bonus Tracks) (1991)
(Another recent re-acquisition–it’s been that kind of year.)
A vehicle for Jimmy Beaumont, a doo wop genius who was really a blue-eyed soul genius arrived half a decade early. This is nearly all riveting. The killer soprano who augments the sound, occasionally taking it over, is Janet Vogel. She would hang over the proceedings like a ghost even if you didn’t know she committed suicide in 1980.
On these records, she is not alone in sounding like she already knows something you don’t. Killer stuff.
2) Barry WhiteAll-Time Greatest Hits (1994)
They could have called it “quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” It’s too bad Barry became known as the Maestro of Sex because he was really the Maestro of Devotion, who understood how important Sex was. I’m with Marvin Gaye in regarding him as one of the deepest spiritual artists. Some people understood–this never, ever quits and, released nearly two decades after the Maestro’s hey-day, it went double-platinum. You want to go really deep, catch “You See the Trouble With Me’ and “Oh What a Night for Dancing,” but even the most heavy rotation hits have never worn out and never will….and you talk about arrangements? Jesus, these don’t even call attention to themselves when you’re concentrating on them and nothing else.
Or at least trying to!
1) Various ArtistsUltimate Seventies: 1973 (1990)
One thought that struck me listening to nearly everything on this list, but especially to Barry White, was how everybody used to sound big.
Music only rides three basic trains: Melody, Rhythm, Trance. Pitchfork‘s recent list of the 200 Greatest Albums of the Eighties had a link to a key song from each album. That sort of thing is one of the great blessings of the modern age. Once upon a time, when a critic waxed lyrical about some obscure recording, you had to sweat blood, time and money to ever hear it. Now, it’s just a click away. Except for the few dozen on that list I knew (Madonna, Bruce, Michael, Prince, Cyndi, the Go-Go’s) I clicked every single entry (something north of a hundred and fifty) and finished exactly one (a song by the Replacements I’m not the least bit haunted by already having forgotten the name of even though I swore I’d try to remember).
For all the rest, be it hip-hop, rap, grunge, punk, post-punk, indie, hardcore, speed metal, dance pop, electronica, post-modern classical or even singer-songwriter (Leonard Cohen was on there somewhere), I developed a pattern.
Click on a link.
Mutter Trance music.
I was aware of the new form of evil moving through the land in the eighties as it happened. I hope that awareness has touched almost everything I’ve written on this blog. But the level of calculation, especially as it related to what had, only a moment before, been Rock and Roll America, the most liberating force in American life, if not American history, never before struck me so forcefully.
Not coincidentally I found myself, a day or two later, wondering what I needed to listen to in order to finish off this list and my hand strayed to, of all places, the Time Life area of the CD shelves.
I picked 1973 because it was supposed to be a nothing year, the nadir--the kind of vacuum that made the Punk and Rap Trances (and the Grunge and Hip Hop trances that followed in their wake)–and the smug pretense their trances represented something besides capitulation–inevitable before the decade was out.
And this collection from the corporate behemoth started with “Loves Me Like a Rock” “Superfly” “We’re an American Band’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And, except for maybe Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” it rolled all the way to the end with no trace of a trance anywhere–and even Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” didn’t sound small. It didn’t matter if me or you liked all of this music or none of it–it was the sound that mattered. The sound of somebody–literally anybody–trying to get a grasp on a moment that was huge, not because of your private taste or mine, but because we were still desperate to be caught up in some larger story and to have music represent that desperation.
And now, like everything from 1980 onward that wasn’t a throwback, we have….smallness.
Jesus. You artists of the present (the ones that reach the radio anyway).
You shameless fronts for suits and machines.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” is one thing. Nobody expects you to live up to that.
But you’ve made Stealers Wheel and Seals and Croft sound epic.
How am I supposed to forgive you!
Take it Marvin…Save me Brother! Sing Track 18 for Barry and all the ladies and shut down the trance lords forever. Make them ashamed:
I know some of you follow Greil Marcus’s Mailbag (which I can’t link–it’s available under “Ask Greil” if you follow the Marcus link under my blogroll). For those who don’t, here’s the text of a question from one of his readers and his response, regarding the new Docu-flick The King.
I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?
I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.
This leads back to some themes I’ve hit on here before, but this feels like a good time to re-visit them.
I’ll take that attempt at pure musical criticism first:
“ignoring melody and rhythm.”
Here’s a question. If you’re relying on the counterfactual, which fact are you trying to hide?
That Elvis was using melody and rhythm in ways you don’t understand? Or merely in ways that would undermine the larger point you are about to make?
The examples Marcus gives of what Elvis did that didn’t “make up for anything” are designed to let us know that Elvis couldn’t have done anything that made up for not participating in at least one Civil Rights march, the way (as the questioner reminds us) even Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston did.
For Elvis, more than forty years after his death, the goalposts are still moving.
For everyone else, they remain the same.
Just a reminder on how this works:
Bob Dylan converted to Fundamentalist Christianity (and has never quite renounced it, preferring to dance around the question).
Neil Young and Prince loudly and proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan (whom Marcus and many other Libs consider a fascist).
John Lydon and David Lynch (two of Marcus’ great heroes) have said kind things about Donald Trump. (NOTE: Elvis is still called to account for who he might have voted for, had he lived to see the day.)
Ray Charles (no Elvis fan) was a life-long rock-ribbed Republican who sang for Reagan and George W. Bush. And you should have seen the contortions the obituarists at all the Good Liberal periodicals put themselves through when Ray had the bad taste to force-multiply the association by dying the same week as the Gipper.
Elvis Costello once got drunk and called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger.”
Totally forgiven…even by Ray Charles!
Dozens, if not hundreds, of liberal African-American icons never quite managed to march with or for MLK or the Civil Rights Movement. Too many to list, really.
All totally forgiven.
And, oh yeah, that photographer, Ernest Withers?
Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.
Nothing could ever make up for that!
Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?
I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.
That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.
It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.
It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.
Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).
Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.
It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.
Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.
So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.
But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.
Could she hold….that note?
I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.
So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.
I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.
I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.
Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.
Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?
I mean, she can…
But can she really?
I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.
Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.
I listen to Rhino’s old 2-disc Warren Zevon anthology I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead with fair frequency. Who doesn’t want to drift off to sleep to the sounds of “Detox Mansion” or “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” or “I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill?”
I don’t know why it is, then, that I never appreciated his version of “Raspberry Beret” (cut with R.E.M. posing as Hindu Love Gods) before this week. I mean, I always liked it and I always shared a wry smile with the ten thousand others who have noted how much “Raspberry Beret,” a hit for Prince in 1985, sounded like Warren Zevon, circa 1976. But it never really stood out before.
Maybe that’s because I never realized what a perfect song it would have made for a nineteen-year-old Elvis, if he had been born two generation later, walked into a studio around 1990 (when Zevon’s version was released, though it was recorded in 1987) and got some off-the-wall producer to listen to him goofing off with it. And maybe I never realized that before because, if Elvis hadn’t been born in 1935, Prince and Warren Zevon would have been about as well known in 1985 (or 1990) as Arthur Crudup and Bill Monroe were in 1954.
The Revolution (you know, the one that’s always deemed inevitable once someone makes it happen) would have still been waiting. (Yes, yes, debate the validity of alternate universes amongst yourselves, but rest assured my anonymous sources are unimpeachable.)
Would we be better off in 2017 if somebody scrambled the time-line?
Excuse me while I venture forth to commune with the departed shade of Philip K. Dick….He keeps telling me he knows all about this stuff. He just can’t tell me whether I’ll face eternal damnation if I bring the drugs.
Marketa Lazarova (1967) Director: František Vláčil
Sign o’ the Times (1987) Director: Prince
I happened to watch these back to back this week, not entirely on purpose but not entirely by coincidence either. They’ve both been sitting on my shelf for a while, waiting for a mood and, after watching Marketa Lazarova, as grim and compelling a visual and narrative experience as the human mind can touch without suffering immolation, I thought a Prince concert film might offer a little relief.
Maybe in some other context it would. But Marketa opened up so many doors to the long view of history there was probably no way to detach it from whatever came next. I certainly couldn’t detach it from a world of Dionysian hedonism where absolutely everything–including the god-like qualities of the writer/director/performer at the center–is taken for granted.
The Czech film (voted the nation’s greatest in 1998, and, for once, I can believe it) takes nothing for granted, maybe because the thirteenth-century world it depicts is devoid of all security, all modernity, all comfort.
Though the plot is byzantine, the underlying narrative has a fable-like simplicity–thirteenth-century Czech warlords and their attendant clans anticipating the Hatfields and McCoys by six hundred years.
I suspect only someone who had come through the immediate experience of a war-torn land (Vláčil, a Czech native, was twenty-one when WWII ended and in his early forties when Marketa was filmed, apparently under physical circumstances not far removed from those of the story he was telling), could have brought such immediacy to a pre-civilizational world. God is present, but His ways are even more mysterious than usual and He seems in no mood to perform wonders. The Church is protected by forces less abstract than the Creator, and therefore weak and morally compromised, even within the walls of the nunnery that represents its presence in both the film and the world the film brings so unerringly, unnervingly near.
I suspect that going much further–making sense of it all–would require dozens of viewings, even for someone versed in the Czech language (one commentator after another on the extras provided by Criterion’s typically excellent package insists that the novel upon which the film is based is brilliant but untranslatable). But its primal power shines through, burning like a dark light hovering over one of Marketa’s endless snow-strewn vistas. It’s as full of “unexpected” turns as The Searchers, the only American film to which it bears a passing resemblance, and similarly driven by the force of an internal logic that, in the mind of those paying close enough attention, subsumes every “but would they actually do that?” objection before it even half-forms. (That resemblance would be more than passing if Debbie Edwards’ experiences–doubtless similar to what the title character in Marketa Lazarova suffers before our eyes, right down to “bonding” with her captor/rapist–were as fully fleshed out as her uncle’s….Ethan Edwards would have been perfectly at home in the thirteenth century).
All of this served to remind me, as I watched Prince cavort through his meticulously self-constructed Utopia, just how near the wheel is to turning, how close we are to seeing the Devil turn round no matter who we “elect” now or in the future. The skids are greased. If the present election cycle has been nothing else, it’s been a reminder that our current raison d’tre, a national mission now resisted by exactly no one, is to move Paradise from the future (where it had been so securely and imaginatively placed by the Reformations–Catholic and Protestant–that kicked off Europe’s emergence from the all-against-all darkness Marketa Lazarova so memorably depicts, and set it on the five-hundred-year winning streak which the war František Vláčil lived through put to an end) to the present.
Paradise–represented by Prince’s imagination or anyone else’s–is always supposed to be transcendent, post-civilizational, the place where there will be no more crying. In the real world all men and all nations have to pass through on the journey to Perfection, the search for it always ends by discovering new realms of suffering.
We had best enjoy the vicarious thrills of experiences like Sign o’ the Times (staggering by the norms of ordinary concert films, and, oh by the way, a beautifully complete refutation of the searing, unsettling album with which it shares a title and much of the same music–not for nothing do we call the man from Minneapolis a genius), while we can.
We are now flying very close to the sun. The world of Marketa Lazarova–which many now living in, say, the Middle East, would recognize as a mere nod to current events–will, via Paradise, return for the rest of us soon enough.
Also, for those who link to the fifteen minute version of the interview, I swear I had never seen it (or anything similar) when I wrote about them here. (Main point: Before I said they never needed the seventies, they said they never needed the seventies. Turned out, I wasn’t saying anything new, just channeling. They also imply, without being supercilious about it, that being “retro” in early eighties L.A. took more vision, courage and inspiration than a lot of people were willing to admit after it put them on the top of the charts and the cover of Rolling Stone.)
This dreary year’s death train rolls on. No music links. You can find the awesome, if by now somewhat cliched, live stuff (“Purple Rain” at the Superbowl, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at George Harrison’s RRHOF induction) on YouTube, but, beyond that, you’ll need to be more tech savvy than I am. Generally speaking, the man was obsessive about his copyrights, a capitalist with a capital “C.”.
If I could play something, it would be “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” which, in a way, tells the whole story of both his boundless narcissism (because you knew part of him was lying) and his keen empathy (because you knew some other part of him was telling a hard truth in spite of himself).
If I had to pick any one album it would be Dirty Mind.
You know: “Black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freakin’. Good times were rollin‘!”
But, really, mirror shades are sometimes worth a thousand words:
I hope Jehovah, if He does turn around, can see through His own reflection tonight. I’m sure Jimi and James could use the company. It’s not every day somebody comes through the Gate who can look them in the eye.
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?
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:
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”
It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.
Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:
Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)
Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)
The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)
Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)
Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)
Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)
Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)
The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)
London Calling The Clash (1979)
The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)
1999 Prince (1982)
Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)
Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)
I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.
That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.
So it goes.
My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dimefor reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life, The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.
Besides Tusk, that leaves:
These, I’ve obsessed over.
Some time or other.
Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.
Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.
Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.
That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.
Boy, do I feel foolish.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?
One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.
And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.
You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.
But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?
Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.
And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).
For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.
Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.
There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,” in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Before I have to put this knife in your throat.
All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.
That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.
Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.
Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.
It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.
But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.