BELIEVER (Marty Balin, R.I.P.)

Marty Balin: 1942–2018 (Founder of the Jefferson Airplane. Member 1965–71…when he was gone, they were gone.)

When I was an English major at FSU in the early eighties I had what’s called an Article and Essay class. We studied the finer points of grammar and wrote essays on the subjects of our choice which were then subjected (anonymously and randomly) to class critique. Later on, whether there was a public appraisal or not, we would each meet privately with the professor and he would tell us what was really wrong. We had to submit nine essays during the semester and he told us up front that he only gave one or two papers an A per semester.

Sure enough, on my nine essays, I got a mix of B and B+ grades. (I got an A for the class due to acing my grammar tests, thus preserving my 4.0 average in my major by the miracle of doing spectacularly well in the one area where I was generally haphazard, preferring, as I did, to make up my own rules–turned out all they had to do was make it an actual test).

I had two papers critiqued publicly. The first passed with the general positive commentary from the less shy students (my habit, in that class and every other, was to offer no word, good or bad, at any time), a gentle admonishment or two from the professor and a good nod all around.

The second was about my favorite band, then and now, the Byrds.

If you’ve ever been in one of these type classes, or any of the real world situations for which they are supposed to prepare you, you will be familiar with the blood-in-the-water concept that can overtake even the nicest people.

English majors, as it happens, are not the nicest people. Not the worst by any means–but not the nicest.

Especially when everybody knows the subject under discussion wasn’t produced by them.

For whatever reason–and my own surly professor later assured me it really had nothing to do with the quality of my paper (which he gave the usual B)–he and the rest of the class decided the blood-in-the-water moment for that semester of Article and Essay was going to be dedicated to ripping apart the only paper I wrote in my entire, illustrious college career (there were awards, I assure you, not to mention the nearly-automatic one-per-semester instance of hearing one of my papers read aloud by yet another teacher who had decided mine was the example everybody needed to hear so they would know how it was done) which I cared about.

The professor started in.

Then all the students who usually spoke up and some of those who didn’t, started ripping away, not at any aspect of the writing, but at the arguments I had actually made, which they didn’t find convincing, somehow, and where was my evidence and who were these Byrds anyway? Raga-rock? Was that really a thing? How come nobody ever heard of it? Wasn’t country rock more like the Eagles?

“Yeah,” my professor said. “1968. That’s about when I stopped listening to the radio.”

I didn’t bother to point out, then or later, that 1968 was just about when the Byrds stopped being played on that radio he stopped listening to. Why bother, when the real kicker had been my assertion that the Byrds, who were psychedelic before the San Francisco groups (like, you know, the Jefferson Airplane), were also the source of many gentler, more melodic sounds associated with the West Coast (like, you know, the Jefferson Airplane).

All those kids who never heard of the Byrds, circa 1982, had sure heard of the Airplane.

And what kind of boob thought they were ever gentle or melodic (and, okay, I think I threw the word “meandering” in there for contrast–I wasn’t being entirely generous toward any band who wasn’t the Byrds in that piece, because, circa 1982, my whole point was the Byrds were the Byrds and everybody else was just a band).

None of that brought me out of my personal space, either in class or in conference with the professor.

I was just there to get a grade.

These days, if I think about those days, I mostly just smile and shake my head.

Hey, it wasn’t as bad as the time in Ju-Co History Class when a kid argued “Herman’s Hermits and them” had invented rock and roll (by way of proving the Beatles had not).

Life goes on, etc.

But somewhere tonight, I hope Marty’s with Gene Clark, writing a few brand new songs together.

And singing a few of those he left behind.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

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

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

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

Well, none of that happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it Mavis: