Music

Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music – part 1, fame and its discontents

Being an artist is hard; being a successful artist is even harder.

Lost Highways by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

Lost Highways by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

“You see, from the honky tonks you got such a mixture of all different types of music, and I think what happened is that when Elvis busted through, it enabled all these other groups that had been going along more or less the same avenue—I’m sure there were hundreds of them—to tighten up and focus on what was going to be popular.” – Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians is one of those books that can be both maddening and rewarding. His work consists of explorations of roots musicians famous, known mainly to cognoscenti, and obscure. At times one wonders why Guralnick took the time to pursue, interview and write about characters like Charlie Feathers or Sleepy LaBeef; at other times one appreciates his brilliant, incisive treatments of Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, Jr., and Elvis Presley.

It’s a great book, in other words.

Guralnick’s skill, if this book is any indication, is to strip away the possible and leave the probable. That may sound like double talk, but understanding artists is part inference, part voodoo.

He’s really good at it, by the way. Continue reading

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Unsolicited Museum Review—American Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy, and Paul Nash at the Tate.

As it turns out, lots of pictures does not a great, or even a good, show make.us-postage-stamp-depicting-the-american-gothic-painting-by-grant-wood-dgxrtk

What is one to do when you leave an art show that leaves you not just disappointed, but distressed at the missed opportunities that resulted from sheer curatorial laziness? Go to another show that embodies what curators are supposed to be doing—be edifying and, at times, electrifying. The new American art show at the Royal Academy—America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s—isn’t just a disappointment—it’s a bad show, in spite of having some great paintings. On the other hand, the Paul Nash show at the Tate is brilliant.

So what’s the difference? Let’s start with the Nash. Paul Nash was a British artist whose career spanned most of the first half of the 20th century. He is mainly known for his work as an Official War Artist (in both world wars, which must have been dispiriting), and also for his foray into surrealism in the inter-war period. The Tate show puts this into context, tracing his entire career. And the context is important. Continue reading

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George Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me…and then there were three….

And so The Beatles acquired a third great songwriter…

“‘Don’t Bother Me’ I wrote in a hotel in Bournemouth, where we were playing a summer season in 1963, as an exercise to see if I could write a song. I was sick in bed.” – George Harrison

George Harrison, 'A Hard Day's Night' period (image courtesy imdb.com)

George Harrison, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ period (image courtesy imdb.com)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney have long been ranked among the premiere songwriters of the 20th century. That the pair both wrote for the same band is certainly a central element of the The Beatles’ standing in rock history.  Any band with two great songwriters is certainly very, very lucky.

As we all know, the Fabs didn’t have two great songwriters – they had three. The emergence of George Harrison’s songwriting talent only serves to reiterate that, as in so much of their lives and career,  The Beatles were winners of whatever history’s equivalent of the Powerball is.

George, who was given the moniker “the quiet Beatle,” might better have been denominated “the independent Beatle.” Because he was younger (and remember, Paul, and George got together when they were very young and Paul had to sell John on allowing George to join the band that eventually became THE band), his status was predicated on 1) his guitar playing (which was better than anyone’s, not excluding John or Paul) and 2) his absolute commitment to the cause (which equaled John’s and Paul’s). Continue reading

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The Fool on the Hill…McCartney’s ode to differentness

In “The Fool on the Hill” McCartney was writing about the Maharishi. And perhaps himself.

“He never listens to them… He knows that they’re the fools” – Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, Fool on the Hill (image courtesy beatlesbyday.com)

Paul McCartney, Fool on the Hill (image courtesy beatlesbyday.com)

Here’s the thing about Paul. As I have  written before on more than one occasion, McCartney rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He’s the most musically gifted of The Beatles (though George Harrison fans would likely argue) and in some ways the most creative force in the band (which will likely make John Lennon fans see red). He has even been accused of being an occasional threat to Ringo’s self-esteem (unjustified) which seems unconscionable, especially to the most lovable Beatle’s fans.

Here’s some truth that I doubt anyone would deny: Paul was and is the most driven Beatle, the one who wanted/needed to achieve. In a very real way, that has made him odd man out, even within The Beatles. Even within that close knit band of brothers, he felt his differentness. Continue reading

The Essential Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry goes global, sort of

The Essential Wendell BerryPaul Kingsnorth is a British writer, of both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction includes The Wake, nominated for the Booker a few years ago, which involved him creating a variant of Old English to tell the story. His non-fiction includes Real England, published more than ten years ago, but still topical in its description of the alienation even then afflicting England’s middle and working classes—much like the US. More recently, he has been involved in establishing a group, Dark Mountain, which describes itself as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.” That’s a pretty good description of where many of us are these days.

We have been led to believe a raft of stories about ourselves that turn out to be, well, just not true. Capitalism will kill us, it’s pretty clear. Globalization has helped a number of countries pull themselves up, but it turns out to be more of a zero-sum game than predicted, and the environmental consequences of unbridled capitalism are rendering places actually unlivable now. The neoliberal project brought us two of the most undesirable US presidential candidates in history, and the morass of US politics shows every sign of deteriorating even further. Continue reading

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The Beatles remind us: there’s a place…

“There’s a Place” anticipates the musical breakthrough that would come for the band with 1965’s Rubber Soul.

“There…is a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue…” – John Lennon, Paul McCartney

The Beatles in all the Edenic glory (image courtesy Time.com)

The Beatles in all the Edenic glory (image courtesy Time.com)

The English composer and musicologist Wilfrid Mellers, in his now classic scholarly study of the Beatles, Twilight of the Gods,  calls the early Beatles period, the period of screaming girls and “yeah, yeah, yeah,” their “Edenic” period. In his study, Mellers give particular attention to “There’s a Place,” the American “B-side” (there’s a quaint old term for you) to their iconic cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”

Given that the song wallows in obscurity in the Fabs’ canon, you must be wondering why Professor Mellers chose to give it serious scholarly attention and why I would choose it as the subject of of an essay. Other sources report that while John, Paul, George, and Ringo originally had high hopes for the song, that they themselves lost interest caused possibly by its having been a bit of a struggle for them to record. From being a song they expected to be their next #1, “There’s a Place” ended up as album filler and a B-side to a popular cover song.

As both Professor Mellers and I will argue, that’s a bad underestimation of what really is one of their finest early tunes. Continue reading

Music

Lady Day’s blues: Billie Holiday remembers…

Holiday’s goal is to reveal herself without giving herself away.

“I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, it ain’t music, it’s close order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.” – Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday in full flight (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Billie Holiday in full flight (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Lady Sings the Blues is, I suppose, one of the first autobiographies by a popular music star. This, the first book from the 2017 reading list, is an “as told to.” One of the things the ghost writer (to resurrect an old term), William Dufty, a reporter for the New York Post and a personal friend of Holiday, does beautifully is avoid much revision of Holiday’s words. As best as I have been able to discover, Dufty did a series of extended interviews with Holiday without the benefit of tape recording. That Lady Sings the Blues reads like a transcribed conversation with Lady Day is a tribute to Dufty’s careful rendering of Holiday’s words in her voice.

Dufty’s success in allowing Holiday to speak for herself is both charming and haunting, both illuminating and (unintentionally, perhaps) misleading. What one realizes as one reads this autobiography is that Holiday’s goal is to reveal herself without giving herself away. Let me put that more accurately: what Billie Holiday tries to do in Lady Sings the Blues is not give her self away even as she reveals herself. Continue reading

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John Lennon reaches Across the Universe…

Lennon once said that he likes the lyrics of “Across the Universe” perhaps the best of all the songs he wrote with The Beatles.

“When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there.” – George Harrison

John and Yoko (image courtesy Vanity Fair)

John and Yoko (image courtesy Vanity Fair)

Recent news reports have noted that the best selling book at Amazon is currently George Orwell’s classic novel of dystopian horror, 1984. Given our national circumstances, I suppose this could be seen as a positive, an effort on the part of at least some of the populace to educate themselves, even if a significant number of others in the populace (including me) wish that this sudden urge toward historical and cultural literacy had occurred before a certain November event.

Such, such is life, as the poet says. We seem only to want to listen to our poets and sages in times of distress.

There are some who, in the face of what certainly feels like imminent disaster, keep telling us that, to quote the mystic, “All shall be well.” It is difficult to the level of impossibility, however, to emulate the purity and power of a Julian of Norwich’s faith which is roughly the level of faith needed these days.  What are we of little faith to do?

Well, we can listen to “Across the Universe.”
Continue reading

books

Book Review: The Tell-Tale Treasure by Diane Sawyer

The Tell-Tale Treasure is a thriller for which one cannot use the standard descriptions such as fast-paced, edge of your seat, or thrill a minute. That is its most interesting appeal.

The Tell-Tale Treasure by Diane Sawyer (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

The Tell-Tale Treasure by Diane Sawyer (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

Diane Sawyer’s The Tell-Tale Treasure is a bit of an anomaly for a work of its genre.

This is a good thing.

The novel, written in 3rd person limited narration, shifts between characters throughout the work. Most readers will find the two most affecting of these narrations those that shift between Rosie Renard, an antiques dealer whose discoveries reopen a cold case concerning a talented classical musician who plays the erhu, a Chinese instrument similar to the violin, and Ivy Chen, a kidnapping victim who is a classical musician who plays that fascinating instrument…

What Rosie finds, and where that leads her and  the police and how all this works out to a successful (for the reader) conclusion is part of the charm of this novel. The pleasure for the reader in The Tell-Tale Treasure is not in its main plot. The pleasure for any astute reader of Sawyer’s novel is in the parts of the novel that offer readers the opportunity to know, really know, her characters, particularly Rosie and the musician mentioned above, the classical musician Ivy Chen. Continue reading

Through a glass darkly

I’m sharing this article from Independent Journal Review just to make a point.

hypocritesIndependent Journal Review: Those Outraged At Trump Blocking Refugees Didn’t Seem To Care About What Obama Did To Cubans

I learned of it from the Facebook page Conservative Daily. To hell with that page, no link. Thanks to my embrace of people at least as good-hearted as me however differently, people of widely differing viewpoints, I have the good fortune of seeing this kind of crap splatter across my screen on a regular basis, like I’ve just flown under a magpie’s flight path at exactly the wrong time.

For the moment, for the point I’m coming to, I actually don’t care if the claims in this particular case are true or not. The truth of the claims is beside the point. Continue reading

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Facing down the piggies with George Harrison…

George Harrison’s song “Piggies” from the White Album (written during another year of tumult, 1968) seems a perfect description of our present situation.

“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game…. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” – John Lennon

George Harrison at the time of The Beatles' White Album (image courtesy The Beatles Bible)

George Harrison at the time of The Beatles’ White Album (image courtesy The Beatles Bible)

We seem to be living in what the Chinese curse calls “interesting times.” 2016 was one of the most turbulent years in modern American political history, and the turmoil attendant to the presidential election felt exacerbated by the deaths of some of popular music’s most important figures. The list still seems breathtaking: inimitable talents David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael; Eagles founder Glen Frey; Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner; both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP; songwriter extraordinaire Leonard Cohen; funk genius Maurice White…. I’ll stop here out of a kind of emotional fatigue. For one like me, it was at the least a trying year, one which left me feeling that I was losing my country to people possessed by greed and at the same time losing so many musicians whose work provided me with joy, solace, and inspiration. Yes, anyone and everyone have to die. Like many others, I suspect, I have questioned why it had to be these anyones and everyones. (My apologies to both you and ee cummings for the digression.)

Yet, as the French say, and rightly so, “La vie continue….”  Continue reading

Music

The 2017 reading list…

This year’s reading list will focus on music.

Nobelist Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, MN, circa 1963. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Nobelist Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, MN, circa 1963. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” – Victor Hugo“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“If I  should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC” – Kurt Vonnegut

My deepest personal interest is in rock, as examples of my writing show again and again, but I like almost every genre of music – I have a deep, abiding love for classical, a gift from my grandmother, and I listen to lots of R&B, soul, and funk. I went through a period where I listened almost exclusively to jazz. I did the same thing with folk. And with blues. And with pop from the period characterized by composers and performers of what are commonly known as American standards (composers like Cole Porter,Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, performers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day). I would like to say I have a deep, abiding love for country music, and I do find some of it powerful and moving, especially in its old school forms as practiced by old school artists such as Hank Williams (Sr.) and his successors such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. But I’d be lying if I said it reaches me the way other genres do. Old fogy that I am, I have never really embraced hip hop, though again certain old school artists impressed me such as Chuck D, Ice T, and Kool Moe Dee. (I suppose this means I represent for east side).

Anyway, to the reading… Continue reading

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron at Missolonghi: freedom trumps even poetry….

“Tyranny is far the worst of treasons.”

“They never fail who die in a great cause.” – George Gordon, Lord Byron

Statue of Byron at Missolonghi, Greece (image courtesy englishlanguageandhistory.com)

Statue of Byron at Missolonghi, Greece (image courtesy englishlanguageandhistory.com)

Today is Lord Byron’s 229th birthday.

Much of what is written about Byron focuses on his career as a poet and his life as a celebrity in Regency England. Part of the reason for that focus is that the life Byron led by both the standards of his own time and our own contemporary standards, scandalous.

His hedonistic lifestyle eventually made him such a social pariah in his homeland that he left England, as he claimed, forever. He probably did not think at the time that he would never return; he was only 28 years old. But in less than a decade he was dead, having achieved two things: he’d written his greatest poem, the brilliant epic satire Don Juan, and he’d joined the forces fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman empire where he met his death from fever aided by incompetent doctors who likely gave him sepsis by bleeding him with non-sterile instruments.

The question, often debated, never resolved is, why did Byron risk – and lose – his life? Continue reading

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Poem for the Trump Inaugural: “The Turning”

us-flag-distressThese truths we hold to be self-evident…

The Turning
     – Samhain 1991

1.
In this dry land 
crickets fear to chirp
for waste of moisture.

Rattlers bleach their bones,
listless in the summer scald.

2.
I don't want to say too much

	for fear of being misconstrued
	or maybe 
	for fear of being understood all too clearly 

so here's your warning –  Continue reading 
S&R Honors John Lennon

S&R Honors John Lennon – a great writer, a great composer, a great man

Despite every attempt to marginalize and discredit him, John Lennon still matters and always will.

” I can’t wake you up. You can wake you up. I can’t cure you. You can cure you.” – John Lennon

John Lennon (image courtesy Short List)

John Lennon (image courtesy Short List)

Mark Twain once described his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”

Twain’s quote sums up the complex personality of our newest Scrogue, John Lennon – a sound heart often in collision with a deformed conscience.

Lennon’s achievements as a songwriter and musician are indisputable. With his songwriting partner (and lifelong friend) Paul McCartney, he is arguably the premiere composer of the 20th century. As a solo artist he left a body of work that is alternately brilliant, haunting, and petulant. As a writer he is an experimenter of the first order, playing with language in ways that rival Joyce and Beckett.

Even as we enter an age of not just indifference but open hostility to artistic achievement, his genius is undeniable. “If there’s such a thing as a genius – I am one. And if there isn’t, I don’t care” he once said of himself.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

Should artists retain the rights to their work and images after they die? Jane Austen, zombies and undead mashups

What do we want from our art – novelty or originality?

“The… idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.” – Neil Postman

I think maybe it started with John Wayne.

The Duke and the King of Cool (image courtesy MovieMarket)

The Duke and the King of Cool (image courtesy MovieMarket)

That icon of of Real America® appeared in beer commercials  for Coors – even though he’d been dead about fifteen years. I won’t spoil your day by embedding one of these atrocities, but I’ll provide a link so you can enjoy the work of whatever weasels the Real American Beer Company® hired who foisted upon the American public this ad to sell their reconstituted dog urine.

Resurrecting the Silent Generation’s favorite cowboy wasn’t enough for our consumer culture, though. Ford Motor Company, looking to begin selling Real American Cars® again since they’d ceded that task to smarter, more forward thinking car makers from our Old Mortal Enemy®, Japan, decided to add some cool to their piece of junk – I mean innovative new car design by resurrecting a Baby Boomer icon (a guy so cool he got a name check in a Rolling Stones song), Steve McQueen. McQueen had been dead seventeen years.

And so we entered the era of the Undead cultural icon as marketing tool. Technology was harnessed to make us want to drink shitty beer because Hondo supposedly does or drive a shitty car because Frank Bullitt supposedly does.  Continue reading

books

Book Review: Goldhead by J. Haviland

Goldhead is the best kind of novel of its genre – it is a novel that provides a great ride even as it reiterates a great lesson.

“People start acting stupid when a lot of money is involved, even people you think you know.” – J. Haviland, Goldhead 

Goldhead by J. Haviland (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

Goldhead by J. Haviland (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

J. Haviland’s novel Goldhead is a couple of things at once: it’s a caper story (the modern thread of the story follows a group of WWII vets hired in 1959 by a shady tycoon to find a lost Spanish galleon’s treasure); it’s a history lesson (Haviland creates a fictional explorer’s journal similar to that of Bartolomé de las Casas that tells a parallel story of  a 16th century conquistador’s expedition driven aground on the Florida coast by a hurricane that ends in disaster for all but the chronicler). Overarching both these narratives is the lust for gold – a fortune in gold from the Spanish colonial era that drives the behavior of the conquistador and his crew as well as that of the WWII vets and their crooked boss.

The novel is composed in alternating chapters and alternates between the Spanish expedition and the 1959 treasure seekers. Two things become obvious for the reader as this alternating plot structure unfolds: Haviland handles this plot structure beautifully, and avarice and greed separated by 430 years act in exactly the same way upon 16th and 20th psyches. Continue reading

Music

What is the true story about The Beatles’ rise to fame?

“The people who screwed you on your way to rock stardom will screw you on your way down – the people you screwed will try to get even.” – Jay Breeze, The Rock and Roll Handbook

Would be Beatles circa 1975

Would be Beatles circa 1975 – author at front right

I mentioned in my last essay that Larry Kane’s book When They Were Boys seemed problematic to me because Kane seemed to lack empathy with The Beatles even though he knew them rather intimately as a young reporter about the same age as the lads when he covered their 1964, ’65, and ’66 tours of America. It seems to me that Kane’s book is a possible example of what one person who commented on my piece thinks of when using the now bowdlerized term “fair and balanced“: in an effort to maintain “journalistic distance” and “objectivity,” reporters put themselves into the position of failing to admit (even embrace) their biases and accept their subjectivity. They thus set themselves up to make false equivalences that render what they mean to be “the accurate truth” neither accurate nor truthful.

That’s part of the problem with When They Were Boys. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

The true story of The Beatles: Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness…When They Were Boys by Larry Kane

“In Liverpool, no one ever really walks alone.” – Larry Kane

How much do stars owe to those who helped them become stars?

When They Were Boys by Larry Kane (image courtesy Goodreads)

When They Were Boys by Larry Kane (image courtesy Goodreads)

That is the central question in Larry Kane’s latest book on The Beatles, When They Were Boys. Kane has the credentials to ask such a question – he traveled as part of the press entourage attached to The Fabs during their entire 1964 and 1965 tours (and most of their 1966 tour). In that period he met many of the key players in the background of what is historically called Beatlemania: Brian Epstein, the record store executive who became their manager and paternal figure; Tony Barrow and Derek Taylor, two brilliant journalists and PR experts who helped the rising band become a media tsunami; Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and Tony Bramwell, local Liverpool mates who served as protectors, gofers, and confidants for the guys at the center of the maelstrom; and an array of former supporters, promoters, and club owners/managers ranging from Alan Williams (who died on the last day of the heinous 2016) to deposed Beatle Pete Best’s mother Mona to Sam Leach, a promoter who helped The Beatles gain better engagements and expand their reach beyond Liverpool to Manchester and other cities.

Each has a story to tell – and an ax to grind. Continue reading