Random thoughts about the record album – part 6: one last hurrah…and into the mystic

“There hasn’t been anything real since grunge. That was the last movement led by music or an art form.” – Daphne Guinness

(Read part 1, part, 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

Grunge rock’s great, tragic star, Kurt Cobain (image courtesy Twitter)

The last great movement in rock music – and the last great flowering of the album, an art form inextricably tied to rock music’s rise – was Grunge. Its rise in late ’80s Seattle and its explosion into a national and international phenomenon in the early ’90s produced a wave of albums that most Xers and early Millennials know as well as their Boomer predecessors know Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Let It Bleed, or Tommy.

Pearl Jam’s Ten, Alice in Chains’ Dirt, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, and Stone Temple Pilots’ Core are all albums that both epitomize the Grunge sound and convey Grunge’s vision: powerful music played loudly with lyrics filled with tales of misery and dark thoughts. In some ways this is brilliant music, capturing as it does both the misery of Xers who felt keenly traumas such as their desertion by parents (through divorce and the perceived economic necessity of two income households that created “latchkey” childhoods) and anticipating as it does (which perhaps explains its powerful appeal to older Millennials) a world dominated by technopolistic forces.

No force from the Grunge movement captured the angst of Grunge more acutely than Nirvana’s album Nevermind and its chief architect, Grunge’s icon, Kurt Cobain. Continue reading

The blood-red Shimbashi dress: a photopoem

In Tokyo, the mama-san is smarter than you…

Part of my S&R Tokyo Series

I am the gorgeous dress

of your beauty,

and I have loved you for a very long time.

You are nothing to me

if not

the reflection in which I see myself

and the glitter of my age

that has sparkled in

all the ice cubes

in all the drinks I ever poured in Tokyo’s slush-fund winters.

Continue reading

Dear Prudence: John’s beautiful dreamer…

The song represents an aspect of Beatle songwriting that emerged on the White Album: the album is filled with songs that offer carefully observed portraits of characters real and imagined along with relevant social commentary…

“Dear Prudence is me. Written in India. A song about Mia Farrow’s sister, who seemed to go slightly barmy, meditating too long, and couldn’t come out of the little hut that we were livin’ in….  That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first. What I didn’t know was I was already cosmic.” – John Lennon

Prudence Farrow (far left, dark hair) with the Beatles and Maharishi in India (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

The Beatles famously went to India in February of 1968 to study transcendental meditation. While they didn’t necessarily reach nirvanic enlightenment (hence John’s bit of waggery in the above comment), they wrote many of the songs that appeared in November 1968 on the epic double album The Beatles known as “the White Album”). Among these is “Dear Prudence,” John’s tune about his, George’s, and Paul’s attempts to coax Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, from her hut where she had become “addicted to meditation.”

The song is notable for a couple of reasons. One is that John learned a finger picking style from Donovan who was also on the retreat and “Dear Prudence” is the first song where one hears John’s newly developed skill. The second reason is that the song represents an aspect of Beatle songwriting that emerged on the White Album: the album is filled with songs that offer carefully observed portraits of characters real and imagined along with relevant social commentary such as “Back in the USSR,” “Bungalow Bill,” “Martha, My Dear,” “Julia,” Piggies,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Honey Pie,” and “Cry, Baby, Cry,”

“Dear Prudence” is perhaps the loveliest and kindest of these portraits. Continue reading

Random thoughts about the record album – part 5: they want their MTV

Video killed more than just the radio star.

“It made the record industry a one-trick pony. It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over. The corner was turned at that point, I think, away from believing in the power of the music, and [to] believing in the power of the market. Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.” – Michael Guido, entertainment lawyer“I think that there’s always been two different kinds – at least two different kinds of music fans. There are people that just are into songs, and there are people that are into artists.” – Danny Goldberg, record executive

The Buggles:

The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first video aired on MTV

(Read part 1, part, 2, part 3, part 4)

During the era of the record album’s dominance, from 1967-1981, audiences listened to music. For young listeners it was more often a solitary rather than social experience, often taking place in a teenager’s room, sometimes made even more solitary by the use of headphones. It was easy to lose oneself in the experience of interrelated songs telling a story, as the concept album sought to present, or share in the intimate experience of the singer/songwriter’s soul baring compositions. If a fan went to college, the experience might become more social, though still in a fairly intimate way, sharing favorite albums with a roommate or a couple of suite mates, sometimes the experience enhanced by a few beers or a joint. And such listening became part of the mating rituals of countless romantic relationships formed during one’s college years.

If a music fan watched television during this period at all, it was perhaps a concert show like ABC’s excellent, short-lived In Concert or NBC’s long-lived, less excellent faux concert show Midnight Special. One listened to music; one watched TV.

That changed August 1, 1981. Continue reading

The Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back”: mood is everything

Sometimes a song simply resonates with some inner mood that is part of our existential selves. “I’ll Be Back” is that kind of song for me.

“A nice tune, though the middle is a bit tatty.” John Lennon

John Lennon (image courtesy Beatles Bible)

“I’ll Be Back” would be right at home on Rubber Soul. This early masterpiece of moody vulnerability is one of my top three favorite Beatle songs, and I doubt that John would be as dismissive of the song if he had the gift of retrospect.

The unusual structure of the song (no chorus but two bridges) is part of its fascination. Its intro also shifts from major to minor chords, a striking chord shift that at least one later rock icon noticed (that same chord shift is a feature in more than one Kurt Cobain song).

Like other songs Lennon wrote during what he called his “Dylan period” (the spring/summer of 1964 through Rubber Soul in late 1965 – other examples are “I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), “I’ll Be Back” is introspective bordering on confessional. Unlike those other songs I mentioned, however, “I’ll Be Back” is less critical, more wistful and wishful than pained. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

A few words about The Sorrows of Young Werther

What is most fascinating about The Sorrows of Young Werther is how much its love triangle structure permeates our culture in one form or another.

Ich habe das Herz gefühlt, die große Seele, in deren Gegenwart ich mir schien mehr zu sein, als ich war, weil ich alles war, was ich sein konnte. (I have possessed that heart, that noble soul, in whose presence I seemed to be more than I really was, because I was all that I could be.) – Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther (image courtesy Goodreads)

I ran across an article the other day (link popped up in the old social media feed) that suggested that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, known most commonly in English as The Sorrows of Young Werther, was a contender for the title “deadliest book in history.” While that assertion is rather preposterous on the face of it, and while as I write this I can think of example after example of books that have been deadlier (Mein Kampf, Mao’s Little Red Book for starters), if I grant that perhaps by book the author, Sean Braswell, means novel, then, that would be… different? Maybe. I can also readily think of novels that have been or are being deadlier (The Turner Diaries or anything by Ayn Rand, for example).

So initially I found myself agreeing with a number of commenters and dismissing the article’s author as being provocative for the sake of grabbing eyeballs. It’s a useful article, though, because it gets Goethe’s breakthrough work into the public consciousness, and that’s a good thing.

And there is something about Werther that makes it a book we should be thinking about. Continue reading

Golden Guys

“Where streams of whiskey are flowing…” –The Pogues

Part six of my S&R Tokyo Series

One November day in Tokyo my wife and I were walking through the normally quiet and deserted midday streets of Golden Gai in Shinjuku. Suddenly I heard voices singing loudly to a very mainstream-sounding J-pop song. I followed the raucous sounds to a little dive which, unlike the other dives around it, had its front door wide open. Inside a bartender and three customers were joyously boozing it up and singing like contestants trying out for a television talent show.

And so, after calling my wife over to have a look we unexpectedly found ourselves sitting in a teeny Golden Gai bar ordering drinks at 12:30 in the afternoon.

Continue reading

Eleanor Rigby: the real and the imagined…

It would be enlightening to hear McCartney explain how he came to create such an effecting portrait of loneliness and existential pain.

“I thought, I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby like that. I remember quite distinctly having the name Eleanor, looking around for a believable surname and then wandering around the docklands in Bristol and seeing the shop there. But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. Apparently, a few yards to the right there’s someone called McKenzie.” – Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney – pondering the existential dilemma, perhaps (image courtesy The Internet Beatles Album)

Any artist who has ever tried to explain the genesis of a work has had the experience. When the work is a significant one, such as Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” interest in the genesis of such a work is high; fans, critics, and music historians all have keen interest in understanding the how and why of such a song.

A song that explores the existential pain of loneliness, “Eleanor Rigby” is the tale of Eleanor and Father McKenzie, the priest in the church where Eleanor “picks up the rice…where a wedding has been….” Eleanor deals with her painful loneliness, McCartney tells us, by living “in a dream.” Father McKenzie, the person that conventional expectation would assume could serve as a comforter for Eleanor, is as lonely and isolated as she is, writing sermons “that no one will hear” and “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.”

Father McKenzie trying to help Eleanor Rigby is a case of a lonely soul unable to help another lonely soul. Continue reading

Some wasted words about Gregg Allman

By blending rock and roll, soul, country, blues, and jazz, the Allmans created a brand of music that nearly 50 years later sounds as fresh and original as it did when it first appeared.

“I ain’t no saint, and you sure as hell ain’t no savior… Don’t ask me to be Mr. Clean, cause Baby I don’t know how….” – Gregg Allman, “Wasted Words”

The original Allman Brothers Band, Gregg on the left in the middle row (image courtesy Fanart.tv)

Gregg Allman’s death Saturday of liver cancer brought to a close the colorful, tragic story of the group more responsible than any other for creating the genre known as Southern Rock.

Duane Allman brought jazz and rock and roll to the table (and his work with R&B and soul artists led to his bringing drummer Jaimoe Johnson to the band who added jazz style drumming). Drummer Butch Trucks and guitarist Dickey Betts came to the band from more conventional rock bands, though they brought with them a bassist, Berry Oakley, who quickly grasped Duane Allman’s vision of a band playing soul/R&B inflected blues rock with twinges of country and extended improvisations in jazz style.

But they needed a singer. Gregg Allman, who’d steeped himself in soul and R&B as well as rock and blues, provided that. He also became the band’s main songwriter.  Continue reading

Old birds

Water flows around the rocks it cannot move…

Part five of my S&R Tokyo Series

They moved and talked the way old Japanese ladies often do, a bit hunched over but with animation and purpose. The sidewalk was crowded with people, most of them heading to a nearby Asakusa shrine for a ‘rooster’ day street market fair.

Continue reading

Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long…a myth maker’s myth…

Richard Fariña was the Baby Boom generation’s chief myth maker.

“The conscience of my elusive race gives not a fig for me, baby. But I endure, if you know what I mean.” – Richard Fariña

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me – author Richard Farina pictured (image courtesy Goodreads)

After reading David Hajdu’s excellent Positively 4th Street which chronicles the early careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi (Baez) Fariña, I decided to re-read Fariña’s first (and only) novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. I hadn’t read (or thought much about) this book since I read in during my undergraduate days in the early 1970’s. My memory of that reading is a little hazy (the early 70’s, after all, were an extension of the 60’s with all the attendant excesses), but I remember being impressed with Fariña’s novel. It seemed to me to capture – well, anticipate, I guess would be a more accurate term for what I felt then and think now – the zeitgeist of that time.

There are other works that spoke to that zeitgeist, of course: Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge; Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf; Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Fariña’s college roommate Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49  – all of these are works that  many Boomers remember as the stuff of conversations around the beer keg – or bong. But of all these counter culture touchstones of reading, Been Down So Long… holds a special place because it is a near perfect depiction of the ambivalence that plagues Boomers.  Continue reading

Twin Peaks: The Return and the Red Room: a collaborative reverse spoken word

David Lynch inspired a generation of genius TV. And a moment of unfettered silliness.

The Red Room

The Red Room

Yesterday blindsided me with a moment of sublime creative synchronicity. Twin Peaks fans … walk with me.

First my friend Anders Thyr, the talented Swedish artist, posted this to his Facebook feed:

Twin Peaks… Jäklar vad bra. Har kommit igenom halva andra avsnittet. Måste suga lite på karamellen. Och stanna till ibland bara för att mysa och rysa. Och ta en kopp kaffe. Åh, en riktigt god kopp kaffe 😀 Lynch is back with a vengeance, and I gladly follow! Mind, twist with me!

My Swedish is about as good as my Martian, so I clicked on the translate link to see what he was saying (generally – these translators will get you into the neighborhood, but it’s up to you to find the right house):

Twin Peaks… dang what good. Have gotten through half of the second section. Must suck a little delayed gratification. And stay to sometimes just to cuddle and creeps. And have a cup of coffee. Oh, a really good cup of coffee 😀 Lynch is back with a vengeance, and I gladly follow! Mind, twist with me!

Continue reading

Strawberry Fields Forever… and ever… amen

“No one I think is in my tree…” John Lennon

“Strawberry Fields” shouldn’t work – but it does. Brilliantly. The intriguing question is – why?

John Lennon (image courtesy 100.7 KOOL FM)

Adulthood is all mixed up, as almost everyone reading this knows. Not that childhood isn’t all mixed up, too, but in childhood we find coping mechanisms. It can be as simple as finding one’s happy place and going there.

John knew this. He also knew how important that finding coping mechanisms is for us.

“Strawberry Fields Forever,” arguably his finest song as a Beatle, is about remembering. Remembering had become a favorite lyrical theme for John (“In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl”). An equally important theme, and one that John sometimes explored in tandem with the remembering theme, is differentness, especially differentness in how one looks at the world (“Rain,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “She Said She Said”).

It is that combination of those themes – remembering and differentness – that makes “Strawberry Fields Forever” the masterpiece it is.  Continue reading

The End…is all about the love….

St. Paul and Sir Paul were trying to tell me pretty much the same thing as I said goodbye to someone I loved very much and will miss for the rest of my life.

“And in the end the love you take
Is equal to the love you make…” – Paul McCartney

And in the end… (image courtesy Wikimedia)

My favorite uncle died a few days ago.

Rational, objective description sometimes is inadequate to explain people. Any such description of my Uncle Carl would use terms such as hard-working, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, tough-minded, straight-ahead.

Such a guy would not seem to be one who would inspire an outpouring of love and affection from large numbers of people. But Uncle Carl did. His visitation was packed and went on well past its scheduled two hour period. His funeral, a rite held in the Friends (Quaker) church he attended (his decision to join the Friends late in his life probably also seems anomalous given the above description) was a love fest of expressions of love and affection for a hard-working, plain-speaking, no-nonsense guy. Continue reading

Rode hard and put up wet: #ArtSunday

Form vs function at the Denver Art Museum

I encountered this slightly worse-for-wear old scooter down at the Denver Art Museum yesterday. The DAM’s wonderful North Building, designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler Associates, rises in the background.

There are two versions of this shot here – a high-structure black and white that’s processed for maximum drama and color take that’s a bit more “realistic.”

Scooter on the Denver Arts Museum Plaza - black & white

Scooter on the Denver Arts Museum Plaza – black & white

Continue reading

I am dynamic kung-fu dancing!

Greetings from Tokyo’s skid row…

Part four of my S&R Tokyo Series

Just a guy, a bit too much in his cups perhaps, that I photographed in Nihonzutsumi in Tokyo. He was next to a vacant lot where a Nodaya liquor shop used to stand. I liked him. He was a nice, chemically happy man…

(Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo, November, 2015. See my other work here and here.)

Random thoughts about the record album – part 4: singers and songwriters, concepts and collections

The album was king, thanks to male singer-songwriters (Crosby, Stills, Nash, James Taylor), female singer-songwriters (King, Simon, Mitchell) and bands like Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) andThe Eagles (Hotel California).

“You take the risk of being rejected. If you have pretensions to be an artist of any kind, you have to take the risk of people rejecting you and thinking you’re an arsehole.” – Roger Waters

(Read part 1, part, 2, part 3)

Pink Floyd suggested that Newton’s theory of light composition has validity (image courtesy Wikimedia)

After the artistic (and influence) success of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the stupendous artistic and commercial success of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the appetite of record buying audiences for “full length works” was well whetted. Musical artists of the next decade or so found themselves faced, however, with a choice. Did they, as many bands did, follow the “concept” approach introduced to rock audiences by Brian Wilson? Was there another path?

Under normal circumstances that “other path” might have been to follow the example of Bob Dylan, choosing to record albums of original songs without any overt conceptual framework. Certainly Dylan was pointing out that “other way” with his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

Dylan had retreated from the world after his motorcycle accident in mid 1966, but his work still cast a long shadow. Continue reading

Random thoughts about the record album – part 3: the Beach Boys and the album as art and artifact

Sgt. Pepper’s gets a lot of credit for launching the “concept album,” but it never would have happened without Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds.

“We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.” – Paul McCartney on the impetus behind Sgt. Pepper

(Read Part 1, Part 2)

Brian Wilson (image courtesy imdb)

Once the Beatles’ Rubber Soul moved the rock audience to begin buying albums rather than singles, artists felt emboldened to make their own attempts to create albums with thematic unity and all original material. Record companies, impressed with Rubber Soul’s sales figures, felt emboldened to allow artists to attempt to duplicate the Beatles’ sales.

And thus rock’s album era was born.

The term most people throw around when discussing thematically unified music collections from this era is concept album. It can be a tricky term, and critics sometimes argue about whether a particular album qualifies or who did/did not implement the form in rock history (it is widely conceded that Woody Guthrie created the genre with his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads).

There is consensus about one fact: whether rock’s first concept album was Little Deuce Coupe (1963) or Pet Sounds (1966), the guy who deserves credit for making the concept album rock music’s statement of choice is Brian Wilson. Continue reading