The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)
“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)
“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)
“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)
The problems of education, religion, critical thinking, a commitment to the truth, and holding ourselves to a higher standard: creating the mature society won’t be simple.
There is, then, a different question, driven by another thought which is that there is a certain sense of responsibility for the critic – if one is not to be nihilistic or utterly despondent – to suggest if not a way out then at least a sense of what something “better” might actually look like. In particular, here, to ask the question of just what a mature society might look like: what would be the texture of its culture, its mood, its ambition, its practices, its relationships, its preferences, its allegiances? What would it look like as a moral and ethical entity? What would there be about it that the dispassionate mind could admire?
Bob Dylan will pick up his Nobel Prize shortly while on tour in Sweden. Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Whether they ever got over each other is a question that may never be answered.
“I think women rule the world and that no man has ever done anything that a woman either hasn’t allowed him to do or encouraged him to do.” – Bob Dylan
“Instead of getting hard ourselves and trying to compete, women should try and give their best qualities to men – bring them softness, teach them how to cry.” – Joan Baez
Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (image courtesy Goodreads)
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan have had a long and complicated relationship.
There have been a number of books written about that relationship (including memoirs by both Dylan and Baez themselves) which try to get at what drew them together and what drove them apart. To save you any apprehension, the upshot is that nobody, not even Dylan and Baez, will ever understand. That doesn’t mean that writers and scholars won’t try to understand, of course.
One of the most interesting attempts to explore the Baez/Dylan axis of complexity is David Hajdu’s fascinating Positively 4th Street. Hajdu doesn’t get any further than any other scholar or writer (or Dylan or Baez) with explaining the complexities of the Dylan/Baez relationship, but his book is fascinating because he takes an unusual tack in his exploration. In a plot device that is positively Shakespearean, Hajdu uses the microcosm of the relationship between Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and Richard Fariña to parallel the macrocosm of Bob Dylan/Joan Baez.
How stupid are Americans, anyway? And how much worse are our leaders?
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explains climate change
Numerous events and curious beliefs – large and small – caught the eye, even before the election of 2008 and certainly beyond. Consider:
a CNN discussion on October 10, 2005, featuring the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, addressed the subject of whether recent climate events – the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Asia, hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, an earthquake in Asia – actually presaged the end times, the Rapture and the second coming of Christ; Continue reading →
The vascular surgeon who removed my gangrenous gall bladder last month received his early medical training in Lahore, Pakistan. He’s been a member of the medical community in my rural valley for more than three decades.
My primary-care physician for the past 20 years received his medical training in Taiwan. My urologist for a decade was an Iranian-American. The surgeon who removed a subcutaneous growth from my right elbow is a Pakistani-American. So is the internist who treated a pulmonary issue. He’s been here more than two decades.
Those who live in rural areas likely know, or have, doctors with surnames they might think uncommon. Yet all my foreign-born physicians are American citizens with deep ties to the community in which I live. They’ve taken good care of me.
But why have these wonderful doctors settled here, in rural America?
We live in a moment of hyper-consumerism, uber-war and insidious surveillance by a vast security apparatus. But what might it look like if Orwell and Huxley were both wrong.
“The age of maturity that past authors were hoping would come seems not to be the destiny of humankind… Humanity is condemned to seek truth rather than possess it… This would be the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.”- Tzvetan Todorov, “In Defence of the Enlightenment.”
In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks his Jedi master, Yoda, whether the dark side is stronger than the good? “No,” Yoda replies, “easier, quicker, more seductive.”
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh…” Philip Larkin, The Trees
This essay is, in the first instance, impelled by a deep sense of disappointment at the immense gulf between the grand promise of this country, the United States, and its objective contemporary condition, the sense one has looking out across the landscape with squinted eyes that there is, as Milton writes in Paradise Lost, “Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, / And moon-struck madness.” Continue reading →
It wasn’t easy being John Lennon’s friend, and Yoko didn’t make things any easier.
“If anyone was doing the hanging on, it was John. He hung on to me, always had done. He always made me feel special, made it clear he was desperate for my company, especially when he was depressed and fed up, which he was for many years. He used to say to me: ’I don’t want to be a Beatle any more, stuck in a bag marked Beatle. I want to open the bag and let the Beatles out. I want to be myself.’” – Pete Shotton (as told to Hunter Davies)
John Lennon and Pete Shotton (image courtesy Beatles-Freak’s Reviews)
As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, it’s hard to be a friend. However close or long term a friendship, there are always moments when a friendship is tested by actions or circumstances that make or break the friendship. In many, if not most, cases friendships fail these tests. Those few that survive (one hesitates to use the word pass, as friendships are acts of endurance rather than one-off events like tests) can reach a level of intimacy and trust that provide the persons involved with comfort on the long, hard road of life.
But how does one stay that kind of friend when that friend becomes one of the most famous people in the world? Pete Shotton knew. He was John Lennon’s closest friend (outside the other Beatles) from the time they met at age six until Lennon’s death – 34 years.
The FBI has information that indicatesassociates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possiblycoordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.
Huh? Could this lede be any more vague? This lede is all may have — which leaves open the possibility of may not have.
The story, reported by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, and Shimon Prokupecz, contains unnamed sources in 10 of the story’s 18 paragraphs. The FBI director is named, but only in reference to stories reported earlier. White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are named, but only in chiding the findings of the story. Two paragraphs near the end of the story contain no sources and appear to be the conclusions of the reporters.
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” – Jane Austen
Various news sources, both here in America and elsewhere, are claiming that Jane Austen, doyenne of English respectability, has become a heroine to the despicable group called by the all-too-euphemistic moniker the alt-right.
Jane Austen (image courtesy biography.com)
For any rational person (and my beloved Miss Austen was nothing if not rational) her embrace by such loathsome characters is both horrifying and bizarre. Conservative as she was (Austen found her contemporary Byron’s behavior wild and reprehensible, for example, violating as it did the established social mores of Regency England), Austen undoubtedly would have found the behavior of a number of the more well known figures of the alt-right movement equally reprehensible. One has a difficult time, indeed, imagining Miss Austen feeling able to tolerate being on the same planet, much less in the same room with creatures such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
The alt-right loves them some Jane, though – for reasons that mystify anyone capable of reading Austen’s work intelligently. Continue reading →
According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon
Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)
I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.
What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.
I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – attributed variously, most likely by Martin Mull
Martin Mull (image courtesy Wikimedia)
As I have explained previously, my 2017 reading list is devoted to reading books about music. I have covered only three books so far, Larry Kane’s latest Beatles’ book When They Were Boys, the Billie Holiday memoir Lady Sings the Blues and Peter Guralnick’s excellent study of roots music, Lost Highway. (I’ve also written a number of essays about Beatles’ songs and a book review or two.)
I’m currently about 100 pages into a very good book on Bob Dylan, Joan and Mimi Baez, and Richard Farina, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. I turned to this book after spending several days trying to read another book, a book I looked forward to reading, as I noted in this description from my reading list essay:
Paul Morley, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City – Morley is one of rock’s most trenchant critics and in this book he speculates about whether pop is at the end of its lifespan. Any book that calls for opinions from both Madonna and Wittgenstein is must reading.
I read about 40 pages of Morley’s book before putting it aside and taking up the Dylan/Baez book. I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it. Continue reading →
Hank: a Storyteller’s Story by Rick Burnham (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)
The first of these questions is one of identity: the novel’s heroine, Jennifer Johnson McCarthy is unhappily married and at loose ends. She feels as if she has lost who she is and the life she is leading as the wife of a controlling husband makes her both desperate and determined to find herself again. By chance, on their way home from a beach vacation, Jennifer and her husband Emerson, a driven corporate attorney, stop at a gas station/convenience store on the outskirts of Oak Springs, Florida. It is there where Jennifer begins a journey of self-discovery that changes not only life, but the lives of her entire family.
The impetus for Jennifer’s journey is hearing an old man named Hank Chatman tell a story. Chatman is a charming storyteller who appears once a week at the store and tells stories about local residents, stories which may or may not be true. Hank’s storytelling serves multiple purposes. The stories themselves provide a tall tale folklore of rural Florida culture – and amusement for his listeners (one about a chicken farmer and government experiments that create giant chickens is particularly good). More importantly, Hank’s storytelling allows him to connect with those who come to hear him.
The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.
Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)
“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”
This was going to be another essay.
I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.” But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.
“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that. Continue reading →
Successful artists feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.
…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
David Bowie and Paul McCartney (image courtesy Pinterest)
I watched a couple of documentaries (thank you Open Culture) this week featuring rock stars from the classic era, one about a living musician, the other about one who has, alas, shuffled off this mortal coil. What I found most interesting about each of these films is the reminder that it is very difficult for any successful artist, especially for a David Bowie or Paul McCartney, who have enjoyed success at the highest level of their art, to move forward. In a popular art form such as rock music has been, part of the problem is commerce; one who is successful and whose art is embraced by a wide public sells much “plastic ware,” as Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote. They feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.
Another, perhaps even greater part of the problem, especially for an artist like Bowie or McCartney, comes from those whose admiration (and money) made them acclaimed, and wealthy: fans. Any artist like Bowie or McCartney with a long career arc (given that the average length of a popular musical star’s career is 18 months, the nearly 50 year career of Bowie and the 50+ year career of McCartney are by any measure remarkable) is bound to have to deal with one of the strongest desires of fans as they, like their heroes, age – nostalgia for past works which form, after all, the soundtracks of their lives. Continue reading →
Authenticity. Music. Freedom. Whether you’re Elvis Presley or Sleepy LaBeef, if you can have the courage to follow Sam Phillip’s advice, you can’t be a loser.
“You can be a nonconformist and not be a rebel. And you can be a rebel and not be an outcast. Believe in what you believe in, and don’t let anybody, I don’t care who it is, get you off that path.” – Sam Phillips
Initially I had planned for this last essay on Peter Guralnick’s excellent book on roots musicians, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, to focus on those musicians that he profiles who seem to have been their own worst enemies due to their dogged refusal to give up their dream of success. I mentioned Charlie Feathers, who, at the time of Guralnick’s profile of him, was in his 40’s and still playing small clubs and (to use a favorite term of Guralnick’s which has faded sooner that he expected) juke joints. Feathers’ insistence that he was still on (or at least near) the cusp of stardom if dark forces weren’t preventing his ascendance struck me as so sad, so indefensible, so lacking in self-awareness that I found him not simply sad and pathetic but off-putting. And I found Guralnick’s celebration of Sleepy LaBeef so over the top for a guy who had simply kept playing when those of his generation who didn’t make it had the good sense to quit was – well, see above description of my feelings for Charlie Feathers.
Then I got to the last section of Guralnick’s book, “The Blues Roll On.” And read Guralnick’s piece on Howlin’ Wolf. Continue reading →
Guralnick’s Lost Highway runs smack through the heart of Nashville’s Music Row – as with corporate Pop, Country & Western has always been about sales and little else…
Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)
“‘Outlaw’ is the word that has been used, and abused, to describe…music that deviates from the Nashville norm. The principal way in which this music deviates, ironically enough, is that it is traditional music, which honors roots, black and white, which recognizes Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell – the pure lineage that runs in an unbroken line through country music.” – Peter Guralnick
This second essay about Peter Guralnick’s masterful collection of essays on roots music, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians will focus on a second group of musicians: those who enjoyed little (or modest) popular success despite receiving highly positive reviews from music critics and the cognoscenti. These are the artists, and their stories pepper the histories of all art forms, known as critics’ darlings, a moniker that is more often more curse than compliment.
The received wisdom is that every artist is (or should be) pursuing his/her singular vision. In that way each artist’s unique vision can contribute to the growth of the particular art form and enrich the culture at large. Which artists become successful (critically and financially) is dependent on how their talents are accepted by both critics and the marketplace. The latter group, people who buy an artist’s work and support an artist’s career, is especially important in an art form such as popular music where commerce plays a bigger a role than critical appreciation. Continue reading →
It engenders anger to know the president of the United States says that what I did for a living for 20 years — and what I’ve spent 25 years teaching — represents the acts of “an enemy of the American People.”
President Donald, titularly “the most powerful man in the world,” will eventually learn not to pick fights with people who buy ink in 55-gallon drums — and have plenty of digital and video ink to spare.
He’s awakened a slumbering watchdog. Recall journalism’s reactions to President Nixon’s overt and covert deceits. The nation’s best newspapers rose to challenge the president — and Nixon lost. Trust in the executive branch withered. Remember, too, the swell of entrants to the nation’s journalism programs (well, after “All the President’s Men” hit the big screen). Will that happen again in President Donald’s first term?
President Donald’s fortunate in the timing of his presidency. The last 20 years have left journalism in a weakened, altered state. Reasons are many — management reacting too late to the challenge of the internet, a decline in interest in the field among the young, and massive losses of revenue prompting executives to pare the workforce of daily print journalists by 20,000 positions, about 39 percent.
Being an artist is hard; being a successful artist is even harder.
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 Musiciansis 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.
We need a new American consensus driven by a commitment to knowledge, reason and good faith engagement with those whose views differ from our own.
For decades I have toyed with the idea that we could use a civic forum for popular debate, an organization that would make it possible for communities to discuss the issues of the day in ways that would spark thought and reflection, perhaps enabling better decision-making come Election Day. This idea has grown stronger over the past 20 years, as the combined corrosive mechanisms of partisan tribalism, cable media and, worst of all, the Internet and social media seemed to find new and better ways of tearing society apart, making us dumber and more hateful in the process.