Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.

“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies

John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”

John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)

That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry”  gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.

All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo – subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as  the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary). Continue reading

Random thoughts about record albums – part 1: Dylan’s LP idea…

…and how the invention of vinyl changed music forever.

“I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45’s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists, and classical musicians made LP’s, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LP’s were like the force of gravity.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. One

Bob Dylan (image courtesy Mojo Magazine)

I’m about 50 pages into Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. The quote above leapt out at me last night as I was reading. It seems a prescient comment from our latest literature Nobelist, given that he was one of those about to usher in the record album as art form.

Dylan’s preoccupation with making LP’s rather than singles (we still use the term album, though the operative word for a single is “track” these days) seems, on the face of it, in line with his preoccupations: he didn’t see himself as, nor did he want to be, a “hit maker.” That would have been selling out to commercial forces (stop me if you’ve heard that one before) that, as a budding artist (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), Dylan disdained. It might cost him that “force of gravity” he desired.

Serious music fans know that “force of gravity” as authenticity. According to Dylan, authenticity lay in the album format.  Continue reading

In My Life: Lennon remembers…

There’s something Shakespearean about Lennon’s meditation on life and meaning.

“I think ‘In My Life’ was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out. I think ‘In My Life’ was after In His Own Write… But he said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?’ Which came out later as ‘Penny Lane’ from Paul – although it was actually me who lived in Penny Lane – and Strawberry Fields.”  – John Lennon

Outtake for the Rubber Soul album cover (image courtesy “Yer Doin’ Great”

The marvelous Beatles Bible offers four John Lennon quotes about the composition of “In My Life.” Lennon considered it one of his most important songs for several reasons. It was the first song, he says, written about his life – the result, Lennon told multiple interviewers, of a comment by British journalist Kenneth Allsopp concerning Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write.

Another concern Lennon has was his ability to write melodies – something that his writing partner, Paul, was and is particularly adept at. “In My Life” is predominantly John’s melody (though he says Paul wrote the middle eight). Continue reading

What does it mean to be a “good ancestor”?

usa-2074What is a good parent? What is a good grandparent? These terms don’t mean what they used to.

I heard a comment a few weeks ago about someone who wanted to be thought of as a “good ancestor.” It has stuck with me, and I have been wrestling with what, if anything, is meant by the phrase. It’s a serious attempt to capture something that up to a decade or two ago would never have been in question. Up until recently, ancestors generally were good in the same way. They tried to make a career and livelihood for themselves that could be passed on to their children, or to equip their children with the tools necessary to survive and, hopefully, to prosper. My grandparents took this responsibility seriously—this is why some of them emigrated to America from Germany. And this sense of responsibility preceded them by generations, and was passed on to their children, who tried to, and sometimes even succeeded in, passing it on to my generation. Leaving the world a better place was a given.

But the world has changed. All of this took place in a world that seemed to have no limits—natural capital, if it was thought about at all, was thought to be inexhaustible. But we know now that this is not true. Not only is natural capital, the foundation of the global economic system, exhaustible, some parts of it (such as water) are being depleted at a more rapid rate than anyone could have anticipated. Continue reading

The new-new Enlightenment and the Counter-Reformation

On lighting a fire for scholarly rogueship

US-nazi-flag.pngTen years is a long time, and it passes in a heartbeat.

When Sam invited me to join the Scrogues a decade ago, it was to be the ‘libertarian’ to counterbalance what he saw as a quite left-wing team of writers and scholars who were coming together to think deep thoughts about the world we wanted.

My opening gambit was to point out the dangers of low expectations of those whose betterment we seek.

In truth, perhaps our mistake was assuming high expectations for democracy and liberalism. Continue reading

Love Me Do – the first one…

“Love Me Do” was their first song, but it was far from perfect…

“‘Love Me Do’ is Paul’s song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Let me think. I might have helped on the middle eight, but I couldn’t swear to it. I do know he had the song around, in Hamburg, even, way, way before we were songwriters.” – John Lennon

“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written. It might have been my original idea but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.” – Paul McCartney

John, Paul, George, and Ringo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We know now (at least those of us who are American) that it was their first.

Most of us learned about it in that tidal wave of spring 1964 when it seemed that the Beatles released a new record every week. Many of them were fantastic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” It seemed like an endless stream of great song after great song, the releases of new singles coming sometimes only a week apart thanks to the Beatles’ tangled history of American deals.

So it was Tollie, a Vee-Jay subsidiary, that released “Love Me Do” in the US in April 1964.   Continue reading

The only way to defeat Trump and his supporters

It’s about tribalism. You cannot work with Trumpists. Period. You must defeat them and then fix the problems that handed them control.

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. – Jonathan Swift

Since the moment of Campaign 2016 when it became clear that Donald Trump actually had a chance, a lot of people have done a lot of thinking and pontificating and punditofying and writing and hand-wringing about the reasons for his viability. On one end of the spectrum: Donald gave the drooling, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, ignorant, anti-intellectual, hillbillies a cynical, smirking, dog-whistling charlatan they could line up behind. On the other, we’ve had all manner of thoughtful, complex analyses about how economic anxiety (and utter despair) fueled the rise of a non-partisan populist backlash against a political establishment that has spent decades betraying those it represents.

Both versions are compelling because each was built on a measure of observable truth. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The most famous novel set in NC, according to the Internet

There are some laudable choices: Alabama, Misissippi, Montana, Missouri, New York… But Nicholas Sparks?

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I saw an article this week that’s a pretty good explanation of where we are as a culture. Business Insider published an article called “The most famous book that takes place in every state” that purports to provide readers with – well, the information indicated in its title.  On the face of it this seems like a clever idea – it promotes reading and gives a little shout out to each state. Given the culture we live in, promoting reading is certainly a good idea, and giving every state a nod for its literary contributions is democratic in a way that we need more of.

Well, as Robert burns said in “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans….” Though perhaps, given the BI article, Dave Marsh’s observation about Kiss Alive II is more apropos: “Here’s a bad idea gone wrong….”

Some of the results offered for “most famous book that takes place in every state” are laudable. Some are arguable. Some, however, are atrocious – ill-informed in ways that make one despair for the future.  Continue reading

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

One chord can change your life.

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)

They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America. Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 3: what would a better America look like?

Part 3 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

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?

A useful definition of mature would include: Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Positively 4th Street: positively Shakespearean…

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.

Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 1: 1984 vs Brave New World

Part 1 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

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

Good Day Sunshine…ah, spring, when one’s fancy turns to…

Songs like “Good Day Sunshine” indicate that the wit and whimsy that originally endeared the Beatles to millions would not disappear.

“It was really very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream,’ the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel. That was our favourite record of theirs. ‘Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream.’ John and I wrote it together at Kenwood, but it was basically mine, and he helped me with it.” – Paul McCartney (as told to Barry Miles)

John and Paul (image courtesy People magazine)

Ah, spring, sweet spring. The sun shines, trees and flowers begin to blossom. It feels great to go outside. It also feels like weather for, as John Sebastian urges us in the song Paul refers to above, “blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun.

Great Britain is not a sunny place. The warm waters of the Atlantic coming north from Africa mingle with the cool air of Great Britain’s northerly latitude and produce the fog for which the island is justly famous as well as clouds and rain. Lots of rain. John even wrote a song about it. Sunshine, as you’d guess in such a climate, is prized.

The summer of 1966, when the Fabs were working on the songs for what has been called at times their greatest album, Revolver, was exceptional for being sunny and hot.

Paul found that inspiration. As he did The Lovin’ Spoonful song. Continue reading

A few words about Pete Shotton…

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.

As you have likely guessed, John was not an easy friend. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Jane Austen, alt-right heroine…say what…?

“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

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

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.

Check that.

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.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading

David Bowie and Paul McCartney: boats against the current…

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

Rolling Stones

I Wanna Be Your Man…Beatles or Stones?

If what Lennon says is true, “I Wanna Be You Man” has a special place in rock history.

“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” – John Lennon

Ringo during his Jean Paul Belmondo look period (image courtesy Pinterest)

Ringo sporting his Jean Paul Belmondo look (image courtesy Pinterest)

The composers of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thought so little of the “Ringo song” on the British release With the Beatles (the American release came on Meet the Beatles) that they “gave” the song to the Rolling Stones who released it as their second single.

Neither John nor Paul thought much of the song, though it’s a nifty Beat music rave-up. Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” from the same period, is a song of the same sort – much more familiar to (and popular with) the casual Beatles fan, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” has its own charm. As a tune it hearkens to the early days and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Cavern shows in its rowdiness and “cellar full of noise” jocular machismo. Continue reading

Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music – part 3, there are no losers in music…

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

(Read Part 1, Part 2)

Howlin' Wolf (inage courtesy bobcorritore.com)

Howlin’ Wolf (inage courtesy bobcorritore.com)

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