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

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

Music and Popular Culture

Dancing about architecture: trying to read Paul Morley’s Words and Music…

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

No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

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

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

Michelle hearts Dubya: the well-timed rehabilitation of George Bush

Bush Michelle ObamaPresident Donald is doing a great job of making America miss George W. Bush. And now Michelle Obama and the “liberal” media are chipping in. Barf.

First there was the hubbub back during the election that nobody in the Bush family could bring themselves to vote for Donald. Then more recently it was former President George W. standing up to Donald and defending the importance of a free press. Then we saw Dubya on Kimmel laughing at Trump jokes. Dubya says he doesn’t like the racism. Former first daughter Barb is on the podium defending Planned Parenthood. And any number of former Bush aides and staffers suddenly have the knives out, like here, where a former strategist marvels at how poor the Trump team’s collective memory is when it comes to remembering all those meetings with all those Russkis.

Now the coop de Gracie: my news feed can’t get enough of the tender love affair between Bush II and Michele Obama. Continue reading

Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music: the curse of being a critics’ darling

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)

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

(Read part 1 here)

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

I Want to Hold Your Hand…and then, America….

It was the first Beatles record I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song.

“We wrote a lot of stuff together, one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u… got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that – both playing into each other’s nose.” – John Lennon

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’d heard “She Loves You” in the fall of 1963, and, while the buddy I first heard it with (a story I have related before) mocked the song (as did the deejay who introduced it), I’d been immediately smitten, though I diplomatically kept my opinion to myself. Thereafter, when I listened to far away radio stations in big cities like Chicago and New York on my transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, I listened for “She Loves You.”

I think I may have heard it twice between that first time and the advent of what we know as Beatlemania. I freely admit that my memory of this period is fuzzy. I was in my 12th year and between the time I first heard “She Loves You” in mid-November and when I began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs November 22, 1963 happened. Like most Americans I walked around in a dull daze  for a while, so I hope I may be forgiven for an imperfect memory of the timeline of events. Continue reading

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

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

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

Trump’s Mainstream Media Accountability Survey will leave you speechless

fauxnewsThis methodological tour de force is a triumph in honesty, objectivity and good faith. Bigly. You should reply in kind.

I’ll keep this brief. Donald has a poll up asking for your honest opinion on a series of  completely fair, unbiased and objective questions about “the media.” The Mainstream Media Accountability Survey asks questions like:

10: Do you believe that the mainstream media does not do their due diligence fact-checking before publishing stories on the Trump administration?

And:

13: Do you believe that political correctness has created biased news coverage on both illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism?

Here’s the best one, though: Continue reading

After Michael Flynn’s resignation, Donald will be out for blood

Donald doesn’t lose well. I doubt he’ll ignore the role of the media and FBI leaks in Flynn’s resignation

Michael Flynn (image credit: Politico)

Michael Flynn (image credit: Politico)

Michael Flynn, Donald’s now former National Security Advisor, resigned from his position this evening. In a statement, Flynn said he “misled” Vice-President Pence about a phone call Flynn had with the Russian Ambassador to the United States in which the two discussed having Donald lift sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Flynn’s contacts with Russia had been under investigation by the Justice Department since Donald took office, if not before then, and the fact that Flynn was being investigated had been widely reported in the media. In fact, the Washington Post reported just tonight that the FBI considered Flynn a blackmail risk due to his lying to Pence.

Continue reading

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

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