Where is my tribe?

drums-2026535_960_720In the last two days I’ve been tone policed for being unkind, uncool, and tribal. Mind you, the single person doing the tone policing had nothing to say about what I signified. Typical of tone policing, it’s all about style over substance, the signifier, not the signified.

So I confess. Surprising nobody, I’m both unkind and uncool. Looked at across the great spectrum of human behavior where, oh, let’s say Hitler occupies one extreme, lacking in both kindness and coolness (well, there’s that whole fashion sense/propaganda style thing, but I digress), and on the other end there’s some saint or other noted for both kindness and coolness. Bono, maybe? I’m sure the tone police will pardon me for falling somewhere closer to the middle than not.

But am I tribal? Damned skippy. Let me tell you a little about my tribe.

We abhor political violence. 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

The UK election: Another fine mess you’ve got us into

poundsinkingThe English have a fine word for the political mess it finds itself in at the moment–kerfuffle, which is defined as “a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views.” Boy, if there was ever a kerfuffle, we’re in one right now.

Theresa May and the Tories, who were expected to have a 100 seat majority even as late as the morning of the election by some polls, actually lost seats, and its Parliamentary majority. The result of this is the Tories can’t form a government on its own, unless it tries to form a minority government (which has happened before in postwar history, under Labour in the 1970s). Jeremy Corbyn, who, if you believed the press and even many Labour politicians (cue Tony Blair), was expected to lead the party to electoral disaster, didn’t. In fact, the reverse occurred. Labour received 40% of the vote (as compared with the Conservative’s 42%), its best showing in years. It’s the biggest Labour Parliamentary gain since Clement Atlee.

So there is a lot of crow to be eaten around now, or should be, anyway. We could start with the pollsters, who were generally calling for a solid Tory victory, with one two exceptions. The YouGov poll was the most notable outlier, with its outright prediction of a hung Parliament, which is exactly what we got. It was rejected outright by practically everyone when it was released prior to the election, however. So, like the last two major elections (the 2015 Parliamentary election, and the Brexit vote) the vast majority of pollsters got it completely wrong. 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

Sports

Arab world cutting ties with Qatar: FIFA’s four-point plan

What should FIFA do now that the Arab world has had enough of Qatar’s bullshit? Double down, baby!

A number of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region.

They say Qatar backs militant groups including so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, which Qatar denies.

The Saudi state news agency SPA said Riyadh had closed its borders, severing land, sea and air contact with the tiny peninsula of oil-rich Qatar.

Seriously – Qatar is so bad that Saudi Fucking Arabia is stepping away from them. 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

Politics: Don't Tread on Me

Gianforte clobbers reporter isn’t the story

If I don’t catch heat for this one, I don’t know why. And I’m not even trolling here. I’ve been thinking about this throughout the day, and I’m not easily led to the conclusions I’m supposed to accept. Eventually, maybe, with caveats, but not easily.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Gianforte clobbered a reporter from The Guardian. If you haven’t, it’s a thing. There’s the link. Knock yourself out. Thinking people everywhere know that it’s a bad thing. It shouldn’t even be a question.

On the other hand, Laura Ingraham, professional political goblin, apparently has an online trash site purporting to be “media” with the not even a little arrogant slogan “Life. Explained.” Said site, which I won’t even link to or name, runs a bullshit headline making something sound like wayyyyy more than it is, and manages to somehow create the impression of defending Gianforte. 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

John Oliver’s beatdown of DaVita reminds us: Richard Nixon was an American liberal icon

Noam Chomsky, of all people, has called Tricky Dick “America’s last liberal president.” Sadly, he couldn’t have been more right.

Way back in 2008 I said this:

If he were a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon would be more progressive than either the Republican or Democratic nominees.

What a ludicrous thing to say, right? I mean, Nixon was as twisted and corrupt as any president in US history. Hunter Thompson said “Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” He got caught with said pants down in l’affaire Watergate and had to resign. He’s the reason anything remotely scandalous has to have a name ending in “-gate.”

Worst. President. Ever. A fixer of the first order. All of which attached, by association, to the Republican Party, making his name synonymous with the rank evil of the American conservative polity.

That he was congenitally shady is unarguable, but the conservative part probably isn’t fair at all. 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

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

“We Can Work It Out”: that wonderful harmonium

Not enough songs make use of the harmonium.

“In ‘We Can Work It Out,’ Paul did the first half, I did the middle eight. But you’ve got Paul writing, ‘We can work it out, we can work it out’ – real optimistic, y’know, and me impatient: ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.'” – John Lennon

I have reached a conclusion. Not enough songs make use of the harmonium.  Some may find this conclusion baseless. They would be mistaken.

Take, for example, “We Can Work It Out.” One side of the Beatles’ first “Double A side” single (b/w “Day Tripper”), it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, partly because of that harmonium John added to the track. One of them (John or Paul) spotted a harmonium in a corner of one of the studios at Abbey Road and John suggested that they add it to “We Can Work It Out.”

The result is a song with a feel that reminds one of a French cafe. A suggestion from George, the time change from 4/4 to 3/4 time adds a lilting quality. Combined with the harmonium sounding much like an accordion – in a French cafe – the effect suggests a chanteur working – it’s Paul channeling his inner Jacques Brel and John enabling him with that damned wonderful harmonium sound.  Continue reading

Don’t Pass Me By… because everybody loves Ringo….

“Don’t Pass Me By” is a rollicking faux country blues honk and the fiddle part is as crazy as Ringo says. It’s charming, funny, and totally Ringo. For a first effort, it’s pretty impressive.

“It was great to get my first song down, one that I had written. It was a very exciting time for me and everyone was really helpful, and recording that crazy violinist was a thrilling moment.” – Ringo Starr

Ringo around the time of the White Album (image courtesy Drummerworld)

There’s that scene from Family Guyof course. Ringo comes into the studio and informs his band mates that he’s written a song. John, Paul, and George talk sweetly and encouragingly to him, then take his lyrics and stick them on the refrigerator (as one might for a kindergartner).

Seth MacFarlane’s snark about Ringo’s talents is part of the long history of criticisms that have been leveled at Ringo over the years; the running gag has always been that Ringo is the luckiest guy in the history of rock. While his acting ability has received praise, Ringo’s musical ability has been knocked repeatedly – and as a songwriter, he’s sometimes been treated by critics as he is in MacFarlane’s cartoon.

Perhaps that is what makes “Don’t Pass Me By” so interesting in retrospect. As a first song, and it was his first, it’s got charm – and goofiness. In other words, it’s pure Ringo. Continue reading

Random thoughts about the record album – part 2: the Beatles up the ante…

“Full grown men, full of emotion and on top of the world. Meet the Beatles.” – Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone 

Bob Dylan and the Beatles, dedicated followers of fashion (image courtesy Jewish Currents)

(Part 1 here)

When Bob Dylan met the Beatles in late August of 1964, the exchange was significant for both artistic and cultural reasons. The artistic reasons should be obvious: the two most significant artistic forces of the sixties cross pollinated in significant ways. For Dylan, the seed was planted that led him to shock the folk music world by going electric, and making his decision to do so public, at the Newport Folk Festival, folk music’s most prestigious event. Dylan’s act freed him from the traditions and restraints of the folk genre and allowed him to embrace rock stardom (whether that was in his best interest is open to debate).

What did Dylan give the Beatles?

Well, he gave them marijuana (whether that was in their best interest is debatable). And he also fascinated them as they fascinated him.

The result of that mutual fascination changed the record buying habits of their target audiences.

Continue reading

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

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