Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs: Book review

Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.

May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance.  If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.

He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:

“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”

“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”

And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras.  It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.

Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.

Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”

In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.

Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.

Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping.  So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.

He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.

But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever.  It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.

And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.

And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.

I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book.  You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.

 

 

Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

I see on the intertubes that BYU’s religion department is revising its curriculum. For once, this is a subject I know something about. I used to teach religion classes at BYU. I was what they call an adjunct professor, which is to say, a professor of something else, who taught the occasional religion class as part of his load.

Let me quickly add that I loved it. I loved everything about it. I assigned a paper, on the theory that college classes should always require a paper, and I even loved reading (and grading) all those papers. I taught the Book of Mormon a couple of times, but mostly I taught the Doctrine and Covenants. What I loved most of all was teaching kids from all over campus. I loved my theatre students, but it was a nice change of pace to occasionally teach, you know, people majoring in something else; biology, history, statistics, whatever.  When I was in grad school, I also taught early morning seminary, and loved that too. I also graduated from BYU many moons ago.  So I come from an informed perspective.  I’ve taught religion classes, and I’ve taken them. So free of charge, I offer this advice for BYU and anyone else teaching seminary or institute or anything like that.

Do not diss the music kids like. In fact, leave pop culture alone.

There’s always that temptation. You want to get into it. Rock and roll will destroy your soul. Disco=Inferno.  Hip hop’s from the devil. Dubstep will lead you astray. Solemn books are published, with titles like Pop Music and Morality or Arm the Children, warning us of the dangers of letting our children listen to the soul-destroying music their friends all like. There are even well-intentioned talks by General Authorities about ‘worldly art’ or ‘worldly values’ or just general worldliness, which means ‘music that’s bad for you.’

Baloney. There’s no such thing as music that’s bad for you.

The simple fact is that old people never like the music young people like, and that’s been true since Ogg and the Logpounders discovered what could be done with bone flutes. Or since Brahms first heard the music of Franz Liszt. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outraged (and delighted) Paris audiences. Or Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan. And in every case, that infernal new music wasn’t just unpleasing to the ear, it was constructed as dangerous, morally questionable, leading young people astray.

When I was in high school, I remember our seminary teacher giving a lesson on The Dangers of Popular Music, and he specified Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung as particularly dangerous, especially soul-destroying. I loved that album. I had listened to it many times. Listening to Teacher go on and on about it, my reaction was not ‘gosh, maybe I’d better rethink how much I like this music.’ No, my reaction was ‘this guy’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’  Later this same teacher, to set an example, brought his record collection to class, and told us he was going to get rid of all these ‘questionable’ albums. I remember asking him if, instead of throwing it all away, he’d just give it to us, so we could make up our own minds.  He said that seemed fair (a major Seminary Teacher concession, and tactically questionable). I scored some great albums from his pile, including, I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes.  Great album.

One of the biggies was Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the very definition of Music We Shouldn’t Listen To, which meant it was an album I had to own and which I listened to many many many times. I didn’t think it was sacrilegious or blasphemous at all. I thought it was redemptive. I thought it helped me feel The Spirit. I thought that because it did help me feel the Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t make exactly the same error when I became a Seminary teacher. The exact same spirit of anti-art fanaticism swept over me too, and I found myself condemning the music of Aerosmith. I made just as big an idiot of myself, and I know I alienated one of the kids in the class, who loved Aerosmith and decided, on the spot, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. He was right. Aerosmith rocks.

Isn’t it true that some music does invite the Spirit and other kinds of music repel the Spirit? Maybe, to some degree, that’s true. Maybe Bach is more inherently spiritual than Berlioz (though to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example). But . . . here’s one of the most ‘spiritual’ pieces of music I know. Mark Abernathy singing Come Come Ye Saints, playing guitar. i love this rendition. It feels, I don’t know, authentic, like William Clayton singing it around a buffalo chip campfire somewhere in Nebraska. I compare it to the Tabernacle Choir version. I love choral music, and it’s great too. Given a choice, though, if I need a spiritual boost, I’ll go straight to the guy with the guitar.

Or here. The Stones, singing Gimme Shelter. Or this song, Dylan singing Shelter From the Storm. (Isn’t that what we crave from religion? Shelter?) Or maybe this? (What’s prayer, but a jam session with God? Think rap can’t be spiritual? Try this.

Art is subjective. Art that speaks to my soul may not speak to yours. The Spirit is also subjective. I respond to spiritual stimuli that you may not perceive. There’s no such thing as ‘spiritual music,’ except to me, except to you.

Recently, directing a play, we needed a dance number. I’m no choreographer, so I hired one, and a cast member recommended that we use a Katy Perry dubstep remix. I don’t like dubstep music. I’m old. I think it’s just a lot of noise. But watching our cast learn the dubstep dance music, I was transformed. It was terrific, so sassy, so much attitude, so joyful. Young people celebrating how great it is to be here, on Earth, to have bodies, to move. I realized how wrong I’d been. It’s now my favorite thing in the show. And theologically expressive.

Art speaks to the soul. Art bears testimony. God works with all of us, as we are, where we are. And if one of my brothers or sisters is inspired by art that I don’t get, and I make a big deal of it, that’s my bad.

 

 

2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its fifteen nominees for 2015 induction, and invited the public to vote on our favorites. Here’s the link, in case you want to.

If you love rock music–and I do–and you care about it, past, present and future, then, like me, you’ve wasted an inordinate amount of time on Facebook and Reddit and at parties arguing about stuff like this; what bands are great, which ones suck and why, and why people with different tastes than yours are so grievously wrong-headed. Eared. Whatever.  Halls of fame are generally built on such (let’s face it) artificial controversies. Heck, I spent most of high school litigating the case of Zep v. Who, and which Beatles album was the greatest ever, and how could anyone ever, ever listen to Bread.

Did the same thing with baseball. To this day, I think Alan Trammell deserves HOF induction, and I think I can make a case for Lou Whitaker. Jack Morris, though? Borderline, but no.

At the same time, let’s admit this too: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s continuing, bizarre, and incomprehensible hostility to progressive rock fundamentally taints all their selections. A ‘Rock and Roll’ Hall of Fame that can’t find space for Jethro Tull is an institution unworthy anyone’s support, and grudgingly letting Yes and Rush in the last couple of years doesn’t make up for it.

Having said that, I do follow the R&R HOF, and will watch HBO’s coverage of the induction ceremonies.  And there are some interesting nominees this year, and for me, some tough calls. Here’s how I voted:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  The resume’s just too thin. “Born in Chicago’s a great song, and they put out two great albums in the mid-sixties. And they were at Woodstock.  Not enough. NO.

Chic. Not uninteresting disco pioneers. The R&R HOF keeps putting ‘em on the ballot, and they did record “Le Freak.” But they’re from an era that’s hardly under-represented. NO.

Green Day. Just because a band sells 75 million records, or was beloved in every dorm room in America fifteen years ago doesn’t necessarily suggest greatness, much as I love the album Dookie. But American Idiot, the album and rock opera, seal the deal for me.  YES.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Very tough call for me. I pretty much love everything about Joan Jett, from her riot grrl snarl, punk attitude, badass feminism, and underrated song writing. I just think her earlier band, the Runaways, was more significant historically. And Cherie Currie was that band’s lead singer. (Lita Ford was also a Runaway. Feminist punk pioneers: What a band!) So with great reluctance: NO.

Kraftwerk: I know, I know, they’re historically really important, not just to the worlds of electronic dance music, but even to early rap. I just don’t like their music. My vote, my rules. NO.

The Marvelettes: The world of Motown girl groups is perhaps the single most overrepresented in the entire R&R HOF. “Please Mr. Postman” is not enough to get anyone my vote.  NO.

Nine Inch Nails: Tremendously important and influential band. Trent Reznor is an amazing musician, not just as the principal song-writer for a band as important as NIN, but now as David Fincher’s favorite movie composer.  YES.

N.W.A.: The Beatles of hip-hop. Historically essential. Savage, powerful, socially essential grandfathers of gangsta rap.  I still can’t believe they didn’t make it in last year.  Easiest YES on the list.

Lou Reed: He’s already in, as the co-founder of The Velvet Underground. This nomination is for his post-TVU solo work, and while I admire his uncompromising I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me aggressiveness, I’m pretty much on the fence. The HOF’s bio page mentions his ‘daring, experimental’ projects. Too often, that’s code for ‘albums that sucked.’ A reluctant and admiring NO.

The Smiths: Thin resume, with just four albums. Influenced everyone from Radiohead to Oasis. While I can admire their music, I never much liked it, and finally voted NO.

The Spinners: ’70s R&B vocal groups are seriously over-represented in the HOF. NO.

Sting: He’s also already in, along with the rest of the Police. This is for his later solo career, which can be criticized as being almost more about social activism than music. But the same restless energy that has led to his crusades with Amnesty International has also led him to the worlds of reggae, African music and jazz. I finally voted YES.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: His was a short career, due to his untimely demise in 1990. I saw him in concert in 1981, and it was tremendous. My son found his blues guitar playing overly technical and redundant. I don’t agree. I think it’s time to put SRV in.  YES.

War: Good West Coast R&B band, but never special, never great.  NO.

Bill Withers: “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the great recordings, one of the great vocals ever. The rest of the resume’s too thin.  NO.

I’d love to hear how you voted!  And repeat after me: Jethro Tull! King Crimson! Emerson Lake & Palmer!  2016 is the year for prog!

 

The ‘decadent party girl’ pop song

I’m an old guy. I like rock music; grew up with it. I don’t listen to the radio much and don’t follow the pop charts. When I become aware of a trend in popular music, it sort of dawns on me slowly: ‘oh, that song’s a bit like that song.’  And my insights, such as they are, are probably way way passé.  And above all, I want to avoid moralizing. When I was a kid, I detested the ‘rock music’s going to destroy society’ sermons, and I’m not about to start preaching them myself.  Besides, harrumphing old guys pontificating about the life styles of the young have been a staple of comedy ever since Polonius sent Laertes off to college. I am not that guy. Having made all those disclaimers, though, there is a genre that’s interesting right now, and I thought I’d offer some examples and analysis.

The genre I have in mind is the ‘decadent party girl’ pop song. It’s a song in which a girl sings about how fun it is to party all the time. And, again, this is nothing new. Madonna’s Material Girl and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are classics of the genre, which really dates back to Marilyn Monroe singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Marilyn’s song, of course, is way creepier than the songs today; girls today are arguably celebrating their own empowerment, while Marilyn is essentially (tragically) promoting prostitution, or at the very least her own subjectification).

Anyway, the recent song that caught my attention is, as I write this, still in constant top forty rotation; Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. (The video is particularly interesting, borrowing its look from Clueless). And, again, the lyrics celebrate what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption': “Cup of Ace, cup of Goose, cup of Cris, high heels, something worth half a ticket on my wrist.” It’s all carefully encoded, and also the kind of thing male rappers have celebrated for two decades. ‘This is where I am, this is what I’ve risen to, this is me, owning my own Veblenian economic empowerment.’ The kind of lifestyle depicted in Sophia Coppola’s movie Bling Ring.  Wow, it’s awesome to have tons of money, and awesomer to spend it on bling and drugs and cars and clothes. It’s all pose, of course, all surface and image. But those images are a potent enough combination of temptations, to which I have no doubt it would be sort of fun to occasionally succumb. But the song doesn’t dig deeper than that fairly obvious insight.

Example two: Ke$ha and We R Who We R. Ke$ha’s particularly interesting in this regard. She carefully cultivated her ‘dirty party girl’ image in song after song and in video after video.  But she’s also brilliant: scored over 1500 on her SATs, was accepted into Barnard College, but dropped out to pursue a pop career. I can’t help but think that her ‘dirty party girl’ image has been very carefully crafted, both by her management and by her.  She writes her own songs, negotiates her own contracts, and apparently invests her money intelligently.  She wouldn’t be the first singer to cynically cultivate an image and cash in by creating pop songs that fit the zeitgeist.

But what’s really interesting is to see the deconstruction of the ‘decadent partier’ song. That’s where the amazing British songstress Lily Allen fits in. She’s hardly new–nor is this genre–but after just three albums, she combines an eclectic pop sensibility with wickedly spot-on lyrics, as with this song, The Fear.  When she sings “I’ll take my clothes off, and I will be shameless, ’cause everyone knows, that’s how you get famous,” it’s clearly satire.  But when she sings “I don’t know what’s right, I don’t what’s real, anymore,” she’s reflecting on the emptiness of the very ambition the rest of the song so cheekily expresses.  “It doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so f-ing fantastic.” Word.

Lily Allen is sharp, smart and funny. Lorde’s Royals is sad, powerfully plaintive, tragic. It’s a poor girl’s reflection on celebrity worship, on the world of pop star worship that she can only view from the outside. And, as brilliant as Lorde’s own performance of her song is, somehow Postmodern Jukebox exceed it, in a version sung by a seven-foot tall white-suited clown.  Trust me, it’s great.

Of course, any trend needs a final brilliant parody to cement it in our consciousness, and nobody is better at this than Garfunkel and Oates.  Content alert; there’s some language here (there’s actually quite a lot of bad language here), but my gosh, it’s funny: This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche.

As for the trend itself, it’s interesting to me, the way it both embraces and rejects celebrity culture. As usual, the smartest performers have figured that culture out, and find it both amusing and insubstantial. And the least sensitive and sensible song-writers  will have made (and spent) their money, and then faded away soon enough.

 

 

 

Introducing: Postmodern Jukebox

I never heard of Postmodern Jukebox until yesterday.  My son sent me a link on Facebook to this awesome cover of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, arranged in the style of the popular music of 1912. Give it a listen. I thought it was terrific fun, and I got curious. There’s a YouTube station called Scott Bradlee Loves Ya, and I just started watching videos. Before long, I’d tuned out the ballgame I’d been watching, and the next thing I knew, three hours had passed.

One of the awesome things about YouTube is that oddball acts can find an audience and launch a career just by posting there.  I saw an interview recently with Lindsay Stirling where she said that record companies kept telling her that what she did just wasn’t commercially viable; that a cute violinist/dancer chick with a love of fantasy just wasn’t something anyone wanted. So she posted amazing videos of herself on Youtube, and now she’s launched, a big star. Likewise The Piano Guys; likewise Pentatonix.  And dozens of others.  And now Post-modern Jukebox.

Basically, Postmodern Jukebox is the brainchild of a very bright, exceptionally talented jazz pianist and arranger named Scott Bradlee.  On the Postmodern Jukebox website, he declares his intentions:

My goal with Postmodern Jukebox is to get my audience to think of songs not as rigid, ephemeral objects, but like malleable blobs of silly putty. Songs can be twisted, shaped and altered without losing their identities–just as we grow, age and expire without losing ours–and it is through this exploration that the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art can be bridged most readily. I want to contribute to the pop music lexicon in the best way that I can. I want to encourage others to push the boundaries of genres, and give them the tools to do so. Together I want to create an alternate universe of popular music.

High minded goals, though, of course, not really all that new. From Paul Anka’s cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to the stylings of Richard Cheese, this kind of project is not unknown. Aren’t mind-altering covers of pop songs essentially what Pentatonix does?

Still, what Postmodern Jukebox does is reinvent popular songs of today based on a thorough immersion in the popular music of the last century or so, done with consummate musicianship, wit and thoughtful attention to detail. And, at times, including vocals by a seven-foot tall weeping clown. As with their cover of Lorde’s hit, Royals. Ah, Pagliacci.  Or, in the same spirit: Smokey.

So Bradlee isn’t really doing anything quite that unique. Pop music is always a pastiche, echoing over periods and styles. But he’s also terrific. Say a swing version of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. Or a smokin’ New Orleans Jazz cover of Sweet Child ‘O Mine. Or a bluegrass barn dance version of Blurred Lines. Or a terrific country cover of Kesha’s Die Young. Or this torch song created from the unpromising material of Radiohead’s Creep.  Or maybe this: Peggy Lee’s Fever, sung in twelve different styles. Or a mashup of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The singers he uses are tremendous: Robyn Adele Anderson, Miche Braden, Karen Marie. Not to mention, of course, Puddles the Clown. In fact all the Postmodern Jukebox musicians are terrific.

For an ensemble with ‘postmodern’ in the title, their videos are remarkably pedestrian. A lot of them look like they were recorded in the same corner of the same living room. The emphasis seems to be on musicianship, on musical originality. Basically, the singers wear period-specific costuming–that’s the only real visual element. I don’t know if they’re deliberately going for some kind of minimalist statement, or if they just didn’t have a lot of money when they were starting off. They have gotten more visually daring lately, including this video shot in the Cosmopolitan office.

Anyway, they’re terrific. Love their work, love what they’re doing, and am desperately hoping they tour out west sometime soon–their tours have all been back East. Buy their songs, watch their videos.  Love Postmodern Jukebox.

Favorite bands: Gentle Giant

This is something I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a long time now; use it to try to turn people on to favorite bands of mine.  Anyway, I thought I’d start here, with Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant were the quintessential mid-seventies progressive (prog) rock band. To quote Bob Stanley’s invaluable (and infuriating) new history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah:

Groups used instrumentation, phrasing and rhythms that they had learned playing folk, jazz and blues; inevitably, many of the musicians had been trained in classical music.  Much maligned since, it can be very beautiful.  On the other hand, musical chops were essential, which resulted in some of the most tedious, self-indulgent music ever, and this has led to the whole genre being sharply unfashionable ever since.

And since this is in a chapter that begins with a quotation knocking Gentle Giant, I assume that Stanley intends ‘tedious and self-indulgent’ to refer to Giant, who he otherwise does not discuss at all.  They were the proggest of the progs, the most self-consciously intellectual and show-offy group of musicians perhaps ever assembled (aside from maybe the worst excesses of Frank Zappa, or possibly the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  On the cover of Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste (an album intended to introduce you to the pleasures of their music and genre), we find this pronouncement: “it is our intention to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music, at the risk of being very unpopular.”  They never were afraid.  Their entire approach was very much ‘this is what we do.  Like it, or not.  We don’t much care.” Later, that changed; they wanted to be more popular, to sell more records, to make more money, and their music changed too, became more accessible, more commercial.  It didn’t work, and I think they knew it wouldn’t.  They had the most unique sound in the world, and not everyone was going to embrace it.

And I loved it.  I owned all their albums at one time, and listened to them a lot, and saw them in concert twice, once as the warm-up band for Yes, and the second time, as warm-up band for Jethro Tull.  Both concerts, something very strange happened; thousands of fans came for the warm-up band, and left after Giant left the stage.  We were there to hear Giant.  Fact was, I like Yes and Tull a lot too, and stayed both times, but I was in a minority.  Both times, easily half the audience scarpered after Gentle Giant’s set.

Here’s a song from Acquiring the Taste: “The House, The Street, The Room.” Give it a listen.  It starts with a long bass line, augmented by keyboard, and eventually guitar, but almost spooky, like the sound track to a particularly Grand Guignol horror movie.  We then hear Derek Shulman’s strong voice, with those enigmatic lyrics, harmonized by Ray Shulman with Kerry Minnear’s light tenor on the high notes.  (In performance, Minnear rarely sang). Then comes an instrumental interlude, with everything from pizzicato strings, some glockenspiel, some mandolin, very tight, very focused.  Then out of nowhere, a hard blues guitar solo, with Gary Green rocking out.  This is typical Giant.  Chamber music at times, but also unmistakably rock and roll.

The lineup kept changing, but the heart of the band were always three brothers, Phil, Ray and Derek Shulman.  Their father was a professional trumpeter, and insisted, growing up, that the boys learn multiple instruments: Ray started trumpet lessons at five, then violin lessons at seven.  They were joined by a friend, Kerry Minnear, who played keyboard and percussion; those four, the Shulmans and Minnear, all wrote the songs.  They added Gary Green, a blues guitarist who also could play mandolin, and drummer Martin Smith.  Between the six of them, they could play 43 instruments with professional competence; their musical chops are uncanny.  In concert, half the fun was watching them dash from instrument to instrument.

Most prog bands were British, for some reason, and fascinated by English myth and legend. So was Giant. A thread through many albums is the story of Pantagruel, a gentle giant who goes about the countryside helping (but also inadvertently scaring) the local citizenry.  Here’s Pantagruel’s Nativity from Acquiring the Taste. It starts with mellotron, adds some synthesizer, and is one of the rare Giant songs to feature Minnear’s voice. What I especially love is the three and four part harmonies they create, a Giant trademark.

Here’s a third song from Acquiring the Taste; my son’s favorite Giant song: Wreck. It’s about a shipwreck, and is often the case with Giant, alternates hard rock sections with chamber music; Ray Shulman’s violin is especially lovely in the first instrumental break.

After Acquiring the Taste, they dropped Martin Smith as drummer, and replace him with Malcolm Mortimer. They then recorded a concept album: Three Friends. It followed the lives of three childhood friends who, as adults, each take their lives in different directions.  One of the friends becomes a painter; this song, Peel the Paint is about his life.  Again, Ray Shulman’s violin is featured, but also Green’s shockingly disruptive guitar solos, with Derek Shulman’s powerful vocals, laying bare the turmoil underneath the successful artist’s facade.

After Three Friends, Malcolm Mortimer was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, and although they wanted to keep him, they had just gotten a record deal and were under pressure to record quickly.  They replaced him with John Weathers, which proved an inspired choice; Weathers was another multi-instrumentalist, a fine percussionist in addition to just drumming.  His work added another level of complexity to their sound, and the result was their finest album, Octopus.  Here’s Knots, from that album, inspired by the word games of R. D. Laing.  It begins with their most complex vocal harmonies, then adds Weathers’ percussion.  First time I heard it, I didn’t like it, but it is a song that rewards multiple hearings.  Also from Octopus, another chapter in the Pantagruel extended story, The Advent of Panurge.

Following Octopus, Phil Shulman, who was eight and ten years older than his brothers, decided that his membership in the band was putting too much pressure on his wife and children, and quit.  The other five members carried on, and the result was an album, In a Glass House, that sounds a bit more like rock music.  Not all that much; the rhythmic complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity were still on display, as per In a Glass House, the eponymous track from the album, which to me has a stronger jazz influence than heard in other albums and songs.

Their next album, The Power and the Glory, was very much a turning point.  They’d signed with a recording label, World Wide Associates (WWA), which was also Black Sabbath’s label.  It was not a good match.  This song, The Power and the Glory, was written by Derek Shulman, who hated it, under pressure from the studio, which wanted, not unreasonably, something commercial.  I know GG fans who like it, and consider it among the band’s best songs.  I think it’s, at best, mediocre Giant.

They quit WWA, and signed with Chrysalis, and Free Hand is the album that resulted. One of the ironies of Giant is that they were a British band, but always more popular in America than in Britain.  Free Hand became their biggest selling US album.  Again, some Giant fans think it’s pretty compromised, but I rather like it.  They certainly sound more polished, and the music is plenty complex, as, for example, the song Free hand.  I love the contrast between the intensity of Derek Shulman’s voice, and Minnear’s playful piano licks.  If this is Giant trying to be commercial, well, that was probably never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  They compromised and compromised, even, eventually, dropping all strings and woodwinds and percussion and reinventing themselves as a typical guitar, bass, drums, keyboard rock band, for the album Civilian.  And yet, even then, they stayed interesting, as per this song, Inside Out.  They’re just too good as musicians to write a boring song.

Finally, they broke up, and the split was fairly amicable. Derek and Ray Shulman got into the business end of the music world, and Phil opened a gift shop.  Minnear went into gospel, and now, by mutual agreement, handles all business matters regarding Gentle Giant.  Gary Green remains a session guitarist, very much in demand.  They have resisted for years calls for a reunion album or tour.

I still listen to their music, and my oldest son has become a Gentle Giant fan. As a nerdy bookworm and theatre kid in high school, they spoke to me as no other band could have done.  I still think they’re remarkable.  Give ‘em a listen.  It may take a little while to get into the sound; they’re not like anyone else. But what they are is amazing.

 

 

 

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Bad songs

My wife got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and for my birthday, a Kindle gift card.  So I went on a search for authors I like who might have reasonably priced books available on Kindle. I’ve made all sorts of fun finds (lots of P.G. Wodehouse hilarity, for example, often for less than a dollar each).  I also found some Dave Barry.  He has a new book, a collection of longer essays than we’re used to from him, but also an old fave; Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.  And I’ve been reading it aloud to my wife and my daughter.

Back in the 90s, when Barry was still writing his nationally syndicated humor column, he did a piece about popular songs one hears on the radio quite a bit, which suck. In other words, yes, they’re popular, yes they’re on the radio quite a bit, and usually the tune is quite catchy–often REALLY catchy–but the songs themselves are really terrible, in the sense that he, Dave Barry, hated them, and so, it turned out, did a lot of other people.  And so he wrote a column about it, and tons of people responded with their least favorite songs, and that led to a second column, and a survey, and finally, a book.  Which I just read aloud to my wife, and which we both thought was hilarious.  As he points out, when Neil Diamond sings:

I am, I said

To no one there,

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair.

I mean, why should the chair be listening?  It’s a chair.  Or when Richard Harris wrote (and Donna Summer covered):

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

Because it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again

Oh Noooooooooo!

We can either contemplate the profundity of that metaphor, and the anguish we’ve all felt when we left a favorite cake out in the rain, or . . . . we can laugh.  In fact, MacArthur Park was selected the worst song in the history of pop music in Barry’s (completely unscientific survey).  And yes, it’s a dumb song. I personally, would have voted for Honey, by Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m not sure if anything can match Honey’s amazing mix of rank sexism and crass sentimentality.  But MacArthur Park is plenty bad too.

But Dave Barry did his survey in 1992.  There have been a whole lot of songs on the radio since then.  So I thought I’d weigh in.  What are some recent very popular songs that (and I mean this scientifically), really suck?  What really awful terrible songs have become popular recently?  Because bad taste is a constant, is it not?  And bubble gum lasts forever?

I’m going to jump right in here: I think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the worst song I’ve heard in the last ten years, a song that makes Baby, It’s Cold Outside or Only the Good Die Young (both of which it rather resembles) seem enlightened.  Just a few sample lyrics:

Okay now he was close

Tried to domesticate ya

But you’re an animal

Baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate ya

You don’t need no takers

That man is not your maker

That’s why I’mma take a good girl

I know you want it

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it.

He’s doing her a favor, see. What a good guy.

And those are all from early in the song.  Later in the song, he’s much more explicit:

Nothing like that last guy, he too square for you

He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.

What a charmer.

Now, my link above is not to the seriously R-rated video, which I have not seen, but which, I’ve heard, takes the essentially rapey Neaderthal sexism of the song and Playboy-izes it to a considerable degree.  The lyrics do suggest that the girl to which he’s directing his smarmy attentions either isn’t aware of them, or, more likely, has just decided to ignore the dirtbag. Still, this song is not just the moral but also the tactical equivalent of construction workers wolf-whistling passing female executives on nearby sidewalks; you’re just being annoying, guys.

Really, seriously, why was this repugnant song a hit?  I really, genuinely don’t get it. This song has nothing going for it. At all. Nothing.

So Blurred Lines is sort of uniquely bad. But there are other songs out there nearly as bad.  Which brings us to the Beebs.

I shouldn’t pick on Justin Bieber. Cute little massively marketed/modestly talented boys with high pitched singing voices have been fluttering the hearts of fourteen year old girls ever since David Cassidy, and indeed much much earlier.  I’m going to argue for Bieber’s Boyfriend for my bad song list, not because there’s anything remarkable about it, but because it’s so generic.  Insipid lyrics, a nice dance groove, a video showing JB being (preposterously) good at bowling, and a completely unnecessary and intrusive rap verse (by Ludacris, in this case), make this a standard variety 20-tween pop hit, undistinguished by melodic or lyrical interest of any kind. Also, it’s annoying.  And ubiquitous.  So it makes my list.

Turning my attention from modestly talented/massively marketed cute boys to MT/MM cute girls brings us straight to Miss Taylor Swift, and so I’m putting We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together Forever on the list.  Anymore, it’s difficult to distinguish between songs and the videos for songs, and Taylor’s video for this song combines cuteness with incomprehensibility.  It’s Taylor, in a ‘sexy librarian wearing pajamas’ outfit, joined by large numbers of her friends, who, for some reason, have chosen to dress up like animals, as though they were already in the What Does the Fox Say video shoot and decided to drift over to the Taylor Swift shoot next door. I don’t know what to make of this song.  Is it a ‘breakup anthem,’ Taylor Swift channeling her inner Alanis?  But the extra two ‘evers’ in the title suggests that she’s not so entirely sure about this break-up thing; that she’s protesting over-much.  So is it a ‘you’re bad for me, but you’re also super cute’ kind of ‘break-up wuss-out’ song?  I think the end of the video sort of suggests that, yes.  But the musical mood is strident.  So it’s a strident wuss-out song?  Boy, do we need more of those. Blarg.

I really don’t want to pick on Carly Rae Jepson, or on Call Me Maybe.  If men can objectify women based entirely on physical appearance, why shouldn’t women do the same, or write songs about how fun objectification can be, when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Or when the attractively ripped jeans are on the other set of legs).  If you take my meaning. And the tune is so maddeningly catchy, we’re pretty well all of us stuck with it for the rest of our lives.  That’s what you’ll hear every day if, fifty years from now, you find a job in a nursing home.  Room after room playing Call Me Maybe.

Hard and fast rule; do not, in your song, reference people more talented than you. I’m serious; it just invites unflattering comparisons. I’m looking at you, Maroon Five.  Adam Levine; Moves like Jagger? No. Right Said Fred was not too sexy for his shirt, and you do not move like Mick Jagger.  You probably sing a little better than he did.  Mick Jagger never could sing.  It didn’t matter.  He was (and is) the greatest front man for any rock band ever, and the band he fronted one of the three best in the history of popular music.  And all you front is Maroon Five.  And lyrics like these:

Take me by the tongue

And I’ll know you

Kiss me ’til you’re drunk

And I’ll show you

don’t help.

Maybe one more?  But who?  I loathe Wrecking Ball, but have I already picked on too many female songstresses?  And isn’t Miley Cyrus an easy target? I know some people are going to vote for Pharrell (Skinny Smokey the Bear) Williams and Happy, but I actually sort of like Happy.  One Direction has Best Song Ever, in which the video is, quite possibly, more annoying than the Baba O’Reilly rip-off of a song, but once you pick on the Beebs, it seems redundant to pick on One Direction.  Then I found this: Alison Gold’s Chinese Food. For one thing, Alison Gold looks maybe thirteen.  And the entire song is . . . about how much she likes Chinese Food?  Seriously, that’s the song.  So, yeah, we have a winner. Even though I darkly suspect the song was done by the same people who gave us Friday and Rebecca Black.

I asked my daughter what she thought, and she responded “anything by Kendrick Lamar.”  But I wasn’t about to listen to a whole bunch of Kendrick Lamar songs to figure out which one was the worst.  (Poetic Justice?) So I asked her boyfriend, and he said “anything by Kendrick Lamar or Ke$ha.”  I sort of like Ke$ha, though I find the mid-name dollar sign affectation unnecessary.  But, then, she’s built her career on affectation. She was a straight A student, aced her SAT’s, and is a math nerd par excellence.  But she’s from a dirt-poor family, and by playing the musical role of ‘hard-drinking party girl’ has become a millionaire. Power to her, I guess.  So here’s TiK ToK; enjoy.

So what are your choices?  I don’t mean to suggest that any songs today are quite as idiotic as MacArthur Park. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ sets a standard it will be hard to beat.  But there’s still a great deal of drivel being written, and recorded.  So what songs drive you bananas?

 

 

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?