Tuesday, April 25, 2017

making Sinatra grate, again

Mikal Gilmore is a good critic overall, a fine writer with a literate style. He is very much a fan of the musicians he praises, and I've read him at times where he displays a reasonable skepticism at some of his heroes' less appealing efforts. Above all else, Gilmore's rock and roll writing is vital because he's a writer who never stopped believing that music had the power to change the way people see the world and that music, as well, could inspire, empower and embolden generations to create a more perfect union. Even when I feel that all that is lost to us now, that music, even when it was routinely superb during a period in the Sixties, was always about parties getting paid their due (and more), Gilmore could convince me, for a moment, that cynicism was a callow response to world events that didn't behave according to my own private timetable. 

But there is the habit of seeing everything particular artists do as evidence of genius when in fact what is served is dried out, tired, mannered, lifeless as a stain. Sinatra and Dylan, though, are two seemingly fault-free icons of Americana that Gilmore, like more than a few old guard reviewers, goes into a bubble of a kind and create their very own mythology, a homemade dialectic. In this case, it's the convenient narrative that Sinatra and Dylan represent the thesis and antithesis of American pop music and that what's happening with Triplicate amounts to a fabled synthesis. Gilmore gets disconcertingly close to aping Greil Marcuse's worst habit, which is to treat a trilogy of albums as a Major Historical/Cultural Event. In making such claims against a word limit, it is necessary to exclude practically everything and everyone else in the historical record. His four-star review is premised on the assumption that one thinks Dylan's performance of this material is arguably good on considers other than technical skill. One can make such an argument, of course, but I don't find them especially convincing. Willie Nelson has a reedy, nasally voice, but he does have range and color and a demonstrated mastery of his abilities as a vocalist; his renditions of old standards ala "Over the Rainbow" or "Blue Skies" work rather well and are effectively reimagined, as that atrocious phrase goes. We can push this even a bit further by remembering Elvis Costello's moving and too-brief reading of my "My Funny Valentine", choice ballad one would associate with the soaring and splinter texture of Tony Bennett's offhand croon, or the rich tone poems that Mel Torme turns his vocal performances into. 

Costello style, at the time, noted for being nasal, untrained, bellowing, only occasionally tuneful in straightforward line readings, demonstrates on "My Funny Valentine" that he, like Nelson, could shore up is supposed limitations and turn them into virtues that could make the performance memorable; while we can continue on  and on that Costello's rendition doesn't come near to achieving the definitive version Bennett imprinted upon the culture, that would be to miss the point of interpretation. Costello's version is his own, his vocal apparatus had richer registers to use to approach the delicacy of the melody and simple poetry of the lyrics, the result being, I think, is that great songs are written for a great vocalist. The further point is that Costello's voice had the technical qualities to make his version worth a listen or ten.  

"Redefined "is perhaps the better word. Sinatra's songs were written for Sinatra's voice, or voices similar in color, nuance, range, and regardless of what style you wish to cast the material in--soul, reggae, country, folk, blues--the requirements for voice remain the same. Dylan's appeal as a vocalist was that he wrote his own songs and that those songs fit the limited apparatus he had. His original material, and the songs by others (early on) he selected to perform fit his voice, his rage, his tone, which he was able to manipulate in effective ways. I am quite a bit more reductionist in my opinion of Dylan's attempts to interpret the great American songbook. I think it's awful stuff, a grating and embarrassing display. That said, I am also willing to admit my view reveals my limits more, perhaps, than they do anyone else's.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rolling Stone's record review section turns 50

The record review section of Rolling Stone turned 50 years old in 2017, and I'll admit from the first sentence that I haven't held the critical opinions in high regard for the better part of thirty years. I tend to question RSs motives in who they cover and the reasons for the favorable reviews so artists seem to get every time they release something. Music critic and pop cultural historian Jim DeRogatis, author of the Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, was once the editor of the RS review section and shared with at a book event that Jann Wenner, founder and very hands-on editor, decreed that there are artists who will never get a negative review, among them Dylan, The Boss, Tom Petty,...the usual suspects. 

 I'm convinced Wenner corrupted the integrity of his reviewers; the section isn't a place of true criticism, the practice of discussing thins at length, in detail, with the instance of rendering an honest estimation. It has been, for a long time, a tedious exercise in rubber stamping new albums with praise that rarely rise above the corroded cliches and platitudes that have haunted music reviewers for decades. There are notable exceptions, of course, chief among them Mikal Gilmore, a sterling prose stylist and a man given to nuanced consideration of history and tradition and contextualizes his praise against high standards. It should be said as well that the record review section was my most essential writing laboratory. As in the already mentioned Marcus, Bangs, Landau and RJ Gleason (and Robert Christgau at the now defunct Village Voice and Duncan Shepard at the SD Reader), these were my models for what I thought a fine critical prose should read like. For that I am grateful. 

That just makes it sadder to note that what was indeed the freshest and most invigorating forum for commentary has ceased to be a place for independent thinking and has become, in most part, a section of corporate shilling. Much of the decline in mass circulation criticism that , incidentally, gave an honest and considered evaluation of music, films and books could well be due to changing readership expectations; a cursory glance and a longer examination of the current crop of yammer among online internet outlets seems to require those would-be examiners of to have had a huge gulp of the Kool-Aid that's being served, no matter how ethically loathsome, and suspend critical standards as long as they draw a paycheck, replacing them with talking points and backstories agreed up between skittish media companies and the advertising and promotional departments of big corporations.It's beenI've suspected that if you treat an audience like fools, lemmings and immature hords addicted to fads and fashion, they will behave, in time, accordingly, accepting the faint shadows on the wall as the one reality their senses need to appreciate. 

Monday, April 17, 2017


I was very saddened by the news that guitarist ALLAN HOLDSWORTH has passed away at age 70. The British-born Holdsworth, who had lived in San Diego's North County Vista community for several decades, was quickly the greatest and most original improviser I had the excellent and unreal fortune of seeing live. I first came across him in 1973 at Newport Wherehouse Records, an era where the clerks were as big musician obsessives as you were. I found myself in a long and riffing conversation with a sales clerk about guitarists. At a point, the excited chat veered into guitarists of great speed, accuracy, and original technique. I bemoaned that the realm of the speedster had already been decimated, given the sped-up barrages fashioned by the kings of the hill John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, and the abusively underrated Larry Coryell. The summary view was that younger guitarists taking up the jazz-rock tempos and swift extemporizing had turned the style into a morass of rapid and repetitious chatter.

I said something to that effect, a typical move among a good many of the music snob community who'd needed to establish their bonafide when they encounter a member of the tribe they hadn't yet exchanged judgments; it was an affectation, and it in my case at least, used frequently to obscure the fact that there were musicians I'd hadn't heard. So I  said this, maintaining my fiction of knowing something I didn't. I kid you not, the clerk snapped his fingers and asked if  I'd heard Allan Holdsworth. No, I said, and he motioned me over to the counter turntable; he took out a disc the read "Tempest" on it, eagerly but carefully slid the disc from the sleeve, and dropped the needle on the disc. What followed was a rather good blues-riff rock in a Cream mode, but with diminished and augmented chords placed in the fuzz-toned mix to add the surprising element of jazzy space, an element enhanced by the jazz background of drummer John Hiseman, who'd been the timekeeper and leader of the pioneer UK jazz-fusion band Colosseum. 

The revelation of the disc was the guitar work, which struck rapidly and dynamically like a bolt of lightningIt was Holdsworth on the frets, racing over the chord changes with runs Joe Pass might have been proud to call his own, mixing up his complex outings with finely wrought blues bends and dissonant accents and bittersweet turns in his phrasing. This was 1973. Van Halen hadn't yet been formed. This was a precursor to the vocabulary that would become the go-to style for a hard rock lead guitarist.  Holdsworth, though, was constantly evolving, challenging himself and his technique by placing it in new contexts. 

He was an improviser more than anything else, a man who'd created his own idiom. His improvisations were a match for Coltrane's high velocity, register jumping runs that did strange and beautiful turns against your expectations of where you thought his ideas might take him. His technique was peerless, and his playing was revolutionary.  Like the brilliant guitarist Larry Coryell who died just a couple of weeks ago, he profoundly and permanently changed the way we would play the electric guitar. This man has given me much pleasure in the decades that I've been listening to him, through his stints with Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Bill Bruford, UK, Anders and Anders, Jean Luc Ponty, and his own bands and albums. For all those decades, the rest of the guitar world was catching up with what this genius was already doing with unmatched fluidity and invention.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chuck Berry's Pursuit of Happiness

Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry passed away, age 90, on March 18 and left a long, permanent shadow that falls over those who took up the guitar after him. It's a thick, rich shade from which precious few rockers manage to completely extract themselves. He created the language and vocabulary of rock 'n' roll, both as a musician and songwriter. His body of work, indeed, is the Gold Standard against which all others are judged. The foundation of which he was the accidental architect is broad, pervasive, an idiom both unique yet familiar, subtle yet straightforward. It was music that could be adapted in many ways and continue to be renewed with each new visionary we plugged in a guitar and wrote a lyric of joy and confusion.

 He is, I think, to rock and roll what literary critic  Harold Bloom claims for Shakespeare, the originating standard of genius by which all other artists in the arena are held to. In Chuck Berry's body of work, we have a collection of songs that achieve that elusive blend of styles in precisely the proper proportions. His songs sold millions, spoke to audiences across racial lines, his rock 'n' roll changed the way we engaged the world. It rocked.

His work was, essentially, the creation of rock 'n' roll as we think of it to this day. A sharp sense of the '40s swing, the charge of a rhythm and blues beat, a guitar style combining a bittersweet sting of blues and the sprite, twang clarity of Nashville-style guitar. Berry listened widely, taking in the grit of the blues, the earnest sincerity of country, and western storytelling. The swing of R&B, charging it up with country-accented guitar lines, perfecting a limited but resolutely brilliant set of guitar licks that redefined how the instrument came to be played.

It's been argued that Berry was the most essential guitarist rock 'n' roll has ever known; one can, in my view, be a jazz guitarist, although one might not have bothered to listen to or learn Joe Pass or Charlie Christian licks. If a player decides to forgo Chuck Berry's sublime and simple genius and focus instead on the knee-jerk hi-jinx of shredding, one relinquishes the right to be called a rock 'n' roll guitarist. If you can't play Chuck Berry, you can't rock. It's that simple an equation. His solos are the best economy models, with their double-stopped bends and twangy fills, all made buoyant with a crucial sense of swing. Decades of convoluted solos, once the example of what to do on the frets, have been swept to the curb, ashes of former glory, while Berry's fret inventions are still with us, a part of the American memory. Knowing Chuck Berry's sound, feel, and off-hand playfulness is a metaphysical necessity for the rocker; it was less a style to master than lifestyle, a way of honing your wits and working your way through the tragic subject matter life awards us with.

And then there's his particular genius as a lyricist. He was, as John Lennon proclaimed in the seventies, that Berry was the original and the greatest rock 'n' roll poet. Not a philosopher, neither gloomy nor introspective, Berry had the genius to appeal to primarily white teenagers growing up in the '50s, a black man with a talent for telling stories that, while hardly meditating on the Dark Night of the Soul, took on experiences and issues that were critical to young people. Dating, school, part-time jobs, homework, cars, dealing with loneliness, trying to fit into a world they didn't make, Berry presented a splendidly idealized world of teens trying to make sense of the world as they tried to find their own path through it. What was profound was Berry's skill, his literal mastery of conveying the scenarios without prejudice or pretentious language. His diction was flawless, his word choice splendid, preferring ordinary words used in exciting ways, coming up with rhymes and resolutions at once surprising but credible. His persona was the young man on the move, a traveler from place to place, town to the big city, nation to nation, searching for pleasures and joy, an innocent hedonist, of a sort, who takes the promise that the country he lives is dedicated to the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Avoiding the marsh of clichés, platitudes, and inept phrase-making about American Exceptionalism might be in actuality, Berry's True Believer hacks through the verbal foliage and offers up an American where everyone gets a seat at the lunch counter and has money for the jukebox:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We just touched ground on an international runway
Jet-propelled back home from overseas to the USA

New York, Los Angeles
Oh, how I yearn for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
God, I long to be at my home back in old St Lou

Did I miss the skyscrapers
Did I miss the long freeway
From the coast of California
To the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did
Till I got back to the USA

Looking hard for a drive-in
Searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day

Yeah, and the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA
I'm so glad I'm living in the USA
Yes, I'm so excited I'm living in the USA
Anything you want, we got it right here in the USA.

Ah, we're so glad we're living in the USA
Yes, we're so happy we're living in the USA
Anything you want, we got it right here in the USA
--"Back in the USA" by Chuck Berry

What makes America great? Chuck Berry isn't waxing about the morose verities of Patriotism or the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Berry, In fact, does not concern himself with any idea regarding America as a historical force; he does not tip a hat or allude to an assumed consensus view that his nation and its traditions were an inevitable consequence of unstoppable millennial forces. He had an idea to project, a narrator to create, a credible voice to fashion, and to speak of an America that might be recognizable on most citizens' radar. Berry's America was an All-Encompassing Present, where the details of revolutions, world wars, and struggles for worker and minority rights were irrelevant if they existed at all. This wasn't a country where a seeker like Berry's cheery Everyman had to genuflect to flag and statues of dead white men. This was a place of many constant and permanent marvels. Skyscrapers, long highways, California coastlines, 24-hour diners where burgers are constantly frying on the grill, this was an America as an Ideal Type that never closes, where the explaining ideology of what America was supposed to become was reversed and were now descriptions of a Nation that had fulfilled its promise to its citizens, new and old. 

 Berry won't discuss God's plan for the nation in the course of human events and isn't much concerned with destiny or ethics or the brick and mortar of building political consensus. Berry was visionary, no less than Blake, Yeats, nor Whitman, and what he envisioned was an America that kept its promise of allowing an everyman like himself (and every person) to engage in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It's a might Utopian, yes, simply expressed, but within Berry's lyrics is uncommon eloquence that brings up the idea of what the soul of a nation requires. Fewer sermons, more life, fewer lectures, more laughs, less anger and sadness, and more joy. Berry's hero was a man who wanted to have his fun and sing about it too.

Berry created the rock 'n' roll songwriter as we currently understand it, the participant of events giving hot-take impressions or a narrator framing a story of daily frustrations, habits, and quest of young Americans looking for both the meaning of life and fun. His language was colloquial, slangy, and full of advertising coinages and mispronounced foreignisms, place names, an American hybrid of words consisting of short syllables drawn from telephone chatter to movie screen patter. His subject matter was the life and times of white teenagers, a simple terrain. Still, Berry's treatment was rich, his language was subtle, his rhythmic accents were unexpected, and his rhymes were ingenious, surprising, and fresh, commanding our attention to the tale he framed and relayed like the master he was. The language was direct, emphatic, uncluttered, and scarce of decorative qualifiers. The words had immediacy and intimacy and unforced statement of being and rocked, swerved, and danced on the fast motion rhythm of Berry's fabled guitar chords.

Berry, in my opinion, the most essential singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll, has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington, Count Basie, and Louie Jordan, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an entrepreneur and an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one, something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing, and certainly clear narratives that wittily, cleverly, indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. It's another aspect of country music that Berry admired and was astute enough to bring into his own reconfiguration of culturally disperse American musical styles, which was the beautifully compact, uncluttered storytelling of masters like Hank Williams. 
 William Carlos Williams (no relation), warned against abstraction or attempts to make an image or a perception seem more extraordinary than they already were. Our senses already avail us of a universe infinitely astounding as it already is; attempts to link the detail, the object, the fleeting sensation to the addled guesswork that passes for metaphysical investigation merely clouds the beautiful, powerful, and unique. "The thing itself is its own adequate symbol," said Williams, an idea not lost on Berry. As with WCW, Berry practiced an idealized American idiom, colloquial yet uncluttered with slang that would age poorly, informal but articulate and bristling with quick wit and clarity. I don't think that rock and roll as a form are played out by any means, as the occasional records I have a chance to review or a cursory scanning of what guitar new guitar throttling is available reveals hooks, riffs, lyrics, and licks that satisfy one's requirement that rock and roll be, somehow, dually dumb and refined without seeming as if the artist in question is breaking a sweat. 

What Berry did was create a kind of songwriting that was artful even as it seemed artless. For his part, I would concur that Berry didn't have it in mind to cause a musical revolution that would be such a monumental influence on an astounding number of creators over a significant number of decades. Clearly, his purpose was to write songs that could afford him a comfortable living or better. With all the keen instincts of an entrepreneur willing to experiment with his product, he set out to create music that was unlike anything anyone had done before. He was one of those artists where you could discern influences both obvious and obscure--Duke Ellington, Basie, Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, and other country artists--but, most incredibly, you were in witness of how he transformed his materials into a distinct singularity. We've discussed some of the subtextual matters that are rife in Chuck Berry's body of work, matters that critics given to close readings of texts can expand on and provide us with how deceptively simple this man's music and lyrics and worldview are; there is more here than meets the ear. Berry had no message, of course, in transmitting secret meanings, in being vague, allusive, or otherwise conventionally "poetic" with his songs. But I believe that the artist is not always aware of every submerged implication their music might have. That is the aspect that keeps this kind of music worth talking about when it's good enough to make you play more than once over a set of months, years, decades. 

He was Whitman with a rhythm section, a cogent Kerouac; he was Eliot with a backbeat. His long string of hits was tight, vibrant, concise masterpieces, ageless innovations that motivated later talents with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, John Fogarty, and Dylan. Speaking of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis remarked, without reservation, "You can't play anything on modern trumpet that doesn't come from him, not even modern shit." Decades later, John Lennon's famous line comes to mind, no less on point "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." 

(Originally published in The San Diego Troubadour).