Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Monday, March 25, 2019
THE VAULT: two reviews from the Seventies
The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his own sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics their own reward), Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general. But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your own culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
ROCK THE SHAM
There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to a conspicuously open can of gasoline
It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. Someone assumed it that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. He didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
JIM IS STILL DEAD AND STILL SEXY
A Lifetime of Listening
to Five Mean Years
by Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus is one of the remaining first-generation Rolling Stone rock critics who, in his old age, has evolved into something of a Methuselahian sage for the artist and band's populating the Rock and Roll Canon. He is a fine writer, beautifully evocative at times, a widely read gent who brings his far-flung references of history, aesthetics, politics, and mythology into his generalized ruminations on the movement of human history and how it was reflected and caused by the emergence of pop, rock and soul music. If he has any thesis at all, his idea is that these were not merely forms of entertainment and distraction; they were cultural forces that changed the way we live. As fine a prose stylist as he can be and as momentarily persuasive as he can seem in his richer passages, Marcus puts forth little in the way of criticism; he rarely, in his late writings, spend the time to let you how songs, lyrics work internally convincingly.
The Doors were a mixed bag for me; the first two albums are among the essential rock albums of all time, with the remainder alternating between the proverbial poles of brilliance and balderdash. As a band, they were sublime and unique, with the odd combination of blues, flamenco, classical, jazz, Artaud, and epic theater being crafted in their hands to create a sound and feel that was singular and instantly identifiable. As a vocalist, Jim Morrison was often as evocative as the most significant fans proclaim, and it fit the half-awake twilight that seemed to be his constant state of consciousness. As a poet, though, I thought he was simply awful, fragmented, crypto-mystic, the surrealism that, save for some striking and memorable lines, collapsed from its flimsy elisions and obtuse vagaries. In his posthumous collections, the pieces read too often, like the notebook jottings of an introspective 17-year-old. I say that as a thoughtful 17 year and is now a reflective 65-year-old. Morrison might have become the poet he wanted to be had he written, edited, and finesse his work as he desired when he left for Paris. I will say, though, that being the vocalist in the Doors allowed him to go through his writings and poems and select many of the more robust passages for the band's more theatrical songs. The Doors, ironically, seemed to be an institutional editor for Morrison's words, forcing the bard to decide which of his jottings was the most powerful, concise, emphatic.
The matter of craft isn't Marcus's most serious concern. With the Doors, though, he does an excellent job of explaining what I've always felt for some time that Jim Morrison was pompous, vacuous to a significant extent, a mediocre poet, a pretentious intellect who happened to have some things going for him: good looks and sex appeal, an appealing the baritone voice could bellow or fashion a slumbering croon, and that he was in a band of good musicians that compelled him, in the songwriting process, to peel away the most dreadful riffing in his poems and boil it all down to the genuinely strange, exotic, and provocative. The result of that combination of Morrison's affectations and the talents of the other band members made for several first-rate original songs. Save for the near-perfection of their first two albums. It also made for some mostly uneven records where Morrison's drunk insistence on being a drunk put his worst tendencies on full display. Marcus is bright and remarkably succinct on his subject. His judgments are shrewd and knowing, the key one being that while saying upfront than in any other life Morrison would have yet another counter-cultural tragedy left for dead and forgotten, rock and roll made him at least briefly pull his resources together and give the world something memorable beyond his pretentiousness.
The Atlantic a month ago ran a pig-headed bit of snark-slamming prog rock as "The Whitest Music Ever, "a catchy bit of clickbait...