Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The failure of "Nowhere Man"

There continues to this  day, since it's release as a single in 1965, a debate, sometimes hot and other times merely a simmer, as to how successful the Beatles the "Nowhere Man" was in its day and how effectively its travelled through the decades since our first hearing. Not well say some and famously so say others. I’d agree that Nowhere Man is a failure at saying something poetic and relevant. The lyrics are banal and obvious in the straw man sort of it’s making fun of, and the moral of the story (“making all your nowhere plans for nobody…”) is insipid. This is the one time I remember that the Beatles were following a trend instead of setting one.Dylan creates an entire world of surreal and distorted characters that greet the Thin Man as he arrives , suitcase in hand, in a terrain that seems more as if he’s entering the first ring of Hell where he is confronted by every selfish choice he ever made. Dylan wanted to stop writing “finger pointing songs” (as he called his protest work) and explore the possibilities of what he could do with his word slinging. 

He accomplished much, as we all know, and it got him a Nobel Prize.I believe songs should be discussed as a whole as well, but what makes some reviewers and critics more dependable**,** intriguing and provocative is to write in earnest about what it is they regard as most germane within a particular song or larger piece of music. Criticism**,** no matter how one cares to address or define it or create proper protocols, is a subjective matter, and the reviewers who’ve I’ve kept reading over many years are the ones who can make compelling and reasoned arguments to make their case. You don’t have to be convinced, but it helps if one listens to and understands the argument being made. In this, I think the intent of Lennon writing Nowhere Man was to deliver a message ala Dylan, Phil Ochs and other folkies and folk-rockers about the superficiality of contemporary life, straw manning the squares of the Establishment with terms and phrases that we would now call “virtue signaling”. Even at age 14, when this song had come out, I thought it sounded false; I had already glommed onto Eliot’s Wasteland , Howl through my interest in Dylan at the time and pretty much had a standard set for me for lyrics that try to tell me about the sterility of Modern Life and the people who refuse to do anything to change it. 

Dylan, Ginsberg, Ochs, and others did more than describe the evils of capitalist leisure, they gave listeners vivid portraits buttressed by real, tangible anger but which was mitigated by craft. You can feel the foul wind blowing in Eliot’s wasteland, you were in the cold water flats with Ginsberg’s marginalized miscreants listening to the terror through the wall, you get a real sense of what a hell of one’s making might be like through the arrival of Mister Jones and his suitcase in a purely alienated space. Lennon is a brilliant man and there is much to discuss the abundance of his great work, but this effort, early in the days when the Beatles were showing the influences of other bands creating new and innovative work, is not one that holds up . It is perhaps the least interesting song in their catalog. But back to my point, if I had one, which is that the issue I found with this tune was Lennon’s intent to write a song that would drop knowledge , and the discussion, for me , was how well his attempt succeeded. I don’t think it did. But he did improve vastly. As did Paul Simon , who recovered from the stilted poetics of Sounds of Silence and all the unearned defeatism that particular meditation on alienation wallowed in and who became a songwriting powerhouse , perhaps the best of his generation.

Saturday, November 4, 2023


Dwight Twilley, underappreciated and (sigh) gone too soon, RIP. I reviewed his single “I’m On Fire” and his second album “Twilley Don’t Mind” in the 70s and always wondered at the time why he and his lifetime music partner Phil Seymour’s earnestly rhythmic and affectless convergence of Mersey beat melodicism and rockabilly swivel jive, replete with lapel-grabbing hooks, joyously confused vocals and sharp, popping guitar sounds never found a larger audience beyond the first hit and consistently high praise from well-placed rock critics. Office politics at the record company that released his one true hit delayed the release of their debut album, and the time lag sapped the momentum the artists had, but some of it might be that writers didn’t quite get a handle on how to categorize the Twilley Band: they were hailed, sloppily, as members of the “Tulsa Sound”, praised as creators of “power pop”, hailed as fathers of the post-punk New Wave trend, and other times, and more accurately, just called rock and roll. As the obit indicates, Twilley was annoyed at the messy attempts to place his music in a category in which it might be made commercially appealing. Just the same, the descriptions of the band’s rock and roll originals were on the money. Perhaps they needed a Jon Landau to write about them and declare that he had seen the face of rock and roll’s future to inspire a major media push for a worthy set of musicians. More likely, the Dwight Twilley Band’s moment had come and gone, with label mismanagement and shifting audience tastes at particular times being blockades. There remains some fine, eternally fresh rock and roll.”


Friday, November 3, 2023

Steely Dan


Steely Dan was called “Insufferably perfectionist” in a headline from a recent Atlantic essay discussing the renewed interest in the band's work.  It would be an apt description for the session musicians who worked for Fagin and Becker while recording the duo's fine string of studio releases. But listening to the records was anything by “insufferable” for listeners: at their best, Steely Dan's music was an elegant and generally seamless composition of beguiling hooks, mysterious melodic transitions, pitch perfect solos. Rock, jazz, funk, and even hits of 20th century classical make up their sound, dreamy and menacing. They are what others deny, an art band, a genuinely American equivalent of what British and European prog-rockers attempted, bringing together pop-music foundations with more sophisticated composition and arranging. Their models were doo-wop bands, rhythm, and blues dance jams, but also the orchestral magnificence of Ellington's notations for his band;s prime soloists. The chilly cool of Miles Davis lurks around in there as well, blended with some earnest, mellow toned soul-jazz of Oliver Lake, but where eventually where the latter artists' arrangements gave themselves over to extended improvisations from skilled ad libbers, with Steely Dan a listener to weight for the virtuosity. Fagin and Becker's recombination of their jazz influences became dense, elongated further, became more lush and impressionistic, almost tone-poem like , as the years progressed, and the solos were certainly the last thing album buyers were looking for with this pair's releases. At their best they were brilliant and enthralling, and even their lyrics-as-poetry couldn't deflate the sum of their achievement. Principal lyricist Fagin read his Eliot, his Williams, his O'Hara, his Schwartz, and his Corman , all grand modernist who didn't clog their stanzas with poetic affectation. Fagin's narratives, his evocations, are spare but mysterious, indirect but tacitly felt. Not a wasted word, which means the lyrics were odd and elegant, a sublime compliment to their music.

Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the dedicated group wasn't just another jam band from Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro progressive-rockers at heart. Little Feat had slide guitar, soulful vocals, and boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination to get in the T Bird and gun your engine. Still, Bill Payne's slippery keyboard work's modernist jazzy and sly sound and the sneaky switching of time signatures amid the funk-riffing improvisation, an odd and provocative convergence of jazz, blues, rock and soul influences,  made them difficult to classify.  Christgau pegged them as a brighter version of the Continental art-rockers. Plainly, Little Feat wanted their music to be something that reflected the best use of their musicianship. Their sound was skilled, never busy, lyrically evasive, and evocative at the same time, never far the American mythos of Robert Johnson country-blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post-war American city. To Christgau's point, I would add Steely Dan,  perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums, and sold-out tours. More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was incredibly sharp at composing great hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, Steely Dan was eclectic in the styles they drew from inputting their albums together--great bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid-tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to alone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation. 

All this and the hooks, and the lyrics, managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people, places, things, and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal, witty, allusive, cruel, and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn't have a large world he wrote about, or instead, wrote around. But his word craft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, bright but chatty. 
The late Walter Becker, a Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort, made this work all the pieces. He arranged  the music, turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces.

 As often as not, centering an arrangement around Fagin's keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from the dream you wish you could return to. Becker's work on the arrangements showed that he knew how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction. His was the ability to have their best material to be immediate clarity of riff, flourish and hook. He had a discerning ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque informal response to emotional states under an artist's scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there was scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of true and only heaven. Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits, and hard-bop resolve. We have Becker's signature guitar work, stinging, serpentine solos, short fills, and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never rushing with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and space between them, popped, stung, and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring, daunting, yet readily approachable in pop music. It's a pity there is no real equivalent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll. 

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