Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Notes Concerning Neil Young's ON THE BEACH





ON THE BEACH--
Neil Young
Well yes, to answer a question no one’s yet asked me, I was one of those guys in high school, in the very early the Seventies, who had found their Reason to Be through a sheer immersion into the contemporary grind of rock and roll. Leonard Bernstein declared it an art form, Ralph Gleason informed us that rock and roll lyrics were the new poetry, and the larger media, Life and Time magazine specifically, uniformly declared rock music a vision of the world to come. I was all in, to be sure, 16, 17, even 18 years old, a would-be poet, a record review for school newspapers and cheaply produced undergrounds. Dylan, Mitchell, Ochs, Simon, Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, poets, prophets, philosophers all, would the models who’d be useful to gauge my own experience. Their effusions would make my evolution. It seemed like the best idea in the world. Gradually, relying on millionaire rock stars made less sense as I got even just a little bit older. My young frustrations grew faster than my admiration of the songwriters. Rather irrationally, I felt betrayed. Dylan turned to Jesus, Ochs hanged himself in alcoholic depression, The Beatles and Stones seemed distracted and distant from those of us working minimum wage day jobs to buy their records.  The Rock elite seemed addled all at once, bereft of a good lyric couplet, a chorus that could unlock emotions and private. Heroes fell from the pedestals I put them, and I took a cheap pleasure wallow in shallow cynicism. It seemed increasingly the case that pop stars, wallowing in ennui and wealth couldn’t speak clearly or convincingly about a life that confounds them. It’s a trauma that confuses many who’ve obsessed over the music and the musicians:  I no longer cared what befell them either in their lyrics or real life. At the time it didn’t take much to make me a despairing sad- sack. I was a self-made made a Grim Gus for a time, of sorts, a premature cynic in my early twenties who wanted to now speak of everything as being false. There was no one to relate to, no one speaking to the persistent chattering anxiety firing along with my synaptic patterns. Or was there? The Revolution hadn’t happened, and the promises of Woodstock were a stale joke. There was no garden to get back to.



But there was Neil Young. It was Young’s songs on the Buffalo Springfield albums I returned to over and over again, it was Young’s worrisome vocals and sparsely filled cadences I related to, it was Young’s ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed, dumbstruck, stunned into a psychic motionlessness in the face of a  feckless reality that overturned one utopian ideal after another. If Dylan had spoken to the youthful urge to explore, challenge and derange the senses in “Mr. Tambourine Man” , Paul Simon sought authenticity  against a materialism in “Sounds of Silence”, and Joni Mitchell entreated listeners to embrace all their travels and affairs with an openness that would transform the world, Young never lost sight of himself in a world that he might not be able to transform through good intentions or a collective Good Vibe. Says Polonius to an anxious Hamlet “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…”   This above all, Neil Young remembers his mortality and remembers dreams of a perfect world are not facts, and that he will show himself to be anything other another fellow who’s been bashed, bandied and bounced about by the unschooled churn of the world As-Is. This is what I’ve always liked about Young in contrast to his admittedly worthy compatriots, that he’s seldom if ever, sang as though speaking from On High.He was in the trenches with us, rolling with the punches. As early as his song  “Helpless” on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release Déjà Vu  , a time when the puppy-hug conceits were giving way in a time of post-Altamont , Young admits that his life is too crowded with the stress and consequences of other people’s expectations, and that he needs to return to something simpler, finer of mind before he grew his hair and ventured from his hometown in Ontario.


 There is a town in north Ontario

With dream comfort memory to spare

And in my mind
I still need a place to go
All my changes were there


 It’s a lovely, three-chord song, and the lyrics, delivered in Young’s fragile whistle of a voice,The lyrics have a plain-spoken plainness that brings to mind the idiomatic precision of William Carlos Williams. Nothing especially poetic in effort, but certainly poetic in effect, the plain and clear admission of needing to get away to a time that no exist, if it ever did. The appeals less for the message, which is one of escape from the world—clearly, no one ought to rely on lyrics as solutions to real problems—but in the way, it simply crystalizes the yearning, the fleeting thought. There is no thesis, no lesson, just an intimate revelation as the problems of the universe continue apace. There was a flurry of junkie laments and tales of ecological disaster that found their way onto the albums of politically timely artists. Young, a man concerned with the environment and the survival of the species and someone who has had experience, we assume, with the fatal travails of heroin addiction, combined both these themes in the title song of his 1969 solo album After the Gold Rush. The song is a science fiction eco-disaster fantasy akin to what Paul Kanter and Grace Slick offered up with their Jefferson Starship Blows Against the Empire album. But where Kanter, Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane entourage offered an album’s worth of Sturm and Drang about angry hippies high jacking a starship and leaving a wasted and wretched planet, Young remains the effective minimalist.  Three spare, elliptical verses vividly outlining a world that can no longer be fruitful inhabited, a ceremony sounded off, a revelation that our narrator is among the debris of a dying planet, that there is a new hope arising as spaceship arrives and the selected ones board the vessel. They are off to find a new home for Mother Nature, our narrator reveals, but he won’t be among the citizens of a New Earth.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement

With the full moon in my eyes

I was hopin' for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high…


The facts are is that Young knows that he is a man who, though blessed with the capacity to learn and imagine, lacks a clear channel to the future, that his senses are as fallible and that he is a mere mortal among the herd.  Jefferson Starship harmonizes cleverly for a skewed utopia where all our friends will be, and croon and cruise for two album sides about setting up camp on another heavenly body. Even in a fantasy, a reverie, Young embraces the simpler tale and the pitiless outcome: although his song suggests the possibility that the species will go on, the narrator is left behind, never to see the new sun.  While I find much to enjoy in Starship’s grandiosity, Young’s fatalism is all that much more powerful. Cogent, reserved, simply stated, with an ending uplifting and tragic at once.   It’s that fatalism, the lack of heroic pretense in Young’s writing that has been a major draw to his music. This isn’t to reduce the singer to a single -topic Worry Wart who can only give grim tidings to the largeness of life. Hardly a guy to roll over and go back to sleep when the stress is too much, Young’s long career has been fascinating for reasons quite a part of his admittedly occasional persona as a small voice describing the dying of the light. He has been a restless intelligence musically, as observable through his proto-grunge rock, collaborations with Crazy Horse, the earnest balladeering of love songs from deep in the heart, or his fruitful side trips into the areas of country and western, blues and soul, and digital boogie. He is not going quietly to any impending good night.

Still, though, I return to something that intrigues me still, a 1974 album called On the Beach, which I consider a landmark disc from the period, a confession as profound and unavoidable as John and Yoko's "Primal Scream" album Plastic Ono Band or the outsized confessions of poet Robert Lowell, Though lacking the anger of Lennon or the particular detail and depth of Lowell's incessantly detailed and personal verse, Young's work is nothing less than a stark declaration that was perhaps at the end of the line as an artist and that his interest in remaining with the rest us on this side of the dirt perhaps hung in the balance. Returning to the idea that Young is an artist aware  limits in a perilous existence, On the Beach is lament that old ideas aren’t working. By constant tone, theme and implication, this is a chronicle of someone feeling powerless over his life. Even his artistry, performing, writing, singing, becomes the millstone he must wear around his neck. The title song, doleful, a chunky strum of the guitar, is a straightforward admission of his love-hate relationship with his dedicated audience.

I need a crowd of people

But I can't face them day-to-day

I need a crowd of people
But I can't face 'em day-to-day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don't make them go away…


This is the ultimate mind-screw, being an artist who has reaped handsome reward from fans and corporation for the good work he’s done who is alienated from the gift that provided his life with purpose. He needs his audience to feel whole but loses himself in the bargain, he has achieved riches from doing exactly what he wanted to do, but feels a prisoner obliged to respond to the demands on his time, talent and soul. It’s less of a bold admission than it is one of those fantastic blurts of truth, that unguarded moment when you find yourself thinking out loud, unfiltered.

The mood remains downbeat with “Vampire Blues”, an extension of the festering resentment addressed in the title song. Young is no longer the fatally alienated superstar, but now instead of a blood-sucking creep, a user, a liar, a low grade demon who will steal your vitality, your love, your passion, who will feed upon your good graces and leave you a  charred chunk of humanity. It’s nothing personal, you understand, it’s planetary: I'm a vampire, babe,/ suckin' blood

from the earth/I'm a vampire, baby, /suckin' blood/from the earth./Well, I'm a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth…”   Young effectively reflects the world he has seen too often and too long up to this point, an existence of full of takers, exploiting resources and replenishing nothing in their wake. Implicit here is Young's idea that he is like the earth, a resource being used up and exploited to fulfill the emotional and material needs of others, with nothing left, no fertile soil, no soul, as a result. Only burnt-out husks remain of formerly glorious beauty.


The songs are a string of sharp, acute glimpses of life that has been stripped down to routine, drained of joy, passion. “For the Turnstiles” is a terse sinister conflation of sailors, pimps, touring bands and hometown heroes revolving around each other both as contrasting metaphors and real-life figures locked in a deadpan dance of entertaining the paying customer while offering mirthless smiles revealing grim clenched teeth. Everyone is paid for what they do, everyone gets what they want, everyone feels like they’ve been robbed. “Revolution Blues” outlines a diorama of survivalist paranoia, every neighborhood is a camp, no one believes a word anyone says: this is an America where whatever is going to happen will happen soon and without warning. The narrator is ready, his gun is handy, he has plenty of ammo, he has no idea what he’s defending or who he’ll be fighting. 
On the Beach is powerful revelation of sorts, both an admission from Young and his generation are no longer in the figurative Kansas anymore. In his mind, he may still need some place to be, but the record might be considered as a journal of a moment when the existence became too big and , that the dreams of utopia, peace free and justice were destroyed by assassinations, a bad-faith war that would not end and a death-trip rock festival that all but gave a lie to Ralph J. Gleason’s insistence the music would set us free if we believed long and hard enough. Young became woke, in a manner of speaking was stunned and for a while conquered by anxiety at the loss of his naivete, But with On the Beach he confronts his fear, the despair and depression and writes his way through the dilemma. No philosophizing, no rationalization, just the blunt admission that he was having a hard time of it, coupled with a coarse imagining of an America without hope or love.  In a Hollywood scenario, this would have been the point where the disillusioned artist bids farewell to all that and lapses into silence, but Young refused to become cynical; through his career he has shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists remaining of the Golden Age of California sound, a man willing to experiment, try new things, switch up styles and attitudes, explore the furthest and most resonating reaches of emotion . What I believe we have in Neil Young is one of the worthiest bodies of work any rock singer-songwriter has created over time. There is much to discuss in other essays yet to be written. He is oeuvre rivals Dylan’s. (That would be a debate worth having). But it is worth it to consider, again, On the Beach. Without this significant record, Young’s work could well have been much less endearing.


(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission)

Friday, September 27, 2019

some words


l never thought the Sex Pistols weren't called for, as the pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's everyman existentialist demanded a musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality. I was lucky, I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges long before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principle--rock and roll is beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album is a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over it's bloviated remains.I miss albums too. I like holding them, reading them, meditating on their physicality while listening to the record. It was part of the experience of absorbing what the musicians were doing, instrumentally and lyrically. Albums made you think that their size and shape were part of the home you made for yourself--house, room, cave, apartment--and that the collection of them, along with books and other such things marked your growing interest in the world around you. Now it seems like disembodied noise too much of the time, piped into devices, not really played nor considered before the music commences. It seems much of the time like a streaming hurry to get done with the whole thing and then move onto another distraction which, as well, will provide no real reward.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

SAVING ZAPPA FROM ZAPPA

ZAPPA PLAYED BY OTHERS


Frank Zappa was often brilliant in his composing in his multi-decade career as an agent provocateur in America's fickle, short-memory popular culture. Most early fans, I am convinced, because they thought he was weird, off the wall, psychedelic to a high degree, a man with a band, the Mothers of Invention, creating the perfect soundtrack for whatever recreational drugs you happen to take. It may seem like a conceited thing to say at this point in my life, and it may be due to romancing the glory days of the Sixties when one was discovering literature, art, great music,; I love his odd time signatures, abrupt switches between genres sans easy-going transitions, his dedication to dissonance. 

It was an audio-assault American audience weren't used to, large audiences, mass audiences in any event, but I soon suspected there was more to Zappa's game than random bizarreness as I encountered him in interviews insisting, over and over, that he didn't do drugs of any kind. He did imbibe alcohol from time to time, which was a relief since I couldn't imagine, in my still expanding mind-- because I was incapable of conceding that anyone could be as not-of-this-earth as Zappa without having to insult his brain in some manner.  Even so, he was sober as a judge, a serious composer, and the music he made from the early efforts to the end of his was the work of a man who regarded himself not as pop star, rock star, or  even professional celebrity, but rather as an artist, a composer, a serious composer making use of anything he found useful  in his goal of  alternately inspiring or antagonizing his audience . There's much admire to the dedication to complexity, although I understand why many have found him off-putting and arrogant. 

That he was, but I still like his music, and continue to listen to it since I first bought my first Zappa album, We're Only in it for the Money, in the late Sixties. That said, I have become less and less of a fan of Zappa's guitar solos, which I find, and have always found, repetitive and without direction. His long, live solos on many of his albums ruin the experience of hearing fine musicians play arresting compositions. It's a habit born of modern jazz players developed in the  40s and 50s and through a major portion of the 60s, when soloists of exceptional caliber would improvise ad infinitum, engaging the process of "spontaneous composition", an idea that a musician, responding to impulse, urge, inspiration and certainly without a great deal of preparation, careens off the highway and ventures down several tonal tributaries in a hunt for a better combination of notes in increasingly difficult formations. There are geniuses who've managed this consistently in their work, with John Coltrane coming to mind most easily; his music, with his friends Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison among a handful of others, is all of a piece. The invention, energy and spiritual power of the extended forays went far beyond a riffing variations-on-a-theme and became whole compositional endeavors.  Keith Jarrett also should be mentioned, although that for all the brilliance he demonstrates as band leader and band member, his several multi-disc solo piano concerts have merely bored me ; so much effort getting himself warmed up for the inspired parts  makes you think more of someone burning gasoline looking for the perfect parking space rather than an artist working his or her way efficiently to the dimension where they exceed their expectations. For Zappa, he is neither of these two musicians to whatever degree. He is an interesting guitarist, recognizable from the first note, effective in relatively short solos tailored to the material (One Size Fits All). He is not, though, the world-class concert soloist, although his True Believers wish it were the case.I wish he'd written sections for his best improvisers and let them shine; a lesson he might have learned from the Great Ellington. Lately, I've been dialing up interpretations of his daunting pieces, with generally good, even spectacular results. 

Here's a unit doing a tight and together take on the dizzying and sonically cubist "G Spot Tornado", originally from his  1986 release Jazz from Hell. This was a disc of wholly instrumental tunes with uncompromised complexity and density, with the majority of the tracks being the efforts of Zappa's programming of a then-bleeding edge synthesizer, the Synclavier, without the aid of other musicians for most of the album. The band here, Germany's hr-Bigband out of Frankfurt, serves a blistering version in this clip.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

MR.MIRACLE WHIP

TB:Seeing Joe Biden on Steve Colbert's program has me concerned about this man, an honorable man , becoming out next President. I thought he was in bad form.Biden really does seem like a senior citizen who is experiencing worsening memory problems. He has always been burdened with misspeaking and getting things wrong, if unintentionally, or confusing audiences and journalists with statements where his point was ambiguous or some such thing. But now he's running for President again, and his gaffes are piling very quickly, with increasing frequency. He too often , for my comfort, seemed to be searching for the right words when asked some surprisingly spot questions by Colbert; he couldn't seem to explain why Medicare for All (universal health care/single payer) and why we'd be better off maintaining and extending Obamacare instead. He rather obviously wants to keep private insurers in the equation when it comes to providing funding for medical care. In brief , he did not make a convincing case for why it's a good idea to keep the corporations involved; he rather ignores that other democratic countries have successful, very successful government driven health care systems that exist to virtually no one's detriment in the respective countries. What disturbs me is that he has a pronounced tendency to drift away from a direct question he started to answer . When Colbert pressed him about hiss fundamentally incorrect recent recounting of the Medal of Honor he was awarding--incorrect date, rank, branch of the service, etc, etc,etc--I thought his answer was a bit cavalier, saying that the small details don't matter as long as the main point is true. In his defense, we can say yes, his main statements about the soldiers, vets, public service are correct (who wants to come out against go old fashioned patriotism), but facts do matter, even the details he think might be insignificant stacked against A Greater Truth.His response as dismissive and vaguely Trumpian.I rather imagine that Biden at that moment related this awarding of the medal on the spur of the moment, off the cuff, unplanned, but even so his getting so many crucial details wrong--a recollection of something he was involved in!--goes beyond casual tsk-tsking and burying your in your hand in embarrassment. This is the man who wants to make the crucial decisions that will direct the country. I fear this man is losing his grip. I would like him to reveal his full medical records, including results from tests that might on encroaching onset of dementia. We do not need another man in the White House with an increasing inability to make decisions based on information and intelligence brought to him. Biden worries me.

BARRY ALFONSO: I do think your concerns are real and serious, Ted. In an earlier era, Biden's age and longevity of public service would have eliminated him as a serious contender. The weird circumstances of this coming election have made him attractive as a figure of continuity, moderation and normalcy. Judging by what I have seen of his recent appearances, I think issues of his memory and general cognitive ability are ambiguous -- some of the gaffes he is being called out on are not important, while some of them are. The whole issue of "gaffes" troubles me somewhat -- it harkens back in my mind to Ed Muskie's famous "crying" episode in New Hampshire and the overblown importance given to a stumble or (to quote Lene Lovich) a momentary breakdown. Biden's clumsiness in stating what was valuable in his working relationship with racist Southern Democratic Senators is more troubling to me that his conflation of details about awarding a combat medal. That doesn't have to affect his decision making ability if he is the leader of a capable team. His dismissal of the details (if that's what he did) isn't remotely Trumpian in my mind. It is a stretch to compare Biden's blurring of memories with Trump's obviously lazy and probably addled mind and, worse, his unwillingness to take in information. Yes, Biden should release his medal records, as all the candidates should. Speaking of medicine, this current debate among Democrats about expanding Medicare vs. Single Payer vs. expanding the ACA IS troubling to me and in fact seems rather stupid. I watched Elizabeth Warren spar with various opponents in one of the first debates and I recalled that the ACA was the result of a slow, grinding, rather ugly process and series of compromises (pushed by such famous public tribunes as Bart Stupak) that disappointed many on the left, just as the next round of health care extension will. Whatever hyper-detailed plan Warren, Sanders, Harris etc. advocate in this campaign will almost certainly NOT become law if he/she is elected. It is a stupid ideological fight that just helps create divisions and re-elect Trump.

TB:I wish I could be assured by your cogent response, but I've watched him closely for years and it appears to me that his habits of mind are less than the absent-mindedness they used to be and more signs of an encroaching fragility. It's not the blurring of details so much that I thought seemed Trump like--Trump just lies, period--but rather Biden's reflection on the details being correct or not as unimportant when your conveying what you think is a Bigger Truth. The details do matter, and I'd been happier if he were more forthright about his verbal errors of statement and promise fervently to do better.He relied far too much on the you-guys-know-who-I-am defense , that he's been around along time, that he has a record and that you know what he stands for, to side step the question as to whether he's fit to be president on his third try. Actually, we know who he used to be, but now he wants to be president, which is very different from his other offices, including that of VP. He is not making a very compelling case for himself, his centrist-progressive policy statements are comfortably piecemeal for those with heart conditions. For me, he has that Ted Kennedy thing happening , a man who could not fluidly and with conviction tell us why he wants to be president. What disturbs me about the MFA v ACA debate is that it's framed in terms of the absolutely apocalyptic--millions will lose their health care!!! That wouldn't happen, but I think the bickering about it among our own takes the focus on why we need to change presidents and the senate.

God is or he isn't, and it doesn't matter anyway

In AA circles, one -on-one chats between members with some amount of  consecutive accumulated time turns to one's idea of God. That is, as the organization's basic materials inform,  a  God our individual  understanding; I remain grateful that AA does not require belief in a specific deity. So the question, when posed, makes me do a little dance of rhetoric, or it used to, in that I would shy away from theological particulars and the like because it results in dissension and division with those who have no real idea of who I am as an individual. It's been different lately, and my answer is slightly more direct. I tell most who ask me about my Higher Power that I remain an agnostic, which many mistake as the same thing as being an atheist.I give them the dictionary definition, which is that the existence of God is unknown and unknowable.This satisfies few of those who ask the question.Personally, I find it a more honest response than telling folks I'm a zen Buddhist.Although, I have taken an interest in Deism , an American spiritual notion observed by several founding fathers that God, such as he is, is responsible for the whole universe, and that his machinations are revealed according what natural law--scientific inquiry in other words--reveals to us constantly. And I am attracted to the to the idea that God does not intervene in the course of naturally -occurring human events; prayers are for a clarity of mind to make the best possible choice out of many to be made. God, though, does not act as a dating service or a loan officer.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A RESURRECTION FOR "WOW"

WOW--Moby Grape
For a brief moment in 1967 it seemed Moby Grape would be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. The evidence that the San Francisco band would ascend to the uppermost heights of the rock pantheon was their eponymously titled debut album ,Moby Grape. Bay Area promoter Matthew Katz assembled the band around Canadian guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist Skip Spence, a colorful figure who incidentally played drums on the first Jefferson Airplane album. Katz raided other bands in Northern and Southern California for other musicians, settling finally on lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist/vocalist Bob Mosley. It would seem they assembled the band Svengali-like, but the musicians took to one another remarkably well. Perhaps brilliantly is the more suitable adverb, as their first release made the cold, cynical hearts of the rock critic cabal go aflutter. Though the band intended to showcase Spence, all five musicians contributed in equal measure as songwriters and vocalists, with the first album regarded by many pundits, critics, and wags as the finest album from the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. Fronted by a three-man guitar army in Miller, Lewis, and Spence, their sound was eclectic, vibrant, and tight yet not constricted in their arrangements, with songs that easily bridged the styles of hard rock, country, blues, folk-rock, just touching the edges of jazz and pure psychedelia.
From nowhere came a group of collaboratively written songs with fetching melodies and crystalline harmonies that rivaled the Byrds. Their lyrics reflected the free-for-all times, of course, but there was something reliably grounded in this collective’s approach to describing experience, a refreshing stoicism learned from this band’s leanings toward working-class country and the gritty realism of the blues. The guitars meshed together wonderfully, wittily, at once powerful, rapid, bludgeoning with “Omaha” or in the delicately layered picking and strumming underscoring the subtly wrenching melancholy in the ballad “8:05.” The stylistic range and consistent excellence of the songwriting was utterly superb, the musicianship drew nearly uniform raves from reviewers, live performances were leaving audiences in varying states of awe. You wonder what might go wrong, but things did go awry after they released the album. The Sixties counterculture didn’t want corporate pre-packaging; the preference was for music that was real, risk-taking, authentic.Image result for moby grape

The precise definition of the authenticity was nebulous, but many of them could smell hype quickly from afar. Hype was exactly what Columbia Records, the band’s record label (and a subsidiary of CBS) did to promote them, infamously releasing five singles at the same time. The thinking was that a shot-gun approach would assure that at least one of the five would hit and garner maximum airplay and revenue. It failed miserably. Rock magazines, underground newspapers, and some strait-laced writers for the mainstream press viewed the ploy as conspicuously cynical to move product. The band’s reputation suffered as a result, although they continued to receive airplay on FM radio stations and drew audiences at live gigs. Moby Grape, though, didn’t sell in the numbers that fans and critics think it should have. Some of the spirit was leeched from the band. With their second album Wow, released in 1969, we have a harbinger of the series of bad breaks and bad decisions that stunted this band’s once-seemingly infinite potential.
It’s worth a mention that Grape’s debut was released May 29, 1967, three days after the seismic release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band on May 26 that same year. It would seem there was a fateful invisible hand at work here. The Beatles were receiving praise for their willingness to experiment with song form and production technique, particularly with Rubber Soul in 1965 and, later and more ambitiously, with 1966’s Revolver. Sitars, multiple track overdubbing, instruments played backwards, musical styles covering the range of blues, hard rock, rhythm and blues, classical allusions, old-time jazz and Music Hall balladry became part of the lexicon that rock bands could and would use in songs and records. Rock ‘n’ roll was now just “rock.” They elevated it to an art form or so critics and millions of naïve fans declared. The Beatles raised the bar with those two albums, and it seemed that any musical group worth attention emulated the British band’s initiative, Moby Grape among them. It’s arguable that the first album was the rare thing, a high-quality disc bearing the influence of someone else’s work; perhaps Grape had nearly equaled the Beatles in their achievements so far. The release of Sgt.Pepper changed everything and raised the bar again, this time to absurd heights. Where Rubber Soul and Revolver were brave if slightly tentative steps toward turning pop music into a much more adventurous, artful undertaking, Sgt.Pepper strolled boldly, in giant steps, crossing genres with ease, inventing new sounds and recording techniques as they laid it down, writing subtly arranged melodies and melodies with a keener wit and a modernist poetic bent remindful of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.
Nothing seemed off limits or off the table for the Brits. Moby Grape’s release in July of 1967 was comparable to Revolver, and three days later the Beatles exploded all the things they’d been playing with for years, reconfiguring the pieces for a new music. Because the Beatles were so far ahead of the game, I remember thinking that it would be folly for other musicians to match their achievement. The Stones tried and famously failed with Their Satanic Majesties Request, released later in 1967.It was a stoned-out two-sided self-indulgence. It was more murk than music. Jagger, Richards, and the rest realized their foolishness and returned to their rhythm and blues roots.
There is little doubt that Moby Grape felt competitive with the Liverpudlians. Even after the much-maligned fiasco of Columbia Records’ release-five-singles gimmick, the first received almost universal praise from critics as an across-the-board masterpiece. It was surely their due to go up against the Beatles and their Sgt. Pepper achievement and show them how it’s done.
This was a period where the Beatles were receiving an unwholesome amount of credit for every element of studio and melodic sophistication in rock music, and it should be said that the single biggest motivation, most likely, for Lennon and McCartney to up their game and turn their pop-rock into art music was the Beach Boys and their Pet Sounds album. Released May 16, 1966, a full year before the release of the Beatles’ disc, Pet Sounds was head Beach Boy Brian Wilson in full flower as composer and arranger, constructing songs with odd meters, ethereal harmonies, sweeping sound stacks of nearly symphonic effect that was brilliantly anchored by the work of the Wrecking Crew, the famed collection of session musicians who gave flesh and blood to Wilson’s abstract and diffuse explanations of what he wanted his songs to sound like. The boys from Liverpool, particularly McCartney, were flabbergasted by what they heard. The competition began in earnest, Sgt.Pepper was their response, and the consequence of the rivalry were two masterpieces. And now it was Moby Grape’s turn to one-up the Beatles.
If Moby Grape deserves its place in the canon, Wow is surely the sharpest disappointment for a follow-up effort. Appearing on store shelves in April 1968, it sold well, peaking at number 20 on the Billboard 200 album chart but was greeted by expressly mixed reviews. I remember that a few reviews were particularly vicious, with most tastemakers citing the album’s faults with questionable production decisions. There was, in fact, many that recommended the album. American rock critic Robert Christgau succinctly summarized the album’s dilemma, saying Wow suffered from “Pepperitis,” referring to the strong impulse at the time to emulate the Beatles’ best and worst habits. Some of Wow’s artful strokes are baffling, sometimes infuriating. “Bitter Wind,” a compelling folk song highlighting the woes and sorrows of a man looking for truth through an unforgiving life, begins and proceeds beautifully, with a stirring pair of acoustic guitars that provide a galloping rhythm as Bob Mosley shouts a beautifully hoarse, soul-inflected vocal. All starts off grandly: the guitars, Mosley’s gritty singing, and chiming choir boy harmony when matters are summarily destroyed. Out of nowhere a gong is banged and as its resonance fades, the listener is overwhelmed with a blitzkrieg of sound, a virtual cacophony of electronic blorts and blasts simulating a hard wind, under which we hear fragments of the song and Mosley’s fine vocal forlornly obscured.
This was little more than the creation of something very fine, honest, and soulful and then smothering it with the thickest, gaudiest pillow you could find. Note that there are live acoustic versions of “Bitter Wind” available on later repackagings of Moby Grape songs. The unsullied version is worth seeking. There are many other bits of production overkill that would add a thousand more words to this piece, but an item I must bring up is a track called “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot.” Again, coming from a fad started by the Beatles and their Music Hall, turn-of-the-century tributes like “When I’m 64” and furthered with bands like the New Vaudeville Band (“Winchester Cathedral”) or Harper’s Bizarre (“Anything Goes”) securing hits with retro sounds, Moby Grape wanted a crack at it. But more so. Perhaps they were thinking that listeners weren’t getting the full experience of music made in the days of primitive recording technology. As the second to last song faded, there were a few seconds of silence and then a spoken voice booming through the speakers, announcing that he was there to remind you that the next song was at 78rpm, the same speed as the old albums our grandparents bought, and that it would do us good to get out of seats and change the album to the recommended setting. I don’t remember being high, but the announcement startled me and made me as indignant as a 16-year-old could become. 

I got off my bed where I’d been listening with my head wedged between two detachable speakers and changed the speed. Waiting for me at the sped-up rate were simulated scratches, crowd noise as if this were emanating from a live location and Arthur Godfrey, THE Arthur Godfrey, going along with the joke by introducing a fictional jazz dance band from atop an equally bogus hotel. The music was a sluggish parody of long-ago pop aesthetics, a humorless slice of nostalgia-mongering that was a profound drag to sit through. The best way to describe how miserable “Just Like Gene Autry” sounded is to suggest that you imagine playing your vinyl albums while pressing your thumb on the spinning disc. This ruins the listening experience, since from that time onward I made it a point to rise rapidly from whatever chair I was sitting in and lift the arm from the record before being instructed to change the record’s speed. But that bit of labor is something I did willingly for several years, as there is terrific music on Wow.
Several songs remain unscathed despite bad production and inflated ideas, as we have in the wonderful tale of “Motorcycle Irene,” Skip Spence’s darkly comic rendering of the myth of the motorcycle Madonna, the tough chick all the guys want but no one wants to mess with. With a rolling, rumbling piano making things move along with a surfeit of bass notes, Irene’s tale is wry and ironic. “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” shows Moby Grape’s blues side to superb effect, a chug-a-long shuffle where the band’s trademark three-pronged guitar work gives us something of a dialogue between the fret player, a call and response of anxiety, glee, and stoned nonchalance as a hippie appears before a hanging judge. Mosley sings lead again and shows himself as a man who might have been one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. Here, though, he is a free spirit baring his soul and throwing himself on the mercy of the cosmic inevitability before him, a plea to the judge responds “Just for getting smart boy/ I’m gonna give you more than a lifetime…” Jerry Miller slashes, punctuates, and animates the courtroom crisis with his fluid, witty blues guitaring. Despite a French horn introduction and the middle section that seem arbitrary and nonsensical, “Can’t Be So Bad” is a powerhouse boogie where all the counter culture trappings are dropped, the pretense of a generational consensus vanishes, leaving only the protagonist making a case to her beau that things are going get better if she just gives him another chance. The unadorned beseeching of a man to his mate was refreshing, honest, disarming. Miller’s guitar solo here positively rips with the sting of Bloomfield and all of Clapton’s fluidity. Truth is that Wow has several good songs: “He,” “Naked If I Want To,” “Three-Four,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” and “Miller’s Blues,” which rise above the often-murky sound mix and indifferently applied effects.
Their sophomore effort, truth, was one of the most disappointing purchases I made with my combined allowance and pop-bottle cash, naively assuming it was too diffuse, esoteric, muddy, self-indulgent, and all those terms one gleans from reading Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy’s record review sections. All the same I kept dropping Wow onto my turntable, moved the needle around to skip what was less worth a listen, and basked in a growing appreciation of how wonderful this band could be if there was nothing blocking their muse. Imperfect as it was, this record has been part of my permanent record collection all these decades later. Wow was a disappointment, but the best of it retains the  naive spark and sass. Naive, which is to say innocent, and part of the miracle of Moby Grape's first record and the most sublime minutes of Wow is that the band rarely advanced beyond innocence into the quicksand of pretentiousness. When they did, as on Wow, they paid the cost with grating, unlistenable minutes . 

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

Monday, July 1, 2019

AFTER THE END, THE BEGINNING

Image result for the hospice bubble
THE HOSPICE BUBBLE
and Other Devastating Affirmations
Poems by Lizzie Wann

Witnessing the decline and eventual death of a parent is the surest way to send any of us into the deepest well of depression and morbid reflection. Few of us handles it with quite the grace we might have hoped for.  Shock, relentless grief, guilt, recrimination are only some aspects the lot of us go through when our parents are suddenly, rudely absent in our lives. We try to make sense of it all, of the choices we've made and the things we've done. There is, it seems, no meaning to find behind it all other than the acceptance of the fact the clan is smaller now and that our lives go on.

Lizzie Wann, a very fine California poet with a sharp sense of the telling detail and lean cadence that conveys underlying emotion and tone, has an engrossing new collection of poems in which we witness her going through the death of her father. The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations.  A sequence of poems of how she cared for her dying father up to the inevitable final day, Wann fearlessly records the days , the incidents, many small and painstaking matters as the days wore on, through surgeries, meals, bits and pieces of final conversation, there is a palpable tension in these lines. There’s no need for the Big Language. Wann is too good a poet for gaudy special effects. She lays bare her ambivalence about her father's decline. These poems are not the grand slam and over decorated summation of what one has discovered about themselves at the end of the trial; Wann’s triumph is in her spare, uncluttered impressions. Throughout the poems that comprise the title sequence, Wann writes with the concision of Hemingway and the chiseled elegance of a Lorrie Moore. Lizzie navigates these narrative fragments with a sure foot even as the ground beneath abruptly shifts. There is a strong sense of someone who’s on a new emotional territory, having her wits and resources challenged, tested.  Each poem yielding some small piece of hard-won insight.  It is the ultimate irony. Her father helped come into the world, and now she is helping him leave it. The poet doesn’t rely on the convenience of easy irony. As splendidly recollected in the piece “Winter Solstice 2017”, what she finds isn’t just making his passage comfortable, but finding out how deep her love for him has deepened, the love of a daughter for a father. While in a hospice, her father tells her of a decision he’s made.

Winter Solstice 2017

on the longest night of the year 

my father said he was ready to die

 his decision was both shocking & comforting 
we had talked on the phone earlier
he was desperately tired
it was different than other times
sitting beside him in his hospital room …
my mom on the other side, he said, 
“I’ve made a decision.”
I took his hand, his skin soft & thin, 
“I want to go home, be done with this,”…
he gestured with his other hand to show 
hospital, machines, gowns, fluorescence 
“I want you to talk to them tomorrow.”

This could seem a cold observation of Wann’s way of writing through these momentous events, but I think it’s a worth mentioning this writer’s efficiency. No casual word- slinger throwing words at a page to see what sticks to the wall, she avoids easy allure of wallowing in her misery. Blessedly, Lizzie Wann as well doesn’t of offer unrefined introspection more appropriate for private journals rather than a poetry volume.  Like a fine musician who has learned the art of note choice, she chooses her words wisely. Knowingly or not, she is composing with Ezra Pound’s notion of writing to the rhythm of the musical phrase and not the metronome. This makes her poems powerful and lyric, poetic in ways a reader doesn’t expect. Pound’s fellow poet William Carlos Williams worked for a verbal quality to his poems, as close to Spoken Language as the imagination would allow.  Wann has that in her poems, a rhythm and a flexible emphasis that conveys a mind’s hesitation, the rush of sensation, a sudden flash or sorrow or swift and brief elation. What I’ve always admired about Lizzie Wann’s poems is the sense of something bristling under the surface of the written lines, a confession, a fleeting insight, a secret struggling to emerge. “Winter Solstice 2017”, she accounts for speaking with the family, the doctors, conversations matters intimate and private with her father. She returns home finally, still processing the profundity of her father’s request. At end of day, she slips into needed sleep. Wann is at her best her, deeply, lyrically moving , beautiful in its elegantly unadorned honesty:


that night, I slept in his bed, 

but not before I examined his room, 

opened closet doors

 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 
unburdened
but not before I examined his room, 
opened closet doors
 took a picture of his shirts 
tried to sleep but could only see 
a family vacation to Yellowstone
 where he threw my child body into the air 
so I could see higher, how I was surprised 
then delighted by his spontaneity 
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me 
did it again, laughing my daddy laughing 
unburdened


I ought to emphasize that the 25 poems that make up the title suite of 
The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations aren't relentlessly dour or respectively bittersweet in tone. The sequence is not necessarily in order, and have the quality of a mosaic, poems composed as different memories sparked different ideas and moods. Meals, chats, frustrations small and big, the irritations minor and major which stress the limits of one’s willingness to go on, area highlighted in the selected poems. There is a subtle wit that underscores the pilgrimage , suggested in this volume’s subtle by the phrase “Devastating Affirmations”; this passage is both curse and blessing, a tragedy that transforms a life with a blunt inevitability, but an event that provides the opportunity for every woman and man to become the adults in their expanded household. Samuel Beckett, the poet laureate of perennial stasis, moaned famously, to paraphrase,… I can’t go on… I’ll go on,” a phrase mimicking the collective grunt of a common man getting out of bed with a conviction that the crushing burden of life on its own terms, the daily grind, is insurmountable and unending: they can’t take it anymore.  And yet man, the woman, showers, shaves, has coffee and leaves the house to do battle again, finding, for a moment, the will to engage again. I believe Wann has a more interesting journey; through her efforts to aid her father with his pain and eventual death, she becomes who she is. 

Other affirmations, not so devastating, are also dealt with in his potent book, those being deaths, depression, writing, love, matters she writes her way through. I sense a writer who picks up the pen to find out what she thinks about the people, places and thinks which continue to make days and nights something less than serene glide. What arises as I read the poems was the faint but pulsing rhythm of hope, not so much the typical glad tidings imprinted on bumper stickers and corporate greeting cards, but rather a recognition that all this misery, labour, all the toiling in attending to final days and hours of a parent's life is a process of discovery of one's aptitude to navigate personal tragedy's rocky stream. Life continues, one's wits were sharpened, one's eyes have adjusted to the dark that shrouded their life for a time, and the sun arises again, the wind blows, the air smells sweet.  Wann writes about many small things in a big way, a writer fascinated with being alive in the world.

To end , lets consider a short poem, the last piece in the book:

Emergence  

 a fingertip 

a strand of hair

 an eyelash
 my pinkie toe 
 ever so slowly 
it seems I may just find 
my way out 


(Originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).

Thursday, June 13, 2019

READ WHAT YOU MEAN

Well, you have to stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world . You have to stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping . But you have to stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much ; you stop , you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded. This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, with out apology, without pause or reflection, following the string wherever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity , the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop , take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise , I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Blue(s)-
Lori Bell and Ron Satterfield
Lori Bell and Ron Satterfield have spent the last few years wowing and beguiling audiences with their vibrant combination of straight ahead, pop, and boss nova-inflected jazz. Blue(s), their new album, is a welcome release, an intoxicating blend of classic tunes by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans among others, and three guileful originals by Bell. Flutist Bell and guitarist /vocalist Satterfield are a musical combination that have the shared the reflexes of swift and nimble dancers, negotiating difficult changes and moving gracefully through a varied and rich field of tempos, moods, and tones. Those of us lucky enough to witness their magic live no Bell’s wonderful accomplishments during a performance. Her improvisations are a sublime complement of speed and grace, with a skill to interpret material, reshape melodies, and play tricky and shifting tempos. Her technique is meteoric, but they do not sacrifice the sweetness of the music in service to mere virtuosity.

Bell’s genius for inventing melodic conceptions in seamless succession fuses with Satterfield’s adroit guitar work. Eschewing solos, he instead switches between different comping requirements with ease, verve, and style. He gleefully alternates between straight up walking bass lines and shuffle patterns to the subdivided syncopations of Bossa nova, and shows the dulcet intuition of a pianist on the more somber material. (Note: Satterfield is a fine pianist as well with an agile and delicate touch, a quality that informs a nearly flawless sense of rhythm and groove. There’s no lack of variety on blue(s). Those requiring their music be up-tempo and big league, Bell’s own “Bell’s Blues” begins the album with all cylinders firing. It’s a hard-swinging blue with some sweet criss-cross changes and the flutist swooping and pirouetting over Satterfield’s propulsive chords; Satterfield, at midpoint, eases into the fury with a lyric scat vocal, mirroring Bell’s effervescent notes with his own vocalese. Satterfield’s voice is one wonder of Southern California jazz.
The pair retook Monk’s “Blue Monk” into a 6/8 time rush, the usually doleful melody transformed into whistling, scat-happy whimsy. Satterfield launches firmly from a beautifully clipped Latin groove and propels the material with galloping chords, over which Bell decorates the combustible pace with an airy, sprite set of improvisations, springing off Satterfield’s able time keeping. Another high point is a refreshingly sprite arrangement of Miles Davis’s classic “All Blues.” With rare exceptions, later versions of the tune have treated Davis’ original arrangement–slow, somber, casually yet firmly swaying–as sacrosanct. Bell and Satterfield prefer to create anew, allowing them to mess with the song’s mood, elevating from its muted and brooding essence as a tone poem and turn that swaying motion into something close to a swinging rhythm. Bell’s mastery is in full evidence, weaving sprite, flutter-tongued phrases over and between Satterfield’s brisk and agile chord voicings.

DYLAN SINGS TERRIBLY, AND THAT'S WHAT MAKES HIM A BRILLIANT VOCALIST


image If you're wondering, ever, why rock criticism is The Red-Light District of the reviewing arts, this article recently posted on the Esquire website to celebrate Bob Dylan's 78th birthday, shows the reason. The essay baldly asserts that Dylan is "The Greatest American Singer of All Time". Written by someone named Jeff Slate, a songwriter and occasional music journalist, the piece an unctuous, overeager stroll through the obvious facts of Dylan's career , laced with fatuous claims for this to be the greatest American singer. The basic formulation is that as a developing artist, a man dedicated to making a splash in the music world with the resources at this command, the young Dylan had tried on several musical styles—blues, folk, field hollers, gospel, rock-and-roll, and that he had made each style his own reinventing all of them. The basic problem is that Dylan has an awful instrument for carrying a tune. 

There's room for an agreement that the Bard of the Counter Culture has created a good number of impressive, moving, and subtle vocal performances during his long stay in the public eye, but that isn't the same thing as being the Greatest Singer this culture has ever produced. Slate gushes like a nervously prolix fanboy as he over rates the artist's obvious accomplishment. He undersells what was going on in the kind of reinvention that's required for an artist of latent genius to accomplish anything beyond the bathroom and the hairbrush.Dylan is a great singer because he had the ability that suited the qualities and limitations of his voice. All great songwriters do this, especially with Burt Bacharach, who wrote perfect melodies for a stream of quirky vocalists who , without him, likely would have trouble finding a good ftt for their native sound. I am thinking specifically of Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney, two singers who, I'm convinced, might have languished without Bacharach's melodic accommodations of their strengths. 

Dylan is a more extreme example of this. His early versions of anonymous folk classics are drearily cluttered with many affectations that make me cringe when played . The genius of his vocal style didn't develop until he committed to writing his songs; the affectations began to fall away and, by the time we come to Blonde on Blonde, we've experienced a long string of potent lyrics dramatized b y a singular , original style that handily introduced and forced acceptance of a new aesthetic in pop singing. Mick Jagger is someone I'd say is an artist who followed the same route, a man with a technically awful voice who, in partner Keith Richard, had a voice that could create musical context and frame Jagger's singing.

 I've argued that Dylan and Jagger were not singers, but VOCALISTS, men who could do interesting things with their voice to dramatize a lyric. What those two do is a certain singing, but the distinction is helpful in keeping one's statements about an artist's work both sober and sane.Dylan, though, is not the greatest American singer. Sinatra can , hypothetically, could sing "Blowing in the Wind" or "Just Like a Woman" with style and aplomb (the results , no doubt, would sound ridiculous), but Dylan couldn't handle a single tune from Sinatra's songbook. Many  argue otherwise,insisting he could pull off the fete and change music history again.but the brilliance of this man, Dylan, lies entirely on the work he created.On his own songs, the gentleman rules without peer. "No sings Dylan like Dylan" was an early Columbia slogan for the songwriter, quite a prescient declaration as we take the long view of his career. But is less about Dylan's singing than it is about the article writer's rote hyperbole.