Saturday, January 24, 2015

Self Reflection: Back Door Man, Mannish Boy

Purchase: Howlin' Wolf--Back Door Man

Purchase: Muddy Waters--Mannish Boy

I read an interesting article that talked about how it was possible to trace the rise in narcissism over the generations through popular music.

It actually works, especially when you use love songs as your filter.

In the 1950s, pop songs were all about how much the singer loved the subject. Lots of adoration and pleading. The 60s--all about loving everybody, as was the fashion. “Come on people now, smile on your brother…” and such…

The 70s brought on a bit of a change, and love songs took on a bit more strut, a little look at me kind of vibe.  Disco will do that for you—not much more to say than “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and the less said about the 70s, the better, at least when it comes to Disco.

The 80s and the 90s-- a pretty soft decade, but pop songs saw a turn toward the more sensually charged and carried an overt sense of sexuality--what I'm gonna’ to do, and you to me. But, still, there was more adore you rather than look at me happening in the music. Whitney Houston taught us a lot, especially about always loving...someone.

Get to the 2000s, if you can still stand to listen to pop music, and it gets pretty ugly. Pop music is a preponderance of bragging rights, showing off, getting off on the image of the self, and love songs are pretty much,I'ma know....'cause nothing looks as good as this (self-referential expletive deleted...In an age where Paris Hilton can release an album, and Rhianna can get on stage, bend over and become a multi-billionaire, and there’s an industry dedicated to solely to making it easier to take a selfie with your camera, one should be surprised that we haven’t all fallen into the water and drowned while loving ourselves.

This is by no means a scientific observation--I can't stand to do the research, ie: listening. But, if you listen closely to pop music across a spectrum of the decades, I promise, you will find a disturbing trend toward the very narcissistic and decidedly self-aggrandizing, be it about wealth, swagger, street-cred or carnal prowess. Elvis once pleaded 'let me be your teddy bear', but I think he'd be laughed off the American Idol set nowadays with that kind of sentiment.

Pop music is pretty much a celebration of the booty and the bling, and I guess Niki Minaj is now President? Maybe I'm wrong--I saw her video for "Anaconda" the other day and I realized: Jesus, we're all in big trouble...

So, yeah, I am making a half-hearted attempt at trashing what passes for popular music these days, but, does the argument really deserve that much merit? Most of what 'the kids' listen to these days is so bad, it's kind of a strange exhaustion in itself to even bother talking about it. So...let's move on. And talk about the kind of music that has always been a little narcissistic, and done by guys who make a living off bragging and strutting. The Blues has always been self-referential. The original players were more bad ass than anyone since, but, that's because the Blues was born of circumstance and sociology, or place and economy more than glittery fantasy or poppy imagination.

Promoters didn't need to dress up the blues, or invent the back-story--it was music born of hardship and reflective of the daily lives of the men and ladies who sang it. I can't give the history of the Blues its proper due here--I'm not a scholar, nor am nuanced enough in the research of it to give the history its proper due.

But, I do know what the blues is, and that is....? . I can't define the Blues. It's all in the guts, how you feel and react. One doesn’t need to define the Blues to do what is really needed to love the Blues, or have the Blues—feel it. That’s all. Just feel it…

There are multiple genres within the blues, and lots of ways that it is delivered, making it as nuanced and multi-layered as any other genre of music, But one of my favorite aspects of the blues is the sense of bragging and calling out the bonafides that comes with being a blues man...Being tough, bragging on prowess in all matters--drinking, swinging, picking and....other stuff--that's the DNA of the blues. And calling out rivals, swearing on your toughness and singing proud--that's what the blues is for. If there's a ratio of what kind of brio a blues song calls for to be a real blues song, I'd say it's 1 part badass to 3 parts bragging, mixed in with a whole of lot of strut and swagger and good old fashion shit talking...

The original blues singers were all about survival. Cutting heads is a term that describes the original Delta player’s method of stealing a crowd from a rival. Cutting heads was as bold as one could get, and players engaged in it would set up on an opposite street corner from another player and try to steal their crowd and tips. The Blues was a cutthroat way to make a living in the Jim Crow South, so it only seems fitting that the players would use their music to further their reps and their credibility that had already established scrapping together a living traveling from town to town, playing street corners, juke joints and house parties. If you weren't tough, you weren't going to make it.

So, by definition or by necessity, the Blues is self-referential. And it is populated by some of the most colorful first-person narrators in any kind of music. The personal feel of the Blues comes from the honesty in the voices--or the exact opposite, the lying and the bragging--of the players, and a good blues song, then, is one that...well, it can do whatever it wants. The blues is multifaceted, but it's always at its best when one man (or woman) gets on the mic and howls a little bit of their story at you and makes you feel glad you're not him, or kind of wish you were...

 So, this month, I have chosen two tracks, both of which I think embody the best in Blues strut and bluster, and after I say these are two songs that ought to make the rest of the pretenders shut up and take notice, I'll get out of the way and let the men talk for themselves--because neither one of 'em needs me to do any of the talking--they do just fine on their own.
For your listening pleasure, and a possible path to getting your mojo workin’, I present Howlin Wolf's Back Door Man and Muddy Water's Mannish Boy

 I'll shut up and get out of the way now...

Friday, January 23, 2015

Self Reflection: Wilco (The Song)

Wilco: Wilco (the Song)

One of the best things about writing for this blog is that it has given me an outlet to use music as a way to write about myself, my family, my friends and my opinions—and not only about music.  I get to write about whatever the hell I want, as long as I can tie it to the theme, no matter how tenuously. And I’m glad that today, in addition to a little personal self-reflection, I get to write about one of my favorite bands.

Wilco is definitely in my top 5. And yet, I’ve never actually written about a Wilco song on this blog. I’ve mentioned them often, and I’ve written about Golden Smog and former member Jay Bennett, and even a whole piece on Jeff Tweedy’s stage banter. So, when I started to narrow down the possibilities for this piece, upon reflection, I decided to finally discuss this band, and their self-referential song, “Wilco (The Song)” from, yes, Wilco (The Album). I’m heading into a bit of a Wilco period now, because I’ve committed to write a thing or two about them for my other blogging home, but I’m not on deadline there, so this comes first.

I think that any sort of artist has to have enough ego to believe that what he or she produces would be interesting to other people. Sure, there are stories about great artists who were unknown until their hidden work surfaced after death, but I think that it is a fair generalization. The belief that your work would interest others, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be arrogant. Many great musicians, painters, writers, etc. seem to be relatively humble, and based on what I’ve read about him, Jeff Tweedy appears to be one of those guys. Clearly, he has enough confidence to have gone from the new kid, barely able to play his instrument and booking gigs for his friend’s brothers’ band, to the leader, primary songwriter and front man of one of the most well-respected, analyzed and popular rock bands of its era. And yet, so much of Tweedy’s music, with Wilco and otherwise, is mysterious and to a great degree appears to be distanced from his life. So often in Wilco’s music, even the most emotional songs are not simple confessionals, but seem to be written for a character or filled with odd metaphors. And for the most part, he appears to have kept his personal life relatively simple and private (if you count having footage of your family in a documentary and touring with your son, relatively simple and private). What I’m trying to say, is that he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants the spotlight on him, although he does seem, now, comfortable in that spotlight.

There’s a part of me that wishes I was more like that. And not only that I wish that I could write music, play and sing as well as Tweedy, but I can’t, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve always had opinions about music, but except for that brief period from 1979-1982 when I got to opine to a small audience on a college radio station in central New Jersey, my opinions were shared only with friends and family. I’ve also always thought that I was a good writer, but since college, my only writing of note was a law review article and a bunch of legal papers, which only rarely allowed me to show any sort of creativity.

A few years ago, I took some fiction writing classes with an excellent teacher, and he encouraged me to write, which I did, until time, money and a feeling that I was repeating myself ended my participation. But the positive reactions that I got from the other members of my class, the teacher, and my family, made me feel good. And, for a short time, that was it. I didn’t have the confidence that what I was writing was anywhere good enough to try to have published. Then, I started reading music blogs. Some of them are incredible, and others, frankly are dull and poorly written. But I really liked one called Star Maker Machine. Good writers writing about interesting music. One day, I saw that the blog was looking for writers. I inquired, wrote a piece which was published and then became a regular contributor. The positive feedback that I received encouraged me to write more, and to begin writing for Cover Me, where I also have gotten encouragement and praise. So, yeah, I have enough of an ego now, that I think that my writing is worthy of being read by others. But I’m still afraid to try to do anything other than to write for free blogs, in part because I feel that doing more would require more work, research and rigor than I think I’m willing to do, and in part because I’m worried that I will fail. Which is why I give enormous credit to those of my friends who write, perform or make art for all or part of their living.

So, the question at hand, is, why would the popular but unassuming Wilco, led by the popular but unassuming Jeff Tweedy, put out an album called Wilco (the Album) and lead it off with “Wilco (the Song)”? My take on it was that the band was having a little bit of fun with its audience, which takes the band very seriously. It is clearly tongue in cheek, as if it was actually necessary to make it clear that the song was a song, the album was an album, and later, the tour was, yes, Wilco (the Tour) (where I purchased Wilco (the Tote)).

Then there are the lyrics. Essentially, they say that you shouldn’t worry about your problems, because, hey, Wilco will love you, and that will fix everything. I take that to be a mocking of the band’s celebrity and power that fits more into the self-deprecating humor that Tweedy is known for, and to me, explains the title. I found an interview in which he discussed the fact that Wilco (the Album) was meant to be more fun and lighthearted than its immediate predecessors, with the goofy cover of a camel’s birthday party as further evidence, and the song was not only meant as somewhat of a lark, but also as a way of reintroducing the band, after some instability. Ultimately, Tweedy said, “we struggled with a lot of other titles that felt more exemplary of what the music was. But nothing else felt quite so succinct."

So, while the song is self-referential, it may not be completely self-reflective. Unless it is.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Self Reflection: Our House

purchase mp3 of Our House
Purchase Deja Vu

I wasn't actually there then. Almost but not quite - age was a factor (just a year or 3 under the "limit") - permission and location were also limits (right time .. right place ...wrong age). When Deja Vu came out, I was among the millions who bought a copy. I was among the fewer number who totally espoused CSNY's anti-establishment rhetoric (and still do!): F*ck the estabishment - regardless of the consequences or the logic of their point of view- if it is "establishment", it must be wrong.

As you well know, 1970's Deja Vu was a landmark in the rock repertoire: a collection of the best (Hey: the lead from the hit-maker Hollies sings some vocals! and there's Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds and ... wow! ) CSNY incorporated an impossible line-up of personalities of greater future destinies. No less awesome than Blind Faith (of about the same era)

Somehow, this group managed to pull off a 1974 tour and this clip appears to be from that era (for more ... read a great Rolling Stone article about which), "box set" listed above as a purchase item.

The story of the "Our House" song is related in numerous blogs and such (Graham Nash- the N of CSNY) wrote it in a "flash" for his "love" of the moment - the one and only Joni Mitchell (you gotta read this if you have the least interest).

For you and me - aside from the song being a classic and a veritable paen to "love at home", you ought to note the way that CSNY made the best of multiple talents: song written by Graham Nash - totally not-Young style (can you see him doing this kind of collaboration these days? - that's him far right on foot at the mic in the clip above). But it works - they are all giving it their best (mildly off tune - but not too bad for what is almost a-capella.) And more or less classic CSN(Y) - vocal harmony. Togetherness. Peace, man. That was the sound of the hippies (Sorry: I has been pilloried here before for my affinity to  those long haired freaks, but I stand by the basic tenents of letting your freak flag fly...)

Neil Young's style is not "Our House" compatible?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Self Reflection: You Turn Me On I'm a Radio

Please don’t tune me out! It’s a common feeling that many musicians have. As I pondered music with “self-reflection,” I quickly decided to put on an old well-played LP by Joni Mitchell called “For the Roses” that dates back to 1972. While her first few albums in the 1968-71 timeframe had rather expressive folkie singer/songwriter material, I always enjoyed hearing Joni’s stylistic forays into the jazz and pop genres. “For the Roses” documented one of those transitional periods and is a great album from one of the 20th century’s most significant female recording artists. Always straightforward, lyrical and reflective, Joni’s music is close-up and personal.  

Joni had been asked by her record label to write a radio-friendly hit to include on her fifth album, “For the Roses.” So she came up with “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio.” She had hoped that such a witty song with multiple references to radio might actually get DJs to sit up, take notice of it and convince stations to play it. Sure enough, the approach worked, and “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” became her first Top 40 hit. It also didn’t hurt that the song was also about love, had flavors of country and pop, and it was well arranged with nice backing vocals and a harmonica solo played by Graham Nash. Joni Mitchell made her song’s purpose quite clear: “And I'm sending you out, This signal here, I hope you can pick it up, Loud and clear.”     

As a musician myself, I always laugh at Joni’s astute advice and wisdom when she immediately launches the song with “If you're driving into town, With a dark cloud above you, Dial in the number, Who's bound to love you.” Hey, in the music world (and radio business specifically), why not practice a little reciprocity of love? Support those who support you. A little neighborly exchange and working for each other’s mutual benefit goes a long way to establishing relationships, finding affection, getting music on the airwaves, building fans and tuning the static from your reception (puns intended).     

As far as Joni’s “self-reflection” in the song, this verse says it all and is downright genius: “Oh honey you turn me on, I'm a radio, I'm a country station, I'm a little bit corny, I'm a wildwood flower, Waving for you, Broadcasting tower, Waving for you.

And if you want your hit song to get airplay, close with “Call me at the station, The lines are open.” LOL, what a great way to get people calling in to request it!

Self Reflection: Fire

Well, if manliness is next to godliness, where, I wonder, would that place this gent, the self-styled "God of Hellfire"? Certainly a man, if his stentorian croon and beardliness denote, and, perhaps against any odds or expectations, from all and any corner, still alive, still going and still performing, surely that displays some degree of immortality? So maybe, as he introduced himself in this, his only real "hit", maybe he was, maybe he is?
Born Arthur Wilton Brown in Yorkshire, England, in 1942, he was even relatively mature as his career began, having studied both philosophy and law at University before taking to musical boards. When success failed to beckon, he diverted from London to Paris, nominally to bone up on mime and acting, recording a couple of songs along the way for Roger Vadim's film of Zola's La Curee. Here is one of them, recognisably in his style and template, if also never a chance of being hit material. However, it demonstrated his knack for allying himself with life's more free thinkers and spirits.

A return to the UK and he could have been a member of the Foundations, moving onward before they hit their stride with a change to that name, and success with "Baby, Now That I've Found You", top ten in the US, UK and Canada and later covered by Alison Krauss. It somehow seems odd to imagine him within their ranks, crooning along to that, too tame for him by far. But he had now formed the eponymous "Crazy World of....", becoming an established outsider on the lunatic fringe of late 60s psychedelia. "Fire" actually was his most totemic prop, as he repeatedly set himself alight, as well as singing about it, both deliberately and accidentally, more often a combination of the two, necessitating vigilance in his supporters to douse his burning hair and head with anything to hand, usually beer. If that wasn't enough, he would often add nakedness to the act, getting himself deported from Italy, flames and nudity being too much even for the hotblooded Italian authorities.

1968 and "Fire", the title song from their debut LP,  was a massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Forgive my indulgence, but if the flames and the screeching aren't enough, it is also in the running for "best ghoulish laughter in the rock song idiom" canon, 1968 edition, the only other candidate from 1968 being the one from my sophomore piece on this site, now nearly 2 years ago.  Apropos "Fire," if my views are worth anything, the rest of the album is frankly disappointing, with the only other standout being the cover of the like-minded maverick, Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," which fits, conveniently, also the self-referential requirements of this piece. And I bet he thought he really could!

Vincent Crane, whose Gothic Hammond keyboard signatures were a vital part of the Brown sound, then left the Crazy World, along with their 2nd drummer, a youthful Carl Palmer, to form Atomic Rooster, leaving Brown adrift, although Crane was to later return to his side. The 70s saw his extraordinarily odd traveling circus, Kingdom Come, a multi-media extravaganza of song, mime and melodrama, combining spoken word with ever more controversy. I can't find much self-reverential focus in this time period, sensing a mind spilling over into multiple personality rather than any one core being. (But I do somewhat love this little whimsy, which is both personal and perennial, popping up in many guises on many subsequent releases.)

His later career, which encompasses the last 40 years, astonishingly, has been a scattergun of involvements: the Priest in the Who rock-opera, Tommy, dalliances with ex- Mother of Invention, Jimmy Carl Black, and, almost inevitably, an on-off and lingering association with hoary old eternal  UK space-rockers Hawkwind. Here he is, performing with them in 2002. and for a time, in California, he ran a house decorating business, again with Jimmy Carl Black. Imagine the surprise if those hairy loons turned up to paint your house? The colours, the colours, the horror, the horror... Or maybe not.

This decade he has had various short-lived tours and shows with a number of revised line-ups of both Crazy World and Kingdom Come, as well as solo excursions. So, naturally, having become the god he had created, it seems only rational and reasonable to return to his abiding identity, a performance an astonishing 45 years apart from the 1st:

Time for a douse-down, I think!