Friday, October 2, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Long Can This Go On

For years, I have been haunted by Big Star’s Radio City,” and different approaches to addressing it. There are few rock masterpieces as strange, or as resistant to interpretation— from the songs’ skewered structures, to the odd production tricks employed to create unique guitar tones, everything about the album (first released in 1974) spells “quirk.” Yet, “Radio City” also balances contradictions— quirky as it is, it is also one of the most viscerally powerful rock productions of all time. The first time I heard “Radio City,” in the summer of 1995, I was disappointed— I wanted it to be as baroque and Beatles-consonant as “3rd/Sister Lovers.” It took several months to splinter itself beneath my skin— once it was there, I couldn’t get it out. “3rd/Sister Lovers” is much easier to write about— it presents a coherent narrative, and a distinct musical ambience to accompany it. As “Radio City” ricochets and careens wildly all over the place, it constantly destabilizes attempts to pin it down. One of the more obvious hinges to interpretation is, in songs like “What’s Goin’ Ahn,” the seeds of “3rd” being planted— how dead sonic spaces, pauses, push/pull tempo lurches, and general entropic sluggishness make Big Star sound dangerously close not just to disorder but to complete disintegration. Jagged edges animate and “load” the album— songs, like “Life is White,” have an abrupt and blunt lack of politeness and politesse. Big Star have mistakenly been labeled “power pop,” owing to Radio City’s most famous track, “September Gurls”— but, in the context of “Radio City,” the song’s pristine and polished formalist perfection (though even “September Gurls” is sharp and jagged in execution) is sui generis. What Alex Chilton’s modus operandi seems to be is to turn conventional pop song structures on their heads, thus unsettling expectations engendered by “#1 Record,” Big Star’s straightforwardly pop-classicist debut outing, which peaked with “Thirteen” and the now TV-famous “In the Street.” That’s the keynote of Chilton’s “Radio City” aesthetic ethos— destabilization, in its most rock-artful form. 

As has been said, “Radio City” makes for a jarring (even irritating) first listen. Chilton’s musical vocabulary, by this time, was extensive— not only is his usage of arpeggios and arpeggiated guitar runs sophisticated and complex, Chilton shows himself the equal of Jimmy Page in demonstrating mastery of electric guitar tonal ranges, owing to pick-up choices (Chilton has his own post-Claptonian “woman tone”) and microphone placement. “Radio City” is, despite its surface recalcitrance and among other things, a wonderful showcase for rock guitar playing. The tones Chilton tends to favor are trebly ones— musical shades which lean towards the “light” and sharp (set against Page’s dark-toned heaviness). It is also the case that, however ragged and jagged the album is, the songs have enough hooks to qualify as a form of (albeit deconstructive and borderline absurdist) pop— not just “September Gurls,” but the catchy verse-chorus-verse structure of “Mod Lang,” “You Get What You Deserve,” and Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West.” Chilton throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and makes as definitive and rebellious a musical statement as he possibly can. The big problem in writing effectively about “Radio City” is not the music, where Chilton’s aims are comprehensible, but the lyrics— lyrically, “Radio City” is not just scattershot, but gonzo enough that Chilton was clearly also enjoying poking fun at the deep and bathetic self-pity of early Seventies singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. There are memorable lines hidden in this grab-bag approach— “She tells the men “go to hell”/ And where that’s at/ Is where I’m comin from,” from “She’s a Mover,” or “You’re gonna die/ Yes, you’re gonna die/ Right now” from “Daisy Glaze” (another track which hints at the imminent psychosis of “3rd”)— but a central thematic gist in “Radio City” is elusive. It’s intriguing that Chilton anticipates certain strains of allusive post-modern art by stealing song titles, which could then be seen to turn the Big Star songs into palimpsests— “What’s Goin’ Ahn” from Marvin Gaye, “She’s a Mover” from the Sir Douglas Quintet. Chilton also misspells things, ostensibly to be bratty and punkish— “September Gurls,” rather than “Girls,” “Morpha Too,” etc. The album as a gestalt reveals a cohesive Chilton persona— the rock auteur as enfant terrible, determined not only to destabilize but to destroy his audience’s preconceived notions as to what rock music could be— Piero Manzoni with a Gibson Firebird.

Radio City” is demanding, repays attentive listening, but also goes out of its way to repel casual listeners— by opening the album with an ornate but convoluted and slow-building track (“O My Soul”), Chilton ensures that his audience will either focus on what they are hearing or turn the album off. Commercially, “Radio City” was never given much of a chance anyway— released with a shoddy, haphazard distribution deal, even the presence of the radio-worthy “September Gurls” couldn’t salvage a respectable chart position for RC. It seems, to get to the heart of the matter, that there are two “Radio City” realities to deal with— how the album sounds on first listen, and how “Radio City” sounds once it is safely and ineluctably under your skin. If “Radio City” has enough of a hook in you to lure you in several times, Chilton’s jagged edges not only begin to make sense, what on first listen sounds merely blunt and disruptive reveals levels and layers of genuine emotional engagement. No other rock masterpiece album is so extreme— snide and cold from a distance, warm and passionately engaged up close. Hearing “Radio City” the right way all depends on your willingness to play Chilton’s game, as he dares you to get cranky, get bored or run away. The surface/depth tensions in “Radio City” are stark; a hunk of ice decoying as much warmth as a work of popular art can hold. By playing odd musical and lyrical angles, Chilton also decoys a firm and unshakable commitment to levels of raw passion and emotional authenticity which, more than anything else over a long period of time, are what “Radio City” evokes. Generations of Amer-Indie veneration vouch for this. 

Decoding Nick Drake

I have been listening in earnest to Nick Drake’s songs for about nineteen years; what I have noticed has led me to a distinct conclusion. If there is a certain thematic unity inhering in Drake’s lyrics, it has to do, oddly enough, with tropes which Lou Reed also employed; the dialects, street vernaculars, and movements of drug dealers, drug runners, and their minions. Few would think to connect Drake with the Velvet Underground; the difference is that where Lou Reed is direct, Drake is elliptical. It is possible to hear songs like “River Man” from Six Songs on Internet Archive many times and never quite understand what is being insinuated. Indeed, those who do not find this theory germane may choose to hear the Drake lyrics as harmless treacle. Nevertheless, a hinge is there to decoding Drake’s songs as full of drug decoy language, the manner in which dealers and “heads” double-talk to convey their messages.                                                

“River Man” is one of Nick Drake’s most beloved songs. If you listen closely to how the lyrics do or do not cohere, it is clear that open vistas present themselves in many directions: “Betty said she prayed today/ for the sky to blow away/ or maybe stay/ she wasn’t sure/ for when she thought of summer rain/ calling for her mind again/ she lost the pain/ and stayed for more.” It all counts either as baby-talk and gibberish in the manner of Donovan Leitch (Drake’s voice is strikingly similar to Donovan’s) and his “Mellow Yellow,” or extended euphemism and metaphor. If I choose to regard “River Man” as euphemism rather than gibberish, it is because the chorus enhances this impression: “Gonna see the river man/ gonna tell him all I can/ ‘bout the plan/ for lilac time/ if he tells me all he knows/ ‘bout the way his river flows/ and all-night shows/ in summertime.” The chord progression and offbeat time signature of “River Man” are foreboding, but the string arrangement by Robert Kirby elevates to recording into something as sublime as the Cambridge where, we know, Drake wrote it. The River Cam, for Cambridge dealers, was ostensibly a “decoy point”; and the all-night summertime shows a suitable venue for this sort of action. The song as a gestalt engineers an unholy Lou Reed-Donovan chiasmus, which is sharper and harder (even icier), lyrically, than Nick Drake is usually given credit for being.

I have written a long piece about similar issues around “At the Chime of a City Clock” from “Bryter Layter.” But it is also the case that the raga-influenced “Three Hours,” also from Six Songs, sticks close to lyrical theme of decoys, decoy points, and drop-offs or hand-offs: “Three hours from sundown/ Jeremy flies/ hoping to keep/ the sun from his eyes/ out from the city/ and down to the cave/ in search of a master/ in search of a slave.” That there is a master-slave dialectic between different characters in the drug-running business is common knowledge; it is a pitch-black mafia world of masters and slaves. The song is in a minor key, and as the tempo changes, and then changes back, there is the sense of lurching through a dark, forest-like space. In a strange way, Drake has more in common with Reed and the Velvets than the Doors do; Jim Morrison’s lyrics are usually wider and more expansive than Drake’s and, more than Drake, Morrison preferred the collage form to the precise vignette. On “Bryter Layter,” and other than “At the Chime,” “Poor Boy” is a wry and unusually candid self-portrait, but it begs a question which does relate more than indirectly to the themes of drugs, drug pushers, and drug running: is this protagonist a poor boy just from following his muse, or has he deteriorated owing to the fast-paced and deleterious lifestyle which follows drugs and drug-running? Where Drake’s final full album, “Pink Moon,” is concerned, I have always wondered if the phrase “pink moon” is a decoy for a specific strain of hash, pot, or acid, which was going around London or Cambridge when Drake wrote the song; as usual, there is a foreboding quality to the reference: the fact that “pink moon” is going to “get you all” could refer to a suddenly vulnerability in regard to the authorities, or if the strain is just too strong for most heads’ nervous systems.

“Parasite” and “Harvest Breed” from “Pink Moon” stride into lyrical territory so elliptical that whatever the decoy is, it isn’t particularly on the surface enough to decode. Yet, the bare-bones, haunted simplicity of the music (“Pink Moon” consists only of acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and voice) decoys in itself a state of total loneliness and vulnerability, a protagonist floating into inner space for all time; and the arc of Drake’s three major albums, to the extent that the major lyrical gist of them has to do with drugs and intoxication, represent an initiation, a climax, and then a steep fall from grace. Drake died in 1974 at the age of twenty-six, without his music having attained significant commercial success. He is now entrenched as a cult icon in rock music. As his best songs age into the new century, the underworld they expose will also be revealed and investigated; an underworld that not only flips the idealism of the Sixties over and inverts it but derails it into cacophonous and incomprehensible darkness. Drake’s best songs do take as a theme the underworld of drugs and decoy-ism; as such, the space around Drake, which lets his lyrics slide into a trough against the strength of his musical acumen, will now be filled, and Drake come into his own as a well-rounded rock artist.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Big Star: from #1 Record

#1 Record is certainly the most troubled of the three major Big Star collections. Because Chris Bell’s material isn’t particularly close to being up to snuff with Alex Chilton’s, Big Star fans tend to skip over the Bell songs to get to the more germane Chilton ones. Nevertheless, unlike Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, there’s not much to come from listening to #1 Record all the way through. Everyone in America knows In The Street from its status as theme song to a popular sitcom; Thirteen is very beloved by most rock heads; but the rest of the treasures on #1 Record are buried. I put Watch The Sunrise at the head of this collection because its depth and moodiness give it the full richness of the rest of the Big Star canon; likewise Give Me Another Chance. The addition of It Isn’t That Easy, released only recently on the Free Again box set, was an obvious choice, both for its intimacy and for the aforementioned dark-hewn moodiness and depth of its sound, and as a moment of Chilton introspection which cleared the way for Holocaust and Kangaroo to emerge several years down the line.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alex Chilton: It Isn't That Easy

Converts to Big Star and Big Star-ism all note, as many of us noted in State College and Philadelphia (New York, I noted, was light on the Big Star), that so much of what Big Star is, is wrapped up in a sense of darkness, eeriness, and just generally being haunted. Yet Big Star’s best music has a strange glamour to it, a kind of enchantment, which makes its own eeriness (or duskiness, sometimes) euphoric. So it is with this Alex Chilton demo from the early Seventies. The intimacy here, just a voice and acoustic guitar, and what is expressed in the lyrics— deep introspection, leading to a sense of isolation and also, as later in Holocaust, self-knowledge— would not seem devastating if Chilton didn’t appear to have a certain X factor (the glamour, the enchantment) working in his favor, but he did. This would have been a stand-out track on #1 Record, which would seem to have been the natural place for it. Chilton might have forgotten it or it might have been left off for other reasons. In any case, its out now, and carries with it all the haunted luminosity that the rest of Big Star’s oeuvre does, for those with imaginations and ears to hear.

Mp3 Shuk...

This is a nice repository page set up for my mp3s (music and poetry) on mp3shuk