Thursday, June 23, 2011
Narrative cohesion has never been a strength or selling point for rock albums. Concept albums like Tommy and Arthur fall apart upon close analysis; Street Hassle works but is not album-length. What’s intriguing about Big Star’s 1974 opus Third/Sister Lovers is that, if the tracks are placed into a certain order, a coherent narrative does emerge. The pivot point of the narrative is a male protagonist unparalleled in the annals of popular music— a sensitive, androgynous if heterosexual young man, involved to the point of extinction in multiple relationships and contexts. Because the lyrical cohesion of the album is matched by startlingly original music— a compound of White Album-era Beatles, baroque pop like the Left Banke, and deconstructive impulses that really have no precedent but Lou Reed’s Berlin and solo Syd Barrett— Sister Lovers stands out as one of the highlights of the rock era, a masterpiece with its own integrity. Yet this integrity is difficult to find unless the songs are placed in a particular order— and the sequences that have held sway so far are not sufficient. The sequence that is being discussed here is presented in mp3 form (The Fieled Sequence) above the piece.
As far as the protagonist of the album is concerned, sensitivity and androgyny are adumbrated by perversity— the first track, “Kizza Me,” has him address “Lesa,” the heroine/anti-heroine of the album, “I want to white out…I want to come on out…I want to feel you, deep inside…” Between word games and graphic sexuality, we know that these characters are romantic, but marginal, artsy, possibly seedy— a subculture underbelly exposed, rather than Bruce Springsteen’s noble savages. The sound of the album is slow, warped, druggy— when the protagonist intones “nothing can hurt me/ nothing can touch me” in “Big Black Car,” we know that this is not only a revelation of obfuscated vulnerability but of intoxication. What’s important for the movement of the narrative is that the protagonist is investigating multiple relationships— we meet Lesa first, then in “O, Dana” we meet Dana and her circle of friends. “O, Dana” is, in fact, a crucial narrative hinge. The lyrics to “O, Dana” amount to a collage of voices; each line seems to represent a new person offering a witticism, lament, interrogation or interjection. Dana appears to be the person in the center who everyone wants, including the protagonist. The most interesting lines accrue to the second bridge— “She’s got a magic wand/ that says, Play with yourself before other ones.” The protagonist reveals numerous things in these lines— that he is, in fact, if not a poet, at least poetic (he thinks in metaphors); that he is aware of Dana’s recalcitrance as he desires her; and that he considers this magic wand a perverse anti-phallic symbol, symbolizing Dana’s reluctance to get involved, even if Lesa has extended her generosity to him on this level. After “O, Dana,” the dichotomy between Lesa and Dana is clear— Lesa, as love-object, is a singular entity, difficult but yielding; Dana is at the center of a frenzied social nexus, where satellites are a part of her persona. One thing Sister Lovers avoids is a direct confrontation between Dana and Lesa; until “Nighttime,” Lesa never vocalizes her discomfort with Dana’s circle. But once all these balls are in the air, it is clear that the Sister Lovers narrative is essentially a love triangle. This applies even if we never see Dana without her friends; not a “she” but a “they.” For the protagonist, the situation amounts to sensory overload.
The centerpiece of the album, where the protagonist is concerned, is “Holocaust.” As a lyric, “Holocaust” is pure portraiture— it shows the protagonist in an emotional, psychological, and physical vacuum. It is also doused, on a level with Faulkner, in a Southern Gothic sensibility— the product of a mercilessly hot climate and the slow lugubriousness it engenders. Beyond the lyrics, the usage of slide guitar as auditory manifestation of psychic torment is particularly effective. It’s a more refined, inventive version of the slide guitar passages in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” The disturbing quality of what could be called the Oedipal passage in the song (“Your mother’s dead/ she said, don’t be afraid/ Your mother’s dead/ You’re on your own/ She’s in her bed”) is born of its ambiguity— is she dead or isn’t she? And the richest lines in the song function as a repeated refrain— “Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind/ Everybody goes as far as they can/ They don’t just scare.” The viciousness of Dana’s gang could qualify them to be the “everybody”; that the protagonist “just scare(s),” lacks courage in the face of opposition, is something we’ve seen in “Big Black Car.” Yet the extreme sluggishness of the music (which contrasts interestingly with a gorgeous melody) suggests intense, sickly drunkenness. Self-pity could be a constituent element of the music too. What makes the track so chilling is the incredible intimacy conveyed in Alex Chilton’s vocal. The track was mixed and engineered (by John Fry and Jim Dickinson) so that Chilton’s vocal hovers right at the top of the mix. To the extent that Chilton and the protagonist can be conflated, Chilton paints his own self-portrait. It is a profile in utter darkness, even if social contexts rear their heads. The mirror mentioned in the “Holocaust” lyric is itself a potent symbol for the song. Even if the mirror is being gazed into in an unlit room.
The mirror is a symbol— and symbolic material and imagery is strewn haphazardly through Sister Lovers. “Big Black Car” suggests a hearse; we see Lesa’s scarves and blue jeans in “Kangaroo” and “Nighttime”; Beale Street, in Midtown Memphis, manifests in “Dream Lover”; gymnasts and kleptomaniacs are used to suggest Dana’s friends in “You Can’t Have Me”; and, of course, Dana’s anti-phallic magic wand. It is important to note, however, that the relationship between the protagonist and Lesa remains a predominant theme throughout the record. This is consolidated in a run of songs at the end— “Dream Lover,” “Blue Moon,” “Take Care.” These songs seem to represent the protagonist’s final intervention and withdrawal. The final withdrawal is from Lesa; after “Nighttime,” Dana and her crew fade to the back. This is seemingly at Lesa’s instigation. One of the unique aspects of this narrative is that the protagonist is not forced to choose one, but to reject both. By “Take Care,” he sounds utterly exhausted. The album does represent an exhausting journey. And how many rock albums represent this much nuanced movement? Sister Lovers, pieced together this way, has the richness of high art. That it remains a “cult classic” is understandable; the vision of the album is extreme. Ultimately, it has more to do with Sir Philip Sidney than with the Beatles and their contemporaries. It is, for my money, the greatest rock album of all time. That Alex Chilton is seldom mentioned as one of the greatest songwriters in rock history is owing to a master narrative created by underlings. But works of high art are meant to evolve over long periods of time. So some of us hope it will be with Sister Lovers. What time may take from others, it may give to Big Star. Posterity does have a brisk way with treacle.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
In terms of structures that coalesce on different levels, rock music has many things in common with other cultural contexts. Rock has produced movements, conglomerations, and different corpuses of work that have manifested at different times. Many of the structural movements around rock music, especially regarding dissemination, have been dictated by mercenary concerns. Rock is, of course, a commercial art-form. One of the more curious developments involving rock music, where dissemination and commercial presentation are concerned, was the rise of “classic rock radio,” that took root and thrived from about 1985-1995. The dissemination of “classic rock” on classic rock radio stations involved the creation and maintenance of a discrete corpus of music— what radio stations deigned “classic.” What’s fascinating about this corpus is how arbitrary it appeared to be— and the demographics that dictated this arbitrary appearance. The first assumption that radio stations made is that, thirty years on, listeners in target groups would have no interest in what were already characterized as “oldies”— first generation rockers like Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc. So, the classic rock corpus wasn’t a lofty bid for comprehensiveness— radio stations were aiming for an audience for whom rock began with the Beatles. The rock music master narrative (which hasn’t, over the long term, proved to be particularly reliable) has always asserted three central sixties titans— the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The Beatles and Stones were both so consolidated into the classic rock corpus as to have some predominance; but one quirk of the corpus is that Dylan was almost completely excluded from it. Occasional airplay would be given to “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street,” but there was always a better chance of hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd or Foreigner.
Was Dylan that much of a commercial underling as to merit non-inclusion? In this niche, he was. Yet Dylan has been the subject (and this was already established) of dozens of books, serious articles, profiles, and movies. It would be unlikely that a “Don’t Look Back” style documentary would be made about Foreigner. Dylan has always been a media darling; classic rock radio unearthed the dirty little secret that a large mass of the general public does, in fact, prefer Foreigner to Dylan. Yet other occurrences around the classic rock corpus confounded the possibility that all decisions were made in favor of crass commerciality. Dylan was on one side of Foreigner; on the other side would’ve been Kiss, who had by then outsold almost everyone in the classic rock canon. Dylan got bits of intermittent airplay; Kiss got even less. The natural conclusion to be drawn is that the creators of the classic rock corpus found Kiss’s songs not worthy of inclusion. But what the AOR bands (like Foreigner) had over Kiss remains unclear. The Kiss exclusion, considering their sales numbers (and that other hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin received heavy airplay) was baffling. Black Sabbath’s exclusion, considering their low sales profile, made some sense; they may even have been considered too heavy. But the truly droll aspect of the classic rock corpus often manifested in playlists that seem to have been generated on other planets. Try to make sense of a run of songs like this:
Heart, “Magic Man”
David Bowie, “Changes”
Supertramp, “The Logical Song”
Pink Floyd, “Us and Them”
Billy Joel, “The Entertainer”
John Cougar Mellencamp, “Pink Houses”
Led Zeppelin, “D’yer Maker”
It’s not just that the songs are cross-generic— each song is at such a tangent to those before and after that an argument can be made that heterogeneity defined the classic rock corpus. However, the wild extremes represented involved not only genres but values. “Changes” and “Us and Them” are both serious songs that address serious themes; the Mellencamp song seems about half-serious; the rest are kitsch. Thus, the experience of listening to classic rock radio was extreme; you could easily be delivered into the sublime or the ridiculous. The only internal logic seemingly operative was to keep the integrity of the corpus intact. Specific contexts on these stations opened for “adjuncts” to the corpus to appear. The most obvious was late-night— that if you tuned in at 2 am, you might hear Fairport Convention or the Velvets. Another feature accompanied new releases of adjunct artists like Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and XTC— it was a sign of respect to air the first single a handful of times. But, over the decade that classic rock radio stations were prominent on FM in the States, surprisingly few adjuncts managed to consolidate a place in the corpus, which did manage to retain a good amount of integrity. The happiest experience for these stations was when a corpus stalwart hit a new commercial peak— this happened with Yes and George Harrison in the late 80s. New, successful singles could be incorporated without loss into the corpus. Unsuccessful new singles by high-ranking artists (like the Stones singles from Steel Wheels) would be incorporated for a while as a sign of respect, then discarded.
Things could be amped up owing to the Zeitgeist, as well— the late 80s wound up being a boom-time for Led Zeppelin, whose high stock went up even higher in the corpus. Led Zeppelin were one of the few bands to have entire albums consolidated into the corpus; at any time, you might hear anything from II or IV. Boston’s first album was almost completely consolidated; Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors; the Eagles’ Hotel California. Greatest hits compilations aside, the Beatles and the Stones (for some reason) could boast of no such thing. Zeppelin had an edge as the reigning British band, bar none; but you’d never hear much from III, Physical Graffiti, or (especially) Presence. Another surprising exclusion was post Diver Down Van Halen; the 1984 singles (their biggest hits) were scarcely visible. You could hear the Kinks do “Low Budget” but not “Waterloo Sunset”; and you were more likely to hear early Animals than any Kinks. It could be asserted that the demise of classic rock radio killed off the Animals as anything but “oldies.” Possibly it killed off Eagles’ album tracks too.
All these events are complex and nuanced, if inexplicable. The classic rock corpus was comforting, but my friends and I were made restless by it. By the late 80s, and having missed the Smiths the first go-round, I was deep enough into rock to despair of hearing anything new, produced in my lifetime, as strong as the Beatles, Stones, and the rest. What happened next (the Alternative Revolution) answered that despair in an authoritative enough manner that the classic rock corpus, as a gestalt, was made almost instantly obsolescent. But it remains interesting, for its quirks, and for the way it created an illusion of permanence; however, there is nothing natural or permanent about the classic rock canon, and what it left out was as revealing, ultimately, as what was included. It wasn’t “just the crap” or “just the good stuff”; it was some of both, pieced together in such a way that cohesion was never possible. The target market was clearly late Boomers; but early Boomers were still too young to be an oldies crowd, and suburban kids like myself were getting a kind of education too. Was it an education that Nirvana and the rest later erased? For me, not much. If you’ve heard “Feels like the First Time” a thousand times, you’ll never get it out from under your skin.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Since his untimely death in 1975, Tim Buckley’s status as a cult hero has become established. Through a seemingly never-ending series of re-issues, unearthed live performances, and radio broadcasts, Buckley’s work has been kept in wide circulation. Inevitably, what jumps out first to new listeners is Buckley’s voice, with its’ bell-like clarity and several octave range. By the time “Sweet Surrender” was released, on the 1972 album Greetings from L.A., Buckley’s career had wound in several directions— from folk to avant-jazz. Greetings introduced the heretofore pristine Buckley into the sleaze n’ cheese world of L.A. funk. Buckley’s reaction to this context was an engagement with the expression of bleak desperation— the sense of being a werewolf on the prowl. It was a desperate time for him (commercial fortunes having dwindled) and avowed desperation briefly became his métier. “Sweet Surrender” is the most blatant expression of desperation on Greetings— what makes it unique is that it is the detailed account of an actual (in the sense of being lyrically actualized) relationship. The turbid nature of the sleaze n’ cheese orchestration gives the song a strange, guttural allure, somewhat akin to the attraction we feel for horror movies. It’s not outrageous to think that sleaze n’ cheese could have major high art consonance— Brecht/ Weill (particularly the Threepenny Opera) had a penchant for such things too. What it can engender in the listener is a sense of morbid fascination. Yet the lyrics of “Sweet Surrender” chafe against this— having been written from a deep, dark place, they initiate a battle with the sleaze n’ cheese production. The war is a gruesome one, and neither side wins. But, in terms of pulling out all the stops to engender a reaction from the listener, “Sweet Surrender” is nonpareil in the rock canon.
The sound of guitar which opens the song is stomach-turning; two minor chords, processed by an effects box so that they sound like mud being churned. When the strings kick in for the second verse, the sense of sickliness deepens. It is these choppy strings, with the dive-bomb runs they do, which imparts the better part of the song’s sleaze n’ cheese effect. The song meanders in search of a structure, and never particularly finds one— Buckley exhorts, talks, yelps, and straightforwardly sings, which adds to the air of a misshapen construct. When Buckley does just emote, as on the final bridge, the result is exquisite— it gives the song its’ beauty quotient. The lurch the strings do at the song’s conclusion goes rather beyond “A Day in the Life”— instead of organized cacophony, this is the bottom level of sleaze— when it becomes deadly. None of this would be worth writing about if the result weren’t compelling— the aural equivalent of a train-wreck. Yet the song’s real arsenal is right there in the words. Buckley establishes the situation instantly— “Now you want to know the reason/ why I cheated on you?/ I had to be a hunter again/ this little man/ had to try to make love feel new again.” Buckley drops us in medias res into what could be seen as a soap opera, but is given quirks— a protagonist who has “to be a hunter,” worn out by the grind of a stable relationship. The unconventional detail of the protagonist feeling “little” (macho protocol often dictating that rock protagonists blow themselves up) adds to an impression of unusual candor, which is immediately rebuked by the cheesy strings.
The chorus, lyrically, is an exercise in the grotesque— “this flim-flam lover boy/ found him a flamingo/ and his flamingo/ showed him how to tango/ and when they tango’d/ it’d send their hearts a-flutter…” One irony of this situation is what Buckley’s motivation was in writing this. The songs from Greetings were, he felt, his last chance at commercial viability. But Buckley either misperceived what commercial was in 1972 or his perversity got the better of him. Still, the rest of the lyrics take pains to commit themselves to bare-nerved honesty. The second verse establishes a key detail— the woman in the scenario is cheating too— “now you’re gonna go out/ and get yourself a reputation/ but I’m gonna have to show you/ where to start.” Love devolved into absolute warfare is not as common in rock as might be supposed— “Under My Thumb” is close to this, maybe “Down by the River.” What’s unique about Buckley’s approach is that the threats and recriminations he issues are saturated not only with hatred of his lover and their situation but with self-hatred and an impulse towards self-abasement. The protagonist levels everything, including himself. All that’s left, at the end, is to “surrender to love,” yet there’s no indication of surrender on either side. When mixed into the stomach-turning music, the net result is either, depending on who’s listening, an absolute gross-out or a high water-mark of desperate candor. It’s not surprising that when the protagonist turns the vicious purgative again on himself, he goes to the heart of his own emotional inadequacy— “I’m just too cold, honey/ just too hard to care.” The problem is that the texture of the music belies this— it sounds like warm, boiling mud. He idealizes a version of love that could “heal the mess we made,” without mentioning the desire to stop cheating. So, he resigns himself to the fact that the situation “keeps going round and round/ you hurt me/ then I hurt you again.”
The central irony of the song’s lyrics is this— the protagonist evinces the desire to surrender to love, yet his language suggests that he is, in fact, surrendering to hatred and self-abasement. This is a failed protagonist par excellence, in a way that the protagonist of “Under My Thumb,” who is happy to celebrate rather than abase himself, is not. He is also more honest than Jagger’s protagonist by halves, and in many ways more compelling. In a sense, we may say that the kitschy musical elements are put in place to abase us, so that we join the circle of abasement. Why would we want to do this? Again, a tie could be made to Brecht— specifically, Brechtian alienation. This is the presentation of a protagonist (or character) who repels us, rather than inviting us to identify with him or her. This brings with it its’ own set of complications— if this figure really does want to “surrender to love,” he is not completely a villain. Many of the threads left hanging by the song are musical— as the strings screech into oblivion, the song just sputters out. The whole statement is equivocal, as was Buckley’s attitude towards his own commodity status. Greetings’ failure to sell certainly had something not only to do with Buckley’s perversity but with the uncompromising ethos with which he expressed his contradictions. Buckley’s body of work, as a whole, exudes an aura of something inchoate. There is something about “Sweet Surrender” itself that is inchoate— its’ strange proportions, what is honest versus what is exaggerated. All the same, Buckley seems more interesting, in 2011, than his singer-songwriter contemporaries; they of sentiments and comforting platitudes. Buckley’s sense of fragments beats their sense of wholes. “Sweet Surrender,” ultimately, seems like an experiment; the fusion of disparate and often incompatible elements. It courts and repels simultaneously. Buckley’s gutsiness is specifically American gutsiness— there is some naivete in it. He doesn’t always know where he’s going— he finds out when he gets there. The sacrifice, had he chose a predetermined, commercial path, would have been substantial, and a loss for us.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Travel has always been one of the great themes of rock music. The “urge for going,” as Joni Mitchell calls it, is an adolescent impulse that often carries over into adulthood. The protagonists of rock songs are often here but want to be there; and movement can be social, romantic, and sexual as well as merely physical. What is not often found in rock songs is the conflation of this urge and a sense of the elegiac; of loss and remorse. In an elegy, as the poet mourns, he or she moves towards acceptance, forgiveness, and consonance with final truths. What inhibits Robert Plant’s “Big Log” from being the rock equivalent of an elegy is that the movement portrayed in the lyrics is circular, beginning and ending at the same place. That this movement is accompanied by vignettes that suggest a long car ride creates an intriguing dynamic. Most rock fans will know that Plant himself did have solid reasons to be elegiac in the early 1980s; having spent the 1970s as the front-man for the most successful band in the world, he had seen the band dissolve, and one of its founding members die. But reading the lyrics of “Big Log” as an elegy on the collapse of Led Zeppelin is too limiting, too reductive. Because these verses read as an interior monologue, a narrator talking to himself, and are not generally aimed at a specific Other, the song comes off more like a nuanced self-portrait that allows for some psychological detail. The expansive pathos of the music heightens the impression, and makes “Big Log” one of the most moving touchstones in the rock canon.
The song begins and ends with the line “my love is in league with the freeway,” and the parallel structure carries over into the second verse, which begins “my love is exceedingly vivid.” We imagine this protagonist speaking these lines to himself as he drives. Yet, because we never learn anything about this “love,” it could be construed as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, someone he has created. It could be that he is doing this to lull himself, so as not to confront or notice his own loneliness. But there is also the shaky sense that this construct, “my love,” may be partly real. The vagueness of “my love” mirrors the vagueness of what and how we see when we are traveling, and the “travel sense” we have at times during which we experience ourselves as being between things— between two places, between two states of consciousness. Thus, as vague as this traveler is, he has a strange integrity— he is traveling inside himself, as well as in his vehicle. But the “questions in thousands” must, we feel, be connected to some past experience, and what is “leading him on” into forward motion are the same feelings that are driving him backwards. Most rock songs only delineate the feelings of forward motion— the delicate balance between movement and stasis that Plant creates here is uncommon.
The sense of stasis is amplified by the presence of loss, that “when the journey is done/ there is no turning back.” The protagonist knowingly uses “journey” with irony, and in a dual sense— irony, because the journey there is no turning back from is inward, and psychological, rather than the car journey he is on; and dual, because once any journey (outward or inward) has been undertaken, it can never be retraced. The “you” that appears in both verses (“and it’s you once again,” “your love is cradled in knowing”) add a further layer of mystery. The first “you” seems to refer to the pain that animates the song, which he chooses to personify; the second seems to be some person, who may or may not play a central role in the protagonist’s journey and the sense of loss it entails. There is a sense, not only of vagueness to this protagonist but of confusion. Between all the levels and layers of coming and going, he seems to have lost his sense of rootedness. Whatever loss he has endured may have struck deeply, in fact, at his roots. What binds the lines of the verses together is just this sense— that roots have been effaced, leading the protagonist to a limbo state on every level. Because the complex emotions that accompany a limbo state are infrequently addressed in rock music, there is a dearth of comparisons to be made to this piece. Limbo states often take hold with the “thousand questions” that are attendant on the losses of age. As has been stated, the piece ends with the line that began it which, if read closely, can come to seem like a red herring. What if there is no love? The freeway is a place associated with restlessness, boredom, and irritation, but not usually love; and if having a love “in league with the freeway” is having no love at all, then the protagonist is far more isolated than he wants to admit. That isolation gives this protagonist just a tinge of desperation, and it is a compelling tinge. Nonetheless, it is ironic, and not in a dual sense, that rock purists have never particularly fetishized this track. It is seen as Robert Plant’s first solo hit— no more, no less.
“Big Log” is musically ambitious, and exquisite. Rather than employing the “guitar army” that was Jimmy Page’s forte during the Zeppelin days, Plant uses guitars sans distortion, along with the synths that characterize so much 80s music. As in Zeppelin, it is the guitars, rather than the melody line, that grant the song its hooks. The one repeated arpeggio that stands out the most has the bittersweet longing of Spanish folk music in it. When this arpeggio, which is played in the Dorian mode, is put into this novel context (synths, drum machine, and a descending, minor key chord progression), it makes palpable the feeling of the open road which is one topos the song builds from. There is a final, circle-closing lick, less expressive than the Spanish arpeggio, played on the low E and A strings of the guitar, that seals the song off into mournfulness. The way the song is mixed, Plant’s vocals are not especially elevated; he is submerged into the texture of the piece, enough that it is easy to get lost in the sound, without especially noticing the lyrics. What is magical about “Big Log” is that, like the narrator himself, it has its own integrity— the perfect mesh between sound and sense in the piece is something not often seen in popular music. This is especially true of the early 1980s, in which synths were often used to sugarcoat vacuous sentiments and hokey contrivances. Even the monotony of the programmed drums works; they reinforce the hypnotic quality of the treble-toned guitars and Plant’s voice. The understated quality of the video made for the song enhances its aura of stasis and isolation. Plant pulls into a gas station, wanders around some kind of adjacent abode, and we see him shredding pictures (we don’t know what of) and sitting in a classroom. The images are disconnected; while there is no obvious hinge between the lyrics and what we see, they emphasize the confusion, vagueness, and isolation of the protagonist in the face of losses and endings.
It may seem strange to say that there is more consonance between “Big Log” and the Zeitgeist of 2010 than of 1983, but I believe it to be the case. America, and the entire Western world, has lost a certain amount of innocence in the last ten years. We are coping with big losses; the acceptance, forgiveness, and consonance with final truths are hard-won, if they happen at all. Because the American populace is obsessed with movement, we often forget that genuine movements are usually interior. It is not just for philosophers and scientists to say what moves— individuals need to measure these parameters for themselves. A solid work of art is as good a place to start as any.