Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thank You Fiends: Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers"

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.

Adam Fieled

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Face the Strange: What was Classic Rock Radio?

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.