Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726300″ /]

Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725466″ /]

Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714793″ /]

It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717672″ /]

This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722266″ /]

Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724671″ /]

Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Richard Hell: An Antidandy at the Peppermint Lounge

RIFFS

It was the only area appearance of rock bohemia’s legendary symbol, but on June 25 the spanking-new downtown Pep was crowded with refugees from 45th Street — ­rock and roll youth out to get laid, lighter on hitters than the Ritz, but nowhere near as effete as Danceteria or as schlumpy-­collegiate as Irving Plaza or CBGB. The one familiar face I spotted was that of Terry Ork, Richard Hell’s original im­presario. At two Hell came on with his latest band, who aren’t called the Voidoids even though they feature Ivan Julian and aren’t called the Outsets even though that’s their name, delivering a brief intro in his patented kindergartener-on-the-nod drawl: “Hello ladies and gents — we were children once.” Then they launched into “Love Comes in Spurts,” the song Hell chose to kick off his debut album almost five years ago. As the set rocked on I no­ticed a few ravaged old-timers observing from the sidelines. I also ran into Giorgio Gomelski, the Rolling Stones’ original im­presario, who dubbed Hell “a symbol of elegance,” spraying me with saliva as he did so.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

As we collegiate schlumps often forget, it’s not impossible to symbolize bohemia and elegance simultaneously (cf. Walter Benjamin on the Flaneur). But though Hell apparently values his red top, which he wears on the cover of his follow-up album, it proved less noteworthy than the black leather and ripped T-shirts out of which he constructed the avant-punk anti­dandy back when Malcolm McLaren was strictly a haberdasher. Hell put on a strong show, but he made no waves in a casually dressed-up audience to which he related only as the professional entertainer he’s never much wanted to be. Once he defined, and I quote, a blank generation; now he disparages, and I quote again, the lowest common denominator. Over a five-year haul, symbolizing bohemia can get to be depressing work.

At the time of Blank Generation, Hell really was the quintessential avant-punk. With no more irony than was mete, he presented his nihilistic narcissism not as youthful hijinx but as a full-fledged philos­ophy/aesthetic, and though he never quite put his heart into proselytizing, he was perfectly willing to go along with im­presarios who considered his stance com­mercial dynamite — and to con others when the money ran out. Nor was he merely purveying a stance. Though it was the musicianship of Bob Quine — a much denser, choppier, and more nerve-wrack­ing player than his romantic rival, former Hell associate Tom Verlaine — that made the Voidoids the most original and accomplished band of the CBGB era, Quine was and is a sideman, worth hearing in any context but lacking the visionary oomph to create one. The band was Hell’s, and that it embraced former Foundation Ivan Julian, whose slashing leads I’ve misiden­tified more than once as Quine in a warm mood, and future Ramone Marc Bell, a converted heavy metal kid of surpassingly simple needs, says a great deal for his ambition and his outreach. That it sold bubkes, of course, may say just as much for his laziness and his hubris. But the prob­lem didn’t begin, or end, with Hell. The impresarios were just plain wrong.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

So Blank Generation stands off in its own corner of the boho cosmos as the ultimate CBGB cult record. It had no ap­parent antecedents, and until Destiny Street was finally released by Marty Thau, the New York Dolls’ original impresario, its only descendant was Lester Bang’s Jook Savages on the Brazos. If the new album feels just a little tired despite its undeniable attractions, it’s not because Hell’s musical concepts have been lowest­-common-denominatored. With Material’s Fred Maher replacing Bell and postpunk engineer (Y Pants) and bandleader (China Shop) Naux on second guitar, it’s fuller and jazzier than Blank Generation with­out any loss of concision or toon appeal. Although producer Alan Betrock is a noto­rious pop addict, it was Nick Lowe who added ooh-ooh backups and cleanly articu­lated thematic solos to “The Kid with the Replacable Head,” back when Jake Riv­iera was doing time as Hell’s impresario; the version Betrock oversaw is chock full and coming apart, a real New York rocker. What’s changed is Hell’s head. He’s matured, as they say, and I’m not sure it suits him.

The problem begins with the two theme cuts — the title parable, a vamp-with-talk­over in which nostalgia and ambition are rejected in favor of the good old here-and-­now, and “Time,” in which an inescapable medium-tempo melody is attached to lines like “Only time can write a song that’s really really real.” Both are grabbers, and both soon let go, as music and poetry re­spectively. Elsewhere, the bohemian sym­bol’s destiny seems bitter indeed, as a glance back at Blank Generation makes clear. “Lowest Common Denominator” is the only all-out putdown, but where “Liars Beware” reviled power brokers, Hell is go­ing after scenemakers this time, no doubt the hitters and collegiate schlumps who’ve ruined his favorite hangout and orgiast’s dream. In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” “sexy love” was communitarian “fun,” but now he prefers to “get all de­-civilized” at a “dropout disco” that sounds more like some after-hours hideaway than the Peppermint Lounge. In fact, all the old escapes have lost their magic. “Ignore That Door,” a throwaway rave-up that’s the most sheerly fun thing on the record, op­poses scag as unambivalently (vaguely but unmistakably) as “New Pleasure” praised it, and twice Hell complains of feeling “alone.” So where “The Plan” and “Be­trayal Takes Two” equated private sex with Faustian sin, these days the poéte maudit manqué is looking for love that doesn’t come in spurts. In “Staring in Her Eyes” he explicitly surrenders his narcis­sistic nihilism (and his “looking around”) to achieve the bliss described in the title, which sure as shooting he takes to an un­healthy extreme: “Stare like a corpse in each’s eyes/Till you never want to come alive and rise.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”420642″ /]

Admittedly, the song is affecting even at that, its lyricism intensified, as so often with Hell, by the yearning inexactitude with which he pursues its melody. And I sympathize in principle with Hell’s new head, as you probably do. I just don’t feel he has his heart in it. “Betrayal Takes Two” is a genuinely evil song, a seducer’s alibi worthy of Kierkegaard before Christ, while “Staring in Her Eyes” is sweetly creepy at best — a little easier to sell, perhaps, and a real truth for the chastened Hell, but with less to express and hence less to tell us. And no matter what Marty Thau thinks, it won’t be very easy to sell. Hell might conceivably follow in the foot­steps of David Johansen, the New York Dolls original, who now makes a decent living as a legend, but there’s a big dif­ference between the two — Hell’s aversion to the lowest common denominator. He’s just not a professional entertainer, and though his regrets over the multiplication and fractionalization of rock bohemia may be justified, his potential audience is no blank generation. Yet it was with that anthem that Hell tried to climax his show. It went over all right, of course — it’s a good song. But the audience remained rock and roll youth out to get laid, and the Pep didn’t look any more like a dropout disco when he was through. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1981 Pazz & Jop: The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant

Early in November, as disconsolate as most of my colleagues about the run of rock and roll in 1981, I disclosed the results of the eighth or ninth Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll to anybody who happened by my desk. “Tattoo You in a landslide,” I announced, looking over the fatal piece of graph paper in my mind’s eye as I shook the writer’s cramp out of my mind’s hand. “No other consensus is possible. New wave, punk, whatever you want to call it, is in complete disarray. Sandinista!s a mess, Trust is underrated, nobody likes Flowers of Romance. The only record I’ve played a lot myself is Wild Gift —except for my rap records, I mean — but X will never go over at the dailies. Anyway, Tattoo You has hooks, not like Emotional Rescue or something. And this is the most reactionary year in the history of rock and roll. The Kinks, J. Geils, Rod Stewart, all those guys put out good product again. None of it means shit, of course, but at least they’re paying attention to craft, writing songs you can remember five minutes later. When the votes start coming in from the Midwest it’s gonna be old school tie — world’s greatest rock and roll band rakka-rakka-rakka. They can’t miss.”

This news occasioned considerable dismay at the Voice offices. Were we going to put them on the cover after resisting the greatest media blitz since Wendell Wilkie like the cool guys we are? No way. Space for the poll was cut and the awards gala canceled. When Poobah Tom Carson and I got around to mailing out the actual ballots, we were lackadaisical, making only token efforts to update addresses and find new names.

But soon things got strange. Reviewing the year’s albums, I found that my top 10 pool was expanding from a scant half dozen to the usual lucky 13 or so. Records I’d admired and then put away, like Red and Solid Gold, kept sounding better, as did former in-a-good-year-this-would-be-top-20 candidates like Wha’ppen? and Talk Talk Talk. David Byrne and Human Switchboard were just beginning to sink in, and it wasn’t until January that a late mailing from Englewood introduced me to a great 1981 album. I didn’t expect Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 to sweep past Rickie Lee Jones and U2 in the hearts of the electorate (well, maybe U2), but it sure made it less awkward for me to divide my points — 19 or 20 of them could now go in one place. At the same time my list of also-rans got longer and longer — counting five or six imports and a couple of cassettes, I’d have 60 A and A minus long players by poll time, a new record. Then, as the early ballots came in, a quick tally confirmed the strangest turn of all: Elvis Costello was leading the Stones two-to-one.

Well, whew — we hadn’t been scooped by People, Rolling Stone, and the Soho News after all. But once I’d chastised myself for selling my own poll short I began to wonder where my story was. How would I dispose of the contumely I’d been storing up for Paul Slansky, Jann Wenner, and Geraldo Rivera, or justify reprinting the wonderful Greil Marcus parody in which Mick denies that the Stones have “something new” planned for their 1981 tour (“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. And then we’re going to do it again. Forever.”)? Instead I was stuck with good ole Elvis C., critics’ darling and hepster’s cherce. Trust was indeed the best E.C. since his poll-topping This Year’s Model in 1978, but how was this latest triumph of the new wave going to look? Pretty predictable, right?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692485″ /]

But not as predictable, I realize in irrefutable retrospect, as the actual winner: the Clash’s sprawling, flawed, reached-but-not-grasped three-record set Sandinista!, all but one point of its modest margin provided by the votes it received as an import in 1980, when the grand, fine-tuned, consolidated-if-not-synthesized two-record set London Calling proved the most overwhelming lollapalooza in P&J history. Somewhat more surprising was the runner-up: X’s Wild Gift, with votes from daily reviewers in En Why and El Lay and Boston and Dayton and Detroit and Minneapolis too, as well as from 50 or so of the counterculture pros, hobbyists, freelancers, and semiemployed lowlifes who dominate rock criticism as they always have. Trust finished a very close third, with more mentions than Sandinista! or Wild Gift (and precisely as many as last year’s fourth-ranked Pretenders). Although first-half ballots indicated that the Stones would trail Prince and Rick James (both of whom were on the world’s greatest etc.’s tween-set tape at the Garden and one of whom was beset with catcalls when he opened for the world’s etc. in Los Angeles), Tattoo You finished a firm fourth, followed by Rickie Lee Jones’s Pirates (which I’ll try not to mention again), East Side Story by Squeeze (a dubious band which came into its indubitable own), Dreamtime by Tom Verlaine (hipster’s choice), Controversy by Prince (who I bet got some votes people wish they’d given [1980]’s ninth-ranked Dirty Mind, which finished 43rd this year but didn’t qualify as “late-breaking” the way Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall did last time), Rick James’s Street Songs (grass-roots album of the year), and the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (lightweight-and-proud album of the year).

Before I explain how I’ve always known Sandinista! would win, however, I must explore in some detail the common observation that, as Kristine McKenna of Los Angeles put it, “It was a LOUSY year for albums. I only felt strongly about two that came out this year. An amazing year for singles — easily came up with a list of 30 that totally killed me.” After several months of pondering this notion and its many equivalents, I’ve decided that I don’t agree. It was a great year for albums. But most critics who offered their comments said something similar, and this year’s general enthusiasm for the singles voting (initiated in 1979) proved that they meant it.

For the new poll we divided the singles category in two to reflect the proliferation of EPs — extended-play collections of three to eight songs that list at between $3 (for seven-inchers) and $6 (what the majors charge for 12-inch 15-to-20-minute “mini-albums”). I don’t trust EPs, especially as marketed by the bigs, who are not above duplicating/remixing forthcoming album cuts or played-out singles in their pursuit of the cute little new-wave buck; on a cost-per-minute basis, EPs don’t give value like a good LP. But they’re the ideal way for an undercapitalized company to get music out there, and most local bands don’t have an album’s worth of material anyhow. The winner was the Specials’ “Ghost Town,” an augury of Britain’s anti-police riots, which was all over the radio when Punjabis and 4 Skins inaugurated the hostilities last July; it came out here in an eerie remix that got 20 votes as a single, but since 24 voters liked the B-side (“Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning”) enough to put the three-song disc on their EP lists, that’s how we slotted it.

The industry still classifies the Specials’ label as an independent, but I call Chrysalis a major. Running a surprisingly strong second, though, was Never Say Never, by 415 Records’ Romeo Void, a San Francisco band whose It’s a Condition finished 17th among the LPs. (I suspect people of voting strictly for the title cut, an outburst of metasexual venom that’s induced me to stand around the Ritz with my coat on, but I’ve never connected with the album, so what do I know?) And of the remaining nine finishers, only Lene Lovich and the Pretenders (whose follow-up album came in a dismal 87th) cracked an indie-dominated field. It’s no surprise to see three bands from New York — 99’s ESG, American Clave’s DNA (Ar-to! Ar-to!), Lust/Unlust’s Individuals — and three from Boston — Ace of Hearts’s Lyres and Mission of Burma, Shoo-Bop’s Peter Dayton — on the list. EPs speak to local loyalties, and Boston and New York are where the critics are. I just wonder what happened to L.A., source of three of my top 10, including the Descendents’ “Fat” E.P., which tied for 15th with seven votes, none of them from Los Angeles.

Which brings us to what’s supposed to be action central: the singles. In a way I do agree — I played my “street” (new code for black) 12-inches, especially my favorite rap records, more obsessively than anything to come my way since The Clash was an import. But not everybody sought the same action. Kristine McKenna was drawn to English dance music, Vince Aletti to some “street”-Brit synthesis. Despite the EP boom Ira Kaplan still got into lots of American independents; Tim Sommer concentrated on punk/oi/hardcore. Roger Glass listened mostly to black radio in Washington; Richard Riegel and the two daughters who helped him out on his list made do with AOR or A/C or AM or FM or whatever they’re calling unlistenable crap in Cincinnati these days, and with a little help from Laurie Anderson he got by.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692483″ /]

Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” one half of a dead heat for top single, was the pop event of the year — or rather, the other pop event of the year (what we counterculture pros call the alternative). Billed as an EP because its two sides run 8:12 and 5:55 (here at P&J we define as singles all discs comprising two songs, aural performances, or whatever), “O Superman” came out initially on One Ten, whose chief endeavor is an exhaustive new wave discography called Volume, and was already a phenomenon when John Peel and Rough Trade turned it into a British chart-smasher. After that Warners completed its pursuit of performance art’s pride and took the record over. A real new wave fairy tale, and stay tuned for the sequel. But novelty records either get you or they don’t, and though I’ll take Anderson’s paranoid whimsy over Napoleon XIV or Little Roger & the Goosebumps, it so happens that I prefer “Double Dutch Bus” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” In fact, I also prefer its other half. The Rolling Stones’ greatest anthem in over a decade, “Start Me Up” is truer and braver than the increasingly rhetorical “Jumping Jack Flash” or the increasingly self-serving “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll,” not to mention the increasingly racist “Brown Sugar.” But this is true not least because its central conceit — Mick as sex machine, complete with pushbutton — explains why the album it starts up never transcends hand-tooled excellence except when Sonny Rollins, uncredited, invades the Stones’ space. Though it’s as good in its way as “Street Fighting Man,” how much you care about it depends entirely on how much you care about the Stones’ technical difficulties. So I found myself rooting for “O Superman.” “Start Me Up” may have been the more compelling aural performance. But “O Superman” was the more compelling pop event of the year.

Needless to say, I started rooting only when convinced that “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” would be held to third (assuming it outlasted Kim Carnes’s pop event). “Wheels of Steel,” the skeptic’s (and aesthete’s) 12-inch, is a mix rather than a rap, segueing bits of Chic, Queen, Blondie, three Sugarhill productions, and what sounds like a Flash Gordon serial into an ur-novelty that struts rap’s will to reclaim and redefine popular culture. Though it finished 12 votes behind the leaders, it got four more votes than last year’s winner, “The Breaks,” a showing that typifies a year when more of the poll-topping singles could be heard on WBLS than WNEW, and in dance clubs than on the radio — a year when impecunious white journalists went out and bought Frankie Smith (tied for 12th) and the Funky Four Plus One (ninth) as if they imports, which in a sense I suppose they were.

For me, rap was only the tip of the joint. If the audacity of the new black dance music and its alternative (note term) economy didn’t reach far enough to constitute a genuine pop event, it certainly resembled one. That a dance hook from Tina Weymouth & Co. (sixth) inspired two rap covers is no less heartening than that Rockpool chose to work Taana Gardner (tied for 12th). Of course, the end of the year saw a new surge of Brit dance-synth whizzes like Pete Shelley and Soft Cell (tied for seventh); the new funk’s alternative economy is even less idealistic than others that have come and gone; and all this tentative critical crossover occurred in a year when there were often only two or three black singles in the national top 20, a shocking retrogression to 1954 that’s as much the fault of “progressive” radio (and journalism) as of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, barriers seem to be falling.

But as long as I’ve waited for those barriers to come down, my deepest musical pleasure this past year was the simple if time-consuming process of not missing any gooduns. This wasn’t just a matter of establishing quick contact with late releases from Black Flag and Bohannon and Al Green, of finally landing copies of Z. Z. Hill and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, of listening too long to David Lindley and Swamp Dogg. It also involved reevaluating a lot of records I’d adjudged just-fine-thanks and then cramming into my shelves. And while Johnny Copeland dropped down toward the bottom of my list and Aretha Franklin sounded more confused than her best album in a decade warranted, most of this music showed unexpected depth. The second side of Red gripped me almost as hard as the first, and without a “Youth of Eglington” to grab hold; the teeth Shoes have added to their charming formula nipped at my cerebellum; I remembered almost every song on Sly & Robbie Present Taxi; I winced with renewed amazement at 1981’s most powerful music, the four songs that begin side two of Season of Glass. Never before have I sat down at the end of January with so many albums from the previous year so firmly imprinted in my head.

And so, to the lists:

First the EPs. Voters got to name five; I’m listing 10:

1. Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance) 2. Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.) 3. Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip) 4. DNA: A Taste of DNA (American Clave) 5. Propeller Product (Propeller) 6. Panics: “I Wanna Kill My Mom”/”Best Band”/”Tie Me Up, Baby!” (Gulcher) 7. Bebe Buell: Covers Girl (Rhino) 8. Specials: “Ghost Town”/”Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning” (Chrysalis) 9. Peter Dayton: Love at 1st Sight (Shoo-Bop) 10. Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts).

Then singles. I enjoyed 40 or 50, but only 25 totally killed me, with R.E.M. pending:

1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill) 2. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End) 3. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 4. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill) 5. Killing Joke: “Change” (Editions E.G. import) 6. Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force: “Zulu Nation Throw Down” (Paul Winley) 7. Bits & Pieces: “Don’t Stop the Music” (Mango) 8. Medium Medium: “Hungry So Angry” (Cachalot) 9. Liliput: “Eisiger Wind” (Rough Trade import) 10. Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy)

11. The Treacherous Three: “The Body Rock” (Enjoy) 12. Scritti Politti: “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl” (Rough Trade) 13. Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice”/”It Happened” (Geffen) 14. Teena Marie: “Square Biz” (Gordy) 15. Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT) 16. Depeche Mode: “New Life” (Mute import) 17. Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import) 18. Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI) 19. Trickeration: “Rap, Bounce, Rockskate”/”Western Gangster Town” (Sounds of New York) 20. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones) 21. Spoonie Gee: “Spoonie Is Back” (Sugarhill) 22. Chron Gen: “Reality” (Step-Forward import) 23. Brother D. & Collective Effort: “How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” (Clappers) 24. Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket) 15. Luther Vandross: “Never Too Much” (Epic).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692481″ /]

And finally, the albums, all 60 of the gooduns I’ve found so far because I want to make a point:

1. Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 (Sugarhill) 19; 2. X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; 3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 13; 4. Sunny Ade: The Message (Sunny Alade import) 12; 5. English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 9; 6. David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 9; 7. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) 6; 8. Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (Columbia) 6; 9. Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 6; 10. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 5.

11. Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 12. UB40: Present Arms (DEP International) 13. Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts): The Bar (Lovely) 14. Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15. The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 16. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen) 17. Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.) 18. dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 19. The Blasters (Slash) 20. Al Green: Higher Plane (Myrrh)

21. Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 22. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 23. Gregory Isaacs: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG) 24. Sly & Robbie Present Taxi (Mango) 25. Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM) 26. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Bad Reputation (Boardwalk) 27. Shoes: Tongue Twister (Elektra) 28. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 29. Let Them Eat Jelly-beans! (Virus import) 30. Penguin Cafe Orchestra (Editions E.G.)

31. Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor) 32. Tom Tom Club (Sire) 33. Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 34. Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society: Nasty (Moers Music import) 35. C81 (Rough Trade/NME import cassette) 36. Teena Marie: It Must Be Magic (Gordy) 37. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 38. Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime (Gordy) 39. James Blood Ulmer: Free Lancing (Columbia) 40. Lucinda: Happy Woman Blues (Folkways)

41. Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (Arista) 42. Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 43. Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 44. Z. Z. Hill: Down Home (Malaco) 45. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 46. Sir Douglas Quintet: Border Wave (Takoma) 47. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M) 48. David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 49. Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia) 50. Bohannon: Alive (Phase II)

51. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 52. Warren Zevon: Stand in the Fire (Asylum) 53. Mofungo: End of the World (unlabeled cassette) 54. Garland Jeffreys: Escape Artist (Epic) 55. John Anderson: 2 (Warner Bros.) 56. Johnny Copeland: Copeland Special (Rounder) 57. Muddy Waters: King Bee (Blue Sky) 58. Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 59. Smokey Robinson: Being with You (Tamla) 60. Basement 5: 1965-1980 (Antilles).

Somewhere hereabouts you will find Lester Bangs’s ballot, a rather less sanguine document which I’ve reprinted in toto because I think it’s inspired, provocative, funny, and dead wrong. I dissent with special emphasis, of course, from “the lie that anybody else finds it vital” etc., even though the prevailing critical mood is more or less (less, but with Lester that’s a given) as he describes it. Kit Rachlis, editor of the wonderful Boston Phoenix music section and a critic I value as much as I do Bangs, took it more temperately and from a different historical angle: “[This] is not to say that there haven’t been any good records — I have no trouble naming 30 — only to say that there’s not a great record in the bunch, no record so fierce and reckless and nimble that it will affect listeners just as strongly in five or 10 years as it does now.” Lester says nothing gets him off now as much as the music of the past did (and does); Kit says nothing gets him off as much as it should now because it won’t get him off (as much as it should) in the future. Both assume what has always been the underlying aim of rock criticism even more than of rock and roll: to transform the thrill-seeking impulses of adolescence into a workable aesthetic if not philosophy if not way of life.

If it sounds like I’m making fun, then I’m making fun of myself (good policy for rock critics even more than rock musicians). I certainly fell for punk, new wave, whatever you want to call it, the basic appeal of which (at least for critics) was the gift of eternal life, or at least the ancient promise of Danny & the Juniors: “Rock and roll is here to stay.” And now new wave is here to stay. But it’s been five years since punk failed to conquer America (or Britain either, truth be told). There are in fact a whole new bunch of punks out there, and we’ll be hearing from them (though I can’t say I find much demographic significance in Tim Sommer’s fierce prediction that “within weeks” the fans of Heart Attack, a moderately nifty Great Neck hardcore band, will “far outnumber” the critics supporting Grandmaster Flash and Prince, who got 44 and 30 mentions respectively). Meanwhile, what’s going on for the rest of us is a consolidation, and if we’re lucky a reaching out. By definition this isn’t a thrill-packed project, and its disappointments and uncertainties can be daunting. So Lester, an ace critic because he takes everything hard, is bitterly disappointed because “almost all current music is fraudulent” and “worthless” (and also because his friend Richard Hell, never a model of fortitude, hasn’t thought up a title for his unreleased album). And Kit, an ace editor because he puts everything in context, is downcast because no record released in 1981 has (will have) the impact and staying power of 1980’s Dirty Mind or 1979’s Into the Music (by Van Morrison, in case you forgot, which would be too bad) or 1978’s Pure Mania (by the unjustly neglected Vibrators, though for impact and staying power I’ll take Parallel Lines myself).

It’s plain as the light on your stereo that the voters went for Sandinista! to fend off such uncertainty and disappointment. Most critics I know, Kit included, love a lot of it (my January recommendation is “Rebel Waltz”), but find it frustrating to approach even one side at a time, much less as a whole. With 199 ballots counted this year and 201 last, it got only two-thirds the points of London Calling, averaging under 13 where London Calling was over 15. Yet there are those, Lester included, who much prefer it, for the incontrovertible reason that it takes risks — a whole side of dub, Tymon Dogg, Mikey Dread, the very size of the thing, even the title. And sometimes it gets away with them — who would have thought that the Clash could come up with a “street” record like “Magnificent Dance,” a triumph that consolidates, reaches out, and thrills all at once?

But in the end I remain unconverted. For political art I’ll take Red Crayola, more sophisticated if less soulful, or Gang of Four, ditto but with a more significant groove, or the (English) Beat, apparently the opposite but don’t bet against their smarts, or for that matter Al Green, pushing the same message as the former Robert Zimmerman and supposed new wavers U2 and making me like it. And for risks and what Lester calls vitality I’ll take the folks at Sugarhill, both the profiteers who’ve put together the funkiest house band since Stax-Volt and the aural graffiti artists who come in boasting and jiving as if the American dream retains its magic only in places like the South Bronx, where it’s been ravaged altogether. Talk about significant grooves — the most possessed punks never had more spirit or imagination, and here’s hoping (not necessarily expecting) that the rappers will grow in wisdom eventually. Still, I’d be hard put to claim that Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 is on a par with London Calling or Dirty Mind (though I’d rank it with Into the Music and Parallel Lines). It really wasn’t a year for instant greatness — it was a year for consolidation and reaching out.

Consolidations take time to sink in. Moondance and Layla, as far removed from Aftermath and Rubber Soul as we are from The Clash and Marquee Moon, didn’t reveal themselves immediately as great albums. Real good, sure; great, who knew? It took years — and it could happen again. No less than three of the Pazz & Jop top 11 — four if you count Dreamtime — confront a theme native to r&b and country music. You can’t call it marriage because there’s no sign that the couples who carp and coo through Who’s Landing in My Hangar? or flay and fuck through Wild Gift want to make it legal or permanent. But they don’t want to just split, either, and their best advice might well be found on Trust, Elvis C.’s most mature, musical, and morally assured album. He’d probably warn them not to seek so many thrills, and they’d probably nod yes and go after a few more in spite of themselves, because that’s rock and roll. Trust certainly lacks the punchy immediacy of This Year’s Model, but no one can measure its lasting impact. Real good, sure; great, who knows?

And if real good is where Trust (and my other sleeper, Wha’ppen?) should end up, so be it — I’ll still reach out. Popular music seems as fragmented as in the dog days of 1975 — nothing is certain, good records are nowhere and everywhere. But things have changed utterly. While major-label cutbacks continue, more discs are produced by more companies than ever before. Some of these new labels are staffed by laid-off bizzers who actually like music, more by novices who succumbed back when punk was failing to conquer America. All work with acts that in flusher times the biz would have taken a flier on. Their costs (and expectations) are so low that CBS’s flop looks like Impoverished’s smasheroo (when an indie album sells 10,000 copies it is said to “go vinyl”). And it is these labels that make the difference between dog days and cool nites.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

It’s become almost redundant to point out how few of our critics’ top 40 go gold — 14 last year, seven this. Among white artists, only the Stones, the Police, and — ’scuse me — Rickie Lee Jones qualify, with Tom Tom Club on the way, though in black music, where aesthetics and economics are still in some kind of alignment, Rick James, Prince, and Luther Vandross all have major hits. But the failure of many conglomerates and established “independents” to even crack the list is something new. Polygram, MCA, RCA, Arista, and Chrysalis all placed in 1980 and were shut out in 1981, with WEA (which includes Sire, Island, Geffen, Rolling Stones, and Asylum as well as Warner-Reprise) up slightly and Columbia/Epic down one. Meanwhile, independents — some traditional (Boardwalk), some major-affiliated (Mango and I.R.S., which distributes Faulty), some in one-off deals (ZE and EG), and some completely autonomous (Slash and 415) — scored 10 times, a gain of four, with imports up from two to four (including two by the dB’s, whose domestically unsigned status is the shame of New York). My own list of 60 includes 21 indies and six imports (three of them once again by American artists).

The flood of marginal product makes the boundaries of criticism vaguer. In the ’70s I used to try and hear everything, and in my way I still do, but no longer with even the theoretical expectation of success. There are still domestic ’81s I haven’t acquired (U. Utah Phillips, Lockwood & Shines, T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks), imports are completely impossible (don’t own Repercussions or The Mekons yet), and that’s only albums. Moreover, I’m on most mailing lists, which even at the majors is an accomplishment — free-lancers now buy or trade for at least half the records they like, and I’ll bet that most of the voters haven’t heard half the albums on my list. That’s what’s so remarkable about Rick James’s showing. Motown is notoriously stingy with review copies, and James isn’t a safe fave from the ’60s like Stevie or Smokey or Marvin Gaye. He’s cheap and he’s flashy and critics heard his album the way everybody else did — after buying it because they liked the singles on the radio. Another pop event, and more power to all concerned (except Motown’s publicity department).

But marginal capitalism obviously works to disseminate as well as to soften the collective focus. In fact, with everybody making their own shoestring records and undertaking their own shoestring tours, the concept of the local band has become cloudy if not totally overcast in just three years. The Blasters, 30th on the album list, won our competition with 14 votes, while X — who swept the category last year, whose album almost won this year, and whose label status is identical to the Blasters’ (though one hears Elektra is on the case) — only got four, three more than Ernest Tubb, Clifton Chenier, and Steve & Eydie. For the record, Glenn Branca’s seven votes made him the surprise New York winner (his album came in 51st), with the dB’s second at six and the Bongos, the Raybeats, DNA, and Grandmaster Flash tied at five. Mission of Burma, Romeo Void, the Suburbs, R.E.M., and Rank & File (former Dils now located in Austin) also impressed, and I’d like to hear D.C.’s Trouble Funk. Los Angeles’s Hornets Attack Victor Mature won the newly established Poly Styrene Best Name Award, with Phil ’n’ the Blanks (Chicago), Little Bears from Bangkok (Seattle), the Better Beatles (Lincoln, Nebraska), and the Fibonaccis (L.A.) close behind. But though in the past high-ranking locals have often ended up making good records, and though new American bands took a leap among the critics (from four up to 11) even whilst the new wave mainstream sucked up N.M.E. blather, I’m not confident that the process will continue forever. Localism means just that — rock and roll dialects don’t always translate, and when they do what is said can seem derivative or limited.

But to say music is derivative is not to say it lacks “vitality” or “authenticity,” and to say its impact is limited is not to say that it goes nowhere. The original winners of the 1981 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll have inspired a lot of loose talk this year about rock and roll as professional entertainment rather than insurrectionary culture. But almost no one asked why the soundtrack to this talk had so much more impact than comparable albums by such veteran professional entertainers as Muddy Waters and Doug Sahm — which was that the Rolling Stones used to pass themselves off as creators of insurrectionary culture, and very likely believed it, since it was true. Seekers after insurrectionary culture shouldn’t let professionalism get them down — it comes with the territory. At times when greatness fails to announce itself, they should hand up their John the Baptist costumes and get down to the job of figuring out which professionals have a bead on how to transform thrills into a way of life. It’s a problem that breaks into a hundred problems, and there are thousands of answers.

Selected Ballots

VINCE ALETTI (alphabetical): Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (Warner Bros.); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis import); Bo Kool: “(Money) No Love” (Tania import); Clash: “Magnificent Dance” (Epic); Coati Mundi: “Me No Pop Eye” (Antilles/ZE); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); the Quick: “Zulu” (Pavilion); Strikers: “Body Music” (Prelude); Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire).

TOM CARSON: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 15; Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 15; Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 15; Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15; The Swimming Pool Q’s (DB) 5; David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 5; Suburbs: Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone) 5; English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 5; Pretenders II (Sire) 5.

TOM CARSON: Yoko Ono: Walking on Thin Ice — For John (Geffen); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415); Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance); Propeller Product (Propeller); Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip).

TOM CARSON: R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); Babylon Dance Band: “When I’m Home”/”Remains of the Beat” (Babylon Dance Band); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT); Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” (I.R.S.); Replacements: “I’m in Trouble”/”If Only You Were Lonely” (Twin/Tone); Billy Idol with Gen X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 25; dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 20; Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 15; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 5; Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 5; Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M) 5; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 5.

JOHN FOSTER: John Gavanti (Hyrax) 30; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 10; David Thomas & the Pedestrians: The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrian (Rough Trade) 10; Killing Joke: …What’s This For? (Editions E.G.) 10; X: Wild Gift (Slash) 9; Dark Day: Exterminating Angel (Infidelity) 8; Zounds: Curse of Zounds (Rough Trade import) 8; Furors: Juke Box Album (Hit Man) 5; Eugene Chadbourne: There’ll Be No Tears Tonight (Parachute) 5; C. W. Vrtacek: Victory Through Grace (Leisure Time) 5.

NELSON GEORGE: Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 20; Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 15; Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Black President (Arista import) 10; Chaka Khan: Whatcha’ Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros.) 10; Ray Parker & Raydio: A Woman Needs Love (Arista) 10; Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly: Live in New Orleans (Capitol) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia/ARC) 10; Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 5; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 5; Curtis Mayfield: Love Is the Place (Boardwalk) 5.

ROGER GLASS: Quincy Jones: “Just Once” (A&M); Grover Washington, Jr.: “Just the Two of Us” (Elektra); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Barbra Streisand: “Guilty” (Columbia); Smokey Robinson: “Being with You” (Tamla); Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket); Mike and Brenda Sutton: “We’ll Make It” (Sam); Rita Marley: “Sin Sin” (Tuff Gong import); Skyy: “Call Me” (Salsoul); T.S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage).

PABLO GUZMAN: Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 20; Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (Arista) 20; Devo: New Traditionalists (Warner Bros.) 10; Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Jerry Harrison: The Red and the Black (Sire) 10; Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro) 5; Police: Ghost in the Machine (A&M) 5; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 5; Was (Not Was) (Island/ZE) 5.

IRA KAPLAN (alphabetical): Cramps: “Goo Goo Muck”/”She Said” (I.R.S.); Cyclones: “You’re So Cool”/”RSVP” (Little Ricky); Fleetwood Mac: “Farmer’s Daughter” (Warner Bros.); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Vic Godard and Subway Sect: “Stop That Girl” (Oddball import); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Kinks: “Better Things” (Arista); R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); Skeletons: “Trans Am”/”Tell Her I’m Gone” (Borrowed); Voggue: “Dance the Night Away” (Atlantic).

GREIL MARCUS: Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.) 20; David Lindley: El Rayo-X (Asylum) 20; Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 15; Neil Young: Reactor (Reprise) 10; The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 10; Joy Division: Still (Factory import) 5; Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.) 5; The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 5; Au Pairs: Playing with a Different Sex (Human import) 5; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Mekons: Die Mekons (Pure Freud import); Descendents: “Fats” [sic] E.P. (New Alliance); Vivien Goldman: Dirty Washing (99); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415).

KRISTINE MCKENNA: James Brown: “Rapp Payback” (Polydor); Passions: “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (Polydor import); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Human League: “Hard Times” (Virgin import); Heaven 17: “Fascist Groove Thing” (B.E.F. import); Psychedelic Furs: “Dumb Waiters” (CBS import); Spandau Ballet: “Chant Number One” (Chrysalis); Foreigner: “Urgent” (Atlantic).

JON PARELES: (unweighted): David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette); Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.); Ronald Shannon Jackson: Eye on You (About Time); Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.); Glenn Branca: The Ascension (99); Congos: Heart of the Congos (Go Feet import); Was (Not Was) (ZE); Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.); King Crimson: Discipline (Warner Bros. EG); Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia).

RICHARD RIEGEL: Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); J. Geils Band: “Centerfold” (EMI America); Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (Sire); Kinks: “Destroyer” (Arista); Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen); Rick Springfield: “Jessie’s Girl” (RCA Victor); David Johansen: “Here Comes the Night” (Blue Sky); Pat Benatar: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Chrysalis).

DOUG SIMMONS: Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts); Minor Threat (Dischord); Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls, and Marches (Ace of Hearts); S.O.A.: No Policy (Dischord); Unknowns: Dream Sequence (Sire).

TIM SOMMER: Flipper: “Ha Ha Ha” (Subterranean); The Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Misfits: “London Dungeon” (Plan 9 import); Tenpole Tudor: “Swords of a Thousand Men” (Stiff); Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy); Exploited: “Dead Cities” (Secret import); the Gas: “Ignore Me” (Polydor import); Secret Affair: “Dance Master”/”Do You Know” (I Spy import); APB: “Chain Reaction” (Oily); Business: “Harry May”/”National Insurance Blacklist” (Secret import).

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

LESTER BANG’S BALLOT

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block). New Wave has terminated in thudding hollow xeroxes of poses that aren’t even annoying anymore. Rap is nothing, or not enough. Jazz does not exist as a musical form with anything new to say. And the rest of rock is recycling various formuli forever. I don’t know what I am going to write about — music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud. I haven’t made this decision without some soul-searching, but I feel that I can best serve the purposes for which I became a music critic in the first place by filing a protest ballot, with the following exceptions:

ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris & Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: the album Richard recorded last spring and never got around to putting out. 20; 3. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; 4. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 5. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 3. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 4. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia)

EPs: 1. A Taste of DNA (American Clave).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. Robert Quine.

P.S. Perhaps it will help to explain if I list the other albums that would have been in the running for my “Top 10”: Stones, Iggy’s Party, and Miles Davis, which in various ways manifested varying degrees of contempt for their audience so palpable they were ultimately unplayable; Ramones’ Pleasant Dreams and the Byrne-Eno album, which just didn’t work somehow; and John Lee Hooker’s Live Alone Volume 1, which is really all old stuff anyway.

and

Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll Ballot 1981

LESTER BANGS: ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris/Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity)30; 2. “Velvet Underground 1966” (bootleg) 20; 3. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Richard Hell & the Voidoids Now (Richard recorded it last spring but never got around to releasing it) 15; 4. The Clash: Sandinista (Epic) 5; 5. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 6. The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 5; 7. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5; 8. John Lee Hooker: Live Alone Vol. 1 (Labor) 5; 9. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 5; 10. Iggy Pop: Party (Arista) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Joy Division: “Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); 3. The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino import); 4. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 5. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia); 6. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 7. Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); 8. Afrika Bombaataa: “Zulu Nation Throwdown” (Paul Winley 12-inch); 9. That Charlie Daniels single that goes “blah blah water, she’s the devil’s daughter, she’s hard and she’s cold and she’s mean, blah blah blah, blah blah to wash away New Orleans”; 10. Richard Lloyd: “Get Off My Cloud” (Ice House).

EPS: 1. DNA: “A Taste of DNA” (American Clave); 2. The Angry Samoans: “Inside My Brain” (Bad Trip); 3. Dead Kennedys: “In God We Trust, Inc.” (Alternative Tentacles).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. The Angry Samoans.

and

FOLK AND ROCK
ALBUMS I LIKED THIS YEAR
By L. Bangs

1. Quine & Harris: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. The Clash: Sandinista (CBS) 10; 3. Public Image Ltd.: What the Hell’s the Name of that Fucker? (Warners) 5; 4. Beck Bogert & Appice (Epic) 5; 5. Beck Bogert & Appice Live (Japanese Epic) 5; 6. Grateful Dead: Dead Set (Artesia) 2; 7. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Second Album Richard Never Got Around to Titling or Releasing 2; 8. Stevie Nix: Rat Poison (Chump Change) 2; 9. Rolling Stones: What’s in the Can, Charlie? (Mango) 2; 10. Muammar Qaddafi: Live on Hee Haw (Shelby Singleton) 2.

and

Just to save some time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10

1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia); 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige); Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla); 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory); 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame); 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic); 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve); 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA); 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Bridges & Everything! (Egregious 2-album set); 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1981

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic)

2. X: Wild Gift (Slash)

3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia)

4. The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones)

5. Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.)

6. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M)

7. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.)

8. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.)

9. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy)

10. Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1981

1. (Tie) Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (One, Ten, Warner Bros.)
Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones)

3. Grandmaster Flash: “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill)

4. (Tie) Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI America)
Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice” (Geffen)

6. Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire)

7. (Tie) Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import)
Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

9. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill)

10. Prince: “Controversy” (Warner Bros.)

— From the January 27–February 2, 1982, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band

On last year’s iridescent Solar Motel, Forsyth’s double-guitar army welded the punky street jive of Television’s Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine to the monolithic yawp of Neil Young and Frank Sampedro. It’s a sun zoom spark of a band with radioactive impulses. Heaven’s Gate punk out with confidence in tunes like “Jesus Hair” and “Weakness Worms.”

Thu., Dec. 19, 9 p.m., 2013

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

TV in the Park

It is a temporarily glorious Saturday afternoon in Central Park, and the Frisbee-wielding denizens herein are visibly disturbed by the amorphous thrash wafting from the SummerStage compound nearby. It’s opening weekend for the splendid free concert series, which today features a show advertised in the program as “three generations of alternative music,” headlined by what’s rumored to be the mighty Television’s last show ever. But first, it’s time for the amorphous thrash, courtesy of fellow NYC dudes Dragons of Zynth. Up close, their thrash sounds only moderately more morphous. They leap about acrobatically and portend the prog apocalypse. Primus on TV on the Radio. And then, out of nowhere, they close their set with an eight-minute falsetto-laden power ballad that appears to be sincere. Oh, I am so confused.

Let us further consult the program.

“Dragons of Zynth combine punk, dub, funk, soul, and heavy metal. . . . ”

Bad Omen #1: More than three genres necessary for adequate description.
“. . . in a way so fresh it’s been given its own name: Afrotek.”

Bad Omen #2: Made-up genre necessary for adequate description. “Critics have described the group’s live shows as ‘insane’ and ‘bonkers’ (!), though the band itself prefers to call them ‘audio-physio-psychic’ experiences.”

Bad Omen #3: What the fuck is an “audio-physio-psychic” experience? There is some speculation in the crowd as to what constitutes an audio-physio-psychic experience. “Does that mean they know what we’re thinking?” wonders one colleague. In which case, the Dragons of Zynth—thrashing about semi-morphously as storm clouds gather overhead—could hear us thinking, “Oh my dogg, it’s about to start raining balls out here.”

Bad Omen #4: My companion, the Photographer, doesn’t seem to like them.
How would you describe them?
“I wouldn’t.”
No?
“With the right drugs, you could call it funk.”

Shortly after power-pop gleemeisters the Apples in Stereo begin their set, it starts raining balls out here. Prominent rock critics take cover under tables, pelted with rain severe enough to make others contemplate seeking refuge in the Port-A-John. Unfazed (and completely shielded under a roof), the Apples break out the cowbell, the beaming smiles, the Candy Land melodies, and a goofy astronaut costume or two. We are appreciative. The front row of the crowd, mashed against a barricade, is the smiliest I have laid eyes on in quite some time, mashed and drenched though they are. Gawky, ebullient frontman Robert Schneider leads us in a giddy (though currently inaccurate) sing-along from the band’s new New Magnetic Wonder (ignore the shit about the “Non-Pythagorean Scale” and it’s awesome):

Sun is out!
The sun is out!!
C’mon c’mon c’mon c’mon c’mon c’mon check it out!

Hilarious. You’ve got a canopy, jerkoff.

The Apples are easily the most appropriate act on the bill—upbeat and family-friendly. Television is a tough sell to the summer-in-the-park, kids-sitting-on- Dad’s-shoulders set, even under optimal conditions. These are not optimal conditions. A somewhat crabby Tom Verlaine takes the stage and immediately announces that “our regular guitarist” has been hospitalized and shan’t be appearing; he’s referring to Richard Lloyd. The somewhat famous and revered Richard Lloyd. My companion, the Photographer, is unnerved by Verlaine’s choice of words, not to mention Television’s choice to not play “See No Evil,” which he feels is one of the great album-opening guitar riffs of all time.

“If I was in a band and I could come out every night to ‘See No Evil,’ I would,” the Photographer says.

Instead, Television play a gruff, meandering set with several tunes most folks seemed unfamiliar with—stubborn jams with ominous overtones, like the scores to James Bond films set in the Middle East—and just one track off Adventure and a few off Marquee Moon, the late-’70s punk-with-guitar-solos classics for which they are still rightfully revered. Though, to be fair, the Adventure track was “Glory,” a slick, bass-driven, poppy little tune that perks everyone up, including the Photographer. “In the South, this was one of the songs you could jam on at the end of the night and everyone would know it,” the Photographer says. “That and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.'”

The nervous and fiery “Little Johnny Jewel” is even better, Verlaine’s voice flailing wildly like Patti Smith’s or Perry Farrell’s. But Lloyd is missed—his replacement, Jimmy Rip, handles the spider-handed intricacies of “Venus” just fine, but defers on every solo to Verlaine, who lets loose with a multitude of gruff, darting beasts that duel instead with drummer Billy Ficca, loose and jazzy and profoundly hostile. The crowd is nonplussed and a little fidgety, though finally sated by a full 20 minutes of the Rock Pantheon jam “Marquee Moon,” the slowly ascending riff that powers the climactic solo stretched out and reprised and reiterated for nearly 10 minutes all by itself.

Victory at last—but still, there’s cause to be disconcerted. Let’s hope Lloyd’s OK—the otherwise loony richardlloyd.com had soberly noted his hospitalization with pneumonia, just one update after suggesting that this was to be the last-ever Television show (they’ve been inactive for years) so he could focus all his attention on a solo record that “directly competes with Marquee Moon, Axis: Bold as Love, The Doors, Patti Smith’s Horses, Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, Neil Young’s Harvest, or any other record you can name as one of the greatest records ever made in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” As a title, I suggest Our Regular Guitarist.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Patti’s Long-Gestating Covers Album

While this is technically Patti Smith’s first all-covers album, she’s always fiercely remade and remodeled other folks’ material, paying homage yet artfully claiming the songs as her own. That impulse continues on Twelve, evidently on her to-do list since 1978. Sturdily backed by her longtime band—along with the Chili Peppers’ Flea and Television’s Tom Verlaine, who contributes blistering slide guitar on a primal “Gimme Shelter”—Smith shifts much of her focus subtly away from the instrumentation and toward a song’s intention and lyrics, with often revelatory results. Strip away Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” of its smug Afropop and you have free-flowing, circuitous verses pushed by their own rhythm; the guttural rage of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” buttressed here by dulcimers and bluegrass fiddles, becomes a mournful hymn. Along with the usual rock gods (Hendrix, Dylan, the Doors), Smith’s jukebox includes some unexpected selections, including “Midnight Rider” (Allman Brothers? Who knew?) and a joyous, heartfelt rendition of—wait for it—Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Fine, laugh, but Smith turns the MTV staple into a triumphant populist anthem with warmth the original never had. It’s not Patti’s song, but it’s deeply personal nonetheless.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Rimbaud II: First Love

Much ink’s been spilled of late on literate songwriters like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, but way back, Richard Hell surfaced as a wordsmith even outside the seminal 1977 album
Blank Generation. Still, despite verbal acuity and 1984’s semi-retirement from music, he’s tagged as a lit-dabbling artiste
because of work with Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids.

Kentuckian Hell (né Meyers) moved to New York to write verse. Accordingly, he kept notebooks and worshipped Rimbaud. In 1979, his “Slum Journal” debuted in the
East Village Eye, mixing texts, graphics, and Poe tributes. In the ’80s he founded
Cuz (both a lit journal and a press), through which he’s published Dennis Cooper, Rene Ricard, Eileen Myles, and Nick Tosches. His own output includes poetry collections as himself and as Theresa Stern (a gender-bent collaboration with Tom Verlaine), a novel (
Go Now), and a textual/visual miscellany (Hot and Cold). He’s back with Godlike, his second novel and strongest piece of writing to date. It’s no wonder Hell grows testy when critics refuse to see him sans bouncy stage presence.

He prefaced a recent Godlike reading by mentioning that one too many scribes had misread Go Now
as memoir. To prove he could write fiction, he jettisoned Go Now‘s womanizing-junkie angle for a moving, scathing novel about the “love” of two male poets, the married 27-year-old Paul Vaughn and 16-year-old Kentucky prodigy Randall Terence Wode a/k/a “T.”

The two inhabit ’70s downtown NYC dives (memorably, T. pisses in a champagne glass at Max’s Kansas City), crash collating parties, haunt readings, and sit alone in T.’s dinky apartment collaborating on poems and chewing scenery as self-professed
flaneurs, “godlike philosopher poets” of the L.E.S. “languorously sipping their fer
mented grain as they spun ideas and mental- sensual constructions of life-language in the
air for the pleasure of their own delectation.”


Steering clear of narrative niceties, Godlike offers fragmented reminiscences of the middle-aged Vaughn. Pompous, unsure, he recounts his relationship with the deceased T. via interwoven letters, diaries, poems, essays, and a memoir-novelette he started in 1997 when spending time in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. In his 2004 prefatory letter, Vaughn describes T. as “a scumbag,” but the enfant terrible eventually emerges as the more likable (and talented) of the two, and questions of their “love” arise. (Hell convincingly writes in the different characters’ poetic voices.) Vaughn’s an unreliable narrator, sure, but as Hell puts it, “poets aren’t supposed to be beautiful or sane. Shaggy, itchy, preoccupied, mal-educateds. It’s a dirty and stressful and anti-social calling.” Well, like punk rock.

Punk/lit parallels exist: Like T., Hell was born in the Bluegrass State, and T. resembles the thin, pouty Hell and his “short and ragged” mid-’70s hairdo, but comparisons to Rimbaud also make sense. One of the best descriptions of T. (and perhaps Hell) takes place when looking at the books he grabs from Vaughn’s shelf: “a Bill Knott, a Borges, a Frank O’Hara, David Shapiro’s skinny little
January, and Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire.” (The moment evokes Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction
, wherein Kafka, Musil, and Bernhard himself are assigned reading.)

Rather than fish for Hell biography, readers ought to riff instead on tumultuous (Paul) Verlaine and Rimbaud. Vaughn’s pregnant wife, Carol, makes cardboard appearances. T. drops poetry for South America, shadowing R’s time spent as a trading company agent in Africa and the Middle East. There’s no amputated leg, but like Verlaine, Vaughn gets hold of a gun: “The freedom of youth! He was hardly hurt at all.” (Both Verlaine and Vaughn serve 18 months in jail, find religion.) Careful readers will uncover bits like a nod to a priest’s interruption of Verlaine’s incarcerated confession: “You’ve never been with animals?” Here, T. asks: “Did you ever try to fuck something not human?” Turns out he did, “a little pony.” Which makes sense: Vaughn’s eternally horny (“I never had that gay thing about boys’ butts really [while I do like women’s]”), and after he and T. tie up a female versifier from the Poetry Project, he enthuses: “The nicest people love a chance to be sexually used without worrying about it.”

Godlike often subscribes to Mallarmé’s symbolist ideals as well as the late-night amphetamine feel of Ted Berrigan’s
Sonnets. Much of the book’s composed of Vaughn’s proclamations and T.’s outbursts retold by Vaughn. Everyone from Liv Tyler to Egon Schiele earns memorable analysis. He waxes eloquent on cartoons and comic books as paradisal eternity. Birds and God show up hand in hand with Bresson, Dante, and J.Lo. Not merely class clown, Vaughn posits moving thoughts on aging with a touching romanticism. Unlike T. (“The positive anonymity of leaving is preferable to the negative anonymity of loving”), he’s a firm believer in love: “Is it possible that one other person on earth can render the rest colorless by his absence? Yes, of course.”

Through it all, Godlike also functions as a downtown guidebook circa 1971, inlaid with road maps to Veselka, Washington Square LSD, and L.E.S. versus the “cheesy media/marketing language” of the East Village. More importantly, the text’s a literary treatise stitched with shards of Padgett, an attempt to locate a gallant geometry verifying love’s reality, and proof again that Hell would have carved a smashing oeuvre even if he’d opted to remain plain old Richard Meyers.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

No Success Like Failure

Most of John Conlee’s hits are about totally screwing up or being totally screwed over. In one of the few exceptions, 1983’s would-be-smug but completely unconvincing “Common Man,” John, just a beer-drinkin’, truck-drivin’ Nashville fellow, says “highbrow people lose their sanity”—and believes his life’s better than that. But thanks to the miracle of this Classics CD’s near-chronological programming, it comes right after the hilarious “I Don’t Remember Loving You” (also 1983), featuring lowbrow John in a mental institution, crayon in hand, suffering from the amnesia he’d induced in himself to forget the pain of his last break-up. So there you are.

Deliberate self-deception is a longtime country staple: making believe you love me, making believe I don’t love you, making believe I never lost you, making believe I never cared that I did. But in country all this deceit is delivered with such good-natured self-mockery that it acts as a bond between singer and audience. Yeah, isn’t it funny, the way we make such dopes of ourselves! Conlee’s first big hit, “Rose Colored Glasses” (“They keep me from feeling so cheated, defeated, when reflections in your eyes show me a fool”), could be classified as a sad song, but I doubt that anyone feels sorrow while it’s playing. So his music only seems to be about defeat.

And anyway, Conlee generally chooses to wallow rather than dissemble. His basic theme is not getting over it (the nuthouse song being the apparent exception that very much proves the rule); this can mean being true to a true love, but more often it means not letting go of a lost love. In “Miss Emily’s Picture”—a song that’s far more maniacal than the one from the psycho ward, though nothing about its words or their delivery indicates that anyone involved in creating it finds it the least bit abnormal—poor forsaken John is perpetually straightening the long-absent Miss Emily’s picture: the one by his bed, or the one on his nightstand, or the one on his wall. Or he’s pulling Miss Emily’s picture from his billfold, to show to the boys at the bar.

It’s in his perseverance—in the face of disaster and in being a disaster—that he’s triumphant. “Clinging to the broken heart inside my head”! The arrangements are heavily orchestral, and since he sings in a high nasal heartbreak that’s rich but not too rich, he comes across as a regular guy swamped in large emotions. And with quasi-gospel background vocals, lots of this feels like a sing-along: a community of feeling. You get buoyed up, in that sound, in that community.

Except “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” a song I love unreasonably, the one here I’d take to a desert island: It’s beyond category and beyond comfort. It defies musical description. I can say, “Oh, it’s countrypolitan with disco strings and a hint of disco spaciness,” which is correct but conveys nothing of what it’s like. The opening steel guitar line could be one of those sad, repeating architectural riffs that Tom Verlaine would build songs around—but instead, the song goes on its country oompah way. The lyrics don’t really give you the plot. You get a detail here (she’s fumbling for her keys), a metaphor there (she jumps the fence but doesn’t get free), a snatch of conversation (“Mama insisted that I stay awhile”), and you have to connect the dots yourself. “She’s breakin’ in a new routine for the man who walks the floor.” I guess it just means he’s home alone, pacing, while she’s working up her alibi. But with the background singers whispering “she said” into an echo chamber, it all sounds ghostly. “Walking the floor” feels like walking the plank. And you’ve got percussive orchestral riffs that had originated in disco, disco-pomp, except there’s neither pomp nor dance here, just the empty floor and the man who walks it. Spooky.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

The Noise of Art

In 1983, the Art of Noise were an arch abstraction, the consummate studio project, the band without musicians: Their only photo showed a hand holding a wrench. The Art of Noise at Irving Plaza last Tuesday night included the Oscar-winning composer of The Full Monty‘s score (Anne Dudley), the codirector of the “Every Breath You Take” video (Lol Creme), the former lead singer of Yes (Trevor Horn), and a ponytailed aerobicizer named Amanda Boyd, who doubled as a quasi-operatic soprano for choruses swiped from Debussy. The hand (brandishing a sledgehammer this time) belonged to Paul Morley, the benign Malcolm McLaren figure who cofounded the group; he’s returned after 14 years to become the most hilarious frontman they’ve had since Max Headroom. They’re not anonymous any more. They’re just bizarre.

The image this Noise presented was of a conceptual-art project that had somehow stumbled over some dance hits while its nose was buried in a Barthes text. They dispensed with their early classics by crosscutting their own recordings for a minute or two; “Peter Gunn” (with Creme gamely impersonating Duane Eddy and Boyd keening the melody) was the sole holdover from the long-running incarnation that shared only keyboardist Dudley with this one. Mostly, their new album’s drum’n’bass lite riffs became the background for Morley to jest allusively about Baudelaire and Debussy, wave the hammer, and boogie with Boyd. (The bass came from Horn, who got loud cheers for showing up; the drums were controlled by two young knob-twisters.) Their deliriously inventive samples have given way to keyboard goo and too-normal rhythms, but they’ve figured out how to perform without reproducing their records. Which sometimes means doing just the opposite: “This is the way we used to play ‘Beat Box,’ ” Morley joked as the tape rolled. “No hands. Just machines.” —Douglas Wolk


The Sound of Silents

If the modest obligation of a silent-film accompanist is to serve the movie, Tom Verlaine succeeded admirably during his Arts at St. Ann’s appearance on Friday, where he performed music composed for seven great short films mainly from the 1920s. Indeed, anyone expecting to hear the scorched-earth Fender narratives Verlaine unleashed in Television, or even the abbreviated tone tales of his solo career, would have been disappointed by these low-key duets with longtime guitar pal Jimmy Ripp.

Which isn’t to say Verlaine can’t establish or reflect a mood. The two guitarists worked within a limited yet often elegant grammar of drones, loops, echoes, and delays. Their music for Man Ray’s Étoile de mer shimmered as Verlaine plucked isolated notes against Ripp’s rapidly brushed strings, then later grew menacing during the animated expressionism of Dr. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s Fall of the House of Usher. All seven films (from the well-known Rohauer collection) suggested a dream cinema that Verlaine and Ripp complemented with undulating oneiric music.

The duo most closely approached guitar wank during Carl Theodore Dreyer’s They Caught the Ferry, a 1943 short produced by the Danish government to scare drivers straight. In Dreyer’s wickedly amusing allegory, a motorbiking couple drag-races Death down a bucolic country road. Verlaine changed pace with some Duane Eddy twang and tremolo surf guitar before returning to minimalist mode for Ballet mécanique. Fernand Léger’s film, a classic survey of mechanical and fleshy symbols set in repetitive motion, ends with a woman smelling flowers. As he played, you could
almost hear Verlaine’s hectically modern musical
career itself coming to rest. —Richard Gehr


Your Roots Are Showing

The sheer lack of excitement on the rock scene is dispiriting, akin to the era when Little Richard got religion, Presley joined the army, and Chuck Berry found himself behind bars. Last Tuesday night, former Led Zeppelin dark magus Jimmy Page and his near-mythic acolytes the Black Crowes launched their joint mini-tour at Roseland as a surreptitious attack on these doldrums. The Crowes inspired a Rabelaisian crowd, replete with swaying hips and flowing ale, by offering a program focusing on Zeppelin material and featuring the forceful, proto-metallic leads of their temporary lead guitarist Page, who came off as just another guy in the band. Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson’s uncharacteristically wide smile signaled the spectacle’s success. His onstage demeanor, as much as singer Chris Robinson’s ass, was the barometer of how well the band manifested their intent to have fun and play music for music’s sake. While initially Chris better animated his own compositions— the full-tilt boogie “No Speak No Slave,” the astral country epic “Wiser Time”— the specter of Robert Plant never refuted Robinson’s ecstatic blues wailing. Zeppelin standards like “Heartbreaker” surfaced, yet the interplay with Page flourished as well on “Ten Years Gone” and the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” which quoted the Jeff Beck Group version.

Fine playing wasn’t limited to this triumvirate: The rhythm section shored up Jimmie Rodgers’s “Sloppy Drunk” and Elmore James’s saucy “Shake Your Moneymaker” with torrents of beats and heavy fatback. Ed Harsch’s eerie organ intro on “Your Time Is Gonna Come” received an ovation from Page and nigh damn well stole the show.

Goin’ back to the roots here sounded like rebirth. —Kandia Crazy Horse

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Jeff Buckley

For someone who sang so nakedly, Jeff Buckley has had the constant misfortune of being heard through screens. First and foremost was his father’s shadow: Jeff looked like Tim, sang like Tim, wrote long, wandering melodies like Tim, and then had the bad luck of dying young like Tim. Even without the precedent of his dad, that early death–by drowning, last year–hovers over Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, posthumously compiled from demos and rejected sessions. When someone dies young, it’s impossible not to see their life as shadowed by tragedy from the start; every misstep seems a harbinger, every victory a futile gesture against the darkness.


Fair play demands we ignore all that and judge Buckley’s music on its own merits. But fairness was never an operating principle in his work–Jeff Buckley was an over-the-top romantic, and his two albums are full of hauntings and graspings at transcendence, which usually meantfucking as spiritual practice. An accidental drowning was simply too apt. Buckley’s music was always liquid; his guitar climaxes unfurled rather than crunched, his falsetto wandered all over octaves, and Sweetheart, particularly, is rife with images of submergence–“Stay with me under these waves tonight,” “Ah, the calm below that poisoned river wild.”


But. Still. Buckley made records–actual, crafted things you can hold in your hands. The first disk of Sketches sounds like an attempt to strip away the scrim of Oedipal mythology and see what lies beneath it. Unsurprisingly, the answer is: more mythology. Recorded with Tom Verlaine behind the boards, these 10 songs drop Grace‘s harmonium, dulcimer, organ, and vibes in favor of the basic rock unit: two guitars, bass, and drums (though you can hear uncredited strings on “Everyone Here Wants You,” and a mellotron, I think, in “New Year’s Prayer”). The result is like Nick Drake fronting a grunge band. Even though the accompaniment is reined in, Buckley’s keening voice and purple lyrics light out for the territories on their own.


The leadoff track, “The Sky Is a Landfill,” is a ham-fisted Dylanesque screed against politics, pollution, and groupthink, but lacking the master’s knack for leavening logorrhea with mother wit. By the time Buckley accuses Mr. Jones of liking to “dance to the rolling head of the adultress,” you’re glad for the lack of sledgehammer clarity, even if you suspect he had no more idea than you what the line means. Not only wasn’t Buckley a poet, a lot of the time he wasn’t even a songwriter per se. He was an orchestrator of climaxes, a sculptor of dramatic arcs, and on that level the track is undeniable.


Buckley may have loved Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (to whom the album is dedicated) because he heard a kindred spirit in the sweep of Khan’s spiraling ululations, butqawwali singers have the discipline to perform for 45 minutes at a time without disappearing into the ether. Without such mastery, Buckley wound up with hokum like “New Year’s Prayer,” which superficially resembles Pakistani holy music but drifts where Khan drives. When Buckley did subject himself to a discipline–namely that of songcraft–the payoff is obvious. “Everybody Here Wants You” is basically a soul number, with the band holding back–spare drums and gently ringing chords framing Buckley’s androgynous voice. Here he’s got his overwhelming talent–a perfect tenor teasing us with hints of falsetto–under control. By the time he gets to an unexpected and graceful modulation at the bridge, the woman, and the listener, are his.


“Nightmares by the Sea” and “Yard of Blonde Girls” are the dark side of Buckley’s dream-lover persona–an “angry young man” looking for women offering “innocence,” only to leave them feeling victimized afterward. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re fascinated or bored with his callowness. From the seductive slo-mo metal riffs of “Blonde Girls” to the soaring chorus of “Nightmares,” Buckley crafted memorable songs out of his own confusion, and that’s all we have any right to expect from someone so young.

A relentless perfectionist who never made a perfect record, Buckley decided the Verlaine session tracks weren’t up to his standards and started reworking them and writing new songs before he died. The reasons are unclear, and the two remixes included on Sketches second disk are altered too slightly to clarify what his concerns were. The rest of the disk is rough four-track demos of new songs, most of them not yet hammered into something listenable.

If I had to guess, though, I think Buckley would have come around to realizing that Verlaine had actually done an admirable job of channeling his excesses. The point is made well enough by the second disk’s last track. “Satisfied Mind,” Hayes and Rhodes’s classic evocation of the simple life, has been sung by other young men who died too early–Gram Parsons, Tim Hardin–but it really isn’t a young man’s song. Buckley’s performance is god-awful, his vocal swoops trampling all over the song’s purposefully homely melody. “One thing’s for certain/When it comes my time/I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind,” he sings in a gaseous, hysterical manner, making clear that he passed on too early to make good on the lyric.

Fuck the romance of an early death–there’s nothing beautiful about someone so talented dying before they can sing “Satisfied Mind” properly.