Part two of his Sinatra sessions are heavy with meaning, and a whole lot of fun too
By Michael Goldberg
A fallen angel is an angel who has sinned and been cast out of heaven.
“Everybody knows that torch singers are ‘fallen angels,’…” – Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf by Stacy Holman Jones
Bob Dylan showed up at Daniel Lanois’ house in Los Angeles sometime in the later half of 2014 with recordings of 21 songs he’d made at the beginning of the year at the legendary Capitol Records Studio B in Hollywood where Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the Beach Boys and many others once made records.
“He [Dylan] said, ‘Let me tell you, Dan: If you have the time, can I tell you how I grew up?’ So we sat in the kitchen. I hadn’t heard a note.
“He spoke for an hour and a half on how, as a kid, you couldn’t even get pictures of anybody [the artists],” Lanois, who produced two Dylan albums, 1989’s Oh Mercy, and 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, recounted to a reporter from the Vancouver Sun in February of 2015. “You might get a record but you didn’t know what they [the artist] looked like. So there was a lot of mystery associated with the work at the time. As far as hearing live music, he only heard a couple of shows a year, like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra might come through.
“But the music he did hear really touched him and he felt that a lot of that music was written not only by great professional songwriters at the time, but a lot of it was written from the heart, from the wartime, and people just pining for a lover. He felt there was a lot of spirit in that music. He felt there was a kind of beauty, a sacred ground for him.
“After having said all that, we then listened to the music and I felt everything that he talked about. For one of America’s great writers to say, ‘I’m not gonna write a song. I’m gonna pay homage to what shook me as a young boy,’ I thought was very graceful and dignified.”
Ten of the recordings Lanois heard that day were released on Dylan’s wonderful 2015 album, Shadows in the Night. What happened to the others is something of a mystery.
Bruce Springsteen has always written about the past, and as I’ve spent time with The Ties That Bind: The River Sessions, a multi-CD/multi-DVD set that focuses on music Springsteen made during sessions for The River (and includes a fantastic live show from November 1980, three weeks after The River was released), I’ve been reminded of how a yearning for the past (the high drama of youth) was so much a part of Springsteen’s Seventies recordings.
At age 23, on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, Springsteen was already looking back on songs such as “Growing Up’ and “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City.” Even on their release, Born to Run, Darkness at the Edge of Town and The River came across as romantic exaggerations of a time long gone. This wasn’t just due to the lyrics, which sometimes referred to events in the past tense.
Watch Springsteen and band do “Out In The Street” in Tempe, Arizona, 1980:
The sound of Springsteen’s music leaped back past the innovations of mid-to-late ’60s rock, a period that prominently included long-haired psychedelia complete with feedback, distortion and wah-wah pedal effects, to draw on Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound, the rhythm and blues of The Coasters, Sam & Dave and others, and party-rock hit-makers like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Gary U.S. Bonds.
Watch Springsteen and band do “The River” in Tempe, Arizona, 1980:
Consider that in 1975, when Born to Run was released, including a saxophone in the lineup was akin to using a horse and buggy for transportation. Springsteen’s E Street Band, of course, proudly featured the great Clarence “Big Man” Clemons on sax, and the Big Man took a solo in practically every song.
Even when Springsteen wrote in the present, as he did for “Thunder Road,” his line about “Roy Orbison singing to the lonely” placed the time period of the action in the early/mid-‘60s …
Read the rest of this column at Addicted To Noise.
Watch Springsteen and band do “Thunder Road” in 1975:
Improbable as it might seem at first, Dylan has recorded Shadows In The Night, an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra – and it’s damn good.
By Michael Goldberg.
I hated Frank Sinatra. As a teenager, Sinatra, who was my mother’s favorite singer, represented my parents’ middle class world, a world I was desperate to escape. I wrote Sinatra off as one of those puppets, a Hollywood-invented pop star who sang Tin Pan Alley love songs, the kind that rhymed moon and June.
Silly love songs. That was what Frank Sinatra was all about. Trivial.
And worse still, I read that he hated rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1957, in the Paris magazine Western World, Sinatra called rock ‘n’ roll “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. This rancid smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.”
So yeah, for me Sinatra was Public Enemy #1.
Sinatra was, in my opinion, the polar opposite of my idol, Bob Dylan, the brainy rock ‘n’ roll star who had in rapid succession released three of the greatest albums ever: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.
Dylan wrote his own songs, sang with a voice like no other, was a poet, brought the art of songwriting to a level it had never previously reached and was the hippest of the hip.
In 1965, while Sinatra was singing retro pop like “The September Of My Years” and “Last Night When We Were Young,” Dylan was spitting out such modern cubist masterpieces as “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Sinatra was ancient history, the pop singer my mother’s heart beat fast for during her teenage years as a bobby soxer.
I had no interest and no time for Frank Sinatra.
But 23 years later, in 1988, thanks to Beach Boy Brian Wilson, my attitude towards Sinatra changed. I was on assignment for Rolling Stone, writing a feature story about Wilson, who had a debut solo album about to be released. I was hanging out with Wilson at his townhouse in Malibu, and I was checking out some of his favorite CDs, which included recordings by Randy Newman and Phil Spector. There was one by Frank Sinatra, possibly In the Wee Hours or it might have been September Of My Years. Whichever it was, I listened to it there at Wilson’s place, and I opened up to Sinatra. I heard him for the first time.
I came to appreciate Sinatra, and the songs he sang, and I came to dig the often sentimental arrangements provided by Nelson Riddle and others.
Still, when I learned that Bob Dylan, BOB DYLAN, had recorded Shadows In The Night, a full album of songs previously recorded by Sinatra, my initial reaction was that of my 15-year-old self: horror.
Dylan singing those songs? Those corny Tin Pan Alley songs? How could he?
Noted Dylan expert Greil Marcus has been writing his “Real Life Top 10” column since the ’70s, when it ran monthly in New West magazine.
The column has appeared in a variety of publications since then including Artforum, Salon, and most recently, The Believer.
Although I was able to reprint older columns at Addicted To Noise during the late ’90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t until Salon picked the column up in the mid-2000s that new columns appeared online each month.
And once Greil located it at The Believer, it was only available in print.
Well now that’s changed, and the column is currently available for all to read online each month at the Barnes & Noble Review.
Marcus is the author many books including The Old, Weird America: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads and Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010. His most recent book is The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in a recent issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
Editor’s note: I believe I first came across the excellent writing of Roy Trakin in New York Rocker during the heyday of punk, towards the end of the ’70s. A few years later he did some writing for a magazine I edited at the time, Boulevards, and much later, decades later, he contributed to my online magazine, Addicted To Noise.
Roy has been writing about pop culture since the early ’70s. He was most recently a staff writer/columnist at Billboard. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including New York Rocker, Creem, Musician, the L.A. Times, the L.A. Herald Examiner,Newsday, the N.Y. Daily News and USA Today.
Today he sent me his column, “Trakin Care Of Business,” and I was excited that he’d led with a review of my novel.
He also writes in this column about Spoon, Ty Segal and the film “Cavalry.”
TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS: SEARCHING FOR THE FOREVER INFINITE ECSTATIC
By Roy Trakin
1. Michael Goldberg, True Love Scars (Neumu Press): Just call it a portrait of the rock critic as a young freakster bro, coming of age in the glorious peace-and-love innocence of the ‘60s dream, only to crash precipitously, post-Altamont into the drug-ridden paranoia of the ‘70s, characterized by the doom and gloom of the Stones’ sinister “Sister Morphine” and the apocalyptic caw-caw-caw of a pair of ubiquitous crows. The one-time Rolling Stone journalist turned-Internet pioneer with his groundbreaking mid-‘90s Addicted to Noise site has always been on the cutting edge and here he perfectly captures a horny, but romantic, teenager growing up in Marin County back in what he calls the Days of the Crazy-Wild, where getting your parents to let you grow your hair long was proof alone of your manhood. Michael (Don’t call him Mike) Stein grows up enraptured with Dylan and Fitzgerald, the Beatles and Kerouac, so it’s no surprise his friends call him “Writerman,” in search of “un moment decisif,” the “ghost of ‘lectricity” or just plain getting laid by his mythic “Visions of Johanna” chick, with whom he hopes to experience the “Forever Infinite Ecstatic.” Yes, this is Goldberg’s version of Almost Famous, except he’s a little less callow than Cameron Crowe and a little more on the prowl, and you feel for his fumbling first attempts at romance and the ultimate betrayal which follows. This is the first part of his Freak Scene Dream trilogy, and the veteran rock scribe has adapted a quick-paced, be-bop, repetitive style of relating his tale that takes a bit of getting used to, but eventually kicks into a seductive rhythm very much his own. If you lived through those momentous times, or even if you didn’t, Goldberg conveys that rush of ideas, music and literature that made it such a heady era, while still ruefully acknowledging its fleeting, self-destructive aftermath.
2. Ty Segall at the Echo, Los Angeles: Is he the Great White Hope of psychedelic, garage, grunge-punk or merely the Great White Hype of aging boomer rock critic types trying to hold on to their glory? It’s funny when you start to get noticed, especially for this young veteran from Laguna Beach who looks more like a surfing Dennis the Menace with requisite gleam in his eye than a no wave/metal/avant rocker intent to wrench the pop culture buzz back from DJ and place it back squarely (and loudly) on the guitar hero. After all, he’s been putting out critically acclaimed albums on his own for about seven years now, not to mention spawning a whole sub-group of bands he’s championed (including one of the evening’s opening acts, the powerful, compact Zig Zags, who he’s produced, and offer a fine combo platter of Motorhead, the Ramones, Black Sabbath and the Stooges). What passes for the mainstream rock media have been championing this as Segal’s time, mainly on the strength of his 17-song, double-album on renowned indie Drag City, Manipulator, which combines all his many previously demonstrates strengths – a distinctive lo-fi guitar fuzz rumble, thrashing wall of sound backdrop and penchant for melodies – into actual songs. So, this four-night sold-out engagement at the tiny, packed to the gills and where’s the fire marshal Echo, served as his coming out party for a rabid, moshing young following that proves rock and roll may be a loser’s game, but it still mesmerizes and don’t ask me to explain because I’ve been trying to for four decades now, and still can feel the buzz from greatness. Not that this was in that category, but the potential is certainly there, though world domination might have to give way to cult appeal, given the fragmented state of what we still call the music business in some quarters. You certainly won’t hear me complaining about the “Good Vibrations” opening for “Manipulator,” the first song of the evening, nor the “Sweet Jane” nod and keening falsetto of “Tall Man, Skinny Lady,” with its nods to Iggy, Ziggy and Hendrix. There’s a loping bluesy rockabilly feel to “The Singer” and a “Raw Power” urgency to “The Clock,” while “Don’t You Want to Know?” sounds like a girl-group song as performed by The Ramones (Joey always was a big Ronnie Spector fan). The Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” is evoked by “Susie Thumb,” while Segall introduces “The Crawler” as “a song about friendship.” The closing “Slaughterhouse” is a bludgeoning heavy metal extravaganza, as a girl from the audience jumps on-stage and is handed the mic by Ty, and goes into some Yoko-styled caterwauling before she stage-dives back into the crowd. The encore consists of Replacement-like covers of “Sweet Home Alabama,” with some random dude called up to supply the vocals, followed by “Paranoid,” two choices which I felt fit their aesthetic perfectly, but my erudite pal Gary Stewart found too self-consciously ironic to support what he’d heard before. No, rock and roll stars will no longer conquer the world, but for this one night, Ty Segall might’ve been declared the Mayor of Echo Park.
3. Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista/Concord): Britt Daniel and company’s eighth studio album, and first for Tom Whalley’s imprint at Concord Music Group, finds the band confident in its quirkiness, wearing its stylistic conceits on its collective sleeve. The veteran group has been around long enough now to feel confident in their quirkiness and it shows on this return to semi-major label status, as Spoon isn’t afraid to let their freak flag fly, so to speak, while still offering tuneful appeal. “The Rent I Pay” starts off like “Street Fighting Man,” all menace and Jim Eno’s thumping drums leading into Daniel’s drawling vocals, with jokey lines like “And I lost all my tapes of back masking” in a song about the toll of living. “If that’s your answer/No, I ain’t your dancer” is a rallying cry for the modern age. “Inside Out” is a headphone track of the first order, a Squeeze-style “Black Coffee In Bed” faux R&B number with glistening, cascading synth harps and Lennon-esque lyrics about love, gravity and religion. “I don’t got time for holy rollers/Though they may wash my feet/And I won’t be their soldier.” There’s a Motown beat, nourish twang and discordant piano in “Rainy Taxi,” and end-of-world lyrics like “And you’ve been sleeping through the brightest flash of apocalyptic ruin.” The catchy first single, “Do You” opens with some Fifth Dimension doo-doo-doos, leading into a raspy, ‘80s Psychedelic Furs new wave vibe, before closing with some clanging guitars and what sound like flutes, all insisting “That’s the way love comes,” just when you’ve given up hope of ever finding it. The Bowiesque “Knock Knock Knock” thumps along at its own casual pace with a whistled backdrop, faint ghostly cries and pneumatic guitars, comparing life to a movie and finding it comes up wanting. The Radiohead shimmer, pumping organ and Flamenco acoustic guitar of “Outlier” finds Daniel once again playing the role of film critic: “And I remember when you walked out of Garden State/Cause you had taste, you had taste/You had no time to waste.” He returns to the theme of those who’d usurp his soul in the title track, including card sharks, street preachers, up-sellers, palm-readers, post-sermon socialites, park enchanters, skin tights, enchanted folk singers, Jonathon Fisk (apparently a bullying middle school classmate of his), “and on and on and on.” The Beatles-ish “I Just Don’t Understand” could have come right off Rubber Soul, once again pointing out the Daniel-Lennon comparisons, while “Let Me Be Mine” has a shaggy dog, sawing feel to its acoustic strum and drang that is underlined by some Chuck Berry riffs in a song once more about being run out on: “You’re gonna take another chunk of me with you when you go.” The closing number, “New York Kiss,” sports some “Under My Thumb” vibes and a Dolls-y swagger to its tale of fading memories about time and place, which represents a pretty good description of Spoon’s ever-expansive stylistic palette as any.
4. Calvary (The Weinstein Company): Written and directed by Irishman John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges’ Martin McDonagh), this metaphysical black comedy shares his sibling’s love of a good polemical argument, as Brendan Gleeson stars in an Oscar-worthy turn as a troubled priest who tries to keep the faith in a small town nestled in God’s country on the Emerald Isle against a stunning backdrop of the ocean pounding the rocks. Those scenes of natural beauty are juxtaposed against the dark, hidden secrets of the small village itself, filled as it is with abusive husbands, philandering wives, bitter virgins, spoiled rich guys, atheist doctors, feckless priests, dying writers, bankrupt pub owners, serial killers and even a suicidal daughter thrown into the mix. Gleeson’s Father James is the object of an anonymous confessor who, at the very beginning of the movie announces his intention to kill an innocent member of the Catholic church to make up for the abuse he suffered at the hand of a priest. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” he says, with Gleeson answering, “That certainly is a startling opening line.” The movie proceeds like that, with many debates ensuing both for and against the presence of a higher being. The cast is outstanding, particularly Chris O’Dowd as the cuckolded butcher, a grizzled M. Emmet Walsh as a feisty aging author, Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen as a heartless surgeon, Flight’s Kelly Reilly as Gleeson’s reconciled daughter and his real-life son, Domhnall Gleeson, as a convicted murderer. There’s a relentlessness to the narrative that seems preordained, but that is fitting with the movie’s theme about martyrdom and accepting the inevitability of fate. The soundtrack (available on Varese Sarabande), with an original score by Patrick Cassidy, as well as some great Irish songs, moves the film along with a deceptively Gaelic lilt, finding the salvation in the dark void at its center.
5. The Punk Singer (Opening Band Films/Netflix): Produced by Tamra Davis and directed by poet/performance artist Sini Anderson, with help from Kickstarter, this documentary tells the story of Riot Grrrl provocateur and Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna. Hanna, who went on to form electronic rock act Le Tigre and her most recent project, The Julie Ruin, is a fascinating subject, from her earliest days as a punk rabble-rouser to her recent incarnation as a revered artist and feminist pioneer. Along the way, the movie veers into a love story, with her marriage to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz (band mate Mike D’s wife, veteran film director Tamra Davis, produced, making it a family affair), and a Lifetime-style triumph over an eight-year battle with, of all things, Lyme disease, something she has in common with Daryl Hall, among others. Thrust into the feminist political atmosphere of Olympia, Washington, in the late ‘80s, the charismatic, idealistic Hanna was one of the earliest influences on a young Kurt Cobain, scribbling the phrase, “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall, after the deodorant spray, spawning the mainstream breakthrough of punk that, ironically, led to his ultimate disenchantment. Her formation of Le Tigre in the early 2000s also anticipated the EDM movement, and her recent welcome comeback provides a feel-good ending to what is a fascinating story whose ramifications are still being felt today.
6. Derek (Channel 4/Netflix): Although he received an Emmy nomination for his performance in the title role, Ricky Gervais’ latest series hasn’t seemed to catch on with the tastemakers, largely because of what is perceived as its overly sentimental view of a mentally challenged, maybe autistic helper at an old people’s home in an English suburb. Not quite what you’d expect from the Gervais who has suffered a bit of backlash from his celebrity skewering as since-deposed Golden Globe host, but once you hook into its subtle rhythms, the show warms the heart as well as tickling the funny bone. The now-available second season of six episodes features the same characters, some lovable, others loathsome, but none unredeemable, in this sometimes biting, but often moving ensemble piece. While Gervais’ Derek, with his Ish Kabibble bangs, lopsided grin and constantly moving fingers, is the heart of the series, the emotional center is Kerry Godliman’s Hannah, who selflessly runs the place and considers it a privilege to be with people when they die, barely concealing the sadness and worry in her eyes. David Earl’s Kevin “Kev” Twine has a larger role this season as Derek’s best friend, a sex-obsessed drunk who surprises us as a gifted painter and sculptor. The conceit of a film crew at work, like in The Office, allows the characters to speak directly to the camera, exposing their innermost feelings, and offering the chance for those sideways glances that reveal the truth beneath the appearance. The Netflix subtitles are also most welcome, not just because of the English accents, but many of the best lines are mumbled throwaways that you can’t quite catch on first go-around. There may be something a little dishonest about Gervais’ Derek, for whom kindness is the key to a happy life, but he is so committed to the character, you must give in. And, any series capable of making you laugh and cry, sometimes at once, is good enough for me.
7. Houdini (History Channel): With director Uli Edel and a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, The History Channel goes for broke on this two-part, three-and-a-half-hour mini-series about the famed magician, but the result is a typically overblown Classics Illustrated version of the story, enlivened somewhat by the great casting of Adrien Brody in the title role. One of the key elements in the movie is the use of CSI-style graphics to explain how some of the tricks were done, and the breathless narrative does touch on all the basics – the love of his mother, the spying during World War I, the great escapes and his latter attempts to disprove spiritual mediums. Most of the cast passes by in a blur, though soap opera veteran Kristen Connolly, late of House of Cards, does have her moments as Houdini’s much-beleaguered, pot-smoking wife, who is only worried that she may be a widow before her time. Despite its pulp elements, Houdini is never boring, thanks to an energetic performance by Brody, who evokes the great magician in all his Semitic glory. Houdini is not exactly magical, and more trick than treat, but – pun intended – escapist entertainment at heart.
8. NFL Opening Weekend: There’s something about the start of pro football that is like anticipating a new year of Game of Thrones. You know there will be plenty of mayhem, unexpected casualties and more than a little blood spilled along the way. With just 16 regular season games, every one seemingly counts for something, and the sheer limited amount lends itself to hopes and dreams for a momentum-fueled short-term run unlike the more extended baseball and basketball seasons, which groan along until the playoffs. For the 46th consecutive year, I hold up hopes for my woebegone New York Jets, waiting for the next Joe Namath no less hopefully than Beckett did for Godot, with just as much chance of that happening under QB Geno. Hey, at least it rhymes with Godot. The team is already going into the season crippled at the crucial cornerback position after skin-flinting GM John Idzik failed to welcome back estranged all-pro Darrell Revis, who proceeded to take his talents to – of course, the hated New England Pats, our chief rivals for AFC East domination. And it hurts to see yet another coach the NYJs let get away – Pete Carroll, start to build a dynasty with the Seattle Seahawks, much like another deserter, Bill Belichick, did with the Patriots. In fact, the Seahawks look like that rare beast in the NFL, a team capable of a repeat, which hasn’t been done since, right, the Patriots under Tom Brady and, yup, Belichick. There still doesn’t look like there’s a team that can challenge this hard-hitting bunch, who have already been compared to the ’85 Bears in terms of their defense, and their Russell Wilson offense, no with speedster Percy Harvin, ain’t too shabby, either. Still, the games must be played, and like Game of Thrones, you never know who might get beheaded along the way.
9. Lakeview Garden Restaurant: In search of some old-school Noo Yawk Cantonese Chinese? This step back into the past, say, Kwong Ming in Wantagh, for the traditional Sunday night meal for a middle-class suburban Lawn Guyland Jewish family within a won-ton toss of Levittown. Yes, this find, located in a cranny of a Westlake Village strip mall, is the real deal, a true OG Jew throwback to a previous time, when crispy noodles came with duck sauce and mustard, and you could choose from Group A or Group B from pepper steak, shrimp with lobster sauce or moo goo gai pan. With the closure of Uncle Chen’s on Ventura Blvd. in Encino, I was bemoaning the fact there were no traditional Chinese Cantonese restaurants to be found. Hell, you’d have a hard time finding a decent Chinese restaurant in this town period, what with the proliferation of Thai, Korean barbeque and sushi joints, but this place is a welcome remembrance of times past, down to the blue-haired 80-something ladies at the table across from us, immersed in their cell phones, naturally. And, best of all, it’s right next to the Regency Twin Theaters, a pair of old-school art-houses that show indie films and offer a tray of mints at the end of each screening. Make an evening of it. (4700 Lakeview Canyon Road, Westlake Village, CA)
10. Gripe of the Week: Who knew punk had such staying power? Imagine my surprise to hear the dulcet tones of Sid Vicious croaking, “My Way” in the new TV ad for the luxury Acura, the Mercedes clearly in its sight? Imagine the well-heeled young buyer attracted to buy the car on the urging of one John Simon Richie? Malcolm McLaren is doing the pogo in his grave as we speak. And that was only topped by the NFL going to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” over a commercial break from opening night in Seattle. Or Martin Scorsese signing up to do a Ramones documentary. Not to mention Ty Segall’s current heat. Guess my phrase, “The Persistence of Punk” is true… Hard to believe the force of life that is Joan Rivers won’t be around any longer. The woman was fearless; nothing stood in the way of a good joke, and she is the role model for today’s crop of young female comics, whether they want to admit it or not. She sounded so alive a few weeks ago on Howard Stern, joking about dying. If this was elective surgery, it just goes to show, going under the knife is never a slam dunk, especially when you’re 81 and work as tirelessly as Joan did right up until the end… It’s not a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a dog-doesn’t-answer-the-other-dog’s-email universe… It’s been a rough couple of weeks for music journalist types. First, the death of Chuck Young, then the shocking layoff of Edna Gunderson after three decades at USA Today, via a phone call, no less. The secret is to work for yourself. Unfortunately, I learned that lesson a little late in life, but it’s better late than never. The days of corporations offering you a cradle-to-crave employment are long gone, and the sooner we realize it the better… Like Al Hirschfeld working the name of his daughter Nina, into his N.Y. Times caricatures, I have promised my wife Jill to mention her in every column…
I’ve learned quite a few things from the critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus over the years, but maybe the first – and the one I keep coming back to — is that when listening to music, the artist’s intention isn’t so important. What really matters is what you and I, as listeners, hear.
You know, what we get from the music.
“I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant,” Marcus wrote in the prologue to his book, “Bob Dylan, Writings 1968 – 2010.” “I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people’s responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it – I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that.”
Marcus has been sharing his response to the music since the late ‘60s. In “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces,” “The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” and other books he uses art as a doorway, and steps through it to find vast secret histories, histories of America and Europe that mostly hadn’t made it into the history books – at least not in the way Marcus writes.
After reading “Lipstick Traces,” which starts with Johnny Rotten and then proceeds to spin into a history of anarchistic rebellion going back long before Johnny Rotten was born – I haven’t been able to listen to a Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. song without thinking of Dada and the Situationists and the May ’68 protests in France and so many other things that Marcus wrote about in that book.
This new one, “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” (Yale University Press, 320 pages), is all about what Marcus hears when he listens to ten songs, and what he hears is unexpected and sometimes revelatory. It’s not any kind of history of rock that you or I have ever read before, because Marcus sees no point in revisiting the same old story that we’ve read numerous versions of since the ‘60s.
“Shake Some Action” is one of ten songs Marcus writes about in the book.
One of the big ideas in the book is that the chronological history of rock ‘n’ roll – that blues and country begat Chuck Berry and Elvis begat Dylan and the Beatles and so on and so on, is, if not irrelevant, beside the point. Or if not beside the point, well, we’ve been there. We all know, or think we know, the contours of that story. Marcus has a different story to tell.
“Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else – and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else,” Marcus writes in the introduction to his book. “But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, or discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language – which though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before – that speaks. In rock ‘n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.”
“’It’s like saying, “Get all the pop music, put it into a cartridge, put the cap on it and fire the gun,’ Pete Townshend of the Who said in 1968. ‘Whether those ten or 15 numbers sound roughly the same. You don’t care what period they were written in, what they’re all about. It’s the bloody explosion that they create when you let the gun off. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.’ Any pop record made at any time can contain Pete Townshend’s argument. … which is to say that this book could have comprised solely records issued by the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, only records made by female punk bands in the 1990s, or nothing but soul records made in Detroit, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago in 1963.”
“From that perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovation, to follow the supposed progression of the form. The Maytals’ ‘Funky Kingston’ is not a step forward from the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey,’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston.’ They are rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time. One can dive into a vault as filled with songs as Uncle Scrooge’s was filled with money and come out with a few prizes that at once raise the question of what rock ‘n’ roll is and answer it.”
I’ve been reading reviews and books by Marcus since the late ‘60s, and he’s dead serious about what he puts on the page. And about what he discovers when he listens to and then writes about rock ‘n’ roll. This is serious stuff, life or death, and if you think music is nothing more than entertainment, well this book is probably not for you.
Reading Marcus is hard work because you have to think when you read his sentences. He takes for granted that you know a hell of a lot about music and art and film and literature. He’s not into coddling the reader. So when he calls his book “The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In Ten Songs,” it’s not that you’re going to get the literal history of the music, what you’re going to get is a theory about rock ‘n’ roll, and then ten examples that, in different ways, back up that theory.
So Marcus takes his ten songs and writes an essay about each. He works hard to tell us why these songs matter so much to him, why each in its own way contains the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and why they should matter to us too. And after you read this book, they likely will.
Read the rest of this column at Addicted To Noise, and dig many other great music features, news and reviews.
I always wondered if I was a bit, well, over the top when it came to Bob Dylan. After all, I’ve been listening to his records since I was 13, and I’m still listening.
Yeah, a long fuckin’ time.
And just this past week I watched D.A. Pennebaker’s addendum to “Don’t Look Back,” a film called “1965 Revisited,” finished up Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review, watched a YouTube clip of Dylan and John Lennon having a very stoned conversation in the back of a cab for the benefit of a cameraman shooting the never released “Eat the Document,” and listened to outtakes from Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, recordings made when Dylan rehearsed with the Grateful Dead in 1986, mostly unreleased recordings of a 1963 Dylan appearance at Town Hall in New York and, and…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In my crowd in Marin County in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was the one leading our explorations into the new frontiers of rock. I was the first to get into the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, and Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk. I got my folks to drive me into San Francisco to buy an import copy of Pink Floyd’s trippy The Piper at the Gates of Dawn at the long-gone Gramophone Records on Polk Street. This was when Pink Floyd didn’t have a U.S. record label; when Syd Barrett hadn’t yet blown his mind.
Regards Dylan, I was his #1 fan, at least that’s how I saw it.
Sure the others I hung with dug Dylan, but I was the only one who bought the Great White Wonder bootleg when it showed up in a record store bin, and soon enough I had quite a few Dylan bootlegs, mysterious collections of songs that weren’t on his official releases, each in a white sleeve, usually with the name of the album stamped on the cover with one of those rubber stamps you could get made at a stationary store, typically to stamp your address in the left hand corner of an envelope.
These days we know artists record songs that don’t end up on official releases, and in fact, officially releasing those recordings years after they were made has become business as usual. But in 1969, when Great White Wonder was first released, it was a total shock to discover all this music I’d never heard before by an artist I totally dug. It was as if the world I’d known just fell away and another world was revealed, one with a hell of a lot more Dylan music than I had previously known.
When I got my hands on the supposed ‘Albert Hall’ live set (actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall as we learned many years later), and played it for the first time, it was the most ecstatic listening experience of my admittedly short life.
So you can understand why I’ve always considered myself obsessive regards Bob Dylan, and worried that there was something, well, extreme, maybe even a bit mental, about my obsession. There was a time — now this is back when I was 15, 16, so please don’t hold it against me — when I wanted so bad to look like Dylan, which I didn’t. (I’ve applied some of my own real Dylan fixation to the fictional character Writerman in my first novel, “True Love Scars,” which I’m publishing in August of this year.)
So I owe David Kinney a big thank-you. His excellent book, “The Dylanologists,” put my concerns to rest. I mean compared to the Dylan freaks profiled in Kinney’s book, I’m an average run-of-the-mill Dylan fan. Yeah, to be a Dylanologist you have to be operating on a whole other level.
Take Bill Pagel, who actually moved to Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Pagel spent years trying to buy the Hibbing house Dylan grew up in, and he succeeded in buying the Duluth, Minnesota house where Dylan’s folks, the Zimmermans, lived when Bob was born. Pagel also bought Dylan’s highchair, for God sakes! And a ceramic candy bowl that at one time belonged to Dylan’s grandmother.
“Opening up and finding what’s inside me to write.”
By Michael Goldberg.
Neil Young bangs away at the chords. And there’s such sadness in his voice. He’s playing an acoustic guitar. He’s nearly finished his third song of the night. Banging away too hard. Or maybe the way he’s banging at those chords is perfect. And oh, the sadness.
In that quavering voice he sings:
Yes only love can break your heart, What if your world should fall apart?
Love broke my heart, and my world fell apart. I was 17. When you’re 17 you don’t know you’ll recover. When you’re 17 everything about love is the first time, even if it’s not the first time.
When you were young and on your own, How did it feel to be alone?
She had long brown hair, almost down to her waist. She wore white peasant blouses and worn denim overalls. It was 1970 and the world was so different. There are a lot of clichés about the ‘60s, which actually didn’t end until the early ‘70s (countercultural movements don’t conveniently end as a new decade begins), a lot of misunderstanding about what it was like back then.
There was a day in 1970 when we sat together, her and I, in the swing that hung from a huge tree in her family’s very private, very large front yard, and the wind was making the leaves in the trees shimmer, and the future seemed wide open, full of possibility, I mean anything was possible. Her body warm against mine as we swung back and forth. The whole world about to be remade, I just knew it.
I am lonely but you can free me, All in the way that you smile.
Yes, that was exactly it. Exactly.
Neil’s music was part of my soundtrack during the ‘60s and the ‘70s. He sang the sad songs and as a teenager I didn’t want to know the pain I heard in his voice. But I did know it. Every time her and I were apart, I knew it. Still I loved to hear Neil’s voice.
And later, after it was over, when we just couldn’t make it together — that girl and I — I knew for real how true Neil’s words were, and today they’re still true.
Neil’s new album, Live at the Cellar Door, was recorded in 1970, 43 years ago, at the Cellar Door, a club in Washington, DC. Listening to it I see, hear, feel, smell those days, a rush of moving images, as if my life was captured on film and these old recordings are the key to starting up the projector. All the ways I blew it, and how crazy it got. And she wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t see me when I came to her door, and I thought I’d explode.
Yes, love can break your heart — a cliché and so what, ‘cause it’s the truth.
Hearing Neil sing those old songs in that tenor voice, the tenor voice of a young man, it breaks my heart all over again. Neil was 25 when he played those songs at the Cellar Door.
The bright lights shine on Kim Gordon. The New Yorker, which never profiled Sonic Youth during the group’s 30 years as one of New York’s most celebrated and influential bands, kicked things off by devoting six upfront pages to Gordon this past June.
Since then, as the early October release date of Coming Apart, the album she recorded with her current musical collaborator Bill Nace under the name Body/Head, came and went, other major publications devoted space to Gordon. From the New York Times and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, writers have been more than excited to talk to Gordon about whatever she’s willing to talk about, including her new, challenging noise rock.
“I wasn’t trained as a musician,” Gordon told the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff. “But I did grow up listening to a lot of jazz records, and John Coltrane.”
Coming Apart’s opening song, “Abstract,” Gordon said, has a structure similar to Coltrane’s Meditations: “You have a theme,” she said, “and it falls apart, and then it comes back.”