Saturday, December 08, 2012

Trampling out the vintage

It's the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon's murder, and like any good baby boomer, I'm listening to Rubber Soul and reflecting on the event, mortality, the perverse nature of fandom and celebrity, and all that jazz. Perspective is all, however: My sweetie points out that a couple of years later, Bhopal took out thousands in a minute and many more over time, but we don't take time to mourn and ruminate over that event.

The longevity of '60s rock never ceases to amaze me. When I was growing up, music from 20 years ago meant Guy Lombardo. Now, Sgt. Pepper is 45 years old. It is the good fortune of music from that era to have come along around the time the suits were figuring out how much money there was to be made from the most catered-to generation in history. When I started working in record stores in '73, the most desirable collector's records were doo-wop 45s, which you can't give away now; all those people are either dead or living on fixed incomes now. Post-Beatle rock, however, has infiltrated the culture to the point where it'll survive for at least one more generation (the Millennials, many of whom were spoon-fed this music from the cradle) and possibly more, what with perpetual availability of info via the cloud.

Still, it seems quaint that at one time, a pop confection like Sgt. Pepper (as well-crafted as it is) could have been invested with cosmic value the way we boomers did with everything, back when we were first coming into consciousness, indulged in this, as we were in damn near everything else, by our bemused parents, who'd survived the Depression and World War II and couldn't understand why our values weren't the same as theirs. (How could they have been, our experiences having been so different?) In fairness, I should say "we late boomers," referring to my own cohort and later, who came of age after the Nam-era draft was over. It was like someone threw a switch, and one day we went from being at least nominally aware of and concerned about social issues to being totally blinded by either hedonism or materialism.

It's natural for any generation to see the moment when it was becoming aware as the Golden Time. For me, that'd be '68-'72, but I was hip to a lot of earlier stuff, of course. It's been my lot as a fan to always be swinging after the pitch, so while my contemporaries were going apeshit over Led Zep, Grand Funk, and Black Sabbath, I was off into the Who, Yardbirds, and Hendrix. The year 1967 in particular seems to be the line in the sand, the high water mark of rock as self-conscious art. While in the intervening years, Revolver has become the common-consensus Great Beatle Album, back in the, uh, Summer of Love, only Richard Goldstein would dare speak ill of Pepper.

My buddy Geoff from Philly, who knows good rock from bad, says it, and I believe it: "The Beatles were undoubtedly the greatest rock band of all time. They may not have been what I like, but still..." I've never been a fan, and not just because I'm an obscurantist snob. (Didn't dig Led Zep, in part, because they were too damn popular.) When they played on Sullivan, I thought, "How cool can they be? The only people I know who like them are seven year old girls? I like 'Mr. Bass Man' better!" (What do you expect? I was a seven year old boy.) I think Lennon was great because he used his celebrity -- the only power he had -- to make statements about important things. And as for Sir Paul, only a fool could deny the craft of Pepper (and Abbey Road, and, uh, Band On the Run, for that matter). For my two cents, the most sublime music they made in '67 was the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" single, which I could keep turning over and over like a [insert group you want to slander] with a piece of paper that has "Turn Me Over" written on both sides.

Back in the day, I was a lot higher on Cream (or The Cream, as we used to say in junior high school), even though I thought Eric Clapton's wah-wah on "White Room" was a harmonica after seeing a pic of the band in Life magazine, wherein Jack Bruce was blowing a harp. (I had no idea whatthehell was making all those noises on Are You Experienced?) Even with an admittedly imperfect understanding of what-all was involved, instrumental machismo was a lot easier for an 11 year old to relate to than pop songcraft. In the now, however, I find I can't listen to much Cream at all (and I've been trying lately, vibing up to see the Ginger Baker doco that's currently pending release).

Ginger is the last man standing of the great nutball English drummers of the '60s. Sure, John Bonham's been more influential over time, and both Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon had better music to play back then, but Ginger's done more work of merit since his heyday in Cream and Blind Faith: the underrated Baker Gurvitz Army, his '90s stint with Masters of Reality, his trio with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. Still, I defy anyone to sit through his interminable drum solo "Toad" on Wheels of Fire, the album that exemplifies the excesses of the age more dramatically than any other. Then again, what would you do if you were a 20something muso who'd been playing the clubs and all of a sudden people were telling you that you were the best player in the world on your instrument and filling big halls to hear you extemporize for hours?

Such was the fate of Cream, who only lasted a couple of years before Clapton read a bad review of one of their concerts in Rolling Stone (who were all John Wesley Harding-ed out by then) and decided he needed to sing more and de-emphasize the guitar solos. These days when I try and listen to Cream, it's usually Eric that's problematic. He's always playing the same solo, it seems (I walked out on him in '79 on that basis), and his riddim playing can't touch Townshend or Richards, let alone Hendrix. He does have the tone, and in that regard, he owes as much credit to Jim Marshall for his early success as the Beatles do George Martin. Jack Bruce's operatic delivery is wildly inappropriate for blues, and he has what we used to call the "fart bass" tone on that EB-3. He sounds better on the more "contemporary" material, with Pete Brown's acidhead lyrics. For my two cents, you could compile one pretty good LP from the best bits off Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears (their best album by default), and the studio disc of Wheels of Fire. But my favorite recorded artifact of theirs remains "N.S.U." off Live Cream, which storms and burns they way they were reputed to.

The Doors were something else again. "Apollonian or Dionysian" my ass: Jim Morrison was the worst kind of acid-addled undergraduate -- the kind that thinks he's a great artist -- and a nasty drunk on top of it. What he had going for him was Paul Rothschild making well-produced records on him, Danny Fields selling him to the collective 16 Magazine readers of America as perhaps the most unlikely teen idol up to that time, and critics like Paul Williams who gave credibility to his shtick. In a pinch, I'll say that "The End" sounded great in Apocalypse Now; "Roadhouse Blues" is a great song to play in bars when a fight breaks out (you can extend it as long as you need to until the police arrive, and sometimes drunk aggressive people will hear it and start dancing, rather than beating the shit out of each other); "The Soft Parade" is pretty hilarious, perhaps even intentionally so; L.A. Woman is a pretty good blues-rock album; and I just like "Peace Frog" (the spoken part of which Ray Liberio used to recite over Stoogeaphilia's "Little Doll" feedback meltdown, back when we used to do that).

In the fullness of time, it seems that my favorite '67 record (excluding The Who Sell Out, about which I've rhapsodized elsewhere) is the eponymous debut LP by Procol Harum. There's a bio of the band on the way, which a glance at Amazon reveals isn't due to be pubbed Stateside until June. When it arrives, I'll probably read it and get re-interested. When I was a teen, I had used copies of Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog that I used to put on late at night, but I'll admit to not remembering more than a couple of songs off each of those LPs. The class a couple of years ahead of mine got to go to the Fillmore East and see them around Broken Barricades time, and we were still playing "Whiskey Train" in '74, after Robin Trower had bought a phase shifter and reinvented himself as a Hendrix emulator (albeit one with a singer, Jim Dewar, whose style was more informed by Paul Rodgers than Jimi, which is probably what made the conceit work on albums like Bridge of Sighs).

The Procol story's an interesting one. Guy Stevens, the pilled-up DJ madman who gave the 'orrible 'oo their early repertoire and was later present at the creation of both Mott the Hoople and London Calling, actually gets the credit for putting Keith Reid, a versifier in the manner of Cream's Pete Brown, together with an R&B band called the Paramounts, although he got thrown in jail on a drug charge and thus missed out on getting to record "A Whiter Shade of Pale." That record had a perfect combination of referents for '67: Matthew Fisher's signature organ part swiped from Bach, the combination of Fisher's organ and Gary Brooker's piano redolent of electric Dylan, and Brooker's vocal evoking comparisons to Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman." The LP that bore the hit, recorded on the cheap in mono, nicely mashes up classical, R&B, and Blonde On Blonde influences in a way that, recording quality aside, sounds a lot less dated today than much of what was released that year.

Fun's fun, but there are limits. Time to re-immerse myself in Can's The Lost Tapes, where I may comfortably repose for the rest of 2012.


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