Love “Forever Changes,” Part Two

50 years

In my last post, I raved about one of my favorite bands, Love. I gave some background on this under-appreciated group and started to discuss their third record, FOREVER CHANGES. Here, I’ll try to delve into this album in more detail. (Not an easy thing. Most reviews I’ve seen are limited to a few adulatory adjectives).

I called FOREVER CHANGES a “psychedelic masterpiece.” That description may do it a disservice. “Psychedelic” is a loaded term that implies drugs. But you don’t need hallucinatory drugs, or even a desire to musically replicate a psychedelic experience to enjoy this record.

Only one percent of wine supposedly improves after 5-10 years. Consider FOREVER CHANGES, then, like a rare bottle of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.

First, the title. It supposedly originated with a comment bandleader Arthur Lee made to an old girlfriend. She was upset after he’d dumped her, and she reminded him that he’d promised to love her “forever.” He unsympathetically replied, “Forever changes.” But add the word “Love” in front, and the phrase takes on different meaning.

The packaging of this record is also intriguing. We have a clean white background with a multi-colored, animated design of the five band members’ heads, swirling and blending into a single image. The shape resembles the continents of Africa or South America. A blending and a harmony of races, cultures, and ideas. It’s apropos of the peace/love 1960s, and still valid in 2017 (more or less…pay no attention to the wall builder in the White House).

On the first two Love records, Lee’s forceful vocals, or Ken Forssi’s pounding bass dominated the mix. On FOREVER CHANGES, the vocals and instrumentation are more subdued and democratic. The predominant instruments are acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. This is rock music, however, so there’s electric guitar. But like my blogging friend Jim the Music Enthusiast noted, the electricity is used more for punctuation than overt statement.

Whisky-a-Go-Go concert poster, circa 1966, showing Love, Sons of Adam, and Buffalo Springfield

There are minor string and horn arrangements, and like SGT. PEPPER, they seem to organically grow from the song, rather than being plunked down indiscriminately. The arranger for the strings and horns was one David Angel, who had done theme music for TV shows like Lassie. But the melodies themselves were hummed to him by Arthur Lee, who had total control of the sessions.

Lee was an oddity in many ways. He wore untied combat boots instead of Beatle boots. According to one-time drummer Snoopy, he liked to stroll through the Hollywood hills with a harmonica, imitating bird songs. But in a world of sunshine and hippies, he was suspicious of peoples’ motives. He had a sensitive side (he wrote lines like “We can love again/Only God knows when”), but he also cast a wary glance at a lot of the forced “good vibrations” around him. So there’s considerable questioning on FOREVER CHANGES.

You go through changes
It may seem strange
Is this what you’re put here for?
You think you’re happy
And you are happy
That’s what you’re happy for?

(from the song “You Set the Scene”)

But questions were everywhere in late 1967. The Vietnam War was at a crescendo, and there are many veiled (and unveiled) references to that war in FOREVER CHANGES.

While performing in San Francisco, the band had visited a bar and met a recently returned Vietnam vet. He went into detail about what gunfire was like, and he described how blood looked after it gushed from an open wound. Lee didn’t forget this disturbing image. He later worked it into the song “A House is Not a Motel:”

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools of walls will be ringing

More confusions,
blood transfusions
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

In a few lines, Lee forecasts “Full Metal Jacket,” conveys the nebulousness of the war, and describes how its ugliness had crept into American homes. And in “You Set the Scene,” he presents a challenge:

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you’re playing?

Not so much in these superficial and distracted days of smartphones and tweets, but in 1967 this was a major question. Youth, minorities, women, gays, and even soldiers and white-collar executives were challenging the parts they were expected to be playing. Does your career give you personal fulfillment, not just material satisfaction? Are you content with your social position? Your sexuality? Are you willing to play “follow the leader”? Do you like what’s happening in the country and in the world? If your answer is “No,” why not change or rearrange?

“The Daily Planet” is one of two songs where the studio group Wrecking Crew supplanted the regular Love band (the other song is the Johnny Mathis sendup “Andmoreagain”). Lyrically and musically, it’s like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” combining several dissimilar arrangements into one song, and exposing the ludicrousness of life through a snapshot of daily monotony:

In the morning we arise
And start the day the same old way
As yesterday, the day before,
And all in all it’s just a day like all the rest
So do your best with chewing gum
And it is oh-so repetitious waiting on the sun

Love on same bill as Ian Whitcomb and Van Morrison’s Them, circa 1966

Lee, an often-imperious bandleader, deigned to allow guitarist Bryan MacLean two songs on FOREVER CHANGES: “Alone Again Or,” released as a (failed) single, and “Old Man.” Both are gently sublime and offer a nice counterpoint to Lee’s more incisive material. “Alone Again Or” is many Love fans’ favorite song, a mature and mysterious tune with touches of Spanish guitar, and a Tijuana Brass-styled horn break. “Old Man” is similar to Neil Young’s later, much more popular song of the same title. It may be more than coincidence, since Young was at one time considered as producer for FOREVER CHANGES.

(In 1997, Sundazed Records released a collection of Love-era MacLean demos that MacLean’s mother had discovered, on the album Ifyoubelievein. They were followed in 2000 by CANDY’S WALTZ. These minor-key romance songs are amazingly perceptive and ingenuous, and it’s a shame Arthur Lee vetoed them from Love).

Two other songs on FOREVER CHANGES that I should mention are “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” and “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” I won’t make an attempt to understand why “hummingbirds hum” or the significance of “pigtails in the morning sun.” I’ll just say, “Why can’t musicians create imaginative song titles like this anymore? Is it that difficult? Seriously, do we have to bring back Owsley acid?”

***

If I was stranded on a desert isle and only had a certain number of records to spin on my self-propelled turntable in my palm tree perch, I’d probably choose either of the first two Love albums, LOVE or DA CAPO, because they’re so much fun to listen to. FOREVER CHANGES doesn’t have their exuberance. But it does have a musical sophistication, an enticing marriage of instrumentation, arrangements and words that, along with new music by Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett and others, helped push popular songwriting into terra incognita. FOREVER CHANGES never sold many units, but it’s music that holds up very well 50 years onward.

The band broke up after FOREVER CHANGES. It’s the old story: drug abuse and interpersonal squabbles. But maybe they were also just exhausted. Arthur Lee later formed other Love bands, but it wasn’t the same. Years ago, the late Ken Forssi proudly told me: “We could do no wrong…We had something, and they call it magic.” I believe him.

Thanks for permitting me to share my love of Love. In closing, I’ll allow Love to have the last word. This elliptical slice is from “A House Is Not a Motel.” Until next time, Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, and I’ll see you down on Go-Stop Boulevard with Plastic Nancy:

You are just a thought that someone
Somewhere, somehow feels you should be here
And it’s so for real to touch,
To smell, to feel, to know where you are here.

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Love “Forever Changes”

50 yearslove story 3

Scanning my recent posts, I can see I’ve been laying on the hot sauce pretty thick lately: xenophobia, white supremacy, Vietnam War, religion… ouch.

Maybe it’s time for a music break.

Earlier this year I profiled four albums on their 50th anniversaries. I picked them because I love good rock music, and these records are some of the best that rock has to offer. They include the debut albums by the Doors, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd, plus that perennial list-topper, the Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

Now, I’d like to review a record that is far less popular than PEPPER. It’s not nearly as influential, either. But I consider the music just as good, if not better. It’s strange that so few people know about it.

The record is FOREVER CHANGES by a band called Love. It was released on November 1, 1967.

Sixties-era rock critics, who are getting fewer each year, justly regard Love as one of the great West Coast bands, right there with the Beach Boys, Byrds, Doors, and Grateful Dead. But for the past 50 years, Love has been all but ignored on American FM radio – where most American rock fans get their music. Like certain American jazz and blues artists forgotten in their homeland, Love is more popular outside of the states. And since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame appears to show no interest in this great band, it’s up to cultists like me to spread the word.

Much of Love’s latter-day fame rests on the band’s third album, FOREVER CHANGES, considered by those in the know a psychedelic masterpiece. I’ll attempt to review it here, but I should probably first offer some biography, and (try to) explain why I love Love, from their evocative name to their unique mix of music and words.

***

Love was formed in Los Angeles in 1965. They were originally called the Grass Roots, until another (less talented) band stole that name. Led by an African-American named Arthur Lee, a former record producer who had worked with Jimi Hendrix when Hendrix was still “Jimmy,” Love was the first integrated rock band (Butterfield Blues Band was also mixed-race, but their music was closer to urban blues than rock).

Love was the first rock band signed to Elektra Records, a label previously known for its impressive roster of folk artists. In 1965-66, Love was one of the most popular bands on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. They performed at hole-in-the-wall clubs like Brave New World and Bido Lito’s, and crowds queued in the street to get in to see them. Neil Young (then in Buffalo Springfield) was a fan, and Jim Morrison cited Love as one of his favorite bands. Morrison later co-opted Arthur Lee’s brooding, punkish singing style.

Love’s first eponymous album included one of the first versions of the garage-band standard “Hey Joe,” as well as one of the first anti-drug songs, “Signed D.C.,” about the band’s original drummer, who was often too strung out to make gigs. The record also included a cover of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “My Little Red Book,” which Lee had heard via English band Manfred Mann’s version in the movie WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? Lee’s version was less poppy and more sneering, though. Bacharach heard it and, not surprisingly, hated it. (Much, much later, Bacharach collaborated with Elvis Costello. What’s up with that?).love poster

Invited on Dick Clark’s popular music show American Bandstand, Love lip-synced “My Little Red Book” and “Message to Pretty.” For the performance, Lee wore sunglasses with different-colored, polygonal lenses.

The album LOVE featured a strong folk-rock, Byrds-ish sound, but there were also odd splashes of acid and surf. I interviewed two members of Love, at different times, and each admitted this record was merely their club act transferred to the studio. In my opinion, it’s one of the lost treasures of Sixties rock.

The band added a second drummer and a flute/sax player for their second album, DA CAPO, bringing the lineup to seven members. The second side of this LP has another first: a 19-minute sidelong cut, a blues jam called “Revelation” that Love frequently performed live. But the real goodies are on side one: “Stephanie Knows Who,” “Orange Skies,” 7 and 7 Is,” “¡Que Vida!,” “The Castle,” and “She Comes in Colors.”

I have a reputation for being frank, sometimes to my own detriment. I won’t stop now. I’ll frankly say that side one of Love’s album DA CAPO is one of the most perfect sides of music ever recorded (“Orange Skies” and “7 and 7 Is” are alone worth the price of a boxed set). Proto-punk, flamenco, bossa nova, free jazz, bubblegum, lounge, baroque pop, and acid rock all merge seamlessly on these six songs (and the categories”punk,” “lounge,” and “baroque pop” didn’t even exist then). For “She Comes in Colors,” Lee nicked part of the melody of the Rolling Stones song “Lady Jane.” The Stones heard it, then borrowed the lyrics of Love’s song for “She’s a Rainbow.” Trust me when I say “She Comes in Colors” far surpasses either Stones composition.

I could rhapsodize for hours about these six songs, but my stated goal is to review FOREVER CHANGES, so I’ll stop the blubbering. I’ll just say that “7 and 7 Is” became Love’s highest charting song, reaching #33 on the Billboard charts in the summer of ’66. It’s one of the few songs, along with the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” where the drums are the lead instrument. It took Lee and drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer over 40 alternating takes to perfect the turbo-charged drum pattern, which may explain why the song ends with a recording of an actual atomic bomb blast. This song is punk rock with panache, conceived while Johnny Rotten was possibly still listening to the Monkees.

After DA CAPO, Love was right on track. The band had a minor hit. Lee was a colorful and confident frontman, and exceptional songwriter, with an intoxicating aura of danger and strangeness. Guitarist Bryan MacLean was also a talented writer, specializing in well-crafted songs about romantic love, chocolate, and orange skies, a sort of Paul McCartney to Lee’s John Lennon. Love also had the respect of its peers, and was making regular jaunts up the California coast to dazzle Haight-Ashbury stoners at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom.

Other Los Angeles bands of the 1960s had become, or were becoming, household names: Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, Doors. Arthur Lee and Love were just as talented as any of them.

But several things happened that kept Love locked in the underground:

First, they were unreasonably hostile to interviewers… when they allowed themselves to be interviewed.

Second, leader Lee had already been burned in the record business, and he was afraid of making the wrong moves, to the point where the band was paralyzed, never venturing outside the comfortable confines of the Golden State.

Third, although they’d been invited to perform at the seminal, career-making Monterey Pop Festival, they turned down the offer. (David Crosby of the Byrds acknowledged them while introducing “Hey Joe”).

Fourth, Elektra Records was busy promoting its new act, the Doors, leaving Love to “sit here and rot,” according to bassist Ken Forssi.

And fifth, the band members were squabbling over royalties (Lee had set himself up for the biggest cut). They were also drifting into hardcore drug use.

When it came time to make a third album, as Forssi relates, “They had to find a time when we were not too high, when we could be found, when the studio was available.” At first, the only Love member present in the studio was leader Lee, surrounded by session musicians, including members of the famed Wrecking Crew. When the other four were finally gathered together (at this point, the band consisted of Lee, MacLean, Forssi, lead guitarist John Echols, and drummer Michael Stuart) … and they saw that session players had usurped their roles… they realized what they were about to lose.

Engineer Bruce Botnick remembers tears being shed. Forssi said they finally came to their senses and pulled together one last time to grind out what he called Love’s “white album.”

(As usual, I’ve rambled too long… please stay tuned for side two of my essay, when I’ll discuss the music on that white album, FOREVER CHANGES.

Love_-_forever_changes

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Random Musings…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

ken-burns_helicopter

The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

joe mcdonald

Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

baez_dylan

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

hendrix

Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

ochs_mcqueen

 

 

Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

50 years

piper

Yippee, you can’t see me

But I can you

Not long ago I wrote about a dinner party I hosted (“The Craziest Meal I Never Had”). While I thought it was a good party, there were also some tense moments. After I bade goodbye to Herman Melville, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, I retired to the den to reflect on the evening. I thought about how ill-mannered Billy was, and how distracted Herman seemed. My Indian friend, understandably, appeared very uncomfortable.

Then I thought about the fourth guest I invited: the one who never showed up. In fact, I didn’t even get an RSVP. But it’s probably good he didn’t attend. He would have been as uncomfortable as Crazy.

When finished reflecting, I decided to honour this reticent invitee the only way I knew. So I dragged myself upstairs, lit a stick of patchouli incense, dimmed the lights, and put on one of his records.

***

Most people have heard of the rock band Pink Floyd, even if they may not be fans. Casual fans might have a hazy recollection of a mysterious chap who led the band in its earliest days… before Floyd was “welcomed to the machine,” when it was still a cult psychedelic group known mainly in England. Only the most devoted fans know the full details of the tragic and poignant Syd Barrett, a brilliant artist who briefly burned like a supernova, then divorced himself from society and, for 35 years, took refuge in the garden behind his mother’s house.

Since I’m reviewing a record album here, I won’t discuss Barrett’s odyssey through music and life. There are plenty of places out there that deal with that stuff, myths and all.

Anyway, discussing his music is the best way to properly honour this artist. And I do mean “artist.” Pink Floyd guitarist and childhood friend David Gilmour, who knew Barrett as much as anyone other than his family (and despite taking his place in the band) called him one of only a few musical geniuses, along with Bob Dylan. He also maintains that Barrett’s collapse wasn’t all that unusual: many people in the late 1960s also fell by the wayside. But 99 percent of them we don’t hear about. Barrett stands out because he was so gifted, and because the band he fronted so long ago achieved phenomenal international success…without him.

Barrett was a butterfly that broke through the netting, his wings permanently damaged. But this is important: try as they might, they were never able to pin him to Styrofoam.

***

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released August 5, 1967) is a surreal, slightly ominous title for a rock album.  Surprisingly, Syd Barrett didn’t conceive it. He borrowed it from his favourite chapter in his favourite book, Kenneth Grahame’s fantasy classic The Wind in the Willows. But the title expertly sums up the mixture of science fiction and children’s fantasy that inform the words and music on the record.

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Paul Bransom illustration from “The Wind in the Willows”

Within these grooves we share English tea with all varieties of the phantasmagoric. Hallucinating gnomes. Existential scarecrows. Sinister, mind-reading cats. Outer (inner?) space denizens. “The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…”

Ok, I hear you snicker. “This is the kind of airy fairy shite that gave hippies a bad name.” You may be right. A lot of this stuff was done by hack musicians/writers eager to hitch a ride on the magic bus. But…

Long before the Summer of Love became an innocuous cliché and marketing tool, there existed a few imaginative, English art students bent on taking music, words, and art to undiscovered areas. The blueprint for the new music was created by the band Pink Floyd, helmed by the youngest member, Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett of Cambridge, who named his band after two of his beloved cats (who were named after two obscure American bluesmen).

According to his sister, Barrett had a rare condition called “synesthesia.”  Most of us only hear sounds and see colours.  But some “synesthetes” can evidently see sounds, and hear colours.  Barrett, a talented painter as well as musician, apparently exhibited this condition as a child and budding artist… years before he ever touched a hallucinogen.

In early 1967, Barrett penned two eye-opening singles that titillated the London youth underground: “Arnold Layne,” a true story about a Cambridge transvestite who stole women’s underwear from washing lines; and “See Emily Play,” a slice of English whimsy that teeters on insanity.

Based on these singles, EMI Columbia financed Pink Floyd’s first full-length LP. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, right when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on SGT. PEPPER. Legend has it that the Floyd members occasionally peeked in on Lennon and McCartney to absorb the brilliance. I propose it was the other way around.

If so, what might John and Paul have heard? There are two faces to this record: an unsettling and ragged trip into space (I’ll call it the Gates of Dawn) and a pleasant and pastoral trip back to childhood (The Piper… this would be all Syd). I’ll save The Piper songs for later.

“Astronomy Domine” “Pow R. Toc H.,” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come close to the later Floyd sound and were staples of the band’s blinding, liquid-light-fantastic live shows. All soar into space on the static-y strings of Barrett’s guitar. “Astronomy” is bolstered by Nick Mason’s tribal drumming, and the 10-minute “Interstellar” by Richard (Rick) Wright’s cosmic organ. “Pow R. Toc H.,” one of the album’s lesser songs, is an instrumental crammed with vocal and instrumental sound effects, but it has a characteristic spacey Floydian closeout.

Let me interject that Barrett on guitar was no Eric Clapton. But he made up for technical inadequacy by bravely exploring the instrument’s electric and aural capabilities (using a silver Telecaster adorned with 15 circular mirrors). He pioneered a technique of channeling bottleneck slide through an echo device, and it gave the Floyd a distinctive eerie sound.

Back to the songs: “Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk” is Roger Waters’ very first composition. Nothing notable here except the paranoid vocals by Barrett.

Hutton Archive, Getty Images

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright (Hutton Archive, Getty Images)

“Lucifer Sam” is a sleek nugget about a third feline owned by Barrett, a mysterious Siamese named Sam. The descending chords and twangy guitar lines have been described as “psychedelic Duane Eddy,”  and recall the Sloan-Barri hit sung by Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man.” In my garage-band days, I used to love playing this song (Sean Connery always popped into my head). It’s the closest song to a single on PIPER, in the same vein as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”

Now for The Piper part of the record: these songs were written exclusively by Barrett.

“The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” might as well be solo Barrett – I’m not sure if anyone else even plays on them, except perhaps Mason offering soft percussion help. Both are pastoral evocations that capture children’s fascination with the unreal possibly being real. “The Scarecrow,” also, has a rolling melody that may have made Paul McCartney blush while eavesdropping on the proceedings.

“Chapter 24” is a collection of observations lifted from the I Ching and set to music: “Change returns success/Going and coming without error/Action brings good fortune/Sunset, sunrise.” This song may have been inspired by Barrett’s interest in Eastern philosophies. Like other young people seeking new ways of thinking, he’d attempted to join a Sant Mat sect, but was rejected for being too young.

The oddest song here is probably “Bike:” “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like/It’s got a basket/A bell that rings/And things to make it look good… I’d give it to you if I could/But I borrowed it.” Note the rhyming, alliteration, and syncopation. Also, the little lyric twist at the end. On surface, the lyrics seem like nonsense.  But Barrett was a skilled writer, and like all great writers, he understood the power of letters and words.

John Steele Collection

Teenaged Roger Barrett in the family garden with guitar and tiger cat (Floyd? Pink?). Lucifer Sam is by his side in the foliage shadows (John Steele Collection)

Now for the pièce de résistance, the two songs that may be the cream of all English psychedelia. Musically and lyrically, they’re a joy to listen to: “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming.”

“Matilda Mother” is a bittersweet memory of Barrett’s about fairy stories read by his mother, with lyrics partly inspired by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc, especially his 1907 parody Cautionary Tales for Children. The best psychedelic music was less about hallucinating through drugs than about transcending the mundane, and in “Matilda Mother,” Barrett yearns to throw off the rigidness of adulthood and return to the comforting calm of his mother, and the “scribbly black” lines she recited, where the phantasmagoric was tangible, colours pulsate with life, and “everything shines.” Rick Wright, the low-key, underrated keyboardist in Floyd, who later also wrote several evocative songs about childhood, sings the verse, while Barrett sings the slightly bitter chorus (“Oh, oh mother/Tell me more…”).

“Flaming” is my favourite song on the album. Originally entitled “Snowing,” it’s a tune that requires little effort to listen to, just opened ears, an open mind, and a willingness to float on “eiderdown” through fields of buttercups and dandelions. Listen to this with a good set of headphones and let Wright’s deep organ fills wash over you, and Barrett’s stirring multi-tracked vocals warm your insides. You may giggle at the sudden entrance of a cuckoo… but, then, you’re supposed to. On surface, this song is about playing hide-and-seek. We were all children, once, so who cannot relate to that? But, as Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Syd Barrett all knew, words have different meanings.  This song is just as much about the exhilaration of being invisible, floating like a fetus, gazing at the hustle and bustle of a world gone cuckoo.

“Flaming” clocks in at a mere two minutes and forty-two seconds, but it’s more imaginative than all four sides of THE WALL.  And it has one of the most beautiful musical closeouts ever devised.  John and Paul certainly walked away shaking their heads in astonishment.  It’s obvious where they got the final notes for “She’s Leaving Home.”

Many have tried over the years, but nobody writes songs like this anymore. Very few back then could, either.

To its credit, U.S. subsidiary Tower Records actually released “Flaming” as Pink Floyd’s third U.S. single. But the song is too good, so it never charted.

Floyd-5

The short-lived five-piece Pink Floyd, and one of the last photos from the Barrett era. Gilmour is front center. Syd is second from left (Pink Floyd Music LTD Archive)

***

The Pink Floyd sound and image changed noticeably after PIPER was released and Barrett left the band. Rick Wright’s keyboards replaced Barrett’s guitar as the dominant instrument. The songs became less lyrical and more thematic, more like soundscapes. When there were words, Roger Waters adhered to Barrett’s philosophy of “keep it simple,” although Waters being Waters, more than a little social and political commentary crept into things. And since the band had no distinct leader anymore, the members’ identities were mysterious, even to many fans.

With the release of the epic DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in 1973, however, the Pink Floyd capsule finally broke the sound barrier of fame. Although the musicians still retained an air of mystery, their days as a curious cult attraction were forever gone. They could now enjoy the fruits of the capitalism which Roger Waters criticizes (and fight over possession of the band’s name, whilst the man who bestowed that name puttered in his flower garden, without regard for such matters).

But the Piper never totally disappeared: his spirit hovered over the band and its songs until the end.

Psychedelic rock, or acid rock, only lasted a few years, from 1967 to ’69 or ’70.   Much of it was juvenile and derivative. But the best psychedelic rock is extremely interesting, in my view, and a few records could be termed classics. One of them is THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Pink Floyd’s one and only album with a colourful, talented, and enigmatic butterfly named Roger “Syd” Barrett.

***

Longitudes has now profiled four groundbreaking albums this year (three of them debuts). In December, I’ll discuss one more rock masterpiece in honour of its 50th anniversary, closing out what I consider the penultimate year for rock albums: 1967. But, in the playful spirit of Syd, I’ll keep you guessing as to what it is.

(Have you got it yet?).

The Wind in the Willows Shepard

Vanity in a Tin Can (Part 2)

(This is the conclusion of my two-part article about my experience as a jazz disc jockey)

Before long, manager Geoff hired me as a full-time, paid deejay. He was very encouraging:

“The whole trick is to put a smile into your voice.”

“Try to hit those peaks and valleys, like an easygoing rollercoaster.”

“Man, you sounded hot  yesterday! Have you thought of this as a career? It doesn’t pay much, but you can make a living.”

I began taping my shows, hoping for that one perfect show (I came close, but never got it). Downtown Lowndes and I occasionally exchanged notes. One night, very late, we pretended we were two pompous Top 40 deejays:

“Hey, OK! Got the hot wax and the best tracks, my man Downtown!”

“Hey, OK, Pedro! What’s comin’ up here? Michael Jackson? Noooo, sorry… Chuck Mangione! Hey, OK!”

We figured nobody was listening, anyway, so we might as well stretch out.

Once in a while, I did get phone calls for requests. There was a college guy who always requested Charlie Parker, and nobody else. There was a teenage girl who didn’t care about music but only wanted to talk to the male deejays. She was referred to variously as “Miss Lonelyhearts” or “Jailbait.”

The most frequent caller was this drunk who hated any song unless it was an old, Big Band standard. Everything else was a “buncha crap.” (If he hated it so much, why did he keep calling? I think he was upset because the music had changed so much since “his day,” including the type of jazz being played.)

Alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

One night, while gazing out the porthole at the city lights, I tried to reason with him:

“You should give it a chance. I know this is newer music, but it’s good jazz. It’s Branford Marsalis, brother of Wynton!”

“It’s a buncha crap!”

I gave up.

Because WNOP was a small, tight-knit affair, we sometimes got together outside of work. Brendan, Downtown and I visited local clubs to hear different bands. Eventually, Downtown got his own weekend blues show and became Rod “Blueshound” Lowndes, and his became the station’s most popular show. Whereas at one time he’d complain about not getting any phone calls, soon he was complaining that he couldn’t cue the records “with all these damn calls!”

At one company luncheon, he and I got into a friendly argument about African-American origins of blues music. Similar to “buncha crap,” I was a bit of a purist, so I preferred the primitive, country blues, while Downtown liked contemporary, electrified, urban blues. We went back and forth before someone finally looked at Val, our resident “hip black cat,” and asked for his input. Val’s perfectly timed response was “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

The pinnacle of my time at WNOP was when I got my own avant-garde jazz show. It was still late at night, but it was my show, and I could play practically anything I wanted. I remember Glenn pulling me aside before my first show. He was musically knowledgeable, and he suggested I didn’t have to always play the really “black” stuff, meaning challenging and spiritually probing free jazz artists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. It was a good tip, but I was already primed for a mix of dark and light, combining those artists with a little progressive rock, fusion, and ECM label.

Unfortunately, “The Vanguard Express” didn’t last long. Our Arbitron ratings dipped, and my show was one of the first casualties. The day after it happened, I received a personal phone call from Robert Fripp, legendary leader of King Crimson, who agreed to be interviewed for the show. I had to tell him.

“What?! You’ve been sacked!” Fripp said, as I struggled to recover from a hangover. I explained it wasn’t me that got fired, but the show, and he sympathized. So… no interview. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to get a morning wake-up call from one of my music heroes, even if I had cotton-mouth and crimson eyeballs at the time.

One night I showed up for work and noticed that the album sleeves in the library had colored tape on the spines. Red, yellow, blue, green, and brown. I soon learned that, in keeping with WNOP’s “jazz plus” format, this indicated varieties of jazz. Brown meant traditional jazz. Green was pop or rock with jazz elements (e.g. Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan). Red, yellow, and blue also had meanings of some kind.

Hereafter, all jocks were required to play a certain quota of each color per shift. Of course, the color brown, for traditional jazz, received minimal airplay. I worried about what “buncha crap” would say.

This is about the time I started losing interest in being a deejay. As with everything in life that’s free and untainted, people have to muck it up with manipulations.

It wasn’t long before programming director Chris was dropping by with comments like “Pete, you didn’t play much Red or Yellow last night. We’re trying to get the Arbitron ratings up, you know.”

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon

I told him I’d try to do better. But I really didn’t try too hard.

Instead, I went in the opposite direction. I’d cue up Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s “The Hunt,” which is a live, 18-minute saxophone apocalypse from 1947, then go out on the poop-deck to smoke a cigarette and watch the city lights shimmer on the water.

Things went from bad to worse. Like a lot of single guys who didn’t have girlfriends, I had a little dog to keep me company. One night during a long shift, I brought him to the station with me. He just lay there asleep on the floor, but one of the newer deejays saw him, then went and told the teacher.

“Pete, this is a place of business, and you really shouldn’t bring your dog here.”

“Sorry, Chris, but this is like a home away from home for me. The Jazz Ark is like an extension of my apartment.”

“Well, that’s very flattering, but we don’t allow animals in this ark.”

Not long after, I gave my notice. Chris was right, of course. The station wasn’t a playpen or home away from home. It was an office. And when I realized that fact, the fun disappeared.

WNOP’s jazz format lasted till the millennium, when The Jazz Ark became a Catholic Radio ark. I don’t know if Chris and Geoff’s Arbitron ratings ever spiked like they’d hoped. I saw Chris at a Pentangle concert, around 1992. During our time at the station, I didn’t think he had much taste in music. But maybe I pegged him wrong. Pentangle’s a damn good band.

The only other person I saw was my pal, Downtown. Appropriately, I saw him downtown, about eight years ago, after some function. It was about 1 a.m. He was serving drinks in a seedy bar and taking jukebox requests for the night owls. Same extroverted manner. I recognized him, but I don’t think he recognized me.

I debated whether or not I should reveal myself, but he looked a bit down on his luck, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. For all I knew, he owned a string of successful bars and restaurants downtown. But I didn’t want to take the chance.

So I just requested an old blues song.

Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)

Let Me Introduce to You: The SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND Trivia Contest!

50 years

Sgt__Pepper's

June 1, 1977. Forty years ago today, Mr. Turley cut me a break in calculus, and my high school released me.

Almost as important: ten years to the day before that, the Beatles released (in the U.S.) their spectacular album SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!!!

I love lists, even those controversial and ubiquitous “Rolling Stone” magazine lists, and I can’t recall one rock critics’ list that hasn’t placed this album solidly in the No. 1 position. It’s considered by many the CITIZEN KANE of pop music, the ultimate radical experiment in an era of radical experimentation, yet not so experimental that it alienated the masses. This record’s historical standing isn’t exactly hurt by its association with the greatest musical ensemble in the history of the Milky Way (or, at least, the planet Earth).

Please don’t stand up and throw tomatoes at me when I say this: it’s not number one on my list (duck, Pete!). And since the Beatles excluded their single “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” from the LP, I don’t even consider it the Beatles’ best record. Sonically, it’s very cohesive, maybe their most cohesive album as far as sound and mood. But many of the songs here fall short when stacked against the best work of their other LPs, even the earliest.  I’d pick “Please Please Me” and “This Boy” any day over marshmallow pies and Henry the Horse’s waltzing.

There’s a lot of Paul here, which is good, but John got a trifle lazy, which is not good. I think the adventurous instrumentation and packaging, and the timing of its release have had much to do with its current reputation. SGT. PEPPER kicked off the acid-soaked Summer of Love, which so many social historians and millennials love to associate with the entire 1960s. Also, the public was hungry for a new Beatles LP. The boys had quit touring, and it had been ten months since REVOLVER (today, it takes ten months for a band to decide whose song to sample).

SGT. PEPPER’S swirly, psychedelic motif hasn’t aged well, either, particularly on John’s song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Producer George Martin truly came to the fore as the “fifth Beatle” on this record, so the music is as much him as the four lads.pepper

But… “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” more or less created the mold for poetry and musicality in a four-minute pop song. In fact, classical giant Leonard Bernstein called “She’s Leaving Home” one of the three great songs of the century (does anyone know the other two?). A personal favorite of mine is Paul’s construction project, “Fixing a Hole,” where he allowed his mind to wander, and it’s very reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s beautiful, self-analytical song from the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

Since it’s summer and I’m too lazy to do a “Rolling Stone”-styled pontification on the cultural and musical significance of this record (the best recent article I’ve read about SGT. PEPPER, minus an annoying plug for the obligatory anniversary re-release, is here, if you’re interested), I thought I’d have some fun and offer a trivia contest. Like Mr. Turley’s exams, it’s open book. But the true Beatles fan shouldn’t need a book. Be careful, though! I have at least one trick question in case of a tie.

Hopefully, I’ll get more response than I did with my Gettysburg sesquicentennial quiz.

OK… Mr. K will now challenge the world!

  1. Name two clues, in the music or sleeve art, that Paul is dead.
  2. Give the names of at least five members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band (not including the Beatles themselves).
  3. What are the names of the three children in the song “When I’m 64”?
  4. What was the inspiration for John’s song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”?
  5. Name the band and album that Paul claims inspired him in the making of this album.
  6. Who sings “With a Little Help from My Friends”?
  7. What is the name of George’s token song, and what stringed instrument is prevalent on it?
  8. Which song was covered two years later at the “Woodstock” concert (and was one of the highlights of the subsequent movie)?
  9. Name the band and album that spoofed this album almost a year later.
  10. Why is this the greatest album ever made? If you don’t think it is the greatest, which album would you choose?

Thanks for participating! Just pop your answers into the longitudes comments section. I’ll list the answers and the winner(s) in a couple weeks. Till then, give this classic a spin, and I hope you all enjoyed this show!

P.S. Very belatedly: “Thank you, Mr. Turley.”

b&w photo

The Velvet Underground and Nico

50 yearsalbum cover

Hey white boy… you chasin’ all women around? You wanna make love to the scene? Take a drag or two.

 Oh, pardon me, sir, I don’t know just where I’m going. I’m weary. I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine.

 You better watch your step, little boy. ‘Cause everybody knows, when midnight comes around, all the angels scream.

The lines above aren’t from a pulp novel. They’re snippets of lyrics that I borrowed from a slab of vinyl released 50 years ago today.

_____________

New York City, December, 1965. A cold wind slices through the city night.  Anonymous, grey people wrapped in overcoats shuffle along a sidewalk on West 3rd Street.  They move hurriedly, hunched over from the cold wind, oblivious to the  small nightclub with a tacky-looking sign above the door: “Café Bizarre.”

Inside this little matchbox-sized café, glasses clink, voices murmur, and cigarette smoke clouds the room.

On a little stage toward the back, a Mephistophelian looking man with long, greasy black hair and wraparound sunglasses toys with what looks like an electric violin. Another man, taller, casually tunes a guitar. Behind him, protecting a shabby drum kit, sits an innocent looking girl with a Beatle haircut. At the center of the little group stands a collegiate looking kid with bushy hair, tight pants, and biker boots. He’s holding an enormous hollow-bodied electric guitar. He’s chewing gum. He glances at the other guitarist and cracks a mischievous smile. He then steps toward a microphone.

“Black Angel’s Death Song,” he announces to the half-empty room.

It was the last song the Velvet Underground would play at the Café Bizarre. The manager fired them immediately afterward.

Velvet-Underground

Promo photo of Velvet Underground (and Nico). L to R: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker

The details may be slightly different, but the general picture is accurate. It was the final show by the Velvet Underground before joining Andy Warhol‘s  pop-art multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of his Factory ensemble of experimental artists, junkies, transvestites, and high-society dropouts. He teamed the foursome with an exotic, beautiful European chanteuse named Nico. In 1966, after a whirlwind tour of the states, Warhol financed recording of their first album, and it was released the following year… to little acclaim, and practically non-existent sales.

But in the last 50 years, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO has come to be regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and essential to any respectable record collection. The band’s name (lifted from a porno paperback found in a recently vacated apartment) is now regularly associated with adjectives like “daring,” “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” and “influential.”

Why is this record so important? (Brian Eno famously said that only a few people bought the record when first released, but every one of them formed a band: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Deborah Harry, Jim Carroll, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and a few others). It’s not a stretch to say that the Velvets procreated glam rock, art rock, punk, alternative, industrial noise, and maybe even rap (don’t laugh… listen to the title track of the group’s second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT).

Along with leader Lou Reed’s insightful lyrics – an unholy marriage between Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot – the music on this album set the band apart from everyone else in the kaleidoscopic 1960s. It was harsh, discordant, primitive, and punctuated with blasts of distortion, feedback, and effects inspired by Welsh violist John Cale’s avant-garde studies with John Cage and LaMonte Young (best exemplified in the manic eight-minute closer “European Son”).

At the same time, there were moments of folkish tenderness, as in “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last two sung by Nico in a voice that sounds like Marlene Dietrich on barbiturates. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s favorite) mixes alcohol with the downers, but the straightforward lyrics, about a shunned and lonely Cinderella (Reed’s lyrics were gender-neutral) are incredibly sad and touching.

Even before teaming with Warhol, the Velvets were testing their experimental sounds in the subculture of underground art-film New York, and Reed had already composed his most notorious songs dealing with hard drugs: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the sado-masochistic “Venus in Furs.” The lyrics and two-chord makeup of “Heroin,” in particular, are as striking today – and maybe even more relevant – as when they were first written:

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

And that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

As with all great songs, “Heroin” has a musical structure that expertly punctuates the words and song theme. The song starts slowly, but gradually speeds up. Two simple guitar chords with a pounding bass drum, like a slow heartbeat. A sinister, single-note drone (Cale’s electric viola, strung with guitar strings) enters and becomes increasingly loud (the chemical pulsing through the blood?). The heartbeat grows faster, the guitar and drums become more frenetic… then slow down… then build again.

At the song’s climax, Cale’s viola goes completely berserk, right when Reed (in Dylan-ish talk-sing) begins confessing about “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and “thank your God that I just don’t care.”

Drug addiction is one of the tragedies of modern times. Fortunately, I don’t have experience with hard drugs, nor the harrowing lifestyle around them, so I can’t vouch for how accurate “Heroin” is in its depiction.  But of all the many rock songs devoted to the subject, this song, for me, seems the most frighteningly accurate (and there are many who agree with me).

Even the less celebrated songs on this album are noteworthy, and provide the glue that holds things together. “There She Goes Again” is the closest thing to pop here, and it kicks off with a halting ten-note intro borrowed from the soul shaker “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. “Run, Run, Run” is a chugging little vignette of New York City street life, a sort of taste test for the group’s later 17-minute juggernaut “Sister Ray” (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT), and it’s filled with Reed-patented dysfunctionals with names like Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry.

And “Black Angel’s Death Song” – the song that ended the Velvets’ brief nightclub period – is an inscrutable, imagistic poem, probably written while Reed was an English student at Syracuse University. With a classic, typically menacing Reed vocal, Cale’s viola, and a sound effect like an ejaculating air hose, this is a song that’s primarily concerned with mood, and it grows more appealing over repeated listenings.

Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, and Lou Reed

I asked a question earlier, but I don’t think I adequately answered it. There are a LOT of reasons why this record is so special. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I would use the word “honesty.” You take it or you leave it. There’s no bullshit here, unlike in so much other “popular” music.

Other musical artists – I won’t mention names – have crassly exploited shock effect and darkness for commercial reasons. But they’re poseurs. Unlike Lou Reed, they don’t possess any empathy for the people they sing about, nor a belief in their ultimate redemption. Reed wasn’t singing about caricatures and stick figures. He was empathizing with real people that he actually knew. Or that lived inside him.

If you haven’t yet heard THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO… I envy you, because it will shake your musical world a little. When I first heard this record, it was like discovering Dostoevsky after a diet of Dr. Seuss. It sounds trite, but the Velvets helped liberalize me. It was like crossing a bridge into a new territory of sounds, attitudes, and ideas. With his later songs, like “Jesus,” “Lisa Says,” “New Age,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” Reed seemed to be sending personal postcards to his listeners (and I was one of the lucky recipients).

But this album is where it all started.

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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Politics, Cruises, Sports, Halls of Fame, and Other Dumb Things

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Last month I published my 100th article on WordPress. Since then, I’ve struggled to come up with number 101. I even mulled over sending longitudes to a permanent dry dock. But like a pressure valve in a steam engine, there needs to be release.

Should I write about the recent U.S. presidential election? I don’t think so. If I do, I’ll either be preaching to the choir, or my words will fall on ears clogged with wax. Better to wait for the pending avalanche before hurling my snowballs from the chairlift.

I could write about the recent anniversary cruise my wife and I took. We had a wonderful time, but the trip was marred by the revelation that our ship, Caribbean Princess, had, only days before, been fined a record $40 million in damages for polluting our oceans with oily waste, then trying to cover up the crime. trumpYet during the muster drill the first day, the boatswain’s mate (or whomever) had, with the temerity of a Pinocchio or Donald Trump, announced that Princess Cruise Lines is serious about environment protection.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, everyone.

However, there were highlights to the cruise. One was meeting music engineer/producer/bandleader Alan Parsons (The Alan Parsons Project). It was following a Q and A session in one of the lounges on the 7th deck (starboard, aft). It was a relief to hear a little good music being played after all the hip-hop, electronica, and lounge lizard sounds.

The down side was that the occasion was instigated by a deal between Princess and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). This, friends, is a capitalist wet dream as slick as Vaseline (or oil). If you’d like to know my not-so-obsequious views about RnRHoF, please see Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One.i-robot

I could write about how my Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, losing their final two games at home. Against the hapless Chicago Cubs, of all teams.

Or how my Cleveland Browns have lowered the bar for patheticism (is that a word?). They’re currently 0-14 and are aiming, once again, for that top draft pick. And maybe the record books.

But getting back to the marriage between the Princess and the RnRHoF: I could write about the argument I had with one of the guests at our cruise dinner table. He had the gumption to suggest the band Styx was more deserving of RnRHoF recognition than Jethro Tull. Sacré bleu, monsieur!  He’s a doctor, so you’d think he’d be smarter than that.

But, I guess even smart people can have their dumb moments. At least, when it comes to music, voting, selecting vacations, or whatever.

Go Browns… (yes, bloggers can be dumb, too).

Note: header illustration is courtesy of and copyright Tim Shields, 2002

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