Linda Ronstadt’s Long, Long Time must have been a huge hit in LA in 1970 because you’d hear it regularly on the local FM stations for years. All the teenage boys would freeze and listen and sigh. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and maybe the effect is accentuated on this iPhone, but why did producer Elliott Mazer bury her in the strings? Not right away. It’s all Linda Ronstadt for a minute, almost like Kitty Wells, and you’re hooked. But from then on Mazer starts piling strings on by the regiment full, and Linda’s battling to be heard over the arrangements. They’re everywhere, these charts full of lush baroque things growing like triffids, filling every available space. At one point the harpsichord is louder than she is. It’s almost like a Phil Spector thing, Tina Turner batting Phil’s Wagnerian demons on River Deep, Mountain High. Linda finally wins in the end, though, even if the strings and that strutting harpsichordist get to do their dirge thing for a bit too long after her vocal fades, though I suppose the logic of the arrangement demanded it. These things require patience. At last they’re done. That’s a wrap, Mazer said, and maybe someone went to chuck a few too many cellos and violas into the Cumberland. Anyway, a lovely tune.
Flipped on the radio and it’s Loan Me A Dime and talk about nostalgia, like a foggy Sunday morning in Isla Vista, or late night hippie sounds on KNAC out of Long Beach way back when. This was the ultimate long playing FM song for a while, Boz Scaggs before Low Down, still in boots and jeans and a beat up cowboy hat. It starts out slow, just this side of a dirge, but builds into a rollicking piano pumping blues, and Duane Allman laying down lick after lick of the meanest Muscle Shoals lead guitar you ever heard for several exuberant minutes. You hope it never ends. But it does, finally, after thirteen minutes, fading out with the band still rollicking and Duane Allman still on fire, and you can’t believe you were lucky enough to hear it again because almost nobody actually had the album. It was just this amazing thing you heard on the radio, and it was hippie long, long enough to smoke a whole joint to. A big bomber joint even. And if the deejay then spun Voodoo Chile or Low Spark or that long medley off Abbey Road you know he’d been out back smoking that joint. But that was nearly half a century ago. This deejay today segued (if you can call it that) into a coked out Eagles cut and ruined everything. The vibe was gone, poof, instantly. Life In the Fast Lane. What’s the opposite of nostalgia? Because that’s what this was. Memories of being stuck in the mid seventies and looking like I’d never get out.
It came out in 1969 and even though I’d heard of it for years, I didn’t actually hear Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica until much, much later: 1978. Nine years late. Talk about uncool, uneducated, and unhip. Still, it immediately had a huge impact on me. Not just the mind blowing music (“Pena” remains the strangest piece of music I’ve ever heard), but the stunning imagery in the lyrics, which shaped my own prose (especially “Bill’s Corpse” for some reason I could not begin to explain). People read my stuff and assume I’ve read James Joyce but I never have, what they’re hearing is Don Van Vliet. But perhaps most surreal to me now is the fact that four decades have transpired since this now five decades old album finally connected with my gray matter. It was on the third spin in perhaps as many days and it still eluded me until half way through “Hobo Chang Ba” I got it. Hobo Chang Ba, the Captain groaned, Hobo Chang Ba, and suddenly all was clear. What exactly made it so clear I do not know, but suddenly the frantic clattering music made perfect sense. It still does, most of my lifetime later. Forty years can make a man’s eyes, a Beefheart fan’s eyes, flow out water, salt water.
Great. Put It Where You Want it again. It’s been days now. I deliberately left a big stack of LPs of all kinds right in front of the turntable and what do I do? Just drop the tone arm on the record already on there. You try to take it off again after hearing those first descending chords on that way groovy electric piano. Then in comes the way funky guitar picking out the single noted melody at a mellow strut. This has been in my head since it was a hit on an AM station in funky town Anaheim during Richard Nixon’s first term. I lived in funkier town Brea but the station was in Anaheim. KEZY. They spun the tune on the hour for a week or two and it dug itself in so deep in my brain it even survived all the seizures later. And I’m gonna take it off now? I’m reliving my virgin youth. I was so young I didn’t even know the title was a double entendre. Irony is one of the last things to develop in the human brain, you know. At some point maybe 40 thousand years ago metaphors happened and with them the capacity for irony and Homo sapiens became insufferable. No wonder Neanderthals became extinct. Imagine sharing a cave with us, let alone DNA. That’s some brow ridge you got there honey. You could recite Shakespeare from that thing. Forty millennia later I’m thirteen and digging Put It Where You Want It like a clueless Neanderthal, wiggling my little white butt and humming along. The deejay comes on and says something filthy. I can’t tell. This is how civilization began. Cue the Also Sprach Zarathustra. Or maybe just flip the Crusaders album over to the B side. Or D side. Whatever. It’s a double album, and those were confusing times.
Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
That Astral Weeks review is awfully pretty, gorgeous even. Too bad it’s complete horseshit. It has nothing to do with what the album sounds like and everything to do with Lester Bangs. Not that Lester Bangs wasn’t an interesting guy, but if you’re reviewing a record you should leave yourself at the door. I don’t care how many English classes you’ve had or if you’ve read Baudelaire or can do more acid that Philip K Dick, I just want to know what the album sounds like. The vast majority of music critics seemed to ignore that idea. Lots of pretty words that don’t give you a clue about what the music actually sounds like. If you want to write about yourself, write your memoirs. If you’re going to review an album, let the music do the talking. And if you can’t do that in prose, you’re in the wrong business. Because when you write about music, the only thing that matters is the music. You the critic don’t matter at all.
Here’s a rule of thumb…if you’ve completed a review and it’s one of the best things you’ve ever written in your life, dump it. You probably wrote about yourself.
(Comments posted to a New Yorker piece about Lester Bangs, 8-30-2012)
Listening to Steaming Coils lost masterpiece Breaded–the record, I don’t think it ever came out on CD–and digging Brad Laner’s drums. Way loose, loopy, groovy, just the right pops and splashes, splattery press rolls and punchy bass drum kicked loud under crashing cymbals. It’s all so gloriously unmechanical and organic, and the only other drummer that comes to mind is Jim Capaldi. I have a memory, maybe even true, of telling Brad Laner the Jim Capaldi thing and him saying he was a fan too. Grok. Not many were in those Bonham days. Everyone wanted heavy back then. Not me. I liked loose. That memory would have been at Be Bop records, I think, maybe even at the Breaded release gig. There were few venues then and we’d drive out to the depths of the Valley to stand in the back of a record store and listen to the sounds of the eighties underground. Afterward we’d repair to the biker bar next door and watch hulking Hells Angels play pool as their women tried to start fights. Then we’d hang out on Sherman Way like juvenile delinquents getting stoned with our fellow denizens for the long drive back to Hollywood. Memories. But back to now and I’m listening to the opening cut again. “Carne del Sol” it’s called and I want to know what it says the singers sing. Play it backwards, play it backwards, snare splat, cymbal splash and fade.
Watched an old Dick Cavett show from August 1969 and the Jefferson Airplane, fresh from Woodstock, were fierce. The discombobulation of going from a festival bigger than Buffalo and back to Manhattan by helicopter as they came off the acid was noticeable only for a few minutes and by the time Grace sang motherfucker on national television all was well again. David Crosby and Stephen Stills showed up mudspattered and David talked and talked (coming up on the crowd by helicopter, he said, was like viewing the Macedonian army, the acid in his brain turning the vast throng of hippies into invincible hoplites and horsemen of Alexander the Great….) Stills was mostly mute, as if still overwhelmed but when handed a guitar played brilliantly and I remembered it was he and not Mike Bloomfield on Super Session’s Season of The Witch (another of those free form FM standard long since purged from Classic Rock radio). Joni Mitchell, clean and windblown from the canyon and kicking herself for not going (her manager said go on Cavett instead….amazing how many idiot managers kept their bands off the bill, booking them elsewhere) sounded great but sang too many songs, but then I’ve never been a fan. (It’s a minority opinion, I know….) The Airplane hit the studio stage again with a very tough Somebody To Love, Jorma’s lead stinging and psychedelically hostile, followed by a hard jamming Other Side Of This Life, and as the studio audience began breaking out in frantically groovy dancing Cavett waved the camera off and the credits rolled and the Airplane just got fiercer and fiercer and who knows how long they played past the commercials.