Category Archives: Music

“Success is succession”: The Poetics of a Luthier

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Success is succession”: The Poetics of a Luthier
Bill Collings (August 9, 1948 – July 14, 2017

“Why did the sound of some guitars haunt me while others didn’t?” the luthier Bill Collings remembered asking himself as a young man.

One could ask the same question about poems, and inquire why more poets don’t take the tonal and thematic propensities of their writing more seriously. In poetry, the question that haunts is whether the poem not merely deserves but demands translation. This does not require that the poem be perfect. Imperfection will be inherent in the original, as it was in every guitar that was turned out by Bill Collings’s company, and then put to equally imperfect use by some of the best-known masters of songwriting, including Lyle Lovett, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Keith Richards.

The impact of acknowledging imperfection’s role in the process turns out to be one of the prime motivations for building guitars. “Can you pick the perfect piece of wood? …. Can you make it the perfect thickness?” Collings asks, knowing all too well what the response is. “No, but you can get really close. …. Success is succession, over and over and over, and it comes from failure. Failure, failure, failure — knowing that if you stop, you’re done.”

Bill Collings, Luthier

An Affirmative Fourth of July, 2017

July 4, 2017

July 4, 2016

Donald Trump is in a state of severe psychological distress. He seems to be occupying a hall of mirrors in which Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum conflates with Freud’s musings about the return of the repressed. The most recent Delirium Tremens installment involves the dissemination of a video from an old wrestling show in which he lampoons himself as a Don Quixote vanquishing “fake news.” He may have taken a public oath of office administered by a Supreme Court Justice that grants him residency in the White House, but that speech act did nothing to change his personality, which is that of a narcissistic bully.

A year ago, Linda and I went to Rod Bradley’s house and enjoyed a lovely evening with his friends and family. As dusk began to summon distant glimmers of fireworks at the perimeters of Los Angeles County, we took in the spectacle with little expectation that a malign transmogrification was about to launch itself into public power over social policy. Despite this grim turn in our national self-governance, I choose to celebrate this holiday as an affirmation of the virtues required to stand up to bullies and to punish them for their bad behavior.

Even as we admit how discouraging this travesty of an administration truly is, let us remember how persistent the resistance has been. As we take in this evening’s panoply of lingering bursts of color, let this ritual reinforce the dexterity of our citizenship; let our pledge of allegiance be to a nation that still embraces those who live and work with us out of no other choice of tolerable refuge. Let the despair that drives them here be a reminder of the effusive hope we must sustain amongst ourselves to preserve the viability of this experiment in democracy.

Atomized Fireworks

As the soundtrack anthem for today, here’s a link to my favorite for this occasion:

Hey Baby, It’s the 4th of July (Dave Alvin & X)

For those who wonder about the technology of fireworks, here is a link from one of my favorite websites:

How fireworks get their colors

“Spin, Spider, Spin” – Patty Zeitlin’s Songs for Children

Friday, February 3, 2017

“Spin, Spider, Spin” – Patty Zeitlin’s Songs for Children

In the midst of all the turmoil being generated by the bloated narcissism of a master manipulator, I want to offer all those who have very young children in their care a reminder of a very lovely song that they can play for their children. I first learned of “Spin, Spider, Spin” back in the mid-1970s, when I met a songwriter at the Church in Ocean Park named Patty Zeitlin. Influenced by the folk song movement that was popular in her youth, she was primarily interested in writing songs for children, and often collaborated with another woman named Marcia Berman. If I remember correctly, they also were part of a puppet theater company that went around to schools. She eventually moved north to Seattle, and has remained active in working for peace and reconciliation. She put out several albums, including one entitled “My Mommy Is a Doctor,” that offers role models in its lyrics. Her work as an songwriter deserves a lifetime achievement award. Here is a link to today’s featured song (and another one as the “B” side):

From the Archives: Spin Spider Spin by Patty Zeitlin

Don Waller: In Memoriam

Friday, November 18, 2016

My friend, Richard Agata, called me yesterday afternoon with the news that Don Waller died on Tuesday, November 15. While Don is probably best known as being the author of “The Motown Story,” he was also a musician, song-writer, music critic and historian, as well as a journalist who brought his skeptical stare to everything he edited. When it was time to do a final check on the boards we were about to send to the printer, there was no one I more trusted to be in the chair scanning the pasted-up columns.

For ten years (1985-1995) I worked alongside Don at Radio & Records, and it was a privilege to have a chance to see a professional at work in a field where many aspire, and most falter. It was an industry newspaper, and as such it was as much a part of the music industry as a newspaper enterprise. Our stand-out distinction was the integrity of our charts. You could buy an advertisement in our newspaper, but you couldn’t buy a boost in the chart position. We recorded what stations were actually playing, and if they decided to cheat on their reports, they risked losing being a reporter to our charts. My sense is that it was a risk that few were willing to take.

It was a weekly newspaper, and the schedule could be grueling. Even if one were inclined to shop on Black Friday, few of us at R&R ever did more than sleep that day. Monday of that week was a normal eight to nine hour shift, and then Tuesday would be a 14 hour shift, usually ending around 1:30 a.m. We would then return around 10:30 a.m. the next morning to work a ten to eleven hour shift to get all the work done that would normally be done on a Thursday and Friday. Waking up on Thanksgiving morning and starting to cook that day’s dinner took every bit of commitment I could summon. My guess is that Don Waller didn’t bother sleeping Wednesday night. He was as precise and devoted to perfection around the stove burners as he was at the keyboard.

The work ethic at R&R, epitomized by Don Waller’s relentless enthusiasm, has carried over into my academic life. There are people I meet at the university who simply wouldn’t last at a place such as R&R. They couldn’t cut it, and Don would be the first to let them know, though not in a confrontational way. As Lucie Morris, my dear friend and fellow typesetter, noted in her Facebook post, Don’s nonchalant humor was inspirational. One night, decompressing at 2:15 a.m. around a long production table, Don mimicked a recently hired worker in the news sections who had explained her indolent work pace at that morning’s meeting: “I don’t want to burn out.”

“Baby, you haven’t even caught on fire yet,” he had retorted.

She was gone within another six weeks, and it surprised us all to hear that she had landed a job at a well-known news outlet in Washington, D.C., which must have obviously had a less challenging culture than its reputation would have suggested.

Don had been a musician in his youth and had a band called Imperial Dogs, which would have had more success had it launched itself two years laters in the early years of punk rock. In 1974, the world was not yet ready for confrontational rock and roll. For Don, though, shifting from guitar to typewriter allowed him to use his considerable intelligence in a way that gave his performances as a writer an enduring presence in the conversation.

“The Motown Story” is out-of-print, but is far from being unavailable. Over 300 libraries around the world have the book in their stacks, and I guarantee that you will get something out of this book. I still quote his comment about the relationship between the bass guitar and the drums as a way to help students understand what vowels and consonants are doing in a line of poetry.

Don knew I was a poet and that I organized readings in the community. A few months after I was no longer working at R&R, I set up one of my favorite readings, pairing Ellen Sander, whose first chapbook is being published this fall, and Don Waller. My recollection is that Richard Agata did the flyer. I have rarely worked as hard to make a reading successful, and the raucous applause of a large crowd that afternoon in October, 1995 was all the reward I needed.

Don stepped off-stage in the full spotlight of a supermoon. I bow to his presence in my life, as I will bow to his absence. Whatever chance conjugations brought a force field named Don Waller into the universe, I can only say I am grateful to have met him and to have worked with him. He is the only person I have ever met that I would trust to do liner notes for my next spoken word project. The old saying that “the graveyard’s full of irreplaceable people” doesn’t hold true in Don’s case. There isn’t anyone to replace him. The kind of obsessive discipline that drove him to demand more knowledge about music, each and every day he lifted his ears to listen, can’t be found anymore.

Affectionate nostalgia is often a narcissistic luxury, and yet I will indulge. How else can I describe the recollection of those moments passing in the hall at R&R when we would pause and somehow pull it all together: the work, the music, the need to do both, the honor of the ordinary moment under pressure in the company of an extraordinary comrade. Thank you, Don. I say farewell with a very heavy heart.

DON WALLER
September 1, 1951 – November 17.2016

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-don-waller-20161118-story.html

http://www.allaccess.com/net-news/archive/story/159922/r-r-s-don-waller-passes-away
Joel Denver

http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Writer/don-waller

Remembering Don Waller


Steve Hochman

http://www.laweekly.com/music/rip-don-waller-influential-music-journalist-and-imperial-dog-7625759
John Payne

The Gallantry of Bob Dylan, Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE GALLANTRY OF BOB DYLAN, WINNER OF THE 2016 NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

A dozen or so years ago, as I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Program at Revelle College at UCSD, I had the good fortune to be assigned to William Arctander (“Billy”) O’Brien, an absolutely brilliant professor whose specialties included the final installment of a “Great Books” survey for undergraduates, most of whom were pre-med students. This intellectual forced march began in the Winter quarter of the students’ first year, and often started with Homer and Plato. By the end of their sophomore year, in the fifth quarter, the students were often reading Nietzsche and Beckett. O’Brien was the first professor I ever met who included Bob Dylan on his syllabus for this course, and O’Brien most certainly should be savoring his prescience in acknowledging the canonical value of Bob Dylan’s writing. So, too, should Steve Axelrod, whose recent three-volume anthology of American poetry includes a solid set of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (in Volume three, “Postmodernisms”). O’Brien, though, was far ahead of the curve and deserves considerable applause for his academic courage.

Following O’Brien’s example, I also teach Bob Dylan’s lyrics as part of a “Survey on Poetry” course at CSULB, and have always been puzzled at the unwillingness of so many other professors to include him. I doubt that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Bob Dylan will change their minds. For many contemporary poets, not much has changed since Robert Lowell conceded in the mid-1960s that Bob Dylan had written some fragments that might be considered poetry, but that he had not written anything that stood on its own all the way through as a poem. Lowell was essentially saying that music had to intervene and prolong the poetic touch of Dylan’s lyrics at the point that language failed in his verses.

It is after citing Lowell in my classes that the students read “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” No music is played; no singing is heard. We look at the words on the page, and ask if they hold up as a poem. Indeed, the words do sustain the entire poem, and even more remarkably, it also turns out to have been set to a quietly imploring melody. Having established that Bob Dylan’s writing does more than partake of the “poetic,” but unfolds its essential imaginative logic with as much negative capability as Keats ever asked of a poem, we move on to a consideration of David Antin’s observation that Dylan is essentially a collage artist, a description that is most useful when examining “Desolation Row.”

Since teaching Literature always involves introducing student to formal terms, it is at this point that I define epistrophe for the students, and during my remarks on “Desolation Row” I offer other examples of this rhetorical technique. I noticed that the newspaper articles carrying the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature cite many of the musical influences on Bob Dylan, as well as those whose work he has in turn influenced. Not a single article has mentioned Robert Burns, the poet whom Dylan acknowledged as having influenced his songwriting. In particular, of course, Burns would have been an influence in Dylan’s use of epistrophe, starting with “Hard Rain” and “Desolation Row.” “Tangled Up in Blue” remains one of the masterful instances of that ancient rhetorical arrangement, and it would behoove contemporary poets to follow Dylan’s example and draw upon Burns as a model.

One of the pivotal questions about Bob Dylan’s status as a writer and poet is ultimately not about him, but about his audience, for it is not just the selection of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) for this award that irks those who still cling to Robert Lowell’s assessment. Rather, it is the gnawing suspicion that this award in some way legitimates the audience that Dylan’s writings and music have attracted. “Do the people in his audiences read other books? Other poets?” Behind the all too foreseeable backlash to Dylan’s award, it will not be too difficult to detect a residual fear of the illiterate masses, whose preferences are easily seduced by a charismatic performance in the oral tradition.

I have no doubt that a significant number of people who listen to Dylan’s songs do not spend much time reading the poetry found in contemporary anthologies. His audience, however, also includes many poets whose commitment to their art was shaped by his vision of the public role that a poet could play, if only one dared to be audacious enough. Such a quest requires the one quality that Dylan himself assessed as possibly being the most enduring virtue of his writing: a sense of gallantry. I call upon those who feel reluctant to applaud the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan to remind themselves of this archaic ideal and to reexamine their own lives and writing within that context.

Post-script:
Thanks to Twitter, I learned of a link to a very thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan by Robert Polito:

http://riggio.americanvanguardpress.com/portfolio/bob-dylans-memory-palace-robert-polito/

Bernie Sanders and the NSA – A Double-Take on Paul Simon’s “America”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The use of Paul Simon’s “America” by Bernie Sanders’s campaign has generated considerable commentary, which is why I’m aware of it. I’m hardly an accessible target audience; it’s been a while since I’ve seen an advertisement on television or even heard one on a radio. In point of fact, very little advertising for presidential campaign runs in California except during primary season. Why waste precious dollars in a state that is in its current political make-up a foregone conclusion? If Sanders continues to use this ad at all, however, he should be prepared to be asked about the obvious excision from the song and the policy choices he would have to make if he were elected president.

The song, you’ll remember, is a free verse poem (note that there are no rhymes in it), about two young people doing their own version of Kerouac’s On the Road. The reality is less glamorous than the fantasy: “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,” and the fade-out image of cars streaming by the bus on the New Jersey Turnpike suggests that the urban reality of New York City just ahead of them at the Port Authority will be less than comforting. In fact, let us consider what that turnpike image shifts into. The next song on the “Bookends” album is “Save the Life of My Child,” which mocks a New York police officer’s comment on young people: “The kids got no respect for the law today, and blah blah blah.” The two songs, a la Sergeant Pepper’s, flow musically one into the other with not a hemidemisemiquaver of a pause, as if to say, “Hey, Kathy and your young poet friend, this is what awaits you.”

What no one seems to have remarked on, though, is the elimination in the advertisement of the dialogue in the first part of the song. “Laughing on the bus playing games with the faces / She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. / I said, “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” It’s a playful send-up of the paranoia at that time among the counter-culture of the government’s intrusion into daily life, and how people were even then being monitored and tracked. Simon’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humor defuses the genuine fear that many young people felt at the time. The question of police state monitoring cannot be so easily laughed off now. So what is Bernie Sanders planning to do with the National Security Agency? The NSA is looking for America, too, but not in the way that Simon’s song portends.

David Bowie and “Music for Airports”

Monday morning, January 11, 2016

Present tense entry:

I wake up (6:30 a.m.) and check my e-mail. Near the top is a subject line from the Huffington Post: “The Legacy of David Bowie.” A very slight unease seeps up, but I don’t fret as such. Two lines further down, the LA Times puts it bluntly: David Bowie has died. The hastily written Times article, unfortunately, is more of a list of his albums and collaborators than anything else. The bottom of the article lists several links, though, so I go to the NY Times article on Sunday, July 11, 1971. Section D, page 23, and I hit unexpected cultural treasure. No, it’s not the nostalgic prophecy of Bowie’s emergence from the music underground.

Instead, adjacent to the article, which takes up two and a half column inches total and is spread out over one full column and three half-columns, are two advertisements taking up the entire rest of the page, both ads featuring one of the following:
A) a used car dealership announcing its first clearance sale of 1970 models
B) a grocery stores chain with specials on fish and coffee
C) a record store and audio equipment outlet
D) a furniture store announcing 25% percent off sale on Lazy-Boy recliners

If you guessed “C,” then you astutely asked yourself who would most likely be supplying the money for the NY Times to write a check to the author of the article on Bowie and Marc Bolan that allows the Times to call itself something other than an advertising circular. (In case you didn’t know, a publication must feature a certain percentage of its page space as “news” or “public information” in order to qualify as a newspaper. The current LA Weekly is a fine example of a publication that strives to meet that minimum and print nothing else beyond that that might require someone be paid for it; in order words, maximize the ratio of advertisements to news articles in order to increase the profit of each sheet of paper.)

“The World’s Largest Record and Audio Dealer” is the claim for the Sam Goody ‘ad’ (the word is put in quote marks), which you must bring with you in order to take advantage of the following special:
6 Days Only
from July 12 through July 17
Every LP and Pre-Recorded Tape
EVERY LP and PRE-RECORDED TAPE (bullet) in OUR HUGE
INVENTORY of THESE SEVEN TOP LABELS
• COLUMBIA * BUDDAH * KAMA-SUTRA
• ANGEL * HOTWAX* CURTOM* SUSSEX
ALL AT THE EXTRA SPECIAL SALE PRICE OF 25% OFF OUR LOW EVERDAY STORE SALE PRICES
•NEW RELEASES, SPECIAL AND LIMITED EDITIONS ON THE SEVEN LISTED LABELS ARE INCLUDED.

(It should be noted that one band does receive some publicity in the advertisement: BLOOD, SWEAT, & TEARS runs in a vertical banner along the left hand side of the larger ad, accompanied by a smaller ad for audio equipment. Beneath the above promotional offer there is also the following announcement: “Now available on Angel Records” “The Musical Enchantment of the Year” – Peter Rabbit and Tales of Beatrix Potter.)

The prominence of labels in this advertisement rather than individual musical artists suggests that its target audience (the record-buying public, i.e., customers who might make use of an American Express, Master Card or Uni-Card credit line) is familiar with those labels enough to know that the music they want to get a bargain on is included in this sale. That labels are advertised in the sale rather than individual artists suggests something about the cultural work being done by the record companies that deserves more attention, in much the same way that book publishers need to be the through-line of surveys of literature.

* * *
In memory of David Bowie, I am not playing any of his songs as I finish this post and prepare to load it onto my blog. Instead, I have his collaborator Brian Eno’s Music for Airports playing. If one were to write about Bowie as an artist at any length and with any substantial appreciation, it would behoove those who do so to spend time addressing the projects of those he collaborated with instead of isolating Bowie in the obstreperous cocoon of pop music adulation.

“I am a DJ / I am what I play.”
Here’s what I’d play today after Eno, and then after this baker’s dozen of a set list, Eno again.

“Rebel, Rebel”
“Cracked Actor”
“Under Pressure”
“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”
“Panic in Detroit”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
“Candidate”
“Starman”
“Breaking Glass”
“The Jean Genie”
“Ashes to Ashes”
“Hang on to Yourself”
“Heroes”

Post-script added 12 or so hours later:
Music as gestural poetry, and lyrics that gestured with music. All on a very intelligent, visceral level. He was a masterful accomplice of accessible astonishment.

Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

“night blossoms shooting color through the darkness”: Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

In the spring of 1965, the Rolling Stones released a single featuring a pair of songs that would appear on their next U.S. album: “The Last Time” and “Play with Fire.” If their follow-up single, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” reverberated like the coming of a sonic messiah, then “The Last Time” was its Baptist. Indeed, “The Last Time” still remains a song that marks a collision point of old pop music poetics giving way to a new dimension of consciousness. While the lyrics focus on the all too familiar trope of a love tryst gone sour, the song’s pristine, mesmerizing riff is something else altogether: it is a clarion call of subversive affirmation, embodying the desire for each day to be first time. Each repetition of the riff cascades like a waterfall of renewal. It is water sweetened in some primeval aquifer, as if it had finally spurted from the depths in which it has waited since the first human being played a musical instrument.

The history of the Rolling Stones remains a subject fraught with partisanship and loyalties formed at a young age. Not just fans’ loyalties, but the members of the band themselves established their loyalties early on, and they have continued to play out in the past half century, especially in a pair of autobiographies, Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone and Keith Richards’s Life. Richards claims that he remembers everything, and his account possesses an insidious charm. There’s a tall tale quality to his carnivalesque grotesquerie, and quite a few people, including the judges for the Norman Mailer Prize, succumbed to its puckish blend of show business cynicism and addled turpitude. One finds oneself almost willing to excuse profoundly outrageous behavior, even by the standard of bohemian self-indulgence.

In remembering everything, it’s not surprising that one might still recall things that feel like scores to be settled, and there’s nothing like a sock puppet, of course, to give yourself license to vent; since Richards is the casting director, he trots out his favorite one: Brian Jones, the founding musician of the Rolling Stones. He would have been smarter to be more generous to a man that many have forgotten was even in the band; a more balanced assessment of Jones’s contributions to the earliest years of the Rolling Stones, including the music he wrote for their songs, might well have satisfied those who value giving credit where it’s due. Richards chose otherwise, however, and a recent biography of Brian Jones by Paul Trynka seems to have been motivated in part as a rebuttal of Richards’s virulent portrayal of Jones.

I suspect Trynka was just as irritated as I was about many of Richards’s claims. Of course, one might claim that no one is supposed to take seriously Richards’s mendacity when he claims that he remembers “everything.” On one hand, it could be said that we are expected as sophisticated readers (or even as relatively naïve ones) to regard such a claim as comically dubious, but artists in the raffish hero mold are often experts in converting ironic sincerity into autobiographical verisimilitude. In turn, these accounts transmogrify into facts that distort the lives and contributions of others to an important artistic legacy. Legends smudge themselves, and not just with self-legitimatings herbs.

Let us revisit Richards’s Life and see how he splices his memory. On page 173, about a third of the way through the book, Richards begins a three-sentence paragraph with a contextual comment about the band’s early glory days  “ ‘The Last Time’ was recorded during a magical period at the RCA Studios in Hollywood.” Ah, and pray tell, Keith, why was it “magical”? Rather than elaborate on the collaborative nature of their musical magic, Richards opts to undercut that assessment by sticking his petulant middle finger in the sock puppet’s face: “It was the period where everything – songwriting, recording, performing – stepped into a new league, and the time when Brian started going off the rails.” The implication of this statement is that “Mick and I stepped up our game and Brian began to be a drag.”

This is the only reference to Brian Jones in the paragraphs devoted to “The Last Time,” a song that has just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Let’s think about that increment of time and its impact on popular music: How many songs hold up after half a century? Paul Williams, whose lucid commentary in Rock n Roll: The 100 Best Singles remains required reading for anyone interested in the potential of this form of music to prove enduring, selected “The Last Time” as one of those 100 best songs. His praise for “a masterpiece” that “turned his life around in spring ’65”  includes that rarely acknowledged worker in the music industry, the sound engineer. In terms of the myths that accrue around artistic production, one cannot help but notice the subservient role that Jones’s musicianship is accorded in the parenthetical position of giving the engineer his due: “(Dave Hassinger) did his job in getting “Keith’s guitar (and Brian’s, too) to sound like that.”

The problem is that the wrong name went into the parenthesis, for the sound that Paul Williams found so alluring is misattributed; it was not Keith Richards who was the “riff master” that he claims to be in his memoir, but rather Brian Jones who came up with the riff that makes “The Last Time” one of the best singles released in the past half-century. Unfortunately, songwriting credits seem to have a great deal of influence on how credit is awarded, and I’m no different than millions of other people. I, too, always assumed that Richards came up with that mesmerizing riff for “The Last Time.” His name is listed as the co-writer of the song, and make no mistake about it: that riff is the meaning of the song. Without it, you have a fairly banal, country ditty that isn’t much more inspired than their previous single, “It’s All Over Now,” which anyone with halfway sensitive ears has to wonder how it charted at all. That Jagger-Richards cadged their main phrase for “The Last Time” from a Pointer Sisters’ recording of a traditional song to push together a haughty rejection song is well known. That Richards still refuses to give Jones credit for the only (but what an only!) piece of imagination musicianship in the song is nothing short of pathetic, disguised self-pity for his own inability in that instance to produce imaginative music.

Let’s mull over what the late Paul Williams has to say: “So let us consider the riff. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. Keith plays the same figure over and over throughout every verse of the song ….  like a drone, a mantra, one of those Eastern devices that doesn’ t make a lot of sense to a western set of values….. the riff transforms the simple-minded drive of the song into something transcendent, point counterpoint, night blossoms shooting color through the darkness. A jumping-off point for many music’s to come, from heavy metal to punk to psychedelia. An unstoppable opener.” (Williams,  77-78). This poetic praise for Jones’s creative musicianship would seem to be the primary basis for Williams’s ranking of “The Last Time” as number 30 in this list of the Top 100; “Satisfaction,” which usually is regarded as their non plus ultra ranks as number 34. As a total performance of a song, “Satisfaction” is in fact far superior. Its lyrics are a thousand times better, but that was Jagger’s job, one he didn’t always do so well in the early period (1964-1967). If “The Last Time” surpasses that accomplishment, the distinction is owed to a musician that Led Zepplein’s Jimmy Page called “really gifted and innovative.”[i] Williams’s description of Jones’s riff as “night blossom shooting color through the darkness” accurately catches Jones the musician as perhaps the first gestural guitarist of rock and roll.

Richards surely must know that people give him credit for the music that makes “The Last Time” an enduring work of art. It will always be flawed by Jagger’s sophomoric lyrics, but Jones’s riff makes the verbal aspect almost an afterthought. (It must conceded, of course, that Jagger’s vocal is superbly on target, which helps compensate.) The sad consequence of being rich and famous is that you become inured to questions of integrity. If you know that other people admire you for being creative, but you didn’t do the work that you are admired for, a question of ethics would ordinarily come into play, but when you are one of a handful of legendary figures in popular music, you siphon off anything that does not fit your self-image. Perhaps you have been able to convince the less creative members of the band to go along with your songwriting scheme and they didn’t object when your childhood friend and you claim credit for work you didn’t do, but don’t compound the error in your memoir and expect that everyone will still continue to admire you.

The question of how a song is composed and how a record of that song is made is only of the more blurred categories in artistic production. Richards has said that Jones’s talent was closer to that of “an interpreter” of songs than a songwriter. Indeed, he can point to several dozen instances of such a contribution by Jones in the catalogue of songs written by Jagger and Richards. The role that Jones played would fall in these cases under the title of “arranger,” and from the start of their recording career, the Stones refused to let others arrange their songs. “Arranged by the Rolling Stones,” ran the credit on the back of the album sleeve. It was just part of the change in the music business. Not only did bands now expect themselves to write their own songs, but they eliminated that well paid role of “arranger” from the recording studio.

ln reinforcing the argument of a song, an arranger indeed interprets. But you must first have a song before you can interpret it. You can’t interpret something unless it’s finished. Joe Cocker did an interpretation of “With a Little Help from my Friends.” Elton John did a mediocre interpretation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When Brian Jones was in the studio with Jagger and Richards, the essential rhetorical gestures of “Under My Thumb” were nowhere to be heard until Jones had his moment of inspiration.

Let’s get this straight: a great song is rhetorical in its melodic intensity. It persuades you as effectively as anything written by Cicero or Samuel Johnson because it contains the “point, counterpoint” of some deep pulse of human apprehension. To limit Jones’s contribution to “Under My Thumb” to being an “arranger” is to pretend somehow that the main argument of the song is not vocalized by the marimba, which Jones wields like a master sushi chef, who has not only gone out on the ocean of his own inner demons and caught an elusive trophy of a fish, he has deftly carved it.  His bandmate, Bill Wyman, puts it bluntly, “Without it, you don’t really have a song, do you?”

The case for Jones deserving songwriting credit extends to songs that did not become hits, too. “Gomper,” which contains an extended musical composition that veers far away from the song’s initial melody, is one of the ten best things that the Stones did, at least in terms of harmonic complexity. It is my own personal favorite in terms of music. Jagger’s lyrics are dismally banal, unfortunately. The extended section ofmusic shows what Jones might have moved in the direction of had he not succumbed to drug addiction.

One of the songs in the RS canon that almost from its first airplay seemed to raise the question of songwriting credit was “Ruby Tuesday,” which Jagger has acknowledged as a song to which he made no contribution. Richards, of course, claims that he wrote it as a solo effort, and perhaps he did. Yet one wonders: is it not more than a little likely that Jones was in the studio and played a fragment of melody, which Richards then took and expanded upon? Such a scenario is very believable, especially when we have the testimony of Bill Wyman that the main driving riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is his creation. It must be said that Wyman’s riff has its roots in Richards’ classic riff in “Satisfaction.” The opening two notes are virtually the same, but what Wyman did in the next several notes to provide the core of the song deserves acknowledgement in the songwriting credit. Wyman left much later than Taylor, and for different reasons, or so it was made out to be. That two survivors of the band both make claims about the lack of songwriting credit and point to specific songs as instances of creative work for which they deserve credit has to serve as a red flag that something is also probably amiss in regards to Jones’s songwriting credits.

Part of the problem with doubting the claims of Jagger-Richards that songwriting credit should not have been shared, in a half-dozen or so cases, with Jones is that there is a pattern of poaching on other’s people imaginative work. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the selfishness of the Jagger-Richards outfit is that Jones’s successor in the band had much the same experience, except that he lived to tell of it. Mick Taylor has specifically spoken of his expectations that he would get songwriting credit and his belief that he deserved the credit. In particular, he has cited such songs as “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” as examples of his collaborative efforts. His choice of songs to claim credit for is also revealing for its modesty. Without his long, extraordinary guitar solo that glides with glossy, mouth-puckering swirls of precise delicacy, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” would be one of the more forgettable songs in the Stones repertoire. It would get very few nominations as one of the top 100 songs. Backed by the plangent saxophone of Bobby Keys, Taylor takes the wheel in that song and shows Richards why he was the right choice to replace Jones, who indeed had fallen prey to drug and alcohol addiction at a very young age.

Taylor’s complaints about the unwillingness of Jagger and Richards to give him songwriting credit are nowhere mentioned in Trynka’s biography, which could have benefitted from footnotes. Perhaps the publisher would have felt that footnotes would have undermined the book’s sales potential. I can’t think, however, of anything that would substantiate the suspicion that Jagger and Richards behaved in an unethical manner in claiming sole songwriting credit for so many of their compositions. One  example of such annotation would be the experience of Marianne Faithful, who co-wrote a song called “Sister Morphine,” the first version was recorded with the Rolling Stones and contained her name as one of the authors of the song. How is it possible that the songwriting credit could be appropriated by Jagger and Richards when they recorded the song later and released it on “Sticky Fingers”?2

Finally, we need to consider the motive and it’s the one that impels all too many selfish agendas. In Life, it’s worth noting the passage about how Richards enjoys the physical presence of the money his songwriting has earned. I have no doubt it was a thrill — and who could quarrel with a young working-class man’s right to feel delighted and amazed that he could make his way through the world with tangible prosperity. But surely one can also read between the lines and see how temptation could prove overwhelming? Songwriting, and not touring, is the key to fortune and Richards and Jagger set to work accumulating as much of it as possible.

That Jagger and Richards have had enormously successful musical careers – and would have had these careers regardless of whether they had met Jones – is not the issue under debate. Paul Trynka’s book, however, reopens the question of artistic and ethical integrity. Until the surviving members of this indefatigable band acknowledge their errors in diminishing Jones’s contributions, this distant but lingering stain will always subtract from their accomplishments.


1[i]  Harvey Kubernik. “Brian Jones Revisited,” Record Collector (Burbank, CA: February-March, 2015, issue 45. 22. Kubernik’s interviews, conversations and e-mail exchanges with Bill Wyman, Jimmy Page, Andy Babiuk, Kim Fowley, and Danniel Weizmann supplement Trynka’s biography. Trynka himself, at the beginning of Kubernk’s article, is quoted as saying to Kubernik that “(Brian Jones) was a genius, and a car-crash, a beguiling, endlessly fascinating character…. He’s not a victim – he’s a visionary.” (11). My thanks to Dizzy, the owner of Dizzy Vinyl on 7th Street in Long Beach for providing me with a copy of this magazine, which I had missed at the time of its publication. The contrast between Trynka’s summary of Jones’s brief life and enduring musical legacy and the afterglow of Richards’s biography is exemplified in Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times (October 25, 2010). The only reference to Jones in that adulatory article is Richards’s characterization of him as a “sort of freak, devouring celebs and fame and attention.” If Richards’s account had been more balanced, Kakutani might well have composed a comment with somewhat more equipoise, e.g, “success turned his once brilliant band mate, Brian Jones, into a sort of freak etc.” Richards set out to destroy the memory of Jones as anything other than a distasteful disaster, and Kakutani’s review would seem to confirm that Richards accomplished that with considerable aplomb.

2 The Rolling Stones (or the band with that name with three of the original five musicians) are currently on a 15 city tour of the United States to promote the re-release of Sticky Fingers, the album on which “Sister Morphine” appears. One Rolling Stones album that is virtually guaranteed never to receive re-release with a backing tour is Aftermath, on which Jomes’s contributions are so manifest that it will only once again raise the uncomfortable questions of creative credit for the music.

— Bill Mohr: billmohrpoet.com

Associate Professor, Department of English, California State University, Long Beach 90840-2403

William.Mohr@csulb.edu

Alive Inside / I Need That Record

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In the next room, I can hear the interviews and voiceover from a film about the disappearance of record stores, “I Need That Record.” Lenny Kaye is talking about holding the artifact of the record and its ability to summon a time and place. Putting aside the critique of being caught up in the vortex of a commodity fetish and disjuncture addressed by Benjamin in his classic essay about art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Kaye’s yearning for that kind of encounter aligns itself with my own fondness for small press magazines and chapbooks from the 1970s and 1980s.

I took a peek at some of Brendan Toller’s film just now, and it showed the store space of a record store completely vacated and cleaned up. The former owner is heard saying, “There’s not a trace that anything happened here, that any band played here, that anybody met somebody here” and that what he misses is “community.” That kind of evacuation and erasure is not specific to record stores, of course. It is an essential part of the reproduction of social life in capitalism, and it amounts to a kind of Alzheimer’s disease of cultural meaning.

Oddly enough, Linda and I happened to watch another documentary film the night before: Alive Inside: the Story of Music and Memory. In this film, a social worker (Dan Cohen) undertakes the project of trying to stimulate women and men who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in assisted care nursing facilities. He discovers that the one way to “wake them up” is to provide them with electronic devices that can play a large backlist of music that would have been familiar to them as young people. Almost immediately, these individuals begin to respond to the music by being able to talk about their experience of hearing the music and moving their bodies in response to the beat. It may be true that corporate America has requisitioned both the pharmaceutical treatment of aging people as well as how people listen to the music that helps define their youthful years, but it appears that the power they wield is not so all encompassing that it can seduce individuals such as Dan Cohen away from finding palliative care that restores the plasticity of memory.

Go to musicandmemory.org for further information.

BIRDMAN — “When did you take a risk?”

BIRDMAN (Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Linda and I went to a matinee of Birdman yesterday, not being any more familiar with the work of the director than of its most famous actor, Michael Keaton. I’ve never seen any of the Batman movies, and it’s more than likely that I’ll never get around to viewing them. As a professor at UCSD liked to say, though, “You don’t need to read some things. The culture has read them for you.”

The aspect I enjoyed the most was a chance to look at a Broadway stage from the vantage of the stage itself. The theatricality of the movie kept me interested, even when the over-the-top meltdown of the protagonist seemed to pull the script in unbelievable directions. At times, it seemed as if the film forgot that Broadway is not art: it is a business — show business. It’s about enlarging dramatically and comically intimate moments into gestures capable of being perceived from fifty to eighty yards away in such a way that people buy tickets to see it happen. To make a film about the production of a play in which this aspect is relegated to subjective disintegration left me looking for allegorical levels of meaning; allegory, unfortunately, is on back order these orders, and it’s a long wait. Style, though, can compensate for a lot of shortcoming, and this film has style to spare. As short on time as I am, I somehow have to find a way to see this director’s other movies. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is someone I hope gets a chance to still be making films forty years from now.

As brilliant as the cinematography is, Birdman’s script could have used one more draft. The drama of Birdman focuses on an actor who is trying to salvage his ego. Since show business is the worst place to undertake that kind of self-reclamation, the story has problematic incidents. In the opening scenes of the movie, for instance, rehearsals for a play based on Raymond Carver’s writing are not going well. One of the actors is not pulling his weight. He gets eliminated from the cast by an “accident,” in which a leko drops on him. Keaton’s character confesses to his lawyer that it wasn’t an accident. While this event certainly portends the protagonist’s breakdown, it doesn’t match reality of show business enough. I simply don’t believe that an actor that bad would have been cast in the first place. I have to retract that statement. Bad casting happens more frequently than the principals in many shows would care to recall. On the other hand, was such an extravagant discharge necessary to generate the aggravated self-destructive trajectory of a “has-been” actor attempting a come-back? Well, perhaps so. In an odd way, this film reminded me of “Sunset Boulevard”; a marinated pathos exudes from the story-line, which we watch with fascinated repulsion.

“Birdman” at times seems like a variation on an aging rock star trashing the dressing room in all too familiar tantrum. (There was — for me, at least — a distant echo of Sam Shepard’s “The Tooth of Crime.”) Comic relief is provided just in time, at the spot when according to the man at Art Theater’s candy stand, some people decide to take a cigarette break themselves. The scene in which Keaton’s character is trapped outside of the theater in his bathrobe, and he must squirm out of it in order to run around the theater and enter through the front door, is a classic moment: all the overwhelming anxiety any of us might have experienced at being caught naked in a crowd is encapsulated in a “bad dream” that is poignantly hilarious. The magnification of this scene in social media provided just the right note of absurdity to make it all the more delicious.

All the actors in Birdman will be able to look back on this project with genuine pride. The actor challenges the theater critic: “When did you ever take a risk?” For the most part, this cast brought a degree of legitimate risk to their commitment. With luck, they’ll get a chance to work together again.

Most entrepreneurs of plasticity in all its forms realize that the most delightful moments of a work’s development involve palimpsestual layering. The choice to include the most famous monologue from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” falls short of being the underpinning that was hoped for, however. A more complementary selection from Shakespeare would be a short speech by Caliban from “The Tempest,” one in which he is addressing Ariel. (A cover of “Field” poetry magazine with Duncan Bell as Ariel in a 1988 production of “The Tempest” is on top of the table I am typing this on: the source of this chance suggestion.) Or, at the very least, the actor’s daughter could have been named Miranda.

Finally (and it’s not fair that this aspect is relegated to the final paragraph), the score to the film deserves consideration. It should be noted that the drummer provides a sane counterpoint of percussive determination to the “sound and fury,” and his inclusion in the play was worthy of the early work of Tennessee Williams.

This film is a must-see, and don’t wait for it to be available on DVD. It’s a mandatory big screen viewing.