Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XXIV

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (photo by Mary Ellen Matthews)

I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. But for the last 40 years, Petty and The Heartbreakers helped keep some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” a plaintive ballad like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played. I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that he and The Heartbreakers "didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.”

                                                                              ***

“It’s always been my contention that the music that was happening during the Fifties has been one of the finest things that ever happened to American music, and I loved it,” Frank Zappa once explained. “I could sit down and write a hundred more of the Fifties-type songs right now and enjoy every minute of it.” So he did, long before creating The Mothers. With singer Ray Collins, he composed “Memories of El Monte,” an affectionate tribute to doo-wop, for Cleave Duncan, the former lead singer of the Penguins (“Earth Angel”). But Zappa and Collins also played against the sentiment inherent in the song.

“Memories of El Monte” opens with the narrator pining for the woman he once loved, and the memories they shared dancing to classic R&B at El Monte Legion Stadium. The first half of the song is pure doo-wop: "Remember the dance / I held you so tight / The Five Satins were singing 'In the Still of the Night'." Cleave Duncan sings those lines with a resigned wistfulness, as if his romantic aspirations had suddenly turned to sorrow. “Now I’m alone / I’m sitting here crying,” he continues. But midway through, he rouses himself from his despair and recalls the songs that made those dances at El Monte so grand. He lists the tunes as if he were scanning a jukebox full of favorites in his head: “You Cheated, You Lied” by The Shields, “You’re a Thousand Miles Away” by The Heartbeats, Marvin and Johnny’s “Cherry Pie,” Tony Allen & The Champs’ “Nite Owl.” Then in a moment of pure magic that brings the past and present together, he becomes Cleave Duncan of the Penguins singing “Earth Angel.”

Zappa and Collins cleverly worked sections of these tunes into the song, making them all sound like choruses from the same number. This brilliant bit of arranging makes the listener aware of how important a song’s hook is in making us pine for the past. In this way, “Memories of El Monte” strips away the song’s nostalgic qualities, leaving only the beauty of the melodies it conjures up.




                                                                                 ***

When I was at Sheridan College in the mid-seventies, I worked part-time at A&A Records on Yonge St. in Toronto (right next door to the famous Sam the Record Man) to make some extra money to keep me in school. My shifts comprised of supervising the tape department where the now-defunct 8-track and cassette tapes were sold. It was a pretty lively – never boring – era downtown where body rub parlours, numerous strip joints and florescent-lit magazine stores surrounded us. Most nights, we drew a motley cast of characters from those trying to lift records (one guy even tried to steal our winter rug at the front door) to sex workers looking for music to get their clients off. I was often called upon to provide tapes to inspire those heights of ecstasy, and apparently I was so good at selecting just the right mood music that I was offered a freebie for my trouble. I declined.

One summer night, a guy came in to buy the new Lou Reed double album, Metal Machine Music, on 8-Track for his car. Since it had just arrived that day, I had yet to hear the record and knew little of its content. Within an hour, the customer returned, somewhat perplexed that the tape was defective. "I started playing it in my car and all I could hear was this loud, shrieking noise," he told me. Assuming that the tape was dragging along the playback heads due to poor spooling (a common occurrence among defective 8-tracks), I gave him another one and off he went. But he was back again within the hour with the same complaint. We didn't have an 8-track player in the store so I couldn't figure out what he was referring to. So I went and opened one of the albums in front and put it on the store turntable. What I subjected the store to next was a huge blast of feedback from Reed's guitar – in fact, what was to be four sides of pure feedback – that more than explained the customer's confused state. (The look across the store of frozen contortion on the customers and staff in that moment is an image I still treasure.) Obviously expecting a worthy sequel to Sally Can't Dance, the customer wasn't exactly dancing with joy when I told him that since the tape wasn't defective, I couldn't exchange it. But what I didn't realize, as I was trying to explain store policy to this baffled consumer, was that I hadn't yet taken Reed's opus off the turntable and the store was going apeshit around me over the wall-to-wall shrieking. By the end of the night, after the customer had long retreated, Lou Reed found himself removed from the New Release bin to somewhere in the back of the store not far from where the air conditioner kept us from melting.




                                                                                  ***

Like many, I was shocked and saddened to the news that Walter Becker of Steely Dan recently went to spirit. While I know there are many people who found their music commercially slick, I heard something far more subversive going on in the arrangements and the lyrics. In Avant Rock: Experimental Music from The Beatles to Björk (2002), Bill Martin writes: "What really makes the Steely Dan vision . . . is a synthesis of jazz-rock with a sound from the first decades of the 20th Century, a sound that I associate with Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers and Duke Ellington – I would call this sound 'music deco.' As with the art deco movement in design and architecture, music deco is innovation developed from popular materials. And, as with art deco, there is a definite Jewish side to music deco, or a synthesis of Jewish and African-American influences." While incorporating such influences, Steely Dan also became masters of disguise and believers in the untrustworthy narrator (a trait they share with songwriter Randy Newman).

Besides the neatly veiled but anti-nostalgic "Reelin' in the Years," from Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), the band produced a number of deceptively perverse songs that miraculously found their way onto the radio. "Show Biz Kids," with its funky, catchy melody, takes a well-aimed shot at the Hollywood rich and poor – not to mention their own fans. Listen closely, and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which borrows its seductive jazz melody from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," is really about a transvestite. Likewise "The Fez," with its exotic dance rhythms, is actually a lighthearted advisory about wearing condoms. "Any World (That I'm Welcome to)" is a sly critique on social alienation with a melody so beguiling you can sometimes hear the song playing, as I once heard it, in the most conventional places – like a supermarket. Subversion and its secrets sometimes come in the form of a Trojan horse. But we have grown so used to seeing and hearing rebellion in its loudest, most demonstrative forms, we tend to miss the kind that sneaks in our door. As for Steely Dan's curmudgeonly view of human nature, it comes disguised as popularly accepted music.




                                                                                    ***

In Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song," Walter Huston brings a little of that ache, a pining that lies at the bottom of fleeting desire, that Arthur Tracy once tapped in his version of "Pennies From Heaven." First introduced by Huston in the 1938 Broadway musical production Knickerbocker Holiday, the song quickly became a popular standard that over the years drew performers as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Lou Reed. Since the song takes into account the transience of youth in matters of love and the point of view comes from an older man who's summing up his life from birth to death, time gets its full due and acquires its own particular urgency. It's not surprising then that performers in their twilight years always take a crack at it and wish to bring a full range of emotions and experience to bear in their interpretation. (Sinatra included the song on his 1965 record, September of My Years, along with "It Was a Very Good Year," which in a more blatant manner says pretty much the same thing as "September Song.") While I have many favourite versions (Eddie Albert's and Ella Fitzgerald's are close to the top), I was always tickled by Huston's take because, like his son John, he has a touch of the rascal hidden in the timbre of his voice. If love and beauty come to you and passes, you can still laugh at all the broken pieces since you still believe in the ordinance of life – just as Walter Huston did with his husky laugh at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, when nature took that gust of gold right back where it came from.




                                                                                   ***

There was always a lingering sadness that seeped through the grain of The Mamas & The Papas' most joyful music. Even when Mama Cass Elliot took on a standard like "Dream a Little Dream of Me," which both Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald had recorded with a buoyant optimism in their voices, there's a small touch of Billie Holiday's melancholy in Cass's. Perhaps it's the unrequited longing for bandmate Denny Doherty, who rejected her romantic overtures, that colours Cass's reading of the song. I don't know. Yet I don't want to read that much into it. What I hear in her voice is an unapologetic request for love that carries the belief that she knows she's worth all the dreams she can set forth in the one who hears it. But she also fears he may answer back that she isn't worth the trouble. You can hear that same nagging sense of doubt in "California Dreaming," "I Saw Her Again," "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Words of Love." It's what gave The Mamas & The Papas' best music its romanticism, its ache, and its ability to make you smile even if it made you hurt.




                                                                                    ***

Randy Newman's first album since 2008's Harps and Angels is titled Dark Matter. It most surely is. The title might also have easily named and described the earlier box set of his collected work. Besides providing a hilarious take on Vladimir Putin ("Putin"), which resurrects Kurt Weill only to bury Vlad, and an expanded version of "It's a Jungle Out There" (which once was part of the comedy series, Monk, and now seems to have found its true calling in the new America), Newman also takes on cultural appropriation in a clever and cuttingly comical manner. "Sonny Boy" is a song about the original black blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson and the man who stole his name, his style, and his musical career – and the first clue is that he wasn't white. The satire in "Sonny Boy"cuts across a number of racial lines, and perhaps most notably it's in the recognition that Newman (who is a white Jewish American composer) has always sung in a blues drawl. Only Newman's version of the blues has always been (as Greil Marcus suggested in Mystery Train) as if Stepin Fetchit were singing the blues. As Newman proved years earlier on "Rednecks," a song that gave rednecks and liberals no comfort, the best comedy offers no refuge.




                                                                                    ***

When John Lennon released his 'primal scream' debut solo record in 1970, Yoko Ono simultaneously released hers. While taking nothing away from Lennon's emotionally naked pop epiphanies, Yoko's music here, especially on her opening track "Why," strips the ground out from under common notions of what might be called a pop song. Borrowing loosely from Patty Waters's 1965 epic conceptual sound sculpture, "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," Ono's execution in "Why" is shorter and it's more primal than Lennon's screams on "Mother" and "Well, Well, Well." Not to mention that Lennon's lead guitar rips through the song like a buzzsaw and with a new-found freedom, while Klaus Voorman's bass is as steady as drummer Ringo Starr is, never missing a beat.




                                                                                    ***

It would be tempting to call this David Gilmour track, "There's No Way Out of Here," from his 1978 debut solo album, yet another lament for the lost Syd Barrett (or perhaps a metaphor for Gilmour's continued frustrations with Roger Waters), except that he didn't write it. Ken Baker of the band Unicorn composed the tune and recorded it on their Gilmour-produced 1976 album, Too Many Crooks. While the Unicorn version certainly reveals a haunting tenor lurking within it, it's Gilmour who uncorks what's evocative in his cover.



                                                                       
                                                                                       ***

A friend of mine once told me that his cat fled the room whenever he played some of the film scores of Bernard Herrmann. Here's one kitten who attempts to hang in during the climax of Hitchcock's Psycho – at least until Vera Miles's scream and Herrmann's shrieking strings serve as a catapult.



                                                                                         *** 

Singer/songwriter Kate Bush might have paid literal deference to Emily Brontë with "Wuthering Heights," but it's P.J Harvey who captured her essence in "Send His Love To Me." Allowing herself to be possessed by a fevered desire, she draws on the religious zeal previously heard in the music of Blind Willie Johnson, as she adopts the sensual growl of Captain Beefheart. Harvey also resists turning romantic fervour into tortured masochism (as Tori Amos does with hers in "Crucify"). Like the best of Bessie Smith, Harvey's voice has the power to sting and heal simultaneously. Which is why "Send His Love To Me" reaches depths that go beyond obsession and towards one last desperate stab at fulfillment.




                                                                                      ***


This all-star version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" begins as a lovely and earnest tribute to George Harrison when suddenly out of the shadows jumps Prince to take the song out of the pocket and completely own it. As he prances about the stage in that dazzling red fedora, as if being jolted by devilish bolts of electricity, the smile Prince draws from Dhani Harrison resembles the look of astonishment Mama Cass displayed at 1967 Monterey Pop after Jimi Hendrix tore up the stage and pranced off, leaving the audience in dazzled bewilderment.





 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

No comments:

Post a Comment