Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXII

If there was one songwriter in rock 'n roll who had an endless gift for memorable (and enjoyable) anthems it was Chuck Berry, who died recently in his home at the age of 90. Whether it was his pledge of allegiance in "Rock and Roll Music," his testament to roots in "Back in the U.S.A.," or the happily defiant "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry was the supreme storyteller, rock's Johnny Appleseed, a smooth talker and a smooth walker. Born in St. Louis, Berry drew his musical influences from a variety of genres. The swagger of "You Can't Catch Me" is unthinkable without Louis Jordan. The bravado of "Little Queenie" would have been right at home in the tough urban blues of Muddy Waters. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" might have been a country music dream imagined by Bob Willis and the Playboys. His lesser-known "Havana Moon" has the swooning balladry of Nat King Cole (and it inspired Richard Berry's "Louie Louie").

I got to see Chuck Berry live only once at a Toronto International Film Festival party at Casa Loma for Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride in 1987. Taylor Hackford's concert picture tribute to Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, had also premiered that evening at the Festival. Berry turned up at the party and took command of the stage with a young local band that was noodling along, playing back-up to the noise of people getting food and schmoozing. My friend and colleague, Andrew Dowler, saw Berry head for the stage, got my attention, and we ran right up front and claimed a table. Berry asked the band if they knew any of his numbers and luckily the lead guitarist seemed schooled in Chuck. They kicked off with "Little Queenie," and then followed with "Roll Over Beethoven." When that guitarist hit the solo, which Berry handed him gracefully, the kid looked to the sky and I thought he was dreaming of the day he could tell his children about the night he soloed for Chuck Berry. Maybe he already has.

Greil Marcus described this John Lennon demo recording as "a quiet, nihilistic confrontation with ugliness." It is that - and more. The original version, heard on the 1974 Walls and Bridges, was buried in its arrangements, whereas this intimate session (first appearing on the 1986 Menlove Avenue) has a raw nakedness that goes past the sparse timbre of the performance. While Lennon claimed the song to be about his former manager, the formidable Allen Klein, there's no question the track is actually turning the mirror darkly on its author. Borrowing the melody from "How Do You Sleep?," Lennon's character assassination of Paul McCartney heard on Imagine, he once again projects his anger and misery, only to have it blown back in his face - and he knows it. (At the end, he improvises, "There you stand/With your toilet scent/And your Mickey Duck/And your Donald Fuck," which invokes images of Lennon in Hamburg in the late fifties, standing on stage with a toilet seat over his head, defying the drunken German audiences as if they were the Nazis who only years earlier had strafed his city with bombs.) If you listen to "How Do You Sleep?," you can hear that the words might be meant for Paul, but the fears and rage actually describe John. So does "Steel and Glass."

This traditional blues song has a long history and its full share of interpreters from The Grateful Dead to James Taylor ("Circle Around the Sun"), none better than Judy Roderick in a plaintive reading from her 1965 album, Woman Blue. Dating all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1927 single, "Deceitful Brownskin Blues," the song originates (according to John and Alan Lomax in their 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs) with an eighteen-year-old black girl who was in prison for murder. The first few stanzas belong to her while the Lomaxes added a number of verses taken from other sources (including the 1924 blues standard, "Trouble in Mind") and named it "Woman Blue." Most performers - including The Byrds, Hot Tuna and The Dead - do the song at such a clip that the singer comes across as boastful and defiant as if murder was never part of the equation. Even Joan Baez, who recorded it in 1960 but didn't include it on her Vanguard debut, makes the track sound like some totem of female empowerment. Judy Roderick, however, abandons any sense of false pride. She slowly feels her way into the story as if she's considered the crime that incarcerates her and can't shake the ghost of the lover she murdered. "Woman Blue (I Know You Rider)" isn't a swagger; rather her voice lingers on every syllable, tracing a ghost story that's all suggestion, both haunted and haunting. One listener once commented that Roderick puts the song in the grave. You could also say her interpretation is about climbing out of one.

Back in the late seventies, when there were still record stores everywhere, I briefly worked for Music World after graduating from Sheridan College. Every morning when I opened the store, I played this track from the seemingly long forgotten Pete Townshend/Ronnie Lane collaboration, Rough Mix, before the shoppers arrived to the strains of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Rough Mix lives up to its title in the best sense: the two artists trade a diverse series of songs as if engaged in a relaxed game of musical chairs. A lasting and affectionate friendship - filled with dark humour, cryptic tales, spiritual quests, and love's long road - is celebrated in these grooves in a manner that's not so different from Bob Dylan and The Band's less formal The Basement Tapes.

Does humour belong in music? Of course it does. Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's violin concerto (which he dedicated to the violinist Saschko Gawriloff, who performed it with the Ensemble Modern in 1992) is a comic frenzy of colourful textures that blends Bulgarian dance rhythms and Hungarian folk melodies while also including some Renaissance seasoning. In this performance, conductor Simon Rattle (looking rattled) abandons the stage so that violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja can do the mash-up with the speed and skill of a Cuisinart. The music lifts her into a wild dance around the campfire as the orchestra briefly joins in with the jamboree until the conductor - either satisfied or fed up - puts out the flame in a puff of smoke.

There are many folks who don't know how good a dancer Christopher Walken is because he's played more gangsters, mercenaries and psychotics on the screen than he has swinging characters in musicals. (He combined both beautifully in Pennies from Heaven, where he was both a pimp and a hoofer.) I've always enjoyed this 2000 Spike Jonze video of Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," where Walken is a business executive in repose who suddenly in his state of stasis discovers his legs. Since he just turned 74, the video can perhaps now be interpreted as his looking back on a satisfied life with a lyrical kick and a hoof.

When Robbie Robertson's first solo album came out in 1987, it was accompanied by many reviews that stopped just short of idolatry. But there were others who claimed the album was an aimless and impersonal botch, overproduced, while Robertson's voice as hidden by all the guest stars and Daniel Lanois' layers of sound. What I heard then (and continue to hear today) is - despite the overdubs - an emotionally naked album where the singer/songwriter (who rarely sang lead in The Band) seeks his own voice through the musical textures provided. Unlike in The Band, where the songs sought roots in the American past, Robertson is finding his in music that excavates a state of mind and is conjured out of dreams and memory. The tunes on this record (such as "Fallen Angel," "Broken Arrow," "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," and "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight") have the ephemeral beauty of a dream quest. (The album was originally titled The Shadowland.) "Fallen Angel," which opens the record, and is about The Band's pianist Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986, has Robertson first inhabiting the longing in Manuel's voice, a voice that brings forth both grief and remembrance. Hardly impersonal, "Fallen Angel" (with assistance from Peter Gabriel) is an emotionally searing track that traces a troubled friendship and takes into full account those tragic moments when we can do little to save the self-destructive loved ones in our lives. The faint drums at the beginning, which resemble the percussive prayer music Robertson likely heard on the Six Nations Indian Reserve he grew up on, are as much a tribute to a loving spirit as a heralding of his coming to terms with pain and loss.

Many times in these Notes & Frames, I draw from music of the past, not out of any need for nostalgia, but instead from a desire to articulate whether certain songs still stand the test of time. A lot of the current music that I enjoy has an immediacy. But it's unlikely that I'll live to see whether those particular songs - and the artists that made them - are indestructible and find a good home in the future. You'd think the power of Jimi Hendrix's 1968 cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" would have been diminished long ago by overkill - either on the radio, or in movies, where it became a familiar signpost in any drama about the end of the sixties. (Only The Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter" offers adequate competition.) But perhaps because the meaning of "All Along the Watchtower" seems bottomless and Hendrix treats the track as if it were some elliptical manifesto appropriate to any age, nothing can possibly kill it. "All Along the Watchtower" cleverly plays with the idea of time and chronology, which maybe doesn't hurt the tune's chances. But from the moment Dave Mason's acoustic guitar chimes in along with Brian Jones's vibraslap percussion, sounding like horse's hoofs storming the gates, Hendrix tells this story of troubling days ahead as if it were a prophecy. Dylan's version may come across as a suggestive warning. but Hendrix seems swallowed up by the apocalypse and the electric guitars are like swooping birds gathering up his broken body. What makes "All Along the Watchtower" timeless is that, unlike most topical music, where fingers point at current targets, this tune draws on the past, is aware of the present, and dreads the future.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 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 Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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