Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Primal Pop: Whispering in a Loud Voice

Ol' Blue Eyes. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wait . . . some wag is claiming that both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were exemplars of primal pop music? How can that be? Two of the most mellow crooners in musical history? But what about John Lennon or Jim Morrison? Oh, them, too, of course. But two of the very first pop stars, astronomical and international singers of pop songs to everyone everywhere – that would be Frank with his 150 million records sold, and Bing with his 100 million  also both touched a deep and hidden place in the soul of their listeners, as diverse as their audiences were, and that is the essence of a primal pop star. They were not only minstrels and troubadours of the highest degree, each with a sense of timing and finesse that captured the tempo of the human heart as never before, but also they both never once complained about being so popular and wished they could have been taken more seriously as artists.

They realized innately that popularity is at the very essence of what it means to be a primal pop singer – unlike say, Lennon, or Scott Walker, or Tom Petty (a mere 80 million albums sold), each of whom struggled mightily over his status as someone who could deliver a perfect pop song that conveyed some verity about human life at the same time as actually, heaven forbid, entertaining virtually everybody on the planet. The minstrel’s dilemma is a deep and distressing one. We could also call it the poet’s plight, the troubadour’s trouble, the artist’s angst, and any number of other suitable alliterations that apply to creative figures whose work attracts great success, popular acclaim, wealth and power, along with a respectable modicum of critical recognition. I also often refer to it as fulfilled dream syndrome. The dilemma comes into play when the artist, in the telling case of Tom Petty, a vastly talented pop-rock singer-songwriter and performer, experiences the disturbing paradox, maybe self-induced, of wondering how he can be ever be taken seriously as an artist when absolutely everyone (almost) is buying his records and attending his concerts.

In other words, if his work is so creatively compelling, just why is he becoming so commercially successful, and indeed, is commercial acclaim really all he is actually good for? Is that all there is, as the great Peggy Lee song once opined? Petty was most often acclaimed despite the fact that he remained highly skeptical, doubt-ridden, conflicted and critical of the very society, culture and industry that lauded him so grandly. His primal songs contain biting sarcasm and dark commentary on contemporary life, especially American life, and yet the big cash register in the sky just keeps on ringing and ringing all the way, to the tune of legend and legacy.

Tom Petty. (Photo: Getty Images)

The same was true, is true still, of the great Joe Walsh, one of the elements that made The Eagles more than just a fine pop band, made them in fact a primal pop band. Purveyors of a kind of paradoxical perfection. What? How can I be so creatively and artistically attuned if I’m also deemed to be so damn entertaining? The same question plagued John Lennon so profoundly that it practically scalded his creative soul and caused him to abandon one of the most gifted and successful pop music careers in history. It also had a similar effect, except for the turning-away part, on his fellow Brit artist Pete Townshend, about whom Larry David Smith wrote so effectively in his book, The Minstrel’s DilemmaI’ve borrowed the phrase here to apply it, accurately I hope, to a Yankee version of the same head scratching and heartbreaking puzzle facing one of the greatest purveyors of the long American song tradition, which, perhaps to the surprise of many, includes (in my opinion) the first two geniuses of American pop music: Crosby and Sinatra. Even Elvis Presley, who sold his dangerous soul early to Hollywood and Las Vegas, and Michael Jackson, who suffered from life-long post-traumatic stress disorder, can barely match the stellar levels of success and sales of Der Bingle and Old Blue Eyes.

Now, lest this be misunderstood, I’m not claiming that selling the most records actually makes someone a superior artist or performer -- that would be silly -- but I am claiming that once someone appeals to audiences of so vast a scale they cease to be either a jazz singer or a blues singer or even a rock singer, even if they started out in those particular categories. They end up becoming a pop singer, which not only is not a crime or a sin, it’s merely an emblem for being able to touch everyone everywhere regardless of clearly defined taste borders. To this day, for instance, The Mamas and the Papas, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Byrds and The Beach Boys remain almost unparalleled in their delivery of perfectly crafted miniature symphonies called pop songs. And this despite the fact that bands such as Arthur Lee’s Love, or Spirit, or The Grateful Dead, or The Who had more supposedly "serious" artistic credentials. Then there’s the recently deceased Petty, a figure who managed to somehow do both: tell us disturbing stories and entertain us at the same time – along with Bob Dylan, another self-questioning shape-shifter with whom he had a late-career collaborative renaissance equally acclaimed for both of them in the exalted company of Orbison, Harrison and Lynne. Petty and Walsh’s own dilemmas stalked them from the earliest days of their profession to the late daze of senior stardom. They love me, they really love me, a little voice must have echoed in their head, and even reverberated in Petty's lyrics, but . . . is that all there is? My interest here is not in attempting to answer that question, of course -- only Petty could really do that -- but rather to explore and expose the heights and depths of his artistic gifts. Equally telling and important is its breadth of purpose.

Along the way, we could call this a narrative critique of a popular musical media figure, but I almost prefer to call it what it really is: a great story about a talented but tortured pop genius whose creative vision, stylistic tendencies and contributions to an ancient song craft demands a comparative study that synthesizes biographical material, critical interpretations and appreciations of the exemplary work he accomplished in his sixty-six years on the planet. In other words, a diverting yarn and gripping saga of enigmatic wordsmithing and a melodramatically-inclined narrator of his own version of the American Dream. It’s a dream of both struggle and success, collapse and rejuvenation, fueled by sheer ambition and constant renewal of its core content. It’s a dream based on an inventive response to what can most accurately be described as the celebrity singer-songwriting tradition, a path first forged by Woody Guthrie and maybe today evolved and extended by Jack WhiteLarry Smith’s fine examination of the paradox at the heart of almost all serious singer-songwriters who need freedom of expression yet also crave audience acceptance is especially pertinent to our present appreciation of a performer such as the late Tom Petty. His own minstrel’s dilemma felt identical to but also different from that of Lennon, Townshend or Dylan, just to mention three of the most innovative and most conflicted figures caught up in this same creative vortex that consumed him. When Smith remarked about the restless creator of The Who, perhaps the loudest rock band in history, he was identifying an ongoing challenge facing every great successful artist.:“The author’s willingness to compromise his work for a favorable review demonstrated a tenacious commercial drive and its relationship to an equally ambitious artistic impulse.”

Pete Townshend. (Photo: Rolling Stone)

I would add that this relationship is both ironic and puzzling, especially once one gets up to Petty's 80-million-records-sold stratosphere, since the entire history of music, or at least western music crafted for mass consumption, is a perplexingly complex dance between forces that shape and control the artist and his or her audience. There has always been a rigorous set of factors controlling the freedom of expression available to artists, particularly pop and rock stars, who want to evolve their stylistic domain while at the same time satisfying their consumers' appetites for sameness. Few pop stars navigated this wild terrain with greater skill and dexterity than Petty, who was able to practically surf the negotiated waves of expectation between the artist doing something new and the audience wanting something familiar.

They could do both with equal aplomb, hence their mutual 80-million sales mark, yet with it came a boatload of guilt, even shame, associated with the same dilemma: if I’m so seriously gifted, why does everyone enjoy me so much; why don’t I piss them off more? As far back as 1978, in his Sociology of Rock (an ominous-sounding tome that is actually quite accessible and durably entertaining even today and offers incisive and insightful observations on the nature of pop machinery), the music critic and historian Simon Frith maintained that rock music is still a form of mass communication and that its very ideology (yes, it has one) as a form of mass social interaction arises not only from the modes of its production but also from the social fabric of its consumption as a product. Such a collision of needs and desires bumps up yet further against the intentions of its creators and the limits of its formal composition and delivery. Frith astutely described rock music as art in a period when most critics and certainly most audiences were still fixated on its powerful presence as a massively enhanced entertainment edifice. In doing so, he also isolated the characteristics of an iconic figure he called “the rock auteur,” usually referring to singer-songwriter geniuses who were able to turn themselves into a kind of dark mirror reflecting the society they occupied. They ceased to live only for themselves, even though they seemed utterly self-absorbed and self-possessed in equal measure, and transformed themselves into giant reflecting surfaces in which we (the audience and culture) saw and heard ourselves and our daily concerns. This dark mirror was perfectly exemplified by Petty and his Heartbreakers for almost the next half-century.

The irony here is that the raw material of such artists is always uniquely their own private experience, since many of the best ones are nearly solipsistic in their absorption in their own personal narratives. And yet we all can see and hear our own compulsions, hopes, fears and dreams writ large in the very grandiosity of their delivery. It’s practically Shakespearean in scale if not in style. In an earlier piece of writing, Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter (2008), I wrote extensively about this phenomenal art of exploring the private in public, via the masterful works of iconic figures such as Elvis Costello,Tom Waits, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, Marianne Faithfull and many others, including Pete Townshend. Suffice it to say that Petty would have been a natural member of that remarkable pop cultural assembly. (But my editor had to draw the line somewhere, I suppose.) That popularity can pave the way to artistic freedom is of course a truism, but there’s also a murkier side to the equation, as when artists try to break free of the templates they themselves helped construct and get a bad reaction form their own adoring public. Lindsey Buckingham would be the prime example. He tried to follow up Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 blockbuster Rumors -- which boomed out the same fateful year that both Elvis died and punk music arrived -- with his own edgier and somewhat experimental (for them) album Tusk in 1979, but the industry results were less than stellar.

Jack White. (Photo: Jo McCaughey)

The critic and producer Jon Landau has stated in his study Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology, “The criteria of art in rock is the capacity of the musician to create a personal, almost private, universe and to express it fully.” But what exactly does this vaunted Yankee mindset consist of? What odd abstraction takes shape in our listening lives and exemplifies the enigma that is the soul of America and the fiber of American music? Transformation is the key ingredient. Transforming West African spirit and trance music via Christian missionaries into gospel music, then transforming gospel into secular blues music, and then into rock 'n roll music, and then soul music, and even (weirdly) rap and hip hop music, which are all still inherently and essentially testifying musics. So just what is this lauded American musical tradition? For one thing, it’s the innate and innovative ability to borrow brilliantly from other, often older and foreign, traditions and to shift their shapes and content into a distinctly national form of expression. It makes sense, after all, since the whole country was borrowed in its very myth of origin: anybody can come from anywhere and “become” an American; all you have to do is say you want to be one. It’s a conceptual country, almost a work of performance art or a handcrafted (mind-crafted is perhaps more accurate) artifact of sheer imaginary proportions. Joe Walsh, especially in his post-Eagles phase, might be a great example and exponent of both this hybrid borrowing (blues/folk/pop/rock) and this national anthem of an imaginary country.

Now, this is not a style issue, but for anyone interested in seeking out and finding the exotic roots of an American musical tradition and finding the strange trajectories and tributaries of how the Yankee vibe trickles down (or is it up?) from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and eventually to Tom Petty, the go-to book to grab is one by the excellent music journalist and cultural historian Greil Marcus. His The Old Weird America, the 2011 reprint title of his 1997 tome Invisible Republic, is a fantastic bible of the ever-evolving American sound, where it came from and where it went, maybe even where it’s now going (through someone such as Jack White, for instance) He first identified something special, something sacred almost, percolating beneath the oil field of folk music and folkways and the rigs erected on it to mine the fuel found way below the bright and shiny surfaces of popular music. "Old weird America" is a term Marcus coined to describe and try to encompass the somewhat eerie subterranean chambers of country, blues and folk music (eventually leading to rock 'n roll, rock and beyond) being explored in a remarkable archival collection of discs compiled by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music released in 1952. The category has even spawned a new domain or genre called New Weird America.

Not only that, but I will claim that Petty’s music, though obviously pop-rock and blues in sensibility, is also a new strong strain of something I’ll call "folk music from hell." One of my favourite, and possibly one of the most surprising, examples of an exemplar of folk music from hell would be that erstwhile and eccentric purveyor of primal pop Scott Walker. His long strange trajectory from pop star (The Walker Brothers) to avant-garde composer (Tilt, and The Drift) is a cautionary tale about drawing borders between disciplines that are too rigid. He is truly beyond any stylistic definitions of what make pop popular and how avant the vanguard can really end up becoming. The tributaries of primal pop travel from musician to musician directly, by word of mouth literally, and they flow from Guthrie to Dylan, from Dylan to Petty, and from Walsh to White. It’s a manner of mediumship that Marcus would soon come to call “palavers with a community of ghosts,” yet these American musical spirits were not vague specters, since “as native songs and daughters they were a community.” Marcus has argued, correctly, I think, that this ongoing evolution is a nearly mystical resurrection of the hovering spirit of the same Anthology of American Folk Music.

I would also hasten to qualify my rather idiosyncratic definition of American folk music as also including the blues of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, the gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the soul and funk of James Brown, the hybrid ethos of the late Prince and Petty and the still-with-us Walsh. It’s a broad spectrum, I know, and rather quirky, but if you’ll bear with me, I think it might also bear some strange fruit. The cultural edges of black American folk music also include Billie Holiday and Tina Turner, while the fault lines of white American folk music also embrace Johnny Cash and Phil Ochs. The keys to this odd orchard I’m proposing are in remembering what I’m calling hellish folk and accepting the extended family relationships that link, say, Johnson to Chuck Berry, Berry to Elvis Presley, Presley to The Beatles and The Beatles to everybody else (especially to Petty, Walsh and White). White is an ideal emblem of the future of primal pop, as we follow its twists and turns leading to who knows where. The one proviso: what makes primal pop primal pop, and all about whispering in a loud voice, has nothing to do with volume or loudness per se. It has to do with how many hearts you touch with your music and your voice. Which is precisely why the pop of Bing and Frank, or Tom, Joe and Jack for that matter, all operate equally well, not at the same sonic level but at the same intense emotional volume.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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