Michael Jackson – “Off the Wall” (1979)

June 25, 2009 at 11:43 pm (Music)

R. I. P.

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Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009)

June 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm (Cinema)

R. I. P.

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Kenneth Rexroth – “Jazz Poetry” (Article 3) (1958)

June 25, 2009 at 10:10 am (Kenneth Rexroth, Music, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

The third in a series of four articles Rexroth wrote about jazz poetry – this article appeared in Esquire, May 1958… 


Things are beginning to get out of hand. The other day Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic, said to me that he expected any day to see ads in the trade papers: “JAZZ POET: blues, ballad, upbeat, free verse or rhyme. Have tux. Will travel.” And T.S. Eliot touring the kerosene circuit with Little Richard and the Harlem Globetrotters. Crazes are usually pretty empty, sterile things. It would be a pity if incompetents looking for a fast buck turned this into a temporary social disease like pee-wee golf or swallowing goldfish.

I, for one, take it very seriously indeed. I started doing it long ago in the Green Mask in Chicago to Frankie Melrose’s piano and anybody else who wandered in to blow. The music was pretty gut-bucket usually, sort of paleo-funky, if you dig, and much of the poetry was Service, Sandburg, even Swinburne, but some of it wasn’t. The Waste Land was read to jazz, all of it, shortly after it appeared. Bert Williams and Bert Savoy were both in the audience and thought it was a gasser . . . the cat’s whiskers it was then.

I read poetry to jazz because I like to. I like poetry. I like to read to people. I like jazz. The people like the combination. But there’s more to it than that. Poetry and jazz gain new and different dimensions in association. Poetry has always gained by association with music . . . ancient China, Japan, India, Greece, the troubadours and minnesingers and scalds. Not just as lyrics for songs, but also as recitation. The Homeric poems were recited in this way. There was a special profession for doing it called rhetors. In a sense poetry and jazz as such began about mid-nineteenth century with a friend of Baudelaire and Verlaine, Charles Cros, who recited his poems to the jivy music of the three-piece bands of the bals musettes and cafés chantants. He was a very great and very wise poet as well. This should set to rest the cooked-up dispute as to who invented it. I am sure I didn’t and, as I say, I started in the early twenties.

Why to jazz specifically? Well, I, for one, don’t make any distinction between jazz and “serious music.” Jazz is serious music; some people think it is the only American music worth taking seriously. Not in lush or brutal clip joints, but in the best jazz rooms and concerts, poetry gains from jazz an audience of widely diversified character, people who are seriously concerned with music, but who do not ordinarily read verse and who care nothing for the conflicts and rituals of the literary scene. The audience poetry has today, its official audience, is what is killing it. And, of course, the poet himself gains by the test of popular presentation. Naturally all poetry is not, nor should it be, able to meet this test. But we could do with more. Jazz gains by a new vocal content which can match its own seriousness, depth and complexity. Some jazz is “abstract” like Bach, but most of it is a kind of “program music” like Stravinsky, and obviously the better the program — all other things considered — the better the results. I might mention that Stravinsky’s Persephone does not differ formally from what we are trying to do. Poetry and jazz is not a gimmick, a freak gig, something for the sockless cats and the unwashed chicks of the marijuana circuit. It is not new, but as old as music and poetry, and to be treated with the dignity and respect, by performers and audience respectively, which those ancient expressions of mankind should always merit.

I think that, by and large, poetry is a dying art in modern civilization, dying for lack of a significant audience. Kids who can’t make the team or build a hot rod or toss chicks around in the air jitterbugging tend to gravitate to “The Lit.” and thence to the reputedly adult literary quarterly. Poetry won’t get the chicks that even the poorest hot rod will, but in extremity it will serve. And like poet, like audience. It is not just the Babbitts who think there’s something odd about people who read poetry. I think so, and I know. Odd, and very, very few. And so poetry itself has become insufferably odd and cranky. I think this is due to the lack of living contact with the audience, as well, of course, as to general social and economic factors. There isn’t much to be done about the big factors by any one individual anyway, but it is possible to keep plugging away at putting the poet back into actual physical touch with a live audience. In San Francisco we have led the world in that effort. Today, more than anywhere in the world except possibly Japan, poetry is a real factor in the life of the community and poets enjoy widespread influence — not on literature, but on life.

Jazz poetry reading puts poetry back in the entertainment business, where it was with Homer and the troubadours. Even Victorian epics like Idylls of the King and Evangeline were written to be read to the whole family around the fire in the evening by papa — not, certainly, to be studied for their ambiguities by a seminar of five Ph.D. candidates, conducted by another poet.

The musicians get a chance to work with words that mean something, something approximating the really profound levels attained by much modern jazz which certainly does not belong in the banal world of the Tin Pan Alley lyric. Also, the rhythms of modern poetry are extremely complex and the problems they set the musicians are comparable to those he sets himself when he “takes off’ from the hackneyed rhythm structure of the popular tune. Actually, much modern poetry is too complex for jazz, which, aficionados to the contrary, is not as complicated as much quite ordinary classical music.

There is a widespread belief that real jazz is just blown, spontaneously, out of nowhere, and that if it isn’t improvised it isn’t jazz. Nothing could be less true. The most spontaneous improvisation works with an immense repertory of stereotyped patterns, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, which every musician knows, and into which he pours the new life of the immediate performance as he goes along. At any given moment everybody in the band has a pretty clear idea of what is going to happen next. By very definition the great swing bands were elaborately arranged and exhaustively rehearsed. So the idea that you can just get up in front of a band and everybody blow poetry and sounds out of dreams is just plain silly.

We have found that the effects we want are obtained by making sure that each musician knows exactly what the poet is doing — what he means, and what technical effects he employs, for instance the rhythms of his speech, to put his meaning across. Each musician has a sheet with the text in front of him, which he also uses as a cue sheet and for all sorts of other marginal musical notation. Then comes plenty of careful rehearsal, each one taped and played back and carefully analyzed. Rehearsals are pretty elaborate, far more finicky than the average band rehearsal, but the constant effort is to increase spontaneity, not to limit it. We find, like all artists, that you have to work hard to earn freedom of expression. One thing, there is very little room for the intensely competitive self-expression of the bop era. We don’t try to blow each other down. We find that jazz poetry is an exacting, cooperative, precision effort, like mountaineering. Everybody has to be perfectly coordinated; there is no place for the bitter musical dogfights immortalized on some bop records; everybody has to be as socialized as six men on a rope working across the face of a cliff.

I, for one, have tried to treat the voice as another instrument in the band. Whenever the voice takes on the character of a solo singer or the band sinks to background music, we feel we have failed, and we scrap that effort and start over. You can readily see that, contrary to popular belief, this poetry and jazz combination is harder work than either of the arts taken separately. So, as a warning to other poets and musicians, if you don’t work, but hard, you are going to fall on your face. It’s time and trouble, but the final product is worth it; what they call the creative satisfactions are terrific, a real joy, and Lord, Lord, Lord, look how it packs them in!

Kenneth Rexroth

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The Flaming Lips – “The Soft Bulletin” (1999)

June 25, 2009 at 5:39 am (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Flaming Lips)

The Lips’ first album after releasing their 1997 4-CD experiment Zaireeka. This endlessly creative album takes what they learned from that effort and creates their most fully realized album (although a case can be made for their next album). Now ten years old, this album still retains all its brilliance and innovation. It made alot of “Best of the 1990s” lists and was sometimes called a Pet Sounds of the 90s. Wayne Coyne’s singing, though not nearly as good as Brian Wilson’s, does capture some of Wilson’s childlike innocence, as well as his flair for whimsical lyrics and melodies.  
This review comes from the
All Music Guide website, written by Jason Ankeny in 1999… 


So where does a band go after releasing the most defiantly experimental record of its career? If you’re the Flaming Lips, you keep rushing headlong into the unknown — The Soft Bulletin, their follow-up to the four-disc gambit Zaireeka, is in many ways their most daring work yet, a plaintively emotional, lushly symphonic pop masterpiece eons removed from the mind-warping noise of their past efforts. Though more conventional in concept and scope than Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin clearly reflects its predecessor’s expansive sonic palette. Its multidimensional sound is positively celestial, a shape-shifting pastiche of blissful melodies, heavenly harmonies, and orchestral flourishes; but for all its headphone-friendly innovations, the music is still amazingly accessible, never sacrificing popcraft in the name of radical experimentation. (Its aims are so perversely commercial, in fact, that hit R&B remixer Peter Mokran tinkered with the cuts “Race for the Prize” and “Waitin’ for a Superman” in the hopes of earning mainstream radio attention.) But what’s most remarkable about The Soft Bulletin is its humanity — these are Wayne Coyne’s most personal and deeply felt songs, as well as the warmest and most giving. No longer hiding behind surreal vignettes about Jesus, zoo animals, and outer space, Coyne pours his heart and soul into each one of these tracks, poignantly exploring love, loss, and the fate of all mankind; highlights like “The Spiderbite Song” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” are so nakedly emotional and transcendently spiritual that it’s impossible not to be moved by their beauty. There’s no telling where the Lips will go from here, but it’s almost beside the point — not just the best album of 1999, The Soft Bulletin might be the best record of the entire decade.

Jason Ankeny

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Boston – “Don’t Look Back” (1978)

June 25, 2009 at 1:44 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Ken Emerson’s Rolling Stone review (issue #275) of the 2nd Boston album — their followup to the classic self-titled debut from 1976.
Published Oct. 5, 1978…


Despite the exhortation of this LP’s title and another in “Feelin’ Satisfied” to “take a chance on rock ‘n’ roll,” Don’t Look Back isn’t a departure from, but a consolidation of, the sound introduced on Boston’s dazzling debut album. Once again, mastermind Tom Scholz has marshaled a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of guitars, reworking almost imperceptibly his rich weave of ringing acoustic tones, piercing electric notes and low-register but high-voltage riffs, All in all, the group might just as well have taken its cue from Chicago, another band named after a city (I’m still waiting for Terre Haute), and dubbed this record Boston II.

Of course, only a fool would kill the goose that laid the golden eggs: at last count, Boston’s first LP had sold over six million units. Fools like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and David Bowie have made great music by refusing to repeat themselves, by deliberately frustrating the expectations of their fans and their record companies. But Boston doesn’t lay claim to greatness–indeed, the group’s modesty is among its greatest charms. And Don’t Look Back is a lot less redundant than, say, Bruce Springsteen’s latest bid for immortality.

And a lot less pretentious. In “It’s Easy,” vocalist Brad Delp actually admits, “I believe what we achieve will soon be left behind.” Ostensibly, he’s addressing a woman, trying to con her into a one-night stand, but many of Boston’s songs, beginning with “More Than a Feeling,” their first gargantuan hit, are about music as much as, if not more than, they are about women. And Don’t Look Back is most compelling when it confronts, directly or obliquely, the problems posed by its own making.

I suspect the album took more than two years to wrap up because Scholz was scared shitless. He must have realized the band didn’t especially deserve the staggering success into which it stumbled. I mean, here was a guy who still revered the James Gang! And what about all those dues you’re supposed to pay? Instead of replying, with the arrogance of a natural-born rocker, “Dues are for Elks!” Scholz went so far as to concoct, on Boston’s first record, a song ascribing to the group an utterly fictitious history of hard times, during which it “barely made enough to survive.” Surely Polaroid, whose employ Scholz left only after “More Than a Feeling” was safely ensconced on the charts, doesn’t pay that poorly.

Anyway, Don’t Look Back is shot through with Scholz’ anxieties. The lyrics are preoccupied with failing to measure up, with failing to be a man. “A Man I’ll Never Be” wishes, “If only I could find a way/I’d feel like I’m the man you believe I am.” Amid its pleasant jingle of acoustic guitars, “Used to Bad News,” a charming, rather Beatles-like song written by Delp, protests, “I’ve been used, but I’m takin’ it like a man.” And how’s this, from Scholz’ “It’s Easy,” for a timid come-on: “I won’t hide if you decide to let me be your man”?

Boston is a bunch of wimps, I mean that as a compliment, especially when contrasted to the macho bluster of Foreigner, another overnight rock sensation, but one much less deserving. Tom Scholz’ band is too sensitive (again, I come to praise Boston, not to bury them) to boogie with conviction, and when they crank up the tempo and decibels on the new LP, they sound slightly ridiculous. Tracks like “Party” and “Feelin’ Satisfied” are throwaways, but they’re there for a purpose: when “More Than a Feeling” became a monster and Boston took to the road, they found that their first album, conceived and executed in the solipsistic privacy of Scholz’ basement, didn’t always translate well to the stage. The early concerts were embarrassing because they showcased so little of the talent displayed on the record. (When I, among other reviewers, lamented this, a stung Scholz singled me out in the pages of another magazine as the critic he hated most.) So the hot-and-heavy numbers on Don’t Look Back seem to have been designed with stadiums in mind, allowing plenty of space for Delp’s cock-of-the-walk routine and a clapping crowd. But what works onstage often falls flat in one’s living room.

Don’t Look Back‘s better songs are openly apprehensive. The title track, though officially optimistic about the road that lies ahead, segues into a brief instrumental entitled “The Journey,” whose churchy organ and ghostly guitars sound almost as eerie and alienated as some of Bowie’s recent work. In fact, “Don’t Look Back” is a palpable lie, because Scholz is always looking back: to the “dream of a girl I used to know” in “More Than a Feeling,” to “that same old feeling I had in my younger days” in “It’s Easy.” (One of the things that makes Boston’s music poignant is its premature nostalgia. At thirty, Scholz has at least a few good years left.) The new LP is rife with such contradictions. “Don’t Look Back” asserts, “I’m much too strong not to compromise,” yet “A Man I’ll Never Be” confesses defeat: “I can’t get any stronger.” The title of “Feelin’ Satisfied” is self-explanatory, but it’s belied by another line from “A Man I’ll Never Be”: “Emotions can’t be satisfied.”

“A Man I’ll Never Be” both distills and expands upon this note of despair, which contrasts with the architectural magnificence of the song’s musical accomplishments. If Phil Spector erected walls of sound, Tom Scholz constructs cathedrals. He builds his songs brick by brick, overdubbing layer upon layer of guitar and using Brad Delp’s multitracked vocals as more masonry still. He piles fifths upon thirds, octave upon octave, Ossa on Pelion, until every conceivable harmonic hole is plugged – and then he tops even that. The most uplifting moment (among many) in “More Than a Feeling” occurs at the tail end of the last verse, when Delp’s voice, already ethereally high, slides into the echoing empyrean. It’s the star on the Christmas tree, the cross atop the already dizzyingly lofty steeple.

“A Man I’ll Never Be,” nearly seven stately minutes long, towers above “More Than a Feeling” and is steeped in a majestic religiosity reminiscent of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Even as Delp complains he “can’t climb any higher,” can never live up to his lover’s image of him, Scholz adds yet another stack of keyboards or guitars to the edifice. The song arches ever upward only to be broken repeatedly by a somber, rumbling guitar riff whose eloquence reminds me of Jimi Hendrix’ “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be).” And at the foundation, there’s always the sleepless, restless thrust of Fran Sheehan’s (or is it Scholz’?) bass, underlining unpredictable chord progressions until, at the final climax, it throbs with the famous ascending pulse of the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

At this point, Boston has no choice but to stop either, for indeed they can’t climb any higher. On an album that is otherwise a somewhat disappointing collection of retreads and disposables, they have raised their own “Stairway to Heaven.” 

Ken Emerson

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