An Oct. 29, 1999 Slate article on Martin Scorsese by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott…
The first reviews of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead are the latest evidence of the director’s status as a critical favorite. This is not because the notices have been uniformly glowing – it’s been some time since a Scorsese picture won unanimous praise from reviewers – but because Scorsese remains, almost uniquely among American directors, an embodiment of the beleaguered idea that filmmaking, and therefore film criticism, can be a serious, important, life-and-death matter. Here, for instance, is Roger Ebert, all thumbs:
To look at Bringing Out the Dead – to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film – is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply. Scorsese is never on autopilot, never panders, never sells out, always goes for broke; to watch his films is to see a man risking his talent, not simply exercising it. He makes movies as well as they can be made.
Never? Always? This is pure ideology – which is not to say that it isn’t, to some extent, true. Even Scorsese’s weaker films bristle with energy and intelligence. But look closely at what Ebert says: To be reminded of the power of film as a medium is not quite the same as being moved by a particular film, and Bringing Out the Dead is, for all its hectic pacing and breakneck intensity, an oddly unmoving experience. Yes, you think, movies can touch us urgently and deeply. Why doesn’t this one? If Scorsese makes movies as well as they can be made, why does one so often feel that his movies – especially over the last decade or so – could have been better?
Above all, to look at Bringing Out the Dead is to be reminded of a lot of other Scorsese films. Critics have noted its similarities with Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s first collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (who also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ and the later drafts of Raging Bull). Both movies feature a disturbed outsider cruising the nightmarish, as-yet-ungentrified streets of Manhattan in search of redemption. In place of Sport, Harvey Keitel’s suave, vicious pimp in the earlier film, Bringing Out the Dead features Cy, a suave, vicious drug dealer played by Cliff Curtis. The mood here is a good deal softer: The scabrous nihilism of Taxi Driver is no longer as palatable – or, perhaps, as accurate in its response to the flavor of the times or the mood of its creators – as it was in 1976. Nicolas Cage’s Frank Pierce saves Cy from a death as gruesome as the one De Niro’s Travis Bickle visited on Sport, and when Frank does take a life (in the movie’s best, most understated scene), it’s an act of mercy.
Aside from these parallels and variations, there’s plenty in Bringing Out the Dead to remind you that you’re watching a Scorsese picture. There’s voice-over narration. There’s an eclectic, relentless rock ‘n’ roll score and a directorial cameo – this time Scorsese provides the disembodied voice of an ambulance dispatcher. There are jarring, anti-realist effects embedded in an overall mise en scène of harsh verisimilitude. And, of course, there is the obligatory religious imagery – the final frames present a classic Pietà, with Patricia Arquette (whose character is named Mary) cradling Cage, the man of sorrows, in her arms. To survey Scorsese’s oeuvre is to find such echoings and prefigurations in abundance. Look at Boxcar Bertha, a throwaway piece of apprentice-work he made for schlock impresario Roger Corman in the early ’70s (if you’ve never seen it, imagine Bonnie and Clyde remade as an episode of Kung Fu), and then look at The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial, deeply personal rendering of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel which infuriated some Christians a decade and a half later. Different as they are, both films prominently feature 1) a crucifixion and 2) Barbara Hershey naked.
Well, that may be a coincidence. But it’s hard to think of an active director who has produced such an emphatically cross-referenced body of work who seems not so much to repeat himself (though he does some of that) as to make movies by recombining a recognizable and fairly stable set of narrative, thematic, and stylistic elements. In other words, Scorsese is the last living incarnation of la politique des auteurs.
That old politique – the auteur theory, in plain English – was first articulated in the 1950s by a group of French critics, many of whom went on to become, as directors, fixtures of the Nouvelle Vague. In a nutshell, the theory – brought to these shores in 1962 by Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris – held that, like any work of art, a film represents the vision of an individual artist, almost always the director. The artists who populated the auterist canon – Howard Hawks and John Ford, pre-eminently – had labored within the constraints of the studio system. But even their lesser films, according to auterist critics, could be distinguished from mere studio hackwork by the reiteration of a unique cinematic vocabulary and by an implicit but unmistakable sense of solitary genius in conflict with bureaucratic philistinism.
The auteur theory was quickly challenged, most notably by Pauline Kael, who shredded Sarris in the pages of Film Quarterly. But the “new Hollywood” of the ’70s – with Kael as its champion, scold, and Cassandra – was dominated by young directors who attained, thanks to the collapse of the old studios, an unprecedented degree of creative autonomy, and who thought of themselves as artists. What resulted, as Peter Biskind shows in his New Hollywood dish bible Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, was an epidemic of megalomania, sexual libertinism, money-wasting, and drug abuse – as well as a few dozen classics of American cinema.
The avatars of the New Hollywood were mostly “movie brats” – socially maladroit, nerdy young men (and they were, to a man, men) who shared a fervid, almost religious devotion to cinema. Scorsese, a runty, asthmatic altar boy from New York City’s Little Italy who traded Catholic seminary for New YorkUniversity film school, was arguably the purest in his faith. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg, “St. Martin” (as Biskind calls him) did not see directing as a route to world domination but as a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems. Scorsese’s technical proficiency won him some early breaks. While making Who’s That Knocking at My Door, his earnest, autobiographical first feature, independently, Scorsese was hired to edit Woodstock into a coherent film. His success (more or less) led to more rock ‘n’ roll editing assignments – a traveling sub-Woodstock “festival” called Medicine Ball Caravan; Elvis on Tour – and then to Boxcar Bertha, which allowed him to join the Directors Guild and gave him the chance to make Mean Streets. That movie helped launch the careers of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and taught generations of would-be tough guys the meaning of the word “mook.”
Kael called Mean Streets “a triumph of personal film-making,” and even though it may be the single most imitated movie of the past 30 years – cf. The Pope of Greenwich Village, State of Grace, Federal Hill, Boyz N the Hood, etc. – it has lost remarkably little of its freshness and power. Watching it, you feel that you are seeing real life on the screen, but real life heightened and shaped by absolute artistic self-assurance. Or, to quote Kael again, “Mean Streets never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with common experience. Rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them.”
This kind of realism marks Scorsese’s next two films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – his best piece of directing-for-hire, and one of the half-forgotten gems of the period – and Taxi Driver, both of which were critically and commercially successful. But the medium-budget, artisanal, personal filmmaking of the early ’70s soon gave way to grander visions. To be a New Hollywood director was to flirt with hubris. Biskind’s book, accordingly, concludes with a litany of spectacular flameouts: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, Spielberg’s 1941, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, and, of course, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. According to Mardik Martin, Scorsese’s erstwhile writing partner (as quoted by Biskind): “The auteur theory killed all these people. One or two films, the magazines told them they were geniuses, that they could do anything. They went completely bananas. They thought they were God.” Scorsese’s own Götterdämmerung came with New York, New York, a hugely ambitious jazz epic starring De Niro and Liza Minelli (Scorsese’s mistress at the time), and the first of a series of flops that continued with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.
Of these three, Raging Bull has been singled out for vindication. It’s the highest-ranking of the three Scorsese films on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list, and it’s widely considered to be his masterpiece. But it remains exceedingly hard to watch, not so much because of the repulsiveness of De Niro’s Jake La Motta as because of its overall sense of aesthetic claustrophobia. It’s a movie lacquered by its own self-importance, so bloated with the ambition to achieve greatness that it can barely move. If it convinces you it’s a masterpiece, it does so by sheer brute force.
Raging Bull is undone by its own perfectionism. New York, New York and The King of Comedy stand up rather better, in my opinion, in spite of their obvious flaws. (So does The Last Waltz, a documentary of the Band’s last concert done simultaneously with New York, New York, thanks to the magic of cocaine.) For one thing, New York, New York is virtually the only Scorsese movie (aside from Life Lessons, his crackerjack contribution to the Coppola-produced anthology film New York Stories) to have at its center the relationship between a man and a woman. For another, it ends with Liza Minelli parading through a series of phantasmagoric stage sets singing a pointedly ironic song called “Happy Endings” – a sequence every bit as dazzling (and as mystifying) as the ballet from An American in Paris. Just as Mean Streets is an unparalleled demonstration of the power of film to convey reality, “Happy Endings” is a celebration of film’s magical ability to create it. A moviegoer’s dream, but good luck seeing it on the big screen.
For its part, The King of Comedy, a creepy reprise of Taxi Driver – played, this time, for laughs – is a movie made before its time, back when celebrity-stalking was a piquant metaphor for our cultural ills, rather than the focus of our cultural life. De Niro and Sandra Bernhard kidnap Jerry Lewis (playing, brilliantly, a famous late-night talk show host), Bernhard steals the movie, and the ending is guaranteed to provoke long, excruciating arguments about the difference between fantasy and reality.
In Biskind’s account of the tragedy of the New Hollywood, Spielberg is the villain, Hal Ashby the martyr, and Scorsese the scarred survivor. After the failures of the early ’80s, he picked himself up and made some more movies: the quirky, proto-Indie downtown comedy After Hours, The Color of Money (a respectable sequel to The Hustler), and his long dreamed of The Last Temptation of Christ. His fortunes revived with GoodFellas, which was hailed as a return to form, and floundered again with The Age of Innocence, one of his periodic attempts – like The Last Waltz, Temptation and, most recently, Kundun – to defy expectation. Next came Casino, one of his periodic attempts to defy the expectation that he would defy expectations. Casino blends Raging Bull with GoodFellas and can be interpreted as a wry allegory of Hollywood in the ’70s – a time when “guys like us” (i.e., the free-lancing gangsters played by De Niro and Joe Pesci) were allowed to run things without interference. Of course, they got too greedy, screwed everything up, and the big corporations turned their playground into Disneyland. At the end, De Niro’s character, the scarred survivor, picks himself up and goes back to work.
Scorsese keeps working too – upcoming projects include Gangs of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio, and a Dean Martin biopic starring Tom Hanks. His extracurricular good works – overseeing the re-release of classics such as El Cid and Belle de Jour, campaigning for film preservation, narrating a BBC documentary on his favorite movies–are testament to his abiding faith. But his movies more often than not feel cold and mechanical. They substitute intensity for emotion and give us bombast when we want passion. Why do we go to the movies? Pauline Kael used to say it was to be caught up, swept away, surfeited by sensation, and confronted by reality. Some of us keep going to Scorsese’s movies because we still want to believe in that, and we leave wondering whether he still does.
A. O. Scott
Interesting review of Jon Brion’s brilliant, evocative and highly creative score to the best film Adam Sandler ever starred in. This review comes from Greg Sandow, Dec. 1, 2002 on the New Music Box website. In it, he not only talks about Brion’s music but the problem with current opera music and why it’s not nearly as creative as this film score.
This is definitely my favorite film score of all time, from the first time I saw the movie a few years ago. Highly recommended…
Some of the best new sounds I’ve lately heard are on the soundtrack of Punch-Drunk Love, a marvelous, mostly unpredictable romantic comedy directed by P. T. Anderson, who also did Magnolia. This movie, like Magnolia, is almost an art film in pop-film guise, or maybe the reverse, a pop film in art-film disguise. I felt almost enchanted as I watched it. Adam Sandler is an inept single guy with a business that sells, absurdly, gag toilet plungers; Emily Watson is the unsure woman who grabs onto him. As their romance slides toward an ending that looks like it has to be happy (in the best Hollywood style), I began to grouse, thinking everything might be wrapped up too neatly, that the suppressed (or maybe not so suppressed) violence in the lovers would be swept under the nearest, classiest rug. But as Watson spoke the film’s final line—words that somehow sound both grounded and totally crosseyed—I saw that Anderson was way ahead of me. He’d thought of everything I groused about, and left his lovers shaking on what just might be the edge of a cliff.
Now, there’s a soundtrack album, a really nice one, released, appropriately enough, on Nonesuch, which because it’s an art label with pop leanings is a perfect match for the movie. But the sounds I loved most were on the actual film soundtrack, though the CD does give some idea of how sound can work in the movie, for instance on the first track, simply called “Overture.” For the first 40 seconds, all we hear are sonic scraps—the faintest sound of wind, then unstable soft chittering, later a click, and (among other things) some bells, and a distant empty roar.
These are layered together more or less the way the sounds are in the film, and maybe in fact they are sounds from the film; I don’t remember. What I remember best are other collage effects, among them scraps of real-world noise, like the faint chatter of a TV far in the background while something dramatic (and unhinged) unfolds onscreen. The TV voices take the place of music on the soundtrack and in fact replace any formal underscoring. As far as I could see, the TV sounds weren’t synchronized in any way with the flow of the scene. They were just there, as they often are in life. I remember a juxtaposition like that in a Czech theater production I saw decades ago. The piece was highly stylized, but was performed in a former storefront with a picture window, so alongside the formality was the random sight of people walking by on the street outside, or stopping to peer in and watch. At one point a goat was tethered on stage, walking (within the limits of the tether) at random, goatwise, while the actors made their solemn, formal moves.
My favorite sonic moment in Punch-Drunk Love comes in a supermarket, when Sandler, searching for products with a special offer on them (don’t ask), opens a freezer door to get at the frozen food. All at once we hear a tiny freezer whine, precisely layered on top of silence. This, though, really is a cinematic underscore, building just the right amount of tension into the scene, tension that’s if anything screwed even higher because you feel the sound more than you hear it.
There’s also music on the soundtrack (by Jon Brion, a songwriter with a fine ear and a deft, wry touch who also has a weird live show that plays Los Angeles clubs,) that sometimes functions very much like random sound. He’ll create, for instance, pattering light recurrent drums, heard on the second track of the CD (under the title “Tabla,”) blended with electronic beeps and what might be the sound of waves. The drums of course might be electronic as well. For an instant there’s a little scrap for flute and strings, which intrudes surprisingly, just as (reversing a more common pattern) jabs of noise would intrude in more melodic music. There’s more rhythmic patter on track four, “Hands and Feet,” this time higher-pitched, sounding like some of it might be played on a xylophone made of water. In the movie, sounds like these seem to go well with Sandler’s jitters.
And finally on the soundtrack there’s dialogue that itself has musical rhythm, when Sandler walks away from Watson’s door after their first date, cursing himself for his lame goodbye: “Bye-bye…asshole…bye-bye…stupid motherfucker…” Those aren’t the words, but they’re something like that. Here the acting itself tumbles downward into the background sounds in the film. And in fact, since these words underscore a shot of Sandler, seen distantly from behind, careening down a corridor in the building where Watson lives, they function more like an underscore than like acting. We don’t see him speak; we just hear his words, almost as we might hear a voice behind one of the apartment doors he passes.
Brion’s music (especially as orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri) is pretty wonderful. He gave—I assume it was him—the soundtrack CD its own continuity, more or less in the style of the film, but of course with a life and sound all its own. “Overture” sets the tone, and establishes the sense of collage that informs the whole CD. First, as I’ve said, we hear noises. Then a gentle waltz-time oom-pah, with a wistful three-note melody cloaking it, repeating like waves breaking on a beach. Then an oboe tune, in two waves, with electronic shudders rising beneath the second one. And then strings, rising to a certified Big Tune, a kind of goofy love waltz, though very tender, which melts away without ever finishing. It melts into low-key singing, more background noises, and finally the sound of an orchestra tuning up.
Then of course comes “Tabla,” with its rhythmic patter and its ocean waves (which might be there because a key stretch of the film is shot on and near the beach in Hawaii, a prosaic thought).
And then track three (“Punch-Drunk Melody”) takes us back to the waltz, though now the music sprouts new ideas, nothing forceful, but still new. Soon it rises once more into the sweet, goofy tune, again with fine, rich strings, and again melting away, this time into almost boneless oom-pahs that mark time quietly, swinging back and forth, finally joined by echoes from one of the melodic wisps at the start of the track. I love the way these are mixed, so they sound like tiny ghosts of violins, making me wonder why classical composers don’t use recording studios this way. Why do we almost always write acoustic music, or else music meant to be amplified or altered electronically, but still heard live, and then recorded naturalistically? Why don’t we use the art of the studio (available for hardly any money on our own computers), to create pieces directly for recording?
What emerges, as the CD takes shape, is a pattern: alternate tracks of waltz and of other kinds of music and sound, these last being much less structured, and—speaking conventionally, now—much less “musical.” Each time the waltz pops up, it evolves, hanging around just a little longer before it melts away. It visits on a tack piano, and way down on track 13, with a Latin beat, and grows to a very peaceful climax, of sorts, on track 14, “Third Floor Hallway” (site of the lovers’ first kiss), where the love tune returns in its pristine orchestral dress, and finally plays to a conclusion.
Though the conclusion (typically wistful) comes barely one minute into a track that’s three and half minutes long. So what happens in the rest of that time? Oom-pahs, in their now-familiar holding pattern, plus reminiscences of waltz scraps from previous tracks, and then finally another stab at the tune, but this time varied in a way that makes it sound more like a memory than a restatement. The CD never delivers any conventional payoff; it never surges to the kind of full-blooded climax the love tune could easily suggest. For three tracks, in fact, it wanders off into oddball songs, borrowed from elsewhere, in styles ranging from Hawaiian to rockabilly. There’s also a song on the next to last track, an almost Beatle-esque Jon Brion tune specially written for the film, which uses some of the waltz wisps. The final track gives us an instrumental remix of one of the borrowed songs, which does finally bring the CD to a full stop on a stable tonic chord—except that this track is full of things that don’t quite add up, including (and I really love this) just one quick foreshortened single note of singing, which was sampled from the vocals of the original song, and in fact is all that’s left of them. It’s also interesting that, early on the CD, the pattern tracks are a lot longer than the melodic ones. Taken as a whole, the CD is a collage (as many individual tracks also are), which again makes it, in spirit at least, a lot like the movie’s real soundtrack.
So, why couldn’t Punch-Drunk Love be an opera? Or, to put it another way, why aren’t new operas as fresh, fun, and contemporary as Punch-Drunk Love? This is a paradox. Here we have a movie that might not be runaway smash-hit, but still has been a success, staying for weeks on the list of top-ten movie grosses. Obviously, lots of people like it, surely more people than go to new operas. But then on the other hand we have new operas, which seem cautious and conventional next to this movie, as if they were afraid of displeasing an audience—even though the movie has a bigger audience than they do.
Which suggests, of course, something we know is true—that opera lives in its own, resoundingly conventional universe. Of course there are things in the opera world that don’t fit this universe, starting with the whole range of so-called experimental music theater (Meredith Monk, and the like); plus Regietheater, the modernist (and postmodernist) restagings of familiar opera repertoire, common in Europe but mostly damned in the backward U.S.; plus all sorts of newer European works. But none of this is especially welcome in American opera houses, which is exactly my point. Opera claims to be high art, yadda yadda yadda, then gets outgunned in artistry by popular culture. Another film that teaches this lesson, and more directly than Punch-Drunk Love, is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a music-theater piece that’s far more edgy and delightful than anything I’ve seen at any opera house lately.
But then how would anyone write an opera with music that works like the soundtrack of Punch-Drunk Love? Take that moment in the supermarket, with its tiny freezer whine. You could create something like it on an opera stage. The Adam Sandler character would open the freezer door, just as he does in the movie, and the metallic freezer whine, more felt than heard, could be created electronically, played on a recording, or emulated with canny orchestration. It could come out of silence, as it does in the film, or show up as an uneasy addition to whatever music (or other sound) accompanied the Sandler character as he shopped. Opera always has allowed such things, and in fact subtle sonic shifts are a great delight in an opera score deft enough to allow them.
And certainly the language of new music, as it’s evolved in the last hundred years, allows for noise in music—electronics, recordings, anything you want. But most opera composers, with a moment like the supermarket freezer to bring alive, would evoke it with orchestral music in a recognized operatic style. That can be disappointing, as it is, for instance, at the start of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. George and Lennie are running away from the cops, so as they come on stage, we hear police sirens far away, a gripping sound. And then Floyd’s music starts, and, at least to my ear, the moment dies, since the music is much more predictable than the sirens were. The sirens ought to be the music, or at least the music could take off from the sirens, or weave the sirens into itself, the way Wagner wove offstage horns into the start of the second act of Tristan.
But the supermarket moment, treated in punch-drunk style, has problems in an opera house. You write one moment like this, and surely you’ll have to write others, so your work has a consistent sound. Soon your score becomes a collage, including many non-operatic elements, and that has implications for the singing. What kind of vocal style would be appropriate? Probably a collage of vocal styles, none of them, perhaps, conventionally operatic… Or maybe there wouldn’t be any singing at all, making the piece opera only because all of it would be entirely shaped by music. So now we have an opera that might not need opera singers, and, for that matter, might not need a normal orchestra. Who’s going to stage that? Maybe the Next Wave, or the Lincoln Center Festival, but surely not an opera house!
Which makes me think (though this is a much longer story) that the classical music mainstream isn’t a good home for art.
This is from Feb. 24th, courtesy of Mojo magazine. Written by James McNair. Link below…
Following his long, dark journey night, Beck’s new album is a sleeping beauty.
“You can only come to the morning through shadows”, observed J.R.R. Tolkein, and inevitably the world looks different when we arrive back. Beck Hansen’s introspective, little epiphany-laden twelfth album is wonderfully alive to the way the day’s tender hours can flip our perceptions, or re-boot our mental state. Whether we awake refreshed or in a sleep-dazed fog, Beck knows, certain questions tend to nag. What happened yesterday and how should I process it? Where am I currently stationed in this thing we call life?
Morning can be a time of reckoning (Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”), reluctant come-to (Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”), even spiritual renewal through sheer wonderment (Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken”). There are shades of all of these morning moods on Morning Phase, an album whose 13 songs are all set around dawn. At root, though, the record personifies daybreak as a benevolent force escorting us back to equilibrium. “There’s this feeling of tumult and uncertainty,” Beck recently told Mojo contributor David Fricke, “[of] getting through that long, dark night of the soul. These songs were about coming out of that – how things do get better.”
While Beck’s esteemed 2002 album Sea Change, a record of similar sonics and emotional heft to Morning Phase, was widely seen as a heartbroken response to his break-up with designer Leigh Limon, the singer has yet to elucidate on what’s been keeping him awake more recently.
With this record partly viewing the world from a body recumbent, however, the unspecified accident that did for Beck’s back shortly before he made his last album, 2008’s Modern Guilt, seems pertinent even now. “I had severe damage to my spine, but now it’s improving… it was a long, long recovery”, he told Argentina’s Página/12 in November. The newspaper’s scoop, gained some five years after Beck’s injury, goes some way towards explaining Morning Phase’s long and intermittent gestation.
Several of the album’s songs seem to portray a man wearied by his own racing mind. There’s “Turn Away,” a starkly beautiful folk song that advocates severance from solipsistic thought and has shades of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” There’s also “Waking Light,” a devastating, piano-led epic that moves at cloud-speed, climaxes with a spectacularly frazzled guitar solo, and sounds like an instance of an artist actually realising the seeming pipe dream of his imagination. “When the memory leads you/Somewhere you can’t make it home,” sings Beck, riding the coat-tails of a capacious reverb, “When the morning comes to meet you/Rest your eyes in waking light.”
Morning Phase isn’t an album that obsequiously courts your approval – it just is. Expansive and often undertaken at tempos that would scarcely have taxed late giant tortoise of The Galapagos, Lonesome George, it sometimes feints at psychedelia, but also has bucolic and cosmic country elements.
Beck has said that his latest is “California music”, but to these ears this needs some qualifying. While “Country Down,” with its pedal steel and choice harmonica, has shades of Gram Parsons, and the acoustic guitar on “Say Goodbye” rolls like that of Neil Young’s “Old Man,” this is certainly not a work evoking the gregarious and ebullient sunshine state of pop lore. Instead, we visit a rather more mysterious and shadowy place where “mountains roll by like centuries” and we’re “down in the cancelled Avalon”. Even the record’s lightest moment – the exquisite, cleverly modulating “Blackbird Chain” – touches upon the dark ’60s chamber pop of Arthur Lee’s Love.
Meanwhile, the music of “Heart Is a Drum” – another cracker with a skipping acoustic guitar riff, upright piano and woozy, swelling textures of unfathomable providence – conjures Nick Drake looking out upon rainy Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire rather than a coastal drive in Big Sur. “I need to find someone/To show me how to play it slow/And just let it go,” sings Beck. Again, there’s a search for stillness, peace of mind.
Several key musicians from Sea Change rejoin Beck here: bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker among them. These seasoned sessioneers by now roll like a latter-day Wrecking Crew, but Waronker, who brings tremendous poise to the album’s foot-dragging tempos, deserves special mention.
But the real star-turn excluding Beck himself is the singer’s father, David Campbell. Another of the Sea Change returnees, he brings gravitas-rich brass and string arrangements that seem tectonic in scale. The vertiginous swells on instrumental segue “String Interlude 1″ exert a tidal pull on the listener, and then there is “Waves,” the strings-and-vocals-only affair that Beck recently premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, his father conducting. The song has something of Scott Walker’s disquieted elegance, Beck averring “If I surrender/And I don’t fight this wave/I won’t go under/I will only be carried away.”
Morning Phase is Beck’s first album for his new label, Capitol (Virgin in the UK). It hasn’t come out of a vacuum, of course, but engrossing and/or thrillingly outlandish as some of the singer’s recent conceits have been – his yodelling-inclusive take on Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” arranged for 167-piece orchestra and choir comes to mind – he has seemed somewhat rudder-less of late.
His On-Line Record Club’s re-recordings of songs by INXS and Leonard Cohen were great fun and all that, but it’s reassuring that Beck Hansen can still pull an original record as substantive and absorbing as this one out of the hat. “The early morning has gold in its mouth,” noted Benjamin Franklin, and so, too, does Morning Phase.
This review of Massachusetts’ Young Adults comes from The Boston Globe, dated Nov. 5, 2010 and written by Jonathan Perry…
It’s barely been a year since the two Villón brothers — singer-guitarist Chris and drummer Kurt — teamed with bassist Demitri Miró, dubbed themselves Young Adults, and self-released a demo last January that more than hinted at some compellingly corrosive chemistry at work: a compressed-yet-sweeping blitzkrieg of art-damaged noise the trio liked to call “ambient punk.’’ Now back from a Brighton studio and armed with their first full-length LP, this time properly recorded by engineer Justin Pizzoferrato (Sonic Youth/Free Kitten/Dinosaur Jr.), Young Adults suddenly seem all, uh, grown up. But they haven’t grown out of their good taste (Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü, Polvo, etc.) or their thirst for decibel-heavy drama, wind-tunnel vocals, and a textured sonic universe. You can touch the glorious roar of “Wasting Time,’’ or walk through its spiked, glittering gates of steel and electricity. Silver sheets of blistering guitar coat the Burma-esque “Life Under Review’’ as it surges and pummels forward. The buried-under-a-billion-layers bustle of “Black Surf’’ sounds a little something like the B-52’s reimagined by Shellac or the Jesus Lizard. And the gang’s trenchant cover of the Wipers’ “Over the Edge’’ well suits a band disciplined enough to walk up to that edge and linger there, with the thrill and threat of a free-fall always at hand.
This review, from last Spring, of Eliot Wilder’s 2013 remixed version of This Lonesome Road (originally from 2011) comes from the Caught in the Carousel website. I’m confused about who the author of this review is. It says it’s written by Alex Green, but below the review the name Paul Gleason appears…?
Anyhow, please check out Eliot Wilder’s music (find his link on my blogroll) and the article I wrote about him on The Beat Patrol. He’s a great artist and deserves success…
Eliot Wilder Goes It Alone
A remixed and rethought album originally recorded in 2011, This Lonesome Road – the prolific Boston-based musician Eliot Wilder’s umpteenth album – is a marvel of intelligent song craft, introspective lyricism, and raw emotion. Wilder’s mastery of dynamics and what seems like every instrument under the sun make him a hidden treasure. But he shouldn’t be, as This Lonesome Road amply proves.
The opening track “From Here to Tucumcari” demonstrates Wilder’s ambition as a musician. It’s one of those tracks – think, say, of Death Cab for Cutie’s “The New Year” or even U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” – that energizes listeners and pulls them into the record with a thrilling use of dynamics. “Tucumcari” begins with moody synth lines and rain sound effects, before keyboards carry you to a lyric-less but catchy vocal chant, which Wilder accompanies with some great guitar. The song simply soars, until Wilder returns to the rain effects with which the track begins. He includes the subtle sound of the thunder to remind you that feelings of happiness – such as those that the chant invokes – inevitably precede a return to sadness.
And this is what This Lonesome Road is really about – dynamic musical shifts within and between songs, as well as dynamic shifts in emotion.
Tracks like “The Curate’s Egg” further exemplify Wilder’s handle on dynamics within a song. The song begins with sparse piano and vocal samples of George W. Bush, of which Max Richter would be proud. But it morphs quickly into a hard rock that’s simultaneously introspective and political. The theme here is regret, and Wilder suggests that both the former president and the listener lie awake at night questioning the decisions they’ve made. The angry tone of Wilder’s vocal deliver, however, transforms the song into a possible indictment of Bush’s past decisions – and possibly his own.
The introspection and sadness on some of the numbers on This Lonesome Road are self-lacerating. Wilder’s very hard on himself in moving acoustic, singer-songwriter numbers like “If You Were Someone Else Then I Might Love You More,” “My Mona Lisa,” and “The Dark Side of Me.” But Wilder never wallows or navel gazes. Take, for example, “Dark Side,” on which he adds female backing vocals and slide guitar (an homage to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon?) to make the song reach out to the listener.
“Live Out Loud,” with its punk-rock beats and bass and guitar riffs, transitions This Lonesome Road away from tracks like “Dark Side.” It’s a fiery blast of energy, with cool guitars, and a terrific noise section. It’s also a much-needed scream of positivity that revisits the record’s central thesis of musical and emotional dynamic shifts.
A nifty country tune, the title track invites the listener to come with Wilder and “wander with [him] down this lonesome road.” “It’s always best to have yourself a friend,” he sings, backed by country accouterments – slide and acoustic guitars figure in the mix, as does a fiddle. Wilder now finds faith in companionship. This song is just as excellent in its optimism as other tracks are in their recognition of the inevitability of human suffering.
On “Lovesick Blues Boy,” Wilder performs a terrific piece of knitting. The synth pattern with which This Lonesome Road begins returns, but this time it leads to a poppy melody that Wilder uses to convey his love for a woman. The song’s lyrics wobble between being self-accusatory and a pure celebration of the existence of unrequited love.
By the time Wilder reaches the album’s closer, “Once More, with Feeling,” – a keyboard driven ballad with harmonies that smack of The Beach Boys – he’s back in the land “Tucumcari,” using music and wordless vocals to express humanity’s ability to feel deeply.
It takes a musician of Wilder’s caliber to convince listeners of their emotional existence, especially in today’s world of disposable pop music. But Wilder’s This Lonesome Road isn’t disposable – it’s essential.
This review of Moby Grape drummer Don Stevenson’s first solo album comes from Sheldon A. Wiebe, Eclipse magazine, dated Nov. 5, 2010…
Don Stevenson Is Not — Despite His Album’s Title — The King of the Fools!
Moby Grape was, perhaps, the best band to come out of the San Francisco scene in the 1960s. Unfortunately, their label screwed things up for them by releasing, simultaneously, five singles from their first album. To this day, the release of an album by a Grape is an event to be celebrated. Don Stevenson is the last member of the group to release a solo album and it is, indeed, a cause for celebration.
There are moments of unexpected joy in every life. The note that came with my review copy of King of the Fools, by Don Stevenson, is one such moment. Stevenson, who was an original member of Moby Grape, the ‘60s band that should have had monster sales to go with their nearly universal critical acclaim, dashed off a personal, handwritten note to accompany the package, “Hi Sheldon, I am the last Grape to produce a solo album. It took me long enough. Hope you enjoy. Thanks, Don Stevenson.”
After that, I had a few moments of trepidation. What if the album didn’t live up to the warmth of that simple note? After all, the albums by other former Grapes tended towards brilliance (find copies of Skip Spence’s Oar, or Bob Mosley’s eponymous 1972 album – I’ll wait). Fortunately, it exceeded my expectations – which were high before I ever read the note.
Right from the get-go, Moby Grape were a rave-up rock & roll band with obvious jazz and country influences. Their first four albums reflected all sides of their complexity – Moby Grape rocked like a house afire; Wow/Grape Jam moved from a pretty rockin’ studio disc (ahhh, the days of vinyl…) to a live disc of jazzy extended numbers; Moby Grape ’69 began an evolution toward county rock without losing the edge of the first album; and finally, Truly Fine Citizen settled into country rock with a touch of down home blues. Stevenson’s contributions to Moby Grape may have underestimated by some, but the guy co-wrote “Hey Grandma” and “8:05″ – and they both left their mark on me.
King of the Fools finds the 68-year old Stevenson rocking maybe a tad bit less, but the album is a brilliant, rootsy aggregation of rock, blues and country – and is comparably in quality to both the best of Grape and its members’ solo albums.
Stevenson’s “Getting Used to Being Treated Wrong” opens with a guitar intro that would be at home on Truly Fine Citizen before turning into a bit of a stomper, with Stevenson’s vocals expressing anguish and resignation in an almost howl that brings the song’s title into sharp relief. It’s a fire-breathing opener that sets the tone for the album – fluidity, grace and rawness all somehow working together to grab the listener by the heart.
“Walking in the Fire” mixes county licks (especially some gorgeous fills and a solo from Bobby Black on pedal steel) with a loping reggae beat, while “Laa Laa (I Want to Be with You)” is a beautifully simple, straightforward ballad that switches tempos for a brisk, jaunty verse then slowing again for a tasty guitar break before finishing with a jazzified country guitar and pedal steel duel that melds into a harmonious blend before ending on a high note.
“I’ll Be There for You” is pretty straightforward country ballad with lush harmonies and propulsive finger picking; “Train (.44 Blues),” one of two covers on the album (by Roosevelt Sykes), is – as the title suggests – a blues song about a train, but not quite the train song you might be expecting.
“We Gonna Make It” is a bluesy wailer of moderate tempo with a fine sax line and solo from Scott Barnhill and terrific harmony vocals by Melody Price – and Stevenson sounds like the Grape wailer of old; his voice simultaneously warm and raw (raw like a warm, scratchy horse blanket – not sandpaper).
The title song is a quiet, moody, jazzy moment of introspection that seems almost wispy, while “Forbidden Love in Paradise” returns to that country/reggae feel to give an underlying uplift to the subject of lost love. “Love Is Slipping” away is a mournful tale of losing love a degree at a time and not noticing until it’s too late – the sting of loss coming from darting guitar licks.
The album’s penultimate song, “True Love Song,” is one of homecoming and gratitude for life’s blessings – and Stevenson’s vocals are mellower and, if possible, even warmer. Adding to the warmth is the fact that the song is performed on acoustic instruments.
The finale, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s “Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses,” reminds, musically, of “Murder in My Heart for the Judge,” though it couldn’t be farther away lyrically. Some fancy acoustic picking supports Stevenson and the overall feel winds up being kinda spiritual.
It is a joy to hear Stevenson weaving guitar magic with fellow Grape, Jerry Miller, on a number of tracks – it’s like they’ve never stopped playing together. Which is not to suggest the other guitarists involved haven’t been excellent as well – it’s just that there’s an undefined special magic that occurs when Stevenson and Miller start cookin’.
When a Grape makes music, it’s always been a cause for celebration. King of the Fools keeps the string intact. Buy. Enjoy. Celebrate.
Sheldon A. Wiebe
Continuing my ongoing look back at Harry Nilsson, who has been gone 20 years as of Jan. 15th, I present another excellent review by Joe Marchese from The Second Disc, this time from Sept. 27, 2013. This review looks at Harry Nilsson’s final album, which was not included in the RCA Albums Collection box set due to the fact that the album was released on Mercury Records…
When Harry Nilsson’s The RCA Albums Collection was finally unveiled earlier this year by Legacy Recordings, many finally stood up and took notice of the gifted singer-songwriter whose art deftly blended the high and the low, the angelic and the devilish, the euphoric and the melancholy. That astounding box set included each one of Nilsson’s albums for the RCA label – in other words, his entire solo discography save one album. And now, that final missing link is finally here, on CD to join its brethren. At long last… Flash Harry!
A series of incidents, ranging from lack of promotion to the label’s release of a “greatest hits” collection with a Harry lookalike on its cover (!), led Nilsson to sever his ties with the only record company he ever truly called home. 1977’s Knnillssonn turned out to be his final RCA album, but in 1980, it was time to greet the new decade with a new label (Mercury) and a new album: Flash Harry. Problem was, hardly anybody ever heard it! Despite a starry array of musicians including Van Dyke Parks, Ringo Starr, Lowell George, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Keith Allison, Dr. John and Klaus Voormann, a name producer (Stax guitar great Steve Cropper) and an eclectic crop of songs, the LP was withheld from release in North America. Issued only in Europe and Japan, Harry disappeared in, well, a Flash. It’s never been reissued in any format, until now. Varese Sarabande has rescued Nilsson’s studio swansong and reissued it on both vinyl and CD, and it makes a perfect complement – indeed, a necessary one – to the expansive RCA box.
A taut collection of just ten loose songs, Flash Harry has an air of an artist not taking himself too seriously, for good or ill. Blink and you will have missed it – and given the album’s fate, this ephemeral quality is fitting. Despite Cropper’s presence as co-producer (with Cherokee Studios’ owner/engineer Bruce Robb), Flash Harry isn’t Nilsson’s “R&B album.” There are soulful elements for sure – but Nilsson, even at his most vocally diminished, always possessed a soulful tone. Cropper may have brought that timbre of his voice out on Flash Harry, but moreover, its spirited, anything-goes party vibe both stands in marked contrast to, and as a natural continuation of, RCA farewell Knnillssonn. That underrated classic brought Nilsson full circle to his ornate, early productions for the label, with the stunning ballad “All I Think About Is You” and sweet “Perfect Day” taking spots alongside calypso, rock and theatrical vaudeville excursions. Flash Harry lacks anything as beautiful or evocative as those two songs or the equally-wonderful “Blanket for a Sail.” But it has the same rollicking stylistic diversity as its predecessor of three years earlier. By 1980, Nilsson had committed himself to penning musicals for stage and screen, and those projects informed his work on the album, as well.
Join us for more in a Flash – just hit the jump!
Flash Harry is bookended by the songs of Nilsson’s pal Eric Idle, and one – the opening paean to “Harry” – is even sung by Idle and Charlie Dore. As Nilsson, circa 1980, is quoted in Jerry McCulley’s terrific new liner notes for the CD edition, “The name of the album is Flash Harry, and it’s a very ‘flash’ thing at this stage of my career to say I have people sing for me!” Idle’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek, inviting listeners to “come and share a joke or two/Come and have a smoke or two/You can have some coke… a-cola, too, with Harry!” Just as delightful is the album’s closing, Harry’s own rendition of Idle’s Life of Brian (and later, Spamalot) showstopper “[Always Look on the] Bright Side of Life.” Nilsson sings the darkly funny tune with clear affection, leading a 25-strong chorus in an inventive arrangement. As such, it’s one of the highlights here.
Two more strong tracks resulted from Nilsson’s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, another friend. Parks had contributed the Caribbean flourishes to Harry’s 1975 Duit on Mon Dei, and Nilsson continued to record in that tropical vein on albums such as …That’s the Way It Is and Knnillssonn. Here, we get the Parks/Lowell George/Martin Kibbee “Cheek to Cheek,” an ode to a lady from south of the border who’s got Harry’s heart “on permanent loan,” and “Best Move,” by Parks, Nilsson and Mike Hazlewood of “It Never Rains in Southern California” and “The Air That I Breathe” fame. (In McCulley’s essay, Parks dryly remarks of Kibbee’s participation in “Cheek to Cheek” that “if you’re in the room when the song is being written, you’re in the copyright!”) “Best Move” makes the most of a sweet and infectious melody and a breezy arrangement, though the lyrics are tossed-off and goofy: “Don’t forget the Wesson oil and mayonnaise just in case I love you…” or “This could be the best fade you ever played… would you mind undressing while I serenade?”
A reggae groove also spices up “Rain,” the lone solo Nilsson composition on Flash Harry. Tasty guitar licks, atmospheric flute and a backing chorus waft in and out, and the lyrical concept is solid (“All I need is a bit of rain… come and take away my pain”) though the song feels a bit underdeveloped. Nilsson brought along Ringo Starr as co-writer of the reggae-fied romp “How Long Can Disco On.” The title may be the best thing about it, however. What might have been endearingly silly (“DJ, he play reggae/And I say, do you wanna dance reggae?/She say, Oh no! Disco!”) is hindered by a crawling tempo and lack of energy. Starr plays drums here.
Ringo’s presence isn’t the only Fab Four connection on Flash Harry, as Nilsson revisited his John Lennon co-write “Old Dirt Road.” Harry’s take doesn’t veer too far from the template established on Lennon’s Walls and Bridges rendition (on which Harry appeared). An alternate take – which first appeared on the Perfect Day publishing sampler – has been appended to Varese’s CD reissue. It’s a bit shorter and lacks the cooing female backing vocals of the album version.
Nilsson reunited with another old collaborator, arranger Perry Botkin, Jr., on Flash Harry. Botkin had returned to the fold on Duit on Mon Dei, and penned the 1980 musical Zapata! with Nilsson about the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. From their score comes “I’ve Got It.” Think Harry as Randy Newman in spoken-sung, talking-blues mode (a la “My Life is Good”) and you have an idea of what this loopy, risqué ditty sounds like. Harry is also less than angelic on “It’s So Easy,” co-written with Paul Stallworth. Its R&B style rather overtly evokes “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” with down and dirty guitar piercing through the slithering strings. Harry name-checks himself and Stallworth on this lyrically slight slab of soul: “How do you feel when you see me/What do you see when you see through me?/It’s so good to be in you/Can’t stop myself from messin’ with you…”
Much more keenly felt is “I Don’t Need You.” Rick Christian’s heartrending breakup ballad – not the deliciously acerbic Rupert Holmes composition of the same name – became a hit for Kenny Rogers in 1981, but should have had a shot for success in Harry’s fine treatment. Its prominent piano and strings clearly recall the likes of “Without You,” and while Harry’s voice is much more frayed, it’s filled with emotion.
Varese’s CD reissue has added four bonus tracks, including the alternate of “Old Dirt Road.” These outtakes aren’t in the same pristine quality as the album itself – nicely remastered by Steve Massie – but they are nonetheless invaluable. Sideman supreme Danny Kortchmar supplies the catchy, uptempo “Feet,” with a guttural, raspy vocal from Nilsson. Allen Toussaint’s “Leave the Rest to Molly,” previously recorded by Browning Bryant, would have fit snugly on Flash Harry as would have “She Drifted Away.” This John Lawrence Agostino song has the same loping reggae vibe Nilsson favored during this period, with a jazzy saxophone and country guitar licks adding color. He even ad libs a bit of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” as the song fades. The 180-gram vinyl reissue lacks the bonus material and McCulley’s new notes, but reprints the 1980 back cover liners by Derek Taylor which are otherwise unavailable. Produced like its CD counterpart by Cary Mansfield with art direction by Bill Pitzonka, the LP is a loving recreation of the original release.
Flash Harry may not have received the same acclaim as, say, Nilsson Schmilsson – you know, that other album with the singer featured in a bathrobe on the front cover photo. Schmilsson had the feel of raw rock-and-roll despite a high level of polish, whereas Flash Harry never coheres in the manner of Nilsson’s greatest albums. But the lighter charms of Flash Harry ensure that it, too, deserves its place in his discography, and Varese’s reissue belongs on your shelf right next to The Complete RCA Albums Collection. The resonant, quirky, and highly individual voice of Harry Nilsson shines through. So, come and share a joke or two, come and have a smoke or two, you can have some coke… oh, never mind, just enjoy the pleasures of this very Flash Harry!
Another take on this massive box set, this time from The Second Disc, dated July 30, 2013. Excellent review by Joe Marchese. Hope he doesn’t mind me reposting it here…
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
– William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV
He’s a pretty nifty guy
Always looks you in the eye
Everybody passing by will sigh
– Eric Idle, “Harry”
Harry Nilsson had the voice of an angel, and raised hell like the devil. A consummate songwriter, he had his biggest hits with two songs written by others: Tom Evans and Pete Ham’s “Without You” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” He turned The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” into a dazzlingly sophisticated mélange of words and music and just as easily spun one single chord into musical gold with “Coconut.” He celebrated the songcraft of Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen with no irony, shortly after making his own bid for a radio hit with “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“So fuck you!” goes the chorus). The high and the low routinely co-existed in Nilsson’s life and music.
Harry Edward Nilsson III (1941-1994) was a man of many contradictions who began his career at RCA Records with tremendous promise and ended it with considerably less fanfare, alienated from both the record label brass and his dwindling fan base. In recent years, many projects have sought to understand this complicated artist, including John Scheinfeld’s documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) and Alyn Shipton’s biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer/Songwriter. The book’s very title seemingly reflected the author’s desire to place the emphasis not on Nilsson’s hard-partying ways, but on his art… just where it belongs. If the real Harry Nilsson might have been a man of many faces – he certainly was a man of many voices – his heart and soul doubtless resided in his life’s work. And that life’s work forms the basis of an absolutely stunning new box set from RCA Records and Legacy Recordings entitled Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection. With 17 discs, 14 expanded albums and over 50 previously unreleased tracks, it is an illuminating window into the spirited world of an artist who stubbornly stayed true to himself and left behind a body of work ripe for rediscovery. A little touch of Harry in the night – or the morning, or the afternoon – is one both fascinating and revelatory.
After the jump, we’re exploring the new box with an album-by-album look at the man and his art. Join us, won’t you?
Nilsson’s ten-year association with RCA (1967-1977) began auspiciously with the one-two punch of Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968), both of which are included in mono and stereo. It’s easy to see why John Lennon and Paul McCartney called Nilsson their “favorite group” as the young vocalist’s limits knew no bounds. He stacked harmony atop harmony on intricately arranged vignettes showing his mastery of various styles as a songwriter and a singer. Whimsy and wit co-existed as Nilsson, producer Rick Jarrard, and arrangers Perry Botkin, Jr. and George Tipton crafted soundscapes in vaudeville (complete with taps!) and bossa nova, baroque pop and folk rock. Songs like the winsome “The Wailing of the Willow,” arrestingly autobiographical “1941” (“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son/And by 1944, the father walked right out the door/And in ’45, the mom and son were still alive/But who could tell in ’46 if the two were to survive?”) and the darkly longing “Without Her” were unquestionably original, and remain so today. Aerial Ballet included Nilsson’s gorgeous, Grammy-winning recording of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which gave the critics’ darling some commercial cachet, and a hauntingly sad little song called “One.” In the hands of Three Dog Night it became an arena-worthy rocker. They recorded it with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer (and canny AM radio instincts, let’s not forget) and obscured much of the original’s lyrical quality in doing so, but their smash hit proved how versatile Nilsson’s highly individual music, in fact, was.
1971’s Harry (expanded here by seven bonus tracks) continued the winning eclecticism of Nilsson’s first two albums, and began his association with Randy Newman. Nilsson had never been shy about celebrating writers he admired, tackling the songbooks of Lennon and McCartney, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and others on his first two albums. On Harry, he recorded Newman’s charming and subversive “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” alongside a sympathetic interpretation of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Nilsson’s own Midnight Cowboy-inspired song, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” But in Newman, Nilsson found a kindred spirit.
“The records Harry made, and the first records I made, it was like The Rolling Stones never existed,” observed the ever-sharp Mr. Newman in 1997. Nilsson Sings Newman (1970) resulted from their collaboration, with Newman on piano and Nilsson on the microphone layering multiple parts on a devastating selection of ten Newman songs. Nilsson was wry on “Love Story” (“We’ll have a kid or maybe we’ll rent one/He’s got to be straight, we don’t want a bent one…”) and shattering on “Living Without You.” Nilsson must have found special meaning in “Vine St.” and “So Long, Dad.” The former, also recorded by Van Dyke Parks on his iconic Song Cycle, is a clever look at a musician’s life, while the latter revisits the father/son relationship, a staple of Nilsson’s early works from the first album’s “1941” onward. Here, Nilsson Sings Newman is newly remastered (like the entirety of the box set) and replicates the same five bonus tracks on Buddha’s 2000 CD edition. Nilsson continued to take artistic detours following this album, scoring the animated television special The Point! As presented here, The Point! includes the four bonus cuts from BMG Heritage’s 2002 reissue and adds one brief radio spot. Ever ahead of his time, Nilsson’s next project was a “mash-up” of his first two albums, and the rechristened Aerial Pandemonium Ballet – with numerous vocal and instrumental parts added, subtracted and altered – has been lavishly expanded with five songs sung in Italian (four previously unissued) and a rare live set from the BBC’s Saturday Club program, plus one remix and a radio spot. The enjoyable Saturday Club set shows that Nilsson could, indeed, have parlayed his studio wizardry into a live career, had he wished to.
Producer Richard Perry (Tiny Tim, Barbra Streisand) played a major role in the next phase of Nilsson’s career in which he shed his quirkiest pop inclinations for down-and-dirty rock and roll. On the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson, even his look had changed. The once-clean cut singer now wore shaggy hair and scruff, and was pictured in his bathrobe, holding a pipe. Perry’s studio craft became integral to Nilsson’s songwriting. The orchestra of the past had largely made way for a true “band” record with players including Klaus Voormann, Caleb Quaye, Chris Spedding, Herbie Flowers, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, and Jimmy Webb shaping the songs with Nilsson and Perry on the spot. This organic approach to songwriting may have led to less cerebral material, but the new approach paid off. With the clattering rock of “Jump Into the Fire,” the novelty-ish “Coconut” and the sweeping, Grammy-winning reinterpretation of Badfinger’s “Without You” all sharing one album, Nilsson was no less eclectic, but was certainly tougher. He once told journalist Dawn Eden, “My earlier stuff had more soul, only it was more subtle.” Subtle doesn’t sell records, and the slick and muscular Nilsson Schmilsson – bolstered by the deserved success of “Without You” – earned him superstardom. Nilsson and Perry followed it with 1972’s Son of Schmilsson, with George Harrison and Nilsson’s close friend, cohort and Best Man Ringo Starr among the line-up. It was as musically diverse as its predecessor but lacked the same level of cohesion as an album. Still, “Remember (Christmas)” was one of Nilsson’s most affecting ballads, and the infamous “You’re Breaking My Heart” rocked with fervor. As presented in The RCA Albums Collection, both discs retain the bonuses from past editions, with Son of Schmilsson adding a bit more. (Nilsson’s take on Jimmy Webb’s humorous “Campo de Encino” is among the highlights here. The song was written at Nilsson’s instigation, as he encouraged his buddy to pen more lighthearted songs.)
The sight of a long-haired, bearded Nilsson smoking a cigarette on the cover of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night didn’t scream elegance, but that’s what this album of standards arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins delivered. Known for his grandiose string arrangements on a number of Frank Sinatra’s most dramatic records, Jenkins surrounded Nilsson’s heartfelt and frequently beautiful vocals with a lavish and romantic setting. Though the lack of any tongue-in-cheek style might have surprised those accustomed to Nilsson’s ribald side (which became more and more prevalent on Schmilsson and Son of), the album shouldn’t have been a shock. By the time of its 1973 release, Nilsson had already proven his ability to both write and identify future standards; why wouldn’t that singular voice celebrate those writers who had come before his generation? A Little Touch has been expanded with the six outtakes first heard on 1988’s A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night.
Somewhat of a dark period followed, beginning with the controversial John Lennon production Pussy Cats. Produced in the midst of all-too-public debauchery, this LP introduced Nilsson’s “new” voice. His booze-and-drugs-fueled lifestyle took a toll on a once-angelic tenor, leaving behind a husky rasp still capable of great emotion but with greatly diminished range. A clearly-strained Nilsson croaks his way through oldies like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Rock Around the Clock” with Lennon contributing thick, sometimes murky production as well as backing vocals and string charts that point the way towards “No. 9 Dream.” The heartbreaking if sarcastic “Don’t Forget Me” is among Nilsson’s finest compositions, though, and the atmospheric “Old Forgotten Soldier” and “Black Sails” show that his songwriting muse hadn’t completely departed. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” allowed the singer to cut loose in one of his most visceral performances. This edition of Pussy Cats adds three more previously unreleased bonus tracks (very different demos of “Black Sails” and “Don’t Forget Me” and radio spots with comedian/writer Eddie Lawrence) to those previously issued. The early “Don’t Forget Me” is taken at a much faster tempo, but Nilsson’s voice is in stronger form. The “Black Sails” demo, with a music box-esque accompaniment, is even more haunting than the album version.
The final four studio albums in the box – Duit on Mon Dei (1975), Sandman and …That’s the Way It Is (both 1976) and Knnillssonn (1977) – are among the most misunderstood of Nilsson’s ouevre. None cracked the Top 100 on the Billboard chart, and no hit singles resulted. But, in Vic Anesini’s splendid new remasterings, each album reveals distinct and unexpected treasures. Duit, originally titled God’s Greatest Hits by a cheeky Nilsson, is most memorable for Van Dyke Parks’ amiable Caribbean flourishes and the return to the fold of Perry Botkin, Jr., arranger extraordinaire. Dr. John and Ringo join a still ragged-sounding Nilsson on an original set of loose, quirky tunes (“It’s a Jungle Out There,” “Kojak Columbo”) and throwaways (a work-in-progress “Jesus Christ, You’re Tall”) plus a couple of real stunners that creep up on the listener like the pensive ballad “Easier for Me” (first recorded by Ringo as “Easy for Me”) and the cinematic, existential “Salmon Falls,” co-written with Klaus Voormann. A brassy, previously unreleased version of “Goin’ Down” – recut for Knnillssonn – has been added.
Parks and Botkin again contributed to Sandman, very much in the same freewheeling vein as Duit. Alex Harvey’s “I’ll Take a Tango” kicked off a brief, nine-song set with highlights like the lovely “Something True” (with George Harrison-esque slide guitar) and the offbeat college spoof “The Ivy-Covered Walls,” on which Nilsson sounds remarkably like his younger self. He’s joined by a studio choir, however, and one can’t help but imagine how the track would have sounded with his own multi-tracked harmonies of years earlier. “Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today” is a delightfully languid jazz riff with amusing lyric imagery (“If Thursday was a boat, I bet it’d sink…”). Less amusing is the lengthy “The Flying Saucer Song,” also included in the box in a version recorded with Lennon for Pussy Cats. Nilsson voices multiple parts, and Joe Cocker makes a guest appearance on this drawn-out blend of puerile dialogue and song. The jokey “Jesus Christ You’re Tall” was fleshed out for a return appearance, and “Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left for Everybody” is a dry word of environmental warning. Sandman, expanded by the never-before-released funky outtake “A Tree Out in the Yard (Central Park),” reveals the singer-songwriter still capable of flashes of inspiration.
Disappointed with Nilsson’s downward commercial trajectory, RCA encouraged …That’s the Way It Is, a Trevor Lawrence-produced set of covers. Though another “Without You” didn’t emerge, Nilsson is passionate on his old friend Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” the album’s best track, and similarly moving on George Harrison’s “That Is All.” Nilsson loved Gerry Beckley’s melodic “I Need You,” a hit for America in 1972. It should have been a perfect fit, but is marred by an imperfect vocal. Novelties like the calypso-flavored “Zombie Jamboree” and “She Sits Down on Me” (about an ill-placed tattoo) should have been fun diversions but pale next to the mature likes of “Sail Away.” The album didn’t sell any better than those that came before, and so Nilsson returned to the drawing board. For his final RCA album, he crafted, unbelievably, his only entirely self-composed album.
Knnillssonn brought Harry full circle with a return to adult songwriting and deft production. (Harry co-produced the set with Robin Geoffrey Cable.) “How can I run away from darkness at the close of day/When all I think about is you?” he asked on the opening track, a ravishing ballad which melds his voice with an ethereal children’s choir. Just as unforgettable are the charming “Blanket for a Sail” and sweet, mellow “Perfect Day” (“Ride with me, glide with me/Stay by my side, with me through the night/Ride on the wings of the angels of love/Who are on our side”). Nilsson even ventured into Rupert Holmes territory with the murder mystery in song “Who Done It?” and recalled his earliest, theatrically-leaning razz-ma-tazz songs with “Laughin’ Man.” Touching on every style from rock to calypso to showtunes to orchestral balladry, Knnillssonn might be the true lost gem in the singer-songwriter’s catalogue. It’s been expanded with six bonus tracks including the rare single “Ain’t It Kinda Wonderful” from the movie The World’s Greatest Lover, with Nilsson again adopting his best laconic jazz delivery over Ralph Burns and John Morris’ pastiche arrangement of Gene Wilder’s song. It fits well placed alongside previously unreleased, gravelly-voiced versions of standards “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Ballin’ the Jack,” the latter two with Dr. John bringing his unmistakable stamp to the piano. “Sweet Lorraine” (the best of the three tracks) offers a window into Nilsson’s process, with Harry and the good Doctor working the song out with tape rolling. The duo’s demo session of “All I Think About Is You” is another revealing listen, as the song takes on a different, but equally resonant, quality with just voice and piano. And for comparison’s sake, you can check out an earlier attempt at “Ballin’ the Jack” on the Nilsson Sessions here.
In addition to the many bonus tracks spread across the fourteen albums, three chronologically arranged discs of Nilsson Sessions unveil yet more amazing music. So compelling is much of the material, these volumes could stand on their own as The Collector’s Nilsson. There are demos, outtakes, alternates, soundtrack cuts, and other oddities. Some of the tracks compiled have been released before – the songs from Otto Preminger’s zany film Skidoo, alternates and extras from U.K. reissues of Nilsson Schmilsson and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, some singles and Italian language recordings – but there’s pure gold in the “new,” and newly-remixed tracks. (Harry’s sung credits for Skidoo are worth the price of admission alone!)
Harry’s demos were frequently as entertaining as his finished recordings. Five acoustic songs from the famed Monkees demo session are present including the delicious kiss-off “Cuddly Toy” (recorded by Harry on Pandemonium Shadow Show and Davy Jones on The Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.) and the ebullient Phil Spector co-write “This Could Be the Night.” The young, hungry Nilsson plays the role of a one-man band on these tracks.
Fans of Harry’s Beatle-esque studio craft will enjoy the psychedelic “Sister Marie” (heard in a true stereo remix) while Nilsson does Procol Harum in a surprising version of “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence.” The Addrisi Brothers’ “She’s Just Laughing at Me” fits the singer like a glove. It’s impossible to mention all of the treats on offer, such as a 1970 take on The Beatles’ “Blackbird” or a 1971 solo version of “Paradise,” recorded years earlier by Phil Spector and The Ronettes. A raucous 1968 recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Searchin’” actually anticipates the oldies on Pussy Cats, but with the ace session pros Melvoin, Al Casey, Larry Knechtel, and Jim Gordon and Nilsson in much finer fettle. Nilsson also tears into Little Richard’s “Lucille” in an unusual 1971 recording.
Alternate versions (“Rainmaker,” “Open Your Window,” “Joy,” “Think About Your Troubles, “Gotta Get Up”) offer variations large and small. But the wholly unknown songs offer the biggest rewards. “The Family” (1967), makes its first appearance, with Nilsson supported by George Tipton and some Wrecking Crew members (Lyle Ritz, Mike Deasy, Mike Melvoin). 1968’s original “You Are Here,” with Knechtel, Gordon and Michael Wofford, feels unfinished, but is a curio from a reported songwriting challenge with John Lennon. How did the vivid Nilsson/Tipton “Postcard,” written by Brian Godding, remain on the shelf? It’s a mystery. Less of a puzzle is why “I Want You to Sit on My Face” didn’t see release until now…!
One of the rarest of all recordings here is also one of the best. Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little” was written for the 1970 musical Company but ultimately replaced by “Being Alive.” “Marry Me” eventually found its way into revivals of Company, and was even recorded – but shelved – by Barry Manilow. But its composer liked the song so much that he commissioned Harry in late 1969 to record it as a Christmas present for director/producer Hal Prince’s wife Judy. That once-private recording is included here. Sondheim’s yearning melody and incisive, ambivalent lyrics (“Marry me a little, love me just enough/Cry, but not too often/Play, but not too rough/Keep a tender distance, so we’ll both be free/That’s the way it ought to be…”) were rendered thoughtfully and persuasively by Nilsson, who expertly stacks his vocals over George Tipton’s breezy bossa arrangement. Sondheim revealed the natural musical theatre singer in Nilsson, and Nilsson revealed Sondheim, the contemporary pop composer. (Indeed, much of Company was infused with a blazingly current sound.) “Marry Me a Little” is a true gem uniting two once-in-a-lifetime songwriters for the first and only time.
Some might wonder: what’s missing from this packed treasure chest? Unsurprisingly given the personnel involved, The RCA Albums Collection has been produced with a keen completist’s eye. Other than the material which falls out of the collection’s purview (soundtrack albums, a Warner-Spector single with Cher, various pre- and post-RCA sides, and the soon-to-be-reissued Mercury album Flash Harry), the box set is veritable one-stop shopping. Collectors should hold onto Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology, the recently-issued The Essential Nilsson and the promo-only Perfect Day: The Songs of Harry Nilsson, as they collectively contain a small number of unique mixes and/or performances from the RCA era. But the various bonus tracks issued on U.S. and international issues of Nilsson’s releases have, significantly, been included here on the individual albums and on Nilsson Sessions. Dare we hope for more rare Nilsson material from Legacy? More demos and unreleased performances from this restless songwriter do still exist in the vaults. Our fingers remain tightly crossed.
The seventeen mini-LP jackets contained in The RCA Albums Collection are housed in the standard flip-top cube design utilized for Legacy’s Complete Albums series. But producers Rob Santos and Andrew Sandoval have gone the extra mile, bringing aboard Steve Stanley, of the Now Sounds label, to design elements of the packaging. Stanley has beautifully delivered, creating the box’s cover and booklet artwork plus the sleeves for all three bonus discs. These offer new spins on the original covers for Pandemonium Shadow Show, Harry, and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, and add a perfect touch of period class and authenticity to the familiar packaging style. Stanley’s work evokes the hip, trendsetting work of Dean Torrence’s Kittyhawk Graphics; Torrence (of Jan and Dean) created many of the original memorable sleeve designs replicated on the mini-LPs. Faithful RCA labels have also been utilized on the discs. In addition, Sandoval has provided brief but illuminating album-by-album notes, and the 48-page booklet contains complete credits and discographical information for each disc. Every one of the CDs has been remastered by Vic Anesini, who brings out the detail in these recordings. The early, multi-layered productions sparkle anew due to Anesini’s marvelous work, but there’s also a new preciseness to the sound of the later, less ornate tracks.
Thanks to the comprehensive RCA Albums Collection, the originality, creativity, invention and rambunctious, rebellious spirit that characterized Harry Nilsson’s best work no longer need be a secret. Messrs. Santos, Sandoval and Anesini have created a box set for the ages. “What will happen to the boy when the circus comes to town?,” asked the singer-songwriter in “1941.” The answer is right here in this box set. In his all-too-short life, Nilsson’s travelling circus took him from New York to London to Los Angeles, with a taste for adventure and a larger-than-life cast of talented and off-the-wall collaborators. One may be the loneliest number you’ll ever do, but then again, there was only room in the world for one Harry Nilsson. You’ll find all his many sides in The RCA Albums Collection.
This review of the mammoth recent Nilsson box set comes from Alexis Petridis at The Guardian, dated Dec. 19th of last year. I would love to pick this set up one of these days. It looks amazing. Too bad his final Mercury album, Flash Harry, couldn’t have been included, not to mention his later soundtrack work and his final recordings, but there is so much here that it’s hard to quibble…
Harry Nilsson always wanted RCA to make a box set of all his albums. It came too late for him to see, but it’s still a treat.
You could tell Harry Nilsson was trouble from the start: long before it became apparent that he viewed having talent to burn not as a gift, but an incitement to pyromania. If there’s an image of Nilsson fixed in the public imagination, it’s the one on the front of his biggest-selling album, 1971′s Nilsson Schmilsson: a blurry shot of him looking like bad news in a bathrobe, disheveled and staring blankly into space. You can virtually smell the hangover.
On cover of 1967′s Pandemonium Shadow Show, the first CD in this exhaustive 17-disc box set, he seems fresh-faced – he was still working in a bank when it was recorded. The tunes are beguiling, the lyrics witty and smart: so much so that you can miss how bleak his songs were. On that album alone you get murder, adultery, divorce, a callous rejection of an ex-lover, and “1941,” which offers a view of parent-child relations of which Philip Larkin would have approved. Its followup, Aerial Ballet – home to his celebrated cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” – opens with a comedy skit involving tap-dancing, followed by “Daddy’s Song,” detailing the trauma of his father’s desertion when Nilsson was three: towards the end of it, comical voices abound. A terrible darkness appears to exist alongside a weirdly manic bonhomie. You don’t need a degree in psychology to work out that might prove a pretty dangerous combination.
As it turned out, it was lethal, but at first, the most striking thing about Harry Nilsson was the sense that he could do anything. He could write songs in his own wildly idiosyncratic style, with often only the slenderest connections to rock: in any era other than the late 60s, when a certain anything-goes climate had been engendered by psychedelia, he might have been writing for Broadway rather than recording in LA. He could sing other people’s songs better than they could, as evidenced by 1970′s Nilsson Sings Newman, and performed 30s and 40s standards without a hint of irony or camp. He could not only score movies, but also come up with a theme song, “The Cast and Crew,” that set the film’s entire credits to music. He had a weird sideline in children’s songs that sounded freewheeling and joyous on the surface, but on closer examination, almost invariably turned out to be melancholy little studies of loneliness: “The Puppy Song,” “Me and My Arrow,” “A Blanket for a Sail.” He had a thing about calypso. His early albums are both dazzling and faintly exhausting. You couldn’t really blame the public for failing to keep up. His biggest hit, a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” wasn’t particularly characteristic: it sounds overwrought next to the rest of Nilsson Schmilsson, not least the quite astonishingly beautiful “Moonbeam Song.” He gradually lost the audience it brought him – first with a more eccentric, though scarcely less wonderful sequel, Son of Schmilsson, then with 1973′s collection of standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. The bafflement it caused seems remarkable now, when pop artists make albums based on the Great American Songbook as a matter of course. More remarkable still is how good it still sounds in a world awash with latterday versions of “Makin’ Whoopee” and “As Time Goes By”: the orchestrations sumptuous without seeming schmaltzy, his vocal simultaneously fragile and world-weary.
But by then, Nilsson had bigger problems than declining sales, as evidenced by a cameo appearance in, of all things, Michael Palin’s diaries. According to Palin, a night in Nilsson and Who drummer Keith Moon’s company left Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, a raging alcoholic himself, “sounding like a Sunday-school child after an outing to Sodom”. The problem wasn’t Moon, who was merely “a loony”, but Nilsson, “a man bent on self-destruction”. Clearly, it would only be a matter of time before a lifestyle that made you seem the most out-of-control person in a room that also contained Keith Moon started to affect your work.
The real surprise is how little it did. By the time he came to make 1974′s Pussy Cats, he’d managed to permanently damage his voice, and there’s something a little desperate about the way the cover plays up the involvement of his drinking partner John Lennon as producer, but it’s nowhere near as a catastrophic an album as its reputation suggests. For every boring, star-studded cover of an old rock’n’roll classic there’s a Nilsson original like the remarkable “Don’t Forget Me,” another disturbing collision of boozy geniality and anguish that picks through the aftermath of a divorce, shifting from bitterness to sentimentality, its attempts to dispel the gloom undercut by how utterly ruined the man singing “it doesn’t matter, come on get happy” sounds.
Indeed, the rot only really set in on 1976′s … That’s the Way It Is, its dismissive shrug of a title reflected in its contents: a cover of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” aside, Nilsson sounded like he couldn’t be bothered. Incredibly, a year later, he pulled himself together enough to make Knnillssonn, his only album comprised of entirely original songs, and arguably his best: the ballad “All I Think About Is You” comes wrapped in gauzy strings, the murder-mystery “Who Done It?” is barkingly funny.
Knnillssonn flopped, then Nilsson was devastated by Lennon’s murder and began to refer to himself as retired. He stopped making albums entirely, although he occasionally turned up at Beatles conventions to croak his way through his version of “You Can’t Do That” and solicit funds for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. But a massive coronary in 1993 must have convinced him he didn’t have long left. He suddenly began lobbying his old record label to release a comprehensive box set, and started recording a new album. Neither was finished when his heart finally gave out the following year. He was 52.
He would presumably have been delighted with The RCA Albums Collection, a box set as comprehensive as it gets. There’s an argument that a 17-CD set might represent overkill; that most listeners would be happy with a best-of that rounds up the hits and doesn’t require you to endure Nilsson and Lennon drunkenly setting about “Rock Around the Clock.” Equally, there are remarkably few longueurs, and plenty of great stuff lurking among the discs of unreleased material: collaborations with Dr John, a beautiful cover of Procul Harum’s “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence.” Besides, if it seems a bit much, then perhaps that’s fitting: after all, so was the man who made it.
A month late on this one but it was 20 years ago last month (Dec. 4th) that the great Frank Zappa passed on from this mortal coil. This obituary is from Stereophile magazine, February 1994. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the author is. It might be Richard Lehnert (that would be my best guess) but I’m not positive. My apologies to the author.
Frank Zappa… never to be forgotten...
Frank Zappa was a unique figure in the worlds of American popular music, international contemporary music, pop culture, politics, civil libertarianism, and, toward the end of his life, international politics and business as well. When he died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, he was mourned not only by musicians and fans, but by such luminaries as NPR’s Daniel Schorr and the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who remembered him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground during the 1970s and ’80s.”
I first heard Zappa’s music in the fall of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the birth of the media hippie. A budding 17-year-old hippie myself, I was shocked and delighted by his just-released album We’re Only in It for the Money, probably his most pointed essay in cultural criticism. That was a clearly polarized time — the unexamined truisms from both sides of the generational fence were spouted with a single-minded sincerity and a naivete that seem almost touching today. Zappa’s voice, on the other hand, was one of clarifying irony and sarcasm, the voice of an experienced, mature adult who took no one’s word for anything.
Money‘s album cover was a black satire of the cover of Sgt. Pepper itself — something that verged on sacrilege at that time of LSD-drenched Beatleolatry. But We’re Only in It for the Money was not only a critique of the vague fatuities of the hippie subculture; it also roasted an establishment that found itself terrified by that subculture and attempted to suppress it by increasingly violent means. The cycle climaxed three years later at Kent State University in shootings eerily foretold by Zappa on this very record.
We were weary even then of the dire pronouncements of our parents and authority figures about the dark side of the strange and contradictory melange of leftist politics, free love, communal living, psychedelics, alternative healing techniques, political theater, Native American lore, exotic diets, and the various occult and spiritual disciplines in which many of us dabbled and which a few of us even studied. Zappa was just as critical, but his was criticism from the inside, from “one of us.” When I first heard him shout “Flower power sucks!” — this was in 1967, remember — my spine stiffened in shock and recognition. The whole gestalt — everything that went with the phrase “flower power” — had never been questioned by anyone my teenaged psyche trusted or respected, and certainly by no one with hair as long as Zappa’s. His derisive shout made me question everything I had refused to question, and permanently derailed my hitherto blithe and paisley train of thought.
Zappa’s call to question authority — no matter how hip — was a constant of his work from the very beginning. He played both political ends against a cultural middle he held in withering contempt, and vice versa. Beginning in 1965 by pillorying (on Freak Out!) greaser and doo-wop music (both of which he loved), along with warning us to “Watch the Nazis run your town,” asking the rhetorical question “Who are the Brain Police?,” and singing the first rock song I know of to attack the media (“Trouble Every Day,” about the Watts Riots), his list of targets eventually grew to include psychedelic music, disco, punk, white blues, Democrats, Republicans, the Christian Right, the extremes of both gays and homophobes, and most important, anything and anyone anywhere who threatened free speech and the Bill of Rights. During his last two tours he set up voter-registration booths in the lobbies and managed to encourage tens of thousands of concert-goers to register. (At least one group of community powers-that-were prohibited him from doing so, grumbling that “we already have enough voters.”) He was about to make a serious bid for the presidency when his long-misdiagnosed cancer finally caught up with him.
Ever a gadfly to the establishment and to his own constituency — the young, the hip, the disaffected — Zappa knew that there’s no one so conservative or conformist as a teenager, regardless of that teenager’s dress or political beliefs. One of the strangest and most revealing moments on any Zappa album comes at the end of the live section of “Little House I Used to Live In” on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa announces to the crowd that “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t you forget it.” What sounds like every single person in the room then bursts into delirious applause.
Why? Zappa had just accused every one of them of being programmed robots marching in a lockstep media army of long hair, drug abuse (contrary to popular belief, Zappa himself never took drugs other than caffeine and nicotine), and a borrowed hip argot. But no one, evidently, was offended. Perhaps all the acclaim was embarrassment, the shock of recognition immediately recycled into laughter at oneself.
I don’t think so. Having been part of other such moments at other Zappa concerts, I think he included these few seconds on his record to make a far more disturbing point: That in a culture in which free speech is taken for granted as a birthright instead of being valued as a precious privilege earned, it loses that value. Anything that anyone might say or write becomes just another glittering fragment in a vast and hypnotizing kaleidoscope of entertainment. With increasing bitterness as the years went on, Zappa made a point of referring to everything he did as “just entertainment” — a way of ensuring that he never took himself too seriously, but also an indicator of his cynicism. I can’t think of any other American rock musician of whose work the word “entertainment” is less descriptive.
But Zappa would’ve been little more than another shrill voice in the vast wasteland had all this exhortation not been supported by a uniquely powerful musical voice. Zappa scavenged the pop music of America and the avant-garde of Europe to create a music of non-sequitur, a shotgun cubist marriage of doo-wop, serialism, fusion, crudely effective Brechtian agit-prop, Varesian electronics, and good ol’ rock’n’roll. He reveled in the jarring juxtaposition, the transition without segue, the 90-degree curve. He shared with Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern an abhorrence of sentiment and a commitment to what he called “statistical density”: ie, a maximum amount of aesthetic information in a minimum amount of time.
Zappa’s orchestral and chamber music could thus sound most chaotic to the majority of his rock fans when it was actually at its most rigorously disciplined. But then, at its best, his rock music could sound similarly incomprehensible to the ear attuned only to the sounds of the conservatory and the recital hall. Zappa was virtually unique in creating not only some of the most rhythmically thorny orchestral scores ever written — as such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, and Peter Rundel have attested — but also some of the most challenging rock music ever composed and performed. In fact, among serious rock instrumentalists it became the ultimate badge of honor to have played in one of Zappa’s bands. Like Miles Davis, Zappa had an uncanny ability to demand from a player that player’s best — and get it every time.
As if fighting against time — he was — Zappa released recordings at a furious pace in his last few years: over 30 CDs’ worth of previously unreleased material, much of it his best work. His last album, The Yellow Shark, a collection of works for chamber orchestra recorded in concert by the Ensemble Modern and released just weeks before his death, is probably the best thing he ever did — JA and I would’ve picked it for this issue’s “Recording of the Month” whether or not Zappa had died.
The loss of Frank Zappa is a true one. There is no one even remotely close to being able to take his place, whether as an unlikely collection of talents and insights, or as a uniquely intelligent American voice worthy of attention and trust. It saddens me that I will now never see his name on the national ballot. I cast my vote here.