An Irish folk song that has been sung by every troubadour/Irish singer who ever sung for centuries, which Marianne Faithfull, in 1966, recorded with a prominent sitar accompaniment. Because it was 1966 and sitars were totally trending. It’s kind of terrible but it illustrates the odd niche Faithfull occupied as a pop singer. Keep in mind that teenage girl pop singers didn’t get to make very many creative decisions vis a vis their own careers, then as now. So this weird combination of very traditional and very on-trend was considered to be a product that record companies were confident in selling. Faithfull herself was a fragile product whose image was in many ways the creation of her management. With her fallen-aristocracy background and convent-school education, and of course, those looks, she was the embodiment of a certain centuries-old ideal of an English rose of a girl – pristine but plucky, virginal yet dead sexy, upper class but hardworking, etc. – but updated for the times, modern and hip, down with the trends, mod for the sixties. Edgy, even, with her dangerous friendships and her habit of saying and doing controversial things. Of course the real meat of Marianne Faithfull’s story is how she systematically sabotaged that image, how she very nearly killed herself on her journey to becoming a real artist. But it’s important to examine just what a seamless and appealing product she was at her pop star height, what a beautiful gleaming pedestal she leaped off of. Today, of course, no one wants to hear a girl in a Peter Pan collar trilling Irish folk songs in a thin reedy voice accompanied by dignified acoustic plucking, but the appetite for virginal teenagers with big eyes and innocent hearts is no less voracious. It’s the eternal fantasy of a girl who is ripe with unplucked sexual promise, with a full heart and an empty bed, a blank slate too young to have a real identity, too innocent to be wary of romantic entrapment, too full of love to hold herself back, just ready and waiting to be claimed and defiled and too dumb to know better. She doesn’t have a story of her own, she doesn’t have any needs except to be filled with whatever a man fills her with, she doesn’t have anything to express but longing. She’s basically not a person, she’s a trope. The music might change, but the trope does not.
This, as the kids on the internet like to say, is pure. It’s just pure and magical and as mood-altering as champagne bubbles. The Beatles could be hugely problematic, as in not very woke at all, if you catch my meaning, especially in their early years. That didn’t slow them in their uncorking a tsunami of crying and shrieking from seemingly-possessed hordes of libidinous teenage girls, aka Beatlemania. Even in the cooler view of decades-past hindsight, they more than make up for it in sheer musical genius. It doesn’t matter if history says that John Lennon was a dick. Nobody else before or since could trigger such lightning changes in brain chemistry with the power of their vocal harmonies. And out of all the most euphoric Beatles hits, there’s nothing more sweet in sentiment than one buddy helping another buddy patch up his love life. Apologize to her! She loves you! You should be glad! Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Nobody knows a woman’s place in this world better than Yoko Ono. For decades she has occupied the intersection of virulent racism and misogyny that still underpin most of Western popular culture. Everything she has done as artist and in her personal life has been in defiance of where society likes to place its women, and that defiance has fueled her art. Even before she became famous as the world’s most hated homewrecker, the bitch who broke up the sacred union of Lennon and McCartney, she had staked out her position, willing to lose anything and prepared to be looked at with hateful eyes. Before she became famous, she had already burned the bridges of an entire life; her parents disowned her for not following the expectations of a good, privileged Japanese girl; she lost custody of her firstborn child in a bitter divorce. Then she came to the West and found out just how very, very much the world hates women who want to create ambitious art on the same footing as men, who have things to say about the female condition, who don’t let their husbands speak for them, who don’t present themselves as pretty and likable, who expect to be taken seriously, who refuse to disappear from public life even when public life doesn’t want them, and have the sheer nerve of doing all these things while being Asian. The world can barely accept a white woman who does even a few of those things, and world hates women who aren’t white extra, extra hard. What Yoko Ono does isn’t just going against the grain of what’s expected of a woman in the public eye, it’s racially uppity in a way that makes members of the white male cultural establishment go absolutely blind with rage. Yoko Ono is a woman who emigrated from Japan to England (and then to America) where she met and married a white dude with whom she made a bunch of music and art, and that offends people on a deeply primal level, especially white dudes who think that women are only as valuable as their legs are long, that wives are furniture for the decoration of a man’s home, and that Asian women should be silently pouring tea in Geisha-themed brothels. Well, Yoko Ono may be having the last laugh. At the age of 85, she not only outlived most of her haters, she’s come to be recognized as one of the most important conceptual artists of her time, she’s lived to see a massive cultural shift that has us examining the prejudices she used to be a target of, she’s been recognized for her activism and humanitarian work, and guess what else? When you put on those records she made with John Lennon, his songs sound like generic 70’s rock music and hers sound like the cool new record you just heard on indie radio.
Nick Cave takes us on down the road to madness. Shooting up heroin in Berlin had already been done by the time Nick Cave felt compelled to go do it, but he put his own spit on it, and came back with an unmatched vision of squalor and depravity. As usual, the music is steeped in violence and obsession, ideas about romance straight out of gothic novels and penny dreadfuls. It’s not a happy land. What fell away? Not some woman. The potential of the future, the freedom of the untrod road, innocence, an open heart. All those things fall away.
This really takes me back…all the way back to around 2005, when I first started listening to Flaming Lips. The song was more than 10 years old by that point, but in 1993 I was ten years old, so. So I don’t remember jack about the 90’s. Apparently 1993 was the year that Flaming Lips accidentally piggybacked on the grunge aesthetic long enough to launch their psychedelic fweakiness somewhere nearer to the overall mainstream than they had been before. It would be another decade before they finally became the kind of popular band whose songs can be heard in movie theatre lobbies. Makes you think about the eons of time that constitute pop cultural evolution, how sometimes it takes decades to create the things you love, and more decades for you to find them, and then more decades, infinite decades, for you to enjoy them.
Much as I hate to take Abbey Road songs out of context, I have to examine this one. I’ve always wondered about it, obviously. So many questions. Who is she and why did she come in through the bathroom window? Is Paul McCartney a police officer in this scenario? I want to hear more. One of the wonders of the medley half of Abbey Road is that there are so many fascinating fragments of ideas that I really want to hear more about. It’s like opening a notebook filled with some great writer’s ideas for stories that they never got around to writing. In the Beatles-inspired movie Across the Universe, there’s actually a character who does come crawling in through the bathroom window, with the explanation that her boyfriend was abusing her and she used the fire escape to make her escape and then later it turns out she’s a lesbian, which is pretty straightforward and makes a lot of narrative sense. But it’s also a little bit literal-minded, because New York City fire escapes are the most obvious explanation for why anyone would be coming in through a bathroom window. I like to imagine something a little bit more fun, like a thwarted museum heist. I’m imagining a Pink Panther-style caper, with Paul McCartney in the Inspector Clouseau role and Jane Birkin as a dancer/criminal mastermind.
That title certainly sounds like some hippie, summer-of-love bullshit. A t-shirt from a vendor in Golden Gate Park, years after all the actual hippies got cleared out. But that’s not the vibe this song is going for at all. It makes braking for rainbows sound kind of melancholy. What? When has the word ‘melancholy’ ever appeared in an article about The B-52’s? They’re the band who made it their life’s mission to be the opposite of everything sad and blue. Well, that was before their guitarist died of AIDS. Although their Bouncing Off the Satellites album was recorded before Ricky Wilson’s death, and none of the other band members were aware that he was ill, there’s a definitely something-ain’t-right vibe about the record. Maybe the band was just running out of steam after a really solid run of really good records, and also maybe they at least had to have suspected that Wilson wasn’t well. HIV can take years to develop into full-blown AIDS, but once it does, the effects are brutal. The person is walking around but their immune system is already dead. Not exactly conducive to writing and recording happytime party fun music. Hence, a lousy and depressing B-52’s album that disappeared upon arrival, because the band understandably was in no state to for promotional activities. Still, some of the songs have a weird beauty; not party music, but crying on the morning after music.