Shaman’s Blues

Who still listens to the Doors? For me they are like musical comfort food, because I’ve listened to them all of my life, and they will never not be relevant to me. But who else are they relevant to, besides nostalgic baby boomers and people who think that doing a lot of psychedelic drugs is a valid lifestyle choice? I like to write about forgotten recordings by long dead artists as if they were new releases freshly unleashed upon the world, often ignoring their actual historic legacy. Thinking about  historic legacies can really dampen the intuitive enjoyment of music, so it’s good to listen to them as if they didn’t carry baggage. But do we still have a cultural place, where we are right now, for the kind of rock star persona that Jim Morrison represents? Do we need an icon who fancies himself as an actual shaman, a larger-than-life mystical being who promises that there’s an ‘other side’ to break on through to? We don’t take self-proclaimed rock star shaman’s as seriously as we used to. That kind of swagger, today, would only come off as pretentious and absurd. We can’t accept rock singers who think they’re too mystical for this plane, just as we no longer accept the kind of movie stars who couldn’t do a day’s work without ‘their lighting’. But I think we also need to have icons, and if nothing else, we cling to Jim Morrison because we miss the days when icons were more iconic.

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Sexy Sadie

A lot of people died because of this song. Literally. The Beatles’ White Album has a unique status among rock albums: it has the Bible-like legacy of having been used as a justification for bloodshed. The record has a complicated legacy even without that baggage. Musically there is plenty to unpack. There was the rivalry and infighting that took place during the writing and recording, the personal struggles that the band dealt with outside of the studio, the growing differences between them that are starkly evident in the music. However, it will always be linked, at least in some people’s minds, to a string of grisly murders. Through no fault of anyone involved, the record came to be tainted by association with the chaos and instability of the wider world, becoming a symbol of a wider cultural fracture that was taking place. That’s thanks to the escapades of Charles Manson, who came to fame the following year for masterminding a series of horrific murders that captivated the world and still do so. The Manson killings, and the subsequent trial and media frenzy, were, besides their sheer brutality, perfectly planned and engineered for maximum imaginative impact. They combined so many elements designed to fascinate the public, and not by coincidence. They confirmed what people had already suspected about the hippie counter-culture: that it was cultish, seedy, sex- and drug- crazed, bent on overthrowing polite society, brainwashing impressionable young people with half-baked spirituality, fully capable of turning perfectly normal kids into homicidal maniacs. There was the class and race baiting, the messianic posturing, the vague political agenda. There was the irresistible celebrity factor: one of the victims was a well-connected movie star. It was the pop-cultural aspect that really made Manson and his Family into pop culture icons in their own right. Manson thought he was a messiah, but he didn’t bother too much with the biblical. He knew that stuff was boring and passe. His acolytes were with him because they’d already rejected Christian dogma. Instead, he used pop culture as his gospel, and he was particularly taken with the Beatles. They were, after all, bigger than Jesus. The inferences Charles Manson made about the White Album were, of course, dead wrong, but they were canny. The Beatles weren’t sending messages about inciting a race war or exterminating the upper classes – not even hypothetically were they thinking about those things. But the messages that Manson thought they were sending him about those things were convincing enough to get people to actually go out and try to do those things. When Manson told a girl he’d nicknamed Sadie Mae that the Beatles had personally earmarked her via song, that it meant she was to carry out Manson’s apocalyptic vision, she obediently went out and killed. (And spent the rest of her life in prison for her trouble.) It was the darkest possible example of rock music’s growing ability to influence real life, and of the potential way that art can escape the artist’s control. It was John Lennon’s innocent ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment come back to show just how dangerous and volatile that amount of fame can turn out to be. There wasn’t any bad intention behind the music. There didn’t have to be. All it needed was bad intention on the part of the listener to turn it into a manifesto of mayhem.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

There’s something magical about Pink Floyd playing amid the dust and ruins of Pompeii. There may not be any obvious connection between a dead Roman city and a psychedelic rock band from swingin’ London, but it feels right. Something in the timelessness of mankind’s creativity perhaps. The human drive to make art and the desire to find higher meaning in things – those things haven’t changed over millennia. Civilizations have grown and died, and the way people live and relate to one another has changed beyond imagining, but we still share a universal visual language. We recognize the same musical rhythms. We still look for beauty. It’s an epic connection, but it’s only human nature. Beautiful music belongs in a beautiful place, it’s really just a simple aesthetic choice.

Sell Me a Coat

The baby Bowie of the sixties was dorky, earnest and notably uncool – exactly the opposite of everything we’ve come to associate David Bowie with. It was adorable. It was also odd that out of all the exciting things going on in music at the time, Bowie was writing twee little narrative songs in music hall style, probably the least hip possible direction to go in. It does show that he was already an iconoclast with a nose for the unexpected. He just hadn’t figured out how to channel that in a way that people actually liked. Of course it also means that, in his absolute failure to get attention, he really dodged a bullet. Imagine an alternate universe in which something like this (or worse, The Laughing Gnome) became the novelty hit of the summer. It would have been an absolute career dead end, not a reputation one could easily shake or move on from. We would then have enjoyed decades of David Bowie, composer of cute novelty songs and writer of middling West End musicals, perhaps with a lucrative sideline banging out power ballads for vocal divas. That’s not a world I’d much like to live in.

Seems So Long Ago, Nancy

I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed. – Leonard Cohen

That is a very lyrical and generous way to characterize what is, simply, the poet’s own memory of a person who struck him when he was young. And he’s right about it; the one person who lives differently, alone and unprecedented becomes the precedent for the next generation. Which is, in a small and lonely, heroic. This woman Nancy, whatever became of her, she sounds like someone I would know.

See Emily Play

I’ve often wondered about who Emily is and what she’s doing. I’ve read that she was everything from a British socialite to a child Syd Barrett encountered in the woods, both of which things sound legit. Either way, she sounds like kind of a sad person. If she’s a figment of Syd’s imagination, she’s clearly got to be pretty sad. Or, she’s a socialite, and her socialite life is hollow and meaningless and filled with miserable parties.

Season of the Witch

If any hit song has undeservedly and inexplicably been bludgeoned into pop culture oblivion by excessive overplay, it’s this one. Is it because it’s catchy and very slightly ominous, or just because witches are very trending right now? Nothing ruins a cool tune like hearing it repeatedly shoehorned into some shitty piece of entertainment completely removed from its original meaning and context. It’s at the point where being made into an entire full length Nicolas Cage movie is not even the greatest indignity. Donovan, of course, must be earning enough royalties to purchase the Scottish highlands in their entirety, and no one could possibly begrudge him that, but when your song is being featured in a live-action adaptation of an Archie comic, I don’t know, maybe stop and think back to 1966 and how much you presumably cared about not appearing to be a greedy corporate sellout.