Remixing is all well and good, modernizing old things for young ears, but some works need no help. Some works are already so modern in their drive and immediacy that it’s like there’s no such thing as changing times. Nina Simone, of course, almost singlehandedly kept jazz music relevant in the 1960’s, when the rock’n’roll youthquake was sweeping away everything minted before 1963. The reputation jazz had acquired for being pompous and louche and the domain of squares who still wore suits and strings of pearls – Nina Simone swept that aside, showing how fierce and subversive jazz could be, how deeply political and historically significant. She tied her music to her political activism, and to her personal struggles as a mentally ill black woman artist trying to make it in unforgiving America. Sinnerman is one of her best known works, a masterpiece in sustained emotional force. It is also, importantly, a traditional Negro spiritual rooted all the way back to times of slavery, grown into a gospel standard during Simone’s childhood, and rearranged as a jazz number in the 50’s. It is in no way ironic that a 1965 recording of a song with a history that may stretch back centuries sounds so unbound by time; things that are deeply important don’t get withered by small things like changing trends.
It’s Mick Jagger in the persona we know best: a smug fuckboy who knows he can be a dick and get away with it because he’s got boundless sexual charisma. Mick Jagger is the best kind of fuckboy, the kind who is absolutely gleeful and unrepentant, fully confident he’s got what girls – and boys! – want. As opposed to the other types, the insecure whiny ones who rely on fake sensitivity and postures of vulnerability in an attempt to make themselves seem harmless and appealing. Nobody wants a wolf in sheep’s clothing, though, everybody just wants the wolf. Or the sheep, some people are into that too, nothing wrong with a little lamb, as long as it’s authentic lamb. But yeah, in the real scheme of things, all the little red riding hoods can’t wait to line up to get eaten by the sexy cocksure wolf. You can call it problematic all you like, but it’s the way of nature.
I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
Paul Simon’s being too snarky for his own good. He was an angsty boy in the 60’s, and mostly that came out in plaintive ballads. But apparently he also had a mean Bob Dylan impression in him. He nails the cadence – Dylan’s signature Midwesterner-does-New-York-Jew as done by an actual New York Jew. He nails the verbosity, which is also, of course, the posturing of a Midwesterner doing New York. It’s also a very modern song. We can certainly relate to the sensation that pop culture references and tedious political figures are all anyone ever talks about and we’re all slowly being reference-pointed into submission.
This is where it all began. It’s the first single by the group then known as The Wailing Wailers, and a #1 hit in Jamaica in 1963. It would be another decade before the rest of the world caught on to what The Wailers were wailing, but Bob Marley’s career was slowly catching afire. You would never guess from this rather raw-sounding track the global influence Marley would eventually attain, nor would you guess it from their dorky and clean-cut appearance in those days. But the spark is there. It’s there in Marley’s assertive vocals, and it’s there in his songwriting. Although Jamaican artists back then were still encouraged to model their appearance and their writing on American vocal groups, Marley is already writing about the things he cared about. This song, in what would become typical Marley fashion, appears to be about personal stuff – it sounds like he’s breaking up with a lover – but was actually inspired by and directed towards the violent ‘Rude Boys’ of Marley’s hometown Kingston. Even then, Marley loved his community, but was disgusted by the poverty and political oppression there, and hated the violence that resulted from those things. And even as a rookie artist struggling to make his name, he was already clear on the message he wanted to send: simmer down, people, you can’t stand up for yourselves if you’re fighting amongst each other.
When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
No matter how dreary and down you are, a little Motown music will lift your spirits. There’s just something about that swing. If it’s all grainy and sounds like someone forgot to wipe the dust off the vinyl, all the better. That makes it feel like history you can dance to, which it is. Also, when Jr. Walker says ‘shotgun’ he means his penis, and that’s a metaphor that never goes out of style.