Holy Mother of Goth. Few rock icons are as shrouded in myth as Nico. Because she revealed so little of herself, most of what we know about her is hearsay and conjecture. Because of her mystery, her beauty and her tragic end, she has the allure almost of a fictional character. But – aside from the glamour, aside from the stranger than fiction life story, aside from the cautionary tragedy, aside from all the purple prose she’s inspired – there’s one thing holds the center together; her voice. She had a voice like none other and the artistic vision she built around it remains inimitable. Though she often buried her songs in willfully atonal arrangements that felt more like a challenge than an invitation to listen, she was also capable of great delicacy and intimacy. This song is one of the greatest heights of beauty in Nico’s canon. Whatever aversion she claimed to have towards her homeland, she clearly wasn’t immune to the romance of mythology herself. Born in 1938, Nico had every reason to see Germany as a terrible place, and she spoke bitterly of it after she left, but it seems she still carried a fantasy of an unblemished Nibelungen Land from which she had been exiled.
Yes, but it’s an old day now. God help me, that makes me feel a little existential. What with the passage of time and the inevitable fading of the fresh and new into the old and withered. Perhaps not the author’s intention, though; Ian Anderson may be crabby, but he isn’t gloomy. Especially considering this dates back to particularly young up-and-rising days, when J-Tull still nominally considered themselves a blues-based band, but were fast outgrowing the confines of that box.
Gone but not forgotten. I always thought that Shocking Blue’s Mariska Veres was a badass rock chick who never got the cult following she deserved. I guess the early seventies were a crowded field for women with big eyeliner and even bigger hair, but Veres was a bit more substantial than most of the competition. For one thing, she happened to front a really great band. Perhaps her insistence on keeping her clothes on and not being made into a sex object somehow held her back from becoming a real cult queen. But that’s yet another thing that made Shocking Blue special. Veres was serious about her music, not interested in being a titillating novelty, which a woman fronting a rock band still was in those days. Veres did not write or compose any of the band’s songs, but it’s clear that they are tailored to her sensibility. All of the songs Robbie van Leeuwen wrote for Veres to sing have a believable feminine perspective; there are no pandering, suggestive or sexist lyrics. It’s a shame the collaboration didn’t last longer, and equally sad that Veres didn’t follow it up with a remarkable solo career, and yet again a shame that she’s not posthumously embraced as an icon.
This is the moment when The Rolling Stones truly appeared to have supernatural powers. It is the nature of rock stars to appear more than human, but in 1969 The Rolling Stones seemed to exist beyond the already larger than life realm of rock stardom; their glamour was so intense they appeared to be demons. No amount of debunking can break that illusion. Every warts-and-all recollection from everyone from some washed up dealer to Keith Richards himself just adds to the mystique. Not even the all too human spectacle of the survivors growing older and engaging in mundane human matters like raising their grandkids can erase it. No matter what you think about who the surviving Stones are today, they still carry a sense of having been touched by some mystical dark power. Why is Mick Jagger still untouchable while everyone around him drops dead? It isn’t his fault that they do, but doesn’t it seem like his magic is toxic in large doses? I’m not particularly drawn towards the occult, but some things leave me no choice but to believe. There are my own small experiences with a benign poltergeist, and there are more significant experiences which lead me to believe that with the right chemicals the mind can open up to things that shouldn’t be in there. Anyone who’s played with psychedelic drugs will confirm that there are different planes of consciousness, and not all of them are safe. It is the role of the shaman – or shamanistic rock god as some styled themselves – to channel their other-plane findings out into the real world. It’s a sometimes deadly calling, but I think that it’s a necessary one. People have a need to be touched by powers beyond themselves; those that can’t do so directly turn to religion. For those who find the institution of the Church to be destructive bunkum, there are freelance shamans with guitars. Whether the new way is better or healthier is up for debate, but it’s certainly more fun. For a few years in the late sixties nobody thrummed with such godlike and profound energy that The Rolling Stones. Whatever it was they tapped into and channeled out, it wasn’t safe – not for them, not for their familiars. But it was great and cathartic and exciting and arousing and thrilling and enlightening for us. And I don’t think there’s any seven minutes in their music or anyone else’s that taps more deeply into the alternate consciousness (or whatever you want to call it.) There’s no deeper cut or any piece of music that’s sexier or more unsettling. They’ve opened up our bloodthirsty subconscious, with all of our deranged fantasies of rape and murder, with the promise of sexual and psychological release. There is no other piece of music that sounds and feels so viscerally like the pumping of blood. You should try it with drugs; you will find out what non-corporeal sex feels like. Or maybe that was just me that one time.
Sometimes it feels as if the world is just out to fuck with you, simply to be contrary. And then there are The Beatles, who make everything marginally all better. Soothing troubled souls since 1962! Paul McCartney truly deserves every dime of his extravagant wealth, because he wrote a song that makes my head hurt a little bit less in the morning. Even if his French is atrocious.
*This post has been brought to you by copious amounts of alcohol*
If your enjoyment of, and knowledge about, Jamaican musical styles begins and ends with Bob Marley’s Legend, you’ll be surprised to discover an international web of subcultures spanning back to the early sixties, and encompassing everything from American doo-wop to Thatcher-era British politics. To untrained ears it’s hard to distinguish reggae music from third wave ska from rocksteady, but those are all separate subgenres, and honestly, it’s too complicated to get into fully. It is an irony that the way reggae and ska music are perceived by US pop culture – being exemplified by the hyper-commercialized visages of Bob Marley and Gwen Stefani, respectively – is antithetical to the roles they’ve played within their home communities. Outside the insular world of American dorm room culture, reggae and ska have been among the most socially conscious and politically relevant of musical movements. In Jamaica, reggae has long been a tool of political activism, and has seen as a genuine threat to the status quo, to the point that high profile artists have been targeted for assassination (Bob Marley survived an attempt on his life, Peter Tosh did not.) In 1970’s UK, 2 Tone Ska was closely tied to the punk and skinhead movements, and groups like The Specials, Madness, and The Beat saw it as a way to foster racial harmony and make a commentary on the unstable political situation of the time. The songwriter Jerry Dammers founded 2 Tone Records for his band The Specials and later retired from music to pursue political activism full-time. In a period when high economic disparity led to racial tensions and a resurgence of violent nationalism, 2 Tone sought to encourage black and white co-operation (as symbolized by the distinctive checkerboard patterns often sported by musicians and fans) using music as a vehicle for social commentary and protest. The misconception that reggae and ska are merely good time party music stems from a lack of understanding of the socio-political context those styles have traditionally been born from.
(photo: © Bent Rej)
The debate about authenticity in music is a pointless self-repeating loop, given that originality as such doesn’t really exist. All anybody can do is add their own DNA to a stylistic framework already established, and re-established, and re-re-established ad infinitum. That said, there’s not much use for those whose only claim to fame is being derivative as accurately as possible. And with all those things said, a lot of proud originators of trends got started trying to nail down other people’s sounds. The real debate is the problematic position of white musicians popularizing – or co-opting, depending on your viewpoint – traditionally black styles of music. The Rolling Stones began as the most skillful deriviators of black music, so much so they often outshone the very people they were trying to pay homage to. On the other hand, they did succeed in introducing some obscure and deserving artists to a wider audience, which was always, in their case, the point of it. You could argue how much Don Covay really benefited from having The Stones covering his song; was it a case of any free publicity is good publicity? Did he even receive royalties from it? I don’t know. In a juster world, however, Covay’s Mercy Mercy would be widely celebrated as one of the first known recordings by a then-obscure session man by the name of Hendrix.