Let this be the only driving lesson you’ll ever need, and a lesson in living too. Take care in taking life lesson from Jim Morrison, who succeeded at living straight into an early grave. But, really, all you need in life is a firm hand on the wheel and a morning beer. You can just live one roadhouse to the next. Isn’t that the blues man’s classic life? We all want to be a bluesman, to be worthy of the blues. We want to live the kind of life that’s inspiring and conducive to art, and worthy of it. Even Morrison wanted that. He wanted to be more than a pretentious college kid with mystical aspirations; maybe all of the mayhem and self-abuse and falling out of windows was a quest for an authenticity and richness of experience that Army brat white boys don’t come born with. Or maybe it was just your garden-variety alcoholism coupled with megalomania. But it does make you think about what kind of experiences fuel great art. Do people who’ve had relatively easy lives need to go out of their way to break something within themselves in order to become great artists, or do people with shitty lives become great artists in order to heal themselves? Is it both? Or is the concept of being a ‘great artist’ just a social construct designed to sell products? Did Jim Morrison do all of the crazy stupid shit that he did because he was cracking open the well of greatness within himself, or was he sad and out of control and in need of help, and the greatness was just incidental? Or are we still talking about him only because he looks good on a t-shirt? Either way, it does seem to be a thing that the most creative people are the ones who drink beer for breakfast rather than the ones who rise at dawn to practice mindfulness.
This is the song I proffer to people who say they don’t like the Grateful Dead as an example of their thoughtful songwriting and concise musicianship. Not everyone enjoys folk songs with mandolins, of course, or lyrics with Biblical references, but overall it’s pretty hard to resist. Most people who don’t like the Dead aren’t objecting to the music, and I can count myself among those who don’t enjoy the cultish aspect of their fandom. Weird cultural baggage aside, the music holds up well enough; American Beauty is just about a perfect album. Does it make you want to take off on a stoned road trip in a Volkswagen camper van? Maybe not, but it does have that magical something that just shifts your cosmic vibes back into alignment.
This leaves me no choice but to put on Electric Warrior and then continue listening to T. Rex until it’s time to go to work. T. Rex just makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Marc Bolan has a legacy with a lot of impact, and we can talk about all of the ways his work is important and influential in the world. I can talk about all of the ways it’s important and influential to me personally. But really, it just makes me happy, and it’s supposed to do that, and that’s part of the legacy. I think I’m getting sentimental.
As a policy, I have to state that I am firmly against cattiness, gossip, judgement and self-expression shaming, in all of their forms. It is wrong. Oh, who am I kidding? There’s nothing in the world more fun than being catty at someone behind their back. We all do it. With relish. All the time. No matter who we are, or what our station in life is, we will never hesitate to eviscerate a total stranger’s choice of clothing. Just yesterday I heard a homeless man go into a rant about people who wear knitted hats; he was offended by a hipster in a bright orange knitted beanie. He was right. It was a terrible hat. So yeah, making fun of the poorly dressed, the pretentious, the basic, and the try-too-hards is one of life’s great joys. This Blondie song is the ultimate anthem and the ultimate send-up for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sport of talking shit about people. If that stings coming from someone as impeccable as Debbie Harry, just remember that she left the back of her head its natural color because she sucked at dyeing her own hair.
Although we’re still a few weeks away from our winter solstice, I’d say it’s very much in the spirit of the season. Call it a holiday song, one of the few you’ll ever get from me. There’s nothing more I love than good, clean English pastoralia. From Tudor architecture to The Wind in the Willows to Hobbiton to high tea and hot cross buns. And, of course, the stylings of Jethro Tull, who took folk revivalism and took it into unforeseen territory. Although Ian Anderson’s crazed court jester persona and odd taste in pants has tainted the band with a reputation for silliness, I for one take my J-Tull very seriously. For one thing, they’re firmly in the classic tradition of eccentric fuzzy Englishness, right alongside Miss Marple, Mole and Ratty, and Basil Fawlty. Anderson’s songwriting, along with all his posturing, is a nod to popular literary tropes as much as a musical persona per se. There’s a fine line between self-serious silliness and the self-aware kind, and one can’t expect one’s searing indictments of the Anglican Church to be taken without a grain of salt when one is wearing an embroidered codpiece. Ahem. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by a sincerely affectionate – and sincerely silly – ode to uncool age-old folk traditions like the celebration of the solstice. The English folk revival was part of a young generation’s search for a politically safe cultural heritage, the same thirst for a clean sense of identity that inspires Bavarians to go about their day in full Heidi regalia. It’s a love for all things homey and twee and unhip and reminiscent of grandmother. That’s not exactly what rock star dreams are made of; but Jethro Tull proved that you can be all about all of those things and turn it into a stage persona. That alone is a legacy-making achievement.
Here’s a beautiful Irish folk song by Irish folk revival band Clannad, sung in Irish Gaelic. I literally have not an inkling what it’s about. Gaelic is interesting because it’s almost completely unrelated to English, despite being right next door geographically. It’s not even in the wheelhouse of Germanic languages. For a non-speaker, there’s no shared roots or common vocabulary that would allow them to understand at least a basic gist. English speakers can’t even grasp the phonetics. Which explains a lot about why the English were so eager to wipe out Irish language and culture; it’s much harder to colonize your neighbors when you can’t eavesdrop on their conversations. They failed, of course.
David Bowie at some point had a concept for a song that would be ‘an erotic drone’ and this was an attempt to get there. The concept fell away with the groove, I guess, which is a relative rarity for Bowie, who doesn’t let go of big ideas very easily. But even the most concept-driven of musicians must sometimes just let themselves get lost riding the groove. It’s not an erotic drone, but it’s certainly sexy, and it’s best appreciated as an exorcise in voice. It’s a generous showcase for an outstanding team of session vocalists, and it’s all about the vocal interplay, the sheer musicianship of singing, if you will. Some critics initially dismissed Young Americans deep cuts like this one as ‘thin’ or filler, but that’s entirely missing the point. You can’t blame listeners in 1975 for being primed for another grand narrative of the apocalypse from David Bowie, but Young Americans was a turn in a different direction, one that’s since come to be recognized as one of the classics. It’s not a concept album with grand designs, it’s a musician’s album, with a focus on tunes and vocal performance. That’s not being ‘thin’ with the material; that’s a virtuoso performer showing a different side.