Here’s something notoriously depressing. I think we all know the story of Joy Division’s brief success and tragic ending. There have been movies about it. Tragedy obviously sells, and you can’t deny that it’s because of the tragedy that instead of being a blip on the radar of the crowded post-punk field Joy Division has had an afterlife that’s fueled the sales of a million t-shirts. At least their gloom was genuine, and people with their own gloom relate to that. Idolizing a troubled person may seem ghoulish, but if it helps other troubled people feel a little bit better, that’s about the best legacy anyone could ask for.
Bob Marley writes a simple song about a simple, universal experience. It’s that time when your lover has left you, and you know deep down that they were right to leave you, but your life feels bleak and empty all the same. Resigned heartbreak. We’ve all been there. Marley wrote a lot of songs about things that were specific to his own milieu, politically charged songs, ideological songs. He covered a lot of ground, more than most songwriters ever do. It’s impossible to quite pinpoint the key to his popularity, what it was that catapulted him out of his relatively obscure genre and into the realm of pop icon. There were a lot of factors at play, bottomless charisma being not least of them. And one of those factors was surely Marley’s ability to deliver both love songs and political anthems with the same sensitivity and conviction.
Bob Dylan is talking about his ex-wife again, wondering where and how something that began so beautifully went wrong. You and everyone else alive, Bobbo. As much as I feel sorry for the pain of your failure to stay married – and everyone’s – in the long run it was the whole world’s gain. The gain of songs like this one is the lucky by-product of burned-out love. The fuel of creativity is the only thing that redeems our interpersonal failures. If it didn’t feed some artistic drive, all that heartbreak would be for nothing. Not everyone, of course, has an artistic drive to fuel, or knows how to channel their frustrated emotions into productive ends. It’s for those people’s sake that great artists have to suffer. The Bob Dylans of the world suffer and write about it to redeem the pain of all the not-Bob Dylans who don’t have an outlet to give their own suffering dignity and meaning. It’s almost Christlike.
This is not one of my favorite David Bowie songs, which puts on a list of possibly less than ten songs out of hundreds. It’s too abrasive? It’s musically discordant, and lyrically crass. Those are two things I don’t expect from David Bowie, and they’re not necessarily things that bother me per se, but again, not from David Bowie. David Bowie is not who I go to when I want to hear about fucking. Dick-swinging braggadocio is not his best look. That’s what The Rolling Stones are for anyway. Still, kind of an interesting experiment in striking a hard-rocker pose. Probably should have been best left as a B-side or something.
Whatever she’s selling, it ain’t seashells, though if you bought the album you can’t be blamed for expecting something nautical from the looks of Jerry Hall on the cover. Bryan Ferry’s wordplay, meanwhile, is pure beat poetry. An indictment of our modern life, circa 1975? Yes, but sexy. She sells you your fantasies of yourself, and herself on the side, and you’re buying it. You’re a consummate consumer and you need it.
Nothing inspires the worst kind of schmaltz like the subject of love. Schmaltzy love songs that are the musical equivalent of a Hummel figurine or a Margaret Keane painting, syrupy drivel that makes you want to put your genitals and your heart in a bank vault and go live in a cave somewhere. And you would think that an elderly Frenchman in a bad suit singing in front of a plastic Christmas trees would be precisely that kind of smarmy. Especially in 1974, when French guys in suits were very much le contraire de la mode. But Charles Aznavour didn’t enjoy well over 70 years of popularity for being a sentimental hack (and he’ll have you know that he is Armenian.) Sometimes under the trappings of schmaltz lies something beautiful and it takes a masterful performer to extract it. It may look like music for housewives who missed the sexual revolution boat, but when that man starts to sing all the trappings fall away and you can forget all of your cynical thoughts and bad jokes at the expense of people less hip than yourself. It’s a good love song that does what good love songs do: touch the the tender part of the heart that hasn’t yet sunk into ironic indifference. When you love someone and they’re your world, you can talk about them in blown-out corny language and act like every cliche of a love-sick fool and no one can sink your sincerity, and it’s that precise feeling that is so very, very hard to capture in song without sounding like a driveling moron. You have to believe it to deliver it. Just embrace that schmaltz and those old lovers’ cliches and deliver them like they’re written in your soul. That’s what crooners of Aznavour’s generation made an art of, and it’s become a lost art, since the advent of rock’n’roll with its undisguised libido and emotional juvenility.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.