The Beatles didn’t singlehandedly convince ‘the establishment’ that rock and roll was worthy of the same respect as ‘proper’ music, but they certainly contributed more than a fair shakes towards earning that respect. It’s generally agreed that Sgt. Pepper was a catalyst in establishing rock music as a real art form, and She’s Leaving Home is generally pointed out as proof that rock musicians are capable of producing works of great sensitivity and nuance. The youths of the time needed no convincing on this point, but the squares were reluctant to give those long-haired upstarts their due as songwriters and composers. All they needed was Paul McCartney in his most dewy-eyed mode, thoughtfully acknowledging the sad and inevitable gap between between generations and their inability to relate to one another, backed with a plush string arrangement. Now, of course, the artistic validity of rock as a genre is beyond any shadow of a doubt; if anything, it has become overly entrenched as the dominant cultural standard. It strikes us as outlandish and unthinkable that anyone would have ever questioned it.
“Help gets so unhelpful, near the end”
Marianne Faithfull can be kind of a downer sometimes. She gets into some of the darker corners of the average human experience, having lived them all, of course. She began performing this adaptation of a Caroline Blackwood poem in the 70’s, when it was still unclear whether or not her own substance abuse would take her down. It didn’t, because apparently Marianne Faithfull has a constitution unrivaled by anyone except some guy named Keith. This woman is going to sit and watch the world burn to the ground and then reach for another drink. On a realistic note though, Faithfull has had to face mortality in recent years. She is no longer about to drown in whiskey and heroin, but she’s facing the mundane reality that no one ever really survives. She’s undergone treatment for breast cancer and other health problems, and she’s seen many close friends pass away. The death of Anita Pallenberg last year was particularly hard. Those things lend a new level of gravitas to Faithfull’s latest work. (As if gravitas was a thing she was lacking.) She was never just playing at being one step away from oblivion, but now oblivion is inevitable, a burden of time, not a threat of her own making. No one comes close to Faithfull when it comes to exploring themes of shame and regret, desperate hope and longing, love and redemption. She has the optimism and black humor of a soldier who returns alone from the battlefield.
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.
Bruce Springsteen sings a lot of depressing songs about people with bleak, tainted lives. He’s kind of a downer that way. But not all the time! Even the bard of the American heartland needs to cut loose and get silly sometimes. Just play an upbeat, happy love song about drinking and cruising. Never mind that there’s also a nagging mother-in-law who always needs a ride to the unemployment office. It gives the whole summer romance thing a bit of a context, and as usual, it ain’t too cheery, but just once, let’s play it for laughs. Now there’s the sense of showmanship that put Bruce in a one-man show on Broadway in his dotage.
Sherlock Holmes may seem like an odd choice for a figure of masculine ideal, at least romantically. He was a crime-solving genius, obviously, but he had zero luck with or interest in the ladies, due to being the kind of antisocial that today we call ‘spectrum’. Also he spent a lot of time hanging out in opium dens and mainlining cocaine. Also, he was fictional. But Sparks’ Russell Mael never runs out of imaginative ways of being rejected by women or finding ideals to fall short of. He’s written songs about his fears of being rejected for not being athletic enough, not drunk enough, and not Morrissey-esque enough. Add to that not living up to the Platonic ideal of towering intellect that Sherlock Holmes represents. It is, of course, all in good fun, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The joke is that it wouldn’t really take much to out-sing, out-dance and out-romance Sherlock Holmes.
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.
“Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you…”
On a gloomy day, it takes the Smiths to raise my spirits. There’s something uplifting in being a miserable misfit and yet bopping along anyway. There’s something about Morrissey’s weird confidence that he’s incurable. And he is incurable. In the beginning it seemed like a posture, because how seriously can you take a pretty boy who insists he’s antisocial and sad? Every young person thinks they’re antisocial and unlovable and permanently locked out of the normal-people party, and then they grow up and realize their juvenile angst was just that, juvenile. Not Morrissey though. He grew up and stayed the same miserable antisocial fuck he’s always been, just somehow truly incapable of whatever it is that makes you a functional adult. Whatever doors regular people walk through on their regular-person pathway of life, those doors are closed to Morrissey, and by extension, the people who relate to him. Being good looking and brilliant and acclaimed at what you do isn’t enough. You relate to Morrissey because you never grew out of that nagging feeling that there’s just some secret skill that you’re missing, some stroke of luck that hasn’t struck. Or maybe you just like animals more than people and enjoy feeling sorry for yourself a lot.