Marc Bolan never did write a book about the adventures of Kingsley Mole and Lionel Lark. He became a famous rock star and lost interest in fairy tales and whimsical creatures. Or rather, fairy tales and whimsical creatures went out of fashion along with peace, love and idealism at the end of the 1960’s and Bolan was at the cutting edge of fashion. He was. This doesn’t sound like the composition of a man who was at the cutting edge of anything, but let me assure you that in 1969 all of the coolest people were reading The Wind in the Willows and trying to incorporate its rustic charms into their own writings. It wasn’t a more innocent time by any means, but there was a belief that the world could become more pure and loving, somehow, and reverting to childlike whimsy was part of that mindset. Then, of course, everyone gave up on that pipe-dream and starting doing a lot of cocaine and heroin instead. But it was a wonderful, charmed time while it lasted.
R.L. Burnside was an old-school blues singer who became successful in the 1990’s, when he was already an old man. Since then, his music has entered pop culture through movies and television, making him a modern blues sensation. As such, he’s been subject to the very modern art of remixing. I don’t know of any other blues musicians who’ve released a series of remix albums. Does the blues need remixing? Probably not, but if it helps grow the music with the times, it can’t hurt. Just like Verve’s remix series helped modernize classic vocal jazz, Burnside’s remix albums introduced blues to new audiences. It may strike some as sacrilege, but purism is not conducive to growth, and music needs to grow and evolve.
Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.
Bob Dylan pays tribute to his dearly departed friend John. Lennon, that is. It’s a moving ode, and an honor, one legend to another. Why Dylan felt compelled to light this particular candle in 2012, as opposed to, like, 1981 is unclear. Maybe the pain was too great. Maybe thirty-odd years is just how long he needed to be able to articulate something. Maybe to have written a song any closer to the fact would have felt wrong, trashy, opportunistic. Maybe it’s not helpful or kind to react to a friend’s tragedy by going all ‘great American songwriter’ about it right away. John Lennon, of all people, never needed to have “Eulogized by Bob Dylan” added to the end of his obituary. It certainly wouldn’t have burnished his star any brighter. So maybe it’s just out of respect that Dylan held back his eulogy a few decades. Either way, it’s a touching gesture. Why he chose to sing it in extra-emphysemic mode is another question, especially since he’s been on a standards-album kick lately and he can still croon like it’s Lay Lady Lay all over again. Oh, well, Bob Dylan moves in gnomic ways.
Don’t forget Mott the Hoople. It may be impossible to write about them without bringing up the glitter rock tide they became famous on. When your biggest hit was written for you by David Bowie, that’s almost as much of a curse as a blessing. Glitter rock wasn’t really a genre as such anyway, more of a state of mind, but Mott the Hoople actually made some of the most recognizably glam-sounding singles. They really need to get played more, because they embody archness and eccentricity. And, obviously, they’re really fucking fun.
Rococo is a good word for Arcade Fire’s musical aesthetic. They’re committed maximalists. Certainly, their ornate and ambitious compositions share a spirit with the gold embellished curlicues of Rastrelli. Intellectually, however, the Butlers and company seem to take a stance against materialistic excess, which they see as a downside of modern life. (They’re also not as radical or as deep as they fancy themselves. More on that at some later date.) The irony, of course, is that historically, some of the most materially excessive and politically inequitable regimes have yielded the most enduring art. The Rococo (and the Baroque, the Gothic, the Art Deco, et al.) art and architecture that thousands now crowd to see was funded by despotic kings and tithe-happy Popes as a celebration of themselves and a conspicuous display of their obscene wealth, at the expense of the poor and downtrodden, for which not a few of them eventually paid with their heads. Great art outlives the political context of its creation, which is a comforting thought when living through trying times. It also makes the stance of looking down on modern life – the “modern kids” and whatever they’re up to – a rather foolish one. It’s a pretension like any other, to think that our time, such as it is, is somehow inherently stripped, somehow less profound, somehow more excessive, somehow shallow. With hindsight the unprofound and vapid will fall away and the meaningful cultural artifacts will shine on. We ourselves may not live long enough to see that happen, but following generations will.
I love how this Black Uhuru song throws you for a little bit of a loop. First you’re lulled by the groove, like you can just zone out to it, then at about halfway, the chorus kicks in with a strong reminder of just where reggae culture came from. It’s not just a groove, it’s a raised fist. Which is what reggae music is all about; it’s a Trojan horse that teaches political lessons under the guise of music you can groove to. I’ve always appreciated Black Uhuru for their songwriting, for striking a balance of making strong points but writing them poetically.