There’s nothing more uplifting on a bleak day than some classic Motown. Some of the charm of revisiting vintage performances by groups like The Four Tops is the vintage-ness itself. The wholesome, smiling, nattily dressed singers on their empty TV soundstage, shaking a leg for the cameras – nobody performs like that anymore. They may look dated, but the sentiments and the music hasn’t aged. Love songs like this one stay evergreen because they are simple and from the heart. Suits fade. Great performances never do. Levi Stubbs was one of the great soul vocalists, and the soul he brought to what could’ve been just a silly pop song is what makes classic Motown…well, classic. And classy.
This. Either you get it or you don’t. There’s no particular cosmic secret to it or anything. It’s a just a joke. You’re either in the spirit of it or you’re not. Bob Dylan is divisive like that, and this one of his most intensely love-it-or-hate-it moments. I can definitely understand that if you don’t happen to be a fan of incomprehensible lyrics or people who sing like drunk frogs, Dylan can be excruciatingly annoying. Which also happens to make him appealing to people who enjoy the knowledge that the things they’re into are annoying to others. That may be part of the reason why, in his heyday, his followers dubbed him the voice of his generation. Because the young generation really made it a point to confuse and irritate their elders; it feels so revolutionary and radical when the things you enjoy are closed off to outsiders who just don’t get it, man. But that’s just a common trait of being young and eager to break the apron strings. That’s why there’s been so many annoying subcultures based on annoying things. Bob Dylan, for his part, found the phenomenon of being the voice of anyone but himself extremely annoying, and spent a great deal of time and energy trying to alienate his own fanbase. He didn’t mean for his funny joke song to represent the enmity of generational groups and the cultural disjointment caused by radically changing values. It just happened to.
You might not thank them for it, but The Who invented concept albums. Before they delved all the way into long form narrative songwriting, they started with a mini-opera in six movements, which clocked in at a relatively modest nearly-ten-minutes. That alone should remind you just how incredibly weird The Who really were. They don’t get nearly enough credit for how avant-garde they were. Perhaps their memorable habit of smashing things was too much of a distraction and overshadowed their more intellectual innovations, though it also put them among the godfathers of punk. How many people can take credit for paving the way for both punk and prog-rock? But besides being trailblazers in the field of onstage violence and offstage misadventure, they also blew open the limitations of pop songwriting. Pete Townshend wanted to tell stories that were more complex than the usual three-minute pop song structure was thought to allow, so he threw away the three-minute pop song rulebook. Even the Who’s three minute pop songs weren’t the usual pop song stuff; they were frequently clever and humorous, but they told stories that were darkly subversive. A Quick One came out in 1966, and knocked around in various iterations, the best of which, I think, is the long-buried Rock and Roll Circus performance. It tells, in six distinct segments, what appears to be a straightforward story of marital infidelity. It wasn’t until decades later that Townshend revealed that the song was actually his attempt to articulate memories of childhood sexual abuse, under the loose cover of a typical cheating-spouse narrative. That certainly explains the high level of emotional intensity packed into those eight minutes. Only something vividly personal could feel that angry and cathartic. That feeling of anger and catharsis made for a few legendary live performances, but it was unsustainably draining. The Who stopped playing a Quick One in 1970 and didn’t play any part of it again until their reunion in 2014 – it was just too painful.
Would you look at those nerds. Their harmonies are angelic; their haircuts, terrible. In fact, looking at them now, I wonder if they weren’t the inspiration for Beavis & Butthead. Well, Simon & Garfunkel may have looked like bozos, but there’s no arguing with those harmonies, those melodies or that writing. Those two were both the kind of guy who seduces you by being the smartest person in the room, and wins you over completely by being the most sensitive too. How does this song, for example, not sink under its own verbosity? It has the confidence of its own cleverness, of course, but it also has heart. Paul Simon may be flexing his English Lit muscle with what may be the most pretentious closing couplet of all time, but he’s also turning a sympathetic eye on the unseen figure of the lowly subway vandal. Guys who spray paint subway cars have inner lives too! Maybe the hooligan has poetry inside him, poetry that only takes the form of gutter slang. Maybe that dick carved onto the hard plastic of the seat really meant the world to the person to took the time to chisel it there.
Here is an only moderately crappy video of late 90’s Bob Dylan performance. What’s interesting about it is this; has this always been a blues song and I just didn’t notice? Either way it works really well, although most blues songs don’t have quite as many words. It does show that too often, the persona of “Bob Dylan” has overshadowed the musicianship of Bob Dylan. Because the experience of hearing Blonde on Blonde as an album is all about the psychedelic intellectual journey, not the drier exercise of picking apart the musical structure of the songs. Of course, I’m coming at it as a non-musician, and for professional listeners I’m sure the experience is much more complex. But it is odd that on an album as familiar as this, I never actually noticed the musical styles and influences of the individual songs. It’s different to think of it as ‘Bob Dylan playing a blues song’ rather than a ‘Bob Dylan song that sounds like the blues.’ It’s a fine distinction.
A non-Neil Buffalo Springfield standout. I’m not an audiophile who usually notices such things, but the remastering on this is great. It really brings out the guitar jangle like I’ve never heard it before. And it rocks pretty hard, actually. I kind of mentally file Buffalo Springfield as folky and relaxing, but this is somewhat up the road from folksy and halfway to country rock. Very wakey-wakey, which I needed this morning.
Simon & Garfunkel put a particularly bleak spin on the outlines of your life. Thanks, Simon & Garfunkel. Life is, indeed, a maze of blind corners and dead ends which we scramble through like frightened rats, pausing only to enjoy a nice cheese. Also, lonely nights spend alone in cramped walk-up apartments. Also, angst and self doubt. Also, Paul Simon needs a hug. Honestly, there’s few things that appeal to me more that the combination of beautifully refined musicianship and dysfunctional emotional flailing. Simon & Garfunkel mastered that balance like none other, with their chamber pop harmonies, and Garfunkel’s Sunday choir vocals, and Simon’s disgruntled-nerd songwriting. Paul Simon is known as a mellow fellow, thanks to his melodic gifts, soothing voice, and nonthreatening stature, but he wrote some of the darkest hit pop songs in the pop canon. This is a song I’d like to hear in the hands of some Bad Seeds, so it can’t sneak by disguised as pretty.