Save me from myself, Aretha Franklin. What was Aretha herself trying to get saved from? Bad men, as always. It’s always bad men. The root of all sin, if you will. A gospel singer’s job is to help save souls from earthly sins and inspire them towards God. Aretha Franklin started as a gospel singer; as a secular musician she left most of the Jesus talk behind but never lost touch with the spirit of gospel. What she brought to secular music was the ability to rouse the soul, though it may have been mundane emotions that were being elevated. It certainly helps get through those mundane life problems when we see them as a metaphor for a higher struggle. It’s not money or love trouble, it’s a battle with sin and a journey towards a better state of being. The ups and downs are just tribulations on a broader metaphysical path. They’re there to be overcome and you’re there to be redeemed.
I want to disappear into a dark tropical lagoon now, because Donovan has done more for my imagination than any number of cruise lines or fancy resorts with their advertising. Maybe he should strike a deal with the national tourism board of Mexico. I don’t condone selling out like that, but there’s nothing like a good tune to make me want things I didn’t think I wanted. I’ve never even been anywhere tropical but I can feel it. I want rolling waves and luminescent beaches and – it’s not expressly in the song but you know it’s implied – psychedelic drugs. Okay, when it comes down to it, I mostly want the psychedelic drugs. I want everything to be luminescent and full of magic.
In 1967 a few dozen people stumbled upon an LP with a lewd banana on the sleeve, and got their heads all turnt by the revolutionary sound of the Velvet Underground. They all went on to form groundbreaking bands of their own, as the old adage goes. By the time my generation rolled around, kids were absorbing The Velvet Underground from lovingly packaged box sets, not to mention hundreds of bands that have aped their influence. Going back to the original source, it still tastes as fresh as that banana (which was, of course, more than just a banana.) Everything about it remains on-point, from the distorted noises that could only have been made by highly skilled musicians only pretending to have never seen an instrument before, to the storytelling, to the iconography. Especially, I think, Lou Reed’s storytelling. It may be garbled in delivery and veiled in feedback, but it speaks plainly. You may have never set foot in Union Square, and if you have it probably wasn’t in 1967 and it was nothing like it was in Lou Reed’s day, but you probably know of a rough part of town where the junkies hang out. You may have been there and you may even have wondered what their stories are. And if you’ve never seen a corner of that world, this is a record that opens up a window there.
Whoever the muse behind Ruby Tuesday was – and accounts differ – she sounds like a real cool person. Songs very often come out of the ether without anything specific for inspiration, and just as often what inspiration there was gets forgotten while the tune lingers. Especially when the composers were, not to put too fine of a point on it, tripping balls, as was often the case with the Rolling Stones. We can surmise that somewhere in the past there was a groupie or a fling or a brief encounter with some free-spirited woman who lived a life far more exciting than what most women were curtailed to, and she made one hell of an impression on Keith Richards. She certainly, in her musical incarnation, exemplified the psychedelic era, in which the young broke away from the landmass of convention and floated out to sea on an iceberg of drugs and big ideas.
If at first you don’t succeed… maybe think about getting a better haircut. I have so much love for David Bowie’s eccentric early material, but I know it’s a hard sell for rock fans. Nobody was listening to music hall tunes in the 1960’s, but at least people knew what that was and could understand the concept. Today this sort of thing sounds more alien weird and out of touch than any Martian-messiah fantasy. I mean, are there people still alive who cherish the memory of old English music halls? Those cultural institutions were already dying when Charlie Chaplin was still a kid. As were boater hats and songs about going off to fight in the First World War. Also, nobody buys a David Bowie record for the tuba solos. Bowie is the definition of iconoclasm; he’s made his legacy on changing just ahead of what’s cool. This, on the other hand, is uncool in the bloody-minded manner of an aggressively pretentious arts major whose uncoolness is their only gimmick. It takes a while to learn the difference between being ahead of the curve and merely just outside of it. It is, however, very cute.
It’s been decades of change, and we can still relate to every word Aretha Franklin is saying. Except that bit about bringing your man all of your money, you know that Aretha Franklin is almost certainly not about to be bringing some man all of her money. Who does he think he is? But that line makes sense in context. What not everybody remembers is that Aretha’s anthem of feminine empowerment was actually written by Otis Redding about his own struggles. It was the 60’s, when a man’s ability to bring home the money defined his value as narrowly as the circumference of a woman’s waist defined hers. Touring musicians made very meager wages back then, especially black artists on the so-called ‘chitlin circuit’, and well-known artists with chart-topping records often still struggled to support their families. That was Redding’s concern. Aretha Franklin wasn’t much of a feminist standard-bearer in those days either; like many women of her generation, she started having children while still in her teens and suffered through a string of abusive husbands who attempted to control her career. All either Redding or Franklin were asking for was to just be one tiny little bit less downtrodden. That radical idea really caught on with a lot of people, making a huge hit and a cultural touchstone. Its mainstream popularity allowed Franklin to become the kind of artist who sets her own rules and doesn’t accept bullshit. And its simple message continues to resonate with women who only want one thing. Spell it with me…
There’s something a little psychedelic about this. More than a little. It’s Diana Ross singing about “the mirror of my mind” from inside a disco ball; clearly someone at Motown smelled the incense in the air. The Motown music industry was just that, a music industry. They made straightforward music for people to dance to. It wasn’t about any of the idealistic drug-addled conceptualism the swinging English were getting into. Obviously, there was an ocean of cultural difference between the working-class industrial city of Detroit and its mostly church-going mostly black talent pool, and the dilettantes of London (or San Francisco, for that matter.) But even Motown wasn’t immune to sweeping cultural trends, and ‘trippy’ shit was in. So The Supremes got trippy with it. As an aside, it’s worth noting that Diana Ross was always the most on-trend and chic star in the Motown sky, which is why she became a marquee name while many other, equally talented vocalists remained semi-anonymous.