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.
The Rolling Stones may have been slightly out of their element playing phosphorescent psychedelic pop music about love and rainbows, but they’ve rarely written anything prettier. No one was immune to the dizzy highs of the Summer of Love, not even a group whose key members actually spent the summer in and out of jail. Anyway, the Stones’ fabled sympathy towards the dark side was mostly savvy marketing (although, one trail of corpses later, it does seem to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Mick Jagger could just as easily sold himself to the public as a nice young man who went to a very good school, but the pop market already had enough nice young men and the public wanted a bete noire. With this kind of songwriting and less carnage, the Stones could have become pillars of the British Empire a lot sooner.
In between the hits, we find Rolling Stones songs that are not about the usual sex’n’drugs crap. All that strutting would be a pretty meaningless posture if Mick Jagger didn’t occasionally show glimmers of vulnerability and self-awareness. Nobody, not even Jagger, can maintain eternal cockiness as a full-time job, and it’s endearing to think that he may mope and worry about his hair turning grey. (It’s hard to imagine Jagger maintaining his longevity without a fluffy head of hair.) It’s also endearing to know that Jagger, like anyone else, just wants a little sympathy and a pat on the head. You can have sex with thousands of people, but not all of them will pat you on the head afterwards.
The baby Bowie of the sixties was dorky, earnest and notably uncool – exactly the opposite of everything we’ve come to associate David Bowie with. It was adorable. It was also odd that out of all the exciting things going on in music at the time, Bowie was writing twee little narrative songs in music hall style, probably the least hip possible direction to go in. It does show that he was already an iconoclast with a nose for the unexpected. He just hadn’t figured out how to channel that in a way that people actually liked. Of course it also means that, in his absolute failure to get attention, he really dodged a bullet. Imagine an alternate universe in which something like this (or worse, The Laughing Gnome) became the novelty hit of the summer. It would have been an absolute career dead end, not a reputation one could easily shake or move on from. We would then have enjoyed decades of David Bowie, composer of cute novelty songs and writer of middling West End musicals, perhaps with a lucrative sideline banging out power ballads for vocal divas. That’s not a world I’d much like to live in.
I’ve often wondered about who Emily is and what she’s doing. I’ve read that she was everything from a British socialite to a child Syd Barrett encountered in the woods, both of which things sound legit. Either way, she sounds like kind of a sad person. If she’s a figment of Syd’s imagination, she’s clearly got to be pretty sad. Or, she’s a socialite, and her socialite life is hollow and meaningless and filled with miserable parties.
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.