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.
This is something that doesn’t get touched upon very often – a really dumb Bob Dylan song. At their best, Dylan’s cryptic verses fell just on the right side of silly. This is one time he clearly overshot the line, and he knew it. It’s like he started out in his usual vein of poetic seriousness, then said ‘fuck it’, scribbled down a random chorus and wandered off. However, it also happens to be one of his catchiest songs, so it’s enjoyed a life of its own. It’s best known as a novelty Manfred Mann hit, but it’s been covered by a variety of notables. Sing-along choruses have never been Dylan’s bag – he’s not a crafter of pop hits – so this may well be the singiest Dylan chorus ever. Which he still, gleefully, performs in concert. Perhaps he really wanted to contribute something to the culture that was just silly and fun. Wearing the voice-of-a-generation hat all the time gets wearying, you know.
Jimi Hendrix really needs no commentary. Everyone knows this song, and everyone knows his story. To the point of over-familiarity, some would say. Hendrix continues to compel the imagination as much for being such a tantalizing ‘what-if’ as for his actual legacy. Obviously, we all know that it’s more fun to lionize the gifted and dead than the equally-gifted-but-still-plugging-along. We enjoy the narrative more than we enjoy the work. Would we listen to Purple Haze with the same delight if Jimi Hendrix was now an elderly man composing music for films, releasing the occasional space-jazz album, and making out-of-touch comments about today’s social issues? Probably not. We like it because it’s a preview of attractions that never came.
A tale of urban ennui as old as time. Even Jim Morrison, the cocksure rock star shaman, is not immune to that sinking alone-in-the-universe sensation. Which, of course, yielded The Doors one of their most popular hits. Morrison wasn’t the most relatable guy on earth most of the time, what with the whole ‘Lizard King’ messiah complex, but the flashes of soul and vulnerability he showed in quieter moment were beautiful. No wonder that this is a song that fans have latched on to. It speaks to everybody who’s ever felt alone, which is, literally, everybody. Alienation is its own aesthetic now, as emotion becomes commodity and communication seems to be reverting into glyphs, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Out of all the things to love here – of which there are many – the thing I love most right now is the image The Beatles present of themselves in the video. Although they were, at that point in their career, treated as artistic demigods and were (as they remain) the most seriously respected rock artists in the world, they apparently still wanted to be seen as an adorable band of brothers who exist in a whimsical alternate universe full of mad tea parties. Perhaps that can be pinned on the simple reality that their degree of fame made them isolated even from their rock star peers, let alone civilian life. But it seems that even The Beatles themselves liked the idea that The Beatles were more than four guys tied together by a shared occupation, more even than a family; they were a singular unit of a sort that generally exists only in works of fiction. They were like characters in a children’s story, a set of toys brought to life by the imagination of some cosmic Christopher Robin, or a team of wacky-adventure-having boy detectives. The Beatles managed to mythologize themselves to such a degree, and so swiftly and effectively, that they became, in essence, living cartoons. While at the same time occupying the very highest creative pedestal. It was a stranger-than-fiction effect that even Paul McCartney looks back on in bewilderment.
How strange it is to hear the voice of a man who was born more than a hundred years ago. Blind Joe Reynolds was born – whether in 1900, or 1904, or some other year – into a very different world. In his day, black Americans very often came into the world with no record of their birth, never attended any schools, never had their faces photographed, never had their marriages legally validated, never owned property, never had their ills treated or their children born in a proper hospital, and died without leaving a legal trace. (Excepting should they run afoul with the law.) Reynolds lost his eyes to a shotgun accident (was it an accident?), did time in prison (for what?), and spent most of his life as a traveling street singer (where, exactly?), moving around to evade arrest, leaving little trace of himself, except musically. Even though he only recorded on two occasions, and of the recordings he made only a literal handful survive, his distinctive playing style is evident, and influencial. Somehow, the obscure pressings of an obscure blues singer who lived out most of his life in poverty and segregation, became part of the basis of a style of music that came to command popular culture. Blues based rock music, and the lifestyle trappings and social mores that came with it, became a cultural phenomenon in the 1960’s and it’s barely an exaggeration to say that it changed the world (forever! The world. It was changed. Forever.) Not that Blind Joe Reynolds ever got any satisfaction from the gentrification of the blues; he died of pneumonia in 1968, as poor and obscure as ever. Reynolds may have been a genius or he may have been merely typical of the circuit he ran in, and we’ll never have any way of knowing the true extent of his talent. The circumstances he was born to, the times he lived in, every part of the society around him conspired that he and men like him should live invisible lives, should die silently, should be erased and forgotten. He may have written dozens or hundreds of songs, maybe brilliant or maybe not. Songs that have died along with all of the people who’d ever heard them. Out of the eight or so that are known, only one has been rescued, revived and heard by millions of people, though in a rendition that Reynolds could not have imagined in 1929. .