The estate of the late Harry Nilsson must be making friends and cashing checks after Harry was so prominently featured in every single episode of Russian Doll. I am ten thousand percent on board with anything than puts the music of Harry Nilsson before a broader audience, and this was some major exposure. (Also, it was a great show, you should watch it.) Nilsson did have a number one hit single at one time, but it was so long ago, most people have forgotten, since he never made much of an effort to follow up on it. Nilsson had the voice of an angel, and the career instincts of your deadbeat cousin Gary. He threw away multiple chances at major pop stardom in favor of keeping his day job at the bank, drinking too much, and recording jazz covers, in no particular order. Just when it seemed like he would drink himself into a premature grave, he found a nice lady, retired from the music industry, raised his kids and became involved in gun-control activism. Of course, he also died relatively young anyway, but at least it was in the midst of an otherwise healthy and happy normal-person life. Nilsson did not follow the expected rock star script; he made unexpected and sometimes self-sabotaging decisions, but I’d like to think that following his muse rather than pursuing generic career goals made for a more interesting body of work, in the end. If anyone deserves posthumous accolades by the bucket, it’s Nilsson.
Donovan always takes me back to a childlike place. That sense of innocence and wonderment was of course the intention; Donovan recorded a double album with one side for adults and one side for children, though both sides sound the same. And, when one and everyone around one are zoinked to high heaven on LSD and Mary Jane, the world seems full of magic and the mind reverts to younger days. While I, as an actual child, did respond to all of those effects and decided that all of Donovan’s music was very much for children. (The sexual references went over my head.) So with all that said, this is a trip down memory lane for me.
The Sisters of Mercy are a Roman Catholic women’s religious congregation (as per their website) and we all know there’s nothing sexier than a lady who’s renounced worldly things in the service of God. We know that because ‘naughty nuns’ is one of the world’s oldest pornographic subgenres. The suppression of passion must lead to its inevitable depraved release, according to the world’s erotic imagination. According to Leonard Cohen, the practice of spiritual service becomes blended with erotic service, because Cohen sees no boundary between the poetic sacred and the boner-making. That’s the opposite of what most of the major religions teach; they tell us that to touch the divine you really, really need to keep it in your pants. Yes, the part of our brains and our hearts that is open to the divine is so fragile and so easily overwhelmed by hormonal urges, and it’s just science that there’s not enough blood in the human body to operate both brain and gonads at full force. But realistically, our journey is an ongoing balancing act, with the spiritually touching moments intermingled with the hormonally driven ones, so much that we very often can’t draw a line between them. Isn’t that where our idea of romantic love lies?
I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
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.