In 1969 David Bowie caught his first big break when the release of Space Oddity coincided with the Apollo 11 space mission and subsequent moon landing. That event was greeted with worldwide celebration and optimism about our impending Utopian technofuture. What Bowie tapped into was the opposite of that, the creeping suspicion that all that technological innovation would bring nothing but sorrow. Every step of human progress, of course, has always been shadowed by the fear that technological dehumanization. The introduction of the printed word led to fierce debates about how all that pesky knowledge would cause widespread delinquency and endanger people’s souls by leading them away from God. Or whatever. The tech may change but the conversation is always the same: the availability of new gadgets will destroy human empathy, reasoning ability, social circles and fine motor skills, creating a society of mindless sad robot-people adrift with no sense of purpose or ability to form meaningful connections with one another. Space travel is that, placing quite literally alienated humans alone in an environment where they have no business ever existing. The image of the lone astronaut floating through the void has been as haunting and disturbing as the idea of colonizing new worlds is gung-ho and exciting. It also makes a powerful metaphor for the various alienations we experience in normal life; the office cubicle, the MRi machine, the commuter vehicle, the empty McMansion, the prison cell, the nuclear submarine – they’re all symbols of untethered lonely lives lived by people who might as well be in outer space.
Marianne Faithfull didn’t record much in 1969, for reasons that are readily apparent if you watch her promotional appearance on The Rollins Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus. Her dazed look and difficulty moving were the red flags of a person high as a kite on heroin. It’s also evident in the cracking of her formerly high voice around this time. Fans, if she still had any, didn’t know the the depth of her problems, but anyone could have guessed that Marianne was a hot mess. The irony was rich that she was still singing wistful tunes about striving for something beyond ‘living in a cage’. She was nothing but in a cage, and being wistful was no longer very cute. It is, in hindsight, a poignant performance, but it could very easily have been a fare-thee-well one.
George Harrison’s marriage to Pattie Boyd may have ended in a whirl of drama but damn if it didn’t fuel some of his best writing. The Beatles themselves ended in a whirl of drama, an ugly breakup only hinted at in the idyllic video by their conspicuous refusal to be filmed together. That drama in turn fueled Harrison, Lennon and McCartny to leap into their solo careers determined to prove themselves. (Ringo got busy filming cinematic classics like Caveman.) That just proves and underlines the way that harsh experiences tend to become the most intense inspiration. George Harrison knew, of course, that his four-way union with the other Beatles was on its dying legs, and that his relationship with his wife wasn’t going so well either. It’s the knowledge of impending change that imbues the most tender of love songs with its soulfulness.
To call the Velvet Underground ahead of their time has become one of those phrases that have been repeated into meaninglessness. It’s what lazy writers reflexively say when they think they don’t need to unpack or defend their position. But when I approach with focus and try to find some new angle or insight, I still find myself saying simply that the Velvets were light years ahead of everyone else. They produced records that sounded like they’d been made inside a filthy closet – hence, the heretical “Closet Mix” of their album. Mainly though, it was the door-opening, literate and subversive songwriting. Lou Reed wrote, with unvarnished intimacy, about things that were then considered very much unspeakable. Even though the late 60’s were saturated with triumphalist anthems about love and personal freedom, and quasi-religious talk about pharmaceutical redemption, there wasn’t very much real talk. No one spoke of a love that was cloaked in shame and self-flagellation, or of the intimate connections that occurred in a void between people who couldn’t meet each others’ eyes or know each others’ names, or that those moments could be beautiful and worthy of a love song. Fifty years later, it still sounds unsettling, in the sense that you’ve opened a door onto something secret and private and tantalizing and unheard of. It’s purely poetic justice that my preferred mix is the Closet Mix.
This performance of The Soft Parade begs a couple of questions. Why is Jim Morrison so against petitioning the Lord with prayer? And how did they coax an on-key and non-insane performance out of him in the first place? Morrison was looking, in 1969, like a cult leader on the verge of inciting mass suicide. That is, shambolic and bloated, yet still charismatic. Some of the lyrics on the Soft Parade album were lazy or not written by Morrison at all, but the title track felt like the rambling of an unstable mind. Of course, Morrison’s entire persona was based on the perception that he was dangerously unstable… but yet somehow still in complete cosmic control and eminently qualified to lead his followers into a psychedelic spirit quest. But by the end, it appeared that he was just plain unstable in the garden variety manner, and he had barely any control over himself or his life. Maybe it was Morrison’s tragedy that he insisted on trying to inhabit, as an everyday matter, a persona that sold records, or maybe his life trajectory was exactly what he wanted for himself, in his conception of what it means to be a poet. Most people’s literary ambitions don’t involve dying alone in a bathtub, though. You can still see clearly, though, in performances like this one, that the psychedelic spirit quest is still there for the journeying, even if you can’t trust the shaman.
It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When Marianne Faithfull decided to finally and forever stop being a dollybird and become a real songwriter, she ended up writing one of the great drug epics of rock, an ode to deathly chemicals on par with Lou Reed’s Heroin. It was, of course, banned and pulled from shelves, while The Rolling Stones re-recorded it and took all the credit. (Faithfull says that it was a matter of copyright issues and that they did in fact pay her royalties, and it was those royalties that kept her alive during her worst years.) Faithfull always insisted that she wrote it before the worst of her drug addiction, and she was just trying to be literary, but she came to know the truth of her own writing soon enough. Besides the lyrical foresight, the song shows a singer literally metamorphosing as we listen from ingenue to rock star. She’s already done enough to herself that her voice is cracking. She wavers like pubescent boy between her old high vibrato and the husky croon we now know her for, and she doesn’t know what to do with it yet. That in itself belies any claim that of pure literary exercise. Marianne Faithfull was burning herself out, and she knew it. Years later she sang it again, now in full command of that barrel-aged croak, but it didn’t have the same fragile poignancy. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, mined many of the same trenches, although with considerably more cash in hand, and they turned Sister Morphine into their own confessional. It’s probably the most explicit look they’ve ever taken into the dark side of their hedonistic lifestyle, and it is, in its own way, almost as poignant. Mick Jagger, tough guy that he is, doesn’t do confessionals, but he watched the closest people in his life sacrifice themselves to addiction, and the hurt shows, sometimes. Sticky Fingers was one of the great drug records, and Sister Morphine was the sad centerpiece that highlighted the theme most starkly. It was a fitting coda for a tainted love story, and an era.
Yes, this makes sense and I understand the sentiment. If Marc Bolan sounds like someone trying to sing in English despite not knowing the language, well, he was English and therefore spoke the language and that’s just the way he sang. It took him a few years to develop his elocution. Maybe he was embarrassed because his lyrics were about unicorns a lot? But honestly, having seen the actual lyrics (see below) everything kind of makes sense, at least in a poetic way. The images are great, so great I want to see them illustrated, I want them expanded and detailed and written out into a book.
She was born to be my Unicorn
Robed head of ferns
Cat child tutored by the learned.Darkly ghostish host
Haggard vizier of the moats
Seeks the sandled shores of Gods
Baby of the moors.The night-mare`s mauve mashed mind
Sights the visions of the blinds
Shoreside stream of steam
Cooking kings in cream of scream.Jackdaw winter head
Cleans his chalcedony bed
A silken word of kind
Was returned from Nijinsky Hind.Giant of Inca hill
Loosed his boar to gorely kill
The dancing one horned waife
In doublet of puffin-bill.The beast in feast of sound
Kittened lamb on God`s ground
Ridden by the born of horn
Jigged like a muse on life`s lawn.