In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty innocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.
File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.
You know from the first line that the title is an ironic one. This song is not at all about frogs. It’s about that time Jim Morrison got maced in New Haven, Connecticut. He also mentions a more formative event; “Me and my — mother and father — and a grandmother and a grandfather — were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truck load of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just — I don’t know what happened — but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death. So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta’ been about four — like a child is like a flower, his head is floating in the breeze, man.” Morrison felt haunted from that moment on, and it inspired both is writing and his modern-shaman persona. Whether the legend strikes you as corny or cosmic really depends on how susceptible you are to Morrison’s weird mysticism.
Swans do fly. One from the Tyrannosaurus Rex vaults. This one does a real 180 on you; it starts off like a mellow head trip with the bongos, then it explodes into a raging guitar solo. All in less than three minutes. It’s Marc Bolan being split two ways with his persona. It’s a tiny capsule in which you witness the failed ‘new Donovan’ reinvent himself as a guitar god. To use one of Bolan’s favorite animal images, the glam rock swan arises.
Late sixties Pink Floyd is my favorite kind. They were so playful then! This one was written and performed by Rick Wright, who was never the dominant personality of the band and thus often has his contributions overlooked. I think it’s a very charming song, with barbershop echoes in the vocal crescendos. It was a B-side to a single nobody remembers, and can be found on the Relics compilation. It also goes to show that scraps and B-sides can often outshine more well-known material, and compilations of such can be as strong as a ‘regular’ album, if not better. Obviously, as a fan, going around scraping such gems together is unrealistic, so you have to rely on the artists’ being their own best curators. I find that no matter how good I am at being a fan, there’s still songs I’ve never heard, or even heard of, that pop up, even from the most long-dead and/or overly documented groups. So, if you’re a musician, start organizing your archive now; if you don’t, someone else is going to have to do it for you, after your death.
In which Carlos Santana introduces Latin jazz to the rock world. It’s likely safe to say that most of the kids who came to Woodstock didn’t come to hear Tito Puente covers. Santana’s stroke of genius was that he took something both stodgy (jazz) and exotic (Latino rhythms) and incorporated it into the rock biosphere, bridging cultural and generational divides. And, on a rock scene still heavily dominated by blues purists, it was really a radical idea. The bridging moved in more than one direction. Besides bringing to the young masses a whole new musical culture, Santana also showed that rock music wasn’t some simplistic, isolated youth fad; rock music had room for infinite improvisation, it could absorb from any culture. The success of fusion music was also the success of fusion identity; one could be a rock star, and a jazz aficionado, and a proud Latino, and a purveyor of fine Tequilas. It’s a multicultural world now, and world music is everywhere, and we can forgive Carlos Santana for not choosing his collaborators as wisely as he used to, because he pioneered the idea of playing all of the different kinds of music as if they were all one long continuum. Play the music you like, was Santana’s message, and you’re allowed to like more than one thing.
Led Zeppelin spawned a lot of bad things, from stoners with uncombed hair to self-indulgent drum solos, but for that we forgive them, because every one of those things was born of awe. Who doesn’t on some level wish to emulate that loud grandiosity? I’m not immune. It’s not music for easy listening; if you don’t crank it and ‘bang, Odin may smite you. There’s really something childish – though not in a bad way – in the simple pleasure of a very loud and pounding song. This one gave birth to a lot of emulations. Few came close.