Some people make incessant resolutions to lose weight, and I start every year resolving to listen to more music besides the same five dead white guys. And unlike losing weight, my resolution is actually both attainable and fun to do. As you will see in my upcoming annual Top 10 roundup, I’ve definitely been expanding my palate. Expanding my palate includes not only checking out new releases that wouldn’t normally be on my radar; it’s also looking back at history and delving more deeply into artists who I may only know from one or two radio hits. One thing I always resolve to get more deeply into is Motown. Classic Motown is not only deeply influential, it’s also accessible and fun. You don’t have to go to the library to checkpoint the literary references to enjoy Motown – or deal with pretentious fans who insist that you can’t enjoy it if you don’t. Unlike many other genres, Motown wasn’t designed to alienate anyone, it’s not an acquired taste, and it’s guaranteed not to bring you down. Out of the many, many giants of Motown, Stevie Wonder is a good one to start with. His career spans decades and dives in and out of many genres, making for one of the largest, most diverse and most acclaimed discographies you can dive into.
‘Ship of Fools’ certainly describes a lot of institutions I could point out. If Jim Morrison was trying to mock the establishment of his day, he was on point, maybe even too kind. But with Morrison it’s often hard to tell where the stream of his consciousness is taking us all, or from whence it came. I’ve always considered this song about mid-tier, because it seems untethered from any particular vision or declamation. From the Doors, I want grand intellectual ambition, pretension even. Though they can do the old blues-rock as well as anyone when they want to, that’s not what I pull those records out for.
Most of what you’ve read about Syd Barrett probably isn’t true. For example, LSD didn’t turn him into a schizophrenic. He didn’t die at 27 but lived to the age of 60. The isolation of his later years wasn’t caused by mental illnesses but by physical ones. One thing is true, however: Barrett was one of rock music’s tragic losses. His songwriting was both unique and thoroughly perfect for the psychedelic era, with its sense of whimsy and gentle humor. It certainly sweetened the Pink Floyd sound, leavening Roger Waters’ dooomy tendenies and making their ambitious virtuosity feel more approachable. His solo records are charming and weird, sounding like the work of a child at play in his bedroom, rather than the attempt of a rock star to make a statement. That kind of unstudied playfulness is pretty rare. Barrett could’ve become one of the great singer-songwriters and it is, obviously, a great shame that he never got to follow that road. For that you can blame the so-called ‘friends’ who kept dosing him with LSD without his consent even after he’d begun spiral into a full-blown nervous breakdown. That aside, though, he was probably one of those people who were constitutionally unsuited to being a public figure, let alone a full-time rock star. By all accounts, once he got the drugs out of his system, he was happy enough living alone, tending his garden, hanging out with his sister and visiting art museums. Not everybody wants or needs to be up on a podium, and not every gifted person has the drive to see their gifts rewarded. That’s very hard to understand, because we, as an audience, view it as a loss, but it’s not a loss for the artist if he decides he’d rather stop making the art that was causing him distress and go live a nice normal life with a nice garden.
This is not one of my favorite David Bowie songs, which puts on a list of possibly less than ten songs out of hundreds. It’s too abrasive? It’s musically discordant, and lyrically crass. Those are two things I don’t expect from David Bowie, and they’re not necessarily things that bother me per se, but again, not from David Bowie. David Bowie is not who I go to when I want to hear about fucking. Dick-swinging braggadocio is not his best look. That’s what The Rolling Stones are for anyway. Still, kind of an interesting experiment in striking a hard-rocker pose. Probably should have been best left as a B-side or something.
One of my very favorite things is songs about antiquated modes of communication. I love to be reminded of times when people used to sit around waiting for the postman to arrive. You could realistically spend weeks to months in anticipation before you finally realize that your crush is just not that into you. If nothing else it makes me intensely grateful to be living in an age where you can enjoy the instant gratification of having the person you like ignore you in real time. The more things change though, the more they stay the same. Being ignored by your crush is something you and your grandmother can bond over, because I guarantee you she still remembers that time Josef from the next town over stopped answering her letters. Maybe he died in the war, maybe he’s just not that into you.
“One day we change from children into people, one day we change”
Grains of wisdom from Marc Bolan. Amid the songs about wizards and magic and Rarn, Bolan had some real good life advice. Ride a white swan, for example, baby, can’t go wrong. Bolan’s vision was unique, even in a time when loopy mysticism was on-trend. Nobody else on the scene tried so lovingly to marry rock music with folklore. In the end, that marriage failed, partly because the wide-eyed wonder of the 60’s became the cocaine-eyed dystopia of the 70’s, partly because Bolan himself grew out of his interest in pastoralia. But it was a thoroughly charming, and thoroughly more innocent, moment in pop culture.
“Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me”
David Bowie imagines a dark future, as usual. The technology we rely on and worship will someday turn on us and destroy the society it was meant to improve. He wrote this in 1970, when artificial intelligence was a sci-fi pipe dream and the internet was barely a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Little did anyone know that those things would very soon become driving forces in the fabric of everyday life, or that the possibility of a technology-driven societal downfall would be a very real worry. Basically, this song would not be out of place in a musical production about the upcoming Singularity, which is yet another thing that’s gone from being purely hypothetical to highly probable in a scarily short amount of time. Whatever shit happens, just know that David Bowie probably predicted it with his Martian space vision.