Stairway to Heaven

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Pop culture sometimes makes it hard to go on enjoying ‘the classics’ unironically. Popular works get repurposed over the years as symbols, icons, or just winking shorthand for a joke too complicated to explain. The music of Led Zeppelin, in particular, has been understood not as a product of the 1970’s but a representation of “The 1970’s” as a concept, and a handy symbol of a certain nostalgic brand of cool. Today’s impressionable youth get to enjoy the spectacle of Thor hammering his enemies to the dulcet tones of Robert Plant screaming about Valhalla, which signals that Thor is an old-school-cool kinda guy who takes pride in having really pretty hair, which we knew, and also relays the message that he is not only a golden boy but a golden god. That’s incredibly lazy film-making, but it’s a good example of the implied context of a well known piece of music being used to illustrate – in this case, hammer home, literally – the overall tone of the filmmakers’ vision. In layman’s terms, a Led Zeppelin song functions as a musical Emoji, to be deployed when writing out full words would take too long. Which rankles those who enjoy writing everything out without Emojis, so to speak, and who enjoy music for what it is and not for what it can be used to signal. One doesn’t ever need to justify a love for Led Zeppelin, but sometimes there’s a need to explain that the love is unironic and not linked to any pop culture “Emoji moment”.

Sri Guruvastakam/Sri Isopanisad

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This goes out to the fans of Indian traditional music, to Krishna followers, and the really, really hardcore Beatles completists. The Venn diagram of those demographics converges on the person of George Harrison, who did as much as he could do, as a famous rock star, to open the West’s eyes to India’s wealth of musical, spiritual and philosophical culture. (For better or worse.) When the Beatles were running Apple, their vanity record label, each Beatle contributed his own passion project; Paul McCartney signed friends like Mary Hopkin and Billy Preston; John Lennon did his weird Plastic Ono Band stuff, etc. George Harrison used his Apple resources to produce an album of devotional music with the London branch of the Hare Krishna organization. Such was the sway of the Apple brand that the record was actually a minor hit, although since then it’s been thoroughly forgotten except as a footnote filed under “weird shit the Beatles did with their money, haha.” For many people, though, the Radha Krsna Temple album was their first full introduction to a musical world that had only been hinted at by the amateurish sitar plucking of Harrison himself. Vedic devotional music is only one of many styles of Indian music, just as the Hare Krishnas represent just one branch of Indian religious practice. To an outsider, both of those things may seem impenetrable in their complexity, historical context, and general lack of similarity to Western tradition. George Harrison’s great achievement with his Krishna record was to polish out the more atonal and alien-sounding elements and give the music a somewhat more pop song-like structure, making it appealing and accessible. He did something similar with his spiritual beliefs, making Eastern religion look like an inviting alternative to the Judeo-Christian industrial complex that many people had become bitterly disillusioned with. The results, as more and more seekers were drawn towards India,have sometimes been harmful, as in the proliferation of religious cults and mercenary fake gurus in the 1970’s; or merely very absurd, like the way that the practice of Yoga has become a comic example of Things That Overprivileged White People Like to Do. Overall though, the benefits, as millions of people discovered a new (to them) way of living spiritual lives, have outweighed the downsides, and as global culture becomes more mixed-together and, well, global, George Harrison’s trailblazing looks not only prescient but downright heroic.

Song for Bob Dylan

David Bowie describing Bob Dylan as “a strange young man […] with a voice like sand and glue” is the most accurate thing ever. It’s an homage, a parody and a challenge all at once. Bowie does an alright job mimicking Dylan’s cadences, and his gnomic stream-of-dream writing. Of course, Bowie’s own wordiness has always had a direct debt to Dylan, which only had to be acknowledged. But it was also a definite poke at Dylan’s rock god status. By 1971, Dylan was just not as cool – or as productive – as he had been in the 60’s. The poet’s glow had faded somewhat, and his records weren’t being read as some kind of counter-cultural scriptures anymore. David Bowie saw it as “a void of leadership” and he had big plans for filling that void. If Bob Dylan had semi-reluctantly been the voice of his generation for the kids of the 60’s, David Bowie would be the rock messiah for the 70’s. It was an arrogant statement of ambition that could only be made by someone with a busload of faith in himself. Someone with a bit of a messiah complex, in other words.

Some Say I Got Devil

Morrissey has finally released a covers album, long awaited by no one but me. In typical aggravating fashion the controversy overshadowed the music. Did he or didn’t he surreptitiously show his support for a right-wing political candidate on late night TV? I don’t know anything about the nuances of British politics and I don’t particularly care; lots of celebrities have supported shitty candidates and/or blurted out ignorant opinions and it doesn’t stop them selling records. Morrissey’s record probably would have earned better reviews without the reminder that he’s a twat in real life, but it sold well anyway. And frankly, I loved it. Morrissey may be a twat but he’s still one of our most inimitable vocal talents, and it’s great to hear him apply himself to something besides his own writing. The problem with Morrissey’s writing is that it hasn’t changed much since the 80’s and he still fundamentally sees himself as a set-upon loser with an achy-breaky heart, which was endearing in a frail youth but less so coming from a successful older man. There’s only so much you can feel sorry for yourself when you’ve been at the top of your profession for decades. One thing he does still have going for him, which I think is an underrated aspect of the Morrissey persona, is his knack for high camp. Morrissey has the camp instincts of a cabaret queen. It’s always been a part of his work, but it’s become more pronounced with age. You could say that his recent string of albums have been leaning into self-parody, and sometimes it’s unclear if that’s intentional. Here, with the writing clearly removed from the man, it’s very much intentional. I think this might be Morrissey’s gayest album yet.

Smile Away

You can make fun of Paul McCartney all you want, but he’s just going to shrug and whistle all the way to the bank. If you had written a tune this catchy you would say “This is it, lads, this is our golden ticket out of obscurity!” And then you would spend the rest of your life trying to leverage your one moment on inspiration into a steady paycheck. But Paul McCartney can just take one of the catchiest tunes ever written by anyone ever and throw it away as a novelty song about stinky feet. Because he can. That is all.

Slipstream

This Jethro Tull song is barely over a minute. That makes it a tiny speck in the universe of a band given to epics in the 15 to 25 minute range. A minute is barely enough time for Ian Anderson to draw a deep breath before a mighty flute solo. It’s a blink of an eye, a fruit fly’s lifespan. Yet, there have been artists aplenty, from the Ramones to Tierra Whack, who’ve said all that they needed to say entirely in one and two minute songs. There’s time enough to say all you need to say in one minute, and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be writing epics in the first place. Ian Anderson, for all of his ambitions, knows this. He can slide a quiet slip of a song in between all of the big thoughts and say what he has to say. I’ve always loved this, as a breather, a small moment of contemplation. And if nothing else, I love the line “and you press on God’s waiter your last dime, as he hands you the bill…”

Sister Morphine

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.