Leonard Cohen can give anyone a run for their money when in comes to portentous narrative ballads, except that his narratives don’t tell stories as such. Cohen really doesn’t get enough credit for his use of surreal imagery; so much of his writing evokes the fever-dream quality of art house French movies (that drives a lot of people away, I know, I know.) The man started his rock career already a published poet and novelist, for goodness sake, he knows his way around a deft metaphor. He knows how to sound like a bard in a Medieval alehouse, he knows how to take the same dumb topics all poets have danced around for millennia and make them sound like they’ve never been touched before, and all the while the bard has the weariness of the modern man who knows that his millennium may be the very last one.
You can be a hard-drinkin’, hard-ridin’, hard-livin’ highwayman, but that oughtn’t stop you using the Queen’s grammar. Kris Kristofferson has made a music and movie career playing the charming (and increasingly grizzled) country boy with mud on his boots, but he also made to it no secret that he was smarter and better educated than any of his Nashville peers. Which not only made his more charming – for who can resist a real man’s man who also wields formidable book smarts? – but also one of the wittiest and most interesting songwriters in his field. That too helped him break out of the genre and appeal to rock’n’roll fans, making country rock a popular new genre in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Kristofferson has got a lot of things going for him, but I’d say the main one is, damn, the man writes good lyrics.
Young women with long blonde hair singing plaintively about nature. That very specific sub-genre was definitely big a thing in the 60’s, and Mary Hopkin was a key figure in it. See also, Marianne Faithfull, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, etc. See also, long billowing dresses, peter-pan collars, obscure Medieval string instruments, wildflower bouquets, etc. Yes, the English folk music revival really loved its virginal-but-wise damsel cliches. It might look a little twee and silly to our modern American eyes, but I suppose that it really made the British feel like they were touching base with their pagan folklore and whatnot. And that’s actually rather lovely. Everyone should be able to delve into the ancient heritage of their people. That’s something a lot of Americans are unfortunately lacking and can’t relate to, so on these shores the English folk music thing never caught on. Some of the figures of the movement went on to become well-known for other things, but Mary Hopkin married Tony Visconti and didn’t work under her own name again for several decades. She’s actually recorded more in the 2000’s than she did in 60’s, and she’s now part of a movement by the Welsh to rediscover and preserve their culture. There is still very much a market in the UK for plaintive singing, long-sleeved gowns, dulcimers, and all things referring to faerie earth magic and other such folklore. Obviously, the ageless Fae damsel is a figure of deep identification and eternally relevant, and folk music is more than a fad that happened 50 years ago.
Speaking of cult favorites… In a just and fair world Shocking Blue’s Mariska Veres would be known as one of the greatest female rock vocalists of the 60’s and 70’s. There weren’t very many, so it’s not a matter of being overshadowed by too much competition. Veres had a big brassy voice reminiscent of Grace Slick, drag queen looks and a sexy European accent – all the makings of a rock icon. Shocking Blue enjoyed some consistent Continental popularity and one big international hit (you know the one.) Unfortunately, they didn’t stay together for very long, and while they made some great singles they never made an album that really held up as an artistic statement, those being the years when the grandly ambitious statement album was an unquestionable requirement for cachet and respect. Mariska Veres also missed her pop icon opportunity by her own personal choices i.e. she did not live a rock star kind of life. She didn’t date any fellow rock stars or hang out with celebrities or get up to controversial hijinks in her spare time. She just lived a normal life when she wasn’t performing, and while that’s admirable in its own way, it’s hardly fascinating. It’s hard to be remembered for talent alone when you’re not willing to be a slave to the fame, and posterity rewards those who do wild and crazy things, not those who do their job and go home.
If neither Bobby Dylan or Timothy Leary has been able to guide you to the enlightenment you seek, your quest is surely doomed. Who else could you possibly look to? Pete Townsend, for his part, was all into Eastern mysticism at this time, and it influenced his songwriting. (Although, you have to give it to him, not nauseatingly so.) The seeker, therefore, is probably himself, and probably partly a portrait of others who know they’re missing something but aren’t sure what that something is or where to find it. That thirst is a pretty common condition, which leads different people down different paths: to the nearest church, to schools and libraries, to psychedelic drugs, into the woods, or, if they’re a particular combination of over-privileged and gullible, into the arms of huckster gurus. (Townsend’s guru Meher Baba, was, as far as I know, the real deal, not a charlatan.) They’re all different ways to somehow understand the world a little bit better and learn how to be a better person. Which is about as simple and direct a message as will fit into the simple and direct medium of a three-minute rock song.
What rock music has always needed is more bouzouki. Just step away from the three-guitar format and let some other instruments take the spotlight. Obviously, I enjoy diversification, which rock’n’roll sometimes needs a good shot of. Up steps Cat Stevens with his Greek heritage and bouzouki. Stevens liked to inject his music with touches of Greekiness, including singing in the language, using instruments not usually heard on the Top of the Pops, and the occasional cultural reference. It never made his songs any less accessible, but it definitely made his seem deeper and more interesting than other folky singer-songwriters around him. Win-win!
Led Zeppelin represents the appeal of rock and roll at its most base, a transporting assault on the senses. It’s an art form that has, obviously, the capacity to be thought-provoking, but if it doesn’t first make you feel, it’s not doing its job. That’s what the essence of a good rock song is all about, and you can see that it doesn’t take a lot of props to present a memorable spectacle. Led Zeppelin on stage in their prime made some of our most iconic cultural images, and they didn’t need pyrotechnics or catwalks to do it. It’s all about the energy and attitude, killer riffs, and a nice ass. That might sound like a pretty simple formula, but a lot of people have tried following it and didn’t come close to capturing the magic. You can have the biggest hair and the tightest pants, but you also need to have good songs. A sexy image is the icing on top of the musicianship and songwriting, that’s what makes an iconic group. So the formula is actually not so simple, even for the basics. Good music is ineffable, I guess. There’s no formula for why putting Led Zeppelin IV on the record player is still the quintessential rock fan experience.