In 1972 there were a lot of songs about space. People were still excited about the American space program, and artists couldn’t get enough of space travel’s boundless metaphorical possibilities. There was Elton John’s Rocket Man, and David Bowie’s entire Ziggy Stardust persona. Harry Nilsson didn’t do anything particularly different with the theme, although his rendition of the lonely cosmonaut is more on the comical side. Nilsson was no stranger to delivering a performance of heartbreaking tenderness. When he was in feelsy mode, he could make listeners melt down in tears. But he also had an irreverent streak that sometimes outweighed all rational concerns, and when someone expected full seriousness, Nilsson would instead deliver silliness. His silly take on the trendy hot theme of ’72 became a hit anyway, despite being written for shits and giggles.
“I know I’m small, but I enjoy living anyway” sings Marc Bolan, looking very small indeed. Some former flower children shed their hippie frippery crossing over into the 1970’s, but you couldn’t take the flower child out of Bolan. He carried over his habit of performing sitting cross-legged; probably the least optimal posture for playing to a stadium of squealing teenyboppers, but very cute. He also never lost his sense of cosmic wonderment. In nonsensical but heartfelt verse, he sang about being a small fragment in the universe, sometimes sad but still full of love. Or something. It was a vulnerable but ballsy performance, and that could be the epitaph for his entire life.
I enjoy Deep Purple partly because in my mind, Ian Gillan is the literal voice of Jesus, and partly as a cultural artifact. In the 70’s there were dozens and dozens of bands that looked and sounded this way, the foremost of which was, of course, Led Zeppelin. While now, in hindsight, most of those other bands look like parodies, they all took themselves stone cold seriously. Remember, they all looked and sounded like this, because the hard rock fandom was a subculture with a set-in-stone set of aesthetical rules just as surely as emo kids were in the 2000’s. Those fans are all your annoying boomer uncle now, and they still like to wax self-righteous about the “virtuoso musicianship”, badass outlaw lifestyles and overall virility of their favorite bands, which these gluten-free, safe sex-having, Soundcloud-rapping kids today could never understand or hope to aspire to. You can’t argue with the virility of these rock stars, because pants back them left very little to the imagination, and there were, in fact, a few virtuoso musicians among them. For the full effect of what kids these days are missing out on, though, I highly recommend watching all ten minutes of this performance, in which Deep Purple penetrates hard and deep into Spinal Tap territory as Ritchie Blackmore plays his guitar by stomping on it.
Listening all the way through to the end of Exile on Main St. leaves me with that ‘making it home at 5 a.m.’ feeling of exhaustion. As if I, like the Rolling Stones, have just run a gauntlet of joyless debauchery, and I congratulate myself, cheerlessly, on surviving it. The Rolling Stones, between the lot of them, have hit so many levels of rock bottom throughout their ongoing adventures: jail, death, carnage, you name it, but every time it looked like they were down and out they somehow got back up. Yet somehow, none of their low points ever seemed to provoke a crisis of soul searching. No one found Jesus or came back from rehab talking New Age psychobabble or cried on TV while blaming their shitty behavior on childhood hardship. Which is both surprising and weirdly admirable, this ability to shrug off the hard times and soldier on. Exile on Main St. is the closest they’ve ever come to a “rock bottom” record. It’s hardly self-searching or even self-aware, but it reveals the torn and frayed sinews of a group suffering from too many miles on the road, too many artificially long nights, too many deaths, too much sex with strangers, too much paranoia, too much time trapped together like a chain gang, too much exile. It sounds like the final hours of a very long party.
The faster the years move forward, the closer we get to David Bowie’s prediction that we’ve got five years left to live. We may have 10 or 12 good ones left, but after that, the countdown’s on, and how we handle it up to us. Unfortunately, Ziggy Stardust has come, been and gone. Maybe there’s some other space messiah hovering in the sky with a message of sparkly, genderfluid free love. Okay, but I know that David Bowie was just writing a space opera to match his hair. He couldn’t have known that the doomsday alarms would actually be ringing by the end of his own lifetime. Unless. There’s a good solid one-third of me that wants to seriously believe in a space messiah from Mars. I mean, there’s a lot of dumb shit that people full-stop seriously believe in and build their entire lives around, and why can’t that thing, for me, be a David Bowie record?
Marc Bolan’s boogie and hand-claps are enough to induce dizzying euphoria in any listener. It’s the absolute height of T-rextasy, feather boa and all. But if you have any time at all for thought, notice the lyrical gemwork here. Bolan is leaning hard on his usual mixed animal metaphors, because, yes, tigers are sexy and so are foxes. He is also saying, very clearly, that he plans on banging the object of his desire, even though he knows and he knows that you know, that “she’s a dude”. Now, we know with some certitude that Marc Bolan was straight, or as ‘straight’ as a guy who wore cosmetics and ladies’ shoes could consider himself to be. But it was the seventies, it was glam rock, and gender boundaries were, for the time being and in that specific context, gloriously passé. Consider it the songwriter throwing out an air-kiss to everyone who wants to bang anyone, anywhere, anytime and doesn’t care who they are or what form they’re in as long as the action is solid gold. Here’s to everyone whose sexual orientation is simply ‘horny little monkey’ and doesn’t need to be anymore complicated or specific than that.
Despite having had years to work on it, I still haven’t explored all of Neil Young’s discography. The man is truly prolific. It doesn’t help that I really just want to listen to the peak 70’s stuff. I have gotten into some of his late 80’s material, which he was putting out to relatively few accolades, and I can report that it’s pretty solid. It seems that, except for a brief weird phase around the turn of the 80’s, Young has been remarkably consistent. He likes what he likes, which is peace, love, nature, and vintage cars. He wonders about God, and man’s place in the world and where society is taking us. Sometimes he gets all riled up about everything that’s wrong in this world. (He seems to be more riled up than ever in his dotage, and who can blame him, everything just keeps getting worse.) Neil Young the hippie philosopher hasn’t changed much since we first heard his piping voice in the 60’s.