See, what’d I tell you? Blues isn’t blues unless it sounds like garbage. The Rolling Stones knew this, better than most any other English blues band. Resources are no substitute for soul, and if you don’t have a colorful life to draw on, you’d better create one. Maybe that’s why they were so hellbent on turning themselves into human wreckage. They may not have come from very bluesy backgrounds, but they could reinvent themselves as people with something to sing the blues about. Drugs, debauchery and existential dread, as it turned out, make for great blues.
Any excuse to just listen to Roxy Music for the rest of the day. Starting with the incomparable first album, of course. What a powerful introduction, from the winking, gaudy throwback aesthetics to the off-kilter romanticism within. I’ve been listening to this record all my life and I’m still not sure what it’s saying. It may be saying that every love affair is like a suit you step in and out of, and life is a series of impressions to write about. Or it could be saying that glamour is a cheap salve that barely covers your wounds and does nothing to protect your vulnerable heart. You can be walking around bleeding on the inside, but at least you look – and sound – great doing so. Or it may be that there is nothing underneath the lace and velour and the poses you strike are everything you are and all of your feelings are just a performance. It may be all of the above, if you’re truly versed in camp and irony.
Every great record has a narrative. Only the most ambitious concept albums have a narrative imposed by the artist, but every great record has a narrative that is imagined by the listener. Because a great record takes you on a journey, which becomes a story we tell ourselves about that experience. Hence, an emotional narrative uniquely your own, soundtrack courtesy of your favorite musician. And since every narrative has an arc, every record has an exact climax, an emotional high point. On Transformer that moment arrives exactly at 2:49, track seven, when David Bowie comes in with the high notes. From then on it’s all afterglow.
It’s hard to believe that in 1972 Cat Stevens’ albums were the kind of bestsellers that nearly everyone went out and bought. I mean, that’s hard to imagine just logistically, because in their day they had to physically walk to the record store, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. But also, it’s weird to think of a time when it was guileless thoughtfulness and gentle melody that floated people’s boats. Songwriters like Cat Stevens still exist, people who want to write about love and finding meaning in the world. But being thoughtful and spiritual and positive-minded and just nice is not what you’d call the dominant aesthetic. Maybe it’s because our times are more troubled than 1972 was. The early seventies were all peaceful and golden, right? RIGHT??
“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”
The Rolling Stones are strung out in the south of France, and the strain is starting to show. Leave it to those degenerates to turn a glamorous and idyllic life into a crawl through the gutter. Legend has it that Villa Nellcote had been requisitioned by Nazis during the occupation, and the outlines of old swastikas could still be seen on the basement walls. (It’s now owned by a Russian oligarch.) That lends Exile on Main St. an appropriate touch of evil. 1972 may have been the last time that The Rolling Stones still seemed haunted by devils, before they turned ‘dancing with Mr. D’ into high camp and appeared dangerous to nobody but themselves and their familiars. Of course, The Stones’ orbit continues to be marked by tragic death and inexplicable acts of survival, but nobody worries anymore that the corruption will somehow rub off on their children.
Grab a clean hankie and prepare to experience Rocket Man in a whole new light. In 2017 Elton John (in partnership with YouTube and others) held a contest for filmmakers to create original music videos for some of his most famous songs. This was one of the winning entries, created by Iranian refugee Majid Adin, based on his own experiences. And, yeah, you’re gonna need that handkerchief. Obviously, you have to have grasped that the song is a metaphor for loneliness and alienation, but you may have never thought of it as a metaphor for a more real and down-to-Earth right here right now human experience. In its own time, aka 1972, this song was kind of critically dismissed as an attempt by Elton John to ride the then-happening trend of songs about space and being from space and being alienated out in space and making a show of your alienation while wearing flamboyant shoes. (Harry Nilsson had a comical take on the theme with Spaceman the same year.) However, that’s really unfair to Elton John. He had his own reasons for adopting glitter rock aesthetics, and his glam persona has carried him far beyond any possible accusation of merely being trendy. Secondly, Rocket Man may cover the same tracts of space as Space Oddity, but Elton’s performance owes nothing to no man. Elton John may be flamboyant and dramatic – even tacky – in his sartorial tastes, but as a singer and musician, he’s full of empathy, soul and emotional nuance. This is a great opportunity to really appreciate an often-overlooked classic.
“Rock on!” is the simplest directive for life. Just keep on keeping on, living your rock star life, being your most rocking self, doing what you do. Totally meaningless yet totally inspiring. That’s kind of also the T.Rex credo. T.Rex isn’t music with a message, except for one of hedonism and fun aka ‘rocking’. T. Rex rocked in the firm belief that rocking is what gets you through; rock to live, live to rock. That’s a simple philosophy, it’s easy to follow, and right down to it, it’s all you really need.