Sealion

Yes, life is indeed very much like a frantic carnival, and you are a helpless aquatic mammal with no legs desperately performing tricks to please a cruel and fickle ringmaster through no fault of your own. A good metaphor right there. See, this is why I’m a lifelong follower of Jethro Tull. The J-Tull fan will always be rewarded with clever phrasing and inspired imagery. Putting on a Tull record is like returning to a favorite book. It may be a sustained storyline or a series of vignettes or loosely connected theses but it will be a literary experience as much as a musical one.

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Scared

Well, folx, I’ve been on vacation but now I’m back and ready to bring on the angst again. That’s just a perennial thing. Nobody delivered angst quite like John Lennon. He may not have invented confessional songwriting – or did he? – but he was a master of it. The thing about being a good writer of angsty things that a lot of aspiring emo kids seem to miss, is that you can’t aim for pathos. You have to be honest, with yourself and your audience, and have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that a) your angst may not always be as well earned as you think, and b) it’s kind of an unattractive quality and most people don’t find it very endearing. We’re still drawn to the music of John Lennon because he had a lot of genuinely well-earned angst, but he didn’t pretend that the personality traits and coping mechanisms he developed as a result of childhood trauma made him a cuter person. That shit ain’t cute. Being dysfunctional and unhappy are not aesthetic choices. John Lennon’s musical career is basically the narrative of a man trying, with intermittent success, to be less of a piece of shit.

The Saturday Gigs

1974 was in no way too soon to bask in bittersweet nostalgia for the halcyon days of 1969. For a rock band, five years can be a lifetime, because rock bands tend to have lifespans similar to those of small household animals. Incidentally those were the very years between Mott the Hoople’s debut and their breakup. You can’t blame them for getting all fuzzy about their days hustling for gigs and looking for a big break. Everybody gets the fuzzies for their struggling-youth days, making nostalgia a universally appealing shared emotion. It’s definitely easy to get too mawkish or blatantly manipulative trying to pull those strings, but that’s not a problem here. It’s a group still in their prime calling back to earlier in their prime. It was a great five years, guys.

Sally Can’t Dance

I guess the lesson is that even the coolest people eventually have to throw out their dancing shoes and step back from the scene. It’s a song about growing up and growing burned out. Lou Reed of all people would have known all about the pressure of being the cool guy all the time. Being cool in a circle of freaks is one thing, but being trendy, popular and emulated is quite another. Reed was definitely one of those artists who found success to be as much of a burden as a reward, and his ambivalence towards the job of rock stardom resulted in such timeless gems as Metal Machine Music. You could tell that by 1974 he was weighted heavily with ennui, not least because he released a song called Ennui. Just like Sally – presumably an alter ego of some kind – Lou Reed just couldn’t get it off of the floor anymore.

Roll Away the Stone

Don’t forget Mott the Hoople. It may be impossible to write about them without bringing up the glitter rock tide they became famous on. When your biggest hit was written for you by David Bowie, that’s almost as much of a curse as a blessing. Glitter rock wasn’t really a genre as such anyway, more of a state of mind, but Mott the Hoople actually made some of the most recognizably glam-sounding singles. They really need to get played more, because they embody archness and eccentricity. And, obviously, they’re really fucking fun.

Rock’n’Roll With Me

Once again, in a tableau of social and mental breakdown, amid paranoia and prophesies of doom, comes the leper messiah with a promise of redemption. Your life is saved by rock’n’roll. Lou Reed said it as a blunt statement of personal fact. David Bowie spun the idea into an allegory, a showstopping act of musical theatre, and a lifelong literary thesis. Is he speaking of rock’n’roll as a metaphor for sex, and by extension, romantic love? Or is rock’n’roll the stand-in for all of human artistic endeavor and self-expression? It’s both, as all of those things can be life-saving and redemptive.

If there’s one thing people outside the fandom don’t get about David Bowie, it’s that underneath the feathers and the literary allusions and the messiah complex, he was a desperate romantic. Why crawl out of your cocaine batcave if not in a quest for love? Amid the apocalyptic imagery, the self-professed alienation, the theatrical alter-egos, the despair of addiction, there was always a beacon of romantic hope, the desperate desire to be loved and understood and to do the same. Resulting in an underrated oeuvre of Broadway-worthy grand love songs. (And, off the stage, the late-life reward of a grand and lasting romance.)

The other, equally important, thing about David Bowie and his genius, was that he grasped, better than most, the real-world implications of artistic disruption. The idea that Art is Important is familiar, and the idea that self-expression is redemptive is familiar, almost to the point of cliche. It’s a rallying cry for young people trying to establish their identity, and a nifty marketing tool aimed at those same young people. It is also an abstract concept of intellectual discussion; how do changes in the art world reflect or affect our real lives? What can high art do for the lives of the masses? In a broad socio-political context, does art really matter at all? That’s a conversation that happens in mostly academic circles, not so much in the world of rock music, where the question tends to be, does art get you laid? David Bowie was one of a very few who saw the role of a rock performer and of rock music in general as something more than a means of becoming a more sexually appealing and financially autonomous individual. He was also one of a very few who took an interest in what went on in less liberal societies than his own. There was a reason, besides the desire to escape the toxic environment of the American music industry, that he spent so much time hanging out in the Eastern bloc. He was interested in the role that art played in highly repressed societies, and knew that in authoritarian states, artists were considered as dangerous as any military threat or political sabotage. Art can undermine political regimes, and to treat that as an abstract concept is a privilege of living in a liberal society.

Rock’n’roll, in this case and others, may be a metaphor for liberating and redeeming yourself on a personal level, sexually and romantically. It’s also, literally, a means of liberating and redeeming yourself within the political structure of the society in which you are living. Rock’n’roll and by extension, all art, lets us be heroes. We can be heroes to ourselves, in our own little lives, and we can be heroes in the world.

Rince Philib a’Cheoil

Here’s a beautiful Irish folk song by Irish folk revival band Clannad, sung in Irish Gaelic. I literally have not an inkling what it’s about. Gaelic is interesting because it’s almost completely unrelated to English, despite being right next door geographically. It’s not even in the wheelhouse of Germanic languages. For a non-speaker, there’s no shared roots or common vocabulary that would allow them to understand at least a basic gist. English speakers can’t even grasp the phonetics. Which explains a lot about why the English were so eager to wipe out Irish language and culture; it’s much harder to colonize your neighbors when you can’t eavesdrop on their conversations. They failed, of course.