Make what you will of the comedy show that is Sparks. I grew up listening to their records, and their eccentric sensibilities never struck me as particularly weird. At least not more so than most of what else was floating around in the 1970’s. But watching their videos and live performances, it does strike me just how far out they were. The dynamic contrast between very opposite brothers Ron and Russel is totally lost on record, for one thing. It’s something you only get a slight hint of looking at their album covers. But you can see in in action as the nexus of the band. There is no band, per se. It’s just those two, composing an endless series of musical in-jokes.
Lest you start thinking of Elton John too much as a purveyor of portentous power ballads, let me remind you of this gem. No, it’s not Italian. It’s just Elton and Bernie having a laugh at critics who scrounge too hard looking for deeper meanings. Artist vs. Critic has been a pitched battle since, probably, art began, and it usually involves the bruised-ego artist taking himself way too seriously. Sometimes the artist vows to show them all by doing something so deliberately unpalatable to human ears it becomes legendary (see, Metal Machine Music.) More often than not, the artist comes off looking like a butthurt little baby, (not that rock performers are known for their grace and maturity.) And in some rare cases they just do something silly and fun that reminds everyone how great they are. Elton John is so great that he can go off singing vaguely Italian-sounding gibberish and it’s one of his most rollicking songs. Call it the charm offensive.
Your grandmother probably slow danced to this song at her cotillion, if you’re from a certain type of background. The Platters’ version of this Jerome Kern tune was a number one hit in 1958, making millions of nice white debutantes swoon chastely to the vocal stylings of Tony Williams, who was neither white nor a debutante. In other words, it was exactly the kind of sexless, corny-as-Iowa romantic treacle that rock’n’roll set out to obliterate from the cultural landscape. By the 70’s being a fan of vocal groups like The Platters was crippingly uncool. Enter Bryan Ferry, with a well-honed sense of irony and an understanding that yesterday’s uncool is tomorrow’s cool again. Ferry was, of course, one of the first rock singers to cherry pick the corny golden oldies of yesteryear for gems ripe for reinvention. He was not above being utterly campy in his choices, but in this case, he picked something he could sing with a straight face. It’s a love ballad that just needed to be stripped of its pop-hit-of-58 arrangement for its emotional depth to shine through. (A sappy male chorus was very much the trendy production gimmick of the late 50’s.) And honestly, without the cultural context of segregated cotillions and the no-sex-no-fun social mores of 1958, The Platters’ song is not bad. In fact, The Platters were actually one of the best vocal groups of their time and among the first all-black groups to gain mainstream popularity.
Do you ever get the feeling that “everybody’s on the stage and it seems like you’re the only Person sitting in the audience?” Well, yes. Life is treacherous and transient as thin ice, indeed, and we navigate it with as much grace as we can. Feeling lost, disconnected, spooked and unreal while we’re at it. Yes, it’s a great metaphor, and a small lesson in some kind of philosophy. You should build your life one day at a time exactly because there may well never be a next one.
What a bleak record. I haven’t listened to New Skin For the Old Ceremony is several years, and it’s never been one of Leonard Cohen’s records that I think to reach for. Though you wouldn’t call Cohen a sunshiny guy on the best of days, so much of his work is uplifting in the sense that it’s loaded with spiritual portent. This records, however, feels somehow bitter, as if the singer himself were having a reckoning with his calling. Everyone is entitled to a low point, and if Cohen didn’t have the best time in the mid-seventies, he’s entitled to his own rock bottom.
Nothing inspires the worst kind of schmaltz like the subject of love. Schmaltzy love songs that are the musical equivalent of a Hummel figurine or a Margaret Keane painting, syrupy drivel that makes you want to put your genitals and your heart in a bank vault and go live in a cave somewhere. And you would think that an elderly Frenchman in a bad suit singing in front of a plastic Christmas trees would be precisely that kind of smarmy. Especially in 1974, when French guys in suits were very much le contraire de la mode. But Charles Aznavour didn’t enjoy well over 70 years of popularity for being a sentimental hack (and he’ll have you know that he is Armenian.) Sometimes under the trappings of schmaltz lies something beautiful and it takes a masterful performer to extract it. It may look like music for housewives who missed the sexual revolution boat, but when that man starts to sing all the trappings fall away and you can forget all of your cynical thoughts and bad jokes at the expense of people less hip than yourself. It’s a good love song that does what good love songs do: touch the the tender part of the heart that hasn’t yet sunk into ironic indifference. When you love someone and they’re your world, you can talk about them in blown-out corny language and act like every cliche of a love-sick fool and no one can sink your sincerity, and it’s that precise feeling that is so very, very hard to capture in song without sounding like a driveling moron. You have to believe it to deliver it. Just embrace that schmaltz and those old lovers’ cliches and deliver them like they’re written in your soul. That’s what crooners of Aznavour’s generation made an art of, and it’s become a lost art, since the advent of rock’n’roll with its undisguised libido and emotional juvenility.
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.