Cold War dreams of nuclear annihilation, contaminated generations. Maybe some of you are too young to remember the fears that struck people’s hearts throughout the Cold War decades. Some of you may have been weaned on modern fears like global warming and super-viruses and the impending Singularity. Some of us don’t worry about those things because we’re lying awake at night waiting for the air raid sirens. (Some of us have epigenetic nightmares about air raids.) And many of us still break out in cold sweats when certain words are invoked; radioactivity, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Plutonium, atom bomb, meltdown, nuclear winter. We were taught that the world would end in mushroom clouds and uncontrolled cell division. Those fears may not feel relevant, not die Angst vor dem Tag, as it were. The members of Kraftwerk were all born in Germany in the immediate wake of the Second World War – a particularly traumatic spot in space and time, obviously – making them members of a uniquely scarred subgroup in a scarred generation. The fears and angers that haunted humanity in the decades after the war must have been a hundredfold for children born and raised in its still-smoking epicenter. Some of them responded by making art about what it means to be human and what it means to be a machine and what ends celebrated scientific progress can be turned to. That certainly hasn’t become any less relevant, and even if the specific keywords have been pushed to the back burner of our collective nightmares, the warning still hits home. And, yes, that nuclear arsenal, though it may not be a popular headline anymore, it still exists, and is still likely to end us all well before super-AIDS or mass famine have the chance to.
It was 1976 and Ian Anderson already felt like a grumpy old man. Apparently. Jethro Tull were very much still in their prime, despite being nearly a decade old as a unit. But Anderson wanted to make a concept album about an old and out of touch rocker struggling to comprehend the changing times. Perhaps not actually being that old or out of touch is why the concept of Too Old To Rock’n’Roll didn’t really work. Should’ve tried that one in the 80’s or today. It was a nice break from grumbling about the church, I suppose. The thing is, though, when Anderson criticized the stranglehold of the church and other crusty, abusive institutions he had grown up with, he then got to enjoy watching those things change and grow weaker. People who grew up caned and deprived in the postwar years may have some satisfaction that their grandkids are growing up in a more secular and permissive world with far less corporal punishment. On the other hand, when Anderson took aim at the entertainment industry, with all of its shallowness, narcissism and exploitation, as he did with this album, he had no idea the monster that was only just awakening. Sure, there was a lot going on in the 70’s that a veteran such as himself could raise an eyebrow at: television was on the rise as a cultural influence, allowing no-talent-having nobodies to earn both money and notoriety; glam rock had crested to such a degree that even Dylan was onstage wearing eyeliner; high and low culture were rubbing shoulders like never before, etc, etc. I guess that in 1976 the idea of finding a second shot at fame by winning a quiz show was a pretty unexpected plot twist – Too Old… was an alright story but it didn’t really resonate. It was unintentionally prescient, though. That story is a lot of people’s lives now. What Warholian fever dreams we’re living in!
Despite my admiration for Patti Smith, I have to admit that I’m not much of an expert on her. I mostly listen to the Land collection aka the hits. Smith is a difficult artist, though. Her highs are fierce, without doubt, but her more boundary pushing material can be more unpleasant than interesting, and she’s overly fond of sad dirges. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat and listened to her divisive Radio Ethiopia. Heck, maybe I never really have. It’s a not-fun album to listen to, at least according to a lot of critics. Or it’s uniquely challenging and rewarding, according to others. Either way, this song is a highlight. It’s got that feral energy that Smith became famed for, the combination of hidden soul and aggressive loudness.
Why on earth was this not Blondie’s debut single? Too meta for the times, I guess. It didn’t even make the album, initially. It’s obviously a great song, so it wasn’t a quality thing. I imagine Debbie Harry might have wanted to deflect the kind of attention that would prevent the band being taken seriously, and comparing herself to “Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene” would not have been the way to do that. It’s a tough call, striking a balance between owning your status as a sex symbol, and being governed by it. Harry has kept that balance with remarkable grace over the years. For the most part, she’s had fun playing with gender tropes, winking at both the femme fatale and the wilting wallflower. But it can’t have been easy, and I understand her reluctance, as a fledgling in the music industry, to release a song that appears to invite being viewed – and judged – as a fantasy figure in a long line of fantasy figures. Now, of course, it’s a clever mission statement from a woman who’s redefined what it means to be a platinum blonde. Platinum blonde isn’t just a fashion; it’s a concept of womanhood, one that doesn’t necessarily benefit the woman wearing it. Or, if it benefits her, it does so at the implied expense of other women. Debbie Harry has been one of the few blonde icons whose blonde identity isn’t inexorably entwined with tragic victimhood. Her image wasn’t forced on her by a male Svengali. It wasn’t a facade to cover crippling self hate, or a disguise in which to escape from a horrible life. It wasn’t a survival strategy, used to float more or less unharmed across the hostile waters of systematic patriarchy. No, Harry would be blonde, and she would be sexy, but she wouldn’t accept that it’s a woman’s burden to suffer willingly or be punished. If blondes are supposed to have more fun, Debbie Harry is going to have more fun.
I’ve always wondered where Bob Dylan thinks he’s going, and what he’s planning to do down in that valley. It feels like a fragment of some larger epic journey. There’s something heroic and tragic about it. He is on a quest of some kind; like Odysseus, he’s waylaid by a beautiful, mysterious stranger; she is a goddess with her own path to follow; who knows how long they’ve dallied together but now she must let him go. But first a little coffee for the road. It’s the mundane detail of the coffee that really makes the story – epic tales are nothing but bluster without the mundane to bring them to life. Now mind you, Bob Dylan doesn’t usually capture my imagination quite this way. Sure, plenty of his songs are epic and full of their own mythology, but they’re also willfully obtuse, jokey, satirical. It’s hard to interpret Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream as a hero quest; more like a buffoon’s comic picaresque. But this is a serious song here, a real hero quest, perhaps an allegory for the trajectory of life, perhaps just spilled over with sadness from a man freshly divorced. Anyhow you look at it, it’s a different level for Dylan. And, as with many of Dylan’s songs, other singers have hit it out of the ballpark, especially those with superior vocal abilities, i.e. Jack White, Robert Plant.
Here is an Al Stewart song that you don’t have to do homework to enjoy. Or at least not as much homework. I think this one might be about the Spanish civil war, but it’s pretty vague in the details. And I can assure you that with his pleasant voice and talent for melody, Al Stewart can be thoroughly enjoyed even if you don’t know who Ernst Rohm was or pick up the Vonnegut references. It’s just that Stewart really knows his stuff and uses his references so earnestly and invitingly that you kind of get inspired to learn along; before you know it you’re elbow deep into researching the members of Hitler’s cabinet or the history of the British navy or the various interpretations of Nostradamus. You never imagined pop music could be so educational! I really can’t think of any musician of quite such a book smart caliber, except possibly Colin Meloy. And if all that esoterica sounds alienating, let me remind you that Al Stewart was once very popular, even in the United States, and there was a time when every self respecting record collector owned a copy of Year of the Cat.
Working on a forklift. On a night shift. Real talk. Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration may have had a couple of the kind of positive spirited hits that sell bottled fruit beverages, but those aside, it’s a very politically hard-hitting album. There are songs about poverty, inequality, violence and other real-life things that don’t sit well with selling fruit juice. There are many, many reasons why Marley stands as one of the greatest, and one of them is how his multiple popular hits are just a gateway to even more deeply rewarding material. Plenty of artists have have a plethora of hit singles, but the rest of their catalog doesn’t have anything substantial to offer when the greatest hits compilation gets overplayed. Bob Marley is the opposite; if anything, his less known material can outshine his hits.