David Bowie may have been struck by inspiration watching his Middle Eastern neighbors in his Berlin neighborhood, but he really didn’t need to look as far as Arabia to find double lives and secrets. He was living in Berlin! If any city is haunted by generations of secret-keepers… Bowie certainly found the culture of the place to be simpatico to his own state of psychological unrest. The music he made there reflects states of manic energy, episodes of paranoia and depression, shards of hope and romantic longing, and, as always, diverse call-points of underground art and Hollywood fantasy. “Heroes” is a weird and bleak record in a lot of ways, but its highs balance out the koto instrumentals and fog horn-like saxophone solos, and it manages to go out on an almost humorous up note. It was escapist, and right, to evoke a Hollywood fantasy of mystery-shrouded Arabia, after a relentless journey through the secret life of West Berlin.
Bryan Ferry is hardly a blues singer in any conventional sense. He is, by most standards, barely inhabiting the same universe. But Ferry pushes the emotion buttons for a very specific audience: continental white people too effete and art-damaged to admit that they still have emotional functions at all aka me. I can’t really relate to real blues music – it’s too real! But I can relate to a man who wears a tie with a leather suit jacket. Nobody is pretending this is actually a blues song. It’s a ‘mope and smoke on the balcony gazing out to sea’ song, which is a very particular feeling to evoke.
If nothing else, it’s appropriate that the first song of the new year begins with the sound of a door creaking open. I’ve always that sound – it’s so full of promise. Other than that, there’s not much here that’s relevant to where we are now. Except, I guess, that Bryan Ferry provides some much needed grace and style, which are things we can only pray for in our lives.
Although we’re still a few weeks away from our winter solstice, I’d say it’s very much in the spirit of the season. Call it a holiday song, one of the few you’ll ever get from me. There’s nothing more I love than good, clean English pastoralia. From Tudor architecture to The Wind in the Willows to Hobbiton to high tea and hot cross buns. And, of course, the stylings of Jethro Tull, who took folk revivalism and took it into unforeseen territory. Although Ian Anderson’s crazed court jester persona and odd taste in pants has tainted the band with a reputation for silliness, I for one take my J-Tull very seriously. For one thing, they’re firmly in the classic tradition of eccentric fuzzy Englishness, right alongside Miss Marple, Mole and Ratty, and Basil Fawlty. Anderson’s songwriting, along with all his posturing, is a nod to popular literary tropes as much as a musical persona per se. There’s a fine line between self-serious silliness and the self-aware kind, and one can’t expect one’s searing indictments of the Anglican Church to be taken without a grain of salt when one is wearing an embroidered codpiece. Ahem. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by a sincerely affectionate – and sincerely silly – ode to uncool age-old folk traditions like the celebration of the solstice. The English folk revival was part of a young generation’s search for a politically safe cultural heritage, the same thirst for a clean sense of identity that inspires Bavarians to go about their day in full Heidi regalia. It’s a love for all things homey and twee and unhip and reminiscent of grandmother. That’s not exactly what rock star dreams are made of; but Jethro Tull proved that you can be all about all of those things and turn it into a stage persona. That alone is a legacy-making achievement.
Ah, the song that taught us all how to say Je me lance vers la gloire…OK. Personally, I love both songs with incongruous lines of foreign language and songs about killing people, so this is just two of my favorite things together right here. Plus all of the other obvious glories of Talking Heads. I find it interesting that this song has been knocking around, in various iterations, since Byrne and co’s art school days; because when you’re a group of art school students trying to start a band, you would obviously bypass all the usual dumb shit about love and humping that less intellectual mortals fill their little notebooks with (and what good are notebooks!) No, you drop the training wheels and head straight for the big-kids’ stuff, and you write a song from the perspective of a frustrated serial killer and you write the chorus in French. And of course that song becomes your breakout hit and one of your most famous tunes and your tetchy neurotic smart-guy persona is in place for life.
First of all, maybe not everyone knows that pibroch refers to bagpipe music. Fair enough, most people outside the Scottish highlands don’t care much for bagpipe music. There is not, however, any actual bagpipes in this song. There is flute, organ and an electric guitar boldly simulating a pipey sound. What J-Tull was getting at with song is not so much the sound of the bagpipes but the traditional structure of bagpipe music, which is actually jazzlike in its use of creative variation of a melodic theme. The question was, could a very ancient folk music tradition be transposed into a form that fits on a rock and roll album? That’s a question that Jethro Tull have consistently asked throughout their career, and the answer has consistently been ‘yes’. Yes, folk music can most certainly be updated; the highland pipes can give way to electric guitar solos, while harps and flutes can play to a rhythm stolen from the blues. The language of folk tradition fuses with the language of rock’n’roll, proving yet again, that music exists in a multi-dimensional continuum that feeds constantly upon itself.
I think that Steely Dan rewards musical connoisseurship of a level I’m not on as a nonmusician. The notorious perfectionism of Becker and Fagen, their insistence on the highest virtuosity, those things are the stuff of legend to audiophiles. The complexity of their songs speak to people who understand the science of music. For the rest of us, it’s soft rock. It’s a bizarre miracle that such a music-nerd oriented band became a hit machine, then ended up a staple of oldies stations. Hearing Steely Dan on the radio, sandwiched between Steve Miller and Aerosmith, well, what’s that they say about pearls before swine? It’s like chugging a fifteen-ingredient fifteen dollar cocktail just to get drunk.