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.
I have no way of knowing, of course, if Bryan Ferry wrote this one for Jerry Hall, but I’d like to think so. If anyone makes me intrigued by the idea of romances and broken hearts, Ferry does, and if anyone makes for a muse too elevated in glamour for this world, it’s Jerry Hall. I’m not entirely immune to the tragic love story, you know, especially if by ‘tragic’ you mean being made cuckold by Mick Jagger. Most devastating thing that could happen to a man of such wealth and taste. A possible step down for Jerry, from being Bryan Ferry’s great muse to being Mick Jagger’s third or fourth best one. (As if the idea of musedom were anything but a male-gaze fantasy anyway!) Anyway, I’m way too invested in decades-old rock star romances, and I like to say that I’m fascinated by the intersection of love and creativity, but it may just be prurience.
I find this very campy somehow. Maybe because Bolan is singing in a slightly lower register than usual and sounds very mannered. It sounds like he might be making fun of serious singers who sing about pain and love. Or he could be trying to take a more serious tone. But it’s hard to tell; Marc Bolan was, despite his penchant for glitter, not actually a very campy person. He was kind of an earnest guy; he had a lot of ego and he took his own greatness quite seriously. It’s very hard to tell if he ever realized how silly he was. Which is odd, because he often cut a pretty ridiculous figure and, God bless him, his lyrical oeuvre resembles the doodling of a nerdy 8th grader. In fact, it’s part of Bolan’s charm that he pulled it all off with the absolute conviction of someone who saw himself as an icon.
Positive vibin’ songs like this are the foundation of Bob Marley’s popularity. From a very simple song can be drawn a universal happy message about love and inclusivity. That’s a hard message to argue with, yet it’s only one side of Marley’s writing, and it’s disappointing that it’s the only part of his message that most people ever really hear. Marley had a lot to say about love, and he was, of course, all for it, and people respond to that in droves. Hearing what he had to say about suffering and injustice is a bit less of a mellow groove. Perhaps if Bob Marley was still alive he would object to being made a toothless and sanitized icon of peace and love. Or perhaps he’d be happy enough to take the money and keep the good vibes coming. The process of lionization started when he was still alive, and snowballed hard after his death. Observe the posthumous music video that shows a dreadlocked young boy exploring a diverse London and watching happy people dancing on television. You’ll notice that a prominent number of the happy dancing people are white, and that many are celebrities, including Paul McCartney. This is a testament to Reggae’s universal appeal, but it’s also an example of the whitewashing of Bob Marley’s legacy. It’s the most simplistic interpretation of his words, an erasure of the real issues he cared about. There’s nothing political here; nothing that would make white record buyers uncomfortable; nothing to remind them that the multicultural society they’re enjoying was fought for with blood and violence; no reminder that in the long (ever ongoing) battle for equal rights and justice, they’ve mostly been on the wrong side. Reggae music is a potently political art form, a deeply spiritual one, and inescapably topical; it speaks about the Rastafarian experience, the Black experience, the identity of people descended from slaves, people whose lives have been affected by poverty and institutionalized injustice, people who have built a unique and vibrant culture in spite of everything the white world set against them, people who want to be respected and treated with dignity by the rest of the world. It was never meant to make middle-class Paul McCartney fans feel warm and fuzzy or reinforce their naive platitudes. Love is not all you need to solve all of your problems and peace is not going to magically occur if you just give it a chance to. One love is not a given reality to be taken for granted; it’s a hard won reward that comes from terrific sacrifice.
One from the Ferry vault. It may be obscure to you, but it’s an essential. Bryan Ferry’s mid 70’s solo albums don’t get much credit, but they are all awesome. They sound a lot like mid 70’s Roxy Music. Weird, funky, campy, clever, hard to define. As per usual, Ferry sings about unrequited desire a lot. He’s not the first person to make that his great theme, but he does so better than most. In this case, there’s less the scent of English garden romantic gentility and more the seedy barfly side. As evidenced by the singer wearing a plain white T (!) on the sleeve. He certainly looks like he’s crept into a downscale disco on the bad side of town to find a nice commoner to share his cocaine bender. And you know that afterwards he’s going to send her home in a taxi with a little something extra for the road. Yeah, Ferry really lends himself to those kinds of fantasies.
It will shine and it will shudder as I guide it with my rudder.
It being, I want to imagine, the boat you’re sailing down the Nile in. Perhaps I dreamed it, but I have a memory of seeing a film that was nothing but the banks of the Nile and the water gliding by, shot from a small craft and accompanied by Brian Eno music. It was not heavy on action, but hypnotic in its monotony. Visual ambiance, to go with Eno’s ambient music experiments. So the boat shines and shudders down the Nile, and the boat is a metaphor for your flimsy mortal carapace that you rudder down the river of life, with only a slight illusion of control, and a radio to keep you company, though you know that no one is out there to hear your SOS.