Peter Tosh is kind of a forgotten giant. He was founding member of The Wailers and recorded some classic albums as a solo artist, but he hasn’t been able to promote himself and grow his legacy on account of being dead. Now, Bob Marley is dead too, but apparently his heirs and offspring are thorsty and business savvy above and beyond most people’s capabilities. I don’t see whoever’s in charge of Tosh’s estate trying to plaster his face on a line of vanity bongs. I suspect, though, that Tosh would have found that sort of aggressive profiteering very vulgar and antithetical to his philosophy. It’s better to be well known to a few for the power of your message than vaguely known to the masses for nothing more than the image of your face.
“I was kind of making fun of Arista Records” who had “asked for a mid-tempo ballad with a saxophone…They wanted a song that could be played on the radio, [so] very tongue-in-cheek I wrote…’Song on the Radio’. I thought they’d [get that] I was actually joking, but of course they didn’t & …put it out as a single [which] made the Top 30, [so] the joke was on me because I screwed up a preposition” – referring to the opening lines “I was making my way through the wasteland/ The road into town passes through” which ends with a preposition – “Worse, I used the same word [through] twice in the same sentence.” – Al Stewart
This is why I love Al Stewart so damn much. He has a hit single and he’s embarrassed that he made a grammatical mistake. Never mind that most hit singles are just a series of words that barely hang together. Al Stewart’s songs have to be able to double as an academic submission. Stewart proves that even when being ironic, he actually does know how to write a radio-friendly hit song: lead strong with a sax solo, declare the depth and passion of your love, don’t mention Hitler.
It’s Bruce Springsteen being Bruce Springsteen and not much has changed from 1978. The 70’s weren’t great economically, I’ve heard, and not particularly stable politically. It was an angst-filled decade, especially in its final years, and it inspired a variety of cultural reactions. From the escapism of disco to the rage of punk, pop culture reflected a lot of common dissatisfaction. It was great inspiration for a writer like Springsteen, who noticed that, overall, Americans were not leading great lives. Americans may have enjoyed a few years of booming postwar prosperity and a collective spirit of optimism, but that had all burned itself out by the end of the 70’s, and although there have been periods of progress, peace and prosperity since that time, we’ve continued to see increasing economic disparity, political strife and general feelings of hopelessness. Which is, again, great news for people whose life’s work is writing sad songs about the bleakness of the heartland. It’s kept Bruce Springsteen relevant to a degree nobody could have predicted when he was just another earnest singer-songwriter in a newsboy hat.
“Because we couldn’t remember their bloody names” Keith Richards famously joked about the title of the record, and if the double-down of sordid groupie cliches in the lyrics felt somewhat like a desperate attempt by the Stones to be demonized as rock’s worst bad boys once again, well, it worked. They pissed off the women and they pissed off Jesse Jackson. Then they pulled the old “but it’s satire!” card. In 1978, apparently, you could still confidently claim that the freedom to be racist and sexist – purely as an artistic statement, of course – was an act of sticking-it-to-the-man nonconformity. You can’t take that position anymore, of course, but the mindset persisted right up until, oh, about yesterday, it feels like. It’s exhausting, and not necessarily helpful, to go on debating whether or not some piece of art is qualified satire, a cry for attention, or the unexamined product of a sick mind. I would say that if anything, it’s a work of cultural anthropology by somebody who’s done their due diligence and their research, plowing women from all walks of life all over the world. If Mick Jagger says that black girls just wanna get fucked all night, he would know.
“This song is about reincarnation, but most people think it’s about cosmetic surgery” says Lena Lovich. That’s a big leap in meaning and philosophy, but I can see how most people take words at face value. It’s nice to see Lovitch still up there doing it, shaking her crazy old lady bones. She doesn’t seem like one to espouse cosmetic correction of any kind. She seems like more the kind to tell everyone to let their freak flag fly. Weirdo types like Lena Lovich really blossom with age, don’t they? Especially women, who delight in outliving expectations of prettiness and acceptable behavior. It’s admirable to see the creativity of old ladies who’ve embraced the role of the crazy spinster aunt or witch in the hut in the woods. It’s so much less of a battle after you’re through being young and attractive.
Come for Bryan Ferry’s gleaming hair, stay for the Marcel Duchamp references. With Ferry, you really get the best of both worlds. High fashion sophistication, obviously, Ferry being the world famous dandy and bon vivant that he is. But moody posing would just be moody posing without intellectual ambition, and Ferry, having been both an art student and a teacher, knows his reference points. He draws his poses from old Hollywood and beyond that, from the greats of literature and art. Which makes him the ideal package, a man who dresses better than you do and has also read more books. In short, he’s probably an insufferable prig, but you want him anyway.
If I didn’t know Lou Reed any better, I’d think that this was one of those fist-pumping inspirational songs about being, you know, a shooting star. I also can’t help but notice a mild similarity to Bad Company’s song Shooting Star, which had been a hit a few years previously. That song was supposed to be a warning to people who make bad life choices, but it was unmistakably fist-pumpy. It’s still all over the radio to this day, so I’m absolutely assured that Lou Reed would have heard it at some point, and if I know Lou, he probably had something caustic to say about it. The sarcasm in his voice as he sings the words “you’re just a shooting star” makes me dead certain that he absolutely was mocking Bad Company, not just coincidentally alighting on the same corny metaphor. I mean, have you ever heard Lou Reed resort to a corny metaphor about the brilliant transience of life? If he was going to make a metaphorical point about how life is short and beautiful even as it is tragic, he would probably liken it to something that comes in a needle, or a transactionary sexual encounter, or something else urban and nasty. Anyway, Lou is a blunt guy who isn’t generally given to flighty metaphors anyway. But he isn’t above making fun of b-list rock bands with heart-swelling big hits. I can’t believe nobody has talked about this.