Author Archives: Pete Blum
Check out Jon Michaud’s look back at The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway:
“My argument was that there aren’t many novels which are written by a committee.”
–Peter Gabriel (from Hugh Fielder’s The Book of Genesis, quoted by The Annotated Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)
Novel? Suggesting the new? Suggesting a sort of SERIOUS STORY (the unavoidable uppercase insinuating itself into any thought of that suggestion)? Sure, it’s like a novel. We’re used to calling it a “concept album” too, as if most albums are somehow without (bereft of) a concept. Both novels and concept albums had significant histories behind them in 1974, when The Lamb was loosed. One might say that they were “old hat,” though there are always folks around interested in wearing old hats, tilting them at what they take to be new angles, or perhaps sticking new feathers in them and calling them “Mac” or “Tony.”
It’s like a novel, like a concept album, like a sharp bend between genres. Taken to the stage on its infamous tour, it’s like a multimedia circus (remembering that some adore a circus, others think a circus puerile, and still others are just deathly afraid of the clowns). It’s like a Gesamtkunstwerk, in a Wagnerian idiom of “express to excess.”
So just what the hell is it? Or give that question a nastier edge with the “F-WORD,” implying a deep skepticism regarding whether it is, in any sense, FORWARD.
But does it have to be? Must it be? Muss es sein?
These gestures of “criticism,” this architectural dance — whether printed or blogged or just traded with intense sincerity on the floor of one’s room, between the speakers — has so often turned into a flippant flame, fueled by the expectation that whatever it is, it must be something novel.
I’ve recently been watching the TV-series, Castle, the one about the rich crime writer who teams up with the hot detective, and much murder and dark hilarity ensue. Novels are the business of the title character, but they are clearly the kind of novels that are not really meant to be particularly novel, at least not in the sense that they might eventually be discussed with great solemnity in future seminar courses in departments of English Literature. (Yet who can predict?) I love the program, not because it brings me something new, but because it does something that is NOT new, that is familiar, friendly, and it does it (in my estimation, at least, and perhaps sometimes more than others) exceptionally well. It constantly and deliberately teeters on the edge of the cheesy, embracing formulaic characters and dialogue with breathtaking abandon, concentrating not on breaking any molds but on filling and caressing every part of the mold, lovingly filling the mold and affirming its shape and texture. (And the frequent humorous references to Nathan Fillion’s earlier role in Firefly are a lot of fun.)
I don’t watch Castle with the same expectations that I bring to the BBC’s more edgy and exploratory Sherlock. Hopefully you get the picture.
So what does this have to do with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? No, no, don’t hurry me. The answer is not necessarily “everything.” It should be clear, however, that the answer is also a significant distance away from “nothing.”
It dawns upon me slowly, as I am writing this, that my impetus here is a polarity, a bidirectional field of force between a pole that is supposed to be new, innovative, groundbreaking, trendsetting, cutting edge, so-cool-only-hipsters-know-about-it on the one hand, and a pole that is content with breathing as much life as it can into something old, something “stock,” something cliché.
Having followed associations along an idiosyncratic path in the manner of the Freudian dream analyst, I arrive at the final word of the last paragraph, ‘cliché,’ and finally lay a hesitant hold on what I’d like to offer you in this Look at The Lamb. I’m reminded of Todd Rundgren’s song, “Cliché” (from the album, Faithful ). It exudes Rundgren’s trademark pop relational agonizing, and captures a certain heartfelt gesture of negation at the banality of the familiar, of the expected. ”Who makes up the rules for the world?” ”I vivisect and then pretend to know.”
So here’s my recommendation this time: Listen to that Rundgren song, and feel the painful, frustrated resignation in Todd’s inimitable voice.
Done that? OK, now go back to The Lamb. Listen and resign.
What the hell is it?
It is the jigsaw. it is purple haze.
It never stays in one place, but it’s not a passing phase,
It is in the singles bar, in the distance of the face
It is in between the cages, it is always in a space
It is here. it is now…
It is real. It is Rael.
Resign and allow it to be between the cages, always in space, not fixed at a pole but perpetually spinning between.
If it seems like a cliché, let it be so and listen for the loving caress. If it seems novel, let it be so and watch for “the big reveal.” But most of all, if it seems to be neither, please please just let it be so.
One of the best-known songs on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway seems to have more than one name. I’ve always thought of it as “The Carpet Crawlers,” but it has, on various packaging, been identified as “Carpet Crawlers” (no “The”), “The Carpet Crawl,” and “Carpet Crawl” (again, no “The”). Sometimes the referent is the crawlers, sometimes the crawl itself. And what happens when there is crawl or crawler, but no definite article?
The crawlers sing, “We’ve got to get in to get out.” That chamber at the top of the stairs (Is Doktor Freud still in the house? He considers in his writings how often stairs are associated with intercourse) is the “in” from which there is surely a way out. Up the stairs, into the chamber, and OUT. Near the end of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, Roland ascends the stairs, gets in, and gets out. Semi-spoiler alert! But it’s profoundly important that I’ve not said to what, or to where, or to when. It spoils nothing, for it reveals not the spoils.
Why crawling? A sexual posture? Having just Counted Out Time, cuddling the porcupine, the sad ending of the previous tune makes it a bit surprising that we are still headed along a carpet into a red ochre corridor. But Rael is not a crawler. Perhaps he could not have seen and understood the crawlers as he did, had he been one of them himself.
There’s something about the very notions, the very words, ‘in’ and ‘out.’ Something about the way in which they are places, but they are places neither “in particular,” nor “in general.” They require each other so that the “in,” no matter where it actually is, must be the “in” of its own “out.” That’s what makes the crawlers’ logic seem unassailable. Given that this IS an “in,” there must be an “out,” AND there must be a way. Corridors and staircases are ways.
But here is the rub (mankind handkinds): All of this is unassailable only if this IS an “in.”
IN the cage. Back IN New York City. ”…[A]s the notes and coins are taken out, I’m taken IN…” ”You’re IN the Colony of Slippermen.” And like a woof to the warp of “in” are the “outs.” There are many (look for yourself). But does it somehow hinge on this strange locus called “in”?
It’s never clear, at any point in our story, that Rael moves — unambiguously passes — from an “in” to an “out.” Always the suggestion of a way out (“to get out if you’ve got the gripe…”), but never is there an “out” that shows its whole face, thus proving the existence of “in.”
Out! Out, damned “In”!
There must be some kinda way out of here, if here is an “in.”
But I’m thinking about that Tat Tvam Asi sort of ending, and wondering if we’re supposed to wonder, to wonder as we wander: Is there really any “in” in here?
Perhaps we’ve gotta get in to get out. Perhaps “in” is something that we don’t usually get, and The Lamb is trying to point this…
Since being invited onboard as a progarchist, I’ve come more fully to terms with my clear status as an old-timer. I’m especially aware of this at year-end, when everyone feels the impulse to produce a “best of the year” list of some kind. When it comes to music, I’ve never been a good multi-tasker; when I listen to music, I’d rather not be doing anything else at the same time. That puts some pretty serious constraint upon the time I can devote to listening, unlike a number of my prolific friends. Then there’s the fact that “prog,” as much as I adore its early history and gladly greet its ongoing vivacity, is far from the only genre vying for my ear-time. Even the wide-net application of “prog” applied by our great Proghalla leader, Oleg Birzer, doesn’t help me very much.
Don’t miss Big Big Train’s English Electric discs, The Fierce and the Dead’s Spooky Action, and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep. Beyond that, if you need guidance on 2013, pay attention to the other distinguished progarchists. I’ll be the one still mostly stuck in the 1970′s.
So, to continue the tradition that I inaugurated last year, I’ve done a thorough and grueling ten minutes’ worth of review via Wikipedia (they could use a donation if you use them and can spare anything, by the way). I give you this brief reminder of what was going on in the general vicinity of what was defined as “progressive” four decades ago.
1973: London faces bombings by the IRA, along with the first death attributed to arsonist Peter Dinsdale. In the United States, Richard Nixon begins his second term, the televised Watergate hearings begin, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam officially ends. The Supreme Court decides on Roe vs. Wade, and the World Trade Center (New York) and Sears Tower (Chicago) both open. George Foreman defeats Joe Frazier, and Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs.
In music, The King Biscuit Flower Hour, The Midnight Special, and Don Krishner’s Rock Concert all begin airing. The stature of the Beatles is manifest in Capitol’s release of the Red and Blue compilation albums. Bruce Springsteen begins making his mark with not one, but two albums. Paul Simon continues to enjoy solo success with There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Led Zeppelin breaks the Beatles’ previous record for concert attendance in Tampa, also recording/filming their Madison Square Garden shows, which will be released in 1976 as The Song Remains the Same. Elvis Presley’s concert in Hawaii is the first worldwide entertainment telecast to be viewed by more people than had seen the moon landings. Late in the year, vinyl shortages due to the oil crisis lead to delays of and limits on new album releases. My selection of highlights here is subject to all sorts of personal bias, of course, but you can search online yourself for more complete lists of events, people, and other memories if you’d like.
Of greatest interest to our readers, presumably, will be the following list (not necessarily complete!) of prog and “prog-related” (by my arbitrary definition) albums released in 1973. The first five are MY top five favorites from that year (as of today; such things may vary). After that, they are listed in no particular order.
- King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
- Todd Rundgren, A Wizard, A True Star
- Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
- Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (one of the best-selling and most widely recognized albums in popular music, remaining on the charts from 1973 until 1988! )
- Camel, Camel
- Electric Light Orchestra, ELO 2 AND On the Third Day
- Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure AND Stranded
- Hawkwind, Space Ritual
- Yes, Yessongs AND Tales from Topographic Oceans
- Gong, Flying Teapot
- Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
- Genesis, Genesis Live AND Selling England by the Pound
- Flash, Out of Our Hands
- Can, Future Days
- Gentle Giant, In a Glass House
- Renaissance, Ashes are Burning
- Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, (No Pussyfooting)
- Mahavishnu Orchestra, Birds of Fire AND Between Nothingness and Eternity
- Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin, Love Devotion Surrender
My recommendation for today’s nostalgia hit: Listen again to Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and keep reminding yourself what year it was released.
If I could only point at something immovable,
Point or gesture, with complete accuracy
Accuracy dependent on no general context
Dependent on no central metaphors
Like Lamb or Broadway or Knock and Know-All
It shouldn’t even be “I” who points, but only
A pointing, only a line of force gone out
From no particular finger, to a meaning that
Hangs there nowhere, above nothing, nothing
Providing anchor or hook for hanging, as if
Hanging were no death sentence at all, but
A gesture that no one could misinterpret
Or no one even there to interpret, why not
The thing itself, ripped from Wallace Stevens’ verse
Presented without these images caked with mud
With blood, with sinews of significance that hang
Together so stubbornly, despite my rage for clear
And distinct seeing that is not seeing by any eye
If meaning could hang in midair, simply meaning
(without division like that, as noun and verb)
Then Rael would never have had to die, the lamb
Would never have had to lie, the meaning
(Whatever that “thing” might be) would freely float
The pointing only being at itself, and to itself
The interruptions are what I notice today, the songs
That elsewhere sing, but jut out into the Lamb’s domain
With lights that are always bright, or clouds that
Wander lonely as a single word, or the man
Who can’t be a man if he doesn’t smoke Winstons
Knocking and knowing as if it were rocking and rolling
Referrals that leap across chasms of signifying space
With nothing on Evel Knieval aside from invisible
Rocket-powered turbo-booster fuel-injected nothings
Pushing meanings that need no push, that cannot move
At all, because context isn’t needed after all
Pointing, meaning, indicating, showing, having in mind
They all require difference, don’t they? Distinction or
Maybe “long division,” that phrase that scared us silly
As schoolkids, when we first were learning that truth
Instead of sitting nowhere, somehow requires our work
Requires a toil, a test, an effort extended into a quest
A narrative form with suffering and death and noise
And uncomfortable silence too at times. Difference.
John and Rael are like that, have you noticed?
Difference, sameness, difference, oscillation of identity
Seeming in the seventies nearly trite or formulaic
With all that Eastern stuff, that Cozmik Debris said Frank
Dessert must be Eastern though Supper was Christian
The difference like John vs. Rael is the gesture
The pointing that signifies only from symbolic friction
From images bumping and grinding and sparking
Only with violence meaning what they mean
Ravine and rapids, a rip in the world as text, as story
Cage and cave, an eddy in a semiotic flux and flow
Windshield on freeway, an apocalyptic anticlimax
Freudian Slippers slimy with ambiguous tension
Can’t the said here simply be said, a saying
Accomplished, enthroned, entombed, embalmed
And mounted on an appropriate plaque to hang
(Again with the hanging?) upon a museum wall
But no, there’d still be seers, trooping by on tours
Not the fixed, denoted gesture minus pesky context
If Rael is a gesture, if Rael’s story is a gesture
If every word about Rael is a gesture the whole
Damned thing is a gesture and nods the direction
It wants understanding to go from its context
Not from a hardbound volume or notarized script
If The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’s a text
It only succeeds as a text within a larger text
The texts get larger, but never cease being texts
Rael dies, and loves, and suffers, and cries for
The brother that all of us long to find the same
But is stubbornly endlessly infinitely Other
Listen to the otherness there in The Lamb that is
Really no otherness at all but the same cursed
Otherness always required for anything anywhere
Anytime at all to have a meaning. For whom?
For anyone other than The Lamb who would listen
Though listening makes the difference dissolve
And mean, and point, and gesture at something
That we wouldn’t have without Rael and John
And have it we can, though the having is never
A having and holding for death does its part
Listen in context, be taken from context, and shown
Within context that context is always required
And we never break out from context to meaning
But never is context all there is. Never.
At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, on the 28th of May in 1913, there was what many have characterized as a near-riot. The hostile and even violent reactions from the audience in the theater were in response to the premier of what was presented as a piece of music, but was perceived by quite a few in attendance as noise. That it was presented as music was, in the estimation of a significant number of witnesses at the time, a joke at best, and completely tasteless and deeply offensive at worst.
The alleged music was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The level to which the unrest of the crowd grew at the time was surely due, in part, to the fact that some members of the audience greeted the premier of the piece with great enthusiasm, responding with delight at its transgression of conventional musical standards of the time. A joke is one thing, but the possibility of an obscene offense both intended seriously and taken as such by apparently demented listeners is quite another thing.
I’ve often played the first parts of the ballet’s music for students, asking those who don’t already know what it is whether they think there’s anything particularly strange or disturbing about it. Nowadays, they find it beautiful at best, or simply boring at worst.
In 1975, I was 16 years old, and not yet familiar with the story of the premier of The Rite of Spring. I was generally aware of the work’s existence, and had at least heard it once, mostly because I had heard that Stravinsky was an important influence on some prog artists (at the time, especially on Yes). But by that year, I was listening to WMMS out of Cleveland, Ohio (when we could pull it in; I was far enough away that reception varied a lot). I remember one of the DJ’s announcing that the station had just received Lou Reed’s latest album, Metal Machine Music. (The DJ may have been Denny Sanders, but I’m not sure; it could have been Kid Leo. I’d bet there’s someone else out there who heard it who remembers.)
The DJ, obviously deeply excited by what he was sharing, was lionizing Reed as a rock hero for having released MMM on the heels of a series of albums that had been (albeit to somewhat varying degrees) commercially successful. He then played an excerpt from the album. I don’t remember how long he let it play, but I don’t think it could have been more than about a minute. Fading out the brief sampling, he returned to explain, with near-adoration, that this was a DOUBLE ALBUM and that it was ALL LIKE THIS!!
I knew who Lou Reed was, and had heard some of his music, including especially the Transformer and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal albums. Though I had not actually listened to any of the original Velvet Underground recordings yet, I was aware that they had, by the mid 70′s, already attained a sort of mythic status.
It was clear to me at the time that the primary reason why the WMMS DJ was so deeply enthused was because he understood Reed’s new album to be a gigantic “F$@# YOU” gesture at his own commercial success, and an indication that he was not interested in “selling out.” What I also remember from that first exposure to MMM is how much I liked — actually really LIKED — what the DJ had played. I liked it AS MUSIC, while also fully realizing that what most delighted the DJ was the fact that most people would NOT recognize it as music at all (to say nothing of recognizing it as good music).
I didn’t buy the album at first (due more to priority-setting than anything else), but I don’t think that year was gone before I borrowed it from someone. Now, here I will make a claim that some may doubt. My memory can be wildly inaccurate at times. But I do remember listening through the entire album, which is a little more than an hour in length. Even if this memory is inaccurate, there have been at least two occasions since 1975 when I know for sure that I sat down and deliberately listened to the entire album. (To my own copy, by then.)
By the time of my second complete listen (or if you’re skeptical, my first remembered-with-certainty complete listen), Which I believe may have been in about 1979 (it seems to me that it was earlier in the same year as Pink Floyd’s The Wall), I had become familiar with the events of 1913, associated with the premier of The Rite of Spring. Ever since the first moment I knew of the latter story, it has been connected in my musical psyche with Metal Machine Music.
Lou Reed, who left us just a few days ago, was a shadowy and uneven presence during my teen years. It was not until I was well into my 40′s that I actually became interested enough in Reed generally to go back and listen carefully to his entire catalog, including all of the available VU recordings. My appreciation for him became profound and deep relatively late. It is sufficiently profound and deep that I cannot forgo an opportunity to pay him tribute. But as I’ve thought in the last few days about how to do so, what I am most clearly drawn back to is the effervescence that washed over me when I first heard Metal Machine Music. The music that I most favored in those days was prog, though I was also enjoying a fair amount of what I was hearing from the Home of the Buzzard. I knew that there were at least some indirect connections between Reed and prog, especially by way of Bowie and “glam.” (Did you know that Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman are both credited on Reed’s first solo album?)
I now see that there is something very significant about this prog connection, in relation to how I experienced MMM. The element of boundary-transgression, the “go to hell” attitude toward attempts to place it outside the boundaries of music (political, like so many contested boundaries), the positive reactions rooted in bohemian delight of transgression more than real appreciation for artistic value. These elements have found numerous routes, more or less paved by now, into what gets called “prog.” But what I come back to here more than anything else is the fact that I really LIKE this album, as transgression, yes, but also AS MUSIC. It prepared me to take seriously some of the more extreme offerings by John Cage, the early minimalists (remember Steve Reich’s early tape-loop works?), and Alvin Lucier. It stood side-by-side with work by Frank Zappa in opening my ears to a cornucopia of musical expression, all of it following Charles Ives’ advice not to expect sounds that are “pretty.” (Reed’s well-known antipathy toward Zappa, by the way, is one of the things about him that I find difficult to forgive.)
For pushing me along toward this opening, I owe thanks to Lou Reed that could never be contained in a blog post. I owe it to him to keep telling people how much I like MMM, as well as how much I came to appreciate and admire ALL of his output in recent years. I owe it to him to recommend to you that you listen to Metal Machine Music, all the way through. You may not be able to do it. You may continue to think that both it and my recommendation remain no more than a joke. Whatever.
But you may be surprised. And if a few of you are, THAT is much closer to the homage that I want to offer to Lou Reed.
So, here is the eagerly-awaited new release from The Fierce and the Dead, their first on Bad Elephant Music, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate title. Whatever else might be meant by the title, the music that you’ll find here is quite rightly described as “spooky action.”
Those who were paying attention probably caught the effusive note that I wrote for Progarchy back in May, just after I had really discovered TFATD. I was ushered into this sound-world from the antechamber of guitarist Matt Stevens’ solo recordings (apparently, just as Matt himself fell into TFATD). Do you remember that scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door from the spooky (artfully unsettling) black-and-white Kansas landscape onto the spooky (attractive, but even more unsettling?) color landscape of Oz? That first experience was, for me, that powerful, that attractive, and that blissfully unsettling.
Does Spooky Action live up to the expectation set by its predecessors? No. ”Live up to” is (if I may resort to somewhat technical language here) totally lame. What we have in the music of TFATD, and what shines as brightly as we might have hoped on this new set, is the spooky action that is music-making. Not just writing songs and playing them. Not just outstanding playing (though it certainly is that too). The music that these guys make is a sort of alchemy, transforming sonic base metals into gold. Gold, that is, of the sort that gives in just the right way when you give it a trial bite.
Naturally, a number of earlier influences make themselves known in these tracks. As with earlier TFATD, I hear the sort of minimalist spirit that made its way so strikingly from Steve Reich into the early XTC. I hear the grungy (not grunge, but grungy) soil-like qualities of early 1970′s King Crimson. I hear collages of textured audio drawn from some of the same esoteric tomes consulted earlier by Sonic Youth. But what makes the musical action here so spooky is the alchemical feel, the je ne sais quoi that makes the sounds you are hearing music in the deepest and richest sense. Rhythmic complexity doesn’t come across here as contrived, as “lookie what we can do that isn’t 4/4,” but as a breathless invitation to join the band in an invigorating dip into a pool of ecstatic expression. The making of music should be a spooky action, and here it is so.
Do any of the tracks on Spooky Action have weaknesses? Limitations? Faults? I bet I could find some if I keep listening. But some music gives up its weaknesses early on, and having listened to Spooky Action twice now, it gives with an open, immediate generosity and profundity that outshines about everything new that I’ve heard lately, except perhaps the very different but equally enthralling sounds of Big Big Train. If the first listens are considered as a surface, at which I splash tentatively, gently lowering my face into the liquid warmth, then I see no immediate evidence that it has a bottom. There’s no measure for its depth available to the naked ear.
Having some familiarity with prior work by TFATD and by Matt Stevens, I suspect that one of the main ingredients in its depth is an overt avoidance of excess gravity. (Hmm. Can an avoidance be overt? I think it is here.) This is music that reaches the depth and richness it reaches precisely because it does not take itself too seriously. These guys are having fun, and that’s one of the keys to their achievement of a nearly perfect level of seriousness. The shortness of the tracks (especially by prog standards) enhances the intensity of the fun but fierce and deadly seriousness.
At a time when a fair amount of good music is being released at a fairly steady rate, The Fierce and the Dead have already made recordings that stand out, and by my initial listenings, Spooky Action is no disappointment. Matt Stevens, Kevin Feazey, Steve Cleaton and Stuart Marshall are an amazing unit.
Listen to it! And in case you haven’t seen it yet, here again is their delightful video for “Ark”:
My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
Descartes, widely touted as the father of modern philosophy, taught us to think that what we are most certain about, what we grasp most confidently and most tightly, is “in here.” I know that I exist if I am thinking, he said, and this implies that I am a thinking thing regardless of what is “out there.” It’s a picture that has been rejected by most recent philosophers, but it still casts its long shadow over Western culture. It’s the picture that makes both The Matrix and Inception compelling. I am my mind, and my mind is an inside that knows no outside, what Leibniz called a “monad.” Even if I have a body, the body is outside, like a cage that imprisons me, from which I might hope to be set free in an afterlife.
Whatever life (in any strong sense) that I have, I have “in here.” ”I’ve got sunshine in my stomach. But I can’t keep me from creeping sleep.” And worst of all, I might be truly alone. Others are outside too. Outside the cage, Rael sees his brother John (a name meaning “graced by God”). It’s a cage not only because I am kept in, but also because others are seemingly kept out.
If my body is the cage, then it is so, so tempting to think that the “windscreen wiper,” the dick that the doc docks, might be some sort of key, but when it disappears into the ravine, isn’t it still radically unclear whether anything is really unlocked?
Bruce Cockburn reminds us that a cage is something that an animal might pace, that we catch ourselves “pacing the cage.” And the cage in that context implies darkness, too:
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
The cage is dark like a cave. Rael’s cage, congealing after the cuckoo cocoon, is in fact a cave. Here it’s difficult to avoid thinking of Plato’s cave, where prisoners are chained, watching shadows of reproductions of supposedly real things. And the real things are outside. Cages are joined together in a network, yes. But John sheds a bloody tear and turns away from Rael’s cries for help.
When the cage dissolves, it’s still the body (another cage?) that revolves.
Palpating the texture of Rael’s story at this point, we find cages within cages. But are any of them really cages? They come and go (perhaps dreaming of Michelangelo?).
If I could change to liquid,
I could fill the cracks up in the rocks.
I know that I am solid
And I am my own bad luck.
Is it just too simple, too freaking trite, to suggest that we forge all of these cages ourselves, that we are our own jailers? If so, perhaps it is even more trite, even more oversimplified, to think that I can find the keys to my own cages, all by myself. The suggestion that there are others, that there may be an Other who must take part in our various releasements, may bring us back toward what I am broadly characterizing as “religious.” I don’t mean that to be a narrow, highly controlled veering-back. I don’t have a dogmatic agenda.
Or, maybe at one level, I sort of do. If you pick up the idea that release from cages is necessarily tied to others, to An Other, then you are getting a major element of my drift.
But it’s only a drift, and I hope it carries you back to Rael’s story so that you may test it yourself. In your own cages.
1974. Several strangers met.
Many people still remember the meeting, but I’m not sure they really remember it well. They remember it as a meeting between two strangers, one of them a guitar-toting flower child, a “singer-songwriter,” and the other a hunched, bearded figure with dark glasses, deftly tapping a jazz beat on a crash cymbal. If you remember it that way, I’d like to jostle your memory a bit.
There are two ways in which the standard “folksinger turns to jazz” blurb seriously fails to capture what we can still hear when we listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. One failure is in counting strangers, for there were certainly more than two. The other failure is that classification of Mitchell with a putative pantheon of “folksingers” or “singer-songwriters” of the late sixties and early seventies, many of whom were her friends and some of whom were her lovers. It’s a failure if you leave it at that, anyway, if you take it to be all that’s required for the label on the file folder. Joni Mitchell herself is a meeting of a fair number of strangers, and it will help us to see how this is so if we see how uncanny is the party at which these strangers met the year of Court and Spark‘s release.
On earlier efforts, Mitchell had indeed established herself as a “folksinger,” in a sense roughly equivalent to that in which Todd Rundgren had established himself during the same period as a “pop singer.” Those who really knew, knew that she was already in danger of bursting with creativity with very limited patience for the boundaries on stylistic maps of the time. She stretched hard against the walls of the “folk” bin, in much the same way as her fellow Canadian, Bruce Cockburn. She also shares with the latter (and in fact, probably outdoes him in this) an urgent impulse to exploration and experimentation at the lyrical as well as the instrumental level. It is possible to hear Mitchell’s lyrics superficially, and nod knowingly at the relational roulette and sexual Sturm und Drang, as if it’s all just the standard post-Woodstock angst, with one foot in the summer of love and the other having at least a toe in the bloody theater of Southeast Asia.
But listen again to this amazing album, which became Mitchell’s most commercially successful despite its refusal of a narrow category. Listen to it as a party at which a number of strangers have met, doing what people do when they go to people’s parties. Some hang back shyly and watch while others dance wildly wearing lampshade crowns, or collapse in tears into the laps of new “friends” whom they hardly know at all. German philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel wrote of how people must be “sociable” at parties, meaning that they must walk a sort of tightrope between taking both self and other either too seriously or not seriously enough. The people at this party, they stagger across a zone of overlap between the two, never really walking the line. This is what makes the entire album, with its sometimes unbearable lightness, a particularly serious musical work.
Listen. The strangers here are hardly limited to two (and some of them may have more than one head). Listen precisely as if it were “prog” in that deep sense that shakes the souls of many of us who hang out here. The very fact that “jazz” is supposedly a large element is enough to guarantee that the lines between several more “popular” and more “serious” musical genres have always already grown faint and almost disappeared. Sure, we can identify elements that are “jazz,” “folk,” “classical,” “torch,” and even a hint of “country.” But when I listened again to this album this morning, from beginning to end, what I heard was a wondrous party at which the number of guests is really beyond counting. Even the unifying effect of Mitchell’s mesmerizing voice is not exactly “unifying.” It is its own creature, not reducible to styles or genres by which it has supposedly been formed. It is willing to use words, phrasings, and sounds not according to a style, but according to the music.
Thank you, Joni, for the “prog” in you.
It has been observed more than once that Red was a “swan song” for the early 70′s King Crimson. While Robert Fripp (like Frank Zappa) has always brought out the best in almost anyone he’s worked with, listening to Red now reconfirms my sense of a very singular musical chemistry — or perhaps the better word is alchemy? — that can be heard between Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford in this incarnation of KC. There’s something essential that gels on this album, in fact, from all of the band’s previous albums, and (I’m tempted to say) remains an unavoidable benchmark for all subsequent work.
The title track alone is a paradigm for any proggish texture that would lean recklessly into a Zeppelinesque aesthetic. It raises the hairs on the back of my neck in just about the same way as ‘The Rover” from Physical Graffiti (released only a few months later).
I have met a good number of folks who otherwise appreciate King Crimson, but whose main complaint about the early-70′s KC is dissatisfaction with John Wetton’s vocals. It’s hard to say whence our various aural fixations arise, but I wish to be on record as claiming that Wetton’s singing on this album is essential to its textural perfection, and is (to my ear) the best vocal work that Wetton has ever done.
Go. Get Red out and listen again. You know you want to.