Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
By and large there is nothing like the future for making a monkey of the past, with the present being, usually, equally no less capable of second guessing what's next. But it seems us humans love nothing so much as to dreaming away the now by imagining about later, whether a simple reverie about what's for tea, or all the pillars of literature parading their visions of times yet to pass. Orwell's 1984 is the prime example, written 36 years earlier and, as we now know, getting it not quite right. But, having read it at school, even as late as 1983, aged 26, I was certainly worrying whether he would turn out to be right, helped even, or hindered, by the film that came out in the same year it was supposedly depicting. Handy timing or what! And 2001, book and film, both from 1968, also portraying the future in a way the past has failed to deliver. Of course there are rules in all of this: just as the past is always portrayed as utopian, anything about the future has to have in its byline the word dystopian. Talk about glass half empty pessimism, I wonder whether it is an automatic response to the often grim reality of the present. Is the only way to accept the now to be by assuming worse ahead?
Music is no stranger to such fantasy, and what better place to start than rocks elder, maybe eldest, statesman, laughing Leonard Cohen. Having had a share of fame as poet and novelist, then bedsitter singer-songwriter exemplary, in the later 70s and early 80s it was all going a bit quiet for him. Rather than hanging up his mitts, he came back in 1988, already 54 years old, with 'I'm Your Man', a re-invention with a much wider sonic spectrum than his earlier acoustic guitar and drone. 1992 saw 'The Future' appear as a belated follow-up, and was arguably his most counter-intuitive work yet, blowing his old persona into a distant (utopian?) past, synthesisers and massed girly vocals well to the fore. Having loved 'I'm Your Man', I well recall being a little shaken at the time. Taking no prisoners, it burst straight for the jugular with the eponymous opening track, mentioning both crack cocaine and anal sex (censored in the above video) in the very first few verses. No more Mr Nice Guy, and good bye to playing it to your parents generation. (Or his, by chaotic coincidence.) But, the audience was growing, whether old fans, auspiciously disappointed, or those who just liked to hear a grown man talk dirty.So long Marianne, for sure. All in an unclassifiable genre, probably its main strength, or, as his biographer put it: "Classic big budget AOR, yet with lyrics by Bukowski and Lowell, sung by an old wino from skid row who really wanted to sing like Ray Charles at the Apollo." I think that's perfect, and he even became Canadian Best Male Vocalist fo this in 1993, which tickled even him, even allowing for the partisan nature of his home crowd.
"Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and Saint Paul
I've seen the future brother:
It is murder."
So what's it all about? Has it come true yet? Well, I neither know, nor, actually care that much, but here's a link to one essayists thoughts that are certainly profound. I'm not sure if I buy all of it, and, anyway, what's with needing to constantly understand and interpret? It's like the infernal never ending learned resumes about Dylan versus Keats. It's pop music, fer chrissakes!
What has troubled me, though, in times more recent, is how the singer has chosen to bowdlerise himself, the anal sex of the 90s now sung as careless sex, somehow altering the impact, not to say the cadence. Has the now octogenarian become a pussy? Or is there regret that his dystopian future failed to warn him of his own journey to follow, whereby he effectively retired to his cave whilst an errant manger spent his nest-egg, necessitating a return to the greasepaint and trappings of performance, a 3rd rebirth, possibly his most successful yet. And who, in 1992, could possibly have foreseen that, with new work appearing still, in his ninth decade? So. What's next for Cohen. Slippers and commode? Don't bet on it!
Studio or Live, buy it down the links!
Monday, October 5, 2015
Zager and Evans: In The Year 2525 [purchase]
The theme now is The Future, so, of course, I need to start by looking at my past.
I think that most music obsessives have a story about learning about music by listening to their parents’ records, or from an older sibling or a friend. I don’t really have that. My parents, who claim to have gone to some of the legendary Alan Freed shows in Brooklyn in the ‘50s, were not interested in rock music by the time I was old enough to pay attention. To my memory, they mostly listened to the Sinatra-heavy WNEW-AM, and news radio. And I’m the oldest child in my family. Instead, my first real musical education came during the summer of 1969, listening to top-40 radio station WABC-AM, in the station wagon that took me to day camp. Listening that summer was, for me, Rock Music 101, and my professors were the distinguished faculty members Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy and Cousin Brucie. It was an era in which top-40 singles could actually be great songs (although not always), and I remember soaking them up. It was like I had found something that was mine, an interest in something that was different from my parents.
In retrospect, of course, the summer of 1969 was a huge year for rock music, much of which completely passed me by at the time. Woodstock and Altamont. The Beatles’ last live performance on the roof. Dylan and Elvis returning to live performance. The sheer volume of music released in 1969 that is still considered classic today is staggering. Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II. In The Court of The Crimson King, The Gilded Palace of Sin, Kick Out The Jams, Goodbye. Dusty In Memphis, The Velvet Underground, Nashville Skyline, With A Little Help From My Friends, Chicago Transit Authority. Hair, Stand!, Clouds, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Tommy, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Meters, At San Quentin, Trout Mask Replica, Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead, The Soft Parade, What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, Green River and Willie And The Poor Boys, My Cherie Amour, The Stooges, Blind Faith, Santana, The Band. Abbey Road, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, Hot Rats, David Bowie (Space Oddity). The Allman Brothers Band, Ballad of Easy Rider, Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Let It Bleed, Okie From Muskogee, Volunteers. And that is far, far from everything released that year that is still remembered and played today.
But the song that really gripped my 8 year old ears—the first song that I can remember caring about, was “In The Year 2525,” by Zager and Evans. The song, about the post-apocalyptic future, seemed so serious and “heavy” and the music was so dramatic, that it was impossible not to be struck by it. It was a vision of the future gone wrong, as a result of over-reliance on technology, lack of care for the environment, and passivity struck a chord with adults, too (or at least the record buying public) because its themes were certainly much discussed during that year. “In the Year 2525” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on July 12, and held the spot for six weeks, during the bulk of my summer camp season. Which meant that it was played over and over again on WABC, and I heard it in the car, and on the AM radio in my room (also used to listen to the Mets’ march to the World Series).
I’ll never forget how disappointed I was when the song was dislodged from its lofty perch on top of the charts by some weird song with lyrics I had trouble understanding—“Honky Tonk Women.” This inferior song only held the top spot for 4 weeks, when it was knocked off by the classic Archies’ confection, “Sugar, Sugar.”
As Wikipedia notes, “It is unusual for a recording artist to have a number one hit and then never have another chart single.” In the Year 2525" actually gave Zager and Evans this status twice; they remain the only act to do this in both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart.” Their attempt to follow up their big hit was a song (which I have no recollection of) called “Mr. Turnkey,” a pleasant ballad written from the standpoint of a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment. And that, was, pretty much that for Zager and Evans. Zager stopped performing and started a company building “E-Z Play Custom Guitars” and Evans retired to New Mexico.
Listening to the song now, I’m kind of horrified by how much I liked it. But my love and devotion to that song was the gateway to my life-long interest in music, and you can draw a line directly from that station wagon, to my first radio experiences in sleepaway camp, to my high school years listening to WNEW-FM and pawing through records, to my WPRB years, through the mixtape era, to downloading and more recently, music blogging.