Earlier this week we spent an evening watching PBS, back-to-back documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and the Kennedy assassination. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ is definitely worth your time. JFK: One PM Central Standard Time is less essential. (After 50 years, there’s not much left to see or say about the events in Dallas, although that particular program included an interview with the guy who pulled the first bulletin off the wire at CBS.) Watching the two back-to-back, it occurred to me that popular history has not served either Jimi or JFK particularly well. Both have been reduced to a handful of symbols.
If your local classic-rock station plays anything other than “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” it’s a rare one. Those three songs, plus Jimi lighting his guitar on fire, playing the National Anthem, and dying in London are the popular shorthand for the man’s entire life. Those, and the perception that he was a drug-addled space cadet. Even accounting for the fact that Hear My Train A Comin’ was made with the cooperation and approval of Hendrix’s sister and glosses over his drug and alcohol use and his arrest record, the film makes clear that Jimi Hendrix was a serious artist, intent on pushing his music further and further, in a way that reminds me of John Coltrane. His growth as an artist over two years is pretty impressive; what struck me the other night is how much he improved as a singer—compare “Dolly Dagger” to anything on Are You Experienced?, for an example.
For JFK, it’s “ask not what your country can do for you,” Camelot, “ich bin ein Berliner,” Cuban Missile Crisis, hot wife, Marilyn Monroe, murdered in Dallas. The reality of him is far more subtle. His actions as president were often constrained by the knowledge that he’d just barely won in 1960—he’s said to have carried in his pocket a piece of paper with the number of votes by which he’d prevailed—and by anticipation of a tough reelection fight in 1964. He was slow on civil rights because he did not want to alienate Southerners. He bungled his early foreign policy maneuvers out of inexperience, yet in the most severe crisis of his presidency, he found precisely the right combination of firmness and flexibility to keep the missiles of October from igniting World War III. (And not just during October; it’s a popular misconception that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended neatly on October 28, 1962, but diplomatic maneuvers continued for months afterward, with great concern that the situation might flare again.) We’ll never know how we would have handled the escalating war in Vietnam, whether it would have swallowed him whole like it did LBJ, or if he’d have found a way to finesse it just as he finessed the Russians over Cuba. And then he went to Dallas.
But Kennedy-as-symbol is pretty important, too. Although he didn’t live to see the baby boomers take over the world, he was their avatar. The vast cultural changes that were unleashed in the years following his death were all implicit in his rise. Not only were the 1950s over, so was the dominance of people born in the 19th century, as JFK himself noted in his inaugural address.
It seems to me that we mourn Kennedy’s potential less than we used to. Fifty years of spiraling weirdness will do that. As for the potential of Hendrix, it would take a smarter person, one more versed in Jimi’s work than I am, to tell you what a Hendrix album of 1976, 1989, or 2001 might have sounded like. If he had continued to push the boundaries of his work, it’s possible that he may have ended up where Coltrane did—critically acclaimed, but also in a place where some former fans could not follow. That didn’t happen, however, and so we’re left with Hendrix-as-symbol: a man who took a handful of mid-century musical forms (blues, R&B, rock) and synthesized them into something new, a signal of the vast remix American culture would eventually become.
Your opinions and/or speculations about Jimi and JFK are welcome below.
(Edit and extra info added below.)
In the middle of the 70s, I nearly wore out a copy of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, and was forever borrowing my brother’s copy of Brain Salad Surgery. In 1977, when ELP released their first new album in four years, Works Volume 1, I snapped that sucker up but quick.
In a decade full of them, Works was one of the great displays of rock ‘n’ roll hubris. The album first: a sprawling, self-indulgent double-disc set with a black cover bearing only the band’s name and logo and the title, and one side per band member. Keith Emerson provided a straight piano concerto that underwhelmed classical music aficionados as much as it underwhelmed me. Greg Lake provided a half-dozen vocals, some pretty solid, but most nearly swamped by orchestra arrangements. Carl Palmer was all over the place, from a Bach adaptation to a rock number with Joe Walsh on guitar. The fourth side was closest to standard ELP: an overlong “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Pirates,” which is about pirates.
Hubris part 2: the Works tour. When it began in May 1977, the traveling entourage was made up of 130 people, including 75 musicians and singers—and it ran into trouble almost immediately. The union members among the musicians couldn’t be required to travel more than 250 miles per day or play more than three shows a week. The band was paying $150,000 a week in payroll on top of what it cost to travel, and the cost soon became prohibitive. It wasn’t long before orchestra members started getting pink-slipped, a few at a time. I don’t remember how many were in the orchestra by the time the tour hit Madison on June 9. It was the first rock concert I’d ever attended, and I would have been impressed by a half-dozen. As it turned out, the Madison show was one of the last with any orchestra at all. After an orchestra show in the Twin Cities on the 11th, shows in
Des Moines and Terre Haute, Indiana, went on without the orchestra; a gig on the 18th in Evansville, Indiana, was the last orchestra show, apart from a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York about three weeks later, and a late-August show in Montreal that was recorded for the Works Live album and a concert film.
(Morning-after update: In my library, I found a bootleg of the Des Moines show, and the orchestra is on it. My bad.)
If you lived in the Upper Midwest, there was no missing ELP that summer and fall. In June, they’d played both Chicago and Milwaukee (topping all-day outdoor festivals) the weekend before they played Madison, and they played Milwaukee as a trio in August. Thirty-six years ago this week, on November 8, 1977, they returned to the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, and I was there again. Tickets were a dollar more expensive this time—$8.50 instead of $7.50—and they had an opening act, singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips. But ELP themselves played for well over three hours, if I’m recalling correctly, and my friends and I were pretty happy with the experience.
Our generation does not necessarily put away childish things, but I put away Emerson Lake and Palmer when I got to college. It was sometime in the 90s before I dragged out those old albums and listened to them again. What I found was that the stuff I liked the best when I was 17—serious prog-rock like “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9″—had not worn well at all. But several shorter songs held up nicely for me—and remarkably, two of them are from Works. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” is either utterly ridiculous (“you will become my meteor / divine and universal whore”) or utterly fantastic. Either way, it’s the sort of thing only Greg Lake could pull off, and only with a big whompin’ orchestra behind him. Conversely, I’d like to hear “Closer to Believing” with a simpler arrangement (along the lines of “Watching Over You,” which appears on Works Volume 2, a collection of scraps, albeit very good scraps, released the same week they played Madison the second time), but the song is good enough to survive any attempt to drown it in orchestral pomp. It might be the single best thing ever under the ELP brand, even if Emerson and Palmer aren’t on it. It’s a song I can listen to several times in a row without wanting to hear something else, and there are precious few of those.
When the Works tour reached its end in early 1978, Emerson Lake and Palmer were close to theirs. At the end of the year, they released the contractual obligation album Love Beach, did not tour behind it, and split up—at least until their inevitable reformation in 1992.
In my neighborhood, the colorful part of autumn was late and leisurely. Every year the leaves go from green to mostly gold, and this year, for days on end, the slightest breeze set them fluttering to the ground, whirling and sparkling like fat yellow snowflakes in the late afternoon sun. But now, the trees are growing bare. The rain and the wind of the last couple of days have done their accustomed work. There are drifts of leaves raked to the curb waiting for pickup, and less orderly piles in the street. A few trees will retain a few leaves for a while, and the drifts of leaves will retain some color, but not for long. Gray and brown naturally follow gold and red. Within a couple of weeks will come a time for which Midwesterners have no name, but which is known in New England as the “locking time,” a fine and evocative term for the period between the end of colorful autumn and the first snowfall.
October is a locking time of its own, when we’re caught between what was and what is, and between what is and what is going to be, between what might have been and what has to be.
None of these is automatically an excuse for melancholy. We can be grateful when what is puts us in a better place than what was, or we can be hopeful that what’s going to be will improve on what is. We can celebrate ways in which we’ve escaped fate—what might have been—and ended up where we belong.
But to dwell on losses in October is natural. We watch gold and red turn to gray and brown; we feel the chill returning. Autumn is not a season of acquisition. Yes, this is the time when we bring in the sheaves, harvest the bounty that will sustain us through the winter—but we do it because the fields are dying. We are making the best of what has to be.
I watch the birds fly south across the autumn sky
And one by one they disappear
I wish that I was flying with them
Now you’re not here
Justin Hayward’s “Forever Autumn” is a song I’ve mentioned here before. Unlike other songs, the ones that moisten my eyes and make me briefly unable to speak, “Forever Autumn” is capable of turning me into a sobbing puddle of goo.
“Forever Autumn” is the sound of longing for every cherished thing we’ve ever lost—family members, friends, lovers, innocence, potential, whatever we miss the most. It takes what are usually fleeting wishes the rest of the year and turns them into urgent needs. It calls up the shades of the past, who crowd around us and whisper, “We remember . . . and we miss you, too.”
One of life’s biggest lessons is that we must let go that which has to go. “Forever Autumn” reminds us how hard that lesson is.
Donald Fagen has done a bit of published writing over the years; way back in 1989 he interviewed film composer Ennio Morricone for Premiere; in 2007, he wrote an article for Slate rehabilitating Ike Turner’s reputation, and one last year about his experience listening to New York radio personality and author Jean Shepherd. Those pieces and others are collected along with original material in Fagen’s first book, Eminent Hipsters, which will be published by Viking Press next week. The jacket excerpt explains the title: “The main subjects are the talented musicians, writers, and performers from a universe beyond suburban New Jersey who showed me how to interpret my own world.”
Would that it were entirely that.
Fagen’s chapters on Henry Mancini and Shepherd are tremendous; so are his autobiographical tales of going to jazz clubs in New York as a young man and attending Bard College in upstate New York, where he met a fellow-traveling musician named Walter Becker. But Becker is apparently the last eminent hipster Fagen ever met. Fagen’s life story ends at graduation in 1969, and the last half of the book—75 pages—is made up of a tour diary from Fagen’s 2012 travels with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue.
Five pages into the diary, the reader has learned what there is to know about Fagen and touring: he strongly dislikes everything about it, from the buses to the hotels to the venues to the audiences, but the point is belabored mercilessly for an additional 70 pages. It’s easy to see how this might have been otherwise. Fagen could have used the tour diary to reflect on his 40-year relationship with fellow Duke Michael McDonald and the musicians with whom he’s crossed paths in Steely Dan; he could have used the fact that the Dukes setlists include a lot of old R&B numbers to elaborate on the songs and artists that influenced him. Instead, he keeps complaining about the children in hotel swimming pools and the no-frills way the Dukes have to travel compared to his present-day tours with Steely Dan.
Anybody who’s familiar with him knows that Fagen is a famous curmudgeon, with little use for the trappings of stardom, the rituals of meeting the press and the fans, and the business of the business he’s in. (Marinating in his misery on the road, he bemoans the details involved in releasing Sunken Condos, his 2012 solo album.) So the general bitchiness of Fagen’s tour diary isn’t especially surprising. Some of his observations are interesting—about the peculiarities of crossing national borders, or how the more beautiful an old theater is, the worse its sound quality is likely to be. But after a while, the diary starts to feel like a fuck-you to the fans, especially when they’re repeatedly insulted as “elderly,” or “TV babies” who grew up in the 70s and want only to hear Steely Dan hits, or when he wishes they’d be consumed in a flash fire.
And that’s unfortunate. The first half of Eminent Hipsters really does reveal how a unique constellation of personalities in the late 50s and the 1960s helped to turn a 113-pound nerd into one of the eminent hipsters of my generation. The last half is a chilly rebuke to anybody who chooses to think of him that way.
As I guessed it might, last week’s post about what one reader calls “music death,” or the point at which we stop caring about the stuff on the radio, generated lots of interesting commentary from the readership.
New styles gaining popularity seem to have chased a lot of us away: for some it was grunge, for others it was hip-hop and/or rap. That such a thing happens is news on par with the sunrise. What we’re really talking about is the passage of time. Every new style is welcomed by a new generation that loves it and loathed by an older generation that doesn’t. Failing to keep up with the next big thing is not some sort of existential crisis; it’s the norm.
Music goes through cycles of quality, too, although those cycles are highly subjective. To me, the best of the 1970s was past by 1978—the year I graduated from high school, and I bet that’s not a coincidence—and it wasn’t until 1984 that the Top 40 started sounding good to me again. I vividly remember doing a year-end countdown show on the AC station long about 1992 and thinking that most of the big hits of the year were pretty awful. But there’s also data showing that some years are better than others. I have heard that from a radio-research point of view, music from the 1990s does not test as well with adult audiences as stuff from the 70s and 80s does—even among those who grew up with it.
The fragmentation of styles and formats doesn’t make it any easier to stay current, either. Back in the mid 00s, I started subscribing to Paste (which included a CD of new material every month) in hopes of learning about new stuff I should be listening to. But I knew I was in trouble when Paste praised one band as being heavily influenced by Built to Spill, a band I did not know, and I realized that to get hip with the mid 00s, I was going to have to get hip with generations of earlier hipness just to speak the language. And while I tried to listen to the Paste CDs with an open mind, some of the stuff was as foreign as Tuvan throat singing. I knew it must appeal to somebody, but I couldn’t explain why, and that somebody sure as hell wasn’t me.
What our friends like has always been an important aspect of musical discovery, so the glory days of mp3 blogging, between about 2006 and 2010, was great for guys like me, who had been left behind by the scene, to discover new music. I learned about Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Amy Winehouse, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, among others, from fellow music bloggers, a 21st century update to the way friends swapped albums back in the day.
I haven’t discovered many new artists since about 2010, however. I’ve been exploring the back catalog of styles I like—there is one hell of a lot of post-World War II jazz I have yet to discover—and listening closely to the catalogs of familiar artists. I am a much bigger fan of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones now than I was in the 1970s and 1980s because I’ve dug deeper into their catalogs than the radio ever did. And I’m listening to new releases by people I have always loved. As Ryan put it in his comment, “I would much rather dig into a new effort from an artist from my past because it is like reuniting with a friend and sharing our experiences as we’ve grown older.”
Liking what we like no matter what comes next can be seen as a way of growing old gracefully, with musical accompaniment. It requires us to be true to who we are. It’s fine to try and incorporate some of whatever’s hip right now, but impossible to take in all of it, because we’re not the people we used to be.
Shorter: If you are 40 or over, you should not twerk.
(This post has been through more than a dozen iterations before reaching the form you see here. I still don’t like it, but sometimes a guy just has to hit “publish” and move on.)
Somebody reached this blog recently by searching on the phrase “were the Allman Brothers racist?” You might expect them to be, long-haired white boys from Georgia and all. But the first concert Duane and Gregg Allman ever attended featured Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, B.B. King, and Patti LaBelle, and one of their bands, 31st of February, recorded “God Rest His Soul,” a song about the death of Martin Luther King that praised him as a peacemaker. And they weren’t the only white Southern rockers whose fandom and influences crossed racial lines—even the members of Lynryd Skynyrd, which would eventually adopt the Confederate flag as a symbol, were friendly with a black man named Curtis Loew and later wrote a song about him. Many white Southern acts covered black blues songs.
Some went further. In an essay titled “‘Luther King Was a Good Ole Boy’: the Southern Rock Movement and White Male Identity in the Post-Civil Rights South,” Mike Butler says: “While covering old blues songs on their albums represented a step of rebellion in the post-civil rights South, the decision to pay tribute to the music, cuddle black children, and include blind bluesmen on the album covers [as Wet Willie did on their biggest album, Keep on Smilin'] proved to be even more rebellious.”
(The Butler essay is currently unavailable online, which is too bad because it’s great, and it would be a worthwhile read on this day.)
I don’t know—on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in this sesquicentennial year of the Gettysburg Address, in this year in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was largely eviscerated by the Supreme Court—exactly how we get over our historical tendency to hate and fear people of other races. It’s no great revelation to say that change will have to come from the attitudes of individuals, more so than the actions of institutions. It’s true that what institutions do matters a great deal. The law can make you do things—forcing Southern states to permit more equal access to the voting booth, for example. But it can’t make you believe those things are right—which is why Southern states (and others, including Wisconsin) are rushing to institute procedures that would be illegal under the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years of institutional force didn’t change enough minds, and we’re right back where we started.
The open-mindedness of the individual Allmans, members of Skynryd, and the guys in Wet Willie—and the millions of other Americans, white and black, who have figured it out—hasn’t proven to be enough. The mythology of the Lost Cause continues to resonate, and the neo-Confederate ideology that animates today’s Republican party is absolutely toxic to racial progress. The result is that the losing side of the Civil War is winning significant battles 150 years later, and America is more screwed up on the subject of race than at any time since the March on Washington.
Maybe some future generation wiser than ours can figure out how to bridge the divide for good and all. On this day, it’s a thin reed, but it’s all the reed we’ve got.