[24 November 2008]
Like all superficially idealistic youth movements, the love- and drug-crazed rebels of countercultural naïveté circa the late 1960s were incredible hypocrites. The gap between the utopian, free-loving, nature-attuned neo-transcendentalists that entranced timid teen squares and scared the equally-stereotypical caricatures of their stern and stoic postwar parents, and the real lives of the VD-infested and woefully self-centered societal dropouts is well chronicled in media artifacts from the time. For film, see the commune of psych-folk cabaret travelers in Easy Rider; Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a fascinating literary chronicle of the grim realities of Haight-Ashbury. When it comes to musical representations of the true free-thinker’s reaction to this faux-enlightened mess, it all ties together perfectly on We’re Only in It for the Money.
The thing to remember about 1968 is that the Beatles were untouchable. So, when the Mothers elected to include a cover image with Money that lampooned the psychedelic flower-celebrities that adorned the cover of the recently-released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there was another kind of iconoclasm at work. It was all too easy for the “freaks” to direct their damnation at LBJ, parents, people over 30—the usual cast of squares—but another thing entirely for the Mothers to scoff at the meaningless antics of the counter-cultural types who were probably their majority demographic. Unsurprisingly, the powers that be in the record-releasing industry objected, and the intended cover art was remanded to the gatefold until reissues decades later. Not that the cover headshot of male band members in dresses in deadpan seriousness was such a turnover to the Man.
Where most of the Haight-Ashbury soundtrack of 1968 fit the “Rhythm and Blues + LSD” mold, Frank Zappa took great inspiration from legendary experimental composer Edgard Varese, whose declaration, “the present day composer refuses to die!”, was included in the original liner notes. Zappa is a composer, and Money is his mad-genius masterwork—part song-cycle, part experimental freak-out, yet strangely cohesive. A number of pieces on Money bear the obvious influence of Varese’s percussion arrangements and electronic experiments. “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” is a challenging freak out, distorted musique concrete and disorienting stereo panning, breaking briefly toward the end into generic surf rock. Chaotic, challenging music for similar times, and the kind of truly experimental noise that makes psychedelic contemporaries look tame by comparison.
Money‘s emotional core is in Zappa’s lyrics. There’s sarcasm and skepticism, directed mainly at the shallow hippie freaks; “I will love the cops as they kick the shit out of me in the streets” says the dropout protagonist of “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”, blissfully unaware of the important issues at hand in the world outside of his self-centeredness. It’s another artifact of the time, that Zappa had to fight an uphill battle to include any profanity on Money, leaving much of it backmasked or removed entirely. “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” are a back-to-back examination of the generation gap, the former from the perspective of the disgusted and confused flower child. “Mom & Dad” is a startlingly tender look at the potential for true tragedy amongst the young freaks, as the depressed parents reflect on the deaths (by cops) of kids they couldn’t understand. Meanwhile, the parents remain either ignorant of or unwilling to see the genesis of the generational issues in cold parenting. Money is full of such vignettes of social observation, from the meathead spawn of a Congressman and a hooker on “The Idiot Bastard Son” to the “Bow Tie Daddy”, an out-of-touch, elderly alcoholic who is instructed “don’t try to do no thinkin’ / just go on with your drinkin’”.
It wouldn’t be a Zappa album without pop music put through the ringer of unfamiliar structures. Witness “Flower Punk”, an aggressive number in the truly-psychedelically confusing alternating 7/4 and 5/8 time signatures (good luck dancing, teenyboppers!), which aptly collapses into a freak-out of effect-laden squeals. Riffing on ‘60s standard “Hey Joe”, the titular Punk is another in a long line of Zappa’s misguided free-love casualties, “going to the love in to sit and play my bongos in the dirt.” “Absolutely Free”, meanwhile, refuses to stick with one theme, time signature, or key. The closest thing to guidance is a menacing voice declaring “flower power sucks!” The Beatles get theirs on “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body”, complete with nasally flat backing vocals (The ugliest part, concludes Zappa’s sarcastic narrator, must be “your mind”).
In the end, no one escapes the Mothers’ criticisms, but nor is anyone without redemption. The Mothers’ ultimate goal is to inspire true nonconformist self-expression, to peel back layers of society-imposed self-doubt and constrictive hypocritical morality. In what I can only imagine is a rare moment of genuine optimism, the Mothers’ gleefully explain to listeners, “We are the other people / You’re the other people, too!” Unless you’re only in this for the bottom line.
Sitting among hundreds gathered at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California on the night of January 13, 1972, the world renowned minister C.L. Franklin struggled to contain himself as his talented daughter Aretha delivered one of the most amazing performances of her career. Singing with deep conviction and supreme intelligence on such gospel classics as “Precious Memories”, “Amazing Grace”, and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”, Franklin showcased not only her artistic genius, but her deep spiritual roots. Testifying profusely to the transformative power of God, the talented songstress gloriously wed the prophetic vision of the black church, the optimistic spirit of the Civil Rights era, and a philosophical perspective born of personal struggles and triumphs. If there were any doubts regarding Franklin’s religiosity and existential intactness, her powerful testimonials, soaring notes, triumphant shouts, and guttural moans erased them all in dramatic fashion.
Five months after Franklin touched the hearts of those gathered at New Temple, Atlantic Records released her live performance, appropriately titled, Amazing Grace. Critics and fans alike hailed the recording as Franklin’s return to her church roots, but the singer’s father railed against the idea that Aretha had abandoned her religious past. “Truth is”, C.L. Franklin thundered, “Aretha hasn’t ever left the church!” To a large extent, Reverend Franklin was correct, for the “church” had informed not only his daughter’s musicianship but the gospel impulse that pervaded many of her biggest secular hits. Not simply an entertainer, Franklin was the caretaker of her nation’s soul.
Maybe no cultural artifact proves this fact more than her 1968 classic, Lady Soul.
If her Atlantic Records debut, I Never Loved a Man , stands out for its affirmation of Franklin’s talent and commercial viability, Lady Soul’s cultural significance flows from its confirmation of her genius as a skilled alchemist capable of bringing fragmented worlds together. Not long after its arrival in record stores on January 22, 1968, Lady Soul dashed up the pop and soul charts, largely due to the popularity of four smash hits, “Chain of Fools”, “Natural Woman”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and “Ain’t No Way”. Cultural and political differences fragmented the nation, but everyone seemed to arrive at the same conclusion when it came to Franklin’s genius. Time and Ebony celebrated 1968 as the year of Aretha, probably the only thing these radically different magazines could agree upon. All at once, Negroes, blacks, white hippies, and bra-burning second wave feminists worshiped at the altar of Lady Soul.
Aretha Franklin - Chain of Fools [Lady Soul TV special from 1968]
One surmises that this had a great deal to do with Franklin’s role as the carrier of the gospel impulse. Sustaining faith in the possibility of a brighter day had been made exceedingly difficult by the tensions and divisions magnified by war in Southeast Asia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots, the most vitriolic forms of white backlash, and mounting levels of poverty. Yet something about Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul created a spiritual space in which the many personalities who comprised our variegated nation could expand their imagination of the politically and spiritually possible.
Out of the chaos of 1968, Franklin gave us hope with substance, along with a musical masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. Fresh yet rooted in the same blues impulse that inspired Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Lady Soul was a musical gumbo spiced with the right amounts of hard knock country blues, good news gospel, captivating pop, and rock ‘n’ soul. Freely asserting her individuality, Franklin put her own unique spin on James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, reached deep into the ethos of the blues with “Good to Me As I Am to You”, breezed through a killer rendition of “Niki Hoeky”, and transformed “Chain of Fools” into a prophetic declaration of deliverance that would be heard from the riot-torn streets of Newark, New Jersey, to the battlefields of Vietnam.
So expansive was Lady Soul’s message that the album belonged to no one in particular, but it did have a special place in the hearts of black women. Undoubtedly, Franklin narrated deeply personal stories, but there was something profoundly familiar about her tales of love and heartache. Listening to “Ain’t No Way”, “Natural Woman”, or “Good to Me As I Am to You” conjures up images of women, young and old, who inhabit our communal spaces, exchange stories on our front porches, and find solace in our loving arms. One couldn’t escape the realness embodied in Franklin’s songs. “You couldn’t jive,” wrote poet Nikki Giovanni, “when Aretha said, ‘Woman’s only human.’” Nor could you jive when she demanded her propers on “Good to Me As I Am to You”, a self-penned song that drips with the kind of flesh and blood reality found on Aretha Arrives’ “Prove It”. Accompanied beautifully by the soulful guitar licks of Cream’s Eric Clapton, Franklin updates the Delta Blues for her sisters and brethren living in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
Not just a great musical portrait of one individual living, loving, and growing during one of the most chaotic periods in American history, Lady Soul was a work of synthesis that introduced and reintroduced of all the black women who’ve crossed the American cultural landscape, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie to Nina Simone’s “Peaches” to Bob Dylan’s “Hattie Carroll”.
So prodigious was Aretha Franklin’s output during the 1960s and early ‘70s that a general consensus on her best work will probably never be reached, but I strongly suspect that we can all conclude that the cultural twists and turns of 1968 cannot be fully understood without reckoning with the genius that is Lady Soul.
Aretha Franklin - (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman [Lady Soul TV special from 1968]
The Beatles’ White Album is—needless to say—a sprawling mess, filled to the brim with classic songs, one-off experiments, and a kitchen-sink attitude that more than justifies its audacious 90-minute running time. As a result, it’s often easy to forget about 1968’s other White album: that lo-fi, distortion-filled epic that changed the very definition of what a pop song could be over the course of six not-so-simple tracks.
1968 wasn’t a particularly good year for the Velvet Underground, but you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the band noticing. Following 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, Lou Reed and co. dropped Andy Warhol’s enigmatic song siren (Nico would go on to do some solo discs of her own), and—as such—lost contact with Warhol. Yet Reed and avant-garde maestro John Cale weren’t bothered by this; if anything, it allowed them to go to dark musical places that they had only hinted at before. Oh sure, they could still write rollicking piano-rock numbers (the title track), but the lyrics here were depicting the effects of amphetamines on the body, once again flexing the anti-commercial tendencies that the band inhibited. “The Gift”, meanwhile, rode a seductive bass groove to which Cale recited a short story about the man who decides to mail himself to his love, only to have his loving gesture end with disastrous results.
When anyone writes about White Light/White Heat, much ink is automatically devoted to the spiraling 17-minute noise-rock epic that is “Sister Ray”, a convention-shattering jam that dared and teased listeners in ways that had never been touched on before. Though the song’s length was unprecedented in its own right, it was far from its most noticeable feature. Here, Reed snarled out the line “sucking on my ding-dong” without the safety net of irony, his guitar chugging along with a sleazy strut, and—in the process—embodying every aspect of the term “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll”. It can be safely argued that no one has come close to topping it since.
Yet perhaps the greatest revelation that White Light/White Heat provided was perhaps its least talked about aspect: slowly unearthing the vulnerability that was at the bottom of every Reed composition. “Here She Comes Now” was the kind of wounded guitar pop that the band did best, wrapping surreal lyrics around a simple, un-amplified guitar coda, Reed talking about the woman that never comes (all Godot-like) in a way that’s defiantly anticipatory, revealing more depths about its narrator than it has any right to. Of course, on the band’s following album, Reed would be penning iconic ballads like “Candy Says”, but, really, those highlights would not have been possible were it not for his work here.
In retrospect, White Light/White Heat is often looked at as the Velvet’s least accessible album, what with its noise-rock epics and explicit lyrics and the like. Yet this is also the album where we get to see the band push the envelope in ways that they weren’t able to before, and by redefining their own boundaries, they redefined the limits of all of rock music in the process.
The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat
Beginning with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the ‘60s became one of the most tumultuous, explosive, eye-opening times in American history. It was a time when Baby Boomers were forced to grow up and face the future in a way that generations before never had—with the confidence to change and rebel, the bravery to search for themselves and life’s meaning and the uncertainty of where that search would lead them.
By 1968, the realities of the Vietnam War had set in completely with America’s youth. Boys in their late teens received their draft cards to fight in a war that had no clear definition. Robert Kennedy would meet the same fate as his brother five years earlier, as would Martin Luther King, Jr. Hippies protested the war and their government, and the civil rights movement became increasingly more violent.
Simon and Garfunkel released their musical masterpiece Bookends in late March of that year; a collection of interweaving songs that focuses on loss—loss of identity, loss of innocence, and loss of youth. It was their most literary and accomplished album to date.
Like the characters in “Voices of Old People”, Art Garfunkel’s audio experiment and social message, the youth of the ‘60s would inevitably face the same fate—old age. Bookends is the well-lived life starting at birth and ending at death.
“Save the Life of My Child”, the most “rock and roll” song of the album, cuts off the quiet lull of “Bookends” the way a rowdy teenager might interrupt a grandparent mid-story. Paul Simon’s thumping bass, the gospel-like voices in the background, and the brief hint of “Sounds of Silence” tease and cure and taunt the delicate nature of the 30-second instrumental introduction that creeps in and out of the album as a reminder that old age, and eventually, death, is inevitable.
Though earlier songs such as “I Am a Rock” and “Sound of Silence” both portray dark themes, there is still a naiveté , a lack of maturity that can only be gained through the turbulent and controversial experiences of the late ‘60s. Bookends the album is the insightful, old man counterpart to Simon and Garfunkel’s earlier work.
It was a decade full of change. not only in music but in politics, American society, and popular culture as a whole. It left the Baby Boomer generation, by decade’s end, with a power unbeknownst to any generation before them—a power that left them searching, much like the couple in the song “America”, for a different kind of country than the one they inherited from their parents.
The Summer of Love had come and gone, Bob Dylan had gone electric, the Beatles were certifiable geniuses, thanks to their innovative, psychedelic, waking dream Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Jimi Hendrix was setting his instruments on fire as rock and roll’s first official guitar god. And then there was Simon and Garfunkel, the sage-like minstrels of the ‘60s, who translated easily the conscious of ‘60s American youth into songs that are just as relevant in 2008 as they were 40 years ago.
By the time Music from Big Pink was released in July, 1968 had already seen both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated. All the hope and change and love in the decade was teetering, though not yet crumbled by the events at Altamont in ‘69. We were a people in pain, but still pushing on, still trying to make things better.
But, if the lasting recordings from that year are any indication, we weren’t able to capture our own feelings on record. The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, the Beatles were all at the top of their powers and releasing undeniably important records that year. As a culture, we seemed to be looking outside our country for the voices of that generation. Sure, we had Simon and Garfunkel and the Velvet Underground making great and lasting records that year. Yet both records, Bookends and White Light/White Heat, though exceptional, were set outside of what was going on. The preciousness of Simon and Garfunkel and the stubborn art house aesthetic of the Velvet Underground let those groups touch on the signs of the times without tapping into them. Their music was observant of the zeitgeist, but not necessarily representative of it.
It took a group of Canadians, and Levon Helm, to truly capture the sound of America in 1968. Music from Big Pink is soulful and hurt and hopeful and heartbreaking from beginning to end. Having toured as Bob Dylan’s backing band, the Hawks, in 1966, the Band must have taken in the whole country as they traveled it and poured all that roaming feel, all that collective want, into this one record. Even when they use Dylan’s words, particularly on opener “Tears of Rage” and closer “I Shall Be Released”, they make the songs more universally relevant. Where Dylan’s verbose songs felt cluttered and hyper-thoughtful in their anger, the Band stretch them out into warm, keening declarations of an alienated country. The melding of Americana, rhythm and blues, folk, and countless other influences made for a sound that was dusty with tradition, but still new and laid back and inviting.
However, Music from Big Pink doesn’t get enough credit for being so damn strange when it wants to be. What is that guitar sound in “Tears of Rage”? Or the organ dirge at the top of “Chest Fever”? Why does Richard Manual’s voice fall so hauntingly off-key in “Lonesome Suzie”? And what is with just about every weird sound and swirl of faux-strings on “This Wheel’s on Fire”? Perhaps it is easier now not to address these questions. Better to let the giant shadow of “The Weight” fall over the album and call it laid-back country and leave it at that.
But why? It is those strange moments that make the record so germane to its time. As recognizable as the country feel of the record is, the Band always come along and knock us sideways in our skin with some strange sound. They never let us get settled. This isn’t leave-your-worries-behind, front porch music. Music from Big Pink is a reminder that the world around us can be recognizable one second, and completely alien the next. Sometimes, it can feel strange and familiar at the same time. But the key, and what the Band does on this album, is to recognize our hurt, and even embrace it, without giving in to it.
“I Shall Be Released” is exhausted and pained, but its straining hope is the perfect end note to an album that captures that time in America so well. Because by record’s end, they haven’t been released, and neither have we. The world is still out there to change. And while, any day now, any day now, that release is coming, Music from Big Pink is the vital sound of a weary country pushing forward with hope. We had every reason to look across the pond for great music, for great culture, for inspiration. But, in 1968, if we wanted a beautiful, heartfelt rendering of what was going on in America, all we had to do was look north.
The Band - The Weight from The Last Waltz (1978)