Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grounding Emotion: Elton John: "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time)"

If nature abhors a void, then I wonder what nature made of the departure of the Beatles in 1970; there had to be someone as versatile and transatlantically famous as them, as willing to sing ballads as rock out, willing to be over-the-top odd and yet for all that, perfectly normal.  Just as it's hard to think of the 60s without the Beatles, it's hard to think of the 70s without Elton John.  And he, rather quietly at first, but determinedly, became famous first in the US in 1970, just a man and a piano playing ballads, songs which were maybe love songs ("Your Song" is a song about finding the words to say something as much as the saying it) and maybe weren't (I have yet to figure out what "Levon" is actually about, but Elton sings it with so much passion, it doesn't matter). 

It is that passion I'd like to focus on; the earnestness in David Cassidy's songs is magnified here, because Elton has a better voice and in his songwriting parter Bernie Taupin he has someone who is trying to express the inexpressible, which maybe works sometimes, and maybe doesn't.  "Rocket Man" is one such song, one of their best, mainly because it presents itself so much as one man's thoughts as he is alone in space, thinking of that morning's events.  Some might compare it to "Space Oddity" but here the secret subject/inspiration isn't Syd Barrett; the passion Taupin and Elton have is poured forth to...the Every(wo)man who is doing something extraordinary but somehow is also being taken for granted.  The narrator of the song knows he's special, but what he is doing also cruelly separates him from his family, and the acres of space between how he sees himself and what he does.  Sure he's an astronaut; it's "just his job five days a week"; but he's also "not the man they think I am at home" and maybe it's in space where he feels he can best be himself; where the mundane world literally falls away and he floats, unencumbered, for a "long long time."  That others don't understand him, that he himself doesn't understand the science around him - there is a very recognizable ordinariness to his life - he doesn't regard himself as a hero, neither do others.  If the 70s were in some way a comedown from the heights of the 60s, this song describes how split the decade was; split between that 60s specialness and uniqueness and a kind of routine drabness that tends to grow around that specialness once the wonder and spectacle have worn off. 

The songwriting partnership of Elton and Taupin is interesting, if only because the lyrics come first here, as always; because they were written first, and Elton then had to pick out a melody and tempo and chords and bring the lyrics to life.  That he could find hooks as well goes without saying; their songwriting rests on both of them - Taupin to express something, something inspiring enough for Elton to go to the piano and figure out what it's going to sound like.  Here the music is serious, soaring into nothingness at the chorus and then arching back down again, much like the astronaut will eventually come back down to Earth; the heavenly and mundane in a cycle.  This isn't a song about Major Tom, hopelessly cut off and floating around; this is a man who misses his kids (that he feels he has to note that there's no one on Mars to raise his kids just shows how grounded he is, in a way) and can only take solace in the fact he's doing something most other people will never get to do. 

It is not a long stretch to take this song and use it to reflect on Elton and Taupin themselves; Elton as the Rocket Man (there's even a best of by him with that title) and Taupin as the normal guy who helps him as he gets ready to go, writing the lyrics so that the music has a basis from which to soar*.  In the 70s Elton John was simply the biggest star there was, especially in the US - but it is important to remember he didn't do it by himself, that each ballad or rocker or funky groove was inspired by lyrics, lyrics provided by someone who wasn't there in the room with him (they didn't work in the Brill Building fashion, to say the least), someone who knew Elton's capabilities as a composer and pretty much pushed them to the limit.  Elton then took those lyrics and formed a song around them, stretching words or cushioning them or scrunching them to suit his needs (his late stretching of "man" emphasizing the regular-guy aspect of the song, as well as how elevated, literally, the narrator is).  So all of Elton's songs are attempts to make the lyrics sing, and it is noticeable how the better the lyrics are, the more inspired Elton's melodies will be.  (The middle part of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is meh because of this, just as the end and beginning are great.)

That Elton John took over the 70s - well, by 1972 he was well on his way to getting popular everywhere, including his native UK - is undisputed; but at this time he was still the relatively modest figure who was friends with David Bowie and Marc Bolan, who sang plaintive songs and had to (with Taupin's inspiration of course) produce two albums a year, and who maybe wasn't quite ready to be as famous as he was; but he of course took the fame ball and ran with it, making the word superstar come to life.  That he earned and kept so much public goodwill is remarkable, and it was mainly because he was always true to himself, and truly loves music in a way few famous musicians do.  That dedication and heart was always evident; a willingness to take emotion and put it to music.  (I always think of Elton as a pianist first, btw, and singer second.) 

This blog will return to Elton in time; but next...well, there's only one time I'm going to do this, and thus I will be writing about all of one man's eligible songs here, instead of spreading them out - why will become obvious.  It's going to be a long essay, and may take a little while to write; bear with me.    

*I know I'm making Taupin sound like the wife here, but I also think there's a yin/yang balance here, and that in order for this songwriting relationship to work so well the two had to fundamentally like and understand each other, and there is an openness and sympathy evident in their work that makes the more personal songs very touching; that girls loved Elton straight off was due to that emotional openness in his songs. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest: David Cassidy: "Could It Be Forever/Cherish"

We are now in the very flush of spring; in this year of promise and brightness, or this season, anyway, a young man is about to step outside of his figurative nest and become a global superstar; a teen idol.  It’s not what he wants, but it’s what he is, and thousands upon thousands of girls bought “Could It Be Forever” because he is capturing (via songwriter-producer Wes Farrell and fellow-bubblegum songwriter Danny Janssen) that moment of maybe-crazy optimism after a good first date:  maybe this one is it, is going to be my Other.  If in “I Think I Love You” he is afraid of his actual feelings, of taking the plunge and saying it and risking everything – here he is pondering the leap from a moment’s tenderness to something which by definition has no limit.  He sounds remarkably like Cliff Richard here, wondering if that certain tangible kiss is going to be his last, or be the first of many – and the prospect of the future is really what concerns him, almost as if he isn’t really ready for anything so permanent.  But Cassidy’s voice – a perfectly fine one, though he doesn’t have a great range – sings the song, if you know what I mean; I do not get any real feeling from it beyond his general unease (she likes him, and yet is he just wasting his time?), though I am sure that if I was an impressionable 12-year-old girl then, I would have felt quite differently about him and this song.  I can’t ignore the Partridge Family element to this, that he was on tv and girls crushed on him as a singer and an actor*; a double-whammy that even Marc Bolan wouldn’t be able to equal. 

I was far too young to watch the show at the time – I was at nursery school and watched Sesame Street and the odd episode of Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet back then – so I had to catch up later on in the 70s, when it was in reruns and the show just struck me as …odd.  To quote Dellio & Woods, Cassidy and Shirley Jones were “a real-life stepson/mother combination that added a tense Freudian background” to the show, which I didn’t understand as a kid, let alone their manager, played by Dave Madden, the immortal Ruben Kinkaid, “who mugged and whined and sweated with frightening intensity.” I remember an entire show about the ecology, particularly whales; I remember another where Laurie (Susan Dey, “who was beautiful and wispy and fake-played the organ with reckless abandon”) had new braces that somehow picked up radio waves, messing up her playing and thus causing havoc in the always-on-edge band, whose bus had “Caution:  Nervous Mother Driving” on it, just in case you were wondering if it was the early 70s or not.  By the late 70s the show looked hopelessly quaint, in other words, and I had no idea it was based on an actual family band (The Cowsills).  Which is to say the anxiety in “Could It Be Forever” fit in perfectly with the show even if it was just David going solo and proving he was all grown up now, and was David, not Keith Partridge.
“Could It Be Forever” wasn’t such a big hit in the US, but “Cherish” was; and this is where things start to show their cracks.  “Cherish” was of course The Association’s first big hit, and let me just pause to say I don’t think The Association get nearly as much respect or attention as they deserve; no one ever namechecks them or says they were just as important as anyone else from L.A. at the time, and their influence is more difficult to trace because…well, just listen to the original of “Cherish” and you’ll see what I mean. Written by band member Terry Kirkman, it’s a complex song both melodically and lyrically; it is a mediation on language, on the language of love in particular, and how language is hopeless at finding “the right amount of letters, just the right sound” that will somehow convey this man’s emotional intensity, which has been growing steadily and isn’t just like the love offered by “a thousand other guys.”  He wants his feelings to be reciprocated too, and with all the complex six-voice harmonies and chord changes, The Association made something delicate and tough, and incredibly hard to copy**.  Wes Farrell chose it for Cassidy as no cover version had been done yet, and you’d think that would have been something of a hint; but they did it anyway, with more of that same super-sincere gusto that served Cassidy so well; but the subtleties of the song are lost, he can’t reach those aching high notes that the song needs.  It becomes a regular love song, the chorus being yelled out again and again as if the Other is somewhat deaf and can’t quite believe what she is hearing.  “Cherish” is about description, about attempted description of a feeling anyway, and ends hushed, as if the word itself is at least compensation for the experience.  But Cassidy just lays down his love like a bricklayer making a wall, and that is that.  He cherishes her; the voices in the background – the same ones you’d hear on a Partridge Family record – make it a family sing-a-long, theatrical, instead of the ocean of sound The Association build up, one that even Madonna had to nod to in her song of the same name. 
Since The Association were too busy touring and recording in the US at the time “Cherish” was never a hit in the UK; so Cassidy was able to avoid any of these problems with this song, as his fans were too young to know it in the first place.  A change of generation has happened with fans, after all; the girls who were part of Beatlemania or who screamed for the Stones were all grown up now, and the new generation of girls were now coming, and they had to have their long-haired boys to idolize, too; Cassidy was a favourite, I’m guessing, as he was undoubtedly a Nice Guy and a Sensitive Guy as well; and as mentioned elsewhere, he grew up a showbiz kid who tried as best he could to hang on to who he was in the maelstrom of pop stardom, wherein he caused riots, had to be smuggled in to Top of the Pops, and had to come to terms with being a teen idol, when he really wanted to be a rock star.  That he more often dramatized his songs as opposed to singing them was only to be expected of him; that so many girls have fond memories of him now shows that he was one of the better ones in the whole teen idol mix.  There is no side to him; there are no itchy feelings of unease attached to him, unless he felt them about himself.  So even though the whole pop star/actor thing was beyond me at the time, and kind of puzzling when I got to it, now I can see that Cassidy was doing the best he could, and maybe “Cherish” shouldn’t have been chosen for him, but he was only 21; he didn’t have enough experience to dig down to the roots of the song, and his audience most likely wouldn’t care anyway. 
The “frightening intensity” that did make many itch will be arriving very soon; but first we will be soaring into space with another utterly direct and sincere man.
*I am sure there were a number of boys who crushed on him too; he was chosen to play Keith because of his androgynous looks, after all.    
**This is probably why they don't get name-dropped that much; six-part harmony groups are harder to form than your average duo/trio/quartets, after all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

No Agony Please, We're British: Vicky Leandros: "Come What May (Apres Toi)"

And now to the winner of 1972's Eurovision, to a song that was sung originally in French as "Avec Toi" but was translated into English as "Come What May."  Leandros was born in Greece but was asked by Luxemburg to represent them at Eurovision in '68 (I have no idea how that would happen, by the way - perhaps it's because she was brought up in Germany?) where she placed a more than respectable fourth place; and so she returns again, with an anthem of love - all the typical tropes are here ("my life changed completely the moment I met you" and "yesterday is very far away" are the main messages of the song, beyond her loyalty and love for her Other).  Yes, this is an unabashed love song, of the kind that automatically gets versions sung in various languages, yet is immediately understandable even if you don't comprehend what she is singing.  The feeling of relief and triumph are here, a kind of stark testifying that might grip the hearts of the Housewives of Valium Court and remind them of their own decisions of the past, ones made with equal conviction and heroic quality.  The French lyrics, however, take the song to a more intimate corner, where she is comparing how she feels when she is with the Other and when she is not; she is singing to let her Other know that she has "les main vides, le coeur sans joie" and the song ends with the ambiguous but hopeful "je pourrai peut-etre/donner de ma tendresse/mais plus rien de mon amour."

All of which is to say that in English this is an utterly straightforward song, clear as can be; but in French (which was the basis of the other versions, I presume) it is more a song of experience and love that is typically Gallic in its sophistication, more heart-grabbing, more the kind of thing that properly translated could be sung by Scott Walker.  I feel as if the English-speaking audience is being cheated here, that a song that is about the many facets of love and loss is being ironed out into a rah-rah blunt statement of near-slavish devotion that is just plain embarrassing once the original lyrics are understood.  I am not sure who re-wrote the song, but s/he did the original version (co-written by Leandros' father, Leo) an injustice.  In French, she sings about living after him as the shadow of her Other's shadow; in English, she seems to give up everything for this man, not once telling him how things will be for her if he leaves her; and so a fine Eurovision winner is more than just lost in translation; it is simplified for an audience that is presumed to be too...something....for such a song to work.  What that something is, is in part what I am working towards here; the answer is not going to be pretty, I'm afraid.

Next up:  back to the 60s via a 70s pin-up. 

Boogie Transfer: Ringo Starr: "Back Off Boogaloo"

It happened one night:  Ringo Starr had Marc Bolan over for dinner - by this time they were friends (who knows when they had met, but Starr like all the ex-Beatles loved T. Rex's music).  Starr was inspired by Bolan's own burbling language at the table - including the word 'boogaloo' - and while about to go to sleep this song came to him.  He managed to record it on tape and then recorded it with George Harrison both producing and playing lead guitar.  Such an event was rare in Starr's life - he isn't a very prolific songwriter - but Bolan's energy and prescence were enough to get Starr to write a song all by himself, one that is a rough shambling boogie, a kind of proclamation. 

Unlike Lennon or McCartney it's hard to figure out what 'message' might be here - besides a general wake-up call to this mysterious figure who has "wallpaper shoes" and who has been pretending to be dead.  Was it a song aimed at McCartney?  The subconscious sometimes says things that can be interpreted any which way, and McCartney may be the target, but it's far more Bolan-influenced than anything else, and a general call to all musicians to get their act together, and realize something new is happening.   

Indeed at this time T.Rex were the biggest band in the UK and by far the most inspiring; David Bowie and Elton John, also friends of his, were to write songs about him as well (Bowie's was "The Prettiest Star" from Aladdin Sane and Elton's was "I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol" from Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player both from 1973).  Who knows how many future musicians would see T. Rex in person or on Top of the Pops and instantly want to get onstage with a guitar to do some boogalooing of their own?  This song is just part of the "TRextasy" that existed at this time*.  The boys and the girls were united here as they were divided elsewhere; T.Rex's success would help others to get to glam stardom as well, but none of the groups or individuals who came after were quite like T.Rex.  Those who saw him sensed that this was an apotheosis of rock, this is what it must have been like in the 50s to hear something on the radio and know it was yours, it was new, and that it was righteous.  T.Rex somehow had that elegance and balance down, a sexuality that was both airy and groovy at the same time.  Bolan could give Starr the confidence to write a song, and while Bowie and Elton were already fully-formed personalities of their own, I like to think that they also picked up something from him, as well.  This gift was instantaneous; a fresh breeze blowing all the old 60s dust away.  What would happen next in this raw and charged atmosphere?  Suddenly,it seemed anything could happen, and T.Rex and Marc Bolan in particular are the main reason for that. 

Next up:  Greece is the word.     

*Born To Boogie is a movie by Ringo Starr about T.Rex and features them in concert at Wembley, marking the peak of T.Rex's fame.  Elton John also appears in it, and don't worry dear readers, we will be getting to him soon.    

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Guys and Dolls: The New Seekers: "Beg, Steal or Borrow"

And now we are back into The Void; but something else is afoot as well.  When I think of the 70s in a word-association kind of way, I think of one word – glamour.  But I think of another too:  equality*.  Balance.  A sense of things evening out; of the scales finally coming to some sort of rest. 

On the one side there are the glam hordes, and on the other, there’s bands like this – The New Seekers – who are solid family fare, an aural equivalent of a whole wheat sandwich and an apple for your lunch.  They are, indefatigably, good in that healthy way which no doubt helped them at Eurovision, where this song, as it does here, came second.  (I get to the winner in a short while, don’t worry.)  Their coordinated outfits and similar hairstyles (and lengths!) all add to a kind of glamorous uniformity, like so many dolls on display, gleaming and bright and sparkly and happy, buoyantly happy in that way that a band who’ve just had a huge hit earworm single could only be.  Their joy negates any actual desperation in the song, as if they would never have to beg or borrow for anything else in their lives – why should they? – with their floor-length gowns and velvet suits.  I am guessing that against this wall of happiness most other Eurovision contestants didn’t have a chance, and I’m also guessing there was a certain group in Sweden taking close notes on their harmonies – they too had two female and two male singers, and wanted to win Eurovision themselves. 

But back to the idea of balance – there was the glam rockers on one side, the wholesome (and overwhelmingly girl-friendly) families of Partridge and Osmond on the other, with T.Rex there in the middle, appealing to everyone.  I don’t want to make this into some kind of battle between good and evil; between the awesome forces of rock fighting the cheery battalions of pop.  By now anyone truly interested in such battles has stopped buying singles and is buying prog albums instead.  The balance here is one of gender:  nothing more, nothing less.  I know that boys liked the two women in The New Seekers (Lyn Paul and Eve Graham) but I’m talking about other gut-level instincts here; ones that are attracted to the silly otherworldly and loud glam side, or the someone-help-me-pleas of the boys, along with odes to love like this one.  Right now there is something for everyone, the scales balance, and T. Rex keep both sides more than happy.  That this song is in The Void is probably due to its near-win at Eurovision; it’s a nice song, the kind of song (written by Tony Cole, Steve Wolfe and Graeme Hall) that serves its purpose but doesn’t stick like the Coke-ad-rework “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” (the hit that was in part why they had such confidence at Eurovision) for instance**.  The UK was unafraid to send current hitmakers to Eurovision at the time; it sent Cliff Richard yet again the next year with the oompah-dumb (in a likable way, but still) “Power To All Our Friends” which resides even further down The Void than this song does… 

Pop was ever thus; but somehow in balancing things, extremes had to be reached, limits tested; the safe middle was exactly where a lot of eager-to-be-thrilled boys didn’t want to be.  I’m going to explore that idea in a while, but first there are a few more songs including two which are also odes in their own way; a celebration of the now and a pause to ponder the past, present and future.

Next up:  the man of the moment.

*The struggle for equality from my American perspective is in the feminist movement; that movement still exists, but crucially as a girl in the 70s it was important that I simply knew that it was there in the first place.  In the UK, as far as I can tell, things were different; I will be getting back to this in a future post.

**North American readers will know that they recorded the main theme to the 70s kid-liberation classic Free To BeYou And Me - a work which sadly remains unheard of in the UK to this day, as far as I can tell. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Death Is Not The End: Don McLean: "American Pie"

There are some songs which I grew up hearing on the radio in an uncritical way (for the first few years I simply listened to everything I could and soaked it all up like a sponge, without much of an opinion most of the time) that I understood, and others I would learn to understand…and then there’s this song.

I suspect that you, dear readers, either love or loathe this song; that it somehow either makes some grand sense or that it is a load of old whiffle and not worth much examination.  Well, this here blog exists in part to look at these old DJ-favorite warhorse songs, the ones that purport to say something - about not just the singer’s psyche but a whole generation’s psyche – and who knows how much brain time has already been dedicated to figuring out what this song means, over the decades. 

Now, I’m not sure if I have the stamina to go through every single line of the song* but I figure that if Don McLean is trying to tell us something, then it’s worth trying to decode what it is, and maybe root around a little deeper to figure out what is really going on here.  This is a folk song, lest we forget, about rock ‘n ‘ roll; it is about one day, and everything after.

“A long, long time ago-“ Ok, now, hold it there.  A long, long time ago?  Are we going back to some pre-WWI time when jazz was invented?  Hm, what?  1959?  That’s not a long time ago!  That is (from 1972’s terms) just over a decade or so!  Since when is that a long time ago?  Already McLean is messing with our minds, trying to yank listeners out of their own inner chronology.  This is his 1959 he’s talking about; that cold day, the day that the music died. 

Well, Jesus H. Christ on a skateboard, the music died?  Or maybe I should write it as The Music died?  At the time I first heard this, I knew nothing of Buddy Holly, so the rest of the song made little sense, besides the general puzzle of why anyone would have “drove my Chevy to the levee” upon hearing the news**.  Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a plane crash in early February 1959, the day (Rock) Music died.  This much is known, and that is where this song resides – with the “Good ol’ boys” who sit around drinking and pretty much figure that’s it, as far as music is concerned***.  Already we are in the corner of a rather narrow room, so to speak, and then McLean gives us the rest of the story, full of sock hops and pickup trucks, none of which could really help him cope with Holly’s death.  And then

Then we get a potted history of rock music in the 60s.  It is fairly obvious that this is a song by a Baby Boomer for other Baby Boomers; indeed one of the reasons it did so well in the first place is that it became an anthem for them, was #1 in the US for a month, in fact.  Now, I can’t do much about being from this generation or that; but what I can say is that this song represents to them (or at least a lot of them; I hate to generalize) a certain truth.  An emotional truth, but not really a factual one, but rock ‘n’ roll is long on myth and sentiment and short on facts.  Thus, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll the piece on Buddy Holly refers to McLean’s song without attribution early on; and there’s a strange denial of events by Greil Marcus, who should really know better, as to what was exciting in music – in his essay on The Beatles, he says that before they arrived “Rock and roll – the radio – felt dull and stupid, a dead end.”  This after writing a piece on girl groups where he says:  “If you were looking for rock and roll between Elvis and The Beatles, girl groups gave you the genuine article.”  Well, which is it?  In truth, there was an awful lot happening between Elvis and The Beatles, and you, dear readers, pretty much already know the roll call:  The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the rise and rise of Motown, Phil Spector, surf rock, the Impressions – the list goes on and on, and yet I can still sense Marcus’ tut-tutting of a lot of this.  Holly’s death was a symbolic one for a loss of innocence; he died, guilty of nothing more than wanting to travel warmly, and the rest of the original rock ‘n’ rollers either joined the Army or got into girl trouble, to put it mildly.  The music kept right on coming, as it always does. 

And now, back to the song.  The middle part, as I said before, is something of a history, and when I was in my sponge mode I would always space out a bit here, as I had very few clues as to what he was going on about.  The King and Queen, for instance.  I didn’t grow up in a household where Elvis was talked about at all, so I had no idea he was the King, and I still have no idea who the Queen is.  The Jester is Bob Dylan**** who somehow steals the King’s “thorny crown”, though just how this happened in real life I have yet to figure out.  People have thankfully given up calling anyone the new Dylan, but Dylan was not then the new Elvis – Elvis was Elvis, and that was that.  (That Dylan sings in a voice “that came from you and me” is a bit much; unless he’s saying that his literal voice is more like the public’s than, oh, Bobby Darin’s, for instance.)  Then there’s a trial (?), then Lenin and Marx are thrown in as signifiers and maybe puns as The Beatles show up, and The Byrds somehow get involved in a football game (“the players tried for a forward pass”:  do any of The Byrds look athletic to you?) while Dylan is injured, and The Beatles return with Sgt. Pepper during half-time; they refuse to leave the field so the players can get on with the game, so I guess the game is called off.  The Rolling Stones (in case you were wondering where they were) turn up as the bad guys, making the narrator oh so angry.  “Fire is the Devil’s only friend*****” he says, out of nowhere.  “Satan laughs in delight” as Altamont and so forth (funny how Woodstock, the ur-Baby Boomer event if there ever was one, isn’t mentioned) happen and the decade ends…

…and there is our narrator, asking a girl who sings the blues for happy news (completely unsure about who this might be; Joni Mitchell perhaps?  Laura Nyro?  No clue) and he goes to the “sacred store” where the man who works there says most pathetically that “the music wouldn’t play” as if all the turntables in the world were now possessed by the devil himself and would only work backwards, or something.  Then the “three men” he admires the most – “the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” also disappear.  At the time I first was getting to know this song, I had utterly no idea what that meant, either in the original or in the tortured metaphors of the song.  Albert Ayler once said that “Trane was the Father, Pharoah is the Son and I am the Holy Ghost”; apparently here it’s Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin.  And thus the music has died all over again, rock and roll is effectively finished, and the folk singer is here to say, I guess, that those awful Rolling Stones and in a way The Beatles did the deed.  They killed it, and the good ol’ boys go down to the levee to perhaps throw themselves in, but it’s dry, so they just get drunk themselves.  A silent rust has set in; the sing-a-long quality of the song – and really, this is a kid’s song gussied up for grown-ups – coerces that death out and out, until all that seems to happen is that “the music” dies repeatedly, whether it is by actual deaths of musicians or the death of certain scenes.  The world is now a cold and quiet place, the narrator implies; and rock and roll is indeed gone.

And yet, and yet.  If I go back to this year for a moment where I can clearly remember things, it is this one:  I am with my aunt Debbie.  She has driven me over to her new place – I can still remember the wicker things in the bathroom – and while we’re in the car the radio is on; the engine is quiet enough and the radio is loud enough so I can hear the song.  It’s “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield.  I know immediately without question it is a great song (it would take me a whole post here to explain why) and if anyone had told me at that moment that “the music wouldn’t play” I would have looked at them blankly, as if they were crazy.  And when I heard this song for the first time about six years later, it would seem to me that this is someone else’s story; that trying to shoehorn in Christianity into this story was awkward at best and inexplicable at worst; and I knew from my upbringing that there was plenty of good music from the 60s that had nothing to do with rock and roll, so what is the point? 

I suppose McLean was trying to sum up the experiences of a generation, those who were so utterly hopeful in the early 60s and then found themselves “lost in space” as he says (oddly enough, Vietnam isn’t mentioned in the song either – then again, it was still happening).  But the generalization that somehow turns every listener into those “good ol’ boys” even if they’re girls – that “we” are all supposed to remember things “we” learned, all went over my head.  I could tell he didn’t like The Rolling Stones but as they were favorites of my mom, well, what about that?  That both Dylan and Elvis make comebacks at the end of the decade is forgotten – gets in the way of the plotline, I suppose – and for someone who claims “I dig those rhythm and blues” the death of Otis Redding is strangely avoided. 

But back to Mayfield:  “Superfly” was just one song of many that started to appear after the epochal Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On album (crucially “Family Affair” was #1 before “American Pie”), ones where some truths about life were starting to be told.  In the UK some of these songs charted, though a lot of them sold in “specialist” shops, so the sales were not included in the regular charts; you can imagine my puzzlement as I looked for Mayfield’s hit only to draw a blank.  "American Pie" is a melodramatic look back at something; it virtually asks its listeners to wallow in the past.  It is retrograde where Mayfield is singing of the now, and now is where music lives.   

In the UK I suppose “American Pie” is taken as given as a song of Americana; Holly kept having hits in the UK long after the US, and in a way didn’t figuratively “die” here in quite the same way. (The whole British Invasion is based in part on Holly’s music, which I like to think would have pleased and surprised him.)  In a way I am not the audience for this song; I never was, even as a kid.  As a history lesson it is flawed at best; I can never forget while listening that I am not part of the “we” and the communal loss of innocence is not something I can share directly, unless I look towards my own experiences of loss – and as I recall at at least one time, it didn’t touch half my friends the way it touched me.  Mass mourning of musicians still happens, but it’s more fragmented now; harder to put into words, let alone a mix-up of religion and football.  And always I trust the musician directly as opposed to someone singing about them******; one can only wonder what Dylan or The Byrds or indeed The Rolling Stones think of this song, for instance.  (Or The Crickets, for that matter – they kept playing, the music didn’t die for them.)  Lamenting the death of a musician is fine, remembering them is fine, but trying to fit in a potted history is asking too much – like too many different flowers in a bouquet.  The best way to remember is to listen; to pay tribute and play the music and know that it will live on.               

*This isn’t The Explicator, at least not the last time I looked.

**I will get back to this in a bit, don’t worry.

***In the UK these people are Teddy boys; there is no equivalent of them in the US, as such, besides the umbrella term “good ol’ boys” (who generally speaking like country music, anyway).

****As things go, Dylan played piano the day after Holly’s death at the scheduled concert; Bobby Vee filled in for Holly.  Even in that literal sense, “the music” didn’t die; it just got played by different musicians.

*****As my husband’s first wife Laura said out loud upon hearing this:  “Fucking godhead shite!” and quite right, too.

******If you want to hear an album about a musican’s impending death that is lovely and beautiful and heartbreakingly great, it’s J Dilla’s Donuts.  That he is an inspiration to everyone coming out of Detroit is also a fitting tribute, I feel.