Thursday, April 23, 2009

13 Greatest Albums: The Sex Pistols - 'Never Mind The Bollocks'

Ever since I can remember I've been angry. It has taken me 40 years to realize that this is not anything brought on by external forces. It is primal. It is soulful. Denying that anger is a baseline for me would be like arguing that my teeth were artificially implanted in my head.

I don't know of any other album that more perfectly captures the sense of what a fit of anger feels like.

The Sex Pistols 'Never Mind The Bollocks' album is a work of art so perfectly realized that you can almost be fooled into thinking that it is artless, that it is the pure form of what it expresses. In other words, it so perfectly embodies rage that one could mistakenly label it as merely an after-effect of rage, instead of a masterful evocation of it.

The music industry was so threatened by these guys that they thought they had no choice but to deride this as mere juvenile ranting, the bark and howl of an underclass that is not worth a nickel. They didn't mind making money off of it but they sure as shit weren't going to hold it up and say, "This is a flawless work." Which it is.

In the 32 years since it was released (!?$#?), music has exploded. Rage has become an economic juggernaut. Volume has increased, censorship both implied and explicit has ebbed, and no one is shocked when they encounter uncomfortable topics presented with all the unpleasant details right out front.

But when The Sex Pistols hit the scene, this was far from the case. They were unseemly. They were unruly. They had unabashed scorn for anything that smacked of the establishment. They hated hippies as much as businessmen. Those baby boomers who thought their softly strummed odes to fucking while stoned were going to change the world were the biggest resisters to the noise and clamor of these hooligans.

Lost in all of that is a gem of a record. Sid Vicious killed more than a couple of junkies that night in the Chelsea Hotel. He also killed any real chance that The Sex Pistols had to be viewed as anything other than an aberration, instead of a meteor.

Getting back to the changes in the record industry, what strikes me is that, as comfortable as everyone has gotten with rote expressions of anger and disappointment (nu metal, grunge, rap/rock, gangsta rap, emo-core, etc.), 'Bollocks' puts it all to shame. Even me with my affinity for anger, for loud uncompromising music, even I find myself wanting to tell Johnny Rotten to shut the hell up, to behave, to act like a gentleman. He is relentless in his vocal attack, seeming to rip convention to shreds with every line.

And this clarity extends right into the production of the album itself. This was no mere angry spurt. The sound of that album is like a chainsaw with a grudge. It is as clear as a bell which gives the emotional content even more weight because they aren't willing to let you escape one second of it via a muddy mix, a muffled drum beat, a garbled lyric. Each musical moment is like a shining dagger headed right for your chest.

Thrilling challenging exasperating alienating incriminating and exterminating. The Sex Pistols killed the 1960's and it was about the fuck time.

As I mentioned at the top, I am almost always angry on a cellular level. Somehow if you were able to test my DNA for rage you'd get an off the charts reading. If you could trace anger itself as an evolutionary force you would slide into the DNA and travel back in time through each scream, each punch, each threat, each explosion. And lo and behold, at the beginning of it all, at the moment that God created anger, you would hear his booming voice in the halls of heaven. He would warn you about the evils of this emotion, how it will warp you and rob you of human connection.

And The Sex Pistols would burst in and say, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

14 Greatest Albums: The Rolling Stones - 'Beggar's Banquet'

Stones fans will most likely take issue with this choice and I understand. They have better albums. 'Exile On Main Street' is like a time prefigures about 8 different musical genres. It is like its own cottage industry. 'Some Girls' is probably my favorite with a sound that is like the collective energy that accumulates from every stripper in New York City the split second before they start their burlesque.

But 'Beggar's Banquet' is the one that came first for me.

In high school, as I've repeatedly said, I was a punk. I rejected a lot of the mainstream music I heard, a prejudice which was retroactive to hits of the '60's. Anything that wasn't written and recorded in a teenager's basement by angry 1980's punks was a golden oldie for me.

Into that wall of judgment came 'Beggar's Banquet'. At this point I knew 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' and didn't like it. I probably knew 'Start Me Up' and didn't like it. And I especially didn't like 'Sympathy For The Devil' which was the ULTIMATE establishment rock song. They played it 3 times a day on the classic rock station. Everyone knew the 'woo-woo' bit and everyone over-inflated the depth of the thing itself.

How I wound up with the cassette is a story that has escaped my memory. Why I delved in at all when I considered The Stones to be hopelessly passe...this too has flown into the mists of the past.

I'll tell you what I do remember.

Our station wagon didn't have a tape deck so I would pile 27 gigantic batteries into my boom box and tote the thing around with me wherever I went. Usually it held The Replacements, or 7 Seconds, or Minor Threat, or Husker Du, or The Descendents.

But every now and then I'd pop in 'Beggar's Banquet'. Usually the second side. I have a giant streak of the contrarian in me so 'Street Fighting Man' is something of a touchstone. The ease with which The Stones delve into religious territory while keeping all of their edge and raucousness infuses 'Prodigal Son' with, dare I say it, an ecstatic tinge. 'The Stray Cat Blues' is sex on wheels. 'Factory Girl' has a hard-won ramshackle ease that brings to mind a whole neighborhood of good time bars and late night hook-ups. And then 'Salt Of The Earth' shoots a cupid's arrow through it all, tying it up with a shout out to the collective.

If you'd never heard of The Stones and listened to this album, you might do a jig and say, "At last! Wilco had a few cups of coffee before they recorded for once!" Or maybe "Damn, who knew The Jayhawks could actually write good songs?" Or even "Thank God Ryan Adam finally grew some nuts."

Point is, this is the best album of all time and it was recorded 30 years before there was ever a blank dot blank anything.

I must also turn this review back to the personal and admit a deeper reason for my affection for this album. My girlfriend Shannon and I would cruise around the mean streets of South County and crank this sucker. Its echo would still be ringing when I fumbled with her buttons in the parking lot of the Great Swamp under a gorgeous summer night sky.

And that moonlight that visited us, that lit her young beauty from the reaches of outer space, that moonlight, though noiseless, that moonlight sang in my head as I explored the wonder of what lay under her shirt.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

15 Greatest Albums: Rufus Wainwright - 'Rufus Wainwright'

In a dream we all go to the same sad place to mourn our lost love. How such a place can be so beautiful is maddening to us. We wish we could dream ourselves into some post-apocalyptic barren landscape, scorched earth mirroring the inner wasteland that still serves to beat blood into our extremities. But no. Our subconscious is much crueler than that.

That feeling rises in us, that wave of love which is as pristine as the first moment it rose up to break on our shore. This wave contains every moment of passion, every stolen glance, every small gesture of intimacy, every ecstatic coupling, every tearful reunion, every tragic parting, every shared hilarity, every every every. And that wave washes us, in our dream, up the delta of a bursting river. The salt of the ocean slowly ebbs away and the fresh water takes up our weight. It is as if the tears we shed at the end have been dissolved, brought back to a more primal place.

The river, now free of the bitterness of that terrible end, picks up steam as it rushes backwards away from that all-encompassing wave.

On the shore of this river sit monuments to the failed love, gorgeous statues hewed from whatever rock lay closest at hand, trees whittled into murals, birds preening and singing familiar melodies, flowers clutching stems and trying to hold onto the fragrance that once wafted down and over your entwined limbs.

The river speeds. The detail of the passing banks becomes a bit blurred as you move towards the inevitable. You wish the inevitable were a holocaust made visible, a nightmare of epic proportions. But again, our hearts don't help us. The easy out of an awful vision is not afforded to us.

The trees blur, the moments mingle, the river speeds. You can't be going any faster. All of a sudden you stop.

Your dream, the result of your tragic lost love deep in your subconscious, is a waterfall going up. You see fish leap from it and walk away, evolved. Clouds form and elevate. It is the most romantic sight you've ever witnessed.

But everything is over. Everything is over.

In that distant dream mist, in that backwards cataract, this album was born. And the scales on the fish that walk out of that impossible river have a vague memory of the one that got away.

If only we could forget so easy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

16 Greatest Albums: The Beatles - 'The White Album'

This is not your ordinary Top 50 List. First of all, the albums are not in any real order in terms of quality or ranking. I merely search through the muddled ether that serves as my cerebral cortex and I grab onto whatever seems weighty enough to drag my fingers down to the keyboard from their normal position, which is on my skull tearing my hair out.

Putting The Beatles up against anyone else in pop music is unfair. Being a musician in the wake of The Beatles is like claiming to be the Messiah anytime after this guy named Jesus was hanging around. You might be able to do it, you might get a few people to believe in you along the way, but the scope of history is not going to pay you much heed.

So let me state that if this were any kind of conventional list, the 13 official album releases of The Beatles would be #'s 1 thru 13 and everyone else would be a very distant 14 thru 50.

Since it is an unconventional list, I am picking the album that is sort of like the Sesame Street song...'one of these things is not like the other'.

'The White Album'. Right away there is something subversive going on because everyone knows the album by a title which is incorrect. Out of all of their albums, THIS one is the one The Beatles were comfortable saying, 'This is The Beatles' about. As an artist, I look on that as a very significant gesture on their part.

The two previous albums had been 'Sgt. Pepper's' and 'Magical Mystery Tour', both of which fictionalize the band to a certain degree. There is a level of myth and creation that sets them apart, that separate the listener from the band. This has its own set of pleasures. And as I said, either of those albums could go at # 1 on any list and it would not be inappropriate.

But if you want a real idea of what it was like to be one of those 4 guys trapped inside of that nuclear bubble of fame, creativity, politics, cultural upheaval, Cold War posturing, media explosion, the dismantling of accepted sexual structure...this is the album to listen to. And those 4 guys collectively said, "This album is The Beatles."

(In a very interesting side note that undercuts everything I've just been typing, legend has it that they wanted to call the album "A Doll's House" but some band called Family released a similarly titled album earlier in the year. I could write 17 books about this one fact. Or read 29 books about it. Or both.)

I just got overwhelmed by merely looking at the track list. I can't go into it. I feel mildly like Nigel Tufnel forbidding Marty DiBergi from even looking at a certain guitar in his collection.

I'll go back to the simple fact that these 4 guys, clearly at the top of their game, having completely restructured the music business, shot a youthful jolt through the crusty bullshit of a decaying outdated moral framework, experienced fame in a completely unprecedented manner...these 4 guys together decided that THIS particular album didn't need an intricate cover, didn't need a clever title, didn't need any trappings WHATSOEVER. All it needed was the packaging material it came in and two words on the cover.

The Beatles.

To speak of these things is dangerous and unnecessary. How can you quantify genius on that scope? Tell me what the universe means. Why is the sky blue. What does it all mean?

I am a false Messiah.