Thursday, January 4, 2018

Jim Dean from Indiana, Lightning Rose and what blows against the Empire now?

One of my favorite conundrums is the whole art for art’s sake versus art for good’s sake thing. From the dawn of human culture, I would reckon it to have been a pretty constant theme through the ages. Most recently I’ve found my thoughts circling back to Phil Ochs again. Last year, a pretty passionate article ran in the Washington Post lamenting the need for a Phil Ochs-type voice for today’s troubling climate.

Ochs was arguably the most melodic yet uncompromising socially conscious songwriter of his time. Not a small accomplishment given the level of sophisticated competition he was up against – from Bob Dylan to Arlo Guthrie and beyond. Although he never managed to score an evergreen hit song to carry him to the next level of fame and stardom, Phil Ochs did write some genuine classic songs and timeless melodic material. If any criticism could be laid at his doorstep, it would be an occasional restlessness in his melodic singing lines. Well, if you had as wonderful a voice as Phil had, you’d probably want to show it off too! What’s more – he had the literary chops (way better poet than Jim Morrison for sure!) AND a visionary idea of melding the folk tradition with a more sophisticated, “serious” (classical?) music tradition. His brilliant album Pleasures of the Harbor was a bold statement lyrically and musically. Was the decision to place his songs in a more mature, sophisticated kind of production a result of this idea to “beautify” the art to contrast the ugliness of the times?

When I was just getting out of high school I had the opportunity to see the reformed FUGS in Woodstock NY (close to where I lived). Over time I started adding Fugs records to my collection. The earlier albums were more raw and rock-n-roll oriented. When I found an import LP of “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest” I was surprised at the somewhat overproduced nature of the material.
There was one genuine good ol’ psychedelic rock song - “Crystal Liason”. Aside from that, the record struck me as oddly mature sounding for a group known as the “East Coast” version of The Mothers. I was a few years off hearing the live Fugs at the Fillmore East album (which captured the more rocking and uninhibited side of the band). So it puzzled me why The Freaky Fugs went kinda softee for some tracks – or so it seemed to me then. Of course I really like “ICIMHH” a lot now. What I came to realize only a few years ago was the likely inspiration – the influence of Phil Ochs on the Fugs to incorporate more sophistication in the presentation of the music. One of the relevent vocal refrains on the Fugs album can be found on the song “When the Mode of the Music Changes”. Ed Sanders sings the line “when beauty barks I heel….” – a slightly wacky way to express the effect of art on the “savage beast” I suppose. If the goal for Ochs and The Fugs was to possibly infiltrate the mainstream airwaves with a more polished production, the outcome unfortunately fell short. They were both too sophisticated – and arty – for mainstream America. And the glossier sound didn’t win over the rock and roll freaks. A commercial miscalculation, alas. 

As John Fahey once pointed out  - it is more commercially viable to write songs about the vague, sentimental side of American life (like happy train songs) than it is to write about the difficult topics like what fears people harbor that prevent them from speaking up when fellow humans are being mistreated or worse (A Small Circle of Friends)! Phil’s talents – as potent as they were – didn’t generate that one song to endear him to mainstream America. His audience was specialized and held him to a particular standard. Did this impose a limit to his appeal? He was good at being who he was. To be something else would be false. Maybe this partly explains the “Greatest Hits” album?
The irony would have been amazing if that record did contain some surprise hits! Was he courting fate or was it an admission of his own limitations? Perhaps both! For me, this record contains a truly transcendent piece of work - “Jim Dean From Indiana”. God, what a beautiful melody – beyond fantastic. Something that could easily place him in the category of Brian Wilson (in the Pet Sounds era). Listen here:
Folks have theorized Jim Dean is not only an obvious play on James Dean the actor, but of Phil himself – a semi-autobiographical song. I can’t verify the accuracy on that assumption. What impresses me most is the brilliant combination of craft and heart. Phil Ochs put his life into his work – and lived every note he sung. With a firm belief that his work made a difference – to uplift those struggling against the oppressive modern forces of the world. His songs still resonate, perhaps sad to admit. We are fortuntate to have them to shore up our spirits today.
A somewhat different legacy was left by Paul Kantner – whose music and work I admire greatly, though sometimes I like to think of him as “the luckiest guy in rock and roll”. Why? Paul managed to pilot two successful bands – the Airplane and the Starship – despite never writing a hit song himself! And he wasn’t much of a singer either. Yet, he was a visionary with a purpose! Actually he did have a hit album – Blows Against The Empire which won a Hugo award as a science fiction work. It would make sense then with the implosion of the Jefferson Airplane, the new group formed in its wake would be called Jefferson Starship (the name was first used as a “tag” for his solo LP in 1970).  In both cases of the Jeffersons Airplane and Starship – Kantner managed a successful formula that worked to support his grander ambitions of rock and roll revolutionary songwriting. The formula went like this: every album would have at least ONE radio-friendly “hit” while the rest of the record (or major parts) were devoted to the socially-conscious and experimental aspects of his vision. That’s it. Sounds easy, but amazingly he rode that wave in such expert fashion – quite a legacy! I was reminded of this when listening to the last Jefferson Starship LP on the RCA / Grunt imprint – Nuclear Furniture.
This record is almost universally loathed – especially by the Jefferson Airplane fans – as the final step in the transformation of a once great radical 60s hippie band to a bland 80s pop hit joke (as just “Starship”). Yet, what drew me to the record were the hit songs I heard on the radio – liked them then and like them now, thanks in part to the great production of Ron Nevison. Jefferson Starship were hardly the only 60s act seeking radio hits in the early 80s. Santana was doing it and had hits. Yes totally updated their sound and had the biggest hits of their career, right? So why doesn’t Kantner get any respect? In fact, Kantner’s material on Nuclear Furniture is co-written with the legendary Weavers singer Ronnie Gilbert – the thematic songs about Paul’s sci-fi heroine Lightning Rose. The Rose character made her debut on the 1979 LP Freedom At Point Zero (which led off with the blistering hit song “Jane” – if you don’t think that song rocks I feel sorry for you!).
On Nuclear Furniture, Rose is cast as a survivor of a nuclear holocaust – a topic that roared back to life in the early 80s and pretty much scared the shit out of anyone with a pulse. Even Sun Ra got inspired to compose his anti-nuclear war song in those years:
Even though Jefferson Starship doesn’t get much hipster attention these days, it ought to be noted that Paul Kantner managed to grab the brass ring Phil Ochs kept leaping for – and rang that bell for all it was worth – to make way for his message music. And those message songs are, like Phil Ochs songs, still relevant and necessary to hear today. I’m so glad I got to see Paul Kantner live a few times before his exit off the planet. Even though the shows I saw were not the Jefferson Starship in its prime, there still is nothing like the sound of Paul Kantner’s glorious acoustic 12 string guitars and eletric Rickenbacker guitars chiming through a nice loud concert soundsystem. God I sure miss that sound! Along with his idealism which never wavered – his calls for progressive, humanistic society – a true Great Society. Paul Kantner was pure rock and roll punk to the core. An unapologetic, critical thorn in the side of The Establishment. Of course, I didn’t know him as a person. Yet, from his work I feel confident to believe he was on the RIGHT side of the fight.

Between the release of Nuclear Furniture and his re-generating of the Jefferson Starship in the 1990s, Kantner wasted no time in re-assembling some Airplane alumni for a record as the KBC Band. And what is the very first song on side one of that album? A brave homage to Phil Ochs’ musician friend from Chile – Victor Jara – who was brutally murdered during the Pinochet overthrow in the early 70s.
 Please name me ONE current musician who gets regular play on major radio – with a release on a major record label – who is doing anything nearly as amazing as what Paul Kantner did on that KBC album! Ummmmmmm….. here’s your answer: not a fucking ONE! Bono? Oh, please.

So – for any of Paul Kantner’s critics who say he sold out with all those Jefferson Starship hits – it wasn’t Kantner who sold out. Those hit songs were good radio friendly songs and if they lured people into buying the albums with the message songs on them – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Maybe Kantner’s stuff wasn’t always melodic and catchy music – true enough. As a vehicle to get people to the Jefferson Starship shows, those hit songs were essential to the cause. And, at least until the 1990s, Kantner had enough clout with major record companies who were willing to put out his stuff with the less commercial material intact. In the continued era of “lowest common denominator music” such a feat is unthinkable. What major company would be willing to take that kind of calculated risk now? All that’s left is the steady corporate hummmmmmmmm of complacency and apathy. Or so it seems. I’m convinced Gil Scott-Heron was right – the revolution will NOT be televised. The corporate conglomerates would never allow that to happen. 

Over the past bunch of years I’ve been checking out some new bands and new releases just to see if there is anything worth listening to. And, certainly from a musical standpoint, there is a LOT of great new music. Even if I’m missing where the protest music is hiding (does it exist at all??) – here are some musically worthwhile platters to take note of:

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
I took a chance on purchasing this LP "blind" - no exposure to the music before the money changed hands. I had a hunch this band might be influenced by my favorite German band CAN and I was right (Spoon was the record label for Can). Although Spoon (the band) is more commercial than their inspiration I was pleasantly surprised to hear an enjoyable blend between modern pop and experimental-esque modern rock music. Of course, I'm a bit late to the party since Spoon has been around awhile. What this really means though is - plenty of back catalog releases to plunder in the years ahead. Works for me!

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
I have to admit I've only played this a handful of times and, as such, have merely scratched the surface of what's in the grooves. Aimee Mann has had a long and acclaimed career since her debut with the 80s group 'Til Tuesday. Liked her then and I still like her now. This beautiful LP was delivered to my door for about $13 - a steal! I look forward to more spins in the near future. For that price, why not grab one too?

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
The much-anticipated new release (and major-label debut) from this great new (to me) band. This record builds where Lost in the Dream left off, but doesn't re-tread the same territory. I didn't get the nifty limited-edition green vinyl pressing, but at this point I'm more interested in the music. Gads, I can't remember the last time I bought a new vinyl LP from a new group on the Atlantic record label. Wonders never cease. A bit bummed I didn't get to see them live back in the fall, but maybe next time!

Randy Newman – Dark Matter
Oh, I've really gone head over heels about Randy Newman in the last year. The new record is great - especially if one is looking for some balance to the current state of the Union! Some very emotional songs included here as well. Not just discontent. Newman is a pro, folks! Catch an earful while you can. Missed seeing him live as well - bugger!

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood
I did NOT miss seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie live back last February. And that show - attended the night after I saw Arthur Brown in New York City - was the second hit of a ONE - TWO punch of live music intensity I hadn't witnessed in a long time. Holy Moly was she awesome. I am a major fan of hers - and the new album (top picture) is first rate stuff. I can also recommend her first album (bottom picture) - her talent was a force to be reckoned with right out of the gate. I'm so smitten with Buffy Sainte-Marie I have to save more stories for next time. I understand she has a totally new album coming out soon. I hope to see her live show again too! Oh, yeah!!

Beck – Colors
Okay - so I really liked the last album and bought this on the strength of that. Yet, I don't feel this is up to the same standard. Way more poppy and that's okay to hear. It just hasn't grabbed me so far. Not giving up, of course. I'll get back to you on this one............

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
Okay - this may be my favorite of 2017. Courtney Barnett I'd heard before (have a download of one of her other albums) - Kurt Vile not until this. Guess what? Love it! These two compliment each other so well it's a joy and wonder. Been playing it a lot. Don't wait to get this album - highly recommended!!

The Above – There Is A Reason
Here's a great new garage-rock independent release from The Above. I ordered this via their bandcamp website. Totally catchy rock and roll. I'd love to see these guys live. They also make great videos! Watch and listen here:

Dany Laj and The Looks – Alive & Kicking
The new LP from Dany Laj and the Looks takes refreshing new chances in the songwriting department as well as the production. Overall a much more cohesive and rocking release than their previous LP Word on the Street - though I love that record too! I also look forward to checking them out live. Can't wait to rock out with this great band! Buy their records so you know all the words to sing along when you go see 'em near you!!

Terry Adams – Talk Thelonious
Terry Adams is one of the greatest living interpreters of Thelonious Monk's music. He has studied, performed and championed Monk's art for decades. This LP is a few years old now, but it sounds fresh and vital. Even if you don't know who Monk is - or who Terry Adams is (the longtime leader of NRBQ) - just get this record. It will blow your mind in the most enjoyable way imaginable.

Heron Oblivion – The Chapel
Heron Oblivion is apparently a bit of an underground rock "supergroup". Again - I bought this "blind" and was totally shocked! Get this - drummer Meg Baird is also the lead vocalist and sounds a lot like (though not identical to) Sandy Denny! Add to that a heaping amount of molten, flowing beefy toned psych-grunge guitar playing - this album was recorded live and just blew my doors down! Are there any vinyl copies left from the limited edition run? Better grab one while you can, squire!

Willa and Company – Better Days
Speaking of great singers - please do yourself a favor and snag a copy of this wonderful blues and soul singer's first release at the website above. Willa is a very talented singer and songwriter. Her songs have appeared on the blues charts since the summer and continue to generate well-deserved attention. Few new artists are taking American roots music forward like Willa is doing. Highly recommended for positive vibrations in rough waters ahead!

Thanks again for stopping by my little spot on the net. Take care and keep listening!