Sunday, August 25, 2013

Another Look at 'Another Self-Portrait'

The usually sensible Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money took on a heroic task for himself today: reviewing an album he’s neverheard. Actually, it's more than that: Lemieux is attacking a review of an album he’s never heard, and giving the reasons for why that review – of an album he’s never heard, remember – is not just wrong-headed, but downright corrupt.

The album in question is Dylan’s Another Self Portrait, and the review is David Fricke’s rave in Rolling Stone, which calls the record "one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released.” Lemieux thinks that record must perforce be terrible, because Self-Portrait was terrible (hilariously invoking Greil Marcus' contemporaneous outraged pan, as if a review then must be more correct than a review now), and this is mostly a compilation of outtakes from the Self-Portrait era, although it also includes the New Morning era.

Hey, I like Self-Portrait. The cover of “Let It Be Me” features some of Dylan’s tenderest singing (backed by astonishingly good Nashville pros), and the live version of “The Mighty Quinn,” recorded with the Band at the Isle of Wight, is, to my mind, one of the greatest things Dylan ever did. Other people like “Copper Kettle” or the cover of “The Boxer” (which Lemieux himself admits to liking).

Everyone seems to agree that there’s good stuff on Self-Portrait, mixed among way to much chaff. Fricke himself, in this review, describes the original album as “tough going.” If Another Self-Portrait manages to find more of the quality stuff while ignoring the types of songs nobody likes, it’s possible it could be a good record. I don’t know - I haven’t heard it! After all, it’s not like Dylan hasn’t left great material off albums before; Lemieux cites “Blind Willie McTell,” but there’s also “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Abandoned Love,” “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” etc. If he left stuff that good off albums he cared about, it’s highly plausible that he left good stuff off the haphazardly assembled Self-Portrait.

None of that is very interesting, though, and I wouldn’t bring it up if Lemieux hadn’t gone further and accused David Fricke of being dishonest in writing this review. I was fortunate enough to work with David for several years, and I along with everyone who worked alongside him saw him as the consummate professional. Musicians feel the same way; artists ranging from Thom Yorke to Warren Zevon (although I guess that’s just Y to Z) have agreed to sit for interviews with Rolling Stone only if David Fricke got the assignment. People don’t command that kind of respect if their opinions are for sale.

Ah, but Lemieux points out that a decade or so ago, Rolling Stone published an over-the-top five-star review of a Mick Jagger solo album, and that therefore this review must be similarly corrupt. Lemeixu has no way of knowing this, but that was a very different situation. Jagger wanted very much to be on the cover when his solo record came out, and Jann Wenner had enough sense to turn that down, but also ended up feeling guilty enough about it that he wanted to do something to compensate his longtime friend. (While Jann undoubtedly has tremendous respect for Dylan – who doesn’t? – they are not friends, not in the way he and Jagger are.)

And Wenner has no doubt paid the price for that. At this point, pretty much all anyone remembers about Mick Jagger’s solo career is that Rolling Stone published an embarrassing review of one of his albums. And also, there are people like Scott Lemieux who now think every review published in Rolling Stone is dishonest.

But you won’t find David Fricke’s name anywhere near that Jagger review, and it’s an insult to say that based on that episode, Fricke’s work must be suspect as well. Fricke may be right about Another Self-Portrait, and he may be wrong – I don’t know, because I haven’t heard the record! – but I am 100 percent certain that his opinion was come by honestly. He evinced similar enthusiasm for Tell Tale Signs, Dylan’s collection of outtakes from his late-career renaissance, excitedly writing about how you could trace the decisions Dylan was making in his singing as the takes progressed. I guess Lemieux would say that review was bought and sold as well.

On the other hand, Christmas in the Heart got only three stars in Rolling Stone, and Together Through Life four stars. I guess Jann felt it was better to butter up Dylan with inflated reviews of his outtakes rather than of his current material. The review that Lemeiux sees as so obviously corrupt awards Another Self-Portrait four and a half stars, while the reader consensus on the RS Web site awards it four stars; that extra half star must be the one that really matters to the Dylan camp.

Or maybe David Fricke just liked the record. Maybe it really is that good – I don’t know! I haven’t heard it! Since I haven’t, I’ll take the word of a highly respected rock critic who has listened carefully to the album over that of someone who hasn’t heard it (and can’t even be bothered to spell Fricke’s name correctly in his attack). Someone comes off looking pretty bad in this exchange, and it isn’t David Fricke.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Unrehearsed Program of News and Opinions

Issue One: Jack Germond, dead at the age of 85.
For you kiddies too young to remember, "The McLaughlin Group" – an unrehearsed program of news and opinions – was pretty much all we had back in the 1980s as far as political shoutmatches go. CNN was in its infancy, blogs and the Internet weren’t even that far, but every Sunday morning, we could tune in to four journalists and a sybaritic priest* arguing over the issues of the day.

John McLaughlin had been a Jesuit priest and unofficial advisor to the Nixon administration before being defrocked and turning to TV, roughly in that order. He was joined each weekend on his PBS chatfest by the rumpled, cynical Baltimore columnist Jack Germond, who served basically as the group’s Tip O’Neill, an old-fashioned big-city liberal. He was joined by some combination of Eleanor Clift as Pat Schroeder, Fred Barnes as Trent Lott, Morton Kondracke as Sam Nunn, and Pat Buchanan as Pat Buchanan. (They’d also occasionally flatter someone like Mortimer Zuckerman – whose journalism experience consisted of owning U.S. News and World Report – by treating them as if anyone cared about their opinions.)

Issue Two: Does the World Need Another Teddy White?
Germond, along with his partner Jules Witcover, wrote quadrennial doorstops on the presidential elections. I was unfortunate enough to buy and read “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” their book on the 1988 campaign. Not only was the Bush-Dukakis race one of the dullest elections in American history, but they had to misfortune to be outclassed that cycle by one of the best election books ever, Robert Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.” I would quote you something from “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” but I left it in a box labeled FREE BOOKS long ago.

Issue Three: A Stinking Pile of Crap
The genius of "The McLaughlin Group" was that it was the first show to recognize that politics could be fun, especially if it was largely substance-free. No one made any pretense that anyone was being enlightened by it. In an Esquire article on the show, Eleanor Clift called it “the Super Bowl of bullshit.” McLaughlin generally acted like such a buffoon that he was eventually lampooned by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.”

Fred Barnes may have kidded himself that he was making a serious case for something or other, but Germond never fell for that. He made no bones about the fact that he was doing the show for the money. Once his daughter finished medical school, Germond quit the show. He sent John McLaughlin a fax reading simply, “Bye-bye.”

It would be nice if Germond would be remembered for one of his campaign books, or for his charmingly titled memoir "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," but heck, I haven’t even read that. He’ll be remembered as someone who held the banner for old-fashioned liberalism in a period of Reaganism and New Democrats, and as someone who made politics fun. Let’s hope he’s not remembered as someone who paved the way for the likes of "George" and "Politico."

Next week: How much longer can Mort Kondracke hold on?


* Epithet courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On the Cover

I have great affection and respect for Rolling Stone, and the people making its editorial decisions are not only friends of mine but some of the smartest and most professional people I ever had the privilege to work with. Which is why it pains me to say I think that putting the Boston bomber on the cover was an unfortunate decision. Doing an in-depth story on Tsarnaev is a great idea and very much in keeping with Rolling Stone’s historical mission. But putting his picture on the cover is a different animal.

Billy Bob Thornton once said there are two basic cultural signifiers of importance left in America: hosting Saturday Night Live and being on the cover of Rolling Stone. And it’s wrong to make this killer into a figure of cultural importance. It’s unfortunate that the magazine is sort of boxed in by its own history, and unfortunate that Tsarnaev looks like he’s in the Strokes, but there’s no getting around that. He looks like a rock star, not unlike the hundreds of other rock stars who have graced the cover. People wouldn’t be nearly as upset if they had put a middle-aged shlub like the Unabomber on the cover. 

Some people have pointed to the 1970 Charles Manson cover as justification for this one, but that doesn't make much sense. The magazine also gave five stars to the last Mick Jagger solo album, but that wouldn't justify giving five stars to the next one.

And I'm sure the story is fantastic (I haven't read it), but that's also beside the point. No one is upset about publishing the article; they're upset about the seeming glamorization of a terrorist. 

Finally, it sends a horrible message. If you’re a young person of no discernible talent yet you still want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone - which is a highly desirable goal for hundreds if not thousands of young Americans - you can just go out and kill a few people. Years ago, the magazine made the editorial decision to never again mention the name of John Lennon's killer, which is eminently sensible to me. There's no reason to accord fame to someone for committing an atrocity. The same principle ought to apply here.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

You Don't Really Care for Music, Do You?

Thanks to its overexposure on all the various amateur-singing TV shows, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has become one of the most covered songs of our time. But do you know who was the very first person to cover that song? It was none other than our old friend Bob Dylan, who sang it a couple of times on the earliest shows of the Never Ending Tour, in the summer of 1988. Dylan must have gotten the song off Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, which was so prepossessing that CBS refused to release it. That was before Cohen sang it on an episode of Austin City Limits at the end of 1988 - which is where John Cale heard the song and was inspired to record it for the Cohen tribute record I'm Your Fan, which is when it really took off. That's the version Jeff Buckley heard.

That tidbit comes to you from Alan Light's The Holy and the Broken, a biography of "Hallelujah." The book, which is quote good, reminded me of nothing so much as Dave Marsh's Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock'n'Roll song; Including the Full Details of Its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I., and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics.  Both books track a song from its little-known creation by a lone genius, through the cover version that made it a worldwide sensation, and then to a version that even the writer seems a little embarrassed to have to discuss. For Light, it's a version that appeared on a Susan Boyle Christmas (!) album; for Dave Marsh, it was the performance of "Louie Louie" by a kazoo band assembled by a Philadelphia DJ for the purposes of setting a record for the largest kazoo band in history. I wonder if that record still stands. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Silence Night

So let me see if I got this straight: Back in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel released their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., which contained a spare little track called "The Sounds of Silence." The record stiffed, S&G went to England for a while, and, as everyone knows, Dylan producer Tom Wilson invented the remix by overdubbing a rock band onto the original acoustic track. This version became a hit, so much so that it became the title track of the next S&G album.

Well, almost. That album was called Sounds of Silence, with no The. That's not such a huge change, but still.... Can you think of any other albums that are almost named after the hit single? I can't.

But Paul Simon (I presume) wasn't done tinkering with the title. By the time of 1972's Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, the name of the song had been tweaked as well, and was now listed as "The Sound of Silence." It's also listed that way on the track listing for 1982's The Concert in Central Park. According to the official Simon and Garfunkel Web site, the phrase "sound of silence" is used three times in the song, while "sounds of silence" is used but once. So that would explain it.

I guess that's more or less the official title now. The single sleeve you see above is completely obsolete.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's a Long, Long Road

One morning last week, I was listening to an American standards station out of Garland, Texas - many of you probably were as well - when the announcer noted that the date was the anniversary of the opening of Boys Town, the home for orphans in Nebraska, back in 1917. (The town it's in is actually now known as Boys Town, Nebraska, just outside of Omaha.)

The announcer went on to describe a scene in the 1938 Spencer Tracy movie, in which a boy carried his little brother for miles to bring him to the home. When he arrived, someone - possibly even Spencer Tracy, although I haven't seen the movie - asked the boy if it was difficult to carry the boy all that way. He replied, "He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

Now, you probably recognize that as the title of a popular song recorded by the Hollies, which went to Number Seven in 1970. Did you know that phrase dated back to Boys Town? I sure didn't, although there are many things in this world that I do not know. I apologize if I'm telling you something familiar. The phrase fits in well with that 1970, Room 222, hippie generation; those people loved to sling around words like "heavy" and "brother."

Most of the Hollies' early hits has been written by Graham Nash, but he had departed by that point, to be replaced as lead singer by Terry Sylvester of the Swinging Blue Jeans. "He Ain't Heavy" was written by the team of Bobby Scott (who had earlier composed "A Taste of Honey") and Bob Russell, who had primarily written lyrics for songs used in films. Russell was no hippie; he was 55 by the time the Hollies recorded his song, and dead before it came off the charts. Elton John played piano on the track, which I find hard to believe, but there you go.

Neil Diamond took his own version to Number 20 later that same year. But it was the Hollies' version that sounded so sweet coming out of the AM radio on a cool Texas morning:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Babys by the Numbers

Number of Top Forty Hits for the Babys: 3

Total Number of Words in the Titles of Those Hits: 14

Average Length of Those Words, in Letters: 3.36

Length of the Longest Word in Any Babys Hit-Song Title: 5 (in alphabetical order, "Again," "Every" and "Think")

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Roxy Music Album Covers, As Ranked (in Inverse Order) by the Intensity of the Model's Relationship With Bryan Ferry

Manifesto (1978) Model: They're just mannequins.

Flesh + Blood (1980) Models: Apparently, no one knows who they are. They were just models hired by the photographer, and the cover was designed by Peter Saville with no input from Ferry.

Roxy Music (1972) Model: Kari-Ann Muller. No relationship with Ferry that I can find, although she later married Mick Jagger's little brother.

Country Life (1974) Models: Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald. Incredibly, had no personal relationship with Ferry other than to help him translate some lyrics into German for the song "Bitter-Sweet."

Stranded (1973) Model: Marilyn Cole. Ferry had noticed her when she was Playboy's Playmate of the Month for January 1972, and they dated briefly after the shoot. She is now a boxing writer. No, I am not making that up.

For Your Pleasure (1973) Model: Amanda Lear. She was briefly engaged to Ferry, according to Wikipedia, with the affair apparently starting after she had been asked to pose for the cover. This was all in between affairs with Brian Jones(she was the inspiration for "Miss Amanda Jones" on Between the Buttons) and David Bowie, and she also served as a longtime muse for Salvador Dali. Also, may have been born male, which if it's true, the surgeons did a good job.

Siren (1975) Model: Jerry Hall. During the cover shoot, Ferry gallantly held an umbrella over the 19-year-old's body to keep her blue body paint from melting off. She fell for it. Five months later, Ferry proposed to her. The following year, Mick Jagger invited the two of them out for dinner, and later chased her around a Ping Pong table trying to steal a kiss until Ferry ran him off. But in 1977, with Ferry away on tour, Jerry found herself at Studio 54, seated between Mick and Warren Beatty. Mick won, and Jerry dumped Ferry. He never spoke to her again.

Avalon (1982) Model: Lucy Helmore. You can't even see her face, but she was the keeper: She married Bryan Ferry in 1982, and they had four sons together. (Lucy, by the way, is not the dancing socialite in the "Avalon" video.) One of them, Otis Ferry, is a pro-hunting activist in Great Britain. I wonder if he hunts falcons.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Wrath of Cons

Mark and I started watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the other night. It was especially interesting to me because I had never seen any of the original Shatner-Nimoy group of Star Trek movies. Nor have I seen any episodes from the original Shatner-Nimoy series. I haven’t seen the recent J.J. Abrams reboot movie, either. Nor have I seen any episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or any of the feature films therefrom. Or Star Trek: Enterprise. Or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If there are any other iterations of Star Trek, I haven’t seen them either.

I had heard that The Wrath of Khan was the best of the Star Trek movies, but to me it didn’t seem like anything more special than an episode from a TV series. Yes, Shatner is kind of a genius, and the young Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan apprentice captain is pretty easy on the eyes. Montalban has a great time with Khan, whom he had played on the original series and agreed to portray again for the meager sum of $100,000.  But every time there was an explosion or the Enterprise got hit by some sort of enemy fire, there was just a puff of white smoke and the crew sort of threw themselves across the room. Maybe it gets better, but it felt pretty cheesy to me.

One thing that struck me was that the film featured not one, not two, but three actors who had recently played killers on Columbo. William Shatner was a murderous actor, Leonard Nimoy was a murderous doctor, and Ricardo Montalban was a murderous ex-bullfighter. That has to be a record, no? What other film stars three washed-up alpha males?

And we haven’t even finished watching it. Maybe Robert Culp shows up as a Klingon in the last reel.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Nine Tonight

To the best of my knowledge, there were never more than about five people in Wings, which brings up the question of why there are nine suit-clad figures with cutesy pointing-gun fingers on the cover of Band on the Run. The answer is that Paul McCartney wanted to mix in some of the stars of the day in addition to the band members, as sort of a low-rent Sgt. Pepper's cover, for what he called "a bit of a laugh." A very little bit.

Unfortunately, old Paulie's conception of who is and who isn't a star is probably quite different from yours or mine. The only really recognizable face on there belongs, at the top, to Schlitz Light spokesman James Coburn. The others are from left to right:

Michael Parkinson A Thames talk-show host who supposedly agreed to appear on the cover in exchange for an interview with McCartney. McCartney didn't give him the interview until 2001.

Kenny Lynch British singer and game-show host who had a hit in the U.K. with "Up on the Roof"

Paul McCartney Bassist for Wings

Clement Freud (with beard) Broadcaster, writer chef, Liberal politician and grandson of Sigmund

Linda McCartney (sans beard) Keyboardist for Wings

Christopher Lee Horror-movie staple

Denny Laine (kneeling) Former Moody Blue, jack of all trades for Wings. His government name is Brian Hines.

John Conteh Liverpudlian light-heavyweight boxer

Don't let the cover dissuade you from listening to the album, though. It's real good.