Monday, November 25, 2019

8) Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

8) Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker

You have to understand, my friends in college were huge Elvis Costello fans. They were all over his work like cheese on crackers. I’m a Costello fan too, and it’s clear that in some ways he has the edge on Parker; more complex and original arrangements, a better and more unconventional rhythm section. But I never could have loved him as much as my friends did.

Maybe it’s just because I can’t jump somebody else’s train (as the Cure once put it), but personally, I always found that Parker’s music spoke more to me. Maybe because his lyrics are simpler and more direct and, to me, more involving. Maybe there’s something about Costello’s sense of distance, his ironic removal, his cleverness that makes his music not as gripping to me.

Then again, any way I break the cracker, This Year’s Model is one of the greatest rock records ever. Get Happy! is just as good, and Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces are just behind those. I’m not actually saying I don’t love Elvis Costello’s music.

I just felt connected to Parker's tough-because-I-have-to-be sensitivity, his lyricism. I love the sound of his band The Rumour, with their edgy, r & b and soul-based rock chops.

Caveat #2: I’m not even sure that Squeezing Out Sparks is the Parker record I most enjoy playing, now. These days I put on on Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment just as often, both of which have more variation and a more subtle groove.

But Sparks was, no question, the Parker record that brought him fully into the modern world, and it was the one that when I was in college hit me hardest. Compared to earlier Parker records, the band suddenly had an updated, more metallic, hornless, heavier sound. There’s nothing roots about it. It’s not quite r & b, not hard rock, and not punk either, but it takes elements of all those histories and creates a biting rock sound that no other band has and that no other band has really followed.

His lyrics also took a big step into the future on this record. The contexts are contemporary; the conflicts and situations in the songs suddenly have a contemporary politics and absolutely up-to-date reflections on problems of love and gender.

One reason that the lyrics are so good is that Parker puts his narrative persona at the center of the conflict, with songs that talk about how the desires of the narrator create problems for other people. On earlier records the lyrics come from a more consistently righteous persona. The lyrics on Sparks have guilt, longing, frustration, cynicism, and (crucially) complicity: the narrator blames himself at least as much as others and usually more.

The first side is one of the great sides of rock and roll. Every song is focused and doesn’t let go and never lags. It’s one of those album sides on which time seems to vanish in the sense that I never find myself stepping out of the songs and noting where I am; I’m just there, in the music, until it’s over.

The lyrical greatness of “Discovering Japan” and “You Can’t Be Too Strong” have been discussed too often maybe; I’ll just add that one thing that’s amazing is the positioning of the narrator, who’s aware of what’s not right about his behavior even as he knows he never intended to behave any other way. Most lyrics to most songs try to find the justification or the blame and leave it at that; these songs see through the justification and blame, knowing they’re there and knowing also the ways in which they’re besides the point.

“Nobody Hurts You” is a song that spoke to me instinctively when I first heard it and still does to this day; the fact that the hurt we often feel is based on a hurt we’re doing to ourselves. And “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” really earns the way it includes everyone in the situation; it’s a statement not just about the narrator but about the emotional line that people cross from sincerity into insincerity at a moment that can’t always be recognized.

Most people who know this record think that the second side isn’t as good, and I agree. “Saturday Night Is Dead” has a fantastic sound, heavy and fast and sharp, but the lyrics aren’t great. On lesser Parker tunes, his anger and intensity sometimes overwhelm the subject matter, with the result that he sounds overly hot about something minor. This song is a perfect example, with its central statement seeming more untrue and petulant than clear-eyed. “Love Gets You Twisted,” which follows it also has a great, tight sound, but lyrically it’s not as good as “Nobody Hurts You” and “Passion.” The theme feels a bit tired, a bit general and overstated, after those better songs.


My friend Jim Slade likes to talk about songs that “most fill the objectives of rock and roll.” Speaking for myself, the third song on side two, “Protection,” might be more what rock and roll is all about than any other single song. At times in my life when I’ve been looking for a rock song to save me from something, half the time it’s this one.

The riff is brain-searing, the lyrics are at the perfect pitch of desperation both individual and social; only the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is, for me, comparable. The vocal and instrumental bridge is an incredible tour de force, a lightning bolt combination of the Stones and the Clash, I think, in its combination of big metaphor with political specificity. It just keeps pushing and twisting, going further than can be expected and even further beyond that. While “Gimme Shelter” speaks in a prophetic tone that tries for a universal myth-making that’s very much of the 60s, “Protection” has a narrator who has been abandoned by all the big narratives; in fact those narratives are part of what’s closing in and closing him down.

I remember some evenings when I’ve played that song maybe six or eight times in a row, because there’s no other song in the history of music that will do.

After that, “Waiting for the UFOs" is lighter social criticism, a small song with a sense of humor, something Parker often lacks. Then there’s “Don’t Get Excited,” this album’s final masterpiece, not the grandest tune on the record but a perfect match of sound and sense that brings the album effectively to a close. It’s a song that counsels that the way to get through difficult things is to steady oneself and not fall apart.

Squeezing Out Sparks was Parker’s last great record, although I really like some of the songs on The Up Escalator and The Real Macaw. By Steady Nerves in 1985, his new music didn’t interest much anymore, and I actually have barely heard anything from him from after that.

Squeezing Out Sparks is one of the best records there is about not falling for anybody’s lies and not dishing out any lies of your own. It’s about trying as hard as possible to be honest, and to not let either yourself or others get away with anything phony.

Monday, October 14, 2019

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, The Sex Pistols

My first two years in college, my central musical interests continued to revolve around bands who had come to fame fifteen or even twenty years earlier. My closest pal during those first two college years, Dan Neuburger, still one of my favorite human beings, was similarly taking his cues from the past. His taste ran towards what we then called art rock (Progressive rock? Come on? There was nothing hugely progressive about the longing of most such bands to claim the cultural authority of classical music) and the singer songwriters of the early 70s, while my focus was still heavy metal and electric folk rock. And of course both of us loved the obvious Beatles / Stones / Who touchstones.

It was getting along into the 80s. I knew a certain amount about new wave and a bit less and only a little about punk. I was a big fan of Blondie’s Parallel Lines (another album that could almost make this list) and I’d even heard a few Clash songs. But suburban Maryland, when I’d left there, was still country rocking and choogling and boogieing until it dropped. Beyond one or two people, including my friend high school friend Dave who had turned me on to Blondie and the B-52s, no one out there went near anything that sounded too urban. So I didn’t know anyone much who had ever pointed me in the direction of all that was going on with contemporary urban sounds.

I was soon to get an awakening that was, no doubt about it, rude.

In my third year, Dan connected me up with some of his other friends, a year younger than us, including Andy Rosenau and a bunch of other people who don’t hang around Facebook. Andy’s pals in his band Nixon’s Head, including Jim Slade, came to campus at times to hang around or to play shows. These guys had totally different tastes, developed through British pub rock, new wave, Elvis Costello (more on that later) and yes, punk.

I remember clearly the day my relatively new friend Greg Bologna told me, huffily, to “Take that stupid shit off!” when I started playing Deep Purple’s Machine Head. It was a call out long before that sort of thing existed as a named concept. He was still worked up about it several days later when he demanded that I listen to The Jam’s All Mod Cons. And yeah, that was an excellent record. Urban and up to date and energetic and, most of all, smart. Really really smart. Even if the Jam sometimes resemble too much The Who 2.0

I’m not sure who first played me Never Mind The Bollocks but soon I was playing it constantly.

So, I get it that The Clash is a band with a much bigger range of sound. I get the power of their influence. They’re the punk band that really established the clear-eyed progressive social critique that was what my literary friends often loved about them and that was a big influence on many many bands, including another punk band I love, Stiff Little Fingers.

The Sex Pistols, though, are not a band with progressive politics. In their lyrics, their goals are destructive. They call for anarchy and not of the theoretical kind. They want to fuck shit up, and that includes you. In “Holidays In the Sun” they go to the dark heart of everything that’s wrong with European history and roll around in it for some deeply psycho kicks. The infamous “Bodies” is, yeah, a song attacking abortion, it’s that backwards, but it’s also using abortion as metaphor for what’s happened to them, and to the dispossessed and forgotten in young in England, a song that wants listeners to know they’re all being aborted together, that they were never allowed to be born. And, okay, maybe it was partly all a pose, but listen to “Anarchy In the U.K.” and tell me these people in this song don’t mean it.

I don’t think I really need to analyze all the songs on the record, but I will point out that even the lesser known songs on the record are as nasty and unapologetic as the others. “No Feelings” (think the singer Johnny Rotten is kidding? maybe?) and especially “Submission” with its hard-edged minor key groove are among my favorites of the not-automatically famous songs on this album in which every song is infamous.

I’ve never been sure whether the Sex Pistols wanted to turn England into a cesspool or knew it already was. Both, I think. I guess the goal was to make that cesspool so clear that people would not be able to forget about it again, ever, but were forced to acknowledge that they were already drowning in it.

What makes this record so unmatchable though, along with the destructiveness signaled perfectly by Johnny Rotten’s voice, is the sound of the band. Guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glenn Matlock keep up a focused roar on top of the drumming by Paul Cook that never bogs down.

And I do mean a roar. I don’t think there’s any rhythm section in the history of rock and roll that can match it for unrelenting intensity. There are better rhythm sections (the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Attractions) and some that are just as driving and tight (AC/DC), but Never Mind The Bollocks holds together its lyrics about everything falling apart with a sound that is thick and driving and that never lets up. The music isn’t sloppy, never falls apart. It propels its chaos at listeners and doesn’t let go.

Listen to it these days, and it sounds slower and heavier and more precise than much of what came later in punk music. I can see that what’s heavy about it appealed to my earlier interests, even though the danger that this record exudes makes almost all heavy metal bands sound like little boys noodling around. But don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing slow really about anything on this record.

Johnny Rotten famously said that he wanted the band to be the end of rock and roll. I’ve always taken that to mean that he wanted everyone to understand that as a supposedly revolutionary counterforce to capitalist and totalitarian cultures, rock music had become a pathetic parody. But it’s not really The Sex Pistols that made that obvious. A record like Boston’s first album did more than Never Mind The Bollocks to show that rock and roll (even very good rock and roll) was usually little more than another corporate product.

And to point out the obvious, the more politically future-oriented punk music that was rising at the same time, a music for which The Clash are only the most obvious representative, was crucial in forming the rise of a new counterculture that was directly involved in connecting music to political protest and to the formation of alternative social communities based on values different than the mainstream values of their cultures. The Sex Pistols have some role in generating that, but they also stand outside it. Mr. Johnny Lydon is not exactly these days a spokesperson for progressive politics

I think The Sex Pistols are maybe the only band in the history of rock to release only one record in their life as a band and to have that record become one of the most essential albums in the history of its genre.

By the way, just in case anybody cares, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols sounds as great in the car on the highway in California as it does in a small east coast apartment. The roar of the apocalypse can go many places and sound just as dangerous.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

6) Fairport Convention (United Kingdom title: What We Did On Our Holidays) (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

6) Fairport Convention (United Kingdom title: What We Did On Our Holidays), Fairport Convention

It’s hard to overestimate how much I love this album. I don’t really have a favorite album in the history of rock and roll, but if I did, this album might be it.

Freshman year of college, I read in a magazine somewhere (maybe Rolling Stone, or maybe in an early Rolling Stone record guide?) that Fairport Convention was the “British version of Jefferson Airplane.” With my combination of love for British literature and for Jefferson Airplane, finding out about this band became a must. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The comparison to Jefferson Airplane isn’t bad at all. Fairport Convention is a rock band with a close connection to folk music. Multiple singers and songwriters. A fantastic lead guitarist (Richard Thompson). A daring and varied sound held down by a solid rhythm section that, as the band develops, learns to really stretch out. And a woman singer, Sandy Denny, of overwhelming power--but who, unlike Grace Slick, is also a singer of incredible precision and ethereal beauty.

Curiously, and partly because Jefferson Airplane was meant to be futuristic, Jefferson Airplane’s sound now feels more dated to a particular time and place. As innovative as they were, early Fairport Convention stayed connected to its folk roots and to its relationship to British history. That gave their music a sense of rootedness in long repeated human experiences that creates the sensation that people usually misrecognize as “timeless.”

The other difference: part of what was brilliant about Jefferson Airplane was that they never entirely let go of the experimental amateurishness that helped them resist the music professionalism that would dominate Jefferson Starship. But although the first Fairport Convention record shows a very good band still searching for what its sound is going to be, by the time of this, their second record, there’s nothing amateur about their music. What We Did On Our Holidays is filled with precise and occasionally virtuoistic music which takes British Isles folk influences and creates a new kind of rock and roll, one that would lead to generations of music to follow, both from the band itself and from all the other British bands that developed or became more prominent in its wake.

The records that followed this one, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief, and Full House (the first record without Sandy Denny) show the band becoming ever tighter, better players. But to my mind, What We Did On Our Holidays has the biggest range of textures, the widest variety of songs, and a broader array of surprises than any of the later, more tightly controlled records.

Sandy Denny’s singing on “Fotheringay” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is impossible to match. “Eastern Rain” (a Joni Mitchell song) and the non-traditional version of the folk traditional “Nottamun Town” are filled in with unique sonic textures. The two Richard Thompson tunes, “No Man’s Land” and “Tale in a Hard Time” mark his brilliance as a songwriter and guitarist while foreshadowing his coming expansion of abilities. Ian Matthews’ “Book Song” is wistful and fragile, and his singing elsewhere on the record provides a brilliant counterpoint to the singing of Denny and Thompson. “Meet on the Ledge” is a beautiful song, with great ensemble singing. It’s a little funny that these musicians are performing a song about the best years being behind them when they were just emerging as a band of genius, although the song also takes on a powerfully poignant feeling when one considers that the band’s then drummer Martin Lamble would soon die in a car crash. The closing bit of precisely toned guitar melancholy, “End of a Holiday,” played by Simon Nicol, seems nearly a perfect ending.

If the album has a weakness, it’s that two of the numbers sung by Denny, “The Lord Is In This Place” and “She Moves Through The Fair” are maybe a little too monotonous, yet her voice is so stunning that the lingering tone of these numbers remains quite haunting.

In the years that followed, I explored a lot of the electric folk and then folk music produced in England and Ireland and discovered a lot of great bands, Steeleye Span and Planxty being two of my favorites. And I’m a big fan also of the solo careers of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson and of course also his work with Linda Thompson.

This is the record that started me down that path, and it remains one that I play very often. The powerful dream-like mood it creates is really unlike any other record I can think of, even others by the same band. The music on it feels both in this world and beyond it and has the power to heal.

Friday, September 20, 2019

5) Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2 (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

5) Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits Volume 1 and Volume 2

I'm listing these two as one entry because that's how they feel to me.

I don’t seem to have my copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 anymore. I guess at some point the record seemed no longer necessary to keep, although I’ve kept volume 2, maybe because the song sequencing on it is really great. Obviously, I moved past these records to his actual original albums soon enough, but these albums really helped define Dylan’s work for me when I first came to love it. They’re also good reminders that as excellent as some of Dylan’s albums are, he’s especially impressive on specific, unforgettable songs.

Dylan was a musician my father recognized, mostly as a cultural icon. My parents’ collection of only a few records included work by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and maybe a Pete Seeger album, and a few classical records. My mother was fond of watching and listening to the Nutcracker around Christmas.

My father, a licensed minister who had become a professor, participated in the Civil Rights Movement and marched with Martin Luther King on several occasions. The church I was brought up in, New York Avenue Presbyterian, had a long history of involvement with activist politics in Washington, D.C.. And it had also been Abraham Lincoln’s church during the Civil War Years--that’s how far back it went as a church.

So Bob Dylan’s name came up in my house every now and then. I associated him for many years with the kind of gentle folk rock that was the only kind of popular music my parents ever played (and which they stopped playing probably by the time I was around ten).

I don’t recall when exactly in high school I picked up these, my first Dylan records, or what specifically prompted me to do it, but I had no idea what I was in for. I do remember being shocked.

I mean, this guy was HARSH, and funny, and his music had energy and bite and, hey, poetry. The word play amazed me. There was barely a whiff of gentle folky puffery on any music he made.

Over the next few years I bought a lot of Dylan records, beginning probably with his first and second, the two best of his folk-based records, and moving on quickly to his electric 60s period and after. I soon picked up the recently released albums of his Christian period (Shot of Love is a fine record; Saved is not) and beyond, including the big surprise of his 1983 Infidels when the Christian period vanished into what was then talked about as his “radical Zionism.”

I think the main thing that still makes Dylan controversial as a music icon is his negativity. Really, there’s not a whole lot of positive messaging with Dylan, and not much in the way of positive representations of people. He doesn’t have a kindly or generous outlook on women. He doesn’t like men either. He expresses very little of the stereotypical concept of “peace and love.” If he sometimes seems in favor of those things, it’s mostly because he’s describing a world of war and hate that he finds himself drawn into, whether he wants to be or not. And one of the undercurrents about Dylan that confuses people is the way he often did NOT want to be drawn into the social issues of his time, but ended up there anyway because that’s where the most powerful conflicts could be found.

He’s good at hating, Bob Dylan is.

He’s a writer of angry songs, of protests of all kinds, with more in common with the punks to come than with the sometimes optimistic political folk tradition in the U.S.

I think it’s that darkness, the serious rage, at the heart of Dylan’s music that forms my earliest identification with his music, like most of the music on my list so far.

I’ve sometimes wondered if you have to be raised in a religious context to really feel the double meaning of “Everybody must get stoned” in the song whose title most people often forget ("Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35").

Something that doesn’t get mentioned as often as it might is how good the playing is on many Dylan albums. The American folk scene musicians of the 60s frequently prided themselves on avoiding virtuosity in the name of making music that seemed in support of “ordinary people.” But there’s no devotion to an air of amateurism in Dylan’s music right from the first album. Soon, of course, he would go on to play with some of the best rock musicians of the 60s.

Also, while I can understand people saying they hate Dylan’s voice, that’s only because of its remarkable distinctiveness. Whatever rough-hewn singing influence Dylan took from Woody Guthrie, from the first he always sounded exactly and only like himself. His voice is as distinct as his song writing.

Dylan changed my understanding of what lyrics could do. Jefferson Airplane’s lyrics are poetic too, but Dylan’s lyrics bite big verbal chunks out of whatever subject they’re taking on with a daring that’s hard to match. Saying that is just obvious, I know.

I wasn’t part of the 60s counter culture. I wasn’t even part of the 70s counter culture and its slow fade into psychic oblivion. When it became the 80s, with that time’s growing hatred of anything that didn’t sound like a studio confection, liking Bob Dylan felt like a way of enjoying the idea that what I might say might mean something.

Not that it did.

Monday, September 9, 2019

4) Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter's (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

4) After Bathing at Baxter’s, Jefferson Airplane.

I don’t remember when during my high school school years I first heard Jefferson Airplane, or where I was. By the time I heard them, the original band was already long gone. In fact it was only a few years until the remnants of that band renamed themselves Starship, dropping “Jefferson” and severing ties with their past brilliance.

If I don’t remember for certain why I first liked them, it must have had to do with Grace Slick and the Airplane’s two biggest hits, ‘Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

Her vocals were intense, powerful, certainly neither nice or sweet. She sang like she wanted the song to attack the listener.

The first pop songs I remember loving when I was very young, at six, were “It’s Too Late” by Carole King and “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. Neither of those songs sees love (or in the second song, the formerly loved man) as positive, and that sense must have stuck with me. I liked then, and still do, lyrics by women that suggest the women are fighting back against behavior that harms them.

Grace Slick’s songs were tough, wild, smart, not passive. She had edge. And she certainly was not bowing down and letting anyone tell her what to do.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that I heard something of the over-the-top elements of Rob Halford’s singing in Judas Priest in the extent to which Slick pushed her voice as far sonically as she could. Maybe I’m the first person ever to compare Slick and Halford? But it made sense to me then, and still does.

Plus, I have to admit it didn’t hurt that she looked, like, well, like Grace Slick, former model stepped over to a rebellious, liberated life.

For awhile, the only Airplane album I had was the collection of hits, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. When I crossed into buying the original albums is something else I don’t know. Some time late in high school would be my guess.

After Bathing at Baxter’s isn’t Jefferson Airplane’s best record (that’s Volunteers), and it doesn’t have their biggest hits on it (that’s Surrealistic Pillow). But it’s the one that meant the most to me.

The album, especially the first side, was as risky musically as anything I’d heard and was still tuneful. The strange tone of the instruments felt like an odd combination of amateurish and experimental. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen in particular made the sonic textures of the band startling. Kaukonen was one of the best guitarists in 60s rock and roll, something that doesn’t get said often enough. The weirdness, the sound experiments, and the consistent rocking edge of the record made it something I played over and over, especially in my first year or two of college. The band had four, yes, four, singers ranging from brilliant to capable, each of whom plays on that record an important role in the overall vocal ensemble.

Slick’s lyrics on “Rejoyce” were even farther out than most of her songs, and she referenced James Joyce. Then and now I can still get chills from the way she sings “It all falls apart” at the end of the song. And yes, I knew who Joyce was, very well. In high school I’d done a senior lit presentation on Finnegan’s Wake.

Although Jefferson Airplane had had pop hits, other than the tunefulness there wasn’t anything significantly pop about After Bathing at Baxter’s. It was a record by a rock band trying to push past what was acceptable.

Jefferson Airplane was also the first band for whom I started doing something that I did for a few years: writing down the lyrics in order to know what they were and to try and decipher their meaning. At that time, you couldn’t just look a song up on the Internet. If you wanted to know the words, you had to listen.

And no, taking drugs had nothing to do with why I liked them, earlier or later. Aside from occasional experiments, my drug of choice in high school, and mostly even in college, was beer.

I was veering further into territory that felt to me experimental and exploratory and not at all in tune with the American normalcy that I felt all around me.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

3) Judas Priest, Sad Wings of Destiny (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It is

3) Sad Wings of Destiny, Judas Priest

One more choice from junior high, the very end of it.

I have no memory of how I got from Black Sabbath to Judas Priest. Record store browsing seems most likely, but honestly I don’t know.

I’m also not sure I can explain adequately why, in high school, I preferred Judas Priest to Black Sabbath, who in many ways is a more important band, or why Judas Priest became my favorite band for most of my high school years.

Black Sabbath sounded a little more earthy, a more hippy-influenced metal that was still somehow on the cusp between folk rock peasant and modern rock factory worker. Judas Priest was flamboyant, textured, excessive, a different kind of metallic, technology going straight into the science fiction age. Plus, by Sin After Sin and especially Stained Class, they played faster. Although Black Sabbath would try to get up to speed on their 1980 record Heaven and Hell, they never really did.

Sad Wings of Destiny, though, wasn’t yet Judas Priest as sleek new metal. Black Sabbath was horror, but Sad Wings of Destiny was Gothic, a huge cathedral with big soaring melodies like big soaring spires, the first side especially. “Victim of Changes,” with its wild vocal assault, to “The Ripper” (about you know who), to the astonishing “Dreamer Deceiver” / “Deceiver”: the trajectory featured a range of sonic textures that was overpowering. And if the second side was a little less great, it had driving rhythm section and guitar power power and lyrics that (yes, like Black Sabbath) told mythological stories about political oppression.

I guess, throughout high school, I just felt a greater range of sonic pleasure in Judas Priest’s records than I got from Black Sabbath. The crazily excessive (and sometimes imperfectly crafted) singing seemed nearly impossible. That twin guitar sound was also a real joy; the huge sweeping grace of Tipton with the clipped churning of Downing in counterpoint.

I was a big fan of much of the popular hard rock of that era: Led Zeppelin certainly. Aerosmith. AC/DC. Van Halen--playing as an opening act--was fantastic the first time I heard them live, making the show of headliner Ted Nugent seem irrelevant. Their first record, which when it came out I and my friends played a lot on a trip to the beach at Ocean City, Maryland, could almost make my list here, but not quite.

But liking those bands just made me part of the suburban social environment around me, while liking Judas Priest distinguished me from it. I wanted to be part of that environment at times, but maybe more, I wanted out of it.

Also, even in high school I was never a huge fan of the “cock rock” macho that characterized the more mainstream hard rock lyric. I didn’t personally relate to that kind of thinking about girls and women. I’m not saying I thought those songs were “sexist”--I was in high school in the late 70s Maryland suburbs, and I doubt anyone I knew ever even said the words “sexist” or “feminism.” But I didn’t think of women as targets for my sexual desire; I tended to long for romantic love more than sex as such. Frankly, I thought that love was maybe a pretty neat possibility.

Not that I knew anything about it then or for quite a while after.

Maybe first and foremost, though, I remained committed to the doom side of metal and hard rock. When those other bands took on doom, I really got into them as well. I guess part of me felt that if you were going to play loud, hard music, something serious ought to be at stake. Like your life.

Maybe that was a key difference between Black Sabbath and Judas Priest for me: With Black Sabbath, doom was already here. Judas Priest always seem involved in a struggle to fight back. Although the band occasionally crossed into lyrics that sounded like unpleasant Winner Rock, more often they sounded like a band that was trying to survive.

Later, when I left the Washington, DC area and moved to Binghamton, New York for graduate school, I got rid of a lot of my record collection, though a huge amount remained. By that time I felt embarrassed by my earlier love of Judas Priest, and I sold all their records. My new wave / punk / pop urban friends didn’t approve of the band. Neither did the people I was starting to know in the worlds of literature and literary theory and political theory.

Those people mostly thought Judas Priest was dumb music for dumb people.

After I had my Ph.D., and my interests in music had grown out from rock and roll to also include all sorts of jazz and blues and folk and world music, over a period of a few months I went out and bought again all the Judas Priest records I had loved from the age of 14 to 20. And I still play them a lot, if not as much as I did when I was in high school.

It’s a tremendous relief to realize that you can like music just because you do and not because the social consensus of others permits it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

2) Black Sabbath (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

2) Black Sabbath

This is the first record I bought that I’d never heard any music from before buying it. It changed a lot for me and helped me down some paths I was already going.

My friend Steven was the source of most of my music knowledge from the ages of 12 until 14 or 15. Along with most of the Beatles records and some Stones, he played a lot of the big albums from the current time: Fragile by Yes and the first albums by Bad Company and Foreigner and Boston (which was the first album I ever bought for myself) were the ones I remember most. But Steven didn’t play heavy metal, a music that at that time couldn’t be found on any radio station I knew about.

When I bought the record, I didn’t know what heavy metal was. I just liked the cover art. Since about the age of 10 or 11 I’d been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and had also begun to love horror movies, which I could see sometimes for whole weeks of afternoons down in the basement on the ABC afternoon movie that I could watch by myself, in the dark, before my parents called me upstairs for dinner.

The album turned out to be a musical equivalent of what I already loved. And I didn’t know anybody else who’d ever heard of it. The record became the first example of something that was becoming true of my musical taste and my taste in books and movies: I liked to explore and to find out about things on my own that nobody else could tell me.

Of course, there wasn’t anything like a social scene of gentle, sensitive, shy goths at that time. Didn’t exist. In my junior high, you could be a jock or a preppie or a pothead who hung out by “the tree,” a big tree down by a stream at the bottom of the hill on one edge of the school. Or you could be nothing.

It was only somewhat later that I met anyone who liked heavy metal, and it wasn’t in school: they were young mechanics or bikers (motorcyclists) or other kinds of tougher guys, some quite a bit older, who sometimes came to certain high school parties by the time I was 16 or 17. Black Sabbath didn’t have a pop audience. It had a working class audience.

I loved the big, slow, doomy sound of Black Sabbath. I loved the heavy guitar and the dark lyrics which matched my growing junior high mood. I loved the cover, which in comparison to other later heavy metal covers didn’t feel (then) cartoonish; it felt genuinely disturbed. For someone who read Faulkner’s Sanctuary at age 13 because I’d learned somewhere that it was supposed to be his most horrific book, disturbing was where I wanted to be. I liked the Black Sabbath songs about hell, or hell on earth, just fine.

I was about to go to high school. Hell? High school? I doubted there was a difference.

Once I bought this record, I was on my way to defining for myself what my taste in books and music and movies should be.

1) The Beatles, aka The White Album (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is.

This is not a challenge from someone, just my idea of fun.

1) The Beatles, aka The White Album.

Music wasn’t played often in my parents’ house. Although growing up I’d heard many songs on the radio or at the houses of friends, this was maybe the first album I ever listened to repeatedly from beginning to end. The summer I turned 13, my friend Steven played a tape of this album (and a few others) over and over again on a driving trip across the country with his father, my father, and my brother.

The adults tolerated the music, barely, and Steven’s father more than once told him to shut it off, but I loved and still love these songs, although I had no context then for knowing why I loved them. Young as I was, my favorite song at that time (Steven’s too) was “Piggies.” Even at thirteen I knew it was a nasty song about nasty people and I approved. Other favorites were “Blackbird” and “Rocky Racoon,” maybe because I’d always liked stories about animals even though that wasn’t really the focus of these songs, or maybe because the melodies and lyrics were just appealing.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame by Ted Rees

Ted Rees
In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame

Timeless Infinite Light, 2018
142 pgs.

A few weeks ago, poet Ted Rees asked people on Facebook what poet they wished they’d read when they were younger, and I wanted to say to Ted, you! Which is funny; he’s 20-25 years younger than me and his books didn’t exist when I was younger. Also though, it was true. As I was reading his recent book In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of tradition I’d want my own poems to be in, if my poems were going to fit into any kind of tradition.

The works here, mostly prose poems although a few are lined, have a lot of elements that I really admire in poems, including a big geopolitical sweep. The poems often explore contemporary landscapes that picture the variety of human and non-human interactions happening in different locations, some urban, some in the rural back country and even the wilderness. Environmental concerns, concerns with power structures and what’s happening to people, insights into a range of identity and class issues: all of these are mixed together in a way that makes clear that the problems that the poems are exploring are not easily separated from each other. Rees doesn’t write single poems that try to isolate single central issues. His writing moves in sweeping waves that gather things together from place to place, person to person, problem to problem.

The poems also aren’t the pious commentaries of an outside or supposedly objective observer. Instead, the figure of the poet himself is very much a part of these interactions, a young man struggling to survive and facing a shortage of options. He can observe and participate in street level activity because he’s already more or less living right there, down in the worst of it, at least at times, except for those stretches when he seems to have moved out into the California back country. As anthropology has known for awhile, there’s no such thing as an outside observer; there are only people who are involved in a situation, however differently. The narrator in these poems moves around at the most immediate levels of social and financial alienation and disenfranchisement.

One of the most fascinating and original ways that Rees signals his involvement in the many conflicts of the book is the constantly surprising language. The ornate, sometimes nearly anti-imagistic language disrupts any notion that what he’s doing is merely describing. The voice is not that of sober (and often implicitly masculine) direct description that somehow asserts its normalcy by vanishing into the expected vocabulary. Instead, it flaunts a flamboyant and uncontainably wild vocabulary:

“So as to better skiptrace moisture’s corpse, you heave a slippy couch to the makeshift summit and settle into some kalimotxo. Beyond unctuous tide and squall of trade, the incarcerated juttings in murk, what progress has been marched. There emerges a frame of reference for the structure of this smoke, its frottage with our garments and exposed pores, a darling of the blank monolith set.” (31)

My only reservation about In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, and it’s not a huge one, is the tendency of certain lines to focus more on the poet’s anger than on what’s being discussed, and not always in interesting ways. This happens most often in the use of the word “fucking,” which every time it appears it stands out, at least to me, as the most boring word in this otherwise consistently inventive book: “because being a teenager is always fucking terrible.” (99). The book has a lot of original insults, but at moments the poet’s anger comes off as one-dimensional. This tendency makes the last section of the book, centered around a response to the work of queer writer and artist David Wojnarowicz, feel just a little less effective, maybe also because the more clearly essay-like elements of the last section lead Rees towards what sometimes feel like overgeneralizations.

Quibbles about invective aside, In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame kept me involved and fascinated. It’s hard to put down. It offers a perspective on contemporary U.S. social problems that comes from a narrative voice like no other I’ve read in recent American poetry. I loved the intensity here, and the insight, and the sheer exuberance of the language. Rees is a poet determined to say whatever he needs to say to make the world more survivable for him and many others who live on the outcast edges of a culture too often committed to ignoring its ever-growing human and environmental disasters. And if that’s not poetry worth knowing about, then I don’t know what is.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Review: Born Again by Ivy Johnson

Ivy Johnson
The Operating System
112 pgs.

I really like the tightly constructed, and tightly wound, poems and prose essays and narratives in this gripping and sometimes disturbing collection. They center on the experiences of a young woman shedding her small town, Christian past and remaking herself, and finding herself remade, in an urban environment unlike the one she was raised in.

These are Gothic-influenced poems, but not in any clich├ęd way. Like much that’s Gothic they don’t reject Christianity outright so much as turn its imagery into new forms of worship and obsession and a woman’s determination to find a self that could never have emerged in the environment where she grew up. The dynamics of dominance and subservience are unique and surprising. The prose pieces are more loosely structured and narrative than the sharply-lined poems and tend to fill in elements of the narrative that the poems mostly just suggest. The writing is blunt, sexually but not only sexually, yet also implies many barely spoken and sometimes unspoken struggles. Intriguingly, the book both tells a lot and tells only a little. The book is not memoir; its intention is to lift itself beyond a recounting of experience.

Anyone interested in the Gothic and religion and American culture in cities and small towns will find Born Again fascinating. Any woman who has used the Gothic subculture or perspective as a way to overcome a small town or Christian upbringing will find it essential.

Monday, June 24, 2019

My Democratic Primary Betting Odds as of June 24, 2019

If I was a bookie, here are the odds I would be giving as of Monday, June 24, 2019 for the winner of the Democratic primaries.

Joe Biden: 3-1

Right now he has the majority of the center-right portion of Democratic voters, plus a surge of anyone-but-Trump supporters. He’s most popular in states where Democrats lean center right, which is a lot of states.
Biggest advantages: Democratic corporate money, and also the Romney Effect. He’s going to win some primaries, but he’s also going to finish second and third a lot. Still, there’s a strong likelihood that the other candidates who might win this or that primary will do poorly in other primaries, leaving Biden standing as the middle-of-the-road surviror.

Biggest threat: he’s Joe Biden. Mistake-prone, clumsy, not eloquent, with a long record of policy decisions that the left wing of the party doesn’t like, he could crash and burn quickly, one of the reasons I think that he sometimes seems to be hiding in the background and letting the others take each other out.

Elizabeth Warren: 8-1

She’s smart and informed and has the Policy Left and the Identity Left moving in her direction. Anyone paying attention can see that she makes thoughtful decisions. I don’t buy the “lack of charisma” critiques: this is the party that nominated Dukakis, Kerry, and Hilary Clinton, so you don’t need charisma to win the Democratic nomination. Plus I’m not so sure that she lacks as much charisa as some people say.

Biggest threat: Bernie Sanders. The voting left is already not necessarily the biggest portion of Democratic primary voters, and if she splits that vote with Sanders, they will both lose.

Bernie Sanders: 12-1

He seems to me to be fading, although his new student debt forgiveness plan shows he’s still hatching Big Ideas. He still has the left Democratic primary voters who like fiery rhetoric, but he doesn’t win the Identity Left even if he wins the Rhetoric Left, and he doesn’t always win that.

Biggest advantage: He never stops. And that also means that he won’t quit the race to make room for anybody.

Biggest Threat: Elizabeth Warren. She’s taking more and more of his potential votes and that seems like it might continue. As to gender bias, I can’t say whether more people will vote for him because he’s not a woman or for Warren because she is a woman.

Kamala Harris: 25-1

In many ways, she has the best chance to appeal to the whole range of likely Democratic primary voters, even though the Hard Left doesn’t like her history as a prosecutor. She’s a solid liberal who could win votes with the Identity Left and on the center/ right for her history as a prosector. But most likely voters seem to prefer somebody else.

Biggest advantage: Joe Biden. If he really blows it, she has a chance to build votes across the whole constituency of primary voters. But I don’t think it’s likely to happen.
Biggest Threat: She’s not going to have the benefit of the Obama Effect. Sorry to say this, but a lot of voters who voted Obama believed that he was a radical choice not because of his policies (which he never claimed as all that radical) but because of his racial identity--and some of that voter support was oddly racist in the sense that it seemed to come from the idea that a black man was inevitably going to be a radical. Because the Obama presidency is behind us, no one is going to think that Harris is inevitably a radical

Beto O’Rourke: 40-1

If Biden falls all over himself, O’Rourke could surge as the new, energetic, articulate candidate for center / right Democratic voters. He doesn’t have the name recognition and history that makes him clearly safe enough for the center / right to want him, but if Biden self-destructs early enough, many of Biden’s voters could shift to O’Rourke.

Biggest weakness: What does he stand for exactly? Sooner or later his positions are going to be more and more known, and his ideas to date, like the Non-Military Family Tax, don’t seem likely to attract enough Democratic voters.

Pete Buttigieg: 50-1

Same story as O’Rourke, but his sexual identity will make center / right Democratic voters more skeptical of him and “Anybody but Trump” voters likely to feel that he’s too big a risk. Still, if Biden stumbles, if O’Rourke flashes out in the pan, and if Harris can’t make any headway, Buttigieg’s candidacy is not automatically a dead end. In any case, he and Harris and O’Rourke may be angling for a better spot in future elections.

Anbody else: 200-1
Come on, let me take your money. I suppose that there’s still time for someone unexpected to rise from the pile of entrants, but it’s not likely.