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.