Heart of gold never sleeps
Now, about Heart of Gold, and about Neil Young. The film and the performance are all about mortality: Neil has recovered from his aneurysm, but his father has just died, and the film’s final words, after the credits have rolled, are “for daddy.” Young wrote and recorded the songs from Prairie Wind in the week before his surgery, which makes a song like “Here for You,” from an empty-nester dad to his daughter, all the more precarious and poignant: I promise I’ll be here for you, but first I have to see about this here brain surgery. But then, the whole thing—the film, or, more accurately, life itself—is precarious and poignant. So it’s practically impossible to see the movie without thinking of it as the work of the Neil Young Preservation Society—and this is a good thing: Hey, we still have Neil with us! Things can’t be all bad, now! Add to all this the venue of the Ryman Auditorium, its intimacy, its acoustics, its atmosphere, its ghosts backstage: it’s as if the National Historic Landmark, renovated in 1994, hosts the International Rock Legend, restored in 2005. The entire film is flushed with a gentle ochre glow, and Neil Young turns out to have been an alt-country sage all along, even when he was writing “I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold, and I’m getting old” in his late twenties. Country is, after all, a much kinder and more appropriate genre for Advanced Grownups, since it tends to be more concerned with how to make sense of the years than with how to do it all night long. And the songs are mostly acoustic, mostly pleasant, and mostly accented by Ben Keith’s lovely, plaintive work on pedal steel.
There’s a curious tension, though, between the lushness of some of the arrangements and the sparseness of the film itself. The movie opens with brief interviews with some of the principal musicians, riding in elevators or the back seats of cars, almost as if the film is being made on the fly and they didn’t have time to set up “formal” interviews in studios with proper lighting. There’s no time to bother with blather—let’s get to the show! Hop in the car! Here we go! And, of course, as every reviewer duly notes, Demme doesn’t do audience shots. So there are about ten minutes of setup, during which we hear about Neil’s recovery and the wonderfulness of the Ryman, and the rest of the film is nothing but music. No cutaway reminiscences, no accounts of the life and work, no interviews with rock journalists. Just the performances themselves. Whereas the performances themselves include dozens of performers: not just Neil Young’s friends and associates, but also the Nashville Strings, a completely unnecessary horn section, many lovely backing vocals, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers to boot. Apparently the Greater Tennessee Gamelan Society couldn’t make it for the August dates.
Now, about those backing vocals. From the moment the concert begins, we’re reminded that Neil Young can’t really sing. It’s not because he’s 60 and recovering from brain surgery; his voice sounds pretty much the way it did thirty or thirty-five years ago. He couldn’t sing then, and he can’t sing now. Often, his inability to sing has its own charm: see “precarious and poignant,” above. That high reedy voice, which now sounds so strange coming from this old, lined, wizened face, is wonderfully effective on songs ranging from “Down by the River” to “Helpless” to “Powderfinger” (which aren’t in the film) and downright heartbreaking on the gossamer “Harvest Moon” (which is). And sometimes, it doesn’t matter in the least that Neil can’t sing, because his wife Pegi can, and so can Emmylou Harris, who appears here as Featured Backup, the role she plays whenever she’s not playing her own material. (Can’t hit the high notes? Need help with vibrato? Not strong on harmonizin’? Call 1-800-EMMYLOU today!)
But Neil Young’s vocals have been a point of contention for me and Janet over the past twenty-two years or so. Janet, you see, comes from a family of harmonizers; her oldest sister, Cynthia, is the leader of Eight to the Bar, and all the sisters have sung in the band at one point or another in its almost-thirty-year history. (The lone boy in the family, Bud, is a bassist, and more in the tradition of Jah Wobble than swing.) My family, by contrast, can’t even manage a round of “Frère Jacques.” The Lyons, accordingly, place great emphasis on vocal virtuosity or the lack thereof, and they have nothing but disdain for the tradition of white-boy singer-songwriters who don’t hold up the “singer” part of the deal (and they do consider it, with some justice, as a white-boy tradition).
As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I’m a drummer, and I could care less about the vocals or the lyrics. If you’ve been reading this blog for two years or so, you’ll remember that I once had a contest for pop lyrics written by space aliens, and that when it was all over, I wrote, on behalf of drummers everywhere,
Privately (or at least privately until now), we suspect that they’re all versions of “Collar me, don’t collar me/ I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush.” We know what really matters—just us and the bassist, working away in the engine room to make sure everybody else has a good time. We’ve long suspected that the lead singer was really just saying “Today is her birthday/ They’re smoking cigars/ He’s got a chain of flowers/ And sows a bird in her knickers.” So thanks, everyone, for giving me indisputable proof. I will now spread the word to the rest of the U.S.D.A. (Underappreciated and Spiteful Drummers Association).
Which is to say, I don’t always pay attention to what’s going on up front, and don’t always see the need to. In the case of Mr. Young, the vocal track does not affect in the slightest my love for a gorgeous little tune like “Winterlong” (whose lyrics are weak and whose vocals just suck) or for such an incandescent piece of work as “Like a Hurricane,” whose second guitar solo is somehow even more glorious and agonized than its first, and should be treated with great reverence.
Janet counters that the vocals are unbearably whiny on songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and beyond embarrassment on the turgid “A Man Needs a Maid.” She happens to be right about that, but I think this is merely evidence of a certain, ah, radical unevenness in Mr. Young’s body of work. So Janet brings up a more sweeping and structural point: the bad-singing white-boy tradition licenses all kinds of horrors in hands less talented than Young’s, and—here’s the kicker—leads to rockism. For example: while we can all appreciate Pavement and their unique contribution to our important Alternative Music Heritage, Stephen Malkmus can’t sing for shit and doesn’t try to. That may be all right for Pavement, but it is not all right for the ten to twenty thousand bands influenced by Pavement (I saw another one just the other day—a special new band). In less exalted climes, there is the phenomenon of Eddie Vedder, who can’t sing, who begat Scott Stapp, who can’t sing, who begat. . . .
Ah, but this train of thought leads me to my decisive counterargument. In rock, yes, weak or introspective or whiny or mumbled white-boy vocals are part of the odious apparatus of rockism. But too exclusive a focus on vocals leads straight to fascism. The vocalist tradition may mean one thing when you’re talking about Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn right on down to Aretha and Gladys and Toni and Lauryn, but quite another when you’re dealing with the likes of Jim Morrison or Bono or Scott Weiland. The lead-vocal tradition represented by these guys inevitably produces not only excessive critical attention to the Leader and his Cult of Personality (hence fascism) but also the genre of really awful rock journalism (“in his more recent work, Bono’s yearning reaches a blah of blah blah blah, as in the song ‘You,’ where he sings, ‘You/ Oh, you/ You are you/ You know’”). And you don’t want that, now, do you.
So we’ve never been able to decide whether the vocals matter all that much. Since the question remains open, feel free to chime in. Meanwhile, the drummer will relax and wait between shows for his cinnamon girl.
Rock drummers are almost as cool as jazz bassists. I too have one of those voices that is so bad it actually astonishes the victim. (So I’m guessing that Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are not playing in your living room right now.) I really loved the stuff from the “Rust Never Sleeps” tour. But then came songs about welfare mothers making better lovers, and the final knife to the heart of Neil Young fandom—Dana Carvey singing “Hey Hey, My My, I sing very very high.”Posted by on 03/24 at 01:56 PM
There’s a story--source unknown--that during Live Aid whilst onstage with a number of younger, more hip (and since forgotten) artists, one pulled him aside during a bridge and said “Neil, you’re singing off key!”; to which Neil is said to have responded:
“Don’t worry about it, kid. It’s my style.”
Love his work. Admire the man. Could give a damn about his singing, there’s enough power in his writing and performance to more than make up for it.
See “Dylan, Bob” for similar example.
...Posted by on 03/24 at 02:00 PM
When I first saw Beavis (music critic, New Republic) telling Mr. Malkmus to “try harder,” I got downright offended. Now, watching it again, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. This is maturity, dammit.Posted by on 03/24 at 02:00 PM
I must say that I agree with your wife. I have a hard time listening to anyone with an irritating voice and Neil Young’s voice irritates me. I’m sure the lyrics are wonderful, but unless someone else is singing, I can’t get into them. The funny thing is that I can’t sing worth beans.
May I also dichotomize? I think people fall are lyrics people; others are melodies people. I’m a melody kind of gal. A tune and a great riff can pull me into liking a song even with the most banal lyrics. It takes me many listens to even begin paying attention to the lyrics of a whiny ballad that has no tuneful chorus.
Yeah, I’m stuck with music by Rodgers & Hart, McCartney & Lennon, and too many moldy oldies.Posted by Erin in Flagstaff on 03/24 at 02:08 PM
I used to wow ‘em in high school with my Neil Young Christmas Album impression, which I like to think presaged SCTV’s Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written, with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” being the highlight.
We gots great albums from miserable whiners (R. Newman, John-the absolute worst-Simon) and yowlers (T. Waits, C. Beefheart), and so much crap from “good” singers you can’t name the worst of the week. This one ain’t even close.Posted by on 03/24 at 02:14 PM
You forgot the crucial two missing links between Eddie Vedder and Scott Stapp: Scott Weiland and Gavin Rossdale. Eddie Vedder isn’t that bad, he couldn’t have produced Stapp from his own loins. Another two generations of rock baritones were required before we descended down to Stapp.Posted by Phil on 03/24 at 02:21 PM
When I first saw Beavis (music critic, New Republic) telling Mr. Malkmus to “try harder,” I got downright offended. Now, watching it again, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
The boys were pretty damn good rock critics in their day, you know. As I pointed out right before my appendectomy last May. But this is only one of the funniest things ever seen. SCTV’s Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written was even funnier, because, as doghouse surely knows, every song sounded exactly the same. And let’s not forget SCTV’s tribute to Perry Como, the Most Relaxed Man in the World.Posted by on 03/24 at 02:21 PM
I grew up in a very melody-oriented family. We all sing, play violin, my dad loves opera and classical music, blah, blah… Then I hit high school, starting dating boys and all hell broke loose. Drummers were usually the cute ones but not so bright. It was the lead singer with all his pain who won my heart. I’m definitely a lyrics person.
If I close my eyes tight I can still see the expression on my mother’s face the first time I played Harvest.Posted by on 03/24 at 02:22 PM
You forgot the crucial two missing links between Eddie Vedder and Scott Stapp: Scott Weiland and Gavin Rossdale. Eddie Vedder isn’t that bad, he couldn’t have produced Stapp from his own loins.
I mentioned the chronically shirtless Mr. Weiland (not in the genealogy, I admit), but forgot Rossdale. Thanks for filling in the missing verses of the Book of Stapp. But Eddie Vedder not that bad? I have two words for you: “Last Kiss.” The first cover ever recorded in which the vocalist misses every single note and gets the lyrics wrong too.Posted by on 03/24 at 02:24 PM
Michael said: SCTV’s Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written was even funnier, because, as doghouse surely knows, every song sounded exactly the same.
Michael, don’t you go pickin’ on Gord now. Who’s next, Gretzky? Where would it end?Posted by on 03/24 at 02:29 PM
Do Janet’s feeling about “bad” vocals extend to bad musicianship in general? That is, does she object to Lora Logic’s saxophone as much as she (I assume) objects to Poly Styrene’s vocals?
Me, always liked Neil Young first and foremost as a guitar player. I remember an interview long ago with Lou “I Heard Her Call My Name” Reed, back when this opinion wasn’t v.fashionable, and Lou got all secretive and told the interviewer “you want to hear who I think is a great guitar player?” as if Lou was embarrassed to admit it, then put “Danger Bird” on the stereo.Posted by Steven on 03/24 at 02:42 PM
The vocals do not matter in rock. Neither do the lyrics, unless they’re loud enough to offend.Posted by Jonathan on 03/24 at 02:54 PM
The only song of Neil’s where his voice bothers me is “After the Gold Rush.” It’s a great melody, though (as so many of his are).Posted by on 03/24 at 03:01 PM
I must admit that when the word “fascism” jumped out at me I was completely unprepared for it. But I think Michael may be on to something. I still remember the “huh?” reaction I had to reading “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” Maybe this phenomenon is why Bono has been able to get along with political leaders whose philosophy is, at least on the surface, 180 degrees away from his.
One thing you can say for Dylan is that he understood this almost from the beginning of his career and did all kinds of things to throw the hero-worshippers off his trail.Posted by on 03/24 at 03:08 PM
I’m incapable of harmony, singing on key, etc., but I never got Neil Young in his initial burst of popularity, either. The whole Bob Dylan is a genius thing took a while, too, esp. since I cam e of age in his musical decline. In time, I came to appreciate that Young’s inability to sing was oddly helpful to songs like “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl” (which now sounds hopelessly dated, yet has established itself along with “Lay Lady Lay” as a radio programmers welcom harbringer of Spring & Fall). You mention the lyrics, but neglect to mention how “eliptical” (to be polite) Young’s writing could be. My absolute favorite Buffalo Springfield song is his Young’s “On the Way Home”. The lyrics lack any rational narrative, but his voice and the images they convey are more haunting and plaintive (a word made for him) than many more talented writers or singers could produce.
As for lead singer fascism. Where does Diana Ross fit into this. The diva with her disgruntled secondaries--is it patrimony-wannabe or a bleeding over of bitchy diva-ness. And could it be that rockerist white boys are nothing but the divas of a slightly different species (and Stevie Nicks is where they converged).Posted by on 03/24 at 03:13 PM
Most important is that the voice fit. I think you can really see this with a group like ‘The Band’. I don’t think you could say that Rick Danko has a good voice, but he is a great singer. If he tried singing the songs Garth sang though, I think he’d have a much worse reputation.
If Niel had stuck with Crosby, Stills and Nash, or found someone else to sing the songs that were not right for him, we’d remember how well he sang Helpless, Old Man, Needle and the Damage Done, and Don’t Let it Bring You Down.Posted by on 03/24 at 03:14 PM
Three things about Neil Young:
1) My local used-book/record store didn’t have a tab for Neil Young records. Where his name would’ve been, alphabetically, there was a tab that read “File Under Whiny Canadian.” I always found this far funnier than it is.
2) k.d. lang’s cover of “Helpless” on “Songs of the 49th Parallel” (wherein she spends an entire album covering songs written by Canadians) is one of the greatest recordings of a song I’ve ever heard. Neil’s version is great, of course, but k.d....well, she can actually sing, now can’t she?
3) One fine day while in college, I was ensconsced on my typical roost (a bench overlooking the main bowl, right between the student union and library, the social center of the universe). A tour group walked past, and as they drifted away and into the library, my friend Jen comes up to me and says, “Do you know who that was? It was Neil Young! (with his daughter)” To tell you the truth, I hadn’t noticed, but 10 minutes later when the Neil Young and daughter emerged from the library - and sure enough, there he was, in dark black sunglasses, a grungy leather jacket, looking old - there were about 800 kids all puttering around the bowl, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as one of their gods passed by, praying to whatever higher secular force they might imagine that his daughter would get accepted and choose to go there in the fall. It was neat. [FWIW - Oberlin, of course. And no, she didn’t go there.]Posted by jkd on 03/24 at 03:32 PM
The vocals do not matter in rock. Neither do the lyrics, unless they’re loud enough to offend.
I just want everyone to know that this is a virtuoso bassist and former bandmate talking. Someone with whom I worked away in the engine room to make sure that everybody had a good time. And therefore, he is right.Posted by Michael on 03/24 at 03:37 PM
I was thinking of this very thing yesterday while listening to something from Van Morrison’s latest on the radio. That’s some kind of serendipity or zeitgeist or something, I reckon. Anyway, I came to the conclusion that lyrics mattered more to me now than they did when I was younger and thought they intefered with perfectly good music—unless I was drunk and wanted to sing. I still don’t give a crap about the prettiness of the vocals, but I detest them when they’re overwrought and self-indulgent.
Of course, though, for a song to be brilliant, the vocals, lyrics and music must all combine perfectly to deliver the message and emotional punch. Off-key and ugly voices can still manage this, as in Neil, some of the folks already mentioned upthread, John Prine, Lou Reed (occasionally), and a few others prove.
By the way, this is a great review. Mind if I plagiarize it?Posted by on 03/24 at 03:37 PM
I always thought it odd that the boys wanted Pavement “try harder” but loved “Bastards of Young,” which you can (OMFG OMFG OMFG I LOVE YOU INTERNETS!) watch here or recreate in your head by looking at this while humming it. (Also, I think it says something about people who came of age in the ‘90s that when I typed that spastic parenthetical, the voice of my superego said “Settle down, Beavis” and promptly smacked me.)
As for terrible singers, well, I find bad voices more charming than good ones; too often, people who’ve been told they have “a good voice” sing like, well, people who’ve been told they had “a good voice.” I don’t want hear Kelly Clarkson on the other end of a telephone call from Istanbul. Give me a Tom Waits, a Jeff Tweedy, a Leonard Cohen, a Lucinda Williams, &c. any day of the week.
Finally, on a random note: I waited for months to hear Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, as it was the first time a band I truly loved had released a new album. So I’m sitting there outside Paradise Records in Baton Rouge on a (surprise!) rainy morning, walkman in hand, waiting. Finally, they open. I rush in, buy it and crack it open as I leave the store. I pop it in my walkman, crank it and hear:
Damn near fainted.Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/24 at 03:43 PM
My wife, a talented musician, and I, a completely unmusical loser, have this argument regularly. Thanks to Scott E.K. for putting into words the quality I most dislike: singing like you’ve been told your whole life you have a good voice. Which I guess is why my CD changer is full of Billy Bragg, Uncle Tupleo, and Lucinda Williams. And Neil Young.
Scott Stapp’s problems, on the other hand, go much deeper than mere tone-deafness.Posted by on 03/24 at 04:14 PM
I’d much rather hear someone with a “bad” or strange voice straining after something beautiful than hear someone with a traditionally good voice; the latter puts me in mind of American Idol and bad church “special music” interludes. My favorite voice in Rock right now is John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, the modern singer who best uses the limitations of his voice--a nasal-soudning thing that shouldn’t be good for anything, but goes from soul-in-tatters yelp to whispery falsetto--in really interesting and moving ways. He’s in the triangle in NC--maybe he’ll play out while you’re there.Posted by Prof. Fury on 03/24 at 04:16 PM
I tend to agree with S.E. Kaufman--technically bad but interesting (although I don’t personally like tweedy) beats a Kelly Clarkson any day. Or, say, your run-of-the-mill-but-good-at-singing broadway star. I tend to care how the vocals sound, as if they are just another instrument. Sure, I could deconstruct what Thom Yorke is saying, but what’s the f-ing point? It’s how it sounds with Johnny G. and Phil S. (what an underrated drummer, btw) that matters.Posted by Goldberg on 03/24 at 04:19 PM
...another quick point on Michael’s “Orange Crush” reference. My ear is, to put it mildly, not incredible, so I’m not exactly sure Michael Stipe would fall on the singing-ability spectrum. But I just saw him singing a few non-REM songs at the Hammerstein Ballroom the other night for that bring the troops home thing, and his beauty really was in the ease in which he sang. He just came out and sounded awesome, and it didn’t look like he was doing much of anything--the voice just came out of him like it was the most natural thing in the world.Posted by Goldberg on 03/24 at 04:25 PM
Great singing is all about nuance...sometimes a little flat or a little sharp is just what gives a voice personality and expressiveness. The same people who think Neil can’t sing also think Bob Dylan can’t sing...(Janet?)...but Bob is one of the best singers on the face of the earth. All that being said, Neil is over the top whiny on Prairie Wind. I still think he’s The Man.Posted by on 03/24 at 04:37 PM
"But too exclusive a focus on vocals leads straight to fascism.” Thank you--American Idol, anyone?
Janet has a point, certainly; whiny white-boy vocalizing can grate on ya, and I’m not just talking about a decade’s worth of starters on the Duke men’s basketball team. But I can agree only to a certain point. Because Neil, whew, he lays the humanity out there for anyone to acknowledge--and not only now in his sunset years. (In a lesser director’s hands, the age/mortality trope in HEART OF GOLD--old cars ferrying the performers, old fingers on the frets, old auditorium--would have sunk the film in a Titanic minute.) Check out CSNY’s SO FAR: on one hand, Stephen Still’s arguably more complex lyrics and surely more polished voice in “Helplessly Hoping,” a fine song; and on the other, Neil Young’s lead on “Helpless.” Young doesn’t apologize for his voice, he doesn’t gussy up his playing, he doesn’t get embarrassed when he drops a note here or there, he doesn’t scream his emotions; he offers fairly straightforward chords and the calm abandonment of honesty. Can kinda blow you away, yeah, like a hurricane.Posted by on 03/24 at 04:43 PM
I was a precocious seven year old when the dreaded first sounds of rock-n-roll began to be played over the newly restructured AM radio in SoCal. Growing up in a home where everyone played instruments, listened constantly to musicals, symphonies, and ‘for me nightmarish hell’ operas, i found something so incredible and amazing in the sound of the electric guitar. All those doowap harmonies and endless faux collegiate songsters that were trying to fend off the assault of rock soured my appreciation for quality vocals--i just wanted longer guitar laden bridges. To this day, after more than 40 years in and out of the rock concert business, i still get huge rushes from wailing electric guitars and bleeding fingers (yes and nod and a wink to tight rhythm sections without whom all else would fail). And you know, none of this really matters. I like what i like, and i don’t care what others think or say. Rock and roll will never die for me, and Neil can still freakin rock.Posted by on 03/24 at 04:44 PM
My favorite Rolling Stones album is Exile on Main Street. I don’t know what Mick is saying and I don’t care. On that album the vocalist and the rest of the instruments are given equal importance. The rock group as fascist society problem arises in part from the subordination of the rest of the band to the lead singer, which is unfortunately the norm in US popular music.
My musical hero is James Brown, who made the vocals and all the instruments in the band into percussion instruments. Give the drummer some!Posted by Jeremías on 03/24 at 04:49 PM
At times vocals are beside the point, aren’t they? During the Greendale tour I found myself in the third row, realizing during the encore that the best young American power trio working today consists of three really old guys, one of whom is Canadian.
Given the importance Janet places on vocals, I hope you two were civil to each other during the West Region finals.Posted by on 03/24 at 04:56 PM
”...can’t really sing.” Hmmm. How to define that. Can Bruce Springsteen sing? Bob Dylan? Could Stevie Ray Vaughn? Can Buddy Guy? B.B. King? The Edge?
True, they might not make the cut in the Super Perfect Harmonizers Band...but can they, you know, sing?
You can substitute any of the above for anyone else of the like, too. You mentioned Scott Weiland and Eddie Vedder. Maybe throw in Roger Daltry or Warren Zevon or Tom Waits. For my taste, some of these folks can sing a line or two in such a way as to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck (I mean that as a good thing!).
I thought Vedder’s version of Masters of War was deeply moving. And I’ll bet there are certain songs from some of the lousy singers listed above that move others equally.
Maybe Neal can’t really sing. OK then, I think we need to come up with another way to describe just what it is he does with his voice that makes his fans swell with an undefinable, undeniable feeling of excellentness! (sorry, I couldn’t think of a more eloquent way to put that!)Posted by on 03/24 at 05:02 PM
My wife, blessed with a superhuman auditory memory and a fan of showtunes, likes to put this in “learning styles” terms. Able to repeat back from memory several complex sentences in a row, she cares about lyrics. Not blessed with the gift, I tend to dive in feelings first, which is why I like Deerhoof and Pavement and Mr. Young and not so much the showtunes. My son has inherited her memory and wouldn’t you know, the showtunes…Posted by Peter O on 03/24 at 05:05 PM
Give me the rhythm section / engine room parts all day long, every day. The lyrics of Tumbling Dice or Werewolves of London may be does-Z-d’oats but I’ve always got a few minutes to thump along. Steve Earle can tell a good story and tell it well, but the kick drum makes it better.
As for the good voice / not-good voice thing, when Tony Soprano used loud music to get back the deposit for the house he no longer wanted to buy it was Dean Martin’s recorded voice, not Bob Dylan’s. In dino veritas.Posted by black dog barking on 03/24 at 05:12 PM
I’m not sure I want to endorse a lot of the non-singing singers mentioned here and certainly not the concept of listening to all of them at length (e.g., Tom Waits--for one song, okay, but the concert of his I saw on Cape Cod in 1979 was pure torture).
OTOH, harmony and and conventional notions of singing talent can be pretty vapid. For people of a certain age (old than me), “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” greate to now end, not because of politics (in the case of “Flowers") but because every “harmonizer” sang them. And don’t forget that the unlistenable Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” was driven into the ground by people with melodic middle of the road voices (in its time, it rivaled “MacArthur Park” for sheer numbers of covers--"MacArthur" is a good example of how good singing can’t save a ludicrous song). It wasn’t Leonard that turned that sang into the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, it was people actually capable of carrying a tune.
In fairness to the harmonizers, some of Young’s best work probably benefited from him being blended into “Buffalo Springfield” or “CSN&Y” (his duos with Crosby are more debatable).Posted by on 03/24 at 05:56 PM
Singers? Bands have singers?
About the “engine room” thing: this Grohl character seems to have pretty much destroyed idea that drummers won’t be up front singing “Is someone getting the best! the best! the best! the best of you?” instead of hiding behind their hair and a set of angled cymbals, eh? Now he’s everywhere. And most likely shirtless. Where’s the sense of self-restraint? By which I mean, where are the actual physical restraints, such as manacles?
It’s getting so bad I hear otherwise intelligent-seeming people calling for Meg White to “dump” Jack. And nobody questions it because they’re drummers. One day we’re going to wake up and find out they’ve taken over all the school boards and town councils, and the guy from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is on his second solo album, and…Posted by Jason on 03/24 at 06:05 PM
I assume we first have to cleave rock from pop, so we don’t get confused about a group like Magnetic Fields, say, where the lyrics matter lots and Merritt finally realized he had to learn to sing a bit and not come off like Eeyore (as some critic once said).
But then it seems everyone in this thread just wants to keep cleaving, and I say let’s not chop the baby in half. The best songs are best because they’re ALL best--that’s what rock is, all the pleasure buttons all the time. So something like “Tom Courtenay” by Yo La Tengo has wit and nostalgia and the inclusiveness of knowing obscure references going for it in the lyrics, and a bash and a beat (not really a dance song but most certainly a ‘90s headshaking kind of song), and killer feedback, and the lovely hook of a background vocal, plus Ira, whose voice might be an ex-rock critic’s voice--declarative and a bit hushed since he knows you’re going to listen to him anyway--but certainly is sure its view of the world is right.Posted by George on 03/24 at 06:08 PM
If i could pick anyone to be able to sing like, it might be Stephin Merritt--if I could only sing with that deep voice “you can’t use a bulldozer/to study orchids” like he does, I’d die a happy man.Posted by Goldberg on 03/24 at 06:28 PM
To add to Phil in #6 genealogy. Everyone knows you can’t get Malkmus (whose singing on “Here” in Slanted and Enchanted is actually quite nice)--or in fact that lisper from Modesth Mouth--w/out Marc E. Smith and The Fall.* The snide barking of Marc E. probably goes back, god help me, to L. Reed, who himself imitated B. Dylan. Thankfully J. Richman threw off the Reed-imitation and let himself sing.
I’m surprised no one’s brought up Nico. My fiancee--who also cries tears of anguished blood &c. when I listen to On the Beach but for some reason (love?) likes it when I squawk at her--loathes her, but I’m convinced she’s w/in the German chanteuse tradition. Which of course leads away from fascism, as we know from Caberat.
* What do you use to whiten your clothes at Snoop Dogg’s house? Ble-ach. What if Marc E. Smith is with you? Ble-ach-ah. What about Isaac Brock? Ble-ath-ah.
It’s much funner if you--or I--do it aloud.Posted by on 03/24 at 06:37 PM
Vocals matter.Posted by on 03/24 at 06:51 PM
They totally matter in Eminem’s SHAKE THAT. I would be embarrassed to admit liking that song if it wasn’t for the funky vocals in the background, and for the beat. I had a hard time at first making out what Eminem’s backup singer was saying when he goes, “Some girls are retarded, some girls are bout it bout it.”
But it’s an excellent song, except that it’s so sexist. OR is it? I don;t know. It’s the first Eminem song I ever really listened to deeply.Posted by on 03/24 at 06:54 PM
And as always, this is Genevieve, live from the panopticon.Posted by on 03/24 at 06:55 PM
I’m neither here nor there on Neil Young—though I did like me some CSNY back in the day. As for vocals, I appreciate virtuosity and legit chops as much as the next person, but I also like Louis Armstrong’s vocals & can deal with Bob Dylan too.
What I want to know about this Neil Young movie is did he go through the wall? From my notes:
Steve Erickson, Neil Young on a Good Day. The New York Times Magazine, July 30, 2000, pp. 26-29.
p. 28: He pauses an looks out the window. “At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians"--which is to say, not him--"hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone, sound, ambience, landscape, earthquakes, pictures, fireworks, the sky opening, buildings falling, subways collapsing. ... When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you got to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.” He stops for a moment. “I love to go through the wall,” as if you ever doubted it for a moment.
* * * * * *
For someone who knows about going through the wall, nothing else matters much. Good voice, scratchy voice, spot-on intonation, wobbly pitch, it’s all just tools to get through the wall.Posted by on 03/24 at 07:07 PM
Singing is roughly equal parts voice and interpretation. Who had a better voice, Torme or Sinatra? Gotta go with the Velvet Fog. Who was a better singer? Gotta go with ol’ Blue Eyes, one of the all time great interpreters.
In the rock era, think of Bob Dylan at his peak. I’m tired of arguing this, but I still say the “Highway 61” era Dylan is one of the all time great pop vocalists. Listen to any of his songs from that era then listen to any cover of it – and covers of Dylan songs are the most common artifacts in pop culture. With the exception of Hendrix’ version of “All Along the Watchtower” there isn’t a single cover that bests the original - and Hendrix didn’t “out-Bob” Bob on the vocals.
When Dylan sings “Positively Fourth Street” he sneers with the contempt only the person on the receiving end of Mr. Jones’ inquiries can muster. Others can only try to imagine being the “Voice of a Generation” – Dylan lived it – and that comes through in his interpretation in so overpowering a manner as to relegate any “voice” issues to the margins.
One last note; Michael – thank you for the ever so slight questioning of the talents of one Paul Hewson. Never understood that band’s popularity – western civilization has done better than the Arena Rock Anthem With A Message.Posted by on 03/24 at 07:11 PM
Agree about Highway 61 Dylan--unbelievable singing. I wonder if anyone would care to comment on my little theory about lyrics. Phrases matter, sentences and paragraphs don’t. Dylan and Neil Young are incredible because of phrases like “desparation row,” “southern man,” “four dead in Ohio.” Alright, these are also song titles, but you get the point.Posted by on 03/24 at 07:29 PM
Taking up what has been said by Erin in #4 and by others, and pointing to the things said about Dylan (especially by Bob in #42), I think that one should see the voice as just another instrument. Melody sure can be important, but it is just one way of using the vocal instrument.
‘Good singing’ is as hard to define as ‘good guitar sound’.... Distortion and clean acoustic guitar are different ways to play the instrument.
I love a good melody and a beautiful voice but I love ‘good singers’ that know how to use their voice as an instrument (especially Dylan, just listen to him… and also read Michael Gray) just the same. And this is also true for all kinds of bands. The music surely does a major part, but it’s especially the vocals that make me love a band. Though you have to be able to stand it if someone else is just anoyed by the peculiar voice of one of your favorite band’s singer (e.g. The Smashing Pumpkins) and just cannot stand listening to it.
Concerning Vedder: Here may not be the greatest singer, but he can pull off what I meant, using his voice as an instrument. Masters of War is a good example, but you can also listen to his version of “Keep on Rocking in the Free World” on the PJ unplugged to see what I meanPosted by on 03/24 at 07:38 PM
"My musical hero is James Brown, who made the vocals and all the instruments in the band into percussion instruments.”
Yep. My 5-year-old son loves James Brown—which brings up its own lyric-interpretation problems, of course. Luckily he doesn’t seem to have trouble fitting most of them into his worldview. “Please Please Please”, for instance, is about someone asking for a lot of toys or something.
I myself listen to The Residents more than any other band, which makes me one of those mutants who prefers neither good vocals nor good musicianship. Isn’t that all sort of beside the point?Posted by on 03/24 at 08:26 PM
For music to move us, does it have to be perfect? Celine Dion has a great set of pipes but will anyone really give a rat’s ass what she does when she’s sixty? No, because there is always someone younger with perfect pitch ready to belt out popular pap.
I think that we admire the work of the non-good singers (Young, Dylan, Prine, Waits, Haitt) because we feel a little bit of their tortured souls when they sing. Sure everybody knows others who have done better jobs covering Young’s songs but we still know they are HIS songs.
I mean, really, will anybody remember next week what I wrote or what a bad writer I was.Posted by on 03/24 at 08:36 PM
The voice/singing ability doesn’t matter in rock?
Freddie Mercury.Posted by on 03/24 at 08:49 PM
Louis Armstrong: great singer, even when changing all the notes and forgetting half the words, as in his cover of H. Carmichael’s “Lazy River.” Why great? Because of the range of feeling he can convey (outclassing mid-’60s Bob by several shades of warmth; Bob’s emotional mastery then, which was real, tended toward varieties of scorn, though his ‘90s folk-cover albums also mastered varieties of pain & sorrow). Neil Y. as a singer doesn’t grab me, but I like Eddie Vedder; he didn’t embarrass himself singing with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and that is huge.
If vocals don’t matter for a band, they shouldn’t have a singer. I feel that way all the time when listening to my local college rock station: such a nice distorted guitar texture going, ruined by mediocre vocals.
I do have to say that rock drumming isn’t what it once was. Who today plays fills as tasty as Ringo’s were? A musician friend theorizes that only rock drummers who grow up on drumming other than rock drumming make great rock drummers. Maybe we’ll get some new great ones from the generation whose parents listen to lots of Latin American & African & South Asian music. 7 or 8 years ago I started noticing an improvement in the quality of street-protest drumming; the aesthetics of anti-globalization protests markedly improved by the globalization of music.Posted by john on 03/24 at 09:19 PM
I object to the notion that “The Needle and the Damage Done” is anything but a work of sheer genius; and this only partially because used to do a brilliant party piece which involved the a performance of the song by Barney, from The Simpsons.
I also don’t understand how you can have a film about Neil Young that doesn’t have “Powderfinger” in it. What sort of sense does that make?
With those caveats: great. Carry on.Posted by on 03/24 at 09:23 PM
As an instrumentalist who’s often disgusted by our culturally prevalent proto-fascistic fetishization of singers, I hear you on that point, Michael. Neil has something entirely different going on, and I’m a longtime fan of whatever it is.
Try Harry Nilsson for sheer vocal chops.Posted by on 03/24 at 09:25 PM
Reading along blithefully and get to the “Greater Tennessee Gamelan Society” line. Stop everything. Had to laugh out loud for an entire minute.
Sir, you have perfect pitch.
About vocalists: correct.
A good band emits one sound. This is difficult because 3-5 players are emitting their own sounds, amplified and otherwise electronically gargled, and those sounds enter the bloodstream via PA and/or individual amps and/or a vestigial phenomenon called “acoustics.”
All that racket must focussed and blended on the fly, by players who have bothered to listen critcially to tapes, who glom onto the dynamics of all this flying aural shrapnal and figure out how to corral this mess into an illusion of one sound.
The vocalist is one of the sounds that add up to the sound. No insult there. If you want to send a message, send a—urk, no fair confusing the post-telegram demographic.
Not that the front man isn’t crucial. Here’s a shot of baby oil, try unbuttoning one more button.Posted by David J Swift on 03/24 at 09:45 PM
Eddie Vedder can’t sing? Omg, I hope I’m on another planet when the lightening bolt comes.
Before I depart, though, I’d like to add Van Morrison to the list of people who can’t sing for shit. Thank you. I’ve wanted to get that off my chest for a long time.Posted by on 03/24 at 10:58 PM
A Man Needs a Maid and Needle & the Damage are two of the very finest songs ever. Not only are the correct in their assessments of two quite different sets of circumstances. They are sung with brilliance. See also Tom Waits.Posted by on 03/24 at 11:03 PM
All lovers quarrel about Neil Young’s singing, Michael and alwsdad. My friend Danny Schmidt has written an entire song about it. It ends: “My love says Neil Young’s voice is like spoiled red wine / Well, it’s lucky, it’s lucky she’s so beautiful and kind.”Posted by on 03/24 at 11:05 PM
From way up in comment 11:
---Do Janet’s feelings about “bad” vocals extend to bad musicianship in general? That is, does she object to Lora Logic’s saxophone as much as she (I assume) objects to Poly Styrene’s vocals?
Janet was never into X-Ray Spex, to be honest, though she was fond of the Slits, and very tolerant of the execrable musicianship of the Gang of Four. But Ms. Styrene’s vocals on “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” are, for my money, the very finest one-note belting in all the world.
And more recently:
---A Man Needs a Maid and Needle & the Damage are two of the very finest songs ever.
Oh, to hell with all that postmodernist post-relativism. I declare this comment to be objectively false.Posted by Michael on 03/24 at 11:26 PM
very tolerant of the execrable musicianship of the Gang of Four
The what? The wha-a-a-t? Okay, yeah, they’re not exactly The Minutemen, but thank The Greater Tennessee Gamelan Society they’re not Boston or the Dillinger 4 (or the Canadian Ayn Randian Band whose Name Will Not Be Mentioned Here), either.
But I did see one of the Gang of Four reunion shows w/in the last year. In Philly, because the NYC shows were sold out. Review: I’m not glad I saw the show, but I would have been bummed if I’d missed it. It lost something in the après-coup.
No fan of Eddie Veder. Strikes me that Vedder and Cornell (or, for that matter, any number of the ickier Seattle singers) had much the same stylings. Question is: where’d they get it from? Let’s not talk quality; let’s talk genealogy. Do we blame Greg Sage?
(by the way folks, just saw <i>Cabin the Sky,</a> which is unendurable until the final bar scene, and then sin lights up the place. See it someday if you can if you like, you know, singing and dancing.Posted by on 03/24 at 11:50 PM
Once again Karl the GM beat me to the punch, but I too must take exception to
and very tolerant of the execrable musicianship of the Gang of Four.
I mean really, now.
Tastes may differ, but this simply cannot be borne. My seconds shall call your seconds, sir. Honour must be satisfied.Posted by on 03/25 at 01:10 AM
Neil: I watched The Last Waltz on IFC the other day and again I cracked up at the sight of the rock of cocaine stuck in Neil’s nose hairs. Apparently, Scorcese asked him if he wanted that digitally removed for the DVD and Neil said “Nah, leave it”. Great performance of Helpless.
Eddie Vedder: Release is all I need to know about whether he can sing or not and I say “Hell yes!”. People might not like the style, but questioning his technique? Absurd.
Other Dylan covers that are better than the original:
Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man (even though it’s only one verse)
Manfred Mann: The Mighty Quinn
Lead singers: you can blame prog on them. The proggers were explicitly rebelling against their tyranny and said “Fuck that! We’ve spent 6 hours a day practicing, some twat who can’t even play 2 chords isn’t going to get all the attention”. [cue lauding of lead singers for the rest of this thread]
As a hobbyist bass player of the prog persuasion, I love vocals and lyrics--for example, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is a perfect marriage of wonderful music and lyrics. But then again, I totally reject the “engine room” theory of bass playing and drumming--I’m more of a “all instruments are equal, there are no accompanists or background players” type of guy. (see: Squire/Bruford, Wetton/Bruford, Shulman/Weathers, Rutherford/Collins, Lake/Palmer)Posted by on 03/25 at 01:46 AM
Um, sorry: “Fetishization”? However, I have a handy scapegoat: William F. Buckley, in an appearance on the old Dick Cavett Show deep in the Reagan era, referred to the perceived “dehobgoblinization” of conservative discourse in those politically tranquil times… heh.
Natch, it should have read “ fetishizing” in my #50 comment… but in true conservative fashion, let’s reserve all blame for the other side.Posted by on 03/25 at 01:56 AM
Karl the GM,
Kurt, Eddie & the rest get their style from David Cassidy. The grainy emotive baritone, smoother in the verses, more intense in the choruses—Come on Get Happy!
All hail the Gang of Four. What a fresh ensemble conception! What bold arrangements! And energetic execution. And great songs! (First album especially.)
Needle & Damage Done: thumb’s up.
Neil’s lead guitar in general: aces.
His deployment of distortion on the “Freedom” album: orchestral.
A Man Needs a Maid: not nearly as good as Sondheim’s song of the almost-same title in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Not nearly as funny either.Posted by john on 03/25 at 02:16 AM
As for terrible singers, well, I find bad voices more charming than good ones; too often, people who’ve been told they have “a good voice” sing like, well, people who’ve been told they had “a good voice”...Give me a Tom Waits, a Jeff Tweedy, a Leonard Cohen, a Lucinda Williams, &c. any day of the week.
This sounds right. But what’s “charming” is really the broken-ness, or reckoning with loss that marks the voice, is it not? The constant attention to, and caring for fragility, the being marked by death and failure. Though some are quick to detect nursing, or self-indulgence, merely. Or maybe it’s the hint of madness that repels them? To each hir madness own…
(I think there’s the potential for this to be construed as yet another ‘gender thing’ (or yet another ‘it’s not a gender thing’ so maybe it’s a good thing, if no-one starts down that road?)
But having “a good voice” isn’t really the proper measure. Chet Baker had a “pretty” voice, most nights anyway, yet one that remained so fragile, or rather so conscious of the falling. Broken-ness in refusal of its opposite, the epic, and of opera (which is truly fascist), or is that stretching things too much? There are limits to how philosophical one can get, about madness and music...sooner or later things like competing ‘conceptions’ of ‘the subject’ take center-stage all for themselves…
Oh what the hell; if I may plug myself plugging someone else, as it’s all, one supposes, at least somewhat related:
Greif argues, good and brave new transcendentalist that he is, it’s all about the aesthetic of an experience (of failure, and of pending but never completed dissolution, you might say, or even a sort of negative eschatology), an aesthetic irreducible to its parts.
He uses shorter words and sentences though, because he’s smart. You’ll need to scroll down some.
As a side note, the fact that the piano is a percussion instrument has, I confess, always excited me.Posted by Matt on 03/25 at 02:36 AM
You didn’t actually say “could care less” up there, did you? I think I’m going to have to stop reading your blog now. Pity.Posted by on 03/25 at 03:07 AM
Michael, there must have been something in the air Friday.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/25 at 03:51 AM
What about rappers?
Only half-serious, since these discussions always exclude rap. Probably out of necessity (The Roots may be the only ones to qualify as a “band” for the tournament, and Run-DMC would have overrun the duets thread).
But I would love to read a Michael Bérubé hip-hop post. It could be about any aspect. It would be great!
The fan(s?) demand(s?) it!Posted by Evan on 03/25 at 05:34 AM
I definitely second Evan on the hip hop post. We want it!Posted by on 03/25 at 06:11 AM
For me it has always been the extremes of “it’s hard doncha know” and the nudge nudge wink wink of “hey isn’t this a great fuckin’ moment!” Although harmony singing is the sweetest..folks workin’ together...the big three for me were/are Dylan..Jerry..Neil ...their voices would ask “ya know what I mean? ...I always nod Yep..Posted by on 03/25 at 07:15 AM
Never mind, À Chacun, son goût; Chacun son goût; or Prince Orlofsky’s ‘Chacun à son goût’...I say, Michael, the Lyons have it!Posted by on 03/25 at 08:17 AM
You didn’t actually say “could care less” up there, did you? I think I’m going to have to stop reading your blog now.
Fine, suit yourself. Irregardless of what the usage police think, this plain-talkin’ blog occasionally descends to the colloquial.
No, wait! Come back! I didn’t mean it! I even have a copy of Fowler’s at my bedside!Posted by Michael on 03/25 at 08:57 AM
Michael, there must have been something in the air Friday.
Dude, you smell anything funny? I don’t smell anything funny.
Whoa, you were so right about my teeth.Posted by Michael on 03/25 at 09:02 AM
Chris Clarke: that’s eerie.
Not that anyone minds but me, but I clearly meant, not the Pop Punk band Dillinger 4, but rather “The Dillinger Escape Plan"--I could well have said Mr. Bungle--to represent the ‘virtuoso musicianship that bores me’ category.
Hiphop: good lord people, run, don’t walk, unless you speed walk, to see Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. I’ll save my other comments--including my very dubious love of Tech N9ne--for that thread, should it come to us.
John #60: David Cassidy? “I Think I Love You” is a great karaoke number, but you must be joking? I still stand by blaming Greg Sage, since this fits my criteria of being both unfair and inaccurate.
Henry #58: you blame prog on lead singers? Really? I might be just as inclined to blame musical theater. Since you’re a prog person, what do you suppose the first prog song/band is? Earliest that I can think of off the top of my head is “Rumble on Mersey Square South” by Wimple Winch. Arguably not a prog song, but that’s what I want: an argument.Posted by on 03/25 at 10:19 AM
I think we may need more categories here. There are “technically” proficient singers and there are singers who communicate a feeling/tune/mood/lyric excellently (i.e. resonates), this is still a very musical talent. A guitar analogy: it’s the difference between Segovia and Howlin’ Wolf. However, for me Neil Young is neither, and hence awful.
So, technically great but also plain great:
Charlie Rich, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Peggly Lee, Patsy Cline, etc.
Technically ok but great:
Jeff Tweedy, John Lennon, etc.
Technically poor and but great:
Jagger, Ray Davies, Westerberg, Waits, Malkmus, etc.
Great sounding and technically great though not in a standard way:
Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Lucinda Williams, Van Morrison, Sinatra, etc.
Dylan (the trilogy era), Bryan Adams (sorry to offend), Rod Stewart (Faces era), etc.
Technically great but appalling:
Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, the American Idol overwrought school, etc.Posted by a-train on 03/25 at 11:48 AM
For very off-beat, yet undeniably powerful vocals, try Rufus Wainwright (son of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle) and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). Their voices have more than enough character (like the feather-light world-weary tone that makes Neil Young’s voice so darn attractive), while at the same time their precise control of vibrato and tone and perfect phrasing can stand up to the tests of demanding listeners (voca-philes?).Posted by on 03/25 at 11:55 AM
What’s up with the British//American punk/pop//hip-hop divide? Maybe people who sneer across the pond from either direction are both right. At least the kids are wearing shoes these days, if not brushing teeth. Aren’t they?
A sneeking suspicion that Greil Marcus doesn’t have all the anwers, though.Posted by Matt on 03/25 at 12:17 PM
Something else just came to me:
What’s the obvious answer why women singers tend to be expected to sing much more proficiently (i.e., stay in key) than men? What’s the less obvious answer?
And, why not, since I’m listening to Joy Division right now while figuring out how to teach Freud’s Uncanny on Monday (harh, sort of Solomon Grundy “Buried on Sunday” rhythm going on there...), I want another list: singers whose chief attraction is their clinical depression:
Dan Treacy (Television Personalities)Posted by on 03/25 at 12:59 PM
I’m sorry. I don’t understand Janet’s point about rockism. Or maybe I just understand rockism. I take that term to denote people who regard four white guys with guitar, bass and drum as somehow intrinsically special. And that there was an element of elitism, sexism, racism and probably several other isms associated with that attitude.
Or is there more to it?
I would like to add that I love the debate about rockism, in particular because I can’t help but notice in myself a deep, resounding fascination with the sound that four kids can make with guitars, bass and drum. When I was a teenager, the fact that they were all white did not seem to signify. But now, when I say “I have lots of records by black and women performers in my collection” (and I do!) I feel like I have just asserted that “some of my best friends are black.”
Why is it that something I love profoundly has to be so icky?
Or am I just missing something?
Further, to Janet’s assertion that, “… the bad-singing white-boy tradition licenses all kinds of horrors in hands less talented than Young’s, and—here’s the kicker—leads to rockism,” could it not be said that the bad-singing white boy tradition has licensed a bad-singing BLACK boy tradition?
Put another way, in terms of the good lyrics v. good singing debate that the post has spawned: Is it not true that the world of rap and hip-hop is filled with great wordsmiths whose vocal range and talent is, to put it kindly, rather limited?
I love Snoop as much as the next guy, but hitting the high notes is not something one generally associates with his oeuvre.
And finally, I will depart with a quote from the four boys from Queens who whose talent best distills the rockist debate:
I don’t wanna go
Don’t to the basement.
Something down there.
Zen poetry, or too much time sniffing glue?Posted by on 03/25 at 01:37 PM
Correction for those of you not familiar with the verse in post 76; I made a typo
I don’t wanna go
Down to the basement.
Something down there.
ApologiesPosted by on 03/25 at 01:48 PM
“But too exclusive a focus on vocals leads straight to fascism.”
A reference to FOX’s American Idol? Are you suggesting that the #1 tv program in America is fascist?
The horror. The patriotism. The irony.
America needs more Whiny Canadians!Posted by thrasher on 03/25 at 02:23 PM
the faster you go the rounder you get, and the thread keeps a growing. One other consideration i find not mentioned above, is the live versus studio debate. While it is not inherently difficult to provide high quality sound reinforcement for vocals, most promoters and pop sound geeks would rather play/work with EQ than on paying the extra dollars for the best quality voice mics. Thus we get endless minimal quality headsets, and omni input junk noise and all sorts of vocal threats in concert. For some moderately valid reasons, those whose voices mentioned above as not being of the best “on tune” quality seem to perform better live, than those whose vocal stylings were created initially in the studio. Hence the huge increase in vocal lipsynchs for harmonies.Posted by on 03/25 at 04:15 PM
Young’s responsible for that sort of initially- interesting-but-ultimately-trivial type of 70’s rock sound. Mucho jamming and then folkie stuff. I think he was overrated; tho’ at least when the boys were jamming one didn’t have to hear the vocals. But really compared to like a band of real musicians--say the Steely Dan of C. tO E., or some of Zappa’s groups, 10% of the Dead, Hendrix, and of course jass or Debussy/Satie, Squeal Neal is sort of like feeble and primitive, but then so is his MeisterMinstrel Bobbie Dylan (tho BD does do his Rimbaud-in- Dixie thing which is interesting to some...and LeopardSkinPillboxHat rocks more than most) Hendrix may have played a lot of noise but he was doing something Neal couldn’t. Maybe he’s got a good heart, but musically he’s dull, like 90% of the Rock, Inc. schwindle, or country for that matter, but at least Willie Nelson played some complex changes here and there: tho’ few in his band were capable of soloing over ‘em.Posted by perezoso on 03/25 at 04:44 PM
I saw Heart of Gold last week. The high point of the movie comes with the closing credits when Neil Young performs “The Old Laughing Lady” all alone on the stage of an empty Ryman Auditorium. As much as any one performance can, it features all the hallmarks of the best music he makes. He strokes the guitar so ferociously that you wonder at its chances for surviving till the end of the song. His high voice inflects the song’s words with an atmosphere of loss, of longing, of lonesomeness, and the lyrics contain powerfully allusive images, which, when taken together, remain curiously enigmatic: in the end we’re left with lonely Neil and fascinating isolates of a narrative never explicitly disclosed. Which is not in and of itself a bad thing. This is what he does with his gifts. Then he puts down his guitar, stows it away, and walks off stage. The End.
The earlier portion of the film includes a performance of the songs on his album Prairie Wind, which you can listen to here on the neilyoung.com website for free if you wish. During this part of the film the stage is crowded with scores of incredibly talented musicians. Occasionally The Fisk University Jubilee Singers can be spied way back there in the back of the crowd, The Fisk University Jubilee Singers, with their profoundly important place in the history of American popular music! And … they’re given almost nothing to do. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bonzo Dog’s “Intro and Outro,” with the Count Basie Orchestra on triangle: ”(Ting!) Thank you!”
In spite of all the musical firepower available, the Prairie Wind songs seem somewhat weightless compared to the older material that follows in the film, although there are moments of grace. The solitude and vastness of his home acres is evoked exquisitely in the title song, with nothing out there in that endless landscape,
Just a farmer’s wife hanging
Laundry in her backyard,
Out on the prairie where the
Winds blow long and hard.
Like his voice, Neil Young’s lyrics have the capacity to meander again and again into a perfectly apt phrasing somehow, which would seem just a happy accident if he hadn’t arrived there so often over the years, assuming you can stand his stuff at all. Back when, there was a station promo for KSAN radio in San Francisco by Martin Mull: “The preceding 15 minutes of no Neil Young music has been brought to you as a public service by KSAN, 94 point 5 on your radio dial.”
I do wonder about the bright blue dresses, though, Pati Young and Emmylou Harris both decked out in pretty much the same shade, like bridesmaids. What’s up with that?
Karl the GM: I just recently saw Cabin in the Sky, too, courtesy of my wife’s fascination with early representations of African Americans in film. A suggestion if you haven’t yet seen King Vidor’s Hallelujah: dial it up on your netflix account immediately. Nina Mae McKinney is what I’m saying: Nina Mae McKinney. Yowzah. She’s what Lena Horne as a temptress would have been like if Lena Horne had ever learned to loosen up.Posted by on 03/25 at 04:45 PM
I recently saw Cabin in the Sky too. Ethel Waters is radiant as a singer and actress and—surprisingly—dancer. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson has a tremendous, grating voice. Some great dancing. Very weird acting by Louis Armstrong as a devil. Mostly great acting in the supporting roles. Unfortunately I agree with Peter about Lena Horne. Oddball story. Some great songs. I’d recommend it quite highly as a Classic American Movie Musical (of which very few lack dopey parts, and this is not one).Posted by John on 03/25 at 04:53 PM
Compare like the early Dead doing St. Stephen to Young’s later folkie product. St. Stephen tho with some of the same countryish harmonies, bursts out with a type of dionysian intensity (maybe ultimately too intense) which is definitely not folk muzak, nor jazz; tho’ influenced by both--modal sections here and there in; the lyrics enigmatic, a bit Lewis Carroll like, rather than the homespun anger of Young. St. Stephen brings into being a musical paradigm shift, perhaps, slightly hindu-like, and a bit unsettling and like most psychedelia maybe a bit futile; young on the other hand is comforting, predictable, bland. But one is hippie Art; the other hippie entertainment.Posted by perezoso on 03/25 at 05:17 PM
I have loved Neil Young and his sometimes inconsistency since Buffalo Springfield’s second album. He has been one of the greatest songwriters and greatest guitarists in rock for almost 40 years. His voice is personal and highly emotive and he belongs to the rich nonsinging tradition begun by Chet Baker. Yes, they are horrible so called singers in the rockist tradition but at this moment in time of American Idolism, the real fear of facist music are the twin curses of allegedly good tecnical singing, Whityneyism and its horrible male counterpart, yes, the curse of Boltonism. The evil Simon perputuating the myth of good singing is one of the worst things that could happen to our democratic society.
What does Janet think of another wonderful and at times limited singer, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”Posted by on 03/25 at 06:32 PM
Whenever I hear the words “Grateful Dead” and “dionysan,” I reach for my copy of Revolver.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/25 at 08:27 PM
So that’s the authentic Goebbels quote? It is good to know that.Posted by on 03/25 at 08:51 PM
As best I remember, Steve, but of course, you know, the early 1970s.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/25 at 08:57 PM
As in the Beatless? ugh. Those music hall cretins couldn’t put together some interesting changes even when paying some effete byatch like George Martin to do it for ‘em. McCartney is like 90% schlock, seriously. At least the Dead had some authentic roots, Bob Hunter also perused some like Sheats & Kelley, etc. and I suspect Jerry (yea, Osiris bless) played through like Miles Davis’ So What a few times, maybe even coherently once in a while. But what Berube needs to get like LA=SF cred.,man is like a Zappa-Beefheart tribute post, perhaps like using Baudrillard or some other pomo gallic freaks to shore up some of his arabesques...On the Ontological Significance of “Crew Slut,” yasssPosted by perezoso on 03/25 at 08:57 PM
...that’s a bit much, but zappa, however overexposed or whatever, does seem to be a rather quintessential postmodernist of “pop"--tho’ mixing doo wop, crass humor, SoCal rock with the jazzier bits, modern classical, Stravinski, Varese, etc. To wit, Little Umbrellas is a type of complex beauty that most rockers, brit or yank, never reached or even aspired to. OK it doesn’t all work, but somewhat nearer to the current Zeitgeist than the rustic tinklings of Mr. Young and Co. (in fact FZ and some of his cronies created some rather hilarious parodies of that Crosby Stills etc, sound and of Dylano as well). MOREOVER, FZ and I believe the Mothers make at least one appearance in Big Tommy P’s Vineland (FZ momentarily envisioned on Mt. Rushmore), and given M. Berube’s occasional Pynchonian waxings, that could be potentially, er, dread. Or maybe not.Posted by perezoso on 03/25 at 09:32 PM
This Will Be Your Only Warning. Do Not Feed The Perezoso. This Will Be Your Only Warning.
By The Way We Really Like Neil Young’s Song “Wintermute.”Posted by on 03/25 at 10:40 PM
Is it still OK to refrain from keeping my arms and heads inside the vehicle?Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/25 at 10:46 PM
Speaking of winter, today is the last day of the Yakut Pole of Cold festival. Yes, that’s right, I’m
Moving to Yakutia soon....It’ll be just me and the Yakut pony, over by the...hey! where is that dental floss bush?
oh and congrats to LSU.Posted by david ross mcirvine on 03/25 at 10:54 PM
David! Whatchu doing with all that bandwidth?Posted by Michael on 03/25 at 10:58 PM
Sorry, Michael, it’s the darn Commie Websites!
I can’t even get a legit picture of an invisible Commie pony up. Jest delete the travel agents and the bunny-man.Posted by david ross mcirvine on 03/25 at 11:05 PM
Let’s not feed you, CPE. Yes, Wintermute, William Gibson story; Neu., or CZ. That’s just it. Mr. Young is rather lacking a c-punk ‘tude isn’t he? There may be some cool analog feedback here and there; back in the day some of those old electric jams were mildly interesting, but then you hear like Denny Diaz and the Dan playing Bodhisattva, Miles, Trane, back to Bird, Milhaud, Debussy, The Igor Stravinsky Boogie band and so forth: and Neil and his pals sound tres sauvage if not tres cro-magnon. and for drummers not so challenging is it? Whatevah. It’s a phree country, or used to be, until the mall liberals with Neil YOung CDs, and neo-cons took it over.
Technically, Young’s music seems just plain; even Dylan I think has a bit more complexity and melodic interest. I mean who wants to hear somebody like strum E mi amd A chords ? NA guys in Sacramento or something. Even dirty chitlin’ stomps--Jelly Roll Morton, say-- more interesting, or again Hendrix. And the G. Dead I think more authentic folkies; or like that freak who played for the Airplane, that was blues.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 01:19 AM
"dirty chitlin’ stomps” has nothing to do with Jelly Roll Morton’s music.
“dirty”—sure, but Morton’s music was also elegant and SOPHISTICATED. I once saw a university music professor play a set of Morton piano solos note-for-note. You can’t imagine the elegance and suavity.
“chitlin’”—refers to the soul / R&B circuit of music venues; I’d be surprised if the term as associated with music predates the late ‘40s, which is after Morton’s time, though I’m not sure; Morton’s relationship with R&B is tenuous & rather far-removed: swing bands covered some Morton tunes, and R&B developed out of swing. When the swing bands played Morton’s stomps, they changed the beat. When Country & Western bands played stomps, they didn’t. If you’re interested in post-Morton stomps, check out Bob Wills. You won’t find them on any chitlin’ circuit. Bluegrass is closer.Posted by John on 03/26 at 05:14 AM
That was intended to be slightly ironic. Yess Morton played some fairly complex and interesting music (quite more complex and interesting than Neil Dung ever played), but JRM grew up playing in a brothel and some of the music, or at least that with vocals, is shall we rather salacious: one piece I have on a collection is basically his account of uh some backdoor action with a prostitute. And Jelly Roll Morton played stomps: they are a type of primitive ragtime.
Chitlins was the name for the jazz-blues circuit: later it was R n B stuff but in 30s 40s more blues than R n B. So Dirty (as in “she likes it dirty"), Chitlins (as in the old blues roadhouses, but some jazz people played there too), stomp (as in the type of ragtimey music he played). Dirty Chitlins Stomp. (I would agree chitlins might be slightly out of context but it adds some needed color) C’est Magnifique! Dirty Chitlins Stomp. A type of musical style most rockers and minstrels never developed. Maybe a few years in a whorehouse with an upright, practicing Joplin and Jelly Roll a little Debussy on the side they might.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 11:44 AM
I’m glad you agree that Morton played sophisticated music—your previous comment implied the exact opposite.
I’m sorry you don’t like Neil Young. No doubt with the ubiquity of classic rock radio you have to listen to him sometimes anyway as you involuntarily cross his path, and that can be annoying. But there’s no need to be insulting about it.Posted by John on 03/26 at 12:38 PM
"Yes JR Morton played some fairly complex and interesting music (quite more complex and interesting than Neil Dung ever played)”
perezoso: that Neil crack is out of line. If you’re goin’ have a laugh with a clever scatalogical pun, at least go with something clean. Like Neil Jung?Posted by on 03/26 at 12:44 PM
No, it didn’t. My point was that the most obscene sounds of JRM were preferable to Neil Bung. Read it again, you’ll get it, mon phrere; I jus’ knows it.
What would have an Adorno said about all that 70’s hippie hymn making or rock scratchings? I’m not sure but given his distaste even for jazz (the “pseudo-individuality of improvisation” or something as he said), methinks he would have identified it as part of the culture industry as well; Granola, Inc. In some sense I think rock started and ended with Hendrix: and Hendrix sort of embodies rock’s occasional twisted beauty: loud, liquid, analog feedback, with some of the serpent energy of jazz and blues: a bit like the sonic parallel to Nam, F-4s, missiles, hot rods, etc. But still compare even the best of Hendrix (or rock) with like Coltrane on soprano sax doing Resolution or something: not much of a comparison. At least Steely Dan brought in some interesting hired hands to play the solos. That’s the literatteur’s band.
Adorno probably thought it was all the sound of societal madness and a nearly fascist consumerism but then I doubt Ted ever smoked a joint of decent sinsemilla in his life; but Adorno the classical musical snob did realize all those chromatic pleasures and occasional dissonances, and most of the rhythms of jazz were already in place with like Debussy and Ravel, if not Chopin, but in far more organized and complex forms.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 01:38 PM
...that is to say (since Moderatrix Mike hasn’t as of yet appeared), jazz has its roots in brothels, minstrel shows, speakeasies, booze, etc.--but at some point it evolves into an art: I would say with like Charlie Parker, and the rest of the bebop (but including men such as Getz, Brubeck, Chet Baker as well); since even Ellington and Armstrong are still entertainers; tho Art Tatum featured a lot of impressionistic like playing. Then bebop develops its own language and cliches, which rock people sort of took to be the music of their square parents of something; but really it is the primitive hymns of like Young and a 100 other folksingers that are square; All the things you Are, or better Cherokee, Night in Tunisia, Monk heads, as weird and surreal as any PinkFloyd or Dead cut. and regardless of an Adorno, jazz is sort of part of the surrealist corpus is it notPosted by perezoso on 03/26 at 02:14 PM
Tell us about Cecil Taylor next, Unca Perezoso, please? Please??Posted by on 03/26 at 02:46 PM
All of this
straining at gnatsincisive and perceptive comparative analysis of the merits of different rock and roll bands has been truly interesting. And informative! Before reading this thread, I might have ventured the uninformed opinion that there was more musical creativity expressed in Mail in 1996 than in the whole of the rock genre from 1965 to the present. How sadly mistaken I would have been.
I would say more, but Becky just spilled a five pound bag of brown rice on the kitchen floor, and I need to go look through it and pick out my favorite grain.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 03:11 PM
Also: I’m utterly fascinated by perezoso’s work. Such a fine job of mimicking the structure and rhythms of the English language, yet without any of the distracting meaning that diverts our attention from the sheer rhythmic majesty of those wonderful syllables. Kudos!Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 03:15 PM
um, that “mail” should be “mali.” Sorry.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 03:16 PM
Mali, maybe. Mail, I don’t think so.Posted by on 03/26 at 03:18 PM
Ramus owes me one carbonated cola-flavored beverage.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 03:20 PM
Yeah yr right I didn’t put enough of a Tory- Johnsonian or TS ELiotish spin on it--and I spent at least 2-3 minutes on each post!; and no cheap McCartney irony. Too much Dreiser, noir, and PK Dick in my blood I guess. But hey it’s cool: since the syntax is not to your taste, you don’t have to deal with Adorno, or any substantive claims.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 03:28 PM
For failing to refresh before #105? I accept your terms, with apologies.Posted by on 03/26 at 03:31 PM
but anyone who thinks Mr. Young’s most polished chant or ballade or noise jam matches Cherokee or Clair de Lune not say a Bach investion is as confused, sentimental and befuddled as ol’ Neil isPosted by perezoso on 03/26 at 03:36 PM
peresozo, blaming it on noir is about as fair as your choice of handle, tarring the noble sloth by association.
My advice to you: less crank in the ecstasy from now on.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 03:47 PM
Really tho Young, Dylan, and most “classic rock” has become sort of an rallying cry for the white moderates (and ex-leftists) who just can’t quite commit to being real conservatives: the white moderate, having flirted with the left and counterculture but ultimately somewhat horrifed at, say marxism and multiculturalism, if not just basic realism ala Dreiser or Fitzgerald, takes sides with some safe spokesmen for a sort of sentimental mall liberalism; but that has little to nothing to do with the actual aesthetic elements of rock or jazz: Young’s minstrelsy like Dylan’s rates a grade school level of sophistication compared to the UNiversity of Be-bop, or the french impressionists. But most consumer no longer listen; instead they identify, and most consumers feel better identifying with the likes of Marin or Big Sur cowboys (probably has a nice ranch too) than with NY black junkie-musicos or even the authentic french artists such as Debussy and SatiePosted by perezoso on 03/26 at 03:54 PM
you’re not a wit nor a belle-lettrist, chrissy: I doubt you’d know Adorno from Espresso: its just not to your intellectual political taste, which I think is a bit closer to Starbucks and “Friends” reruns than to Andre BRetonPosted by perezoso on 03/26 at 03:57 PM
Minima Moronica watch, Day 2.Posted by on 03/26 at 04:07 PM
O, the mortification, perezoso! O, the shame! For you have captured my soul to within an iota. That’s it, exactly. Starbucks and reruns of Friends. How unerring your eye! I am shamed.
There is nothing left for me but to go for a long hike near Visp. With some espresso.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 04:09 PM
.... Young and classic rock, country, hiphop as well, might be said to be like JOhn PHillp Sousa with gee-tars. That o’ 4/4 march-rock beat comforts people as does the Dylanesque baptist major key,a few irishy sounds. Sousa himself quite a bit more inventive thatn rock taken in its entirety. Give a yokel some majory protestant chords, with a few minstrely minors here and there, maybe ninth once in a great while for the city peeps, and a nice 4/4 blues beat, not too much syncopation and he feels like he’s in a Steinbeck or Updike novel..............John Phillp Sousa: SurrealistPosted by perezoso on 03/26 at 04:11 PM
Pete, like don’t you have like a David Schwimmer impression to work on?
Let’s be honest, rock (pop, hip hop, kountry, top 40) is for people who HATE authentic music really. Authentic music--Stravinsky, Bach, and Debussy even ‘Trane to some extent-- is complex, difficult, mathematical, demanding for performer, composer and listener. It’s not populist; tho even a populist composer such as Copland had a degree of skills far beyond that of a troubadour.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 04:23 PM
Ladies and gentlemen, William Bennett.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 04:36 PM
Authenticity, thy name is Aaron Copeland!
Jayz, next you’ll be ringing in the Ferde Grofé.
Your views on music are perfectly unarguable, perezoso, because they don’t map to any intelligible content behind your flash rhetoric, is the apparent consensus of those who’ve engaged you here. I think, at least in that respect, your work here is done. But if you can clear up the matter of the blue dresses, I’d much appreciate it.Posted by on 03/26 at 04:52 PM
If I am Bill Bennett, you are Goebells.
No intelligible context? Hmmmm. Example of that, philosopher? So Neil Young and Dylan are superior to Debussy and Charlie Parker then, eh??; or at least that gives you more cred. at Starbucks with the undergraduates. The problem is, like most literary people, you don’t know how to read. And I suspect you are protestants of some form under the hepcat facade.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 05:02 PM
Authenticity, thy name is Aaron Copeland!
Hey, at least he didn’t spend his life like all those inauthentic Cajun fiddlers and Txas accoerdion players and Bakerfield honky tonkers, writing all that non-mathematical fan fare for the common man.
Jayz, next you’ll be ringing in the Ferde Grofé.
My bet: perezoso explains how the themes in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune map directly to the Mandelbrot Set.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 05:05 PM
Er, here’s the obvious. Authenticity, narrative of origin, and chasing our tails about who’s better that what, all that hoo-ha: boring.
Although there’s this Indo-European band I’ve been really into. All their lyrics start with *, you know. Totally f’ing authentic.Posted by on 03/26 at 05:09 PM
Gosh, I’m caught in a dialogue between some understudies for the latest Ann Arbor production of Bye bye Birdie. Do some geographical defamation and guesses: that’s an old Tory, ivy league hypocrite standby. I’m from LA County, not Central Valley, btw. I don’t care for country music.
Faun is not my favorite, anyways, but I would say that La Mer represents a type of mathematical form far more complex and superior to folk and pop forms. And the score of La Mer (as well as a performance) demonstrates that to people suitably knowledgable.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 05:18 PM
. I’m from LA County,
I maintain that Pinks’ chili dogs are mathematically and epistemologcally superior to Tommy’s burgers, though the latter do possess a certain rustic simplicity that appeals to the unwashed and uneducated pseudo-intellectual UCLA Film School crowd.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 05:21 PM
Ah so Debussy’s musical product on the level of culinary product? Yes, that is how American consumers generally view music, whether classical or jazz or pop: something to be consumed, something to advance their career or maybe get them some pussy etc. But one could do the same sort of relativism with lit. then: Harry Potter equal to Ulysses equal to tommy’s mudsliders (viva Tommy’s) .
However quotitian or boring it may seem to argue for aesthetic objectivity, I think there are grounds for stating that some aesthetic products are better than others: La Mer is objectively superior to the Greatest Hits of Neil Dung or whoever. And that that might be demonstrated in various ways, tho’ it’s not an easy task.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 05:36 PM
"La Mer?” You like the Bobby Darin version, too?Posted by on 03/26 at 05:50 PM
Is that your favorite version, Petey the hep cat? A bit more sinister and vichy-like then even say Debussy are people who think trading some low-grade Wilde-like bon mots constitutes argument. Youre the moron, schwein. Go back to your De Man or whatever.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 05:55 PM
tho’ the real issue is music itself. Adorno said “after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible.” Musical beauty too then would seem to be impossible, either of the folk or classical sorts. So what is music (whatever genre you choose)? Merely escapism, sort of like sonic porno, decadence, drug, delusion? Symptomatic of wide-spread pathology? Es posible. All music is fascist perhaps then, even the most overtly leftist, in the sense that entertainment, nightclubs, casinos, bordelloes tend to further fascist ends. Can one play “Stardust” while stuck in the asshole of the World?
Es po-see-blay. Maybe one of the high ranking vichy officers hererabouts might have an answer, or at least a bad bon mot to share.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 06:18 PM
Sorry. Got caught up in live-boggling GM in OT.
O.K. So let me catch up. Sinister low-grade Wilde-like bon mots. Check. More vichy-like than Debussy. Check. Moron. Check. Schwein. Check. Constitutes argument. Got it. Thanks for clearing that up.Posted by on 03/26 at 06:22 PM
Day Nada! In some sense ugly demonic muzak seems more appropriate to Zee Zeitgeist of the last , what 90 years than any sort of comforting tones. If the world is Kafkaesque and lit. folks enjoy Kafka types of lIT., where is the Kafkaesque muzaK? Bartok and Messaien should be on top 40. The folkies and rockers are far too comforting; tho a Led Zep does catch some of that Sociopathopolis. Tho maybe Corpse-TV-Land is even better with like elevator music. GREGOR SAMSA MALL? Not Zappa on Mt. Rushmore; Hermann Munster. yass.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 06:44 PM
Why didn’t Adorno say, “after the Middle Passage, authentic poetry is impossible”? Seriously. There were uniquely horrible features to the Catastrophe of Naziism (a/k/a Holocaust, a/k/a Khurbn, “catastrophe"), but man’s inhumanity to man goes a ways back.
If the moral horrors of European imperialism negates its aesthetic achievements, out goes Bach and everything subsequent. Merely escapist sonic porno.
I’m not there.
And: Nothing in Parker or Gillespie’s harmony weren’t in Ellington or Tatum’s. Gillespie was into stage hokum far cornier than anything Duke put up. Armstrong’s rhythms aren’t anticipated in Debussy, not to mention his timbre.
I love Debussy, but complexity ain’t no be-all end-all.
But, sectarian arguments over aesthetics is cheap entertainment! Michael knows this, that’s why he loves hosting this hoo-hah.
If contempt for people constitutes progressivism, you and Zappa are welcome to it, sir (or madam, though I’m betting sir; elsewise the misogynist dig at “moderatrix” Michael wouldn’t have come out).Posted by John on 03/26 at 06:49 PM
Is there a distinction to be made between vocalist and singer? Come to think of it, is there a distinction between muusician and guitar player (or drummer or whatever)? As a guitar player Neil fits into the technically imperfect but perfect nonetheless category. Becker and Fagen wouldn’t hire him for a session unless they wanted the guitar to dound like Neil Young.
Perfection is over-rated anyway. To be very basic, isn’t it the things that differ from perfection or the norm that inspire love as opposed to admiration?
Rock singers (vocalists? Frontpeople?) also have to have persona and presence. That’s why they aren’t backing singers. Clothes, attitude, hairstyle, personality and lifestyle are just as important, I think. Part of Neil’s appeal is that he is a maverick, self-indulgent, ornery son of a gun. Not a ‘product’ in that way we understand singers nowadays.
By the way, Rex Harrison couldn’t sing either and it didn’t stop him.Posted by saltydog on 03/26 at 07:24 PM
European music history equates growing harmonic density and complexity with “progress.” This narrative leaves out timbre and subtleties of phrasing; hence, people inclined to the classical ("imperialist") European version of music history literally cannot hear the complexity of a New Orleans jazz band and how the timbres of the trombone, clarinet, and cornet (or trumpet) interact in ways unlike anything I’ve heard in European music. (And I love European music; have sung some of it from Bach to ‘60s electronic aleatoric composers; a recital of Messaien was one of the best evenings of music I’ve ever witnessed; and so on.)
Similarly with Neil: a great master of guitar timbre and phrasing, a unique stylist, a great musician. I’m not a fan of his singing but don’t hate it either; tend to like his melodies but not his words—whatever—“happens to like is one of the ways things happens to fall.”
I only regret that the highly partial European version of music history is so dominant. Sometimes what a classical dude would say is the “wrong” note is really the right note. Ornette Coleman was right: You can play flat in tune and sharp in tune.Posted by John on 03/26 at 08:07 PM
Adornos’ writings on consumerism are occasionally interesting, even if we don’t subscribe to the more marxist aspects. Jazz (and by extension, rock) does function, however oddly, in the consumer culture---it’s a commodity, a product marketed and sold; and there’s a lot of deception and hype obviously, even with the hippies and rock n roll. It’s aimed a specific audiences, like beer or burgers or the Hustler boutique is. Does the hype and consumerism overpower whatever artistic value “rock” product may have? I tend to think it typically does. Adorno himself noted that a sort of sexy, subversive attitude is itself part of the consumer schema, and rock music and films obviously have that: sort of a faux-radicalism, which is I believe a type of sublimated porno more than anything.
But again I dont think much music embodies or reflects atrocity and absurdity alienation, yada yada yada as say a Kafka or Poe does; perhaps Bartok but I haven’t listened to that much of him. Stravinsky’s histoire du Soldat sounds nearly apocalyptic to me, demonically postmodernist; a remedy for comforting and sentimental music. Free jazz may be a tyoe of authentic musical code to some extent but I don’t really care for Ornette. Eric Dolphy, yes. Some Mothers of Invention. Maybe some Fagen/Becker, tho that’s not free jazz by a long shot, and they gradually became more pop--tho listen to “green book"-- an interesting noirish cyber-punk sound, sorta.Posted by perezoso on 03/26 at 09:32 PM
Ah. Stupid me. Thanks, Entities!Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 10:52 PM
Perezoso is Spanish for “sloth” in both the temperamental and zoological senses. Also, in some countries, for safety pin and bed cushion.Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/26 at 11:44 PM
I should have known Chris would have the answer!
The erudition of our Mr. Clarke, Commentator Extraordinaire, is one of the sundry delights of this board.Posted by david ross mcirvine on 03/26 at 11:51 PM
Plus I had a Spanish-English dictionary near to hand. Though I did know the part about the sloth (animal version).Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/27 at 12:13 AM
Re # 45.: Twenty-five years ago I delivered mail to the Residents in their Western Addition location (Ralph Records headquarters) across from the Executive Motel and its contingent of the working women, just a stone’s throw from the overpass. They were mostly secretive, but because they got lots of registered mail (overseas orders) I became recognizable to them and finally was allowed to come inside. There was usually a couple of them scurrying around, their recording setup was curious, and there was much a lot of incomprehensible things laying around. One Christmas they gave me a lot of free records, buttons, etc. I really liked MX-80 Sound’s “Someday You’ll Be King.” Never really understood or appreciated most of their own stuff, though.Posted by Bob in Pacifica on 03/27 at 12:18 PM
I was thrown out of my grammar school chorus in eighth grade when my voice started changing. Ever since my vocals and others’ melodies have never quite jibed.
When high school girlfriend broke up with me in my junior year I learned how to play guitar and have spent the rest of my life writing songs and “singing” them. I have suffered the slings and arrows of people who dislike people who can’t sing singing. When I happen to be in the room with my girlfriend (who sings soprano in her church choir) and her daughter and they get catty about this or that contestant on American Idol I am outraged.
I’ve tried getting other people to sing my songs, and generally they just don’t come out as well as when I grind my way through one of them. The only song I ever sold, they chucked the lyrics about the factory closing and took an accordian counterline for the melodic hook.
I got a check from Bug Music a few weeks ago. This is my life.Posted by Bob in Pacifica on 03/27 at 12:30 PM
Michael: I sincerely hope you can find a way to ban mr. PEREZOSO’s IP address from this board.Posted by david ross mcirvine on 03/28 at 01:22 AM
While I generally agree with the “fascism” statement--especially with regards to Bono--I couldn’t disagree more strongly with lumping Jim Morrison in with the rest. Not only was he sexy and had a great voice, but he openly disdained the personality cult that crystallized around him. And he was much more important to his band than your average mush-mouthed shouter. That’s not meant to knock the other Doors--and they really stand out on L.A. Woman, when Morrison’s voice was all but completely shot--but have you ever listened to the album that they put out right after Morrison died?
As for Neil Young… I haven’t seen Heart of Gold, but I still remember vividly his appearance in The Last Waltz, much more than anyone else’s appearance. I went around singing “Helpless helpless he-e-elpless” until my friends were about fit to kill me. I’d have to disagree with #17--I sure love me some k.d. lang, but as nice as her version is, it simply doesn’t have Young’s spooky charisma.Posted by on 03/29 at 12:45 PM
A couple of quick responses, Michael depending on what kind of drummer were you/are you. Sorry, new to the blog and don’t know.
Time keeper drummers, while essential are fungible and therefore forgettable. Their resentments are expected and ordinary. (Moreover obsoleted in many situations except for stagework by the drum machine).
Now, an irreplaceable drummer —different story. Say, of the Keith Moon school. Then, one might be willing to give the old ‘the singer’s a poof’ critique some attention. Drummers who work as both lead instrument and melodic contribution—they normally don’t have the resentments simply because they are not fungible.
(This has nothing to do with Moon’s life winning the well deserved Number One spot in a music magazine poll as the single most insane moment in rock history).
Note to drummers bemoaning the exaltation of the individual and cult of personality (whether Clement Burke bitching about Deborah Harry getting all the attention or otherwise). Avoid Joe Strummer’s incoherent politics. Those guys aren’t ‘fascism’ (even if Bowie at least saw Triumph of the Will a few times). Even in jest, it’s simple caudillismo-ism.
This approach is better anyway, cuz it keeps the whole band thing partially in the street cred of Latin American revolutionary hagiography.
And besides, as a drummer, you should know that drummers should know now to laying ‘em down and keeping low. If one tolerates those caudillo types, goes along with silly nickname as part of the marketing schtick (’the Mighty Mike Berube!’ hell . . . a drummer might even get a sidekick band named after them and land a well paying job pretending to laugh with Conan.
And what could be better than that???Posted by Leo Strauss on 03/29 at 02:23 PM
The Scott Stapp/Weiland/Gavin Rossdale version of oversing is called “yarling.” See:Posted by on 03/30 at 06:49 PM
Perezoso, You are a fucking moron and you have shat on this interesting discussion.Posted by on 12/01 at 08:38 PM
its quite simple
best singer: bob dylan at his best
worst singer: bob dylan at his worst
could even be in the same show, or song...lolPosted by on 02/28 at 07:43 AM
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135.Perezoso is Spanish for “sloth” in both the temperamental and zoological senses. Also, in some countries, for safety pin and bed cushion.Posted by on 02/07 at 02:02 AM