Thursday, March 24, 2005
Believe it or not, there was a time when actual grownups ruled the Earth.
It's a given these days that when a TV montage summons the Sixties, the obligatory imagery will consist of SuperJoel sticking a flower into a National Guardsman's rifle barrel, that iconic photo from Kent State, the Beatles on Sullivan, Woodstock, South Vietnamese policeman executing a Viet Cong, blah blah, all to a pounding psuper-psy-cho-delic beat from the Jefferson Airplane -- "Somebody to Love," probably.
Well, sure, all of that happened... But it was so much more complicated than that.
I was only a little kid then. I remember everything after about 1964 or so, but only through the fuzzy filter of uncomprehending childhood. I was probably among the first generation to view The Sixties Story through that filter that reduces the huge rambling mess from history-as-lived down to history-as-told.
But as I say, it was so much more complicated than that.
You'd think, from the montages and the movies, that the world was divided between stinky hairy stoned Pentagon-levitating hippies on the one side, and bullnecked My Lai-massacreing death-merchants on the other.
What's been lost, I think, is the fact that in between those two iconic extremes there was a now-forgotten class of people, people who aspired to gracious and comfortable lives, who treasured wisdom and toleration, who evinced respect for the structures and mores of civilized society, and who quietly believed that with wisdom and mutual honor government could be made to be a servant of the people. They wanted to dress well, drive nice cars, have good taste in music, understand art, watch good films, have nice-looking haircuts.
I believe you'd call them Progressives today, but I don't think that's the word they used. My parents were people like that.
And just as The Left had degrees of radicalism, from the hard-core left to the mushy center where these people lived, so did Sixties music have the same gradations.
Another difference between then and now, of course, is that they were free of That Rude Beast, irony. And being free of irony, they were free to enjoy music that actually aspired to Beauty, to Gentleness, to Serenity. Today's mandate that we may enjoy these things only ironically simply didn't exist. There wasn't a competition among them to see just how Out There they could fling their musical tastes -- no forcing each other to sit through Trout Mask Replica to prove to themselves just how catholic their tastes were. They'd have been repelled by such a notion.
I've recently been immersing myself in that musical world -- nothing like the onset of actual-factual middle age to encourage such an exploration -- and I'm finding it immensely rewarding. Rhino Records has two worthy collections, Come To The Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets From The WEA Vaults and Hallucinations: Psychedelic Pop Nuggets From The WEA Vaults.
Have a listen to a track from Come to the Sunshine: The Everly Brothers' "Talking to the Flowers."
Now of course you know these guys: In the late Fifties and early Sixties, they stomped terra with a seemingly endless string of magnificent hits that exploited the effortless beauty of their bluegrass-tinged duet harmonies: "Cathy's Clown," "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream." But by the mid-Sixties, they were basically has-beens, desperate to restore their cred. They made some very fine records during this period -- Roots is a classic -- and this one is so desperate to be groovy and with-it that it embodies -- nearly accidentally, I think -- pretty much everything I mean when I talk about Unironic Beauty.
First off, there's that falling-away I-flat VII chord progression in the verse. Goddammit, that's so fucking Beautiful. It's also an absolutely archetypal Sixties chord progression -- try the verse of The Youngbloods' "Get Together" as another example, or George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone." I think this progression reached its magnificent apotheosis in John Barry's "Theme from Midnight Cowboy," which is nothing but those two chords oscillating.
Second, listen to how gorgeous the brothers' voices are together, helped along, of course, by all that slathered-on cheap-ass reverb. It's the same vocal shimmer that "Let It Be Me" such a tear-jerker, but applied to these pretentiously poetical, cod-profound acid-tinged lyrics it's just hearbreakingly melancholy.
The musical arrangement is archetypal -- clichéd, even -- not Brian Wilson by any stretch, but functional. There are guitars, but they're dialed way back and clean; everything in the arrangement is meant to comfort, to entice, to encourage listening. Yes, you are listening to Anti-Rock.
Or Auntie Rock, maybe. Music for your aunt. Music that let her dabble in the zeitgeist without commmitting to anything she might find repellent. Psychedelia Lite.
But what the hell's so wrong with that? Why must everything be harsh & demanding & crackly & angular & clangorous & angry & distorted & hard?
Relax. You'll live longer.
(It's not all wimp-rock around here: Before you get all up in my face, I'm way ahead of you: I've completely memorized Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire & Beyond, and have a laudatory post on the magnificent-if-grammatically-challenged garage monsters The Mops all mentally composed. All in due time.)