Thursday, March 24, 2005

Beautiful Dreck

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.)


Anonymous said...

Ah-some of us older types do remember that music and unfortunately Sturgeon's Law applied then (as is does now)-that 90% of everything is dreck and that one should revel in the good stuff. BUT, I will say that musical tastes of that era were more catholic (& there is a small c) than the current monolithic styles and today's idea that one cannot enjoy different musical styles. Lean back & enjoy what you like. Pop music is supposed to be fun!

Lance Mannion said...

Somewhere in the space-time discontinuum there's an alternative universe in which the grown-ups did not discredit themselves, in which Robert McNamara said, "Mr President, you know that Domino Theory? It's a load of hooey," and the 60s went on as they started, with all the men looking like Rob Petrie and acting like Napoleon Solo and all the women dressed like Laura Petrie or Honey West, people understood that what was cool about the Beatles was their music and not their goofy haircuts or their still inexplicable attraction to phony Indian mystics.

No suburbanites read John Updike or John Cheever and so no husbands bought Nehru jackets to prove to themselves they weren't characters out of Bullett Park.

In that universe the Yankees never traded Roger Maris and the Red Sox fielded a black shortstop and Timothy Leary was content with a dry martini.

In that universe they did not shoot Jack or Bobby or Martin.

And in that universe young singers aspired to be Vic Damone and not Mick Jagger.

Hey, I didn't say it's a perfect universe.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was there back then riding the Berkeley/Santa Cruz/San Francisco axis. Sure, I went to see Blue Cheer (My ears are still ringing!) and the Fugs (Wow!) but I also saw Spanky and Our Gang (Sunday Morning"), the Mojo Men (Whose sweetly repetitive "Sit Down I think I Love You" is still a favorite), as well as Sopwith Camel ("Hello, Hello") the Bachelors ("Diane") and the Beau Brummels ("Laugh Laugh," "Don't Talk to Strangers."). There was more variety in music then. More variety in really bad music then too.
Maybe there was room for a little more variety in us as well.

Neddie said...

Self-Revelation Time: The middle eight of "Never My Love" by The Assocation mists me up every time....

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Yes. It is the triplets, Neddie. The triplets. Don't feel bad; no one is immune to those triplets.

Anonymous said...

'SuperJoel sticking a flower into a National Guardsman's rifle barrel,'
SuperJoel was my brother. It's always interesting to see him mentioned. He died in 1993, but rest assured, he lived a full life on his own terms and listening to whatever music suited him on any given day.

Anonymous said...

Superjoel Tornabene was your brother??My,God,he was the boldest,most beautifully crazy cat I ever met.
I will never forget the Yippie march from the SF Civic Center to Montgomery Street to"play monopoly"with the financiers.About three hundred of us were squared off against the Tac Squad,chanting and trying to provoke the "pigs"
Well,Joel got up in the face of one huge porker and blurted out."I'd like to blow your head off with a .38".That cop got mad red in the face,whipped out his club and hurled Joel to the ground and took him away!
Then I would recall his chants at the Third World Strike in Feb,1969-outrageous stuff like"Off your hats,off your wigs,off the fucking pigs","Lin,Lin,Lin Piao,we want the world and we want it now" and "don't look for me in the Vanguard cause I'll be with the masses"
Superjoel-RIP,brother.You left an indelible impression on me.