Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Rush - "The Trees" from the album Hemispheres

Rush - Hemispheres
It's not a cartoon.

It's a fable. The talking trees, and the way they shake their nonexistent heads, are the tip-off, but what Aesop and those folk literature cats usually did, that Peart didn't, was put the moral there at the end.

Those fabulist guys probably talked to the press, too, when asked.

Alex Lifeson has called Fly By Night "a new start for the band," and he wasn't kidding: new start with new drummer, and new lyricist, with new lyrical concerns. I guess it *is possible* to overrate the impact that the arrival of Neil Peart had upon Rush. Geddy and Alex were already listening to Yes and Genesis by the first North American tour, and were arguing with Rutsey about the, you know, future direction, at the same time. In addition to leftovers "Best I Can" and "In the End" that hadn't made the first record, what they'd had towards the second before Peart passed his audtion was "Anthem," which the Wikpedia article says "features a heavier sound with more complex arrangements" than the first album. Not sure about 'heavier' coz what from 70's rock was heavier than "Working Man?" But I can definitely get with 'more complex.'

So, they were already on their way to hard prog, I suppose. The selection of Peart just speeded up the journey.

But yeah, "Anthem." First song on the second album, the first song on which Peart plays, and the lyrics of which proudly pointed to Objectivist philosopher and writer Ayn Rand, and her ideas of "selfishness as a virtue." Gleefully so, it seemed:

Live for yourself, there's no one else
More worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts
Will only cry for more

Gleeful enough any rate for New Musical Express writer Barry Miles to take issue. Rush were in England finishing off their tour for A Farewell to Kings a few years later, and NME sent Miles to talk to 'em and , well, you should read the whole thing.

Rush - The Trees
In reading this piece--which it must be said Lee and Lifeson continue to consider deeply unfair--I am stunned by how unequivocal the band (and especially Peart) are. It's true that Rush had cut their teeth talking to an American rock press that had come to regard politics as uncool, while the British press with the whole punk rock thing was then even more energized to look in that direction. But, come on: at no point does Peart back off or sidestep. He just continues arguing. It would have been easy to say to Miles at any point, 'listen, this lady, she wrote this sci-fi book. And we liked it. And we wrote a couple songs about it. Politics never entered into it' But instead they raise the Ojectivist flag and engage. And to my mind make themselves look both heartless and naive.

It wasn't a good look, which Lee and Lifeson know to this day. The result was that Peart withdrew with rare exceptions from the publicity process--or maybe (and I write this with no proof or even suggestion) Lee and Lifeson forced him to do so. Who knows?

But anyway, that's where we stood at the time of the release of Hemispheres on October 24, 1978. Seven months since the NME piece and Peart, it seems, wanted to get in his retort.

There is unrest in the Forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the Maples want more sunlight
And the Oaks ignore their pleas.

The trouble with the Maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the Oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light

But the Oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the Maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the Forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the Maples scream ‘Oppression!’
And the Oaks just shake their heads

So the Maples formed a Union
And demanded equal rights
‘The Oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’

Now there’s no more Oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw…

Rush actually consented to be interviewed by NME again in 1979, and the Express sent a different writer that time, but not one, it seems, that was willing to abandon the premise that Miles had worked from. John Hamblett was this writer's name, and about midway through his piece, now armed with lyrics to "The Trees," he writes that they seem "to me to be a definite and resolute dictum against trade unionism and organised labour."

And Peart replied, "I can assure you that that wasn't the intention. Initially that song came about as a cartoon. I sat down after a gig somewhere and it came to me all of a sudden, this very vivid visual cartoon. It was the fastest song I ever wrote; I wrote it in about five minutes, actually."

But can I here interject that I think Peart is bullshitting with that response? I *guess* it's just a cartoon until the hatchet and the ax and the saw. But at that point the narrative becomes purportedly instructive. And also at that point not only with rhyme but in reference that the listener now knows has become sarcastic, it directs the gaze to the end of the line two previous: "noble law." So a reading might be something like, 'in order to achieve equality among those who are not in fact the same, it is probably necessary for the (unenlightened?) polity to pass (unjust?) laws that will get your (fucking!) head cut off.' If I'm anywhere close to Peart's intent, you've got to say that subtext like that doesn't just appear; it needs to be willfully inserted. I mean, maybe it only took him five minutes, but what's that got to do with it?

But Peart in Hamblett's article goes on. "I suppose it's basically about the crazy way people act. This false ideal of equality they try and create. I simply believe that certain people are better at doing certain things than other people. Some people are naturally talented - they have a gift or whatever - and some people aren't. This doesn't mean that these people are greater human beings, by virtue of that talent, it merely means they are more talented."

And this is interesting, because it makes me again think of a story, though unmentioned so far, that's kind of hung over the proceedings since I began to think about "the Trees" and think about this piece. And that's "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut. If you've kind of repressed your middle school Lit experience, and don't want to bring any of that back, even to the extent that reading the Wikipedia article might do so, know that 1) Harrison was beautiful and strong and a hell of a dancer, but his society dragged him kicking and screaming into equality with the other less graced around him--with weights he had to carry and clown noses he had to wear, and that 2) Kurt Vonnegut was about as socialist as you get, having once said, "socialism would be a good for the common man," and having also explicitly told a commencement address audience to "work for a socialist form of government."

Vonnegut is explicit in Bergeron that the equalizers the talented and the beautiful must wear were mandated by the 211th, 212th & 213th Amendments to the constitution; in other words, they were broadly popular. And Hamblett made the point if you can buy it that "[Rush believe] that the extreme left are just as likely to implement an authoritarian government as the extreme right."

It is tempting to allow as much for the sake of the argument, for the sake of even-handedness, if you will. That maybe if this isn't necessarily true now, it might have seemed to have been so in 1979.

But you know what? That's bullshit. The Reagan revolution and the wave that would elect Margaret Thatcher shortly thereafter reversed a period of ascendant Western liberalism that lasted between 40 and 50 years, and, you know, there were people who had to play cultural point for that to happen.

People collectively named Rush, among others, I guess.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Steve Albini 1962 - 2024

What do you expect from your heroes? Are they some kind of unimpeachable paragons of judgment, 50-foot beacons for whom the tough calls are easy, for you? Do you walk around wondering what [fill in your hero's name right here] would do?

Because God, that'd be fucking stupid of you.

You could probably make the case that having heroes is stupid in and of itself; hell, I wouldn't argue. Yet I do have a few.

But the thing I've noticed, especially today, I've noticed, is that these heroes, their mistakes, their miscalculations, their errors, are as glaring, and are as unmistakably apparent as any I might notice from the ones whom I call the villain.

The thing about Steve Albini, I think, was his twin directives. When he landed in Evanston, the burgeoning Chicago scene around him drove him to become a guitarist and a musician, but the nationally-recognized journalism school he was enrolled in pushed him towards becoming a critic. And obviously, because he was hard-wired the way he was, he took both potential undertakings seriously. You* might say too seriously.

The problem in treating with art, the problem with even considering to do so, is that as soon as you start, there are necessarily people engaged in making it, who treat it less seriously than you have already decided to.

And just what the fuck should you do about these people?

Should you perhaps treat them with contempt? I mean, it's one thing not to care about art, and then you let the people who do care prattle on to one another about it. But to merely *pretend* to care? To produce therefore only a semblance of it? Those are serious crimes, or so at least the young Steve Albini thought.**

We live in an era of increasing empathy, and that's not a bad thing. But the thing is, that it's quite possible that those who should be doing better should be spoken to or spoken of in harsh terms.

Albini ended up contrite over those awful things he said, about the Pixies or The Smashing Pumpkins, or about EDM, or sometimes he was only contrite about the way he said them, but either way seems to me from over here that either you soften up, or you die friendless. And that dying friendless, now that I mention it, is something critics often do.

Although I love music very much in the way that Albini did, I don't think I can be said to hate it in the way he did. If I hear a genre that doesn't click, I'll just push myself non-confrontationally away from the table, and say 'this one's not for me.' Which is the right reaction for these times, arguably any other, but doesn't necessarily push myself much, or anyone else.

So Albini's opinions didn't rankle or offend me; they just kinda left me amused, if not always dazzled by the courage it took. But I was also never the target.

The important thing, though, is that almost everything he said, like almost everything he did in a professional capacity, whether it were as a musician or an engineer, and no matter how foul, came from a place that sought integrity in himself and in others.

This world is so, so lackng in people of the same character, that to focus on anything except that character at this lousy, benighted, hero-poor moment in time is doing us all a grave disservice.


*(though not I)
** and the old me, too.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

TV on the Radio - "A Method" From the album Return to Cookie Mountain

Do you know Cream's "Mother's Lament?" It was the last song on Disraeli Gears, it didn't on inspection seem to feature any instruments at all, and the fadeout to the song is basically that esteemed band cracking up at themselves and what they'd become. They were so big, they could get away with anything, even with performing a song less instruments.

Back in the early '80's, when sessions for Three of a Perfect Pair weren't going so well, Robert Fripp jokingly floated to journalists the concept of The King Crimson Barbershop Quartet.

Right around the same time, and you have to wonder whether they had read the same Fripp interview in Musician magazine that I had, Yes issued an a capella version of "Leave It," the second single from 90125.

This just in: that, too, was something of a joke.

As was the version of "Happy Trails" released by Van Halen on Diver Down. As much as the world needed David Lee Roth laying down the 'Bom-ba-Dee-da,' and it did, alright, there's still that air of comedy.

Who would fly the flag for the serious a capella?

Which leads us, smoothly or not, to the answer: TV On The Radio, the only band, prog or otherwise, I can think of who have seriously approached the idea of performing some of their songs without instrumental accompaniment.

File under: New York Prog for the New Century

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Slayer - "Dead Skin Mask" - From the Album Seasons in the Abyss

Slayer Seasons in the Abyss
Don't get me wrong, because I'll say it upfront, this is a good song, one of Slayer's best. And--as if it had to be stated--I'm not squeamish, not about lyrical content, anyway. But "Dead Skin Mask" is a little bit disappointing to me, too. It's mostly about the child's voice, which is it seems mixed purposely, the first time you hear it, to scare the crap out of you. I'm no production expert, but something about the way that voice is mixed, makes it seem as if it's coming at your ears from outside the song. One moment you're listening to thrash metal, the next there's a kid caterwauling in the corner of your bedroom, or in the back seat of your car. It continues to startle you even after the first time.

And that's to the good. But there are a couple things. 1) is that the child's voice is no child's voice, but belonged instead to a buddy of the band who read through and then had the results digitally hiked in pitch. So sounds good, just not real, and that's where I think Slayer maybe failed the authenticity test, that, I don't know, someone like Cop Shoot Cop passed, when they splattered pig's blood on the sleeves of their 7" EP.

But also 2) which is that Ed Gein, I know hard to believe given how famous he is in punk rock and metal lyrics, only killed two people, and more to the point here, didn't kill any children. And he didn't lock people up in basements Buffalo-Bill-style, either, from whence you might hear a voice whining "I don't want to play any more" if that's how it goes.

And let me stress: it's their song, they can arrange it how they wish, but it's here that Slayer perhaps fails the gory research test that they themselves passed so notably with "Angel of Death." Part of the thing, at least for me, about the-metal-band-sticks-all-the-lived-with-horror-back-in-the-face-of-society thing is that it's gotta be true.

Otherwise, they're just Steve Albini.

File under: Ed Gein, star

Friday, April 5, 2024

Robin Trower - In City Dreams

Until, like, last week, I didn't, and actually had never owned any physical copies of Robin Trower's music, or at least with a couple exceptions, I hadn't. My gutar-playing buddies in high school, Mike and Tony, had turned me on to BLT with Jack Bruce when I was in the tenth grade, and I picked it up at Spec's I think, and that was indeed a very good record, though understood by me at the time, so close to having first discovered Cream, as important because of Bruce's participation, rather than because of the L, or the T. And when I purchased the follow up record Bruce and Trower made, Truce, I didn't think much of it, and that was the end of that for me and Trower for quite a few years.

Until I met my buddy Alan the Metalhead. He was a few years older than me, and yes, he liked Slayer (and as importantly, hated Bruce Springsteen) but he was also old enough to have known Robin Trower in the first flush of his solo career, when he was about as popular in America as any hard rock act you could name. So he pretty much in his C-90 archives had the Robin Trower collection, and was not afraid to mix in Bridge of Sighs or Twice Removed From Yesterday into the cassette tape playlists otherwise featuring Metallica, and Anthrax, and King Missile (!) that he ran through as we put out the vendor and newsrack copies of the Miami Herald five mornings a week.

So I pretty much becamse familiar with everything Trower put out while he was with Chrysalis records, and a few of his albums thereafter, when his popularity had ebbed, James Dewar had split, and he was reduced to recording for an indie label. I considered his first three albums classics, and the next six or so also very good, but there was no reason to pick 'em up when I could d hear 'em anytime at work just by the asking. So in my music purchases of the time, I concentrated on shit I didn't think Alan would like, like Big Black, and Sonic Youth, and The Replacements.

And then I stopped working for Alan, and then had the relationship with Donna, during which my music consumption dropped off the table, and then by the time she's out of my life, it's the internet era, and music had become downloadable. It was at this time that I downloaded Trower's Chrysalis works, and that had served me well until just recently, when I've decided to get physical copies of some of my favorite records I previously only had digitally. I've recently bought several CD box sets, like the one covering Voivod's Combat/Noise albums, and this other one encompassing the albums Caravan made for Deram, etc etc.

And continuing this trend, about ten days ago, I picked up The Studio Albums 1973-1983, a box set comprised of the ten studio albums Trower made for Chrysalis. And I've been going through them, listening to an album on the way in and back from work each day. Safe to say I knew the first four well, but while I'd heard his fifth record, In City Dreams, it was not the one that ever got played the most. So today was not new music for me, but it did dig up some well-buried musical memories.

Robin Trower The Chrysalis Studio Albums
This album is a rather dramatic change for Trower. Not only does the cover look like they'd've used for a 12" disco single, there is definitely a sleazy patina of echoplex and smooth jazz lacquered over everything. Just learned today that they'd actually brought in a bassplayer more familiar with the funk; James Dewar, whom anyone familiar with Trower knows was quite the serviceable bassist, is only singing on this one, and the bottom is provided by one Rustee Allen, late of Sly and the Family Stone. The Robin Trower Band, no longer Power, and no longer a trio. In a way, the circumstances remind me of the way Jeff Beck went from BBA to Blow by Blow. Trower, too, is softening up, leaving the blues rock behind but taking all his technique with him.

And certainly, a player of Trower's talent and stature should do whatever the hell he wants to try. But where the Beck comparison breaks down is in that Blow by Blow is in no way slight, and has plenty of tuneage. Maybe if Trower had covered, oh I dunno, something from Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, In City Dreams would have had a little more gravitas, and a little more songsmithery, both of which it is decidely lacking. It's not a terrible album; if you're fully aware of the album's origin point in time coming in, it's certainly a decent listen, and Trower is always always always going to be a guitarist of tremendous feel and dexterity. The title track I actually think hangs with some of his best. But maybe the second best tune on here might be "Sweet Wine of Love," and that one is only as good as it is because of the unabashed cheese factor . . .

Next Up: Caravan to Midnight

File under: Re-listenings Still in Progress

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Punk Under The Sun by Joey Seeman and Chris Potash (2023)

Currently making my way through this, and it's a recap of things that were slightly before my time as well as a reminder of goings on that I was in fact a part of. Jon Marlowe (who hasn't gotten a mention so far) at the old Miami News was a big fan of Charlie Pickett, so I knew about Pickett and his band The Eggs just 'cause I read Marlowe religiously as a 16-year old. But I never did buy Live at the Button.

Thanks to this book and Youtube to mp3 converters, I burned a copy off today and will listen on my way to work sometime this week. Ditto with the Psycho Daisies' debut EP.

Never got to Flynn's or 27 Birds (although I again knew about 'em from Marlowe's columns), but mentions herein of the Cameo Theatre and Club Beirut and, now unfortunately, Churchill's, take me back.

Pretty cool; thinking I'll write a little more when I finish the book.

File under: SFHC FTW