Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We've Moved!

If you have enjoyed reading All the Things, check out my new and improved blog at

The Lonely One

Thank you for your support!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's Been a Long Time

I'm back after a long break, doing this for nothing other than self-clarification. This blog is no longer really meant to be consumed by an audience, though it's perfectly fine if people are interested in my ruminations. I once had a writing teacher who told the class that the vast majority of people in the world fail to realize that their lives just aren't that interesting. It's a lesson that's stuck with me...

Before I was six months old, my father was out the door for good. I never got to know him at all. I saw him maybe a dozen times over the next 35 years. Some of those visits were pretty freaky, and maybe I'll write them down at some point. A few years ago, a sister I barely knew I had called me from out of the blue to tell me that my father had died several years earlier of liver poisoning. The guy liked to drink. I think about this every night as I'm fixing myself a big vodka and cranberry, realizing that I need the drink to relax and feel free of all the low-level shit I have to deal with everyday...

My mom was/is a workaholic and a striver. She subordinated everything, including me, including my real sister, to her career. She says that the 60s passed her by and that she didn't even notice they were happening. This is true up to a point. She was not a beatnik or a hippie. She hates the sound of electric guitars. She never protested or joined any causes opposing the status quo. On the contrary, she was a conformist, singular focussed on money and achievement. Still, her soaring career success probably would not have occurred had it not been for feminism and evolving gender roles. So maybe it's more accurate to say that she was an unwitting product of the 60s, old enough to have one foot still planted in the 50s.

...This is where my family tree starts to get complicated. My mom met my non-biological dad before I was born. I think of him my real dad because he raised me as his son. I have reason to believe that the two of them were romantically involved while she was pregnant with me. She let it slip out once that he was at the hospital on my birthday while my biological father was nowhere to be found. I've tried on occasion to probe for details about the whole dynamic, but it''s uncomfortable and remains murky. She tends to paper over the messy details in her life. My biological father was rarely discussed when I was growing up. I got the unspoken message that he was a part of my life best forgotten.

I've always had a sense that there's something fundamentally wrong with me...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

a break in the action

Over the next few days, I'm gonna be taking this blog down for a bit while I attend to some personal stuff. I thought about chronicling it all like I did when I was fighting depression and anxiety, maybe even in more detail, but then I decided that my latest problems really aren't that interesting. ...It's kind of disappointing, I think, when you visit a blog over and over again only to find that the content is almost never updated, so I figured I'll take All The Things down until I'm more equipped to make regular contributions. I'll let everybody know.

Friday, December 5, 2008

a portrait of the artist as a young man

I'm happy to report that I've managed to claw my way out of the dark place I talked about over the last few posts.  I couldn't have done it without the love and support of my family and friends.  I also want to thank the Eli Lilly Corporation for the wonders of Cymbalta - 60 mgs a day is guaranteed to turn your frown upside down.  Hooray for Big Pharma!  ...My recovery feels a bit tentative and precarious at this point, but I'm doing much better.

The struggle against personal demons left me out of it for a few weeks, so much so that I failed to notice that Neil Young has released another archival recording, Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury Hall, from Ann Arbor Michigan in 1968.  All of the recent archival tapes Neil has made available over the last few years are terrific and worth adding to your collection if you're a fan.  Live at the Fillmore East captures Neil Young and Crazy Horse in early 1970, between what are arguably Neil's two greatest studio albums, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush. Then there's Massey Hall, 1971, a solo acoustic concert from the heady period between CSN&Y's Deja Vu and Neil's Harvest.  I like the Massey Hall show quite a bit, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Canterbury Hall tape, recorded a few days shy of Neil's 23rd birthday, in the immediate aftermath of Buffalo Springfield,  and on the eve of the release of Neil's self-titled first solo album.

From the first few strummed notes of the Live at Canterbury Hall opener, "On the Way Home" (which was initially sung by Richie Furay on the Springfield's Last Time Around), you're in for a special treat.  Even though the concert is just Neil armed with an acoustic guitar, the playing is crisp and his singing is angelic and expressive.  What really strikes me about the recording as a whole is that it's a snapshot of Neil at an especially pivotal transition point in his career.  His between song banter is that of a kid who knows he's a special talent but has yet to be jaded by the corrupting effects of money and mass adulation.  It's disarming to hear Neil speak with such light affability.  He tells silly jokes and stories with good natured ease and without the guarded, vaguely antagonistic tone he would soon frequently adopt as he became more and more of a bona fide rock 'n roll icon.  It's easy to forget that by this time he had already been through the crucible of the mid 60s Sunset Strip scene and its demise.  Listening to the recording, I was reminded of seeing Neil perform Greendale a few years ago at the Greek Theater.  At one point during the show, a cell phone went off.  Neil stopped in mid song, looked directly at the offending party, and then sneeringly asked, "Is that for me?"  Granted, I hate cell phone rudeness as well, but this was still Neil a billion light years away from the cheerful, pleasantly naive space he'd occupied 35 years earlier at Cantebury Hall.

For those of us who love Buffalo Springfield, Live at Canterbury Hall is all the more worthwhile as Neil plays lovely, stripped-down versions of "I am a Child," "Broken Arrow," "Out of My Mind," "Mr. Soul," and "Expecting to Fly."  There's also a quite stunning version of "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" thrown in, the first time I've ever heard Neil sing it himself... The performance is additionally peppered with great songs from his solo debut album - "The Loner," "If I Could Have Her Tonight," "I've Been Waiting for You," "The Old Laughing Lady," and "Last Trip to Tulsa."  A number of these songs were rarely if ever part of Neil's live repertoire later, so if you're partial to the early phase of his career, or if you're an obsessed fan interested in the bridge period between Neil as a member of Buffalo Springfield and Neil as a wildly imaginative solo artist, then Live at Canterbury Hall is a recording you need to have. 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

homo economus

I feel a little self-conscious being so 'out there' with my depression and anxiety issues, but writing about them is helpful - especially since my shrink is out of town for a few weeks and I've got nowhere else to spill.  Let me say here that I am not one of those people who revel in their own misery.  There's nothing exhibitionistic about any of this.  I'm looking forward to having this episode go away, to getting past it and getting back to some semblance of normality. Luckily, I'm not completely debilitated.  I'm going to work, doing my job, exercising, seeing friends, working around the house, etc.  I even went on two dates last weekend.  But I feel different from my normal self - more nervous, less focussed, more distracted, less engaged, more fearful of some impending disaster, less motivated... When I'm at my best, there aren't enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want to do.  When I'm at my worst, I can't wait for the day to end so that I can find peace in sleep.  I'm not at my worst anymore, due in large part to a change in meds after 15 years or so of being on the same thing.  (Antidepressants apparently 'poop out' after extended use).  That I can sit down and write this blog post is a tribute to the effectiveness of the new meds. Antidepressants used to take a few weeks to kick in.  Now they work right away...    So I'm not at rock bottom,  but I'm also far from being at my best.  I haven't really been able to do much work on my book or short story in the last few weeks. I also haven't been eating as much as I normally do (which may be a hidden blessing), and I still have my morose moments and episodes of intense anxiety.

I'm not a doctor or an expert, but I've read enough to know that depression and anxiety are partly physiological phenomena having to do with imbalances in brain chemistry.  This is the part of the equation that the meds can address.  But there's also the external triggers - the things outside of oneself that impinge on the brain chemistry and lead to certain responses. In my case, the biggest external trigger at the moment is the state of the U.S. and global economy.  It may seem silly to spend so much energy worrying about something over which I have no control, but the fact that I can't control it only makes me feel more anxious.  And the trappings of the Information Age only serve to make the fear worse.  It would be great if I could just put my head down, go on about my normal business, and forget about things that are beyond my reach.  Some people can do this.  I envy them.  Trouble is, these days we're all bombarded with horrible news wherever we go.  Let me describe how my morning went yesterday...

It was Friday, my day off.  I woke up, popped my new pills, and read my e-mail.  Then I looked at CNN.com.  The headline read, 'Economists predict prolonged, severe recession.'  OK, not exactly a Kellogg's mornin'...  I get dressed and head to Starbucks for my daily fix.  I sit down with my coffee and there's an L.A. Times on the table in front of me with a headline that's something like, 'Markets in Free Fall over Fear of Bank Failures:  Years of Gains Wiped Out.'  My stomach begins to tighten, but I do what I can to shake it off...  I drive to the bank to make a deposit and take out some money for the weekend.  There's a flat screen over the teller's window.   CNN is reporting that jobless claims are at their highest in 16 years.  My knees get rubbery, but all I can do is absorb the blow and move on... I drive to the barber shop.  The place is normally jam packed but today it's strangely empty.  My barber, Juan, takes me right away.  He watches the Telemundo news on an old Zenith T.V. while he works.  The report's in Spanish, but I can tell from the graphics and the sound of the words that they're talking about recession, unemployment, foreclosures, and all that other pleasant stuff. By the time I walk out of the shop, I look good but I'm a complete mess emotionally.  ...As I drive back home, I tune in to Sports Talk because I figure they won't be talking about economic stuff.  Sports are a soothing escape.  But the first thing I hear when I turn on the radio is an ad for some company selling gold.  Gold, the announcer says, increases in value during times of crisis.  He adds that it's important to own gold now because 'things will be getting much worse before they get better.'  Thanks for that.  ...Once I'm back home, I respond to a few e-mails.  Then, although I know I'll regret doing it, I look at CNN.com again and see a story header that reads:  'What's next?  Severe recession or something worse?'  It's not even lunchtime yet and I'm already sick to my stomach, scared, and depressed.  For the rest of the day I vow to stay away from all forms of media, lest I go completely fucking insane.  But the tone for the day has already been set, and sticking one's head in the sand probably isn't a viable coping strategy anyway.

Several years ago, I went out a few times with a woman who teaches in the Spanish Department at UC Riverside.  She was a lovely and very intelligent woman.  I can't remember why things didn't go anywhere.  I think I may have put her off when I took her to an Allman Brothers concert at the Greek Theater.  I vaguely remember being surrounded that night by older, grizzled biker gang types.  It was probably more than she bargained for, or less... Anyway, the two of us were having dinner one night at Fred 62 in Los Feliz when we started talking about the generally grim direction in which America was headed.  I don't recall whether this was before or after Bush's reelection, but the Iraq War had by then turned into a quagmire, religious yahoos were ascendant, and Bush was hellbent on making the distribution of wealth in the country even more lopsided.  Things just didn't feel like they were going well at all.  ...At one point, she asked me what I thought it would take to turn the country around.  Never one to shy away from sweeping historical analysis, I began by explaining that when I was in college I thought socialism was the answer to all the world's ills.  But then the fall of the Soviet Union, combined with the inevitable cooling effect aging has on the utopian dreams of middle class 'radicals', led me to eventually conclude that another New Deal was the best we could hope for.  I said that all empires eventually decline and that the American Empire appeared to be finally stretched to the breaking point.  I predicted that the resultant crisis would turn the tide away from expansionist laissez-faire economics and back towards heavy government involvement in the economy and a reinvigoration of the welfare state. (That's some dinner conversation, huh?).

I don't wanna toot my own horn here too much, but I think my analysis was right on the money.  President-elect Obama, for example, is already talking about public works projects to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure. This is beside the point I wanted to make.  I remember this dinner at Fred 62 very clearly because at one point I said, "I look forward to the end of the American empire."  I said it breezily, unthinkingly, like some sheltered college student.  My dinner date was both more thoughtful and more guarded.  "Well," she replied, "we'll see how we like it."  I see now that she was wise to be more sober.  America's decline may be a good thing in the abstract, but it seems as though living through its convulsive manifestations may very well be painful, difficult and, yes, depressing.  So maybe it's not so crazy to be depressed and anxious.  Still, there's gotta be a way to remain fatalistic and calm, even in circumstances where there's no hiding from the relentless onslaught of information about the difficult challenges that lie ahead.  I need to learn how to do this.

Monday, November 17, 2008

the big d 'n a

Apologies for the long gap between posts. I've been struggling with some personal issues, but I'm doing what I can to fight my way out of it. I'll be back at this again soon. In the meantime, here are some random images that make me happy...

Tom Terrific throws the circle change in the '73 Series...

Catherine Keener, who just keeps getting more beautiful with age...

Ms. Portman, all the more lovely with short hair...

Gil Kane's rendering of Spidey, though this particular issue is guaranteed to break your heart...

Gene Clark...

Double Indemnity...

'Book 'im Dano, murder 1...'

James Ellroy...


Pastrami at Langer's, serious as a heart attack...

Malibu sunsets...

...OK, I feel better already.

Friday, October 31, 2008

you see it all in 3-D

It seems a bit absurd to remain fixated on old guy's music in the wake of Obama's inspiring victory on Tuesday, but here goes...

I don't really have much to add about Steely Dan's Aja that hasn't already been said much more elegantly than I could say it here... We all know that the album's 'adult' sound is as smooth as a baby's ass, almost to the point of being elevator music... The guitar solos are super tasty, especially the one in "Peg," where the last coke-fueled note sustains into the subsequent verse. I love that! ...The Michael McDonald backing vocals on the album are just plain weird. I've never heard such bizarre harmonies with the notes so close to each other...

So, ok, as cringe making as it may sound to the angry punk rockers out there in my huge readership, I'd venture to say that Aja is one of my two or three most formative records, having been one of the key soundtracks of my life during an especially impressionable period in the mid-late 70s, when not only "Peg" but also "Deacon Blues" and "Josie" were played multiple times every day on AM and FM radio stations in New York City... We're gonna break out the hats and hooters when Josie comes home... The songs evoke random, fragmented memories. When I hear the dissonant guitar intro to "Josie," for instance, I feel like I'm lying on my shrink's couch, suddenly remembering something intense and maybe even painful..."Deacon Blues" reminds me of riding in the family car (a '76 Volvo), through Spanish Harlem, in the summertime, when I was 9 or 10. The windows were rolled up and the doors locked. Outside, Puerto Rican kids stripped themselves down to their underwear and ran through open hydrants, anything to get a break from the blazing heat. The men on those streets wore dingy wife beater t-shirts, played checkers, and took nips from dark green bottles in brown paper bags. It's a trivial memory, I know, but it's poignant in a way that I have trouble getting at with words. I also flash on things like the graffiti that decorated every inch of New York's subway trains. ZAP... CHOKE... DONDY ... 295 ... NYC was a different place, a better place. Trash and filth covered the sidewalks and the casual smell of pot always seemed to be wafting through certain side streets down near the East River. I was afraid of the .44 Caliber killer, even after he was in jail. I was also afraid of the Purple Pooper Scoopers, two guys with Jesus beards who dressed in tie dyed coveralls and would roam around the city on their three-speed bikes, picking up dog leavings. I think they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, as a weird form of hippy civic pride, but there was something creepy about them. Even then I was a cynic, always questioning the motives of harmless do gooders... They got a name for the winners in the world...

The incredible thing about Aja for me now is the way it's taken on an additional meaning since I became an Angeleno. Aja is one of the greatest L.A. albums ever recorded, with its banyan trees and dude ranches above the sea. The protagonists in the songs seem dazed, suspicious of the strangeness of the place and its people. 'Up on the hill, they think I'm OK...or so they say.' Yet those same protagonists 'crawl like vipers through the suburban streets,' adapting to the weird ways of Los Angeles until they become second nature. 'A world of my own, I'll make it my home sweet home...'

Much of the sentiment about Los Angeles on Aja is offered with Steely Dan's typical ironic distance, but they were ironic before irony was grating. The album captures the experiences of a very specific late 70s L.A. millieu. 'Sharing the things we know and love, with those of my kind... But there's more to it than irony and narrow vision, I think. Maybe it's just that I hear what I want to hear and impose my own agenda on things, but Aja's sarcasm is not expressed bitterly but instead with curiosity and wonder. When Fagen sings of 'the night of the expanding man,' I see a man who's escaped the compressed claustrophobia of New York for the physical and spiritual vastness of Los Angeles. I see myself, in other words. This brother is free, I be what I want to be...'

I don't know what else I can say about Aja without getting overly solipsistic. For all the talk of the lack of emotion in Steely Dan's music, Aja is one of the most emotional albums I own. 

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Looking over some of the posts I've written over the last few months, I've come to the realization that my notion of the Great Collapse remains somewhat amorphous. Part of this is of necessity since the historical phenomenon itself is comprised of many diverse events and sets of circumstances, and trying to unify them conceptually is a complex bit of business. And unlike the use of historical terms like, say, 'the Gilded Age' or 'the Antebellum South,' which refer to precisely demarcated time periods, I haven't offered much specificity in terms of when the Collapse started or when it ended. I was thinking that it might be useful to make a distinction between the Collapse itself and the fallout from the Collapse, but even there the causes and consequences bleed into each other. The Rural Turn, for example, was a symptom of the Collapse but also part of the Collapse itself. This type of complication is something professional historians face all the time. I've merely stumbled upon the problem accidentally in trying to write about history in my own layperson's way.

If I hold my own hands to the fire, I'd say that the Great Collapse refers to the dissolution of the idealism first set in motion by the Baby Boomer Generation after JFK's election in 1960. The idealism consisted of a growing belief in equality for all and a reassertion of individual uniqueness and creativity over and against the stifling moral conformity of the 1950s. It took JFK's assassination for 60s ideals as we know them to take on lives of their own, and one difficulty comes in trying to grasp the way the 60s reached a peak with the civil rights and anti-war movements, but also showed initial signs of decay at the same time.

The Collapse gathered steam with the onset of the second half of the 60s. I've tried to show how this uneven and protracted phenomenon was captured in rock... The Beatles and The Who, among others, approached the Collapse with varying degrees of pathos and disillusionment. The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Frank Zappa seemed somehow to know all along that 60s ideals would eventually disintegrate or morph into something more sinister. Bob Dylan, The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Byrds turned the Collapse into an occasion to escape into the countryside. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne used the Collapse as an excuse to escape into themselves. Still others, like Bowie, Iggy, Lou Reed, T. Rex, and the rest of the Glam crowd, responded to the Collapse by engaging in sensationalistic artifice, debauchery and sexual experimentation.

My observations on the music of the Great Collapse started and will end with Steely Dan. Their 1972 debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill, is a definitive expression of post-60s disenchantment. The record's opening track, "Do it Again," is one of the greatest songs they ever recorded and forms something of a template for everything else on the record and even everything Becker and Fagen subsequently did during the 70s. The song's nasty snake-like beat and freaky electric sitar solo, along with its bad trip lyrics alluding to murder, hangmen, gambling and adultery, leave little doubt that the era of love and sunshine has receded into the distant past. With Nixon cruising towards easy re-election against a wimpy opponent, and the Viet Nam war lumbering further into the abyss, flower power became a quaint memory, and on songs like "Reelin' in the Years" and "Turn that Heartbeat Over Again," Becker and Fagen are only too happy to impose buzz kill on the remaining hippy believers. A World become one, of salads and sun, only a fool would say that.' Ouch...

But along with the social commentary on Can't Buy a Thrill, it's also important to emphasize how musically satisfying the album is. The phenomenal guitar playing from the likes of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (now a right-wing national defense consultant), Denny Dias and Elliot Randall, perfectly complement the amazing songwriting prowess Becker and Fagen bring to the table. The infectious tunefulness of the songs easily compensates for any bitter aftertaste that might be left by the album's cynical post-60s vibe...

I go against the grain of most critical opinion in my view that Countdown to Ecstasy is a disappointment after the greatness of Can't Buy A Thrill. The songs are not as good and the album feels a bit thin with a mere eight tracks. Still, the record has some great moments in "Razor Boy", "The Boston Rag" and "Show Biz Kids," and the aftermath of the 60s is still very much on everybody's minds in "King of the World": 'No marigolds in the promised land, there's a hole in the ground where they used to grow.'

But Steely Dan only really became the outfit most people know as Steely Dan with their third album, Pretzel Logic. The album cover would have you believe that listening to the record will be a distinctly New York-ish experience. But Pretzel Logic actually represents the beginning of a decisive shift in Steely Dan's center of gravity away from the road and touring and into semi-permanent residence in the insulated recording studios of Los Angeles. The move to L.A. walked hand-in-hand with a much smoother sound. Even songs with flaming guitar solos, like the great "Night By Night," have a new mellowness about them. ...Pretzel Logic is where Steely Dan begin to embrace the fuzak that turned a lot of listeners off. But don't let the seemingly benign sound fool you. What makes the album so compelling is the way it uses infectious, M.O.R. sounding songs like "Rikki Don't Lose that Number," "Barrytown," and "Through With Buzz" as packages for acerbic social observations. This would be the band's approach for the remainder of the decade.

Starting with Katy Lied, all remaining pretense of following the normal rules of a rock 'n roll band went out the window. Steely Dan quit the road for good and were reduced to Becker, Fagen and whatever other session players they needed to create the atmospherics that are such an essential part of their sound. The song arrangements and musicianship on Katy Lied are flawless. Becker, Fagen and, one presumes, producer Gary Katz, continued to show off their impeccable taste in guaitarists, this time using Rick Derringer as well as Denny Dias and Elliot Randall. Although the rigid perfection of the music on Katy Lied left some listeners cold - John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone wrote that he was "unable to detect the slightest suggestion of real passion in any of it" - the album is, in my opinion, the ultimate Steely Dan record, even though Becker and Fagen disavowed what they perceived to be its shoddy sound quality after the album was released in 1975. With songs like "Dr Wu," "Black Friday," "Everyone's Gone to the Movies", and "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More," Katy Lied is a perfect distillation of the rampant self abuse, paranoia and decadence so endemic to its own historical moment. And in spite of the frequently leveled charge of passionlessness, there's also a refreshing degree of warmth and yearning on tracks like "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)", "Bad Sneakers" and "Your Gold Teeth II." In any event, I've always felt that the alleged coldness of the Steely Dan enterprise ceases to be an issue if you approach the music as a soothing, L.A.-style echo of the post-Collapse era's drift into mellow pensiveness.

More on Steely Dan next time...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

long time no speak

It’s been about a week since my last post because I’m busy putting finishing touches to a draft of a short story, Summer of ’63, based on a chapter from my in-progress novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from several readers, and now the question for me will be what to do with the story. Obviously my goal is to publish it somewhere, but I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach things. I’ll keep everyone posted on any progress I make. ...It'll be a few more days until my next post as I'm working on a longer piece to conclude what I've written on the music of the Great Collapse...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

flower power sucks!

Freak Out * We're Only In It for the Money 

Some listeners find Frank Zappa's music to be cold and overly intellectualized. There's certainly something to be said for this in those numerous instances where he makes a fetish of compositional complexity and substitutes abstruse musical theory for passion and feeling.  At the same time, though, you can't hear albums like Freak Out! or We're Only In it for the Money without being struck by the (albeit controlled) anger fueling Zappa's overall approach to social commentary, nor can you ignore his passionate commitment to making incredibly intricate and thoughful music. ...After Zappa's early days in the mid 60s as something of a fringe figure in the Los Angeles pop scene with his Mothers of Invention, he became a fierce critic of the counterculture, often offering his acidic analysis of things from a decidedly Libertarian perspective. But he was also a countercultural trailblazer and one of the truly inventive forces in rock, especially during the five-year stretch from 1966 to 1971.  I think it's this chasm between Zappa as 60s icon and Zappa as 60s naysayer that throws people for a loop. Perhaps that was his intention all along.

Freak Out!, released in 1966, is supposedly the first double-album in the history of rock.  It's  also notable as an album Paul McCartney is said to have listened to intensively in the interstitial period between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's.    ...My friend Drew Carolan, whom I've written about on this blog before, turned me on to Freak Out! in the summer after I finished 10th grade.  Freak Out! is one of those rare albums that becomes deeper and more meaningful every time I return to it.  When I was 16, I dug the record's great doo wop flavored pop and amazing orchestral arrangements.  Back then I really identified with the album's love songs, each seeming  to be about the chick doing the guy wrong ("I Ain't Got No Heart," "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder," "How Could I Be Such A Fool?," "You Didn't Try To Call Me," etc.), as well the album's Holden Caulfield-ish perspective on life.  ...Freak Out!, staggeringly enough, was the first album for The Mothers of Invention, and already Zappa can be heard adopting a position beyond the generational divide, pointing to the phoniness of both the straight suburban parents and their beatnik-hippie children.  In the end, Freak Out! is nothing short of a relentlessly thoroughgoing critique of American Society, starting with the album's stinging opening track, "Hungry Freaks, Daddy."

Mr American, walk on by, your super market dream,
Mr. America, walk on by, the liquor store supreme,
Mr. America, try to hide, the emptiness that's you inside,
But once you find that the way you lied, and all those corny tricks you tried,
Will not forestall the rising tide, of hungry freaks, daddy!

As would continue to be the case throughout his career, Zappa seems committed on Freak Out! to the preservation of personal liberty ("It Can't Happen Here") and absolute freedom of expression ("Who Are the Brain Police?").  The most poignant moment on the record is "Trouble Coming Every Day", which is Zappa's impression of the Watts riots.

There 'aint no Great Society, as it applies to you and me,
Our Country Isn't Free, and the law refuse to see,
If all you can ever be is just a lousy janitor,
Unless you uncle owns a store,
You know that five in every four,
Just won't amount to nothin' more,
Gonna Watch the rats go cross the floor, and make up songs 'bout being poor

What I find most fascinating about Freak Out! these days is that, in adopting a detached point of view, outside the counterculture and its enemies, Zappa seems to understand that the upheavals of the 60s are bound to end badly, or at least they are bound to have negative consequences.  His perspective becomes even more critical with We're Only In It For The Money, an album that can be interpreted as the Great Collapse put to music.  Listening to the record is like hearing someone from another planet describe two sharply divided generations, each refusing to meaningfully communicate with the other.  'I will love everybody,'  Zappa says, mocking the Summer of Love, 'I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street.'  But he casts an equally rational glance onto the Greatest Generation and asks, 'Ever wonder why your daughter looks so sad?  It's such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad.'  It's not feel good stuff, that's for sure, but Zappa's perspective is prescient, fiercely original, and represents a set of ideas and perspectives with which it's very difficult to find fault.  The only real criticism I have is that Zappa's point of view is so steely and sober that it leaves you wondering if there's any joy in Zappa's world at all.  His use of humor makes up for this a bit - even if the humor is usually bitterly cynical - as does the tiny bit of hope he gives us at the very end of the album when he sings that, 'There will come a time when everybody who is lonely will be free to sing and dance and love.'  Still, based on the rest of the album, we're left wondering when that time will be. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

last day at VCCA

I'm headed back to L.A. first early tomorrow morning.  I got quite a bit done here (one book chapter and a short story) and I had a great time, but I'm definitely ready to go home.  I'm writing a post right now on Rust Never Sleeps.  My my, hey hey.  The post should be up within the next day or two...

Friday, October 10, 2008

not fade away

When I was 10 years old, I asked my mother for tickets to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse play at Madison Square Garden.  My mom was always very generous and open minded about letting me go to concerts when I was a kid.  She knew that rock was important to me.  The only condition was that I had to have adult supervision, but this wasn't ever a problem because I had a built-in concert companion in my brother, who is 20 years older than I am (long story) and loves rock as much as I do.

Of all the concerts my brother Billy took me to see - including Kiss, Jethro Tull, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa - Neil Young and Crazy Horse was the loudest and the biggest freak show of all.  ...The line to get into MSG that night was like some kind of unwashed hippie Halloween party.  This was, after all, less than a decade removed from the 60s.  All the kids were dressed in their army jackets and ripped clothing, lighting firecrackers, drinking beer from brown paper bags, and getting rowdier by the minute.   The sidewalks in front of the Garden were teaming with squirrelly looking dudes selling T-shirts and drugs.  'Smoke and coke, how high you wanna fly?'  I was just barely ten years old and I remember being a little scared as we got on line, but also feeling like I was part of something cool and rebellious that I'd be able to tell my friends about the next day.

Once we got inside the arena, the atmosphere became even more carnivalesque.  The smell of pot hit us like a sledge hammer as we walked from the rotunda into the arena.  People were smoking joints and bowls out in the open, without any worry at all that an usher might confiscate things or throw them out.  I can recall bottle rockets getting shot across the arena, and I remember the kids in front of us snorting something called Rush  - one of them proceeded to do a headstand on his seat for about ten minutes.  It was the kind of scene you'd never see today, where all events like this are so tightly controlled by mookish bouncers with their yellow shirts and schmucky earpieces, and there's virtually no chance of anything spontaneous or surprising (or exciting) happening.

When the lights went down, the energy level and the weirdness quotient increased another hundred points.  The memories are all a bit hazy now but the stage was decorated with 25-foot-high mock amplifiers and microphone stands.  Before the band played one note, several gnome-like, bug-eyed creatures wearing hooded monk robes came out to twiddle knobs and dials.  I later found out these were roadies in costume, but at the time it just seemed  bizarre and a little frightening.   But any fear was quickly cast aside and replaced with awe.  It's the best feeling in the world when you're 10 and you get that first glimpse of one of your rock idols standing in the blue and white spotlight.  The deafening roar of the crowd as Neil and the boys took the stage was nowhere near as savagely loud as the opening riff to "Cinnamon Girl."  If I had to choose one (non-sexual) point in time to travel back to in my life, I'd have a hard time picking out a place I'd rather be than that concert...

The concert was part of the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, which is one of the headiest albums I've ever heard.  Although Neil was by then a 'mature' artist representing an older cohort, he managed to make an album that bridges the divide separating the hippies from the fledgling punks and New Wavers.  Side 1 is Neil's nod to the struggles of his 60s compatriots via acoustic folk songs that harken back to the pre-Collapse period as well as the naturalistic imagery of the rural turn.  "Pocahontas" is, most immediately, part of Neil's long standing fascination and sympathy for the plight of Native Americans. At the same time, the song is symbolically a metaphor for the ruthless march of modernity over all that's innocent and nurturing.  'They massacred the buffalo, kitty corner from the bank/The taxis run across my feet and my eyes have turned to blanks/In my little box at the top of the stairs/With my Indian rug, and a pipe to share.  "Thrasher" similarly acknowledges the death of a peaceful utopia - read: the hippie idyll - but does so in wistful tones, and not without alluding to the humanism and morality of those naive dreams.

Where the eagle glides ascending
There's an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions
Who were lost in crystal canyons
Where the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates

Side 1 is the elder statesman's sorrowful but also appreciative look back at where he's come from.  Side 2, featuring some of the hardest and most incendiary music Neil has ever made ("Sedan Delivery", "Welfare Mothers", "My My, Hey, Hey"), shows that he is not content with simple nostalgia and clears the decks for punk rock and its attempt to break through the malaise of the 70s.  With its images of brute force overtaking little people living their communal lives, "Powderfinger" - rumored to be Neil's response to The Band's "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" - is thematically similar to much of what is heard on Side 1 and serves as a warning to those who plan to go up against the system.  But placing the acoustic/electric "Hey Hey, My My"/"My My Hey Hey" at the album's bookends, Neil also seems to be saying that the struggle against conformity is worth it - even if it is bound to eventually collapse under its own weight.  'It's better to burn out than to fade away.' 

This brings me back to the concert I attended when I was ten.  I've often wondered about the meaning of those huge stage props - the mic stand, the amps, the roadies dressed as gnomes...  I should also mention here that I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse again in the early and mid 1990s (the tours for Ragged Glory and Broken Arrow) and the big props were still part of the show on both occasions.  You might or might not get a satisfactory or even coherent answer from Neil if you were to ask him what the props are all about, but it seems to me like it's a commitment to making a BIG statement against conformity, regardless of whether defeat is inevitable.  The virtue is in making actually making the statement as much as it in its results.  This approach has enabled Neil to stay relevant for over 40 years and is why his music continues to give inspiration to those who strive to live on their own terms. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

darkness, darkness

Tonight's the Night, On the Beach, and Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, recorded in 1973 but not released until 1975, views the 'left turn' into the abyss at the end of the 60s through the prism of the drug related deaths of his two friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry.  The brilliance of the album lies largely in Neil's ability to sublimate his grief and depression into a devastatingly raw collection of songs.  Tonight's the Night is not a record you put on as background music while you're cleaning the house or doing the laundry (at least I don't), but rather is one you play on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you're feeling pensive and want to contemplate the fragility of the human condition.  Although it was recorded some 35 years ago under very different historical circumstances, you will be hard pressed to find an album that sounds more appropriate to the desperate times we are living through today.

Like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young has always had a certain element of dread built into his music.   You can hear it on songs he did with Buffalo Springfield ("Mr. Soul", "Nowadays Clancy Can't Sing", "I am a Child"...), and it is pervasive on all his work through the 1970s. Let's face it:  Neil may want you to believe he's a peacenick hippy, but he's very much a dark hippy of the Topanga Canyon variety - moody, brooding, and often extremely self centered and selfish, to say nothing of frequently being politically confused.  This probably means Neil's not a great guy on an interpersonal level, but the sum total of his personality traits makes for some pretty haunting music.  

One of the great things about Tonight's the Night is the way so much of it was recorded live in the studio, imperfections and all.  The rough sound of the album, which infuriated the suits at Reprise when Neil first presented them with the finished product, is precisely what the material cries out for.  The album vents unrepressed, jagged emotion from start to finish. When Neil sings about his roadie and compadre, Bruce Berry, who 'died out on the mainline,' the cracking of his voice amounts to a plaintive cry of total anguish, not just for the passing of a friend but for the distortion and destruction of everything the 60s were supposed to represent...

Neil has apparently always been drawn to damaged souls like Danny Whitten, the guitarist for Crazy Horse.  All accounts I've ever read of their relationship suggest that the two of them had a special intuitive connection.   In this respect, the live version of Whitten's "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" on Tonight's the Night seems to have a double purpose.  On the one hand, the performance illuminates just how electrifying Neil and Danny could be when they played together and underscores the utter tragedy of Whitten's loss to 60s excess.  On the other hand, the lyrics of the song point to the paranoia and burn out that were so essential to the mood within the counterculture when the 60s started to go sour. 'Pretty bad when you're dealing with the man and the light shines in your eyes.' 

From the stoned whine of the pedal steel in "Albuquerque" and "Tired Eyes", to the creaky fury of "World on a String" and "Lookout Joe", Tonight's the Night finds a self-medicated Neil Young confronting the end of the 60s in a way that is simultaneously deeply personal and far reaching in its interpretation of the zeitgeist.

The Manson murders quickly became a lasting symbol for what I've been calling the Great Collapse, and nowhere is this more evident than on "Revolution Blues", one of the more striking songs from Neil Young's On the Beach. '...I hear that Laurel Canyon is filled with famous stars/But I hate 'em worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars...' On the Beach was released before but recorded after Tonight's the Night.  The album is quite a bit more patchy and uneven, but also features some of Neil's most tormented reflections on the death of 60s idealism with songs like "On the Beach" and "Ambulance Blues." Now I'm livin' out here on the beach,' Neil sings on the title track, 'but those seagulls are still out of reach.' For me, this is the defining moment on the record and one of the defining moments in Neil's career, a tragic omission of spiritual emptiness from a spokesperson for a generation that had such great potential yet flushed so much of it away.

More on Neil Next Time...