Friday, May 23, 2014

 Wayne's Words is undergoing renovation. Please enjoy the archives while we work out a new design and concept.

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Saturday, May 04, 2013


Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock

Dear Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock
by Wayne Robins

Last week in the class I teach at St. John's University called The Journalist as Critic, the discussion turned to social media, whether on blogs, Twitter or Facebook. My message to the students was to choose their words and express their opinions as carefully as if they were writing for the New York Times.
The reason for choosing this discussion is my recent chagrin at the declining level of civility, courtesy, and discipline among my own cohort of Facebook "friends." Most of them are journalists, music critics, public relations folks or entertainment and publishing industry professionals, the kind of people one collects over the course of a lifetime. Few of them are close friends. In fact, my "real life" relationships tend to be exclusive of Facebook. But it is one of the sweeter qualities of Facebook that one can resume or continue acquaintance with people who have passed through our lives in a favorable or collegial way.
But a few recent postings and threads have been irritating and at times offensive to read. They all begin with someone I know and respect writing bilious, sometimes obscene screeds about musical artists who have established themselves with permanence over the last few years. The artists are Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Paul Simon, Patti Smith, and the band Rush. The posters are musicians and writers who I have had some exposure to over the years, whom I like and in most ways respect. Their postings lead me to question that respect.
The CCR posting was especially bewildering, since it seemed based on nothing but long suppressed fury. It was a simple statement of "fact," according to the Facebook post, that CCR was... a sequential series of violent vulgarity and excretory excess, in that writer's opinion.
I like Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty. Many people who enjoy rock music also like CCR, to a greater or lesser degree. What I found so peculiar about the posting was the intensity of the hateful language, the degree of disturbance expressed by a person with whom I am familiar.
So I wrote the person a private message and asked if everything in his life was going OK, maybe he needed someone to talk to, or to vent with. He replied everything was fine...his marriage was on the rocks, but really, everything was same old, same old. He just really didn't like the music, and repeated some of the abusive verbiage. He appreciated my friendly concern.
Then he sent me a message reassuring me that this over-the-top cursing and citations related to the bowel movements of canines was really an "act," the words of a character he created, using his real name, on Facebook. That really rattled me: If you are going to create a persona to share with (his) thousands of Facebook friends, why make that persona a raving asshole? I decided to block updates from him, but accidentally deleted him as a friend. My bad.
There was a similar attack from the same source on Paul Simon. Apparently, this person had once had an interaction with Paul Simon, thought the anecdote portraying Simon in a negative light was amusing, and in some way purposeful. Fair enough, I guess. Most people like to hear real life celebrity stories. What was troublesome was the dozens of subsequent thread comments piling on Simon, decades old anecdotes, rumors and tales assaulting Simon's honor, dignity, ethics, morals and humanity. Some members of this virtual mob had the idiotic insolence to suggest Simon's "real" behavior was the result of his being short.
I have met Paul Simon numerous times. He is not Mr. Warmth. But he has always been a cooperative interview subject. It is true that having done a series of interviews with him over the span of a few short years during the late 1980s/early 1990s for New York Newsday, that Simon did not seem to remember me from the last get together. I took no offense. I have come to understand that in addition to talent and luck, the way one reaches the pinnacle of pop music, or any profession, is a single-minded focus that sometimes strikes others as excessively self-absorbed. I doubt if Paul Simon has spent five minutes of the last 60 years thinking, "you know, if I wasn't so short, I might have really accomplished something in my life." Yeah, that's what's been holding him back.
There was also the person who posted a photo of Patti Smith with a broad smile and happily wrinkled nose, shaking hands of recently elected Pope Francis during a public meeting in St. Peter's Square. The haters were ready. There were those who thought it a contradiction that the woman who nearly 40 years ago sang, "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine," that it was a kind of betrayal of punk rock orthodoxy. Or that Smith was somehow giving aid and comfort to an institution enmeshed for decades in a heinous sexual abuse scandal. Few seemed to imagine the profound affinity one who pursues a spiritual path, such as Smith, must feel when meeting one further along on that path. I think of a talk given by the spiritual seeker Sandy Beach of Tampa upon simply seeing the Dalai Lama. In essence, Sandy said, you don't need to be Buddhist to discern that there is something very special, some powerful, benign spiritual vibes—that makes the Dalai Lama an exceptional human being.
Besides, Patti Smith's spiritual beliefs are none of your, or my, business.
Finally, there is the old and tired "Rush sucks" card, played by an old friend when he posted on Facebook his impressions of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame initiation ceremony he attended in Los Angeles. He began his short appraisal with the phrase, and then ended the posting with the words, "did I mention that Rush sucks?" Cute if you're a six year old; pushing 60, not so cute.
"Rush sucks" was the concise opinion of many of my colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. It was an opinion I shared until I realized I had never listened to enough Rush to form an independent opinion. Being fortunate enough to be required to cover a wide range of music for Newsday for 20 years, I had numerous opportunities to review Rush concerts over the years. The first one I hated, but I realized I wasn't familiar enough with the music to even distinguish the songs in the hockey arena in which they played, except for "Tom Sawyer." So the next time they were coming to town, I took a few days to listen to their catalog, get to know the songs, tried to understand why millions of people liked their concerts and albums, and why so many critics disliked them. It's not that they're bad musicians; they are excellent musicians. Geddy Lee's high-pitched vocals are an acquired taste that most critics don't acquire. They'll never be my favorite band; I didn't rush to my Rush albums when I bought an excellent new turntable a few months ago.
But some people like Rush, some people don't. For someone who has been a reputable critic, writer, and historian to spout "Rush sucks" nonsense seemed cheap and undignified; it was exposing a degree of snobbery and condescension that was unpalatable in 1988, and is just sort of sad 25 years later. It's like the Republicans who in 2013 are staking everything on repealing Roe v. Wade. Forget about it; it's settled law. Let's move on to discuss, with civility and humility, the problems that daunt us today.
So many of us enter the glass house that is Facebook, fists clenched and a rock in each hand. My suggestion: it is probably time to drop the rock.
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Saturday, March 30, 2013


Listening to Paul Williams

by Wayne Robins
Last Sunday, March 24, there was a tribute to Paul Williams at the Boo-Hooray Gallery on Canal Street in Manhattan. The three hour event was a hello-goodbye to Williams, long-suffering from the brain damage incurred in a bicycle accident in 1995. His time on this planet appeared to be ebbing, and he died Thursday, March 28.
People kept shifting from past to present in speaking about Paul, but I didn't detect any discomfort about this. The event was organized by Paul's wife, the singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, whose courage in the face of the imponderable inevitable kept our anxieties at bay. Editions of Paul's multitude of writing—pamphlets, books he wrote and edited, and of course, Crawdaddy! the magazine he founded in 1966 that created a new form of narrative journalism, now known as rock criticism, filled display cases and lined the walls.
The guitarist Lenny Kaye, a distinguished rock critic even before he became a co-founding member of the Patti Smith Group, performed two songs with Berryhill, both reflective of Paul's passions. "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" was from "Pet Sounds," the album that placed the Beach Boys at a pinnacle of critical acclaim, and Williams was one of its most outspoken advocates. (I suspected Paul had less use for the Beatles than many of us, confirmed subsequently when he acknowledged as much in some later writings.) Paul and Cindy Lee's 11 year old son Alexander sang lovely harmonies. The other song was "Like a Rolling Stone," which needs no introduction, except to say that the question it asks—"How does it feel?"—was the essence of Williams' esthetic. The big question that must be answered by any song, Williams believed, was not does it mean, but how does it feel?
Michael Lydon, another of the earliest rock scribes turned musician, sang one of his uptempo, humane and corny affirmations of fun and friendship. Ellen Sander, another first generation rock critic, performed a poem she had written for Paul, full of pain and passion. I was honored to be asked to read some of Paul's writing, so I read selections from some essential Crawdaddy articles that were collected in what was probably his first book, "Outlaw Blues." In the title essay, Paul makes the essential connection that some members of the rock cognescenti were less quick to make: That "Beach Boys Party," from 1965, deserved to be loved on its own merits, because it was so much fun.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that Paul Williams invented rock criticism. Yes, there were others in the U.S., including Mike Jahn at the New York Times and Al Aronowitz at the the New York Post, Lillian Roxon as the New York correspondent for various Australian newspapers, and Gloria Stavers at 16 magazine who covered the emerging rock culture in the 1960s. But it was the critical vocabulary Wiliams developed, his highly intelligent but instinctive approach to music and the intellectually rigorous, emotionally transparent, spontaneous style of writing that influenced so many of us.
Then a 17-year-old student at Swarthmore College, Paul started publishing a mimeographed magazine called Crawdaddy! in early 1966. Later that year, when he could afford staples, the magazine, in black and white with few graphics, grew quickly in circulation.
 It could be bought on the newsstand at Gem Spa on Second Avenue, next to St. Marks Books when that august institution was still on St. Mark's Place and a hub of the late beatnik era's intellectual activity. The Fillmore East would soon open a block away.
Based in New York, Paul was positioned to catch the winds of change as they came. The Doors, Byrds and Love in L.A.; Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company in the Bay Area. New York had the Velvet Underground, the Blues Project, and Bob Dylan. At the same time, the British bands—Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who—astonished skeptics by having staying power beyond the 45 rpm singles. Everybody was making albums that were artistic statements, and Paul Williams realized that some explanation was required.
The explanation was not to the earthlings and adults who were running the country and its illegal war in Vietnam, to mention Cambodia and Laos. For with the advent of the album as art, Paul sussed out a community, or a potential community. He grasped that this new rock music, electric music for the mind and body, as Country Joe's debut album was called, codified the values, principles and entertainment values that would unite the tribe.
I was still in high school when I found Crawdaddy in the fall of 1966. The phrase "hippie" had not been coined or placed in widespread use. Rolling Stone didn't exist. I doubt that Williams had any ambitions beyond what he and the writers he published —who ranged from the studious Jon Landau to the brash R. Meltzer, set out to do: explain what was happening to rock and roll, to US, the tribe coalescing around the Stones "Between the Buttons," "Kinda Kinks," "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off," the Doors first album, Love's first album with "My Little Red Book," Bob Dylan "Blonde on Blonde." There were clues in this music, and the drugs we took, the streets we marched, the love we made—that had something to do with putting our collective energy into getting busy being born lest we find ourselves being busy dying. We were on a journey for which no roadmap existed. Paul Williams was our mapmaker.
The idea of Crawdaddy! was a bit of a cross between the serious magazines that covered the early 1960s folk-scene in Boston-Cambridge (Sing Out!, Broadside) and the sci-fi fanzines Williams started reading—and publishing—in his early teens. Sci-fi and rock were the foundations of Williams' creative life. He was ever the connoisseur/player in this scene: the driving force and co-editor of the multivolume collection of short stories by Theodore Sturgeon; executor of the Philip K. Dick estate; and admirer of, and admired back, by Kurt Vonnegut.
But his thoughts about what rock meant, how to listen to it, how to write about the experience of listening to it, will always remain his lasting monument. A rock song could contain a universe of ideas, or feelings, or thoughts, or sensory elements. He didn't break down and analyze lyrics. He sought the meaning behind the lyrics, the intentional or accidental chemical reaction between words, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, vocals. He describes some of it in an essay about R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" in Back to the Miracle Factory, a collection of essays dealing with 90s rock.
 "This is important information about how we hear songs, particularly rock songs," he wrote. "Strong impressions left by snatches of phrase, rather than by the narrative as a whole." R.E.M., with its oft-inscrutable lyrics, its multitude of moods created in layers by four strong musicians, was an ideal laboratory for Dr. Williams' experiments. (No wonder "Fables of the Reconstruction" was his favorite R.E.M. album. Mine too.)
In the introduction, Williams writes, that the book is "about music from the point of view of the listener. It is a series of critical essays by a writer who has spent his life attempting to close the gap between people who listen to and observe art professionally...and those who listen solely because they want to, because they want to get something from the experience." His purpose, Williams writes, is to get at what that something is.
Paul Williams was rock criticism's most important figure because as a writer, he was rock's most important listener. That is also why, nearly 50 years after Crawdaddy was born, some of us still get something from listening to music and telling others our answers to the question: How does it feel?
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Sunday, March 17, 2013


Johnny Marr
The Messenger

by Wayne Robins

In its February issue, Mojo magazine featured a cover story on Johnny Marr, along with a free CD featuring a selection of tracks from his estimable career since being the ying to Morrissey's yang in the Smiths.
What was striking about the Mojo disc was that if it were a stand-alone album, it would have cemented his place as the great British rock guitarist of his era, even if the competition was stronger. The Smiths era (1982-1987) was dominated by synthesizers and dance tracks: the default mode was Depeche Mode. It was the confident Marr's beguiling guitar that gave both warmth and gravitas to Morrissey's misfit complaints. If I could bottle one riff from the entire decade it would be Marr's Bo Diddley meets-"Disco Stomp"-meets Dick Dale tremelo riff that elevates "How Soon is Now?" into another sphere.
What makes Marr such a valuable musician is his dedication to the idea of the band comes before his need for recognition as a soloist. After the Smiths, he didn't just play on albums by The The (led by Matt Johnson), Electronic (Bernard Sumner of New Order), Modest Mouse (Isaac Brock), and the Cribs—he joined the bands, toured with them, co-wrote material, even stayed in Portland for five years after hitting it off with Brock.  
It's not exactly clear to me why "Boomslang," by Johnny Marr and the Healers (2003) doesn't count as a "solo album"...except for the Healers part, of course. It's also a little strange that the names of the musicians who played with Marr on "The Messenger" are hard to find. (The download I purchased lacks such information.)
For those of us who crave the excitement of guitar rock with a solid song structure and with a dollop of maturity, "The Right Thing Right," is the perfect kickoff. It's also a wonderful ethos for an adaptable professional musician, beginning with a siren riff that takes you right to the heart of the song.  
Our artifice obsessed web-centric digital world emerges as a theme in "I Want the Heartbeat": Think the juke-and-jive of the New York Dolls and the innocence and verve of the first Franz Ferdinand album. "Word Starts Attack" appears to be about the decline of manners in interpersonal communications. And there's "Generate! Generate!," a high-energy antidote to a pop music culture based on the notion of "calculate! calculate!"
"The Crack-Up" updates the high-gloss funk of Chic, while "Upstarts" is so anthemic you can imagine it as the curtain raiser of a Broadway show, or that electric moment of anticipation and expectation before a riot.  
That moment, in the form of a making a life changing decision and acting on it, is the subject of the album's most personal song, "New Town Velocity." Marr has said in interviews it's about the day he decided to leave school and pursue his bliss as a musician, damn the consequences.
"The Messenger" is full of the vitality that comes with finding one's voice, as both a singer and as a solo songwriter. Intelligent phrasing, belief in the lyric and sincerity in the delivery characterize Marr's capable singing. If you're wondering why it took the youthful 49 year old self-described "band animal" to go full solo, the answer is in the question: how soon is now?

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Friday, June 29, 2012


Neil Young's Visible Republic

by Wayne Robins

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Americana" (Reprise)

There's always a method to Neil Young's madness, even on his most prosaic projects. Who would have thought that the eardrum-puncturing solo guitar project "Le Noise" would be at the center of his third Jonathan Demme-directed full-length film ("Journeys") a road movie that takes up back to Omemee, the town in north Ontario that left us helpless, helpless, helpless?

"Americana"(Reprise) brings us all back to our childhood homes or getaways. In the days before rural TV, after dinner entertainment at my grandparents' summer cottage next to the Shawangunk Kill in the foothills of the Catskills would consist of the family singing off-key but together to "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," the first two songs of "Americana," a collection of 19th and 20th century folk, pop and patriotic songs, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. These songs, as well as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" (straightforward, though with the more confrontational lyrics from Guthrie's original manuscript), "Wayfarin' Stranger" (loyal to the Burl Ives rendition) and "Tom Dula" (the same lyrics as those in the peppy No. 1 Kingston Trio hit, "Tom Dooley") are so well-known that they're kind of an offset to the "lost" treasures that were run up the flagpole of Greil Marcus' "Invisible Republic." This is Neil Young's "Visible Republic," with amusing, illuminating twists. The feedback that introduces "Oh Susannah" lets you know this isn't grandma's hootenanny. Young's curatorial song notes tell us the melody and arrangement of this Stephen Foster song were taken from a 1963 recording by The Big Three, which consisted of Tim Rose, Mama Cass Elliot and Jim Hendricks. (You can hear The Big 3 version on the self-titled album on Spotify; it is called "The Banjo Song.") Such arrangements—the immediate precursor of folk-rock—provided the template for the "Americana" album. The Big Three's version is aggressive but still acoustic. Young and Crazy Horse amp it up until the guitar solo sounds like primo late 1960s Santana.

The notes—difficult to read because of the tiny font in the CD booklet—offer an occasional sly window into Young's often opaque strategies. It's doubtful that Young is just showing off his scholarly acumen when he notes that "Oh Susannah" was first performed on September 11, 1847; it's the 9/11 coincidence that grabs attention. The arrangement of "Tom Dula" comes from The Squires, Young's Winnipeg surf-rock-plus group circa 1963. And "High Flyin' Bird," which many associate with Richie Havens, notes the 1964 version of the Billy Edd Wheeler song performed by a group called The Company, with singer Stephen Stills. The song was already familiar to Young, as it also came from the repertory of The Squires.

Whether coincidence or not, a cluster of cited songs come from 1957-1958. "Travel On" stems from Billy Grammer's 1958 version. The Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" was a No. 1 pop hit in 1958, as was another song on "Americana," the furthest, most satisfying reach of all. I asked my friend Alan Grossinger, an expert in the popular music of the 1950s, if he'd heard the "Americana" version of this song—one of our childhood favorites—which I described to him as "one of the great protest songs about race and discriminatory hiring practices." Grossinger couldn't bite on that clue, so I had to reveal the answer: "Get A Job," by the Silhouettes.

 Recorded in 1957, "Get A Job" hit number one in January 1958. The 60s doo-wop revival group Sha-Na-Na took its name from some of the so-called nonsense syllables. The song, composed by the group members, is about the difficulty of finding meaningful employment in an economy with a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Young's choice to record this (loose but respectful) may be meant to draw comparisons to the 2012 economy, but there is a clear distinction. The Silhouettes, in their satirical way, were expressing the frustration of black America at a time when black America's frustrations were just barely registering on the national consciousness. It's Young's generous definition of "folk" music that allows him to include "Get A Job," as well as Odetta's "Gallows Pole," which may have first been heard on her 1957 live album, "At the Gate of Horn." The connection between Odetta and the Silhouettes wasn't understood then. It's not understood by many now, but as always, Young gets it.

The closing song, "God Save the Queen," makes some people cranky, for different reasons. The red- white and blue re•ac•tion•ary part of Young's fan base may wonder why he's singing what is essentially England's national anthem. But it's also a nod to the Young's Canadian heritage and that country's ties to the British Commonwealth. (Quebec excepted, of course.) It is also the melody of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," which is a kind of alternate U.S. national anthem. Young and Crazy Horse morph from the former to the latter—it begins as "God Save" and ends as "My Country," illustrating the continually evolving folk process that it the whole idea of "Americana." Many of us would have preferred the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," which Young and Crazy Horse are long overdue in covering. Perhaps it will be the grand finale of Young and Crazy Horse's fall tour with the Patti Smith Group, with all hands, and all versions, on stage.

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