Recommended CDs

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Let's Be Beastly to the Chinese

The Chinese government has branded actress Sharon Stone "the enemy of all mankind" after she wondered out loud whether the Sichuan province earthquake was "karma" for Chinese crackdowns in Tibet.

What she actually said (although you wouldn't know it from the media reaction) was not "This is karma for China's actions in Tibet", but "And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, is that karma? When you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?"

These weren't preconceived remarks that Sharon Stone took into a TV studio to make as her considered reaction to the Chinese earthquake, but idle musings in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival, which the media immediately pounced upon and elevated into a major political or even religious statement.

Ok, she sounds a bit dumb, but I expect she'd had a hard day....

The inevitable youtube video of Stone's remarks caused a hullabaloo beyond the bamboo curtain, and Christiana Dior hastily dropped Stone from their Chinese ads for their foul-smelling perfume, which I sincerely hope none of the Clown's readers wear.

The real story is Christian Dior's grovelling statement (having already forced Stone herself to issue a gushing apology):

We will never support any opinion that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.

The Chinese market is so important now that piffling considerations like free speech can evidently be just swept aside.

Well, phooey to that.

The 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is coming up! On June 4th, 1989, 2,000-3,000 students were massacred in cold blood by the so-called People's Liberation Army. China is the world's fastest expanding sweat shop, and without having rid themselves of their brutal Communist elite,
the Chinese are happily embracing the most unpleasant features of unrestrained market capitalism. And as Sharon Stone was suggesting, they are committing cultural genocide in Tibet. But oh no, we aren't supposed to hurt their feelings!

Thank goodness for the worldwide protesters who have been disrupting the progress of the Olympic torch. There's another flame that needs to blaze more brightly in China before we start worrying about upsetting Chinese feelings.

Hey, China, you don't have to look as far as the West to see what a free media looks like:

Anti-Beijing protests in Seol, South Korea.

And 19 years on, this is still the most courageous act I've ever seen in my life:

One loan protester halts PLA tanks in their tracks.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Loudon Wainwright III Part 4 - A Live One and Fame and Wealth

Part three of our survey of Loudon's discography left our hero at a seemingly low ebb in his fortunes. Dropped by Arista Records after T-Shirt and Final Exam failed to sell in large quantities, Loudon's major label days were behind him, although he may have refused to believe it at this stage; and whatever hopes he may have harboured about being the "new Bob Dylan" (though it's difficult to believe that Loudon seriously entertained them) were dead and buried. Moreover, he had passed the rubicon of the big 3-0 (the major theme of his two Arista albums), and was now in what was, in 1978, relatively uncharted territory for the boomer generation, and especially rocky ground for would-be rockers, at least those without the decency to have O.D.'d on excess and burned out in a blaze of glory before reaching the dreaded milestone.

Well, as Dylan sang, "There's no success like failure." Liberated from the major label pressure of having to produce hits, and from the burden of having to be young, Loudon found...not himself, that horrible cliché of rock biopic, but the perfect niche for his own brand of songwriting, reinventing himself as the poet laureate of middle-aged disappointment, boozing, bed-hopping, and bad parenting .

Around the corner lay battles with the booze, divorce (the breakdown of Loudon's marriage chronicled on Unrequited had led to divorce shortly after), and England. First, however, his first album on the folk-oriented Rounder Records label was his first full-length live album, a showcase for his talents as a club performer. The live performances included on the album were recorded on a tour of the British Isles in 1976 and at McCabe's in Los Angeles in 1978. The album was released in the following year.

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, Robert Christgau was somewhat underwhelmed:
The cheap seats are the only seats at a Wainwright show, and too often he plays to them, but here the screwy faces and strangled diction and spastic phrasing and easy jokes are kept in check. It's not as if his albums are so ornately orchestrated that the man-and-his-guitar format is a breath of fresh air. But he's a singer-songwriter who deserves a best-of, and this will do till he gets it. B+
Indeed, A Live One is a useful live retrospective of Loudon's 70s songs, but as his best work lay ahead of him, it is not so essential as the later Career Moves (I shall probably end up saying this more than once, but if you only want one LWIII album in your collection, Career Moves is the one to go for; though from the point of view of this blog, that would be rather unfortunate, seeing that this is an album-by-album review of Loudon's oeuvre.)

And so we come to Loudon in the Eighties.

I'm not sure when Loundon met Richard Thompson; perhaps at one of Loudon's successful appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival (he first appeared there in 1972, when he blagged his way onto the bill by playing to one of the organisers in the marquee). The two artists have a lot in common: both enjoy better critical reviews than record sales; both are superb live performers who know how to milk an audience; both were married and divorced to female folk singers who were stars in their own right. But whereas Loudon's constant wisecracking and joking around masks a serious side, the doom-and-gloom of many of Richard's lyrics is offset by a cheery personality and rib-tickling sense of humour.

Their fruitful collaboration begins on 1983's Fame and Wealth,
Loudon's second album on Rounder Records. I've been unable to discover what Loudon was up to in the three years since A Live One was released. No doubt it involved extensive touring. I have a very nice bootleg from Bremen in Germany from Sept. 1980, in which Loudon announces tongue in cheek, before playing "The Grammy Song" (see below) that the eighties are going to belong to him. He is quite bemused when the German audience take him as being in earnest and burst into a round of applause.

Loudon's ambiguous attitude to "fame and wealth" is in fact one of the themes of the albumn. The opening song, "Reader and Advisor" (one of two on which Thompson plays) asks a gypsy clairvoyant to tell him what the future holds in store for him. This is a serious song; Loudon sounds as if he is in a crisis or at least at a crossroads. Thompson's understated electric guitar and plaintive mandolin give the song a sense of foreboding, of quiet desperation. There has been nothing as dark as this in Loudon's work since "Prince Hal's Dirge" on T-Shirt.

By contrast, the next song, the aforementioned Grammy Song, is one of Loudon's funniest. The deliberately bad rhymes are part of the humour:

Last night I dreamt that I won a Grammy
It was presented to me by Debbie Harry
I ran on stage in my tux
I gulped and I said "Aw, shucks!"
I'd like to thank my producer—and Jesus Christ!

Of course, Loudon is making fun of showbiz backslapping wingdings like the Grammy Awards and the tedious thank-you speeches of self-important celebs. But there is an ambiguity in his attitude to the recognition and rewards of the music business, as we saw in Liza (on Attempted Moustache) , and as Loudon himself has noted.

(I should remark here that there is something odd about the way the vocals are recorded on this album; there is too much reverb or something. It's particularly noticeable on Grammy Song.)

Dump the Dog is a funny little apparently throwaway number on which Loudon accompanies himself on banjo that makes some serious points about mortality looking back to "Reader and Advisor": "Salt and pepper on my porridge, one day I'll be dead and gone." Another significant couplet is "I'm a son and I'm a father/I am just a middle man"—this sense of being caught in the middle between generations, of somehow being superfluous to requirements, recurs in Loudon's work.

There is also a glimpse of Loudon's darker side; sometimes his frankness about his bad treatment of women sounds less like honesty and uncomfortably like boasting:

Oh, my good girl loves me madly
And my bad girl is just a flirt
I'll take the good with the bad gladly
And I'll treat them both like dirt....

However, it's impossible to dwell on these darker thoughts for too long, as the delivery is jaunty and casual; it's basically a skipping song!

Thick and Thin and Revenge are two contrasting songs; the first a tribute to a loyal friend, the later a vicious song of recrimination.

Next we come to another song written for daughter Martha (remember Pretty Little Martha on Final Exam?) It's one of Loudon's most attractive songs. But while he paints a lovely picture of Martha in her birthday dress, we might note that it's an imagined picture, and he's playing the absentee dad again, singing a song as an alternative to being there. On the messageboard on which this discographical survey of Loudon Wainwright III first appeared, one user acutely observed that there is some irony to the fact that the lyrics in Pretty Little Martha say, "we will be reunited, maybe on your birthday, we will be reunited, on the eighth day in the month of may", but then in Five Years Old he's missed her birthday and written her a song instead! Though he did send some roses... Still, I defy you not to smile and shed a little tear at the end:

You're growing up so quickly now, I feel a little sad
But that's to be expected, after all, I am your dad-dy...

If that were "after all - I am your Dad!" It would have that clunky, "Well, doh!" effect when an obvious rhyme comes thudding along just where we knew it would be. The line could then only be a gag, as in B Side (on Album III):

There is no complex philosophy
It's just because—I'm a bee!

You know the rhyme is coming because of the previous verse, and you groan, and then laugh.

Just expanding "Dad" into "Daddy" makes the couplet not just a gag, but touching as well. (You may have noticed that
Loudon is fairly fond of this trick, viz. rhyming one-syllable with two or more.)

Ingenue is Loudon boasting about his alley cat ways again: "Well I'm out on the prowl/Lookingfor an ingenue/Someone young and pretty/That I can be a leading man to...." Look out, you waitresses! I've never liked this song. Motel Blues (Album II) is a more attractive example of the genre.

IDTTYWLM is the first of Loudon's abbreviated titles. It stands for "I Don't Think That Your Wife Likes Me". It's a comic tour de force, accompanied by some cabaret jazz piano played by Mark Hardwick.

Westchester County is about Loudon's privileged upbringing in the wealthy New York suburb of the title. There's a better version on "Career Moves".

Saturday Morning Fever is about watching cartoons on children's TV. Another song with strangely recorded vocals.

April Fool's Day Morn is one of Loudon's best, and certainly most personal songs. Again the version on Career Moves is probably better, but this version has Richard Thompson playing acoustic on it, always an aural delight. It's a redemption song about a mother's love. Loudon's self-confessed behaviour in the song is again pretty reprehensible, but this serves to highlight the selflessness of his mother and their wordless understanding. Johnny Cash should have sung this one rather than the more whimsical "The Man Who Couldn't Cry."

The album ends with the title track, which is sung a capella (except for a steady drum beat). Again, strangely recorded vocals, probably deliberate here. Loudon sounds as though he were singing it to himself in the shower!

Despite a number of funny songs ("The Grammy Song", "IDTTYWLM", "Saturday Morning Fever", the title track), this is quite a downbeat album. It's one that has grown on me over the years, and I do urge you to buy it and listen to it all the way through and live with it for a bit.

Oh, and did the Academy take the hint and award him a Grammy? Of course not, this is Loudon, the eternal nearly man, remember! But his next album, which is even better, would be nominated for one... Coming next: I'm Alright, an antidote to the blues, and Loudon's best album of the 80s, More Love Songs.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

More Thoughts on Dylan's 'Forever Young'

Thanks for the responses to my special birthday blog on Dylan's great song 'Forever Young'. As you can imagine, in view of my invective against the sentimentalization of the song, I was delighted (though not at all surprised) that Bob avoided playing the song in his first live performance on his birthday for eight years.

(Bob has seldom performed on his birthday through the years. It's amazing to think that when he appeared at The Olympia, Paris, France on his 25th birthday he had already recorded the albums that secured his reputation for all time!)

One of the most interesting comments on the birthday thread was the following, from "lostchords":

I must admit that I think "Forever Young" has more to do with song written by Meredith Wilson in 1940

"May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" (later recorded by Eddy Arnold et al.), although this one is obviously directed to a departing lover:

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Whether near or far away
May you find that long awaited golden day today
May your troubles all be small ones
And your fortune ten times ten
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May you walk with sunlight shining
And a bluebird in every tree
May there be a silver lining
Back of every cloud you see
Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows
Never mind what might have been
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

(Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows)
(Never mind what might have been)
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet, till we meet again...

About Meredith Wilson:
Now, I have enormous respect for lostchord's writings on the Never Ending Pool, and am frankly envious of his encyclopaedic knowledge of American pre-rock popular music.

However, in this particular instance, I do feel that he is guilty of a common error among people who are expert in a particular field; namely, that of seeing that particular field everywhere, even where it might not be relevant or appropriate.

It seems to me that, if Dylan was indeed aware of the Meredith Wilson song, it served him only as a model of what he wished to avoid, and avoided so successfully, in the composition of his own 'Forever Young.' As I wrote in my earlier blog:

In his interview with Cameron Crowe for the Biograph booklet [Dylan] is quite explicit [about what he wished to avoid in 'Forever Young']: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental [italics mine]. "
In contrast, there is no banal sentiment or popular cliché that Wilson does not positively embrace in his song. A notable feature of 'Forever Young' is that, even where Dylan's sentiments are conventional, he avoids diluting them for modern tastes by using modish or politically correct vocabulary. "Courageous" and "joyful" are allowed to stand, unapologetically old-fashioned, eschewing the "brave" and "happy" of popular song; "true", which in pop terms merely means the girl's fidelity to her beau, is allowed to retain its more traditional connotations, reinforced by its coupling with "righteous." Whereas Wilson happily embraces the sappy "golden day" and "silver lining", Dylan studiously avoids the familiar and expected "young at heart", preferring "May your heart always be joyful", and paraphrases the clichéd "The Devil makes work for idle hands to do" with "May your hands always be busy."

These differences in level of vocabulary and attitude to banal sentiment are what make one song a dated pop song and the other a timeless Christian prayer with modernist overtones.

And finally, a word about the "other" 'Forever Young' on Planet Waves. As detailed in my earlier blog, Bob's misgivings at being misinterpreted as having given way to sentimentality led to his initially rejecting his first take of the song recorded with The Band. He attempted other interpretations of the song, and only producer Rob Fabrioni's pleadings induced him to relent and allow the "slow" version of the song to appear on the album. Even then, Bob insisted on one of his alternative interpretations of the song being included on the album alongside his near-perfect "slow" version. When you flip the original vinyl album, side two begins with a completely contrasting version of the song with which side one ended. Whereas in the slow version, Bob is passionate, elemental, and entirely committed to the lyric, in the "fast" version his delivery is throwaway and flippant. This marked the beginning of a phenomenon seen especially in the songs of Blood on the Tracks and occasionally glimpsed in later songs, and well remarked upon by Clinton Heylin: the process by which Bob would re-record songs in order to attenuate their emotional commitment or reduce the impression of nakedness and vulnerability.
Another example of this is the final album version of Idiot Wind as recorded in Minnestota; the earlier version recorded in New York City had been even more emotionally unguarded.

The two versions of 'Forever Young' on the original vinyl album exploited something that Dylan, the consummate album artist (by the way, those five words summarize the theme of the putative Dylan book that I've been planning for a couple of years now), was particularly aware of: the two sides of a long-playing record. Flip the album and you get the flip side of the slow version of the song; two Janus-heads of the same coin. Somehow this effect is lost, or its impact much reduced, on the album's CD reissue, whereby one version follows the other immediately, without the need to physically turn the album over so that the 'fast' version marks a new beginning. Really, it would have been better to have omitted the fast version of 'Forever Young' on CD, substituting it with the out-take 'Nobody 'Cept You', perhaps resequencing the album. But of course, Bob wasn't interested in looking back in order to redesign his his earlier creation in the light of more modern technology.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Birthday Bob Taught Boomers How To Grow Old Gracefully, Not To Remain Forever Young

So another Dylan anniversary comes around, and no doubt Dylan fans everywhere will be playing his classic song Forever Young in his honour. Here then, are a few reflections on that timeless song and how its original message is often mangled, and even turned on its head.

Although Dylan successively negotiated the thin line between sincerity and sentimentality, the song was almost immediately turned by those who heard it from a father's pious wishes (or prayer) for his son into a mawkish expression of insincere sentiment on the part of young people for those of advancing years; like one of those horrible Hallmark Cards that say something like: "Happy Birthday, Dad! Seventy Years Young!"

This ghastly perversion of the song's original meaning reached a ne plus ultra level of well-meaning but mawkish sentimentality when the reformed Band (who, of course, with Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel in their fold took part in the original recording of the song for Planet Waves) recorded the song for their High on the Hog album, dedicating it to…the late Jerry Garcia!

So I'd like to take another look at the song and explain why it is the very opposite of sentimental, and shouldn't be used as an excuse to wallow in flabby, mawkish Peter Pan-ism.

Here first are the lyrics, reproduced here from for the purposes of study:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young

Copyright © 1973 Ram's Horn Music

There we have it: just three short verses and a simple refrain. However, this simplicity should not lead us to suspect simplemindedness. Allen Ginsberg considered it one of Dylan's finest songs, recognizing in it the apparently artless but pure expression of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Dylan was quite clear of the dangers of expressing conventionally pious sentiment in popular song. In his interview with Cameron Crowe for the Biograph booklet he is quite explicit: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute. Sometimes that's what you're given."

The writing of the song may have been done with Dylan's habitual swiftness, but the recording process was very different. From Wikipedia:

After several false starts, Dylan and The Band executed what would ultimately be one of two master takes for "Forever Young." However, Dylan nearly rejected the performance after hearing some disparaging criticism from one particular visitor.

"We only did one [complete] take of the slow version of 'Forever Young','" recalls [Planet Waves producer Rob] Fraboni. "This take was so riveting, it was so powerful, so immediate, I couldn't get over it. When everyone came in nobody really said anything. I rewound the tape and played it back and everybody listened to it from beginning to end and then when it was over everybody sort of just wandered out of the room. There was no outward discussion. Everybody just left. There was just [a friend] and I sitting there. I was so overwhelmed I said, 'Let's go for a walk.' We went for a walk and came back and I said, 'Let's go listen to that again.' We were like one minute or two into it, I was so mesmerized by it again I didn't even notice that Bob had come into the room...So when we were assembling the master reel I was getting ready to put that [take] on the master reel. I didn't even ask. And Bob said, 'What're you doing with that? We're not gonna use that.' And I jumped up and said, 'What do you mean you're not gonna use that? You're crazy! Why?' Well, during the recording...[Dylan's childhood friend] Lou Kemp and this girl came by and she had made a crack to him, 'C'mon, Bob, what! Are you getting mushy in your old age?' It was based on her comment that he wanted to leave [that version] off the record."

Fraboni would defend the recording, and when he refused to relent, Dylan reconsidered and allowed him to include it on the album. On November 9th, Dylan held what he intended to be the final session for the album. From Fraboni's perspective, Dylan already had a perfect take of "Forever Young" from the previous day, but Dylan still attempted a different, acoustic arrangement, which was ultimately rejected. Dylan would tell Fraboni that afternoon, "I've been carrying this song around in my head for five years and I never wrote it down and now I come to record it I just can't decide how to do it."

Bob Dylan became a father for the first time in January 1966, when Jesse was born. Anna Lea followed in July 1967, Samuel July 1968, and Jakob in December 1969, which would postdate Forever Young's composition if Bob's claim to have been carrying the song in his head for "five years" before the Planet Waves sessions (November 1973) was literally true. This does seem a long time to put off recording a song that came to him so swiftly it felt like the gift of a higher power.

Perhaps in reality only the germ of an idea of the song had come to Dylan as early as that, and it was not completed until just before he made a demo of the song for Ram's Horn Music in June 1973. Otherwise it is difficult to believe that Dylan would not have attempted to record the song for so long, and would have included several inferior songs on New Morning instead. The latter album includes several songs that touch on the theme of fatherhood, so it can't be said that Bob was reluctant to think of himself in those terms or that the song would have been out of place on that album. New Morning even includes a prayer, which is what Forever Young ultimately is. Father of Night, however, with its evocation of oppositeis more of a Zen Buddhist prayers. (It could easily be a children's song, except there is a palpable moment when it turns from a song of innocence into a song of experience; namely the line "Father of loneliness and pain", at which point the song stops and there is a pause, not long enough to be agonizing ,but noticeable enough to be troublesome, before the final line of the verse brings the expected reassuring rhyme.)

Forever Young is more explicitly a Jewish or Christian prayer of the type known as a Benediction, pronounced by a priest on special occasions. By far the best known is the Priestly Blessing, which is based on Numbers 6:23-27:

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

In Orthodox Jewish tradition, only the kohanim (priests, direct male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses) can pronounce the Blessing, stretching his hands forth over the people. However, this blessing is also used by some parents to bless their children on Friday night before the beginning of the Shabbat meal. Some rabbis will say the blessing to a boy at his barmitzvah ceremony. Therefore in adapting the blessing for his sons (and daughter? the sentiments are strongly patriarchal), Bob was merely continuing the partial secularization of the priestly blessing that was already established in many non-Orthodox Jewish communities.

(On the other hand, a music concert is like a synagogue, or rather a cathedral, and the singer or star is the "kohen" or priest, extending his blessing to the audience/congregation. This is why the song is so effective in live performance, since for the duration of the show we all become Bob's children.)

"May your wishes all come true" isn't a bland statement, but a pious wish that every father makes for his children, even though he knows that nobody's wishes all come true (and therefore the father's wish is itself one that will not come true).

"May you always do for others and let others do for you." Ginsberg suggested (interview with Peter Barry Chowka in New Age, 1976) that this is "Dylan's hip, American-ese paraphrase of Christ's 'Do unto others . . .' But although the cadence is similar, the sentiment is quite different: Dylan wishes his sons to be helpful to others, but not too proud to accept help from others too.

The next line reminds us of the ladder Jacob dreamed of in Genesis whose top reaches to heaven. Dylan wishes his sons a ladder that reaches "to the stars"; but they will have to build it themselves, and climb on every rung. In other words, he does not want them to have any shortcuts to the top (riding on the coattails of their father's fame, for instance). But also he wants them to enjoy every stage of their ascent of the ladder, rather than just focusing on reaching the top.

The second verse is about the abstract qualities Dylan hopes his sons will have when they grow up. Note the deft shift from "being true" to "knowing the truth." Being true means being loyal (to one's family, friends, country, ideals etc.), while knowing the truth means not only being able to detect a falsehood, but (in a religious or philosophical sense) following the true path to enlightenment. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to see in this contrast between the ontological (being) and epistemological (knowing) Plato's contrast between right action and knowledge of the truth. The man who knows what is right, according to Plato's Socrates, will always do what is right. He who does what is right, however, without clear knowledge is in danger any moment of going wrong, and Socrates compares him to a blind man going along the right path.

"...see the lights surrounding you" is vaguer, but probably complements "…and let others do for you." Don't think you're all alone in this world, surrounded by darkness. Look around and see the light of others that will help you see your way along the true path. Courage, uprightness, and strength are traditional male virtues, which Dylan unabashedly recommends.

"May your hands always be busy"; because, as we know, "the Devil makes work for idle hands to do." This is example of Dylan deftly recasting a traditional piece of wisdom or an aphorism that has become a cliché in a new mold in order to make us think about it afresh. He does this elsewhere on Planet Waves: in Going, Going, Gone, "all that glisters is not gold" becomes "all that’s gold wasn't made to shine.

Hands lead naturally to feet, busy leads almost as logically to swift, with the same implication: don't be idle, don't waste your life doing nothing. But also there is the implication that if you do linger along the way, looking behind you instead of pressing on, you will find yourself left behind as time wreaks its inevitable changes ("He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled"). This thought is typical of Dylan, for whom the artist never looks back, and leads naturally to the song's most arresting image and a line that deliberately reminds us of at least two of the "young Dylan's" classic songs:

May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift

This reminds us not only of Blowin' in the Wind, but even more strongly of The Times, They Are A-Changin', when Dylan had been on the other side of the generational divide, warning the older generation to get out of the way of the new and to take care lest they sink like a stone as the waters rose around them. Now on the cusp of middle age and having learned that he too must make way for a younger generation, he reminds his sons that they too will need to be very swift and very strong to avoid being swept away in the changes they too will inevitably face. This is extremely important, because at first sight the Dylan who wrote "Forever Young" seems very different from the younger man who wrote "The Times, They Are A-Changin'." The latter song was embraced as a clarion call for radical social change, while the former apparently espouses very traditional sentiments. But the message of the two songs is really the same: accept change, but don't be swept away by it.

This became fully apparent when on his 1978 tour Dylan sung "Forever Young" and "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" back to back at the close of the concert. The two songs illuminated one another. It became clear that "Forever Young" wasn't a collection of patronizing pieties, while "Times" wasn't so much about social change and the sixties generation gap as the inevitable cycle of history, the whirligig of time that brings in its revenges, in Shakespeare's phrase. After all, the song seems to draw on Tennyson's beautiful lines from Idylls of the King on the inevitability of change and decay:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

The line it is drawn and the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'...

The phrase "winds of changes" is very beautiful in itself. The phrase originated in a speech by British prime minister Harold Macmillan in South Africa in 1960 that heralded a new era of decolonization. Macmillan's actual words were "The wind of change is blowing through this continent", but the phrase entered the popular language as "winds of change." Simply by making the second noun plural as well as the first, Dylan produces a wonderful piece of assonance and alliteration (since ds sounds very similar to the soft g in 'change', unlike the hard d in 'wind'), reinforced by the alliteration of w in "when the winds", so that the line first of all blows and then ripples as the vowels shift from e to i to a and then back to i again. In the Planet Waves recording (the slow version), Dylan further matches sound to sense by dragging out the vowel in "shift", so that it really feels as though the ground is moving under our feet. Has anyone else who has recorded this song been so alive to these nuances? Only Dylan, and perhaps only in that great recording Fabrioni so rightly cherished and championed.

It may be objected that "shift" is an awkward choice of verb, because winds don't shift: foundations do if they are not sufficiently strong, and sands shift in the desert winds. But somehow the line, perhaps because of the way Dylan stretches it out and animates it with his singing, seems to encompass all these meanings without conflict.

Finally we come to the line that fully encapsulates what the real meaning of the wish "may you stay forever young" encompasses. Dylan is not talking about being trapped in a Peter Pan type warp like those ageing baby boomers whose tastes and behaviour have remained perpetually adolescent, but about being "young at heart", a cliché that he, thankfully, deftly avoids, singing instead "May your heart always be joyful." Thus youth and joy are associated; and only with joy in our hearts can we still be youthful despite our ageing bodies.

Thus it is joyfulness, not retarded adolescence that the song celebrates. Dylan knows, like St. Paul, that when one becomes a man, it is time to put away childish things. In his albums from Nashville Skyline through Blood on the Tracks, he was the first of the rock generation to embrace middle age rather than resist it; something Mick Jagger has yet to do. He was arguably the first to sing about old age too, with grace and humour as well as regret and bitterness. Time Out of Mind seemed preoccupied with the latter, along with the physical decay attendant upon old age. Highlands paints a grim picture of an ageing, disconnected Dylan, shuffling his way along the street, talking to himself, and envying the young people drinking and dancing in the park, while for himself "the party's over and there's less and less to say."

Since that dark night of the soul, however, he seems to have rediscovered some of the joyfulness he wished that his sons would carry in their hearts all those years ago. So if you're celebrating Bob's birthday today, play one of these songs instead of "Forever Young", which is his song to us. For instance, play Floater (Too Much To Ask)

Young, old, age don't carry no weight

Or Mississippi:

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Or perhaps inevitably, Spirit on the Water:

You think I'm over the hill?
You think I'm passed my prime?
Let me see what you got!
We could have a whoppin' good time!

Best of all though, play Summer Days, a song which evokes the spirit of the best known poem of the other Dylan (Thomas) urging his father to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light",

Well I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime...

Now excuse me while I stand on the table and propose a toast: "To the King!"

Leonard Cohen on Tour 2008 - Videos & Links

It's good to have the grand old man of bedsit angst (©all media) back on tour for the first time in 15 years, even if he's taken to the road again out of necessity rather than desire, his pension fund having been rifled by a former manager and lover.

Reports and sporadic audio and video clips from the early Canadian shows indicate that the man is on top form, and as always, he is touring with musicians of the highest calibre, some new to his band, others old hands.

A show of two-and-a-half hours (minus intermission) for a guy in his eighth decade is very impressive. I'm a little disappointed that, with the exception of three songs from 2001's Ten New Songs, Leonard's concert repertoire is virtually unchanged from 1993. No songs from have been debuted from 2004's Dear Heather, nor has he attempted to sing any of the excellent songs he co-wrote with jazz chanteuse Anjani Thomas (reportedly his current romantic partner) for her 2006 album Blue Alert. Perhaps the setlists will be shaken up a bit when the tour reaches Europe next month.

There follows some links to some useful Leonard Cohen websites (do you know of any more? Please add them in a comment!). And as I am very unlikely to be able to get tickets even if I could afford them for his U.K. tour, I've embedded a few live videos from youtube.

All the Setlists are here.

The paged linked to about is part of the forum of the truly excellent Leonard Cohen Files. This is the best one-stop place for all information and discussion about Leonard.

A useful source for Leonard Cohen lyrics, especially alternative versions, extra verses, and prologues performed in concerts is Diamonds in the Lines.

And of course there is the official site, which doesn't seem to keep as up-to-date with Leonard's latest doings as the Leonard Cohen Files (see above).

Here's a few videos from the opening night in Fredericton (audio is good quality, picture is poor; there is a crack in everything!). First the opener Dance Me to the End of Love:

Here Leonard explains what he's been doing since he was last on tour (taking a lot of prozac, apparently!)

Hallelujah with French intro:

Everybody Knows:

And these youtube links are audio only:

In My Secret Life

Who By Fire

Do know of any Leonard Cohen sites or recent videos I should link to? Drop me a line!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Bob changes show opener, but still overlooks perfect choice

The three shows that circulate from Dylan's latest tour in this, the 20th year of the Never-Ending Tour, confirm the reports of those attending them that the man is back in very strong voice for the first time in at least a year. When that happens, even his current mediocre band can't hold him back.

The one disappointment is the continuing static nature of the setlists. Although no one could possibly obejct to a setlist like the first night of the Canadian tour in Saint John, New Brunswick, an excellent selection of vintage classics plus the best of the more recent Dylan songs, Bob still neglects large parts of his repertoire, particularly from the 70s and 80s.

At least he has started shaking up the opening slot. having opened with a different song on every night of the tour so far. But he continues to ignore, in my view, the perfect show opener....

The never-played opening song from his 1974 album Planet Waves, On A Night Like This has, in my view, all the ingredients of a perfect opening number. It even has some of the characteristics of the songs by which Dylan typically chooses to announce himself to the audience, which often make some kind of comment (usually ironic) about his relationship to the audience. Maggie's Farm is Bob's favourite song in this regard: it tells us right up front that, although we may technically be the boss and Dylan the hired worker, it doesn't mean he has to like it: "They say 'sing while you slave'/I get bored". So don't go complaining if his performance is merely workmanlike or if he actually falls asleep on the job. Others in this category are Hero Blues, that most unlikely obscure number with which Bob kicked off his eagerly awaited return to touring in 1974; and Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, which was his calling card after "Hero Blues" was dropped after the first two shows in 1974 and again in 1989 and at other times.

There is another category of opener in which Bob makes a big statement, announcing mock-heroically that he's ready for the challenge of facing the audience. Examples are I'm Ready - the Muddy Waters number used on the U.S. leg of the 1978 tour, and Hallelujah, I'm Ready To Go, the bluegrass opener earlier this century. And still another category in which Bob makes us a pledge, as in To Be Alone With You or Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You (that one usually comes second rather than first, it is true). On A Night Like This incorporates elements of all three of these categories (though there are still other categories, which I pass over here). First of all, the night is special to us, if not to Dylan: we are seeing him perhaps for the first time; or it may be the 200th time, but even so, in terms of the number of shows he gives, that is a mere drop in the ocean. So for us the night is quite special, and the way the line builds up to a climax - On a night like THIS - emphasises that specialness; but the same emphasis is double-edged, because as the song goes on, a note of recrimination sets in. "If I'm not too far out, I think we did this once before"—in the context of the song, this sounds barbed. This special evening he's spending with his old lover, reminiscing on old times.... not only are some of those memories not so sweet, but they've even done the nostalgia trip itself before. But as an address to the audience, the song would work as a sly nod of the head to the long-time Dylan fans seeing Dylan for the 10th, 20th, or perhaps even 100th time. And a gentle reminder to the first-timer that while this may be special for him/her,. it's not so special for Dylan, whose been through it all thousands of times....

On A Night Like This is such a perfect opener perfect, you can even hear it in your head: Dylan striding to the microphone, singing the first three words unaccompanied into the microphone (or maybe just strumming an acoustic energetically) and then the band crashing in, with perfect timing, on the word 'TH -I-I- I - I- S !!!'

This could even be why he doesn't do this number - the arrangement I've just suggested, which seems to me the obvious one, would require just the sort of showmanship that he only occasionally goes in for. He normally likes to start a show very loose and relaxed, so that the first song is often little more than a warm-up number. Starting with On A Night Like This would require him to hit the ground running every time. What a great concert would follow if he started off with this tight an arrangement.

However, the real reason could be that Dylan just doesn't like the song. In the Biograph booklet he tells Cameron Crowe:

"I wrote this in New York... Sometimes you are affected by people thinking you're too heavy. You know? They see you and pretend they don't, if you do something that's extreme on the one hand, then you've got to hurry and turn it around so people aren't so sure that they saw what they know, I think this comes off as sort of like a drunk man who's temporarily sober. This is not my type of song, I think I just did it to do it."

A very intriguing comment. Since prior to Planet Waves Bob had done nothing that could be regarded as 'heavy' or 'extreme' since, say, All Along the Watchtower, he can only be referring to songs on Planet Waves itself. He seems to be suggesting he wrote "On A Night Like This" as a counterfoil to 'heavy' numbers such as Dirge, Going Going Gone, and Wedding Song . And certainly without this song and You Angel You (which definitely sounds written just for the sake of having an uptempo, happy-sounding number and to exorcise the demons of Dirge), Planet Waves wouldn't have much variation.

(And though he may have disliked the song in 1985, he included Los Lobos's version of it for his 2002 movie Masked and Anonymous.

However, although it may have been written specifically to fulfil the role of the uptempo opener, the song nevertheless beautifully prefigures and encapsulates Planet Waves both thematically and in terms of mood. The themes of the album are to be reminiscence and nostalgia - but the mood is to be bitter-sweet. Some of the memories are going to be romantic, others painful or downright venomous. The situation in the song seems to be a former lover returning for the evening: and not just for coffee and to share a few old memories. She is going to stay the night - but this has the air of a one-night-stand for old times' sake or for the sake of sex; not a long-term reunion. Therefore "say you'll never go away to stray" is more about the excitement of the moment than a realistic hope. The song is one of Dylan's most sexually charged:

Hold on to me so tight...
Hold on to me, pretty miss...

Run your fingers down my spine
Bring me a touch of bliss

Put your body next to mine
And keep me company

The last lines have humorous pay-off: "There is plenty of room for all so please don't elbow me". Given Dylan's reputation, we cannot dismiss the idea that more than one person is sharing his bed, but these lines are better seen as humour: "Can you stay the night? Sure, I don't think there's anyone in my bed right now, let me check - oh yeah, room for one more!" This is curiously echoed in Tough Mama - "Won't you move over and give me some room?"

Those lines of explicit sexuality are reinforced by the sensuousness and vividness of other details: the coffee roasting on the fire while they reminisce, the hissing of the log fire; the contrast between the warmth within - "let it burn burn burn" - and the frosty cold, snow, and stormy wind outside; and the hint of vulnerability but cosiness in "cabin door". The snow lies deep on the pathway outside, frost piles up high at the window, and the four winds howl around the door, but the couple go on reminiscing... and kissing. It's a wonderfully vivid picture, painted in a few lines. The album as a whole will be replete with allusions to nature - a frozen lake and footprints in the snow in Never Say Goodbye, "rainy days on the great lakes" in Something There Is About You - and with sensual details in the description of women: "Tough mama, meat shaking on your bones..." "Hazel, dirty blonde hair".. "Is it the way your body moves, or the way your hair blows free?" "Something there is about you that moves with style and grace". "The way you walk and the way you talk/I feel I could almost sing"... "You're beautiful beyond words". "You've turned your hair to brown/Love to see it hangin' down."

A second source of imagery on the album - heat, fire, smoke - is also prefigured in this song, with the hissing log on the fire and the threefold repetition of "let it burn, burn, burn" - which sounds like it was inspired by June Carter's Ring of Fire: "it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire". The imagery is repeated in:

Can I blow a little smoke on you?

Ashes in the furnace, dust on the rise...

Today on the countryside it was hotter than a crotch...

Something there is about you that strikes a match in me...

I love you more than ever and it burns me to the soul

Every time we meet you know, I feel like I'm on fire (from Nobody 'Cept You, which comes from the PW sessions, if not on the album).

The heat and flame that burns throughout the album - these are torch ballads, remember - is prefigured in On A Night Like This in those wonderful lines:

Build a fire, throw on logs, and listen to it hiss
And let it burn burn burn on a night like this.

You can hear those hissing logs in the rhyme of listen and hiss and then again in this...

"We've got much to talk about and much to reminisce." The theme of reminiscence and nostalgia is to dominate songs like Hazel, Something There Is About You, Never Say Goodbye, and Nobody 'Cept You. A final theme is the desperate longing for love - these memories build up at times into almost painful yearning for physical contact with a former lover (even if it is not always the same woman, all the women are blended into one):

Nothing matters to me
And there's nothing I desire
'Cept you, yeah you

You've got something I want plenty of
Ooh, a little touch of your love.

Never did feel this way before.
Never did get up and walk the floor
If this is love then gimme more
And more and more and more and more

No I don't need any reminder
To know how much I really care

You're beautiful beyond words
You're beautiful to me...

At times, this longing is satisfied:

Suddenly I found you and the spirit in me sings
Don't have to look no further, you're the soul of many things

You've got me under your wing

Sweet Goddess
Your perfect stranger's comin' in at last

At others, the feelings are so intense that they actually give rise to self-hatred:

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down suicide road

My thoughts of you don't ever rest, they'd kill me if I lie,
I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die

or to a desire to take the record of all these memories and burn them on the blazing log-fire:

I'm closin' the book
On the pages and the text
And I don't really care
What happens next.
I'm just going,
I'm going,
I'm gone.

I've paid the price of solitude but at least I'm out of debt.

All of these feelings climax in Wedding Song, in which longing, desperation, self-hatred, and the desire both to hang on to memories and to blot them out all come together:

I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love
I love you more than madness
Love you more than life itself
...your love cuts like a knife
I love you more than blood
I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die.
I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn't bend
Oh, can't you see that you were born to stand by my side
And I was born to be with you, you were born to be my bride,
You're the other half of what I am, you're the missing piece
And I love you more than ever with that love that doesn't cease.

and finally

I love you more than ever now that the past has gone.

Most of this is anticipated in the album's brilliant opener - the despair and self-hatred are not present in this song, but are prefigured in the manic air of the whole piece (perhaps this is what Dylan means by saying it sounds like the song of a drunk who has temporarily sobered up). All of the following songs can be seen as part of the lovers' fireside chat: the tender memories, the sexuality, the bitter recriminations... Planet Waves is an album that burns, burns, burns. All of its songs are within that ring of fire. (Note also the link between the blazing hearth and memory in Tangled Up in Blue, where the words of an old poem "glowed like burning coal", triggering memories of a former lover).

So then, On A Night Like This is an underrated song from an underrated album that I suggest would make a perfect opener for Dylan's show. It will probably never happen.

Stay tuned for a special blog to mark Bob's 67th birthday on Saturday. It'll be largely about another Planet Waves song. "See if you can guess which one that is."

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Loudon Wainwright III - Part 3: T-Shirt & Final Exam

After Unrequited, like its predecessor, failed to sell, Columbia dropped Loudon, who then moved to his third label, Arista Records. His first album for his new record company, T-Shirt, was released in 1976.

This was Loudon's best produced record to that point in his career, and for the first time he sounds wholly comfortable with a band behind him.

However, at first listen it seems a strangely impersonal (and therefore very un-Loudon-like) album. The Loudon we know and love (since Attempted Moustache anyway) writes songs that are personal almost to the point of solipsism (a point which his son Rufus passed a long time ago).

But what do we have here?

The album opens with Bicentennial, a moderately sarcastic song about the anniversary of American Independence. It's quite funny, but it's more the sort of thing you'd associate with Randy Newman, who would be more pointedly satirical; Loudon is just poking his tongue out at the national occasion.

At Both Ends is about a young guy who parties himself into an early grave, and Loudon rocks out pretty well; but you can't help feeling Warren Zevon does this sort of thing much better. Reciprocity, a song about a couple into bondage, but it's not much more successful (and less amusing) than the song about gay sex on Unrequited.

Prince Hal's Dirge is a song about future King Henry V, whose conflict with his father is dramatized so brilliantly in Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts One and Two. Then we have Summer's Almost Over, a classic end-of-summer-back-to-school song that is given a gorgeous light jazz arrangement, with tinkling piano and shimmering xylophone; a song about a dog, Hey Packy; a quirky talking blues (Talkin' Big Apple '75), and a strange song entitled Just Like President Thieu.

Almost the only sign of the old Loudon, it seems, is the perennial drinking song, Wine With Dinner and a few personal references in Hollywood Hopeful.

So where are those songs about growing older, never quite making the big time, broken relationships, and family feuds that we associate with Loudon Snowden Wainwright III?

Well, all is not as it seems with this record (and I admit it took me about 30 years to realize this).

Although it starts off with a song called Bicentennial, the real anniversary that is the theme of the record is Loudon's 30th birthday (this was the year he met the dreaded 3-0). The existential dilemma posed by the approach of middle age is for Loudon, as for many of us, whether it should mean a change in our behaviour. Summer's Almost Over is the perfect metaphor for this: "Adopt a brand new attitude... For all those lazy, hazy days you must atone" (wonderful line, that). This accounts for the atmosphere of almost unbearable nostalgia in the song, as
Loudon is reluctant to say goodbye to those "crazy days."

"Hollywood Hopeful" continues the theme of maturity vs. youthful irresponsibility (and fame/failure, of course):

Never thought I'd see the age of 25
It's 29 years now I've been alive
The panic I feel can hardly be told
In a matter of months I'll be 30 years old.

"I am full-fledged grown up adult/Trying to make a dent, trying to get a result/I'm holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite/Tequilla to drink and avocado to eat." These are classic Loudon rueful lines on the elusiveness of fame and fortune.

Both Ends Burning is a cautionary tale of someone who never knew when to put away excess. That's what's in store for Loudon if he doesn't reform his ways now that he is on the cusp of middle age. But Prince Hal's Dirge is the key song.

As you know, according to Shakespeare (following the history chronicles), the future Henry V was a tearaway as a young man, mixing with low company, getting into tavern brawls, etc., much to the dismay of his father the king. But all the time the young Prince Hal remains confident that, at the right time, he will be able to shake off this unruly life and accept his responsibilities:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Loudon transforms this into a well-constructed, two-paced song, that starts off slow and builds to a dramatic climax:

Give me a capon, and some roguish companions
A wench and a bottle of sack
Take me to the alehouse, take me to the whorehouse
If I vomit, keep me off of my back

And in view of the fact that Loiudon was himself the son of a dysfunctional father, the following lines is interesting:

My father thinks I'm good for nothing
And that I won't amount to much
But he's not aware of my secret weapon
I can count on myself in the clutch

Show me a breach, I'll once more unto it
I'll be ready for action any day
I'll straighten up, and I'll fly most righteous
In a fracas I'll be right in the fray

I can drink you under 25 tables
Fight and be any lady's man
But all this will change when I'm good and ready
To be king of this land!

Self-reliance is to be Loudon's secret weapon ("I can count on myself in the clutch"). The song builds to a tremendous climax, probably the "heaviest" Loudon has ever gotten musically, suggesting real tensions in the lifestyle choices with which the singer is faced. For the time being though, he is not yet ready to shake off his dissolute lifestyle. This is probably why the drinking song Wine With Dinner is reprised again at the end of the record. The party is to go on, even though the dreaded landmark of 30 years old has been reached... "

A few comments on the other songs:

Hey, Packy

This countrified ode to a faithful dog was written by George Gerdes, the actor, who put out a couple of interesting records in the seventies (one of them with the entire group of Nashville musicians who played on Dylan's Blonde on Blonde!) and who co-wrote a song with Loudon on Unrequited (Kings & Queens). It's one of Loudon's best recordings with a band.

Hollywood Hopeful

A song held over from Unrequited (an outtake of the song from the sessions for that album was released on the reissue).
This version uses the tune from the traditional song "Little Sadie" and has some nice banjo. This is the most directly personal song on the album.

Wine With Dinner

One of Loudon's droll songs about drinking (See The Drinking Song on Album III and Down Drinking at the Bar on Attempted Moustache).

T-Shirt, then is a very fine album, Loudon's finest to that date, with a unifying concept that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, and, as stated before, better produced than any of its predecessors. It was a crying shame that it was not issued on CD for so long.

Loudon's second album on Arista was a more lightweight affair, although it is just as well produced as its predecessor.

Many of the songs tend to the lightweight and ephemeral, though, such as Golfin' Blues, Pen Pal Blues, the title track, and The Heckler. However, the record ends with some strong songs. Best of all are the two country songs, Heaven and Mud and Two-Song Set.

A guy I used to share a house with in the 90s said, thinking about his approaching 30th birthday (he was a year older than I): "I'll be sitting here in this armchair, and all of a sudden, the desire to listen to country music will come over me."

I don't think he ever did get into country, at least while I knew him, but I myself have got into country music in a big way since turning 30. It does seem the more mature person's music. This is because it is less about strutting one's stuff like rock 'n' roll, and more a vehicle for talking about family problems, alcoholism, and the other joys of maturity. It's a shame, therefore, that Loudon hasn't used the genre more extensively. The two country songs on Final Exam are a real treat.

Heaven and Mud is a song about falling off the wagon after being "high on life" for "14 boring days"! Certainly any hopes Loudon had of cleaning up his act on T-Shirt have been abandoned.

Two-Song Set is a real gem, very well arranged and produced, with a great singalong chorus. Note how much Loudon's singing with a band has improved since his earliest records. Lyrically, the song is full of aching regret over missed opportunity and nostalgia for the old days.

The waitress is polite to me, but it's just not the same thing now
A few years ago, Bobby, I was the cat's meow
You win some and you lose some, that's an attitude I can understand
And I know what they're saying, Bob, they're saying I was a flash in the pan.

Then there is
Pretty Little Martha, one of Loudon's neat little banjo songs. Martha was then two years old.

Finally, as if to emphasize that his rocking days are over, is the parody song
Watch Me Rock, I'm Over Thirty.

But it wasn't just Loudon's rocking days were over. Final Exam also marked the end of Loudon's days on a major label. The Dead Skunk era was well and truly dead. Creatively, however, Loudon's best work lay ahead of him....

Note: T-Shirt and Final Exam have never been available separately on CD, but in 2007 they were remastered released as a "two-fer" on the Acadia label of Evangeline Records Ltd.

Dinosaurs on A Diet - the late, great Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs took his own life 30 years ago today [this piece was written and posted on a messageboard 9th April, 2006].

In April 1976, he'd been kicked off the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan's traveling hootenanny of 60s folk stars, and that was the final straw; although in truth Phil had been in no fit state to tour. Having suffered for years from what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression or "bipolar disorder", he was further disillusioned by Watergate, by his own lack of commercial success, and by a physical attack (which he believed to have been organized by the FBI) in Africa that damaged his vocal cords. After his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a 410-page file on Ochs.

Although he flirted with Communism, Ochs was too much of an American patriot to embrace it entirely. His brother has described his work as "love songs to America"; his reaction to America's betrayal of her ideals is like that of a jilted lover. This can be illustrated in The Power and the Glory from his first album (All the News That's Fit To Sing), a kind of update of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". Here is a video of Ochs performing the song live in 1974 (apparently with a broken arm), accompanied by his friend and mentor Jim Glover.

Ochs's first album also contains a direct tribute to Guthrie, taking its title from that of Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory. Guthrie had been hospitalized for the best part of 10 years, but his influence on a younger generation of folk singers remained immense. See how many Guthrie song titles you can spot!

But Ochs was more than about political anthems. His first album also contains a tender ballad for Cecilia Pomeroy, held in a Filipino jail and separated for 10 years from her American husband, and a spirited adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem The Bells.

His second album I Ain't Marching Anymore likewise contains an adaptation of a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman. It's a reading of great dramatic power, and one of my favourite recordings by anyone. Here is a remarkable video clip of Phil performing the song live:

The title track of Ochs's second album became one of his best known, and most covered, songs. As if realizing that I Ain't Marching Any More would become the anthem of draft dodgers, Ochs included Draft Dodger Rag on the album, which examines the motives and morals of some of the draft dodgers themselves. There is a serious point behind the humour: this particular draft dodger isn't like the young people who were openly burning their draft papers and risking jail to make a political point, but merely interested in saving his own skin.

Another song on the album is That Was the President, written shortly after John F. Kennedy's assassination two years earlier. In the liner notes, Phil wrote:

My Marxist friends can't understand why I wrote this song, and that's probably one of the reasons why I'm not a Marxist.

After JFK's assassination, Fidel Castro aptly pointed out that only fools could rejoice at such a tragedy, for systems, not men, are the enemy. Later Phil would write another, more surreal and poetic song about the Kennedy legacy, Crossroads.

The finest singing on Ochs's second album is definitely on his cover version of Ballad of the Carpenter, a song written by British songwriter and political firebrand Ewan McColl. Like Guthrie's "Jesus Christ", it's an attempt to turn Jesus into a left-wing hero.

And so to Ochs's third album, Phil Ochs in Concert,which was not entirely recorded live, despite the title (some songs were actually recorded in the studio). It was the last of his purely acoustic albums, after which he asked to be released from his Elektra contract, having failed to have the commercial impact that he wanted in order to spread his political message (although In Concert did brush the lower reaches of the Billboard charts). In truth, the world had moved on from simple protest songs: by the time of Ochs's Elektra debut, Dylan had already given up the genre, disillusioned by Kennedy's assassination and even more by the Left's attempt to turn him into their performing monkey. The Beatles-led British invasion and Dylan's own monumental Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde albumns had changed the face of popular music, and Ochs sounded dated.

Nevertheless, In Concert contains some of his best work, and definitely his best singing on record.

There But for Fortune is the best known song, having been a minor hit for Joan Baez (Phil jokes about her having written it for him). Here's a short clip of Phil singing it:

Canons of Christianity is a rather tender song lamenting the subversion of religion, sung (like 'There But for Fortune') with aching tenderness. By contrast, the spoken introduction shows his natural gift for comedy.

The Cops of the World, on the other hand, this is one of the most angry and sarcastic songs Ochs ever wrote. It portrays the U.S. Army as a strutting, macho bunch of thugs, imposing their will on the rest of the world by rape and brutality:

We're hairy and horny and ready to shack
We don't care if you're yellow or black
Just take off your clothes and lie down on your back!
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World

The song builds to a bitter climax:

When we've butchered your sons, boys
When we've butchered your sons
Have a stick of our gum, boys
Have a stick of our buble-gum
We own half the world, "Oh say, can you see",
The name for our profits is democracy
So, like it or not, you will have to be free
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World

For Vietnam, read Iraq.

With caustic wit, Ochs also excoriates those who describe themselves as liberal - until a black man moves in next door or they are asked to bus their children into segregated areas. Love Me, I'm A Liberal ends pointedly:

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
-- And that's why I'm turning you in!
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

In Concert also includes a rare, and astonishingly beautiful love song, Changes, which has one of the loveliest melodies ever written.

The final song on the album is a mournful reflection on death, When I'm Gone. When Ochs returned with a new label in 1967, he would be a different kind of creative artist, no longer relying on straightforward protest to get his message across, but rather using irony and Dylanesque surrealism and experimenting with musical form.

After failing to change the world or sell enough records to get his message heard to a wide audience, Ochs, as stated above, asked to be released from his Elektra contract. He went away for a while, and returned in November 1967 with a very different album from its precedessors, on the then new A&M label. Pleasures of the Harbor, while flawed, is Phil's masterpiece, and most of the songs still hold up well today.

More controversial are the arrangements. Rather than follow Dylan's lead into the new hybrid "folk rock" ("folk" music played with an electric guitar-led band), Ochs attempted a different kind of pop crossover, with arrangements drawing on classical, lounge, Dixieland jazz. rock and roll, and experimental synthesized music crossed with folk.

Further symbolizing the break with the past, the album was recorded not in New York City (centre of the U.S. folk scene in the early to mid sixties), but in Los Angeles, where Ochs had moved, and where psychedlia and "acid rock" was taking over from the folk-rock of Dylan, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & The Papas (Dylan responded by going rural Americana, on his way to outright country).

Ochs' chief collaborators on the record were producer Larry Marks, arranger Ian Freebairn-Smith, and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, whose contribution to the albumn was outstanding. The achievements of the producer and arrangement are more debatable.

All these musical changes add texture and ironical counterpoint to the lyrics, which are the record's biggest departure. Gone are the somewhat simplistic finger-pointing songs of the early albums (perhaps Ochs had been stung by Dylan's unfair accusation that he was a journalist rather than a songwriter). The songs are still political, but Ochs is more of a social commentator than a rabble rouser this time round. The songs are longer, and the anger and bitterness of his early albumns is replaced by irony, satire, and pathos.

Passing over the somewhat overproduced opening song Cross My Heart, with its drums, harpsichord, flutes, strings, orchestral horns, and vocal overdubs, we come to the first really classic song on the album, Flower Lady - a deft piece of ironical social commentary wrapped in an achingly beautiful melody:

Soldiers, disillusioned, come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night
Black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right.
But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

All the people in the song are too wrapped up in their own little lives to indulge in simple pleasures like buying flowers. In the final verse, even the Flower Lady no longer knows what she is selling flowers for.

The Byrds apparently thought of covering this song, but unfortunately for Phil, they decided against it.

A different kind of self-absorption is depicted in the best-known song of the albumn, Outside of A Small Circle of Friends. The song was inspired by the brutal murder of a New York woman, Kitty Genovese, and the inaction of her neighbours. The story was sensationalized in an inaccurate and misleading New York Times report entitled "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police", and the case was cited as illustrating the supposed callousness of urban America. Ochs' song uses a Dixieland jazz backing (with Mayorga on tack piano) that remains almost manically jaunty and unconcerned despite the grim events narrated by Ochs in a splendid deadpan voice:

Look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbed
They've dragged her to the bushes and now she's being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.

And a later verse:

Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer,
But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years
Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why
But demonstrations are a drag, besides we're much too high
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends

Unfortunately, the drugs reference in the above verse got the song banned from most radio stations, just when it was threatening to chart. An edited version later flopped.

Even more successful in marrying form and content is the albumn's masterpiece, and, in my one, one of the greatest songs ever written. The Party is an account of a high society party in which Ochs plays the part of a singing lounge pianist (although the piano is of course played by Mayorga, who is quite brilliant in his improvisations, quoting everything from Mozart, Bach and Schumann to lounge standards such as "As Time Goes By" and "Stardust"), who passes satirical comments on the guests as they arrive:

The fire breathing Rebels arrive at the party early,
Their khaki coats are hung in the closet near the fur.
Asking handouts from the ladies, while they criticize the lords.
Boasting of the murder of the very hands that pour.
And the victims learn to giggle, for at least they are not bored.
And my shoulders had to shrug
As I crawl beneath the rug
And retune my piano.

"Boasting of the murder of the very hands that pour" is a splendid line. My favourite verse is the following:

They travel to the table, the host is served for supper,
And they pass each other for salt and pepper.
And the conversation sparkles as their wits are dipped in wine,
Dinosaurs on a diet, on each other they will dine.
Then they pick their teeth and they squelch a belch saying:
"Darling you tasted divine."
And my shoulders had to shrug, etc.

"Dinosaurs on a diet, on each other they will dine" is a splendid line. What Ochs is actually saying to these aging, backbiting socialites who nibble on lettuce and light snacks and pass scandalous remarks about one another is that they are dying. Or perhaps he is saying, "Die, die, die!" The image might have come from Sheridan's School for Scandal.

In the final verse, the commentator does not spare himself, catching sight in the mirror of a "laughing maniac who was writing songs like this."

The song is the equal of Dylan's 12-minute opus "Desolation Row", to which it is indebted.

The title track, Pleasures of the Harbor, is a bittersweet story of sailors seeking escape on shore leave, possibly a metaphor for other sorts of escape.

In the room dark and dim
Touch of skin
He asks her of her name
She answers with no shame
And not a sense of sin.
Until the fingers draw the blinds
A sip of wine
The cigarette of doubt
The candle is blown out
The darkness is so kind.

Soon your sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor.

The album's final track, Crucifixion, is a surrealistic reflection on the death of John F. Kennedy, which moved Bobby Kennedy to tears when Ochs played it for him. Unfortunately, the song is lost in the eerie morass of loops, electric harpsichord, and washes of electric distortion arranged by Joseph Burd, leader of a late-60s experimental electronic rock group called The United States of America.

Clocking in at more than 50 minutes, Pleasures of the Harbor was an outrageously long album for 1967. This was Phil's most ambitious project ever, but it was not terribly successful commercially, peaking at #168 in the charts. While Ochs would not retreat to acoustic folk for his subsequent A&M LPs, and would continue to write songs as unusual (and often as lengthy) in construction throughout the rest of the 60s, he would never again employ textures as recklessly varied as those heard on Pleasures of the Harbor.

[The second part of this piece, dealing with Ochs's final three albums, was never completed].