Make Mine a Double #18: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973)

Elton John had a very peculiar sort of fame when his pop stardom was at its apex in the early to mid-Seventies. He was a short, bespectacled, closeted gay man whose teenybopper audience was as expansive as the literary/musical ambitions of him and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. From 1970-72, they rung up seven Top 40 hits in the U.S. (it would have been eight if “Tiny Dancer” hadn’t stalled at #41). It was an eclectic bunch of songs that included romantic swooning (“Your Song”), Fifties revivalism (the #1 “Crocodile Rock”), atmospheric balladry (“Daniel”) and Band-styled Americana (“Levon,” named after guess-who). While Elton increasingly became identified with his catchy melodies and oversized sunglasses, there was a lot going on just below the surface. Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, for example, once remarked about how songs like “Levon” (who after all “was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day/When the New York Times said ‘God is Dead’”) were like a side door into a world of “adult concerns.” In 1973, the already prolific John-Taupin team had extra writing time when the production schedule for their seventh studio album was pushed back. When all was said and done, the pianist-singer and his crack band had enough material for a 17-track double album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would be the final step that would insure Elton’s place up on the mantle of that decade’s topmost pop idols. He hasn’t been down from there since.


Elton in action, 1973.

The album was recorded in two weeks in May of 1973 at France’s renowned Chateau d’ Herouville, the so-called “Honky Chateau” of a previous EJ album title. It was written almost as quickly—during a brief stay in Kingston, Jamaica where John and Taupin were holed up while trying to make arrangements (ultimately unsuccessful) to record there. The alacrity with which Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was conceived and committed to tape is pretty remarkable and may suggest a unifying theme. And while it is not strictly a concept album, the title and the cover illustration—Elton in satin jacket and platform shoes is seen stepping off a gritty sidewalk and onto that pedestrian byway that leads to the Emerald City—gives you a pretty good idea of the record’s semi-fixation on the fantasies and illusions that emanate from the silver screen.

Like many a double album, GYBR starts grandly, with the instrumental prelude “Funeral for a Friend.” This synth-heavy processional gains steam after a few minutes and segues into the end-of-the-affair rocker “Loves Lies Bleeding.” This emphatic up-tempo number is just the kind that John and his band started excelling a couple of albums before: propelled by his vigorous rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, and complemented with flashes of Davey Johnstone’s lead guitar. The album is front loaded with some of its most well-known tunes. Side one fills out with the Marilyn Monroe tribute ballad “Candle in the Wind” and the glam-rock spoof “Bennie and the Jets.” The colorful but rather plodding “Bennie” was a #1 hit in the U.S. and Canada (in Elton’s native England is was relegated to the flipside of “Candle”) and its teen-dream lyric about the fictional Bennie (“She got electric boots and a mohair suit/You know I read it in a magazine”) shows that John and Taupin were cued in to the whole T.Rex and Bowie-Ziggy scene. In fact, Elton himself was joining that club with his increasingly outlandish stage show.

The title track kicks off the old side two, another huge hit and one of the songwriting duo’s most noteworthy collaborations. Against Elton’s rich, brooding piano melody, Taupin’s deft lyric of Tinseltown disillusionment (as reflected in the title) bears a passing resemblance to the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard with its stark depiction of the dark underbelly of Hollywood. Here, a kept man likens the town to a place “where the dogs of society howl.” Unlike Marilyn Monroe in “Candle”, who never knew “who to cling to when the rain set in,” our determined protagonist declares “you can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.” This is definitely the Lincolnshire-bred Taupin talking here, but whether the ex-farm boy or his pal Elton can ever escape the stardust allure is still open to question, as John’s dreamy ah-ah-ah harmony at the end seems to confirm.

This mood has its bookend in the smoky barroom ballad “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” that closes the first half of the album. In between are two songs of clear-eyed affirmation and self-knowledge that are GYBR highlights (“Grey Seal” and “This Song Has No Title”) and a regrettably snarky one (“Jamaica Jerk-Off”) that will preview the shortcomings to come on sides three and four. The melodic rocker “Grey Seal” is esp. great with its simple wisdoms (“On the big screen they showed us a sun/But not as bright in life as the real one”) born of nature. The band has never been as sharp, Dee Murphy’s percolating bass and Nigel Olsson’s galloping beat are infectious and Davey Johnstone’s guitar filigree matches the piano between chorus and verse for the right reflective touch before they join in a bust-out jam to close out the number.

To much lesser effect, side two is rounded out with the uncharitable “Jamaica Jerk-Off.” The plans that Elton and Bernie had for recording this album in the land of reggae seemed to be based solely on the fact that they liked the Stones’ Goats Head Soup, which had been largely made at Dynamic Sound studios in Kingston. They found the facilities there not to their standards (an inadequate piano and only “one microphone”) and ditched the idea. Instead of responding to this snafu by maybe admitting their lack of advance work, they took the opportunity to make a faux-reggae number depicting the people as lazy and rude. This unfortunate tune says a lot more about spoiled rock stars than it does about Jamaica, a very small and poor country which has sustained an amazing musical culture for decades. It also previews the lyrical pettiness that informs much of the second disc.

If I still had GYBR as a double LP instead of a single CD (where its 76 minutes are a snug fit) I wouldn’t have much use of side three anymore. Three of its four songs are misogynistic portraits of women (or girls) that are extremely unlikable tunes when one gives them more than a cursory listen. “Sweet Painted Lady” is a rank reminiscence of a harborside hooker where the sailors “leave the smell of the sea in your bed” and where observations like “many have used you and many still do/there’s a place in the world for a woman like you” passes as philosophy. “All the Girls Love Alice” sounds like a nifty up-tempo number but then there’s the lyrics: Alice is an underage lesbian temptress in London’s Soho district who ends up getting murdered in the subway. This doesn’t prevent her from being called “a sixteen year-old yo-yo” in the following verse. And the less said about “Dirty Little Girl” the better, unless your thing is physically abusing street waifs (“Someone grab that bitch by the ears”).

I mean seriously, WTF? Amazingly, in our supposed “woke” age, you’ll never hear a peep about any of these tunes. You can scroll down the comments on any of them on YouTube and all you’d hear about is how they’re “underrated,” that is, not a hit single. Paradoxically, it was in pre-PC era that these songs could spark contempt. In Rolling Stone’s Nov. 1973 review, eminent rock scribe Stephen Davis called these tunes “misanthropic in their anger” and took particular offense at “Sweet Painted Lady.” Said Davis: “Elton and Taupin have a repository of nerve just to record this; amazingly they get away with it.” Forty years later, in a piece about this album’s deluxe re-release, the same magazine gushed its uncritical praise and spent several sentences fawning about how non-entities like Ed Sheerhan and Fall Out Boy contributed to a bonus disc of cover versions. Yes, music journalism has come a long way in the wrong direction.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road does rebound on the old side four, starting off with two high-energy numbers, “Your Sister Can’t Twist” and the hit “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” The latter song shows a more successful model for songwriting, with Bernie using the wild weekends of his provincial teendom as specific yet universal inspiration. But the appeal of the “Roy Rogers” may just depend on your penchant for old Westerns and the ho-hum drinking song “Social Disease” suggests again that this songwriting team didn’t quite have the surplus of great material that they thought. The album closes somewhat satisfactorily with the attractive ballad “Harmony.”

Far be it from me to counter the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. GYBR has sold some 30 million copies worldwide and its reputation as Elton’s best album is not about to shake loose anytime soon. Take the best material off this and his previous four albums and you’ll have a compilation of some of the best pop-rock of the early Seventies. But the excesses of that same era drag down the highlights of this double album, though you may never know it in our present time, where critical thinking on these matters has gone by the wayside.

The Blessed War: Iceland’s Serendipitous Trip through WW2

May 10, 1940 was certainly a momentous day in modern history. It was 80 years ago this day that Hitler launched his invasion of the Low Countries and France. This blitzkrieg culminated in the fall of Paris a month later. On that same day in May, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned his post and Winston Churchill took over as the new PM. Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy with the Nazis had failed to stop the onset of the war. It was Churchill’s more bullish and inspirational leadership that was a major boost to the resolve of the island nation that would be Germany’s only real enemy for the next year and a half.

A lesser-known event of 5/10/1940 was the British “invasion” of Iceland. In the early morning hours of May 10th four warships of the Royal Navy, with its contigent of marines, docked in Reykjavik Harbor. They met with no resistance but some resentment. It would be hard to imagine a more bloodless invasion: the only fatality was the suicide of an English sailor on the way over. The island, whose population at the time was about 117,000, was still a protectorate of Denmark. After that country was overrun by the Germans, Britain quickly made their move. The importance of this North Atlantic island could not be under-stated. The fight over control of the shipping and convoy lanes was the longest continuous campaign of World War II and Iceland would play a crucial (if oft overlooked) part in this struggle.

As explained in the new book shown above by author (and Reykjavik police detective) G. Jokul Gislason, this small island just south of the Arctic Circle has always been dependent on exports (mainly fish) and imports (almost everything else) and had been particularly hard hit in the Great Depression. He writes that although there were some sour feelings among Icelanders upset that their neutrality was being violated, the majority were relieved that it was the Brits and not the Germans who came to claim their strategic location. British interference in internal affairs was minimal, aside from the arrest and expulsion to the UK of a small number of union activists and Nazi sympathizers. What did happen during the British occupation, and even more so when American troops arrived in 1942, was the immense building up of the country’s infrastructure and other facilities needed to accommodate the influx of humanity. The unemployment rate dropped to zero nearly overnight and Iceland, which voted for full independence in 1944, went from one of Europe’s poorest nations at the start of World War II to one of the most prosperous by the end of it.


I had to settle for a postcard (but a really cool one) of the wreck of this US Navy D3 plane on a black-sand beach on the south coast.

On a family trip there last June, my son was particularly interested in seeing some remnants of this military occupation. Unfortunately, some of the more spectacular sights, like shipwrecks, crashed planes and rusting navy docks are located on inaccessible beaches or tucked into fjords. These locales can be pretty obscure and with all the spectacular geysers, waterfalls, caves, craters and thermal pools to explore, you don’t want to stretch yourself if you don’t have the time. What my son did find, as we wandered the broad hillside above downtown Reykjavik that is topped by the spectacular Perlan museum. All along one slope dubbed “Howitzer Hill” by Allied troops are the remains of bunkers, gun emplacements and fuel depots built by the “invader” to protect the harbor and airfield below.

We were visiting the site of the awe-inspiring Perlan museum (above) in the 11 PM hour, and as you can see, the pre-summer equinox daylight was pretty strong at that elevated vantage point. My son scrambled down the side of the hill, calling his parents down with him. Here are some of my photos, all taken around 11:15 to 11:45 PM.

Iceland’s “Blessed War” did not come without its hardships. Over 200 native seamen perished in the brutal struggle for control over the North Atlantic shipping lanes, where many vessels were sunk by German U-boats. Luckily for Icelanders, their island was too remote to be within practical reach of the Luftwaffe, even though the naval treachery continued right up until the end of the war. In November of ’44, by which time submarine attacks had greatly decreased, the Icelandic passenger ship SS Godafoss was sunk when bad weather separated it from its convoy, killing 24 including several children. When V-E Day arrived, 75 years ago this week, Reykjavik joined in the celebration, though this was not without incident. Gislason describes how the drunken revelry descended into “the biggest brawl in Icelandic history” as local men and British soldiers aired out their differences in a huge street fight in the capitol. Gislasson’s book is chock full of intriguing anecdotes like this, from Churchill’s visit in the summer of 1941 to the little-known fact that America’s first shots fired in anger (when the USS Niblack dropped depth charges against a German U-boat after its attack on a Dutch freighter) happened off Iceland several months before Pearl Harbor.


A handful of Quonset huts that were built for Allied forces remain in use today.

It turned out to be the Americans who would be the most influential in Iceland’s prosperity-filled transformation. The Yanks had brought with them not just contracted consumer products (the pre-independence administration was known as the Coca-Cola Cabinet), but cultural currency as well, notably Hollywood cinema.


Central Reyjkavik today

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union ended WW2 as global superpowers, little Iceland came out the other side as one of the other side as one of the world’s most prosperous and progressive. The first full day of our trip landed on Iceland’s Independence Day (June 17) and their small but distinguished parliament building was holding an open house. It was encouraging to visit a place where you could talk to reasonable, articulate representatives from all political parties knowing that policy differences would be hashed out in a way that would always fall far short of the scorched-earth tactics of the land we just flew in from. It could be said that such amenity is much more achievable in a smaller (pop. 364,000), more homogenous nation like this. Maybe so, but to look at Russia and America today—the former country ruled by a repressive and violent leader and the latter’s president fawning all over him in pathetic and destructive imitation—there must be a way to let David be a role model for Goliath without resorting to the slingshot.

Text and photos (except book cover and postcard) by Rick Ouellette

What can one do when the Death Merchant is King?

A soon-to-be former Facebook “friend” recently sent a very simple question, using white words on a black background: “Can you name a President that didn’t lie?” He then quickly added the first comment before apparently fleeing the scene, “Go ahead, make my day.”

Brilliant, no? In came a rash of replies, many of them actually indulging the poster by naming their choice of a non-lying or least-lying American head of state. Jimmy Carter, Lincoln, FDR and George Washington were all offered up. More promisingly, some people sniffed out his gambit, answering with the usual Trump-hating retort that he “lies as he breathes.” That would have been my first impulse, but after a recent rash of such social media sleights-of-hand I paused.

The whole question was a grotesque false equivalency. I replied, “That’s like asking ‘Who never stole some office supplies?’ to make it seem like the same offense as someone who blows up the office building with all the workers inside.”

Hey, it got one Like anyway. The comments continued, Washington was named again. I tried to bring poster out of hiding, calling him out with the question, “Care to join us?” Nothing. Unfriend and move on.

Apparently, it’s OK for an American president to sit on his now blood-stained hands and do nothing for a whole month as a pandemic raged across the planet, claiming that there was only one confirmed Covid-19 case and that it was a hoax of the opposition Democratic party. Then when it got to the point where even the intellectually-void narcissist who goes by the name of Donald Trump couldn’t deny the scope of this disaster, he of course knew about it all along even though he was just calling it a hoax while the death toll climbed to over 20,000. That’s OK, because Everyone Lies.

The sniveling dishonesty (or ignorance) of that Facebook poster was esp. troubling to me. In a better world, it would be common knowledge that people in many walks of life (not just politics) sometimes bend the truth to win people over to their way of thinking. That is bit different from the actions of a demented demagogue like Trump whose whole perversion of a life has been one gigantic lie.

Covid-19 may be a terrible global pandemic, but Trump is a uniquely American form of moral plague. He’s the son of a Nazi-sympathizing landlord father who started Donnie off with a cold shoulder and a small loan (actually, a shady $14 million trust).The story could have ended there. With a few safe investments, this spoiled dimwit could have lived the life of a callous playboy and left the rest of the world alone. But no. Somewhere “The Donald” developed a chip on his shoulder that was as big as that world he would someday try to fuck over. Having no discernible talents yet possessing a malignant compulsion to be the center of attention, Trump achieved that most (ugly) American of goals: being famous for being famous. Everything else has been tasteless buildings, bankruptcies, failed casinos and airlines, legal entanglements, admitted sexual assaults, unpaid contractors, and the insipid “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show where he lorded over pathetic ex-stars like Gary Busey.

But that ability to focus all attention on himself, most often by denigrating “elites,” minorities and the underprivileged, was underestimated by many on his way to an Electoral College victory in 2016 (though he lost the popular vote by a hefty three million votes). Yes, he released a tidal wave of latent racism and made hostility a virtue for millions of (mostly white) Americans whose own sense of powerlessness is often unfocused or greatly exaggerated. Of course, psychiatrists have had a feel day for the last few years. One aspect that I like is Trump supporters’ receptivity to a “primitive morality” of might-makes-right, which is normally grown out of by age five or six. To people who never outgrew this, or have reverted, this cartoonish display of power is more important than real-world abilities. It is also inherently violent (this includes economic violence), even to the point of followers happily becoming his victims. Is it any wonder he “loves the poorly educated”? Trump is so boxed in with legal issues and Russian duplicity, that his only choices now seem to be remain President or go to jail. He has now become the American Death Merchant who also wants to be king.

This is not new. In this exceedingly disturbing photograph, Trump and his null-and-void wife Melania, grinning maniacally like the very Angels of Death, pose in El Paso with the baby whose Hispanic parents had just been murdered in that week’s mass shooting. One columnist suggested that to Trump, this baby is “little more than a hunting trophy in his own brutal race war.” That may explain why Trump is insanely giving a thumbs-up.

Trump wants “total authority” but “takes no responsibility” and because he was afraid for his re-election prospects, we have now seen 32,000 die (as of April 16th) from this “hoax.” Some 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment and you can’t go anywhere anymore without feeling you could be the next to go. But this infantile ghoul has accomplished his one central goal in life: love him or hate him, everyone is thinking or talking about him all the time. But even the Death Merchant can’t escape immortality. And though John Donne, in his “No Man is an Island” poem said that “Any man’s death diminishes me,” I’m not sure that will ever apply to someone who has so divided us into many little islands, first politically then physically into a social distancing archipelago that could last on-and-off for years. So when it’s Trump’s time to go, feel free to ask for whom the bell tolls. Because it will toll not for thee but only for he, and the rest of us will be much better off whether we care to know it or not.

Tinseltown Rock #3: “Godspell” (1973)

The musical Godspell certainly came into the world at the right time, during the height of the early Seventies “Jesus Rock” mini-genre. Although the concept album Jesus Christ Superstar had hit the stores in 1970, this Stephen Schwartz-penned production hit the stage first, debuting Off-Broadway in March of 1971 several months before the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice blockbuster raised curtain on the Great White Way. At the same time, the AM stations were sprinkled with hit songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The idea of Jesus as a sandal-footed advocate of selfless human values had firmly caught on with many in the counterculture as the Sixites gave way to the new decade.

Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the world, this musical trend played out during my last two years (7th and 8th grade) of parochial school. There had been a marked change during the eight illustrious years I spent at St. John’s School in downtown Peabody, Mass. The earlier years were marked by a grim catechism and vestiges of corporal punishment—ear-pulling was still a go-to tactic of the older nuns (luckily I was spared). By the time I hit sixth grade, the modernizing Vatican II decrees were in place, and there were hippie-ish nuns and younger priests with acoustic guitars at “folk mass.” By seventh grade, we were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in class, our homeroom sister tittering at the use of the term “J.C.” to address the Messiah.

Although our tastes were running more to Rod Stewart and the Stones, we dug JCS. It was a straight-up rock opera, musically compelling and contemporarily astute in its retelling of the Passion of Christ, with anti-hero Judas at the center of the action. In the eighth grade (1971-72) it was all about Godspell, with a field trip to Boston’s Wilbur Theater in the offing to see a performance by the touring company. The record, with its familiar illustration of Jesus against a red background, was ubiquitous and the single “Day by Day” hit #13 on the Billboard charts. But this was a different proposition, a more traditional (and largely plotless) musical based on a series of parables adapted from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Godspell also seemed to tap into the so-called “Jesus freak” scene of the time, with its ragamuffin characters exuding relentless good spirits and hamming it up in such a way as to convince the world that vaudeville was not dead after all. Still, we 14 year-olds ate it up, debating our favorite songs and having a ball at the Wilbur Theater. It was my first time at seeing a big-time theater production and though I could sense the corniness of it all, the in-your-face eagerness and enforced audience involvement, it was a spoonful of sugar that helped the last year of my Catholic medicine go down.

By the time this film adaptation hit the screens in 1973, that overweening flower-power jauntiness must have seemed to many to be past its shelf life. It doesn’t take long for the film to give you this feeling. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, it begins with John the Baptist (David Haskell) pushing a cart over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian boardwalk into Manhattan and into cinematic immortality of a sort. He cases out eight potential disciples in a manner that may nowadays seem a little creepy. He then blows his fanfare trumpet from the top of the Bethesda Fountain and, after a quick Friends-style baptism, it’s showtime!

And so it goes for most of the film, until the betrayal and death of Christ is quickly taken up near the end. Jesus is played by the wispy Victor Garber whose face paint and mime-like outfit, complete with stylized Superman t-shirt, is like an open invitation for skeptics. But hey, I’ve always considered myself a fair-minded critic and I will say that the early parts of the movie are the strongest, before the relentless mugging and prancing becomes too much. “Save the People” exudes a certain poignancy, Garber’s plaintive tenor is just right as he ponders “Shall crime bring crime forever?” and pleads for the exaltation of everyday people, “not thrones and crowns.” The camera’s telephoto shot of massed skyscrapers neatly show the concentration of power and money that have replaced those thrones and crowns, never mind the fact that when it pans down to the street the troupe are playing leapfrog on the empty avenue. The J-man and the Baptist lead the apostles, now all dubiously attired in patched-up glad rags, light out to their new HQ on Randall’s Island. They take on a purposeful, march-like gait under the multitudinous (and cathedral-like) support beams of Hell Gate Bridge, apparently prepared to set the world to rights.

But there’ll be no fishes ‘n’ loaves action here. From here until the end credits you’ll hardly see another soul. The ten-member cast proceeds to sing and tell parables amongst themselves in a strangely de-populated New York City, strange that is until the recent scenes of a ghostly Gotham in the throes of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this insularity derives from it being a play with humble beginnings (Godspell was conceived and first staged by Jean-Michael Trebelak at Carnegie Mellon Univ. as his masters’ thesis). But the insularity, along with the suffocating positivity, soon gives the group an almost cult-like demeanor, starting with the clip below.


The troupe put a fresh coat of hippie paint to their new scrapyard base of operations, set to the new version of “Day by Day”, here sung by the tomboyish Robin Lamont (all the apostle actors retain their first names in character)

Rather than go out into the world and do good deeds as the historical Jesus probably would have wanted, director David Greene retains the let’s-put-on-a-show impetus and “opens up” the stage musical by using his Columbia Pictures budget, and an oft-used zoom lens, to stage scenic production numbers all over the city: Lincoln Center, Times Square and the top of the nearly-completed World Trade Center are just three of the famous sites used in a single song, “All for the Best.” A nice “get” was the interior of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, used as the setting for Joanne Jonas’ solo turn a la Mae West in “Turn Back O Man,” petitioning mankind to give up its foolish, materialistic ways.


The late Lynn Thigpen, who some may recall for her role in the Carmen San Diego TV series, does a bang-up job with “Bless the Lord” though the all-fall-down ending points up the film’s reflexive silliness.

Stephen Schwartz’s songs, with their appealing melodies and soaring choruses, can only support this movie so long with all the troubadour triteness going on. A lot of one’s receptivity to Godspell depends on how much one accepts the built-in artificiality at stage musicals. My receptivity became very limited very quickly after seeing the Boston production in 1972, by the mid-70s my idea of a touring company was when Jethro Tull or the Allman Bros. Band hit the Garden across town. Things improve a bit when the mood turns serious at the end, esp. with Katie Hanley singing “By My Side” and the vaulted supports of Hell Gate Bridge make a great setting for the “funeral” of Jesus.

But to what end? Does Godspell have something to say today, even for us secular humanists? There is if you stretch your imagination, and the kindness espoused does stand in stark contrast to the callous evangelists of today, who more closely resemble the money-changers Christ went ballistic on way back when, the ones who now defy state orders and recklessly urge their hapless parishioners to congregate during a pandemic, lest they miss even one week of the collection box. But for that we may need a new kind of righteouness, leaving the Godspell movie as the “patches and face-paint” relic it was even in 1973, never mind today.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

When Miles Ran the Voodoo Down: “Bitches Brew” at 50

The sessions that produced this landmark double-album by Miles Davis, released fifty years ago this week, began precisely one day after the Woodstock festival concluded. On August 19, 1969 at 10 AM—exactly 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix concluded the events in upstate New York with his legendary set—the 43 year-old Davis and his talented cast of young sidemen shuffled into Studio B at Columbia Records down in Manhattan to start work on Bitches Brew.

The timing has a nice symbolic ring to it. Bitches Brew has always been seen as a touchstone recording that fused the worlds of modern jazz and heavy rock. Actually, Miles had been leading up to this magnum opus with the four studio albums he released in 1968 and ’69, especially In a Silent Way and Miles in the Sky. Electric instruments and groove-like jams became more predominant and the players he had under his wing (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and others) would all become key players in the jazz-rock “fusion” genre that took flight in the Seventies.

Bitches Brew even today sounds adventuresome in an almost eccentric way. Many jazz purists were skeptical or downright hostile, rock fans were more welcoming. Weaned on the improv excursions of Cream and Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies, they helped get the album up to #35 on the Billboard pop charts. Over time, of course, it would be generally recognized as a masterwork. But not classic in the sense that Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue is viewed. The more traditional Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, while it took Brew thirty-four years to go platinum.


Thanks to this ten year-old issue of Jazz Times for many of the anecdotes in this post.

The 20-minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” takes up all of the old side one. It kicks off with a steady cymbal-riding rhythm, plus the brooding bass clarinet of Bernie Maupin and the whirling keyboards of no less than three electric pianos, played by Zawinul, Corea and Larry Young. Davis enters the picture at 2:30 with a trumpet solo that grows in volume and burns with intensity—a far cry from the cool and controlled tone he was once known for. Here he is blowing his horn over two sets of crashing drums (Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White) and the fevered conga slaps of Don Alias. At around seven minutes, John McLaughlin makes his presence known with some nervy electric guitar fills before the piece slips into a trippy section marked by Miles’ echoed trumpet.

That brief passage is an early indication (at least for the layman’s ears) of one of Bitches Brew central features: the use of editing and loops to mold a finished product from the extended sessions where producer Teo Macero let the tapes keep rolling (he an Miles would piece together the finished product later). This use of the recording studio as an “instrument” had been popular in rock music at least since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper but was pretty unusual (even controversial) for jazz, where an organic group effort would work in unison for a best take.

As Davis leads “Pharaoh’s Dance” to its dynamic conclusion with some sharp staccato runs, you get the full sense of just how big this post-bop wall of sound is. This track features three horn players, three keyboardists, two drummer, two percussionists and both acoustic and electric bass. The rest of the LP features the same massing of players, a clear departure from be-bop’s quartet and quintet conventions.

Next up is the alpha-dog title, another side-filler, this one at an envelope-pushing 27 minutes. The famous opening theme is a “tempo rubato” set piece with reverb-soaked electric piano and Miles’ stentorian trumpet blasts. It sounds like a clarion call from a distant planet. At the three-minute mark a groove starts up—you can hear the leader snapping his fingers in time—with clarinetist Maupin and bass guitarist Harvey Brooks kicking it in (Dave Holland plays the stand-up bass). It predictably builds up momentum in the tenacious, if occasionally disheveled, manner of this album. Miles lets rip another upper-register solo until overtaken by McLaughlin’s guitar and a return to the rubato. Another jam follows with noticeable edits until the clarion blasts return to end it.

The whole effect is bracing, radical and a little disjointed. But Bitches Brew was the was the whole package, otherworldy right from Abdul Mati Klarwein’s Nubian fantasia gatefold cover art down to the very last groove etched into the vinyl. Still, some listeners likely had jumped off the bus by this point. Donald Fagen, whose Steely Dan was a rock band informed by its love of jazz, has said that the album “was essentially a big trash-out for Miles. It sounded like he was trying for a funk record and just picked the wrong guys.” Davis also took plenty of heat at the time from his colleagues. Holland has told Jazz Times of a backstage scene at the Village Vanguard club in New York. “His older friends (were) telling him he was destroying jazz. But Miles stuck to his guns.”

That, of course, was just like Davis. He was an uncompromising, sometimes menacing, personality, whose life mission seemed to be staying one step ahead of everyone, all else be damned. His influential, forward-thinking sensibility can esp. be heard on side three’s “Spanish Key.” Here is a more straightforward avant-funk jam, the kind that would go on to inspire future R&B and hip-hop artists. It’s also a coming-attractions showcase for future fusion stars, featuring brilliant solos from saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The next track is even named for the guitarist, a piquant guitar workout that, at 4:36, is the only cut that is less than ten minutes.

The aptly-named “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a stunning 14-minute number whose smoky groove makes it initially sound like one of the LP’s more laid-back tracks. Here both Holland and Harvey Brooks take up the electric bass, Don Alias joins Jack DeJohnette on drums and Maupin’s down-low clarinet completes the rock-solid rhythm section. Miles’ skittering runs eventually build-up to an exciting (if chaotic) plateau with Corea and Joe Zawinul soloing simultaneously on electric piano before Davis re-enters with his some of his most sensuous playing on the album.

The title and first few free-floating minutes of “Sanctuary” give the impression that Bitches Brew will go out on a (relatively) reflective note. But nothing on this revelatory record is that simple and when the clattering drums enter the picture you realize that there is no easy sanctuary in this world and the abrupt ending is as enigmatic as the man would have it.

Most of the standard 2-CD editions of Bitches Brew include the excellent add-on track “Feio.” Naturally, there are a few kitchen-sink BB box sets to choose from, centered on the 40th and 50th anniversaries. One related release that I like is the one-CD Bitches Brew Live. It is split between Miles’ July 1969 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival (one month before the BB sessions) and his full August ’70 set in front of 600,000 rock fans at England’s Isle of Wight.

The career of Miles Davis took a typically unusual turn not long after Bitches Brew. Next up was the even more rockist Jack Johnson and a few similar releases. But not long after the poorly received (initially anyway) On the Corner, Miles took a five-year hiatus, saying he “couldn’t hear the music anymore.” (A typically strange but astute but Miles-ism). After his self-imposed exile, Davis retained his popularity if not his cutting-edge status; that period is perhaps most known for his crowd-pleasing versions of such pop hits as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” In concert, he still could rip it up as I witnessed when I saw him at Newport in 1989, two years before his passing. He had the hipsters in awe and many of the wine-and-cheese blanket-sitters scratching their heads, a true maverick right to the very end.

–Rick Ouellette 4/4/2020
This is #17 in my “Make Mine a Double” series. Next up: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

Documentary Spotlight: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”

The late superstar film critic Pauline Kael has left a complicated legacy. She could be both admirably thoughtful and witlessly cruel. She helped boost the careers of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and others who needed a break when they were trying to create a new and original American cinema at the start of the Seventies. Conversely (and perversely), she ripped others to shreds if for no other reason than she wanted to be a contrarian and/or more clever than anyone else. Sure, she crashed the boy’s club of professional movie reviewing when she landed the plum job of New Yorker film columnist in 1968. But their “ivory tower” was no where near as elitist as she perceived it and barely justified her bewildering personal attacks against establishment colleagues like Andrew Sarris. Suffice to say, that Kael is the type of person who is lauded by her own daughter as someone who “turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.” Um, OK. Not to bring politics into this too soon, but in an election year where we may faced with a choice of two bellowing absolutists (hello, Bernie and The Donald), Pauline looks like another disheartening early indicator of the distressingly coarse society we live in now. While “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a reasonably engaging documentary about an influential person, and recommended to film buffs and those who have followed the once-rambunctious world of cinematic analysis, the person herself earns a qualified thumbs-down.


Pauline Kael (center): The smartest person in the room, according to herself.

Kael grew up on a chicken ranch in rural California. The independent streak and no-nonsense attitude that helped her break away from Smallville USA is evident in the voiceover of her review of the similarly-sited “Hud.” An early affair produced a daughter named Gina James; Kael raised her as a single mom at a time when that was noticeably uncommon. She worked her way up inexorably, starting in the film scene at Berkeley (where she attended college), writing program notes and doing unpaid radio commentary. Eventually, she got a job reviewing movies for the woman’s magazine McCall’s, at one point gleefully skewering the super-popular “The Sound of Music,” esp. skewering the “sexless, inhumanely happy” Julie Andrews character and wondering (someone had to say it) why not even one Von Trapp kid rebelled against the rigidly enforced positivity. She moved on to the New Republic, which wasn’t keen on her positive take on the then-controversial, seeing it as an exciting and necessary catharsis that reflected the tumultuous late Sixties. Instead, the New Yorker took it and in 1968 hired Kael who would work there, with brief interruptions, until 1991.

Director Rob Garver spices up this bio with many, many film clips. They start in the late silent era (when Kael first started going to the picture shows) and are interspersed throughout to illustrate, sometimes confusingly, her life events. When they are joined to voiceover excerpts from memorable reviews, they work much better. But they can also serve to point out Kael’s often perverse inconsistencies. Much is made of Kael’s populism, of being tuned into more everyday tastes than were the “elitists” that she always overestimated. Yet her strong distaste for David Lean’s blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” stemmed from her disillusion in Peter O’Toole’s screen depiction of the historical figure she read about in highbrow books. That’s her prerogative of course, but hardly excuses her ripping Lean to shreds in a public forum they both attended. Elsewhere, her vaunted “populism” just seems silly; ripping almost everything Stanley Kubrick ever did (and with a strangely personalized venom) while praising such things as Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

As usual, “What She Said” is dotted with many of the expected interview snippets of celebs and colleagues, though my favorite talking head was Gina James, the mild-mannered daughter whose love and admiration for an often difficult person to live with blends with a matter-of-fact honesty that her mother often forfeited in the name of self-serving arrogance. Most of the others do fine, whether its filmmakers both pro and con (Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Tarantino), cultural commentators like Camille Paglia or aging colleagues like Joe Morgenstern. Things can get a bit daft as when critic David Edelstein feels it necessary to inform us he’s not a “Paulette” (a Kael acolyte) but instead a “Paulinista.” Oy.

While I get that Garver wants to reserve the right to end up on the side of its subjects undeniable brilliance, something still seems lacking here. To wit, one can be feisty without being mean and one can also be confident without being self-aggrandizing. Indeed, one should be but things have gotten so out of hand in the digital DYI age. As reviewer Ty Burr noted in the Boston Globe, today “Kael’s voice fills every self-satisfied corner of the Internet.” Sorry, but there’s no “art” in that.

Whistlestop Rock: Full-Throttle Rock Fest Rumbles Thru New England

The rock and roll package tour, or travelling music festival, has a long history. They started in the Fifties and continued with such events as the 1970 Festival Express, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and later summer-shed happenings like Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. Here in New England, we are being treated to a regional version of this called the Whistlestop Rock Fest. It began with a bravura 8-hour show in January at the Askew club in Providence. It continues of Feb. 29th at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. and there are several other dates upcoming. See whistlestoprock.com for full info on show dates.


Justine and the Unclean

“The Little Festival that Could” began with a casual online chat last year between Justine Covault (of Boston alt-rock favorites Justine and the Unclean) and Simone Berk, who fronts the power-pop quartet Kid Gulliver. The idea of getting all their friends’ bands together for a big show “caught fire” (as Covault said in a recent Providence Journal article) and soon the dialogue extended to several other woman musicians in the area. The rock music scene in my neck of the woods has long been known for its camaraderie, so it’s little surprise that, as Berk said in the same piece, “Next thing you know, we knew we had to do it.”


Kid Gulliver w/ Simone Berk in green jacket.

What resulted, after much legwork by all involved, was a curated festival that involves up to nine bands. All are co-ed or all-women groups and guest spots are promised at each gig. At the Providence show, it was clear just how well this concept was planned, with its quick succession of 45-minute sets. With so many groups, there was practically a built-in audience, supplemented by fans and friends coming down from the Boston area and a local Rhodey contingent lured by hometown faves Heather Rose in Clover and the promise of an all-star jam of other Providence rockers. HRIC would be be for me the revelation of the night, showing Whistlestop’s underlying value: turning local favorites into regional ones. But more on them later.

Views from Askew. From top to bottom: Heather Rose in Clover, Chelsea Curve, the Knock-ups. (Photos by author)


When I first ambled into Askew a little after 4:00 PM, Field Day was near the start of their set. Like many of the other groups on the bill, they played pretty straight-ahead rock with a fierce self-actualization. According to their own bio, Field Days’ members found themselves formed “unexpectedly, when its members were well into middle age.” This is not so unusual nowadays esp. when members have backlogs of material waiting to be heard. The band is led by former Boston Globe music critic Joan Anderman and fellow Globie Dan Zedek, a veteran of several area bands. The song “Finished With You” shows they were more than ready to hit the ground running.

Cold Expectations play in a more rootsy, country-rock style that builds on the genre’s early 70s heyday as well as later practitioners like Green on Red. Singer-songwriter-acoustic guitarist Steve Prygoda, bassist/back-up vox JoEllen Saunders, drummer Nancy Delaney and lead guitarist Bob Metzger have made a fine craft out of thoughtful, fully-arranged numbers like “Aliza Don’t Care.” I’ve known Prygorda for some time and way back when I did some videos for an earlier, more hardcore outfit. Those other roots were also apparent as the Expectations finished with the Camper van Beethoven barn-burner “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which has become a bit of a regular finale with them.

Steve later told me of his love-hate relationship with cover versions. That’s understandable for any band that works hard to get their own material heard but is also an ice-breaker for people getting to know you. Most bands struck the balance of mixing in one or two classic-rock standards. The Knock-ups are one of the more high-profile bands playing the Whistletop, along with Justine and the Unclean and Maine’s garagecore stars Tiger Bomb, who were unable to play this first date. (Tiger Bomber and co-organizer Lynda Mandolyn was there and made a cowbell cameo during the Unclean’s later set). The brassy Knock-ups are first-rate practitioners of the kind of bristling rock attack that’s been a big part of the Boston scene since the glory days of the late, lamented Rat punk club (see related post). Singer-guitarist Gretchen Shae (who was invited up onstage to play a song with U2 a few years back) delivered several thrashers from the group’s growing catalogue and threw in a good cover as well (“Ring of Fire”). Bassist Cat Verlico confirmed the band’s knack for cagey humor, singing “I Hate Your Facial Hair.” That number was met with approval from your clean-shaven correspondent.

Kid Gulliver were maybe a little less snazzy (except for Simone Berk’s glittery shoes!) but confident material like “You’ll Never Know” and “Suzie Survived Chemotherapy” were a fantastic blend of Blondie/X era and riot grrl. This natural alchemy of styles from Nuggets-era garage to 90s grunge inform a lot of indie-rock nowadays, as was evident from the closing act Powerslut, who unfortunately are doing their farewell show at the next stop of the tour on Feb. 29th (at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, MA).


Back on the subject of cover versions, Kid Gulliver do a great take on the old 10cc hit “I’m Not in Love.”

But most bands have their own little spin on it, like Chelsea Curve with their Mod influence (their cover was an awesome take on the Jam’s “In the City”). The irrepressible singer/bassist Linda Pardee, along with guitarist Tim Gillis and drummer Ron Belanger excel both in the more classic melodic punk style of “Don’t look Down” and in their more quirky material like the ditty they wrote explaining how to decode the weather beacon atop the old John Hancock building in Boston.

Heather Rose in Clover were up next. Singer/guitarist Heather Rose had been sporting a Belly t-shirt during the local all-star session. Belly (who gained some MTV notoriety in the early 90s) also hailed from the Ocean State and were led by Tanya Donnelly, who before that co-fronted Newport-based cult favorites Throwing Muses along with Kristin Hersh. HRIC have some of Muses’ adventurous spirit, their indie-rock attack colored with passages of psychedelic guitar from Rose, complemented with the bass interplay of Lisa Middleton and the deft drumming of Chris Alvarado. Their original songs are sharp and declarative, using (in their words) “the sharp end of their own broken hearts” in such fierce broadsides like “Satellites” and “Go Back to Ohio.” Better still was the barbed wit that fed a song like “Welcome to New England” (with its memorable line “I had to scrape Antartica off my windshield”). They also killed on high-profile covers of “Under Pressure” and “Psycho Killer.”

Justine and the Unclean have been plying their superlative power-pop-punk through two kick-ass albums on Rum Bar Records, Get Unclean and Heartaches and Hot Problems. When listening to these songs, you wonder to yourself (as with many of these groups) how aren’t these guys huge? In Justine Covault they have a diminutive dynamo of a singer-songwriter-focal point. Her razor-sharp lyrical wit and fiery vocals, plus the relentless instrumental momentum provided by bassist Janet Egan King, lead guitarist Charles Hansen and powerhouse drummer Jim Janota (formerly of Boston rock institutions the Bags and Upper Crust) make songs like “Rock and Roll Blackmail’, “Monosyllabic Man” and “Bring Me Fire” into forces of nature.

Click below for kick-ass rock & roll (and great video-making) from Justine and the Unclean and, below that, the unstoppable Tiger Bomb!

But it’s mostly rhetorical asking why the Unclean or Tiger Bomb, or whoever your fave local rockers are, aren’t huge in this day and age. We all know what rules the pop-music roost on a national and global stage: you can see it each week on “Saturday Night Live” when the latest Instagram pop act trundle thru another redundant set piece that is 90% choreography and 10% bad music. Rock may have lost its pop-culture supremacy to hip-hop and the latest American Idol-style sensation but you would hardly know it here. The sisterly solidarity, hard work and self-supporting vibe is admirable, esp. considering the day jobs and the odd kid to raise. Hopefully, the Whistlestop Rock concept can continue and even expand on this current model. What’s most impressive is the skill and all-out energy of these bands, with members ranging from roughly their mid-20s to mid-60s, rocking out and writing songs in group collaborations that blessedly cuts against the grain of today’s empty ideas of viral “success.” This is the real deal, so catch it while you can: this here rock & roll train is bound for glory.
(Again, stop by the Whistlestop Rock Facebook group or whistlestoprock.com for full details)
—Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #16: Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” (1975)

More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.


If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.

Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.

In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.


Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.

Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.
—Rick Ouellette

R&R Hall of Fame Goes Glam: T. Rex and the Twilight of the Guitar Epoch

I like to say that the real Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the one in each fan’s heart. Still, it’s kind of fun to moan and groan each year around this time about who didn’t get in vis a vis who did etc. It’s also nice to celebrate “one of ours” when they do get voted in. And for me and many others, this year it’s T. Rex that will be hailed. Marc Bolan’s iconic glam-rock band had a string of eleven Top Ten U.K. hits in the early Seventies (including four chart-toppers), achieving near-Beatlemania stardom in their native land. In the U.S. they cracked the Top 40 only once (“Bang a Gong” at #10) but their delayed-effect influence was widespread. Bolan’s androgynous sex appeal, catchy guitar riffs and surreal wordplay were inspirational to scores of New Wave bands and other artists ranging from Prince to Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Oh sure, Marc could seem a bit twee, use too many sports-car metaphors and be a little too enamored of his own stardom. But in an age of prog-rock indulgences and long guitar solos by scraggly hippies, his style and his concise and catchy 3-minute glam-rock gems pointed a way forward. Tragically, he died in a car crash in 1977, just as he was connecting with the oncoming punk/new wave movement to which he would a considerable inspiration. One of my T. Rex favorites “Ballrooms of Mars.” This glossy but haunted ballad with its Alan Freed call-out and reference to that darkest of nightimes when “monsters call out the names of men.” Bolan’s lyrics could be chock full of bizzare non sequiturs, but he was often more astute than given credit for.


Here, the studio version of “Ballrooms of Mars” is set to a slideshow of the group in their heyday.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of Fame’s opaque process of nominating and inducting artists is the bane of rock fans the world over. (There is fan voting but it only counts as one ballot). The HOF museum itself may be located in the heartland city of Cleveland where legendary DJ Mr. Freed first coined the term rock & roll, but the people running the show are the coastal elites of Big Media, headed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Though Wenner is said to be stepping down from that role this year, the induction process is bound to stay largely intact.

In my circles, where the pioneers of a harder rock style are held in high esteem, the failure of nominees Motorhead and the MC5 to get in this year is the cause of righteous grumbling. And not without reason. Future metal warlord Lemmy Kilmister hitchhiked to Liverpool to see the Beatles at the Cavern club and roadied for Jimi Hendrix before himself becoming an icon for future decibel-crunchers. The guys in MC5, indignant about police and National Guard misconduct during the late Sixties unrest in their hometown of Detroit, started a rock & roll riot of their own. These are stories that are intrinsic to rock’s legacy of rebellion and dogged individualism. I have nothing against new inductee Whitney Houston, who was a helluva singer, but the gradual expansion to other genres like soul-pop and rap—while admirable for its inclusivity—is diluting the core mission.


This stripped-down version of “Metal Guru” appeared on the second CD of the deluxe version of ‘The Slider.’

Bolan was a self-made superstar in an age when ingenious self-invention still stood a chance. He springboarded from the elfin folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, added a reliable rhythm section of bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend while retaining the services of percussionist/sidekick Mickey Finn. Atop it all, Bolan rode high with his charismatic vocals, earworm riffs and stabbing guitar leads. It was a combo that, under their leader’s single-minded determination, decisively grabbed one of the brass rings on the mad merry-go-round of the pop music industry. Whether he was dancing ‘neath the “Mambo Sun,” being a “Jeepster” for his baby’s love, hanging with his main man “Telegram Sam” or affirming that “Life’s a Gas” (while prophetically wondering if it was going to last), Marc Bolann did it with an elan that hasn’t faded in the forty-plus years since his passing.

As a sidenote, one article about this year’s HOF class pointed out that, among the new inductees, only T. Rex and the Doobie Bros. had drummers as core members. The current predominance of programmed beats, AutoTune vocals and closed-shop cabal of songwriters seems to indicate that rock music’s guitar-bass-drums DNA may soon be a thing of the past. But a Hall of Fame is a thing of the past by its very nature. There are tons of worthy artists out there who have been left out so far, starting with the two bands I mentioned above and Thin Lizzy to boot. Maybe it’s time for the bigwigs to hit the brakes on this trend and dance awhile with those that brung ’em.

From the Mountains of Madness to the Subways of Sedition: More Adventures in Alt-Tourism

(With apologies to Mr. Lovecraft)
If you ever cross the span where the Old Ones Memorial Highway crosses the Pissatonic River, you will notice out the car window a parallel railroad drawbridge. It once served the now Shunned branch line of the M&B. No train has run there for many a year and the bridge now stands forlorn, it’s central span forever locked in the up position at an Abnormal angle.
Whatever good townsfolk that remain in this Accursed burg have a Spontaneous Aversion to this rail bridge and warn their children away. But the main populace, long known to be Decadent if not straight-up Half-Caste, have been known to creep out from the Depraved city’s Intangible Shadows and approach the Antiquarian bridge as if from a collective Pseudo-Memory of Vestigial self-destruction.

To put it more plainly (if I must) this Baleful structure is not nicknamed Suicide Bridge without good reason. So if you do spy this place from your automobile, be not tempted to take the first exit after the river. Instead, continue your original mission, that idea you have that you can steal the local library’s copy of the dreaded Necronomicon without suffering any ill consequences.

Oh, how I love to kid Howard. His unabashed use of exclamatory adjectives and phrases is ripe for affectionate parody. I’m glad I got that out of my system. But what I wouldn’t make fun of is Lovecraft’s abiding belief in self-directed touring.

(Stock photo)

Like I’ve written about before, the world is being overrun by tourists. New York City had no less than 65 million visitors last year and places like the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Times Square may be permanent no-go zones for people who are crowd-phobic. Venice is overrun with foot traffic, many of those feet having walk off the brutalist skyscraper cruise liners that dwarf the city’s Renaissance monuments. Getting thru the Louvre or up the Eiffel Tower takes the patience of a saint. When the overpopulation of travelers combines with the effects of global warming, the results can be appalling as we have recently seen in Venice.

(Stock Photo)

In a grimly fiendish scene, that would be funny if it only wasn’t, members of the Veneto regional council, whose building is located on the Grand Canal,saw their chambers flooded with lagoon water not two minutes after voting down measures to combat climate change. Outside in St. Mark’s Square (and even inside churches) tourists continued with selfies in water that sometimes was waist high. Of course, has always been a negative feature of this great city, built precariously on the edge of a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea. They have tried (literally) to stem the tide with barrier islands and modified building codes. But the digging of a deep-water channel for tankers several decades ago—and the later expansion of that channel to accommodation those monstrous cruise ships have helped create the storm surges (not to mention the humanity surges) that has made the town of Titian the poster child of global overtourism.


We had to do destroy Venice in order to see it: Even the Great Deep Ones wouldn’t mess with this Leviathan. (Stock photo)

The curse of overtourism is not limited to famous cities easily accessible by air travel. Take for instance a June 2019 article in the Boston Sunday Globe called “The Fatal Mt. Everest Obsession.” It was penned by Backpack magazine editor Casey Lyons and describes the grim trophy destination that the world’s tallest peak has become. Eleven climbers had died near the summit the month before as the policy of Nepal officials to give permits to all comers had reached critical mass.


“At the Mountains of Madness”? You ain’t kidding. (AP photo)

The predictable results of this open-door policy: garbage-strewn base camps, corpses as tripping obstacles and long lines on the approach to the oxygen-deprived summit where ill-tempered scrums have broken out. In the selfie stick age, it seems there is only insanity where there should be reform—both in regulations and in our own outlook. Trophy tourism in a place like Everest, where (according to Lyons) people have “bank accounts bigger than their climbing resumes, and egos bigger than both” is a cul de sac of both experience and reason.

But alternatives are widely available, both for local investigation and for interesting options when traveling more widely. The second edition of the popular “Atlas Obscura” guide was recently released offering some 500 pages of easily-referenced travel alternatives, indexed by attraction type as well as by country, region and city. (It’s well illustrated too, perfect for armchair expeditions!). The guide has turned me on to free attractions in my hometown like the historic (and vaguely unsettling) Ether Dome operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital and to little-known dioramas in both the North End and Back Bay. It also helped me create a rather unusual bucket list that includes places like the Cold War-era Teufelsberg Spy Station in Berlin, the Child Eater of Bern, Naples’ Secret Cabinet of Erotica, and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths in Baltimore.


Boston’s Ether Dome (1821). Underneath its eerie glow, early experiments in anesthesia still had a tinge of the medieval.

But the most fun of all, is to create your own alt-itineraries. H.P. Lovecraft for one was notorious for extending dark meanings to otherwise ordinary locales. Near the top of the list would be the Boston subway system. As the first in the nation, there were people who were apprehensive of going underground, with the sense of being just that much closer to the infernal regions of Lucifer. Soon after, even if subconsciously, Lovecraft exploited such fears in “Pickman’s Model” where a psychologically-unstable painter who gets kicked out of the Boston Art Club because of his horror-themed canvasses. But what we don’t find until it’s too late for the human race, is that the monster uprising he’s painting is really what it seems to be, they plot their attacks from within a network of tunnels under the city (several of which really exist). Lovecraft was uncanny in his eye for actual architectural or geographical detail that could be drop-kicked into a fantastical realm. For instance, one of Pickman’s paintings shows people on the Boylston subway platform being attacked by subterranean nasties emerging from an opening in the floor. That opening is actually there (a former way to cross to the outbound side) but is boarded up… for now!!!


Boston Green Line riders, don’t say you weren’t warned!

As discussed in part one of this series, most Lovecraft story locations are in and around his hometown of Providence. To give fans an even better reason to head to Rhode Island’s capitol, the store Lovecraft Arts and Science sells all sorts of books, artwork, t-shirts and knick-knacks related to H.P., his precursor Poe and others. They also run the biennial NecronomiCon (next one in 2021) and have handy walking guides to Lovecraft-related sites. Best of all, the store is located in the beautifully-restored Providence Arcade from 1828.

Text and photos (except as indicated) by Rick Ouellette