make mine a double #26: Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” (1980)

It was a Friday night in 1981 and two roommates were working out their differences after a round of take-your-turn record spinning.

“The Clash are boring,” declared the first. “All they sing about are policemen and helmets.”

“No, Bruce Springsteen is boring,” replied roommate #2. “All he sings about is cars and darkness.”

Defending one’s own favorite musical artist by dissing the other’s idol may be reductive but it’s also instructive. If you don’t like a certain band, the easiest way to make your case is to over-emphasize the most emblematic thing about them. And there is added incentive to go this route when one is confronted with those traits at critical mass: the album sides on the turntable that long- ago night were from the Clash’s new 3-disc behemoth Sandinista! and Bruce’s double-bagger from the year before, The River.

Springsteen’s star had been steadily rising since his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. some seven years previous. His reputation as an eloquent but unfancy voice of the regular guys and gals of middle America. The River was his break-out success, his first #1 album (beating the iconic Born to Run which hit #3) and it sported his first Top Ten single in the hook-heavy “Hungry Heart.” It also inspired a harsh critical reaction in some circles, which reminds me of my roommates’ exchange.

This extended version of “The River’s” hit single reproduces the sleeve of the 45, showing Bruce on the fabled Asbury boardwalk

Let’s face it: “All he sings about is cars and darkness…” and throw in lonely highways and ex-lovers and hard-knock working class predicaments.

Now it was professional rock scribes throwing the brickbats. Over in the UK (where The River reached #2) Julie Burchill from New Musical Express sniffed “This is great music for people who’ve wasted their youth to sit around drinking beer and wasting the rest of their lives to.” Stateside, I never forgot the lead article in the Creem magazine review section (headline: “Born to Stall”) by the esteemed Billy Altman.

He wrote then that Springsteen “is still spinning his wheels in the same narrow-minded world view… unable or uninterested” to see beyond the “horrible quagmire” of his subjects’ lives. Faced with a 20-song double LP to contend with, Altman probably decided he didn’t like the record as soon as he looked at the cover and saw the somber expression of our flannel-shirted bard of the Jersey Shore.

But if one listens closely, a much more nuanced experience is unfolding. On the opening “The Ties That Bind,” backed by jangly guitars and the insistent rhythmic push of his trusty E Street Band, the Boss confronts the issue of dead-end lives as usual, but with a compassion that his legions of fans know on an instinctual level: “We’re running now, but we will stand in time/To face the ties that bind.”

And for nearly every gloom-and-doom song there is an upbeat one to match it, big-night-out anthems like “I’m a Rocker” and “Out in the Streets” or skirt-chasers like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush on You.”

At heart, Springsteen is an old soul. He was a tenacious and ambitious escapee from the small-town bondage he so often portrayed, reportedly never taking a proper job to incentivize making it as a musician. But he did not scorn what he got away from and remained a consistent empath, even in the face of exasperation or ridicule. A certain amount of that was directed at the melodramatic hardships depicted in The River’s title song. The hipster critics may have cringed at lines like “Lately there ain’t been much work/On account of the economy” without caring to understand that’s exactly how the song’s luckless narrator would say it.

For my money, the better ballad (and keynote to the entire album) is the heart-rending “Independence Day” which directly references the famously contentious relationship that Springsteen had with his father, who toiled for many years in his hometown Nescafe plant. In his recent memoir and one-man Broadway show, he said he understood early on that (as the song says) “all boys must run away.” Then he admits, “What I didn’t understand was his depression.” But Bruce (who has also struggled with the malady) would come to understand and remain that way. It is a bond he has forged with America’s heartland, a mythic place that is too often lightly considered. Long may he keep his engines running.

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” sneak peek

Much progress has been made on my graphic novel: more great artwork by Ipan (including some finished comic pages), the completion of my story in text form and the steady progress in formatting it as a script.

Although stylistically, I have kept the story light on its feet, thematically it often reflects our divided times. And being a dream narrative, this theme can pop up in unexpected places. When our protagonist Swain goes to see a retro sci-fi flick at a revival cinema, it is suddenly interrupted by an old newsreel which seems to portend that the World War Two victory over fascism is being reversed. (Consult your local news for more details).

“Objective: Venus” played in fits and starts. The stolid monochrome actors planned their space trip, unaware that their new navigator planned to horde the mined gold and leave the others stranded on the Evening Star. The movie stopped and a bit of a World War II newsreel played backwards, effectively reversing the Allied victory in Berlin and vacating the victory over fascism.

Just as quickly, the film started up again. The un-helmeted crew were already standing on Venus and the lovely heroine was revealing the bad guy. The screen flared; the crew were either melted by the sun or there was some burning celluloid up in the projection booth. I gave up the ghost and headed down to the lobby, checking out a museum-like display on an upcoming “Classics of Horror Cinema” series.

More samplings:

Swain with ninja girls Kee and April

All aboard!!

If you’re interested in this project, you can follow this blog and/or Like the “In a Dream of Strange Cities” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

The Best of the Worst: A Sideways Appreciation of the Year in Music, 1972

Rock ‘n’ Roll has sure been celebrating a lot of golden anniversaries over the last several years. The Beatles’ conquest of America got a lot of attention in 2014. Then in 2017 it was 50 years ago today for Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love. A couple of years after that Woodstock and (bummer, man) Altamont hit the half-century mark.

As the march of time have brought these fifty-year markers into the early Seventies, the focus has shifted more to lists of great albums. If you’re a person of a certain vintage and spend a fair amount of time on the Internet, you were well aware of the embarrassment of riches that 1971 was in the annals of rock and pop music. As soon as we settled into 2022 the best of 1972 lists started showing up in my Facebook feed. That was also a great year: Ziggy Stardust, Exile on Main St., Transformer, Superfly, Eat a Peach, Thick as a Brick, Honky Chateau, Machine Head—I would hardly need to list the artists for anyone who was a music fan then. Also, there were records that became much celebrated in retrospect, like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Big Star’s debut #1 Record. When one of these lists was posted by a FB friend with a sense of humor, I went into wise-guy mood and said they forgot to include Portrait of Donny by you-know-who (Osmond).

After I had scored a couple of ha-ha emojis, I went back to the web page where I had pulled the title. I had Googled “Worst Albums of 1972” and found my way to rateyourmusic.com and their list based on the aggerate scores from hundreds or thousands of listener ratings using a 5-star system. As I scrolled down the list I realized: “Hey, there are some interesting records here!” There were some familiar names (John Lennon, Credence, the post-Jim Morrison Doors) as well as lots of cult bands, experimenters and acquired tastes.

So let’s dive in! You’ve heard T. Rex’s The Slider or Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book plenty of times: maybe there is something to learn about 1972 from looking down the wrong end of the telescope. So here are the titles I plucked from the list:

Everyone loves Heino, until they actually listen to him!

Die Schönsten Volkslieder der Welt—Heino

How interesting to see our friend Heino holding the top (that is, bottom) spot in this survey. The baritone champion of German “volksmusik” has been in the music biz since 1951 and sold 50 million records and in the social media age he’s gone viral far beyond his homeland. His distinctive look (whitish-blond hair and dark glasses), along with his unintentionally funny album covers, has made him the object of ironic appreciation. His 1972 album (translation: “The Most Beautiful Folk Songs in the World”) led the way with a 0.85 rating, less than one star! This probably happened when people who starting see his face taking over their friend’s profile picture went and actually listened to his tunes. This is unabashedly sentimental Alpine music and must be experienced at least once. Grade: C-

Full Circle—The Doors

It’s probably safe to say that as the second post-Jim Morrison Doors album, the odds were going to be stacked against an album like Full Circle (see album cover above). Rarely has a band been so completely identified by the charisma of its front man, who died in July of 1971. But Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore, Jimbo’s ever-reliable instrumental trio, were working on lots of material by the time of the singer’s inglorious demise, and Elektra Records encouraged them to continue. The Rate Your Music site has this record under the category tags of “Yacht Rock” and “Boogie Rock” which is a bit disheartening for a once-iconic group. On cliched numbers like “Get Up and Dance” and “Good Rockin’” it sounds like the Doors are starting out again as a bar band. When they do try to recapture past glories on songs like “The Peking King and the New York Queen,” Morrison’s way with words is sorely missed. There are some bright moments here: the misterioso “Verdilac” and the swinging “Piano Bird” are helped greatly by the sax and flute (respectively) of jazz giant Charles Lloyd. Grade: C

The Moviegoer—Scott Walker

I know I’m treading on thin ice here with such a major cult figure as Scott Walker. I did appreciate a few of the early hits he had with the (non-sibling) Walker Brothers. But after a while his unrelenting Broadway baritone feels to me suffocating in its monotony. To his many fervent admirers his voice is “emotive” but to me it is emotive only in the way a soap opera is “dramatic.” This covers album of film themes is a tough slog, to the point that even his die-hard fans tend to damn it with faint praise. It would hard to pick out a least favorite song here (every track uses the same torpid arrangement) but his remote rendering of “The Godfather” theme (“Speak Softly, Love”) is an offer I can very easily refuse. Grade: D

Mardi Gras—Credence Clearwater Revival

Back in the day before “haters” we had this thing called “critics.” Their job when it came to records, movies, books etc. was to call them like they see them, and you would weigh that opinion against your tastes and knowledge. Ah, simpler times. Rolling Stone scribe Jon Landau called Mardi Gras the “worst album I ever heard from a major rock band.” Did he hate the band? No, he loved their earlier stuff (who didn’t back then?) and was holding it up to a value judgement. I was a 14 year-old super CCR fan and bought it anyway and convinced myself to like it more than it deserved. This last Credence album was sub-standard for a reason: it was an inside-job work of sabotage by leader John Fogerty, who had spearheaded the group’s remarkable string of Americana rock hits. Second guitarist Tom Fogerty, his overshadowed older brother, had left the band in ’71 and his remaining cohorts (bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford) were also tired of John hogging the show. In retrospect, they claimed only to want a share of the songwriting but John (not the most amiable figure in rock history) insisted they were on their own and he would do nothing else but play guitar on their tunes. They were split evenly, three songs apiece and a cover of “Hello Mary Lou.” The results were predictably mixed. Landau was particularly hard on Cook (though I have a soft spot for “Door to Door”) but Clifford fared somewhat better: his “Need Someone to Hold” is one of the better tunes here. Fogerty contributed their last charting single (“Someday Never Comes”) and the hard-charging “Sweet Hitchhiker,” although that had been a hit song a year earlier. But nothing could save them from the long-simmering internal strife: after a short tour to support Mardi Gras, the band split for good. Grade: C+

Deserted Palace—Jean-Michel Jarre

When I saw Jarre’s name high up (or rather way down) on this list, I went and Wiki’d the semi-familiar name. But he is who is semi-familiar to some is adored, after a fashion, by multitudes on the other side of the Atlantic. The Lyon-born Jarre has sold some 80 million albums and has been the featured act in some of the biggest concerts ever held. An early practitioner of ambient and electronic, this was his first album, recorded when he was 24 and admittedly an album conceived as “library music” potentially for use in films or ads, hence the helpful titles like “Love Theme for Gargoyles,” “Take Me to Your Leader” etc. Since this was 1972 it was back in wacky-world of analog synthesizers and while there may not be a ton of substance here, there are enough entertaining beeps, buzzes and blurps to last a lifetime. Jarre hit his stride when the technology caught up to him and his streamlined trance techno became the soundtrack to outsized spectacles that featured laser-light shows, big-screen projections and fireworks—often for outdoor crowds over a million people (his Bastille Day extravaganzas in Paris are de riguer). But for me, they kind of reek of showboating and have little of the Moog-heavy DIY charm of this debut. Grade: C+

The Sounds of Love …A to Zzz—Fred Miller

Take those blips and buzzes and add some heavy-breathing and you get this mind-wrecking curiosity. True, there were some very sexed-up tunes hitting the airwaves back then, like Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s semi-scandalous “Je taime” and the get-a-room groove of novelty hit “Jungle Fever.” But this misbegotten platter becomes an object of derision just seconds after the needle drops. Still, if you ever wanted to know what Debussy’s exquisite “Pavane for a Dead Princess” sounds like played badly on a wobbly synth, and accompanied by half-hearted carnal moaning, here’s your chance (the whole thing is on Youtube). Received an aggregate half a star on Rate Your Record. Grade: (wt)F

Fred Miller and friend.

Some Time in New York City—John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band

By 1972, John Lennon’s restless intellect had compelled him to take on any and every issue that rankled the era’s New Left (and they had easy access to he and Yoko, who were living in Greenwich Village at the time). In the couple’s haste to make an album of self-professed “front-page songs” they left listeners sifting through a set of tunes full of preachy sloganeering (followed by a “bonus” record of live jams). Most topics–be it Attica, male chauvinism or the Troubles in Northern Ireland–get two goings-over, once by John and once by tag-team partner Yoko. The John Sinclair song, and the fun Big Apple anthem “New York City,” are good tunes but that’s about it for me. An album that sold poorly and was savaged by the press, Some Time in New York City usually ranks at the bottom of Lennon’s post-Beatles work. As a reminder of the visceral radicalism that permeated the air back then it certainly rates at least one listen but seems destined to remain largely unloved. Grade D+

Individually and Collectively—5th Dimension

I was a bit surprised at the low collective rating for this one. It’s a pretty good record even if the title hints at a less-united group. The giants of supper-club soul do stray a bit from the reliable formula that earned them so many previous hits, with the power couple of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. up front, supported by the strong harmonies of the other three. There is more sharing of the lead vocals on this album with both Florence Larue and Ron Townson acquitting themselves well in the spotlight. The group, famously great interpreters, choose well for the most part, with spirited versions of Elton John’s “Border Song” and Laura Nyro’s “Black Patch.” Still, Individually and Collectively contained what would be their last Top Ten hit (the sublime “I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”) and the album stalled at #58. Grade: B

Jamming With Edward—Various Artists

The other Rolling Stones-related release from ’72 was this somewhat random release. Sure it had Mick Jagger and the Stones’ rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, plus two highly-respected guests in American guitarist Ry Cooder and ace British session pianist Nicky Hopkins (whose nickname was Edward). It was actually recorded back in April of 1969, “while waiting for our guitarist to get out of bed,” according to Jagger’s self-denigrating liner notes. The tapes were then forgotten (which “may have been for the better,” notes Mick) but later unearthed and put out as a budget-priced item on the Stones’ own label in January of 1972. It scraped its way to #33 on the U.S. charts while being universally panned (“A dull document,” sniffed Rolling Stone magazine). It’s really not that bad just nothing special in its performance and lacking in sound quality: when they do Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” it sounds like Jagger’s vocal mic has been wrapped in a beach towel. Befitting its title, Jamming with Edward’s one shining light is Hopkin’s lively piano work. On his lead, the band really catch fire on the closing track “Highland Fling.” But overall this is more like a odd curio that you would only keep on the shelf for sentimental reasons. So let me put Edward back on the shelf while I take down Ziggy again. Grade: B-

—Rick Ouellette

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” sneak peak

The familiar turns fantastical as “sleep voyager” Swain roams through fractured cities and societies, while meeting people bent on creating an enlightened breakaway state.

That’s my one-sentence blurb. What do you think?

From the chapter “Cthonic Days”

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” is an in-progress illustrated novel composed of several actual dream-state narratives, overlaid with a fictional framework. These loosely connected stories probe personal life transitions and societal shifts that arise from an autonomous subconscious. The text and illustrations will draw from themes of contemporary folklore, urban exploration and psychogeography.

I have just completed the draft text and have a nice handful of concept illustrations by Indonesian artist Ipan. A sample chapter will be posted soon. For more info, follow this blog or leave a message below.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

The Relevance of Past Futures: “Voices From the Radium Age”

by Rick Ouellette

This is a great collection of early 20th century science fiction, and it has plenty to say to us early 21st century readers. It is part of the revelatory “Radium Age” series from MIT Press that includes several novels; all are graced with eye-catching retro-style covers courtesy of the Canadian graphic artist Seth. This era is labeled as such by the editors for the discovery of radium by Madam Curie in 1898, which symbolically launched us into the volatile new century. It can be considered the second great phase of futuristic fiction, the writers here (many are household names) building on the 19th century foundation put in place by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.

The highlight for me was re-reading the astounding novelette “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster from 1909. He wrote it in between “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” but this is something else altogether. Maybe it takes 100 years of foregrounding to so accurately see into our dysfunctional world of all-pervasive interconnecting technology. Here, the world’s population now lives one-to-a-room and entirely underground, due to environmental catastrophe (naturally). All human needs and instantaneous communications are provided uniformly by the all-pervasive Machine. Many people pass their days on the proto-Internet, subjecting each other to banal informational forums under the guise of being “Lecturers” (today better known as “influencers”). This includes the main character Vashti, a middle-aged woman whose son is one of the few rebelling against the dull homogeneity.  Vashti does not have time for her son’s desire for corporeal adventuring, after all she is a popular lecturer and “knew several thousand people.” Mr. Forster delivers a sick burn from the past by adding, “In certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” A sort of eerie singularity has been “achieved,” and mankind has forgotten that it invented the Machine so is now subservient to it— hence totally helpless in the event of the major malfunction promised by the title.

A poster from one of the many theatrical productions of Forster’s masterwork in recent years.

 There a few other standouts among the seven longish stories that make up “Voices From the Radium Age”: “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1913), is an early bi-plane super adventure, not unlike Poe’s tall tales of hot-air balloon exploits, where a daring (if unlucky) aeronaut finds an unwelcoming “air jungle” in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s a fascinating new look at the Sherlock Holmes author and another volume from this series features two dinosaur-populated novellas featuring his Professor Challenger character, “The Lost World” and “The Poison Belt.”

Another riveting entry is “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920). It is taken from a book by the African-American author and NAACP co-founder called “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil” which combined personal essays with fantasy fiction. His protagonist Jim is a low-ranking employee from Harlem who works at a bank on the corner of Wall St. and Broadway. He is asked to retrieve some records from a vault far beneath the ground, since going down there “was too dangerous for more valuable men.” Just then, a comet spewing a deadly gas passes over Manhattan and when Jim emerges on ground level everyone he can see is dead. He makes a grim journey thru the city until finding what he thinks is the only other survivor: a wealthy white woman from the Upper East Side. Will this be the unlikely couple to restart the human race? Considered a blueprint example of the Afro-Futurist genre, Du Bois’ astringent viewpoint also has the moral backbone (and twist ending) of a great lost “Twilight Zone” episode. (Also in this series is the 1903 novel “Of One Blood” by Boston-based writer Pauline Hopkins, a visionary tale of a uncolonized, high-tech African nation visited by a mixed-race Harvard student).

W.E.B Du Bois (left) and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

In a further gambit to move “Voices From the Radium Age” beyond sf’s usual white male perspective, editor Joshua Glen opens this collection with the table-turning fable “Sultana’s Dream” by Bengali author-educator-activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905). Her title character is transported to Ladyland, a sustainable Eden where green technology is more advanced than we see today, and where it’s the menfolk (survivors of a calamitous war) who are now kept inside to do the (solar-powered) cooking. This feminist wish-fulfillment, although penned with a light touch, struck deep for Begum Rokeya (as she was posthumously known) who swam against a heavy tide for women’s rights in India, and who established the first girl’s school in Calcutta. (Another Radium-Age book that also explores this theme is “A World of Women” by J.D. Beresford, first published in 1913).

Far less enlightened, but still well worth a look, is “The Red One” by Jack London (1918). One of London’s South Seas tales, a researcher and (mis)adventurer lands on Guadalcanal after hitching a ride on a “blackbirder” (just one class below a straight-up slave ship). He is soon enraptured by a periodic, all-encompassing, haunting, heavenly sound. He takes an ill-considered trip to the inhospitable interior of the island, all the while denigrating the native population (esp. his female guide) with racist language that is appalling even for its era. There’s not enough discernible separation between the author and his character to let Jack off the hook here. Too bad, because the intrigue of the premise, sort of a tropical equivalent of the Monolith-on-Moon scenes in “2001,” is promising. Kudos to the editor and publisher for exposing London’s transgressions but not “cancelling” a story that merits inclusion but not admiration.

The complete (for now) Radium Age collection from MIT Press

Two other stories round out this collection. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” from 1907 (with it’s all-too-modern strains of a runaway virus and isolation), and 1931’s “The Jameson Satellite” by “Amazing Stories” icon Neil R. Jones (the first of his many Professor Jameson tales, with the unfrozen title teacher living in a far, far-off future) also have their moments of forewarning. Perhaps my big takeaway from this book, a must-have sf fans ready to cast a wide net, is that one need not be a Nostradamus for far-reaching prognostications like the ones found between the covers here. Evidence of the past AND future is all around us (Poe, in his side gig as a science reporter, wrote about global warming in the 1840s). Human knowledge is a great long continuum where people’s imagination and principles can often out-run the times, just as historians find novel nuances in past events. And that maybe we need that perspective from the past to better come to terms with our own present predicaments.

Books That Rock: “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” by Ryan H. Walsh

The chaotic and convoluted process that would yield one of pop music’s most revolutionary and acclaimed albums is the story that anchors this captivating 2018 work by Ryan H. Walsh. Van Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he first came to prominence with the group Them. By 1968, in the aftermath of his surprise solo hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Morrison was living in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts not far from Harvard Square. That year saw a whole host of decade-defining events and personalities criss-crossing each other in the greater Boston area. Walsh uses the making of Van’s cerebral classic as a philosophical thread that stitches them together.

There have been many good-to-great music books in recent years that focus on one particular year of the Sixties or Seventies. These books generally use one of two marketing strategies: superlatives (“1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music”) or the promise of esoteric information (“Fire and Rain: The Lost Story of 1970”). “Astral Weeks” goes the second route and one can assume the “secret history” is what Walsh determines it is. But that’s all good for people pre-disposed to the subjects at hand. This is an obsessively researched book with a Holy Grail-type quest at its center: Walsh’s search for a rumored tape recording of a Boston nightclub gig where much of “Astral Weeks” was played a month before the iconic album was cut in New York City.

Van Morrison performing on Boston Common, April 1968

Walsh casts a pretty wide net here, so Van fans should be forewarned. Also central to his story is the twisted tale of the cultish commune led by the mysterious Mel Lyman, a guy who went from a humble harmonica player in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to a messianic figurehead of a community who owned a block of houses on Boston’s Fort Hill, topped by a water tower made to look like a fairy-tale tower. There are detailed anecdotes of student antiwar protests (esp. at Boston University) and about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (nee, Richard Alpert), whose exploits in the promotion of psychedelics at Harvard was national news. But many of the offshoot topics here concern music. For pop history completists, there is a deep-dive retelling of MGM Record’s ill-fated “Bosstown Sound” hype, many pages devoted to the Velvet Underground for whom Boston clubs were a home-away-from-home (fifteen trips up from NYC in ’68), and the momentous concert James Brown gave at the old Boston Garden on the same night as Martin Luther King’s assassination: an event that the new mayor, Kevin White, arranged to have televised live to keep potential rioting at bay (it worked).

By 1971, Mel Lyman was notorious enough to warrant a cover story in Rolling Stone.

One thing that does join together many of these disparate elements is an overarching spiritual quest that informed much of the late Sixties. But in a related takeaway, we see that this process is not all sweetness and light. Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” is practically rock’s Exhibit A when it comes to enlightenment-seeking. Not surprisingly, this crusade didn’t exactly translate into everyday life: a choice Van anecdote is him drinking in the admiration of L.A. hitmakers The Association after a gig on Cape Cod, then calling them a bunch of “faggots” as soon as they were out of earshot. Morrison does have a long history of epic crankiness, though he did make a friend in Peter Wolf, singer for the local band Hallucinations (and later, of course, with J. Geils) and he invited Morrison to come up on stage to sing with him at the city’s premier rock club, the Boston Tea Party.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.” The title (and lead-off) track to Morrison’s soul-searching testament.

The venue was housed in a building that was built in 1870 to commemorate the Rev. Theodore Parker, the noted Transcendentalist, social reformer and abolitionist who believed that Spiritualism was going to become the “religion of America.” Maybe not, but the Tea Party did become a “cathedral of the hippie era.” Those angel vibes certainly must have been conducive to the spirit of the age. Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, more known for his streetwise lyrics, was an avid follower of New Age pioneer author Alice Bailey. In fact, Reed, who has a reputation as being ornery as Van, comes across very well here. The story of how he and the Velvets mentored singer-songwriter/local hero Jonathan Richman (then a suburban teenager) is one of Walsh’s more likable side stories. Richman would later form the proto-punk Modern Lovers, who would go on to make the Boston-rock anthem “Roadrunner” and, interestingly, “Astral Plane.”

The Velvets at the Boston Tea Party in Dec. of 1968 and a very raw version of “White Light/White Heat.” It’s a song said to be influenced by Reed’s devotion to the book “A Treatise on White Magic” by theosophist Alice Bailey. Accompanied by film images by Andy Warhol & Co.

And then on the lowest end of the spectrum is Mel Lyman, the kind of two-bit scumbag that often found themselves elevated in the well-meaning but not always wised-up Sixties. As a musician, his biggest claim to fame was playing a soothing 30-minute harmonica solo to the passed-over folkies who had just booed Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Lyman tapped into that reactionary energy to become the megalomaniac leader of his ultra-conservative commune. It was a scene marked by bullying, misogyny and an upfront volatility that ol’ Mel had no problem with (more than a few visitors were threatened at gunpoint). The best thing you could say about Lyman’s “family” is that they didn’t lapse into wholesale butchery like the Mansons. After Mel did everyone a favor by croaking in 1978, the commune developed their building/design business and to this day a now-multigenerational group still live behind the walls of their Fort Hill compound.

Walsh, to his credit, gives a fair definitive accounting of the Lyman gang and how they were intertwined with the area’s counterculture. He ends “Astral Days” with an impassioned overview of that album’s lasting influence on everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese. Considering his great admiration for Morrison’s piece de resistance (and to the great early-to-mid 70s titles that followed) it’s probably a blessing that the book came out before Van’s recent descent into extreme anti-vax and conspiracy phase of the last few years. What a long, strange trip (as they say) and classic-rock music fans and students of Sixties culture should enjoy this novel and absorbing look at the weird, wonderful year that was 1968.

The Original New Green Deal: “Soylent” Comes of Age

It’s Earth Day 2022, the same year that was the future setting of the iconic (and oft-parodied) 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green.” So it’s the perfect time to look back at the cinematic world presented therein. The whole planet is besieged by overpopulation, economic meltdown and by an ecological Armageddon. The particular setting is an overwhelmed New York City of 40 million inhabitants (half of them unemployed) most of whom have little to eat except the sickly-green wafers of the title.

Of course, it’s not much of a spoiler anymore to mention what SG is made from (it’s PEOPLE!!!). The big reveal here is just as well-known as the twist ending of the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (it’s a COOKBOOK!!!). It’s still a good watch, a vintage 70s potboiler starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Chuck Connors, along with several notable actors in smaller roles. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, using Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!” as its source material. The film’s opening montage–a visual timeline that moves from a 19th century idyll to our present day problems of pollution, runaway mass consumption, poverty and strife–sets the table pretty convincingly.

Bad news for the hipsters: That’s not avocado toast we’re looking at.

But don’t go in expecting a lot of prophetic material. “Soylent Green” is at heart a future-set police procedural with Heston as Detective Thorn who, while investigating the murder of a wealthy man, finds out he has much more than a simple homicide on his hands. Food as we still know it today is the preserve of the very wealthy, along with other luxuries like running water, soap, and linens. This is income equality on steroids.

Thorn seeks to even the score a bit when he goes to investigate at the luxury apartment of the murdered man—the Soylent Corp. executive played by Joseph Cotten before he was unceremoniously dispatched. While still questioning the man’s assigned concubine or “furniture” named Shirl (played by the doe-eyed beauty Taylor-Young) he grabs a silk pillowcase from the bedroom and, with no pretext, fills it with food, liquor and a bar of that soap. Thorn returns to the small bare-bones apartment he shares with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), the old-timer intellectual (or “book”) with whom he works on cases.

The scene where the two man luxuriate over real food and good bourbon is a humorous highlight of this often bleak film. Robinson is very good here as the wise old man who discovers the Soylent Secret from company books Thorn found in the dead man’s flat. It was EGR’s 101st and last screen role and he died twelve days after shooting wrapped, making his famous scene at the euthanasia center all the more poignant. Heston obviously loves working with him and Robinson’s influence gives Heston’s usual granite presence some needed soft edges.

But there’s still a world-gone-berserk out there to deal with, which brings us to “Soylent Green’s” notorious food-riot centerpiece. When the SG supply runs out one day the crowd gets very unhappy very quickly, and the riot control front-end loaders are brought in post-haste. This spectacle, hyped-up due to the illustrated exaggeration in the movie’s poster, has many non-believers. Gene Siskel, in his one-and-a-half star review, warned viewers they “may never stop laughing.” (to be fair, his future TV partner Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 stars). The fact that most people caught in the shovel just don’t jump back to the ground shows that believability was sacrificed for cost considerations and thematic point-scoring.

Because let’s face it, this is not a big-budget production. Instead of a truly horrifying people scooper, they just used whatever public-works truck was available. And although there are a few good forbidding futurescapes, most of the exterior shots used the same old Manhattan/brownstone “streets” that Hollywood had been utilizing on their backlots since the Forties. So while “Soylent Green” wants to be taken seriously it often lacks both the monetary and cerebral heft to do so.

But you get some good B-movie action–the chases and shootouts and the bedroom scene with Heston and Taylor-Young–and a cast worth watching. There’s Chuck “Rifleman” Connors as the shady bodyguard, Whit “Time Tunnel” Bissell as the corrupt governor, veteran character actress Celia Lovsky as Sol’s librarian colleague and, as Thorn’s superior back at the precinct, we have Brock Peters who, a decade before, played the doomed Tom Robinson in the famous film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So, a lot to look at here if you’re considering a re-look or if you’re a young one approaching “Soylent Green” for the first time—just don’t expect a lot of Nostradamus action. Sure, the scarifying opening montage still holds weight but our world of woes is still destined to suffer the death of a thousand little cuts instead of this film’s Gotterdammerung. I guess we can be grateful that the masses aren’t being used for mass-produced food: at least not yet. However, I did recently notice that there is now an actual “meal replacement” product named Soylent (check it out on Wikipedia). So who knows, maybe 2022 is later than we think.

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please leave a message in the comments. The book is only $12 including mailing within the U.S.

Also, if interested join my “Rock Docs” Facebook group.

Click on the link below to see the first “Rock Docs” book sampler.

Rock Doc Spotlight: “Glastonbury Fayre” (1971)

Director Nicolas Roeg was famous for his masterful and idiosyncratic films, often using subversive themes and cryptic imagery. In fact, he already had two of his better-known movies under his belt (“Performance” and “Walkabout”) when he directed the filming of the second ever Glastonbury music festival, an event that has gone on to become a beloved UK institution. Unlike some auteurs (like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme) who would make several music films along with their features, Roeg was not known for his affinity with the rock culture, though he had worked with Mick Jagger in “Performance” and would later direct David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

There was an unworldly aspect to this early edition of the festival that suited Roeg’s sensibility. Consider the esoteric interests of the approx. 15,000 in attendance (the modern Glastonbury has a cap on tickets of about 140,000), which largely consisted of the vanguard of Britain’s hippie/new-age population. Roeg (along with director of post-production Peter Neal) emphasize this “gathering of the tribes” as much as the music up on stage. We also get to see the construction of the first soon-to-be-famous Pyramid Stage. And consider the location, one those vast, tree-dotted English fields and in the immediate vicinity of Glastonbury Tor, the conical hill topped by the surviving tower of what was St. Michael’s abbey. It’s a place important in Christian, Celtic and pagan mythologies. There’s a lot to point a camera at and Roeg’s highly developed visual style is a strong selling point.

The musical selections are a bit of a mixed bag. It starts strong with a couple of numbers by blues-rocker Terry Reid (dueting with soul singer Linda Lewis on the second); great stuff from the guy who almost became the singer of Led Zeppelin a couple of years before. The 1971 edition of Fairport Convention was whittled down to a quartet, but their vivacious brand of homegrown folk-rock fits the occasion perfectly. Led by fiddler/singer Dave Swarbrick, they do “Angel Delight” and the high-wire instrumental “Dirty Linen,” which inspires a mass freeform jig in the crowd.

A lot of the rest will be take-it-or-leave-it for many viewers. Melanie, already a festival mainstay due to Woodstock, does one of her rooftop-shouting anthems. There’s rare live footage of Family, but one’s appreciation of this may depend on how well you can take Roger Chapman’s eccentric vocalizing. Gonzo acts of the day like Gong and Arthur Brown also figure prominently. Brown’s face-painted and (literally) fiery act, rich with occult craziness, extends well into the audience. There’s also a bit from folk-proggers Quintessence, but mostly as background to the antics of the yoga-crazy, mud-bath loving, tribal-drumming, twirly dancing and meadow-frolicking half-naked (sometimes all-naked) attendees. Roeg shows us a crazy patchwork of both hedonistic and religious/spiritual practices, and organized services by groups ranging from Hare Krishna to the Church of England.

But all these disparate elements come together in the rousing musical finale with Traffic performing that old party favorite “Gimme Some Loving.” This is the extended line-up of the group, with an extra drummer and a percussionist as well as co-founder Dave Mason who had briefly rejoined. Behind the urgent lead vocal of Steve Winwood, the band work the audience into a state of jubilation, many of them climbing onto the stage to dance. It’s a celebratory scene of the kind that would be hard to imagine in today’s over-scaled festival landscape of security and stage buffers. There seemed to be less distance between bands and fans back then and “Glastonbury Fayre” is a valuable window back on the beginnings of the festival sub-culture that plays a huge part of many people’s concertgoing lifestyle today. (Available on DVD and in whole or on YouTube)

–Rick Ouellette

I am the author of the 2016 book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. There are still several copies available (only $12), if interested, let me know in the comments section.

The

Make Mine a Double #25: The Byrds’ “Untitled” (1970)

The Byrds’ place in the pop music pantheon is secure. Their folk-rock innovations of the mid to late Sixties have reverberated all the way to the present, informing genres like college rock and Americana. Their popularization of Bob Dylan’s music, and psychedelic excursions like “Eight Miles High,” were to play a big part in broadening the scope of musical and lyrical content in that decade.

Recent music documentaries have solidified the Byrds’ status: the poster for 2019’s “Echo in the Canyon,” hosted by Bob’s son Jakob Dylan, features the iconic 12-string Rickenbacker of head Byrd Roger McGuinn that conjured their famous (and much imitated) jangly guitar sound. 

By the end of the Sixties, the Byrds were coming out of a long transitional period. Vital founding members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had flown the coop (if you will), migrating to solo projects or forming other groups in the expanding L.A. music scene. By 1970 they had settled on a quartet with McQuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin. One big difference of this group was its more muscular sound. For the first time perhaps, the Byrds were a true concert attraction and so was fitting that for the band’s first double album, sides one and two were live recordings.

The album kicks off impressively with “Lover of the Bayou,” a new song by McQuinn and NY-based songwriter and stage director Jacques Levy that was part of a proposed musical they were working on at the time (more on that shortly). This ain’t your kid sister’s Byrds. The atmosphere is edgy, the guitars use distortion and the rhythm section is more muscular. McQuinn sings in a gruff voice that is unfamiliar but fitting for this somewhat menacing 1st person tale of a backwater baddie who “cooked the bat in a gumbo pan/and drank the blood from a rusty can.” He may also be a gun-runner but since the play was never produced we may never find out. What is certain is that this high-powered lineup, esp. considering Clarence White’s standout lead guitar, is tailor made for the louder and more ritualized concert experience taking shape at that time.

The Byrds circa 1970. L to R: Roger McQuinn, Skip Battin, Clarence White and Gene Parsons.

The rest of side one covers more familiar ground. There are two Dylan covers (“Positively 4th Street” and their famous “Mr. Tambourine Man”), an electrified hoedown (“Nashville West”), and savvy re-readings of “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” All are spiritedly performed and appreciated by the audience at the two New York City gigs where they were taped. But for many the real high point came when they flipped the record over and were presented with a 16-minute jam based on “Eight Miles High.” Nobody would mistake the Byrds for the Allman Brothers Band when it came to improvisational excursions, but this jam cooks.

The listener is pulled in with a fade-up and McQuinn plays that 4-note intro motif, one of the most memorable signifying sounds of the acid-rock era, and launches into a double-down version of his famous splintered Rickenbacker solo, the band already in high gear. White follows with a torrid solo of his own and gives way to a combined bass/drum solo which, contrary to popular expectations, is a highlight of the piece. Famed rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, was all over this track, describing a “fine series of taut dervish interplays” and suggested that more music like this would return the Byrds to the “rock vanguard.” The intensity of this jam in fact feels like a classic bebop improv (McQuinn says his “Eight Miles” solo was inspired by John Coltrane). The whole band comes back together to build it to a climax before suddenly singing the song’s first verse (much to the crowd’s delight) and steer it straight to the big rock ending it deserves.

The studio half kicks off with “Chestnut Mare,” another song co-written with Levy. Their planned musical, a resetting of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” in the American West which, via an anagram, was to be called “Gene Tryp.” This likely would have been a highlight, it’s a radiant country-rock rondo about a cowboy’s pursuit of a wild horse. With its talking verses, soaring chorus and shimmering guitar fills, its more cinematic than stage bound esp. in the song’s mesmeric middle section, highlighted by the two of them magically floating above a “bottomless canyon.” The sparkling sound (“as clear as a Viewmaster slide of the Big Sur pine cliffs,” Bangs noted) harkened back to the Byrds’ 1965-68 heyday. “Chestnut Mare” became an American FM favorite and a Top 20 hit in the U.K.

The other two McQuinn-Levy numbers seem to look back ruefully on that period. “All the Things” (“I want today are all the things I wasted on the way”) and “Just a Season” have a distinct end-of-Sixties vibe while going for the classic sound of past hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The last verse is a real kicker:

“Shouting crowds and mummer’s shrouds and people going crazy
Always said what was in their heads it surely was amazing
I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar
It really wasn’t hard to be a star.”

Most of rest of the studio tracks are fair to pretty good and all band members get a chance to sing and write. The material is fine but I think they suffer somewhat from being too casually performed and/or too inconsistently produced (behind the boards were longtime band associates Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson). Gene Parson’s “Yesterday’s Train” could have been a cool bonus track from the Band, Clarence White’s dolorous vocal on the cover of Little Feat’s 18-wheel tragedy “Truck Stop Girl” is truly poignant, and the lyrics of the gritty ecological blues “Hungry Planet” should have been required reading from Day One.

(Untitled) concludes with Skip Battin’s cryptic “Well Come Back Home.” Clocking in at 7:40, it’s the longest studio track the Byrds’ ever recorded, and one of the strangest as well. Battin wrote it about a high-school friend who was killed in Vietnam, but the lyric never mentions the war. The tone is both elegiac and assuring, playing off the subtle difference between “well come back home” and “welcome back home.” About half-way thru, the song shifts into an Oriental timbre and, on a bed of chiming guitars and Parson’s tireless drum fills, the “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of Nichiren Buddhism starts up. In continues in various bizarre iterations as the music’s momentum builds and rides the song right off the end of the record.

Music fans who appreciate a band willing to stretch out and try new things would appreciate the idiosyncrasies of an album like this. While Lester Bangs (who was an astute critic as well as a celebrated loose cannon) acknowledged the Byrds’ taste for experimentation, also opined that it was to try and “rejuvenate a beloved but declining institution.” He wasn’t wrong; this line-up stayed together for two more albums and, after a so-so reunion record with the original line-up, the Byrds were no more. The sound they pioneered would be streamlined (stripped down for parts, some may say) by bands like the Eagles and Pure Prairie League. But as I said up top, the positive impact of their legacy can be seen all around, starting with the appropriately titled Time Between, the 1989 tribute album featuring such talented admirers as Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Dinosaur Jr., Thin White Rope, the Chills and Miracle Legion.