Boy, was January a tough month in the increasingly busy field of pop-music obituary writing. It saw the passing of some folks with huge names (Jeff Beck, Lisa Marie Presley, David Crosby) and others less famous, but hitting just as hard for particular fan bases (Screaming Trees’ bassist Van Conner, original Yardbirds guitarist Top Topham). Social media has sort of made us all into amateur memorializers, and by the end of January I was getting a bad case of Obituary Fatigue Syndrome and mostly just clicking the sad-face icon when a friend would post about any of the names mentioned above.
But on the 28th, another reported death, that of Tom Verlaine, prompted me to pick up the ol’ pen, for an alternative tribute. Verlaine, first with his band Television then as a solo artist, inspired me greatly in my development as a writer, in a curious field that in recent decades has got its own name: hauntology—the persistence of spirit that lives on in man-made environments.
Of course, Tom’s main influence will be musical, the enigmatic beauty of his songwriting and his otherworldly guitar skills. But in many a better written obit about Verlaine, a common theme persists: how he evoked a whole era and how his songs were almost literal surveyor marks in the changing New York City landscape of the late 70s. It was a time that Gotham was in the throes of financial crisis and social disruption but also giving creative birth to the epochal punk and hip-hop subcultures: both of which would soon have global reach.
From L to R: Fred Smith, Verlaine, Richard Lloyd and Billy Ficca. They and countless other musicians and artists flooded into a (then) low-rent Lower East Side in the demographic upheaval of the white-flight 70’s Big Apple. The rediscovery and reutilization of neglected places is a key tenet of hauntology and urban exploring.
Verlaine became known to me ever since my end-of-1977 listening centered on Talking Heads ’77, Marquee Moon by Television (I bought MM on the strength of one great magazine review) and the Ramones Rocket to Russia, which a roommate had. Everything changed after that.
The inspiration for me was Verlaine’s lyrics. Marquee Moon’s mind-blowing 10-minute title epic is the key track, but my favorite Television song was “Venus.” It is a master class in urban psychedelia, the best song possible about tripping balls at night in Lower Manhattan with a couple of friends (and one of them is Richard Hell). “Broadway looked medieval/it seemed to flap like little pages,” Tom sings. This is the Broadway that extends down from the gothic majesty of the vertiginous Woolworth Building to its colonial terminus at Bowling Green. A lot of this stretch is basically unchanged in the last century. It was the site of many a famous ticker-tape parade and features two of New York City’s oldest churches.
A couple of years back I spent a day-night-day in the Lower Broadway area, a block from the gargantuan old Custom House building, with its monumental sculptures representing the continents. I had my own sort of “Venus” moment when I stumbled on it for the first time on a misty night around 1980. I got some great photos of just the sort of thing that has inspired a passage in my graphic novel-in-progress “In a Dream of Strange Cities.” It was the page I was leading up to when I heard of Verlaine’s passing. My protagonist “sleep voyager” emerges in a Midtown NYC stripped of many of its buildings. He walks in the blazing sun until he reaches unchanged Lower Broadway, mythical home of O. Henry’s Transients in Arcadia, where’s it cool and shadowy and timeless. He’s on his way to a secret meeting with (wait for it, please) a utopian princess. (Free introductory comic of “In a Dream of Strange Cities” coming soon!)
Having a close look at lower Broadway in the spring of 2021. Photos by the author
Anyway, here’s a great quote from a more-or-less professional obit man/rock scribe about the quality of Mr. Verlaine’s hauntological aesthetic (from Matt Mitchell at Paste magazine).
He was walking art awash with the uncertainty of a midnight sky; a poet gleaning geographical imagery into his pastorals as if he was his city’s only architect.
Surely, Mr. Verlaine’s spirit and influence will live on indefinitely in every instance of someone falling under the spell of great cities and great possibilities. RIP Tom.
“If you’re really a Dylan buff, I mean tuned right into the stereo microgrooves of his soul, you’ll get a kick out of this.”
So begins the eager-beaver “Introgush” of Toby Thompson’s “Positively Main Street.” It was one of the first books I ever read about a music star and still one of my favorites. First published in 1971 and reissued in 2008 with the helpful subtitle “Bob Dylan’s Minnesota,” it depicts two trips to the North Star State taken by the recent college graduate in the late Sixties, while rock’s poet laureate was still in seclusion, two years after his mystery-shrouded motorcycle accident. Over the succeeding decades, books about Dylan have become a robust cottage industry and the exact number of Dylanologists now roaming the earth would be hard to quantify. Many of them have turned out portentous volumes indeed, befitting the decade’s “Voice of a Generation.”
But Thompson’s modest-seeming book turned out be a trailblazer, and it remains one of the most appealing on the subject, a genial and immersive street-level journal of time spent in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing. He interviews friends, family, teachers and townsfolk. He visits all the relevant sights (both in Hibbing and in Minneapolis where Bob briefly attended college) and develops a friendship with Echo Helstrom, Bob’s high-school sweetheart who was the probable inspiration for his classic “Girl from the North Country.”
Echo Helstrom in 1969, photo by Toby Thompson. The pictures he took in Hibbing, of local landmarks as well as many of the adorable Helstrom, were previously used in “Positively Main Street’s” original incarnation as a series in the Village Voice. Several are reprinted in the look-back interview with Thompson in the new edition of the book.Helstrom later moved to California and passed away in 2018.
In today’s hyper-accessible and saturated media landscape, it’s a little startling to read how humbly the book came into the being. Knowing his subject’s real name and hearing an anecdote that his father and uncle owned a hardware store up there; he uses directory assistance to call the family business (actually Zimmerman Furniture & Electric Company) and is casually invited up to Hibbing by an uncle: Bob’s dad had recently passed away.
Thompson doesn’t need much convincing to pack up his semi-reliable VW Bug and take the long drive from D.C. to northern Minnesota during a deep Northwoods autumn. Toby is motivated as much by the imperative to become a member of the New Journalism as he is by fanboy fever. Sure, he’s the kind of guy who studied the lyrics of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding LP when it came out in late’67 (after a 20-month recording absence), comparing notes over the phone with friends. Almost a year later, with no other word from their hero, he decides on his mission—probably just as much to find himself as to get to the origin story of the man born as Robert Zimmerman.
There is a vivid Beat-style detailing of the drive thru the East’s REAL physical landscape, the infrastructure and turnpikes, before reaching out into the great Midwest Americana. Thompson tools down the legendary Highway 61 and hears “Just Like a Woman” on the radio as he’s approaching his destination. The clean-cut and unimposing (but insistent) young writer is soon out hitting the bricks of Hibbing, a small but somewhat well-appointed city with music shops, teen hangouts, lively taverns and a couple of cinemas (also owned by the Zimmerman clan).
You know it was the early days of the Dylan Studies discipline when Thompson is shocked to learn that Bob, who made his legend with socially-conscious folk songs, had fronted a rowdy rock band in high school. A glance at his school yearbook reveals a desire to “follow Little Richard.” But aside from the odd person (like his astute English teacher), there just isn’t a whole lot appreciation for “Bobby Die-lan” (as the locals often call him). The woman down at the music store, who sold him his first harmonica, says her old customer’s albums are not big sellers in these parts (“people don’t like his voice”).
These days, there is more appreciation of good ol’ Bobby Die-lan in his hometown. Each May, Hibbing holds a “Dylan Days” festival. This promotion for a Dylan cover-band concert is on the side of the house where Bob grew up. When the Zimmerman family sold this house, there was a codicil that called for his upstairs bedroom (included some personal possessions) to remain as is. Thompson visited that bedroom while writing his book and Dylan himself reportedly visits it from time to time.
Echo Helstrom was of course, someone who did get Bob. They went together their whole junior year of high school, bonding as two of maybe a handful of kids grooving to the sounds of the blues and the new rock ‘n roll emanating at night from faraway stations in places like Shreveport and Little Rock. Echo, who Dylan compared both to Brigitte Bardot and Becky Thatcher, is a fair-haired and mini-skirted blithe spirit with the “finest smile this side of White Bear Lake.” Although she had previously been interviewed (by author Robert Shelton for a book that would not come out until 1986), she was delighted with the attention and regaled Toby with tales of teenage Bob that few if any fans would have known. The two form a quick conspiratorial bond, heading up to Hibbing in the VW to kick up a little dust. They visit the old haunts, close down a bar or two and even a crash a local radio station so Echo can return the favor and sing a little tune she wrote (“Boy from the North Country,” natch), accompanied by Toby on guitar.
Nowadays, where self-serious writers like Greil Marcus pen whole books about a single Dylan song (Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads), Positively Main Street comes across as a breath of fresh air from a more ingenuous age. Towards the end of the book, Thompson interviews Bob’s mom at a local diner. She does protest a bit about a couple of unappreciated private details that showed up in the Village Voice article (and as to why he’s running around with “that Echo”) but the mostly cordial conversation reveals what readers have likely sussed out by this point: that Robert Zimmerman had a pretty solid and regular Midwestern upbringing.
And that’s OK, even better that way. I say this because there was a lot of deification of Dylan back then, as well a certain amount of mythmaking, some of it perpetuated by the liner notes of his first album that would have you believe he ran away to join the circus as a boy, never knew his parents, yada-yada. But real art and talent come from hard work and drive and knowing from whence you came, not from some magic talisman passed down to a lucky few. Bob Dylan did (and does) have a extraordinary knack for absorbing the great American experience in all its many forms, not the least of which was the stark but sensible place (“where the winds blow heavy on the borderline”) that informed his spirit, a place that Toby Thompson let Dylan fans feel for the first time.
A sort of food-court dystopia takes hold in and around a super-mall on the outer edges of metropolitan London in J.G. Ballard’s incisive last novel, published in 2006, three years before his death. The English author was a foremost chronicler of speculative societal fracturing in works such as Concrete Island, High Rise and Crash. The kind of high concept dissolution of those books are also featured here in the story of Richard Pearson, a recently let-go advertising man who goes to investigate how his estranged father came to be one of victims of mass shooting in the main atrium of the Metro-Centre, a sprawling modern shopping center buffeted by hotels, offices and several sports stadiums that are regularly packed with enthusiastic and sometimes volatile fans.
Pearson gives up his trendy flat in Central London to immerse himself in the strange, semi-fictionalized world of the “motorway towns” in the vicinity of Heathrow Airport. Despite this area being only 15-20 miles from Trafalgar Square, it is a place apart in Ballard’s vision. A terse, maze-like psychogeography takes hold. The Metro-Centre presents itself as an optimistic unifying force, in contrast to the “alienating” effect of modernism found in “heritage London.” Underneath its enormous central dome, Pearson is met by the mall’s PR man: “he was smiling, friendly and crushingly earnest, with the pale skin and overly clear eyes of a cult recruiter.” He assures Pearson that the denizens of Brooklands (the town is fictitious but named after the former racing circuit nearby and seen below) have “pulled together” after the tragedy and that retail business there suffered only a minor setback.
Pearson moves into the condo of a dead father he barely knew and soon becomes all too aware of a regressive “pocket revolution” in his midst. Organized groups of sporting clubs, most wearing shirts emblazoned with England’s St. James’ insignia, have rallies that quickly turn into racial attacks on Asian and Eastern European immigrants. Of course, these dark energies are quick to be harnessed. Shades of Brexit and Trumpism rise to the surface, though the book predates them by a decade. Ballard could be masterful at trenchant observation as when describing the shadowy figures behind this grim initiative. They are trafficking in “a violence of the mind, where aggression and cruelty were part of a radical code that denied good and evil in favor of an embraced pathology.” Nowadays, that sounds all too familiar.
A popular and ubiquitous TV host of the complex’ in-house cable channel, with the blithe name of David Cruise, is put up as the nominal, would-be head of state. As a man who is “authentic in his insincerity” he seems just the ticket. Pearson even takes a new stab at his old occupation, becoming his ad man, even reusing a pitch (“Mad is Bad, Bad is Good”) that kinda got him fired in his old job. But he takes the role to infiltrate the movement and find out who’s behind the killings—a case that has become clouded in deception—while also becoming curious as to what the true end game of his chosen profession might be. After all, he spent a career cultivating a suburban mindset where people identify themselves through their purchases. But this domain of “Consumerism Uber Alles” is soon embroiled in a proxy war as the militias who profess to protect the shoppers are besieged by government forces who have had enough of this Banana Republic banana republic.
Kingdom Come is not a perfect book. It feels padded at time with catchphrases and dialogue that seem more like panel discussions, while character motivations often seem confused. But as a speculative look into a world where mob violence is described as “local pride” and an undervalued population ready to shade into madness, Ballard’s book is vivid and alarming. In a way we are all ensnared in this world. It’s esp. true here in America, where 70% of the economy is tied up in consumer spending and where there were two mass shootings in shopping areas the day I started this post.
It may be easy to think of Kingdom Come as an overwrought fever dream, and it does slip into that at times. But Ballard was uncanny in a lot of his prognostications (High Rise mirrored the current folly of the practically unlivable supertalls on New York’s “Billionaire’s Row”) and I’ll never look at a shopping mall in quite the same way ever again.
For many of us music-loving boomers who grew up in a culture of habitual record buying, the purchase of physical music media is a habit not easily left behind. In an age commercially dominated by Instagram pop, this means digging deeper to discover newer bands to support and looking back to fill gaps in a collection with albums that escaped notice the first time around.
In the first of this two-part series, I will be doing the latter. In the annals of rock history, the 60s and 70s are the gifts that keep on giving. The below selections focus on British acts that did not make a huge impact in the States—groups like T. Rex and the Small Faces had only one U.S. hit single. Though I do like to go rummaging around in used record stores for a rare find, for the purposes of this post, most of the below selections I bought as two-CD deluxe reissues.
Odessey & Oracle—the Zombies (1968)
Of all the recognized classic albums of the Sixties, few have had such a delayed recognition as the Zombies swan song long-player, now widely regarded as a masterwork of baroque rock. In fact, the group, who had a handful of pop hits in the mid-60s, had fallen out of favor and split up shortly before the release of Odessey (a misspelling by the cover artist). Without much in the way of tour dates, the group had convened at Abbey Road studios to concoct a unified sounding song cycle that had a regal, autumnal atmosphere that would become beloved to legions of fans—later on down the line. Even its most famous track, “Time of the Season,” wasn’t a hit until 18 months after it was recorded.
I finally got myself a CD of it a few years back and it is remarkably fresh-sounding and relatable in a timeless way: tracks like “Hung Up on a Dream,” “Beechwood Park,” and “This Will Be our Year” have an almost literary universality (the latter song closed an episode of “Mad Men”). The bonus tracks on my edition features only one song not on the original album. As is often the case with these re-issues most of them are re-mixes or alternate takes. But they still managed to fit it onto one CD, so kudos.
Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake—The Small Faces (1968)
This is another semi-concept album classic that was a retro-fitted favorite for savvy U.S. rock fans who grew up knowing the name Small Faces for their solitary stateside hit “Itchykoo Park.” Frontman Steve Marriott became the singer in Humble Pie and the other Small Faces (Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenney Jones) joined forces with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and dropped the word “small.” Like Odessey, Ogden’s Nut shows the growing sophistication of pop music in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. The first side is flawless eclectic British rock that includes Marriott’s soulful “Afterglow,” Ronnie Lane’s folkloric “Song of a Baker” and the music hall romp “Lazy Sunday.” The second side features a suite centering around a character called “Happiness Stan,” the songs linked by a whimsical narrator played by comic actor Stanley Urwin. The 2-CD set that I was obliged to purchase is a beautifully packaged keepsake with a great booklet, however the second disc are just alternate takes of the songs; interesting but only just.
McDonald and Giles (1970)
King Crimson were well known for their numerous lineup changes back in the day, and two of the first to go, charter members Michael Giles on drums and sax/flute man Ian McDonald, teamed up for this quite engaging album. McDonald and Giles sound a bit like early Crimson minus most of the jarring parts, which makes for a pleasing throwback prog experience. Giles expert style of skittering drum fills sets the pace along with the prominent bass work of brother Peter (ex of the pre-KC group Giles, Giles and Fripp) while McDonald, aside from his woodwinds, fills in on keyboards and occasional lead guitar. Highlights include the ballad “Flight of the Ibis” (a close cousin of Crimson’s “Cadence and Cascade”) and the buoyant rocker “Tomorrow’s People” which features one of a handful of adventurous mid-song jazz jams which keeps the album on its toes. But this duo was destined to be a one-off effort and by mid-decade McDonald was sailing in far less adventurous waters as a charter member of Foreigner.
Phantasmagoria—Curved Air (1972)
Curved Air were one of the few bands in the original progressive-rock era to have a female lead singer. Sonja Kristina had a great voice and an un-showy charisma and the guys behind her were virtuosic but team-oriented in approach. Phantasmagoria was their third album and generally considered their best. It opens with two lush but emphatic showcases for Kristina: “Marie Antoinette” and “Melinda (More or Less”). The group generally stick with this compact approach (the whirlwind title track is another highlight) but they also have an experimental side. There is the appropriately titled instrumental “Ultra-Vivaldi” led by the warp-speed violin of Daryl Way and a rabbit-hole number that was the reportedly the first ever to use a voice vocoder. Gratifyingly, the second disc is a DVD featuring several live TV performances from Belgium and Austria (Curved Air were big on the Continent). The group is spot-on and Sonja Kristina shows the Instagram pop divas of today how to be sexy without being sexualized.
The Slider—T. Rex (1972)
The Slider was the highwater mark in the career of glam-rock icon (and punk/new wave influencer) Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex. It was the vivid follow-up to their other acknowledged classic album (Electric Warrior) and featured their last two #1 U.K. hit singles, “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru.” Bolan and his mates had perfected their formula of glittering pop hooks, compact lead guitar, and fanciful lyrics full of decadent characters (this LP features the twins “Baby Boomerang” and “Baby Strange”). The backlash was underway in the fickle British music press, that he was merely an image conscious go-getter full of empty words, in love with the idea of his own stardom. But as is usually the case, time will show the wiser. As Bolan biographer Mark Paytress notes in this edition’s booklet, Bolan’s rock poetry holds up very well nowadays: “Marc’s fast, snatched images are remarkably in tune with the zap-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of contemporary culture.”
Yet there is real emotion and yearning in the slower songs like “Mystic Lady,” “Ballrooms of Mars” and the affecting “Spaceball Ricochet” where Bolan posits “Deep in my heart there’s a house that can hold just about all of you.” All the more poignant knowing now that he would die in a car crash in 1977, two weeks short of his 30th birthday. The second disc presents as an alternative album (“Rabbit Fighter”) that is an intermittently interesting batch of acoustic demos and early band takes in the same running order as the proper album. There are also four non-LP B side songs.
Parachute—Pretty Things (1970)
The Pretty Things are another one of those exemplary British Invasion-era bands that never got to storm the beaches in America. Even in Old Blighty they were a bit of a cult band, having had only two Top 20 singles in their homeland. But like many of their contemporaries, the group make remarkable creative strides between their circa 1964 debuts and the end of the decade. Starting out as a gritty, R&B-influenced act the Pretties had by 1968 come out with one of the first rock operas (S.F.Sorrow) and two years later, followed up with this remarkable song cycle that only in long retrospect stands out as one of the great albums of 1970.
Side one plays out a lot like side two of 1969’s Abbey Road: a seamlessly connected series of short songs that speak to the complexities of contemporary urban life. An implied escape to the country in Parachute’s second side (esp. on the trenchant “Sickle Clowns”) doesn’t necessarily bring existential relief. It’s a rigorous and rock-steady album, the first without founding guitarist Dick Taylor, though new member Vic Unitt shreds admirably. Singer Phil May and bassist Wally Waller did most of the writing here and on the 40th anniversary release I have, the pair reunited to do several unplugged versions of Parachute numbers. On the other half of that bonus disc is a half-dozen singles and B-sides, a couple of which (“Summertime” and “Blue Serge Blues”) rival anything on the album.
In the online, “suggested for you” age we live in, it’s easier than ever to discover defunct bands of your fave genre that flew under your radar in younger days. For prog fans, a thumbnail image of a Roger Dean album cover is sometimes all it takes. The renowned artist did covers and logos for Yes, Uriah Heep, Budgie and many others. His illustration for Greenslade’s first album is a typically handsome fantasy vision: a four-armed wizard in a sun-streaked cavern. David Greenslade had been keyboardist for the adventurous fusion jam band Colosseum but took a more fanciful approach when fronting his own outfit.
If you’re a fan of Seventies keyboard wizardry, but maybe have had a lot of Messrs. Wakeman and Emerson, this group will be a fun find as Greenslade uses a two keyboard-bass-drums lineup. Dave Lawson sings from the piano and adds some synth while the head Dave leads the way on Hammond organ and also utilizes the mighty Mellotron. The group alternate vibrant, tonally rich instrumentals (such as “English Western”) with droll vocal numbers like “Feathered Friends” and “Drowning Man.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, Greenslade never succumb to bombast, unless you count a couple of portentous blasts of Mellotron. The double gatefold edition that I bought was beautifully packaged with a nice booklet to get you up to speed on what you missed first time around. The second CD contain slightly different versions played at a BBC studio session and at a live show.
Garden Shed—England (1977)
Alas, poor England. No, I don’t mean the Brexit debacle or that it had to survive Liz Truss being Prime Minister for six weeks. I’m talking about the prog-rock group England, whose excellent debut album Garden Shed was released in 1977, just as punk rock was taking the country by storm. Led by keyboardist-singer Robert Webb, England prove themselves skilled purveyors of an ornate art-rock that is not far off from what Yes were doing around the same time (Going for the One, etc.). They excel at quiet ballads (“Yellow” and “All Alone”) and fable-like rockers (“Midnight Madness”) and can get epic as well: “Three-Piece Suite” has 12 verses!
And kudos to the band for doing up the 30th anniversary rerelease in the best way possible. The second disc shows a reconfigured band staking their claim with cheeky new originals (“Fags, Booze and Lottery”) an imaginative cover (Dylan’s “Masters of War” set to Gershwin’s “Summertime”) and a couple of b-sides and live tracks. Garden Shed is a lovingly packaged with Webb adding illustrations of each song to the lyric sheet, an idea that was shelved in ’77. Although they didn’t last long in their original incarnation, England are a band well worth (re)discovering. Also, check out their 1975 EP “Imperial Hotel” on YouTube, it’s actually one 24-minute piece and is prog heaven.
Well, that’s it for now. In the hopefully near future, I will be back with Part 2. That will focus on later-life discovery of newer bands. But it’s all relative—by newer I mean groups that have formed after 1990, more than 30 years ago!
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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-
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.