Monday 21 September 2009

Otis REDDING: The Dock Of The Bay


 (#56: 22 June 1968, 1 week) 

Track listing: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay/I Love You More Than Words Can Say/Let Me Come On Home/Open The Door/Don’t Mess With Cupid/The Glory Of Love/I’m Coming Home To See About You/Tramp/The Huckle-Buck/Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out)/Ole Man Trouble 

Note how we have gradually crept out of dark rooms and into open spaces. Still, “this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” Andy Williams led us towards the sea and the sky and we are still here; the waves, the gulls, no evidence of human beings. Gently, an acoustic guitar and wave-like bass enter, paying regretfully ironic homage to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” Then rippling piano and carefully wandering electric guitar provide a meagre cushion for the voice of the worried man who realises that there are no further frontiers to broach, that he has reached his limit, or belatedly recognised his limits. His voice is resigned just beyond the point of terminal desperation; he has reached the other side of nothingness and realises that not only has he brought himself to this limbo but that he might even be secretly and perfectly content with it. He did have a home – “I left my home in Georgia” – but has wound up in San Francisco by his own hand (“Listen! Two thousand miles I roamed, just to make this dock my home. Now I’m just gonna sit…,” arms folded, brow defiant). This is what he wanted, this pioneer without a particular aim; his indrawn tautologies (“Looks like nothin’s gonna change/Everything still remains the same”) are worthy of Beckett and the song’s key line – “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do” – is as elusively personal as the business with the light out in “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Finally, and contentedly, he turns his lament into a whistle, merging with the coastal tugboats, vanishing into the pacific Pacific. He could be anybody or nobody, and his lone nothingness is as anonymous and satisfied as that of a ghostly Larkin, haunting the quays of Hull. But whereas Larkin “feel(s) like a child/And can understand(s) nothing,” this dock dweller feels old and understands everything.

It is a fitting elegy for this tale’s first posthumous entry. For the rest of the record the singer attempts to understand how and why he has reached this terminus, or even if he doesn’t, we can piece together some important clues from the evidence he has left behind. The Dock Of The Bay is not the album Otis Redding would have made had he lived, and we will never know what or how that would have sounded like. Instead the record, necessarily cobbled together at the eleventh hour, represents an alternative history of Redding’s work, gathering up some non-album A and B sides, a few previously unreleased or obscure tracks and a couple of concluding pointers back to the early days. Of its eleven tracks it is likely that only “Open The Door,” recorded in the spring of 1967, would have made it through to the desired album, and this track too indicates how anxious Redding was to change, not just the way soul music was perceived in the non-black, non-American world, but also the way it sounded; “Dock Of The Bay” was composed after Redding had heard Sgt Pepper, sitting in a hired houseboat, waiting to play the Fillmore West. He viewed his mission as carrying on what Sam Cooke started, but where Cooke left the open, cunning embrace of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Redding’s reflective nature was still apt to turn into rage and pity, usually at the same time. “Open The Door” begins gently with his characteristic Macon talkover – “I’ve been wrong so many times!” – but gradually picks up speed as Redding, standing frustrated at her door, alternately pleads and demands to be let in. “Let me in!” he cries four times, underlined by Al Jackson’s rueful rat-a-tat rimshots before exploding into a pained “Let me EEEEEEEEN!!” He growls (“…or I’ll BUST it in!”) but it’s all bravado, and the woman on the other side of the door knows it. “This runnin’ around is sho’ nuff KILLIN’ me!” he roars, as Jackson’s floor tom/cymbal combination crash behind him like suitcases being flung out of the first floor bedroom window. “PLEASE! PLEASE!” he screams. “Mama! MAMA!!” (four years before Lennon’s “Mother”) “I can’t stand this cold…” Less than a decade later, McCartney would politely ask “Open the door and let ‘em in,” but this is an urgency which transcends its wronged man imprint. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Redding’s pounding, howling and bluffing as irretrievably macho, as unfortunately too many of his disciples have done; Otis’ thing was niceness, no matter how mad or hungry he got in his songs. At Monterey he welcomed and encouraged the “Love crowd” and his generosity and vulnerability are rarely hidden in his music.

 “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” also from the spring of 1967, is one of his great ballad performances and does more than Barthes in terms of emotions exceeding articulacy. The pace is slow; there are distant strings, closer horns, a comforting paramour of a guitar from Steve Cropper. There is also the faint feeling of a relaxed Hendrix, and Redding’s voice is as dynamic and persuasive an instrument as Jimi’s guitar ever was. “Be-siyiyiyiyiyide you,” he sings a year ahead of Van Morrison’s “Beside You.” “Call it a dayyy-ay-ay-ay” he muses. The musing leads to sobs – “Why can’t you understand? You got me in your hands” – and the voice climaxes with an astonishing foray: “MORE! WORDS! SAY! YEAH!” echoed by a sadly descending three-note horn line. Cropper bookends the performance with curlicues of kissing guitar, provoking an unfinished moan from Redding at track’s end.

“Let Me Come On Home” – yet another song concerned with “home” – rides on a reveille tambourine. But Redding’s “Girl!” sounds exhausted, his “never leave!” and “apart!” mumbles rough, sorrowful. Cropper’s guitar work here is remarkable, his solo echoing, of all people, George Harrison (although stylistically we should remember that Cropper cut his teeth working in Albert King’s band). Indeed, bearing in mind Redding’s previous reading of “Day Tripper,” the track sounds extremely close to a Beatles song; it may well be that by 1967 the Stax/Beatles influence (as it already was with Motown) was two-way.

The important difference between the Stax and Motown ways of working is of course that between building spontaneously upon improvisation and meticulous planning; the Four Tops and Supremes’ woes and triumphs are real but thoroughly choreographed (which, it has to be repeatedly underlined in pop terms, is in and of itself no bad thing). But listening to Otis one is constantly reminded of the organic nature of his songs; typically building from extended jams in the studio – the Stax studio, let us remember, barely larger and possibly smaller than the room in which I am currently writing this piece – a riff or a chant would be chanced upon and the song would be constructed there and then.

Redding’s reading of the doo wop stalwart “The Glory Of Love,” for instance, demonstrates how well Otis and the Stax house band worked together to construct a track; it begins with a headshaking congress of horns before the temperature and camera are lowered to encompass just voice, piano and guitar. Redding’s “y’all know what I’m talking about” is prematurely exasperated. Jackson never rises above the tick-tock clock of his rimshots. The horns then re-enter to function as a kind of expanded rhythm section, joined by Duck Dunn’s bass. The track gradually builds up before our ears; the horns become harmonically adventurous towards the end, and Redding rides along on a pointed fork of self-doubt (“God help my soul!” almost sounds like “God help my socks!”).

1966’s “Don’t Mess With Cupid” – another nod in Sam Cooke’s direction – shares with “Open The Door” the singer’s overpowering need for his audience to understand the meaning of these songs, rather than simply listening to them; he is compelled to hammer home (since this record is all about going or fleeing home) the message he is trying to communicate, and it can’t necessarily be communicated through means of words alone.

“Cupid” starts off with a stinging Cropper guitar intro, followed by a hard stomp of a midtempo groove, over which Redding strains his upper register. “Cupid is NOT stupid!” “No, no, no!” He gets so passionate that he goes off-mike, letting the Memphis Horns carry the song’s main weight. He HAS to make us see. “I’m Coming Home” is a phenomenal performance even by Redding’s own standards; starting off with, of all things, a “Louie Louie” intro, we shudder straight into the song’s central pain. “Got to see my baby, she’s my one desire,” Redding roars as drums, horns and bass emphasise his internal tachycardia. With “Otis is coming home” he becomes the first subject of this tale to mention himself by name (Diana Ross namechecked Mary and Flo, as you may recall, but not herself). The ascending grin of a horn line on the chorus’ “see about you” is almost a step back to the pop Sam Cooke of 1962 or thereabouts but again the song spontaneously combusts, like some combination of Krook and Pharaoh Sanders; Redding breaks his own banks, overflows bar lines with his “I got to, got to get home” atomising into indecipherable but entirely comprehensible emotional wreckage over a curiously unresolved D major seventh; behind him the MGs appear to be playing “Hush little baby, don’t you cry” to themselves as the horns get higher and higher (especially Wayne Jackson’s octave-vaulting lead trumpet) and the singer finally exceeds himself, takes off into flight.

“Tramp,” the famous duet with Carla Thomas (and eventually the base for the invention of Salt-n-Pepa), represents the only moment on the record where we actually hear from the woman whom Redding is desperately trying to reach, or regain, and she is dismissive. It’s all done as high comedy, Carla as outraged as the maid in Tom And Jerry at his Georgian ways (“You look COUNTRY!”), dissing his overalls, his non-haircut, his lack of prospects, to which an outraged Otis responds in alternate bafflement (his multiphonic, Cosby-anticipating “WHAAAAAT?”) and arousal (the subsequent “OOOOOOOHH…”), protesting that she’s got it wrong; both he and she know, as do we, that he doesn’t have any of those cars, but the bullshitting is somehow righteous. The horns blow raspberries at poor Otis throughout, and all Carla can do at the end is laugh at him (or, secretly, with him). She says he can’t buy her minks; he protests she should come with him to the swamp and catch her own (along with rats and squirrels). Sexy as hell, but here too is the seed of the worried man’s own doom; he will finally be rejected, and end up drifting like driftwood towards the terminal beach of ‘Frisco.

Before we reach catharsis, however, there’s a lusty version of the old R&B warhorse “The Huckle-Buck” to sprint through, drawn from an obscure Stax compilation album entitled Stay In School. Indeed Redding’s is not so much a version of the song as an improvisation on it. Booker T’s piano provides the intro, then saxes and trumpet engage in some enjoyable call-and-response bits of business. But Otis is already way out there, dreaming of “California!” and “Detroit CITY!” and even “20 GRAND!!” Eventually he remembers what song he is supposed to be covering and utters “Hucklebuck y’all!” only to be clipped on the ear by Jackson’s admonitory snare. He charges through Chicago – “the Windy City, they call it!” – and we realise that this is Otis doing James Brown (specifically “Night Train”) or at least drawing some important lines between the Roy Brown who originally did the Hucklebuck and JB himself. He barks six straight bullets of “Buck!” followed by a stammering “Bu-bu-BUCK!” before his yells become abstract, ungrounded.

We then reach back to 1966 again, and to “Nobody Knows You,” the most explicit Cooke tribute here (although of course Redding covered several Cooke tunes, including a ferocious “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on Otis Blue). Cropper’s shivery guitar anticipates Hendrix quite dramatically against the slow horns in the out-of-tempo intro – and “Dock Of The Bay” could even be Redding’s own “1983: A Merman I Should Turn To Be” since Electric Ladyland was likewise all about trying to get back home (“Crosstown Traffic”) or evolving into something or someone else (“Voodoo Chile”) – as Otis enters, crying about “people spendin’ my money,” again needing us to palpate the fabric of his pain (though Booker T’s deadpan piano is as pitiless as the singer’s fair-weather friends), hissing out the Es in “EEEEEEEvil grin” like a wounded snake. Redding grumbles, then ruefully chuckles. “What I’m tryin’ to tell everybody” he emphasises, reaching his Ciceronian rhetorical climax of “NOBODY wants, NOBODY NEEDS you!” over hammering drums, finally bursting into an incendiary rage as frightening as anything that come out of Archie Shepp’s tenor over this period. Covered four years later by a terminally depressed, chronically alcoholic Clapton for Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, the guitarist wisely opted for shoulder-shrugging Bowery Flanagan and Allen amiable weariness and hopelessness.

Finally, a return to the source of his pain, and to 1965: “Ole Man Trouble,” the opening track of Otis Blue, Cropper again exceptional, his reggae-like knock-knock guitar intro again blossoming into something which Hendrix would eventually expand. The trouble, we learn anew, has been with the singer from the beginning; his moans of “trouble, stay away from me” are more in keeping with country music (and especially the contemporaneous work of George Jones) than what would eventually be recognised as “Southern soul” – but then, as the split second of pedal steel which intrudes into the centre of James Carr’s “Tell Me” reminds us, the two were never far apart.

It was apt that the sleevenote for The Dock Of The Bay was penned by the young Jon Landau, since like Springsteen, Redding always painted himself in his songs as the wounded outsider, the rootless wanderer. And yet his art could not have been more open or wider-reaching; he sought to make soul music acceptable all around the world, and given what contemporaries such as Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack went on to do in the seventies and beyond – not to mention the pianist on “Dock Of The Bay” itself, one Isaac Hayes - there is no reason to believe that he would not have changed the music’s fabric as radically (not to mention the belated happy ending De La Soul would give this lonely whistler by means of Donald Fagen - "I know I love you better!"). Fate, however, compels him to remain the same, forever the not quite distinguishable figure far out on the jetty, but making no mistake that he is something more than nothing.

Monday 14 September 2009

Andy WILLIAMS: Love, Andy

 (#55: 15 June 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Somethin’ Stupid/Watch What Happens/The Look Of Love/What Now My Love/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Kisses Sweeter Than Wine/Holly/When I Look In Your Eyes/The More I See You/There Will Never Be Another You/God Only Knows

“With the sun and the sea and the sky she remains”

Following a period of violent, vivid destruction there must always come peaceful, or at the very least quiet, reconstruction. Both the I-Ching and the Bible speak of water, steadily accumulating to form a flood, sweeping away the world that had previously and presumptuously been built upon it, leaving an ocean, a liquidity, for its inhabitants to start again. Similarly there has long been philosophical, psychological and theological talk about man’s love of and need for water, man’s inherent desire to begin again, to return to the waters of the womb which they once inhabited.

Were some such distant shore ever to materialise after anyone’s apocalypse its sound might not be dissimilar to Love, Andy. Few albums are so concerned with the eyes as primary means of communication within the love song; five of its titles make that explicit, not least “The Look Of Love.” But there is also the feel of a Ballardian terminal beach, the great wave patiently waiting to engorge it with a new, terrifying but liberating fullness. A feeling that the singer’s love must encompass, and eventually form, the whole world.

It has always been apparent that Andy Williams is not quite one of our everyday, amiable crooners. An early giveaway was his dubbing of Lauren Bacall’s singing voice in To Have And Have Not, but his voice has, if anything, always projected an asexual, rather than a specifically androgynous, spirit, somehow above the everyday cares of the planet it inhabits. Compare the great, brassy and percussive thrust and barely concealed sexual craving of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with the smooth patience of Andy’s, its daubed echoes of Sportsnight With Coleman brass, lithesome alto sax and subtle, undulating undertow of reeds offering perspectives reminiscent of another Andy W. He is simultaneously connected and detached.

Side one passes by relatively peacefully in the manner of the standard late sixties album of easy listening slow jams, designed to be played late at night to one’s hoped paramour with a diplomatic drink and tactfully lessened lights, and Andy’s lounge is undoubtedly an enticing one. Still, even from his opening reading of “Somethin’ Stupid” it is clear that this is not going to be a straightforward record; Nick DeCaro’s arrangement is very different from the double-headed Sinatra original, its opening flutters of Claude Thornhill reeds and woodwind easing into smooth 1967 strings. Both pace and performance could have come from an old school (or old Palais) dance band, the odd contemporary flight of flute notwithstanding, but the harmonic differences with the original are subtle and telling; no chordal diminution before “And then I go and spoil it all” but there is a lovely minor augmentation on the “before” which closes the middle eight. A choir steals in unobtrusively, a melancholy trumpet wanders through the melody like a regretful, decommissioned Army colonel, and banks of trumpets and trombones sigh in breathy concordance. One modest key change takes the song out into its wider drift.

With “Watch What Happens,” Legrand’s tune from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, a strange but serene spaciousness begins to become apparent; the same moody trumpeter (the sleeve offers no clue to their identity, but here the trumpeter sounds far closer to Bunny Berigan than Herb Alpert) opens up the song, allowing Williams to ski over the elegant titular major-minor-major arch. A tenor sax distantly buffers the infinitesimal breeze and the general bossa nova glide reminds us of the new sense of space which Jobim and his Tropicalia successors brought to the picture of pop throughout this decade; the Sinatra/Jobim 1967 collaboration is required supplementary hearing here. Following a slightly awkward edit to accommodate another key change, Williams effortlessly covers the gap with one of many extraordinary, unbroken slow-motion yodels to his highest achievable register, without once using falsetto, and transcending matters of gender and notions of earth.

His “The Look Of Love” – also covered not long thereafter by Scott Walker, on the latter’s Scott Sings Songs From His TV Series – commences with a stately brass chorale. Again, Williams’ voice seems to float in a sense of gravity different from but compatible with the song, anchored by the slightly assertive brass figures which appear in the choruses. But his “Don’t ever go” blends seamlessly into a high string figure before the song pauses, and he offers three “I love you so”s as both voice and strings mesh into stasis, momentarily start again in cumulonimbi of doubt and the alto reappears as everything fades into strings so static they could almost be synthesisers.

“What Now My Love” is taken against a fingersnapping chain gang rhythm with emphatic guitar/bass/bass drum thumps and tweaks decorating Williams’ increasingly dissolute vocal (“I feel…closing around me”). With his “There’s the sky” he seems to be swallowed by the strings before he can utter “…where sea should be.” There are brass blasts from the next galaxy, the flute again, and then Williams’ double-tracked harmonies come into being. The song finally dissolves into inchoate murmurs in the aether, barely exists beyond end horizon. This record is not quite what it presents itself as being.

The side ends with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; the same easy swing tempo as “What Now My Love” but a two-bass, octave-leaping figure which almost certainly owes something to Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango” is a sturdier buoy. The song moves into straightforward swing for its choruses, but throughout, with the tune’s endlessly ascending key changes, Williams again seems somewhat detached from the life of the self that he is describing (“She had…mmmmm….kisses sweeter than wine” he hums, as if consuming his own life slightly faster than he is living it). The double-tracked vocals reappear in the third verse, the increasingly icy high strings in the fourth. The alto sax takes us out of side one, accompanied by a curiously Cale-esque clanging piano. The feeling begins to be engendered that if Brian Eno were producing an Andy Williams album it would not sound dissimilar to this.

Little of this, however, prepares us for the astonishing second side, during which Williams appears ready to leave this world altogether. “Holly” was written by one Craig Smith, then of the folk-rock group The Penny Arkade; he subsequently drifted off to India and to drugs, and when he came back in the early seventies it was as Maitreya Kali, under which name he produced a couple of highly disturbing albums whose chill spirits owe more to Manson than Roky Erickson before he drifted off into complete obscurity. Williams’ reading of “Holly” with its peaceful, patient acoustic guitar balanced by busier electric one-note picking certainly radiates something of the mystical, this “Holly” enters his mind but it’s no longer clear whether Holly is a woman or simply (simply?) a state of a disturbed mind. “With the sun and the sea and the sky she remains” Williams sings as the song and arrangement crescendo behind him before settling down again into unsettled pacific blues. With the closing proto-Echoplex guitar figures he appears to disappear from the landscape.

“When I Look In Your Eyes” is a song and performance so exceptional one forgets that it comes from Doctor Doolittle; a beautiful song whose aches – first accompanied by piano alone, then (in the second verse) by sympathetic strings – link Williams with Walker. His increasingly enlarging statements – “I see the deepness of the sea,” “Autumn comes, summer dies” – are sung in a manner so similar to Scott that it’s uncanny and the high voice/strings unison ending cries like a butterfly about to fall off the edge of the globe.

Williams then returns slightly closer to Earth with his radically altered readings of Chris Montez’ two radically altered readings of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. In contrast to the cheerful claps and vibraharps of Montez, his “The More I See You” is taken as a slow, bluesy drift. There is a stunning moment where Williams’ sigh expirates and strings instinctively enter, anticipating the chord changes to come. An alto flute dolphin skates atop the beach-kissing surface, and those long, sustained, vibratoless notes at the song’s end would not be out of place on Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land. “There Will Never Be Another You” is more solidly swinging with uncomplicated 4/4 beats, seductive strings and a rather cheesy organ solo, but its momentary return to inspect the lounge is deceptive.

Because Williams’ reading of “God Only Knows” makes him a God. With Williams and Walker – which came first, Ohio or Iowa? – and with Love, Andy and Scott 2 in particular, the parallels and contrasts are now clear. Scott 2 began with wanting to be God and ended by being content to be loved. Whereas Love, Andy begins with smelling her perfume and thinking that being loved would be a nice idea, and ends….by sitting with God. It’s not entirely clear to whom Andy is actually singing “I may not always love you” or “So what good would living do me?” – and the album’s subtle passage from a song written by Carson Parks to a song associated with, if not strictly speaking written by, Van Dyke Parks should also be noted – but let’s consider; he wants the girl, gets her, loses her, immediately starts seeing someone else…but as side one becomes side two, the concept of Other becomes abstract; she’s still there, but far away, and maybe only a mirage. In finality the singer becomes the whole world, his love has to encompass the ocean and the sky, become the world – is Love, Andy a disguised religious album? – or at the very merest addresses the world. Williams sings “God Only Knows” – a song its author considered so holy that he encouraged his brother to pray before singing it – out of tempo, with Lincoln Mayorga’s majestic piano suddenly accelerating into a world-engulfing cathedral of strings and woodwind, screaming out its crescendi before dying down to a chimera of chiming bells and French horn foghorns. Huge, warm (if slightly chilly at times) and embracing, Love, Andy sees the pearly dewdrops’ drops coming on the horizon, constructs its own song to sing to all reigning sirens.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Scott WALKER: Scott 2

 (#54: 18 May 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Jackie/Best Of Both Worlds/Black Sheep Boy/The Amorous Humphrey Plugg/Next/The Girls From The Streets/Plastic Palace People/Wait Until Dark/The Girls And The Dogs/Windows Of The World/The Bridge/Come Next Spring

“As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes…And so, while this man was thinking sullied, still there was an admixture of pleasurable cognition in his thinking, struggling with the original perception.”
(Donald Barthelme, “The Balloon,” from the short story collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“All they ask is where I’ve been/Knowing I’ve been West.”
(Tim Hardin, “Black Sheep Boy”)

Scott 2 stands alone in this gallery of 1968 number one albums, as alone as its creator perhaps always intended it to be. A radically different concept of the Worried Man from that of Dylan’s, and one possibly more attuned to that period’s other American viewing Britain through lovingly jaded eyes, Patrick McGoohan, the record has little in common with any of the other trends which this year covers – no particular connection with folk-rock, certainly none with what was left of the British beat boom, not much concretely to do with soul music and, despite the preponderance of cover versions and the rich orchestrations of Wally Stott, Reg Guest and Peter Knight, absolutely nothing in common with “easy listening”; Val Doonican was not apt to interrupt his musings on loneliness – never to be confused with Walker’s loneness – with reflections on “wine and piss,” as Walker does on “The Bridge.”

Yet no other number one album of its year has more in common with Sgt Pepper, and in particular its insistence upon the value of childhood and maybe even “second childishness.” Throughout these dozen songs, children and angels recur again and again – foreseeing the inevitable union of “Boy Child” on Scott 4 some 18 months later – and while the three Brel songs do not mention children at all, Walker cannot hide his childish glee at singing them; as with the startling, red meter-demolishing reading of “Mathilda” which commenced 1967’s debut Scott; suddenly he sounds shed of his lonely 1966 cloak, freed of the need to cater to all needs (or so he thought) – through his childishness he attains adulthood. And it ought not to be forgotten, the talk of Isle of Wight monasteries and moonlit flits to and from Fulham notwithstanding, that Walker was introduced to Brel’s work by a girlfriend he met one night at the Playboy Club. “Jackie” is one of the most cheerful demolitions of a teen idol’s own status ever to commence an album; banned by the BBC (despite Walker’s come-on tongue twisting of the phrase “authentic queers and phoney virgins”), he towers joyous, prepared to rule the world and even be its God, as long as he can hang on to that thing he once had, the time they called him something else, something shorter. That having been said, he doesn’t seem particularly keen on inhabiting any world he might come to rule (“’cause down below is really nowhere,” he smirks in the final verse).

Even the selection of standards seems to reflect and comment upon his renewed status; his record company did not yet feel confident about letting Walker loose on a whole album of self-penned songs and still wanted him to keep one foot pitched in the All-Round Entertainer camp (hence, amongst other things, his very moving reading of Tony Hatch’s “Joanna,” complete with characteristic Walker lyric rewrites, which made the top ten singles chart that summer and does not appear on any of his studio albums). Perhaps they had heeded the warnings posed by those Walker Brothers camouflage tracks and knew that this was a man who was doomed not to be argued with – the flugelhorn which introduces 1966’s “Oedipus” is the same one (Derek Watkins) which traces the cancerous smoke through 2006’s “Cue,” the chains which drag down 1965’s “Archangel” recur on Ute Lemper’s “Lulla-bye (Bye Bye)” four decades later.

“Best Of Both Worlds,” on the face of it a standard “him or me” MoR chestbeater – it was also recorded by Lulu but sounds as though Shirley Bassey were waiting to sing it – seems here more a comment on how Walker felt he was being perceived, simultaneously wanting to be a pop star and a closet experimentalist. His “Make your fickle mind up” is answered by a furious fusillade of French horns; he snarls the “take” of “Take your new lover” with an unanticipated ferocity (and his drawled “enjoy”s suggest a more threatening PJ Proby). Whereas this American never sounds more American than on his carefully casual reading of Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy,” although again the arrangement comments on his self-destructive tendencies, with its unusually emphatic tambourine and the shrugged shoulder of strings which greets his singing of the title.

Abruptly, however, comes the undiluted Scott Engel. Humphrey Plugg was apparently an American cartoon and/or comic strip character from the thirties, although I could find nothing on the internet or elsewhere to confirm this; certainly “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” could have been conceived and performed nowhere except in Britain. Brass, strings and even accordion and mandolin now float in Poussinesque slow motion, as though underwater, weighed down by the impossible demands of the protagonist’s island; he comes home, presumably late from the pub (“Every night with the boys”) and, slightly pissed, slips on the kitchen floor his wife has just waxed, concusses himself and imagines himself greater than his world, exceeding himself (“I’ve become a giant”). He reflects that he would be quite happy to die at this moment “in nine angels’ arms” (as the tubular bells toll and the French horn foghorn blows, Leonard Woolf-like), away from the banal – his contemptuous “and the TELLY” hisses like a sutured scythe – but as he takes his throne with the Muses, “Doreen of the candles” summons him back (“You’re all right now”), and this would-be Reginald Perrin returns with some reluctance to his “enchanting way.” Change the world once you’ve sorted out the tax returns and the gas bill. The underlying dream, however, cannot be ignored (“Why the hell should I care?”).

Although, as I have said, childhood as such plays no part in the Brel readings, “Next” materialises like a child forever condemned to be afraid of adulthood, with its shovelling in of prostitutes with far deadlier queues. One of two songs from this year and in this tale which would benefit from subsequent, earthier readings by the late Alex Harvey, Walker starts his “Next” relatively camp, as though revelling in the notion of boy band brigadier singing about gonorrhoea and queer lieutenants, before switching dramatically in the final “And the naked and the dead” verse into his more familiar, apocalypse-anticipating severity, such that concentration camps rather than mobile Army whorehouses are brought to mind. In “Jackie” he imagines his godlike self struck deaf, dumb and blind by pity; now he is prepared to cut his legs off and burn himself alive just to avoid intimate contact with another human being.

“The Girls From The Streets,” Walker’s most overt attempt to “do Brel,” finds him still in two minds. The deliberately leaden procession of the verses, combined with words like “Snap! The waiters animate, luxuriate like planets whirling ‘round the sun,” suggest a predication of Gary Numan, but the transition into the choruses sounds a little forced and its hideous Light Programme backing singers and accordion are more in keeping with Benny Hill avec comedy beret; it tries to be greater, more ambitious, than Brel, but Walker hasn’t yet worked out how to pull it off.

Then, at the beginning of side two, Walker suddenly pulls pop off. “Plastic Palace People” offers the record’s first real hint of the tilting and drifting to come; dreamy high strings and harp sees “Billy” soaring over the rooftops, an impatient child waiting in the gathering night back down on the ground pleading, demanding, that he “come down from there.” So far, a Mary Poppins fantasy, but then the waltz stops, a 4/4 guitar and tambourine enter, and Walker solemnly declaims, as though having crept right inside our head, “PLASTIC PALACE PEOPLE,” singing about Alice, too big to crawl into her desired world, too small to get back into the real one, about predestined fate – and then the song moves into a different waltz, a distorted (Leslie cabinet plus delayed automatic double tracking on Walker’s voice) mask of horror – “the whole eternal life” sounding like an irrevocable banishment to Hell as three glockenspiel notes awaken us back to what may or may not be nocturnal reality. The song then moves through the same motions, but the stakes are higher (“My mother weeps and weaves her hair” – so why doesn’t he just go home? And why can’t “Billy” come down?) and the horrors when the distortion recurs all the greater: “They’re laughing in the halls/They rip your face with lies,” and the ambition is turned to slaughter. Walker's hideously refracted echoes of "You cry for help" echo, of all people, the still trapped Presley of "Heartbreak Hotel," and also look forward to 2006's more explicit homage "Jesse."

The clouds and the altitude finally cause Billy – who is, after all, only a balloon – to burst; with posthumous melancholy he comes down to “morning square” (or should that be “mourning”?), and, in Walker’s most defeated tones, ends up “just hanging there” – a pause to check for final signs of life – “just hanging there.” Then the strings and harp themselves become distorted, an abstract mistral of synthesised discord to underline this tale of Icarus in negative; the boy on the ground, afraid to let go of his childhood, the ambitious adolescent in the air, ready to be shot down at the slightest provocation – by drugs, by lies, by “The Land Of Make Believe” (and “Plastic Palace People” has much in common with that doom-laying 1981 chart-topper). It may well be, as Lena suggested, that the whole of Scott 2 takes place in this one square – as indeed the stories of Scott 3 and the bulk of ‘Til The Band Comes In were concentrated on one block of flats – but indeed it may well all be taking place in the mind of the same person, and that person may well be Scott Walker (though we should always be wary of making the elementary mistake of definitively confusing the artist with the subjects of his art). Or else we think of this balloon as covering the cloisters of the city which the writer chooses to inhabit; it can petrify, inspire awe, make its observers curious or resentful.

Mancini's "Wait Until Dark" appears to provide an artful line back to "normality" - "a cheerless day may bring us little dreams" contrasting with the preceding multiplying nights of the balloon - but even this song is taken from the 1967 film of a murder thriller starring a blinded Audrey Hepburn (as "Suzy Hendrix"), such that Walker's titular enticements adopt a tone of menace; the plot turns on a stash of heroin hidden in a doll, which in itself could sum up the subsequent four decades of Walker work. The concluding waterfall of strings and acoustic guitar plunge into an eddying Hades.

"The Girls And The Dogs" is the third and most uncomplicatedly cheerful of the album's Brel readings, and the last occasion on the album where Walker appears to be having fun; essentially a sprechtesang list song of the "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" variety, the singer's alternating tones of bemusedness, fake boldness and palpable self-pity point directly to Billy MacKenzie's - did someone sing something about a doomed "Billy" soaring over the rooftops before bursting? - performance on the Associates' "It's Better This Way."

Then Bacharach and David's "Windows Of The World," a gentle reminder of the times in which this record existed. The record's two main thematic axes, children and angels (as the Brel and Brel-derived songs demonstrate, angels are sometimes barely distinguishable from devils but both are capable of crying "angels' tears" disguised as rain), are subtly united here; the rolling marimba and long, rhetorical pauses between verses serve to rack up the tension as Walker slowly moves from personal reflection to the rain which in 1968 seemed to be drowning the world (see also Fogerty's subsequent "Who'll Stop The Rain?"). "Let the sunshine through," sings Walker with infinite patience - although at the time of Scott 2 he was actually busy coordinating the UK branch of the Democrats Abroad campaign for votes to secure Robert Kennedy's nomination - and the high string unison which concludes the piece seems to suggest the intrusion of rays.

"The Bridge" is the album's last Walker original, and perhaps the most enigmatic (and certainly the quietest); on the face of it, he is looking out at a bridge which he is already personifying as a woman, mournful with memories of his Madelaine. White doves combine with cobblestone-staining sailors as Walker views the aftermath of this high Brelian life; the world has moved on, and so has Madelaine, but he hasn't - and by his bitter recollections of a more sinister departure ("Before the bottle dulled my eyes/And made me so I couldn't stand"), he reveals himself as an incurable exile; did he send Madelaine away by force, or did she simply drift off, without ever noticing or even remembering him? Lyrically the sequence and expression of the imagery owe a great deal to that seldom-cited influence on Walker's work, Leonard Cohen, but without the winking get-out clause; one feels that he would be the ideal subject of "Dress Rehearsal Rag."

But not everything is quite lost. "Come Next Spring" is a cathartic closer, Walker, the man who at the start of this record loudly wanted to rule the world and be God, now serenely accepts that all he wants is to be loved, by just the one person (not counting himself). In any other 1968 crooner's hands this would be a sentimental Cinemascope finale, but Walker's hopes remain by definition autumnal; he looks forward to a fresher, clearer year to dawn, he surrenders to his own vulnerability, wants to be touched and held and kissed again; unlike the dead eyes which ripped through the previous album's "Always Coming Back To You," he is now prepared to offer himself a happy ending; the iceberg created by the furrowed frost of "Such A Small Love" displays signs of melting - and since then he has continued to look for that happy ending, even if it means an unanswerable loneness, perhaps beyond life itself ("The Electrician"), or simply leaving everyone and everything else behind ("Blanket Roll Blues"), admitting "I gotta quit" at the end of Tilt, finally acknowledging Dylan's notion of the lonely room - although 1968 has already seen three of these, Walker's will turn out to be the loneliest and most alienated - in 1996's reading of "I Threw It All Away," through to the pestering but conclusive whisper of "It's OK" he gives himself at the end of The Drift. His is one of the greatest careers this tale has to tell, and also, by automatic association, the most confounding; almost alone of the subjects of this story, he has constructed his own path, defined his own parameters, defied logical gravity such that we are led to think that it is we who don't know our left foot from our right - and he is usually right.

"But it is wrong to speak of 'situations,' implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there -- muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with the walnut and soft yellows. A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there."
(Barthelme, op cit)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Bob DYLAN: John Wesley Harding

(#53: 9 March 1968, 10 weeks; 25 May 1968, 3 weeks)

Track listing: John Wesley Harding/As I Went Out One Morning/I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine/All Along The Watchtower/The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest/Drifter’s Escape/Dear Landlord/I Am A Lonesome Hobo/I Pity The Poor Immigrant/The Wicked Messenger/Down Along The Cove/I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
(Thomas Paine, Dissertations on First Principles of Government, 1795)

Although most think of it as a 1968 album, John Wesley Harding appeared in the record racks on 27 December 1967. There were many who could have justifiably laid that year to rest by having the last word on it but Dylan’s was the most avidly awaited and the least noticed or expected. The album sneaked out less than a month after the recording sessions had ended; Dylan was keen on there being no hype, for the work simply to materialise.

There were, as I said, a few other “last words” appended to 1967; Wild Honey saw the Beach Boys getting back to basics in a far more pragmatic way (because driven by necessity). Love’s Forever Changes sees its world dying and only gradually clears its mind as to what kind of new world it wants to replace it. Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat was as violent a repudiation of what 1967 stood for, or was supposed to stand for, as anything released by Engelbert Humperdinck; throughout “Sister Ray,” Reed and Cale meticulously pull apart every last atom of bubblegum to reveal an awful new dawn.

John Wesley Harding, however, became recognised,, and was prominent in a year from which its creator was otherwise largely absent. Note that the record stayed on top in the UK for some three months – interrupted for one week only by entry #54 - and that this run covered the period of the Paris riots, the King and Kennedy assassinations, the worsening of the Vietnam situation, the gradual return of Nixon. Clearly, 1968 was turning out to be the gruesome antithesis to everything 1967 had promised, and it was therefore the case that this album was needed – it spoke to a community which painfully needed to be reassured. True, May 1968 also saw the gleeful autodestructing fusillades of Mantler’s Communications – three of its five pieces were taped that month - and Br√∂tzmann’s Machine Gun, but security was needed in tandem with revolutionary urges.

In particular, John Wesley Harding recognises that revolution has no point or purpose if, in its ashes, we cannot recognise and acknowledge our friends and neighbours. Sgt Pepper was all about community, but the stage remained raised. In contrast, Dylan spent most of 1967 laid low in Woodstock, with the band who would eventually become The Band, hanging out, making music and writing songs for its and their own sakes; he also became a father that year, and this all combined to a clarification – if not a simplification – of his aesthetic world view.

It is virtually impossible to speak of the album without reference to the (predominantly) Canadian group who, by finding and forming their own true identity, helped to identify a way out; not quite a third way, but the way 1967 had always intended. Music From Big Pink only peaked at #30 in the States and didn’t chart at all in Britain; nonetheless, its example subtly permeated most of the worthwhile music which would emerge from the remainder of its decade. With the partial exception of Levon Helm, the Band had accompanied Dylan through his most turbulent and ecstatic music and indeed had enabled it; the surge of excitable, righteous noise which constitutes the electric half of the 1966 “Albert Hall” concert retains a power second to few, if any, of its peers or successors. But one can only scream for so long before becoming hoarse, and before long both Dylan and the Band were looking for something else – namely, who and what they really were, what it meant to be “together” in 1967, how that could be perpetrated and extended into a meaningful future. Throughout The Basement Tapes the fun in music-making seems much more high than chill, since the intent was to help create, or at any rate suggest, a new notion of society. It’s arguable that John Wesley Harding was the most literal, and also the most serious – because, finally, it was the most lighthearted – interpretation of the Pepper message. The screams of post-Highway 61/Blonde On Blonde surrealism could only end up entangling themselves in their own constructs, as Lennon smartly demonstrated towards the end of 1967 on “I Am The Walrus,” the nearest aural equivalent of an artist’s brain exploding. You’ve turned the tables over, now what food do you propose to serve from them?

Music From Big Pink demonstrated, just as John Wesley Harding does, how much the Band and Dylan had learned from the Woodstock sessions; “Tears Of Rage” remains the most startling (because so unexpected – a ballad?) beginning to any 1968 “rock” album, and despite the appearances of 19th century revivalism, side two (from “We Can Talk” onwards) is as musically radical (but not in a spell-it-out, exhibitionist sense) as anything released in that year. It is the sound of a decade-old group getting inside itself and, by doing so, exceeding its own expectations, as well as inventing, not so much a new language, but a new perspective on the old language. Adult music without the oppression of adulthood to weigh its boots down, but by no means divorced from pop (Robbie Robertson knew his Curtis Mayfield licks all right in 1968).

Likewise, some still speak of the Dylan of John Wesley Harding as a savage repudiator of his own recent pop past, and even now people are saying similar things about Manafon, David Sylvian’s new album, with its opening gambit of a placid wrecking ball smashing down the false idols of a quarter-century’s misplaced trust. But I’m not so sure that either record – each about different perspectives of an individual as projections of the artists themselves, be it a 19th century American outlaw or the 20th century Welsh radical poet RS Thomas (who, as Sylvian notes with a smiling sadness on the album’s titular closing track, could be so purist that he ended up “not knowing his left foot from his right”) – could exist without a keen awareness and underlying love of pop. Both Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde – both top five albums, but not number ones, in the UK – had erected a wall of nowness which was unbreachable and vital. But although Dylan pared his poetic language down – relatively - for John Wesley Harding and simplified the music (in terms of participants and arrangements, if not activity or inventiveness) considerably, the dozen songs here are hardly less radical than those of their two predecessors. If you choose to judge the record by its bare-boned bass/drums accompaniment and its procession of simple, parable homilies alone then it will seem less obviously radical than 61 or Blonde. The way Dylan sings and plays these songs, however, the spaces between his thoughts, between expression and fulfilment – these suggest that the adventure had simply been channelled into subtler waters.

The album was recorded over three sessions in Nashville with stalwarts Kenny Buttrey on drums and Charlie McCoy on bass – Dylan briefly considered calling in Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson for some overdubs but both parties agreed that the songs were fine enough as they stood – and the opening title track, like so many of these albums under consideration, provides the key for the rest of the record; here is a straightforward song about a less than straightforward man who formed his own Robin Hood path to righteous redistribution. He never gets caught or nailed down, he helps those who deserve to be helped, and in particular he serves whatever community he finds himself inhabiting, even bringing multiple communities together by his peculiar example (“All along the telegraph/His name it did resound”). Johnny Cash would have recognised the air in an instant, and Buttrey and McCoy tick unobtrusively behind Dylan’s voice, guitar and harmonica until, alerted by a change in intensity in the vocals (on the line “To lend a helping hand”) and the electrifying intrusion of Dylan’s harmonica, Buttrey’s drums suddenly stir and become busy (and yet again provide an unlikely precedent for drum n’ bass); they too are breaking their bonds. This is the landscape against which Dylan’s dramas are played out, the land through which he himself – if he fancies himself as Harding – is travelling and from which he is reporting back his findings.

So he wanders out one morning, this worried man, sees a statue of Thomas Paine somewhere and gets to thinking, to the tune of a medieval lay; all of a sudden this girl in chains runs up to him, asking for unity, pleading to fly South – to the land of the oppressors? But the marbled example of Paine, rather than the true memory or material of the man himself, refutes her on his behalf, tears her away with the fateful avidity to punish that scars his would-be disciples. Dylan’s hurt arc of “as she was letting GO-O-O” speaks tears of its own forfeited heaven.

Comfort is very far away at this point. The worried man – where are those directions home? – has visions of the victimised monk, who growls “Go your way accordingly, and know you’re not alone” (we’ll get back to that “you’re not alone” much later on in this tale), and then imagines himself as one of his killers. Dylan’s concluding, devastated “and bowed my head and cried” was as excoriating a cry as any to be heard from the more easily excitable quarters of 1968.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” he then tries to reassure us, to a fast, sprightly but disturbed beat which puts me in mind of the Four Tops, as he summons up and surveys the impending apocalypse. “Life is but a joke,” he sings, unconsciously (or not) echoing the Supremes’ “Is this game of life a mistake?” As his wind begins to howl – and his wildcat as terrifying a dead end as any black dog Johnson or Drake might have encountered – his harmonica honks and howls aridly, like a dessicated Pharaoh Sanders. Hendrix only needed to increase the tempo slightly, change the rhythmic accents, volumise his grief and impose three crucial worlds of mourning guitars upon its jigsaw to switch the lights on for an electrified world’s end – and, as Dylan and the Band would play it a few years and several lifetimes later on the Before The Flood collection, “Watchtower” can still come across as the last song issuing from a burned Earth.

This apocalypse, however, is recognisably the same one through which the narrator of “A Hard Rain” once travelled, and we know that he has simply continued his travels through the fire and the flood; John Wesley Harding could be interpreted as his most fulsome bulletin. “Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” bounds along joyfully on its trampolining rap for nearly six minutes – “With a soulful, bounding LEAP!” – with its fairly simple analogies; don’t mistake paradise for eternity, let alone the other man’s grass, but at the same time don’t imagine that you can get through this hellish world alone in order to make it heavenly. But Dylan makes the choices as icy and unavoidable as those offered to the hapless knight in Walker’s “The Seventh Seal,” and again his harmonica – John Wesley Harding offers much of Dylan’s bluntest and most passionate harmonica playing – seems to shred souls to the dimensions of shrunken early spring morning icicles. Side one concludes with Dylan’s most tortured vocal on the record: “Drifter’s Escape” sees his unwilling accused in near-indescribable worry (“Oh, help me in my weakness!” he numbly screams in a vacant lot of a falsetto at the song’s beginning) before his court is destroyed by a lightning bolt and, while everyone else kneels down to pray, he flees (knowing that this is “ten times worse” than any “trial”). Note how McCoy’s bass mimics the judge’s gavel at key points in the song and how, as the drifter (or Number 6, since the scenario is strikingly similar to that of “Fall Out”) escapes, so does his bass begin to roam free and breathe.

While the country influences on John Wesley Harding have long since been accentuated, the deep soul input is rarely summoned to anyone’s attention; “Dear Landlord,” however, has an arrangement which could have come straight out of Otis Redding, its considered piano duelling with McCoy’s emphatic, repeated high A bass notes (particularly noticeable on the phrase “beyond control”). The operatic midtempo setting also suggests the barren walls of James Carr, although Dylan’s pleas for understanding and tolerance to his mother nation are more in keeping, vocally, with John Lennon.

But what if the nation rejects its son anyway? On “Dear Landlord” the worried man begs for entry and acceptance, but on “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” he’s still trying to find his roots; he’s tried everything (bad) and gotten nowhere (fast) – as with all the other misguided perpetrators we meet on this record (if they are not all reflections of the narrator himself), he has found no joy or permanence in material things, but still knows enough to warn the rest of us not to end up like him, not to be crucified by “petty jealousies.” As though to ram the point home, his atonal harmonica crackles into the picture like fugitive Mary Chain feedback.

On “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” however, the harmonica takes on the solemn, stately confidence of a church organ as Dylan demonstrates Paine-like compassion for the outsider who comes in to wreck the world – an allusion to Vietnam? As with “A Day In The Life,” he’s artful enough not to need to spell it out – but who ultimately only ends up destroying himself, the man who mistook Paradise for the nation across the sea, who can make nothing save foolish moves. Again there is the emphasis on rejecting the material – “Who falls in love with wealth himself/And turns his back on me” – and the nothingness to which this abject worship will, in anyone’s end, lead him. Pity for the enemy? Was this allowed in the 1968 of beaches underlying pavements? Dylan’s narrator has less time for serial complainants; “The Wicked Messenger” is only wicked by (anti-)virtue of his ceaseless, self-directed whining, and by the time his exhausted audience inform him, “If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any,” he unaccountably finds that these words have “opened up his heart” – and so the album, finally, opens up to admit humanity and love.

And Pete Drake. The first noticeable thing about “Down Along The Cove” – other than how much it resembles a mid-period Elvis movie theme tune – is a fourth voice we haven’t heard before, that of a pedal steel, and since the song’s theme is summed up by the refrain “I spied my true love comin’ my way,” the precise antithesis to the stony rejection of “As I Walked Out One Morning,” it is apt that this new voice should speak in tones feminine. Here the man begins not to be worried, and finally discovers the life he surely knew was his for having all along, realises the joy in settling, in neighbourliness and companionship as well as love. “Ev’rybody watchin’ us go by,” exclaims Dylan, “knows we’re in love – YES – and they understand.” And all of a sudden the Edmund Spenser language and the multiple Old Testament references retreat into the background; this is life, this is nowness, this is how 1967 really intended and desired humanity to be.

Drake is there, too, for the home on the range, sunset on the prairie, finale, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” skiing tracks of elision carefully (but caressingly) under Dylan’s Hank Williams (or Slim Whitman?) semi-yodel (in the phrase “mocking bird”). The wanderer recognises his heart as happy – “bring that bottle over here” – and his world never warmer, but with the glow of heaven rather than the fires of hell. The happy ending “A Day In The Life” deserved, and 1968’s deserved - and most necessary - chart champion, which established a precedent which reached far beyond its begetter.