November 1990; 9 weeks)
Track listing: Holiday/Lucky Star/Borderline/Like A
Virgin/Material Girl/Crazy For You/Into The Groove/Live To Tell/Papa Don’t
Preach/Open Your Heart/La Isla Bonita/Like A Prayer/Express
Yourself/Cherish/Vogue/Justify My Love/Rescue Me
"Sometimes, though, you want something more: work so intense and compelling you will risk
chaos to get close to it, music that smashes through a world that for all of
its desolation may be taking on too many comforts of familiarity. Sly created a moment of lucidity in the midst
of all the obvious negatives and the false, faked hopes; he made his despair
mean something in the midst of despair it is all too easy to think may mean
nothing at all. He was clearing away the
cultural and political debris that seemed piled up in mounds on the streets, in
the papers, in the record stores; for all of the darkness of what he had to say
and how he said it, his music had the kind of strength and the naked honesty
that could make you want to start over."
Greil Marcus, Mystery
Train, pg. 89
The shock. The
loss. It has been a hard few days now,
with more, I know, to come; and the immediate response here was to be
alienated, utterly, from music. The
ocean of sound was silent, waveless; or even if it did have waves, I was too
numb or worried or angry to be able to hear them.
A shock like this (if indeed you experienced it as shock,
and not sad confirmation) can throw you off of a lot of things, but for me it
brought into almost unbearable contrast what Marcus talks about here – there is
lucid music, music that helps in one way or another, and there is mere
entertainment that gets washed away in the aftermath. Music becomes, everything becomes, terribly
personal, but also bigger than life. New
ties are forged, alliances made, tentative uneasy things are now
impossible. Everything is in a new
I was part of something like this once, on a personal level,
and while I won’t go into details – it is the feeling here that counts – I recall enough of it to remember the
embarrassment, the trickle of details that became upon my questioning a
flood. I wasn’t supposed to know about
any of it, presumably until after the event.
My ignorance was required because my loyalty was to the person who really wasn’t supposed to know. I was not just uninvited; I was not trusted,
nor was the person trusted. Suddenly all
became clear, and I wondered, had I not been there that night, who would have told me.
But the upshot was, there were people there, and I wasn’t one of them. Us vs. Them.
The disdain of the ultimate Us over all the others. Supposed unity
becoming disunity, disarray. The only way out is to say, out loud even,
“Well now I know” and not be intimidated, should the time come and you see that
ultimate Us again. But you do see those
who, if you had met them, would have said nothing, very differently. And they respond, by not even replying to a
hello, or being friendly themselves.
Because you are, in whatever social order is left, beneath them. Maybe you always were, in their eyes.
In the face of this, writing about Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is
difficult. Perhaps for some it meets
Marcus’ qualities of toughness and naked honesty, but listening to her remixed
greatest hits does not help with my engagement with the world. She is not able to speak to me, and then I
realized not quite blithely that for the most part even back when these songs
were new, she wasn’t really speaking to me.
I was not a Madonna fan in the '80s/'90s apart from a few songs, ones where
I felt she actually was feeling
something and seemed to be speaking from some personal experience. The fact that this is the best-selling album
in 1990 in the UK or her biggest album period worldwide is interesting, but doesn’t
really matter to me here; however I will look at it long enough to perhaps
figure out why.
The liner notes, by Gene Sculatti, are pure praise the
entire way; mysteriously, he has written them in such a way to enthuse
endlessly about her, without actually telling the reader that this is a bunch
of remixes and as such the remixes don’t do much for the songs except make you
want to hear the originals again. I am
under the impression that he was given a list of songs, a word count and a
deadline, or maybe he did know and didn’t bother to tell the reader, as
fundamentally it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Look at the cover; she is not there – she whose face was ubiquitous, not
there. (There are plenty of the equally
ubiquitous Herb Ritts photos inside, where she looks like a glammed up Chico
Marx, or perhaps Pinocchio.) She is
Brand Madonna now and does not need to put her face on this collection.
Sculatti defends True Blue, he burbles on about “Hot” radio
formats (mentioning Shannon’s immortal “Let The Music Play” which just makes me
want to listen to it, and not this). He
mentions how “Vogue” was originally supposed to end the album, but two new
songs finish it instead; I will get to those in a moment. What is more interesting to me is one of the
quotes (unattributed) that starts the piece: “an outrageous blend of Little
Orphan Annie, Margaret Thatcher and Mae West...”
Oh I see.
It has suddenly hit me that the cover of The Face – the one
for January 1990, with the '80s summed up as half-Madonna, half-Thatcher – is
accurate, depressingly so. So many girls
grew up at this time admiring both (and boys as well) that any subversiveness
that Madonna may be trying out there, any defiant gestures, get swept away
by the notion that She Who Must Be
Obeyed isn’t just Thatcher, but Madonna herself. Only one song on this album is addressed to
girls, and that’s “Express Yourself” (even here she sounds...like a gym
teacher). Sculatti complains that when
Madonna got the cover of TIME and was
questioned about things, no one asked her about music. I felt like hitting my head against the
nearest blunt object. Madonna is a
musician and songwriter, sure, but she was just as much a sizzling look at the time; fashionistas loved her
and still do, in part because of that She Who Must Be Obeyed business as
anything else.* Clearly if you like that
kind of woman, then here she is; but if not, not. But I cannot ignore the fact that when
Thatcher was made to step down from her position as Prime Minister**, this was
the number one album. The end of an
era? How many bought this for the new
songs, or bought it out of some intense hit of nostalgia? After all, this album sums up that go-get-‘em
“hard-hitting” '80s spirit perfectly well, as Madonna – and this isn’t mentioned
– just rolled up her sleeves and ACHIEVED and had a tumultuous marriage and made
some terrible movies but TRIUMPHED IN THE END and then spent 1990 making one
bossy single after another. People love
that kind of story too, and hence, big sales.
If she wasn’t appropriating the voguing scene for her own
ends (the voguing scene is still a thing, by the way) she was taking a song by
Lenny Kravitz (credited) and Ingrid Chavez (not credited, though eventually she
was) and adding a few words to make “Justify My Love.” Madonna as spectacle; Madonna as a woman in a
perfume ad-style video, intoning the words and trying her best to be all
sexy...does it still work? I am not
sure. It is tough to see this song as
sexy when the lyrics are all about what she
wants to do, lyrics that seem to assume the one being addressed is a hapless
male who will fall for something as repulsive and clunky as “tell me your dreams,
am I in them?” I can sense Camille
Paglia*** and a whole host of other feminists talking about turning the tables
on male objectification (well, maybe not Paglia, come to think of it, though
she was obsessed with Madonna) and
the whole strong-female-demanding-pleasure-and-not-feeling-guilty-about-it thing,
but in the end “Justify My Love” is still a song with a woman demanding love
(like “Open Your Heart” with an R rating), but we never find out what he thinks, reacts or feels. Ultimately it is a song to the listener –
there is no Other. She demands, but that
is not enough.
“Rescue Me” is also a song of demands, one where Madonna
goes on and on about how difficult she is, like a European heiress in New York
who is looking for someone very special, darling: she is “silly” and “weak” but also “ferocious.” How ferocious, you might ask? To this possible Other she can say “With you I’m
not a fascist.” Well now. What does this mean? She has an “angry little heart” (immediately
I think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas)
and this Other can “forgive” this heart.
He can also bring her to her knees “while I’m scratching out the
eyes”**** of a world “I want to conquer and deliver and despise.” Oh, that kind of fascism. Yes, I can see why so many Thatcherkids were
Madonna fans; Thatcher wanted (as far as I can tell) some sort of world where
society didn’t exist, but Proud Individuals did;
and here is Madonna, Proud Individual, demanding that a man indulge even her
worst excesses. She wants another Proud
Individual to care for her (interestingly she doesn’t care if he is “good” for
her, just that her understands her and loves her for herself). I think anyone could have told her this is no
way to get a new boyfriend, let alone husband, and just about anyone reading
the lyrics here will already know Madonna is pretentious but almost literally
impossible to be with....and so the album ends, starting out so innocently with
“Holiday” and “Lucky Star” and ending with a woman admitting that she has no
ability to get herself out of her mess, that she must be rescued, which is not
exactly what a “hard-hitting” woman is supposed to be saying. Is it? Oh, but she has so much power....is so
wealthy and famous....is She Who Must Be Obeyed...then this must be okay,
Is there anything left to say? Madonna wrote her best songs here with
Patrick Leonard (the title track and “Cherish” from Like A Prayer). There is, on the cassette, a big blank space
at the end of side one that shouldn’t be there – it could have been used for
“Angel” or “Everybody.” And yes, it is
the end of an era; the liminal period for Madonna is a difficult one, and she
comes out of it as an Official Pop Star who has no time for what is about to
happen. A part of Madonna is stuck in
the 80s, or you could say her persistent Catholic symbols are also part of her
brand. And her impact is huge; this
album is that impact in audio terms, but there’s a whole world of fashion,
videos, movies and live performances
that compounds it. Are the songs
good? I wish I could say that now I get them, now I understand, but I have not been able to; in high school I
didn’t sense they were for me, and I don’t feel it now, either.
And after such a loss, I can’t really take any comfort from
this, even though she campaigned for the right side, up to the end.
Oh wait another minute. Was “Justify My Love” kind of....pointing to Public Enemy? Well, in that case...let us ride The Immaculate Collection into 1991,
where it’s #1 at the start of the Gulf War, and look forward to....
The sound of thunder; and a deep voice comes out and
says: “The Future Holds Nothing Else But
Confrontation.” A droning noise straight
out of shoegaze, looking to beginning grime; and the drums and Chuck D and so
many bits of samples and scratches that they scatter around like a popcorn
machine going full tilt. “Lost At Birth”
is a reclamation, after much strife; Public Enemy are about the cause “we’re
all in the same game.” Not just Proud
Individuals here, but also and especially Proud and Strong Unities. And if
you’re down with PE, then they are down with you.
“Now the KKK are wearing three-piece suits.”
This is what I needed to hear, after such a loss. And it is RELENTLESS. I cannot even keep up with them, it is next
to useless; there is a momentum to this album that is exactly what Marcus is
talking about. Here is naked honesty,
tons of energy, more than enough to get the listener to keep going, no not just
keep going but to actively do something, to educate themselves. “Can’t Truss It” presents slavery and
oppression that is “inconceivable” and yet unnervingly still present. Have
times changed all that much?
“The story I’m kicking is Goree.” “Yipes.”
Ofra Haza. This is music that
sets music free; endless possibilities and beats and messages are here. “Lyrical Content May Offend!” says the sticker
on the cassette, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga” is pure Lenny Bruce in a
way Bruce could never be; conversational, blunt, funny (it is Flavor Flav). But can PE’s message be heard? Not according to “How To Kill A Radio
Consultant” (PE are taking NO PRISONERS).
But the interlude – Chuck D telling like it is, looking at the church
and liquor store as equal foes of the neighbourhood – is depressingly familiar.
Eventually PE just give up on being played on the
radio. “I can’t live without my radio!”
And now a song about...well, about the “psychological
discomfort” that is there and still there. “ByThe Time I Get To Arizona” is
about Martin Luther King Jr., about jails, about the desert – “what’s a smiling
face, when the whole state’s racist?”
“The same old ways that kept us dying.”
All to something that sounds like
Sly alright. BUT THEN THE SCREAMS OF THE
CROWD! The loop of excitement. “Talkin’ MLK, gonna find a way...This ain’t
no damn dream.” “The hard boulevard I
need it now more than ever.”
Reparations, anyone? One day is
just the start. *****
Some critics think that the second side isn’t as good as the
“See, the black race can’t afford you no more.” What is “Move” about? “I’d rather rush a television reporter.” And it’s about speed, about the truth, “I’d
rather spend my time spitting on a bigot.”
What is the truth? Who has the
money? “If you ain’t with the
program....” “This is a new day!” Countdown to a new world, where PE still
exist despite so many people who would like them to quietly go away. “’91 PE in full effect.”
IT’S A BLACK THING
YOU’VE GOT TO UNDERSTAND
“1 Million Bottlebags” goes back to the world of liquor
stores, advertising and the inordinate amount of it aimed at the black
consumers in the US – “slaves to the liquorman!” Flavor Flav is trying to get a man to stop
drinking his 40 – “another gun to the brain.”
This is like an update of “The Bottle” by Gil Scott-Heron. Profit and greed....
“They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”
“IIIIII Didn’t Die Right.....IIIIIII Didn’t Dieeee Right”
sings Flavor Flav, doing a bad David Bowie (perhaps). “More News at 11” brings in Harry Allen,
Media Assassin. Don’t believe the hype,
A lot of rumors refuted....
“Shut ‘Em Down” is a particular fave of mine, because Chuck
D says something like “Ted Hughes, gettin’ me sued” even though he doesn’t. That aside, it’s about economics, the truth,
and shutting down....oh come on now, how could I not mention this....
“Fashion Week and it’s Shut Down, Went To The Show Sitting
In The Front Row in A Black Tracksuit and it’s SHUT DOWN” – yes, Skepta, he
knows what this about...just slow it down to a rough funk...
“We spend money to no end, looking for a friend.” Stop Funding Hate. Stop Voting For Politicians Who Don’t Care
And now, a friendly word from your local KKK – Bernie Crosshouse,
who is pleased to see “gangs, hoodlums, drug pushers and users” destroying
black communities, so he doesn’t have to.
All with country violins and yahoos and hollers in the background. Yeah, and who did a lot of country stars vote
for? My question, and I don’t know if it
can be answered. Unfortunately, I can’t
ignore such things.....
“A Letter To the New York Post” is perhaps what those
critics objected to; both the Post and Jet get it in the neck; “it always seems they make our neighborhood
look bad.” You can hear Chuck D’s glee
in getting his own back, and Flavor Flav as well; so much controversy had been
around PE that they had to take (or not)....
“Get The F--- Outta Dodge” is about Chuck D driving somewhere in
the South, getting pulled over by the cops and being told to turn down his
radio – and drove out as soon as he could...then being pulled over again in
NYC, because he was driving a pick-up truck.
Then the rookie raps, eager to shoot, eager to arrest. Lest we forget, this album comes at a time
when the L.A. Riots are mere months away....
As gravy, the glorious return of “Bring Tha Noize
(w/Anthrax)” which is just as rocking and joyful and OH YES as “Rock Box” was
back in the day. Anthrax yell, rap, rock
and the Golden Age of Musical Understanding is happening, oh YEAAAAAAAAAAAH
And then back to the tough “hear the drummer get wicked”
loop, and the ending, a wordless tough beat, as if they are moving way ahead of
“Justify My Love” to something more inclusive, more responsive, though just as
demanding, in its own way.
Yes, this is the music Marcus meant; the focus is sharper,
the angles more acute, but this is the point – this music does not draw back or
flinch, and it gives the listener a lot to think about, to get angry about, and
a kind of propelling oomph that gives hope and determination, that possibly may
And now, to the present, and two Canadian albums of note:
One quality of There’s
A Riot Goin’ On That Marcus talks about is the fact that not everything is
very clear, that there is a sense you have to lean into the album to really get
it. Brendan Canning’s album Home Wrecking
Years comes closest to the eerie and
yet familiar feelings I get when I hear Riot;
it doesn’t have the same menace, but the more you listen to it, the more obvious
it is that there are stories galore in it, enough to build a whole novel out
of, I suspect. And there is a languor
about it that threw early reviewers off, who just heard another summertime-fine laid-back Brendan Canning album. It is
that, but the complicated thing is, it’s telling a story of deceit and
betrayal, cheating and being caught, as well.
All the qualities of Canning’s voice work well here – he is close to
you, very quiet at times, and you have to listen intently, crouch down, to get
what he is saying. I don’t know how much
of what he is singing about is from him, from his friends, how much is
autobiographical or if it is made up.
But it doesn’t matter, as it feels genuine and all the language of
“Vibration Walls” and “Keystone Dealers” is at once normal and just weird/creepy,
and by the time he sings about “I found
us some cheap seats in the balcony” you know something very wrong is happening,
yet the music is gentle and spaced-out...
...that is, until it gets to “Nashville Late Pass.” I don’t care if this is just music that he
jammed with his band to, this about being caught out, about the pause between
the knowledge and the reaction, about the awkwardness and the words may be “accidents,
they will happen” but Justin Peroff’s drumming lets you know the thunderous
reactions, the explosion, the music roars along and everything is being
connected, falling into place. There is
nowhere to hide. It skips and starts, it
is anything but laid back. Canning
becomes almost inaudible, as the music just takes OVER and then stops, cutting
off suddenly, like a door being slammed shut.
The songs are
different afterwards – “Work Out In The Wash” is about guilt, using others,
taking off clothes....there is a resigned quality to this, as if he knows it’s
over but is going to act normal until something is figured out. So it sounds a lot happier than it is....”keep
it coming, love”....”Money Mark” is so much a song about things going downhill,
as the bass does. A knot is being undone
musically, and she sings “you’re the young gun anyway.” How many relationships are falling apart
here? Hard to tell, but it’s happening. “So long to the innocent goodbye...here comes
the evening train, goodnight.” And so
the train pulls away, the tracks and train making the noise “money mark, money
mark, money mark...”
“Sleeping Birds Like Lasers” is about that quiet moment when
things are said. “No more room in the
spotlight....can we stop at this next light....okay, okay...you want me to....” Or is it “you want me too”? But I think it must be “you want me to go...”
The fact of going is too awful to say. (You see how complicated this album
is.) The song clatters along uneasily,
breath heavy and drawing in slowly. It
“Baby’s Going Her Own Way” is self-explanatory, save for the
fact the narrator is asking her not to leave, now. And yet is sounds upbeat, settled. Everything is on an even keel again. Who is this Anna in this song? Yet another girl? (There’s an earlier song called “Hey Marika,
Get Born.”) But no matter what the narrator says, she is going and not coming
back. Even a “I’m sorry” doesn’t
work. So he turns mean, says she will “fade
away” if she goes. And the bass gulps
like a thirsty person, and the guitars and drums gently disappear...
For an album which is essentially – as far as I can tell –
just an example of what Canning and his touring band can do, this is a
remarkable album and not one that has had much if any coverage in the UK at
all. I only found it by accident a month
after it was supposed to appear, tucked away in a mall I’d never been to
before. Now, I realize it might annoy some people that this album asks you to
listen and make up a narrative, but it is therefore making you participate in
its meaning – you can become part of the
album if you wish, and if you’ve lived in Toronto then its easy to think of all
this taking place over one hot, humid summer, and resolving in the cool of
autumn, when sleep is easier...
It was always the plan. Patrick Leonard had worked with
Madonna, so of course Leonard Cohen had to be included. It was only right. I hardly know what to write here. I tweeted about Montreal, the river, the
bridges, the languages. Cohen knew he
was coming to the end, that he had to
look back to Montreal again, to Greece, to the synagogue where he first heard
music. The whole sweep of so many places
and people. Patrick Leonard does right
by him, giving his knowing, bleakly funny at times writing the gentlest and
most understanding of frames, and Adam Cohen deserves our thanks for
encouraging his father and making this album possible in the first place. It can seem depressing at first – the darkness,
equal to Sly Stone’s darkness – but Cohen wishes the listener well, and longs
for love and peace, actual love, genuine peace.
This was also good to hear, after the loss. He is leaving, he knows things are
inconsequential to him – but then how much truly is consequential in actual lived life?
Truth will out; time will tell what it is that counts. Cliches?
Maybe, but Cohen stickhandles around these things very slowly and
surely, as if he is showing us a map and noting places, dangers, decisions. This is his life; this is his wisdom, this in
his way is his Unpopular Solutions. He is “out of the game” but still watching
and able to comment; the old player who sees that the game may have appeared to
change superficially, but really hasn’t at all. Cohen knows
in a way that can be utterly trusted, and you don’t have to risk anything to
reach it, other than looking to the world with more intention, of being more
mindful. Unlike Canning, you know what Cohen is saying, there are no
complex narratives that could be rewritten with each new hearing. Cohen is setting it out straight, to meditate
upon, giving the listener just enough before going. It is as if he is giving us this one last
time, as close as he can be, as accurate as he can call it.
And so I return to Madonna and wonder if she could do this,
with Patrick Leonard’s help. Hmm. We shall see.
It is 1991 now, the palindromic year, and as Cohen writes the songs for The Future
(including the ever-hopeful “Democracy”) and the liminal period is reaching its
peak. Anything is possible, or so it
*”I love the way that she clearly enjoys her clothes, and
that she’s this very hard-hitting, tough seeming person. She holds her own in a man’s world and she’s
doesn’t want to be granted any favours because she’s a woman. But at the same time she had really great red
nail polish on when she opened the Tory party conference, and lipstick.” – UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman on
Theresa May, ES magazine, October 21,
2016 The same things could have been said about Thatcher, and certainly are
** Alan Clark:
“You’re fucked, you know that?”
Margaret Thatcher: “Oh, Alan.”
***Honest to God, the only time I’m going to mention her
here. The split face thing The Face did with Thatcher and Madonna is also
there (this time it’s Emily Dickinson
and Nefertiti ) on the cover of her most famous book, Sexual Personae.
****Considering how much endless looking into eyes Madonna
sang about in the early 80s, this signifies that she is all done with looking
into eyes and trying to understand people, I guess.
*****When PE were the support act for U2 on their ’92 tour,
they played this song in Arizona as the last song in their set. Chuck D was a bit nervous about doing it, but
at Bono’s insistence he did. I can only
assume U2 went on to do a storming “Pride (In The Name Of Love).” Considering how controversial the video was,
it was brave of both of them.