Thursday, March 31, 2011


Phil Mershon

     In the Department of Small Surprises, Reuters reports that President Obama authorized “intervention” on behalf of the Libyan rebels—those “ragtag freedom fighting enigmas”—three weeks ago, which places the decision at least one week prior to the declared “humanitarian assistance.” (Jesus, I hate using so many ironic quotes in what is after all merely the first sentence of this article, but times like these require such gimmickry.) Strip away the coded speech and what we have is a series of euphemisms for the providing of and training in the use of weapons to the enemies of our enemy. If this sounds like something we did not necessarily expect from Barack Obama, well, stand back from the piss fan because clandestine or covert intervention on the part of U.S. Presidents is a time-honored tradition. Just ask his immediate predecessor.

    The CIA, born in 1947, was an international force, a pseudo-military guard enlisted to not only protect worldwide U.S. business interests, but also—when the need arises—to make foreign policy. Here is a brief overview of its extra-legal activities.

  • 1947. The Agency propped up democracy by funneling money into right wing Italian political parties, through forgery and propaganda. Why? The U.S. deemed Italy ripe for free elections, a view which did not hold tight with America’s presumed need for security.

  • 1948. The CIA subverted the Hukbalahaps of the Philippines because the considered them left wing insurgents. They discredited these fearless guerrillas by sabotaging local businesses and blaming the sabotage on the Huks.
  • 1949. The CIA helped fund their British equivalent, the MI-6, to help topple the government of Albania. This operation failed.
  • 1953. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company enlisted the CIA in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, leading to the complete takeover by the Shah of Iran, SAVAK, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascension.

  • 1954. United Fruit (later Chiquita) used the CIA to overthrow leader Jacobo Arbenz.
  • 1954. The CIA tried to destroy North Vietnam for nineteen years before finally giving up.

  • 1958. The CIA used a bombing and strafing mission to aid rebels in an attempted coup d’etat of Indonesia’s President Achmed Sukano.
  • 1959-1966. The CIA attempted several hundred times to murder Cuban Premier Fidel Castro.
  • 1960. Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was assassinated.
  • 1961. The Agency employed anti-Castro Cuban exiles to launch an invasion against Cuba. The invasion was unsuccessful.
  • 1962. The French media accused the CIA of trying to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle.

  • 1962. The CIA recruited Laotian tribesmen to fight against the ascension of the Pathet Lao.
  • 1962. The CIA funded the campaign of the Christian Democrats in Chile, a political organization more frie4ndly to ITT and International Nickel than were the socialists.

  • 1963. Carlos Julio Arosemena of Ecuador was overthrown by the same CIA agents who helped put him in power.
  • 1964. The CIA spent three million dollars spreading rumors that Chilean socialist candidate Salvador Allende was a tool of the East European Communist Bloc.
  • 1966. The CIA paid Michigan State University, MIT and several less distinguished schools millions of dollars to provide the Agency with employees to train South Vietnamese students in secret police methodology.
  • 1966. The CIA was caught using the promise of draft deferments to recruit students for spying missions.
  • 1967. William Colby unveiled Operation Phoenix, a procedure to identify and liquidate National Liberation Front leaders. The CIA later admitted to 20,000 killings.
  • 1967. Operation Chaos compiled files on 7,200 Americans, information gathered from illegal letter-openings, wiretappings and surveillance.
  • 1970. Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk was removed from office allowing for a ground invasion that escalated the Vietnam War into Laos and Cambodia.

  • 1973. The CIA assassinated Chilean President Salvador Allende.
  • 1975. The Agency ousted Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and replaced him with Malcolm Frasier.
  • 1979. U.S. President Jimmy Carter permitted the CIA (under Stansfield Turner) to supply arms and training to yet another “ragtag” band of freedom fighters: The Taliban, conveniently located in Afghanistan. Carter’s National Security Advisor admits to having asked Carter, “Which would you rather have? The collapse of the Soviet Union or a bunch of pissed off Muslims?”
  • 1980. Future-CIA Director William Casey and former Director George H.W. Bush conspired to delay the release of fifty-two American hostages held captive in Tehran, Iran, until after the election of their candidate, Ronald Wilson Reagan.
History of CIA

  • 1981. Reagan used the CIA to support the Contras in Nicaragua, in violation of The Boland Amendment, in contempt of Congress, and very much to the delight of Nicaraguan industrialists.
  • 1982. The CIA hired agents to sell crack in East Los Angeles, the profits of which went into funding the Nicaraguan Contras.
  • 1983. The CIA funded reactionary Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in his struggle against communist insurgents.
  • 1983. The Agency gave millions of dollars to El Salvador President and U.S. puppet Duarte to finance his battles against leftist guerrillas.
  • 1984. The United States bombed Libya, attempted to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, killed the leader’s daughter, and spread disinformation throughout the African country.

  • 1989. To send a message to the people of Nicaragua about how to cast their ballots in the upcoming election, for Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush launched an invasion of former ally Panama under the pretext of fighting the war on drugs.
  • 1991. The U.S., having failed to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and having likewise failed to sufficiently get Iran to take over her neighbor, bombed Iraq for forty days and nights. The stated justification was Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, a country invented by stealing itself from Iraq and a country known for its billionaires, most of whom made their life’s savings in the petroleum industry.
  • 2001. In a war that still continues, the CIA enlisted disparate contract agents to combat the elusive Taliban government that the CIA themselves helped place in power.
  • 2003. The United States invaded the country of Iraq in order to control its oil reserves.

  • 2011. The CIA intervened on behalf of Libyan “rebels” who seek to take control of the oil reserves in that country. Since the resistance to Gaddafi are disparate and unorganized tribes—by their own admission—their ability to unify comes about through the fact that most are reportedly Muslim fundamentalist opposed to the secular rule of al-Gaddafi. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011




     Look, I know she's already married--and to a woman, at that--but I can't help it: Laura Flanders makes me weak in the knees, just as she makes me smart in the mind. She was on MSNBC's rather lackluster "The Ed Show" yesterday and I couldn't help notice what a breath of fresh oxygen she was. There was Ed Schultz, doing his best to support President Obama no matter how ridiculous the occasion. Countering him was the infinitely respectful Ms. Flanders, refusing to call the Libyan rebels "freedom fighters" because, as she put it, "I still have questions about who they are."
     That sums her up quite well. She does not have the typical media-ite knee-jerk response that is just as typical from a Schultz and Matthews as from a Coulter and O'Reilly. She thinks about what comes out of the mouths of people--even if she basically likes those people. To say that we need this type of journalistic analysis is to ask ourselves who else is doing it? Well, we have Rachel Maddow, of course, and there is also Amy Goodman. Keith Olbermann (recently of Fok News) does it most of the time. And there's Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. That's it. But the best of the bunch is Laura Flanders. 

     God knows she has the credentials. This host of Grit-TV is related to the fascinating Alexander Cockburn. She is the daughter of Michael Flanders. She has written four books and she speaks with the most unpretentious British accent since Paul McCartney. 

     But there is one last reason why I am so madly in love with Laura Flanders. I suppose this will betray a narcissistic streak in my personality, but that streak does exist, so why hide it? I have been told MANY TIMES and most recently last night by Lisa Ann that, "No wonder you love her! She looks just like you!" Personally, I don't see it. Oh, there may be a similarity in the haircut, especially when mine is long and shaggy. There may be a real partnership in the shape of our noses. But beyond that, I just don't know. But if I did have to look like a woman, Laura Flanders is the woman I would pick.


California Scheming

Little Feat. Dixie Chicken. Warner Bros. 1973.
Dixie Chicken
     Maybe it was this kind of self-exploration that helped send Lowell George to his grave. After the very good and very Allen Toussaint-influenced Dixie Chicken, and the not nearly as good Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, George’s participation in the recordings slipped easily and Bill Payne took long-wanted control of the band. Nothing they recorded after that was half as good as the first four albums. Hoy Hoy was a fine swan song album and contained many rare recordings.
     However messed over George may have been on Sailin’ Shoes, he seemed just as committed to surviving on Dixie Chicken. That change gives these two albums the combined punch of a great novel. When revealing the punch line in the title track, for instance, he doesn’t bemoan the heartache and money he’s wasted on his beloved. On the contrary, he admits that everyone is justified in laughing at him and joins them in doing just that. On "Roll 'em Easy" he celebrates the feeling of helplessness his passions fill him with. Even during "On Your Way Down," the closest thing to bitterness this album offers, the singer is quick to show that he himself is standing at the bottom of that ladder, looking up, albeit, smiling. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had recorded an album, it would have sounded just like Dixie Chicken.

Gram Parsons. Live 1973. Rhino. 1997.
Live 1973
     If any one person ever crammed more successful work into so few years, I’d sure like to hear about it. His first recorded work was in 1967 with The International Submarine Band. That album, Safe at Home, blended populist country music with primitive upbeat blues and was termed by some smart aleck as “country rock.” The next year Parsons accepted an invite to join Roger McGuinn’s group, saving the Byrds from extinction and creating their best album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Restless spirit that he was, Parsons quickly left and helped form the Flying Burrito Brothers, making that band’s brilliant The Gilded Palace of Sin. To support a pair of his own modest solo efforts, he, Emmylou Harris, N.D. Smart II and some crack guitarists formed the Fallen Angels. Live 1973, which features that band, is great not so much because it offers live versions of Parsons’ studio tracks. Rather, these reinvented versions collectively make you wish you could have been in attendance. The harmonizing between Parsons and Harris is a spiritual unburdening. The occasional pedal steel guitar wraps the songs in traditional country music while the rhythm section sets forth perpetual motion uphill. The between-song banter is occasionally hilarious, especially when the drummer fills in for the DJ. And the band’s interplay is so tight it sounds as if they had all taken lessons in the same garage. There’s not one weak number here and most of them could have stood on their own as legitimate country & western hits, were it not for the fact that the album did not see a release in this form until twenty-six years after Parsons’ death.

The Beach Boys. Endless Summer. Capitol. 1974.
Endless Summer
     1974 was just about the last moment anyone would have expected a Beach Boys’ greatest hits package to be released. Rock was in one of its frequent transitional periods. The only thing that the various styles on the radio had in common was a relative slickness. Production—or the rejection of the idea—was the temporary godhead.
     Bam! Outdoor concerts, girls in halters, boys with beards and the smell of perpetual July Fourth weekends came out of the sky, landing at a venue near you. This album’s initial appeal was a bit reactionary, coming at a time when the stability of the union was in considerable question. Still, there is no denying the beauty of these arrangements, Brian Wilson’s depraved falsetto and the more cosmic concerns in tunes such as "Don't Worry, Baby," “Wendy” and "In My Room." Escapism may have been the last thing a self-deluded populace needed. Still, it is hard to argue with the bourgeois bullshit of “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” or any of the other hits here.

Ry Cooder. Paradise and Lunch. Reprise. 1974.
     Cooder is a wild eclectic who used to tour with The Rolling Stones, years later played with Little Village, and still reinvents American music by jazzing it up, giving it life, and building upon songs hardly anybody knows at all. These songs—all but one a cover version—have a remarkable looseness that suggests they could go on forever and yet there is no wasted time here. The playing is extraordinary, Cooder mainly doing slide guitar, an every deep moment is offset by a lilt, a wink, or an amused sneer.

Jackson Browne. Late for the Sky. Asylum. 1974.
Late for the Sky
     In its day this album was not the mania totem is has since become. In fact, as the third album in a series of four that made up the first phase of the singer’s career, this was the one people at the time seemed to like the least. There were few upbeat melodies, almost no attempts at rocking out, and the lyrics no longer reflected the idea that the performer had that Crazy Til I Die tortured life of the self-obsessed James Taylors of our time. As it turned out, this album did rock, but on a much deeper level than most of the audience could fathom. Truth be told, this is my own personal favorite album by anyone or anything. While happily lacking the pretensions of a “concept” LP, these eight songs are all of a piece, of a part, telling stories of a man who may be in this world but who is certainly not committed to being of it. This was not some romanticized version of the outlaw as misogynist (Eagles) or as self-destructive humorist (Zevon). This was the outlaw as Walt Whitman. "For a Dancer," incidentally, may be the best song Browne ever recorded.

The Eagles. One of These Nights. Asylum. 1975.
     It is funny that The Eagles came to embody the concept of 1970s Southern California rock. After all, neither Don Henley nor Glenn Frey were from California and the band’s first three albums were recorded in Great Britain. But you don’t get much more like California than Cleveland, Ohio’s own Joe Walsh and it was his producer who encouraged the boys to give into their more Detroit-like impulses. Even a piece of misogynist swill like “After the Thrill is Gone” at least has a bluesy sound. And while “Lyin’ Eyes” may be Frey at his most Hollywood despicable, “One of These Nights” still maintains its modern sound without sacrificing any of its theatrical ambiances. And "Take it to the Limit" is sheer challenge, an opening, a crack in the door through which the listener may bravely go where only rock stars have gone before. The whole affair is patty-cake precious as hell, but it’s certainly preferable to the moronic Hotel California.

Jefferson Starship. Red Octopus. Grunt. 1975.
     The big deal about this album was supposed to be that Marty Balin had rejoined Paul Kantner and Grace Slick with a new group of musicians and that the Airplane sound would be updated or even pushed into the future. Well, to whomever it was who coined the phrase “Change is good,” I would respond that change is neutral; results are either good or bad. And while Grace Slick probably would have liked a harsher and less commercial sound, Balin won out most of the time and this album became a commercial success surpassing the combined efforts of Jefferson Airplane. Sometimes that was to the artistic good, as with the opening slasher and even “Miracles.” But anyone who thinks that Papa John Creach could play violin better than Jorma Kaukonen could play guitar is simply making an error in judgment.

Linda Ronstadt. Prisoner in Disguise. Asylum. 1975.
     This was the first Ronstadt album to combine the manifest range of the singer’s reach with full instrumentation, united with Peter Asher’s production, best described as punching up the better qualities of Lou Adler and Richard Perry. Drums and guitar are out front on rockers, backing off only when Linda sings. The bass and punched-in guitars simply roll the tunes along, flowing the singer, rather than the other way around. This style allowed Linda Ronstadt to use her voice to dent each song with her own unique imprint. In other words, she went far beyond covering tunes by Neil Young, James Taylor, Lowell George, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson and Jimmy Cliff. While adding nothing to the melody, she rearranged the phrasing to suit some indecipherable design, and while that tactic was not always successful—and often backfired—here it was a grand success. "I Will Always Love You" is the best vocal performance of her career.

Linda Ronstadt. Hasten Down the Wind. Asylum. 1976.
     While her voice was rich, full and as beautiful an instrument as anyone has had at their disposal, the singer’s covers of well-known hits such as “That’ll be the Day” and “Rivers of Babylon” seemed to be robbed of their original emotional enthusiasm, mostly because of Linda’s phrasing, which was always better suited to crossover country ballads and hard country numbers. But Ronstadt also exposed her public to the songs of lesser-known composers such as Karla Bonoff, Ry Cooder, Warren Zevon, and Anna McGarrigle. It is immeasurable the boost her versions did for those young talents. And yet she did have a tendency to rock out in the wrong places and misplace emotion. At times she did not know what she was singing about, as in the case of her later versions of Warren Zevon songs. But this album deserves its stature because of the three Bonoff numbers, especially the riveting album closer, "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me."

Warren Zevon. Warren Zevon. Asylum. 1976.
     My father used to refer to various things as being colder and blacker than a well digger’s butt. That such an expression could belie a compliment may seem unlikely, at least until listening to this splendidly cold and dark album. That it packs a wicked attitude and rolls in the bleak cesspools of everyday life hardly takes away from its strength. It is also accompanied by a savage wit, a hopelessly compelling sense of melody, and an ability for metaphor that have never been bettered by his contemporaries. Add to that the production of Jackson Browne and the participation of a Fleetwood Mac, an Eagle, one Beach Boy and half of the Everly Brothers, and you have the best sounding album ever to come from the Southern California Hiatus Launch Pad.

Karla Bonoff. Karla Bonoff. Columbia. 1977.
     Bonoff’s songwriting fir in perfectly with the new hedonism of the Southern California smarminess of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, as well as with the studio musicians who were always turning up on what was then a new emotional slickness. That does not mean these songs are not good. Most of them are excellent. It’s just interesting that misogynists such as Glenn Frey and Linda Ronstadt saw paeans to anonymous sexual encounters as an opportunity to avoid the complications of commitment, whereas when Bonoff sings these songs, it is obvious she is actually singing about the painful emptiness that desperately needs filled with something human, even if it’s not as real as the love she still hopes to find.

Jackson Browne. Running on Empty. Asylum. 1978.
     In the early 1970s Jackson Browne was the most significant sperm donor of the mutation that came to be named California Rock. Two other acts whose names often arise in such paternity discussions are Little Feat and Ry Cooder. Granted, either of these might have been more technically proficient while devoutly wed to the in-group exclusivity inherent in the cult ideology from which all myths are born. But Little Feat’s vision, for all its ambition, was focused on blurring out the pain their very exclusivity generated. Cooder was more inclined to redevelop other musical forms than to transform himself from purveyor into myth-maker. It took the Heidelberg-born Browne to see through the American maze of unfinished dreams of kids too young to recall the Beach Boys, or of those too smart to think that Brian Wilson knew his 409 from the hole in his surfboard. From that maze, Browne created an Outlaw Myth so successfully refined by lesser talents. Now I am not suggesting that Browne is a founding father in the way of Chuck Berry or Brian Wilson. However, he has managed to release thoughtfully intense and introspectively outreaching music over a span of more than four decades, while such California sunshiners as Wilson, Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller reached their artistic peaks before Browne’s first album was released. Running on Empty remains one of the most live recordings released by a major star. At the zenith of his commercial career, Browne taped himself and his crack band (usually led by multi-instrumentalist David Lindley) everywhere from the concert stage to the tour bus, from back stage to a broom closet. In anyone else’s hands, such a technical decision would have been nothing but a gimmick. But Browne connected each recording venue with the meaning of the song. "Rosie," a song about satisfying oneself, is appropriately performed solo, just as “Shaky Town,” a song about touring, is recorded while wheeling from one location to the next. Best of all, the album closer makes the best segue into an automatic encore ever imagined, while going far beyond mere homage to Maurice Williams’ “Stay.”

Ry Cooder. Bop Til You Drop. Warner Bros. 1979.
     Cooder may have learned to hate this album, but that doesn’t stop it from having some incredible moments. Now, I wouldn’t have done the bashing bullshit on “Hollywood,” either. But everything else here, especially “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” is as good as anything he has ever recorded. The only negative is that this album does have the infamy of being the first digital vinyl ever released.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Damn the Torpedoes. Backstreet. 1979.
     No matter how many levels of audial putrification regurgitate from the record companies, there is always some schmuck determined to put things right. Sometimes that means making new sounds. Sometimes it means digging up some old gripe. In Petty’s case, it’s a bit of both. Depending on his inspiration, he may be as derivative as people claim, but who great is not? It isn’t the fact of stealing influences that counts. It is the quality of the influences stolen and what you do with them that matters. Every song here is tight as the head of a snare drum and twice as jangly.

Warren Zevon. Stand in the Fire. Asylum. 1980.
     This is the great live album. Warren Zevon introduced two new originals here that were so strong they made you wonder what the studio versions might sound like, a cover of Bo Diddley songs that completely raised the tent, and ever-so-slight revisions of some of his best earlier work. Of these latter, especially good are "Werewolves" and "Mohammed'a Radio." But even the least of these ten songs are hilarious, frightening, loud and pounding. Guitarist David Landau and a group of unknowns play as if failure meant death. This and the eleven songs on Zevon’s debut LP are the true greatest hits by this performer.

Warren Zevon. “A Certain Girl.” Asylum. 1980.
     Warren Zevon wrote, sang and performed some of the most exciting music of the second-half of the 1970s. His music dug up the oozy flipside of the Beach Boys idealism in grand metaphors and in straight-on contemporary skin-blazers. His creative insight, intelligence and intensity were soothed by the juices of alcohol, resulting in songs that perfectly conveyed the dank side of Hollywood dreams. By the early 1980s, the damage inherent in such self-abuse threatened to overrun its own conduit, and so albums such as Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, from which this song was the non-hit single, lacked any unifying quality, including humor, anger or even artistic ambition. The sole exception on that album was this cover version of the Neville Brothers non-classic recording. Zevon enlivens this simple song with frustration, coyness, hysterics, and even a self-absorption that shadows everything else of the album.

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." Modern. 1981.
Stop Draggin my heart around
     These two singers share only two things. First, in their respective bands they have both employed a musical device which I call the “hum.” The hum is a sound created by an organ or synthesizer. It lies steady in the background, usually rising and falling with chord progression. Its purpose and effect is to make the music sound full by eradicating all background silence. It is a common gimmick that’s occasionally effective. The second thing Nicks and Petty share is that they sound great together because Petty’s world-weary gravel tones mute Nicks’ soft and silly post-hippie mysticism. In other words, Nicks sounds as if she’s been experiencing the pain suggested by the song’s title. And Petty sounds like a very compelling cure for that pain.

Don Henley. I Can’t Stand Still. Asylum. 1982.
     This Eagles’ drummer had a great start on a solo career until he decided he was VH1’s answer to Elvis. His early singles shattered stained glass social pomposity. “Dirty Laundry” was every bit as mean-spirited as the topic required and “Johnny Can’t Read” avoids cribbing the easy answers. Over all, the album remains refreshing, sounding as if it was made on one soft summer evening while the city burned. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

HOMELESSNESS: Life on the Streets



     We begin with an excerpt from an article published by the Arizona Republic, appearing last July.
A homeless man sleeping in a gated park was run over by a maintenance vehicle Friday morning and later died from his injuries. Sgt. Steve Martos of the Phoenix Police Department said two transient men were sleeping in University Park near 11th Avenue and Van Buren Street when a pool company employee came to do maintenance on the park’s pool at about 5 a.m. The maintenance man had to unlock the gate, meaning the two transients must have jumped the fence, Martos said.     While the maintenance vehicle was backing up, it struck one of the two transients, police said. The driver is not a city employee. It was still dark out at the time, Martos said, but he wasn’t sure if the two men were covered or hidden in some way. The driver called for help, and the injured transient man was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, Martos said. The other transient man was not injured.     No other information was available.

     I referred to this as an excerpt. In fact, that was the complete article. I have been planning for some time now to write a short piece on the subject of the homeless. It is a matter near and dear to me for the worst of all possible reasons. You see, in August 2004, I began an eight month adventure called NO PLACE TO GO. I have written about many of the specifics elsewhere and I have no interest in repeating them now. But because of what I endured, I have taken special interest in some facts and figures which I will now share.

     Each year, more than 3.5 million Americans suffer from homelessness. Here in Arizona, the figures are quite bleak. 30,000 people in Maricopa County are without a home at any given time. 20% of these are children. 27% are women who have been the victims of domestic violence. 12% are veterans.

     And yet those numbers do nothing to explain the horrors of waking up one morning beneath a bridge, wondering where you will eat today, or how. It says nothing to the babies screaming and old women panhandling and young boys robbing. The reason it says nothing is because we as a society have kidded ourselves into believing that the majority of homeless people have brought their circumstances upon themselves. And that is a lie. 

     The number one reason for people living in shelters or city parks or in abandoned basements is poverty. That's right. It isn't drug abuse or laziness or craziness. It is the much simpler condition of having nowhere to go because of a lack of funds. 

     It is true that a lot of homeless people are substance abusers or suffer from some degree of psychiatric symptoms. There's no question about that. The question, however, is which came first? Try living in Boxville for eight months and see how attractive crack cocaine becomes, or how tempting it is to give into the pull of mental illness. 
     Even in America we have begun to give up on the illusion that we want to take care of the weak and fragile. What some people actually want to do is kill them. The shelters are overflowing, transitional housing units have a two-year waiting list, and behavioral health hospitals are full of folks who are just too exhausted to live another day under conditions like this: You wake up just before dawn because a policeman is kicking your bed roll. You stagger off to an orange grove and swipe a couple fresh citrus products to help you wake up. Just as you are crossing the street to go hide in the city park, a car full of imbeciles roars by and the guy riding shotgun hits you between the shoulder blades with an unopened soda can. You fall in the mud, ruining the only pair of pants you own. And it isn't even nine in the morning. 

     Even though you are too weak, you take a job doing day labor. The job pays $55 for eight hours. You are tired but happy because this should allow you to sleep indoors tonight. Except: The employer charges you a five dollar fee to print your check. Don't like it? Fuck you. The check cashing place next door charges five dollars to cash your check. Don't like it? Fuck you. The sign outside the hotel says rooms are $29.95 but it turns out all of THOSE rooms are already taken, so yours will be $35 plus tax, which uses up every dime you worked all day to make. Don't like it? Fuck you.
     And then you repeat the dance. 
     So my advice to you is this: Never lose your job, never lose your house, never lose your partner or spouse or family, never get depressed, never take drugs or drink too much, never find yourself in a situation that is strange to you even if you can't help it because if any of these perfectly common things should happen to you, you may wake up one morning with a cop's boot in your face while the emptiness in your stomach screams for relief. 

     For me it happened a long time ago. It is even fair to say that I was a completely different person then. It is also fair to say that most homeless people in this country do get back on their feet within a year and a half. (Guess that makes me lucky.) But for anyone who has ever experienced this condition for any length of time, their view of the world hardens a bit, calcifies, rottens and decays. So just because you don't think you see homelessness around you, that doesn't mean it isn't there. Hey, it could be as close as your mirror.

Monday, March 28, 2011

THE PLAYLIST (Part 16) Lower Pacific: California Rock

Chapter Sixteen
Lower Pacific: California Rock

     Not everybody does have an ocean and not everybody necessarily wants one. But for the better part of two decades, popular music reeled from the slap of a Malibu wave.

The Beach Boys. All Summer Long. Capitol. 1964.
All Summer Long
     More than any other American vocal group of the 1960s, the Beach Boys concerned themselves with sound. That is why the albums that Brian Wilson dominated—forcing a community harmonics on the other members—remain the ones that retain their initial sense of exhilaration. All Summer Long communicates the sensibility of youth—admittedly privileged youth—so effectively that it is possible to believe that you do have an ocean across the USA, even if you live in Arkansas. "I Get Around" was the hit, "All Summer Long" set the mood, "Hushabye" was glorious tribute, "Wendy" was love in a bottle, and the rest were fun times threatened by complications that may have unnerved even tough guy girl groups like the Shangri-Las.

The Beach Boys. California Girls. Capitol. 1964.
California Girls
     The two most interesting types of Beach Boy fans are those who think that Pet Sounds and Smile were the pinnacles of production and that technical virtuosity and engineering testosterone are what make life worth living, as opposed to those who think that passion, talent and drive are the best indications of artistic merit. This author is of the latter camp. That is why despite the fact that I will never jones for "Salt Lake City," I nevertheless love this album enough to prefer it over most people I’ve known. Reissued and reinvented as Summer Days (and Summer Nights), this album did actually display the first signs of Brian Wilson as the producer who most wanted to be Phil Spector’s brilliant protégé. This is evidenced by the loving version of "Then I Kissed Her" (an answer song to the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”), not to mention the first and last twenty seconds of "California Girls," where the instrumentation is sufficiently distinct as to sound as if it was played by a classically trained quartet. The latter tune and "Help Me, Rhonda" were the hits. But everything here evokes the tension between the security of having what you want and the paranoia of knowing you’ll have it taken away at any moment. That tension comes not from the safety of wall-to-wall production effects. Rather, it comes from the exposed neuroses inherent in so much talent, passion and drive.

We Five. "You Were on my Mind." A&M. 1965.
You were on my mind
     Beverly Bivens, the lead singer for the otherwise male We Five, had an ethereal quality to her voice that was just this side of radiant. “You Were on my Mind,” a song about a lonesome junkie who eases the pain of isolation by shooting up, actually came close to being a Top Ten hit back in 1965, mostly because its message was coded and because Bivens’ mournful voice was the perfect unifying device for the jangling, Byrds-style folk guitar accompaniment. Overall, the effect was pleasant, distracting and not at all inconsequential.

The Byrds. Mr. Tambourine Man. Columbia. 1965.
Mr Tambourine Man
     It’s a shame that the Byrds are so often associated with interpreting the songs of Bob Dylan. It would be better to identify them as guys who could recognize great material. The three Dylan tunes here show that fact, as does ending the LP with the closing theme from Dr. Strangelove ("We'll Meet Again"), right where the planet is explosively depopulated. Still, even that takes away from the excellent guitar sound of both Jim McGuinn and Gene Clark, both of whom wrote or co-wrote some of the album’s better songs. If historians can forget tags such as “folk-rock,” they might recognize this as a new sound, one that pretty perfectly replicates the technological and emotional tenor of the times.
The Byrds. Turn! Turn! Turn! Columbia. 1966.
     Maybe this album is one of the reasons why the Byrds have been associated as such important interpreters of Bob Dylan songs. "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "The Times They are a-Changin'," were not much in the throat of the old bleating calf, but here they become quite musical. Elsewhere, the title track suffers from being one of those ideas that relies on its exact second in history for its effectiveness. Not so with the album’s other two gems, "He was a Friend of Mine," a bit of a tribute to John Kennedy, and the inexplicably hilarious "Oh! Susanna." Meanwhile, we see the band members beginning to learn how to play their instruments and find that the presence of so many guitars isn’t all that distracting. I have never been clear on what David Crosby’s contribution was or, for that matter, what producer Terry Melcher produced. Clearly Chris Hillman’s playing was coming along well, Gene Clark was developing a healthy bitter edge, and McGuinn had by this point become better at the 12-string Rickenbacker than any other recording artist of the time.

The Byrds. Younger Than Yesterday. Columbia. 1967.
Younger Than Yesterday
     With the departure of Gene Clark, a young guitar player named Clarence White came on board. White may have compensated for Clark’s playing, but the absence was not filled when it came to songwriting. In many ways, this was a good thing. Roger (nee Jim) McGuinn had always been clear about the direction he intended the band to take and without Clark’s equally determined ideas, he was free to do what he wanted. What he wanted was for The Byrds to make great music, so David Crosby had to do some songwriting of his own. His "Everybody's Been Burned" is one of the two best things on the album, the other being the Opener, "So You Want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," a song full of wisdom and bile, but also tinged with some accidental irony since the Byrds were no more stars than was Barry McGuire.

The Doors. "People are Strange" and "Love Me Two Times." Elektra. 1967.
Jim Morrison
     This remarkably overrated band should have stuck with their singles, where at least some degree of restraint was required. On albums, from whence sprang their fans’ devotions, the group was longwinded, unfocused and largely pointless beyond an eighth grade adherence. And yet the fascination continues. Jim Morrison was mean to women who loved him, was way too skinny (and later too fat) to be sexy and still inspired restless female dreams, intentionally corrupted certain young admirers and had a ridiculously indulgent movie made about him years after he had not only died but had even ceased to have any importance to the world at large. For those searching for irony, these two songs, teetering between haunting and ludicrous, describe Morrison and his cult a little too perfectly.

The Jefferson Airplane. "Somebody to Love." RCA. 1967.
Somebody to Love
     One of two songs Grace Slick brought with her from The Great Society when she replaced Signe Andersen in Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love” remains the best example of the group as a rock outfit rather than as purveyors of pseudo-decadent militant hedonism. Beginning with guitars that jangled like chains falling from angels’ feet, the song lumbered and rolled with a seriousness specific to the Haight district of San Francisco, a seriousness not lightened by the thick ice of Slick’s voice. “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies” sounded like anything but flower-power. Anyone planning to share a trip with the group that played this song had better be ready for a rough ride.

Mamas and Papas. "Creeque Alley." Dunhill. 1967.
Creeque Alley
     John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty sang chirpy little tunes that attempted to evoke the sense of California freedom for folks fortunate enough to not need to work. The group’s harmonies and rare sense of humor came together in artistic success only here, with this autobiographical and occasionally hilarious song about the beginnings of their distinctive sound.

Moby Grape. Moby Grape. Columbia. 1967.
   The San Francisco Bay area in the second half of the 1960s was home to a hybrid of music that is often referred to as psychedelic, an appellation emerging more from the light shows at many of the music shows than from any specific element of the sound. The roots-oriented if elemental playing of the Grateful Dead was psychedelic, as was the more technically adventurous noodling of Jefferson Airplane. What these bands had in common with the other big name of the period, Quicksilver Messenger Service, were (a) the conscious attempt to force the intake of usually illegal chemicals to shape the form and content of the music, (b) a penchant for long, usually unfocused group jams and solos, and (c) a deliberate pandering to the middle class adulation of consumerism clothed in revolutionary trappings. All that Moby Grape shared with any of this was that their fan-base was in San Francisco and that Skip Spence had once been a member of the Airplane. That very limited connection works to the advantage of Moby Grape. While a few of this album’s tunes suggest that the band was not necessarily opposed to the more idyllic aspects of drug usage, the virtuosity of the playing and the brevity of the songs belied any serious worship of pharmaceuticals. The music ranged from rock to jazz and even to country with sufficient lack of pretension to last for decades. The album jacket even sparked a minor controversy, showing as it did the drummer with his middle finger singularly extended across a washboard. Columbia reissued the LP with the musician’s digit hacked off.

Creedence Clearwater Revival. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fantasy. 1968.
     The four members of CCR entered the pop consciousness sounding as if they had burbled up from the imaginary swamps of San Francisco. Indeed the expectations at the time were that another blues-oriented version of head music might be in the works, perhaps more musically accomplished than Jefferson Airplane, though not necessarily better. Of course, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin didn’t write songs about real people, as John Fogerty did in "the Working Man" and "Porterville," and nobody in Quicksilver would have been able to churn out convincing covers of songs by either Dale or Screamin’ Jay, much less Wilson Pickett. This would not be their best album, but it nevertheless has an ambition that bespeaks where they would soon travel.

Creedence Clearwater Revival. Bayou Country. Fantasy. 1969.
Bayou Country
     There are two good things about this album: First, "Proud Mary" is one of the group’s best songs because not only does it show John Fogerty’s brilliant imagination and way with a New Orleans patois, but he came up with a rhythmic progression and tune that was so strong that everyone from Sonny Charles to Ike and Tina covered the song; and second, the album cover is a perfect visual description of what the sound within should sound like. The image is evocative rather than explicit, and what it has always made me think of is brash guitar sounds coming from the core of a unified set of four spirits.

Jefferson Airplane. Volunteers. RCA. 1969.
     Question for the twenty-first century: Do you want to be the personification of something else or to be an artist?
     While there is no denying the intensity of Jefferson Airplane’s only two Top Forty hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” the fact remains that these folks have to stand next to the Doors as the most overrated group of the 1960s. That fact does not diminish the notion that the Airplane was a fascinating cooperative. After original token female Signe Andersen left to give birth, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner brought in ex-Great Society misogynist Grace Slick to be the token mama. She had a voice that still rings true and was clearly the most talented of the group’s three singers. And yet it was guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden who were the true axis of the band. The group’s best album, Volunteers, is unimaginable without them, as is any semblance of rock ‘n’ roll credibility. The themes were simple. Take pills, expand your mind, live together, and love the Jefferson Airplane. Depending on your priorities, this might seem attractive, at least until you become conscious of the fact that this stream of consumerism was frequently as unctuous as Grand Funk Railroad and not necessarily smarter. When Grace and Paul sang “Everything they say we are—we are,” they weren’t kidding. They were pandering, however. And that is why a song as inherently stupid as Free’s “All Right Now” is infinitely more revolutionary than anything the Airplane ever imagined. In fact, Dryden is the only real radical here. His "A Song for all Seasons" is one of the few humorous songs the band ever made and certainly the only one to poke at its pretensions. 

Creedence Clearwater Revival. Pendulum. Fantasy. 1970.
     The 45 rpm taken from this album was one of those famous two-sided hits. This one featured "Have You ever Seen the Rain" as the A-side and “Hey Tonight” as the B. That still seems the right choice, lo these many years. Heaven knows there was nothing else on this disc that could have charted, except as an extension of the value of the band’s reputation. But to be fair, the other eight songs are okay, excellent even, when compared to most of the other stuff around at the times. But when compared to the body of work that CCR had already amassed, this album just seems like the pendulum may have been swinging in the wrong direction.

Little Feat. Sailin’ Shoes. Warner Bros. 1972.
     This is Little Feat’s best album by such a wide margin that the others sound as if they were recorded by a different group—almost. Bill Payne, who played keyboards and sang a few leads and wrote a few songs, is typically given top billing. That’s a charitable move. Lowell George was a better songwriter and singer and he played guitar better than Payne played piano. Sailin’ begins with "Easy to Slip," one of George’s greatest songs. All about love gone bad, the melody is simple blues and the words hardly exist, yet they are tremendous. With Roy Howard slapping his bass and Richard Hayward shuffling his drums, there is a definite childlike feeling to the affair, even on songs such as "Willin'," all about a guy who drives a truck while keeping it up for Dallas Alice. In terms of capturing a feeling produced by forces nearly impossible to describe, Sailin’ Shoes is one of the best. It runs on sheer instinct.

Creedence Clearwater Revival. Mardi Gras. Fantasy. 1972.
Mardi Gras
    I have a clear memory of the first time I heard what would turn out to be CCR’s final A-side single. I was sitting in the car waiting for my mother to come back from her grocery shopping. It was early afternoon and I was doing what I always did when Mom went into the grocery. I was listening to WCOL-AM, at that time Columbus, Ohio’s greatest Top Forty Station. And the instant I heard the electric guitar simulating the sound of a car roaring by the open road, I knew the song had to be by Creedence. And once the vocal began, there was absolutely no question. Great as it was, there was something missing. It seemed like only seven-eighths of the band were present, meaning that half a member might not have been plugged in. As it turned out, lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter John Fogerty had had a falling out with brother Tom and the latter had split. Bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford used this opportunity to muscle their way into getting a little spotlight of their own. I for one am glad they did. Good as John’s main sings here are, it is also good to hear Doug take country lead of his two tunes, and while Stu plays bass better than he sings, this was the band’s seventh album, fer cryin’ out loud, and so far the show had been all about John. I doubt any case can be made for this recording’s immortality. And it does seem a bit of a shame for the group to have disbanded with this as their final LP. However, the sound was still identifiable, occasionally lilting, mostly hard-driving and still better than anything else I heard that afternoon on the radio.

[Tomorrow we will produce the second half of this chapter. Stay tuned!]