Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Momentary lapse of reason

Allow us to depart from the music a second to throw out a warning.

Last night while shopping I saw the first recon unit of the Lucasfilm invasion that is about to take over our lives and grocery stores. M&Ms, the melt-in-your-mouth delight that comes in ever-more enormous feedbags, has released The Darth Mix. Not a hip-hop take on John Williams music, but a bag of M&Ms with candy in several ominous colors, including gray, deep purple, and (natch) black. "Go To The Dark Side—Choose Dark Chocolate," the bag commands, a jaw-dropping solicitation for consumers to choose both evil and obesity. As ominously, the bag I bought—Darth Maul standing between the two rotund M&M ad characters dressed in Star Wars garb—is only one of 72 collectors' bags. Seventy-two! Does Hammerhead get his own bag? The X-wing fighter mechanics? Jimmy Smits?

Needless to say, the dark chocolate M&Ms are, like the Dark Side, decadent and hard to resist, a difficult-to-believe improvement on what is already one of the most addictive mass market candies on the shelves. It is disappointing that M&M saved this momentous (if ass-widening) event for Lucas. Then again, if it wasn't for the food tie-ins those movies wouldn't be worth much attention.

Monday, March 28, 2005

† 45s: Take me to the Pilate

See parts one and two of the series.

"Could We Start Again Please?" It’s clear Jesus’ fate rests with the Romans and both Peter and Mary Magdalene want a do-over, as the threat of violent execution has cleared their minds of heaven and everything else. Not that they get it—"This was unexpected/What do I do now?" goes the line. It would be interesting to read a novel about how Peter preached and founded the One True Church because he was driven by guilt over being a goof during Christ’s time on Earth. A pleasant song, particularly on the harmonized chorus. Unrelated note: Paul Thomas, the actor playing Peter in the MV, later went into a career in porn.

"Judas’ Death." Caiaphas and Annas pay the thirty pieces of silver, and Judas realizes—or thinks he realizes—that God has played him for a stooge. Neither the material nor the performances equal the tour-de-force of "Gethsemane," but it’s a roller-coaster ride nonetheless—regret, helplessness, and in the MV an anguished reprise of "I Don’t Know How To Love Him" from Anderson. Meanwhile, the OC's Head sounds deranged, truly in a state of mind conducive to suicide or (ironically) divine visions. Alas, Rice again succumbs to a moment of misplaced slang as Annas sings:

I don’t understand why you’re filled with remorse
All that you’ve said has come true with a vengeance
The mob turned against him
You backed the right horse.

As Judas dies a heavenly hippy choir sings an ironic "Poor old Judas…" So was Judas a self-centered fool and, in the end, deserving of his fate? Or a part of God’s plan and thus in some small way innocent? Even, dare we say it, akin to Christ? Suddenly it seems like the former. Then again, only one of the characters comes back for a blockbuster final number, and it ain’t Jesus.

"Trial Before Pilate." Barry Dennen plays the Roman governor in both versions. He does by far the most singing, as the bedraggled Jesus first gives his trademark cryptic answers, and then can barely speak in the aftermath of thirty-nine blows of the lash. Dennen plays Pilate with an interesting mix of arrogance for the crowd and, ultimately, sympathy for the man before him. Chanting mobs, driving guitar for the flogging, willing martyrdom—the Gospel writers knew drama like TNT knows drama, and Webber/Rice keep it interesting enough with a suite of melodies and in-control lyrics.

"Superstar." Good news! People wear white fringe in heaven. Baby, I hope I get there! JCS’s second big hit features Judas’s return. He takes the opportunity to do something we’ve all contemplated at one time or another—he’s asks Jesus a few questions. Rice’s use of modern language works best here as he wisely chooses to get his points across with humor and overtones of blasphemy:

If you’d come today you could’ve reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication

Could Muhammad move a mountain or was that just PR?

Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake, or
Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?

Catchy chorus, too, sung by a host of groovy angels—one thing I’ll say for him, Judas is cool. Anderson plays it sarcastic and sings the hell out of the song; and that little Buddha choreography in the film is a funny touch. As for Head, he returns from madness to merely manic, running with the melody, taking the song into the Top Twenty, and singing with the kind of intelligence that let’s you know that Judas also gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

† 45s: What's it all about?

The middle part of Jesus Christ Superstar drags a bit. No surprise, really. How do you preface the blockbuster conclusion to Christ's life that we all know is coming? In recognition of this understandable sagginess of plot, let us pick and choose on the middle two album sides, sticking with the best-known songs, and those easiest to make fun of.

"Simon Zealotes." An affront to the rock-ribbed everywhere, the energetic "Simon Zealotes" is sung by a Simon starstruck by Christ's celebrity—"Did you see I waved?"—but not so much that he can't offer a little unsolicited agit-prop for the Son of Man to "add a touch of hate at Rome" to His message. Hear that sound? It's the disciples missing the point again.

Watching the movie gives a fuller effect of this particular song. Simon does his thing at the front of a crowd of hippies possessed by the spirit of vigorous modern dance. While none look unwashed, exactly, all are definitely hip—long hair, long legs, and many races represented. Let me add it had to take a toll to dance under the hot Israeli sun. Meanwhile Judas/Anderson stalks the surrounding Roman ruins while Christ/Neeley listens to Simon with an expression that says, "Maybe I should've aimed higher than fishermen, shepherds, and tax collectors." As for the actual song, it features an excellent gospel-influenced "Amen" ending.

"Pilate's Dream." Webber and Rice gave Pontius an acoustic Cat Stevens-style accompaniment. No doubt governing an ass-end of the Roman Empire cured Pilate of delusions of grandeur; maybe he figured he had hit the papyrus ceiling. "Pilate's Dream," however, reveals a prophecy that history will remember him—no small accomplishment, really, I mean do you recall the name of the governor of, say, Gaul in 4 B.C.?

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man.
And then I heard them mentioning my name,
And leaving me the blame.
Wasn't that great? He'll be back.

"I Don't Know How to Love Him." Mary Magdalene's confused love song—the carnal vs. the spiritual—is JCS's big hit. Yvonne Elliman and a persistent flute took it to the charts, as did Helen Reddy—in fact, it kicks off one of her greatest hits albums. Unlike much of JCS, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is a vocal-driven ballad and as such a terrific lowkey piece of pop. It's also a welcome breather from Webber's bombast and Rice's tendancy to reach for cleverness, modern idiom, or God help us black humor. Elliman hits it out of the park on both the OC and MV. Reddy's version is an anathema.

"Blood Money/Damned for All Time." A heavy bass and horn section drive one of JCS's real rockers. As Judas turns squealer do we hear self-pity? Or genuine helplessness at being a pawn in God's master plan? Alas, Rice makes both Judases say a lot of words in a short amount of time, but both men give it their all. In the MV Anderson sounds angry when offered a bribe, confused that it is in the context of charity, and anguished at his final decision. Meanwhile, the OC's Head babbles compellingly like a man on the brink of a breakdown.

"Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." Here's the showstopper, Jesus’ one-sided dialogue with the Almighty on whether or not martyrdom is necessary. As a pivotal moment in the Christ saga, "Gethsemane" has to pack an emotional punch. Alas Rice almost undoes the song with lyrics so bad you wonder if he was trying to get in the first salvo in the storied pissing contest with Webber:
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die
You’re far too keen on where and how but not so hot on why.
That's some pretty weak ammo to take into a debate with the Almighty, but both Jesuses pull out all the stops.

Gillan’s heavy metal pipes have enough power to make smoke from dry ice rise from the garden floor. But in a head-to-head match-up I give Neeley the edge for superior emotional delivery. When he sings "Once I was inspired/now I’m sad, and tired," he sounds like it; as for the lines mocked above, he shouts them out with such raw Oedipal rage you overlook the absurdity. Yes, he uses the falsetto option for the "Watch me die" line, and the Romans should count themselves lucky Christ is too merciful to lop all their ears off with its screech. But when Neeley returns from the orchestral bridge he sounds so exhausted, so accepting of God’s will, that the contrast in vocal style cannot help but be dramatic. Bravo.

Next time: the Holy Week Spec†acular concludes with side four!

Friday, March 25, 2005

† 45s: Jesus is cool

Some will tell you that Jesus Christ Superstar is a commentary on media and the fickleness of a public enslaved to it, as well as a story of how even a Messiah needs a little hype to get the Good News to the people. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s face it, JCS has endured because it offers a pop version of the last week of Christ’s life. People want to hear that story without the thees and thous, without high-pitched heavenly choirs, and God knows without feeling guilty for putting an underfed ex-carpenter through horrific torture because of our sins.

While I’m not
a member of the JCS cult—pardon the term—its heresies affected my own faith. Ever since seeing the film I have believed Judas had more going on than greed for silver. As concept album and soundtrack JCS is the ur-text of Christ rock and a major entry in Jesus media. Catchier than Godspell, less reverent than The Greatest Story Ever Told—a movie that makes your wrists and feet bleed by the third hour—it inexplicably endures, a work once condemned as blasphemy that is now performed in church basements everywhere.


"Heaven on their Minds." After the Overture, Judas brings the noise from Moment One. The idealistic Judas does not like what he sees, you dig. Jesus started with good ideas, and now he’s risking the wrath of Rome by playing God. "Have you forgotten how put down we are?" he cries, part of the excellent advice that it is never wise to tweak Romans. On the Original Cast (OC) album, Murray Head sounds outraged, if not exactly sure where the melody might be. Meanwhile, the Movie Version (MV) features a super-pissed Carl Anderson giving it his all—fear, disillusionment, and the kind of hate only envy can inspire. During the bridge he gives way to Apostolic hand-claps and an organ lifted from Ray Manzarek’s garage.

"What’s the Buzz?" Here JCS shows its age as Christ and his followers have a dialogue. Unfortuately for Jesus, this crowd proves John Lennon’s observation that the disciples were "thick." Pay attention to the present, Jesus says. Give up violence, Jesus says. The disciples just go on chantin’. On the OCA, Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan sounds like pent-up thunder, the arena-rocking kick-ass messiah of fundamentalist dreams. The MV’s Ted Neeley—visually convincing, Jesus crossed with Axl Rose—has the weaker voice, but he rallies with some solid hectoring. Near the end of the song Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman in both versions) jumps in to comfort the agitated Son of Man. Jesus takes the opportunity to lay a guilt trip—and a little double entendre—on his followers: "She alone has tried to give me/what I need right here and now." Amen!

"Strange Thing, Mystifying." The image-conscious Judas suggests that roaming the countryside in the close company of a notorious prostitute contradicts Jesus' message. Jesus suggests Judas go pound sand, and there’s plenty of it in ancient Palestine. Lyricist Rice works in the idea behind "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone" with limited success.

"Everything’s All Right." Elliman sings Jesus to sleep while applying ointment. She’s backed up by the so-called "Apostles’ Women," suggesting that Jesus had yet to pass along the undoubtedly unpopular celibacy idea to his earthy disciples. As Mary sings her lullaby, Judas the angry idealist cannot remain silent:
Judas: People who are starving matter more than your feet and hair.
Jesus: We can’t save the poor, I’m not going to be here long, and when I'm gone (more guilt) you’ll be sorry you treated me like this.
Nice singing by Elliman—this is the most overlooked song on the soundtrack. Gillan emotes rather than belts; but alas Neeley turns up the falsetto, though you can see he would feel the need, as muted singing is clearly insufficient to get through to these people.

"This Jesus Must Die." In the movie version, the vocal Mutt ‘N Jeff team of Annas (high) and Caiaphas (low lower lowest) bow before "Everything’s All Right" with "Then We Are Decided." In this number, the two priest-bosses maneuver the clerical leadership of Jerusalem into a plot to do away with Jesus. I do not know who Bob Bingham is, but his absurdly deep bass invests Caiaphas with real menace—no weasely politician he. When he sings, "We’ve been sitting on the fence for far too long," it’s hard to believe the rest of these guys don’t fall into line immediately. Then again, when they don’t he roars, "This Jesus must die," and two seconds later they’re singing along with him. Bonus moment: one of the unnamed priests sings the classic line, "One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool."

Next: the best of sides two and three!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

† Totally tubular bellular

The Holy Week Spec†acular continues its survey of Christ rock.

"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," by Monty Python

Clearly, an inspirational classic.

Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad,
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best.
Always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the bright side of life

"Tubular Bells," by Mike Oldfield
The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you! As the theme to The Exorcist, "Tubular Bells" was and is tied in the popular mind to menaced priests. How a bunch of tiny brass bells of various sizes can produce music this creepy is amazing. While I have slowly overcome the abject terror associated with Regan’s outrages, Oldfield’s music still makes my hair stand on end—and that’s whether I’m watching the film or at some groovy Wicca party listening to Pure Moods.

My Boomer sources tell me that the song was an entire side of Oldfield’s album (also called Tubular Bells). Why on Earth would you put the Satanic equivalent of "Disco Inferno" on your turntable for twenty-some uninterrupted minutes? Did people actually kick back and groove on this? With or without a Rosary? I cannot imagine a young single woman—let’s call her Jane—getting home from work, it’s been a bear of a week, she’s frazzled, and she pours a little Merlot, and to unwind she goes to the hi-fi and puts on "Tubular Bells." Then what? Cackle insanely to herself for a half-hour before turning on Sanford and Son? Whatever was going on, Oldfield’s album sold a million copies for then-newbie Virgin Records, enough to launch Boomer billionaire balloonist Richard Branson up, up, and away.

Some call "Tubular Bells" New Age music. Hence the reference to Pure Moods, where Oldfield shares a disc with Jan Hammer, an "X-Files Theme" dance club mix, and—wait for it—Enya, the original Queen of the New Age. Such an association opens up "Tubular Bells" for wry remarks. Yet the blood of the martyrs and the mighty fist of Max Von Sydow compels me to abstain. I cannot judge it as music. The psychological associations are too intense. But, God knows, "Tubular Bells" works on a visceral level. In music that counts for something. The pure mood inspired is uneasiness by the light of day, outright fear in the dark, dark night.

"Jesus Is Just All Right with Me," by the Doobie Brothers
Classic rock crapola from one of the 1970s most prolific spreaders of same, "Jesus Is Just All Right With Me" is the best-known version of a song done earlier by the Byrds and later by a lot of bar band percussionists who somehow found themselves in possession of a conga. That title could go a few ways. Trenchant commentary on religion? Probably not. Something that "sounded good?" Maybe. The sorta-kinda-malaprop used to legendary effect by the Beatles, and thus inspiring lesser songwriters to turn sentences spewed by the drunk and overtired into whole songs? You decide. While Christ said some mysterious, even contradictory things, he was talking to an audience of first century Galilean peasants, and something may have been lost in the translation. Whereas the Doobies are spouting nonsense.

"The Lord’s Prayer," by Sister Janet Mead
I bought a Rhino Have a Nice Day compilation just to prove to myself this song existed. It’s the "Our Father" as said millions of times by sinning schoolchildren, except with a driving beat and acid rock guitar (!) on the intro. To her credit Sister Janet—the pride of Adelaide, Australia—has a rather haunting voice, though no more haunting than the idea of releasing a version of Matthew 6:8+ anywhere in the vicinity of groovy. Whenever nuns hit the charts it’s strange, but Sister Janet did more—she hit a nerve. "The Lord’s Prayer" went Top Five and sold two million copies. Thy will be done!

Great Speckle Bird, by Roy Acuff
This song is more about the Bible than Jesus. The Great Speckle Bird—not Speckled—is the Good Book. The strangeness of the song's idioms, combined with Acuff's powerful sincerity, lifts the song into something otherworldly, as if it had its origins from some place beyond time.

"Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam," by the Vaselines/Nirvana
On Cobain’s recommendation I bought The Way of the Vaselines. Three or four listens later, I let it sink into my CD collection, where it remains, awaiting rediscovery, or a period in my life when I have the time to try and figure it all out. Someday, someday. Nirvana’s version with accordion and cello appears on the Unplugged in New York disc.

"Find a Way," by Amy Grant
Back before she took her cute-suburban-mom vibe onto the secular charts, Grant was one of the biggest stars in the embryonic Christian pop world. "Find a Way" was her crossover song. The lyrics applied with equal vagueness to romance or Christ, while the music was the kind of reliably slick if bland mid-1980s arrangement abused by so many artists at the time. Eventually, Grant hit the MTV big time with "Every Heartbeat." Proving that cred burdens all musicians, she had to deal with cries of "sellout" from her Christian fans—that does not sound very charitable—before returning to her roots and aiming at the always-lucrative Christmas market. Since her late 1970s debut she has sold more albums than you would possibly believe. The Lord provides.

† Is Bono the Messiah?

Many rock performers have, through their actions or words, proposed themselves as the Messiah. No surprise. If the Son of Man planned a record-breaking second encore, what better Mount to sermonize from than the stage at the Meadowlands? You've got fervor built in. There are large crowds open to the message. No audience is so jaded it will boo a stage show involving palm leaves and donkeys. Hell, didn't Alice Cooper used to crucify his drummer? It all fits.

Elvis Presley. True, his name transposed spells "evils." In the 1950s his gyrating and furious use of "jungle rhythms" convinced many that the unfailingly polite, crooner-worshipping mama's boy was in league with the Powers of Darkness, if not with Communists. Later Presley made a number of gospel recordings—for a stretch his only records with a shred of inspiration or perspiration. On the basis of this my grandmother declared Elvis a "holy man." Yea, was he not called the King? Significantly, followers began to report Presley's appearances only days after the Memphis funeral.

Jim Morrison. Too pagan, too Freudian, too pantless. Perhaps the only one on the list who believed himself to be the Messiah.

Eric Clapton. Supposedly Clapton hates the "Clapton Is God" business. What better reason to bring it up?

Bono. Bono may not believe he's the Second Coming, but maybe he wouldn't mind if you believed it. He sheltered Rushdie, tries to save the Africans, petitions the World Bank, sings with great sincerity despite being one of the Biggest Things Ever....(Pause.) Come to think of it, he's about as qualified as anyone else to claim the title. Lord knows he has the poses down.

Kurt Cobain. Nick Hornby wrote that the Cobain looked like Jesus; the blond hair, the straggly beard, the pensive look, the troubled/deep eyes. Of course that's the non-ethnic vision of Jesus beloved of white people who believe that the Jews of Herod-era Israel looked like northern Europeans. That Cobain's sad death was accepted at the time of his demise—no visions, no "he faked his death" nonsense—is highly unusual for a famous person, as society is usually unable to believe that actors and rock stars simply die.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

† Survey of Christ rock, V. 1

"Day By Day," by Godspell

It Came From Off-Broadway, a Jesus re-imagined in Garfunkle hair, suspenders, and Superman shirt. As for the Apostles, one commentator mentions their thrift store chic; to me these people look like a gang edited from The Warriors. Proving that clowns don’t frighten everyone, Godspell leapt from off-off-off-Broadway (Pittsburgh) to record runs, not only the Great White Way, but with the amateur theater groups and churches that still put the play up today.

Whereas Jesus Christ Superstar brought the rock—and a plot—Godspell brought the folk—and the kind of sketch review better left to Zoom! By and large Godspell lacks the pop song craft of JCS or Hair, the other counterculture stage sensation. That said, its most memorable song, "Day By Day," sounds remarkably like a church camp singalong. That’s not intended as a slam. All Christ rock should sound this legit.

I liked "Day By Day" in Sunday school. The arrangement is simple, the lyrics humble and admirably non-denominational. As someone sent to churches across the theological landscape throughout childhood (and as a member of a synagogue now), I can say the song's words work in any of those settings. "Day By Day" even starts off slow, so that any congregation can learn it in thirty seconds:

Day by day
Oh dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Can you sum up the Jesus-worshipper relationship more succinctly? From there the song kicks into high gear as tambourines and hand claps—the People’s Orchestra!—set the bouncy beat. Whether you’re in a pew, on a folding chair, or straddling a log next to the baptismal pond, "Day By Day" gets you on your feet like a spiritual should.

"A Love Supreme," by John Coltrane
Other songs celebrate religion. Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece built an entire church. For many years the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church worshipped the jazzman as divine from its place on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, before losing its lease to make way for a coffee shop, praise the Lord. In his later years (i.e. his 30s) Coltrane aspired to sainthood. Certainly he created a transforming piece of art. In a just world this sort of religion catches fire and spreads to a city near you. Instead we get soulless men with bad haircuts and 800 numbers.

"Everything Is Beautiful," by Ray Stevens
That Ray Stevens had a career makes me question the existence of a merciful Savior. Around 1970, with novelty hits like "Ahab the Arab" already in the bag, Stevens decided to steer by a different, more inspirational star. He concocted this dreck from a mess o’ sure-fire elements—children’s chorus, religious platitudes, IQ by Hallmark—and took it home to glory, glory meaning a lifetime address on the corner of Bacon Street and Nathan Bedford Forrest Drive in Branson, Missouri. The song starts with thirty seconds of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and, incredibly, gets worse. Despite the fact the song itself contradicts the title, "Everything is Beautiful" won a Grammy.

"Turn Your Radio On," by Ray Stevens
Another hit from Stevens’s spiritual period. He claims you can hear God in your radio.

"Dominique," by Soeur Sourire (aka The Singing Nun)
One of the most inexplicable hit songs ever, "Dominique" had its origins in a sister’s desire to raise funds for her order. Somehow—divine intervention?—that altruistic idea turned into a massive international hit. To show you how times have changed, The Singing Nun (nee Belgian nun Jeanine Deckers) performed "Dominique" in French—and it went to the top of the American charts. While the song has little to do with Jesus, The Singing Nun clearly qualified as a Christ rocker. At least until she quit the convent and spun off into a life of
pill-popping, tax problems, and death in a suicide pact. Forget Christ rock. That’s just rock.

Tomorrow: the Survey continues.

Monday, March 21, 2005

† What's the buzz?

If you’d come today you could’ve reached the whole nation,
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.

—Judas, Jesus Christ Superstar

Lord knows, pop music is about objects of worship. Women (in general, i.e. "booty"). Women (in particular, by name). Awesome wheels. Athletic footwear. Heroin. But in this most Jesus of times, it bears remembering that the Son of Man has maintained a consistent presence in popular music. While Christ rock continues to this day to find success, truly His music had a heyday, when it prospered amidst the roiling waters of the post-Beatles era while many heresies fought for the soul of music. Did the King of Kings take that "More popular than Jesus" business to heart and decide to speak through a new medium? Don’t dismiss the idea. We know the Lord works in mysterious ways—Bono said so.

All this week, day by day, the blog takes a look at Jesus’ role in popular music. The songs He’s inspired and the cameos He’s made. The lyrics cribbed from His preaching and the musical atrocities committed in His name. As it’s the Holy Week Spec†acular we’re keeping it New School only—Testament, that is. A little irreverent, sure, but it's all right, it's all right, it's alllll right. The three men I admire most are the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Friday, March 18, 2005

45s: Sabbath bloody brilliant

“War Pigs,” by Black Sabbath
Written by Black Sabbath

Let’s be clear about two things. First, any song that begins with an air raid siren does not rock, but kicks ass. Second, there is nothing deep to be said about “War Pigs,” and I’m not going to try and say it.

My Lord. Combine the tools of futuristic genetic engineering with the lax graverobbing laws of the Romantic Period and you could not build a more perfect heavy metal prototype. Sabbath had it all. A guitarist who played wearing a steel gauntlet. A drummer intent on pursuing his own occasional adventures in percussion despite reportedly intense rehearsals. A bassist named Geezer. And a lead singer still far from his days as a sad Tourette’s-afflicted ghoul, creating the vocal template for a genre.

And—and!—they start "War Pigs" with an air raid siren.

Sabbath knew from grandeur. In the great rock tradition they released a song named after themselves. Not content, Geezer Butler kicked off "War Pigs" by daring to take on a writer’s greatest challenge—rhyming a word with the same word:
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
The great question facing us: what possessed Black Sabbath of all bands to write an anti-war song? Granted, that sentiment hung in the air in 1970. Granted, Sabbath’s lyrics often showed—let us say—a preoccupation with death and madness, war’s major side effects. For all I know Geezer had a deep concern with world affairs. Maybe even a degree from the London School of Economics. I hope so. Because even in a year when everyone was on the anti-war bandwagon, it’s hard to reconcile Sabbath, on any level, with Joan Baez.

Having failed to answer the great question, it’s time to move on to the praise.

The churn of the Butler-Bill Ward rhythm section remains legendary. As for Tony Iommi, don’t call that guitar riff monstrous. Monstrous suggests the mere destruction of Tokyo. What Iommi lays down is far beyond Godzilla-inflicted disaster. It’s the equal of that Norse serpent that circles Midgard, the Grand Moff Tarkin-era Death Star, the theoretical extinction-level event capable of wiping out the dinosaurs and Wal-Mart and the magic liver Ozzy got in his deal with the Powers of Darkness. If you dare to headbang to this you can say goodbye to your cervical vertebrae. Do it anyway! Good riddance! Buy a new one from Satan! Rock and roll!

Amidst such thunder you would think the lyrics pretty much beside the point except as an outlet for Ozzy’s voice, in itself an impressive instrument. As the music is basic, so are the lyrics, but hardly dumb. Alice Cooper was dumb, albeit in on the joke. KISS was dumb, albeit in the most calculated way imaginable. If you want dumb, God invented Motley Crue.

Butler spent the first verse identifying the perpetrators. Now, it’s time to lay out the crimes:
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor.
The poor’s response? Yeah! That’s right! We always have to fight The Man’s wars. But I’m not gonna hate the assholes who sent me off to fight. I hate those coffee-swilling liberal homos. Because they’re homos. And they don’t rock!

But we don't look to Sabbath for political philosophy. We do wait for Satan's inevitable cameo. What’s unusual about "War Pigs" is that it’s thematically appropriate:

Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees, the war pigs crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.

Message delivered, Ozzy steps aside so that we can careen unimpeded toward the end. And what a galloping close it is. Did the band collapse ala "The Time Warp" after that last immense chord? With the exception of the conga player in "Sympathy for the Devil," Ward must’ve been the man in rock history most in need of salt tablets, if not a blast of the de-fib paddles.

Loud, relentless, exhausting, comically pretentious—that’s "War Pigs." That’s heavy metal. That’s rock and roll.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

45s: States of matter

"It Don't Matter To Me," by Bread
Written by David Gates

Bread was the easiest of the easy listening bands, the Carpenters for boys. Less dark than Lightfoot, less groovy than anything, Bread was the soundtrack for the bearded twentysomething too young to have been a hippy, but who still believed in love—especially making it—and peace—well, more or less. Let us journey back in time to when every young man was a guitarist, when Mr. Natural adorned denim jackets worn ragged by the misadventures of older siblings, when the radio reflected the age of chaos between Jimi at Woodstock and KISS on lunchboxes. Light the candle that bleeds wax in nine soothing colors. Call up your special lady, she of the long straight hair and the splendors of bralessness. A breeze stirs the chimes. The macramé plant hangers sway with the beat of the music. David Gates is with us.

Gates joined the songwriting team of James Griffin and Robb Royer to form Bread in 1968, after far-flung work with the likes of Rod McKuen, Bobby Darin, and Captain Beefheart. Though Griffin/Royer had a few of Bread's minor hits, Gates led the band to the big money with wave after lapping wave of soft-rock, most of it still familiar, none of it an assertion of masculinity.

"It Don’t Matter To Me" plays to the band’s strength from the go. One chord and Gates goes dulcet with that high tenor—sweeter than a custard-filled chocolate mousse smothered in powdered sugar and served with a Hawaiian Punch chaser. For three minutes the music swoops and climbs through several tempo changes, carried along by the band’s ear for melody and some polished studio production.

By far the most distinctive part races through the middle. As Gates said, "It had this unusual bridge that takes off and does some crazy things musically." Amen. For one thing that lead guitar champs to throw off the balladeer's bonds and launch into a nine-minute solo. As if sonic explorations in mellowness weren't enough, Gates's lyrics pave the bridge with a little psychological understanding:

Lotta people have an ego hang-up
’cause they want to be the only one
How many came before it really doesn’t matter
Just as long as you’re the last
Everybody’s moving on and try to find out
What’s been missing in the past
I bet he picked that shit up from McKuen.

The saddest aspect of "It Don’t Matter To Me" is that women listened to this stuff and got a warped view of the male capacity for compassion. Many songs report what it’s like to have a lover walk all over you. "It Don’t Matter To Me" actually invites such treatment:
And it don't matter to me
If your searching brings you back together with me
‘Cause there'll always be
An empty room waiting for you
An open heart waiting for you
Time is on my side ...
Need time to find yourself? Understood. Found someone else? No problem. Slept with more men than Madonna, Michelle Phillips, and Christopher Isherwood combined? Watch my shoulders shrug as you raid my refrigerator and pass out upstairs.

"It Don’t Matter To Me" encourages the tragic lie that a busted couple can remain friends. In fact, taken together Bread's hits form a concept album built around romantic masochism. In "Diary" the narrator learns it’s over in a crushing way, though he shouldn’t have been reading in the first place. "Make It With You" sounds like a plea to continue the relationship while using the sort of double entendré sure to end it. There’s a lot of need and a speech impediment on "Baby I’m-A Want You," the self-explanatory "Down On My Knees"—alas, not a double-entendré—and when the relationship finally ends what awaits but the devastated survivor (?) of "Look What You’ve Done"?† Escalating misfortune finally takes us through "Everything I Own," where the poor guy’s father dies, to "If,"* where the entire universe perishes!

It is easy to make fun of Bread. But the truth of it is, if you like this sort of thing, Bread did it as well as anyone. The comparison I led with is unfair. The band really belonged to the guitar-based singer/songwriter genre rather than the supper club stylings of The Carpenters. That does not erase the wimp-rock label. But it does allow us to judge the group by a different set of criteria, that of, say, Dan Fogelberg or (groan) America. See? Put them in the context of their own time and they sound better. Though it still helps if you light the candle.

† An early Griffin/Royer single. Less polished than the band's usual, but—full disclosure—a high-carb Bread guilty pleasure.

* Telly Savalas's cover of "If" spent two weeks at Number One in the U.K.

Friday, March 04, 2005

45s: Sour grapes

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Ask anyone. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is one of the great singles of all time, a song celebrated by black, white, and Inuit alike as a first-ballot classic. It spent seven weeks at Number One. No Motown song of the era topped its sales; few songs on any other label did, either.

When I first noticed "Grapevine" in my teens I was indifferent. When I heard it for the ten millionth time—in the dairy section, as I recall—I filed it with other unwanted repetitious noises, right next to car alarms.

Quiet reflection on my dislike of the song revealed these possible theories:
• Dave Marsh. Marsh praised "Grapevine" in his book The Heart of Rock and Roll. Not his biography of Huey Lewis—though that’s an artist (ahem) worthy of his talent—but his opus on the 1001 greatest singles ever made. I once vowed never to listen to any of those songs simply because Marsh liked them. That Springsteen cooperated with this pompous hack remains a bigger bruise on his rep than Lucky Town. Despite the association, I maintain love for the Boss. Thus, I cannot blame Marsh for my feelings about a Marvin Gaye song.

• Marvin Gaye. Sometimes you just don’t like an artist. All of us have known a rock fan with an intense hatred of the Rolling Stones or some other nonsense. But I like Gaye’s music—"Too Busy Thinking 'Bout My Baby" is just one terrific single among many, and the love song division of the Motown factory rarely if ever surpassed his duets with Tammi Terrell. Come on, the man laid down a "Star Spangled Banner" that convinced the ghost of Francis Scott Key to give up anthems and write soul. It’s not the artist.

• The song. Alas, I like the Gladys Knight and CCR versions well enough. It’s not the song, either.

So while the cause remains elusive, my feelings are clear. I do not like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Gaye paid interesting dues before he got to his monster hit. Raised in a troubled home by a real peach of a father, Gaye went to Motown in 1961 and played drums for Little Stevie Wonder and on several Smokey Robinson and Miracles hits. His early interest lay in ballads and standards—the word "crooner" is sometimes mentioned—and both show tunes ("Hello Dolly" no less) and Nat King Cole filled out his initial albums. "Pride and Joy" gave him a breakthrough in 1963, and his star steadily rose through the mid-Sixties.

But Gaye was a Category Five stormy soul. The economy of Hitsville, USA ran on a regimented model, in part (depending on your sources) to reduce friction on the way into white America, in part to perpetuate a profitable hit-based formula, and in part, as lots of later acrimony showed, to make sure artists served the label, rather than vice-versa. Gaye claimed to hate the system. Smothering was probably the last thing a man with his authority issues needed.

Yes, yes, the song has virtues. That rattlesnake tambourine at the opening plunge is a nice touch. The Motown musicianship and Gaye’s voice are, as usual, above reproach; he’s especially good as the second verse raises the stakes.

Yet to me "Grapevine" is melodramatic to the point of blandness. By the power vested in Roget’s that is the only word I know to describe it. Certainly there’s no shortage of pop that hangs there like an aural black hole, drinking in light and energy, abandoning the listener on the cold event horizon of smooth technique. So it is with "Grapevine." It suffers because the soul, supposedly the song's strength, seems smothered—that word again—rather than freed by the Motown Sound. Whatever emotional vitality exists comes to the ear through thick gauze. A few other of the label's other hitmakers strike me the same way, the Supremes and the Four Tops in particular.

That brings us, finally, to fatigue. Fatigue with the song’s presence in elevators and dairy sections and on the 200-song play list used by the diabolical artificial mind that programs every oldies station in America. To say nothing of The Big Chill and those fucking raisins. I would be willing to re-evaluate "Grapevine" afresh if for ten years I could escape it on the radio or while shopping for yogurt. Gaye has many other fine songs. Let's play some of those more often. Even "Hello, Dolly," if we must. "Grapevine" needs a rest. Please. No mas. Enough.