Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Their Defining Work" Presents David Bowie's Station to Station (1976): The Thin White Duke Emerges for a Masterpiece

As 1976 dawned, David Bowie was a pasty, emaciated puppet doll. A wandering wreck, yet also a glamorously suave embodiment of what a soul-emulating pop star should have been circa 1975 (if you think shallow, shape-shifting rockers should have been trying their hand at funky dance floor boogie that Latinos, gays and blacks were no doubt the prime target market of. And yeah you could say his British Honky/Cracker swindle worked, if you're one of the cynics). Mere skin and bones hanging on amidst layers of makeup, hair dye and fashionable tuxedo garb was what Bowie resembled. He was the Vegas show tune singer, gender irrelevant of course, but in a totally rock star way somehow. Lady Gaga's got nothing on Sir David, I'll make that abundantly clear. Wracked by a severe cocaine addiction, Bowie was in the midst of a career shift that offered a paradigm to his steadfast fans, ardent lovers of his alien/zeitgest-savvy rock star days in the guise of Ziggy Stardust. He was all of a sudden a soul man, getting down and dirty and jettisoning the glam rock flash of before. Good move commercially, since glam was all but faded away by 1975 and it turns out the continued mitosis of styles brought Bowie to another plain of greatness eventually. With the transformation, gone was the fey, almost parodying aura around Bowie, one that in my opinion made those formative years of commercial fame a bit more hollow and not as fertile artistically as other times in Bowie's career. Yes, it was the period most think of when they hear the name David Bowie. The Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars thing was rock & roll theatre, a campy exploitation of the dada-esque rock hit upon by Lou Reed & the Velvets. Bowie struck a pop music dream by singing knowingly of rock cliches, homosexual culture and gender bending while playing the part on stage too, with cross-dressing, makeup and flame red-dyed hair styled in a womanly mullet. Behind it all, Bowie was a master craftsman with enough courage and drive to make it as a star in any mode he chose to.

The ersatz of his sudden turn toward slick Philly R&B in 1974 confirmed the suspicions of those that saw the effeminate, bicurious antics of his 1972-73 days to be just a mere passing phase, artistically and stylistically. Bowie years later expressed regret at how he acknowledged his bisexuality in interviews, complaining about how it become too encompassing and overshadowed what he was really striving for. Hence, dropping most of the sexually charged homoerotica and coming on as the straight-laced ladies man. Bowie re-geared his persona toward being Mr. Soul, bringing in saxophones, sometimes strings and always huge black vocal choruses (including Luther Vandross in his early days). He ditched the glittery "fag-hag" look of his old band for what seemed like Las Vegas showbiz gravitas, masquerading as a serious journey into a previously thought alien genre for Bowie (we've all come to learn that nothing can really be alien for Bowie because he comes off as an alien himself and knows no boundaries. He could come out with a bossa nova album next- Todd Rundgren beat him to it 12 years ago- and I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest). But as it turns out, perhaps the ultimate chameleon Bowie wasn't masquerading nearly as much as he had with the Ziggy act. Critics grumbled that 1975's Young Americans was a blatant commercial overture, while some fans felt jilted by the huge change. Where was the amphetamine-fueled rock, prominently heard through his Mick Ronson days of "Sufragette City," "Panic in Detroit," "Lady Stardust" and the entire Pin Ups album for that matter? Where was the blase, totally chic cool for enjoyment? The shameless fun!? Well the answer was that it was all kaput, another shedding of self-created skin from Bowie. This newer Bowie music was overblown sure, but no less so than his novel fascinations surrounding Diamond Dogs, an album partly dedicated to exploring the world of George Orwell's novel 1984 through song. Diamond Dogs, save for "Rebel Rebel," sounded nondescript and phony high-minded, so it was written off as Bowie's worst album since his days when he was just known as David Jones.

Bowie permanently set up home in Los Angeles, but that turned out to be a mistake when it came to curbing his drug habits. L.A. was a place where he could still run his successful singing business and pursue acting on the side, a second endeavor which eventually became a respectable practice for the guy (he had trained in France in the realms theatre and mime during a sojourn away from the music biz in 1968). Much more professional sounding than even Diamond Dogs was Young Americans, which even though it delivered knockout blows like the immortal acid funk of "Fame" and the title track, lacked any real artistic backbone and even when it imitated bedroom soul quite well- such as on the sultry "Can You Hear Me?"- it felt like Bowie was playing the slimy Anglo spinster or the plastic mannequin standing in for an Al Green at the Mirage or something (or the Stardust? How fitting). But many jumped the gun by claiming Bowie was headed into that "Fat Elvis" avenue of complete artistic neutering. Many were openly blabbing on about how David could have been just a little more avant-garde and challenging with Young Americans and about how he was merely trying to lay down an LP that was just too friggin' easy and conservative. And that's generally the right way to contextualize Young Americans, despite its inoffensive, barrier-friendly music sowing the seeds for upsetting the Bowie fandom- a motley crue, loyal and dedicated and made up of salacious teenyboppers, gays n' bis alike, giddy pubescent girls and self-appointed rebels ascribing to "rock cred" and harping on it all scholarly much like a grade school teacher scribbles important notes to remember for math on a chalkboard (just watch 2000's Almost Famous for a cinematic depiction of that history lesson). Bowie was constantly stoned out of his eyeballs at this point it should be remembered. His dalliance with the white powder of magic was first detailed on "Aladdin Sane" where he equated the cocaine urge to some sort of madness, best captured by Mike Garson's sadistic piano equivalent to Ornette Coleman's free jazz. Of course, as Bowie often does in an oddly English mannerism, he hid the real anguish inside, bottled up and very private like any good Englishman trying to save face.

David has never been a staunchly confessional, openly honest Bob Dylan follower, unless he was taking on that emotion for artistic license or juxtaposing it for a song like "Song for Bob Dylan" on 1971's Hunky Dory. But like a true artist, he did it within yet another character, a comic book type creation that Aladdin Sane represented. The 1975-76 period apparently has been largely absent from the man's memory banks ever since and the coke psychosis may explain for his provocative behaviour that included calling on the need for a Fascist leader to guide England and a disturbing fondness for Nazi imagery and lore. He often appeared scatological, paranoid and unfocused when on TV, which was often despite the number of times Bowie would hole up in his mansion in a Howard Hughes state of shambles. Just try and check Youtube for his slightly inebriated Soul Train appearance and his interview on The Dick Cavett Show in this time frame. Knowingly (unknowingly?), David even guested on a Cher TV special to duet with her, a real middle of the road strategy as by then Cher was far removed from the world of hip music. In '75, Bowie was at the point where a drug dependency becomes not just a self-medicating must-have but a source for fantasy and pure delusion as he was often hallucinating falling dead bodies outside his house. These irrational- not for him at the time- fears kept him cooped up for days at a time while he snorted cocaine and it is rumoured he once stayed awake for 9 straight days, subsisting on nothing but milk and red peppers as he often did back then. Overdoses occasionally, inevitably you would think, befell the man but all of this was covered up quite tidily. This went on until he left L.A. for Berlin in 1977 to clean up. But at the height of his physical decline, he weighed a gaunt 110 pounds, looking as close to death as any rock star can get. Very little of the recording process for Station to Station is remembered by anyone, as cocaine was a drug leaned upon by most in order to get work done without the fatigue a human would normally undergo in such long hour sessions. Back from the Young Americans instrumentalists are former James Brown guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. Also used on keyboards alongside Bowie is E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan.

Earl Slick provides the album's most revelatory role on lead guitar, emanating noises and distortion from his axe that predates post-punk and sounds like the merging point between noise rock guitar and Hendrix. Coming in January 1976, it became a big commercial success- his highest charting album in the US in fact, peakn at #3- and drew the approval of critics who had previously been divided on Bowie. Even tough critic and Bowie doubter Lester Bangs called it his first masterpiece, lapping up the unexpected spaced out funk it provided (no doubt Lester's propensity for alcohol, pharmaceuticals, speed and pills enhanced the experience). It was an achievement that gave Bowie perhaps his biggest role as inspiration for the post-punk and new wave acts to come. My goodness, think of all those "New Romantics" from 80s synth-pop and where they got their whole sly, baritone croon and gender neutral appeal from. It's not as much owed to the Ziggy Stardust guise as it is to the Thin White Duke guise. Station to Station bridged the gap between Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy, started off by the electronically sub-terrain of Low. The first cut on Station to Station is the title one, a 10-minute, guitar-ravaged frightener that right away foreshadows the icy paranoia now creeping into Bowie's music. By dehumanizing the R&B with a bit of Krautrock frigidness, Bowie touches on something truly enthralling and wholly different. "Station to Station" begins with train sound effects melding into the guitar feedback of Slick. It appears to be a song exploring the black magic of Aleister Crowley, Hermetic Qabalah and gnosticism. The whole concept of "The Thin White Duke" Bowie is confirmed in the fact he introduces himself by that moniker on the first line of the album. It made for quite a nickname, not only because it's catchy but because it really captures the image of the emaciated Bowie.

But "Station to Station" is an inauspicious beginning because the album really takes off with the heady funk afterward, starting with the tremendous, well-remembered "Golden Years." A tongue-twister lyrically, "Golden Years" features sensational singing and lyrics from Bowie while the demented funk is spliced with eerie whistling, finger snaps and echo chamber effects. Bowie also produces some deceptively omnipresent harmony vocals amidst a rhythm track that in 1976 James Brown would've killed for (after all, his single "Hot" ripped off the central riff from "Fame," which was first developed in Bowie's stage roofraiser cover of "Footstompin'" from his turning point 1974 tour). The dramatic "Word on a Wing" is Bowie finally learning the ropes of being a captivating balladeer, with synthesizer energy giving it that Eurocentric slant. Bowie later admitted the song was written to channel his feelings of despair in his coke-addled state filming The Man Who Fell to Earth. The lyrics, and Bowie's later chronicling, indicate a man desperate for salvation, feeling that perhaps wearing a silver cross can save him. Bowie claims he nearly went as far as having a Christian rebirth, hoping it could help him fend off the psychological trauma his cocaine psychosis was causing him. He even speculated in 1999 that "Word on a Wing" was "a call for help" during his darkest hours. A purely kooky and unforgettable funk scorcher is "TVC 15," a charged up, nervy version of what Bowie started on Young Americans. Featuring chunky metallic guitar from Slick as well as Bowie's keen vocals, "TVC 15" is a five-star recording all the way. What begins as a loungish sort of jazz pop becomes a screeching cacophony of funk with Slick's rachety guitars wailing out in the far background. "TVC 15" is a song that goes through so many different sections that it's hard to classify it by verse-coda-bridge-chorus or any of that standard categorization. The subject matter was supposedly inspired by Iggy Pop, an equally troubled rock singer back then that Bowie continually helped keep alive and grounded in the 70s, hallucinating the TV at Bowie's home trying to swallow his girlfriend alive. As if it was possible, things get stranger with "Stay," a cavalcade of Slick's ferocious guitar leads, Alomar's guitar funk scratch, Latin rhythms and Bowie's operatic melody line. Call "Stay" disco for moody punks, as the post-punk acts explored musical areas much like "Stay" and later on, bands like Joy Division, Pylon and Gang of Four found a way to incorporate the restless dance potential Bowie managed to cash in on (indeed he has always taken interest in combining the exhilaration of R&B with the mechanical Sturm und Drang of electronica and kraut rock).

Running over 6 minutes, like many of the tracks here, "Stay" is positively chilling, with rambling lyrics that convey the kind of emotional incoherence and disenchantment. The cocaine madness jamming is wild, untamed and would make good use for any depiction of a dystopian world that Bowie has always hinted at in his more unconventional, serious work. On top of the instrumentation tackling funk and hard rock all at once, there is Bowie providing swirling melletron backing (eat your fuckin' heart out "Space Oddity"!). "Stay" may or may not be a love song- the lyrics indicate yes, the overall atmosphere of the song would say otherwise I'd say. Bowie eases up on the crazy for the seventh and final selection, a cover of the 1957 composition "Wild is the Wind," recorded by Johnny Mathis for a film of the same name. Nina Simone's 1966 cover was likely how Bowie became aware of the tune, being a noted admirer of Simone's. However deprived of sanity Bowie seemed, no matter how zoned out or fashionably insane he was, he still uses "Wild as the Wind" to demonstrate how his vocals had come a long way since the trendy, novelty start to his career. Bowie the vocalist is in top shape on "Wild is the Wind," singing as if to the heavens in a passionate falsetto mixed in with his elegantly suave baritone croon. The song rarely hits the feverish highs of the other songs, giving a soothing, calming influence to an otherwise schizophrenic album. Bowie's vocals are arresting throughout Station to Station but only on "Wild is the Wind" do they truly take the role as the dominant instrument. Rather than coming off as cheesy or showy and mainstream like he did on his previous release, "Wild is the Wind" is one of the genuinely time halting moments in the canon of Mr. Bowie. An enchanted, lullaby kind of track but still a lonesome, longing way to end the album. Station to Station led to artistic discoveries throughout the late 70s, a second golden age for Bowie with Brian Eno serving as creative partner and producer through the albums Low, "Heroes," and Lodger. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980 arguably ended this phase as Bowie went off to try and conquer the dance pop market, although in a much shallower way than he had done in the mid-70s. With the exception of Let's Dance, the David Bowie of 1983-1991 was a pretty underwhelming, banal artist whose movie career was more promising frankly. Station to Station is the barometer for all his future releases and a real trip through the demonic life Bowie was leading at the time. In all his cocaine enslaved glory, you can understand the large critical reputation Bowie commands today with a few listens to this wonderful album.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart: A Good ol' Put-On for the Holidays? Or a Serious Yuletide Effort? I Decide!

First posted (in truncated review form) in PressPlus1 magazine:

No introduction is needed in order to put Mr. Robert Zimmerman on a mighty pedestal. This isn't what this little article is about though. Yes, it ties in to his willful desire during his career to throw a curve ball to the public. But I'll try to put it in perspective. Some are enjoying his October 13 release,
Christmas in the Heart, for the holiday bliss it wraps itself in, not unlike a warm blanket on a chilly, snowy winter's night. I did say some. Others, expecting better and keeping in mind his legacy, have been savaging it for that very reason. As if Christmas records were supposed to be cool, hip and awe-inspiring? A lot of people are just Dylan doubters who wait for opportunities like these in order to pounce and tear strips off what they see as his inflated stature. It's neither a Christmas classic nor a pile of reindeer crap. Bob often dropped mediocrity on us throughout the period of 1977-90. But unfortunately, more often than not it wasn't because he felt like it, as was the case with 1970's Self Portrait. Self Portrait was a double LP that was so immersed in corniness and a drier, lazier "Nashville Sound" sort of country, that it struck even the most steadfast, loyal Dylanophile to recoil in confusion. Thusly, it became the worst reviewed album of his career. Apparently, Nashville Skyline wasn't a big enough shock for Dylan to ward off fans. His real intent was to do something completely different, something a lot more simple and offhand than he had ever done. Those who thought Dylan didn't have a schmaltzy bone in his body were in for a rude awakening, even if they could handle and absorb the pure country crooning of Nashville Skyline. The throngs of revolutionaries and hippie liberals now littering the rock audience hoped they could summon Dylan to begin organizing the troops through his words again. But Dylan wasn't about "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Masters of War" in 1969 and he bravely, some would say provokingly, made an album- not just any, but a four-sided one like his quintessential Blonde on Blonde- so remarkably square and the antithesis of groundbreaking and breathtaking, that many wrote him off and disparaged him.

Somehow, at only 29 years of age, Bob Dylan was considered a has-been who didn't even know what is own fans wanted to hear anymore. But unlike other rock chameleons who blatantly change their mannerisms, fashions and even hair colours, Dylan morphed into different little niches with little regard for what others thought of him. He's been just as much a chameleon as David Bowie or Madonna only he has jumped around to avoid expectations musically rather than in image as well (though you could argue his 80s look of leather and jewelry- Dylan pimped to the nines!- was a pose of its own). There are very few mavericks who can claim the career of a Bob Dylan while also claiming to be so ignorant to trends and opinions. You just couldn't start a career today with that mindset and hope to be anything more than a cult hero. The fact artists no longer touch a nerve in people's minds so much as their wallets is a statement on where the world is headed in terms of its appreciation for music as compared to its insatiable appetite for entertainment (not one and the same thing). A legend like Dylan could never have had the same impact 10-15 years after he began. Even after his "protest" days he was pushing the envelope in a way that was ballsier than it was smart. Of course, the reaction to the dud known as Self Portrait was so severe that Dylan heard about the circus from his lable Columbia and, although he has insisted it was in his plans anyway, quickly responded four months later with a much superior album, New Morning. New Morning is quite solid but not great, although it was hailed as such by the rock press, still puzzled and somewhat befuddled over the dismal Self Portrait.

At the time of release, Self Portrait is still the most negatively criticized Dylan studio album, but time and context have made Self Portrait seem a lot less brutal than it actually is. One can enjoy it almost as much as the smiling cowpoke of its predecessor, if it was edited down to a single LP and shortened to say 8 or 9 tracks. Dylan recovered from the backlash but his lack of another masterpiece- before Blood on the Tracks that is- stagnated his career, especially when he went through a big period of writers block from 1971-73. He would have been well served by doing the same and withholding or delaying albums in the 80s and sparing us the lackluster thud that a majority of them landed with. For example, think of how good Slow Train Comingcould have been if he'd waited two years to release it and made it a double disc? (we'd have "Every Grain of Sand," "Heart of Mine," "Lord Protect My Child," "Angelina," "Caribbean Wind," "Groom Still Waiting at the Altar," "What Can I Do for You?" and "In the Summertime" added- in short, his second best release of the entire decade). Or think of how good an album like Infidels could have been if he'd waited another 2-3 years to release it and then put some backloaded previously unreleased material on it too? ("Foot of Pride," "Blind Willie McTell," "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" and "Brownsville Girl" all together!?). After his mid-70s renaissance of sorts came the whirlwind of his marriage crumbling as well as the filming of a movie (Renaldo and Clara) amidst the Rolling Thunder Revue- his 1975-76 touring outfit that kept growing with well known sidemen and stars Dylan had befriended over the years until it was a frigging jubilee or the largest jug band known to man if you will. This set up a period of blinding inconsistency, overshadowed at first by a controversial "Born Again" Christian period where he appeared to become loathsome of the world's evils and cast a doubting eye on everything not in the service of the Lord.

Atheists and agnostics alike were offended and put off by this "Old Testament" hellfire and brimstone Bob Dylan. On the positive side, it cleansed the palette of his disappointing Street Legal from 1978, which was followed by the Vegasy tour he underwent with a giant band- documented by the worthless live double Live at Budokan in 1979. Despite the re-birth, Dylan saw a spike in sales but he immediately squandered momentum with the lousy Saved and the not-quite-as-lousy Shot of Love in 1980 and '81 respectively. Infidels improved the situation somewhat in 1983, with Dylan retreating from the dogmatic stance quite a bit. Not perfect, ut many hoped it was a start of a turnaround musically and lyrically even though Dylan's Christian era concerts were undeniably spiritual, uncompromising (he eschewed his secular material for a spell) and even touching for a non-devout person to see and hear. Dylan gorged himself on scripture and built up the acumen of a traveling preacher, courageously facing gatherings with his faith on his sleeve like a badge of honour, all the while coping with a cascade of scorn and doubt being levied from every angle imaginable. When he abandoned all that God talk, he somehow became a little less fearless and symmetrical a performer and often his tours would become- even to this day they're not totally immune- inconsistent treks around North America with a seeming loss of poignancy and an almost impotence of fulfilling even audiences bare minimum expectations. Songwriting took a dip through a barren desert of stodgy dullness too as throughout this 1977-90 period, he seemed unable to write outside of a boring structure of bluesy phrasing. It was monotonous filler, where each song lacked a discernible melody and seemed like rehearsal for something bigger and better that never came. Yes indeed people, the bracing thrill of those mid-60s electric sidemen was extremely longed for by fans. Where Dylan had once embarked into electric blues with killer chaps who made their natural state of musicianship sound like what would take normal players a fistful of reds and cough syrup to reach. In that peak period, one could ascertain that Dylan was so brash, so strong-headed that he could pluck almost any hot shit musician he pleased.

By 1985, he could often get the pros but never the hungry and thirsty lions capable of pushing him. He used a punkish outfit called the Delinquents in 1984 for his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and honestly should've gone out on the road with them, instead of what he did do- rely on a hired band with session puppets like Mick Taylor (talented guitarist but nothing that was going to break new territory for Bobby). The sound was too familiar, too ordinary and entrenched in 70s rock values instead of something deliciously modern and the kind of medicine Dylan should've swallowed. Dylan's rocky relationship with performing in the 80s was overcome by going out on the road in 1986 with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, a band made up of musicians not from his generation. Their oldest member, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, was still 9 years Dylan's junior. With the Delinquents, Dylan put on an underprepared, careening and mistake prone apperance, but not in an embarrassing or dreadful way at all- really, the major mistake is Dylan's, when he tries to solo on harmonica on "Jokerman" but picks up the wrong blues harp and has to rummage for the right one. However, the energy, seethe and no bullshit approach was sorely lacking from the Zimm's persona back then. Such decisions that were guaranteed to keep him in a safety zone ultimately came to foreshadow the rudderless career to come. His two albums after the uneven but decent Empire Burlesque and the wonderful Infidels dropped him right back into mediocrity he had toyed with during his re-birth phase. Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove aren't totally worthless but are really Dylan at his lowest, patched together from 1983-86 sessions and lacking the focus they would have had with just one series of sessions dedicated to them. Daniel Lanois pumped hope back into Dylan's fans with the startling Oh Mercy in 1989 but Dylan went right back and let star producer Don Was helm the reprehensible Under the Red Sky. After that, his career seemed dried up for good, only generating two acoustic folk cover records that recalled how he had once been so impacting on music and also reflecting how ugly his singing voice had become. Then a reunion with Lanois jolted his career to life for the Grammy-awardedTime Out of Mind in 1997 and Dylan triumphed with his new crackerjack bands on self-produced efforts 2001's Love & Theft- the true masterpiece of the post-comeback albums- 2006's Modern Times and this year's Together Through Life.

That brings us to here and now. Call it his 34th studio album if you like, but Christmas in the Heart is another one of those sudden, unforetold detours by the master. If you're not familiar with him, you might think it a wretched disc from a washed up old coot. You'd be wrong on both counts, though less so on the first. If you know anything about him, you should know it's Dylan taking the piss and giving a wink while straight-faced delivering holiday jingles like some understudy of Burl Ives or Bing Crosby if either got kicked by a mule in the larynx. Despite delivering these songs relatively loyal to the originals, he still sings in that road-worn, gravelly bellow that's become partly inspiring and partly giggle-inducing since it first became truly ingrained on Love & Theft. Being a deep fan of the man and a studied scholar on his career, the first time I heard one of these tracks I literally laughed out loud (or LOL'd, as internet linguists put it). But then I realized I should simply take it at face value, understand it was Dylan exhibiting the spirit of Jolly 'ol St. Nick himself. Those who trash this album are somewhat in the wrong because at this point in his career Dylan doesn't have to crank out genius tunes every time, at least in my estimation. Look, Christmas in the Heart is one thing, but it's not inexcusable like Under the Red Sky, the live Dylan & the Dead (one of the only pieces of audial proof that the Grateful Dead did not always cook in concert), Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, Saved, Live at Budokan or even the tongue-in-cheek Self Portrait. Dylan's responsibility is no longer to deliver gold time and time again and if this was a bad Christmas album, that'd be one thing. But I'll take this one over Mariah Carey shrieking out "Silver Bells" or Beyonce turning "Winter Wonderland" into a shameless, selfish grandstanding of vocal melisma, hypothetically speaking. The concept of Dylan doing Christmas songs seems unsuited to his style, but if he wants to, that's fine and dandy like sour candy (which sounds like one of those old time corny homilies Dylan gives on recent albums).

Christmas in the Heart, despite its embarrassing moments, still convinces me he's settling into old age amazingly well. Who could've pictured this 25 years ago when he looked to be desperately hanging on, wearing earrings, leather and makeup in concert? Or when he was blathering in concert without coherence whatsoever, while seemingly disinterested in his older numbers... wait, he still does that. Look, Dylan's not 21 anymore folks. He's a grandpappy and as long as he's still with us for the next handful of years, I'd wager to bet he'll be a great grandpappy too. So he's thinking of the little ones when he records an LP like this and also his motives are pure in that he's donating the royalties to the UN's World Food Program, Feeding America and Crisis UK, all organizations dedicated to fighting child hunger worldwide. Dylan the humanitarian and philanthropist? Well, as Pete Seeger wrote, there's "a time to every purpose under heaven." Under the Red Sky hinted toward Dylan's affection for the little ones, containing a few of Dylan's most simplistic songs yet, drawing from tall tales, fables and nursery rhymes and thanked "pubbly wubbly" in the liner notes, leading to strong suggestions that Dylan had geared the album to his then-secret five year old daughter Desiree. OnChristmas in the Heart, Dylan recreates the Christmas euphoria of his childhood, recalling the music aimed at his folks- the mass majority of the US in those heady post-war days. He recreates the type of fireside vocal pop for Middle America's idyllic, white, buttoned-down families. Of course, Dylan's family was Jewish but out in cold, small town Hibbing, Minnesota definitely felt a part of the stereotypical sunny, promising, bustling world of suburban America. Okey-dokey, this was the same Middle America he couldn't wait to escape from, but he used it to his advantage when he arrived in New York, crafting tall tales about his life to that point that may have been inspired by Kerouac but took a little bit of Mid Western charm with them too. Therefore, we have Dylan sprinkling in hearty stockings full of sleigh bells, glockenspiels, rosy apple-cheeked Andrews Sisters choruses and even polka flourishes (thanks to Los Lobos' David Hidalgo). Sometimes this is plain weird and jarring recorded material from Bob.

Rarely does Dylan try to turn a Christmas carol or popular song into one of his own on this LP, so even though there's the trough of Americana instrumentation like mandolin, pedal steel guitar and upright bass, it's not as if we're getting some ragtime, rockabilly, jump blues or bluegrass like recent Dylan works. It's not all orchestration and choirs either, but you get the idea. Some may point out that it's odd to get a Christmas album from someone whose birth name was Robert Zimmerman, but this guy has jumped back and forth between public displays of ascribing to either Christianity or Judaism so he can record about anything and claim authenticity. What of the actual songs? Well, the laughter begins to tumble only slightly less so than later on during the first track "Here Comes Santa Claus." It's not bad by Christmasy standards, opting for the jolly glockenspiel and breezy vocal chorus that makes Bob sound like he just landed in the middle of a Lawrence Welk program. Some bluesy guitar and slide work comes on "Do You What I Hear?" one of the more gracious and respectable recordings here. Despite those components, there's enough piano, snare drum march and faithfulness to the original melody to make anyone forget any illusions about Dylan turning it into a Southern barnstorming sizzler. The arrival of sweet little female choruses on "Winter Wonderland" is a jolt only to those who never heard the corny choirs from Self Portrait. It's a bit unsuited to the usual Dylan fare, but he drips some country/jazz ambience to make it another charming listen. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" opts for the churchy stridence of most renditions but Dylan sounds strained and stunted in his singing, though it's cool to hear him hit notes he's stayed away from for the last 20 years and for one brief note he even sounds like the "cow stuck on a fence" groan of old. "Hark" does not outright stink up the joint thankfully. A chance to have a slow, sensuous version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" isn't totally capitalized upon, opting to go the Elvis route with some white-bred vocal harmonies that owe something to the Ink Spots.

"Little Drummer Boy" gets a fine, straight reading from Bob and it's a relief to hear it in the hands of the master, not being gussied up with a quotient of lameness. "Christmas Blues" is routine, even if it's the first time Bob is laying down music not unlike his recent albums. After a while, that gravelly croak of a voice tends to irritate too. "O Come All Ye Faithful" is just insane, with Dylan reciting parts in Latin and singing like he has a head cold. Almost novelty-like, moreso than other cuts. Still, I think I detected a faint harmonica somewhere back there, a piece of equipment he has been neglecting further and further over the last 15 years. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" doesn't mesh well with Bob's voice, coming off more like the cover you'd hear from an experienced truck stop roadhouse band on December 24 while everyone's scrambling back home for the big day. In short, a bit cheap and standard instead of moving and thoughtful. You might argue that it's impossible to come across as such because these songs have all been done to death, but if they're great tunes, you should be able to shape them into quality moments and give them proper thought. Bob doesn't always have that going for him on Christmas in the Heart. The one time he really deviates from expectation is with the zydeco, nutty take on "Must Be Santa." Dylan rapidly garbling out the lyrics, answered back by his vocal chorus like the Jordanaire wannabes they are, is about the most frenetically he's done anything since the blues rock 2/4 of his mid-60s plugged in period. It's almost as fast a tempo as a damn bebop piece, but the attempt at going outside the box is plain creepy and wildly entertaining in a wrong way. "Silver Bells" has the regalia of a true carol with bells and chimes plus violins layered onto that, one of the handful of occasions on this album where Dylan gets what it takes to make a Christmas staple worth taking in. "The First Noel" is a scary ringer forSelf Portrait's kookier country pop but isn't a total loss nonetheless. "Christmas Island" works, because it's supposed to be a funky Hawaiian finger-snapper. It transports you right back to days when Bing Crosby held captive the ear of every American on their radio set. Dylan's doing this album more as a history lesson or documentation of what Christmas pop meant to people in his childhood and what it sounded like.

Hey, for fidelity exactness, Tom Waits could be a godsend to the Christmas album market. He loves producing recordings that sound beat up, crackly and like they're second generation masters with pre-big studio technology. 've always thought he could do both the most unique and the most gut-bustingly hilarious Christmas album ever (a karaoke piano bar Waits doing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas would kill, I must say). Anyway, back to Dylan' methods for spreading yuletide cheer. "The Christmas Song" rolls along like lounge jazz but isn't nearly as slickly shallow. It's a bit of a gratifying cut actually. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is Dylan ratcheting up the pomp. It doesn't quite hit the mark but isn't at the bottom of the heap either. Really, I don't find this offensively bland product, even as a hardline Dylan fan and someone who's heard these Christmas tunes ad nauseum all my life- especially for the few weeks I worked in a retail store around the Christmas season and heard 10 different versions of "Silent Night," most so appalling as to make your ears want to bleed and your face recoil or shrivel up in abject horror. I'm no blind optimist or defender of poor musical effort, but those who completely pan or disown this album just after listening to a few samples need to settle down. If one can't even find a remote shred of Christmas spirit from this album, they're juyst cynical, stuck-up blowhards anyway. You don't have to like it, but understand why Bob did this album and why it's not meant to be taken too seriously. Bob can yuck it up even when honing his interpretive craft on a batch of extremely well-known songs and for that I tip my cap to him. Christmas in the Heart will very likely not go down in lore as a bonafide classic for the holidays but it's got a few things I'd put on my Christmas mix tape and it will outclass 99% of what else is puked out by phony, record label invested stars in the coming weeks. To reinforce the idea that even Bob himself knows he's immersing his persona into feel good nostalgia, the cover artwork is a painting of man and woman riding horse bound carriage through the snow in a scene that you might otherwise think was lifted out of some kind of Norman Rockwell artwork. In other words, something classy from the lore of Americana. And when you get right down to it, Dylan's career has been all about Americana and adapting it to the rest of the world's ways.

Rating: B (*** out of five)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Strange Sagas in Rock: Fleetwood Mac, 1967-74 (aka pre-Buckingham/Nicks)

Everyone is no doubt aware of the 70s platinum level fame of Fleetwood Mac who, while derided by rock purists as commercial, sterile and California West Coast rock phonies, gained a huge following from baby boomers that continues to this day. They were one of just a few supergroups in rock during the late 70s that appealed to maturing boomers and even the teenagers, at least the ones more receptive to top 40 radio. Guitar virtuoso Lindsay Buckingham became the leader and producer when the dust cleared from their late 70 success, a whirlwind trip that was hampered by personal struggles. First, there was the divorce agony of bassist John McVie and his wife, keyboardist Christine, while drummer Mick Fleetwood was freshly divorced from his wife and Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks were splitting as well. Years later, Fleetwood and Nicks admitted to having an affair around the time of 1977's Rumours, Fleetwood Mac's coronation as one of rock's mega-sellers. After 1979, Fleetwood Mac took a back seat to the solo ventures of several members with Nicks becoming a star in her own right, though dealing with cocaine addiction until the late 80s, a problem Fleetwood faced himself for a several years himself. Subsequent efforts were pristine quality pop for their times but when Buckingham abandoned ship in 1988 after the slam dunk hit Tango in the Night, the band as a creative entity was for all intents and purposes dead (their next two albums both sold meagre amounts as first McVie left in 1993 and Nicks left a year later before their 1995 album Time. Sensing the cash grab, the "classic" lineup- really the only one that ever stayed intact for more than 2 years- reunited two years later for a concert film and album entitled The Dance). But as dysfunctional as the Rumours period was, it paled next to what had come before it- in terms of what I'll call the wow factor (as in even Hollywood couldn't make this stuff up).

That Fleetwood Mac endured despite the fact that all of the members should've hated each other is no shock to those who track the group's history from its 1967 inception as a seminal white blues band. Mick Fleetwood endured anything and everything to make sure the band survived, through its post-Peter Green years trying to catch on with California rock styles before bringing along Buckingham Nicks, the name of the duo for their (self-titled) only professionally recorded album- hearing the 1972 LP, Mick Fleetwood contacted Buckingham to become the new guitarist after Bob Welch quit on the eve of a tour in late 1974. Buckingham's considerable talents were in demand but he insisted his wife Stevie Nicks be brought along too. Fleetwood gave in to this hardline move but it turned out for the best since Nicks's husky, impassioned vocals- a style some have jokingly compared to the bleat of a goat- and songwriting gave the Mac several classics. She became the band's most popular member despite being a last minute afterthought to filling in the guitarist's position. But this also ushered in a stability that Fleetwood Mac had almost never known. You see, as of mid-1967, blues guitar wizard Peter Green (real name Greenbaum) had quit his post as lead guitarist in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the very deserving replacement of Eric Clapton when he departed to form Cream in May of 1966. Green, 21 at the time, had rounded up a young roster with Mick Fleetwood, 21, and second guitarist Jeremy Spencer, just 19. He left the Bluesbreakers with an invitation offered forth to John McVie, the bassist in the Bluesbreakers, to come with him. McVie declined, fearing that leaving his cushy position for another band could backfire if that band wasn't fortuitous or at least built to last beyond a year or two. Still, as a symbolic gesture, Green named his new band Fleetwood Mac, cleverly doing it based on his (desired) rhythm section. Imagine if the Stones called themselves Wymann Watts or the Beatles were called McCartney Starr... hey, those aren't bad names actually. 

With McVie, 22, refusing, Bob Brunning was named the bassist. Brunning quit after four months of gigging to pursue his post-secondary education once McVie agreed to leave Mayall. Turning to the only man he knew well enough to be his bandmate, Green finally persuaded McVie to hook up with the Mac, who were months away from cutting their first album. Interestingly, though they were a hot band to see live, their records were often brought down by the tedium of white English boys playing the blues over and over and contributing few of their own penned efforts. Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Wonderful (both 1968) aren't nearly up to even the standard of Cream but showed they had excellent chops and knew the insides and outs of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson among others. You can still hear the tempting potential. Green and Spencer were decent frontmen but no band can spin their wheels in that strictly blues discipline forever. After adding 18-year old guitar whiz Danny Kirwan early in 1969, the guitar aspect took off even further and the Mac expanded further into classical, R&B, Latin and psychedelic rock influences for 1969's breakthrough (artistically and commercially) Then Play on. A non-LP single before that LP's release, "Albatross," was a gorgeous instrumental that became a surprise #1 UK hit and showed how Green, Kirwan and Spencer (who actually doesn't play on the cut) could translate their skills into stellar writing too. But this is where it all started to get crazy. The dream began to splinter and become jagged as the usual rock career travails took their toll one by one, seemingly in a span of just a few years. Essentially, their stupendous guitar trio went nuts, each in his own way. 

After bathing in recognition from Then Play on, Peter Green began to get overcome by the money being raked in. All the attention and cash flow was spooking Green, who was actually in the onset of schizophrenia. Their early 1970 single "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)" was a metaphor for his rejection and distaste with the music business money-go-round. It foretold the near future as Green quit the band to free himself from this perceived slavery, loose from what he saw were the shackles of growing fame. Green can legitimately be chalked up as another LSD casualty, going off the deep end via copious usage of the drug a la Syd Barrett. Deprived of their founder, Fleetwood Mac regrouped as a quartet with Spencer and Kirwan tackling their stronger roles admirably. Their album from this lineup, 1970's Kiln House, is perhaps their best pre-1975 LP. Spencer mostly contributed interesting stylistic poses (or parodies if you prefer) with the rockabilly of "This is the Rock" and "Buddy's Song" (credited to Buddy Holly's mother as a token of respect I guess) and the country moaner of woe and murder, "Blood on the Floor" where Spencer definitely imitates Elvis with extreme hyperbole. Kirwan's "Jewel Eyed Judy," the instrumental "Earl Gray" and "Tell Me All the Things You Do" were indications of the promise he carried. Fleetwood Mac seemed perfectly able to carry on, maybe even thrive under the new circumstances. But then at the start of their American tour dates in early 1971, Spencer pulled an unorthodox move. Having spent months where his own mental state seemed precarious, possibly brought on by bad acid trips as well, Spencer's deep interest in religion took full flight. Magnanimous on stage, at times suggestive and controversially clownish, Spencer was indeed a different soul off stage and had a strained working relationship with Green. While staying in San Francisco, Spencer, who had constantly been avidly reading religious text and a wearer of crosses and various emblems, was attracted by the lecturing of a member of the cult the Children of God when he met them in a bookstore. 

Hours passed and Fleetwood Mac's entourage went looking for the missing guitarist, being forced to cancel their show that night. When finally located a day later, Spencer had been brainwashed, sporting a buzz cut and already seemingly committed to the teachings of the Children of God, declaring he was done with Fleetwood Mac in favour of dedicating his life to his newfound religious cause. Years later, he expressed regret with the fact he didn't tell the others before he made the change. The others, discouraged by another unexpected loss, would soldier on by bringing in Peter Green to help them finish the tour, fueling speculation Green would return fully, though that was quickly shot down. Fleetwood Mac recovered by adding their first American member in Bob Welch. Meanwhile, helping take up the songwriting load was Christine Perfect, formerly of the British R&B group Chicken Shack. Perfect was soon to become Christine McVie and with her keyboards, impressive writing and deep voice (for a female singer), she would become a pivotal if underrated member of the band for the next couple decades. When she was still just McVie's girlfriend, she had contributed briefly to Kiln House and also was the artist of the cover. The shy, insecure Kirwan had been a third string contributor when he was brought along in 1969 but now was thrust into a spotlight he was just as uncomfortable with as Green or Spencer had been. Still, he was improving by leaps and bounds as a writer, contributing some nice material to the mellow Future Games in 1971, a half-cocked attempt at completely breaking off from their blues roots, Welch's spacey soft rock at the forefront on the title track in particular. Kirwan then raised his game for the overlooked delight Bare Trees a year after, bringing guitar heroics and melodicism to his contributions (top ones being "Child o' Mine," is poem-set-to-music "Dust" and the lovely, graceful instrumental "Sunny Side of Heaven" while the title track was a rip-roaring guitar extravaganza and "Danny's Chant" an indigenous-fashioned, tribal rocker). 

Next to Kirwan's contributions, Welch's countryish pop-rock ("The Ghost," "Sentimental Lady") seemed tame, though the future pop craft was echoed most closely in McVie's "Homeward Bound" and gospely "Spare Me a Little of Your Love." But Kirwan was never truly glad in his role, often retreating from the rest of the band and becoming moody with them. Kirwan rarely did anything but perform and drink heavily to calm his easily frayed nerves. When touring to support the album, Kirwan reached his breaking point, refusing to go out for a concert. After the show, he had enough gall to criticize the band he watched from the wings during the shaky performance. That would spell the end. Kirwan would later struggle with poor mental health, homelessness, alcoholism and depression until landing on his feet sometime in the 90s. To this day he has spurned offers to join a reunion of the early lineup. Green is well off enough to participate while Spencer still performs as well, though his links to the controversial Children of God (now called The Family International, there has been proof that the cult has promoted sexual activities between children and adults) make his participation a touchy issue. Kirwan was replaced by Bob Weston. As for the remainder of Fleetwood Mac, they tried heading in a hard rock vein by enlisting Weston and Dave Walker, vocalist formerly of Savoy Brown. This sextet lineup only survived one album, 1973's Penguin, before a money dispute led to the ousting of Walker. The superior Mystery to Me came out at year's end. The lineup was altered to a quarter when Weston departed early in 1974. With Welch and McVie pitching in heavily, they cut their highest charting album in the US to date with Heroes Are Hard to Find, their first LP after settling in Los Angeles.

Still, Heroes was their first widely panned album in years and Bob Welch left to form his own band, Paris, and embark on a mildly successful career of his own. That necessitated the hiring of Buckingham and Nicks and Fleetwood Mac finally striking a winning formula. There were more mountains to climb and when Fleetwood Mac hit the pinnacle of commercial fortune in the latter part of the decade, it was a long journey that proved well worth it for the McVies and Mick Fleetwood. But man, no one ever had a weirder path getting there. Amazingly, there have been 17 official members in the history of Fleetwood Mac but from 1975-88 the lineup stayed the exact same. But come on, that's what platinum sales will do: Keep everyone together no matter what. There are few bands you can find who's history is dotted by such casualties of the breakneck-paced late 60s world of rock, a system that with its lethal chemistry of drugs, sex, egos and business could cause certain individuals to crack. In the case of the Mac, it occurred with three of its biggest members from the vaunted 1969 that several believe was the best. Even the one who found redemption and peace, Jeremy Spencer, did so by turning himself over to the radical Children of God cult. It's understandable that Fleetwood Mac could never find the boon they were in search of in the wake of Peter Green's exit, considering the inner turmoil. The rhythm section Green named his band after, became the guys in charge and have remained the only two members who've never abandoned ranks (Fleetwood is the only original member thanks to the short-lived Bob Brunning days). But before Lindsay Buckingham, the talented writers and guitarists they brought in were extreme cases of rock star insecurities gone loco. Buckingham was not miles better than Kirwan nor did he make Spencer and Green seem amateur, but he was level-headed enough and a natural leader that is ultimately the one responsible for keeping the band on the right track for so long, though ultimate credit goes to Fleetwood for hiring him. 1969-74 Fleetwood Mac was the genesis of the million-selling act that hatched out of the heavy turnover. But as the saying goes: Sometimes you have to break a few eggs before you get an omelet.