Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Doors -- "The Crystal Ship" (1967)


Before you slip into unconsciousness, I'd
Like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss . . .


The crystal ship is being filled
A thousand girls, a thousand thrills
A million ways to spend your time


The Doors' debut album (The Doors) was released the first week of 1967 -- that's 42 years ago. If I were to really think about that, my whole day would be ruined.

One reason I always liked the Doors was because Jim Morrison had a relatively low voice, and so did I. When I was singing along with the radio, I couldn't reach the high notes in a lot of my favorite songs -- but that was never a problem with a Doors song because Morrison and I had similar vocal ranges. (Speaking of my singing along with the radio . . . I remember one long drive when my father suddenly turned the car radio off. When I protested, he said "We can either listen to the radio, or listen to you.")

"Light My Fire" wasn't the first song released as a single from The Doors -- I assume that its being so long (7:06) had something to do with that. Six months after the album was released, a more radio-friendly 2:52 version was created, and became one of the most unforgettable hit singles of the AM radio era. It is #7 on VH1's "100 Greatest Songs of All Time"and was one of the few rock songs included in NPR's ranking of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century (which included, among other things, "West Side Story" and "Rhapsody in Blue"). When you come across The Godfather Part II on television, you have to watch it, and when you hear "Light My Fire" on the radio, you have to listen to it.

"Light My Fire" was #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" for three weeks. Jose Feliciano's cover version reached #3 only a year later, and an astonishing variety of others have covered the song since then -- including Patricia Barber, Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, B.J. Thomas, Type O Negative, and Massive Attack. (Massive Attack's version samples the "Light My Fire" recordings of Jackie Wilson and Young-Holt Unlimited.)

The B-side of "Light My Fire" was another song from The Doors -- "The Crystal Ship." I didn't own the album until many years later, and I'm not sure when I first heard "The Crystal Ship." I must have heard the entire album played by friends during college, but I first remember hearing it until the early 1980's, when I was living in San Francisco and it was played regularly on a local classic rock station.

It's a classic Jim Morrison song -- which can be good news and bad news. Morrison, who considered himself first and foremost a poet, was influenced by William Blake, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Joseph Campbell, and the "Beat Generation" writers. (The name "The Doors" came from a line in the Blake poem, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.") He took himself just a tad too seriously, and he wrote a lot of crap. But his lyrics are like no one else's, and the Doors' best songs are unique and really get under your skin. If you're in the right mood -- nostalgic, or longing for something that you can't quite get a grip on -- a song like "The Crystal Ship" is just what the doctor ordered.

Some people interpret "The Crystal Ship" as a drug-trip song -- of course, that's the default interpretation for any 60's or 70's song that you can't make sense of. (What is a "crystal ship" anyway? I have no clue, but it sounds awfully fragile.) The other explanation you'll find is that the song is Morrison's good-bye to a former girlfriend. (I suppose it's a bummer when a rock star dumps you, but having him write a song or two about you before the breakup is pretty cool.) I don't really care what the song means. It's a gorgeous two and a half minutes of dreamy, loopy music and dreamy, loopy words. The studio recording is perfectly arranged and executed -- especially the way Morrison's voice crescendos into the last stanza, peaking on the word "crystal" (the second group of three lines quoted above -- sorry, I couldn't stop at just three lines for this song)

Here's the song:




Here's a video that combines a pretty good live performance of the song with some very interesting photos of Morrison and the other Doors:




If you want to buy "Crystal Ship" from iTunes, click here: The Doors - The Doors - The Crystal Ship


If you want to buy it from Amazon.com, click here:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

System of a Down -- "Lost in Hollywood" (2005)



They take you, and make you,
They look at you in disgusting ways
You should have never trusted Hollywood.

Life can be pretty random. If you don't think so, just look at your husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend (assuming you have one). How did you meet him/her? For many, the meeting was such a fluke, seemingly mere happenstance -- perhaps the result of the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil -- that a slight alteration in any one of about a million events would have caused enough of a divergence in your paths that you would never have encountered one another. (Of course, some would say that fact that there were incredible odds against that particular outcome actually taking place is the best proof that your meeting was not the result of chance, but destiny.)

That was certainly true for me. And it's equally true when it comes to me finding this song.

Like much of the music I have on my computer, I got System of a Down's Mesmerize CD through my local public library. I don't recall ever hearing the band's music on the radio or seeing anything about them on TV. I can only assume that I searched for and requested Mesmerize because I came across the name of the band or the CD on some music review site -- maybe on a "top 100 CDs of 2005" list or something like that.

After downloading the CD, I don't recall ever hearing any of the songs on it until last Saturday, when we were buried by the Mother of All Snowstorms.  Somehow five songs from Mesmerize had ended up on my iPod shuffle, and came up while I was shoveling the driveway. Four of them were great -- a very odd and very eclectic mix of rock/pop/punk/metal elements -- and the fifth wasn't bad.

This is the final song on the CD, and it's about an archetypal "young man from the provinces" who goes to the big city to seek his fame and fortune.  (Are you clicking on each and every one of these links that I am spending so much time and effort creating?) Unfortunately, we know what happens to all those strays who end up in Los Angeles: they end up working as waiters in vegetarian restaurants, playing in bands that never get any real gigs, and checking out each other's hairstyles.

As this song says,

They take you,
And make you,
They look at you in disgusting ways,
You should have never trusted Hollywood.

I'm a sucker for songs about Los Angeles. Forget the traffic and the tacky, temporary-looking buildings, and the generally ugly, dried-out landscape -- it's the center of the popular culture world, and popular culture is so much more important than serious culture (sorry, New York City).

Not sure what all this means:

All you maggots smoking fags on Santa Monica Boulevard
All you maggots smoking fags out there on Sunset Boulevard
All you maggots smoking fags out there on Hollywood Boulevard
All you bitches put your hands in the air and wave them like you just don't care

Here's a Youtube video of the song:



And you've gotta see this video:



Here's "Lost in Hollywood" on iTunes: System of a Down - Mezmerize - Lost In Hollywood


And for those of you who prefer Amazon.com:


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Spirit -- "Prelude/Nothin' to Hide" (1970)


We got nothin' to hide
Married to the same bride
She eats away from inside

This song is the first track on Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit's fourth (and last) album with its original lineup -- a great record. It wasn't easy picking one song to feature here, but that's what the rules say.

I originally was going to use "Morning Will Come" from the same album, but it has fairly uninteresting lyrics, and this blog's format does require that each entry begin with 2 or 3 lines from the featured songs. I have no clue what the lines above mean -- if you do, please share it with the whole class.

But even though I decided to feature a different song, here's a link to "Morning Will Come" so you can listen to it -- a little bonus for my fans.




I used to listen to "Morning Will Come" every morning before going to my summer job. I was in college when Dr. Sardonicus released, living at home and unloading rail cars at a grocery warehouse for $5 an hour. My shift started at 7 am, and I was usually a little banged up when my mother woke me up to get ready for work in the mornings because I spent all my evenings and Nina's Green Parrot, Buck's Recreation Parlor, and other establishments of that ilk in Galena, Kansas, drinking 3.2% beer and playing spades. So I needed some musical inspiration to get myself going in the mornings.

Galena was a very sad little mining town just over the Missouri-Kansas line. I grew up in Joplin, Missouri, only about 10 miles from Galena via old Route 66 ("It goes from St. Louie/Joplin, Missouri/Oklahoma City/Looks oh so pretty"). Missouri had relatively normal liquor laws -- bars could serve liquor by the drink. Kansas did not have liquor by the drink, but allowed 18-year-olds to drink 3.2% beer, legally classified as non-intoxicating. (Ha.) So on weekend nights, there was a steady stream of Kansas adults going eastward to Joplin's tonier nightclubs to sip martinis and manhattans, while Missouri teenagers were heading the other way to drink 35-cent quarts of Falstaff, Schlitz, and Coors -- which had a particular cachet in those days because it was not sold east of Kansas.

Fortunately, the Kansas beer joints closed at midnight, so I did get 6 or so hours of sleep each night. But I was a growing boy, and that didn't really get the job done. Hence the need for some musical stimulation to help clear out the cobwebs each weekday morning.

There to help me out was "Morning Will Come," which I would play on my family's Magnavox console stereo. Here's one of dozens of the videos of 1970-vintage Magnavox stereos you can find on YouTube (no extra charge for the vintage Loretta Lynn song):



Ours had a simpler cabinet style than this one features, but the turntable and controls were almost identical. There was enough ground clearance on ours for me to lie down on my back and slide my head underneath the stereo, much in the manner of a mechanic sliding under a car to change the oil. I did that so I could block out the rest of the world and really focus on the music -- plus stereo sound was fairly new, and positioning myself in this fashion allowed me to maximize the separation between the channels -- one channel for the left ear, the other for the right.

A couple of times through "Morning Will Come" and I was ready to do battle with the 50-foot rail cars from General Mills, Scott Paper, Ralson-Purina, Del Monte, Clorox, etc. , that I unloaded every day at the warehouse.

I remember two of those freight cars with particular displeasure. One time, a Clorox car had been banged around a little too much en route. Because the car wasn't fully loaded, some of the cases of one-gallon bleach bottles had tipped over and crashed to the floor, and there were a few dozen gallons of undiluted bleach sloshing around when I opened the car's doors. My black high-top tennis shoes and the bottom six inches or so of my Levi's were bleached almost entirely white by the time I finished cleaning up the mess. (Today, that much exposure to concentrated chlorine fumes would have been more than enough to attract dozens of sleazy personal-injury lawyers smelling major contingency fees as well as chlorine.)

Even worse was the Ralston-Purina car that had been bumped around sufficiently to break open a number of cans of cat and dog food. The car then sat on various Midwestern railroad sidings in the hot August sun for a few days, plenty of time for a few gazillion maggots to hatch and grow before we opened the car to unload it. You should have seen the look on my face when I picked up an undamaged case and exposed those little creepy-crawlies feasting on some cans Alpo-brand "Prime Cuts in Gravy" dog food. Quelle surprise! But I digress.

Spirit is somewhat forgotten today, but they were a remarkably talented collection of musicians with a unique style (or mixture of styles). If you had to choose one adjective to characterize their music, you might pick "psychedelic" -- but their music includes bouncy pop songs, jazz, art rock, and quite a bit more. (The band's song lyrics include an unusual number of environmental messages.) Before they came together to form Spirit, the band's members played with musicians as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, and Thelonius Monk.

Spirit was not a great commercial success. The band's most successful single -- the irresistible "I've Got a Line on You" -- peaked at #25. The group's biggest mistake was probably turning down an invitation to appear at Woodstock in order to tour in support of their third album. Spirit would have appeared just before Jimi Hendrix.

Many believe that Jimmy Page lifted the descending guitar figure in "Stairway to Heaven" from the Spirit instrumental, "Taurus." You can judge that for yourself:




The band's most recognizable member was drummer Ed Cassidy -- a sort of Mr. Clean look-alike who had a shaved head (very unusual in an era where long hair was de rigeur) and always dressed in black. Cassidy was 37 when Dr. Sardonicus was released -- also very unusual in those days. He started working as a musician before World War II, and played with a long list of jazz greats in the 1950's -- including Cannonball Adderely, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Kirk was notorious for playing two saxophones at the same time -- and playing them well:




(By the way, if digressions aren't your cup of tea, you are on the wrong blog.)

Cassidy was the stepfather of Spirit guitarist and singer Randy California. (He was given that name in 1966 by Jimi Hendrix to distinguish him from another Randy in Hendrix's 1966-era band -- "Jimmy James and the Blue Flames" -- who was called "Randy Texas." Randy California met Hendrix when he was living in Queens.) California was not quite 17 when Spirit's first album was released. He wrote "I Got a Line on You" and a number of Spirit's other signature songs.

Jay Ferguson (songwriter/vocalist) and Mark Andes (bass) left the band after Dr. Sardonicus and founded Jo Jo Gunne, which was moderately successful. Ferguson later released several solo albums. His "Thunder Island" is a wonderfully innocent, appealing little song that doesn't make a lot of sense, but who's counting? Here's a live version of it:




After Ferguson and Andes left, California pursued a solo career, joined by stepfather Ed Cassidy and former Hendrix bassist Noel Redding (who called himself "Clit McTorius" when the group performed live). His first album, Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, was an odd conglomeration of original songs and covers that critic Robert Christgau said was characterized by "sheer dense weirdness."

After Dr. Sardonicus, the band's original lineup never recorded together again, but there have been a number of subsequent Spirit albums -- Cassidy was part of all of them, and California contributed to most of them. California drowned in 1997 while helping his twelve-year-old escape from a rip current while both were swimming off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii.

Here's the song:



Here's a link you can use to order the song on iTunes:



Here's a link to use to order from Amazon:


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dandy Warhols -- "Bohemian Like You" (2000)


I really love your hairdo, yeah
I'm glad you like mine, too,
See we're looking pretty cool

Eight or nine years ago, I was walking through the music department at Borders after getting my hair cut when I heard the then-new Dandy Warhols' CD ("Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia") playing on the in-store sound system. The first song was great. The second song was great. I immediately bought the CD.

If you knew me well, you'd know how out of character this is for me. I rarely respond immediately to new music -- I have to hear it several times before it starts to grow on me. Plus I'm kind of cheap. (I don't buy books, I go to the public library. And I don't buy many CDs -- I borrow them from my friends and my kids, or I go to the public library.)

David Allan Coe, a member of the "outlaw" subgenre of country and western music who claims he spent time on death row for killing a fellow prison inmate who demanded oral sex from him, had a big hit with his recording of the Steve Goodman song, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," in 1974. In Coe's recording, he claims that Goodman said he was sending him the perfect country and western song to record. But after reading the lyrics, Coe told Goodman that a song that failed to mention the singer's mother, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk could not claim to be the perfect country and western song. Goodman supposedly wrote this new verse for the song:

I was drunk the day my momma got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck,
She got runned over by a damned old train

If you were writing the perfect Los Angeles (henceforth, "L.A.") song, what are the analogous key elements that you would just have to mention? It's been a few years since I've been to L.A., but I used to travel there frequently, and so I feel qualified to offer my list:

1. An obsession with physical appearance

2. Cars (of course -- anyone who grew up listening to the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean and reading
Hot Rod magazine knows that cars are a crucial part of L.A. culture)

3. Wannabe actors/musicians who wait tables (preferably at a restaurant featuring vegan food, or food from an obscure third-world country) while waiting for their big break

4. Romantic/sexual relationships where money or career advancement is the primary motivation for at least one of the parties

By that definition, "Bohemian Like You" is pretty much the perfect L.A. song.

The lines quoted at the beginning of this post cover the vanity element -- in this song, the subject is hairdos. By the way, remember I said I had just gotten a haircut when I heard this CD for the first time? I'm such a creature of habit that I've gone to the same woman for haircuts for about 25 years -- if she's booked up when I call, I'll wait a week or two. Before that, I went to her ex-husband for 10 years or so until he went into a different line of work. (They used to have a shop in a small town about 30 miles from where I live -- and I would drive there in rush-hour traffic rather than take a chance with someone different. And speaking of being a creature of habit, have I told you that I've made myself the same dinner almost every Monday and Tuesday night since 1992?

Here are the lines about cars:

You got a great car
What's wrong with it today?
I used to have one, too

Here's the part about working in a restaurant until your band makes it big:

So what do you do?
Oh yeah, I wait tables, too.
No, I haven't heard your band
Because you guys are pretty new

And last but certainly not least, the oddball relationship:

Who's that guy just hanging at your pad
He's lookin' kinda of bummed
Oh you broke up that's too bad
I guess it's fair if he always pays the rent
And he doesn't get bent
About sleeping on the couch when I'm there

Raise your hand
if you think you know the gender of the singer and the person he is talking to, boys and girls? Who thinks we have two guys? Who thinks it's two girls? And who votes for one of each? (Don't cheat and watch the music video before you answer.)

It beats the hell out of me. The talk about cars would make you lean toward two guys. That would make it likely that the sexual relationships in the song were gay, but gays (at least according to popular stereotypes) are not into cars like straight L.A. guys would be.

The talk about hairdos would ordinarily make you think we had two chicks here, but this is L.A. we're talking about -- so it could still be two guys, or one of each gender. The fact that the two characters work at a restaurant and are in a band doesn't help us at all.

That leaves the guy just hanging at the pad. Let's apply
Occam's razor. The simplest explanation of our situation is that the singer is a male and the person he is discussing hairdos with is a female -- and there's no threesome involving the guy who has to sleep on the couch when the singer (presumably younger and better-looking than the guy on the couch, who is probably only allowed any privileges whatsoever because he pays the rent) spends the night.

So my vote is for a guy and a girl. If you think it's two guys or two girls, I can't say you're wrong. Anything is possible. (The music video agrees with me.)

Let's go back to the lines about the guy who pays the rent. He and the woman who is addressed by the singer "broke up" at some earlier time. So it's not surprising that he is banished to the couch when the singer shows up to sleep with the girl. But I get the feeling that he sleeps in the bedroom on other nights -- the fact that the two have broken up hasn't changed that. Or maybe he does sleep on the couch all the time (he does pay the rent, so she can't really kick him out altogether) but only "gets bent" when a third party is invited into his former paramour's boudoir.

Forget it, Jake -- it's L.A. Anything's possible.

By the way, the song never mentions Los Angeles (or Hollywood or Beverly Hills or even the beach). The Dandy Warhols are from Portland, Oregon, so maybe the song's about Portland.

Naaaaaah. It's about L.A. One hundred per cent chance it's about L.A.

A final note. If you don't understand the references to "Bohemian" and "urban Bohemia,"
you can read all about it here. It's a French thing. ("Boho" is short for "Bohemian.")

Here's a link to this song on Amazon.com:













Here's a link to this song on iTunes: The Dandy Warhols - Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia - Bohemian Like You

Here's the almost-official music video:


You can find the
official music video here -- but it's not embeddable.

Here's a video of a good live performance:

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bubble Puppy -- "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" (1969)


If you've found your place at last
Then you need not use the looking-glass

I disagree. I don't care whether you've found your place or you're still looking, a looking-glass sure can come in handy. Sometimes you need to check out how your hair looks -- see if you are still looking fine in general. How are you gonna do that without the ol' looking-glass?

Bubble Puppy was just a one-hit wonder, but it was one hell of a hit. The song made it to number 14 on the Billboard top 100, which I find surprising -- it's a very radical song.

I remember hearing this song on AM radio when I was a junior in high school. I almost drove my parents' 1962 Chevy Biscayne station wagon (6-cylinder engine, three on the tree, no a/c, and a vacuum tube radio that took about a minute to warm up) right into a ditch. This song is hot, hot, hot. I've never heard anything quite like it since, and I trust I never will.

Bubble Puppy was formed in San Antonio, but moved to Austin before "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" was released. Texas was sort of a psychedelic music hot spot in those days, believe it or not. The most famous Texas psychedelic band was the 13th Floor Elevators (I'll get around to them eventually) and the astonishingly weird The Red Crayola. Bubble Puppy put out one album (it flopped except for this song), changed labels, changed names (they renamed themselves Demian after the Herman Hesse novel), put out another album (it flopped), and broke up.

The first time Bubble Puppy played live before a big audience was as the opening act for The Who in San Antonio. They must have been pretty good -- their official website proclaims them to be the "most feared opening act in rock & roll history." (The most famous story about an opening act upstaging the main attraction involves Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. It's apocryphal, according to reliable sources, which is a real shame.)

Click here for an absolutely insane animation video of the song by an art collective named Paper Rad.

Here's a slightly less creative video:


Here's an Amazon.com link to this song:














Here's an iTunes link to this song: BubblePuppy - Hot Smoke - Hot Smoke and Sassafras



Eurythmics -- "Would I Lie to You?" (1985)


Would I lie to you, honey?
Now would I say something that wasn't true?

Oh, please. You really don't know the answer to that question?


Of course I would lie to you. And you'd lie to me or anyone else if you thought you could get away with it.

Everyone lies. Men lie. Women lie. I don't think dogs lie, but cats certainly do.


Here's the music video:




Here's a video of a live performance I really like.




I like it because there's a really good drum solo. You believe me, right? Would I lie to you, honey?  



Here's a link you can use to order the song from iTunes:




Here's a link to use if you prefer Amazon:



Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Rolling Stones -- "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968)

Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste

When we were in junior-high school (7th-8th-9th grades), I and many of my friends devoted a lot of our attention to top-40 music. The Beatles were universally recognized as the best band on the radio, but we disagreed over who was the best of all the rest. My pick -- the Rolling Stones -- turned out to be a pretty good one, although Mick Jagger turned out to be something of a phony, and I think they should have stopped touring decades ago. (My best friend wasn't so lucky. He hitched his wagon to Herman's Hermits -- later he quietly switched his allegiance to Simon and Garfunkel, which was a little better, I guess.)

By the time we were in high school, we focused less on singles and more on albums. Rubber Soul and Revolver produced some hit singles, but were viewed more as a whole than a collection of individual parts -- as was the first Led Zeppelin album and many others. The Rolling Stones had some good albums prior to Beggars Banquet, but that was their first great LP.

Track one, side one of that album -- issued in a rather plain white jacket with a simple cursive-script title after the original filthy-toilet cover (here's a link) was deemed unsuitable for the American market -- was the immortal "Sympathy for the Devil," a song whose lyrics outdid almost anything else that had come along before it in terms of intellectual sophistication. It was an apologia pro vita sua of sorts sung by the devil himself ("Just call me Lucifer"), with references to Pontius Pilate's decision, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi blitzkreig, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and various other bits of nasty business for which the Prince of Darkness is often given the credit. The song was over six minutes long, and doesn't sound a bit dated 40-plus years after it's original release.

Here's a link to the song on Amazon.com:













Here's a link to the song on iTunes: The Rolling Stones - Beggars Banquet - Sympathy for the Devil

I remember reading a review of the album in Newsweek, which mentioned the song's use of "politesse," a French word that can be translated simply as "politeness," but is better understood as meaning formal or genteel politeness. (Remembering to say "please" and "thank you" when you ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes doesn't mean you have politesse. We're talking the kind of politeness this is practiced by guys who wear morning coats and striped trousers when they drop by the ambassador's digs for tea or a spot of sherry.) The point of the article was that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were much more than shaggy-haired teen idols cranking out boy-loves-girl lyrics employing a 6th-grade vocabulary. In fact, they were sophisticated and intellectual -- current-day Cole Porters or Ira Gershwins, if you will.

We were all terribly concerned in those days with proving to our elders that the bands we listened to (the Doors, the Kinks, the Who, et al.) deserved to be taken seriously. I remember how one friend of mine insisted that parents listen to a song on his brand-new Steppenwolf album that he hadn't listened to yet but understood made a strong anti-drug statement. Imagine his surprise (and that of his parents) when John Kay got to the chorus of that song:

God damn the pusher
God damn, I say, the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man.

After I bought Beggar's Banquet and listened to it a few thousand times, I found the sheet music for the album at the local music store. I didn't play the guitar, but I was a very good student pianist back then, so I attempted to play "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Parachute Woman," and "Stray Cat Blues," and all the rest on the piano, reading the sheet music more or less literally. That didn't work out quite as well as I hoped.

A few years later, when I was in college, I was hanging around with a pretty bad crowd -- a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals and poseurs. One of my friends was a foreign-film aficionado (is my overuse of foreign words starting to get annoying, or is it more my affectation of italicizing them that is getting on your nerves?), and he announced to us one day that there was going to be a midnight showing of the 1968 Jean-Luc Godard film titled Sympathy for the Devil at a local theater. Godard, one of the founding members of the French New Wave filmmaking movement, was also a Marxist -- which gave him beaucoup street cred to early-1970's vintage American college students. Our friend was absolutely breathless with excitement (that's a little joke for you Godard fans out there) when he shared these glad tidings, and we all started counting the days until the big night.

Godard's Sympathy for the Devil combines footage of the Rolling Stones' recording various takes of that song -- which started as something quite different than the song that ended up on their album -- with shots of members of the Black Panthers reading from various half-baked revolutionary texts and a lot of other tedious and obscure political dreck. For a Rolling Stones fan like myself, the documentary footage of Mick, Keith and the boys in the recording studio was somewhat interesting, at least through the first few takes of the song -- eventually even the charm of that began to wear a little thin. The rest of the movie was appallingly boring.

Here's the trailer -- it makes the movie seem like it might be almost interesting. But don't be fooled.



I saw my friend a few days later and asked him what he thought of the movie. He said that it was perhaps the greatest film he had ever seen. I instantly realized that he and I saw the world very differently indeed.

That midnight showing was the end of my life as a pseudo-intellectual and the beginning of my life as an anti-intellectual. The culmination of my anti-intellectual phase came a year or two later, in a college class of mine titled "Contemporary Culture."

There were no lectures in that class. Instead, we attended various cultural events, and wrote papers on our experiences. We went to a Van Cliburn concert, saw Truffaut's The 400 Blows, visited the home of art patrons John and Dominique de Menil (which was since converted to an art museum), and spent an evening in the Rothko Chapel, which featured 14 large and essentially identical and very dark monochromatic paintings. (Anyone who has seen these paintings won't be surprised to learn that the artist who created them, Mark Rothko had a long struggle with from depression. He committed suicide in 1970.) I thought I was going to lose my mind that night. Having to sit and stare at these almost-black canvases for three hours was the worst kind of sensory deprivation. (You can get an idea of what the paintings look like by clicking on this link. Once you do that, imagine what it would be like to sit and stare at them for three hours.)

For our final project in this class, a friend of mine and I told the story of a made-up modern composer, complete with brief excerpts from his nonexistent compositions performed by me on a piano -- those excerpts consisting of totally random banging on the keys. Our creation's biography started out in a reasonably plausible fashion but got more and more absurd as it went along. We had him die by falling out of a malfunctioning Ferris wheel at an amusement park in Transylvania. (I was a great fan of Bela Bartok, a very real modern composer who was a native of Romania.) Naturally, the class swallowed our ridiculous story hook, line, and sinker -- even the professor (who later claimed to have been suspicious that we had made the whole thing up, but didn't say anything because he was afraid of offending us -- by which he meant he was as clueless as the other students, or didn't have the confidence in his critical abilities to call us out as phonies).

Our point -- that (like the Emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen story) contemporary art, music, writing, etc., had no clothes, and the artists and critics and academics who tried to persuade us otherwise were just as naked -- was far from original, and I doubt that our presentation was especially clever or creative. We were shooting fish in a barrel -- our target (pseudo-intellectualism among college students in the early 1970's) was so fat and slow-moving that we really couldn't have missed.

To be honest, I'm not totally cured of my pseudo-intellectualism. I still occasionally pick up a modern novel that the New Yorker say is to die for, or watch an avant garde film that the avant garde critics all love. But most of the time I manage to resist wasting my time on such nonsense. Before my road-to-Damascus experience at that midnight showing of Godard's film, I thought that I was going to have to read Finnegan's Wake someday if I wanted to think of myself as an educated man. Now I've know that life is too short to waste time trying to decipher Joyce. (I feel the same way about Virginia Woolf, but a friend of mine whose opinions I have the utmost respect for has told me otherwise, so I may have to give her another chance. But only one.)

Of course, being an anti-intellectual is just as much a pose as being a pseudo-intellectual. I'm a very smart guy, and I'm highly educated (albeit with a number of large gaps in my education) and a voracious reader. But I'm also a small-town kid who didn't go to Europe until I was 50, doesn't speak a foreign language, and is afraid to attempt to pronounce a large number of the proper nouns I've seen in all the books I've read because I've never heard those names pronounced and am afraid of sounding foolish in front of the more sophisticated types who know exactly how to say them correctly.

So it's hard for me to know which way to go. I can be the sophisticated Ivy Leaguer who remembers his humble roots, or I can be the unapologetic redneck who knows good writing and good art when he sees it -- and good music when he hears it. (As this blog proves.) Or I can alternate between the two depending on the environment -- always in doubt as to which is the real me.

Here's the infamous performance of the song at Altamont in 1969. (I have no idea why there is a brief excerpt from "Mad Max" at the beginning of this.)


One final note. I know that I said that I was going to be talking about songs that were relatively obscure and unknown, and "Sympathy for the Devil" is hardly that -- every classic rock station in the country has it on its regular playlist. But I create the rules and I can break them. It's my prerogative. Anyone who feels as if he or she has been misled is welcome to a full refund.