The Most American America in the History of Americana: 10 Slices of American Pie
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US. As our nation celebrates itself with inimitable fat & ugly elan, it seems like an appropriate time to celebrate some of the things that should make everyone proud and honored to be an American.
10. Moby Dick.
Really? Yes, really.
The book’s author, Herman Melville — despite getting the unfair (and unjustifiable) tag of boring old white guy, author of the quintessential boring old white guy book about a boring old white whale, not to mention a handful of equally impenetrable short stories (while most high school students are instructed to read Bartleby The Scrivener, most of them — at least partly due to the unfortunate baggage associated with its author — would prefer not to) — is, in fact, quite accessible. Really.
But accessibility is often the enemy of integrity. Why not then celebrate the all-too-infrequent instance that proves to be the exception to the very rules it rewrites? Like any truly lasting piece of expression, the writings of Melville not only have stood the intractable test of time, they incredibly — miraculously — are as viable and valuable to today’s dissolute and desperate, but not altogether dissimilar world. Perhaps resulting from the ever-mercurial moods of the left-leaning academic aristocracy, it has become ironically admissible to dismiss Moby Dick as it once was to venerate it. This would be an unexceptionable development but for the fact that for all the right reasons, this classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.
So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.
9. Captain Beefheart
To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ’80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)
Not acquainted with The Captain? Start at the beginning.
Safe As Milk (1967) was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand.
Listening to this opening salvo is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman.
It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.
8. Howlin’ Wolf
Van Vliet learned more than a few tricks from the Wolf.
Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.
Along with his ace guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Wolf made some of the most covered (if essentially uncoverable) blues classics of that era. Many lesser men took a crack at numbers like “Sitting On Top of the World”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster” (think Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, to name a handful of the more opportunistic pups). Despite how embarrassing many of these efforts sound in comparison to the original versions, most of these bright-eyed white boys were paying genuine tribute to the man they admired. And Wolf, benefitting from the publicity these bands provided as well as his own shrewd business acumen, was one of the very few blues immortals who actually earned money during his lifetime.
If you’re not down with The Wolf, it’s not just that you are depriving yourself of one of the singular voices of the last century, you are actually missing an important chunk of America itself. Put another way, touchstones like “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Sitting On Top Of The World” endure less as (merely) American songs and more as components of this country’s unique sensibility. Believe your ears because they are, in fact, even more than that.
7. Junior Kimbrough
Slowly, steadily, inexorably, they are leaving the planet. One at a time. We will never see men like this again. American-made in every sense of the phrase, they came up the way so many bluesmen came up (and so many men who didn’t sing, but know the blues, came up). The combination of hardship, hard work, hard times and being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, under a bad sign. Of course, being born in the wrong place made it the right place for the art to emerge. Their pain, our gain. In many cases, anything but a fair exchange, and all we can do is pay homage and be grateful. Now, more than ever, as these ambassadors leave the stage, it will be more difficult to keep their legacies alive, so attention must be paid.
6. Wayne Shorter
Some of them are still with us.
About to turn 83 years young, Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epicmasterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu,Speak No Evil –for starters).
Wayne Shorter is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”,et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.
5. Charles Mingus
There are a million reasons to love Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionatewould trump all others. Mingus cared — deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, abouteverything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957.
And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and — this is the key — most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.
And, in ways that are sad and wonderful as only the best art is capable of being, it’s just as relevant, and necessary today as it was in 1957.
4. James Brown
On this most American of holidays, it seems appropriate –if not obligatory– to celebrate the most American of geniuses.
It does not get any more American than James Brown, does it?
From the (literal) rags-to-riches story, the innovation and influence, the (inevitable?) disintegration and late-career redemption: James Brown is America. Brilliant, resilient, complicated, undeniable, inevitable.
Do you realize how ludicrously good James Brown was? You don’t. I don’t either. I’ve been worshipping at that altar for over two decades and, perhaps more than any other artist, I’m consistently astonished by that wonderful shock of recognition: howunfuckingbelievable he was; how many heads taller he stood, in terms of creativity, delivery and leadership, than the rest of the pack.
You hear the obvious, righteous songs on the radio, or on movie soundtracks: “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “Sex Machine”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Those must be acknowledged, for their historic import and –more importantly– for how great they make you feel. James Brown does not just make you want to dance (he may even make you believe you can dance), but more, he makes your soul dance.
If you have not picked up the cheap and always-available 20 All Time Greatest Hits!you really need to make that a priority. If you really want to treat yourself (and you really should), snatch up Star Time, the four-disc set. If you’ve never gone deep with James Brown, this will be like getting lucky for the first time. Only better. And it never stops.
3. Muhammad Ali
Question: What cultural figure of the 60?s best represents you–the way you dress, act, create, see the world, or wish the world saw you. It can be Chuck Berry or Chairman Mao. It can be Betty Friedan or Betty Rubble. More importantly, why?
Answer: I love the ’60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import, be it artistic, social, political, cultural, opinions on what matters and endures about the ’60s says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ’60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter.
Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loud and saying nothing (unlike, say, the cat who wrote that song)? The older I get and the more I learn — about the ’60s, America, myself — the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.
Is there one figure (don’t say John Lennon) who humanizes, epitomizes, the racial, sociological, human upheaval of the era? Here is the rarest of folks who was the best in the world at what he did, at the height of his ability to make history, and money, willing to sacrifice it on principle. And more: a cause that every year is proven more prescient and unassailable on both moral and military levels. April 28, 1967, a little over a month before Sgt. Pepper initiated the Summer of Love, Ali made a statement as brave, audacious and impactful as any of that — or any — decade.
Look: we live in a time where we can boast about our beliefs and have our righteousness measured by likes and follows, all from the safety of an overpriced coffee shop. As such, I’ll continue to be humbled and inspired, as a dude with big hopes and modest abilities, by the icon who stared down doubt, ignorance, security and compliance. Ali is the exception to the way we’re ruled, and how we roll, and like the rest of us mortals, his biggest fight took place outside the ring.
2. The Doors
The 4th of July presents an at least two irresistible reasons to talk about The Doors.
One: Jim Morrison took his last bath on July 3, 1971 in Paris. R.I.P. Lizard King.
Two: 4th of July being the most American of holidays, what more appropriate occasion to celebrate the most American band?
(Actually, I would be content to simply consider The Doors as one of a handful of most American bands. There are a handful of others who could fairly lay claim to that title, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M., and, of course, the Jonas Brothers.)
What is not debatable, however, is the fact that “Light My Fire” is the seminal American rock anthem. That is the star spangled banner of psychedelia, and it endures.
I wrote, in what most normal people would consider painful detail, about The Doors in late 2006 and early 2007 for PopMatters. The first occasion was to take a stab at the Jim Morrison mythology, from a 21st century perspective; the second occasion was the release of the group’s thrice-remastered back catalog. I’m not sure I have anything else to add to those two detailed, if exhausting analyses, but I’ll cherry pick some of the more salient observations for those who understandably don’t wish to suffer through the original efforts.
Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ’60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could — and should — be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ’70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.
A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, The Velvet Underground.
Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training (A lot more on him, here). Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.
Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:
Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.
Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.
The title track of The Soft Parade, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when — as is often the case — the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.
Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.
If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes — highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.
If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ’60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Womanis another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.
One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard. If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied.
Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.
There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?
On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered key components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to the Pacific island of Tinian, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Only 316 out of 1,196 men survived the sinking and shark-infested waters.
Sincere kudos to those brave soldiers who did (and did not) make it out of the water.
And eternal props to Robert Shaw’s effort to immortalize this moment in American history, which became one of the scenes in American cinema.
There are any number of scenes that one could single out to celebrate this singularly American movie’s genius but we all know which one rises above the rest. The scene. It not only is the best scene in Jaws, it also manages to be the most horrifying one, and the infamous shark never appears. One of the best scenes ever? It’s on the short list.
(Oh, and Jaws is probably the most American movie, for all the right reasons, and certainly the American summer movie.)