Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Lennon and the 70s

John Lennon turns 70 this October.  Two people that never died for me are John Lennon and Prasad Guha.  Like Elvis’ ghost, they pop up at every turn of my life, in my hours of darkness and in my cloudy nights, and show me the way.  Among the posters from my teen den at Regent Estate that I regret not having with me today is the B&W Lennon 1940-1980 commemorative one.  The other is a collage of portraits of Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison against a starlit purple sky.  Lennon was a visionary with a quest, to bring to all of mankind the simple truth that we are one, and that life was too precious to be wasted on mundane pursuits of personal gain, power and prestige.
Lennon Legend: The Very Best Of John LennonAcousticDouble Fantasy
John is better known for being a part of The Beatles.  It is foolish of anyone to claim the ability to successfully capture the what, why and how of the Beatles phenomenon, since apart from their profound influence on modern music, much of modern thinking has been irrevocably altered by the impact they created, and it is a herculean task to comprehensively assess their import.  I am not talking about the Woodstock or protest music type of influence, but that of changing the way song itself is perceived.  And instrumental in this was Lennon.  One needs to listen to the early years to appreciate their songwriting, melodic structures, arrangements, and harmonics that brought out the the best of their young spirited voices, voices and spirits that stayed young for a long time, well, maybe seven or eight years.  Their mastery of form became more apparent with time, and to date, Sgt. Peppers (the first and the best concept album ever) and two years later Abbey Road, remain unparalleled in their tightness, and set the standards for all bands to follow, from Pink Floyd to Nazia Hassan and Biddu, from Clapton to Amy Winehouse, and from Queen to Oasis.   Almost all the Beatles songs are written by Lennon and Paul McCartney.  It is universally acknowledged that the wordsmith among the two was Lennon.  The work that Lennon did after The Beatles is testimony to his brilliance as a writer.  Imagine was a song that became the anthem of the peace movement of the 70s.  Give peace a chance, Dear Yoko, Mother, God,  and Mind Games are the first songs that come to mind when considering his solo songwriting career.  

In order to understand what shaped the mind of the man who wrote, Yes is the answer/And you know that for sure/Yes is surrender/You got to let it, you got to let it go, while also writing songs like Imagine, it is important to look at how his life played out.  He had to choose between his mother and father at the age of five, and till he was 25 he had no contact with his father, and was brought up by his aunt, Mimi and his longing for his mother, Julia, who was a flitting presence in his growing years, is captured in the haunting lyrics of his song of the same name, Julia.  The lyrics of Mother (Mama dont go/ Daddy come home) compete with his seminal works like Strawberry Fields Forever and Norwegian Wood in communicating his anguish over his tortured childhood. Describing his childhood, he says, “I did my best to disrupt every friend's home ... partly, maybe, it was out of envy that I didn't have this so-called home.”  At college, he was recognized more as a troublemaker than as a creative artist (he studied at the Liverpool College of Art).  From this difficult and modest background, he and his friends went on to become The Beatles, a worldwide megagroup with fan following and commercial success, the likes of which were unheard for musicians at the time.  With this came the insanity that follows mass adulation and rapid stardom, an insanity that seemed to be the answer that he had sought all his youth.  Drugs, spirituality, sex, arrogance, politics, persecution, and defiance all came together like a jigsaw puzzle.  His struggle with relationships and his challenge in processing his childhood are evidenced in his relationship with Julian Lennon, his first born, with whom he was unable to share a meaningful parental relationship, the pain of which can be found in the two songs Good Night (written for Julian) and the ending of Beautiful Boy (for Sean Lennon, his son with Yoko) where he reproduces the Ringo Starr whispered lines of the earlier song.

The entry of Yoko Ono and the arrival of the breaking point in the tensions between the Fab Four made his forays into avant garde and the dissolution of the magic that was The Beatles inevitable.  A lot has been written and said about Yoko Ono and her role in the breakup of the Beatles, but it is useful to see it in perspective.  The band had reached its creative zenith, and like Pink Floyd, not only were they bickering and mismanaging themselves, but also writing substandard and inconsequential songs.  (Do look up Brian Epstein and his role not only in their success and failures but also as an anchor for their unfettered creativity, a politically correct term for madness.)  Their vision was becoming increasingly clouded, arrogant and irrational.  Additionally, and this is my personal view, Lennon was in need of venturing into avenues that the Beatles could not offer him.  Although all four of them shared the vision of being agents of change and subscribed to trying to make the world a better place, his philosophical search was one that could not be found in the realm of rock and roll music alone.  It was essential for him to break free, and mystically that is precisely what happened, and even though at the time it seemed born more out of bitterness and rivalry, it freed all of them up to pursue their unique destinies without diluting the immensity of what they had achieved as a foursome.

His post Beatles years continued to see him churning out material that showcased not only his creativity but also his universal humanism and genuine concern for the future of civilization.  He wrote Imagine two years after The Beatles disbanded.  It is one of those songs that will never fade away and will only lose its relevance after we as a people fulfill our vow to establish peace on this planet.  Still bearing the messianic halo from the Beatles years, he began to turn his life into a creative statement, setting benchmarks for popular artists to use their medium as social commentary.  Technically too, he set new standards in the realms of avant garde and underground music with his collaborations.

There is no better way to capture the essence of this prophet of peace, who went from abandonment to the heights of acceptance, from violence and aggression to giving peace a chance, and who lost his life to a jealous fan’s bullet, than to let him speak for himself.  

Imagine there's no Heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today

Imagine there's no country, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one.  I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one.  I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one

If you liked this post, you may also want to read 
what I wrote about Bob Dylan.

Friday, September 17, 2010

West Coast Seattle Boy:The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (Sony Legacy)

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This year, his 40th death anniversary, has been a rewarding year for students and lovers of Jimi Hendrix. 
Jimi Hendrix Poster Paint Splash 24X36 Rock Pp32166
Jimi Hendrix~ Jimi Hendrix Poster~ Rare Poster!!~ Approx 24" X 36"
Jimi Hendrix Poster Print, 24x36

On my changer now, engineered by George Marino, Purple Haze, and up next, The Wind Cries Mary.  Jimi Hendrix died when I was 5 years old, yet his music changed the world I grew up into so totally that it is hard to imagine that Clapton or the Dire Straits or even Lady Gaga could have ever happened without him, okay maybe Lady Gaga but not the gods of guitar as they did turn out.  Even my son, who just turned four, knows that Jimi Hendrix is important and makes music with a guitar.  Here is a video of him at age three explaining to me who Jimi Hendrix is.  

Jimi Hendrix was a guitarist who grew up in the 50s in Seattle listening to the black (and) blues masters B. B. King, Chuck Berry and the like, much like the Beatles across the ocean.  He finished school and served in the army till 1961, when he was discharged and started playing as a backup artist under the name Jimmy James.  Not a lot of people know that he fronted a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, up until the point when he headed to England and teamed up with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchel and formed what we now know as the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  This was in 1966, years after the Beatles and Elvis had caused the world to rethink their idea of popular music, and rock, rock & roll, and rhythm and blues became mainstream music.

What happened over the next decade is history.  From revolutionizing the concept of using distortion of the electric output from the guitar as an art form, to rockstar histrionics like settling the guitar on fire, playing the guitar with his teeth or behind his back, from using his hip movements as an integral part of his performing a song to phrasing around the augmented 9th  dominant chord, effectively allowing him to switch between minor and major scales for the same dominant 7th, Hendrix laid the foundations for guitar work.  His use of distortion and heavy driven riffs were the precursor of what evolved into hard rock and heavy metal.  The version of Sunshine of Your Love on Valleys of Neptune verges on being a headbangers’ delight.  His influence on contemporary guitar might be unknown to the new generation of guitarists themselves but is undeniable.  The words fuzz and wah wah have long disappeared from the lexicon of modern guitar players, but were concepts/techniques  that he popularized, along with Roger Mayer, his sound engineer, who innovated to give him new vistas to explore in the realm of tonality, thus becoming one of the pioneers of charting the evolution of the “electric” guitar from that of an electric signal from an acoustic instrument to a tonal source that could be moulded, manipulated, mauled and managed to create textures appropriate to the mood of the composition.  
Are You ExperiencedAxis: Bold As LoveElectric Ladyland 

The magic of hearing Are you Experienced for the first time is one that can not be described, especially if you are a young guitarist discovering the blues, and the intricacies of the electric sound.  This was followed by the discoveries that lay in Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland.  These are the only three studio albums that the Experience cut.  Even though they were introduced as the Jimi Hendrix Experience when they performed at Woodstock in 1969, Noel Redding had been replaced by Billy Cox on the bass, and Hendrix himself can be heard on the recording correcting the announcer and calling themselves Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, later to be called A Band of Gypsys.  The historic set included the amazing guitar rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, one of the most beautiful guitar pieces (another being Amazing Grace on the bass by Victor Wooten) ever.
Victor Wooten: Groove WorkshopWhat Did He SayYin Yang 

The Band of Gypsys went on to record a live album and do a lot of touring, and it was not till 1970 that the Experience name was used again, though Noel Redding was still not part of it.  The period of 1967-1970 saw Hendrix getting messed up with his drug use, disagreements with his business partners and his bandmates, and financial struggles.  His thinking and creativity, both warped by his indulgence in ganja, heroin, speed, acid, prescription meds like sleeping pills and painkillers, and alcohol, went into a downward spiral, with grandiose and irrational plans, and stereotypical repetitive compositions.  He died on September 18, 1970, choking on his own vomit after an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.  

Like the genii of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain, irresponsible abuse of drugs claimed another brilliant victim at the early age of 27 in Jimi Hendrix.
Janis Joplin - Poster (Live On Stage) (Size: 24'' x 36'')
The Doors - Music Poster (Jim Morrison - American Poet) (Size: 24" x 36") Kurt Cobain (Smoking) Music Poster Print - 36x24

While it is natural to eulogize and worship the body of work that Hendrix left behind, it is also pertinent and prudent to reflect on the senseless waste of creative talent and life and to filter our adulation with caution that not everything that a role model embodies needs to be emulated.  I grew up at a time when to play guitar like Jimi did was my goal, and he did it stoned, so getting stoned was the goal for budding young blues guitarists of our times, but nobody told anybody then that not only was drugs the greatest ambition killer but it also killed human beings in every way imaginable.  Nobody talked about his washed out non performances concerts, the physical violence, the arrests and the humiliation that his lifestyle, his personality and his drug use entailed.  Many of my friends and I myself have been blessed not to have died from our stupidity and our love for the “jimi thing,” in whatever ways that we didn’t die, but the millions of lives that have been snuffed out by drugs is testimony to how close we were to losing our lives, our sanity and our purpose in life.

The Hendrix legacy, whether it be the music and the bands, or copyright and authorized versions, or his personal life struggle, has had to go through turbulent tests.  In 1994, Paul Allen (the Microsoft Paul Allen, yes), and other wellwishers of the Hendrix legacy came together to form the Experience Hendrix label, and then the Jimi Hendrix Museum which has now evolved into the mammoth Experience Music Project.

This year, the 40th death anniversary of Hendrix, (thanks Brian Ibbot of Coverville for setting the tone for September 18) we saw the release of Valleys of Neptune, the first genuine Experience studio release since Electric Ladyland, though his prolific output left behind a host of unreleased material which keep surfacing as bootlegs, compilations and re-engineerings.  You can read my review of Valleys of Neptune by clicking here.  Sony Legacy’s West Coast Seattle Boy:  The Jimi Hendrix Anthology in a 4CD/1DVD Box Set also holds great promise as it contains previously unreleased alternate versions (both studio and live) of tracks from every period of his career.  It also contains the 90 minute documentary by Bob Smeaton on DVD, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child.  (You can pre-order it now by clicking here.)

If you liked this post, you may want to read about the life of Robert Johnson by visiting a more recent post on this blog

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings

The first Bob Dylan songs I heard were Blowin in the Wind and Tambourine Man, I was told it was "english folk song," and soon after that, I heard The times they are a’changin. I was not more than 12 or 13 years old. I had just graduated from the Western Classical and dancehall kind of music that I heard at home to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, just started learning about the civil rights movement and the war protests, and why the Queen never mentioned the IRA, and things at home in the mid-70s were not very dissimilar.

The so-called "romance" of khatam-ing or doing away with “class enemies” had begun to grip the campuses in what we know as the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, and later other states, attracting the brightest of minds who could not be deterred by the brutalities of the government. For the thinking individual, it seemed time to stand up and be counted against the ruthless and indifferent establishment. Dylan, with his unconventional voice, his deliberate sliding towards but not quite up to a note, his unrelenting loquaciously logorrheic lamentations, and of course, his arrogant mastery of the verse, captured the essence of what we, young and impressionable as we were, wanted to grow up to become.
The Original Mono RecordingsHighway 61 Revisited (Reis)Blonde on Blonde (Reis)
It was much later, when I went to college that I got to read his amazing writing, as well as learn to discriminate between creativity and commercialism, between spontaneity and self-aggrandizing, and was able to go back and re-listen to his work from the early years, and enjoy the sparks of brilliance that he created in his initial releases, which was not to be seen again till Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, to some extent Love and Theft and, in a more middle of the road sense, in the Traveling Wilburys albums.

Dylan as an inspirational leader of the arts against the establishment in the 60s will never fade away, and neither will a lot of his insanity all through his life. He made nearly 30 years of consistently C grade music, without giving a damn to what the critics had to say. Of course, much of the stuff he wrote during this time still made for gripping reading but were musical disasters. As our generation headed toward middle age, the Dylan of folk, folk rock, and protest song was totally forgotten.

He did weird stuff, going electric (unnecessarily like Tull, and equally badly), going christian and then back again, saying sadly funny things in public, doing films, doing utterly insignificant collaborations with other legendary acts like the Dead, going recluse, doing a long series of bootleg releases, and stuff. But through it all, many of his songs remained timeless and haunting. A short list of favorites is difficult to compile but albums are easier, Highway 61 Revisited, The Times They are A’Changin, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Oh Mercy, Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind, Traveling Wilburys 1 and 3.

On a recent weekend, mindlessly surfing through channels, I suddenly stopped at a grainy B&W footage of Joan Baez and Dylan and as a result, quite unexpectedly got to see one half of the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and got enthused enough to get hold of the whole documentary and re-live the tumultuous early years of his career. More recently, as I got back some of my older music collection, I was amazed (and embarrassed too) to find that I actually had albums like Slow Train Coming and Planet Waves too in my collection.
Bob Dylan - No Direction HomeI'm Not There [Blu-ray]Little Black Songbook: Bob Dylan- Complete Lyrics & Chors, Over 60 Classics!Bob Dylan - Don't Look Back (1965 Tour Deluxe Edition)
While he himself went on, after his initial success, to create the archetype of the shocking, posturing, incoherent rocker, his early years were a far cry from that image, and much like popular social movements that start out with a dream of a better world and then degenerate into body politics void of ideology, it is the very fact that that brilliance was fleeting that endears it so.

Now that Sony Legacy is releasing the first eight studio albums in a box set called Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, one hopes that the contemporary music lover will get to discover the energy and conviction that lay behind his writing and singing. It is incredibly hard to capture what Dylan was and meant to our times. Do leave your thoughts behind in the comments and share your views on this genius.
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