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Positively Spot On

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95, 272 pages)

“I wish that for just one time/ You could stand inside my shoes/ And just for that one moment/ I could be you…” Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street

In the eternal quest to try to interpret the “real” meaning of Bob Dylan’s songs, some have speculated that “Positively 4th Street” is his retort to the many critics who emerged following Dylan’s controversial decision to “go electric.” Most people who have even some passing knowledge of music history have seen multiple examples of Dylan being cantankerous with the media, dating all the way back to the 1963 Newsweek article questioning his identity and past, and famously filmed in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

Lately, Dylan has mellowed in that regard, or so it seems. Perhaps because he is now a revered survivor and not a young rebel.

What does Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music have to do with Dylan? Quite a bit as it turns out. This book is a compilation of writings on music by the late writer that appeared in a variety of publications, including her regular column for The New Yorker, “Rock, Etc.”, over a span of 34 years. The book is edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, and virtually every column and essay that doesn’t actually address Dylan, references him. Judging by Willis’ intuitive take on the music as it interweaves with the various time periods, her insightful commentary, and fine writing, this would be one critic who Dylan might actually like.

Willis drops a few names, but rarely seems caught up with celebrity. For her, it is all about the music. Her favorites, in addition to Dylan, are Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, and the Rolling Stones. Many others receive prominent mention, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, an often under-rated band, and others ranging from obscure to superstar, such as Bruce Springsteen. Willis was a feminist who could objectively analyze the art for its strengths and flaws without either coming across as a man-hater or relinquishing her status as a fan — two of the three would be pretty good, but to pull off all three makes for a damn interesting and good writer.

Fifty-nine short pieces are divided into six themes: World-Class Critic, The Adoring Fan, The Sixties Child, The Feminist, The Navigator, and The Sociologist. The first entry is on Dylan, and the last is a commentary on her philosophy of the role of music in society that mentions him in the third to last paragraph of the book. The final paragraph invokes Little Richard and The Ramones in the same sentence. How great is that?

This book is perfect for any 60s/70s rock-and-roll head. No doubt they would be overcome with nostalgia. But for those who are just as fanatical, but younger — who love the music just the same — and who perhaps even fancy themselves a bit knowledgeable about rock’s history and the great music of this era, they, too, will love Deeps because Willis is one writer who can make you feel like you were there.

Highly recommended for music lovers of all ages.

Dave Moyer

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is available as a Kindle Edition download. This book was purchased for review.

Dave Moyer is an educator who thinks a lot about rock music. A drummer, he has not yet played for the Rolling Stones. His book about baseball and Bob Dylan is entitled, Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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