Today on my way to work I listened to the CD of Be Bop Deluxe's "Axe Victim". Be Bop Deluxe was my favorite among the art rockers who combined glam sensibility with a stylish metallic sheen. I am never much for so-called "pure" rock n rollers, but tend to favor my rock somewhat "once removed". After all, a cynic is really just a romantic once removed.
I was thinking today how "Axe Victim" is really my favorite David Bowie album. Bowie had nothing to do with the album, of course, but it's unthinkable that this album would have had quite its sound if not for "Ziggy Stardust" and "Hunky Dory". It's funny how cross-currents and influences can work that way. A band that you totally like goes through a phase in which it is totally influenced by another band you totally like. I mean, like totally. It happens so often. For example, my favorite Lou Reed song is not by Lou Reed at all, but instead was written by a curious Los Angeles type named Steve Wynn. Steve Wynn is the kind of guy who could sell mobile homes in Beverly Hills, but darned if he couldn't buy the thrill of a hit record to save his life. But his band, the Dream Syndicate, recorded what is far and away the best Lou Reed song never written or sung by Lou Reed. It's called "Tell Me when It's Over", and it's the kind of song that transports me to Heaven.
It's funny, by the way, that the Dream Syndicate would even record a faux Lou Reed song, because the Dream Syndicate never otherwise seemed very Velvet. They had this guitarist named Precoda, with long hair, who couldn't seem to decide if he'd rather be Neil Young or a member of Hot Tuna. The rest of the band seemed to wish they were the Doors. The band's album Days of Wine and Roses, sounds a lot like the Doors would sound if you put a dour but "closes the deal" mobile home salesman in front singing, and replaced Densmore with a couple of the really hippie guys from Hot Tuna. Not a bad sound, mind you, but the kind of sound that Lou Reed would start to abuse any audience who enjoyed over.
But this same band put out this song called "Tell Me When It's Over" in a live version, with a tinkling piano solo that just hits it right on. I'm talking instant Lou Reed, except without all the heroin, and with Nico sidelined somehow. I saw the Dream Syndicate in 1984, and they played "Tell Me When It's Over", and I had one of those revelatory musical moments, when you go up to the mountain, and they hand you this song on a tablet. The song comes to life, and dwells among folks, and all that. It was like that for me.
The "sounds like" thing often falls flat, of course. Marillion never sounded like early Genesis, although the Flower Kings can and do. I think that the Flower Kings get a special Swedish dispensation, though, because you can be in a funny sync when you start from different cultural assumptions. It's why Finnish jazz is so much more exciting as a concept than Holiday Inn in Dubuque jazz. I'm sure I've raved in this journal how The Flower Kings' cover of Genesis' odd song "Cinema Show" transports me, but my favorite covers by bands are not covers at all, but instead original songs that evoke the spirit of another band. That's not to say that covers are bad--I do not conceive how I lived before I heard Roxy Music's covers of "Like a Hurricane" and "Jealous Guy", which both redefined the songs for the better.
But sometimes mere covers offer diamonds and rust, and I've already paid.
This is perhaps what is unsatisfying about American Idol. It's not just that the song choices are
unfortunate. I think that all three of the judges, even showboating critic Simon Cowell, fail to tell kids often enough "if you're going to cover that, you have to have a voice, which you don't have" or at least "if you can't hit the notes, then do a jazz thing and bridge under it". But what can you do? When the woman sings the country-western song "The Boys are Back in Town", how can you tell her how much cooler she would have been if she'd sung Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town"? You can't really, because you know next week, if she survives, she'll be chirping out "Weekend in New England" or the Shania Twain song for which Shania's video featured Shania dressed as a rubbermaid bath mat.
It's far better to write your own songs when you long to be someone else. Take the early Boomtown Rats. Infatuated with Springsteen? No problem. Write Springsteen songs with a kind of punkish twist, and you're home free. You're on to great things--you may even feed the world. Love old soul songs, but can't do an Otis Redding? Then call your band Dexy's Midnight Runners, slag Margaret Thatcher, and wail about "young soul rebels" who apparently are wandering the streets of London and Glasgow in rather showy tartans. The only real young soul rebels I ever heard of, by the way, were the Cate Brothers, an Ozark Mountains Memphis-style blue-eyed bar band who managed to complain more about the unfeeling "Union Man" than spartacist rallies, but we take our soul rebellions where we may find them. I like bands like the Cate Brothers, because, having always earned their living pouring out Stax sounds in bars, they never "rise" or "fall" or break up, but just hit the bars with a thud of a ringing guitar and a boom-boom-boom soul beat.
When I was driving with my brother up from Arkansas last weekend, we listened to the 70s classic rock station down in Shreveport. They play some cool stuff on that show. The Allman Brothers' "Whippin' Post" might give way to "What's Your Name" and then segue into a Brit rock classic. Now, granted, we're too far south for "Rosalita" and "Watching the Detectives", but there are discernible compensations.
I think that the reason why I had so little sympathy with electric blues when I was in college was that so often I wanted new songs, and not traditionalism. How many times will a fat man sing "I'm built for comfort, not for speed" with a huge, silly grin on his face, as if this joke gone stale in 1946 is something new and hip. Take a little trip with Father Tiresias, indeed. I preferred bands like Foghat which could take a song like "Slow Ride", jam the heck out of it, and make it sound like they meant it.
"You know the rhythm is right", the fellow would intone, as if he could hypnotize some shallow girl with the mere moaning of it, and you know, in fact, he could, because it was 1972, and the syncopation was ideal. Let's hope he was built for neither comfort nor speed, but such matters are best left unelaborated.
I feel a bit differently now. I love hearing Appalachian traditionals or white southern country gospel songs. My father played me a CD from a "cowboy church" in Oklahoma, where they all show up for services in boots. The music was simply gorgeous stuff, because it had a simplicity and a total lack of need to impress. It was just solid dead-wood good.
Sometimes the things that appeal are the things that go new places, like the way in which Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" could take all those cerebral Moog noodlings common to early synth artists,
and those really tacky "hey I can play Gershwin on an oscilloscope" of some other early synth artists, and leave it behind with twenty some odd minutes of the hippest church organ, space music and guys singing in German about how they're traveling, traveling, traveling on the German highway. The one key concert regret of my life is not seeing Kraftwerk open for early 70s Floyd in Little Rock. If only I'd known how much I would miss missing that. Well, I take it back--more than one. I regret seeing Dire Straits, too.
Maybe all this is why I'm such a tremendous Bowie fan. He had such an insight into what worked and didn't work musically for him. He also had a total magpie willingness to deconstruct and reassemble other artists, whether through covers or through appropriate appropriation. His "Let's Spend the Night Together" is a cover, sure, but it's an obvious parody rather than a slavish devotion. It's no accident that the same album tells of a "Drive In Saturday" when both he and the girl look in Jagger's eyes and score. He could produce Iggy Pop and make Iggy sound more like Iggy than Iggy did himself. His Eno-produced albums went places for both artists neither had ever been, while his curious Nile Rodgers pop phase is not annoying but actually fun. He doesn't try to cover "What's Goin' On" in his soul album "Young Americans", but instead reconverts "Across the Universe" from 60s psychedelia and maneuvers it into a strained 70s bar song. It's been said that Bowie is only an assembler, but I, for one, believe that assemblage is art--and life.
I'm sitting here tonight without a coda al fine for this post, just bathing in the sounds of a thousand melodies, all of them derivative. "Save my life I'm going down for the last time". I love the way the music rings in my head.