Crosseyed Heart by Keith Richards: A Review

October 14, 2015

 

 

RELEASE DATE  September 18, 2015
LABEL:  Republic Records
FORMATS:  Digital, Vinyl, CD

REVIEW DATE:  October 21, 2015

In the middle of Life, Keith Richards’ rambunctious 2010 autobiography, he declares:” I am not here to make records and money. I’m here to say something and to touch other people – sometimes its a cry of desperation: Do you know this feeling?”

Richards’ music over the past 50 years with the Rolling Stones has on occasion lived up to that sentiment. Songs such as Satisfaction, Street Fighting Man and Before They Make Me Run, all contained messages and ideas to which listeners could immediately attach themselves.  But more often than not his Rolling Stones contributions have focused on the ephemera of lasting love and the twists and tangles of the sexual tension between men and women. The sentiments often seemed far less important than the menacing beat by which they were propelled.

In solo projects, however, Richards has been far more introspective and self- examining.  The two solo albums Talk is Cheap (1988) and Main Offender (1992), produced during a period in which infighting looked likely to end the Stones’ career, offered a view of Richards outside the commercial demands of Stones product, revealing both his sentimentality and his talent for balladry.  Never a strong vocalist, he made the most of his thin voice on songs such as Make No Mistake and Take It so Hard, giving them a hard edged charm. Nevertheless, the songs on these two albums had a discouraging sameness that tended to blend them together.

All of which makes Crosseyed Heart, his first solo album in 23 years, such a revelation.  Richards’ voice, which has now aged and matured into a deep husk, is a wonderful ragged  instrument that he employs to magnificent affect in its lower register in titles such as the opening Crosseyed Heart and mid-album Illusion.   But not only that, there is a distinctiveness in the song selection and range in mood, from deep blues to reggae flounce to flat out rock – that brings with it a sense of Richards’s versatility – which was not particularly evident on the earlier albums.

Crosseyed Heart features Richards once again backed by Steve Jordan, who co-wrote the album, and other members of his long time band, the X-Pensive Winos, including vocalist Sarah Dash and guitarist Waddy Wachtel.  Together they contribute to an album with a startling survey of the artist’s emotions:  first there is the gossamer threaded languor of Robbed Blind: the shimmering elevated loveliness of Just a Gift and the chorus backed, soul inflected tremor of Something for Nothing.  Yes, there is also the obligatory Stones swagger ( Trouble and Substantial Damage) which would have fit neatly on any latter-day Stones album (even if sorely missing Charlie Watts’ pneumatic beat).  But for the most part, Richards is making a clear statement on Crosseyed Heart that he is much more than simply the rhythm guitarist in Mick Jagger’s band.

The one other important thing to distinguish this disc from other Stones offerings – and even his other solo albums – is the production. While many of the group’s albums were deliberately designed to sound as if they are recorded in a garage – with Mick Jagger’s vocals slurred to an off kilter incoherence –Crosseyed Heart is recorded with all the sophistication the songs deserve:  Richards’ diction and articulation is clear and un-muddied; the sounds of the guitars, the piano and the brass are as crisp as crackers snapped in two and the backing female choruses, particularly on songs such as Something for Nothing and Just a Gift, adds a luxuriant aural sheen which allows those songs to soar.

Much has been written about Richards’ drug and nicotine addictions, his scrapes with the law, his convictions and his general physical survival from perilous accidents, but not quite enough of his genuine artistry and his talents as a bluesman. Much like the old bluesmen he admires, many of whom were and still are singing the blues well into old age –  Richards, at 71, seems to be  just gathering steam and now seems particularly eager to distill his life experience into his art.

That life experience encompasses considerable material.  For years pundits have been predicting Richards’s premature demise.  In the 1970s  and 80s he regularly made the 10 People Most Likely to Die List and songs were even written to urge that he didn’t succumb to his many apparent demons (see in particular Nils Lofgren’s Keith Don’t Go).

He has defied them all.  In the Stones’ recent tours he has looked as lean and muscular as he did in the 1970s and although his heavily lined face certainly betrays all the years of hard living, his uncompromising attitude and his defiant machismo – so much a part of the Stones’ image – carries on.

But there is something on this record which provides a deeper truth than just the mere fact of the man’s survivability.

In the third verse of Robbed Blind, Richards raises his voice two octaves above his normal bass register and projects, at a caterwauling pitch, the words:  “Cause it ain’t about the money, honey.”   It is a moment of pure transcendence, brimming with vim and conviction.

After this happens, I can sit back in my chair, raise the dial  and with complete candor report back to the artist himself:  ” Yes, Keith, I know this feeling.”

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of the Intermediate Zone

 

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John Lennon Turns 75

October 11, 2015

by Avi Davis

The 75th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth –  October 9, 1940  should be registered as both a day of celebration and a day of mourning.

 

Celebration because the 60s icon’s musical legacy is still very much in tact and his extraordinary contributions to  Western culture are as valued  – and as valuable – as ever.  But mourning too, because the other side of Lennon, his darker, less tolerant side – his political activism, association with far left causes and his remaining influence on a spoiled generation which became focused on the  undermining of the incomparable freedoms it had been handed, is a memory which deserves to be abandoned rather than cherished.

No one can now doubt the artistry and sheer breadth of talent of  a man who penned such elegiac titles as Norwegian  Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever and Across the Universe.  The volume of the Beatles’ 60s output and the range of their writing from I Wanna Hold Your Hand in 1963 to the seamless musical tapestry of Abbey Road  in 1969, was a musical journey of such maturation, that only Mozart can rival it over such a similarly short time span.  Although this is an assessment which would be dismissed in the 1960s as pop culture infantilism, today it is incontestable: the Beatles provided a driving, propulsive force to the direction of both popular music and mass culture in the 1960s that is unequaled in the modern era.

Abbey Road dei Beatles: la copertina dell’album tra leggenda e ...

 

Yet something happened to Lennon’s artistry in mid-1968, after his return from India and the rapid collapse of his marriage to his wife Cynthia.   A deep cynicism began to populate his lyrics which surfaced in such songs as  Yer Blues, Glass Onion, Sexy Sadie and Happiness is a Warm Gun – all of which appeared on the Beatles’ White Album in November of that year.  Gone was the wistful, lyrical absurdist, who in his finest moments ( I am the Walrus and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,) could rival Lewis Caroll for sheer imaginative reach. In his place was now a social critic and angry, self-obsessed depressive who seemed to be casting about for targets to skewer.

His association  and marriage to the Japanese performance artist Yoko Ono and his addiction to heroin in 1969-70, could be said to have contributed to this artistic inversion.

For after the release of the Beatles’ White Album, it is a very different Lennon who appears on record.  His contributions to the Beatles’ Let it Be (mostly recorded in January, 1969 under extremely strained circumstances) were minimalist fluff and save for the mystical Across the Universe – a song which was actually written and recorded eighteen months earlier – he makes no notable contribution.  Abbey Road, recorded seven months later, witnesses glimpses of the return of the impish humor and elevated wonder of the world ( see Because, Sun King and Polythene Pam) yet his contributions are outshone by McCartney and to an even  greater extent by George Harrison, who by this point had matured ( with Something and Here Comes the Sun) into a clear equal of the others.

The trend continues into 1970 when the uber-confessional solo album Plastic Ono Band is released.  Although a singer -songwriter album of searing penetration and extraordinary self- insight, it is quite obvious that the poet John Lennon of Beatledom- and its presiding genius, is gone. In his place is a world weary, jaded and thoroughly guilt-ridden introvert who has traded his lyricism and poetic inclination for sardonicism and public exposure.

Many say that this was the real Lennon, who had kept this true persona hidden during the years needed to maintain the Beatles’ commercial success and public appeal.   But I don’t buy it.  Lennon’s greatest gift was as an acute observer of the world which he filtered through humor and an exquisite irony.  Jettisoning these gifts  – or refusing to use them – was a tragic abandonment of his muse and his talent.

But seemingly determined to transform himself into an avant grade artist and social gadfly, he threw himself into his new wife’s artistic projects- both in the recording and film studios and even more garishly in the public eye.

This became clear in his accelerating penchant for exhibitionism. The recording of a series of unfocused experimental albums in the late 60s with Ono ( even appearing with his wife on the cover of one of them fully nude); media events such as the Amsterdam and Toronto honeymoon bed-ins, wherein the two held court in their pajamas for an overly fawning media; myriad independent film projects such as the recording of a fly climbing a woman’s naked torso – offered very little lasting artistic value and already exacerbated his steady artistic decline.

By the time, in 1971, when he came round to record what many regard as his opus, Imagine, Lennon was already an avant grade burn out and  the new album was designed as a return to  commercial form. And that it certainly was, reaching #1 in the charts soon after its release.

Yet listening to Imagine today, you can still hear the absence, despite the dreamy title song, of that wistful poet observing the world with ironic and  childlike wonder.  Perhaps songs such as How? and Jealous Guy provide a glimpse of the former, but the songs in general were either romantic twaddle or purposeless political cant.

Certainly when the airy and superficial title song Imagine is lined up against the acerbic How Do you Sleep? – (a thinly disguised but brutal attack on his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney) on the same album – one had to wonder whether Lennon had meant any of his wishes for peace, love and harmony for all mankind.  If he couldn’t manage it in his own life – even in the course of the song progression on one album, how likely was the world to maintain it into the future?

The early 1970s witnessed a steady decline in the quality of Lennon’s artistic output commencing with the politically naked and often disastrous Sometime in New York City (1972) and ending with the tired and overwrought Walls and Bridges (1975).  During this time he and his wife underwent a trying attempt to become American citizens (prevented for years because of a 1968 drug bust), participated in numerous talk shows, interviews and media events and gave support to too many radical left wing militant groups, all of which served to tarnish their credibility as serious artists.  In mid-1973, the couple split with Ono remaining in New York City and Lennon relocating to Los Angeles.  The drunken eighteen month spree that Lennon would undergo on the West Coast (referred by him – and now by most of his biographers, as his ‘Lost Weekend’) would result in more demonstrations of bad behavior and increasingly weak songwriting. When they reunited in 1975 the couple decided to have a child and Sean Ono Lennon was born in October, 1975 on his father’s 35th birthday.

Thereafter Lennon would become a house husband and his wife a businesswoman and they retreated almost completely from public view. It is said that during these years  Lennon did not pick up a guitar, although there is much recorded evidence to indicate that this was not the case.

When he emerged from his self- imposed exile with a new album, it was a ghastly mess. Double Fantasy (1980), his final album, is a cloying, over produced dud –  full of the kind of cutesy domesticity for which he used to savage Paul McCartney and thoroughly ruined by Ono’s contributions which sound like recordings made at a drunken sorority party.

Double Fantasy: Amazon.co.uk: Music

 

Like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, cultural figures who also died relatively young, Lennon’s popular image is frozen in time.  After he was murdered in December, 1980, at the age of 40, the execrable Double Fantasy became a smash hit and his final coda.  Frozen with it however was not the image of a middle aged man who, by reports from some of his aides, was undergoing a re-evaluation of his radical past and becoming increasingly conservative in his outlook, but the rebel and radical of his Beatle deconstruction days.

And so the memory that has come down to us is of John Lennon the iconoclast, John Lennon the hippie dissident, John Lennon the American Che Guevara in affecting beret, –  the John Lennon who rejected materialism, capitalism, religion and all forms of violent conflict – a cynosure for societal self loathing and the patron saint of a culture of complaint.

This form of worship – lets call it Lennonism – has its adherents today  amongst atheists, environmentalists, the moribund Occupy movement, militant black separatists  and global governance advocates.  They have successfully appropriated the image, the voice and the music of John Lennon for the propagation of their own ideologies.

The Sixties are often referred to as a time of  awakening and rebellion – a rejection by youth of the materialism and the encrusted dogmas of the previous generation.  But the vast majority of the music of the era is in fact  celebratory –  full of sunny, hopeful melodies – anticipating a life of bountiful opportunities and progress.  This was not yet a generation possessed of the deep cynicism and self hatred we see among youth today.   Rather, it was  a generation celebrating personal freedom and the enormous achievements of the West in securing such  for millions of its citizens.

John Lennon’s own music in the 1960s, while often introspective, was nevertheless in the very vanguard of this celebration.  He lead the Beatles, for at least the first part of their domination of the 60s music industry, with a wry appreciation of the fact that a boy from a lower middle class background in impoverished Liverpool, had been given the opportunity to rise to unparalleled heights of success and fame.  Western freedom made this possible and Lennon was smart enough to know it even if he never publicly acknowledged its truth.  It clearly shone through his lyrics and his melodies.

The great sadness is that he let his wonder of living in the age of freedom to slip from his consciousness and to  be replaced with attitudes that would  transform him into a cynic.  And the great shame is that rather than being known today as the Beatle who celebrated freedom, he is known as the Beatle who spat upon it.

And that certainly is a cause for mourning on this auspicious day.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

 


Neil Young Still Trips Down that Ol’ Hippie Highway

November 24, 2014

I have to admit that being a Neil Young fan has its challenges.  Yes, there is lots of new music to listen to (eight albums, including live releases, in the past four years); plenty to read (two auto-biographies in the same time period) and even some new audio hardware ( the PONO, whose development Mr. Young led).  But after a while it does get a bit much.  Some of the albums are true stinkers ( A Letter Home and Le Noise are almost unlistenable); the books endlessly focused on cars, drugs, booze and more cars  and Young’s obsession for improving technology a bit self aggrandizing.

Now we can add an overweening desire to sermonize as part of the problem.

Back in 2005 Young issued an album titled  Living With War – a barbed, venomous attack on President George W. Bush and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars over which he was then presiding.   The album was choc-a- block with political screed.  With song titles such  as Let’s Impeach the President; Shock and Awe and Looking for a Leader, Young could not be mistaken for anything but that frayed-jeaned Woodstock warrior who is still so certain that the era of  peace, love and anti-militarism (read draft dodging)  still holds the answers for our future happiness and prosperity.

Granted, Young has always been something of renegade, even against his own audience ( for a brief timE in the 1980s he was a supporter of Ronald Reagan).  But his turn to chic liberal political causes in recent years has truly augmented his image as something  of a throwback, unwilling to examine in any depth the sagacity of the movements to which he attaches his name and driven as much my ideology than common sense.

His latest support for the anti- Keystone XL pipeline  campaign is a case in point.  Drawn into the fight to prevent the pipeline’s construction by his paramour, uber-environmentalist Darryl Hannah, Young has seemed to agree with  NASA Scientist and all round global warming Cassandra, James Hansen, that  the construction of the pipeline will mean  “game over ” in the battle to save our planet from the poisons of carbon dioxide.  Hansen’S May 12, 2o12 New York Times editorial sent Young into a flurry of activity about our environmental future and he has now pledged himself to its rescue.  And so we can expect many more Young albums which bristle with indignation against oil companies, multinational corporations and well paid CEOs (of which , of course, he is virtually one).

It is quite amusing to see very rich men pretending that they are still just money scrounging buskers panhandling on the streets of  Toronto.  Young, now 68 – and looking very much  his age – still wears torn, patched jeans; baseball caps worn backwards ( a habit I thought outlawed in the 1990s) and drives one of his dozens of 50s era vintage cars. He recently ditched his wife of 36 years  (with whom he struggled to raise two children stricken with cerebral palsy) to take up with actress Hannah and has suffered health problems, including an aneurysm.

It all seems to fuel his output, which, for an artist of his age, is prodigious.

But one almost has to laugh at the irony of an artist who doesn’t seem to recognize how his own lyrics designed to skewer one president, are finding an even more fitting target in his successor:

Take for instance  the lyrics  for Lets Impeach the President:

“Lets impeach the President for spyin’

On citizens in their own homes 

Breaking every law in the country

Tapping our computers and telephones”

 

Or how about  these  words from Looking for a Leader:

 

“Yeah we got our election

But corruption has a chance

We got to have a clean win

To give us confidence

America is beautiful 

But she has an ugly side”

Spoken like the Canadian he is, a man who has lived in the United States for 40 years and yet to take out American citizenship.    But don’t you have to wonder whether this seeker of truth and promoter of justice will one day turn his muse to the clear violations of law and constitutional protections orchestrated by the very leader he once painted as a savior?

I await that album with much anticipation.

In the meantime, I am still almost certain to still indulge myself in Neil Young music.  Why?  I guess  there are some adolescent  habits you just can’t kick.  Yet, I am going to be on the look out, along that ol’ hippie highway, for that sudden sting of reality that  jolts Neil from the dreamland of 1969 to the present day suppressions and  legal violations which occur daily in Barack Obama’s America.

 

 

 

 

 


What John Lennon Failed to Imagine

October 10, 2010

Its a landmark event for Beatledom.  John Lennon, dead these 30 years, would have turned 70-years-old today.

For many 60’s survivors who grew up in thrall to the Fab Four, the idea that such an important symbol of the youth culture had arrived at the threshold of old age (if such a category still exists in our teen obsessed culture) must be profoundly unsettling.

It is as if that entire generation had finally found itself washed up at the very doorstep of senility.

There can be no doubt Lennon, in his partnership with the brilliant tunesmith Paul McCartney, did craft some of the most memorable pop tunes of the 20th Century. That might be reason enough to celebrate his life. Yet the failure to complete his life’s journey has frozen his memory in perpetual mid-life. There he presides as the guru of peace and love, an unfazed and unrepentant hippie whose vision for world peace remains unfettered by reality or subsequent historical events.

Forgotten, or perhaps conveniently overlooked, is that Lennon’s solo work in his ten post-Beatles years was far inferior to anything he did as a member of the group and was weak even by comparison to the output of his fellow Beatles ( and yes, I include Ringo Starr in that assessment). His coda, the cloying and maudlin Double Fantasy (1980) was an embarrassment for such a great talent, and evidence that perhaps his muse had permanently fled.

Part of this can be attributed to Lennon’s early 70s determination to make political statements rather than music.  Moving permanently to New York City in 1970, he and his wife Yoko Ono became lightening rods for radicals and far left causes. Feminists, Black Panthers, Yippies and peace movement activists, all pitched their tents under the Lennon/ Ono carapace to propagate their liberation politics. The recorded product of this eclectic jamboree, Sometime In New York City (1972), is a rather tuneless and bleak attempt to capture the radical zeitgeist. It bombed and is regarded universally as one of the worst post break up efforts by any of the Beatles.

While Lennon’s post-Beatles recordings, save for the very early ones, can be largely dismissed, what can’t be dismissed is his cultural influence. Lennon stands today as the most revered icon in the pantheon of the peace movement – a figure of such sainted majesty that he has been practically beatified by secular humanists. This reputation balances precariously on the foundation of just one song – the anthemic Imagine.

Imagine dredged up some half baked Romantic notions and presented a vision of a world free of conflict. Attached to an ethereal melody it seem to float in a sea of mysticism, painting a picture of a utopia that most Communist leaders in the 1970s would have recognized.

“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…”

Would Lennon have matured intellectually as he aged – ultimately recognizing that this formula for world peace, written in a swishy mansion in the English countryside, far from the Communist despots and authoritarians who at that time imprisoned nearly half of humanity, could not work? Would he have understood that there was something a little skewed about attempting to denude the world of religion, governments, sovereignty and wealth?

Would he have finally understood that his adopted home, the United States, actually stood as the last best chance for humanity to preserve the liberty that had allowed him to pen such masterpieces such as Across the Universe and A Day In the Life….?

Probably not. Naivete is one of the great privileges of the rich and famous. Insulated from the hard realities of life, our pop icons are safe and free to make ignorant guesses about the world and pose solutions that suggest more, not less, misery for its human population. Once having made such a statement of principle, it is highly unlikely that Lennon would ever have retired his Imagine philosophy. Unlike McCartney, who has revealed himself to be comparatively sensible on a number of important security issues, Lennon, socially alienated as a child and conditioned to reject convention, would have continued to find some gratification in oppositional politics and ideologies. It is doubtful he could ever have written a song such as Freedom, which McCartney penned in outrage following the attacks of 9/11.

But his legacy remains and his Imagine vision continues to inspire the contemporary anti-war movement, a fact of which he would doubtless have been proud. Yet as the threat of a nuclear Iran grows and Islamic terrorism sets Western society in a state of constant alert, the notion that we can embrace those sworn to our destruction in a ‘brotherhood of man’ is a chimera reflecting nothing more than an irresponsible failure of imagination.

This article first appeared in The American Thinker.

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Is Love All You Really Need?

April 14, 2010

Forty years ago today the world received the staggering news: Paul McCartney was leaving the Beatles.  Together with the release of   McCartney’s  self-titled solo album on that day in London, came an announcement that he had no further  intention of recording with the group.  A Beatles without Paul in the line up seemed unimaginable.  The Beatles, it became evident to everyone, were over.

The Beatles had not only dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic for better part of a decade.  They had been a leading force in 60s cultural revolution and had shaped an entire generation’s consciousness with their hairstyles, clothing, conduct and musical messages.

What brought about the end of such a successful musical partnership and cultural odyssey?   Countless books and articles have been devoted to that subject but it boils down to infighting, bad business decisions and increasingly strained personal and artistic differences.

Subsequent accounts by group members (poignantly recounted in their own words in The Beatles Anthology) indicated that the rot has set in years before.   Following the death of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, the four men had chosen not to appoint a new manager but to steer their own course.   By that time, however, liberated from the social and musical constraints of  their mop top selves and having given up the exhausting rigors of touring, they were all headed in very different directions.

John Lennon was soon to meet Yoko Ono and become immersed in the avant garde and the lure of radical politics; George Harrison was undergoing a spiritual transformation that would draw him deeply into introspection and far from the limelight; Ringo Starr was increasingly anchored to family life and had become a homebody.

It was only Paul McCartney, at the height of his powers as a musician and producer – and the only member of the group  to remain unmarried – who retained the enthusiasm and drive  to propel the group forward.

The tension between their competing drives and needs can be heard in the pastiche nature of 1968’s White Album, released in November, in which the group members often recorded their compositions on their own or with hired help.  The January, 1969  filming of the Let It Be recording sessions was, by the group’s own admission, a disaster, at which George Harrison, incensed over McCartney’s officiousness and Lennon’s seeming indifference, actually left the group.

Still the musical chemistry between the four men remained vigorous, resulting  (in their last eighteen months together) in such extraordinary pop classics as Hey Jude, Something, Here Comes the Sun, Across the Universe and Let It Be.    Not to mention the second side of their final recorded LP Abbey Road, which remains one of the great masterpieces of modern  popular music.

There is no telling what they might have achieved had they had remained together.  Certainly all four men produced great  pop tunes on their own in the years following the break up.   Lennon’s Imagine (1971), McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed (1970), Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (1971) and Ringo Starr’s  Photograph (1973)  all stand as equal to almost anything in their Beatles canon.   The reunion of the surviving members, in the early 90s to complete two unfinished Lennon tunes, suggests that they had not lost touch with their musical sympatico.

But now 40 years after they left the scene as a united group, we might ponder their ultimate legacy.   Sunny, sparkling pop, with a hint of humor and broad optimism about life, may be one of them.   The Beatles were working class lads from Liverpool who as individuals never forgot their modest origins and showed no reluctance in celebrating their childhood haunts and antics.   Songs such as Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever and Julia gave us a window into their lives and the opportunity to meet  some of the characters with who had populated their youth.    A deep loyalty to family and friends threaded its way through their music and imbued it with a sentimentality that was never twee nor forced, but profoundly affecting.  Beatles music was buoyed by a sense of possibility and a celebration of  the wonder, miracle and beauty of life – a euphoric element that can be heard in even their earliest recordings.

Yet there is another sense in which the Beatles’ influence may not have been all positive.  Lennon’s All You Need Is Love, composed in time  for the first satellite television broadcast  in June, 1967, was a statement of the the emerging Beatles credo – that love could cure all societal ills  and heal all problems.  Brotherly love, free love, maternal love,  sex as love, love as sex –  it was all the same.   Little wonder that ‘Love’ then was the title chosen for  the Cirque de Soliel extravaganza which co-opted Beatles songs for a lavish production in Las Vegas.  All four Beatles in their solo careers would harp on love as the world’s panacea.  In fact, almost every one of Ringo Starr’s latter day albums sports a song devoted to peace and love, words now adopted as his motto.

The problem is that love doesn’t always cure all society’s ills and it is dangerous to believe that it can.  The Beatles saw the Cold War, not as a conflict between good and evil, or a contest between democracy and totalitarianism, but as a misunderstanding between individual leaders  (the tongue -in-cheek  Back in the U.S.S.R. notwithstanding);  they saw the cultural revolution which they helped ignite, with its sweeping rejection of adult moral authority and the elevation of teenage sensitivity as a value in itself, as a sign of human progress;  they felt that authority always needs to be questioned and political leaders of  all parties (see Harrison’s Taxman where he expressly names them), not to be trusted.  They failed to accept and appreciate that their own system of government, built after centuries of bloodshed and the struggle between the people and the Crown, was the one thing that guaranteed their freedom to sing and perform largely without constraint or control.

A generation that grew up singing along to Can’t Buy Me Love and I Wanna Hold Your Hand also was deeply affected  by the idea that all war is wrong and that conflict could be avoided through demonstrations of  compassion and sympathy.  But the Cold War was not eventually won through displays of love but determined policies that quarantined the Russian communist regime and threatened aggression when challenged.  Love would certainly not have defeated Nazi Germany or a militarized Japan in the 1940s, nor will it defeat militant Islam.

Perhaps Paul McCartney finally understood this when, in 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks –  having been in New York at the time of their perpetration, he composed the song Freedom

I’m talkin’ about freedom  …….. freedom!

I will fight  for the right

To live in freedom……”

McCartney is said to regret the fervor  of the song and has not preformed it in public since that year.   But the shock of the attacks on the World Trade Towers must have aroused  in him the devastating realization that in fact the world isn’t necessarily a loving place and that there are people and societies for whom talk of love and compassion is not a sign of openness and tolerance but a demonstration of  a weakness that is open to  exploitation.

We can’t forget that in Soviet Russia, teenagers did not have the same  luxury of buying and listening to Beatles music.   The  Beatles were banned there as subversive and their albums needed to be smuggled into the country, under fear of stiff penalties for violations.   When McCartney eventually played Red Square in Moscow in 2003, he was told repeatedly that his group’s contraband music offered hope and inspiration to a closed society.

Perhaps McCartney didn’t include Freedom in his set list at that performance or remind his audience that Back in the U.S.S.R. was originally conceived (in 1968) as a satire on a repressive system that had banned Beatles music.  But surely he must have ruminated on what eventually broke the back of the Soviet tyranny.  Suffice to say it wasn’t Western expressions of  peace, love and friendship.    Soviet Russia collapsed because of a siren song of freedom, but not in swoon of All You Need Is Love.  This freedom was conveyed through the implacable stand of the United States in meeting Soviet aggression with force and defiance. It came because the Soviets could not adequately feed their people or offer them a high quality of life.  And it came most of all because Soviet citizens and their the peoples populating the Soviet satellites in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Roumania had begun to understand they were living in a prison, when a free world existed just beyond their borders.

The world may be  a different place than the one in which the Beatles lived, but there are  many ways in which  it remains the same.  A new menace to Western freedom looms – one even more insidious and potentially devastating than the threats presented in the 1960s.   This time, no amount of Western music or expressions of amity will sway our enemies in Iran or within the ranks of Islamic terrorist organizations.  Unfortunately, the love motif has crept back into the U.S. government’s diplomatic vocabulary, taking its form in policies of appeasement.

To remember how devastating such policies can potentially be,  perhaps the Beatles own lyrics, when  placed in the mouths of the freedom starved peoples of today and addressed to the U.S.  and the West, might offer us a guide:

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

My independence seems to vanish in the haze

But every now and then I feel so insecure

I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.”

                            (Help! 1964)

Imagining John Lennon’s World

March 5, 2010

Would the world have been a better place without John Lennon?

Such a question will  engender a surge of rage in members of my generation. Questioning Lennon’s role and importance in modern culture is tantamount to pop heresy.  After all, much of Lennon’s music and late 60s antics were embedded in our adolescent consciousness. Even amongst conservatives it is somewhat gauche to suggest that Lennon was anything other than one of the greatest cultural figures of the modern era, whose signature tunes Norwegian Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In the Life….… and Imagine defined the modern sensibility.

I can’t claim to have ever really disagreed with that sentiment.  I am as big a Beatles fan as any.  But since this year marks the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s murder (preceded by the 40th anniversary of the Beatles break up), maybe its finally time to take a closer look at Lennon’s real legacy, divorced from the hagiography that has accumulated around his memory.

I had the opportunity to think more about this after seeing a show celebrating his music, presented by Tim Piper and his band in North Hollywood last Sunday afternoon.  Piper did a commendable enough job impersonating Lennon (although there were so many Lennons over the 20 years of his public career it would have been hard to represent all his incarnations on stage).  He offered serviceable renditions of Beatles songs, as well as Lennon’s solo efforts and the intimacy of the nightclub made the performance feel warmly nostalgic.

 It was only on the drive home, listening to Imagine , that I began to think more deeply about how disagreeable some of Lennon’s messages seem today and how deeply flawed was his global perspective. Imagine itself of course, is not a song as much as an anthem, a fragile vision of an unobtainable world, wiped clean of religion, war, conflict, sovereignty and possessions.

Lennon wasn’t so stupid to believe his nirvana achievable immediately. And he certainly liked expensive cars, beautiful homes and the freedom to travel whenever and however he wished, as much as anyone else.

But listen again to the lyrics of that song – 

Imagine no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too.

 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

 

      – and you can begin to hear the first philosophical rumblings of the environmental movement, the U.N.’s global governance campaign and the human rights industry.  All of these forces are posed against capitalism, free enterprise, sovereign jurisdiction and representative government. They are supranational in scope, claiming allegiance to nothing and no one, save a nebulous concept of truth and justice.

Lennon was in essence promoting a world without boundaries – and his program would extend beyond bulldozing physical borders, to demolishing sexual, political and economic restrictions as well.  But truth and justice, or as, in Ringo Starr’s repetitive mantra “peace and love,” are impossible to imagine without the imposition of boundaries. With no restrictions on sexual impulses, economic transactions or property claims, humanity could not effectively function.  Even the primitive tribes in the world’s most remote jungles maintain boundaries over these aspects of human interaction.

Imagine’s world, in the end, sounds more like a place where conflict would be a constant as those seeking to protect what they have and need for sustenance are forced to share it with others, who have not contributed to its growth, harvesting or development.

Of course we had seen this kind of utopianism before. It began once as starry eyed dreaming in the villages of the Ukraine and Hunan Province and ended as inhuman Five Year Plans in the Soviet Union, a crushing Cultural Revolution  in China and the murderous Relocation Farms in Cambodia.  Commencing with the same brand of utopianism, they degenerated into ruthless campaigns to consolidate power. The misery inflicted on the world by such ideas and their idealogues is something Lennon perhaps didn’t quite link with his own brand of utopianism.

A more realistic world view, one schooled in practicalities of human existence and human nature might take a more jaundiced view of utopianism and embrace the realities of life. Perhaps a more mature Lennon, steeped in these realities, might have written this update to his earlier vision:

             Imagine there’s no evil

                  You know it isn’t too late

                  Just take goodness and kindness

                        And fight against those who hate 

               Imagine no terror

                The West’s haters wiped away

                  Love of democracy and freedom

                 Might save us all one day

               Imagine all the people

                 Respecting individuality

 

 

 

 

 


Al Stewart in Concert

February 15, 2010

OK.  So anyone working to save Western civilization deserves a break every now and then.  And this was a good one.  I have been an Al Stewart fan since I picked up a copy of Past, Present and Future, Stewart’s fifth LP, in 1973.   Since then I have become an avid collector of Stewart albums, noted for their lilting vocals, elegant fret work and preponderance of historical themes. 

I guess its the historical songs which always grab me because there is not all that much to distinguish one Stewart melody from the next and his voice, even at age 65, still flutters above the song in that thin, fey tremolo he possessed when he was still a starry-eyed folkie sharing digs in London with Paul Simon.  

But I enjoyed this concert as much for Stewart’s banter, which revolved largely around dead and forgotten presidents, than his explanations for the provenance of his songs.    Accidental president Millard Fillmore became a staple of the evening, as did Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison( president in 1841 for only six weeks); his grandson , the humorless Benjamin Harrison; Warren G. Harding ( who once received his own song on a Stewart disc) and ‘Silent Cal,’ – Calvin Coolidge.  He peppered the concert with gossip about all these men, which I, at least, appreciated since I knew almost every anecdote he told (which makes me, I guess, as a much of a historical geek as the singer himself). 

But beyond that there were some lovely moments on stage.  I mean, you just can’t beat that wailing sax on Year of the Cat, or the great guitar riff of Time Passages – especially  in an intimate setting like McCabes in Santa Monica, since the crispness of the  horn and the rolling thunder of  the guitar almost lifts you off your seat.  Other joyous moments came with the Django Rheinhardt- influenced Night Train to Munich (from Between the Wars) and chilled atmosphere of Antarctica ( from Last Days of the Century). 

Adding to the resonance of the music were his two band mates, the scintillating guitarist Dave Nachmanoff and the multi-instrumentalist (bongos, maracas, harmonica, alto, tenor and soprano sax) Louis Marcias.  The easy interplay between the three of them was quite lovely to behold.


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