Saturday, May 22, 2010
This isn't the cover art for the CD I have; I can't seem to find that artwork on the Net but this'll do, as it ties in with something I talk about below. There's another disc called The Screaming End, and one called Dance to the Bop, as well as the two-disc set pictured. All seem to be pretty solid collections.
Gene Vincent was never a huge star. He just changed everything. To hear these violent, raucous songs with their earth-shaking rhythms and ringing, relentless guitars is to hear the stage being set for a great percentage of the best pop music that has been released in his wake. This isn't mere rockabilly; this is the recording of life, and the invention of a world. At least as much as Buddy Holly, Vincent fired the shot heard round the world, especially in England. If Holly sang to the heavens, Cochran to the gut, Vincent sounds as though he is staring straight into you, speaking and snarling at you across a space of fifty years which feel like nothing much.
With his band the Blue Caps, Vincent built on the country music scene in Norfolk and hopped and skipped over the competition. A demo coaxed along by a local talent scout and DJ landed a contract with Capitol Records. Vincent's charisma as a frontman is undeniable, but the Caps were very much a band. The records would count for little to nothing without the astoundingly inventive guitarist Cliff Gallup, to whose widow every British guitarist of the ensuing decades owes a royalty check.
Vincent's only U.S. hit is "Be-Bop-a-Lula," a strutting, confident, pure-sex slow burner of the first order. It was widely mistaken for Elvis because it's practically a cover of the idea of Elvis, like what Mr. Presley would have sounded like if he was as lecherous and dangerously horny as the Christos and clueless parents falsely claimed he was. And Vincent would matter if this really was the extent of his recorded legacy. The song's defiance, lyrically and musically, captures the essential noise of rock & roll rebellion at its early peak. The thoughts and desires come too fast for Vincent to articulate, and that's where we get the roll in rock & roll, and that's how we get the authorities in a tizzy. Even today, the song is scandalous, palpably rising the temperature in any room where you hear it, especially at night.
Despite no further major hits existing, the classics on this disc come from right and left thereafter for the next hour-plus. He's got the audacity to open "Woman Love" with a post-coital chuckle, all swagger and cigarette dust before he settles into singing about fucking and, yes, laughing about it. "Race with the Devil" identifies Vincent's lone actual competition and recalls Chuck Berry's first few singles, capturing cars and Satan with redneck intensity, thereby defining rockabilly forever.
My favorite Vincent track is probably "Who Slapped John?" which lit the room up when I used to play it at 1AM on Saturdays at the Soapbox. From its first electrifying seconds, it's rock & roll the way people who loved it rapturously -- and the way moral guardians who hated it furiously -- wrote about it, the way you'd imagine it if you'd never heard it but had someone describe it to you. To this day, it's maybe the most frequently ripped off song in Gene V.'s catalog; as recently as 2006, my favorite modern band, Yo La Tengo, rewrote it as "Watch Out for Me, Ronnie," but pick any decent rock & roll outfit and they've either covered this or done their own revision. But I could make an equally strong case for "Blue Jean Baby," which is quintessential; it opens as a stark, sweet-nothings ballad and ends up encompassing garage, rockabilly, R&B, and even military marching music. Does any '50s recording more brilliantly cover the kitchen-sink snowballing basics of what this music was, and would become? These two songs are as exciting as anything recorded by the brighter stars of Presley, Cochran, Perkins, even Holly, inevitably bettered only by Berry, Penniman, Bo ("Cat Man" is a Diddley remake), and Ray Charles, but what isn't? Such wild transitions are frequent on the disc. The songs are well-crafted and endlessly surprising; "Bop Street" opens with a Bo Diddleyesque skit before evolving into a curiously yearning Gene croon and finally skittering along into big-beat territory, relentless and psychotic as ever.
Rock & roll this solid can be exhausting. These songs were meant to be heard on 45s, and loud. I mean loud, seriously loud. I recommend sampling the comp a bit at a time. I'm not fucking around when I say this sheer insanity can become oppressive after a while. I am not a "new music sucks" guy but there's not been anything recorded that pounds and screams at you as wildly as this. Every bit of punk and metal that practictioners think is so damn ugly and powerful pales in comparison. "Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me" barely has any shape, just an unstoppable pushing forward with orgasmic force. Listen to the way Gene can barely let every word take shape, listen to the way you can hear the walls in the room melting. The band can barely keep up with him, he can barely keep his breath or keep up with the Caps, and so it goes -- replete with guitar solos that make Dave Davies sound like Les Paul -- and that goddamn pounding for two and half minutes and then it just stops and leaves you there. Out of fucking control. But no brute, Vincent could show equal aplomb on a sophisticated (though still lightning-energized) number like "Double Talkin' Baby," with its keen guitar tricks and measured rhythmic perfection. Or display gleeful intelligence and a command of his own abilities with the absolutely delightful delivery of his "Pink Thunderbird" boasts, which stands surprisingly well with similar ideas Bo Diddley was working up at the time.
Rob Sheffield said once that all great songs are either fast or sad, and that's why ballads are usually a sticking point for me from the great rockers. Gene Vincent is different, and this may be one of his most significant attributes, one that lets him stand apart from his peers. His ballads are as exciting as his rockers. His vocal on "Should I Ever Fall in Love Again" displays the same red-hot passion and testosterone -- controlled insanity -- you hear on "Brand New Beat." On "Wear My Ring," he puts Elvis' crooning to shame; whether from precision or attraction or loudness, he has a personable quality you trust -- he sounds like an actual human, not the distant creature Presley became. The best slow one is "Jezebel," a Western-flavored bit of nonsense that Vincent works magic on to create melodramatic misterioso magic, followed by "Wedding Bells (Are Breakin' Up That Old Gang of Mine)," which ably applies a macho aesthetic and sentiment to the sweeter side of Vincent's vocal virtuosity. No sentimentality here, just the sound of freakshow youth: he'd rather fuck than marry, and with pipes like this guy's, presumably he did a lot of the former.
Since I really became aware of Vincent, admittedly only a couple of years ago, I've thought of him as the beginning of white rock's tiny erotic wing (really, rock & roll sacrified sex when it became Rock and folks had to turn to their soul collections for anything attuned to the flesh; John Lennon might've been the last white rock singer with any in his approach), and because Vincent was a cripple, surrounded by boiz bouncing around on his stage (as described in this great blog post by The Hound) I ended up thinking of him a lot when I read the really explosive novel Everything Is Illuminated last year (if you've just seen the pretty decent movie with Elijah Wood, you gots no idea how good this fucker is). The book features a character with a gimp arm, fetishized by his innumerable lovers, whose attentions -- though humored -- baffle him. The weirdness of sexual power and attraction, the oblivious and effortless beauty of that same weirdness, you can define these things and so much more with a vocal inflection and a guitar strum. "Crazy legs, crazy legs, boppin' all over the floor."
Vincent outlived his friend Eddie Cochran -- they were in the same car crash that killed Cochran, a watershed event for several other reasons (clue: four young men from Liverpool) -- but still died young, and his legacy remained tied to "Be-Bop-a-Lula." But someone identified with those rollercoaster screams in "B-i-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go," and that's why people are still playin' the guitar. The first time I think I ever heard of him beyond the Beatles' Hamburg cover of "Be-Bop-a-Lula" was in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (I know you hate Rolling Stone and so do I, but this book -- the 1980 edition -- is terrific) when the following photo was labeled thusly:
(Found the pic on Myspace/Photobucket. Let me know if I pissed you off!)
Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, planting the flag at Iwo Jima. His music was secondhand, his guitar a battered prop. Who cared?
Certainly not me upon seeing this when I was 17. Whoever says image doesn't matter is a fool. I remember something churning inside me upon seeing that photo, very deep down in there, something that told me there were secrets unimaginable in these old records I'd glossed over in favor of the utter unimaginative shit I listened to at the time like Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews. All these things that seemed so big and inaccessible when you're sitting in chemistry class, universal things: FREEDOM and SEX and LIBERATION and rhythm and the bright lights tonight, all that shit. The music sounded like I wanted it to, like it never had before, because I could hear all those things in it. To this day, I don't think anything in all art shares that powerful basic core-of-humanity stuff the way rock & roll, specifically the rock & roll of the 1950s, does. And that picture of Vincent, accidentally iconic, accidentally beautiful, planted the seed for me years before I knew jack shit about his music.
The final cut here ("Lazy River") is another ballad but this one sounds distant, like it was recorded from the next room; Vincent seems to be singing to us from an entirely different world, his voice hovering above the sparse brushes and guitar. It's fun to imagine everything happening at once, the room wartorn from all the barriers broken, virgins willingly defiled, destruction and passion everywhere -- like a tornado hit. After thirty tracks of this madness, the band puts down their instruments and Gene wanders out with a smirk, leaving us all breathless and reeling.
Jeff Beck did some lameass Gene Vincent covers album that every freaking bio page on the web of GV mentions. Who gives a fuck about Jeff Beck. Gene Vincent could chew that loser up and spit him out.
Here is YouTube of Vincent and Blue Caps performing in 1958. Oh, yes.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Narrative: A Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons decides to pursue music and ends up fronting a perpetually unlucky and indistinct psych-rock band, who are so completely un-celebrated their performance in a Roger Corman movie is overdubbed with someone else's noise, while the band that will give him his muscle and an assured career is already world-famous and achieving their peak in California. Somehow or another, two things happen: The band disintegrates after a couple of singles, and Parsons becomes enamored first of folk-rock and then of pure country music. And then, lightning strikes the world and history is made.
Safe at Home is best explained through its deceptions. Parsons' entire life reads as fiction, and his first group the International Submarine Band's lone album sets the stage. To begin with, it's not really an album by the International Submarine Band, the psych-rock band mentioned above, who splintered some months before its recording into the offshoot Flying Burrito Brothers, who enter the story much later. My understanding is that Parsons' various fixations (and perhaps he was not alone) were driving the band toward folk-rock well before the amicable split. Circumstances shifted around again and the upshot was finally that Parsons and buddy John Nuese were forced to assemble a new International Submarine Band on a moment's notice for LHI to record An Album, informed almost entirely by a country music obsession.
This is the result. Heralded as the invention of country rock, it arrives from the hands of accidental innovation. In and of themselves, a lot of these songs don't invent anything so much as they expand on an idea that already existed. Country is one of the foundations of rock & roll, and in 1968 those foundations were not so far away yet. Thus, it can be difficult now to hear the country in some of the rock songs, and the rock in some of the country songs. The one ingredient truly in place for Parsons' later records is his voice; despite some mishaps, it has all the poetry of Sweetheart and Grievous Angel. And the unflinching at something so desperately uncool as country music is a new phenomenon for 1968.
Personal: I'm a longtime Parsons fan but this album is new to me, and my opinion may be colored a bit by the way I discovered him, like so many others, via the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was not just my introduction to him but the way I first explored anything resembling country music. What's always intrigued me about Rodeo is that it is very close to being pure country, but it still sounds like the Byrds, and there's still something barbed and beautiful and weird about it all in that very Byrdsy way. The Flying Burrito Bros. would infuse Parsons' songs with soul and power, and Parsons' solo records would attain an unexpected level of heartwrenching beauty. The International Submarine Band is his artistry at its most basic: a manifesto with the country and pop concepts still more or less separate. Maybe it's because these musicians weren't used to playing together, but this all seems just a tad too slick and competent. It's solid all right, but where's the tension, where's the bite?
The problem's illustrated most strongly by the two Johnny Cash covers, which come off as slightly lazy, and this is a great disappointment to me as I can't think of many things that excite me more in theory than hearing Gram sing "I Still Miss Someone." And the reading of "Folsom Prison Blues" seems fundamental, rote, bored, and lamely segues into Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," a pairing that does neither song any great favor. The Jack Rhodes composition "A Satisfied Mind," already covered shortly before this by the Byrds and, recently, by Johnny Cash himself shortly before his death, is equally routine.
But no reason to carp. Not all the covers are weak. Parsons provides Merle Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known" with a reverential, passionate reading, and the band falls in line tightly behind him. Sun Records maven Jack Clement's "Miller's Cave" provides the ISB with the basis for their most convincing true country-rock hybrid of the record, a magnificent recording that deserves to stand with Parsons' greatest.
The LP begins beautifully, with the stunning Parsons original "Blue Eyes," which reveals him as some kind of maverick immediately on appearance. The triumph is twofold: in songwriting terms, he's already knocking out affecting Nashville music with the best of them; even the words perfectly capture the playful but genuine yearning of the best commercial country music from Hank Williams on down. It blends seamlessly with the covers, but lingers in the mind far longer, an auspicious signal of what was to come. Safe at Home's other peak has the opposite effect: with scarcely anything to do with country, "Luxury Liner" sticks out harshly, but its double track vocals, and wildly grinding sound prove a level of eclecticism Parsons would never entirely have a chance to explore. It is simply killer pop music.
We have, then, an extremely well-recorded album (seriously, the sonics are incredible) with an EP's worth of great music and plenty more good music. And maybe it did invent country rock. But it didn't make country rock matter. The Byrds would give Gram his megaphone to descend like some winged freak upon the world; the Byrds would pick all this beauty up and get it coated with grit and grease. Safe at Home is a fine record, but it's livelier as a piece of history -- in the context of what it preceded -- than as a listening experience. For this fan, anyway, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the true beginning, but Safe at Home is essential for anyone with a love of this music and this mythology.