Emerson Lake & Palmer: “From The Beginning” (Trilogy, 1972)
Almost a week ago, I resumed my Cold Cassettes series with this post, but never had time to follow it up with a song post from the tape. So here’s the follow-up.
Emerson Lake & Palmer sold millions of records. They were huge in the 70s in a way that music that sounds like their music never will be again. They also inspired a huge amount of opprobrium for their completely over-the-top and unabashed displays of musicianship. they were pretty much the epitome of the self-serious superiority that drove prog into its grave, and I say this as someone who cut his teeth on prog rock and loves a lot of it to this day.
ELP made some great music, though, let’s not forget that. I love their cover of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” because of its ridiculousness; their first album is really pretty good, too.
I saw these guys live, on a double bill with Jethro Tull, when I was 16, and I was kind of blown away at the time. Here was Keith Emerson, knocking his organ on top of himself and playing “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” backward, then stabbing the keyboard with knives and rubbing a ring modulator on his leather-panted, fifty-something ass, and then Carl Palmer changed his shirt while playing a drum solo, and this one dude a few feet from me on the lawn kept yelling “Tarkus!”
And then there was Greg Lake. Each member got a big showcase. Emerson and Palmer used theirs for big displays of virtuosity. Lake pulled out an acoustic guitar and played “Still, You Turn Me On” and “From The Beginning.” I’m convinced now that this, and not the instrumental volcanics, was the highlight of the show, if only because it revealed the beating human heart at the center of all these fireworks.
"From the Beginning" is probably ELP’s best song, as atypical for them as it is. It uses the same musical template that their first hit, "Lucky Man" used a couple years earlier, except that instead of a story that reaches for profundity (to be fair, lake wrote the lyrics when he was twelve) and a big, towering, bombastic Moog solo (done off the cuff in a single take), it’s a much more understated and moody piece of music.
These guys didn’t make a whole lot of particularly atmospheric music. They were mostly going for something very direct, and pretty much any time they started to build a mood or let some air in, it was when Lake was singing or playing guitar (his great solo on the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” is a good example). “From the Beginning” is sharp, catchy, and subtly complex, and Emerson’s closing synthesizer solo is memorable and melodic, closer to Pink Floyd than the usual ELP modus operandi.
I get that this kind of thing isn’t really what ELP was all about, and that people really loved the rock arrangements of “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “The Nutcracker”. It must have seemed exciting when it was happening. I do wish they’d spent more time in this gear, though. It looked good on them.
So long to Etta James, who passed away at the end of last week. She was 73. She had a hell of a story, and a hell of a look, but the part of her that will linger longest is her voice.
What a voice. She had more famous songs, maybe better ones even, but for me, this is the song that most fully epitomizes just how incredible her singing could be.
The song comes on a bed of swanky strings, but the opulence quickly strips back to the singer and a small combo, and she is just as firmly in command of the song as a singer can get. Emotionally shredded but still precise and full of the rhythmic imagination that helped make her so special, this performance just kills me. The way it hangs in the air, like the “smoke from a cigarette” that she sings about, caught by a few stray rays of light, is almost its own memorial to her.
Bob Marley & The Wailers: “Redemption Song” (Uprising, 1980)
Yesterday, I went grocery shopping at Meijer. For those outside the upper Midwest, Meijer is a superstore, like a Wal-Mart or a Greatland Target. You can go there for your normal groceries and pick up some pillows or workout clothes or an X-Box or some other future garbage you may or may not actually need while you’re there.
When I was there on Sunday, standing in the aisle next to the macaroni and cheese when I heard a familiar acoustic guitar figure on the PA. It was Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
I think about the politics of music in public spaces from time to time. I think about what it means to license a piece of music to market a product, I think about how songs can connect us or create a heightened sense of reality by their use, in media or simply in a pubic or private space.
I don’t have any great problem with licensing, contextless presentation of music in public, or really anything else that keeps money flowing through the music industry and hopefully to the people who made it, or in some cases their survivors. I don’t think music can be cheapened by cheap presentation—it’s incumbent upon us as listeners to keep the value in them.
Hearing “Redemption Song” in that superstore, while filling a basket with food, seemed somehow profane to me, though. “Good Day Sunshine” is one thing, so are “Toxic,” “Stairway To Heaven,” “Take On Me,” “Sing Sing Sing,” and, hell, “Jammin.” I can hear them anywhere and think nothing of it, as I can with thousands of other songs, including many that I love to death.
But this, it felt wrong. I was filing past these rows of brightly designed packages and hear is the last new song released during the lifetime of Bob Marley, just him and his guitar, laying bare the deepest spiritual thoughts of a dying man. Marley had been diagnosed with cancer before he wrote this, and had refused the amputation that likely would have saved his life on religious grounds.
That the same spirituality he is calling on in this song is central to his cause of death has always been one of the hard things about listening to the song for me. But more than that, the words were so dissonant to the experience I was having in this giant, overlit store that I couldn’t reconcile them. Atomic energy is what powers that store, along with coal—it comes from Fermi 1, down in Frenchtown Charter Township. It had a partial meltdown in 1966.
Marley sings about freedom in this song, paraphrasing Marcus Garvey when he talks about emancipation from mental slavery. Ostensibly, these huge stores that go on and on forever are about offering a type of surface-level freedom of choice. You have options, all laid before you on neat shelves. Too many options sometimes, sometimes a paralyzing number.
I think the way we live is essentially our choice at a certain level. But I also think there are certain social realities beyond our control that necessarily dictate or at least channel aspects of our lives. The superstore is part of that.
I don’t have a problem with presenting music in public without context. It’s part of our environment, one we built for ourselves. But some songs really should be left out of it.
Pink Floyd: “Keep Talking” (The Division Bell, 1994)
Happy 70th birthday to Stephen Hawking, one of the great minds of our time. Hawking is, of course, distinguished for his brilliance, but another, perhaps more important, thing about Hawking that distinguishes him from other innovative scientists is his ability to convey his complex ideas in straightforward ways that ordinary people can understand.
Hawking has suffered from a progressive motor neuron condition for most of his life. Diagnosed when he was 21, he’s never let it stop him mentally, though it has robbed him of nearly all his physical abilities over time—he is now able to communicate only by twitching his cheek, and can take up to ten minutes to construct a sentence using his voice synthesizer because getting it to form the correct words is so labor-intensive.
In a way, his handicap serves to emphasize his brilliance, as though nature decided that what he really needed was his mind, and removed the physical distractions from his life so he could get on with his brief history of time and theorizing about black holes. Hawking is famous, but in a much different way from the average celebrity. He is a famous mind, his intelligence the reason the spotlight keeps finding him.
And he’s never shied from the spotlight. He guested on the Simpsons, and gave permission for Pink Floyd to use a recording of his voice synthesizer on “Keep Talking.” It was a recording he originally made for an advertisement for the telecommunications firm BT, but it found a better home on the Floyd’s last album.
The Division Bell was a big record for me, a formative listening experience (more on that in some future post I’ll get around to writing one day), and “Keep Talking” always stood out to me. It has this weird, rubbery future-funk thing going on, a great synth break in the middle, wild talk-box guitar solos that are frankly more inventive than any other talk-box playing I’ve heard (plus one pretty damn tight non-talk-box solo, and of course, Stephen Hawking.
Hawking has always complained that his voice synthesizer gives him an American accent, and it’s actually really noticeable on this song, because David Gilmour comes in right after it with a pretty distinct Cambridge accent. I’m just glad Hawking lived in a time where he could get the treatment he needed for his disease and live for another fifty years after his diagnosis. And also that he lived in a time where we were capable of giving him the ability to keep talking.
Plastic People of the Universe: “Moucha V Rannim Pive” (Hovezi Porazka, 1983)
Václav Havel died on December 18th. This had no direct impact on my life, but I still felt the loss.
Havel may have been the best politician of the 20th Century. By “best politician” I don’t mean the best debater or the one who got his way or convinced the most people to follow him—I mean that he comported himself during his time in politics in a manner that should be the gold standard for politicians.
He was the first post-Communism president of Czechoslovakia, and when Slovakia’s intent to separate from the Czech Republic became clear, Havel was opposed to the idea. He could have behaved like so many other presidents. He could have brought in the army. He could have rolled tanks into Bratislava.
Instead, he didn’t even meddle in the democratic processes that made Slovakia independent. He let it happen, because he knew that even though he didn’t want it to happen it was going to, and that to push back would escalate things. There were no flames or shots fired when Czechoslovakia broke up—Havel resigned so he wouldn’t have to preside over the event. There were no flames or shots fired because Havel was a reasonable man.
Havel was an artist. He wrote plays and books. He was part of the Czech underground during Communism. His plays were banned in his homeland after the Soviet invasion in 1968, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the country to see foreign productions. He didn’t shy from a fight, though—he went to prison multiple times for his public dissent.
One of the acts of dissent that got him in trouble was Charter 77, a document he wrote in collaboration with other dissidents criticizing the government’s human rights abuses. It was written partly in response to the imprisonment of the members of Plastic People of the Universe, Prague’s most prominent rock band. The group was essentially imprisoned for noncomformity—some of their lyrics were the work of banned writer Egon Bondy, their hair was long, they used obscenities in their lyrics, and they played illegal shows.
I think that when a leader comes from this kind of background, it gives him certain perspective that many politicians, coming from backgrounds of privilege, the study of political science, or other usual roads to power great and small, simply lack. The man wrote plays. He understood irony and recognized it in his own life.
Havel never wanted to be a politician. He was hoisted by his own petard into the role. I think this is the ideal kind of leader—the kind of man who doesn’t want power, but does want what’s right.
We haven’t had many of them. Václav Havel was one. His loss is a loss for everyone.