7 Notes & The Muse

Friday, August 26, 2005

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Essays on the greatest singer-songwriters

Below are the essays written on some of the greatest singer-songwriters of our time. Most of these were written for a literary magazine called Gentleman between 1998 and 2001.

The pieces below are on Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thomson, R.E.M., John Lennon solo and the Grateful Dead. There is also a tribute piece on George Harrison. Most of the pieces are between 2200 and 2500 words.

The series originally also had pieces on Stevie Wonder, U2, Pink Floyd, Sting and Nirvana but those are not accessible currently; hopefully will be soon.

The objective of these pieces was to pique the curiosity of readers not familiar with this music and introduce the artist through the more accessible albums. To me, these were personal tributes.


Jaideep Varma
August 2005







Friday, August 19, 2005

The compassionate Boss
What makes Bruce Springsteen’s music so special?


I remember the first time I heard “Thunder Road” as if it were yesterday. Over 10 years ago, at about 3 a.m., when I was staying up all night to study for an important exam I had little chance of clearing. Anxious and frustrated, I thought maybe music would calm me down. Someone had taped the album Born To Run for me. The cassette was a bit dicey, the sound slightly muffled, the lyrics almost impossible to pick out. Still, the album opener “Thunder Road” absolutely stunned me. Exactly what I was feeling inside was suddenly coming in right through my ears. I had no clue what the damn words were, it was the sound that got me. It seemed to emanate from a man trapped in a situation he just couldn’t handle, he was imploding because of it, but there was this great will to break out of it. Thousands of miles away, 13 years before that instant when I first heard this song, Bruce Springsteen had captured what I was feeling then to a T, and he certainly wasn’t singing about anything near exam blues. It still seems wondrous to me.

Obviously, I’m not the only one. There’s something about his music, especially the albums, Born to Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River, that somehow evokes this kind of a response in people who are feeling, or have felt, desperately trapped in some situation (career-related, romance-related, family-related). Over the years, every single person I’ve met who’s truly loved Springsteen’s best music, has been in that kind of a situation sometime or the other. Another interesting thing - Springsteen’s body of work is somewhat like the internet, it doesn’t matter where you get in from, once you’re in, you’ve entered his world, all his music is suddenly accessible to you. Of course, there is a common thread running through a lot of his music. The point-of-view of a man who finds it difficult to accept his life the way it’s turning out, but has to. Springsteen creates characters and tells their stories directly, often very evocatively. He does his groundwork well, crafts the songs with care and performs them passionately. There is a fierce perfectionist streak in him, clearly the reason for his having released just 11 studio albums in 25 years of recording. More than half of these are all-time-great albums; the rest of it is very far from ordinary too.

The most remarkable thing about Springsteen’s musical career is that it seems immaculately scripted. Every alternate album Born To Run onwards has been a commercial success, relatively speaking. Each such album has been followed by a less accessible and darker album that steers well clear of the mainstream. It’s as if Springsteen courts commercial success, gets it, then he balances the euphoria with something more introspective, as if it’s a right that he has earned (which he probably has), and then to avoid getting too indulgent, he goes “commercial” again and the cycle continues. Intentional or not, what’s amazing is that his “commercial” albums are almost invariably as good as his “introspective” ones. All his songs have the authority of a self-assured and confident artist aware of his tremendous talents. That’s how he got nicknamed “The Boss”, by fellow musicians who recognised this quality in him even before his career had taken off.

It wasn’t always like this. Bruce Springsteen spent his formative years at Freehold, New Jersey- a provincial, conservative town. It was a typical middle-class upbringing. His father changed jobs many times - he was a mill-worker, cab driver, bus driver, even a prison guard for a while. A frustrated, bitter man who believed he never quite got his due, Bruce’s father wanted his eldest son (Bruce has 2 younger sisters) to do better than him so that he could avoid the difficulties of a blue-collar life. It was a life Bruce saw and experienced closely and it never ever left him. Things got worse after Bruce touched adolescence and began dreaming of a different life for himself. He had ferocious fights with his father that left him embittered, isolated and unsure. The young Bruce Springsteen was very sensitive, very thoughtful, perhaps a lot like his father, with one difference - Bruce had rock ‘n roll as his outlet. Ultimately, that made all the difference.

Bruce was 13 when rock ‘n roll hit him. The radio became his life-force as it radiated energy through Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Animals, The Byrds, The Who…and most significantly Bob Dylan. The last according to Bruce, “freed” his mind and made him realise the tremendous possibilities in this new art form. But interestingly, as he began to play the guitar and gradually started performing, it was the grand orchestral sound of Phil Spector and the raucous energy of lesser known rock bands that influenced his sensibility. He and his band used to perform in the relative isolation of the Jersey shore. In retrospect, this was significant because the area was not very “hip” thus preventing unnecessary pressures of trends and put-on styles. Very quickly the young Bruce Springsteen began to explore numerous influences and develop something new and fresh of his own. His talent was noticed and suddenly Bruce had an audition with John Hammond Sr - the man who had discovered Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. Bruce had barely performed 3 songs when Hammond signed him up. In Hammond’s own words, “I reacted with the force I’ve felt maybe three times in my life. I knew at once that he would last at least a generation.”

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ was released in 1973. Despite having some excellent songs like “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” and “Growin’ Up” it faltered because of its lack of focus. Wanting to write like Bob Dylan led to verbal diarrhea, the sound was restrained because the producers didn’t identify the rock‘n roll inherent in the compositions, Bruce himself gave voice to too many influences all at once. Still, it promised a great deal.

The next album, The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle was many steps forward. The rock band sound from a superbly skillful ensemble of musicians brought out Bruce’s poetic best as he wove his story songs around adolescent restlessness and urban unrest. He sounded assured and driven, clearly he was beginning to find his own voice. An outstanding album, it showcased exquisite, albeit fancy, playing by the talented musicians on it best exemplified in the final track-the superb “New York City Serenade”. Though the critics loved it, the album was a commercial flop.

One of those critics - John Landau then went to one of Springsteen’s concerts and posted a legendary report that included the lines, “I saw rock ‘n roll’s future today and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time.” This was largely a tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s soon-to-be legendary live act. He had firmed up his back-up band - now called the E-Street Band, and the chemistry wasn’t just palpable to the cult following they had garnered by now. Things began to happen after Landau’s review. Bruce’s record label quoted it everywhere and after some time even hired Landau to co-produce the next Springsteen album. A project Bruce had been struggling with for a while.

Bruce’s vision for the album was to write songs around a feeling giving the entire album a very consistent mood. He wanted a “big” sound, with lots of instruments, the Phil Spector effect. Though he and the band worked very hard at the studio, things just wouldn’t fall into place. The pressure grew. The intensity of the sessions was scary, particularly since they went on and on. It took 4 months to produce it and every minute of it would prove worthwhile.

Born To Run came out in 1975. “Thunder Road” opened the album with a feeling that never faltered throughout its 8 stunning songs. The sound had a near-mono feel that seemed to add poignancy to the vocal as it came searing out of the chaos of the E-street Band’s robust, focused playing. The brilliant “Backstreets” and the incredible title track married passion with compassion better than anything in popular music. The album marked his first commercial success and confirmed Springsteen’s status as an all-time great rocker. Even if he didn’t record anything again, his place in musical history was secured.

In any case, legal wrangles prevented him from recording for 3 years. Darkness On The Edge Of Town (‘78) was a darker, more introspective album than Born To Run. Though songs like “Badlands”, “The Promised Land” and the title track were from Born To Run territory, the characters were older (by 3 years?) in this album, understandably therefore, they were less hopeful and romantic , more isolated and resigned to their fates. Springsteen avoided the sonic embellishments of Born To Run here and kept it more straightforward with his furious guitaring and impassioned vocals. Though Bruce would later feel that he “oversang and the band underplayed”, this was another magnificent album that represented his constant growth as an artist.

The next album would be an even better example. The River (‘80) was Springsteen’s first double album. With 20 varied songs demonstrating Bruce’s formidable narrative abilities, none more than the folkie title track where the river was an evocative metaphor for life going on, regardless of everything. The mood ranged from up-tempo to sheer joy to frustration to sadness to introspection to upbeat again. There was folk, raunchy rock, rockibly, country, affecting ballads - all stamped with the distinctive, assured Bruce Springsteen touch. The characters in the songs were older (31, like Bruce?) and some of them were even married (a first, in Springsteen’s songs). This was his most complete album and it did well commercially too. “Hungry Heart” became a huge chart hit, his first. The album tour led him to Europe, Japan and Australia. In 1981, Bruce Springsteen became a world, albeit cult, figure.

The next year produced the first dramatic change in his musical career. Bruce had recorded a demo of songs at home with just guitar (and harmonica) as accompaniment and he took them to the studio for polishing them up. Landau, by now his manager, heard the songs and insisted they didn’t need dressing up; they were perfect as they were. The songs in Nebraska (‘82) were not just stripped bare in sound; even the characters in them put their deepest feelings on the line. They were isolated from every aspect of their life, which led to, in Bruce’s own words, “a spiritual breakdown”. It was a stunning album, intimate enough to give the feeling of the characters trying to converse with you. There were thoughtful touches, like the suffix “sir” being used by some of the characters, as if they were looking up to you, from a position of inferiority. Critics hailed the album as a masterpiece, though it didn’t do well commercially. Neither was unexpected.

Bruce had made demos of a few more songs besides the ones that made up Nebraska. They were in the same vein, about loneliness and isolation and the difficulties of coping. But this time he decided to treat them differently. Without changing the song themes, he wanted them to sound upbeat, tuneful and accessible. He and the band got working and the result was the most significant album of their careers. Born In The USA (‘84) was a massive worldwide commercial hit that made Bruce Springsteen a household name. The songs, almost like celebrations of despair, were just magnificent. Ironically, it was a gross misunderstanding that contributed the most to the album’s commercial success.

A casual listening of the songs in the album, particularly the title track, suggested that they’re infused with a patriotic “hoo-haa-America” sentiment. As Bruce put it “these people only heard the chorus, not the lyrics”. The title track in fact, was scathingly sarcastic. Songs like “No Surrender” and Bobby Jean” were raucous rockers, yet had broody lyrics. The mega-hit “Dancing In The Dark”, for all its infectious tunefulness, was really about a man who can’t cope with loneliness. “My Hometown”, for all its nostalgic feel, was really about things going wrong in small-town America. Forget the paying public, even the US president Ronald Reagan missed the point. Egged on by his geriatric advisors no doubt, Reagan actually mentioned Springsteen during his election campaign, promising to fulfil the same “dreams” Bruce sung about. Springsteen wasn’t amused.

Despite being one of the great live acts of all time, Bruce and the band had never released a live album in all these years. They made up with the release of 3-album-set Live 1975-85. Besides the superb alternate versions of well-known songs (like “Thunder Road”) or terrific songs that weren’t included in any album (like “Fire” or “Because The Night”), the surprisingly beautiful parts were the little stories he told (mostly about his adolescence) before performing some of the songs. He spoke evocatively about the communication breakdown with his father in a manner that could move you deeply (especially an incident he mentioned just before performing “The River”).

Tunnel of Love was Springsteen’s last great album. After the commerciality of Born In The USA, he set about making his most personal record. It was the first album after his marriage and he almost exclusively confronted love in it. However, there was an aura of sadness and an introspective tinge to everything on it, clearly the result of the disintegration of the marriage. It was Bruce’s quietest album, with him playing most of the instruments himself. Despite being uniformly brilliant the album wasn’t a commercial success. Too many people wanted back the accessibility of “Born In The USA”. Bruce wasn’t about to comply.

The ‘90s haven’t always seen Springsteen at his best. His best songs, in fact, were film contributions - the Oscar-winning “Streets Of Philadelphia” and “Secret Garden” (from “Jerry Maguire”). In 1992, the 2 albums he released - Human Touch and Lucky Town suggested the first signs of decline. There were some good songs in both the albums -particularly the title tracks and the ethereal “My Beautiful Reward” (from Lucky Town), but somehow the hallmark Springsteen consistency was missing. His biggest commercial success in the ‘90s came immediately after that when he released his Greatest Hits package, predictably great value for money.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (‘95) was a partial return to form. A sparse acoustic guitar, harmonica set of songs, it mined the same territory as Nebraska 13 years later. But this time the songs were set in Western America (Bruce had moved to LA recently after his 2nd marriage) and were about illegal Mexican immigrants, drug smugglers, serial killers – just people who couldn’t keep themselves together because of circumstances. Quieter than “Nebraska”, the most interesting difference in Joad was in the attitude of the characters in the songs. They were more fatalistic than those in Nebraska (maybe because they were 13 years older?). It was an honest, sincere effort though flawed somewhat by its staleness. A lot of the tunes seem like déjà vu recalling those in Nebraska and even Tunnel Of Love. “The Line” sounds like Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero”. However, as usual, there are some stunners on this album too - the title track, “Youngstown” and “The Border” are brilliant. The album won Springsteen his first Grammy - a joke, because it’s nowhere near his best effort. (Echoes of Dylan?)

Finally, the greatest thing about Springsteen’s music is not that he’s given blue-collar America and its outsiders a voice like no-one else. Or that he assimilated the music of his previous generations and came with a body of work quintessentially his. Or that he balanced introspective art with commercial acceptability like very few have. His towering achievement is the universality of his expressions. His songs about inherent American concerns (like the Vietnam draft, for instance) can make even people at the other end of the world relate to it. (Maybe that’s why every single one of his albums is available in India). An artist like this doesn’t “lose relevance” - as they’ve been saying about him lately. Hold on, his best may be yet to come.


Gentleman
January 1999

The Picasso of Song
Bob Dylan’s music revisited

Statisticians suggest that half the humans who have ever lived are alive today. Surely then, it is not hyperbolic to say that Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter who has ever breathed.

He is, after all, the leading songwriter of the century. The man who gave popular music a voice, as it were. Who, as Bruce Springsteen put it, “freed your mind the way Elvis had freed your body”. Who changed the status of rock from an exuberant distraction to a very significant art-form. Who elevated lyrics to a level where they held their own with the finest poetry of its age. Who, 300 years later, will probably share the same status that Mozart and Beethoven enjoy today.

This living, breathing genius is amidst us today. Album after album, he repeatedly puts himself on-the-line, exposing his inner self, his deepest feelings. He keeps breaking new ground, making a mockery of people’s expectations of him. By now, the only thing to expect from him is the totally unexpected.

Almost always being ahead of his time has had its fallouts. Dylan has never enjoyed the sales that his peers, indeed many of his “disciples”, have had. Moreover, he’s won just 2 Grammys (excluding the “Lifetime Achievement”) and considering they were by no means for his best work, it does make total mockery of the Grammy Awards. Instead, Dylan has always been a musician’s musician. It was Leonard Cohen who called him “the Picasso of Song” - a rare tribute from an accomplished peer. Eric Clapton recently said, “There isn’t a rock musician in the world today who doesn’t owe him a debt”.

The biggest mistake people make is assuming that’s because of his lyrics. Big fallacy. His pioneering approach to lyrics notwithstanding, it is the music he has created that sets him apart. Many of his tunes are breathtakingly beautiful, more accessible to some when more “popular” musicians render them. (e.g. Guns ‘n Roses, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, The Pretenders...the list is endless). Then, there are people who tend to be put off by his voice. That is missing the forest for the trees. Raspy, snarling, rough-edged - however you find the voice; that is a small price to pay for its expressiveness, its intensity and its articulation. Think of Dylan’s voice as a musical instrument. Think of his words as musical notes significant often for the sound they make, not their meaning (particularly true for classic songs like “Visions of Johanna” or “Desolation Row where trying to decipher the eccentric imagery can be pretty futile). The accent in his words is on feeling, not meaning. When they mean something (and there’s a lot of that too), it’s a bonus and a spectacular one at that. Otherwise, just like you don’t question a passionate guitar solo or a beautiful piano piece, don’t directly seek clarity of intent. Their “meaning” lies in the feelings they evoke in you.

Dylan’s prodigious output has been the result of the many phases he’s been through as a human being and a musician. But one thing’s for sure - being a Dylan fan is not a phase. Since his music has always reflected the changes in his life, his listeners have grown with him too (a new listener can make the same journey in any order he/she pleases). Dylan’s albums act their age - lyrically and even more so, musically. For example, it is hard to imagine a young person singing a single song from Dylan’s last album. This is a fantastic achievement.

Dylan’s early work from the Acoustic Folk period had already shown signs of extraordinary genius. He had written “Blowin’ In The Wind” at the age of 21 and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” at 22. The latter, written just before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, turned out to be eerily prophetic. But then again, neither of these songs are ever likely to get dated. Nor is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (from Freewheelin...) that was compared to Classical English Poetry. Or “Masters of War” - the seething anti-war song (from Freewheelin’...). Within 3 years, Dylan had become an American legend.

For a man who’d always said he “played folk songs with a rock’n roll attitude”, Dylan’s going “electric” in 1965 and adding a band to his sound shouldn’t have upset his hard-core fans. But it did, and Dylan couldn’t have cared less. His “Electric” phase albums transformed rock, and indeed, popular music. First, Bringing It All Back Home, with one side of acoustic and one of “electric” songs, was hailed as rock’s greatest masterpiece. It had the ethereal “Mr Tambourine Man”, the eclectic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that machine-gunned images of American culture, it had “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”- an enraged, contemptuous comment on the times.

Dylan had a near-fatal motorcycle accident in mid-1967. He used his recovery period wisely to slow down. Thus began his Quiet phase where he recorded 3 excellent albums of originals. The first, John Wesley Harding is the only album till date in which Dylan completely wrote out the words before setting them to music. Lyrically, The Bible seemed an influence and the themes of loneliness and intrigue almost contradicted the gentle feel of the album. But the songs were beautiful and totally different from what was happening in the music world at that time. The next two albums - the quintessentially country Nashville Skyline and the happy New Morning suggested that Dylan had found contentment in family life. Some of his fans began to miss the old, restless, angry Dylan. Little knowing it was just around-the-corner.

After contributing the classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for the film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Dylan changed tone. The passion seemed to come back in Planet Waves - his first album in the Turbulent ‘70s phase. The album contained 2 versions of “Forever Young” - an enduring gem written for his youngest son - Jakob (The Wallflowers one) who’d been born recently. There were also several songs written to Sara, his wife - but the sentimental, idyllic feel of the previous 3 albums had gone. Something was afoot.

In early-1974, Dylan was attending classes of an art teacher called Norman Raeben. He applied his newly learnt painting techniques into his songwriting. Techniques that enabled him to “do consciously” what he “felt unconsciously”. Dylan wanted to create “audio paintings” that “defied time”, that could “enable you to see any part of it or all of it together”. Blood On The Tracks was a result of this experimentation. But the real spirit of the songs came not from the techniques he learnt, but the real pain he was feeling, the passion, bitterness and sorrow he was experiencing because his marriage was breaking up. This was his most personal album, where his soul stood stark naked for all to gape at. Take the song “Simple Twist Of Fate” - regardless of whether you’ve experienced a break-up in your life or not, the song will give you goose pimples. There’s “Idiot Wind”- bursting with hatred and pain, the angriest song he’s ever done. There’s overwhelming loss in “You’re A Big Girl Now”, reluctant resignation in “If You See Her, Say Hello” and hints of reconciliation in “Buckets of Rain”. The songs cut deep, but are not, by a long-shot, heavy or depressing. This is no adolescent angst but a mature pain (he was 33 years old). Some of these songs, believe it or not, are actually hummable.

Blood On The Tracks is great art - it draws you in, fills you up and swirls you around in his pain, and then deposits you distinctly uplifted. The album was loved and hailed as a masterpiece. A year later, Dylan said revealingly that it was hard for him to relate to people enjoying “this type of pain”. After the intense intimacy of Blood On The Tracks, Dylan looked outwards. His next album - Desire had some of his finest story songs. It had “Hurricane” - a song about a boxer, Rubin Carter, who’d been wrongly convicted of murder. “Romance In Durango” was about a outlaw and his lover on the run. The album’s departure in sound lay in Scarlett Riviera’s electric violin. Desire was followed by Street Legal - one of his most pleasant, tuneful albums marred somewhat by its muddy sound.

In late-1978, Dylan became a Born-Again Christian. Inevitably, it influenced his music, and how. This was his Gospel phase during which everything he wrote was about this new aspect in his life. There was a new vitality in his songs. Slow Train Coming, besides having his best album cover, had foot-tapping, funky rock (aided by Mark Knopfler’s guitar) like “Gotta Serve Somebody” - that won him his first Grammy (for “Male Rock Vocal”, an irony considering how much his vocals have been mocked). His final Gospel album Shot of Love ends with the gorgeous “Every Grain of Sand”- a song many tip to be among the most likely ones in popular music to outlast the 21st century.

Dylan’s ‘80s albums are unremarkable by the standards he had set. But almost all have some sparks of sheer brilliance. Infidels has the stunning “Jokerman”, Empire Burlesque has the exquisite “Dark Eyes” and the lilting “Tight Connection To My Heart”, Knocked Out Loaded has “Brownsville Girl”(co-written with Sam Shepherd), Under The Red Sky has “Born In Time”. The standout album of this period is Oh Mercy produced by Daniel Lanois (U2’s producer). Lanois gave some of the best songs Dylan had written in years a haunting ambience that further enhanced their dream-like, stream-of-consciousness quality. The album, one of Dylan’s very best, ends with the simply beautiful “Shooting Star”- a reflective expression of regret about a failed relationship that only a master like him could have created.

Dylan’s Folk Revival albums of other people’s folk songs are charming and often touching in the manner he makes cover versions his own. His expressive vocals notwithstanding, it is his beautiful guitar-playing that is the showpiece of these 2 albums.

Finally - Time Out Of Mind, his most recent album, his 2nd with Lanois and certainly his most hyped (thanks to the damn Grammy). No doubt, it’s a very good album, with its concerns of ageing and endless wandering, with its gutsy, blunt, spit-out bluesy sound. No doubt it takes time to grow on you and no doubt it has the magnificent “Not Dark Yet” - again, something only Dylan could have written. But as an album, on sheer
overall merit, this would just about make it into any list of the 10 best Dylan albums. If you’re just getting into Dylan, pick up his Greatest Hits collection first. It encapsulates his Folk and Electric Stages. Give it a few listens. If it excites you, then get onto the individual albums. It’s one of the most pleasurable journeys imaginable. And once into it, scrounge, beg, borrow, but buy The Bootleg Series - a 3 CD set of previously unreleased material. Be mindful of not listening to his live albums before being familiar with his studio albums. Dylan never plays a song the same way twice, and his concert versions, though often breathtaking, are not always accessible on first listen. His MTV Unplugged might be an exception to this, though. (As far as the lyrics are concerned, they’re all on the Internet.)

Dylan’s greatest achievement as a songwriter has been his vast range of concerns. And the intensity with which he has expressed each one of them. Whether it be the apocalyptic “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or the joyful “On A Night Like This”(from Planet Waves), whether it be an intelligent children’s song “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (from “Slow Train Coming”) or one from a prisoner’s point-of-view “I Shall Be Released” (from More Greatest Hits), whether it be a personal expression of disillusionment -“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (from Bringing It All Back Home) or a curious tale of morality - “Ballad of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”(from John Wesley Harding), whether it be his trademark blistering hate songs like “Positively 4th Street” (from More Greatest Hits), or his numerous “love” songs, Dylan is true to his art, he believes in what’s he’s singing. No-one has examined love and relationships as he has through song. From rejecting - “It Ain’t Me Babe” to being rejected-“ I Don’t Believe You” (both from Another Side…) from lovesick -“Lay Lay Lay” (from Nashville Skyline) to troubled - “We’d Better Talk This Over” (from Street Legal), from bitterly angry - “Just Like A Woman” (from Blonde On Blonde) to sentimental - “Emotionally Yours” (from Empire Burlesque), from estranged- “Girl Of The North Country” (from Freewheelin’...) to joyful -“The Man In Me” (from New Morning), he’s written some of the finest love songs of the century. Actually, the best of them are the ones he clearly wrote for his wife Sara - “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (from Blonde On Blonde), “If Not For You” (from New Morning), “Wedding Song” (from Planet Waves) and finally, the achingly beautiful “Sara” (from Desire).

To really understand Dylan’s startling impact, you could just play perhaps his most underrated song - “When He Returns” from Slow Train Coming. This was his first Born Again album and in this song, he sings of The Second Coming of Christ and all that jazz. Now, you may be a complete non-believer, even an atheist (like me), but the passion and the power of his singing (accompanied by just a piano) will just blow you away. No -one, repeat, no one, has this resonance and feeling. I’m still an atheist but that song moves me greatly every single time I hear it. This is the magic of Bob Dylan.


Gentleman
October 1998

BARD’S EYE-VIEW
To get an overview of Dylan’s 37 years of recording and 28 studio albums, you can roughly divide Dylan’s output into the following phases.

The Acoustic Folk phase (‘61-‘64; sparse folk format - guitar, vocal, harmonica; includes the albums Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, ½ of Bringing It All Back Home),


the Electric phase (‘65-‘67; plugged in, with accompanying bands; includes ½ of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway ‘61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde),

the Quiet phase (‘67-‘73; with band, subdued, tuneful, even happy sound; includes John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Pat Garett And Billy The Kid),

the Turbulent ‘70s phase (‘73 - ‘78; accompanying bands, both acoustic and electric; includes Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Street Legal),

the Gospel phase (‘79-‘81; big-band sound with background choruses, organ - the works; includes Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love),

the ‘80s rock phase (‘83-‘90 ; with accompanying rock bands; includes Infidels, Empire Burlesque, Knocked out Loaded, Down In The Groove, Oh Mercy, Under The Red Sky),

the Folk Revival phase (‘91-‘94 ; back to roots-guitar, harmonica and vocal; includes Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong)

and finally, the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind. (‘97; back to rock, albeit very bluesy).



Paul Simon's Muse
Why his solo work is superior


Paul Simon sits in a Chinese restaurant, waiting for his order. A friend's words keep coming back to him. "Simon and Garfunkel is a household word. Whatever you do alone, you'll never be able to touch that success." This was said to him a year ago, in 1970, when he and Art Garfunkel broke up their legendary act. It was about time. Simon had written all those great, classic songs - "Homeward Bound", "The Boxer", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", Garfunkel given them voice (harmonised with his own)…but the songs were too lush, too lustrous, too limited. Simon wanted to do funkier, more experimental, more cutting-edge work, Garfunkel didn't. This, coupled with Garfunkel's acting ambitions, had pulled them in different directions. Now, here he was, mulling over his first solo project. There's something about this chicken and egg dish that is inspiring. An idea is forming in his mind, images of his dog that recently died appear, as do thoughts on mortality. He doesn't know it yet, but this idea will graduate to "Mother And Child Reunion" - a poignant song about the loss of someone close. Whether it is the loss of Garfunkel as his artistic partner or of Peggy - his soon-to-be estranged wife, that is subconsciously driving this song, he doesn't know.

The simply titled Paul Simon (1972) was his first solo release. Recorded all over the place - Jamaica, Paris, New York, Los Angeles - Simon worked in several musical styles while demonstrating a lyrical inventiveness. The opening track, despite its humble gastronomic origins, was a tour de force. He used reggae, becoming the first major white artist to do so. It was even recorded in Jamaica, with Jamaican sessions musicians including a backing singer Cissy Houston, who had a cute little daughter called Whitney. There were other classy tracks, like the coming -of-age, idiosyncratic-sounding "Duncan", the exquisite "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" which used no drums - just percussion, the collaborative instrumental with legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli "Hobo's Blues" and the sad, sarcastic "Congratulations" where he wondered "Can a man and a woman/live together in peace?" The album garnered respectful reviews but sold barely a tenth of what the last Simon and Garfunkel album had. But Simon was confident - he'd matured as an artist and it showed.

Paul Simon throws a softball off the wall while pacing the room. It's his oldest, truest writing aid. Helps clear the mind. He's trying to write a song on his young son Harper. It's a long haul, he's too overcome with love to write. Damn, all I want to say, he thinks, is that you totally amaze and mesmerize me and I can't contain myself, and that's just not a healthy song to write. But the album's shaping up well. The songs are lighter than anything he's done before, yet as engaging, perhaps more. The album opens with "Kodachrome" with the words, "When I think back on all the crap I learnt in high school…" and covers every kind of mood through its 10 songs. Reverend Juter's done a nifty falsetto on the New Orleans carnival song "Take Me To The Mardi Gras". And "American Tune" - that's turned out well. Have to make it clear that it's Bach's melody, not mine. Maybe I should just write a lullaby for Harper, he thinks. These lines write themselves, "If I can't sing my boy to sleep/well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb." This would be one of his finest songs ever ("St Judy's Comet"), but right now he's struggling with it.

There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) was one of the masterpiece albums of the seventies. Every song exquisitely crafted and gloriously performed. "Kodachrome" ran into trouble though, banned by some US radio stations who objected to the word "crap", banned by the BBC, who considered it advertising! But "American Tune" made up for both these hiccups. It practically became an alternative national anthem - remarkable for a wistful song of broken dreams, devoid of any jingoistic fervour. In 1977, he would perform it at President Carter's Inaugural Ball. In 1986, at the 100th birthday celebrations for the Statue of Liberty. Studying classical guitar and listening to diverse forms of music, like Jobim and Gospel, had matured Simon and his music. The next album would bear even better testimony.

Paul Simon stands with his handful of Grammies backstage. To the flashing cameras he says he won because Stevie Wonder hasn't released an album this year. The laughter pleases him. It had been a tough year. He'd felt worthless and lost after his divorce. He'd done a song with Artie (Garfunkel) in this album - a short-lived pleasure, he'd finally written a song on baseball - his other great love ("Night Game"), he'd overhauled his musical style in this album, they'd all worked beautifully. The easy, flowing, jazzy feel represented his body rhythms now. This was seventies East Coast music, and yet, it would stand the test of time, he felt. He had broken new ground, he thought, like " 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" - one of those rare hit songs where the chorus is actually weaker than its verses. But what depths one has to plunge into, what pain one has overcome, to create worthwhile art. The whole album is about Peg and our broken marriage, he ponders. "I Do It For Your Love", I remember crying while writing its lyrics. Out of that pain comes this joy - of being this feted songwriter, at the pinnacle of one's craft. Is this the pinnacle? God, surely not….

Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) was an amazing album. It was jazz-inflected and gospel-influenced. In fact, a critic would say years later that Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan was the cinematic equivalent of Still Crazy… There are lots of similarities in their work, and indeed, their personalities - both New York Jewish neurotics examining man-woman relationships, with feeling, often with a lightness-of-touch. (Simon would even go on to act in Allen's legendary film Annie Hall). The collaboration with Garfunkel "My Little Town" was a highlight too. The song about the claustrophobia felt in a small town could well have been an expression of how Simon felt working with Garfunkel now. Yet, 1975 was an eventful year for Simon, with a pleasant culmination. But it would be his last hurrah in the seventies.

Paul Simon sits in an LA psychiatrist's couch talking about his feelings of inadequacy. He'd been suffering from depression for some time now. After his stunning success with Still Crazy…, he'd lost the plot somewhat. His first attempt to write and direct a feature film One Trick Pony didn't go down too well. Its accompanying album of songs also sunk. Then, he'd reunited with Garfunkel for a memorable Central Park concert, but the old ghosts came between them again. They weren't even on talking terms anymore. His second marriage to Star Wars star, Carrie Fisher, was breaking up too. He feels immobilised, unable to break out of the writer's block he's clearly in. Are you working just to produce hits, he is asked by the psychiatrist, or is it to make a contribution, any contribution? I just feel that my music is of no importance now, Paul says. A long discussion ensues at the end of which the psychiatrist tells him that the way to contribute is through the songs. It's not up to Paul to judge their merits, but just to write the songs. Paul begins to feel liberated.

Hearts And Bones (1983) was the resulting album and it was the lowest-selling album of his career. But it was an artistic success. Easily his most personal, intense collection of songs, the title track was a beauty. Analysis had helped heighten self-awareness in Simon, and the songs were therefore more introverted, particularly lyrically. Simon himself felt that two of these songs were among the best he'd ever done. But the slight sales were again dispiriting. It gave the message loud and clear that his audience had moved on. The future seemed empty. All that seemed to occupy him now was rearing his son and staring at the sea.

Paul Simon is demo-ing a song, multi-tracking himself to give the chorus effect. Nothing new, after all, the famous Simon & Garfunkel harmonies were accentuated by doubling the voices. But this music is miles away from what he and Artie used to do. He's trying to create a song with just voices here, without any musical instruments. The line, "moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake" had been floating in his mind. The song, the voices, would be around this line. Joseph is now adding some Zulu lyrics to it; the blend is working. Yes, this is definitely working. As Paul sweats over the demo, the future smiles knowingly. This track would become "Homeless"- a shimmering gem in a magical album that would change Paul's life and art forever.

The album that became Graceland (1986) had ironical origins. Two years ago, a bootleg cassette called Gumboots: Accordian Jive Hits, Vol II had come into Simon's hand. The music in it, South African township jive, fascinated and overwhelmed him - he felt the same excitement and musical freshness that had pulled him to music 30 years ago. He heard more indigenous black South African artists and made up his mind - he was going to merge his sensibility to this glorious sound. Soon, he was in Johannesburg recording with the very same musicians who'd played on that Gumboots tape. Lyrics and melodies were improvised over the basic rhythms … and the results were stunning. Local groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo ( their frontman was Joseph Shabalala, who co-wrote "Homeless") and new wave rock-and-roll bands like Los Lobos gave each and every song a separate identity. Yet, overall, it was distinctly a Paul Simon album - his trademark calm sense of balance driving the songs. Graceland was that very rare album that married commercial and artistic success and took popular music a few steps forward. Yet, Simon had his detractors, who accused him of "stealing" South African music. An amazing charge, considering how thankful the musicians themselves were of Simon, for having literally pushed them to the international stage. There is no better example of the unifying power of music. As Graceland won the 1987 Grammy for Best Album, the "has-been" was suddenly a "visionary artist" again.

Paul Simon is singing his words, shaping the lyric, while listening over and over to the backing track they recorded. The song is called "Can't Run But" and it's his favourite track in the new album. His friend J.J. Cale is playing blues guitar. What fabulous percussion, what amazing musicians - these are classically trained guys who've invented their own instruments! Paul sings, "A winding river/Gets wound around a heart/Pull it/Tighter and tighter/ Until muddy waters part/Down by the river bank/A blues band arrives/The music suffers, baby/ The music business thrives/ I can't run but/ I can walk much faster than this…" Stream-of-consciousness is fine, Paul thinks, but it's got to be coherent. How radically he has overhauled his songwriting method. Before, it was guitar, pen and paper - words and music would emerge together. Now, the words come from the rhythms, and the lyrics have actually gotten better, but that’s probably a function of age and maturity. This album's more interesting than Graceland, yet people around him insist it's less accessible, despite instantly likeable songs like "Obvious Child", "The Coast" and "Born At The Right Time". Hmm… maybe it’s the fact that the vocals are 3 decibels under the tracks. Jeeze, it'll be tough mixing this record. But hey, there's no problem we can't solve in the recording studio, its not like life.

Rhythm Of The Saints (1990) was a very worthy sequel to Graceland. This was a Brazilian - West African hybrid album and continued his experiments with indigenous sounds. Simon even went to Rio and Bahia to record, with renewed accusations of "musical tourism" leveled at him. Though this is not an instantly likeable album, it definitely grows on you. It contains lots of subtle riches, and will surely stand the test of time.

Paul Simon stares at the yellow legal pad in front of him. Nobel prize-winning poet, and collaborator on this project - Derek Walcott, sits opposite him. They're writing a Broadway musical together, yet another experiment for Paul. They end up discussing the potential scope of controversy in their subject matter. The Capeman is the true story of a Puerto Rican gang member in New York who was sentenced to death in 1959 for murdering 2 teenagers. Wait and see, they'll say we're glorifying a killer, says Derek. This is not a story about killing, but about human life, Paul exclaims. Sure, but will they buy it? They should, because it's not a superficial treatment of the characters, I mean, it’s a musical but not light escapist entertainment. Yeah, it either stands up as a work of art or it doesn't. What's really exciting Paul is that the period necessitates using doo-wop and Latin music - fifties style, certainly a progression of his own musical journey.

Songs From The Capeman (1997) had 14 songs from the play, all lovely, if you liked the style of music. For the first time in his career, Simon told a story through its lyrics, thus reinventing himself again. But for those who found this musical style outdated, it was a disappointing collection from this master songwriter. And the play didn't do well either. "Killers tale in doo-wop" is how someone described it, the moral outrage not exactly unexpected by Simon.

Today, Paul Simon's work can be divided in 3 categories - the early folk stuff with Garfunkel, the jazz-influenced work in the seventies and the music that celebrated world music in the eighties and nineties. His body of work in any of these categories would propel him to the top of any songwriters' heap. But all three make him a giant, a legend, a truly great artist. The best thing is - the magic is far from over.


Gentleman
September 1999

The Consensus of the Century
How The Beatles captured everybody's imagination


"Ladies and gentlemen - The Beatles!"

The deafening hysteria that greeted this announcement is now legendary. These 4 young men from Liverpool, England achieved a level of popularity that has never been touched this century, indeed in human history. Amazingly though, they were also among the most creative entities the world has ever seen. Popularity and genius never had a better marriage.

The Beatles recorded 186 songs in 8 years (1962-70). They released 11 studio albums in all, each one a veritable classic, each one a progression from the last one. Their songs perfectly captured the spirit of its times, coincidentally also the most culturally vibrant decade of the century. New ideas were explored in the sixties, new paths traversed, like never before or since. Pop music, comprehensively revolutionised, became an art form, primarily because of the phenomenal creative impetus The Beatles kept on giving it throughout the decade. They were the first pop group to write their own songs. And the songs somehow appealed to aesthetes and the lowest common denominator alike. Their peers worshipped them; even famed musicians of other genres (their most likely critics) like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland praised their work. By changing popular music and popular culture, by default The Beatles really did change the world. An impact that wasn't just felt in the western hemisphere. Our own R.D. Burman, for example, was highly influenced by The Beatles and sixties rock 'n roll. We all know the role he played in shaping Hindi film music.

The early Beatles story is folklore now. On 6th July 1957, Paul McCartney met John Lennon during a village fete where Lennon's skiffle group Quarry Men was performing. Both were impressed by the other's musical skills. The younger George Harrison came through McCartney on the strength of his "raunchy" guitar-playing. His "audition" for Lennon was held on the empty top deck of a double-decker bus. Along with drummer Pete Best, they called themselves The Beatles, and were subsequently booked to play in Hamburg. They came back penniless in December 1960 and continued playing at various Liverpool clubs. Meanwhile, a customer walked into a local record store and asked for a Tony Sheridan recording backed by The Beatles in Hamburg. The store manager, Brian Epstein, didn't have it in stock. He ordered it, heard it, loved it and went to one of The Beatles' performances. Enraptured, he offered to manage them. They agreed. After a bit of a struggle, in June 1962, The Beatles were finally signed on by EMI. Ringo Starr replaced the inadequate Pete Best. The rest, put mildly, is history.

The Beatles' music can be divided into 3 distinct phases - Adolescence, Maturity and Adulthood. They gradually progressed through each phase just like a human being does, though on a different time-scale, of course. Their work in each phase was stunningly innovative and brilliant. Taken together, it was superhuman.

Adolescence (1962-65): includes the albums Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale and Help

Lennon had once stood at a 4th-storey window and exclaimed to McCartney, "Wouldn't it be fascinating to jump from here and experience the feeling of falling? Come on, let's jump!" McCartney said, "No, you jump, then tell me how it felt". This true story demonstrates beautifully the difference in the personalities of the band's songwriters. Lennon believed in first-hand experience, he wanted to express his own feelings through song. McCartney, conversely, had a novelist's mindset - he liked inventing characters and situations, viewing them often as a third party. This was partly the reason for Lennon's ironic cynicism and McCartney's upbeat optimism. What bound them together was the love of rock 'n roll, a dislike of authority and the pain of having lost their mothers early. "Lennon-McCartney" became a legendary songwriting credit all right, but it was a bit of a misnomer. They essentially wrote their own songs and whoever wrote it, sung it. Of course, they contributed to each other's songs - a lyric here, a refrain there, sometimes even a counterpoint. And ultimately, all 4 Beatles made the songs come alive, whoever wrote them. People who knew them at this point were struck by how close they seemed, how tightly-knit they were. They understood each other almost instinctively, almost telepathically. They were, as McCartney said, "four parts of the same person". Harrison's guitar-work and Starr's drumming had their own special place in the magic. As did their exuberant harmony-singing that was fresh and unique. "Love Me Do", their first single, was reasonably successful. Then, with "Please Please Me" the floodgates opened. "From Me To You", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "A Hard Day's Night", "I Feel Fine", "Eight Days A Week", "Ticket To Ride", "Help" and "Yesterday" were all comprehensive chart-toppers.

It was the ignorance of musical conventions that helped The Beatles the most. For example, they were spectacularly innovative when it came to chord progressions, simply because they did not know any better! Their musical unorthodoxy propelled them into directions unthought-of, onto paths never traveled upon. The innovativeness, however, did not extend to the lyrics. At this stage, they just wanted to get their "sound" right, the words were not important as long as they didn't come in the way. Almost all their songs at this stage were straightforward love songs, yet with a spontaneous, joyous feel that was never maudlin. It was this avoidance of sentimentality (that most of pop was riddled with then) which became the key factor to their freshness. Interestingly, their passion and intensity was most keenly felt on the cover versions they did, particularly "Twist And Shout", "Money" and "Rock And Roll Music". They actually out-performed the originals here, a very rare thing indeed. By mid-1965, The Beatles had the world at their feet. Amazingly, it was merely the beginning. The highly precocious child was still flowering.



Maturity (1965-66): includes the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver

Bob Dylan's songs from across the Atlantic made The Beatles think about more than just their sound. They began to expand their frontiers lyrically and thematically. Ironically, at the very moment The Beatles were changing their approach, Dylan was changing his - he was moving towards the electric sound of The Byrds, who in turn had been inspired by The Beatles! Everybody would gain.

In September 1965, The Beatles returned from an exhausting American tour to the news that they had to finish an album in 2 months, as per their contract. Both Lennon and McCartney found themselves really pushed for time, but strangely their songwriting actually thrived under the pressure. Within a month, they had written, recorded and produced their new album, which was far from ordinary qualitatively. In fact, Rubber Soul was hailed as the greatest pop album ever when it was released. Lennon's "In My Life" cut deeper than anything The Beatles had done till now. Harrison played sitar for the first time on Lennon's "Norwegian Wood" (Harrison had heard Ravi Shankar for the first time recently and "it had just felt so familiar"). On "We Can Work It Out", both Lennon and McCartney collaborated as equals. McCartney's "Drive My Car" was a story-song, with a punchline. Lennon's "Girl" and McCartney's "Michelle" demonstrated their sighing, gentle sides. The strides the band had taken were very evident.

Within months, Revolver bettered Rubber Soul. By now, Lennon was addicted to LSD and true to character, it showed in the songs. "Tomorrow Never Knows", with its chaotic, hallucinatory feel was the quintessential "drug song". "I'm Only Sleeping" was similarly trippy (and autobiographical), though more melodic. Harrison at last came into his own as a songwriter with the witty "Taxman" and the enigmatic sitar song "Love You Too". Starr sung the nursery-rhymish "Yellow Submarine", that became hugely popular. McCartney came up with "For No One" - a beautiful, sophisticated love song. But his greatest triumph was the stunning "Eleanor Rigby", arranged by their producer George Martin, who used violins, violas and cellos to underscore a melancholic, thoughtful lyric that even touched upon death. "Eleanor Rigby" was their greatest triumph yet and The Beatles hadn't played a note on it!

With Revolver, The Beatles didn't just come of age, they reached their peak. They would never surpass this album, but then, neither would anyone else.


Adulthood (1966-70): includes the albums Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (White Album), Let It Be, Abbey Road

Years of touring had taken its toll on The Beatles. The screaming was so loud that they couldn't even hear themselves play. Fed up with the pressures, The Beatles - particularly Lennon and Harrison, just refused to take it anymore. They put an end to touring and concentrated wholly on creating songs in the studio.

Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" was the first track they did after this decision. Even now considered the greatest rock song ever, it combined Lennon's childhood Liverpool memories with his present drug-altered mind. Stunningly expressive, it spurred on the healthy competition between him and McCartney. The latter immediately came up with "Penny Lane", where he combined his childhood longings with his breezy melodic gift. George Martin's innovative production of both these songs began a new era in recording history. The world's collective jaw dropped in awe. Again, this was just the beginning.

There was another interesting "competition" going on between The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The latter's album Pet Sounds was their response to Rubber Soul. Though The Beatles had released Revolver after that, they still saw their next album as their "answer" to Pet Sounds, which The Beatles, particularly McCartney, rated very highly. Likewise, McCartney had a new idea for the entire album. He wanted to submerge their identity as The Beatles, in favour of a conceptual band, and have related themes throughout. While collecting all the cultural icons of the time in one place. The others went ahead with the idea, but discarded it mid-way as Lennon felt it was limiting their creativity. So at one stage half the songs were part of a concept album, half were individual, self-sufficient pieces. The brilliant George Martin (whom many called "the 5th Beatle") however gave the songs a holistic treatment, and they all somehow became part of the same soundscape.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was a great album, but also overrated. This contradiction arose because all the songs weren't brilliant, their presentation was. The innovations and creativity that made the songs come alive were truly pathbreaking. There were two indisputably great songs on the album though - McCartney's touchingly compassionate "She's Leaving Home" and Lennon's brilliant "LSD-perception" song "A Day In The Life". Sgt. Pepper has been credited with "changing Western Civilisation" - an overstatement perhaps, but not entirely untrue. The album played in every corner of the world and The Beatles were household names everywhere. The Beach Boys' frontman Brian Wilson suffered a breakdown when Sgt. Pepper was released, and never fully recovered his creative powers thereafter.

The Beatles reaffirmed their pre-eminent cultural position by preparing a song for BBC's One World global TV broadcast viewed by a record 400 million audience worldwide. The song "All You Need Is Love" - a Lennon composition, captured the sixties spirit better than anything else. It also marked the beginning of the sing-along anthem that much of rock would soon be identified with.

Thereafter, events took a sharp turn in The Beatles' history. Their beloved manager Brian Epstein died, their Magical Mystery Tour film flopped (despite a fine soundtrack, including the Lewis Carroll - inspired brilliant "protest" song "I Am The Walrus"), Harrison got more and more into Indian music and spirituality (he even recorded a basic track in Bombay for "The Inner Light" with Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Ashish Khan and Mahapurush Mishra), the others - particularly Lennon, got deeply into Indian spirituality through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In February 1968, The Beatles and their wives came to Rishikesh to the Maharishi's Himalayan Meditation Centre.. This was significant because transcendental meditation and the cool mountain air played a big part in changing their mindset, at least for a while. They were also LSD-free here, and this made them phenomenally prolific. Between them, they wrote about 30 new songs in Rishikesh. Starr and McCartney left within a month but Harrison and Lennon stayed for over 3 months. They too finally left, disillusioned and dissatisfied. Lennon soon wrote a song about the Maharishi called "Sexy Sadie", which was just so typically ironic of him.

The Beatles went back to their irregular lifestyle in London, while recording a lot of the "India songs" and others in what would be known as "the White Album". The Beatles was a sprawling, immensely varied, utterly brilliant double album that once again stunned the world. (Some, like George Martin, felt that it should have been a single, more consistent album, rather than such an erratic double. Interestingly, those people still cannot agree on which tracks the single album should've had - thus justifying the decision to have released a double album.) Lennon produced autobiographic expressions like "Julia", "I'm So Tired" and "Yer Blues" and whimsical stunners like "Happiness Is A Warm Gun". McCartney came up with melodic beauties like "Martha My Dear", "Mother Nature's Son" and "Blackbird" and rockers like "Back In The USSR". Harrison contributed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (in which Eric Clapton guested) and the highly underrated, unbelievably beautiful "Long Long Long" (about an exhausted reconciliation with God). Most of these were actually written in Rishikesh, but given form in London. Even Starr wrote a song ("Don't Pass Me By") and gave lead vocals on "Good Night". The Beatles had grown up. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were all asserting their own manifestos. For all their immaculate musicianship, this was the album from where The Beatles began diverging. The album sounded as if 3-4 separate (and brilliant) individuals had pooled their material together. Yet, the finished product was so magnificent that it reactivated their sense-of-pride as a band outside the haze of recording-induced cabin fever that was producing an "I quit" threat a week.

Meanwhile, the McCartney-authored masterpiece "Hey Jude" became the biggest-selling US single of all time. The "community singing" at the end of the song (and "Hello Goodbye" before this) also contributed greatly towards the origins of the rock anthem. The Lennon-McCartney rivalry was still healthy, as far as the music went anyway.

It was Lennon who provided the idea for the new album. He wanted The Beatles to do an "honest" album, with a live sound, without the overdubs and edits they'd gotten so used to. Everybody warmed up to the idea and unknowingly they embarked on the Let It Be (then called the "Get Back" project) fiasco - the final nail on The Beatles coffin. The Beatles gradually realised that they were now temperamentally unsuited to execute the "honest playing" concept. Impatient and unmotivated to achieve requisite perfection, they couldn't handle the repeated rehearsals that graduated to full-scale rows. Yoko Ono's continual presence alongside Lennon (even in the studio) irritated the others, who considered her an intruder to their domain. Lennon's drug-sodden weirdness was going out of hand. McCartney and Harrison began to have serious ego clashes. Finally, The Beatles did a 3-song impromptu (and now legendary) concert on the rooftop of Apple Studios, before abandoning the Let It Be project for the moment.

The end was nigh. Financial disputes and legal wrangles further rocked the already sinking boat. Finally, The Beatles set out to do one last album - the "old way". The album that became Abbey Road was marked by a joyous, liberated, even celebratory feel balanced by an unsentimental sadness. All four knew this was going to be the last one. The 2 best songs in the album were, amazingly, Harrison's compositions ("Something" - called "the finest love song of the last 50 years" by none other than Frank Sinatra, and "Here Comes The Sun") - making a mockery of the 2-song-quota he'd been given over the years. Lennon sparkled with "Come Together" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Starr wrote the cute "Octopus's Garden". But it was McCartney who brought the album together. Besides the gorgeous "Oh! Darling", he was also responsible for the idea of the Long Medley of unfinished fragments of their tunes - the pick of which were his. "You Never Give Me Your Money" and "Golden Slumbers" with their moving tones of regret would not leave a Beatles fan dry-eyed. "The Weight"(Boy/ You're gonna carry that weight/ a long time) and "The End" (And in the end/ the love you take/ is equal to the love you make) tellingly brought down the curtain.

How this album came to be called Abbey Road was typical of The Beatles. Throughout their career, they'd deliberately cultivated randomness in their thinking - later even more accentuated by LSD. A stray remark, a casually-noticed newspaper headline or TV commercial…things like this tended to make their way into Beatles songs, often without any apparent meaning. In fact, they took a perverse delight in misleading "intellectual" critics thus. (For example, Lennon made a mistake while recording "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" by singing a line as "feeling two foot small" instead of "two foot tall". Mischievously, he insisted on keeping it unchanged to "confuse the pseuds".) Here, the working title of this final album was "Everest". When the time came to design the sleeve, it was suggested that The Beatles fly down to the Himalayas for the picture. Sod it, they said, we'll walk in front of this studio, take the damn picture and call it "Abbey Road" (the name of the studio). Inspiration or laziness, take your pick.

Let It Be was remixed by the famed Phil Spector and released just after The Beatles formally split-up. This became their swan-song thus. Though flawed somewhat (largely due to terrible mixes of some tracks where Spector's injudicious "romantic" orchestrations injected a mushiness The Beatles had steadfastly avoided throughout their career), it had some absolutely stunning songs. Primarily, it was McCartney's triumph, who besides the classic title track, also wrote the exquisite "The Long And Winding Road" (even Spector's unimaginative treatment couldn't kill its inherent beauty) and the breezy "Get Back". "Two Of Us", also by him, provided the moving moment of Lennon and McCartney seeming to merge their voices and spirits together…though the song was really about McCartney and his wife Linda. And "I've Got A Feeling" became the last time Lennon and McCartney combined two ideas in one song. Harrison's "I Me Mine" was also on the album - ironically the last recorded Beatles song. Ironic, because the main reason for The Beatles splitting-up was the fact that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had all become their own men, with their own motivations, their own agendas.

It's sad that four young men capable of so much beauty were not infallible to the inherent pettiness of human nature. They'd loved each other dearly before, but now they couldn't stand the sight of each other. The bane of adulthood. But the magic theyproduced together is replicated maybe once a century. The three Anthology sets released in 1995-96 proved their undying popularity yet again. Though the "new songs" were just 2 rough Lennon demos remixed by Jeff Lynn the ELO way (with the 3 Beatles overdubbing new parts), both "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" were really very fine songs. Yet, many fans and critics were unable to enjoy them because they'd moronically expected the "new songs" to match their classics. Otherwise, Anthology's collection of out-takes and alternate versions was a mixed bag. Anthology 1 was predictable and totally avoidable. Anthology 2 and particularly Anthology 3 had some very interesting moments. For example, the Anthology versions of "Across The Universe", "The Long And Winding Road" (both mauled by Spector on Let It Be), "Ob-La'Di, Ob-La-Da" (a lovely jaunty guitar arrangement) and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" were all better than what had been released earlier. Then, there were unused songs that eventually made the solo albums of their authors in the seventies (like McCartney's "Junk" and Harrison's superb "All Things Must Pass"). Ultimately, Anthology demonstrated the genesis of genius effectively.

The possibility that The Beatles would get back together one day was rudely extinguished by Lennon's assassination in 1980. The large-scale mourning wasn't just for Lennon's death. Everyone realised that The Beatles had also died with him. If John Lennon was alive today, I think The Beatles would be together (they'd thawed towards each other considerably by 1980). And even if they couldn't be as consistent as they were in the sixties, they would probably still be producing occasional works of sheer genius well beyond the millennium. Expressing our times, their own ages and universal truths.

And we'd all have a little more to look forward to.



CLASSIC SONGS, INTERESTING ORIGINS

Please Please Me:
Inspired by an old Bing Crosby hit, John wrote this song at his Aunt Mimi's house. The Beatles rehearsed it in the studio first at a much slower tempo, with a high-pitch lead vocal a la Roy Orbison. George Martin insisted that the song be speeded up. They complied. After the final take, Martin pressed the control room intercom button and said, "Congratulations, gentlemen, you've just made your first Number One!"
Recorded on 11th September 1962.

Yesterday:
Paul woke up one morning with this tune running through his head. He stumbled to a piano to work it out, using "scrambled eggs" as his lead-in lyric (which later became "yesterday"). Unable to believe that a tune like this would just come in a dream, he was worried that he'd subconsciously lifted the tune from somewhere. Only when he was convinced that was not the case, he recorded it. Till date, it is the most covered song in the history of music.
Recorded on 14th June 1965.

Nowhere Man:
John had been awake the whole night trying to write a song for the new album, to no avail. He finally gave up the struggle near dawn. Amazingly, almost immediately, his subconscious took over, and the song just occurred to him. As a song, this was uncharacteristic Lennon, but one of his best. Drugs, no doubt, featured in its creation too.
Recorded on 21-22 October 1965.

She Said She Said:
John was taking LSD with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds in Los Angeles. Suddenly, actor Peter Fonda burst onto the scene and insisted on telling John about the hospital operation during which he'd had a near-death experience. "I know what it's like to be dead," Fonda said. John had him thrown out but the encounter stayed with him. It became one of the best songs on Revolver.
Recorded on 21st June 1966.

With A Little Help From My Friends:
There was pressure to finish the new album. Paul came to John's house with some chords in mind, and the two doodled away at a piano, randomly singing whatever came to their minds. They even picked up strands of the conversation between their friends in the same room. They laughed, flipped through magazines, played other songs… but all the time trying to get that elusive thought down. This trance-like state that brought the subconscious into play really worked for them. This was no exception, though they made Ringo sing this one.
Recorded on 29-30 March 1967.

Hey Jude:
Paul was driving down to meet Cynthia, John's estranged wife. He was fond of her and felt bad that things had come to this pass. He began to think of what he'd say to 5-year-old Julian Lennon. "Hey Jules, don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better" came to him instantly. Later, he demo-d it on a piano and played it to John, who called it the best song Paul ever wrote.
Recorded on 29-31 July 1968.

Dear Prudence:
Actress Mia Farrow's sister Prudence was in Rishikesh with The Beatles and their wives. Excessive meditation had made her hypersensitive and she was most reluctant to leave the small hut where she was staying. John and George had to coax her out. John even made this song out of it, using the finger-picking guitar style.
Recorded on 28-30 August 1968.

Let It Be:
Paul had tried everything to keep The Beatles alive but everything was disintegrating around him. Distressed and insecure about their future as a band, he was becoming an insomniac. But finally one night, he slept well, and he had a dream in which his dead mother Mary appeared and told him to relax, to just let things be. Yet again, Paul turned a dream into a celebrated song.
Recorded on 25-31 January 1969.

Here Comes The Sun:
George was walking around in Eric Clapton's garden alone. The sun was out and he was gently strumming his guitar. He knew The Beatles were about to break up. But the last few months had been so stressful and cantankerous that he felt distinctly liberated about the prospect. The seventies would soon be here, with fresh beginnings to be made. These thoughts and the warmth of the sun made him feel optimistic. And then he hit upon the intro.
Recorded on 7-19 August 1969.



Jaideep Varma
Gentleman
November 1999

After The Revolution
Why John Lennon's post-Beatles work works

Every year, on October 9th and December 8th (John Lennon's birth and death anniversary respectively), articles appear in the media about Lennon's incredible contribution to The Beatles and his inadequate solo work. The latter is utter nonsense. Despite Lennon's best solo albums having been released in India for a while now, none of these "with-it music critics" seem to have taken the trouble to listen to them closely. Or bothered to examine the life this music represents so completely, and gloriously.

They are just so many myths about Lennon's life after The Beatles. They completely obscure the truth and even the proof of the pudding - the music. Just a little homework can bring a little clarity, and it's well-worth the effort. Ray Coleman's fine biography and a marvellous 4CD set of his solo work entitled Lennon will doubtlessly be a revelation to anyone who suspects John Lennon lost it after The Beatles split up. Both are available in India.

In 1966, when John Lennon met Yoko Ono in an art exhibition, neither could have known how historic that meeting would be. As the unofficial leader of perhaps the world's most popular entity, John had the world at his feet long enough to be somewhat bored by it. After being instrumental in changing the face of popular music, the only way to go seemed to be downhill. His experimentation with drugs had also made him restless. Subsequently, things started going wrong. The beloved Beatles manager Brian Epstein died, then disillusionment set in with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. As if to balance all this out, John and Yoko came together finally in 1968.

Myth: Yoko confused John. Fact is, John found clarity with Yoko. They were true soul-mates with similarly unique artistic sensibilities (though very different expressions). John's output would give evidence of their connection again and again over the years.

Myth: Yoko split up The Beatles. Seen superficially, it appears that way. Paul McCartney and George Harrison resented John bringing Yoko for all their recording sessions; they'd never had an outsider (even family or friends) sit in while they created music. But the fact is, in any case, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were writing songs increasingly on their own. They may have been recording together, but they weren't exchanging ideas as much as they used to while writing the songs. The “White Album” (1968) gave the first evidence of that. Yoko's presence may have added to the tension and perhaps hastened the split, but it would certainly have happened sooner or later even without Yoko. Indeed, John, Paul and George were their own men in the late '60s, with their own priorities and visions. Not very conducive to continue creating as a group.

Myth: John and Yoko did weird things because they were unhinged. They did "weird" things all right. Like posing nude for the cover of their album Two Virgins (full frontal pose on the front cover, rear view on the back cover). Or creating an album full of peculiar electronic sounds in the name of music. All this was basically the combination of 2 things - very heavy drug usage and the restless urge to experiment. But the "weirdest" thing they're remembered for is the "bed ins" they did all around the world. They just basically lolled in bed for days with TV cameras all around them, and spoke about peace. This is where the song "Give Peace A Chance" happened. John passionately believed in peace and wanted to use his fame to popularise its message. He saw things like "bed-ins" as advertising gimmicks. Unusual, but insane? Come on.

Myth: John Lennon started the Plastic Ono Band after The Beatles split up. Fact is, there was no band called Plastic Ono Band. It was a "conceptual" band, consisting of whoever played with John and Yoko, in the studio or live.

Myth: Lennon couldn't really write great songs without McCartney. Absolute bullshit. Since the mid-sixties, Lennon had decided to write more and more about himself, from his point-of-view. Near the late-sixties, almost all the songs he wrote represented his life. He would clearly become more "confessional" as he grew older. So, where did McCartney come into this scheme of things? Sure, the magic that happened sometimes when they merged two ideas together (eg. "We Can Work It Out", "A Day In The Life", "I've Got A Feeling" etc.) would not be there. But that was not the cornerstone of Lennon's music anymore, anyway. As John delved inside himself to articulate his deepest feelings through song, Paul no longer had a role to play. Yoko did.

Myth: Lennon's post-Beatles work was mostly weak. The most idiotic presumption of all. A fair amount of his solo work was a genuine progression from the Beatles music. He extended the boundaries of his muse on his own. From the complex, often drug-inspired (and brilliant) music he wrote during his last years as a Beatle, he now went down to the basics. Striving for simplicity, eschewing clever word-play, opting for clear-eyed, absolutely straight, no-nonsense communication. He'd written a scarily blunt song about his withdrawal from hardcore drugs called "Cold Turkey" while he was with The Beatles. Both McCartney and Harrison were not keen to put it out as a Beatles song. This had piqued John. Now, with his first real solo album, Plastic Ono Band (1970) Lennon gave an awesome demonstration of his confessional powers. Just before he wrote its songs, John had been going through famous psychiatrist Arthur Janov's primal therapy - a programme during which mentally disturbed patients were encouraged to scream and yell as a form of catharsis. The treatment spilt over into the album. He sung frightening (yet beautiful) songs about his troubled childhood ("Mother"), the bitterness he felt for the system he grew up in ("Working Class Hero"), the loneliness he and Yoko experienced despite having so many people around them ("Isolation"), the disillusionment with his past that he was feeling so strongly ("God"), the anger he felt because of past mistakes ("Remember"). There were quiet, reflective (and stunningly beautiful) moments too ("Love" and "Hold On"). All in all, this was blistering, fearless honesty that only someone of his immense stature could have even had the confidence to attempt. The simplicity and the starkness of the arrangements were in sharp contrast to all his previous work. He could never have done such deeply personal work with The Beatles. Despite the generous helpings of self-pity, Plastic Ono Band remains a classic, underrated and unique album that took popular music a few steps forward. Not surprisingly, the album sold poorly.

That changed with the next album. It began with the song most associated with John Lennon - the title track that he actually wrote it in a plane on a hotel bill. Imagine (1971) was a mellower, lusher album - gently reflective, even happy. There were a few tracks, however, that didn't seem to stay with the general plot - the angry "Give Me Some Truth" about the Watergate scandal and "How Do You Sleep" - a petty personal attack on Paul McCartney. The album closer was one of the finest love songs ever written - "Oh Yoko", not sentimental, not even reflective, just plain happy. Simplicity was the key ingredient in Imagine and it worked beautifully, critically and commercially. The latter, John was slightly surprised about. He felt Plastic Ono Band and Imagine were very similar albums, except that the latter was "sugar-coated". So this was the formula for success, he noted wryly.

1971 ended with John and Yoko's classic Christmas song "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)". Drawing from his pacifist ideals, Lennon created a classic song that reverberates all around the world even now. John and Yoko left England in 1972 and settled down in New York. The thrust of his music changed again. He became very politically - conscious, going back to his days of "Revolution" and "Give Peace A Chance". His style changed, this time from an introspective poet's to a dynamic journalist's . He wrote songs about things and people and moved on immediately, without dwelling on them. The music suffered. Sometime In New York City (1972) was probably his weakest solo album. Yet, snappy singles like "Instant Karma"(written, recorded and mixed in one single day) and "Power To The People" worked in their own way. His next album Mind Games (1973) despite the remarkable title track and the lovely "Out The Blue" was not very satisfying either. Things weren't quite working out for John at this stage. Then. he and Yoko separated. John fled to Los Angeles and hit the bottle. A new album Walls And Bridges (1974) happened there (this period, very aptly, is called "The Lost Weekend"). Lennon co-wrote with Elton John ("Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" - that, surprise, surprise, would be Lennon's first no 1 hit), and Harry Nilsson, recording a decent album with a few gems (like the moody" #9 Dream"). But still, he was nowhere near his best. Yoko and he were soon reunited and the exuberance returned. In 1975, Lennon brought out Rock 'n Roll, where he did covers of his favourite songs that influenced him during his formative years. With an infectious enthusiasm and a familiar wit, the album captured John Lennon's spirit beautifully. Affectionately, he made the songs his own. Anybody who loves good old-fashioned rock 'n roll will love this album. Soon after this, John and Yoko became parents. John decided that he was going to bring up the baby since Yoko had gone through enough. Yoko went to work and John became the world's most famous house-husband.

John stayed away from music for 5 years. During this time he literally reared his son Sean and obviously enjoyed it thoroughly. Finally, he couldn't ignore his muse anymore. With Yoko, he brought out a collaborative album called Double Fantasy (1980). John had 7 songs in it and most of them were fabulous. Yoko's songs were weaker and this brought down the general standard of the album. But John was in sparkling form. "Starting All Over", where he used his "Elvis" voice, was happy and optimistic. "I'm Losing You" was interestingly moody. "Woman" was tender. "Dear Yoko" was exuberant and rocky. The album's finest songs were "Watching The Wheels" - a breathtakingly beautiful song about premature retirement (my favourite Lennon song, Beatles or otherwise) and "Beautiful Boy" - a touching song dedicated to the 5-year-old Sean. In the latter, John sang, "I can hardly wait/to see you come of age/ but I guess we'll both just have to be patient/cause it’s a long way to go/a hard road ahead/but in the meantime/before you cross the street/take my hand/life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans…" Barely 2 months later, John was gone - shot dead by a crazed lunatic. The world grieved for one man like never before. It would take Yoko Ono 4 years to release Milk And Honey (1984) - a collection of songs she and John had worked out roughly for their next album. Again, John's songs were superb. "I'm Stepping Out" and "Nobody Told Me" were tuneful and witty. "Borrowed Time" was introspective, yet so very accessible. The last track on the album was a home demo of an achingly beautiful "marriage" song called "Grow Old With Me". Life doesn't get more ironic than this.

Myth: Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey did well because of sentimental reasons. Just listen to the songs. And judge them on their merit, not the baggage Lennon came with. What an absurdity it is that Lennon's solo work has to be measured only against his Beatles work. Compare it with the work of his contemporaries. Fact is, if John Lennon's solo music was all that he ever recorded, he would still be right up there on its merit.

Myth: Albert Goldman's 1988 book exposed Lennon. Goldman was a hack who made a living by trashing dead legends. He painted John as a helpless, paranoid drug addict completely under Yoko's control (who practiced witchcraft, it seems). The stupidity of his "controversial" book is this: John's music was his soul's diary since 1965. Nothing reflected his feelings more accurately than his songs. Why on earth would that change in 1980? His Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey songs are so joyous and full of life, you have to be completely whacked-out to think they emanate from a tortured, paranoid, has-been musician. Goldman's career ended with this book.

In its short life of 45 odd years, pop music's greatest loss till date has been the death of John Lennon. It's been a bigger blow than Jim Morrison's untimely death, or Janis Joplin's, or Jerry Garcia's or Kurt Cobain's. Even Jimi Hendrix's or indeed Elvis Presley's. John Lennon's contribution as a songwriter was greater than theirs, despite Presley's pioneering impetus. The biggest tragedy is that John was taken away when he was at the height of his powers, at the age of 40 when, like the old saying, life had really seemed to begin for him.

John Lennon loved irony. Even in death he achieved it.


Gentleman
February 1999

Guitars Weep, the Sun Dims
Saying goodbye to George Harrison – honorary Indian



Fifty-eight has been the retirement age in India for a long time. Maybe, it is more than mere coincidence that George Harrison was this age when he retired from the world.

When the Beatles were recording their last album Abbey Road in 1969, they all knew it was the last one. There was sadness, but there was relief too; individual ambitions had left the collective dream behind. After years of being under the colossus of Lennon-McCartney, George Harrison contributed his two greatest songs to this album (“Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”). He was 26, and at his creative peak. He hadn’t lived even half his life, but as one fourth of the most significant cultural entity of the twentieth century, he probably knew the high notes of his life had been struck.

Despite being the youngest, he was also the quietest and the most serious, with more than a passing interest in matters of the spirit. He already had a deep-rooted connection with India – Ravi Shankar and the sitar, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Rishikesh, Krishna consciousness…his musical sensibility had shown overt evidence of all these influences but now, divested of the cumulative band sensibility, these influences (getting stronger by the day) would permeate everything he did.

It took a little time though. His first post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass (1971)– an amazingly consistent triple album was rightly recognized as a masterwork. But thereafter, gradually, critics and fans almost unanimously pronounced his musical journey as a downhill trip. It’s a simplistic view, and deserves closer examination.

The most significant thing about rock and roll music (indeed was true for the Beatles too) has always been - vitality. The music always celebrated youth, sensually, with verve and passion. Even the darker music (from bands like Velvet Underground, The Doors, etc) came from youthful expressions (Lou Reed and Jim Morrison were in their twenties after all). Post-Beatles, George Harrison was perhaps the first major rock and roll artist who let his changing worldview and his sensibility suffuse all his output.

His spiritual concerns made him eschew the vitality of rock and roll totally. For a man who had always preferred being a facilitator with the Beatles, who had sacrificed guitar virtuosity for the overall cause of the song (despite being a great guitar player), this was a natural progression. This vitality was replaced by a clear-eyed examination.

The weight that anyone delving into one of the oldest human civilizations must carry, transformed his sensibility, which became quintessentially Indian, in the purist Classical sense. The manifestation of this in the rock and roll format sounded weary and passionless. And this was the antithesis of rock and roll music.

Not surprisingly, the West shunned his music. Sadly, the East, that follows the West in its prescriptions of what should be heard in this art form (it originated in the West, after all) never really got to hear his best solo work. Pity, because the temperament of most of his solo work is essentially Eastern; more specifically, Indian.

This is ironic because the more obviously Indian – inspired music Harrison did was when he was with the Beatles (“Love You Too”, “Within You, Without You”, “The Inner Light”, the sitar embellishment of Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, etc). In most of his post-Beatles work, Harrison hardly used the sitar, but actually it is this music that is even more Indian in spirit.

While quite a few of these songs are repetitive and perhaps overly self-absorbed, there are some wonderful ones too - of quiet, elegant beauty. Songs like “Lay His Head”, “You Are The One”, “That’s The Way It Goes”, “Love Comes To Everyone” have a fatalism, a sense of gentle tolerance and a world-weariness that characterizes the Indian essence, for better or for worse. “My Sweet Lord”, and “Give Me Love” (among the many beautiful ambiguous God-love songs he wrote) do too, but they also have a catchiness that masterful rock and roll musicians often achieve. Both these huge hits happened early on in Harrison’s solo career. “All Those Years Ago”, his other hit (in 1981) was an uncharacteristically jaunty song (by his then standards) in tribute to John Lennon who had just died. Cloud Nine, his last solo album (1987) had a lot of that jauntiness too (like the obscure Rudy Clarke cover “Got My Mind Set On You” that he made into a hit, his last one) but also had songs in his characteristic vein (like the breathtakingly beautiful “Someplace Else”). Cloud Nine was a collaboration, with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne as producer, which explained the overall tone of the album. Shortly thereafter came another collaboration (though unobtrusively led by Jeff Lynne again) – the Traveling Wilburys, through which another band sensibility emerged (it appeared to do even Bob Dylan some good). Unfortunately, they just did two albums’ worth. Harrison never released anything else, solo.

Harrison’s vocals bear an interesting footnote to his music. He was conscious of his inadequate singing voice and its limited range. Therefore, interestingly, the songs he wrote are invariably the easiest to sing for that very reason (with the Beatles and thereafter). Yet, despite the obvious limitations, his expressive fragile vocals brought out a vulnerability that represents the emphatic integrity he always stood for as an artist. It is curious that when the legendary American band The Byrds married Dylan’s words with Beatles harmonies and changed rock and roll forever, the lead singer Roger McGuinn sounded more like George Harrison than anyone else. Since then, even Tom Petty has sometimes sounded like Harrison, Jeff Lynne – often, Gerry Rafferty too. Inexplicably, Harrison might have been the most influential vocalist within the Beatles!

Harrison was also the bridge between Dylan and The Beatles. He is the only Beatle to have co-written songs with Dylan (in All Things Must Pass and with the Traveling Wilburys; his work with the latter was interestingly different from his solo work). There was a promise of greater things to come.

Finally, and I have to get personal here, it saddens me greatly that George Harrison died without getting the rightful recognition for a truly unique musical sensibility. It would have come in the future, as rock and roll grows older and marches into the unchartered territory of old age, wisdom and its attendant concerns. Harrison had already mined a lot of that territory. Some of my all-time favourite songs are Harrison’s, quite a few of them from his solo output, and nobody I know loves those songs even half as much. Maybe I hear more in them than what is actually there, but I know they touch a chord in me like nothing else does. Maybe, someday, the world will catch on too. Maybe not.

My very favourite George Harrison track is the Anthology 3 demo version of “All Things Must Pass”, without the ersatz Phil Spector embellishments (released only in 1996). There’s a gently strumming electric guitar in the foreground, with a slight reverb. His thoughtful, quiet voice appears to be trying to make sense of the chaos of life that he must go through, with grace and dignity. It’s the most harmonious struggle you can hear. For me, this is the quintessential George Harrison.


Jaideep Varma

www.blueear.com
November 2001

Portraits of Integrity
Why Neil Young's best music won't age


It's 1971. You're a singer-songwriter. Your lingering back ailment played up and you suffered a slipped disk. After the operation you've been allowed just 4 hours on your feet. You have the urge to write, but the electric guitar's too heavy, so you use an acoustic guitar and write songs accordingly. You record practically on your back and finish a lethargic downbeat album. Next year, it becomes the biggest-selling album in America.

1974. You're half-drunk, with an unkempt beard, uncombed hair over your shoulders, dark sunglasses. You're standing in front of a heckling crowd that wants you to sing your hits…songs that seem from another time to you now. Because now you're grieving the drug deaths of 2 of your friends, you've recorded a bunch of songs for them, feeling your way to their situation, their pain. And these are what you're going to sing now, the audience can go hang itself. "If you can get back to where you were two years ago", you yell at the barrackers, "I'll get back to where I was…."

1996. You've recorded an amazing, brilliant bunch of songs, flawless and incandescent, with stunning electric guitar-work. You round it off with a beautiful, intimate acoustic song - one of your best. You listen to the album. No, it's too well-crafted, almost unreal. So, you add an extra track… an 8-minute bootleg-quality cover, recorded live with a single audience mike as audience chatter offsets the performance. There. No-one will call it a masterpiece album now - rock 'n' roll is about spontaneity, not perfection, dammit.

If you're Neil Young, this is all in a day's work. Eccentric? Obsessive? Perverse? He's been called all these things in his 30-odd years as a premier and visionary singer-songwriter. Since 1967, he has been using his immense musical gifts to explore the truths inside and around him. The result is a vast and varied body of work, a third of which are certified all-time classics. Primarily, his music has been in three basic styles - solo acoustic ballads, country-rock and hard-edged rock. But it's been his high voice that's the most distinctive thing about his music - vulnerable , yet lived-in, full of longing, yet immediate and as writer Paul Evens says, "keyed to a note of wonder". He broke new ground, first with classic sixties band Buffalo Springfield (often called "the American Beatles"), then with the band Crazy Horse (termed "the American Rolling Stones" by some), with CSNY (still retaining its cult status) and solo - making Neil Young a colossus of popular music. Though it is his seventies work that made him a living legend, it is his nineties music that is most amazing. It is a tribute to his vitality as an artist that he has turned out to be the only sixties icon who cruised through this decade at his best. He celebrated rock 'n' roll with Crazy Horse and associated himself with contemporary bands like Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam. A collaborative album with the latter got him the sobriquet "Godfather of Grunge" - a soundscape that Young, in fact, was largely instrumental in creating during the sixties itself.

Born in Toronto, Canada, Neil Young got into the local folk scene in the sixties. Rock 'n' roll excited him too and in 1966 he joined a band called the Mynah Birds, which fizzled out pretty quickly. He drove to Los Angeles ("The great Canadian Dream was to go to America", Young would say later) with band bassist Bruce Palmer, and ran into fellow-Canadian folkies Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in a traffic jam. They formed the band Buffalo Springfield, named after a tractor. This band broke new ground and went on to become one of the most important American bands ever. Stills' "For What It's Worth" would become an alternative hippie anthem. Young contributed classics like "Broken Arrow", "I Am A Child", "Mr. Soul" and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing", the band combined folk, rock and country traditions to create timeless music. Stills and Young also discovered the D modal tuning for the guitar where it was possible to make the string ring and get a droning sound going (influenced by Indian raags). Young would work on this and refine it throughout his career - in both his electric (grunge's infancy?) and acoustic work. Despite Buffalo Springfield's brilliance, Young was dissatisfied because he felt he needed more space. He quit, then rejoined again when he realised the enormity of what they were doing. By 1968 however, the intense chemistry of the hugely talented band-members spurred them on in different directions and the band split up.

After recording a decent self-titled solo album, Young yearned for the chemistry of being in band again. He found it with a bunch of raw but brilliant musicians and named them Crazy Horse - a band that still survives. The first album they did as "Neil Young and Crazy Horse" was Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) where Young embarked on extended instrumental interplays with the band. Both "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" were almost 10 minutes long -full of intuitive, spontaneous, passionate and freewheeling forays (amazingly, both these songs were written on the same day by Young, when he was in bed, burning with fever). "Cinnamon Girl" was a powerful demonstration of the D modal tuning sound and the title track was a heartfelt gem. The album was a critical success and Neil Young was getting known as a solo artist.

Then, inspired by a film screenplay (about an earthquake causing floods), Young wrote some songs on his own. Due to lack of finance, the film was scrapped but the songs were recorded as an album. After The Gold Rush (1970) became a big success - critically and commercially. A true classic, it was Young's first solo masterpiece. The tough guitar strains of the brilliant "Southern Man" and the ardent "I Believe In You" were just 2 standouts in this superb album.

Meanwhile, old bandmate Stephen Stills, David Crosby from The Byrds and Graham Nash from The Hollies, had teamed up and released an album as CSN. But they needed someone to hold the instrumental end up and Stills asked Young to join. Young agreed on the condition that he could be in and out as he pleased. For him, it was an opportunity to play with Stills again (which he treasured) but also to enjoy himself as just a guitar-player without worrying about doing all the songwriting (as it was with Crazy Horse). Still, some of the songs that he did contribute were easily the most soulful the band ever did, songs like the lovely "Helpless" and the brilliant "Ohio" (Crosby actually cried after the recording of the song, which was about anti-Vietnam protesting students being shot in Ohio). CSNY became hugely popular and still have a cult following but really, much of their music is vastly over-rated (showcasing a slick wistfulness). Most of their songs haven't passed the test of time, except some of Young's contributions, which in fact makes the post-Young CSN seem facile and shallow (the CSNY 1999 reunion album Looking Forward proves it too - the best songs are Young's).

Young's next solo album Harvest (1972) became the largest-selling album in America and made him a superstar. It had a host of accessible nuggets including his first and only no.1 - "Heart of Gold". "This song", Young was to famously write later, "put me in the middle-of-the-road, travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A bumpier ride, but I met more interesting people."

The "ditch" was the severe depression that hit Young when Crazy Horse lead guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry died of drug overdoses. Both were close friends of Young and their wasteful loss was something Young felt he had to exorcise through his music. He rounded up the remaining members of the band and booked Berry's brother's studio. They'd come there at 5 pm, drink tequila and play pool. Around midnight, when they felt on the edge, they'd start playing. An amazing outpouring of feelings resulted in the album that became Tonight's The Night. Young sounded drunk throughout, the band was fluid and intense, overall there was a raw rehearsal sound. Technically, it was a disaster. On "Mellow My Mind", for example, Young's voice cracked several times, straining with feeling, which made it deeply moving and wondrous. Indeed, many songs on the album redefined beauty in the conventional sense; the pain that caused their creation became something vividly tangible, and it takes one's breath away even now. Ironically, his record company refused to release it without "smoothening it out". Young refused and it took the company two years to relent. Tonight's The Night stands as a veritable classic of heartfelt art, one of the greatest rock albums ever, and probably Neil Young's finest.

In 1974, Young joined CSN for a concert tour. He travelled separately with his son and two friends rather than with the entourage (that included prostitutes on the pay-roll for "sexual snacks" and people with cocaine tablets for "instant highs") and finally called it quits with them. Once again, he began to concentrate on his solo work and continued writing great songs (like "Cortez The Killer" from 1975's Zuma and "Like A Hurricane' from 1977's American Stars 'n Bars). In between, he released his monumental compilation triple album - Decade, which still stands as one of the greatest compilations in contemporary music. In 1978, he released Comes A Time, an album of pretty country tunes accessible enough to become his biggest hit after Harvest. A line from one of the songs on it gave away the plot perhaps - "In the field of opportunity / it's ploughing time again".

Neil Young & Crazy Horse then released the utterly brilliant Rust Never Sleeps (1979). One side was fully acoustic, luminous with beauty, the other was angry, electric rock 'n' roll - masterful and commanding. The first and last tracks were the same song "My My Hey Hey" - rendered acoustically, then electrically (a device Young would make famous) and it had a classic line that would come back to haunt him later.

After the success of Live Rust - the live counterpart to Rust Never Sleeps, Young slowed down. His eighties work was often experimental and mostly unsatisfying.
Re-ac-tor (1981) was gawky rock 'n roll, Trans (1982) played around with Kraftwerk - like Synth sounds, Old Ways (1985) was a maudlin country album, Landing On Water (1986) and Life (1987) were bland rock albums and This Note's For You (1987) used R&B horns unconvincingly. A large part of this period was spent by Young trying to communicate with his son Ben who had cerebral palsy (his elder son Zeke had also had a milder version of the same disorder). This anxiety with its attendant concerns had affected his music and the most amazing by-product of this was his music company Geffen actually suing him for "not being himself"! He left Geffen, and ironically, very quickly found his form with Freedom (1989), which spawned the hit single, the catchy anthem "Rockin' In The Free World".

A year later, Young was at his peak again with Crazy Horse as he brought out the magnificent Ragged Glory (1990) - the title describing the album perfectly. This was conventional hard rock 'n' roll, immaculately executed. Interestingly, the melodies were lovely. "Country Home", for example, was really a pretty tune, surrounded by power chords and garnished by fiery guitar solos. "Mother Earth" was like a traditional hymn, accentuated by a choral sound, with a gnawing electric guitar arrangement around it (much like Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner"). The two live albums Young released around the same time - Weld and the fully instrumental Arc, made it clear to all that he was in rollicking form.

And then, as usual, Young took an about turn again in 1992. He released a fully acoustic album, with gentle, wistful songs. Harvest Moon, deliberately named to evoke his 1972 classic, was actually the result of a medical disorder (just like Harvest). Now, he was suffering from tinnitus which had made him overly sensitive to loud sounds. Hence, while recovering, he did this quiet album that actually ranks among his best.

In 1994, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself with a suicide note that quoted Young's famous line from "My My, Hey Hey" - It's better to burn out/ than to fade away… Young was a great admirer of Cobain and this broke him yet again. He released Sleeps with Angels that very year with Crazy Horse, the title track clearly eulogising Cobain (though he refused to talk about it). Some of the other tracks were about death as well. Overall, this was a brooding, low key, even mournful album. A huge critical success, Sleeps With Angels is still considered one of the great albums of the nineties.

Young also admired the other grunge supergroup Pearl Jam. In 1995, he released his album Mirror Ball, where he was backed by this band (instead of Crazy Horse). Here, Young took a look at the sixties counterculture, hippiedom and all, through the nineties view-finder. A contemporary sound to evoke a timeless spirit - the album was another massive critical success. The very next year saw him back with Crazy Horse and releasing Broken Arrow (1996), still very much at his peak. This was another stunning album, very melodic despite being totally electric, delectable guitar solos embellishing the songs, piercing lyrics sung with feeling. Overall, the album was crisp and supple. The second-last track "Music Arcade" was the only acoustic song - he practically whispered the lyrics in a quiet masterpiece. Inexplicably, he then ended the album with a rough live cover of a fifties standard, that left you wondering…

Young's famous distaste for digital sound says it all. He abhors the absence of variation and nuance, the averaging out from a universe of possibilities. It's not real, he says, it's not true emotion. Without emotion, Neil Young is nothing.


Gentleman
February 2000


ESSENTIAL NEIL YOUNG
Decade (1977)
Tonight's The Night (rel. 1975)
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
After The Gold Rush (1970)
Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Broken Arrow (1996)