Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Lost In The Flood: Manic Street Preachers, Know Your Enemy (did not chart in U.S.)

Manic Street Preachers: Know Your Enemy
-review by Bill Glahn-

[Note: This review was written in 2001 upon the album's release. It was recently unearthed while going through some files of my previous writing. It was never published. Know Your Enemy was highly successful around the world (Top 10 in most European countries, High chart positions in Japan, New Zealand & Australia as well) but failed to chart in the U.S. That says more about American media than the worthiness of the album. When the band chose to start the Know Your Enemy tour in Cuba, it proved "all too much" in the dawning of the new age of McCarthyism. If songs about Paul Robeson, Elian Gonzalez, and the symbolism of Guernica hadn't already doomed the record, it's fate became sealed the September after its release. In "Baby Elian" the band sings "You don't just sit in a rocking chair/ When you've built a revolution." It's an important line to remember in 2018.]

The most riveting scene in the opening episode of 100 Centre Street, the Art & Entertainment Network’s smart courtroom drama series, takes place in a restaurant between Judge Joe Rifkind (Alan Arkin) and Judge Attallah Sims (LaTanya Richardson). Rifkind is a liberal Jewish ex-cop who has seen all the barriers that can destroy lives among the poor in New York from street level. As a judge, he has earned the nickname “let ‘em go Joe” for his lenient sentences and willingness to offer a second chance to the defendants that he comes across in night court. His polar opposite, Sims, a black lesbian conservative, has earned the nickname “Attallah The Hun” for her stiff sentencing practices.

Judge Rifkind had recently been faced with a defendant with a history of minor crime who was in court for turnstile jumping. The defendant has already been in jail for two days waiting for a hearing and the maximum allowable punishment is three days. The public defender explains that his client is scheduled to start a new job the next day and asks for a sentence of time served. Viewing the job as an opportunity for the young defendant to put his life on the right track, Rifkind agrees. The defendant immediately goes on a crime spree and kills a rookie cop on her first patrol. An infuriated administrative judge tells Rifkind that he let him “swing alone” for his perceived trespass. The media learns of the judge’s unflattering nickname and a feeding frenzy erupts.

Rifkind and Sims meet over supper between sessions to discuss their scheduling. Sims offers to sit in for Rifkin to divert some of the media heat. Rifkind declines, stating that he will not allow media pressure and circumstances to interfere with the judicial process. Unsaid, but probably a consideration as well, is Sims reputation as a tough jurist.

Then Rifkind asks The Question. “How did you get to be this way?” To which Sims provides The Answer. “When I was 8 years old I was dragged under my front porch and every orifice in my body was penetrated. This was done by people who I had known all my life. Joe, there really are evil people in this world.”

It’s an intensely affecting moment. Rifkin and Sims, despite the immense differences in the way they view the world, become allies. But what if The Question had never been asked?

The first page in the booklet that accompanies The Manic Street Preachers new album “Know Your Enemy” presents a quote from Susan Sontag. “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” It’s a brilliant piece of philosophical thinking that, when taken further underlines the importance of the question. That the Manic Street Preachers realize this is what makes “Know Your Enemy” an important work for our times.

Rather than egotistically state “This is our point of view and we’re going to stuff it down your throats” – the Preachers set up their questions brilliantly. Most significant is their homage to Paul Robeson, “Let Robeson Sing”. It’s a fascinating choice of topic matter. Robeson was the first black man to graduate from the Columbia School of Law and was prohibited from practicing as an attorney because of his race. So instead, he became one of the great singers and performers of the 20th century. Despite the obvious injustice, Robeson remained a patriot, bent not on destroying democracy, but to make it available for all peoples. Included in “Let Robeson Sing” is a sample of Robeson reading “Freedom Train”. Its logic and grace are indisputable. The Preachers have done it justice by wrapping it in one of their most beautifully crafted songs. During the Cold War, Robeson believed that dialogue between America and Russia was so important that he actually traveled to Russia. During the McCarthy era, this was immediately considered a treasonous act, and labeling him a Communist effectively ruined Robeson’s career. Robeson vehemently denied this (eventually exonerated) but it didn’t deter him from trying to start a dialogue with Castro as well. His passport was pulled before he ever got the chance.

While acknowledging the importance of dialogue, The Manic Street Preachers recognize that there are indeed evil people in the world when they name-check Guernica (“My Guernica”). Guernica was the Spanish town that was bombed into oblivion in 1937 by the Nazis even though it held no strategic purpose other than to test-drive the Blitzkrieg. It inspired Pablo Picasso’s greatest work (named “Guernica” after the town), a 25 foot mural of immense despair. Picasso intended the painting to be a gift to his home country of Spain, but only after Spain had become a democratic nation. A number of years after Franco was finally planted the painting was finally delivered to Picasso’s native land.
“The Convalescent” follows underlining the importance of The Question. “DNA means ‘does not accept.”

With this groundwork, The Preachers invite The Question(s), “How does a 6-year old child view the Promised Land?” (Baby Elian) “Is freedom of speech enough?” (Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children). In "Let Robeson Sing" the band asks "Can anyone write a protest song?" They destroy that question throughout Know Your Enemy.

Bonus listens: Live in Cuba

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Willie Nelson: Stayin' Alive

Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing
-review by Bill Glahn-

Music industry attorney, Joel Katz, tells a story in Willie Nelson’s 1988 autobiography: “I have in ten years only seen Willie get mad at me one time. Real mad. I…. brought an estate plan to show him how he could earn and keep more money for himself and for his family. Willie erupted.” According to Katz, Nelson stomped out of the room, only to return, much calmer, fifteen minutes later. “You’ve got to understand my philosophy of life, Joel,” Nelson explained. “I want the people around me to be happy, but I look at life as a roller coaster. When I’m up, I’m up, and when I’m down, I’m down, and I hope when it’s all over, the money runs out just about the same time that I’m through with my life.”

More than 3 decades later, Nelson is still making albums at a clip of better than 1 per year and touring extensively. Not that there haven’t been some setbacks. When Nelson cancelled some dates earlier this year with a bout of the flu, some fans speculated that the end of the road was near. But if you’ve been following Nelson for any length of time, you’d know that Willie’s gonna do what Willie’s gonna do. That includes his relationship with mortality. He is, after all, “Gods Problem Child.”

That doesn’t mean Nelson isn’t thinking about the inevitable. On the album’s opening (title) track, he addresses something that occurs with increasing frequency in later years – the passing of friends. He lists a few by name and laments, “it cuts like a wore out knife.” But Nelson turns it into some dark humor, “I don’t wanna be the last man standing, on second thought maybe I do.”

Death is a more frequent topic on Last Man Standing than previous albums. But this is no pity party. Nelson’s always been a master at turning a phrase. And there’s some doozies on his latest. Who else but Willie could use “halitosis” in a lyric and get away with it? “Halitosis is a word I never could spell, but bad breath is better than no breath at all.” What makes Last Man Standing such a joy are the number of laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. God says, “Willie, we need you up here. Bill Hicks hasn’t come up with a new joke in years.” Willie says, “Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded, so I think I’ll just stay where I am.”

But don’t get the idea that Last Man Standing is top-to-bottom songs about mortality and death. There’s enough first-rate love-gone-wrong weepers mixed in to keep the jukeboxes playing for at least a few more years. The good news here, is that Nelson has gotten the “songbook” phase out of his system for several albums in a row and he’s writing new classics at a pace that defies logic or statistics. He’s proving to be a little bit Mark Twain and a little bit Benjamin Button. And a whole lotta Willie. And his estate planning? Well, there’s also a deluxe edition (3 extra songs) available at that gathering place for his oldest fans, Cracker Barrel.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pete Townshend's Who Came First: An Album For Our Times

Pete Townshend Who Came First (45th Anniversary Edition)
-review by Bill Glahn

In 1970 and 1972, two little known albums were released by the Universal Spiritual League titled Happy Birthday and I Am. They were tributes to Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, who had died in 1969, by Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane, and associated followers of Baba. Only 2500 of each were pressed and distributed. They would form the core of Townshend’s first solo album, Who Came First.

By 1972, The Who had developed a reputation for being a dynamic hard rockin’ live act – helped along by the most ferocious of  all live albums, Live At Leeds (1970). Their next studio album Who’s Next, with a few notable exceptions, carried that reputation into the studio. The first Who solo project, John Entwistle’s Smash Your Head Against The Wall, did nothing to change that perceived dynamic. Neither did a collection of singles spanning most of the band’s career, Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy. So imagine hearing Who Came First for the first time – an album almost exclusively sung and played by Townshend.

Things start off with “Pure & Easy,” a song, like many of those that appeared on Who’s Next, that was resuscitated from Townshend’s Lifehouse project. In his history of The Who, Before I Get Old, music critic Dave Marsh calls the song “ … Peter Townshend’s greatest statement of his beliefs; it is perhaps rock’s greatest song of faith.” “Pure & Easy” finishes with the most human of percussion, handclaps. It’s a musical theme that will repeat itself often on Who Came First.

The next track is the first song to derive from Happy Birthday, a Ronnie Lane contribution called “Evolution.” It foreshadows the greatness of Rough Mix, a collaboration with Lane that would come later. It’s a spiritual song as well as a tribute. The other song from Happy Birthday, “Content,” a meditative poem put to music, comes near the album’s conclusion. And when Townshend sings “I am content” as the song fades, you believe him.

The most striking difference between Who Came First and contemporary Who albums is in it’s sparseness of amplified instrumentation and the humbleness of the vocals. And those are entirely appropriate for the material. On this 45th anniversary edition, Universal has done well to separate the original (remastered) album onto a single disc and confining the bonus tracks to a second. The second disc will certainly be of interest to longtime Who fans, but it’s the first that you’ll be revisiting time and again.

To these ears, the sound production by Jon Astley sounds superior to the sound I remember on the original vinyl – the separation of the instruments being more pronounced. Especially the handclaps. They jump out of the speakers in a way I don’t remember.

Meher Baba Baba took a vow of silence that lasted the last 44 years of his life (he communicated by a form sign language and an alphabet board.) I listened and I heard music in a word? It’s hard to listen when you’re speaking. When you tune into Townshend's’s spiritual aspects (not the way I listened as an 18-year-old), it opens up a different way of hearing Townshend. In a world where people talk over each other, it's an album that is just as important in 2018 as it was in 1972. Maybe more so.

[Notes: The original Meher Baba tribute albums were bootlegged in the United States, but in even shorter quantities than the originals. All are extremely rare and in demand by collectors. More common are some of the unrealeased tracks, which have been splattered around bootleg CD compilations of “Who outtakes.” An official box set called Avatar compiles Happy Birthday, I Am, and a third Meher Baba tribute album recorded later, With Love (1976).] For the curious, it’s readily available on Amazon..]

Bonus views: