Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin" by Alice Echols (1999)

It was probably just coincidence that led me to this book on the 40th anniversary (give or take a few days) of Janis Joplin's death. I mean, I'm a big fan, but when I ran across this in Smith Family a couple of weeks ago it hadn't yet registered that this year made 40, or that it happened in October...

Alice Echols seems to have been trained as a cultural historian, with an emphasis on gender studies. She certainly writes like one, and I mean that as a compliment: this is a much more literate work than most rock biographies, it's carefully documented, and it pays studied attention to many of the larger forces shaping Janis's life and choices. This is Echols's strength, plainly, and where the book succeeds, it's because of this.

What this book does well is to give us Janis as a real person, with all her contradictions and complexities. For the longest time I listened to Janis and heard only the tough broad, the brave hedonist, the spaced-out hippie, the devil-may-care nonconformer. Echols shows to what extent this was a pose and to what extent it was real, what drove Janis to adopt this pose, and what price she paid.

Which is to say that this book is mainly interested in Janis as an example of a woman raised in an oppressive society (America in the '50s and early '60s, and specifically Port Arthur, Texas, which seems to have been especially oppressive) who chose to rebel. Without saying so in so many words, Echols seems to locate the roots of Janis's lifelong suffering in a low self-esteem caused by the unrealistic and inhuman expectations of her family and peers. Janis struggled mightily to be free to express herself artistically and sexually, being both a strong female artist and a more-or-less open bisexual at a time when neither were widely accepted positions; while her art gave her enough fulfillment to keep her going for a while, still her inner demons conquered her, leading to the dependence on alcohol and heroin that killed her.

The latter part is, of course, the archetypal story of rock'n'roll, and the former sounds glib when summarized baldly like that, but Echols really does provide a compelling story. It's hard not to empathize with Janis as presented here, the proverbial ugly duckling (she's obsessed with her putative lack of beauty) who becomes a swan, but is forever tormented by fears that she's not. The lack of a happy ending is at least partially due to the fact that while the SF counterculture did create for its participants a pretty wide zone of freedom, that was mostly for men: hippies were pretty sexist until the '70s were well underway. This is an old story, but it's still worth repeating; it helped do Janis in. (A great deal of the flak she took for leaving Big Brother had to do with being an uppity woman betraying the men who had, supposedly, given her her big break. Her career never recovered; to some degree, neither did her reputation.)

This is the book's strength: it evokes Janis's life very thoughtfully and evenly.

The book's weakness is that Echols seems to be basically uninterested in music except as a social phenomenon. She writes very little about Janis's actual singing, about her records, about her artistic ambitions and achievements. Most of her great performances get little more than a mention. Monterey Pop gets several pages, but it's the exception; her Woodstock performance is dismissed in a sentence, and the only song from her last album even mentioned is "Me And Bobby McGee." What few attempts Echols makes to deal with Janis's music tend to be quotations from other critics' opinions (she cites Christgau a lot).

I'm not sure how big a weakness this is. Certainly it made the book less enjoyable for me: without the music to enliven things, it tended to read like, well, an academic monograph. I suppose one could argue that I already know what I think of Janis's recordings, so I don't need Echols's opinions; but I think I always approach a music bio hoping for some critical insight that will help me appreciate the music better. There's no attempt at that here.

Maybe Echols just doesn't like Janis's music all that much. I mean, she does make a case for the importance of what Janis does, but she ignores Pearl and has nothing much good to say about the other three albums; she hardly attempts to disguise her disdain for Big Brother as a band, and doesn't give the Kozmic Blues guys much of a chance. In this she's merely following the prevailing critical opinion, but maybe it was time, in 1999, to listen to these things with fresh ears. There's a lot to appreciate in every phase of Janis's work, every band she worked with.

But in fact Echols's indifference to Big Brother is symptomatic, I think, of an overall antipathy to the San Francisco scene as a whole. She doesn't have anything good to say about any of the bands, and in fact spends an inordinate amount of space exposing the immaturity and hypocrisy of the scene. Worse, she seems to present all of this as if it's meant to be some kind of revelation. I mean, people have been talking about how miserable Woodstock was from the very beginning, but her discussion of it focuses on the dark side of it in tones that suggest she's speaking truth to power or something. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against an even-handed treatment of the counterculture. Far from it. But if all you knew about it was what Echols writes you'd have to wonder what all the fuss was about - and then you'd wonder, why write about Janis Joplin at all?

To this indifference and occasionally hostility toward the music scene Janis helped define, I have to add a couple of other music-related flaws. One, Echols's lack of interest in the music seems to have led her to be less careful in her research there than elsewhere. She misidentifies at least one band (calling the Sons of Champlin "the Champlin Sons" on p. 206). More importantly, her presentation of some of the music-related details tends to be a bit misleading - she presents Columbia's signing of Big Brother as if the company was rushing to get in on this rocking-and-rolling thing, neglecting to note that Columbia was already a major player in '60s American rock, with not only Dylan but the Byrds on their roster.

Second, and I think most seriously, in her treatment of the music she frequently sets up straw men. The one that stood out to me most was in her introduction, where she repeats a certain well-circulated but also well-debunked myth about Elvis and blacks, by way of playing up Janis's racial egalitarianism. This wasn't necessary, first of all; it's a mere convenience, and it just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would be done by a writer who was writing out of love for music.

A music biography that gets the music wrong isn't worth much, you might think. Well, I'm not going to argue with you very strenuously. But I'm sincere when I say that even with its flaws, this is one of the best music bios I've read.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jefferson Airplane No. 1.5

Skip Spence the drummer left the Airplane in the late spring of 1966 - well before the first album was released. He was replaced, eventually, by Spencer Dryden. By the time 1968 rolled around Dryden's mastery of the kit was making itself felt, but to be honest I don't notice much difference between his stickwork and Skip's in 1966.

Skip, of course, would go on to better things, if not bigger. He was a big part of Moby Grape, and would later record one solo album, which didn't sell too well but would later turn into one of the Top 5 Fashionable Namechecks in Rock, right up there with Pet Sounds. ...Okay, that's snark. It's a pretty good album. ...Anyway, the point is that Skip Spence's time in the Airplane is basically nothing but a footnote to his career, and to the Airplane's. His biggest contribution to the Airplane, in fact, came after he left, in the form of two songs that he wrote and left in their possession - but that's another story.

So the second lineup of the Airplane for which we have any recorded evidence was Marty Balin and Signe Toly Anderson on vocals, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen on guitars and vocals, Jack Casady on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums. We have recorded evidence of them, as I say, but it's mostly been kept under wraps for decades, so we'll call this JA No. 1.5, rather than 2.

They seem to have had one studio session, in July of 1966. Given the timing, I think we can assume that this was an effort to come up with a single to follow up the first album, rather than a beginning on a second album. The session produced one new song, "Go To Her" (which JA No. 1 had been playing live, but hadn't laid down during the sessions for the album), and reworked versions of "Chauffeur Blues" and "And I Like It." The latter was stretched out to eight minutes, reflecting the way the song had developed in concert; the former was still short, and that's why I think it might have been meant for a single, probably with "Go To Her" on the a-side and "Chauffeur Blues" on the b. But then Signe left the band, and this session was left sleeping until 1992, when "Go To Her" was released on the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set; the other two came out on the 2003 reissue of the debut album.

"Go To Her" is brilliant, one of the best sides the Anderson lineup left us. It's a classic example of the early Airplane firing on all cylinders: Anderson belting, Balin crooning, Kantner droning, with sharp, abrasive counterpoint from Kaukonen and a rhythm section that somehow sounds both agile and muscular.

The main reason, though, why this lineup is worth considering on its own at all is because we have quite a few live tapes of them, all from the fall of 1966 in San Francisco, and all streaming at Wolfgang's Vault. This is the Airplane in its home hangar, if you will, at Winterland and the Fillmore, feeling comfortable and just getting it done.

I lean toward the September 30 show, myself. It has the definitive early rendition of "The Other Side Of This Life" - it really ought to be officially released. It starts with a long developmental jam, great weeping guitar sounds from Kaukonen, and when it finally settles into a nice cruising groove we get those soaring harmonies coming in above it. The more I listen to it the more it becomes one of my favorite JA performances It simply must be heard.

If you sift through all the shows up at the Vault you'll hear renditions of basically everything from the first album sessions. Sometimes the songs have grown - "And I Like It" has turned into a surprisingly deep number, with Marty expertly exploring different permutations of the navel-gazing blues. And sometimes the songs don't quite make it live - "Let Me In" is a bit wobbly, showing that Kantner was having a little trouble actually carrying a tune on stage.

There are also a few new developments evident in these tapes. There are early renditions of "3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds," a key track on their second album. There's the debut of the other key cover that would make Bless Its Pointed Little Head such an important part of the Airplane canon, Donovan's "Fat Angel." I still can't decide if it's a fine courteous gesture or astonishing arrogance for the Airplane to cover this tune, especially since they leave intact the line about "fly Jefferson Airplane." But they do a magnificent job with it, even here, when the song is still young; it's quite mellow, with Kaukonen's folky acoustic guitar driving it and Kaukonen playing hypnotic raga riffs over the top.

Of course the main reason I'm glad we have these tapes is Signe. She left the band in October - her last gig was October 15, to be precise, which we now know because we can hear the band saying goodbye to her onstage on one of these tapes. The very next night would be Grace Slick's first show with the band, and, well, that really made it a very different band. So savor these early-autumn shows, with the band at an early peak, and Signe in perfect form.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ôkiku furikabutte (2003-present)

Once in a while, I read manga. Once in a greater while, I blog about them. This is a violation of my usual practice with books read for pleasure, which is to blog every single last blooming one of them. Why the exception for the manga? Quite simple, really: I don't know where to stop. Like, do I blog every volume I read? Or do I wait until I've read all the volumes of a series? If I do the former, then I end up blogging in much more detail about far more manga than I'd really enjoy doing (and so I don't). If I do the latter then I basically never blog manga, because only rarely do I finish a whole title - either it's something that's still in progress (there are five or six I'm following right now), or I lose interest and never finish it (like the one I'm going to talk about in a few paragraphs, if I get around to it).

Same goes, incidentally, for TV series. Aside from their convenient mind-numbing properties, I've come to appreciate the fact that several series currently running, or recently completed, rise to the level of high filmic art, or are at least worth thinking and writing about; but aside from my experiment with Dollhouse (and not entirely because of it), there's nothing I feel like blogging every episode of, and when I finish something... Like, we just finished The Wire, and what could I possibly say about that in a blog post that would be worth reading?* It's the War and Peace of our day. End of story.

Anyway, so I don't blog most of the manga I read. I'd like to change that, though, because I like manga, and I enjoy thinking about them and, therefore, writing about them.

I recently read the first three and a half volumes of an ongoing series, and gave up halfway through the fourth. I highly doubt I'll pick it back up again, so that must mean it's ripe for the blogging...

Ôkiku furikabutte おおきく振りかぶって, by Higuchi Asa ひぐちアサ. It's been running in Gekkan [Monthly] Afternoon 月刊アフタヌーン since 2003. It's a baseball comic.

The furikaburu is to brandish or swing, like a sword, which meant that, since I don't know much about Japanese baseball, I figured the title would translate to "Swing Big" or "Swing for the Bleachers." But evidently in a baseball context it refers to the pitcher's wind-up. So: "Big Wind-Up"? "Do a Nomo?" I dunno. (And that last one really dates me.)

Obviously, I'm the wrong audience for a baseball comic.

Actually that's really true: baseball comix fall under the generalized heading of sports comix, or more precisely, spokon スポコン comix: "sports tenacity," as the Italian seems to have it, "sports guts," or "sports balls." "Balls and balls" comix, really. The idea being that these comix focus as much on the emotional intangibles of athletic prowess as on the measurable skills: you gotta have heart.

I'm allergic to this genre. I'm a perfect storm of reasons not to like balls'n'balls comix: utterly hopeless at sports since the day I was born, stuck in sports-obsessed American public schools where dumb jocks ruled the halls, viscerally repelled by the fusion of sports and nationalism, sports and moralism, sports and politics, sports and fucks everything up (yes, I bear psychic scars from high school, and compensate for them in adulthood with purple prose). Oddly enough, I'm able to enjoy the spectacle, the human physical and emotional display, of sports, sometimes, selectively, and when I don't have anything better to do (I always watch the Olympics, for example). But I have a hard time sympathizing with jocks, and with a lot of the emotional discourses that surround them. In Japanese terms, Kôshien doesn't make me misty-eyed, it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

All that said, I did read three and a half volumes of the Big Hurl. Mostly because it came highly recommended from friends and loved ones, who I'll try not to judge too harshly because of it. And, to be honest, I liked it a lot more than I should have. I went into it wanting to like it, and it really wasn't until sometime in the second volume that I remembered why I hate balls'n'balls stories. (The cloying sentimentality, the glorification of bullies, the quasi-militarist fetish for order.)

So the surprise isn't that, in the end, this turned out to be a sterling example of its genre; the surprise is that it kept me reading so long. What did? Well, two things.

First, the way it explores the mental calculations that pitcher and catcher perform both on the batter and on each other with every pitch - it shows these in detail, frame after frame. Most of the first and part of the second volume (so what, a year or so of serialization time?) are taken up with a single game. And while that sounds boring, it's actually riveting. If I ever watch baseball again, I'll never watch it the same way again.

Second, the psychology of the two main characters, the pitcher Mihashi and his catcher Abe. Mihashi is a psychological basket case, having been bullied in junior high school (the story begins when he's a high school freshman - tenth grader, that is) by other members of his team. On the mound he's an absolute phenom, but he needs constant soothing and handholding and emotional support, mainly from his catcher, who takes it upon himself to be Mihashi's best friend. Abe has his own reasons, of course, not at all altruistic, but since his interests coincide with the team's and Mihashi's, all's cool, at least as far as I read. ...I thought this incredible vulnerability was the strength of the book, and to me it felt fresh, although those who know more about the genre than I do have suggested to me that, while it's particularly well done here, still as a motif it's not unusual. The idea of the catcher having to be the pitcher's "wife" (in the sense of propping up his fragile ego) is a common one, evidently. And in fact I could start to see, by Volume 4, signs that this interesting set-up was going to go in some pretty uninteresting I put it down.

The end.

*I realize you could ask that about most of my posts!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Santana (1971)

Santana's third album, like their first, was called simply Santana. As a practical matter, people called it Santana III, and this nickname was formalized with the 2006 reissue, which had Santana III printed on the spine (the 1998 reissue had Santana III printed on a sticker pasted onto the jewel case, but not on the spine). It's a practical move, but it obscures what the repeated eponymity was presumably meant to emphasize: that this was the debut of a new band, just like the first Santana had been.

That's hard to recognize now, because the personnel changes that came after Santana III were so much more drastic than those that came before it, and particularly because they were accompanied by musical changes, which wasn't the case with Santana III. In other words, while this album can claim to be the first by the New Santana Band, it's musically much more appropriate to hear it as the last album by the Woodstock-era Santana band. Which is how it's generally thought of.

The new. For the 1971 album the lineup was augmented by a second guitarist, teenage phenom Neal Schon. This was the age of dual-lead-guitar lineups - Derek & the Dominoes and the Allman Brothers were the obvious precedents here. But Neal wasn't the only addition. Timbalero José Chepito Areas had temporarily left the band due to a brain aneurysm; he recovered in time to play on the album, but in his absence* the band had already recruited a new third percussionist, Coke Escovedo. On the album he's just listed as a session player, but by all accounts he was a member of the band (giving them, count 'em, four percussionists: Escovedo, Areas, Mike Carabello, and Michael Shrieve). (And dig this: Coke's niece is Sheila E., and his brother Alejandro played with Rank and File.)

Add to that significant guest shots by Luis Gasca and the Tower of Power horn section, and you have a significantly expanded Santana on display here. It's most obvious in the expanded instrumental palette. The greasy R&B muscle of "Everybody's Everything" was not what you would have expected from Santana, but once you wrap your head around it, it really works, due as much to the horns as to the explosive guitar work - which is Schon's, not Carlos's.

(That's the one disconcerting thing about the expanded lineup. It's very easy not to notice the difference between Neal's and Carlos's playing. They're using very similar guitar tones (Neal's is a little fuzzier), and Neal is playing very much in Carlos's style, so it can be maddening to try to tell them apart. Listening to live work from the period (see below), it's apparent that they're really not that similar - Carlos has a lot more soul, for lack of a better word, while Neal has more aggression - but on the album they're pretty close.)

The album didn't really have the hits the first two did. Supposedly "No One To Depend On" went Top 20, but you never hear it today. "Everybody's Everything" and "Everything's Coming Our Way" were on the band's first greatest-hits album, the one with the iconic dove cover, but they're so untypical of the band's sound that they didn't make me, for one, curious to hear the album.

All three of those almost-hits are great songs, though. "Everything's Coming Our Way" is shockingly light and poppy at first, but notice how careful the dynamics are, how solid the percussion underpinnings are - it's positively graceful, considering how much energy it contains. "No One To Depend On," meanwhile, is a worthy if neglected successor to "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman" - it's mostly copped from Willie Bobo's "Spanish Grease" (and what little they didn't use in the one song they put into their own "Guajira") but with Santana's by-then-trademark acid-blues sensibility to transform it. It's that sensibility that's still intact on this album, and that would change radically immediately thereafter; that's what makes this the last of a trilogy.

And what a final statement. Finally a studio version of "Toussaint L'Overture," which was in their repertoire long before Neal Schon joined, and which stands as one of their definitive moments. From that samba-battery opening to Carlos's furious opening statement to the way Gregg Rolie's organ interlocks so beautifully with the multiple percussionists. This is the original Santana getting right down to the heart of the matter, the blood and bone of liberation.

That all applies to the album as originally released in 1971. It's been reissued in two different formats since. In 1998 it was remastered and reissued with slightly jejune liner notes by Ben Fong-Torres, and three live tracks from 7/4/71 at the Fillmore West, the fabled Closing of the Fillmore. What the liner notes didn't mention was that two other tracks from that show had been released on Fillmore - The Last Days way back when, and that those weren't included here. It was typical Sony miserliness.

This was rectified in 2006 when they came out with a two-disc reissue. The second disc contained the full (at least that's what they say) 7/4/71 show. This is worth getting even if you already have the 1998 reissue (raises hand). Partly because it's a great show, and includes a very interesting and evidently unique take on Miles Davis's "In A Silent Way," pointing straight at where Santana would head in 1972. And partly because the live recording, unlike the album, keeps Neal consistently in the left channel and Carlos in the right, allowing you to compare their styles.

The 2006 also includes three studio outtakes: "Gumbo," an instrumental very similar to "Jungle Strut" and "Toussaint L'Overture" and a couple of others that made the album (it's also on the live disc); "Folsom Street - One," a one-off studio jam, bluesy and seductive; and "Banbeye," a long percussion-and-chanting number with a little guitar at the very end. It sounds like they might have been planning to add more later, or maybe they were trying to keep it sparse and hypnotic. It has some nice flute, which the reissue fails to credit - kind of like they failed to credit Marcus Malone for existing on the reissue of the first album.

That kind of shoddiness marks all of Sony's treatments of Santana's back catalogue, as far as I can tell. The '98 reissues were decent, but no more, with fairly elementary liner notes and the bare minimum of bonus tracks. The 2006 reissue of III, meanwhile, gets all the tracks right, but includes truly atrocious liner notes by Jim McCarthy, whose prose suffers from the verbal equivalent of roid rage. Most of his sentences simply don't make sense. Like, he has "their inspired music standing the test of time by remaining timeless." Yeah.

*After losing Areas, but before gaining Escovedo, they had none other than Willie Bobo himself (responsible for their first hit, "Evil Ways") sit in on timbales. Watch here. They really ought to have given him a writing credit on "No One To Depend On."