Saturday, January 29, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: In The Wind (1963)

Through the inestimable Expecting Rain I found a review of a new book about the New Lost City Ramblers. "Anxiety over Authenticity in Folk Music," the review is called. The NLCRs were a folk revival group: not one I ever immersed myself in, but from Poole's description of Ray Allen's book, it sounds like they were confronting exactly the issues I was talking about here. I might have to read that book. But don't worry: I'm done (I think) talking about the authenticity question for a while. PP&M's third album brings up different issues.

In The Wind
was released in October of 1963. As Professor Wikipedia reminds us, that's just a couple of months before the British Invasion would begin, which turned teens' attention away from folk-pop immediately, and would eventually draw in more mature listeners as well. What the wiki doesn't remind us of is that October 1963 was just a month before the Kennedy assassination. I don't know if you could find any music better suited to the vaunted optimism of the Kennedy years than PP&M's. So, farewell to the golden era, right?

In The Wind is, for my money, not quite as satisfying a record as their first two. It has its share of classics. If I was put on that mythical desert island of my dreams and told I could only take a handful of Peter, Paul & Mary tunes, "Long Chain On" would definitely be one of them. And "Very Last Day" is their hardest-hitting gospel opener yet, expressing not just exultation but a little bit of rage - this is PP&M at their most politely apocalyptic.

But many of the other selections seem to fit too neatly into already-established patterns: "Rocky Road" is a pleasant, well-done record, but definitely sounds like PP&M Children's? Song Part XII.

And some of the songs are downright misfires. "Stewball," which people seem to love, always struck me as cloying and obvious in ways that "Puff" wasn't - the pop side of the folk revival was always in danger of slipping into novelty music, and here they did. "All My Trials," so haunting in Joan Baez's version, shows the lower end of Mary's range off to dismaying effect.

But I'm avoiding the one new thing they did on this album, and the reason it was such a massive hit. It includes not one, not two, but three songs by Bob Dylan. Let's get the timing nailed down here. They include "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," which Dylan recorded in late 1962 and released on his second album in May of 1963 - well before PP&M's version. They include "Quit Your Low Down Ways," which Dylan had recorded in July of 1962, but held back; it was finally released in 1991. And of course they did "Blowin' In The Wind," which Dylan had begun performing in early 1962, recorded in July of that year, and released on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in May 1963. It's worth noting that PP&M's single of this song came out in June 1963.

So, one of Bob's skewed love songs, one of his blues pastiches, and one of his protest songs. A suspiciously generous and broad selection of his work - and let's not forget that PP&M and Bobby shared a manager, the notorious Albert Grossman. This is product placement, obviously.

But it works for everybody. Dylan was the big noise in the folk-revival community by this point. He wasn't selling a lot of records, and nobody outside Greenwich Village and a few college campuses knew who he was, but all the insiders had recognized him as the Golden Boy by this point, for his performances but mostly of course for his songwriting. (And let's not forget that for all the hand-to-hand song-trading that the folk-revivalists fetishized, a lot of them learned songs off of paper: and "Blowin'" had been published in May 1962.)

In short, not only would Big Al have been leaning on PP&M to give a shout-out to his other client, but the trio would have been feeling the same pressure as everybody else in their field to come to terms with this burgeoning talent, who everybody assumed was going to be the Next Big Thing. So, three of his songs find their way onto their third album - filling the same slots that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger tunes had on earlier discs. The contemporary/protest slots. (Plus one of the trad-music slots.) A smart move, certainly, but I can't imagine it wasn't fraught with some anxiety, or maybe I just want it to be, because the piercing individuality of "Don't Think Twice" sits uneasily beside the carefully-cultivated anonymity of the trad material, and the overenthusiastic blues pastiche of "Low Down Ways" nevertheless works perfectly well as blues. Dylan, in other words, is something else entirely, Samson with long hair just about to bring the whole building down, and you can already feel it start to shake.

Every future album of theirs would be cast onto waters over which Dylan's shadow fell. That's just the way it was in the Folk Revival after 1963. But I like to imagine that brief moment in the summer of 1963 when it wasn't like that yet, when Dylan's version of "Blowin' In The Wind" was out but not very many people had heard it yet, and so PP&M's version isn't competing with it, not really, not for most listeners...

What I'm dancing around here, clumsily, is the fact that Dylan's version is weird and artistic, while PP&M's version is obvious and very poppy. And what does that mean? Every card-carrying Dylan fan (I got mine laminated) is required to prefer his version and scoff at theirs. They had the hit. He got the immortality. But what was really happening with it in May-June 1963?

Dylan's version is, as I say, weird. A little too fast for the solemnity of the lyric: you want to slow down and contemplate it, but he takes it at a tempo that rushes you through it, urging you on, gently to be sure but insistently. His vocal rhythm is skewed: it sounds off-handed, or hesitant, again undercutting the poetic simplicity and depth of the lyric. In short Dylan expertly creates tension here, forcing you to hear the questioning in these questions, allowing you to hear the diffidence, but undeniable pride, the singer feels in having formulated the questions so concisely. It's a masterpiece of a record. No doubt.

But it's not anthemic. It's an anti-anthemic recording. You're not going to march, holding hands, on Washington or any other citadel of power while singing Dylan's version. Is Dylan failing to hear the anthem in what he wrote? Or is he denying it?

PP&M's version is anthemic, through and through. They slow down the pace into a nice, swinging, rocking, hand-holding, flag-waving tempo; they round off the rough edges of his verse melody into something anybody can feel; they apply all their harmonic mastery to the chorus, to that bit that anybody can sing along to and everyone wants to. It's a perfect folk-pop performance, and if you're at all open to that sort of thing, it's tremendously winning. They do the anthemic potential of the song justice.

In later years, Dylan has always delivered this song with full cognizance of its anthemic qualities. Whether performing it acoustically or electrically, he gives it the sing-along treatment. Among other things this is likely a nod to the immortality PP&M's version gave it; it's like what he does with "All Along The Watchtower," which is always a tribute to what Hendrix heard in the song.

Is it impossible to hear in Dylan's original recording of the song an early attempt to come to terms with what PP&M did with it? The recording dates don't allow that - Dylan recorded his album version in July of 1962, almost a year before either he or they would release it. The most one could claim is that having made his version of the song, he chose to release it anyway, rather than revise it once he became aware of what PP&M were going to release (I can't imagine Dylan didn't hear their arrangement before he released his). So what I'm trying to hear probably isn't there.

But it kind of works anyway. You can hear Dylan's determinedly odd take on the song, not as a denial or a failure of the anthemic potential, but as a recognition that it's going to be turned into an anthem - and that's fine - but since you're going to hear it that way anyway, I might as well take this opportunity to point out that there's another way to hear it that nobody's going to pick up on if I don't show them the way.

That is: I'm not sure I'd call Bob's 1962 recording the definitive version of the song. It's too easy to hear it as a comment on the PP&M version. Which did, after all, what it was meant to do: provide inspiring singalong music for countless marches.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Anno Moyoco: Sakuran (2001-2003)

I've had this one sitting on the shelf for a while, and never got around to reading it. Not out of lack of interest: rather, I could tell it was going to be so good that I wanted to wait for the right time. The Paul Masson theory of literary consumption, for those old enough to remember it.

Anno Moyoko 安野モヨコ (Moyoco seems to be her preferred romanization: cute): Sakuran さくらん, serialized from 2001 to 2003, published in book form in 2003. There's a movie, too, which I haven't seen (I was waiting to read the manga). It's a little unclear how complete the story is at the end of this volume; she started serializing a second part in 2005, but it petered out. At the moment, Volume 1 is the only volume.

It's a true modern classic, though. Art, story, everything. It's set in the pleasure quarters of Edo, the notorious licensed-prostitution district, and it's kind of a bildungsroman about the courtesan Kiyoha: how she comes to the quarter, how she grows up, how she advances through the ranks.

The subject matter is pretty hackneyed, even if you like this sort of thing - Memoirs of a Geisha, anybody? The brilliance of this manga is in how Anno manages to make it all seem fresh. She writes/draws of the pleasure quarters as if nobody else had ever depicted them in fiction: and I doubt anybody has depicted them quite like this. Through liberally working in contemporary (as in right-now) girls'-comix aesthetics, over-the-top exaggerations of textile designs and hairstyles, and fashion-magazine poses and faces, Anno succeeds in making the quarter and its denizens feel real. She makes the glamor that every contemporary (as in right-then) source speaks of, but that can feel so remote and fairy-tale to us moderns, feel immediate. Shorter: this is an impossibly sexy Yoshiwara.

At the same time Anno pulls no punches in depicting the sexual-slavery realities of the pleasure quarters, forcing readers to confront the seamy underbelly of all that glamor. But she does it in a hard-boiled way that allows her to avoid the Dickensian sadism that destroyed Golden's book: Kiyoha, for all her sufferings, is not a very sympathetic character, and that makes her story ring true.

It's a rush, this comic. The art is overwhelming, and the setting bewildering. It doesn't help - or maybe it does help - that Anno isn't the most skilled narrator. It can be really hard to follow exactly what's happening to whom, and she leaves out a lot of the exposition that you might expect to find in a historical manga, explaining the peculiar lingo and customs of the quarter. She throws you in at the deep end, figuring the best visions are what you see just before you drown. She may be right.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: (Moving) (1963)

Their first may be their definitive album, but their second, (Moving), comes damn close to matching it. It follows closely on the template of the first - same kinds of songs, in mostly the same kind of order (closing with a moody seasonal number rather than an antiwar anthem). It's as satisfying as anything they ever did, and if it doesn't quite equal the impact of the first one, it's only because most of the songs aren't quite as instantly memorable as the ones on the first album. They're fine songs - "Pretty Mary" (and is she ever! dig that cover! the face that launched a thousand trips!), "Tiny Sparrow," and "Old Coat" are some of my favorites of theirs - but they do tend to fly under the radar a bit.

The exception to the above is "Puff, The Magic Dragon," which is, of course, one of the group's best-known recordings. It's also significant as the only original composition of PP&M's to lodge itself in the popular consciousness. The Wikipedia entry on the song is worth reading, as a primer to the controversy.

Because, of course, "Puff" may be a drug song. Or it may not be. What it is for sure is most people's introduction to the thorny recesses of literary interpretation.

(Oh, please don't throw me in that briar patch, Br'er Bear!)

Is "Puff" a drug song? Most people who ask that question want a yes or no answer. They think there can be a yes or no answer. Unless you analyze lit for a living, in which case you know that the only way you can answer that question is with another question: what do you mean?

I'm right with Bill on this one: it depends on what you mean by the word "is."

That is, the kind of answer you expect to that question, the kind of information that you would accept as evidence one way or another, depends on what you think defines meaning in a song lyric: i.e., in literature.

Oversimply put, there are basically three positions you can take on this question. Defined in extreme terms, they are these.

(a) You can believe that the meaning of a piece of writing is whatever the author of it thinks it is when he or she writes it. The author defines the meaning. If you ask Peter (and lyricist Lenny Lipton) if "Puff" is a drug song, and they say no, there's you're answer: it's not a drug song. Unless you think they're lying, and really did intend for it to be a drug song, in which case it is a drug song but you have no proof. Unless you catch them on video sometime lighting up a spliff and laughing about how they've corrupted generations of kids by tricking them into unknowingly singing a drug song. But even then it's not proof, because maybe they're only being ironic, or maybe James O'Keefe entrapped them, or...

The point is, if you believe authorial intent is what defines meaning, then you're s.o.l., because you can never satisfactorily ascertain authorial intent. You really have no idea what Yarrow and Lipton meant unless you were squatting in their heads. This is kind of obvious, right?

The funny thing is, most of us realize this, and yet most of us have trouble completely discounting authorial intent as a tool for interpreting literature. Most of us (me included) are at least curious to hear what an author has to say about her writing - most of us won't ignore interviews with our favorite authors. So I'm not saying authorial intentions, and discussions thereof, are totally irrelevant...

(b) You can believe the meaning of a piece is whatever the reader makes of it. The reader completes the circuit of meaning, and only then does the juice flow. If you hear "Jackie Paper," "Puff," "dragon/draggin'," and references to magic kingdoms and you think "marijuana!" then it's a drug song - for you.

In other words, here there is no fixed meaning: the lyrics mean whatever you want them to mean. Or maybe want has nothing to do with it: maybe you can't help but hear the lyrics as being about drugs, because you think nobody could possibly be that naive, or you think Yarrow and Lipton were dirty fucking hippies and of course they were trying to corrupt your children, or whatever.

The point is, even if you're a hundred percent convinced that it's a drug song, so what: that interpretation is valid for yourself and yourself only. And few of us are ready to completely accept that approach, and not just, I think, because we're hopelessly looking for absolutes in a world that has none. It just doesn't square with our lived experience to think that words mean something completely different to everyone who hears them. If that were the case no communication would be possible at all. And yet we sort of communicate, which means it must be possible to sort of establish meaning that's valid for more than one reader...

And yet most of us are reluctant to abandon this approach completely, too, because our experience also tells us that poems, literature, songs can have a deeply personal meaning to us, that nobody can talk us out of.

(c) You can - and it should be clear by now that I think most of us in practice do - take some sort of middle position, where we feel a certain amount of reasonable attention should be paid to authorial intent, and/or the fixed meanings of words, and a certain amount of reasonable attention should be paid to the way large numbers of people receive those words. Meaning is messy, and maybe can't be completely nailed down, but we should be able to arrive at a more or less accurate understanding of what a song means by this kind of triangulation... (I really am a Clintonian, ain't I?)

And you can, furthermore, realize that by adopting (c) what you're really doing is recognizing that the process of thinking about both (a) and (b) and all points in between adds more to your understanding of the literature than a simple yes or no answer to the original question ever could have.

Let's look at a different example. J.J. Cale wrote a song called "Cocaine," which Eric Clapton covered. It's one of his biggest hits and concert faves. If you think about the lyrics, and read what Clapton says about them, you could make a case that the author and performer think it's an anti-drug song. But if you listen to live recordings and hear tens of thousands of people joyfully shouting along with the chorus, you realize that for most listeners, it's a pro-drug song. Which is it? There's no simple answer, but by recognizing the ambiguities in the lyrics, the way they make it possible for listeners to have two interpretations, and by noting the ambiguity in Clapton's own presentation, whereby he continues to perform the song year after year in full knowledge of the fans' interpretation, you begin to realize that everybody's feelings about drugs are complicated, and that rock and roll is not a genre that lends itself well to cautionary tales, and that Clapton's relationship with his audience is probably a little too comfortable for his artistic good, and that his own feelings about the substances he's on record as having abused and forsaken are probably more ambivalent than he lets on, and, and, and.

So: is "Puff" a drug song? Do you want it to be? Do you want to find a smoking gun that says Peter Yarrow was trying to get kids to smoke reefer? Do you want it not to be? Do you want to be able to hear it in a state of innocence, so that you the jaded adult can indulge in childhood fantasy without thinking about its metaphorical possibilities? All of these are real questions, and interesting ones.

As is, to be honest, the question of what Yarrow and Lipton thought they were doing. I tend to believe them when they say they had nothing like that in mind... And yet, we can't be entirely sure they're telling the truth now, can we? I mean, it's one thing to be writing songs for adults in the relatively sheltered and progressive world of the Folk Revival, and quite another to find yourselves ten or twenty years later, in the midst of a conservative backlash trying to account for the effect your words might have on kids who were never intended to be the audience... The young hipster may very well write something that the older daddy may come to regret having written. Happens all the time.

What's resonant to me about this scenario - for which, I hasten to add, I HAVE NO PROOF - is the way it seems to fit with the other children's songs PP&M sang in their early folk period (I'm not talking about their actual children's album). That is, I don't think they were meant for kids.

I've said before that I consider the Folk Revival of the late '50s and early '60s to be the original college radio music. It was a music of college town - Cambridge, Palo Alto, Austin, Dinkytown - Greenwich Village, too, sure, but largely because of the proximity of NYU, no? Later, folk music came to be considered appropriate for children, campfire singalongs and the like, but at first it was nightclub, or at least coffee-house, music. Places where grown-ups gathered.

So why the kids' songs? And I should note that all the folkies seemed to have them - it wasn't just PP&M. Dylan sang kids' songs, although he didn't tend to put them on his albums. This strain probably comes from Woody Guthrie, who wrote songs like "Car Car" for his kids.

But I think it also has something to do with the age of the Folk Revival crowd. Mostly college students or college age people: right at that age when you're finally feeling like an adult, and you're suddenly seized with nostalgia for childhood. We've all had that road trip, at 19 or 20, when, between U2 or Public Enemy albums, somebody starts singing the "Sesame Street" song and everybody joins in, right? There's something about that age which makes it possible for you to look back at your childhood with fresh eyes, to feel, for the very first time, the loss of innocence that defines adulthood, while at the same time you're still close enough to it to feel like if you try hard enough you could slip back into that innocence - while at the same time you're old enough that you feel that you wouldn't lose any of your adult dignity by doing so. At 16 you're too concerned with looking grown-up to sing "Froggy Went A-Courtin'"; at 20, you can do it with impunity. And of course at 20 you start to understand your childhood in ways you never did before. You become aware of the dark realities behind, say, "Ring Around the Rosey."

That, I think, is what explains the status of the children's song in the Folk Revival, and particularly in PP&M's oeuvre. They're not singing them for kids, at least not at first. They're presenting childhood to adults, in such a way that both recalls the innocence, and suggests that there were depths and meanings not understood at the time. "It's Raining" starts with play, but gets pretty somber. "Autumn To May" presents nonsense, not just as play, but as something poignant, mysterious. The baby-talk syllables in "Gone The Rainbow" aren't jokes, they're attempts to grasp something that lies just beyond the reach of expression, or linguistic memory.

And then there's "Puff."