Friday, August 20, 2021

Rock and Other Four Letter Words - 50 Years Ago

"Our House"

Steffi Nelson in her review for the LA Weekly ("Back to the Garden") stated, "There are some who say the 60s didn't end until mid-way through the 70s, others who believe Helter Skelter in August [referring to the Manson Family murders] followed by Altamont in December slammed the book on the decade the minute the clock struck 1970. The hippie look and lexicon certainly lasted well into the 70s, but purity in any movement is fragile and fleeting. Born of isolation and insulation, the Laurel Canyon scene couldn't survive the scrutiny or the influx of drugs and money. By the end of 1969 the royalties from CSN's massively successful debut album had already bought the musicians new homes in other, more upscale neighborhoods."

The Byrds

This reporter's opinion is clear: the 70s were brand spankin' new. Though many of those Laurel Canyon artists of the 60s would populate the charts in the 70s, they did so with a blind eye to things that passed. Through Asylum Records, the California sect ran from the folk scene to jazz; if nothing else they turned out something new, something unnamed: acid jazz maybe (too strong), fusion rock (too lame), post folk (not catchy); nonetheless, out of Ladies of the Canyon came Blue and Late for the Sky and Hotel California.

In 1865 Edouard Manet shocked Parisian audiences at the Salon with his painting Olympia, an unabashed depiction of a prostitute lounging in bed, naked save a pair of slippers and a necklace. Manet's endeavor to capture the flavor of contemporary society extended to portraits of barmaids, street musicians, ragpickers, and other standard Parisian "types" from out of the foul rag and bone shop of literature,  but there was no place for that at the Academy. 

The 70s rock music scene was that explosive, that revolutionary. 

An excerpt from Rock and Other Four Letter Words

In the 1960s, grand as it may have been, as many AM10s as there were, most of what was celebrated, from Jefferson Airplane to Buffalo Springfield, was evolutionary, an extension of what was, but by 1972, musicians on both sides of the Atlantic were smashing the molds in a way that arguably hadn’t been seen since Robert Johnson. Suddenly we weren't so much channeling Woody Guthrie through Arlo, we (I write this as if somehow I played a role) were pushing all the boundaries. Joni Mitchell, indeed, dismissed the elements of song (verse, chorus, bridge) and created a musical format equivalent to the tone poem; Roxy Music was doubleplusgood, out there, indescribable - I'm reaching for adjectives that fit; there are none. It was too new, too whacked, too out there. It was a dividing line like Alice going through the looking glass. New York would come later, '73 maybe - punk new wave, hip hop, minimalist classical, avant-jazz, all would come out of the east, not yet.

Other historians might argue that the revolt came sooner. In an episode of Mad Men set in 1966, Don Draper says, "When did music become so important?" Later in the episode he turns off the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and walks from the room.  But that wasn't the revolution, that was the seed, and the seeds were sown across the land, and it was good (sorry, getting carried away).

The Hollywood Sign, 1973
Picture it: the year is 1970. The place: Laurel Canyon. Tucked away in the hills of Los Angeles, bohemian bungalows fill the canyon inhabited by the coolest and most talented in the music industry. Marijuana smoke fills the air and Frank Zappa could take a stroll down the road and hear the tunes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's guitars echoing through the hills. Graham Nash moved out to LA to stay with his lover, Joni Mitchell. All hanging out together, co-writing songs, taking drugs, and messing around.. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Michelle Philips, Linda Ronstadt, Mama Cass, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, and Jackson Browne were just a few of the groovy rock 'n' roll bandits who were making history in the free love world of Laurel Canyon. Other stars from all of the world were known to have frequented the canyon to visit their famous friends, too. 

Growing up I had a book, Rock and Other Four Letter Words. There's a quote from John Sebastian: "We're not really derivative of New York. Don't forget, I've just been listening to the radio since I was fourteen, like everybody else. My folks went to Italy when I was eight. When I got back, my symbols weren't the same as other kids. I wasn't very interested in cars and beer." Maybe that's a key to the revolution. Maybe it wasn't the music changing us, maybe it was us suddenly immersed in the world. Sebastian went to Italy, but each and every one of us, whether 14 or 20 or 6, lived vicariously through The Big News or movies and song. The catalyst was everywhere. Music changed us. We changed music. This we can talk on and around forever, though when our throats are dry and the angel of hush flutters across the room, someone puts on Joni or The Beatles and we move forward.