Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Nashing of Teeth

This appeared on the letters page in the October issue of R2 (Rock N Reel) magazine. I won't garnish it with any unnecessary commentary, suffice to say that letters of complaint are of course the Holy Grail for most critics. I've had a few in the past, and I very much enjoyed this one even if it is a bit too easily shot down for me to bask in it properly. The offending article can be found here.

Dear Sean,

I am a big fan of R2/Rock N Reel and have been for some time. I especially enjoy the reviews of new album releases, which I find to be both informative and interesting. What I like is the fact that the majority of reviews are written by critics who either like the music of the artist and are therefore aware of their history, or in the case of new artists, by critics who enjoy that particular genre of music.

It is because of the above that I felt compelled to write and express my disappointment with regard to the review of the Crosby, Stills and Nash album Demos, as written by Barnaby Smith. For a start Barnaby Smith does not like the music of CSN, or at least a third of their music, as he refers to the 'monstrous compositions' of Graham Nash that 'forever blight' their legacy - a bit harsh!

The review starts with a rather negative tone when Barnaby compares the band's latest tour to a 'depressing monolith', which 'chugs' across the world. Whilst I can see that the individual members may 'chug' around on stage, they are hardly depressing. I watched the clips of the band on BBC2 from Glastonbury and felt that, like most acts, they did not come across on TV as they do live on stage. I was fortunate to see them at Manchester MEN and they were excellent - including Graham Nash, whose 'monstrous compositions' have the audience singing along.

I carefully searched the review section of R2 for another contribution from Barnaby - I could only find one, the album by Emma Tricca. I followed this up by listening to some of her songs on MySpace and as a result I felt that the review was a fair one. Maybe Barnaby prefers new artists rather than old ones?

I am aware that music is subjective and one person's music is another person's noise; further, I note that David Crosby is a big David Crosby fan - although I would have loved to have read his review of Thousand Roads, with its synthesisers and contributions from Phil Collins. However, I do hope that this is not a trend for future reviews. I would encourage you to invite critics who like a band or genre to review new material.

If I want to read reviews that give vent to personal dislikes then I could always return to reading a magazine I used to buy - no names but its title was one letter!

David Jones, St Helens

PS The album Demos contains exactly what it says on the tine - DEMOS!

I have considered posting my response to this here, but I won't. It is good to know that at least somewhere Web 2.0 hasn't conquered all. Life is too short for the menial back and forths that many critics have to go through now on blogs and forums. So I will leave the final word to Mr Jones.

Three songs: 'Mingus and Pike' by The Ruby Suns, 'Things Fall Apart' by Built To Spill and 'In The Morning' by Wolfmother.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

That Pioneer Spirit

I have just finished David N.Meyer's biography of Gram Parsons, a passionate, freakishly well researched thesis on he who was born Ingram Cecil Connor III, even if at times Mr Meyer's tone is just that: very thesis-like (repeat that holy formula: argument-quote-conclusion) . He is also guilty of some clunky philosophising and even offers his own psychological take on Gram's inner demons and musical evolution. Meyer is very keen indeed to interpret Gram in certain way and ensures his research fits into his own boxes. Nevertheless, a fine read.

He comes to some odd conclusions though, does Meyer. Writing of the continuing gossip and melodrama surrounding whether Gram and Emmylou Harris had any sort of affair while they were recording and touring in 1972-3, Meyer writes with marked cynicism that "the great-love-but-never-lovers trope is a cornerstone of the Emmylou Harris brand."

Is it really? Maybe in America, but sheesh, I think her brand is more to do with the fact she has made three or four genuinely superb albums, and to many remains the silver-haired goddess of country. For no one (neither the goddess herself or any witnesses) to confirm an affair, Meyer reckons, is to both preserve Emmylou's dignity (and retain that necessary mystery, of course) and avoid the humiliation of Gram's then-wife, Gretchen. "Gram and Emmylou remaining chaste serves both Gretchen and Emmylou's agenda," he writes. The evidence points to a them having a platonic time of it.

Anyway, in tribute to Meyer's effort, here are some interesting things about Gram Parsons I have learnt from his book:

* Gram wrote the song 'Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man' while he was in The Byrds in response to a horrible redneck DJ they ran into while in Nashville. Now, of course, a pregnant Joan Baez picked up this song and performed it at Woodstock as a heartfelt protest song, with her backing musician Jeffrey Shurtleff dedicating it to Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, while Baez herself invoked the plight of her husband, in jail for draft dodging.

This is interesting, what with Gram being famously apathetic towards causes and anything remotely political (his refusal to tour South Africa with The Byrds being notoriously due to a wish to get baked with Keith Richards than genuine moral zeal). That his song is now recognisable as a protest tune because of Baez marks it as an anomaly in his body of work. Baez also played Gram's 'Hickory Wind' at Woodstock.

* Gram Parsons and Neil Young crossed paths in a taxi in Houston in 1973, an incident I first read about in Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, Shakey. Producer Jack Nitzsche was with Young and was shocked by Parsons' drug-addled squalor. "You look like Danny... and Danny's dead," he portentously said, referring to Young's friend and bandmate Danny Whitten (enigmatic singer and guitarist with Crazy Horse) who had overdosed on heroin the previous year.

* Roger McGuinn. According to Meyer, not such a nice bloke.

* Gram's authenticity. Despite the wealth and privilege, the Harvard, the trust fund and his general sickening affluence, Meyer makes it clear that the sound he arrived at was the result of a childhood and adolescence of more or less constant, self-motivated music scholarship, from early rock 'n' roll to Greenwich village folk to Bakersfield and Nashville country. He was not a tourist riding the coattails of any fad, or trying to use country music as some kind of Hollywood fashion accessory to grab attention in the rock world. He came to the form as a true trouper with the appropriate background and sensibilities to pull off what he did. Let's not forget either, how deeply uncool it was to be country in the mid-sixties.

In short, he achieved what he did not because of his riches, but in spite of them. Even though his family's millions might ostensibly have made his musical dabblings the mere toy of a spoilt kid, he somehow achieved authenticity in the face of it.

* Just how rich his mother's family, the Snivelys, were. Gram's grandfather made the fortune that Gram was born into from Florida citrus groves, but even before him the Snivelys were old money, stretching way back. Apparently ancestors loaned George Washington $450,000 to help finance the war against the English. The debt still stands and descendents are trying to recoup the money to this day. With interest they are owed over a billion dollars.

* Gram met William S. Burroughs whilst hanging with the Stones in London.

* It was odd that Parsons and his wider circle of friends and hangers-on didn't come across Tim Buckley at all (at least as far as I know). In the late 60s/early 70s Buckley was recording in Los Angeles just when Parsons was with The Byrds, The Flying Burritos and afterwards. Meyer paints this time in LA as extremely incestuous, with a wide circle of musicians collaborating and working together. Buckley, with his more avant garde tendencies, probably kept well away from what was a hipster scene. The closest Gram ever came to avant garde was when Frank Zappa threw him out of session he was producing.

* Gram's family's curse is comparable with the Kennedys. He was an orphan by 18 after his father shot himself and his mother died of alcoholism (allegedly her new husband, Bob Parsons, giving her her last drink). Then Gram himself died in 1973, of course, followed by his stepfather a couple of years later, also from alcoholism. Gram's little sister Avis and her daughter were killed in a boat accident in 1991. Last one standing seems to be Polly Parsons, his daughter, who went through her own addiction hell in her youth.

* Finally, Gram Parsons avidly loathed The Eagles. Impressively, he called them a 'plastic dry-fuck'. This was because of, as Meyer puts it, a music that was "soulless, over-rehearsed, antiseptic, schematic, insincere and sentimental", going on to proclaim them "the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock." Amen.

Three songs: 'Dear Undecided' by Captain Nemo and The Sundowners, 'Lights Up' by Field Music and 'Amber' by Kevin Barker'.