Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Every December 11th from 1993, when she was 12, till last year, when we collaborated on one, I made my daughter a tape of music released in that magical era, 1967-75, and called "Miscellany." No particular reason for that date; it was simply the date I made the first one, back in Princeton. It became a tradition, one of those non-denominational holiday activities. The semester ends, time to kick back with some cognac and trip down memory lane in the cozy warmth of that trough of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas that I dubbed, when I was in high school, "the pre-Christmas vagaries."
And that's something those tapes were meant to relive: that season of the year and the time of my time, from age 12 to mid-high school. The fact that I went on making them throughout my daughter's college years just shows how much it became a part of the season, but also how much fun it is to turn-up some old chestnut you haven't heard in decades (like Uriah Heep's "Come Away Melinda," or Cat Stevens' "Lady D'Arbanville," or Yes's "A Venture"). So, part of the yearly revisit had to do with finding old and overlooked stuff, but also with coming up with "new" old stuff -- stuff that was out back then, but which I didn't know or own at the time: like The Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, or Tyrannosaurus Rex's Unicorn, or any of the Fairport Convention albums.
It could be said that my interest in this kind of music stems entirely from my passion for Jethro Tull from about 1972 to '76. (After all, in the latter year I did paint a triptych of Tull images; the central 4 foot by 4 foot panel was a very faithful rendering of the group portrait on the inside of Living in the Past, a photo of the band that recorded Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play: Ian Anderson, John Evan, Martin Barre, Barrimore Barlowe, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond -- the line-up I saw perform in '74.) Tull's sound was based on both hard rock riffs and the soft, vaguely Elizabethan strum of acoustic guitars -- and of course Ian's trademark flute and Evan's stately piano. An unusual sound, and unusual lyrics -- to say nothing of the temerity of writing albums based on what were essentially long poems. None of the other "concept album" writers did that. They basically put together albums that were a collection of songs, oftentimes running the songs together (as in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). Ian fudged it by writing a variety of bits that he then wrote transitional music to link, but what I liked was the sense, following the lyric sheet, that it was a continuous work of verse, not distinct song lyrics. Yes came closest to this with their side-long suites that, on Tales from Topographic Oceans, were more or less united compositions, one per side. But Ian's opuses took up both sides.
The music of the "Miscellany"doesn't derive from Tull, but it's music that "goes with it" in my mind -- like Steeleye Span's recordings of traditional British folk songs that they arrange in ways that remind me of Tull -- or Led Zep's folksier moments, picked up from the likes of The ISB, and Bert Jansch. But one thing Tull doesn't have as much in its sound that is a stand-out in some of this music is a driving organ (as in ELP and Uriah Heep) and the mellotron (as in King Crimson of that era and in Yes). These artists generally use keyboards well (even harpsichords and Moogs) and rely on them in a way that departs from the typical guitar-based rock of the early '60s, but avoids those damned ubiquitous Farfisa keyboards that would come to dominate the '80s sound. This was the era of the Hammond organ, a warm sound that immediately makes me think of hymns and frosty nights in early December.
Something else that unites this music for me, true of Ian's lyrics, and generally the case: the lyrics are verbose, oftentimes full of antiquated phrases or of lines that boast a kind of flamboyance that no American lyricist would even try, much less get away with. It isn't psychedelic, though some of it owes its genesis to that. More to the point I think, is that it all owes something to the cult of a fantasized English past that never existed but which became common ground with the late '60s explosion of Tolkien readers.
In the case of King Crimson and Procol Harum, the lyricist was not a musician: Peter Sinfield and Keith Reid only wrote lyrics, and both have a highly wrought style; Reid is more witty, Sinfield more arcane, but both can be oddly inpenetrable. I remember Crimson's Robert Fripp, at a show at Toad's in New Haven a few years ago, offering a souvenir (a red brassiere that an enthusiastic fan had flung on stage) to whoever could recite the opening lines of "In the Wake of Poseidon." Sure enough, someone was able to scream out: "Plato's spawn cold ivyed eyes/ Snare truth in bone and globe." At one time I would've been up to it, but all I could think of was: "Night, her sable dome scattered with diamonds,/ Fused my dust from a light year" -- which are, of course, the opening lines of "Cirkus," from Lizard (1970), the album I still consider to be Crimson's most distinctive.
One other thing: for some reason every "Miscellany" began with a Bowie song, a tip of the hat to the fact that in the main era I'm recalling ('72 to '74, when I became familiar with most of this music) the main rock rag I read (and which actually quoted song lyrics in italicized stanzas) was Circus (not yet dedicated to heavy metal) and at that time glam was all the rage in that mag, an era of what I often refer to as "rampant Zigginess" (though Bowie's the only glam-rocker who makes the tapes).
Life's a long song
but the tune ends too soon for us all -- Ian Anderson, 1972