Popular music is floundering, there can be no doubt about it. It’s thrashing about like a person who’s abandoned a sinking ship and is clutching desperately at the flotsam and jetsam floating by.
The economy is hurting the pop music entrepreneurs right now, though many won’t admit it. What’s being grasped at in 1975 is either trendy music or music that sold well in recent years, music that the movers and shakers in their glassed-in skyscrapers shakily predict will be profitable music. If it looks, for example, as though “romantic rock” might sell, as though a Neil Sedaka or Barry Manilow could dominate the course of popular music, then the tycoons in Burbank and Manhattan will fall all over each other in the scramble to find other romantics, maybe a Peter Allen or a Manhattan Transfer. It’s a sad state of affairs when the major record companies’ investments in “tomorrow’s sound” amount to trading in questionable stocks. The companies simply don’t know what the hell’s going on.
All they know is that Led Zeppelin and a few other holdovers from the Sixties are still selling well, that “quality acts” such as Little Feat bring in good reviews but little revenue, and that there’s probably something new around somewhere that will be the new sound. Rock music has passed through ten-year cycles, from Elvis in the Fifties to the triumvirate of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles in the Sixties. Now it’s past time for another musical decade to start but—there’s no one around to start it.
The extant English bands won’t start it. With the marginal exceptions of Bad Company and Jeff Beck’s new (still unnamed) group and a couple of other dark horses, nothing’s likely to come out of England save money-hungry groups raiding the United States for box-office receipts.
The wave of European rock bands won’t start it. Hungary’s Locomotiv GT and Italy’s PFM will draw some attention but what they and the other Continental groups are doing is hardly revolutionary.
Reggae won’t start it. Despite reams of publicity (mostly from music writers grateful to accept free trips to the Caribbean), reggae is destined to be an acquired, rather than a natural, taste.
Soul music won’t start it. It’s become stylized and almost stagnant. Disco music has become so formulized that it won’t start anything other than a pair of hips to swaying.
Jazz won’t start it. Jazz, especially the jazz-rock fusion of a Weather Report or Mahavishnu, is not accessible to enough listeners to foment a bona fide revival.
Country music won’t start it. Despite widespread industry predictions (and hopes, mainly) that C&W would be the next national trend, it still is not. If anything, there has been a strange twist of fate and the country sales charts are now inundated with purely pop singers like John Denver. Many of the traditional country singers have even organized to fight these intrusions. They will not be successful: if there is any one lesson to be learned from studying the history of popular music, it is that no one—not singers or record companies—can tell the public what to buy.
What will, then, start tomorrow’s sound? Obviously, no single type of music is strong enough to do it and there’s not a monolithic group on the order of the Beatles to set the tone. It seems that instead we will have to look to individual singers/writers for direction. Currently, four stand out. Two of these are, interestingly, from Texas and a third is Texan by association. The fourth, from up north, helped start the ball rolling in the Sixties, and he might just do it again.
Billy Swan, the first of the four who may hold the key to the new sound, wrote a very successful song (now faded from the charts) called “I Can Help.” It is a deceptive song, slight on the surface but actually carefully constructed, in an unorthodox way. Swan used a light, airy tune that suggested Fifties music (but is more complex) and depended on descending chord progressions, and that was part of the song’s novelty appeal. The next time you hear a hit song on the radio, listen to the arrangement and you’ll notice that the usual technique is to build, and then resolve, musical tension through a series of ascending chord progressions. Roy Orbison used to be the master of that. Swan essentially reversed things; he also has an engaging voice. That, plus his thorough knowledge of both rhythm-and-blues and rockabilly, should enable him to help define the directions that pop music will take in the near future.
I’ve been playing and replaying his album I Can Help, one of the best that 1975 will produce. Two of the three others that I play daily are by Texans, which is neither here nor there, but I’d like to talk a little about Swan’s and, since he’s an honorary Texas Jewboy (by virtue of being a charter member of Kinky Friedman’s Texas Jewboys), that should give me some license. I Can Help, like the title song, is appealing and gentle—and enormously entertaining.
The arrangements are all slightly awry (his version of “Don’t Be Cruel” comes in from left field somewhere), but they sustain the impression of sincerity in “I Can Help.” This is highly personal musical innovation drawing from Southern music of the past twenty years, including “Lover Please,” which Swan wrote for Clyde McPhatter.
That same song is also on Kinky Friedman, and Kinky’s version matches that of his former bass player. If anything, Friedman’s is more straight-ahead, more tailored for AM radio, which is the direction his act has been taking lately. After finally surfacing two years ago with an extremely ragged album, Sold American, Friedman got a lot of publicity: the idea of a wise-cracking Texas Jew trying to be a country star, with seemingly offensive songs, was so ludicrous that the stories about him wrote themselves.
The album and Friedman’s subsequent public appearances confirmed, though, that he was one of the most original songwriters in America, able to be a social commentator both humorously, as in “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” and compassionately, with “Ride ’Em Jewboy.”
His career, unfortunately, faltered. His record company, Vanguard, apparently had neither the resources nor the inclination to give him the promotional and financial backing that a new singer needs. He broke up the group and spent months in legal dickering trying to get another record company, any record company. Finally, ABC bought up his contracts (for a reputed $250,000). More months were spent putting a band together and recording an album. Jerry Weintraub, who has masterminded John Denver’s career, became Friedman’s manager. As a result of all that, Kinky is now in a fairly strong position. The album is good, it’s selling reasonably well, and he’s drawing audiences again.
I had been very apprehensive about Kinky Friedman, fearing that his new commercial orientation would water down the essential Kinky and, in one sense, it has. The rough edges have all been smoothed out and his voice, which is certainly not the best, has been carefully engineered for a better sound. But the material is more varied than on the first album, and the humor still exists, although there’s less of it.
His fine writing potential is realized in “They Ain’t Making Jews like Jesus Anymore,” which combines the compassion of “Ride ’Em Jewboy” with the acrimony of “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.”
Kinky’s transition from cult hero to pop star is one of the more intriguing experiments in music of late and its acceptance will depend greatly on the success or failure of the single release from the album, “Lover Please,” which has nothing to do with his greatest asset —his writing ability. If that one doesn’t work, he’s got a sleeper titled “Momma Baby Momma, Can I Jump in Your Pajama?”
Whereas Friedman willingly let himself be processed for pop stardom, there’s another Texas singer who resolutely refuses modification. Jerry Jeff Walker has been scuffling around the country since the Sixties, selling a few records here and doing a few concerts there—when he feels like it. Like Friedman’s first album, all Walker’s records are rough-edged but with him it’s an obvious strength. His latest, Walker’s Collectibles, is just that: a grab bag of his personal likes and idiosyncrasies. It’s also, to my mind, the most pleasing Walker album, with equal parts of whimsy, morning-after misery, traveling music, and country-flavored rock. He’s becoming a rag-tag master of the eclectic, moving effortlessly (almost) from the brass-band swing of “The First Showboat” to the wastrel imagery of “I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning.” He’s succeeded in producing an album that, in terms of subject matter and musical styles, skips across entire decades and then back again. His basic theme of the drifter hops from the Salvation Army hall to a freight train to a dining car and then makes a quantum leap to jet planes:
Hello momma I’m callin’ you to tell you that I’m cornin’ home / What shape I’m in I wouldn’t dare an’ try to tell you on the telephone / Wingin’ it home to Texas / Home on the morn in’ plane / Wingin’ it home to Texas / And they lost my bags again / That Dallas airport sucks. (Copyright, Jerry Jeff Walker; Groper Music, Inc. BMI.)
The album concludes with a fitting Jerry Jeff quest, as he and the Lost Gonzo Band lurch off for the “O.D. Corral.” Jerry Jeff is not everybody’s favorite, but I’m grateful to him for putting an edge on what’s being called progressive country music and for reminding us that not everyone has to be serious all of the time. His pathos is genuine but he still reminds us with an occasional sardonic, throwaway line that life is nothing to get too upset about.
One of Jerry Jeff’s contemporaries from the folkie days in Greenwich Village has a new album that is laced, on the other hand, with anger and bitterness and desolation, but for him it works. It’s called Blood on the Tracks by a wandering troubadour name of Bob Dylan.
Dylan was the musical enigma of the past two decades. Slipping out of his real name (Zimmerman) and his home (Minnesota), he turned up on the streets of New York with an awful nasal twang and a mind full of rage. He exploited that rage, turning it against society, against lovers and friends, but producing truly exceptional music. Then came the almost fatal motorcycle accident, withdrawal to the country, and several mediocre albums. With his wife and kids and country home he seemed headed for the gentleman’s life of a Paul McCartney. Then, something happened to him. The popular gossip is marital troubles, but since we don’t deal in gossip here, let’s just say that he became bitter again.
And an angry Dylan is fearsome indeed. His writing in Blood on the Tracks is better than anything he’s done since Blond on Blond. Once again he has a headful of ideas that are driving him insane. Out of his anger, he’s created a masterpiece on the theme of love
lost, of the perversity of a love that can’t be lived with or without. The words, “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves,” are a bleak—and breathtaking—indictment of his marriage. (Copyright, 1974, Rams Horn Music) You can feel his simultaneous rage and grief, and his sense of helplessness.
Some things never change, and for that I’m grateful. Ten years ago I sat on a bare floor in Palestine, Texas, typing out an appreciation of Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s best album to date. Ten years after, I sit on a floor in New York (a thick carpet is one thing I’ve acquired in ten years) and again share his sorrow for the way things are and his uncontainable anger at the reasons. Even the titles on Blood are fatalistic: “Idiot Wind,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “If You See Her, Say Hello.” The temptation is to quote the entire album, his writing is so sparse and fitting. I’ll confine myself to one quote and my opinion that the record is a triumph:
Life is sad, life is a bust,
All you can do, is do what you must.
You do what you must do, and you do it well.
I’ll do it for you, ah, honey baby, can’t you tell?
(Copyright, 1974, Rams Horn Music)