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Friday, November 2, 2012

(44th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "A Humanzing Effect"

Song: Coming Down Again
Album: Goats Head Soup
Released: August, 1973

We are all shaped by a wide variety of forces: Family, faith, culture, nationality, heritage, and friends, to name a few.  Wrapped up in all of this is the period of time we “came of age”.  For me and many of my strongest connections, that period was the 1970s.  A main focus of these writings this past year (and hopefully beyond) is to try to pinpoint how growing up in the 70s helped to shape who we are.  As with any generation, much of it had to do with the types of music we listened to.  Thus far, I think I’ve distinguished why “coming of age” during this decade was unique compared to most others.  The one exception has been distinguishing us from those who hit their formative years in the 60s.  This is because the two decades have much in common.  Yet, although there are many similarities between children of the 60s and 70s, there are some major differences.

I have already alluded to the fact that the music of the 60s was so omnipresent as to make it unavoidable to the period that followed it.  I’m certain this is not the only example of one decade’s effect on another, but in terms of recent history, it is an uncommon phenomenon.  In modern society, we are constantly moving on.  Most kids these days could care less about what was cutting edge during the era the preceded them.  It’s an ever-evolving world we live in.  What’s hip at this moment in time is what really matters, at least in Western culture.  In many ways this is a good thing:  What’s “in” now was shaped by what was “in” before.  We rarely divorce ourselves from this evolving process.  In fact, I think that parents could learn a lot from what their kids are into if they simply stepped themselves through the chain; which of course includes the music. 

The 70s had plenty of new sounds:  Glam, Punk, Disco, and New Wave to name a few.  But the 70s were also enveloped by the survivors of the 60’s:  The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Jeff Beck, The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson, Joan Baez, and the Allman Brothers are the crème of that crop.  These musicians had already had such a strong effect in the 60s that their music from that era would likely have held up on its own merit even if they had not released a single song in the 70s.  Royalties alone would likely have been fine enough for most of them to make a modest living and get out of the public eye.  But these musicians persevered and were able to carry their craft into the 70s.  How did they do this? 

It was not simply a matter of these musicians morphing their sounds to fit the times.  This did happen, but there was much more to it.  What these songwriters did, and what I believe had a profound effect on us 70s kids, was that they humanized themselves.  They bared their souls.  In your 20s, you feel invincible, and you strut your stuff accordingly.   But now these musicians were in their 30s, and they were opening up their personal trials and tribulations to the masses through Rock and Roll music.  We were exposed to all this.  In hindsight, I believe we thought this was normal.  In reality it was not. 

Other earlier generations got their reality slaps from not-so mainstream artistic sources:  Books, theatre, paintings, drama, classical or even jazz.  Think Ernest Hemmingway, or James Joyce, or Vincent Van Gogh, or Mozart, or Arthur Miller, or Judy Garland, or Billie Holiday, or Shakespeare.  But these artists and the art forms they mastered were typically confined to the well-educated, or in earlier times the “Intelligentsia”.  Now, songs about human frailty were blasting on the sound systems of the average Joe.  For a young person, this was pretty heavy stuff.  But we were able to connect with one another and talk about it all.  Topics that may have been off-limits in prior times were now naturally accepted to discuss.  You talked with friends about deeper feelings.  It was not unusual to do so. 

This bare-your-soul music was not only good… it was masterful.  Pink Floyd sang about the loss of a band mate, Syd Barrett, to the effects of mental illness.  Heck, they practically dedicated the remainder of their legacy to this subject:  Shine on You Crazy Diamond, the entirety of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and even ‘The Wall’ are all tributes to their fallen troubadour.  Bob Dylan opened us to turmoil on ‘Blood on the Tracks’ in 1975, and really never looked back.  Pete Townshend was a raw wound in songs like Empty Glass, Slit Skirts, However Much I Booze, Slip Kids, Don’t Let Go the Coat, and The Punk and the Godfather.  John Lennon was equally naked with Mother, Isolation, God, Jealous Guy, and Instant Karma, as was Kris Kristofferson in Sunday Morning Coming Down, Richard and Linda Thompson on Withered and Died, George Harrison on Beware of Darkness, and Townes Van Zandt’s in virtually all his music, most notably the crushing song Nothin’.

Even the love songs were deeper: Clapton with Layla, Townshend with A Little is Enough, Neil Young with Down By the River, Bob Dylan with Sara, and Gram Parsons with Thousand Dollar Wedding.  You heard lyrics, such as these from Jackson Browne in Running on Empty:

I look around for the friends I used to turn to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

And these in Back on the Chain Gang by the Pretenders in the same vein:

“The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you”

A new type of social outcry was settling in too:  Where in the 60s the outcry would be reflected in a rebellious sound, now that sound was more lament:  Curtis Mayfield with Freddie’s Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with Ohio, Bruce Cockburn (a little later) with If A Tree Falls, and Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On.  And it was affecting the new artists as well as the old.  Bruce Springsteen connected with dead-end haplessness in The River: 

“And then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”

John Mellencamp would eventually do the same in Jackie Brown:

“Going nowhere and nowhere fast
We shame ourselves to watch people like this live
But who gives a damn about Jackie Brown?
Just another lazy man who couldn’t take what was his”

Now don’t get me wrong:  There was plenty of uplifting stuff mixed in there too for us.  But this was all part of our reality way back when.  Looking back, I know it was for the best.  Those of us who lived somewhat sheltered lives - thanks to tremendous upbringing by our parents - were exposed through music to human frailties in our teen years.  Life was not all wine and roses.  It helped us to be more empathetic with the world around us.  It helped us to grow up.

I used to think the only band that was immune to this empathetic mood in the 70s were the Rolling Stones.  Not anymore.  One of the reasons the Stones escaped me in this regard is that Mick Jagger simply lacks a pity angle to his vocal delivery.  The album he comes the closest to hurdling this on however, is 1973s ‘Goats Head Soup’.   You can hear it in the songs 100 Years Ago, Hide Your Love, Winter, and this week’s Stepping Stone Coming Down Again ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfPgsNN2EbA ), sung as a duet with Keith Richards.  The story goes that this is a song of regret, Richards reflecting on stealing away his ex-band-mate’s (Brian Jones) lover (Anita Pallenberg).   Jones would never recover.  Richards would never forget.

-          Pete

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