Context is Everything
It would be nice to think that any of us hear an album, experience a concert, watch a movie or see a painting in a neutral state, but that’s not the case. The lives we lead affect how we feel about art. Life after Katrina has certainly affected how I feel about Daydreams and Nightmares (Fantagraphics), a collection of art by comic artist Winsor McCay. His work seems particularly striking right now because it’s hard to imagine anyone having such grand, magnificent visions in a time when our leaders have so little vision, and what vision they articulate is small-minded and grubby. From the turn of the century through the Depression, McCay’s comic strips and illustrations were self-assured and epic in their depictions of dream worlds and possible futures. Even his editorial illustrations of concepts are cinematic in their grandiosity. Right now, that sort of vision seems almost unimaginable, considering those around us who can dither a plan out of existence and caveat a good idea until it withers away.
Listening to Bill Hicks’ Salvation: Oxford November 11, 1992 and seeing his recent DVD, Sane Man (both on Rykodisc) made me think how much we need a comedian like Hicks right now. Hicks died of cancer in 1994, but the speed and ease with which he gets to the heart of hypocrisy on these recordings is dizzying. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are the closest thing we have to Hicks now, but as good as Stewart is, you don’t get the sense that his sanity depends on him anatomizing the foul world as he sees it. You also don’t get the impression that, like Hicks, he’s clinging desperately to a beautiful truth about existence, hoping people will recognize it, embrace it and bring it to life. That’s not a knock on Stewart, though. That sort of concept doesn’t fit in a fake news show. Hicks’ comedy is funny and his political commentary is smart, but what makes it remarkable is how at some point, the act coalesces into a meditation on life, and Hicks is struggling to get the pieces to fit. When no politician seems to feel much urgency — certainly no one in Washington — Hicks sounds like a prophet.
At a time when life here has an anxious earnestness to it, hearing music completely detached from any objective reality has a lot of appeal. Rhino Records recently reissued a series of T. Rex albums that fit the bill perfectly. It’s hard to imagine how ’70s British glam rock could be farther removed from the world we live in. Fey, shiny, hard and poppy, glam never really worked in America, which has always had a hard time with pretensions, particularly ones that involve dressing effeminately. Really, there’s an element of pretension in anyone who decides their shit’s good enough to present from a stage, but that’s another day’s column. The releases of Electric Warrior and The Slider in 1971 and 1972 respectively represented the peak of T. Rextasy, when the band and particularly lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Marc Bolan were as popular as teen idols, but with rock ’n’ roll credibility.
Rhino Records performed a public service by re-releasing T. Rex’s The Slider recently. Producer Tony Visconti, who also produced David Bowie, says booze, drugs and ego started getting the best of Bolan during the sessions for The Slider. Still, it has a handful of Bolan classics, including “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru,” and it’s more consistently tuneful than Electric Warrior. Bolan’s crunchy, distorted boogie is irresistible — unless you can’t stand guys with high pitched voices singing songs about the Ballrooms of Mars or rabbit fighters or other largely meaningless things. Then again, if you really, really want meaningful rock ’n’ roll, you probably don’t really love rock ’n’ roll.
The Slider is part of a series of T. Rex reissues, a series that documents the period in which the band’s popularity declined and Bolan slid into dissolution. When released in the mid-’70s, Tanx, Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, Bolan’s Zip Gun, Futuristic Dragon and Dandy in the Underworld were all compared to the albums Bolan recorded at the height of T. Rextasy, and they were found wanting. Hearing the post-Slider albums out of context suggests they were dumped on unfairly. There’s an undeniable hippy silliness in Bolan’s lyrics, and some of those lyrics were awfully slight. “New York City” has one verse, and two of the four lines are “Did you ever see a woman / Coming out of New York City / With a frog in her hand?” The albums lack the sonic cohesiveness that came from having a stable band — Bolan started shedding members after The Slider — but they also show his interests changing. Girlfriend/soul singer Gloria Jones opened Bolan’s eyes to soul and R&B, and their grooves and tropes started to find their way into T. Rex music, albeit filtered through a glam sensibility. These records are in no danger of being mistaken for anything by Otis or Aretha.
The must-haves? The Slider, and after that, Tanx has held up well. It lacks a fastball equal to “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” and “Telegram Sam,” but it has a consistent, melancholy tone, and “Electric Slim and the Factory Hen” is far more affecting than the title would suggest. After that, each CD has its charms, though nobody but T. Rex obsessives need all of them. Only an equal amount of drugs to Bolan’s intake can a context to make all those futuristic hobbits necessary.
The iPod — it’s not just for jogging anymore. Chicago rock band Midstates made an iPod a band member, actually, three members. When the space rock band was offered a tour over the Christmas holidays, it dealt with the problem of members having previous commitments by loading their parts on this year’s hot Christmas present. Since drummer Angel Ledezma is a big part of the live show, his performance was captured on video, then it too was stored on the iPod. Drummers, snoring guitar players and bassists with cheesy feet are on notice. You can be replaced.