Tuesday, July 08, 2008

More Tales From the Crypt

Okay, here's another of my Greatest Hits, i.e. one of my old pieces for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review (AKA Sound and Vision).

Short version: I found this column -- from December '74 -- in my closet the other day and it didn't make me cringe too badly, so I thought I'd share it. This also gives me the excuse to include a brand new scan of the original column head; I think you'll find that little illustration is good for a cheap laugh at my expense.


By now you're probably seen Rock Dreams, Guy Peellaert and Nik Cohn's brilliant pictorial fantasy-history of rock-and-roll (Popular Library, $7.95) and you know just how great it is; you know how uncannily true the fantasy situations in which Peelaert has painted the various rock figures ring, and I'm sure you've got you're favorites. I certainly do -- Diana Ross in the back seat of her limousine as she returns to the ghetto she denies ever having lived in; a short-haired Mick Jagger (the final seqment of the Stones sequence) dressed in a smoking jacket, alone in his room and looking for all the world like a pop Dorian Gray; Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty (and where is he now that we need him?) in a rowboat on his way through the Louisiana bayou he conjured up so wonderfully without ever having seen; and a bedraggled and broken Jerry Lee Lewis standing alone in the rain, crying in his beer.

Obviously, a long-winded analysis of the book is unnecessary, even presumptuous; like rock itself, it is in many ways above analysis. But I do have two thoughts that I think are worth mentioning. First of all, some critics have noted that the only place the book's vision falters is in its portrayal of the latter-day heroes -- Bowie, Bolan, and Lou Reed -- who are treated simply as traditional portrait subjects, and have chalked this up to the fact that Peelaert, because of his age, is perhaps a little distanced from these contemporary myth figures. I suspect it's not quite that simple; it's especially instructive to compare his gorgeous representation of the Velvet Underground (with Lou Reed) to his rendering of Reed today, at the same time bearing in mind the music each represents. The former has the capacity to haunt the imagination, while the latter is simply there. Peeleart, it seems, is a much more perceptive rock critic than many of those who do it for a living.

Secondly, the book, great as it is, is in a way quite depressing. Like it or not, it's a retrospective, a summing up; I don't think it could have been done even five years ago, simply because the music and the musicians were much too vital. But in 1974, I find myself much more excited about the book Rock Dreams than about almost any recent rock album, and if that suggests to you what it does to me -- that rock-and-roll as we knew and loved it is indeed as decadent and played out as many have observed -- then it becomes an almost painful experience to finish it. To paraphrase Dave Marsh, I don't want to hang up my rock-and-roll shoes myself, but I'll be damned if I can give you a good reason why I shouldn't. Rock Dreams, for all its power, doesn't give me that reason, and I don't like that at all. But get it anyway.


I don't know if you've noticed, but the rock press is dreadfully out of touch with the real world these days; even the best critics seem to have little or no idea what it is the audience is listening to. For example, take an act like Chicago. The plain fact is that this is probably the biggest band in America; they can sell out major concert halls for a week at a stretch, young girls think they're sexy, and they now have the longest track record for consistent single hits of any group in the country. And yet you rarely read a good word about them. It's not even the Grand Funk phenomenon; the critics don't despite Chicago (except perhaps in private) so much as they ignore them. But the band continues to prosper and broaden its following, manifesting a popularity that is almost frightening because it's such a well-kept secret. Creem will of course never put them on its cover, and the release of "Chicago IX" will elicit nothing but yawns from reviewers everywhere. Nonetheless, when their recent television show was aired (an outing that was, if possible, even schlockier than the Bowie Midnight Special) I can personally attest to the fact that the entire teenage population of Dumont, New Jersey, was off the streets. Meanwhile, the rock press prattles on about glitter, Bryan Ferry, and the return of the pop sensibility. Egad.

Now Chicago puts me to sleep too, in all honesty, but from our reader mail alone it has become clear to me that I'm in a minority. So I talked to Robert Lamm (Chicago's keyboard man) early last September in an attempt to find out what the hell was going on here. In vain. I say in vain becaue Lamm (an extremely charming fella in an all-American sort of way) seemed unwilling or unable to philosophize about his group's importance, although he did have an unswerving confidence in the validity of what he was doing ("All our abums, with perhaps two exceptions, have been artistic successes," he told told me quite firmly). For example, when I asked him why of all the horn bands that had flourished briefly in the late Sixties, playing largely similar material, his had been the only one that survived, he replied "Because they were all on Columbia." Frankly, this little bit of music-biz pragmatism wasn't what I had been groping for, but it's probably true; there are only so many bands you can promote at one time, and Columbia chose Chicago.

Later, when I brought up the subject of their phenomenal singles success, he pooh-poohed it.

"We don't even pick them," he averred. "It's a waste of time."

This, from the singles champs of the Seventies? Surely, I suggested, they must have some idea when they're writing the tunes which are going to be hits?

"We just don't bother about it," he said. "Occasionally, when we finish an album, we hear a bit that makes us say 'Hmm, that might be a single,' but inevitably the record people pick something else. We don't have anything to do with it and we don't want to."

Realizing that I wasn't about get any of the answers I was after, we drifted onto more general matters -- musical background, current preferences -- although I couldn't resist bringing up the subject of their now infamous "with this album, Chicago devotes all its energies to The Revolution" jacket blurb of a few years ago. (Lamm's comment: "In retrospect, that was a little naïve. But sincere.") Finally, I asked him if it ever rankled him that the rock press didn't take them seriously -- did he ever get annoyed that Rolling Stone hadn't sent Truman Capote to follow them around on tour?

"Not at all," he said. "If Truman wants to come by, we'd be glad to see him, but I'm not upset that he hasn't.

"Of course," he added wistfully, "I guess he wouldn't enjoy hanging around with a bunch of ex-jocks." Which may explain why Chicago didn't make it into Rock Dreams.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

I wish i could write like David Watts. What a great column. In 1974 the 60s did seem almost as far away as they do in 2008. And of course now I need to try to find a copy of Rock Dreams.

Ali said...

I think your hair looks great in that shot, Ludwig.

peter spencer said...

Great work. My hat is off to you. And I wish I could nail that hand-on-chin pose you do so effortlessly. I tried a dozen times and always looked like I was picking my nose.

FeralLiberal said...

Not only do I recognize that masthead, I remember reading that article. God, am I dating myself.

David said...

My Uncle Mike sent me Rock Dreams from his California commune when I was a teenager and it totally blew my mind...I still think of certain phrases (like the Roy Orbison piece, "after that, Roy rode alone.") and certain images from the book. My waffle-stomper-wearing friends were also quite impressed. And it's good to see that old Stereo Review pic; it was growing blurry in my mind's eye.

Gummo said...

But steve, you and your fellow critics were proven right after all - Chicago is remembered about as well as yesterday's snows, while Bryan Ferry is still putting out memorable music.

The mid-70s brought back, after way too much psychedelic 'heaviness', the "pop music SHOULD be ephemeral weightless crap" philosophy and that went too far too. Sometimes ephemeral weightless crap is just ephemeral weightless crap, no matter how much money it makes, and there's nothing wrong with pop music that actually tries to say something interesting and meaningful.

Oh, and though your hair may have thinned (just slightly), the smirk remains the same!

Billy B said...

Nice column, Stevie.

I was a freshman in college living in a dorm in Dec, 1974.

Chicago had jumped the shark by then, for sure. From your article, seems as if Lamm had lost interest. Altho the band had some decent cuts on their albums of the time, they'd become a wedding reception band by then and the singles were shitty ballads.

I'm trying to remember what I was listening to at the time. Rundgren put out his first Utopia release that fall. Listened to it a lot then, but it doesn't hold up all that well. Manfred Mann's Earth Band put out "Give Me the Good Earth", which was good. The album cam with a form you could send in with your name, etc., and you would be sent the deed for 1 square inch of land somewhere in the UK. I didn't join in the fun.

That fall marked the time I became a die-hard Stones fan when I bought Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Get Your Ya-Yas Out.

Brooklyn Girl said...

Ah, the hirsute 70s. A true fashion nightmare. Lots of hair, platform shoes and velvet suits. And that was the men.

1974 ... pretty much a blur ... I was listening to Steely Dan, the Dead, Jeff Beck, and politely accepting tapes from friends of all sorts of crap that I played once and relegated to a box somewhere. I didn't buy much music.

Funny about Chicago, though. Another one of those bands I didn't turn off when they came on the radio, but I never owned one of their records, and never will.

Anonymous said...

Love those glasses simels

Billy B said...

Speaking of the 70's, I just picked up an old copy of Nilsson's Greatest Hits the other day at the used record store.

This version focuses on his early career. I bought it for "Jump Into the Fire", but it's the edited version, so I will have to keep looking.

Cat was pretty talented. Lots of Beatles influence.

I had forgotton that his big hit "Without You" was a cover of a Pete Ham/ Tom Evans (Badfinger) song.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

bought it for "Jump Into the Fire" ...

I think Harry would have loved these French kids' homemade video of themselves jumping into the fire astride their psychedelic scooters.

steves said...

Ha! No wonder I couldn't remember what then-new stuff I was listening to in 1974. Judging by this http://www.musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1974.htm it looked like rock was dead, fer sure.

Brooklyn Girl said...

Ha! No wonder I couldn't remember what then-new stuff I was listening to in 1974. Judging by this http://www.musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1974.htm it looked like rock was dead, fer sure.

Eesh. What a load of drek.

Although it seems that we were already trending that way by 1969 ...

TJWood said...

Well done article, Steve, it brings back memories of the Rock Dreams. I'm not sure about "the young girls think they're sexy" comment regarding Chicago, though. I don't remember being aware of any Chicago posters by that time, and, while at least two members of the band (Lamm and Peter Cetera) could pass muster in the sex symbol category, I'm not sure how many actually could name anyone in that band. The facelessness of the band--and yes, the corresponding blandness of the music--probably was why they were ignored more than despised,and wouldn't even be given consideration for a Rock Dreams entry.

geor3ge said...

Love to meet '74 Simels. We could have a hair-off.

Culture of Tr√úth said...

Whoa dude!

Extreme makeover!!

dave™© said...

Ah, I remember that masthead well!

And "Rock Dreams"...! That painting of Marianne Faithful, bathed in a blue light, undressing for a nodding out Mick and Keef haunts my dreams still...

Gardner said...

Late to the party on this one, but as a lifetime Kath-era Chicago fan--make that Fan--I must respond. I remember writing to you about Chicago a month or so before that column appeared and hoping that my letter had helped to elicit the interview, even though things didn't work out as I had hoped, i.e., that you'd come to feel about Chicago the way you felt about the Guess Who, a band that we were completely in sync about, right down to the piano lick on "Albert Flasher."

But down to business.

Lamm was the obvious person to interview, but in 1974 he was so resigned to the whole "Critic's Choice"-style drubbing of Chicago that I imagine he would sleepwalk even through an interview with the Mighty Steve Simels. Or perhaps he was just coked out of his mind that day. The guy I *wish* you'd talked to is Terry Kath, the guy who I think raised the band to greatness (most of the band seems to agree, now), but nobody much talked to Terry. A good second choice would have been Jimmy Pankow, who wrote the immortal "Ballet for a Girl in Buckhannon."

But really, after Lester Bangs' remarks about Chicago at Carnegie Hall, not to mention all the other damning write-ups after the first album (which got reviews ranging from respect to outright praise) why would anyone in Chicago want to endure another possible tongue-lashing? And to be fair, you didn't ask much (or publish what you'd asked) about the *music*, which, believe it or not, is that the band cared most about in those days. They may have cared about the music in ways that obviously plugged into the 1967-75 zeitgeist, but care they did, and to my ears that caring very often resulted in wonderful music. I'd need a blog post of my own to describe and defend the music of theirs that I love, so I won't do it here, but suffice it to say that not everyone who loved Chicago in the 70's did so because of wedding receptions or top-40 schlock-radio (not that there's anything necessarily or fully wrong with either of those, as any fan of powerpop has to acknowledge).

I agree that Chicago pretty much jumped the shark after the seventh album, but up till then, they were making important, enduring music. Ironically, as they fought against their own decline, they lasted just long enough to release their eleventh and final Kath-era album and see it get a thoughtful, admiring review in Rolling Stone. (Let us remember that RS's review of "Who's Next" damned it with faint praise--so the ironies go in multiple directions.)

So I'm grateful that you did the interview, Steve, and it's fantastic to see your archives here. When I moved to California in the early 90's, I threw out all my old Stereo Reviews, but only after carefully clipping out each Simels Report and each Simels review and putting them into a special file, one that I still have. You know where you sit in my pantheon. But honestly, to ask whether "it ever rankled [Lamm] that the rock press didn't take them seriously" after Lamm made his feelings clear in "Critic's Choice" a year earlier--yes, sometimes even great Simels nods!

The real question about Chicago in 1974, clear in retrospect, is how their "Beatles with horns" project jibed with their new emphasis on perfect pop ditties like "Just You 'N Me." Chicago was a fascinating tug of war between Tommy Roe and Jimi Hendrix--now *that's* interesting stuff....

(But let's not talk about Christgau, the self-anointed "Dean of American Rock Critics," who reviews records without even listening to them, and makes that a point of pride.)

And yes, I still have my copy of "Rock Dreams," and your evocation of that book is spot-on. We need a reprint of the book! Thought-experiment: does any of the music matter enough today that there could be a 2008 version of icons from the last twenty years?

Gardner said...

Oops! Here's what I meant to write above:

"And to be fair, you didn't ask much (or publish what you'd asked) about the *music*, which, believe it or not, is what the band cared most about in those days. They may have cared about the music in ways that didn't obviously plug into the 1967-75 zeitgeist (in which they would easily "philosophize about the group's importance"), but care they did, and to my ears that caring very often resulted in wonderful music.

(I apologize for the errors. And yes, more coffee is brewing.)

David said...

"Thought-experiment: does any of the music matter enough today that there could be a 2008 version of icons from the last twenty years?"
I'd love to see a Rock Dreams-style treatment of Beck, Radiohead, the grunge scene, Britney, Wacko Jacko, etc. It would definitely work!