Rebirth of Reason


Yes? No!
by James Kilbourne

After several months of a cluttered and disrupted life filled with many false starts, I am trying once again to relate to today’s music, meaning basically rock ‘n roll (now called rock) music written since 1955 or so. My first formal attempt occurred somewhere around 1960, when my friends tried to bring me into the modern world. We agreed to have a “cultural exchange” to show each other the glories of the music we loved. My friends chose Pat Boone (“Love Letters in the Sand”) and Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”—I bought that one. It was fun). My choice? I played the “Dio Ti Gioconda” duet from Otello with Mario Lanza and Licia Albanese, and an aria from Refice’s “Santa Cecilia” sung by Renata Tebaldi.

In the mid-sixties, a second attempt exposed me to Bobby Vinton and something else that I have entirely forgotten. My choices? “Shenandoah” from “Sea Shanties” sung by Leonard Warren and “Das Abschied” from Mahler’s “Das Lied von Der Erde” with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In 1968, I was offered a Glenn Campbell song and something else; I played “Sverige” with Jussi Bjoerling and “Depuis Le Jour” with Maria Callas.

Since then, my friends who still remain from that era have been mostly silent. I hope you will forgive what some will call my arrogance for pointing this out, but the music I picked was and is great. I know it isn’t polite to point out that you were right about something, but there you have it. To rub salt in the wound, I have listened to all of this music I shared in these sessions regularly since I discovered it and I continued to love it all.

The music played for me was, to put it as gently as Bush Senior might have said, “do-do.” With my offer on SOLO to try once again to listen to rock, at least Peter Creswell will understand when I say I feel like Wagner’s green torso, Erda, in “The Ring,” ascending from bowels of the Earth to impart my wisdom to help these struggling mortals. And I plan to do just that for the 3 or 4 people who are still with me here.

I have, since last fall, purchased a collection of recommended pieces of rock music. I have also bought contemporary selections recommended by SOLO people. Since I offered to listen to rock last fall, and ordered the CDs, I have forgotten just who suggested which pieces of music I selected. This is all for the good, as now personalities will not enter into my evaluation. But permit me a moment before I get into my thoughts on this music to talk briefly about my history with popular music leading to the rock era.

I was born in 1944 and ran smack into the pop music of the times. The first songs I remember are “Mommy’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’, Shortnin’- Mommy’s little Baby Loves Shortnin’ bread.” I still love shortnin’ bread, unfortunately. The other early song I recall is “Mairsydotesandozeydotesanlillamsidivy” (“ Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats and Little Lambs Eat Ivy”- turns out the whole country was having as much trouble with the English language as I was when I was a baby). Anyway, pop music was very “white” in those days, although some influence from jazz and Negro spirituals had affected its rhythm. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were at the height of their fame, and a young singer named Doris Day was just making her first movie, “Romance on the High Seas.” “The Blue Tango” and “Belle of the Ball” with Leroy Anderson’s Dance Orchestra, along with Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers, the singing cowboys, are early memories, plus songs such as Johnnie Ray’s “Cry” and Don Howard’s “You Went Away” (when he went away, no one noticed).

In the early fifties, two rockets arose from the world of popular music; one was named Mario Lanza; he led me to the world of earlier classic songs, show tunes, operetta and grand opera. The other rocket was rock ‘n roll. The first rock song was “Rock Around the Clock,” with Bill Haley and the Comets. Soon thereafter, “The King,” Elvis Presley, took over. He straddled the gulf between rock’s white cultural tradition and its counter-culture black roots. The “white bucks” world of Pat Boone, Bobby Vinton, and Fabian thrived into the early sixties, but sputtered off-course and crashed shortly thereafter. The counterculture in rock won out with the Beatles, and all rock singers since those days have developed a decidedly American southern black accent, which has always sounded strange to me when coming from the mouth of a Liverpudlian.

In the mid 60s the Beatles, like their jazz and rhythm and blues predecessors, discovered drugs, and rock began to evolve from its simple, sexy, happy, in-your-face kind of sound into a more “serious” mystical fog. As the Beatles dissolved into sillier and sillier internal arguments, this trend was taken up by The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and other such groups, and here, friends, is where, some thirty years ago, I left the world of rock. And I mean I really left. I know almost nothing about it since, except for little snippets that are impossible to avoid if you have any interaction at all with your own culture.

The first piece of music recommended to me here on Solo was “Awaken” by Yes. I played it once, and then I realized that wasn’t fair. You can’t take selection number 5 on a CD, listen to it, and have any idea of what you have just done, so I slowed down and decided to read the booklet that came with it and listen to the entire CD. Lo and behold! I am picking up with rock right where I left off at the height of Pink Floyd et al in the seventies.

“Going For the One” is the name of the CD by Yes. The booklet’s cover shows a naked man standing with his back to us, looking at skyscrapers, with geometric patterns imposed over the picture. Side One has 5 songs. Side Two contains rehearsals of the songs on side one, plus a few extras. Going past the story of how Yes was formed, I encountered the following opening statement about this particular composition:

“The overall concept of ‘the One’ is trademark Yes, a mystical quest for utopia juxtaposing Christian deism, gnosticism, and heliocentric paganism with modern Man’s materialist vainglory.”

No, I am not kidding. That is word for word, and is just the first sentence. It goes on to explain the “mould-breaking tri-fold sleeve [cover], with monolithic World Trade Center-styled fasciae towering over an analogue Adam…..”…… I closed the cover. I can see that rock has to kept its roots deeply planted in the fertilizer of left-wing conspiratorial lunacy. Time to listen to the music.

The music is better than the booklet, but that would also be true of a four-year bubonic plague epidemic. It is interesting for what it is and for what it is not. It is comprised of what sounds to me to be technically well-played steel and bass guitar with piano, drums and an electronic synthesizer keyboard, accompanied by vocals. The vocals are somewhat in the background. The voices are a bit strained, thin ... and decidedly, almost proudly, untrained, but all of them are remarkably on pitch. Gone is even the slight but sweet tenor sound of a Paul McCartney-type voice, replaced with a matter-of-fact unemotional approach. The music is New Age mystical and late sixties rock, but added to this is a Bach-imitating organ-sounding harmony, again played quite proficiently. This gives a strongly Christian religious feel to the whole project, which is the greatest difference to my ear from what came before it in rock music.

The last song, “Awaken,” is the most ambitious. The poetry, as in the previous songs, is pretentious and bad. This is not great music, but it shows some imagination and intricacy in the instrumentation, and is at its best when setting the mood between the vocals.

So what is this music NOT? It is NOT romantic. The entire romantic era from late eighteenth century Mozart through early twentieth century Mahler and Strauss is missing. We go directly from Bach to Eastern religion to New Age. The nineteenth century has been thoroughly expunged from Western civilization. Anything that could even resemble romance or sentiment appears not to have been even considered. This music is the perfect accompaniment to the "cool" personality that is victorious in our contemporary culture. It is detached, impersonal, and thereby, I gather by its own definition, profound. It is not as bad as most contemporary classical music because it isn’t as methodically unintelligible, but it would be if it knew how to be. Blessedly, some melody fragments remain, but not with any development of themes.

I don’t mean to be completely negative. There is much greater virtuosity in this music than in the insipid music of the early rock period. There may be a time and place for it. But words like “great” or “soul-enriching” are not words that immediately come to my mind when I hear it.

What this music is crying for is drugs. Any music, by the fact of its unique connection to one’s life, can be moving and personally meaningful, and I don’t mean to make light of that. But it doesn’t connect with anything that moves my heart or soul. I will rest up before I play Rush, but I plan to discover what right-wing rock, if that is what it is, sounds like. For now, I am taking this CD and placing it in its jewel case behind its tri-fold World Trade center capitalist-bashing cover and placing it at the end of my shelf in my music room—there to gather dust until the next time one of my motorcycle gang visits with his bong. They do visit on occasion, and I bet it will sound a LOT better then.
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