There’s a new piece by me up in the New York Times today. It’s about an early and informal mentor I had as a teenage – a British theater teacher named Simon Harrold.
When musicians have unshakeable faith, it can give their work an unparalleled color and vibrancy. You can lean against it and it will hold you up. Think of the Staple Singers and how real their message feels, how much you believe it, even if only for the three minutes one of their songs lasts. Think of Alice Coltrane’s sublime devotional recordings at the Shanti Anantam Ashram, of the way Buddhism has deepened Leonard Cohen’s insight, of the moral vision Kendrick Lamar’s Christianity brings to his work, of the aching spiritual yearning of early Bob Marley. Even John Lennon’s atheist proselytizing has something like that effect — you feel like he believed in something intensely, and that belief was like a kind of devotion, and that devotion was more important to him, as a musician, than making money or getting laid or impressing you. And because of that you trusted him not to lie to you, and then the music became something more than entertainment — it became something that could help and even heal. That’s what Bill Fay has. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a contemporary musician who has more of it than he does.
…After half a century, who really cares about what it was like to date Edie Sedgwick or Joan Baez? What’s fun about “Queen Jane Approximately” is that you get to pretend to be Dylan, jet-setting around the New York celebrity scene of the late ’60s. But that’s a limited kind of fun, and it’s not very helpful. Meanwhile, the best Sinatra songs…are about the ordinary pain of ordinary people in love with other ordinary people. You can relate to them, almost uncomfortably so. As Dylan says, “I’ve felt every word in that song… It’s like I wrote it.” Yeah, it’s like I wrote it too. It’s like everyone wrote it.
I’ve been thinking recently about the French singer Françoise Hardy, and specifically thinking about the first Hardy song I ever heard, which did nothing for me. The song was “All Over the World,” one of Hardy’s songs in English. I remember feeling that there was something vaguely silly about it, that it felt kind of lightweight. The melody and backing track were pretty enough, but they also felt kind of clunky and conventional, with Hardy’s accent awkwardly distracting from the emotional pull of a lyric that felt generic to begin with. I kind of discounted the song, and even, at first, the singer. Then, about six months later, I was listening to another Hardy record and was struck by a beautiful, stately ballad; Hardy’s voice was gorgeous and whisper-quiet over an almost funereally solemn classically-derived piano arpeggio, and the lyrics, in French, seemed profoundly meaningful even though I didn’t know what they were about. I realized, when I looked at the title of the song, that it was “All Over the World” – the exact same recording, in fact, but with Hardy singing in French instead of English.
I had a band. So far we’d played about three shows. We’d done a show at a downtown Austin blues bar that on Monday nights would take pretty much any new band so long as they’d promise to pack the club with their friends who would buy drinks. We’d done a show at an “alternative bookstore” on the college drag that one month later had closed to make way for a chain store that sold fake-vintage pre-faded jeans. We’d done a show above the grease vents on the roof of a hamburger bar. One day, in the late summer of 1998, I got an e-mail from a band called The Eyesores.
The song “Black Sheep Boy” appeared on 1967’s Tim Hardin 2. It was the third track, sandwiched between “Red Balloon” and “Lady Came from Baltimore.” “Lady Came from Baltimore” was a love song – one of the simplest, purest, and more affecting love songs you’ll ever hear, written about Hardin’s new wife Susan Morss, who is referred to as “Susan Moore” in the lyrics. “Red Balloon” could also be described as a love song, though, the object of Hardin’s affection wasn’t Susan Morss, but heroin.
When I was in high school, a kid gave me this Velvet Underground tape. It was the first two records, dubbed onto a cassette pretty carelessly, with songs cutting off at the end of sides A and B. The kid who gave it to me was a fellow guitar player, but a lot cooler than me. He was a slouchy guy with greasy shoulder-length hair, and he told me stories about the Velvets tuning all their strings to the same note, or physically carving the frets out of the necks of their guitars so they could slide dissonantly between microtones during guitar solos. I put the tape on and it sounded like what I imagined taking drug (a lot of drugs) felt like. It scared me. And it made me want to take drugs, which also scared me.
“Lola” is rich and complex, heroically humanizing a character who could have been an adolescent joke (one year after the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” admittedly) before crowning her and seating her at the center of a song that testifies to the primacy of love over all things.
Andy Warhol’s Vinyl, made in 1965, was the first filmed version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and it opens with a shot so powerful Stanley Kubrick would later ape it in his 1971 remake: Surrounded by his cronies, our (anti)hero gazes directly into the camera, his face wearing an expression of blank, thuggish entitlement. But similarities end there: When Warhol’s camera zooms back, it frames the shot that will compose most of this black-and-white, three-take film.
The films of Basque director Julio Medem derive much of their power from their constant proximity to the melodramatic, the grandiose, and even, at times, the ridiculous. As with Leos Carax or Harmony Korine, the dead-serious notion of cinema as a kind of visual alchemy pervades everything Medem does, which means that when he fails — as he does often, and with naked abandon — he provokes unintentional titters. When Medem succeeds, though, his films feel like a head rush.