Tell Tale Sign of More to Come


It’s safe to say that Columbia Records, and or any other music conglomerate to arise, will be releasing and re-releasing the music of Bob Dylan forever. A musician of this magnitude will always sell records, no matter how they are packaged. New material will always be absorbed, critiqued and ultimately revisited and no matter how many Deluxe or Special Edition versions of Dylan’s back catalogue are reissued, the spruced up discs will undoubtedly be coveted by hardcore fans.

Today marks the release of another piece of Dylan’s growing sub catalogue of “official” bootleg recordings, with Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. This hearty serving of unreleased live and rarity tracks taken from Dylan’s late 80s to present day recordings is yet another piece of the puzzle in unraveling this musician’s wildly varied, epic career.

While the collection of songs all warrant further listening, with many of the cuts actually besting the official album release (see not one but two superior alternate versions of “Mississippi,” officially released on 2001’s Love and Theft, with a third set to be released on a third special edition companion disc) this eighth Bootleg Series outing ultimately begs the question, what’s in store for future volumes in the series.

The previous seven Bootleg releases chronologically jumped around a bit, with the initial three-disc Vol. 1-3 edition spanning from Dylan’s earliest works up until 1989s Oh Mercy (a truly remarkable, often forgotten LP that is covered more extensively on Tell Tale Signs). Still Vol. 4-7 mainly encompassed the artist’s 60s decade (Live 1964 and Live 1966), with the Rolling Thunder Revue extensively covering Dylan’s acclaimed mid 70s gypsy rock, multi-artist tour (a much more accessible time capsule of this legendary tour than the original Hard Rain live LP release). 

While not entirely sequential in their nature (Live at Royal Albert Hall 1966 was released before The Concert at Philharmonic Hall 1964) it does seems like Tell Tale Signs jumps ahead towards the latter end of Dylan’s career, passing over a largely misunderstood chapter in Dylan’s life.

Dylan’s ‘Born Again’ years are often overlooked when perusing the artist’s canon. Encompassing three official album’s–1979s Slow Train Coming, ‘80s Saved and ending with ‘81s Shot of Love–this radical epoch in Dylan’s life is just aching to be reexamined and for many discovered.

To be fair Dylan briefly covered his spiritual years with The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. A rough outtake of Shot of Love’s haunting “Every Grain of Sand,” featuring a female backup singer is the highlight of three outtakes featured from this era.

Considering the Shot of Love sessions alone produced roughly 50 other unreleased outtakes and instrumental cuts and both Train and Saved had their share of studio experimentation, an official release chronicling this era would be interesting to hear. Even Dylan’s live sets from his non-secular years, which focused solely on the new material at hand, ignoring his classics, have yet to see an official release (the Real Live LP of the time was a return to the classics tackled in less than desirable style.

Dylan’s “Born Again” years never receive the credit they deserve. Train was decently received by critics and was propelled to mass success by the track, “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won Dylan his first official Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The LPs true highlights are heard in “Precious Angel” “I Believe in You” and “Slow Train,” a sequential trio of tracks that showcase Dylan’s lyrical strength with just a hint of Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler’s unique melodic guitar pickings as an added bonus (Knopfler also served as producer).

Saved was quickly dismissed for being too polarizing for Dylan’s more secular fans (its heavy gospel overtones were not for everyone) and Shot of Love, while returning to the roots rock and roll of earlier Dylan was still heavily Christian in the eyes of most of its listeners. Still, if one overlooks Dylan’s then newfound love of Christ and the lyrics spawned from this conversion, the artist was still making some of the most beautiful music of his career, and once again showing another side of the Dylan most thought they knew. 

With 32-studio albums behind him and countless other live and B-Sides recordings collecting dust in the closet Dylan never seems comfortable staying in one genre or style. His legacy will always be rooted in his folk and traditional Americana upbringing, with later accolades for his rallying lyricism. More importantly though Dylan success comes from his willingness to shed all preconceptions and follow new directions.

His “Born Again” years are undoubtedly rooted in American Gospel music with a focus on the call and response, sermon style songwriting. Flash-forward to his current return to Americana and blues inspired folk and its easy to see a natural progression throughout his career, one that benefited from his “Born Again” recordings.

Tell Tale Signs is a treat for fans of Dylan’s recent works, and unlike other artists’ who simply release outtakes to profit off tracks that were rightfully scrapped, the majority of Dylan’s B-Sides are often radically different giving each song an entirely new feel. The stripped down piano version of “Dignity” accentuates the song’s brilliant storytelling while the previously unreleased track (and first single) “Dreaming of You” is one of those rarities you wish had seen an official release during its incarnation.

With every Bootleg Series release fans and newcomers alike are granted a glimpse into truly ‘Another Side’ of Bob Dylan. Tell Tale Signs is a welcome release but one can only hope that Dylan is willing to revisit some of his forgotten years, perhaps in conjunction with his upcoming follow up to the autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, an equally rewarding look behind some of Dylan’s most popular and underrated albums (the chapter on New Morning alone was worth the read).  For now we can revisit Dylan’s not too distant past. 

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Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.

Random Album Facts: Loveless


My Bloody Valentine released their magnum opus,Loveless in 1991 after a grueling two-year recording process. Since its release the Irish shoe gazers have been silent. No follow up album, no live performances since 1995, and pretty much nothing holding the band’s reputation together but rumor, hype, and the fact that Loveless remains one of the most innovative and untouched experimental albums out there.

This year MBV embarked on its first world tour (or really first tour) in over ten years. The band is currently scheduled for an appearance at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom–one of five U.S. cities on the band’s lineup. So far setlists from the band’s recent shows look to be rooted primarily from MBV’s two studio albums–Loveless and Is this Anything–along with a handful of EPs including Tremolo and Glider. In interviews the band’s talking head, Kevin Shields claims that a new album is three-quarters of the way finished but whether or not new material will be unleashed on the eager audience of shoegazers awaiting the band’s arrival is up in the air.

While most serious music lovers are probably familiar with MBV and most likely escape into the world of Loveless on a semi-regular basis, I thought it would be cool to uncover some of the secrets and random trivial facts that went into recording and releasing this album.

  • My Bloody Valentine got its name from an obscure Canadian B-Slasher film of the same name. Kevin Shields has said in interviews that the band had toyed with earlier names for the band including Burning Peacocks.
  • The recording process of Loveless was a long, grueling experience that took over two years, in 19 different recording studios, and cost Creation Records nearly £250,000 almost bankrupting the label all together.
  • While past MBV endeavors were collaborative between the band members, Loveless was hands down Kevin Shields baby. The control freak musical mad scientist played all of the guitar and bass parts, wrote 2/3 of the album’s often undistinguishable lyrics, and even recorded many of the drum tracks.
  • MBV’s drummer and co-founder Colm Ó Cíosóig only contributed to two of Loveless’ tracks, the punch the gut opener “Only Shallow” and “Touched.” While Shields need for creative control played into this outcome, Ó Cíosóig was also extremely ill during most of the recording stages for Loveless and was at one point homeless. The other remaining tracks were produced from pre-recorded drum loops from Ó Cíosóig.
  • Loveless was the first project for then new vocalist Bilinda Butcher. It is said that Shields was inspired by Butcher’s dream like vocals but still made her endure bizarre recording practices such as closing off the window between the studio and the control room, thus not allowing anyone to watch the musicians at work.
  • MBV moved from one cheap studio to the next over the recording process and listed every single person involved in the liner notes for Loveless. Shields once said that, “even if all they did was fix tea, that might have had an effect on the album’s outcome.” In reality Shields only trusted himself and producer Alan Moulder with the important recording procedures thus giving him near complete control.
  • MBV deliberately did not include lyrics to Loveless in the album’s liner notes since the mystery of the sound is an important element of the sound. In the Japanese release there are printed lyrics (a requirement in Japan) but they are supposedly not even close to being correct. Likewise internet lyric sites all differ in some way with their interpretations.
  • While it’s assumed that the band took copious amounts of drugs–specifically psychedelic substances such as ecstasy–while recording Loveless, the truth is Shields main mind-altering drug was lack of sleep. Shields was interested in dreams and achieving the hypnagogic state, which is experienced between wakefulness and sleep and can produce hallucinatory events. Much of Loveless was created or imagined late at night while Shields was alone in the studio.
  • While much of Loveless’ “swirling guitars” sound like a dozen or so instruments being used, the majority of the effects used during the recording was simply realized with a tremolo arm or wammy bar.
  • The large budget for Loveless nearly bankrupted the band’s label, Creation Records. Creation would later be propelled from Indie status to mega stardom with its work with the U.K. band Oasis. Shields has said in interviews that most of the money spent was actually for living expenses over the two years and that the music itself only cost a couple thousand pounds. MBV believes Creation exaggerated greatly how much the album actually cost.
  • Loveless was recorded almost exclusively in mono.
  • Shields and Butcher both had a fascinating obsession with chinchillas and during the recording of Loveless it wasn’t uncommon to have up to 14 little critters running around the studio on a give day.
  • Shields once said in an interview, “My whole memory of making [Loveless] was just this constant sense of presence, like it was a mixture of angels and, funnily enough, cow ghosts, ghosts of cows. I don’t know why, but I kept having this impression of bloody animals and cows all the time–really big, weird faces with big brown eyes. But not like aliens.”
  • For a quick, highly informative read about Loveless and My Bloody Valentine check out Mike McGonigal’s book Loveless, which is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series.

McCarthyism


When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.


So begins Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, soon to be a major motion picture. The veteran American author, whose prose is often compared to the likes of Faulkner, Melville and Joyce, has been a household name in the literary world for a number of years but is just starting to move into the mainstream spotlight thanks to some recent and upcoming page to screen adaptations.


It’s been a surprisingly busy past couple years for the mysterious author. The observant moviegoer might recognize McCarthy’s name from last year’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning film adaptation of the author’s 2005 novel of the same name. Though the film was very much in the Coen tradition the story, complex dialogue and underlying message/critique of violence in society was all McCarthy.


NCFOM was not the first film to take on McCarthy’s literature, nor will it be the last. Billy Bob Thornton directed a not-so-well-received screen adaptation of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novel and National Book Award winning, All the Pretty Horses, in 2000. An adaptation of McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, is supposedly in production according to Imdb.com. Next fall fans of the author will get to see The Road, the author’s latest novel, come to life on the big screen and there’s also a proposed and possibly worrisome film adaptation of McCarthy’s most brutal but arguably his finest work,Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, slated for a tentative 2009 release.


Those familiar with McCarthy’s varied canon–starting with his Tennessee Appalachian period, followed by a move to the Southwest where he would take on the Western genre–will know that NCFOM and The Road, the author’s last two novels, were the most celluloid friendly. They lacked the author’s usual dense and sometimes cumbersome flow and were both dealt with a current or not so far off time period.


The Coen’s take on NCFOM was respectful of McCarthy’s original text while also adding a bit of the filmmakers’ signature sense of style, use of quirky supporting characters and sly dark humor. The Road, McCarthy’s haunting post-apocalyptic thriller just finished production and has the potential to be yet another successful film thanks to a unique, lesser-known director and a perfectly assembled cast of strong character actors.


The post-apocalyptic film has morphed into its own genre over the years with horror films ranging from 28 Days Later to this year’s I am Legend, not to mention past sci-fi staples such as the Mad Max trilogy and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which used the threat of nuclear proliferation as its canvas. Where McCarthy’s The Road differed from the more extreme stories mentioned above is in its chilling sense of realism and constant reminder of hopelessness, page after page.


The New York Times recently ran a story about the filming of The Road and the difficulties of recreating a desolate American landscape in today’s world (the crew settled on Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie region for it’s crumbled America backdrop). The film was directed by the rising Aussie filmmaker, John Hillcoat, whose gritty take on the Western set down under in 2005s The Proposition, just so happened to be one of the closest film portrayals of the brutal violence depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. With The Road, Hillcoat directs Viggo Mortensen and newcomer child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son walking a mysterious unnamed road through a desolate and crumbled post-disaster America.


Joining Mortensen is Charlize Theron as the Wife (who in the novel is only mentioned in back story), Robert Duvall,The Proposition’s Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams aka Omar from HBO’s late series The Wire and possibly one of the best character actors working today, Garret Dillahunt, who had a small but memorable role as a slow-witted deputy in NCFOM. Aussie musician Nick Cave, who scripted and scored The Proposition, is also hard at work on the soundtrack for the film.


While normally a story as dark as The Road might turn moviegoers away, the post-NCFOM Oscar sweep and the fact that Oprah picked McCarthy’s novel in her book club two years ago gives the film version of the book the potential to be one of 2008s best films.


Then there’s Blood Meridian, quite possibly the white whale of film adaptations. Little is known about this project other than the fact that the film’s scribe is William Monahan, a rising name who won an Oscar two years ago for The Departed, and the person helming the director’s chair is veteran Ridley Scott. While both talents backing this film are notable and have the filmmaking chops (Scott has proved time and again that he has a knack for onscreen violence) there is a greater underlying question of whether or not Blood Meridian should make the leap from page to screen.


It is rarely the case that films best the books that they’re based on. That goes without saying. With Blood Meridian many believe the story is simply too densely written and overly violent (even for today’s standards) to come alive on the big screen. Others argue that if done well it has the potential to be one of the best and most historically accurate portrayals of the “real” Wild West ever seen on film.


For those unfamiliar with the story McCarthy tells the stomach turning tale of the Glanton gang, a group of weathered, blood-thirsty soldiers just out of the Mexican-American War in the mid 19th century who are contracted to travel through northern Mexico collecting the scalps for a price. Led by a larger than life character known as the Judge (if you thought Javier Bardem was creepy as Anton Chigurh in NCFOM read about the Judge to see what true heartless evil really is) the gang of misfits roam the desert landscape leaving a sanguinary trail of destruction behind them.


While the violence in the book is often unimaginable it serves as a reminder of the horrors our American forefathers unleashed on the North American natives and of the blood that built this country. To justly recreate the sort of mayhem McCarthy weaves in Blood Meridian it’s safe to say a film adaptation of this tale has the potential to be one of the most violent films ever made, making Mel Gibson’s biblical lesson in torture seem tame in comparison. To give you a taste of the madness McCarthy unleashes on his readers during one early scene the gang stumbles upon a tree riddled with the corpses of infants and children. This brings up another dire question about the making of this film: is there an audience for such brutal, in-your-face violence? Should a story like this, no matter how historically relevant, be brought to life for the movie going audience? If so, how do you stage a scene like the one just mentioned?


John Hillcoat’s The Proposition took the concept of Western film iconography and turned it upside down with its portrayal of Australia’s brutal, blood-soaked past. The film was, again, a reminder that the chapters in history aren’t always pretty. Ridley Scott has too dabbled in violent historical fiction with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but unlike Hillcoat’s more subtle and refined style, Scott seems stuck in the big budget Hollywood spectacle mindset, which is exactly what Blood Meridian the film should avoid.


McCarthy fansites and message boards have been flooded with dream casts/directors for Blood Meridian with many saying the only true filmmakers to tackle the project would be the late John Huston or Stanley Kubrick or someone like Terrence Malick, all of which could bring to life such an epic story. Many worry that Scott will destroy the project’s potential by opting for a movie star filled cast with the likes of someone like Russell Crowe. Perhaps the film adaptation just wasn’t meant to be.


For fans of Cormac McCarthy the recent production news and photographs from the set of The Road is a breath of fresh air since the project seems to be in good hands and will most likely be worthy adaptation. It’s hard to say how many more books McCarthy has in him as he–he just turned 74 this year–but hopefully his new foray into the mainstream eye might encourage curious minds to check out this literary master’s collection of tomes. His work is difficult to read and sometimes stomach but his style and comprehension of the English language is unprecedented.

The European Canon is Here


During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult. 

While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history. 

Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.

As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clichés of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era. 

Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.

At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.

Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).

Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev”Sergei Prokofiev’s HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf”Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).

ImageThere are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.

Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead. 

Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.

As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).

In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.

It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him. 


When Liner Notes Just Aren’t Enough

The Finest Album Companions

In the “digital age” of MP3s and iPods it’s easy to forget about one of the truly unique parts of an album; the liner notes. These little foldouts that come with CDs and the larger inserts that once were so caringly paired with vinyl, often serve as more than just outlets for the tracklisting and endless shout outs from the artists and producers involved in the recording. From song lyrics, album mission statements, recording session notes, to galleries for album art, liner notes enable dedicated listeners to crack the musical shell and dive deeper into the record’s artistic core. For true music übernerds or really anyone looking to learn a little more about their favorite albums sometimes liner notes just don’t cut it.

Back in 2003 a group of music enthusiasts started the Thirty-Three and a Third series, a collection of pocket size books for loyal listeners looking to enhance their knowledge of their favorite albums. The series set out to examine a diverse range of pinnacle albums of the past 50 years, everything from undisputed masterpieces (The Beatles’ Let It Be, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Neil Young’s Harvest), lesser known indie-gems (Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister), to overlooked albums from stellar artists (Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, David Bowie’s Low). Consider this column a recommendation to fellow music lovers who may not be familiar with this wonderful series.

The growing anthology (50 books currently available with roughly 20 plus slated for future release) provides curious listeners with a look at how the album was created–from the initial incarnation, to the recording process, followed by the release and the album’s aftermath–and then discusses the records importance in the wide arena of popular music. These quick reads (average editions range from 100-200 pages in pocket size formats) are brilliant ways to explore another side of some classic albums for five reasons:

1) For starters, they’re highly addictive, providing listeners with an easy fix of background information pertaining to a slew of stellar albums. Some books use interviews with the bands or artists to tell the story others focus on the album’s shear importance; all provide that extra bit of insight not found on a mere record listening or skimming of the liner notes.

2) Pretentiousness is not the series forte. While the writers do choose to chronicle some universally agreed upon monumental albums (Pet Sounds and Let It Be for example) for the most part the authors and contributors are more interested in tackling the less obvious, under-hyped records (Nirvana’s In Utero over Nevermind, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn over Dark Side of the Moon) as well as lesser known picks (where else could you find an entire book devoted to the minister of weird, Tom Waits’, Swordfishtrombones or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea).

3) The scribes range from well-known music journalists, scholars and even musicians (The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy contributed a surprisingly disappointing self-indulged look at The Replacements Let It Be), giving each book a unique voice to tell the story of each album.

4) At eight to ten bucks a hit these books are cheap companion pieces to albums you already own or ones you may want to indulge in (and no I am not a savvy member of the company’s PR department, but rather a humble fan of the series who has been hooked ever since I discovered them two years ago).

5) Finally, with an entire history of noteworthy albums at their disposal and fans all around the world eager to learn more about the records that hold a special place in their hearts (the series’ official blog encourages readers to voice their opinions of which albums should be chronicled next), the possibilities for this series are endless.

The impressive canon so far is bound to provide at least something for everyone, from casual listeners to “High Fidelity”esque music elitists. Some books that I’ve read are disappointing (the daunting edition on Zeppelin’s IV spends more time discussing the mystery behind the band’s use of “zoso” mystic symbols/identities and fascination with the occult than the record’s conception or music) while other subject choices are a bit baffling (book #7 tackles ABBA Gold, a greatest hits compilation of the boisterous 70s Swedish band’s disco blahs and this December marks the release of a book examining Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love). Still, because the series taps into every pop genre and sub genre spanning the second half of the 20th century, the books are in many ways a complete modern musical history told one signature album at a time.

Bookstores around the world are saturated with writings and ramblings on popular music. While an entire encyclopedia devoted to the career of Bob Dylan or the making of Revolver is warranted and welcome amongst avid music lovers, there is something comforting about the 33 1/3 series, which seeks out the less obvious album gems. Rather than utilizing pompous music historians the majority of this series channels the best music writers, the faithful fans.

We all have a short list of albums that truly changed our lives and what’s nice about this series is that there are others out there who share the same passions. For every Beatles or Stones aficionado there is someone who is equally passionate about a lesser-known group like The Minutemen (book #45 Double Nickels on the Dime) or Love (book #2 Forever Changes), or a singer songwriter like PJ Harvey (book #48 Rid of Me). The 33 1/3 series serves as a vehicle for the communal appreciation of great music going above and beyond the content found on the liner notes of the albums we love and cherish.

For more information on the series visit 33third.blogspot.com .