Saturday, October 10, 2009
Reading what the good Colonel has to say about Plastic Ono Band got me thinking about the relationship between my response to art and my response the the artist. He’s right to acknowledge his subjectivity, and I think if he hadn’t been exposed to the Beatle Cult so frequently during his youth, he would be able to enjoy that album as much as I do. An artist’s biography doesn’t have to sink their work, in fact, sometimes it can enhance it. Just ask your friendly neighborhood Proust scholar or Judee Sill fan.
Just as discussions of Fela Kuti (“The government killed his mom, man!”) and Sun Ra (“That dude was from Jupiter!”) can’t resist the biopic-ready anecdotes that liter liner notes and rock-mag retrospectives, trumped up for ecstatic record-store proselytizing and dialed down for stoic newswire obitu-blurbs, so too does some iteration of Judee Sill’s tragically short arc of delinquency, addiction, arrest, redemption, and fatal relapse accompany almost any discussion of her wonderful music.
Sill’s meager repertoire, however (she completed just two albums before she died) is so much more than the soundtrack to a desperate American girl’s chaotic biography. In fact, on record she sounds triumphant and hopeful, with just a hint of pain lurking around the edges. The back-story adds a layer of meaning, but it doesn’t turn the music into a death-watch like all those Kurt Cobain lyrics about guns.
Imagine a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter’s version of Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo, and you’ll get a sense of the distinct setting painted in Sill’s songs; a dusty prairie populated by gun-slinging mystics riding toward Gnostic transcendence. Sill’s pristine, cathedral voice gives you an immediate taste: a certain angel-with-a-twang quality (“get” becomes “git”) that straddles the line between the Southwest U.S. and the kind of heaven imagined in Sunday-school daydreams. Beneath these soaring vocals, Sill crafts arrangements informed equally by J.S. Bach and the gospel licks she picked up during her incarceration.
Every song is filled with wounded hope, like “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown”, a loping mystic nursery rhyme about apocalyptic wars between good and evil, with Sill’s soul as the battlefield. As it comes to an end, her double-tracked voice splits off into a soaring round. It’s absolutely elevating.
The obvious highlight, though, is “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”. A stop-in-your tracks beauty of a song, it’s been covered (poorly) by Warren Zevon, The Hollies, Cass Elliot, and Linda Ronstadt, who irritatingly changed the title to remove the potential for blasphemy. (Frida Hyvönen does an excellent rendition, however.) The song’s ambivalence is amplified by its context within Sill’s canon. The ridge-riders and archetypal men in her songs are overwhelmingly messianic. Rooted as she is in Christian mysticism, however, she only uses the name “Jesus” in this one song, which, as it turns out, is not about Jesus at all. Hersey has it that a bad relationship with a member of the Eagles inspired the lyric, and said FM-twang stalwart is portrayed as “a bandit and a heartbreaker” who enticed her before vanishing. He’s an exorcist gunslinger who chases the devil but leaves the door wide open for the devil to return. He is good plus evil, but who isn’t? Sure, he’s trouble, but, as the song reminds us, even Jesus was trouble. Anyone who has studied the gospels seriously is bound to have some ambivalent feelings about Jesus; he’s a troubling figure, a disturbing character filled with insane compassion and radicalized unorthodoxy. Caring for this Jesus is much harder than caring for the sanitized Caucasian logo of mainstream protestant comfort food. And if we can love Jesus not in spite of his troubling characteristics but because of them, then we can certainly love the people in our lives for their erraticness, their unreliability, their anger and their insanity.
That's not the easiest pill to take, but when it comes from someone as cautiously hopeful as Judee Sill, it’s hard to be cynical. This album’s final line could come across as kindergarten motivational-speak, but from a bank-robbing drug addict turned troubadour, it isn’t hard to believe that “However we are is okay.” Not perfect, not without flaws. Okay.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Plastic Ono Band is hailed by adherents as a powerful masterpiece but this album’s emotional punch depends entirely on the listener’s investment in the person of John Lennon.
The ex-Beatle’s direct, confrontational lyrics (delivered in a "seething fury" or a "wounded coo", depending on which emotional extreme he wishes to telegraph at the moment) offer litte beyond bland fodder for celeb-obsessed voyeurism, like peeking into the naughty diary of a big star who, as it turns out, is less than compelling. When he branches out beyond his own wounded psyche to discuss religion (“God”) or socio-economic stratification (“Working Class Hero”) he is unable to match his incredible vanity with any real insight, instead settling for watered-down Marxist slogans and self-deification.
Sometimes this kind of auto-bio-pop is compelling in a car-wreck kind of way. Kanye West’s entire career, for example, can be seen as an inadvertent concept piece about a materialistic narcissist whose irrational persecution complex gradually gives way to budding self-awareness. Kanye, however, despite his best efforts, is unburdened by the kind of naive hero-worship poured over Lennon’s grave by Boomer sycophants. Like Lennon, West believes that a recording contract is a suitable substitute for a basic understanding of political and cultural issues, but his delusion is his own. The John Lennon mythology hangs over every note of Plastic Ono Band like an ugly VH1 albatross.
It’s a real shame, too, because there are some nice ideas here, even if Lennon and producer Phil Spector (working against his usual modus operandi to make the album as self-consciously “raw” as possible) don’t exactly now what to do with them. "God" has an aching repetition that doesn’t require a detailed arrangement, “Isolation” has a clever chord structure, and “Mother” would be a wistful, enjoyable ballad without the screaming theatrics and pathetic post-mortem pleas for parental affection.
All of those good moments are squandered. The only way to purely enjoy this album would be to listen to it with no knowledge of who John Lennon is or what he inexplicably means to people. For me, however, such a blissfully objective listen is impossible. I grew up fully immersed in Baby Boomer mythology, a mythology I would eventually renounce as shallow, revisionist nonsense. I can never really enjoy this album as much as I would like to, because it is impossible for me to separate it from the life of the auteur.