From T. Rex to Helter Skelter

Today would have been Marc Bolan’s 66th birthday, and coincidentally I’ve been reading Tony Visconti, The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy. Bolan doesn’t come off especially well in this book; stardom seems to have gone to his head, turning him into a raving prima donna who made unreasonable demands, paid his band a pittance, and generally made life miserable for those around him.

This is a tad disappointing, but doesn’t bother me all that much; I long ago gave up on the idea that an artist had to be a nice person for you to enjoy their work. If you went through your records, books, and movies and starting weeding out everything that involved a disagreeable human being, I fear you’d be left with very little. And a lot of that would be crap. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s an inverse relationship between an artist’s likability and the quality of their work — Mr. David Bowie, fr’instance, is a complete mensch in Visconti’s portrayal — I just don’t think the two have much to do with each other.

And really I don’t know why we care so much. Maybe Lou Reed is a flaming asshole, or maybe he’s a gruff but lovable crank with no patience for the suffering of fools — what does it matter to me? I don’t have to hang out with the cat, I just have to play the records. They say Charlie Manson is evil, and I don’t doubt it for a minute, but does that mean I can’t find him entertaining?

Hmmm…well, I didn’t set out today to write a blog entry that mentioned Marc, David, Lou and Charlie, but now that I’ve done it, I have to say it feels pretty good. I feel like I’ve earned my cocktail, so over and out for now.

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 8)

The Quine Tapes

How many times have I had this same experience? I learn about some piece of Velvet Underground product of which I was previously unaware. Immediately I want it, but I resist, telling myself, “The VU stopped recording (x) years ago, there is no new thing under the sun, this is simply the nefarious forces of commerce attempting to extract more dollars from you.” Time passes, little by little my resolve weakens, finally I break down and get it, and immediately I have buyer’s remorse, sure that disappointment is to follow. Then I actually listen to the thing, and I am reminded: the VU were gods, their dross was other people’s gold, they could do no wrong, to think otherwise is the worst sort of heresy.

The Quine Tapes are live performances from 1969, almost all of them in San Francisco, recorded by future Voidoids guitarist and Lou Reed collaborator Robert Quine. Quine used an early portable cassette rig, so the sound quality is less than stellar. It helps to imagine that the Velvets are playing in town but you haven’t be able to get a ticket, and thus must stand outside the club in a light rain, angling your head to hear over the street sounds and traffic noise.

Ironically, many of the shows these tapes are drawn from were very sparsely attended. “There were a few nights,” says Quine in the liner notes, “when they started the first set with only four or five people in the club.” This has led me to a possible future business idea: Once time travel is invented, brokers can sell tickets to underattended shows by historic bands. I would pay good money to see the Velvets in S.F. in 1969, though of course I would prefer to be comped, in view of my having come up with the idea and all. (There are a few wrinkles to be worked out here, temporal paradoxes and butterfly effects and whatnot, but I leave all that up to the technicians; I’m an idea guy.)

Anyway, back to the music — the material here is drawn pretty equally from all the phases of the Velvets’ career, from “Sunday Morning,” “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” to “Rock and Roll” and “New Age” (no “Sweet Jane,” interestingly; perhaps it had yet to be written at this juncture?). There are also songs that would not see the light of day until the release of VU many years later, and a few that never were officially recorded so far as I know (“Too Much,” “Over You,” “Follow the Leader,” and “Ride into the Sun”).

Of special note here are the versions of “Sister Ray,” of which there are three, totaling 80 minutes between them (though one technically is a medley with “Foggy Notion”). They are as different from each other as they are from the original — probably improvised around the basic structure depending on how much time was left in the show and that night’s drug mixture and quality — with the longest clocking in at 38 minutes, making for exciting but exhausting listening. One of these days I’m going to listen to all three back-to-back-to-back, but I want to make sure this is attempted under controlled, medically safe conditions. I’ll report back when it’s done.

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 7)

Inherent Vice

Flush with confidence after conquering Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, and wanting to prepare for the September release of Bleeding Edge, I decided to tackle Inherent Vice, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. Lo and behold — even more than Vineland, Inherent Vice is the product of a Pynchon aiming to be accessible and entertaining, and for the most part succeeding.

Inherent Vice is more or less a detective novel. The protagonist, private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, would have to be described as “Dudeesque” in his investigative methods: By sticking to a very strict drug regimen, he keeps his mind limber and arrives at insights that would elude more linear-thinking gumshoes. Also like The Dude, Doc is a man for his times — in this case the late 60s sliding into the 70s, post-Manson, the decay of hippie ideals already well underway. Though Doc himself is, of course, incorruptible, in the best Chandler/Hammett tradition; just substitute weed for whiskey, and there you are.