This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of
This week (musical week March 1) the Beatles, with “Penny Lane,” have, for the first time since 1965, gained the #1 spot on WMCA in NewYork; the Rolling Stones are second with “Ruby Tuesday.” This is the same cast of characters on top as we’ve had for years, although few expected this one-two finish ever again. The rest of what’s happening in rock today is a mixture of the “great” and the utterly “terrible,” if you want to use that valuational jargon. On one hand, everything’s fine, since it’s all rock and rock is easy monism incarnate. And then there are preferences, too, since rock is simultaneously easy hierarchy, just as always. But there is a conceptual preferential stupor these days that feels something like a cold, wet, windy day of driving and skidding on the grating of the Marine Park Bridge in Brooklyn. And thus it is pretty amazing that the Beatles and Stones are on top again, in their particular one-two order which tradition has always generally assigned them.
A truly perceptive aesthetician can make a valid point for just about anything in art. A rock aesthetician can make a more than valid (and certainly also less than merely invalid) point for anything. Traditional aesthetics asserts the absurdity of “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like.” Rock aesthetics asserts something like “I know lots and lots about art and I know what I like and I can even relate the two, so what more can I tell you?” Actually, as a result of contemporary aesthetic developments, of which my own critique of rock ‘n’ roll is a manifestation, any work of art can be readily defended on many levels. But the context for the distance between the verbalization of the defense and the quality of the work itself could be more clearly observed than it has been, even if just for the hell of it. LeRoi Jones has opened a review of avant garde jazz, on the cover of a record album entitled The New Wave in Jazz, in the following manner: “I have been writing in many places about this new black music. I have made theories, sought histories, tried to explain. But the music itself is not about any of these things. What do our words have to do with flowers? A rose is not sweet because we explain it so. We cd say anything, and no rose wd answer.” Afterwards, he establishes musical criteria on purely racial determinants without any recourse to the use of musical terms. LeRoi Jones cannot be refuted in terms of the inadequacy of his criticism to properly deal with an art form on its own terms; the distance between Jones’s poetry and that implicit in the art he analyzes merely indicates the extensiveness of what mundane critical description becomes after traditional adequate criticism is discarded for something more “comfortable.” I am physically tired and intellectually near sleep. And out of this state of euphoric dullness I now feel that the latest stuff by the Beatles and the Stones is the finest stuff I’ve ever heard, in fact the finest achievement in the history of Western culture. As far as I can remember, that is. But maybe just valid in the context of critical euphoric dullness. Mere autobiographical subjective data. But who gives a crap?
“Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” comprise the first two-sided geographical single by the Beatles (the semi-audible utterance of a passerby in “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” is the Stones’ moment of geographical glory: “What kind of joint is this?”). Viewing poetic space as real physical space is about as pleasant as you can get. And between them these two tracks sum up the universe. And what these two tracks separately deal with is basically identical. These two points could be easily demonstrated, but they won’t be because they’re obviously right by being obviously outrageously not quite right. Anyway, it’s corny to say these days that we ought to let the artist speak for himself, and it’s so overstatedly correct and joyful to continue saying that the Beatles tell it like it is.
“Strawberry Fields” continues the Beatles’ fadeout supremacy, established by “Rain”‘s backward-type fadeout, with a double fadeout. The first fadeout could be called a justification fadeout or affirmation fadeout, as opposed to a reaffirmation fadeout (to be found in works like “It’s All Over Now” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”). In it, George plucks around excitingly but so sketchily that the listener might just feel like hearing more. So he does, and what comprises this second fadeout (or fadeout to a fadeout) is reportedly this first one played backward, not quite in the same vein, but more something and therefore okay. Nice tension between awesome moreness and not-quite-just-what-you-want-but-okayness.
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes” is a typical awesome Beatle multi-step-at-once. An extension of “in the public eye” or “keep your eye on him” might lead to “…eye and ear…,” in that particular sequence. So our own sweet boys go far beyond that with reversal of this expected (but unlikely anyway) order, and pluralization of even that. There’s a high density of audible singular-plural ambiguity throughout the work on a standard cursory hearing. And it’s even an allegory if you want it to be so, undoubtedly even a greater Byrdlike contextualization of conventional meaning-form than that of the Byrds.
The abundance of “that is …”-like construction in “Strawberry Fields” is the most overt clarification and simultaneous non-formalization of raunch epistemology ever, indicated by such masterfully fluid knowledge guidelines as “it must be high or low” and “all wrong, that is l think I disagree.” “You know I know when it’s a dream” is a perfect reversal of the standard Platonic-Cartesian certainty for being awake knowingly only when you are actually awake. The last time this type of philosophical reversal occurred was in “I Want to Tell You”: “It’s only me, it’s not my mind, that is confusing things.”
Rhythmically, “Penny Lane” exhibits a relentless precise awkwardness, manipulated largely by the greatest sloppy drumming and sloppiest great drumming Ringo has ever displayed; McCartney’s bass is another great unsettling unifier on this level. The nervous jaggedness of the trumpet break is just the thing (although anything the Beatles could have used in the context of this song’s break, even a scissors solo by Brian Epstein, would have been just the thing to do—it’s a song whose temporal break after a not-so-temporal “hourglass” reference a priori rises to the occasion) to form the heart of the break-reentry most like that of “Baby’s in Black” in recent years. Also nostalgic is the pronunciation of “customer” as “coostomer,” like the “mooch” (“much”) of the old days.
Throughout “Strawberry Fields” a vacuum-cleaner sort of momentary sucking sound is perplexing. It sounds like single guitar notes played backward, suggesting that maybe the entire vocal (which does contain strange enunciation with peculiar marginal speed variations) had been recorded, played backward, learned as backward, recorded as performed backward, and played backwards again to sound, ultimately, “forward.” Mere forwardness (even if just straight actual forwardness with overdubbed vacuum cleaners or backward guitar) is a radically secure and graspable form of ambiguous apparent/actual temporal directionality, particularly when “misunderstanding all you see.” Yoohoo!
The temporally ironic “meanwhile” of “Penny Lane” is all that holds the content of the song “together” except for the rock provincial humanness scattered throughout. The unlikeliness of the simultaneity asserted by this “meanwhile,” particularly in its repetition not even as a relation at the close of the song, provides the song’s most absurdly secure and out-of-context verbal pole. Other Heraclitean oppositions and quasi- and pseudo-oppositions and non-Heraclitean non-oppositional, obliquely similar groupings supply the rest of the metaphoric meat: “fireman” and “rain”; “mack” and “rain”; “blue suburban skies” and “pouring rain”; “fish” and the wetness of “rain”; “play” as imagined and as real anyway; “l sit” and “banker sitting waiting for a trim”; ambiguous “there” and anywhere concrete (spatiality is as silly and unsilly as anything else here). “Very strange” functions about the way “l don’t mind” and “the weather’s fine” did in “Rain”; more tiredly resigned and naively understanding (and generally far-reaching) than Heraclitus’ Logos. And though it seems as if everything resolves and fits and all that, it does anyway.
“Strawberry Fields” lends its raunch epistemology to the validity of “Penny Lane”‘s spatio-temporal confusion; “Penny Lane” lends its fresh smell to the valid utter confusion of “Strawberry Fields.”
Lately it seems that hard rock, like the Monkees, forms a surprising part of today’s “novelty music.” The Stones, with “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Connection,” take two steps at once by producing both significant novelty music and the most significant hard rock almost since their own early days; “Connection” even takes material from the Kinks’ “Party Line”—in the latter, context provides an aggressive background for the Kinks’ own transcendence of what formerly would have been regarded as mere novelty music but isn’t. The great filmmaker and rock lights man David Flooke has regarded Between the Buttons in its entirety as hinting that the Stones are on the verge of sounding like Paul Revere and the Raiders. This, too, can be twisted around rightfully if anyone feels like it (and I do) to provide an analogy that would make Paul Revere and the boys feel pretty good to sound like what the Stones just might be on the verge of sounding like.
The timing of the verses of “Ruby Tuesday” fully transcends the standard stock of devices used for discussing rock meter. Taken as rock it has the raw potent impact of, out of nowhere, a poem read from a printed page! While in an ordinary poem the temporality of music itself is only implicitly part of what is going on, this is a poem from the other side of the fence, with overt but utterly subtle musical accompaniment and implicit “poetic” time sense, whatever that is. This is just what written poetry is, superimpositions of time senses upon a bunch of words. “Here, There and Everywhere” was the first “perfect poem” to appear in rock proper. “Ruby Tuesday” is the first poem qua poem to hit the rock scene, as well as being the first rock song to contain more overt writtenness than the rock songs of Tim Hardin.
“If l look hard enough into the setting sun, my love will laugh with me before the morning comes” was the most potently painful image to appear in rock or anywhere else when it appeared in “Paint It, Black” last spring. Soon thereafter, the Beatles’ “For No One” topped it for depth and richness of pain with really poignant lines like “Your day breaks / Your mind aches” (this guy has to make his own day, there isn’t even such a thing as the day, bringing down the painfully corny fury of the Sartrean make-your-own-meaning hang-up) and “A love that should have lasted years” (a resigned double limitation, as if love is quantifiable in terms of years first of all). But “Ruby Tuesday” goes even further with “Still l’m gonna miss you,” presenting a chick not dead or inaccessibly right at hand but painfully remotely accessible. And the Stones mean it. Without December’s Children as the wholesome nihilistic phase from which “true” sentiment could grow as the logical radical extension, the “Ruby Tuesday” sentiment would probably be dealt with (by esoteric connoisseur and moron alike) as sellout or camp.
And the Dixieland section of “Something Happened” is a blast by mere association with a Stones record, even independently of its enhancement by its specific location in the continuum of the song, just as is the trumpet flutter in “Penny Lane.” These two instances are the most ornate developments to follow from what began with the Beatles’ addition of strings to a previously spotlessly unembellished pure group sound, in “Yesterday.” What is so striking is that super?uous sounds, which always had their place in rock anyway, are now strictly part of the sound of a performance to which they are strictly also external. It’s as if Bill Wyman, or even Jack Nitzsche, were playing trombone when obviously neither one could be. Importantly, this reaches to extremes of the readymade that Duchamp could never have coped with. And everybody thought that Dixieland was trash, or camp at best! See what a little ad hominem glorification can do?
The irreverence of December’s Children and the reverence of Aftermath are combined spiritually (and ambiguously) in the nullification/enhancements rendered by the introduction of strange instrumentations in “She Smiled Sweetly,” “Cool, Calm, Collected,” “Miss Amanda
Jones,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “All Sold Out,” and, actually, maybe everything else. Whistling, bizarre organ, Brian’s recorder, and kazoo put the listener all over the comfort-discomfort continuum on the first hearing and make eventual comfortable familiarity almost a matter of “self-education” (ha!). Ridiculously great.
Three tracks, “Something Happened” (“No one’s sure just what it was / Or the meaning and the cause”; “He don’t know if it’s right or wrong, / Maybe he should tell someone”; “He’s not sure just what it was / Or if it’s against the law”), “Let’s Spend the Night Together’ (“But l just can’t apologize, oh no”), and “Ruby Tuesday” (“Don’t question why she needs to be so free / She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be”), kick rationalistic ethics in the groin, rightfully demonstrating that philosophical delineation and actual moral ascription are radically divergent problems. Fine. Good. Groovy. Explanatory meta-ethical grounds vary from track to track. In “She Smiled Sweetly” it’s “nothing in why or when.” “Something Happened” asserts “Someone says there’s something more to pay / For sins that you committed yesterday,” using perfectly clearly two ambiguous referents (someone, something) while being convincingly superstitious. “All Sold Out” (“All sold out / I’d never seen / A mind so tangled, / A girl so strangled”) angrily rejects reductionistic psychological ethical groundwork. Inconsistencies. Eclecticism. Groovy again.
“Hey girl, your suspender shows” in “Miss Amanda Jones” is the finest bra-strap reference since those rollicking summer camp songs. “Who’s been eating, eating off my plate” in “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is not unlike “I’m just sitting here, beating on my trumpet” in Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”
“Miss Amanda Jones” contains the very first use of “live happily ever after” as a future eternal possibility. “And they lived happily ever after” has always been jarring, calling for Leibnitz’s discussion of multiple eternities and other destructively relevant crap like that. “Amanda” is the Stones’ first very own Chuck Berry tune, a Chuck Berry composition per record being a normal expectation after their earliest albums, even in these days of nothing but Jagger-Richard compositions. More than mere Berry influence or quotation tongue field, this song illustrates how the Stones tend to generate elusive categories. “Miss Amanda Jones” is “my favorite track on the entire album,” an example of a categorization which earlier would have been difficult to pin down and retain.
The aggressive “ah” in “Yesterday’s Papers” and the visceral “from” ending the opening line of “Ruby Tuesday” are the latest cases of a noticeable trend of intensity of performance overreaching the material. The word “love” in the Beatles’ “If l Fell” was intense without any actual vocal straining for intensity. But in George Harrison’s “l Want to Tell You” everybody goes berserk and strains his head off to attain a beautiful participative intensity while grooving on the whole show. Mick sings along through the instrumental break of the live “Lady Jane” with an involved “la-la-la…” And now here it is at least twice on this album.
With “Complicated,” “Obsession,” and “Cool, Calm, Collected,” the Stones figure that familiarity with overuse of line-ending polysyllabic words will finally break the Barry McGuire jinx and shatter presuppositions about the overuse of Latinate words in rhyme, making poetic response greatly enough a matter of conditioning to refute empirically some of Socrates’ arguments early in the Republic. And the Stones are right enough, although these songs are not yet straight rhyme-songs, but songs with a cool tension between acceptance as “straight” and rejection as lust more “Eve of Destruction.” “Sophisticated” or “mature” self-negation! “Obsession” even has random polysyllabic words thrown in to confuse the setup “a little bit” (borrowed from “Think,” the Stones’ “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and “Georgy Girl”): “objection” and “exclusively” (which don’t even rhyme where they occur). Rhymingness falls under a raunch epistemology anyway. Also, “discretion” rhymes as sung with the “-ession” words, although the spelling is different. This brings to mind “I love her and she’s loving me” in the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine,” which is prominent as an example of English grammatic construction which would disappear in translation into a foreign language, making it fortunate/unfortunate that polyglot rock (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Es una Mujer”) has vanished.
“Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is seemingly knowledge- and truth-oriented, with its insistent “I wanna know” crying for outright identification rather than mere affirmation (as in ‘Tell Me”). It was rumored (falsely) last fall that Jagger and Richards had written “Ain’t Gonna Lie” for Keith (who was even rumored to be Keith Richards in actuality), whose “Least we’ll end the way we’ve been / By being truthful toward each other / Girl I hope I find another” was certainly an un-Stones-like Socratic hangup. And at the same time “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby” became the first song by the Stones to contain what Memphis Sam Pearlman once labeled “Herman’s Contradiction”—the use of verbal innocence in an important musical transition. “Talking about all the people,” with the emphasis on “people,” is indeed Peter Noone innocence, so, along with the force of the rumor, it made things seem as if the Stones had had it. So it’s refreshing to hear the living, breathing Stones actually singing truth-rock now. And you can play a great silly game with the first letters of words grouped together in the song. The last of the first triad (butler, baker, laughin’ cavalier) has one starting letter© which alphabetically follows that of the first two (B). This pattern works for the next two triads: 1. soldier, sailor, three musketeers; 2. noseness (?), newsboy, old bridge’s (?) brigadier. But then the next set breaks the pattern: sergeants, soldiers, cruel grenadier. From a forced alliteration game with modifications, they move to more “natural” word groupings: mummy, daddy; auntie, uncle; boyfriend, girlfriend. Four sets of triads is likely a maximum, since they would run out of “-ier’ words. The song goes to extremes to be “poetically orthodox” in two ways (in respect to conventional poetry as an historical fact and in respect to Bob Dylan the poet, whom the song puns) and is successfully pseudo-poignant despite this and because of this.
Some apparently novel grids of analysis turn out actually to apply to what is happening on the Stones’ album. And seemingly remarkably they apply quite strongly. “Satisfaction and non-satisfaction of expected word pattern” works, but, alas, only because it works in general and now you just happen to be looking for it. “Time” works too (and Kant can sleep peacefully as a consequence), but only because it always has been applicable to anything “just about analytically” or synthetically a priori, following as a consequence of having only three modalities (past, present, future). Thus, by this reasoning, “afterthought” ought to just pop up occasionally whether or not we expect or desire it.
But Spyder Turner’s “Stand by Me” offers a decent solution to most rock dilemmas of analysis. How can the untrained Caucasian ear know the actual level of craftmanship in these imitations by a Negro of other Negro rhythm & blues singers? How can such an ear even ascertain the degree to which even Spyder Turner has a more privileged access in this direction than does the Caucasian teeny-bopper? And how relevant is any of this worry about epistemological grounds in rock? Obviously, Spyder Turner’s “Stand by Me” is exactly a composition of just this flexible epistemological uncertainty and defiance of epistemological irrelevance. The level of selective scrutiny in one’s microscopic and macroscopic observations of and interactions with anything are gonna have a lot to do with the relevance he attaches to the discoveries of any moment. And he can always say so what?
All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real, anyway.
*Playing at 16 rpm to ascertain words doesn’t pay off with the Stones. And the last part of “Strawberry Fields Forever’ is already slowed down.