Noisey Joni

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I had a good conversation the other day with Noisey’s Philip Eil about the Joni Mitchell anthology we put together at Rock’s Backpages. Read it HERE if you will.

“If I was to make kind of crass analogies, [I’d say that if] Dylan is sort of Shakespeare, then Joni is Milton… or Dante. In terms of popular music that’s more than just mindless singalong pablum, then she is an artist of genuine stature, whose songs, whose music, are as great as any art form, as the work of any artist in the 20th and into the 21st century. It doesn’t matter who the hell it is: Faulkner, de Kooning, Bergman. People tend to think that pop music is a lesser art form. I think when you listen to Court and Spark, you can’t really sit there and say, ‘Well, this is just pop music.’ You have to think of it on a level with the greatest art that’s been done in the last hundred years.”

A Major Dude: Walter Becker R.I.P.

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Rock’s Backpages subscribers can hear the interview I did with Steely Dan’s Becker (left) and Donald Fagen in late 1999. Below is the Guardian piece that resulted from it, which isn’t included in the imminent Dan anthology Major Dudes, published – with almost uncanny timing – on September 28th.

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Librarians on Acid

The Guardian, January 2000

Steely Dan have always split people down the middle. On one side sit major dudes like William Gibson, who delight in the apparent disjunction between the duo’s slick grooves and the mordant humour of their lyrics. On the other are elder statesmen like GLR’s Charlie Gillett, who once visibly grimaced when I asked him to cue up a Steely Dan track on his Saturday Night Ping-Pong show.

To the Gilletts of Planet Pop, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are too jazz-funk-tasty, too close to the Boy Racer Fusion of Level 42. As cyberpunk eminence Gibson himself told me in 1993, “a lot of people think of Steely Dan as the epitome of boring ’70s stuff, never realizing this is probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up.”

Liberally sprinkling his novels with such arcane nods to the Dan, net prophet Gibson takes pride of place among the rock intelligentsia who see Becker and Fagen as the smartest duo ever produced by American pop – a kind of post-Naked Lunch version of Rodgers & Hart. Danheads like to think of themselves as being in on a splendidly arcane joke, a joke closed to those who perceive only the jazz-funk sheen of albums like Aja. (No offence, Charlie.)

Twenty years after they last collaborated on a studio album – the endlessly delayed but witheringly brilliant Gaucho – Becker and Fagen are to be found in a midtown Manhattan office suite pondering the question of the Gibsons versus the Gilletts. Walter Becker, the meticulous scientist to Fagen’s unworldly English prof, rolls the notion around his domelike head.

“I think it’s a stylistic issue,” he says finally. “Basically, many people who listen to pop music don’t wanna hear that kind of harmony. They don’t wanna hear that sort of attidude towards the lyrics or towards making music. And I think that’s fine. I wouldn’t even go as far as saying that they’re only giving us a superficial hearing. I think they’re probably people who get it and just don’t like it. It’s not anything that they wanna hear from rock music.”

Fagen takes up Becker’s slack. “They want to be physically liberated in some way,” he says of present-day rock fans. “I think our music is associated with something they don’t wanna hear. As to what they do wanna hear, that surprises me sometimes. All those white singers with those fake gravelly voices. You can’t tell the difference between TV rock and actual rock and roll anymore.”

“Rock music is being systematically merged with fashion,” chips in Becker. “A lot of the aesthetic questions that we’re talking about are gonna be declared obsolete, essentially.”

“It’s more to do with midriff display, really, than with music,” concludes Fagen.

Two Against Nature, the excellent new Steely Dan album, is at least partly about the struggle of two middle-aged rock boffins to compete in a world of midriff display and what Becker calls “nominal generational anger.”

“I think the audience for Limp Bizkit is probably not going to be particularly interested in what we’re doing,” says Becker. “I don’t think they’ll find much that satisfies them in what we do.”

“If you just compare the names Steely Dan and Limp Bizkit, you have the answer right there,” adds Fagen.

On the album’s title track, Fagen sings an almost inscrutably dense lyric about standing firm in a shifting and turbulent universe – a lyric proving that the duo’s allusive wit has been undimmed by the years. “It’s about the songwriters’ invocation of their own powers to overcome the natural and supernatural forces arrayed against them,” Becker elucidates. “They’re offering to help their audience prevail in the face of all sorts of mysterious and frightening beings.”

Other tracks on Two Against Nature are like outtakes from Woody Allen movies (‘What A Shame About Me’, with its “major Jane Street sunrise” and “goddess on the fire escape”) or offer sketches of bewitchingly damaged women (‘Negative Girl’, ‘Almost Gothic’, ‘Janie Runaway’). With the exception of the eight-and-a-half-minute closer ‘West Of Hollywood’, most of them are rooted in the New York City where both men have been based for the last three years.

“As we were writing these songs we would take breaks and go for walks and that sort of got us a little more into the mood of that sort of stuff,” says Becker. “And we wanted the lyrics – without being specifically about us or our own personal feelings – to be true to who we are and what we’re doing now in our lives.”

“I guess in my mind the Lower Broadway of ‘What A Shame About Me’ was the Lower Broadway of about 1966 rather than of today,” says Fagen, who recalls selling college textbooks on Lower Broadway’s timeless Strand bookstore .

College, of course, is where the Steely Dan story began all those years ago: two nerds against normality, defying their suburban origins, bonding through a mutual love of jazz and beat poetics. When Kenny Vance of cheesy popsters Jay & the Americans first hired them as backing musicians in 1969, he characterised Becker and Fagen as “librarians on acid”.

“I doubt Kenny really knew that much about librarians,” remarks Becker.

Or acid?

“Acid I think he knew about.”

“Both of us were big readers and generally fairly studious as kids,” concedes Fagen. “But then on the other hand we were definitely part of the ’60s community as it developed.”

“Kenny probably saw us with books at one time or another.”

Fagen has admitted that without Steely Dan he’d have ended up as an academic. What about Becker?

“I’m not exactly sure… which is one of the reasons I ended up becoming a musician! I didn’t have another clear career path that was calling out to me.”

Fagen: “You used to talk about that metal parts factory…”

“Oh sure, but that was just a dream.”

From the off, the dynamic duo were at odds with the culture around them. Too eccentric to play ball with Jay & the Americans but too cynical to buy into the hippie dream of rock revolution, they occupied a kind of uncharted middle ground between Burt Bacharach and the Velvet Underground – craft and deviance.

“We were a little younger than the ’60s bands,” says Fagen. “A lot of the 60s foundation was starting to collapse by the time we put out our first record.”

“There was a rock aesthetic that existed that we weren’t connected to,” adds Becker. “It was definitely isolating, because in some ways we were trying to do something that was so different musically -”

“And that included a lot of traditional forms that predated rock -”

“And that were considered antithetical to rock -”

“Whereas we weren’t afraid to listen to our parents’ music.”

Through an odd sequence of events, Becker and Fagen ended up in Los Angeles, an environment very unlike the New York and New Jersey of their youth. Here, in blandly sunny La-la land, they attempted to assemble a conventional rock band of the time, a five-piece unit built around their old East Coast guitarist friend Denny Dias. Three classic albums of sassy, melodically irresistible songs later – songs like ‘Dirty Work’, ‘My Old School’, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and so many, many more – Becker and Fagen decided they didn’t want to tour anymore.

“It didn’t work beyond a certain point with that particular band for a lot of reasons,” says Becker. “We found ourselves in an uncomfortable position with some of our early bandmates of constantly not wanting to do things that they wanted to do. You end up being this sort of un-generous collaborator who’s constantly pissing on somebody’s parade and doesn’t wanna do the beer commercial or whatever the hell it is. In a way, it was very liberating not to have to deal with that afterwards. To be able to say, Let’s not work for a while, or Let’s hire this guy to play the drums.”

After 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Becker and Fagen slowly moved towards the meticulous perfectionism of Aja and Gaucho, albums featuring battalions of expensive session wizards playing intricate jazz-funk songs about criminals and junkies (and bewitchingly damaged women). The fact that by the end of Steely Dan’s first phase Becker had himself become a drug casualty didn’t make the duo any less fastidious in their methodology.

Gaucho was a struggle for us for a lot of reasons, and in the end we just sort of survived it,” says Becker circumspectly. “Whereas with Two Against Nature, although it took longer than we thought it was going to, in the end I think we finished it feeling we’d accomplished what we set out to do.”

“We don’t think of ourselves as being perfectionist, really,” says Fagen. “To us it’s more about desperately trying to have it sound more or less okay.”

“We’re just trying to spruce things up a little bit for people, you know. We want to sort of tie up the loose ends. And then the next thing you know, a couple of years have gone by.”

“The studio is all about the idea of the set-up, particularly for men. A room where you have all this technology to help you, and where you have some toys. It’s about that space-age bachelor-pad vibe. The studio satisfies a lot of those urges.”

“And you need air-conditioning, and a book with menus in it. It’s kind of a minimum livable standard, really.”

In the ’80s, Fagen made a sublime solo album called The Nightfly , then endured a long period of blockage. Becker meanwhile cleaned up, moved to Hawaii and produced China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones. Only when Fagen finally prepared to record Kamakiriad in the early ’90s were the two men reunited. Becker produced the album and then set to work with his partner on the first live Steely Dan tour in two decades.

“The fact that we didn’t play for so long wasn’t because we particularly meant to be inaccessible in some way,” explains Becker. “It was just because there were standards of performance that we wanted our audience to get when they came to hear us, and we weren’t in a position to have them back in the 70s. And I think the extent to which we’re happier now with being able to perform for audiences is the extent to which the performances and the shows are closer to the quality and the control and the sonic clarity of a recording.”

When work began on Two Against Nature in Hawaii in the winter of 1997, it was as though they’d simply picked up where they’d left off with Gaucho. Sitting opposite them on this December morning, I find myself wondering aloud to what extent Walter and Donald are actually aspects of the same cerebral character.

“At the very least there’s some kind of parallel development,” offers Fagen. “Chances are we would have developed differently having never known each other.”

“With any relationship that goes on this long and is productive over a long period of time, there have to be some sort of interlocking qualities in those personalities that make it possible to survive,” adds Becker. “There’s a lot of obstacles to doing something together in the way we’ve done it, ranging from personal situations to external factors in your life, willingness to clear space and share objectives… how you negotiate when something comes up that you disagree about. In most cases, all that’s there is a series of ill-considered and regrettable compromises where both people have compromised pretty much everything that mattered to them! I think that’s why there probably aren’t that many of these collaborations going on over a long period of time.”

“It may also have to do with what’s not there,” says Fagen. “There can’t be a sort of high degree of stress, because that wears you down. It’s like a marriage. We’ve had a fairly stress-free relationship, at least in terms of us relating to each other.”

Are pop’s great songwriters doomed to decline in middle age? How did Fagen overcome the blockage of the ’80s?

“You have to evolve, or else you devolve,” he says. “At this point I’m very comfortable writing and feel that there’s a lot of juice there. I think what happens with a lot of people is that after that initial youthful spurt, they never come out of it. They either succumb to despair or intoxicants. Part of it is that you have to throw off the narcissism of youth, which is your energy when you start. When that’s gone, you have to find another source.”

So what impact will Steely Dan have on narcissistic youth in the year 2000?

Fagen: “We’re looking for global domination.”

Becker: “I think this is gonna pretty much change everything.”

Reckless Joni Mitchell

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Just taken delivery of the Rock’s Backpages JONI anthology, Reckless Daughter, published by Constable/Little, Brown on November 3rd. Here’s my intro to the collection…

Our Lady of Sorrows

On the afternoon I interviewed Joni Mitchell, in September 1994, she was in the most infectious of moods: giggly, garrulous, bordering on flirtatious. When we were done talking, she hammed it up for the photographer on the street, just around the corner from her manager Peter Asher’s office on West Hollywood’s Doheny Drive.

I’ve always felt privileged to have met this genius of North American music, this Canadian prairie maid turned folk poetess turned canyon confessor turned jazzbo hybridiser turned… well, never mind the many shapes Mitchell’s shifted over half a century. Let’s just agree she’s peerless and untouchable as a singer-songwriter of intricate lyrics and swoopingly beautiful melodies.

Her words and her “weird chords” you can read about at length in the pieces pulled together in this compendium. Included in Reckless Daughter are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality. Here are reviews of (almost) all her albums – the consensus masterworks, the curate’s eggs – and of live appearances she’s made in tiny clubs and glitzy concert halls. Here are the words of writers who’ve fallen, as I did, under the spell of her piercing honesty, her tingling musical intimacy, her coolly nuanced moods: Americans and Brits alike, men and women who know how uniquely brilliant she is.

Some would say Mitchell has been her own worst enemy – has too often bitten the journalistic hands that stroked her. I choose to think she’s struggled to bear the weight of her talent and intelligence in an arena better disposed to the crass and the facile. True, she might have made life easier by not being quite so savage about the “three-chord-wonder” strummers who identify themselves as her disciples – but then why pretend they aren’t mediocrities when so many queue up to crown them the New Jonis? And when an artist has given us ‘The Arrangement’, ‘River’, ‘Car on a Hill’, ‘The Boho Dance’, ‘Amelia’, ‘Dog Eat Dog’, ‘My Secret Place’, ‘The Magdalene Laundries’, ‘Man from Mars’ and ‘If I Had a Heart’ – to offer a random smattering of marvels that span the length and breadth of her work – who are we to judge her character?  Many of Mitchell’s songs are great art. Almost all are emotionally complex, musically gripping. From the earliest virginal days of ‘Chelsea Morning’ to the late, husky despair of Turbulent Indigo‘s ‘Sex Kills’, Joni’s is a voice that belongs to her alone. So we should excuse her occasional impatience with the received idea that she is godmother to those who do nothing more useful than string together stale chords and trite musings and call them songs.

Granted, Mitchell’s own earliest compositions sound somewhat fey today. ‘Urge For Going’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ have a kind of fluting, pellucid innocence about them, while even she acknowledges that the winsome ‘Circle Game’ only has any currency these days as a campfire singalong. The first hint of her defining gravitas came with ‘Woodstock’, a song of starry-eyed hippie faith that, with its shimmery electric piano and curiously yodelled vocals, sounded a simultaneous note of dread. Personally I go a bundle on the grainy maturity of her vocal persona on such ’90s songs as ‘Passion Play’, ‘Come In From The Cold’ and ‘Nothing Can Be Done’, but they’re not to everybody’s tastes.

In these pages you’ll find Paul Williams, acknowledged founder of rock criticism, and Ellen Sander, one of the first women to write about pop. You’ll find Michael Watts and Geoffrey Cannon, subtle British commentators from rock’s first golden age. You’ll find keyboard player Ben Sidran on Joni’s homage to cantankerous jazz maverick Charlie Mingus, as well as considered appreciations – not always raves – of Mitchell’s art by Wesley Strick, Susan Whitall, Sandy Robertson, Joel Selvin and others. You’ll get the fine words of Tom Nolan, Loraine Alterman, Mick Brown, Ben Fong-Torres, Fred Goodman and many more.

Here is most of what you could ever want to know about Joni Mitchell, a towering troubadour and sometimes reckless daughter of America’s folk-rock revolution.

He is Brian Wilson

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I’m back down at the Cheltenham Lit Fest this Sunday Oct 16th (12.30-1.30 pm) to discuss the troubled genius of B.W. with Will Hodgkinson and Lisa Verrico… in the interim, here’s a piece I penned over 20 years on the notion of pop genius and the birth of the Brian cult:

“Brian Wilson is a Genius”: The Birth of a Pop Cult

The Independent, 1 September 1995

One of the key moments in I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, record producer Don Was’s black-and-white film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a sequence of home-movie footage accompanied by a home-recorded demo of a song called ‘Still I Dream Of It’.

As we watch the Brian of 1966 playing with his daughters in his Beverly Hills garden, we hear the Brian of 1976 – at the nadir of his drugged-out retreat from reality – tunelessly croaking ‘Still I Dream Of It’ at the piano. The juxtaposition of the images of Brian in his prime with the sound of the man at his most regressed is painfully poignant. Most pathetic of all is the lyric: “Time for supper now /Day’s been hard and I’m so tired, I feel like eating now / Smell the kitchen now, hear the maid whistle a tune, my thoughts are fleeting now…

Yet this song is precisely about the way Brian is still somehow connected to a redemptive realm of beauty. “Still I dream of it“, he sings with a pang of desperation, “and it haunts me so /Like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above…” It’s as if he is pining for the lost muse that inspired him to write the sixties masterpieces he described as “symphonies to God” – songs like ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘God Only Knows’, and ‘Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder’ … not forgetting ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’.

For Don Was, who has included the ‘Still I Dream Of It’ demo on the soundtrack album released to coincide with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, the song’s pathos is irresistible. As a life member of The Brian Wilson Appreciation Society, he is fully committed to the legend of the man’s genius. He knows, too, that pop is almost as haunted by the achievement of Brian Wilson as Brian is haunted by “it” – by whatever it was precisely that his genius allowed him to apprehend or intuit at the height of his melodic powers.

The phrase “Brian Wilson Is A Genius” was first magicked up one afternoon in the summer of 1966 by Derek Taylor, the former Beatles press officer who’d moved to Los Angeles in 1965. Pet Sounds had just been released, and everyone knew that Brian had crossed some invisible line between pop ephemerality and genuine musical brilliance. Taylor was simply canny enough to make it official, and to validate pop music in the process. Within days, “Brian Wilson is A Genius” was a buzz phrase in Swinging London, where the Beatles received Pet Sounds with something akin to awe.

Hard-core Beach Boys fans will know that Pet Sounds failed to reach the top ten in America, and that Brian never managed to complete Smile, its intended follow-up. (A three-CD box set of Smile tracks and fragments, The Smile Era, is due for release this autumn). Smile was to have been Wilson’s ultimate “symphony to God”, but a heady combination of lysergic acid and inherent mental instability led to his virtual breakdown, and eventually to a total retreat from the music industry. This breakdown – the failed promise of Smile, that Holy Grail of pop – is central to the obsession many people have with his lost greatness.

“Genius” is actually a rare commodity in pop music; it’s not a word bandied about idly. We don’t call Hendrix a genius, or even Dylan. Genius has less to do with rock heroes than with pop solipsists, mavericks who invent their own sonic worlds to live in. Pop geniuses, we feel, are baffling talents who could have lived in any era. It is remarkable how many of them, in our minds, are hunched over keyboards rather than letting rip on electric guitars. The image of the adolescent Brian Wilson, pouring out his feelings alone at the upright in his bedroom, remains a potent one.

Wilson provides the link between pop and the undisputed greatness of Tin Pan Alley songwriters like George Gershwin, whom he idolised. The miracle of Brian’s melodic gifts, like those of Lennon and McCartney, even prompts comparisons with Mozart and Schubert. As Tom Petty puts it in the documentary, “I don’t know if he’s a genius or not, but I know that that music is probably as good a music as you can make … as you can write.” The particular appeal of his genius lies in the fact that the Beach Boys were the very obverse of hip – the unlikeliness of these songs growing out of disposable surf pop – and in the singular naivety and ingenuousness of his personality.

If there was a pop genius before Wilson, it was Phil Spector, another of the Beach Boys’ heroes (though note that Ray Charles had been referred to – on several of his own album titles! – as a genius.) Spector had the necessary megalomania and flamboyance to imprint himself on his productions, and to envision pop as something heroic and Wagnerian. The failure of his mightiest creation, Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’, resulted in a retreat from reality similar to Brian’s. It is ironic, given that he was barely capable of writing a song, that Spector is lauded as a genius more often than even John Lennon or Paul McCartney.

When Julian Cope compiled an album called The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker in 1981, he was investing heavily in the enigma of the teen heart-throb turned existentialist recluse. Pop stars weren’t meant to sing Jacques Brel songs or seek inspiration in Ingmar Bergman films. As with Brian Wilson, there was something kitsch about the doomed introspection that lay behind Walker’s appeal, but his subsequent stretches of silence, broken only by music of impenetrable spookiness, have confirmed his status as pop’s premier cult hero.

The figure of the doomed troubadour is particularly susceptible to having the mantle of Genius laid over his fevered brow. Singers as different as Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Arthur Lee and Alex Chilton – the first two dead, the latter pair all but spent forces – have been hailed as geniuses and become the objects of cult worship. In all four cases, the element of tragedy and failed promise is a crucial factor. Genius must be accompanied by torment, we feel, or the very least by major eccentricity. In the realm of black music, both Stevie Wonder and Prince meet at least two of the requirements of genius: they’re both mad and they’re both multi-instrumentalists. As for female stars, perhaps only Kate Bush qualifies as a genius in rock’s obstacle race. Once again, it is significant that one thinks of her first and foremost as a composer at the keyboard.

Casualties of the criteria sketched above include the many composers (Burt Bacharach, for example) who have worked as part of a team: the essential solitariness of a writer like Jimmy Webb seems more alluring to pop theorists and dreamers. True, Brian Wilson worked with several lyricists: his chief accomplice on the Smile songs was that other cult “genius” Van Dyke Parks, whose playfully cryptic couplets so unsettled the other Beach Boys that they effectively put an end to the partnership. But Wilson was always so lost inside his own musical universe that the word “collaboration” seems inaccurate. “I know that I’m not a genius, and it’s a great embarrassment to me to be thought of as one,” says Parks, whose own new album Orange Crate Art features vocals by Brian Wilson. “I’m not a natural, unlike Brian. He sits down and plays something in the same key in which I played it for him thirty years ago. This guy is absolutely brilliant. There’s not enough I can say about his abilities.”

In Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, musical genius is a pact with mental torment. In the story of Brian Wilson, it is almost as if the man’s supernatural talents were the direct result of the damage he suffered as a child. Let’s leave the last word to Tony Asher, another of Wilson’s lyricists. “Brian Wilson is a genius musician,” Asher pronounced tersely after working on Pet Sounds, “but he is an amateur human being.”