Thursday, September 06, 2012

Certain Songs Part III: Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

Legends...what can you say about ’em? I have no idea; this has been a crazy week and I’m lucky I have any energy left to copy and paste this from Word into Blogger—and fix all the Bloggerific formatting errors. Sigh.

Anyway, today’s trilogy features three, I guess, legends: one who is one of my favorite guitar players ever from one of my favorite bands ever, another is a former pilot of both an Airplane and a Starship, both which eventually crashed, and a third who influenced damn nearly everyone else on this list.

By the way, for the record (as it were): the external hard drive containing all my MP3s is on the verge of dying and taking my entire iTunes library with it, and I am hoping I can effect a rescue of everything this weekend. All my CDs and vinyl LPs, though: still happily sitting on the shelves, ready to be played. Ah, progress.

David Gilmour
About Face

As befitted any crazy nuts Pink Floyd fan, I had all the solo records (even the really bizarre Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports. Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s first self-titled solo album (1978) was a bit forgettable, obviously the efforts of someone waiting for Roger Waters to finish the demos for The Wall than any great statement of artistic purpose. But his second record, About Face, recorded after it seemed Floyd was done, was a really good record. I had this on vinyl the day it was released, and played it endlessly. I could live without “Blue Light” (the presence of Steve Winwood notwithstanding) and “Love on the Air” (the latter one of two songs with lyrics by Pete Townshend), but the other Townshend track, “All Lovers are Deranged” was the standout (“You know that you don’t really fall in love unless you’re 17”).

“Murder” was also an outstanding track, while “You Know I’m Right” seems to be about Waters, à la some of the tracks on the last Pink Floyd album The Division Bell. This was the Reagan era, so several of the songs are about nuclear holocaust (“Out of the Blue,” “Cruise”). The lyrics are surprisingly strong for Gilmour, who tended to farm out the words (“Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser/when we’re just getting old”).

On every level this is a great hard rock record, a bit less Floydian than one would have expected, but still compelling throughout. Having Gilmour’s guitar playing—and distinctive vocals—galore helps immensely. This album came out in the same year as Waters’ solo The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (see later in this list), hinting at the full-scale “battle of the Floyds: that would break out in 1987. I saw Gilmour in concert on the About Face tour and it was a terrific show, surprisingly more affecting than Waters’ show.

Gilmour would not release another solo album until 2006.

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
Blows Against the Empire

After Woodstock and the counter-cultural manifesto Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane was losing altitude like a Southwest flight (oh, but I kid Southwest); founder and singer Marty Balin had left, following drummer Spencer Dryden’s departure. While waiting to assemble the next, not very good version of the Airplane (Bark, anyone?), Paul Kantner recorded a science-fiction rock opera loosely based on Robert Heinlein, about a band of hippies who steal a starship and escape the hell of Earth (aka Nixon-era America and the Vietnam War) to colonize another galaxy. (The album was actually nominated for a Hugo Award, although it kind of reminds me of the awful “Way to Eden” “space hippie” episode of Star Trek.)

As a concept album, it doesn’t entirely work (like just about any concept album), but it has some of Kantner’s best songs, including the absolutely beautiful “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” (written by Kantner and David Crosby). “A Child is Coming” celebrates Grace Slick’s pregnancy with future MTV VJ China Kantner, who graced (as it were) the cover of Kantner and Slick’s 1971 album Sunfighter.

The opening track “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” is a charging rocker with the great a capella opening: “Hide, witch, hide, the good folks come to burn thee/Their keen enjoyment hid behind a gothic mask of duty.” True dat. Somewhere around the middle of side two is when the hippies hijack the starship and decide to try to fly to Andromeda. Yeah. Still, the album boasts a great list of guest musicians, including Airplane members, most of The Grateful Dead, David Crosby, and most other Bay Area musicians at the time. And whilst Kantner never had the best voice in the world, he did manage to harmonize with Slick very well—predating the vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in X.

The album was released under the moniker “Jefferson Starship,” which wouldn’t be an official band name until four years later.

Kantner released a less successful sequel, called The Planet Earth Rock’n’Roll Orchestra (aka “The Empire Blows Back”), in 1983. It, um, blew.

Bob Dylan

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the greatest Dylan album, but it was the first one I ever bought, so it gets points for that—I really liked “Neighborhood Bully,” a thinly veiled song about Israel. It was Dylan’s first secular album after thankfully getting over his born again period and it had the added advantage of being produced by (and featuring the guitar-playing of) Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

As a Dylan record, it has the cryptic stuff (“Jokerman”), the political stuff (“Union Sundown,” “License to Kill”), and the relationship stuff (“I and I”). It was also the album that launched me into much of Dylan’s back discography. Damn if “Union Sundown” wasn’t prescient: not that offshoring was unheard of in 1983, but “they don’t make nothing here no more” is even truer today. “I can see the day coming when even your own garden is going to be against the law.” “You know, capitalism is above the law.” Indeed. The last two tracks kind of run out of steam, but still.

What’s remarkable is how well Knopfler’s guitar playing suits this material—which is not surprising when you consider that much of Knopfler’s own songwriting was influenced by Dylan. I wish Dylan and Knopfler had done more records together...1985’s Empire Burlesque, an attempt at getting Dylan to sound all 1980s contemporary, was awful.

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