"Loose Ends" columns
May 22, 1974
It's four in the morning and raining. I'm 27 today, feeling old, listening to my records, and remembering that things were diffferent a decade ago. In 1964, I was a freshman at Brandeis University, playing guitar and banjo five hours a day, listening to records most of the rest of the time, jamming with friends during the late-night hours, working out the harmonies to Beach Boys' and Beatles' songs.
Real Paper soul writer Russell Gersten was my best friend and we would run through the 45s everyday: Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had A Heart," the Drifters' "Up On the Roof," Jackie Ross' "Selfish One," the Marvellettes' "Too Many Fish in the Sea," and the one that no one ever forgets, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave." Later that year a special woman named Tamar turned me onto Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour" and Otis Redding's "Respect," and then came the soul. Meanwhile, I still went to bed to the sounds of the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" and later "Younger than Yesterday," still one of my favorite good-night albums. I woke up to Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds instead of coffee. And for a change of pace, there was always bluegrass: The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Jimmy Martin.
Through college, I consumed sound as if it were the staff of life. Others enjoyed drugs, school, travel, adventure. I just liked music: listening to it, playing it, talking about it. If some followed the inspiration of acid, or Zen, or dropping out, I followed the spirit of rock'n'roll.
Individual songs often achieved the status of sacraments. One September, I was driving through Waltham looking for a new apartment when the sound on the car radio stunned me. I pulled over to the side of the road, turned it up, demanded silence of my friends and two minutes and fifty-six second later knew that God had spoken to me through the Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There," a record that I will cherish for as long as [I] live.
During those often lonely years, music was my constant companion and the search for the new record was like a search for a new friend and new revelation. "Mystic Eyes" open mine to whole new vistas in white rock and roll and there were days when I couldn't go to sleep without hearing it a dozen times.
Whether it was a neurotic and manic approach to music, or just a religious one, or both, I don't really care. I only know that, then, as now, I'm grateful to the artists who gave the experience to me and hope that I can always respond to them.
The records were, of course, only part of it. In '65 and '66 I played in a band, the Jellyroll, that never made it. At the time I concluded that I was too much of a perfectionist to work with the other band members; in the end I realized I was too much of an autocrat, unable to relate to other people enough to share music with them.
Realizing that I wasn't destined to play in a band, I gravitated to rock criticism. Starting with a few wretched pieces in Broadside and then some amateurish but convincing reviews in the earliest Crawdaddy, I at least found a substitute outlet for my desire to express myself about rock: If I couldn't cope with playing, I may have done better writing about it.
But in those days, I didn't see myself as a critic -- the writing was just another extension of an all-encompassing obsession. It carried over to my love for live music, which I cared for even more than the records. I went to the Club 47 three times a week and then hunted down the rock shows -- which weren't so easy to find because they weren't all conveniently located at downtown theatres. I flipped for the Animals' two-hour show at Rindge Tech; the Rolling Stones, not just at Boston Garden, where they did the best half hour rock'n'roll set I had ever seen, but at Lynn Football Stadium, where they started a riot; Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels overcoming the worst of performing conditions at Watpole Skating Rink; and the Beatles at Suffolk Down, plainly audible, beatiful to look at, and confirmation that we -- and I -- existed as a special body of people who understood the power and the flory of rock'n'roll.
I lived those days with a sense of anticipation. I worked in Briggs & Briggs a few summers and would know when the next albums were coming. The disappointment when the new Stones was a day late, the exhilaration when Another Side of Bob Dylan showed up a week early. The thrill of turning on WBZ and hearing some strange sound, both beautiful and horrible, but that demanded to be heard again; it turned out to be "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," a record that stands just behind "Reach Out I'll Be There" as means of musical catharsis.
My temperament being what it is, I often enjoyed hating as much as loving. That San Francisco shit corrupted the purity of the rock that I lvoed and I could have led a crusade against it. The Moby Grape moved me, but those songs about White Rabbits and hippie love made me laugh when they didn't make me sick. I found more rock'n'roll in the dubbed-in hysteria on the Rolling Stones Got Live if You Want It than on most San Francisco albums combined.
For every moment I remember there are a dozen I've forgotten, but I feel like they are with me on a night like this, a permanent part of my consciousness, a feeling lost on my mind but never on my soul. And then there are those individual experiences so transcendent that I can remember them as if they happened yesterday: Sam and Dave at the Soul Together at Madison Square Garden in 1967: every gesture, every movement, the order of the songs. I would give anything to hear them sing "When Something's Wrong with My Baby" just the way they did it that night.
The obsessions with Otis Redding, Jerry Butler, and B.B. King came a little bit later; each occupied six months of my time, while I digested every nuance of every album. Like the Byrds, I turn to them today and still find, when I least expect it, something new, something deeply flet, something that speaks to me.
As I left college in 1969 and went into record production I started exhausting my seemingly insatiable appetite. I felt no less intensely than before about certain artists; I just felt that way about fewer of them. I not only became more discriminating but more indifferent. I found it especially hard to listen to new faces. I had accumulated enough musical experience to fall back on when I needed its companionship but during this period in my life I found I needed music less and people, whom I spend too much of my life ignoring, much more.
Today I listen to music with a certain measure of detachment. I'm a professional and I make my living commenting on it. There are months when I hate it, going through the routine just as a shoe salesman goes through his. I follow films with the passion that music once held for me. But in my own moments of greatest need, I never give up the search for sounds that can answer every impulse, consume all emotion, cleanse and purify -- all things that we have no right to expect from even the greatest works of art but which we can occasionally derive from them.
Still, today, if I hear a record I like it is no longer a signal for me to seek out every other that the artist has made. I take them as they come, love them, and leave them. Some have stuck -- a few that come quickly to mind are Neil Young's After the Goldrush, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey, James Taylor's records, Valerie Simpson's Exposed, Randy Newman's Sail Away, Exile on Main Street, Ry Cooder's records, and, very specially, the last three albums of Joni Mitchell -- but many more slip through the mind, making much fainter impressions than their counterparts of a decade ago.
But tonight there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock'n'roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.
When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me, can rock'n'roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.
Springsteen does it all. He is a rock'n'roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock'n'roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. I racked my brains but simply can't think of a white artist who does so many things so superbly. There is no one I would rather watch on a stage today. He opened with his fabulous party record "The E Street Shuffle" -- but he slowed it down so graphically that it seemed a new song and it worked as well as the old. He took his overpowering story of a suicide, "For You," and sang it with just piano accompaniment and a voice that rang out to the very last row of the Harvard Square theatre. He did three new songs, all of them street trash rockers, one even with a "Telstar" guitar introduction and an Eddie Cochran rhythm pattern. We missed hearing his "Four Winds Blow," done to a fare-thee-well at his sensational week-long gig at Charley's but "Rosalita" never sounded better and "Kitty's Back," one of the great contemporary shuffles, rocked me out of my chair, as I personally led the crowd to its feet and kept them there.
Bruce Springsteen is a wonder to look at. Skinny, dressed like a reject from Sha Na Na, he parades in front of his all-star rhythm band like a cross between Chuck Berry, early Bob Dylan, and Marlon Brando. Every gesture, every syllable adds something to his ultimate goal -- to liberate our spirit while he liberates his by baring his soul through his music. Many try, few succeed, none more than he today.
It's five o'clock now -- I write columns like this as fast as I can for fear I'll chicken out -- and I'm listening to "Kitty's Back." I do feel old but the record and my memory of the concert has made me feel a little younger. I still feel the spirit and it still moves me.
I bought a new home this week and upstairs in the bedroom is a sleeping beauty who understands only too well what I try to do with my records and typewriter. About rock'n'roll, the Lovin' Spoonful once sang, "I'll tell you about the magic that will free your soul/But it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock'n'roll." Last Thursday, I remembered that the magic still exists and as long as I write about rock, my mission is to tell a stranger about it -- just as long as I remember that I'm the stranger I'm writing for.
By Jon Landau