3
Mar
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Nine
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Hüsker Dü played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren't antithetical."-Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life

"Excuse me while I kiss the sky."-Jimi Hendrix, "Purple Haze"

The musical landscape is a magical land full of adventure and wonder and populated almost beyond imagination with figures of legend. We can talk all day about how Gary Cooper and John Wayne are cinematic legends or about the far reaching effects of Lucille Ball or Dick Van Dyke on the legacy of television. Literature has its Hemingways and Sylvia Plaths. But no segment of the pop culture landscape mythologizes its heroes to the level that music does. Think of people like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and the dozens of other names I could throw in there to just as much effect. These people are to a large extent more legends than men. They have been mythologized to the point of Gods. They can barely be discussed on the same level as we can talk about other artists, because they just can't be touched. When you reach that mythic pedestal, you become less a pop culture personality and more an idea. As Batman once said, you become more than an idea. You become a symbol.

It doesn't even matter, ultimately, if the critical consensus is that you were kind of a hack and a terrible lyricist (sorry, Jim Morrison fans). It doesn't even matter what events in your life actually occurred. What becomes important is the narrative you create and the legend that spreads. A large part of celebrity is the creation and maintenance of a persona and this is even more true for those legends that become larger than life. What they were becomes less important than how we saw them and what they did pales in comparison to what the culture believes they stood for.

All of this is the necessary prelude to even a mention of the name Jimi Hendrix. Taking stock of the effect he had on music, you must first get past his legendary reputation. To look at the man who made undeniably some of the greatest rock music of all time, it's impossible not to first see him as the universally hailed greatest guitar player who ever lived. Among rock geeks there can be debates about whether this reputation holds true (I've heard a few myself, and even thrown in my opinions, as unwarranted and uneducated as they are), but that isn't really the point. Until the argument is made against him, Hendrix has the default title of best guitarist EVER. It's also tough to look at his musical development, so overshadowed is it by his illustrious debut as a rock superstar. The prevailing view of Hendrix is that he emerged, fully formed on his debut album Are You Experienced, and the album is without doubt a masterpiece. Yet it is not where the real Jimi Hendrix story began.

In the early 1960's Hendrix got into trouble with the law twice for riding in stolen cars. He was given a choice between a prison sentence and the army, and he promptly enlisted in May of 1961. He was considered a subpar soldier from the beginning, sleeping while on duty, disregarding regulations and having little to no skill as a marksman. He was just rock and roll like that. Hendrix was discharged after one year due to incompetence and didn't object to getting the hell out of the army. But that's probably not the story you've heard. In multiple interviews later in his career, he claimed he was discharged after breaking his ankle, and a biographer of his has popularized the story that he feigned homosexuality, pretending to be in love with a fellow soldier to ensure he would be discharged promptly. This claim has never been verified and there is no evidence to support it. But come on, it's a much better story.

After being discharged he moved to Tennessee to earn a living as a musician. While there he learned to play guitar with his teeth because, in his words, "Down there you have to play with your teeth or you get shot. There's a trail of broken teeth all over their stages"¦" I have to pause for a moment to reiterate: he could play guitar WITH HIS TEETH. I quit piano after a little over a year of lessons because I was fucking terrible and I was tired of ruining songs I liked by mangling them with my incompetence (though I did play a pretty mean "Eleanor Ribgy" once upon a time), but Jimi Hendrix could play his instrument better with his teeth than I ever could with my hands (though I never tried to play piano with my teeth. Maybe that's why I was terrible? No. I think I was just bad). I guess that's one reason I'm not a rock and roll legend. I can't play any instruments, and especially not with weird parts of my body.

Hendrix toured with his band, called The Casuals until they moved to Nashville and discovered another band with that name, at which point they became King Kasuals. In 1964, feeling he had outgrown the Nashville Circuit, he moved to New York City, where after playing the club circuit for a time, he landed a gig as a guitarist for The Isley Brothers backup band. After leaving The Isley Brothers and spending a brief stint with Curtis Knight and the Squires he formed his own band, The Blue Flames. You've probably never heard most of this, and if you have, you should promptly forget it. Because musical history was made when Jimi Hendrix (who had previously gone as Jimmy James in all of his musical acts) was "discovered" by The Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was looking to leave the band to manage and produce talent. Hendrix was taken to London where he was signed and officially changed the spelling of his name before forming the band that made him a legend: the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The band's first album, and Collin's pick this week, Are You Experienced was released in 1967. By 1970, Jimi Hendrix would be dead. Within those three years, however, he cemented himself among the pantheon of Rock Gods, whose excellence is unassailable and whose legend surpasses any biography in importance. The album achieved instant success and was eventually ranked #15 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. The album was only kept from reaching #1 on the charts in both the U.S. and the UK by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It took the very best to keep Hendrix from immediately rising to the top of the heap, but he came damn close right out of the gate.

Are You Experienced contains almost all of Hendrix's most enduring songs. The title track, "Are You Experienced?" (which for some reason comes with the question mark the album title lacks) is, as Hendrix has described it, a psychedelic symphony inviting, if not begging, listeners to admit that they've been "experienced." Not just stoned, mind you, but really, truly, experienced, which is a few levels above just stoned, apparently, for the unindicted. "Hey Joe," the song that made Hendrix famous (and was, to be clear, not included on original releases of the album due to its status as a single) tells the story of a man on the lam and headed for Mexico after shooting his wife for cheating on him. It's the only song on the album not written by Hendrix, and though he plays it in a mellow way, the subject matter is decidedly different from the rest of the album, which focuses more on relaxing and enjoying life.





"Purple Haze" is widely considered the archetypal drug song of the "˜60s, a psychedelic surrealist journey into the headspace of someone on some heavy drugs"¦unless you asked Jimi Hendrix, who claimed it was a love song describing the intoxicating effects of a beautiful woman. Yeah, and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is about a drawing John Lennon's kid gave him.



"The Wind Cries Mary," which is ranked #370 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" was written directly after Hendrix had a blow out with his girlfriend Kathy Mary Etchingham over her cooking. Widely considered a song about marijuana (or Mary Jane, as the kids call it) because, you know, ALL of Hendrix's music contains drug references, this one may actually be about a fight with his girlfriend. Call me an optimist (though really, if Jimi Hendrix wanted to write only songs about how awesome it is to be high, and they were as good as the bulk of Are You Experienced, I wouldn't complain).



My first introduction to Jimi Hendrix is admittedly a little shameful. Keep in mind, faithful reader, that I was not raised as a music lover. As a kid, years before I heard "Are You Experienced?", "Hey Joe," or "Purple Haze" I saw Wayne's World. And when Garth imagines seducing the donut shop girl to "Foxy Lady" I knew, maybe for the first time, what cool sounded like. The film also includes a (pretty terrible) cover of "Fire" by Tia Carrere (who's character Cassandra made our list of blemishes on otherwise great films) that was my first exposure to that song as well. I thought at the time that it was a pretty great song for an amateur band in a movie to be singing, but hearing the original, it's probably about a trillion times better. So if nothing else, Jimi Hendrix is better than a fictional band in Wayne's World.





Jimi Hendrix is widely considered the greatest electric guitarist, if not just the greatest guitarist, in history. He popularized the use of the wah wah pedal, created much of the sound that would influence classic rock in the decades that followed, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was named the Top Guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone in 2003. He is widely known for his synthesis of multiple musical genres in the creation of his own unique voice. He established a sonically heavy but technically accomplished sound that furthered the development of hard rock and paved the way for heavy metal. He also forwarded blues music and is credited as a large part of the development of funk rock. Funkadelic, Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Time ?uestlove, Public Enemy, Ice-T, Wycleaf Jean, and pretty much everyone who has ever picked up a guitar since 1970 owes a major debt to what Hendrix accomplished. He died at the age of 27 (which music fans know the significance of), choking on his own vomit. He appears to have ingested a good deal of red wine and had reportedly taken nine sleeping pills the night before, though most accounts attribute this to an accident of dosing. He lived the life of a rock star, and unfortunately died the death of a rock star as well. His death is really just a footnote, though, because in actuality, he will live forever as a member of the pantheon of Rock Gods, a legend whose star will not be dimmed by something as trivial as his death.

While Hendrix was busy instilling himself as a rock legend, the German rock scene, popularly known as krautrock, was beginning to blossom. Last week we discussed the effect Amon Düül had on the scene, but as Psychedelic Underground was being recorded, Can was forming in Cologne, West Germany. Formed in 1968, they became one of the first krautrock groups, transcending mainstream influences and incorporating minimalist and world music elements into their psychedelic rock. We'll be studying the band's evolution, as well as the further evolution of krautrock, this week and next, but in the spirit of beginning at the beginning, we look first at the band's first two albums, Tab's picks this week, Monster Movie and Soundtracks.

Can produced a full album, Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM, but could not find a record company willing to release it (it was later released in 1981). Monster Movie was the band's attempt to make a more accessible record, and for the most past they succeeded. The album's opening track, "Father Cannot Yell," is a Velvet Underground inspired psychedelic rock song that incorporates some of the band's flare for improvisation. "Yoo Doo Right," the album's closing track, is a pounding, tribal-influenced rhythm beat with vocalist Malcolm Mooney repeatedly reading excerpts from a love letter. The song is a 20-minute improvisation culled down from a six hour set the band played. Repetitive and annoying more than engaging, I can't imagine listening to the full six hour version of the song without stabbing out my own ear drums. That being said, the improvisational style became highly influential throughout the krautrock scene and the song has been covered numerous times, even in its much longer original form, in the decades since its release. "Yoo Doo Right" is without a doubt my least favorite Can song off of their first two albums, yet even its blaring repetitiveness, there was something that engaged and inspired the band's around them.





The band's second album Soundtracks features songs the band wrote for various films during the period. The album marked the departure of vocalist Malcolm Mooney (who still sings two tracks, including my favorite on the album), who was replaced by Damo Suzuki. Stylistically, the album marks the band's transition from the psychedelia-inspired jams of Monster Movie to the meditative, electronic and experimental style the band would adopt for subsequent albums. "Deadlock," the album opener, is an electronic rock opus, reminiscent of early Cream. "Tango Whiskyman" is a quieter, more ponderous track that builds to a loud, declarative chorus.





"Mother Sky" opens mid-guitar solo and then slows down into a meditation on madness and on its potential merits. The album's closer and my favorite Can song so far is "She Brings the Rain," a quiet, jazz influenced song about a woman who is flat out bad news, baby. The song exemplifies that band's diverse abilities; on one track they can be a psychedelic jam band, on the next a meditative electronic rock group, and on yet another a quiet, ponderous jazz band singing about heartbreak. If these two albums say anything about where Can is going musically, I'm excited to see where they're headed when we examine them more in-depth next week.





Before we look at the last album for this week, a confession: I love rock operas. Something about mixing rock and roll with a theatrical narrative appeals to me, and my critical faculties abandon me when I'm faced with something as ambitious as an album that tells me a continuous story. So when I talk about Ashley's pick this week, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, it's with this bias out in the open. Formed in 1979 in Saint Paul Minnesota, the band never achieved mainstream success and sold modestly throughout their career. They first gained attention as a hardcore punk band with thrashing tempos and howled vocals. Over the course of their career they developed a more melodic musical style as they drifted away from punk and toward more standard early alt rock.

Their third album, Zen Arcade, bridges the gap between the two genres the band worked in, alternating freely between hardcore punk songs and comparatively mellow rock songs. The album follows a narrative about a young boy who runs away from an abusive home only to find world outside is even worse. Zen Arcade combines jazz, psychedelia, acoustic folk, pop, and piano interludes with its often punk sound, a technique heretofore unheard of in the punk rock realm.

The opening track "Something I Learned Today" had opened the band's sets for some time before the album was recorded. Fast paced with simple verses and chord progressions, the sound fits comfortably in the punk rock genre. By the album's third song, "Never Talking To You Again" the band had strayed from their roots to create a more melodic rock song with few punk roots. The rest of the album alternates between hardcore punk tracks, mellow rock songs, and interludes both experimental and rock inspired in nature. "Dreams Reoccurring" and the lengthy reprise that ends the album "Reoccurring Dreams" are heavily experimental, mixing surrealist "˜70's rock sounds with synthesizers and experimental riffs.








"Hare Krsna" is the band's take on the psychedelic sound, and tells of the album's protagonist's efforts to find solace in religion, which leaves him wanting. "Pride" is perhaps the heaviest punk song on the album, opening with a rock-ish guitar riff before devolving into an anguished howl about retaining dignity above all else.




"One Step at a Time" and "Monday Will Never Be The Same" are brief piano interludes that ooze with a softer, more introspective sorrow than the band had ever examined before. Both songs are very brief and yet pack as much emotion into their short runs as most other tracks on the album. "Pink Turns to Blue," about the overdose of the protagonist's love interest is a hard rock melody with softer, more expressive lyrics overlaying it. The penultimate song on the album, "Turn on the News" opens with the sounds of news footage and becomes a rollicking anthem begging for peace, love, and yes, a little thing called understanding.







Hüsker Dü broke up in 1987, never having achieved a popular breakthrough. The band is largely considered one of the key bands to emerge from the "˜80s American indie scene, seen by many as the link between hardcore punk and the melodic, musically diverse alternative rock that was emerging. Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong once said, "The Replacements and Hüsker Dü are probably the band's that influenced me most." The band may never have made it big, but they did influence greatly what was to come.

It can be difficult to get a handle on the legends of music because they are by nature enigmatic. That's sort of inherent to the whole "musical mystique," and at the end of the day, I think most of us like it that way. The truth is often less interesting than the myths we make out of these men, and the music they made does often sound more like manna from heaven than just the brilliant work of some peerless artists. They may actually be men, but in our collective consciousness they've become something much greater. They've become symbols of an artistic pinnacle we can all look at in awe.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Van Morrison wants to guide us through a few Astral Weeks, The Replacements want to just Let It Be, and we look into the further evolution of Can and krautrock, examining Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, Future Days, and Soon Over Babaluma.

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