Sometimes you just have to go spiritual to keep from going postal. For me “going spiritual” has always been to put down the newspaper and pick up a book. Or to turn off CNN/Fox News and put on some music. That isn’t the same thing as burying your head in the sand. You can do THAT reading the New York Times or tuning in to The O’Reilly Factor.
This past week was one of those weeks for me. I needed a reprieve from the taxation of maintenance living. So I dusted off a 34 year-old album that I remembered liking but couldn’t remember why, an 11 year-old bootleg by a band with a lead singer who took self-pity to the ultimate extreme, and a 13 year-old book about what is possibly the most complex “simple” song ever recorded.
Fleetwood Mac fans are mostly divided into two camps these days, the smaller one consisting of guitar obsessives who favor the blues styling of Peter Green. By far the larger of the two fan bases is the one that favors the latter (post ’74) line-up fronted by the smart pop sensibilities of guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and the enticing sexuality of a chanteuse-turned-arena warbler, Stevie Nicks. This version of the band took the concept of celebrity-as-art to new levels with their Rumours album, arguably the introduction of tabloid rock. The self-indulgent dynamics of that album wouldn’t be surpassed until Kurt Cobain wrote “Rape Me” 18 years later and followed it up with a blast to the head.
Sandwiched in between there was another Fleetwood Mac –one with a shifting line-up and varying styles. It was one that was hard to get a handle on, but also one that got beyond its inconsistency to record some of the best (and most overlooked) songs in the group’s history. It’s easy to forget that the band recorded 6 albums of new material in the post-Green, pre-Nicks era (1970-1974)
For the first 3 of those albums, Danny Kirwin, who will never be known as a household name in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, played a significant part in providing some of the best tracks. The first venture into life-after-Green, Kiln House, primarily served as an exorcism of the remaining members’ rock ‘n’ roll roots (buried for years as a mostly slow to mid-tempo blues outfit under Green). But it also yielded the stunning “Station Man” –more of a pre-cursor to modern-day jam bands than anything by the Grateful Dead ever was. If Kirwin was not a particularly adept improvisational guitarist, he was, at the very least, one that could come up with a lyrical 6-string component that could carry a song for 5 or 6 minutes. As well as a wordsmith who kept things deceptively simple. Much of the charm of Kirwin’s lyrics were in their tempered optimism.
Try applying the lyrics of “Station Man” to the Underground Railroad (quite possibly intended). It took 100 years for the Civil Rights Movement to get past the lies of “emancipation” to reach fruition. In 1972 Jim Crow hadn’t even reached Oldie status yet. Add to that the ongoing battle against a criminal war. Kirwin states the dilemma.
“Where I’m going I don’t know”
Then he takes a page from Black history and applies it to the human race.
I see it’s coming
And bringing something
This train of lovin’
I see it’s comin’
I feel it’s runnin’
This train of lovin’
From ages past
Without some form of hope all is doomed. But if those hopes are Pollyannaish, all is doomed anyway. Everything will not turn out right if folks just sit back and bask in optimism. One has to get on board.
It was not Kiln House that I dusted off, though. It was Bare Trees, Kirwin’s final opus with the band. Mostly noted for the sugar substitute, low-calorie flavorings of “Sentimental Lady,” Kirwin’s influence in the band was waning. But the album’s title track, a two-line chorus, a two-line lyric and an outburst of Pentecostalic exuberance penned by Kirwin, dwarfs Bob Welch’s nonsensical paean to gentle love.
The lyrics of “Bare Trees” are anything but sweet. Using an economy of words, Kirwin paints a cold picture. Then the words stop and the spirit lifting begins.
Bah do dah, do dah da do da do
Bah do dah, do dah da do wah wah
It’s sung with such fervor that it reduces the rest of the lyrics to lies. It’s a cold world? Bah do dah bullshit. You are at the mercy of others? Do dah da do da do. Don’t you believe it. The truth doesn’t always come in the form of words. Lies always do.
“I think I see a guy with a cassette-a-phone out there. We know that people who bootleg shoes or sell bootleg t-shirts are all pedophiles. They support murder in the third world. They torture children. That’s a reason not to support bootleggers.”
Kurt Cobain uttered these words to an audience in Rome on February 22, 1994, a show broadcast on Italian radio. Give the bootleggers who documented the performance on “The Final Fix” credit for cheek by leaving the comment intact. It made sense for them to do so. Bootleggers, by their very being, are anti-censorship. Even if those words perpetuate the RIAA propaganda that bootleggers are sub-human creatures, void of morals, who have direct links to terrorism. And, as indicated by the date of the show, the terrorism charges started long before 9/11. They are about as absurd as saying that all rock artists are self-indulgent suicidal drug addicts.
Later in the show Cobain seems to recant the statement by saying that “All my comments tonight come from a book called ‘How to be Witty at Parties.'”
The RIAA has never recanted their claims of bootleg connections to terrorism. It’s a staple of their campaign of fear against anyone who stands in their way of profits and control. They have supported every piece of intrusive legislation to come down the pike. You think George Bush is the first person to tap into someone’s computer without a search warrant? The RIAA launched several thousand lawsuits against music lovers, claiming the same right to invade personal computers that Bush now claims. Also, without search warrants. And for basically the same reason –that civilization would come to an end if they didn’t. Rama lamma fa fa fuck that shit!
While there may exist, somewhere, some evidence that a street peddler of pirated cassettes in Kabul gave some cash at a local Al Quada fundraiser, it is doubtful to the point of laughter that any merchant of unauthorized live recordings ever gave one bloody cent to terrorists. As the editor of Live! Music Review in the ’90s, I came to know a boatload of bootleggers. At best they operated for a love of music. At worst, they operated with the same incentives as the companies that fund the RIAA –capitalize on the works of artists.
This isn’t the first time that the record industry and their allies in government have perpetuated the hoax that it is up to them to save us from our own immoralistic selves. A full documentation of one example can be found in Dave Marsh’s book, “Louie Louie.”
The FBI investigated that notorious song for a full 2 _ years, cementing the myth that it contained obscene lyrics to such an extent that over 4 decades later there are still high school principals trying to ban it from the repertoire of their marching bands.
At the time, the governor of Indiana made the fantastic statement that his attempts to get radio programmers in the state from playing it were not meant to be censorship. The irony is that “Louie Louie,” as recorded by The Kingsmen, was unintelligible at any speed. They might as well have been singing “a wop bop a lu bop a lop bam boom.” But in all its innocence, it was subversive. Maybe what scared the Feds more than anything were the words that were most clearly stated. “Let’s give it to ’em, right now!”
In the years between then and now, the record industry has fallen into step with government yahoos by circumventing parental involvement – applying warning labels and releasing “clean” versions of new releases. And redefining sharing as “stealing.”
As I neared the end of my sabbatical from the rat race this week, I remembered what it was about “Bare Trees” that I liked. Like “Tutti Frutti,” “Rocket Reducer No. 62,” “Louie Louie” and countless other songs that invoke “speaking in tongues,” bah-do-dah lifted my spirits. And it didn’t lie to me.
BILL GLAHN is the RIAA Watch columnist for Counterpunch. He was the publisher and editor of Live! Music Review from 1993–2000. Commentary and requests for back-ssues ($2 each, most still available) can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.