Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A peek into the mystery....

Jonathan Cott was 1 of ROLLING STONE's secret weapons back in its early days -- a guy who could bag an interview with John Lennon or Mick Jagger, or reach out to non-rock figures like conductor Leonard Bernstein, pianist Glenn Gould & organist Virgil Fox. Well-read & with a headful of esoteric knowledge, Cott sometimes bounced off his interviewees theories & quotes from Hasidic rabbis, Buddhist monks & Sufi mystics.
BACK TO A SHADOW IN THE NIGHT (2002) collects over 30 years of Cott's interviews & music writing, & some of it's pretty great. The 450-pg collection leads-off with 2 of the funniest, most relaxed, most down-to-earth interviews with Lennon that I've ever read. They show him as just a normal guy whose songs happen to have been heard by millions -- relaxed & at peace, & with no obvious axe-grinding going on. The 1st interview was done during the recording of the WHITE ALBUM in 1968. The 2nd interview was done just days before his death.
Some of the other interviews are nearly as good & as funny. Ray Davies of the Kinks is nearly as amusing as -- & more befuddled than -- Lennon. A 1978 interview with Van Morrison is a bit more about putting his career in perspective. The Jagger interview is also pretty light-hearted. 2 interviews with Bob Dylan R almost entirely inscrutable, naturally.
A theme develops during these interviews -- all of these songwriters have only the sketchiest sort of handle on what they do. For most of them, the creation of music is almost as big a mystery to them as it is to any fan.
"I don't know what we're doing at all," Lennon says. "I didn't know what I was saying, I just write them (the songs). Really, I just like rock and roll."
Asked about water imagery in his lyrics, Morrison can only respond: "I've never thought about it. ... It's whatever it means to you. Something I wrote 10 years ago means different things to me now. It means what it means now. I've forgotten a lot of this."
Lennon, Morrison & Davies all describe songwriting not so much as something they create, but more as a place they go into, & then bring back a report of what they saw, of what it felt like.
Tho this is my favorite part of the book, there's lots more. There's a whole section of interviews with & profiles of classical & avant-garde artists -- Bernstein, Gould, conductors Pierre Boulez & Michael Tilson Thomas, Steve Reich, Harry Partch & more.
Classical organist Virgil Fox is hilarious -- larger than life & totally immodest, proud & confident after "wowing the teens at Fillmore East" with a program of very loud Bach organ works: "Just tell 'em what I did, baby!"
There's also a hilarious write-up on Norman Greenbaum & how his 1 huge hit "Spirit in the Sky" supposedly ruined his life. Only Greenbaum woulda followed-up a Top 3 hit with a song called "Canned Ham." But has anyone else out there heard the great "California Earthquake"?
Summa the off-the-wall stuff is pretty great 2. Cott gets an interview with grumpy old Harry Partch, who invented & built his own huge instruments to play his strange music, which included lyrics from hobo graffiti that Partch saw while spending a decade bumming around during the Great Depression.
Cott does detailed appreciations of Stravinsky, Frank Zappa's hero Edgard Varese, Kurt Weill, Charles Ives, & the 12th Century nun, abbess, healer & composer Hildegarde of Bingen.
Some parts of the book coulda been longer: The only real "review" in the whole volume is a rave about Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' GREATEST HITS, written as if it was meant 4 Greil Marcus's STRANDED (a book about what albums 2 dozen rock critics would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island) -- altho the credits don't say so, & Cott's review just scratches the surface of the work done by the man who Bob Dylan 1nce called "America's greatest living poet."
There's also a short section at the very end about "music for dreaming" -- mostly about George Harrison's/The Beatles' "Long Long Long" (from the WHITE ALBUM). Cott coulda done a lot more in this area, there havta be a few more songs that qualify. (1 of my favorite dream-like songs ever is Camel's ghostly "Spirit of the Water.")
Overall, pretty great. Some of the comments in the interviews made me laff out loud. & summa the other stuff Xpanded my knowledge in areas where I'm pretty ignorant. Worth tracking down....

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