Wednesday, March 23, 2011

P2P1: Double Live

I present the debut this week of an exciting, backlog-clearing new feature of the FPE: the P2P Series! That's "Platter-to-Platter". Frances picks albums at ten times the rate I write about them, so I'm doubling up. P2P: it's head-to-head as brother contends with brother, rock goes mano a mano with folk, and judgments are continually spared in the spirit of "yeah, whatever man" that you've come to know and love. The FPE tolerates and respects all records, no matter how odious.

This week: P2P1. Donovan goes up against Lou Reed in an entry that shares its name with an awesome Butthole Surfers album: Double Live*. I'll let the unnamed announcer from the beginning of the Donovan album set the stage...

If I can wend my way through the flowers here... Welcome to the phenomenon of Donovan. (Applause) I say phenomenon for various reasons which you'll see tonight. Uh, in particular a few weeks ago KRLA was proud to present Donovan in his first concert at the Hollywood Bowl - some of you were probably there, right? (Enthusiastic applause) If you were there, you're well aware of this story, for those of you who weren't there I think you'll find it interesting. Donovan came out on stage, and it started to rain. And he said if everybody claps their hands it'll stop raining. So everybody applauded and it stopped raining. When he left the stage it rained again. Call him what you will, he is a phenomenon.

If you needed further proof, there it is folks:


Donovan came to America in 1967 and it blew his mind. He had already blown America's mind cause he was the grooviest, magicalest cat out there. The overlay of Scot on his accent fed the dreams of millions of teens, especially girls, as his tales of life in the eternally now, mystical forever age shaped the love-drunk tone of the pop culture. The documents escaping his native UK for three years had begun an evolution from faery Dylanite to singular prophet of the age. Once the early, super-Dylany recordings had been thoroughly disseminated throughout the land, and joined by two domestic albums (Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow) showing a rocket to maturity and artistic independence, it was time to tour the States. The album Donovan in Concert was recorded in a huge venue in California - a convention center, actually - during this tour.

(Incidentally, the recording date is just 38 days after the birth of his son Donovan Jr. I wonder when he left for the tour? (The announcer at the beginning of the album places him in LA "a few weeks ago".) I wonder if he was thinking about his little baby boy. He probably was, a lot. Also incidentally, Donovan's dad, Donald Leitch, was on tour with him - the new grandpa comes out on stage at the beginning of the show to introduce his son, the groovy cosmic love prophet who was himself a new dad. Family.)

How do I know America blew Donovan's mind? You can tell from the liner notes, rendered in his charming scrawl:

And though I am back in the green land of Celt where Dame Spring sings I think upon the beautiful concerts. Swimming in silence of our making me and you shared.

I mostly saw airports hotels and concerts. I did spend a pleasant time in Malibu on the beach. Whilst flying I saw the vast deserts of your land and when I saw the painting "Desert Journey" by Fleur Cowles I was reminded. The painting is on the front. The music on the record is the concerts in the cities. The desert is over which I flew...

The painting is two birds on a rock, suspended in a blue sky over a desert plain. Ok now my mind is starting to get blown. So tripped out!

The music is great. It's the sound of this guy just discovering the limitless vistas that have opened for his creative potential, once he's opened his mind to different kinds of sounds, and the public has acclaimed his genius and caused the money to start flowing freely. Using a small backing combo of flute, sax, piano, bass, percussion, and his own guitar and harmonica (and a string quartet on one song), he experiments with genres (including most obviously and jarringly, jazz) and brand-new songs (including lots of stuff from his album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden which hadn't been released at the time of the concert). The pop hits are limited to two: a pretty lame version of "There Is a Mountain" (he just chugs away at this repetitive, boring figure on the guitar for the whole song - this never was my favorite Donovan jam anyway) and a rocking closer of "Mellow Yellow" (in which he augments the lyrics: "I'm just mad about fourteen year-old girls and they're mad about me". I know, this skirts close to ickyland - but you gotta remember, it was the 60s, practically the whole decade was icky, and really I think it's just Donovan throwing a bone, as it were, to a demographic that was really, demonstrably mad about him). Mounting a high-profile concert tour at the height of your pop-star breakthrough that's filled with non-hits, unfamiliar songs and marginally cool stylistic experiments is ballsy.

Some of the experiments don't produce good results. The fuck-the-man old-timey number "Rules and Regulations" is too lame for words - don't even get me started on hippies and vaudeville - and the jazz song doesn't do it for me, but even with the bad moments I think this album is great. I love how it opens, after Mr. Square Announcer-man and Donovan's Dad say their little bits, with one of his deepest of deep cuts, "Isle of Islay", and just thrusts you into dark, intimate, mystic fingers on strings for thousands of miles expanding water through time and seagulls. I love how it's a concert so you're that one step closer to the guy, you hear the sounds that went through the air in Anaheim that day forty-four years ago, there's no studio to mediate the music and give it the overdubs. I'm a musical perfectionist myself, so I know how it is to be the one behind the music, the urge to insulate yourself with the perfection of a slaved-over Document. There's a candor to the Live Album that sets it out from the canon of the Artist, that renders it incapable of being a fully realized statement of the music; rather it's an alternate version, a sub-optimal realization, a live "version" of the Artist's pure, studio-crafted vision. Like I said, I'm in the perfect-vision camp myself, so I don't go for the live records so much, but I really enjoy it when I find one that augments the way I understand the artist, and gives me the Thousand-Mile Fingers and the Seagulls.

The other Live Album in my Frances Picked It pile, Donovan in Concert's contender in P2P1, is Rock n Roll Animal by Lou Reed, a 1974 release, and if I'm not mistaken, the first Lou Reed album I ever got. (When I was a kid, I was actually really into live albums - something about extended guitar solos maybe? 10-minute jams to lose your mind?) It was definitely the first time I had heard any of these five songs, four of which are by his old band, who of course are like, the best band, totally seriously, great band man. Really awesome. So the VU jams on here are "White Light/White Heat", "Heroin", "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Sweet Jane" - the last two of these I wouldn't get around to hearing the VU versions of till I was a total grownup, like maybe only about ten years ago or less. But it's funny, knowing these songs as I do now in their pure, studio-mediated forms, the forms in which they were first presented to the world and which most who care about such things would consider definitive, to hear these thick slabs of explosions of arena-rock monstrosities and experience them the way I did twenty-five years ago when I first heard them: "Sweet Jane is an AWESOME ROCK SONG!!!"

It kinda is, I mean it's got a mean hook and stuff but you'd never know it until the sick rock combo Lou put together to tour with after his thinky band broke up teased out the riffs and tricked out the jams and amped it up to eleven. This record is all crunch and riffs and guitar solos. I hate guitar solos. I think it's a little bit of jazz that escaped into rock in the 60s to dress up the three chords that Chuck Berry had bequeathed, emphasizing instrumental technique without adding any interest. That's right. "To rock" is actually "to jazz", where "to jazz" means "to noodle". (It's also "to poet", which makes me wonder why I even bother with rock music. I don't these days, as much as I used to, at least not if it's got a lot of poetry and guitar solos in it.) But this record kinda rules anyway, cause even though I hate the idea of guitar solos, and poetry, I don't always hate them in practice, depending on the context, you know, and these songs are all great in the riff/chord/harmony/anthem department. The Lou Reed deadpan is nice too cause it doesn't let the poetry get out of control.

Rock n Roll Animal crunches up the gnarl, and smooths the rough by crunching - you dig? "Rock and Roll", the VU chestnut from Loaded, rocks on this record, jamming out its ten minutes with a manic, simplistic figure that's got the primal simplicity to erase your mind and your ass will follow (maybe this is what Donovan was trying to tap into with that boring arrangement of "There Is a Mountain" - good thing Donovan knew enough to steer clear of the bonehead mostly and leave the rocking to the rockers). I think Lou always had this desire inside him to rock super hard and wicked long, but you can tell he's a creative guy who wants to think a lot too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those desires oppose each other. "To rock" is "to riff" and "to bonehead" - the "to jazz" that the guitar solos added to the meaning of rock is really just a way of extending length and bombast without generating new musical material. It takes a special kind of creativity to draw inspiration from the rigidity that is rock, merge it with a desire to perpetrate art, and use that dialectic to forge an oeuvre that brings something new to the table, even as it moves units.

In conclusion, then, the results of P2P1:

Reed crunches up the gnarl, while Leitch lays down the mystic trips. Reed makes a big crunchy rock album to kick start a career in the mopes, while Leitch shrinks an arena to fit the intimacy of his far-reaching vision, riding the crest of his stardom. Reed uses the concert to give the people what they are desperate for, and so does Leitch. Rock n roll, the phenomenon that is Donovan. Welcome!

*There's a song on Double Live called "Lou Reed". Also, the Butthole Surfers do a Donovan cover on one of their other albums. They are the missing link between Donovan and Lou Reed, apparently.

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