I first heard Bob Dylan’s song as Seeger sang it, just days before the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King replaced Dylan’s armageddon (“hard rain” meant, among other things, nuclear fallout) into a vision of liberation. But both King and Dylan spoke the same, apocalyptic language; it was never Seeger’s. His version of the song seemed like a final statement 27 years ago, in the flesh or on the original, one-LP Carnegie Hall recording, but today it’s plain the moment made the music. Seeger notoriously lacked any blues feeling, and “Hard Rain” is proof he had none for country, not even for Child ballads; as Woody Guthrie or Big Bill Broonzy he was Henry Ward Beecher, Yankee abolitionist to his toenails. This performance documents one of the great musical events of the American postwar period, but the event is no longer musical; to hear how scary the song can be, you have to listen to Bryan Ferry sing it.
2. Midnight Oil: Blue Sky Mining (Columbia)
As with U2, there’s good guitar in the storm of politics and morals, but the hooks are not smothered in a personification of universal humanism, perhaps because singer Peter Garrett doesn’t seem very impressed with himself. He doesn’t even necessarily write the songs, which frees him to function as just another instrument.
3. Robert B. Ray: “The ABC of Visual Theory,” in Visible Language (Autumn 1988, $6, c/p Rhode Island School of Design, Graphic Design Department, 2 College Street, Providence, RI 02903)
Playing within the strictures of the self-referentiality of current critical theory, Ray (of the Vulgar Boatmen and the University of Florida at Gainesville) takes on the hegemonic artificiality of the alphabet, picking up, among other items, “Barthes,” “Rochefort, Joseph,” “Vertov, Dziga,” and “Louie, Louie.” The last is discussed as happenstance, an incident interesting on its own terms: the supposedly obscene lyrics of the Kingsmen’s ’63 single working on millions of people like Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight.
4. KALX-FM: two-and-a-half hours of Lou Reed, on the occasion of his 47th birthday (March 2, Berkeley)
Upsetting, since these days if you hear two songs in a row from the same performer you figure he or she just died.
5. Robert Plant: “Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes on You),” from Manic Nirvana (Es Paranza)
Inside the familiar noise is humor, the thrill of discovery, maybe the hint of a quest. After 20 years on the assembly line attaching the hysterical to the frantic, he still can’t deliver mere product.
6. Aaron Neville: “For Your Precious Love,” from Midnight Orchid (Rhino CD)
Neville’s trademark is overworrying, getting so many syllables out of a phrase (none of them melismatic, all of them clipped) he makes Otis Redding sound like Sam Cooke. Thus on most of this five-song oldies disc Neville barely gets started, hacking so much angst into the verses you lose track of what he’s singing about—but with his embrace of Jerry Butler’s 1958 hit, you wonder why he has to stop.
7. Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” from 25 x 5 (CBS video)
An edit of a clip from an unreleased ’69 TV special, which replaces the regret and nostalgia of the Let It Bleed cut with a definite lack of charity.
8. Bruce Sterling: “Dori Bangs,” in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1989, $3.50, PO Box 40, Vernon, New Jersey 07462)
What if rock critic Lester Bangs hadn’t died in 1982 and comix artist Dori Seda five years later, but rather met, got married, and lived on? Sterling’s story is compelling because it reads like gossip.
9. George Harrison: discourse on karma, in “The Quiet Wilbury” interview by Mark Rowland (Musician, March)
“It was such a waste, some stupid person. If John had been killed by Elvis, it would have at least had meaning!”
10. Jacob Weisberg: “Washington Diarist,” in the New Republic (March 5)
An argument that the Velvet Underground played no small role in naming and even making what Czech president Vaclav Havel calls the country’s “Velvet Revolution”—through the agency of the Plastic People of the Universe, Velvets followers who once recorded and performed at Havel’s farmhouse. On the other hand, since Frank Zappa (recently made adviser to the Czech minister of culture) reports Havel is a big fan of Zappa’s own Bongo Fury, maybe one ought to be thankful he didn’t announce the “Bongo Revolution.” That would have really confused people, especially future historians, who would likely conclude that the Czech victory over Stalinism had its roots in dubbed Hollywood.
Village Voice, April 1990