Friday, March 18, 2011

March Madness: Part 1

"Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most." - John Michael Osbourne

Most brilliant musicians are part of an idiosyncratic tribe: playing to a different beat, living in self-constructed microcosms, breathing a rarefied air, etc. Yet, haplessly mirroring the remainder of our society, a certain percentage are petulant drug-addled lunatics or truculent fiends.  This month's playlist has nothing to do with collegiate basketball and everything to do with the impact of mental illness on popular music.  The good: Seminal albums are created by singular personalities.  Indelible artistic imprints are left for posterity. The bad: Lifetimes are spent languishing away in psychiatric wards. Monstrously decadent expenditures inevitably lead to penury. The ugly: Premature death.

1) Roky Erickson (The 13th Floor Elevators) - "You're Gonna Miss Me"

After gobbling down countless hits of LSD throughout the Sixties, this Austin pysch-rock pioneer started peppering his conversations with alien references and was institutionalized by the friendly folks at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  Electroshock therapy and Thorazine injections ensued.  He spent the next couple of decades making music about extraterrestrial life and obsessively reading and responding to junk mail from his bleak suburban home.  Happily, over the past few years he has experienced an overdue resurgence in his career thanks to a younger breed of Austin musicians - touring with neo-pysch rockers The Black Angels and releasing a rousing, introspective folk-rock album with Okkervil River.

2.) Phil Spector - "Love" (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band)

A sordid life that has its beginnings in the hackneyed pages of Horatio Alger.  Born to a modest Russian-Jewish immigrant family in the Bronx, at nine years old Spector's family relocated to Los Angeles after his father's suicideAfter forming some bands and dabbling in songwriting, Spector found a greater interest behind the boards and went on to become one of the most important producers of his time.  He created many of the biggest pop-radio hits of the Sixties and as the quintessential anti-minimalist created the "Wall of Sound" production technique in which multiple layers of instrument overdubs create an all-enveloping mass of sonic frequency.  While churning out hits, Spector internally struggled with manic-depression and would liberally dole out tongue lashings to colleagues both near and far.  His bipolarity coupled nicely with his affinity for firearms and he terrorized a legion of musicians while simultaneously earning them mountains of cash.  Spector's mad-genius saga continues to spiral uncontrollably: he is currently appealing a guilty verdict of second-degree murder in the case of a B-movie actress and a bullet in his hillside estate. (Nota bene: Although absent for most of the recording sessions, John and Yoko wisely chose to avoid conflict and Spector was still credited with production on Plastic Ono Band.  He did indeed play the piano melody on "Love".)

3.) Syd Barret (Pink Floyd) - "Lucifer Sam"

Long considered one of the main creative forces behind the English psychedelic movement in the mid to late Sixties, Barret ascended and burned out with the same rapidity.  LSD casualty or simply born bonkers? Impossible to know, but a popular discursive topic at pubs the world around.  He deftly bridged the blaring sonics of Mod garage bands with a nascent exploration into psychedelia and space travel.  However; his relative sanity peaked with the release of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Pink Floyd's groundbreaking debut) and the godfather of space-rock began experiencing intermittent psychotic episodes.  After tuning out from our dismal modernity around 1972, he pulled a Salinger and escaped to a quiet, reclusive existence until his death in 2006.  (N.B.: The "toytown-pysch" whimsy of his classic "Bike" has been interpreted by some as a prime example of a musician on the brink of clinical insanity)

4.) John Frusciante "Poppy Man"

A musical prodigy turned guitar virtuoso, Frusciante quit one of the world's biggest bands in 1992 after presumably tiring of Anthony Kiedis' marbles-in-mouth babbling/rapping.  He subsequently spent the next six years shooting, smoking, and snorting a veritable cornucopia of drugs in a trash and modern art-strewn Hollywood Hills manse.  The excessive amounts of substance abuse left him dessicated and gaunt, spotted with weeping abscesses, and toothless.  Never completely eschewing his artistic gifts during this otherwise dismal time, Frusciante made an esoteric short film called Stuff with some buddies (Gibby Haynes and Johnny Depp) and released a couple of equally esoteric and strange albums.  His dexterous and inimitable guitar work is typically brilliant, but his vocals (especially on Smile From the Streets You Hold) can be harrowing - ranging from a feline caterwauling to banshee-like shrieks. (N.B.: Not one for obfuscation, Frusciante's "Poppy Man" is a stellar instrumental from an album that was admittedly released solely to feed his insatiable appetite for opiates.)

On the luminous side of things, Frusciante kicked habits and had a much better decade this last time around.  Re-joining his beloved mega-band, releasing a few noteworthy solo albums, and keeping a gentleman's deportment through thick and thin. Below, an offering from Curtains, a 2004 album that delves into the age-old tale of physical and emotional recovery without sounding trite.

5.) Phil Spector - "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On" (from Leonard Cohen's 1977 offering Death of a Ladies Man)

His work is so influential and his psychotic antics so memorable, that Mr. Spector landed on this list twice.  Spector co-wrote and produced the entirety of Death of a Ladies Man, yet Cohen still dismisses this album as his least favorite in his vast body of work and Spector reportedly physically barred him from any post-production work.  "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On", featuring backing vocals on the chorus from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, is a strange, raucous gem.

Take a gander at "Memories" below.  Spector's doo-wop influence and orchestral overdubs add a striking contrast to Cohen's intimate, dead-pan lyrical phrasing.

March Madness: Part 2
featuring Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson, Ian Dury, Capt. Beefhart, and Lee "Scratch" Perry
will appear on this blog shortly...


passthefishsauce said...

love the theme of this post, so creative!

Isis said...

G -

That's so weird you'd write all that ... I remember in Austin, Roky Erickson was revered yet somehow a pariah.... no one who knew him knew how to take everything that happened in his life, but he was strangely respected, still. People would lower their voices when they talked about "Roky". Strange.

It was creepy however to see Phil Spector - he disturbs me greatly ... and he's in prison now, w/o the wig, shot a girl in the mouth. So so fucking weird !!! But apropo of your entry and mental illness ....

And "Syd Barrett is dead" (that should be a song, maybe by MUSE) - What A Genius.

Thanks for the songs, totally appreciate them !!! xox.