A good biography on Willie Nelson from Thomson. It seems well-researched, and avoids the rank hagiography so prevalent in these sorts of music bios. The author doesn’t shy from questioning Nelson’s motivations and worst behavior. He also does an excellent job articulating the crazy fine line Nelson walked between positive-thinking new age guru and lazy bum coasting on a reputation without continued hard work as a songwriter and performer. Yet, at the same time, the book doesn’t dwell on tabloid gossip. As for the book’s weaknesses, Thomson falls prey to a few misplaced British anachronisms, like comments about a “football pitch” when he means to say “(American) football field” — there is no way that Nelson was playing soccer in his youth deep in the heart of Texas! Then, too, Thomson stumbles are a pure music critic. He often criticizes some of Nelson’s best work (like The Sound in Your Mind) and praises marginal efforts (particularly early stuff and Nelson’s biggest commercial successes of the 80s). He certainly doesn’t seem to go back and revive some of Nelson most overlooked material (like The Words Don’t Fit the Picture) or necessarily place Nelson in a broader continuum. But, those flaws are fairly easily ignored in a generally fine book.
Chris Argyris – Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not(Oxford University Press 2000)
Some good ideas here, but ultimately Argyris falls a bit short. His basic goal is to highlight how many business consulting programs are flawed. He does in fact offer some useful insights and is quite adept at describing some of the “real” problems that businesses face. His strength lies in taking a very psychological approach — it has echoes of the noted French psychiatrist Jaques Lacan. He emphasizes how much behavior of managers is motivated by defensive reactions to avoid embarrassment (what might psychologically be more generally termed “hurt”). Often this produces autocratic responses from managers who seek to impose unilateral control in a counterproductive way and then suppress meaningful discourse on critical topics (often permitting discussion only on what is irrelevant). Argyris’ descriptions fit situations I have witnessed firsthand. Unfortunately, much of this discussion gets mired in unnecessary jargon that is endlessly repeated but never adequately delineated (a glossary or reference table for key terms would help a lot). He does occasionally refer to his past books, but requiring a reader to obtain and read numerous other books in order to understand the current one is not really an acceptable way to write. Moreover, some of his jargon seems to consist of little more than re-labeling of existing concepts (for instance, much of his “theory in use” discussion seems a lot like Alfred Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory” dictum, or sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of “habitus” and “a knowledge of the real world that contributes to its reality”). The book makes its key point in saying that other management advice tends to not be actionable or testable. A lot of that “other advice” is well-intentioned and perhaps necessary in the abstract — who can argue with injunctions to be accountable, have courage, and produce results? But, according to Argyris, many of these programs lack the detail to rigorously test unstated assumptions. This is a lot like saying those are necessary but not sufficient factors for success. It’s a more ideological attack on Tom Peters/Jim Collins/Stephen Covey nonsense than books like Phil Rosenzweig’s methodological critique in The Halo Effect (which is actually a much better book overall). Where this book falls very flat is that once he has torn down other approaches, Argyris puts little in its place. Argyris’ examples (often in the form of a transcript with annotations) are often esoteric, leaving the reader wondering about the context for the unexplained titles and roles of the characters, and are most often presented as if self-explanatory while lacking any actionable analysis (the very same flaw he points to in other programs). He discusses a lot of role-playing situations, but never clearly establishes that role-playing is an effective tool (one gets the impression that useful information is withheld from this book in order to encourage companies to instead simply hire the author as a consultant). But it also bears mentioning that Argyris is a strong influence on the bogus “fifth discipline” organizational learning crowd, and so must be viewed with a skeptical eye.
In short, this book highlights some extremely frustrating aspects of corporate and business culture, particularly some of the insufferable lies perpetrated by management seeking to assert (or reassert) unilateral control while feigning to engage in “collaboration” or “teamwork” (the real core of the Peters/Collins/Covey-style programs) that only applies to the lower rungs of a business. He offers useful clues to spotting those flaws. But other than that, this book doesn’t put much on the table as an alternative, so don’t come expecting to find it here. In the end this seems like a rather lightweight overview of a topic that deserves better treatment.
For a critique that offers an entirely different perspective (more academic, less practical — and with a few equally stupid recommendations), try Robert Locke and JC Spender’s Confronting Managerialism which offers a historical perspective on US management contrasted to German and Japanese styles and concludes that much of the problems have to do with balance of power (especially the influence of finance), pay inequality, differences between guilt and shame cultures, and the very concept of “professional management”. For instance, they show how Japanese-style programs (re)imported to the USA are often perversely brought over without some of the necessary foundational elements (like meaningful bottom-up employee empowerment). What I like about Locke and Spender is that they recognize that there is no substitute for intelligence and knowledge of the inner workings of a business and only certain organizational structures (the relatively flat ones like in Silicon Valley) can really make use of that talent, whereas others, it would seem Argyris among them, think (I would say wrongly) that good management can be “learned” in any organization independent from organizational structure. Spender and Locke also make compelling arguments that management, particularly the “MBA culture”, brings a typically unspoken agenda to the table and they do a good job elucidating that hidden agenda (de-skill white collar workers, engage in labor arbitrage, and generally substitute financial for engineering standards). Of course, those guys are not without their own flaws, as they seem to endorse German “christian capitalism” as some kind of solution to something, rather than simply taking a psychological approach and saying that US businesses tend to select and reward sociopathic behavior for ideological reasons. Even Rosabeth Moss Kanter might be another person who has offered better overviews of corporate culture at a high level.
If you’ve ever had to suffer through business management books by Jim Collins, Tom Peters, et al., this is a welcomed counterpoint. Rosenzweig spares you from having to make all the usual arguments debunking the junk science behind the outrageous claims in many of those other business management books. He does acknowledge that the cheerleading component of business management gurus can have a place. But most importantly he actually engages some of the serious academic research out there on business management, he weighs the different methodologies, and he ultimately concludes that there is no silver bullet, miracle diet or other simple formula or set of steps that inexorably leads to lasting success. Rosenzweig is not without his own blind spots. Anyone who relies as heavily on Joseph Schumpeter as he does naturally would. He also makes ad hominem attacks on W. Edwards Deming that seem odd. The only metric that ultimate matters to Rosenzweig’s analysis is stock price. If you recognize that the speculative nature of stock trading can deviate sharply and nearly independently from company performance (i.e., that the “efficient-market hypothesis” is unsound, as empirical data confirms), you won’t find a comparable recognition here. If you have moral qualms about the human toll incurred through profit at any cost, you’ll also have to look elsewhere for those critiques.
Alex Ross – The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007)
Ross brings a lot of enthusiasm to the subject of 20th Century classical composition in The Rest Is Noise. Unfortunately, that is one of the few highlights here. The book’s problems are many. It is probably a little too dense and heavy on music theory for many casual readers, but also too light and uncritical to make waves in a scholarly sense. Books of that sort tend to only succeed when the writing is taut and engaging. But this is too long by at least a third (a whole chapter on Britten, really?). Ross is also in desperate need of a fact-checker (he apparently doesn’t know what “stochastic” means, nor does he know why Angus MacLise left The Velvet Underground). Most fatally, though, Ross lacks an understanding of 20th Century socio-political and socio-economic circumstances, and so his attempts to reference music against those contexts range from the superficial to the very misguided. He comes across as to beholden to nationalistic, cold-war era Liberal paranoia. This makes the middle chapters on the periods around World War II a great chore. For example, no mater what Ross or anyone else thinks of him, Lenin was certainly not a prototype dictator of the 20th Century — Iran’s Shah would fit that description much better. When discussing Soviet music, he also seems fundamentally unable to distinguish the Stalin era from the Lenin one. It all makes sense in way, because Ross is merely trying to portray Shostakovitch as something other than a hack, and that helps Ross’ narrative. Another big flaw is the occidental outlook of everything. Although he name-drops a few non-Western and women composers towards the end, one can’t help but wonder why those names weren’t featured more substantively in the book. I wanted to like this but couldn’t help getting tired of it as I plodded through.
It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981. Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years. When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path. What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins. This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.” This was remarkable stuff. The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work. There were precedents. Modern composers had made similar experiments. For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously. But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music. This was meant for the masses!
Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests. Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles. Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out. But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search. This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings. If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though. It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments. If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.
Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored. He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz. And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole. Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be. And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that. But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success. In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it. This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me. I still have to admit that this is a good album.
The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America, with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, the biggest economic crisis the Western world had faced in many decades, continued fights to implement integration, women’s liberation, and much more. Oh, and there was a lot of stuff happening to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s independence from England in 1776. Along comes Johnny Cash, with this album, depicting him on the cover in a military-style jacket on a decrepit farmhouse porch behind a flag, and subtitled “A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song”. The theme is American history. It looks pretty heavy-handed on paper. The thing is, he does a pretty good job with this concept. He re-records a few tunes he had done before, and performs an assortment of other songs, mostly new ones written himself. There is a lot of between-song spoken dialog, and even a recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some of these tracks were recorded exclusively for the astronauts on the Apollo 14 space mission (the one where Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the Moon), but ended up here instead. Like much of Cash’s early 70s output, the songs have a minimalist, folky feel, and there are only a couple of cuts with his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm (“Paul Revere,” “These Are My People”). And while this looks a lot like a very rudimentary recitation of the standard “story of America” taught to little kids in grade school, it ends up being slightly more nuanced than that. “Big Foot,” about the Wounded Knee Massacre, wasn’t something frequently taught in school history classes — would Cash have dug Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States when it came out years later? This release predated the Pine Ridge Incident, erupting in response to the anniversary of Wounded Knee, by only a matter of months. Yet Cash elsewhere celebrates genocidal madmen like Christopher Columbus, so there are still contradictions. Listeners who want Johnny in good voice, recorded well with a crisp and talented backing band will probably find lots to like here. Those who focus on lyrics more than the instrumental contributions probably will care a lot less for this one. In any event, this was one of Cash’s last concepts albums.
Johnny Cash’s recordings of the 1970s aren’t usually regarded well. He seemed to struggle with issues that tend to face every big star eventually: what happens when you’ve been around the business for long enough that popular tastes have changed and new trends and fads have come along? Stay true to what you always did (even if that is less popular) or adapt to the times (can you pull it off)? Interestingly, Cash tries a little of both with Ragged Old Flag.
The title track finds Cash displaying his most chauvinistic, nationalist populism, which is presented as mere patriotism during the midst of the Watergate scandal. It’s always hard to pin down Cash on politics, but it is common for people who lived through the Watergate era and fully understood Nixon’s crimes to insist that the president shouldn’t have gone to prison or been removed from office, just out of some vague sense of “patriotism”. Cash seems to take a similar view, at least by implication. It’s maybe also worth noting that Cash had met Nixon personally by this time, and had performed for him at the White House.
The album often recalls the “old” sound of Cash’s 50s recordings. But Charlie Bragg is the co-producer, and he seems responsible for providing a more contemporary country flair to some of the material here, most notably “Southern Comfort.” Cash has good support from Earl Scruggs on banjo and The Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals throughout. Some of the folkier moments build on what was achieved on Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Man in Black too, with a little more slick and polished sound.
Cash wrote (or co-wrote) everything here. Some of those efforts are worthy of note. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is an environmentalist paean. It’s something unusual for a country star. Then there is “King of the Hill,” a song that prefigures a lot of what Bruce Springsteen would become known for a few years down the line. It’s a song about “manly” men who want to succeed in life and go to the coal mines rather than the cotton mill to do it. But by the end, the song conveys that eventually all the coal will be gone, and if you’re not dead already you can call yourself king of the hill. But it’s a kind of sad prize, and Cash very subtly makes it an ironic one, implying (without clearly stating it, except through a little chuckle) that maybe it was all a waste.
This album is among the better of Cash’s efforts of the decade. Much of side two runs a little thinner after the good “Lonesome to the Bone,” but side one in particular delivers some good performances and songwriting with energy and conviction. This isn’t the place to start with Cash. Still, admirers may want to take a listen at some point as it would be a full twenty years before he made another album this good.
Link to an article on the substitution of prisons for social welfare programs in the USA by Loïc Wacquant, author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), which came out around the same time as Michelle Alexander’s similar (but more well-known) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
Various Artists – The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)
While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres. I really respect what was done here. From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing. It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century. People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”. The common denominator of this music is its simplicity. In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level. The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated. The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato. The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges. Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism. The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on. It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast. I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income? At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does. But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work. “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs. And there are plenty more great songs here. There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest. There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).