Like most double albums, this one is too long. There also is a bizarre eclecticism at play that just doesn’t quite work. “Just Like Heaven” is classic Cure, with a little bit of punk bite but still very catchy (even if Dinosaur Jr.‘s cover version is better). As for the rest, well, it’s just all over the map. At times there is the percussion-laden sound of Public Image Ltd.‘s The Flowers of Romance, plenty of middle-eastern influences, a little lukewarm funk-rock, and even some inklings of the jazz odyssey of Wish — though it’s hard not to think that we are witnesses of the new birth of Spın̈al Tap, mark II. The Cure try many things here but do few of them well. This could be worse, and there are some decent songs. It’s still a disappointment though.
Link to an article by Matt Taibbi:
Link to an article by Slavoj Žižek:
So much of the most innovative music of the 70s came together on Metal Box (originally three metal discs packaged in a film container, the later U.S. version titled Second Edition had a less expensive package). Public Image Ltd. (PiL) kept the immediacy, power, and attitude of punk while creating a special new blend of “pop” music.
Metal Box, the group’s second album, uses only extremes. Pounding bass and icy guitar hiss over the top grind like machinery. Lydon’s paranoid shouting plows through, questioning everything. He rips out the sounds in his head for the world to hear. PiL released singles from the album, but even those great songs seem out of place by themselves. The flow and endless vamps need to slowly overtake you as you listen.
Keith Levene is the sound of PiL. He plays phenomenally inventive solos, as on “Chant” where his scathing guitar laces over muffled repetitions of “love/war/kill/hate.” He comes close to sounding like James “Blood” Ulmer most of the time, improvising in a way that values random effects and eliminates the possibility of mistake. Jah Wobble on bass is also an absolute necessity for this music to work, adding the only melodies. The spontaneous energy keeps the experiments within arm’s reach. The drummer du jour adds little but manages not to spoil the album either.
Dance music, the likes of dub and disco, was the common denominator for PiL. While it seems each performer is doing something completely different, the record pulls it all together with the open space and sweeping textures of CAN’s krautrock. There really are no low points on the entire album. PiL’s debut had connections to the past, but this album (their second) was a step through a gateway. Superficially, Metal Box was absorbed into pop music, though few of the influenced masses think to tracing their roots through PiL.
Great music is tied so much to the social fabric of its time, so that great music tends to come in waves. Metal Box is one of the most brilliant works from an incredible period that birthed the 80s. Even among stiff competition, it stands out as inspired, cohesive, and enduring.
John Cale once said that rock and roll is about screaming and getting paid for it. PiL pulls off that tenuous circus balancing act in profound fashion. My mom once commented while I was listening to Metal Box that it sounded like someone screaming and trying to get paid for it. I don’t think she realized how right she was! This is an album for people who love rock and roll down to their souls, and no one else.
Link to an article by Alfred McCoy:
Bonus link: William Blum, “The Greek Tragedy: Some Things Not to Forget, Which the New Greek Leaders Have Not”
Here are some links to reviews of the book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (2014) by Dean Starkman:
Tim McCreight, “To Woof or Not to Woof”
Jim Sleeper, “Reporting for the Republic”
Corporate Crime Reporter, “Dean Starkman and The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark”
Bonus link: Michael Hudson, “The Insider’s Economic Dictionary: U-V” (“Unexpected. Whenever bad economic news is announced in the United States, the media almost always attach the adjective ‘unexpected’ to it. This is because it is deemed politically incorrect to expect bad news — to expect unemployment to rise, or to expect retail sales to be down. To accurately expect bad news may be realistic, but to anticipate this reality is something like becoming a premature anti-fascist. So it has become almost obligatory for reporters to show that their heart is ‘in the right place’ by attaching the label ‘unexpected’ to bad news. The word is intended to work as a deadener on the brain, because ‘unexpected’ is taken by most listeners or readers to mean ‘there’s no reason for this folks. Don’t try to think about putting it into an explanatory system.’“)
El Topo (1970)
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
For most viewers, El Topo (English translation: The Mole) will be the most bizarre western they have ever seen, and maybe even the most unusual movie of any genre they have ever seen. It has developed a cult following, and promoters claim it initiated the tradition of “midnight movies”, though a long dispute between the writer/director/star Alejandro Jodorowsky and the eventual distributor Allen Klein kept the movie largely unseen for decades. Although there are plenty of interpretations floating around, some sympathetic and some not, it is a movie that actually makes perfect sense from the standpoint of psychoanalysis (Jodorowsky studied psychology for a time).
Many interpretations see the movie as being about spiritual enlightenment. Maybe it is. But it is worth taking an entirely unsentimental look at it so see what other interpretations are possible.
The film opens with the black-clad gunfighter El Topo (Jodorowsky) riding into a small village on his horse with his naked son. The village has been ransacked, and there is blood and death everywhere. Jodorowsky locates the criminals responsible — they are led by a military officer. El Topo renders frontier justice and frees the surviving monks from the village and a woman. He leaves his son with the monks, and rides off with the woman. She convinces him to seek out and defeat four master gunfighters in the desert. He does so, and, finding them superior in skill, defeats them through trickery or luck. There is symbolism all over the movie. It is exaggerated symbolism, often religious. The master gunfighters each resemble a different religion. Along the way a black-clad woman whose voice is overdubbed with that of a man joins the pair. The last master that El Topo “defeats” actually kills himself, to prove to that his life means nothing. The woman in black then shoots El Topo, and his body is taken away by a band of physically handicapped or deformed people.
In the second half of the film, El Topo, now with a long beard and resembling some kind of spiritual guru, awakens from a long coma in a cave. He is living among the oddball people, who have been sealed in the cave by the residents of a nearby town. He is able to free the people from the cave eventually, after working as a street performer to beg for money to support them (Jodorowsky had studied as a mime). He is something of a Gandhian, of sorts. But upon releasing the prisoners of the cave, the townspeople murder them. This is a brutal representation of what social elites always do — segregate other classes, and when any possibility of upclassing and escape from ghettoization seems possible they take away that possibility through any means necessary.
Film scholars debate whether Jodorowsky is faithful to his overtly acknowledged influence from Antonin Artaud‘s “theater of cruelty”. He might be, or might not. The surrealist use of symbolism, in a way that both crystalizes and degenerates the meaning of those symbols, presents interesting fodder for that debate at the least. So many of the characters seem almost like Jungian archetypical images, essential representations of elements of a collective unconscious. Yet they live and die before us in the film. They are given gaudy, dramatic representation. But their deaths and flippant usage in the film suggests they are not eternal archetypes.
Jodorowsky is routinely dismissed by certain film critics as a charlatan. This is a rather common occurrence for an artist with anarchist tendencies. Such a position is (rightly) perceived as a threat to the status of critics, etc. who attempt to distinguish themselves on the basis of their position within an established social hierarchy. Jodorowsky is overtly attacking religions, of all kinds, and with it the very concept of a path pre-defined by a social hierarchy. But more than that, he also seems insistent that something else must be put in the vacant space, without demanding or asserting what that something else should be, precisely. The only demand, as such, is for the audience to work at the question.
It may be worth contrasting El Topo with Hermann Hesse‘s novel Siddartha (1922). Hesse’s protagonist leads a spiritual journey through asceticism, then hedonism, then to a middle way that finds him working as a ferryman at a river crossing. This end is a negation of self. The protagonist finds enlightenment. The book adopts aspects of hinduism, but is primarily buddhist. El Topo, in contrast, does not end with the protagonist finding enlightenment. He fails, if that is seen as his goal. But, he also goes from a gunfighter who really exists only to kill, to someone who takes a non-violent, self-sacrificing approach to helping others, falling back to killing (killing the wicked) before he then turns to kill himself, the killer. What is so different from Hesse is that Jodorowosky does not endorse a particular religion. He stages the “deaths” of the major religions, through the symbolic confrontations with the master gunfighters. The second half of his film takes place in the main character’s post-religious existence. He is burdened with the task of finding meaning that is not provided for him. Rather than simply regulating his empathy — not too much or too little, which is really what the “middle way” of buddhism is about — he tries to care for others and materially change their circumstances for the better.
But what El Topo does is to illustrate a very post-modern idea that through failure success eventually emerges. El Topo may die failing to save the people from the cave, but when he dies, a beehive appears, just as upon the death of each of the master gunfighters in the desert. He does not find any final answer or enlightenment, but just as the movie goes on after all of the first four master gunfighters die, there is the implication that there is more beyond the death of El Topo. His children survive to go on into the world further. His ultimate act is to destroy himself. His life, at the close of the film, is a negation.
The sort of definite resolution of a novel like Siddartha was rejected by many filmmakers in the 1970s. El Topo is one such example. Others are Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969), a Jungian interpretation of Petronius‘ fragmentary ancient Roman “novel” Satyricon that is one of the very few cinematic precedents for El Topo, Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s unmade screenplay St Paul, about the founder of the christian church, and Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), based on the book by Walter Tevis, about an alien who comes to Earth to save his home planet only to get lost in wealth, celebrity and hedonism. Paul seeks to promote a revolutionary emancipation of christian believers, but ends up losing what he tries to advance under the weight of the contradictory pressures of the church as an institution. The alien in Roeg’s film (played by David Bowie) amasses wealth to build a spaceship to go back to his home planet, but his amassed wealth brings about his downfall as it calls attention to his plans and he is stopped by the vested interests of the establishment. Fellini said of Satyricon that his intent was “to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination: to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.” There is much dreamlike symbolism of that sort in El Topo as well. Pasolini’s screenplay is the closest reference point to El Topo’s actions. The collective unity through christian ideals of “holy spirit” are ultimately incompatible with the institution of the church, yet are still noble efforts worthy of revisiting — Pasolini’s script transposed Paul’s life into the WWII era, with Nazis in place of Romans. El Topo tries to change the circumstances of the cave people, but he ultimately can’t change the bigoted townspeople who first trapped the others in the cave. The desire to free the cave people was still a good and worthy goal, but El Topo failed to achieve it. Just as in the first part of the film, he kills the bad guys. In this way, the failure is his own. He fails to move beyond such actions. Yet the entire thrust of the film is to suggest that one must try to fail, fail again, and fail better (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett).
You could look at this album as the greatest waste of talent on vinyl. You’ve got some of the greatest jazz performers around playing…straight soul charts. Yet, it works. Shepp was the brash youngster of the 1960s jazz avant-garde. He was, typically, a step behind the leading lights, and rarely seemed to deliver on what his talent promised, but, he was only one step behind, and he still delivered something, all of which does count. Tellingly, the first session for For Losers was just a few days after Albert Ayler‘s New Grass, with the same producer (Bob Thiele). Additional material from these sessions was later released on the forgettable outtakes collection Kwanza. In the rapprochement between jazz and rock, Shepp’s style may have ended up being one not pursued by others, usually dismissed as being too deferential to rock/soul structures, but it still holds up on its own terms decades later.
Rock, country, etc. musicians making albums of traditional pop “standards” are just something that needs to be accepted as some kind of sad inevitability. They sell like hotcakes. If you set aside the category of singers like Scott Walker, who seemed fit for traditional pop from the outset, there is a long history of “crossover” attempts in this direction. Just before The Beatles broke up, Ringo Starr released Sentimental Journey (1970), a collection of standards. The biggest pioneer, though, was Harry Nilsson, with A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). That was followed by Willie Nelson‘s Stardust (1978), and everything from Linda Ronstadt‘s What’s New (1983) to Sinéad O’Connor‘s Am I Not Your Girl? (1992), Rod Stewart‘s It Had to Be You… The Great American Songbook (2002) and beyond. Sure, Dylan had done crooning before, if you paid attention (you probably didn’t). But doing a standards album at age 73, well, it seems to prove Keith Richards‘ claim that Dylan’s “christian” phase was a ploy to sell records. After all, to promote Shadows in the Night, Dylan gave an exclusive interview with the magazine for AARP (American Association for Retired Persons). Who else but old, retired people want to buy an album of standards? Yeah, Dylan sings better here than on Christmas in the Heart, but who cares? His voice is still ravaged, and there are better singers out there to do pure singing. And Frank Sinatra albums are still available…