Sunday, November 14, 2010

Secret History: 1971

1971, especially the summer, sticks in my mind for a number of reasons. Before going back and (re)discovering the music of the time, I’m going to look at that year strictly through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old.

All About Me(’ve):

I had just graduated from a Catholic grammar school, and would be going to a public high school, relieved to not have to deal with the Franciscan brothers that my older brother warned me about.

No sooner had we graduated and the summer begun when two of my closest friends – brothers – moved away. And my family would be going to Ireland that summer. We’d be gone for five weeks – an eternity to a thirteen year old. I’d be away from the few friends I had left.

I was also ducking my father’s direct gaze, because it would sometimes be accompanied by a demand that I get my hair cut. After all, it fell onto my forehead and lightly brushed the tops of my ears. I tried to stay one room ahead of him, but since we didn’t live in a mansion, I’d quickly run out of rooms.

While in Ireland, I obsessed over “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Street Fightin Man” – hit singles in Europe at the time. T-Rex was big, and I got to love “Get It On” way before people in the USA heard it.

Upon our return to the States, I found out that my pseudo-girlfriend had tired of our pseudo-relationship, and slipped into the arms of another man. Well, another thirteen-year-old, anyway. Ah, well, the whole girlfriend thing seemed a bit scary anyway. Better to stick to music.

Otherwise, it was great to be back. There seemed to be so much going on.

The Fillmore was closing. I remember hearing about all the great bands that would be playing there that weekend. There were rumors about Dylan and Clapton showing up, but, as my brother told me, “they weren’t needed”. A friend of his was there to witness the Allman Brothers Band close the place down. If the general public was puzzled by the choice of a closing band, everything would be cleared up the next year when the Allmans released one of the greatest live albums ever.

On one Saturday night in August, a local AM pop station played John Lennon’s newly released “Imagine”, in its entirety, one cut at a time. In between songs, they had listeners call in with their reactions. Could you imagine such a thing now?

Alas, it was becoming clear that, in the Good Music Wars, we were losing on the AM radio front. Girl favorites like “Billy don’t Be a Hero” and “Seasons in the Sun” were pushing us boys to the harder stuff on FM.

This might explain the popularity of Grand Funk Railroad at this time. I admit that I was tempted to dip in – they had some good songs, like “I’m Your Captain” - but never did. Looking back, I’m not sure I missed anything.

Aside from the Jackson Five and the Temptations, Motown had somehow lost its appeal, too. I attribute this as much to the audience as to the music. Boundaries – musical and otherwise – were tightening.

My friends and I made a trip to the record store right before school started. Somebody picked up “Who’s Next”. Another got Santana’s “Abraxas”. We heard these records for the first time sitting on his stoop. I had to satisfy myself with Creedence’s latest single, “Sweet Hitchhiker”. (It could’ve been worse. I could have bought the album, generally considered their worst.)

I also picked up a book called “A Child's Garden of Grass” by I forget who, which was a manifesto on smoking pot. It was just like me to read about the stuff that everybody else was actually doing. Earlier that summer, I had gotten Bob Dylan’s first book, “Tarantula”, which I understand even less now than I did at the time.

But enough about me. What have I found in that year that I didn’t notice at the time?


Is there anyone out there who still doesn’t know that Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is a great record? No, really. (Mrs. Jaybee disagrees ‘cause she can’t stand the voice. I admit it takes a bit getting used to, but it’s worth it.) The songwriting’s top notch: “River”, “The Last Time I saw Richard”, “A Case of You” and my favorite, “Little Green”.

Cat Stevens is in his mid twenties, but sounds a thousand years old on “Tea for the Tillerman”. So he’s a bit of a buzzkill, which explains why he’d peace out and find religion after a while. But man, I love this record, my favorite song being the intensely quiet “Into White”.

Happy Surprises:

When not playing with Neil Young, Crazy Horse managed to put it together for one album. Hey, they had Danny Whitten, Nils Lofgren and Jack Neitchze contributing. All the drugs in the world couldn’t stop one good album from coming out of this. Big brother hated it, though. (link)

The first New Riders of the Purple Sage album is a wee bit lightweight, mostly because of Marmaduke’s vocals, but very tuneful nonetheless. It’s also way better than their subsequent records. Bad records happen when Jerry Garcia leaves your band. But this first one is as good as it seemed at the time.


Gordon Lightfoot’s “Summer Side of Life” isn’t consistently great but it’s got some real beauties on it, like the title song, which, if it doesn’t make you cry, means you’re not quite alive.

John Sebastian was acting like the 60s never ended on "Live", and more power to him. He and the audience are having the time of their lives. He mixes in Spoonful favorites along with folk and blues classics. Wow, talk about a moment in time.

It would be easy to dismiss Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection” as just another EJ album, and a country themed one at that, if there weren’t so many good songs on it. “My Father’s Gun”, “Burn Down the Mission”, “Amoreena”, “Come Down in Time” and "Where to Now, St. Peter" have the greatest staying power for me. If he was a baseball player, he’d get the award for most at bats, and a great on base percentage.

After “Everybody’s Talkin’”, but before he started rubbing shoulders with John Lennon and jumping into the fire, Harry Nilsson made “The Point”, a lovely little fable about a boy named Oblio who lived in the land of Point. It would later be made into a cartoon. It’s right up there with his best records.


The old timers - the ones that were still left, that is - still kept coming up with the goods, if not the greats. No one would call “Surf’s Up” their favorite Beach Boys album, unless they weren’t Beach Boy fans to begin with. It’s too cute by half, but then again, it’s got treasures like “Until I Die” and “Disney Girls”.

On “Muswell Hillbillies”, the Kinks are slowly losing steam, which is ironic since they keep adding the brass. There are some great songs on this record, like“20th Century Man” and “Oklahoma USA”. For a lot of other bands, this would be a career album, but for the Kinks, only good.

The Great Ones:

John Prine’s self titled first album is a quiet masterpiece. The front cover couldn’t be less assuming. There’s Prine sitting on a bail of hay. But the sly devil is actually sitting on a pile of great songs. He may have been the most deserving of those given the title of "The New Dylan". He’d be rivaled only by Neil Young in his ability to churn out great songs using the same three chords

Quiet in a more ominous way, Sly and the Family Stone’s “There's a Riot Going On” let down a lot of people who wanted more of the positive, energetic music Sly was known for up to that point. It’s in the same universe as Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” and Big Star’s “Third”. Heroin hovers over it like an angel from hell.

New Frontiers:

Man, John McLaughlin (Not my old grammar school classmate. He’s a good guy.) used to piss me off. How could I keep insisting that Eric Clapton was, as I put it "the best guitar player of all time" when McLaughlin was playing like this? The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “The Innermounting Flame” is very intense. There's a bit of dopey violin playing, and Jan Hammer is good for a giggle now and then, but overall this is jazz disguised as hard rock music (or vice versa), if not rock and roll, exactly.

And I feel I have to add a category called

Not as awful as they may seem now:

Does anyone like Emerson, Lake and Palmer anymore? I wonder. C’mon now, they weren’t that bad. There first record has some pretty nice things on it, like “Take a Pebble” and “Lucky Man”, but the rest of it is very pretenscious and thus deserving of some ridicule. As Monty Python would say, very, very silly.

“Stephen Stills 2”’s badness first comes out of sheer boredom, and egregious taste. Did anyone even put the record on before regretting that they got it? (Don’t look at me, I only paid $2.) I guess we all got through the first listen, and then put it away for a while. When you try it out later, having dragged your expectations way way down, it doesn’t seem so bad. And how can you not like, “Change Partners” and “Mary Anne”? I even like the spoken word “Word Games”. But the rest just disappears upon impact. Along with the Kinks, Stills shouldn't be allowed near a brass section. You might enjoy it a bit while it's on, but when it’s over, you'd probably wish you put on a better record instead.

And in case you conclude I’m an idiot, here’s allmusic’s take on the year.

I'll admit they know a thing or two...

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