This sight immediately brought me to the 60s and 70s, when the couple sea-radio (and, during the winter, homework-radio) was de rigueur.
Sometimes I think that those who came later - not to mention those who came up in the age of downloading, when music is "immaterial", and so easily portable - have great difficulty understanding what was so important in the way people listened to the radio at that time (a certain something which - while not being by any means a generative model - can be seen as being at the root of a certain multistylistic approach that's typical of quite a few music critics from that time). Which is in a way quite easy to understand: while on one hand we notice all that was new and atypical - for instance, UK "pirate radios" (pictured in the movie The Boat That Rocked, released in the US and Canada with the title Pirate Radio, and in Italy as I Love Radio Rock), or those legendary US FM stations in cities such as New York, Boston, or Berkeley - the modern framework where consumers are kings and queens of a potentially endless number of "free choices" makes one perceive the old frame as a realm of "passive" behaviour of meager choices, dictated by an inscrutable decision process very akin to a "cultural dictatorship". Which I think is a tag that fits best all modern "narrowcasting" schemes (where one listens only to hip-hop, metal, pop, r&b, country, oldies) which try to hit the bull's eye.
One trait of that time that should be recalled more often is the relationship between "innovation" and "norm", as experienced by an "average listener". Where many different things are presented side by side, making it possible (for those willing) to perceive (subtle or drastic) differences when it comes to things such as sound, vocal and instrumental timbres, lyrics, melodies, chords, song construction, and the like. This is a side of the act of listening that (potentially) offers a "didactic" aspect, though it was never consciously assumed as a goal (only in the sense that this is always implicit in the act of ranking cultural objects).
Here, those who only see the "totalitarian" side ("everybody had to listen to the same stuff") are not able to perceive the "shared experience" aspect (where an item is "read" and "variously interpreted" by a lot of people at the same time), nor the "experimental, creative" aspect as variously perceived (let's try to picture songs such as Satisfaction, Like A Rolling Stone, and Strawberry Fields Forever inside the accepted sonic framework of their time).
While some articles penned by Williams have been easily available on the Net for some time - off the top of my head, I'll mention fine reviews of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (just like Mendelssohn and Christgau, Williams was a big fan of The Kinks) and of Procol Harum's first album of same name - I believe there are not many things more perfect for "summer reading" than the collection of the best pieces penned by Williams for golden-age era Crawdaddy! as represented in Outlaw Blues: originally published in 1969, it's still available today, at a very low price, in paperback format.
Williams's way of thinking is quite slow and meticulous, expressed through a language that's very careful and precise, whose meaning is often quite surprising. (The best parallel I can find is with the verbal-meaning dimension that appears in the works of Philip Dick.) As clearly stated by Michael Lydon in his original review/introduction for the book, Williams attention for music (quite logically) includes "(...) the spaces between the songs on The Byrds Greatest Hits" (...) "that time between songs, a moment filled with consideration and regret for the song just over, and excited anticipation of the song to come".
The volume features chapters on The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. Donovan, The Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds. Thirty pages on Dylan. Sixty on Brian Wilson and Smile. More than a few "chronologies in music". Pictures of San Francisco. A long (and excellent) interview with Paul Rothchild about the recording sessions for The Doors' first album and a very perceptive review of said album, with lotsa space given to the meaning and narrative function of the line to the song Soul Kitchen which goes: "Learn to Forget".
(Picture this: Reading this piece by Williams, then going into a store - be it physical, or otherwise - to buy the Doors' first, only to get a remixed version which would surely amaze both Williams and Rothchild!, and which unfortunately is the only one available in a digital format right now.)
Reading the index to Cott's book (a critic, I should add at this point, who was once quite well-known, though today he's seldom mentioned - much probably, one suspects, due to his low productivity in recent times, due to a serious illness) one cannot help but be greatly impressed by his enormous versatility: there are writings on Stravinsky, Partch, Ives, Varèse, Gould, Weill... and Yoko Ono, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Patti Smith. Even better, I think, are his in-depth interviews, starring: George Balanchine, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, John Adams, Leonard Berstein (an interview I remember reading at the time of its original publication, in the pages of US magazine Rolling Stone), Michael Tilson Thomas... and John Lennon, Ray Davis, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Van Morrison.
Just a few words for Italian readers. Those who remember the cover of this tiny book published in Italy in 1974 (L. 1.000) already know a (tiny) part of Jonathan Cott's work.
The aforementioned volume offered Italian translations of a series of interviews which had previously appeared in Rolling Stone. Artists like Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Elton John. Young readers are invited to picture this: not only the Web was yet to be invented, even the mere presence of magazines from UK and USA was a rarity - and please let's not mention the actual knowledge of English language one needed in order to read them! Hence, a prosperous industry dealing with the translation of books.
Of course, translations were often capricious, and parts were cut (maybe those where the translator could not make heads nor tails of what was being discussed?). The one by Cott with Mick Jagger, a really good one, I finally managed to read in its original version a few years later, in a volume from the early 70s edited by David Dalton. While the first time I managed to read the original version of the Lennon interview was after I bought Back To A Shadow In The Night.
The book features two fine John Lennon interviews (his first, and his last, for Rolling Stone); two conversations with Bob Dylan (from '77 and '78); a slippery Mick Jagger from the time of the release of the Rolling Stones album Some Girls ('78); a fluid Van Morrison from '78. The Ray Davis interview (from 1969, right at the time of the Kinks album Arthur, which appeared in Rolling Stone the following year) is the most beautiful and touching interview I've ever read with Davis. The same complex approach is present in the long interview with Leonard Berstein, and in the brief - but conceptually no less intense - conversation with Michael Tilson Thomas.
I'll offer readers a brief excerpt from this one (from 1999): "One of the things that we're doing today is developing into the kind of society that is impatient and selfish and, dare I say, manufacturing soulless change surfers, where there are so many possibilities that at the slightest whim someone will flip off to another channel. (...) And then the attention span gets shorter and shorter, and people lose the qualitative sense of what art is supposed to do for them."
And this is the deal now.
© Beppe Colli 2010
CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 1, 2010