Nineteen sixty-four and sixty-five were amazingly fertile years for the creation of rock and roll myth figures. The Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan emerged during those years as a kind of pop trinity, a pantheon that has not seriously been challenged in the past six years, despite the break-up of the Beatles, the increasing inanity of Dylan and McCartney, and the Stones' decline in activity.
Nonetheless, in a tedious attempt to fill their repetitive pages with news, the rock press every three or four months chooses some musician to elevate to the rank of "superstar." People such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Taylor, the Cream, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young have been accorded this dubious honor, but none has displayed much real staying power. Hendrix and Joplin shuffled off their mortal coil after three albums apiece, and none of the rest of them has been able to do anything exciting since each of their second records. A new Lennon Harrison, Dylan, or Stones release can still create more excitement for rock freaks than a disc from any of the others.
So there is some value in looking at what the original superstars are doing, even in their decline. The Stones, having slowed down since the old days, are in between albums at the moment. Harrison's upcoming Bangla Desh concert album will, by all indications, be a monster. Paul McCartney's last album and single were unredeemable trash. Ringo's single. "It Don't Come Easy," was unexpectedly as good as anything the ex-Beatles have done since their split, but he seems at present to be abandoning his singing career and returning to drumming and acting. (You can catch him starring as Larry the Dwarf in Frank Zappa's new film, 200 Motels, which should be coming to Boston soon.)
Dylan's last single wasn't bad, but it wasn't really that good, either. The best Dylan material I've heard in a long while is on a bootleg record, which is sporadically available around the Square. Entitled Looking Back on the Zerocks label, this two-record set features live recordings of an acoustic Berkeley concert in late 1965 or early 1966 and the electric Royal Albert Hall concert from Dylan's last British tour. The recording quality on both is excellent, particularly on the electric sides, on which the Band plays back-up. The combination of Dylan and the Band makes this the definitive Dylan rock LP, so you should grap a copy while they're still around.
There is a new Dylan song on the latest Band album Cahoots (Capitol). Describing his adventures in Italy. "When I Paint My Masterpiece," is with the exception of "If Not For You," his best tune in the past two years. It is clear that the man has not lost all his talent, when he can write a line like: "Sailin' round the world in a dirty gondola. Oh to be back in the land of Coca-Cola."
What made the first two Band albums perhaps the greatest white American rock was their combination of Dylan's approach to lyrics with a tight sense of musicianship that Dylan's records rarely achieved. Though their third, Stage Fright, was stylistically similar to the others, it seemed to lack content, as though Robbie Robertson was really straining to come up with new material. Though the singing and playing were excellent, most of the songs didn't seem to justify the effort.
Cahoots, while an improvement over Stage Fright, still suffers from the same problem. The opening cut, "Life is a Carnival," is the best thing on the album and owes a whole lot to Sly Stone. "Where Do We Go From Here?," "Smoke Signal," and "Shoot Out in Chinatown" are all good rock and roll, but no much better really than "Cracklin' Rosie" or any other Neil Diamond song. "4 per cent Pantomime" starts off well, but gets bogged down by the presence of Van Morrison, who seems drunker than usual and postures absurdly for much of the song. Most of the rest of the material sounds good when you listen to it, but is utterly forgettable.
Their harmonies and their instrumental style are so good that it's a shame to see it wasted on mediocre songs. Since they do a great job singing old soul songs like "Loving You is Sweeter than Ever" and "Baby Don't Do It" during their live concerts, it would be an improvement if they released a whole album of other people's oldies. Something like The Band Sings Motown's Greatest Hits.
John Lennon's first solo album, released about a year ago, was the kind of record people like to call an "intense personal statement." Unfortunately, it was so intense and so personal that after the first dozen listenings, it became uninteresting and downright unpleasant.
His new record, Imagine, is much better. On the first record. John played most of the instruments himself, resulting in a sparse and repetitive sound. On the new album, he has the aid of George Harrison, the late King Curtis, Nicky Hopkins, and a dozen others. A string section that plays on the ballads gets a bit too heavy, but most of the time the fuller sound is more listenable.
The opening cut, "Imagine," is a ballad that seems to be turning into an AM radio hit. It is simple and pretty; unfortunately, the lyrics are a little icky, as John's peace-and-love songs tend to get. "Crippled Inside" is a ragtime kind of song that sounds a lot like "Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35." The words are among the best and most serious of the album:
You can shine your shoes and wear a suit
You can comb your hair and look quite cute
You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside
"Gimme Some Truth" is one of John's rock and roll polemics, an updated version of "Revolution." A number of ballads fill out the rest of the record--"How," "Oh My Love," and "Jealous Guy"--and while all of them are rather nice, none is particularly memorable.
Musically the best song on the album is "How Do You Sleep?." John's attack on his ex-Beatle buddy Paul. Featuring great lead guitar by George, it is the perfect thing to listen to while you burn all your old fan photos and McCartney albums.