Woke Up In Another Lifetime

When I started writing about music back in the Paleozoic Era, I used to spend more time defining my tastes in distinction to what I supposedly opposed. As a bookish student with a penchant for streetwise urban blues and working-class British punk, I found the rootless, complacent self-absorption of Seventies-era singer-songwriters and pop stars a convenient target. The few singer-songwriters that escaped my bop gun–Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, or later, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker–tended to be so arch and acerbic that I could wink along with them, imagining they had more in common with my favorite short story writers.

At the time, James Taylor seemed to sum up all that was rootless and complacent. I snickered when I first read Lester Bangs’ essay James Taylor Marked for Death.  In that rant, which mainly praises the primitive beats of the Troggs as an alternative to Dostoyevskian despair (his comparison), Bangs goes gonzo on JT, fantasizing that if he heard one more number about “Jesus walking the boys and girls down a Carolina path while the dilemma of existence crashes like a slab of hod” on the singer’s shoulders, he was ready to manhandle the mellow one until he expired in a “spasm of adenoidal poesy.” But that was in another country, and besides, Bangs is dead.

While this site went on a brief hiatus during the fall, a much-loved family member unexpectedly passed away (my wife’s mother, and one of the most capable, compassionate souls this world has seen). As I pulled together the music for her memorial service, I found myself traveling close to the same path Bangs had sneered at with the applause of my teenage self. Honoring the memory of a California woman of Taylor’s generation, I even got misty-eyed over “Fire and Rain.” The same song I’d once rudely dismissed as a mellow make-out anthem now emerged as a hushed gasp for breath. And that shouldn’t really be so surprising. Before he became Sweet Baby James to a generation of gentle people, the young Taylor wrote the song after getting shock treatments in a mental institution and learning that nobody had told him of a friend’s suicide out of fear he couldn’t handle it. (A friend who knew him as a teenager compared his sense of discomfort to that of Kurt Cobain, circa Nirvana Unplugged).  The line “I always thought that I’d see you again,” which I once thought whiny, now seems haunting and poignant.

If Lester Bangs had built a time machine, I’m not sure what he would have made of 2010. Bearded men with acoustic guitars and banjo-playing ensemble leaders play what used to be known as alternative rock. I have mixed feelings about this. Since I still love screechy jazz and cathartic rock, I’m not quite ready to accept that quiet is the new loud. But I’ll admit that, for example, the quiet urgency of Bon Iver’s acoustic music has more soul for me than most of what’s left of the garage-rock revival. And at the risk of adenoidal poesy, I’ll concede that one of my favorite songs of last year (by Seattle’s Telekinesis) involves a walk down a Carolina path. “Woke up in another lifetime, it’s a shame it’s just not right now.”

Telekinesis, “Coast of Carolina”

James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

3 thoughts on “Woke Up In Another Lifetime

  1. Heavy! Thanks for illuminating. I’ve always had a soft spot for JT (not to the point of actually owning any of his records, though this post might make me rethink that).

    Lester Bangs meant well of course. And I have a feeling he’d be willing to rethink his knee-jerk today as well.

    Not sure I’m seeing the Telekinesis connection. But I do find Bon Iver stirring.

  2. i got into james taylor via carole king & carly simon and the “random notes” gossip section of rolling stone magazine.
    “your smiling face”, “handy man” and his cover of king’s “up on a roof” were the radio singles that got me to purchase my first JT LP.
    in the gatefold photos he was all new york-y, SNL black & white grooviness candid in the studio w/ his wife carly simon, danny kotchmar, russel kunkel, leland sklar & producer peter asher.
    i recognized the long-haired, designer jeaned players from other albums, and as part of a “sound”.
    i loved james taylor’s affectless vocal style,
    with the hard Rs “like the beach boys”, he said.
    the lyrics were preppy & cinematic: they described the star’s life in grim humor and real, fabulous STYLE.
    that’s what we forget about james taylor when we remember the icon w/the beard & the guitar.
    like his celebrated wife, james taylor defined a moment and a sound and a look that fit the 70s like a glove.
    he should have done more GQ covers!

  3. Many, many artists have inccurred a similar dismissal from my younger, judgmental tastes. But, alas, Taylor was always spared. I remember lying down on the lawn of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with Taylor covering a plausible cover of the Drifter’s “Up on the Roof.” I knew it was cheesy then, but it worked its magic.

    Funny how Taylor seems so inaccessible personally, but his music so universal. His onstage banter during the Troubadour tour sounded like he was reading cue cards. And yet, the soulfulness of the music transcends.

    ps: But don’t be so hard on your “kid”. no shame in the joy derived from the Troggs….

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