by Clive James
IN THE few decades leading up to the year of our Lord 1,000, the imminent advent of the Millennium is said to have inspired a tumultuous brouhaha throughout Christendom. Judgement Day was at hand, the judge was about to step vengefully from his limousine, and a vast jockeying for position was taking place among the crowd. It was only to be expected that false Messiahs would show up one after the other and corner a piece of the action before the arrival of the McCoy blew their cover.

It was one of Europe's more trying times, and not until well along in the year 1,001 (there having already been some bloodletting over the question of whether the year 1,000 was the actual Millennium or merely the year after it) did the scene begin to cool out. It took nine hundred and seventy years to hot up again, but when it did it once again revealed the same two chief characteristics: a widespread belief in the end of the world, coupled with an ungovernable tendency to climb on the bandwagon of anybody with a Christ licence.

In this case the world was the world of rock music and the Messiahs were the new singer-songwriter geniuses getting themselves discovered every few months. The process continues. Every successful candidate for the post gets the identical hype, which must be sharply distinguished from the undignified wrap-up clamorously applied, in the olden days, to a similarly relentless succession of pop idols — Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Punky Febrile and the rest. This time the accent is on holiness, and the ideal applicant must have spent some time in the Wilderness, proving his dedication.

Buried in this notion at some profound level is the assumption that five years as a session guitarist or a hack hit-maker is a cast-iron qualification for writing lyrics. Arriving suddenly at centre-stage after this period of hardship and temptation, the chosen one pulls the twigs and burs out of his hair and kits up as the Redeemer: the image can now safely run the gamut from No Front At All (James Taylor) via Demonic Possession (Loudon Wainwrights III, IV and V) to Shoes With Wings.

For the following brief period of total acceptance, the patient may be found in a variety of attitudes. Densely encircled by a swarm of ecstatic journalists not otherwise noted for gullibility he may be discovered informing the world, with a voice like a mandrill on a skid-pan, that he doesn't eat meat because it's bad for his feet. Alternatively, he may be seen performing a finger tip-control horizontal mid-air press-up with no support except a grand piano. Most convincingly insidious of all, he will be found meticulously top-lit in a BBC studio while that old reliable crane-camera of Stanley Dorfman's comes sliding down to plumb the secrets of his gentle soul, the audience squats in concussed homage and the viewer desperately struggles to cut the humility with a sharp knife.

The last version of the image is the hardest to beat: deification by cathode tube makes even Labi Siffre into a rock writer, so it's no surprise that a good-looking hunk like Gordon Lightfoot gets well-nigh volatilised by his own sacred radiance. BBC 1 might give a man exposure, but BBC 2 gives him a positive nimbus. There's something almost awe-inspiring about the way those zoom-laden Marconis pay attention to Loudon Wainwright: you have to tip your hat to the magnitude with which things have gone wrong. Here's an individual from whom one demands nothing except a brief written apology for his pretensions and here's all these professional people swerving angelically about his visage with electronic adoring eyes. It's like watching a Conservative Party political broadcast or reading a Vietnam speech by Melvin Laird: you're deprived of the capacity for protest by the sheer, bare-faced incredibility of the gambit.

How we got into this bind is a question of some complexity. Briefly, I think, what happened was this. Right up to and out the far side of the middle Sixties we had what looked like a tradition — a tradition temporarily so fruitful that for the unthinking it seemed as if it didn't have much to do with individual talent. In fact, it was customary to call the music itself a movement, implying that it contained its own complete array of self-perpetuating values. Groups were paradigm societies. The emphasis was on describing what was happening, rather than criticising it.

Then, as we got near the turn of the decade, the tradition started wearing thin. Rock started producing its own plastic fakes, and the rock generation (who had already been the rock 'n' roll generation and later the rock and roll generation, to use the now standard progression) found its solidarity challenged. The new wave of children coming up behind was falling for the fakes. The natural reaction of the older fans — adults by now — was to try to isolate and identify the true departure-points for inspiration in rock and demand that rock should in future be based on them.

One of the departure points they identified was the personalised lyric — necessarily a product of an individual talent. Unfortunately, for various reasons (most of them to do with the 'youth culture' ideology), they tried to make this move without developing any critical capacity whatsoever. Writers were to be valued for everything except their ability to write, and once again the tip-off word of Forties and Fifties schlock pop — Sincerity — rose into prominence. It was a perfect climate for Messiahs.

The fallacy, then as always, lay in the assumption that being descriptive was somehow a judgement. What we are suffering now is the inevitable consequence of avoiding the critical donkey-work back at rock's beginnings. It was never sufficiently brought out that Bob Dylan, for example, was a brilliant imagination but a wildly uneven craftsman.

As a result, we do not now have the critical capacity necessary to appreciate the writing of a man like Randy Newman, who has raised craftsmanship to the level at which it induces its own emotion.

We're in the curious position of being unable to admire him properly. Cream journalists have done more than anybody else to examine the way writers write, but even in this magazine's excellent treatment of Newman you will find it assumed that his humour is an end, rather than a means. In a later article I'll try to analyse Newman's virtuoso control of ironic language, and I was never more convinced that a self-imposed critical job needed to be done. We just can't go on with a situation in which so good a writer's most subtle effects are undervalued. The slack-mouthed vocabulary of inarticulate approval will no longer do. If a latter-phase Neil Young lyric turns somebody on in the same way that a Randy Newman lyric turns him on, then he hasn't understood Newman's writing for a single stanza. It would be better, if such a case continues to be typical, to leave rock to itself and start calling Newman's work something else.

Neither was it sufficiently brought out — although Charlie Gillett tried — that the Beatles, when still united, were masters of cliché. We are now faced with writers who are slaves of cliché and asked to admire them in the same way, a contretemps viciously compounded by the fact that three of the new writers were once Beatles themselves.

Again the culprit is the assumption that description is judgement. The joyful noise of the early Lennon is compared with the social concern of the later Lennon and it is decided that a deepening of personality has taken place. In Lennon's private life this is very probably true, but in his public life as a writer there has been no such progress: quite the reverse.

The Beatles songs were unapproached for their handling of language: for the vitality of the way the words were chosen and treated, there had been nothing like them since Burns. A Beatles song was a celebration of the common speech — it could take a well-worn phrase and make it new again. An ex-Beatle's song typically takes some recent slogan and transforms it instantly into a limping wreck. But as long as the focus is on social concern instead of on real content (i.e., as long as the writer's scheme of beliefs is assumed to be the content) the total awfulness of a song like Harrison's 'Bangla Desh' will not be recognised. Saying this does not make me an agent for Pakistani foreign policy, or any less of an admirer of Harrison's stable and selfless personality. It is merely to insist that a work of art must be true to an event, not just in its attitude but in the quality of its making.

The Beatles are at the storm-centre of our mental confusion, and at a later date I'll be trying to go into the problem in detail, but at the moment all that needs to be said is that the artistic fragmentation of the later Beatles can't be understood if the true wealth of their early achievement isn't appreciated — and that we can't appreciate that kind of abundance without paying attention to the way they wrote.

With supergroups like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young breaking up into individual money-making packages, each as lucrative as the host unit, the rock culture was presented with an economic fact which it was invited to interpret in aesthetic terms.

We got a chain of events which can usefully be called the Second Album syndrome, although sometimes it takes three or even four albums before the record buying public get jerry to the fact that the genius is not only failing to set new standards but can't even be bothered maintaining his old ones. But since the standards were never properly articulated in the first instance, they're difficult to apply later on, and the Second Album syndrome customarily takes place in a steadily deepening silence, automatic indifference gradually substituting itself for automatic praise. Criticism hardly comes into it. Yet all that was required for a true estimate of the first Stills album (let alone the second) was an accurate assessment of the writing skill he was deploying in the Buffalo Springfield days. And as for Young, the resonant density of an early song like 'Broken Arrow' amply criticises the thinness of his later work — a thinness that is by now becoming diaphanous.

The artistic collapse of Crosby was the inescapable result of his neglecting to refine his considerable talent for language. Basic to the professional suicide committed by all these men was the gormless complicity of a rock culture still determined to believe, in the face of teetering slag-heaps of contrary evidence, that the participation of heavy sidemen like Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton somehow makes an ill-considered song better instead of worse.

A thorough critical history of CSN&Y, from the proto-groups through the super-group to the latterday troubadors, will need to take account of the fact that their true creativity came to an end at roughly the same time their Sound reached perfection. It's when the focus moves off the Song and onto the Sound that the criticism of rock goes haywire, largely because the number of contributory variables is hugely increased.

At the two ends of the spectrum are the song so vital it can survive naked and the lavishly presented pseudo-song that has no reason-for-being except its own production values. In this gorgeously painted desert we could die of thirst unless we realise that the water is down deep and has to be dug for.

The question of the Sound/Song relationship is complex but unavoidable. Either we do something about starting to answer it or rock will go under. With no critical feedback reaching the artist, his tendency to quick decline can only be accelerated.

What's happening to The Band is a salient example. Robbie Robertson's lyrics on the second Band album were among the high points of modern songwriting: the superb sound was their powerful servant. On Stage Fright the sound was already becoming the powerless master, and on Cahoots the sad process is completed. There was never, at any stage, a convincing attempt to analyse the brilliance of Robertson's earlier writing, with the consequence that he wasn't even decently praised for it.

Is it any wonder, then, that this brilliance immediately began to subside? It's a nightmare prospect: thousands of Band fans listlessly playing Cahoots and wondering aphasically what's missing, not realising that what's missing is missing partly because they failed to notice it when it was there.

All these questions will have to be considered, but in an atmosphere of gratitude rather than of denigration. The song is alive again in a way that it never was since Holy Willie stifled Burns. For decades there were only the hard-bitten, beautiful loners — the tough men of Hollywood and Broadway who lit their few clear lamps in a haze of insincerity.

Since the rock breakthrough we have had the greatest opportunities for creativity the form has ever known. But opportunities are not actualities, and we need a clearer account of what has been achieved. A man truly serious about rock's future must be ready for the youth culture to collapse: conformity, no matter what its principles, can live only for its term.

This is where a man like Randy Newman is central to our existence. If the age of mindless hostility should begin again, he is equipped to resist it, in the same way that when the age of mindless receptivity began to close around him he was equipped to resist that.

It was once believed that the excitement of rock lay in its evanescence. It's becoming increasingly evident that the real excitement lies in its permanence. From here on in, we build the stuff to last.

Cream, June 1972

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