A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 3: The 60s

I know. Somewhere along the line, someone is gonna get all up in my shit about skipping Elvis. “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” they’ll say. Here’s the thing with kings though: every king I can think of was one kind of sonofabitch or another (to paraphrase Captain Malcolm Reynolds) and Elvis is no exception. Sure, he had a nice voice and he did a lot to bring rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream, but I don’t classify him as awesome and that’s my right. If I’m gonna talk about an awesome guy who passed through Sun Records, I’m gonna talk about Johnny Cash, whose voice I like better and whose At Folsom Prison is one of the finest American albums ever recorded. Cash, a Christian, often referred to himself as one of the biggest sinners of all time and he probably wasn’t just fishing for compliments – he did tons of drugs, womanized, and even set fire (well, his truck did) to the Los Padres National Forest. But, if you dig redemption, please note that Cash ended up being the poster boy for Aging Gracefully, enjoying a much-deserved career rebirth in the 1990s and early 2000s with his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series, which featured intimate performances of classic Cash tunes as well as straight-outta-left-field cover songs (Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and, of course, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails) and totally predictably awesome cover songs (Tom Waits’s “Down There by the Train” and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See A Darkness”). Cash’s mark on American music was so large that it reached across the Atlantic a bit – Joe Strummer’s “Long Shadow,” (from his last album, Streetcore) was originally written for/about Johnny Cash and the two recorded a version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that is only slightly less amazing than Strummer’s solo version (also on Streetcore).

Since we’re on the 1960s, can I just say Bob Dylan and be done with it? What can I add to the conversation about Robert Zimmerman that you don’t already know? He was, apparently reluctantly, the voice of his generation (he claims he wasn’t, but your generation decides if you are. Are you getting this, Kanye West? You don’t get to declare yourself the voice of your generation. And, with whatever respect is due to Kanye, Craig Finn and Jarvis Cocker are leading the sweepstakes for Voice of My Generation), for whatever that’s worth. More importantly, he crafted two of the most essential albums in the history of American music, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blood on the Tracks (1974), helped introduce The Band to the world (I’m not mentioning them much in my history because they were mostly Canadian, though their influence is clearly heard in bands like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses), and had the good grace to admit that Jimi Hendrix’s version of his “All Along the Watchtower” was the definitive version of that song (much the same way I imagine Bob Marley would feel about Joe Strummer’s cover of “Redemption Song”). If someone asks you to tell them about Bob Dylan’s place in music history, just say, “Bob Dylan!” and hand them a copy of Highway 61 Revisited. They’ll either get it or they won’t. And if someone is all, “But his voice is so bad,” then you look ’em in the eye and point out that the times required nothing less than a strident, nasally voice to do what Dylan did. If he sounded like Frank Sinatra, nobody would give a shit about “Desolation Row,” and that would be tragic (although not as tragic as My Chemical Romance’s cover of that song for the Watchmen soundtrack. I believe it is legal to assault that band for their rape of the best Bob Dylan song ever). Dylan started out politically provocative and, when the politicos got all dogmatic, he became a merry prankster, pointing out the hypocrisies of those in power and those who sought power (see “Positively 4th Street” and “Idiot Wind” for examples of this). Of course, he hasn’t aged as gracefully as Johnny Cash did, but aging gracefully is hard in music.

Since Bob Dylan was nice enough to acknowledge Jimi Hendrix’s superiority regarding “All Along the Watchtower,” allow me to acknowledge his superiority regarding the playing of the electric guitar. Hendrix lived two years longer than Charlie Christian and in his paltry 27 years, he recorded some of the most badass guitar music ever recorded. Listen to the original version of “Little Wing.”  It’s two and a half minutes long and it’s sublime. Often imitated and never duplicated, Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar what Coltrane did for the saxophone (if you know me, you know what weight I lend to such a statement) and he was a pretty great singer as well. He died young because of drugs, just like Billie Holiday and a bunch of other awesome people. I won’t tell you not to do drugs because what you do is your business, but drugs have killed plenty of talented people. You do the math.

Speaking of drugs, one of the best songs about drugs ever is “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. I know some people you might regard as (I hate this word) “hipsters” probably prattle on and on about how awesome the Velvet Underground was and how Lou Reed is possibly the coolest motherfucker ever, but here’s the thing: they might be right. The Velvet Underground inspired some amazing music that came later (like R.E.M.) and they wrote some amazing pop songs, most of which were about drugs or sex or murder or all three. They got their start as the house band at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966 and in 1967, they released The Velvet Underground and Nico which is rightly regarded as one of the best rock albums ever recorded. Tension between Lou Reed and John Cale (Cale’s approach to music is said to be more “experimental,” but I can’t really believe that in light of Reed’s solo album Metal Machine Music) eventually led to the end of the Velvet Underground. Both Reed and Cale went on to make some lovely solo music (Reed had a hit with a little song called “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is about cross-dressing. However, his finest solo hour in my mind is his cover of “This Magic Moment” for the Lost Highway soundtrack) and Reed went on to (probably)  bang David Bowie and/or Iggy Pop before (while?) marrying experimental/post-modern musician Laurie Anderson.

The sixties ended with some assassinations and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. To quote the Hold Steady, “The Seventies got heavy/ we woke up on bloody carpets/ got tangled up in gas lines/ and I guess that’s where it started.” In the seventies, bands like Kiss and Journey rose to prominence, along with raging jackholes like Ted Nugent. This is where cock-rock began, ladies and gentlemen.  But, as is always the case, there were some great and visionary Americans in the 70s determined to keep the flame of awesomeness burning bright. So instead of focusing on the insane world that would allow Ted Nugent any kind of public forum, we’ll talk about a young man named James Osterberg and a woman named Patricia Smith who were the true heroes of American music in the 1970s. And (giggidy) The Ramones.

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