After telling me I needed to get my ears examined, a reader responded to my criticism of the weak lyrics in Love’s Forever Changes by arguing, “And rock lyrics should hardly be used as a measuring stick. Most of them don’t make sense. This isn’t poetry.”
Man, if that’s true, Elvis Costello is fucked.
Although he has varied sound and style over the years, Elvis Costello’s music has never qualified as groundbreaking or original. There is certainly nothing new about the music on My Aim Is True—it’s largely derived from that period of rock ‘n’ roll between Buddy Holly and The Kingsmen, a sound that harkens back to Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the girl groups. His highly-Americanized singing voice defines the phrase “barely adequate,” and if there’s a list of great vocalists somewhere with Elvis Costello’s name on it, you are more than justified to refer to that list as “fake news.”
I wouldn’t say that the lyrics are the only reason to listen to Elvis Costello, but they certainly are the main attraction. The sheer diversity of his lyrics is impressive, the consistent quality over the years even more so. But I would argue that the most important aspect of Elvis Costello’s lyrics is that they are firmly grounded in the structures and vernacular of popular music, and despite the bias associated with the label “popular,” qualify as poetry by every definition of the word:
- Merriam Webster: “Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”
- Dictionary.com: “The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”
- O. E. D: “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”
While not all popular music qualifies as poetry, the field should not be automatically excluded from poetic consideration simply because it’s music for the masses and sells like hotcakes. No one can convince me that some of the great songs written by Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello (and others) fail to meet the standard of “concentrated imaginative awareness of experience” or fall short of creating “a specific, emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.” And hey, didn’t a guy with several Top 20 hits just win the Nobel Fucking Prize for Literature?
The reader cited above is fully correct in saying that most rock lyrics don’t make much sense. Whether that’s because most rock music lyricists slept through English class or formed the belief that poetry is something highfalutin’ and not a good fit for the base motivations (i. e., sexual drive) of rock ‘n’ roll is up for debate. I personally think it’s because writing great lyrics is hard work and most rockers did in fact sleep through English Lit when they couldn’t figure out a way to cut class.
Someday I’d like to participate in a debate based on this proposition: “Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ meets the established criteria of a poetical work.” I would take the side supporting that resolution, arguing that “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bom-bom!” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia that creates a tremendous emotional and carnal response.
Back to Declan Patrick MacManus aka Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True demonstrates that he was way ahead of the pack from the get-go in terms of lyrical content. The songs on this début album form a series of everyday experiences written in common language packed with wit, intellect and insight. Given that this was his maiden voyage, there are indeed a few misses where he struggled to tell a coherent story or fell in love with words without imbuing them with much in the way of meaning. And though his voice falls short of the standards set by guys like Presley, Holly, McCartney, Lennon and Daltrey, it’s an earnest voice awash with the delight that comes from singing your heart out to the sound and feel of rock ‘n’ roll.
Clocking in at an impressive one minute and twenty-three seconds, “Welcome to the Working Week” is a sterling example of poetic economy and versatility. The first verse is presented musically as a preamble, rather like the opening passage of Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” with spare music and no rhythmic support until the shift to a girl-group style rhythm played at high speed. Elvis seems to talking to the pop star of the day featured in the morning paper, and the first line serves as the perfect introduction to his career as a songwriter: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired.” There are two aspects of that line that make it absolutely marvelous: the cleverness of the euphemism for jacking off, and the so very human tendency to speak aloud to images of people in newspapers, magazines or television as if they could actually hear us. Before I cleansed myself of the American experience, I spent hours in front of the television screaming and swearing at images of Trump, and never once thought of myself as insane. The point isn’t to communicate (even this blonde knew that Trump couldn’t actually hear me), it’s to release the outrage provoked by the fact that some worthless piece of shit is getting completely undeserved attention. Elvis Costello spent seven long years in obscurity before breaking through, so I would imagine he felt miffed whenever a no-talent loser usurped his rightful place . . . hence the last line of the verse, “All you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why?” After that outburst (accentuated by the high-speed shift), he flips the subject matter of the conversation to himself and his dreary reality:
Welcome to the working week
Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you
Welcome to the working week
You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it
In the two remaining verses, he calls up two other unsatisfying relationships, most likely with work colleagues: one the type who straddles the line between working class pride and resentment while naïvely waiting for the “big day” that will justify his sense of entitlement; the other one of those people who’s always talking out his ass. The last line is marked by a marvelous metaphor (“Why d’you want to be my friend when I feel like a juggler running out of hands?”), reinforcing the sense of manic frustration experienced by a guy with a day job and a musical career, wondering when his “big day” is coming. Hired backing band The Clovers perform their work with due professionalism, contributing harmonies and keeping the beat, fully embracing their supporting role.
“Miracle Man” is a mid-tempo rocker dedicated to an art in which I am fully versed: female domination. First, let’s get a clear picture of the scene:
Baby’s gotta have the things she wants
You know she’s gotta have the things she loves
She’s got a ten-inch bamboo cigarette holder
And her black patent leather gloves
And I’m doing everything just tryin’ to please her
Even crawling around on all fours
Oh, I thought by now that it was gonna be easy
But she still seems to want for more
Why do you have to say there there’s always someone
Who can do it better than I can?
But don’t you think that I know that walking on the water
Won’t make me a miracle man?
Clues scattered throughout the song point to a professional dominatrix: “I could tell by the nights when I was lonely/And you were the only one who’d come” implies a woman who understands the connection between profit and responsive customer service; while “Never given you a bad reputation” indicates she is deeply concerned about the 70’s equivalent of a Yelp score. If this is the case, the male customer is naïve in the extreme to believe he can impress this bitch and flat-out stupid to complain that she’s delivering humiliation as advertised. It’s what you fucking paid for, you moron! Talk about “looking for love in all the wrong places!”
And I think that’s the point: the human search for love in our modern world is fraught with confused motivations and misunderstandings. The guy seems to be attracted to powerful women, but cultural indoctrination has given us men who are obsessed with achievement through action. He tries to have both and winds up with nothing but skinned knees and a sore ass. It also seems to escape him that he’s dealing with an actress, a person paid to play a role, and that professional boundaries require her to not cross the line and engage in personal interactions. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether he’s a miracle man or not, and that understandable indifference is what really damages his ego. In the end, he is the agent of his own humiliation.
Self-Justifying Editorial Note: Though I am a dominant in sexual matters, I don’t believe in humiliation. Making whoopee with a partner who believes they’re a worthless piece of shit isn’t my idea of a good time. What I do is clear out the other person’s bullshit so they know who they are, what they want and what they don’t want.
The first impression on hearing “No Dancing” is “Shangri-Las,” as both music and narrative sync with the teenage angst-ridden music of the revered girl group. Once again we are faced with a young man with a confidence problem who inflates his literary knowledge (“Once he glanced at the jackets of some paperbacks/Now he’s read everyone”) and can’t figure out why everyone winds up considering him a certifiable loser (“Why can’t you give me anythin’ but sympathy?” he asks the latest in a long line of girls who have made a fool of him). Costello defines his problem as “everybody has to feel his pain,” a strategy unlikely to achieve long-term happiness—sympathy is ephemeral, and because “he’s so strange,” it’s hard for anyone to work up some empathy for him. Although not as strong as some of the other pieces on the album, “No Dancing” reinforces one overriding theme of the album: interpersonal awkwardness. If you don’t think that’s a particularly noteworthy theme, I would draw your attention to the incels of today who murder women because of their own lack of interpersonal competence, giving off vibes that are usually labeled “strange” and “weird.” Those harsh judgments reinforce their sense of isolation, increasing the desire for revenge against the women who reject them.
“Blame It on Cain” is about a man who does threaten violence, in this case against government, big business or any convenient abstract power he can blame for his troubles. The poetry isn’t as tight or impactful until we get to the last verse, where we find another link to the difficulties we face in the world today:
I think I’ve lived a little too long on the outskirts of town
I think I’m going insane from talking to myself for so long
Oh, but I’ve never been accused
When they step on your face, then wear that good-look grin
I gotta break out one weekend before I do somebody in
But every single time I feel a little stronger
They tell me it’s a crime, well, how much longer?
The “lone nut” gunman is hardly alone; he has thousands of sick compatriots hiding in those outskirts. One consistent trait of people (usually men) who shoot up workplaces, shopping malls and mosques is the inability to accept responsibility for their actions. They might as well “blame it on Cain” as anyone else, but the one thing they’re not going to do is look inside for the real culprit. The final chilling line, “But it just seems to be his turn,” is his way of giving himself another out by writing off murder to the laws of chance. The light, loping, smoky bar music adds to the casual cruelty of it all.
“Alison” has provoked more commentary than any other Elvis Costello song, the controversy centering on whether or not the story is a murder ballad, a suicide pact of sorts or a jilted lover taking Alison’s life without permission as a noble gesture to relieve her from the existential pain of a loveless marriage. Songfacts has promoted the murder ballad theme, telling readers, “In this tale of unrequited love, ‘My aim is true’ does not imply pure intentions; it means he wants to kill her.” In his defense and in his autobiography, Costello asserted, “I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.”
I believe Elvis Costello, not because I have any personal knowledge of his character, but because the lyrics completely support his version of the story. “My aim is true” is a phrase of long standing, meant to convey that the speaker is both sincere and trustworthy. The guy in this case is trying to get her back, marriage vows be damned, because he has convinced himself she is in misery.
Alison is silent on the matter, and that’s what’s important. This is a dramatic monologue, and we are only hearing his side of the story. That simple structural choice makes it clear that the focus here is on the male urge to rescue the damsel in distress, and in this case, it’s the male ego’s inability to accept rejection that drives his rescue efforts. For all we know, Alison is perfectly happy in her new life—she hasn’t described her husband as a loser, her annoying ex-boyfriend who can’t fucking grow up did that!
The real mystery here is whether or not Elvis Costello was self-aware enough to recognize what was perhaps his own need to play the hero. His description of the woman who inspired “Alison” would argue against self-awareness—he wanted to save the girl at the supermarket from what HE considered to be a meaningless life. Like the lead character in the song, no one asked her how she felt, including the scene’s observer. The debate about “Alison” is mis-directed: we should be talking about whether Elvis Costello should face charges of unconscious sexism or get credit for exceptional empathy and perceptiveness.
p. s. I do like the rather sweet and sad music.
p. s. s. The phrase “my aim is true” has now been co-opted by gun nuts in the United States as part of a prayer in preparation for the Second Civil War. I found this quote on a Pinterest picture with an image of an assault rifle in dead center: “Lord, make me fast and accurate, let my aim be true and my hand faster than those who would seek to destroy me. Grant me victory over my foes and those that wish to do harm to me and mine.” No, I won’t share the fucking link because these assholes get more than enough attention as it is.
“Sneaky Feelings” clears the air a bit with its snappy beat and refreshing burst of self-awareness. The narrator questions the curious expectation that lovers avoid telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth but instead serve up a menu of “white lies, alibis.” Although he’s been conditioned to hide the sneaky feelings inside, he does tell the girl, “I’d like to get right through the way I feel for you/But I’ve still got a long way to go.” I can accept that—anything’s better than bullshit!
The jangly guitar led the band members to call “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” the “Byrds song,” though it’s hard to imagine that band doing a song like this. Written in ten minutes while riding a train to Liverpool, this yet-another rejection song is certainly catchy but features a story line that is more than a little overwrought. The narrator is apparently a dancing machine (hence the reference to the red shoes of the gruesome Andersen tale), but he gives them up in a bargain with angels whose wings have rusted; in return they grant him immortality. Uh-huh. He then watches helplessly as his girl, completely unimpressed with this ageless wonder, dances away with another guy after telling the him to “drop dead.” Uh-huh. And the point is? Not one of his best.
The strongest song on the album from a musical perspective is “Less Than Zero,” with verses and chorus set to a slightly syncopated “La Bamba” chord pattern and beat. The “hey . . . hey-yay” refrain is a delight to sing and Elvis moves from the almost mumbled verses and bridge to deliver that refrain with cool, full-throated delight. In the United States, where news about what’s happening in the rest of the world is generally ignored by the press unless there’s a disaster involving American deaths, people assumed that the song had something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald rather than the infamous leader of the British fascists, Oswald Mosley. Costello would later accommodate American ethnocentricity by rewriting the lyrics to include references to Lee Harvey, with mixed results (the opening scene where the wife of a secret service agent is giving her lover head while watching the motorcade on live TV is both ludicrous and historically impossible). Now that the world faces a new generation of fascist leaders, the original holds up much better, particularly in exposing the role the media (in this case, the BBC) plays in normalizing politicians who preach hatred:
Oswald and his sister are doing it again
They’ve got the finest home movies that you have ever seen
They’ve got a thousand variations, every service with a smile
They’re gonna take a little break, and they’ll be back after a while
Well, I hear that South America is coming into style
That last line perfectly captures what I hear from my American friends who have recently become a bit more frantic and diligent about getting the fuck out of the country. “I can’t marry all of you,” I reply with regret.
We return to the theme of awkward and insecure relations with one of the few songs in rock that speak honestly and openly about the ultimate awkward moment: the first-time sexual experience. Richard Thompson would cover the topic in “Read About Love,” and like the narrator in that song, the guy in “Mystery Dance” enters the experience with false bravado and limited knowledge gleaned from the only training manuals available to him:
Well, I remember when the lights went out
And I was tryin’ to make it look like it was never in doubt
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew
So both of us were willing, but we didn’t know how to do it . . .
Well, I was down under the covers in the middle of the night
Tryin’ to discover my left foot from my right
You can see those pictures in any magazine
But what’s the use of looking when you don’t know what they mean?
In a genre that generally celebrates the pursuit and realization of sexual pleasure, it’s almost sacrilegious to find a couplet like this in a rock ‘n’ roll song: “Cause I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I’m still mystified/I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied.” Although “Mystery Dance” will never make its way onto one of my fuck playlists, I can’t deny its essential truthfulness: the first time sucks! No one knows what the hell they’re doing the first time; the experience is one of foreign sensations, muddled emotions and absurdly unrealistic expectations from a social dynamic that suppresses honest discussions about sex. Kudos to Elvis Costello for having . . . sorry, I can’t help myself . . . the balls to shine the light on cold reality.
“Pay It Back” is less than satisfying, as Costello never really defines the debt he wants to pay back or the motive behind the revenge he wants to wreak. The song is about struggling to find his identity, and the couplet, “And I tried so hard just to be myself/But I keep on fading away” pretty much describes his approach to the lyrics—he actually reveals very little about what’s behind the struggle. “I’m Not Angry” is equally uninteresting, a sort of in-his-head exposition of the cuckold who believes all is fair in love and war. It’s not as bad as Lennon’s “Run for Your Life,” but a pretty close second.
“Waiting for the End of the World” is more interesting and makes much more sense once you read what Costello said about the song in his autobiography: “‘Waiting for the End of the World’ turned a simple homeward journey on the Underground into a claustrophobic travelogue, pulling the hysteria out of newspaper headlines into everyday boredom of the commuter.” Scenes include: men going crazy when the train is stuck in a darkened tunnel, running up and down the aisles trying to grab as much tit as they can before the light reappears; the self-styled guru who’s leaving for Spain with his faux insight and “his two-tone bible and his funny cigarettes/his suntan lotion and his castanets;” and the daily scandal involving an elopement of sorts. I love how he wraps that one up: “You may see them drowning as you stroll along the beach/But don’t throw out the lifeline till they’re clean out of reach.” I AM SO FUCKING SICK OF CELEBRITY ROMANCE! WHO GIVES A SHIT?
The original British version ends there, but because Americans didn’t have the archaic rules about no singles on albums, those on the other side of the Atlantic were treated to “Watching the Detectives” as the closing act. The key to understanding what’s going on here is a simple truth: most people who watch television spend a lot of time not watching television. In addition to the individual internal dialogues raging in each viewer’s head, there are truncated conversations, getting up to grab something to eat or drink or (in this case) intense frustration that your partner wants to watch a stupid fucking detective show when you really want to get her in the sack. The narrator’s attention fades in and out, but his hyperactive mind manages to catch most of what’s happening on the screen and, most importantly, the sheer immorality of it all—the exploitation of the power of violent scenes to trigger the thrill of fear, and the nonchalant indifference to yet another stiff dressed in cement galoshes:
Long shot at that jumping sign
Invisible shivers running down my spine
Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close-up of the sign that says “We never close”
He snatches at you and you match his cigarette
She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet
I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake
The last line refers to his love interest, the one who’s been squealing “he’s so cute” when the heart-throb detective gets a close-up. This was the 70’s, so I hope she didn’t think murderous loser Robert Blake was cute . . . Telly Savalas maybe? Before or after the switch from cigarettes to Tootsie Pops? Michael Douglas? James Garner perhaps. Not Mike Connors—too tough to qualify as cute. Steve McGarrett was the absolute opposite of cute. I know—it has to be Kevin Dobson! Yeah, Bobby Crocker! He wasn’t much of an actor, but he was cute.
I hope you people appreciate the extensive research I have done in the field of American pop culture.
“Waiting for the Detectives” is also the musical highlight of the album, with its Hitchcockian noir reggae feel. The Clovers sat this one out, handing over the supporting roles to Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar from The Rumour. What really makes the song is the piano overdubs added by Steve Nieve, his distorted chords rushing the beat to create an exciting build to highlight the “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot” passage in the chorus.
Elvis Costello’s music would get a lot tighter once The Attractions settled into place, for continuity does make a difference (assuming the group dynamics aren’t toxic). What is important about My Aim Is True is that he carved out a niche as one of the few rockers of his time to devote time and effort to the words. Sure—there are songs where the words don’t matter as much as the rhythm, harmony or melody, but even on those songs, using the wrong words—words that are out-of-place or words that fail to create euphony—can be disastrous. Imagine if Ray Davies had decided to vary the chorus of “You Really Got Me” instead of just repeating that essential line three times: “You really got me/I’ll have you for tea/And then we shall see.” Utter disaster.
Words do matter, and I thank Elvis Costello from the bottom of my heart for consistently reminding us that they do.
The standard narrative concerning Cream focuses almost entirely on four themes:
- Their status as a “supergroup”
- The oil-and-water relationship of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker
- The integration of “psychedelic” and “traditional blues”
- The instrumental prowess of the band members
The first is a marketing tactic. The second provides gossip fodder and one cause of the band’s early demise. The third is valid, but they certainly weren’t unique in that respect (see Hendrix, Jimi and Bloomfield, Michael). And yes, they were all great musicians, but putting together a team loaded with stars doesn’t guarantee success, as many a former baseball GM has learned after pissing away millions on overrated prima donnas. “Bands consisting solely of John Lennons miss the point: every group needs a Ringo,” opined The Guardian.
The Baker-Bruce feud and Clapton’s inability to stay in any one place for very long put Cream in self-destruct mode from the very beginning, so we should be very happy that during their brief time together they managed to produce three fabulous albums and neither Jack Bruce nor Ginger Baker were arraigned on murder charges. To get three great albums and no jail time from a group consisting entirely of John Lennons was a worthy achievement.
My problem with the standard narrative is that it doesn’t explain what separated Cream from their contemporaries and why they sound different from the rest. When I listen to Cream, I’m knocked out by Ginger Baker’s octopus attack, by Jack Bruce’s often scintillating bass runs and Clapton’s complete command of his instrument, but I’ve been conditioned to expect all that. For me, what really stands out and makes their sound unique has nothing to do with instrumental virtuosity.
It’s the vocals.
Without delving into music theory and boring the fuck out of my readers, we’ll simplify things by thinking of harmony as falling into two categories: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical harmony results from the “pleasing proportion of the parts of a thing.” The best example of symmetrical harmony is Lennon and McCartney; the timbre of their voices blend exceptionally well. Complementary harmony places more value on contrast, allowing each voice to retain its distinct quality in the hope that the contrast itself will produce a pleasing effect. With Cream, Jack Bruce’s superior command of the lead vocal role frequently forced Clapton out of his rather pedestrian natural voice and into various forms of falsetto. The two voices don’t blend per se, but complement each other by heightening the contrast.
The opening track on the American edition demonstrates the value of harmonic contrast in multiple ways. “I Feel Free” is a pretty simple song based on the scale resulting from an E7 chord (the key of E with the seventh note flatted, so you use D instead of the leading tone of Eb). The relative simplicity allows for plenty of vocal play, and in the opening passage we hear three voices, with Clapton and Baker establishing the rhythm (bom-bom-bom-ba-bom-bom and the repetition of “I feel free”) and Jack Bruce foreshadowing the melody through some of the sexiest humming you’ll ever hear on record. After Ginger cues the song proper with a few whacks on the toms, we get the mysteriously alluring vocal combination of Clapton and Bruce with tones softened, launching the melody from the flatted seventh to give the pattern an exotic flavor. The lyrics to this passage (“Feel when I dance with you/We move like the sea/You, you’re all I want to know/I feel free”) demanded harmony with a moderately erotic feel, and the Bruce-Clapton pairing delivered big time.
Alas, love is but an island refuge in a cold society, and to intensify that contrast, Cream clears the decks by abruptly terminating the flowing rhythm with a stop-time passage supported by a piano that mimics the sound and cadence of a news bulletin. When Bruce makes his entrance, he seems suspended from the soundscape, a man alone crying out desperately for evidence of humanity in the mechanical flow of daily life:
I can walk down the street, there’s no one there
Though the pavements are one huge crowd.
I can drive down the road; my eyes don’t see,
Though my mind wants to cry out loud.
The transition back to the base arrangement is absolutely brilliant, with Clapton overlaying his falsetto voice with his “Woman Tone” on lead guitar, adding another pattern on top of the original vocal harmonies. As the song proceeds, Cream continues to layer additional harmonic variations, resulting in an astonishingly rich arrangement that beautifully supports Pete Brown’s poetry.
Because of silly British traditions that effectively banned singles from appearing on albums during the 60’s, “I Feel Free” is not the opening track on the U. K. edition. Instead, we get the rather piecemeal arrangement of “N. S. U.” The title abbreviation of “non-specific urethritis,” a sexually-transmitted disease most frequently acquired by bonking or tonguing a broad whose juices are swimming with chlamydia bacteria. Apparently, Clapton picked it up as part of the usual trials and tribulations of rock stardom and Jack Bruce thought it would make for an interesting song title.
The Sixties. You had to be there.
The lyrics contain nothing about burning sensations when pissing or unhealthy white discharge oozing from the peephole where healthy white discharges often emanate. The song is an expression of the frantic desire to experience all the pleasures life has to offer, which I suppose is how you get N. S. U in the first place. Compared to the tight integration and holistic arrangement of “I Feel Free,” this one fails to blend the individual talents in a satisfying degree, and as an opening track it’s a more-than-questionable choice.
“Sleepy Time Time” is Cream’s contribution to the barely budding sub-sub-sub-genre of “sleep music.” It isn’t nearly as interesting or inventive as The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” but these two 1966 records demonstrate the Dylan-influenced movement to explore subjects other than boy-girl romantic encounters. Written by Jack Bruce and wife Janet Godfrey, the piece is primarily an opportunity for Clapton to demonstrate his blues chops, but Baker and Bruce do provide solid rhythmic support and while Jack wrings every bit of feeling out of the rather uninspiring lyrics.
Our next Bruce number has a more interesting melodic and harmonic structure, but “Dreaming” suffers from the juxtaposition to a sleep song and awkward lyrics that don’t sound easy on the ears. “Minutes just dri-ift by” violate the fundamental truth that the short “i” phoneme (ɪ) is generally incompatible with elongation, a problem that could have easily been solved by any number of synonyms: glide, slide, float, sail . . . shit, even “mosey” would have been a better choice. I do rather like the call-and-response leading to the harmonic melding on the verses, but I think the melodic movement and waltz-time would have been better supported by piano than the guitar-bass-drums mix.
“Sweet Wine” resulted from a collaboration between Janet Godfrey and Ginger Baker, which I hope didn’t lead to a punch-up in the studio. This has long been a popular choice of Cream fans, in part due to its assertive opening vocal pattern, and in part due to the extended instrumental section where Clapton lets it rip. Ginger Baker is outstanding here, displaying both touch and power while remaining in full command of the multiple tempos. Still, the fragment that sticks in your memory is the ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba vocal passage, further evidence that much of what made Cream distinctive had to do with their comparatively unusual vocal arrangements.
Though the live version of “Spoonful” that appears on Wheels of Fire provides greater improvisational opportunities due to the additional ten minutes of jam time, the studio version is more than pedestrian, featuring the same hip-thrusting, erotic punctuation you hear in the live version, albeit in smaller doses. I have both versions on my fuck playlists, using the studio version during the foreplay period and the live version for the scratching, biting, slapping, heaving, coming like a waterfall phase. Clapton’s studio solo qualifies as “pretty fucking hot,” and his integration of semi-random low-note sustains with mid-to-high range bursts is the musical equivalent of a lover capable of a multi-pronged erotic attack.
While Cream gets an A+ for that Willie Dixon piece (Howlin’ Wolf’s version earns a C), the results of the four blues covers on that open Side Two yield less impressive results. Cream’s version of “Cat’s Squirrel” sounds like they were just going through the motions; compared to the Tull version, it feels somewhat uptight and lacking in playfulness. As I’ve mentioned oh, about a hundred times over the years, nobody can do Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson, and Clapton’s version of “Four Until Late” barely qualifies as a decent late-night sing along after most of the party-goers have split the scene. Their version of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” is bloody awful, with Jack Bruce adopting a strange patois somewhere between toothless blues guy and Jamaican drunk.
It’s much more difficult to comparatively evaluate the fourth blues cover (“I’m So Glad”) because the differences between the Skip James original and the Cream version can only be measured in light years, and the differences extend far beyond the obvious fact that Skip James was one guy with a guitar recorded through seriously limited recording technology. Skip James’ version is an incredibly moving lament, a dramatic monologue of a man struggling with the ambivalent signals from his love interest and attempting to find refuge in denial of his true emotions; his efforts are doomed to fail and he knows it. Instead of trying to mimic the original, Cream wisely shifts the perspective from personal anguish to the anguish that arises from living in an other-directed society where you have to keep up appearances. While it seems that Skip James was trying to convince himself that everything was all right, Jack Bruce’s repetition of “I’m so glad” sounds like he’s trying to convince others (perhaps the girl, perhaps his friends) that he’s got it handled. The haunting voices of others and their judgments are mirrored in the eerie background vocals that accompany the verses; while Jack mumbles to himself, he “hears” the voices of judgment in the background. Though Cream’s version follows (for the most part) the same chord structure as the original, the vocal arrangement adds an entirely different dimension to the interpretation. Any comparison is meaningless; the two versions might as well be completely different songs.
Fresh Cream ends with Ginger Baker’s signature number, “Toad.” Forget about it and go straight to Wheels of Fire for the real version.
I was hardly surprised to learn that Rolling Stone ranked Fresh Cream #101 on their 500 greatest albums list, since Baby Boomers tend to overrate nearly everything that came out during their formative years. I would label it “a solid début portending great things in the future,” but there’s way too much filler to justify such a lofty ranking. What Fresh Cream tells us is this: that the band members proved they were top-flight musicians who could put their differences aside in the name of professionalism; that they were more successful than most in the melding of traditional forms with modern sounds; and that their approach to vocal arrangements was an unexpected strength that clearly separated them from their contemporaries.
Not a bad start for an experiment doomed to fail . . . but those three albums were worth the strain.