I would love to live in a world where Annette Peacock was honored and celebrated as one of the greatest artists of our time. Sadly, the current state of affairs was captured in the title used for the re-release of one of her earlier efforts: I Belong to a World That’s Destroying Itself.
As I write this, the hands on the Doomsday clock have moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we’ve ever been to self-destruction.
We arrived at this point because our world is now controlled by authoritarians who tear up treaties, replace fact with misinformation and prey upon a host of human fears: fear of people who are “different,” fear of change, fear of learning anything outside one’s comfort zone. Authoritarian leaders exploit those self-destructive tendencies, for the weaker we are, the stronger they get. The irony is that history tells us authoritarian leaders are as self-destructive as their followers. Self-destruction is grounded in the fear of losing control, so self-destructive leaders want to control everything and everyone, an impossible task. Eventually, karma catches up with them, but not before they make the world miserable for everyone else.
These leaders know that the human Achilles heel has been and will always be our fetish with familiarity, as manifested in the twin desires to resist change and surround ourselves with people who are “like us.” This fetish represents the height of stupidity from an evolutionary standpoint. Species who fail to adapt to changing circumstances die, period. Authoritarian leaders focus the attention of the populace on the unchangeable past, encouraging them to view life through the gauze of nostalgia—a perspective that accelerates the process of self-destruction.
Most relevant to the subject of this week’s essay is the sad truth that people hell-bent on self-destruction have no interest in the arts beyond its commercial value (see Goering, Hermann, noted art collector and authoritarian toady). The arts represent the highest form of human endeavor, the quest for originality, the search for truth/beauty. Great art makes you think, feel and question. Authoritarians don’t want people to think, feel and question, so they create distractions to keep the populace in line—distractions that represent the lowest forms of human endeavor. War. Patriotism. Demonization. Fear. Superstition.
Self-destructive dynamics wreak havoc on all of us, but they are particularly problematic for the artist. While dysfunctional societies and inhuman behavior provide the artist with plenty of interesting material (and the opportunity to enlighten the populace about their suicidal tendencies), society’s quest for conformity devalues and demeans the artistic quest for original self-expression. While some artists have been punished for the crime of original thought, the more common response is the cold indifference grounded in the self-destructive society’s lack of curiosity. John Doran’s interview with Annette Peacock for The Quietus opened by describing her as a “stone-cold original,” then succinctly explains why she continues to toil in relative obscurity:
There’s often no prize for coming first in music. The preternaturally talented composer, ear-boggling singer, intuitive multi-instrumentalist, vocal manipulation innovator and pioneering synthesizer early adopter, Annette Peacock knows this more than most. During an interview she tells me that every time she makes an album she feels like it’s the right statement for the time but it turns out never to be the right statement for the market of the time. Markets are big amorphous, slow moving bodies that perhaps don’t always respond well to mercurial outlier innovation in music. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time but then it turns out I’ve been 20 to 40 years too early”, she says laughing.
That laugh may mask some disappointment, but as you read Annette’s responses in the interview, it becomes obvious that truth and artistic freedom are “sacrosanct” to her. Every artist seeks some form of validation, but the true artist refuses to allow creation to become dependent on validation.
The twisting road that eventually led to X-Dreams defies everything you thought you learned in The Byrds’ classic “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Annette released the album I’m the One back in 1972, an amazing, innovative record that the record-buying audience largely ignored but caught the attention of an RCA labelmate by the name of David Bowie. Bowie invited Annette to join the Aladdin Sane tour, a golden opportunity that she politely declined. Accepting the rebuff, Bowie arranged to have her sign with his management company, who placed her on the far back burner but gave her unlimited studio time she could use whenever inspiration struck. She described the recording process (if one can call it that) in a later interview with The Quietus:
The publisher provided free studio time and I began to use it. I’d brought a tape of a song ‘My Mother Never Taught Me How To Cook’ and I called Mick Ronson to overdub some guitar angst. A lot of musicians in London had heard that there were going to be sessions and just showed up. There ended up being 22 musicians in total on X-Dreams. Most of them had never played together, and all the tracks were first takes. It was very exciting.
Jeez—talk about ballsy! The guys on Kind of Blue had at least played together when Miles Davis challenged them with modality, and Miles did allow multiple takes. What she didn’t mention is that the recording and mixing sessions took place over a period of four years. 99 out of 100 producers would have labeled her approach “a complete waste of valuable studio time” and filed her away in the manila folder marked “Nutcase.”
But you know what? The album is damned exciting. The number of recording glitches is much smaller than one would expect in a series of first takes, and the level of musicianship is outstanding. Despite the lengthy, choppy recording “process,” the gestalt is one of unity, of shared inspiration. X-Dreams is a remarkably engaging record, a full-on aesthetic experience that confirms Annette Peacock’s stone-cold original status.
I’ve read several reviews of X-Dreams, some okay, some bloody awful and a few that cross the line into horny male obliviousness. What none of the critics (all male, by the way) seem to notice is that pesky little “X” in the album’s title. Now, I know this is going to hurt, but just for a minute, think back to your years in secondary education and try to remember a class called “Biology.” Somewhere in those unpleasant memories of Petri dishes, microscopes and flunking the weekly quiz there might be a scrap of an engram in your brain labeled “Mendel.” Yeah, yeah—the pea plant guy. Good! Now, do you remember how those pea plants led to at least one lecture on something called “Genetics?” That’s right—X’s and Y’s! You are a biology rockstar! Now, what do the X’s and Y’s mean? “Something about which kind of baby it is?” Yes, that’s right. And when the baby has two X chromosomes, what kind of baby is going to pop out of mommy?
No, not a boy. Girls have matching chromosomes X + X. That’s why girls are perfect. Boys don’t match, they’re X + Y. That’s why boys are defective and never match their socks with their shirts or their belts with their shoes. We should feel sorry for boys, and we would if they weren’t the authoritarian assholes mentioned above who are determined to send us all to early oblivion.
X-Dreams is an exploration of the dynamics in male-female relationships from a heterosexual woman’s point of view. From a lyrical standpoint, X-Dreams is a quest for understanding, an attempt to resolve the opposing drives (attraction/repulsion, love/cruelty, together/apart) that make the female-male relationship endlessly alluring and frustrating. “The idea with X-Dreams was to approach the LP as a single, like each side was one piece. Side A very hard and aggressive and Side B very romantic and kind of sweet, really,” asserted Annette, and while that may be true for the prevailing musical mood on each side, the lyrical content is consistently ambivalent, dichotomous, uncertain, unresolved . . . and beautifully truthful.
The lyrics certainly deepened my appreciation of the album, but it was the music that immediately grabbed my attention. X-Dreams is often categorized as “jazz fusion,” an ill-defined genre if there ever was one (I don’t know how anyone can listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Blood, Sweat & Tears and tell me they’re two peas in a pod). The best fusion albums combine the improvisational freedom of jazz with the libido-tingling stylings of rock and R&B, and by that definition, X-Dreams qualifies. To pull off fusion, you need instrumentalists who combine deep knowledge and appreciation of musical foundations and who know how to “play,” both literally and figuratively. Annette managed to attract some of the best musicians on the planet, a seemingly motley crew of different styles and strengths who left their egos in the reception area and devoted themselves to the creation of great music. The credits include “name” players like Bill Bruford and Mick Ronson and superb session men like Ray Warleigh and Chris Spedding. You put top-flight musicians together with a versatile, commanding and distinctive vocalist/composer like Annette Peacock, and baby, you have a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece.
X-Dreams kicks off with “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” a low-simmer blues/funk piece that represents a statement of defiance and liberation on multiple levels. The song has no discernible structure in the traditional sense; the “verses” vary in length and form and there is nothing that even resembles a chorus. Annette’s phrasing is largely off-beat; she rarely bothers to hit the notes in the “right” places but instead goes wherever her musical and emotional instincts lead her, confident that the boys in the band will hold things together. The delivery is a combination of understated alto, soaring soprano and street talk punctuated with pregnant pauses that invariably lead to double entendres. The outcome is one of the most unusual coming-of-age stories you will ever hear—unusual because her description of growing up follows neither convention nor linearity, resulting in a story that is more true-to-life than the classic coming-of-age assertion that everyone goes through the same stages of development at roughly the same time.
That her mother never taught her how to cook or clean tells us she wasn’t raised to be June Cleaver. As she moves to the influence of the men in the family, she leaves us with a trail of breadcrumbs that hints at possible sexual abuse by either brother, father or both:
My mama never taught me how to cook
But my brother, now, my brother he taught me how to . . . eat
Daddy never taught me to s-s-suck-seed (succeed)
That’s why it’s so crazy, crazy, crazy
Daddy never taught me how to succeed
That’s why I’m so unselfish
Nice little dig at capitalism there, reinforced by her admission that she was “not good at the wheeling not much better at the dealing.” She then asserts, “But I’m a fantastic ride,” and whether that’s a comment on the validation she received from the men in the family or an embrace of her sexuality is for the listener to decide. After the equally ambiguous line, “Yeah, my daddy never taught me how to succeed but my brother taught me how to turn the other cheek,” the band slows the tempo for a few bars to give the listener time to take it all in. When the foundational beat returns, Annette shifts tone and delivery, emphasizing the recurring phrase “That’s why” in soprano to frame her explanation of how she became the woman she is.
Never had no one to believe in me
And that’s why I’m not so sentimental
Never had no one to say, “Yeah, you’re right, you’re beautiful and free, it gets me high to see you fly, to fulfill yourself, and I’m behind you, I’m there even though it’s not me that’s satisfying you and I’m not afraid that I’ll lose you to your own freedom”
That’s why I’ll never be tame
I’m not rational and secure don’t have that confident assure that I’m cosmic in the touching
Never had no one to believe in me
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
The guitar in that passage (I’m guessing it’s Ronson) expresses more tension than relief, a combination of sweetness and dissonance that mirrors both the enlightenment and the experience of a dysfunctional family. The passage ends with another downtempo shift marked by a sexy guitar and the culmination of Annette’s coming of age. Free from the noise from the family of origin, Annette has arrived at a space where she is impervious to the bullshit of classic male mating ritual behavior:
And I’ve had men say, “Hey babe, your love is the greatest show on earth, and hey baby, I’m your man with the perfect plan and I’ll give you everything your heart desires, I want you, and I’ll give you everything you dream, everything you need, just let me get close to you, I want you, hey baby, I want to suck your honey, I wanna cop your conception, take your energy, absorb your vibe, preach your philosophy, I wanna become you, I want you and I want you to die so I can be you. Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love. I’m your man. Come over here and pay your landlord some dues. And hey babe that’s what I call love and that’s what I call a relationship—-now do you want to get it on?”
And I say, “Hey man, my destiny’s not to serve. I’m a woman. My destiny is to create.”
Man, I wish I’d written those lines. I think I could use another tat.
I’m pretty convinced that the critics who have commented on “Real and Defined Androgens” didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. Here are some selected shorts from one of the more enthusiastic responses: “One of the sexiest songs ever written . . . low slung dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you . . . Peacock flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics . . .”
I won’t name the source to avoid embarrassing the poor bastard, but just calmly point out that “one of the sexiest songs ever written” describes (in excruciating detail) a guy masturbating to a porn mag:
He makes the scene . . . Vaseline
Sometimes conscious and packaged androgen
Perhaps he finds a kind of purity, preferring not to wait, her petals flowering too hot
Refusing her garden, betraying his home
And oiling his machine he works it . . . hard . . .
Rides himself to foam . . .
A magazine in the other hand betrays the airbrushed dream of perfection
A connection which demands that the soul of femininity
Supplant itself into the shell which offers itself to the fancy
But man betrays himself with the seductiveness of media . . . distortion becomes a thrill . . .
Impervious, he ponders his seed of no destiny . . .
He half-dreams her, reams her taut, rotten body
Caught at the wrists
The twisting thrusts to the rhythmic beats like the sound of a whip drowning in the waves of sensation
Abandoning himself to the abstract contact takes him closer to his senses
Further from defenses to the absolute surrender he craves
The lyrics—especially that last passage—use intensely erotic imagery to underscore the emptiness of the fantasy. There’s no contact, no closeness, no merging, just a fucking fantasy based on “abstract contact.” The music is superficially sexy, just like the airbrushed babe in the foldout.
Androgens, by the way, are mistakenly identified as “male hormones.” The truth is androgens (like testosterone) exist in both men and women. I think what Annette is driving at here is there are natural causes for triggering testosterone (real) and culturally-sanctioned catalysts (defined), and those culturally-sanctioned catalysts are the ones we need to worry about. Men are under tremendous pressure to “stand up and act like a man,” which usually translates to “be tough” or “be aggressive in your pursuits.” Because many men have been trained to view women as objects, property or pieces of ass, dehumanization is a socially-acceptable stance for the male half of the species. Jacking off to a porn mag dramatizes the dehumanization, taking it to another level entirely.
When I tell you that “Real and Defined Androgens” features a grand total of two chords alternating back and forth for eleven minutes, you might conclude that the music is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Au contraire! The music is frigging brilliant! There are few songs that build tension as magnificently as “Real and Defined Androgens,” and the impact is similar to a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The basic pattern is F-F# and back again and again and again. Half-step moves always express tension by their very nature, but the scales in use are blues scales, adding a double serving of tension through their flatted notes. As the song progresses, the band increases the volume one decibel at a time (or so it seems); as the volume increases, the players gradually move from modest riffs and understatement to more intricate solos and counterpoints—screaming sax, thrusting power chords, bashing drums, flying piano. Occasionally the musicians play tricks with your ears by shifting the emphasis of the note in a given “chord” away from the root to the third or fifth, making the descending move sound like the elevator’s going up and the ascending move like the elevator’s going down. The ultimate act of tension creation comes from Annette herself, who remains largely cool and calm while all this drama is building up around her, keeping her flights of soprano to a bare minimum and delivering her narrative in a voice marked by detached curiosity. “Real and Defined Androgens” is pure and simply a masterpiece of musicianship and a testimony to the immense potential of improvisational musical collaboration.
Side A ends with “Dear Bela,” an expansion of the metaphor used in “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” namely, “Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love.” The depiction of male-as-vampire here is based on 18th and 19th-century tales of vampires seducing and despoiling maidens, one of the most curious inventions of the human mind. “A vampire stole my baby” is just a more imaginative display of the same emotions expressed in many rock and country songs from the mid-20th century (“Bye Bye Love” is a good intersectional example). “‘Isn’t love the greatest gift?’ the vampire thinks before he sucks the juice,'” Annette wails in the final verse, having already challenged that supposition in the chorus:
And is it love you feel at all?
Or is it the fear that makes you so mean to me baby?
Or is it the hate that gets you off?
Toxic masculinity has an infinite number of mutations.
The music is somewhere between small-combo Harlem jazz of the 1930s and Charles Mingus, with tight harmonies (Harlem) and the integration/reinterpretation of early jazz and blues (Mingus). There is a touch of the diva in Annette’s vocal, reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s my-man-has-done-me-wrong numbers.
The music on Side B is “kind of sweet,” as Annette put it. And while it is more “romantic,” she explores her conflicting feelings about love while not entirely ignoring the challenges presented by insecure men trying to “be real men.” In the intensely romantic “This Feel Within,” her vocal oscillates between half-whispered spoken word and melody, frequently within the same musical line. The delivery and the lyrics communicate doubt about her ability to hold such powerful feelings for a man:
Is the distance harder than this closeness closing in on me
I’m lost in your love and can’t begin to show or to hold this feel within
So I thought I might fuse the beauty that I see in you, the melody in that . . .
It’d tell you better than I could how much you mean to me
Since you play the song, chew on the heart, tell me what I really feel
I fall apart when he’s for real
The feel of the music is swank night club, with a shimmery synthesizer providing a satiny background for outstanding contributions on piano, flute and guitar. The liner notes don’t attach the players to specific songs, but whoever is playing that guitar is the guy I want in my band—the oscillating sustains melt me every time I hear them.
“Too Much in the Skies” explores the expectation-defying experience of an intimate relationship with a creative type. True creatives have no tangible connection with time or convention, so you can’t expect such a person to meet you at the corner espresso stand Wednesday at 12:30 . . . or show up on time for your flight to Vegas . . . or return your phone calls within a week. When a true creative is in the zone, there is nothing you can do to shake them out of it—the guilt trips you throw their way bounce off like their auras are made of plexiglass. According to the wisdom found on dating sites, creatives make terrible partners because they are inherently unreliable and deceptive.
Annette struggles with those stereotypical projections but is also capable of perceiving the potential advantages:
My love has a soul of a poet
I’m losing control and I know it
My dreams have come true, I won’t change him
One change might undo or estrange him
His promise is all he can promise . . .
And all I need do is to love him and let it be me whom he’s dreaming
This is sweet, romantic and perfectly pragmatic. How can you truly love someone if you can’t allow them to be who they are? The music is soft funk emphasizing piano, bass and faintly Latin drums; the chord pattern is similar to something you might hear in mid-period Steely Dan. Annette’s vocal alternates between breathiness and her gorgeous deep tones, eschewing the occasional bursts of soprano. The song appears to be about as close as Annette gets to “adult pop,” but the nine-syllable lines she sings defy standard meter (and no, they’re not anapestic trimeter). In any case, the result is the most purely beautiful song on the album.
Annette’s version of Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is a complete reconstruction that bears little resemblance to the Elvis original and the “rhythmic insistence” of the stutter-step boogie-woogie beat featuring Bill Black on double bass and the “bop-bops” of The Jordanaires. The beat here is still syncopated but smoother, and the rhythm takes several turns away from the main beat as the song progresses. The Elvis version featured the classic major, minor and seventh chords used in 99% of rock songs; the reconstruction substitutes major seventh and minor seventh chords for the expected fourths and fifths. The melody undergoes a complete overhaul, in part due to the change in chord structure but primarily because Annette follows her emotional and musical instincts to leap octaves or tone it down to a low-register whisper-in-the-ear sex kitten purr. The arrangement features an outstanding growling sax solo tinged with greater jazz sensibilities, and Mick Ronson (confirmed) kills it in the fade with a solo designed to put even a celibate in the mood to get down and dirty.
The words are pretty much the same with two important differences. Annette dispenses with the “let’s walk to the preacher” verse; when I try to imagine her delivering that verse in the context of the album, it just doesn’t ring true. All the other lyrics remain intact but take on a completely different meaning when sung by a woman, particularly in the context of a record that (in part) explores the cruelty of the male half of the species. When Elvis sang “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” he only had to fear rejection, not getting the shit beaten out of him. Though it sounds like Annette is having the time of her life with this piece, the sentiments of “Dear Bela” linger in the background. Intentional or not, the effect is rather chilling.
X-Dreams closes appropriately with a song called “Questions.” We all go into relationships with baggage, largely in the form of insecurities. When that special someone assures us that they will love us forever, we may experience momentary relief but those insecurities ensure the relief is of a transient nature. Annette refers to “the silent past to which I’m bound still holding me,” likely the many disappointments she has experienced (that we’ve all experienced). The questions she poses, though, cast doubt on not only the partner’s ability to “be true,” but the depth of her commitment:
If I could love you more than I do
What could I give you to make me true?
If you believed me
What would you say?
How would you leave me?
What would I be?
The song is in the form of a waltz, giving the music a cast of romantic nostalgia. Annette’s “sweet” tone glides beautifully through the expansive melody, and the last sound we hear is the fade of that lovely voice.
The fact that much of Annette Peacock’s work over nearly forty years is hard to come by is a crime against humanity. Her oeuvre is expansive and diverse, and I’ve never been bored by an Annette Peacock album. Some are exciting, some are deep and some (like An Acrobat’s Heart) are a perfect complement to a grey Sunday afternoon. X-Dreams is one of her best, a tour de force that represents two qualities we could use in bulk during this self-destructive phase: artistic integrity and creative spontaneity.