“What’s big and purple and lives in the ocean?” Moby Grape. Change the color to green and you get Moby Pickle. Change it to yellow and you get Moby Banana. Ha, ha.
In preparing for this review, I had a long discussion with my father about the colloquial humor of the 1960’s. Apparently there was a lot of it.
“Every morning before school you’d gather with your friends and share the latest jokes. There was plenty of ethnic humor, of course, most of which started off as “moron” jokes, then you just changed “moron” to whatever nationality you wanted to make fun of. I remember the first victims were the Italians, then the Polish—and by the time you came around, the same jokes were recycled as blonde jokes.”
“There were all the ‘a guy walks into a bar’ jokes, dirty jokes, and the fad jokes like the Moby series. The biggest craze I remember was Tom Swifties.”
“What’s a Tom Swifty?”
“It’s where you describe something that’s happened and then Tom makes a pun with an adverb.”
“I don’t know—he’s the guy in the joke. Like this, ‘I worked in the garden today,’ said Tom, earthily.”
“Yeah, that’s not one of the best.”
“Let me Google them.” I pulled out my laptop and found a Wikipedia article on Tom Swifties. “Oh, I see. I like this one: ‘I’ll have a martini,’ said Tom, drily.’ This one’s good: ‘Careful with that chainsaw,’ said Tom, offhandedly.’ This was a fad?”
“Oh, yeah. The DJ’s used to tell Tom Swifties in between tracks, there were books of Tom Swifties . . .”
“I see here that Time ran a national contest in 1963. Oh, here’s a period piece: ‘Someone has stolen my movie camera,’ Tom bellowed and howled.’ I like this one, too: ‘I have no flowers,’ said Tom, lackadaisically.”
“Yeah, we used to spend hours trying to come up with good Tom Swifties. You know, it’s kind of sad that people don’t tell jokes any more—the whole politically-correct movement pretty much killed them off.”
“I’ll withhold comment,” said his blonde daughter, unremarkably.
There are several albums in this series that were highly overrated on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Moby Grape was ranked #121, and while it’s a good record, to call it one of the great albums of all time is a stretch, given the fact that producer David Rubinson had no idea how to record rock ‘n ‘ roll and never figured out how to properly channel the multi-dimensional capabilities of the band. The acoustic pieces sound nice, but the rock songs could have been sounded much better with more help from the booth, and the lyrics range from decent to what-the-fuck. Putting all of that aside, I’m delighted to report that I think Moby Grape is one of the best albums to come out of that amorphous movement known as The San Francisco Sound. Even with the so-so recording quality, the sheer talent and power of the band shine through. Moby Grape was a more-than-competent rock band that explored multiple genres; a group where everyone contributed to the vocals and the songwriting. They clearly had the talent, but sometimes talent isn’t enough to make it in the loony world of music.
Everyone knows the story of how the band’s trajectory was limited by the overenthusiastic hype machine at Columbia Records, how everything they touched seemed to turn into a legal hassle and how Skip Spence fell victim to way too much LSD. Few bands have ever had worse luck than Moby Grape, but the “I coulda been a contendah” theme that runs through the stories about Moby Grape is really tiresome. The band showed tremendous potential and did not live up to that potential due to a combination of circumstances, naiveté and listening too much to the experts. Sorry, but you don’t get extra credit for what you could have been: all that counts is what you actually did. What Moby Grape did was release a pretty good début album, nothing more, nothing less.
They certainly introduced themselves to the listening public in fine fettle. “Hey, Grandma” kicks things off in high gear, with guitars flying, drums pounding and the vocal harmonies right on the money. The lyrics range from nonsensical to oh-so-sixties, as it turns out that Grandma has a bit of a drug problem (“Robitussin make me feel so fine/Robitussin and Elderberry wine.”) In a song like this, though, the lyrics don’t matter that much: it fucking sounds good, it feels good and the semi-stop time choruses kick ass. I love The Move, but their version of “Hey Grandma”—a song perfectly designed to play to Roy Wood’s harmonic strengths—sounds clunky and uninspired in comparison to the original.
As I mentioned, Moby Grape played in multiple genres, and Bob Mosley’s contributions on the album fall more on the R&B/Soul side. The problem is that Mosley was a terrible soul singer: a white guy trying way to0 hard to be a black guy and not making it. His vocals are so over-the-top that songs like “Mr. Blues” are nearly unlistenable. The band gets back into gear with the rocker “Fall on You,” with its irresistible riff and fabulous call-and-response vocals. What really makes this song an absolute killer is Jerry Miller’s guitar solo, which bursts out of the background like a sonic rocket, with lick after lick of pure fire over a counterpoint guitar playing the main riff. This is where I really get pissed off about Columbia’s insistence on limiting The Grape to three-minute tracks so they could release five singles simultaneously as part of one of the dumbest marketing efforts in music history. Jerry Miller clearly deserved a second shot on the fade—a good two or three minutes weaving in and out with Skip Spence on rhythm would have elevated this song into one of the greatest guitar songs ever.
There I go—doing what I said I wasn’t going to do—musing on the what-ifs of Moby Grape. I’ll try to restrain myself, but dammit, the first solo forced my fingers to start twiddling my diddle and I didn’t have time to achieve orgasm before the fucking song ended like someone put an ice pack on my lover’s nuts! Harrumph!
Cruelly robbed of a moment’s pleasure, I am soothed by the Miller-Stevenson number “8:05,” one of the prettiest songs to emerge from the general madness of psychedelia. The relative clarity of the recording allows the listener to appreciate the band’s vocal strengths, combining sweet harmonies and an inspired vocal arrangement that allows the voices to separate and meld again without losing the beauty of the melodic flow. The acoustic guitar is simply gorgeous, providing sympathetic support for the wistful tone of the lyrics. The chord progression masterfully adds the necessary builds with just the right amount of variation from the key structure. Most importantly, the song extends the perceived range of the band, strengthening the entire album with a touch of diversity. Lovely!
“Come in the Morning” falls somewhere between The Temptations and The Turtles: funky, but with a build that’s very similar to The Turtles’ “You Baby.” Mosley is a teensy-bit more restrained but still too animated. What saves the song from total oblivion are the background vocals, which are pretty decent. The only one of the five singles to break into the Billboard Top 100 comes next, Skip Spence’s “Omaha.” The opening is the ultimate ear-grabber, with the guitar feedback and cymbal blur whizzing through your ears through fluid panning, then exploding into a three-part guitar harmony with bass and two six-strings that absolutely sizzles. The guitars fly throughout this song, making the well-executed vocals almost superfluous, and Don Stevenson rips it on the drums. The lyrics make no sense and have no connection to Omaha, and the whole thing sounds terribly rushed as the band tries to get it done under the clock, but “Omaha” is still great garage rock played with maximum intensity.
Jerry Miller’s “Naked If I Want To” is a curious acoustic interlude that seems to start in the middle and vanishes in fifty-five seconds, but for some damned reason I like this little fragment—it serves as sort of a catch-your-breath moment after “Omaha.” It’s followed by the dreamy folk-rock sounds of “Someday,” a song with diverse parts that never quite come together, especially when Mosley drops in with his black guy act in what you think might be the bridge but turns out to be the start of the fade. “Ain’t No Use” picks up the tempo and adds more diversity with its bluegrass feel. The harmonies here are especially good, and I love the unusual chord and rhythmic shifts in the middle, but again, it feels like they’re working under the gun again and have to wrap it up too soon in order to make Columbia happy.
Peter Lewis’ “Sitting by the Window” is clearly the strongest composition on the album. Opening with a guitar duet dominated by mellow arpeggiated chords, the verse remains stuck in E minor, reflecting the lyrics that describe the stuck feeling of a rainy day. When the lyrical tone shifts and opens our eyes to what’s really going on—a virtual stare-down between two lovers waiting for the other to blink and pick up the phone—the key shifts to D major and the chord progression becomes more complex. The transition is effortless; it’s one of those songs where the pattern makes you want to pick up your guitar and figure out the chords. The background harmonies on the chorus and the counterpoint guitar are quite pretty. Another key change occurs in the instrumental passage where the guitar duet has almost a southwest flavor, and again resolves effortlessly back to the root key. I’m surprised that this song didn’t become a popular cover song—it’s a beauty that allows for multiple interpretations and variations.
“Changes” is a Skip Spence call-and-response number designed to pick up the energy, but it doesn’t have the excitement or tightness of “Hey Grandma” or “Omaha” (though it features Mosley’s most energetic bass work). It’s followed by another Mosley soul number, “Lazy Me,” notable only for the line “I’ll just stay here and decay here,” to which I respond, “I’m good with that.” Moby Grape comes to a sudden end with Skip Spence’s rocker, “Indifference.” The opening guitar is fabulous, but the harmonies aren’t as compelling and the song tends to meander and lose focus about a minute into the track.
Although I completely disagree with the Rolling Stone rating, and the three-minute limitation gets to be a drag, Moby Grape is a pretty good record. We can speculate all day on the what-ifs and missed opportunities, and bemoan the fact that although they were better musicians than many of their contemporaries, Moby Grape didn’t get the attention they deserved. What’s past is past, what’s done is done, and frankly, I’m just happy that three albums into the Psychedelic Series I’ve finally found some music that I enjoyed . . . even though it’s the least psychedelic of the three.
“I like Moby Grape, but I remain skeptical on the value of psychedelic music,” she said, acidly.
One outcome of my trip to Nice last month was that I agreed to review two albums by Donovan.
Okay, I was drunk.
We were having dinner at Di Yar, my favorite restaurant in Nice. It was a very pleasant night, not too warm, not too cold, with jazz, the chatter of passers-by and good conversation in the air. As if by magic, my wine glass continually filled with a deep red liquid which in turn continually found its way to my mouth. Two and a half hours into the experience, my father brought up Donovan.
“You can’t ignore him.”
“He was a major force in the mid-sixties. He had hit after hit. He was one of the spokespeople of the generation.”
“It sounds like you’re talking about a bicycle repairman.” I giggled at my wit. We all giggled for about five minutes, trapped in a moment of contagious laughter.
“Give him a chance. You gave Dylan a chance and you liked him.”
“Come on. Do it for your dear old dad.”
I reached for a cigarette and my partner gave me a light. She’s required to do that, but she does it lovingly every time and I rewarded her with a little kiss.
“Start with Fairytale and then . . . ”
“And then? And then? I said which one!”
“But his career had two distinct phases. You can’t do Donovan without doing the folk period and the psychedelia.”
“But I don’t want to do Donovan at all! I’ve had Coltrane on my list for months!”
“Coltrane can wait. Coltrane’s eternal. You’ve been on a sixties jag lately and Donovan is the biggest gap in your library.”
I had to give the bastard credit for knowing my weak spot and exploiting it. I hate having gaps in my library; it was the primary reason I decided to keep the blog going.
I took a big long drink from my bottomless wine glass. “Okay, I’ll do Donovan—but I’ll do it in my own way and don’t expect any favors. And I will get payback for this.”
“Hey. I’ve lived with your mother for decades. I understand payback,” my father replied. My mother smiled wickedly and contentedly and raised her glass to me in a victory toast.
Donovan vs. Dylan
Although I think men who take advantage of a lady when she’s inebriated are the lowest of the low, once I make a promise, I stick to it. I spent the next morning immersing myself in Donovan music and lore despite a horrible hangover alleviated slightly by sweet oral sex and listened to the two records—Fairytale and Sunshine Superman—almost continuously over the next couple of days.
By Wednesday, I reeked of patchouli oil.
Fairytale was Donovan’s last album of his very brief folk period, which consisted of a grand total of two albums. The first was “the one with ‘Catch the Wind’.” I listened to it once and decided that the only reason he landed a recording contract was because he was a scruffy guy with a guitar and the record companies were buying up all the scruffy guys with guitars to cash in on the folk craze. They’d do the same thing with the San Francisco Sound a couple of years later and destroy Moby Grape in the process.
The Brits were latecomers to the folk craze; The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out in the U. S. in 1962 but didn’t become a number one in the U. K. until 1964. Slow boats, I guess. Donovan was greeted and hailed as the British response to Dylan, so let me address that issue up front.
First, I have no idea why the British felt they needed to ape American folk music when their own folk tradition is so much richer (they’d finally figure that out a few years later). Second, it’s hard to fathom that they would feel the need to musically compete with the Americans at a moment in history when they were giving the world Lennon, McCartney and Ray Davies.
On the Dylan-Donovan issue, there is no comparison. Dylan and Donovan shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath. You can take any verse that Bob Dylan ever wrote and compare it to anything Donovan ever wrote and Dylan would win every time. Dylan had superior intellect, social insight and a decided flair for language. Donovan wrote some nice songs and one or two better-than-nice songs; Bob Dylan wrote several timeless masterpieces. Even this dumb blonde can see that Dylan is far superior, and I’m not even a Bob Dylan fan!
So, let us consider Donovan on his own merits and leave the comparisons behind. I think Fairytale is a nice piece of work where he shows flashes of original talent that I wish he would have exploited further instead of repackaging himself as The Hippie Guru. We’ll get into that aspect of his career when we look at Sunshine Superman; meanwhile, we will consider the value of Fairytale. I’m reviewing the UK version to avoid having to listen to “Universal Soldier,” a Buffy Sainte-Marie song I loathe in the extreme despite my commitment to pacifism and the firm belief that all violence should be voluntary, consensual and limited to the bedroom.
Finally, the Review
“Colours” opens the album, a pleasant little folk song with guitar and scratchy banjo. The lyrics are ho-hum but inoffensive . . . until he gets to the last verse and tries to season the song with significance.
Freedom is a word I rarely use
Without thinkin’, mm hmm,
Without thinkin’, mm hmm,
Of the time, of the time
When I’ve been loved.
As anyone who watched the movie Woodstock knows, freedom was a big meaningful word in the sixties. The Freedom Riders started the ball rolling, and the concept was later applied to many different acts of liberation: free love, free Huey, free-dom! Read that verse again and tell me, what the fuck does he mean? I don’t think he knew: I think he threw in the word “freedom” because it was a marketable word at the time. I understand the possible connection between “being free” and being in a relationship, but that’s small-f freedom—and if that’s what he’s talking about, the song becomes even more trivial and the use of the word “freedom” is gratuitous at best. “Colours” highlights a tendency Donovan displays too often on this album: he’ll write a “wrap-up verse” where he intends to captures the essential meaning of the song in a few lines; sort of like, “and the moral of the story is . . . ” It doesn’t work because in the wrap-up verses attempts to imbue meaning where there is none to imbue.
We see this in the generally more interesting “To Try for the Sun,” a song based on his real-world travels with his pal Gypsy Dave. There is, of course, the gratuitous use of harmonica (it’s hard to write about many Donovan songs without using the word “gratuitous”), but he does manage to pull together a decent verse now and again:
We huddled in a derelict building
And when he thought I was asleep
He laid his poor coat round my shoulder
And shivered there beside me in a heap.
The “wrap-up” verse “Mirror, mirror hanging in the sky/Oh, won’t you look down what’s happening here below/I stand here singing to the flowers/So very few people really know” is both gratuitous and nonsensical. It also diminishes the imagery of the earlier verses by turning experience into abstraction.
After two pretty basic folk songs, “Sunny Goodge Street” comes out of nowhere with its opening cello and soft jazz feel. His subdued, limited voice is more suited to this style, as he would demonstrate again on songs like “Mellow Yellow.” The lyrics are very vivid, capturing the urban London fringe scene that eschewed those raucous lads playing at the Crawdaddy Club for the coolness of Charles Mingus:
On the firefly platform on sunny Goodge Street
Violent hash-smokers shook a chocolate machine
Involved in an eating scene.
Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness
Smearing their eyes on the crazy cult goddess
Listenin’ to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic.
“My, my”, they sigh,
“My, my”, they sigh.
Judy Collins ruined this song on her otherwise brilliant In My Life album with an over-the-top circus arrangement; Donovan captures the hashish-tinged mood perfectly with a jazz combo sound. The late Harold McNair contributes a superb flute solo that adds to the coolness of the scene. Unusual for a Donovan song is the chord complexity; he’s usually a two or three-chord kind of guy. There is, unfortunately, a ridiculous wrap-up verse featured on the cover that has no connection whatsoever to the experience described in the other verses. Since the album came out only a few weeks after the word “hippie” was first used in print to describe a new wave of beatniks in San Francisco, we can’t indict Donovan for attempting to capitalize on a craze just yet (we’ll take care of that in the Sunshine Superman review):
The magician, he sparkles in satin and velvet,
You gaze at his splendor with eyes you’ve not used yet
I tell you his name is Love, Love, Love.
Whether the verse is a sincere but disconnected celebration of the power of love or an advertising jingle, I have to say that “Sunny Goodge Street” is probably my favorite song in his entire catalog.
(There’s an alternative video on YouTube where Donovan plays the song acoustically while ludicrously dressed in renaissance costume if you want to go there. I decided to spare him the embarrassment by not posting it here.)
Bert Jansch’s “Oh Deed I Do” comes next, one of Bert’s lesser numbers and a disappointing follow-up to “Sunny Goodge Street,” as Donovan’s voice and guitar both sound out of tune. The dissonance was deliberate in “Circus of Sour,” a playful number with witty lyrics . . . that Donovan didn’t write (a mystery man by the name of Paul Bernath was responsible). Oh, well. Donovan’s performance is relaxed and cheery, a tone that works for him much better than his occasional tendency to take himself too seriously.
He did pen the next track, “Summer Day Reflection Song,” a quiet little ditty capturing random thoughts while watching a cat. It’s nice background music to a quiet Sunday but not much more. He adapted “Candyman” from the British traditional version, adding a reference to Morocco to confirm the meaning of Candyman as “drug dealer.” I wasn’t impressed. “Jersey Thursday” demonstrates his lifelong obsession with colors as adjectives, the hallmark of many a lazy poet. He would finally make it through the whole Crayola box by the time he got to the second verse of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” where after using up prussian blue, scarlet and crimson, he came up with havana lake, rose carmethene and Alizarian crimson for no apparent reason whatsoever.
Did I mention that I think Fairytale is his best album?
Next comes a song that drives me to distraction, “Belated Forgiveness Plea” (also known as “Isle of Sadness”). I can forgive Donovan for inventing a fake place called Trist la Cal that sounds terribly and trendily exotic, but I can’t forgive him for his careless use of symbolism. As much as he was in love with colors, Donovan was heads over heels about seagulls. The refrain to this song is “But the seagulls they have gone/The seagulls they have gone,” as if their departure represents the ultimate existential isolation experience. He actually sings, “There is nothing left for me now/The seagulls they have gone.” Wow. That’s a serious attachment.
Look. I grew up in San Francisco. I know seagulls. Seagulls are nasty, squawking birds who go out of their way to crap on people. They symbolize shit! I can take you to a coffeehouse in Victoria B. C. where the north wall is covered in seagull feces from their regular bombing runs on coffee lovers who dare to take their java breaks at an outside table. In various locales, seagulls have defecated on my shoes, my coat and even my hat—and thank God I was wearing a hat because seagull dung has a half-life of 500 years! You can never get rid of that smell! Fuck seagulls! What a . . . crappy use of symbolism!
Ah, but Donovan lived in a fairytale world where seagulls never poop.
“Ballad of a Crystal Man” is a protest song, but this one lacks the cachet of “Eve of Destruction” or “The Times They Are a-Changin'” because it’s really not very well-written. Beginning with an intensely annoying single note on the mouth harp over a rapidly picked guitar (he even repeats that awful note for several excruciating measures in the instrumental passage), the song is tedious in the extreme and contains some of the worst syntax I’ve ever read:
On the quilted battlefields of soldiers dazzling, made of toy tin
The big bomb like a child’s hand could sweep them dead just so to win
Whazzat? Huh? He proceeds to compound the problem with truly weird juxtapositions:
As you fill your glasses with the wine of murdered Negroes
Thinking not of beauty that spreads like morning sun glow
Whafuck? Hello? You mean if they had filled their minds with images of beauty those murderous racists wouldn’t have engaged in lynching? You really mean that?
I pray your dreams of vivid screams of children dying slowly
And as you polish up your guns, your real self, be reflecting
Whew! I can’t even begin to diagram those sentences! I’ve accused Dylan of excessive obscurity at times but at least he wrote coherently enough so that I could tell it was obscure. This song just seems like random fragments from other protest songs jumbled together to attempt to demonstrate that Donovan was hip enough to have a social consciousness. What it actually demonstrate is that he was, for the most part, a lousy poet.
So was Shawn Phillips, who wrote the childishly gruesome “Little Tin Soldier” that follows. The storyline and conclusion are so ridiculous that you simply had to be stoned to appreciate them. Stunningly and completely out of the blue, Fairytale ends on a strong note with “The Ballad of Geraldine.” This is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a young woman who finds herself knocked-up and abandoned by her footloose lover. As she wanders the streets and considers her fate in a time when unmarried pregnancy was a taboo, she makes some startling admissions and has a cold revelation:
My baby is a-growin’ as a-growin’ it must
If I were to lose it, it would grieve me
My love is so helpless and I’m wonderin’ what to do
Oh, how I yearn to help him
Oh, we could go to the land of your choice
Where the false shame won’t come knockin’ at our door
I’ve a feelin’ in my heart and it’s crushin’ all my hopes
I think, I’m gonna be hurt some more
It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone could be so self-sacrificing as to call her scumbag lover “helpless” and want to comfort him, but I suppose a person with extremely low self-esteem might confuse love and sacrifice. Had Donovan ended the song on that verse, I’d dismiss him as a sexist idiot, but by including Geraldine’s realization “I think I’m gonna be hurt some more,” he shows that he’s intelligent and sensitive enough to understand that life doesn’t always end like a fairy tale.
Okay, that’s Fairytale. I see some good stuff, some potential and a few glaring deficiencies that need correction. While I may have come across as scathing at times, I don’t think it’s a bad album. To prove to you that beneath my hard leather-clad exterior I’m really a very nice person, I’m going to let you in on a little secret . . . I’ve cracked the mystery of time-travel. After listening to Fairytale, I decided I wanted to help the poor lad, so I jumped into my time portal, zoomed back to late 1965, easily located Donovan hanging around Carnaby Street and invited him out for a bite to eat.
“Kid,” I said, lighting my cigar at the end of the meal, “The way I see it, you’ve got three possible directions. You could forge a career out of soft jazz with urban scene lyrics—you’ve got some potential there. You could write songs told in the first-person about people in tough situations . . . maybe sell them to others with acting skills who can sing a little bit better. Or, you could write songs for children. But the pure folk angle ain’t gonna fly—fuhgeddaboudit! You’ll never be Dylan in a million years and you’ll just be seen as the annoying little kid who’s tagging along with the big guys. And please, please, please, forget about the psychedelic scene—it’s a passing fad and you’ll live to regret it. Whaddya say, kid?”
He told me to bugger off! And left me with the tab! How rude!
And as I leapt back into the time portal, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a seagull splat behind me.