Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Life and times of Rolling Stone are living, breathing and very vivid representation of Rock & Roll itself.  In Rolling Stone we can see how archetypes are formed.  Something posits itself in public imagination because it mirrors reality of a phenomenon in its all pulsating details.  Rolling Stones are the origin, zenith and mainstreaming (with its unavoidable mellowing) of Rock & Roll.  They embody the influences, main themes and growth path of one of the most exciting chapters of the history of Music-i.e. Rock & Roll.  More than that, they ARE the tradition of Rock & Roll.  Rock & Roll has come of age accumulating influences from fringes becoming a big river.  This collision of many strands like country, blues,  beat  poetry, funk  and R&B created a rich repertoire of new musical idioms which a turbulent generation made its own.   In the process, it  traded bit of its churlish rebelliousness and most of its innocence for maturity of seasoned world weariness and elegant debauchery.  This is Rock & Roll and also pen portrait of Rolling Stone. 
 Rock & Roll  couldn’t  find  a more appropriate totem.  Stones’ endurance (they will celebrate 50th anniversary of their first concert next month) remains a key factor.  Rock and Roll has its romance in early deaths of its leading light.  Loss of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and later Kurt Cobain are cases in point.  However, in final analysis, tradition of Rock and Roll needs the consolidation provided by its inexorable albeit slow march towards maturity.  For this, players with enduring presence were needed.  That is why, if the allure of rock mythology got its flashy hooks in the blazing but short lived torrents of talent, their iconography was consolidated by the survivors like Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and perhaps most representatively by Rolling Stone.  

This is not to overlook Rolling Stone’s   own share of untimely demises. One of the original members and arguably, the most adventures of the lot, Brian Jones was lost to the excesses of the era.  Some credit Jones with the christening the band as Rolling Stones as he took  it from a Muddy Waters song.  Jones was extremely reckless and had a history to prove it.  He had fathered two illegitimate children before he was 16.  He had his moments in notable 1968 album ‘Beggars Banquet’.  Rolling Stone magazine says that Jones had “lent sitar, dulcimer, and, on "Under My Thumb," marimba to the band's sound, and who had been in Morocco recording nomadic Joujouka musicians.”  The Magazine also comments “Brian, never a day at the beach in the human-being department, was increasingly lost as a musical presence, but he has his final great moments on ‘Beggars Banquet’. When Brian plays a ghostly slide guitar on "No Expectations," he sounds like he's playing at his own funeral.”  He was given the boot by the band on June 9, 1969 and was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969.  Drugs proved to be his undoing.  Coroner called it ‘death by misadventure’ not a very rare occurrance in the era that saw many leading lights succumbing to such misadventures.     Jones also appeared on ‘Let it Bleed’ released a day after his burial.  
Notwithstanding the loss of Jones, Rolling Stones is a study in permanence. Their survival in itself is a great achievement. More creditably, they have kept the wheels moving and regeneration by creation had been their motif in their splendid innings of   half a century (still counting). Even in abeyance their creative juices kept flowing and  kept the rolling stone saga lubricated and functioning. Impending doom was always looming but gradually that became a permanent fixture and hovering doom was a reassuring sign the bad boys were at work.  There longevity ensured that they remained “a scandalous symbol of ‘generational independence”, says Peter Conrad in a not so flattering half century review of the band.  He adds   “now that we baby bouncers are too rickety to do much dancing, the stones serve as precious relic of our teenage days.  Encouraged by them we can all grow old disgracefully.” 

One of the reasons for this peerless survival is given by the bands co-frontsman and guitarist Keith Richards. The explanation is in keeping with his reputation for making his body a lab for all sort of substances. Richards was never self-destructive despite all the evidence to the contrary. In his autobiography ‘Life’ he helpfully explains that ‘he never succumbed to the rock star archetype of early death because he used only the “finest, finest cocaine and the purest, purest heroin.” Richard Corliss of Time Magazine was having a great time while reviewing the autobiography- “Keith Richards has been the subject of many lurid rumors; most of them turn out to be understatements…… Life does contain enough drug tales to fill Thomas de Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater — from Richards' description of a 1972 bust in Arkansas, where dope was concealed not just in the folds of his cap but also in his car's side panels, through his helpful delineation of barbiturates ("the sensible drugs in the world are the pure ones"), to his awed evocation of LSD: "There's not much you can say about acid except, God, what a trip!"

One thanks the gods of Rock and Roll for the quality consciousness of Stones. However, on a more serious note, Stones have endured for so long because of their fidelity to their roots. Stripped of all the trappings of hype and fame, Rolling Stones is basically a very solid blues band.  Rhythm & Blues was their initial passion which matured into uncanny mastery. The most instantly recognizable Stones riff has been the wail and gloom of blues.  “The reason the Stones have endured so long as the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band, of course, is their ability to consistently make music that remains true to their blues and R & B roots while at the same time assimilating new musical sounds and stamping them as their own. By now, they have built up such an impressive body of work that they could easily deliver shows made up of nothing but greatest hits, but the band has refused to become a nostalgia act” Write Michiko Kakutani of New York Times. “The Stones' pirate-like swagger, their unsentimental view of sex, their shimmering ballads of longing and loss are all rooted in the blues tradition, as are their gritty, unvarnished meditations on love and death -- qualities that help explain why even the band's earliest work, unlike the more pastel-colored love songs of the Beatles, has so defiantly endured…… iconography that ratifies the music's haunting ambiguities, its ecstatic, Dionysian groove” adds the Chief Book Critic of the Times. 

Blues has life enhancing properties. For many of its practitioners it has been a lifelong profession. Its regenerative powers have kept giants like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howling wolf – all icons for the Stones- active into a very long and fruitful careers. Keith Richards guitar conveys the longings and lyricism of blues tradition with great facility. Jagger told  Kakutani “''My kind of writing has always been blues-influenced because it's the music I grew up with,'' I couldn't really write happy love songs. I was coming from a different standpoint. Lots of double-edged humor and rather dark narratives -- that's all to do with the blues. Compared to 50's pop, the blues always seemed much more grown-up.''
The Stones started with covers of ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Love in vain’ and other standard Blues anthems to show their grasp over a powerful musical tradition. With ‘Midnight Rambler’ and ‘Satisfaction’ they owned by redefining it. 
Many critics have decided that Rolling Stone peaked creatively in the mid 1960s and everything since then has been a matter of scrupulous, mercenary, “decline management.”    Magazine Rolling Stone notes almost admiringly “through the 1980s the group became more an institution than an influential force.” 
While the recall for the earlier hits like Satisfaction or Honky Tonk Women or Jumpin’ Jack Flash is far greater, their later work were also cohesive and realized pieces of dynamic  music. Rolling Stone Magazine says “Bridges to Babylon has prime moments, especially Mick's "Might as Well Get Juiced" and Keith's "Thief in the Night." A Bigger Bang was worth the wait, bristling with Mick's snakiest wit, Keith's shrewdest guitar runs, Charlie's loosest drum hooks. From "Rough Justice" to "This Place Is Empty," it's the work of hardened rock & roll dons who don't feel any need to prove a goddamn thing"

Maybe, their fidelity towards blues may be the reason for the accusations of them being creatively stalled in their early hits. However, their longevity is based on their avoiding mindless imitation of their icons.  “Perhaps being English, they were less inclined than their American contemporaries to slavish imitation; perhaps being true blues devotees, they instinctively understood the music's emphasis on personal expression.” They are content with their sound ‘a sound that is classic but it still rocks.’ Their later studio album ‘Bigger Bang’ “does not reinvent the wheel, just rolls it one more time with panache.”  This means that they were managing a bigger feet of performing with great originality in a restricted space. Keith Richards told New York Times ‘‘It’s easy to play a 12-bar blues anybody can do it -- it's whether it hits home or not. That's the hard thing, because you have to dig deep. You can't slouch the blues, you can't toss it off. Musically, it's a very limited form of music -- three, four chords if you're smart. It's where you place them and how you phrase it and how you sound it. It's a very tight frame to work within, but there's something within that framework that can express more than all the wailing away in the world.'' True affirmation of their greatness is in the flexibility of their idiom. Once again Kakutani hits the sweet spot “Somewhere along the line, in spreading the gospel of the blues, the Stones discovered their own voice as artists -- an infinitely flexible voice that somehow managed to accommodate modernist irony and post-modernist humor without losing its soul, a voice adept at everything from the surreal portrait (''Get Off of My Cloud'') to the elegiac story song (''Memory Motel'') to the straight-ahead rock-and-roll anthem (''Jumpin' Jack Flash'').” This flexibility can come only with owning the genre and having the confidence to declare with all the ‘sullen charisma that makes it impossible to take your ear off from it.’ The Ferocious nonchalance of Keith Richards and primal restlessness of Mick Jagger should not be allowed to deflect the attention from the growth and movement in their music. 

However, there is no doubt that they lost their ‘dangerous aura’. Familiarity bred by their long existence has created a companionability that makes us approach them as ‘feel good band’. No wonder they are the most profitable and enduring brand name in the history of Music.   Their tours are complete sell out. The ‘Bigger Bang’ tour of 2005 lasted for two years and grossed $558 million – highest ever for any tour. 

Rolling Stones have definitely cut down on the ‘Sympathy for Devil’ and have become Voodoo Loungers and Men of Wealth and Taste. Their spark has not diminished and they have not stopped enjoying making great music. Their endurance and success is, in very big part, due to the very transparent avidity and ‘soul hunger’ for music. The Alchemy that gets worked up when the musical soul-mates perform on stage is stuff of immortality. Keith Richards captures it too well ““There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you ……you’re elevated because you’re with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you’ve got wings. You are flying without a license.”

-Dhiraj Singh

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rowan Atkinson: Understated Hyper Comedy

Rowan Atkinson is a rare commodity- a natural born actor. He is so pure a comedian that he personifies the character rather enacting it. He chose comedy and stamped it with his subdued charisma. Ease and understatement are the chief ingredients of his genius.  Understatement and Mr Bean. Sounds odd but Mr Bean or the character played by Atkinson is always in lower key. Any actor who has ‘learnt‘ acting will play it in much higher octave than an actor for whom acting is like breathing. With Atkinson this is a skill that is instinctive rather than honed. 

This allows him to really compartmentalize. From available accounts, he is a very shy person with a passion for fast car and a very private family life. He doesn’t have to be a buffoon all the time as he can summon comedy at will. Tony Robinson, who played  Baldrick in  Blackadder with "cunning plan" fame told this to the Guardian, "he's one of the few mega performers who genuinely has a full and fulfilling life away from showbusiness….. he remains for me the consummate comedy performer of his generation." Robinson added: "He's a very shy man, ….. When he's not working, you are unlikely to realise that he's in the room, but as soon as he starts, all attention focuses on him, partly because of this extraordinary supreme talent that he's got."

It is this instinctive nature of his acting that protects him from being overshadowed. British TV is veritable playfield of giants of comedy and Atkinson has shared screen with most of them. Veterans like Stephen Fry and Huge Laurie have the potential of eating up any artist simply by deploying their well timed histrionics. However, with Atkinson, their monumental talent only enhances the canvass already created by the understated hyper comedy.  Black Adder was Rowan Atkinson all the way despite the presence of stalwarts with scene grabbing lines.  This happens because he is not dependent on props  to create humour. He is great in wordy comedy like Black Adder and equally devastating in physical laugh riot of Mr Bean.
His knack of zeroing in on the vitals of his character and chiseling away the distraction till only the core remains is the very definition of acting itself.  After distillation what remains is unadulterated and super-refined comedy. 

-Dhiraj Singh

Monday, May 7, 2012

Toulouse Lautrec: Harem’s Eunuch Who Went Wild

Toulouse Lautrec was philandering, absinthe drenched midget (his legs never grew to full length). He was also the most daring artist of his times- a period known as Belle Epoque - the beautiful period. To understand him fully we need to accept that he was a marketing genius fully in tune with the canons of rebranding. He took a seedy suburb and an experimental pleasure spot with questionable repute and transformed it into a upper middle class  haunt for revelry complete with elusive combination of cultural sophistication and high sex appeal.  He lent the high kicking women dancing Cancan, brothels and general atmosphere of licentiousness of Montmartre in general and Moulin Rouge in particular with a degree of elegance. His genius lies in the fact that he kept the tart quotient intact while dangerously flirting with the menace of respectability. 
No doubt Toulouse Lautrec is the foremost chronicler of the epoch in question- 1890s and thereabout. Paris, for good or worse, was imagined as the Mecca of hedonism and intellectual vibrancy. However this was not a simple reading of the ‘movable feast’ that Paris was. Anti establishment feeling was strong but establishment was no slouch either.      High brow was revered but with a twist- a bit like offering of a bottle of scotch on the church altar. The ‘high culture’ was willing and itching to “be dragged through the gutter.” The hordes of young talented artists were leaving studio to capture life on street.  Little wonder, allure of Moulin Rouge and other guilty pleasures of Montmartre proved to be a big draw.  The scene was not straight forward and Toulouse Lautrec wielded a crooked brush.
It is fashionable to discount his unusual physical appearance. However, things like these are hard to discount. One can only wonder that an aristocrat who was not    four and half feet tall would have got the same kind of access that afforded Lautrec the ‘immediacy of perspective.’ He could adopt the role of the fly on the wall without disturbing the most intimate moments of his subjects. This backstage access owed a lot to his freakish appearance. He was the Harem’s eunuch who went wild.
A fall out of this equation was his depiction of women as independent and individual entities. This was not very common even in Paris of those days.  “He does not turn women into stereotypical sex objects, as does, say, Renoir. But neither is he clinically detached like Degas, who was a hugely important influence on Lautrec. Nor does he exoticize women à la Gauguin, or worship them as preternaturally beautiful goddesses, as the academic Bouguereau does.”  He is known for pictures of women like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert “who, on the stage anyway, are in charge of their own destinies. But he is good with ordinary women, too, and though they may be frumpy, gawky and otherwise less than beautiful, he always seems to like them.”
He was born in 1864 into an aristocratic family that could trace its ancestry to the Crusades.  Inbreeding which was common to such exalted lineage probably caused the congenital disease that turned him into a dwarfish, misshapen figure. The alcoholism and other illnesses that hastened his death at the age of 36 were byproducts of a career spent largely among the prostitutes, nightclub performers and hangers-on in the seamier quarters of Belle Epoque Paris.
Critic Robert Hughes has written “If the stream of life is subdivided into an infinity of fleeting moments, as it is by a culture based on photography, each looks like an actor's gesture, a pose—or a snapshot. This disarticulation was what Lautrec attempted, and one still marvels at the speed and accuracy of his notation, whether it was real (in his sketch pads) or feigned (in the finished theatrical lithographs).” Hughes here is catching the masterly quality of an artist who had imposed a studied distance between him and his subjects. He further elaborates “There was nothing expressionistic about Lautrec. He did not revel in the miseries of the soul, and even his most pathetic images come to us across a measured distance and through a focused sense of human absurdity.” The learned critic is very precise in his assessment of the master “one's admiration for Lautrec's craft, for the eggshell delicacy of spattered lithographic ink or the exact placement of a complementary color, …. it lasts just long enough to give a sense of wholly different organization—that the painting or the drawing is based on a precarious, swift sense of the real, exact but friable.”
As an artist he works due to his flourish. He is a player who is good at handling high speed and volatile concepts. He thrives on turbulence and contains it with flair without losing on panache. Safety of is not for him and he does not fail in his wild experiments. 

-Dhiraj Singh