My Year in Lists: Volume II
"Rakim is to rap what Mick Jagger is to rock: an artist who helped give birth to a musical genre and yet remains relevant and popular today."-Dimitri Ehrlich, The New York Times
"I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."-Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"
Part of taking on any project such as this is learning how to grapple with titans, and coming to accept the futility of trying to encapsulate an icon in a few hundred words. Books have been written about the artists we will examine today; courses are taught on their influence in our culture, and smarter men than I have tackled their work better than I can ever hope to. That's all part of the nature of My Year in Lists, though, where by design I thrust myself into the deep end and hope to keep my head above water. Each week in this space, I am trying to cohere my thoughts a bout a variety of artists in several different genres into a whole that respects each individual's achievements and also tells us something thematically about music in general, or about the genres we focus on here in particular. The nature of the weekly deadline means that sometimes I will succeed and sometimes I will fail. I can't tell you whether this will be one of the good weeks or one of the bad ones; all I can promise is that, when looking at these three artists, I'll be swinging for the fences.
Bix Beiderbecke is by no means a household name (in fact, he has one of those names that might make it quite difficult to attain that status), yet he stands alongside jazz titan Louis Armstrong as one of the most influential jazz soloists of the genre's first golden age, the 1920s. His death, at only 28 in 1931, came with little notice, and his work was barely mentioned, and not particularly well regarded, for years after his untimely demise. He has since become a sort of patron saint for doomed jazz geniuses, the first in a long line of legends only gaining recognition after their deaths. The details of his life have largely become the blue print for the unsung jazz masters: Beiderbecke had difficulty sight-reading, was known for the purity of tone in his compositions, had a serious drinking problem and died young.
Stylistically, Beiderbecke's sound is one that I associate very strongly with the 1920's, to the point that I often found, while listening to the Gold Collection anthology of his work, that I was thinking more broadly about the decade as a whole than about the artist I was listening to. In my head (and I think in our larger cultural consciousness), the "roaring "˜20s" is soundtracked by jazz, and it all sounds like Beiderbecke's work. If listening to "Fidgety Feet" doesn't conjure images of New York in the "˜20s in your mind, the rest of this piece probably won't do much for you.
Most of Gold Collection is made up of Beiderbecke recording the work of others (unsurprising as he only wrote or co-wrote six compositions in his life, and only recorded three of those), yet the album is full of fairly definitive takes on all-time classics. "Idolizing" is a beautifully elegant piece, simple in its delivery but strikingly strong nevertheless. "Singin' the Blues ("˜Till My Daddy Comes Home)" features his most famous solo, which is considered a strong influence on the "cool jazz" style that evolved in the 1950's. Both "Ol' Man River" and "Blue River" are standards of a sort, but done so well here that Beiderbecke's rendition will likely become the definitive take on the material to me. Both bury the well-known lyrics in the midst of lengthy solos, allowing Beiderbecke's melodies to carry the songs, to the point that the lyrics almost seem incidental to the experience.
Unlike many other geniuses who went unheralded in their lives (Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday come to mind in jazz, with "geniuses who died broke" like Beethoven and Phillip K. Dick not far behind), Beiderbecke hasn't attained mainstream prominence, yet jazz scholars consider him one of the forefathers of the genre, and he is named by many jazz cornetists as one of their greatest influences. Never fully recognized during his life, Beiderbecke has come, to me at least, to represent the sound of a decade, and to serve as a benchmark in the development of jazz as a genre.
Released in 1987, Eric B and Rakim's Paid in Full arrived in the midst of the "golden age of hip hop," and Rakim is credited with pioneering the use of internal rhymes in hip hop, setting a high lyrical standard and also laying out the template many later greats would emulate. The album announces itself as a monumental achievement from the outset: opening track "I Ain't No Joke" sounds from its title like yet another example of hip hop self-aggrandizing (and it is, of course), but Rakim demands attention with his skill from the outset. Most rappers of the period were busting rhymes about their unparalleled greatness; few used those tracks to back up their claims the way Rakim does here. It's one thing to claim you are not a joke; its quite another to be able to effectively use that claim to convince people you're serious. All too often, someone begging to be taken seriously is less likely to be done so as a result, but Rakim is a force of nature from the outset, and the track would have made me sit up and take notice even if it had been called "Track One."
"Paid in Full" opens with Eric B and Rakim calling out their production team, followed by the DJ saluting his "def beat" and asking Rakim to match it with some "def rhymes," thus allowing the duo to realize on the goal set out in the title (I will never get tired, by the way, of summarizing early hip hop songs, and thus making them sound far more complicated than they actually are. I find it far more entertaining than saying "it's a song about the two wanting to get all their money," and if you don't, I apologize for the next 45 weeks in advance). The beat in question is supplied by a variety of samples, which wisely call no attention to themselves and flow together so smoothly its hard to pick out the individual pieces even if that's the sort of thing you do, and Rakim brings his lyrical density to the track. Like "I Ain't No Joke," the title track is at base little more than a retread of a hip hop standard in which the artists talk about the piles of money their work will bring them, but again it is approached both lyrically and sonically with such force, it feels vital in a way few other tracks of its ilk ever manage.
"Eric B. is President" was the group's debut single, and also drummed up a fair deal of controversy, with producer Marley Marl often credited with handling production, a fact Eric B disputes. The track is far more interesting than the controversy surrounding it, sampling Fonda Rae's "Over Like a Fat Rat" to great effect. Talking Paid in Full to death seems largely like a waste of time, an exercise in futility of the sort I discussed above; this is an album that simply works, a combination of excellent beats and dense, well-delivered lyrics that represents one of the most satisfying pairings I have yet encountered. Paid in Full belies analysis, demanding instead to simply be experienced and enjoyed.
Oh boy. I've held off as long as I could on tackling easily the most iconic figure in an installment full of them: Johnny Cash. The Man in Black is not just the biggest country star of all time, he is a figure that has crossed over from country superstardom into the mainstream consciousness and become one of the most famous, celebrated, and emulated musicians of all time. If his duo of live albums recorded in prisons, 1968's At Folsom Prison and 1969's At San Quentin are any indication (and my familiarity with the rest of his career seems to back this up), his reputation is well deserved.
Opening with the humble, workmanlike "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," At Folsom Prison is credited with launching the entire subgenre of Outlaw Country, a fact that is hardly factually accurate but somehow manages to be true anyway. Cash had been hoping to record at the titular prison since he first recorded his legendary "Folsom Prison Blues" (the song that gave culture the phrase "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," and is perhaps the most important country song of all time as a result) in 1955, but it took him twelve years, a career derailing, and a struggle to get his drug habit under control to make it happen. Cash was clean and less than a year from marrying his muse, June Carter (who appears on the album, singing "Jackson" and "Give My Love to Rose" along with her future husband) when he finally got to realize his dream. The result was an hour long set from a man who knew full well what it meant to hit rock bottom, and who felt a camaraderie with the prisoners in his audience that few other artists could match.
At Folsom Prison topped our list of best live albums last year for a reason: it's a sterling collection of songs, performed excellently. Cash is in rare form, bantering freely with the audience between tracks that showcase his whiskey soaked vocals and ruminate, without ever sulking, on the darkness in men's souls and the mistakes that both Cash and his audience had made. Cash showcases some of his best outlaw songs, sad stories of men gone astray like "Joe Bean" and "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer," and invigorating tales of misbehavior like "Cocaine Blues." This isn't a greatest hits performance, it's a set well-calibrated to his audience, and Cash's enthusiasm for the material is keen throughout. This is a man who loved to sing, connected strongly to the material he was performing, and felt great empathy for the prisoners he was singing to, and all of this is apparent throughout.
The "sequel" album, At San Quentin could never top the stark beauty and newly rediscovered energy of its predecessor, but it makes up for its lack of originality with a set list that showcases some of Cash's best material, and with a larger feel to the proceedings, generated by the fact that the performance was also being recorded for broadcast on television. While At Folsom Prison is a better, more thematically focused album, At San Quentin has the more crowd-pleasing set list. From opening track "Big River" (where Cash tries, and fails, to replicate the magic of his "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" opening), the album is a raucous good time, a celebration of a man in a creative renaissance kicked off by the album's predecessor.
It is pretty hard to beat The Man in Black singing his best known work, too. From his ode to the struggles of maintaining a moral code, "I Walk the Line," (prior to which Cash rails against the strictures of the network-demanded set list, before playing a song that was very clearly on it) to "Ring of Fire," Cash constructs a dream of a set list. The album also finds room for the Shel Silverstein penned "A Boy Named Sue," and for my favorite of Cash's duets with Carter, "Daddy Sang Bass." When he wraps up the proceedings with a closing medley that highlights all of the personnel and runs back over the hits, it feels like a summing up. Ultimately, At San Quentin is a more commercial affair, but Cash still gives off the feel of a rebel refusing to be tied down, and the man still puts on a hell of a show.
Johnny Cash is almost certainly the biggest star country ever produced, and one of the most iconic American musicians of the twentieth century. What constitutes his best work is an open question (some would argue his earlier stuff is stronger, others would point to his American Recordings output, which ended his career, and provided some of my favorite songs of his, including his flat-out stunning cover of "Hurt"), but the legend of Johnny Cash can be traced back to At Folsom Prison, the show that had lived in the artist's dreams for over a decade and that he carried out to a tee. If country never gets better than it is on these two albums, it will still have given me music that will be in rotation for me for years to come, and if this feature never gives me a better country album, at least it has given me the chance to spend a good week with The Man in Black at his best.
Bix Beiderbecke set in motion the development of one of the great American genres, influencing generations of cornetists, but dying young and unrecognized, leaving behind music that captures the sound of a decade. Eric B. and Rakim delivered one of the strongest hip hop albums I have yet heard, a magical album that will certainly remain ingrained in my mind as part of the genre's "golden age." And Johnny Cash? He is a man of such towering influence and import, its intimidating to even try to write about him, and his prison albums are all they are built up to be and more. It would be impossible to capture the skill, importance, or influence of these artists in such a small space, and while I've tried to do so, I am sure it has left something to be desired. So instead of blathering on for a few hundred more words, I'll close this week with a simple request: go listen to these albums. You won't regret it.
Next Week on My Year in Lists:
We meet The Atomic Mr. Basie, listen to Biz Markie Goin' Off, and determine if The Byrds are in fact Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Read more My Year in Lists here