Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Don't Play on the Molten Lava

Episode III. Nightmare IV. Really, it's all been downhill since those cute, cuddly Ewoks/Koalas made their appearance in Return of the Jedi.

Revenge of the Sith, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. One, Anakin was a whiny brat before he transformed into the Asthmatic Machine. I didn't buy the whole Anakin transformation, partly because Hayden Christensen is such a wooden actor. But also because the script simply didn't set it up credibly. For all its Greek Tragedy trappings, ROTS ignores one of the primary elements of tragedy: the tragic hero has to be somewhat likeable. This is why you'll never see Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddly Squat starring as Othello. And although George Lucas throws a few lines at Hayden to make him look ostensibly human and sympathetic, the lines are so laughably bad ("No, baby, I love you") that it's hard not to cheer on his downfall and fervently hope that he'll never utter sweet nothings again. It's a wonder that this guy wasn't cruising the intergalactic bars, asking nubile starwomen their astrological signs.

Two, the little green furball. Annoying he is, as always, particularly in his blithering eastern pop psychology. Baba Ram Yoda. We find that once again the beliefs of the Jedi are as fuzzy as the top of the little furball's head. Emotional attachments are bad, but Obi Wan tries one last time to rescue Anakin because he loves him like a brother. Only a Sith deals in absolutes, but the Jedi believe that the Emperor is pure evil. Huh? Let's take up a collection and send the little guy to Logic 101 class, shall we? Here's the first syllogism: 1) All Jedi are lobotomized, babbling buffoons. 2) Yoda is a Jedi. 3) ?

And although I like to see a green puppet kick butt as much as the next guy, spare me the backflips. This is a puppet who hobbles along with a cane. Then turns into Bruce Lee he suddenly does.

Three, the light sabers ad nauseum. I didn't think it was possible, but I was actually bored by all the light saber sequences. Enough already. And the "climactic" light saber duel between Obi Wan and Darthboy? Please. Most evil dark lords know better than to play on the molten lava. Somebody can get hurt that way.

Four, the writing. Oh my God, the writing. Let’s start with the character names. Mace Windu? It’s a glass cleaner. It’s a rapist repellant. It’s both. General Grievous? Hmm, you think he might be a bad guy? Then there is the aforementioned romantic dialogue, in which George Lucas proves that he’s never encountered a genuinely human emotion in his life. Poor Natalie Portman is forced to utter perhaps the most inane lines ever committed to film. "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo," I said to Kate after we went to bed last night. She laughed, which was the same reaction we both had when we first heard the line in the movie. Then she held me like ... well, never mind. At least the day ended well. On the upside, the previews for War of the Worlds looked great, so there is a new hope.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Soundtrack to Greed

We are running out of space for music at my house. This is a frightening thing in a 3,000+ square foot house with lots of closet space, but there you go. The den is crammed solid -- two floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of CDs, and two freestanding bookcases that take up the width of the room crammed full of LPs. Which still doesn't leave any room for the tapes and the other half of the LPs, which are stashed in various closets and cabinets throughout the house. And music publicists keep sending me more and more new music, to the tune of one or two new CDs per day.

Kate, being Kate, has suggested a music purge. I, being me, have rejected the idea out of hand, in the same way that I would reject a suggestion to amputate my nose. But something has to be done, and not only because of the space. I really do read my Bible, and I know the solution is not to build bigger and better storage bins. And, in truth, about half of what shows up in my mailbox isn't very good, and it wouldn't kill me to just throw a lot of it away. Or, even better, to sell it and use the money to help people. But it's still painful to contemplate.

It's the age-old struggle to let go of stuff. I am a good American consumer, or at least I was until people started sending me music for free. I don't know what you call that, but the same dynamic and the same heart attitudes are still at work, even if I'm not making the cash registers of the capitalists at Capitol Records go cha-ching. But there's a kind of sickness there that I need to repent of, and from which I desire to be healed. Some days. Other days I zealously guard the music collection, find the holes in the alphabetized stacks, immediately calculate what isn't there, notice when one disk from the four-disk Frank Sinatra Reprise Years boxed set is missing, and play Spanish Inquisitor with my daughters to find out which one of them has done the dastardly deed. Look, that was the disk that had "Fly Me to the Moon" on it. I can't just calmly accept that it's gone, even though I could take solace in the other 5,000 or so albums that are still there (who knows, really? I stopped counting at 3,000, when it dawned on me that it probably wasn't a very good idea to count). And so, in some twisted way, I choose to do damage to relationships because of a missing piece of plastic. As I said, it's a kind of sickness.

Sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor. And he went away sad, for lo, he had one righteous music collection. I read the letters my friend John McCollum receives from orphans in Thailand. They are heartbreaking. I look at the stacks and stacks of albums, many of which I've played once, and have no great desire to ever play again. These kids have no clothes, no food. I, on the other hand, have a CD by a band called I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the Place that is godawful, and that I have no desire to ever listen to again. Once was more than enough. And I have many CDs like that one. It is a measure of my weakness and obstinancy that I still hesitate. Maybe it's time to lose the nose. Or at least a batch of worthless music that might actually, incredibly, help to make a difference in peoples' lives.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Paste Issue #16

Paste Issue #16 is out. Billy Corgan (ex-Smashing Pumpkins) is on the cover, and there are long feature articles on Beck, The Wallflowers, Oasis, John Prine, Michelle Shocked, and The Pernice Brothers, a bunch of movie reviews, and 100+ album reviews. Plus the 21-track CD of songs from artists featured in the magazine, and a DVD containing more than 3 hours of music videos, concert footage, and short films.

Josh Jackson, the editor, has unofficially dubbed this one the "Andy Whitman Tribute Issue." And indeed I am well represented, with feature articles on Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, and Steve Goodman, my meditation on "Chasing the Blues," and reviews of albums from Amos Lee, Long-View, The Deathray Davies, and Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez. The main illustration for "Chasing the Blues" is simply astounding.

This is now the sixteenth time I've experienced this reaction, but it never gets old. I am so amazed and so thankful that I can be a part of this. Paste is a wonderful magazine, and I would be a big fan if I had absolutely no involvement with the publication. The fact that they actually allow me to write for them is gravy. Very nice, God-given gravy, for which I am very, very grateful.

If you're interested, you can go to http://www.pastemusic.com/mag to subscribe, or find individual copies at Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Desert Island Albums

This is the oldest musical thread in the world. But I’m curious to know which ten albums you would take with you to that mythical desert island.

Part of the fun, and part of the challenge, of course, is narrowing it down to ten albums. So here are mine, today. The list would probably change tomorrow. I hope it goes without saying that these are my choices, and they may not be, and probably won’t be, yours. So what are yours?

(In no implied order other than alphabetical)

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo – This album was my introduction to the real deal – truckstop jukebox, cry-in-yer-beer country music -- and from here it was an easy step to The Flying Burrito Brothers (essentially this version of The Byrds minus Roger McGuinn), then the solo Gram Parsons albums, then Emmylou Harris, who introduced me to the music of the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, etc. In short, I was off and running. I hated country music before this album, thought it was the exclusive domain of rednecks and inbred cretins. But something changed in my freshman year of college, off in a town I did not know, when I first heard “It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real/In a faraway city with a faraway feel.” This music started to connect in deep ways. Here’s the secret: country music – the real thing, not the swill made by Nashville popsters in cowboy hats – is pure soul music. And Sweetheart of the Rodeo has incredible soul, and it was made by a bunch of hippies who made it palatable for my generation.

Bruce Cockburn – Humans – Bruce Cockburn has been a musical hero to me for thirty years, Exhibit A in how to express complex Christian truths poetically and movingly. He’s also an astoundingly gifted guitarist and a ceaseless synthesizer of virtually every musical genre imaginable. Ironically, in later albums he abandons his poetic sensibilities when he addresses political issues, and he is guilty of the worst kind of dogma and polemical ranting. But Humans finds him in perfect musical and lyrical form – that is, if working through the devastating effects of a divorce can ever be said to be perfect. In any event, he is bloody, damaged goods here, and these jazz-tinged folk songs are raw, open wounds full of sorrow, pain, and ultimately, astonishingly, hope.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue – It’s the obvious choice, but it’s obvious for good reasons. This was, unfortunately, the second Miles Davis album I encountered. The first, Bitches Brew, struck me as a meandering, noodling, aimless mess, and I avoided jazz for years afterwards. But Kind of Blue finally connected the dots for me. It was structured enough to follow, and it was loose and improvisational enough to showcase the astonishing creative powers of the three primary soloists – trumpeter Davis, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and pianist Bill Evans. Evans’ composition “Blue in Green,” (and the trumpet solo Miles takes on that song) is as close as I’ve ever gotten to a religious experience listening to music. It is simultaneously exhilarating, relaxing, and supremely, beautifully lyrical.

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited – It could just as easily have been Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks. But I’ll go with Highway 61 … because it contains the single greatest song ever recorded (“Like a Rolling Stone”), because it contains the universe’s only thirteen-minute song that leaves you hanging on every word (“Desolation Row”), and because, contrary to popular belief, Bob Dylan is one of popular music’s greatest singers, pouring unbridled passion and sneering contempt into every song.

Al Green – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 – I’m cheating, I know. But there is no way I can limit my love for Al Green to one album, and this greatest hits collection, culled from his early ‘70s albums on Motown, offers one stunning example after another of the last pure soul singer, tossing off gritty sexual asides and gliding into that impossibly great falsetto. The genius of Al Green is that he is obsessed with love, sexual and divine, and it’s often impossible to tell the difference. He brings a whole new meaning to incarnational theology.

Brad Mehldau – Elegiac Cycle – Most “third stream” music -- music that strives to incorporate both classical and jazz elements – fails miserably. Most solo piano albums are snoozefests. So why is it that this classical/jazz hybrid succeeds so well? Partly because Brad Mehldau is a towering pianist, someone who has mastered both the classical and jazz repertoires and can move effortlessly between them, tossing stabbing Keith-Jarrett like improvisational runs into the Rachmaninoff sturm and drang. But mostly because Mehldau is an incurable romantic, and finds the heart of melancholy and loss again and again in these nine original songs. He spins impossibly knotty lines, twisting and cavorting, slicing and dicing these heartbreaking melodies before he brings it all back to the lovely place from which he started.

Joni Mitchell – Blue – Navel gazing elevated to high art. Joni Mitchell has the uncanny ability to lay bare the most intimate details of her personal life and make them universal. Like Bob Dylan, who once turned a snub from a hotel clerk into the apocalyptic nightmare of “When The Ship Comes In,” Joni Mitchell works her magical alchemy, transforming the slightest of personal incidents into works of poetic insight and grandeur. For my money, outside of anyone named Zimmerman, she’s the greatest popular songwriter of the last half of the twentieth century. On Blue she is running from and toward love – a familiar Joni theme – simultaneously scared of commitment and drawn like a moth to the flame of human connection, of needing to matter to someone. As usual, she is poetically ambivalent, celebrating the joys of new love in “All I Want,” and ruefully lamenting the wreckage of failed relationships in “River” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out,” she sings at the end of the album. “I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table/I got nothin’ to talk to anybody about.” I’ve been happily married for twenty-three years. But I remember that feeling. And Joni conjures it better than anyone else, and reminds me of the high stakes in the human poker game.

Van Morrison – St. Dominic’s Preview – Van Morrison is the greatest singer of the rock ‘n roll era. Period. He can also be a great songwriter, effortlessly turning out great R&B/soul rave-ups like “Jackie Wilson Said” and “I Will Be There,” as he does on this album. But he’s at his best when he plays the spiritual poet/sorcerer, following his Muse into spaces extremely weird, extremely mystical, and extremely great. “Listen to the Lion,” the tour de force of this album, is eleven minutes of humming, moaning, roaring and scatting, Van breaking free of the limitations of language, off into the mystic and in pursuit of the ineffable. It will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Vigilantes of Love – Killing Floor – If Flannery O’Connor was a man and manic-depressive, she/he would be Bill Mallonee. Which is kind of scary, if you think about it. But Bill’s songs remind me of Flannery for many reasons, not the least of which is the way that grace breaks through, often unlooked for, in the darkest and most despairing of circumstances. I also greatly appreciate the fact that Bill writes songs from the perspective of a Christian who does not have his life together. He has questions, he has doubts, he sins. Kind of like an actual human being. Of course, it helps that he has great folk-punk energy, nowhere better evidenced than on this album, and that he comes up with some astoundingly wonderful metaphors.

Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – You can smell the Louisiana dirt in Lucinda Williams’ music. No songwriter captures a sense of place as well as Lucinda, and on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road she explores the American Deep South with finely detailed geographical and personal reflections. Like Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road," this album is a travelogue in which much more is revealed than can ever be found on a roadmap. These songs are explorations of charred expanses, bleak vistas, deep holes, but they’re as often found within as they are in the surrounding landscape. Williams has always been a great songwriter; here she hitches her great songs to a tougher, rootsier, more organic sound that matches her raspy vocals perfectly. She howls her poetry into the southern wind. And it comes out of my speakers sounding like universal truth.

I can’t believe I couldn’t find room on this island for Aretha Franklin, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dick Dale, The Beatles, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen, Thelonious Monk, The Ramones, The Carter Family, Bill Evans, Muddy Waters, Arvo Part, Norman Blake, Richard Thompson, The Louvin Brothers, Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, Sam Phillips, American Music Club, Victoria Williams, Sonny Rollins, Nick Drake, The Blasters, Talk Talk, The Who, Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello, Derek and the Dominoes, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, The Sex Pistols, The Blue Nile, Sufjan Stevens, Otis Redding, Big Star, Paul Simon, James Brown, Peter Gabriel, solo John Lennon, Sandy Denny, The Innocence Mission, Steve Earle, The Replacements, Mavis Staples, The Band, Frank Sinatra, Mark Heard, Henryk Gorecki, Joe Henry, Charlie Parker, X, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Jackson Browne, Kate Rusby, Howlin’ Wolf, Uncle Tupelo, Tonio K., Red House Painters, Buddy and Julie Miller, The Beach Boys, Los Lobos, The Pixies, Leo Kottke, The Clash, Johnny Cash, Matthew Sweet, Elvis Presley, The Pogues, Merle Haggard, Graham Parker, John Tavener, U2, or Radiohead. You’ll find them crowded together on the next island over.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I have fairly significant hearing loss in my left ear, and a moderate amount of hearing loss in my right ear. This is not good for someone who tries to play rock ‘n roll critic. It turns out that it’s not good for family dynamics, either.

Right now both of my ears are blocked. I’m going to the ENT doctor later this week, and that will help restore me to my normal significant/moderate hearing loss levels, and will allow me to use everyone’s favorite symbol of rock ‘n roll rebellion – the hearing aid – to hear almost normally. But for now you might as well try to communicate with me using ASL. Unfortunately, I don’t know ASL, and the only sign I feel like making involves extending my middle finger to just about everyone. If I encounter you during these times, please know that it’s not your fault. But I am frustrated and angry, and apt to be in a foul mood. The good news is that you can say all kinds of nasty things to me in return, and I won’t hear you.

Sunday mornings tend to bring these kinds of issues into focus, in both good and bad ways. We headed for church, and I popped one of my favorite CDs into the car’s CD player. The protests began, as they usually do, almost immediately, ranging from “Turn that off!” to “Turn that down!” Variety, the spice of life. I switched CDs, opting for a more crowd-pleasing mix. No matter. It was still too loud. So I turned it down. And then I couldn’t hear it, although everyone else could apparently hear it just fine. So I turned off the music, sulked, pouted, and generally went out of my way to let everyone else know how unhappy I was. And they’ll know we are Christians by our sullenness.

Then we strolled into church, late as usual, and the worship band was playing some rockin’, upbeat tune about the transformative power of Jesus. Yee haw. Here is your New Creation, O God, pissed at the world, probably pissed at You, most certainly pissed at the three people I love the most. Lift up those holy hands.

I didn’t want to worship. I wanted to sulk. But I figured that I might as well at least level with God and tell Him that. So I did. And I don’t normally hear from God, but I think I distinctly heard God tell me, “Whatever.” That was it. “Whatever.” God as Valley Girl. A little later the band played a song whose chorus is “Break these chains, set me free,” and that one seemed to make some sense, so I prayed that, too. I didn’t feel any different afterwards. I didn’t feel particularly spiritually renewed and cleansed. But at least I could sing that one and mean it. I am tired of being led by the nose by my ears. I am tired of being held captive by my circumstances and my emotions. I’m tired of not being able to hear. Break these chains. Set me free.

On the way home we stopped by Best Buy and I bought some headphones. Now I can blast away and not shake the walls and alarm the neighbors and drown out every other sound in the house. “Be careful not to play the music too loud,” Kate told me. “You can damage your ears.” It was a bit like telling Darth Vader not to breathe too loudly. You work with what you’ve got.

And maybe it’s worthwhile to take inventory of what you’ve got. I thought about that later, after some time and some distance had allowed me to gain some perspective. I’ve got lousy ears and people who are willing to pay me to tell them what I hear. I have a wife and kids who love me in spite of my sullenness and pouting. I’m a part of a wonderful church I dearly love, surrounded by new friends, and I’m growing slowly, painfully more in love with a God who speaks in Valley Girl aphorisms. It is that still small voice that is barely discernible for those who have ears to hear, and sometimes even for those who don’t.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Mr. Darcy Rides to Tattooine

Ever wonder what would happen if Darth Vader appeared in a Jane Austen novel? No? I did. Some people have way too much time on their hands.

Scene 1 (Outside the Skywalker Estate)

Darcy: (hurriedly dismounts, hair disheveled) My fair horse is fully lathered. She must be bedded for the night.

Elizabeth: (disconsolately, under her breath) Aye, would that it were true for me! Alas!

Vader: (emerging from nearby galactic ballroom) Seize him!

Elizabeth: Come, sir, your jesting makes you tiresome. Mr. Darcy has just arrived. He must have refreshments.

Vader: (brandishes light saber, which hums ominously) I said seize him! (Storm troopers emerge from front parlor)

Elizabeth: (steps in front of storm troopers) Stop, shiny white metallic men! Come, let us partake of tea and biscuits that taste like chalk. Surely our differences can be resolved through arcane English rituals.

Vader: (begrudingly) Oh, okay. (To stormtroopers) No more than two scones apiece, or you will feel my wrath!

Scene 2 (In the Tea Garden)

Elizabeth: Don't eat too much, my dearest companions. We don't want to spoil the roast pheasant.

Pad Thai: (somnambulantly) With noodles? Where is my tiara? Where is my prescription?

Yoda: Good this tea is, yes. What call it, do you?

Elizabeth: Constant Comment, my green friend. It is the English way.

Yoda: Like it I do, very much. (Squints eyes, makes furrowed Yoda face, wiggles fingers and levitates teacup in the air). Very light it is, yes.

Elizabeth: (aside) Such a noble, pointy-eared countenance. (To Yoda): Indeed, kind sir. Have you met Mr. Darcy's dear sister, Georgianna ?

Yoda: Met her I have, yes. Most beautiful. She could be Jedi, yes?

Elizabeth: You darling, silly man. Puppet. Whatever. Is that short for Jedediah?

Yoda: Short, yes. Short I am. Green, too. But Jedediah I know not.

Vader: (upturns tea table) Enough of this inane prattle. Seize them all!

Darcy: (rises, incensed, and throws down his glove in front of Vader). How dare you, sir! You make a mockery of human decency and manners! I challenge you to a duel, sabers tomorrow at noon!

Vader: (brandishes light saber, annihilates glove, then cleaves Darcy down the middle). You lose. (Elizabeth shrieks, then faints. General pandemonium ensues.)

Pad Thai: Oh, wow. Has anyone seen my Xanax?

(Curtain falls. Pompous John Williams music signals end of play.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Miserable Experience/iPod Envy

I have been reading the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for what seems like forever, although in reality it has only been three weeks or so. I have just passed the halfway point. Only 700 pages of tiny print to go.

They sure don’t write ‘em like this anymore, which is both a good and a bad thing. The book is ridiculously long, and riddled with tangents, some of which go on for fifty or more pages. In the middle of the story Hugo drops in an excruciatingly detailed 60-page account of the Battle of Waterloo. Why? Dieu only knows, because the battle has only the tiniest of connections with the plot. I’ve also encountered page after page of description of the beliefs and practices of an obscure Parisian convent, and a lengthy treatise on the Paris sewer system. I’m sure I’ll encounter more detours in the second half of the book.

That said, the novel is amazing, and everything I had hoped it would be. The story is moving, beautiful, and full of grace, in both the literary and theological senses. I know that a very famous musical is based on this book. I know people who normally hate musicals tend to love this particular one. And I am tempted to check it out. But only tempted. Eventually I come to my senses and remember that I hate musicals, no matter the source material. Now a Les Miserables Thick as a Notre Dame Brick progressive rock suite I could handle.

In other musical musings, I am experiencing iPod envy. My daughter Rachel bravely entered the iPod world last week. And I want my own iPod. I think. But what I really want doesn’t exist. I want the iPod that will hold 5,000 albums, not 5,000 songs, and I want it to automatically include all of the songs in my vinyl collection after I magically wave it in front of the stacks.

Mostly I fear the death of the glorious Album. I don’t care about the format. The album can come on vinyl, it can come on CD, it can come on 8-track tape for that matter. But I like the idea of buying a collection of songs. Sure, it’s a rare album where every song works. But there are many, many albums where the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts, even if some of the parts are better than others. Now with the ascension of iTunes and the resurrection of Napster I fear that the idea of a collection of songs will go the way of the dodo, the Edsel, and the gatefold album cover. Now it’s all about the song, at 99 cents a shot.

And this is simple Old Fart grousing, but when it comes right down to it I like the physicality, the massed thereness, of good, old-fashioned albums. I like the Space Age Bachelor Pad feel of walking into a room that is filled with vinyl and CDs. Enter the shrine if you dare. Yes, it’s idolatry. Damn it, I admit it. But where’s the fun in having eight gazillion songs in something smaller than your wallet? They should make an iPod the size of a Buick for something like that. Yeah, I know, it probably wouldn’t be portable (but think about this: Buicks have wheels; why not the iPod?).

So maybe I don’t want an iPod after all. But I’m glad Rachel has hers. Rachel is a great fan of musicals. And now she has little earphones.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Shawn Phillips: Arias for the Common Man

A new article for Paste Magazine ...


Bruce Springsteen once remarked that Roy Orbison was the only truly operatic singer in rock music. With no disrespect intended toward the great Mr. Orbison, it is apparent that Bruce never heard Shawn Phillips.

Shawn Phillips was and is the original cosmic contra-tenor – a hippie Pavarotti with a waist-length ponytail and a buckskin jacket, a sometimes gifted songwriter with a mastery of several stringed instruments, a prodigious vocal range, and, by most accounts, a formidably drug-shrouded mind. He stopped making albums in the late 1970s, and I had pictured him as the quintessential hippie burnout, the slacker/stoner who flamed out in his mid-thirties and disappeared from the public eye. As usual, the truth is something far different and far more complex, driven more by the vagaries of the music industry than by personal demons or tragedy. In any event, Shawn Phillips may be the greatest singer you’ve never heard. And even if you’ve paid close attention to the music of the past twenty-five years, there’s a good chance you’ve not heard him. Thirty-five years after he played in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, Shawn Phillips is a nearly forgotten man.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard The Voice. Phillips’ “Song for Mr. C.,” from his 1971 album Second Contribution, was played fairly frequently on Chicago FM radio stations in the early 1970s, and the greasy R&B of that song reminded me of the grit of Leon Russell and Lee Michaels, blue-eyed soul men who were popular at the time. I snatched up the album, thinking that I was in for more of the same. What I got was something altogether different and altogether less prone to easy categorization: tender love ballads that sounded like Johnny Mathis with testosterone, sweeping, romantic strings, strutting R&B horns, sitars, progressive jazz, hushed acoustic folk music with exquisite six-string fingerpicking, and, on “The Ballad of Casey Deiss,” the sound of the human voice soaring into the heavens. A conventional folk ballad for its first four minutes, it suddenly took a turn for the celestial when Phillips’ pure falsetto spiraled upward, more upward, impossibly upward until I could not believe the notes I was hearing. It was my introduction to the most remarkable voice of the singer/songwriter era.

If that voice borrowed influences from almost everywhere it is perhaps because Phillips lived almost everywhere. A military brat who grew up in Texas, Mexico, and Tahiti, he traveled in his young adulthood to California, London (where he befriended Donovan in his Flower Power phase and spent time with Lennon and McCartney), and Paris before finally settling down in the picturesque Italian fishing village of Positano, where he lived throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Phillips absorbed the music around him, from Texas to India, and it all found its way into his own songs. As a result, he made relentlessly eclectic music, impossible to pin down and label. He recorded nine albums for A&M Records between 1970 and 1977. The best of them were bunched at the beginning of the decade – the trio of Collaboration, Second Contribution, and Faces. They rank as some of the most beautiful, ethereal albums to emerge from the singer/songwriter movement.

Unfortunately, much of Phillips’ music sounds hopelessly dated now, the product of the patchouli-scented times in which it was made. It has not aged well, and the sitar drones and “love your brother, man” sentiments only serve to highlight the naiveté and excesses of the Age of Aquarius. The voice still sounds exquisite – soulful, passionate, and gritty on one song, light as a feather and soaring the next. But the song titles tell another story: “Spaceman,” “What’s Happenin’, Jim!” and the ridiculously named, impossibly lovely “She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station in Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh.” Far out. And therein lies the problem. To listen to Shawn Phillips is to be confronted with stark contrasts. With the possible exception of Al Green, never has a human voice combined such earthy soul with such a soaring, angelic falsetto. And never has such an otherworldly, gorgeous human voice been placed in the service of such hazily muddled hippie tripe.

What renders the tripe palatable, even highly listenable, is The Voice. Possessing a three-octave range that could move effortlessly between a natural baritone and the most astonishing falsetto I’ve ever heard, Phillips sang not so much songs as hippie arias, impossibly dramatic mini-operas that showcased his evocative passion and startling vocal range. If the words have not always aged well, the good news is that the falsetto is often wordless. And it is singing of the highest order; of an unearthly order, for that matter.

Today, Phillips is 62 years old and lives outside Austin, Texas, where he works as a fireman. “I had two dreams as a kid,” he says. “I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star, and I wanted to drive a big, red truck. I’ve been able to do both.” He’s recorded two albums in the new millennium, his first recorded output in nearly twenty-five years. The second album, 2003’s No Category, was the gift of his longtime fans, who donated more than $20,000 toward the recording expenses. The man who sold over three million albums in the 1970s was broke.

He still has the waist-length ponytail, his once light brown hair now shot through with grey. And he still has The Voice, now a little weathered by the years and the miles. His infrequent concerts still find him soaring impossibly upward, trying to find a place to alight that is not of this earth.