Sunday, August 25, 2013

Another Look at 'Another Self-Portrait'

The usually sensible Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money took on a heroic task for himself today: reviewing an album he’s neverheard. Actually, it's more than that: Lemieux is attacking a review of an album he’s never heard, and giving the reasons for why that review – of an album he’s never heard, remember – is not just wrong-headed, but downright corrupt.

The album in question is Dylan’s Another Self Portrait, and the review is David Fricke’s rave in Rolling Stone, which calls the record "one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released.” Lemieux thinks that record must perforce be terrible, because Self-Portrait was terrible (hilariously invoking Greil Marcus' contemporaneous outraged pan, as if a review then must be more correct than a review now), and this is mostly a compilation of outtakes from the Self-Portrait era, although it also includes the New Morning era.

Hey, I like Self-Portrait. The cover of “Let It Be Me” features some of Dylan’s tenderest singing (backed by astonishingly good Nashville pros), and the live version of “The Mighty Quinn,” recorded with the Band at the Isle of Wight, is, to my mind, one of the greatest things Dylan ever did. Other people like “Copper Kettle” or the cover of “The Boxer” (which Lemieux himself admits to liking).

Everyone seems to agree that there’s good stuff on Self-Portrait, mixed among way to much chaff. Fricke himself, in this review, describes the original album as “tough going.” If Another Self-Portrait manages to find more of the quality stuff while ignoring the types of songs nobody likes, it’s possible it could be a good record. I don’t know - I haven’t heard it! After all, it’s not like Dylan hasn’t left great material off albums before; Lemieux cites “Blind Willie McTell,” but there’s also “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Abandoned Love,” “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” etc. If he left stuff that good off albums he cared about, it’s highly plausible that he left good stuff off the haphazardly assembled Self-Portrait.

None of that is very interesting, though, and I wouldn’t bring it up if Lemieux hadn’t gone further and accused David Fricke of being dishonest in writing this review. I was fortunate enough to work with David for several years, and I along with everyone who worked alongside him saw him as the consummate professional. Musicians feel the same way; artists ranging from Thom Yorke to Warren Zevon (although I guess that’s just Y to Z) have agreed to sit for interviews with Rolling Stone only if David Fricke got the assignment. People don’t command that kind of respect if their opinions are for sale.

Ah, but Lemieux points out that a decade or so ago, Rolling Stone published an over-the-top five-star review of a Mick Jagger solo album, and that therefore this review must be similarly corrupt. Lemeixu has no way of knowing this, but that was a very different situation. Jagger wanted very much to be on the cover when his solo record came out, and Jann Wenner had enough sense to turn that down, but also ended up feeling guilty enough about it that he wanted to do something to compensate his longtime friend. (While Jann undoubtedly has tremendous respect for Dylan – who doesn’t? – they are not friends, not in the way he and Jagger are.)

And Wenner has no doubt paid the price for that. At this point, pretty much all anyone remembers about Mick Jagger’s solo career is that Rolling Stone published an embarrassing review of one of his albums. And also, there are people like Scott Lemieux who now think every review published in Rolling Stone is dishonest.

But you won’t find David Fricke’s name anywhere near that Jagger review, and it’s an insult to say that based on that episode, Fricke’s work must be suspect as well. Fricke may be right about Another Self-Portrait, and he may be wrong – I don’t know, because I haven’t heard the record! – but I am 100 percent certain that his opinion was come by honestly. He evinced similar enthusiasm for Tell Tale Signs, Dylan’s collection of outtakes from his late-career renaissance, excitedly writing about how you could trace the decisions Dylan was making in his singing as the takes progressed. I guess Lemieux would say that review was bought and sold as well.

On the other hand, Christmas in the Heart got only three stars in Rolling Stone, and Together Through Life four stars. I guess Jann felt it was better to butter up Dylan with inflated reviews of his outtakes rather than of his current material. The review that Lemeiux sees as so obviously corrupt awards Another Self-Portrait four and a half stars, while the reader consensus on the RS Web site awards it four stars; that extra half star must be the one that really matters to the Dylan camp.

Or maybe David Fricke just liked the record. Maybe it really is that good – I don’t know! I haven’t heard it! Since I haven’t, I’ll take the word of a highly respected rock critic who has listened carefully to the album over that of someone who hasn’t heard it (and can’t even be bothered to spell Fricke’s name correctly in his attack). Someone comes off looking pretty bad in this exchange, and it isn’t David Fricke.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Unrehearsed Program of News and Opinions

Issue One: Jack Germond, dead at the age of 85.
For you kiddies too young to remember, "The McLaughlin Group" – an unrehearsed program of news and opinions – was pretty much all we had back in the 1980s as far as political shoutmatches go. CNN was in its infancy, blogs and the Internet weren’t even that far, but every Sunday morning, we could tune in to four journalists and a sybaritic priest* arguing over the issues of the day.

John McLaughlin had been a Jesuit priest and unofficial advisor to the Nixon administration before being defrocked and turning to TV, roughly in that order. He was joined each weekend on his PBS chatfest by the rumpled, cynical Baltimore columnist Jack Germond, who served basically as the group’s Tip O’Neill, an old-fashioned big-city liberal. He was joined by some combination of Eleanor Clift as Pat Schroeder, Fred Barnes as Trent Lott, Morton Kondracke as Sam Nunn, and Pat Buchanan as Pat Buchanan. (They’d also occasionally flatter someone like Mortimer Zuckerman – whose journalism experience consisted of owning U.S. News and World Report – by treating them as if anyone cared about their opinions.)

Issue Two: Does the World Need Another Teddy White?
Germond, along with his partner Jules Witcover, wrote quadrennial doorstops on the presidential elections. I was unfortunate enough to buy and read “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” their book on the 1988 campaign. Not only was the Bush-Dukakis race one of the dullest elections in American history, but they had to misfortune to be outclassed that cycle by one of the best election books ever, Robert Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.” I would quote you something from “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” but I left it in a box labeled FREE BOOKS long ago.

Issue Three: A Stinking Pile of Crap
The genius of "The McLaughlin Group" was that it was the first show to recognize that politics could be fun, especially if it was largely substance-free. No one made any pretense that anyone was being enlightened by it. In an Esquire article on the show, Eleanor Clift called it “the Super Bowl of bullshit.” McLaughlin generally acted like such a buffoon that he was eventually lampooned by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.”

Fred Barnes may have kidded himself that he was making a serious case for something or other, but Germond never fell for that. He made no bones about the fact that he was doing the show for the money. Once his daughter finished medical school, Germond quit the show. He sent John McLaughlin a fax reading simply, “Bye-bye.”

It would be nice if Germond would be remembered for one of his campaign books, or for his charmingly titled memoir "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," but heck, I haven’t even read that. He’ll be remembered as someone who held the banner for old-fashioned liberalism in a period of Reaganism and New Democrats, and as someone who made politics fun. Let’s hope he’s not remembered as someone who paved the way for the likes of "George" and "Politico."

Next week: How much longer can Mort Kondracke hold on?


* Epithet courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson.