You know I’ve smoked a lot of grass
O’ Lord, I’ve popped a lot of pills
But I never touched nothin’
That my spirit could kill
(Steppenwolf: The Pusher)
One of life’s truisms, along with It ain’t going to heal if you pick it, is that you don’t have to really like a film to love the soundtrack. One really good example of this, for me, is the Easy Rider soundtrack* . Now I realize that for some of you out there that very statement is an act of blasphemy akin to (censored) on a (censored)(censored) tied to a nun whilst (censored)(censored) a wombat, but you’re going to have to live with that. Okay it’s not a bad film and I can get my cultural rocks off on the sight of Hopper and Fonda in all their finery cruising those wide open highways on their beautiful machines taking the American Dream for a spin and I can understand its historical value, but hey, maybe you just needed to be there. Having never dropped acid with two prostitutes** in a cemetery in New Orleans may mean I can’t totally relate. I rather suspect it’s jealousy that my generation will never have such a clearly defined image of freedom and difference to relate to.
But surely what everyone in the whole wide world can relate to is the perfect synthesis of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ and the aforementioned sight of Hopper and Fonda in all their finery cruising those wide open highways on their beautiful machines in Easy Rider. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times of course and been subjected to all manner of lousy, semi-lousy and demi-lousy cover versions, to the point where it was just a song I heard, rather than listened to but I really, really enjoyed listening to it again properly today. It’s the sound of a band really firing on all cylinders at the right moment in time and with exactly the right production. Every element is just right, but the organ playing of John McGoldy is what really stands out for me. Is there a rocker alive who doesn’t experience a full firing of their pleasure synapses at the lines,
I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Moments like that are why music was invented. On a similar tip my second favourite song on the LP is also by Steppenwolf, ‘The Pusher’. Again, this is a great song, lean and spirited, crackling with a restraint that stops the full-on flame out that threatens behind the bars and being all the more potent for it. <This is all the Steppenwolf I own, does anyone out there know if they’re worth exploring much further?>
My other real highlight today was The Holy Modal Rounders ‘If You Want to be a Bird’, it’s just completely unhinged in a good way. It really is an acid-in-the-water-supply moment. I particularly love the way all its’ craziness is smuggled in via some real country fiddle and a deceptive stately pace. I knew absolutely nothing about HMR until I looked them up today and I’m now desperate to get a copy of The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders. The lyrics are sung with an almost cartoon-like mania and possibly, not really about being a bird^ just a hunch folks, but I think there may have been some of that recreational drug use going on back then. Just a hunch.
The other two greats for me are Jimi Hendrix ‘If Six was Nine’ – the lyrics about white-collar conservatives never sounding more apposite than in the context of the film and with a little mental substitution the Band ‘The Weight’ – there’s nothing too wrong with the version, by Smith, used on Easy Rider but it just isn’t as good, it doesn’t carry the, umm, weight of world-weariness and hope that the original does. ‘Don’t Bogart Me’, gives me a flicker of a smile and the Electric Prunes are different and that’s fine.
Now after that I have a bit of a problem.
I really don’t like The Byrds, and by extension Roger McGuinn. There, said it. I will readily admit that ‘Eight Miles High’ is great and I’d like ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ played at my funeral in 2099, because there is something about it that really moves me, but that’s it. No, I don’t like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. I couldn’t really tell you why and I do like 12-string guitars a lot. On Easy Rider, even though I am grooving along to the ideas of freedom and escape, I find ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’ trite and a bit unconvincing and ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’, ditto. Whilst it’s maybe not fair to blame Roger McGuinn for not being Bob Dylan, a crime that I myself am guilty of on occasion, his version of ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ is just f-ing awful! It takes one of Dylan’s most potent, razor-sharp tunes and almost my favourite Dylan lyric and just neuters them. The anger and heaviness in the original make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, this version makes me (censored)(censored) my (censored) up!
P.S – I bought my copy at an antiques fair in 1997 for £2, the vinyl (it’s an original copy) is beautiful, unscratched and unmarked, but crackles like a beast. I’ve even resorted to washing it without any appreciable improvement.
*okay so the proper title is Songs as Performed in the Motion Picture Easy Rider, but come on!
**one of whom then went on to record ‘Mickey’, possibly my joint favourite bit of eighties pop-nonsense ever
^If you want to be a bird
Why don’t you try a little flying
There’s no denying
It gets you high
Why be shackled to your feet
When you’ve got wings
You haven’t used yet
Don’t wait for heaven
Get out and fly
Just glide there
Through the clear air
Making figure eights
Through the pearly gates
Where the soul and the universe meet
If you want to be a bird
It won’t take much
To get you up there
But when you come down
Land on your feet