Friday, March 09, 2007

"Going Quietly Mad" / Al Kooper

One of the great unrecognized talents of rock music. This guy did everything: he played the organ solo on Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," he wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis and the Playboys; he produced the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" ; he was a founder of the Blues Project AND Blood Sweat & Tears (with typical bad timing, he left both before they made it big). He also released three solo albums that were essentials in my 1970s record collection: I Stand Alone, Easy Does It, and New York City (You're a Woman). I really need to convert my vinyl to digital files; these albums don't show up on iTunes and they're available only at collector prices on Amazon -- and I miss listening to Al Kooper.

I finally landed a copy of New York City at an excellent used record store in Amherst, Massachusetts -- fitting, since the sticker on my vinyl LP tells me that I bought it at a long-defunct record store named Baggins' End (how 70s is that?) in nearby South Hadley. I played this record constantly back in the day; these songs saturate that stratum of my consciousness, lying underground waiting to be excavated. All it takes for me is to think "I'm going mad" and this song is back on my mental turntable.

I see it as a companion piece to the Kinks' "Complicated Life". The singer's in a pretty fragile state from the get-go -- "I am sitting here so softly / I can hear my wristwatch ticking / Wish someone would come and help me / I'm going quietly mad." He's singing at the high end of his vocal range, eeriely doubled, and his tone is whinier and more nasal than usual. There's more than a drop of self-pity here -- hear the electric organ moaning softly under verse two -- but I'm not tempted to write him off. I've had those days myself. Part of it's the build-up of modern life's stresses ("Tried to read the morning paper / Couldn't make it past page one"), but other things are piling up as well ("Lost my job and my wallet too").

In the end, over his flailing piano chords and a mocking wah-wah guitar and harsh pounding drums, the lonely stricken refrain is what matters: "Wish that you were here to save me, baby / I'm going quietly mad." It's the "quietly" that kills me -- nobody in the big city seems to notice how he's unravelling. As the track runs out he messes around the speed of the vocals, until it's low and distorted and warped . . . he's officially gone round the bend. (That is, until two tracks later, when he comes boogieing back with "Back On My Feet".)

My recollection is hazy, but I think I was turned onto Kooper at a high school journalism conference by a couple of extremely hip girls who called themselves Toots and Babs; they seemed like an Evansville, Indiana, version of the Banger Sisters. They knew so much more about rock music than I did, I just sat by their stereo and drank it all in. I wonder if they knew what important doors they were opening for me?

Maybe that's why I get passionate sometimes about turning someone else onto new music. I'm just paying forward my debt to Toots and Babs -- it seems like the right thing to do. Go thou and do likewise.

1 comment:

Ron Kane said...

Al Kooper is fabulous!