I once heard someone saying that, given the ubiquity of 70s ranch-style housing, Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot to answer for. He was the source, and a very affective one, of a revisioning of domestic architecture. And while his prairie homes look as lively and affective today as they did when they were made, split-level ranch homes … um … don’t. The two styles are related, yet also underscore an important lesson in innovation and imitation.
I think that the Grateful Dead are like Wright in that sense, and we could say that they too have got a lot to answer for. They introduced some important musical ideas—stream of conscious lyrics, odd juxtapositions, loping guitar solos, a wash of sound—that perhaps solidified into a genre that, at the time, was fresh and inspiring. By and large it had some staying power, and if meaning was fluid and evasive, it somehow made its own kind of sense. Someone might think they know what “China Cat Sunflower” is about—the “silk trombone,” the “double-e waterfall” the “crazy quilt star gown through a dream night wind”—but they might just as easily be wrong. Still, for whatever reason, it seems to work. You may not love it, but it would be hard to write off entirely.
The problem, though, is that it looks easy. It seems that all you need are odd juxtapositions, a streaming consciousness, some loping guitar licks, and the result will have some sort of merit. Silent Bear, on their new album The Green Lion, unwittingly demonstrate that the formula is actually a bit trickier than that. If Christopher Guest thought to make a Spinal-Tap-style parody of psychedelic jam bands, this album could provide the soundtrack. Offered for ridicule, it would be hilarious.
Taken seriously, however, it’s just awkward. The Green Lion of the title and the cover art is an alchemic sign with a range of convoluted meaning, exactly the kind of thing that 20-somethings use to impress co-eds at toga parties. For the rest of us, it’s hard not to sigh and roll your eyes. In “Carrie,” the narrator of the song tries to impress the titular woman by saying “Your words are like fishhooks baited with fire/Your red hair is flaming like a bus that is burning.” Hunh? Elsewhere she’s “hiding behind bells, untorn and untattered/Like a Sphinx in the desert, unriddled by care.” The descriptors then turn to a direct harangue. Through a haze of Hammond B3 licks and swells, the narrator asks if she knows “the books of the writers who wrote on typewriters?/What do you see when you look in the mirror? Is it yesterday’s face on a finger of dawn?” Um, maybe. With the typewriters, are you thinking manual or electric?
That’s the first song on the album and, moving on from there, we get philosophers’ stones, Kerouac, angels, transformations, unicorns, peace, Mother Earth, Mercury … your basic grab bag of tired allusions and half-assed mythology.
Fine. But the reason that you’ll have heard of this album, if you’ve heard of it at all, is because Pete Seeger guests on two tracks, one of which is “Freedom for Leonard Peltier (Bring Him Home).” Peltier was the subject of an unfair trial, and is currently serving two life sentences. The impulse behind the song is laudable in the way that Dylan’s “Hurricane” and Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line are. If there has been a miscarriage of justice, sometimes it requires more than the courts to correct it. Certainly it’s because of the issue, not the art, that Seeger appears on this recording. His banjo is instantly recognizable and his voice is there in the mix, and he’s using both to draw attention to the issue of Peltier’s conviction. Fair enough, though if the song were better, less literal, and if the flute went flat a bit less often, it certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
Seeger also appears on “Ode to the Peace Master” reading the text of a poem, and it’s by far the most effective piece on the album. It’s a short track, meant as an introduction to the song “Teach Peace” but it’s over too soon, and we’re back into the fatuous material and strained rhymes that characterize the bulk of the album. It’s a good thing that it’s instantly forgettable.