Few recent albums have caused my soul more distress than the Sleepy Jackson's Lovers. Not that it's a bad album -- on the contrary, it's pretty good. Rather, it's the questions it raises and the soul-searching it's caused me. To wit, with all the genre-flipping -- from Gram Parsons alt-country to Velvet Underground nü-garage to post-Beatles guitar pop to freewheeling psychedelia -- just what sort of band is this, exactly? And is this whole grab bag thing a good or bad idea? Was he just trying out styles, the better to see which was the best fit? Or was he just showing off versatility for its own sake, the better to be thought of as a mad genius?
Furthermore, what of the mad genius in rock? Sleepy Jackson front man Luke Steele seems to be going for that role. He was pretty incoherent when I interviewed him, and to read the British and Aussie press, his live shows have been marked by a meltdown or two. He likes to wear lots of white eye shadow, and nobody can seem to stay in the same band with him for very long. It's also been said that he's recently quit partying and found religion.
Must all our finest singer-songwriters follow the Brian Wilson model? Must they all be certifiable nut jobs like Prince, tortured souls like Jeff Buckley, arrogant assholes like Sting, or all three, like Ryan Adams? Haven't we seen all of this before?
The Sleepy Jackson; Robbers on High Street and On the Speakers are also on the bill
Fat Cat's, 4216 Washington
Sunday, March 21; for information, call 713-869-5263
These queries and more were burning through my mind as I waited for the train at the Bell Street light rail stop. The train was late, and to kill the time, I started whistling the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn." Now there was a neglected band. About 20 years ago -- when the jangle rock of bands like R.E.M. was all the rage, they were the hippest old band around. Well, besides the Velvet Underground. Today, the Byrds are relegated to oldies radio, and the Velvets, well, the Velvets are still the coolest '60s act around
"You know, son, I wrote that song," a voice piped up from behind me, interrupting my reverie. Startled, I turned around and saw an old, olive-skinned man in a blue and white jacket that had the markings of the Israeli flag. He had a long white beard that was stained purple around his mouth, and under a cloth fisherman's hat, his long white hair hung lank to his shoulders. He was old as dirt and he looked like a wino, but still, there was a certain twinkle in his wise eyes, and I'd seen him around from time to time, feeding the pigeons and talking to people. But he sure as hell didn't look like Pete Seeger, so I paid his claim little mind.
"You look troubled, my child," he went on. "Unburden the load that weighs on your soul."
What the hell, I thought to myself. If this dude has the sense to recognize -- still more, to claim authorship of -- a great tune, he could probably handle a few of my philosophical queries. Anyway, the train was nowhere in sight -- maybe it wrecked again.
"It's about this band called the Sleepy Jackson," I began.
"Yes, the Australian fellow -- Luke Steele," the stranger cut in.
"Uh, yes," I continued. "Look, my name's John "
"I know. My name's Eccles," the stranger continued. "Solomon Eccles. Most folks just call me the Preacher."
Okay. He's probably an ex-con or something, I thought to myself, and now I knew for sure he was lying about "Turn, Turn, Turn." At any rate, I plowed on. After all, there's a time to speak and a time to shut up.
"This Steele guy's got me troubled," I went on. "'Good Dancers,' the first song on his new album, is a blatant George Harrison rip-off, right down to a couple of Indian tinges, and the very next one sounds exactly like the Velvet Underground--"
"Ho ho, yes it does, doesn't it?" the Preacher cut in. "One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the Velvet Underground abides forever."
"Yeah, I know, but does all so-called new rock have to sound so old? Is rock doomed to repeat itself forever? Should we reward those who wear their influences on their sleeves like this?"
I picked up my shoulder bag from the ground and pulled out a couple of reviews of Lovers. "I mean, listen to this stuff. No Ripcord said, 'A record that is rich, varied and a little crackers as well, Lovers will certainly stand as one of the best debut albums of the year.' Best debuts of the year? It sounds like a pretty cool mix tape, but come on. And then Spin said it juiced 'fragile melodies with weeping George Harrison guitar,' and that front man 'Luke Steele is pretty even-keeled for a spaced-out pop maestro.' I'll go for 'spaced-out' -- out of all the hundreds of interviews I've ever done, he was by far the most out of it. I asked him what time it was down in Sydney, and it took him a good minute to come up with an answer. But 'even-keeled'? He's about as even-keeled as the Titanic was while the band was playing 'Nearer My God to Thee.' The dude could barely speak, and what's more, his lyrics sound like they were written by a total loon. Take 'Vampire Racecourse': 'These roads they sing like bats I know / Their eyes are tightly sewn, like some priests I know.' Plus, I read that he's gone through about a hundred bandmates. He fired his own brother and his best friend, for God's sake How could Spin say he was even-keeled?"
"Well, fools are also full of words," the Preacher allowed.
"Damn straight, Preacher. But how should I feel about this record?" Far down the line, I could see the train's headlight. "One of the reasons I took this job was that I hoped I could one day help bring about something truly new. I hoped I could be on the cutting edge of some kind of musical revolution, like Legs McNeil was with punk, or Nelson George was with rap. I want to be able to pontificate on VH1, dammit. But virtually every rock record I've heard -- no matter how much the music media says it's some kind of landmark album -- sounds exactly like something I've heard before. Even crunk music just sounds like Cameo on steroids and crack!"
Eccles chuckled. "The thing that has been, it is that which shall be, and that which is done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
"So my fate is to just play 'spot the influence,' to endlessly point out that the first Strokes album sounded like Television and the Velvets and the second blatantly ripped off the Cars? Am I doomed to endlessly think back on what I've heard and prattle about Thin Lizzy affectations and delusions of Joy Division? Wouldn't it have been better if I had never been born, or at least had been born in 1950 or 1960? Then I could have lived through the '60s or been a teenager at the birth of punk."
"Say not 'Why were the former days better than these?' For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."
"Then why do I ask this?"
"Vanity of vanities," the Preacher said. "All is vanity."
"No it's not," I fired back. "I think you're overstating her importance. After 'Nasty Girl' she was finished, though she was pretty smokin' in 52 Pick-Up and Action Jackson. Isn't she a born-again Christian now or something?"
The Preacher chuckled. "Yes, she is a follower of that descendant of mine, but I speak not of the erstwhile concubine of the one they call Prince, but of the great snare: too much pride."
"But what does all this have to do with the Sleepy Jackson? How should we feel about bands that make pretty good music but sound just like a bunch of other stuff? Does an increase of musical wisdom only bring about sorrow? Sometimes I despair of all the labor I have taken under the sun Maybe I'll run off and join the Polyphonic Spree or something."
"Dallas fucks," the Preacher muttered. "Con artists. Don't believe the hype. We don't."
Who was "we"? I wondered. But I didn't have time to ask. The train was getting closer. I thought about other things the Preacher had told me.
"It's better to go to a funeral than a bar," the Preacher said suddenly, seemingly apropos of nothing. I thought for a few seconds, and his comment started to make some sense. But only a little.
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"Sorrow is better than laughter," the Preacher went on. "By sadness the heart is made better."
"So listening to bands like the Sleepy Jackson is good for us The sorrow they bring reminds us of the circle of life -- the one verifiable scientific answer to all metaphysical questions The immutable fact that nature abides and man is transient. Music is nature, and if it's good, it too abides."
"Yes, my son," the Preacher replied.
Just then the train arrived, and I got on. The Preacher stayed on the platform. When I found my seat, I turned to wave, and he was nowhere to be seen.