THE GREAT CURVE 012

THE GREAT CURVE 012
curated by Todd Berryman

In fall 1992, paying a visit to see some friends back in my old college town (including my late friend and hardcore cassette fanatic – probably a thousand tapes by the time I’d met him – Brian Haltom, God rest his soul), I ended up in a local bookstore with a little extra money from my first major radio job in hand, thanks to subbing for a week or two for full-time employees going on vacation. There were several joys that ended up coming home with me, thanks to that trip, including Neil Steinberg’s excellent book on college pranks, If at All Possible, Involve a Cow, and Robert Christgau’s first major volume of album reviews, Rock Albums of the ’70s (the reprint title when Da Capo issued it; it was originally released as Christgau’s Record Guide in the early 1980s).

Christgau was always a reviewer I’d had a certain respect for, so finding a collection of his easily digestible writing on some favorite classic albums was a welcome thing. Well, for the most part, anyway. We didn’t agree on everything, and as he put it in “The Criteria” essays that helped open the collection, “…it’s impossible to make a life out of rationalizing/explaining your own opinions without believing in some part of you that those opinions jibe with the zeitgeist. So if you find yourself valuing many of my C plusses and rejecting a lot of my As, maybe we’d better not have lunch.”

In general, I think I would enjoy a lunch with Robert Christgau. This album, a C- in his list, defined in his grading scale as “a regrettably successful exploitation or a basically honest but quite incompetent stab at something more,” is one where we don’t mesh. But then, I wasn’t inviting him for street tacos on the basis of one album, anyway. (His further comments on the grading scale elegantly describe a mindset that I still apply when I listen to albums, including some fairly amusing insights. For example, I’m happy this album didn’t rank around D+, described as “an appalling piece of pimpwork, or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity,” a phrase that I think with some modification would be a wonderful title for a collection of my own work.)

Cat Stevens
Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)

A HANDFUL OF 8-TRACKS

I was a four-year-old when Cat Stevens’ Buddha and the Chocolate Box came out, and it was one of four 8-tracks my dad purchased when he bought and installed an 8-track player in our Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Among the others were the Mystic Moods Orchestra’s One Stormy Night, and a Rod Stewart compilation, Sing It Again, Rod, covering his first four albums for Mercury Records from 1969 to 1972, and a version of “Pinball Wizard” recorded for an orchestrated version of Tommy with guest vocalists as the bonus draw.

My mother hated the Mystic Moods Orchestra tape (she really wasn’t a fan of anything with heavy sound effects, so needless to say, various Pink Floyd masterworks were going to be a LONG HAUL), and was a little religiously uneasy with the Cat Stevens title. Somewhere between the family dynamic when Mom was growing up, and the region of the country, the Buddha was pretty much incomprehensible. I think it might have been a tendency on my grandfather’s part to look at Buddhism as idol worship, which is of course a Biblical no-no. Obviously, it’s also inaccurate; nobody in the family felt reluctant about crosses in church, and it’s more-or-less equivalent, a focal point of thought. You aren’t praying TO a cross, anymore than you’re praying TO a Buddha statue.

So when I was young, I was fascinated by this revulsion: what about this simple album cover image, a statue of someone looking peaceful and calming against a royal blue background, made her so adamant that this was an awful, unlistenable album? And the title MENTIONS chocolate, and chocolate’s…GOOD, right? And “Jesus” was one of the song titles, so what’s bad about this? The four-year-old me absolutely didn’t get it.

Regardless, when Mom was in the car, it never got played. Dad was a little more open to hearing it when it was just the two of us in the car. It was a fine album that I heard all too infrequently before I turned nine, and began to have access to a player – and headphones – at home.

When I first SAW this 8-track, though, the cover of it was probably the first one that fascinated me, in a way that simple smiley/frowny/determined headshots couldn’t. I had yet to see any of the latter-day Beatles album covers, or anything from Pink Floyd, or the Moody Blues. Because I was four, and it was an 8-track, I had no other details other than this mysterious image that no one would really talk about.

Fast-forward to college, and learning not just about other religions, but also other philosophies, and I began to hear about Zen, and Buddhism in general in their correct contexts. I began to hear about people like Thomas Merton, the Catholic Father Louis, who was trying to bridge the gap of monastic traditions in his “home key” and Buddhism, and people like Leonard Cohen, who had no problem reconciling Judaism and Zen…and it all clicked in. I found a couple of good flea markets and record stores in Terre Haute during my college years, and finally bought a used copy of Buddha and the Chocolate Box on vinyl. What appeared in the gatefold was the missing information about the cover that was – due to space – absent on the 8-track.

“Front cover:
Sakyamuni
Japan, Heian period, late 10th century
Courtesy Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston”

I finally had the what, and the where, and the when of it all.

In spite of Dave Loggins’ command about coming to Boston for the springtime, however, I still haven’t – as of this writing – found my way there. It took the advent of the internet, and being able to search museum catalogs online to find out more. A song of joy fluttered through this middle-aged man’s heart on turning up the Museum of Fine Arts online, and finding the item itself, although it was described somewhat differently than it was on the album. The museum has it listed as

“Shaka, the Historical Buddha
Shaka nyorai zazo
釈迦如来坐像 一躯
Japanese
late Heian period
late 10th–early 11th century”

Somewhat surprisingly, what I’d read as a weathered metal construction was not really even close. The museum’s breakdown of materials indicates that it was actually made of a single block of cherry wood, with something like gilding, as I understand it, using polychrome and gold.

In the same way, I didn’t understand this album fully at the time I first heard it. The album prior, Foreigner, was a departure that sold well enough, but the R&B approach undertaken on that album wasn’t embraced the same way by reviewers and Cat Stevens’ usual fan base at the time, and so 1974 found him in the “give the people what they want” mode…or at least once more. On its surface, Buddha and the Chocolate Box was simultaneously a return to form, and it was also the last gasp of a certain stage of Cat Stevens’ performing style.

The obligatory Greatest Hits album (with one new bonus single, a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night”) followed in June 1975, a stopgap until his next album, Numbers, followed in the fall. It was a concept album that didn’t register with the public, selling less than the previous four full-lengths. The beginnings of his interest in Islam came in the bicentennial year, after a near-drowning, and then the “electronic folk” album Izitso followed in 1977. Having lately questioned his own need to be a star, he made his formal religious conversion after the album’s release, with 1978’s Back to Earth amounting to a contractual obligation for A&M, his label at the time, and in some ways, his Abbey Road, as his producer and fellow musicians understood that it was his “last time” recording as Cat Stevens. (He’d formally changed his name about four months prior, possibly ironically on Independence Day in the U.S.) It was also a revisitation of sorts to his folk era stylings, a nice way to put his career to bed…at least under this performing name, as it later turned out.

According to the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam official website, at least the title Buddha and the Chocolate Box was partially inspired by a flight to a gig, and that momentary wondering, holding a statuette of the Buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, that if the plane fell out of the sky, he’d be slung between the spiritual and the material worlds. The album, then, was in some ways a dividing line between the Cat Stevens with a worldwide and appreciative audience, and the beginnings of his self-removal from the machinery that made it possible. Heard in that light, it shines even more brightly for me, because it’s the album whose completion creates a blank slate of “what do I do now?” It’s an opening of possibilities: for him, it ultimately led to Islam, for me, the contemplation of Buddhism, and ultimately some measure of respect for it.

I still take great pleasure in the album, and I’m still fascinated, even now, by this album cover, and all the mysteries in it.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SEQUENCING

I’ve found myself wondering on occasion if Robert Christgau’s opinion on Buddha and the Chocolate Box might have been different if he’d heard it in the 8-track sequence, as I had. To be fair, when I heard the vinyl, in that sequence, and with that elaborate cover packaging – the classic “unnecessary gatefold” along with a cardboard inner sleeve – I could kind of see his point. As Christgau effectively said, it doesn’t reconcile well with a guy who included a song called “King of Trees” in the same album. The 8-track was not similarly encumbered, as it was a cartridge with the typical cardboard slipcase, and that was it. (On the other hand, finding that used vinyl did enable me to check out a few lyrics that didn’t quite scan.)

But yes, to his point, “Music” is not my favorite song on the album. It’s fine musically, for the most part, but it has the occasional bit of pomposity, and feels like it would have worked better continuing with its opening rhythm box/electronic keyboard groove and not gone to Jean Roussel’s orchestrations, which similarly disrupt “A Bad Penny” for me as well (Side note: Roussel is the man playing the walls of keyboards in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” for the Police, by the way). It inconveniently also happens to open Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Christgau’s beef seems to be mainly lyrical: “Cat tells us there wouldn’t be any ‘wars in the world/If everybody joined in the band.’ This kind of lie is called a tautology; it’s like saying there wouldn’t be any hunger if everyone became an ice cream man.” Point taken, and he played to my sense of humor with that, so I knew where he was coming from. (And it didn’t kill my love of the song, incidentally, since it never did a lot for me in the first place…so I’m kind of glad it comes up in Program 4 on the 8-track.)

So, I’m tackling this album the way I first heard it, with that sequence.

Christgau again: “The difference between an album you love and an album you hate is often one or two cuts. An inspired song that fulfills a fantasy you never knew you had can make you believe in a whole side, while a song that commits some deadly sin can drag innocents to perdition.” On the vinyl, it feels like Side 1 is begun and ended with two weaker songs, and Side 2 begins and ends strongly, but falls apart in the middle stretch. With the 8-track, it feels more top-loaded as a very enjoyable album, which makes the back half a little more bearable in the process. (Plus, the advantage of the 8-track, demonstrated here: if “King of Trees” and “Music” are two of the weaker cuts, they conveniently fall in such a way that, because of the continuous loop of the 8-track, you can click out of Program 3 after “Ghost Town” (the first song to really catch my interest, probably thanks to the sound effects of indeterminate origin in the opening, which Mom loathed – remember, she wasn’t a fan of sound effects) and catch maybe the last minute of “Music” before coming to the Promised Land of “Home in the Sky” (literally and figuratively).

Also, the reshuffling helps songs that felt more slight in the vinyl gain some character, so as a result, “Jesus” comes off as quirky and engaging at the end of Program 1, rather than slightly ham-fisted as a side closer on the vinyl.

“Oh Very Young” works well for me as a beginning song for the 8-track version, to my ear reminiscent in an odd way of Vince Guaraldi, which makes the piano lines that drive it in the instrumental sections feel like a soundtrack to a Charlie Brown special. You can tell from the flourishes at the beginning of the song: this is about to get interesting. (Also, much love for the acoustic bass on this, played by Bruce Lynch.)

“Ready” gets moved to second position overall on the 8-track, instead of the strong opener for Side 2 on the vinyl, and it comes off a little funkier (again, thanks to Bruce Lynch, although this time he’s on electric bass guitar), and a little more “right” after the faux-Guaraldi of the first song.

OH GOOD, TODD’S GONNA START WITH HIS THEORIES. STRAP IN.

Now, this goes handily to a theory of mine about album sequencing, which I don’t quite want to give away, but it has to do with the way an album side builds. To my ear, the more satisfying sides will usually have between five and six songs each, with two pretty impressive songs to open, and the quirky get-your-attention track (“Jesus” in this case) will often fit best at the third position. The downtempo, minor key piece, or weaker cut will work best as the fourth song (in this case, “A Bad Penny” and its orchestral flourishes come off a lot more impressively, framed by a quirky song prior in the sequence), because it acts as a breather before the home stretch.

This prepares the listener for a side closer that should always be uptempo or epic. Buddha‘s 8-track sequence follows this a little better than the vinyl, because “Sun/C79” is easily one of the best songs on the album, and sets up the back half of the tape in fine fashion.

Think I’m kidding, or blue-skying with this logic? Guess what I did for over 500 separate episodes of OVEREASY on Sunday mornings for a decade? Yup. Pretty much every set, commercial break to commercial break, with various artists generally working in increments of five or six, like fantasy album sides (barring the bottom of the hour where the feature album slots for that week would fall, and only because there wasn’t enough time to do the idea justice in that particularly limited space).

It WORKS because it draws attention in a way that other sequences WON’T. Although it was daring and impressive and right for the Band to open Music from Big Pink with a downtempo, it did complicate the ability for the first side to really “click” the same way that the best albums do, which is why I think there’s so much love for their self-titled album by comparison. (On compact discs, I usually divide by fives or sixes mentally, and it usually works out pretty well.)

I think there’s also a tendency to think, even subconsciously, regardless of length, that pop/rock albums feel unbalanced if there isn’t a “symmetrical” song sequence. 13 just “feels” weird, and nine feels too short, or like the side that has four songs feels overblown and full of itself (in part because at least a couple of the songs will be longer, as an unwritten rule). For some reason, 11 doesn’t bother me the same way, but it still feels not-quite-right.

So, to break this down, simply, a perfect album side might run like this, for one example. It will modify on occasion if you have a brief opening instrumental, or a side-end brief coda, but this is a basic form I’ve used on OverEasy, assorted mixtapes, mix CDs, playlists and the like:
1. Hit single/representative cut (uptempo, dramatic, something ear-catching)
2. Pretty danged impressive song again (to reinforce a desire to continue listening)
3. Quirky song, or something slightly sour (ideal place for a minor key, if not done so far)
4. The major ballad/minor key/sad/downtempo or combination
5. The epic side closer/big number

A six song version might put a breather of some kind at 5, with the epic number to 6. And so on. Think about why certain album sides are so pleasing to your ear. Why does that flow of songs work so well, that way? And could you come up with a better sequence? Try it. (There are friends I do this with: “what’s your ideal running order for Sgt. Pepper’s?” We’re a real kick at parties, if you want most of your guests to leave, and you want to keep the three obsessives taking up the couch and hoarding the onion dip. Also, we’re out of Doritos, thx.)

THE BACK HALF

In the 8-track sequence, “Ghost Town” moves to Program 3, effectively making it the second half opener, whereas on the vinyl, it gets lost in the middle of Side 1, and with “Jesus” following on vinyl to conclude the side, it feels like two “quirky” songs in a row, which weakens both. With “Ghost Town” opening things, this makes “King of Trees” come off stronger, and less – in the vinyl sequence – like you want to go buy some carbon credits to offset all the packaging. 🙂

“Music” as Program 4’s opener comes off less pretentious, because it doesn’t have to carry the weight of a Grand Opening Statement, which is the function it must serve on the vinyl, and it can’t quite pull it off. Here, starting Program 4, the pressure’s removed on that score, and instead it reads as a quirky/penultimate track (since it has to serve both roles).

As a result, “Home in the Sky” is now set up much more nicely as the album closer, because its lead-in feels, in a peculiar way, stronger because of its displacement. I’ve said before that this is a song I’d want played before at my funeral, and there are several reasons. For starters, there’s that amazing layered, almost choral vocal opening. The song itself tends towards brightness, which is nice to have on an emotional occasion. And then…that amazing ending, mixed in stereo, the sped up piano including an isolated clip of the bouzouki overdub from the instrumental break earlier in the song, and what sounds like the tinkling, low and in the last seconds, of a music box.

That ending leads to all sorts of mysteries: what happens after the last notes of the song? It’s the question that life asks, and then gets answered, but the two can’t exist simultaneously. I hear the sound of THE great mystery, myself, and it’s rendered in flesh and blood and bone and music. Which, again, ties nicely back to that cover artwork, the visual that took a while for this former four-year-old to unfold…

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One comment

  1. […] Unlike my prior discussion of Cat Stevens’ Buddha and the Chocolate Box in THE GREAT CURVE 012, in this instance, Ghost in the Machine isn’t necessarily improved by the change in sequence. Nor is it wrecked. It’s simply a different way of appreciating the album. And I suppose it comes down to which version of a recording gets heard first; my girlfriend and I had different appreciations of Jim Croce’s Photographs and Memories album, because she heard the vinyl/CD sequence first, and I heard the 8-track. With us, the other person’s first exposure sequence doesn’t feel quite right. […]

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