Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans

I’ve read several of the slim volumes about classic albums that Continuum publishes in the “33 1/3” series. Most of them have been very enjoyable. The books on Electric Ladyland, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exile On Main Street were particularly enjoyable, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation of those classic albums.

So I had very high hopes when I saw that someone had the exquisite good taste to write a book about Love’s 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes. When I first heard the album, back in the early ’80s I fell in love with the sound. In a year that saw the release of many classic albums by legendary artists (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors and Strange Days, Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love, Surrealistic Pillow…just to name a few), Forever Changes stands shoulder to shoulder with any of them. It has been in my “Top 20” albums of all time since 1981…one of the extremely few that has never fallen out of my favor.

Unfortunately, the book written about this classic album is one of the unfunniest jokes I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I have no idea who Andrew Hultkrans is, but I know his type. In grad school, he was one of the extremely earnest guys who sat in the front and uncritically swallowed whatever “lit-crit” the teacher of the moment was spewing. After class he went to the bar with everyone else, but he ordered a mixed-drink when beer was the order of the day, and when the subject turned to baseball he tried desperately to drag it back to Jacques Derrida’s or Stanley Fish’s latest assault on Western civilization. He was a drag, and a well-known drag.

I know this despite never meeting the man. I know it because I read his atrocious book about Love’s Forever Changes.  It reminded me of all those awful late 20th century “critics” I had to read in grad school…the ones who wrote about Shakespeare in prose so convoluted and so inarticulate that it made you hate the Bard of Avon…until you realized that your anger was misdirected and that it was the critic who was deserving of scorn and opprobrium.

Hultkrans mentions almost nothing…nothing!…about the gorgeous music on the album. The strings and horns that are perhaps the most perfect ever put onto a rock album, the sublime acoustic guitar that serves as the foundation for every tracks, the intricate drums…none of it worth even a brief mention.

Similarly the recording of the album: how Neil Young was the original producer, but left; how the band was so strung out on drugs that the famous Wrecking Crew of L.A. session musicians was brought in to play the album until the band managed to pull itself together; the push and pull of the band personalities, lorded over by the supreme egoist, genius and eccentric Arthur Lee…yeah, none of that gets mentioned either.

What does get mentioned? Page after page about Gnosticism, Marat/Sade, The Crying Of Lot 49, the Manson murders, and several other irrelevancies. The author’s contention here is that Arthur Lee was a prophet, perhaps a mad prophet, in the jeremiad tradition. Late in the year of the Summer Of Love, Forever Changes cast a darker, bleaker view of flower power and hippiedom, while still coming from that tradition. Lee saw a different vision of the hippies, one that directly anticipated the Manson murders. I wonder if Hultkrans ever heard the first two Doors albums, both of which preceded Forever Changes, and both of which were considerably darker in tone and sound.

But other albums that took a similarly dim view of what was happening culturally in California in 1967 don’t figure in. Prophets don’t come in droves after all, and if you make the case that Lee’s pessimism about Flower Power was shared by artists as diverse as the Doors and the Mothers of Invention, well, then Hultkrans doesn’t have much to write about.

Throughout the book, lyrics are twisted and bent out of shape to fit Hultkran’s thesis and to forge allusions with other more literary works and critical theories. It’s all a buncha crap, if you ask me. I’m not saying the songs don’t have meaning; I’m saying they do. By twisting the meaning to match his overblown theories and overheated rhetoric, it is Hultkrans who is saying the lyrics mean anything he wants them to mean. Makes my head hurt just to think about it.

Eventually Hultkrans resorts to the sort of hideous wordplay that the lit-crit types love so much because it makes them seem so much smarter and more sophisticated that the bourgeois proles who just want to read about an album full of great songs. Let me be the first to say that anyone who seriously uses the word “zeitgeisticide” in a sentence should never be allowed to write again. Not even a letter to a friend.

Back away from the pen, Andrew Hultkrans, before you attempt to ruin another album with your bloated eggheadery.

Highway 61 Revisited, by Mark Polizzotti

By pretty much unanimous consent, the 33 1/3 Series of books about classic albums is pretty spotty. That said, I’ve only read four of them and enjoyed them all.

Bill Janovitz’s in-depth analysis of Exile On Main St. was the best of the bunch, and will be tough to beat. However, this look at Bob Dylan’s masterwork, Highway 61 Revisited by Mark Polizzotti, isn’t too far off that mark.

The premise of these short books (most are under 150 pages) is not to provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of recording, or to expose anything new. These books are really little more than comprehensive reviews of the album in question. Everything from the cover art to the individual songs is dissected. In some ways, these books are the literary equivalent of the great Classic Albums series of DVDs.

For Highway 61, the author examines not only the songs that appear on the album, but also the two songs that were recorded at the same time but released only as singles (the vicious “Positively 4th Street” and the equally nasty “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”). Bob’s electric machine-gunning of the folk and toke crowd at Newport is also discussed.

All of the legends of the recording are written about in depth…how Al Kooper slipped into the studio as a guest and sat behind the organ and ended up creating the organ sound that defined the mid-Sixties music scene; how Dylan hired one of the best blues guitar players in the world to play on the album only to tell him that he wasn’t allowed to play “any of that B.B. King shit”; how Dylan played the original acetate version of the album featuring different songs in a different order for the Beatles, and then hurriedly changed it when the Fabs didn’t think it was all that good.

The lyrics…those magnificent, complex, stream of consciousness lyrics…are also discussed in depth, and placed into their proper place in the canon of folk music. Dylan’s folk music was an older, surreal brand of American music, murder ballads, beat poetry, and fantasy. He was never a part of the “I gave my love a cherry” crowd, and even his most bizarre lyrics sit squarely inside the older tradition from whence he came.

Think of this book, and the others I’ve read in the series (Exile On Main St., The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and Murmur) as being lengthy magazine articles that simply tell the story of a classic album, and there is much to enjoy here. If you’re looking for information about guitar pedals, stories of wretched drug excess, and wholesale groupie shenanigans, then stick to quickie biographies by hack writers. The 33 1/3 Series of books are written by fans about their favorite albums. As such, they speak to the fan in me that loves to sit up all night talking about music with friends.