25 August 2005

john phillips - "holland tunnel" (from the john phillips (john the wolf king of l.a.) lp, out-of-print)

two things i've always known about the rolling stones in 1969: let it bleed was released and they played altamont. for good reason, i think, i've always believed that let it bleed, with its generally sour sentiments, was produced in the aftermath, if you will, of altamont. doing a little research, though, i discovered that altamont took place on december 6--the day after let it bleed's uk release (eight days after its us release). the stones, on reflection, had a perfect right to be hostile, given the deaths, drugs, and general disillusionment that attended them in that year.

altamont is often pinpointed as the moment the 60's died, twenty-five days before the calendar says so. the stones never struck me as a part of the 60's peace & love crowd, their satanic majesty's request (mind the title) and mick's "brothers and sisters" rhetoric notwithstanding. it wasn't "brothers and sisters," but another familial relationship that was an integral part of that scene; a band that seemed to be the very essence of peace & love--and a band that i long thought was some sort of hippie put-on--was the mamas & papas (imagine a contemporary rap combo called mamis & papis; remember britney's wedding party, the pimps & maids.) as a young person, i still remember my own mother talking about "papa john" and "mama cass" and wondering what she was on about.

the mamas & papas never saw the end of the 60's, at least as an act. the band broke up in 1968, w/ mama cass achieving solo success w/ "dream a little dream." john phillips, though, didn't release his solo album, john the wolf king of l.a. (one of robert forster's 10 favorite records) until after the 60's were over, and, as such, was produced in the aftermath of altamont. "you can't always get what you want" was, according to the sequencing, the stones's last recorded message for the decade; john phillips's was called "holland tunnel," and similarly it was placed at the end of his debut--and the similarities don't end there. "holland tunnel," too, has a light gospel feel, w/ church organ and backing vocalists singing "la la la," all against a leisurely backing--it's all much less studied than "ycagwyw," w/ its choirs and french horns and such. there is, in a word, a lightness to the proceedings, though a lightness that suggests detachment rather than nonchalance.

the song itself, taken out of context, might be viewed as a prequel of sorts to "california dreaming," about escaping new york. the opening lyrics detail just that:
first thing you do, drive right through that holland tunnel,
pay your toll to the soul on the other side.
pick up a ticket for the new jersey turnpike,
and drive, baby, drive ...
of course, one doesn't travel light; one has his or her giant for company. remembering all that preceded this, the deaths, the drugs, the disillusionment, the tragedies both macro and micro (which ian mcewan's saturday deals w/ so masterfully)--well, where to now? just keep driving. the final verse repeats the first, but w/ a slight alteration:
first thing you do, drive right through that holland tunnel,
pay your toll to the soul on the other side.
pick up your ticket, everything will be all right ...
john's last word on record is a repetition of "all right." there's a six second pause between the two, and one can imagine it took him that much time to muster the nerve to suggest such a thing. it's a weary, strained, and, yet for all that, hopeful thing, transliterated it would look something like "ahh haw haw haw hAGGHLL right." after that, the backing vocalists take up the weight w/ their "la la la"s, which one might argue are, for pop/rock fans, the most profound words in the lexicon.

at the altamont show, the stones covered "the sun is shining," an elmore james-jimmy reed number that they never recorded and hadn't performed on that tour or, indeed, for six years. "the sun is shining"? peace & love, no? no. the song contains this: "i had a dream, i had a dream one rainy night, ahh," that last syllable the second most profound word in the songbook. that line is "holland tunnel," but john phillips somehow found a way, if only in song and not in his own life, to stretch that last syllable into the word "all right."

No comments: