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Under the Influence

In which we sniff out the inspiration—good or bad—for works by some of our favorite artists

There isn’t a single artist working in any medium whose work hasn’t been influenced by someone or something. In music, you could theoretically trace this back to the first percussionist who pounded out rhythm with a rock. Here, Metroland’s writers aren’t looking at general influences that directed an artist’s career. This is a laser-like examination of a specific influence—musical, spiritual, pharmacological—that led to a specific work. Divorce led Bob Dylan to the viciousness of “Idiot Wind” and the rest of the heartache-soaked Blood On the Tracks; the arrival of a celestial phenomena resulted in Sun Ra’s Concert for the Comet Kohoutek. When John Fogerty let his band mates finally contribute their own songs to Mardi Gras, the result was the worst album Credence Clearwater Revival ever made—and remains the best argument there is against democracy, save for the re-election of George W. Bush.


Influence: God

Artist: John Coltrane

Album: A Love Supreme

Though a song title like “Spiritual” (on Live at the Village Vanguard) offered some hint that John Coltrane had God on his mind, there’s really no precedent in his work, or perhaps anyone else’s, for the four-song suite A Love Supreme. An appreciation for (and perhaps a simulation of) divine love, it comes complete with a long poem/prayer on the album sleeve written by the artist, which—like a mystical incantation—is echoed on the horn, syllable by syllable, throughout the closing track.

A 1957 spiritual awakening is cited on the sleeve notes as the inspiration for A Love Supreme, recorded in one evening in 1964. (Additional takes were tried the next day, but the finished album comes from that one, transcendent session.) Some of the pieces were already shaping up on Crescent, the previous album—a cohesive, self-contained feeling, plus solo showcases for bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones in addition to pianist McCoy Tyner—but it was the God factor that made the album a singular achievement.

Opening with a gong and a saxophone fanfare that sounds quite literally like a call to prayer, the album immediately has a mysterious, mystical feel. An indelible, four-note bassline emerges from the mist, and serves as the anchor for Coltrane’s impassioned improvisation. Eventually, he takes that riff and beams it back some 37 consecutive times, refracting it each time into a different key, seemingly at random. Finally, the most startling innovation: For the only time on record, we hear Coltane’s voice. That four-note riff is revealed to be title of the album itself, imbedded in the music like DNA, when Coltrane chants the words “A love supreme” to its rhythm in a deep baritone. The exercise in key- hopping now seems like some sort of religious pursuit. Was he reciting the many names of God? Was he saying that God is everywhere?

The album inspired the most giddily hyperbolic bit of music criticism I’ve ever read: In the Allmusic Guide, Sam Samuelson remarks, “It is almost impossible to imagine a world without A Love Supreme having been made.” Its cosmological significance notwithstanding, the album clearly stands apart, imbued by its creator with a sense of reverence that in no way makes it cold or unapproachable. Here is a prayer service at which all are welcome.

—Jeremy D. Goodwin


Influence: Phillip K. Dick

Artist: Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army

Album: Replicas

Replicas is the first album in a trilogy of albums that represent Gary Numan’s masterwork. Recorded with the Tubeway Army and released a little earlier in the year than Numan’s solo debut The Pleasure Principle, it features punky guitar work with Moog synth lines that hang and soar over pulsing bass and robotic drumming. Numan had not quite perfected the synth-pop formula that would later, briefly, find its way into the hearts of Americans. What Numan did find on Replicas was his voice and his vision as a lyricist, and it was thanks to the writing of Phillip K. Dick.

Dick’s science-fiction painted dystopian worlds ruled by despotic corporations, populations managed by misdirection, loners whose perceptions are altered by drug use and paranoia, planet Earth ruined by nuclear war, or man searching for new habitats in outer space. Most importantly, Dick wrote about robots. The questions Dick raises in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and We Can Build You, about what defines life and sentience and conscience, inspired Numan’s cold, crisp vocal approach, and the echo that made him seem distant, androgynous and post-human. Numan has admitted that Replicas was intended to be the start of a novel about a dystopian future controlled by corporations.

And Dick’s influence helped birth Numan’s greatest anthems. “Oh, look, there’s a rape machine/I’d go outside if it looks the other way/You wouldn’t believe the things they do/Down in the park/Where the chant is ‘Death, death, death’/Until the sun cries morning,” Numan sings on “Down on the Park,” in a voice that is part foreboding, part celebratory, and part sentimental. On “Are Friends Electric?” Numan delivers the most memorable lyric he ever wrote, and it seems like it could have come straight from one of Dick’s books: “You know I hate to ask/But, are ‘friends’ electric?/You see, mine’s broke down/ and now I’ve no one to love.”

—David King


Influence: Cocaine

Artist: David Bowie

Album: Station to Station

Dope has been a musician’s best frenemy since the first Homo sapien beating an animal skin let fruit juice ferment, drank the result—and rocked out. David Bowie’s inspiration for Station to Station was, according to his biographer, cocaine. Hell, the album sounds like a cocaine binge—it has a real “you are there” quality for the listener.

It begins with the title track. A low rumble of train sounds, Earl Slick’s primordial guitar squawks, a lurching rhythm section—and then it takes off, going faster and faster as if jolted to life by something. Bowie’s lyrics and voice keep getting faster and crazier and more desperate: “Once there were mountains and mountains/and once there were songbirds to sing with/and once I could never be down.” Read those lines as fast as you can. Whew. No wonder all credits and song titles are listed with no breaks, eg., VOCALSDAVIDBOWIE, GUITAREARLSLICK. Truth in art direction. Next is the propulsive “Golden Years,” a disco hit driven by guitarist Carlos Alomar’s rock-solid riff. And then—crash—it’s ballad time, as Bowie croons “Word On a Wing,” a prayer to his God.

Then, on the old RCA Victor LP, you’d flip it over to side B, and the cocaine binge begins anew. Roy Bittan, on furlough from the E Street Band, lends his gloriously spiky piano to “TVC 15,” which lampoons ’50s nostalgia and Sci-Fi. And, like “Station to Station,” keeps getting faster and crazier. Then another rock-solid disco song, “Stay,” and—crash again—another ballad, the 1950s movie theme “Wild Is the Wind.”

Then do another line and flip the LP over again. (Ha ha, just kidding.) Bowie sings in the title track, “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.” No, Mr. Bowie, it is the side effects of the cocaine—and it’s awesome.

—Shawn Stone


Influence: Death of spouse

Artist: Ian McLagan and the Bump Band

Album: Never Say Never

After the sudden and unimaginable loss of his wife of three decades (in 2008), Ian “Mac” McLagan did what any man would do, turning inward, to friends and to family, finding his way in the dark. With music being the only remaining constant in his life, he created the album Never Say Never less than two years after her death.

Moving into his 60s and unafraid to show it on the cover, MacLagan’s 10 songs here are not so specific as to bar entry for anyone else. The loss that runs through many of the songs has a universal truth to it, but it’s a truth he came to privately. One of the best definitions of an artist is exactly that: someone drawing from their private realm and creating truths which reach out, connecting to others with the bonds of our common humanity. However, this album is not mired in Mac’s personal sadness; it is often quite joyous, as he and his band offer up rollicking grooves that hark back to his days with the Faces (and also shows how much of his character was in that band). There are a few relatively carefree love songs, which, in the context of this album, are refreshing. The knowledge that his inspiration, the love of his life, is no longer alive, gives them a wistful resiliency.

McLagan, with this album, created songs that will also outlive him. By turns young and old, vigorous and world weary, it’s not hard to imagine someone not even born yet singing “An Innocent Man” 50 years from now. We all sometimes find ourselves in a place where the lines “I haven’t made any plans lately, and it’ll be a long time till I do” resonate.

—David Greenberger


Influence: Paranoid Schizophrenia

Artist: Wesley Willis

Album: Greatest Hits (Vol. 1-2)

From Henry Darger to Daniel Johnston, mental illness has played a large role in what we’ve come to call outsider art. Generally, mental illness is no laughing matter, unless of course humor can be used as a coping mechanism. In the 14 years between Wesley Willis’ diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia and his death from leukemia, the Chicago “savant-garde” musician recorded over 50 albums of skewed fast-food jingles, battles with superheroes, and hilarious demands that his personal demons engage in extravagant acts of bestiality with exotic mammals.

Although, technically all of Willis’ work was made under this influence, his greatest hits records feature classics like “Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s,” “I Wupped Batman’s Ass,” and “Suck a Caribou’s Ass.” Obnoxiously repetitive choruses with digressive spoken-word verses, his songs were all recorded over a virtually identical pre-set keyboard track, and functioned for years as a way for him to deal with the demons named Nervewrecker, Heartbreaker and Meansucker that haunted his trips on the Chicago bus lines. He considered his music “joy ride music” in contrast to the “warhellrides” that the demons sent him on, but with the attention his music garnered in the late ’90s, he came to self-identify as a rock star who wrote music that audiences genuinely loved.

The degree to which audiences were laughing with/at Willis probably varied from person to person, but with the help of Jello Biafra, whose Alternative Tentacles label recorded the sets, and Napster, through which every junior-high kid in the country eventually heard “Cut the Mullet” and “Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost,” Willis turned a terrifying illness into totally singular comedy. Rock over London, rock on Chicago. . . .

—Josh Potter


Influence: Anne Frank

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Album: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

People obsess over Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea like it was Finnegan’s Wake—12 years after its release, the initiated are still looking for skeleton keys to unlock its many mysteries. It’s a dense piece of work, the first obstacle being the keen of lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum’s voice—if you let yourself fall for his impassioned yowl, you are privy to a kaleidoscopically poetic landscape of singing saws, two-headed boys, burning pianos, and mountaintops stained with biological secretions.

The chief ghost who haunts the record is that of Anne Frank. According to the 33 1/3 book devoted to the album, Mangum was so devastated by Frank’s autobiography that she haunted his dreams, inspiring most of the songs which make up the 1998 indie masterpiece. In song after song, Mangum proclaims his undying love for his young martyred angel, while also ruminating on the purpose of life in the face of evil, and the possibility that there is more in store after the final curtain call.

Synchronicity (or fate) only validated Mangum’s obsession and choice of muse. While on a tour stop in San Francisco before the album’s release, Mangum and the band went to visit the Musée Mécanique, a favorite haunt filled with penny arcade artifacts and carnival related items. Trumpeter Scott Spillane tells of turning around at one point to see a 10 year old girl in front of him who appeared to be the spitting image of Frank, touring the premises with her family. That spillover between dreams and reality is part of what is explored in the intensely visionary world of In the Aeroplane. . ., but the album’s most moving aspect remains the unrequited love and yearning which Anne Frank inspired in Mangum. Neutral Milk Hotel made that anguished passion so indelibly manifest that their last release remains one of the greatest albums of the past 20 years.

—Mike Hotter


Influence: Democracy

Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Album: Mardi Gras

After three years of one incredible hit after another, Creedence Clearwater Revival began to fracture. Their self-titled debut album appeared in 1968, followed by a trio of classic LPs the following year (Bayou Country, Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys) and an impressive pair in 1970 (Cosmo’s Factory, Pendulum). The two-year gap that followed found frontman, songwriter-singer-guitarist John Fogerty crank-starting a sputtering Model T instead of speeding down the open road in a Corvette. First his brother Tom departed for a stillborn solo career, then the rhythm section of Stu Cook and Doug Clifford successfully asserted their “right” to be recognized as songwriters alongside one of the masters of two-minute wonders. For the album that emerged, Mardi Gras, John Fogerty relinquished control to such a degree that it could be read as his kiss-off to the band—“Here boys, you take the wheel! Show ’em what you got!”—knowing full well the substandard work would be trashed on all fronts.

The history of ’60s rock is rife with bands who, upon scoring hits, discovered that the writers were making more money than anyone else. There are ways to address this disparity, usually with shared publishing, but less rational means often prevailed. (The Byrds’ more assertive members sidelined Gene Clark, their strongest writer and most troubled soul.) But two-thirds of CCR simply mounted a revolt, deciding that their benign dictatorship needed to be a full-fledged democracy. As if to show what he could do within even the smallest space, John Fogerty contributed only three of the record’s 10 songs, but two are resonant numbers, still vibrant today: “Someday Never Comes” and “Sweet Hitch-Hiker.” Cook and Clifford meanwhile wrote and sang with all the faux-gusto and lackluster cliches of a bar band lamely covering a midlevel act like Poco. And that was the end of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

—David Greenberger


Influence: The Comet Kohoutek

Artist: Sun Ra

Album: Concert for the Comet Kohoutek

In December 1973, the comet Kohoutek made its closest pass by Earth in 150,000 years. In the run up, scientists predicted the celestial body would light up the sky, providing one of the most dramatic astronomical events of our time, and so dubbed Kohoutek the “comet of the century.” Even though the event was considered a letdown, or “Comet Watergate,” it inspired a huge amount of art: recordings by Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd, Weather Report and Journey. The most interesting and appropriate, however, came from jazz pianist Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Space Research Arkestra.

No stranger to celestial themes, Sun Ra famously believed himself to be of an angel race from the planet Saturn. A prolific composer, the bulk of his discography explores his cosmic philosophy with a brand of big-band free-jazz that deftly absorbed swing, bebop, fusion, blues and classical music. Since the mid-’50s, titles like Other Planes of There and We Travel the Space Ways helped him carve a freaky niche in the jazz establishment. Performances featured extravagant costumes, odd instrumentation, and cultish group incantation.

When Kohoutek approached, it seemed only natural that the Arkestra would form a welcoming committee. The disc opens with a man talking the audience through a slideshow of outer space images, before “Astro Black” screeches in. “Unknown Kohoutek” features Sun Ra exploring the unknown qualities of his synthesizer, and “Outer Space Employment Agency” comes off as a funky plea for the comet to take the band with it. Then, to round things out, the Arkestra offers its calling-card tune—never more appropriate than on this night—“Space Is the Place.”

—Josh Potter


Influence: Love

Artist: T. Rex

Album: Futuristic Dragon

On a September night in 1977, faded rock legend Marc Bolan drove home with his wife, American soul singer Gloria Jones, after filming the children’s show he was reduced to hosting. The car, driven by his wife, veered off the road through a fence and crashed into a tree. Bolan was killed instantly, while Jones recovered from her injuries in time to learn of her husband’s death on the day of his funeral.

T. Rex consecutively released two of the best albums in rock & roll history—Electric Warrior in 1971 and The Slider in 1972. Most people would tell you that in the five years between then and the last T. Rex album, Dandy in the Underworld, Bolan released a few awesome singles—including “20th Century Boy” and “Children of the Revolution”—and some seriously shite albums. A combination of things are attributed to Bolan’s downfall: a bloated head from being hailed as Britain’s first superstar of the 1970s, a bloated body from too much cocaine, and the influence of Jones, who joined the band in 1973.

Critics will tell you that Bolan redeemed himself on Dandy because of his newfound love of the burgeoning punk scene. That might very well be the better story—the glam legend redeeming himself through punk music just before his tragic death—but the truth is that Bolan redeemed himself one year earlier, and with the influence of his wife.

Futuristic Dragon, in my opinion, sits just a few rungs below Bolan’s greatest work. The album in some ways is a funky version of The Slider. Producer Tony Visconti’s strings, so full on previous records, are replaced at times here by soulful keys and organ, at others by a chorus of female singers (led by Jones). “New York City” is one of Bolan’s best songs, clanking like a Western bar ditty with Jones cooing in the background as Bolan drops some LSD-inspired lyrics: “Did you ever see a woman/coming out of New York City/with a frog in her hand?”

The album’s odd intro track indicates Bolan was looking to make his Ziggy Stardust, but somewhere along the way—perhaps because he finally got off coke for the recording—it all became about love, and that is what makes Futuristic Dragon perfect. “Chrome Sitar” has a disco swank that churns and throbs, as Bolan sings “Come on little girl/love is grand/won’t you hold my hand tonight” like a lovestruck tween. The music swells and it hurts like true love.

—David King


Influence: Divorce

Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: Blood on the Tracks

Rock songs generally follow this basic premise: Someone broke my heart, and now I’m going to tell you how bad I feel. One of the things that made Bob Dylan so startling in his first decade of recording was that he sang the other side of the conversation. If there was a broken heart in question, he was the one who did the breaking. The opening lines of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” from 1966 opus Blonde on Blonde, summed up his general stance: “I didn’t mean to treat you so bad/You shouldn’t take it so personal.” Oh, well when you put it like that . . .

I think that’s part of what must have made Blood on the Tracks so arresting when people first heard it in 1975. Suddenly, Dylan was the aggrieved one. And when he turned his tough-guy gaze from the unworthiness of ex-partners to the pain of actually being the one left behind, he went from impenetrable cool to accessible heartbreak.

And oh, what heartbreak. Though he and wife Sara would reconcile temporarily after the release of this record, it was the couple’s separation that provided the inspiration for one of the minor templates in rock: the Divorce Album. (See: Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, Beck’s Sea Change.)

As if regretting a message left on his ex’s answering machine after a drunk dial, Dylan famously went back into the studio after the record was finished, padding out a couple particularly intense solo takes with full-band versions and diluting some of the lyrics to make them less autobiographical. But when you hear his anguished groan emote “I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off” on the wrenching “If You See Her, Say Hello,” or “I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh/With a pain that stops and starts/Like a corkscrew to my heart” on “You’re A Big Girl Now,” you almost squirm at the raw intensity.

Dylan exposed himself here at his most vulnerable, but still begrudged us our opportunity to take a peek. In a radio interview the year of the album’s release, he said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to . . . people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

But when the songs are this good, we can’t help it.

—Jeremy D. Goodwin


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