It has come to our attention that we are at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. This is not a joke; here at the Bird Cave, our resident Astrologer and palm reader has informed us that this is an actual astrological phenomenon - a new age arriving every 2,160 years - and that the dawning of this one is particularly auspicious and of special relevance to our global village. It stands to reason that this has something to do with our Big Anxiety as we tiptoe into a weird future and if you've had any of your three eyes open at any point in the last fifty years it comes as no surprise that we're in for something real exciting, for better or for worse.
At least, that's what the tea leaves say today. Whether or not it's good news depends on how closely we follow our Buddha nature, though Buddha is suspiciously silent on the metaphysical properties of rock and roll music and any time I bring it up around the Astrologist's chambers she just tells me I have bad taste and makes fun of my iPod Classic.
At any rate, it's a conversation starter at the bar. If you're like me you probably associate the words Aquarian Age with things like Woodstock and the Summer of Love and people without shirts on; yet the fact that this Age is just getting started now means we may dispense with all of the vanity and guerilla commercialism of the so-called Free Love Era and reexamine the 1960s and 70s in terms of what they really were. And what they really were was extremely shitty.
This period of human life is the first that is recognizably modern, when things like globalism, instant communication, world politics, teen culture, computers, multimedia and large-scale information storage all began to operate together in a sort of worldwide network. Television revealed the world to itself, and a global language of images quickly developed. Men went to space and gazed upon the Earth with near-holy compassion. Medicine advanced to a level of sophistication that, for most of history, would have been beyond imagination. Yet in the fallout of an essentially apocalyptic World War, all these revelations quickly revealed the fragility of human life, its contradictions, its horrors and violence on a scale that had never been approached. And people sort of freaked out.
I could write pages and pages about all of the disruptions of the 1960s, from the convulsions of the Civil Rights movement to the mainstream acceptance of recreational drugs, from the reordering of class politics to the cynical and paranoid justifications of the Cold War. I won't, because I have done some beers, and so I'll try to sum it up by telling you that this was a time, way back when, when a lot of people's worldview was completely deconstructed and put back together again. If you want more, go to your local library - I'm trying to get to my main point, which has something to do with rock and roll music.
Discussed as an element of 1960s counterculture, the phrase "Age of Aquarius" sometimes represents a culmination of that era's rejection of the established culture. The problem is that the counterculture's period of lofty ideals arrived at a point when the movement itself had been undermined by the very establishment it was supposed to be breaking away from. The counterculture was made mainstream the moment that commercial interests realized that teen culture was profitable, which is why your Grandma still has her Jefferson Airplane records despite the fact that she can often be found clapping along to a singing pastor in a Lutheran church.
The truly revolutionary elements of the movement were purged quickly, whether by a media machine that dismissed alternative political thought; by a record industry that was straitjacketed by the realities of profitability, or eradicated experimental artists; or by a drug culture that destroyed peoples' potential if it didn't outright kill them. That's not to mention the assassinations and police actions that splintered political organizations and irreparably damaged the Civil Rights movement. On top of all that, an uncensored, televised war in Vietnam illuminated the paradoxes and horrors of the Cold War, but large-scale opposition to it only blossomed when the draft threatened to disrupt the security of the middle class - and only then when the language of the counterculture became more of a social statement than a mode of thought.
What a bummer. I'm making big generalizations here, because I'm still stubbornly attempting to get to the point. My point is that it's the god damn Age of Aquarius already and I don't want the example to be set by cynical commercial rock music or Top 40 hits like "Let's Get Together." The counterculture was forged in chaos, chaos that we still live with fifty something years later, long after all the optimism has dried up and all the hippies became landlords who lie about being at the '67 Newport Folk Festival (they were actually in Newport, Florida, that summer - getting high with a guy named Snake). Middle class vanity got us into our mess and now the heroes of Woodstock Nation do not reflect the realities of the world we are being left with. The world we got instead is a sick one and no amount of smilin' on yer brother is going to make it right. Your brother does not want you to smile on them. They think that it's actually really fuckin' weird when you do that. Instead, they want to disappear in The Dance. They want no Gods save for the Trickster and no masters at all and they want to be fluid like the River itself - or, what's left of it. They want to be as changeable as the Light. They don't want you to buy anything. They just want you to dance too and they want a new god damn national anthem and here it is: GLORIA, baby - the rock and roll mandala, the key to all self-expression, and to prove it to you we're gonna talk about it four times.
1. Them - "Gloria" (1964) & The Shadows of Knight - "Gloria"
"Gloria" was written by Van Morrison, who also wrote "Brown Eyed Girl" and did Astral Weeks* and ended up becoming a fat old drunk who wears a fedora and says a lot of weird stuff about COVID. Way back in the goodle days he was the frontman of a ferocious British Invasion-era beat group called Them that did American-style R&B better than the Rolling Stones and released this, their most popular song, as a B-side to a version of "Baby, Please Don't Go." "Gloria," as interpreted by Them, hints at the kind of mystic vocal reverie Morrison would later develop on Astral Weeks, the main difference being that back in '64 if it didn't make you slow dance, it had to make you fast dance and so we ended up with this: a weird track that filters the hyper-libidinous boasting of "Hoochie Coochie Man," through the eyes of a neurotic Northern Irish teenager. This is essentially the DNA of all garage rock, and it's no coincidence that five million teenage boys have attempted to learn this song at some point in the last six decades in order to impress a date. None of them got laid.
The original version by Them didn't receive much airplay until it was covered by the Shadows of Knight, an American garage band from Illinois who, ironically, had far greater access to the kind of Chicago Blues that fascinated the very British Invasion bands that they themselves were imitating. The result is a version of "Gloria," that hews more closely to its blues roots than the version recorded by its own writer. This release was phenomenally popular and reached No. 10 on the Billboard chart when some of the band members were still in high school. It was also popular enough to bump the original into the charts almost two years after it was released.
2. The Blues Magoos - "Gloria" (1967)
To recap so far: we are reinstalling "Gloria" as our new national anthem because it, and all garage rock, represents the disorder of modern life and its relationship to the eternality of the human spirit. Or something. Bear with me, here.
The amateur and alternative music of the 1960s is as startling in its inventiveness as anything on Bandcamp these days, and proves that the true Utopian element of humankind is its universal love of a good backbeat. But it's not all wine and roses; while the above-mentioned performances of "Gloria," remain ebullient, joyful, and optimistic sixty years down the line, the dumb-as-a-rock structure of the song left it open to alternate interpretations. And, of course, to know ourselves, we must also know the darkness inside ourselves. That may be Buddha talking again, but I'm not sure - I just cracked another beer.
Anyways, here's the Evil Twin. The Blues Magoos were another renegade bunch of teenagers who stumbled upon unlikely success - this time, with their New York-style tough-guy back alley shuffle "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet." They were also performed thrilling interpretations of R&B hits, and on their second record they took a shot at "Gloria." While the original practically glows with lustful anticipation, it pales next to the filthy, frenzied Magoos take. Them's version suggests all of the routine trespasses of intense young love, with Gloria herself occupying the narrator's imagination as a kind of Goddess-like figure. Meanwhile, the Blues Magoos version makes it sound like the narrator is crawling into Gloria's bedroom through the window, holding a meat cleaver. Keep in mind that this is a band that once implored us to, "take my love/and shove it up your heart."
3. Thee Midniters - "Gloria" (1966)
You people are probably sick of all this by now and have switched back to the 11 o'clock news (spoiler - it's not good) but I'm going to keep rolling until sleep is the only option. Thee Midniters were a dance band out of East L.A. famous for their chart-topping, barnstorming Tex-Mex take on "Land of 1000 Dances." These guys weren't quite unpolished enough to be considered garage rock, and were a professionally-trained dance band that incorporated a soul-oriented horn section. Their hits compilations In Thee Midnite Hour and Greatest should really be discussed in our "Border Music" series, considering the effortless way these dudes blended Tex-Mex music with Memphis-style soul, and sang Chicano anthems in English and Spanish. Until we get to it, we'll discuss "Gloria," yet again - those horns you hear on Thee Midniters' take don't leave a ton of room for the dynamics of the original, but who cares? The insistent beat of the Them version devolves here into that of a military marching band and every other member races to match the volume of the others, horns stumbling over each other, Little Willie G howling like a maniac, all giving us a thrilling glimpse at a dance band at the height of their power. Subtlety is not the key to getting feet on the floor and if the body really is as electric as they say, ignore all substitutes and remember this the next time the DJ is taking requests.
4. Patti Smith - "Gloria" (1975)
You knew this one would come up: the deconstructivist approach of Patti Smith is the engine of her debut record Horses, and funny enough, "Land of 1000 Dances" makes an appearance there as well. To understand our belief that "Gloria" is the common property of humanity, and therefore a fitting anthem for our nascent Aquarian Age, consider this: if we're going to thrive in this crazy New Era we're gonna have to be flexible, changeable, like the light through the trees. We're gonna have to rob our heroes for what they're worth and throw away the rest. Ain't no room for rigidity; it's dishonest, anyways, and incompatible with our animal nature.
I'm not saying you should run out right now and blow up a Post Office because that's how you get your kicks. Nor am I telling you that you've got to sit around under a tree waiting for everything to click into place (sorry, Buddha - I'm really dragging you in this one). What I'm saying is you gotta be like water, flowing downstream; push against the rocks and the roots and gravity will do the rest. Keep changing and evolving and tumbling forwards, but remember your role in the sacred cycle of the Big Cosmic Dance. If you gotta take a while to figure that out, put on this take of "Gloria," and meditate on it. Is this a tribute, a quote, or a totally new song? Does "Gloria" follow strict musical patterns, or is it wide open? Could it be universal? Is the chord progression a natural law? Is God up there on a cloud right now, banging out "Gloria" on a cheap organ? The rhythm section is a million billion solar systems. Go outside right now and listen real close - maybe you can hear it. In the meantime, all ya can do is be empathetic.
*If you haven't already, I implore you to listen to this record.