Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don’t Call it a Comeback: Four artists with stellar second acts

[Originally published at MadeLoud.]

From Kurt Warner to Mickey Rourke to the Democratic Party, 2008 was a year of comebacks in American pop culture. For imaginatively bankrupt media outlets, that meant yet another round of glib remarks about the supposed refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement that “there are no second acts in American lives.” It would be a trite reference even if the commentators weren’t mangling Fitzgerald’s intention, but F. Scott wasn’t talking about second chances.

Theatrically speaking, the second act is where the themes and situations set up in act one come to fruition, where preamble and character sketches develop into a genuine story. Taken in that spirit, Fitzgerald’s quotation looks even more cynical, especially since it’s so frequently true. The following musicians are the exceptions to this off-putting rule, the rare artists who managed to evolve while neither clinging to their early sound nor reinventing themselves to suit their times. In a perfect world, we’d all have second acts as well-conceived as these.

Dr. Dre

Being a member of N.W.A. must have been exhausting, what with the constant pressure to be harder than thou and true to the streets. As the hip-hop supergroup began to splinter in the early ‘90s, most of the members carried their personas through to their solo careers: Ice Cube raged against social and political machines, Eazy-E played the prankish horndog, MC Ren explored the intersection of funk and Islam.

Producer and MC Dr. Dre looked to be heading in a similar direction with the release of his groundbreaking solo debut The Chronic, but it was that album’s guest appearance by an up-and-comer named Snoop Doggy Dogg that pointed the way to Dre’s greatest legacy. Over the next two decades, Dre served as producer/mentor for a string of artists who represented the ever-changing face of hip-hop.

From Snoop Dogg to Eminem to 50 Cent, Dre has helped change the face of hip-hop several times over. He’s also put his unmistakable production stamp on an endless array of projects by industry icons like Raekwon, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z. And lest anyone think he’s lost his skills on the mic, he’ll still toss out the occasional vocal appearance to fill the massive gaps between his solo albums.

Ike Turner

When you’ve got the lead guitar credit on what’s often acknowledged as the first rock & roll single of all time, you might be excused for wanting to rest on your laurels. Not so Ike Turner, the flashy axe man who laid down the definitive distortion riff on 1951’s “Rocket 88.” As the leader of the roving R&B act The Kings of Rhythm, Turner carved out a decent living and a respected position on the ‘50s night club circuit. If he’d continued down that road, he might well have fallen into an Earl King-type niche: a seminal rocker beloved by historians but forgotten by the general public.

Ironically, Ike achieved his greatest fame by stepping out of the spotlight. He found something special in a powerful young vocalist named Anna Mae Bullock, soon rechristened Tina Turner. As their artistic collaboration grew, Ike took a small step into the background, continuing to write and arrange killer R&B productions but putting Tina’s unmistakable electricity front and center.

Good though he was, Ike was just one of thousands of supremely talented musicians working the ‘60s circuit. Tina, on the other hand, was a once in a lifetime performer. Working together, they were a force to be reckoned with. It’s just a shame Ike chose to end his second act with abuse, violence, and scandal.

Lou Reed

As the face at the forefront of one of the artiest bands of the 1960s, Lou Reed cultivated a brooding, thoughtful persona laced with an acidic cynicism that was directly at odds with the era’s prevailing peace-and-love vibes. The dour influence of author Delmore Schwartz, Reed’s collegiate mentor, ran throughout the band’s early output. When Reed led the Velvet Underground through a paean to heroin, for example, it came off not as a celebration of hedonism, but rather as a combined wail of self-loathing and drugged-out exultation.

Much of Reed’s early solo career seems dedicated to eradicating his formative days, but not via the whole-cloth reinvention employed by David Bowie. Bowie invented a series of carefully crafted alter egos, each with its own elaborate back story, but his musical output followed a fairly identifiable trajectory. Reed, on the other hand, seemed determined to avoid pigeonholing at all costs, pinballing from the glam rock strut of Transformer to the literate tragedy of Berlin to the atonal mind-fuck of Metal Machine Music.

Reed’s genre-scrambling even included occasional digs at his art-rock beginnings. His Rock & Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live albums featured proto-metal covers of Velvet Underground songs delivered with a snotty sneer that could easily be taken for derision. His Street Hassle album opens with a sardonic reprise of the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane” in which Reed openly mocks his own lyrics. Ironically, Reed’s efforts to defy classification only solidified his reputation as the godfather of art rock, a ballsy risk-taker who wasn’t afraid to fail in his pursuit of something different.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Devo was all about subversion. Their peculiar brand of new wave weirdness took to task the crumbling social and artistic structures of post-Nixon America with a tongue-in-cheek delivery that made their sometimes sardonic message all the more effective. Along the way, they experimented with electronic sounds and mixed media presentation in ways that would have a profound impact on the pop music landscape for decades to come.

There’s nothing in that formula that points to “beloved composer of children’s music,” but that’s exactly the direction Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh took in his second act. Mothersbaugh first caught the film scoring bug while working on Neil Young’s outré musical comedy Human Highway in the late ‘70s. By the early ‘90s, he was working extensively in the field of, film, TV and video game scores.

Like fellow rocker-turned-composer Danny Elfman, Mothersbaugh typically crafts scores that tone down his natural quirkiness without eliminating it entirely. His appropriately eclectic résumé includes “Rugrats,” “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “Crash Bandicoot,” as well as several collaborations with his cinematic soulmate Wes Anderson. No one could have forecast that the brain behind “Penetration in the Centerfold” and “Jocko Homo” would one day be entertaining a generation of Nickelodeon-loving youngsters, but again, Mothersbaugh knows a thing or two about subversion


No comments:

Post a Comment