A FEW MONTHS ago a sometimes pleasant, sometimes depressing, sometimes intriguing, sometimes boring album by David Ackles, called American Gothic, was released by Elektra Records.
I am sure that at no point during this album’s production and subsequent handling did Elektra, Ackles or anybody else deeply involved with it, imagine that it would receive the hysterical attention it did from those who make and break records. American Gothic, if nothing else, will go down on Rock annals as the definitive example of positive overreaction. Ackles was praised as if he were the Prodigal Son returning home and the record itself was discussed almost reverently; in terms of “the best of the decade,” “the most important record since Sgt. Pepper“ or “if you buy only one record this year, make it…”. Many of the reasons cited for these over-zealous statements were repeated verbatim from review to review. But, rather than convincing me they must be on to something, it really just proved we get the same mail. The best example of these reviewers, and the original inspiration for the critical turnout on American Gothic, is Chris Van Ness, the music editor of Los Angeles’ Free Press. Van Ness wrote a long, eloquent, emotional essay on Ackles after receiving a tape of Gothic a few months prior to its release. His article was printed a month before the album became available and set the stage for what amounted to the sacrifice of a perfectly decent record. The Ackles piece was lifted intact from the Free Press, sent out to the press, and that started it all.
The only truly absurd part of Chris Van Ness’ review was his die-hard insistence that American Gothic matched, point for point, Sgt. Pepper as a record of immeasurable value and originality.
Ackles: “I appreciate the fact that Chris (Van Ness) was trying to convey his sense of excitement over the album and he chose as his means the comparison to Sgt. Pepper and the overpraising of it on certain levels. I appreciate that, but I can’t agree with it because I just wrote it as an album. I’m not trying to shake the world. I’m not trying to change the course of music. I’m just trying to express what I know about music; what I feel about it with the utmost honesty possible, that’s all.”
By now, the tide of opinion and reaction to American Gothic has subsided considerably. The album has taken its place among the “A’s” over at Tower Records here in downtown Hollywood (on The Strip) and in another five years, when someone else deems another record the successor to Sgt. Pepper, it probably won’t even be brought up. Why then did so many critics see fit to take a good, artful, but somewhat limited record and then proceed to over-praise it so out of proportion that the true merits of American Gothic not only lost their impact, but became a helluva chore to find. I, personally, only came to appreciate Ackles’ work for its own sake by accident in the midst of preparing this piece, but, then, I wanted to understand what they were all shouting about. Most people, I fear, will settle for their first impression.
Ackles: “The reviews have been such that it has put me on the defensive, because the next person to want to review the record feels all the praise has been given and his first tendency is to condemn out of hand.”
The reasons that Van Ness, in particular, went so overboard in lauding American Gothic can only be guessed at, but there are some obvious factors that can be discussed. Surfacely, Van Ness drew a great deal of attention to a friend he once harshly criticized (his reviews of Ackles’ first two albums were as negative as this one was positive). Chris knew that Elektra couldn’t very well ignore his review, he knew there would be a critical backlash and he knew that Ackles’ name would be flooded into the minds of a generally open public. Instant controversy and a job well done. I think we can assume, though, that Van Ness was honest in his feelings about American Gothic; and his words were meant to do to us what the album did to him. What evades me, even now, is why? We can safely question the musical awareness of any army of critics that freak out on an album that is unashamedly derived from a source familiar to all, that is performed very dramatically, is arranged very lushly but, no matter what, just is not earth-shaking. Too much music gives one jaded ears and often something a little different becomes something great in the translation from ears to print. Don’t these well meaning fellows realize that in giving Ackles a wider stage to perform on that they have deprived him the pleasure of direct communication and have made him defend a position he never intended to take?
Ackles: “People are reacting to the reviews and not the album, which is not fair. It’s just music, it’s just a way of communicating and if it doesn’t reach you, it doesn’t and that’s valid.”
Anyway, so we can get on with discussing Ackles as composer and performer on a more objective level, let’s get this Sgt. Pepper thing out of the way.
Ackles: “This whole ‘album of the year’, Sgt. Pepper, change in American music; all of that supposes more than I care to suppose. You can’t compare anything to Sgt. Pepper because that was an experience we went through, rather than just a piece of music we listened to.”
Quite frankly, and accurately, there are no grounds whatsoever on which to compare American Gothic to the genius and timeliness of Sgt. Pepper. The fact that a difference of opinion has arisen is enough to prove that Chris Van Ness based his comparison on several factors: that, like Sgt. Pepper, American Gothic explores a complete spectrum of musical influences and, in doing so, has opened us up to many new forms of music; that, like the Beatles, Ackles studies the state of his country’s being and the time in which he lives; and that he accomplishes this more originally and more effectively than anyone else has. None of the above are completely true. Ackles does obviously utilize his earlier influences, but his achievement doesn’t transcend his source, as the Beatles’ did, and that source is not as widespread. What American Gothic does do, is to modernize a theatrical form of music first experimented with in the Germany and America of the thirties. As everyone who has written about it points out, to a different conclusion, Ackles’ music sounds as if it were a recent collaboration of George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson and Bertolt Brecht; and, except for the inherent humor in the song ‘Oh, California!’, it is as deadly serious as if it were. Ackles goes no further in time or distance to explore unfamiliar musical ideas, he expresses his thoughts through music that was first conceived in a time wrought with misery, and it shows. Ackles carefully builds a mood that is at once sentimental and pessimistic. On record, he doesn’t approach the humor he injects into his live performance because he believes that by going from dark to light and back again, when he isn’t there personally to clarify his intentions, will cause the listener to switch off. As a result, American Gothic is a bit restrained in effect and David fails to exercise the wit and imagination that the Beatles used in abundance.
As far as opening you up to new musical forms goes, it is first a pre-requisite that you have never heard Threepenny Opera, Jacques Brel, Judy Collins’ In My Life or anything Randy Newman has written. The first three examples pre-date Ackles musically and Newman parallels Ackles’ outlook; only more cynical than pessimistic, and more cerebral than intellectual.
One final thing that should be remembered when speaking of Ackles/Gothic and Beatles/Pepper in the same breath, is that the latter were four separate creative beings working very closely with a fifth, George Martin; there was very little chance of any one idea getting out of hand. Ackles’ work is a solitary achievement – composition, lyric and every complex note of the arrangements – under an almost invisible production by Bernie Taupin; and there is little evidence of outside- or self-discipline. This was David’s first time out as arranger and he needed someone to curb his over-zealousness, and Bernie Taupin just isn’t George Martin.
There is just one more of Van Ness’ statements regarding Ackles that is pertinent to this re-evaluation, but it is an important issue – especially because it represents the most extensive disagreement between critic and artist and is definitely applicable to the credibility of Van Ness’ entire case.
Van Ness: “Gone was the pretentious singer/writer whom I had heard on two earlier albums. Gone was the pessimism and empty protestation which had characterized the other albums. Gone were all of the Hollywood arrangements and phony production that had been in the way of David’s music.”
Ackles: “That’s a point that Chris and I still disagree on because I think there’s a natural progression from the first song on the first album to the last song on this one that is unstoppable and undeniable.”
This is a point which, again, indicates the critic’s penchant for overstatement and also gives us an insight into Ackles’ view of his own growth. I believe that American Gothic is a progression, but it does retain unmistakable residue of the pretension and pessimism of his first two albums. Whether one appreciates the music or not, David’s above statement says it all and this issue is one in which the final say has to belong to the artist. If David’s first album is the essential Ackles, then American Gothic is the ultimate Ackles – and there is no questioning the directness of his route. What remains is for David to merge the two and give us the definitive Ackles; something that, even with my own tastes and personal reservations about the genre in which David works, I look forward to.
Granted, those reservations were formed without Ackles contributing to them. I simply grew more cautious over the years in my attitude toward such near-maudlin performers as Lotte Lenya, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. I became impatient with the never changing mood of music more suited to a smoke-filled, booze-ridden cabaret than to my living room and as a result, I’ve been more than a little biased in my opinions of the performers that have continued in that genre. There do exist, however, a few artists with the potential of making cabaret music palatable to the harder audiences of today, without limiting themselves to the easy-listening market. Kris Kristofferson has captured several markets by successfully combining the sentimentality and self-pity characteristic to both cabaret and country-western music. Fred Neil, Kenny Rankin and Jake Holmes manage to appeal to a wider audience by using the less emotional format of a pop-jazz base. The more successful performers like Harry Chapin and Carly Simon (and, if you stretch it, Paul Simon and James Taylor) have proceeded from folk beginnings; first capturing that audience and then stylizing their musical and vocal presentation, going on to continuously expand it.
In many ways, Ackles combines them all; and Elektra, instead of aiming their campaign at readers of Rolling Stone, should realize that and start exposing Ackles to a more receptive audience. I can very easily see Ackles stealing the Carson Show or playing Carnegie Hall (in the classic sense) or becoming a favorite of middle-class, liberal, intellectuals. That particular audience is constantly shucked by Art tailored to its tastes and would probably be very open to the honesty and feeling that Ackles puts into his music.
A rock-oriented listener, on the other hand, might dismiss Ackles as a softer version of Randy Newman. David is more concerned with creating a mood than provoking a thought; happier getting a knowing smile than a laugh. But, he is more likely to self-indulge than Newman. Those differences run throughout Ackles’ and Newman’s music, but rather than making one superior to the other, those differences could simply be the demarcations of their two audiences. There is, of course, room for Ackles’ music in the market he is currently being sold to, and I’m sure his almost fanatical following will remain appreciative; but there is a need for it in another market too often ignored, and I’m sure David can appreciate that.
If you buy American Gothic, do so without expecting it to knock you on your ass. Just listen, carefully and objectively, and see if something comes to you. If you do buy it to hear the “album of the decade” and your first reaction doesn’t quite see it that way, don’t blame Ackles. Just think twice the next time about succumbing to far-reaching statements by crusading critics. We should all know better.
© Jeff Walker, Phonograph Record, October 1972