Music Writing by Carson Arnold

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Frankly, I just don't see any difference between Handel and the whole gash of glam-rock that embarked The New York Dolls, Marc Bolan, and eighteen year-old Brett Smiley. Even Lou Reed at a quick glance on the cover of Transformer looked like a blank and stewed Liszt, and I mean, check out Handel in that one photograph; big, fat, white wig, duffy suit, and manicured to the flare lip. "What a queer," my neighbor would say. His performances were a facade, if not empire, of glittering entertainment and Baroque splurge, totally parallel to any cheesy David Bowie gig in the coked mid-eighties. Nothing can save you from those: Golden Years. It was all glam. Handel and Bowie were nearly tanked out on the fashionable cavity of stardom and drugs, and if you're telling me that Messiah-- which has been chanted throughout innumerable orgies in Sex and the City to the noose of The Omen (actually that's Carl Orff)-- isn't like any luv/luv climax of The Dolls'...git outta here! The thing about classical music is that each composer looked like they were trapped in a fish-tank. Glam, too. As I leaf through my albums-- Haydn, Bach, Teleman, and especially Purcell-- they all pose like Brett Smiley on his sunken Breathlessly Brett album-- on a chair, cigarette dangling from mouth, tights, blonde hair, haggard; like the downpour of music's lost chords had settled in his face. Some pronounced him as the beautiful boy of 1974, a year of intrepid altitude that would become a wash-over through the face of the next three decades. This was the ultra fate of glam; a short, burning candle; and Brett was one more sorry wick lost in the wax. Success was the pawn here. The design was to be a star; cut 'n paste method; to record Breathlessly Brett at all costs. Boom. What had been promised out of last century's tango to the Millennium, was to be thrown into Brett's lap, ingested into every weak vein. Money, drugs, sex, TV, the golden lettering of his name spread universally throughout all disco bowls, punk gallows, and rock echoes. It was a chart-toppin, voice-poppin sound, found on-the-rocks during any given day pool-side in Hollywood's swank lounge. Hot-pants, bell-bottoms, t-shirts, neck-ties-- they'd all know him, and even listening to his one single of the time, "Va Va Va Voom", you can hear the red-carpet cameras just snapping away. The monster bled the perfect flesh, too: an inferior production by Andrew Loog Oldham's closet of irresistible poltergeist. The Rolling Stones had crashed their jet into this music. So premium. A star is born. You couldn't help but smile.


The story from there...well, it's like waiting in a hotel lobby for thirty years. Lots of bullshit. Breathlessly Brett got canned, and the master tapes floated endlessly. Not even out of his teens, Brett's life became a dashboard to every obscene substance that walked on by, still waiting for that one juicy moment, like Judy Garland: Oh, you really love me, you really love me! The spotlight died, and Bach's Cantatas played on.


But not to worry, gang-- not to worry people like me who are home alone at 1:51 on a Saturday afternoon-- the album is out!! And playing loud as we speak. Word has it, supposedly Tower Records in L.A. has it racking through in sales (though I just called the one on Sunset Blvd. and they're clueless). That's not important, though, it's the mess-hall of orchestration in the record that possesses you at its end that is. Those candy melodies, so compulsive. The record is a rose among the cranky bed of junk-shop glam. British rock writer, Nina Antonia (who wrote the concise liner notes for the album), is one culprit to the album's new-found appearance, and shares her passion in seeing Brett as a young girl on TV-- ultimately changing her life-- which eventually exhaled her to write a stream of New York Doll/Johnny Thunders biographies that are all addictive pages of recycling and flow, like Brett's music. But in the year of...Ahh, what's the difference. Sit back and let these thirty-five minutes vaporize. There's no other point to it.


I played the album for a jazz friend of mine the other day, and he's like, "What makes you do it? You've heard these chords changes a thousand times, what makes this anything special?" I thought about it, and probably gave my usual "Dude, it just rocks" type of comment back, hoping this would solve all fractions. The reasons for this are clear-- it's why we love Television even though Tom Verlaine's voice sucks-- the music-- one or two chords they are-- ain't questioning, ain't contradicting, they're conceiving and moving, and in the long run-- teaching. As I listen to "Solitaire"-- a weightless whisper of Lennon delay loneliness-- it is clear there's something different and absolute about Brett's performance. His voice is a giant hush of phrasing as told by a godsend symphony of Oldham deranged gaiety which always unfolds itself like some Liz Taylor party on wheels. No joke. Sometimes you wonder what the hell's going on; instead of strings, they incorporated a corridor of screams and it sounds just as good? Guess so. I first heard the album last summer, and upon arrival wrote Nina Antonia back, "Thanks! My...she's really good."


Oh, damn. I've done it, I had called him a girl. What am I, a dunce? A vagrant in something I don't belong?


"Sorry, I think in the last letter I think I said Brett was a 'she'-- whoops! I meant 'he'!" But that's a typical situation, 'cuz Brett does look like a wild lass on the cover, and even in the music, devours each gasp in a rich femininity-- the lyrics all kind of wearing scarfs. It's funny, drags, androgyny, some musicians could look as good as the girls in the audience below. And on that note, actually that was one element of glam that's evident in The Dolls-- men, at a certain spell, could potentially be aroused by their image, could be fooled by the very androgyny. At such a state, all sorts of crazy mayhem could follow forth out of the male tenure (punk, heavy-metal, rap), and to witness a guy in a mini-skirt in the first place, was and is a test to the identity of just how far one was willing to give into the music. With Brett, I never consider him to be of any relevancy, nor kin, to The Dolls. Nah, I mean, The Dolls were loud and husky, their songs were bruisers, and at any minute during their music I always feel as though the room's gonna cave into a ball of flames, and usually, I flee (meaning, readers who are still with me, I never finish the record). Breathlessly Brett is a cultivation of a lot of tones-- foremost a T-Rex rip into Bolan's brain, and of course John Lennon, which erodes within each clef taken. The album is wet, dripping wet, and to put it into a better perspective ('cuz, oh, I'd rather listen to it), just imagine every female-singer off the sugar orchestra-- Streisand, Garland, Dusty Springfield-- clashing with a castration of rock 'n roll energy, covering "I Want To Hold Your Hand"-- breathlessly-- darling, baby, honey, sweetie-- just imagine all that. So good. So mad. So excellent. So sad.


So, here we are nearly thirty years later, and you got songs like "Va Va Va Voom" suddenly kickin' its sprinkles in a trench-coat world of: we-only-live-for-our-coffee-breaks. What's to do? The ol' rail of "Hard Day's Night" and "Pet Sounds" would probably be nominees for the top twenty songs to clear a room in my generation's gathering. Doing so, a lot of tattoo parlors would go out of business, no doubt. T-Rex and that crew-- even the keg-party wouldn't approve of them. Let's face it, most people route that stuff for fairies these days, for white people, 'cuz hell, white people are too busy wearing Parliament t-shirts, trying to be black, listening to Massive Attack. A podium for glam (despite the cinematic versions with Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and that of Brett Smiley seem...well...relatively low in the bowels of our culture and juke. That's why this album is a genuine tear from the past and a cry into the hammer of now. Courtesy of the disillusioned, it even sounds like it was recorded this afternoon. All time stands still for Brett Smiley to peek 'round the corner, capturing the essence of young stardom, hot people, and getting stoned to all ends of the earth in 1974. But the whole thing here is the Saga; the myth. Yeah, I know it's a screwed up thing to dwell into, but let's just say that the album did get released in '74. Holy ba-jeezus! did'cha hear this new album, radio land? It's called Breathlessly Brett, and most likely, here's its future:


Of course the record would be a blockbuster. It should be. Billboards would rot with his name still on there. Boys and girls would meet, marry, have grandchildren, and the record would still be around as some token of their wild years. Brett would tour the world for years. A celebrity. A teenager. Every pill, every liquid, and every person-- lawyers, agents, reporters, and skanks-- who knew how to mix 'em all together would be at his feet-- give us the va va va voom. A Mercedes for his mom. Bowie might have had to think twice about collaborating with Eno. Soon, his record contract would force him to cut another album in two years. Perhaps another gold. Now he's twenty. His hair's torched. Overdosed. Love is gone. Disco erupts. The airwaves won't stop playing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". Money is blown. The punk invasion explodes. The 80's are on their way. By the third album, the thrill is gone, the critics see this, the girls grow up. Brett drifts away. Word has it, Vegas. Bowie's still repeating, 'Ah, we could be heroes'. In twenty years, some kid finds Breathlessly Brett in a record bin in Amherst, Massachusetts. He tosses it back and buys Link Wray.


Or at least that's one version. Instead, the album wasn't coveted, but dispersed by circumstances of rock 'n roll witch, and by glowing today, I believe, is a plain, exciting treat. For a number of reasons, most visibly, 'cuz Brett has a tub of demos packed away that are straight-story unbelievable. These are down-right lovely ballads of the big world. Lots of songs spread between run-ins and in-runs. He mailed me a few after our interview-- a tape and a cd; one track, "Blame It On The Moon", recorded with Andrew Oldham during the mid-80's and a few other ones elicited across rehearses of this past year. In total, it was about an hour of calm, lingering unreleased music, heard from the man who once announced: "The line between male and female is practically non-existent." (I dunno 'bout that.) And they're good; still cloaked in Breathlessly's mirrors, but dancing in a far more evasive waltz. Much of the material periscopes from the heavy Lennon-esque Mind Games era with messy beats that are familiar with his whole Nilsson clash (with a little alt-country here and there). Hearing them perspire was similar to the feeling of the morning sun hitting me outta the frost-- an indigo lighting. They journey to remote corners that only someone who's been bumped out of fame, baked in champagne, diagnosed with rusty sicknesses, and somehow survived the shell of New York City, could write...which is mostly all about faith and love. A few overt rumors are calling for Jim O'Rourke's assistance in producing these unknown recordings, which I'm skeptical of, partly 'cuz I'd rather see someone like Robert Pollard pick the project up (and as a fantasy, wouldn't it be cool to get a whole Phil Spector/David Axelrod thing going?-- although the biz' probably now sees Brett as "deflowered"). What's fascinating in his demos is the integral, soul-surviving aspect of Brett that's rarely heard in other infamous figures and graveyard icons; how, instead of perishing and repenting, he believes. That was, in a gist, glam-rock. Folk musicians killed themselves-- hung themselves-- rock broke on through, and if it didn't demolish itself, in time gave us a kindred spirit...of just being there. Turning on the tube, opening a book, you could at least count on it. Breathlessly Brett was a celebration of this glory caked in one large fiesta. The demos here are an entirely alternative jam from Breathlessly, and is paired down to instruments of a more functional, agile way of performing. "Blame It On The Moon" is one example of where Brett is almost recounting back to his broken pieces of popularity through metaphysical harmonies. The picture. You get it.


Underneath Breathlessly Brett there was never an ominous note. All was social to the manic degree of complete whirlwind. It was plain fun, and I love it for that. But why was it thrown out, disregarded? Perhaps no one had a clue what was going on, why they were there. Maybe that was the music? I don't know the reasons and still don't beyond the mere collapse of economics. But that's history. It is here in one of Oldham's cackling pianos, Brett's hush voice, that you groove: it is what it is.


--Carson Arnold - November 23th, 2003


Links to Brett Smiley:


copyright 2003 Carson Arnold


H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at [email protected]

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