Apr 272020

A week or two ago, as a healing balm for sports-starved people like myself during this pandemic, ESPN broadcast the last fight the artist-soon-to-be-known-as Muhammad Ali would fight under his birth name of Cassius Clay. It was his 1964 World Heavyweight Championship bout against the menacing then-champ Sonny Liston. I grew up watching boxing matches with my grandfather and uncle, hearing them narrate and act out the backstory to the epic and culturally defining fights Ali would have with Joe Frazier and other contenders of the 1970s,

Watching boxing matches with them, as was the case with other big sporting events at my grandparents’ house, was a guaranteed time to learn all that was brewing in my family and in society, beyond the event being broadcast. It was a time when generational divides would be laid bare; family members’ openly and messily wrestled with issues of politics, racism, sexism, and self expression. As early as I can remember, I was allowed to join the fray. Insults would inevitably be hurled, feelings would be hurt, but I also got to witness the incremental shifts in the older generations’ thinking. Muhammad Ali was a lightning rod for almost all of the mixed feelings my working-class, politically conservative, but in practice more socially liberal than they might care to admit, family was working through. Real life could be polarizing in the days before social media and the professional wrestling-style news media that is the norm today, but real people were allowed to swing between poles without it affecting their “brand.”

Anyhow, I’d never seen this Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight until now. I’d grown up hearing about Liston and how much of jerk he was. Even though my grandfather was leery of Ali’s political rabble-rousing and general showboating in the early ’70s, he never had a good thing to say about Sonny Liston. He thought he was a thug and cowardly threw his fight against Clay. I could hear my grandfather’s gentle voice as I watched the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali dance and playfully gesticulate while jabbing at the ogre Liston. I was only a year old when this fight took place, so I can only imagine what Grandpop might have been saying back then, but I’d watched the three epic Ali-Frazier fights at his side. Watching Cassius Clay in 1964 gave me a sense that this boxer had already been beamed in from the future to do more than dominate opposing ogres in boxing trunks. The Civil Rights movement was already underway, but Clay’s long left arm jabbed as if he was reaching for the whole Black Power trip that was still a few years away. This young boxer was already proclaiming himself The Greatest, which public figures didn’t do back then. This Clay fellow was ahead of John Lennon and his “bigger than Jesus” quote. He was paving the way for James Brown‘s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” After the fight, while the ringside announcer tried to get in a few words with the new champ, Clay told the media crowd pressing in on him to make way for his friend Sam Cooke to come through. He gave Cooke a hug and told anyone who would listen how pretty the two of them were. A change was gonna come.

So, to me, that 1964 version of Cassius Clay is an example of an artist who’s been beamed in from the future. His appearance is a precursor of a coming social upheaval. Clay/Ali was so much more than the greatest heavyweight boxer of his time, perhaps the greatest heavyweight boxer ever.

On the other hand, there’s Secretariat – or Michael Jordan, for that matter, who ESPN is also celebrating with a 10-part documentary on his last year with his legendary Chicago Bulls team. Secretariat was a horse, of course, so it goes without saying that his nearly 30-length victory in in the Belmont Stakes – the most dominating athletic performance I’ve ever seen – did not move the needle in a cultural sense, not even during Watergate. Likewise, the decidedly apolitical Jordan, was merely 30 lengths greater than any other basketball player of his era. That doesn’t take away from the greatness of Secretariat or MJ, but I don’t think their greatness instilled a culture, in a yogurt sense, that would influence the culture, in a social sense, over the coming decades, the way Ali’s greatness would.

I’m going to ask you to think about musical figures who were more than the greatest of their time, on their instrument. The Beatles, for instance, could be argued as having been beamed in from the future to blaze the trail forward. Probably James Brown, too. What about Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, or Coldplay?

I’ll give you an example of arguments one may make:

  • Although I’m not a huge fan of Michael Jackson‘s solo career, I will grant that he was miles ahead of almost anyone else in the history of music. However, I put him in the Secretariat/Michael Jordan category. I am willing to be wrong.
  • I’m not sure where I’d place Hendrix. I love his music and think he’s still 100 years ahead of any other guitarist on the planet, but I’m not sure if he’s in the Ali/Brown/Beatles camp of serving as a culture for cultural change or merely 30 lengths ahead of the rest of us.

Argue as we might over this silly topic, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with merely being 30 lengths ahead of the rest of the planet.


  16 Responses to “Early Arrivals From the Future or Secretariat?”

  1. I’d say Dylan is in the “Beamed in from the Future” camp. A few weeks ago, Al sent me an audio clip of Bob Dylan on the Les Crane TV show in February 1965. There’s an relatively non-hostile interview, Dylan being the elusive wise guy self before he became the snarling elusive wise guy self later in the year. But the striking thing was the two songs he did, “It’s All Over, Baby Blue” and especially “It’s Alright, Ma.”

    So it’s the beginning of 1965 and Bob is doing “It’s Alright, Ma” on network TV. How far out of the future is that? Yeah, that song certainly resonated on the 1974 tour, after Viet Nam and Watergate, but this was three months after the JFK assassination. Dylan, in some ways, had already dominated the folk scene, creating “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a worthy anthem out of the blue on top of 10 or 15 incredibly incisive “protest” songs, “Master’s of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie…friggin’…Carroll”, dashed off few couple of classic non-protest numbers, for example “Don’t Think Twice” (How perfect is that song?), and he just bounces to this unprecedented…thing.

    In 1966, he records “Fourth Time Around”, a song that pretty scathingly critiques “Norwegian Wood” and the Beatles new “serious” phase, largely inspired by Dylan himself. Only someone with a peek into the future could have such big brass balls.

    At some point, the weight of travelling back from the future started to crush him and he joined the rest of us here in the present. He seems to wonder himself where all of that came from.

  2. I agree with you, geo, on Dylan! Like Ali, his “culture” spread wide. It’s cool, too, that he managed to have that influence without being “the best” in any one conventional functional musical area.

  3. diskojoe

    I was watching the Criterion Edition of Monterey Pop, which has about 2 hrs. of performances that weren’t in the original movie. Among the extra performances was that of Laura Nyro which to me gave out a 1975 singer-songwriter vibe somewhat @ odds w/the reminder of the festival.

    Also, didn’t Sha Na Na first receive notice @ Woodstock? Didn’t that predict the future of ’50s nostalgia in the 70s?

  4. That’s a good point. Where exactly does Sha Na Na fit into all that? It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to say that they were visionaries. They were certainly among the first who saw all that coming.

  5. Diskojoe, if Sha Na Na was sent from the future to return us to the past, I fear my head is about to explode.

  6. Geo said “At some point, the weight of travelling back from the future started to crush him and he joined the rest of us here in the present. He seems to wonder himself where all of that came from.”

    This is the distillation of that Disappointed thread from this RTH v3.0 restart regarding Nashville Skyline. A great album (said I) but it wasn’t from the future.

  7. Happiness Stan

    I’d say Beefheart was beamed in from the future, but possibly one that hasn’t quite arrived yet. Either that or he was a complete charlatan. Without him we would probably never have The Fall, and I’d also place Mark E Smith in the from the future category. Listening to indie type bands on the radio over here, there are a heck of a lot of them who have studied Hex Education Hour, although they don’t seem to be selling records either.

    Kate Bush, again from the future, but knew when she wasn’t needed any more once it caught up. Imagine if Dylan had stopped in 67, or at least after Street Legal, to bake cakes and take the kids to school.

    Scott Walker seemed to do it in reverse, starting as a hack, suddenly found himself thirty lengths ahead and was last seen hurtling towards the Planet of the Apes before communication stopped.

    I’d stick Zep at thirty lengths ahead, Jimmy Page anyway, along with Hendrix and most virtuosos. It’s impressive, but unless it can be built on and copied I think it’s destined to inspire awe rather than become a design for the future.

    Speaking of child care, home schooling is about to start and it’s my turn. Catch you all later.

  8. An artist like Beefheart, who I would agree continues to be novel years after his death and had great musical influence beyond his commercial appeal is one thing, but I’m looking for artists who might have had a profound impact on carving out the future on a national or international basis. Did Beefheart or Scott Walker do anything to clear the path for any significant social upheaval, positive or negative, in areas beyond music? I think Sha Na Na’s got a better case, if you consider their influence on American Graffiti, Happy Days, Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” and eventually 8 years of Ronald Reagan and even our current nightmare of Trump’s 19th century revivalism.

  9. cherguevara

    The two bands that come to mind for me are Kraftwerk and Parliament/Funkadelic. Sonically ahead of their time, and both pillars of entire genres of music that imitated or sampled their recordings. Both used instruments “of the future” when they were still being treated as novelty sounds for “Switched on….” albums or sci-fi movie soundtracks. Both with polar opposite (from each other) visual aesthetics that were not so much at odds with the prevailing popular culture of their times as they were simply unique.

    Wasn’t there a story about John Lennon hearing the B52’s on the radio, turning to Yoko Ono and saying something like, “they’re ready for you now”…?

    I consider myself a Scott Walker fan, but honestly I listen to 1-4 way more than I listen to Tilt, et al.

    Lastly, I’ll put in a pitch for Yaz/Yazoo. The combination of big, big vocals atop minimal synth beats and big bass lines – Kraftwerk meeting Northern Soul – was an engaging twist on the synthpop genre. I suppose the same could be said for the Donna Summer/Moroder records.

  10. Happiness Stan

    CG, agreed on the Scott Walker records, the point I was trying to make was that most of those Mr Mod referenced, as far as I understood, started out there and the world caught up eventually, whereas he did it in reverse. I forced myself to listen to his later records, but for me the four Scott albums are fairly peerless.

    I thought about Kraftwerk, the world caught up with them very quickly and I’ve been musing on whether not only Giorgio Moroder, but also Tonto’s Expanding Headband and Stevie Wonder, not to mention Walter/Wendy Carlos get slightly short changed in the rush to give all the credit to Kraftwerk. Not that they don’t deserve a lot of it.

    Did George Clinton change the world? Dunno.

    George Clinton presents Parliament and the Funkadelic All Stars played at a festival I went to in the nineties. The Wildhearts were due to play afterwards but pulled out, so GC and his band just played their set, through the changeover and what would have been the next slot and, despite a cloudburst in the middle of the set had everybody grooving for almost four hours. It was extraordinary, even though I’ve never managed to get through any of their albums it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen and I could have watched them for the rest of the night. Saw Alison Moyer not long ago, she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself very much.

  11. I saw the P-Funk All Stars around 1990 at the Tower Theater. It opened with about five minutes of Bernie Worrell playing amazing solo piano and then one by one people shuffled on stage and joined in the fun for virtually the entire roughly three hour show. The shambolic nature of the thing was really impressive; someone would just step up and just start killin’ it out of the blue.

    I don’t think Clinton came from the future. He was the ultimate junk man, grabbed whatever was around and let it shine. I’m pretty sure he had Phillippe Wynne from the Spinners and Maceo Parker with him that night, and he was always a ringleader rather than the featured performer.

    The albums can be a rough slog and a little unfocused, but the 10 minute version of Atomic Dog really hits the spot for me with its weird off kilter rhythm and the endless overlaid dada chanting: “Bow Wow Wow – Yippie Yo Yippie Yay.” Better still, “Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat? Nothin’ but the dog in me.”

  12. Happiness Stan

    I saw them in about 96 I think, sounds like a similar format. Several times I tried to count how many of them were playing, but gave up when I realised there was an orchestra pit in front of the stage and bits of trombones and stuff kept sticking up from nowhere. I counted about 27 at one point, if I recall correctly. I bow to your knowledge of the musicians behind the funk, I’d struggle to get past Clinton and Bootsy Collins, but oh boy I’m glad I was there for that.

  13. BigSteve

    The Simon & Garfunkel track El Condor Pasa seems like a foreshadowing of a lot of ‘world music; in the coming decades. Paul Simon’s first solo album followed this up on his first solo album with excellent reggae on Mother & Child Reunion as well as the Latin sounds of Me & Julio. Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints pick up this trend in the future (not to mention Talking Heads and David Byrne), and ultimately Fela is a hit on Broadway.

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    Not gonna fall into the influentialist trap here — nor will I just find a “genius” or two to point my time travel wand at. No, an artist who beams him or herself into the future has to arrive in the present with a different kind of confidence than a smart-aleck like Dylan or a freaky space-child like Hendrix. (Hendrix didn’t steal the guitar tricks of the future; he stepped sideways out of a multidimensional wormhole with them.)

    The Beatles do count, as everything they did seemed to reveal something new to the world. But not (I think obviously) the Stones. Yes to Johnny Cash, no to Bruce Springsteen. But here’s one that will set Mod’s teeth on edge: Motorhead. My first taste of that band made me realize there was a way of playing rock and roll insanely fast, insanely loud, and just generally insanely, in a way that made me and other people feel unusually good. But there’s a catch: the fact that Motorhead wrote the same five songs (as great as they were) over and over suggests to me that they didn’t design and pilot their time machine on purpose, as part of some genius master plan. I think they all got drunk after a band practice and accidentally crawled into somebody else’s time machine to sleep it off. They woke up with massive hangovers in the year 1977, with a few ideas from the future in their aching brains, and kept flogging those ideas throughout their strangely glorious/narrowminded career.

  15. Interesting, HVB. I can’t argue with the musical worth of that band, so maybe you’re onto something. However, the visitors from the future I used as possible examples predicted social changed, too. What did Motorhead predict in terms of society, craft beer?

  16. PS – I believe you hit the Hendrix question on the head, HVB.

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