05 September 2022

The twin geniuses of Creedence and Pesnyary

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Recently I’ve been listening to the folk-tinged rock music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, on the one hand, and the rock-tinged folk music of Pesnyary on the other. Creedence were a Bay Area band who emerged out of, and came to exemplify, a certain strand within the sixties counterculture—though they usually composed lyrics about, and were influenced by the folk culture of—Greater Appalachia, the Bayou, the American South generally. Pesnyary, by contrast, were a Soviet state-sponsored VIA (vokal’no-instrumental’nyi ansambl’, literally ‘vocal-instrumental ensemble’) who played acid-rock and progressive-rock arrangements of traditional folk songs as well as their own compositions. They were also one of the very few Soviet bands to actually tour in America—specifically in the American South. Creedence had split up by 1972; Pesnyary were then just getting started: officially, there are two bands calling themselves Pesnyary now and four or five others borrowing the name without licence, but most people agree that Pesnyary’s classic period ended in 2003 with founding member Vladimir Mulyavin’s death. Despite their very different origins and ‘stances’—the lyrical and thematic difference between ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Ave Maria’, as it were—I’m finding I’m enjoying them for very similar reasons.

One of the reasons I find both of these bands so enjoyable to listen to, is because they invest these deceptively simple melodies and chord progressions (these are rock groups, after all) with a great deal of dynamic and emotional depth. Creedence Clearwater Revival build on a basis of swamp blues—the harmonica was there from early on—and diverge from there in various directions, adding more and more rock instrumentation, as well as elements like Hammond organ. By the end of their career, as one can hear on songs like ‘Sweet Hitch-Hiker’, they were veering very close to hard rock or even proto-metal. CCR’s tunes are catchy, instantly-recognisable, iconic: ‘Suzie Q’, ‘Down on the Corner’, ‘Fortunate Son’, ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’, ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’.

As important as Creedence Clearwater Revival are for a certain generation of Americans, I’d say that the Pesnyary are equally as important for a certain generation of people from the former Soviet Union. The Belarusian group, led by Vladimir Mulyavin, took its influences both from Western rock music (particularly the Beatles) and from traditional White Russian folk melodies. Pesnyary songs blend guitar melodies, drums, keyboards and even saxophones with traditional folk instruments (wooden whistles, fiddles, flutes, accordions, hurdy-gurdies) in a unique way. The VIA was signed to the state-owned label Melodiya in the Soviet Union (the only real game in town, as it were), and their albums sold millions of copies. Their unique approach to making accessible music with depth and feeling—with hits including ‘Aleksandrina’ and ‘Belovezhskaya Pushcha’—and Mulyavin’s ability to seek out and recruit talented multi-instrumentalists and singers, made the Pesnyary very literal rock stars in the Soviet Union.

John Fogerty and Leonid Bortkevich are, obviously, two very different vocalists—but even here there are some interesting similarities. Fogerty gives a very nasal delivery, with occasionally having a hoarse or a hard edge to his tenor melodies. There’s definitely a ‘country’ or ‘Southern’ inflection to this delivery, but it’s easy to hear the lasting influence on rock—even hard rock and heavy metal—that Fogerty’s voice had. Leonid Bortkevich was a much more traditional tenor: clean-toned, pectoral delivery, like a classically-trained singer. On the surface, he sounds much more like John Denver than John Fogerty. But Bortkevich deploys some interesting flourishes in his singing—a breath’s delayed approach to the note, a glide or a back-throat catch, that can make his vocals sound grittier, or ‘folksier’ (a good example of this being ‘Do Tret’ih Petruhov’).

It’s a bit strange. I’ve explored a lot of the musical differences between the two bands here. If we take account of their analogical positions within their respective cultures, the countercultural and ‘oppositional’ political nature of CCR’s music (‘Fortunate Son’, ‘Effigy’) more closely aligns with the career of the alternative rock / new wave band Kino headed by Viktor Tsoi. Pesnyary, meanwhile, despite the influence they took from the Beatles, probably more closely aligns with the folk-revival artists like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and so on than with the later tail of the folk-rock trend in American music to which Creedence belongs. But somehow it seems more natural to my ear to connect these two bands. Both of them evince a vitality and a creativity that tends in a similar direction. Both CCR and Pesnyary seek their inspiration in the deep roots of their respective countries—not without a critical eye in each case—and both draw them out to infuse them with the sounds of their contemporaries. Certainly both bands are worth listening to and appreciating.


The Legendarium according to Smaug

A meteoric dumpster fire

I’ve watched the first two episodes of Rings of Power. Even though I promised I wouldn’t.

It’s bad. And I mean really, holistically bad.

Let’s get the trivial concerns out of the way first. Casting Black actors and actresses to play hobbits, dwarves, men and elves isn’t at all a problem for me. If anything, Tolkien’s dwarves are supposed to be swarthy-skinned and dark of complexion, which for some reason they weren’t in the Jackson movies; and the hobbits were envisioned as being just as diverse of physical appearance as humans. The question is whether the actors and actresses can act well. (Sir Lenny Henry and Sophia Nomvete can and do act well here. Ismael Cruz Córdova? Not so much.) Also if it isn’t done cynically, which is a bit more questionable. Race politics have nothing to do with why I think Rings of Power is a full-on betrayal of Tolkien’s work.

What does, then? One word: Galadriel.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Galadriel was originally a stubborn, headstrong and adventurous girl—this much is true. She did have something of a growth arc. The reason she came to Middle Earth at the end of the First Age was because she was intrigued by the place. She was tempted, in part, by Fëanor’s promises of glory, and longed to see the shores of an unknown land and even to rule them as queen. But she refused to join Fëanor’s quest for revenge against Melkor for the death of his father (Galadriel’s grandfather) Finwë, and she (along with her father Finarfin and her eldest brother Finrod) refused to engage in the political quarrels of the Noldor which ended in the slaughter of the Kinslaying and the Burning of the Ships.

That is as much as to say: she was stubborn and adventurous, but neither brooding nor vengeful—she was of like mind with her father and brother, not having sworn Fëanor’s oath of revenge. Further, it is highly hinted by Jack himself that the reason she stayed in Middle Earth was because she loved it. She loved the people, she loved the living creatures, and she especially loved the forests. The reason she stayed in Middle Earth was because she found hope there.

Melian said: ‘There is some woe that lies upon you and your kin. That I can see in you, but all else is hidden from me; for by no vision or thought can I perceive anything that passed or passes in the West: a shadow lies over all the land of Aman, and reaches far out over the sea. Why will you not tell me more?’

‘For that woe is past,’ said Galadriel; ‘and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory. And maybe there is woe enough yet to come, though still hope may seem bright.’

In Rings of Power, there is no love at all in the character upon whom they wrongly bestow the name of ‘Galadriel’. There is no joy. There is not even a trace of hope. Her reasons for staying in Middle Earth have nothing to do with any kind of attachment to Middle Earth, land or creatures or people—and everything to do with hunting down her brother’s killer, Sauron. The makers of Rings of Power have made this ‘Galadriel’ into precisely a bitter, brooding, violent woman who is dead-set on revenge: in short, they have made her into Fëanor Mark II.

These are not the same character. Not even at different ages.

This is partly ideological. There is a current in the corporate culture machine’s interpretation of feminism, that thinks that in order to pander to women viewers they should make all female characters ‘strong’ by putting weapons in their hands—by making them ‘action heroines and corporate girl-bosses’. But this isn’t good writing, and arguably it isn’t even good feminism. Let me be blunt: Éowyn wasn’t a badass just because she picked up a sword, delivered a one-liner and stabbed a wraith in the ‘face’. If it had been just that, she wouldn’t have gotten any of the cheers she did. Éowyn was a badass because of the context of that action: she cared about Merry and her father enough to protect them.

This ‘Galadriel’? She doesn’t care for anything or anyone except her dead brother—and not even Finrod himself, but his ‘task’. This ‘Galadriel’ would never have been found worthy of the option of returning to Valinor in the first place—the pardon that the Valar bestowed only upon Finarfin and his children, among all of the Noldor. The only reason Galadriel was allowed to return to the Elf-home was because she wasn’t as vengeance-obsessed as Fëanor, and hadn’t taken Fëanor’s oath! Rewriting ‘Galadriel’ as another Fëanor doesn’t strengthen her—it diminishes her in ways that are frankly blasphemous.

And what’s worse, Rings of Power tries to make her Fëanorish vindictiveness a sign of her sagacity. Like Cassandra she warns of Sauron’s known-to-the-audience return when everyone around her, High King Gil-Galad and ‘Elrond’ particularly, disbelieve her and tell her she’s overreacting (the mansplaining chauvinist bastards). Never mind that in the book, Galadriel was the one urging Gil-Galad to show caution, not the other way around—and she was right to do so!

I’ve got other grievances with Rings of Power that operate on a similar level. The portrayal of ‘Elrond’ as Gil-Galad’s political staffer and speechwriter is particularly offensive. As is the notion that Celebrimbor would be worried about the size of the elves’ ‘workforce’ in building his Super-Duper Mega-Forge—sending ‘Elrond’ off to literally hammer out (and I do mean with a literal hammer) a labour contract with Durin’s dwarves. Tolkien would be appalled at this! His elves and dwarves had their flaws, but they were not industrialists and capitalists. Their crafts, were crafts. Capitalism was personified in Lord of the Rings by Saruman, and assembly-line Fordist industrialism metonymised by Isengard. They were certainly not valorised the way they are here.

But this should not come as a surprise. Both my gripes against ‘Galadriel’ and the characterisation of the elves and dwarves generally stem from a much broader complaint. That is: Rings of Power is nothing more and nothing less than the Legendarium according to Smaug. It’s Tolkien’s universe as interpreted by Jeff Bezos—born on third base, mega-polluter, war hawk defence contractor, exploiter of the poor—someone who doesn’t even value Tolkien or his œuvre and has nothing to do with Tolkien’s own ecological-minded Christian Tory-anarchist mythopoesis. Of course any interpretation he sponsors in order to garner a greater market share for his streaming service, is going to run dead against the logic of Tolkien’s universe.

Tolkien often expressed his own view through the words of Faramir. And this was Faramir’s view: ‘I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.Rings of Power, so far, takes the opposite view: trying to dazzle with special effects, battle sequences, blood and fire—while holding the substance of their source material, the characters and the setting, in utter contempt.

Give this one a hard pass.