The Song Ends… But The Beauty Of It Must Never Fade

(Thanks to Andrew Rilstone for reminding me of the Jack Kirby quote that’s titled this).

February 6 is the anniversary of the deaths of two of my favourite creative artists. The first, Jack Kirby, lived a relatively long life, but not long enough — he revolutionised an art-form several times over, and created or co-created more great comic characters than any five other people. Darkseid, Captain America, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Etrigan the Demon, The Fantastic Four, The Challengers Of The Unknown, The New Gods, The X-Men, Mister Miracle, OMAC, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Silver Surfer, The Eternals, Thor… to create even *one* of these would have been enough to make Kirby one of the greats. To come up with all of them is truly spectacular.

And that’s not even counting the fact that he, along with Joe Simon, made sure there was a comics industry at all in the 1950s by inventing the romance comics genre, without which the industry would have collapsed.

But all that pales next to two things — firstly, that all his work, throughout his life, from Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw through to the fight to stop Darkseid from having the anti-life equation, is about the fight between freedom and fascism, and he always comes down on the side of liberty. I’ve written more about that here, and here, and here, and in great chunks of a couple of my books.

The second, and possibly most important, is that he was just *such a bloody good artist*. Just look at this:


or this:


And four years to the day after Kirby died, so did Carl Wilson.

Carl Wilson wasn’t the creative giant that Kirby was — he wrote a handful of very good songs, and was a far better record producer than people give him credit for, but he didn’t have that fizzing energy, the outpouring of ideas, that Kirby did.

What he was, though, was one of the great interpreters of popular song of all time, with an almost Sinatra-esque ability to sell a song, along with a voice that I would kill for.

He was only 17 when he played the lead guitar on Fun Fun Fun, only 19 when he sang lead on God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. His vocals on Surf’s Up, or the entire Wild Honey album, or All This Is That, are as good as any vocal ever recorded. He was also by all accounts the most stable person in the Beach Boys, the mediating presence that managed to hold the band together for thirty-six years. They split up very shortly after his death at the ridiculously young age of fifty-one.

At times during the last fifteen or so of those years he could get lazy, as he was asked to sing material that was utterly beneath his vast talent, and he couldn’t quite hide his contempt for some of it. But when he had something worth singing, he was as good as ever.

Below is an MP3 from what I think is the last recording of him — a partial audience recording of a concert from August 2, 1997. Three weeks after this show, he had to give up touring, and six months later he was dead. At the time of this show he was so ill from the lung and brain cancer that killed him that he had to remain seated throughout the show, and take oxygen between songs. But when he sang this song, he always managed to stand up, to give the song the respect it deserved. Just listen to this…

God Only Knows

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34 Responses to The Song Ends… But The Beauty Of It Must Never Fade

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    I just don’t get what the big deal is about Kirby’s art. The piece you’ve used here seems very poor to me: it’s all one uniform, dense texture, with no use of light and dark, no differentiation between figure and ground and consequently no sense of solidity. Yes, there are nice little touches in it — the Kirby Dots at the top leftish, for example — but as a composition it’s awful.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      (Argh! Forgot to click the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” box, so now I have to leave another comment in order to have a second chance to click it. UI Fail.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Partly that’s because it’s in black & white. I picked it because it shows his linework off, but of course his stuff was intended for colouring — and colouring in very distinctive primary colours, for the most part.

    • lucidfrenzy says:

      A big part of it is the dynamism. Many (not all) comic artists before Kirby hadn’t really broken from illustration, panels were there to demonstrate what was happening in the speech balloons and captions. Kirby rewrote the book of comics according to it’s own rules. His figures have a sense of force to them (with the panel above seeming a good example to me), his compositions seem to be of a world that could never possibly be still, and his layouts fair pulled you through a story.

      I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call him a giant of American comics.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Ah, now this makes sense. I’ve been unthinking comparing Kirby’s art with that of, say, Brian Bolland or Dave Gibbons. But those guys had the advantage of growing up in world where Kirby had already redefined the baseline. I guess to appreciate Kirby, I need to be comparing him with what went before.

        • lucidfrenzy says:

          ”I guess to appreciate Kirby, I need to be comparing him with what went before.”

          I’d say that was defining him too narrowly. While we might, for example, want to compare the Beatles or the Stones to what came before them we don’t just do that. If you compare Tomorrow Never Knows to Englebert Humperdink, it sounds pretty way out. But then if you compare it to a whole lot of contemporary things it sounds pretty way out!

          I don’t think the obstacle to appreciating Kirby is failing to compare him to what went before. Quite the opposite, it’s being unable to see him outside the distorting lens of what came after. (Which is again similar to the Beatles or the Stones. To appreciate the Stones you have to mentally block out every de facto crappy covers band you’ve seen.)

          Which happened almost immediately. When Kirby starting shifting units, editors mercilessly told other artists to ape him irrespective of how suited they were to the job. I was amazed when I finally saw the earlier work of someone like Don Heck, who I’d always thought of as the bottom of the barrel. Before he got the ‘Kirby memo’, he was actually good! It was like telling Monet he needed to paint like Picasso from now on. You wouldn’t get a good Picasso out of it. Nor a good Monet.

          This dominance of the Kirby look may also have contributed to the superhero monoculture of American comics. (Though ironically, as Andrew says, Kirby himself ably took his hand to romance comics.)

          Then it happened again. And again. Repeat until bored. Or, more accurately, jaded. The Image generation were Kirby copyists, albeit without a clue as to what made him great and without the faintest fraction of his drawing talent. Sometimes I felt like you needed Kirby as a kind of key just to decipher their screechy images.

          But forget the no-hope copyists, the faded photocopies and the distorted feedback echoes. Focus on the man himself. Hail the King!

          • Mike Taylor says:

            Well, I am trying to be charitable to Kirby. The Beatles analogy occurred to me as I was writing my previous comment, but I didn’t mention them precisely because their music does stand on its own merits today — unlike that of the Stones, for what it’s worth.

            • lucidfrenzy says:

              Uh? Really? You don’t think Sympathy For the Devil, Gimme Shelter or The Last Time still sound good?

              Unlike the Beatles, the Stones never knew to quit while they were ahead. (Or more likely couldn’t afford to. I think they were so mismanaged they owed the UK Revenue a whole pile of back tax. Around the time they decided to move abroad.) So we’ve got loads of inferior later albums, which we should pay as much attention to as we do Kirby’s late Eighties and Nineties work.

              One of the first bands I got into was the Beatles. So I hated the Stones, partly because I’d heard of the Beatles Vs Stones thing and took it gormlessly literally, as only an adolescent can. But partly because I’d compare the contemporary Stones to the classic Beatles without thinking about what i was doing. Emotional Rescue against I Am the Walrus. Like comparing The Frog Chorus to Hey Jude.

              But later, when I could finally listen to the classic Stones with unbiased ears, I had to admit they were without doubt one of the finest bands in history. They virtually defined a genre and set a benchmark with it. Hail the Stones!

              • Mike Taylor says:

                Yep, really. As with other musical legends that I don’t like (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) I have made a serious effort with the Stones. I listened straight through Sticky Fingers four or five times. And it does nothing at all for me. (By contrast, I did have an Ohhhh… I get it! moment with Hendrix, and then listen to almost nothing else for six months. So it’s not like I’m incapable of reversing a previously held opinion.)

                • lucidfrenzy says:

                  You don’t like Bob Dylan either?

                  Now I get it! Mike, you’re just weird!

                  (I would type one of those funny smily faces there, like the young people do, if I knew how they went.)

                  • Mike Taylor says:

                    For my Dylan-related trials, the the comments on my Chloe-and-Silas post. In short, my not appreciating Dylan is not for want of trying.

                    • lucidfrenzy says:

                      Seeing as you’ve asked (even tho’ you didn’t) my favourite Dylan album would be either ‘Basement Tapes’ or this one, which do sound quite different to the others if you’ve never tried them. In fact the next on my list would be ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘Desire’, which I noticed you’ve not tried either.

                      For the record, the bands everyone tells me I should like but I just don’t are the Grateful Dead and (having to write in code while on Andrew’s blog) the B***h B**s.

                      But anyway, back to me fannishly gushing over Kirby like I never really got over being fourteen…

                    • Mike Taylor says:

                      Huh. I thought I’d made a pretty good sampling of Dylan albums. Do you honestly think that if The TImes They Are A-Changing, Bringing it All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks and Slow Train Coming all failed to do it for me, Basement Tapes will?

                      I have one Grateful Dead album, Workingman’s Dead, which I’ve listened to four times. I am inclined to like it but not to love it. Curiously enough, that is also my reaction to Pet Sounds (to Andrew’s disappointment I am sure) despite having given it eight chances to grab me by the temporal lobe.

                    • Mike Taylor says:

                      See also: the Stone Roses, the Manic Street Preachers, and Oasis.

  2. Larry says:


    I am unfamiliar with Jack Kirby, but your remembrance of Carl Wilson was wonderful, thank you so much. And many thanks for your last few Beach Boys album reviews, they all make me want to get my LPs/CDs out of storage and listen to Carl and the Passions, Holland, and especially Love You, which I purchased on vinyl upon its original release and did not particularly care for at the time. How many more of their albums do you intend to write about? You’re entering disheartening territory after “Love You”…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ll be writing about every one of them, plus all the ‘proper’ solo albums (those released under individuals’ names, so not Celebration, Beckley-Lamm-Wilson, Mike & Dean, The Wilsons and so on). Most of the rest of the Beach Boys albums are pretty dire, but the solo albums still have their interesting points.

  3. Andrew Hickey says:

    Gavin, I doubt Mike will ever like Dylan, because he’s more concerned about a particular kind of clean vocal tone than you or I. And don’t worry about not liking the Beach Boys — neither does Mike. Everyone’s wrong about some things ;)

    That said, what have you tried? I would imagine it’s likely to have been Pet Sounds, which is definitely one I wouldn’t recommend to you, at least not to start with.

    • lucidfrenzy says:

      With Dylan it’s normally his voice that repels people. I’d suggest they need to listen past whether it’s ‘a nice voice’ and start on whether it’s the right voice for the music he’s singing. All those hundreds of cover versions, and Dylan is almost always the best at singing Dylan songs. (Mind you, I listen to Current 93 and David Tibet’s voice has an even more audience-splitting quality to it!)

      I’m not sure I’ve even got so far as a whole Beach Boys album, to be honest. Obviously I’ve heard all the classics. Clean is kind of what stops me getting into it, however nice the arrangements or whatever. It feels saccharine. I’m a fan of something like Love’s ‘Forever Changes’, which to me has all those rich melodies and whipped-up arrangements but a tangy undertaste to it. To me Love are like a slice of carrot cake and the Beach Boys like a Twinkie.

      Almost everyone tells me I’m mistaken about this.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        That’s about what I thought you’d say. You’re not *entirely* mistaken, either — that cleanness takes a little getting used to. Listen to this and tell me what you think though —

      • Mike Taylor says:

        It’s not just Dylan’s voice. I honestly can’t find any single aspect of his work that I would rate better than “poor”. Yes, the singing, but also the guitar playing, the melodies, and the terrible, terrible contrived rhymes. Seriously. “Don’t need a shot of codeine to help me to repent // Don’t need a shot of whiskey, help me be president.” What is that?

        In other, happier, news, we do at least agree on Forever Changes, which I have only started listening to but find both immediately appealing and fascinating — a rare combination.

        (BTW., Andrew, I wouldn’t have described myself as being particularly interested in a “clean vocal tone”. That hardly describes Hendrix, for example, and I have a sneaking affection for the vocals of the Scorpions’ Klaus Meine.)

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I must have misunderstood or misremembered some of your earlier posts. I remember thinking that in general you seemed to like more conventionally ‘good’ voices.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh, and you don’t like the Stone Roses, Manics or Oasis because they’re rubbish, simple as that. (The Manics did do some OK stuff early on in their career, but they’ve spent 20+ years making dire tuneless pub rock.)

          • Mike Taylor says:

            It would be nice to think it’s that simple. But they are all bands that have been very popular for a long time (albeit on the strength of a single album, in the case the Stone Roses.)

            • lucidfrenzy says:

              Stone Roses, Manics and (especially) Oasis, all rubbish. Check.

              ‘Basement Tapes’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ are quite different to the others. More countrified, laid-back, simple-sounding and direct. Often not very simple but normally simple-sounding. ‘Basement Tapes’ was actually taped in a basement! His voice on them is very different, quite deadpan. I can’t tell you that you would like them. But if you came to like Hendrix you should hear the (very different) original ‘All Along the Watchtower.’

              ”I think it’s more that I dislike outright bad voices. You know, when there are so many good ones out there.”

              I’m going to persist in my insistence it doesn’t really make sense to abstract the vocalist’s voice from the song. Take whoever-it-was from X Factor covering Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelulah’. Cohen said himself he was never really any kind of a singer, and wrote the line about being “born with the gift of a golden voice” as a joke. But you’d rather listen to his version, wouldn’t you? The parts just fit together, they function, rather than sit and look shiny on their own.

              It’s funny that in getting into new music, sometimes the worst thing you can do is try to get it. It’s a bit like Andrew Rilstone’s old post about Dylan’s lyrics. If he sings “jewels and binoculars hung from the neck of the mule” the worst thing you can do is sit there thinking what they might represent. You’re better off just going with it. The music is kind of like that too.

              There must be so many bands I didn’t like at all at first and then came to love. The Fall, Swans…

              Andrew, thanks for the link! Will listen to it soon as I have a chance!

              • Mike Taylor says:

                Well, Gavin, I meant to say in an earlier comment that a big part of what I like about your writing is that you like a lot of things that I don’t (not just music, but lots of other kinds of art) but you write about them in a way that is compelling enough for me to get a glimpse of why people might get something out of them. So you are sort of the opposite of “Examining Work No 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), the viewer is thrust into a conceptual space similar to that evoked by looking at a shovel or a collection of vacuum cleaners” — art critic Will Kwan.

                So because it’s you, I am going to listen through John Wesley Harding a couple of times and see whether this is the one that does it. (Why that one? Because it has Watchtower, and because Basement Tapes is a double.)

                Further bulletins as events warrant.

                • lucidfrenzy says:

                  ”Well, Gavin, I meant to say in an earlier comment that a big part of what I like about your writing is that you like a lot of things that I don’t (not just music, but lots of other kinds of art) but you write about them in a way that is compelling enough for me to get a glimpse of why people might get something out of them.”

                  Shucks! I’ve managed to read my way through several (admittedly not all) of Andrew’s Beach Boys posts, and many of Andrew Rilstone’s folk-blog posts just to wallow in the sheer exuberance. (I like folk, but I’m not as deeply into the man-with-tale-plus-guitar stuff as Andrew R.)

                  ”So you are sort of the opposite of “Examining Work No 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), the viewer is thrust into a conceptual space similar to that evoked by looking at a shovel or a collection of vacuum cleaners” — art critic Will Kwan.”

                  Funny you should mention that. A photographer friend of mine saw so much of that sort of stuff in exhibitions she started collecting them all. And they’re hilarious! They read like someone’s stuffed a guide to Post-Structuralism into a blender. “By providing a framed close-up of their own sphincter the photographer demonstrates vacuity as an essential component of presence. As well as showing what a complete arse he is.” Later I found THIS ARTICLE in the Guardian on what is apparently called International Art English.

                  I fear I use Andrew R as an example so often he will shortly be taking out some kind of anti-stalking order. But one thing I like about his writing is his ability to convey smart ideas simply. I prefer that to the alternative.

                  ”So because it’s you, I am going to listen through John Wesley Harding a couple of times and see whether this is the one that does it. (Why that one? Because it has Watchtower, and because Basement Tapes is a double.)”

                  That probably is the better option. There’s an ongoing debate over whether ‘Basement Tapes’ was intended to be released commercially. (People have tried asking Dylan about this. You can imagine how that went.) The home cooking feel is part of the appeal, but it takes it to the limit at times. It also has several Band songs on it which aren’t as good, to be honest. (Excluding the one about Bessie Smith. I’m not sure anyone could write a bad song about Bessie Smith.)

                  Fairport Convention heard a version of ’Basement Tapes’ when it was only available as a bootleg, and covered tracks from both albums. But I also think the epigrammatic style was an influence on their own writing, on tracks like ’Stranger To Himself’.

                  I would try to avoid thinking of it as ‘the key to Dylan’, though. Just treat it as an album in its own right, by someone who happens to share the name of the ’Blood On the Tracks’ guy.

                  ”Further bulletins as events warrant”

                  Please do!

              • Mike Taylor says:

                You’re dead on regarding Leonard Cohen, though. See my comments on Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah in this review (in fact you might enjoy reading it all, even if you disagree with most of it. I like it as a piece of writing.)

                • lucidfrenzy says:

                  The key verse of Cohen’s for me…

                  “You say I took the name in vain
                  I don’t even know the name
                  But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
                  There’s a blaze of light
                  In every word
                  It doesn’t matter which you heard
                  The holy or the broken hallelujah”

                  I often find (not just in music) originals can be allusive and open to myriad readings, while covers or adaptations tend to go for one reading, like they’re commentaries. I suppose that’s enhanced in this case by Cohen himself recording several different versions, But, much as I love it, and much as one way of reading that verse would be an invite for people to come up with their own readings, I’d put Buckley’s cover in that category.

                  (Sorry for the sporadic nature of the replies, seem to have come down with the lurgee. Hopefully not contagious over the internet!)

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