Peter Holslin is still looking for the pot of gold
David Axelrod is a dangerous man. His music is full of trip-wires and unpredictable turns. I learned this the hard way. In recent months, I’ve spent many hours listening to his two landmark debut albums, 1968’s Song of Innocence and 1969’s Songs of Experience. But while I entered Axelrod’s lush ecosystem of R&B grooves, jazzy solos and swooping orchestral strings eager as a beaver, I came out looking haggard and wild-eyed, painfully aware of my own limitations.
As I’ve made my way through the albums, I’ve felt like a Spanish conquistador, convinced that El Dorado was just within reach. If only I press further, if only I listen a little bit more, I might finally uncover the secrets to beat wisdom. Oh, what a foolhardy mission it was. Still, I can’t be the only writer who’s almost been crushed by Axelrod’s genius. Music this good deserves a legacy of delusional visions.
Just a year ago, I thought Axelrod was a Democratic political operative from Chicago. But I learned the truth late one night in late 2013, when my co-worker played me Songs of Experience for the first time. The Axelrod I once knew may have helped get Barack Obama elected, but in a matter of minutes, he vanished. Here was the real Axelrod, the silver-haired badass lurking behind so many of my favorite beats.
Axelrod, who was born in the ’30s and grew up in South Central L.A., is widely regarded as one of the archetypes of hip-hop production. With production credits on a number of hit jazz and R&B records and over a dozen solo albums to his name, he’s inspired untold numbers of beatmakers, producers and crate-diggers. Dr. Dre sampled him on “The Next Episode.” DJ Shadow sampled him on “Midnight in a Perfect World.” Earl Sweatshirt samples him on “Centurion.” Many have taken notes and cues, yet few have matched the master himself.
There is one guy who can go toe-to-toe with Axelrod, however, and he is William Blake. The great London mystic, born in 1757, is celebrated for his homemade books, inventive illustrations and illuminating verse. Nearly two centuries after his death, he can still cut most MCs off at the knees with his beautifully wrought ruminations on poverty, religion and human consciousness. His powerful style is perhaps best captured in his poem “The Fly,” in which an insect buzzing innocently by prompts him to reflect on the frailty of the universe:
If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live
Or if I die.
Axelrod had poems like “The Fly” in mind when he set out to make Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The albums—which came out on Capitol Records during the height of Axelrod’s run there as a producer and A&R guy—take their name from an illustrated collection of poetry that Blake published in 1789. As the title suggests, the poems explore the wonders and terrors of youth and maturity, and for his albums Axelrod composed 15 instrumental “tone poems” featuring an impressive team of session players.
A foundational piece of Romantic poetry, Blake’s collection was quite radical for its time. In Blake’s age, most Western Bible-thumpers thought of children as devils from birth and the Church as their only path towards salvation. But in a series of poems that are so concise and so lovely that you could murmur them to a newborn baby, Blake rejects such notions of “original sin,” depicting children instead as little lambs and the Church as an oppressive institution that stifles and corrupts.
Splitting the collection into two sections—“Innocence” and “Experience”—Blake gets progressively darker and weightier as the poems move along. Axelrod’s albums follow a similar path: Song of Innocence is full of rosy melodies, uplifting orchestral surges and instrumental play, with drummer Earl Palmer resembling a particularly strapping, virtuosic lamb as he takes a wicked solo in “Holy Thursday.” But in Songs of Experience, Axelrod ramps up the intense harmonies and dissonant swells, and by the time we reach the final track, “A Divine Image,” the music consists mostly of eerie, sustained chords, suspended in the air like razor-wire booby-traps.
In many ways, Axelrod’s music echoes and responds to Blake’s poetry. For example, though most tracks on Songs of Experience seem well suited for another installment of Halloween, their most unsettling moments owe a lot to Blake. Just consider his own poem called “A Divine Image,” a cynical portrayal of human failure that depicts the body as a “fiery Forge,” the face as a caged furnace, and our very existence as a total catastrophe:
Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.
In his collection, Blake often explains society’s ills in this way, summing up our existence in sequences of contrasting vices and virtues. He also takes aim at the institutions responsible for endemic poverty and cruelty. In “London,” Blake paints a bleak picture of his industrialized home city, describing “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” on the face of every person he meets. To this, Axelrod responds with densely stacked harmonies and dissonant strums of guitar.
But Blake wasn’t all doom and gloom, and, indeed, some of his best poems emphasize the goodness in the world. His hope lies even with the most insignificant creatures: “A Dream,” from Songs of Innocence, relates a vision of a lost ant who finds his way home thanks to a watchful “glow-worm.” Axelrod picks up on this cinematic moment, adding a dose of wonder to the heart-warming tale by fleshing out the worm’s trek (represented by a slow, grubby bass-line from Carol Kaye) with dreamy harpsichord, mildly foreboding horns and, finally, a flourish of bright strings.
Of course, you might wonder if “innocence” and “experience” is a false dichotomy. Isn’t the world more complicated than that? It is, and Blake and Axelrod seem aware that we’re trudging through a complex landscape, where illumination and danger often intertwine and some concepts are just out of reach.
In “The Fly,” Blake says as much by comparing man with insect, suggesting that we’re all just specks in the massive universe. But Axelrod’s version of “The Fly” offers some resolution—having man and insect groove together on a simple, up-and-down theme, he creates a powerful sense of play within the void. The track swells in intensity, Palmer’s solid beat keeps everything anchored, and you might wonder if this is Axelrod’s way of building a bridge through time, uniting an 18th-century Romantic with 21st-century beatmakers, underscoring the great profundity of the universe…
I realize that El Dorado is a myth: There is no big secret to beat wisdom. But the imagination is a powerful thing. With it we often charge head-first into dead ends, but we also build new frameworks. With Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Axelrod explored the bounds of what the mind could do.