And John saw that it was good
And the lamb lies down on ... the Outaouais. Yes, the Outaouais. Or at least at the Casino du Lac Leamy theatre. Some people will have no idea what that opening line was about, and if I throw in Gabriel and Genesis they'll be thinking Old Testament, not the finest concept album in the history of rock 'n' roll.
By the same token, many of my fellow Earthlings will respond to an outburst of "Hey hey, we're the Monkees" with a worried look, not a cheerful "People say we monkey around." Music is like that. But The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which tribute band the Musical Box will perform Thursday and Friday at the Casino, is something special.
My perspective is skewed by a familiar phenomenon: most normal people think the music of their early adolescence had a magic that has since been lost. "Progressive" rock -- back when it was an artistic rather than a political term -- peaked in the middle of what in my case passed for a growth spurt, so it is not an entirely objective judgment that nothing since has matched mid-'70s classics like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, the Who's Quadrophenia, King Crimson's Red, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick or Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, etc., any more than it is that the Eagles' Johnny Come Lately evokes a dance in the Annadale High School gym in Tillsonburg or, for another demographic, Stompin' Tom Connors' Tillsonburg triggers, "My back still hurts when I hear that word."
Besides, as my familiarity with Stompin' Tom lyrics makes painfully clear, I'm now working my way backward, not forward, through Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. to Louis Jordan and Run Joe. By the time the old rockin' chair gets me, I'll probably be digging Bach. Or those hip Gregorian monks.
Let me try to mount a more than purely nostalgic defence of Genesis's greatest album.
First, one thing I like about country music is lyrics worth listening to: The subjects are not tiresomely predictable and the words are often moving or funny (say, Miller's Caves). Likewise, The Lamb avoids doggerel or incomprehensible pseudo-symbolism about rings of smoke through trees and Californian hotels, and relies upon genuine poetry (Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats) and real humour -- as when the hero fails to seduce a girl using a paperback sex manual and makes the classically American utterance, "I got unexpected distress from my mistress. I'll get my money back from the bookstore right away."
Moreover, it is a concept album. Not just a collection of tunes, it sustains a story over four of what used to be sides of an LP. It has been said that the dominant emotion of rock music is frustration, which is probably why I listen to it less as my life gets less frustrating. And sure, in The Lamb the hero Rael is bored, horny and frustrated. But in the end, Rael's jarring discovery is that the brother on whom he could never rely, whose undisciplined self-indulgence at crucial moments was his constant undoing, was actually himself. It's a message many teens need to learn to grow up, and it's well told.
Then there's the music. The Lamb is symphonic in the key sense that for four "album sides" it maintains its momentum. It's not just that the individual songs are powerful or beautiful. It's their coherent progression that vastly increases their impact. Even the bit that sounds like the sort of modern jazz where someone forgot to oil the door hinges creates a tension then purposefully resolved into a singularly beautiful melody to advance the story.
Even as a teen I said two of the albums I particularly liked would still be listened to in 50 years: Wish You Were Here and The Lamb. As to other favourites, like Spirit's 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus or David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, if you can't hear what I hear in them, I am a bit sorry for you, but have no inclination to argue. But when it comes to the best of Genesis, things are very different.
I know. It's only rock 'n' roll. But I like it.
The Musical Box performs The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Thursday and Friday at the Casino du Lac Leamy. Tickets & times, (819) 772-2530
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]