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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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We Were Promised Hot Tubs

I guess I am old enough now for my music-writing “career” to have entered officially into the obituary rather than the discovery phase. It’s just more likely at this point that a musician I already love will die than it is that I will find new musicians to get that attached to.

Anyway, I wanted to write something about Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch after I heard about his death last week, maybe something about the neglected Mac albums that feature him prominently, Bare Trees or especially Mystery to Me, or maybe something about his special flair for vaguely cosmic, meandering midtempo love songs like “Emerald Eyes” and the epic “Future Games.” But then I remembered I had written an appreciation of sorts a few years ago of his first solo album, French Kiss (1977), the apex of his success. Now seems as good a time as any to opportunistically rework that

At the Princeton Record Exchange, there are probably enough copies of French Kiss in the dollar bins to wallpaper an entire apartment. It’s a testimony to how popular the album became when the single “Sentimental Lady,” a re-recording of a Bare Trees song, went to the top of the charts. Any reasonable person would identify that song as Welch’s chief legacy, but whenever I think of him, I think of this album cover and what it did to me as a child. Somehow I got it into my head that this is what adulthood would look like.

 

 

When I saw this cover in a Listening Booth as a kid, I concluded that this was the essence of adult entertainment. Clearly it was meant for people who weren’t embarrassed or reluctant to have left youth behind. As you can see above, the left half of the album cover seems to have set itself on fire in an effort to cleanse itself of the seedy filthiness of what’s happening on the right. Welch, balding but with the long scraggly wisps of the middle-aged man who hasn’t given up, wears pleated white pants and what looks to be a misbegotten cross between a track suit and a rugby shirt, opened to expose his sparsely haired chest. He seems barely able to stand as he tries to … what exactly? At first it appears he’s trying to ignite some unidentified smokeable object (cigar? roach clip? gnarly half-smoked butt from the ashtray?) but on closer inspection he might just be trying to throw a lit match into his mouth. He has on oversize, burgundy-tinted sunglasses that almost but not quite conceal heavy-lidded, utterly wasted eyes, which stare out vacantly at the camera.

Draped on him is a tall, heavily made-up woman wearing a red dress or maybe some sort of terry bathrobe that exposes her leg up to the top of her thigh, where her bronze tan begins to fade. Her spindly fingers, with their long, blood-red nails, are stretched across Welch’s chest. (Both she and Welch wear rings on their ring finger, but you don’t get the impression they are married to each other.) Most strikingly, she is tonguing his face, or perhaps his earlobe — confusing, because isn’t French Kiss when you put your tongue in someone’s mouth?

This cover tells you everything you need to know about the ’70s ideal of languid self-indulgence: It gloriously conjures up cocaine spoons and key parties, empty promises made in hot tubs, interchangeable and indifferent bodies letting it all hang out in discos, sex in sports cars and hotel rooms while the 8-track of something like this album repeats and repeats.

The rock milieu today seems suffused with nostalgia about the time when the genre’s aging audience was teenagers. It implies that those were inevitably the best years of our lives and that being grown up is one compromise, one sellout, one dreary responsibility after another. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything in contemporary culture that celebrates adulthood today as a distinct, appealing stage of life with its own special allure. But French Kiss‘s cover embodies the idea that adulthood can be one endless party too, a better one, since everyone has more money, better drugs, and fewer inhibitions.

This mood is epitomized by “Sentimental Lady,” which opens the album and encapsulates the era’s zeitgeist. Lindsey Buckingham produced this remake after replacing Welch in Fleetwood Mac and gave him the biggest hit of his career. If you want to get a sense of Buckingham’s genius, it’s worth comparing the deluxe version with the not-bad original. He revamps Welch’s serviceable album cut into something indelible. From the shimmering arpeggios that open the track to the pillowy backing vocals from Christie McVie to the spare guitar solo over the bridge to the elegant, contrapuntal layers of sound during the fadeout, “Sentimental Lady” is as perfect a specimen of the California soft-rock sound as ever blessed FM radio, and it surely must have mellowed many a midlife crisis. Welch is no one’s idea of a strong singer; he had a wispy voice that was equal parts Neil Young and Glenn Frey. But “Sentimental Lady” makes his weakness a strength, as the indifference built in to his laconic intonations takes the cloying edge off the lyrics (“You are here and warm / But I could look away and you’d be gone / That’s why I’ve traveled far / Because I feel so together where you are”) and generates a bracing undercurrent of tension: He seems both deeply in love and deeply bored.

The rest of French Kiss doesn’t live up to “Sentimental Lady.” Welch had a second hit with “Ebony Eyes,” which has a “Begin the Begin”-like opening guitar hook and a chorus punctuated with a string arrangement typical of the many attempts to assimilate disco to soft rock. The video has some of the same sleezy vibe as the album cover, though: Welch wanders around what is supposed to be a high-class supper club, wearing a beret and holding both a mike and a cigar while a biracial couple dances some warped version of a tango. Several of the clientele hold masks in front of their faces. There is also a guy who appears to be on a date wearing a Shriners hat.

“Hot Love, Cold World,” the album’s third single, is less memorable — a stab at funk with some incongruous soloing more suited to Welch’s subsequent work with his ill-fated progressive-metal band, Paris. The rest of the album is rounded out with material that sounds like the Elton John of those years (“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”, bicentennial anthem “Philadelphia Freedom”) — peppy and synthetic, replete with choppy bursts of strings and overexuberant backing vocals, often from Welch himself, multi-tracked unmercifully. This was the AOR-certified hitmaking formula of the day, and Welch adheres to it dutifully, absconding on the spacey contempletiveness of his Mac songs to engage in some slick pandering.

The cynical expediency with which Welch dispatches tracks on French Kiss seems like a taunt, as if he’s daring you to call him on merely going through the motions. But his barely disguised jadedness is part of what makes the album such a piquant 1970s memento now: This suits the way we’ve been trained to remember the ’70s, as a time of soulless selfishness and narcissism, of baby-boomer egomania gone amuck. Welch makes selling out — agreeing to the compromises of adult life — seem like a grand fuck-you gesture whose material rewards always garner you the last laugh on the earnest. For this reason, French Kiss is still bleakly compelling, like that one last line when it’s already five in the morning and you’re way past strung out. You can’t even feel anymore, but that’s no reason to stop.

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