Review Summary: Influence incomprehensible from a man with so much mystique'A dazzling collection! It strikes me that Pontiac was so uncontainably prescient that one might think that these tracks had been assembled today'
- David Bowie
The story of Marvin Pontiac is a heart-breaking question mark of ‘what could have been?’ He was an artist who struggled with a number of issues in his brief years on this earth; an absent father, an institutionalized mother, an identity crises more critical than most. By fifteen, he had moved himself to Chicago where he became well versed in the blues harmonica, however was soon kicked out of the scene by a small-but-strong harmonica player whom accused Marvin of copying his style - however I bet he was actually just jealous. From this, Marvin developed a distrust of the music industry and so remained forever an outsider, drifting between towns, growing further insane and paranoid. Pontiac eventually died after getting hit by a bus in 1977 ending a life much less glamorous than it should have been. It is uncontentious to say that he was one of the most influential artists of all time – and yet unknown by the masses. This was surely a combination of his disdain for the music industry and his fear of cameras (meaning only three blurry photos of the man existed). Whatever it is, I simply wish that this review can bring some people to the glorious realisation of Pontiac’s eternal status.
Firstly, the music. On this carefully crafted collection, each song is loose, minimal. A combination of euphoric instrumentals; stray horns, heavy bop, an insane bass-funk, hang by a thread for Marvin’s incredibly cool vocals to take centre stage. Less sing song, more spoken swagger; less sonic enjoyment, more a gentle caress of the ear. I don’t wish to come off as hyperbolic, but I would be surprised if this guy did not have sex with all of your grandparents. Anecdotally, I was about three songs deep where even I had Marvin questioning whether or not I am gay - but I am not, I am straight.
The lyricism is familiar to a Frank Zappa breed of no-nonsense. However, the scenery is familiar to all. On the Jamaica-cult-hit ‘Pancakes’, Pontiac details a steamy eloping session with a hot mama where you awake in the morning to discover that she has, indeed, not made you pancakes. It’s this transcendence of era which carries the poetry to the next level – a song as familiar in the 50s as it is now is a great thing. This relatability and, naturally, empathy is littered throughout the album. I will now make my grandad a daily serving of pancakes.
Despite its gradual path to complete obscurity, Marvin’s influence long transcends the artists fame. This is illustrated firstly by the list of artists who revered the album; Bowie, Iggy, Flea, Beck, the bald guy from R.E.M. The outsider artist John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards supposedly spent his entire career wishing he had half the competence of Marvin. Jackson Pollock apparently would only paint to the music of Pontiac, Pontiac apparently did not know who Jackson Pollock was. Further, a more literal, and captivating example of this influence was raised by a group of music historians, the sort to make listening logs on rateyourmusic, who sourced the origin of the hip-hop ad lib to the song ‘Running Round’ where at 1:36 Marvin sings ‘almost all my neighbours have gone blind’ when, suddenly, a women in the background states simply ‘I can’t see’. Even in the context of wider society, Pontiac’s influence was felt. Archeology in the 1950s was going through a period where it was viewed as a bit of an uncool career, a bit ‘Simon & Garfunkel’, until ‘Bring Me Rocks’ where Marvin cried simply for rocks to study. To say he was ahead of his time is an understatement, it was as if he was from another time entirely.
It wasn’t all positivity and joy – the closing song is a beautifully crafted contrast to the rest of the album. It is a moment where we see the fragility which eventually lead to Marvin’s downfall and is a song where the blue paint of melancholy drips naturally over the entire album. Marvin sings ‘where is my mom, where is my mom, maybe she’s in heaven or somewhere in between’ and it is heart-breaking. Where the album before was Marvin at his most playful, ‘No Kids’ provides a glimpse between the layers. Marvin Pontiac was one of a kind and his presence can’t help but be felt. He’s a character you’d wish to root for, but unfortunately the ending is already known.