Devendra Banhart

March 12, 2009

I came upon a youtube video of “Little Yellow Spider” last week and it opened me unto the world of Devendra Banhart. I guess the first thing that came to me was, is this what would happen if Jim Morrison and Charlie Manson had a baby? Obviously a revivalist of both, Banhart’s style ranges from Latin and Hindu sounds, which I found to be intensely global and mysical, to deeply rooted undertones of hippiesque folk stuff born out of the sixties and seventies. In fact, despite the well-roundedness of being raised in Venezuela until age 13, it’s his American folkish sound and lyrics that make more of a statement than anything else.

I can’t say I’ve noted any real individuality to his lyrics. For the most part, they evoke the Beatles; that overly simple, catchy phrasing with a line or two of great depth about war or something.  I Feel Just Like A Child is one such example:

From my cave to my grave I guess I’ll always be a child

Well, I need you to help me reach the door,
And, I need you to walk me to the store,
And, I need you to please explain the war,
And, I need you to heal me when I’m sore.

You can tell by my smile,
That I’m a child. 

And I’m a bit bored too, with the make love to the animals and the moon and stars stuff at this point- despite our re-awakening via global warming that we are all connected– he’s saying the same drug-induced shit that Morrison said, that Lennon said, that Jefferson Airplane said, and all the other psychadelic freaks of that era. Then again, he’s a genius if you consider that we are the snake eating its own tail. 

Music aside, my biggest disappointment lies in the man behind the scenes. Personality is a big part of the way I experience sound.  I need to know who’s behind the tune, for me to appreciate it. So, I found an interview he did a while back, just so I could see him move and talk sans stage presence and I came to the bitter conclusion that he’s really just another retro knock off. He has nothing new to say right down to his predictable remarks about dropping acid. Come on, man. Adding that little “if you have a good acid trip [like I did]” incongruously to an interview is like wearing a V-neck, argile sweater to a country club. Conforming and bland. Like, have an identity of your own, man. This ain’t the sixties. Is anybody even dropping acid anymore? 

Anyway…

What he does seem to offer is something the younger generation can appreciate: a glimpse into what it might have been like forty years ago. It is very interesting to watch how well he embodies the spirit of Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock and the hippie movement, in general. I give him credit for that (check out the home-movie version of Freely and tell me that’s not eerily reminiscent of the Manson Family, which, by the way also resided in Topanga Canyon). But we’ve lived through those times. These are new times upon us, and I don’t believe they can or should be approached in the same way our parents approached things. Do we really need to smoke dope, play guitar, grow our hair and dis war to shake the world into realizing it’s time for a change?  These are bullshit, desperate times and our art, music and culture should reflect that. 

Overall, I want to look forward, not back. Give me something new. Not some hippie talking smack about his fans being his “extended family” and owning Jim Morrison’s sofa and singing about “pigs” giving birth to a child with hooves instead of hands. That’s too Helter Skelter for me. If there’s one thing I can surmise about this guy it’s that his retro style is too perfected. And sadly, that’s a paradox. As Jefferson Airplane ‘s co-founder Paul Kantner once said: “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.”

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