Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Manic Monday

In which we learn that punks can grow old gracefully. (With luck and if they so choose.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

RIP Adam Schlesinger

A sage once said, “There's a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours.” Well, there's always a shortage of perfect pop songs, and the writer of one of the most perfect of all time has died. It wouldn't be accurate to say I was exactly a fan of his, but looking over his catalog, I surely was a massive fan of at least a few of his songs, and am finding myself crushed that we'll never again get a chance to hear him write another perfect new song from the 60s or 80s or 70s or 90s.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Demon Went Down to Georgia

Forty years after I first heard (and loved...and was perhaps a bit frightened by) this song, it suddenly occurred to me today, out of absolutely nowhere—I wasn't even listening to the song, or had just run across it somewhere or anything and the brain is a weird damn thing—that the line
The devil went down to Georgia he was lookin' for a soul to steal He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind And he was willing to make a deal
Wait...why was the devil behind? The devil's got quotas to meet? Does he have a boss he answers to? Meaning either God, or else it's not really the devil, is it? It's more like a demon. But I guess "A Demon Went Down to Georgia" isn't quite as catchy.


Also, even as a very superstitious child, I thought the devil kicked Johnny's ass from Valdosta to the Chattahoochee National Forest and back again. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Waitin' on the End of the World

Here's hoping not so much...but just in case, a good soundtrack always helps.


For one deadly love like a disease I came to you crawlin' on my knees
Your eyes filled with rain I can feel poison runnin' through my veins
I'm waitin'
I'm waitin'
I'm waitin', waitin' on the end of the world

Monday, March 2, 2020

Maneater

Baggage—boy, we carry that weight a long time. Even when we're aware of it, it's often got its hook in us so deep we can't dislodge it.

So I always liked Hall & Oates, even as I thought they were lightweight piffle, and thought the notion that Daryl Hall had one of the great voices in rock, as he claimed in their mid-80s Rolling Stone cover story,  absurd. (He did, of course.)

I'm not sure there was any stage of my music obsession where I didn't like pop. I liked it before I discovered the likes of Led Zeppelin, I liked it when I was deepest in my Pink Floyd or David Bowie phases—I not only saw no problem in liking, say, Black Sabbath and Madonna, I reveled in it—I liked it when I was all about the Replacements and REM. So of course I liked Hall & Oates.

Except for this damn song. We played it in marching band, the one year I did marching band (staggeringly poorly) and man did those wounds go deep. Deeper than I know. So that whenever I hear this song, I recoil, even as I love "Sara Smile" and "She's Gone" and "Method of Modern Love."

So when I saw this bass-centric mix come up, I shuddered. And yet I clicked play. And sweet fancy moses, that bass line by Tom Wolk is deeper than the Marianas Trench, and it turns out there are lyrics to this song! Who knew? (They're...watching a wedding? That can't be right...) And I'm reminded that the fourth line of each verse, which has that incredibly groovy rhythmic displacement thang goin' on, is absolutely fabulous. ("Mind over MATTer.")


At the end of the day, it still might not quite be "Rich Girl" or "Out of Touch," and, sure, the lyrics might be more than a touch misogynistic, but my god that bass line.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

the greatest drum fill in rock history

One of the things that I've learned over the past few weeks is that some people are apparently unaware of the single greatest drum fill in rock and roll history.

It's played by Doctor William Scott Bruford, aka Bill Bruford, formerly of Earthworks, formerly of King Crimson, fomerly of Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, formerly of Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, formerly of Bruford, formerly of UK, formerly of Genesis (touring only), formerly of Yes.  And indeed this is a Yes song, a little-remembered ditty by them known as "Roundabout."

The fill in question occurs at 6:28 of the original recording, but here is it, semi-isolated for your listening pleasure. (I've chosen the version that's got Chris Squire's thunderous bass, and a little bit of Jon Anderson's vocals, for context, but there's also a version that's just Bill Bruford and, yes, entire days have gone by where I've just played his isolated tracks on repeat and so what if I do?)

The clip embedded should start seven measures before the fill, at 4:54. The fill itself lasts for one measure, so you can be prepared for the greatness, which begins at the 5:07 mark.


Here's what la partie de batterie inégalée sounds like without the bass (more or less):




There are at least two different transcriptions of this fill currently online. One looks like this:
while the other like this:
You'll note both agree on the first eight 16th notes, but then diverge as to what he does with the second half of the fill. While I find the first version more aesthetically appealing, the second version sound more correct to me, if still not quite accurate: I think it's correct in its number of bass drum notes, but I think Bruford used two different floor toms, where it only notates one. On the other hand, I've listened to the fill at half speed a dozen times and could never have even made a stab at notating this myself, so I'm probably wrong too and massive props to those devoted and erudite scholars.

Here's the thing that makes this fill so astonishing. First of all, it just is: it's technically difficult, it fits the music, it kicks the music into an even higher gear, and it sounds cool as fuck. But much or most or all of that could be said for so many other drum fills, so why this one? Because while technically difficult, it's far from the most difficult: there are oodles and boodles of fills by jazz and metal drummers which would make this seem rudimentary.

Two main reasons. The first is that it was improvised—unlike many other difficult fills which are planned, written, practiced ahead of time, this is jazz devotee Bill Bruford we're discussing, so this fill was, as with most of his fills, totally spur of the moment, played for that take and that take only, and never repeated. It just came to him as the measure approached, or maybe didn't even, maybe his limbs just took over and that's what happened.

The other thing is that this fill doesn't really sound like Bill Bruford, per se. I mean, it obviously does, and not just because he's playing it. But it's not as typical a fill as, say, the one he plays in the eighth measure of the song:
 
or the brief one shortly before the greatest ever:

I've always loved this other fill, incidentally. It's so short, it's almost like he refuses to do a typical rock fill, just tossing this unexpected bomb off casually, with the crash coming in on the 4 of the bar, rather than the 1 of the next measure, as is far more typical and would therefore be expected. As Bruford once said:
"Surprise, attack, understate, or overstate, but whatever you do, avoid the two cardinal sins of being either boring or predictable."
("And when in doubt, roll.")

But the main fill, the fill we're talking about, doesn't really sound like him. It's not like when Ringo swings a fill, as was his style, even during songs with a straight feel. It's not like a Bonham triplet, which are always awesome. It's not like when Collins plays double-speed at the end of a fill, as he so often did. It's not like when Tony Thompson would end a fill with an accented snare on the 4 at the end of a fill, before crashing on the subsequent 1. It's not like Steve Gadd's fill that kicks "Chuck E.'s in Love" out of the bridge and back into the song, which is so badass and so tasty but quite stylistically typical of Gadd in every way (including being badass and tasty). Those are all awesome and part and parcel of those awesome drummers' awesome styles.

But this ain't that. This fill is atypical of Bruford, it's a one-off, which sounds like nothing he'd ever do again, even as timbrally it sounds so clearly Bruford. Put all those factors together and you've got the single greatest fill in rock history, on a song which has been played to death for 50 years, and yet somehow it still skates by unnoticed.

[For the record, the greatest drum intro ever is, of course, on the Temptations classic "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," played by one of the Funk Brothers drummers—in this case, apparently, Uriel Jones (and not the also amazing Pistol Allen or Benny Benjamin). Unbelievably versatile, musical, tasteful and kickass, it easily beats out, in my mind, also phenomenal intros by the likes of Charles Connor, Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Stevie Wonder, Steve Gadd, Stewart Copeland, Phil Collins, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Mullen Jr, Dave Grohl and so many other brilliant drummers.]

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Crossroads, and How I Learned to Love Rush Again

The death of Neil Peart and the amazing outpouring of affection that followed sent me onto something of a Rush listening/watching jag over the past few days.

My thoughts on the band were fairly simple. I was a big fan until I was about 14 and then my attention turned elsewhere. From that moment on I always appreciated/admired their talent and connection to the fans, and I continued to like those songs with which I was familiar (you know, six or seven really well-known tunes). I had just decided the music wasn't exactly for me.

Funny. Even at age 51 and set in our ways, we're able to learn new things. And change our lines.

Because after a few days of listening to Moving Pictures, then Permanent Waves, then 2112, then Signals, then Hemispheres and then, most recently A Farewell to Kings, I have to say, this is music for me. Without question. The mindbending precision. The chops all three have. The songwriting. The integrity. I spent nearly 40 years not really appreciating it, but damn, I do now. It took a re-listening to the Side 1 suite of 2112 for the first time since the Reagan Administration. And Alex Lifeson's advanced mathematics on "La Villa Strangiato." And the joyous musical wonderland explored in "Xanadu," led by vocals from Geddy Lee that remind you just what kind of singer he truly is. And the brilliant, signature-bending ride (not to mention the songwriting) that is "Spirit of Radio." And yes, "Limelight" and "YYZ" and "Tom Sawyer." There is so damn much good here; unfortunately I spent all these years not paying much attention. But I am paying attention now.

And it hasn't just been listening. I watched Beyond the Lighted Stage the other day and, I have to say, I have never seen a better rock doc. Their openness (even the legendarily shy and reclusive Neil) is staggering, and the material is so comprehensive that you get exactly why these three worked as a band for 40+ years. And you walk away with the sense that Neil is one of the smartest people to ever play rock-n-roll, and Geddy and Alex are just two of the most decent people in rock-n-roll history.

I've watched a few concert snippets online as well and reached the same conclusion. Terrific stuff. And I watched their induction to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 and thought it was amazing. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins couldn't have given them a better or more reverent intro. And Neil, Geddy and Alex knocked it out of the park with their speeches. And yes, to me, Alex's ballsy  "blah blah blah" speech kept getting funnier and funnier.


But it was the end of that night in 2013 that is the impetus for this post. It's long been one of my favorite rock-n-roll moments, and very possibly is my favorite jam session I have ever seen. The sheer talent onstage is staggering. Watch, and a few observations will follow.



I love this clip, and this version of a truly legendary piece of music, so much it is difficult to say.


  • Not sure how this is possible, but on a stage that had all three members of Rush, the Wilson sisters. Dave and Taylor, John Fogerty, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Darryl McDaniels and Chuck Freaking D, Gary Clark Jr. still manages to emerge as the coolest person on the stage. Damn does he have charisma!
  • To that end, following Chuck and Darryl's awesome intro, I love how they gave it to Gary to take the first verse and get them out of the gate. THAT'S respect.
  • I also love how it doesn't take Geddy long to pick up the hip-hop beat on the bass and start to flesh it out.
  • Dave and Taylor still have their old school Rush kimonos on for the song. Bless their hearts.
  • Taylor + Neil = about what you'd expect. Which is to say, yes please.
  • So cool to occasionally see Chuck and Darryl running around the stage in the background. Adds to the level of fun they are all having.
  • Good GOD can Annie Wilson sing!
  • Around the 1:48 mark, as Ann sings, Tom and Gary exchange a look which seems to speak to how much they love this.
  • Ah, Chris Cornell. Hard to believe's not with us anymore. But it felt good to see him belt it out. And the extended shots towards the end of him and Tom together are very cool.
  • There are quite a few times where you see Geddy in the back just grooving along quietly on the bass. And that struck me. This is a guy who spent 40+ years as a front man, so it might've seemed a little weird being "behind the scenes" for a little while, if you will. But Geddy seems to be enjoying himself.
  • Little random moments. Darryl watching Tom play and looking kind of amazed. Chuck holding his mic up to Geddy's bass. Geddy laughing with Chuck at the 3:00 mark.
  • Alex's solo. SWEET JESUS is that man a monster player.
  • While Alex is playing, his oldest and probably closest friend in the world gives Tom Morello a look and reaction at the 4:27 mark that likely explains exactly what Geddy thinks of Alex.
  • Two different solos for Mr. Morello. Both done in his thoroughly unique way. And no one seems to be complaining.
  • And Geddy is given the final verse. And naturally, he nails it. You can't spend a career as a master prog player without having an advanced understanding of the rock-n-roll basics. Geddy proves it there. And his high five with Fogerty at the end is a little silly and a lot sweet.
It's a damn shame, once again, that it takes a death to spur my listening to some great musics. But I am glad this brought me back to Rush. Very few bands possess this advanced level of talent. None of them have a greater connection to or appreciation of their fans.

THAT is one hell of a legacy. One that deserves plenty of attention be paid to it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

You Either Die a Hero or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain: Robbie Robertson and the Band

This guy.

So thanks to the footage—and the subject matter—this looks like it'll be utterly riveting...in parts. And because of the damn guy being interviewed, the titular character, the villain of the piece, it's going to be equally insufferable in parts. I mean, I nearly punched my computer screen twice just watching the trailer. Every word that comes out of his mouth feels like it's been written and rewritten and rehearsed a dozen times before the cameras even started rolling. (And thanks to The Last Waltz, we know that's far from unlikely.)

As anyone who's perused Reason to Believe even a bit probably realizes, both Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton are in my list of Top 10 Favorite Artists ever, and Van Morrison's way the hell up there, and his recent dumb comments notwithstanding, I'm a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But it's highly telling that the ones interviewed for this here documentary—or at least who are most prominently called out in the various pieces about the film and in the trailer—are all...solo artist types. They've either never really been in a band or it's been a long damn time since they were and when they were it was for brief periods before imploding.

(Although Springsteen is right on the money when he says:
"There is no band that emphasizes becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band."
and nothing makes that more crystal clear than Robertson's perfectly fine but lightyears from legendary solo career—a solo career that's now 43 years long, well over four times as long as the Band's career.)

"Something got broken and it was like glass—it was hard to put back together again." Yeah, d-bag: and you were the one who broke it. You broke The Band. One of the greatest bands ever, and you destroyed it. You knew—or maybe you didn't really know yet—how amazing the chemistry was between these five incredible musicians, and yet you decided you had to be the leader, and virtually the sole songwriter, despite how vital the songwriting contributions of the others (especially the fragile as crystal Richard Manuel) was.

Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt working with those guys was hella difficult, especially once the drugs and drink really started to take hold. But come on, man. Enough with the revisionism. "We thought, let's come together one last time: The Last Waltz." No, homeboy. The others were very clear about it over the years: You decided. They wanted to keep going. Hey, if you want to quit a band, you get to. But don't lie about how and why it happened.

I mean, even the damn title: Robbie Robertson and the Band. They keep talking about how magical it was when these guys got together, and yet the guy who broke them up still needs to have his damn name in the title, even though it runs counter to the precise thesis of the damn film.

Feh.

You know what would be great? Not just for this documentary—although hell yeah it would've—but in general? Interview guys from bands that were or have been together for a really long time about how goddamn hard it is to keep bands together. Interview the guys from, say, U2 and REM and Pearl Jam and Rush and ZZ Top about what it's really like to be in a band with the same guys for decades. 'cuz there's a reason so few bands stay together for that long.


Footage looks amazing, of course. Can't wait to see it.

(For a much more accurate view of what The Band was really like, check out this video of a 1970 concert. There's little indication of Robertson's future narcissism, and absolutely no indication that he or anyone thinks of him as the band's leader; just the opposite, in fact–if you didn't know better, you'd probably think it was Rick Danko, who sings or co-sings all four songs [including a little ditty he wrote with some jamoke named Bob Dylan] and whose ability to sing beautifully and with such a unique timbre while playing completely independent, deep, finger-busting funky grooves remains astonishing. Or listen to Levon Helm singing "The Weight" for what must already be the thousandth time. This has to be at least the 10th live version I've heard him do, and I don't think I've ever heard him sing those so well known lines the same way twice. What a monster musician. Like all the rest of The Band.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

RIP Neil Peart

One of the giants of drumming died today. Apparently Rush drummer Neil Peart had been fighting brain cancer for years and told next to no one. Which is about as Neil Peart a thing as I can imagine.

There have been few big-name drummers who cared more or thought more deeply about drums and drumming than Peart. He may not have had the ability to make odd time signatures swing as effortlessly as Phil Collins, nor Bill Bruford's restless desire to never, ever repeat himself—to name two of the three other major prog rock drummers of the 70s—but no one ever strove for perfection like Peart. He'd spend months writing and rewriting and tweaking and honing and finally recording his parts, wondering if a flam here would be more effective or perhaps a ruff would work better or maybe it should simply be played as clean straight notes. And, of course, once the final part was settled, he'd meticulously recreate it night after night in concert, live, with tens of thousands of adoring eyes on him, and tens of thousands of adoring ears listening to every ghost note, every hi-hat bark, every perfect 32nd note paradiddlediddle.


And Peart, notorious perfectionist owner of staggering technical abilities, every one of which he worked relentlessly at, was open about how often he made mistakes. And, sure, he was almost certainly the only one who ever noticed them, but that's not entirely the point: the point is, he did notice them. And whereas a Collins would think, well, that sucks, but the show must go on, and push it out of his mind, and a Bruford would think, well, that didn't work but was really quite interesting, I wonder if there's anything to be learned from that, Peart would obsess over it, determined to do better next time. And the time after. And the time after.


And few professional musicians have ever dedicated themselves to reinventing their technique as late in their career as he did in the 90s, studying with master instructor Freddie Gruber, and changing up his approach to the drums—an idea which would have have been, was, beyond absurd to the generations of drummers would have given their left splash cymbal to have had half Peart's original technique.


But when I think of Neil Peart's drumming, I don't think of the title track to 2112, or the beloved instrumentals like "YYZ" or "La Villa Strangiato," I think about "Spirit of Radio," both because it's one of his finest lyrics, and most of all, because of the sense of humor and obvious love for music that comes through in every measure.


There are places where he seems to almost anticipate the gospel chops of the next century in his (perhaps Steve Gadd-inspired) linear fills, and it changes time signatures more often than most drummers change their socks, but it's the places where for measures on end he plays...the bass drum. Just unadorned quarter notes on the kick drum. The kind of thing he could have played after one lesson as a kid. Hell, the kind of thing he could have played before taking a single lesson. But it was right for the music, so monster drummer Neil Peart—who wrote the part—played the simplest thing possible. What's more, besotted (as the rest of the band was, along with pretty much everyone in the world was) at the time by the Police (and in Peart's case specifically the playing of the band's utterly dissimilar Stewart Copeland), he goes into...reggae. About as un-prog-like a musical style as is imaginable. But it felt right, it fit the song, so into reggae they went, by god.

Sure, there are those other parts where it goes into 7/4, 'cuz hey, that too fit. (And most amusing of all, when the song leaves 7/4 and goes back into 4/4, that's actually the measure which feels wonkiest, as the beat is displaced, ala "Sunshine of Your Love" or "Bell Bottom Blues." A tricksy bagginses, that Peart.)

The world has moved on. And we're unlikely to see the likes of a prog god like Neil Peart ever achieve mass popularity again. So pour one out for the reclusive percussionist, even though he'd probably hate it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Stairway to Heaven

Talk about What Might Have Beens.

Every few years I rewatch this video and it's pretty much always the same. Or, well, the video's always exactly the same, but my reaction is pretty much always the same. Which is that with Steve Winwood on keyboards, Bill Wyman on bass and Simon Phillips on drums, this instrumental version of "Stairway" should be phenomenal.

But, sadly, Jimmy Page was deep in the throes of his heroin addiction and his playing—which even at his most incendiary and risk-taking best was rarely precise live, to put it mildly—is shockingly sloppy. Just listen and you'll hear fumbled notes, slurred chords, terrible timing, and some embarrassing intonation.

What's more, the recording itself isn't always as clear as would be ideal. Or, perhaps, given that Jimmy wasn't at his finest here, maybe that's not the end of the world. Still, a bit of clarity would have been nice, and having the audio properly synched with the video would definitely be a plus.


And yet. And yet when Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck come in at the end of the solo, it can't help but become nearly glorious, as Beck plays and plays with the last phrases of Jimmy's famous solo over and over on his Tele, and Clapton plays Robert Plant's original vocal line on his Strat. In some ways, it makes it all the sadder how much greater this could have and should have been. On the other hand, we get to see Clapton, Beck and Page, all three of the Yardbirds famous lead guitarists, playing the most famous song any of them ever wrote, and even at sub-optimal conditions, that's pretty damn cool.

Monday, December 30, 2019

RIP Neil Innes

Whenever I think of my favorite musical artists ever, Neil Innes never comes to mind. And yet the man who wrote "Knights of the Round Table" and "Brave Sir Robin," among so many others, probably brought me more joy than all but a tiny handful of musicians.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Owner of a Lonely Heart

I am amazed by this video. Amazed that it took me nearly 40 years to witness its majestic awfulness. Amazed that this was made by the same band at roughly the same time as the other video they did for the same song—a video that would be (justifiably) played to death by MTV. Amazed that they decided to cut away from Trevor Rabin just as he's about to sing the echo to the title in the chorus. Amazed by the comments it's engendered:
That looks like something a junior-high school band did for their drummer's aunt's public access cable TV show.
"MOVE YOURSELF."
Hardly moves
The ratio of awesome music to awkward visuals is staggering
No parrot has been harmed in the making of this video, several stylists and visual artists died during production though.
The setting sucks. Was the whole budget spent on the parrots?
Mom! Dad's singing in the living room again.
The singer even looks like he rushed from his summer job at the Thrifty Drug ice cream counter and forgot to take his nametag off.
If you mute it, the singer appears to be a daytime kids TV presenter talking over educational concepts for the kids who were too ill to go to school.
When every contestant in the "world's least cool man" competition wins!
Holy shit this is bad. They must have felt amazing in the studio: "look Trevor Horn is making us sound like the future". And then they made this.
Good god that’s awful. I couldn’t get through the whole thing but assume the sand worm from Beetlejuice came along and ate all of them.
Now I know why so many serial killers like prog rock
I mean...just look at this thing. Are any of those comments wrong? Or even unfair?


(Okay, this one may be a little unfair. But funny!)
I feel sorry for their lonely hut. Someone should move in.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

57 Channels (and Nothin' On)

I just read a piece on the Bruce Springsteen song "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)" because when you're a fanatic, it's the kind of thing that'll happen to you every year or two: you'll read a piece or a post or comment about some Springsteen song, no matter how rare or forgotten.

But there are few songs in the Springsteen oeuvre that remain as low key controversial as this one. Despite being released as a single not long after he'd more or less ruled the rock world globally, it didn't even come close to hitting the Top 40. (Although it did go Top 10 in Norway.) It was from an album—Human Touch—which was the first not good album of his career and remains his only album to be actually pretty bad. What's more, it didn't fit on that album, and definitely shouldn't have been the third song on the first side.

Which isn't to say it's not a cool song. I, in fact, love it. It's like little else in his extensive catalog: dark, mysterious, dangerous sounding, with a slinky bassline that's one of the most prominent on any Springsteen album ever. (Coincidence that Bruce himself played the bass on this track, as with one of his other most notable bassline songs, "Blinded by the Light"? I think not.) What's more, his delivery has a certain sprechstimme-like tone to it, with the lyrics largely spoken, and a melody only ever so delicately brushed on: it almost bears more resemblance to hip-hop than to the heartland rock which made him a household name, and perhaps slightly precursors "Streets of Philadelphia" in some ways, although that song's vocal is far more traditional.


I mean, come on: that's cool.

But then Springsteen did something he alone amongst major rock talents had never before done: he went on Saturday Night Live.

And hardcore Springsteen fans did not care for it.

The various opinions my fellow Bruce fans have had of his appearance on Saturday Night Live have made for fascinating reading, largely because most of them are so totally different from my own experience.

Unfortunately, video of the performance is almost impossible to find these days: every once in a while, some hero will upload it, and it'll be gone within a few days, if not sooner. So you're going to have to settle for the audio, which gives an excellent idea of how it was, but definitely doesn't tell the entire story.


Springsteen kicks right into "57 Channels," a song many consider to be a throwaway, not without some justification, but what I've always considered to be one of his more amusing songs, and with a skeletal arrangement that I loved from the first; to put it another way, it certainly isn't the strongest track on the album—and given the weakness of the record, that's saying something—but would have made an absolute killer B-side; and had it been thusly released, I think it'd be beloved and a bucketlist item for hardcore Springsteen fans.

Regardless, on SNL the song took on a different persona. It still has that sinuous, slinky bassline and Bruce murmurs the words in a voice somewhere between a seductive lover and a psychotic killer.

But when he gets to the chorus, he begins whooping the title an octave above its melody on the album. On the original recording, he does something not entirely dissimilar, echoing the title an octave higher at the end of the bridge, in a call-and-response manner. He then does it again in the outro, this time in harmony, but in both those instances, the vocal is quieter and full of echo, as though coming from a distant, empty room.

Watching it live, I literally started laughing; I loved it, even if it seemed a bit incongruous, and thought it was an extremely ballsy choice to have made for his first appearance on SNL. Most of all, however, I think it was the look on Bruce's face that did it for me—he's barely able to suppress a smile, and by the end actually gives up all pretense and bursts out laughing.

But it was the guitar breaks that really brought the song to life or, to borrow an overused sports cliche, took it to another level. Bruce attacked his Tele like it had just insulted his mother, wrenching horrifically atonal, dissonant screeches of pain from the guitar. It was absolutely unlike anything I'd ever heard him do before (even taking into account his experimental, guitar-heavy pre-"Greetings from Asbury Park" work). It seemed as though Bruce had been listening to Nirvana or Sonic Youth or his old friend Neil Young.

It was, to my ears, utterly glorious.

Most of the hardcore Bruce fans did. not. like it. Interestingly, however, one of my closest friends loved it. This friend has never really cared for Bruce; when younger, his tastes generally ran more towards edgy, punkish stuff such as Minor Threat; about the most "mainstream" band he liked was the Replacements. He found, however, that Bruce's performance on SNL gave him a completely different view of Bruce, one that made his better-known stuff take on a different sheen. Ironically, this friend's second-favorite Bruce performance was the acoustic "Born in the U.S.A." Bruce did on Charlie Rose—night and day, you would think, but perhaps more closely related than at first glance. All of this convinced him to go pick up "Nebraska," which he thought was overwhelmingly powerful.

I'm not saying "57 Channels" was one of Bruce's greatest performances ever, nor that it's one of his best songs, and I'm certainly not saying I'd like him to perform that way all the time. But it seems to me that this performance was one of those rare times that this extremely conservative artist (I obviously don't mean that in a political sense in the slightest) throws caution to the wind and does something musically that is completely dissimilar to what he's done before and what's expected. And while it may not have been completely successful, it was audacious and commendable. And it's a shame he didn't follow this path a little longer: a grungy Springsteen would, in retrospect, have probably been a fantastic fit.

Friday, November 8, 2019

2+2=?



Thanks to Scott's brilliant recent post about the possible end to Bob Seger's career, he's had me in a Bob Seger sorta mood lately. Which is a pretty darn good mood to be in, I'll tell you what.




And it got me thinking about those early, early years of his, years I didn't even know existed until maybe a decade ago. I had no idea before then he was an active recording artist in the late 1960s, prolly because I just so easily associated him with the 1970s and early 80s, when he dominated the rock-n-roll landscape with his Mt. Olympus voice and irresistible tunefulness like few artists of the era did.

Hell, I figured "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," a song that would have been a career-topping triumph for just about anyone, came out around the same time as "Turn the Page."

Wrong. Bob recorded that song in 1969, on an album of the same title, in a band called the Bob Seger System. And it's a pretty damn good album, one I was wholly unaware for so long. It's a portrait of an artist in his infancy, just starting to feel his way through a space he would one day dominate. Not unlike Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in 1953. Or the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961-62. You can hear it forming and know something unreal is soon to be here.

Never is this more apparent than on the finest song (minus the title tack) on the record, an anti-Vietnam War scorcher called "2+2=?" Which, no lie, is great enough to stand alongside any, and I mean ANY, anti-war song of the era and hold it's head way up high. It just never received the airplay or fame so many of its contemporary songs did. Which is a shame.

The anti-war song is as essential to the American Songbook as Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building or anything that came out of Sun or Stax or Chess or Motown. Some of them held gospel roots ("I Aint Gonna Study War No More"), some were imported from across the sea ("Mrs. McGrath," "A Nation Once Again") and some were staples of the folk movement ("Bring 'Em Home," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") And they stay with us generations on.

But the Vietnam era, during which I was born but was never old enough to fully understand, had so many anti-war and protest songs that they seemingly have helped to define the era. Whether you were for or against that war a half-century ago, one thing many could agree on—and I have heard this from people who favored and opposed the war, from people who fought in it and protested against it—was the music. From the sublime to the screaming, from the nightmarishly forboding to the largely ridiculous, the music of the Vietnam Era remains an essential part of it. Maybe you weren't alive for it, or like me barely alive for it, but you can still get the feeling of those years when you hear John Fogerty scream "I ain't no senator's son" as "Fortunate Son" starts to burn, or hear Merry Clayton's primal and unforgettable howl at the apex of "Gimme Shelter." Like the best in music and art, it can transport you. And it does.

"2+2=?" is like that every step of the way. Listen.




It starts off a little off-kilter, with a distant five-note bassline that seems to take a second to establish a rhythm. And then Bob Seger, the possessor a voice so overpoweringly potent that he has in fact nicknamed it "The Mountain," begins to sing. Somewhat hushed.

Yes it's true I am a young man
But I'm old enough to kill
I don't wanna kill nobody
But I must if you so will


Damn. THAT is how you start a song, and THAT is how you get people's attention. His voice builds, filled with what sounds like a genuine mix of fear, dread and anger. Those early lines have a cornered animal trait to them, seething and waiting for a chance to attack.

And then that chance arrives within the first half-minute, when Bob introduces a guitar that seems to channel the very best of Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds. The six-note run remains through the rest of the song, snaking through it like razorwire and offering such a discordant, chaotic tone the song truly becomes a nightmare ride. And it all serves as the backdrop to one young man's plea, one small but monstrous voice who makes it clear he is so much smarter than the warmongers give him credit for, and he sees through everything they are doing. As sure as 2+2 equals 4, he sees it. And he hates it.

Yes it's true I am a young man
But I'm old enough to kill
I don't wanna kill nobody
But I must if you so will

And if I raise my hand in question
You just say that I'm a fool
Cause I got the gall to ask you
Can you maybe change the rules

Can you stand and call me upstart
Ask what answer can I find
I ain't sayin' I'm a genius
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind

Well I knew a guy in high school
Just an average friendly guy
And he had himself a girlfriend
And you made them say goodbye

Now he's buried in the mud
Over foreign jungle land
And his girl just sits and cries
She just doesn't understand

So you say he died for freedom
Well if he died to save your lies
Go ahead and call me yellow
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind

All I know is that I'm young
And your rules they are old
If I've got to kill to live
Then there's something left untold

I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules not the soldier
That I find the real enemy

I'm no prophet I'm no rebel
I'm just asking you why
I just want a simple answer
Why it is I've got to die
I'm a simple minded guy
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind


Right towards the end comes perhaps the perfect capper to the song, where Bob stops the music cold in its tracks and stays silent, as if a sniper has felled him, for a full five seconds. Like a lone voice of dissent silenced by forces far larger and far deadlier than he ever could image. But no. He emerges once more to be heard, singing absent any music for a moment—"2+2 is on my mind!"—before the music once more resumes its harrowing breakneck pace and rides this masterpiece to its rightful conclusion.

Scott has very rightly talked about Bob Seger's crazily underrated prowess as a songwriter, and "2+2=?" is case in point. Because I have a hard time thinking anyone, and I mean ANYONE—be it Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan—could ever top a set of lyrics as heartbreakingly poetic as:

I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules not the soldier
That I find the real enemy


I'm no prophet I'm no rebel
I'm just asking you why
I just want a simple answer
Why it is I've got to die


Bob Seger does not offer a stand on class or race in this song. Like most great songs of its kind from the era, it never mentions Vietnam or, for that matter, any country. It uses no proper names or offers anything all that specific about the narrator or his background. It doesn't need to.

Instead he bleeds anger, frustration and pathos in a little under three minutes. The man singing this song is young but smart. He is bold enough to stand up to forces he know can crush him, but he still has his voice and he is going to use it. He is just one man. Singing for everyone. In a voice for everyone.

Bravo.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Straight Time

See, that's the thing about Bruce Springsteen. You can listen to one of his songs for literally decades and then one day a line hits in a way it never has before and you suddenly realize the subtlety, the deftness, the intricacy of his writing all over again.

This quiet deep cut off 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad LP, for instance. It tells a tale of an ex-con, and the push and pull he feels as he's buffeted by various forces: his wife, his shady family, his soul-killing job, his desire to stay straight, the siren call of the illicit life.
Got out of prison back in '86 and I found a wife
Walked the clean and narrow
Just tryin' to stay out and stay alive
Got a job at the rendering plant, it ain't gonna make me rich
In the darkness before dinner comes
Sometimes I can feel the itch
I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line
I'm sick of doin' straight time
My uncle's at the evenin' table makes his living runnin' hot cars
Slips me a hundred dollar bill, says
"Charlie, you best remember who your friends are"
I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line
I ain't makin' straight time
Eight years in, it feels like you're gonna die
But you get used to anything
Sooner or later it just becomes your life 
Kitchen floor in the evening, tossin' my little babies high
Mary's smilin' but she watches me always out of the corner of her eye
Seems you can't get any more than half free
I step out onto the front porch and suck the cold air deep inside of me
Got a cold mind to go tripping 'cross that thin line
I'm sick of doin' straight time 
In the basement, huntin' gun and a hacksaw
Sip a beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor 
Come home in the evening, can't get the smell from my hands
Lay my head down on the pillow
And go driftin' off into foreign lands


Like many of the tracks on the album, the song ends somewhat unresolved, with the final lyrics being not an expected return of the title, but just half of another verse (although, interestingly, harmonically it does resolve to the tonic, unlike some of the album's other songs).

It's that last full chorus which is the key to the song's greatness:
Kitchen floor in the evening, tossin' my little babies high
Mary's smilin' but she watches me always out of the corner of her eye
Seems you can't get any more than half free
It's easy to sympathize with the narrator, as he suffers that horrible feeling of not being trusted by the one person in the entire world who should trust him unconditionally.

Except...except.

Mary’s watching him, yes. But why?

Is it because as an ex-con he can never be fully trusted?
Or because she's his wife, and she can tell that her husband is teetering on a precipice, and he's slipping?
Is he slipping because no one fully trusts him, not even his wife? Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Oh, you don't trust me? Well, then I might as well go back to my old ways.
Is he simply paranoid? Is she watching him because it’s hardwired into many species to keep an eye on their spawn at all times? After all, he is doing something that's at least a bit dangerous with their children.
Or maybe she's just watching him play with their kids because it makes her so damn happy to see?
Is it all just an excuse? Is he simply looking for a reason to go back?
Or is it even all just unavoidable? As he himself says earlier in the song:
You get used to anything
Sooner or later it just becomes your life
No way to know for sure. Every possibility is there, and more, all laid out in fewer than 250 words—about half the number of words in this post...and that's excluding the quoted lyrics. Springsteen's lyrical concision is staggering—we know who this guy is, what he's gone through, what he's going through, and we're pretty sure we have a pretty good idea what he's going to be doing shortly, even if he himself pretends he doesn't know yet.

That's some sweet writing. And it's just another track off one of his least-known albums.