Monday, April 30, 2012

Land of Hope and Dreams

DT and I have very little in common. One of the very few things we do share is this: we are both befuddled by the fact that a lot of our fellow Bruce Springsteen fans don’t really care for his newer stuff. In fact, some of the most devoted of his hardcore followers have seen him hundreds of times, from back in New Jersey dives before he even had a record deal. They’ll still angle to see him a dozen times per tour and buy each and every release. But they don’t really like his new stuff. And in some cases, when I say "new stuff" I’m talking about anything from the last twenty-five years.

I can sorta kinda almost relate, in least in theory. I’ve been thinking for a long time about the way we listen to music and how I believe it changes as we get older, and I suspect much of that ties into this. But I can’t truly relate, because the best of Springsteen's stuff over the past decade and a half is just stunning, an almost unprecedented catalog in all of rock and roll history.

Springsteen's got so many gems, many of which DT and/or I will hopefully get to eventually. But perhaps the very best of them all is "Land of Hope and Dreams," a song that sort of sums up in just a few minutes the post-1980 Bruce Springsteen the way "Born to Run" did the pre-1980 Bruce Springsteen.

Musically, it’s magnificent. Kicking off with The Mighty Max’s patented drums, it’s soon joined by Bruce’s mildly distorted guitar line, pure rock and roll. Next comes the late Danny Federici’s organ, bringing with it a hint of gospel, and then finally the entire band kicks in. Of particular note is Roy Bittan’s piano—always tasteful and technically perfect, his lines here are especially interesting, with his almost contrapuntal playing lending a subtle darkening of tone. And perhaps the nicest touch is the most basic—the tambourine played by The Big Man. Syncopated, it gives just the slightest hint of a hip-hop groove and opens the entire arrangement up.

Every single time I listen to the first fifteen seconds of this song I marvel that it’s not a staple of rock and roll radio, the way "Rosalita" and "Born to Run" are. Mainly it reminds me of the promise The Band held and occasionally delivered, but never, to my ears, more gloriously than  this. "Land of Hope and Dreams" may not be Bruce Springsteen’s best song. But he has never released a better one.

Interestingly, "Land of Hope and Dreams"—unlike "Blinded by the Light" or "Rosalita" or "Hungry Heart" or "Born in the U.S.A."—doesn't really have a traditional chorus, a relative rarity for a Bruce Springsteen song…but it is  something it has in common with both "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road."

The lyrics, though, are pure Bruce, filled with promise yet never denying that hard times led to this place and that there’s still hard work ahead:
Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder's rolling down the tracks
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Big wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
The train imagery is, of course, pure Americana and has anchored countless blues, country, gospel, folk and rock songs, from "Mystery Train" and "Johnny B. Goode" on up to and including the late Curtis Mayfield's great "People Get Ready," lines of which are actually interpolated, and grounds the entire thing securely in the American tradition. But note, too, the legendary (mythical?) American tradition of a nation of people on the move, pilgrims, if you will. They don't know where they're going—but they know they won't be back. Once upon a time it meant looking for the eastern shore. Later it meant the midwest, or west coast, and later still The Great Migration largely (but far from entirely) northward. Here it's clearly figurative, symbolic, but no less powerful.
I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
That's an interesting bit right there. The most obvious interpretation is that he's exhorting his companion to let today be the last day she has sorrows, but nearly as obvious is the implication that it'll be the last day, full stop. Given the song's strong gospel roots, that's not entirely surprising, although it would make it somewhat sui generis in Springsteen's oeuvre.
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Which would make Springsteen's vision of heaven...basically middle America. Which is so delightfully Springsteenian, albeit far more in the stereotypical idea of Springsteen's catalog than the much grittier reality of most of his work.

But taking the lyrics at face value, what's even more striking is the faith Springsteen still has in the promised land, a land he first sang about as a young man back in 1978—or, rather, not the promised land, but a promised land. Similarly, he doesn't look to find the land of hope and dreams, merely a land of home and dreams. And he's still searching for it, after all these years, after all the heartbreaks and amazing triumphs. He doesn’t claim to have gotten there, or even to have caught sight of it yet. Yet he’s positive that there’s a way to get there—but not just a way; note that he wants to meet there, meaning each voyager finds his or her own path—and that he and all who care to will get there eventually, with help and by helping, and that there’ll be room for all who are interested in making the journey.
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train—dreams will not be thwarted
This train—faith will be rewarded
This train—hear the steel wheels singin'
This train—bells of freedom ringin'
This train carries broken-hearted
This train—thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train—all aboard

This train—dreams will not be thwarted
This train—faith will be rewarded
This train—hear the steel wheels singin'
This train—bells of freedom ringin'
And who'll be making this trip with him and his loved one? A motley crew if ever there was one. Saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, fools and kings, losers, winners, thieves—lost souls all. In other words, the place he's searching for sounds just like the America we all learned about growing up in school. And in the case of Bruce Springsteen, famous lapsed Catholic, populated largely by the disreputable but not irredeemable people a certain very famous long-haired, bleeding heart liberal hippie philosopher prominently featured in the New Testament chose to hang out with. It even looks something like the odd assortment of individuals which make up the E Street Band. (Not to assume about their collective moral turpitude or nothin'.)

In the end, Springsteen’s sure, dreams and faith will—in fact, must—prevail. He's no naïve waif; he has, as he's sung, been around a time or two. And yet. And yet he still believes. Somehow, at the end of every hard-earned day, he still finds some reason to believe. He still has dreams. He still has faith. And that’s just one more reason Bruce Springsteen is my hero and why I wish every schoolchild learned this song in first grade, why I wish it were handed out to each and every new immigrant to our nation and why, as you walked into the polling place each election day, you were handed a copy of the lyrics. 

Dreams will not be thwarted and faith will be rewarded. 

All aboard. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Blood on the Tracks

One of the great personal transitional pieces of music ever released is Bob Dylan’s 1975 Blood on the Tracks. No major relevation there, I'm sure. It's great for a number of reasons.

But it's transitional in terms of where his life was at the time, more than where his music was going. It stands atop a very select mountain of albums that feature an older, mature rock-n-roll figure examining his life and relationships as an adult. Only Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love—and perhaps Paul Simon’s Graceland, for slightly different reasons—are its equal.

Dylan wrote Blood on the Tracks for a very specific reason—he had gotten divorced and needed to say goodbye to that part of his life. The album ranged from straight-ahead narrative (“Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shelter From the Storm”) to bitterness (“Idiot Wind”) to forlorn fare-thee-wells (“If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Buckets of Rain”). It even had Dylan’s characteristic oddball humor (if somewhat misplaced) with “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”

Telling the story of a marriage’s end has got to be as difficult an assignment with which a writer/musician can task himself. Yet Dylan does it with equal parts affection and resignation, with a touch of resentment but also an appreciation for what they once had.

Surely it couldn't have been easy, but it had to be done. And the fact that he famously scrapped a fully recorded Blood on the Tracks album in 1974 and redid it in the form we know it now only speaks to how hard it must have been. That’s why the album was written and recorded—a 35-year-old Dylan was examining his failed marriage as only an adult can, looking back on it and looking forward to a mysterious future.

He stepped away from his louder (and very impressive) work with The Band and returned largely to the guitar/harmonica approach that made him famous. The results were stunning in 1975, and remain so 37 years later.

But the message has proven far more universal than just one man getting divorced. Blood on the Tracks is a story of transition and change, of facing the unknown that lies ahead. And it's broad enough to be applied to many such situations.

As an example, when I was changing jobs in late 2006 and the anxiety for what I would do next was building, I listened to Blood on the Tracks just about every day. I needed to hear these songs as a way of reassuring me that change could be productive, that goodbyes did not mean disaster and ruin. I can’t exactly explain why, but it helped.

Here’s the song that helped more than any – the wonderful “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” right smack in the mddle of the album.

It’s a countrified shuffle with an upbeat melody and at under three minutes, it’s the shortest song on the album. But it also, more than any, finds optimism in moving in and remains free of regret. Lines like:
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doing
Staying far behind without you
Reason to Believe compadre Scott once perfectly described Tunnel of Love as being “an album written by an adult for adults.” Blood on the Tracks is the same way. It stands up and faces the challenges head on, whatever they may be and however difficult they may prove. It realizes that the close of one chapter doesn’t mean an absolute end, and it acknowledges that it’s still okay to look back with loving eyes.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” does just that, serving as an encapsulation of everything magical about the Blood on the Tracks album in its final lines.
I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
It’s goodbye. But yesterday is still real. And so is tomorrow.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Natalie Imbruglia: Torn

Sometimes I get the silly idea that I spend too much time on YouTube. Whenever I start to take such an absurd notion seriously, I think of Natalie Imbruglia’s "Torn."

For those who’ve never seen it, or don’t recall, do yourself a favor and take a gander—if you're pressed for time, just check out the first 45 or so seconds.

Okay, so now presumably I can talk about it and not have to worry about spoilers. As you now know, if you hadn't before, the video starts off as a standard semi-narrative video, a plaintive waif singing in her apartment, intercut with shots of her boyfriend, sometimes in the background, perhaps post-tiff, or the two of them kissing romantically.

And then out of nowhere another guy pops up—literally, he pops up into the frame—and moves both Natalie and her "boyfriend" back about a foot and half so the camera can catch more of them. And you wonder what the hell was that? And then you realize that he’s the video’s director. And then the video cuts again, and she’s singing once more. And another cut and you see folks working on the set behind them. And they keep quick cutting so that sometimes it’s just Natalie singing to the camera, all heartfelt and emotive, and sometimes you’ll see the make-up artists working on her hair, or the crew members working on the set, or her and her co-star acting out their planned roles.

It’s an odd and incredibly unusual choice the director made. The story goes that they shot a normal video but in the editing stage realized that showing the "making of" section in the actual video itself had never been done and was really interesting.

And they were dead on. It’s fascinating. Because, and this is a bizarre paradox, by showing the behind-the-scenes stuff, they manage to both highlight the inherent artificiality of videos and give us a true glimpse of the artist behind the song at the exact same time.

It’s an amazing feat. You see her getting her hair done, you see her and her co-star screwing up their blocking, you see her idly stretching between takes, you see them kissing passionately before suddenly breaking it off in irritation and—best of all—you even, at two different points, see a wall on the set either collapse, or nearly so, and crew members rushing in to avert disaster. And it all both illustrates perfectly how artificial all videos are and yet how authentic this one by dint of its honesty in revealing its artifice.

By letting us see these screw-ups and unguarded moments, by occasionally dropping the façade, this video lets us see the real people behind the pretense, in a way that’s very, very rare indeed. Not even interviews or concert videos can do that, because in those situations the artist always knows the camera’s rolling. Here the camera is basically ignored except during an actual take, so during the several days of taping, it simply morphed into another part of the furniture, at least much of the time. It became the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, and therefore, by extension, so did we.

The heart of the video may be the second time through the chorus, where she sings "illusion never changed into something real." She sings all the previous lines of the chorus directly into the camera—the longest uncut shot of the entire video—but halfway through this line they cut to her waiting for a shot to be set up, with a light meter being held in front her face, making sure the lighting was just right for optimal effect. In yet another beautiful twist, this video itself proves that line about illusion to be untrue, to be an illusion itself, and in doing so, uncovers yet another layer to the entire thing.

I should mention that if it weren’t for the greatness of the song itself, originally by Ednaswap, the brilliance of the video wouldn’t count for much. But "Torn" is an utterly perfect pop song, with good lyrics, a great, ever so slightly off-kilter melody and absolutely flawless production. When it first came out I was completely entranced, but assumed I’d eventually tire of it. It’s been fifteen years now and although I’ve probably occasionally gone years between listenings, I’ve yet to get bored with it, even after hearing it scores, maybe even hundreds, of times. It is as wonderful as pop gets. The fact that there’s a video that’s up to its incredibly high standard is not merely a nice bonus, it's astounding.

But it is a very, very nice bonus indeed. And as great as the entire video is—and it is—the most glorious part is at the very end of the song, during the easiest (and one of the most effective) slide guitar solos in pop history. Just as the slide come in, Natalie begins dancing. But it could not possibly be more obvious that her dance wasn’t choreographed or even planned. She simply whirls around like a child, dancing the way you do when you think no one’s watching. Apparently, she was mortified when she saw the video and discovered the director had stuck that oh so unguarded moment in there. Which is understandable. She looks like a moderately graceful person just screwing around—miles away from the typical pop star, with her razorsharp and terrifically impressive moves honed to a cold, machinelike perfection.

This is not one of those dances. This dance is…well, it looks kinda goofy. It looks fun. It looks warm and spontaneous and joyful. It actually looks most like the home videos a sibling sometimes posts on YouTube, hoping to embarrass the 12-year-old caught dancing when he thought no one was watching—frankly, I'm surprised no one's edited a lightsaber into her hand yet. But it's not embarrassing, not in the slightest. It’s magnificently human and vulnerable and sweet in a way we so rarely see in popular culture. It is utterly transcendent and the marriage of that naked moment and the beauty of the music behind it reminds me of just why I love this stuff so much.

The Genius of the Kinks

Remember the 1980s TV show thirtysomething? It was one of the first and the most successful of those early “dramedies,” and a precursor to the many shows that would follow more in the 90s – comedies and dramedies both – that focused more on character and less on plot. From Friends to Ally McBeal to many others, thirtysomething played a role in spawning many popular TV shows that were more about the talk and less about the action.

This isn’t a post about thirtysomething. (For the record, the show could be incredibly whiny and infuriatingly tried too hard to be hip, though it did make for some great television when it was done right.) But this post is more based on one line that came from the show.

The “single” character, Melissa, wants a baby, yet she has no one at the moment to give her one. She complains about this for awhile and a friend suggests a sperm bank. “Even better,” one friend says, “there’s that one in Califorinia that produces all those genius babies!”

“Yeah, but my definition of genius might be different than theirs,” Melissa counters. “What if I wind up with Neil Diamond’s baby?”

(No, this post isn’t about Neil Diamond either. You think I’d do that to you?)

It’s about genius, and the pliable, mercurial definition that can be applied to it. Especially in music. I’ve heard people call Axl Rose a genius and I’ve had to bite my tongue. I have heard Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Prince labeled as such and I haven’t argued. I’ve heard Jonathan Richman called one, I’ve even heard Weird Al Yankovic called one. I’ve offered no response to such claims.

Many of my favorite artists, yes, I do believe have achieved a level of musical genius, at least at times. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., The Who, certainly the Beatles, probably many others could have that argument made for at least portions of their careers.

But here’s one more, not usually brought up right away when talking about musical genius. The Kinks.

This was a brilliant band when at its best, and it had a brilliant and quirky and wholly unique individdle, Ray Davies, leading them. And Ray without question was someone indeed touched by madcap genius at least a few times in his life.

The Kinks burst onto the scene during the first British Invasion in the mid-60s with a sound all their own. Harder, crunchier, more dangerous than anything else coming from the U.K. – not even the Rolling Stones could get nastier in those early years than “You Really Got Me” or “All Day and All of the Night.” The writing was bare and deliberate, and the music was intoxicating. It could also be ridiculously sweet, evocative and funny – “Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Death of a Clown” and “Til the End of the Day” were just a few examples of what they could do. By 1967 their two most recent albums, Face to Face and Something Else, showed the band firing on all cylinders.

But then they tried something new, and entered into a six-year period where there were few bands, if any, operating with as much consistent innovation and daring as they were. (The Beatles did, sure, until they broke up, and the Rolling Stones did until 1972. But that may be about it.) The Kinks went the way of the concept album.

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society
Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) 
Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One
Muswell Hillbillies
Everybody’s In Show-Biz
Preservation Acts I and II.

Yes, those were actual album titles. And they all came in a row from 1968 to 1974. And yes, to varying degrees they all worked. And the ones that worked the best (the first four, which along with Face to Face and Something Else stand as the best the band ever did) created some of the era’s greatest music.

They were also all "concept albums," built around common themes that drove the music. Meaning there was a higher degree of difficulty and that the chance of failure—of the concept not working and therefore the project falling apart—was that much greater.

Now, the Kinks didn’t invent the concept album, or even do it the best. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a decent candidate, as is The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what the Kinks did more than anyone, even The Who (who became known for the concept album with their triple-shot offering of The Who Sell Out, Tommy, and Quadrophenia—and, ironically, Who's Next was the eventual result of an abandoned concept), was refine the idea. They viewed is as an actual means to producing music, rather than just a novel attempt to frame it in a different way. To wit, the Kinks did not simply create a concept and pop in songs that loosely fit it, but rather created great music and built a conceptual skin around it.

And yes, the concepts were at times loose in nature. Village Green is sort of about nostalgia for yesteryear England. Lola is sort of a nasty look at the industry. Muswell Hillbillies is sort of about technology and plasticity getting us away from who we really are. The best concept albums aren’t just, “Here’s 14 songs about why the Vietnam War was wrong.” Rather they have themes that hint at certain points, that drives the listening mind to certain edges and into certain neighborhoods to direct their focus.

(As a matter of fact, on their best-known album, The Who actually showed the danger of wrapping an entire album into one "concept." Tommy's theme boxed them into a corner on good-sized chunks of he music, because they found themselves having to advance a very specific plot about a deaf, dumb and blind boy rather than make the music come first. )

After all, it was the overall feel of the album that mattered the most. As Jon Landau wrote about Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding in 1967, there wasn’t one song there specifically about the Vietnam War, “but an awareness of the Vietnam War could be felt all through.”

That’s what the Kinks did on their series of concept albums, and that’s what they did on what I consider their greatest achievement, 1969’s Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).

Arthur is an anti-war album in concept, though no, not every song is about the Vietnam War, which at the time was at its height. Nor is every song about post-World War II England, though that period plays a rol as well. In fact, none of them spefically are. What we have instead are tales of nationalistic reverence (“Victoria”), battlefield dreams (“Some Mother’s Son”), blind faith in our leaders (“Yes Sir No Sir,” “Brainwashed,” “Mr. Churchill Says,” and, yes, "Victoria" too) and longing for days of peace (“Young and Innocent Days,” “Shangri-La”). It all adds up to a meditation on the waste and disillusionment that war of any kind can cause.

Best yet, at least to me, is the closing and title track, “Arthur.”

The song was written for Ray and Dave Davies’ much-older brother-in-law, or at least with him in mind. A great rock-n-roll number with a slight country hint and some of Dave Davies’ finest guitar work, “Arthur” tells the story of a man who has seen a lifetime of war and struggle without the fruits of personal victory once promised, whose life got away from him just as the world he knew got away from him. And what’s worse, he saw this coming and yet could do nothing about it. (“Arthur, it seems you were right all along, don’t you know it?”)

Again, there is nothing in this song about any war specifically, or about anyone dying or being killed for a political or governmental cause. But the personal level of destruction one can feel from a war that won’t end, and from the idea that the world cannot promise you what you once thought it can promise, is everywhere. It’s embodied in a little man named Arthur, a “plain simple man in a plain simple working class position.” Who the world has now passed by. Who once had dreams, but for whom all “hope and glory” are now gone.

Arthur is the genius of Ray Davies and The Kinks operating full throttle, a dissertation on the very nature of destruction and the lessening of those who once believed. The album may fade out amidst rocking, celebratory whoops and hollers, but it’s the empty shell left behind that really tells the story.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

That's All Right

Funny thing, magic. Impossible to predict where or when it'll strike. It's just there or it's not. There's no way to force it into existence.

Except that's not quite true. As evidence, I submit the first Elvis Presley single.

The story's famous. Elvis, Scotty and Bill were having trouble getting a good take of a different song, so producer Sam Phillips suggest they take a break. Elvis started fooling around, Bill followed and then Scotty, and Sam came running back to ask what they were doing. "We don't know," came the reply. "Well, back up," Sam said, "Try to find a place to start, and do it again."

They did, and "That's All Right" was born.

One spin and you can hear it all. The ease with which these three guys play, the sense of fun and adventure, the overwhelming joy and most of all the unbridled passion—if this isn't the actual birth of rock and roll, it sure feels like it. Listening, you're aware that this is one of those rare moments of spontaneous creation, when pure beauty enters the world out nowhere, simply appearing out of the blue. That is magic.

Only...that's not how it happened. It's unclear how many takes they had to go through to get to the finished version, but it was at least the third and possibly far more. That spontaneity? It's not really there. Or, rather, it is there, but it's the product of hard work combined with natural talent, rather than sheer luck. It's three young guys who'd been playing together night after night for weeks, looking for something new, something that had never been heard before, not outside their own heads at least—searching for their own sound, trying to make what was buried inside them come out just right.

Listen to the first few takes. It's good. It's really good. But it doesn't feel like getting hit by sweet lightning. It's good stuff. But it's not magic.

So they kept at it. And they kept at it. Until they found the magic. Until they were able to create magic.

When someone blessed with that much natural talent and ambition finds like-minded partners and they work and they work and they work until they find that new thing and together they bring it all into existence and it's not only every bit as good as they were hoping it was, it's as good as anything ever...

...that's magic.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I Believe

This is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs ever, off of one of my favorite R.E.M. albums. And seeing how R.E.M. is unquestionably one of my favorite all-time bands, that's saying something. (At least for me.)

Mind you, I am not sure the album ranks in their Top 3 of all-time, nor am I sure this song even ranks in their Top 10 in terms of true greatness. But still, I love it so.

I love how Bill Berry’s drums come in a second too early to start things off (after the awesome banjo roll-in), tripping the wires on a song fueled by energy and chaos.

I love how Mike Mills (and Bill) take the chorus up, up and away with their harmonies—God, they were good at that.

I love how Michael Stipe can declare a few seconds in, “I believe in coyotes, and time as an abstract.” And it can somehow make sense.

I love the rev-up to each chorus, how the music accelerates and Michael’s singing takes on added urgency, as if something very important is about to happen. (Listen to how he pronounces, “Practice makes per-FECT, per-FECT is a fault, and fault lines CHANGE…” at the end of the second verse, for example.)

But mostly? I love how at the heart of arguably their most rocking album (and definitely their first truly rocking album, Lifes Rich Pageant) they take the hard edge they’ve now developed and find a way to mesh it with Peter Buck's hallmark jangle. Something new(ish) and something familiar, all rolled into one 3:51 rocking, rollicking, semi-nonsensical bundle of musical joy.

Don't Let Me Down

Way leads to way, as it's wont to, and trying to find Paul McCartney inducting James Taylor into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame leads, inexorably, to watching the final rooftop concert by the Beatles yet again.

I've always loved the look on John Lennon's face of slight embarrassment mixed with his trademark mischievousness when he forgets the words and just starts singing gobbledygook—it's at the 1:22 mark.

"This type of music's all right in its place." 

I love that Ringo, behind him, is laughing. But what's even better is the look Paul and John share right after as they wordlessly agree to get back on track together. And that smile on John's face, one of quietly confident pleasure, of absolutely secure trust in his musical partner, proves—as if we didn't already have more than enough proof—that John was right on target when he later said that no matter how bad things got between them, whenever they started playing music, it was always good.

But it's the very brief look John and George share shortly afterwards, during the following chorus, the small nod George gives just before the camera cuts away, that drives home that before the brilliant songwriting, before the groundbreaking studio work, before the unprecedented fame and fortune, they were very simply the finest rock and roll band ever.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Desperados Under the Eaves

A couple of days ago I wrote about Warren Zevon, trying to express my appreciation of him as an artist and of his forgotten masterpiece of a first album.

In my opinion, the finest track on that album is the finest song he would ever write. Which is saying something, as he wrote enough great songs to fill many careers—“Carmelita,” “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Play It All Night Long,” “Reconsider Me,” “Splendid Isolation,” “For My Next Trick” and on and on, right up through his literal farewell, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”

But for me, “Desperados Under the Eaves,” which closes the debut record, really is that good. And it really is his best.

The song is a meditation on the inevitable destruction of California from a man whose own personal destruction also seems imminent, even though his only earthly worry is paying his bar tab. The world may be ending, but buy this guy a drink and he’ll talk with you for hours.

The music is pretty and soft, a gentle violin that evokes the piano chords that opened “Frank and Jesse James” at the album’s start, leading into a whining little guitar. As the piano chords now quietly take over the melody, Warren sings slowly, clearly as he begins to tell his sad story.

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lying.
All those salty Margaritas in Los Angeles?
I’m gonna drink ‘em up

Next his thoughts morbidly turn to the fear of Armageddon. Only...that’s not really what he’s worried about.

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill

Everything changes after Zevon sings that astonishing piece of doomed poetry. Just after it, the band kicks and winds up for the punch, Zevon shouts “Hey!” and something amazing happens. For the only time on the entire record, a full orchestral swell takes over and booms through the speakers, practically blowing them out as a once-mournful ballad now sounds like it’s being commanded from Mt. Olympus. The words are delivered like sledgehammer blows with glorious choral backing, shocking the listeners and forcing them to hang on every syllable.

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees?
Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?
Don’t you feel like desperados under the eaves?
Heaven help the one who leaves

And then, once more, it’s quiet. And the focus again shifts away from the world’s end to the poor soul singing the song.

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands
And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me

It’s poor, poor pitiful me all over again, to quote a great song from earlier in the album. The humor in the irony abounds here—it’s being made very clear to us that the world may be in danger, at least in the drunken mind of the narrator. And it’s evoking images in his swamped mind of trees that resemble condemned killers and a blazing sun that is only angry at him. But still? A girl who understands him would make it all better. Only where does one find the right girl during the apocalypse?

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went “Mmmm...mmm…mmmm….”

And it comes down to this. One more quiet line from a man who is still alive and still in the same dumpy little hotel, only now listening to the air conditioner hum. And as he does the orchestra kicks in again and swells up, up, up, and as Zevon hums along to simulate the sound of the air conditioner humming with him, the full orchestra follows, louder and louder, crashing like Pacific waves on a doomed coastline.

“Look away down Gower Avenue” a chorus sings behind it all, over and over again, as the song fades out, paying tribute to a legendary street in Los Angeles that once stood as a symbol of glitzy prosperity, but now is just one more ghostly relic of yesterday, waiting to sink into the sea. “Look away.”

To paraphrase and bend the immortals words of T.S. Eliot, this is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a humming air conditioner that turns into a symphony.

At least that’s the way it works within the mind of Warren Zevon. Who pummeled us for decades with tales of seedy creatures, slurping along the ground for something to keep them going, while at the same time singing with the innocence of a child. This is how Warren Zevon existed on rock’s outer reaches for 30 years, never able to outrun the demons that he saw chasing him, but occasionally able to stop—for awhile—and have a drink with them.

And never once paying the bill.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fall On Me

So. I read this a while back:
One shortcoming R.E.M. had faced previously was that in spite of being able to create exemplary overarching works in LP and EP forms, the band had yet to write an individual song that undisputedly ranked among rock’s all-time greatest compositions—that is, until “Fall on Me”.
It’s an interesting, if mistaken, point in an otherwise fine piece—any band which had already recorded “Radio Free Europe” and “So. Central Rain” had already made their bones in the classic department.
But that’s not to say that “Fall on Me” isn't a great song and if someone wanted to argue it was their finest to that point in time, or even still to this very day, I wouldn’t argue. (Much.)

It’s got a lovely and arresting opening, with Peter Buck's contrasting Rickenbacker arpeggios joined, seemingly slightly out of time, by a ringing acoustic. The guitars sync up ever so briefly before a ritard brings them to a temporary halt. Then, even more out of time, Bill Berry’s drums bash the song into instant high gear, spurring Michael Stipe to begin singing the first verse less than a second later.

The verses are typical for early-to-mid period R.E.M., or rather, an outstanding example of Stipe's writing from that time, with unusual words and evocative phrases which don’t seem to make much literal sense but which combine to create a mood both emotionally powerful and characteristically unique to R.E.M., a lesson not wasted on Kurt Cobain, one of their most attentive and successful disciples.

The band themselves have said the song was originally about acid rain, but as it developed, moved away and into what was, for R.E.M., a love song. How this qualifies as a love song is anyone’s guess, but that’s just part of what made R.E.M. so magical at that point in time.

The chorus consists of Stipe crooning a plaintive but simple plea, asking the sky not to fall on him. Just as prominent in the mix, however, is Mike Mills’ backing vocals, singing a totally different and contrasting line. Mills takes over the bridge, which seems to harken back to the song’s acid rain origins, one of the bassist’s earliest starring roles in the band, and something which led to him even more widely being regarded as R.E.M.’s secret weapon.

(In reality, although great and absolutely indispensable, Mills wasn't their secret weapon, and that's without even getting into the question of whether or not a secret weapon can be a secret weapon if everyone knows about the fact that it's a secret weapon.)

The key ever so subtle ingredient which kicks the song from Great to All Time Classic? Drummer Bill Berry’s backing vocals.

Mike Mills are far more prominent, and perfect and integral, as well as considerably more copious and complex. It's always a bit of rigged game to try to figure out lyrics to early R.E.M. songs, and while Mills' vocals were generally much easier to understand, here they're sometimes buried in the mix enough to make them Stipeian. But according to a normally extremely reliable internet source, Chris Bray's fantastic R.E.M. Chord Archive, during the second verse, Mills sings:
when the rain
when the children reign
keep your conscience in the dark
melt the statues in the park
Which would not only fit in with the song's origins as an anti-acid rain screed, but as perfectly R.E.M.

During the choruses, of course, Mills clearly sings the song's original melody, now recast as a countermelody:
What is it up in the air for
If it's there for long
It's over it's over me
The combination of Stipe's keening lead vocal and Mills' competing backing vocal—really, it's almost a co-lead vocal, so intrinsic is it—is mesmerizing and irresistible.

But it’s Berry’s mumbled asides, first heard in the second chorus, which add an almost hidden yet vital contrast to the already rich tapestry. Berry, who Stipe himself claimed was the band’s most conventionally "good" vocalist, is also the one adding a low and mysterious harmony behind Mills during the bridge.

And it’s that third vocal line of Berry's during the choruses which add so much to the song. Buried during the first chorus, they’re noticeable only upon repeated listening the second time through. But it’s not until the final chorus that you can finally make out that he’s singing “it’s gonna fall.” It’s these three interlocking vocal lines which raise the song from great to masterwork.

It’s much clearer during their gorgeous acoustic rendition on MTV’s Unplugged (although Mills doesn't sing during the second verse).

For all their fame and popularity, R.E.M. is the most overlooked of any great vocal group—there are few bands ever who regularly created such intricate and lovely lines and harmonies, and none who garnered less acclaim for it. (Not that R.E.M. has ever lacked for critical esteem, or at least, not in their first 15 years, but rarely if ever are they mentioned with the likes of the Beatles and Beach Boys and, yes, even the Eagles, although they should be.) The key is that unlike virtually any of their peers, ever, they didn't just have wonderful harmonies (although they certainly had those) but multiple, disparate vocal lines which not only interweave and interlock but add additional layers to the song, sonically, melodically and lyrically—one of the many benefits of having three exceptionally strong and selfless vocalists who also happened to be unusually strong and selfless writers.

On several occasions, Mike Mills and Bill Berry recorded their backing vocals to a song without knowing what the other was going to sing. I’ve never heard it said that they took that approach with “Fall on Me.” But listening to this, I still like to think that's how this slab of pure pop perfection came about.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Levon Helm: The Heartbeat of The Band

Some time in the very early 80s, my brother brought home Bob Dylan's first greatest hits collection. I'd seen the psychedelic poster before, hanging up on the wall of a farm house in upstate New York we rented for a week once. (Perhaps the least exciting vacation ever.) I'm pretty sure when I first played the record I skipped all the way to the last track on the first side: "Like a Rolling Stone." I knew his voice was going to be weird, and it was. I knew the song was important, and sure, I could hear why that was. But what I didn't expect was for the song to be as great as it was. 

I mean, by that point, I'd been reading what I'd been told were great novels and watching what I'd been told were great movies and most of them a kid my age, really dense and boring. So I guess I was expecting the same thing with early Dylan, and was therefore very pleasantly surprised by just how asskicking and plain enjoyable it was. Great and fun? Sign me up. 

Oddly, I think my next Dylan might have been Blood on the Tracks and, again, it was one of those relatively rare (for me) experiences of clicking with a piece of music from virtually the very first second. Usually it takes me a while to warm up to something, or at least figure out how I feel about it. But with Dylan, the connection was instantaneous.

The rest of his 60s studio albums followed, from the debut up to and including John Wesley Harding. After that, I skipped ahead to Desire and then Infidels, leaving (obviously) some big caps in my collection.

One of those gaps was Dylan live. Back in those days, he only had a few live collections out—this being well before his official Bootleg series release was even a twinkle in the record company's eye—and I had none of them. Instead, my first time hearing Bob Dylan live was The Last Waltz.

We were still years away from getting cable TV, so I spent what still seems an insane amount of money—something like twenty-five bucks, I think—and ordered the VHS tape from J&R Music. I was so excited, in no small part because of the guest stars, being already an admirer of Martin Scorsese and a huge Eric Clapton fan. And sure enough, the movie was mostly enjoyable, even if Neil Young played what was then one of my least favorite of his best known songs and I'd not yet developed an appreciation for Joni Mitchell and most of all what the hell was Neil Diamond doing on that stage and how did he manage to warp the space-time continuum so that his one song lasted four decades and counting? (I'm pretty sure it's still going, even as I type.)

But my boy EC tore up his song—even if Robbie Robertson upstaged Slowhand by leaping into the breach when Clapton's strap come off and ripping a solo which at least equaled, if not bettered, anything Eric himself played that night—Van the Man was brilliant and Muddy Waters was just about the hippest, most elegant and suave damn thing I'd ever seen. And The Band themselves were simply on fire, playing their hits so energetically they very nearly ruined their more stately studio versions for me for some time.

And then came the night's final guest, Bob Dylan, wisely and unsurprisingly kept for last. The young me was disappointed that he played "Forever Young," a song I didn't know at the time and which, if I now love it and obviously get the choice, held little relevance for the not even quite a teenager yet me.

But then the song starts to wind down. The Band gets a bit quieter and maybe a bit slower. Dylan leans in and has a brief conversation with Robbie. He looks back at Levon. And then he slams into "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" in total rock and roll mode. And The Band follows perfectly, as though they'd rehearsed copiously, even as it's crystal clear they very much have not (the way Rick Danko turns away the moment the song starts is just so smooth and assured).

I had never heard Dylan play this sort of rock and roll before. Sure, his trio of rock and roll albums from the 60s were called rock and roll, and they were—the label "rock and roll" is a big one and an awful lot of things fit under it comfortably. But to a kid who'd ingested Led Zeppelin's entire oeuvre by that point, not to mention a heaping dose of Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith, those Dylan albums were wonderful...but seemed tame, sonically, by comparison. I loved them, don't get me wrong—I even loved his earliest, folk albums, including his original recording of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." But they weren't rock and roll, not the way I categorized it at the time, not the way Bruce Springsteen screaming "Adam Raised a Cain" and hammering away at his guitar solo was rock and roll.

Except that this performance was rock and roll. It was so rock and roll. There was no other way to describe it. And then he started singing. Only it was closer to shouting, yet melodically and in tune. They way he screamed the final line of each verse was spine-tingling. There was no way you could imagine that this guy had started as the world's premier folk-singer—he was far closer to Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer than Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey. 

(Not long after that, I acquired Before the Flood, the live Bob Dylan/The Band album, and it remains not only one of my favorite live albums ever, but one of my favorite releases from either Dylan or The Band. And even after The Last Waltz, I was flabbergasted by the way Dylan absolutely ripped into "Most Likely You Go Your Way." Just incendiary and bordering on abusive. Glorious.) 

Last night I turned on VH1-Classic, as I do towards the end of most nights, to see what's on and whether it's worth watching again. The 394th showing of Metal: A Headbanger's Journey was scheduled, but they'd wisely preempted it for the 23rd airing of The Last Waltz, obviously in honor of Levon Helm. I'd just happened to catch Clapton's song starting and, as usual, I watched almost the entire film from there, including Van Morrison's magnificent "Caravan" and Dylan's miniset. 

Which is when I noticed something I'd never caught before, no matter how many times I'd watched. Scorsese's close friendship with his one-time roommate Robbie Robertson is well known, and his preferential treatment of the songwriter, to the unfortunate neglect of the rest of The Band, much discussed. It's one of the film's few glaring flaws and something which has grated over the years. But maybe because Helm had just died, or maybe because he's fairly magnetic, I was watching him and Dylan, directorial decisions be damned. And what I noticed was that I wasn't the only one focusing on Levon. So was Bob Dylan. 

Check it out. As "Forever Young" winds down, Dylan and Robbie have their discussion, and then Dylan looks towards Levon to make sure he's in on the plan. And from then on until the end of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," Dylan keeps touching base with Levon. He looks at Robbie, he looks at Rick and Richard, he's checking with all The Band—or maybe just sharing the joy of making music—but it's Levon he looks at most. Even when he and Robbie switch positions, so Robbie's cagily between Dylan and Levon, Bob keeps looking past Robbie, behind him or over his shoulder, towards Levon. Again and again and again he looks back towards the drummer. 

This could mean that he's worried that the drummer's not on the same page. It could mean that the drummer's screwing up, or that he's afraid the drummer's about to screw up. Except that this is Levon Helm, who had music in his DNA, one hell of an instinctual drummer with an almost unsurpassed feel, a fine mandolin player, and every bit as great a singer as Robbie Robertson is a writer or guitarist. No one, no one, ever needed to worry about Levon on stage. It'd be like worrying that water wasn't going to be wet. 

So it wasn't that. It was just the opposite. It's clear that Dylan—often oddly underrated as a musician, for all he's lauded as an important and brilliant writer—knows exactly where the heart of The Band resides. Robbie may have been the intellectual guide, Richard the tormented soul, Rick the rock and Garth the most accomplished musician. But Levon was the heart of The Band. Of its three outstanding singers, he was the best. He was the one from the deep south, the one who'd been there at the birth of rock and roll, the one who'd absorbed the sounds of purest country and blues as he grew up—and as the drummer he had, as all drummers do, an outsized impact upon the sound and feel of the group. 

Dylan obviously knew all that. Which is why he glances at Robbie and Rick and Richard, but keeps looking past his closer friend Robbie, to touch base with Levon, to make sure they were on the same wavelength, to see how Levon's feeling, to see where he's going, to make sure he's following okay. 

Which he is. When the song winds up, somewhat sloppily, but not nearly as awkwardly as it might, you can see Bob once again look back towards Levon, having to bend forward to look past Robbie. Then he looks around at everyone else. And then Dylan moves, so he can look behind Robbie this time, in order to get a better view of the drummer. And as he and Levon wrap up the song, not quite together, Bob Dylan suddenly gives his one big genuine smile of the night. 

That's the effect Levon Helm and his music had on people. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

What's Your Favorite Colour, Baby?

In September 1988, all alone on a Friday night, I walked into an old Army hangar on the campus of the University of Connecticut to watch a band I had never heard of play music I never knew existed.

I walked out with my head spinning. And a need to shout to the world that I had just seen the coolest, craziest, most impossibly different band on the planet. Alas, I didn’t do that. Though I did tell plenty of people about it. I really had no clue how to describe them.

They were loud and fast, kind of like heavy metal but so much better than what was passing for “metal” at the time (and what was inexplicably dominating the airwaves). They were edgier, angrier, and way more real. A cross between metal and punk, with a hearty dose of funk to back it all up. They had a dervish of a lead singer whose voice wasn’t at all screeching like most metal of the day, but clear and brutal, menacing and intoxicating. They had a guitarist who seemed to perform calculus on the guitar – that was the only way I could describe his lightning-like precision and mystifying ability to still produce actual, well, music. The two-man rhythm section was tight and lethal as Muhammad Ali’s fist, somehow able to not only keep up with the mayhem, but also propel it along. It was all so unreal.

Oh. Also? They were black. All four of them. Four black men in a rock band, playing a molecularly perfect mix of heavy metal and punk and funk. In 1988, you need to understand, this just...wasn’t...common.

The band was Living Colour. And I was their new Number 1 fan.

I mean, finally! A band that could rock way harder than the countless poseurs of the day – Warrant, Winger, White Lion, whatever the hell that bullshit “supergroup” of asshat Ted Nugent and that dude from Styx was called, they were all awful. Yet the kids I went to school with at the UConn ate it up. But this – what Living Colour was doing – was the real thing.

Singer Corey Glover. Guitarist Vernon Reid. Bassist Muzz Skillings. Drummer Will Calhoun. They even had cool names. All by themselves they would lay waste to an era of hair and vanity, excess and faux rebellion. Even better, they were from New York. Can’t get more real than that! This was the sound of a new era that would send Sebastian Bach slithering back to the primordial ooze that had grown tired of having him crash there.

Only…not really. They never did get to do that. Nirvana did! Oh, did they ever—kicked all of those clowns in the balls but good a couple years later, ruining their top-of-the-bill careers and relegating them forever to the dog track of oldies circuits.

But that’s a different story for a different time. No, Living Colour didn’t change the world as I thought they would that night, and as I really thought they would a few days later when I bought their absolutely mesmerizing debut record, Vivid. But for a while they sure as hell seemed destined to. They had it all – talent, attitude and a boatload of the anger that has always created so much of the best of rock-n-roll.

I’ll admit, the night I saw them, before owning the album, I walked out of there not exactly humming the tunes. Even though yes, they were hummable, I would come to realize. But it was more of an explosion to me, like watching a fireworks show that went on 10 feet from you for 75 straight minutes. Do you remember each individual starburst of magic? No. But you sure as hell recall how the night felt, and looked. And, in this case, sounded.

When I did get the album, my instant love affair was confirmed within seconds of the opening track, “Cult of Personality,” a razor slash through every inch of phoniness the plastic 80s had brought us. (“I exploit you, still you love me.”) These songs were three-dimensional, apparitions that jumped from the CD player and splatter-painted your walls like Jackson Pollock. And they all said something.

“Cult of Personality” and its rollercoaster of sonic mayhem was their statement of purpose, an announcement to all that this wasn’t anything you had heard before, and to get the hell out of their way.

“Middle Man” and “Glamour Boys” were fascinating indictments of the industry, with Muzz doing things on the bass to backup Vernon’s SAT-level solos that could have gotten him arrested in some parts.

“Desperate People” was the rawest look at the failure of the Reagan-era War on Drugs I had ever heard, each chord change thumping like an axe-handle to the solar plexus. “Which Way To America?” and “Open Letter (to a Landlord)” addressed poverty and helplessness with the same ferocity, the latter demonstrating how melodic they could be, how they were still able to tear the sounds down to their very roots. (“You can tear a building down, but you can’t erase a memory.”)

Hell, they even had a great cover of a great fellow New York band, “Memories Can’t Wait” by Talking Heads. Black people listening to Talking Heads? Black people playing Talking Heads? Black people had heard of the Talking Heads? I was so delightfully, deliciously, delovelely ferschimmeled by all this I could barely contain myself. (Remember, I was only 20 and wasn’t nearly as versed in the cross-racial history of rock-n-roll as I should have been).

And then there was the song, out of all this, that remains my favorite. Towards the end of an album that was such a wall of firepower came “Broken Hearts,” a…ballad? From these guys??? No. No way.


An exaggerated hip-hop tinged carnival barker-like opening, replete with a distorted harmonica and snares, suddenly turned into gorgeous, impeccably delivered soul, Glover’s voice snaking through the air as if Marvin Gaye had temporarily taken over his body.

A breeze reminds me of a changing time and place,
A tear that takes forever rolls down a timeless face.”

Are you freaking kidding me? A line like that in the middle of everything else, so perfect and pretty and seductive? “Broken Hearts” was Living Colour’s way of telling the listeners, “Not only are we tougher than you, but we can be sweeter, too.” And they were right.

Fame came fast for the band. They won awards, made popular videos, appeared on SNL and Arsenio. Got a great gig opening for the Rolling Stones on their 1989 World Tour and, in the opinion of at least this now-aging rocker, blew the Glimmer Twins off the stage. People began talking about that “black rock band” and how fast and crazy they were. And whenever they did I wanted to ask, “Were you there? Were you with me that night in the armory? Did you see it too?” Hoping someone would say yes. A few did and we relished reliving the experience. Most didn’t and that night was left for me to remember as I was, alone and awestruck.

Sadly it didn’t really last, the fame. Their next album in 1990, Time’s Up, had similar moments of brilliance, but was just a little too sprawling and disjointed. Skillings would leave the band and be replaced by a true marksman on the bass, Doug Wimbish (from MY hometown of Bloomfield, CT!), but the band was missing something it had back a few years earlier. Some…thing that rock bands sometimes hold onto, sometimes don’t. Danger? Maybe. Fear of failure? Possibly. A marrow-level connection with each other and the music? Perhaps. I saw Living Colour twice after seeing them open for the Stones, and I enjoyed what I saw each time, but I never saw again what I saw that first time. And hey, maybe that’s on me, as they surely didn’t get less talented. But they seemed to come and go like those fireworks I thought of when I first saw them. Astounding but fleeting.

Did they change the music world? Perhaps, at least a little. Again, Nirvana and their pals from the Pacific Northwest would put an end to the glam stranglehold, but Living Colour’s proof that you could blow it out without compromise and without being afraid to bend genres and styles played a part in shaping the next generation. Listen to Vivid (and some of Time’s Up and their 3rd effort, Stain) and you hear traces of R&B and ska and reggae and new wave and fusion alongside locomotive-paced hard rock, as well as many of the wall-of-fuzz meets pop stylings later heard on Nevermind and In Utero. Music saw more and more cross pollination in the 90s and later at the century’s turn. Maybe Living Colour had something to do with it. Even if they likely won’t ever get into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. (And sidenote? They should.)

Still? Living Colour had it all on that September night 24 years ago – the look, the sneer, the talent and the vision. And to me, it looked like they had everything they needed to change the face of music.

For a while they did, and the future seemed to belong just to them. It didn’t, as it turns out. But Living Colour left a hell of a mark that will be there forever. Beautiful. Tough. Relentless.


Jack of All Trades

“When the blue sky breaks, it feels like world’s gonna change.”

There are many, many things that have made me (both of us here at Reason to Believe, really) a devotee of Bruce Springsteen’s music for the last 30 years or so. For starters, and for obvious, he writes and performs great music. His ear for what he does well and what sounds right when he lays it down is mind-bogglingly good. In nearly 40 years of recording he has never had a misstep. Even his “weakest” efforts (Human Touch, Working on a Dream) have first-rate material, and the albums as a whole easily rate at at least the 3-star level (going by Rolling Stone’s well-established 5-star system).

Another obvious reason is his unsurpassed ability as a performer. There were a few of those who came before him who maybe did an even better job live (James Brown comes foremost to mind), but really none since (Prince very well may be his equal, but I can’t say he outdoes Bruce onstage). I saw him most recently in Boston in late March and he played a phenomenal 25-song set that lasted 2 hours and 50 minutes. And the shows have only gotten longer since. The man is 62 years old, and the band is still airtight, his energy is always full-tilt and his voice never ever weakens. He’s been doing this for 40+ years now and he may be an even better performer now than he was 15-25-35 years ago. And again, the man is 62!

But then there’s the voice. And I don’t mean his singing voice (which is still rock solid and loaded with depth and pathos, BTW). But I am talking about the voice he gives his characters, the way he chooses to portray them. It has been steady, by and large, since he first entered the studio to record Greetings From Asbury Park. Not every character is the same—not even close—but most seem to have some commonality in who they are and what they want.

The people he sings about and for are workers and dreamers, realists and believers. They are not perfect, and not always particularly virtuous. Whether they are narrators bathed in romance (Spanish Johnny in “Incident on 57th Street,” the narrator in “Born to Run” and throughout that whole album, the youthful imp in “Growin’ Up”), in their darkest of hours (most of Nebraska, the narrator in “Racing in the Street,” the forlorn lost soul in “Long Walk Home”) or somewhere in between, the voices of most of his characters all seem to come from the same place. The ones who struggle still want to do good. The ones who do wrong seem to know right from wrong. The ones who are pushed, pulled, beaten, discarded, let down, dragged or torn apart from something important to them are fully aware of this, but still know who they are and long for a place that believes in them.

Like the narrator of “Badlands,” his first song of hard realism that came after a damaging three-year lawsuit with his old manager that kept him out of the studio for way too long. The singer is angry and his youthful enthusiasm is gone (“I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand…I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes…”) but he is still holding out hope, even if he’s not counting on it (“I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these Badlands.”)

As much as anything, that is why I admire Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. The voice with which he sings is so staggeringly consistent.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. “Jack of All Trades.” The best song off his excellent new Wrecking Ball album and one of the five best songs he has recorded in the last 20 years.

“Jack of All Trades” is the fourth song on an album that is rife with anger and frustration about the death of the working class at the hands of estimable ruling class for the past decade. Characters on this album are unemployed or underemployed, they feel cheated by the “robber barons” (he actually does use that term) and the fat-cats, and they’re pissed off. Some want to start committing crimes the way Wall Street has criminalized itself for the past 10 years. Some just shout from the rooftops “THIS IS WRONG” and wonder what’s happened to the country they believed in. Some see the potential for change and hope that their voices are heard (interestingly, as the album moves along through its 11 tracks, the “hopeful” tone slowly overtakes much of the anger, something I don’t believe is a coincidence.).

But throughout the album, people don’t just feel cheated and blindsided—as the 99% have so painstakingly tried to say for the past year and more, they have been cheated and blindsided.

The narrator on “Jack of All Trades” gets this, and while his tone is not necessarily anger, he’s not happy either. A tradesman looking for work, any work, to pay the bills and support his family, he stays tried and true to the belief, “We’ll be all right.” He sings it over and over again—at the end of nearly every verse, he first states his case (“I’m a Jack of all trades”) and then offers hope to his loved ones (“We'll be all right.”) Whether he is trying to reassure them or himself is left for the listener to guess. But he’s a worker and he’s not afraid of a hard day’s work. He just wants someone to let him work, and the results will speak for themselves.

The song is hushed and gorgeous, following a single piano melody that loosely resembles “Color My World” throughout, with an orchestral backing that slowly builds as the nearly six minute song progresses. Bruce’s voice is hard, deliberate. He sings as a man who’s tired, but needs to work.

I’ll mow your lawn
Clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades
Honey, we’ll be alright

I’ll hammer the nails
And I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up
Until she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

After backstory and simple statement of need in these first two verses, Bruce goes deeper and more universal on the first bridge that follows, with a sentiment so achingly lovely that it seems to hang on long after it is done, thanks in part to Curtis Ramm’s ethereal trumpet solo that follows and takes the song up into the clouds.

A hurricane blows
Brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
Feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other like Jesus said that we might
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

That is stunningly brilliant writing. And can’t we all see it? Don’t we all see the hope in a blue sky after a storm? Can’t that bring a feeling of optimism, however fleeting, that if nature can resolve itself and bring the sunshine, can’t we too start to help each other? Bruce leans rightfully on Gospel teachings here to bring the point home—yes, this is exactly what Jesus taught, so why can’t we do it? And why can’t we believe it?

He tells us why in the next verse.

The banker man grows fatter
The working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again
They’ll bet your life
I’m a Jack of all trades
Darling we’ll be alright

It’s all happened before, it’ll happen again. We’ve heard sentiments like this before from Bruce Springsteen—the impediment to getting the downtrodden what they need. We heard it in “Born in the U.S.A.” in the voice of the forgotten Vietnam veteran (“…10 years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”), from the frustrated workers in “My Hometown” and “Youngstown,” and from the virtual Last Man Standing (“Radio Nowhere,” “Last To Die,” “My City of Ruin.”) And we keep hearing it, because this is the way the world treats the ones who don’t make the rules.

We don’t get resolution in “Jack of All Trades”—and I’m not sure we could, or should— but we do get a tiny sliver of optimism mixed into the cold, brutal reality in the final two verses.

Now sometimes tomorrow
comes soaked in treasure and blood
Here we stood the drought
Now we’ll stand the flood
There’s a new world coming
I can see the light
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

So you use what you’ve got
And you learn to make do
You take the old,
you make it new
If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

And then, after nearly 5 minutes of simple piano, weary vocals and subtle orchestration, we are stunned upright by one of the most perfect, chilling guitar solos ever recorded. Guest star Tom Morello takes it and rather than angry shredding, he gives us melodic, understated perfection, with crystallized notes that shoot like a flare from the small, cruel world the narrator sits in and attempt to awaken and inform every creature on earth who may possibly see or hear. It is the final battle cry after the exhausted effort, the last ounce of energy available, and it lands “Jack of All Trades” somewhere deep inside your chest, where it is sure to stay awhile.

No, it’s not exactly hope the song leaves you with as Morello’s solo draws it to a close, and it’s not angst and it’s certainly not emptiness. What it is is what we all long to have at the end of one more long, hard day. Pride, and a stubborn belief in ourselves that we’ll see it through to another one.

We’ll be all right. Hopefully, we all will.

Van the Man and Yarrrrragh

Levon Helm just died. The news only broke a few hours ago, but fans were prepared by the previous day's reports of his impending death.

Robbie Robertson got all the acclaim, and not without justification—he wrote the majority of the songs and is a stunning guitarist. But Levon was the real linchpin of the band. Robbie wrote the words—massively inspired by Levon—but Levon Helm was the one who gave them life. A great drummer, a great singer, a great musician. The world is a lesser place today.

This all put me in mind of a post I wrote a few years ago about one of my favorite Band performances—a performance, ironically, not of a Band song and not sung by any of the Band's three fine singers, but by one of the very few singers who was at least their equal. 

So I was channel surfing and I stumbled across The Last Waltz. Levon Helm was giving Martin Scorsese a little history lesson, which dragged me in; Levon's interviews are far and away the best in the film.

I planned on then turning it off, but immediately afterward Van Morrison came on to perform with The Band, which meant I had no choice but to keep watching. Sure, I own the film and, yeah, I've seen this part at least a half-dozen times, but that's not nearly enough. Not for a performance this great.

I wrote about it before, and you can read it here, if you'd like. I'm going to repeat some of what I said, but watching it again a year and a half later was…well, it wasn't like seeing it for the first time, but I noticed things I'd never seen before.

Van is just incendiary. He's on fire. He is Music Personified in one fat little Irish bundle of Yarrrrragh.

He sings "Caravan," a song which is not just the best song about radio ever but one of my personal all-time favorite reasons for being alive. And on this night Van is beyond belief. And the song is, as always, magnificent, as is The Band’s playing of it.

But here's the thing: where the words are normally moving, here they mean nothing. They are simply syllables he's singing, utterly devoid of their initial or indeed any meaning at all. The syllables are nothing more than a vehicle for his voice, his voice being simply a vehicle his body is using to convey his soul. Something like a fractal, the sounds he's making contain all the beauty that is and ever had been and ever will be in the universe.

Yet the words themselves are barely comprehensible at times. Which doesn't matter. They’re wonderful lyrics but in this case they don't need to be intelligible. You don't need to understand a supernova to be overwhelmed by it.

It's fascinating to watch him watching the band. For a musician who so clearly trusts the muse, he's also aware that playing with a band is team sport. This is his song: he wrote it, he recorded it, and it's one of his signature pieces; he owns this song in every sense. Yet playing here with a different group of musicians, you can see him feeling his way. He's good friends with The Band—they were neighbors and drinking buddies up in Woodstock. But it's not his band, and there's a certain tension there, albeit a happy and productive one.

When it comes to the coda, the "turn it up!" section, Robbie Robertson starts dropping tasty little bits of guitar obbligato in. Twice Van goes to sing, pulling the microphone up to his mouth, only to pause and lower it again, waiting for the right place to dive in. There's no wrong place, per se—it's all the same set of chords over and over. But just because there's no wrong place doesn't doesn’t mean that there's not a right place.

And finally he finds it. And off he goes, tentatively the first time, feeling his way in, but pleased, knowing he's on the right track, murmuring, "yeah." The next time he's sure of his footing, and starts scatting. And he and The Band are simply locked together.

And then to the accompaniment of a musical sting he suddenly throws his arm up in the air and you can hear the crowd go wild. Again he does it and again the cheers. The camera pans and you can see The Band—or least Robbie, Levon and Rick Danko—are all laughing. Four, five times he does this, and then finally the camera pulls back far enough that you can see what he's really doing: he's kicking his leg in time to the sting. He does a little prefatory bunnyhop and then the kick.

There are many musicians with outstanding physical grace, such as Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, Bono and Kurt Cobain, and this is without even going into amazing dancers such as James Brown and Michael Jackson and Prince.

Van Morrison is not one of them. He's chubby and stubby and has perfect looks for radio.

But it doesn't matter. At all. Not one bit. Because this isn't about beauty, it's about joy, music and art and life and joy, which makes even his ungainliness beautiful. Still ridiculous but impossibly beautiful and oh so perfect. Just frosting on the cake that is the universe. All of which, for four and a half minutes, are contained in the music pouring out of one pudgy little Irish troubadour.

Originally published at Left of the Dial

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Warren Zevon

"I'm drinking Heartbreak Motor Oil and Bombay Gin...straight from the bottle, I'm twisted again." - Warren Zevon, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (1976)

While working in a country club kitchen in Simsbury, CT in 1986 during my freshman year of college, a co-worker lent me this odd orange-covered album that came out in the late 1970s, with a sorta creepy looking bespectacled man leering – and I do mean leering – out from the cover like a craven stalker.

“You gotta hear this. There’s a song about a rapist. And a song about monsters. Oh! And a song about a guy with no head!” I was told, excitedly.

Ooo-kay, I thought. Can’t I just keep listening to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live 1975-85? Or Abbey Road? Or even the somewhat new-ish Bob Dylan Biograph?

Trust me, he said.

I did. And I am glad I did.

The album, if you haven’t guessed, was Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, a 1978 release from mayhap the wildest man rock-n-roll had seen to date. Not only is it Zevon’s best-known album, but it is also lauded by many as his best.

It’s hard to argue against that (though more on this in a minute). Zevon was a songwriter extraordinaire out of the explosive Southern California collective of the 1970s, one who lived as hard a life as anyone who ever graced FM radio in the rock-n-roll era. Born the son of a Russian gangster, he was the oddball brooding in the back of the classroom while writing pulp horror and devouring long-forbidden comics and the most craven forms of comedy known in the pre-hippy 1960s. And it all showed up in his wonderfully perverse lyrics – murderers and mercenaries, screwups and ne’er-do-wells, outlaws and outcasts and no one who ever sat at the popular kids’ table in school.

The songs on his Excitable Boy album were as off the wall as he was known to be, but their disparate nature was equally perplexing.  “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a sinister piano ballad about, well, a headless Thompson gunning-mercenary named Roland, seeking vengeance on the man who blew his head off. Meanwhile, “Tenderness on the Block” was an irony-free Jackson Browne-tinged tale of letting your little girl grow up. “Excitable Boy,” the title track and his most infamous song, was about a rapist murderer, performed gleefully as a jaunty pop singalong, while “Veracruz” was a tender and lovely historic-based ballad.

Best of all were the two songs towards the end of Sides 1 and 2, back when “album sides” was actually a thing. “Werewolves of London” – his most famous tune – was a galumphing romp about scary hairy monsters roaming the Soho streets, while “Lawyers Guns and Money” – which closed the record –  could have actually read as a Zevon biography, an unrepentant fuckup who kept finding himself in peril and begging for rescue. (“I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk. Send lawyers, guns and money – Dad get me out of this!”)

And then there was this – man, could this guy play! His voice was whiskey baroque, deep and menacing yet bell-clear and, when he needed it to be, vulnerable. A virtually peerless piano and keyboard player and a wildly underrated guitarist, Zevon created songs with arrangements were at once spare yet perfectly melodic, with subtle nuances and hooks to always keep you guessing.  This wasn’t shredder rock-n-roll to be played to pumped up stadium crowds – Warren Zevon was more brooding gunfighter than rock star. He was the guy sipping whiskey in the back of the saloon that you were always a little hesitant to approach, because while he looked harmless, something seemed deeply dangerous about him.

He relished the persona, and while the masses never took to him the way they did direct contemporaries like Jackson Browne (one of his greatest friends and supporters) and the Eagles (or for that matter Linda Ronstadt, who turned a few of Zevon’s songs into megahits), he was beloved in the industry and treated as a jewel, self-destructiveness aside. Recently I read I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, written somewhat affectionately but 100% honestly by his ex-wife Crystal. You know the little misfit kid who begs his parents or teachers for one last chance to do right? Warren Zevon seemed to live his life banking on chance number 500. Like Bullwinkle with the magic hat, this time for sure!

I’ve gone on for a bit now, probably too long – hey, you should have stopped me! But really want to focus for a few minutes on the album hardly anyone ever thinks about when they think about Warren Zevon (those that even do, anyway). If they don’t think about Excitable Boy, they probably think of his 1987 comeback (from a near-decade drug haze) Sentimental Hygiene, a brilliant record ably backed by the members of R.E.M. Or maybe they think of his sad, strident farewell, The Wind, released just before he died in 2003 and with tracks filled with such hard-earned beauty you can practically hear the breath leaving his body.

But seldom do people talk about his first album in 1976, Warren Zevon. And all it was at the time was the most audacious debut by any American artist since Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? a decade earlier.

Largely piano-based and produced by Jackson himself with a lushness Bob Dylan never dreamed of before hooking up with The Band, Warren Zevon was the masterpiece before the masterpiece. An 11-song collection that zigged and zagged across the forboding Southern California coastline – with occasional stops in the heartland yet ultimately landing on the Pacific’s edge –  traipsing constantly between hopefulness and despair.

The album attacked myths and legends – angrily rebuking Norman Mailer (whose gonzo life no-doubt mirrored Zevon’s in some ways) with “The French Inhaler” about Mailer’s savaging book on Marilyn Monroe, and offering a mighty defense of the James Gang – stalwarts of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War – with the sympathetic album-opener “Frank and Jesse James.” He examined despondent addiction with “Carmelita,” yet did so against the backdrop of the sweetest little love story you could imagine. He sent up California living over and over again, from the rabid self-obsession (“Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which Linda later devoured) to the apocalyptic allure of the closing one-two punch of “Join Me In L.A.” (with Bonnie Raitt’s singing behind him) and the masterful tale of woe that closed the record, “Desperados Under the Eaves.” He even sent up faux evangelism with “Mohammed’s Radio,” yet did so in gorgeous, radio-friendly fashion (no pun intended), featuring none other than Stevie Nicks on backing vocals just before she would take part in the recording of a little record called Rumours.

How the album has been set-aside and largely forgotten about through time is beyond me – Zevon never really hit it big, I know, so perhaps the listening public only had room for one of his records.  But no other great debut in rock’s glorious history ever gave the listener a clearer message on what the artist was capable of doing than his first record.

He could make you laugh with nihilistic rants like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” he could make you cry with aching ballads of loss like “Hasten Down the Wind.” Or he could make you feel joy and pain, comfort and confusion, empathy and disgust all at once on tracks like “Carmelita” and “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” and the formerly mentioned “Desperados Under the Eaves.” Every note played with earnestness and conviction. Even if you wouldn’t trust the guy around anything more deadly than a toaster, you somehow believed him when he sang, “Some may have and some may not, God I’m thankful for what I’ve got” on the shuffling “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path.” Because you wanted to believe him, even if you knew he would eventually let you down.

Warren Zevon admittedly let a lot of people down in his too-short life. But seldom the listener. And back when it all started, on his unforgettable debut record, there was no telling what he might do next. And that was a good, good thing. Even from poor, poor pitiful him.