Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Moonlight Motel

Imagine you're Bruce Springsteen. Just for a moment, imagine that.

You've written "New York City Serenade." You've written "Jungleland." You’ve written "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Wreck on the Highway" and "Reason to Believe" and "My Hometown" and "Valentine’s Day." You’ve written "My Beautiful Reward" and you’ve written "My City of Ruins." You’ve written "Matamoros Banks" and "Devil's Arcade."

You've written some of the greatest album closers in the history of rock and roll. And not just because you're one of the greatest writers in the history of rock and roll—although you are—but because you not only understand the importance of sequencing, but are also a master of it.

And yet somehow, after all those—or perhaps because of them—years later you are still capable of writing "Moonlight Motel."

And then…you sit on it for five years. You just leave it in the can.

Because you're Bruce Springsteen.

If you're any other artist, you rush the thing out. Maybe you don't even wait for the rest of the album. You shove the song in the world's face and you scream, "Lookit! Lookit! Look what I can do! Look what I did!"

But you're Bruce Springsteen. So you don't do that. You just...wait. Until you've done a bunch of other stuff and you feel like the time is right to finish up this project and you do and it's a damn masterpiece.

And not of course it is. It's not a given.

There are a lot of truly great artists—absolute titans—who peaked and never again came close to being that great again. In fact, perhaps only Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash have ever come close to doing what Bruce Springsteen has done this century, which is to continue to write and record and release albums which can stand shoulder to shoulder with their very finest work—their very finest work being fine indeed: masterpieces, in fact.

The [mainly younger] guy who once wrote things like:
My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned
You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
It was a small town bank
It was a mess
Well, I had a gun
You know the rest
They prosecuted some poor sucker in these United States
For teaching that man descended from the apes
They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight
If they’d seen me chasin’ you, sugar, through the jungle last night
They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re dyin’ now
The hands that built this country we’re always trying to keep down
If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true
Ma, you couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through
41 shots—and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river to the other side
41 shots—my boots caked in mud
We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up
As I lift my groceries into my car
I turn back for a moment and catch a smile
That blows this whole fucking place apart
Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time, to find we're just like all the rest
can still—can now—write a verse like this:
Now the pool's filled with empty, eight-foot deep
Got dandelions growin' up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign, says, "Children, be careful how you play"
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret promised I'd never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
Obviously, as always, context matters. Coming from one of the most popular American musicians ever, after a long career, delivered in a weathered voice, makes it all the more powerful. But this would be a great song if it were written by some one-hit-wonder.

And the only thing that could be even better than all this?

Is that he says he's going into the studio with the E Street Band soon for a new album.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Twist and Shout

I used to work with a guy who had pretty good musical taste if a bit narrow perhaps: he seemed to mainly like stuff from the 60s and 70s and although we didn't talk a ton about music, I don't recall him ever mentioning anything more recent than those fine decades. But he was a Bob Dylan fanatic, so there's that.

But he did once mention, approvingly, another colleague's remark that the Who were unquestionably the greatest rock and roll band ever, with the reasoning being that the Rolling Stones were a blues/R&B band, and the Beatles were, by their own admission, a pop group. Meaning of The Big Three of British bands of the 1960s, only The Who were really a rock band.

Which I think is a fine illustration of the proverb "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Yes. It's true, the Beatles—especially, I think, John Lennon—called themselves a pop group. As was the custom of the day. (Along with wearing an onion on your belt.)
"When I was a Beatle, I thought we were the best fucking group in the god-damned world. And believing that is what made us what we were... whether we call it the best rock 'n roll group or the best pop group or whatever."
Well, there 'tis. Even John Lennon himself called the Beatles a pop band.

Then again, Pete Townshend referred to The Who as a pop band writing and playing pop music:
For six years on our pub and club circuit we had first supported, and later played alongside, some extraordinarily talented bands. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers were so authentic an R&B band that it was hard to believe they weren’t American. The Hollies, Searchers, Kinks and Pirates changed the face of British pop, not to mention The Beatles or Stones. The 1964 Searchers’ hit ‘Needles and Pins’ created the jangling guitar sound later picked up by The Byrds. The Kinks had brought Eastern sounds to British pop as early as 1965 with the hypnotically beautiful ‘See My Friend’. And there were dozens of other transformative influences all around us.
What had happened to The Who’s blues roots? Had we ever really had any? Did John and Keith feel a strong connection to blues and jazz? Was Roger only interested in the kind of hard R&B that provided a foil for his own masculine angst? Though we enjoyed our recording sessions, The Who seemed to be turning to solipsism for inspiration. My songs were pop curios about subjects as wide-ranging as soft pornography and masturbation, gender-identity crises, the way we misunderstood the isolating factors of mental illness, and – by now well-established – teenage-identity crises and low self-esteem issues.
The Who had worked ceaselessly for almost four years. We had enjoyed a number of hit singles. I had delved deeply into my personal history and produced a new kind of song that seemed like shallow pop on the surface, but below could be full of dark psychosis or ironic menace. I had become adept at connecting pop songs together in strings. Still, The Who needed a large collection of such songs if we were to rise in the music business at a time when the audience was expanding its collective consciousness, and the album was taking over from the pop single.
My songs for Tommy still had the function of pop singles: to reflect and release, prefigure and inspire, entertain and engage. But that vein – of promoting singles apart from a whole album – had been thoroughly mined by the time we released Tommy. Change was necessary for us, which of course meant taking a lot of criticism on the chin. If the naïve, workmanlike songs I wrote immediately before Tommy had been hits I might never have felt the need to try something else. I might have kept my operatic ambitions private. There’s nothing I admire more than a collection of straightforward songs, linked in mood and theme only by a common, unspecific artistic thesis.
In this surge of hope and optimism, The Who set out to articulate the joy and rage of a generation struggling for life and freedom. That had been our job. And most of the time we pulled it off. First we had done this with pop singles, later with dramatic and epic modes, extended musical forms that served as vehicles for social, psychological and spiritual self-examination for the rock ’n’ roll generation.
Even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards referred to the Rolling Stones writing and recording pop songs:
I knew ["Sympathy for the Devil"] was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It’s all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different.
I like the song ["Wild Horses"]. It’s an example of a pop song. Taking this cliché “wild horses,” which is awful, really, but making it work without sounding like a cliché when you’re doing it.
But those are simply the opinions of the artists in question and who are they to be considered experts?

No, I think the only thing that matters is the factual record. Which is to say, watch this live performance from the Beatles' first U.S. tour:

There they are, a pop band covering a pop song...but there is no way to listen to John Lennon's vocals and say that they're anything other than rock and roll. And that's before you even talk about the way Ringo is bashing the kit—25 years before the grunge explosion, there's Ringo showing Dave Grohl and the rest the proper way to play the ride cymbal (which is to crash it relentlessly, apparently).

Pop group. Please.

(Not that there's anything wrong with being a pop group.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Bastards of Young

one hell of a function
I have a confession to make, one I've never told anyone, even co-blogger DT: I never liked "Bastards of Young" all that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I liked it okay. Of course I did: it was the Replacements. But on the magnificent Tim, I lumped it in with the likes of "Lay It Down, Clown" and "Dose of Thunder" rather than with, say, "Little Mascara," "Here Comes a Regular" and of course "Left of the Dial." But there was something about it I just found always threw me off a bit.

It was DT, of all things, who got me to come around to it, but pointing out the brilliance of Paul Westerberg's lyrics, something I hadn't paid a lot of attention to on this one. And brilliant they unquestionably are.

God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons
Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground, there'll ain't no beer tonight
Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function
It beats pickin' cotton or waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Now the daughters and the sons
Unwillingness to claim us, ya got no war to name us
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
If it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Daughters and the sons
Take it, it's yours

There's so much there. First of all—and I'm not being facetious here—that in 1985 Westerberg made sure to include both males and females there in the chorus was unusually woke. But beyond that, the deftness of the lyrics was, even by Westerberg's standards, remarkable. The LP's "Kiss Me on the Bus" had already proved that if post-punk had a Cole Porter it was, against all odds, this high school dropout turned janitor turned college rock icon. But the lyrics here, for all their caustic incisiveness, never came within a lightyear of mere cleverness for cleverness's sake. There's a wounded heart on the sleeve quality to them that's undeniable, starting with the very first line:
God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
As if it weren't already obvious just how self-referential this was, the next two lines make that abundantly clear:
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
And it holds out little hope that things will get better, as a later slogan (correctly, generally) put it:
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
(Although perhaps that's not entirely true, or perhaps Westerberg himself thought he was painting too bleak a picture, as the song ends with the repeated exhortation to "take it, it's yours.")

Once you become aware of these lines, the song can never again be viewed as just another of their rave-ups, a chance for genius but untameable guitarist Bob Stinson to wreak his glorious havoc.

(Also, take note of the quiet yet oddly powerful discordant sound right after "die to please"—perhaps a guitar pick scraping one of the wound strings?)

But it was only a few days ago, listening to the live Inconcerated set that came with the Dead Man's Pop boxset that I realized what it was that had originally thrown me off for so long. It was the mathematical imbalance of almost the entire song.

The song opens with two bars of solo guitar before the rhythm section bashes into play. The entire band (well, theoretically—Bob Stinson apparently only played the [amazing] solos on the record, all of which he recorded in a single afternoon) then plays for five more measures before slipping into the first verse.

The first verse itself is made up of two 7-bar phrases, for a total (obviously) of 14 measures. Get that? This isn't a 12-bar blues nor is it a standard 8-bar pop song format. Although it generally uses the same chords in blues, albeit just with standard major (and one minor) chords and not the dominant seventh chords typical of the blues, it's clearly not a blues, as it doesn't follow the standard blues changes anywhere.

It feels more or less like a typical pop formula, except by going with 7 rather than 8 measures per section, it throws the listener off, by setting up expectations which are then tossed aside, as the next section is suddenly rushed into, rather than gliding in right on time, as with the overwhelming majority of pop songs.

But then there's the chorus, which has 12 measures and not the standard 8, nor the now semi-expected 7. So once again, we're off-balance.

We then go into the bridge, a staple of pop music, and here they give it 4 bars. A nice round number, except that as the bridge is often called (especially by Brits such as the Beatles) "the middle eight" it's, once again, a very much not normal length.

Prodded by the greatly underrated drumming of Chris Mars, Bob Stinson then rips into one of his signature solos. But even here, even with the band member most notoriously resistant to trying new things, the solo takes up 11 measures: not 7, not 4, not 12.

Then we're back for the final verse. And the first two lines take up the by-now expected 7 measures, but the last two take up a normally normal but to us by now abnormal 8 measures. Usually that would be unremarkable, but by this time the listener has almost started to become accustomed to the unbalanced nature of the number of bars, so it feels like time is stretched uncomfortably, the tension rising almost but not quite imperceptibly.

Then we're into the chorus, which should be 12 measures, going by the form the first two times it was played. But this time it's an almost expectedly askew 11 measures and not 12...the first time through. This time the chorus is repeated, albeit sans lyrics, and this time it's only 10 measures, not 12 or 11, thus kneecapping even our already abbreviated chorus unexpectedly.

And then the outro comes smashing into our faces out of nowhere, an almost musical equivalent of the visual spectacle of the Who destroying their instruments.

Almost everything about the song is aslant, a musical representation of the scarred, twisted world the lyrics depict. Not bad for a band of drunken clowns, as they were often viewed (including sometimes, sadly, by the band themselves).

Altogether, it's an astonishing recording of an astonishing composition, and rock-solid proof all by itself of why so many think they were one of the greatest American bands ever, as well as a terribly sad example of why they should have been so much better known, and how much they could have accomplished had they not been so insistent upon shooting themselves in both feet every time a decent opportunity came their way.