Wednesday, November 27, 2019

57 Channels (and Nothin' On)

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

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

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

I mean, come on: that's cool.

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

And hardcore Springsteen fans did not care for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was, to my ears, utterly glorious.

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

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

Friday, November 8, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Straight Time

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

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

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

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


Mary’s watching him, yes. But why?

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Famous Final Scene

It's weird to see Seger relegated to the AOR arena-rock dinosaur category by people who've listened to music made since 1990; sometimes it feels like the only ones who give ol' Bob his due are the ones who loved him in the 70s and 80s and have pretty much stopped listening to anything since. And it's jarring, because he was so big—in the late 70s, he was more commercially successful than Bruce Springsteen, despite really only breaking through because (the younger) Springsteen paved the way.

But Seger is an authentic artist and a true believer; he was already making records when the Beatles were putting out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he wrote one of the all-time great anti-war songs, "2+2=?" (which is an absolute banger), and his first authentic hit, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" came out in 1969. He was a local star who time and again almost seemed like he might hit the big time without ever actually doing so. Until the kid from New Jersey sent the record labels looking for the Next New Dylan™ and lo and behold Capitol discovered they had a real live peer already signed to their roster. Live Bullet set the stage and Night Moves blew the damn thing wide open.

And why not? As Dave Marsh wrote, only Springsteen and Jackson Browne could write as well as Seger, but Seger could obviously sing rings around them both. Which is no slight on either of them: Bob Seger can sing rings around all but a tiny handful of white rock and roll singers ever. As Bruce Springsteen himself said recently, "Really great singers, people who have a really great instrument, like...Bob Seger has a great instrument."

(It turns out that Seger himself doesn't entirely disagree; he's got a nickname for his own voice, and that nickname is "The Mountain" and it's completely and totally warranted.)

Ironically, that long-ago chart success and that amazing voice may have actually served to ultimately obscure just how excellent a writer Bob Seger is. In fact, I think Bob Seger may be the most underrated great writer ever. There are a number of reasons for that. In part, I suspect his midwestern roots didn’t allow him to seriously discuss his writing, the way Springsteen or Browne did theirs. (In this way, he reminds me, oddly, of The Replacements.)

He wasn’t nearly as prolific as Springsteen—again, that's not a slight, since there have been very few artists ever who were as prolific as Springsteen was for the first few decades of his recording career—nor as obviously erudite as Browne. And unlike those guys Seger almost always had at least a few covers per LP, which I suspect had a psychological effect on the listeners and their view of the artist.

And when you heard Seger sing a song, the very first thing you noticed wasn't the guitar or the drums or the arrangement or the lyrics: it was that amazing voice.

Finally, his final few songs to really capture the public's attention were the likes of the absolutely terrible "Shakedown," one of his worst songs ever, and which naturally therefore went to #1. Then there was "Like a Rock," which was turned into a commercial at the exact time that things like "selling out" were a topic among passionate rock fans. And finally, there was "Old Time Rock and Roll," which he co-wrote but didn't take a songwriting credit for, meaning he wasn't able to stop it from being used for...well, everything, including more terrible commercials.

(And then he took years off to hang out with his family, and disappearing from the public eye at that point in time certainly wasn't the best move from a critical point of view.)

All of which means that while Bob Seger was ginormous in the late 70s and early 80s, he's basically unknown by younger listeners, unless they know him as the guy who sang that cheesy reactionary "Old Time Rock and Roll" that's been used to hawk burgers and such. Which is a shame, because he should be viewed as a rock and roll Willie Nelson or Muddy Waters or something: an artist who once upon a time was one of the very best ever, whose best work absolutely stands the test of time.

 "Feel Like a Number" perfectly captures how powerless and faceless one can feel in modern society. "Night Moves" is a remarkably powerful yet unsentimental look back at the freedom and naivete of youth. "Turn the Page" allows the listener to actually sympathize with how difficult being a traveling musician can be, while not denying the benefits. "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" pulls off the difficult feat of paying tribute to the music itself while not sentimentalizing it and yet managing to be a great example of its power. "Against the Wind" is a simply devastating look back at the roads not taken, and which really probably should have been. And there are a dozen other examples just as good.

But as I said, it seems as though he's perhaps done with that, and if anyone's earned the right to retire, it's Bob Seger. He created some of the greatest American rock and roll songs and albums ever—Night Moves and Stranger in Town are both nearly flawless—and he seems to have always stayed true to himself.

So. So long, Bob, and thanks for all the fish. Here's hoping the afterparty is everything you could ever want.

Think in terms of bridges burned
Think of seasons that must end
See the rivers rise and fall
They will rise and fall again
Everything must have an end
Like an ocean to a shore
Like a river to a stream
Like a river to a stream
It's the famous final scene
And how you tried to make it work
Did you really think it could
How you tried to make it last
Did you really think it would
Like a guest who stayed too long
Now it's finally time to leave
Yes, it's finally time to leave
Take it calmly and serene
It's the famous final scene 
It's been coming on so long
You were just the last to know
It's been a long time since you've smiled
Seems like oh so long ago
Now the stage has all been set
And the nights are growing cold
Soon the winter will be here
And there's no one warm to hold 
Now the lines have all been read
And you knew them all by heart
Now you move toward the door
Here it comes the hardest part
Try the handle of the road
Feeling different feeling strange
This can never be arranged
As the light fades from the screen
From the famous final scene

Election Day Bob Dylan Listenings

Well I'm just average, common too
I'm just like him, the same as you
I'm everybody's brother 'n son
I ain't different from anyone

- Bob Dylan, "I Shall Be Free No. 10"

You all know what to do. Go vote...and even listen to a little of Mr. Zimmerman—that uniquely American voice which pretty much drills down to the marrow of who we are every time it soundsto give you a little additional motivation. I know it always helps me.

(And a question. Does Bob Dylan ever get true credit for being as funny as he is? Seriously, if there has been a funnier songwriter over the last half-century or so, I'm really not sure who he is. This song is a pretty solid example of that).

Sunday, November 3, 2019

the indefinable yet undeniable mystery and existence of intermusical chemistry

There are some experiences that cannot be fully understood unless one has actually engaged in or partaken of them. Having children is perhaps the most obvious. Being on a sports team that was completely in synch. Being part of the cast of a play. Being in a band that clicks. There is an indefinable yet undeniable mystery to the existence of chemistry in some groups of people devoted to a common goal which are inexplicable and yet absolutely indisputable to anyone who's actually experienced them.

I have only seen maybe one example better than this clip. Here's Sting and Stewart Copeland, famous bandmates and antagonists in The Police, playing together for the first time in 24 years. And Copeland is trying to explain that there's this one place in this one song that it's absolutely imperative they play a certain way. And Sting has no idea what he's talking about, and Copeland can't nail it down specifically—the drummer knows precisely what he's talking about, he just can't remember where it is exactly, or even, really, what it is.

And then they play the song. And when that indefinable bit comes up Sting knows instantly. And possibly even more incredible: Copeland knows that Sting knows the very moment Sting knows.

You can see it in the video—Copeland is already smiling, pointing at the singer, knowing that Sting has recognized the bit as soon as they started playing it, before Sting even says anything.

I've watched this exchange a dozen times over the past decade and the level of musical understanding between these two guys who haven't played together in 24 years never ceases to blow my damn mind.

Sting is a great writer, a great singer, and a great bass player who has created some great material as a solo artist. But The Police had a 5-year recording career, during which they released five albums. He's had a 34 year—and counting—career as a solo artist, during which he's released at least 13 studio albums. So the Police account for a mere 8% of his recording career, and he's released nearly three times as many solo albums as he did when he was with the Police. And yet to this day, Police songs make up between 33% and 50% of pretty much any of his setlists this century—and that's even including tours when he's got a new album to push, when there'll be an unusually heavy emphasis on new material.

Statistically, that's clearly out of whack. And yet obviously it makes all the sense in the world. Because the Police songs aren't just the crowd faves—although they are—they're also (subjectively, of course) the best stuff. And that's because, as an unusually insightful critic once more or less wrote:
If a great artist like John Fogerty or Neil Young or Sting writes a song and brings it to ten different bands, it’s going to sound recognizably the same yet very different, depending upon whether the drummer is Al Jackson or Ringo Starr or Keith Moon or Steve Gadd or Bernard Purdie or Dave Grohl or Carter Beauford. And if that great artist has been writing songs for that same drummer for ten years, well, that drummer is going to be part of the song the artist hears in his head as he’s first writing, before he ever brings it to the studio. John Lennon may not—couldn’t possibly—have known what Ringo was going to play on “Come Together,” but the sound of Ringo’s drums, the feel he was going to bring, if not the exact pattern, was already in John’s mind, already ingrained in his DNA.
Sting cannot have known what Stewart Copeland or Andy Summers was going to play on any given song he brought in—they were too unpredictable, in the very best sense, as musicians, with such individualistic voices, that there was simply no way to imagine ahead of time what parts they might come up with, other than to know they'd be great and characteristic and different from anything they or anyone else had quite done before.

(Seriously, there's no other guitarist in the world who would have listened to "Every Breath You Take," which has the same chord progression as "Stand by Me," and thought, "Right, you know what would go well here? A bunch of arpeggiated add9 chords, voiced in a way that's somewhat reminiscent of Bartok's string quartets." And yet Summers did and it's his guitar part that's very nearly every bit as memorable as Sting's wonderfully disturbing lyric.)

But Sting did know, down in his bones, that whatever they were, Copeland's drum parts would be great and characteristic and different from anything they or anyone else had quite done before. And because they were in a band together, and Copeland was not "merely" a [crazy talented] hired gun, he could and would then fight for those drums parts. And unlike the absolutely brilliant drummers Sting would later work with—titans such as Omar Hakim, Manu Katché, Andy Newmark, Vinnie Colaiuta and Josh Freese, among others—Sting couldn't simply fire Copeland. Because in the context of the band, they were equals, more or less. So Copeland got to have a say in how the song ultimately sounded. [And you can see how this pains Sting, when he has to negotiate on the existence of flams. Flams, of all things!] So it's not a coincidence that such a high percentage of the songs that they worked on together went on to make up the shortlist of his all-time classics. Because that's how chemistry works. Sometimes it explodes, and sometimes that's exactly the most optimal result.

Also, it sounds so much cooler with the flams.