Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shutdown: Allentown

Billy Joel: Allentown [purchase]

My second post for Star Maker Machine, back in 2008, was about the difference between a protest song and a political song. The song then was Deportees, by Woody Guthrie. Like Deportees, Billy Joel’s Allentown is a political song. It attempts to persuade by humanizing a situation and thereby eliciting our sympathies. In this case, the issue was the plight of the steel industry in the United States in the early 1980s. This was the first appearance of what is now the trend called outsourcing. Joel in his lyrics cites the fact that the coal to fire the steel mills of Pennsylvania was becoming harder to find and mine, but it is also true that steel companies were starting to find that they could produce steel more cheaply overseas.

Joel takes for his narrator a generation of workers without work in Allentown Pennsylvania. Because this is a Billy Joel song, his sentimental streak shows up in his idealized depiction of how the generation before the current one lived. Joel contrasts this with the shattered hopes and dreams of the unemployed steel workers at that time. They not only haven’t achieved their own dreams, they also haven’t lived up to the hopes their parents had for them. Joel doesn’t assign blame for this, but he leaves us with the feeling that, whoever’s fault this is, it is not the hard working people of Allentown.

The video also attempts to be socially relevant, but the results are mixed. It begins well enough, although the impact is somewhat blunted by the stylized way the humanity of these unemployed steel workers is depicted. But the year was 1982, and when the song reaches the bridge, all of a sudden we start seeing these dancers doing eighties music video moves. At one point, they appear to be worshiping an American flag made out of Christmas lights. Huh? The dance sequences, in short, are best ignored. Billy Joel was, in 1982, a commercial songwriter and musician, but this song shows that something bigger than himself had moved him. The video shows that his label approved, but didn’t completely understand this.

Shut Down: Last Call

I have to admit that I cannot remember ever being at a bar for last call. Which is not a joke—you know, like “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” (variously attributed to Robin Williams, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Dennis Hopper, Judy Collins, George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Timothy Leary, among others, including a comedian, Charlie Fleischer, who may have been the first to say it). It’s just that my heaviest imbibing days came when I was in college, and we almost never went to bars. Not to mention that I’m generally too, say, thrifty, to pay bar prices for a long night of drinking.

But I understand that “last call” is a big deal, because it requires you to fight inertia and the effects of alcohol, leave the cozy confines and head out into the world. Either you have to go home, or you are with someone, or you are alone, maybe disappointingly so. But you are probably drunk, and you need to decide whether to find somewhere else to keep drinking, or you have to accept the fact that the drinking part of the evening is over.

Not surprisingly, last call is a topic that is not uncommon in the music world, and we will touch on three very different songs, but not Kanye West’s “Last Call,” or Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” And because I don’t have a clever organizing principle, let’s just go in chronological order.  

Dead Kennedys: We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now

I’ve written before about the Dead Kennedys, and how their very name was a slap in the face to political correctness. In their classic “California Über Alles,” they poked fun at the supposed hippie/fascist tendencies of then (and current) California governor Jerry Brown who, in the song, somehow becomes dictator of the United States. But not long after this was released, the country actually elected conservative president Ronald Reagan, whose vision for America scared the DKs even more than Brown’s supposed “suede denim secret police.”

Thus, the band released this revised version, called “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” which starts with a lounge jazz arrangement and the lyrics:

Last call for alcohol.
Last call for your freedom of speech.
Drink up. Happy hour is now enforced by law.

While most of the most dire predictions in the song didn’t come true, some did, and I think you can draw a direct line from the Reagan presidency to the current Tea Party fanaticism that led to the government shutdown.

But enough about politics.

Hüsker Dü: First of the Last Calls

The loudest concert that I ever went to was Hüsker Dü at Irving Plaza in 1986. By far. And Dwight Yoakam opened, which was probably the oddest combination at any concert that I have ever been to. I’ve always appreciated Hüsker Dü’s ability to write poignant songs, with great melodies, while still keeping their hardcore roots. My wife, on the other hand, has trouble hearing past the feedback and screaming, and doesn’t get it.

“First of the Last Calls” is from an early EP, Metal Circus, and it definitely falls more on the hardcore end of the spectrum. But you can still hear songwriter Bob Mould’s gift for writing great riffs, in this song about a man’s losing fight with the bottle. Mould, who has struggled with various substance abuse issues, has had an impressive career with Hüsker Dü, Sugar and as a solo artist. Not to mention writing the theme song to The Daily Show (although the current version is a cover by They Might Be Giants).

Jay Bennett: Second Last Call
[download for free]

Changing things up a bit, we come to a song by another excellent songwriter with substance issues, but who succumbed to them—Jay Bennett, who passed away from an overdose of prescription painkillers back in 2009. Probably best known for his work with Wilco, and for being fired from Wilco in a scene captured in the incredible film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Bennett was in a regionally popular band, Titanic Love Affair, before joining Wilco, and had an intermittently brilliant solo career after leaving.

His talent, as a songwriter, producer/arranger and multi-instrumentalist. cannot be denied, and from all reports, he is not the only person to butt heads with Jeff Tweedy. Bennett plays all of the instruments on this song, a kind of peppy story about failed love at a bar, from his posthumously released album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air.

Good night--time to leave--drive safely, and don't forget to tip your waitress.....

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shutdown: You Can't Always Get What You Want

Rolling Stones: You Can't Always Get What You Want

One lesson that we might pick up from the stand-off/shut-down comes from a '69 Rolling Stones tune off the Let It Bleed album: You Can't Always Get What You Need.

While there isnt a direct reference in the song to our current theme of <Shutdown>, the indirect link is pretty clear: none of the parties involved in the events that brought about the US government shutdown came away with what they really wanted. My understanding of politics is that it is a business of trade-offs: give a little, get a little. It appears that I am supported in my knowledge by this, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Politicks is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs, and, as those are forever changing, what is wisdom to-day would be folly and perhaps, ruin to-morrow. Politicks is not a science so properly as a business. It cannot have fixed principles, from which a wise man would never swerve, unless the inconstancy of men's view of interest and the capriciousness of the tempers could be fixed. [Fisher Ames (1758-1808)]

Like the recent US political impass, the 60s were also a time of turmoil: not least the Vietnam war protests. Further still, there's a fair dose of politics referenced in the Stones' lyrics:

I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, "We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't we're gonna blow a 50-amp fuse"
...[and] ...

She was practiced at the art of deception
Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands

"demonstration ... abuse ..." Sounds like <Occupy> to me.
"art of deception" ... sound like <NSA> to me.
"blood-stained hands" ... Blackwater and more ...

There are some out there clamouring for a controlled kind of shutdown: close down some of the out-of-control powers of government. Maybe I am just overly influenced by the George Orwell frame of mind.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Shutdown: Closing Time

Tom Waits: Closing Time


Our current theme is rich with possibilities, but they require some creative thought to tease out. Shutdown. All kinds of things can be shut down. It may be permanent, or very temporary. One example happens every night, and it has been a great inspiration to songwriters. I‘m talking about closing time. You went out to a bar for an evening. You had certain hopes and intentions. Now the bar is closing, and you are still there. How did those expectations turn out? Songwriters have answered that question in a wide variety of ways. To hear some of those answers, try searching for the words “closing time“ in the Amazon mp3 store. Three completely different songs bear that title, and many other song titles contain the phrase.

One Closing Time song holds my attention here. On an album of mostly vocal tracks, Tom Waits made the instrumental song Closing Time the title track of his 1973 release. The song, appropriately, closes the album. When Sting made the instrumental The Dream of Blue Turtles the title track of his first solo album, he was taking a tune that was the result of an impromptu jam session in the studio, and using it as a declaration of personal and musical freedom. Tom Waits is after something completely different here. The song Closing Time is a mood piece that sums up the emotions of the entire album. The song could just as easily have opened the album and served as a sort of overture. The album Closing Time is one of Waits’ most lushly romantic works. Waits is known for his portrayal of down-on-their-luck men who have turned to alcohol to dull the pain, with varying degrees of success. What is remarkable is how Waits makes us sympathize with these men by showing us that, even at their lowest, these men still dream of better things. The album Closing Time focuses less on how low these characters have fallen, and instead is about those dreams. Here are some of Waits most unabashed and beautiful love songs. Still, at the end of the night, the lights come up, and these characters leave alone. So the song is still lush and sweet, but it also has a melancholy strain. Nobody balances these emotions better than Tom Waits, and here he doesn’t even need words to do it.