Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holiday Blues: Sweet Side

Lucinda Williams: Sweet Side

One of the ways that I consider myself lucky is that I’ve never suffered angst at the holidays. Growing up as a relatively secular Jew in a religiously mixed area, I never felt any tension. I celebrated Hanukkah, and some of my friends, did, too. But other friends celebrated Christmas. I don’t remember having any friends from mixed marriages, where there was a question about which holiday to celebrate, or any Jewish families who had “Hanukkah Bushes.” My family never really spent too much time focusing on the religious aspect of Hanukkah—family, latkes and dreidels were more important than thinking about the theological issues of whether oil lasting longer than expected was a miracle, or just a miscalculation. (Not to mention the question of whether Hanukkah represents the triumph of religious fanatics over more secular Hellenizers, and whether that’s really worth celebrating.) And, of course, as a Jewish kid, we got to act smug because we knew that there was no Santa Claus well before any of our gentile friends.

My family was also flexible about celebrating Hanukkah. By the time my cousins and I started going off to college, for example, we exchanged gifts either at Thanksgiving or during Winter Break, whenever we could easily gather a critical mass of family. I think that this gave me an adaptable approach about the December holidays that later paid off.

When my now wife and I were first living together, I knew that she came from a secular Protestant background, and celebrated Christmas with her family. She bought both a small tree and small menorah for our small apartment, which took me a little while to warm up to. Because my family treated Christmas as just another day off, I didn’t have to worry that spending Christmas with her family would conflict with my celebration, and I found myself really enjoying doing both. As it turned out, her Christmas included a slew of Jews, since her aunt converted when she married her uncle, and her cousins were raised as secular Jews. And it also included much drinking, eating, presents and (mostly) merriment.

A few years ago, circumstances led to a parting of the Christmas celebration in my wife’s family, and eventually we morphed the event again. Now, on Christmas Eve, my Jewish family and my in-laws get together at our house for a feast including lasagna (despite the distinct lack of any Italian in any of our bloodlines) and, often, latkes. Everyone decorates the tree, the menorah is lit, if appropriate, and both Hanukkah and Christmas music plays. The next morning is Christmas, with my nuclear family and my in-laws. We eat my wife’s family’s traditional, and scarily delicious, sausage and egg casserole, open presents, slowly, and we end the day with ham. Not to mention some of the millions of cookies that my wife has baked (10 different kinds this year!). In general, everyone gets along, and it is fun. Often, there is a nap.

So, maybe I’m not the right guy to write about Holiday Blues. But Lucinda Williams is. One of America’s great songwriters, her lyrics cut right to the gut, and the featured song today is no exception. It isn’t really a holiday song, but it does reference Christmas. It’s clearly a love letter of sorts, to someone who was damaged by a tough, mentally and physically abusive childhood and life, someone who puts up a hard veneer, but which the singer has seen through, to the rarely disclosed “Sweet Side.” It is a heartbreaking song, but also a hopeful song, because the singer has committed to sticking by her lover, “through thick and thin/ No matter what kind of shape you're in.” Although it is a situation for which I have no frame of reference, Williams’ lyrics makes it relatable, and that, in part, is what makes it art.

Now, even with the brilliance of the lyrics, Williams has been criticized for the song’s musical style, which verges on rap, but really, it isn’t. If anything, it is closer to a “talking blues” of the kind made popular by Lucinda’s musical forebears Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (and apparently “invented” by Chris Bouchillon back in the 1920s). But that raises yet another issue about the impossibility of parsing out all of the influences in any given piece of music. Who’s to say that rap music wasn’t also influenced, directly or indirectly, by talking blues? So, “Sweet Side” has elements of country, rock, rap and blues, and probably other stuff, too. Sure, it doesn’t sound exactly like most of the rest of Williams’ music. And while a total stylistic shift by an artist can be jarring, it also can be exciting for listeners, and invigorating for performers. What’s wrong with that?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holiday Blues: Blue Christmas

It's a bit bloody obvious, I know, and I can't even be arsed to see if it has been done before, but it seems so apposite in so many ways, covering any number of the bases I enjoy covering, even, in this case, if that veneer is of and with a thick, snowy schmalz. It's possible I may have previously mentioned my love of cover versions and this song, almost to my shock and awe, is one I have way more versions of than I ought. Or anyone ought. Who knew so many folk woke up one day and felt that this and only this was the song to cover. But then, Christmas, for all it's peace to the world and joy to all people can be a pretty godawful time of year for many, anticipatedly or contrived, through the foibles of massed family and friends. The main problem with the compulsory good cheer of Christmas is that it emphasizes the family, it expects partnership, it insists on conviviality, with that very pressure often enough to burst asunder through any too great expectation based upon. Been there, done that, and, hells teeth, alone at Xmas is the pits, the more so if you are clutched to the bosom of what loved ones you still have, rendering the essence of gooseberry to it's quintessential. I feel that Billy Hayes and/or Jay W. Johnson, who wrote the song back in the 40s knew this, the lyrics extolling the pain of lost love at Yuletime. (Having added my own existing knowledge to the 37 and counting pages of youtube vids, the repeated hearing of this song can itself render one near suicidal, alone or otherwise, but that's another story.)

Elvis is clearly the template most are aware of, originally appearing on his 1957 LP, Elvis' Christmas Album, later as a 1964 single, each doing well in their own formats, either side of the Atlantic. But it had been well-covered ahead of that, as early as 1948, by Ernest Tubb, a lot less ornately, and hence, to my ears, a lot more attractively. Since then the list has been extensive and extraordinary, largely within the canon of country (+/- western), encasing such disparates as Willie Nelson and Billy IdolWynton Marsalis and the Partridge Family and many, many more, sadly more distinguished by their bland similarities than any novel differences. Particularly galling examples I cannot even begin myself to link are by latter day "Great American Songbook" destroyer Rod Stewart and the appalling Mickey Bubbles. And even a live Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, separately (unless you know better) have managed to savage it to an ignoble death. There is also the horror of Lou Reed, together with the unlikely collaboration of, God help us, the McGarrigles, so truly bad I have to offer it, pleading then your forgiveness. But there are a few that can proudly stand above the parapet, if only by the quality of the production or the quirkiness quotient. So let me present odd UK Led Zep reggae tribute band Dread Zeppelin, Scotland's finest, the Proclaimers, credible mainly for their heavily accented diction, and recently deceased reggae legend John Holt.

There are many more. If you seek yet more malaise still, the versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Leon Redbone, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Atkins, Low, Jimmy Martin (quite good actually), Tammy Wynette, Jewel, the Ventures (likewise), Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys, Fats Domino, Bright Eyes, Johnny Mathis, Robert Gordon, Dean Martin, the Platters and Leann Rimes, they are all but a click away, in all their varieties of awfulness.

I need to leave you with some imagery though, to break up this wall of prose, so here are 2 final personal favourites: Porky Pig.....

........and Kermit the Frog:

Happier New Year!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Blues : Christmas Shoes

This belongs here this week. Comedian Patton Oswalt takes on a Christian holiday song awash in misery. If you are easily offended or surrounded by children, you may want to take a pass. Otherwise, enjoy!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Holiday Blues: Silent Night/7 O'Clock News

Simon & Garfunkel: Silent Night/7 O'clock News @ amazon mp3s

The end of the year holiday season brings a mix joy and sadness to many folk. It is the nature of this time of year that leads us to look back at the year behind us and forward to the year ahead.

Now, you can look either direction in joy or sadness, and there’s a benefit to each. One wouldn’t want to be the grasshopper all the time, nor the ant who knows nothing but work. It’s all in the balance.

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme was one of the first 33 RPM LPs I owned – my music tastes at that time were as unfocused as they are today: a little of everything. We are talking 1966. Free Love. The Hippie culture. Major Civil Rights action was in the works in the US.  For Americans, the economy still seemed to promise a better future. On the other hand, we had the Vietnam War. Kind of like my music tastes: all over the place. Some up. Some down.

It's not 12-bar blues, but Silent Night/7 O’clock News gets right to the heart of the dichotomy, doesn’t it? The contrast between the ethereal, hopeful Christmas classic that extends the possibility of a better future and the downright depressing facts on the ground as presented in the evening news is sheer genius. Simple and effective. A steady, minimal piano backing and prominently sweet vocals - laced with a cuttingly dry newsreader voice-over.

I wonder if there is as much left to the audience’s interpretation of this song as we generally credit art with, or if it is masterfully directed to provoke a single given response. It certainly requires me to take a deep breath and push the images of the song behind me before I can look forward to the new year with joy and hope. And you don't need to watch any of the other image-laden versions to get the picture.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

LEFTOVERS (Scrabble Value Letters): Z Songs from Africa

Buy Mapfumo
Buy Kidjo

I don't recall submitting a post for this one and maybe I didn't, but, rather than checking, it seems a whole lot easier to start one. I'm a big fan of World music, a clumsy but useful epithet to cover the musics of the non-anglophone world. This can embrace any number of styles: ethnic folk shuffles, polyglot fusions,  genre-busting hybrids , using languages and instrumentation outwith the usual or expected, at least to our ears more familiar with the standard rock/soul/blues/jazz, though it can use all or any of these as well. African music has no one format, having as many as there are nations, as many as there are languages and as many as there are tribes. And many, many more, from the Rai in Algeria to the Chimurenga of Zimbabwe, and all in-between.

Thomas Mapfumo has long been one of the pillars of Zimbabwean music, being the embodiment, if not originator, of Chimurenga: Music of Struggle, one struggle being that with the authorities, pre and post independence. A boy in colonial Rhodesia, his was first attracted to the guitar music, the Beatles, the Stones, of his country's occupying white minority. However, through absorbing the local African pop music and American funk, he put aside these influences, drawing more on the traditions of his own Shona heritage, with political overtones leading to a spell of imprisonment in the late 1970s, being deemed a threat to the government. You would assume, thus, that he would be an eternal hero in the new Zimbabwe of 1980 and beyond, but not so, as his views began to portray his criticism of the Mugabe years, eventually leading to his exile in Oregon, where he remains, it nearly a decade since he last set foot in his native land. I was particularly lucky to see him play live, in less threatened days, in a poky Harare club, mid to late 90s, astonished at that opportunity, thinking he would only play stadiums, such as when he played alongside Bob Marley, at the Zimbabwean independence celebration concert, just over a decade before. The shona language is rich with Zs and so there is an abundance of choice. This song, Zvichapera, is a typical mix of mbira, the thumb piano, and marimbas, with a mix of western and traditional drums, over which Mapfumo drones, strumming electric guitar, female backing singers chanting the melody. There is not a huge amount of his music available on CD, but he is worth the search. Follow the link below for a Greatest Hits(!?) selection, which, whilst it doesn't include this song, does include, track 5, another Z song.

Further north from Zimbabwe is the Republic of Benin, where it is likely that Angelique Kidjo is the most celebrated of its people, at least in the west. Again she is a singer who has openly absorbed tribal styles and influences, but in a far wider mixing pot, embracing samba, reggae, jazz and funk, often undertaking collaborative work with any number of artists, often re-interpreting and deconstructing songs from elsewhere.  Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews and Bono have all sung with her, and she has sung songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield. All things considered, I think it is her more traditional work, in African languages, that I prefer. Perhaps inevitably, given the volatility of West Africa, her base is now Paris, arguably the world centre for the legion dispossessed African musicians. Here is her Z song, Zelie, the opening track from 2010s OYO.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Leftovers (Gravity): Gravity’s Gone

Drive-By Truckers: Gravity’s Gone

After Thanksgiving, we at Star Maker Machine have typically run a “Leftovers” theme, letting the writers go back and revisit the themes we wrote about in the past year, and either posting something that wasn’t finished in time, or an idea that never even got started.

When I looked at the 42 different posts I wrote in 2014, I realized that I had essentially written twice for each of the year’s themes, except for one—Gravity. I actually suggested this theme, and thought that it would be pretty popular, but it only prompted five posts. We’ve had problems for the past few years getting people to post. I don’t know if it is just the inevitable burnout effect, or that mp3 based blogs are fading out, or we haven’t recruited enough (or the right) writers, recently, the number of posts, and regular writers, has been dropping.

It’s a bit disheartening, because the decrease in new posts has translated into a decrease in the number of page views. Not only that, but I’ve personally written almost a third of all of the posts this year, so far. Four writers have accounted for nearly 85% of the posts on the site. I think that the writing remains strong, and we have at least one new writer who seems to be interested. However, there have been times, many times, in fact, that I’ve thought about quitting entirely, or starting my own blog to write about whatever I want. But I haven’t, and I think that as long as there are other people who want to keep the SMM flame alive, I’ll keep writing. Not just for the tradition, or out of laziness or out of some sort of duty, because SMM was the first place that I broke through my fears and put my writing out to the public.

No—I’m going to keep writing here because I like doing it. I enjoy the idea of having a prompt force me to make a musical connection. Now, when I first started writing here way back in December of 2011, the themes were surprises, and I would wake up on Sunday morning, eager to see what Darius had come up with. Now that I’m a co-moderator, though, I am involved, along with Kkafa, in picking the theme, which has changed the way I react to them, but even when I suggest one, I don’t always know what I’m going to write about. I enjoy contributing to this blog. I enjoy the creative outlet, I enjoy sharing my opinions and telling my stories, and I enjoy the feedback that I sometimes get (mostly on Facebook—and if you aren’t a member of our page, you should be).

The Gravity theme was, as I wrote at the time, inspired by seeing the band Barnaby Bright at a small concert at a local church. I was impressed by them, and their song “Gravity,” and realized that this force of nature was a common subject for songwriters. There is no question in my mind that I considered trying to get a second post in, about the Drive-By Truckers’ song “Gravity’s Gone,” but it never happened.

“Gravity’s Gone” is a Mike Cooley song. Until this year’s English Oceans, Cooley usually only had a few songs on each album, and most of them are gems. This one is no different. Written during a long, exhausting tour, Cooley felt that things were getting a little out of control, and although he has been quoted as saying that the song, “doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and it wasn’t supposed to,” you can hear his contempt for what was going on in the clever wordplay:

Between the champagne hand jobs and the kissing ass by everyone involved
Cocaine rich comes quick and that's why the small dicks have it all.

But, ultimately, the heart of the song, where you can hear Cooley’s frustration, is in the chorus—

So I'll meet you at the bottom if there really is one
They always told me when you hit it you'll know it
But I've been falling so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floating

And that’s sort of how I’m feeling about our little blog here. Are we heading down to the bottom? I guess if we get there, I’ll know it. As long as we are still alive, though, I’m going to keep floating along, putting my thoughts out into the interwebs.

Here’s a bonus video of the band, still including Jason Isbell (who left the Truckers after this album), playing a mostly acoustic version of the song at a record store in Nashville (I am compelled to note that my son met Mr. Isbell, his fellow Nashville resident, last week).

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pilgrims & Immigrants: Rosalie

Alejandro Escovedo: Rosalie

Most of the music that I like isn’t popular, and that’s fine. Sometimes, artists that I like become popular, and that’s usually fine, too. But most of the stuff that I listen to is by musicians and bands that have achieved, at best, niche popularity and maybe some degree of critical acclaim. Alejandro Escovedo is a favorite, but probably not in my top 10, if I had a top 10 (this isn’t High Fidelity). And yet, for some reason, I have said about him, probably more times than about anyone, that I wished I lived in a world in which Alejandro Escovedo was a big star.

He deserves it, and not just because of the difficulties he has overcome. His songwriting is brilliant, his musicianship is superb, and his imagination and ambition is broad. He writes rockers, ballads and everything in between. I’ve only seen him twice, as an opening act either solo or with a second guitarist, and at some point I hope to see him with a full band (I was supposed to see a free show in Central Park a few years back, but he cancelled). I’ve previously written about him briefly as part of another piece, which mentioned his large musical family, but I’ve never put him in the spotlight. And it seems appropriate to write about him here, because Escovedo is the son of Mexican immigrants (the group that seems to cause the most concern among the opponents of immigration reform), and he has written a great deal about his family’s experiences.

In fact, Escovedo wrote a play, By The Hand of the Father, about the Mexican-American immigrant experience, inspired by the life of his own father, and including stories by other Mexican-American writers and videos. The play has been performed around the country to positive reviews, usually with Escovedo taking the lead role, but during his battle with hepatitis C, others stepped into the role. The song “Rosalie” tells the story of the romance between Rosalie and Joe, separated by an “ocean of powder and dust” held together mostly through letters and brief meetings. The version of the song from the By The Hand of the Father album, sounds somewhat traditional, and contains spoken excerpts from the correspondence between the two lovers.

This version, from Escovedo’s A Man Under the Influence album is more of a rocker, but it loses nothing of the power of the theatrical version.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pilgrims and Immigrants: Pilgrimage

Touring rock bands, short on sleep, are making their own kind of pilgrimage from club to club. Road weary, perhaps they begin to hallucinate. Was that a two headed cow in the field over there? Jefferson I think we're lost.

Not even Michael Stipe can say for certain what "Pilgrimage", one of the many memorable songs off their debut album Murmur,  is about. 

"'Pilgrimage' still baffles me," he's said. "At one point, right after we recorded it, I heard it and it made perfect sense. I was so exhilarated. I thought I had accomplished what I set out to do. And then I forgot."

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Pity the poor emigrant. No, this isn't a misprint. You can, and maybe will, blame this on my inability to fully appreciate Thanksgiving; isn't it around "my" country's failure to win the War of Independence? Anyhow, whatever Bobby Z has to say about the poor immigrant, how about the other side of the coin? So here is one of my favourites, Paul Brady, voicing the plight of the refugee. This is around the mass migration of the Irish to the UK, usually for work:

Maybe I am playing with tautology, but it gives me opportunity to write about Paul Brady and the Hibernian drift overseas more generally.

Paul Brady is still not and has probably never been a household name, but the chances are you will be familiar with his songs through either Bonnie Raitt or Tina Turner. It was actually substantially after he started his recording career that he made a transition from traditional Irish folk to writing his own wider derived material.

Between 1967 and 1974 he was a member of The Johnstons, before becoming a latter-day member of the definitive revivalists, Planxty, in time for their final first time around recording, and then as a duo with Andy Irvine, from which I give you his showstopping version of Arthur McBride, still staple of his live performance. Subsequently, in 1981, he launched his non-traditional solo career, with Hard Station, from which the featured song above derives. A string of albums appeared throughout the 80s, leading even Bob Dylan, 2nd mention, to comment: "People get too famous too fast these days and it destroys them. Some guys got it down-Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed......

Perhaps of interest is the above, from a 1977 rarity, which explores what may have happened to Arthur McBride, had he accepted the Kings Shilling, again a reflection of the plight of those transplanted, for whatever reason, from their homes.

Brady continues to work and continues to tour. seek him out, if you can. As a final pointer, returning again to the intended theme, here is another version of the song that leads this piece, this time from a BBC series that became a double disc CD that I also endorse, dealing with the whole gamut of Irish emigration to the UK, USA and beyond, "Bringing it all Back Home". Here's a link to Philip King, whose brainchild it had been.

Buy Paul Brady

Pilgrims & Immigrants: A Different Kind Of Immigrant

Buy the album, and read the lyrics

Immigration, the immigrant...

The name itself conjures up more songs than would fit into one post. The Irish know a little something about setting the immigrant’s tale to song. So do Latino artists, and songs of their particular tale of coming North for a new life are more poignant now than ever before, in light of the recent national argument we’ve been having over the immigration “problem”. Songs that preserve a part of history or illuminate our current times are always poignant, always interesting and our musical heritage is nothing but the voice of many, telling our varied story, and there is amazing forensic, perhaps, anthropological joy that comes from tracing our history through the way it was put to music, before it became history and was simply one’s story.

 Music that teaches is nothing new and seems to serve a purpose beyond being simply a song. This can be found in any of the thousands of recordings of Alan Lomax, in churches and pubs, on street corners and cotton fields, prison yards and juke joints. Musical heritage tells a story of living America, not just the history that creates the story in the text books, but the place we are from and the fabric our story is woven from. I think a particularly amazing journey to take through song is that of those who left their own homes to make America their new home.

I suppose in my immediate purview, the Irish emigration sagas that have been set to song resonate most soundly. But, I admit, that’s a matter of taste more than a good representation of all the ethnic and cultural voices that are out there to listen to. The Pogues' Thousands are Sailingthe traditional “Spancil Hill” , and The Shores Of Amerikay--or any other tune you’ve pretended to sing along to while downing pints in an “Irish” bar, all come to mind as great examples of capturing the experience of leaving home.

These songs also contribute to the proud tradition of America being a place founded on all of us having come from another part of the world and relying on the promise of a better life. We could argue all day over the nature of immigration, the shallow truth of the American dream, the silly idealism of believing in the mythical “all are created equal and the huddled masses” bit, and the legality of Obama’s Immigration legislation, but the fact remains: our country was founded on certain principles and coming here to be better than what you were where you came from is part of our cultural DNA. Which is most disturbing when you try to reconcile our mythos with the current reality of the ‘send ‘em home’ attitude so many have adopted in light of the influx of illegals from our southern neighbors.

As Americans, we’re all immigrants, at one time or another, and the mark of the years passing and the new generations you belong to won’t change that. So, politics aside, musically, we are ripe with the immigrant experience as the wellspring of song.

Artists that are perhaps more familiar to the listener, like Bruce Springsteen, have used this reality and the changing face of immigration in America to great effect. Springsteen, like any good storyteller, work best in the format when the take on the role of first person narrator, relaying experience, often poetically, always with a sharp, stark realism. Springsteen’s Devils and Dust, to some degree, deals with this, but his 1995 masterpiece The Ghost of Tom Joad, is in total a reflection on the status of immigration, seen through the lives of characters stuck in the limbo of the South-West border, and is a dark look at the immigrant’s experience. It is a strange, per-sage look at our modern times, where the desperation of the have-nots clashes with everyone else’s and the prize is waiting on the proverbial other side, always just out of reach, across a river, under a fence, in the life that will come next…

Considering the title and the track from which it takes it name, Springsteen masterfully draws connections, both literal and metaphorical, to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the cinematic survey of the great depression and the plight of the reverse-immigrant, in this case, the Americans forced from their homes by economic hardship and the harrowing specter of starvation in the Dust Bowl. The Joads are from Oklahoma, and serve as the blueprint of all the American families seeking a stable home in their own land, but find themselves beaten, chased and dogged by prejudice and lack of understanding by their own people, sad immigrants in their own land.

The imagery of the album evokes the photography of Dorthea Lang, and the sharp, detailed precision of Steinbeck’s prose, while also resembling the news being broadcast from Texas, Arizona, California, USA. Springsteen takes the well-known history and places it in the new American, with darker skin tones and trying to get in a find a new home while leaving the old one behind. Aside from their origins, both the immigrant from the Great Depression America, and the new, more politically troubling one, essentially come from the same story. And this album is populated by two distinct groups: Americans adrift in the own home, looking to metaphorically immigrate to someplace better, and the traditional immigrant, seeking to cross the border and start a new life. When you look at the two archetypes, side by side, you see how similar they are. The Joad family are hounded, beaten, defeated in The Grapes of Wrath—and the characters that populate The Ghost of Tom Joad fare no better in their immigration to a new place.

The Ghost of Tom Joad is a musical journey through the New West, and the many hues and origins of its characters, and the most powerful songs on the album concern stories of the those who are trying to make it, but can’t, simply because they are the new immigrants, having left behind Mexico for a better life in a harsh, unforgiving place. Sinaloa Cowboys, Balboa Park, and Across the Border tell varying stories of illegals, and the sparse imagery of desperation—both to make it across and to survive once they’ve arrived—is vivid and real.

Springsteen’s mostly acoustic arrangements draw sharp lines and easily read contrasts, like a photographic album. Other songs on the album, such as Galveston Bay, deal with legal immigration, though the former South Vietnamese soldier, who fought along side the Americans in the war, finds himself no more welcome than his Latino counterparts.

The other songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad deal with immigration in their own way, telling the story of being an outsider. Straight Time, The Line, Dry Lightning, and The New Timer are all heavy with the weight of personal history, of living outside of the confines of society and walking the edge of whatever it is we most define a ‘normal’ life as.

The album is rife with the imagery of dreaming, and of leaving behind the darkness and achieving the light. The desperate speaker of Straight Time finds himself trapped in his own life, and there are no borders to cross to find a better life, save for the ones in his dreams:
 “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” 

These songs deal with that traditional Springsteen character he’s made such brilliant use of throughout his career—ultra-realistic and living on the fringes of society. The album is full of desperate souls who speak of finding happiness for so many reasons, all different, yet all with the same goal of getting to a place “…Where pain and memory/ Pain and memory have been stilled / There across the border…”

Springsteen’s characters tell tales of life on the edge, one step ahead of disaster, those that taste the bitter salt of disappointment, disenfranchisement, of having never been close enough, smart enough, gutsy enough, to grab hold of the American dream. From the border patrol officer who falls in love with a girl he busts for crossing the border in The Line, to the drifter dreaming angrily of all he’s lost in The New Timer, the cast of characters on The Ghost Or Tom Joad are all immigrants of a sort, searching, pining, or just plain lost.

Lots of people like to say that Springsteen is great because he understands us, knows us, is one of us—but when I go see him live, very few are the people in the audience who resemble one of Springsteen’s struggling, angry every men. Springsteen’s genius, rather, lies in showing us what we could be, what we are afraid of being. His work has always been anchored by an unflinching sense of reality and of the stark closeness to truth, yet is buoyed by a sense of triumph and happiness and overcoming. Music itself is catharsis, which is why Springsteen channels almost a religious power in taking one from the depths of despair to the very height of jubilation—he can take a terrible story and through the power of song, somehow show that there is light on the other side.

This is a promise he makes good on in song after song, sometimes, subtly, sometimes to triumphal, ecstatic arena-sized paroxysms of guitars and drums…Don’t believe me? I dare you not to convert to Church of Bruce after experiencing “Light Of Day”.

If there’s ever an argument for his Sainthood, this is it…

Live in Berlin, from the Ghost of Tom Joad solo acoustic tour

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pilgrims & Immigrants: Immigrant Song

Led Zeppelin: Immigrant Song

Sometimes the right choice is the obvious one. For people of my generation, I would bet that if you said, “name a song about immigrants or pilgrims,” the majority would mention Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” And while I have been trying to come up with other things to write about, and I still might, I kept coming back to this one.

I’ve written in the past about how my friend Chris and I learned about music together in high school, and how we introduced each other to bands. There was a time when he liked Led Zeppelin, and I wasn’t a fan. He dragged me to see The Song Remains the Same, and my mind was changed forever. I know, it is a crappy movie in many ways, and the performances might not have been their best, but in an era when you didn’t have access to YouTube clips and online videos, I didn’t have much to compare it to. And I was blown away by their sound and their power. Not long after that, we saw them play live at Madison Square Garden, and again, that tour was not considered to be their best, and they messed up “Stairway to Heaven,” but it was still incredible. By the time we saw them, though, “Immigrant Song,” was no longer part of the setlist.

The song was written in response to a show on the band’s 1970 tour in Iceland, and is filled with Viking imagery, telling the tale of the Norsemen’s conquest of new lands. It uses the phrase “hammer of the gods,” which became synonymous with Led Zeppelin’s sound, and was the title of a notorious book about the band, which they hated. And it probably started the connection between heavy metal music and Scandinavian/Viking themes. But most of all, it has an incredible riff and Robert Plant’s iconic wail. One of Zep’s few actual singles, it was successful around the world.

Almost two years ago, I started working from home, and while there are some downsides to that arrangement, one plus is that I can occasionally grab a midday nap. I know that there are innumerable studies that make the case that the nap increases productivity, and I certainly agree with that, and wish that our Protestant Work Ethic society would be more accepting of grabbing a few Z’s during the day. But now that I’m my own boss, I can implement the “Naps Allowed” policy. When I try to nap, I like to put on a half-interesting TV show to help me doze off. It works for me.

One day, I felt the need to crash, and saw that the History Channel was running a marathon of a show called Vikings. With the History Channel, though, the chance of getting actual “history” and not some pseudo-historical crap is low, but when I turned it on, I found out that it was actually a drama about Vikings, and not a dry documentary. Turns out, it was too interesting for napping, and I got hooked. I went online and found out that the show was, in fact, getting good reviews, so I binge watched the first season to be ready for season 2, which was about to start. And it was great.

The show tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a semi-historical figure, who, according to the show, was the Viking who suggested that they stop attacking each other’s villages in Scandinavia and head west to find new lands, ultimately finding England, which was a whole new market for pillaging. Although most episodes have some graphic violence (and, apparently in the version that airs in Europe, some nudity), for the most part, the show is about the politics and lives of the Vikings. From what I have read, it is relatively accurate (although poetic license has been taken with some of the characters and plots). I suspect, though, that as harsh and dirty as their lives appear on the show, it was worse in real life, and I also suspect that not every Viking, male or female, looked like a model, but that’s TV. And next season, they will be storming Paris.

“Immigrant Song” was covered by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with Karen O as the opening theme for the English-language version of the film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (in which a prominent role is played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, whose son Gustaf is an important member of the Vikings cast as the eccentric shipbuilder Floki). Some enterprising YouTuber set this cover to scenes from Vikings:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pilgrims & Immigrants: Wishbone Ash

Download [Wishbone Ash: The Pilgrim]

There have been several comments here recently that are fitting for our next theme: Blog contributor "A" notes survival despite anonymity (forging a new path and facing oblivion). J. David (to me) brings together farming and pilgrimages. Yasgur's farm was a pilgrimage for many: a difficult trek toward the hope of a future world. The Woodstock pilgrims set out on a journey to re-set their lives: it was a trip (in more ways than one for some) towards a new life.

The pilgrims that figure in the Thanksgiving story had little intention of returning home, although they appear to have been bound to many of their roots. Being as the pilgrims of Plymouth were not the first to settle in the new land, they were also not the first to celebrate a "thanksgiving". Recently, current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would have us believe that other Old World peoples may have thanked their lord on the shores of the New World earlier than previously recorded. His claims aside, there is evidence that earlier North American settlements celebrated a thanksgiving of some sort.

That said, the 1620 pilgrim/refugees from England via Holland had much to be thankful for. Half of them were still alive and they had a decent crop that would keep the remainder alive for the following year. It was thus that they (so the story goes) celebrated the harvest of 1621  with a feast of thanks, to which they invited their friends to partake.

It was no small feat for the Mayflower voyagers to arrive in one piece: they left once in 2 boats, returned to regroup when one boat began taking on water, cut their number, and started out again. It took them from Sept 6 to Nov 19 to cross the ocean and then nigh on 2 weeks to actually get ashore after they sighted the shores of North America. It then took them another year or so to establish a viable outpost, during which time half of them perished - all of which would certainly incline one to offer thanks.

Few pilgrimages are simple. Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, relates a relatively easy (for the 15th century) pilgrimage to the relics of Thomas Becket - there are tales of the whole spectrum of mankind that the narrator meets along the way. As bloggers "A" and J. David note, there is someone somewhere who keeps a flame burning - even today - for Thomas Becket.

There is, in fact, a flame still burning for Wishbone Ash - rewind not quite to the pilgrim fathers, but back to the 70s. As one who should have paid more attention to the band back when they were big (reaching the top 30 in the 70s), I regret not having listened more carefully back then (and as "A" says, one of the benefits of blogging here is the chance to learn/delve deeper.) My search for a <Pilgrim> song lead to Wishbone Ash's Pilgrim, nan lo-and-behold, I find myself learning more about and hearing good sounds from a seminal band that featured dual lead guitars. To my ears, it sounds -pleasantly - like the Allman Brothers Duane Allman  and Dickey Betts (edited since first post - sorry). What's even more amazing is that Wishbone Ash is still doing their thing 23 albums/40 years later.

Check it out:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Farming: Rain on the Scarecrow

Music is about discovery. Or at least it is to me: one band leads to another leads to a genre you’ve never paid much attention to until the right album comes your way leads to whole sonic landscapes that might be almost forgotten by most, but still have an avid following, a strange tribe that believes religiously in the beat. I once knew a guy who listened to Bruce Springsteen. Only Bruce Springsteen. He literally possessed no other music other than Springsteen. Now, Springsteen’s not a forgotten artist, obscured by time and relegated to the dusty crates of someone’s record collection. But, my fanatical neighbor is a great example of how music, in all its genres and sub genres and styles and sub-styles and factors divisible by style and substance and rhythm and melody and method and region and reason, survives. Not only survives, but often flourishes despite anonymity. Some of your favorite records might not be million sellers, but the place the music occupies in your heart, in your personal story, is beyond value. And there a millions of us there carrying a torch for great music that no one else knows.

For every Springsteen fanatic, there’s also a dedicated archivist keeping the flame lit for Louisiana Swamp Pop, or Cowboy Swing, or almost anything else you can think of, if you type in the right phrase in the old google machine. Which, is why the internet is such an amazing resource—the image of the last man on earth, feeding the flames of knowledge to keep information alive for the unknown future comes to mind—but the internet and the digitalization of music is doing amazing things not only for the hermits sitting on guard in the dark corners, but also for the intrepid explorers, boldly setting forth in search of new music. It’s an endless continent, and there is no horizon when it comes to seeking new sound. Music draws that kind of person to its tribe—the obsessive completist, willing to go to dark places to retrieve the strangest gem from the perils of obscurity. one who might starve in the dark just to be sure... 

And... just realized... this is starting to turn into a post-apocalyptic thriller about saving music from the Morlocks…

Truly, though, the greatest thing about music is the endless nature of it—you’ll never have enough time to get to it all, because according to Robert Earl Keen, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends…” 

So, it is a great pleasure when I type a term into Google-- say “Harvest” and “Music”--and know that I might not be back for a very long time. Which is what I love about this blog. Touching down on fresh shores, discovering artists who I've never heard, is my favorite way of getting lost. And getting lost also means hours upon hours of hearing artists I’ve never bothered with and realizing such profound thoughts like: This is great; why have I never given Buck Owens* a chance? all the way to: I knew about Vaporwave, but…damn, this is cool.  

A blog like this gives the opportunity to not only find new sounds, but reevaluate what you’ve already made judgment about because of…well, almost anything: videos, associations with bands that really are crap, the fact that everyone you hate listens to it. It’s good to reach that point in your maturity where genre doesn’t matter anymore, and you no longer have to worry about what you listen to. The discovery becomes a joy of its own and your world expands—your musical word, that is. I think about being a younger man who, due to some silly punk ethic, never gave the likes of Dwight Yoakam a chance. But now…that’s daily listening.

Which brings us to today’s post topic. “Harvest”, which I interpreted as Farming…which has turned into a nice long walk down a country road.
And on that road, I took time to listen to a lot of music, some of which I never gave a chance, and some of which I never had such an essential part of my listening when I was young and still perfectly impressionable...

Farming and farm life are country music staples, often with the ethos of being ‘country strong’ at the core of what these songs are meant to stand for. The farming motif is a good one, and spans a whole genre from being proud of the place you grew up, to parties in the barns with the farmer’s daughter. From Hank Williams' "A Country Boy Can Survive" all the way to Kenny Chesney’s "She Thinks My Tractor is Sexy," the farm and the country life is almost its own genre. These kinds of songs play to a way of life that is real, even if often idealized for the great Americana motif it carries. And, yeah, there is the undeniably great sing-along aspect to this kind of music. So, good country songs are ready-made to become iconic in our cultural understanding of music. And they are damn fun to sing along with while drinking beers. But, there’s also the more realistic aspect to songs about the country and being ‘country’. One that tries to speak to the people most likely to understand, because they've live dit.

And, I think one of the strongest songs in this genre is John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”—a decidedly stark departure from the revel of being born country and remembering your roots. The title track of his 1985 album, this was the song that launched Mellencamp finally and completely from his Johnny Cougar, more-fun-Springsteen-real-American-voice, Heartland rocker, image into a serious voice in music and a chronicler of American life on the fringes, the real America. Mellencamp has always been an amazing writer, serving up life-stories—tragic, romantic and otherwise—through his songs, in a novelistic, first-person-narrative approach. Like Springsteen, who he has always shared an unfair likening to from critics and fans, Mellencamp plies his trade and his talent through melody, but his brilliance lies in the stories he tells.

Scarecrow allows Mellencamp to do what he does best and place himself as the central character in his songs who tells the tale. "Rain on the Scarecrow" is about Mellencamp’s immediate world, the place he grew up in, that despite his money and his success, he’s never really left. He’s made a lot of money from that image of being—remaining, really—the common man, and when he sings from a first person perspective of a farmer watching the bank foreclose on his family’s farm, watching his heritage and his history and his dreams go fallow in the wake of economic ruin, it only serves to bring this plight to stark, unflinchingly real life.

"Rain on the Scarecrow" was written in response to the 1980s ‘farming crisis’ where the need for cheap food, driven by falling wages, lead to government subsidies for big Agro-business, and the rise of factory farming. In Ronald Regan’s America, this led to the sad demise of countless family farms. I remember growing up with bank foreclosures and sad auctions with farmers looking on as their lives and traditions were shuttered, parceled and sold as a ubiquitous image on the news. Mellencamp saw this first hand in his home state of Indiana, where he has always lived, even at the height of popularity, and wrote this song to chronicle the ending of a way of life for so may of his neighbors and our fellow Americans. I’ve always felt that this song did more to bring that plight to life than any news broadcast or politician’s appeal. The ability to reach across traditional boundaries and stir emotions to understanding, if not action, seems to work best when accompanied by guitar and drums. "Rain on the Scarecrow" was a wake up call for many to the realities of ‘the heartland.’ Mellencamp went on to found Farm Aid, which is still raising money to support independent farms, and it all started with this amazing song.

The album itself spawned the mega-hit, “Small Town” which solidified the real American voice motif for which he’s so known. And the album is full of great, Telecater-driven kickin' rhythm rock tracks, and yes, it still manages to be a genre-piece that speaks in the language of the heartland, of family, of small-values that make for big hearts and the goodness of simple lives. But, “Rain on the Scarecrow” stands out for its angry delivery and striking sense of indignation. Mellencamp might talk later on about the difficulties of dealing with a “A Lonely Ol’ Night”, but “Rain on the Scarecrow” hits like a right cross as an opening track and resonates long after it fades, mostly because you know that despite his raised voice, there is no solution.

The song itself is a brilliant piece of atmospherics. It starts with a sharp, loud drum line, which gives way to a lightning strike guitar lick. The rhythm—marital drums, a tolling a strident bell-rung guitar—the song opens like a summons to an execution. That ominous crack of the drums, and the haunting, twisting guitar line, gives way to an angry song, more akin to a funeral march than the opening track to a rock album.

Mellencamp tells the story of a man losing his farm because he can’t keep up with the bills and seeing his tradition and his long history foreclosed upon. The song is rife with religious imagery, from the crucified scarecrow sitting alone in the rain, to the grandmother on the front porch, lamenting over fallow crops, or a lost Eden, with a bible in her hands, ‘…singing Take me to the Promised Land.’ And he works brilliantly in the dark imagery, letting simple phrases stand on the air in dark, eerie precision: "rain on the scarecrow/blood on the plow". The imagery works in perfect contrast to the actual story of a man seeing the place he has known since he was child slipping away from him--something stark and frightening, akin to damnation, to highlight the real story, which doesn't need to rely on image to frighten.

There is no happy ending in the song—it remains an angry lament, a summons to darkness rather than a discovery of greener pastures. Mellencamp offers no solutions, makes no promises of redemption. But rather gives his adopted persona room to speak on his anger. Which is the other brilliance of the song: it gives voice to the voiceless. It’s Steinbeck-like in the way it draws on reality and uses the language of experience to tell the kind of story that needs to be heard, and much like the voices that populate The Grapes of Wrath, “Rain on the Scarecrow” serves it’s purpose of bringing what we’d rather not know about into the stark light of knowing. 

Mellencamp has gone on to prove himself a versatile, expansive artist, a singer and writer with lasting appeal and gracefully aging vision. His latest, Plain Spoken, is a sparse, acoustic affair that reflects on the realities of a man facing aging, facing mortality, and while it doesn’t tear up the landscape like Scarecrow did, there is still that abiding honesty that makes his music so authentic. Mellencamp has kept Farm Aid going, still pledged to its original intention to help those in need and I think the appeal of “Rain on the Scarecrow” is the fact that it doesn’t age—simply put: it’s an angry song, and like many angry songs, the vitality of its intention, the doggedness of its indignation and the driving anger of the guitars and drums make it insistent enough to keep speaking, every time you hear it.

Honorable mentions in the genre of “Farm” tunes:

…but, I oughta quit before I get all sad and weepy for home and my gloriously misspent Carolina days…

*I was just kidding about Buck Owens—he’s one of my favorites and he’s swinging it up in a honky tonk up in Heaven right now, if we’re lucky.