C'mon In

Thoughts, remarks, links, ideas, & notes on music, film, culture, friendship, love, sex, literature, sports, women, wine--from my mind and the minds of many others. Add your own...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Grammies, circa 2009

Regarding last night's Grammies...Am I the only person in the world who doesn't quite get the Plant-Krauss collaboration? Even allowing for television's clumsy marriage to musical performance, their performance last night was uneven to begin with but was ultimately hard to hear, marred by T-Bone Burnett's nasty guitar tone and caramel-thick playing.

I guess I'm at a loss as to what this music is...no bass, a fluttering melody, Appalachian ornaments and "haunting" backwoods elements sprinkled throughout the arrangement? Are we supposed to think of our dead great-aunts in Missouri named Blanche and Gertrude? Are we supposed to get small pox while listening to it? Should we clean the well and shoot the horses? Should we hum "Shenandoah" between songs? This is T-Bone country of course, with him being the great caretaker of our musical traditions, White European immigrant branch. He's been masterful with much of it; I just don't think his Midasian touch moves me much.

It's all part of the Old Weird America Conspiracy.

I will try and warm to it, and likely will, because I love the previous work of both singers involved.

Other than that, the Grammies were enjoyable--empty-headed and hard-hearted as always, but enjoyable for its wide array of performances. Even President Obama was referred to as an "artist" in our great inclusive, participatory culture.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Working On a Dream

All the sanctimonious hype around Bruce Springsteen playing the Super Bowl rubbed me the wrong way. Why is anyone shocked or surprised by Bruce playing the Super Bowl? What is there to "come to terms" with? Name any major successful act and he's made exactly the same mercenary concessions to sales and fame and money that any other act has--maybe even moreso than others. The only thing that's different is that they don't make claims otherwise. If you listened to him at his Super Bowl press conference, he didn't either, yet his fans seem to make them for him and get all hung up on the past.

He plays stadiums and has for 20 years; he pushes singles and records with more media concentration than anyone; he releases Greatest Hits to the highest bidding retailer; he charges an arm and a leg to see him; he lets his music be cut up with football sounds--- wherein all this is there a "shock" he's playing the Super Bowl? And his 12 minute mini-set, in the end, was fabulous.

I guess it's because the biggest difference--and this is a big one--is that the music's a ton better, and a ton more meaningful and enduring than with other acts. His music has defined and framed our lives. But is it "selling out?" That's absurd. I have no problem paying an arm and a leg to see him; it's worth it, one of the few things in American life where that's so. But I don't get why the world keeps expecting him to behave like some fringe artiste, making decisions based on principles that would keep him out of the limelight. Everything he does is admittedly about the limelight. And it really should be no other way--the music is to be shared. And it's beautiful music. I'd do it exactly the same way, with as much honesty and class as he's displayed recently--he's doing all this because he loves it and needs it and wants the world to dig the music. No harm, no foul. As Greil Marcus famously wrote, and I paraphrase, the game of pop is not worth playing on a limited basis.

All the erroneous rhetoric in Bob Lefsetz's bitter pollyanna trip--two columns worth of kvetching over Bruce "selling out," bemoaning rock's lost innocence. I'm a fan and I'm happy Bruce is so exposed currently--I get hear more of his music. He's pimpin' a killer new record and a great body of work...what's the problem? Great things are hard to find in this world.

Now I've lived with his new one, Working On A Dream, in my car for some long drives and many listens, and in a lot of ways it's the Bruce album I've been waiting for. I bitched about him doing the dry-as-dust cowboy songs when he was capable of such florid, ornate and moving music...and now he's done it. I really like a lot of the same things as a songwriter and record-maker: The fluid string arrangements (with real strings), the simple groove, the arcing, long melody lines, the arpeggiated guitars often doubled, the piano as response to the vocal, played on the upbeat; the harmonic innovation (this is what's really blowin' my mind with this new record) and the lyrics about contentment--which is to say you gotta know the other side of contentment before you can write about it. You gotta know suffering to sing wisely of contentment.

I made my homage to the Beach Boys with Sunflower Soul Serenade, and it's hip to hear Bruce mining those same sounds in intros and bridges--the bass lines built on thirds (straight outta the Carole Kay/Brian Wilson cookbook) the spry quarter note piano stabs, doubled by harpsichord and organ, the sleigh bells and glock (nothing new to Bruce of course) and of course the lovely vocal arrangements.

It's maybe his most personal record since Tunnel Of Love, and the best lyrical commentary on a happy marriage ever in rock. It could well be the flipside to Blood On The Tracks or Shoot Out The Lights, those sad song cycles of marriages falling apart in bitterness and desperation.

But it's the melodic and harmonic construction, along with the lead vocal timbre, that makes me say Home Run. From the relative "ease" of "Surprise Surprise"--a major key melody built around flatted fifths that is as fine as any Bachrach or McCartney melody--to the descending flow of "Kingdom of Days," these are melodies that not only resolve--they anticipate the melody line to come. Brilliant gifts that he lets shine through by getting out of the way in the writing process.

It's almost not fair--just when you think of Bruce as a non-melodic "talking" songwriter, he pulls all these languid, gorgeous songs out. I could go on of course, about all the songs, but I really need to listen more. I don't really give a fuck if he plays in a Wal-Mart parking lot if he keeps making records this vital, this beautiful. I've always aspired to make "beautiful" music, because to my ears it works and there's a shortage of it in rock'n'roll.

I do have to say I don't get "Outlaw Pete," if there is anything to "get." I know the image of a baby in a diaper robbing someone is funny, but I'm not sure it's supposed to be funny. I can't imagine writing a song like "Outlaw Pete" in a zillion years, but the music is epic--a lost cross between Kris Kristofferson and Morricone.

Is it me or is this the longest, coldest, snowiest winter in 30 years? With the constant drone of job cuts, lawsuits, bailouts, plant closings, foreclosures and city corruption here in Detroit, this is our Turgenev Russian winter. Stark, lonely, frightening on one hand; on the other I see families and friends pulling together and at least trying to weather this. They talk about it being so bad in '82, but this is far worse to me. We're all trying to find gigs but the climate is one of fear and abjuration. Everyone's just hangin on, and that includes me and my family, my band, many of my friends.

At first, truth be told, I was miffed with Bruce putting out such a record in these times, seemingly without comment on how fucked up things are. Yet in the end, this is the kind of record we need. We don't need more headlines and portrayals of lives betrayed in meager economic times; they're everywhere around us. This record is a reminder about life's bittersweet longing--a personal statement that is inclusive in its vision and breathtaking in its scope. It's such a deeply felt, (and I hate this term but it really really applies) life-affirming circle of songs. Shaped like a life-saver for a reason. As passionate about life and living in its totality as those great lines in "Badlands. "

Remarkable, really, when you think about how his motivation could so easily wane. More than any mythical thing surrounding him, or deals with stores, or support of labor, or the legendary 4 hour shows, or the legions of fans...the beauty and clarity and discipline and work ethic in these late-in-life records prove beyond any doubt how he's in it for the music, and only for the music.

I'd like to think if I had all the money in the world and access to private jets etc that I'd still make a record a year and tour all year. But a part of me thinks I might drink at a small cafe in Majorca for 6 months. Nah...I only care about music and family and town too. It's just as hard to maintain discipline when you're broke. In the end, I'm happy Bruce wanted to play the Super Bowl. It was an iconic meeting of American institutions. For 12 minutes I forgot it was winter in Detroit, 2009.