Trying To Get To You

Monday, August 16, 2010

Arcade Fire Beyond Niche

I'm sorry I didn't see the Arcade Fire's shows at Madison Square Garden on August 4th and 5th. From what I've read, the shows were anywhere in the range from very good to great, and while I'm generally positive but far from super-enthusiastic about The Suburbs, live is apparently how you need to get this band.

I'm not going to review the album. Rob Harvilla from the Village Voice has written a review that neatly and smartly encapsulates many of my views about both the band and the album, which for me is another in a series of epochal "good but not nearly great" albums in the tradition of Ok Computer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Is This It?, Up The Bracket, the entire Spoon catalog, and more - music whose praise has me listen and listen and listen, only to end up scratching my head at what all the fuss is about. I'd love to ascribe it to my contrary nature, but I yearn for consensus about the great far more than I yearn to make everyone else wrong.

And while it'd be nice if the herd of independent thinkers had a more consistent ability to discern the truly great from the good, the success of the Arcade Fire is heartening in that it shows that there is a demand, even amongst the too cool for schoolers, for music to be something more than one's private, nichefied pleasure. Just imagine if the Arcade Fire's songwriting chops matched their ambition. Now that would be something, because Springsteen comparisons or no Springsteen comparisons, Born In The U.S.A. this ain't, rhythmically, humor wise, in insight or any which way. But there's always the next album, and I guess I gotta see 'em live.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#30-#21)

Well, it only took me three months to start the second half of the countdown, but good things come to those who wait, right?

30. “Start Me Up” (1981, from Tattoo You)

It’s the late fall of 1981. I’m 11 years old, in 6th grade, and I’m visiting my big sister at Syracuse University, where she’s attending law school. My father has allowed me to take the bus on my own to see her, so I’m feeling pretty manly. Big stuff. We’re out getting food at some place that feels “college-y” to me, and I’m feeling really, really cool. “Start Me Up” comes on, and I’m quietly singing along to it all the way through. It’s been a big hit all through that fall of 1981, and I’ve got the Tattoo You cassette, which I like, but don’t love. (It would take me about 25 years to become a big fan of side two.)

The song comes to its coda when Jagger, as the song begins the fade out sings, “You make a dead man come.” I sing along to the line. My sister, who is almost 15 years older and super-protective of me, gets an urgently worried look on her face, and asks semi-frantically, “Do you know what that line means???” “Yeah,” I explain somewhat impudently, very sure of myself. “It means that the girl is so pretty that the dead guy comes out of his coffin.” My sister explodes in laughter, relieved that at least for a little while longer, her baby brother is still very innocent.

29. “Stop Breaking Down” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

I’m 19 years old, and I read something in Rolling Stone where Steven Tyler is saying that he’s kept time to “All Down The Line” while fucking. Being that I’m not particularly experienced or confident in the area of sex and know that Steven Tyler is, I remember little nugget, and use it the next chance I get. It kind of works, as I’ve got a solid beat to concentrate on and keeping time has never been an issue for me. But something isn’t quite right. I share the Steven Tyler story with the woman I’m with, and she laughs. Fortunately, she knows Exile well and says that “All Down The Line” is way too fast. She suggests that I keep time to “Stop Breaking Down” instead, and implores me to make sure to include some of the syncopation within. Smart woman. Great woman.

A year or so later, I’m with a friend in his dorm room, and we’re heavy into some really great acid. We’re drinking beer after beer and listening to Exile. “Stop Breaking Down” comes on, and we get completely into the fiber of the song, in that special way that only people who have used hallucinogenics will completely understand. I turn to my friend and say, “Jesus. This is really violent.” His eyes bulge, and he responds “Oh My God, you’re right!” like I have just revealed the secret of the Universe. If the Secret was going to be anywhere, I guess it could be in “Stop Breaking Down.” Good times.

28. “Moonlight Mile” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

It’s the sound of the sun coming up after coming down very, very long night; the fear hovering, a “head full of snow,” and all of it impossibly weary and impossibly romantic. The band’s most beautiful arrangement, thanks to mainly to Mick Taylor, who built the song off a short riff by Keith, elongated and elaborated upon it, and then had the brilliant idea to give it to Paul Buckmaster (“Tiny Dancer”) to add strings. Of course, he got no credit (royalties) for it.

Jagger may never have claimed to be speaking for anyone other than himself, but “Moonlight Mile” captures post-60’s alienation and exhaustion about as well as anyone – and makes it shimmer. One of the greatest ballads by anyone at anytime.

27. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Keith takes his fetish for open G tuning and creates one of his most memorable riffs; a slashing dagger of a sound that’s part violence and part sex – the Midnight Rambler coming off a Gibson.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the jam that fills out the last four or so minutes of the song. It’s a fine jam, but it’s impossible to be anything other than a letdown after what’s come before. Mick Taylor may have been the best lead player the Stones ever had; lyrical, melodic and technically brilliant, but unfortunately, he wasn’t necessary, just like the jam on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

26. “Salt Of The Earth” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

Keith sings sincerely for the Proletariat, because it might have sounded ridiculous coming out of Mick’s mouth, given that he wrote it completely cynically. The Stones were never really a working class band; at the outset, they chose their poverty rather than having it imposed upon them. But they sound completely convincing, mainly because Mick undercuts the sentiment within by acknowledging his own alienation from the masses he courted so successfully. And whoever made the call to include the Los Angeles Watts Street Gospel Choir on it deserves a Nobel Prize.

25. “You’ve Got The Silver” (1969, unreleased alternate take)

The version from Let It Bleed with Keith on lead vocals is great. The alternate, unreleased version with Mick Jagger on lead vocals is otherworldly. It speaks for itself.

24. "Midnight Rambler" (1970, from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, recorded 1969)

Violence as sex, sex as violence - all of it so compelling that you don't know whether it's a fantasy or a nightmare. A "Blues Opera" is what Keith calls it, and I guess that's sort of true, although there's plenty of striptease in there too.

Listening to the version from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, recorded at Madison Square Garden in November of 1969, I can't help but wonder: What the hell were a band making music this violent doing throwing a free concert? Jerry Garcia said that the Stones were that bit of red and black that one has in their sex life, and when he said that, he must have been thinking about "Midnight Rambler" - this is about as far from peace and love as it gets.

23. “Love In Vain” (1969, from Let It Bleed)

I had a sometimes weird and sometimes wonderful on/off relationship with a woman in my mid-20’s. She was thoroughly inappropriate for me and we had disastrously bad sex (once), but she was beautiful and I loved her anyway, somewhat unrequitedly. She got me into drinking scotch and I kept her cat, two things for which I will forever be grateful to her for. We’re now great friends, so it all turned out.

We didn’t agree on much musically speaking. She was a punk and indie rocker – but punk for her wasn’t the Sex Pistols or the Ramones; she had never even heard Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols. For her, punk rock meant a lot crappy, soulless, pretentious and sexless indie bands on K Records that I tried to like – I was smitten enough by her that I was willing to give an open ear to anything she was into – but found utterly dreadful. The one thing we agreed on was the Stones (and Al Green – she hated Springsteen - so much for taste).

We would get drunk on Johnnie Walker Red, put on Let It Bleed, and we’d start singing “Love In Vain,” not particularly well. The lyrics would always hit hard and I would feel that pit in my stomach; I knew this was a relationship that wasn’t going to happen, that she wasn’t even appropriate for me – and I wanted her anyway, and couldn’t have her. Love in vain indeed, but in the end, all for the best.

22. "Casino Boogie" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

My first copy of Exile was on a 60 minute cassette that I recorded off of someone else. Exile is 66 minutes long, so I had to cut a couple of songs and “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie” were the casualties. (And there was something to be said for going right from “Rip This Joint” into “Tumbling Dice.”) At the time, the two songs seemed insignificant to me. Even a couple of years later, when I got a full copy of the album, the magnificence of “Casino Boogie” was something that I was not yet equipped to grasp. It took probably several hundred listens for me to finally get the majesty of the thing. But when I did…

To the uninitiated, “Casino Boogie” feels more like a groove than a song. But what a groove! Part New Orleans, part juke joint, part Chicago blues and part bordello, it’s a groove that screams wonderfully decadent times and nasty habits, all of which seem like so much fun, it makes me wonder if in the end, the casualties left in the wake of the Glimmer Twins thought it was all worth it.

21. “Sympathy For The Devil” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

"Sympathy For The Devil," one of the greatest songs ever about humanity and evil, is terrifying in its perfection. Everything about it is brilliant - the conga intro, primitive and timeless; the way the Nicky Hopkins' piano drops in perfectly; the slow build of it and the perfect dynamics; Keith’s solo, one of the greatest in rock history; and of course, the “woo-woo’s." It’s guttural and earthy yet completely cosmopolitan and sophisticated - Bohemia moved to Africa.

It’s a band triumph - they worked for this one, refining the arrangement over and over again until they got it right, but the biggest triumph belongs to Mick, as both lyricist and vocalist, who captures the terrifying and thrilling frenzy of that Spring of '68, as revolution and murder weren't just in the air, they were the air.

Recorded during the period of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, Jagger takes us on a trip through history to assert that the devil isn’t some presence out there, but something that lurking within all of us, a message missed by many who took the song literally, thinking the song is a paean to Lucifer. The Stones were always smarter than their detractors. But even that speaks to Jagger’s genius; with smooth, cool and controlled fury, he could really make you believe he was the Devil. Or at least back then he could.