A Deeper Shade Of Soul

Trying To Get To You

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Failure Of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

Let’s be straight with each other, shall we?
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is not a great album. In fact, it’s debatable whether relative to Springsteen’s body of work, it’s even a particularly good one. It evidences the same weaknesses that more than a little of Springsteen’s work has suffered from since his last masterpiece, Tunnel OfLove (1987); over-thought and over-intellectualized concepts that border dangerously on self-importance, backed by music that feels like it’s made by an artist who desperately wants to find new sounds that are the equal of his older ones, but who cannot quite locate them. It is an ambitious album and it is certainly a failure, one of the biggest of his career.
If Wrecking Ball is Springsteen honing in on the Great Recession and placing blame where he thinks it belongs, his chronic tendency to overthink things has him deliberately and needlessly link it lyrically it to past American crisis’, whether it’s the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement or striking railroad workers in the 19th century, which only diffuses the power of the songs for the present they are attempting to speak to. And the music, mostly folk based with touches of gospel, r&b, rock and inexplicably, Irish folk, has a modern sheen, but more often than not, it feels old, as though Springsteen is writing songs for the downtrodden workingman from 1937, not 2012.  It sounds like Springsteen has chosen to aim the gun--and has picked up a musket instead of an automatic weapon.
When Springsteen sings of “robber barons” and “cannonballs” in “Death To My Hometown;” or  “fat cats” on the woefully clichéd “Easy Money,” the ancient language makes everything feel embarrassingly impotent; it’s as though Professor Springsteen has taken over, and instead of powerfully addressing the breakdown in American society as it exists and is spoken of right now, he’s writing the songs to double as history lessons. What Springsteen has forgotten is that great political albums (whether it’s Dylan or What’s Goin’ On) speak and live in the present and then become timeless—they make history more than they sing about it.
Wrecking Ball’s first single, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” is firmly placed in the present as it lists all the places that we don’t take care of our own, but its ode to the E Street sound (yes, including glockenspiel) is all too shiny and glossy, brawny but empty. Producer Ron Aniello (Jars of Clay, Candlebox, Lifehouse) cannot (as Brendan O’Brien could not) find a guitar tone that sound anything other than, well, mainstream cheese. (For the great rocker he is, it’s inexcusable that Springsteen hasn’t had a consistently cool sounding guitar tone on record since 1984.)
Aniello and Springsteen produced the album pretty much as a duo, with Springsteen playing the majority of instruments himself and Aniello providing percussion and sampling. The samples are fine, but they provide little—they feel tacked on, obvious, and ultimately, unnecessary. And why Springsteen, one of the greatest rockers of all time, has chosen to work with the guy whose biggest credits are Jars Of Clay, Lifehouse and Candlebox is a mystery, other than the fact that they met through Aniello’s production of a Patti Scialfa album. The choice of Aniello evidences another breakdown in the Springsteen camp in recent years—the lack of collaborators who are at Springsteen’s level and can elevate him. At the end of the day, taste matters, and many of the production decisions made on Wrecking Ball exhibit a fatal amount of middling taste.
There are some fine moments on the album. “Shackled and Drawn,” despite its Irish lilt, is buoyant enough to overcome its arrangement. “This Depression” leaves the Irish folk by the wayside and with a beat straight out of “When The Levee Breaks,” has a yearning that and sense of loss that is affecting. “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” a great Springsteen song that he’s been playing since 1999, is rearranged and is far more effective rhythmically than it’s ever been with the E Street Band. “Rocky Ground” has an overtly gospel tone that uplifts. But none of these recordings, not a single one, is a classic, and every Springsteen album in the last decade, even Working On A Dream, has had its share.
You can’t fault Springsteen’s good intentions on Wrecking Ball. His passion and commitment is still palpable. But ultimately, this is an album that won’t make the sub prime mortgage guys at Goldman Sachs lose a single minute of sleep. At the end of the day, Springsteen has done no better than the Obama Administration to hold to account those responsible for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. If anything, so far in 2012, Obama is having a far better year than Bruce.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes On The Big Man, Clarence Clemons: 1942-2011

I first experienced the healing power of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on August 14, 1985. I was fourteen, had just gotten home from sleep away camp a few days earlier, and had a couple of weeks of summer vacation left before school started.  And instead of being by the pool, I was in bed, really sick. I knew what it was—I was asplenetic, the result of being in a car accident when I was six, and not having a spleen left my immune system compromised, so I had the same infection that I came down with four or five times each year as a child--swollen tonsils so bad I could barely swallow and a temperature of 104. Given its frequency, I wasn’t worried, but I knew that I had at least three days of being hellaciously sick in front of me.

Then my older brother Robert called.

Robert was almost seventeen years older than me. Technically, he was my half-brother (same father) but he never occurred to me like that—he was my big bro. When I was a little boy I worshiped him and he was about as incredible a big brother as anyone could have. When I was in the car accident that had me lose my spleen (and my mother) and was in the hospital for a week recovering from my injuries, Robert, who was serving in the Army in Germany, immediately came home on emergency leave, and except to go to my mother’s funeral, didn’t leave my side for that week, sleeping in a chair next to me every night.

As I got older, our relationship inevitably became more complicated and occasionally stormy. But the love was still there, and in terms of my musical development, he was critical. It was from Robert that at the age of nine or so, I first held Born To Run in my hands. Robert turned me on to the Ramones and the Talking Heads and a zillion other bands that most pre-teens just didn’t listen to, and when I got into the Who, he insisted on playing Quadrophenia to the exclusion of all other Who records. It was from him that I got a cassette that he had picked up while stationed in Germany. The label copy was all in German except for six words: The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed.

Robert’s call came in and someone yelled up to me to pick up. I wearily brought the phone to my ear, and the first words I heard were, “You want to go see Springsteen in Philly tomorrow night?”

I shot straight out of bed.

“Really???” I asked. Yep. And he told me that he had paid $125 for each ticket that had a face value of $17.50. I told him I was sick and he just said, “Well get better quick, kid. We’re going.” I told him I would and hung up.

I ran downstairs to tell my dad. I was now something beyond manic. My dad loathed rock and never pretended to understand my devotion to the music, but his response was typically great. “Well, if your temperature is normal by tomorrow morning, you can go.” I gobbled some more aspirin and took a couple extra anti-biotics. There was no way in the world I was missing this. By 8am the next morning, Thursday, August 15, my temperature was 98.6. My dad gave me the green light to go to the show.

My brother picked me up in the afternoon, and we drove down to Philadelphia. I’m not sure I had ever been more excited. It was not only my first Springsteen show—it was my first rock concert. It was the height of Born In The U.S.A. mania and that mania was palpable. Bruce was the biggest rock star on the planet, and Veterans Stadium felt like the center of the earth on that immensely hot and humid night.

Bruce opened, as he did practically all his shows on that tour, with a booming version of “Born In The U.S.A.” I pumped my fist in the air like everyone else. But the loudest applause in the early part of the show, even louder than when the band came out from the wings, was during the night’s second song, “Badlands,” when Clarence played his first solo of the night. The sax signified something larger than the guitars or drums; after all, every rock band had guitars and drums, and most had keyboards. No, the sax meant that we were at a Bruce Springsteen concert for real, and that fact being drilled home through Clarence’s tenor filled 65,000 people with an incredible amount of joy.

The four hours (including the intermission) went by in a blur, and Clarence felt almost as important to the night’s proceedings as Bruce himself. He was the foil, visually and musically, and his solos on “Trapped,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “The Promised Land,” and “Hungry Heart” lit the whole of the stadium. When Bruce closed “Thunder Road” by sliding across the stage sixty feet across his knees to kiss Clarence right on the mouth, it felt both shocking to my 14 year old self and completely right. In a lot of ways, Clarence felt like the most popular person in the stadium that night.

That night, August 15, 1985, was the first night I shared with the band, the first of dozens to come. The huge majority of those shows came after Bruce reunited the band in 1999, and by then, Clarence was not nearly as mobile as he once had been. But he was still the Big Man, still playing well and his sax served as the ultimate signifier that the band was indeed back together; perhaps that’s why he was treasured more than ever. The centerpiece of the tour, a 20-minute version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” climaxed every night with Bruce’s introduction of Clarence and those first two lines of the third verse of the song: “Well they made that change uptown/And the Big Man joined the band.” That was it. That was what, in a lot of ways, it was always all about.

The absence of the band for 10 years had made hardcore fans like myself very conscious to enjoy each moment we experienced with the band. The experience was no longer to be taken for granted, if it had ever been. And of all the many rituals at a Bruce and E Street show, my favorite was always the first notes of Clarence’s first solo every night. I anticipated it every night, and sometimes would look at the crowd instead of Clarence, so I could watch the faces transform into beams of joy as his sax washed over the crowd. It was a clarion call of sorts, living testament to a lot of what Bruce wanted his music to be about—friendship, joy, the search for connection, meaning and soul. Life right here, right now.

And it was about love. To experience Clarence Clemons was to experience love; the love that he put out every night to the crowd, his obvious and immense love affair with Bruce, his love of earthly pleasures, his love of soul and spirit, and his love of providing people with joy. And that love he gave was returned to him from the crowd every single night in most beautiful of ways. While there are a lot of hardcore fans that have complicated feelings about Bruce over a variety of matters (his politics, his newer material, etc.), about Clarence there was no such ambivalence. We all agreed on Clarence. And therefore, the love reflected back at him from the crowd was pure love, about a pure a thing as I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, he knew it, loved it, and reveled in it.

As a player, Clarence was both unaccomplished technically and completely perfect. He was a honker in the King Curtis tradition extending back to Los Angeles jump blues bands from the 40’s and Atlantic R&B of the 50’s. But he was always the band’s link to soul, in both music and attitude. Like the best of Springsteen’s music, where the songs simultaneously contain joy and sorrow, Clarence’s best solos in “Trapped,” “Jungleland,” “Drive All Night,” “The Promised Land,” and others, felt to me like a burst of freedom with a large heaping of knowing sadness. They may have been triumphant, but the triumph always came with a price.

I saw that price up close in April of 2009, back in Philadelphia, where I had first seen the band almost 25 years previously. The lights went down, and the band went to their spots onstage. I was about 15 rows up on the side, Clarence’s side, and even in the dark, I could see Bruce helping Clarence, who had just undergone knee and hip replacement surgery, to his spot onstage, much the way a son helps one of their infirm parents. It was clear that Clarence could barely walk. When Clarence got to his spot and Bruce knew he was properly situated, they embraced and kissed, and before the lights went on and a single note was played, I was crying.

Hearing the news of his death on Saturday night was both totally expected and a complete shock. But what surprised me was the intensity of my reaction. I got home, poured myself a scotch, scoured the Internet, made a “Clarence” playlist on iTunes—and cried off and on all night into Sunday morning. I drove out to Jersey to be with my dad on Father’s Day and the second I heard that ethereal organ intro to “Independence Day,” I lost it in the car. I cried not because there won’t be any more Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shows with Clarence Clemons. I cried simply because I really loved living on the same planet as him, and knowing that he won’t be around anymore in the flesh really, really hurts. And it hurts today. It seems ridiculous in a way to me that losing Clarence feels like losing a member of the family, but it does. It’s a death in the family.

No matter. His body may no longer breathe, but his being--who he was for Bruce, the E Street Band, and the people he played for--lives on through thousands of hours of music and will continue to inspire and bring joy to multitudes. Perhaps it will even heal another sick fourteen-year-old boy, but it most likely won’t be because he needs to get better because the E Street Band are playing in Philadelphia the following night.

Rest in peace, Big Man. Thank you so much for everything.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Preview Of Upcoming Springsteen Community Conference

On October 13 at 4pm, E Street Radio will be broadcasting the latest Springsteen Community Conference that I co-hosted with my good friend John Franck. Titled, "The Ties That Bind: Springsteen and the Next Generation," it's a great exploration of Springsteen's influence on a new generation of musicians.

Our guests for this include Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Pete Yorn and drummer Jay Weinberg. It's a killer show, with some great, informative and often hilarious anecdotes, much like the one below. If you're a Bruce fan, you won't want to miss this!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vampire Weekend Flatten Springsteen

I first heard Vampire Weekend in the summer of 2007 when they were blog buzzing. A friend sent me a link to their Myspace page and said something smarmy about them, asking me where everyone's balls went. I didn't think much of what I heard-this was obviously "smart people" music made by overeducated kids who had probably majored in semiotics, or something in that realm. But whatever, they kind of blew up. I've listened to their albums and while I can listen to them and experience a bit of pleasure, broadly speaking, they do nothing for me.

There's a YouTube video of them doing Springsteen's "I'm Goin' Down" a couple of weeks ago in Vancouver that's been making the rounds. It took me a couple of tries to get all the way through it-it's so horribly cutesy and neutered that it occurs as pointless. I can't help but wonder why they even played it, as they bring nothing to it; not humor, not longing, not sadness and not fun. Yes, there's an interesting novelty about a hot indie band playing a song off of Born In The U.S.A., something that would have been unthinkable ten to twenty years ago, but all Vampire Weekend does is flatten the song into a non-entity. Listening to it, it's no wonder they've been dubbed the world's Whitest Band.

"I'm Goin' Down" is sometimes considered one of the slightest songs on Born In The U.S.A., but it's really not slight at all. It's a Springsteen song that sounds happy but is really sad, following in the grand Springsteen tradition of uptempo songs with much darker lyrical undertones. What it's really about is how love fades or becomes obscured over time. Or said in a better way, how familiarity breeds contempt.

Bruce spoke of this in his introduction to the song on the Born In The U.S.A. tour in 1984-1985. It's a funny little rap, and by putting the song in its rightful context, he takes something that could be seen as slight and elevates it to the level of something truly special, something that eludes Vampire Weekend utterly and completely.

Download: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - "I'm Goin Down" (Los Angeles, CA  10/26/84)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

John Legend Finds His Anger

John Legend with the Roots on September 7, 2010
I've never been much of a John Legend fan. To my ears, he's too damned polite; decent Sunday brunch music perhaps, but entirely middle of the road. Safe. Nice. Harmless. He's clearly in the tradition of upwardly mobile 70's soul - Donnie Hathaway, Roberta Flack, the softer pieces of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and while he may be working in the soul tradition, if you asked me whether the dude has any soul, my answer would have been no.

So I went to last night's John Legend/Roots show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg more excited to see the Roots, well actually, Questlove, than hear anything off of their upcoming album. Wake Up. And indeed, the show was mainly a polite affair, only confirming many of my feelings about Legend.

But for the last song of the main set, they went into a version of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed,"from Withers' classic Live At Carnegie Hall, and a transformation took place. The song, written from the point of view of a wounded Vietnam Vet, was one of the best anti-war songs of its era, and in recreating it in an era of war all the time around the world, both Legend and the Roots got way beyond the polite. 

Legend sunk his teeth into the song; in taking on singing for someone else, he gave himself the freedom to not be nice, to give voice to rage, sorrow, and resentment. He moaned, yelled, shouted and caressed his own aggression. He pounded his piano, responding to the anguish in his vocals with thunderous and jazzy little runs. It was revelatory.

The Roots, who had played within themselves all night, like a great basketball player told that they can only do lay-ups and not dunk, finally let loose, and began to tear it up, especially guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas who played with both speed and suppleness, elevating the tension with each pass through the chorus. Questlove, who had the visage of a funeral director for most of the night, finally began to beam with a grin as he and Legend looked at each other and kept taking it higher. Each time I thought the song might be concluded, they attacked once more, and when they finally finished, the crowd erupted in both release and appreciation. They came to do an encore, but it was really superfluous - nothing else was necessary.

I came away with a new opinion of John Legend. I still feel no need to put his albums on, but I'm far more interested to hear what he does next - perhaps what's been missing in his music up until now is anger, an anger that would curb his tendency for syrup, and would make his realm of romance far more powerful and earned. And for the question, is John Legend soulful, I have a new answer. His music by and large may not be soulful, but down deep, the man has soul.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The 60 Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#20-#11)

20. "Wild Horses" (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Recorded in Muscle Shoals in December of 1969 while on the triumphant U.S. tour that cemented their "greatest rock and roll band in the world" status, "Wild Horses" is a classic Jagger-Richards collaboration, with Keith providing the chorus and riff and Mick providing the verses. It's a perfect pop song, managing to drain the cliche out of a cliche and providing sentiment without ever curdling into the maudlin. The Stones may not be often thought of as making beautiful music, but they've made a lot of it, and this might be their most beautiful song of all.

19. “Torn And Frayed” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

One of their druggiest songs during one their druggiest periods, “Torn And Frayed” is built on three simple chords and the littered reverie of Keith, Anita, Gram Parsons and a boatload of hangers on, leeches, and people looking for a little taste of Glimmer, which as Keith later said, is more addictive than smack. Keith’s background vocals sound like they’re coming from a man’s who’s drowning, which in a way, he was, even though he was at his creative peak.

18, “Dead Flowers” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

By Peter Ramos

It’s hard to tell how seriously Mick or the Stones took their country-fied song “Dead Flowers” when they recorded it.  British musicians playing the blues was one thing, but country? Of course we know now that Keith was hanging around, trading secrets and habits with Gram Parsons.  As well, the song acquired vocal gravitas, and official country legitimacy, when Townes Van Zandt covered it.  Still, whenever I hear Mick starting to sing in that low, slightly exaggerated Southern twang, I can’t help but think, “He’s kidding, no?”  Later, Mick would officially push the act over the top when the band recorded “Far Away Eyes,” too defensively, perhaps, against the criticism that he—a Brit who went to the London School Of Economics for Christ-sakes!—had no business singing God-fearin’ American country.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s. I went to private schools and then a liberal arts college, and though this didn’t completely determine the kinds of music I liked, it seems in some ways no surprise that I listened to classic rock, pop, new wave, punk, and, on rarer occasions, soul and R&B. Hair-band heavy metal couldn’t be taken seriously or even ironically. And country—including the original “classic” kind—was out of the question. And so I must confess, though I’m sure I’m not alone, that hearing “Dead Flowers” for the first time (during the summer of 1990 and right before what should have been my senior year at college) was my first taste of country music.  By this I mean, as I’ve already implied, not that I hadn’t heard country music before, but that I hadn’t yet taken it seriously. However outrageous and artificial Mick’s vocalizing might be, it was the Stones, and not Billy Ray Cyrus (very popular at that time), after all.  Thinking back now, I realize I had already heard “Wild Horses”—in fact it was on a Greatest Hits album I’d owned since middle school—but somehow that song never struck me as being Country in the strict sense, never announced the musical genre it borrowed from in such a loud, self-proclaiming, italicized way.  “Wild Horses” has a country feel; “Dead Flowers,” from the first bar to the last, is Country!  I also suspect that because I’d heard the former so often growing up, on popular radio stations, at mixers and parties, it had become for me naturalized into the genre of “standard classic rock”—not that there’s anything standard about that extraordinary, lovely song. Or maybe, along similar lines, because I’d heard so little real county music growing up—outside of the kind from people like John Denver—I never noticed the influence.

If it matters what and where I was when I first heard “Dead Flowers,” or what state of mind I was in, then I’ll simply state I was with some friends in a field in the middle of summer, very drunk and feeling sorry for myself because of a recent break-up I’d had with my girlfriend of two years. She was not my first girlfriend but my first “true love.” I put the phrase in quotes now to signify that that is how I felt then. So. Your typical suburban college student on summer break, working a shitty job with lots of free time and just enough money to pitch in for and help drink a couple of cases of National Bohemian: sentimental, maudlin, and very drunk.  

This, too, was not a first. In high school, I would also have been drunk, maudlin, sentimental, possibly heartsick, and listening to music—say The Smiths—with this important difference: when I was 16, I really believed my feelings were truly unique to me and that by some miracle Morrissey understood my personal sadness and alienation and articulated it back to me. In college, one comes to understand, more and more, just how typical one’s intense feelings really are. Not that this makes those feelings any less poignant, but it is a relief to finally get beyond the maddening solitary agony of high school narcissism. (Editor’s note: As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever articulated the regrettably long-lasting appeal of Morrissey better than in the sentences above.)

And this last point brings me back to the song itself and to the actual genius of Mick’s performance in it. He knows, as we do, the role drunken heartbreak plays in the economy of country music—it’s a standard, a convention. There’s a tear in my beer. Rather than sing HIS version of country music, his personal take on it, he gives us country music as it is. He uses the standards themselves.  Like any art form, jazz or blues, for example, the standards or conventions of the form, far from inhibiting an artist’s style, personality, uniqueness or originality, are the very media through which his/her personality expresses itself; there is no other way. The Stones are from England, as everyone knows. It’s 1970, not 1955.  If they’re going to play country, they’re going to play it according to its terms, its rules and traditions, and they’re going to do that with the kind of unassailable confidence, that sexy arrogance they’ve had ever since they realized how silly it was perform psychedelic British rock in the wake of Sergeant Pepper’s. Once they’d gotten “2000 Light Years From Home” out of their system, they were ready to become the Stones we’ve come to love ever since.  They would do country, but on country’s terms. Consider the alternatives: if they’d tried, out of a lack of confidence, to insist they were actually playing British “roots music,” some kind of cornball “skiffle” version of country; or imagine if they insisted on there being a connection between country music and Ancient Anglo-Saxon mythology-in the way Led Zeppelin, at their goofiest, sought to establish themselves and their credibility in the genre by drawing parallels between Delta Blues and "The Lord of the Rings." No, that would not do. (Editor’s note: That one sentence sums up Zeppelin’s greatest flaw.)

And yet, Mick is also kidding, after all. Or at least half-kidding. He is capable or being serious when it comes to country. “Wild Horses,” as I’ve implied, is a serious song, a love song, in which the speaker/singer—Mick, obviously—professes his unwavering affection for and dedication to his beloved.  But “Dead Flowers,” lyrically at least, has no such heights of passion. Here the speaker/singer addresses an X-lover. Love has turned to hate: send me hate mail, and I’ll bury you.  But even this passion doesn’t really amount to much; far from being a story of two lovers intent on killing each another, it’s more like, you’re a bratty Southern debutante who looks down on me and my rough neck friends; you also keep sending me these literal reminders that you hate me, but they only show how much you can’t forget me. I, on the other hand, find you annoying, yet neither can I move past you, since I’m a junky and a fuck-up. In fact, I’ll show up at your funeral with flowers but only to finally achieve the ultimate though petty revenge of outliving you.  Again, the banality of this lyrical drama only serves to locate the song more precisely in the very tradition with which the song seeks to align itself.  Traditional country music had already created the story of the lamenting, lovesick-blues singer, endlessly and in so many ways—“If my drinking don’t kill me, her memory will”—it had become itself one more convention of the genre. 

And it’s the genre itself, far from restricting the Stones, that allows them to shine through it.  Consider the song: the loose and lazy backbeat behind that acoustic guitar’s opening open chords, narcotizing and comfortable, the rhythm guitar and honky-tonk piano, and then, a little splash, just the first hints, of that brilliantly whining slide guitar.  In the chorus we hear, just behind Jagger’s low twang but harmonizing with it, unmistakably, Keith’s voice—wonderfully flawed, cracked, but high and lonesome as a bluegrass tenor’s.  And then, best of all, after the second chorus, when the song has completely established itself—Mick Taylor’s solo, a seamless combination of country and blues licks, elegant and tasteful, lowdown and dirty, all at once.  It hits me now that a fine lead guitar solo can make a bad song good (Peter Buck’s on R.E.M.’s silly and otherwise forgettable “Stand") and a good song sublime (Robby Krieger’s on The Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”). And Taylor was new, just finding his way, musically, into the group. This was the first Stones record on which he plays, officially, and on every song. Most amazing of all, he was just out of his teens, “just a lad, nearly 22,” as Hank Williams, himself, sang.

Is it their best song? Maybe not.  But it’s damn good, and more importantly, it opened a door for me into other kinds of music, other traditions within music that deserve attention for their authority, influence and long-lasting beauty.

17, “All Down The Line” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

To promote their 1975 U.S. tour, the Stones played "Brown Sugar" on a flat-bed truck down Park Avenue in New York. It was Charlie's idea, lifted from New York jazz bands of the 30's who would promote their gigs that way. "Brown Sugar" may have been the "right" choice, but "All Down The Line" would have been the more appropriate one.

When the Stones were at their best, they embodied strut and swagger combined with a devastating uptown elegance, almost as though they were a 1970's version of the Count Basie band - swinging hard with an irresistible and sensual gleam. They'd ravage your town and take your woman - and do it with impeccable style.  Nowhere was that more present than on "All Down The Line."

Towering and majestic, lowdown and dirty, this is the music of men at the peak of their powers; musical, sexual, and every which way. "Hear the women sighing," Mick sings, and you know it's true. But even at this peak, this being the Stones, there are no unqualified celebrations. "I need a sanctified girl with a sanctified mind to help me out now," sings Mick, lonely at the top, and way too smart not to notice that all is not well with the Exiles. But judging from the devastating groove, you'd never know that there's a problem. That would come later.

16. “Saint Of Me” (1998, from Bridges To Babylon)

It’s January, 1998 and I’m with my friend John at Madison Square Garden to see what turns out to be a pretty great Stones show. By now, I’ve seen enough Stones tours behind mediocre albums (Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge) to know that when Mick introduces a song by saying, “Here’s a new one…,” I’ve got five minutes or so of downtime. On this night however, I hear some interesting drum loops, a cool riff and as Mick starts singing, it dawns on me that this is not the usual paint-by-numbers late-period Stones song, a la “You Got Me Rocking” or other such dribble. I don’t catch all of the lyrics, but “you’ll never make a saint of me” in the chorus comes off loud and clear. The song rocks, the band slashes its way through it, and when it ends, the applause in the Garden is louder than usual for a new song. John and I look at each other, nod, and say simultaneously, “Good song.”

So I go back to the song, and it immediately becomes clear that this is not just a good song - it's a great Rolling Stones song, with every element of the arrangement working magnificently. Actually, it's really a great Mick Jagger song, as Keith is nowhere to be found on it. The guitars are courtesy of Ron Wood and Waddy Wachtel; the bass is from Me'Shelle N'Ddgeocello; the keyboards are from Mick and Billy Preston and the background vocals are by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin. Keith may have disparaged the Dust Brothers production on Bridges (he recorded most of his contributions with Don Was), but on this track he's just dead wrong; their modern touches work perfectly, giving Mick some vindication in his continued pursuit in keeping the Stones at least a little au currant. 

And unlike many Rolling Stones songs post Exile, the lyrics don't sound like they were written in a cab on the way to the studio. The religious imagery alludes to "Sympathy For The Devil," but since by now it's clear that Mick ain't Lucifer, it's essential that he establish that he's not going to grow old gracefully either, which the semi-mean spirited bastard does rather well. Their last great song.

15. "Sweet Virginia" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

Beyond the sex and violence, the Stones are also a party, and "Sweet Virginia" is the party. When you're out with friends, at someone's home or out at a bar, there's a look that passes over people's faces when "Sweet Virginia" comes on: it's a wry smile, recalling bad things done and bad things yet to be done.

14. "Waiting On A Friend" (1981, from Tattoo You)

Few partnerships/friendships have been more questioned, dissected and speculated about than the one between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It's easy to understand why; they're such an aesthetically pleasing partnership - in look, sound and in the contrast of their personalities. 

The standard rap has become that Keith is the true artist in the band, the one dedicated to the music first, and that Mick is the far more calculated one, the cold-eyed businessman. Keith is the rebel and Mick is the bourgeois social climber with a knighthood, for Chrissakes! And while there's truth to that, the whole truth is far more ambivalent and complicated. 

Some of the riffs that are most identified as "Keith Richards riffs," like the one in "Brown Sugar," are Mick's. And no one can be more cold than Keith Richards, who after Mick Taylor's resignation from the band, dismissed him with a one sentence telegram. Mick has written some of the band's greatest music by himself, and kept the band together when Keith was too smacked out to hold up his end of the bargain. The real truth is they need and love each other - more than either would care to admit.

They fight like schoolboys - or an old married couple, and they know where to hit where it hurts. But they're clearly bound together, and women aside, they're obviously the most important person in the others life, a fact that they seem to often resent. And I would assert that it's that resentment, more than anything else, that is responsible for so much mediocre Rolling Stones music in the past thirty five years.

But "Waiting On A Friend," whether about Mick and Keith or not, captures the spirit of the relationship the way we would like to imagine it. It's a gentle and loving, and Nicky Hopkins twinkling piano and Sonny Rollins sax say everything that Keith and Mick Taylor's guitar may have left out. Originally recorded in Jamaica for 1973's Goat's Head Soup, this was one of the songs that Tattoo You associate producer Chris Kimsey recommended that the band rework for the album (it needed lyrics and vocals), and the idea was a stroke of genius on Kimsey's part, as it turned out to be not just one of their best songs, but also one of their most perfectly arranged ones. 

13. "Happy" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

And then there is Keith.

I am not a man who has many heroes. But he's one of them. I love him for the elegance and earthiness of his playing; a style, that while simple to play, no one has ever come close to replicating even half as well. I love how much he loves music; how his face lights up when he talks about Muddy Waters or the effect that hearing rock n' roll for the first time had on him. I love his no bullshit, reality based, anti-pretention, be-your-own-man attitude. I love that the man, deep down, is a romantic of the first order, a believer in chivalry, something of a gallant knight. He's funny as hell and a raconteur of the first order. And he's a man of honor.

It has me forgive his shortcomings: his stubborn and seemingly reflexive dismissal of new sounds; his addictions that no doubt have had an adverse effect on the band; his occasional coldness; and, most importantly, the fact that somewhere down the line, his ability to discern the truly great from the serviceable in his own music went to shit.

"I need love to keep me happy" goes the chorus of his best, most famous, and most beloved song, and it's a truism that sums up the man in some fashion; so simple and yet so affecting. I like living in a world with Keith Richards in it.

12. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (1969, from Let It Bleed)

I've heard this song a million fucking times and every time it comes on, I'm in awe of it. The arrangement is so astounding as to be almost unbelievable; that chorale opening, the acoustic guitar that cuts like a knife in the first verse, the maracas, Al Kooper's organ, Jimmy Miller's drums (Charlie couldn't get the groove on it), and that outro. It's a perfect song. 

11. "Jumping Jack Flash" (1968, from Through The Past, Darkly [Big Hits Vol. 2])

The song that launched them into the band we know and love today, getting them off of psychedelic imitations of the Beatles and taking them of their baroque period. The riff works just as well forty-two years later, if not better, and if you can take it out of its "I've heard this song on classic rock radio thousands of times" context, you'll hear, once again, how amazing it is. 

When rock magazine's do their lists of the "Greatest Singers Of All Time," Jagger isn't usually mentioned at the top, which is a shame, because he's an original. Even when he was trying to imitate soul singers, he wasn't really trying to imitate soul singers because he was too smart not to know that he wasn't going to sound a black American soul singer. But he's done his own thing - conjuring, threatening, seducing, sashaying. You'll never get all of him the way you'd get all of, say, Redding, Lennon or Springsteen, but at his best, Jagger gives you enough, teasing you and leaving you wanting more.

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.