Friday, February 21, 2020

Then the lights go out

Bruce Springsteen has written stacks of powerful lyrics down the decades, but to my ears among the most moving moments in any of his songs is the wordless passage near the end of "Tunnel of Love," the title track of his 1987 album. The thirty-or-so seconds are beautiful but heartbreaking because, as uplifting as the music is, it's dragging with it all of the sadness and regret and confusion that comes before it, making it almost unbearably bittersweet. "The lights go out and it's just the three of us," he sings, "you, me and all that stuff we're so scared of"; a verse later, the grown-up acknowledgement: "You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above." The music that follows slays me because no matter how many times I listen, I never know for certain from where it originates. Is the singer, reduced to melody now that he's said in words all he needs to, climbing aboard that gorgeous melody, uplifted by love that transcends the problems he's just sung about; or is he singing gamely, willing himself a pretty, affecting melody in the hopes that it will deliver him? Or maybe it's the saddest of all things: a surrender to defeat that's sung beautifully, a last-ditch hope or a rueful lesson that even the prettiest song can't fix.

I love overhearing the conversations that songs engage in over time. "Tunnel of Love"'s especially poignant, to my ears, played against the powerful ending of "Thunder Road," from Springsteen's 1975 classic Born To Run. In that song, feverish promises between the singer and Mary are everywhere, like wild flowers in a front yard. There's not much of a melody—the singer's too busy catching up with his words—and that makes the few changes all the more powerful. She's dated loser juvees and gear-heads, seen through their bullshit. The singer's idling outside of her house now, and all the saving he can promise her is beneath his hood; yeah, it's probably a metaphor, too—this kid's pretty poetic. And he sings one of the hottest lines in a Springsteen song: "My car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat." He knows that he's her type, but he also knows that after other guys drop her off they peel away before she gets to her front porch. Not him. "Mary, climb in," he offers, "It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win." 

What follows is one of the most well-known, and oft-played, passages in any Bruce tune, a feverish drama that he's recreated for decades on enormous stages around the world. Like much of early Bruce, the passion with which his band plays and with which he sings—it sounds like he can't do anything else but howl it at that moment—transcends the potential corn and cliche of the doomed young lovers, authenticity obliterating the banality as the song barrels forward. Played against the wordless passage in "Tunnel Of Love." a dozen rocky years later, the rousing ending of "Thunder Road" sounds less like a ballsy, confident promise than a wide-eyed kid's fantasy. This song in this car will take us anywhere we need to go, he assures her. But what neither of them see yet is that "Tunnel of Love" lies just beyond the curve in the dark, where melody, so buoyant in our youth, becomes weighted down by years and bad decisions, by ideals turned cynical, until the struggle to lift it, or be lifted by it, is a brand new, no less urgent song to sing. 

I wonder if Bruce will write the third act. In his terrific 2016 memoir he essayed the difficulties of his four-year marriage to Julianne Phillips, unease evoked in Tunnel of Love, and of course has enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage to Patti Scialfa. Yet he's an artist natively tuned to the ways our hearts and dreams betray us, not to mention the songs that score those losses, and I bet he's still working on the tune that will track down hair-waving, porch-dancing Mary and that nameless woman in the tunnel, and discover what final destinations their fraught journeys took them to.





Top photo, "In The Tunnel of Love, Riverview Amusement Park, Chicago, 1943," via weheartit.

Monday, February 17, 2020

And now you want me back

The other day as I listened to "There Might Not Be Crying In Baseball. But What About Cheating?", a segment on NPR's 1A, I became righteously and predictably angry, but something unexpected happened, too: by the end of the segment my love for baseball was renewed.

I should qualify that my love for the game of baseball was renewed, not my love for the sport, which is run by men and women who continue to annoy me in many ways—from the lukewarm punishments meted out to the Houston Astros players involved in the cheating scheme to the pathetic "apologies" issued by many of those same, politically-careful players, from continued intrusive and unnecessary changes shoehorned into the game to the millions of dollars moving from fat-pocketed owners to various right wing conservative groups and politicians. (And don't get me started on replay.) Yet while listening to the segment's host and guests—1A host Todd Zwillich, Yahoo Sports' Mike Oz, the Athletic's Mark Carig, and Astros lifer-fan Tony Adams, who documented the scandal via YouTube clips and whose suffering was practically visible in the air during the discussion—the old tug of the game strengthened. By the end of the half hour was I forced to admit to myself that I might not stay away from the game this season quite as much as I'd predicted I would.

As I listened, a stray comment from Darrin Jackson, of all people, came to mind. Jackson is the color analyst with play-by-play man Ed Farmer on Chicago White Sox radio broadcasts; I've been listening to this pair for years. As a player "DJ" enjoyed uneventful stays with seven teams, posting a career .696. OPS, slugging .403, hitting 80 home runs, collecting 317 RBI, and hitting for an average of .257. He was a top ten Defensive WAR player twice, yet in 1989 was fourth in errors made; the season before inking a sweet contract (for two-million dollars, with the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1993) he was first in Double Plays Grounded Into and fourth in overall outs made. No need to dig any deeper in Baseball Reference's stats trove: DJ was, in short, an above-average player who managed to parlay limited skills into a twelve-year professional baseball career (including a stint in Japan). My favorite kind of player. During White Sox games, DJ will often comment that as a hitter who recognized his limitations, he'd stand at the plate and, against virtually every pitcher, plan on seeing a fastball; he would then adjust to whatever pitch came at him, based on its speed and movement and spin. This approach is hardly novel; in fact, it's standard. Sit "dead red," and adjust. 

Hard at work. Good luck with that.
The fact that a batter at the Major League level can hit anything well still astounds me, given the elite skills of most pitchers: a ball is coming at you at 95 miles and hour and in the split-second of its journey might dart and dip or swerve, break or rise, lose speed or seemingly gain speed, and you've got to swing a heavy bat and try to make contact. Good luck with that. That Jackson was able to make contact over a dozen years against future Hall of Fame pitchers and other hurlers only slightly less gifted, often enough to earn rewards and steady contracts, is a beautiful, even a moving, thing. And he did so by expecting heat, and adjusting. In other words, by guessing and making a change on the fly, a necessary evil in the beautiful game endured by batters age twelve, twenty, forty-two, and every age in between, in back yards and college fields and maybe Yankee Stadium—a necessity born of athleticism in its truest sense, which seeks not perfection but a testing of skills against the body's limitations. Several Astros players tried to sidestep this by cheating. 

Give me poor DJ, flailing at the plate, failing often, while cashing a million-dollar paycheck and providing for himself and his family in perpetuity. Cheers to him. I'd rather see a batter stalking to the dugout after being fooled by a pitch than standing on second, having cheated for an unfair advantage; call me perverse. Players will take every advantage they can get on the field. Why do we—fans and players—need anything more? The challenges faced by hitters like Darrin Jackson and hundreds of others like him at the MLB level—chalk up my renewed love for this to naiveté or sentimentality or preciousness. Tell me that I have no idea since I'm not out there facing the game's elite pitchers, often several a game. Call it want you want. I call it my love for the game. I'll stoke it at every college, Minor League, and, yeah, MLB game I listen to or attend this year. 

I'll give the great Eric Burdon and the Animals the last words.

Cheating!
I know you’ve been
Cheating!
Oh, yes you have.
Cheating!
And now you want me back.



Photo of homeplate via 123RF; Darin Jackson baseball cards via eBay (Padres) and via Kronozio (Mets)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Today

Several years I experienced an epiphany when I realized that there really is no such thing as "the good old days." (I'm speaking for myself here, not for repressed individuals or communities.) Much of what I'm experiencing right now I'll look back fondly on in the future, so the "good old days" are really, well, today. Of course, when we gaze back we tend to repress or otherwise look away from the ways that we've suffered, or made others suffer, or experienced shame or acted awfully, but even setbacks or bad behavior can come to be viewed with a kind of rueful affection, The trick, of course, is to recognize all of this in the moment, that what's happening now, even if it's shitty or boring, a fate that I'm cursing or am resentful of, I'll probably come to covet in the future, might even feel its absence as a profound loss. Nostalgia's the engine for all of this, that pernicious desire to return to a home that exists mostly in our fanciful re-telling of it, but that's ok. I'll try and balance that into the mix, as well. Of course what's happened is that now I've arrived at the end of this recognizing that my thoughts feel both incredibly profound and deflatingly cliched, an end-to-end trip that most insights travel. Anyway, it's a daily thing, keeping the surprise of the epiphany fresh.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

High on a low life

In their book Teenage Confidential, Michael Barson and Steven Heller write that “Good and evil make themselves evident in real life not as absolutes, but as gradations along a virtually infinite continuum. The American mass media, however, has always operated most comfortably when presenting clearly etched polarities to its consumers."
So it has always been with the teenager in American pop culture. There are good teenagers and bad teenagers, and being just a little bit bad is rather like being just a little bit pregnant—in America, you are either pure a newfallen snow or you carry an indelible taint.
It's obvious which end of the spectrum Billie Joe Armstrong's been singing to since Green Day formed in the late 1980s. The vast majority of his songs chronicle, and are valentines to, the fucked-up, marginalized, dislocated teenagers in all of us. With their new album Father Of All Motherfuckers, Green Day sings again to that disaffected group, but also capture their collective heartbeat in the amped-up, hook-y, riff-y, delirious fizz of the album's sound, part Glam, part dance club, part pop, part speed. The rock and roll on this album streaks by in a blur—it's over in under a half hour—and so feels like a single night of fun, compressed, mythic, high on sensation with ideas an afterthought, over before it starts. The album's surface effects—processed vocals, synthy handclaps, tinny drums, bright falsettos, keyboard squeaks, a sample of Joan Jett's "Do You Wanna Touch Me" in "Oh Yeah!"—twinkle and clink like glasses on a bar top, but the loud guitars and urgent, anthemic choruses throughout remind you that this is a rock and roll record. Green Day wanted to make an album for you to dance to first, think about later. I don't know about you, but that came just in time for me. overburdened by shitty news about shitty men and women behaving like entitled kids and ruthless bullies, news generally ignored by the band here, in favor of a vibe that says, Hop in the car, we're heading out to the 'burbs for a house party where everybody's a star. Don't look at the newsfeed until the morning.

Armstrong's influences are varied. A couple of the tunes ("Fire, Ready, Aim," "Take The Money And Crawl") sound like he grabbed a guitar after seeing the Hives live or revisiting that band's epic The Black And White Album, and cheers to that—the choruses and sharp riffs ring in the ear like the best of Sweden's finest. Armstrong led the record's hype with the breathless announcement that the songs reflect "The New! soul, Motown, glam and manic anthemic. Punks, freaks and punishers!" Though the album's a clarion call to the dance floor, any mid-60s Motown vibe is buried underneath, surfacing in subtle, syncopated lead-backing vocal arrangements, especially affectingly in the chorus to the otherwise downbeat "Graffitia." There are other surprising musical nods: I hear the pop gallop of Katrina and The Waves' "Walking On Sunshine" (itself channeling the Supremes) in the frothy yet desperate "Meet Me On The Roof" and the melody in "I Was A Teenage Teenager" suggests the joyfully ascending line in Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen." (Perhaps I hear that reference because Dexys and company scored my mid-teen years.) In the aforementioned "Graffitia," the line "Are we the last (long) forgotten" calls to mind the rousing "Never To Be Forgotten" by Bobby Fuller Four. The Father Of All Motherfuckers cover samples the hand grenade imagery of the artwork for American Idiot, and in the great "Sugar Youth" Armstrong sings the line "I got a feeling and it's dangerous" to the same lyrics, cadence, and melody in American Idiot's "She's A Rebel"—less an unoriginal cop of his past than a recognition that he struck a chord the first time around, and a decade and a half later the chord is still sounding.

Despite the effervescent surface and snappy sounds of Father Of All Motherfuckers, darkness pulses underneath; the album feels light and purposeless, but it isn't. Armstrong can't help but see hopelessness and jadedness around him. (One of the more affecting lines on the album comes in the form of a question that poses a paradox: how high is your low gonna get?) The characters in his songs—half autobiographical stand-in, half face in the crowd—are always a despondent step away from oblivion and carelessness, high school losers who "will never, ever, ever fuck the prom queen." Armstrong still possesses a direct line to the feeling of the chaos of being sixteen; the album's best song, "I Was A Teenage Teenager," begins with a simple declaration against a plaintive, pre-Beatles melody— "I don't want to freak you out but I cannot lie"—and then to a simple but chilling question—"So who is holding the drugs?" The moment arrives as the album's first half ends, and the song's the album's hinge, a mid-paced, catch-your-breath tale of a a young kid, or an adult who can't shake lose, or who's chasing, the promises of youth, "full of piss and vinegar," "an alien visitor" whose life's "a mess" and who thinks that "school is just for suckers." That kid is poised at the door between a party of sweaty good times where we forget the world for a few hours and dance, and a dark room of despair and ennui and possible self-destruction. The song doesn't tell where they go, what direction they choose, but the choice is graphic. So it always is with the teenager. For the half hour that Father Of All Motherfuckers lasts—that's shorter than your favorite sitcom—Green Day turns it up and in their eight-notes and downstrokes and handclaps and singalong choruses, on fast songs and slow ones, lets the party lights blind us. We'll regain our vision soon enough. Then it's time to listen to the album again.

Kids: January 26, 1991, Downey, California. Photo by Murray Bowles. Via TIME.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The greatest purpose

Booker T. Jones
The title that Booker T. Jones gives his new memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note By Note, is apt: the book chronicles his life as one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era as music notes tell a story, evocatively, mysteriously, and sometime surprisingly. Time Is Tight is not a conventional chronological tale; it moves nonlinearly, from Memphis to LA to New York and back again, across decades, as Jones recalls, anecdote by anecdote, his rich and sometimes rocky professional and personal lives, letting the music he remembers and conjures shape the story in an associative way, the way a song works. This is very much a musician's story; as someone who doesn't play or write music, I felt at times that I was on the outside looking in as Jones meticulously explains a song's chord sequences or a player's virtuosity (there are actual music charts in the book's appendix). That's hardly a complaint, though I wish I was more fluent in the language. In this way, his memoir reminds me of Chris Stamey's recent autobiography; two musicians from disparate backgrounds and aesthetics united by their awe-struck love for the formal beauties of notes and songs.

I admit that before I began to read Jones's book in earnest, I turned to the passage where he describes the writing and recording session for Sam & Dave's sublime "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," a song I've obsessed over for years and consider one of the greatest love songs of our time. Jone's account of the session does not disappoint, and is characteristic of the sweet, and surprising, surrender to art he was blessed to experience throughout his career. He's in his office, struggling with a melody, when he hears some chords coming from Dave Porter and Issac Hayes's office next door. "This was something different," he writes. "I lost concentration on what I was working on. Right next door to me, a true song was being written, and I could not take my attention away from it."
A picture formed in my mind of a man committed to his woman to the extent depicted in the song. This was why we were here. This was why I studied music and what we were dedicated to. Depicting life and love in its most beautiful state. This was one of the greatest purposes of music.
Jones continues, describing Steve Cropper, "Duck" Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr.'s ensemble playing, nodding to each other as the groove came into shape, with Hayes on piano. Stepping into the arrangement, Jones added some Hammond B-3 organ, "a longing, wistful line that threads its way into the song's fabric from the inside." Indeed.

"There was a respite after the first verse," he continues, "a quieting, where all the elements settled down for the second verse, as if the song’s mood and place was established, and now it could relax for this next part." Sam Moore "sang his heart out," and when the chorus came, when the song's simple but profound truths and discovery arrive, "it came as a relief, a release, deliverance in the power of love." Jones adds, "That feeling was experienced by all involved in the recording and never forgotten."

Nor by this listener. I'd been waiting a long time to read an evocatively-written account of the recording of that remarkable song, and I'm so grateful that Jones delivered. I highly recommend Time Is Tight for its sweep over decades of music making, pausing in narrating, and delighting in, crucial moments like this one.



Photo of Jones by Erik Carter via The New York Times
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