Sunday, March 18, 2012

That's Why He's The Man In Black

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Bruce Springsteen is the new Johnny Cash

It is raining kick-ass new music, and people used to come to me about this sort of thing before spotify, Ping and who knows what all else outsourced my area of expertise to an algorithm.

But I’m counting on there being enough Luddites out there, people who are just starting to read blogs but are still years away from embracing any heavier technological change—you know, my people—to make this post worth writing.

There has been a surfeit of outstanding new releases the last few months. In no particular order, except for saving Bruce for last…

Tom Waits’ new collection, Bad As Me, finds him in a welcome return to Bone Machine-era form, up to and including another duet with Keith Richards. What is the sound of two guys who can’t sing, singing together? Download Last Leaf and find out.

The album is split about equally between weeping ballads, rattle-and-stomp cacophony and oddly-accompanied spoken-word pieces. Stellar tracks include the anti-war rant Hell Broke Luce, Tell Me and After You Die. Sample lyrics from Luce:

When I was over here I never got to vote
I left my arm in my coat
My mom she died and never wrote
We sat by the fire and ate a goat
Just before he died he had a toke
Now I’m home and I’m blind
And I’m broke
What is next

Leonard Cohen just released a disc of ten new songs. Man, who would have thought, back in the late ’60s, that in 2012, Leonard Cohen would not only still be producing new music, but would be more relevant than ever? This guy is amazing.

Like Tom Waits, people assure me Leonard is an acquired taste. He has a voice deeper than the Marianas Trench. It is the voice of the God of the Old Testament. It’s Charlton Heston and Cecille B. DeMille and James Earle Jones all mixed together, then lowered a couple of octaves.

The new CD, Old Ideas, is not as consistent as his previous couple of late-period efforts, but the tracks that rise above simply levitate. Going Home is a great opening track, starting with the lyrics:

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit...

Other outstanding selections include Show Me The Place, Come Healing, Lullaby and Banjo.

There’s a couple of great collections of cover tunes out now. The new Amnesty International/Bob Dylan 4-discer, Chimes Of Freedom, is a hell of a deal at only $20. So packed with great stuff that even Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus turn in respectable efforts! Don’t cherry-pick this collection. Buy the whole thing. The money goes to an unimpeachably good cause, and you are guaranteed to find some unexpected gems and likely discover some new favorite artists. When you think of all the ways you could piss away $20 and get almost nothing to show for it, you’d be a danged fool to turn your back on this offer! The rocked-out version of Desolation Row is arguably worth the double-sawbuck alone.

Guy Clark also has a 2-disc collection of tribute tunes out, This One’s For Him, featuring a Who’s Who of Holy Shit! Ramblin’ Jack, Hayes Carll, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle… It is simply an embarrassment of riches.

Also too good to be true: Finally, a collection of new studio tunes from Sinead O’Connor.

Again, I am told, she is something of an acquired taste. I remember having to acquire tastes for wine and beer, but all my favorite artists have gone down pretty smoothly from the first sip. Must be something wrong with my taster.

Be that as it may, for a change the critics agree with me, hailing How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? as a welcome return to form which most of them never acknowledged in the first place. Featuring songs written during a rare drama-free period in the artist’s life (Google her if you’re interested in all the tabloid details of her largely self-inflicted personal travails), this is another collection to buy all of. The songs work wonderfully as a suite, no doubt as O’Connor intended. From lullaby ballads to potty-mouth rockers, O’Connor is equally passionate and convincing in every role.

And as always, O’Connor’s songwriting remains one of her greatest strengths. As much as I loved her previous album of rasta/dub covers—and I do—it is very rewarding to hear her songwriting voice again. To say that hers is a unique perspective would be to undersell the point, and her melodies are uniformly accessible and memorable.

Finally, I caught a couple of acts on Letterman recently that blew me away. The Sleigh Bells (raunchy, poppy guitar rock fronted by a skinny chick who can sing) and Joseph Arthur:

...whose new CD is well worth cherry-picking. The title track, Redemption City and Travel As Equals are exceptional. This is a young man who is going places.

Which brings us to the new Bruce disc, Wrecking Ball, released to relatively great ballyhoo this week.

Back in the ’70s, Springsteen was touted as his generation’s answer to Bob Dylan, but over the years he’s grown into something more important: his generation’s Johnny Cash. The voice of the little guy, of common-sense morality.

This is not a slam against Dylan. For his moment in time there, his impact was unparalleled. And continues to this day; witness the new 4-disc AI collection of Dylan tunes covered by today’s hot young stars, above.

Unlike Cash, however—and Springsteen—Dylan got burned out on all the attention early on, and instead of trying to harness his unwanted notoriety toward continued positive change, he retreated and licked his wounds. I can’t say I would have done anything different. He never signed up to be the voice of anything, except maybe Woody Guthrie.

But these days, especially since Cash’s passing, it’s “Bruce Springsteen,” not “Bob Dylan” that is the new two-word answer to why it is still good to be an American. Springsteen even seems to acknowledge this with flourishes of Cash’s distinctive boom-chicka-boom rhythm sprinkled throughout We Are Alive. I kept listening to this tune and looking up and going, “Hey man, that’s Ring Of Fire!”

Even the song lyrics echo Cash’s songwriting and values:

Alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone Id been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all round me
The earth rose above me
My eyes filled with sky
We are alive

Though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

From the opening track, We Take Care Of Our Own, to the last, Wrecking Ball is a call for unity, brotherhood and understanding. The Tea Party-types will scream “class warfare,” just watch. One man’s goose is another’s Godzilla, I suppose. And for some reason, Springsteen’s radical notion of shared social responsibility scares the hell out of a lot of people.

I always had the sense that Springsteen was one of the good guys, even way back before he came out of the closet politically. And now that he has, I say “welcome to the public stage at last!”

The first song may come off a little preachy, but for people who have seen Springsteen in concert, especially post-9/11, we already know he’s a preacher. He may not be comfortable with the role, but we are. One review whined that Springsteen’s lyrics are not specific enough; yes, that’s why his songs will remain relevant for the ages, not just today’s news cycle.

From downer ballads sung from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck day laborer…

…to rave-up celebrations of the contributions of said “illegals” to the building of America in songs like American Land, which include lyrics such as:

They died building the railroads
They worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories
Names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago
They’re still dyin’ now
The hands that built this country
We’re always tryin’ to keep out

This is my favorite Springsteen album since The Seeger Sessions, and for the same reason. It seems Bruce set out to write and record songs this time, as opposed to the deliberately-crafted arena rockers that grounded his more recent E Street Band recordings. Perhaps it was his activism in the last couple of elections, more likely the passing of his long-time onstage foil, Clarence Clemons. (I can’t imagine what an E Street Band show is going to look/feel like without Clemons, but living in Boise, thankfully I will never have to know.)

Whatever it was that invigorated Springsteen’s social conscience made his songwriting more muscular too. This is an album where if you strip away all the bells and whistles from even the heartiest arena-rocker, there is a real song at its heart. And the ballads are worthy of Tom Waits at his most inspired and discouraged.

There’s a venerable gospel folk standard, This Train Is Bound For Glory, which lists all manner of scoundrels and scalliwags who will not be invited on board the Express to the Pearly Gates: liars, rustlers, con men, women of easy virtue…

This train don’t carry no gamblers, this train
This train don’t carry no gamblers
Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers
This train is bound for glory, this train

It’s a terrific old song, and one Springsteen is obviously familiar with, but decided needed a major retrofit to remain relevant.

One of the new songs on Wrecking Ball—although he’s been playing it in concert for years, this is its studio-version debut, and one of Clarence Clemons’ last studio contributions—is called Land Of Hope And Dreams, and point-by-point repudiates the chilly judgmentalism of the earlier song at the same time as he tips his hat to it:

This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singin’
This train, bells of freedom ringin’

Again, Springsteen returns to the themes of inclusion and fraternity. In Springsteen’s America, nobody gets thrown off, or under, the bus. There are no lost souls, only souls seeking redemption. In case anyone still misses the point, Springsteen seamlessly incorporates a snippet of the civil-rights classic People Get Ready.

It’s also enlightening that at the end of every chorus Springsteen sings, “Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.”

And that’s my America, too. Not the America that is practiced in reality, where exigent circumstances force daily compromise from even the most ethically determined; but the America that is enshrined within our foundational documents. The ones that lay out our national purpose, goals and aspirations… you know, our hopes and dreams.

Most revealing, however, is that Springsteen’s song entreats the listener to “meet him” there. By doing so, he acknowledges that we are not there yet. The American Experiment, and our struggle between our ideals and our convenience, continues. It is forever a journey, never a destination. But one that, as Americans, we are duty-bound to undertake. And if we are to stand any chance of succeeding, it will be by working together, not at cross-purposes.

It’s a fucking monster of a song. It’s the American Dream summarized and celebrated in just under seven minutes. If Springsteen had never penned any other composition in his career, he would be remembered as an American folk icon for this one.

From Born This Way to We Travel As Equals (Or Not At All) to Hell Broke Luce to Land Of Hope And Dreams—from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring—there is something in the zeitgeist that suggests that the masses may finally be ready to get up off the sofa and do something about achieving social justice, instead of just belly-aching about how bad things have gotten.

Could we be in the midst of a long-overdue American Spring?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

That’s “Entertainment?”

Why are there never any Word Police around when you need them?

First off, a couple of ground rules. Not gonna use my subject’s real name. For one thing, I don’t want to add to the social media echo chamber validating his empty existence. I do that, and the terrorist wins! And for another, I don’t want any of his acolytes finding me while doing a search for their hero’s name, and leaving hateful, misspelled, all-caps comments that common decency would compel me expend time eliminating.

Also, just as a writing exercise, it should be a challenge. It will be like writing about the Lorax without using the words short, orange or tree-hugger.

Second rule: No ad hominem attacks. Not only is it poor sportsmanship and lazy writing, but in this fellow’s case, nothing I say—no matter how devilishly clever!—is going to make him come off any worse than will simply repeating his own remarks. The reader may draw their own conclusions as to his relative character without me having to furnish them with a blueprint.

I am referring to recent comments made by a popular radio “shock jock” where he called a young woman who testified to Congress a slut. Repeatedly. And at length. It was like listening to a Tourette’s sufferer having a bad moment, on auto-loop.

Third rule is, I will also not mention prescription drug abuse, as it is not part of this story. Not directly. That we know of. That can be corroborated. Although it would go a long way to explaining such erratic behavior…

Before I get serious though, one quick digression: When I was coming up, me and my fellow juvenile delinquents always distinguished sluts from whores as ‘sluts do it for free.’ A whore, by common definition, expected payment for her services; sluts, likewise by definition, did not. The fact that, in this radio personality’s experience, apparently even sluts made him fork over the long green before they’d make the acquaintance of his short pink speaks volumes about the man.

God, no wonder he seems to hate women so much. If he didn’t, he’d stop serially marrying them. (Maureen Dowd reported this morning that The Radio Personality is so wealthy, he could afford Elton John to play his fourth wedding. My question to Elton John is: How much fucking money do you need to have? It would be like Henny Youngman agreeing to play Oktoberfest at The Eagle’s Nest because the money was right.)

That having been said… His hateful harangue falls well within the limits of that which is protected by the First Amendment.

Nor am I shocked that this particular fellow is seething with rage that is just looking for a host-organism to attack and live off of for a while. It’s what he does for a living. Come on! This is still America; a man’s got a right to earn a living.

Remember his Michael J Fox impression? In my mind, he would be hard-pressed to equal or surpass that, and this just doesn’t. Not even going so far as to suggest that young women receiving government-subsidized birth control be required to film and post internet porn videos as a quid pro quo to America’s decent, hard-working taxpayers.

Disgusting, sure. Nothing I want my six-year-old son to hear (too late, thanks Today Show!) but hardly shocking. More revealing, really, as a peek into The Radio Personality’s world view; again, if women are having sex, The Radio Personality expects money to change hands.

Anyhow, he hasn’t shocked me since the Parkinson’s Impersonation Incident. And even then, I was more shocked at the people who, eh, hurried, to his defense. Folks, some shit is reprehensible, even when celebrities you usually admire do or say it.

God, I hate party fealty.

Back on point: What I did find surprising at first was how eager this right-wing icon was to turn the national conversation to a topic that is historically a loser for his fan-base, until it was pointed out to me that this fellow’s business is better, a lot better, when he is playing offense than defense. Specifically, if Obama were to lose the election, he would have to go back to defending unpopular decisions of the new GOP administration, instead of attacking every single position of the current administration.

A GOP ass-kicking in November would really lift this Republican standard-bearer’s boat, and he figured it out way before I did. Kudos!

My real quibble is with calling this person an entertainer. That’s the standard GOP office-holder response to the increasingly hateful, ridiculous pronouncements of The Radio Personality: Oh, he’s just an entertainer.

I don’t even care that they’re dodging their complicity-by-omission by not repudiating his comments. Politicians’ moral shortcomings have also long-since lost their shock value.

But how is what The Radio Personality does by any definition entertaining? I’ve heard a bunch of his shtick, and I’d use a lot of robust adjectives to describe it, but “entertaining” would never be one of them.

Dennis Miller, with whom I disagree politically, is entertaining. So is Bill O’Reilly. Even Glenn Beck is entertaining. George Will is terrifically entertaining. Sam Kinison, with whom I disagreed on almost every political issue of the day, was entertaining as hell disagreeing with me.

But all The Radio Personality does is spew venom. It’s not clever wordplay. There is no structure; no set-up, build-up, punchline… Just wrath. 

Call him an agitator. Call him a rabble-rouser. Call him a well-intentioned patriot, if you must. By some definitions, he could be any of these.

But I’ll be damned if I can think of any honest way I could describe what he does as entertaining. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Orange Belt accomplished!

Big day in the little man’s life today. 100 days of school has officially been reached the same day as he earned his orange belt in Taekwondo.

I missed the 100th day festivities completely, but I was on hand to document his first ‘level-up’ in the martial arts.

I screwed the pooch, though, and missed the most impressive part of his performance. During a question and answer period, our usually reticent little future Jedi actually raised his hand to answer a question some other kid was fumbling. Without the instructor asking for volunteers to raise their hands. And when she called on him, he not only got it right—a question he and I had never discussed, so he must have been paying attention in class—but he remembered to address her as “ma’am,” too.

Which is something we had discussed.

It was freaking awesome.

As was the pummeling my torso took from him directly before and after class. Prior to enrolling in Taekwondo, this was a kid who would never, ever have hit, except in rare fits of pique. A controlled, playful outburst was beyond him. Now, he has to be asked politely to stop hitting me in line at Krispy Kreme; it’s making it hard for the lady to understand my voice, I sound like I’m on a bus traveling over rough terrain.

He already knows the jargon better than I do, and never misses an opportunity to correct me when I get it wrong. On some level, he’s really connecting with something about this whole, larger experience. He’s even taking to barking “yes, sir” at me from time to time, and not in an insouciant way; in a task-appropriate sort of way. It’s never something I aspired to and won’t encourage it if it looks like it’s going to become the norm, but Goddamn, my Dad would be impressed!

Taekwondo is officially something I don’t have to provide the motivation for any longer. He’s got the wind at his heels, an orange belt around his waist and the world is his exercise mat, baby.

At least until it becomes a privilege we can threaten to withhold to compel obedience, which ought to be any day now…

Until that tragedy, however, bask in the triumph: