Chris Davidson

Chris Davidson lives and teaches in Southern California. He is the poetry editor of The Curator.

My CD Collection: Les Miserables

(Original Broadway Cast Recording)

I cannot bring myself to listen to this CD. Or these CDs. It’s a double album. I got it on my birthday when I turned 19, or maybe 20. I had asked for Les Miserables because weeks or months earlier I was riding with my friends on the way to the beach to go surfing, and they were playing it on the stereo. The car was a dumpy, red, Chevy Blazer. The driver always left his wetsuits in the back, and it smelled like mildewed rubber.

So my friend doing the driving, and my other friend riding shotgun, had apparently fallen in love with the soundtrack to Les Miz in the week or so since I’d last seen them. They normally listened to REM’s Document, over and over and over. Now, to my dismay, they were playing at high volume a ballad by a sweet-voiced young woman, singing her heart out for a man who doesn’t love her. A musical? I asked, mockingly. We’re listening to a musical?

And yet, like a scoffer of a cult who, through sweet coercion and with remarkable speed, becomes a willing and earnest convert, I soon succumbed to the charms of the form. Because I was in the backseat, surfboards stacked across the folded seat to my left, my friends felt distant. I was wrapped in a little pocket that was lined with this woman’s heartbroken song. Despite my aversion to anything other than rock and/or roll, I, just like my companions up front, found myself smitten, overwhelmed by the singer’s bathetic crescendo. The softly sung denouement (“I love him, I love him, I love him–but only on my own”) was like a warm bed after a good cry. I left that car with a new thought in my head: I would like to hear this woman sing this song again. Many times again.

I’m not sure I’ve quoted the lyrics correctly. I refuse to look them up, just as I refuse to fish out Les Miz from the stack of CDs in the back of my office. I have a problem with the past. I am unable, or unwilling, to forget what’s embarrassed me, even when it’s been transfigured by hindsight and age into a charming or entertaining story. An example: One time, in 8th grade, before school started, I decided to play a prank on a pair of girls I noticed walking, a few yards away, on the blacktop: I’d run in front of them and pretend to be catching a football coming from behind and above their heads. They would duck and scream in panic, I’d say “ha ha, just kidding!” and then—what? They’d ask me to take them to the 8th-grade dance? (O Lord, what was I thinking?)  Off I went, sprinting toward the two, my arms outstretched and waiting for my imaginary spiral, when I tripped and fell not ten feet before them. My elbows were grated like cheese as I slid on the asphalt.

There are, alas, no time machines. I can’t go back and shake me by my terry-cloth collar and say, “Young man, think this through.” But if I did have a time machine, I’d need loads of fuel: There are dozens of moments, from about fourth grade and on into my forties, I’d like another crack at.

What does any of this have to do with Les Miz? Well, because I suspect the soundtrack is terrible from start to finish, I don’t want to be doubly embarrassed: First, by my insane, emotional response to one, particularly sentimental song; and second, by how much I enjoyed the whole shebang at the time. Some of it, even then, I knew was bad: “Lovely ladies come along and join us COME ALONG AND JOIN US.” Chewing the scenery a bit, eh singers? But for the most part, I found Les Miz profound, when maybe I should have been—ironically on the outside but secretly in tears— reveling in its self-important, trashy-tasteful aesthetic.

This is a diagnosis of my weak constitution. I was—heck, still am—susceptible to grand gestures of lonesome woe-is-me-ness. All through high school I was getting my fix for it from Robert Smith, of The Cure (dreamy, resplendent, mopey) and Morrissey, of the Smiths (witty, self-reflexive, ironic). I must have listened 1,000 times on my Walkman, while I mowed the lawn, to that little, imagined dialogue Morrissey has on “I Know It’s Over.” In it I heard my fears voiced (“tonight is like every other night, that’s why you’re on your own tonight”), along with a resolve that might assuage them: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind…”

Other songs continued the theme: From the Pretty in Pink soundtrack I heard “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get I Want,” my first encounter with the Smiths, singing a desire I shared but would never myself utter. “Unloveable” embodied a gambit I seriously considered but somehow (mercifully) never tried: If I declare how unloveable I am, then surely the unnamed object of my affections will come round to tell me, No, it isn’t true! You ARE loveable! I took from these songs the idea that self-pity can be used as a pre-emptive strike on anyone’s apathy in the face of one’s obvious awesomeness: “I know that you would like me if only you would see me,” Morrissey sang, and I sang in my car those words with him, making them my own. This kind of thinking comforted me in my own quiet performances of humility and self-denigration.

If this sounds a little over-the-top, it’s probably because at the time I took Morrissey’s persona at face value, failing to recognized how laced with humor and deliberate exaggeration it was. I listened to “Reel Around the Fountain” and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and believed that the weight of love and unspoken desire is as crushing as a ten-ton truck–which, of course, it is. But it’s not what a seventeen-year-old needs, or not what this seventeen-year-old needed, since it merely amplified my already melodramatic, hormonally charged disposition. It was like spiking a Redbull with coffee and speed.

Last year, in Slate, Forrest Wickman wrote a polemic “Against Subtlety,” which calls out the notion that subtlety is the hallmark of good art. He approvingly recounts Pauline Kael’s description of the great, unsubtle Citizen Kane: “‘a shallow masterpiece’ that is ‘overwrought’ with ‘obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics.’” The same critique could be applied to Morrissey’s lyrics, especially in that first qualifier: They are shallow because they come from a shallow place—a childish, if very real, wanting to be loved as much as possible by the person sitting right there, in the seat next to you, blind to how much you want them, and who cannot, for whatever reason, be alerted to the emotional tsunami gathering strength at their elbow.

While the brilliant mordancy of Morrissey’s lyrics was lost on me, that doesn’t mean I was necessarily misreading them. (Though I confess I didn’t know why claiming someone was a fan of Keats or Yeats was such a diss.) Recently, over dinner, I told a friend who also loved the Smiths back in the day that it was perhaps bad for me to have listened to them as much as I had, especially since I was able to perceive in them the delicious melodrama but not the knowing exaggeration. Because I was unable to tell the difference between Morrissey singing “I Won’t Share You” and Brian Adams singing “Heaven,” it meant that all expressions of unrequited love worked on my unprotected heart, especially, embarrassingly, when performed by—why is this so weird to write?—a woman. Maria McKee singing “Wheels”: Cough-cough. Madonna singing “Crazy for You”: Cough-hack-cough. Eponine, standing beside the river, singing of the one she loves but cannot have (Jean Valjean? Marius? Uh, me?): Wheez, hack, cough.

In short, I can’t revisit this album because it means revisiting a host of other issues that belong in a therapy session, not here in a semi-weekly column. Les Miz fails to admit what all musicals, and all people, should: That while it is necessary, at times, to break into song, it’s also necessarily ridiculous. I didn’t know that then, but I do now.

[Next up: Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break]

Read the rest of Chris Davidson’s entries here.

My CD Collection, Week 4—Fishbone, Truth and Soul

I grew up loving the Led Zeppelin my brother played constantly; the Queen and ELO and Fleetwood Mac my sister spun in her room beneath posters of the Bee-Gees and Steve Martin and, uh, Fleetwood Mac; the Cheap Trick and Joe Jackson that I had chosen myself. The youngest of three, in a house where pop music reigned (my parents played a lot of Neil Diamond on the oak console stereo, and for some reason we had two copies of The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer floating around), I came to love melody and concision. Even with Zeppelin, I gravitated toward Houses of the Holy and In Through the Out Door, full as they were of eclectic and hummable tunes. I have a faint memory, from when I was seven or eight, of hearing—and being electrified by—“I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It wasn’t articulable, what I felt, but it was something like, I want to keep having the feeling I’m having while hearing this song.

It might have been my junior high friends who let me dub their cassettes of UB40 and The English Beat, or it might have been the certain songs from the copy of London Calling given to me Christmas of ’82, but I also had a thing for reggae and ska. My love for the rigid, disciplined groove (not loose, not like funk) is hard to trace. One theory: this kind of music, often played by exemplary musicians, gives plenty of space for delightful, seemingly extemporaneous “bits” to show up.

A detour to explain what I mean. There’s a scene in The Graduate where Ben tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine Robinson and is going to drive up to Berkeley to see her. When his parents learn the details—Elaine doesn’t know of Ben’s plans and in fact she hates him—their delight turns to bemusement. “This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked,” Ben’s father says. “Not it’s not,” Ben replies. “It’s completely baked.” As he exits the kitchen where his parents stand bewildered, the toaster, which has been in the foreground for most of the shot, pops up its toast—a non-sequitur that also serves as an exclamation point on the scene. That “bit” perhaps stood out to me because of the formal discipline of the scene, from the camera’s relative stillness to the framing of the action. The toaster does what toasters do.

Grace notes like these are not what most people think of when they think of The Graduate. Yet for me it’s exemplary of what makes the movie work. In an essay about writing, though really it could be about any kind of art, Stanley Hauerwas tell us, “the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter.” It’s the details, responding to and embedded in the flow of the work, that make the work of art recognizably human and communal. The inclusion of the toaster popping—whether by happy accident or intentional inclusion—is a grace-filled detail resulting from collaboration between actors, lighting crew, set designers, costumers, the DP, director, and editor.

And what is a band but a group of people committed to shared plans and collaboration? Near the end of The Clash’s “Revolution Rock,” it feels like the song is winding down after Joe Strummer’s declaration, “I’ve seen talent thrown away!” It’s here when the organ gingerly begins to evoke the melody, as if tiptoeing into a room of light sleepers. Strummer shouts, “The organ plays!” and it comes on in full confidence, as if to say, “You’re awake? Then GOOD MORNING!” I love that. What we don’t hear is the years of practice preceding a groove so well played, it affords bits like this to flourish and give the music its character.

So, Fishbone. I bought Truth and Soul, the band’s third release, right after it came out in fall of 1988—my freshman year in college. Listening to it again, for the first time in fifteen, maybe twenty years, was like visiting with a dear, lost acquaintance. The friends who introduced the band to me were themselves music fans and musicians. They helped me separate, with my ear, the drum line from the bass line, the guitar from them both. Whenever all three of us were in the car and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” came on, we ceased talking so we could turn up and hear the drum fill at the 4:22 mark, a detail I suspect most people don’t catch. This was for me a lesson in close hearing.

(The excellent documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone describes the band’s origins and ongoing musical journey. It lays out their biography and position as under sung, ahead-of-their-time alchemists who mixed ska, soul, reggae, heavy metal, folk, funk, punk, and whatever else they had in the kitchen. It more thoroughly develops a picture this column will only sketch.)

The main thing is that Fishbone were six dudes who could play, and how they played made room for those small, wonderful bits that remind us music is made by people working together through and against their distinct personalities. On opening track “Freddie’s Dead,” a cover of and improvement on the old Curtis Mayfield song, there’s one, fraction-of-a-second horn blast, at around1:35, right after a barely heard “Hey!,” that slots right into the groove. In the same song, on what might be called the bridge, where everything but an unprocessed guitar and Angelo Moore’s freed-from-reverb voice drops from the mix—it’s not just the drama of the moment, but the extra chick-a of the guitar between “It could be such a beautiful world” (chick-a) “with a wonderful girl” that gives the desire expressed in the words its extra kick.

There are so many of these moments on the album, in songs that are both spacious and sonically dense, in melodies that my limited vocabulary can only call “catchy.” That “catchiness” scratched my pop music itch, but it’s the improvisatory moments that leap out. It takes cats to be able to lock in, as they do on “Question of Life” and call-and-respond not just in their voices but through their instruments. Truth and Soul’s songs are composed and produced—in a studio, with a budget for extra takes—but the performances bring to mind something the jazz drummer Ralph Peterson once said:

“…a lot of times when you get into a musical conversation [i.e., a jam session] one person in the group will state an idea or the beginning of an idea and another person will complete the idea or their interpretation of the same idea, how they hear it.

That’s what the organ does on “Question of Life,” “completing” a line the sax plays earlier. It’s what Fishbone’s panoply of voices does throughout the album. Five of the band members sang well enough that they might have been a premiere doo-wop group had they been born a few decades earlier. Take “Mighty Long Way,” a rock song I didn’t love back in the day, but which I love now. The five singers trade verses like the Jackson 5 or the guests on a Funkadelic track. The form is 70s-inspired rock, loping along and celebratory. Its message: “Me and my friends go a mighty long way.” Its best lyric: “It breaks my ass like a windowsill.” I don’t know what it means, but it makes me smile.

This is something else admirable about the band: its vaudevillian, comic spirit. Listen to “Modern Industry,” from the band’s debut.  My friends and I quoted the lyrics to each other, as some will quote Monty Python. You can hear Fishbone’s ability to mimic vocal types (rock’n’roll DJ, surfer, preacher, Danny Elfman). The song (and video) are a little antic, going for the laugh even at the cost of ethnic insensitivity, a complication compounded by the fact that Fishbone were, and are, comprised of black men.

FBF

Truth and Soul was the first recording by the band that brought their blackness into my consciousness. It was certainly the first CD I bought that wasn’t by white people. That isn’t to say I didn’t know they were African Americans—I had all their earlier stuff on cassette, and I could see—but through this album I reckoned with what that could mean. The liner notes informed me that “One Day”—a song about waiting (for redemption? justice? mass awakening?)—was one of three tracks recorded on MLK’s birthday. And the words for the remarkably spry “Ghetto Soundwave” could have been written last year or last month: Verse one: “There’s another cry of murder / Policeman shoot down baby brother.” Verse two: “A father tries to feed his family / They came here to find their opportunity.” Verse three: “Another bourgeois politician / Hears our plea but does not listen.”

“Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” was the song that most directly and angrily addressed racism and, well, my culpability in America’s racist legacy: “Round and around and around they go / The bus is goin’ mighty slow/ Brothers in the backseat, Caucs in the front.” The word “Caucs” was too much for one of my friends, who otherwise loved the band, since it—he helpfully pointed out the subtext—implied that all Caucasian people were, you know, ahem. He claimed reverse racism and was truly outraged. Yet the song doesn’t make a lot of sense as protest, if for no reason than its music—a hoedown of goofy movie-Western music. Songs like this confirmed for the dismissive that Fishbone were a novelty act.

Maybe because they were young, Fishbone’s intentionally socially conscious songs suffer from self-seriousness and incoherence. They were just on the other side of twenty when they recorded Truth and Soul, and like most young people addressing social issues in their art, they were full of what Yeats calls “passionate intensity.” At their best, Fishbone’s careening, offhand facility enacted together, for me maybe only, the melody my ear was drawn to and the tight groove that gave space for spontaneity. And sometimes, on this, their first “adult-themed” album, they synthesized both “truth” and “soul,” as they do in “Ma and Pa,” a song that specifies the kind of problems “Ghetto Soundwave” paints in broad, generalized strokes. Here we see that Reagan-era trope—the “breakdown of the family”—through the lens of a narrator feeling for his little sister during  “Ma” and “Pa’s” marital discord. The chorus’s protest, “Hey Ma and Pa / What the hell is wrong wich y’all?” feels real because it doesn’t feel forced.

I saw Fishbone in spring of ‘89, in the barely controlled chaos of maybe the best live performance I’ve ever seen by anyone, ever. Not a mosher myself, I stood enthralled as Fishbone’s mostly white fans manically bashed each other, sang along, crowd surfed while mimicking with their hands trumpets and trombones, and emerged from the pit bloodied and punch-drunk. I wasn’t thinking of the “black” experience in this country and the “truth” Fishbone was trying to get me to recognize. I was thinking of having a good time. (No question the band wanted to have a good time, too.)

The “truth” Fishbone sang about came through only in glimmers. Nevertheless, those glimmers introduced a kid from Orange County USA to a world past the suburbs he registered as normative living. (It would require a few more years and a number of other artists, writers, and friends to help me see a fuller and more devastating reality.) The “soul,” however, shone through loud and clear—in the careening panache the band’s talent embodied, in its overflowing life. As the angel admonishes Angelo in “Question of Life,” “You musnt wrong the right / You musnt dark the light / You must dove the vulture / You must do or die.” You must dove the vulture! That’s a bit of language play I’ve always thrilled to, a grace note in the midst of an album full of them. The double drum roll that soon follows it still sends me on my way.

Next Week: Les Miserables

My CD Collection, Week 3—V/A, Bob Dylan in the 80’s: Volume One

This is an ongoing series by Chris Davidson, our poetry editor. Entries for Weeks 1 and 2 can be found here. 

The first Dylan album I bought was Oh Mercy, on cassette, right after it came out. Reviews, which I’m a sucker for, called it a comeback for the man from Hibbing, so I drove to the San Clemente Wherehouse, bought it, unwrapped it, and popped it in the deck of my ’82 Tercel. This was in September of 1989, a few weeks before I headed back to college for the year. I therefore take it as somewhat of a cheat that Bob Dylan in the 80’s: Volume One includes two songs from 1990’s Under the Red Sky. One could argue that Dylan wrote “Wiggle Wiggle,” one of those two, sometime in ‘89, and that the cumbersome recording process held up its release till the next year. I don’t buy it. “Wiggle Wiggle” sounds like it was written ten minutes before it was tracked. No matter. Bob Dylan in the 80’s with Two Songs from the ‘90s doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

That definitional looseness should give the assembled artists room to have a little fun, and several of them do. For example, “Wiggle Wiggle” (note that I’m repeating that title, “Wiggle Wiggle,” as often as possible), is a bit of amusing drivel livened up by Slash’s transistor radio guitar and Aaron Freeman’s Dylan impression. He’s not the only one aping Dylan here. Like an actor in a Woody Allen movie taking on the director’s tics and delivery, some of the impressions land, like John Cusack’s in Bullets Over Broadway, and some don’t, like Kenneth Branagh’s in Celebrity. I leave it to the listener to figure out who’s who.

Bob Dylan in the 80s came to me from a student as thanks for a letter of recommendation. I was happy to get it. It’s a mild thrill to receive something solid and tangible, instead of, say, a gift card. And a music compilation has its own particular charm, like receiving an anthology of poems, or a box of chocolates. You may not like everything in it, but you’re bound to be surprised here and there by something tastier than you expect.

Nevertheless, any tribute CD post-2010 is a strange object. Consider the album under review. Although a lot of energy went into corralling the performers and creating the artwork and mastering and distributing the thing, and although it has a strong hook—digging up gems from Dylan’s lost decade—its reason for being is unclear. Who is the intended audience? The hard-core Dylan fans I know want to hear him sing his songs, not someone else. And most people under thirty-five are not going to pick this CD up. Some might listen to it on Spotify and choose a few tracks to add to their phones—and yet the point of a tribute album is to hear, side by side, different takes on the same body of work. Perhaps it was aimed at those in line at Starbucks, enticed into an impulse purchase by the rack of CDs next to the cash register, but the coffee chain got rid of those racks in 2015, shortly after Bob Dylan in the 80s was released. It’s possible that songs from the album were played on local NPR affiliates, who then offered it as a premium during membership drives, but I can’t imagine Bob Dylan in the 80s ever flying off the shelves. For the producers to put all that time and effort and money into making this CD as CDs face rapid extinction is an act of irrational, endearing hope.

victoria williams

The first tribute album I got was Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, from 1994. This is a perfect example of the form. It had purpose, in that it was pulled together for the sake of the songwriter it celebrated, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and, as a low-selling but highly respected musician, lacked health insurance to help manage her condition’s expenses. It launched a charity that to this day helps struggling musicians pay medical bills. It featured a healthy mix of artists, from alt rockers at peak fame to roots revivalists in the rising-in-popularity but hideously named Adult Album Alternative Radio, from college-rock mainstays to revered veterans. It introduced to a wider audience a songwriter whose voice, an acquired taste, kept fans away from her concise, wise, and generous songs. And it landed Williams a new record deal.

Dylan, on the other hand, has had a record deal for fifty-four years, and none of the artists on Dylan in the 80s lights up the marquee like Pearl Jam did two decades ago. Instead, they read like a Pitchfork dream team, before Pitchfork discovered hip hop and Carly Rae Jepsen. Built to Spill’s serviceable “Jokerman” doesn’t reach the aurally majestic heights that band so often reaches, but it’s still a great rock song. Craig Finn’s “Sweetheart Like You” is a lovely ballad that would fit right in as the fourth track of any Hold Steady album. Deer Tick’s “Night after Night” is a charming Jimmy Buffett homage, complete with electric piano and boozy tempo. Reggie Watts’ “Brownsville Girl,” though not as inspired as his riff on Van Halen’s stupid and irresistible “Panama,” reminds the listener that Watts is not just a comedian—he’s a singer of surprising range and a master of sonic trickery. An outfit named Ivan & Alyosha (I get that reference!) turn in a sincere, harmony-driven version of the castoff “You Changed My Life.” (Their version is good, but I prefer the original, with its remarkably propulsive drums and Dylan’s sneering delivery of lines like “You do the work of the devil, you got a million friends / They’ll be there when you got something, they’ll take it all in the end.”) Dawn Landes sings a gorgeous “Dark Eyes,” with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, resplendent harmonist, in accompaniment. In short, this is an excellent listen.

If none of these titles rings a bell, don’t worry. That’s the point. Nobody’s heard of them. As the story goes, the ‘80s were a bad time for Bob Dylan. I mean, look at this album cover! Who let him dress like that? Yet this project demonstrates that Dylan’s weak output might have been a matter of context as much as quality. He’d been recording for twenty years, having released twenty albums. Like Neil Young, at roughly the same time, he tried out different clothes, recording techniques, and backing bands out of…what? Boredom? Desperation?

Dylan

At the beginning of his career, Dylan was called—by marketing agents, by journalists, by someone—the voice of his generation. Despite his protestations, the identity stuck. After twenty years, a few years shy of the demographic definition of a generation, those Dylan “spoke for” found themselves, like him, in their 40s—working, having families, spending less and less time on leisure. In a few years, they’d have the means to shell out $200 to go see him or the Stones or Paul McCartney in concert, or $1000 to see them all at once, a reward for their years wandering the desert of domesticity. In the meantime, what was Dylan to do? Wake up and go to work, just as he had since 1962. His harried fans, who used to buy records and march in the streets and burn their draft cards now had mortgages to pay and kids to raise and minivans to buy. Heroes are for the young. Hence Dylan’s dressing like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Hence his flirtation with hip-hop and drum machines.

Of course, this kind of pop sociology is based in mere conjecture, since I’m no historian and I don’t pretend to know what Dylan thinks. In the 80s, my understanding of Dylan and the counterculture was limited to a) hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” a whole lot on classic rock radio, and b) occasionally seeing on TV metonymic images of youthful unrest meant to signify “The 60s.” Still, I like to think of Dylan worrying about his slipping audience and thus buying into fads meant to appeal to younger fans. Such grasping makes him more human, somehow. You could argue that Dylan’s subsequent artistic rebirth happened when he remembered what he already knew: That to seek for relevance is a mug’s game. The real pursuit, as for the poets of old, is immortality, which meant Dylan had to reclaim—sonically, visually, persona-ly—his mythic identity. Beginning with Oh Mercy, his sound and wardrobe returned to the roots-oriented, old timey-ness of the Basement Tapes era, though now he had the grizzled countenance to match the threads. Returned from his sojourn through banality was the mysterious man in the alleyway, present but unknowable. For evidence, look at this post-performance interaction with David Letterman, from 1984, and this one, from last year. In 1984, he interacts with the host, and even laughs at his jokes. In 2015, he’s aloof and distant, a resident of Olympus, come down to bless us with his presence.

That’s why some of the best stuff on Bob Dylan in the 80s is either irreverent toward its source, like the Watts performance, or drawn from his born-again phase. Beginning in 1979, the artistic genius, the beat-poet hipster, the man apart sang about sin and salvation and the person of Jesus Christ, and he seemed to believe the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation. If you’ve seen No Direction Home or Don’t Look Back, you know that one aspect of Dylan’s genius is his refusal to be pigeonholed, to explain what his songs mean or what he means. It’s poignantly sad to hear his aged protest-singer peers lament Dylan’s moving on to a less easily defined set of goals, betraying (for them) the cause their music served. For Dylan, “art” was the cause; it was not subordinate to a political movement. As soon as you let your work be used for a movement, you’re subject to its leaders’ exploitation and eventual irrelevance.

Dylan’s born-again period is fascinating because he willingly let himself be pigeonholed, subordinating his art for an easily ridiculed cause: Evangelical Christianity. It was gutsy of Dylan, in 1960, to give up his name and fabricate his history on the way to Greenwich Village and the subsequent renown he’d achieve. It was arguably gutsier, in 1979, to risk that renown by singing of ideas handed down by tradition instead of forged in the Blake-ian heat of artistic creation. Christian faith demanded of Dylan the kind of personal definition he made his name evading. It also meant that Dylan hitched his wagon to a movement associated with obnoxious, power-hungry men using the subjects he sang about to condemn whole swaths of the American electorate.

Alas, it was as short-lived as his tenure singing protest songs. Yet whatever beliefs Dylan held in 1980, the subsequent decade is pervaded by his encounter with (what he claimed at the time was) the sacred. What these songs lack in innovation and vision, especially when compared with his mid-60s output, they make up in sincerity and a belief in transcendence that predates by ten years David Foster Wallace, Paul Thomas Anderson, and The Soft Bulletin. You can hear it in “Ring Them Bells,” from Oh Mercy, and “God Knows,” from Under the Red Sky, and it pops up again and again in Bob Dylan in the 80s, which ends with a lovely three-song suite about reality, resolve, and peaceful resignation. The marvelous Lucius perform “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” a song about frail human relationships that also manages to celebrate and reassure us about the approaching, implacable darkness. Glen Hansard brings all the shameless earnestness he brought to the movie Once with “Pressing On,” a song of devotion and will that builds in power as it unfolds, like a religiously-backed “Invictus.” And Carl Broemel’s lovely, nasal tenor, along with a ghostly choir of multi-tracked voices, ends the proceedings by insisting, without hectoring us, that “Death is Not the End.”

Ahh, but this review is at its end. In the few words I have left, I’d like to say—to my former student Nathan who gave me this CD, to the producers of this foolishly devoted project—thank you. I’ve played it and thought about it. I’ve felt better about life each time I’ve listened to its last three songs. And now I’ve written about it. It’s lived on beyond its making.

[Next week: Fishbone, Truth and Soul]

 

My CD Collection—Week 2, The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing

The first two entries in this series can be found here and here.  Come back next Friday for another album!

This CD represents a number of points about music and commerce and culture trends and influence and aging. I hope by cataloging them I can get at something worthwhile.

1. This CD came into my possession through marriage.

I’ve been married long enough that to encounter something from before I met my wife is like discovering a strange and distant artifact in the most everyday of places, like finding a gold doubloon in the take-a-penny cup at 7-11. There’s the lightweight cook set still used for backpacking, the occasional book (such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar—calm down, people), a few mixtapes made for her by old friends, and a half-dozen CDs, yet none of these things represent my wife’s passions. She’s a good sport when it comes to camping, as long as I do the planning. She loves to read but never buys books anymore (“Libraries are free!” she tells me). Despite being an excellent singer, she rarely seeks music out on her own. A friend gave her the Hamilton soundtrack last year, and she listened to it plenty, but after a few weeks it was back to NPR. This from a woman who in her youth memorized every single word of Styx’s Paradise Theater album. Clearly, being married to me has robbed her of some kind of musical joy.

2. My wife acquired this CD through the BMG Music Club, where you get your initial twelve CDs for a penny.

How do I know? No barcode. [“See? No barcode!”]

image

Whenever I think of the music industry crying over people stealing music, I think of these clubs, the last of which appears to have died only in the late oughts. Record companies gave CDs away as if they were valueless, in a system that was easy to game, as long as a few rubes bought a few CDs per year. If one or two CDs at full price covered the cost of the other twelve, then why was I charged $15 each time I went to the Wherehouse to pick up the latest from Pearl Jam? Perhaps we oughtn’t blame Napster or Spotify for the demise of the major record labels. The Man did it to himself.

3. I was a freshman in college when Cosmic Thing was released.

I’d been a fan of the B-52’s for a while. I loved the debut CD in high school, but before that, when I was in elementary school, I heard “Rock Lobster” on one of those old Warner Bros. promotional records, and it was nothing like the Boston, Led Zeppelin, or Neil Young with which I heard my brother fill the house. The neighborhood’s resident proto-hipster, a few years older than me and who made his own clothes and covered his walls in record sleeves and had the first waterbed I’d ever seen, told me and my friends that when Fred Schneider yells “Down, Down,” during the song’s breakdown, everyone at the band’s concerts gets down, literally, sinking slowly to the floor. I took him at his word, even though there was no way of verifying it. Apparently, he was right.

I love that video. It’s bracing to watch a band that few people knew play a song, on a tiny stage in a tiny club, that will in a few years become a cultural touchstone. The songs on the B’s first album are campy, inventive, surprising, and alive. “Planet Claire” builds slowly into something both ominous and dance-worthy, and “52 Girls” has no chorus and unison singing, and the whole album sounds woodshedded and tonally warm and handmade. You can almost “see” the musicians’ fingerprints on the sounds. The drums sound like they’re in the room with you. Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s vocals—their yips and yelps and screams and ululations—are bizarre and inspired and were so different from the more traditional “rock” vocals I’d hear on the radio from Ann Wilson and Pat Benatar. Ricky Wilson’s punk-inflected “Peter Gunn” guitar was the secret weapon. “Rock Lobster” is a lot of fun, for many reasons, but the last minute and a half or so cooks with gas via a guitar whose driving, repetitive low end emits, through expressive joy, trebly bleats and squawks. Marvelous. Listen to it again and hear what I mean.

Like John Waters and Tim Burton, who also devoted themselves to trash culture and the campier aspects of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the B-52’s mellowed with age and bigger budgets. Cosmic Thing’s production is credited to Don Was and Nile Rogers, tasteful producers favored by those (David Bowie, The Rolling Stones) looking for a career renaissance. Their touch can be heard immediately, in the drum sound, which is tight and shiny (thok, thok, thok), as opposed to the big, wet drums that dominated the ‘80s. All of the music feels compact. In my car, Cosmic Thing sounded as if it were coming out of one speaker and not two. The middle range dominates the mid-tempo songs. The harmonies are lovely, but the singing is straight. There are no calls of the manta ray or bikini whale. Fred Schneider shouts “Shake your honey buns!” and you may think of your dad saying something mildly embarrassing in front of friends brought home from school.

There’s nothing on the album as irresistibly silly as “6060-842” or “Song for a Future Generation,” as passionately unhinged as “Hero Worship,” as flat-out inspired as “Private Idaho.” The guitar plays a fine rhythm, yet its voice is less punk than adult contemporary. “June Bug” and “Channel Z,” my two favorite tracks, come closest to the strange urgency of records past. The former is about sex, and the latter about ecological destruction, perennial topics of inspiration.

4. Despite the apparently lukewarm assessment, above, Cosmic Thing still sounds great on an August afternoon with the windows open and a warm breeze blowing through (your car, your apartment, the leaves of the trees).
5. This CD represents the end of my influence on my son’s musical tastes.

Once my younger son, the other music fan in the family, grew tired with kids’ CDs, I suggested he listened the B-52’s. He loved them, and they provided, for a time, the soundtrack for our drives. He’s since moved on to his own music—currently in heavy rotation: 21 Pilots. As parents have felt since the invention of the hi-fi, I wish he’d turn it down

6. The B-52’s are still at it.

They last released an album in 2008, called Funplex, and three of the remaining members still tour. I listened to the song “Whammy Kiss” on YouTube, a thing at my fingers I neither pay for nor understand. Climate change continues apace. To write this article, I listened to a CD of music that was manufactured over twenty years ago of music that came out almost thirty years ago by a band that began playing forty years ago and will be playing in San Diego on August 14 with the English Beat. To borrow a phrase from Robert Christgau, “Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies.” 

Next week: V/A, Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One

My CD Collection: Week 1, The Strokes, Is This It

From now on, ‘My CD Collection’ will go live at The Curator on Friday afternoons. Keep coming back each week!

 

The Strokes were part of that wave of garage rock at the turn of the century that was, like techno in the ‘90s, hyped as the kick in the pants the moribund music industry needed. The band seemed aware of the hype that launched them. Look at their debut album title: Is This It. No question mark, as if the answer were built-in to those three words: This Is It. “Take It or Leave It” they sang, the band itself perhaps the “it” the indeterminate pronoun refers to, the “it” band not caring about whether anyone gets “it.” The Strokes were more art-school cool than the self-consciously blue-collar White Stripes, the ironic Hives, or the commercially polished Jet, yet I enjoyed all the music I heard on the radio by these bands, their songs a nice antidote to the post-grunge and Nu Metal saturating the white-people alt-rock airwaves. Nevertheless, Is This It is the only artifact I bought from the garage rock revival. Why?

In the era of YouTube and Spotify, finding new music is easy on the body and the pocketbook, but back in the day, paying for music carried risk and cost. I’d often lament the CD I just paid fifteen bucks for at the Virgin Megastore, even if I had just spent forty minutes (where did I find the time?) standing at the new music kiosk with headphones on, listening to the whole thing from start to finish. Once I owned the music, it somehow transformed into something less thrilling, weirdly familiar. That commonly recurring feeling put a check on my buying habits. When I found something I liked, and which lasted, I was grateful, but I was batting around .275 when it came to buying CDs.

For Is This It, my poor consumer satisfaction average was compounded by what I’m embarrassed to cop to as envy. The Strokes were media darlings, new and hip compared to tank-topped, backwards-cap-wearing hot heads like Fred Durst. They dressed well, they had impossibly chic names (Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, Fabrizio Moretti, and for a whiff of blues cred, Albert Hammond, Jr.), and were beautiful to look at—still are, in fact. The singing of Julian Casablancas (is this name for real?) didn’t seem addressed to any particular audience, as if he didn’t care what his listeners thought.

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Here’s where the envy comes in. It was hard, especially so fifteen years ago, to listen to any new music without it being refracted through my own conscious music-making self. You might say that, since I play basketball every Thursday evening, I might as well be envious of LeBron James. I’m not. Basketball, one of my favorite things to play and to watch, was a late-ish pastime. I became obsessed in my twenties, after a youth filled with athletic failure.

But music was different. It’s never been flat for me, a series of notes emanating from the radio in the corner. From a young age, music’s been a world, one I could enter and participate in. I started playing the guitar at 19 not to learn other peoples’ songs but to make my own. In 2001, I was seven years into making recordings I hoped others would love as much as I had loved them myself. Few did. Via the hype machine propping up the “it” band of late 2001, I saw in The Strokes all the cool I’d never be plus attention my music would never have. As for the ubiquitous single, “Last Nite,” its swagger and posture, its self-consciously retro production, the singer’s self-regarding delivery, all rubbed me—who convinced myself that self-deprecating modesty was a higher road an artiste should take—wrong.

Why did I buy the CD, then, if I wasn’t convinced by what I’d heard? Critics. I care, for good or for ill, about what critics think. They loved Is This It. Arbiters of cool—like the young white men at Pitchfork—raved about it. Apparently, I wanted approval of people I’d never meet, and one critic in particular convinced me to drive to the store and buy the thing. I don’t remember her name, but I remember she wrote about the guitar solo on “Last Nite,” which she said typified what was great about the band’s music: concision and craft. Nerdy as it might sound, I love concision in any kind of art, finding constraint, both as theme and form, a means by which the mettle of a craftsperson is tested. Limitation breeds invention and all that.

Nevertheless, as a “competitor” of the band’s, I resented and felt intimidated by their look and youth and the praise they bathed in, even by the minimalist production, which I took as a posture, and of course it was a posture! But what about my posture? Can I get a hell yeah for self-deprecating modesty?

This may be why it took about ten years for me to hear the album’s music for what it is: a sonic package meant to hit all my particular aural pleasure centers. I had to grow up in order to receive it. One afternoon, Is This It came on the CD changer while I worked on something in the kitchen. Every song was a concise and enjoyable system of melody and sound. At the guitar solo near the end of “Alone, Together,” I was knocked out. This album, I thought, is a terrific product. And product it is, as Robert Christgau’s brief review perceives and articulates. Casablancas sings with passionate detachment, and the music is a synthesis of the poppier elements of the underground music percolating at CBGBs in the 70s and 80s: The Stooges and The Modern Lovers and The Feelies and The Ramones and Television and Suicide, and of course The Velvets, with some Tom Petty thrown in as a nod to and finger flung at classic rock. The songs are about alienation, I guess, but I don’t listen to Is This It for insight about the human condition. I listen to it because it sounds good, in song after song after song.

It’s even at times decidedly fun, which is to say, not cool. Despite the images of bars and smoking and grimy street life, an anachronism in Giuliani’s New York, the video for “Someday” can’t disguise the fact that this number is a jaunty sing-along. Or listen to the bass on the title track. It plays a melody clearly pushed up in the mix by the producer, who knew it was a great counterpoint to the singer’s ennui-inflected delivery. It’s the loudest bass part on the album, and it undercuts, or overwhelms, the boredom the lyrics avow.

Finally, look at the CD booklet’s artwork, methodically curated to capitalize on the mystery and allure of the band and its compadres, including “guru,” and you’ll find on the last page a thank-you list. The nice boys in The Strokes would like to remind you that they have parents and are grateful for their support.

When I grow to love an album by an artist, I tend to buy everything that artist puts out, but Is This It is the only Strokes I’ve bought, and I doubt I’ll pick up any more. It took a decade, but when I had forgotten it made me feel jealous, I was able to be surprised by it, to favor its discipline and melodic complexity, to bop along to its kinetic, poppy hooks. It was a studied move, but I admire the fact that those who made Is This It decided that rocking out doesn’t need a richer production or higher volume but a restriction of space where the rocking out takes place. I don’t know if the band ever captured such a sustained success again, and I don’t want to find out. I love this gemlike collection of songs. I don’t want to be disappointed.

 

Next Week: The B-52s, Cosmic Thing

 

 

My CD Collection: Week Zero, Introduction

I bought my first CD in high school, Christmas of ’86 or ’87. It was Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration. I picked it up at Tower Records, a twenty-minute drive from home, after receiving a CD player earlier that morning. A few years later I sold it back to a used record shop, fearing my fragile Christian faith would be overthrown by Marley’s Rastafarianism. I now regret selling it back, but I regret more the initial purchase—Catch a Fire is by far the better album. I wish I had it. 

Over the years, I collected hundreds of CDs, and last year when I moved out of the house I’d lived in for twelve years, I schlepped them with me to the new place. Most sit on shelves in a room behind the garage, unorganized and neglected. I don’t listen to most of them, ever.

In the ‘90s, I reviewed CDs for a San Diego alt-weekly magazine. I remember trashing an album by Letters to Cleo. The music was pleasant enough, perhaps a little slick and plain, which I took as an affront. After I saw the review in print, I felt terrible. A bunch of people—songwriters, musicians, engineers, cover artists, manufacturers—worked hard to make that record come into existence. One of these people said to another, “Hey, try this,” and they did, out of a belief that “this” made the product better. There was hope in all their labor, that perhaps old and new fans would soon pay for its fruits and enjoy them. Who was I to glibly knock the efforts of people I’d never met and who owed me nothing? I stopped reviewing music.

On my shelves is the evidence of efforts of hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar people who worked to make something I’d use to soundtrack the commutes and chores and occasional cookouts comprising my life. As the physical artifact has given way to (seemingly) weightless code, I’ve thought a lot about what a CD (or an LP, or a cassette) is. The gatefold picture accompanying Queen’s Jazz album shows a panorama of the resplendent studio where the band presumably recorded. Is the thing you hold in your hand the equivalent of that picture—Roger Taylor’s twenty-piece drum set, Brian May’s rigs and guitars, the grand piano Freddy Mercury has seductively draped himself over? Is the disk all that airy space above them, allowing the notes of his voice to resonate and attach to strips of magnetic tape? Is owning the physical artifact quantitatively or qualitatively different from streaming it? Do we own music when we stream it? Did we ever? Perhaps like land, perhaps like love, it’s foolish to “own” anything that people work at and say about, “These are my beloved songs: Listen to them.”

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“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” That’s Walter Benjamin, talking about visual art, but it might be applied to the reproductions of music we collect. Fairuza Balk’s groupie, in Almost Famous, says that to be a true fan is “To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” In her case, that means following the band around and hearing them live. That whole jam’s not reproducible in plastic or vinyl or even, so far, VR.

So what is that pile of CDs in the room behind the garage? Music, sure, as a reflection or shadow of it. It’s also a bunch of markers about my taste, my attempts to display my taste to others, and what I was like at 19, 25, and 37. It’s a series of attempts at being surprised, at believing that buying something and playing it and enjoying it will make my life somehow better. It is, finally, a dreary lesson in capitalism.

Over at the A.V. Club, Josh Modell is going through his CD collection, alphabetically, to critically assess whether its worth keeping or purging certain artists’ work. The focus of this series will be different. “My CD Collection” will be me trying to reckon with the personal history wrapped up in that pile of CDs, along with a critical engagement with its music, its packaging, and the notion that to judge something—like, say, a record by a female-fronted power pop band named after a childhood pen pal—is to step into it. What “it” is is partly what this project is about.   

Even though most music now comes to me via the Internet, I’m apparently not done buying CDs. I passed through my college town last week and couldn’t help but stop at the local independent record store. There I saw Mitski’s Puberty 2 displayed above the rack of CD’s labeled “M.” I’d already heard it three times on NPR’s First Listen weeks before, and I vowed to download it when I had a free minute. But here it was, shrink-wrapped and fairly priced ($13.99), and I walked out a little lighter in the wallet. I don’t regret it. It’s fantastic.

[Next week: Is This It, by The Strokes]

Ash Wednesday

You’d think by now I’d know it’s not
The mixing of drink, but the absence
Of water that makes the head ring,
Unsnoozably, mornings like these.

Consequence of Fat Tuesday, or not,
I need help and hope the forgiver
Doesn’t tire of Lord Lord from my lips,
When my body is miles away.

No matter. A moment makes its own shape,
Owns its own needs. Coffee’s a mercy.
Advil, too. What loss there is
Is cause enough to mark a cross

On the forehead each morning,
Each evening to burn the temple down.