Sunday, February 8, 2015

SONG #174: Goin' Back

Nils Lofgren, 1975

For the last twelve years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be playing music at a pretty high professional level.  I’ve also been lucky enough to be a sideman through all that time, so I’ve been wonderfully anonymous through it all.  

Case in point— (and you’re just going to have to excuse the #humblebrag quality of some of this)— I played on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show last year.  I was playing keys for my buddy Jeff Campbell.  I had quite a rock star day— I flew into LA, took a cab right to the show, rolled in backstage and met up with the rest of the band, did the gig (as Homer Simpson reminds us all, we musicians call it a “gig”) spent the night at a classic LA hipster hotel (the caviar in the hallway vending machine was only $300 bucks!) and flew home the next day.  Sounds pretty glamorous, huh?  Well… the whole experience on Hollywood Boulevard that day reminded me what a seven-layer cake of humble pie (sorry for the dessert mixed metaphor) fame is.  Allow me to break it down:

Level 1— the guys on Hollywood Blvd. dressed up like movie stars and movie characters.  

Level 2— the tourists there to take pictures and wait in line to see Jimmy Kimmel’s show.

Level 3— Jeff Campbell: handsome bugger.

Level 4— The “famous” people on the show in front of Jeff (it was the actress from The Great Gatsby— we weren’t allowed near her.  The dressing rooms are stratified as well.)

Level 5— Jimmy Kimmel (or his first guest, depending on how A-listy)

Level 6— The stars looking down on us from the billboards overheard (it was Wolf on Wall Street Di Caprio that week)

Level 7— The guys in the offices on the top floors of the buildings with DiCaprio on them deciding who will be the next DiCaprio.

I'm scared to look directly at this picture.

So where was I?  Right around a 2+, I think, as long as I had my “performer” wristband on.  My favorite moment came when I had to step outside about an hour before showtime.  By then, there was a big line of people waiting to get into the show.  When I opened the door, about fifty people shouted and took my picture, and then groaned sadly when they realized they had wasted digital storage space on a picture of no-one.  A few even looked at me accusingly as if I had tricked them into taking my picture in the first place.  I felt like I could hear the line delete my photo.

I was on TV for exactly 1.65 seconds.  That’s 1.65 seconds more than I ever expected to be, but not enough to register on any starmaker machinery.

And it was GREAT!  I had a blast, and I didn’t have to suffer through the nerves that Jeff must have felt.  It was all bacon and gravy and chocolate and butter cream icing and no vegetables (what’s with all the food metaphors?  I’m getting a snack after I finish writing this one.)  

If I was still trying to peddle my own material with my 90s ponytail, there’s no WAY I’d be on Kimmel.  I finally found my calling when I took two steps to the right and started helping people make their songs sound good (thanks, Rich Price!)  Being a sideman is fantastic, and suits me so much better.

I tell you all of this in order to explain why I have developed a soft spot for this song, my favorite performance by perhaps rock’s most successful guy like me.

Nils Lofgren spent over a decade almost making it— first in Grin, then as a solo artist, and sometimes flirting as a guitarist in other bands.  He’s a damn fine musician— he can play just about anything better than most people, has a voice born to blend and hit difficult harmony vocals, and (especially important if you grew up in DC in the 70s) HE WROTE AND PERFORMED THIS SONG!!:

If that was Nils’ only contribution to culture, he’d be on my short list.

But the hard truth about Nils?  His songs aren’t that memorable.  He just put out a NINE CD collection of his life’s work, and I liked a handful of songs on it, and they were all from his debut album.  I don’t dislike any of them, but I can’t hum them or remember them right after they finish.  He’s a guy born to play music— other people’s music.  Once he joined the E Street Band in 1985, he discovered the perfect gig for his talents.  He makes Bruce Springsteen’s music sound better, and based on what a wonderful overall guy he seems to be, he helps keep the E Street Band together.  And he doesn't have to carry the show.

It's why this performance is his best; he didn't write it.  “Goin’ Back” is a Goffin/King tune, one of their little miracles, and while Dusty Springfield, The Byrds, Springsteen, and a dozen others recorded it, I think I like Nils' version best.  The song is about trying to hold onto and recapture youthful innocence in adulthood's more complex landscape.  The lyrics suggest that you can, that even though there are no more "electric trains" and "sailboat[s]" to play with, it's still possible to "think... young [while] growing older."  Most performances of the song, however, hint at an underlying lack of reconciliation-- that "you can't go home again."  They turn the song into something wistful: sophisticated, yes, but also in the wrong hands a little maudlin.

Not Nils-- he's the dreamer, the eternal optimist in this performance.  By speeding up the tempo a little and adding that fantastic "look at how fast I can play! Wheeeee!" piano part, he does something different.  The song becomes a declaration, not a warning or a meditation.  It's over in a flash-- under 2 1/2 minutes-- and it's a bouncy, happy paean to being a wide-eyed kid in long pants.  It would fit right in over a montage in a cartoon movie in which the main character finds his courage. Nils believes he can stay an open-minded kid forever, make "every day a magic carpet ride."  

And he did-- he just had to jump on someone else's carpet to do it. It's good work it you can get it-- take it from me.

Now go buy a Jeff Campbell record.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

SONGS #163-173: Bruce Springsteen— The Agora, Cleveland OH 8-9-78, SET TWO

Rested?  Great.  “Alright! Round Two!”

The band comes out, Springsteen introduces Clarence, and they break into Paradise by the “C.”  It’s interesting to compare the crowd’s reaction— they are far less frantic than at the top of the show.  The band’s already won them over, and now band and audience are old friends, relaxed, and it shows in the band’s performance.  This version of “Paradise” truly swings— compare this track to the “Summertime / Badlands” opener— here, the band’s in no hurry, and there’s no attempt to knock the audience over or blow them back.  Instead, the band’s loping along (well, except when Max unleashes 300 snare hits at 3:05).  “Paradise” is the kind of song only the E Street Band can pull off and make charming.  It sounds like ballroom dance music, something these guys might have heard floating out of a dance hall in their childhoods.  It serves to warm the band up for set two, and gives Clarence a showcase after a first set when he’s not prominently featured.  It’s not Clarence’s best moment— he’s late in places and he flubs the last pass, but the band’s exuberance covers for him.  Things are, to use a favorite Springsteen expression, “loose.”

That vibe continues with “Fire,” a hit song that Bruce gave away.  Here’s Bruce in seduction mode, and you can tell it’s working from the audience’s reaction.  I love this version of the song— the band holds back a little more than on the Roxy 78 version on the box set.  Bittan’s less insistent in the second verse, and the bridge is a little more sloppy and offhand, which fits Bruce’s delivery.  There’s no showoffy high notes on this version— Bruce is in sly smolder mode from beginning to end.  “C’mere darlin’…”

After “Fire,” Bruce feels like chatting.  Unlike the more scripted, reverent stories from set one, here Bruce is off the cuff, and sharing his knowledge of rock history, introducing “Sherry Darling” as an imitation of what Bruce calls “frat rock.”  From a 2015 perspective, it’s fascinating to listen to Bruce sounding like a grizzled old rocker at age 28.  We have not yet, in 1978,  reached the moment when old farts like me are at concerts (or on the stage)— it’s a young person’s game and activity, and Bruce seems a little embarrassed to have to explain the origins of his song with 60s references.   Lots of bootlegs from the 70s reveal this tension— my favorite moment is from a 1971 Allman Brothers radio broadcast, when Duane Allman is lamenting the murder of saxophonist King Curtis, brings up Aretha Franklin’s “Soul Serenade” as one of his great performances, and then says, “but you kids are probably too young to remember that far back. Sorry.”  Not only is he talking about a song that’s only three years old at that point, but he’s 24 when he apologizes to his audience for bringing up ancient history!  Only in the early days of rock and roll was a 24 year-old unsettlingly old.  Springsteen is in the first generation of rock stars to turn music into a career and not just a youthful distraction, but he’s not there yet.

Does not include "Sherry Darling"

This version of “Sherry Darling” is a blast, and the crowd deserves an MVP award, even if Bruce uncharacteristically butchers the lyrics more than once.  It swings a little harder than the studio version (an audible bass track really helps) and it represents where the Darkness record (and The River after it) could have gone.  Either of those records could have been party records, chock full of three minute singalongs, but Bruce (much to Van Zandt’s disappointment) couldn’t bring himself to limit his vision to a series of hit singles.  Now that he’s finally released dozens of outtakes from those sessions, you can make Van Zandt’s version of Darkness or The River for yourself.  I can truly see both men’s point-of-view.

At the end of “Darling,” Bruce is completely loose, joking with the audience and completely in control.  He turns back to Max and says “Give me a beat!” and so begins what is, for me, the high point of the night— the mesmerizing hourlong trip through four of his most durable tunes— “She’s The One,” Growin’ Up,” “Backstreets,” and “Rosalita.”  “She’s The One” takes forever to rev up to fell speed— it’s all drums and vocals for the first 3 1/2 minutes.  Bruce picks up his guitar and improvs some chordal solos. He’s ragged in places, and outrageously out of tune in others, but it completely works. It’s a pretty brave, skeletal moment in the show, six full minutes of Bo Diddley beat before the payoff.  And he’s not done— Bittan starts the intro to “She’s The One,” but Bruce sings “Gloria” over it instead.  The band doesn’t miss a beat.  Finally, seven and a half minutes in, Bruce starts “She’s the One.”  Unlike “Summertime Blues,” I read the inclusion of the covers here as hints to the audience of where Bruce is trying to position himself in rock music— “Not Fade Away” and “Gloria” are, by this point, well-known covers by dozens of bands, and Springsteen’s versions are close to the originals.  But if you think about it, in 1978 Springsteen seems to want to be the intersection point between Buddy Holly’s specificity and minimalism ("Not Fade Away") and Van Morrison’s wild, emotional indulgence ("Gloria").  Isn’t “She’s The One,” in fact, a Buddy Holly ripoff with lyrics reminiscent of Morrison’s romanticized descriptions of desire?  The band’s energy here elevates the tune above homage or imitation, though— it’s tougher than Holly and more direct than Morrison.  It’s also the first major high point of set two, and unique as well in that Bittan’s piano disappears completely from the mix.  He usually dominates the song, and I like this more stripped down version— the guitars take center stage, and it becomes about the sound generated by the whole band rather than one instrument.

It takes a moment to work out whatever was wrong with the mix, and once the piano is audible again, Springsteen called for “Roy!” and begins one of his longest-ever versions of “Growin’ Up.”  This version is known among Springsteen fans as the “Teenage Werewolf” version because of the story that he tells, and it’s a story similar to the one that he tells on the box set at the Roxy.  Told to choose between being a lawyer and an author (or “a author,” as he stubbornly insists on saying), he chooses option C, this time with God’s blessing.  I won’t spoil it any further— just check it out.  It’s a generous, triumphant performance.

I will say this, though— Springsteen is one of the few rock performers who can captivate a room with a story, and perhaps that's because it's the only time he's really comfortable talking to people.  In every book I’ve read about Springsteen, the difference between the shy, offstage personality and the extrovert onstage is really startling.  Like so many of his contemporaries, Springsteen was only able to work through the pain he felt about his relationship with his father in his art, and these stage stories are an integral part of the that struggle.  In Tom Petty’s Running Down A Dream documentary, archivist Bill Levenson says that the great untold story of rock n roll is fathers and sons, and Springsteen is exhibit A.  He plays the story that he tells here as comedy, but there’s so much obvious pain and repression at the center of it.  Whenever I listen to “Growin’ Up,” especially this one, I can’t help but think of the hundreds of thousands of teenage kids who felt exactly this way, and never found the outlet or the success that Springsteen did.  This song resonates with me for some similar reasons, but it doesn’t haunt me— I love my life.  However, if you really felt like the character in “Growin’ Up,” and also felt like you’d never escaped those demons and shadows, then this song must hurt and cut deep, even when Bruce yells “Let it rock!” and tries to you free.  

One final footnote for those of you who don’t know who Earl Sheib is:

And right into “Backstreets” in its most epic form for “Joey and Jimmy, Cleveland boys who’ve been following me for three years… I love them so much.”  Already seven minutes on album, this version is twice as long, and includes the interlude that Springsteen collectors refer to as “Sad Eyes.”  Unlike the other epic songs that I’ve been critical of in this review, I think “Backstreets” is magnificent on Born To Run, and harder to improve live than some of his other tunes.  Moreover, for some reason, the images and characters don’t seem overly stylized to me.  Rather than feeling like a low-rent West Side Story, this song always made me feel like I needed to meet more interesting people, and that love required a depth of devotion and feeling that, when I first heard the song as a teenager, I knew I didn’t have yet.  These folks felt real to me, and “Backstreets” made me want to dig deeper into myself.  The band on this take feels the same way— they are up to the challenge and play “Backstreets” with the same fervor that they brought to “Prove It All Night” ninety minutes earlier.

Bruce hits the “Sad Eyes” moment around the six minute mark.  There are variations of this interlude all over the 1978 tour, and I find myself wondering just how autobiographical it is.  Bruce stripped images from it and turned it into “Drive All Night” on The River, but I prefer it here (even if it's so Van Morrison-ish that Bruce should consider an Irish accent).  If you don’t listen closely, you’ll miss what a dispirited moment it is as well— he feels betrayed, and he’s hurt, even mean as it builds.  By the time he yells “STOP!” at 10:40, “Backstreets” is a much more complex tune then when it started, and its narrator is far less of a puncher’s chance hero.  Even after twelve minutes, the band has the strength to nail the ending, which is played for maximum drama, features a terrific, tricky little chord progression at the end (G-C-Am-F-D-D7) to get back to the original riff, and leaves the crowd completely spent.

And he’s STILL not done!  He calls out Roy again, and it’s time for Rosie.  The crowd starts calling for it by name at 13:35 in “Backstreets,” even though they sound completely exhausted.  Listen how quiet they are— you can hear individual people yelling like you couldn’t before.  It sounds like Bruce is having technical issues— he’s uncharacteristically absent (is that Clarence trying to banter on his turned-down mic?) and then you can hear him plug in his guitar (always put your amp on standby before you plug in, Bruce), and finally, over two hours after he started, Bruce is ready to start closing the show.

If you’re still reading, chances are I have nothing to add to your appreciation of “Rosalita.”  The live take from Phoenix ’78 that MTV played every 45 minutes in the 80s totally drew me in every time-- I know this song backwards and forwards.  Back when MTV first started, and they only showed about 25 different videos, they would sometimes show the live “Rosalita” right before or after Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.”  They were both live performance clips (though the Meatloaf one was on a soundstage and lip-synched), featured similar lighting, and were epic in length.  And I feel like watching them back to back taught me everything I needed to know about how to decode authentic rock n roll from posturing.  Those two videos are a crash course in what and what not to do in a rock n roll band.  Close your eyes and remember those clips-- who do you believe, Springsteen or Meatloaf?  (And a quick thank you to Karla DeVito for speeding along puberty a tiny bit.) *

Meatloaf giving young viewers hope that there's someone for everyone.

Two more quick things— I also think this is the last tour when Bruce bragged about his lack of education— he introduces Bittan as “the only member of the group with a high school diploma.”  By the time he writes Nebraska, his lack of education is no longer a badge of honor for him.  And did you hear the band play “Macho Man” for five seconds when Bruce introduces Clarence?  Pretty hilarious, even to Bruce: “I was afraid of that.”

When Rosie finally takes her bow, the band says goodnight, and amazingly, Bruce then leads them back out for another thirty minutes.  It’s totally fun— a sweet “4th Of July, Asbury Park” with unapologetic accordion (and absurdly loud castanets), a muscular “Born To Run” with sincere thanks to Cleveland, a burning cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand,” and a totally unnecessary, if-you-really-want-one-more-then-OK “Twist And Shout.”  

It’s a generous encore, and totally fun, but Bruce has already made his point earlier in the night.  This 1978 tour is not just a history of Springsteen’s career, but also Bruce’s attempt to communicate how he feels as he stares at turning thirty.  The Agora concert is not unlike a rock n roll version of The Great Gatsby, with Springsteen embodying not the doomed, self-invented title character, but Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway— a spy in enemy country who is also turning thirty, desperate to hold onto his youthful belief in “infinite hope,” and trying to chase down the hypocrisies not just in his peers, and in his country but, most painfully, himself.  Compare Nick’s eulogy on page two that foreshadows Gatsby’s fall— “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” — to Springsteen’s “Baby this town rips the bones from your back / It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we're young /`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” In both, there’s a sinister hegemony lurking out in the darkness that wants to claim us, that has already defined us by our class, or our race, or our background, and the only way to evade it is to acknowledge and face it, and then be willing to leave it behind, consequences be damned.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty great show.  I still believe in the power of live music to change us.  So go see a band soon— it’s good for you. 

Thanks for coming along for this ride, and see you soon.

* And because I can't resist-- the actual female vocalist on "Dashboard: is Ellen Foley, girlfriend of The Clash's Mick Jones, who co-wrote "London Calling," covered at Hyde Park in London in 2010 by... Bruce Springsteen.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

SONGS #153-162: Bruce Springsteen-- The Agora, Cleveland OH 8-9-78, SET ONE

Introduction / preshow tailgate:

My relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s music has been inconsistent.  I was late to the game— while Bruce was establishing himself in the late 70s, I was listening to Boston and the Beatles.  The first song I was aware of was “Hungry Heart,” and it sounded like a 50s song to me; I skipped over him and, in 1982, went right to the Clash and punk rock.  In the winter of 1983, however, I joined the Columbia record and tape club (again— see for more details), and bought Nebraska, which was the first Springsteen album I owned and listened to carefully, and I loved it.  When I got my first acoustic guitar a year later, I learned how to play “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” “State Trooper” and “Highway Patrolman” in the first week I had it— they were four of the first twenty songs I learned how to play on guitar.

That spring, I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, and we were driving back into Annapolis over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, when a song came on the radio that grabbed my attention immediately.  I thought the lyrics were incredible (and I usually never notice lyrics) and the melody unforgettable.  But I was also really bummed out by the loud 80s keyboard sound (ironic, as by that point I was myself a loud 80s keyboard player in a band).  When the song ended, I thought to myself, “Wow— that’s a great song— too bad it sounds that way.”  

It was “Dancing In The Dark.”

"I'll be there for youuuuuuuuu...."

The rest, as you know, is history.  Bruce became Broooooooooooooce that year.  By 1985, he was playing stadiums and was probably the most popular American rock musician since Elvis.  I bought Born In The U.S.A. like everyone I knew, listened to it 700 times, watched the videos on MTV every time they came on, and… secretly… didn’t love it that much.  The gunshot snare drum and the DX-7 synth got in my way of those terrific songs every time; they still do.

So I went backwards in the catalog looking for greatness, and I was frustrated by almost all of it. I loved Born To Run (and it’s still my favorite by some distance), but Greetings, from 1973, was too quiet and restrained.  Wild And Innocent was too inconsistent— even then I couldn’t abide a drummer who slows down.  Darkness was too slow and ponderous for me in the 80s— when half your record collection is hardcore punk rock, Darkness sounds like chamber music, and Bruce looked sleepy to me on the cover, not brooding.  Same problem with The River— I loved the first three songs, and most of the fast numbers, but I was bored to death by side four.

I basically decided that, though I would keep it to myself, Springsteen was overrated and perhaps a little too in love with his “everyman” image.

The behemoth live box set in 1986 changed everything.  I couldn’t listen to the fourth and fifth LPs (who wants to feel like they’re sitting in a giant stadium?) but the first three albums in the box floored me.  Here were the versions of the songs that made sense!  Hearing him live, I totally got it.  I listened to some of those performances every day for year.  It’s still not safe for me to drive to “Saint In The City” or “Candy’s Room.”

Therefore, being the kind of person I am (and maybe you are, if you’re still reading) I went hunting for Springsteen bootlegs, and since 1991, when I got high quality copies of the Passaic 9-19-78 and Main Point 2-5-75 shows, almost all of my Springsteen listening has been live bootlegs.  The only two records I listen to anymore are Born To Run and Wild and Innocent— other than that, the Bruce that I feel truly does him justice is unavailable to the law-abiding record buying public. (With the exception of Live In Dublin from 2007— that’s fantastic). In fact, this blog’s humble beginnings is a bootleg Springsteen track;

So imagine my excitement when, after four decades of hopeful clamoring by fans, Bruce Springsteen has opened his vaults.  On the dedicated website, he has started to release complete concerts, following the model used by Pearl Jam and Phish— almost of his 2014 tour is available, but more exciting, he has started a simultaneous “archives” series that promises to reach back as far as 1973.

The first release in the series was from the Apollo Theatre in 2012, and I believe it was the first show after Clarence Clemons’ death.  Though an emotional and memorable night for the band, it didn’t do much for me as a show; I didn’t love the song selection or the mix, and it had me worried that Bruce would overthink his choices and leave us all frustrated again.

This show was the second release, two days before Christmas, and it has taken over my life for the last month.  It blew my head off.  So much so, that it’s going to re-awaken the blog, and lead me to try something new; I’m going to listen to the entire show and write about it in one sitting.

I had heard the bootleg version of the show taped off the radio, and while fun, the sound quality was an impediment.  But this is the original master tape, mixed by Jimmy Iovine and given a sonic 2015 scrubbing to remove its age spots.  It sounds exactly like 1978— it’s a damn time machine. Since I started listening to it, my dreams have been about my childhood, and I’m remembering all kinds of things that I’d forgotten (some of which, I’m sure, will come up in the next few hours).  As of this writing, this show is the definitive 1978 document of the band, and one of the five best things Springsteen’s ever released, period.

Because it’s 2015, the show has already been uploaded here:     AGORA 8-9-78 COMPLETE SHOW

so until they pull it down, get comfy and feel free to listen along.  It’s even indexed for ya.  For the next three hours, the blog has a new subtitle: “Jeff stays up too late listening to a concert for the 17th time and loves every minute of it.”

Set One Notes (Lights go out):

Agora 1978 is the complete set from a show in the middle of the mammoth Darkness tour, a free show played in front of 1500 people in a place that holds 750 and broadcast live on WMMS in Cleveland and all around the region.  Springsteen does two 70 minute sets and a thirty minute encore.  It’s a month after the famous Roxy show that Springsteen used on the live box set.  It’s a hot, steamy Cleveland summer night, the club has allowed double capacity to sneak in, Springsteen knows that millions will be listening on the radio, and he’s hungry.

Kid Leo, WMMS DJ and rock tastemaker, introduces the band.  Springsteen comes on, and undercuts Leo’s rhyming dictionary introduction.  “He must have memorized that at home.”  The band jumps into “Summertime Blues,” faithful to the Eddie Cochran original.  Many of Springsteen’s shows in 1978 opened with a cover— I realize now after years of playing little clubs that it’s a brilliant move on several levels, but primarily, it gives the sound man a “throwaway” song to double check his levels, chase problems, and get a good mix together before the “actual” first song.  And sure enough, it’s a good thing— you can hear feedback throughout the track, and Clarence’s mic is too low.  Nevertheless, the band is having a ball, and when the end of “Summertime” becomes the dramatic opening to “Badlands,” you can feel the audience levitate.

“Badlands,” when Springsteen isn’t feeling it, bores me— it’s dangerously mid tempo, and the lyrics demand an urgency in the performance.  This version is the opposite— I’ve never enjoyed listening to this song as much as I have this month.  I don’t think it’s their “best” performance— the background vocals are ragged, and Bruce oversings in moments and loses pitch, but it’s part of the charm.  Listens to Max Weinberg’s drums— he’s so excited that he’s starting his fills eight bars before a change instead of four— he’s barely in control all the way through, and it’s fantastic.  Weinberg has claimed in several interviews that he thinks this show is the E Street Band’s greatest ever, and you can see why— he goes for broke start to finish.  Check out the ridiculous fill at 3:23— he is jacked up.  It’s amazing he was able to calm down enough to play the ballads.  I also love the guitar tones and where Danny Federici’s organ sits in the track— everything is rough and low-fi but still warm and professional.  When the track ends, you can hear the pandemonium in the club.  Bruce even seems a little overwhelmed— “Yo! Cleveland!”

And right into “Spirit In The Night.”  Here’s another song that can veer off into parody.  For people who don’t get Springsteen, this song is exhibit A, with the silly character names and the overdramatized delivery.  Me?  I love it.  Call me a sucker, but these lyrics capture the desperation of youthful love expertly— “I said ‘I’m hurt,” she said “Honey, let me heal it.”  The first night that a woman said a version of that to me is one of the most intensely (and ultimately heartbreaking) memories of my entire life.  And the fact that it took place near a pond (no Greasy Lake, but it’ll work in a pinch) connected the song and moment forever in my head.  It was the first time I’d fallen in love uncontrollably, and to be requited for one night (but not a second) taught me all kinds of good and bad lessons.  So “Spirit In The Night” might be theatrical, but since I feel like I played the lead role, I forgive it entirely.

The mix on this track is brilliant.  If you listen, you can hear everybody— the interplay between pianist Roy Bittan and Federici is particularly clear, and Gary Tallent’s bass is dead center.  Tallent is the unsung hero of this band— I never undertstood why he didn’t get more session work away from E Street.  Take thirty seconds and focus on him— he never stops moving and never pulls focus.  And Clarence is feeling it early in this show— he’s not exactly Coltrane, but he’s nailing his spots.

Bruce takes a full minute break after “Spirit”— I think he’s worried that the crowd is a little out of control— there’s the “I’m workin’ here!” admonition, and then he asks the front to sit down only two songs after he asked them to stand at the start.  “We’ve got a long way to go.”

“This is for Jay Cox in Cincinnati.”  And into “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”  The studio version is missing something for me— it’s too careful, or performed, or something.  I never connected with it.  Here, though, the song completely makes sense to me.  The dynamic shift between the verses and choruses is arresting— EVERYONE finds a great part.  Listen to Bruce pull his guitar out of tune three or four times just playing chords along with the band— it sounds like he’s beating the hell out of it.  And Max’s three kick drums at 2:36!!  By the time Bruce gets to the “I’ll be on that hill!” crescendo, the band has nowhere to go— the last minute of the song is full-bore, on a song that was supposed to calm the audience down and restore order.  Not here.

Then comes a real shift— Bruce plays “Factory,” a strange little two minute love letter to his dad and to Cleveland workers, still a successful factory town in 1978 and just starting to die slowly.  It’s clear that Bruce is trying to be serious, and the crowd doesn’t catch on right away.  Bruce is using set one to try to communicate the themes of his most recent album— accepting adulthood, compromise, imperfections, and responsibilities.  “Summertime Blues” is a thing of the past— the next 45 minutes is Bruce at his most deadly serious.  The fans call for hits at the end of “Factory,” but Bruce has things planned out— “we’re gonna get to that one, but this one’s called ‘Promised Land.’”

These kinds of tunes are the side of Springsteen that can be ponderous if he’s not careful.  There’s nothing fun about “Factory” into “Promised Land,” and if not for the band, there might be a lull here, but the guys really have Springsteen’s back this night.  Steve Van Zandt saves “Promised Land”— the rhythm guitar has bite and grit not on the studio version, and his background vocals are unhinged and wonderfully tossed-off.  He’s much-needed adrenaline on the tune (Bruce acknowledges him at the end of the song).  When Springsteen takes a solo at 2:41, he’s picked up on the band’s vibe, and he’s far more adventurous than usual, reaching for high, bended notes and sacrificing precision for feel.  Even so, the last two minutes of this track are the low point of the show for me— listening to the last verse and chorus feels like work, or medicine.  It feels like it’s good for me, and the only moment in the whole show where I feel like Bruce is singing at me, rather than inviting me to sing along with him.

Happily, it’s a short-lived lull.  What follows next is one of the handful of greatest performances I’ve ever heard this band do.  On the 1978 tour, Bruce opened “Prove It All Night” with the longest guitar solos of his career since he was a stoner blooze guitarist on the Jersey Shore in Steel Mill in the late 60s and early 70s.  And this “Prove” is my current favorite— over the ones from Winterland and Berkeley that same year that are also contenders.  I love the tight, claustrophobic mix— listen to Clarence’s triangle cut through, Bittan’s piano, and the way Van Zandt, Tallent and Weinberg are locked in.  At 1:20, Bruce joins in, playing an A to B hammer-on for twenty seconds.  Then he’s off— when I was younger, I thought Bruce was sloppy, but the older I get, the more I love his playing.   He’s an angular player who can play fast, but who is also really interested in the overtones and harmonics that he grabs by accident.  I also love that he’s in no rush here— each part of the solo has its own flavor, and though improvised, stumbles upon some lovely memories (2:30-3:00, for example).  By the time he’s warmed up, he heads up the neck for the showstopping moment.  In a riff that Mark Knopfler would use to kickstart his career in “Sultans Of Swing” a year later, Springsteen builds the intro the first set’s great musical crescendo, and then the bands drops expertly into the song itself.  

I remember reading a story about Springsteen from 1985 in Rolling Stone about his inability to turn off his internal motor.  It described an off night on the Born In The USA tour on which he was playing 3+ hours a night.  He went to a bar, jumped up with the band there and did 50s covers, and got so worked up that his own band took him outside, threw him over a car hood, and poured ice water on him to try to get him back to earth.  “Prove It All Night” to me has always sounded like the musical equivalent of that side of Bruce.  It’s such a desperate song, breathless and aggressive— in almost every live version I’ve heard, he clutches at least one line because his mistimes his breath—  I can’t believe there’s two more hours to go after this song ends— how is this song not the finale?  How does he push himself this completely and then regroup and do it again and again?  Truly remarkable stamina.  The final minute is ridiculous— Max and Bruce are daring each other to keep going.  It reminds me of a Who track the way the drums and guitar takes turns going for broke.

When I was 19, I felt the same way as this song feels— I would have trouble sleeping for days, and either walk or drive around my neighborhood from one to four am trying to feed and conquer the voices in my head telling me that I could do more.  My friends must have thought I was nuts— I dragged so many of them out into the empty streets of my neighborhood just to walk and talk for hours.  It wasn’t until my late 30s that I could have a meaningful conversation without pacing.  

Finally, at ten minutes, they call it.  Even Bruce needs a minute and a half to catch his breath— he gives Max his due, and then takes a break, and maybe even signs an autograph.  But Bruce is not done pushing the audience— there are three songs left to go in the set, and they’re all monsters: “Racing In The Street,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland.”  

I’ve never been a car guy, so the iconography and fetishistic quality of Bruce’s car descriptions have never done much for me, but like any good American, I love the freedom and escape and reinvention that a car offers.  I’m not a big fan of “Racing,” but it’s an essential song to play here— there’s nowhere to go but down from “Prove It All Night,” and Bruce’s vocal here is outstanding— I feel the frustration of the characters here in ways that I don’t on other performances of this song. In fact, one of the few songs I’ve written myself that isn’t awful unconsciously ripped off the final verse of this song and I didn’t know it until this month.  Another sign of aging— I’ve learned that my skills as an editor and critic wildly outweigh my skills as a creator.  The outro here is beautiful, a great example of a band listening to one another and building to something together.  Even Clarence doesn’t overdo it.

Bruce has just played five straight songs from his new album, which isn’t selling well in August of 1978.  That’s thirty five minutes of unfamiliar music.  He has demanded a lot of his audience, and himself, and it’s time to reward them with two tracks from 1975’s Born To Run, the record that saved his career.  

As the songs fades to just piano, Bruce tells a true story of a car trip that he and Steve took in 1977 to the west coast (pictures from it are in the Darkness Box set released a few years ago).  Now he’s the one behind the wheel, but instead of “Racing” around Asbury Park, he’s set his sights on the world— it’s the perfect bridge to “Thunder Road,” a song all about getting out and away and escaping, “pulling out of here to win.”  Now the message of set one is starting to take shape— a concert is a party, a communal celebration, where often we cheer our successes, but it’s also OK to acknowledge our fears, admit to our weaknesses and obsessions, bemoan our disappointments, renounce our fears, and demand more of ourselves and our lives.  When he announces “Thunder Road,” the place explodes with recognition and relief— the Darkness tunes have been bleak and unrelenting, and offered no guarantee of success.  It’s time to sing along and believe that, as Ralph Ellison’s wounded vet claimed in Invisible Man, we can “be our own fathers.”

It’s a great “Thunder Road,” expertly played and sung (though the sound guy is chasing gremlins suddenly— check out Clarence’s entry on sax— he’s WAAAAAY too loud.  Some fans complained that the show wasn’t remixed for release, and it’s true that some moments sound better than others, but I love the you-are-there quality of it— that’s what the show sounded like in the hall that night, and a live show is sometimes defined and made memorable by happy accidents). If the set ended there, it would have been generous, and allowed people to go to the break feeling relieved, but Springsteen isn’t letting people off that easily.  Rather than “Thunder Road’s” uplifting optimism, Bruce makes his audience follow him back into his darkness and neuroses with “Jungleland.”

I can’t believe Bruce wrote “Jungleland” at 24.  In many ways, his music seems more like a younger man’s now than the stuff he wrote in the 70s.  When Bittan starts the intro, the audience sounds excited, but also trepidatious to me— “Oh man, they’re gonna play THAT now?”  You can almost hear them take some deep breaths and prepare themselves for it.

“Jungleland” is another Bruce romantic epic.  Much as I love it, it makes me laugh at the same time.  Who has EVER been known as “The Magic Rat”?  I had never taken the track that seriously until I saw the band do it live in 1988 at the Amnesty International superconcert with Peter Gabriel and Sting and Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour (thanks again for the ticket, Redman).  Seeing it live, all the bombast made sense, and I got completely caught up in the grandeur of it.  The same thing happens here— I’ve been typing non-stop for 90 minutes, and I don’t feel tired at all— Bruce is soloing at the three minute mark, and I’m bopping my head.  I’ve heard this version a dozen times in the last thirty days, and I can’t wait for the sax solo, and I don’t really LIKE sax solos. (There’s some funny stuff going on as well.  Listen for the moments when they put too much reverb on Max’s snare drum trying to imitate the album mix— a few of them last through the next hit).

I like to imagine what the band is thinking at this point— they’ve been onstage for 65 minutes, and they must know it’s been a special first set, and that they’re killing it, again, on the radio.  Do they know the tide is turning?  That this is the gig that will define their lives?  The combination of brotherhood, confidence, arrogance, commitment and purpose must have been overwhelming at times.  It’s so hard to be in a band, and keep it together, and surely the E Street Band must have had its petty politics, but it’s not possible to be onstage playing this well and not feel a part of something bigger.

Finally, Bruce calls an end to set one— the ending of the tune is marred by some painful feedback (blame the reverb again) but it’s still triumphant.  Bruce introduces the whole band, and it feels like it could be good night.  After all, it’s a free show, and it’s been 70 minutes, and instead, he asks for fifteen minutes to regroup.  Little does the audience know that he’s not even halfway done.

So let’s take fifteen minutes (or a month— your call.  It’s the internets, after all.  I’m splitting this into parts anyway).  Get some water and a stretch, rest your ears, and get ready to be rewarded for being such a conscientious audience member in part one.  Set one was complex and demanding— set two is a nonstop party.  I think that, for most people, once is enough through that first set.  The “Prove It All Night” will hold up over repeated listenings, but otherwise, you’re good.  But this second set?  Make room in your iPod (or whatever the hell we’re using these days).  It’s really really fun.

Dear Apple-- can we please have this 160gb iPod back?  I don't want to stream stuff.  
Thank you-- an old man who fears change.

Monday, July 28, 2014

SONG #152: Filler

Minor Threat, Minor Threat, 1981

Ah, vacation.  As I type these lines, I am on the annual family pilgrimage to the beach for the eighth straight year.  I never thought I’d be the type of person to do the same vacation over and over, but it has become a beloved, relaxing moment in that I count on.  It brings me unspeakable equilibrium and relaxation.  It's a 128 hour exhalation.

Just like Minor Threat.

Well, no— Minor Threat does not relax me.  Minor Threat is like an adrenaline shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style in Pulp Fiction.  

I love this band.  They remind me of home, of my teenage punk self, of the leftist righteousness that still exists in the world (I hope).  So why am I writing about them on my Jimmy Buffett / Pablo Cruise / Seals and Crofts vacation?

Blame the Phoenix airport.

In order to get to the beach, the family and I have to travel on Southwest through the Phoenix airport.  And EVERY YEAR, something goes wrong in the Phoenix airport.  How do people who live in Phoenix ever leave town?  For that matter, how do people survive Phoenix?  It was 114 degrees while we endured our four hour delay.  Couple that with a confused, hot, sad toddler, and the blog gal and I walked, non-stop, for three and a half hours, up and down every corridor of the airport.  I think we did a 10k:

So, needless to say, we did a lot of people watching, which is always revealing to the current American experience.  Pushing a baby stroller makes you invisible to the general populace, so I was able to stare with impunity at everyone else while they looked through me.  All undercover journalists and secret agents should push baby strollers.

The only guy who made the effort to look back is the inspiration for today’s tune.  He came around a corner, saw the stroller, looked up, and gave me the once over.  It was clear that I represented everything he loathed in society: a dad, a middle-aged loser, a sellout, with hair that may or may not reveal tendencies towards Phish and backpacking.  He had those big junior-mint earrings that are going to look really weird when he’s 60, a nose ring, a serious hate-glare, an angry little backpack filled, no doubt, with anarchy pamphlets and rescued animals from a testing lab… 

and a Minor Threat t-shirt.

If he hadn’t been moving so quickly, I was prepared to ruin his day completely.  “Hey!  I love Minor Threat!  I actually grew up right down the street from them!  I saw Fugazi seven times.  Do you have the Egg Hunt 7” that Ian and Jeff did in 1986?  You should totally get it— great stuff.”  Instead, I let him have his moment, and pushed little Bee to a Peet’s, where I got my coffee and shuffled off to Dadtown.

But here’s the thing— guys like him are SUPPOSED to glare at guys like me.  That’s the idea.  I’m on my way to a BEACH VACATION— I am definitely part of the problem to a guy like that, just as guys like me were part of the problem when I was that kid.  In fact, I had a Minor Threat t-shirt too.  But Minor Threat is MY AGE.  They are MY generation’s angry band.  They are DAD ROCK.  I play Minor Threat in the car all the time.  My son has a few Minor Threat tunes on his iPod.

For the uninitiated, “Filler” is the perfect crystallization of the band’s talent and message.  It’s 93 perfect seconds of music.  It deserves a t-shirt and a rabid fan base.  They were a great, great band.  I'll leave it at that-- millions of words have extolled these guys before me.  The key word, though, is WERE— they broke up at least ten years before this guy was born.

And that’s my question— where is this generation’s angry, political band?  Where is the music that has something to say enough to inspire people to wear t-shirts?  This song came out 34 years ago!!!  And it’s not like we’ve solved the world’s problems.  Can anyone out there name a modern band with real principles, a clear political message, and the guts and musical power to back them up?  If so, can you please tell us in the comments below who they are and start handing out their t-shirts to young people?  Because I refuse to be stared down like that again by some kid who’s raided my closet.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Song #151: Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy

Bad Company, Desolation Angels, 1979

Hi.  Been awhile!  Hope you're all doing well.

My boy Kyle, drummer extraordinaire, closet lead singer and now Burning Man enthusiast, had this insight one night at band practice that, for me, is the definitive description of Bad Company lead singer Paul Rodgers' voice.  This is the guy who first took over FM radio with Free's "All Right Now," and then went on to tremendous fortune and moderate fame with this group.  To quote Kyle: "His voice is too good, if that makes sense.  It almost doesn't sound like an actual person it's so smooth… it's so good that he sounds creepy.  He sounds like a sex offender trying to lure people into his car."  Ever since Kyle said that, I cannot listen to Bad Company without imagining Paul Rodgers pushing a sofa with a fake limp towards an unmarked van and asking someone if she's a size 12.  Just let your mind go there: Paul Rodgers as Jame Gumb fronting Bad Company:

"I Can't Get Enough Of Your Love… when you PUT THE LOTION IN THE BASKET!!!"

The problem is, of course, that that would require you to visualize the rest of Bad Company, and who in the hell knows anything about what Bad Company looks like?  They belong to the sea of nondescript, dude rawk bands of the 70s.  I'm actually not 100% sure whether the only difference between Bad Company, Foreigner, Boston, Foghat, and twenty other 70s bands wasn't just their lead singers.  It might be the same four wavy haired fellas in ill-fitting satin pants providing all the background for all of those songs.    

I typed "70s rock band" into Google.  These Italian dudes came up first.  

In fact, Bad Company was a "supergroup," if you can call anonymous members of Free, Mott The Hoople and King Crimson coming together a "supergroup."  These were seasoned professionals who had just missed the big time in their previous bands, and decided to roll the dice (see their second album's front cover) and try to hit on a formula that would sell.  Turns out, they were the Heisenbergs of mid 70s classic rock-- they were such a perfect distillation of everything that worked, and also needed to be destroyed, that I think they're probably the band that made punk rock happen.  I can't prove it, but without "Feel Like Makin' Love," I don't think Johnny Rotten ever yells "I am the Anti-Christ!"  I know "Feel Like Makin' Love" makes me want to make a deal with the devil.

For that's who Bad Company has always been for me: the band that looks, sounds, acts and has the record covers and label clout of a "big" band, and "important" band, without actually… being… any… good.  Don't get me wrong-- they are mind-numbingly competent.  Their debut album is everything a debut album should be:  it has a badass logo on the front that seems to be made from the chrome of a Camaro that ran over a bunch of progressive rock nerds.  The playing and songwriting is top-shelf, professional, well-recorded and polished.  It had three HUGE hits, including a song called "Bad Company," so that your iPod says "Bad Company," "Bad Company," and "Bad Company" on it when it plays.  They were managed by Peter Grant, who managed Led Zeppelin, so DJs were terrified not to play it.  It sold a billion copies.  It has everything, except being even remotely enjoyable to listen to.  It is, to me, almost fascinatingly boring.  The album is indeed what it says it is: Bad Company.  I don't want to spend five minutes with it, let alone 35.

This song, from 1979, was the band's last big hit from the last album the original quartet made before falling apart.  (Good boys that they are, though, the living members are back together, ready to rock the roofs off of Native American casinos, county fairs, car dealership openings and tractor pulls all across America.  You can find their agent's number online.)  It is by far and away my favorite Bad Company song because it's their least pretentious single, so it's fun and funny rather than pedantic and calculating.  The earlier tracks try to generate genuine gravitas ("Doooon't you know that yoouuuu awwww a shooooooting staw!"), but this is as slick as a freeway after a 2am flash downpour.  There's nothing here but what is, and that makes is great.  It's also got those great early guitar synths and drums on it-- if Joe Walsh had fronted the Cars, they would have sounded exactly like this.

The album cover is a perfect distillation of the tune and the band in general.  Out in the middle of nowhere, a stylish woman (spy? socialite?) smirks at us while an all-American dude takes a look under the hood of her red sports car.  The cover suggests that we're going to head out on the highway with this mysteriously hot gal and crank it into fifth gear and reclaim the freedom, anarchy and adventure of Kerouac's "Desolation Angels." And we will… JUST as soon as we can figure out just what's wrong with this fan belt!  Until then, how about a little FM radio while we're stuck out here in some godforsaken no man's land? That's what listening to Bad Company is like-- all the illusions and trappings of speed and adventure… and a broken engine.

In fact, that's how the band felt themselves when they made this album.  They broke up later that year partly because they were bored themselves.  How many stadiums can you play in a lifetime?  The description of the "Rock N Roll Fantasy" here is a Bad Company concert, where fans are "dancing in the aisles," "put [their] hands together and sing it out loud," and "[churn] up the ground."  It's a song that's an ad for the band and simultaneously the single-- pretty great trick, except that Rodgers sounds tired.  It's a circus, and he's just a "jester" with the same "1,2,3" moves.  I love, however, that the concert of screaming, adoring fans is only "part" of Rodgers' fantasy.  What's missing?  The meeting with the label where they plan the merchandise tie-ins?  Cashing royalty checks?  Figuring out how to join Jimmy Page in a band that sullies the Led Zeppelin myth (see blog #96: and then join Queen after Freddie Mercury dies to remind everyone just how much he is NOT FREDDIE MERCURY???  

With Bad Company, I can always hear the business wheels turning in the background, and while I don't begrudge the band their success, and freely admit that they completely mastered the art of selling rock music, that doesn't mean I have to like it or listen to it.  I'm impressed with Papa John's market saturation, but his pizza tastes like a cardboard box.  Same with these guys-- they're the Applebee's of classic rock.

Tonight at Applebee's:  Bad Company!  
Tomorrow night: Bad Company tribute band The Shootin' Stars (feat. Paul Rodgers)!

Happy birthday, Kyle.  And nice to see you all again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SONGS #149-150: Sleepin' With The Television On, All For Leyna

Billy Joel, Glass Houses, 1980

My boy James posted this link to his Facebook page yesterday: it's Billy Joel having a tantrum about the stage lighting during his concerts in the former USSR at the turn of the 90s.  He's playing "Sometimes A Fantasy" from Glass Houses.

I now cannot move forward without offering my two cents about Mr. William Joel.

My first instrument was the piano.  There was an old one in the house that my parents rented when I was five, and I started plunking around on it.  One night I did so when my folks had people over for dinner, and one of them said that I had to have piano lessons.  So my folks found an old guy in the neighborhood, and I started plunking away.

Two things were quickly very clear-- I loved the piano, and I hated piano lessons.  In my defense- until I was twelve, when I finally met the wise and talented Dr. Richard Layton (hope all is well, Rick) my piano lessons consisted of tours of the kinds of living rooms that show up in hipster-indie films about the 1970s.  My teachers were weird, angry loners, some male, some female.  They hated me, and I hated them.  The decorations were the same: lots of tassels and throw pillows.  TONS of photographs of the many cats lurking on the premises.  Lots of crystal candy bowls and ashtrays.  Lamps of every color of the rainbow.  Linoleum floors.  A loud, whining air conditioning unit with little pieces of ribbon tied to it, floating in the breeze festively.  And in the center of the room, like a shrine, a piano, covered with bric-a-brac and shot glasses from Mount Rushmore and a piano competition trophy from 1966 and piles of yellowing sheet music.

I got the message-- people who played the piano were gigantic losers who were only interested in scales, songs called "Off To School" and "Sleepy Time" and yelling at children for not practicing their fingering.  They were 37 going on 90.  I was desperate to switch instruments to the guitar, the world in which people were cool.  Kiss played guitars, not pianos.  Kiss songs didn't sound right on the piano.  

Things improved a bit when my lessons started to be at the Severna Park Mall.  They were in the back of some sorry music store (Jordan Kitts, maybe?) but at least afterwards I got a slice of awesomely bad mall pizza and got to wander around the record store.  I almost got used to it until the day my teacher told me that he had the hottest new song for me to learn-- the #1 song in the country, PROVING how cool the piano was.  How psyched was I????  

It was "Music Box Dancer."  

Literally, right next door, there was a giant display of Ted Nugent making this face:

Welcome to loserville.  Population, moi.

So the piano and I developed a kind of hate/hate relationship, but there was no way my parents were going to let me switch to an electric guitar.  I was getting a little desperate.  I loved music too much to stop, but didn't like anything I was learning to play.  That explains, I guess, why, in 1980, I went nuts for Billy Joel.

The first record of his that I heard?  Glass Houses.  It is by far Joel's most upbeat record-- it even has electric guitars on it.  It also has some quality piano playing, and the kind I had been looking for-- mash-down-on-the-keys-ask-questions-later playing.  I finally had a keyboard record to play along to.  So I got all his stuff used and cheap, and worked my way through Billy Joel's surprisingly soft-rock catalog, learning every song with a showy piano part.  Finally, something to work with: There was Piano Man (Ballad Of Billy The Kid), Streetlight Serenade (Los Angelinos), Turnstiles (Angry Young Man), The Stranger (Scenes From An Italian Restaurant), 52nd Street (Stiletto), The Nylon Curtain (take your pick).  Things culminated with seeing Joel at the Cap Centre in 1983 on the Innocent Man tour.  We had awful seats, but I loooooooooved it.  To Joel's credit, it was a great show, almost three hours, with hit after hit.  The guy is a hook factory.  Joel ended the concert as he always did, by saying "Good night!  And don't take any shit from no-one!"  Believe me, sir, I do NOT intend to after that performance!  Count me in.

Misty water-colored memories...

And then... the rails came completely off the cart for me.  By 1988, I plain hated Billy Joel.  I mean, really hated him.  Storm Front remains one of my least favorite albums of all time, and not just because Randy and Kevin insisted on playing it all the way from Philly to Florida on Spring Break in 1989 (hi, guys!).  By then, I realized that Joel was two things: a man born to write musicals who wanted to write rock 'n' roll (probably the most deadly, toxic combination in the history of the world) and a self-loathing, mysogynist narcissist whose shockingly offensive and myopic lyrics are surpassed only by The Eagles (see Blog #17: One Of These Nights for more information).

My colleague Chuck Klosterman (colleague in the sense that he also writes about music-- some key differences are that he's paid to do it, a million times better at it than I am, and he has no idea that I exist) defends this aspect of Billy Joel; he has a great piece about the song "Where's The Orchestra?" in which he defends Joel as a brutally honest paranoiac who speaks to all of our most insecure inner voices.  I think Chuck just wants to figure out a way to like Joel still because there was a time when he dug the "Uptown Girl" video.  For me, it's a sign of my own growth as a person that I went from loving Billy Joel to hating him.  It means that I GREW UP.  I got smarter and wiser and more tolerant, and Joel did not.  His songs are the ramblings of a talented, effortlessly musical millionaire trapped in the mind and body of a pissed-off, chubby, horny lower middle-class sixteen year-old brain.  When Joel looks in the mirror, he sees Ricky, the nemesis from Better Off Dead:

As far as I can tell, Joel's life philosophy can be summed up by another classic 80s movie moment, when the kid hanging outside the Gas-n-Sip in Say Anything offers advice to heartbroken Jon Cusack; "Bitches, man!"  That is basically the sum toto of Joel's life view (except for perhaps "Don't tell me what to do" alternating with "Please tell me what to do so you'll love me more.")

One need look no further than 1978's 52nd Street.  By this time, Joel was a star, a grammy winner, a millionaire worldwide presence.  A man from whom hit records and unforgettable melodies flow like liquid gold.  So he writes an album about:

A) Coked-out women who think they're all that but who are NOT ALL THAT (Big Shot)
B) The fact that you can't trust anyone anymore, ESPECIALLY women  (Honesty)
C) That, in spite of the fact that he's pursued fame with the zeal of a reality show member since he was a teenager, it's HIS life, so leave him alone, you damn vultures!!  Look at me!  No, look away!  Who the hell do you think you are?  Wait!  Where are you going???? (My Life)
D) Whores in crappy nightclubs who will take care of you once those stuck up Big Shots run off (Zanzibar)
E) Coked-out women IN HIGH HEELS who think they're all that but who are NOT ALL THAT (Stiletto)
F) Othered, exoticized women who understand that sometimes a good man and musician just needs to be listened to, dammit.  AND they won't expect you to marry them.  Awesome! (Rosalinda's Eyes)
G) Joel as some kind of central casting West Side Story kid who's just gotta get out there and meet Angeline, his othered, exoticized lady. (Half A Mile Away)
H) One night stands to fill the gaping lonely emptiness that is the life of a pampered, spoiled brat (did you WATCH that opening clip???)  (Until The Night)
I) And to put a cherry on it, a title track that tries to validate Joel's decision to hold a FLUGLEHORN or something on the album cover.  Take a look:

Has anyone ever looked more uncomfortable in an alley on an album cover?  I would look that uncomfortable too holding an instrument I CANNOT PLAY in a bad neighborhood, but I wouldn't make it into an ALBUM COVER.

I give you all this background so I can talk about Glass Houses, the album brought back into my consciousness thanks to James' clip.  I could happily write about the whole album, but we're getting a little lengthy here, so I've chosen these mostly forgotten songs from the back half of the album that both introduced me to Joel and sum up everything Joel is about musically, spiritually, lyrically.  

And, of course, because I make no sense whatsoever, I've always loved them.

First off is "Sleepin' With The Television On," which is a great time capsule, because it begins with a station signing off for the night with the national anthem.  Kids-- TV used to go OFF THE AIR EVERY NIGHT!  They would run out of shows, play the anthem, and go to a test pattern or snow until the morning.  There was nothing on at 3am.  God, I miss the days when there wasn't enough TV to show something 24 hours a day.  Second, it's a great melody-- I hear this song, and it  pops back into my head over and over again for a week.  Joel is the king of the earworm.  Third, few folks know it, so I never have to hear it unless I want to, a KEY factor in listening to Billy Joel.  If I choose it, fine-- shame on me.  If a radio station chooses a Billy Joel song, I'm listening to the iPod so fast it's not even funny.

Embedded in the lyrics is all of Joel's twisted inability not to spurn the woman he's simultaneously hitting on:

I've been watching you waltz all night Diane
Nobody's found a way behind your defenses
They never notice the zap gun in your hand
Until you're pointing it and stunning their senses
All night long, all night long
You'll shoot 'em down because you're waiting for somebody good to come on
But you'll be sleeping with the television on

So Diane is "waltzing" around (I love the idea of Joel skulking around the edges of a cotillion like a drunk Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice) fending off unwanted men.  And how does she do it?  With a ray gun, Barbarella-style!  Who does she think she is saying no to trollish jerks like, well, Billy?  But she'll get her payback-- say no to every man, and you'll be home alone, like you deserve, with a pint of Chunky Monkey and your own regret to keep you company.

You say you're looking for someone solid here
You can't be bothered with those 'just for the night' boys
Tonight unless you take some kind of chances dear
Tomorrow morning you'll wake up with the white noise
All night long, all night long
You're only standing there 'cause somebody once did somebody wrong
But you'll be sleeping with the television on

Great advice from Billy here.  Yes, most men suck.  They just want you for the night.  But you know what?  If life gives you lemons, you should take those lemons home and sleep with them, because NOTHING BETTER IS COMING.  Our lives are meaningless, bump-in-the-dark encounters.  It's either mean, co-dependent sex or nothing.  Take your pick.

And then the perfect bridge:

Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me
But your attitude is "don't waste my time"
Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me
But you won't hear a word 'cause it just might be the same old line

That is how Billy Joel has always understood the world.  He thinks everyone wants something from him (talk to me, talk to me): his body, his money, his talent, his love, his opinions.  But then, to his shock, some people DON'T want any of those things (don't waste my time).  And rather than look in the mirror and say "Wow-- perhaps I'm not as charming as I think I am," he says "You know those people who want me even if they don't know they want me?  THEY'RE the problem!"  

Joel sums up the dilemma of being him in the last verse:

This isn't easy for me to say Diane
I know you don't need anybody's protection
I really wish I was less of a thinking man
And more a fool who's not afraid of rejection
All night long, all night long
I'll just be standing here 'cause I know I don't have the guts to come on
And I'll be sleeping with the television on

The problem is that Joel is too smart for all of this nonsense; he not a fool like other men just trying to get some, but a sensitive artist who understands women like Diane.  Basically, Diane's problem is thinking that feminism offers her anything.  She shouldn't try to be independent, or strong, or have her own opinions, or her own voice.  That's just the kind of stuff that turns women into Diane Court.  Instead, you need to put your trust in a man like Joel who has himself, you, and the world all figured out.  But you won't.  'Cause you're stupid.  How sad for you.

Think I'm reading too much into a throwaway tune?  Consider "All For Leyna."  PLEASE do yourself the favor of watching the video provided below first.


What was your favorite part?  When he rises out from behind the piano like a vampire?  Or when he yells "STOP!" at the camera?  

"All For Leyna" treads the same tired ground.  Over the course of the song, Leyna reels Joel in with a one night stand, and then proceeds to cause Joel to be electrocuted, drowned and battered by the surf, fail in school, lose his friends and family, and be reduced to malnutrition and insomnia.  At the end, he's watching TV (see how Joel weaves his tunes together?  Genius!) while his father screams at him to get a damn job.  And the WORST part?  He CHEATED on someone to get to Leyna!  There's some poor suffering gal waiting for him to come back.  But he won't, because of my favorite lines from the chorus: There's nothing else I can do / I don't want anyone new / There's nothing in it for you" because of his creepy obsession with Leyna.  What a catch!  It seems like "There's Nothing In It For You" might be a great title for a Billy Joel autobiography.

Crazy album, Glass Houses, from it's dangerous-but-not-dangerous album cover (Joel can pay for that window, and considering the way he's holding the rock, it's unlikely he's going to hit the target)  to the fact that two of the kiss-off songs on the album feature verses in FRENCH!!  I am not kidding.  NOTHING says "I'm a crazy rock n roller who just wants a fantasy but don't ask me why" like French.  Was he taking a Berlitz class or something?

When I was ten, these songs were great singalongs.  Now, they are journeys into darkness.  AND great singalongs!  If you're intrigued, check out the rest of the album.  It's fascinatingly terrifying.

If you're a Billy Joel fan, what can I say?  Sorry, and good for you. At least admit, though, that Joel is musical high fructose corn syrup; we used to think he was a harmless sweetener, and we still eat him more often than we should, but now we know that he'll ultimately be giving us cancer.  

Finally, the next time a wedding couple does their first dance to "Just The Way You Are,"* enjoy a wry smile on me.  It's as inapprorpiate and creepy as a father/daughter dance to "Almost Grown" by Chuck Berry.  

OK, Joel defenders: bring it!  

Link for Television (dodgy sound, sadly):

Link for Leyna (much better):

* The message in "Just The Way You Are" is: "Don't change anything, because it will threaten me.  Even though I ignore you and don't think you can live up to my standards of love and devotion, you're stuck with me.  So don't you dare change your hair or your clothes or even your opinions.  I like you stupid and unreliable so I can always feel superior and victimized at the same time."   Now THAT'S a recipe for a great marriage!