“Nebraska”

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Dad had a true crime show on tonight, which got me thinking about sociopaths, which got me thinking about spree killer Charlie Starkweather, which got me thinking about Bruce Springsteen (who is neither a sociopath or a spree killer).

But he wrote the haunting, devastating song “Nebraska” about Starkweather.  It is as stark and bleak as the crimes he committed with girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, as stark and bleak as the flat midwestern landscape.  Starkweather was a horrible excuse for a human being, Fugate not much better.  There is nothing romantic in their vicious acts, nothing to be celebrated.  Springsteen handles the whole topic with amazing care, really.  The song is from Starkweather’s POV, but it does nothing to make him seem sympathetic.  The most notable thing about this song is the utter lack of emotion.  He feels no remorse, no empathy for the victims, seemingly nothing at all: “I killed everything in my path.  I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done.  At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.”

Springsteen gives a good basic outline of the whole sordid mess, which is more complex than a few minutes can convey.  What makes the Starkweather case so compelling is that it’s so unmotivated.  They just went out and murdered eleven people, including Fugate’s entire family, for no real reason.  There’s still some question about the level of Fugate’s participation in the spree, but the enormity of the whole thing is unchanged.  The flat, unaffected tone Springsteen adopts here mimics the landscape, just a long flat line on the horizon that goes on as far as the eye can see.  It is an endless kind of evil–no way to determine where it began, no real way to end it.  Because there will always be another Charlie Starkweather.  There will always be another Manson Family.  There will always be another Columbine.

“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

Doc Watson

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If you listen to music, Doc Watson is one of those names you just hear.  He was one of the finest American musicians and a progenitor of Rock & Roll.  I admit to a sad ignorance of his body of work.  (For someone who considers herself something of an archivist, this is inexcusable; I should at least have a working knowledge.)  He’s also a thread in the fabric of Americana, part of what makes Americans what they are.  Don’t ask me to explain any further than that.  Americans are kind of weird and complicated; I’d have to write a book (oh, wait, Greil Marcus already did).  I don’t listen to a lot of bluegrass or traditional country, but when I do hear some, I feel like it’s the most familiar thing in the world.  Like I’ve already heard it a million times before, even if it’s the first time.  Genetic memory.

Luckily, I’ve heard the songs Watson and Earl Scruggs (fabulous bluegrass musician whose death I did not note here before) play in this clip, so I didn’t feel that weird spooky feeling that sometimes comes over me when I hear traditional American music.  It’s kind of awesome.

If you want to know more about Watson or just want to read a beautiful piece of writing, click here for an article from the Chicago Tribune.

On a seemingly unrelated side note, watching Scruggs play banjo here reminded me that Lindsey Buckingham learned to play banjo before he learned guitar; that’s where he gets his unique finger pick style.  See, this stuff really does connect.

Go Insane

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Despite all appearances, this is not advice.

It is, however, a Criminally Underrated album.  Lindsey Buckingham’s second solo disc is. . . different.  Despite being some of the finest music of his career, it’s also some of his least accessible.  There’s a weirdness to it that I think comes in large part from being a real solo project.  Buckingham wrote, produced, and performed virtually everything.  The isolation shows.  There’s a claustrophobic feeling throughout, like everything is being done in a box.  I didn’t know before that it was a break-up album; another fact I learned in my Wiki-Google search: the last track is a tribute to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who died while Buckingham was making the album.

Go Insane is a surreal, dreamlike landscape.  The music is filled with odd sound effects and whispered voices, giving it a haunted feeling.  It’s a nightmare rendered sonically.  There’s the usual anger and sadness pouring through, something Buckingham has always excelled at.  It is sort of thin lyrically, but I don’t think words were the point here.  The emotional turmoil is conveyed much more effectively with music and sound effects.  Maybe it’s just because I watched it again last night, but the closest comparison I can come up with is the film Inception, a dream within a dream within a dream.

The dreamlike quality of this album are best exemplified by the two-part track “Play in the Rain.”  Back in the wonderful days of vinyl (or cassettes, which is how I first heard this), you had to stop and turn the disc over.  “Play in the Rain” ended side one and started side two.  (Another Wiki-fact: The original LP was configured so that the end of side one could play continuously, called a “locked groove”; I didn’t know that was possible.  The song features similar lyrics and the chorus repeated like a mantra until you feel a little hypnotized.  “Can we play in the rain?” starts sounding a little demented after a while.  Which might be the point.  Something like a break-up tends to stick in your brain, the words and incidents playing over and over in your mind in an endless loop until you feel trapped.  A locked groove.  (You know, I’m starting to think Lindsey Buckingham is smarter than the average bear.  There’s definitely a method to his madness.)  The track features some blistering guitar from Buckingham, the first time it seems that he really cuts loose on the instrument he plays like no one else.

“D.W. Suite” is the least nightmarish, most expansive song on the album.  While I can’t say it’s a happy song, there’s something optimistic here.  There’s hope imbedded in it.  And relief.  “The closing of a chapter, the opening of a door, brings forth life where there was no life before.”  It’s a prayer to a lost soul, and a fitting tribute to Wilson.  It cycles through grief, acknowledging the pain and letting it go.  It also breaks the isolation of the rest of the album.  This song opens up onto a new landscape, where no one is alone.  “If we go, go insane, we can all go together.  In this wild wanton world, we can all break down forever. . .”

Maybe this is advice after all.

“For the Want of a Nail”

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Dad’s home, so all is once again right in the world.  I’m still feeling a little unsettled, but you know what they say about falling off of horses.

Todd Rundgren’s “For the Want of a Nail” is one of those songs I never, ever skip when it comes on.  It is just fantastic, joyful noise.  It makes me smile.  It makes me get up and sing.  It makes me believe.

Believe in what, you ask?  The power of love, for one thing.  The power of music, for another.  Runt pulls most of his lyrics from the old proverb, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.  For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.” and so on.  Interpretations vary, but the main point seems to be pay attention because there are consequences to everything.  And in this song, everything is indeed at stake.  In Runt’s hands, the nail becomes love and companionship; it is the one thing everyone needs.  It’s the one thing that makes the world work, and it is certainly why the singer’s big plans have failed: “But the devil’s in the details, I left out one thing.  No one to love me.”  It’s also contagious, like a particularly nasty version of the flu, “Multiply it a billion times, spread it all ’round the world, put the curse of loneliness on every boy and every girl, until everybody’s kicking, everybody’s scratching, everything seems to fail.  And it was all for the want of a nail.”  If you don’t have someone (or something) to love, what’s the point of getting out of bed?  Preach it, brother.

This gospel-tinged song is a complicated affair.  There’s a huge cast of musicians and singers, including the incredible Bobby Womack (who has a new album coming out in June).  It’s got the kind of production and orchestration that typifies Rundgren’s music. This is not a quiet, gentle song.  It’s purpose is to convert the unwashed heathens to the great church of Love.  He’s preaching to the choir with me.

Country Bears Jamboree

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So my dad’s in the hospital.  Nothing life-threatening, thank goodness, but it means my mind is elsewhere tonight.  He’s been having some health issues lately.  And I’ve been having some issues dealing with the fact that my parents are getting old.  Because I live with my dad, caregiving is going to naturally fall to me, and I’m not so sure I’m up to it.  Music always soothes the hurts and makes troubles seem smaller.  Too bad i can’t stop my brain.

Since it won’t stop, I’ll take my brain back to my childhood.  Back to before my father stated fobbing us off onto my aunt for the annual trip to Disneyland.  My daddy was about six-foot then and kinda skinny, but he could pick my up by my ears* so I thought he was the strongest man in the world.  I was still pretty tiny–5, maybe 6–and I remember sitting on his lap at the Country Bear Jamboree (back when Disneyland was more than just one long commercial for whatever the studio had in the theaters).  I miss that attraction, the same way I miss the old America Sings attraction.  A chance to sit down in a nice air-conditioned room and listen to some of the music that helped define America.  Anyway, at the Jamboree, we’d listen to the old country tunes they played snippets of.  Dad was a Tex Ritter fan, so that meant I knew all the words to “Blood on the Saddle” when it came up.  But what I remember most clearly is him tapping his feet and bouncing me along with “Devilish Mary” (it’s the last song of the clip).  I was never very devilish (kinda strange is more like it), but that was my name and he gave it to me.  So here’s to my dad, who’s still the strongest man in the world.

*It’s a fun trick to do with kids that are small enough not to catch on: Cup you hands around their ears and have them grab your forearms, then lift them up, bearing most of their weight with your arms.  They’ll think you picked them up by their ears.  I couldn’t get enough of it when I was a kid.

 

“Stuck Inside a Cloud”

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Wow, the computer wanted tonight’s entry to be a little depressing.

When George Harrison was dying, he did the only thing he could do: he made some more music.  Brainwashed was finished by Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison after George passed, but the bulk was done when he was still alive.  Like Warren Zevon’s The Wind, George’s final album is generous, loving, philosophical, and occasionally angry.  There is always a sense of a life unfinished in things like this, a sense of injustice that someone so wonderfully talented had to waste away and die.  Of course, if we take George’s spiritual beliefs into account, he never really died.  He’s still here; just the physical body is gone.

“Stuck Inside a Cloud” is interesting because it is about that time of dying, that weird intersection between this world and the next.  Knowing what’s coming, he’s “never slept so little, never smoked so much.”  The huge psychic and physical toll of illness hangs over this song.  George manages to capture the wrenching contradictions of being caught in the middle.  There’s sadness and wonder as his body and mind drift away, “I lost my will to eat.  The only thing that matters to me is to touch your lotus feet.”  The goodbyes are hardest, “talking to myself, crying as we part, knowing as you leave me, I also lose my heart.”  The most surprising thing about this song, though, is the loneliness.  I’m sure that he was surrounded by people he loved during this time and that everyone supported each other.  But George knows this is his path and his alone: “Talking to myself, crying out loud.  Only I can hear me now, stuck inside a cloud.”

That cloud could represent many things, but I choose to think of it as the way he was re-integrating with the universe.  A soft mist that slowly dissipates, but never really disappears.  It just changes form.  Water vapor becomes rain becomes a stream becomes an ocean, only to become water vapor again.  An endless cycle.