One of my favorite people in the Universe turns 80 today. I know it’s impractical, but I kind of think we should all just stop whatever we’re doing and pay tribute to the natural wonder, the force of nature that is Willie Nelson.
Even if you don’t think much of his music, you’ve got to respect the man. Willie refuses to be contained. He still tours the country in buses that run on biodiesel fuel. He still plays at the annual Farm Aid benefit for family farmers. He still challenges himself musically and artistically, even though he could just coast on his musical laurels. And he still gets pulled over and charged with possession. I don’t use anything stronger than a glass of wine once in a while, but I respect a guy who sticks to his guns about marijuana the way Willie has. (Paul McCartney already wussed out and admitted he doesn’t toke up anymore, so Willie and Tom Petty are among the few mainstream rebels I can think of that still stand by pot. And I’m not so sure about TP these days. Politically, I’m all for legalizing pot; there are proven and suspected medicinal benefits, and the tax revenue would be really helpful.) There has never been anyone like Willie Nelson, and there are very few musicians with such broad appeal. When he was forced to auction off his property and memorabilia to pay the IRS, his fans came to the auction to buy his stuff, just so they could give it back to him. Just about everyone likes something about the man and his work.
My own personal favorite is his collaboration with Wynton Marsalis from a few years ago. They got on stage at Lincoln Center with a full jazz orchestra, and played a concert of standards. It is one of those amazing, essential albums. I heard it, and knew that my life would not be complete unless I owned it. Not my music collection. My life. This is music that feeds the soul. I love it. And I’d like to thank trumpet00617 for posting this concert to YouTube. I hope y’all enjoy it as much as I do.
Pay special attention to the battered guitar that Willie plays. He said in an interview once that he would retire when it finally became unplayable. So light a candle, burn some incense, and pray to whatever gods you think might be listening that that old guitar holds it together forever.
I’ve mentioned my casual sports fandom on a few occasions. (Niners!!!! . . . Sorry. Sometimes that just slips out.) So when it was announced today that NBA player Jason Collins had officially come out of the closet, I cheered a little. There’s been a number of retired athletes coming out over the years, but Collins represents the first active player in one of the major team sports to openly acknowledge his sexuality. (My response is a little tempered because I’ve never heard of the guy before, but then again, I’m not a basketball fan.) Professional sports has long been one of the last bastions of the homophobes. To have the walls torn down, just a little bit, is a wonderful thing.
Of course, it’ll be really nice when something like this isn’t headline news anymore. When openly LGBTQ athletes are common. When nobody’s sexuality is something that gets commented on. I say, the more the merrier. The more public figures who come out, the more acceptable it becomes. I know there are people who say that the “gay lifestyle” should never be acceptable, but tolerance of the wonderful diversity found in the human race is something to strive for. (I’m also waiting for someone to explain what the “gay lifestyle” is. It implies sexual orientation is a choice, and everyone should know by now that it damn well isn’t. Yeah, there’s gay culture, but there’s also Christian culture and goth culture and Mexican culture, and so on. What’s the problem with culture? I like culture.)
Diana Ross didn’t really sing this song as an anthem for folks who come out of the closet, but it’s become one. And it’s such an empowering song, too. “I want the world to know, got to let it show.” Last week, recent WNBA draftee Brittney Griner also came out, and although her announcement made the news, it was more for the lack of hoopla surrounding it. It’s a bigger deal that she can dunk as well as many male basketball players. (I’m not going to get into what it says that female athletes of her stature and skill are expected to be lesbians, while manly male athletes are supposed to be virile and straight, or the nasty undercurrent of misogyny there.) In an interview with Sports Illustrated, she said, “Don’t worry about what other people are going to say, because they’re always going to say something, but, if you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”
That’s the one message I hope everyone hears.
Reposted only because I think this song needs to be heard. I don’t really love this post. I was striving for something unnameable in this song, a sense of history and ghosts. I don’t think I quite got there, but I still don’t know how to articulate what I hear.
Gillian Welch is remarkable. She writes songs that sound a hundred years old and sings songs that are a hundred years old like they’re brand new. It’s like she exists in some kind of chronological vacuum, some kind of endless now. It’s more than just the Buddhist concept of living in the now. It seems as if time has stopped where she is, but keeps going forward. With her regular collaborator, David Rawlings, Welch mines a deep musical history for the bits of gold left behind and melds them into music that feels timeless.
The moment of “Elvis Presley Blues” is the moment where one man changes the world. But the acknowledgement here is that is wasn’t just the moment when Elvis walked onstage and “shook it like a chorus girl,” but all the moments when everything stood still, and the world shifted to accommodate a new reality. The moment Elvis appeared, the moment he died. The moment when John Henry beat the steam drill (a legend, sure, but one that says a lot about America). At the end of the verses, when Welch and Rawlings’ voices blend and build, there is desperation. There is something big at stake here, but it’s hard to say what. Elvis’ unique musical combination of white and black–rock and roll–becomes not just a style, but a matter of life and death: “He shook it like a holy roller, baby, with his soul at stake.”
Greil Marcus believes that there is more to rock music than just music. He believes that Rock & Roll matters, that it carries with it the weight of American culture and history. So do I. And so does Welch, if “Elvis Presley Blues” is anything to go by. Elvis himself is an example of this. He was a white man influenced by the black musicians he lived around and was friends with; radio stations wouldn’t play him at the beginning because he sounded black. He changed the face of American culture with a blending of race that was ahead of its time. There are many African-Americans, some scholars, that believe Elvis stole black music and exploited it for his gain. But I have trouble seeing how he stole something he lived with every day. The music industry and Colonel Tom Parker did exploit the sound (and the man) for their own gain, but Elvis believed. This song carries the weight of American race relations within a fable about the single biggest rock star, ever. The America that comes into view when you hear “Elvis Presley Blues” is the Invisible Republic that Marcus wrote about so masterfully, an America that exists just beneath the surface of strip malls and mega churches. An America that is filled with wonder and mystery and myth. An American where time has stopped and Elvis is forever entering the building.
I’ve always hated questions like that. “What’s your favorite song/album/book/movie/TV show/food?” I don’t have just one favorite anything. Although if I had to make some choices, I’d probably eat cheeseburgers and Mexican food most of the time, and watch the original Star Wars trilogy and M*A*S*H over most other entertainments. Solitaire would be the game of choice; Trivial Pursuit if it’s a party. Coke, not Pepsi; red wine, not white. And if I had my druthers, I’d wear blue jeans and T-shirts and Converse high tops all the time.
Books and music have always been subject to moods, though. I read whatever strikes my fancy, and if I find someone I like, I’ll read everything I can get my hands on by that person (thank goodness Terry Pratchett has been pretty prolific). Same has always gone for music. I’ve got definite preferences (you’ve probably noticed that by now), but I listen to whatever I’m in the mood for. I find little things I like about many different songs–the turn of a phrase, the guitar riff, the way the drummer plays, whatever. There’s always a few songs that I stop what I’m doing to really hear, the songs that make me turn up the volume and sing along. But I’ve never been able to limit myself to one song. Or one album. Or one artist. If I’m being totally honest, I feel a bit constrained by Top Ten lists. I usually need at least twenty items before I feel comfortable playing favorites.
I suppose this is my roundabout way of saying I’m having a little trouble picking a song for today’s post. So I’d like to hear what you all like to listen to best. What’s your favorite song . . . right now? Or what’s that one little musical moment that you’ll stop pushing the grocery cart for, or tell people to hush just so you can hear it for the umpteenth time? What makes you hit replay/repeat on your electronic device of choice? I’m curious. Maybe you’ll turn me on to something new.
I was unable to attend the services for my uncle today, but I send my love and thoughts out to the whole family. I was there in spirit.
Country music legend George Jones passed away today at 81. He was one of the last of the old-time country stars, an emotional and emotive singer of amazing talent. He knew how to milk every single tear out of every single note. They just don’t make singers like him anymore, not even in Nashville.
That’s the kind of song most people think of when they think about country music. It’s heartbreak and sentimentality wrapped up in a rich baritone and slide guitar. Today’s country is just pop music with a little twang; it’s all about crossover success. George Jones never cared if he made the Billboard Top Forty, although he made the charts on a regular basis. He made music that spoke to his life and his experience. Jones was a hard living man, complete with lots of booze and lots of wives. He was famously–and tumultuously–married to fellow country legend Tammy Wynette (who chose not to stand by Jones anymore in 1975). He eventually sobered up, but continued making music, even reuniting musically with Wynette in 1992.
Fittingly, Jones’ autobiography was titled I Lived to Tell it All. And you can hear all the living he did in his music. (Read more about his work and life here.)
This is pretty much the last song you’d expect from Blue Oyster “More Cowbell!” Cult. At least if you judge them by their biggest hit, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” They always seemed to tend toward a fantasy filled, albeit morbid, hard rock. Although on the other hand, they look like the least rockin’ rockers of all time. I look at lead singer Eric Bloom, and I half expect him to try to sell me insurance. Or explain the life cycle of the earthworm (he could easily pass for the high school science teacher all the girls had crushes on). He’s just a guy. The whole band are just guys. Guys who happen to make their living as musicians–which generally means spending most of your working time on the road.
Looking at it that way, it makes perfect sense that they made one of the most wistful, down to earth, road songs ever. The road song is a staple of rock music. Journey, Motley Crue, Kiss. They all have excellent road songs. Bon Jovi created one of the most famous road songs ever, turning being a touring rock band into an analogy of the Wild West. Jackson Browne’s classic road song manages to convey all the joy and boredom and exhaustion a tour must bring.It has to be hard for these guys to be away from their homes and families so much. Weird hours, worse food. Drugs and groupies everywhere (indulgence in either is a choice, but the hardest thing to resist is temptation). “In Thee” isn’t as famous as those other road songs, but it’s also not as loaded with overwrought imagery or cliché. “Maybe I’ll see you again, baby, and maybe I won’t. Maybe you bought your ticket, goin’ back to Detroit.” Life on the road is treated matter-of-factly. It’s their job. They might not always like it, but they keep on moving from town to town.
It’s a weary, lonely life. “So I’ll wrap myself in cities I travel. I’ll wrap myself in dreams. I’ll wrap myself in solitude, but I wish I could wrap myself in thee.” The use of the old word “thee” lends an air of romance and fantasy to the otherwise realistic song, a nod to Blue Oyster Cult’s other image. But when they put away the electric guitars, the tales of doom and destruction, they’ll go back to their hotel rooms, or the tour bus. They’ll clean up and change into a comfortable pair of sweatpants. And they’ll call whoever is waiting for them. They’re just guys, missing home.
Y’all who’ve been here for any length of time already know about my love of the weird, the humorous, and the just plain silly. The Muppets and Looney Tunes probably laid the groundwork when I was a child. Early exposure to Shel Silverstein certainly didn’t hurt. I watch Monty Python with unabashed joy. And Dr. Demento was one of the staples of my adolescence.
Well, I saw over at Dangerous Minds that there’s a Kickstarter campaign to get funding for a Dr. Demento documentary made. Here’s the trailer.
The good Doctor is someone I’d like to learn more about. So much so that I’m actually considering dropping a few bucks on this one (for $30, I can get a DVD copy of the movie once it’s released). For anyone unfamiliar, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding site through which creative types can get otherwise anonymous bystanders to give them money to get their work published/filmed/recorded/distributed. Donors often receive premiums for their money (like the coffee mugs PBS gives away for pledges). Google “Veronica Mars movie” for evidence of the power of Kickstarter. I think it’s kind of an amazingly cool idea that just might make it easier for smaller, independent artists of all sorts get their work produced for public consumption. The Internet is awesome.
Also awesome is this Dr. Demento classic by Bryan Bowers. Have fun listening. If you want to know more about Under the Smogberry Trees (or if you want to donate), here’s the direct link at Kickstarter.
You know, they really don’t wear anything beneath their kilts. No wonder Craig Ferguson smiles so much.