One of the things I think is going to happen with this restart is that a lot of songs are going to get fresh takes. Or at least looked at again with eyes that are a few years older. Notice I did not say wiser; the paradoxical thing about getting older is that you learn just how much it is you don’t know. Things that seemed so black and white, so life or death, when you were 20 just aren’t the same when you’re 50.
I first posted on this song back when Lou Reed died six years ago, and I still feel pretty much the same way. Rock & Roll is home in a way that not many other things are for me. Music in general is home. It’s been a sadder home for my the last few years, but it’s still mine. It’s where the misfits and the weirdos can find each other. And I’m one of the misfits and weirdos. I’ve never really been able to conform with expectations and norms. I’m not just a square peg in a round hole; I’m a Lincoln Log in roomful of Legos. And maybe in some ways that makes my life a little harder, but it makes me a hell of a lot happier than I would have been trying to fit in.
My life was saved by rock and roll.
Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? It’s the question Johnny Rotten (nee, Lydon) asked at the end of the final Sex Pistols concert in the 70s. (“Final,” of course, until they reunited with original bassist Glen Matlock in the 1990s. I saw them in L.A.; it was awesome.) That’s kind of the feeling you get from “Asking Me Lies.”
Not like you’ve been cheated by the song, mind you. This is a fabulous song by an even more fabulous band. (The Replacements, the true voice of my generation, remain to this day Criminally Underrated.) But the narrator of the song–who for argument’s sake lets just agree to assume is the ‘Mats lead singer and main songwriter Paul Westerberg–is pointing out there is something of a disparity in the world: “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting drunk. In a black and white picture, there’s a lot of gray bunk.” He’s feeling just a little cheated.
Can’t blame him. Nearly thirty years on, this song is still relevant. He is still getting cheated (most recently by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which still hasn’t admitted the Replacements). We all are. We are living in a fucking Orwell novel; I’d feel less dystopian about things if the Cheeto in Chief had not literally said that what we are seeing and hearing is not what is happening. (For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, google it; I’m not kidding.) The gap between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us just keeps growing. The climate has gone to hell, or at least it feels that way. There’s even word that the Trump-driven EPA wants to relax rules governing the restrictions on asbestos. Asbestos. You know, that horrible thing that causes mesothelioma, aka the disease that killed Warren Zevon way too soon. There’s more mass shootings, more public bigotry, more of everything that’s bad.
I get that this is part of the political cycle. The price we are paying for having had a black president is this spray-tanned yahoo who’s only goal is to undo any and everything that has Barack Obama’s name on it. And it will pass. If nothing else, we’ll get a new president at the next major election, although I think it will happen sooner with a proper impeachment. The bricks for that are falling into place slowly, but Mueller is building the wall that Trump promised. Too bad for him it’s going to be a wall that closes in around him. And for every step backwards, there will be a commensurate step forward. It’s just kind of hard to remain zen about the whole thing when all this injustice and unfairness and damage is being wrought with the United States’ stamp of approval, even if it is just nominal.
I have to admit, I didn’t really expect a political rant when I chose this song. I heard it this afternoon on my way to buy grapes and strawberries on sale. It’s kind of stuck with me ever since. But the sadness and anger lends itself to the times. They are indeed “telling you questions and asking me lies.” Just don’t expect me to shut up and take it.
Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin. They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure. They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine. But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha. The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you. Aretha Franklin was awesome.
I’m not going to try to explain why. Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios. Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times. Yes, she was physically beautiful. But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible. Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical. Supernatural, if you will. It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others. There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.
Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” or even “Natural Woman.” I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers. It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites. I only wish it weren’t still relevant. After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.
Because sometimes everyone needs a little hair metal.
Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while. And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.
I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song. Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song. 1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant. A former worker develops a drinking problem. One son loses his faith in god. The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator. The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear. Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney? Were they simply innocent bystanders? Who ended up dead? Who were the police looking for? What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”? Why wasn’t he crying? Was he the one that committed the crime?
You know what I’m gonna say here. That the answers to these questions aren’t important. And they aren’t. But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down. It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.” It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge. It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.
“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully. It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.” It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome). There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs. A restlessness, an anger, a dread. In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last. I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place. It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul. Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness? Is it really living if all you do is survive? Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with. Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.
I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc. That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch. I missed Dar but got Gillian. And everything just kind of stopped.
There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time. I don’t know what it is; I don’t care. I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply. That would take some of the wonder out of it. And she is a wonder. Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability. There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world. It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.
There is a distinct lack of context in her songs. Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist. The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world. There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction. It simply is. The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything. There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.
The song ends on what I’d call an open note. The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops. There is no conclusion, not really. And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.
I’ve got Tom Petty on the brain. I’ve got my dad on the brain, too; it’ll be five years since he died in a couple weeks. I’ve been having weird anxiety dreams lately. I’m writing poems again, although not as much as I’d like to be. I’m a little worried about one of the cat’s health. I’ve had a little wine tonight. A little too much, maybe. Or not enough.
Needless to say, I’m feeling a little melancholy.
So this is kind of the perfect song for me right now. It’s all echoes, jumbled feelings of sadness and grief and happiness and peace and anger bouncing around in my head, back and forth, over and over. “It’s the same sad echo comin’ down. It’s the same sad echo all around in my ears. It’s the same as the same sad echo around here.” I don’t feel bad or depressed, really. Just kind of unsettled. Kind of lost, even though I’m not. Just one of those funks.