Monday, July 26, 1999

Cold Hard Truth

"Happy songs sell records. Sad songs sell beer."

I'm not one to dismiss an entire genre of music. I sincerely believe there are worthwhile artists in any category from children's music to opera from rock to Gregorian Chants. The medium isn't nearly as important as the voice and the heart of a courageous soul who certainly can utilize any canvass to express that voice. I do have my prejudices. For me the most difficult music to open up to has been rap. So much of that particular type music seems to be rooted in anger. While that is an entirely legitimate emotion on which to base a song, I've never been one to see the value in ranting and raving without a hint of salvation or a solution at the end of the tunnel. I think to many of my more "sophisticated" friends rap is just as difficult to appreciate as country music. Most people I associate with seem to have a loathing for country music.

I must admit most of modern country music leaves me cold. I can no more tell a Garth song from a Clint song from an Alan song to a Tim song. Same goes for Patty and Shania, and Deanna, Wynonna and Trisha. Still it is my opinion that for the all time great (an all too important category) whiskey drinking music it is a close call between Mr. Sinatra and George Jones. Is there a better drinking song that Jones' He Stopped Loving Her Today? Good golly what a sad and at the same time cold hearted song. Jones is also to be admired because he is without a doubt authentically the "real thing." Listen to any song on our multitude of country stations and tell me that the artist singing doesn't owe some debt to Jones, the ultimate voice in the ultimate Americana genre.

News of Jones' near fatal accident recently meant that any new release from the man was a must hear. His newest CD, Cold Hard Truth doesn't disappoint. The liner notes depict the CD as a major comeback from an artist that surely has never gone away. Completed before the accident the ten songs are a sobering look at the man's life. The packaging of the CD is quite impressive with flattering liner notes from the president of Jones' newest label, Asylum Records, along with some terrific photographs of Jones at various stages of his life along with the many people he has touched and inspired over the years.

Cold Hard Truth opens with the ultimate Jones song, a song that would have paid fitting tribute as an obituary to a man who has lived a long hard life. Choices is as confessional as it is redeeming. The man clearly needed to sing this. The song is remarkable as it is a song only Jones could possibly do justice to and yet he wasn't the one who wrote it. "I was tempted. By an early age I found I liked drinking and I never turned it down. There were loved ones. But I turned them all away. Now I'm living and dying with the choices I made." The song asks for forgiveness with true regret.

The remaining tracks are country music at its best. There are songs about broken hearts, broken dreams, broken promises, and lives gone wrong yet somehow have managed to endure. The voice wavers but still is as effective as ever. This is a man who has lived these songs. It is a voice of a man who has scoffed at 'de debbil' and now is facing the consequences and fear of his life's decisions. In the title track Jones reveals what he has learned. "The way you run away from love. The way you try to play it cool. I'm gonna say this one time. 'Time is running out on you.' You best remember me my friend. I'm the cold hard truth." Egads!

Yes there is a bit of twang and a whole lot of country cliché. Still this is a man who helped invent those clichés so he must be given some credit and latitude. It is an emotional expression from a singer who has time and time again exorcised his demons in music while providing inspiration to all that will put away their pretenses for a moment and just listen. That this turns out not the man's epitaph is reason enough to celebrate.

Monday, July 19, 1999

Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

My name is Dave and I'm a Buffaholic. It's been six days since I last saw an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I admit I really enjoyed the final episode of yet another fine season more than I probably should have and I truly realize I need some help. In a defining moment in another lifetime a person whose opinion still carries a great deal of weight told me that I often say things that I don't mean. Thus I know when I tell family and friends my fondness for Buffy the Vampire Slayer they more often than not roll their eyes and probably think to themselves, "Just David being David." Little do they realize that I haven't felt such an emotional attachment to television since Hill Street Blues (my all time favorite TV show) left the air all those years ago.

Buffy of course has little in common with Hill Street other than the rather extraordinary writing in a medium that more often than not relies on formula and commerce over artistry and soul. That is understandable since the name of the game is to attract not only the largest audience possible, but to also appeal to the demographic that advertisers feel spend the most money on their products. Creativity while a worthy goal thus gives way to trying to be everything to everybody. Kind of sounds a bit like what enduring high school is all about. And of course there has been no better show than Buffy to demonstrate the pain that is the undercurrent of high school life. In that icky setting one either realizes or doesn't that the demons one must fight are as likely to come from within as they are from the insensitive ghouls that exist in every high school in the country.

The best part of the show is how the kids of Sunnydale week after week are attacked by demons and vampires and yet even as classmates disappear left and right they are still more worried about being popular, about finding love, about the prom. Even the vampires themselves often have self esteem issues. The show's dialogue is constantly witty, the best television has to offer.

One thing that Hill Street and Buffy do share in common is a rather black sense of humor. Both shows strive on showing that the best defense from confusion and chaos is a resilient sense of humor. In the center of the storm of the Hill Street police precinct that at its best tried to hold together an impossible situation, was its unflappable captain, Frank Furillo. The glue that holds together the ever skeptical group at Sunnydale High is Buffy, the wannabe California girl who after a night of vampire slaying jokes her way through the horror of her involuntary status as the "chosen" one.

The season finale of Buffy of course got some unwarranted attention because the WB network decided at the last moment to pull it after the tragic events of the shooting at Columbine High. The episode dealt the with "ascension" of the city's mayor into an indestructible, all powerful, serpent like creature due to take place at Sunnydale High's graduation. (Symbolism? Graduating from high school is to turn into something that thinks it is all important but to others looks rather demonic?) That the mayor/serpent is to be stopped by students armed with weapons made WB officials feel that the episode too closely mirrored issues involved with the killings in Colorado. Back in May when the episode was originally scheduled to air, I had a lot on my mind. I programmed my VCR to tape my weekly fix of Buffy only to find when I got home that I hadn't set the button to record the show. It was late after midnight when I discovered my error, and I felt insufferably sad that I had seemingly missed the finale (part two of two). The next day I read that the episode had been pulled. Whew. I applauded the WB not for the integrity of its decision but because I hadn't missed something I truly did not want to miss.

Last week when the episode finally aired my anticipation was great. I remembered how my friend's grandmother has a saying about how anticipation is so much more powerful than actual events. In this case grandma's words did and did not ring true. There wasn't anything the show could possibly do to live up to expectations. But it nearly did. The heart of the show- the doomed relationship between slayer and bad vampire gone good, Angel, who is being eternally punished by being given back his soul so he can understand the consequences of his past actions- is heart wrenching. Buffy may be the one with the tears but Angel no doubt suffers from knowing that he must forsake the great love of his life simply because he knows what happens tomorrow will be more difficult than whatever happiness today may bring. The scene where Buffy saves Angel was about as sensual as TV can get.

At the end of the finale Buffy's group of friends take the time to reflect on their accomplishment; not so much the slaying of the mayor/serpent but rather that they have somehow managed to survive the struggles of high school. Something else is now around the corner and while it is important to understand that, they realize that at the very least they must acknowledge the events they have already seen will forever mark all the difficulty that tomorrow inevitably brings.

Monday, July 12, 1999

Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear

During my first few days at work at Cheapo the man who hired me, the great Bill Seeler, introduced me to one of his favorite rock albums, Randy Newman's Sail Away. Soon the album made my list of favorites too. There isn't a bad song among the dozen heartfelt and incredibly witty and well written tracks. Among the variety of topics covered and connected are a dancing bear, a striptease, a song written from God's perspective, father and son relationships, and the best damn song about immigration that has ever been written.

"When Karl Marx was a boy, he took a hard look around. He saw people were starving all over the place, while others were painting the town..."

Newman's first CD in eleven years, Bad Love, is like most of the music he is known for- often rewarding yet more than a little difficult to listen to at times. His less than conventional voice along with his caustic, sarcastic, sardonic, ironic, and more bitter than bittersweet lyrics don't always add up to the most pleasant music. Much of what attracts people to most popular music is it either: a) appeals to the heart; or b) appeals in some sexual way. Newman's music rarely does either but rather appeals to the stuff up above.

Bad Love is yet another example of this. The music is constantly challenging, continually clever and yet by the end of the CD it feels as if you have just endured the most grueling of mental workouts. The CD makes you smile at the same time you are cringing. There is one classic song among the eleven solid tracks, The World Isn't Fair, a cunning love song to Karl Marx. "He worked very hard and he read everything until he came up with a plan. There'll be no exploitation of the worker or his kin. No discrimination 'cause the color of your skin... No one could rise too high. No one could sink too low, or go under completely like some we all know." The song is Newman at his idiosyncratic best.

Unlike many of Newman's best songs The World Isn't Fair isn't sung from the point of view of a spiteful character. This time he sings from his own heart (albeit a rather sarcastic heart). As the song reveals itself it shows that it's not so much about political systems (the lyrics are just as much a commentary on Capitalism as Marxism) but about human nature. "Oh Karl the world isn't fair. It isn't and never will be. They tried out your plan, it brought misery instead. If you'd seen how they worked it you'd be glad you were dead. Just like I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free where the rich just get richer and the poor you don't ever have to see. It would depress us, Karl because we care that the world still isn't fair."

The other ten tracks alternate between being about sorrow as much as bad love. The music reminds me of whenever I used to ask the girl from my past from Chicago if she hated something, she would inevitably say, "Hate is such a strong word." Much of the music on Bad Love seems to be about showing how love gone bad is as closely related to hate as it is to how sad love can leave us. "Forget your foolish dreams and schemes that things will work out in the end. Put some real mileage between yourself and the object of your love my friend or become what you see. Yes, a loser like me. Someone who'd be better off dead..." Self pity and scorn gives way to genuine regret and tough tenderness. "Sometimes late at night I close my eyes and pretend that you're here with me. But every time it rains I realize just how lonely my life is going to be."

For all the critical acclaim over his career Newman has never really found a large audience. One might suspect that being such a unique voice in rock music consistently producing quality work that largely goes unnoticed could be frustrating and lead to more than a bit of bitterness. That's unlikely in Newman's case. He seemed to have a head start in that area all along. It can't be of any more comfort that the music of his that does get accepted is the lush Hollywood soundtrack scores he has written (a modern day F. Scott Fitzgerald?). Yet there isn't another writer who so consistently challenges his listeners.

He concludes Bad Love with a song that would be an appropriate coda for his entire career. I Want Everyone To Like Me at first seems like another ironic song. "Some friends to call my own, God knows, a family and a home. A couple kiddies at my side to keep me fat and satisfied." Is he serious? Does being well liked really mean that much to the writer of songs that has mocked short people, born again Christians, rednecks, nuclear bombs, along with just about every other target? I want everyone to like me that's one thing I know for sure. I want everyone to like me 'cause I'm a little insecure." Maybe behind all the wry (and sometimes mean spirited) dark sense of humor is a sensitive soul after all.

Monday, July 5, 1999

Mother and Child Reunion

I'm nothing if not an introspective type fellow. My favorite LP for much of the time I was in college was Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones. The LP is intensely personal examining the difference between a feeling and a thought, when one contradicts the other, and if the two can ever be the same or co-exist. With his erudite lyrics, Simon looks so far within himself it almost feels that if he looks any deeper his five foot four frame will disappear altogether.

When the follow-up LP came out in 1986, I wasn't sure what to expect. I couldn't imagine he could continue down the same track without completely losing himself. And he didn't. While many of the lyrics of the songs on Graceland are in the same vein as Hearts and Bones, the music is so much more joyful with its South African sound. "He is a foreign man surrounded by the sound..." During a hard summer the LP was my salvation- by itself it was almost enough to restore my faith in things- the music simply blew me away. That faith was tested when I began to work for this fine company way back in the olden days. In the store we had a free jukebox full of 45's for customers to play. There were about six songs from Graceland on the jukebox so for eight hours a day I heard the same six songs about a billion times. As a result I couldn't listen to the LP for years. Still if I had to choose one song to represent much of what my life has been it would be Graceland, a great song about redemption. "Losing love is like a window to your heart. Everybody sees you're blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow..."

Last Friday I took my own personal little pilgrimage down to Shakopee to see Simon team up with Bob Dylan for a concert at Canterbury Park the day after a period (an exclamation point? a question mark!) was placed at the end of a week that will forever change the way I live and feel. Appropriately and mostly out of desperation and necessity I went all by myself although there was never a moment during the concert that I felt alone. I'll never quite escape who was there with me all along. When Simon sang the song Graceland I couldn't stop shaking. When he sang "Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears" from the song The Cool Cool River, my heart raced (and ached a bit).

Simon is a far better songwriter than he is a performer. His studied manner and quiet voice needed the punch provided by his nine piece band. (I doubt he'll ever qualify to become a member of the Traveling Wilburys.) He did manage to reclaim Bridge Over Troubled Water as his own turning it into less the spiritual it is in its Simon and Garfunkel arrangement and more into a biographical prayer. The highlight of his set was Slip Slidin Away, a quintessential Simon song. "My love for you is so overpowering I'm afraid that it will disappear."

Dylan offered yet another solid effort opening with the Stanley Brothers' bluegrass gospel tune, Alleluia I'm Ready To Go. The band performed the near hymn in perfect foot stomping ole' hootenanny style. The rest of the setlist was less than adventurous relying heavily on material written in the 60's. He did do a nice rendition of Desolation Row one of his best epic "poem" songs (although it suffered by the news that he debuted Highlands, the 16 minute finale to Time Out of Mind, last Friday in Chula Vista, CA). Dylan's set was punctuated perfectly by Mother Nature. He sang, "When the rain is blowing in your face," from Make You Feel My Love just as it began to lightly rain. When he reached the chorus of Stuck Inside a Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again the thunder eerily boomed along with the ominous message. "Oh mama can this really be the end?" The high point was a deeply moving Not Dark Yet, one of the best songs from Time Out of Mind. Last year when the song was performed it was most often too fast and too metallic failing to capture the intimacy of the studio recording. This version however was straight from the heart. Dylan's sad, almost whisper like singing played off perfectly with new guitarist Charlie Sexton's mesmerizing riff. "There's not even room enough to be anywhere. It's not dark yet but it's getting there."

Besides Sexton the biggest change to this leg of the Never Ending Tour is the addition of a joke each night. So far we have heard, "We had trouble getting here on time. We got a flat. There was a fork in the road..." "I had trouble sleeping last night. I didn't want to wake the sleeping bag." In Shakopee we got to hear, "We gotta get going. Gotta get the hammer and hit the saccckkkk..."

The youthful and nostalgic looking crowd seemed disengaged for much of the night. Ambiance was somewhat lacking what with the smell of horses (which I guess makes sense seeing it was at a horse track) mixing with the smell of incense. The distance between me and others can best be described by fact that as hemp related smells swirled around me I reached into my pocket and grabbed a cough drop to suck. I guess we all have our own medicine we must take. It was fun to see the two icons perform four songs together beginning with a bizarre reading of Sound of Silence. Dylan's harmonies danced all around Simon's melody. The song was saved by a harmonica solo from Dylan along with his wonderful enunciation of the lyrics, "And the words of the prophets are written on the subway wall." Must have meant something to Bob. They closed with a joyful Knockin on Heaven's Door almost making it sound like quite the peaceful place to be.

Oh Honestly

I remember a funeral we went to together where the deceased's family got up and shared their memories and feelings of the person's accomplishments and life. Afterward you said to me that when the time came, you didn't want a lot of people getting up and talking about you. I understood fully. One of the many things you taught me was to understand that life's most satisfying accomplishments are often times the ones that you do out of the goodness of your heart and that often times those things aren't even noticed. The focus shouldn't be on being recognized it should be in doing the things that bring a smile to another. So as I write this I apologize if I am not exactly acceding to your wishes. There aren't enough words in the dictionary to express what's in my heart and to begin to share what a kind and generous and wonderful person you were.

One of the ways you and I were alike was being people who didn't like to talk a whole lot. The difference between you and I of course was that most everything you said was worth listening to while a whole lot of the little I say makes no sense. I take comfort in that by knowing what I said always made some kind of sense to you. It amazes me to this day how no matter what homework assignment I was given in school, you were able to help me solve the problems or write the right words. You seemed to know everything. Later some of that amazement was lessened when you admitted you used to read ahead in my textbooks to prepare yourself for what we would be studying next. Still, your wisdom was endless. I could come home and talk about the goings on in a Frumpy the Clown comic, or the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or share my love of a Bob Dylan song and you always knew (or at least cared about) what I was talking about. How many moms are there that would follow the Macalester football scores ten years after her son graduated simply because she knew her son might come home that weekend and talk about Macalester football and she thought she should be well versed enough so she could share another moment with her son? Among the most important life lessons you taught me was to be curious enough to keep learning, to continue to take an interest in knowledge and that it was more difficult but more worthwhile to be a good listener rather than a good talker.

Toward the end when you could no longer speak I looked deep in your eyes and still saw the connection no matter how far away the rest of you seemed to be. I must admit that there were moments in the last week when your ever-lasting smile made me cry. I miss you already Mom and the very thought that I will never see the greatest smile on earth ever again is shattering.

Even more difficult is that during life's most disappointing moments there was always the comfort in knowing I could always come home to you and that whatever reassuring was needed you were there to provide. Part of being the world's greatest crossword puzzle solver was always knowing the right word. You always knew what to say to make it all seem a little better. This is one of the most difficult moments and it is made even harder because you aren't here anymore to help lessen the sadness. Still I do remember each and every one of the happy moments too. I remember the one and only bet we ever made- it was about whom would win the NCAA basketball tournament one-year. So sure was I of my pick, Indiana (a team you couldn't stand because of the less than stellar antics of the head coach) would win the whole thing that I don't even remember what my side of the bet was. You bet that Indiana would not win and if they did you would make my bed for a whole month. So in one of the few times in life I couldn't cheer with you and I had to pull for that dreadful Coach Knight I happened to pick the right team. You, as you always did, kept your end of the bargain and made my bed for me. For thirty days (a conservative number I'm sure our family would say) I was quite the spoiled kid. On the last day of the month I crawled into my bed only to find it was short sheeted. I won the bet but you had the last laugh.

I'll never forget the last words you said to me as you tightly gripped my hand were, "I love you." For one of the only times in your life you said something you didn't need to say because there was never a moment where I doubted it. Yes we were people of few words, Mom, but I know sharing these few words with others would be OK with you. I love you too.