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Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
“Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

I. Personal


Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.


I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m on Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.


(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, the Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)


Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.


II. Polemical


Check it out:


Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up


Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.


Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man


(chorus)


Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”


I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone


He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms


Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go


This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.


On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.


Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.


Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver


III. Political


Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.


And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame, we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. This is reason enough to be grateful for an Obama administration (the irony that a genuine war hero, had he managed to win, would have necessarily been obliged to overlook those in need of help to pacify the string-pullers in his party, was, thankfully, too outrageous even for America to make possible). The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least.


Remember this, when the ankle-biters and small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag;  these same armchair generals prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.


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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2008

Hearing “P.S. I Love You” brings to mind the faulty stereotypes that I once associated with the Beatles’ early songs. Namely that they were mostly negligible from a technical standpoint and didn’t merit much consideration outside the fact that they belonged to a sacred oeuvre and were sometimes impossible to dislike. You know the glib suggestion that the Beatles were basically the Backstreet Boys of the early 1960s, i.e. a group defined by its hysterical popularity, especially among the female youth? In the past, I subscribed to this narrow nonsense and compounded my error by also not crediting the Beatles, circa 1962-1964, with much more than a lowly boy-band level of musical expertise. I failed to appreciate that, from the start, they were gifted individuals equipped with both a studious knowledge of rock ‘n roll and large-scale ambition.


In listening to “P.S. I Love You”, I once again come across the tempting and convincing appearance of fluff that used to distort my understanding of many Beatles songs. That is, the appearance (but not full existence) of an overly simple tune which matches a lightweight lyric with less-than-inspired sonics. Truth be told, “P.S. I Love You” is far from classic and isn’t even terribly memorable. But it’s a song that exudes a likeable, let’s-try-this spirit and shows how the wheels inside the Beatles’ collective head were constantly in motion.


The B-side to “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” is a lightly melancholic and evenly paced jangler that finds Paul, the song’s writer, pining for a girl from whom he is separated. Contrary to rumors, Paul has insisted that he did not have his then girlfriend, Dorothy “Dot” Rhone, or another love interest in mind when he composed the lyric. What’s more significant, though, is its specific styling – as a letter – which John claims that Paul modeled after the Shirelles’ 1962 hit “Soldier Boy”. Paul opens with “As I write this letter / Send my love to you / Remember that I’ll always / Be in love with you.” From these lines, one can gather a sense that his expressions of love won’t likely come without a tinge of heartache. The distance implied by the letter, then, is taking its toll. While not boldly innovative by any means, the use of this format at least demonstrates that the Beatles were thinking about different ways in which they could depart from the standard lyric. Writing a letter song may have demanded from Paul a certain kind of calculation that he wouldn’t have applied to, say, “Love Me Do”. It’s a minor but not inconsequential point.


“P.S. I Love You” also witnesses more of John and Paul’s developing methods of vocal interaction. Paul is the song’s lead vocalist and, at various times, John joins him in sustained unison, performs spot harmonies, and also fades in and out of several lines, singing every couple words but not harmonizing (or, at least, I don’t think so. On these parts, their voices don’t link up in a way that would highlight any harmony). This last technique creates a melodic texture that softly layers Paul’s vocal. Again, it’s a means to play around with pop convention and produce a sound that emphasizes its makers’ devotion to craft.


Other details to note… As with the album version of “Love Me Do”, Ringo doesn’t perform the drumwork on “P.S. I Love You”. He plays maracas while session musician Andy White is on percussion, anchoring a thin, mechanical rhythm that doesn’t seem to ever shift course. Also, near the end of the song, Paul lets out an amusingly hammed-up “Ooowwww” and “You know I want you to” which don’t yet sound natural coming from him. It’s easy to imagine the young Macca hoping that he might successfully channel one of his soulful heroes of the era, like Little Richard.


The Beatles, after all, did know their rock ‘n roll. They were creators as well as staunch admirers and students of the art. And even songs like “P.S. I Love You”, which are themselves only middling, can still reveal that fact.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008

After seeing a bit of Lukestar’s set on the last night of CMJ, I didn’t feel I gave them a proper chance. If anyone had been doing the amount of CMJ’ing that the PopMatters staff were, I’m sure they would have been in the same boat. But what it boils down to is that Norway’s Lukestar writes rather brilliant pop songs that aren’t meant for a crammed Cake Shop at 1 in the morning. They are meant to be played to wide open air in the Festival grounds or in an old cathedral where their sound can resonate.


“White Shade”, off their latest record Lake Toba, is the perfect example of the potential their sound can reach. Acting on perfect interplay between rhythm and melody, this song should have been the logical progression for the mid-‘90s alternative sounds of the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate into the new millennium, rather than finding itself rooted in mainstream American culture. Songwriter/Singer Truls Heggero, contrary to popular belief, does not sound like Sigur Ros. Just because he sings in a high register, does not make him anywhere comparable to the Icelandic group, and this is a good thing. His vocals have a more pop sensibility and serve not only as an instrument, but as a vital portion of the song.


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Monday, Nov 10, 2008

When Obama takes office in January of 2009, it will be a half-century since Free Jazz forefather Ornette Coleman dropped the provocatively titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a LOT). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane “Giant Steps”, Charles Mingus “Ah Um”. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to fire the musical shot heard ’round the world–a shot that still reverberates today. “Kind of Blue” is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; “Giant Steps” is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; “Ah Um” is an enyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today.


But “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins–representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene. Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes–if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclast of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane–the all-time heavyweight champion–embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ‘59.


Coleman’s compositions are nakedy emotional, unabashedly intense, totally human. Like the best jazz music, all of the instruments are communicating. What they are saying are different things, at different times, to different people. That is the power of this music. It was the soundtrack for a truly unique and momentous time in American history. It remains, more so than ever, the soundtrack of now.


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Friday, Nov 7, 2008
Many Moons - Janelle Monae

I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform.  The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing.  She’s strikingly self-possessed. 


But that’s just the most obvious surface.  The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her.  The song is existentially searching without being pretentious.  When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances.  My answer:  not so much.  But damn, it’s a great lyric.  The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.


Tagged as: janelle monae
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