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Monday, Aug 24, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Don’t You Want to Be There” - Jackson Browne
Written by Jackson Browne
From The Naked Ride Home (Elektra, 2002)


This V-C-V first appeared in slightly different form on pcmunoz.com, June 14, 2005


In his speech inducting Jackson Browne into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen coined a fitting term to describe Browne’s music: “California Pop-Gospel”. I like that description quite a bit, because not only does it distinctly locate Browne as a Californian artist, it also acknowledges a kind of spiritual component to his work. Like his musical soul-brother Bob Marley, Jackson Browne has often urged us to consider the state of our spiritual selves as well as our connectedness to others, concerns that are usually addressed in the liturgical realm. The fact that he writes about these concerns with probing self-doubt (and often self-indictment) is significant, and in my mind a major reason why his many admirers have such a strong, emotional bond with his work.


“Don’t You Want to Be There” is primarily a meditation. Like a lot of Browne’s best work, it will break your heart, call you to reflection, and inspire you to hopeful action, all in the span of one listen. It opens with a simple enough invitation: “Don’t you want to be there / Don’t you want to go / Where the light is breaking / And the cold clear winds blow?” Around the middle, that invitation softly becomes an encouraging challenge: “Don’t you want to be there? /  Don’t you want to cry / When you see how far you’ve got to go /  To be where forgiveness rules / Instead of where you are?” The last line of the last verse then contains the most potent variation of the titular question, one that no listener can escape: “Don’t you want to be where there’s strength and love /  In the place of fear?”


Tagged as: jackson browne
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Monday, Aug 17, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

Nina Simone - “Mississippi Goddam”
Written by Nina Simone
From Nina Simone in Concert (Philips, 1964)
[Videos: Live / Live 2]


As her accompanists bustle along in a brisk show-time tempo, Nina Simone begins this song from her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert by saying “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam”. The drummer then drops a vaudeville thump accent on the kickdrum, and Simone pauses for audience reaction, which is laughter and a smattering of applause. Without changing the timbre of her voice, she quickly adds, “And I mean every word of it.” There is more laughter from the audience after that, but it’s more tentative than the first burst, and this time no one applauds. There’s no possible way the audience could have prepared themselves for what follows. “Mississippi Goddam” is a subversive tour-de-force, a highly sophisticated piece of musical signifying which mixes confrontational anger, point-blank accusation, and deeply felt frustration with a bouncy show-tune melody and a wonderfully expressive vocal by Ms. Simone.


I love “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, and all the other songs associated with or about the Civil Rights struggle of the American 1960s, but for my money, as powerful and accessible as those songs are, none are as emotionally immediate, or possess more unrelenting spiritual force, than “Mississippi Goddam”. The lyrics are a marvel, unraveling at first in a deceptively lighthearted strut (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest”) before turning into the most solemn of lamentations around the middle ( “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We’re all gonna get it in due time”), and then a full-on, unapologetic demand by the end (“You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality!”


The most striking lyric arrives at around 1:44, just as Simone is starting to dig into the real intent of the song. Here, in a single line, Simone captures the dual existential uncertainty of living in a society which repeatedly pronounces you “other”, while also realizing you don’t really have anywhere else to go: “I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” Like the song’s title, these lines are a deeply symbolic statement from a bona fide church girl (Simone’s mother was a minister), both a declaration of painful truth, and a plea for that truth to be heard, understood, addressed. By the time Simone murmurs “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” after the refrain following those lines, the Carnegie Hall audience is dead silent.


Given Nina Simone’s undeniable prowess with bluesy tempos and songforms, demonstrated in countless later recordings, one has to wonder why she chose to deliver her most confrontational message in the vehicle of an upbeat songform more suited to a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical. The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” lyrically give voice to the contemporary concerns of African Americans, but ironically, there is not a lot of obvious church, blues, jazz, or R&B to be heard in the music here. The result is a somewhat dislocated sonic context, a feeling that you’re hearing something that just might be different than what it appears to be on the surface. Whether the African Trickster in Simone intended this or not is always up for discussion, but clearly, “Mississippi Goddam” is not meant to be comforting, uplifting, or reassuring in any sort of way; on the contrary, it is meant to be confrontational, discomforting, prophetic: a call to wakefulness in a dangerous time, and perhaps an apocalyptic warning of sorts, as well.


We celebrate and cherish songs and songwriters often because their words and music bring us joy, comfort, and feelings of empathy and belonging. In this case, we remember and celebrate Nina Simone and “Mississippi Goddam” because in 1964, amidst great turmoil in the country and unbearable race-related murders and violence, Nina Simone had the courage to stand on the stage of one of America’s most hallowed venues and deliver a song that expresses the dismayed yet indefatigable heart of a prophet.


 



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Monday, Aug 10, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Cars” - Gary Numan
Written by Gary Numan
From The Pleasure Principle (Beggars Banquet/Atco, 1979)


According to the Wikipedia entry for Gary Numan, the famously dark-viewed British new-waver has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. In the article, a quote attributed to Numan indicates that he feels his longtime difficulties in relating to others, the subtext of much of his work, may be directly related to this syndrome.


That gossipy tidbit may reflect the whole truth, a kernel of truth, or no truth at all, but one thing is definitely certain: no other artist in rock and roll has so thoroughly mined the subject of emotional alienation in the modern, computerized world. Numan’s brittle-broken vocal style, ice-cold synthesizer lines, herky-jerky beats, and dread-filled lyrics all contribute to a challenging and compelling aesthetic, one that is still undervalued by many music lovers but cherished by millions of dark-clad misfits worldwide.


Tagged as: gary numan, new wave
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Tuesday, Aug 4, 2009

“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974


The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.


You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.


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