Music

J.D. Salinger and Jethro Tull: The Coming of Age Story Soundtrack

I’m not certain if it says more about J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull or me, that when I think of the ultimate coming-of-age treatise from the trenches, it’s not a novel but a trio of albums.

She nodded. "Make it extraordinarily squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time... -- J.D. Salinger, "For Esme -- with Love and Squalor" (1950)

Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth, as the song says. April, 1988.

Everyone talks about how reading The Catcher in the Ryeis one of those seminal rites of passage. Now that J.D. Salinger has gone to that big field of rye in the sky, everyone is talking about it all at once. I would be a phony, I figure, not to include myself (and all). For starters, what do you call a rite of passage involving a lot of middle-aged (or older) folks talking about the passing of an author who wrote one of the ultimate rite of passage novels? Indulgent? Inevitable? Ironic? All of the above?

By the time I got around to Holden Caulfield, I was already a senior in high school. Too young? Too old?Just right? For better or worse, I was either too old, or not alienated enough, to feel the full force of Salinger's operetta of adolescent angst. Of course, I'm selling it short (or am I?), but I've heard very few adults whose opinions I admire mention falling under this novel's spell while revisiting it as an adult. Myself, I couldn't tell if it was too obvious this book was the result of a grown man trying (diligently, and in that overly mannered, oft-imitated style) to sound like a disaffected but acutely sensitive 16-year-old, or if it's because he succeeded so thoroughly that, even as a 17-year-old, I wasn't especially simpatico with his anguished, if solipsistic observations. Which is not to say that his plight did not move me, or that his situation is not, at times, rendered with profound artistry by Salinger.

Perhaps it would be a bit unfair, if mostly accurate to conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is the archetypal novel of adolescent alienation for teenagers/young adults who don't read a great deal of fiction. Just as there are certain types of movies and music that, through a perfect storm of critical consensus and a groundswell of contagious public approbation, get anointed as authentic touchstones of a particular moment in time (I would say "tapping into the zeitgeist" but I try to avoid using the dreaded z-word if at all possible).

Regarding the almost half-century of silence that followed his initial burst of creativity, Norman Mailer decreed Salinger "the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school." That's harsh, but it is also -- based on the available evidence -- pretty indisputable. On the other hand, when people hold up The Catcher in the Rye (or even Franny and Zooey) as the zenith of Salinger's oeuvre, they are overlooking (or more likely, have never read) "For Esme --With Love and Squalor", in my estimation one of the five best American short stories of the 20th Century.

Indeed, what Salinger accomplishes in those 20-odd pages arguably exceeds the sum total of Mailer's voluminous, if mostly perishable output. Everything that Salinger didn't do, or didn't do convincingly, or didn't do well enough to reward subsequent readings by a more mature audience in his canonized novel, he does in spades with this short story. It's a compact, devastating illumination of the cruel machinery we, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, call adulthood. How fittingly ironic, then, that a writer celebrated (and minimized) for being the consummate chronicler of what Pete Townshend later called "teenage wasteland" actually wrote a shattering treatise from the trenches (literally and figuratively) that endures well into a new millennium. Of which, more later.

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong love of Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn't live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you'd (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment.

This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. It should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was generated a feeling only slightly beyond orgasmic.

Anyway, it was during the winter and spring of 1988 that the back catalog of Jethro Tull was being released, a couple at a time, on compact disc. It was around this time, having already devoured Thick as a Brick and still patiently awaiting the arrival of A Passion Play, that I had my first sustained go-round with Tull's third album, 1970's Benefit. In April 1988 it was the right album at the right time. Remarkably, it still is. And I’m not certain if it says more about J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull, or me that when I think of the ultimate coming-of-age treatise, it’s not a novel but a trio of albums.

Before you can fully appreciate what Tull achieves on Benefit, one has to consider (and understand) the brilliant album that preceded it, 1969's Stand Up. In addition to the handful of gems that still get radio play ("Nothing Is Easy, “Bouree", "A New Day Yesterday" and "Fat Man"), there were a couple of standard coming-of-age type middle finger salutes to the establishment: "Back to the Family”, which features a blistering guitar coda from Martin Barre and album-closer "For a Thousand Mothers", where Ian Anderson not only spits on, but laughs at the naysayers. This song is notable for perfecting a sort of "garage flute rock": once you hear that joyously spiteful noise, this might not sound like such an oxymoron, but the one that stands out (or stands up, as the case may be) from the rest is the you-can’t-go-home-again anthem "We Used to Know." Check it out:

How many 21-year-olds write songs like that? The world weariness of those vocals (not to mention the lyrics) and the subtlety of Martin Barre's embellishment through the first half make the song ache with longing and arid resignation. After the flute solo bleeds into the guitar solo, the song explodes into the clear-eyed appraisal of a man who has fully taken stock of the world, and the reigns of his destiny. As we know now, he never looked back. (A few quick words about that guitar solo: more than a few folks, including Ian Anderson, have noticed that the Eagles' much more famous "Hotel California" seems to have borrowed more than a little from "We Used to Know".

Personally, I think it's a tough case to make as the two songs are so different, but this does present an opportunity to lament the fact that Joe Walsh, lovable rascal that he is, would be easily identified by approximately 100 percent of people who know anything about rock music, while Martin Barre might be recognized by one in ten, and that is being generous. Such is life, and don't weep for Barre who can wipe his own eyes with the piles of money he earned. Joe Walsh, who left his talent and most of his brain cells in that holiday weekend of excess called the '70s, endures as an avatar, and casualty, of that era: he is the coke-stained hundred dollar bill that says so many things about a time and a place where certain people did certain things because they could afford to.

Barre, on the other hand, is a vintage Jaguar -- pronounced Jag.U.R. -- that may have neither the flash or immediacy of newer, more colorful models, but discerning eyes can assess its value and class with little difficulty. In hindsight, listening to him in song after song after song, it becomes increasingly clear that even some of the most accomplished -- and celebrated -- guitarists of the '70s were using crayons while Barre had already figured out how to use water colors.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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