Monday, September 21, 2009

There's A Starman Waiting In The Sky

I just saw U2's 360 tour at Gillette Stadium. The surreal, amphibian-shaped light machine that serves as the band's state-of-the-art stage is described by Bono as their "space station."

Fittingly David Bowie's 1969 single "Space Oddity" graced the speakers as the stadium went dark and the band arrived. Forty years after its release and the first moon landing this song still speaks to the future. Indeed, the protagonist in U2's "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," clad in a leather jacket and red laser pointers, sounds like he is deep inside Bowie's universe. It's a love song from a lonely, moonstruck space traveler.

Seeing the darkened stage and hearing Bowie's incredible song and the backing countdown just got me thinking about the expansive imagination behind those lyrics and that lone character. The storyline so vivid, but not overblown. It's romantic space rock, without the gimmicky guitar duels and tazer sounds.

This is before Ziggy Stardust, before Alladin Sane. This is Bowie's first hit, but he's already fully in character. He's Major Tom, the loving husband in liftoff, and the everyday man that's quickly becoming a rising star just as his spacecraft aims for one.

"This is Ground Contol to Major Tom/
You've really made the grade/
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear/
It's time to leave the capsule if you dare."

Imagine the frozen Cold War world in 1969 before the first journey to the moon. It's a bipolar world- communism versus capitalism, freedoms evaporating in Vietnam and Czechoslovakia. The world is tugged between the forces of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, war and peace.

Walls are crumbling in rock n' roll just as they are reinforced in Berlin and the Deep South. Musicians are finding a creative home in the mind that is set apart from the past. It's time for some perspective, the kind that Major Tom finds as he sings his chorus.

"For here am I sitting in a tin can/
Far above the world/
Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do."

Bowie's chorus is beautiful like some Orbison choruses are beautiful. It's heartfelt. It comes from a sense of wonderment. Here the wide-eyed astronaut stares back at the place he calls home and discovers just how beautiful that blue-and-green planetary body is. There is no time or context for which to be jaded and self-involved.

Bowie's vision and imagination has taken his audience out of the atmosphere without space technology- it's just his voice and a great guitar line. Even the saxophone solo is as sublime and unassuming as a cloud obscuring the view of the moon.

He does this later in "Starman" and "Five Years." Bowie could take great song as a vertical jump into new frontiers as he sings Sintra-style reaching for the constellations.

Major Tom's story speaks of man's fragility and loneliness as he tries to find his way in the cosmos- strung out all alone between Polaris and Andromeda, away from his loved ones and the biosphere. As I understand it Bowie always felt like an outcast, someone who would feel for the solitary astronaut in awe of the universe he can never fully explore. And maybe he feels he will never find his part in it. How do you figure out your worth when you're surrounded by billions of stars?

And then there's the everlasting mystery of Major Tom. When his radio and circuits die and he is cut off from Ground Control is it because he wants to escape forever? Does NASA's technology fail and an incredible "step for mankind" claimed another life?

Regardless, it's ultimately the human imagination that fueled this rocket and its pioneering passenger into the sky. The imagination brought man to the moon at a time when ideas about what it means to be a citizen on Earth where dying and blossoming. And then we went to the moon; it puts so many other accomplishments to shame.

What else are we capable of despite the political and social gridlocks? What other eye-widening perspectives await if we just accept the beauty of the one home we all share and our privileged and fragile place upon it?

For up there with where Major Tom is it's the little things we are prone to take for granted that matter: the water, the land, the air, the relationships. You can't see pettiness from outer space.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Perfect Summer Playlist?

I am looking out my window right now at what looks like the very first summer day we have had this year. In that spirit my mind is racing trying to come up with a perfect playlist to fit this weather and this feeling. Here is a work in progress:

1. The Beach Boys- "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
2. Elvis Presley- "That's Alright, Mama."
3. Paul Simon- "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes."
4. R.E.M. -"#9 Dream" (John Lennon Cover).
5. Marianne Faithful- "Something Better."
6. The Byrds- "Mr. Tambourine Man."
7. Bob Marley- "Slogans."
8. George Harrison- "What Is Life?"
9. Van Morrison- "Madame George."
10. The Rolling Stones- "Beast Of Burden."
11. The Beatles- "Hello, Goodbye
12. David Bowie- "Young Americans."
13. Jeff Buckley- "Hallelujah."
14. The Band- "The Weight."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Love They Can't Defeat

The lead track on R.E.M.'s latest album Accelerate is one of my favorite types of album openers. It hits like a crack of thunder; it breaks the calm before the storm. There are so many wonderful examples: The Clash's "London Calling;" U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday;" The Sex Pistols' "Holiday In The Sun." And how about that snare drum that opens Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," the crisp hit that Springsteen said was like "kicking open the door to your mind?" Such a wonderful jolt.

R.E.M.'s "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" is a big fuck-you to everyone that belittles your life and undermines your chances of achieving your dreams. Lead singer Michael Stipe had the media's talking heads and short-sighted moguls in mind in this contemporary punk song. It's calling out those who would deprive millions of meaningful reporting in the pursuit of money and ratings as if we weren't deserving.

"All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flair their nostrils
Choking on the bones you toss about
I'm not one to sit and spin 'cause living well's the best revenge
Baby, I am calling you out on that."

This is an angry song, and it harks back to the formative days of punk rock. This album is full of stormy guitar parts and a sense of urgency about the state of our country and our world. It could very well have been called "Yes, We Can," but not because it was Obama's campaign slogan.

The very words affirm that the hopes and dreams of the future belong in the hands of those who recognize the value of life and challenge those who do not. It is the momentum needed to move forward.

Stipe: "History will set me free, the future's ours and you don't even rate a footnote now."

What can music tell us about the dangerous reality we live with? If we are being honest with ourselves we know that we live day-to-day realizing that one terrorist attack could end everything. What do we do with that information? Live well.

Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that the reason his heroes, musicians like Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, had the incredible impact they did was because of the "atomic" energy and presence they brought to their craft and the stage. They became atomic because they lived in the shadow of the atom bomb.

They were both products and drivers of their environment. They took control and made something beautiful. Rock n' roll, the sound of possibilities, was born through the work of this spirit.

The closing stanza in Dylan's apocalyptic "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" still echoes since its release in 1962 when a nuclear holocaust was one push of the button away. Still, it's as if the narrator searches for a place to speak his mind to the world, to think for himself, to stand vigil for the sacredness of life.

"And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,

Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',

But I'll know my song well before I start singin',

And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall."

Now amidst daily color-coded threat levels and the reverberations of suicide bombs all over the world people are stirring and redefining what it means to be an American citizen and a citizen of the world.

R.E.M.'s "Houston" summons this spirit. The narrator is waking up surrounded by the devastation Hurricane Katrina left in its wake. A new day dawns despite the despair that has come before.

"So a man's put to task and challenges
I was taught to hold my head high
Collect what is mine,

Make the best of what today has

Houston is filled with promise

Laredo's a beautiful place

Galveston sings like that song that I loved

Its meaning has not been erased

Places filled with promise. People holding their heads high. This is the human spirit rising to the height of the dangers and beyond. It was there across the country on 09/12/01 and on the day after Katrina hit and everyday in between.

It was why we have to close Guantanamo Bay and ban torture once and for all. One day the war on terror will end, but who decides what kind of country we will be when that day arrives? Do we let the fear decide for us?

The biggest fuck-you middle finger we can stick at Al Qaeda, and to everyone like them who would make human beings into chess pieces for political or theological gain, is attached to the open palm we extend to those in need.

We are seeing an unprecedented effort to alleviate poverty in Africa and beyond. Social entrepreneurs are brimming with great ideas the entire world over and planting opportunity. Microcreditors are giving people access to capital and the dignity of a life in their own control. Five million Americans signed on to the One Campaign to Make Poverty History as of 2007.

The world of the 21st century is increasingly being defined by the people with the courage to reshape the circumstances that define and limits lives. The big challenges might just only get smaller if this momentum continues through our generation.

Bono at President Bush's National Prayer Breakfast in 2006:

"After 9-11 we were told America would have no time for the world's poor. America would be taken up with its own problems of safety. And it's true these are dangerous times, but America has not drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors.

In fact, you have doubled aid to Africa. You have tripled funding for global health. Mr. President, your emergency plan for AIDS relief and support for the Global Fund—you and Congress—have put 700,000 people onto life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from malaria."

There is certainly something to celebrate, and life should be celebrated shouldn't it? That's living well.

Just listen to gospel music. It must get closer to joy than many other art forms, and it was started by a people used to the lash, the chain and the fire hose. Despite the bleak black experience in America this joyful sound sustained one of the most beautiful movements for justice imaginable and provided the soundtrack for a changing nation.

We can find the sounds of change in the 21st century in R.E.M., in The Roots, in The Arcade Fire. U2's new album has been described as heartening, uplifiting, spiritual, and with one adjective not commonly attached to popular music- "uncynical."

I think this spirit is especially evident during the outro to "Unknown Caller" when The Edge's glittering guitar solo gives way and a soaring church organ speaks in its place. It could be the crux of the album's relevance.

There is one line in the song "Breathe" that also sums up this spirit for me.

"Every day I die again and again I'm reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street,
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat."

That's a song that can help you get out of bed in the morning and face the news and that is an idea that can sow a difficult truth in our society's worldview- that our future lies in the chances at peace and prosperity for our neighbors, friends and citizens, nearby and foreign.

It could be our greatest shot at revenge and hope all at once.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Between Belfast and Boston, Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"

I have a ritual in May. It begins once the weather has gotten warm enough and the sunlight expansive enough. I set aside whatever I am doing while a train ride home to Connecticut or back to Boston and play Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" quietly on my iPod and try to drift off to sleep.

"That album came out of nowhere," my music-loving coworker at the Globe once remarked to me with wide-eyed reverence.

It is one of the best albums we might ever hope to hear, and forty years out from its release it still sounds fresh, contemporary and groundbreaking. It was indie way before we had indie artists. The story behind the album's release is remarkable and supports exactly what the music suggests. And yet we will probably never know exactly where it came from and what it is about. Isn't that wonderful?

Elvis Costello: "Still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium,
and there hasn't been a record with that amount of daring made since."

My advice? Listen to it late at night as you try to fall asleep.

One evening in May 2007 I was sitting on an Amtrak train heading north as the daylight began to wane and the sunset set in. I played "Astral Weeks" on a whim, and I heard beautiful music in a brand new way, in a way that only a peaceful train ride can make real.

I had owned it a long time before I actually gave it a good listen. I already knew Morrison's album "Moondance" backward and forward; "And It Stoned Me" will forever be a staple of my spring playlist.

But this was head and shoulders above everything I had ever gotten from the bluesy, more radio-friendly "Moondance" and most albums for that matter.

I listened closely to the lyrics of the title track, some of the most poignant opening lyrics I have ever heard:

"If I venture in the slipstream,
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stops
Could you find me?

Would you kiss-a my eyes?

To lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again

To be born again."

It's the carefully churning rhythm from a maraca. It's the depth of the sparse bass line. It's the deliberateness of the acoustic guitar notes. It's the jazz elements, perhaps most obvious with the pleasantly surprising flute, that open up the imagination. It's the beat poetry delivered by perhaps the greatest blue-eyed soul singer ever.

It is a truly original opening to an album that creates and inhabits its own dreamscapes. It's a ragtag collection of sounds and a poet's sights that just sort of happened inside a studio.

And those strings! Those string sections in the opening track that pull you in like a breath of fresh air. You don't necessarily hear them the first time, but once you do you wonder where "Astral Weeks" has been your entire life thus far.

The way they support this stream-of-consciousness imagery about kissing the eyes of the passed and the reincarnated. Who is this person in love with a girl and with life itself who looks "way up in the heaven," where he knows he has "a home on high?"

That violin that flows and ascends out of the background as Morrison sings, "There you go/ Takin' good care of your boy/ Seein' that he's got clean clothes/ Puttin' on his little red shoes/ I see you know he's got clean clothes/ A-puttin' on his little red shoes/ A-pointin' a finger at me."

This faceless narrator appears throughout the album walking fine lines between love and lust and faith and longing. This careful stepping arrives at compassion and empathy.

There is something in here about the simple beauty of the ordinary. Something about the way Morrison sings praises to the act of falling in love in "Beside You," "Sweet Thing," and the jazzy "The Way Young Lovers Do" contrasts so perfectly with the sadness of the confrontation of death in the closing song "Slim Slow Slider." The way he asks a young girl to "step on up" in "Ballerina" is so indicative of an artist believing in the certainty of standing on one's two feet. This album must be taken as a whole, and if a singer-songwriter could be described as an impressionist, Van Morrison would be deserving of the title.

Imagine Morrison's life in 1968, a twenty-something who has lost nearly everything. Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" was an incredible success on the radio in the mid-1960s. But then everything fell to pieces.

Twenty-two, broke, down on the ground. He couldn't meet the success of the hit that had made him famous and had now left him a washed-up has-been. His manager had died of a sudden heart attack. He was living in Cambridge, Mass. in a rundown house with his girlfriend and newborn child, a bare-bones existence with nothing but a mattress on the floor. He was playing intimate shows to make a living and was "literally starving."

Then, he collected a group of musicians to record an album in New York. It would mix his favorite kinds of music: gospel, folk, R&B, jazz. It would be a giant fuck-you to the record label that only wanted "Brown-Eyed Girl No. 2."

Reports say there wasn't much rehearsing. It just sort of came out of him and his accompanists.

It's wrong to romanticize poverty. However, the fact that something this moving and powerful could come out of someone whose financial interests lay in radio-friendly hits, and who must have known it wasn't lucrative, says something about an inner spirit that is beyond calculation. This is music, and it is as compelling as we always hope music can be.

There is joy and mourning. There is a nod to past memories, youthful optimism and naivete. There is a pull to live in the moment. I think's it's all the most evident and enduring on my favorite track, "Madame George."

It begins so slow and quietly on a street in East Belfast called Cyprus Avenue, a tree-lined road Morrison grew up near that I had to visit when I spent a month in Northern Ireland last summer. All of these pictures are from a solo walking tour I made to visit all the places mentioned in "Astral Weeks."

To stand there with the entire album playing in your ears as you stare down the canopy-shaded avenue and into the hedge-guarded gardens, and later, into the Georgian-era glass design above the doors of the apartment buildings on Fitztroy Avenue or the long, steel rails extending out from Sandy Row station in City Centre, is simply surreal.

"Down on Cyprus Avenue/ With a childlike vision leaping into view/ Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe/ Ford & Fitzroy, Madame George"

The mourning that comes across with another sparse bass line and a delicate and atmospheric violin is summed up in one word: goodbye.

It's a goodbye to youth and a friend, the irreplaceable and unforgettable Madame George. The pain is palpable when the narrator "falls into a trance" and "with your folded arms and history books you glance into the eyes of Madame George."

The loss of the past and the uncertainty of the future, one forever entombed on Cyprus Avenue and the other awaiting down the tracks in the dark places like Sandy Row, comes from the sadness of the strings and the simple acceptance in Morrison's soulful and quiet delivery.

"And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row

Throwing pennies at the bridges down below

And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George."

Morrison's beautiful "say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" that completes a long and sorrowful journey from the comfort of home to the uncertainty of a cabin on a train fades into mistiness, as if the lonesome narrator is himself passing into a peaceful sleep. The loving places of childhood are about to erupt into political violence. And yet what more can be said about this ending that the crescendo in the whirling violin playing cannot say for itself?

From nothingness and despair, Morrison revealed an inner beauty amidst turmoil. He doesn't revel in the sadness that stalks his life; he pays homage to it. But it isn't a sad album. It finds the strands of a peaceful existence and holds on tight awaiting the soul Morrison's musical heroes must have instilled in his voice. It is an acceptance of the passing of the days and an uplifting vision of what the spirit can and will accomplish despite the jagged shards of yesterday.

It is, simply, stunning summer music.

"Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye..."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gospel Music For The Horizon

"I don't write finger-pointing songs because I usually count myself among the accused." -Bono

It's Palm Sunday. I am sitting beside strangers in an old pew in Boston's Old South Church. I'm surrounded by people in bright Easter colors- a playful snub to puritanism inside the capital of Puritanical New England.

The site for worship dates back to the mid 1600s; the architecture is from the late 19th century. The pastor's words rising into the cathedral ceiling are straight from the headlines of the 21st century. One line in particular seems to rattles the walls of my still half-asleep mind and lowers my guard- something about extending hands to the downhearted and the "high" addict around the corner.

This command sends refreshing chills down my back. I usually avoid church religiously expecting exclusion over inclusion. Addicts have long been demonized instead of aided. Twenty years ago the ones who contracted AIDS were branded as deserving of what they got.

In the moments that follow the pastor's words the warm organ sounds and the choral arrangements fill the space above the palms in the patrons' hands. But it is U2's "Moment Of Surrender" playing in my head that is making my foot tap against the marble floor.

"Moment of Surrender" is off their latest album, No Line On The Horizon, a spectacular collections of songs about losing one's sense of self within thoughts, visions, seascapes, vices, and dreams of the 21st century. Producer Daniel Lanois calls it contemporary gospel.

"Soul music is about abandonment," says Bono.

Soul music. Those beautiful and atmospheric sounds of joy. It is the vocalist's fall from pride, an easily-abused and addicting substance. It is some sort of faith amidst uncertainty.

It is something like staring at a horizon.

You can hear exactly what Bono is talking about in Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." You can hear it in the exuberance of James Brown. You can hear it in Mahalia Jackson's gospel, her vocal releases from constraint.

You can hear it in many U2 songs from their entire canon. "Moment Of Surrender" demonstrates what U2 have always done so well. Their songs don't just tell stories, they create environments for conversations on war, love, doubt, faith and yes, the addictions we all might carry.

Enter "Moment Of Surrender" in 2009. Born in studio sessions in the medieval holy city of Fez, Morrocco, it is a seven-minute masterpiece recorded in a single take. Bono's high and imperfect, cracking vocals have been intentionally left in; they illustrate the extreme despair felt by the spiritually-lost narrator, a junkie in need of the same spiritual hand the pastor that shook my Palm Sunday was describing.

It is not U2's first song about heroin. 1984's "Bad," described by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder as one of the greatest songs about addiction ever, was a desperate plea for the strength to help a friend succumbing to the release offered by a needle and and an opiate

"If I could, through myself, set your spirit free I'd lead your heart astray to see you break, break away".

"Running To Stand Still" was another breathtaking track that seemed to take place in a type of wasteland where Bono follows a girl with a "storm blowing up in her eyes" who will "suffer the needle chill." These two songs conveyed the nonuser's acceptance of his own inner demons.

"Moment of Surrender" features Bono, a high statesmen of rock n' roll and global politics, as the make-believe and all too believable addict and opens with an atmospheric electronic sweep that gives way to a swerving bass line. A soul-shaking rattle from Larry Mullen's drum kit and a towering organ piece accompany the Edge's lovingly restrained and subtle, silver-tinged guitar line.

Then the unrestrained, soulful crack. It is a type of confession from the middle of a desert:

"I tied myself with wire,
To let the horses run free/
Playing with the fire 'till the fire played with me."

Bono's mournful story of two young lovers, "two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty" searching for a spiritual embrace they can only find in heroin continues with a vocal performance that is so heartful, so sympathetic and so honest that it as if Bono is, in part, talking about himself. There is empathy in there too, from someone who is not himself an addict. But he is, at times, just as constrained as one.

Refreshing. It touches a truth in the same way Lou Reed so beautifully bared his troubles in The Velvet Underground's "Heroin."

The narrator "folds to his knees" during the first chorus at the prophesied "moment of surrender" that holds truth for sinners, saints, capitalists, criminals, and junkies alike. It is a deep look into the humanness and fallibility of a man ironically derided for an overly-righteous stage persona.

"I've been in every black hole,
At the altar of a dark star/
My body's now a begging bowl,
It's begging to get back,
Begging to get back to my heart/
To the rhythm of my soul/
To the rhythm of my consciousness/
To the rhythm that yearns to be released from control."

And then, a salvation of sorts. Mercy comes in the form of a credit card, the road opening to a much-needed fix that comes at the cost of losing one's God-given sense of self.

It is the haunting and transcendental gospel sound that makes this song ring so true.

"I was punching in the numbers
At the ATM machine/
I could see in the reflection
A face starting back at me.

At the moment of surrender/
Of vision over visibility/
I did not notice the passers-by and they did not notice me."

What is the discovery here- God or a path towards self-destruction? Perhaps the answer lies in what is perhaps the most beautiful line in the song. "Vision over visibility"- the forsaking of judgment and pride to accept the mysteries of faith.

It is choosing the intangible over the reality within our field of vision. It is a surrender.

"I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down till the pain would stop."

And thus the journey of the addict continues off into Edge's blues-singed foray into the horizon. He echoes Bono's fading gospel vocals that culminate in heart-wrenchingly simple vowels in space: "Oh, Oh Ooooh..."

At the beginning of the 1990s, the start of U2's second decade, Bono put on a pair of large black sunglasses that looked more at home on Roy Orbison and stepped into an onstage alter-ego called The Fly. It made The Edge and drummer Larry Mullen nervous until they realized that people would finally discover what "a great bunch of guys" Bono actually was.

One part Elvis circa '68, one part Kafkian characteur, and one part a demonic figure from C.S. Lewis fitted for the age of television, The Fly was Bono's first attempt to escape the public persona of a pious pilgrim that fans and enemies of the band alike bestowed on him. He had been canned into a preacher for the underground- a saintly Joe Strummer.

One can read Bob Dylan's Chronicles and recognize the strange trend in popular culture that attaches great artists to easily-digested morality until complicated people are blown-up to be perfect messiah figures. It's why Dylan had to escape his audience for a while. It's why Lennon wrote those wonderfully surreal lyrics for "I Am The Walrus."

These songs fed into the myth that U2 was only interested in being viewed as rock n' roll's saviors and had nothing to offer. This was an oversimplification. Bono wasn't just putting the moral standards of the age in the light in those songs; he was simulataneously searching his own heart for any traces of a true believer.

The honesty of U2's lyrics lie in their 2000 hymn-like radio hit "Beautiful Day." It wasn't an invitation to hear Bono preach. It, and all U2 shows, are an seat at a musical congregation led by a lead-singer trying to figure out the same things we non-celebrities are. "Beautiful Day" is a plea to God to "teach me love" for "I know I'm not a hopeless case." It is empathy. It his own difficulty with appreciating the gift of life as he kneels to stare at the wonderment above him.

Granted, on the surface it's hard to imagine how any rock star with wrap-around sunglasses can empathize, let alone sympathize, with anyone, especially publicly. "Moment Of Surrender" shows us a deeper collection of people behind the colored shades that create a believer with a voice Springsteen described as "shot through with self-doubt." It is a wonderful confession for the ears of anyone charting the distance between a "faithful" churchgoer and a junkie down on their luck in God's gutters.

The distance, it turns out, may never be all that wide.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Photography From Leonard Cohen

"The lyric dissolves into the music, and the music dissolves into the lyric and you are left with fresh air. You are left with a sense of invigoration."
-Leonard Cohen

I get very restless when I hear people I have come to know these past few years in Boston talk about leaving to live in warmer places. In the dead of a very cold December I was at a bar listening to a girl talk for half an hour about how excited she was about moving to Miami. After 20 years of living in New Jersey and Boston she spoke about uprooting and moving to the Sunshine State as if it were the end of a long bout with the flu. It was unsettling for me because after an especially long and harsh winter like this past one I can't articulate my reasons for wanting to stay in this climate.

But today, on the edge of spring, I remember why I love the changing seasons in New England as I look out on to a rain-soaked alleyway outside my apartment: Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. The Canadian native has already left us four decades of incredibly moving poetry and songs that delve deep into the human condition. Love, lust, faith, God, man-made power, divine grace- all of these are under the microscope and lovingly described by a deep voice that is beautiful in its stark delivery of carefully-chosen lyrics.

I have spent hours listening to Cohen as the New England rain, sleet and snow fell outside whatever window I am living behind. His songs are, for me, like black and white photography. The beauty lies within the vocal simplicity.

His voice can provide the same intimate satisfaction you get from walking the docks at night or from the soft glow small lights cast on Christmas trees. He provides the solitude one finds in lamplight that illuminates newly fallen snow or a fresh cup of coffee provides as you awake at dawn on a bitter winter morning and look out at the street traffic caught in a flurry.

One of the songs that I think captures this artistry particularly well is "Famous Blue Raincoat." It is a slow and evocative ballad sung in Cohen's signature low register. It is the voice of a contemplative lover coming from deep within the stairwells of New York City's Chelsea Hotel.
It's a letter to a man that has stolen Cohen's love away from him. Just read for yourself the crystal clarity of the opening stanza that establish the setting for the listener.

"It's three in the morning, the end of December/
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better/
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living/
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening."

The words are delivered softly, as if each line were part of a hymn. The acoustic guitar that opens the song and flows beneath the vocals is played like a piano. My favorite part may be when the lines build to the third variation (Part C) in the melody-

"Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair/
She said that you gave it to her/
That night that you planned to go clear/
Did you ever go clear?"

And then it returns to Part A. The melody is just like the beginning, but at this second go-around the backing vocalist, reminiscent of some North African Sufi singer, spreads her sound out and creates a foreboding undercurrent.

"Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older/
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder/
You'd been to the station to meet every train/
And you came home without Lili Marlene."

The image is so simple. It is like a still from some classic noir movie. A man in a blue raincoat walks the rainy streets of 1960s New York City, past the love-stricken strangers and through the shadows of a quiet neighborhood where poets have been charged with turning rundown hotel rooms into temples. It is a musical photograph.

Cohen write to this faceless man who wears an unforgettable raincoat, a "Gypsy thief" and someone Cohen accuses of treating his lover and all women as "a flake of your life." Still, in a dark hour for Cohen, for friendship and for deep romance, Leonard is ready to put down his sword and his pen.

And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?/
What can I possibly say? /
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/
I'm glad you stood in my way."

He leaves it be with one final warning- that should the man in the blue raincoat return, Jane, the woman connecting the two men, is "free" while his "enemy is sleeping."

And after the lovely repeat of the stanza describing how Jane presented Cohen with a lock of the man's hair he gave her before he "went clear," Cohen finishes his song with one of the most unforgettably simple endings we may ever hear.

"Sincerely, L. Cohen."

The letter is complete, and the final line is spoken like a prayer as the guitar line continues the simple exploration of loss and sadness. The door to the past is forever closed along with the book of memories.

A postcard featuring a beautiful black and white photograph is signed and sealed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Irish Kiss

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I love all things Irish. I start looking forward to St. Patty's weekend once Thanksgiving ends. So, here's the pathetic part- I am 2.5% Irish at the most. The countless hours I spend listening to The Pogues, U2, Van Morrison, and the Stiff Little Fingers will never change that.

In honor of this past week and a half of St. Patty's fun I am posting this video of The Pogues' cover of a traditional Irish folk song, "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday."

I love The Pogues and their raucous mix of punk rock edginess and traditional Irish folk music. Shane McGowahan's lyrical delivery is so biting and confident. He's a super-charged, one-man party. I got the chance to see them at the Orpheum here in Boston two years ago. It was one of the best shows I have ever been to. The entire theater shook as scores of people danced to the Anglo-Irish punks' ragtag music. It was everything I hear gospel churches are supposed to feel like. It was everything I think life in general should be more like. It was an absolute celebration of having a pulse.

I love this song off of their 1985 "Rum, Sodomy & The Lash" produced by Elvis Costello. I love how it's positioned. Tracks 1 and 3 are rough-and-tumble, fast-paced songs album that introduce live-fast-and-die-young feastivity. The second track, "The Old Main Drag" features Shane in all of his glory as a dead poet walking. The three songs are what Bruce Springsteen would call "whiskey-slugging music."

Then comes "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday," a slower, soothing ballad sung by bassist Cait O'Riordan. Her vocal performance stops the album dead in its tracks. It's the cool satisfaction of a long sip of Guinness as you look out the pub window on to the calm sea. It's a toast to a good friend or a lost one. Her delivery reminds me of a softly-played church organ, made all the more emotional by the reverent Irish flute-playing that accompanies her. "Pogue" is a Gaelic word for "kiss," and this O'Reardon performance is just like a great one- moving and earnest.

The story in the song, however, is chilling and ironic. A rich landowner is telling his guests about the wonderful possessions he has as he says " come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine" because "whatever it costs I will pay." Why should they be "easy and free" while they drink with him? Because he is "a man you don't meet everyday," this element made all the more real by the closing stanza when he describes shooting his dog dead seemingly for no reason.

This story is made all the more mysterous by the Pogues' take on it. It retains that wonderful intimate feel of a parting song that can inhabit its own space in the corner of a centuries-old Irish pub. I have heard such a song come alive through the heart-piercing vocals of a Gaelic female once before. I was enjoying a Guinness in an old pub on the cobblestone streets of downtown Belfast this past summer. The atmosphere was friendly and intimate. A dozen locals were enjoying a glass, a parting nod to the end of a work week. All of a sudden a beautiful woman's voice came out of the booth where the local musicians had been jamming on their traditional Gaelic strings and pipes.

It was a song about leaving home and being in love. It sounded like it could come from inside a stone church. It was breathtaking.

Cait O'Riordan reminds me of that night.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Song For A Recession

I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Born To Run remains one of my favorite albums of all time. He taught me how to chase girls, how to make memories out of what you have in front of you, how to recognize and love yourself while humbly confessing your sins and transgressions to the public. His 2007 album Magic may have taught me even more than all of the above.

I love Magic. I really do. I have heard every argument about how Springsteen has "aged" and "has been too big for too long." The public prefers that our rock gods give us ten or fifteen years of greatness before we ask them to politely step aside and stop making records. So stupid.

Springsteen has never been a "rock god" in the same mold of the hair metal freaks that helped to ruin the 1980s. He has been a relentless social critic in the mold of Guthrie and Dylan that has used the joy of rock music and the soul of 1960s pop to light up the dark alleyways and make our citizens dance on their street corners while he exposes the open wounds of his heart. Teenage love, social disillusionment, funky street vignettes, the fears for America and its working class- it's all in their from 1973 on. While Dylan invites us into his conversations, Cohen into his prayer books and diaries, and Bono into his faith and doubt, Springsteen invites us into his scrapbooks and back pages. He introduces you to his childhood friends and long-lost loves- the American ideal often being one of the latter.

Enter Springsteen in 2006. The American economy is beginning to slide and no elected officials are responding.The line between the people and the White House has gone dead (unless, of course, some illegal wiretapping is in order). The gap between the rich and poor is widening. Affordable healthcare, political accountability, the rule of law, our values written into our founding documents- all of these are becoming the stuff of dreams. The Iraq War is raging without an end in sight and torture is becoming the secret weapon of our times. The airwaves are controlled by pundits spewing Orwellian threats to dissenters: If you don't like, why don't you just get the fuck out?

Just as Dylan's great electric albums of the mid-1960s reflected the turbulent American times back then, Springsteen's Magic is an exceptionally powerful reflection of a disastrous and haunting time for our country. The furious guitars that introduce the first song "Radio Nowhere" have a Clash-like anger as a musician from New Jersey who saw many of his friends drafted in another disastrous war in the 1960s seems to yell: "Again? Are you fucking kidding me?!"

The lush 60s melodies of "You'll Be Comin' Down" and "Your Own Worst Enemy" are powerful metaphors for the way the cronies in Washington and on Fox News make us believe that everything is alright when it certainly isn't. It's all intentionally superficial, and the darkness of the lyrics attests to that. The Truth is never in the headlines. Consider the lyrics "Easy street/ a quick buck and true lies/ smiles as thin as the dusky blue skies" sweetly sung in "You'll Be Comin' Down" beneath a harmony-rich atmosphere reminiscent of The Byrds.

Followin the swirling and demoralizing headlines of the first five tracks, including a funeral for a free spirit sent to war in "Gypsy Biker," comes my favorite track, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes." The turmoil and fury of the opening songs gives way to a wonderful and uplifting pop symphony. Springsteen says he wanted to create the "perfect pop universe," and it's hard to imagine anything could get closer. Violins, electric guitars and organs open this beautiful foray into a beautiful territory in the worst of times.

It reminds me of another powerful song for the spirit from 1965: The Byrds' extraordinary cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Imagine sitting in a diner way back when and hearing this gem for the first time in the middle of a decade wrought with upheaval and uncertainty. The search for the sounds that let you walk through the outside world unafraid "with one hand waving free" has ended That's how it was introduced to me. My good friend and 60s guru Sydney was sitting with me in a diner in upstate New York when all of a sudden I heard it: those golden notes opening a track that sounded like it came from a gospel choir.
"What is this?," I asked.
"You don't know? This is The Byrds' cover of 'Mr. Tambourine Man," Sydney said.
And I imagined what it must have been like to hear something so beautifully reassuring forty years earlier. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" gave me something of a better idea of what that must have felt like as I listened to Springsteen's Elvis-like howl coming from a man looking into the heart of America.

"Well the street lights shine down on Blessing Avenue/
Lovers they walk by holding hands two-by-two"

Young people are still in love. They are enjoying cool, starlit nights by the oceanfront outside a divided community inside a divided nation. The lights shine down on the most important thing: home.

"..Downtown the stores alight,
As the evening's underway/
Things been a little tight
But I know their gonna turn my way."

If you have ever walked through the Boston Common on a cold December night just as the Christmas lights in the trees are switched on you know exactly how Springsteen feels in this verse.

Your neighbors have been forced out of their home. Big brothers and fathers have gone to war. Those lucky enough to return cannot find a job. The corner store has been boarded up. Everything you used to call your own has been seized by forces beyond your control.

And yet the most important life force still stands in the middle of this desperation. This song is shot through with the idea that they can take everything from you but who you are. The market may rupture and betray those with the best interests. The lines necessary for good communication may have gone down, but everything that makes you who you are is still there on the streets you walked as a kid and later as a love-stricken teenager.

Springsteen is driving home in this song. He is turning around on Thunder Road and revisiting what he tried to leave so long ago. His hometown has changed and its people are struggling. He himself has aged and has learned about struggle, too. But he still feels for his companions, the ones who shaped him.

"Frankie's diner, an old friend on the edge of town/
Neon sign spinnin' round
Like a cross over the lost and found/
Fluorescent lights flicker above Pop's Grill
Shaniqua brings a coffee and asks "Fill?"/
And says "Penny for your thoughts now, my poor Bill?"

The Summer of Love has passed. An autumn full of missteps and betrayal is giving way to a Winter of Discontent (notice the Christmastime feel of this track contrasting with the image in the title). An entire nation wakes up in the middle of the Bush economy and counts their losses. One must begin standing defiantly against the harsh wind off the Jersey Shore. But Springsteen still lovingly laments that, "the girls in their summer clothes pass me by."

"She went away
She cut me like a knife
Hello, beautiful thing
Baby, you were gonna save my life
In just a glance down here on Magic Street
Love's a fool's dance
I ain't got much sense but I still got my feet."

And this is where the song intersects with the lessons of these past few years. People are committing suicide over their lost millions in this financial crisis. But most are still pressing on with dignity and love. This song reminds us of the soul we posses and the "non-marketable values" the great Cornel West talks about that have been undermined in the past two decades within a culture that rewarded greed and deceit. In the end, we need a return to a sense of who we are, what life is supposed to be about and what America is. For Springsteen, part of the answer lies in the beautifully simple sight of young lovers "holding hands two-by-two."

All that being said, I also highly recommed the video:

Here is "Mr Tambourine Man" by The Byrds:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why Another Blog About Music?

Well, why not?

This will just be a running commentary on great music that always ends up running in my head. It's actually an annoying thing. It divides your attention; it distracts you from important conversations. It gives every new album you put in your disc player more and more to live up to. Great music is a great conversation between the souls and imaginations of people who will probably never meet one another. Through a song they find what they have in common and that we all share this one crowded earth trying to sow dreams into the soil.

When I was 15 I was shocked when I played U2's "Beautiful Day" for the first time and had one of those experiences so many music fans and musicians describe- a single that can change your day, and, just maybe, if you listen carefully enough, your entire life. This is a tradition handed down from the bluesmen and folk legends that came even before Elvis, the ones who gave us new ways of thinking of choruses and melodies and lyrics. Consider the influential singles released ever since from The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Radiohead.... what a rich history.

I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland this past summer. I was there studying the long history of violence between Catholics and Protestants. Imagine growing up in this city in the 1970s where everyone expected at least one homemade bomb to go off everyday. It had the worst of everything- state-sponsored terrorism, political impasses, detention centers, barbed-wire fences, gang-mentalities, and so on down the whole fucking awful list.

I saw one of the best live shows ever there. It was Belfast's own Stiff Little Fingers doing their annual show at a local university. We were crammed into the basement of a student center that smelled like piss and stale beer. Shirtless fans with giant blue mohawks and giant piercings flung themselves on another as the SLF fed the fires with their politcally-oriented songs. The Fingers did the same fiery punk rock songs they first played in the late 70s and early 80s to crowds just like the one I was with. Their shows, and the many shows like them, were one of the few places in a city torn by hatred where Protestant and Catholic youth knowingly mixed. It was that important. Unreal.

If you have pictured Johnny Cash's silhouette with a guitar in one hand defiantly standing in the middle of the American heartland...

If you find incredible joy in David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" and "Starman"....

If you have ever listened to Miles Davis' A Kind Of Blue while the sunset glows in the back alley outside your window....

If you have ever walked through a blinding snowstorm with The Arcade Fire's "Funeral" playing in your ears or walked down a beautiful beach on Block Island late at night with Jeff Buckeley's "Hallelujah" stuck in your head....

If you have ever put on an album and been transported to the intimate places in Bruce Springsteen's hometown and feel as if you've known all his friends with weird names your entire life...

If you have ever suddenly felt angry for no reason as you listened to Joe Strummer spit the words to "London Calling" through his gritted teeth as The Clash raged on....

...Then you know that music has something special to offer. We are lucky to have so many of these moments.