The Smirk

Lana Del Rey b & w loungerSo I put on some music the other day when we had another couple, friends of ours, over. It happened to be “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey — I’ve really been into her sound lately, I think she’s got something unique and interesting to say, and that’s why I chose it. My wife asked what it was, because she knows I’m a muso & I secretly (not so secretly) want to talk about it, and I answered, “Lana Del Rey.” I saw a smirk pass across my friend’s face. He managed to suppress it pretty quickly, but it was still there and I saw it. I thought, “Screw you, buddy.” [More or less...] The conversation moved on, but if it hadn’t & I could have spoken freely, here’s what I would have said:

  1. I like what I like, OK? I ascribe wholeheartedly to Louis Armstrong’s dictum that “there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” It doesn’t matter if it’s pop, jazz, big band, metal, reggae, indie twee, or Gregorian chant, if I think it’s good, I’m down, I’m into it. Life’s too short to live by other people’s opinions of what’s “cool” or what you “should” listen to. Forget that. Go find the things that trip your trigger, that make you want to create.
  2. Have you ever listened to Lana Del Rey? Do you actually know what her music says and sounds like, or do you get your information second or third hand from the Internets? Again — are you letting other people tell you what is cool, and what to like or not to like? If you’ve listened to her and you think she’s a poof, then fine. But if you haven’t listened…what room do you have to smirk?
  3. Who says that pop music can’t say something insightful, acerbic, accurate, or profound? Who says it all has to be stupid teeny-bopper music — and even if it is, can’t it still hide some critique or commentary on our society? Lana Del Rey’s got a lot going on, if you listen to her lyrical viewpoint and watch her videos. She throws darts at the inflated corpse that feminism has become, and it drives people crazy. This is a big, big part of why she’s so attacked and vilified. She harks back to a time when people could actually speak freely and act freely, because they were under societal constraints (paradoxically enough), yet people’s ways of life were not so dislocated from human nature. Nowadays, we’ve been taught that everything we feel or want to do is bad, and the opposite is good. We have it drummed into our heads not to pay attention to what we see or think is true, and instead to hold only certain corporately approved opinions and worldviews. I, for one, think that’s crap. I think a lot of young people, especially, who don’t have a lot of life experience to show them what’s wrong with the world, but they look around and they go, “There has to be something else other than this. This is the best you have to offer me? I want something else. I need to go find what it is.” Lana Del Rey, and other dissenters and originals along with her, offer a plethora of different paths, or at least give young people a starting point.
  4. Besides, Lana Del Rey is just awesome at what she does. Ignore the flaming and the media hate, and observe the woman and listen to the music. Is she the dumbest person you’ve ever seen, or one of the smartest? Is she being gauche or poetic, dead dumb or dead-on? It’s yours to decide, but she gives you enough to work with that you keep guessing. You can never fully make up your mind, because you’re not sure how much of it is a put-on, a pose, and how much is real. Besides, when did authenticity become such a gold standard for pop stars anyway? Everyone is acting like she’s a fraud because she uses a different name than she was born with and she happens to have a wealthy father. Does no one remember any of the scads of artists and performers from music history who have used different names? David Bowie, anyone? Madonna? Even Joe Strummer was a diplomat’s son named John Graham Mellor, for crying out sakes. People need to lay off Del Rey and let her do her thing — which she will anyway, and her fans will continue to eat it up.
  5. “Video Games” is a haunting, trenchant commentary on the way we live now. It’s a dead-eyed (in several senses…) broadside that sneaks in through the back door of the bar, draping itself over the pool table and hogging the spotlight from the hanging fixture. When she gets to the verse about being drunk and in his arms, we’re already nodding along and smiling, because we’ve felt that before. Her voice, so grave and somber, flits and bats drunkenly, like a moth in a mason jar, at notions of what she wants, what happiness is. She’s not sure herself, but at least she feels something, in contrast to all those of her generation strung out on Adderall and endless meds for depression, anxiety, and everything else. She senses that feeling means she’s heading in the right direction. It rings true for a whole lot of people who are young, or who can remember being young and feeling that way (not just girls, by the way — her lyrics, delivery, and production all manage to lift Del Rey out of the banal and arc her toward the universal, like a bottle rocket across the sky.) If the song, and Del Rey’s music in general, doesn’t express the current politically dictated orthodoxy, then maybe it’s the propaganda that’s out of touch with reality, not the other way around. We do young people a grave disservice when we furiously lecture them, keep them away from things we fear are bad for them but actually might be fine, and try to clip their wings. When they get the chance they fly faster and harder than we can anticipate, and not always in the best directions. Disillusionment with propaganda means that much good can get flushed away, along with truths that  might be useful or even necessary — and the young rarely take the time to delve through their elders’ wisdom and seek for what is best, plus critical thinking isn’t always there yet. Let the kids hear what makes sense. Give guidance, but don’t oppress. It’s a balancing act, but very needed.

So yeah, that’s what I would have said to him (well, maybe 1 and 2 for sure, and maybe 3 if the conversation was patient and unfolded enough to allow for it) — but, since you smirked, you’re never going to find that out, are you? Good luck with that smirk, because it will continue to narrow your worldview and impoverish your life in ways you can’t anticipate, for years to come. Cheers!

Afghan Whigs on KEXP: My reflections

The Afghan Whigs released their 6th studio album recently (first in 16 years! cue little girl squealing sounds), and as part of that they’re doing the media hoopla thing. I ran across this performance/interview with Seattle’s KEXP the other day — KEXP has lots of artists on, and they’re usually very good, you should check ‘em out. Here’s the Whigs’ time on the show:

My observations:

1) Even though he’s 50, and, let’s be honest, put on a few pounds recently (ahh, the return of Fat Greg Dulli perhaps in the offing?), even though he’s sweating bacon grease indoors in an air-conditioned studio, even though all that time has passed since the Whigs’ first time around — he’s still selling it, still shucking and jiving, still completely into the music, trying to make you feel something, trying to reach across and connect with you by sheer force of will, if not always musicality. That’s showmanship. That’s dedication, craft, and class. Gotta respect that.

2) Dulli seems irritable, which is odd. He’s nearly borderline rude. It’s even more puzzling because Cheryl Waters, the host, comes off as a total fangirl. (She bought a vinyl copy of Big Top Halloween. How many people can say that?) Perhaps the two facts, Dulli’s irritation and her obvious love and appreciation for the band, are not unconnected. Or maybe someone starched his shorts too much, or he got an unwelcome text before going into the studio, or the airline lost his luggage, too much caffeine, what have you — hard to say. At the most, it’s just speculation, but he does come off as tetchy.

3) The songs are stripped down as compared to the album versions. This robs them a little of their full musicality, but it ups the punch. “Matamoros” is plain scary, with the loopy non sequiturs in the lyrics delivered in a flat affect that signals “hustler on the move”. “It Kills” shows its bones as a true soul ballad –nothing “blue-eyed” about the soul on display here (an insulting and racialist modifier if ever I saw one.) The propulsive thump of the album version becomes a nearly marching-band chop, which actually makes it seem even more old-school. The song sorely misses Van Hunt’s wild, edge-of-control (emotional, auditory, mental) falsetto, but that extra space also highlights the chord changes through the middle of the song that just grip you and won’t let go. Who else makes soul music like this anymore? No really, who? “Royal Cream” stretches and builds tension, and “The Lottery” clatters appealingly and bangs a groove more than the album original’s spacey/U2 feel, but again, it’s just different, not worse by any stretch. Bottom line, this is a veteran band that can groove and move at will, as one. They don’t make bands like this anymore. Many bands sound polished to a T on record but can’t finish live. The Whigs flourish in a live setting, and always have.

4) Speaking of “It Kills”, perhaps the most riveting moment I’ve ever witnessed in a studio interview-play-a-few-songs-kinda performance comes during that song — specifically, at the end. Dulli plays the final few tender notes of the piano part, then he holds it — and pauses. He stares off into the distance, and you can tell he’s somewhere else, with someone else, thinking of other times, other places; other voices, other people, perhaps one particular person. For those few moments, he’s not in the room. Nowhere close. After a few eternal moments of reverie, Dulli looks back toward someone (the host?) and nods once, with a slight smile on his lips — and it’s still quiet. She supplies a clarification for the listeners at home: “A moment of silence for the Afghan Whigs” — and then the chatter resumes. But for those few moments, the most riveting statement that they could make, the most beautiful music of all, was simply to play…nothing.

5) Dig those smoky aviator shades of Dulli’s — classy.

6) Rick Nelson, the strings player, looks like a librarian or an engineer on the weekend. Obviously he didn’t get the “all black dress code for performances” memo from Dulli. (He often doesn’t, it seems.)

7) Cully Simonson, the drummer, looks like a psychopathic logger in that plaid shirt. He often has a frightening detached insouciance, as if he could shake your hand or push you out a window with equal ease. Maybe it’s the combination of the beard, the hair, and the sunglasses. He doesn’t look like that without the beard or shades.

8) Another favorite moment: when Greg silently yells at a band member to turn it down, whoever it might be, after he’s already made the motion for it once before, during “Royal Cream”. It’s a tiny glimpse in what it must be like to tour with Dulli and play in his sandbox. He’s a notoriously big personality, and all these guys have played with Dulli a long time. In order to run with Dulli one must skip to his lou … but it sure is hard to argue with the finished product.

 

Now that’s a party I want to attend.

Here’s a clip from back in the day, Mr. Greg Dulli on Craig Kilborn’s show (remember him? – Nah, me neither), taking an oldie and turning it inside out. I love the way Dulli takes a cover and OWNS it. His criteria, as he’s said in interviews, is that he has to wish he’d written the song, and then make it sound like he did. He succeeds on both counts here, even with a chestnut like this one. His performance makes me envious that I am not, in fact, having a party with him, or even that I’m not cool enough to even think of being invited to said party. Still and all, for the rest of us, the great unwashed…there’s YouTube.

I had a dream once (which also featured a cameo by Amy Winehouse, relatively not-strung-out for those of you scoring at home) in which Mr. Dulli appeared, looking very much like he does in this video — almost exactly, in fact. Perhaps that’s where my subconscious sourced it. Or maybe my id wants to be invited to Dulli’s party. Or something. At any rate, pop the top on a cold one or pour yourself a cocktail, and enjoy this song.

 

On Bearing the Pall

ImageIt occurs to me that being a pallbearer is one of the few tasks in the modern world that everyone understands is best left to the men. Women have achieved unprecedented parity in nearly every field of human endeavor (which is, by and large, a good thing), but when it comes to shouldering dead weight, men still are typically the ones who get the nod.

First of all, there’s the weight itself. Even if distributed among six, it still is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve known women who could lift their fair share of weight (my wife has a tendency to push all the furniture around a given room every eight months or so, only to decide she liked it best where it started), but should they have to? Men are typically more advanced in the brawn category, even in our soft, couch-sitting, high-fructose-corn-syrup-fed modern age. That physical strength still gets used (or, sadly, misused) on occasion, but there’s far less scope and call for it than there used to be. Most of us have jobs that involve pressing buttons or waiting on technology, rather than doing the work ourselves. Traditionally “manly” callings become less so all the time — even the military is being remade to reflect societal changes. (Whether or not you agree that’s a good thing is a different conversation.)

Then there’s the distance that weight must be carried — it must be reckoned with, even if the pain you might feel as a pallbearer might be more in your forearm muscles than in your heart (and I’ve had both). Just a short jaunt down the center aisle of a church and out the door to the hearse can often seem longer while carrying that weight (both kinds). And then you get to the cemetery, where the ground might be muddy, the wind cold and in your face, or the sun hot, burning down on your bare neck, the footing rutted or uneven, but yet you must plow steadily on, as the departed is borne to his or her last resting place. They sail on, tranquil as a ship, while you grunt and might begin to break a bit of a sweat underneath the collar of your dress shirt. (I actually heard a funeral director utter the phrase, “Grandma was not a big lady”, once while funeral arrangements were being made. Under different circumstances, I would have chuckled out loud.)

Yet we are glad to do it. It’s often the last thing, one last gesture, we can give the departed themselves, as our lives bob along in time’s wake and we are pulled ever further from the memory of them. Thomas Lynch, undertaker and author, once wrote of grief as being full-body work. It must involve all your large muscles in order to truly be put behind you, was his thinking. As one who has borne the pall in the past, I would tend to agree with him. Few duties in the modern world are as loaded with symbolic importance, yet still as practical and useful, as being a pallbearer. Here’s to doing a good job at carrying out the dead, and to not having to do it too often.

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I go to pieces.

Patsy Cline is primo late-nite music — whether or not you have a bottle at your elbow. The way she sings every note convinces you that she’s lived everything she sings about personally — it never really enters our minds that perhaps she’s just putting on a persona for a song. Nuh uh. She’s been there, done that, lived through it all — tearstains on the pillow, cheating hearts, long midnight walks, and all.

Whenever I listen to Patsy Cline, I picture a woman who’s on the verge of cracking, someone who’s barely holding it together as a functioning human being and for whom the wrong word will bring all her pain and hurt and confusion flooding into the world very publicly, but yet someone who paints on her lipstick, fixes her mascara, takes a deep breath, and keeps it together if not for the rest of the day, at least for an hour. Her makeup, the face she presents to the world, is just a very thin veneer that’s covering over the fault lines that are threatening to split apart her personality — all the tragedies, heartache, and rejection she’s endured, and will still endure. But she lifts her chin and does the hardest thing of all — she goes out and faces the world. She tries again tomorrow. I don’t know if that’s actually present in her music (or the fact that I hear it there says more about me than about her), but I admire that.

It’s quite an accomplishment to sound as if you’re about ten minutes from jumping off a bridge, on the one hand — so utterly and thoroughly despairing — and yet still be elegant and poised, never mawkish, insincere, or histrionic. Part of it is Cline’s voice. Good gracious, that voice. So rich and resonant, I get chills up my spine every single time she crescendoes in “I Go to Pieces”…Every. Single. Time.

I know the songs were recorded at different times, but her “12 Greatest Hits” is practically a concept album when you listen to it — watching her life fall apart by stages, as the wheels come off in slow motion. Only “Back in Baby’s Arms” is entirely upbeat and positive, and we almost wince, feeling sorry for how happy she is, knowing it won’t last (the poor fool). And sure enough, it goes downhill from there.

Perhaps it bottoms out on “Why Can’t He Be You”. She has a man who is good to her, who loves her even; she has a man who she is deeply in love with. Problem is, it’s not the same guy. The song is one great big “if only” — if only the man who loves me that I’m with would be you, without your boorish habits, cold arrogance, and totally self-centered worldview. If only the one I loved so consumingly I almost feel sick was actually good enough to love me back. Yeah, that’s all it would take to make her happy. You feel her sense of isolation inside her own head and heart, the hopeless frozen feeling that if the slightest thing changes or the slightest word about her true feelings will be whispered, it would cause the world to shatter into a million pieces. She sounds like a woman about to have a violent mental break with reality, with no way out — except the impossible. “Why can’t he be you?” Does that not sound like a recipe custom-made for a lifetime of the most exquisite, soul-rending unhappiness? And all without having her class or her poise drained out of her. “She’s Got You” is the same sort of song, only switched around.

It’s a pity that Patsy Cline died so young. Just imagine the music she could have gone on to make. Even just her album “12 Greatest Hits” (the only one of hers I happen to have) is enough to swim in, dissect, ponder for years. It transcends mere pop music to speak something universal that touches all of us at some point, if we are fortunate — or unfortunate — enough. Enjoy the clip and make sure to toss back a shot of something strong, or doff your cowboy hat, to Patsy Cline – a true original.

Hot and cold at the same time

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

– Emily Dickinson

Ladies and gentlemen, now I know what Emily Dickinson means here. It had been a theoretical sensation up to this point, merely abstract, something that I thought I might feel someday — but now I have felt it, and I know exactly what she’s talking about.

I’ve been working at reading poetry in a (somewhat) more dedicated fashion for the past few months, and I finally found a poet who took my head off: Sappho. Her writing has the clarity and jolt of the best moonshine, eloquence aplenty, and a direct emotional connection. She just might be my new favorite poet. I immediately inter-library-loaned a volume of her work, and will devour it when it arrives. This is poetry the way people always talk about it. Even in the modern world, there’s still a place for “the best words in the best order” — for universal human experiences distilled into unforgettable verse that changes you. Sappho knew what that feeling was like, too, and even though she was very different than I am — female vs. male, (apparently) not entirely straight vs. definitely straight, ancient Greek vs. modern American — I can still appreciate her poetry and the effects it has. And they may have found more of her stuff! Sappho, this one’s for you…and us:

Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and

laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,

but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.

And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.

(from “Greek Lyrics”, p.25, trans. Richmond Lattimore, 1955, U. of Chicago.)

Lou Reed died today.

Lou Reed died today. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was among the select pantheon of rock-&-roll who were meant to be around forever. Of course, we all eventually go — Ian Curtis, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Mark Sandman, John Lennon, all of us — but you slip into a habit of mind of thinking they’ll live forever. Mainly because their music and the effect it has on you seems so eternal, so lasting. When another living legend is no longer living, out of the blue, the light seems to dim a little for the rest of us. The world seems suddenly smaller and…lesser, somehow, for not having luminaries like Lou Reed in it, when not so long ago they were still with us. So here’s to the music, while it lasts…before the silence returns.