The brilliant cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, who draws This Modern World, tweeted shortly after the Boston bombing reports Monday, “We are the species that goes out of its way to make this goddamn brief difficult existence even more so.” We have always been that, from the days when one band of cavemen went over and killed the ones in the next cave for reasons entirely their own, instead of being content to simply let them be. The difference in this modern world is that thanks to modern media, we are now obligated to share in the daily miseries of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of our fellow creatures.
It’s a wonder any of us gets through the average day without ending up a whimpering heap on the floor, or worse.
How we choose to cope with the worst spikes in this goddamn brief difficult existence depends on who we are. In the wake of disasters like Boston, lots of people turn to religion—even those who don’t give a fig for it the rest of the time. Some people turn to the company of loved ones. A friend of mine cuddles with her dog. Some people drink, or rely on other chemical means. Some of us turn to music.
I have written before about some of the albums and songs that offer me comfort or refuge. Even before the news of Monday, I was thinking about the importance of such music, because there’s a new entry on my personal list of troubled-times tonics: the Boz Scaggs album Memphis, released last month. Memphis is the first rock album Boz has made since Dig in 2001 (his last two albums of new material were small-combo jazz albums in 2003 and 2008.) Unlike Dig, this one is a trip through his—and our—musical past. It was cut in three days at the same studios where Al Green and Willie Mitchell did their great work, and it features a number of well-known songs. Two of them rank among the all-time great Boz performances.
“Rainy Night in Georgia” has been part of my life since I first heard it on WLS in 1970, and I’ve heard Brook Benton’s version a million times since then. The best part of it is when Benton sings, “I find me a place in a boxcar / So I take my guitar to pass some time” and you’re right there beside him, listening to him play. On his version, Boz has been remarkably close to the microphone all though the song, but when he gets to the boxcar line, it feels even more intimate, as if he has taken your hand and said to you, “Don’t you worry about it, boy. Whatever’s going on out there—whether it’s the rain, or something far worse—in this boxcar, we’re gonna be just fine.”
“Can I Change My Mind” is a cover of the original by Tyrone Davis—the song of his that’s not “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” which is the only other Tyrone Davis tune most people know. Unlike the jaunty Davis version, Boz does it at medium tempo, backed by a tight Green-style combo riding a gorgeous organ line, and the thing is absolutely breathtaking. (I can’t even dock it for the spoken-word bridge, which is the kind of thing that almost never works anymore.) Where you knew that Davis was gonna be fine, stay or go, win or lose, the stakes feel higher when Boz makes his plea to start all over again. Implicit within it is the belief that yeah, even though we screwed up again, we will make it right and do better if we just get one more chance. Not exactly the feeling one gets on days such as Monday, when he ponders the ultimate fate of mankind, but necessary to hear if one is going to have the strength to get up on Tuesday.
There are other great performances on Memphis, including Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk,” and Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter.” The album yields a glimmer of hope that although everything is going to hell, there might still be reasons not to give up on humankind just yet.
(For a more traditional review of this record by a friend of ours, click here.)
In 1979, while I was still immured in the dorm, several of my friends rented a house in the country. Since all of them were radio and television majors, the place was quickly named Broadcast Manor. And since a couple of them would be graduating in the spring of 1980, I was already making plans to move in that fall. Alas, I never did—we lost the house, for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe the owner sold it, maybe he didn’t want to rent it anymore, I forget. But the spring semester could not end until one last epic party, famed among those who were there as the House Destruction Party. We didn’t actually destroy anything, except many, many brain cells. There’s a picture taken the morning after, with all the survivors gathered around a boom mike in the dining room, that’s one of my most cherished artifacts of college.
Broadcast Manor lived on that fall, albeit on a much smaller scale. Two of the guys, Jim and Bill, took a two-bedroom apartment in town. I moved in, sharing a room with Jim, while Bill’s friend Tom took the other available space. (Two Jims was not confusing to anybody, since practically nobody called me Jim back then, but that’s a story for another time.) The four of us were not especially compatible. Jim and I liked to party, while Bill and Tom’s idea of a big Friday night was going to dinner with their girlfriends at 5:00 and coming home to watch TV. At least once, Bill and Tom got home to 30 people in the living room after Jim and I forgot to tell them about the party we were planning.
While nothing would ever rival the House Destruction Party, we had a couple of ragers. One was a M*A*S*H party—come as your favorite character—for which Jim and I dressed in matching bathrobes as the Hawkeye Brothers. Another was a beach party, although I think the entire theme might have been a sign saying “beach” that pointed to the upstairs bathroom, where we had filled the tub with water and dyed it blue. One party brought out the cops, and we were shanghaied by Bill and Tom into Friday-night carpet-shampoo duty in the aftermath of another.
Jim, Bill, and Tom all graduated in the spring of 1981, and I took in new roommates for the summer and fall, two of whom were named Dave. Two Daves was not confusing to anybody, since one of the Daves was never called Dave. The Dave who was called Dave was a childhood friend of mine, and a big hit at our first party of the fall, although I didn’t do a good job of introducing him, apparently. I was asked repeatedly on Monday, “Who was that guy who kept refilling my beer on Saturday night?”
He was popular.
College party stories are dime-a-dozen. Everybody’s got them, and everybody thinks theirs are interesting. And there’s also this: everybody thinks their party music was better than anyone else’s. Our party tapes were created from radio station record libraries, and were pretty solid as a result. (For the record, it was “Green Grass and High Tides” that prompted the neighbors to call the police.) But when I think of the typical Broadcast Manor blowout, the memory is always accompanied by the same song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita.”
I see that apartment, keg in the kitchen, the stereo cranked, living room full of people, every one of ‘em chanting along, if they can manage to get the words out through the beer fog: “Your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money / Your papa says he knows I don’t have any money.” And right at the end: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Everybody’s smiling, laughing, shouting, eyes bright, souls without care, having as much fun as is possible with both feet on the floor.
In all the years since, I’ve never had that much fun again.
I don’t have very much on my Bucket List. I’d like to see the hill where Wordsworth wrote about the daffodils, but if I never get there, I don’t expect to lie on my deathbed lamenting it. Most of what’s on these lists, mine and yours, is unattainable anyhow.
On the rock ‘n’ roll segment of the list, there’s not much left. I’ve seen Steely Dan (twice), Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard (yup), the Temptations (latter-day edition), and Boz Scaggs (with the Dukes of September—a full Boz concert remains on the list). We’re seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers this summer. About all that’s left is Fleetwood Mac (but only if Christine McVie comes out of retirement) and Bruce Springsteen. But even if I manage to see Springsteen do more than two songs at a political rally on some future day, it won’t be quite what I want, because it won’t be 1975, with Born to Run just coming out and the Time and Newsweek hype just beginning.
In my library, I have a Springsteen bootleg from September 26th of that year, recorded in my much-missed former home of Iowa City. It’s easy to hear why and how the young Boss blew peoples’ minds back then. Jon Landau’s famous quote about “I have seen rock’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” could have been an albatross around the man’s neck, but it’s more accurate than anyone could have known: rock as spectacle, rock show as religious experience—Springsteen may not have invented either one, but he might as well have. By the evidence of those 1975 recordings (from Iowa City and elsewhere, bootlegs and official releases), nobody has ever sounded more glad to be alive than he did then, and his enthusiasm for being in that moment is irresistible. You find yourself damn glad to be there too, even vicariously, even at 40 years’ distance.
One week after the Iowa City show, Springsteen played the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee. It would become one of those shows that couldn’t possibly have been attended by everyone who claims they were there. About 45 minutes in, somebody phoned in a bomb threat, reportedly an anti-Semite irked at Springsteen’s “Jewish-sounding” surname. Local DJ Bob Reitman went onstage and asked fans to clear the theater. Springsteen and his bandmates repaired to the nearby bar of the Pfister Hotel, returning to the stage three hours later, at midnight.
People who were there contrast the relatively restrained pre-threat portion of the show with the balls-out blast that followed (although Springsteen had crawled up and down the aisles during the pre-threat “Spirit in the Night”). Springsteen was, and is, a noted non-user of drugs, but the Milwaukee show was one of the only times he is known to have gone onstage under the influence—he and the band didn’t go to the Pfister Hotel bar to watch TV. The set opener, “Little Queenie,” features Springsteen telling the story of the band’s trip to the bar (“someone tried to blow us up tonight!”), and throughout the second set he repeatedly asks the crowd, “Are you loose?” To this day, when he plays Milwaukee, he asks the audience the same question.
The “bomb scare” show has been widely bootlegged. The pre-scare portion of the show is an audience recording, and the quality of the existing copies is terrible. You can’t really understand Springsteen’s stage banter or Bob Reitman’s announcement of the bomb threat, and it’s the melodies alone that tell you what you’re hearing. The post-scare portion has been available as a soundboard recording for a long time, but what’s reputed to be the best-quality version yet surfaced recently at the fabulous ROIO. Even if you’re not interested in the show itself, click the link for the story of how the bootleg survived from then to now.
In my archives I have a bootleg titled MTV Unplugged—Second Night. It’s the outtakes from the shows the Eagles recorded for Hell Freezes Over in April 1994. It contains a lot more onstage chatter than Hell Freezes Over does, comparatively speaking. But Don Henley and Glenn Frey scarcely interact with the audience. They don’t banter with each other or talk to the other members of the band. Even Joe Walsh, a gregarious sort, is largely excluded. At one point, Henley says, “We’re happy to be friends again,” but his lack of conviction is chilling. Never has anyone who uttered those words seemed to mean them less. They make it sound like the 1994 reunion was purely a business arrangement. Today, 19 years later and on the brink of another reunion tour, maybe they really do like each other and bygones are bygones. It wouldn’t make sense to suffer people you dislike when you’ve already got more money than God and you’re at the age when most people are considering retirement. But I could be wrong.
Even as the Eagles continue to sell records, and will sell out arenas this summer at astoundingly high prices (not for nothing was there no announcement of ticket prices when the Eagles’ July gig at Milwaukee Summerfest was unveiled last week—if you have to ask, you can’t afford it), the phrase “hate the Eagles” gets over 21 million hits on a Google search. It’s not that people didn’t hate the Eagles before—in the 70s, über-critic Robert Christgau unloaded some of the harshest rhetoric of his career in the band’s direction: “Don Henley is incapable of conveying a mental state as complex as self-criticism—he’ll probably sound smug croaking out his famous last words (‘Where’s the coke?’)” and “I mean, these guys think punks are cynical and antilife? Guys who put down ‘the king of Hollywood’ because his dick isn’t as big as John David Souther’s?” And he wasn’t the only one.
Christgau and other critics disliked the Eagles’ music as plastic country rock, their lyrics as pretentious or condescending (or vicious) tripe, and their image as slickly marketed nonsense. Your mileage may vary (mine certainly does), and there’s a reason why this stuff sold like it did, and why Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is second only to Thriller on the list of all-time top-sellers. It was everywhere during the 1970s because it’s pretty: love it or hate it, you gotta admit that “New Kid in Town” and “Best of My Love” and “Take It Easy” are pleasing to the ear. It’s easy to sing along with, and you know this because you’ve done it. In fact, it’s my half-baked theory that the audience-participation aspect of the Eagles’ music helps explain why their best-of is the biggest seller of its kind, and not similar compilations by Elton John or Chicago. For one thing, the Eagles’ music is very, very American, all Arizona deserts and California sunsets, unlike Elton’s, whose songs are sprinkled with Britishisms and other references that mark them foreign to our experience. And while most of us can imagine picking out a melody or a couple of chords on a guitar, it’s harder to see ourselves playing a trumpet or trombone like the guys in Chicago.
So to a certain degree, we dug the Eagles because we could more easily imagine ourselves being one of the Eagles.
Christgau’s criticism, and that of others, extended to the sort of people the individual Eagles were. Henley’s famous coke-fueled canoodle with an underage girl is the most famous example of the band’s moral turpitude. Their 1980 implosion, which began onstage with the vigorous trading of insults within range of live microphones and spilled over into an all-out brawl backstage, would be a black mark on the reputation of any grown adult. We’ve heard how Henley and Frey froze out the other members, and we know they fired Don Felder, whose claim on the band’s legacy was at least as strong as theirs. So yeah, they’re jerks. But it’s not necessary to be a nice person to make worthwhile art—Van Morrison isn’t, and he does. But if you dispute that the art is worthwhile, the personal failings of the artist become even more egregious.
This piece doesn’t have a good ending. The Eagles have always been part of my mental furniture. “The Sad Café” is one of my Desert Island songs, and I am still not tired of On the Border. I get that there are people who hate them passionately. I’m not joining that tribe, even though I understand why it exists.
One of the first singles I ever bought with my own money was Van Morrison’s “Domino,” sometime in January 1971. I’d like to say it was because the song ends with “Hey Mr. DJ, I just wanna hear some rhythm and blues music on the radio, on the radio,” but I doubt it. Even though my radio love was blooming at that moment, I didn’t know about Morrison’s. I don’t intend to suggest that what follows is an exhaustive list, and I’m probably missing some hugely significant song (because that is how we roll around here), but beyond “Domino,” here are a few of my favorite Van Morrison radio songs:
—“Wavelength,” the title song of Morrison’s 1978 album, starts with 70s vintage synthesizer noises that are intended to put you in mind of tuning a distant station. The song itself is an extended metaphor about radio as lover and a lover as the radio: “When I’m down you always comfort me / When I’m lonely you see about me.” And it calls back to Morrison’s past as a listener, growing up in Northern Ireland: “I hear the voice of America calling on the wavelength.”
(Wavelength is a mighty fine album, by the way. You can’t go wrong with “Kingdom Hall,” “Natalia,” and “Venice U.S.A.”)
—“In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll” is from Morrison’s 1990 album Enlightenment. It’s a collaboration with the Irish poet Paul Durkin, who had written a magazine article about the poetry in Morrison’s work a couple of years before. Durkin recites most of the lyrics, a long poem about tuning the radio: “I am down on my knees / At those wireless knobs.” The poem is delivered in an odd cadence, sprinkled with references to a mysterious “Justin,” who might be one of a couple of real people in Morrison’s life, or a poetic invention of Durkin’s. Toward the end, after Durkin invokes a number of artists who “would not have come in without those wireless knobs,” there’s a line that Morrison does not sing so much as he breathes it, as if it were a prayer: “Come in, come in, come in, Ray Charles, the high priest.” Radio listening as religious ritual: been there, done that.
(Another track from Enlightenment, “Real Real Gone,” name-checks several artists who influenced Morrison’s work, beginning with “And Sam Cooke was on the radio / And the night was filled with space.”)
—“See Me Through Part 2/Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is on the 1991 album Hymns to the Silence. It’s a beautiful version of the old hymn, with a monologue in the middle in which Van once again pays tribute to the radio. It’s well known that Morrison’s albums are often largely improvised in the studio, and in this monologue, you can almost hear the gears grinding as he tries to figure out where he’s going. But its spontaneity makes it an honest expression of the mystical power radio holds for Morrison, and how he hears its call back to the days of childhood: “Sunday afternoons in winter / And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless” and “This is the way it was / More silence, more breathing together / Not rushing, being.”
Now that the tuning of distant stations on the wireless is no longer a part of the average young person’s life, I don’t know what the contemporary analogue would be for those connections that were once so influential in so many lives. I don’t know if there needs to be one. The important fact is that for Van Morrison, and for me, and maybe for you too, there once was that connection. Without it, Van wouldn’t have become Van, and none of us would have become what we are.
I’ve done country formats on the radio, on and off, for over 30 years. Weekend nights at KDTH at the turn of the 80s twanged hard; in mid 80s Macomb, the first station I worked for was trying to succeed with a kitchen-sink format that encompassed everything from hard country to soft R&B, while the second one seemingly avoided playing hits in favor of junk from any tiny, off-brand label that would bother to send promotional copies.
I was out of country until the mid 90s, getting back in at a critical point in the music’s history. Although Garth Brooks had brought an arena-rock sensibility to his live shows in the early 90s, his records were still audibly part of a country continuum going back to Hank Williams. But a bigger change was coming when Mutt Lange applied the same production techniques he’d used on Foreigner, Def Leppard, and even AC/DC to his wife Shania Twain’s albums. By the time I got back into country radio a dozen years later, Shania Twain was a has-been, but the style she and her husband pioneered had triumphed over everything. Today’s country still contains fiddles and banjos, but they’re frequently laid on a foundation of big riffs and pounding percussion that’s lifted mostly from classic rock—some by way of Skynyrd and the heavier Southern rockers, yes, but more frequently from Foreigner, Def Leppard, and even AC/DC.
Today’s country stars are ostensibly the heirs of Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and others, but much of their music wouldn’t be recognizable as country to fans of 20 or 40 years ago. People who bought Pyromania would recognize it instantly, however: hard-rockin’, riff-based country records are preening, strutting, and aggressive in a way that country music never was until relatively recent times.
There’s been some debate over the state of country lately thanks to the kerfuffle caused when Blake Shelton, the Country Music Association’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, told an interviewer that country had to evolve to survive. “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.” One of Shelton’s idols, Ray Price, weighed in with critical commentary, which caused Shelton to backtrack: “Country music is my life and its future AND past is important to me. I’ll put my love and respect and knowledge about it up against anybody out there . . . ANYBODY . . .”
But you can’t believe both of those things—”nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music” and “country music’s past is important to me”—at the same time.
Shelton won’t pay an especially big price for this beyond the few days of bad PR he’s already endured. (The single best thing about the incident is that it prompted Willie Nelson to change the name of his current tour to the “Old Farts and Jackasses” tour.) But Shelton’s own words should serve as a warning to him: his brand of pop country is actually closer to the traditional stuff he derides than it is to the heavy, riff-driven material of his closest competitors, guys like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, and the gaggle of lesser lights chasing the same fashion. If country keeps going in their direction, Shelton’s going to get left behind too.
(There’s a review of Shelton’s latest single at Saving Country Music, which mentions some of the other increasingly familiar ways in which country has adopted characteristics of other musical genres. Saving Country Music generally takes a dim view of what country has become in the hands of its most popular stars, but that doesn’t necessarily make its observations invalid.)