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.)