Thursday, February 15, 2007

"When The World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" / The Police

So now the Police are getting back together (whether or not they still hate each other seems to be irrelevant) and no doubt they will cash in big-time on the Aging Rock Stars Sold-Out Arena Tour circuit. How lovely for them.

I have to admit, this news made me curious enough to tune into the Grammy Awards telecast for once . . . not curious enough to tune in on time, however; I missed their Second Coming debut entirely. I'm tempted to get tickets for one of their August shows at Madison Square Garden, although if history is any guide, I probably won't do anything about it until it's too late to snag even a rafter-level seat with an obstructed view of the jumbotron.

For the past few days as well, I've noticed an exponential increase in the number of Police hits I hear on the radio, on TV soundtracks, in shopping-mall musak, and it's making me nostalgic. I was a HUGE Police fan back in the day; it's impossible to convey what a breath of fresh air these guys were, mixing up reggae and pop and jazz with just a whiff of punk attitude, stripping it all down to the essentials of a guitar, bass, and drums (granted, a guitar, bass, and drums played by virtuosos who could vamp in any style). In an era driven by music videos, theirs were loose and goofy and had a sense of humor. Imagine, MTV was actually witty back then . . .

I had all the Police albums -- vinyl, of course -- but when it came time to shift my music collection to CD, the Police didn't make the cut. By then I'd been put off by Sting's pretentious politics and fatal self-seriousness. Eventually I bought one Greatest Hits compilation and thought that would suffice. It doesn't.

I don't have to go to the Garden, though, do I? I don't have to wait until August to get my Police fix. I can just get out my turntable and put on Zenyatta Mondatta. This was hands-down my favorite Police album, the one on which success had freed them to indulge in a little more jazz and world music. The big hit single was "Don't Stand So Close To Me" -- a fun track, but a safe commercial choice, with that irresistible chorus. This third track, however, is the one that has me mesmerized at the moment (and "mesmerized" on vinyl means lifting the needle and setting it down again -- you only do that when a song really has its hooks into you).

At first the song seems downright monotonous, with the same progression of four harsh metallic chord strums repeated over and over, Sting's vocals more or less chanted over them (okay, the so-called chorus has four different chords). And yet that wonderful clockwork drumming, the hypnotic bassline, the thrumming guitar, all lock together to make a textured piece of music that's completely entrancing.

The lyrics he's chanting are odd, affectless and surreal -- just the thing I loved back in 1980, after total immersion in the Talking Heads for a season or two. Still, they make some weird sort of sense, as the singer describes his daily routines, hunkering down in survival mode: "Turn on my V.C.R. / Same one I've had for years / James Brown on the TAMI show / Same tape I've had for years..." His car is the same one he's had for years; ditto for his stereo, with just one Otis Redding record; he plays the same movie over and over too ("Deep Throat"). He never goes out, has no one to talk to on the phone, and eats the same canned food day after day. Hates it? Sure he does. But "when the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around / When the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around."

Now, tell me what to make of this guy. He could be a Howard-Hughes-like recluse; he could also just be an ordinary guy who's developed agoraphobia or obsessive compulsive disorder... or a right-thinking fellow reacting against the cheapness of recent culture. (Or a newly-minted celebrity who can't go out and enjoy normal life anymore.) Whatever the scenario, he's on auto-pilot, just like the music. It seems like a joyless existence . . . except it's not a joyless song. That backbeat rhythm is just too bouncy, with Sting's slightly pinched voice (kept well back in the mix) lifting chirpily at the end of every line. Talk about making lemonade when life serves you lemons.

I have a sinking feeling that the Police Reunion Tour 2007 will be a greatest hits sort of affair. I sincerely doubt they'll write new music for it, let alone perform back tracks like this one. And yet it was on the back tracks that they allowed themselves to be creative and a little loopy. That was the side of the Police I liked best, and I don't think it'll be visible from the rafter seats at the Garden. Too bad.

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