Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Somebody Else" / Jeff Bridges

Here's the post I was going to write a week ago, before we got distracted with all this chat about movie soundtracks. Thanks to you all, I have a lot more movies to listen to now, and I'll probably get distracted even more by all the songs in them. So before I forget, here's a little sample that will explain why Crazy Heart deserved its Oscars.

video

Oh, I know this isn't the theme song, that wistful Ryan Bingham ballad that was played by the orchestra every time Crazy Heart was announced. (And by the way: Who is this Ryan Bingham and why isn't he more famous?) But "Somebody Else" tells you a lot more about Bad Blake, the hard-case country singer that Bridges played so well. Listen to its honky-tonk Western two-step -- that hasn't got a trace of Nashville sentimentality about it. As Bad himself would make the distinction, it's "real country" as opposed to "fake country." And as such, it stands up honestly alongside the vintage country tunes on the soundtracks, tunes by folks like George Jones, Kitty Wells, the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings.

"Somebody Else" was written by this film's tutelary spirits, musical director T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton. Burnett, who also did the music for The Big Lebowski, was responsible for convincing Jeff Bridges to do the film -- he was Bridges' guarantee of musical authenticity, which the story absolutely required. But let's not ignore the contributions of Stephen Bruton, a longtime mainstay of the Austin music scene, who was dying of throat cancer as the movie was being made -- I suspect that may have lent a subtext of fragile mortality to the proceedings. It even haunts this song, in its relentlessly ticking tempo, in the way the singer sweeps past loss and regret and sails headlong into the great unknown tomorrow.

You can just picture the sort of fifth-rate venues where Bad would sing this song -- roadhouses and small-town bars and (yes) bowling alleys, where there's always a patch of scuffed linoleum for dancing if the spirit so moves you. Hearing this song would definitely make the spirit so move you, especially if you throw in some Lone Star beers, or a few shots of Bad's favorite McClure's whiskey.

But as the song scoots nimbly along, the guitars scrambling to keep up, I get a real sense of the singer's restless, reckless soul. "I used to be somebody / But now I am somebody else," he proclaims over and over. Though it sounds like a tautology, it's actually a profound insight into the adaptability of human nature. "But who I might be tomorrow / Is anybody's guess." Is he boasting, or mourning his lack of a compass? I'd say both.

Life is so damn slippery, and that's a fact. He admits he's made mistakes -- in verse two, the "right way" morphs easily into "the wrong way" -- and in verse three, he even claims "I used to be a preacher / With women, fame, and wealth" (the natural accouterments of any clergyman, right?). He may have reformed (oh, that cryptic line, "I was cleared of all the charges with money, women, and my health"), but he lost the girl he truly loved to another man. Yet he's such a chameleon, he's already moving on, keeping the wind at his back.

It's an unusual melody, and a test of Bridge's not inconsiderable singing talents. Though the first line of each verse is repeated, the notes are subtly different, with odd intervals that Bridges hits just right. Even better is the way he lags just before and behind the beat, giving the whole song a flippant, not-quite-raunchy defiance.

Now, I won't pretend I'm strictly objective here; I've been nuts about Jeff Bridges ever since he played Dwayne in The Last Picture Show. (I've even got a few songs from Jeff's solo rock album on my iTunes.) In a way, I see Crazy Heart as a grittified country-music sequel to The Fabulous Baker Boys, with Colin Farrell substituted for brother Beau and alcohol thrown into the mix. As with Jack Baker, the thing that saves Bad Blake is the vestiges of charm he can still pull out on occasion, and he pulls out charm aplenty in this rollicking little number.

7 comments:

NickS said...

Tangential response, inspired I think by your line about "real country" vs "fake country"; a while ago somebody sent me these two youtube links:

one

two

Both songs by Justin Townes Earle, son of Steven Earle, and named after Townes Van Zandt. I was impressed and surprised by both performances and I suspect that you would like them as well.

Apologies if that's too vague a connection, but that's what my brain is turning up at the moment.

Holly A Hughes said...

Not entirely tangential, as Townes Van Zandt does appear on the soundtrack, with one of my favorite songs ever, "If I Needed You". Was Townes "real country"? I don't know, but he sure wasn't Nashville.

NickS said...

But did you listen to those songs . . .?

I have a slightly more coherent response today. I have to say, listening to the song, I am reminded that there's a certain style of country music that really strains my analytical tools.

That is, in part, because I'm just not that familiar with country music. I've started listening to a little bit more country over the
last couple of years, but it's still relatively new to me. As with any genre, lack of familiarity makes it more difficult to separate out
what is included in a song as an element of the genre and what it particular (should I say personal?) to that song.

The is another reason, however, specific to country, with is I get a little bit lost trying to figure out what it means for a country song to be "sincere." I come to country music from a love of folk music, through people like Townes Van Zandt* or Guy Clark who share with folkies a very direct sense of emotional connection between a singer or writer and a song and the audience. Their songs communicate an emotional message that's relatively unleavened.

There is another strain of country music, however, which combines lyrics and thematic elements that emotional and stark and direct with music that seems like it has a totally different emotion. As I interpret it the theme of the song says, "life is difficult and full of sorrow" and the music says, "we're not here, however, to wallow in sorrow, we're here to dance and to have a good time as a way to cope."

I don't know if that's the intended relationship between performer, music and audience. Certainly one of the complaints about "pop" country is that even if the lyrics mention life's difficulties that the music and performance don't have any weight that would make you feel like those difficulties are a present concern.

For me the song to which you linked falls clearly into that camp of bifurcated emotion. The words could be serious, but the music doesn't ask you linger on the potential seriousness of the words, an the words don't distract you from enjoying the music, but they're still substantial.

I do have one more video for you, however. You're description of the relationship between singer and audience in small-town bars got be thinking about outlaw country as a movement and that got me to find this fantastic performance by Jerry Jeff Walker on the Texas Connection, which looks like it's from the late 70s.

I think it's a good example (and, believe me, I wouldn't know) of country before it became just another genre of popular music. The interactions between him and the crowd feel like they very much inhabit the same musical universe, and it's something other than pop music.

NickS said...

I forgot to include the footnote that I was thinking of for Townes Van Zandt.

One of the stories from Be Here To Love Me that I found telling was about the first song that he wrote.

He had been married a relatively short time, maybe a year, when he told his wife that he wanted to start writing songs. He holed up in the smallest room in the apartment and, after a week, came back and said that he had written a song that he was happy with and wanted to play it for his wife. That song was "Waitin' Around To Die"

As I recall she took that as a sign that he was not, exactly, the person that she thought she was marrying.

I don't recall how long their marriage lasted after that, but I think it's a good image of how much Townes lived in his own emotional world.

He was an amazing songwriter though.

Holly A Hughes said...

Perfect story!

You make some very good points about bifurcated emotions in country music. (Wonder why it happens less often in pop?) I don't feel that in this song, though. It falls more into the category of "outlaw" country, I think. The character who's singing this song isn't making a deep woeful confession; in fact, he's a guy who always manages to escape complex relationships and identity crises -- he's dispassionate, slippery, ironic. I don't hear a lot of regret or suffering in his story. That brisk two-step tempo suits his persona just right.

I'm glad to hear you mention Guy Clark. I always feel that Guy Clark is just as much folk as he is country, and he really has a handle on the subtleties of human emotion. He'd probably slip a little more satire into this song, but I don't think it's that far off what he does.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I finally saw "Crazy Heart" via Netflix this past weekend. I liked the movie much more than I thought I would although I think it could have been snipped ten or fifteen minutes.

Bridges, after Clint, may be "The Last Of The Old Time Moviestars," and I'm glad he won the Oscar.

Good choice of cuts, Holly. There was another piece called something like "Flying and Falling," that I liked as well.

Rich

Holly A Hughes said...

"Funny how falling feels like flying . . . for a little while" -- I do love that song. In fact it's probably the one that sticks with me most, months after seeing the film.

And by the way, I feel I should mention how Colin Farrell totally nailed the vocals on his songs. Who knew he had such a great voice? It was a complete surprise to me, and a deightful one.