Saturday, July 30, 2016

"This Is Hell" / Elvis Costello

From 1994's Brutal Youth -- one of the many albums I missed in my apostate years when I wasn't paying attention to Elvis Costello.

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

Somewhere in Elvis's  UNINDEXED autobiography/memoir/apologia Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (yes, I am that geek who's read all 672 pages) I seem to recall that he explains that this song was inspired by a visit to a ritzy resort with his then-wife Cait O'Riordan.  I could spend an hour or so looking it up, but why? The song stands as it is -- and as it is, it's a Dante-esque vision of our modern inferno.

Despite the crunchy dissonance at the beginning, this is a seductively sprightly track, with twinkly splashes of piano and perky tom-toms. "This is hell, this is hell I am sorry to tell you / Never gets better or worse / But you'll get used to it after a spell / For heaven is hell in reverse." But whoever said the devil wasn't an upbeat con man?

We start out in a nightclub, with pouting barmen and a flickering neon sign. At one end of the bar, there's a "failed Don Juan in the big bow-tie" making leering advances; at the other end, our protagonist is making an equal fool of himself: "The shirt you wore with courage and the violet nylon suit / Reappear upon your back and undermine the polished line you try to shoot."  

Well, I'm that EngLit bore who has read Milton and Dante and C.S, Lewis -- and I have to say, EC's vision of Hell is totally in line with the EngLit view of things. Wherein Hell is not just Technicolor flames and physical torments, but also the crippling moments of self doubt--or, as Elvis puts it, "It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up."

And it can happen even in what seems like paradise: "Endless balmy breezes, perfect sunsets framed / Vintage wine for breakfast and naked starlets floating in Champagne,"  (Yes, now I see the resort in this song.) But if something's missing inside you -- in this case, if "the passions of your youth are tranquilized and tamed" -- then even paradise can feel like Hell.

The line that's lodged in my brain on an endless loop? This brilliant couplet: "My Favorite Things is playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane." I'm flashing to the great 1967 Stanley Donen film Bedazzled (please, forget the 2000 remake), where the darkly brilliant Peter Cook plays the Devil, and whenever things go rogue, what's his safe word? Julie Andrews!

You can't tell me that my man Elvis hasn't seen that film. I know he has. Just as I know he is intimately familiar with Coltrane's track

So what are your favorite things? Elvis is asking you to choose. What's heaven for you, and what is hell?

And knowing that you may have to live with your choice for at least four years.....

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" /
Simon and Garfunkel

It's my brother Holt's birthday -- as Facebook so helpfully reminded me, first thing this morning. (As if I needed reminding.)

What Facebook doesn't seem to know is that my brother Holt passed away over two years ago. "Wish him a happy birthday," the auto-generated message chirpily instructs me. Which, alas, I can't do anymore.  But I can think good thoughts about him. I think good thoughts about this guy most every day, but today, I'll indulge in a few extra.

Like wondering what his take might be on this year's campaign madness.  (I'm guessing, "Trump bad, Bernie good, Hillary really pretty good when all is considered.") I know Holt would've loved seeing Al Franken and Sarah Silverman take the podium last night. And I'm guessing he, like me, might've winced at seeing our mutual musical hero Paul Simon embarrass himself by trying to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the convention hall stage. Personally, I think the guy did a creditable job; this is one damn hard song to sing. But set that aside: It's a song whose message needs to be heard, over and over, so kudos to Mr. Simon for sucking it up and laying the thing out there.

And in tribute to my brother, and to Mr. Paul Simon, a few thoughts about another track on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Bridge Over Troubled Water was their last album, and just about every song on it alluded to their impending break-up . . . or so I now realize. Then, not so much. I thought this was a song about an architect. And yeah, if I thought about it that was kinda odd, but what did I know?

But as a farewell song, it's a beauty. It's so tender, so wistful, and just uptempo enough that you know not to despair; they're gonna be okay. That samba beat -- god, how I love a good samba -- soothes and smooths everything out.

Art (of course) is singing, at his most angelic. That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon." He's still a little dazed by the news, isn't he? (Me too.) "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  What I love about this song is how it sets up Wright as a visionary, WAY ahead of his time (as he was), with the rest of us just scrambling to follow. And now WE ARE LOST, with our beacon snuffed out.

Now, Simon wrote this song but Garfunkel sang it, and I'm not about to get lost in the maze of who was the visionary and who was the acolyte. I prefer to think of it as an Escher print with endless echoes and doubling-backs and leave it at that.

The verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (That "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) Then I think of all the late nights my brother and I spent talking, laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance ... forty, fifty, sixty years of that?  Where am I ever going to find that again?

"Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. Amen.

Is this song about Frank Lloyd Wright?  Not necessarily. It's about another short genius ( Paul Simon) but also about his soon-to-be-ex partner Garfunkel, a math genius in a potentially architectural way. And if you're a fan of mirrors within mirrors -- Simon wrote this song for Garfunkel to sing, knowing that those soaring high notes could only really and truly be sung by that God-given voice. As the DNC performance Monday night wincingly brought home.

And "when I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you"?  That's a prescription for getting through this season of love and loss. Because the thought of my brother still refuels my tanks, and will for a long time. Forever, most likely.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"Master Blaster (Jammin')" /

Stevie Wonder

Man, is it steamin' hot out there. And when the temperature goes up the charts, here's my go-to track. A little funk, a little reggae, and you've got this jubilant #1 reggae/soul hit, from Stevie's Hotter Than July LP from 1980. First track, side two, of Stevie's best-selling LP in the UK.

"Everyone's feeling pretty / It's hotter than July / Though the world's full of problems / They couldn't touch us even if they tried." This is what I need to take the stink off of this sweltering heat.

Stevie wrote this ecstatic anthem to celebrate the peace agreement signed in April 1980 to end 15 years of civil war in Zimbabwe. True, this pact put the controversial Robert Mugabe into office, where he's still entrenched, despite economic failures and a shaky human rights record. But the effervescent mood of this song endures.

And what's wrong with believing the best of people? In this rancorous election season, it wouldn't hurt any of us to operate with a spirit of forgiveness and some faith in human nature. "When you're moving toward the positive / Your destination is the brightest star."

No, it's not an escape. The production goes full-on into the heat of the summer -- that languid bass line, the fly-swatting drums, the exhaling background singers. Let a little sweat roll down your brow; don't stay indoors and shiver in refrigerated air. Embrace existence.

Jammin' until the break of dawn. Of course, we have to pick up the reference to Bob Marley's masterful "Jamming," from his 1977 LP Exodus. ("Marley's hot on the box"...Joined as children in Jah.") Stevie's generosity toward other artists has always been a model for the rest of us.

And yes, this was released over a quarter of a century ago. But you tell me: Does it sound dated? Does it not lift your spirits? IS IT NOT A SONG FOR THE AGES?

Bless you, Stevie.