Tuesday, July 07, 2020

It's About Time

"Time Has Come Today" / The Chambers Brothers

Quick -- what day is today? (Day of the week, date of the month, whatever.) And how many days has it been since you last talked in person to anyone who isn't in your quarantine home pod? When did you last go to the grocery store? How long since you did laundry? How long since your last haircut (or coloring)? Was the meal you're currently digesting lunch or dinner, or a post-lunch/pre-dinner snack? Has it been 14 days (our coronavirus benchmark) since that last risky foray into unprotected society? Exactly how many weeks/months have you been in lockdown?

In this weird new reality, we operate in an elastic limbo of time -- days blend together, weeks disappear. Yet at the same time we hover over a relentless 24-hour news cycle. How have the Covid-19 numbers changed overnight? Which state is now the hotspot? What new outrageous thing has our Kleptocrat in Chief said or done? What has the Supreme Court weighed in on? What new hero has raised his/her voice? What new victim has been shot in cold blood? Which of our cultural icons has died today? (Me, I'm still grieving Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, but you could as easily be verklempt about John Prine, Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, or any of many others.)

Pandemic Time. We joke about it on Facebook, but it's a real phenomenon. 

To comfort myself, I'm re-reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain -- hardly escapist reading, but perfect for right now. It's about tuberculosis patients quarantined in a clinic in the Alps on the eve of World War I. Day after day passes monotonously and yet swiftly; holidays succeed each other in surprising speed. And yet the patients are always marking time, with daily temperature charts (check our 14-day quarantine record-keeping) and the doctors' diagnoses/sentences of six months or ten months until they are cured.

With time on my mind, I offer you this 1968 track from the Chambers Brothers, Mississippi gospel singer brothers who, in the spirit of the 60s, ventured into folk and then psychedelia (perfect for these mind-altering times.) It's particularly fine late-night listening.

Hark ye to that timekeeper drummer (live, human, no drum machines here), the way he drives the track, alternately slowing down, speeding up, tick-tocking, vibrating, smashing down. Pick up, too, on the ominous special effects -- the cuckoo clock, the satellite-like guitar twiddles, the screams of the tormented, the cruel laughs of the tormentors. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

From the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses, there's an edge of spookiness, a sense of history trembling in the balance. Social commentary creeps in ("The rules have changed today / I have no place to stay / I'm thinking about the subway"), but in the spirit of the 60s, it was all cool. "I've been crushed by a tumbling tide / And my soul's been psychedelicized." Open your mind to the possibilities, man.
It's mesmerizing without being boring; instrumental solos cascade and build, always heading somewhere. I'm on the edge of my seat, riding the drummer's tempo changes, waiting for the singer to step back in and take charge. And when he does, it's with a chuckle and a smile. He's navigating the changes, finding some kind of grace in the midst of apocalypse. Setting an example of how to surf time.

And in these days, when I'm feeling lost in time, sinking into this music track somehow lifts my soul. I hope it does the same for you.

Stay safe and be well....

Friday, April 10, 2020

"Everything Will Be Just Fine" / Greg Trooper

I don't know about you, but my coronavirus playlist started out angry and apocalyptic. Yet now, in Week Umptyleven of Lockdown, I'd much rather hear something calming, tender, and upbeat. Like this little gem that dialed up today on my shuffle, by the late great Greg Trooper:

It's from his 2010 album Upside-Down Town, one of his richest collections of songs about how to live the sort of life most of us do live. Greg -- who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in January 2017 -- was never the star he deserved to be; his songs had been covered by everywhere from Steve Earle to Vince Gill to Billy Bragg, but he was still a gigging musician, working house parties and small venues. I like this video because it gives you a flavor of Greg's stage act -- intimate and endearing.

I got to know Greg a little in the last years of his life, when he'd moved back to New York City (he was born in New Jersey), and he was just like his songs -- funny, smart as hell, self-deprecating, and deeply empathetic. Like the wonderful John Prine, whose recent death I'm still mourning, Troop was puzzled by the human condition, and working song by song to figure it out. Greg Trooper was a storyteller, and every one of his songs is a poignant little novel, often with an anti-hero we can totally relate to.

Like this one. The narrator of this song has had a few knocks (dig that verse about driving past the brick house he built where "somebody else is raising my kids inside") -- but he's not bitter, just lonely. We don't get a lot of the details, but then, this kind of guy doesn't dwell on details, just on his gut reaction. He's living day to day, head down, slogging through.

I can relate to that.

Things are tough, but he knows that what would make it better would be some human connection. "I'd settle for coffee and a hand to shake / Conversation 'bout the coffee cake" -- is that too much to ask?

And in these times of self-isolation, isn't the human connection what we most crave?  "But I'd settle for a smile from one lonely frown / And oh my goodness, everything would be just fine." And Greg's warm, comforting vocals are benediction enough.

May you all get that comfort wherever you can find it. We're in this together, and the more we can reach out -- whatever form that takes -- the better we'll be on the other side.

Stay well and take care

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Life During Wartime" / The Talking Heads

Are we having fun yet?

The other day in a grocery store, frantically trying to assemble a pantry of shelf-stable food for riding out whatever self-quarantine might be in the offing, I scooped three jars of peanut butter into my cart -- and I heard in the back of my mind, "I got some groceries / Some peanut butter / To last a couple of days." In these troubling times, I'm in no mood for either dirges or upbeat diversions -- but a little apocalyptic swamp funk is just the ticket. 
In 1979, I'd been a Talking Heads fan for a couple of years already, entranced by the spare art-school weirdness of their first two albums. The sound of Fear of Music, however, was a shock: a funky poly-rhythmic base overlaid with chanting call-and-response vocals, horns and percussion layering on levels of cacophony. On first listen, I was baffled. By the third or fourth listen, though, I was enraptured by it, and now it just might be my favorite Talking Heads album. (Note to kids streaming music: You can't always "get it" on the first listen.)
And from the first, this track stood out. David Byrne, the Talking Head's front man, said it was "inspired by living in Alphabet City" (the then-grubby, shell-shocked Lower East Side), and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I knew those scruffy clubs he name-checked ("This ain't no Mudd Club / Or CBGBs"). But beyond that, the song's undertow of domestic terrorism had to resonate with any of us who'd grown up in the turmoil of the late 60s and 70s: civil rights protests, antiwar riots, ugly waves of urban violence. The bleak dystopia of this song made perfect sense, as we howled that indelible refrain: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no fooling around!"

Indeed, indeed.

Listening to it now, in these haunted pandemic days, it seems weirdly prophetic. It's a survivalist's bible ("Heard of a van / That's loaded with weapons / Packed up and ready to go") for a time where communications are breaking down ("Transmit the message / to the receiver / Hope for an answer") and paranoia runs rampant ("I got three passports / a couple of visas, / You don't even know my real name"). And for those of us who can't wean ourselves from the nightly news or Facebook, the drumbeat of crisis keeps us all too well informed of the disease's spread ("Heard about Houston? / Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, P. A.?").

With all this disaster looming, what's the point in making any effort, in laying any plans? "Why stay in college? Why go to night school?" he asks, and even though I have those degrees already in hand, I'm pretty sure they mean nothing now. (A year later, the American Dream would be further eviscerated in the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime".) No, the enemy is among us and we are it. "We dress like students, / we dress like housewives, / Or in a suit and a tie / I changed my hairstyle, so many times now, / I don't know what I look like!" (That last line does make me laugh now, thinking of all the women in lockdown who will finally discover how gray their hair really is under all those years of salon color.)

"Burned all my notebooks, / what good are notebooks? / They won't help me survive," Byrne sings, riding the crest of that relentless yet hypnotic rhythm track. "My chest is aching, / Burns like a furnace, / The burning keeps me alive..."

 Yes, yes, and yes. Stay well, friends.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

"Let's Face the Music and Dance" / Nat King Cole

This track is haunting me everywhere -- in Amazon Prime grocery commercials, in an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as the theme song for the UK mockumentary series Twenty Twelve (starring Hugh Bonneville, about a hapless team staging the 2012 London Olympics). And it resonates deep with me; when I was a kid, my mom was a huge Nat King Cole fan, and I'm betting we had this album (Let's Face the Music, released in 1964 but recorded in 1961).

It's originally an Irving Berlin song, featured in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Follow the Fleet. Here's that version:

Schmaltzy, eh? But here's how Nat King Cole tweaked it:

The tempo's brisk, just this side of breathless, dancing in and out of minor and major keys, as if the singer is tap dancing to save his life. He knows all too well that he's on a knife edge ("There may be trouble ahead") but he's determined to steal what pleasure he can before things go down: "But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance / Let's face the music and dance." In Astaire's hands, that's a gallant romantic invitation, but from Cole, it feels like he's looking over his shoulder, snatching love before the cops close in (or the thug you owe money to, or the white-hooded racists, or the ICBMs with their lethal payloads). The warm snaggy intimacy of Cole's vocals pulls us in, makes us complicit in his quest to escape. The clock is ticking, and he's a man on fire.

Loss and retribution hang over this song like a sword of Damocles. The fiddlers may soon ask us to pay the bill, the moon may abscond and leave us with teardrops to shed. It puts the notion of carpe diem -- live for the moment -- in an entirely new and darker light. The verses are in minor key, yet the melodic lines climb upward, fighting for a chance. And though that bridge shifts into major key, its message is if anything more desperate  -- "soon, we'll be without the moon / Singing a different tune / And then..."

Berlin's song must have resonated differently in 1936, in the depths of the Depression, with escapism and denial the order of the day. Armed with a top hat and tails, Fred Astaire could valiantly ignore the Crash and savor a few more champagne cocktails. In 1961, however, when Cole reprised it, McCarthyism was only just in the rearview mirror, with the Cold War icing up and the great civil rights battle gathering steam. The "trouble ahead" haunts Cole's version way more than it did Astaire's, and dancing in the face of it is a brave, beautiful, but ultimately futile act.

The great songwriters always put more layers into their songs than they realized, and Nat King Cole's reinvention of Irving Berlin's 1930s dance number just may reveal Berlin's genius all the more. Maybe, the black artist who'd fought the music business's rigged system was the only person who could really dig into the darkness felt by an immigrant whose family had escaped Russian pogroms to find freedom in America.

And in a political moment where all our decisions seem freighted with fear --  this may not be the worst anthem for facing the future, whatever it may entail.

Monday, January 13, 2020

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" / Brinsley Schwarz

Shopping in Trader Joe's yesterday, I wasn't paying much attention to the muzak. Why should I? And when this song came on, I immediately assumed it was Elvis Costello's cover of this Nick-Lowe-penned tune on Elvis' 1979 album Armed Forces. After all, that's the version most people know.

But no, as I pushed my cart around, listening intently, it was clearly not Elvis singing. The tempo was a tick slower, the guitars a tad twangier. And listening to the phrasing and intonations, I was more and more certain: This was the Brinsleys' 1974 version.

I'm willing to bet that I was the only person in that crowded Trader Joe's who could tell the difference, or who cared. And, PS, I completely forget to get the avocados I meant to buy, I was so transported.

Quite possibly the muzak provider opted for the Brinsleys' version because it was cheaper. By the time Elvis covered this song, the Brinsleys were on their last legs, and anyway the band had never thought much of this number. (To be honest, Nick Lowe himself thought of it as a throwaway satire on hippie culture.) But EC's resurrection of the song proved prescient, and in the decades since then, the song has shown surprising legs as an anti-war anthem.

And -- in the who-laughs-last category -- Curtis Stigers' 1992 cover of this song for the movie The Bodyguard earned so many $$$ in royalties, Nick Lowe could go ahead and make any number of gorgeous albums he might not otherwise have made.

For this alone I am grateful.

So where are the strong? And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony (sweet harmony)?

Right here, my brothers and sisters...