Together Through Life: Darkness in the Groove

At this stage, the Bob Dylan test is simple: listen to a new record a few times and before you make your judgment, pretend it’s the work of a largely unknown old circuit rider named Robby Zimmerman playing bars and beer halls with his traveling blues band in the upper midwest.

Then decide.

By the high cultural standards generally ascribed to America’s generational poet, Dylan’s unexpected new album Together Through Life is light and occasionally pleasing, an interesting fourth record in a blues-based “comeback” that begin with his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind in 1997. To Dylanologists and obsessive critics, it’ll never make the canon.

But to anyone scuffling through the the hard rain of springtime, 2009, the new Dylan record is a low and pleasing rumble of traditional blues and front parlor numbers, latched to the back-end of a cross country semi hauling one hell of a groove across the American wasteland.

If this were the work of an unknown veteran, in other words, the critics would be patting themselves on the back for their tremendous taste and ability to spot a new talent.

About that groove: the guitar work of Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and the accordion of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo weave a border cafe filigree of melody and rhythm, while Dylan’s touring band – bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, and Donnie Herron on banjo, steel guitar and mando – lay down a rich bed of sound that’s part vintage Chess sides and part nouveau Texas swing.

Dylan’s voice has never been scruffier, a lonely warble grooved with years aural scars. But in other ways, his singing hasn’t been this good in a decade. It’s crisply enunciated. And the singer sells the songs completely, even though most of the lines turn downward these days at the end, the antithesis of the characteristic upward snarl of “how does it feel?”

This 67-year-old Dylan knows how it feels and the songs – mostly co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter – tell small and personal stories. Dark tales with dark humor and lost dreams: Dylan knows it’s late in his game (and perhaps ours as well). “I feel a change comin’ on and the fourth part of the day’s already gone,” he sings over happy upbeat blues on the record’s best song. Then he adds: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”

That he does. Most critics thought Dylan had finished his late-career blue trilogy (which also included Love and Theft from 2001 and Modern Times in 2006), but as Dylan sings in Jolene on the new disk: “I keep my hands in my pocket, I’m moving along, people think they know, but they’re all wrong.”

Catechism Culture

A couple of weeks back, I met a friend for lunch downtown and wondered at the choice – an East Village UK-style pub, replete with an iconic red phone box out front. Fair enough, but an interesting choice of venue. I was early and perusing the menu when I realized at an instant why we were there. The famous fish and chips, halfway down the menu.

Of course. It was Friday. In Lent. And we’re both Catholics.

Not the daily Mass sort, yet the culture is so strong, so nearly biological, that it still persuades secularists to traipse at least at least an extra subway stop to avoid a meaty midday repast during the period of Lenten sacrifice that will conclude next Sunday. Palm Sunday is tomorrow, and Holy Week follows – concluding that particularly New York version of the liturgical calendar that adds the green of St. Patrick’s Day to the purple of the passion play.

On Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite bloggers, Lance Mannion, wrote about his formal break with the Catholic Church, noting that he’d been “holding onto my faith by the threads of a frayed alb anyway.” Lance’s post plumbed some of the gnawing away of formal church-based hierarchical religion in this country, but I was also struck by one of the comments: “I haven’t been to Church in years. But I’m STILL a Catholic.” And that blend of personal cultural and religious self-identification, which riles traditional (and conservative) Roman Catholics, hasn’t lost its power. Reading Lance’s Lenten post (and it was a Lenten post because Lance is still a Catholic) called to mind the lyrics of punk poet Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy from 1980:

And they can’t touch me now

I got every sacrament behind me

I got baptism, I got penance

I got communion, I got extreme unction

Man, I’ve got confirmation

I was a Catholic boy

Redeemed through pain

And not through joy

And now I’m a Catholic man

I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can

Patti Smith, the force behind Carroll’s angry, poetic record, was a Jehovah’s Witness – at least until she hit New York, and quickly adopted Catholicism (the cultural variety) as the perfect canvas for poetry. Is there a more Catholic opening line to a song from 1970s than Smith’s iconic “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine?”

That the song was a reinvention of Van Morrison’s Gloria added to the hymnal quality – Patti clearly leaning on the in excelsis Deo side of the double meaning, fresh from posing as Mary Magdalene for Robert Mapplethorpe, himself an Irish Catholic divorced by sexuality yet entirely married in culture and personal reference. This was a common formula in 1970s New York. In 1973, Staten Island Catholic boy David Johansen asked with mock incredulity: “Then all the old ladies they are on their way to the church…yuh go ta church?” That same year, St. Rose of Lima Catholic grammar school graduate Bruce Springsteen cracked, “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception” in Lost in the Flood.

I grew up on this stuff, in the years just after my service as an altar boy, and the incense never quite abandons the cultural DNA, even after the orthodoxy has fled; I’ve observed the same phenomenon among non-observant Jews who’ll still place the pebble on the headstone every time. You can’t shake childhood, and in middle age, it’s surprising what remains of the old relationship with the cassock and the ritual. Skinny young heretics like Bruce Springsteen harbor second thoughts in the years of thickening middles – witness his 2005 conversation on Devils & Dust:

In the garden at Gethsemane

He prayed for the life he’d never live,

He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove

The cup of death from his lips

Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,

A destination that can never be reached,

A light you’ll never find in another’s face,

A sea whose distance cannot be breached

Well Jesus kissed his mother’s hands

Whispered, “Mother, still your tears,

For remember the soul of the universe

Willed a world and it appeared.”

Another of my favorite bloggers, M.A. Peel, also had an Ash Wednesday post at the beginning of this Lenten season, linking this period of contemplation for Catholics to the world’s crisis: “Avarice is a mortal sin – the wisdom of that classification is now sadly clear.” And she posted a video and lyrics to the song Hallelujah by the brilliant singer/songwriter Rufus Wainright, culturally Irish Catholic on his mother’s side and quite conscious of it:

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

As my own children make their sacraments and some days are a struggle to reconcile their upbringing with my thin personal faith and disdain for the patriarchy of the formal religion, Wainright’s words ring like communion bells. The shadows and doubts and reason are all our own. I’m not alone, I think, in harboring an entirely personal relationship with a formal religion – or thinking the blaze of light is my own. No less of a  church-goer than John Updike riffed on that individuality of faith and identify when he accepted an award as a prominent Christian writer by a Catholic magazine in 1997:

“St. Augustine was not the first Christian writer nor the last to give us the human soul with its shadows, its Rembrandtesque blacks and whites, its chiaroscuro; this sense of ourselves, as creatures caught in the light, whose decisions and recognitions have a majestic significance, remains to haunt non-Christians as well, and to form, as far as I can see, the raison d’être of fiction.”

Updike’s identity, his Christianity, was portrayed in doubt and human failing wonderment, in the brutal light of clear-eyed observation and realism (very Catholic in practice). On his deathbed, in what may be the most moving pages of verse to grace an American magazine in a century, Updike didn’t shy away for a moment from either the doubt or the faith:

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tong reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely – magnificent, that “surely” –
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the ays of my life, my life, forever.

When I was in Oxford last week, I stayed in student lodgings at Trinity College that were nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever seen in London. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope in 1555. A devout catholic with no surviving children, Thomas Pope saw the Foundation of an Oxford college as a means of ensuring that he and his family would always be remembered in the prayers and masses of its members.

The gardens at Trinity are very beautiful, but one border of the College harbors a little secret: the gates constructed along Parks Road are purely ornamental and are never opened. Tradition holds they’re only swung open when a Jacobite monarch resumes the throne of England (and presumably ends the reign of the Church of England as the state religion). While I was there, the news was full of talk about PM Gordon Brown’s move to overturn the part of the 1701 Act of Settlement that bans Catholics from marrying into the royal family. Maybe the gates of Parks Road will be opened sooner rather than later, I thought, my Catholic upbringing going off like a ring tone set to the Angelus.

Flying home last week, I found myself 40,000 feet over the North Atlantic, wedged into what American Airlines dashingly refers to as a “seat” and holding onto sanity only by dint of the seatback video movies. The dinner cart came along. It was Friday. The choice came: “chicken or pasta?” And there, in some pain and without a conscious inkling, the DNA of the catechism kicked into autopilot:

“Pasta,” says I, only vaguely aware of my current timezone.

Earle Hagen, 1919-2008

If it had only been the whistle, Earle Hagen would have qualified for major send-off from TV Land. That’s his own windy pursed lips at the beginning of The Andy Griffith Show as Andy and Opie head to the fishing hole, and it’s his tune as well. But Hagen, who died this week at 88, was a prolific television themesman. He also wrote the opening riffs to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Gomer Pyle USMC, That Girl, I Spy, Eight Is Enough, and The Mod Squad.

Quite the line-up. His Mayberry theme and Dick Van Dyke work open two of the great sitcoms, instantly recognizable. But Hagen also scored Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, played trombone with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, and wrote Harlem Nocturne as a tribute to Duke Ellington.

So in Earl’s whistling honor, a list of sorts – please add to it. My favorite television theme songs, in no particular order:

– The Rockford Files (Mike Post)
– Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)
– The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason)
– The Dick Van Dyke Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Bob Newhart Show (Patrick Williams)
– The Odd Couple (Neal Hefti)
– The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Sopranos (Rob Spragg)
– The Office (Jay Ferguson)
– Underdog (Ortala le Clerc Germaine)
– Dragnet (Miklos Rozsa)
– Chico and the Man (Jose Feliciano)
– Miami Vice (Jan Hammer)
– Fat Albert (Herbie Hancock)

Shine a Light – Any Light

James Wolcott’s right: “it’s wealth that’s required, not scrappy resilience.” So we won’t be reviewing Shine a Light here, because I haven’t yet seen it. In lieu of the requisite Scorcese-mauling, how about a brief Tattoo YouTube for a Friday night, a shambling mess of videos that just percolated up from the series of tubes.


Classic 1974 Keith Richards interview.
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Jet Boy Flies

David Johansen swung into Babylon on Friday night at Irving Plaza, the dank old Polish Army Veterans headquarters that has stood at 15th Street and Irving Place since 1914 – or about as long, in living memory anyway, as Johansen’s grinning Our Gang mug has looked out over New York audiences with that front stoop familiarity that makes him the living dean of local front men. Johansen turns 58 next week and over the last couple of years has added yet another persona to his long career of poses – the old glam star who put the remnants of the band back together, one more time.

The band is, of course, the New York Dolls, a veteran team where the dead members outnumber the living originals by a score of 4-2 and where the term “creative hiatus” stretched to three decades. Now they’re back on the circuit – three years after their reunion concert and the almost-immediate death thereafter of bassist Arthur Kane from leukemia, and a year removed from the release of the big comeback record One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. In their hour-plus shows these days, Johansen and his lone surviving bandmate, the former taxi driver Syl Sylvain, belt out a tight and pleasant variety of old “hits” – if the Dolls can be said to have had them – and new numbers, which are far better than old fans expected them to be. The new band includes veteran session guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa (formerly of Hanoi Rocks), and drummer Brian Delaney.

But in truth, it’s a David Johansen gig – and, I suspect, an attempt by an artist of some real repute and accomplishment to capture a measure of the historic role for his band and their work that he undoubtedly believes they deserve. Continue reading

I’m Not There? – I’m Not There, Man

I'm Not ThereA lengthy and elegant mess of a film, Todd Haynes’ not-so-experimental I’m Not There is nonetheless a beauty of a wreck, a “non-biopic” about Bob Dylan that mainly ignores that facet of Dylan that always hides in plain site when analysts look for meaning in the minstrel poet’s own life – his music.

Oh, there are plenty of songs in it – originals and those recorded by a variety of artists for the inevitable soundtrack. Some interesting choices too. But the story never connects to the songs, the movie’s plot arc of Dylan’s life – told in six intertwined parables with six different actors portraying Dylan-like characters – doesn’t account for the music, for the brilliant synthesis of American music that makes Dylan the most important singer-songwriter of the last half century.

What we get, in amazing photography and some fine performances, is pretty much a glorified and well-shot episode of Behind the Music, the old hackneyed story of every star: the backstory, the self-invention, the rise, the drugs, the women, the fall, the comeback, the discovery of faith…and so on. At the end of it, we’re all wowed by the detail and the ambition of it, but we don’t know any more about Bob Dylan than we did going in – or about ourselves, for that matter.

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A Beach Is A Place Where a Man Can Feel

QuadropheniaLike Bob Dylan and a few others, Peter Townshend understood the 20th century version of the successful artist, which combined the cultivation of a pop sensibility and the cash it brought with some vein of purity in exploration. As the Who has recycled a long strong of Townshend’s pearls – on TV, in advertising, in compilations, on their latest geezer tour, and in the new biopic Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who which premieres in the U.S. at the Paley Center for Media next week – so to has its master creator continued to explore.

Townshend’s latest rock opera, The Boy Who Heard Music, took shape as a blog, a dissembled convocation of voices brought together online. Earlier this year, Townshend put the algorithm behind the synth opening for Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again online and let musicians (including me) upload pieces of recorded music and get back synthesized loop patterns. The Who made the cash, and a commercial legacy that keeps in giving, but throughout the band’s 20-year dry spell Townshend worked as an artist, and still works into his 60s.

Was Townshend’s best work was in his 20s? Perhaps, like Dylan’s. But he keeps on, like Picasso an aging combination of pop sensibility and persona, continuing to work. Paul McCartney, a comtemporary, wrote his own epitaph, a grand old painter’s evocation of his death. Townshend still flays the guitar and his Internet explorations – at present, silent – have given his work a new flavor, and a direct channel to his audience.

But Townshend’s finest work was his most complete as an artist – and not particularly successful commercially, but it endures. Quadrophenia is the one Who record I still return to year after year; a complete story with recurrent themes, and a fantastic composition and performance. Quadrophenia grows and I grow with it. Into my 40s and Townshend’s 60s, it still feels relentless and lasting.

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Springsteen and the American Muse

SpringsteenHere’s the lead: Bruce Springsteen’s deep and nourishing Magic, released today, isn’t on a par with Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s firmly on the next level down, alongside The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle, Nebraska, The River and Tunnel of Love. And that’s saying something for a rock star of 58 years in age who has nibbled around the edges of pop music for the last two decades without fully wading in.

Magic is a self-referential work of mature genius, a work of its time, and a record built on the foundations of others, from Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison to the Byrds and Dylan and Phil Spector. Unlike The Shamus, whose terrific review appears below, I’ve spent several weeks with Magic and have listened to its best tunes dozens of times – it’s frankly brilliant, and worthy of the best in the Springsteen canon. It’s the work of an older man, the rare record recorded by a star in late middle age who drops the teen angst and captures both those long decades and the deep pop groove, filled with happy hooks and fills.

Further, there’s a darkness there that I admire deeply – a writing in the shadows that rekindles what I first loved about Bruce Springsteen’s writing, when I was a skinny teen and he was a skinny 25-year-old. Continue reading

Dead Rock Stars: Heaven’s Best Pick-Up Band (Or Hell’s)

Saw a headline right out of The Onion today: Rock Stars More Likely to Die Early. Yes, it was an actual study conducted by academics in England, the blockbuster follow-up to their famed Drunks More Likely to Suffer From Liver Maladies work. No kidding around, this was a real study:

A study of more than 1,000 mainly British and North American artists, spanning the era from Elvis Presley to rapper Eminem, found they were two to three times more likely to suffer a premature death than the general population.

Between 1956 and 2005 there were 100 deaths among the 1,064 musicians examined by researchers at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.

Turns out that rock stars are “at a disproportionate risk of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.” Color me gob-smacked. But it was a good excuse to start a list. The ten best rockers to depart before their times. No oldies: Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, even Jerry Garcia (53), Roy Orbison (52), George Harrison (58), Johnny Ramone (56), and John Entwhistle (whose coke-inspired demise came at 58) and the like all had their time. So, sub-50, taken from us. In their prime. In order. Here goes:

1. John Lennon
2. Elvis Presley
3. Otis Redding
4. Johnny Thunders
5. Duane Allman
6. Keith Moon
7. Buddy Holly
8. Kurt Cobain
9. Jimi Hendrix
10. Gram Parsons

Elvis is the only guy (and they’re all guys though Nico almost made it) over 40. He still had so much to give. Who’s on your list in the little outfit I call, The Great Hereafter?