Eminence Front

by Tom Watson
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Elderly rock stars have this gift for introspection and analysis; they look back with a clarity not present during the drug binges, and there’s a received wisdom that comes with the long-term attainment of stardom – a been there, done that shrug. Two of ’em – roughly half a rock generation apart – write a couple of fine personal journals. In recent posts, both David Byrne and Pete Townshend give homilies on performing and the current scene. Great reading, guilty pleasures.

Townshend writes an open letter to Independent art critic David Lister, who had written up an interview with the Who’s muse. Townshend’s theory has long been that Britain’s post-war rockers were really a reaction to the bleakness of the bombed-out cities, and that their brand of tough, loud music was almost literally an echo of Hitler’s bombs. But he’s finding a more gentle ribbon of protest in modern rock.

I think rock music is about to throw off some of its testosterone driven defiance. I may be wrong, but wherever I look today I see younger musicians demanding a new level of intimacy from their audience. ‘Unplugged’ rock is not exactly what is happening. It is more a return to the traditions of Bert Jansch, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ewan McColl, Dave Van Ronk, Big Bill Broonzy, Joan Baez and even early Bob Dylan. This is not entirely about Protest, rather about music performed gently that expresses a single idea along the single pathway of the conscience of an individual musician daring to speak up about something they might uniquely believe. Even anger is delivered gently.To my mind this is a more fitting way to make music in today’s political climate than standing on a stage hiding behind a virtual armory of heavy metal weaponry. It is not Pacifism. It is not denial. It is a sharing of individual morality.

Of course, for Pete it always comes back to the big sound in the end – which is why his brief analysis of “the new softness” is so interesting. It has to do with the war.

I’m not certain where this new powerful gentleness has come from. Perhaps the invasion of Iraq, the horrible mess that we now face on top of the horrible mess we made when we created the country in the first place, is sifting down through the current generation of songwriters and producing a quieter voice. Faced with the atrocity of 9/11, my song Won’t Get Fooled Again had defiant value when played to the people who had to clear up the mess in New York. The song is futile in the context of the present day except as a nostalgic reference to the way we were. I sang in 1971 about protecting my family against Hippies and their absurd psychedelic ‘revolution’, not a threatening foreign ideology beyond my understanding in 2007.For my part, so I don’t appear to be a hypocrite when I next stand on stage with my guitar and pretend to be a B-52, I find it hard to let go of loud rock music as a natural expression of my inner psyche. This is a confused position to take in a world in which being more powerful than one’s enemy achieves very little.

The former Talking Head, meanwhile, is burning down the house getting ready for a series of shows in February at Carnegie Hall. All original material, which Byrne – ever the iconoclast – says is liberating.

It’s a thrill to be able to do a whole concert of new material. Most of my life in concerts and tours I have gingerly mixed in new stuff with songs that are more familiar to an audience, which is what most bands and singers do. Occasionally we get overly enthusiastic and we play a whole new record, or most of it, on tour — our enthusiasm for the new material sometimes overwhelms practical concerns for the desires of our audiences. It’s a balancing act — we don’t want to give them only what they already know (and to be honest they’d get bored with that after a while, as would all of us) but one can only introduce new and surprising elements a little at a time so it becomes a mixing act.

The work in question is Here Lies Love, with “Musical Contributions by Fatboy Slim,” a musical operetta that “presents Imelda Marcos meditating on events in her life, from her childhood spent in poverty and her rise to power to her ultimate departure from the palace.” Don’t cry for me, Baguio City.

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