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Out of the darkness, into the light

Out of the darkness, into the light

Are there such things as “generations,” and if there are, can they have a conscience? Can they have voices that represent those consciences?
I’m not sure about the first question, though I have my doubts. Far too many variables and feedback loops. But I’ll say yes for now and posit this: For the young at heart in the 1960s and 1970s, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young certainly qualified, as did Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Melanie, Cat Stevens and, of course, the Beatles.

The young, back then, actually looked to songwriters for inspiration, messages, a Way. They actually cared enough about what they said to act physically on the song’s behalf. On the word’s behalf. To make it their own or share it with friends, or both at the same time. And if they were really lucky, they got to see their prophets in concert, hopefully at their peak, and they could dance the song into being in still another sense, kinetically, and share that too.
Carry On sounds to me like a message of hope for the shipwrecked, a call to awaken from one’s slumbering drift, alone at sea, alone anywhere. Perhaps the way CSNY crafted the song — written by Stephen Stills to open the Deja Vu album — has something to do with that too. The way they jammed. Their improv methods. Dallas Taylor, in the liner notes (1991 box set release):

“The song was written in the middle of the Deja Vu sessions, when Nash told Stephen they still didn’t have an opener for the album. It was something of a message to the group, since it had become a real struggle to keep the band together at that point. Stephen combined two unfinished songs and stuck them onto a jam we’d had out in the studio a few nights before, me on drums and Stephen on a Hammond B-3 organ. As the track begins I’m playing bass drums and high hat, and Graham is playing congas. Then we go into a 6/8 groove, which is rather obscure – Stephen loved to change gears that way. The sessions would go on all night, sometimes 3 or 4 days non-stop. The thing I loved about the studio was you could never tell if it was day or night, and we hid all the clocks so no one knew what time it was.”

Who speaks for the young at heart today? Who is the voice for the rising generations? I have no idea. But I do know we likely need songs of peace, love and reconciliation now more than ever. And there’s always room for hope.

Understated Angelic Choirs in Cynicstan

Understated Angelic Choirs in Cynicstan

Some things are meant to be in pairs. They’re meant to be twinned, coupled, one and one. Not because dualism wins. Not because we’ve lost out to dualism, in all of its permutations. After all, it’s dualistic to think in terms of the pairs and us, of the pairs not existing and us. Even of the need for pairs in this world, as if it isn’t already that way, and so.
Fix You and Run, by Coldplay and Snow Patrol, respectively, form such a pair for me. They belong to a category I’ve just invented, stolen from myself, stolen from a non-dualistic sphere, or from someone within it. No. It’s no one’s category, really. As long as no one grasps, it’s no one’s.

Official Video of Fix You, by Coldplay. 2005

Fix You is a song of rescue and healing, ostensibly. But because we live in Cynicstan, that can’t be. It’s not allowed. It has to have loud guitars here and there, to make up for the beautiful organ and piano, the falsetto, the words of light, hope and home. We need this or we’ll overdose. We’ve come too far. We’ve come much too far for this sort of thing . . .

Setting part of the video at a concert is a form of rescue from the rescue. This turns cynicism on its head, because how can we argue with huge crowds coming together, paired in song, paired in a kind of love — for the music, each other, the band, the idea of resolutions in the night?

And I imagine the marvelous feeling of the band as they let the beautiful, dizzying crowds sing the song for them, how that must feel, down deep, the revelation of thousands knowing your work by heart, caring enough about it to sing like that, to merge with the idea of resolution and restoration.

In Snow Patrol’s video of Run, the healing takes place apart somehow, while in the same setting, or so we think until the end is nigh. The band appears in concert, but to no one, to an empty audience, to an empty hall, and part of the song’s lyrics reflect this emptiness when it admits that the object of love, the person in need of saving, of rescue, may not be able to hear the singer at all — his talk of light and love.

But it doesn’t matter either way.

And then I wonder, How does this affect the twinning? What if it were reversed, with Fix You sung to no one, and Run to everyone?
I don’t really need to know. It’s not important in this world. What matters is that we can still find it in ourselves to think about this kind of thing, this reaching out, as knights on a mission to save — one thing, two things, everything. What really matters is that there are sparks that connect us, and at all points along the way. They start somewhere below angelic choirs and rise, understated, humbled through the millennia, and we’re still here.

Anonymous Within Bright Lights, Big City

Anonymous Within Bright Lights, Big City

Gary Clark Jr. is one of those guitarists other guitarists, and musicians in general, just love. Just love to be on stage with. Born in Austin, Texas, in 1984, he quickly gained a reputation as one of the finest guitar players of his generation. In 2011, Rolling Stone named him “Best Young Gun.” Extreme skills on that instrument, even after some 60 years of Rock N Roll, still carry a great deal of weight. And when they’re Bluesy and Root’s based, they tend to garner even more respect.


The lyrics for the above song, from his 2012 album, Blak and Blu, seem to contest their own ground, with an ironic subtext of famous people singing about anonymity, demanding to be known by name, assuring they will before the night is through. The cool confidence and self-assured performance deepens this contradiction, and the edgy belief in the power of one’s own skills cuts across many realms.

The protagonist of the song may have a host of other things in mind beyond great guitar playing and carving out his moment of fame before the dawn. His vision of New York may be nothing like we imagine or assume it must be. Listening to the song or watching a live performance may give us a false sense of the character narrating his experience. But we the audience don’t have to care if we get it right. We don’t have to know the complete biography of the man in question, which is one of the beauties of Rock to begin with. It says so much without saying anything at all.

But still the interpretations linger, undercut or buttressed by the propulsive beat and electronic machinations. But the driving rhythms tell us to stay on track, more or less, to take it all at face value, and stop overthinking it all. This is about launching a new career, conquering a new town and the people one meets in the night — if the riffs speak the truth. If the buzz is as it appears to be.

New York City has long had a reputation as the Big Test for musicians, actors, artists and writers. If you can make it there . . . and so on. But the concentrated madness of the Big City seems like an especially tough nut to crack for a niche guitarist, fighting through a first night of alcoholic fog and shockingly bright lights that really can’t compete with the darkness of the unknown. As metaphor, as allegory, even as morality tale, a Bluesy, edgy guitar solo can cut straight through all of that in seconds, illuminating the darkness and standing up to those bright lights unlike most other art forms. Music as obsessive dynamite, midnight Ferrari or tropical machete. But one’s precise aim is paramount.

As long as there is a Big City, wave after wave of young people and the young at heart will try to conquer it. Always. There is no “right way” to do this, but hard-edged and ferocious sonic vibrations, thrown with easy confidence at its massive buildings, may be the fastest.





Wallace Stevens and the Mandolins of Spring

Wallace Stevens and the Mandolins of Spring

Rod Stewart’s Mandolin Wind


So, I’m up in the mountains again, and I’m reading Wallace Stevens — reading about him, reading his poems. I take music with me, listen to it before and after the readings. It’s very windy on the top of the mountain. Actually, the winds are ferocious at times. Merciless. And because I heard the Rod Stewart song in the car before I went to my place, my perfect spot, near the beautiful jagged rocks and the vulnerable pine trees, I hear the mandolin notes in that wind. They’re everywhere, including on the page. I see them dance around on the white pages of the biography and the collected poems, along with the wind that won’t let those pages be . . . still.

One must almost lose the mind of winter in order to feel the mandolin notes in that way, as a call to spring, to the past, to memories of that past. Melancholy as a natural force that won’t let us dwell in the present just yet. Or, as a force that won’t let us do anything else but dwell. Warm days, with that kind of wind, up in the mountains, away from the white noises of cities, suburbia, the semi-rural. Up above all of that, the wind rules, it holds sway and creates sway. It takes center stage, but breaks the center and casts it in all directions at once. No one owns the wind. No one owns the mandolin notes once they escape into the wind.

Not Stewart. Not Stevens. Not me.

In my view, Stevens is the greatest American poet of the 20th Century, and no one could jazz nature like he could. No one could spring word-traps on us like he could, in such eloquent, elegant ways, with a vocabulary that seems to come from an Oxford don in the midst of a surrealist bash, loving the sound and sense of the strangest words and the way they pull disparate things together. The imagination’s deepest sounds, its grammar set loose on holiday.

If he could be faulted for anything, it’s possibly his seeming lack of the topical. Of the immediately current. Of the politically relevant. But we have myriad artists who deal with that, so I never saw this as a true fault in his work. We go to other artists for that. We go to Stevens for the Sublime, the sharply whimsical, the beautifully arranged aesthetic of a mage in love with language itself, and what language tells us about the world as idea, as soul, as sound.



MUNA: Lay Down Your Weapon

MUNA: Lay Down Your Weapon

The young are lucky in so many ways. They haven’t seen too many expressions of youth. They haven’t passed through the labyrinth yet, looked back on their younger years, looked back on it again and again. If they try — better yet, if they don’t — they can be who they are, who they really are inside, without being crushed by the world and the idea that it’s all been done before. It has. Kinda. But not really. It hasn’t until they’ve spoken. Until they’ve sung. Year after year, it’s always new for the young. For another generation to take its turn falling through, running through, walking through the labyrinth.

But for some young people, it’s not just the usual obstacles. It’s breaking free of societal constraints, of stupidly absurd and arbitrary constraints, above and beyond the usual stupidly absurd and arbitrary constraints hurled at the young by the old at heart. For reasons that defy all reason, and all true “morality,” which is really nothing more than kindness in the flesh, flesh and blood kindness to all humans, to all of Nature, and to the future. True morality is just that: kindness, generosity of spirit, compassion, sympathy, empathy, and when we toss those aside, we’re “immoral,” even if our texts tell us we must. Because the old — or the old at heart — wrote those texts, the ones that impose those arbitrary, patently cruel constraints on others, and it’s immoral to continue doing so. It’s a thousand times unkind. Let them be.

Let them be who they are. Be moral. Be kind. And just listen.

MUNA – I Know A Place

Classic Contrapuntal: Panic at the Disco

Classic Contrapuntal: Panic at the Disco

Some songs follow a course that makes sense, mathematically. As if someone raises a hand, lowers it, raises it higher again, and forms a pattern you can count on, anticipicate. You basically can hear the next movement in your head before it happens, but that’s not a bad thing, or a boring thing, if the music can match emotion with the math.

Panic at the Disco, a Vegas band I had not bumped into until this year, does that with their song, “Death of a Bachelor,” from their new album by the same name. Though it might not be accurate to call “them” a band any longer. This album appears to be the work of its lone original member (from its inception in 2004), vocalist Brendon Urie, though one could say the band’s lineup is still in flux. Regardless, the new album is basically his baby, and the man can sang it!

In a 2015 interview with Alt 98.7, Urie said “It’s going to be a little bit different, it’s this mix between Sinatra and Queen, if that makes any sense.” It does. Speaking on the day of its release, Urie paid homage to Sinatra: “His music has been a major player in the soundtrack of my life. So it’s only right that I return the favor and/or pay it forward. I wrote a new album this year and even in the few songs that don’t sound remotely similar to any of his music I still felt his influence in the writing and the need to relate so personally to each song. “Death Of A Bachelor” is very important to me. It expresses the bittersweet (but mostly sweet) end of an era. A look back at a part of my life now deceased. An “It’s A Wonderful Life”-esque look into a possibly different future. But mostly an appreciation for the present.”

It’s a solid reminder that great music is never dated, or too old for the young to love, or anyone young at heart.




Dylanesque Mountains Blowing in the Wind

Dylanesque Mountains Blowing in the Wind

20161014_141352I go to my spot. It’s my spot though it’s everyone’s. It’s everyone’s though it’s really just mine. Because I say so. Because I believe the rocks, the trees, the birds, the clouds all speak for me. They are my eyes and ears and voice. Voices. Plural times plural. So close to infinity, but not quite.

Again, because that is my thinking and I don’t really want to take the easy way out.
The easy way out would be to let go of time and just claim the infinite, always, everywhere

Which really means no time and nowhere. Or does it? It could. It really could, but then
The amber rocks, the powder blue skies, the stunted, evergreen tree at the heart of things
Would disappear, and they rebel against that. They rebel against my ideas.


So an alternative arrives. Think music. Think contra-sounds. Instead of the mountain’s wind, the flow between the rocks and trees, the beating core of the mountain itself, I listen to Dylan. I listen to the first modern troubadour to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I listen to old music, music that has the weight of folk culture and icons on its back.

Songs that are so familiar, we don’t even remember who wrote them. Like an oral tradition before Homer, sampled by Homer and the bards who followed him.

Decades before he left Minnesota for New York, we would have called them standards — or something like that. But after Dylan we just call them songs without origins, iconic, archetypal, leading to studies we might then call seminal, classic.

And this merges with the mountain, because it can’t. It really can’t possibly do this but it does. I see the amber rocks in a different way, with the notes and lyrics hovering over it like gray clouds, spots of sunshine, flashes of light. Its calm is shattered or augmented or aligned with ancient songs written a few decades past, when the world was young, when America was young, breathless, hope-filled and crazy with love. Crazy with a sense of brand new things, before it drowned itself in irony and cynicism and much worse — hate.


The sacred tree is vulnerable to these things. The sky is too. The smell of sweet wind and its patently lonely sounds focus the swirl of angst, the children of dread, bearing down on Dylan and his words of love and warning. So much has changed. So much is lost. Can I cling to the ancient mountain still as mine, as the seat of near-infinity?


Ian Hunter: Epic Poet of Rock 'n' Roll

Ian Hunter: Epic Poet of Rock 'n' Roll

Known by most as the lead singer of Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter was already a seasoned vet of 30 when he took the helm of that quintessential Glitter Rock band. I became a much bigger fan when he struck out on his own with his first solo effort in 1975, Ian Hunter, and continued to follow him through subsequent efforts — with All-American Alien Boy and You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic being favorites.

For me, Ian Hunter was like an English Dylan, one who didn’t try to hide his accent, his rawness, his earthiness. He wrote great songs, and had excellent Rock musicians backing him, especially Mick Ronson, David Sanborn, Jaco Pastorius and Queen. The sonic variety of his music impressed me always. Tough, hard-edged to sweet, rowdy to contemplative, raw to cooked and back again, his oeuvre is one of the best in the Rock world and is easily among the most overlooked and underrated.

He’s still touring and making music at 75. His restless youth has seemingly turned into restless maturity.