Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Happy Thoughts - The Happy Thoughts

You can generally figure that a band called The Happy Thoughts is either being ironic or terminally retro. In this case, retro wins. But I'm very impressed with these straightforward Buddy Holly/Bobby Fuller homages. There's no irony here, but there's plenty of jangly '65 rock 'n roll. There's a song about Indiana girls called, wait for it, "Indiana Girls," in which lead singer/songwriter Eric LaGrange opines:

I've been west and I've been east
And there's lots of real nice girls to see
They've got curves and they've got curls
But it's a lot more fun with Indiana girls

They just don't write 'em like that anymore. And yeah, it's a note-for-note knockoff of Fuller's "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)," but if it was good enough for The Clash, it's good enough for me, too. There are about a dozen more inconsequential, delightful songs just like it, each of them running about 2:30. It's a ridiculously great summer pop album.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gillian Welch

This Depression-era waif is Gillian Welch -- in reality a modern-day SoCal child of privilege who dresses up in vintage dresses and pulls her hair back severely and tries to look and sound like Mother Maybelle Carter. It's okay. She writes songs that would sound marvelous in 1930 or 2030, and she and musical sidekick/life partner David Rawlings harmonize better than any of the country hippies since Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

She has a new album out on Tuesday, The Harrow and the Harvest, her first in eight years. I'm pretty excited about it, not only because it's been a long time in coming, but because it is, by all accounts, a return to the Appalachian roots of her early albums, which featured poetic songwriting, an acoustic guitar, a dobro, and an occasional clawhammer banjo, and two voices soaring together.

She's a great songwriter, a master of stark minimalism who says more with less than any of her peers. Here's one of my favorite hymns, where she distills the essence of sin and redemption down to about 50 words.

Nobody knows what waits ahead
Beyond the earth and sky
Li-da-li-da-li, I'm not afraid to die

And all the work of my own hands
Be broken by and by
Li-da-li-da-li, I'm not afraid to die

Sometimes it finds me fast asleep
And wakes me where I lie
Li-da-li-da-li, I'm not afraid to die

Forget my sins upon the wind
My hobo soul will rise
Li-da-li-da-li, I'm not afraid to die

I need to hear the new album, but I'm predisposed to think highly of it. You should check her out if you haven't done so.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Remembering the Big Man

The media and the people who care about demographics would tell you that I belong to the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, the folks who brought you Woodstock and Vietnam War protests, free love and costly debt accumulation. I would tell you that I belong to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s woefully inadequate as a tagline for an identity. But as a handy encapsulation of the forces that shaped my life, it will do. By the time I became old enough to care about cultural tags, the hippies had faded, the Vietnam War was winding down, Nixon had resigned, and Ford and Carter were presiding over a nationwide malaise. I was part of the generation that didn’t have a name. We weren’t Baby Boomers. We weren’t anything, really. We were just young, idealistic kids. In my case, I was trying to follow Jesus and trying to figure out how He would help me find a job once I graduated.

Bruce Springsteen played a concert in Athens, Ohio at that time, at a little auditorium on the campus of Ohio University. I was maybe 50 feet from the stage. And Bruce Springsteen did what he always did. He played for three and a half hours, and nobody, and I mean nobody, was complaining about the length of the show. I emerged a full-fledged, sweat-soaked, exhausted believer. Bruce got it. He understood in ways that the hippies totally missed. He understood the passions and the frustrations of my nameless generation, and he captured it all in mythic metaphors and poetry that could sing and sting. He also happened to play epic, glorious rock ‘n roll. “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Paul Simon would sing a decade later. Bruce Springsteen was mine. I just happened to share him with a few million other people.

The big black man who played saxophone at that concert died this weekend. His name was Clarence Clemons, although to millions of Springsteen fans he was simply The Big Man. Clarence Clemons wasn’t a great sax player. There are dozens of jazzmen who could school him. And he only really played two great solos in his life. The rest of the time he was content to churn out standard R&B riffs. Don’t let that fool you. He was the heart and soul of the E Street Band, and the E Street Band was the rock ‘n roll band of that nameless generation. Nobody else even came close.

Those two solos are both on the album Born to Run, the album that defined Bruce Springsteen. The first one is on the title track, a mad, soaring slab of soulful exuberance that perfectly matched the grit and passion of the lyrics. “We gotta get out while we’re young,” Bruce Springsteen sang, and that’s what Clarence Clemons played. It was a sax solo for the open road, for busting out and breaking shackles. The second and greater solo occurs at the end of the album, on a song called “Jungleland.” The open road has somehow inexplicably wandered into a thicket of blind alleys. The narrator who set out so confidently on the journey is back on the dead-end streets. Midway through the song Clarence Clemons plays a two-minute solo that captures the sound of America circa 1975, of the nameless generation of kids who thought they might have a defining moment, but didn’t, who busted out only to find a roadblock, a wall, an asphalt jungle without signs or markers. It is a solo that starts with a sustained wail and ends with a whimper. It may be the greatest rock ‘n roll elegy ever captured on recorded media.

That’s the guy who died this weekend. Maybe you had to be there, in Athens, Ohio, on that April night in the mid-1970s. Maybe you simply need to listen to the music. But that’s what we lost. And so it was a strange, rollercoaster day yesterday – Father’s Day, a day where I had wonderful conversations with my wife, and my kids, and numerous friends, and where I found myself emotionally raw, the tears welling up at the strangest times and the most inconvenient moments. The day was great. And so is the loss.