Friday, January 18, 2008

"I'm Free"

A long time ago, a friend and I were in an art gallery, staring at a work by David Hockney (if I remember rightly). My friend muttered something to the effect that this art business didn't seem like a lot of hard work. Splash a bit of paint here and there and bingo.

But is anything as easy as it looks to others? I've had heated debates with people who've doubted the amount of real work that goes into all sorts of skills. Take motor racing. "It's just going round and round in circles," someone scoffed in the pub a few years back.

Right, I said. It's as easy as that. You just push the "go" pedal all the way down and turn the wheel when you get to a corner.

Ask Martin Brundle, Peter Dumbreck, Yannick Dalmas - all guys who have shown, graphically, that it isn't as easy as all that.

If it were that easy, we'd all be Ayrton Senna or Jackson Pollock, right?

Which is where this song comes in. Now, when I started this post, I was looking for a way to celebrate this fantastic news. And, oddly enough, this song was playing in my ears on the way home and I thought, "Yeah! Let's do it."

On the surface, the title, the lyric and even the film from which it comes (which is, spookily enough, on TV later tonight) all look positive and upbeat enough:

"I'm free, I'm free...
And freedom tastes of reality,
I'm free, I'm free...
And I'm waiting for you to follow me."

But then I started to mistrust Pete Townsend. I listened to the song again, and wondered who is really speaking here. Is the character of Tommy spouting populist cod-psychology because Townsend believes it, or because he wants to poke fun at it because it's ridiculous? I mean, this *is* the sixties we're talking about, folks. Nothing's as simple as it looks (again).

So it looks like I'll have to find a more appropriate song for you, Min. Cheers!

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Human memory is a frail, rickety, idiosyncratic affair. We're not always in charge of what, or more importantly, how we remember things. For example, if someone hands me a home-made BLT sandwich, I'm instantly transported to my childhood, to my grandparents' kitchen and the big pile of BLTs that my aunts and uncle would make, in a production line, for lunch on the front porch.

Taste, smell, touch, these are senses that can raise a more powerful reaction than a proper, retained memory.

I've spent the last two days commuting to and from work with this song on repeat, listening to it over and over again, trying to get my head around it, to find a way to explain what this song does.

I think it's like a sensory trip-wire; the scent, taste or sound that drives flat-out to the very core of your being and sets off every alarm bell. It's like (guys, pay attention), sitting in a crowded train and suddenly smelling the perfume that a long-lost, long-missed girlfriend used to wear.

Being a guy, of course, you can't remember the name of the scent, but oh boy, do you ever remember the old girlfriend, the happy times, the longing that you're shocked to realise you still feel, and above all the emptiness that you briefly believe has been your fate ever since you dumped her.

Or rather, you *think* you remember. Only the picture isn't quite clear. Her face is blurred because, at this distance of time, you really can't exactly remember the shape of her nose or the curve of her chin.

You remember what it being with her was like, how she felt to hold. Or rather, you remember what being with her felt like to *you*, how holding her made you *feel*, because you really can't remember how, when you held her, your arms would rest on her narrow waist, and how you used to lock your fingers together behind her back.

That's what this song is like. It's the bare bones of a memory, something that feels so wispy and insubstantial, and yet is crammed chock-full of atmosphere and pin-sharp sensory memory.

It starts with the briefest hint of menace, fingers gently dragged over guitar strings with a hint of echo, before, with a slightly weary sigh, Matthews launches into the mystery.

"She's elusive and I'm awake,
You're finally real, there's nothing fake.
A mystery now to me and you,
Open my eyes and I'm next to you.
She said my destiny lies in the hands that set me free."

Even as he wakes up next to her, it's clear that she's not there to stay. She's always just out of reach, eluding our need to capture, pin down and pigeon-hole. She's like a memory that won't go away, yet won't come into focus.

"If it's true, then I am doomed,
What more is there to hold on to?
A strand of her hair is all I own;
A gift to me, this sorry soul."

You can almost sense the despair that's wrapped up in those words. Matthews' voice is worn, tired, his falsetto a wondrous combination of soaring hope and resignation.

I remember one of Sting's first singles after he left The Police was called "If You Love Someone, Set Them Free."

Well, what he didn't bargain for was that if we do let someone go, we can be imprisoned by a memory that fades and can never be fully recaptured, but that never fully disappears either.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"White Punks on Dope"

"Teenage, had a race for the night time;
Spent my cash on every high I could find;
Wasted time in every school in L.A.:
Getting loose, I didn’t care what the kids say."

A long time ago, I blogged Warren Zevon's "Detox Mansion," in which he sang:

"Left my home in Music City in the back of a limousine
Now I'm doing my own laundry, and I'm getting those clothes clean.
Growing fond of Detox Mansion, and this quiet life I lead,
But I'm just dying to tell my story, for all my friends to read."

The whole point about that blog was that, back when rock still had hair and all its own teeth, rock stars didn't want you to know about their drug problems. When Famous Singer A had to have his stomach pumped, or Guitar Hero B needed a shot of adrenaline when his heart stopped in the shower, the record company executives closed ranks to make sure the story didn't find its way to the papers.

These days, when Lily or Amy teeter blindly out of a nightclub and into the arms of the Priory, the record company execs, the publicists, the stylists, voice coaches and hairdressers all parrot exactly the same line. They all talk about "exhaustion."

Now, to you or me, that means we've been sitting up all night with a kid who's been throwing up, or we've just pulled a 48-hour stint at work to get the presentation done in time.

When *they* use that word, *their* concept of exhaustion is about as alien to real life as possible. What *they* mean is that poor Amy has been digging around in her arm looking for a vein for the last 48 hours. How fatiguing. What *they* mean is that Lily has been pouring so much alcohol down her neck that her she could fit an optic to her bladder. How desperately tiring.

What's even more distasteful is the conspiracy that the media and these hangers-on engage in. The papers want to sell more stories, while the hangers-on have careers to think about. So the hangers-on can put their hands on their hearts and parrot the officially-sanctioned "exhaustion" line, while the papers just wink and look for new ways to say "dope-addled twat."

I don't want to pick out any particular performers -- though I have taken two names in vain -- because frankly they're all just as bad as each other.

"I go crazy ’cause my folks are so fucking rich;
Have to score when I get that rich white punk itch.
Sounds real classy, living in a chateau:
So lonely, all the other kids will never know."

Fee Waybill (I think) once explained that White Punks on Dope was about all those teenage kids living in California, waiting around in a drugged stupor until they were 18 to get their hands on their trust fund.

It kind of fits today's rant. We've hot-housed a generation of under-cooked little pop tartlets who've been handed the keys to the world after one appearance on MySpace, and most of them have taken the inch they've been given, and run a mile.

Ask twenty kids what they want to be when they grow up, and they'll say "famous." Ask them "famous for what?" and they'll probably shrug and say "whatever."

Let's look back at some other famous drug users

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Lewis Carroll
Thomas Edison
Charles Dickens
Salvador Dali
Marcus Aurelius
Benjamin Franklin
Sigmund Freud
Cardinal Richelieu
William Wilberforce
Thomas Jefferson

Not exactly a bunch of "whatever," are they?

But until our current crop of drug-users starts producing the goods on a par with the folks above, they're really just a bunch of white punks on dope.

"Born on the Bayou"

I have an affinity for what Americans call "Southern rock" - a friend of mine calls it "rock with more than a pinch of soul added," and that's a fair a description as I've heard. All the way from Creedence Clearwater Revival right through the the Black Crowes, there's a great fat seam of soul-tinged rock that moves you just a little more persuasively than, say, Boston or Aerosmith does - though to be honest Aerosmith have picked up more than a little southern influence along their way.
I don't know how it's done, and frankly I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, but there are times when rock needs to be a little And if there was ever a piece of music that conjured up a place, a day, a feeling, this must be one such tune.

"I can remember the fourth of July,
Runnin' through the backwood, bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin',
Chasin' down a hoodoo there."

John Fogerty's voice has got to be one of the most recognisable larynxes around. Nobody else quite has that ability to sound like he's gargling with crude oil while trying to scream.
At the same time, the band's sound shimmers as though you were viewing it through an oppressive heat haze, brushing aside fat, dripping leaves hanging over the water as you try to get closer.
There's a lazy, insistent rhythm too, like organic machinery at the point of collapse, that just wills you to move. I don't know if Fogerty invented the word "choogling," but that just about sums up the rhythm of this song.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Birdhouse In Your Soul"

Oh, it's been a long time. And if anyone thought I'd run out of songs, well...

When I first tried to put this baby to bed 18 months ago, I wrote that "anyone who can find more than 500 songs that they can't live without is probably spreading their jam a little too thinly on the toast."

Well, maybe.

On the other hand, I've tracked down and downloaded some 2,600 songs that accompany me pretty much everywhere I go, and while a few of them were downloaded for fun, or mischief, the vast majority are with me for a damn good reason.

Case in point:

Allegedly, this is a novelty song. Allegedly, They Might Be Giants is a novelty band. But anyone who can write, and sing a lyric like:

"There's a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry,
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck-free.
Though I respect that a lot
I'd be fired if that were my job,
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts."

..has got to have a little tiger in his tank.

This is a jaunty song. I can think of no other word that accurately describes it. It's got an annoying, catchy chorus -- yes, that's annoying AND catchy -- and lopes along with all the grace of a tweenie playing hopscotch on a cracked and uneven pavement.

What I like are the casual hints that beneath the surface of this song, there's a really intelligent mind at work. Someone who can dredge up old-world sayings like "bee in your bonnet" (I mean, who says that any more?), or who can imagine someone filibustering "vigilantly."

Hell, just putting "filibustering" in a song makes it something special. The video shows the band to be just what I always thought they were - college nerds, but what's the point of a college education if you can't use it?

Lastly, maybe someone could reassure me. This song is all about a night-light, right?