Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Sunset Grill"

I'm looking forward to leaving the city.

I'm probably wrong, and someone out there will wheel out some statistics to prove it, but I'd say very few of the changes that I've witnessed in this city over the last 25 years have been for the better.

Round about the time I began to spend more time traveling to, in and through the city of London, Margaret Thatcher unleashed the earthquake - deregulation of banking - that brought forth a tsunami of crass wealth that plagues us to this day. This had happened long before in the United States,

Full disclosure: I'm a beneficiary to some extent of that earthquake, since I make my living writing about things like "markets" and "trading".

Markets and trading. Two words that you couldn't better to describe what started to happen in the 1980s. Banks, no longer forced to operate like comfortable old gentlemens' clubs, no longer required to behave sensibly and prudently, suddenly developed a bad case of chrome and glass, hiring young, ambitious kids who didn't give a fig for convention or "the way we do things". Quickly finding that the long-established "markets" were booooring, the kids started coming up with new and fun ways to buy and sell stuff. Salaries and commissions soared as everyone started to clock on to the fact that the lunatics had been given the keys to the asylum.

"I can see a lot more meanness in the city;
It's the kind that eats you up inside.
Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity,
Hard to get home with any pride."

Any sort of sense of "noblesse oblige", if it had survived the death throes of the Empire, was washed aside by Golf GTis, padded shoulders, mobile phones and conspicuous consumption. The 1980s were a truly awful decade in many ways, but their offence was mild compared to what followed. What the 80s encouraged in terms of greed and naked, grasping cupidity was as nothing compared to what we have today.

If London is the alpha city of the U.K., then the City is the alpha district. Competition is that much fiercer, the rewards are that much greater and the temptations are huge. The news headlines are full of scandals where City traders work around the rules to bend the percentages in their favour. And it's almost as if the keys to the jewellery box were lobbed into their lap!

"Respectable little murders pay;
They get more respectable every day."

Certain vital parts of the global financial mechanism, which operated Just Fine back in the day when gentlemens' agreements had some value, were hijacked by a troupe of wised-up kids who calculated that they could pretend to be the same gentlemen, while acting very much unlike the same gentlemen, and pocket large gobs of cash in the process. Hey presto, LIBOR fixing scandal.

And this sickness, this financial cancer, spreads far and wide. A whole multitude of millions now exist to service the needs of these wealthy few. They're forced to compete with each other, to lower their prices and wages in order to get each precious contract. The rules of retail are rewritten to include contracting workers on an hourly wage but not guaranteeing them any hours. Why? Because profit is all.

"These days a man makes you something
And you never see his face.
There is no hiding place."

On my increasingly frequent trips out of the city, I find it's easier to catch one's breath, to pause and think, and to drink in a sunset or two with real appreciation. Here in London, the best sunsets I've seen have been from the train as I head home, and that can't be right.

It can't be right that I hear students, kids, talking about how they're going to leave London as soon as they can, looking for something that improves on the life they have in the city.

"Maybe we'll leave come springtime.
Meanwhile, have another beer.
What would we do without all these jerks anyway?
Besides, all our friends are here."

But, as the song says, what would we do without our friends? Those friends that we grew up with, partied with, watched getting married and now hardly ever see, because we're all in the grip of the same faceless, insatiable need to keep the wolf from the door. Are we thriving or are we surviving?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Sacrificial Lambs"

"We're having a party, we're burning it down,
We're building an idol; he's sad but he don't frown.
He's the cream of the crop
So we're making him God.
Start writing this down
When I give you the nod."

David Letterman once introduced Warren Zevon on his TV show by describing him as the only man who'd put the word "brucellosis" into a song. This song contains about 4 more words that you'd be very hard pressed to find in any popular-music context, and that factoid partly explains why I like this song so much.

"Them Coptic monks knew how to keep it real:
That Zoroastrian thing,
That Rosicrucian deal.
Well they might be wrong
But they don't give a damn;
Long as they don't run out
Of sacrificial lambs."

The fact that Zevon threw these concepts casually together suggests at least he knew what he was talking about. And it fires up the academic in me. I want to know what he was thinking when he wrote this. Was he having a pop at mystics and shamans, wise men and women? Anyway, the mystery puts it at the top of my list of songs in which the music, the tune, the rhythm, plays only a secondary role. That's not to say the music is bad, but just that this time, *this* time, it's not what drew me in.

"Madame Blavansky and her friends
Changed lead into gold, and back again.
Krishnamurti said 
`I'll set you free';
Write out a check 
And make it out to me."

This song is like a treasure hunt through Wikipedia. Was he having a snark at TV evangelists? And why does he call her Blavansky? Is he referring to Helena Blavatsky? I've lost count of the hours I've spent researching every reference in this song.

"Smokey and the Bandit and Saddam Hussein
Were staying up late and acting insane.
Along with Russell Crowe
And Hafez Assad;
Start taking this down
When I give you the nod."

At this point I just throw my hands up in the air. What do these guys have in common? Some of them are real people, but how do they fit this narrative? This seems to have no meaning at all, either within the song or even outside. But I don't *trust* Zevon not to have made a connection.

The last verse goes:

"The boys are all ready, they've laid out the plans.
They're setting the stage for the man-made man.
We've worked out the kinks
In your DNA;
Sayonara, kid
Have a nice day."

I don't think this song is even *about* taking a pop at mysticism. Instead, it's probably poking fun at `spiritual' beliefs that push a scientific route to understanding and growth; the idea that humans can better themselves, lift themselves up, through the appliance of reason. Better Living Through Science? He doesn't think so.

And given that the album this comes from was called "My Ride's Here", and it was issued just before Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, it just makes you wonder.....

I understand and agree that lyricists like Dylan and Neil Young should be regarded as being the Gold Standard in popular music, but Zevon was certainly standing on the shoulders of giants for much of his career. It's a rare moment when you have to actually do some research to understand a song. Not something that I'd care to have to do a lot of, but it's a pleasure *because* it's so rare.

"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)"

This is the first of two blogs, that have been percolating in my head for quite a time, that appreciate songs for pretty much diametrically opposite reasons. 

Music engages our heads, our hips and our hearts; often more than one of those receptors at the same time, which is a bonus.

Sometimes, the song provides an aural blanket, a fuzzy sense of warmth that you wrap around yourself for comfort or reassurance. Sometimes it's a call to arms, or a hand that reaches out to let you know you're not alone. And some other times it's a regimental sergeant-major howling at you to get up and dance.

And often the song has a message. Sometimes it's an easy message to understand, and other times it's buried in the chorus, or even in half a line. I've lost count of the times that I've *thought* I understood a song, only to find that I've completely missed the point. It's totally understandable, of course: a songwriter has one thing in his or her head when they're putting pen to paper, and we quite often have another when the finished product is wafting into our ears. 

I *think* this song is a case in point. Most people I've spoken to think it's a song about marital abuse, and the lines
"You say when he hits you, you don't mind
Because when he hurts you, you feel alive."
are pretty incontrovertible. But to me, that angle sort of starts and stops there.

So what else could it be about? For a start, the song was written for the soundtrack to "Wings of Desire", a Wim Wenders film about an angel who wants to become mortal. And the lyrics make a lot more sense when viewed through *that* prism. The song seems to play up why being human can, on occasion, be even more rewarding than being an angel.

"Red lights, gray morning,
You stumble out of a hole in the ground;
A vampire or a victim;
It depends on who's around"


"With satellite television
You can go anywhere:
Miami, New Orleans
London, Belfast and Berlin"

We humans have choice! We can play different roles as the mood takes us; we're not hemmed in by an unwieldy pair of wings and a job description that means we can only ever be Good. And while we don't have superpowers (or whatever it is angels possess), we can pretty much be omnipresent thanks to technology.

And yes, there are moments when being human isn't pleasant, but I think the word here is "choice".

My ten cents, for what it's worth....

The whole song, the tune, the arrangement, is a revelation. For a start, it's so *intimate*, which is not an adjective I usually connect with U2. It's sensuous, and in fact almost sensual: the repetitive guitar figure coils and rises like smoke, caresses your ears almost playfully. Whereas U2 songs can sometimes be a little didactic, where the sentiment or even the argument is rammed home with zero subtlety, this is hypnotic, and all the more persuasive for it.

Lyrically, there are some utterly beautiful moments; "You can lip-synch to the talk shows" is so satisfying. The chorus is wondrous as well, but I reserve my admiration and amazement for the final, almost throwaway lines that resolve the story:
"Three o'clock in the morning
It's quiet and there's no-one round
Just the bang
And the clatter
As an angel 
Hits the ground"

I don't know why, but the word "clatter" is so..... perfect that I couldn't imagine any other being used to describe the noise an angel might make when it traded in its day job for being mortal.