A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

“Sundown” is the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s fifth album on the Warner Bros/Reprise label (his tenth album, overall). It was a number-one hit in the summer of 1974. I was just under five years old at the time, so it’s unlikely I have any real memories of the song in the context of that year. And yet somehow it’s become associated in my mind with a series of impressions that add up to a scene that very likely did occur around that time… so maybe I actually do remember it. Memory is such a weird, slippery thing, especially when you’re looking back across four and a half decades. But whether I’m experiencing a genuine memory when I hear “Sundown” or just something I’ve manufactured for myself that uses the song as accompaniment, it always conjures up a vision of riding alongside my pretty young mother in her 1956 Ford pickup truck, the one with rust-red primer on the fenders and an eight-track deck welded into the dashboard. A long bar of sunshine-polygons pivots across the curving sides of the windshield and the truck shimmies and squeaks as old cars do, like living things with a touch of arthritis in their joints. The sweet, floral smell of just-cut alfalfa flows through the open wing-window. Dad has a swather machine and picks up a few extra bucks on the weekends cutting and baling hay for the local farmers. We’re on our way to meet him with a midday snack, a box of his favorite raspberry Zingers on the bench seat between us, a styrofoam cooler on the floor between us loaded with cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda and Coke in tall glass bottles. I’m drowsy in the heat, and the world seems very large and uncrowded.

This memory is a safe place, a happy place that I find myself retreating to more and more often as I get old and current events become more grim and frustrating. Strange that it would be so tangled up with a song about a “hard-headed woman that’s got me feeling mean.” But like I said… memory is weird…

 

spacer

A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love

An artist whose voice I love? Well, let’s see… I already used the Bangles way back at Song Number 9, so Susanna Hoffs is out. How about…

Mary Chapin Carpenter.

You might remember her from a string of hits on the country charts back in the early ’90s that included “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “Passionate Kisses,” “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,”  and her biggest seller, the number-one favorite “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”

Despite these successes, though, mainstream country was never a great fit for Chapin — I call her Chapin; I have no idea if anyone else does or if she would be cool with it — especially at that particular moment when her contemporaries tended to be glammed-up dollies like Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. By contrast, Chapin has always seemed to be most comfortable in a flannel shirt and a ponytail, and neither her speaking nor singing voice has the slightest trace of a twang. She took five years off in the late ’90s, but since the turn of the century — man, that still sounds weird! — she’s been recording and releasing new music that has moved farther and farther away from the country genre, both in sound and subject matter. Today, it’s probably best to describe her simply as a singer-songwriter whose work comprises literate meditations on aging, politics, and contemporary events. Sounds pretentious, but her music always had an intellectual edge, which is partly why I like her. Her lyrics are smart and often include striking imagery, as well as unexpected flashes of humor, even when the subject matter seems heavy. She’s a storyteller, which isn’t that unusual among singer-songwriters or country musicians, but the way in which she tells her stories are uniquely her own, and as a wannabe storyteller myself, I admire that.

As to her voice, it can be sexy on the right song, but mostly it’s warm and smooth. The cliche’d description would be “like honey,” but cliche or not, that’s what it reminds me of. Especially on the song I’ve selected for this post, which is the introspective title track from her 1994 album Stones in the Road, the same one that yielded the playful “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” This one refers to historical events that would have more resonance for Baby Boomers than my own age demographic, but I still relate to the overall mood and themes, and I love the final verse about what becomes of those innocent children when they hit working age.

“Stones” was not released as a single, so there’s no official video for it. There are some live performances on YouTube, but I really like the sound in the studio version you’ll hear here. Chapin didn’t do many videos in any case; much like the glamorous hair and dresses, she never seemed comfortable doing them. It’s probably for the best anyhow. Just close your eyes and pay attention to the words she uses…

spacer

I Wish We Could Move On from This

So here we are again. This day..

This year, for the first time, I have one of those “healing fields” right next door to my house. Long rows of American flags on the lawn of the local civic center, standing about as tall as I am on poles made of white PVC, their colors bright under the September sun. During rare moments when there’s a lull in the traffic on the busy road out front, I can hear a whispering sound as folds of nylon cloth ripple and slide past each other in the light breeze. It’s rather peaceful. Pleasant, even. And yet… I hate it.

I hate that it’s been 19 years since that other sunny September morning and we’re still putting up these fields of flags and ritualistically posting images of the lost towers and the words “never forget” on our social media. What good does it do us as a society to keep doing this? How long will it take, how many years of putting up “healing fields” does it require, until this nation finally is healed? Or even beginning to heal? Or at least pretending to?

Not that anyone asked, but I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t believe Americans really want this particular wound to heal. I think we enjoy our martyrdom too much.

Blasphemy, I know, and maybe more than a little asshole-ish to say it out loud. But look… we don’t behave this way around December 7, and as far as I know, we never did. We just got on with the business at hand. I suppose it can be argued that 9/11 was more traumatic than Pearl Harbor, because it happened on the mainland instead of 2500 miles away, right in the heart of our most important city, and we all saw the towers fall on live television. But still… it’s been nearly two decades. An entire generation has been born and (mostly) grown up in that time. So why are we still doing this?

In a couple of recent posts, I mentioned the way I reacted to breaking up with someone when I was 20, the way I moped about it for much, much longer than I should have. I didn’t see it that way at the time. Back then, all I knew was that I was hurting. But here’s the thing: Looking back now, I think that after a while, I chose to keep hurting. It became a sort of identity for me. I saw myself as the wounded romantic, the tragic figure who lost at love. In some weird, fucked-up, masochistic way, I think I actually liked hurting and pining for a lost love. But it was foolish and self-destructive. Maybe a little bit phony, too; that is, maybe I wasn’t really hurting so much as I believed myself to be. And it was self-limiting: Who knows what opportunities I missed out on, that I was utterly blind to, because I was so absorbed with this… idea. Because in the end, that’s what I was really hung up on, an idea of loss more than the actual girl that I lost. And it was all, when you get down to it, somehow… somehow it was my fault that I felt that way. It was my choice to remain in that headspace instead of pulling myself together and getting on with living.

I think that’s what Americans are doing with 9/11 at this point. We’re choosing to continue this annual ritual of mourning that is, to my way of thinking, far out of proportion with the number of lives actually lost. Three thousand people died in the twin towers and in the Pentagon and in that field in Pennsylvania, and that is tragic. The manner of their deaths was absolutely horrible. But how many died in the wars of revenge that we waged after 9/11? How many have died of COVID-19 in the past few months, and how many are going to die of it before it finally burns itself out or recedes to the level of an annual nuisance instead of a scourge? Are they going to get an annual day of remembrance too? Because I think this damned plague has been every bit as traumatic and painful as that terror attack 19 years ago. But that’s different somehow, isn’t it?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m sure there are still people who lost loved ones in the attack or who live near to where it happened who struggle this time of year. I’m not unsympathetic to that. I don’t think we should stop all commemoration of the event or of the lives lost. But I’d like to see it start to scale back. To become a regional thing that happens at the places where people actually died, like the annual commemoration on the USS Arizona. We shouldn’t forget what happened or ignore it moving forward, but can’t we be a little more measured about it now that we have some distance from it?

And for god’s sake, can we avoid turning this into yet another “America, Fuck Yeah!” holiday? Because I fear we’re drifting that way now that this day has been officially designated as “Patriot Day.” In addition to that field of flags, my hometown is planning a classic-car parade and fireworks tonight at — naturally — 9:11 PM. I can’t tell you how distasteful I find that. This day is supposed to be a solemn memorial for the dead, but let’s have a party too. But I suppose that’s the America way, when you get down to it. Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day, which becomes a three-day weekend and an opportunity for a killer deal on a new pickup truck. I know that I’m just spitting into the wind with my desire to see Patriot Day rolled back to something quiet and small and dignified. But then I’d also like to see American troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan once and for all, and I’d like to not have to take off my shoes at the airport anymore too.

spacer

A Song That Breaks Your Heart

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song That Breaks Your Heart

Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a beautiful ballad, as insightful and emotionally truthful as any I’ve ever heard… so truthful that for a very long time, I couldn’t stand to listen to it.

This was partly an accident of timing. The song was released in October of 1991, and while I was on the mend by then from the romantic trauma I mentioned in the previous entry, “on the mend” is a long way from “100% recovered.” It didn’t take much in those days to rip the scab off and this song was just… too much. It stung me like a physical slap every time I heard it. So naturally it was a big hit that I couldn’t seem to avoid hearing all through the fall and winter months of that year. The universe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. Even if it hadn’t come out right then, though, I think I might have struggled with this song anyhow. It really is very sad.

Watch the video closely… the man you see playing the piano at the end is none other than Bruce Hornsby, who’d just had several hits of his own in the late ’80s with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. He also played piano on Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” around this same time. He was evidently the go-to guy for melancholy…

spacer

A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love

In the summer of 1991, I was 21 years old and finally beginning to move on from a heartbreak I’d experienced the previous year. In retrospect, I never should have allowed myself to sulk for so long about that situation, which really couldn’t have turned out any other way except the way that it did. But that’s the somewhat wiser perspective of a 51-year-old whose scars (and hormones) have faded. Back then, when it was all fresh and red and oozing, and I was still more of a boy than any kind of functional adult… well, back then I fancied myself some kind of Byronic hero, a tragic figure swathed in melancholy, wounded by love as no one in the history of humankind had ever been wounded before, existing in the shadows and clinging to the bright pain that gives life meaning. (“Call me... Darkman…”)

Christ, no wonder I had such a hard time getting a date!

Seriously, though, now that I think about it, this awful period was probably my first encounter with the Black Dog of depression, and I probably could’ve used some professional help instead of muddling through it on my own. I’m more than a little embarrassed about my behavior and thinking during that time. But as I said, by the summer of ’91, I was starting to pull myself out of the funk. And in spite of the aforementioned difficulty, I was starting to land the occasional date, too. For example, there was the afternoon I escorted an old friend to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the theater where I worked.

Now, that movie is what it is and this isn’t the place to debate its merits or lack thereof. And whatever intentions (hopes? wishes?) I may have had toward that friend didn’t pan out. We had a nice afternoon at the movies, but that was all. Perhaps I wasn’t as ready to move on as I thought as I was, or maybe too much time had passed to rekindle anything with that particular girl. Maybe I never actually had any intentions at all and I just wanted to see a movie with a friend. I don’t recall for sure anymore. But whatever the ultimate outcome, there was a moment during the movie’s closing credits when I suddenly felt… well, something between us. It might have been wishful thinking, it might just have been the mood generated by the movie’s romantic ending, but it was there, and it did me a world of good to feel that way, if only for a moment. To know that I still could feel that way. For that reason alone, I’ve never been able to join in when everybody else starts ragging on that movie.

Music is, of course, a huge component of how a movie affects the viewer, and I have no doubt that the song that played over the end credits of Prince of Thieves was as responsible for how I felt in that moment as anything. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was Bryan Adams’ first foray into movie music and it proved to be a good career move for him, as the song became a number-one hit in 16 different countries and remains Adams’ biggest-selling song. It also led to him writing and recording a slew of other movie songs, both for himself and for other performers, including a couple of power ballads that were very similar to “(Everything I Do)” in sound and mood: “All for Love,” a collaboration with Rod Stewart and Sting for the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” from the Johnny Depp vehicle Don Juan DeMarco. For my money, though, “(Everything I Do)” is the best of these, as well as one of the best love songs of the last several decades. Because while love songs are a dime a dozen, especially in pop and rock circles, I’ve never heard one that captures the feeling of tenderness in such an honest, true-to-life way. At least to my ear. Your mileage may vary.

This song isn’t about the early infatuation stage of a relationship or about physical lust, as intoxicating as those things are; this song is more mature than that. It’s a promise. It’s a knight pledging himself to a lady.

And one day back in 1991, it really did make me want to fall in love again

A final note about the video: I know there was one that incorporated clips from the movie along with Adams in a long black coat walking along a stony English-looking beach, but for some reason, I couldn’t find that one. Probably something to do with licensing, I would guess, because of the movie footage. Here’s another version that’s not nearly as good… but we’re here to listen to the music anyhow, right?

spacer

A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living

I heard a lot of Elvis’ music when I was a kid. My mother is a longtime fan and, while she was never one of those extremists who built a shrine in the living room following his death, it seems like there was always one of his records playing on our massive old hi-fi console when I got home from school. Unlike most kids who probably just rolled their eyes at whatever their parents liked to listen to, I actually enjoyed it. Most of it, anyhow.

I’ve gone back and forth over the years about which era of Elvis I prefer. Generally speaking, he was at his most exciting in the early days, the late 1950s, before his stint in the army and that long string of Hollywood movies that seemed to drain away all the mojo that had been so threatening to whitebread America when he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, I also have a real soft spot for his work from the early ’70s, the records that Mom was listening to most often in my memories of that time. “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Burning Love” are great songs, as iconic in their way as anything he did when he was young.

However, for a plain old crank-it-loud, get-the-heart-pumping rock-and-roll experience, I always dial up “Promised Land.” Originally a Chuck Berry tune from 1965, Elvis recorded it in 1973, and released it as a single in the fall of ’74. It peaked on the charts at number 14 and became the title track of an LP the following year. I was five at the time.

The video I found appears to be fan-made, using footage from the film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which documented a string of live appearances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (now known as the Westgate Las Vegas) in August 1970. Promoted as the “Elvis Summer Festival,” this was essentially the same sort of residency that has now become de rigueur for aging rockstars. People tend to sneer at “Vegas Elvis,” but he was pioneering something we now take for granted, and as cheesy as the jumpsuits and karate moves might now appear to be, I’m sure they were electrifying at the time. There has to be a reason why the man sold out 837 of those Vegas performances.

One final thought: You might remember this one from the first Men In Black movie, when Tommy Lee Jones is driving on the ceiling of the Queens Midtown Tunnel while blasting his favorite eight-track. (“Elvis is not dead, he just went home.”)

spacer

Oh, Well, That Explains It…

Josh Marshall, founder and editor of the Talking Points Memo blog, has some insight into the general character of Democrats:

Democrats today fit into two cultural and ideational groups. Most fall into both. But almost all of them fit into at least one of them. First, they are people who tend to be empirically minded, more tolerant, more trusting of scientific consensus. These are all mindsets and world-views that place a great premium on doubt. Skepticism is the root of empiricism. It is, along with doubt, also a key pillar of tolerance. Each correlates with educational attainment, which in recent decades has become a key marker of Democratic partisan affiliation. In our current political configurations, these habits of thought and experience are heavily weighted to those who identify as Democrats. These are qualities that in most respects Democrats valorize. But here we see some of the negative effects. You’re less sure you’re right.

Many Democrats also have either a personal or historical experience of being marginalized in society. This is a good reason to be wary of and anticipate bad outcomes.

So let’s see… I’m well-educated and have always respected science, and I like to think of myself as a tolerant man. Certainly I have completely internalized the Star Trek ideal known as IDIC… Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And growing up as a non-religious kid in the midst of small-town Mormon Utah, I’ve definitely felt marginalized at times in my life.

My god, it’s like he’s talking about me!

Maybe. I could be wrong. I’m not sure…

(Seriously, though, I can’t fault anything he says here, including his conclusion that Dems tend to struggle with self-doubt and as a result often shoot themselves in the foot. It’s something I truly wish we could bring under control, both for the sake of our political standing and for our own personal peace of mind… )

spacer

I Wonder What the Difference Could Be?

Responding to the news that a seventeen-year-old twerp with AR-15 murdered two people at a protest against police brutality in Wisconsin, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show calls it as he sees it:

Some guy decided to drive to Kenosha with his militia buddies to “protect a business,” and apparently ended up shooting three people and killing two. But don’t worry—the business is okay. And let me tell you something: No one drives into a city with guns because they love someone else’s business that much. That’s some bullshit. No one has ever thought, “Oh, it’s my solemn duty to pick up a rifle and protect that T.J.Maxx.” They do it because they’re hoping to shoot someone.

That’s the only reason people like him join these gangs in the first place. And yes, I said it: a gang. Enough with this “militia” bullshit. This isn’t the Battle of Yorktown. It’s a bunch of dudes threatening people with guns. And while what happened with those shootings last night is tragic, what happened afterwards is illuminating. Because it made me wonder, it really made me wonder why some people get shot seven times in the back while other people are treated like human beings and reasoned with and taken into custody with no bullets in their bodies.

How come Jacob Blake was seen as a deadly threat for a theoretical gun that he might have and might try to commit a crime with, but this gunman who was armed and had already shot people, who had shown that he is a threat, was arrested the next day, given full due process of the law, and generally treated like a human being whose life matters?

How did Dylann Roof shoot up a church, James Holmes shoot up a movie theater, and both live to tell about it? Why is it that the police decide that some threats must be extinguished immediately while other threats get the privilege of being defused?

I’m asking these as questions, but I feel like we know the answer. The answer is that the gun doesn’t matter as much as who is holding the gun. Because for some people, Black skin is the most threatening weapon of all.

I truly believe racial inequity is coming to a head in this country. Enough is enough. For the record: Black. Lives. Matter. And law enforcement as an institution, as it is currently practiced in this barbarous nation of ours, is racist as hell. Maybe not individual cops, but the general institution itself. Black people are treated differently by police than whites, and any white people who don’t see it are being deliberately obtuse. And yes, whether they’re conscious of it or not, whether they think of themselves this way or not, they are being racist.

It’s long past time for change. Things must change. And if we don’t find a way to do it peacefully, then I am truly afraid of what the next few years hold. Because people black and white are fed up. And all these redneck dipshits in their soldier-boy cosplay suits with their battlefield weapons might think they’re big and tough, but I have a feeling they’re not going to be as invincible as they imagine themselves to be when the lid finally blows off this pressure cooker.

spacer

A Sorely Needed Shot of Optimism

Kevin Drum again:

America is truly not the cesspool that Donald Trump makes it look like. It’s fundamentally a decent country with an appalling racial history—but a racial history that we’ve been slowly overcoming for decades. Trump represents the worst of that history, not the future of our country. The arc of American culture may be slow, but it does bend toward racial justice. Donald Trump is only a few weeks from discovering that.

God, I hope he’s right. I want to believe this, just as I want to believe in the Star Trek vision of humanity that I grew up on, i.e., that we’re still half-savage but we can do better and, more importantly, we will. But it’s so damn hard to cling to that vision when every damn day brings a new outrage, a new desecration, a new demonstration of just how absolutely shitty people can be for no other reason than because they like pissing other folks off. “Owning the libs.” Being assholes just for the sake of being assholes. It’s exhausting. And I can’t wait until it’s over.

Sixty-nine days until the election…

spacer

Stating the Obvious

In a blog entry today, political observer Kevin Drum posts a bunch of charts derived from a new Pew Research poll and then concludes:

Republicans care about crime, immigration, and guns. Democrats barely even notice these issues. Conversely, Dems care about the pandemic, race inequality, and climate change. Republicans could care less about them. We are living in two different worlds.

Nothing new or surprising here, it’s just nice to occasionally validate something I say all the time. Not merely different worlds, but different freaking universes. Parallel dimensions. Earth Prime vs Bizarro-World.

The big questions are, of course, how did we get here… and what the hell do we do about it?

spacer