Friday, February 06, 2009

In Praise of The Cramps: Lux Interior R.I.P.

John Floyd writes, in response to a question about what made The Cramps great:

Jesus, where do I start? They cut their first and best records in Memphis, and I read about them at the time in the local paper and bought the records the minute I could find them (Gravest Hits was the first I owned; the original singles collected on that record were sold out by the time I knew about them) and when I heard them, they ripped off my head. It was everything I grew up hearing, thanks to parents who loved rockabilly without knowing the music even had a name; my own interest in punk rock and the Memphis band Panther Burns, who were doing things similar to the Cramps' early work, had never met so definitively for me, and it all made sense. So the Cramps, for me, were rock and roll, forget about prefixes. I learned so much from them, through their ultra-obscure covers and the songs and artists they talked about in early interviews -- it was like a history lesson funneled through punk-rock noise, and that was right up my alley at the time, and probably still is. The Cramps helped to make me a rock and roll fanatic, one of those termites who cares about Link Wray outtakes and the Sonics and just how glorious weird rock and roll can be sometimes. They haven't made a record I've cared about since Smell of Female, which must be from '83 at the latest, but what they did to me as a fan is immeasurable. I've loved the Cramps like I've loved the most important music in my life, and even though he farted off the last 30 or so of his, musically speaking, I hate that Lux Interior doesn't have one anymore.

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Rediscovering the Wonders of Music

Danny Alexander writes from Overland Park, KS:

I stopped off at Target on my way home from work and bought Working on A Dream on the day it came out. I put it in, and "Outlaw Pete" lasted almost exactly the length of my ride home. It was a singular experience in my listening life. I didn't follow the lyric, aside from the refrains, but the music moved me close to tears at that first point where it grows quiet, and then the music swelled again, and I had that feeling I have watching an epic western, that I didn't know where it was going to go, but I was just glad to be along for the ride. I don't remember all the particulars of the sound swelling in my car, but at that point, where I turn off 95th Street onto Connell and wound through a neighborhood to 91st, I felt like I felt as a teenager-- when music told me of limitless possibilities, when I knew the feel of the key to the universe in that old parked car. But this was a different universe, and a different car.

From 91st, I took another jog through a neighborhood on a street called Knox until I reach 89th, where I live. The music was drawing to a close, and I'd moved close to tears twice more. What I knew, pulling into my spot, was that I wasn't ready to go on to the next song yet. I thought of that moment in "This Magic Moment," when you talk about exchanging glances, lifting the needle and starting the record again.

Fortunately, I didn't have to move on, or I had an excuse not to. I came in the house and showed the CD to my wife Lauren, and we went up to our room and put it on the beatbox. It reminded me how good music is when it's played by the side of your bed, filling up your room with worlds worth dreaming about. We wound up cuddling, and just listening. Lauren was beginning to doze by "The Last Carnival." but she was also surprised, in a good way, that it had flown by so quickly. Lauren also said she appreciated Bruce writing "Queen of the Supermarket" for her, longtime checkout girl that she is.

I haven't had this kind of reaction to a record in so long that I think I'd begun to think music couldn't do that for me anymore. It figures Bruce could prove that wrong. But even though I had a sense I was going to like this record more than anything since The Rising, I didn't expect this, this feeling of Christmas morning coupled with a starry night on section roads.

I suspect that's the happiness that critics keep noting. (I haven't read the reviews so much as comments about them, although I did read that lame Spin thing.) There's a joy here, but it's nothing so simple as a man being content. It makes me think of Sonny finding that brand new piano in his hands in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues." The joy I hear is a man (and a whole crew I'd guess) who's rediscovering the wonders of music. I feel certain he had to go there to take me there so completely, so quickly. As I've said many times, I'm a slow listener. It's very rare I'm affected in any way approaching this so quickly. I'm a happy man tonight, and that's not a simple thing at all; just precious.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Springsteen at the Super Bowl

Stewart Francke writes:

All the sanctimonious hype around Bruce Springsteen playing the Super Bowl rubbed me the wrong way. Why is anyone shocked or surprised by Bruce playing the Super Bowl? What is there to "come to terms" with? Name any major successful act and he's made exactly the same mercenary concessions to sales and fame and money that any other act has--maybe even moreso than others. The only thing that's different is that they don't make claims otherwise. If you listened to him at the press conference, he doesn't either, yet his fans seem to make them for him and get all hung up on the past.

He plays stadiums and has for 20 years; he pushes singles and records with more media concentration than anyone; he releases a Greatest Hits to the highest bidding retailer; he charges an arm and a leg to see him; he lets his music be cut up with football sounds--- wherein all this is there a "shock" he's playing the Super Bowl? And his 12 minute mini-set, in the end, was fabulous.

I guess it's because the biggest difference--and this is a big one--is that the music's a ton better, and a ton more meaningful and enduring than with other acts. His music has defined and framed our lives. But is it "selling out?" That's absurd. I have no problem paying an arm and a leg to see him; it's worth it, one of the few things in American life where that's so. But I don't get why the world keeps expecting him to behave like some fringe artiste, making decisions based on principles that would keep him out of the limelight. Everything he does is admittedly about the limelight. And it really should be no other way--the music is to be shared. And it's beautiful music. I'd do it exactly the same way, with as much honesty and class as he's displayed recently--he's doin all this cuz he loves it and needs it and wants the world to dig the music. No harm, no foul. As Greil Marcus famously wrote, and I paraphrase, the game of pop is not worth playing on a limited basis.

All the erroneous rhetoric in Bob Lefsetz's bitter pollyanna trip--two columns worth of kvetching over Bruce "selling out," bemoaning rock's lost innocence. Hell, I'm a long time fan and I'm happy Bruce is so exposed currently--I get to see more of him and hear more of his music. He's pimpin a killer new record and a great body of work...what's the problem? Great things are hard to find in this world.

I have to say I was turned off with the first couple listens of Working On A Dream. Now I've lived with it in my car for some long drives and many listens, and in a lot of ways it's the Bruce album I've been waiting for. I bitched about him doing the dry-as-dust cowboy songs when he was capable of such florid, ornate and moving music...and now he's done it. I really like a lot of the same things as a songwriter and record-maker: The fluid string arrangements (with real strings), the simple groove, the arcing, long melody lines, the arpeggiated guitars often doubled, the piano as response to the vocal, played on the upbeat; the harmonic innovation (this is what's really blowin my mind with this new record) and the lyrics about contentment--which is to say you gotta know the other side of contentment before you can write about it. You gotta know suffering to sing wisely of contentment.

I made my homage to the Beach Boys with Sunflower Soul Serenade, and it's hip to hear Bruce mining those same sounds in intros and bridges--the bass lines built on thirds (straight outta the Carole Kay/Brian Wilson cookbook) the spry quarter note piano stabs, doubled by harpsichord and organ, the sleigh bells and glock (nothing new to Bruce of course) and of course the lovely vocal arrangements.

"This Life" and "Kingdom of Days" are songs I wish I'd written and, in a weird way, songs I feel I've tried to write--"All The Love In a Day" and "Famous Times."

I wrote to my friend Danny Alexander that at first the songs seemed impersonal and benign. But I was wrongheaded with my first couple listens--It's maybe his most personal record since Tunnel Of Love, and the best lyrical commentary on a happy marriage ever in rock. Maybe it's the flipside to Blood On The Tracks or Shoot Out The Lights, those sad song cycles of marriages falling apart in bitterness and desperation.

But it's the melodic and harmonic construction, along with the lead vocal timbre, that makes me say Home Run. From the relative "ease" of "Surprise Surprise"--a major key melody built around flatted fifths that is as fine as any Bacharach or McCartney melody--to the descending flow of "Kingdom of Days," these are melodies that not only resolve--they anticipate the melody line to come. Brilliant gifts that he lets shine through by getting out of the way in the writing process.

It's almost not fair--just when you think of Bruce as a non-melodic "talking" songwriter, he pulls all these languid, gorgeous songs out. I could go on of course, about all the songs, but I really need to listen more. I don't really give a fuck if he plays in a Wal-Mart parking lot if he keeps making records this vital, this beautiful. I've always aspired to make "beautiful" music, because to my ears it works and there's a shortage of it in rock'n'roll. I hope he puts another another out in the fall. Keep 'em comin'.

I do have to say I don't get "Outlaw Pete," if there is anything to "get." I know the image of a baby in a diaper robbing someone is funny, but I'm not sure it's supposed to be funny. I can't imagine writing a song like "Outlaw Pete" in a zillion years, but if I did I woulda made the baby have a dirty diaper on top of it all. The music is epic--a lost cross between Kris Kristofferson and Morricone.

I initially thought this record would comment on our troubled times. Is it me or is this the longest, coldest, snowiest winter in 30 years? With the constant drone of job cuts, lawsuits, bailouts, plant closings, foreclosures and city corruption here in Detroit, this is a Turgenev Russian winter. Stark, lonely, frightening on one hand; on the other I see families and friends pulling together and at least trying to weather this. They talk about it being so bad in '82, but this is far worse to me. Dow cut 15% of its white collar jobs last week. We're all trying to find gigs but the climate is one of fear and abjuration. Everyone's just hangin on, and that includes me and my family, my band, many of my friends.

At first, truth be told, I was miffed with Bruce putting out such a record in these times, seemingly without comment on how fucked up we are. Then I got it--this is the kind of record we need. We don't need more headlines and portrayals of lives betrayed in meager economic times; they're everywhere around us. This record is a reminder about life's bittersweet longing--a personal statement that is inclusive in its vision and breathtaking in its scope. It's such a deeply felt, (and I hate this term but it really really applies) life-affirming circle of songs. Shaped like a life-saver for a reason. As passionate about life and living in its totality as those great lines in "Badlands."

Remarkable, really, when you think about how his motivation could so easily wane. More than any mythical thing surrounding him, or deals with stores, or support of labor, or the legendary 4 hour shows, or the legions of fans...the beauty and clarity and discipline and work ethic in these late-in-life records prove beyond any doubt how he's in it for the music, and only for the music.

I'd like to think if I had all the money in the world and access to private jets etc that I'd still make a record a year and tour all year. But a part of me thinks I might drink at a small cafe in Majorca for 6 months. Nah...I only care about music and family and town too. It's just as hard to maintain discipline when you're broke. In the end, I'm happy Bruce wanted to play the Super Bowl. It was an iconic meeting of American institutions. For 12 minutes I forgot it was winter in Detroit.

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