Sunday, September 08, 2019

Joy Inside My Tears--Intocable's Vital Percepcion

Singer/accordionist Ricardo Munoz cries out in pain and also cries for joy, often at once, each syllable of his delivery as nuanced as that of a legendary soul or country singer. But, then, the whole of Intocable swings with an equally supple, hard-hitting and precise approach. Together, they turn conjunto “No Van A Entender,” a simple declaration of unconditional love (despite what others may think), into a sage stand for liberation “Beso Incompleto” becomes an epic rocker about not giving up on love, even after it’s clearly gone, “Nunca Volveras,” its signature Intocable ballad equivalent, an exquisite melody tenderly relished

All twenty-four cuts here are about love and loss, even if the loss hasn’t happened yet, and they are also about everything else in life, sometimes all at once. If you understand the personal as political as this great band has for a quarter of a century, then you hear the love song as all that’s ever really needed—to talk about fighting for community and commitment to that fight, maintaining necessary boundaries and declarations of independence, a celebration of honesty, acceptance and growth. 

Declaring such high aims, the band pushes stylistic envelopes again and again, delivering a menacing bite to “Que Voy Hacer,” a song about dying in a relationship, while beginning with an atonal accordion solo and turning towards simmering funk on “Dimelo De Frente,” a truth-seeking record braced for whatever the answer may be. For these explorations of what seems today’s universal pain, it’s the 2019 record I turn to most—for the strength, the joy and the will to fight.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Dream Baby Dream: The Promise of Blinded by the Light

 Review by Billy Chin

Staking out our spot in the pit before Bruce’s Nashville show in April 2014, I spotted a peculiar sight: A man of Asian or Middle Eastern descent with dark, curly hair was milling about, apparently by himself. He obviously stood out at a typical Springsteen concert. But he looked vaguely familiar to me, so I asked my teenage nephew Bridger to search on his phone for Greetings from Bury Park, a memoir written by a Pakistani who grew up in England as a Springsteen fan. A photo confirmed it was Sarfraz Manzoor, the book’s author. When I turned back to where he had been with the intention of telling him I loved his book, he was gone. 

I emailed Sarfraz shortly afterwards to relay the incident and pass on how his memoir resonated with me, a Japanese-American who discovered Springsteen during adolescence. In a gracious response, Sarfraz said he was now working on a screenplay based on the book. Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham, had agreed to make the movie.

Five years later, Blinded by the Light is hitting theaters across the country, and I took my family to see it an early “fan event” screening in Kansas City. The movie is a natural must-see for any Bruce fan, particularly the chance of getting to see it in a theater with the wall-to-wall Springsteen soundtrack. And my daughter Faith nailed it when she described the movie as “a Bruce Springsteen musical.” It could definitely translate to the stage. (Possibly the next Springsteen on Broadway production?)

But Chadha and Manzoor aren’t just trying to preach to the choir here. Like Springsteen’s music, Blinded by the Light has bigger ambitions with its universal themes of alienation and identity -- of trying to find individual freedom while still connecting to family, friends and a larger community. The main character Javed, in a great and brave performance from Viveik Kalra, discovers the music as a Pakistani teenager growing up in a culturally restrictive Muslim household. The scene when Javed sits alone in his bedroom and puts Springsteen on his Walkman visually captures the internal emotions most of us felt upon hearing the music for the first time. It made me think of both Dorothy’s life-changing moment in The Wizard of Oz, as well as the Big Man blowing down the doors of the Asbury Park club where he first played with Bruce.  

As a Muslim and a Sikh respectively, Javed and his fellow tramp Roops (played by the cool Aaron Phagura) spend much of the movie as outsiders trying to spread the Springsteen gospel in the working-class town of Luton, just outside London. It’s the late 1980s, the age of Thatcher and the National Front, so the parallels 30 years later cannot be ignored. But amid the racism, economic downturn, and cultural and religious roadblocks, Javed finds a way to stake a claim to his life. And instead of using Bruce’s songs as a cocoon to insulate himself from “this shitty world” (Roops's words), Javed ultimately discovers Springsteen’s music is the opening to a bigger and better life, doing his part to create a place where “nobody wins unless everybody wins.” With that universal and timeless message, Blinded by the Light is built for the long haul, making it a vital and joyful entry in the Springsteen canon.     

Author Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen and Gurinder Chadha at Asbury Park Premiere

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Only Light We See: Craig Werner and Friends Making a Way Out of No Way

Group Picture: Last Day, Last Session of Calls and Responses
When I introduced Craig Werner at a Springsteen conference in 2005, my friend Charles Hughes tells me I said, “I could go on about all the accolades this man deserves, but I want to sum up the most important part: Craig Werner builds community.” I knew it because about half of my favorite music writers were either his former students or his associates. I didn’t know it near as well as I do now.

I wrote the draft of this blog after returning from an April conference at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, where a dozen or so of the people I feel closest to in the world (alongside a couple hundred more) were celebrating Craig’s career (alongside Nellie McKay, Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ed Pavlic and many others) building the school’s Department of Afro-American Studies. Because Craig didn’t want it to be about him, the conference was named “Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community.” It was a revelation. I didn’t know something like this could happen around academia.
I’ve been in—and of—and angry with academia for most of my life now, and it’s easy to see the limits—the more you know, the harder to see possibilities. I first realized this when I was just about 22 years old in my first year of graduate school. I stayed at the college where I was an undergraduate mainly because I had very little direction (sorta still wanted to be a musician despite nothing anyone would call talent), and my new wife needed to be there for her graduate degree. I had a wonderful undergraduate experience—the only really positive institutional, extended educational experience of my life. But when I went into graduate school, I saw the politics behind the curtain, and it robbed me of any illusions.
No need to break all that down. I liked my school, and loved a good number of my professors. Let’s just say I saw the caste system, and I saw the pettiness, and I saw that people loved rules more than ideas in school at about the same moment I began to understand all the dead ends in the larger political system. The way people are feeling right now, I relate to it from those days because of Iran Contra, Plantation Week at Oklahoma State University, and the fact that my thesis defense came down to a debate over my unconventional use of commas (in works of fiction). The institution I was in seemed obsessed with the trivial while overlooking the big picture.
Writing about music took me out of the confines of academia, and I must admit I’ve never been able to write to academics in any way I find as satisfying as writing to people far outside of schools. I have been most consistently inspired by people who never had “higher” education or were actually thrown out of their schools. So, on the third day of “Calls and Responses,” when travel problems kept several presenters from one session and Craig tapped me to maybe fill in, I knew I had something to say and began taking double the notes I normally take—and I take a lot of notes—just in case. Thankfully, there was no need for me to share it then.
I feel a need to share it now.
I think I can put this quite simply. Most of the people who have inspired me to think I could make a difference work in some antagonism with academic systems. We can start with musicians, who have often sent me driving miles past the turn off to my campus jobs before I turned back around. The writers and editors who taught me how to write included J-School grads and English teachers but were more often and impressively homemakers, homeless organizers, bricklayers, steelworkers, printmakers, and commercial music writers who dropped out to go into the work. These same people—and my students—taught me most of what I do right in the classroom. I teach veterans of many wars and refugees of crises around the world, and they each add something different and essential. When I went to this conference, I was "teaching" a nurse who was my age. She worked all night and attended my class at 11:00 a.m.
Bianca Martin, Riah Werner and Tim Tyson
I suppose I could do that if I had to, but I’m not sure. And she not only showed up every day, she was crucial to how my class worked. She could have run the thing. Maybe she did.
So I was watching this panel that had been somewhat reshaped to fill holes. Riah Werner, a teacher on the Ivory Coast, talked about how she improvises with next to nothing and how she learned to do that and how she learned to work around the system by growing up in and around this Afro-Am Studies Department. Bianca Martin, producer of NPR’s 1-A, talked about how Craig in particular actually listened to her unlike what she’d encountered before and pointed her toward the resources she needed. Sagashus Livingston, who founded the Infamous Mothers’ Project, “an education and media company that focuses on women who mother from the edge,” testified that the department helped her stay in college and then gave her the strength to go out on her own and start this business. Kevin Mullen, who moderated the panel, introduced us to the Odyssey Project that extends college education to those who normally would have no access. I have seen such work around the margins in my life, but it was almost never something supported by the places I work for a living.
I have this quote from Ms. Livingston, “even my professors were afraid,” as a step in the calculus that led her out of college and into her business. For me, that’s it. In the world we live in today, even your professors better be afraid. The fact that students and teachers communicated that honestly and openly in this department defies about 90% of my expectations in the ancient, gatekeeping systems of academia.
During the phenomenal veterans’ panel, the department’s Anthony Black told a story I told every class I had when I got back to my classroom because I remembered all too clearly when I first started teaching and the mantra from on high was “weed em out.” He told how, at the height of the Vietnam War, teaching assistants literally held the fate of their composition students in their hands. The school relied on Comp I as a gatekeeper, and if students didn’t pass, they would face the draft. “The TA’s stood up,” he recounted, touching on various kinds of rebellions led by English teachers in this time of crisis.
The “modern university” dates back to around 1079, and as with all such institutions, it is built to resist any challenge to its hierarchy. However, at a time when changing technologies challenge the very nature of work and never-ending war seems to be just another component of keeping the system in place, the university is facing a call to change unlike anything that’s happened in our lifetimes. (I believe in well over a thousand years.) Before this weekend conference, I assumed all such structures would ultimately crumble and fall. The Department of Afro-American Studies in Madison showed just what a revolutionary role such institutions can play.
Dave Marsh and Chris Buhalis help me make sense of it all
In general, I remain skeptical of existing institutions, but, in April, I saw what I saw and experienced what I experienced. Some of the finest writers, artists, teachers and musicians on the planet took me down a dark country road in Alabama, into the thickets of Vietnam and under the Iraqi desert sky and even the eastern Oklahoma hills of my former Cherokee home, and they played me, among other things, Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” As improbable as it was, I not only went there, but I didn’t feel alone. Beyond that, I left with a conviction that we will continue to carry the dialogue outward and bring what we learn back home, wherever that may be. 
Because the words are true, you know, however we find a way to live up their call—
Craig Werner, David Cantwell and CJ Janovy
“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No, I won’t be afraid
No, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand

Stand by me”
--That there, the secret of the universe.

Special thanks to everyone mentioned above, my friends C.J. Janovy and David Cantwell, who got me up there, and every other person I heard or with whom I talked and laughed and dabbed my eyes.

"Whenever you're in trouble..."

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Movie stars and American heroes, the ones that lie ahead and the last that appear at night: Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars

As a Hollywood cowboy (archetype, bit player, singer and stunt man), Bruce Springsteen—the rock and roll animal who happens to play syllables as well as he handles guitar, piano and voice*—has once again escaped the corrals of musical genre, this time seeming to leave behind the rhythm and blues so crucial to his vision. "Seeming" is an important word here since I don't think any of this music could exist without that context, stance and relationship to the greater culture. As a record that both celebrates its role in all sorts of traditions and experiments its way forward, "Western Stars" says as much about the jazz impulse at the heart of Springsteen's musical identity as anything he's ever done, pointing back at those earliest jazz-flavored records without sounding like them (or anything like jazz, for that matter). The fact that it works at all says something about possibility.

Sometimes it seems this music and these choices ask every question about art itself. The opener, “Hitch-hiker,” features a character straight out of a Woody Guthrie song, though the details could have taken place yesterday. The music’s sweeping-plains strings lace Aaron Copeland with Richard Rodgers.

Lyrically, it’s the tale of a free spirit utterly dependent on his environment. It’s the story of the songwriter who steals a story from a family, a truck driver and a street racer, all getting him a little further up the road. It’s the story of artist and audience dependent on each other to get from one moment of grace to another—the gentle wind in the strings rings out like the “telephone poles and trees” that “go whizzing by.”

“Western Stars” is not unique as a Springsteen album about the tension between individualism and community. It is not unique for being an album that deals with consequences. It is not unique for its focus on tragic limits, and it’s not unique for its transcendence of those limits with magical leaps in perspective (in that sense “My Beautiful Reward” anticipates “Stones” just as "Stones" pulls that reward further out of reach).

What is unique here is part of what Springsteen has always been about. At a time when tradition seems to have been folded into flavor profiles on the menu of complete corporate control, Springsteen has made a record that really doesn’t suggest a home on any known format….maybe Sirius’s 60s on 6, but without the nostalgic hooks those records inherently radiate.

That said, much of this record sounds like exactly where I live 41 years after “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Songs like “Sundown” and “Stones,” respectively, talk about being alone in a community far from the ones you love and, also, finding what community you have built has been cursed by your own failures, often weaknesses you can't quite separate from the strengths that gave you that community.

So, let’s not call this a review, maybe a testimonial.

By trading in a “rootsy,” even purist (though he's never been a good purist) approach to rock and soul for the sweetening sounds of California pop, Springsteen has suggested endless new pathways forward and perhaps never before sounded so close to the spirit and vision of his hero Roy Orbison. There's also some of Prince's fearlessness here (think about it with "Wayfarer" if nothing else). They’ve all carved careers out of the alienation that binds us together, especially in that sense we don’t quite fit and if we do it’s only for fleeting moments. Prince created new worlds, from Uptown to Paisley Park, where such inclusion might develop; as an everyday counterpoint, Springsteen reaches back to the Coasters for a GI Bill investment that seeded "Sleepy Joe's Cafe."

One thing that’s been fascinating this time around is hearing the immediate audience commentary on satellite radio and online, in part because it has been so often positively thoughtful and analytical. In this process, two songs that I felt harmonically stir my bones (“Sundown” and “There Goes My Miracle”), I’ve heard placed in completely different contexts—contemplating our elders and end-of-life issues and contemplating the pain of watching our children grow up to go their own way. 

I can hear those things in the lyrics and music (and it's sometimes devastating to do so), but I hear them overlaying my own sense of isolation in the midst of change, whatever the cause. When music’s doing its job, all these interpretations hit that sympathetic resonance wherein no answer is really wrong; they all speak to a larger perspective always unraveling with each new moment. 

When I was 30, I had something like a visionary experience listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” on the road dealing with an untimely death—I heard what it meant to me at 15 and 20 and 25 and then the whole as different stages in an elemental struggle. I remember wondering if it offered a way out or simply a description of my trap. I knew it offered a way to get through, but that’s different.

“You can get a little too fond of the blues,” Springsteen sings on “Hello Sunshine.” “You walk too far, you walk away,” he follows, and there’s a way this embrace of so many pieces left behind by the pop music tide feels like an attempt to walk back that journey and try to connect across entirely new musical lines. A few years ago, I remember a revolutionary hero of mine saying, “You know, when this revolution really kicks off, it’s not going to be one kind of music at the center of that struggle.” This album agrees, arguing there need be no boundaries, at least not in terms of artistic aim that’s true.

This music is so big and cinematic because it is both naturalistic (maintaining a vision of the characters against the backdrop of an indifferent universe) and (in dialectic) magically realistic. When the singer finds himself alone in his bed at the end of the record, the wind has kicked his covers off. The mantra “it is better to have loved” plays in his head. At the end of a musical journey that ties together “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” with “Jungleland,” “My Father’s House,” “Outlaw Pete” and “We Are Alive,” the singer pays tribute to a place where one could once get lost for a romantic eternity. Those days are gone, but the music never ceases to look for new ways to conjure such infinite seconds, finding inspiration even in the solemn contemplation of “dandelions growing up through the cracks in the concrete.” 

*The difference in syllables and voice? Beats versus colors?