Saturday, February 15, 2020

On All the Lines and Crossing Over: Jimmy Webb with John Fullbright at Knuckleheads

   After seeing last night’s Jimmy Webb show, I imagine most of the house agrees we have to read his memoir, The Cake and the Rain. Webb spent much of the evening turned to his right on his piano bench, telling stories, and what stories he had to tell....

Of course, it’s not surprising Webb has tales, a man who made records with the Supremes, Johnny Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, Thelma Houston and Carly Simon, whose song recorded by Nina Simone, “Do What You Gotta Do” was turned into Kanye West’s takedown of Taylor Swift, “Famous” (a story he delivered with hilarious ambivalence),  whose work is all-but-inextricably tied up with the heights of Glen Campbell’s career, and whose 1977 song “The Highwayman” inspired two country supergroups, 1985’s collaboration by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, The Highwaymen, and in 2019, The Highwomen, featuring Brandi Carlisle, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.  

                He led off with that "Highwayman" song, feeling like a nod to all the fine women songwriters in country today. He also wanted to get to this story about Waylon Jennings hung over in the studio, laying back on a couch, muttering with his cowboy hat over his face. Webb was giddy over the success of the new Highwaymen record but a little concerned that he was having problems with his own voice. Jennings grumbled, “How can you tell?”

                It's funny because Webb doesn't sing like Jennings, but Webb’s voice is fine. It's tough to sell songs that have been recorded by the finest vocalists in the business—from Frank Sinatra to Isaac Hayes to Art Garfunkel to Donna Summer. But he had fun with it. He freely acknowledged his own limitations, calling out, “now help me here!” when he broke into the high-reaching refrain of “Up, Up and Away” with its “beautiful balooooon!”

                He also didn’t mince words. He introduced “Galveston” as a “thinly veiled antiwar song” after asking how many veterans were in the house tonight. He added, “Many vets have told me over the years how much it meant to them.”
  Then, sensing some disruption in the room around the threat of politics, he dived right in, talking about how Campbell was to the Right of him when he met him and to the Left of him later on. “We’ve always had Right and Left in this country! Hell, the Democrats used to be the Righties!” The crowd laughed.

                He took it a little further. “Music is about more than politics. Love what you love and hate what you hate, but don’t love it or hate it just because of politics.” This received applause. It was the right note, and it was, in its own way, a higher level political statement than can typically be found among the smokescreens and gamesmanship of the nightly news.

                All night long, his touch on the piano was stunning, and he eventually did a gorgeous cover of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye, Goodnight My Angel” as an instrumental. This is on Slipcover, Webb’s all-instrumental tribute to what he calls “The Great American Songbook, Volume II,” featuring music by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Stones.

                Of course, Webb’s original “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” also deserves its place on that album because Webb just about wrote a new Great American Songbook on his own. Bruce Springsteen’s obviously spent the last few years leafing through it, and British music journalist Dylan Jones just wrote a book about one of those songs, The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song. Yeah, that’s right, it is unfinished, and perfect. Webb drew out the ending last night, repeating the modified refrain, “hanging on the line,” perhaps suggesting where it might go, certainly underscoring the perfection of form and content—that song’s left all of us caught up for five decades. It’s agonizing and perfect as it is.

Still, I might have to read that book, too.
Looking more than ever himself like a young Glen Campbell, opener John Fullbright played solo guitar and piano on a greatest hits of his own. As fine a bandleader as Fullbright can be, there’s something unparalleled about the power of his solo performances. I turned to a guy who was clearly rocking in his heels, having never seen Fullbright before, and I said, “This was my dad’s favorite,” on “Forgotten Flowers." The first time I saw Fullbright do a whole show, I was with my father, and I remember how he kept talking about that one; it felt like a bridge between our worlds. That guy was high-fiving me all night, too.

Of course, the night was about bridge building and the many forms it takes. Long after recalling how he and Dustin Welch wrote “Gawd Above” so it could either be “a Christian song for atheists or an atheist song for Christians,” Fullbright covered Frankie Laine’s “That Lucky Ole Sun.” Though the song isn’t strictly gospel, he then remarked, how he didn’t think that much of gospel until he lost his faith; then it became just about his favorite thing. In the current climate, Fullbright’s “Fat Man” felt like some sort of political pipe bomb, but, if anything, it seemed to unite the crowd.

At Oklahoma City’s The Blue Door, music lover and club owner Greg Johnson made sure that Fullbright encountered Jimmy Webb’s music early in his career, and Webb and Fullbright seem deeply bound together today. It makes sense. They both write timeless music that absolutely defies the boundaries that form pop genres while sounding nothing at all like today’s pop, ironically disproving the concept that we have arrived somewhere “post-genre."

When I think of now and then, back when I first heard Webb's music, having no idea the songwriter was from my home state of Oklahoma, I think of those strings on those Webb/Campbell records. I think of sitting in the Penn Theater or the Eastland Twin in my hometown, waiting for the lights to go down and the movies to come on. Those Wrecking Crew strings were so cinematic, I could imagine them moving from a Glen Campbell record to the muzak before the movie to eventually back him on the screen in True Grit

While Webb clearly identified with the rock and roll generation (when he first met his musical hero Campbell, the singer told him he stank and he needed to cut his hair), he made music that dared to serve whatever intuitive leap the songwriter wanted to make, and those strings are absolute signatures of that ambition. Whatever you think of “MacArthur Park’s” cake in the rain, its wildly ambitious vision lit the imaginations of artists as varied as, yes, Richard Harris, but also Andy Williams, Waylon Jennings, The Four Tops, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer….and this little kid, sitting in an Okahoma movie theater or the backseat of my parents' car. I was enchanted by it all then and I am even more so today, when it seems such wide open visions, particularly among artists dealing with adult, universal themes, come fewer and farther between.

John Fullbright—
“Until You Were Gone”
“Forgotten Flowers”
“Gawd Above”
“She Knows”
“Fat Man”
“Very First Time”
“I’ve Seen Stars Before”
“That Lucky Ole Sun”
“The One Who Lives Too Far”
“When You’re Here”  

Jimmy Webb—
“The Highwayman”
“Up, Up & Away”
“Where’s the Playground Susie?”
“The Poor Side of Town”
“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”
“Do What You Gotta Do”
“Wichita Lineman”
“MacArthur Park”


Saturday, December 21, 2019

The 40th Anniversary of The Most Thrilling Mess I Ever Heard

After three decades, I've all but hung up my rock criticism work, but I haven't really, and I don't suppose I ever really could. I just feel alienated from the forms it takes today. Maybe they were always there, and I was just too naive to realize it, but I don't want to write about music academically, I'm lame at boosterism (though my dedication to certain careers may get me labeled that way), and I have never felt my strength was as a consumer guide.
Recently, I took on an assignment to write about The Clash. And all around the periphery of what I'm writing I'm reminded why I started writing about music in the first place, why I cared about music writing in the first place. It was never about rock versus pop or whatever other genre--with some of their grandest moments pure disco exhilaration, bands like the Clash (and the Clash in particular) tore down such walls as soon as someone tried to block their options.
It was about "rock" as something bigger than a commodity crafted by an artist for the appreciation of a knowing audience. It was about rock as a concept that challenged our perceptions of a rigged system and gave us strength to be and think on a bigger scale. With a band like the Clash, you weren't simply a listener, you were part of the action....and that meant everyone....the 16 year old kid I was chording alone with my records on a Hohner guitar my girlfriend bought me, friends who rode together under Oklahoma skies crying out "London's Burning" and folks who wrote about the music, too.
You can hear it in Greil Marcus's voice here as he defends the band's choices against a "sniveling backlash, even if they include objective mistakes, on its second album--the one first released in the U.S., the one that immediately won this Oklahoma kid over to my new favorite band in the world. 
And it was a world band. Marcus's description drives that home with references to "a world upside down, a world in which no one can be sure where they stand" and "a world in flames." The Clash handed me a bigger vision of the world than I'd ever imagined before, and it was all as immediate as rolling thunder drums and stabbing guitar.
I'm not sure whether I read this review before I spotted this album on display at Bartlesville's Siegel Sound or after. I immediately picked it up because, though I'd been hearing about punk rock and the Clash in particular for some time, I'd never seen a Clash record before, and the Sex Pistols still seemed to me more like some kind of media stunt than the brilliant challenge I would later appreciate them for being. American "punk" was either still relatively obscure ("The Ramones") or labeled differently, so I heard folks like The Talking Heads and Blondie as miles from each other much less a movement. Where The Clash did fit in was in some trajectory I'd followed that year from Lou Reed to Patti Smith to Bruce Springsteen while, at the same time, falling in love with the Who moments before Keith Moon's death.
The thing was, when I put The Clash's first stateside release (the second album) on my turntable in January of 1979, I had no idea what to expect. What I heard immediately thrilled me like few listening experiences in my life, maybe like no other. Most things grow on me slowly. Of all of the above named artists, only The Who grabbed me by the throat in a similar way when I saw their video for "Who Are You" on Wolfman Jack or Don Kirshner or something. I was buying records the next day. Opening cut, "Safe European Home" sounded so surprising, so energetic and massive and crackling hot I wouldn't have been much surprised if my turntable had burst into flames.  
Yeah, Pearlman's production was messy--it's the muddiest of The Clash's records--but I didn't know what they sounded like before, so I wasn't going to argue with the most thrilling mess I'd ever heard. It's a huge sounding record, on one level, but it felt somehow more relatable than almost anything else. To those punks who found it a slick sell out, I can only say we have very different definitions of "slick," since that word suggests precision and clarity to me, and nothing about this album sounds particularly precise or clear, but it does hit relentlessly hard from beginning to end. After Marcus points out "the sound seems suppressed: the highs aren't there," I think he zeroes in on why it reached me so directly, calling it "accessible hard rock" that's "fast and noisy....with lyrical accents cracking the rough surface." What he doesn't capture there, he finds in the review as a whole, with lines like, "'Give 'Em Enough Rope' means to sound like trouble, not a meditation on it."
Oh, it did. And it changed my life for that very reason. I would never hear music the same way again, and I would never see the politics of my hometown or the politics of the world our corporate town harnessed the same way again. This was, after all, just a couple of years before a series of massive lay offs that would eliminate half of my friends' parents' jobs.
So, criticism as consumer advice would probably write this record off as something only for the completionist or advise playlists include only "Safe European Home" and "Stay Free." Academics could argue whether it solidified punk's rockist impulses by reaching for an American producer of a major rock band or liberated the music by the very same mechanisms. Those are fine things to do for specific reasons I suppose, but they don't motivate me. I want to thank the band for taking an unpopular risk and introducing themselves to the American heartland with sounds that hooked me and offered me a big chunk of the rest of my life. It was this album that did that. Though it only reached as high as 128 on the Billboard 200, that still means it probably had a similar effect on more than a few other kids, pushing the first album (released second) two positions higher (126) about six months later.
We were a part of the music, too. The fans always are. And that means something new every day (with each new sound and each discovery of old sounds) about who we can be. That's why I chose to write about music 33 years ago, and that's why I can't ever, really, give it up. That'd be like giving up on air or water or life itself. It'd certainly be giving up the path this explosion of righteous noise sent me down back in 1979.  

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