Saturday, March 10, 2007

Paid In Full

(Reckoning with Music’s Prophets)

“Youth and truth are makin’ love
Dig it for a starter
Dyin’ young is hard to take
Sellin’ out is harder.”
--Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin

Perhaps more apparently than in any other art form, music’s power springs from its physical sense of the tie between artist and audience. When I bang on this drum, you rock on your heels. When I play this melody, you hum. When I sing a lyric you know, you want to sing along. It’s easy to imagine music’s prehistoric genesis as the field test of these actions and reactions. Armies marching off to war have used music to drive them forward, and over the past half of a century, music’s censors have feared music because of its promise of an active response.

After all, the West African influences that distinguished rock and roll music from previous forms of musical entertainment brought with them a sophisticated sense of the primacy of call and response. In his book A Change is Gonna Come, Craig Werner describes this aspect of African-American culture as “the core of gospel politics”:

“An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a response. The response can be verbal, musical, physical—anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the group. The response can affirm, argue, redirect the dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that gains attention and elicits a response of its own becomes a new call.”

In a crucial sense, this is the story of popular music in the rock and rap era. This is true in the case of the individual performer and audience, particularly live on stage, where the audience’s reaction very often fuels and redirects the set, and it is also the story hit records play in shaping an artist’s relationship with his or her audience. The principle is ubiquitous, but it is most clearly illustrated as a broader dialogue with the prevalence of records that speak to one another, some so directly they are in fact called “answer records.”

So Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “Work with Me, Annie,” was answered by Hazel McCollum and the El Dorados, “Annie’s Answer” and Etta James’s “Roll With Me Henry.” Mary Wells’ “My Guy” is answered by the Temptations’ “My Girl” (both written by Smokey Robinson). The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job” is answered by The Miracles’ “Got A Job.” Chuck Berry’s records spawned such diverse answers as the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”, the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Come Together” and a sizeable chunk of Bruce Springsteen’s 80s material. Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is answered by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Nowhere has this dialogue been more prominent than in hip hop where artists like L.L. Cool J and Kool Moe Dee or Roxanne Shante and the Real Roxanne made careers out of subsequent battle rhymes aimed at one another. The tragedy of Tupac Shakur’s and the Notorious B.I.G.’s murders played out in the context of a war of words between East Coast and West Coast rappers (which is to say next to nothing about what actually put these two fine artists in their graves before their time). The list never stops--Jay Z and Ja Rule, or more recently 50 Cent and the Game, even Jay Z and Beyonce’s recent warning salvos to one another. (Not insignificantly, it is precisely this tradition that guarantees Ludacris will do nothing but benefit in the media war with Bill O’Reilly and Oprah.)

With this demand for response as such a fundamental element, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a great wide swath of pop music history demands some sort of reckoning with one’s sins—against individuals, against each other and against one’s self and one’s dreams.

Perhaps the most familiar of these is an almost compulsory anthem by any female vocalist, that demand that her lover reckon with the injustices she suffers. The form, framed in this way, is enormously popular, and no doubt plays into the fact that Otis Redding’s version of “Respect,” a pointed theme for a black man to articulate in 1965, only charted at #35 on Billboard, while Aretha Franklin’s version went to #1 for 2 weeks in 1967. Two years later, in what Dave Marsh called, “a sermon on the subject of freedom,” Franklin took a similar lover’s face off, “Think,” to #6.

The confrontation would take many different angles over the years, become a face off between a father and daughter with Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” and a post-feminist rejection of unrealistic ideals with Karyn White’s #8 “Superwoman” in 1989. It also mutated into more reflective forms, with Gladys Knight weighing the price of love against her ambitions in “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Bonnie Raitt’s articulation of the final stage of grief, acceptance, in “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” After his disastrous slander of Ray Charles and James Brown with the word “nigger” in a bar fight, Elvis Costello even concluded one side of his tribute to ‘60s soul, Get Happy, with a song situated on the receiving end of a Sunday morning face off, bawling “You can read me the riot act.”

But rock music, since its beginnings, has asked for various kinds of reckonings simply by being the voice of those the dominant society would like to ignore. The Coasters’ “What About Us” reckoned the plight of black America in the North during early days of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Songs like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” promised the privileged classes a reckoning with the young and underprivileged. Chuck Berry took the bull by the horns with “Roll Over Beethoven,” demanding that “high” culture make way for the sound of young America.

In the 60s, the folk song movement, energized by the Civil Rights Movement in particular promised a reckoning in the air nowhere more apparently than with Dylan’s songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “With God on Our Side” and “Chimes of Freedom.” Then, the greatest of them all, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” in fact came, in part, as a response to Dylan. Of course, it’s very hard to conceive of the Civil Rights Movement without the engine of freedom songs, most particularly “We Shall Overcome” (or records like The Impressions “People Get Ready” in the R&B charts).

By the end of the decade, the reckonings grow darker, Neil Young counting “Four dead in Ohio” and the Beatles’ John Lennon embracing the ideal of “Revolution” while debating the tactics. The early 70s saw the Who promising we “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” while singer-songwriters contemplated the cost of the Vietnam War with songs like John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and the then folkier Bruce Springsteen describing those “Lost in the Flood.”

Things grow downright apocalyptic a few years later with Springsteen’s nuclear accident nightmare, “Roulette,” which is really a reckoning with the cost of lives tossed around by powers beyond their control, also the focus of the Clash’s “Armagideon Time,” which keeps pointing out, “A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight . . . A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.” Nuclear holocaust fears fueled frenzies like Prince’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia” and party anthems like his follow-ups’ “1999.” And German pop group Nena would have an international hit with the Dr. Strangelove-like nightmare of “99 Red Balloons.” In the same climate, with a right wing turn in British politics about to be matched by the Reagan era in the U.S., Nick Lowe via Elvis Costello, with his most passionate vocal ever, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?”

The mid-80s would see the Gores’ holding Senate hearings to control indecent rock, while by the end of the decade the FBI would take an official position against the rap group NWA. By 1992, new President Bill Clinton would get away with blaming rapper Sister Souljah for the Los Angeles riots. It’s telling to note that the two forms of music almost exclusively targeted by the censors during this period, rap and metal, were filled with songs of reckoning.

Something in the for-whom-the-bell-tolls gothic of heavy metal makes it a natural for the reckoning song. Death metal speaks of apocalyptic costs for the sins of the present, but the metal songs attacked early on, such as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” speak of the costs of the very kind of hedonism the music might be accused of promoting, in this case the self-murder of alcoholism. Tipper Gore’s nemesis Twisted Sister promised “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” while Metallica’s most famous songs “Enter Sandman” and “One,” talk of private hells, most pointedly reckoning with the cost of war on the Johnny-Got-His-Gun vet of “One,” who has lost his sight, speech, hearing, and the use of his arms and legs. Even the archetypal metal anthem, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” suggests a Marley’s Ghost like reckoning with materialism, while the song’s hope lies in a mythic quest for that moment “When all are one and one is all.”

But rap, that most villified of musics, asks for reckonings in specific terms particularly threatening to the status quo. N.W.A. put the L.A.P.D. on trial, well before Rodney King with “Fuck Tha Police.” While Public Enemy’s very first single, with its grating electronic noise serving as a clarion called promised a confrontation the group would make more explicit with the prison riot of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and the threat to the Sun State’s racist governor in “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Casualities of War” would detail the cost of war in the context of the elder Bush’s Gulf War.

But perhaps the most dangerous reckoning championed by Eric B & Rakim was carried in the title cut of the duo’s 1987 debut, Paid In Full, an album that handed rap much of the musical and lyrical vocabulary it still uses today. The title track itself is a simple enough rhyme about weighing the cost of a life of crime and a 9 to 5 against the promise of success in music, and it arrives at the resolve that music is the rapper’s only real choice and getting “paid in full” is the only acceptable outcome.

In an industry known for swindling its artists, particularly R&B pioneers like Rakim’s aunt Ruth Brown, that sentiment alone is a call to arms. And what so few have ever realized about rap is that the bling bling (which Eric B. & Rakim celebrated as much as anyone with their diamond studded gold chains) makes a very concrete statement about what is owed to those who pay the cost for others to get rich. “Paid in Full” is no simple statement of materialism any more than is the 40 Acres and a Mule logo Spike Lee sports on his movies or the metaphor of the bounced check that Martin Luther King used in his “I Have a Dream” speech. A society built on 400 years of free labor owes its builders, and “Paid in Full” promises to collect, one way or another.

But it’s the British duo Coldcut’s remix of this song that made explicit the many dimensions of its message. What may have simply been a series of happy accidents lends the reinvented track just what the erudite British announcer’s voice at the beginning promises, “new color, new dimensions, new values.” The startling mix of found sounds and samples that follow, including the voices of everyone from pompous cocktail party guests to Humphrey Bogart, forges a perfect middle ground between the underground experimental musics celebrated by the DJ movement and the relaxed funk of this East Coast rap duo that godfathered the gangsta voices that would come along in its wake.

Perhaps most remarkable is the use of Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s “Im NinAlu” as the counterpoint to Rakim’s Muslim persona. Her haunting vocal states, in Hebrew, the spiritual dimensions of the song’s theme—“Im ninalu daltei n’divim, daltei marom lo ninalu,” which means “If the doors of the wealthy are locked, the doors of Heaven will never be locked.” Though the song demands full payment, nowhere does Rakim say how he plans to guarantee it, and the lush lacing of the bass and flute from the Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip” with a kaleidoscope of sounds, including James Brown grunts and sounds of women experiencing near-orgasmic pleasure, all of it suggest that the nirvana created by this record is the one exchange guaranteed not to bounce. When the pillow talking woman at the end whispers, “Was it good enough for you,” she already knows the answer. At that moment, nothing could be more clear than the simple fact that the song’s political and spiritual reckonings are inextricably linked. We do overcome, right here, if only for 7 minutes of madness at a time.
And then I always find myself back at Darkness on the Edge of Town. The theme of reckoning runs throughout Darkness on the Edge of Town, in part due to the legal battles Springsteen fought at the time for control of his music. That reckoning with the cost of signing a contract on the back of a car at the start of his career injected a bracing dose of realism into Springsteen’s romantic vision.

“Badlands” opens the album declaring “let the broken hearts stand/that’s the price you gotta pay.” “Adam Raised a Cain” reckons with the shadow of the father that engulfs the son. “Something in the Night” sketches the rough cost of a search that leaves Springsteen’s tramps “scattered, burned and blind.” The first side’s closer, “Racing in the Street” finds the singer contemplating the toll his lifestyle has taken on his lover and their relationship.

The second side’s opener, “The Promised Land” reckons the cost of believing in one’s dreams with a vision of a twister blowing away the illusions “that leave you lost and broken hearted.” “Factory” deals with the toll of the road not taken. At the end of the album, the singer recounts that he’s lost his money and his wife, in later versions “my faith when I lost my wife.” But he’s determined to live with that cost because all he can do is face that hill right in front of him, the one that lies in the darkness on the edge of town.

It’s a bleak vision, but it’s a blues that’s served the artist and his audience well. You can still here it affirmed on Springsteen’s post-911 album, The Rising, on which the singer begins determined to pull through another “Lonesome Day.”

But a deeper wisdom has accompanied that individualistic determination, the understanding that you can’t completely go it alone and hope to accomplish anything of substance. It shows up by his follow up album, The River, an album that reckons with the ties that bind one to those around him, hilariously whinged over on “Sherry Darling” and turned into an anthem by “Two Hearts.” The River ends contemplating the fragile nature of this mortal connection to one another with “Wreck on the Highway,” the song’s protagonist desperately clinging to his lover in the dark.

Over the years, Springsteen has repeatedly contemplated the price we pay for our dreams, but he has consistently found hope in those fragile connections. He has asked his fans to join him in a dream of “This Hard Land.” He confesses to an irrational but necessary faith in his “Blood Brothers,” the accomplices of “No Surrender” and even the one who leaves to fight on a different front in “Bobby Jean.”

Though he went it alone over the course of about a decade, with the E Street Band’s 2000 reunion, each night ended with Springsteen’s greatest vision of reckoning, “Land of Hope and Dreams.” With this song, Springsteen breathed fresh life into the Impressions vision of a train to Jordan which included a promise of redemption for the sort of motley crew he has repeatedly embraced with his tributes to America’s oft desperate bravado, songs like “Darlington County,” “Cadillac Ranch” and most pointedly an oft-repeated cover of Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas.” No longer was the singer simply dreaming to pull out of “a town full of losers,” but he was loading a train down at the station, one for losers and winners, whores and gamblers, kings and fools. The Springsteen of “Land of Hope and Dreams” has also been to the mountaintop, and he has found a way to write about a vision that became a concert motto for him over 15 years before, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”

In the history of rock music, it’s not a vision carried by Springsteen alone. It’s implicit in the expression of unity in “Stairway to Heaven” just as it is in songs like “Come Together” and “Kick Out the Jams.” It’s there in the many shout outs of hip hop liner notes to the hundreds of people to whom the artist owes and debt and offers to share the triumph of his or her success, just as it is in the history of benefit records, from “We Are the World” to “We’re All in the Same Gang” to “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City.” It’s there in the vision of compassion that made the Black-Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love” such a compelling affront to the values of the ongoing “War Against Terrorism.” The whole of our music’s history demands a reckoning with the yearning of each and every individual human heart, and it ties us together on that basis. No wonder the dehumanizing forces at work in the world today find it so indecent.