The Indifference of Heaven

Time marches on
Time stands still
Time on my hands, time to kill

Blood on my hands
And my hands in the till
Down at the 7-11

Gentle rain falls on me
And all life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven

The past seems realer
Than the present to me now
I’ve got memories to last me

When the sky is gray
The way it is today
I remember the times when I was happy

Same old sun, same old moon
It’s the same old story
Same old tune

They all say
Someday soon
My sins will all be forgiven

Gentle rain falls on me
All life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven

They say, “Every thing’s all right”
They say, “Better days are near”
They tell us, “These are the good times”
But they don’t live around here

Billy and Christie don’t
Bruce and Patti don’t
They don’t live around here

I had a girl, now she’s gone
She left town
And town burned down

Nothing left
But the sound
Of the front door closing forever

Gentle rain falls on me
And all life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven
The vast indifference of Heaven

The indifference of Heaven by Warren Zevon.  This is a powerful song from his “wilderness years” on the often overlooked Mutineer.  People weren’t paying attention to him like they once were, or would, but he wrote some incredibly powerful songs during this period.  It should be noted that although the song features a dig at Bruce Springsteen, the two were actually friends and remained so until Zevon’s death.  Zevon had an eye for detail like a writer and could craft incredibly catchy rock n roll hooks.  When your back’s against the wall you can always count on Warren Zevon.  Thank god he was out there.  

How to Sell Out

It seems that in the current music business and the arts in general it is very hard to make any kind or real money unless one dances with corporate America.  With the record business and radio in decline, even though pubic radio is becoming more and more viable for getting artists heard, one of the best ways for young artists to get their music heard is through commercials.  Many film directors also get their start in commercials. 

In the past, because record companies actually had money to promote artists that were not top tier moneymakers, and because the power of radio, it was seen as selling out if one sold their song to a commercial.  Artists like Bruce Springsteen still do not allow their music to appear in commercials.  I highly respect him for this, but let’s be honest, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to do that.  I also read that Kanye West does not allow his work to be used in commercials.  Whatever one things of him that is to be commended at least.  But again he is someone that doesn’t need the exposure or the money. 

I grew up highly influenced by punk rock.  There still seems to me, even though I realize the rules of the game have changed, something disheartening about putting songs in commercials.  It seems to have a corrupting influence on art, as once you hear a song in a Cheetos commercial or whatever, it can be hard to disassociate that song with that product.  Art should also speak truth to power, not walk hand in hand with it.  However, I do know that Hank Williams did commercials, and no one doubts that he was one of the greats.  There are also more ethical ways to sell out.  Moby allows his songs to be played in commercials, but then he uses a fraction of the money towards causes that he believes in.  For instance he will allow his music to be in a car commercial, but then use some of that money for environmental groups.  He is using the money of the company in direct opposition to what that company does. 

After watching a few really awful commercials at the AMC theater last night, I thought of an even better way to sell out.  The one commercial was a bunch of musicians making really bad music with coke bottles or some such nonsense.  Part of my brain slowly died during that shit.  So I think that artists should only allow their art to be used in commercials if they are given enough money to purchase a high end military vehicle like a tank.  Then they should personally drive that tank to the corporation headquarters that gave them the money and blow it up.  The artist would get paid and get exposure.  Meanwhile the general public would not have to watch any more stupid fucking commercials by that company.  What do you think of that? 

P.S.  The last paragraph is a joke if the NSA happens to be reading along.  I swear! 

Why Song Titles are Important

1.  WORLD PEACE IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS
2.  NEAL CASSADY DROPS DEAD
3.  ISTANBUL
4.  I’M NOT A MAN
5.  EARTH IS THE LONLIEST PLANET
6.  STAIRCASE AT THE UNIVERSITY
7.  THE BULLFIGHTER DIES
8.  KISS ME A LOT
9.  SMILER WITH KNIFE
10.  KICK THE BRIDE DOWN THE AISLE
11.  MOUNTJOY
12.  OBOE CONCERTO

 

Above is the track listing for the new Morrissey album, World Peace is None of Your Business, was just released.  One thing I have always loved about Morrissey is that he provides his work with many interesting titles.  Song titles are important.  Other than New Order, who to me have a certain communist bloc aesthetic in the sense that much of their artwork, music, and lyrics have a certain blankness to them that I believe is on purpose, I usually cringe when I see simple one word titles.  90’s bands often did this with songs titles like Sliver.  (I can’t remember if that is an actual title or not, but that was the kind of thing you would see often during that period.) 

Occasionally you can have something simple and it will have depth to it.  Bruce Springsteen’s The River has a certain carved in stone biblical nature to it.  Most of the time though a good song title can raise interest in a song and sometimes even provide added meaning to it. 

A song title is also a great way to start writing a set of lyrics.  If you have a strong title in mind quite often the lyrics will write themselves.  Sometimes I will come up with the chorus to something last, which often is where a title might originate from, but this is challenging.  Verses and bridges can often have various ideas that work together, but need some strong theme to tie them together.  A great title line or chorus is the thing that usually becomes the thread that runs through a piece.  If you can come up with that thread first then you can venture out from that unifying idea and know if something works or not.  Think of it like this:  If you know that you are writing an autobiography, a work of fiction, or a history book, then you already have some idea of the content that you can put in it.  If you have that strong song title then it already will start to direct your ideas in a certain way.  If you start with verses first, which can often lead to great writing as well, you will find yourself looking for that unifying idea later, which, at least to me, can sometimes be a challenge.  There is no right way to do things.  It is only that coming up with a great title first can be a way to get the ball rolling. 

I often find that a strong title will get me interested in something.  Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall captures the imagination is a way that pulls you in.  Sure, once you have pulled people in you need strong work or you will lose the attention of the listening.  However, getting people to take the time to check something out is important.  When I see the song title World Peace is None of Your Business, there are many ways in which that could be interpreted, and my curiosity is peaked.  A song title is like a headline to an article.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the article is any good, but it gives it a better possibility of it being given a chance. 

 

 

The Story Song

I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d drive out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

The River by Bruce Springsteen.  I write lyrics, but I’ve never been able to write in the form of the story song.  The best story songs are ones that are able to get to some deeper truth or poetry.  In a song you don’t have the time to tell a story like you do in other forms of writing.  There are a good deal of cliched story songs that tell you what someone did, without getting past the surface of things.  The people that are really great at this form, like Springsteen, cannot only tell you what their characters do, but leave you clues as to why it is important.  They are also able to infuse these songs with poetry and quotable lines that stand apart from the story itself.  “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / or is it something worse,” is just an incredibly powerful line.  You don’t need the whole song to grasp that line’s power, but the story adds to it and the line itself adds to the story’s power as well.  

Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor

In the fields of the lord
Stood Abel and Cain
Cain slew Abel ‘neath the black rain
At night he couldn’t stand the guilt or the blame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Billy got drunk, angry at his wife
He hit her once, he hit her twice
At night he’d lie in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Pa told me “son, one thing I know is true
Poison snake bites you, you’re poison too”
At night I can feel that poison runnin’ ’round my veins

Gave it a Name by Bruce Springsteen.  As those of you that have been reading along know, I have been diving back into Springsteen’s catalogue.  This is a lesser known song off of his Tracks box set.  Ever since I was a teenager this song has moved me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.  I have never been a religious person, but the haunted Biblical language in this song has always appealed to me.  It’s poetic and yet simple at the same time.  It’s as if this song is carved from stone. 

I love the writing of Flannery O’Connor and I know Springsteen read her as well.  Wise Blood is one of my favorite novels and her short stories are simply some of the best American short stories ever.  I’ve read the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find numerous times, always taken in by it at every reading.  (Springsteen would later go on to steal that title for a song.)  A lot of people call her writing southern grotesque, which is a term she never liked.  Her writing is truly unique.  It is infused with a good deal of the same kind of Old Testament poetry which gives it a timeless power. 

I also like the way Springsteen lets the last verse hang.  In the lyrics as well as the song there is no third chorus.  It leaves the song unresolved and mysterious.  Art is often at its best when it is not tied up in a neat little package for you at the end.  It allows the imagination to fill in the blanks.  

Apology and Forgiveness Got No Place Here at All

Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, this poem that I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears are all I got left now of you
I remember you in your Marine uniform laughing, laughing at your ship out party
I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry

Your high boots and strap t-shirt, ah, Billy you looked so bad
Yeah you and your rock and roll band, you were the best thing this shit town ever had
Now the men that put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall

Well I’m sorry I missed you last year, I couldn’t find no one to drive me
If your eyes could cut through that black stone, tell me would they recognize me
For the living time it must be served as the day goes on
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, skin on black stone

On the ground dog tags and wreaths of flowers, with the ribbons red as the blood
Red as the blood you spilled in the Central Highlands mud
Limousines rush down Pennsylvania Avenue, rustling the leaves as they fall
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall

The Wall by Bruce Springsteen.  I realize that I’ve been on a Springsteen kick lately.  I also realize that I printed part of these lyrics in a piece I did on his new album.  However, I find these lyrics too powerful not to print in full.  I find this to be an extremely powerful antiwar song.  Springsteen had a musician friend from the Jersey shore days that went to Vietnam and never came back.  The personal anger of this song is more powerful than any polemic could be.  It reminds me of why Springsteen is such a great writer.  Like many of the great political Irish folk songs sometimes a story can shine the light on the truth in a way that is impossible to ignore.  

Skipping Childhood

Whenever I get an autobiography or biography I dread that it will focus too long on the childhood of a subject.  These passages are usually dreadfully boring and rarely shed light in any meaningful way on what is important about the person.

I just got the Springsteen biography Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin.  This was no exception to the rule.  I quickly found myself skipping ahead a few chapters to the formation of the E Street Band.  When I am reading about someone, whether they are a politician or a musician or an artist I want to know what makes them tick, why they made the decisions that they made, etc.  Although occasionally these childhood passages can be enlightening, they are often a ticker tape of the ordinary.  This is usually the fault of the writer and not necessarily because childhood plays no role in the formation of who these people become.  It obviously does.  An average writer can make a political campaign or a life among celebrities interesting, but only a truly great writer can make an average childhood come alive with meaning.  Springsteen’s whole career seems to have been greatly influenced by his relationship with his father, but if a writer tackles these things as just a series of incidents, they don’t seem very meaningful.  The director Werner Herzog once talked about how he didn’t like Cinema Verite because it was not ecstatic truth but the truth of accountants.  Often these childhood passages are just the truth of accountants, names and dates without any deeper significance imbued in them.

In order for a writer to make childhood an interesting subject it usually helps if they have a greater historical understanding of the time and place in which a subject lived.  Often what happens in a home is influenced by the outside world and vice versa.  Just writing well definitely plays a part, but having this extra historical understanding goes some ways in creating a better understanding of someone.

Two books that break this mold are Neal Gabler’s excellent biography of Walt Disney and Morrissey’s own Autobiography.  Gabler understood that world that Disney grew up in.  He not only tells Disney’s family history, but recreates the world that he grew up in.  Morrissey makes the facts of his childhood clear, but more importantly comments and describes vividly the dreary world of 1960’s and 70’s Manchester.  In fact Morrissey is so adept at recreating this world though image laden and poetic writing, that as great as his book is, it almost is a slight comedown after these amazing opening chapters.  With the Disney book you see how the world that Disney grew up in forever had him trying to recapture the fonder moments of his childhood.  If his childhood in and of itself is not particularly interesting, the world that was around it surely is.

Our lives are not just a series of interactions and internal reflections.  We can’t help but be shaped by the cultural and historical events around us, even if we greatly resist them.  Even if you reject and rebel against the culture at large, you are responding to it in some way.  Some of us may wish to be the “one from none”, as Henry Rollins once wrote, but we never truly are.

Interesting Springsteen Interview

http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2014/01/14/262485987/a-long-road-to-high-hopes-an-interview-with-bruce-springsteen

Well I am diving back into Bruce Springsteen I discovered this excellent interview.  Ann Powers, the interviewer, asks extremely interesting questions.  It’s rare to see a music article these days that goes into such depth.  If I am interested in what a musician has to say it is usually because I am interested in the process of how they create and why they make the artistic choices that they do.  If you are a Springsteen fan or just interested in artistic creation in general than this article is worth reading.  

Bruce Springsteen’s Dark Dreams

I got the new Springsteen album High Hopes this week.  I currently own 16 of Springsteen’s proper studio albums and have owned two others that I lost somewhere along the way.  I have also owned Tracks, Live in New York, and Live 75-85.  You could say I’m a fan.  I’m from the North East and my mom is from New Jersey.  His music is part of my chemical makeup at this point. 

Some critics claim that Springsteen is musically conservative.  However, he has put out folk albums (Nebraska), songs based around synths (Streets of Philadelphia), sprawling epics (Jungleland), and straight ahead rock n roll (Ramrod).  What gives this illusion of music conservatism is the fact that Springsteen’s music is always primarily song based.  It also draws off of the vast and rich traditions of American popular music in the second half of the 20th Century.  Springsteen’s catalogue has also been very purposeful.  I think this sense of purpose again creates the illusion that things are controlled and experimentation is at a minimum.  That’s not to say that all of his experimentations work, or that relatively speaking there aren’t those that are far more experimental.  But he has always taken chances with sounds. 

Topic wise I can’t think of a popular artist since John Lennon that has been more fearless in standing up for his political convictions.  And although his language in recent years has occasionally gotten simplistic, perhaps for clarity, his themes have always been highly nuanced.  On the song American Skin (41 Shots), of which there is the first studio recording of on this new album, Springsteen is smart enough to include the point of view of police officers.  He is outraged by the outcome, but he understands the complexity of the situation.  The only time he seems to paint in black and white is when he is after bigger game.  When he deals with the war makers and the bankers on albums like Magic and Wrecking Ball there can be no mistake as to who is to blame for the average person’s suffering.  Those people have the money and power to know better.  They choose to create suffering for reasons of personal greed.  But when he paints portraits of the average person caught between tremendous forces, even when they are in the wrong, he almost always appears to be at least partially sympathetic.  On the song Paradise, on the album The Rising, where he is singing about a terrorist, there is a sense of sadness and sympathy.  Not sympathy for the act committed, but for senselessness of a life headed towards a pointless tragedy. 

Before the new album, which I am still evaluating, I feel his best album since reforming the E Street Band is Magic.  It has the highest consistency of well written songs and thematically works as a whole the best for me.  If there is a shortcoming to that album, and it is a small one, it is that album suffers slightly from modern digital compression which is a technical problem that is common on many modern albums.  It lacks the warmth of the older work. 

While it is still too early to tell what lasting feelings High Hopes will leave me with, it seems to be a grower that I actually like more the more that I hear it.  As any critic cribbing from their press release will tell you, it is a collection of songs from different time periods.  This really means nothing as often many albums feature songs from different time periods.  The only difference here is that several of the songs have been featured in pervious forms.  Even this is not unheard of.  In other art forms the revisiting of themes and images from the past, and recasting them in new ways is common.  Filmmaker David Lynch often has scenes with red curtains in them for instance.  An older song that is rerecorded and recast by different surroundings is given new meaning.

The two songs that were released as singles before the album became available, the title track and Dream Baby Dream, left me wanting when I originally heard them out of context.  However, as part of the album, again recast in a different context, they make sense to me and even sound better than I originally thought they did alone.  Songs are great, but I still believe the album is the best musical form as it allows different sounds and themes to bounce off of each other creating greater meaning.  Coming at the end of perhaps one of Springsteen’s darkest albums, Dream Baby Dream is truly beautiful.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Originally some of the more modern production techniques on that song, the drum machine for instance, appeared superfluous.  Again with it being changed by what comes before it, those touches no longer bother me. 

The second song, Harry’s Place, is one of Springsteen’s strangest tracks ever.  I could see how some people would not like this song as it is not easily enjoyable as a pop song is.  But it’s cinematic strangeness appeals to me.  It sounds like Springsteen recreating his cameo from Lou Reed’s Street Hassel over music that almost resembles Roxy Music. 

The biggest change to Springsteen’s music is the addition of Tom Morello, formerly guitarist of Rage Against the Machine.  He has as prominent a role on this album as anyone else in the E Street Band other than maybe Max Weinberg.  His guitar playing is both primitive and eloquent.  The guitar effects and noises that he is well known for appear, but so does epic soloing, the kind that you don’t hear on many records anymore.  American Skin (41 Shots) is one of Springsteen’s best studio recordings of recent years, it doesn’t hurt that the song has always been exceptionally strong, and Morello’s solo is revelatory in its passion. 

Morello’s presence and the material largely picked here give this record a dark and cinematic vibe.  This is widescreen music.  The songs continue Springsteen’s anger at what has been done to the working class in this country.  Although there are a couple upbeat pop rockers thrown into the mix it is really the bleaker epics that form the cornerstone of this record.  Although Springsteen leaves you with a song of hope in the end it is the prevailing darkness of the record that sticks with you.  Even though the production is very polished in places this is a gritty record. 

One of the most moving songs is the song The Wall.  It is about a trip to the Vietnam Memorial and a memory of a former New Jersey musician that dies in that war.  The lyrics below particularly hit me.  There is an earlier line about Robert McNamara saying he is sorry and then talking about his friend:

Now the man that put you here
He feeds his family in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all
At the wall

Springsteen, again someone that so often works with nuance, lets these angry words float over a haunting ballad.  It is a great way of using personal writing to convey a deeper truth.  That the powerful often treat the average person as mere chess pieces, and are not held responsible when the consequences roll in. 

I’m glad that Springsteen is still out there tackling big themes and making records that sound as big as dreams, even if this time they are dark ones.  Although he has occasionally stumbled throughout his career, he has always remained valid and relevant and fearless in his convictions.  He’s caught hell for it at times, but that just means he is usually doing something right.    

Looking for Something New

Much like the wheel of fortune, and I don’t mean the TV show, I never get too up or too down for long periods of time.  I’m always aware that the game will eventually change, at least until I’m dead.  Sure, I have had weeks of the blackest and most foul of moods.  I have also had periods of extreme joy and gratitude for every second I’m awake.  Mostly I’m somewhere in the middle.  However, even when I’m in a really great mood or a really terrible one, there is always some little part of me that is on the lookout for the clouds or the sun beams that I know are probably somewhere right around the corner. 

This also greatly influences my writing.  If my writing is too serious for too long I feel the need to correct the course of the ship.  On the other hand, as you can probably guess by now, if throw up a couple of posts that are goofy, I feel the need to straighten shit up and get down to brass tacks. 

I never understand how people who write or paint or participate in any kind of form of art can stick to one thing, unless you are AC\DC or the Ramones and it’s just fucking great.  Most musical artists or groups that have lasted are usually weirder and more varied then their reputation will have you believe.  Black Sabbath, on their Master of Reality album, have a beautiful acoustic piece called Orchid.  Morrissey, who is often branded the Pope of Mope in the press, is extremely funny a good deal of the time.  Bruce Springsteen made 10th Avenue Freeze Out and Nebraska.  Even the really good artists that stick to one thing that I know, usually have a sound that is all their own that they arrived at by creating an amalgamation of different sounds that hadn’t belonged together before.  I have touched upon this theme before. 

Basically it is my way of saying on a Friday night, if I see your band and it only plays country music that sounds as if it were made in the year 1976, I will probably love it and pound a beer.  And then I will walk out the door three songs later, into the chill of the night, looking for something new.