No More Mr. Nice Guy

I have spent part of my time in the van lately listening to Alice Cooper.  Many people already know that the early Alice Cooper albums, the band ones up through his first few solo albums, are fantastic pieces of work.  But for those of you that don’t, do you know that John Lennon was a friend and fan, Bob Dylan spoke highly of Alice Cooper’s songwriting, and Frank Sinatra covered one of his songs?  The Alice Cooper band, which is all the Alice Cooper albums up through Muscle of Love, was a really great rock n roll band.  If you are a fan of bass, drums, two guitars, you have to hear these records.  (The albums got technically more complex as they went along.  However, that core lineup, aside from when they would hire an extra guitar player in the studio at times, is often at the core of these recordings.  They sound like a band playing with just a couple extra overdubs for the most part.)  My favorite of these records is probably Billion Dollar Babies, though Killer and Love it to Death are front to back great as well.  These albums are just the sounds of one of the best rock bands ever firing on all cylinders.  As a bass player, I find the work of their bass player, Dennis Dunaway, particularly inventive.  He often played nontraditional melodic lines that still hold down the bottom, while doing very little of what a bass player typically does.  There are many great hard rock songs here that feature big pop choruses.  There are many excellent singles and album tracks.  Somehow lyrically Alice Cooper was able to provide a lot of entertaining horror fun, reflect how adolescents felt, and satirize American culture all at the same time.  The above song, No More Mr. Nice Guy, is one of my favorite tracks of theirs, one that I have liked since I was a teenager myself.  The music and the melody are just fantastic.  Listen to all of the cool little guitar bits going on.  The lyrics are humorous, without being cute, which is a harder trick to do than one would think.

The Expansive Writing of Bob Dylan

Lately I have been trying to discern what in particular gives Dylan’s writing a unique power. Entire books have been written on the topic, entire semesters have been taught.  I am not going to solve the conundrum here. 

However, as someone that has spent more time than is healthy studying song lyrics, there is something I notice time and time again.  Dylan has not only been prolific for most of his career, but his words also often gain power through sheer volume.  I am a huge fan of Morrissey.  Although he has written expansive songs like The Queen is Dead, he often writes couplets that are powerful statements in and of themselves.  Leonard Cohen, someone by whose own admission is not prolific, yet is closer to Dylan in style, spends a lot of time finely crafting certain lines. 

If you take many Dylan couplets, although with his huge catalog he has written brilliant couplets as well, they are not always powerful in and of themselves.  But by the time you get to the 7th couplet in 4th verse of a Dylan song (hypothetically), Dylan songs are often astounding for the sheer amount of language he packs in them, they begin to take on a cumulative poetic power. 

Where some writers get their power from cutting back until what lies before them is a finally crafted sculpture, Dylan almost seems to stand out of the way and let his subconscious pour forth.  Line after line, image after image, floats past until the amount of imagery leaves the listener overwhelmed and breathless. 

Sure, that is not all he is doing.  There is a difference in power between Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Springsteen’s similar wordy Blinded by the Light.  (I love Dylan and Springsteen, but I would be lying if I said the latter contained the poetic force of the former.)  Dylan performs alchemy.   He does get that missing piece of the puzzle that many others cannot find no matter how talented they are. 

This is not to say that Dylan cannot write shorter more traditional songs.   He can of course.  Again this is also not to say that Dylan cannot write great one liners and couplets, as he has done that as well.  There are also many other elements at play to make a song powerful.  However, I think,  if you are interested in what Dylan does, this is a good facet of his writing to examine. 

In My Secret Life, Leonard Cohen, and Songwriting

In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen.

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

I saw you this mornin’
You were movin’ so fast
Cant seem to loosen my grip
On the past

And I miss you so much
Theres no one in sight
And were still makin’ love

In my secret life
In my secret life

I smile when Im angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by

But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And Id die for the truth

In my secret life
In my secret life

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight
I finally got my orders
Ill be marching through the mornin’
Marchin’ through the night
Movin ‘cross the borders of my secret life

Looked through the paper
Makes you want to cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinkin’
That its either black or white
Thank God its not that simple
In my secret life

I bite my lip
I buy what Im told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old

But Im always alone
And my heart is like ice
And its crowded and cold

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

This song has always meant a great deal to me.  The lyrics as usual, for Leonard Cohen, are masterful.  If you take a line or a couplet out of the song, there are a couple good ones, but they are fairly simple.  However, the way he builds imagery throughout the track means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Also those last verse lines leave the song with a sense that the narrator hasn’t resolved any his conflicts, other than to possibly live with his contradictions:

But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold

In my secret life

One will notice that a lot of great songwriters leave one with a sense of mystery, they leave things unresolved.  This allows a song to keep going, even once you are done listening.  It starts the imaginative process, but doesn’t fill in every blank, making the song yours as much as theirs.  It becomes something you can take out into your life with you.  Now there is a difference between performing that trick, and just being vague to the point of meaningless.  The best writers know how to give you enough to pull you in, but leave enough space for the imagination of the listener so that a song will register on a personal level.

Lou Reed Animated

Lou Reed interviews have been animated for part of the PBS series Blank on Blank.  It is equal parts interesting, inspiring, hilarious, and bitchy, much like Reed’s career itself.  I am one that will be eternally thankful for Reed’s contribution to rock and pop music.  I might not agree with everything Lou Reed says in the above clip, but there is no doubt in my mind that he did elevate pop music, that he did infuse it with a literary quality that few have ever matched.  From the first Velvet Underground album to his last album with Metallica, he never quit pushing the limits of what was possible in rock music.  In between those two book ends he did everything from straight ahead pop music to avant-garde noise.  A true one of a kind.

Early 90’s Springsteen and the Duality of Human Nature

The cold wet air could best be described as a “shitmist”.  On the way from Oklahoma City to Dallas.   In the back of the van trying to unlock why, even in the midst of his supposed slump, the early 90’s,  Bruce Springsteen was still able to create works that have staying power.  Strip him of his band, bring in a bunch of session players that lack any discernable personality, record things in a way that is somewhat stiff, and there is still something there if you pay attention. 

With every wish there comes a curse

Listen to the song With Every Wish from his Human Touch album.  It has a dark seductive power to it as it examines someone whose dreams fall short.  In fact I think it is because Springsteen never shies away from the hard truths of reality that his songs are more than one dimensional.  

Any life when viewed from the inside, is simply a series of defeats.
     –  George Orwell

In the midst of life we are in death, etc.
     – Morrissey

This is not to say Springsteen’s music lacks hope or love or joy.  In fact his music is often quite life affirming despite how often darkly realistic his lyrics can be.  They often deal with a loss of innocence as someone grows older and comes to terms with the harsh realities of the world.  But even in spite of this, his characters often carry on.  Although there are characters of his that are on the long slide to oblivion, many also often find love or are determined to bear hardship. 

Springsteen is too smart to ignore complexity.  There are no easy fixes.  Love in and of itself will not solve all problems.  Things can be made better, but there is hard work to do if it is to be so.  Dreams can just as easily circle back to haunt you.  He never forgets the passion of the teenager, but he also never ignores the struggle of adulthood.  It is this duality that gives his work power. 

This duality, this complexity in outlook, means that even his lesser albums have moments that are worth recommending.   I think his most misunderstood album, Human Touch,  has many such moments.  Although it does suffer somewhat from the production and choice of musicians, and it is not a front to back masterpiece, there are a lot of songs where the writing is really sharp.  He also writes a lot of great melodies that bring the lyrics to life, whereas the slightly more critically accepted Lucky Town is slightly too sepia-toned for me, despite a couple great songs. 

I think if you are a fan of his, like I am, and you have ignored this period, it is worth revisiting.  There are also some stellar out takes from this period on the Tracks box set, especially Gave it a Name.  It is clear that Springsteen had read Flannery O’Connor by this point, as he adopts some of her haunted Biblical language to deal with these adulthood struggles. 

As one of our country’s greatest artists, Springsteen is often reduced to a caricature, like many larger than life figures.  (He did himself no favors in the propaganda films serving as music videos that accompanied Born in the U.S.A.)  But he has remained someone that constantly searches for meaning in a fallen world, always aware of the light and dark in our national character.  

Flirted With You All My Life by Vic Chesnutt

I have long been a Vic Chesnutt fan.  He was one of our most brilliant songwriters before he took his own life.  The above song, Flirted With You All My Life, is just about as powerful as songwriting gets.  It doesn’t flinch from the bleakness of human experience, yet their is something truly beautiful about it as well.  Normally I would post the lyrics, but I think it is best if they unravel while listening, as he plays with expectations during the first half of the song.  I love the creeping death cartoon music of the intro, followed by the transcendent almost African sounding music in parts of the proper song.  This song still gives me the chills when I listen to it, as I realize someone is tapping into the unexplainable and profound.  A true masterpiece.

Below is a live performance of this song recorded near the end of Chesnutt’s life.  It is almost hard to watch because of the emotions laid bare.

The Genius of Joni Mitchell

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While I have been at Steamboat MusicFest, I have been listening to a great deal of Joni Mitchell.  She is simply one of my favorite songwriters of all time.  Her music is so unique that I both understand and don’t understand why she isn’t more popular.  I understand that her music can be challenging in the way that so very few singer songwriters are, with serpentine melodies and completely unique chord progressions.  But I also don’t understand as she is a giant in terms of talent and so very few artists have ever come close to what she has accomplished.  I think she is haunted by the tag of FEMALE singer songwriter, as in my mind, she is the peer and equal of someone like Dylan, whom I also love and respect.  In fact she is probably more original and talented on a purely musical level than Dylan is.  While someone like Dylan or Neil Young, who is also from Canada like Mitchell, are regarded as almost founding fathers by this point, I feel like Mitchell is acknowledged in a much more limited way.

Although everyone should own what many consider her masterpiece, Blue, I would also recommend that everyone check out her 70’s trilogy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  This is not to say that this is the only work that she has worth hearing.  Although I don’t own every album she has ever made, I find something valuable in all the periods of her music.  Her last studio album, Shine, is simply fantastic, with a title song among the many that simply show she has never stopped being a master.  One of the hardest subjects to write about without coming across as cheesy is the environmental concerns of the day, but she does so on this album with a poetic depth that no one, outside of maybe Jackson Browne, has been able to do.

The 70’s trilogy that I mentioned is some of the most original music of all time.  It is expansive work, where each album seems like its own universe.  If one listens to pop music, like Nick Hornby suggests, until one can solve the puzzle of each song, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of these records.  They seem as if they were created by someone on another plain than most normal humans operate on.  This music is shape shifting as folk, jazz, pop, rock and occasional tribal music intertwine and emerge with a fluidity that very few could accomplish.  She holds her own with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, and seems more than a capable leader of such talents.  In fact she takes someone like him, makes his work more accessible, and loses none of the musicality in the process.

Mitchell’s guitar playing is some of the most original in recorded history.  She uses a wide variety of tunings and creates chord structures that are simply one of a kind.  Rhythmically influenced by jazz at times, she has a style, combined with the tunings, that sounds unlike any other singer songwriter of her or any time period.  While most greats, like the above mentioned Dylan and Young, synthesize what came before them into their own style, Mitchell seems to use different elements of music as a launch pad to take off to her own unique stratosphere.

Her melodies are again a thing completely of their own.  Listen to one of her most popular albums, Court and Spark, and ask yourself how this album became so popular.  Not many humans could sing, let alone write those melodies.  While they eventually ingrain themselves into your subconscious, they are not the simple hooks of pop music.  That album alone makes me wonder if music audiences were more advanced in their tastes back then, then they are now.

Enough cannot also be said about her lyrics.  They are simply some of the most poetic ever recorded.  Listen to the wordplay, the intelligence, and the wit displayed throughout her career.  She is the equal of a Dylan, without copying him.  Sometimes it almost seems as if she came out of nowhere.  While Dylan built an entirely new language in pop music, it was definitely rooted in the traditions of the folk world.  Mitchell seems to create a language all of her own, especially once she got to the above mentioned trilogy, that is still relatable as often as it is complex.

Now there is no doubt that Dylan had a greater cultural impact.  I am also not trying to say that Mitchell is better than Dylan.  I am only trying to make the case that if you want to talk about truly originals in music, she is one of the few that should be put on equal footing with the all time greats.  And while better or greater mean something different than more original, I would argue that Mitchell is actually more original than most of the all time greats.  She has consistently turned out fantastic mind bending stuff.  I constantly put on her records and am left awestruck at the sheer mastery of each component of song craft and playing. If you are a real music fan, I am telling you to get this stuff.  If you can open yourself to what she is doing, and she definitely is an acquired taste at times, this is music that will open up entire worlds that no one else has explored.  We will not see the likes of her again.  She is a true one of a kind and should be realized as such.