Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 2): Originals

(Courtesy of Netflix)

As I wrote in Part 1: The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose...

(Continue reading Part 1 here.)

“Rolling Thunder Revue”: Dylan goes electric

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” Martin Scorsese’s magic trick of a Netflix mockumentary, had me hoodwinked for an embarrassingly long time. I finally twigged to what was going on more than halfway through the film when Michael Murphy appeared in character as former presidential candidate Jack Tanner, the role he played in Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman’s celebrated 1988 HBO political mockumentary “Tanner ’88.” And then I laughed out loud.

“Rolling Thunder Revue” is a carnival midway attraction of a movie, in keeping with the traveling circus atmosphere of Dylan’s shambolic 1976 Rolling Thunder tour of North America. Scorsese’s film is mostly recycled from concert and behind the scenes footage for “Renaldo and Clara,” the movie Dylan directed while on tour, in which he, Joan Baez and a horde of musicians and traveling companions played themselves but also not-themselves. (The original footage was shot by Howard Alk, David Meyers and Paul Goldsmith.) “Renaldo and Clara” was a critical flop when it was released; “Rolling Thunder Revue” is basically that movie reassembled by Scorsese with a wink and a nod.

I’ve watched “Rolling Thunder Revue” twice and I still can’t make up my mind whether Scorsese’s smoke-and-mirrors additions work. For instance, he plants ringers like actress Sharon Stone, purporting to have been on the tour as a teenager, and performance artist Martin Von Hasselberg as Stefan Van Dorp, the disgruntled alleged director of the original footage, among the interview segments with real-life Rolling Thunder participants. Was piling an extra-level of trickery onto the already tricky “Renaldo and Clara” overkill, like TP-ing a house on Halloween and egging it for good measure?

Maybe. But it doesn’t get in the way of the film’s main event, its exhilarating concert footage. Dylan is a wild man in the concert scenes, as he leads a rotating roster of musicians (the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, a young T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera, working her Gypsy queen persona to the hilt) through stomping rock versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” as well as sweeping cinematic narratives like “Isis” and “Hurricane.” The camera often tight on his face, Dylan is incandescent with desire and rage, shouting out lyrics like they’re his last will and testament.

For me, watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” was like opening a time capsule and rediscovering things I’d forgotten and never fully appreciated, like how astonishingly sexy and charismatic this stage incarnation of Bob Dylan was. And the gender-fluidity of his ’70’s rock-star look — eyeliner, scarves, fresh flowers rimming his wide-brimmed hat — is startlingly modern. His face smeared with white mime’s makeup (remnants of “Renaldo and Clara”), “Rolling Thunder Revue” becomes one trippy masquerade.

The greatest singer-songwriter of our time has always managed to remain a changeling and an enigma; you were never truly sure if the Dylan you were seeing today would be the Dylan you’d see tomorrow. He pops up as one of Scorsese’s present-day interview subjects in the film, polishing his myth by giving characteristically flinty answers. But watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” again, I realized that in one of his faux-interview answers, Dylan is handing us a clue to the game he and Scorsese are playing, as well as summing up the theme of the movie (and Dylan’s career): “Life isn’t about finding yourself … Life is about creating yourself.”

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Bruce Springsteen: Like a rhinestone cowboy

In his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run” and the long-running “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen tells us that the Boss was a character that he created, and that the Bruce Springsteen we think we know is a figment of our collective imagination. The soul-searching and naked confessions that make up Springsteen’s output since 2016 flip that Bob Dylan quote on its head: lately, Springsteen’s life has been about un-creating himself in order to find himself.

The solo studio album he released in 2019, “Western Stars,” didn’t move me. With its narrow focus on aging solitary men reaching the end of the line, “Western Stars” revealed Springsteen’s head as a claustrophobia-inducing place to be at the moment. I also thought the recreations of lushly orchestrated Jimmy Webb-style country-pop of the ’60’s and ’70’s were pretty but airless. I wanted something more from Springsteen’s first studio record since 2012, some acknowledgement that we woke up one day and everything had changed. I wanted him to articulate my pain and grief over the state of our country. Instead, he released this.

I missed the concert movie built around “Western Stars” when it had a short run in theaters. I set my sights on a rumored E Street Band album and tour on the horizon and moved on. And then one day I was driving in the car and heard the live version of “Sundown” from the “Western Stars” soundtrack album and I had a small epiphany. Played live with a band, string section and backup singers, “Sundown” came buoyantly alive. Springsteen’s singing was looser and warmer, freed from the constraints of the studio version’s fussed-over production. In my original review, I said that the “The Wayfarer,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “Sundown” (songs on the record that I actually like) could have been sung by Sinatra in the ’70’s. And sure enough, the live versions from the “Western Stars” soundtrack really swing, Jack.

So here’s the epiphany. I still don’t love the studio album or the precious years spent on solo introspective confessions and summations, but the “Western Stars’ soundtrack clicked something into place for me. I can finally appreciate what Springsteen is doing with all of this, and why.

Here’s a guy who has spent the better part of his career being “Bruce Springsteen,” who, as he tells us in the autobiography and the Broadway show, isn’t really him. He has tried to speak to us as plain old Bruce Springsteen before, most notably on “Tunnel of Love,” “Lucky Town” and parts of “Devils and Dust,” about his flaws and failings, his struggles, his love for his wife and kids. But now, at 70, his desire to tell us what he needs to tell us, to show himself, seems to have become more urgent. The “Western Stars” live album helped me understand that I was focused on the theme and sound of the songs, when the act of Springsteen singing them was the main point. This is grown-up music. And doesn’t Springsteen deserve to have some time to be his grown-up self, singing swinging grown-up songs with his baby by his side, and not having to get up on stage and conjure the “Bruce Springsteen” he used to be at 25 or 30 or 40? Springsteen will tour with the E Street Band again and for those three hours, we’ll all be transported back to 1975 again. Until then, we owe it to him to let him work out what he needs to work out in order to be at peace.

The “Western Stars” concert version ends with a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an irresistible sing-along as well as a fitting homage to one of the inspirations for the album. It’s my choice for cover of the year. And in a way, Bruce Springsteen is the Rhinestone Cowboy, the larger-than-life, star-spangled hero, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” Springsteen sings the song with a self-deprecating smile in his voice. His performance is jovial but not jokey; he sounds like he’s having a blast, but the choice of this song carries an echo of the message he puts forth more somberly in “Springsteen on Broadway” — the person we see on stage isn’t always the person we think we’re seeing. And at this point in his career, he’s earned the right to take off those heavy rhinestones once in a while.

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Prince “Originals”: Album of the year

(Courtesy of Virginia Turblett/The Prince Estate)

Three years gone and Prince still manages to put out an album that blows away what most living artists released this year. OK, so Prince had nothing to do with the conceptualizing or release of “Originals”; it’s a well-chosen and sequenced project of the Prince Estate, consisting of Prince’s demo tracks of songs that were ultimately recorded by other artists. If he was still with us, Prince might never have consented to let this corner of his vast trove of unreleased work see daylight. But now that it’s out, “Originals” has the impact of a flex from beyond the grave; it’s equal to the diminutive genius tossing his guitar into the air after owning that all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as if to say, “Y’all see what I just did?”

By now, none of us should be surprised by Prince’s eternal ability to surprise us. And yet, “Originals” does exactly that. Only one of its 15 tracks, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” has been previously released in Prince form (a live version appeared on his ’90s greatest hits compilation “The Hits/The B-Sides”). These demos of songs Prince gave away to other artists date from the ’80’s, his most fertile period. Most of the tracks went to acts he produced under his “Jamie Starr/Starr Company” moniker, like Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and Morris Day and The Time. Others went to outside acts like the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Martika (“Love … Thy Will Be Done”) and — well, why not? — Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”).

“Gave away” doesn’t really get to the heart of what Prince did with these songs. He may have let others record them, giving several careers the kiss of life, but in return he breathed his presence and influence into every note of their performances, every inch of the recording tape. His original Warner Bros. contract allowed him to recruit and produce artists for the label. But he did even more than that. Prince was like a nonthreatening version of Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort. Voldemort guaranteed immortality by secreting pieces of himself into seven objects and living things; Prince produced other artists in his own image, magnifying his sound and extending his influence beyond his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was always thinking big.

We always knew Prince was the wizard behind the curtain of so many acts, but it’s a jolt to hear just how much influence he had on the finished recordings. As “Originals” reveals, these tracks aren’t demos so much as blueprints. The Morris Day and The Time song “Jungle Love” exactly follows Prince’s demo, every “o-ee-o-ee-o” and squawk, right down to the shout of “Somebody bring me a mirror!” (Prince, Morris Day and original Time guitarist Jesse Johnson get co-writing credit on “Jungle Love.”)

Likewise, there’s little breathing room between Prince’s demo of “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” and The Time’s version (although Prince sounds like the lonelier gigolo), or his “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and Taja Sevelle’s or his “Sex Shooter” and Apollonia’s. For “Manic Monday,” the Bangles gave Prince the keys and let him drive; he arranged the backing vocals and they kept his flower-power-y piano riff from the demo. It’s a kick to hear his lead vocal here, and his keyboard-playing stands out as lighter and more joyful in this draft of the production.

Prince’s demos for Sheila E. in particular — “The Glamorous Life,” “Noon Rendezvous,” “Dear Michelangelo” and “Holly Rock” — are a fascinating glimpse into their symbiotic relationship. Sheila E. receives sole or shared credit on all of these songs, but her finished vocals strictly adhere to Prince’s emphases and inflections from the demos. On his crackling version of “Holly Rock” (a close sibling of the smoking jam “Housequake” from “Sign o’ the Times”), Prince becomes Sheila E., singing out lines like, “Sheila E’s my name/ Holly Rock’s my game/I’m funky as I wanna be/Line up a hundred I swear to God/I rock ’em till they just can’t see.” Performing the song in the movie “Krush Groove,” Sheila’s vocal again follows Prince’s guide vocal. And with her peek-a-boo lace suit, pompadour hairdo and hip thrust/kick split dance moves, Sheila E. becomes Prince.

The Sheila E. demos aren’t the only songs here that reveal their gender-fluidity when Prince sings them. On “Make-Up,” recorded by Vanity 6, he narrates a cosmetic routine to a repeating Kraftwerkian technofunk riff , his monotone at once signifying dominatrix and sex robot. The performance gets sexier as the gender identity of the singer gets blurrier (“I guess I’ll wear my camisole”). I always assumed that Prince’s blended male-female Love Symbol stood for the sexual communion of his music. So “Originals” was a “holy shit” revelation for me about what Prince might have really been saying when he adopted that symbol as his own. Then again, maybe I should have taken the hint when he sang “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand” in “I Would Die 4 U.”

Wholly inhabiting these songs, Prince slips easily into different skins, different personas — the horny jester of “Jungle Love,” the working woman of “Manic Monday,” the transcendent spiritual being of “Love … Thy Will be Done.” It’s as if we’re hearing facets of personality, complexities of self, all of Prince’s contained multitudes. And then we come to the final song, the “Nothing Compares 2 U” demo that’s so sparsely orchestrated and intimate that the burbling electric piano chord may as well be a pulse, the percussion a clock winding down. “Nothing Compares 2 U” sounds like a voice and a soul, existing beyond space and time and skin and bones — the voice of Prince, the one and only, and that’s the God’s honest truth.

Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 1): Got to be real

The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose.

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(Courtesy Elektra Records)

The Highwomen: A seat at the table

The name is a pun on and a tribute to the Cash-Kristofferson-Haggard-Jennings Mount Rushmore of country supergroups. But The Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — see their project as more of a collective than a supergroup. And that’s exactly what this debut record sounds like. Their group singing conveys a whole, a sense of sisterhood and community to which all are welcome and all belong. In a genre where women artists have to fight for airplay (a 2019 study showed that women artists comprised only 11.3 percent of the country radio airplay on 2018 year-end industry charts), “The Highwomen” feels as much like a movement as it does a musical happening.

The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in which the male archetypes of rugged adventurers (outlaw, seafarer, dam builder, astronaut) are replaced by women protectors, activists and healers. The Salem witch, the migrant mother trying to cross the Southern border, the civil rights Freedom Rider (sung by Yola, an Americana/soul artist from the U.K.) are all portrayed as a threat to the patriarchal, misogynistic societies in which they live. In the migrant and Freedom Rider verses, the women are doubly persecuted for race as well as gender. Sung in unison, the final chorus — “and we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” — conjures women as a resilient force through time, determined to right wrongs and speak truth in a world that underestimates and fears us. If that sounds corny, think of Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill testifying before Congress at personal and professional risk. Highwomen, all.

The two other statement songs on “The Highwomen” are similarly lifted by the sisterly blend of the group’s voices. “Redesigning Women” is a sparky country-pop homage to the way Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire made “women’s lib” acceptable for their fans in past decades.The women in the song go to work, race home to breastfeed the baby, take on their families’ emotional burdens and drink a lot of wine. “How do we do it? /How do we do it? /Make it up as we go along,” goes the bridge. The message here is that there is no “right” way to be a woman, so we need to stop beating ourselves up trying to be perfect.

“Crowded Table” glows with a similar generosity. It’s a song of hope at a time when hope is defiance: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.” The hearth and home imagery both calls to mind and undermines the traditional notion of “a woman’s place.” Women are doing most of the labor of resisting the Trump regime — working in groups, organizing protests, sitting at kitchen tables calling elected officials and writing postcards to voters. The “house” of “Crowded Table” is America. And while the song’s warm folk-rock vibe reminds me of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, it conjures no cozy retreat from the world. It welcomes the world in.

The smaller, more personal songs on “The Highwomen” pack an emotional wallop as well. “If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by Shires and her partner Jason Isbell (who plays on the record) for Carlile to sing. And Carlile’s vulnerable, full-hearted wobble on the declaration “I’ve loved her in secret/I’ve loved her out loud” tells you all you need to know about the cost of loving in secret and the liberation of loving who you’re meant to love.

One song that’s not on the record but should have been is The Highwomen’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (it’s on the soundtrack to the film “The Kitchen”). It’s a faithful cover, but with a crisper beat than the original. The song is an incantation, a curse ex-lovers level at one another. But when “The Chain” is liberated from the sexual merry-go-round that was the Mac and sung by four women joined together in righteous anger, it becomes something more dangerous and thrilling. As part of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks’s crystal-vision sorcery was often misinterpreted as air-headedness by the male rock critic establishment. On “The Chain,” the Highwomen sound like a whole coven assembled to avenge Stevie Nicks and how she gave voice to the power of women’s love and rage. They are the daughters of the witch the male-driven music industry couldn’t burn.

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The category is “realness”: “Pose,” Lizzo and “Schitt’s Creek”

“If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” Lizzo sings in “Like a Girl” from her unstoppable 2019 album “Cuz I Love You.” Her body positivity and self-actualization anthem “Juice” is the dance song of the year, but every track on the record slams, makes you move. And on the album’s other giant hit, “Truth Hurts,” she asks the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds since the circus came to town on Election Day 2016: “Why men great till they gotta be great?”

Lizzo is the definition of exuberance, from her rich, sunny voice (reminiscent sometimes of Chaka Khan’s) to her boasts (“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred per-cent that bitch“). Taking her stage cues from Queen Bey’s swagger, Lizzo commands you to respect her as she is, a self-made woman who has no time for your body-shaming. Lizzo is not too much, she is everything. Her odes to “self-partnering” like “Soulmate” (“They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look/They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook/But I’m solo in Soho, sippin’ Soju in Malibu/ It’s a me, myself kinda attitude”) alternate with songs reading unworthy men the riot act. “Cuz I Love You” could be titled “Cuz I Love Me,” a message she puts across in every performance, every glam shot, every pep talk about knowing your own worth. If it’s a pose, it’s a great and a joyous one, because it pulls her listeners into a place of celebration for the messy realness and the shining possibilities inside all of us.


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(The Rose family of “Schitt’s Creek”)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Affluent jet-setting poseurs lose their fortune and are reduced to living in the hinterlands among their plaid-clad inferiors — that’s the premise of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.” It’s a seam that “Green Acres” and “Newhart” mined well (except that the urban sophisticates of those shows willingly relocated to small town USA in search of “real” folk). What “Schitt’s Creek” brings to the genre is a big-hearted view of humanity at a time when political tribes are actively avoiding each other. On “Schitt’s Creek,” the spoiled Rose family — video-store magnate Johnny Rose, his soap opera actress wife Moira and their pampered adult children Alexis and David — gradually develop humility and empathy as they discover their true selves.

Created by comedic treasure Eugene Levy (who plays Johnny) and his son Dan Levy (who plays David and is also a writer and producer on the show), “Schitt’s Creek” began life on Canada’s CBC and on the mid-tier cable network Pop in the U.S. It broke big when Netflix picked up existing seasons. I was slow to take notice, but once I did, I blasted through it with increasing astonishment and delight. It was my antidote to Twitter this year, and I wish I had had the will power to morsel out the 2019 season when it hit Netflix in October. But I didn’t, and now I have to wait for its sixth (and final season) to hit next year. That’s OK, it gives me more time to re-watch season five, which culminates in an amateur theater production of “Cabaret” for reasons unknown (but it totally works).

“Schitt’s Creek” is often burstingly funny. That magnificent, elegant clown, Catherine O’Hara has the role of a lifetime here and she slays it; her Moira is a bewigged, bedazzled fish out of water, clad in black-and-white haute couture and accentuating her lines in a bewildering speech pattern somewhere between pretentious thespian and Jiminy Glick. As for her longtime comedy partner Eugene Levy, I could write a thesis on his expressive eyebrows through the years, from “SCTV” to “Best in Show” to “Schitt’s Creek,” but for now, I’ll just say that his Johnny is a master class in comedic reacting as the optimist amid his family’s chaos.

What makes “Schitt’s Creek” perfect escapist viewing is it’s relentlessly positive depiction of people’s capacity for change; the longer the Roses stay in Schitt’s Creek — they bought the town as a joke when they were wealthy, and it’s their only remaining asset — the closer they become as a family. And as we get to know them and their neighbors, we’re constantly being surprised by every character’s slowly revealed strengths, kinks and aspirations, the depth of their emotional lives.

If this sounds treacly, it’s not. Every grandly sarcastic line from the mouth of bitchy fashionista David lands as invigoratingly as a cold dip after a hot sauna. And as Alexis, Annie Murphy has created an entire language out of variations on the exclamation, “Eww!” The most singular and wondrous thing about “Schitt’s Creek,” though, is its treatment of David’s queerness (Dan Levy is himself gay). Take the following exchange between Johnny and the town’s mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliot). Roland is a passive-aggressive weirdo, but in keeping with the show’s theme that you should never assume you know what’s going on with people, he completely gets it:

Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.

Near the end of season five, there’s a lovely episode where David’s adorably unflappable boyfriend Patrick (Noah Reid) comes out to his visiting parents. The parents are visibly uncomfortable and you’re waiting for the worst, but it turns out that they’re happy for him, just melancholy that Patrick kept his true self from them for so long. By design, there is no homophobia on “Schitt’s Creek.” This is Eugene and Dan Levy’s world, and we should all be so lucky to live in it.

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MORE SPOILERS!

FX’s “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series about ball culture and trans and gay life in New York City of the ’80s, set itself a daunting goal for its second season: Tell the story of how AIDS ravaged a generation of gay and trans people while President Ronald Reagan took no action. How do you document the terror, the demonization, the loss upon loss of those years without driving TV and streaming audiences away? Murphy, co-creator Steven Canale and writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J did it by alternating the focus from the personal to the political, drawing parallels to the criminal indifference shown toward the lives (and deaths) of LGBT people by a Republican administration and its powerful religious allies, then and now.

Season two of “Pose” gave viewers a living history lesson of the plague years, from ACT UP die-ins to the terrors of living with the disease that (in those days) meant certain death. The show’s most beloved characters, House of Evangelista mother Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) and drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter), both developed full-blown AIDS during the course of the season, reacting with their usual resilience (Blanca) and anger (Pray). Yes, “Pose” was often difficult to watch this season without shedding tears. But, as Pray Tell is fond of saying, the older members of the community have to educate the youth. Here is a major TV series with a cast, producers and writers that is majority trans and gay (and majority black- and brown-skinned), exploring the fullness of LGBT lives at a time when the faction in power is doing everything it can to erase them from public life.

Some of the characters’ experiences were horrible: the murder of Candy Ferocity, an African American trans woman; the many characters’ backstories about being banished by homophobic and transphobic parents; Pray Tell’s bone-chilling AIDS-fever dream where he wanders through the hospital ward singing “The Man That Got Away.” But this was all necessary to make the essential point — “Pose” shows you what people will risk for the freedom to live an authentic life.

For all the heartache and sickness this season, “Pose” still gave us plenty of music, dance and ball-walking (a through-line astutely showed the attention Madonna’s “Vogue” brought to the ball community, and the debris after mainstream interest faded). And when the emotional highs came, they were soaring. Pray finally letting himself act on his attraction to a much younger dancer led to a long, skin-to-skin bedroom scene of pure ecstasy. And Rodriguez continues to infuse Blanca, the head and heart of her ball family, with poise, grit and an endless capacity for maternal love.

In an indelible scene from the season finale, Blanca turns up for the “Mother of the Year” ball competition still weak from AIDS-related pneumonia. From her wheelchair, she radiantly lip-synchs to Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This land is our land too, the choice of music proclaims. Blanca’s House of Evangelista, her crowded table, her chosen family, is a vision of a welcoming, inclusive America that was just a dream in 1990. We’ve come so far in 30 years, the writers seem to be telling us, even as they invite us to consider the forces that threaten to drag us backwards to the time of outcasts and plagues.

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Coming in Part Two: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Prince

From the Desk of Ms. Katharine Hepburn



(Originally published on the launch of The Reject Pile, a now-defunct humor website, June 1, 2015.)

Dear Readers,

I’m as pleased as punch to welcome you to my new lifestyle blog, HEP. Each month, I’ll deliver my tips for healthy living right to your in-box. Why anybody would need instruction in living is beyond me, but this is all the rage I’m told. You have to dispense advice whether you’re qualified to or not. I’m an actress, not a bloody pharmacist!

Our theme for this month is “Gratitude.” Oh, I’m grateful for many things. I’m grateful that I never had to make a movie with Sylvester Stallone, I’ll tell you that. He called me up once, he and the other lunk, Arnold What’s-His-Name, and they said, “Please Miss Hepburn, please be in our movie, The Expendables 3,” and I said, “Go sit on a tack!” I don’t know what the hell Hollywood is thinking with all the filth and the spaceships.

I’m supposed to tell you to follow us on Twitter. Hell of a waste of time, if you ask me. “Dear Twitter, I’m making a sandwich.” Well, sound the trumpets! If you see a Tweet from @KatetheGreat, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s written by Lance from the marketing department. I wash my hands of the whole foolish business. You’re on your own, Lance. Do you hear me?

Our fitness section is called BURN. Why BURN? Oh, for heaven’s sake, do I have to spell it out? Hep-BURN. Well, don’t blame me — I told Lance it was too subtle! Oh, I’ve been athletic my whole life. Nowadays it’s just a fad, you see, thanks to Jane Fonda. She irritated the hell out of me when we were making On Golden Pond. Always lugging that big pink step stool around, doing scissor kicks at the drop of a hat. And those preposterous shin warmers! I don’t believe in getting all gussied up like a circus trapeze artist just to do some calisthenics. All I’ve ever needed is a gray sweat suit from the army surplus store and a hobo bandanna to mop up the sweat. (Editor’s Note: She doesn’t mean that! Buy our exclusive HEP THE BURN yoga pants and running gear at Lululemon! — X0X, Lance)

I have a strict exercise regimen, and believe you me, I stick to it! That’s a quality sorely lacking in people nowadays, stick-to-it-iveness. I jump into the ice pool and swim 150 laps before dawn every morning, come out as invigorated as could be. Go to BURN to learn how to make your own ice pool. It’s common sense, for heaven’s sake! Blocks of ice, swimming pool, done! Then it’s time for the medicine ball. Young women today have never even seen a medicine ball, and it’s a goddamned shame. We’re selling them in the HEP shop for $299. The marketing people claim they’re handmade by women in a village in the Andes. The Andes! Snort! I made my own medicine ball out of a sack of rice and an old oilskin and it cost me forty-two cents! That’s Yankee ingenuity.

Lance wanted to include a parenting section called “Bringing Up Baby,” but I said, “Absolutely not!” I never felt the need to reproduce. I had my career and that was enough. Nowadays, there’s so much guilt. Women freezing their eggs, parents letting children make all the decisions. Have you seen the bicycle path in Central Park? It’s all gummed up with tricycles! Move to the right if you can’t pedal any faster! When I was a child, Mother taught me to be self-sufficient, and that was the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I birthed myself, not many people know that. Decided I’d had enough, slipped right out, chewed through the umbilical cord with my teeth and made myself a cup of hot cocoa. Self-reliance is a wonderful thing.

Now, I never gave a fig about fashion. A good pair of khakis, a black turtleneck, a starched white shirt — what the hell else do you need? You can buy all of those things at our advertising sponsor, The Gap. I personally haven’t shopped there since the time I got into a tug-of-war with Woody Allen over a half-priced bucket hat. Persistent little man. But that’s neither here nor there. A good sturdy clip to hold my top-knot in place and a splash of lipstick and I’m out the door. I have one tube of Max Factor Tru-Color that’s lasted me for sixty-three years. Does anyone know the meaning of thrift anymore?

I suppose you’ll want recipes. Well, I’m not a cook, you see. I don’t get the point of this hoopla over gluten and pampered chickens. And the Mason jars! Every time I see lemonade served in a Mason jar I think of Howard Hughes and it puts me off my meal. Plain food is the key. I’ve had the same cook for forty years, a dear man. He was once employed at the prison in Ossining. Lance thinks that readers want to be told what to eat. Well, that’s bunk! If you’re smart enough to operate a computer, then you’re damned well smart enough to feed yourself! Breakfast — a bowl of muesli and prune compote. What’s so hard about that? Lunch — same thing every day: a hard roll and a wedge of good sharp cheddar. Dinner — steamed cod, a potato and a parsnip.

Oh, I’m not without my vices, mind you. I enjoy a shot of Jameson’s in the evening. But all the trends that people go crazy for — the In-N-Out Burger and the Fiddle Faddle — well it’s a national disgrace! Food should be sustenance, not a hobby! Good riddance to all of that junk, I say. Except for Popeyes Fried Chicken. They do an exceptional Louisiana coating and the Combo Meal is good value for money.

I’ve had enough of this. Come back next time, or don’t, it’s all the same to me.

Kate

From the Vault: Morris Day and Prime-Time

Hey, who remembers that Prince’s Court Jester, Morris Day, once starred in his own NBC sitcom pilot? I didn’t, and I was one of the few TV critics who reviewed it when it ran as summer filler in 1988. Here’s a nugget from my clippings archive, currently under construction. Many artifacts to come. (Stretch photo to enlarge.)

From the vault: Bruce Springsteen on video

Is it me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?

With Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” movie opening in theaters this weekend (I will see it if the Bay Area power outages permit), it got me thinking about a now-ancient VHS video anthology he released in 1989, comprising his MTV-age videos and clips from live performances at the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit and at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit in 1986. In this anthology, you can see Springsteen’s early evolution as a performer in front of the camera and as a visual artist behind it. There’s a whole world of changes between his awkward dance steps on “Dancing in the Dark” and the stunning emotional nakedness of “Brilliant Disguise.” Here’s my review from the San Francisco Examiner in 1989. Expand image to read.

The birth of cool: Miami Vice, 35 years later

I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh lord …

In the money scene of the premiere episode of NBC’s “Miami Vice,” Detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) cruise the midnight streets of Miami in Crockett’s shiny black classic Ferrari on their way to a showdown with the drug dealer responsible for the death of Tubbs’ brother and Crockett’s partner. The scene is thick with portent, new partners Crockett and Tubbs warily eyeing each other. The wind blows through Crockett’s dark blond hair. Tubbs checks his gun. The scene keeps cutting to caressing shots of reflected streetlights breaking like waves off the Ferrari’s hood. In the background, Phil Collins’ atmospheric “In the Air Tonight” builds and builds. It’s the most erotic depiction of platonic buddies since Paul Newman and Robert Redford smoldered at each other in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. And then Collins hits the drum riff heard ’round the world and a pop cultural phenomena exploded.

I came of age as a TV critic with “Miami Vice”. A review of that September 16, 1984 premiere episode was one of the first pieces of TV criticism I wrote for the alt-weekly newspaper the Boston Phoenix:

“Not only is it easily the season’s best new show, it features some of the most sophisticated direction and editing and some of the most visually sensual, and downright gorgeous, photography ever seen on a network action series. And I’d bet NBC wouldn’t have let it see the light of prime time if rock video hadn’t already eased cryptic kinkiness and art-school flash into the mainstream. … [Michael] Mann and [Anthony] Yerkovich use rock-video style as a foot in the door that enables them to sneak in all the fancy film theories and techniques that used to be considered too outre for the average TV series — or rather, considered too good to waste on the average TV viewer. Miami Vice is the most groundbreaking prime-time show since Hill Street Blues, not just because it isn’t afraid to be different, but because it isn’t afraid to be brilliant.”

The series that was commissioned by then-NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff  with two words — “MTV cops” — became a standing Friday night obsession for its first couple of seasons. It influenced ’80s men’s fashions (linen blazers, pastel T shirts, no socks) and men’s grooming (stubble). It busted Phil Collins out as a solo artist and made Jan Hammer’s electronic instrumental theme song a radio hit. Musicians lined up to act in it: Willie Nelson, Little Richard, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, Suicidal Tendencies, Glenn Frey, Vanity, Sheena Easton. Phil Collins. Miles Freaking Davis. Anything “Vice”-related sold, even Don Johnson’s album “Heartbeat” (17 on the Billboard 200 album chart). Well, almost anything: Philip Michael Thomas’s album “Living the Book of My Life,” which was released before Johnson’s, failed to chart.

But the show’s contributions to television were hardly superficial or ephemeral. Reverberations of its seductive, shades-of-gray depictions of good guys and bad guys could be felt in cult-cool broadcast TV series that soon followed it, like NBC’s “Crime Story” and CBS’s “Wiseguy.” Its dark portrayal of governmental lies and malfeasance cleared a TV path for “The X-Files.” The grown-up storytelling and MTV flash of “Miami Vice” brought people who thought they were too smart and cool to watch TV back to the medium. In doing so, it was an important link in the chain that eventually brought us “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” “Deadwood” and “The Americans.”

And your humble critic was there to chronicle all of it, from the blazing first two seasons to the flame-out years when the ratings dropped and the threat of cancellation loomed. She even dutifully reported on Don Johnson’s post-Vice career (although now she can’t remember why).

And here I am, on the 35th anniversary of the show’s premiere, still marveling at how thoroughly “Miami Vice” defined its time, both pop culturally and politically, while proving to be so far ahead of it.  I continued covering “Vice” when I was TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Here’s the appreciation and eulogy I wrote for the series when it aired its May 21, 1989 finale, “Freefall.” (Click images to enlarge.) I wouldn’t change a word of it today.  The plot of the finale depicts Crockett and Tubbs uncovering the shadowy alliances between a lawless executive branch, scoundrels-for-hire and anti-democratic regimes in another part of the world. Only the fashions have changed.

(Reruns of “Miami Vice” can be streamed on NBC.com. They also air on the premium cable channel Encore/Starz. Thanks to Dan Brekke, for his help retrieving the Examiner piece.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

Hey, who wants to hear my voice?

For the first time ever, I said yes to a podcast interview. Jesse from Set Lusting Bruce, a Springsteen podcast, caught me in a sharing mood and we talked about how I came to be a Springsteen fan and lots of other stuff about my childhood and my career path and whether or not I think Mary gets in the car at the end of “Thunder Road.” If you’ve ever wondered about the mystery that is moi, here’s your chance. I don’t open up the Fortress of Solitude every day, you know.

Listen to my episode of Set Lusting Bruce here.

The tide is high

I need a better phone. ©Joyce Millman

Blurry, sorry! ©Joyce Millman

It seemed only fitting to spend the night after my “officially eligible for the senior discount” birthday seeing a double bill of Blondie and Elvis Costello at a summer shed venue in the outermost suburbs of the East Bay. After a 2 1/2 hour crawl to the Concord Pavilion through perpetual Bay Area traffic, the consort and I had just enough time to wolf down our picnic dinner in the parking lot, while watching our peers being golf-carted up the mountain from a more distant lot. How can these senior folk be our age cohort? I mean, just look at us! We could pass for … uh … never mind.

It takes more energy to get out to a show these days, but for Elvis, the consort and I will go anywhere (this trek proves it). Costello’s cancer scare a couple of years ago only hardened our determination — he plays anywhere near SF, we’re there. My first Elvis show was in 1979 — I’m so old, I reviewed it for my college newspaper. I’ve seen him so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. By contrast, I last saw Blondie right before the Parallel Lines album hit big, in a small Boston club called the Paradise. She was the diamond-cut visage of New Wave, with a voice like a candy cloud. Musically, Blondie laid the blueprint for the blend of arty pop-punk and Eurodisco that would be followed by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Lady Gaga.

I mention all of this because attending an Elvis-Blondie concert one day after turning 62 was so on-brand, if you know me, as to be comical. The only thing more perfect could have been a Springsteen show, but, sadly, Bruce would not oblige.

I have no illusions. I’m not a kid anymore. I listen to new artists, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go stand in a field at some summer festival to see them play live. So pretty much the only concerts I go to these days are ones where I have a seat to fall into when I can’t dance any more. Usually, that means “legacy acts.” Hence the trek to this outdoor venue on top of a sun-bleached mountain in the land of gated subdivisions. Long story short … I’m glad I did. This was no ’80’s nostalgia package. This was a doubleheader of titans.

Elvis Costello was last in the Bay Area just this past December for a long and varied show at the Masonic that revolved around the swell orchestral pop of his latest album Look Now. The co-headlining summer tour with Blondie had each act playing for under two hours. It’s asking a lot of Costello to edit his set down for curfew — with a catalog as deep as his, how do you choose?

The setlist favored the greatest hits  (“Radio Radio,” “Alison,” “Pump It Up”) but also worked in a couple of slow-burning wild cards not played before on this tour, “Party Girl,” from Armed Forces, and “Come the Meantimes,” from his collaboration with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. The latter hit a blues-funk groove that you wished could have gone on all night. Costello was in strong voice (especially at the piano for a soaring ballad “A Face in the Crowd,” as yet unrecorded,  from his upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the movie of the same name) and even stronger guitar form  — his crackling solo injected the oft-performed “Watching the Detectives” with new life.

The Attractions — pianist Steve Naive, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher –were, as always, impeccable and limber. Backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee add a crucial element to live performances of Costello’s songs of love and revenge — the woman’s presence. Like Steely Dan’s backing vocalists, they serve as Greek chorus, counterpoint and a breath of youth. The interplay between Costello and his vocalists was at its most fun on the Supremes-inspired “Unwanted Number,” in a long riff where Costello shouted out titles with numbers in them (from “One is the loneliest number” to “Ninety-nine and a half won’t do”).

Costello was cheerful and chatty, even up against a curfew. He performed an impersonation of Elvis Presley covering Blondie songs (well-mannered Presley would never have sung the “pain in the ass” line from “Heart of Glass,” Costello assures us), and tossed off some dark topical humor in a remark about an earlier tour stop in Gettysburg, and wanting to see the site of the last Civil War before the next one breaks out. The by-now standard, cathartic finale “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with a stunning new video backdrop display of Costello’s artwork flashing “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) came much too soon and we were filing out to the wonderfully wicked selection of the 1956 British kids’ tune “Nellie the Elephant,” with its chorus of “Trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump.” I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the necessarily shortened set; as Elvis’s shows go, it was a mere snack. But it tasted so good.

Blondie was the opener on this tour, and the audience at Concord seemed to tilt more toward their fans than Elvis’s. Debbie Harry (whose memoir Face It will be published in October) is 74, and her voice is lower than it used to be and showing signs of end-of-tour overuse (she sipped tea throughout, and talk-sung some of the lyrics). But goddess bless her, she is an inspiration to all of us women of a certain vintage who are trying to figure out what “act your age” means. She shows us that it means whatever the hell you want it to mean.

Harry doesn’t give an inch. She took the stage clad in the following: a silver-threaded short-sleeve turtleneck sweater; a black, sparkly high-low-hemmed wrap skirt tied over black leggings; a chunky black belt (possibly containing a fanny pack, it was hard to see from where I was sitting); a black helmet-type hat like those worn by equestrians or possibly London cops; oversized sunglasses; and a billowy silver Mylar-looking anorak. Before the encores, she disappeared from the stage and re-emerged wearing a black and silver ruffled cocoon that was probably designed by Rei Kawakubo for all I know. Her platinum blond signature coif was perfect. She pranced and danced and clowned, all with a big smile on her face. The love traveled both ways.

A white-haired Chris Stein sat to her left throughout the show, wearing dark shades. Clem Burke, who, along with the Attractions’ Pete Thomas is one of the greatest drummers to ever drum, was set up behind Plexiglass baffling. Burke is the only other original member of Blondie in the band besides Harry and Stein, and he looked exactly how you would expect Clem Burke to look. Has he been preserved in amber? (The three original members are joined by bassist Leigh Foxx, lead guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Boher.)

Blondie’s set was one glorious hit after another (“Call Me,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture”), with a deep cut or two (“Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines and “Atomic” from Eat to the Beat were a pleasant surprise).  And the band played two absolute genius covers, the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus hit of the summer “Old Town Road” and the James Bond theme song “From Russia with Love.” Covering “Old Town Road,” a marriage of rap and country, was a reminder that Blondie’s “Rapture” served a similar purpose of taking the sound of one genre and culture into untested territory. “Rapture” was the first (and, for years, only) hip-hop song to be played on MTV. As for “From Russia with Love,” Harry purred it, deadpan, in front of that notorious prank Presidential seal (a Photoshop with the two-headed Russian eagle holding golf clubs), to whoops of solidarity from the crowd.

The highlight for me was Blondie’s reggae cover “The Tide Is High,” which Harry prefaced with a remark about the tide being high for some of us. At the time I took that to be a reference to the climate crisis (Harry is a longtime environmental activist). But this morning, I remembered her shout to the audience at the song’s end, “I’m holding on. I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that. Are you?” Tide and time. Sea levels and the number of candles on the cake, both rising. Fight on, Debbie, you eccentric, irreplaceable diamond.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

Sundown

 

Bruce Springsteen’s new solo record “Western Stars” puts us inside the heads of lonely men adrift in an American West so picture-perfect it might as well be a movie set. Springsteen’s characters here are all variations on a dusty-booted theme: A wayfarer hitch-hikin’ down the highway; an aging movie stuntman with a steel rod in his leg; a has-been Western movie actor downing raw eggs before shooting a Viagra commercial. All of these men harbor regrets about broken relationships. They’re waiting on the Tucson train for redemption or hoisting a toast to an absent lover in a ratty motel room. Wild horses, coyotes, charros and steers make an appearance, as do truckers, bikers, a souped-up ’72, an El Camino and John Wayne.

The aging men of  “Western Stars” are free-falling towards obsolescence.  These characters are in constant motion, but it’s an illusion of motion, because they always end up in the same place — at the end of the line, unchained but tethered to the failures and regrets inside their own heads. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is how Kris Kristofferson put it, in another time and place. The sadness on this record is palpable. Springsteen discussed his struggle with depression in his fine 2016 autobiography Born to Run and in “Springsteen on Broadway,” and while depression is never mentioned on “Western Stars,” it’s there, obliquely, in the cellos and minor chords and the self-imposed isolation of its characters.

Produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello (who also produced 2012’s “Wrecking Ball”), “Western Stars” is deeply layered with lavish strings, keyboards, horns and female backup singers; the orchestrations often do the emotional work of a film score. Here and there, a rugged, twangy guitar muscles into focus. The influences are obvious and worn proudly: Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain,” the “Midnight Cowboy” movie soundtrack, the wide open vistas of Aaron Copland’s America and the kind of sleek country-pop Glen Campbell made in the late ’60’s (there’s even a reference to a county lineman on “Sundown”). “Western Stars” contains some of Springsteen’s plushest, swankiest pop melodies — you can imagine ’60’s Sinatra swingin’ through “Sundown,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “The Wayfarer.”

And it all leaves me cold.

I’ve never had a reaction like this to any Springsteen record. I’ve been disappointed with Bruce albums (“Working on a Dream,” “High Hopes”) but I’ve never before been bored. I’ve never before felt let down. My problem (and judging from the near-uniformity of the positive critical response to the album, mine alone) is that the album strikes me as lovely but irrelevant. It’s reverential retro-ism, well-crafted artifice. “Western Stars” is not what I needed from Springsteen’s first studio album of new material since 2012, his first since that rough beast slouched into the White House. It gives me nothing I can use and I’m lost.

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Perhaps, two years into the chaos and darkness of Trumpism, I’ve lost my capacity to appreciate an elegy for idealized (fetishized?) archetypes of American manhood.

I tried hearing the record as a character study, a sequel to “Nebraska,” if you will. But these anonymous characters with their less-than-compelling stories are a road-weary blur;  there’s not a Johnny 99 or Joe Roberts in the bunch. The only guy who stands out is Sleepy Joe, owner of Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, simply because he has a name. Unfortunately, that name has become popularly associated with a lame-ass Twitter insult favored by our juvenile leader. Was a change of name out of the question?

Speaking of “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” (“There’s a place out on the highway ‘cross the San Bernardino line/ Where the truckers and the bikers gather every night at the same time …”), it’s on my very short list of Bruce songs that I never want to hear again, right up there with “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket.” What a strangely uninspired jumble of forced gaiety – Cajun accordion! Vaguely south-of-the-border horns! – and recycled dancing-our-cares-away imagery. It sounds Springsteen-ish but not of Springsteen, and I find this weird and not a little alarming.

Lighten up, you say? OK, I tried to lighten up and escape into “Western Stars” as a note-perfect homage to a particular genre from the golden age of AM radio pop. I grew up with that sound. I know the symphonic soft-rock and country-pop hits of the era inside and out and there’s a place in my heart for them. And who doesn’t need an escape from this world we’re living in? “Western Stars” should have hit the bull’s-eye for me, and it doesn’t.

A homage to a specific sound and genre of the past — sure, bring it on. Just not now. The timing of this release is off. We needed something more from Springsteen at this crucial moment in the life of our democracy and, for that matter, the planet. We needed his first new recorded songs in seven years to acknowledge that shit’s gotten real since 2012. Instead, he has presented us with a diorama, airless, sealed up in a world of its own.

Maybe it’s just that Bruce has so accurately envisioned our current cultural and political moment that there’s nothing more to say. I hope that’s not true. But I can see how being so far ahead of the curve can be wearying. He made a whole record about bigotry and hatred toward migrants and the homeless 24 years ago (“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995). He debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” his song about law enforcement brutality against people of color, in 2000, more than a decade before Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Philandro Castile. The searing and under-appreciated “Magic” album (2007) sounded the alarm at the exact moment when lawlessness became the guiding principle of the Republican Party. Marinate over this line from “Magic”‘s “Long Walk Home,” a response to Bush-Cheney’s adventures in Katrina neglect and Gitmo waterboarding, and consider how much farther we’ve fallen from the ideals of our founders since Springsteen wrote it: “Your flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” On “Death to My Hometown” from “Wrecking Ball” (2012) he called out the “robber barons” stealing this country from within, the oligarchic coup that happened without a shot fired or a dictator crowned. Except, since that song was recorded, a dictator was crowned. All of those records mean infinitely more today than they did when they were released.

I wanted to hear what Springsteen has to say about the dystopian hell that’s broken loose since 2016. I wanted an album of new material that engaged with the existential terror we’re living through, that articulated our anger and lifted it up and offered community. I wanted songs we could fight with, hope with. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground. Where’s the Bruce who wrote that hymn of comfort and persistence?

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Maybe the Springsteen I need will answer the call next year, if a rumored E Street Band tour comes to pass. He has been there for us before  — notably, after 9/11 (“The Rising”) and Katrina (“Magic” and his Seeger Sessions Band rewrite of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” comprise as efficient a dismantling of the G.W. Bush era as you could hope for). I get it, though. Bruce can’t save us from the mess we’re in now. And he can only make the album that he can make at any given time. This time, it was “Western Stars,” claustrophobic and sealed off from the world as it may be, and, on the surface, it hits the right notes: It sounds like a ’60s country-pop album.

But … hear me out. There was more to that genre than a big sound and a two-lane highway. Sometimes, a country-pop song would engage with the world in a way you never saw coming. Sometimes, shit got real.

In 1969, as the Vietnam War was raging, Glen Campbell recorded a Jimmy Webb song called “Galveston,” which, like Campbell’s previous Webb-penned hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” featured the deep twangs and lush strings that Springsteen recreates on “Western Stars.” Wrapped in a gorgeous, fluid Webb melody, Campbell sings as a man yearning for his idyllic home town on the Gulf Coast and the girl he left behind. And then in the second verse, comes the bombshell: “Galveston, oh Galveston/I still hear your sea waves crashing/While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/And dream of Galveston.”

Did you feel that chill? “Galveston” is a deceptively pretty song about a homesick, scared GI in Vietnam. The last verse goes, “Galveston, oh Galveston/ I am so afraid of dying/ Before I dry the tears she’s crying/ Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun/ At Galveston.” “Galveston” is one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Campbell’s soaring tenor on that last “oh, Galveston” made me cry when I was 12 and it makes me cry now. All the lush strings in the world can’t hide the horror of the situation the narrator finds himself in.

And yet, “Galveston” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country and Easy Listening charts and number four on the Hot 100. Clearly, people were willing to accept the painful reality of war articulated in a hit song on AM radio. They wanted to hear Glen Campbell, one of the most successful entertainers of the time, acknowledge the world beyond Phoenix and Wichita. They needed a pop song’s reassurance that they were not alone in their worry and confusion, as the death tally of young men mounted, ideological chasms divided Americans and the world felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

I guess what I’m saying is, I wish that “Western Stars” had been Bruce’s “Galveston.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Aretha forever

©Atlantic Records

Let’s not speak of Aretha Franklin in the past tense. Let’s speak of her in eternals. The sun and the rain, the earth and the sky, love and faith, sorrow and perseverance. Aretha embodies all of those things and gives them voice, a rich, supple voice flowing with humanity. It’s among the two or three greatest voices popular music has ever known.

Aretha’s music is godly, lusty, turbulent, ecstatic, glistening. She spans musical styles and decades, while always remaining Aretha. She is the Queen of Soul, the reverend’s daughter, the woman who shows other women how to demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T, whose voice gave voice to torrential grief at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and soaring joy at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She brought Obama to tears when she sang ‘A Natural Woman’ to its co-writer, Carole King, when the latter received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015.  Of that performance, Obama told The New Yorker, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of  ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”

Aretha is the soul of black America, she is the soul of America, period. She is soul music, and the music of the soul. Aretha, simply, is. And will always be.

***

Aretha is …

“Respect”.  From her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is the song that changed everything. Aretha didn’t write it (Otis Redding did), but she wholly subverts it. A man reminding his lover, “I’m about to give you all my money … And all I’m asking, a little respect when I come home” is one thing. A woman singing the same lines, demanding “my propers” when she comes home from work, creates a thrilling new power shift. In the ‘60’s, Aretha’s “Respect” was adopted as an anthem of both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements — intersectional feminism before the concept had a name. Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma came up with the spelled-out repetition of the title and the “sock it to me” backing vocals. Listening to it now, more than fifty years later, it sounds more eruptive, uncompromising and triumphant than ever.

Amazing Grace. Aretha grew up a reverend’s daughter from Detroit (or “De-twah,” as she pronounced it, like the French), singing in her father’s church. She returned to her roots with this double gospel album recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in 1972. Amazing Grace was the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career. I wrote this about the album in 2012: “This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.”

 

“Nessun dorma”, Grammy Awards 1998. She stepped in for an ailing Pavarotti to sing the aria from Turandot with only minutes to prepare, singing it in the key that had been arranged for him. (This video keeps getting removed from You Tube, so act quickly.)

Young, Gifted and Black. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a cohort of Dr. King; he also recorded a sermon entitled “The Meaning of Black Power.” And Aretha used her profile to further black pride and culture. A small report in a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine details how Aretha “stands ready” to pay Black Panther Angela Davis’s bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” The piece quotes Aretha as saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. … I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” (When the bond was set, Aretha was on an overseas tour and communications glitches prevented the transfer of the money.)

The chugging funk of “Rock Steady” and the misty, swirling R&B of “Day Dreaming” are two of my favorite Aretha-written songs. Both are from her Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972, the same period as Amazing Grace. Aretha in the early ’70s, with her natural hair and African dress, was a powerful contrast to the conservatively groomed young woman of her early career. The video below, a galloping performance of “Rock Steady,” comes from a 1971 episode of The Flip Wilson Show, and I’m including it because it validates a hazy memory from my youth. I remember watching Aretha on a variety show, maybe this one, with my mother, who offered a  stony dismissal of Aretha’s “crazy” hair and African garb. Watching Aretha on TV with my parents during this period was like sitting in a sauna of heated disapproval. Fast forward to President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, for which Aretha donned the quintessential church hat, festooned with a magnificent, oversized bow, to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and instantly became the butt of white comedians’ jokes. Oh, and my mother couldn’t deal with that hat, at all.

The Interpreter. Aretha stands with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest interpreters of pop songs of the 20th Century. With her unerring ear for arrangement and melody, her precise knowledge of when to caress a word, when to draw out a syllable, how long to hold a beat or a cry, and when to just let her emotions go, everything she sang became an Aretha Franklin Song. She conveys a deep connection to the lyrics of some of the most surprising choices. When Aretha sings it, the God-Is-Dead high-mindedness of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” becomes a gospel sermon about faith as the antidote to loneliness in disconnected times. Her ecstatic “I Say a Little Prayer” is the definitive version, all exuberant, full-hearted passion; Dionne Warwick’s (lovely) original of the Bacharach-David classic sounds muted and distant in comparison. Aretha pours blood and soul into Simon and Garfunkel’s tepidly angelic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and connects to Elton John’s “Border Song”  with every atom of her being.

Sisterhood. If you’re going to talk about the seam of female strength and solidarity that runs through Aretha’s greatest hits, you have to talk about her relationship to her backup singers on those records. This is what I wrote in a piece called “In Praise of Backup Singers”:

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

The Queen of Soul. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors video encapsulates better than any of my words what a profound and immutable part of popular music, of America’s collective soul, Aretha Franklin will always remain. Amen.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2018