Music therapy on the anniversary of awfulness: The Rails’ “Other People”

 

Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.

I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.

The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.

With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of  “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.

The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.

I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang.  Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.

If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.

Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship.  Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of  “Other People,”  she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.

“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”

The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.

But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.

(Other People by The Rails, on Psychonaut Sounds,  is available via iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

Never gonna give you up

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My precious. (Photo by Joyce Millman, 2017)

Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.

The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.

Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.

But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.

But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.

I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.

What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember;  I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.

When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)

I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

We’re all Buffy now

I’m sorry I haven’t written here in months. I’ve been having trouble focussing on the things that used to be so important to me. Music, TV, arguing about the fine points thereof … that was life before. Now, I spend more time glued to Resistance Twitter and poring over the Washington Post and New York Times for glimmers of hope that our national nightmare will end in something other than an ignorant, grifting fascist tweeting us into nuclear war.

But I was roused from my tunnel-vision by the realization that there is a meaningful anniversary to mark this week. Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. At the time, I was the TV critic for Salon, and writing about BtVS and its darkly satisfying vampire/detective-noir spinoff Angel was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Both shows still rank in my Top 10 of the best TV dramas ever.

Throughout its six-year run, BtVS remained a cult hit on the WB and (for the final two years) UPN, marginal broadcast networks that didn’t even reach every major market; the show never cracked the top tier of the Nielsen ratings, never earned any major Emmy nominations (star Sarah Michelle Gellar did pick up one Golden Globe nomination). Rich in mythology, seeded with zingy pop culture references and crackling humor, the then-singular tone of BtVS would have been perfect for Netflix or Amazon, but those cachet-dripping alt-TV platforms had yet to be invented. The influence of BtVS, though, reverberated through the past two decades in shows about uncommon young women (and their friends) fighting seemingly unbeatable evils, from Veronica Mars to Orphan Black to Supergirl to The Good Place. 

The tale of Buffy Summers was a feminist hero’s journey; the snarky California teen grappled with her responsibilities as the once-in-a-generation Chosen girl tasked with protecting the world from the supernatural evil known in the show’s shorthand as “The Big Bad.” Created by Joss Whedon, BtVS mashed together a slew of genres — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, John Hughes teen angst, Anne Rice vampire hotness — into something thrillingly new.

There were moments of genuine terror, of both the scary-monster variety (all these years later, the free-floating, skeletal “Gentlemen” still give me the creeps) and the quiet, personal kind (the premature death of Buffy’s mom). The empowerment of women, their strength, courage and sexual agency, was a central theme of the series. Not that the show put Buffy on a pedestal. She was Chosen, but she was also a poignantly human young woman. She struggled with being a savior;  she sometimes made bad choices that hurt the people she loved, and herself. She was realistically imperfect, and as the series went on, we watched her come to terms with her imperfections and her life (and death).

One of Buffy’s flaws was that she took too much on her shoulders, shutting out the loyal members of her “Scooby Gang.” The Scoobies each had a role to play in saving the world from the demons that issued forth from the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale, Buffy’s suburban hometown. This misfit gang was named for the crew in Scooby-Doo, which itself borrowed from Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Buffy’s Scoobies included a Jewish-computer-geek- lesbian-witch (the incomparable Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan), a proper British middle-aged librarian (Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head), a mean girl (Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter), a loyal platonic guy friend (Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendon), and a platinum-haired punk vampire (Spike, played by James Marsters) with whom Buffy indulged in a masochistic affair that even now retains its power to polarize fans.

Despite their differences, the Scoobies were a true community; in fact, their power derived from the linked diversity of its members. Willow’s computer skills early in the show and her witchcraft later in the series, Giles’ knowledge of occult arcana, Xander’s selfless dedication — these were just a few of the weapons in Buffy’s arsenal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about BtVS, and Angel since the election. How did this happen to us? How could a cabal of the worst and the ugliest turn our democracy upside down so quickly?  Russia? The KKK? Nazis? It’s as if the Hellmouth opened and set all our existential foes running wild at once.

But if we learned one thing from BtVS and Angel it’s this: We know what a diverse group of people working together for the common good can accomplish.

So much of BtVS and Angel seems astonishingly familiar now. Mike Pence, fronting  homophobic and anti-woman politics with an impossibly tidy veneer of churchgoing blandness, could be a doppelgänger for the creepily paternalistic, gosh-golly Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale, who lurked through early seasons of BtVS. The Mayor was the Big Bad of season three, secretly fattening up on dark power until he shed his human form and revealed himself as a giant snake bent on destruction. Mr. Vice President, we see you.

Creepy paternalism and rapey and misogynistic men made for a recurring theme throughout the run of BtVS. The Trio, the Big Bad of season six, were three computer game nerds who couldn’t get laid; they developed the magical equivalent of a date rape drug and built robot women (including a robot Buffy) to abuse and debase. (Sound familiar?) Later, in the final season, an army of young women — the entire line of Slayer succession through time — banded together to help Buffy fight Caleb, a misogynistic preacher who railed against “dirty girls” and the primal evil of woman. The preacher was clearly meant as a personification of the religious right’s contempt for women’s rights — contempt that has become bedrock Republican policy today.

Angel, which ran for five seasons on The WB, was even more persistent in weaving social and political commentary into its storylines. One of the most indelible of the show’s story arcs transported the vampire-with-a-soul and his own Scooby Gang into the home dimension of pal  Lorne, a gay, disco-singing demon. In this brutally Medieval shithole, women were regarded as “cows” and there was no music; being able to hear music in his head made Lorne so different, (read, “gay”) as a child, that he’d had to flee this place for his life.  This three-episode arc from season two has only grown more biting with time. And the ending of the last episode of Angel still gives me chills, a tiny band of comrades steeling themselves against dire odds, as every beast and monster ever known is unleashed on Los Angeles. “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon,” says the battered Angel with a grin. “Let’s go to work.” Freeze-frame.

The fact that BtVS and Angel are so on-the-nose in our current political reality is not an accident. As a country, we’ve been locked in the same cultural war — women’s rights, LGBT equality, racial equality on one side, and fear and meanness hiding behind a warped version of evangelical Christianity on the other — for the past two decades. Back then, BtVS and Angel showed us the monsters that lurked beneath the surface of our country. The monsters all out in the open now.

But, on the upside, isn’t it easier to slay the dragon you can see than the one you can’t? Which is why, on this anniversary of the birth of the Buffyverse,  I’m taking solace in the organic Resistance that arose on November 9 and continues every day against xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia and, yes, Nazis. The Resistance is the Scooby Gang writ large. We may be snowflakes who watch too much TV, but we know how this story goes. We know the sacrifices and the setbacks. We also know that if we stick together, we will win.

Buffy once said, “I’m the thing the monsters have nightmares about.” The Big Bad that slimed its way into the White House when we were looking the other way? It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.

***

Here are a couple of my favorite BtVS pieces from the vault:

The Death of Buffy’s Mom (Salon, Mar. 12, 2001)

Getting Buffy’s Last Rites Right (New York Times, Apr. 20, 2003)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

2016 in 10 songs

 

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I pretty much fell apart on November 9, so apologies for not writing anything new here in a while. I intended for this post to be a year-end list of my favorite new music and TV, but it kept wanting to go in a different direction. So, here are 10 songs that defined 2016 for me. Most of them are old, a few are new, some are offered in tribute to the departed, and all of them have taken on new meaning or been a comfort through the post-election gloom.

1. “Lazarus,” David Bowie. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about everything falling apart this year because David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe. His death on January 10 hit like an earthquake, and 2016 never stopped shaking. Two days before he died, Bowie released Blackstar, which in hindsight, reveals itself (like the clues embedded in the cover of the album) as an urgent, feverish and brave farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings the Starman on “Lazarus”; his battered voice flickers with mischief and a daring sort of relief (“This way or no way/I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) throughout the song, until it’s replaced in the long fadeout by a somber, lowing sax riff. In the eerie accompanying video, Bowie is in the middle of writing a sentence, creating until the last moment of his existence, when he is pulled away and shut up in a coffin-like closet. Of all the gifts Bowie gave us and all the frontiers he journeyed, pulling us (and the entirety of pop culture) along with him, his final act might have been his most generous. It was death-defying in every sense but the literal. Then again … maybe that too.

2. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul. During the string of police shootings of African American men earlier this year, when half the country lost its mind over the assertion that black lives matter TOO, I was driving around one day with the radio on and heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a Top 10 hit for Wonder, but I had only dim memories of it from my childhood. But there it was, playing on Sirius XM’s Soul Town channel, which is devoted to R&B and soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s.  Arranged in a country-gospel crossover mode (like his soon-to-be bigger hit, “A Place in the Sun”), this version lives and breathes the injustices counted in Dylan’s lyrics. It reminds you that this song is a protest for civil rights: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?,” “How many years can a man exist before he’s allowed to be free?”

Hearing the infuriating relevance of those questions in 2016, fifty years after Wonder and Paul recorded them, reminded me that the greatest, and most widely disseminated, protest music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by black artists, including Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Gil Scott-Heron. Edwin Starr’s ferocious anti-Vietnam song “War” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970; Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” was number 12 in 1971. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of James Brown’s empowerment anthems, reached number six in 1968. Volumes could be written on the powerful statement made by Aretha Franklin’s Afro back in the day. And somehow, I had never heard Lamont Dozier’s 1974 single “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” with its imprecation, “Tricky Dick, stop this shit,” but Soul Town remedied that. This music was created by and for people fighting for their lives and legitimacy in America. White liberals who are only now discovering what it feels like to be strangers in their own country are advised to listen and learn.

3. “Uptown,” Prince. I’ve listened to Prince every day since April 21. Some days, I need the cathartic “Purple Rain,” a modern hymn, to combat the heartache that has yet to fade. Other days, it’s the unrepentant dance funk of “Housequake” or “Sexy M-F.” But of late, when I hear “Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980), I’m cast back to what it felt like in those days when “disco sucks” was code for white people (guys, mostly) to indulge in racism and homophobia — it didn’t all start with MAGA. Just one year after the idiotic “Disco Demolition” riot of 1979, Prince released his electro-funk-new wave tune about a dance utopia where “white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” and proved that disco was on the right side of history.

I first saw Prince in a rock club in Boston, the city itself only a few years removed from the turmoil surrounding desegregation of the public schools. With a cheeky punk swagger, the diminutive singer packed both the showmanship of James Brown and the guitar-god sexual mojo of Jimi Hendrix; the predominantly white audience didn’t know what hit them (that goes for me, too). In Prince’s world, all were welcome; his racially-diverse band included two out lesbians. And Prince’s persona itself — the falsetto, the female aliases, the eyeliner and furry jockstrap — blurred boundaries of sexual orientation and gender (although he exhibited troubling homophobia later in his career). “Uptown” was a joyful place where society’s marginalized and demonized could be free. I refuse to believe it was an illusion.

4. “Daddy Lessons,” Beyonce. Beyonce was the cultural figure of the year. Like Luther, President Obama’s Anger Translator from the Key & Peele show, Beyonce was Michelle Obama’s off-duty secret self — check out FLOTUS grooving to “Single Ladies” and rapping along with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during this much-shared installment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Just like the first lady, Beyonce became a lightning rod for bigots who smeared her as an Angry Black Woman and cast her in vile racist memes, but she kept on singing, angrier and blacker, as the year went on. The Black Panthers fashion nod at the Super Bowl. The sinking police car and Black Lives Matter imagery in the “Formation” video. The “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” line. The baseball bat and I-ain’t-sorry.

A few days before the election,  Beyonce teamed up with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards for a rowdy, unrepentant performance of “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. With the country polarized by the open racism (excuse me, “economic anxiety”) embraced by the supporters of the bad-daddy authoritarian in the cut-rate trucker’s hat, the CMA Awards moment took on an electrifying subtext. Here were the second most powerful African American woman in the land and the liberal country music pariah Natalie Maines (both Hillary Clinton supporters) celebrating the common roots shared by black blues and white country. Of course, there was outrage from the usual suspects. But Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks are not sorry.

5. “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie. A song that encapsulated the Cold War nuclear fears of the Reagan Era comes back to haunt us. I put “Under Pressure” on a Bowie playlist, to which I’ve often escaped, post-coup. Most days, my mood pinballs between “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” and “Can’t we give love one more chance?” And Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s operatic swirl of compassion bittersweetly marks the challenge we face. Love’s such an old-fashioned word, but so what?  This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.

6. “Livin’ in the Future,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s underrated 2007 album Magic, which largely concerned itself with the smoke and mirrors of the Bush II Administration, contained brutally clear songs warning about what happens when abuses of power become the norm. In the bleary morning hours after election night, lines from “Livin’ in the Future’ popped into my head — which was strange because this was the one song from Magic that I never cared for. I thought its apocalyptic visions were too overheated and its illogical chorus too tricky (“we’re livin’ in the future, none of this has happened yet”). Yet, every day since November 9, Springsteen’s lyrics become more chillingly true: “My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon/ The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” That weird chorus wasn’t a trick after all. It was precognition.

7. “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley. Another song that is stuck in my head, for better or worse. Henley wrote it about the Reagan years (see a pattern here?), another autocratic presidency claiming to Make America Great Again (for Rich White Men) and the hell with everyone else: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening/They’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king/Armchair warriors often fail/And we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales/The lawyers clean up all details/Since daddy had to lie.” How many times can you lose your innocence as an American? More than I thought possible.

8. “All American Made,” Margo Price. Price’s debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of the best albums of 2016, but this song is as yet unrecorded. Price sang it on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert on the morning of November 9, looking the way so many of us felt: Stunned, weary, heartsick. “All American Made” is about the bamboozlement of working people by deceitful politicians wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible: “1987 and I didn’t know it then/Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran/But it won’t be the first time, baby, and it won’t be the end/They were all American made.”

This is the kind of finely etched, honest sociopolitical narrative that Johnny Cash used to write, that Springsteen is still writing. It’s the kind of truth-to-power bluntness that will not endear Price to country radio, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The set’s last song, “About to Find Out” from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was transformed from a rollicking takedown of a self-centered hipster to an acid-dripped direct hit on our new “leader”. And she didn’t even have to change a word: “You have many people fooled about your motivation/But I don’t believe your lies/You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke/I see the snakes in both of your eyes/But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/And you’re standing much too tall/You may have come so easy and happened so fast/But the harder they come, they fall.” At the end of the song, Price opened her blouse to reveal a T shirt reading “Icky Trump,” and wiped the tears from her eyes.

9. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton soundtrack. Hamilton has become a constant companion. It will be remembered as the Camelot of the Obama presidency. For cultural moment of the year, consider the Broadway cast of Hamilton making an eloquent curtain address to audience member Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (author of homophobic “electrocute the gay away” legislation, among other far-right lunacies), asking him to respect all Americans, whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. The speech drew the pathetic wrath of the Twitter Troll in Chief, but then, what doesn’t? “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the final song of Hamilton, in which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda refutes the saying “history is written by the winners.” Alexander Hamilton lost the duel, but in death, his legacy outshines “the fool who shot him.” However, in one of the more fitting ironies 2016 bestowed upon us, one of those legacies is — the Electoral College. Still, it’s the duty of anyone who loves democracy to call bullshit, loud and long, on whatever fact-free, fringe madness come from this already-chaotic new White House. We need to be the ones still standing to tell the story.

10. “My Girl ,” The Temptations. Another Soul Town epiphany from within a fog of post-election grief. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/And when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” I’ve played this song countless times since I first heard it on the radio as a girl. But now, I’m hearing something new. “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/ I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, was released in December, 1964. The Vietnam War and protests against it were escalating. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches were still three months away. African Americans in the South were still obstructed from voting. The Watts riots in Los Angeles were on the horizon. These were hard, desperate times. But here was a song that offered listeners a refuge from the pain and turmoil around them. It wasn’t about refusing to acknowledge the struggle; the narrator of “My Girl” sees the clouds and feels the cold and knows that money is short. But in his heart and soul, hope blooms and he is free. “My Girl” is a song about love remaking the lover’s world. Today, we have to remember that we still have the power to look at ugliness and imagine better things, to keep faith in sunshine on a cloudy day.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30

 

What's New - Nov. 1979 (Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)
What’s New – Nov. 1979
(Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today, and he’s celebrating with a new autobiography Born to Run,  to be released Sept. 27. But as we all age along with Bruce, I’m thinking back to a landmark birthday he shared with an arena full of us in 1979. It was Madison Square Garden, Sept. 22, the first night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two-night appearance on the bill of the all-star MUSE concerts against nuclear energy. At midnight, as September 23 dawned and Bruce turned 30, he stopped the music to say, “Well, I’m over the fucking hill. I can’t trust myself anymore,”* and then threw a chocolate birthday cake into the seats down front.

Luckily, I was up in the rafters on my own dime, a baby rock critic covering the show for a free Boston music rag called What’s New. It was a wild night. The Boss was in a bit of a mood, and he was exorcising it all on stage. But this show was unforgettable for more than Bruce’s birthday, or the gigantic charity rock show vibe. This was the night Springsteen debuted “The River” from an album that wouldn’t be released for more than a year. He sang this new ballad at a deliberate pace, with immediacy and fierce passion, with no guitar in hand, no barrier, between himself and the audience. The performance was hypnotic and heartbreaking, and watching him, it was as if the thousands of souls around me slipped away; there was only the sweeping, piano-driven melody and the open-ended story of young lovers beset by accidental pregnancy and harsh economic realities.

One part of the song, in particular, grabbed me. It was the moment the narrator slips into a memory of the river as Eden, the lovers “tanned and wet down at the reservoir,” only to dissolve it in the next frame with a vision of the lovers visiting a dry riverbed: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …” Did Springsteen become a poet that night, or was my 22-year-old self finally alive to the poetry that was there all along?

With the 2016 River anniversary tour just wrapped up, it seems like the right time to share this clipping from the vault and remember the night that journey started. Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen. Long may the river run.

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*He’s quoting a saying we had back in the ’60s and 70s: “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.

(P.S. – I know it looks like the review says “his 11 hour set,” but, sadly, that was a typo. I think it was supposed to say “1 1/2-hour”. And love to my friend Holly Cara Price, who made this adventure happen.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Here’s “The River” from the movie of those MUSE concerts.

Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

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The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

A world turned purple

San Francisco City Hall lit purple for Prince
San Francisco City Hall pays tribute to Prince

The world turned purple when Prince died. Civic buildings and bridges in his Minneapolis home town and around the world were awash in his signature color. On Saturday night, heading out of San Francisco south on highway 280, with Sirius XM’s Prince tribute channel on the radio, we passed a suburban mall’s roadside message board flashing Prince’s glyph, the control tower and international terminal of San Francisco International Airport glowing purple ahead of us in the distance. As a fragmented society, we agree on so little, culturally. But we agree on Prince. And we agree on how to celebrate him. By allying himself so inextricably with a color (and, later, a symbol — turns out, he was a branding genius), Prince left us with a natural way to express our grief and love for him in the public space, writ large and without words.

It may feel like no artist’s passing has ever been so publicly and universally mourned , but that’s not entirely true. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, the shock of it was vast and all-encompassing; fans spontaneously gathered to sing his songs, and President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying in part “John Lennon helped create the mood and music of the time.” Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 also elicited worldwide anguish. The outpouring of emotion for David Bowie has yet to abate.

But there’s something about our reaction to Prince’s passing that feels bigger, more visible, expressed across the full spectrum of class, color, gender and generation, across nations and in so many different corners of daily life. Part of that is down to the times in which we live, with the internet functioning as the town square or church hall allowing us to connect with others in our grief, and to spread ideas for public tribute. And part of that is because baby boomers are now the elder generation; at the time of Lennon’s death, there were still people alive who regarded the Beatles as noise, nuisance and a menace to society.

But, mostly, the intensity of our public mourning for Prince comes down to the totemic appeal his music held for us, the stunning, life-changing majesty of it. Prince came onto a divided scene in the late ’70s. Pop music was factional and fragmented along racial lines, along the “(white) rock vs. (black) disco” mindset. And he wove together everything — pop, rock, soul, disco, R&B, punk, funk, new wave — into something new, beautifully inclusive and alive. Prince’s music united us and opened our ears and minds. And like Bowie, his gender-blurring, sex-positive freakiness gave power, pride, coolness to the weird and the different;  it rendered powerless epithets like “fag” and “disco sucks.”

Prince’s music was influential and crucial. But it was also deeply spiritual, joyful, in its devotion to the twin pursuits of carnal and spiritual transcendence. Prince raised funk to a religion, in an era when organized religion has become a destructive and divisive force. It gives the secular and the unbelieving among us a means to feel our hearts open, our souls lift up, to raise our voices and sing along with other humans. To connect. It makes sense that “Let’s Go Crazy” has been quoted in so many written Prince eulogies: it’s a sermon about focussing on living in the here and now, connecting to other people, while you’re alive. And it makes even more sense that “Purple Rain” has been invoked by fellow performers and fans alike to sing in praise, because, at its core, “Purple Rain” is a hymn, or at least, it has the structure of one.

The lyrics are a farewell to a relationship, but the gospel swell of the music is what moves you. Ever since the movie Purple Rain, fans at Prince concerts (or at anyone’s concerts where “Purple Rain” is played) waved one hand slowly back and forth in the air on the chorus, in imitation of the film’s climactic club scene. What many fans might not know (as an atheist and a Jew, I didn’t) is that the raised arm is a staple of both African American and white Christian worship. Each segment of the song — Prince’s quiet, almost spoken, delivery of the opening verse, the shimmering buildup to the sing-along chorus, the blazing release of the guitar solo, the soothing balm of Prince’s falsetto “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo” as the song winds down — have long been burned into our souls as secular chapter and verse, as comforting and unchanging as a familiar prayer.

In the days following Prince’s death, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sufjan Stevens with Gallant, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jessie J, Jimmy Buffett, Pearl Jam, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor and the cast of Broadway’s “The Color Purple” (I’m sure I’m leaving out many more) covered “Purple Rain” before their audiences. I think the emergence of “Purple Rain” as the tribute of choice speaks not only to its anthemic emotional sweep, but to the hunger for spiritual expression among people who don’t consider themselves religious (though I’ve no doubt that many Prince fans do). For so many of us, music has always filled the religion void. We were Prince’s motley flock, and he gathered us in.

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A small sample of the many versions of “Purple Rain” performed in tribute to Prince, plus one by the man himself. May he rest in power and purple.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

Jennifer Hudson slays it at the 2016 BET Awards tribute to Prince.

Los Angeles massed high school choir tribute.

Old Crow Medicine Show (with Margo Price), Huntsville, AL

Prince, 2006 Brit Awards (“Purple Rain” is the third song in a stunning four-song set featuring a reunion with Wendy and Lisa).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016