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.

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