Rock Your Way to Homeland Security!
The fact that I have written a couple of pep talks on these pages about surviving the Bush years doesn't mean that I'm able to fully subscribe to my own advice about staying engaged, striving harder, staying the fight, etc. It is goddamn depressing out there, watching folks acquiesce to the abandonment of our basic civil rights; not questioning the murder of at least 1,500 Afghan innocents in our sloppy pursuit of the murderers of our innocents; and letting the Bush administration use terrorism as the excuse to cynically ram through an abhorrent, fear-and-greed-based agenda (to be more fully addressed in a future column: "The Real American Taliban." Oh, you will hear the leftie wail there, my friends).
I can scarcely read a newspaper or view our increasingly dim, cruel and snot-minded TV programming without being reminded of something a scientist once told Walter Cronkite about the ultimate effect pesticides and other chemicals might have on the human brain, something to the effect of, "One day, we'll wake up and have lost our ability to reason, and the sad thing is we won't even know it."
I am fun at parties, though that could just be the pesticides talking. I wake up giddy in the knowledge that there's another day to explore. But it is also a damned effort each day to ride that out and not tumble into the spume of resignation. But I already spent the Reagan years in a funk thick as hash oil, years wasted now, I realize, because, as Jesus said, there will always be assholes among us, and you're never going to de-assholize them unless you show you're demonstrably happier than they are. Look it up: it's in Luke.
Music is sounding better to me than ever, and I think it's because I need it so much. Music is soul food. It sustains you. Even the saddest song lets you know you're alive. Even the worst song at least makes you long to hear something better. And the happiest song takes you beyond any longing or worrying about whether you're alive enough or not.
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I hope you'll indulge a little trip through what's been in rotation at the Washburn hacienda recently. Some of it is music that has moved me for decades; some just arrived. Some I'll probably forget soon. It may be a whole new pile a month from now.
A good thing is that when you really need music, you stop giving a fuck about whether it's hip or not. It works, or it doesn't. Most great music is hidden. "New music" radio abhors music that actually sounds new, and oldies stations are worse, playing only the most moribund music of generations past. That's why you hear Gary Puckett and the Union Gap more than you do the Beatles.
But a lot of good music does hide in plain sight. Take Sade. She's pop. Her music's played on the WAVE. She is too beautiful to bear. But her music is so openly emotional within its cool swath that, in his heart of dead hearts, Miles Davis could only have wished to be so cool.
My official song for this summer (and you should all start your summer off with an official song) is Pat McLaughlin's "Born to Be Delighted," a languidly percolating song that in three minutes and 40 seconds somehow gets across how bittersweet life is, but just how sweet the sweet part is. McLaughlin's a Nashville-based singer/writer, part John Hiatt, part Al Green, part Hoss from Bonanza. His current Uncle Pat and 1994's Unglued albums (easily one of my top 10 fave all-timers) are never far from the CD player. Great albums, and you can barely even find them at his own website (www.patmclaughlin.com).
Another timeless pleasure is "Bad Boy," a 1957 R&B 45 by the Jive Bombers, whose name alone is better than many bands' entire outputs. Singer Clarence Palmer clearly had strong Armstrong-influenced jazz chops, but he subsumed them here in music as purposefully moronic as a Stan Freberg parody. In praise of virtues no greater than sitting in the shade, it is a true ode to joy. Follow that with the LP version of "The Girl From Ipanema" by Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim (incidentally, I have dibs on the stage name Antonio Carlos Jim Beam), and Joao & Astrud Gilberto, and you're pretty well set up for the day.
It would have been bitchen to be in Vienna when Mozart was in full crank mode, but I don't know that it's any less bitchen being in the world at the same time Elvis Costello is. There is stuff on his new When I Was Cruel that—while adult and informed and showing the experience of his classical/jazz/wherever forays—rocks more viciously than anything from the vaunted first generation of punk. A depressing thing about most rock "geniuses" is they burn out or die; Costello just keeps growing. There's some hip-hop rhythms in there and collages of Tom Waits-like found sounds. On top of everything else, Elvis is just a nasty guitarist now. Listen to "Dust 2 . . .," on which Costello makes the six-strings sear like he's Peter Green at the Boston Tea Party. If Cruelisn't enough, Rhino has been releasing Costello's back catalog with even more of those daunting bonus tracks, which show that, as opposed to whatever the rest of us were doing with those years, even his castoffs were topnotch.
You know that scene in everyone's favorite 1983 lesbian vampire flick, The Hunger, where mentor vampire David Bowiedoesn't know he has aged about 200 years until some New Yorker leans out a car window and helpfully shouts, "You old fuck!" at him? Well here it is 20 years later, and Bowie still hasn't caught on. His just-out Heathen is much more daring, forward-looking and just plain good than the retro noise of . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and all those other momentary saviors of rock. Check out Heathen's opening track, "Sunday," on which Bowie has this sort of Johnny Hartman baritone lushness in his voice while this eerie submarine music is going on behind him. And his version of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting for You" (with Dave Grohl on guitar) rocks real good.
Too many old fucks for you? Try Punta del Este Sunset, mixed by A Man Called Adam. Despite my oft-stated aversion to techno/electronica/rave music, this one snuck in on me. I bought it because I have a Uruguayan friend and was embarrassed to not know what's going on culturally in her homeland—or most of our other southern neighbors, for that matter. But Punta del Este is the South American Ibiza, an international 24-hour party town for the young and glittery, and the music here is similarly international. But unlike so much of the bip! beep! stuff, this mix has an organic feel, a sense of place. I have yet to wake up face-down in the surf on a tropical beach with a head full of E, but this is the music I'd want playing when that happens.
Another peeve of mine is French techno-imperialists remixing African music, but the exception to the rule is Ouelele on Comet Records, which is one big happy riot of sound.
Michael Franti & Spearhead's Stay Human thrills the hell out of me, not as much as their live shows, but Franti's music is still such an open-armed embrace of hip-hop/funk and political consciousness that we shouldn't rest until the guy is in the White House.
Meanwhile, I've been listening to Say It Live and Loud by America's other great unelected president, James Brown. Virtually any Brown show from about 1965 through 1973 ranks in my book as among the greatest art this nation has produced. On this 1968 concert recording, the band is down a member or two, while the new drummer fills in on bass, and the groove is still tighter and funkier than a skunk's vagina. This was one of the first shows, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, where Brown performed "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," and you can hear what it meant to the crowd.
Jesus, I've barely gotten through the top of the heap here, and I haven't even mentioned Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander's Yard Movement, with its deep reggae grooves and ebullient guitarist Ernest Ranglin; or former OC saxman Karl Denson's Tiny Universe; or Sideswipe, to whom I still listen almost daily; or Chris Gaffney, whose 1992 Mi Vida Loca is still better than almost anything; or The Posies' churning pop masterpiece Frosting on the Beater; or the reissue of Randy Newman's Good Old Boys; or Donovan's Greatest Hits just because; or Gorecki's Third Symphony; or . . .
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