Friday, May 30, 2008

Darkness on the Edge of Town at 30

I was planning to post this on Monday, the actual 30th anniversary of the album's release, but since it's finished and not likely to get any better over the weekend, here goes:

“Occasionally, a record appears that changes fundamentally the way we hear rock & roll, the way it's recorded, the way it's played. Such records – Jimi Hendrix' Are You Experienced, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Who's Next, The Band – force response, both from the musical community and the audience. To me, these are the records justifiably called classics, and I have no doubt that Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town will someday fit as naturally within that list as the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music.”

So began Dave Marsh’s Rolling Stone magazine review of Darkness on the Edge of Town, published in July of 1978. Thirty years later, we are armed with the knowledge that Marsh has been Springsteen’s greatest critical champion, his biographer, and his friend. But does that necessarily render his 1978 opinion invalid? Even then, Marsh had to know the gamble he was taking. In 1978 he was already known as a close friend of Jon Landau, the rock critic turned producer who, over time, would become Springsteen’s manager and advisor, and in all likelihood the single most important person to the development of his career. In fact, Marsh and Landau had been together at the 1974 Springsteen show which became legendary because of what Landau wrote about it: “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” In effect, Marsh was placing every ounce of his credibility on the chopping block – had the album proven to be a stiff, few people would have taken him seriously again.

Marsh needn’t have worried. In 2008, the relevant question is not “Is Darkness on the Edge of Town a great album?,” but rather “How great an album is Darkness on the Edge of Town?” And the answer is that Marsh was correct – Darkness today stands as a landmark of rock history, as well as the most important album that Bruce Springsteen has made. And here’s where I take a deep breath, gaze over the precipice, and jump – it is his best album.

There’s a Pete Townshend quote about Darkness that I remember, because it is a pretty good summation of what the album is about. If I remember correctly, it went something along the lines of “what Bruce Springsteen is singing about on his new album, that’s not fun – that’s f*cking triumph, man.” But what Townshend said is only partly true, because while triumph is a part of the story, it’s not the only part. When the last notes of the last song are played out, you’re still not certain how things are going to end– the protagonist is defiant, but could very well be trapped at the same time, with a final chapter left to be written at some point in the future.

The tone is set at the very beginning, in the first words of “Badlands”:

Lights out tonight
trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire
that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now

“I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now.” And there you have it, in a nutshell. From that point on, the album depicts a life’s journey, and the battles – simple or otherwise – which must be fought, sometimes on a daily basis, to keep from “dying little by little, piece by piece,” as he later sings in “Racing in the Street.” As the album progresses, each individual song raises the ante, making clear just how high the stakes are. The music’s intensity is like nothing Springsteen had previously recorded (even Born to Run, great as that album was), and the lyrics match that intensity, verse by verse and word for word:

In the darkness of your room
your mother calls you by your true name
You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it's never over it's relentless as the rain

Adam Raised A Cain

Nothing is forgotten or forgiven,
when it's your last time around,
I got stuff running 'round my head
That I just can't live down

“Something in the Night” (a particular favorite of mine, for what should be obvious reasons)

I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start

The Promised Land

I'm wandering, a loser down these tracks
I'm dying, but girl I can't go back
'Cause in the darkness I hear somebody call my name
And when you realize how they tricked you this time
And it's all lies but I'm strung out on the wire
In these streets of fire

Streets of Fire

Everybody's got a hunger, a hunger they can't resist,
There's so much that you want, you deserve much more than this,
But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn't that be nice,
But this ain't no dream we're living through tonight,
Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price

“Prove It All Night”

And, finally:

Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town

Darkness on the Edge of Town

By this point, it should be clear that the journey is not over. But there is hope, there is faith, and there is the drive to sustain both through the long days and nights yet to come – in the battle against what critic Greil Marcus would later call “a long, uncertain fight against cynicism.”

It would be criminal to praise Springsteen’s songwriting on this album without also giving due praise to the band which gives the songs their life. Simply put, the band is amazing. There are enough great musical moments on Darkness to last most bands a lifetime, whether it be the late Danny Federici’s heartbreaking organ on “Racing in the Street,” Roy Bittan’s beautiful piano introduction to “Something in the Night,” or the general brilliance of the rhythm section throughout. Though the Big Man is featured less on this album than on others, when his time comes on “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night,” he is there to deliver. And while the production by Springsteen, Landau and Steve Van Zandt has been criticized by some over the years for being too muddy, I think that’s unfair – the instrumentation throughout is clear as a bell, and the album has a sound that is entirely appropriate to the depth and gravitas of the material.

But in the end, what takes Darkness from being simply outstanding to that rare level of greatness which few albums reach are the four songs that serve as the album’s bookends – on Side 1, “Badlands” and “Racing in the Street;” on Side 2, “The Promised Land” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” All four are among the best songs Springsteen has written, and it is no accident that two of them – “Badlands” and “The Promised Land” – remain, thirty years later, the moral and emotional centerpiece of his live concerts.

Dave Marsh wrote that the promise of Bruce Springsteen was “That someday, Bruce Springsteen would make rock & roll that would shake men's souls and make them question the direction of their lives. That would do, in short, all the marvelous things rock had always promised to do.” Since 1978, Springsteen has made good records, he has made excellent records, and he has made great records. But in terms of the impact that Marsh described, Springsteen has never topped Darkness on the Edge of Town. And for that reason, it is his best album.

And Then He Kissed Me

A drunk-driving excuse to top all others.

The capacity of human beings to amuse and entertain never ceases to amaze me.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Quote of the Night

"To me, as a fan, it's as interesting to see a show that's a disaster as a show that's perfect. I remember seeing the Clash, and sometimes they'd be great and sometimes they'd be awful. That's just how it is with live shows. I started to get bored with Bruce Springsteen because I went to something like 20 shows and they were all great."

- Pete Townshend

That's really great, Pete. Maybe I'm weird, but when I shell out the big bucks for a show, I kind of like to see something that's good. Hopefully The Who will be in town the next time I'm in the mood to throw some money away.

Heading Toward The Inevitable?

I haven't posted at all about the NBA playoffs this year, but as the inevitability of a Celtics-Lakers Finals increases with each passing moment, I feel compelled to say a few words.

There was a time when I wasn't a card-carrying Lakers hater, and that time was back in the 1980s, when every season carried with it the promise of a Lakers-Celtics final. Back in those days it really couldn't get any better than that - Magic facing off against Bird, Kareem against Parish, Kevin McHale, James Worthy, Cornbread Maxwell, Danny Ainge, Kurt Rambis...and the list goes on. When L.A. faced Boston, you could count on an epic, and for three great series in the 1980s, both teams delivered.

While it seems strange to think in these terms today, there really is something to those "Bird and Magic saved the league" stories that you hear today. It may not be the entire truth, but it's certainly closer to truth than it is to legend. As late as 1981, when Boston played Houston in the Finals, the weeknight games were shown on a tape-delay basis; it was only with the Lakers-76ers series in 1982 that the Finals returned for good to prime time. And it wasn't until the 1984 Finals between L.A. and Boston that you knew the game was back in the zeitgeist for good. That year, what easily could have been an L.A. sweep turned into a 7-game Celtics triumph. The Lakers won Game 1 back in Boston, and then were poised to take Game 2 in overtime when an ill-advised pass from James Worthy (who was schooled in that series by Cornbread) ended up in the hands of the green, and the game was history. Game 3 was a Lakers blowout, and Game 4 started out looking like another, but the Celtics managed to stay close enough to steal a win at the end...and the rest was history.

In 1985 the series began with the famous Memorial Day Massacre in favor of the Celtics, after which papers across the country wrote Kareem's basketball obituary. Still having quite a bit of fire in his belly, Kareem took offense, and took over the series, leading the Lakers to a 4-2 series win, with a most pleasing victory to cap it off in Boston - the first time that had ever happened. This was, of note, the first Finals which featured a 2-3-2 home/away format, rather than the traditional 2-2-1-1-1. I'm still not sure I understand why they decided to do that, but it's stuck.

After the Celtics near-historic great season of 1986, they started to get old, but managed to hang on long enough to squeak past the Pistons one last time and make it to the Finals in 1987. They had no business being on the floor with the Lakers that year, but incredibly, came close to stealing another title. After falling behind 2-0 in L.A., they scrapped back to a 2-2 tie, and then were poised to take the series lead until Magic hit an improbable hook shot with seconds left to give the Lakers a 3-2 lead (in one of the all-time great games) and send the series back to L.A., where the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

And that was it, until now (I may be jinxing the Celtics here, but I can't see them losing the next two to Detroit). Will the country still care? There is no more Fabulous Forum, no Boston Garden, no Johnny Most, no Dancing Barry. Jack is still there, along with the ridiculous celebrities eating up tickets that would be much better used by real basketball fans. And in Boston, they now have a dance team, which to some is just one more sign of the apocalypse. So it isn't quite the same, but in the end I have to admit that it's preferable to San Antonio-Detroit. Now if only the two teams could find a transition offense, fans might actually have something to get excited about.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spring Concert

Last night was the Spring Concert for the middle and high school bands that sons #1 and #2 play in, and I managed to get a couple of decent shots of each of them.

The night led off with the middle school band, where #2 son plays flute. He plays it really well, but has decided that flute is not manly enough for him, so he's taking saxophone lessons from Josef, one of the sax players in the high school jazz band. His section received the award for best section in the band, but his flute playing days may be coming to an end.

The night closed with the high school jazz band, for which son #1
plays drums. He had a great night last night, especially on a Mingus tune whose name escapes me at the moment. The band is really good, and has definitely grown over the course of the year. This isn't the greatest shot in the world because you can't tell he's playing anything, but you'll just have to take my word for it.

And this is a full band shot, with exchange student Josef - son #2's sax teacher - front and center.
All in all, it was a good way to end the band season. Middle and high schools tend to be so regimented these days, that it's nice for them to have an opportunity to enjoy something - anything - that is outside the mainstream.

Quick Hits: New Van Morrison, Rolling Stones

Continuing the spring wrapup, while I continue to work on a post commemorating the 30th birthday of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Keep It Simple, Van Morrison. Robert Christgau once wrote that Van Morrison had a “direct line to certain souls.” I’m not one of those souls, but I’ve always had the deepest respect for Van’s work and career. I don’t own but a handful of his records, and was convinced to buy Keep It Simple, his new album, by Mona’s review. When you read it, you’ll be left with little doubt that Mona is one of those souls. And in a separate post, you’ll see that she is eagerly acquiring the sets of Van Morrison remasters, which suggests a level of reverence akin to my own relationship with artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. In short – if Mona likes the new album, it’s got to be good, right?

And very good it is. I won’t presume to comment in detail, except to say that on this record, Morrison sounds like the wise Jedi Master of the music universe, at peace with himself, content in his mastery of the form and feeling no great need to top past successes. So while I don’t hear any song on the album that would immediately join “Tupelo Honey,” “Jackie Wilson Said,” “Carvan,” or “Wild Night” in the Morrison pantheon, neither do I hear anything which sounds less than absolute commitment to his craft, both on an emotional and musical level. Good stuff, and well worth the journey.

Shine A Light, The Rolling Stones. With my purchase of Shine A Light, I think I can now say with pride that I own mediocre live albums by the Rolling Stones from five different decades. That’s not really fair – 1995’s Stripped was really quite good, but it had the acoustic/unplugged gimmick going for it, plus the fact that the tunes were recorded in small venues where Mick apparently felt less desire to dance to the point where he would be too winded to actually sing. But medicore as they may be, buy those live albums I do, perhaps in the vain hope that yes, this release will finally provide some tangible evidence that the Stones are indeed the Greatest Show on Earth, the best live band in existence. So far, what I’ve been left with is the unescapable feeling that “I guess you had to be there.”

As soundtrack albums go, this one really isn’t too bad, and for all I know Martin Scorsese's film is quite spectacular. But on CD, the Stones sound like they’re going through the motions; there’s really nothing about any of these tracks that sets them apart from the originals. Turned up loud and fueled by a couple of beers, you can have a good time listening to it. But you’d be much better off with the originals.

Jeff's Jukebox: A-3

A-3: "Memphis," Johnny Rivers

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Universal Modicum of Truth You Can Dance To

A post by Rosanne Cash so great it sent shivers up my spine.

Brief Excerpt:

In many great songs a larger, universal modicum of truth is revealed and resonates on a personal level with the listener, even when the facts make no sense at all. Sometimes especially when the facts make no sense at all. And, if everything goes well, you can also dance to it.

Read the whole thing.

Sydney Pollack

I don't know what I can add to what others have said more eloquently, except to note that when you saw Pollack's name on a film - as producer, director, or actor - you could be assured of quality, and many times greatness. I count Tootsie (which I wrote about here) and Out of Africa among my all-time favorites, and there were plenty of other notable films on Pollack's resume. He will be greatly missed.


Sheila O'Malley (The Sheila Variations)

David Mills (Undercover Black Man)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fix I-5: A Testament to Human Idiocy

I live in Elk Grove, a city roughly 15 miles south of downtown Sacramento. I work in West Sacramento, due west of downtown Sacramento, just across the Sacramento River. On a normal day, my commute of roughly 22 miles takes anywhere between 30-75 minutes, depending on the route I take, the time of day and the ability of the general public to avoid accidents, which is no small feat given the number of 18-wheel trucks on the road in the morning and afternoon hours, all seemingly engaged in a ruthless game of chicken with the area’s local residents.

Because of the “Fix I-5” project beginning on May 30, all bets are off on how long the drive will take. Essentially, I’m Steve Martin, being told by Edie McClurg the situation he’s in, in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (you can see the clip here, but beware – Steve and Edie drop lots of f-bombs).

The highlight of Fix-I-5 is the repair of the so-called “Boat Section,” the section of freeway which runs directly west of downtown. What is the Boat Section, you might ask? Let Caltrans explain:

Caltrans engineers began working on the I-5 Boat Section in the 1960s and '70s. It was a difficult project. First, they had to de-water the area – no small task considering the Boat Section runs well below the waterline of the Sacramento River. The engineers used strategically placed pumps to drain all the water from specific areas along the roadway.

Once the water was drained, Caltrans engineers started building a seal slab that was up to 10 feet thick in some places. To hold the slab in place, the engineers drilled pins more than 80 feet deep. They put in thick retaining walls and a drainage channel between the seal slab and the pavement to catch any water that might penetrate the seal slab. All traces of water captured in this narrow channel and through a series of roadside drains are collected and subsequently pumped right back into the river. To keep a close eye on the pumps, Caltrans engineers installed lights on top of roadside pumps, so they could drive by and quickly check the situation. Those pumps are still in use today, and any time it starts raining Caltrans maintenance workers make the Boat Section a top priority.

After three years and more than $13 million dollars, the Boat Section was officially and quietly opened in 1970. Since then, the section has been subject to periodic flooding but was only closed once. That incident occurred in January of 1980 when a combination of heavy rains and a faulty valve at the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District flooded the Boat Section and closed I-5 for nearly an entire weekend.

In other words, the Boat Section is a magnificent feat of engineering which stands as a testament to human idiocy. How dumb is the Boat Section? We’re talking Embarcadero Freeway dumb. We’re talking Cross-Bronx Expressway dumb. And it didn’t have to be that way; Caltrans never wanted the damn freeway there in the first place. But apparently, the city’s fathers (and given when all this happened, you know they were all men) disagreed, and thereby proceeded to violate the trust placed in them to act as the guardians of Sacramento.

What I hope proves to be a minor inconvenience over the next six weeks, I can live with. But someone needs to call out the idiocy of those fools, those charlatans who allowed this damn monstrosity to be built in the first place. And that someone might as well be me. Curses, I say!

Elvis Costello's Triumphant "Momofuku"

Listening to Momofuku by Elvis Costello and the Imposters is like getting a postcard from a long-lost friend that you thought you’d never hear from again. Since I haven’t bought that much of his work in recent years, it’s probably not fair for me to say that it’s his best record in years, but it’s so good that it’s hard for me to believe that it isn’t.

The use of “record” here is intentional; Costello organized the album for release on vinyl, complete with a Side 1/Side 2 sequencing. If you close your eyes and listen real hard, you can almost imagine that it’s 1978 or 1979 again, with the organ of Steve Nieve and drums of Pete Thomas providing the basis for a sound that fits right in to the This Year’s Model/Armed Forces mold. When Nieve and Thomas joyfully (one assumes) play out the coda to “American Gangster Time,” you wonder if they were thinking back to those high-octane days of thirty years ago.

But Elvis Costello clearly isn’t the same person he was thirty years ago. Some of the best songs on the album are those which, quite simply, he would not have been capable of writing in 1978 (or even 1988, for that matter). “Flutter and Wow,” obviously something he wrote for his wife Diana, contains the following lyrics, which clearly demonstrate that the “Angry Young Man” persona is a matter of the distant past.

Last rays of sunlight die
Full moon begins to rise
Reflected in your eyes

I can’t believe that this is happening
You make the motor in me
Flutter and Wow

That’s a long way from This Year's Model's "Don’t want to be a goody-goody/I don’t want just anybody/No I don’t want anybody saying/You belong to me, you belong to me"

With words like those, Elvis is veering close to Air Supply territory, but the depth of his singing and the strength of the arrangement make the words matter, and the listener is left thinking that this is a man who has earned his happiness, and one who had to suffer the depths of his emotions in order to revel in the heights. Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, one of several high profile guests on the record, definitely puts his stamp on this song; it sounds as if it could easily fit on a contemporary Los Lobos album.

And then there’s “My Three Sons,” his love song to them:

I love you more than I can say
What I give to one
The other cannot take away
I bless the day you came to be
With everything that is left to me

Here is your pillow
Go to sleep and I will follow
May you never have any more sorrows
But that’s something you can’t count upon
Still I want it for my three sons

But for those who want a dash of that old Elvis anger, there are plenty of songs where that is highlighted, including “No Hiding Place,” “American Gangster Time,” “Stella Hurt,” and “Go Away.” But even those songs feel imbued with the wisdom that only advanced years can bring. And those songs, as well as the others on the album, represent a musical triumph – this is the first time where Costello has seamlessly melded the no-holds barred approach from his youth with the musical prowess he has gained, in partnership with luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Allen Touissant, and Burt Bacharach.

The most prominent of the album’s other guests is Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley’s leader, and her contribution, as part of a “vocal supergroup” which appears on half of the album’s songs, is also significant, lending the songs a modern sound that plants them firmly in the 21st century. And last but not least, Momofuku was named for Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant noodles.

To sum up, Momofuku is a great album – perhaps the best of the year, so far.

Why Do I Listen to Music?

Greil Marcus:

"If you’re lucky, at the right time you come across music that is not only “great,” or interesting, or “incredible,” or fun, but actually sustaining. Through some elusive but tangible process, a piece of music cuts through all defenses and makes sense of every fear and desire you bring to it. As it does so, it exposes all you’ve held back, and then makes sense of that, too. Though someone else is doing the talking, the experience is like a confession. Your emotions shoot out to crazy extremes; you feel both ennobled and unworthy, saved and damned. You hear that this is what life is all about, that this is what it is for. Yet it is this recognition itself that makes you understand that life can never be this good, this whole. With a clarity life denies for its own good reasons, you see places to which you can never get."

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The Coolness Factor

There's a lot of talk lately about whether Obama's looks should matter in the race for the Presidency, much of it prompted by this AP photo.

John Althouse Cohen:

"...The coolness factor matters. Coolness, likability, charisma, and even sex appeal are legitimate reasons to vote for someone for president. A candidate who's more personally appealing will be more likely to hold onto popularity as president, which will tend to make them more effective at enacting their agenda. If the president is more appealing for admittedly superficial reasons, that should apply abroad too, and we should want the world to have a positive attitude toward us (all other things being equal). Whether the president is liked by a lot of people matters, and someone who's suave and attractive has an advantage when it comes to being well-liked. We're not supposed to admit that this does matter. We're supposed to believe that "what the voters really care about are the issues." And so while the pundits are willing to analyze relatively clear-cut demographic factors (race, gender, age), you rarely hear them talk about the more nebulous quality of attractiveness, even when it's obviously important..."

Read the whole piece (link above). I tend to agree with Cohen; it seems obvious that a good portion of President Bush's unpopularity is the result of his inability to cut a fine public figure. If the President comes across as inarticulate and somewhat bumbling, then that must be how he really is, right? Supporters of the President, no doubt, would argue that the media and entertainment worlds are at fault for relentlessly focusing on what are nothing more than meaningless, trivial gaffes. But it's hard to argue the point that the President has given his detractors a lot of material to work with.

And sure, we all know it shouldn't matter, and that there was a time when it didn't. But we don't live in those times, and if it now matters in all other walks of life (and can anyone argue that it doesn't?), then why should the presidency be any different?

Heh heh...

Good news for Indiana Jones fans, courtesy of Ken Levine.

Memorial Day

(Photo taken by #1 son, July 2006, on the Arizona Memorial)

Lest we forget why we all have an extra day to sleep in, barbecue, and drink beer this weekend.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

One Last Train Song

We don't often take requests, but when we do, we try to make it worthwhile. This one surely fits that bill, and comes from Jim in Washington, D.C.

Victoria Williams, "Train Song (Demise of the Caboose)"

Reinventing Phil Mickelson

Whoever came up with the concept for the new series of Phil Mickelson commercials for Crowne Plaza is an absolute genius. But the real auteur of the series is Mickelson himself, who in the span of a few commercials has pulled off the unlikely feat of redefining his entire image. A lot has been said about Mickelson over the years, and he may just be acting here (well, of course he is, but bear with me), but it's difficult to believe that Mickelson could pull this off if he wasn't at least a little bit like the regular guy who comes across in the ads. Funny, sharp, self-deprecating - an all-around great show.

Tiger might want to think about something like this.

Jeff's Jukebox: A-2

A-2: "Bad Time," Grand Funk Railroad. From the spring of 1975, produced by Jimmy Ienner. Part of Grank Funk's post-"Locomotion" pop phase. I never really got into the band during their earlier "heavy" phase (I was strictly an AM radio type of guy), but enjoyed their string of hit singles in the mid-1970s.


I've now linked to so many blogs and Web sites that my sets of headings no longer make much sense. I'm not sure what to do about it other than just put them all into one big list, and that wouldn't make much sense either. And in the end, I'm not sure why I care.

In any event, the latest blog to be linked is Jac, the site of John Althouse Cohen, the son of Ann Althouse, whose site is also linked here. As is the case with Althouse, Cohen's posts are well written, thoughtful, and provocative. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 23, 2008


"I hope that he will understand, if he is the nominee, the degree of disillusionment that will happen if he doesn’t become a greater man than he will ever be."

- Sean Penn, on the candidacy of Barack Obama

Hat tip: Edward Christie, writing on Vodkapundit

The Sound of Tom Petty Having Fun

Tom Petty is at his best when he stops thinking so hard. When he puts a lot of time into an album and tries to build it around a strong theme, the result can end up sounding like much less than the sum of its parts (Southern Accents, The Last DJ). But when he just takes the band into the studio and starts playing (Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), Full Moon Fever, Highway Companion), you can count on having a good time.

Mudcrutch falls firmly into the latter category. The result of Petty’s reunion with his band from high school, the album was recorded live in 10 days (as the sleeve says, "vocals, harmony, everything/Arrangements done on studio floor") and sounds more fresh than anything he’s recorded in the last 20 years. All of his solo or Heartbreakers albums during that period have been produced either by Rick Rubin and Jeff Lynne, both masters of the studio who put a ton of time into making something sound like it was spontaneous (that's not intended to be a hit on either of them, by the way). Mudcrutch is spontaneous, and that’s the key difference between it and some of its predecessors.

On the other hand, this isn’t likely to become known as Petty’s best album, and there’s little doubt making great art wasn’t on his mind when he brought the old buds together one more time. They were out to have a great time, and it shows. The album hits a relaxed groove from the first track (the traditional “Shady Grove”), and that groove never lets up. Hooks abound, and I’m not sure the lyrics even matter. Not every song is destined to become a classic, and sure, “Crystal River” may be a few minutes too long (at nearly 9 minutes!). Just lean back, pretend you’re listening to some vintage Dead, and enjoy.

For the record, Mudcrutch features Petty on bass, along with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, joined by Randall Marsh on drums and Tom Leadon on guitar. Marsh and Leadon are probably pinching themselves right about now to make sure this hasn’t all been a dream, but in fact they fit right in, and sound like they’ve been playing with the big boys for years.

Everyone needs to lighten up (or light up, depending on whether you do that sort of thing) every now and then, and by doing so, Petty has made a record that may end up lasting a lot longer than all those “important” ones he tried to make earlier in his career.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jeff's Jukebox: A-1

A-1: "Do You Know What I Mean?" by Lee Michaels, one of my favorite songs from 1971.

Kathleen Edwards Scores Again

It’s time to catch up with some quick thoughts on musical releases of spring 2008. First up, Asking For Flowers, by Kathleen Edwards.

My first exposure to Kathleen Edwards came shortly after the release of her second album, Back to Me, in 2005. I’d read the positive reviews of Failer, her 2003 debut, but I’d never gotten around to buying the album, primarily because there’s just too much music, and too little time. Because my mind just seems to work this way, I remember the circumstances of that first exposure very clearly. The family was spending a few days in Santa Cruz, and during a downtown shopping sojourn, spent an hour or so in the neighborhood Borders. I found the album on one of their listening stations, and within moments knew that I’d be walking out of the store with it (after buying it, of course). Back to Me was one of the best albums of that year, and has held up remarkably well. A melting pot of rock, alt-country, and pop, it deserved to be a much bigger hit than it actually was.

Released after a hiatus of nearly three years, Asking For Flowers is notably different in feel and tone than its predecessor. Though there are a couple of great rockers, on the whole the album is slower and more contemplative than its predecessor. Unlike Back to Me, it doesn't jump out at you on first listen. But listeners who stick with it will be rewarded with a set of thoughtful, sometimes amusing, and always focused songs that offer ample evidence of Edwards’ growth and maturation as a songwriter. “Oil Man’s War,” for example, reads almost as if it could have been written by River-era Springsteen.

The highlight of the album is the haunting “Alicia Ross,” in which Edwards puts herself into the mind of the title character (Ross was a young woman who was abducted and murdered in 2005), and what she might have been imagining as she lived her last moments:

Inside of this moment there are
Things I wish I could know
Like my ring size, your ring size,
And the hour I was born
My dad's middle name, your favorite song
Was your darkest day as dark as this one?

Mamma, can you hear me?
As I dragged on my day's last cigarette
He pulled me so hard off my
Very own back door steps
And he laid me in his garden
All the years I've watched him tend
He took me, Mamma
So I could never tell you about it

Now I'm a girl who's face they'll never forget

It’s a heartbreaking but beautiful song, one that will likely stand with any released this year.

Overall, if forced to choose between them, I’d probably voice a preference for Back to Me over the new album, but the two are close enough in quality and different enough in style that making such a choice is, in the end, unnecessary - both are vital works.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Take THAT, Randy and Simon!

Another View

If Your Mouth Doesn't Water While Reading This Post, You May Be Dead

The NorCal Explorer's overview of Sacramento's classic burger joints.

I've eaten at six of them:

Whitey's Jolly Kone - not far from where I work in West Sacramento; outstanding.

Fanny Ann's - haven't had the Jiffy Burger, which to be honest sounds disgusting.

Jim-Denny's - not far from where I used to work, in downtown Sacramento. Greasy heaven.

Earl of Sandwich - also downtown; sorry to hear that it is no more.

Nation Wide Freezer Meats - a bit overpriced for what you get, I think.

Ford's Real Hamburgers - Not far from where my wife and I used to live, near Land Park.

Haven't been there for years, but I always liked it.

"...And They've Never Heard of Love"

Since its release in the early 1980s, "They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman has been one of my favorite songs. I own the vinyl 45 RPM record, and the song is on several of the dozens of compilation tapes that I keep in my car.

It's kind of goofy, but something about "They Don't Know" is absolutely irresistible. It's both a send-up of and an homage to the great girl groups of the 1960s, and to my ears it sounds just as good today as something like "My Boyfriend's Back" or "Leader of the Pack." It may not be an authentic girl group song, but it gains its authenticity through its greatness. A great single, a great song, a great fluke. It's songs like this that make rock 'n roll so special - the thought that, on any given day, you might hear something on the radio that fits in, right alongside the canon of Dylan, Beatles, or what have you - a glorious flash in the pan.

I get a feeling when I look at you
Wherever you go now
I wanna be there too
They say we're crazy but I just don't care
And if they keep on talkin', still they get nowhere
So I don't mind if they don't understand
When I look at you and you hold my hand
Cause they don't know 'bout us
And they've never heard of love

Monday, May 19, 2008

Breathtaking and Scary at the Same Time

My American Idol Fantasy

Well, thank you for asking. My American Idol fantasy is that when David Archuleta comes out on Tuesday to sing his final song, he quiets the band, brings out Johnny Marr, tells the audience that he's decided to sing a very special song, and then belts out, in the way that only he can, "I Know It's Over."

It's so easy to laugh
It's so easy to hate
It takes guts to be gentle and kind
Over, over
Love is Natural and Real
But not for you, my love
Not tonight, my love
Love is Natural and Real
But not for such as you and I, my love
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

The funny thing? I think this is one song that he'd really perform well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Red Wind Is Blowing

Today is one of those Sacramento days (temperatures in the 90s, winds in the 20-30s) that always make me think of "Red Wind," the great short story by Raymond Chandler, and its classic beginning:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Anything can happen...and probably will.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Searching for Gil Scott-Heron

One of the treasures I found this weekend in Wolfgang's Vault was a 1977 Bottom Line concert by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, musical partners for several years in the 1970s.

In terms of being a public presence, Scott-Heron seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth in recent years. Through Google, I was able to find out that for all practical purposes, he quit recording long ago after he was dropped by Arista Records, although there has been sporadic work since then. Unfortunately, the story is a sad one; there have been drug problems and time spent in jail. But it appears there are some shows on the horizon this summer, and I hope this means that a magnificent career is on its way to getting back on track.

A clip of Scott-Heron singing one of his best-known songs, "The Bottle."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Treasures From The Vault

Thanks to Steven Rubio, this weekend I discovered Wolfgang’s Vault, which is described on the Web site as “the home for the past, present and future of live music.” Specifically, you can find literally hundreds (over 1000, actually) of concerts from The Bill Graham Archives, as well as the King Biscuit Flower Hour (a name that will mean a lot to people over a certain age, and absolutely nothing to those under that age) and other radio shows which featured live concert programming.

The site is a treasure trove of epic proportions, and I can already tell I’m going to need to be careful with it, because it is absolutely addictive. I haven’t listened to a complete concert yet, but so far I’ve already listened to snippets from shows by Springsteen, The Clash, The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Patti Smith, The Band, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Van Morrison, and James Taylor. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

It won’t come as a surprise to my friends and the regular readers of this blog that the concert I’ve listened to the most is Springsteen’s Winterland show, recorded on December 15, 1978. The Winterland show is one of, if not the single, most famous shows in the Bruce pantheon. It was broadcast live, and I can remember listening to it in my room. I also remember it being one of the dumbest moments of my life, because inexplicably I didn’t record it. It’s widely available on bootlegs, but I’d never bought one, so until now I’d never listened to it again.

It is an amazing show; the blockbuster version of “Prove It All Night” the band played on this tour is worth the price of admission all by itself. For historians and completists, there are also early versions of “The Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank,” the former with a vastly different arrangement and the latter with some very different lyrics than those which turned up on The River.

It’s also a fascinating show, for the setlist alone:

Badlands / Streets of Fire / Spirits in the Night / Darkness on The Edge of Town / Factory / The Promised Land / Prove It All Night / Racing In The Streets / Thunder Road / Jungleland / The Ties That Bind / Santa Claus Is Coming To Town / The Fever / Fire / Candy's Room / Because The Night / Point Blank / Mona-She's The One - I Get Mad / Backstreets / Rosalita / Born To Run / Detroit Medley / 10th Avenue Freeze Out / Raise Your Hand / Twist And Shout

Check out the sequencing - of the first nine songs, 8 (!) are from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Only then does Bruce delve into the older albums, pull some rarities out of his back pocket, as well as some surprises (“The Fever,” “Because the Night,” which at the time was best known for being a hit by Patti Smith, “Fire”). I can’t imagine him doing something like this today – sure, the new album had been out for six months by the time the band played this show, but it’s still amazing to me that he would lead almost exclusively with songs from a single record.

But at this late date, who am I to quibble? Right now I just look forward to finding more treasures.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Greatest Train Song?

"People Get Ready," as sung by the great Curtis Mayfield, with Taylor Dayne on backing vocal and with David Lindley and Hiram Bullock lurking in the background.

Son of Train Song

A very young Jimmy Page, perhaps wearing the same shirt Jerry Seinfeld would make famous more than 20 years later, with the Yardbirds, performing "Train Kept A Rollin'."

How About Another Train Song?

Don't's National Train Day!

And here's a train like no other before it, or since.

Still More Train Songs

Get on board...and just pretend you're not in the middle of a light beer commercial.

More Train Songs

In all likelihood, Arlo Guthrie's finest moment - "City of New Orleans."

Train Songs

In honor of National Train Day, it is the pleasure of this here blog to bring you some great train songs. First up, a medley of "Casey Jones" and "Orange Blossom Special," courtesy of the Man in Black.

Everybody Loves A Train

Let's everyone put their hands together for...National Train Day!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ain't That Pretty At All

You ever get in one of those moods where just about anything and everything you read or hear pisses you off? For whatever reason, that seems to be my current frame of mind. And so what do I do to myself? Spend the evening catching up on email. Probably not the best idea I ever had.

But here's a song that never fails to cheer me up.


I could be wrong, but I'd say that it's probably not a good sign for your campaign when major newspapers start prominently featuring photos like this one on their Web site.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

And You Thought Mariah Carey Night Was Bad?

Some "live" (since you can't really watch it live on the West Coast) notes on "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" night.

First, let me say it - bad idea. Might as well call it "let's set them up for failure" night.

David Cook: "Hungry Like A Wolf," Duran Duran. I like Duran Duran, but will admit that they're not the first band that comes to mind when I think "rock and roll hall of fame." Decent performance; not bad but certainly far from great.

Syesha: "Proud Mary," the Ike and Tina version. Well, you have to give her credit. There's no way she can match Tina, and of course she doesn't. But at least she doesn't embarrass herself.

Jason: "I Shot the Sheriff," Bob Marley & the Wailers. That sound you heard about 15 minutes ago? That was Bob Marley spinning in his grave. Definitely the single worst performance of the Top 12 this year, and it wouldn't be hard to imagine that this was the single worst performance ever in the Top 4.

David A: "Stand by Me," Ben E. King. This was the first song played at my wedding, so it holds a pretty important place in my life, and my standards for it are high. As usual David A. sucked, and as usual the judges (save for Simon) gave him a tongue bath worthy of a newborn kitten. It may all be over but the shouting, but that doesn't mean this kid is any good.

UPDATE #1: David Cook: "Baba O'Riley," The Who. OK, the patented David Cook treatment, but well done. But in the end, it just ain't the same song without the synths.

UPDATE #2: Syesha: "A Change Is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke. Oh right - making the Top 12 of American Idol is certainly a worthy notion to apply to this song, only one of the greatest ever performed. Poor performance. Randy is actually making sense - don't give THIS song the Whitney/Mariah treatment. Syesha is about to cry...Paula wants to give her a hug. Sorry, but it was still a poor performance. Syesha IS crying now, and Simon actually agrees with Paula, which makes me wonder if he sipped out of the wrong cup. Syesha is bawling now...oh, she RESEARCHED the song. It means a lot to her, but that doesn't change the fact - poor performance. Shouldn't have tried. Ryan gets on Randy's case...Oh sh*t, now I'm feeling sorry for RANDY?

UPDATE #3: Jason: "Mr. Tambourine Man," Bob Dylan. Dear God...Dylan? Decent start...whoops, forgot the lyrics! But it sounds OK. Well, he survived Dylan. Certainly could have been worse. Less memorable than Shatner's version, certainly. Randy doesn't like it, Paula doesn't make any sense, and Simon has Jason's bags packed. For cryin' out loud, don't do the guy any favors!

UPDATE #4: David A. does The King. More heavy breathing between notes - is ANYONE listening to what a poor singer this kid really is? Certainly not the judges.

Whew. That was really bad.

Just Spin, Baby

Only in politics, I suppose, can you win by losing. And you probably thought that judging of Olympic figure skating was subjective.

Don't get me wrong - I'm for Obama, and I'm ready for this thing to be over. But if the best evidence of it being over is the sincerity of Bill's hug and the heartbroken look on Chelsea's face (according to David Gergen), then I'm prepared to wait a little longer for the votes to be tallied.

But the spin tonight was disastrous for Hillary, at least on MSNBC, where the dominant theme was that after tonight, her staying in the race can only be viewed as a desire to destroy Obama.

The beginning of the end?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

30 Years Ago, But This Year's Model

Listening to Elvis Costello is like walking down a dark, empty street and hearing another set of heels.

So began Kit Rachlis' Rolling Stone review of This Year's Model, the second album by Elvis Costello, and the first where Elvis was joined by his most famous backing band, The Attractions. Someone familiar with Costello only via his collaborations with such luminaries as Burt Bacharach and Allen Touissant, or because of his marriage to Diana Krall, might be surprised to read that Costello was capable of such power.

But Rachlis didn't stop there:

His music doesn't make you dance, it makes you jump. It doesn't matter that he's stalking his obsessions and not you, because nobody ought to be this sure of his obsessions. But Costello appears determined never to reach that age when, as Joan Didion once put it, "the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not." This Year's Model, his second album in less than a year, is Costello's attempt to make certain those wounds stay open.

It's hard to express in words how exciting this album sounded when it was first released. Costello's first album, released in the fall of 1977, was great - no question about it. But little on that album prepared the listener for what This Year's Model would sound like. There was a hint in December, when Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live for what became a legendary performance, beginning the song "Less Than Zero," and a few bars in telling the audience, "sorry...there's no reason for us to do this song," and then tearing into a ferocious version of "Radio, Radio," which would become the anchor song on the new album. While Lorne Michaels came close to a stroke in the control room, wondering whether to pull the plug, Elvis and the Attractions tore into the song with a fury, with Costello literally spewing the venom that lay behind the strongest words on the album:

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me

And then:

You either shut up or get cut out,
they don't wanna hear about it,
it's only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel

It's anger like that which fuels This Year's Model - the edge in Costello's voice that, even though there was much great music to come (and probably still is to come), has never quite sounded like it did then. Costello was mad at the world, and it showed:

I don't want to see you 'cause I don't miss you that much

You think you all own little pieces of this year's girl
Forget your fancy manners, forget your English grammar
'Cause you don't really give a damn about this year's girl

I'd do anything to confuse the enemy

No, I don't want anybody saying
"You belong to me, you belong to me"

If I'm gonna go down
You're gonna come with me

Lip service is all you'll ever get from me
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being

Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out

I mean, come on...who would have thought this guy would later aspire to becoming this generation's Cole Porter?

And note for note, word for word, the Attractions match Costello's verbal venom - Steve Nieve's farfisa organ from hell, and the rhythm section of Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums sound as if they're trapped in a room on fire, desperately making any sound they can to alert someone that they're about to perish in the flames.

It sounded great then, and it sounds great now - in fact, if it were released tomorrow, it would be the freshest thing out there.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

More Answers

For an explanation of what this all means, see the previous post.

because he had a sense of a transcendent plane from which he was barred but wanted to work against

because we like to know a lot that we aren't told

because only the fear of life and death could beguile him to find the slightest meaning

because frozen memories gleam amid the blackness of loss

because the final five songs they played at their last ever show at High Hall, Birmingham University on May 2nd 1980, were Transmission, Disorder, Isolation, Decades and Digital, as always performing as if it was going to be the last show they ever did, even though they didn't really believe it would be, but it was

An odd coincidence, that I should happen to buy the album on the anniversary of their last show.

And this morning, I noticed something that escaped my attention yesterday - these writings are by Paul Morley, adapted from chapters LIV and LXIII of Piece by Piece: Writings About Joy Division 1977-2007.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Inhabiting the Space of a Song

There are few bands in the history of rock about which one could say, "they were one of a kind." For me, Joy Division is one of those bands. Their story is the stuff of legend, and I won't repeat it here - it's easy enough to find for those who are interested. Their sound was unique - Ian Curtis' voice combined with the sounds of Hook, Morris and Sumner to create something that, to this day, doesn't sound much like anything else. It was not easy; it was not simple. It could be a painful journey. There were only two albums, and their influence far outpaced their sales. And of course, the haunting single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," one of the singular records of the past 50 years.

Today at lunch I made one of my periodic sojourns to The Beat in downtown Sacramento, something not quite as easy to do now as it was when I worked downtown, just a few short blocks away. Now, with my office on the other side of the river in West Sacramento, it's a drive, albeit a short one. It's always worth it.

The Best of Joy Division quickly caught my eye - the packaging looked new, and since all of my Joy Division is on vinyl, I snapped it up (for $11.98; great price). The packaging is spare - no history of the band; no track listing with instrumentation noted; just one simple picture on the cover, with the band in the distance. For all I know, it could have been staged.

But inside, a unique set of liner notes, titled Answers: Some answers to some questions. And over the course of 13 pages, the answers tell the story. Not all of it makes immediate sense; some of it seems wordy; but all of it is fun to read, even stimulating and dare I say it, poetic.
Some examples:

because Ian sang as though he'd already written the words down, on lined paper, in a cheap exercise book, with a wonderful, ragged right hard margin, keen to get it all out before the ruin, and something was giving him the heebie-jeebies

because of the connection between the order of things and the strange intersection of events in the world

because life is a means of extracting fiction

because each life makes its myths

and my favorite:

because [producer Martin] Hannett emptied the space of a song in order to let the listener inhabit it

To find one's way through a Joy Division record, that's the secret - inhabit the songs.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mini Meme

...from Steven Rubio.

The way it works:

Ask me the seven questions below. Just copy and paste them into a comment, replace the blanks with anything you want--personal, silly, surreal or deep (and "clean," please) - and I'll answer honestly as I can, if not necessarily right away. If you have one, post this in your own blog and see what kind of things people want to ask you.

1. What do you think of _____________ ?
2. When did you last ____________?
3. __________ or ___________ and why?
4. What did you ______________?
5. What's your favorite ______________?
6. How would you ______________?
7. Who would you most like to ________ ?