Monday, September 26, 2016

American Songs, Days 15-21: Bruce Springsteen

So last week got a little busy, and on the day of our first presidential debate we find ourselves more than a week behind on the "American Songs" posts.  So I'm going to take what is probably the easy way out, and devote a week's work of songs to Bruce Springsteen, who celebrated his 67th birthday last Friday.

With the publication of his memoir, a lot of folks have been posting Springsteen lists - so here is a seven song perfect playlist that covers some obvious choices, and some deep cuts.

"Human Touch."  One of his very best songs, from the album many (most?) of his fans consider to be his worst.

"Badlands" and "Thunder Road."  No matter how you cut it, these two will always be at or near the top of the pantheon.

"The Rising."  There is always hope.

"Stolen Car."  What makes this one cool is that I was actually at this show.  An amazing song; a terrifying song.  "I'm driving a stolen car/Through the pitch black night/I keep telling myself/Someday I'm gonna be alright/But I ride by night/And I travel in fear/That in this darkness/I will disappear."

"American Skin (41 Shots)."  Hearing for the first time, at Madison Square Garden in June 2000, was a searing experience.  And here we are 16 years later, and we're left to ponder, again and again, when things are going to change.

"Land of Hope and Dreams."  And this is the song that leaves you hoping.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

American Songs, Day 14 - "Seven Year Ache," Rosanne Cash

"Seven Year Ache" is 35 years old now, and I'm pretty sure that's enough time for me to declare it one one of the greatest songs of my lifetime.  But one thing about which I'm absolutely certain is that Rosanne Cash is one of the greatest artists of my lifetime.

American Songs, Day 13 - "Blue Ridge Mountains," Fleet Foxes

"Blue Ridge Mountains" was the best song on Fleet Foxes' debut album, a beautiful and evocative tune that has only grown in stature upon repeat (many, many repeat) listens.  It's been more than five years since the band's last album, and former member (and percussionist) Josh Tillman, who you may know better as Father John Misty, has become a star in his own right.  But according to bandleader Robin Pecknold, a third album is on the way...eventually.

American Songs, Day 12 - "One Night," Elvis Presley

There aren't a lot of moments that you can convincingly argue represent the greatest moment in the history of rock and roll, but Elvis' 1968 "comeback special" is definitely one of those moments.  It's not as if he ever went away, but it was during the special - and especially in the sequence when, clad in black leather and joined by his musical compatriots from a decade earlier, he demonstrated that there were regions in the rock and roll stratosphere that were not open to mere mortals.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

American Songs, Day 11 - "South Dakota," James McMurtry

James McMurtry's "Complicated Game" is one of the best albums of the decade, and on it he demonstrates a knack for storytelling that rivals that of his famous father.

"South Dakota" may be the best song on the album.  It tells the story of a soldier returned home from the war, who ultimately ends up thinking that he just might have made the wrong choice.

"Because there ain't much between the Pole and South Dakota
And barbed wire won't stop the wind
You won't get nothing here but broke and older
If I was you I might re-up again"

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

American Songs, Day 10 - "Minutes to Memories," John Mellencamp

A great song, with one of the greatest lines of all time:  "An honest man's pillow is his peace of mind."

Mellencamp is one of the great stories of the rock era.  He started as a joke (and looked the part) as "Johnny Cougar," and somehow morphed over time to become a grizzled veteran who would produce great work and continue to do so until well into the 21st Century.

There was time when I wouldn't have been caught dead buying one of his albums.  Now, I'd buy one without having heard a single song.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

American Songs, Day 9 - "Where Did Our Love Go," The Supremes

"Motown was about music for all people - white and black, blue and green, cops and robbers.  I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone." - Berry Gordy

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

American Songs, Day 7 - "High Water Rising (for Charley Patton)," Bob Dylan

From the magnificent album "Love and Theft," released on September 11, 2001.

High water risin', six inches 'bove my head
Coffins droppin' in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm goin' to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"
It's rough out there
High water everywhere

Saturday, September 10, 2016

American Songs, Day 6 - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Lucinda Williams

I can remember the details of my grandmother’s house (mother’s side) as if I had walked through it yesterday. Located in Sutter, at the foot of the Sutter Buttes, the house was built shortly after World War II. Grandma lived there until 1973, when a break-in spooked her (and everyone else), and she moved to Sacramento to be closer to the rest of the family.

You walked in the front door, and you immediately found yourself in what passed for the “family room.” That’s where the TV was, as well as a couch and a couple of chairs (I recall a recliner that was pretty comfortable). Just off of that room was one of the bedrooms – the one that included a swamp cooler. Like Sacramento, Sutter is very hot in the summer, but unlike Sacramento, the legendary “delta breezes” that result in so many pleasant summer evenings are almost entirely absent. In the summer of 1972, my dad, brothers and I spent a memorable evening there (“memorable” for all the wrong reasons) where the low temperature was 93 degrees (the high had been 117).

Past the family room was the dining room. You walked past a china cabinet (which was painted pink, but now resides in its restored glory at my parents’ house), and as soon as you went by, the cabinet began to shake, to the point where at any moment you expected one of the plates or cups to fall out onto the floor. There was also a bedroom attached to this room.

Next was the kitchen, not large but definitely one from which a lot of delicious food originated. My grandma was a great cook, and to this day I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better fried chicken gravy. No one would make a claim that it was good for you, but damn it was good.

And then you walked through a small corridor, to which the bathroom was attached. The less said about the bathroom, the better. The shower was so small that you could injure your elbows just washing yourself, and the plumbing system…as I said, the less said the better.

And finally, there was a small room at the back of the house that had to be an add-on. There was a bed there, but what I remember most about this room was discovering an old stack of TIME Magazines from 1960, and spending the good portion of a day reading about the 1960 Presidential election. Very cool stuff.

The room my brothers and I slept in was the middle bedroom, and given the weather conditions you almost always had to sleep with the window open. Next to that side of the house was an unpaved road, and most evenings there would be steady traffic – although I’m not sure where those cars were going. But crystal clear in my mind is the sound that you would hear as you lay in the bed, usually too warm to sleep but hoping that sleep would eventually come.

The sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

Friday, September 09, 2016

American Songs, Day 5 - "In My Room," The Beach Boys

This probably isn't the most obvious choice for a Beach Boys song, but it always resonated with me.  Gary Usher, who co-wrote the song with Brian Wilson, has been quoted as saying, "Brian was always saying that his room was his whole world."  I doubt that I'm the only kid who felt the same way when he was growing up.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

American Songs, Day 4 - "Winter in America," Gil Scott-Heron

The late Gil Scott-Heron was a tragic figure, but more importantly, a great artist who was well ahead of his time.  Listening to his early to mid-1970s work today leaves the listener almost breathless - while Scott-Heron was addressing the social issues of the day, the lessons he sought to teach can be applied just as effectively today.

"Winter in America" is by no means a happy song; it is a song about unrealized potential.  The fact that Scott-Heron points out the flaws in this country does not means that he hates this country - just that he thinks it could be much better.

It's a song of great pain, a song with numerous lyrics that could be quoted.  But I think this is my favorite verse:

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it's hoping
Hoping for some rain

Not a happy song.  But a great song.  And a song that gives the lie to the notion that great art can't make an effective political statement.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

American Songs, Day 3 - "Lookin' Out My Back Door"

I've got absolutely no hesitation in calling Creedence Clearwater Revival the greatest American rock 'n roll band of all time.  But what sometimes gets lost in consideration of their work is how dark much of it was.  Sure, they're tunes that will absolutely get you running out on the dance floor, but give a close listen sometime to the lyrics of "Bad Moon Rising" or "Green River."

No such worries with "Lookin' Out My Back Door."  Just John Fogerty, sitting out on the back porch, listenin' to Buck Owens, on a "dinosaur Victrola."  I can see him now...

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

American Songs, Day 2 - "Across the Border," Bruce Springsteen

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know that love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

Monday, September 05, 2016

American Songs, Day 1

Including today, there are 65 days until Election Day. 65 days when we will, no doubt, be subjected to a level of venom that is enough to make even the most die-hard political junkie wish they could close their eyes and make it all go away.
So for the next 65 days, this will be my effort to provide a little bit of alternative programming (I'm "cross posting" this on my Facebook page as well as here on the blog). "American Songs" - a song each day, one that is either about American, makes a statement about America, or just evokes America. Some of them will tell a positive tale, others will not. On some songs I may comment on their meaning; on others I will let the message speak for itself. Overall, I'm confident in saying that together, these 65 songs have more wisdom to offer than this year's presidential candidates.
The project begins with Brad Paisley's "Welcome to the Future," a song that I've loved since the first time I heard it.