Since the pandemic’s start, Neil Young and Daryl Hannah have holed up somewhere in the wilds of Colorado. It’s a beautiful locale, rustic and atop a mountain – and sans decent broadband. As he noted in the Times-Contrarian in March, “When we first tried to live stream Fireside Sessions a few days ago, we died on the vine. We had no way to get to you because our signal was too shaky. That’s why we are making Fireside Session films, so we can get them to you with no interruptions direct from high in the Rockies.” Daryl films him on an iPad, edits the performances together, and then they leave the iPad outside their front door; a friend from town picks it up, takes it home and uploads it to the NYA site.

I share those facts because The Times EP is the audio from the sixth edition of the Fireside Sessions, aka the “Porch Episode.” The “shut up and sing” crowd will be happy to hear that Neil doesn’t make any political diatribes during the set, but they’ll likely be pissed that he instead uses the music to make his points. He kicks off with a song that once angered Ronnie Van Zant, “Alabama.” Unlike in ’72, however, the song’s become something of a metaphor for the nation writ large: “Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/What’s going wrong?”

“Campaigner,” inspired by an ailing Richard Nixon, is next; in some respects, it’s a reminder of the message shared in Matthew 5:44, “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Hate serves no one, in other words. That it’s coupled with “Ohio,” in which Neil named Nixon by name, strengthens that point, I think. 

A heartfelt performance of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the much-covered Bob Dylan protest song that dates to 1964, follows. “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging/It will soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls/For the times they are a-changin’…” Sad to say, it’s as on-point now as it was way back when.   

The first single, an update of “Lookin’ for a Leader” (originally from Living With War) follows: “Yeah, we had Barack Obama/And we really need him now/The man who stood behind him/Has to take his place somehow/America has a leader/Building walls around our house/He don’t know black lives matter/And we got to vote him out.”

“Southern Man” is next. Like “Alabama,” in the years since its release in 1970, the song has essentially become a metaphor for a mindset that has polluted human history from its start.

An aching rendition of “Little Wing,” which was first released on 1980’s Hawks & Doves (and on its intended original home, Homegrown, earlier this year) closes the EP. “Little wing don’t fly away/When the summer turns to fall/Don’t you know some people say/The winter is the best time of them all/The winter is the best of all…” It’s a delicate performance of a beautiful song, that – on the episode – culminates with Neil singing to the blue sky, as my picture up top shows.

Unfortunately, the EP is not available via all the usual streaming outlets. It can be purchased on CD, but only streamed by subscribers to the Neil Young Archives or Amazon, as Jeff Bezos’ mega-market offers, like NYA, “HD” streaming. (The EP itself is 24/48 due to the recording limitations of the iPad.) Interestingly, however, it can also be streamed from Amazon’s non-HD Prime service…and purchased from Amazon as MP3s! Weird, huh? So, no Apple Music, Spotify or Tidal, or any of the others, but “when you hear my song now, you only get five percent” MP3s can still be had.

Whatever. It’s a stirring set that longtime travelers and newcomers alike should enjoy. Seek it out; you won’t be disappointed.

 

Friday morning, I tapped play on Suzanne Vega’s An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, which captures a New York-themed concert at the legendary Café Carlyle, a small club inside a ritzy residential hotel located on the Upper East Side, the Hotel Carlyle. Accompanied by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards, she leads an aural tour of the Big Apple that provides insights into lives large and small, from icons Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to a little boy named Luka.

Recorded on March 14, 2019, the 16-song set is essentially a collection of poetic and provocative spacetime soliloquies with melodies that are equally evocative and strong. The songs are imbued with a sense of place, in other words, as well as of the characters who populate it. “New York Is My Destination,” which she wrote for her one-woman play based on the life of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), is a great example:

The show mixes her best-known numbers with lesser-known album tracks, and features a tribute to an artist who changed her life when, at age 19, she saw him in concert – her first live show, no less – at Columbia University, Lou Reed. In the introduction, she explains that he “really turned things around for me in terms of songwriting and songs and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, that show really showed me what rock ’n’ roll was.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, she expanded on that intro: “[E]ncountering his music changed my way of writing songs. Suddenly I knew I had complete freedom as a songwriter and nothing was forbidden.” I hear another influence beyond subject matter: the specificity of her lyrics. Like Reed, she delivers deft portraits and scenes by honing in on minute details that speak volumes, and often does so with a journalist’s reserve. “Tom’s Diner,” delivered here in an arrangement reminiscent of the remixed DNA rendition, is a case in point.

“Anniversary,” which she wrote a year after 9/11, is another example; her restraint feeds the song’s strength. As it happened, it began to play just about the time I left home on 9/11 itself, which is when I learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Thick with ghosts, the wind whips round in circuitries/Carrying words as strangers exchange pleasantries/Do they intrude upon your private reveries?” left me slack-jawed. Life may move on, but the souls of the departed are with us, still.

(The above performance, by the way, isn’t from this album, but from last week; she uploaded it to YouTube on Friday – the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.) 

In any event, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is a strong career summary of an oft-overlooked trailblazer; Vega, as I’ve noted before, was instrumental in the resurgence of folk-flavored music in the 1980s, a time when it seemed to have lost an audience, and then helped forge a new path in the ’90s with an electronica-folk hybrid. If you’re unfamiliar with her music, the album is an excellent entry point; if, on the other hand, you’re well versed on all things Suzanne, you’ll want to listen to it a few dozen times, if not more. It’s a sterling set.    

Years long ago, making a long-distance phone call for any length of time required one to first take out a mortgage. I’m being a tad facetious, of course, but consider this: In 1974, the first three minutes cost about $12 and each minute thereafter set one back four bucks; in today’s money, in other words, a five-minute call clocked in at $105. (See this ArsTechnica article for more.) By 1987, the average price had fallen to just shy of 30 cents a minute (69 cents in today’s change), but “average” is just that, with high per-minute rates on weekdays and lower rates late at night and on weekends. As a result, for all but the rich, hearing the voices of far-away family and/or friends was generally saved for special occasions or emergencies.

(For those curious, this MEL article explains why long-distance calls were so expensive.)

Stationary, envelopes and stamps were the communications currency of the era, in other words. One scribbled. One thought. One reflected upon and shared recent events in one’s life, and sometimes connected them with long-ago transgressions and triumphs. Some letters were a page long, others 20, and depending upon one’s scrawl, some words could be confused for others…or only understood in the context of the words that surrounded them. Things began to shift in the ‘90s with the mass embrace of, first, online services like AOL and Prodigy and, eventually, the Internet, email, instant messaging and Facebook.

Which is to say, these days, it’s a rarity to send or receive a letter.

Those are my first thoughts upon listening to “Letter to You,” the title track – and first single from – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s forthcoming album, which is slated for an Oct. 23rd release. It harkens back to a simpler age in both sound and style.

“I love the emotional nature of Letter To You,” says Bruce in the album’s announcement, which was shared on Thursday Sept. 10th. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”

My second thought: Bruce never articulates what exactly he “found out through hard times and good.” His lyrics sum up the letter without revealing its contents; instead, he trades in the broadest of metaphoric strokes: “I took all the sunshine and rain/all my happiness and all my pain/the dark evening stars and morning sky of blue/and I sent it in my letter to you.” (In some respects, the song could well be a harder-rockin’ spin-off of “Hello Sunshine.”)

My third thought: the letter’s intended recipient is his younger self. Such letters are a part of some psychological therapies, after all, helping those who write them to either come to terms with or overcome long-ago issues and anguish.

My fourth thought: the letter isn’t meant for his younger self, but his long-departed father and/or his mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a way for him to communicate with them, still.

My fifth thought: Who the letter is to or what it contains doesn’t much matter. The guitars are great and drive the song, Mighty Max lays down a big beat, and Roy Bittan’s piano accents the proceedings like occasional drops of rain on an overcast day. The only thing missing: Clarence’s saxophone. That absence echoes the melancholia that underpins the song, I think.

My sixth and final thought: Damn COVID-19. My hunch is that Bruce and the E Street Band would have been launching an arena tour not long after the album’s release, with this song kicking off every night. Now? I have doubts about whether they’ll collectively set foot on a stage again.

On Monday September 5, 1977, NBC premiered James at 15, a TV movie about 15-year-old James Hunter (Lance Kerwin), whose life is upended when his family moves from Oregon to Boston in the middle of the school year. After a few days at his new high school, where fitting in proves difficult, he hits the road in hopes of reuniting with the girl he left behind, Lacey (Melissa Sue Anderson); and, along the way, he falls in with an art student (Kate Jackson) who teaches him the ways of the road (aka hitch hiking). It did well in the ratings – topped them, in fact – and, as a result, was turned into a TV series that debuted at the end of October.

For its era, both the TV movie and series were unusually frank. It was no Born Innocent, mind you, yet delved into the gradients of teenage life with as much honesty as the network censors would allow. (That interference caused the creator/showrunner, novelist Dan Wakefield, to resign midway through the season.) The series also broke stereotypes with James’ friends, who include aspiring anthropologist-psychologist Marlene (Susan Myers), whose dad is a working-class joe, and capitalist-in-the-making Sly (David Hubbard), a black kid whose straitlaced parents are into classical music. James and the supporting characters aren’t caricatures, in other words, but the kind of kids one might pass in the era’s high-school corridors. Likewise, James’ parents (Linden Chiles, Lynn Carlin) and sisters (Deirdre Berthrong, Kim Richards) come across as variants of the real thing.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. Some episodes veer into ABC Afterschool Special territory, teaching the (presumably) younger viewers life lessons from afar. One early episode, for example, finds James trying to woo a girl (Teri Nunn, who later found fame with the pop group Berlin) with a “bad” reputation only to discover she’s far from promiscuous. Another finds his best friend from Oregon visiting Boston in order to see cancer specialists; he dies, of course. Another possible love interest leads him to consider joining a cult. And, late in the season, he befriends a girl (Rosanna Arquette) who’s an alcoholic. Other stories venture into the “ick” territory, such as his older sister’s involvement with one of her college professors or his uncle “gifting” him with a prostitute for his 16th birthday (James declines, as he’s late for a date with a Swedish exchange student). Along the way, brief Walter Mitty-esque interludes punctuate the stories, but are far more annoying than humorous. 

Technically speaking, James – who celebrated his 16th birthday in February 1978, making his birth year 1962 – was a late addition to the Baby Boom generation. A “generation,” for those unsure of what one entails, is defined as people born during a specific stretch of years, though social scientists often quibble about when each begins and/or ends. Individual generations experience the same cultural and societal touchstones and/or upheavals; and those shared references, in turn, result in something akin to a hive-like mindset that plays out in pop culture, politics and societal shifts. In the case of the Baby Boomers, the years range from 1946 (some experts say ’43) to 1964; they experienced the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War and Woodstock, among other events. Generation X (1965-80), aka my generation, came next; I tend to think of us more as Generation Jan, however, as – like Jan Brady – we’re the middle child forever overshadowed by our older and younger siblings, the aforementioned Boomers and Millennials (1981-2000), most of whom came of age in the years following 9/11, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars raged.  

Which is to say, teenage James has more in common with first-wave Gen Xers like myself than first- or second-wave boomers, as the defining events of the 1960s would have been beyond his ken. That’s where “micro-generations” come in – subsets that bridge two generations. The ill-named Generation Jones (1954-65) and Xennials (late 1970s to early ‘80s) are two examples. James may have seen news reports on the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Woodstock as a little kid, but the more mundane matters of childhood would have been foremost on his mind. Watergate, the Bicentennial and Bad News Bears would have all penetrated his consciousness, on the other hand, simply because he was older.

For any late-stage Boomer or first-wave Xer, James at 15/16 (it updated its title on his birthday) is worth watching, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It recalls, via its sensational yet soft-scrubbed stories, a time when kids dressed as we dressed, talked as we talked, and acted like we acted (though the lack of video-arcade scenes is a strike against it). That it’s yet to be officially released on DVD means second-hand recordings uploaded to YouTube or purchased via the bootleg market will have to do. So be it.