Archive for the ‘2020s’ Category

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.

So, at some point in the 1990s, a well-lit Barnes & Noble bookstore opened its doors not more than 10 minutes from our domicile. There were copious magazine racks, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, wonderful books, and – perhaps most importantly to me – a cafe where one could browse possible purchases while sipping Starbucks-branded coffee, lattes and macchiatos. Most weekends, Diane and I could be found there, she making like a power reader while I leafed through magazines and downed various double-shot concoctions.

I’m not sure if we subscribed to the New Yorker at that point in time, though I know we did for a few years that decade. It matters not whether this part of the story occurred at home, while standing at the B&N magazine racks or in the cafe, however: I spotted (in the Sept. 11th, 1995 issue) Rob Nixon’s upbeat critique of British scribe Nick Hornby’s debut novel, High Fidelity, about a music obsessive’s journey into maturity. In part, the review read (and I’m lifting this direct from Hornby’s own website), “It is rare that a book so hilarious is also so sharp about sex and manliness, memory and music. Many men and, certainly, all addictive personalities will find in these pages shadows of themselves. And most of us will hear, in Hornby’s acoustic prose, the obsessive chords of the past that more often lock up than liberate our hearts.”

It seemed like something I might like, in other words. I located the book, flipped through it and decided to buy it. In the cafe, or perhaps in the main thoroughfare to the cafe, I shared my find with Diane. On the way home, we made a quick stop at the supermarket; while I ran in to get what we needed, she stayed in the car…and began to read the book.

I didn’t get it back from her until she finished.

High Fidelity was, is and will always be one of my favorite novels. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, owns a record shop staffed by music-crazed obsessives who, like him, use music as both a defense mechanism and escape hatch from life. He sorts through the frayed ephemera of past relationships to figure out why his present is filled with far too many pops, clicks and crackles; and, along the way, comes to an unsettling realization: A person’s taste in music doesn’t reflect anything but their taste in music.

In any event, I recognized the characters from a lifetime spent in musty-and-dusty record shops as well as, for a few years, managing the CD departments at two video-rental (and much cleaner) stores. They were my people, essentially; I traded tapes with customers, debated trivial matters with others, and – like Rob and his pals/employees – made tons of lists. On these shores, or at least in my circle, they were Top 10s as opposed to the book’s use of Top 5s, but that was it. Diane, a fellow music obsessive, was the same. A few years later, when I launched the original Old Grey Cat website, we even created a page that honored High Fidelity’s Top 5 concept (and I still honor it with my too-frequent Top 5 posts).

Five years later, the book was turned into a movie and Americanized, with John Cusack shepherding and protecting his emotions through music while figuring out how and why he’d made a mess of his life. We saw it in the theaters and, though we had our quibbles, liked it. A lot.

All of which leads to this: Earlier this year, I discovered that a High Fidelity TV series was set to premiere on Hulu. The dearth of originality in Hollywood has resulted in more trash than gems, so my initial reaction was to shrug it off. Why remake a semi-classic film? Then I read that the creative team had changed Rob from a guy to Zoë Kravitz and London/Chicago to Brooklyn. That the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the film, stars in it made me feel old, but also clued me that the TV series was aiming for something more than a straight remake.

In the short term, it didn’t much matter: We were re-watching one of Diane’s favorite shows, The West Wing, anyway, and then we re-watched Homicide: Life on the Street, following it with Sex, Chips & Rock ’n’ Roll and other assorted older shows and movies. As we do. The High Fidelity TV series fell off my radar, in other words, and remained so until I read, just a few weeks back, that it had been cancelled.

We gave it a go that same week.

Like the movie, the TV series has Rob (short for Robyn) break the fourth wall – and, in one episode, allows her friend/employee Simon (David H. Holmes) to do the same. Kravitz is terrific, as is the supporting cast – Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, especially. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book is that it is specific to the male experience, but its overarching themes – fear of commitment, self-sabotage and qualms about adulthood and adult responsibility – are near-universal conceits. (The truth is, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus; we both hail from Earth – and share 99.9 percent of the same DNA.) Certain aspects of the story differ because of the gender-flip, of course, but it remains true to Hornby’s core vision. At root, the new Rob – like the old Rob – is damaged. It’s not until she begins to make the necessary repairs that she has a shot at happiness.

Now, I wish we’d watched it right off the bat – if only to add one more viewer to whatever metric Hulu uses to decide what to renew or what to cancel. (Quality certainly isn’t among the reasons they rely upon; if they did, High Fidelity would be a no-brainer to bring back,)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs About Music.

1) Diane Birch – “Jukebox Johnny.” Just yesterday, the Church of Birch pastor released this addictive tune about late-night salvation found in songs.   

2) Dobie Gray – “Drift Away.” A much-covered tune about losing one’s self in a melody, this rendition – a big hit in 1973 – was itself a cover version. Written by Mentor Williams (the brother of actor/singer-songwriter Paul Williams), it was first recorded by Clarence Carter in 1970 and then John Henry Kurtz in 1972.

3) The Kinks – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” A classic Ray Davies ode to folks who turn to music for solace – and the price they pay. “There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock/He plays records day and night/And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on/And it makes him feel alright/And when he feels the world is closing in/He turns his stereo way up high…”

3) Simon & Garfunkel – “Late in the Evening.” A Paul Simon song from his 1980 One Trick Pony album/movie, this version from S&G’s legendary 1981 Concert in Central Park is equally evocative, conveying the utter magic and mystery of music and how it colors life for the better.

5) Patti Smith – “Land/Gloria.” Turn this up loud. In 2012, Patti toured as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse – and, as this fan-shot video shows, damn near blew those warhorses off the stage. (Note I say “damn near.”) Diane and I were at this show in Philly, and totally blown away by her performance – this song, especially. (Patti has said that “Land” is a metaphor for the birth of rock ’n’ roll, but all I know is it’s great.)