Sunday, April 8, 2012

Loose Ends

Humans have brains, well-used or not, so the human condition adjusts to surprising coincidences, moments of déjà vu, sudden personal disasters our brains don’t see coming, and so on. Fictive or factual, a focused writer still can experience peculiar lacunae, from meandering tangents and inadvertent red herrings to complete writer’s block. Humankind writ large, single scribbler drawn small--we each and all learn to expect major change on one hand, and minor footnotes and loose ends on the other. An obituary written too early, a finale imagined too soon, an iffy outcome counted on... you'll probably be rewriting.

My pop-psyche maunderings are the result of added research or new developments relating to recent blog posts. I decided to mention them, briefly, via this latest chapter in the erratic saga (which has now exceeded 250 individual pieces):

(1) I wrote about record producer and Jack-of-many-trades Lee “Scratch”/“the
Upsetter” Perry a few weeks back as the man who introduced odd sound effects and spaghetti Western/Ennio Morricone stylings into Jamaican Reggae, especially Dub music. Perry is an international figure these days, 35-40 years past his creation of Vocal and Dub albums that quite truly changed the world of music. Pop culture tidbits--TV and movies, current events, World Music discoveries, hysterical, I mean historical odds ‘n’ ends--still inspire his songs and chants (which are semi-Rastafarian but only semi-lucid), and he actually won a Grammy finally in 2005 for Best Reggae Album, a strangely boring work titled Jamaican E.T.

But, then, the Upsetter has always pushed and hacked at whatever envelope he found around him. After a half-dozen years (1973 to 1979 or so) spent engineering and producing, day and night, in his own Black Ark studio--brilliant records
welcomed around the world--Perry suffered a major mental and physical breakdown; he scrawled bizarre graffiti on every surface in the studio, then burned his stranded Ark to the ground. (Maybe he actually believed he could escape the pressures of celebrity and overwork.)

Freed after a fashion, he became a citizen of the world, going where welcome, performing with whoever would pay him, functioning basically as a hired gun--or a Chuck Berry on tour (“I’ll need the cash up front, and a rhythm section that can take orders”). The Berry/Perry analogy isn’t so farfetched; both Black folk-philosopher-musicians wrote influential songs, proved they could go it alone if necessary, still expected everyone around them to jump on command.

Now imagine Berry deciding he could out-do Marvin Gaye’s Soul Music, social
commentary classic What’s Going On. “No Money Down” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” with multiple overdubs. Or getting down to it,“My Ding-a-Ling” in place of “Sexual Healing.” Well, Jamaican E.T. sounds like WGO with a cracked foundation and bats skittering in the attic--multi-layered voices, as extra-terrestrial as the mammoth, concave listening antennae tuned to inner and outer space, with “Scratch” rapping and rhyming and chanting, atop multiple newscasts, vocalists, telephone conversations, random talk, white noise, and buried somewhere some Reggaefied bass-and-drum beats. Minimalist music really, fumbling and stumbling over its own terms for success.

Back around 1972 he and King Tubby had created (Dubbed up) maybe the first concept Dub album, called Upsetters 14 Blackboard Jungle Dub, a 14-cut stereo
wonder, left, right, and center channels each playing a separate Dub version of the music, but blending like Jazz cats improvising their own lines on a set of chord changes. Perry pressed up only 200-300 copies, sold ‘em at a premium, went on to other things recorded yet unheard until Scratch attacked.

That was then, and the after-then. And now?

History… mystery… City too hot… E.T. not.

(2)into (3) More loose ends but I’ll be briefer; think Civil War(s) as the connection among them. Discussing Stephen Foster’s career in the piece examining “Hard Times Come Again No More,” I ignored the scores of songs (precise pun there), most only fleetingly played and then forgotten, that he wrote Between the States (as it were) for
that War effort. Like Ken Burns for his famous documentary, when classic vocalist Thomas Hampson needed arrangements for circa-1860s music, he called upon composer/fiddler Jay Ungar (of “Ashokan Farewell” fame). And Ungar made Foster’s “Hard Times” the repeating motif threaded through Hampson’s gentle, quietly evocative vocals, over the trio’s simple arrangements of those ballads (fluctuations of fiddle, guitar, and parlor piano), but including as well some high-stepping medleys of Foster’s popular minstrel-show tunes--recorded, that is, without the politically incorrect lyrics. Call it a civil approach to the wars between races, sexes, and States.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album seems to be predicting civil unrest if not outright war. Wrecking Ball abandons the Foster song Bruce was occasionally using among his list
of encores, and presents instead his own roll call of Hard Times (“Shackled and Drawn,” “Death to My Hometown,” “This Depression,” “Rocky Ground,” “Swallowed Up”) and juxtaposes them against a few songs offering the possibility of positive action: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “We Are Alive.” Even some contorted photos suggest the national agony. (Then again, Springsteen is also lamenting the sudden and too-recent death of his partner-in-fame, “Big Man” Clarence Clemons, whose snaky Soul-full sax occurs on two tracks only--a ghostly presence, but a welcome one.)

Still, this is Bruce the Mighty; the worst events can be saved by rock ‘n’ roll, always,
whether he must take on the persona of a Gospel singer reconstructing “This Train,” or assume the "Oirish attitude-like" of folk-punk band the Pogues, or pick up a gun to go after the banksters threatening his home. (These days, Woody’s guitar would read “This machine kills one percentists.”) The New York Times chastised Springsteen for becoming excessively Populist in this album. But I say: If not now, then when? Bravo, Bruce. As the title song suggests, “Hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go,” and so on, and on… until, just maybe, hard times and Civil War come again once more.

(3) The Civil Wars is (are?) also a group… that is, a folk-rock duo with a hot debut album. Also, evidently, a secure place in the heart (or wallet) of record producer T-Bone Burnett, who has used new tunes by the Civil Wars in both the 50th anniversary album of the Chieftains and the “Songs from District 12” imagined
soundtrack (only two of its 16 songs are actually used in the movie) for the top-grossing film in the world--this month, anyway--The Hunger Games.

But wait a minute! What’s this I see? Hmm... there are actually seven different bands overlapping from the Chieftains CD to the Games s’track--Civil Wars, Secret Sisters, Low Anthem, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, Decemberists, Miranda Lambert with Pistol Annies--with sizzling-hot special guest Taylor Swift a sort-of eighth.

Gadzooks! Could this be another Liberal, Left-leaning lumpen-proletariat conspiracy against the rich and shallow, the shirkers and off-shorists? Or maybe an eyes-wide-shut deal Burnett worked to keep in the public ear and eye the country-folkish acts he manages or produces? (Slogan ready-made: "Hard Times come again, Hunger Games just ahead.")

Two different record companies; projects with only a broad Folk orientation in common; the same producer and a similar roster of young artists… What can it mean in this American Dreamland of embezzlers and immigrants, backstabbers and out-of-workers, face-bookers and far-siders, lyin' signifiers and scions of wealth?

From Jamaica to Jersey: too little civil discourse, too much uncivil war.

No comments: