Last Call: “Reason to Believe” by Bruce Springsteen

To mass media, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of all great things about America. His work has crossed four decades, with a new persona for each different phase. He’s gone from the young, idealistic folky singer (“Growin’ Up”, “Blinded by the Light”) to the anthem maker (“Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “Thunder Road”) to the old man paying tribute to the past (The Seeger Sessions, “We Are Alive”).

At its root though, his music has always been about those in desperate times. So much of his music plays as easy listening, yet reveals harder truths, “Born In The USA” being the best example. The song sounds like a straight-faced jingoistic anthem. Yet for that one-in-a-million person who’s actually able to understand what he’s yelling, it’s a dark, bitter song about the realities of a post-Vietnam vet with nothing left to live for.

Springsteen’s music stands the test of time not because it motivates us towards the American Dream, but because it consoles us when we realize there is no American Dream to begin with. Life is life. People live and die, most doing little in between. His music encapsulates this reality.

And none of his albums do this better than Nebraska, his quiet masterpiece. The album, as so many of his albums, is a group of stories written to music. However, without his backing band, and with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica to work with, Springsteen finally matches the music to the lyrics. In the album, lovers ride on murdering sprees, brothers are pitted against one another, desperate men commit desperate crimes, and comfort is provided to none. Lyrics such as “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” and “Lost soul calling long-distance salvation” leave little to the imagination. The album is the spiritual equivalent of No Country For Old Men, only for Springsteen, there’s place for everyone, it’s just never where anyone wants to be.

His last song, “Reason to Believe” is the penultimate track. From my personal experience, after such a weighty album full of dead ends and dead men, I was looking for some sort of redemption in that last song. The track plays on this expectation brilliantly.  It lays each verse out in a simple blues rhythm with just Springsteen and his old friends: guitar and harmonica. Each verse plays through horrible situations, leaving unforgettable images of despair. First a man sees a dead dog on the side of the road. Then a woman waits for her man every night to come back home. Next one baby is baptized as an old man passes away. Finally, a man waits for his bride at the altar, waiting forever. The dominoes keep falling, one after the other.

These verses could easily beat us to a pulp with zero redemption and zero hope in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Yet, the brilliance of Springsteen’s final song on Nebraska is the chorus, which after every one of the above-stated situations takes on the following form:

Lord won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean 
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

The song suggests that we keep moving on, even though life itself gives us few, if any, reason to do so. And God gives us no help in figuring out why.

We continue to live, despite our lives.

Should this Man be Arrested: Billy Joel

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Billy Joel – popular songwriter known to some as a routine Vegas act, known to others as that guy who wrote “New York State of Mind”, but known to all as the Piano Man

Evidence:

“We didn’t start the fire.
It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire.
No, we didn’t start it, but we tried to fight it.”

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” (from Storm Front)

Thoughts:

Let’s look at the underlying assumptions of Mr. Joel’s statements.  It must be presumed a fire was started.  Joel seems to have been there, yet pleads over and over that he didn’t start it.  In fact, he claims that “we” tried to fight it.  So he had at least one other person with him.  Now, the key here is the fact Mr. Joel is like a broken record in his denial of starting the fire.  He states that “we didn’t start the fire” no less than eleven times.  At some point, incessant denial becomes outright suspicious behavior.  Billy Joel has reached this point.

The next point to address is where exactly the fire is located.  Things get a bit tricky at that point.  Upon a more in depth look through his lyrics, one will determine that Joel has clearly lost a few of his marbles.  He throws in random historical people or events seemingly with no connection other than that they follow in chronological order.  He’s like a history teacher gone AWOL.

A sample lyric:

“Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide,
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz,
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law,
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”

One can only imagine that this songwriter has gone stark-raving mad.  In fact, he writes in the song that “I [he] can’t take it anymore”.  The fire itself, which at first seems like a mystery, actually becomes clear with a look through the above lyrics.  This the fire of humanity.  As in, the metaphorical fire that started off all the evils in this world, from crack to homeless vets to even “Wheel of Fortune”.

This is some heavy stuff and I’m afraid Mr. Joel is in the middle of it.

Verdict:

Guilty.  Not only does Billy present himself as a maniacal history buff, but he also denies starting the fire over and over and over again. I believe he not only started a fire, but he started THE fire.  I don’t know how he did it, but he did it.  As a reasonable man, I’d give him a pass if he started it in Nebraska, but he doesn’t seem to have that defense.

The song itself reads like a confession.  As if his guilt has finally outweighed him.  In fact, it ends with the following statement: “But when we are gone, will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on…?”  He clearly feels sorry for starting us on this never-ending losing battle.  Unfortunately, sorry doesn’t bring back JFK.  Sorry doesn’t save the millions dying in Africa.  You don’t get a cookie for being sorry Billy.

We can never undo what Billy Joel has done.  But we can bring him to justice.

The Best Song R.E.M. Never Wrote

Ask a group of Athens acolytes to list their favorite bands to emerge from the proto-punk scene of the early 80s and they’ll probably list Guadalcanal Diary dead last. Or at all. That’s because they’re so indie, they don’t even know they exist.

Guadalcanal Diary were one among the many talented bands roaming the streets of Athens, GA during the time when soon-to-be great bands like The B-52s and R.E.M. were putting together a few of their most memorable tunes.

The first track from Walking in the Shadows of the Big Man–their best album in my humble opinion–is possibly the greatest song R.E.M. forgot to write. It’s got all the major cues of an early R.E.M. tune minus the mumbling; lead singer Murray Attaway sings about lonely women who are fond of wearing black in a clear and audible tone.

For your listening pleasure, I submit to you: “Trail of Tears”

Is It Still Any Good: The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”

“Is It Still Any Good?” is an on-going feature dedicated to examining pop-culture artifacts in order to determine if they still have any sort of relevance in the present day.

“Video Killed the Radio Star”

So, let’s get down to brass tax right away on this one.  Is this song still any good?  YES, for oh so many reasons.

First of all, for any trivia fans out there, it was the first song ever played on the now Jersey-Shore-obsessed-but-once-cool MTV. It reminds me of a better time, when videos were actually played on TV and people actually sat through and watched them.  I still remember the beginning of the end, when I was watching an episode of the now-defunct “Total Request Live” (TRL, in my day) and even though they were going through the top 10 MOST POPULAR videos in an hour, Carson Daly needed too much time to talk to Britney Spears about her new movie, “Crossroads” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0275022/, yeah that happened), to actually play these videos.  The show decided ten second clips of the songs were enough.  Sure, most of these songs were about hot women in tight clothing chilling on a yacht with a rapper talking about how he is going to have sex with the aforementioned hot women in tight clothing (perhaps on a yacht, perhaps not).  But dagnabbit, I wanted to see how the story unfolds!  Anyway, I digress.

Second reason “Video Killed the Radio Star” rules is that it actually PREDICTED THE FUTURE!  Take a gander at these lyrics:

“Video killed the radio star. 
Video killed the radio star. 
In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone to far.”

Now, do you know why we can’t rewind?  It’s because we’ve gone too far.  These days we can watch any music videos anywhere in the world at any time.  But you already know that.  And how did the video kill the radio star?  You know that old, sort of ugly aunt you have that can actually sing and play piano (if you don’t, pretend you do).  Yeah, she’s never getting a record deal.  Now, you know that hot Latino girl who can’t sing but knows how to move, apparently.  That’s Jennifer Lopez (aka J-Lo, aka Jenny from the Block).  She has a record deal.  Case closed.  If we had only listened to the Buggles, we’d actually have more quality people playing music and making money like they did back in my day.*

Third reason the song kicks the llama’s ass…because it just does.  Has there ever been a more 80s, 80s song.  It’s got the catchy piano.  It’s got the funky lead singer. It’s got the “oh-ah-ohs”.  I’m convinced this song and Chuck Norris created the 80s.  The funny thing about that is the song was actually written in the 70s.

Fourth and final reason this song is awesome: it got a random Japanese kid to make a cover of it.    Oh and I forgot to mention, the cover is amazing.  Man, if/when I have a kid, I am definitely going to force him/her to play guitar night in and night out without rest for years on end on the off chance that he/she will become like this kid.  He/she will hate me for the rest of his/her life.  But it’ll be worth it.  Can’t wait.

So to sum up, the song is good.  We’ve established the song predicted the future AND created the 80s AND was a part of the only great period of MTV, the period that actually played music videos.  That was when life was good, men were men, and videos were videos. **

*=At this time, you should imagine an old man with a shotgun in his rocking chair on a porch saying this entire spiel.  He would then look at you and say “Get off my porch, sonny!”

**=Imagine the old man again.  Did you immediately get a picture of Clint Eastwood in your head?  He’s becoming THAT guy, right?

The Passion’s Gone: U2

“The Passion’s Gone” is an on-going feature examining the creative trajectory of different bands in order to pinpoint the exact moment when their creative relevance dries out.  

“U2”

As far as bands go, few if any can compete with the success of U2.  They have sold hundreds of millions of albums and have been critic darlings for decades.  They are the epitome of the word “institution”, along with the Stones, the Beatles (what’s left of them), Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna.  So much has been said about them, in books, magazines, talk shows, and newspaper articles that you’d literally have to live under a rock to have not heard about them.  And that rock would have to be smashed with other rocks.  And those rocks would then have to be decimated…

Anyway, the point is, I won’t bore you with details of their ascent.  All you need to know I’ve listed as bullet points below (you’re welcome):

  • Bono is a megalomaniac.  Unfortunately, he’s also an amazing lyricist and, in his prime, one of the absolute greatest rock singers of all time.  He also at one point did this:    This was in the 90s during U2’s “ironic” phase, when Bono decided the best thing to do was to dress up like the devil, call the president, mock foreign leaders (being “ironical” of course) and sing us sweet lullabies like “Love is Blindness”. It was a grand old time.
  • The Edge understands how to use delay pedals for a guitar.  Just listen to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “The Unforgettable Fire”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, “With or Without You”, or really any song they’ve ever done.  It’s a majestic thing.  He may be faulted for his technical simplicity, but the man creates landscapes.  He revolutionized sound.   He’s OK.
  • There are two other guys.  Their names are Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.  They do not have nicknames.  They are good, but not great.  Their career highlights include the bass line for “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the drums for “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Those are great.
  • If you don’t have a U2 album (in which case I don’t know how you ended up at this blog), there are a few you have to buy.  Here they are, in order from the-fact-that-you-don’t-have-this-album-seriously-makes-me-question-your-street-cred to pretty great: The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Pop, Zooropa, The Unforgettable Fire, War.
  • These guys are probably very good people and Bono really probably does want to save the planet.  However, they cannot convince me that they care about the environment. The energy cost of the Zoo TV tour alone probably could run Ireland for a few days or so.    However, it was awesome.  And really, the environment never rocked out like U2.  U2 wins.

So, now that you should have a pretty good idea on the outrageous talent that is U2, let’s get to the interesting part: where it all unravels a bit.

After U2 had completed their Zoo TV tour in 1994, they were undeniably the outright biggest and best band in the world.  Not only had they leapfrogged the bar for stadium tours with the gigantic artistic statement that was the Zoo TV tour, but they had delivered one flat out classic album in Achtung Baby and one great album in Zooropa.  This was a band that was continuously delivering knock outs while somehow also changing their own sound AND selling millions of records.  In short, they could do no wrong.

Then they did wrong…or so it seemed.

They released Pop in 1997, an album that was hyped as U2’s foray into dance/techno music.  Without going into the details, their fans did not eat this music up as they did every other album they had made in the last decade or so.  Then they booked a massive stadium tour, which sold only mildly well (for U2’s ridiculous standards).  All of this led the album and accompanying tour to be labeled a colossal failure*.   Apparently U2 had pushed the envelope so far that they had forgotten what made them special in the first place.  It was like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball.  Why stray from such a good thing?  And so U2 did exactly what Jordan did, they went back.

And just like Jordan, going back led to success, at least commercially.

That retread came in the form of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000.  You may have heard of it.  It had “Beautiful Day”.  It basically took over the pop charts for the better part of a year and U2 had “gone back to basics” and The Edge had “rediscovered his guitar” and apparently “it was on fire”.  I put these in quotes because I know some critic somewhere said some, if not all, of these things during the year 2000.  The album was quite good, particularly it’s first half.  However, it was harmless.  None of the caustic, biting sounds that drove Pop were on this record.  As critically and commercially successful as the new album was, it lacked any forward movement.  In fact, it prided itself on looking to the past.  This was the beginning of the end for U2’s creative relevance.

Theories may abound over why U2 chose, for the first time in its career, to look back instead of forward.  I have my own, take it or leave it.  U2, as previously explained, was the rarest of rare bands.  They were adored by critics and the masses alike.  For nearly 17 years, they were able to take musical risks while somehow growing their fan base.  As this continued, they ventured further and further away from their comfort zone.  This led to groundbreaking works like Achtung Baby.  Yet once commercial “failure” arrived, it came hard, and they were unable to cope.  They had never tasted any real failure. And they panicked.   They decided to find their fans again.  And with that, they joined the Nickelbacks of the world in whatever $5 bin you find them.

Someone wise once said something about how you only know you’re pushing boundaries if you’re pissing someone off.

U2 now, at its tamest:  

U2 what it once was:  

*=Side bar:  Pop was a great album.  Pop was not techno music.  Pop was very heavy musically, and contained some of Bono’s best vocals and lyrics.  The song “Wake Up Dead Man” will make you a believer.  My theory is U2 was so big at the time, it was destined to fail.  They had spoiled their fans and the weight of expectations were their undoing.  Dylan had the foresight to get in a motorcycle crash.  U2 had the gall to keep on.  Dylan 1, U2 0.