Archive for March, 2013

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

On June 5th 1975, the members of Pink Floyd were happily churning away at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording parts for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the central piece for their next album. On this particular day, though, they had a visitor. He showed up unannounced. He had no hair, no beard, no eyebrows, had a dead look on his face, and mystified everyone in the sessions as to why he was there. Even though they didn’t recognize him at first, they knew him – it was none other than Syd Barrett himself.

He looked completely different than the guy they all knew years before. He had put on weight, for one thing, and he was dressed differently, but the biggest thing was his lack of hair. Roger Waters in particular must have this burned into his memory; in his fullest exploration of madness and its effects, The Wall, the main character Pink shaves off all the hair on his body, signifying the completion of his descent into insanity.

Syd’s behavior that day was predictably unpredictable. At one point, he stood in the studio control booth brushing his teeth. The timing of this visit is particularly interesting, since Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song Waters had penned specifically about Barrett. When Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett just said “sounds a bit old.” Waters had so much to say about Syd, his personality, his psychoses, and madness in general. He wrote two albums about it (Dark Side and The Wall), as well as a grand 26-minute magna carta specifically about him, and all Syd could find to say was “sounds a bit old.”

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

If you want my opinion, Syd didn’t really understand that the song was about him. I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot at that time Syd did understand. For some geniuses like Syd, the rest of the world is speaking a foreign language. It’s not just in the words they say – it’s in their actions, their mindset, their perceptions, the entirety of how they interact with the world.

Some have speculated that Syd was schizophrenic – a rather easy and unsatisfying answer. Some say he had some sort of autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. Others point to his copious use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. But whatever the diagnosis of what the hell was wrong with him, what remains is that Syd Barrett was both blessed and cursed, and both by nature and by circumstance. Syd was born into a particular arrangement of events, or the stars aligned, or God stretched out his holy hand, or whatever – Syd was different; he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a kind of understanding that is granted to extremely few people. He also did a lot of LSD, another contributing factor. But however it came to pass, his story ends in a sputtering incoherency, one that we can only understand through the flagrantly inadequate lens of “well, he’s just crazy.”

But Roger Waters knew better. He knew what very few people knew about Syd – that there’s a little piece of Syd inside all of us.

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmore

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmour

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is really a collection of a bunch of different musical ideas Pink Floyd had hatched over the course of two years. Originally, it was supposed to be a side-long composition, much like “Echoes” from Meddle and “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name. The lyrics serve as the backbone of the entire song, but they only appear in 2 of the 9 sections. In the lyrics, it’s Roger talking directly to Syd directly, calling him all manner of things, like stranger, legend, martyr, painter, piper, prisoner, boy child, winner and loser. He details in poetic terms Syd’s history with the band, and reveals that he, more than anyone else, understood what Syd was going through. He also understood that Syd had to go through it completely alone; the other members of Pink Floyd would not follow.

Next: But if that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor…

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 9/12/1975

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 9/12/1975

Two years after their brilliant explosion of success, Pink Floyd made the best song of their career. Not a lot of people agree with me, and with good reason. The title track from their 1975 question mark album Wish You Were Here really doesn’t make a whole lot of waves. Most albums worth their salt have a track like “Wish You Were Here”; it’s a breath inward, a break in the action that usually comes before one final push. Led Zep’s “Going to California”; Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”; R.E.M. with “Hairshirt” and “Country Feedback”; even the Beatles with “Yesterday.” And as to Pink Floyd’s best song, most people would point to “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2,” “Time,” See Emily Play,” “Comfortably Numb” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as their greatest defining single. But “Wish You Were Here,” in my mind, surpasses them all.

There’s more than one reason, too. First is that it contains some of the BEST lyrics EVER penned, and certainly the greatest turn of phrase of the entire ‘70s. The whole song is great, but this is the best:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

Second, the song’s grasp far exceeds its reach, which is opposite of how most songs come out. It’s little more than a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, a drunken piano, and light and airy drums. The final coda has a bluesy guitar solo on top of it that makes the song float away. But the ecstasy the song possesses while it’s playing and the impact it leaves have a size and scope that simply defies logic.

Third and most importantly, “Wish You Were Here” succinctly and beautifully captures the essence and message of the album which lends it its name. Wish You Were Here is about the alienation and emptiness felt by someone who has been given all this world has to offer. The Dark Side of the Moon brought Pink Floyd success on every level. Money, girls, drugs, and hordes of adoring fans – all the things you presumably get into the music business for, aside from actual music – all of this had come Pink Floyd’s way. They had definitely paid their dues; Dark Side was their 8th studio outing, and they had been together for over 10 years by the time that things started settling back down in 1974. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom – now what?

“Wish You Were Here” is in second person, addressing someone directly in the present tense. What passes for a chorus in this little-engine-that-could goes like this:

How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / Have we found the same old fears? / Wish you were here

Who is the “you” in this song? Who is the lyricist addressing? Some say it’s Syd Barrett; that’s because Syd is the focus of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26+ minute opus split into two halves which open and close the album (and the reason most people buy the album anyway). Some say the “you” is musical purity, the elemental material of music unencumbered by corporate greed and financial motivation. That’s what the other two songs on Wish You Were Here are about: “Welcome to the Machine” is a disturbing exploration of how innocent rock and roll dreams are corrupted by money, and “Have a Cigar” paints a clear portrait of a greedy record executive (more on both of those later).

But I think the “You” in “Wish You Were Here” is Pink Floyd itself. Their 9th album finds them completely empty, wondering how they got to this crazy place and desperately wanting to return to a simpler time. In the process of getting bigger, more popular and more successful, they lost who they were. And with Wish You Were Here, they are finally asking the question, “Who are we?” It’s their most existential album yet; Søren Kirkegaard would be proud.

And the title track has all the existential wanderings of the entire album rolled into a naked singularity. Pink Floyd’s desire to strip away all the complications and fallacies the music business imposes on them is reflected in the musical simplicity of the track. It’s not a complicated song – more often than not, a good piece of art is defined by what the artist takes away instead of by what he adds. But since I make my existence on words, the thing I remember the most is the poetic method Pink Floyd uses to work out its angst. The lyrics are simply stunning, and leave me dumbstruck. “Wish You Were Here” is a true poem, right up there with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “She Walks In Beauty.” The mark: it leaves me with nothing to say, because I can find no words better than the ones it uses.

Next: Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond.

When my wife and I lived in New York City, the church we went to in Greenwich Village was just a short walk from the Hudson River. After church when the weather was nice, we would take a walk down to a pier there and just stare out at the water for several minutes. As I gazed across the river, I saw Jersey City, thinking it was actually pretty amazing that just a quick ferry ride away was a different state. I grew up in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where Connecticut was about 45 minutes south. When I was a kid, 45 minutes seemed like a long time to be sitting in a car. Every other state border was characterized as “there be dragons.”

New Jersey is so close to New York City that some people characterize it as “pretty much New York.” I know New Yorkers (like Ted Mosby) get really offended at that, and with good reason. Jersey residents ought to get even more miffed by it. I can think of few things more degrading than having your identity be defined by your proximity to something else. Still, some of the Jersey shore exists in the shadow of Manhattan. Heck, there’s even a subway (the PATH) that goes from certain places in Manhattan to several Jersey destinations, and it’s cheaper than the MTA! It cost less money to cross a state border than to go from West 4th to Rockefeller Center; go figure.

Bruce Springsteen is New Jersey through and through. His song “Meeting Across the River” tells a tale of a Jersey boy going through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet a guy in Manhattan about a drug deal. Mind you, drugs are never mentioned explicitly in the song, and that’s because it’s not about drugs – as is the common theme for the entire Born to Run album, “Meeting Across the River” is about freedom. This time, it’s money that gets you that freedom. The main character wants to score $2,000 and throw it on the bed for his fractious wife to see; maybe then she’ll see he “wasn’t just talkin’.” So money can buy more than just freedom, according to the hopes of the narrator: it can buy respect, too.

AZO0224C_31.tifIt’s worth noting, too, that no mention is made in “Meeting Across the River” of what happens when the drug deal goes down. It’s all before that happens, all optimism and “this is our big chance.” But Bruce definitely isn’t averse to grim reality, even though he dodges it in “Meeting Across the River.” “Backstreets” talk about homelessness and hopelessness, and “Jungleland” is an epic story about gang wars. They both feature sky-high anthemic melodies, instruments right up in the front of the mix, and Bruce singing like his life is on the line. He plays “Jungleland” like he believes the world will end when it’s over. He pours every ounce of energy, emotion and pathos he has into it, and it’s simply amazing he has anything left.

Until the emergence of CDs as the medium-of-choice, albums needed division in order to function properly. In both LPs and cassettes, there was “side A” and “side B” in order to accommodate the flipping of the vinyl or tape. You didn’t have to do that with CDs, though; they just played until the end. You had options, too. Never before could you skip to a certain song by pressing a button a bunch of times. You could also make the songs play in a random order, also at the touch of a button, or program them to play in whatever order you wanted. You could even make the album repeat endlessly. Now we have MP3s and iTunes and we just take those features for granted, but back then it was like we were all astronauts rocketing off into the future.

When division was necessary, though, artists always needed to make sure the music on side A was generally equal in length to that on side B. Some artists took it a step further and used vinyl flips to make artistic statements.

Bruce Springsteen was great at this. Born to Run is structured with this division in mind, both sides existing in a double continuum. They each start off with bright and optimistic tunes (“Thunder Road” and “Born to Run”), being symbolic of morning and new hope. The afternoon comes (“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “She’s the One”), the troubles of the day increase, but you’re still going strong. Then the sun goes down (“Night” and “Meeting Across the River”) and another world emerges, and finally there’s midnight (“Backstreets” and “Jungleland”) that brings pessimism and a dark downward spiral. But new hope emerges with the next side, and also when you start the album over again.

After the tepid success of his first two albums, Bruce was pinning all his hopes on Born to Run. He has said he wanted it to “explode into people’s homes.” He wanted to take over the music world with this album, but he didn’t have dollar signs in his eyes. He wanted to change lives. That initial desire wasn’t fulfilled – there was no explosion – but something much better came later. Now, Born to Run is one of the most respected albums of all time. It’s pointed to by magazines and music critics as one example of how an album should be done. It’s also one of the best loved pieces of music in the last 50 years.

Born to Run may not have exploded into our homes, but it did seep in through the roof, coat the walls, stain the wood and get in the upholstery of our furniture. It’s in our speakers, in our hearts, and always will be.

Next: Pink Floyd wondering aloud “How did we get to this crazy place?”

Cars and Bikes

Bruce Springsteen is the common man’s champion. He sings about things the common man can understand. By that I don’t mean all his songs are about trucks and beer and your girlfriend leaving you – that’s the domain of country music. No, I mean that Bruce’s music is devoid of philosophizing, pretension or high-minded vocabulary. Those things do have their place, but it’s not in a Springsteen song. He’s a rock star, no doubt, but with Bruce, you get the feeling that you could be a rock star, too. That’s something that no artist had been able to do since the Beatles came to America in ’64.

One of those very common things Bruce sings about is the car. Cars are things which at one point or another enter all of our lives. Most American kids have very vivid memories of when they were 16 or 17 and getting their driver’s license.  It’s a mile marker in a person’s life, but it’s also a rite of passage. It’s one of the biggest times that parents say to their children “you have grown up, or at least grown up enough for this.”

I am McLovin

I am McLovin

My own driver’s license experience was not like that, though. I got my learner’s permit like a normal kid at 15, and progressed through the normal learning process, my mother as my primary teacher. When I went to the DMV in Northampton a year and a half later, I was a bundle of nerves. Back then, road tests were given by Massachusetts state troopers, and the one I got was as clichéd as they come. He was old, had a little bit of paunch and a face that only a mother could love if she was bombed out of her gourd. He had steely grey hair and a gravely, unpleasant voice. He set me on edge even more than I already was.

He got in the passenger seat, checked a few things like my knowledge of the rear-view and side-view mirrors. He then purposely confused me about my hand signals, and then told me I better get out on the road to start the test. The lanes in the parking lot were one way, and when I backed out of my parking space I was pointed the wrong way. I didn’t even get all the way out of my space when I realized my error. I was going to pull back in and back out the right way when he spoke.

“You’re going the wrong way on a one-way. That’s a violation of law, son. I can’t give you a license if you’re violating laws.”

He then proceeded to give a lecture about how driving is a privilege that I need to take seriously. He wrote FAIL on my permit, and got out of the car. I was flabbergasted, and so was my mom in the backseat. It still burns a little when I think about it… Not even out of the parking space!

I tried again about 6 months later, and got a different cop. She was energetic and pleasant, but tightly wound, so I was on edge again. It went alright for a while (I got out on the road this time), but a bunch of little things I was doing wrong started stacking up. When I came to a rolling stop at a stop sign, it was more than my state trooper could take. She came down on me pretty hard for that. She failed me again, but I failed on my own merits that time.

I went for a third time when I was 19, home from college for the summer. It was in my grandpa’s car, which I had never driven before – strike one. The DMV was in Hadley this time, which is an easier route, but I got the same freakin’ state trooper as the first time! Strike two – that’s two before the test even starts. Strike three came when I failed to yield right-of-way at an intersection. Needless to say, I got another lecture, in addition to a third FAIL on my permit.

I was resigned to live the rest of my life without a driver’s license, and went through college scorning the license as an unnecessary decoration. My self-worth didn’t derive from a rectangular piece of plastic in my wallet – or that’s how my snooty philosophy went, anyway. Years passed, I got cancer, I graduated from college, and I got married. My wife encouraged me again to get my license, but she took a different tack than the rest of the people who tried to push me in that direction in the past. Her angle was “I wanna see you prosper and flourish, and a licensed you is a better you.” I bought that. So I went to a driving school, had a perfect lesson, and had a perfect road test. It was in the driving school’s car, and the state trooper (a new one) spent most of the test chatting with the owner of the school that was in the backseat.

And that’s how I got my license at 28 – fourth time’s the charm.

My wife was right – if I never got my license, like I was planning to in college, I wouldn’t be as good a me as I am. I wouldn’t be as good a husband (I take the car to do grocery shopping and laundry), and I wouldn’t understand a very important part of rock and roll music.

Bruce Springsteen uses cars and driving as a metaphor for freedom, and it’s a very easy leap to make – more like a puddlejump. Since I actually drive now, I get the freedom and exhilaration of having nothing in front of you except miles and miles of blacktop. In “Night,” a young man finds triumph over his surly boss and dead-end job in racing his car against other young guys, a la American Graffiti. And it’s not just the racing – it’s the whole environment. It gives a glimpse of this world being a whole lot bigger than a crappy day job.

In the same way, the song “Born to Run” takes a youthful environment and transforms it into a metaphor for escape, optimism and creating something beautiful out of a bad situation. “Born to Run” primarily uses motorcycles, but the sentiment is the same – a machine, be it car or bike, is the key to unlimited freedom. More than that, even, is this: he’s saying to someone, “We can make it out if we just stick together.”

“Born to Run” evokes images from a time passed. This was 1975, and dudes driving their custom cars down to the burger joint where roller-skated waitresses would bring food on trays was an antiquated notion even then. But it sparks nostalgia in the listener’s ears, even if it’s just nostalgia for stuff we’ve seen in movies like it is for my generation. And that’s part of what makes Bruce so great. Nostalgia is myopic; when it’s really working, you believe that the past was better than the present, and Bruce makes it work better than anyone else.

Clarence Clemons, 1942 - 2011

Clarence Clemons, 1942 – 2011

The E Street Band had started gelling with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, but Born to Run was the first album where they were actually named that. It features many interesting people, not the least of which are Patti Scialfa and Steven Van Zandt. They are a near-perfect example of a personality-based band, with Bruce being the brightest star of the bunch. However, always at Bruce’s side was a presence that loomed very large, both figuratively and literally, tenor saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

When it comes to brass instruments, I’m pretty wary about them being used in rock music. Oftentimes they end up bringing chintz and lowering the level of seriousness. Just look at the ska renaissance of the late ‘90s. No one took bands like Reel Big Fish or Save Ferris even close to seriously, which is why the fad died out after just a few years. The disposable nature of those bands is due to the song-and-dance, isn’t-this-funny nature of the music they played, and I’m glad it’s gone now (except Five Iron Frenzy – those guys rocked).

But Clarence Clemons was different. His sax didn’t lend jokiness or cheese to the music or make you believe it less. Quite the opposite, actually – you believed in it more. When he comes in with his solo on “She’s the One,” the force and fervency the whole band puts forth bowls me over every time, and Clarence is leading the charge. Somehow, the overwhelming power the E Street Band has down to a science is amplified and glorified by Clarence’s sax.

Clarence was nicknamed “The Big Man,” and one glance at him makes it easy to see why. He’s even referred to by that name in the lyrics to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Somehow, tenor saxophonists just seem to be better the more thick-bodied they are. A lot of air needs to go through that brass, and the more you can hold the better.

One could say the E Street Band was like a well-oiled machine, but that simile would ring false. It was a tight band, no doubt, and the music they made had (and still has) a cohesion and energy like no other band. But it was more like a family. Each member knew its place and worked its hardest in the context of the band itself, but also felt free to work elsewhere and do his/her own thing. And at the end of the day, there was no doubt where he/she belonged.

Bruce was the leader, providing direction and a source of energy. Clarence, however, was Bruce’s perfect foil. Visually, they were almost opposite. Bruce was white, scrawny, wiry, talkative, energetic, and prone to give into his passions. Clarence was big, black, impassive, quiet, calm, and on a very even keel. Bruce was the first thing you’d notice about the E Street Band, but Clarence was always there, and could always be counted on to be there.

Clarence left this life after a stroke in 2011, at the age of 69. When he died, the music world lost something it simply can’t get back. So did the E Street Band. To their credit, they didn’t even try. And amazingly, the band’s power, passion and let’s-give-it-all-we’ve-got attitude weren’t diminished at all by Clarence’s absence. Wrecking Ball, Bruce’s first album since Clarence’s death, was one of the brightest spots of the music world in 2012, and here’s why: they were doing it to honor Clarence’s memory. In the liner notes for Wrecking Ball, Bruce writes: “Clarence Clemons doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies – he leaves it when we die.”

Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run – 8/25/1975

I’m not much of a patriot. I’m glad I live in America and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and I also believe in our system of government (although that’s pretty hard right now…), but I don’t go in for supporting irrational things just because that the way we do thing in ‘Murica. I also recognize that life in America is no more legitimate than life in another country. It may be easier or more privileged, but a tribesman in Uganda or a monk on Nepal probably doesn’t enjoy his life less because he’s not living it in the United States.

But I still have some artifacts of the American experience, and I like having them. Barbeques, the 4th of July, the flag, baseball, church on Sunday mornings – they’re not particularly patriotic things, but they’re common to a lot of Americans’ lives. If nothing else, they lend a sense of national identity, which is a good thing. And for me, nothing captures what it means to be an American better than the music of Bruce Springsteen. Say what you want, but America is Bruce’s town.

Bruce and his music was just one of those constants in my life, and it was from a very early age. Bruce represents a kind of American paragon. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, struggled doggedly for success and paid his dues, and has a humble attitude about stardom. He’s comfortable in the spotlight, but doesn’t trash hotel rooms or do copious lines of coke like more decadent rock stars. And more than that, his lyrics typically deal with real and common concerns like getting a job, urban decay, feeding your family, and poverty – and he gives you a sense of hope about those things, not a spirit of despair.

The song “Thunder Road,” which opens his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run, contains the spirit of “we can make it if we run” Americanism in a glorious Platonic form. It’s simply the narrative of an ordinary guy trying to convince an ordinary girl to leave it all behind, hop in his car and believe in the “magic in the night.” Its gorgeous piano riff and blazing saxophone endgame, as well as Bruce’s particular gift for soaring vocal histrionics, make you believe that anything is possible if you just have faith, gas in the tank, and two lanes of blacktop.

Like so many American musicians, he was first inspired to pick up a guitar when he saw Elvis Presley on T.V. when he was 7. He had the thirst for success and inflated optimism about his future that befits a red-blooded American. When Marion Vineyard agreed to sponsor his musical career to get it off the ground, he promised her would make it big, and she believed him.

He played in many venues all up and down the north Atlantic coast, including the famous Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, before he was 18. Early on, he played in a three-piece called Earth. Though the timing is right, this was most likely not the Earth that Ozzy and Tony’s band heard about, deciding to change their name to Black Sabbath. A somewhat less patriotic but fully human story is of when he was 18 and called for induction to fight in the Vietnam War. He decided before he got on the bus, as he says, “I ain’t goin’.” He didn’t exactly draft-dodge, since he DID actually show up, but he torpedoed his chances by acting crazy and failing his physical – he got a 4F, which basically means the army wouldn’t take you if you had an American flag tattooed on your crotch.

Anyway, his blend of country town optimism and hard-as-steel stubbornness paid off, because by 1975 he had a great band behind him (the indomitable E Street Band), two solid records, and a growing reputation. But he was cooking something up, getting ready for a blast of all-or-nothing rock and roll in Born to Run. He was no longer satisfied with simply entertaining people; he wanted to change people’s lives.

Next: The Big Man.