Wednesday 09 June @ 10:34:23
by Tom Hallett
(This review of Jay Farrar's latest album, the live CD Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights, is continued from last week.
One other note—I had thought briefly about editing/toning down a bit of the anger running through this week's column towards the current administration and our national and international policies, but after the passing of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan last Friday, the attendant outpouring of staged grief and revisionist dreck clogging the mainstream press, and the barrage of idiotic e-mails I've received over the past few days concerning part one, I think it's more important than ever to leave it just the way it is, if only to present a dissenting viewpoint in some area of the press.
I'd also like to reiterate that I am not a "left-winger," or a Democrat, or a party to any party except a good keg party that features kick-ass live music—my opinions are based on REALITY, as I see it, and not any political agenda. The fact that Jay Farrar has some of the same opinions running through his music is frankly, for me, just the cherry on top of an already great batch of songs. 'Nuff said.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I think of politics as being involved in actions involving groups of people, not just an outlook. If you have an outlook, you're a philosopher. If you're doing something about it, you're an activist."
SONG OF THE WEEK: “In A Free Land”
Hmmm. A live album. That's a tough one, these days, not only for an artist to really stand behind (Why were these songs/shows worth recording, preserving, and foisting upon the public? Was there some outside force in play, a world-shattering event or series of events that made these readings of already-released songs important enough to warrant mass consumption, especially in these days of prolific audience audio bootlegging? Were the songs presented in a different—maybe even improved—style/format? Will there be photos of giant, inflatable penises or flying pigs available for the jacket artwork?), but for a listener to dedicate hard-won time and money to.
After all, the days of the major-label double live album (KISS, Peter Frampton, all those well-intentioned-but-horrific rock benefit releases) have gone the way of the eight-track, quad stereo, and poodle haircuts, and between the cost of distribution and your average American music fan's short attention span, an artist better have a damn good reason for putting out a real-time document of their work. Here's a great one: LIVE MUSIC IS BETTER!
It's also the only real accurate device (besides actually attending a show, which not everyone has the opportunity or means to do) that you, as a listener, have to gauge an artist's true talents, motivations and limitations. Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights, by not featuring any Uncle Tupelo or even Son Volt material, is the otherwise shy Farrar's not-so-subtle way of telling us that he's sick and tired of playing the past for people who refuse to grow, mature and seek a better, brighter future—or at the very least, make an honest effort to understand the present That doesn't mean he'll never play those songs live again—and I for one would be bummed were I never to soak up the glory of "Windfall," "Picking Up The Signal," or "Caryatid Easy" at a Farrar show again—but it does mean that (not forever, just for now) he wants us to really LISTEN to the work he's been doing over the past couple of years.
The track listing here speaks for itself: 19 songs, 15 of them from his solo albums, two relatively new cuts ("Doesn't Have To Be This Way" and the excellent "6 String Belief"), and a pair of well-chosen covers (a rousing version of Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam" and a positively scorching reading of Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane"), and all but two of them are undeniably about THE STATE OF THE PLANET AROUND US.
From "Greenwich Time," which kicks off for all the world exactly like a mid-'60s Dylan protest song—replete with an opening off-key harp blast—and finds Farrar fairly thrashing about in up-front references to "ballot boxes," "warming temperatures," and "cold war trash," to the bizarre, bone-shattering thrump of "Fool King's Crown," which still reminds me more of the current state of political affairs in America than anything else, right on through to the dire proclamations of "Voodoo Candle," with its plaintive cry, "...caught between two worlds/don't wanna be fenced in..." every track here with lyrics has a deeper meaning. The ecology. The economy. The emptiness. The encroaching darkness. The hope inside. The light, the dark, the black, the white, the grey.
How could I fail to mention heavy shit like that when reviewing an album? And how could anyone object to my—and Farrar's—right to express our opinions and thoughts? I don't walk around saying, "That Rush Limbaugh should be taken off the air! Hrr-umph!!"
Nope. I say, hey, let the old wanker say what he wants, as long as there's a dissenting or at least questioning opinion readily available out there so the already-cowed American public can judge the issues FOR THEMSELVES. Of course, they'll have to RELEARN that particular mental skill, since it's been relentlessly and ruthlessly driven from their very cores by a constant barrage of desensitizing bullshit for the past 35 or 40 years. At least since somebody started organizing Beatles record burning bashes.
But I digress. What I wanted to make clear here (since I KNOW I'll hear more formulaic rhetorical garbage from some fanatical far-right-wingers about this subject) is that it seems to me folks who really, honestly want the best for America, and future generations of HUMAN BEINGS, and the world in general, would naturally want both sides of any issue completely, logically and thoroughly gone over from several points of view, thereby eliminating as many of the possible mistakes involved in any such major decision/political agenda/etc. and making the world a better place for EVERYONE. But the very fact that I have to backtrack and reiterate these points shows what a sorry state our formerly free union of states is in. And let me stress here once again that, despite the unabashedly leftist leanings of the publication this column is printed in, I myself am not a registered Democrat or Republican. Last time I voted, I registered INDEPENDENT, which is a pretty good thing to be these days, especially.
Frankly, I think both parties are so hopelessly caught up in their (dis)respective agendas that, without a major change in the system in the next 10 years, we might as well just have one fat, stupid, greedy uber-party and quit kidding ourselves that one is better than the other. Hey, Joe/Jane Sixpack—dig this shit: THEY ALL WANT TO FUCK YOU. One might have a kinder, gentler method of violating every last shred of dignity and pride you have left, but it's all the same in the end. Ouch. I wish it wasn't me who had to say these things, as I'm sure Jay Farrar wishes all his songs could be romantic, lyrical dream-scapes about a long-gone but always tangible past. But everywhere I look, I see fear ... and historically, fear doesn't breed real good decision-making.
I have to ask myself (I don't want to, but I can't stop that damn LOGIC from poking its ugly head in once in awhile) HOW any intelligent, caring, sane human being can possibly sit idly by and watch as the ghoulish, bloated, greed-driven, destructive, vampiric soul-suckers currently in power bleed the very life force of this country, and the world around us, and not want to—like Jay—at least ponder the possibility that it might be WRONG. Nobody's asking them to do anything (at least until this coming November ...), but how someone can carp about Farrar and his ilk speaking their minds when money-hungry monsters RULE the airwaves of radio and television and the newspapers to the point where we actually have to watch FOREIGN news programs to glean a tiny ounce of truth from the morass of filthy lies, distortions and spin-surgeon spoo swirling around us like so much foul fecal matter blasting out of an open sewer hole is fucking beyond me.
Of course, when our fearless leader seems to exist in some kind of oxygen-enhanced roll of bubble-wrap, and can barely speak intelligible English, it shouldn't be too big of a surprise that the rest of the country should be walking around in a perpetual coma as well.
This shit ain't just about greed anymore—I mean, has anybody seen the PRICE OF GAS lately? And it's not about party lines, or the health and welfare of human beings anywhere, let alone here at home. It's about a dying generation grabbing for every last scrap they can get their boney old hands on before they kick the bucket. And if we don't do anything about it, we really deserve the fate we receive. The only question I'm left with after pondering how we've come to the point in this country we're at today is: ARE WE REALLY THIS FUCKING STUPID?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm making such a big goddamn deal out of the lyrics populating Stone, Steel, And Bright Lights. I've interviewed Mr. Farrar several times, and I can tellya, he ain't much fer playin' it all verbose-like. The boy speaks his mind through his music; and call it what you want, but this is protest music at its purest. Communication; words of passionate discourse—shared between citizens through the universal language of music. Great songs that stand alone musically yet say something universally important lyrically. You can appreciate 'em either way, and that's no small feat for any artist working any genre.
So I'll be damned if I'll treat this record like it's just another self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-involved piece of shit chart topper record that'll be here today and gone tomorrow. This is the music of the ages, my friends, whether you like it or not. These are the Dylan/Lennon/Jagger/Springsteen cuts of NOW. And someday, serious musicologists will afford these songs, and this artist, the same respect they do Woody Guthrie, Bob, John and Bruce today. I just hope you don't have to wait that long to appreciate it. After all, it's all here for you to enjoy, learn from, and react to right now.
But you can read all about my takes on the previously released songs here by going back into the Pulse archives (www.pulsetc.com) and perusing them at your leisure. Before I run out of space this week, I'd just like to point out a couple of things about the two relatively fresh cuts (they're not on any studio album, yet) on S, S, & B L's. The first, "Doesn't Have To Be This Way," is every bit as, if not more, in-the-moment and in your face about the harsh realities of the political scenario here in the land of the "free" as Dylan's "Masters Of War" was around 40 years ago: "A poor man's wages carry their feet/A dead soldier today in the sweltering heat/A dynasty in power TWO WARS (all caps mine) to their name/An election BY DECREE/Ain't this new world a shame..."
Yet, in the title and chorus of the tune, Farrar leaves us with a typical nugget of hope: "And I can't stop thinking/It doesn't have to be this way..."
THAT'S reality, man. THAT'S worth breaking down and printing out. THAT'S worth discussing. THAT'S more than just "...the music." Dude.
Jay Farrar (right), back in his Uncle Tupelo days with Ken Coomer (seated) and Jeff Tweedy (great hat wearer).
The second of the newer tracks, "6 String Belief," despite its rather trite title, is even more raw, to the point, and viciously righteous in its credo: "Killed by saturation/The underground will correct with reaction rebellion ... rock and roll around my head ... fifty watts happening ..." And then the kicker, the punch in the gut to the fascists who have this country in a political/social/economic stranglehold and every last one of the sheep-like, fear-ruled putzes who continue to support their reign of death and the destruction of every good principle and point of pride America was founded upon: "Declaration framer states REVOLUTION /Sets the course straight/It was necessary then and it's necessary NOW/Corruption in the system/Insurrection will bring them down/WILL BRING THEM DOWN ..." Damn. You can't get any more up-front about your convictions than that, can you?
Like I said, the music is great, but it's not even half the story with Farrar. If he's got the guts to write, play and sing about what he really believes is the truth, why should I give him short shrift and bypass all those true, honest feelings and standards just to make some wacked-out readers who'd rather hear their news on the FOX network than in a kick-ass Americana tune happy? Fuck 'em. This is the real world, buddy, and you can bury your head in the sand until you feel the gang in Washington lifting your wallet and greasing up their flagpoles for a rough rear entry, but I'm gonna celebrate the fact that guys like Jay Farrar are still alive and well. And, like Ben Franklin, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie before him, using mass media to spread the TRUTH.
It's too bad that the Truth isn't the popular consensus today. And it's too bad that it might not be YOUR point of view. But for now, Jay still has the right to speak/sing his mind. Just as Rush, Newt and Hannity, Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood and Dolly Parton all have the right to speak/spew/sing theirs. I don't have to listen to them, and you don't have to listen to Jay. Or Michael Moore. Or Al Franken. Or the ghost of Paul Wellstone. Or even goofy ol' Tom Hallett. It's your conscience, pal, that is, if ya still have one, but remember that freedom of speech is—for now, anyway—still the bedrock of the American way.
And if you're one of those folks out there who disagree, keep this little query in mind—how can you say you're FOR the American way of life if you're AGAINST freedom of speech, intelligent discourse and individuality? How can there BE an American way if there's only ONE party, ONE set of beliefs, ONE right way of doing things? Speaking out is the true American way. Not cowering, toeing the line, bowing to fear.
Real patriots put themselves on the line. Frankly, if you've got half the talent and intelligence and just a quarter of the listening audience somebody like Farrar has and you're NOT saying something about the state of things around you, you're as bad or worse than the ones who're happily marching along to the skewed beat of the armies of darkness. Real patriots rebel against evil empires.
Real patriots stand up for—and sometimes die for—their beliefs; for justice, equality and honesty in government, for a modicum of humanity in an inhuman world. Even as (and especially when) greedy polecats and the staunch supporters of a sullied status quo wrap themselves in a blood-stained, misrepresented flag and cry traitor. Time will out the real Benedict Arnolds of today. They will go down in history for their roles in the desecration of America and the willful destruction of other cultures and societies.
Does anybody in their right mind look back on Joe McCarthy or Roy Cohn as a true American hero? LBJ? (Outside of Texas, I mean) How about Dick Nixon, Henry Kissinger or Spiro Agnew? Ted Kennedy? Gerry Ford? Urgh. Will any sane, intelligent dwellers of a future planet Earth look back on today's leaders as larger-than-life, righteous, truth-seeking American heroes and unshakeable patriots? Unless they really do burn all the books and continue on their path to a truly Orwell-ian society, I have serious doubts. Is either side completely right or wrong? Of course not. But how many senseless deaths, how many lies, and how much loss of personal freedom are we willing to stomach before we try another tactic? And how long until it all breaks down and there's nobody left to fight about anything? Today, we're looking at 4,000 wounded and 800 dead (and that's just on "our" side) in a war nobody really seems to be able to justify. What about tomorrow? Next month? Next year?
If any of us survive what Jay calls "...this 21st century blood," the real heroes will either be willing martyrs (losing friends, popularity, even careers by sticking to their beliefs) or they'll emerge from the inevitable (intellectual or otherwise) revolution to become the political, spiritual and moral leaders and teachers of a truly free society—one about which we can look our children square in the eye and say, "Kids, this is truly the greatest country in the world, and we have nothing to be ashamed of."
Whichever one (and whatever else) Jay Farrar may be, I can guarantee you one thing: He—and his body of work, despite, or maybe because of the fact, that it's never had the kind of major label/radio exposure Lennon, Dylan and Springsteen had/have—will come to be known as a man—a PATRIOT—who (in his music, at least) stood up for RIGHT and TRUTH and DIGNITY in the face of darkness, war, evil, avarice, and the coldest killer of all—apathy. And he'll be able to look his own children in the eye. Will you? WAKE UP, AMERICA! As Jay says, "...the future is free...and there's no rollin' back..."
That's all for this week, gang. Tune in next time for more, more, more. Until we meet again—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/CD's you'd like to see listed in this column, or you'd just like to tell me why there still ain’t no cure for the summertime blues, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) email@example.com.