Thursday 03 June @ 12:21:40
by Tom Hallett
Back in 1981, when Bruce Springsteen uttered the above quote, we thought the planet was a pretty scary place. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were still locked in a bitter Cold War, Iranian fundamentalists had proven they could hold a world superpower hostage, and President Ronald Reagan (along with many of the good folks currently serving in and around The White House) was set to lead us through one of the greediest, most self-serving, demoralizing decades the country had seen since the 1950s. The rock ’n’ roll voices that the youth of America had come to depend on for information, inspiration and righteous indignation were muted, or silent altogether.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The spirit of rock n' roll when it came in (was) talking to the kids in their secret heart. To promise to somebody that things are gonna be alright—you don't ever have the room to do that. Then you're a politician. All you can do is say there's possibilities—some are gonna stand, some are gonna fall...illusions make you weak. Dreams and possibilities make you strong."
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Throw Your Hatred Down”
—Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Dylan had (once again) retreated inside his own soul, fighting an ongoing, fierce inner personal battle with completely disparate dogmas. The Stones were a joke—stoned, stupid, disco sell-outs. Lennon was dead, killed on his own doorstep by a twisted, evil shadow of the generation he'd helped bring to political and spiritual consciousness. And that despite the fact that he'd gone on record, loud and clear, telling that same generation that in the end, he didn't believe in any of it, anyhow: "I just believe in me/Yoko and me/That's reality ... the dream is over ..."
Springsteen, at the time considered a "Blue Collar Rocker," (meaning, I guess, that much of his musical catalog spoke to the "common folk," or "working class," which in the '50s would've meant he was a commie, but by the ’80s, pols and spin docs had sussed the fact that they could pretend to support Joe Sixpack even as they pillaged his retirement funds, syphoned off money earmarked for his children's educations, and paid his younger brother sub-living wages) had never made a big secret out of the fact that he felt a keen psychic kinship with the underdog.
Though much of his fan-base preferred his pop-radio-friendly anthems ("Born To Run," "Hungry Heart," etc.), Bruce's albums were packed full to the brim with off-handed political commentary and stark socio-economic observations. A few years later, he'd release "Born In The U.S.A.," a song that surely remains (along with "The Streets Of Philadelphia," "American Skin (41 Shots)," and "The Rising") one of his purest connections with the discerning rock ’n’ roll fan. Alas, even that song (a bitter, anti-establishment rant from the viewpoint of a disaffected Vietnam vet) was game for misinterpretation, as evidenced by the Reagan re-election campaign's use of it as a good ol' boy, mom-and-apple-pie kinda sentiment.
But this column isn't about Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. Not really. In the same way that it's not about Vietnam, or Lyndon B. Johnson, or Richard Nixon, or the Iran-Contra scandals, or Ronald Reagan. Not really. I just wanted to illustrate how obvious it is that, when writing about artists/songwriters like those listed above, it's nigh onto impossible to do their music justice without mentioning the very foundations they built their musical/lyrical legacies upon.
Can you even imagine someone seriously writing about Dylan in the ’60s and not mentioning his Woody "This machine kills fascists" Guthrie influences? Or what "Masters Of War" really meant? Or (later) Lennon and the peace/love/anti-war movement? Or what "Imagine" (imagine NO RELIGION) was really suggesting? Or Jagger ("...everywhere I hear the sound of marchin' chargin' feet, boy...) and the birth of the decadent me-generation of the ’70s? For a music scribe to leave out the fundamental reasons why an artist writes and performs the style/subject matter he/she does would be the ultimate in censorship—and the biggest losers (besides the artists themselves, who've obviously gone out of their way to make some sort of statement for or against SOMETHING) would be the readers; especially those who may not yet have achieved the dubious status of jaded, twisted, old fogie music fan.
Which is really all just my roundabout way of saying I've never really understood all the outcry Round The Dial receives every time I write a review of a Jay Farrar album. Somebody always seems to get a burr under their saddle when I mention the man's serious, politically-and-socially relevant lyrics and how important I think they are. Right about now, you might be asking yourself—who's Jay Farrar? Well, the short answer is, he's a fantastic singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who rose up out of the ashes of the idiotic '80s with an alternately snarling and soothing beast of a socially-conscious country-rock band called Uncle Tupelo (along with his chum Jeff Tweedy, now of Wilco fame), then went on to found the decidedly less bibulous, but even more aware, outfit Son Volt.
Jay Farrar (center, light pants), pictured with his touring bandmates from the group Canyon—this set of musicians is captured in all their collaborative glory on Farrar’s new live album, Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights. The album was recorded while Farrar toured with Canyon in this past fall and features two previously unreleased tracks.
These days, Farrar's got a good start on an honorable solo career; he's founded his own record label (formerly ACT/RESIST, now Transmit Sound—I don't know if that means he felt the first monicker was too obvious, considering his subject matter, or that he's honing its meaning down to encapsulate the meaning of the second, but I kinda like Transmit Sound. It's got a definite pirate radio feel to it, and that's about as American as you can get these days), delved deeply into musical experimentation, and, like Springsteen, garnered somewhat of a rep as a "Baby Dylan."
What's that, you ask? Well, a "Baby Dylan" is an artist who's at least trudging along between the ruts on the road Bob forged in combining socio-political commentary and rock ’n’ roll music. Ani DiFranco is a Baby Dylan. Michael Frente is a Baby Dylan. Steve Earle is a Baby Dylan. Eliza Gilkyson is a Baby Dylan.
Vic Chesnutt, Will Oldham, several members of Public Enemy, and Matthew Ryan are all Baby Dylans. Ben Harper used to be; not sure where he stands these days. Point is, I can't imagine writing a review of an album by any of those artists and NOT mentioning the subject matter they're putting forth. Sure, I could just review the music behind them (it's usually really fucking great), or the technical aspects of their singing voices (it's not always the greatest, but then, look at the reaction to Dylan himself when he first started out, and that scratchy, wheezy snuffle wasn't even his; he was merely AFFECTING it. To hear Bob's REAL voice, listen to "Lay Lady Lay"), or even the (ack) cool artwork their records are packaged in.
But that would be like writing about the mere aesthetic value of the Statue Of Liberty, or what cool parchment paper the Bill Of Rights was printed on, or what high quality stone the names of 58,000 dead American kids are carved into on a certain wall in Washington. I'm sorry, folks, but I can't write a review of a Jay Farrar album without mentioning how important (as important as life itself, because life is what they're all about) the lyrics he writes and sings are. These aren't ’50s do-wop songs, or ’60s bubble-gum hits, or ’70s stadium blather, or ’80s dweeb-dance ditties, or even cynical, anti-everything ’90s grumble-grunge tunes. Farrar's songs deal with the trials and tribulations (and yes, even the hopes) of living in a world where individuality is disparaged; where the eco-system and the economy have spun wildly out of control, and where the sad, slumbering soul of America slips with terrifying ease into the ultimate Numbness.
So to those who insist on writing in and complaining that they "... just tuned in to hear about the music ..." or want to quibble about minor details (yes, I know Gram Parsons and Gene Clark weren't in The Byrds when McGuinn got into his electronic experimentation phase circa 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, sir, but if you'd gone into the article genuinely wanting to learn something about Farrar's Terroir Blues album, instead of scanning my words like a one-winged vulture hungry for some tear in the fabric, you might've gleaned my point that Jay'd managed to bring both the lyrical magic/soul of Parsons and Clark AND the wild, experimental side of McGuinn—different lineups of the band that produced completely different styles of music—together on one record, thereby adding his own special ingredients to the varied influences of one of his favorite bands and putting them into play on his own release. Sigh. Or maybe you just wanted to see your own negative, anti-everything blatherings in print) that really have nothing to do with the gist of the matter, I say pshaw!
Until Jay Farrar decides to release an album that has absolutely nothing to do with the disintegration of the modern world (and that includes politics, the ecology, the economy, and, these days, war), I'll continue to try to understand where he's coming from and to impart my own INTERPRETATIONS of said lyrical imagery here in this column. If you don't like it, I suggest you pick up today's versions of Tiger Beat and 16 magazines and read all about what kind of bottled water Justin Timberlake really likes, or what brand of feminine itch cream Chrissie Aguilera digs, or how Avril Lavigne blames her high-calorie diet for the "anger" in her music. Ack. Double ack.
Which brings us, finally, to Jay Farrar's latest release. If you're a Farrar fan, chances are you own, or have at least heard, 90 percent of the songs on this record. That's because 2004's Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights is a live album—taken from gigs he performed in September and October of 2003 at clubs from Missouri to Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. If you're a casual fan, or don't have a clue who Jay Farrar is or what he sounds like, you might want to go back and buy at least his last few solo releases (check out http://www.jayfarrar.net) before you shell out the duckets for this collection. But let me stress here that it's not necessary; because these versions of Jay's solo tracks are not only just as, if not more, beautiful and true than the studio takes, but actually give you a perfect indication as to how he feels and plays 'em now.
Farrar and the folks at Transmit Sound/Artemis have gone the extra mile with this package, and included a bonus treat of a live performance on DVD. What does that mean to you? It means you'll get to see Jay and his current band, bassist Ev Berodt, drummer Dave Bryson, guitar/lap steel ace Brandon Butler, keyboardist Derrick DeBorja, and axeman Joe Winkle, as they gleefully and gracefully plow through the best of his recent solo material onstage. As for the album—well, it's a live album. And live albums are hard to categorize. The songs might be great, the performance might suck. The songs might suck, the performance might be awesome. Or you might get some weird combo of the two and not really know if you like the work or not. Thankfully, this one manages to combine great songs with a kick-ass performance all the way through, a rarity in any genre nowadays. But it's still a live album, you say ... (Continued next week)
If you have local music news/gigs/CD's you'd like to see mentioned in this column, or you've just got a bee in your bonnet about The Byrds, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) email@example.com.