Geometry and theology

Boiled the elements down into the axioms
Mistook a fax for remedial tediums
It seems Ezekiel speaks to some
My mind was hazy and numb
And left hand gripped a clump of palladium
Saw the beast with the wings and the talons
The simple answer but it felt out of balance
Bad news like a blue screen of death
Besides the point, but which hue seems best?

I’ll keep conducting these autistic symphonies
These sentences have sentenced me
Like I didn’t have the sense to sense the mere
The presence grows weird
Doesn’t make sense but I don’t fear, not a damn thing
I live like a man who’s already dead
Like I had a motorcycle but my name is Zed
(I’ll be missed), said another clumsy alchemist
Like he just learned predicate calculus
The existential quantifier, a backwards EX
My rap career is a cataloging of defects
Copy edited by Ryan Seacrest
Like he must be new to this
Milo doesn’t exude hubris, chuuch
Like he must be new to this
Milo doesn’t exude hubris

Stop Making Sense

Van Morrison in Rolling Stone, 1978:

But a lot of your most danceable songs have very profound lyrics.
I don’t know, this thing about lyrics – I’m just catching on to this. If you get some of the facts together . . . I mean, I sell records in places where they don’t speak English. And I’ve experienced listening to Greek singers, for instance, and not knowing what the words are, but I get a story and a feeling from it even though I haven’t a clue to what’s being said. So if English-language songs can sell in non-English-speaking countries and people can be touched by them, then we can see how irrelevant the words are.

Sometimes it seems that you let the words dance when you sing them; you release them, and they take off in their own directions.
The only time I actually work with words is when I’m writing a song. After it’s written, I release the words; and every time I’m singing, I’m singing syllables. I’m just singing signs and phrases.

But this can’t be the whole story. Music with incomprehensible lyrics isn’t the same as listening to instrumental music. It’s also not the same as listening to scat or wordless yammering. Somehow the presence of words — maybe it’s just the possibility of meaning — changes the way we listen to a song.

Scattered thoughts about: Springsteen on Broadway

Here are some scattered thoughts:

  • Springsteen always structures his shows into little mini-arcs, acts, cycles of songs, whatever you want to call it, and he does exactly the same thing here. So “Growin’ Up,” “My Hometown,” “My Father’s House” and “The Wish” are all about his childhood, birthplace, father and mother respectively. Then we get stuff about the road and how it opened up his vision of America: “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” “Born in the USA.” You get the marriage songs with Patty, his case for national despair and national hope, and then “Born to Run” ties it all up in a bow. In other words, this is super highly structured into suites, which is what he generally does though not in this precise way.
  • The songs that I felt were most transformed in this setting were “My Hometown” and “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” “My Hometown” always sounded corny and sad-sacky to me in the context of arena rock; it makes a lot more sense whispered and confessed. And “Tenth Avenue” became a sort of wake for Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, all others who had been lost. It was touching and sad.
  • The song that brought me to tears was “My Father’s House.” Part of what happened was I get confused between some of the tracks on Nebraska because the instrumentation and phrasing are similar, so I thought he had launched into “Reason to Believe,” a comparatively upbeat song…when I realized it was quite the opposite, it felt crushing. Part of what makes it work so well is the story of Bruce, as a child, entering the bar to retrieve his father perfectly parallels the vision of running into his father’s home. And Bruce’s perspective that we emulate those whose love we seek but don’t receive is insightful, as is his confession that the voice and stage persona he constructed is an idealized vision of his father. In his memoir Born To Run it’s clear that all of these revelations come from his years in therapy.
  • But what exactly is going on with Patty? What does it mean to sing “Brilliant Disguise” with your wife of 27 years? Just to review, “Brilliant Disguise” is a song Bruce wrote in the early years of his first marriage — that was a failed marriage — and it is stunning to me that this first marriage was able to survive this song for a second. I mean, how do you hear this song from your spouse (or your own mouth) and not immediately know that you’re headed for divorce? Now you play the loving woman / I’ll play the faithful man // But just don’t look too close / Into the palm of my hand, I mean come on! I have no idea what it means that Patty is singing that song with him? Are they staring down this fear together? That she supports him in this moment of doubt? I don’t quite get it.
  • Here is what I was thinking for most of the film: Bruce looks old, he sounds old. He is 69 years old, and he looks it and sounds it. This is to my mind the most artistically interesting thing about the entire enterprise. Pop music in general (rock in particular) is a genre in and about youth. It’s not that Bruce is the only aging rocker around, but I think this is the only time I’ve seen aging performed. If you go see The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney or Elton John, you can see aging denied; you can see old people act and perform young, and giving the audience a chance to experience a kind of eternal youthfulness. That’s good, that’s a natural thing for aging pop stars to do. There is also a mini-genre of dying performed — this is Johnny Cash’s last few albums, Warren Zevon playing “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While.” This is interesting too. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in pop music do quite what Bruce does in this show, which is reflect on regrets, deaths, relationships, and try to summarize a legacy in a way that only makes sense from the perspective of someone who is decidedly looking back. He looks smaller than life, which is an artistic choice; the second he goes on tour with the E Street Band he’ll be back playing that other role. But what’s special about this isn’t the setting or the music but the choice to perform as a 69 year old.
  • One day Jay-Z will do a nice stint doing something similar. This particular thing might only work if you have a well-known (to your fans) legacy to deconstruct. Not very many pop artists have the longevity and penchant for myth-making to have that sort of narrative. Mr. Carter does, I’m not sure who else, though I’m sure there are others.

Save Big Money at Menards

Do you know the Menards jingle? Two options:

  1. What?
  2. Of course I do!

In other words, you’re either from the Chicago area or you’re not. I am, and as we’ve been visiting my parents this week I’ve had many chances to revisit that particular aspect of my childhood.

More importantly, though: here are a few of the CDs and tapes that are hanging around in my childhood bedroom.

Bridges to Babylon, The Rolling Stones – I don’t know how old I was, it could have been anywhere from 8 to 12 years old, so let’s say that I was 10. I told my mom that I wanted to get a CD, so she drove me to the local Blockbusters — one of those Blockbusters that carried music. She trotted me in front of some salesperson who I was totally intimidated by. Then the Blockbusters guy asked, “So, what sort of music do you like?”

How didn’t I understand that I would need to prepare an answer to that question? I had no plan. None. I thought that I would walk into that store, ask for Music, and then be granted Music.

“Uhh…I like music where you can hear the words,” is what I said, which is stupid because there is lots of good music where you can’t hear the words, and in fact some of the best music exists in that sweet spot where you are 60% sure of what the singer is saying.

(Until a week ago, I definitely thought the Magic School Bus theme had a line that went like this: raft a river of blood!)

So Blockbusters guy handed me two CDs, and we bought them both. The first was The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon.

The second was freaking the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which means that Blockbuster guy saw this little kid asking for music where you can hear the words and decided that he either wanted (a) one of the best albums from the best band of all time or (b) an irrelevant late-period album from one of the best bands of all time. What was that thinking? I wish I could talk to that guy, but I can’t because that Blockbusters isn’t there any more, so that guy probably had to get a new job.

Everclear, So Much For the Afterglow

This is from a few years later, and I was definitely getting closer to finding my musical tastes. I have no idea where I would have heard of Everclear, though my main sources of access to music were MTV, VH1 or the radio. Actually I have vague memories of the “Father of Mine” video on VH1, so that’s probably where this came from.

I remember spending whatever pre-teen money I had on the CD, bringing it home and putting it in the boombox. At first I really liked it. But after a few tracks (yeah) I realized (yeah) that every song (yeah) eventually turns into a chorus of yeahs (ye-ah). To the record with only one pop idea!

Various Artists, Wild Wild West Soundtrack

I swear, I can still do it! Let’s see how far I get…

Wild Wild West! Jim West! Desparado! (something), no you don’t want na-doe(?)…

that wasn’t nearly as much as I thought I could do. Damn.

This CD was huge when I was at summer camp, which I think was when I was going into 8th Grade. I remember this one was on heavy rotation on our bunk stereo.

And it’s not bad, honestly. BLACKstreet, Dr. Dre and Eminem, Enrique Iglesias, let the rhythm take you over. 95% of the time when a bunch of 8th Graders get into a group they make worse decisions than any single individual would, but I’d have to say that this is the exception. Ridiculous as it is, this was my route into rap/R&B.

David Gray, A Century Ends, Lost Songs, White Ladder, A New Day at Midnight

My David Gray fandom as a teen is…not flattering. Here’s how it happened: starting around 8th Grade I started playing music with friends, i.e. in bands. I played keyboard/piano — at first a dinky one, and then a proper instrument. And this was terrific — I met a lot of people who liked music and played music with them.

This, though, I don’t know. Here’s what I’ve found: just because you are excellent at playing an instrument does not mean you have good taste in music. In fact, some of the most insufferable listeners of music I know are musicians because they’ll like a band that makes “interesting” but terrible music.

Anyway, David Gray is not “interesting” in any significant way, though he was recommended to me by a guitar player friend with terrible taste. (At least he did as a kid. Maybe he is reformed from his jammy, hippie ways.)

The only thing embarrassing about liking David Gray as much as I did was that, for a few years, I was a child whose favorite artist was charting only on Adult Contemporary. But, look, the guy has some good songs.

Most importantly, though, David Gray was probably the first artist who I liked partly because I knew his story. His first few records underperformed commercially (presumably critically also given the songs he wrote). He then, as a sort of last ditch effort, married his extremely acoustic balladeer sound with some simple synthy things and had a surprise hit (“Please Forgive Me”). The video involved a piano crashing, I think. Then he released Lost Songs, which gave his new fans a chance to hear all of his unpopular music — I dug it.

I remember an extremely embarrassing conversation with my father, on our way to a hockey game. Usually on our way to my hockey games we listened to one of the following dad-approved artists: Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan.

(All first-round inductees to the Dad Rock Hall of Fame, and to my heart. Except for Rod Stewart. Forget that guy.)

Anyway, the embarrassing thing I said was “You know Bob Dylan sort of sounds like David Gray.” And my dad sort of huffed and said, “No, that guy sounds like Dylan.”

Which is mostly embarrassing because, no? They don’t? The only thing they have in common vocally is that it’s sometimes hard to make out the words that they’re singing. As established, this was a major concern of mine as a young listener. Presumably that’s what I was getting on.

Matchbox Twenty, Mad Season

Do you remember at big music stores (which is what I was mostly frequenting) they had those CDs with headphones dangling and you could preview a CD but only while standing next to a pole that was also a CD player?

I do. I bought this at Barnes and Noble after hearing “Bent” on VH1.

Papa Roach, Infest [non-explicit version]

Man, so this is precisely the kind of kid I was. I was watching MTV and I saw the video for “Last Resort,” the hit single from Papa Roach about suicide. Now, I didn’t care about the lyrics — surprise, Blockbusters guy! — and I just knew that I didn’t have riffs like that in my life yet. Plus, it’s catchy, so sue me.

The pickle I was in was this: there is a lot of cursing on this album, and that was a no-no in my parents’ home. So…the intensely non-cool compromise was to order the non-explicit version from the internet, maybe the first purchase I ever made from the internet, come to think of it.

What’s sort of funny is they reword the lyrics insert so that there are no curses there either. Which means the lyrics page reads like this:

Cut my life into pieces / this is my last resort

Suffocation, no breathing / don’t give a (bleeped) if I leave my arm bleeding

This was the way my childhood was. I did all these things that should have been cool, and they even sort of sound cool if we speak in general terms. Once we get into the details, the details are never cool.

So for instance it’s true, I did play in bands all through high school, and we even got gigs. Cool!, you say. But then, ruining a perfectly good thing, I go on: yeah, we were a Jewish band, mostly playing on Purim or Channukah, mostly dancing music for classmates and our rabbis. We played a bar mitzvah once. We were a pretty big deal.

And also I played keyboards, the single un-coolest instrument you can play in a band. With conventional rock instruments, here is the ranking:

  1. Guitar
  2. Drums
  3. Vocals (controversial ranking, but this is my experience)
  4. Bass
  5. Saxophone
  6. Are there any other instruments in the band?
  7. Piano keyboard

The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan

Here is where I start to get my act together.

I remember where I was when I first heard “Seven Nation Army,” which is not on this album (this is Jack White’s piano album, which I liked for obvious reasons). I first heard it in the dorms at my yeshiva high school (it had a dorm for the dormers) and I was with my friend Shmuel in Ariel’s room. Ariel wasn’t there, but he had a radio.

The radio was on and we heard Meg White’s drums come in. Boom boom boom boom. Steady, icky thumping, one after the other, relentless.

I just want to be clear: I never danced, but I swear to it — we were dancing around Ariel’s room. In the scene in my memory, we were just drumming on things, yes, yes! This is the stuff. Mainline it, please.

Goodbye, Everclear. So much for the afterglow.

***

And much more. That’s what I called music. This is volume 1. There is much more.

Now That’s What Michael Calls Music! Volume 1

I’ve been stressing out about the characters in this song. Based on the lyrics they are either (a) just barely hanging on OR (b) doing perfectly fine. “So we had a little baby boy
but we knew it wouldn’t last too long,” oh no what is happening to that baby boy? Next line: “kind of what I had in mind, but what I had mind was strong,” and I no longer have any clue as to what’s going on. Either an unmentionable tragedy has occurred or everything is going swimmingly.

This is a very good song with a good guitar solo. I have a friend who is a huge metalhead and we were talking about new music and the death of rock and roll and he said, “God, I just need something with a guitar solo.” I’ve been trying to figure out whether to send this to him or not, because it meets the letter while totally violating the spirit of his request.

Yo I’m in the eye of the storm, where the pressure’s on
And MC’s is dressed funny like a leprechuan
I chop rappers up like chicken szechuan
Sells a squads off like a slave auction
Aiyyo my zodiac sign read caution
On stage, I make your seed to an or-phan
Yo, my age an algebraic equation

The Rising is a great song! I didn’t realize this. My Bruce fandom has focused on everything up to Darkness on the Edge of Town, but I hadn’t gone much past there until recently. (Also great: Born in the USA! Specifically, No Surrender, Downbound Train, Cover Me.)

But The Rising is terrific, heartbreaking. It’s so well-structured that you know precisely what the guitar solo represents in the narrative (the blazing death of a fire fighter) and then he returns as a ghost or something. I had assumed that it was just another B-team classic rock song from a great writer’s later years, and, on closer listen, it is that, but it’s also a bit more than that too.