Monday, September 21, 2009

Visions of Bacharach


The thing about loneliness is that everybody is lonely differently, in their own way. Which is either, a) why it's called loneliness to begin with, or b) doubly lonely, when you think about it, or c) both. It's like when a song comes on the radio and you're suddenly filled with the sweetest reverie for a bygone moment and the person you're with says, "I hate this song."

By now I've accepted that I'm alone in certain things. And one of those is my continuing fascination with the instrumental albums of Burt Bacharach. I just found a copy of Make It Easy on Yourself from 1969. Upon first listen, a lot of people, Dewey Dell included, immediately reject what they're hearing. The 1960s "period" sound strikes people first and usually blots out any further consideration. That's fair. It sounds like muzak or something your parents once heard in a hotel lobby in Vegas.

But bear with me.

What begins to happen when I listen for a while, with imagination, even meditation, is that I can start to feel like I'm walking in a museum of pop gestures, a melodic Pop Art exhibit with huge canvases of glockenspiel and trumpet and tremolo surf guitar. That probably sounds like an "ironic" experience, Warhol lite. And occasionally it is. But sometimes a revelation can happen when a mellow horn line or a leisurely piano melody suddenly bonds with a personal association, like an image seen in a musical Rorschach: a green vacuum cleaner being run over an orange carpet by a brunette in curlers in a cool, sunless room, white curtains, a Hawaii Five-O re-run in the background; the brightly-lit popcorn maker at Sears; a sea-green counter at a Woolworth's diner on a winter afternoon; the silhouette of a man in a long burgundy Buick driving at dusk across a flat landscape in warm 35 millimeter. I'm reminded of the photographs of Stephen Shore, the Warhol acolyte, who drove around America in the 1960s and 70s taking pictures of hotel rooms and empty parking lots (see above, Room 110, Holiday Inn, Brainerd, MI, July 11, 1973).

When you let this music sit like a still life, without received judgment, the inspired images can have an oddly emotional tincture, the distillation of some faded American loneliness, like a recovered memory belonging to someone else, but no less sad for that. And maybe sadder. The real irony of this music is not in its cliches, but in the embedded human sympathy that's somehow revealed in these faceless orchestral vistas. I start to imagine Burt Bacharach as the loneliest man who ever lived while making these songs. Because nothing in the music is about him, personally. He's utterly solitary with a full studio orchestra, painting these lush and gleaming landscapes. And we can see ourselves in them, lost in time.

[Editor's Note: links to these songs were taken off to satisfy copyright warnings.]

She's Gone Away - Burt Bacharach

The Guy's In Love With You - Burt Bacharach (Listen for Bacharach humming along to the melody

Pacific Coast Highway - Burt Bacharach

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scottish Georgics

These days, my life, my anxieties, my hopes, my whole scene, could be summed up, or put in place, or undermined by its own essence, with any number of vaguely agricultural get-up-and-go aphorisms. The early bird gets the worm. You reap what you sow. The sun also rises. Make hay while the sun shines. Ecclesiastes. Etc. It's either birds, worms, seeds, sun or hay. Throw in a little "Muck is the mother of the mealbag" and you've got it covered. Shit be elemental.

But talk of shit and talk of sun and talk of hay always makes me think back to the characters I spent time with on farms. Ernst Larson, Buck, Kenny. Dudes who whose proximity to the life force seemed to place them farther from actual civilization. Hoisting grease guns, getting augers and hoppers and silos all lined up. Birthing calves. Weening. Putting up fence. Standing in fucking frigid and fetid water with rats scurrying around, trying to hack into a frozen pile of silage. More than anything, bailing hay. It was hellish. Infernal. All itchy and rashy on your arms, shirt soaked with sweat. Blowing beats of sweat off your nose. Bailing twine tearing through your fingers. These guys seemed powered by some kind of mute masochistic energy. They'd work until their hands, lungs, muscles, backs, brains and skin were just shot. Then they'd get up and do it again. They wanted to see you pass out from heat stroke so they could laugh at your college-boy ass.

I remember Kenny sneering and offering what to him was the harshest put-town he could make of the wealthy wanna-be farm-boy son of the wealthy businessman owner of the farm. "The sun's not his blood," he said.

There's a lot to be learned from putting up hay, aside from the lessons of the punishing labor required. You really do have to act when conditions are right. It's a shit load of work at a time when everyone else is vacationing, but you're stacking away loads of stored-up energy. You've got to cut it, you got to let it dry, rake it, bail it. It's like the feeling of stacking cord wood while the weather is still hot in September. You're so in touch with the seasons and the cycles that you practically want to just stop speaking altogether. The sun is your blood.

We've been big fans of Gerry Rafferty here. I'm not sure if the sun was his blood. But there was definitely something other than blood in there. That might be why he wound up at a London hospital being treated for liver problems last year. And then the story of his escape to Tuscany showed that the Scottish singer had a lot of sense. Maybe he'd stored up some energy years before and was getting the last laugh, living off his labors from earlier days.

This tune, "Jose," is off of Stealers Wheel's greatest hits. I love the fact that these guys were produced by Lieber and Stoller, doesn't make any sense, but I love it. This tune is in fact written by Joe Egan, the other half of the band. I'm officially on the lookout for Egan's 1979 solo debut, Back on the Road, if anyone spies any moldy vinyl by that name.

"Jose" is great for a number of reasons. It starts out with about three red herring instrumental blues-zombie parts, none of which actually make sense as lead-ins to the actual tune. And the song is really about how it's time to turn the hay. There's some hard-learned Scottish focus in there. Your life is a mess, but you got to get up and get to it.

"Jose" - Stealers Wheel

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Say Uncle, Part Two: Here's Johnny!

     A while back I wrote this post about Uncle Bill, an old family friend (my parents just visited him and his wife in Germany, and they had a great time).  On a recent visit to NYC and VT, I found this record (I still have some in my old apartment in the city, where my brother and his wife reside) and it made me think of another uncle--Uncle Johnny, my mom's younger brother.  He was an erstwhile folk-singer back in the '60s and '70s--the kind that scoffed at Neil Young's success with "Heart of Gold".  More of an amateur ethno-musicologist, I guess.  He'd come up to visit us in his orange VW bus (which eventually caught fire somehow and burned up) and at some point he would haul out his hammered dulcimer--the big guns. He played guitar too, and wrote some pretty clever songs--there was one which gently lampooned the back-to-the-land types:
                         Marvin tills the soil, he's livin' naked out on the land
                         He only eats what he can grow, they call him Organo-Man
                         The strangest thing about Marvin is, I'll never understand
                         I saw him out just the other day with an ice-cream in his hand
     There was a time when Uncle Johnny was breeding Siamese cats, and he brought a couple with him.  One of them got so freaked out that it ran up in the rafters of our still-unfinished house and refused to come down.  So, we ended up with a pet Siamese cat by default.  In short, a real character:  Tall, with long black curly hair, glasses and eyes that always seemed to be bugging out of his head.  But a really good-hearted person.  He would always send us records at Christmas, and they were invariably by people we had never heard of--obscure folkies, primarily.  That's how we got the Joe Hickerson disc.  I'm not sure how it ended up at my brother's apartment.  (He gave us a couple of records by a guy named Ed Lipton, who did children's songs--"Fly, Hippopotamus, Fly" and "Jump, Elephant, Jump" are two song titles that spring to mind.  I don't think he ever experienced Raffi-type success).  
     My brother and I were always inclined to make fun of the music on the records Uncle Johnny sent us (then again, we were inclined to make fun of just about anything), but I eventually grew to like some of Joe Hickerson's stuff.  It probably requires growing up and becoming interested in music of the old, weird America.  Hickerson's delivery is a bit stilted--he really sounds like the folk scholar that he is--but there's something sort of charming about that.  Anyway, the songs don't suffer too much from it.  I like Rolling of the Stones in particular.  It has a really haunting melody and lyrics that leave you scratching your head (I'm pretty sure it's a Child ballad).  Shingling the Rum-Seller's Roof is funny--it's both an anti-alcohol tune and a good drinking song, and it's a metaphor I want to start using more often.  The record came out in 1976, on the Folkways label (appropriately enough).