Now the music divides us into tribes.
My horse “Modern Song” came in 20 to 1 at Del Mar. I had sixty bucks to spend back on art and song. In a West Coast coffee joint I bought three records: Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs;” then a re-mastered version of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and finally, Jimmy Webb’s new one: “Just Across the River.” Three explorations into modern song. Arcade Fire, an indie band from Canada, sings up life and death in suburbia. The songs are decent. There’s the usual wispy, indie vocal sound – and the hand-printed lyric book which implies “ah, gee whiz, here’s our poetry.” That’s ok. It works as a soundtrack for this “indie age.” Tolerable good.
Then I put on Sergeant Peppers’. Luckily I put it on second. My God. Have not listened to this in 20 years. I assumed it would sound like a dated psychedelic artifact. Naw. This is a record about loneliness, depression, age, death, suicide…masked in a circus-musico format. The end of the world at Coney Island, with raunch guitars, superb vocal arrangements, and gut wrenching singing. It’s the Beatles, of course. Unfair to compare them with anyone else. This was like finding a forgotten Van Gogh in the closet. The record was recorded on a four track tape machine 33 years ago. Where has our technology taken us? I would borrow from William S. Burroughs in inferring that modern digital technology may be leading us toward boredom and oblivion… much like the Burroughs’ character who taught his anus to talk as a circus trick. Pretty soon the anus talked by itself and the man’s mouth and brain atrophied. But, ah, this Peppers record! Bob Dylan is pictured on the cover next to Simon Rodia, the man who built the Watts Towers. It’s modern carny folk art. Dig.
Then I put on Jimmy Webb. Only Webb could have written pop standards about a Wichita telephone Lineman; a lovesick guy cleaning his gun and dreaming of Galveston (recorded here with Lucinda Williams), and a man who leaves his girl on the West Coast and drives across the Southwest, singing up the lonely landscape - like songline-walking aboriginals. Webb is able to compose short odes to the common man; with a “pop” feel. His songs manifest the lyrical and melodic qualities of intelligent, hip Broadway show songs. It’s hard to pull off. They’re built to last forever. Like 1959 Cadillacs.
The three records rotated around the truck radio. Finally, to clean the palette, I put in an old record by flamenco singer Camaron de La Isla. Camaron was junkie who died twenty years ago in Spain. 100,000 people attended the funeral. He is sainted.This is guttural, throat bleeding gypsy soul, to the rhythm of hand claps and hammer on anvil. Primal. Not for the faint of heart. Subterranean. Moorish. Ole! Cante hondo! Modern Song.
(Jimmy Webb and Jesse Winchester will be on our January train: see: www.rootsontherails.com)