Pusherman

I have never seen the film Super Fly. I’m not sure what value 70’s Blaxploitation movies still have, except as relics of a more optimistic (and far more colorfully dressed) time in black culture. I’m not sure where the line lies between celebration and exploitation, and I’m not sure where movies like Super Fly would fall, in terms of social value. Their fashion value still lives on, obviously, though mostly in problematic and cynical ways. But if there’s one thing Blaxploitation movies gave the world, it’s some great music. In fact, Super Fly means more in the history of music than it does movies. Who cares about the movie when we have Curtis Mayfield’s famous soundtrack? Mayfield successfully navigated his career from innocuous Motown crooner to politically conscious singer and songwriter, and he helped open up the horizons of what funk and soul music could be about. The Super Fly soundtrack is his best known record and Pusherman is a signature classic. You could say, as people have said about the film as well, that it glamorizes the role of the drug dealer. But it’s not the voice of a man celebrating how bomb-ass fly he is; there are plenty of musicians who make bank glamorizing the hell out of the shitty former lives couldn’t run away from fast enough, but Mayfield is not one of them. It’s the tone of a man who knows his position in life and knows how the world sees him. “I’m that nigger in the alley” he sings, knowing that somebody has to be. He’s indispensable, a pillar of the community in his own fucked-up way. But no matter how much money he makes, no matter how fly his suits are or how souped up his car, he will always a scumbag loitering in an alleyway. Even if he went straight, even if he’d never started selling in the first place, he’d still be in the same spot, in the eyes of the world. Afros and pimp suits have cycled in and out of relevance, but the message of the song doesn’t resonate any less. Somebody has to be that man in the alley.

Pumping (My Heart)

Despite my admiration for Patti Smith, I have to admit that I’m not much of an expert on her. I mostly listen to the Land collection aka the hits. Smith is a difficult artist, though. Her highs are fierce, without doubt, but her more boundary pushing material can be more unpleasant than interesting, and she’s overly fond of sad dirges. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat and listened to her divisive Radio Ethiopia. Heck, maybe I never really have. It’s a not-fun album to listen to, at least according to a lot of critics. Or it’s uniquely challenging and rewarding, according to others. Either way, this song is a highlight. It’s got that feral energy that Smith became famed for, the combination of hidden soul and aggressive loudness.

Psycho Killer

Ah, the song that taught us all how to say Je me lance vers la gloireOK. Personally, I love both songs with incongruous lines of foreign language and songs about killing people, so this is just two of my favorite things together right here. Plus all of the other obvious glories of Talking Heads. I find it interesting that this song has been knocking around, in various iterations, since Byrne and co’s art school days; because when you’re a group of art school students trying to start a band, you would obviously bypass all the usual dumb shit about love and humping that less intellectual mortals fill their little notebooks with (and what good are notebooks!) No, you drop the training wheels and head straight for the big-kids’ stuff, and you write a song from the perspective of a frustrated serial killer and you write the chorus in French. And of course that song becomes your breakout hit and one of your most famous tunes and your tetchy neurotic smart-guy persona is in place for life.

Psalm

I’ve been listening to this song repeatedly lately, and pretty much in general throughout my life and have always found it very meaningful. If the title doesn’t tip you off, yes, it’s about faith and redemption, which are things Roxy Music fans are in need of after their inflatable pleasures have worn thin. Interestingly enough, when I was younger, I somehow completely missed the religious implications, explicit as they are. The idea of interpreting the lyrics spiritually never occurred to me, heathen as I am. For a very long time, what I heard was not an ode to Jesus, but a homoerotic ode to another man. The lines about trying on his coat and walking in his garden? Homoerotic. The lines about someday making his house your home? Homoerotic, while also possibly angling to subsume a rival man’s identity, Talented Mr. Ripley-style. Now, that’s not entirely a far stretch; the language of religious praise very often overlaps with the language of romance, and if you’ve ever studied art you may have noticed the loving care lavished on Christ’s naked torso in all of those Crucifixion paintings. But I think most faith-based people very strongly prefer not to make that overlap any more explicit, despite the best efforts of lapsed Catholics like Madonna. Meanwhile, in a more specific context, as far as I know, Bryan Ferry is a pretty solid not-gay on the Kinsey scale. But the idea of a vaguely homoerotic obsession and rivalry narrative appeals to me a lot more than one about finding God’s grace. So if you’re making another man’s house your home, it’s because you’ve seduced him and stole his identity, and you’re sliding down to the singles’ bar in a tuxedo of lies.

Promises

Can we rescue this from soft rock radio cliche oblivion? Or have you heard this in too, too many supermarkets? Also, can we reevaluate Eric Clapton’s legacy? Nobody really thinks he’s God anymore, thankfully. That kind of hyperbole is bound to inspire backlash, and now ‘Clapton is overrated’ is the new ‘Clapton is God.’ I’d say that Clapton falls somewhere in the middle, a bit closer to the former in my opinion. I’ve always considered him a minor artist, but I know that the world thinks he’s a  major one. Though it does seem that having one great blues song and a lot of soft rock hits doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. But maybe we can enjoy that soft rock for what it is, without spitting on it for over-familiarity.

The Promised Land

Bruce Springsteen is very relevant right now. He’s a major American artist who never tires of reminding us that the American Dream really kind of blows. The dream has been looking particularly hollow lately, and a lot of us are feeling let down and at loose ends. We feel depressed and weak, we feel like we’re driving in circles, living pointless lives with no promise of betterment. Sometimes we secretly hope that a tornado will just come and blow us all away. Yeah, the promised land sucks. But we continue to stubbornly believe in it, because most of us ain’t got nothing better to believe in.

Pretty Girls

Joe Jackson has written about a great many things and explored many different musical directions, but his best known and most popular album remains Look Sharp! and I think it’s accessible for a reason. It’s not exactly a concept album, but it’s definitely a theme album. The theme is ‘angsty and alone’. This song is very much on theme; it’s the complaint of the disgruntled single guy, awash in desire and resentment. It’s selfish and childish and mean, and it’s damn near universal. The world is a cornucopia of beautiful women who are out of your league, and deep down inside, you know that your style and wit will never make up for your unfortunate lack of a chin. Now, obviously, this line of thinking is a dark and dangerous rabbit hole lined with fedoras, but it’s still something everybody has experienced to some extent. And this kind of post-teenage angst is exactly why the three-minute pop song was invented. Like, literally.