Kraftwerk predicted a future in which the melodies that humans groove to are machine-tooled like car parts in a factory. And lo, so it has come to pass. It’s a pretty simple formula, it turns out, to simulate the note progressions that stimulate our emotional expressions. People like having their needs serviced by robots, unsurprisingly. What hasn’t come to pass, however, is people behaving like robots. Humans still behave in chaotic, senseless ways, totally at the mercy of the hormonal flux of their emotions and with no logical regard towards their own better interests. In that sense, the “man-machine” of sci-fi predictions remains purely fantastical.
The new year officially starts now. For most people it stated two weeks ago, but we run on our own schedule. I made the same resolution I make every year: to be more productive, creative, and inspired, in thought and action, every day. As far as inspiration goes, it’s hard to find a better example of a life well lived than Patti Smith. Talk about living the artist’s life, beyond expectations, on her own set of rules. Smith really exploded the boundaries of her time, with the way she chose to live, the way she dressed, the way she wrote and performed. As with most iconoclasts, it was probably less a conscious desire to be iconoclastic, than a helpless inability to be anything else. It was break boundaries, or die or go insane butting up against them. Living fearlessly and being yourself are the kind of cliches that you find on a throw pillow, but those ideas haven’t always been monetized. They used to be real ideas that galvanized people into doing crazy things. That’s the kind of real life inspiration I’m looking for.
Blues songs about leaving home are their own subgenre. Blues singers are always getting on a train to go off anywhere except where they are. And the tradition goes back even further, to the days of traveling bards who sang about their travels. It’s like the precursor of #travelporn except drunk and depressing, and possibly on the run from the law. So any musician who fancies himself steeped in the blues has to play at least one semi-traditional song about lighting out. Dire Straits were known as a blues-based band who modernized blues-based music for their era, but this is one of their most conventional takes on blues. Despite being conventional, they do it really well, of course, but it’s mainly notable for not being notable.
Peter Tosh is kind of a forgotten giant. He was founding member of The Wailers and recorded some classic albums as a solo artist, but he hasn’t been able to promote himself and grow his legacy on account of being dead. Now, Bob Marley is dead too, but apparently his heirs and offspring are thorsty and business savvy above and beyond most people’s capabilities. I don’t see whoever’s in charge of Tosh’s estate trying to plaster his face on a line of vanity bongs. I suspect, though, that Tosh would have found that sort of aggressive profiteering very vulgar and antithetical to his philosophy. It’s better to be well known to a few for the power of your message than vaguely known to the masses for nothing more than the image of your face.
“I was kind of making fun of Arista Records” who had “asked for a mid-tempo ballad with a saxophone…They wanted a song that could be played on the radio, [so] very tongue-in-cheek I wrote…’Song on the Radio’. I thought they’d [get that] I was actually joking, but of course they didn’t & …put it out as a single [which] made the Top 30, [so] the joke was on me because I screwed up a preposition” – referring to the opening lines “I was making my way through the wasteland/ The road into town passes through” which ends with a preposition – “Worse, I used the same word [through] twice in the same sentence.” – Al Stewart
This is why I love Al Stewart so damn much. He has a hit single and he’s embarrassed that he made a grammatical mistake. Never mind that most hit singles are just a series of words that barely hang together. Al Stewart’s songs have to be able to double as an academic submission. Stewart proves that even when being ironic, he actually does know how to write a radio-friendly hit song: lead strong with a sax solo, declare the depth and passion of your love, don’t mention Hitler.
It’s Bruce Springsteen being Bruce Springsteen and not much has changed from 1978. The 70’s weren’t great economically, I’ve heard, and not particularly stable politically. It was an angst-filled decade, especially in its final years, and it inspired a variety of cultural reactions. From the escapism of disco to the rage of punk, pop culture reflected a lot of common dissatisfaction. It was great inspiration for a writer like Springsteen, who noticed that, overall, Americans were not leading great lives. Americans may have enjoyed a few years of booming postwar prosperity and a collective spirit of optimism, but that had all burned itself out by the end of the 70’s, and although there have been periods of progress, peace and prosperity since that time, we’ve continued to see increasing economic disparity, political strife and general feelings of hopelessness. Which is, again, great news for people whose life’s work is writing sad songs about the bleakness of the heartland. It’s kept Bruce Springsteen relevant to a degree nobody could have predicted when he was just another earnest singer-songwriter in a newsboy hat.
“Because we couldn’t remember their bloody names” Keith Richards famously joked about the title of the record, and if the double-down of sordid groupie cliches in the lyrics felt somewhat like a desperate attempt by the Stones to be demonized as rock’s worst bad boys once again, well, it worked. They pissed off the women and they pissed off Jesse Jackson. Then they pulled the old “but it’s satire!” card. In 1978, apparently, you could still confidently claim that the freedom to be racist and sexist – purely as an artistic statement, of course – was an act of sticking-it-to-the-man nonconformity. You can’t take that position anymore, of course, but the mindset persisted right up until, oh, about yesterday, it feels like. It’s exhausting, and not necessarily helpful, to go on debating whether or not some piece of art is qualified satire, a cry for attention, or the unexamined product of a sick mind. I would say that if anything, it’s a work of cultural anthropology by somebody who’s done their due diligence and their research, plowing women from all walks of life all over the world. If Mick Jagger says that black girls just wanna get fucked all night, he would know.