Redemption Song

I just read an article about Bob Marley and his legacy, and the take-away seems to be that aside from making a huge amount of money, nobody can make heads or tails of it. What does it mean? Who was Bob Marley and what does he represent? Why is his face on a bottle of iced tea? Marley has somehow managed to be all things to all people, which makes it profitable to put his face on literally any product, and yet doesn’t take anything away from the impact of his best music. Ironically, for such a ubiquitous face, Marley’s work remains poorly known. There are about ten hit songs, of which this is one, that are universally known. There is a huge body of albums that are almost never written or spoken about as part of popular music history, though they are essential and far more powerful than the hits. Most people couldn’t name a single one of his studio albums, though they may be attracted to his brightly colored paraphernalia. His personal legacy is poorly understood as well; a lot has been written about his life, but we don’t really know who he was as a person or how he actually would have wanted his legacy to be remembered. That’s because he’s dead and can’t speak up for himself, and his family and associates offer conflicting testimonies. Obviously, he had no way of knowing just how much his family would benefit from untrammeled capitalism, or what his music would mean in a world that stays the same as much as it changes. Maybe the legacy needs explaining, maybe it’s enough that people want to buy Bob Marley branded bongs not only because they like pretty colors but also because they sense that the brand represents something noble. In the collective mind Bob Marley represents everything that’s vaguely good and vaguely noble. For some people, he still represents the specific things he worked for and cared about. What matters is that his music still matters. And also, you know what? There’s worse heroes to idolize, worse families to give your money to, worse vague ideals to subscribe to, and whether you want to signal that you believe in the redemptive power of music in helping mankind overcome the insufferable,¬†or just ‘good vibes, man’, by all means, put a Bob on it.

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Ramrod

Let’s celebrate a few wholesome all-American pleasures: cars, arena rock, sax solos, football, the Italian mafia, late night talk shows, denim, HBO, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are emblematic of all those things and more. So forget your poverty and crippling depression for a while. Take a load off and do what Working Class Joe’s have done since time immemorial; go out drinking in your car on the weekend. Take the car downtown to go drinking. Go drinking and pick up girls downtown in your car. Cash your paycheck, pick up your baby and go downtown in your car. Drinking. Downtown. On the Weekend. In your car. With your girl. Or something. I have no idea, actually. I think Bruce Springsteen wants you to drink and drive. Nothing more wholesome and All-American than drinking and driving. You should go do that.

Rain Rain Rain

There’s a biography of Roxy Music called Unknown Pleasures. I haven’t read it, but I like the title. It sums up the Roxy Music mystique rather nicely. There’s the obvious snob appeal, of course; Roxy Music’s pleasures are not widely known, and that’s its own appeal. Once discovered, though, it’s a rich world of glamour and seduction. Everything about Bryan Ferry, from his bangs to his taste in graphic design, implies a worldliness beyond the ordinary. Perhaps he goes home and eats last week’s leftovers in front of the TV like a normal person, but there’s nothing about him that implies mundane living, and who wants a mundane star? Stars are cheap nowadays precisely because they’ve become so open about the sandwiches in their pantry. Mystique, on the other hand, is in short supply. There really aren’t very many stars who can be imagined living a life of haute couture, private back street cabarets, and Ming vases full of cocaine – and that includes the fashion professionals whose job is to upsell that exact fantasy. I, for one, want that fantasy.

Quiche Lorraine

I’m an absolute sucker for songs about pets. Forget love songs about humans; human loves do nothing but let you down. Animals will never let you down. Every animal companion deserves to be immortalized in song. If that was the case, the world of music would be a lot cuter. Few groups injected as much undiluted silliness into the music world as The B-52’s, so it’s no surprise that they’re also responsible for one of the greatest all-time dog songs. I have no idea if Quiche La Poodle was a real dog or not, but I’d like to imagine so. A miniature poodle dyed neon colors sounds like a very Fred Schneider thing to have. Or maybe I’m mistaken and he secretly has very refined and somber tastes in real life, in which case it would be just a regular colored poodle. Anyhow, Quiche La Poodle is a great character, real or not. She should be in a children’s book. Then we’d finally find out what happened to her. Which, if you haven’t listened to the song very closely though, I have to break to you: in the second half, Quiche escapes and runs away and we never get to find out if she ever comes back. So it’s actually kind of more of a metaphor for a human relationship, from the delight of being in love to the resentment of being left alone. Some people do invest those kinds of feelings onto their pets, though, and some people, conversely, treat their loved ones like animals, so it works either way. And either way it’s hilarious.

Push Push

Here’s a rare live Black Uhuru performance. Not dated, but appears to be sometime in the early 80’s, probably near the release of Sinsemilla. That album is one of Black Uhuru’s finest and an absolute must-have for Reggae fans. Or, really, just an across-the-board classic beyond the confines of genre. Reggae often gets shafted as some kind of ‘special interest’ music, either targeted to stoners or lost under the broad ‘world music’ umbrella. I’ve always tried to promote Reggae for its political relevance, rather than its better known fun side, and Black Uhuru has always been my prime example. Their music is undeniably fun, but the social consciousness of their writing is their real strength. What do they want you to push til you push it over? The racist slave-economy capitalist system of oppression, of course, though they wouldn’t phrase it quite that dry.

Private Life

You can feel sorry for anyone who gets on the bad side of Grace Jones. She seems like someone who suffers no fools, especially the male kind. She’s a goddess who puts weak mortals in their place with one withering glance. And this is the ultimate withering put-down song, taking aim at the specific narcissism found in entertainment types. The types who can’t tell where the spotlight ends, the types who confuse their own mediocre selves with the characters they play for the public. Those are the one who need to get shot down hardest. Who better to do that than a woman who’s rubbed shoulders with the glitziest glitterati from Warhol’s New York to Saint Laurent’s Paris? Of course, to give credit where no one remembers to, the song was actually written by Chrissie Hynde, who has rubbed shoulders with plenty of friends in low places herself. But Grace Jones has walked away with songs belonging to the likes of Piaf; Chrissie Hynde had no choice but to accept second best.

Private Idaho

I think it says everything about The B-52’s aesthetic that they performed on television with duct tape on their instruments (you can see a clear close up of Ricky Wilson’s mended guitar near the end of the video below.) They didn’t mind looking trashy like that because trash was their thing; fright wigs, thrift store dresses, the dregs of 1960’s pop culture. And most important to their success, total joy. They were really a tall cold drink of loopy juice at a time when most bands took their posturing very seriously. Rock star posturing is fun, though! Camp is fun! Wigs are fun! Inspiring edgy movies about male prostitutes with mommy issues is fun! Ok, you lost me at Gus Van Sant, but whatever, it’s all in fun.