Tom Waits before he went full-weird (was still weird but) really flaunted the true nature beneath the weirdness: an ooey-gooey starry-eyed hopeless romantic and a great documentarian of American life. Before he settled into his current persona – a mad carnival barker from an alternate universe where the Great Depression never ended – he was basically… Bruce Springsteen. Up until their paths diverged in the 80’s, those two practically shared the same diner booth, so to speak. They were both gravely-voiced troubadours in porkpie hats who sang about the plight of sad and lonely people (and also occasionally covered each other’s material.) Tom Waits is in own way as much of an Americana buff as anyone. If his songs evoke images as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting, it’s probably because he’s spent a lot of time looking at Edward Hopper paintings. He’s not the bard of the working class like Springsteen is. He’s the bard of the people below that, the dimebag hobos and floozies and all-night-diner wenches and the old men who sit on corner stoops all day because they’ve got no place else to go – people who live in a world where the Great Depression literally never ended. And he sees them with a sympathetic eye and he understands that what those people really want is some love and a little dignity and someone to listen to their stories. Everyone in those all-night diners and bus stations and wet street corners is just looking for a warm body and a sympathetic ear, and maybe some whiskey too.
More Roxy Music, because Roxy Music is the soundtrack of my life and if you haven’t guessed yet, I spend as much time curating the soundtrack of my life as I do living my life. That’s because life is such that there’s days and weeks destined for the cutting room floor for every moment that ends up in the highlight reel. Music just adds the illusion that there’s something meaningful going, an old trick filmmakers like to rely on. If the music is Roxy Music, I can pretend there’s something glamorous and poetic running through my life.
“I can always pretend that I’ll fall in love again…”
As you all know, I have a real weak spot for Roxy Music. They make me feel like I have feelings! Feelings are gauche, of course, but I enjoy the concept. Of course I love things that are suave and depressing as well. I love the intersection of the sleazy and the poetic. I love when sincerity comes dressed in a suit of ironic detachment. I love a whiff of the Romantic aesthetic. I love romantic downfall. The seductive value of sadness and of sad posturing. Posturing sadly while dressed seductively. I like the idea of seduction as a high-concept game akin to chess, as opposed to a game of shoot-the-ducky.
Sorry to disappoint our hunters of literary allusions. This song actually predates the Stephen King novel of the same title by two years. That novel was a prescient dystopia that predicted the bleak futurism of popular franchises like the Hunger Games series, and um, a lot of our current reality too, unfortunately. Which is also on-theme with Al Stewart’s song, which is why I had guessed that the song may be in allusion to the book. But then I checked the release dates. Stewart’s song is, I guess, about the cold war, or the war war. It may be about a spy or a criminal, but my guess is the man’s a political dissident, which would be a very legit reason to be on the run from shadowy forces, and also very definitely something Al Stewart would be into researching.
If there’s one literary allusion that people never seem to get tired of, it’s Shakespeare’s play about the two kids who fell in love and killed themselves. It’s become a collective byword for romance, even though, as a love story, it’s not very encouraging. Well, I’ve never understood it, but I don’t have much use for either romantic cliche or Elizabethan dialogue. Thankfully, in this case, the allusion doesn’t grate on me. I love Dire Straits, and smart writing is one of the things I love them for. It would take an idiot to think that Romeo and Juliet represent happy romance, and Mark Knopfler is not an idiot, and he uses the allusion to signal romantic failure. That’s not exactly accurate, either, since the titular characters didn’t fail at romance in the traditional sense, but it works. The romance crashed and burned, maybe not on the level of suicide and murder, but enough to look like a tragedy to the writer at least. That I can relate to a little.
Watch Bruce Springsteen – 31 years old – spin a near-universal tale of midlife disappointment. Springsteen understood something that fabulously successful rock star type people generally just can’t grasp; that in reality, most people’s lives are not much more than a series of dead ends. Dead-end hometowns, dead-end jobs, dead-end marriages. Even for those who don’t hobble themselves right out of the gate with teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings, life soon becomes a rut of just getting by and getting through the day with not much to dream about except the past. And for a lot of people, that kind of inertia is just fine. It’s not fine for anyone who ever imagined that their life would be better than their parents’ and their peers’, that there would be passion and excitement, or that change would at least be an option. But changing and getting better is not an option in a lot of people’s lives. There’s no better job to apply for, no better town to move to, no happier relationship to build. They can’t choose to walk through that door because that door simply doesn’t exist. And even if we’re not among the number of folks trapped in dead mining or factory towns with nothing to turn to but opiods, the burden of not being able to do better is still felt, because the expectation of betterment is very rarely met. Because crushing inequality is an inbuilt part of society, and that is more true now than it was in 1980. Which makes Bruce Springsteen, of all people, the most relevant songwriter for our time, something none of us could have foreseen. We used to dismiss Springsteen as a poseur in distressed jeans, pandering to some imaginary Joe-working-class fantasy of American masculinity. But that was in more culturally and economically optimistic times. Now it’s clear that he speaks to all of us, in this very real wintery state of American discontent. It’s not just small town Joe whose life is a dead-end. American life in general is a dead-end. It’s a dead-end for nearly everyone, just an endless cycle of the same vicious, toxic knee-jerk political arguments and economic dysfunction. We’re all living in a Bruce Springsteen song, and it’s not one of the fist-pumpy ones.
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.