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.
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.
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.
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.
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.