Category Archives: Music

Complicated Game is James McMurtry’s Best

This is also McMurtry's best album cover

This is also McMurtry’s best album cover

 

James McMurtry, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and author of this site’s name, has been more or less writing the same two or three songs about the same characters for 25 years. On his newest album, the best of his career, he seems to have finally come to terms with this, doubling down on his portrayal of that restless middle-aged westerner wondering where it all went and putting aside everything else. The result is stunning.

Complicated Game, McMurtry’s first studio album in seven years, delivers what McMurtry listeners expect: fantastic wordplay, vivid depictions of country life that put contemporary spins on old country and rock troupes, laugh out loud lines (“I’m washing down my blood pressure pill with a red bull”), and that voice of restrained fury that makes every soft line feel like a strained neck muscle. But what’s different here is McMurtry’s focus on the one theme that informs his best songs: life slipping away.

On this album he relentlessly attacks you with the uncertainty of middle age, the idea that youth and life just sort of gave an Irish goodbye at some point, the fear that some unifying culture has dissolved with no replacement and the burden of unrelenting compromise that hangs over all of his characters. Where once McMurtry seemed to offer solutions in various forms: flight, anger (especially political anger), depression, violence, love, he now he seems to be saying that the fleeting feeling of helplessness we feel as our lives are constructed by someone else IS life. This affords him more opportunity to do what he does better than any song-writer on the planet: survey scenes of barely contemporary America and report back in beautiful couplets.

There’s equal measure solace and despair as it all slips away, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Nothing is easy, there are no shortcuts: even the most radio friendly song on the album, the finger-snapping, sweetly picked “She Loves Me” is about a man who is sure (or is he?) that his lover will leave the man he’s given her permission to sleep with when he does in fact return from an unspecified absence. (“He’s a parking lot attendant at a fancy restaurant/He rides his brother’s Harley, and he gives her what she wants/He knows his days are numbered, as far as she’s concerned/She’ll vote him off the island the minute I return/ Because she loves me”) Even pure love is a trade-off, a negotiation (“It was part of our agreement/I signed off on the deal/I must admit I never saw it happening for real/because she loves me”).

Lyrically, McMurtry has populated this album with about seven perfectly written songs (most of his albums give you two or three) and it’s hard not to think this is in some way related to the fact that he has unplugged the band and put away all the bells and whistles of the studio. The sound is stripped down, although to imply that McMurtry has simply made some sort of folk album would be incorrect. There’s plenty of rhythms, but there is no sign of the excess or that extra instrument too many that has resulted in a few missteps on the last couple of albums. Everything is tighter here, more live sounding, and it feels like McMurtry is more sure of himself, a little more self-aware about what he does well. And what he does very best are those long, meandering narratives that are tied to a specific time and place, that in spite of having a very clear, beginning middle, and end, just sort of end up back where they started.

“South Dakota” starts off with a soldier getting told his tour in the Middle East is up, flying into Stuttgart, then home. Nowhere here is there any political statement one way or another, it’s just a kid coming home – happily – to South Dakota after a job is completed. He meets up with his brothers (“we got way deep in our cups”) and the chorus is his brother asking him what he’s going to do next, while saying maybe he should think about going back. (“There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/ And barb wire won’t stop the wind/ you won’t get much here but drunk and older/ you might as well re-up again”). Nothing is resolved. “Long Island Sound” starts off with a pretty great country verse about the difference between southern states, before McMurtry breaks a temporary fourth wall and says that he “wrote that verse for the kids, but I never did sing it/ I filed it way and forgot it in time/ My old guitar sits in the back bedroom closet/ Next to the shotgun I got when I was nine” which is a pretty incredible description of how far ago things like singing cowboys seem, before he talks about having to deal with traffic on the Cross Island Parkway.

It only gets better from there, but it really is the heart of the album, the idea that things have slipped away and become domesticated (rarely does he journey as far East as NYC), but there’s no use being angry about it. The chorus is about drinking and having another round. It’s about enjoying life as it fades away.

But of course, McMurtry would never let us off easy and just end the album there. The album ends not on “Long Island Sound” but the next song, “Cutter.” It’s about somebody cutting himself in order to deal with, well, everything.

There are many ways to deal. I choose listening to James McMurtry.

 

Here are the lyrics to “Long Island Sound,” just because.

 

New Mexico’s lost on the back streets of Austin

Carolina keeps all her thoughts to herself

Tennessee’s tight, and he will not stop talking

Somebody shush him, before I have to myself

 

Wrote that verse for the kids

But I never did sing it

I filed it away and forgot it in time

My old guitar sits in the back bedroom closet

Next to the shotgun I got when I was nine

 

If I had any sense I’d be way across the Whitestone

I might as well sit here awhile for I start

Because when the 5:30 rush hits the cross island parkway

It’s not for the squeamish or the gentle of heart

 

I’d be stuck on the bridge in the right lane at sunset

Watching the boats with their snowy white sails

Watching the sun sinking over the projects

Laundry hung out off the balcony rails

 

And where are you now my long secret love?

Where have you gone in your glamorous life?

Where are you now as the moon comes arising?

Are you somebody’s love, are you somebody’s wife?

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

I don’t know what goes on in those crumbling brick buildings

There on the same planet, in a whole ‘nother world

I got a bay boat and a 401k

Two cars in the driveway, two boys and a girl

 

It doesn’t seem that long since we came up from Tulsa

Been here six years and I reckon we’ll stay

The company’s not bad as far as companies go

I still got the health plan and they’re raising my pay

 

And the kids all play soccer like nobody’s business

 My grandmother says we’re just letting them fall though

They don’t go to church, and we’re not gonna make ‘em

They all drop their R’s like the islanders do

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

I remember her singing from that dusty old hymnal

Smelled like tobacco from granddaddy’s pipe

That old rugged cross ‘till she shook down the shingles

You never heard such a noise in your life

 

I had a tire run low so I dug through the glovebox

I needed the manual to locate the jack

Found a couple old picks and .20 gauge shot shell

Left from a duck hunt a couple years back

 

Oh. My. God. Brilliant.

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

 

New Mexico’s lost on the back streets of Austin

Carolina keeps all her thoughts to herself

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The Top Ten Hold Steady Lyrics

The Hold Steady 071010 (268f)

The Hold Steady will release their 6th studio album Teeth Dreams on March 25th. To celebrate the newest album from my favorite band, I present the definitive list of the top ten Hold Steady lyrics.

A lot of my favorite Hold Steady lyrics didn’t make it into the top ten. For example, one of my favorite lyrics is: “She came into the ER/ Drinking gin from a jam jar/ And the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar.” That’s a great lyric. It’s from “Stevie Nix” on Separation Sunday, and I wrestled with whether to include it, but I decided against it because I wanted to use this list tp highlight the fact that Craig Finn, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, has written some of the best lyrical moments in rock and roll history, not just some of the best jokes or one liners. I want to show Finn the songwriter, and let’s be honest, a lot of his songs, although great, don’t hold together thematically as well as others in spite of containing a great lyric here or there. Some are a collection of great lyrics, some are great songs. I wanted to focus on the parts of the great songs that really move me and make me do things like listen to the band’s catalog on repeat and talk myself into the new album’s greatness in spite of pretty clear evidence that the band’s best days are behind them. But hell, I thought the same thing about David Ortiz.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some honorable mentions that didn’t make the list, along with the song they are from and album on which they appear. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some.)

“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/ I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” – “Citrus” from Boys and Girls in America

“How am I supposed to know if your high if you won’t let me touch you?/ How am I supposed to know if you’re high if you won’t even dance?” – “Chips Ahoy” off Boys and Girls In America.

“She got screwed up by religion/She got screwed by soccer players.” – “Stevie Nix” off Separation Sunday.

“We drink and dry up and and now we crumble into dust/ We get wet and we corrode and now we’re covered up in rust.” – From “Stuck Between Stations” off Boys and Girls in America.

“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/ It was kind of of sexy but it was kind of creepy/ Their mouths were fizzy with the cherry cola/ They had the privacy of bedsheets and all the other kids were mostly in comas.” – “Chillout Tent” off Boys and Girls in America.

“Seeing lousy movies but only for the AC/ Skimpy little outfits and bad guys acting crazy/ That’s how I know when you’re lying/ It looks just like overacting.” – “Hostile, Massachusetts” off Almost Killed Me.

“Yeah we didn’t go to Dallas / Because Jackie Onassis said / That it ain’t safe for Catholics yet/ Think about what they pulled on Kennedy/ Then think about his security/ Yeah, then think about what they might to pull on you and me.” – “Don’t Let Me Explode” off Separation Sunday.

“Killer parties almost killed me.” – “Killer Parties” off of Almost Killed Me.

“Getting older makes it harder to remember/ We are our only saviors/ We’re going to build something this summer.” – “Constructive Summer” from Stay Positive.

Without further ado, I humbly present…

 The Top Ten Hold Steady Lyrics

10. From “Knuckles” on Almost Killed Me:

“It’s hard to keep trying when half your friends are dying

It’s hard to keep it steady when half your friends are dead already

We had tax men coming around the back in the Kevlar vests

Militia men cooking up a batch of the crystal meth

We got wars going down in the middle west

We got wars going down in the middle western states

Kevlar vests against the crystal flakes.”

In a recent Grantland podcast,  Finn mentions that “Knuckles” is the first song the Hold Steady performed, so this seems like a pretty logical place to start. “Knuckles” overall is a bit uneven, and the gimmick that Finn uses throughout the song where he sings, “I’ve been trying get people to call me x, but people keep calling me y” gets a little repetitive, and the joke is sort of funny the first time, but not so much after. This part, however, is a perfect example of the really incredible song writing that happens on the first album when Finn gets a little less scatological and lets a few lines build on each other, which is something he does to greater and greater effect on the next two albums, Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, which are the band’s best.

But what makes this verse so great is the fact that he’s talking about a meth raid and manages to work in all of these great little subtleties. He uses “taxmen” instead of the DEA, or some other police agency, to represent the forces of law order, which is a great way of making the conflict a little more about money and a little less about legality. The fact that the dealers are “militia men” adds color and a strange sort of gang/ideological motivation that wouldn’t be present if the meth cookers were just dealers. He’s made both sides ostensibly political in their motivations, but of course the reality is they both represent money making operations. The thing is though, this song isn’t really political; in fact the Hold Steady have never been political at all. The only ideology in the Hold Steady universe is that redemption is a attainable, and that we are all sort of broken and bruised. That’s very Christian yes, and Finn uses Christian symbolism to make this message, but I ultimately don’t think it’s about Christianity or Christ as much as it’s about the larger truth that the Christian narrative gives us: that we are imperfect but capable of transcendence. The Christianity in Finn’s lyrics are about the redemptive power of rock and roll fellowship, and how the possibility of some limited kind of redemption through that fellowship is beset on all sides by rock and roll’s sins: the drugs, the violence, the partying, and the dishonest sex. But even these youthful indiscretions are part of the journey one must make to get to that place of wholeness and unity, what Finn calls the “unified scene.”

Good god, we’re only on the first one and I’m already talking about Craig Finn’s vision of heaven. Let’s quickly move on.

9. From “You Can Make Him Like You” on Boys and Girls in America:

“You don’t have to deal with the dealers

Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers

It only gets inconvenient

When you wanna get high alone

You don’t have to know how to get home

Let your boyfriend tell the driver the best way to go

It only gets kinda weird when you wanna go home alone

You don’t have to know the inspiring people

Let your boyfriend know the inspiring people

You can hang in the kitchen

Talk about the stars in the upcoming sequel.”

This verse is a scathing and sad indictment of women who define themselves by their lovers. It’s both mean toward the female subject while simultaneously being feminist. And it ends on an image that really makes me feel something close to despair every time I hear it, the image of a woman talking about stupid movies, in the kitchen, in the background, while the inspiring people are out of sight, presumably talking about more important things, their absence making the contrast that much more powerful. Don’t we all feel like that most of the time, that the inspiring people are somewhere else, changing the world while we debate meaningless pop culture? (Writes the guy putting a top-ten list for a specific band on his blog).

8. From “Certain Songs” on Almost Killed Me:

“B-1 is for the good girls and it’s ‘Only The Good Die Young’

C-9 is for the making eyes, it’s ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’

B-12 is for the speeders and D-4 is for the lovers

And the hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender’s friends

And they’re playing it again

And Ellen Foley gives ’em hope

And certain songs they get so scratched into our souls.”

You could probably choose a view different set of lyrics from this song, but this is my favorite. Finn’s vision of the jukebox as the great commonality between different groups of people, and the really clever way he goes about giving specific song examples with specific button examples, is even cooler than it looks. “B12 is for the speeders” is a great little line about vitamin B12 being an energy boost. Then “D4 is for the lovers” could be about the dopamine receptor D4, which, in addition to being a dopamine receptor, has been linked to bipolar disorder and addictive behavior, which are, I would say, the two most common traits of all Finn’s characters and certainly a pretty accurate medical diagnosis of what being in love is like, especially in Finn songs. Do I think Finn choose D4 on purpose for that reason? I have no idea. But it would be pretty awesome if he did.

“Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls” is as good as line about the power of not just music, but song specifically, as exists in rock and roll.

7. From “One for the Cutters” on Stay Positive:

“One drop of blood on immaculate Keds

Mom, do you know where your girl is?

Sophomore accomplice in a turtleneck sweater

Dad, do you know where your kids are?

Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars

Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars

It’s a cute little town, boutiques and cafes

Her friends all seemed nice, she was getting good grades

But when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different.”

As a subject, the town-gown split in college towns might not seem like the most compelling thing to write a song about, but using it as the context for a really tight narrative about a fight and what may or may not be a murder is surprisingly riveting. Finn uses an analysis of townies and the good rich girl who falls in with them to explore where questions of justice, class, gender, and innocence.

Also, “Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars” is an absolute hall of fame couplet.

6. From “Most People are DJs” on Almost Killed Me:

“Working backwards from the doctor to the drugs

From the packie to the taxi to the cabbie to the club

A thousand kids will fall in love in all these clubs tonight

A thousand other kids will end up gushing blood tonight

Two thousand kids won’t get all that much sleep tonight

Two thousand kids they still feel pretty sweet tonight

Yeah, I still feel pretty sweet.”

This verse at the end of “Most People Are DJs” is the songwriting equivalent of the long pull back shot at the end of a movie, when the camera retreats out of the apartment window and looks out over the city as it floats up to heaven. It’s the shot where the whole scene is surveyed before we fade to black, all the kids in the clubs, and all the possible ways their nights will end. Some of those endings will be dangerous or violent and will lead to visits to medical professionals, but some will also end in love. It’s a big ugly mess. But so is life.

We don’t know for sure if the “I” that still feels pretty sweet is the same person who went from the drugs to the doctor, but I like to think it is, because that means that he/she is okay. We take chances on love and joy. Sometimes we fail. That’s what life is. It should, in spite of everything, still feel pretty sweet.

5. From “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on Separation Sunday:

“Your little hoodrat friends been calling me again

And I can’t stand all the things she sticks into her skin

Like tiny ball point pens and steel guitar strings

She says it hurts but it’s worth it

Tiny little text etched into her neck, it says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins’

She’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back

Says damn right he’ll rise again

Yeah, damn right you’ll rise again

Damn right you’ll rise again.”

During the summer  summer of 2007, when I first started listening to the Hold Steady obsessively, I briefly had a job that was about a 40 minute drive from where I lived near my college campus. I can’t even count how many times I listened to “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”  during those drives to work, alone in the car driving north on 87 to Lake George, and screaming “Damn right you’ll rise again!” at the top of my lungs day after day. That verse always makes me feel a surge of something, something akin to religious fervor. Finn is describing a pretty broken girl, one of the many borderline personalities that populate his songs, and there’s something so beautiful about scratching a dirty homemade tattoo (that’s how I see it) promising redemption into your back. And then Finn agrees with her and with that dirty tattoo. It’s going to get better.

Rock and roll is different than just about any other kind of art, and anybody who has been to a Hold Steady show can attest to that. It’s beautiful, but it’s communal, it’s primal and emotional, and also capable of being philosophical. So when Finn sings “damn right you’ll rise again” it’s not a religious thing. I think he’s articulating the promise of rock and roll, that you can feel this communal exuberance again, that you can tap into the unique rock and roll euphoria that for a moment feels something like transcendence because rock and roll is always there for you. There will be another show down the road where you can touch it again, not matter how broken you might be, no matter how your parents, or the other kids at school, or your many personal and professional failures might discourage you.

4. From “Barfruit Blues” on Almost Killed Me:

“Half the crowds calling out for ‘Born to Run’

Half the crowd for ‘Born to Lose’

Baby we were born to choose

We’ve got that last call, bar band really, really, really big decision blues

We were born to bruise

We were born to bruise”

Not only is this another fine example of Finn’s ability to articulate the way rock and roll can mitigate life’s blows, it’s just a fantastic few lines that manage to give us a deep message about the nature of life (“Born to bruise” might be the most simple, clear-eyed, and yet hopeful three word depiction of humanity in music) but it also manages to show the band’s musical influences and the tension between them, with the crowd split down the middle in cheering for the populist rock and roll of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and the nihilistic-punk of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ “Born to Lose.” In the Hold Steady’s music you can find both Springsteen’s classic rock belief in the open road and its possibilities and as well as the racing power chord nihilism of punk. I think you could say Finn’s lyrics manage to combine Springsteen’s depiction of the people and places he grew up with and punk’s subversion and self-destruction. And the best part is Finn sets up these two songs as options, and then identifies himself as part of a bar-band, a third musical option, an imitator that can do little more than choose from somebody else’s music. Which is, you know, sort of bruising. But that music is making the crowd happy, they are, after all, calling out for it. So the decision is important, because people are waiting for their rock and roll fix, which even the humble bar band can deliver.

3. From “Hot Soft Light” on Boys and Girls in America:

“It started recreational

It ended kinda medical

It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles.”

This chorus from “Hot Soft Light” might be the best three lines ever written about drug use and addiction, which is saying a lot since that’s a topic rock and roll has not failed to cover at length and in depth. The only thing I can think of that’s close are these three lines from Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done”:

“I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/
A little part of it in everyone/
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.”

2. From “How a Resurrection Really Feels” on Separation Sunday:

“The Priest just kinda laughed

The Deacon caught a draft

She crashed into the Easter mass with her head done up in broken glass

She was limping left on broken heals

And she said ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?’ ”

The imagery of this moment is magnificent. Separation Sunday is a sort of concept album about Holly (short for Hallelujah) a confused, druggy hoodrat who dies and is then resurrected. And in this moment, in the final song of the album, Holly returns to the living. Finn plays this moment perfectly by not going to any of his usual bag of tricks; there’s no wordplay or bits of gutter philosophy here. Instead he paints a beautiful scene of a lost soul coming back to the church baring good news about the possibility of new life. Every word in this verse is perfect. It’s a beautiful, breathtaking bit of songwriting, and Finn’s lyrics combined with Tad Kubler’s fantastic riffs and solos make “How a Resurrection Really Feels” one of my favorite songs, period.

1. From “Stuck Between Stations” on Boys and Girls in America:

“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right

Boys and girls in America, they have such a sad time together

Sucking off each other at the demonstrations

Making sure their makeups straight

Crushing one another with colossal expectations

Dependent, undisciplined and sleeping late

She was a really cool kisser but she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian

She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend

He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration

Most nights are crystal clear but tonight it’s like he’s stuck between stations

On the radio.”

These are the first lyrics on the first track of “Boys and Girls in America” and it sets the tone for what is an amazing rock and roll album. If you haven’t heard the Hold Steady, this is the song I’m playing for you. This whole song is perfect, and lyrically there isn’t a single misstep. There’s just so much vivid imagery and ideas packed into this opening. It establishes the band’s literary chops by quoting Kerouac then immediately diving into the chaos and brutality of young love and the emptiness of fervent youthful belief (“sucking off each other at the demonstrations” is hilarious). Then it sort of beautifully turns these conflicts into an actual figure, a girl who can’t reconcile responsibility and seriousness with fun and sexuality, a bad girlfriend with half-ass beliefs who also happens to be an excellent dancer and kisser. And then it uses dehydration to stand in for the hollowness of drinking and drug abuse, all before using the whole mess of conflict to say that the combined effect is like being stuck between stations on the radio. Awesome. Failing to find a radio station is the perfect image for the first verse of this album to end with, as The Hold Steady’s previous album had been called “the best album you didn’t listen to last year” by multiple year end lists. When writing this song, the band itself was stuck somewhere off the radio dial and out of the public consciousness. That would not be the case after “Boys and Girls in America.”

(I’d love to hear any thoughts about the list, especially what I missed or got wrong. Let me know in the comments.)

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It’s finally here: Presenting the inaugural Another Beer Salesman Podcast!

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You knew that your life wasn’t complete. You knew something was missing, that true happiness was impossible until you figured out what it was. You tried to listen to your heart, but your heart was being a mute mystery. You didn’t know what you needed until you saw it, perfect and apart from you. Calling. Calling.

https://anotherbeersalesman.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/podcast-1.mp3

There it is. The name you wanted to call out, but didn’t yet know. The first, the inaugural, the best. This is it. The premier of the Another Beer Salesman podcast.

https://anotherbeersalesman.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/podcast-1.mp3

Isn’t it nice to know what you’ve been missing? You know, finally, the affliction. Now just take the pill, heal, and be one with the cosmos.

https://anotherbeersalesman.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/podcast-1.mp3

In this podcast to end all podcasts, I have the incomparable Brother Dan on to discuss Smokey Robinson live in Coney Island (which we agree is the most sexual concert we’ve ever seen), whether Tommy Heinsohn has another Celtics rebuild in him, Paul Pierce’s greatest buzz beater (in Al Harrington’s face!), and the top seven (not ten!) Bruce songs.

https://anotherbeersalesman.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/podcast-1.mp3

Enjoy!

 Subscribe in a reader

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Guru Chuck Klosterman answers questions from his Brooklyn faithful

Chuck Klosterman 2

I went to see Chuck Klosterman, critic, fiction writer, essayist, and dispenser of wisdom, speak at Bookcourt in Brooklyn on Wednesday night. The event was, ostensibly, a reading from his new book, “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”. He did read a pretty amusing essay from the book about someone he hated at a middle school basketball camp who went on to become a Major League pitcher, who, much to his frustration, is generally being credited with being the first Major Leaguer to stand up and say something about steroid use.  But that reading was maybe ten minutes. The rest of the time (a little more than an hour) he answered questions, which he made it clear could be about anything. He also made it clear he was used to a certain ratio of werewolf to drug questions.

Then the crowd of a few hundred people crammed into a bookstore in a density that would have displeased any Fire Marshall, most of which was in front of me and seemingly taller than me, began to ask questions. It was fascinating in that people came, very clearly, to ask Chuck questions. And he answered them beautifully, giving long answers without ever veering into boring or long winded, he kept it funny, he was intelligent and sharp without ever being a bit condescending or preachy. I had the sense that to the over-educated, hipsterish, atheist Brooklyn crowd, this was an opportunity to speak to a Guru of our day to day religion: pop culture. People asked very intelligent and perceptive questions about meaningless things, about Dwight Howard, Tim Tebow, Aaron Hernandez, Bill Simmons and Kanye West. (There was a surprising amount of sports questions).

I love Klosterman’s writing and he was great at having a funny and intelligent conversation with 3oo people.  But he has just as much direct knowledge as all of us about the things he talked about. It was his understanding, his perception of our shared reality that people came from miles to ask him about and hear him share. He’s a guru in a very literal sense.

Like any true guru, he confirmed my faith in him. When someone asked him about Kanye’s album he gave a long and interesting description of Kanye as someone who is doing the same thing as everyone else in his field, just doing it parallel to them. He also said that he is obsessed with “Yeezus,” and noted that he is obsessed with the album in a way he hasn’t been obsessed with an album since The Hold Steady’s 2005 sophomore masterpiece,”Separation Sunday.”

Oh, wise one. How correct you are. If there was ever an album to get obsessed with, that was it.

Here’s the most fun (although maybe not the best) song off the album. Enjoy the weekend. Don’t let the cops find it in your socks.

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None of us are from here, we just live here: Happy Fourth

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It’s the Fourth of July and I’m sitting on an early morning train that is passing through sunny New England hamlets and those verdant tunnels between them and I’m struck by the balls it took to carve those towns out of the wilderness. I’m also wondering whether we still have those collective balls, or if the comforts of the age have shrunken them like Maine ocean water.

But then I listened to James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” and I think we might actually be just fine.

All the grim realities of native genocide and the slave trade aside (and I know putting those things aside is a real white guy thing to do, but bear with me), what makes America unique is the fact that we are all descended from a massive genetic experiment that rewarded risk-taking and survival. My Mom’s ancestors came over on some boat shortly after the Mayflower, which means they were fucking crazy. You know how long that trip was? How bad did England have to be?

They,  like all the immigrants that followed them, had to have had a crazy sense of adventure and a belief in themselves and their ability to mold their future, otherwise they would have never even  tried to make it here. And that’s still true today, whether it’s people sneaking across the Mexican border, African immigrants working for minimum wage, Indian doctors, or Chinese engineers. These people are not timid, and do not accept the status quo they were born into. They roll the dice. That is why we need them.

(Quick aside: slavery brought people here unwillingly, but those who survived the unimaginable middle passage and had children were survivors through and through, and must have had an unbelievable resiliency. So although their journey here was not by choice they enriched the tough, adventuring aspects of the gene pool as well.)

We were a people from somewhere else, and we were on a mission to create a new world according to our desires and our hopes. Many horrible things have been done in the name of that mission but there are some beautiful things as well. But what makes us unique is not the result of our attempts at creating new society, but the basis for those attempts. We are descended from survivors, risk-takers, adventurers, and yes, crazy religious fanatics.  There were not a few idealists pushing for change. The whole society desired something new.

It is in this light that I present James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” on the Fourth of July. In 2009, Ron Rosenbaum proposed on Slate.com that McMurtry’s “Choctow Bingo” should be the new national anthem, and while “Choctow Bingo” is a masterpiece of musical storytelling, it’s clear-eyed survey of the rural middle and lower classes isn’t appropriate for an anthem. An anthem should be about our best qualities, it should inspire us to be better. But it also shouldn’t be overly idealistic, sentimental, or hyperbolic.

“I’m Not From Here” reminds us of what is best about America, which is the drive toward a brighter future, a better spot to stop the wagons over the next ridge. McMurtry might be the best song writer alive not named Dylan or Cohen, and it’s a quote from his “Live in Aught Three” album that gives this website its name. He has written blistering protest songs and realist depictions of the heartland that are some of the best social commentary in any artistic field. In “I’m Not From Here” he celebrates the drive of any people (although it’s hard not to see these people as particularly American) to leave a world behind and go find another one. It’s universal and about the past, but it’s also about the present, about people who see farmland turned into parking lots and decide to move on. It’s about the locals who have “long since moved away.” It’s also about the nature of stagnation, that some people move to the next place, and then can’t really understand why other people are moving on again. It’s a celebration of people who create their own destinies by packing up and going. But it’s an ambivalent celebration at best, since he understands and acknowledges that the drive itself is the thing that is followed, that the end result doesn’t necessarily matter. He seems to wonder if the point is lost in this confusion of means and ends, of this drive that might not really have a useful function anymore in a settled country.

But isn’t that what we are as a people? Totally confused about whether freedom, wealth, and equality are means or ends? Totally confused about whether traveling, the road, and wandering is the point in and of itself,or whether, as McMurtry sings we are “off to some bright future somewhere”?

I don’t know whether my restlessness and constant motion is the means or the end.  It’s hard to tell. It’s tough when it’s bred into you, into all of us.

Here are the Lyrics to “I’m Not From Here:”

I’m not from here, I just live here

Grew up somewhere far away

Came here thinking I’d never stay long,

That I’d be going back soon someday

Been a few years since I got here

Seen em come and I seen em go

Crowds assemble, they hang out awhile

Then they melt away like an early snow

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when they get there

Wherever it is they think they’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

Can’t see that it matters much

I read the papers, I watch the nightly news

Who’s to say that I’m out of touch?

Been a few years. Yeah right

Nobody’s from here, Most of just live here

Locals long since moved away

So they played out farms for parking lots,

Went off looking for a better way

On to some bright future somewhere

Better times on down the road

Wonder if they ever got there?

Wherever it was they thought they’d go

I’m not from here

But people tell me

It’s not like it used to be

They say I shoulda been here

Back about ten years

Before it got ruined by folks like me

We can’t help it

We just keep moving

Been that way since long ago

Since the stone age

Chasing the great herds

We mostly go where we have to go

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when we get there

Wherever it is we think we’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Favorite Songs

“My friend Jackson Brown once said all the great songs stay written.” – Bruce Springsteen

When we talk about our favorite songs, we are usually actually talking about our favorite performances.  We are thinking of an album track or a live performance or some amalgamation of multiple performances of one song by one particular artist. We rarely talk about our favorite songs irrespective of performers or performances. But that’s the way music has generally been experienced for most of human history. Songs were performed live by different people with different instruments  and it was  the words and the feeling that people came to know and remember. Songs were memorized and performed in public by many different amateurs and eventually one song would be requested enough, and danced to enough, that it would imprint itself on the group consciousness. This was repeated enough times until a shared language of authorless songs emerged and the music of a people came into being.

We still have these songs, and they aren’t just kept alive by bar bands, although they often are.  It’s obviously much different now, when most of the music we listen to is recorded and we need to know immediately who a song is by. We catalog music in our minds and iPods by Artist. It’s easier and more efficient, and it makes more sense given our belief in the individual’s right to “credit” for writing a song.

(This is a belief in individual songwriting ownership that does not necessarily, in fact not often, extend to monetary reimbursement. I will pirate the shit out of music on the internet, but I will remind everyone present who a song is originally by – see: “Blinded by the Light” by Springsteen, Bruce – because I am that guy).

But there are few songs that, even though we may know their origins, have transcended those origins. They have entered a sort of songwriting “public domain” in which any performance of it can be judged on its own merits and not immediately compared to an iconic previous performance.

A few songs that transcend author and performer to this level today, but most are things like the “Birthday Song” or “Star Spangled Banner.” There are only a handful in the rock canon, but the greatest one, and the one most covered by the very best acts of three generations of rock and roll, is “All Along the Watchtower,” a song that was originally written by the greatest rock and roll song writer and utterly transformed by the greatest rock and roll guitarist. “All Along the Watchtower” is everything that makes rock and roll great, the big bring down-the-heavens jam, intimate and vivid lyrics that evoke powerful imagery, a marching drum line that gets your head nodding, indulgent guitar playing, and a  good dose of mystery and ambiguous meaning.  .

I humbly present a sampling of performances of “All Along the Watchtower,” the greatest rock and roll song of all time precisely because it brings out the best in everybody who plays it. “Watchtower” is a truly great song that is often the host for great performances by great artists.

“Two riders were approaching.”  

“All Along on the Watchtower” first appeared on Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding.” Like everything on that album, its acoustic and kind of weird and haunting. Bob’s version is a repetitive loop of a simple acoustic riff every few beats and it’s that high harmonica doing all the soloing and adding most of the melody. Its depth comes from its simplicity, in that simple guitar riff repeated over and over those driving rhythms. This is a rock bass and drum combo, so its not that surprising that Jimi decided “lets make this electric and go nuts with it” almost immediately after the song was released.

Dylan’s version is most interesting because it’s a starting point for Jimi to blow the possibilities of electric guitar wide open, and because he wrote the damn lyrics, and because it’s not a big epic song. It’s short, clocking in at only 2:30. This is not the expansive and epic song that it would become later.  It’s like an excerpt of a poem.

The lyrics are worth talking about, because they are beautiful and weird and haunting but also sort of nonsensical, which make it the perfect rock anthem.  We all know them, but here’s a quick refresher.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.

One of the best opening lines in rock and roll history. It immediately sets up a mysterious conversation between two mysterious figures trying to get out of a mysterious place.

“There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

Business men they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth.

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

Still pretty awesome, still haunting, and weird and mysterious. But also pretty damn ambiguous  Why would the Joker own land that other people are digging? This sounds like a pretty damn powerful Joker. Or maybe all powerful men are Jokers in their own right.  What exactly does he know about “worth?” What are we talking about here exactly? Why is the thief the one who reassures him? It’s the Thief who is grounded and who understands the world, which says a lot about the relationship between rationality and exploitation.

That ambiguity is what makes this verse both a mysterious Led Zeppelin-esque mystical invocation of medieval imagery and powerful counterculture message. This world, the Joker says, is mad and no one knows the proper value or importance of anything. It’s a kind of classic sixties message that evokes a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo, with business, with the rape of the earth,  but manages to never define the status quo or the alternative. It is only “confusion” and there is no relief in this world. The song is the same way, it’s repetitive, and there is no relief, no resolution to the story of the Joker and the Thief.

It’s also worth mentioning that the song title makes no real sense, as multiple people have pointed out. A tower is, after all, circular. You can’t stand along it. That being said, every time I hear the lyric I imagine a castle wall, with Princes perched atop and staring out at the distance. But that’s wrong. It’s a tower.

But maybe  it’s a bunch of Princes standing back to each other in a tower, looking out over the entire world. The danger is coming from everywhere, and vigilance requires a 360 degree watch. Or maybe Dylan is just messing with us.

John Wesley Harding is mostly a pretty forgettable Dylan album, and its feels like is retreading old folk stuff through most of it. But “All Along the Watchtower” is noticeably different because it is represents  an acoustic rock song and the difference between Dylan the Rock and Roll visionary and Dylan the Folk Singer.

“Watchtower” is rebellious, mysterious, with an ominous air of foreboding. This is Dylan at his best. Great rock and roll is rebellious without being topical, it’s revolutionary but not from some stated political objective or boring recitation of ideology. It’s an act of revolution in itself, a howling at the moon and a throwing off of expectations, if only for a three minute guitar frenzy. And that’s what Jimi changed the song into. A guitar orgy of defiance that feels biblical, ancient, and completely new.

It’s worth discussing what Jimi did with the song in terms of how he managed to break open from the very tight, restrictive loops of Bob’s version. Bob’s version has that repetitive loop, those horses approaching, that steady gallop of drum and bass that the Joker and Thief ride as the sun goes down. Maybe there’s a crack of thunder overhead.

Jimi’s version is the horses sprinting through a landscape-changing thunderstorm, a mudslide, a cyclone, and some sort of earthquake all at once, with the riders trying to escape to the castle but bringing it with them; they are unknowing harbingers of doom. He also adds a legitimate bridge. The song is now defined more by the spaces in between the verses than the verses themselves, which adds depth to the lyrics. Now, we hear the chaos the Joker and the Thief are speaking of, we get to live in those moments of anticipation, in the foreboding and the fury, of those standing along the watchtower.

Jimi’s version appears on “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which came out in 1968. The interesting thing about “Watchtower” is that Jimi’s version almost immediately usurped Bob’s as the iconic version. Bob’s version really was more of a blue print than anything else.

Bob famously said he’d never play “Watchtower” acoustically again after he heard Jimi play it. He went onto play it more than any other song, starting in 1974, which is definitely a testament to Jimi’s version, since there’s no way “Watchtower” becomes the most played Dylan song based on the John Wesley Harding version.

“Watchtower” went dormant through much of the seventies and eighties as the music kind of moved away from classic rock. It’s no surprise, then, that the late eighties saw a resurgence in “Watchtower” covers, since the emergence of grunge represented a return to meaningful, angry, and enigmatic rock that rejected seventies and eighties glam.

U2 plays it here in 1988 and because it’s Bono singing it feels more political, and since it’s the Edge on playing guitar, it’s less about soloing than about waves of sound. If Jimi is the god throwing thunderbolts at the riders, the Edge is the waves of rain landing on them.  In it’s vaguely political message (the end of an unacceptable way of life) and in the way it almost requires a lot of looped noise, it’s sort of perfect for U2. Those Irish lads don’t really straight rock out that often, but they sort of kill it here.

The Grateful Dead started playing “Watchtower” regularly in the late eighties. Their version is predictably a little more funky, and it’s obviously a great way for Jerry Garcia to tear up the long in-between verse breaks. What I love about this video is the way Bobby Weir starts to sing and can’t hear himself, which leads to this great moment where the song comes to life, since Bobby is confused, lost in the noise, gesturing to the soundboard for “relief” at the same time he sings “I can’t get no relief.”

I know Dave Matthews Band is a band that you either love or hate, but no matter what you think of them, their version of “Watchtower” might be as original as anybody’s since Jimi’s.  They end sets with “Watchtower” as much as anybody, maybe more than anybody. I saw them end a set with it at Bonoroo a few years ago, and I have to say, it was pretty fucking great. DMB’s version is more theatrical than any other. They create drama in the way they start slow, let it build, and then blow it up, which in some ways might be the best way to do it. Foreboding should be something that grows until it’s intolerable, not something that remains static. They also don’t even really have an electric guitar on it. It’s horns and bass and somehow it’s mood and cacophony more than searing guitar soloing (although the violin has a few moments). This actually might be the biggest drawback, the lack of the one voice, usually the guitar, that sort of leads you through the “confusion.”  Dave’s version feels like somebody whispering in your ear before smacking you over the head. It also maybe the best to see live, in that it is constantly changing and shifting and becoming something new before your eyes.

This is what I mean when I say this is greatest song ever. Dave turns it into a jazz narrative assault and completely reinvents it. And it still rocks out, and he owns the lyrics. .  Again, this is Dave Matthews making the fucking sky fall, which was something I thought was impossible before I heard this. Only “Watchtower” could elicit that many different interpretations that are all full speed ahead. Usually covers are made original by either slowing a song down or speeding it up. “Watchtower” is always pedal to the metal, and yet it’s always different. Forget Bob, it has nearly nothing to do with him. Through the aggregated talent that has performed it, it becomes an immense challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of anybody who would try it. And yet, it’s super accessible because it’s so well known and because we all know what it means. Which is this: it’s time to rock.

Here’s the best version:

Nobody knows how to build into a serious guitar solo from a few haunting notes like Neil. And nobody knows how to share a stage like Bruce. This version is somehow creepy and ecstatic at the same time, and it builds in a subtle, natural way while still being pretty hard the whole time (as oppose to Dave’s “let’s start with just me and bring everybody in” heavy handed change). And there’s CLARENCE!

Also, watch till the end.

“Two riders were approaching….”

“Two riders were approaching…”

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