Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE 50: #14, LOCOMOTIVE BREATH, Jethro Tull

I have developed quite the aversion to so-called "classic rock." There was a time from about fifteen to about five years ago when Clear Channel dominated the radio industry, and the only thing you could realistically listen to, even with satellite radio, when you were driving was either some form or derivative of pop, rap, or "classic rock." Stuff I sort of liked--or, to be totally honest, actually did like, at least the first hundred times I heard it--I grew heartily sick of, so much so that there is really no way I will ever enjoy songs like Whole Lotta Love, Just What I Needed, and Layla ever again.
But there are exceptions, and in the next two weeks, a few classic rock station staples are going to featured in this space. Most songs get a lot of play because they have some intrinsic quality to them that makes them so damn popular to begin with. Locomotive Breath is one of them. Jethro Tull was, in retrospect, a vastly overrated band, given more props than they deserved for two reasons: 1) the novelty of Ian Anderson's flute featured so prominently in many songs, including this one, and 2) Anderson's decidedly brash, somewhat rebellious persona, which gave him a sort of "street cred" until the real thing came along in the mid-seventies with the advent of punk.
This song is off the monster hit album "Aqualung." The title song to the record was a bigger radio hit at the time, but the album garnered a fair amount of respect at the time it was released, and among teens in the decade or so that followed, because of its openly defiant and disbelieving attitude toward God and religion. The album did not stand up well to repeated play; the screeds seemed too shrill, the shots taken at religion and the shortcomings of the religious too obvious. Except for this song. Locomotive Breath is a story, in beautiful brevity and memorable heartbreaking imagery, of an ordinary man suffering for reasons he does not deserve. It is about feelings that all of us have identified with at times in our life--when it all is going wrong, usually not because of anything we've done with the intention of doing wrong, and the lack of solace and comfort we often find when we look to a traditional religious God for it. Ungrateful children, cheating spouses, getting bested by evildoers--where is God, the lyrics all but cry out, when this is happening? And a truly inspired lyric is the penultimate verse "He picks up Gideon's Bible/open at page one". I have come to believe that this is Anderson's way of stating his belief that the only way God influences our lives is in the sense that He created this world--and that we are wasting our time looking for mercy, forgiveness, and comfort from Him. It's not a view I now share, but it is well-stated, and the questions asked by the lyrics are queries that traditional religion does not have good answers for.
And apart from the lyrics, this is one of the most iconic song melodies and structures ever written. I've never been a big fan of the piano/guitar intro--but it is somewhat nervy, building an impending sense of drama. And then the riff is just spectacular; it hooks into the brain like the best kind of earworm. It is punctuated during the playing of the song only by the shrieking of the seventh verse of each stanza, and the fadeout at the end evokes the sense of watching a runaway train vanishing out of view; the crash has not come but is certainly coming. The subject of the song's rendezvous with damnation is inevitable and imminent--"no way to slow down"-- but it will happen out of view, perhaps in the very hotel room where the Bible is open to the first page.
I'm not a fan of the flute, and this song does have a rather lengthy, although not interminable, flute solo, like most Jethro Tull songs. If you like the sound, though, I suppose it is well done, and certainly doesn't detract from the song.

In the shuffling madness
Of the locomotive breath,
Runs the all-time loser,
Headlong to his death.
He feels the piston scraping --
Steam breaking on his brow --
Thank God, he stole the handle and
The train won't stop going --
No way to slow down.
He sees his children jumping off
At the stations -- one by one.
His woman and his best friend --
In bed and having fun.
He's crawling down the corridor
On his hands and knees --
Old Charlie stole the handle and
The train won't stop going --
No way to slow down.
He hears the silence howling --
Catches angels as they fall.
And the all-time winner
Has got him by the balls.
He picks up Gideon's Bible --
Open at page one --
God stole the handle and
The train won't stop going --
No way to slow down.

Is This OUR Governor? And OUR President?

Yesterday was a day when there were actually three news items in the news, and all of them were good decisions made by politicians not noted for making good decisions. Our Esteemed Governor, after four years of vacillating and deflection and procrastination, finally (gasp) outlawed fracking in New York. There was also a decision made to site the three casinos New York is going to add away from the Southern Tier. And on a national issue, a prisoner exchange with Cuba led the Empty Suit to announce that the time to normalize relations with Cuba is nigh, that the silly conflict that is one of the last remnants of the Cold War has outlived its usefulness and needs to be ended.
The fracking ban was totally unexpected, simply because Cuomo has outsized presidential ambitions and fossil fuel industries are such ready contributors to campaigns. Cuomo kept deferring a decision to the results of some study he commissioned years ago, and when he delayed issuing the report until after the election, most of us liberal types, already disgusted with Cuomo for being more or less Republican in a blue suit, figured the fix was in. But lo and behold, the actual study was done honestly and revealed that fracking is an environmental disaster, and Cuomo chose to follow the brutally honest directive of the study chairman, who stated baldly that he would not want to live in a community where fracking was taking place. I think a contributing factor is that gas and oil prices have gone way down in the last several months; I paid $2.73/gallon for gas yesterday, something I don't remember doing for at least the last six years, and it seems to go down every week now. And in this area, there is persistent evidence that at least a contributing factor to the explosion in the local drug trade is the constant presence of fracking industry workers that, although they work in Pennsylvania, are staying in Binghamton and the surrounding area. I don't often have much good to say about Cuomo, but I will give credit where it is due: he did the right thing yesterday.
The casino decision went over less well in this area, but I'm happy about it. Other than Las Vegas, casino development has been no boon to anyplace that has adopted it. Atlantic City is, forty years after gambling was legalized, a train wreck. Most of the Indian reservations that have adopted casinos are not magically prosperous now. Our own experience with a casino in the area, Tioga Downs, added a bunch of near-minimum wage jobs with no benefits, but no lasting positive impact and a significant negative one that an increasingly number of people have started to develop major gambling problems. Casinos are not simply not a way of viable economic development; actually, as we as a nation have been finding out for several decades, a service economy in general, and models based on extracting money from people in particular, are net losers; no new wealth is created, only existing wealth is shifted around, usually upward. Another casino or two in this area wasn't going to solve anything substantial, and the sooner we are disabused of that notion, the better.
And on a national front, the move with Cuba was long overdue. The economic and diplomatic war we have been fighting with Cuba for fifty-five years has not worked. Cuba remains Communist, the exiles are not going to get their property back, the Cold War considerations have vanished. It is time to fix the mess, acknowledge that all we are doing is making Cuban and Cuban-American lives more difficult than they have to be, and try to repair the damage. I admit to a bit of personal twinge should that happen; I have a friend that was born in Cuba whose immigration status here was never clearly defined and might be deported should normalization occur. I hope that doesn't happen, obviously. But in the larger picture, the quarantine of Cuba needs to end, and I am glad that the Empty Suit, who has been showing an obvious and welcome propensity for doing more of the right things since the last election he will be a party to was concluded, has made this move.
Is there long-term hope that responsible, progressive government that enacts policies that benefit most of us instead of only the wealthy and already-powerful is going to become the norm? That's doubtful, but any victory is welcome, and the fracking and Cuban decisions are especially welcome given how unexpected they were.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

THE 5O: #15, PRETTY VACANT, Sex Pistols

It is very hard to get across to someone in born after, say, Reagan was president, what a Big Deal the Sex Pistols were--for about six months. Granted, they were a bigger deal in the United Kingdom than they were here--but believe me, they were well-known, and quite feared by the Greatest Generation, on these shores, too. As inured as we have become to immature, rude behavior on television, swearing in songs, and tattoos and piercings among the young, it is hard to believe that it all started somewhere--and that somewhere was the mid-70's in Great Britain, with the Pistols.
The Pistols were brought together more to shock than to as a true band, and they only made one (generally magnificent) album. But the hype and the furor surrounding them obscured the fact that they were, at least before Glen Matlock was booted from the band in favor of Sid Vicious, good. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Matlock have all stayed well respected and in demand as session players and eminence grises for three generations of British bands and counting, and some of the songs written for the first album were instant and enduring classics. Today, they would be considered reasonably mainstream alternative (now there's an oxymoron), but in 1976, these kind of songs were a blast from an acetylene torch into a rather torpid, overindulgent music scene. This was the age of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and of Silly Love Songs, and of Elton John's hundred pair of glasses. The Pistols absolutely destroyed that foundation of sap in one summer, and the bands that followed their lead ended the disco era in the States within two more years.
Pretty Vacant was not the most notorious song on "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols." God Save the Queen skewered British society and the royals; Anarchy in the UK seemed to promote mindless violence; Bodies was a very graphic description of abortion; New York eviscerated the New York Dolls and David Johansen in particular, calling him "poor little faggot" repeatedly in the song. But Vacant was no shock to the nerves. It was, and is, a textbook rock song. The riff is memorable, easy to play and full of power. The chorus is easy to remember and sing along to. The lyrics, hard to understand at first because of John Lydon's heavy British accent, are really not all that revolutionary, but certainly evocative of a thousand anthems of teen and young adult disaffection that have been a staple of rock since the 1950's. And it was all done, contrary to what was happening in music at the time, done in three minutes. Unlike virtually every other band that was making records at the time, no one ever said a Pistols song was too long.
Missed at the time, and on the studio version in general, was Jones' weaving of short solo bursts into the melody. There are a bunch of live versions on You Tube, and I am, contrary to usual practice, posting one, from the 1996 reunion tour, because the power of the opening riff sets the tone for just a blow-your-doors-off performance. There is also one on You Tube of the Pistols on David Letterman that is almost as good. And there is nothing wrong with the original album version, either.

There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply
Oh just remember I don't decide
I got no reason it's all too much
You'll always find us out to lunch

Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty 
we're vacant
Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty
A vacant

Don't ask us to attend 'cos we're not all there
Oh don't pretend 'cos I don't care
I don't believe illusions 'cos too much is real
So stop your cheap comment 'cos we know what we feel

Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty 
we're vacant
Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty 
we're vacant ah 
But now and we don't care

There's no point in asking you'll get no reply
Oh just remember I don't decide
I got no reason it's all too much
You'll always find me out to lunch
We're out on lunch

Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty 
we're vacant
Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty 
we're vacant
Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty ah
But now and we don't care

We're pretty
A pretty vacant
We're pretty
A pretty vacant
We're pretty
A pretty vacant
We're pretty
A pretty vacant

And we don't care

Revisiting Decisions Made

Somewhere between hanging up the phone last night after talking to my better-than-friend and looking at my schedule book trying to figure out when to meet with Ray this weekend, it dawned on me that I've done something several times in the last year that I have never done before. I have always leaned in the direction of being "decisive." When I was younger, my preferred view of that quality was that my judgment skills were so impressive and so sharp that when I made a decision, I didn't need to evaluate it or reconsider it at any time because I was so damn smart. That egotistical conceit led to my life blowing up in my mid-thirties, and I became somewhat more open-minded after I got into recovery.
But the end result was usually the same, even if dressed up in different motivations. I might have been saying, and even believed, that I was exhibiting the qualities of commitment or consistency or perseverance, and I might have justified some of the things I did by saying that I was resisting making decisions by impulse. In general, this is not a bad thing or way to go. But like anything else in life, you can have guidelines or general operating principles, but it is very, very difficult to make any area of our lives black-and-white, to say "never" about most areas of life. Really, the only absolute I have found, the one thing that I adhere to without exception, is that I will not get high again; there is no justification, no reason, no way in the world I am going to do that. But I have found that there is a lot more gray in the world than I previously believed.
And in one area above all others. Up until this past year, any relationship I had ever been in with a woman had never had a second act. When someone and I broke up, that was it. In some cases, this was undeniably a positive; I don't know how many times Sabrina's mother broached the subject in the first couple of years after I ended it, and there was one post-college relationship where it would have been a total disaster had I given into to temptation. The general wisdom of this stance was demonstrated time and again in the lives of others, too, as I watched several of my friends take themselves in depths of despair I could not fathom by repeatedly going back for more with people that had they had found it necessary to show the door to at one point (or, in the case of a former sponsee, he was the one causing the despair by engaging regularly in ex-sex without ever re-committing to the relationship). I had experienced much in my life and during the time I was clean, but for a long time, it was a point of pride that I had never done that particular "same thing" and expected different results.
The last couple of years, that area of my life has been dominated by two women. Without rehashing details, both ended up getting second chances from me, for the first time I can ever remember doing that. The first one didn't go so well; I got sucked into an orbit both times, only to find out this person has more plays going on at once than Broadway. I felt really bad about reneging on my own dictum, because although it didn't hurt quite as badly the second time it happened, this spring, I still felt really foolish. The only thing that mitigated the feeling was realizing that I was not the only one that she had strung along for two years; she turned her back on every friend she had, everybody in our world that had helped her get through two years of recovery, and disappeared as surely and totally as if she had ventured into the jungles of the Amazon. It's hard to beat yourself up over being taken advantage of when you realize that you had a whole lot of company. It's just the way that person rolls, and ultimately the price to be paid is hers, not mine and not everyone else's.
The second I had no intention of giving a second chance to. We talked in October, after she had reached a new bottom, and discovered two things: 1) What I had seen her in the beginning hadn't been an illusion. The circles I move in are filled with cynical, wary, or traumatized to the point of irreversible damage women; she, whatever else she may or may not be, is not. In sixteen years, I can count the number of women that have landed in recovery that are truly nice at heart and that don't have serious mental health issues on two hands. She is one of them, and 2) of all the people she had come to know since entering recovery, the only one that she had learned that she could trust, that had treated her well, and that had even attempted to make it right when she was let down, was me. She had been taken advantage of by many, guys and women, since she came in the rooms, and had learned quite quickly the difference between talk and walk--and now appreciated much more than she had before my walk. Taken together, it was enough to decide to, a day at a time, try again, this time to give it our best, to make the commitment that we had held back on, for whatever reasons, before and to see what happens.
So far, it's going pretty well. I have not had any cause at all to regret making that choice, and the more time that passes, the more comfortable it is feeling. She has obligations that she has to complete, but we are managing so far to keep it working as well as we can. And I now know that there are exceptions to every rule. I really did not think that it was possible to revisit decisions in this area, that you could get a do-over. And I don't know if this is going to work out any better in the long run. But it feels different, feels right in a way it never did the first time. And in the short term--it seems to have been the right way to go.
Who would have guessed? Not me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THE 50: #16, SEARCH AND DESTROY, Iggy and the Stooges

Iggy is Iggy Pop, and the Stooges were his first band, in the early 70's. The "Raw Power" album, which Search and Destroy is off of, is one of the classic albums of all time. So rock it was proto-punk, there wasn't a song on this album that boys and young men of three generations and counting have not been able to strongly identify with, but Search is perhaps the quintessential alienated boy song.
The lyrics are somewhat overblown in their imagery, but I think that is deliberate, a way to express the grandiosity that most young men feel about themselves. Most boys do view the world as some sort of war, and definitely fantasize about being on the winning side, and this song is full of that sort of conceit. And it has some of the best lines of any song ever. I have always wanted to use "love in the middle of a firefight" in some way or form, and "soul radiation in the dead of night" is another image that cries for use in the larger world. Although "honey" and "baby" are addressed in the song, it is pretty clear that love is not the primary emotion here; control and power in an uncaring world is. The "baby" would only serve as an adjunct, an accessory to win the larger world.
The melody is raw, very powerful, and repetitious--like young men often are. And the vocals, for such power-laden, violent lyrics, are both understated and attention-seeking at the same time. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but Iggy's voice on this song sounds very much like a teenager causing a scene more than a professional musician--certainly not like Iggy himself sounded on pretty much every album after this one.
This song has made into "Guitar Hero", movie soundtracks, and has been covered by most every garage band--as well as at least twenty other bands on their CDs, as well. And as mentioned, this song and album--and band--were the true antecedents of American punk.

I'm a street walking cheetah
with a heart full of napalm
I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb
I am a world's forgotten boy
The one who searches and destroys
Honey gotta help me please
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby detonates for me
Look out honey, 'cause I'm using technology !
Ain't got time to make no apology
Soul radiation in the dead of night
Love in the middle of a fire fight
Honey gotta strike me blind
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby penetrates my mind
And I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
And honey I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
Forgotten boy, forgotten boy 
Forgotten boy said
hey forgotten boy

A New Set of Trolls

I understand that most people engage, at one time or another, in attention-seeking behavior. It can be relatively healthy, it can be disgusting, it can take all sorts of forms, but there are very few of us that do not engage in the practice at least occasionally. But the Internet/newspaper/other forms of media troll is a special, uniquely heinous example, a person who has no qualms about putting themselves in the public eye, under their own name, as a complete, soulless jerk devoid of even a smidgen of basic human decency.
The last time I looked at this subject, months ago, there were three people that were dominating local media comment boards. One has more or less disappeared. One proved his intrinsic rot by picking up several charges during the year and is currently a guest of the county. The third, while still someone that raises hackles on occasion, has toned down the nastiness to the point where, on  most subjects, he's not really offensive anymore; he still is a busybody that has a comment for virtually every story that ends up on the TV station website, and I wonder why he feels the need to do it, but he's not so troubling anymore.
However, others have taken up the dubious crown. In particular, there is one guy that has been showing up with disturbing regularity. He's not even from around here; he appears to be from Rome. And he certainly doesn't tend to any in-depth analyses of anything. But he tends to post hateful, just really awful comments, things like "heroin scum need to die" and "one less scumbag to worry about" and just really awful stuff. Some old lady crashed a car at Wegman's the other day, and there have been all sorts of snarky, somewhat mean-spirited comments about the story--but this guy went way over the line, so much so that the comment was taken down. Not for the first time, I read this stuff and think to myself, "What the hell is wrong with someone like this?"
Eddie is the worst current example, but he's not the only one. If only he was.
I don't know. It's the time of year when we think about "good will towards men" more than we usually do, and so maybe I'm just more attuned to this sort of crap than I normally am. But I can't imagine having someone like this as a part of my life, on any level. Can you? How would you like to work with one of these bitterly divisive, nasty, people? What kind of gangrene infects your soul so that you publicly wish people you never met and never will dead because they are addicted to drugs? There's a post on this guy's public profile defending Bill Cosby and saying that the victims coming forward are trying to get media attention. 
This isn't an exclusively local phenomenon. Years ago, I stopped looking in the comments sections of any national news story, because the hatred and bile found there sickened and frightened me. In a country with 300 million people in it, I suppose there are going to be a fair number of these kinds of people. But again, I am surprised that they are so open about it--which tells me they have found some kindred souls that encourage and support this sort of ugliness. There's expressing opinions, and there are times when everyone says things they wish they hadn't. But wishing people dead? Calling explicitly for genocide regarding people with addiction issues? Condemning entire races and genders simply because they are black or women? 
In a way, I'm glad that some of these people do what they do. I forget the exact quote, and I'm not positive it was John Stuart Mill that said it. But I remember the essence of it--that the reason we need to have totally free speech is that it makes easy to separate the ignorant and intellectually and morally deficient from those that are reasonable, intelligent, and essentially decent. And I do believe that still. But it doesn't make it easier to read and listen to these people spew their invective and nastiness. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

THE 50: #17, DIRGE, Bob Dylan

After a month between Dylan songs, I put up two back-to-back? Well, yes, I did. He is the first performer to get three songs on the list. Dirge is somewhat of a forgotten classic, certainly not well known by the masses. It was not a single. It was off an album. "Planet Waves," that only began the rebound from the first really down period of his career, the period between 1967 and 1970; although much of the album has become appreciated with age, at the time it was viewed as barely adequate and a disappointment compared to what he was putting out before his motorcycle crash in 1967. And this song, magnificent as it is, has taken a back seat to another song on the album, Forever Young, in the eyes of many Dylan fans.
There is a reason for it. Dirge is an awesome song, one of the most powerful ever recorded, but it is a very unhappy and angry song. I'm not sure if Dylan had anyone in particular when he wrote this song, but this is perhaps the most vitriolic, bitter post-breakup song ever put on tape, not least because he himself comes in for a fair share of abuse, right from the opening line ("I hate myself for loving you, and the weakness that it showed"). Like most of Dylan's best work, this throws in some remarkable asides in language that evokes Shakespeare ("There are those that worship loneliness/I'm not one of them/In this age of fiberglass/I'm searching for a gem), withering contempt for those that have failed him (the entire fourth stanza), and amazing images ("acting out his folly/while his back is being whipped"). At the end, when he repeats that he hates himself for loving her but says he'll get over it, the listener who has just listened to this five-minute acid bath can't help but think "The hell you are." I cannot imagine how tumultuous this relationship might have been--or, if it is not based on a real relationship, what vein of furious pain Dylan was tapping into in his psyche. This is nothing less than the bellow of a grievously wounded large animal.
And as finely crafted and emotionally packed as the lyrics are, the music structure of the song makes it even more of an experience in jarring discomfort. The piano is the backbone of the song, and one can almost picture the singer sitting at it pounding the keys like a hammer hitting nails, and the only other music on the tune is the acoustic guitar--which is deliberately off-key, disjointed, inharmonious, and unsettling. This is one of the songs that best demonstrates that Dylan's voice, so often derided, can be an instrument onto itself; his voice is as clear as it ever was on tape, and the timber and tone fits the song perfectly.
I loved this song before I could identify with it in any great way. There was one year in my life that I sang along with this song with gusto, though, after a particularly emotionally-charged breakup, one that left very deep scars that took nearly fifteen years to truly heal from. The year was 1989, after I experienced a breakup during Christmas week of 1988 of someone that I was very deeply involved with. I was too young and immature to truly call it "love" now, but I sure was wrapped up in her, and the end of that relationship hurt like few things in my life ever have. And at 25, I was not capable of saying "I'm hurt"--but I was sure was capable of lashing out in anger and pain, and that lashing out lasted into the twenty-first century, poisoning my eventual marriage and two other serious relationships that followed in its wake. And hearing this song now, twenty-six years after that breakup and forty-three after the song was released, still kicks up feelings I don't like feeling.
It's that powerful.

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down to suicide road
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you and I'm glad the curtain fell.

I hate that foolish game we played and the need that was expressed
And the mercy that you showed to me, whoever would have guessed
I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within
That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.

Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped
Like a slave in orbit he's beaten 'til he's tame
All for a moment's glory and it's a dirty, rotten shame.

There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them
In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem
The crystal ball upon the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet
I've paid the price of solitude but at least I'm out of debt.

I can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me
'Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees
We stared into each other's eyes 'till one of us would break
No use to apologize, what difference would it make ?

So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine
The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen
Lady Luck who shines on me, will tell you where I'm at
I hate myself for loving you but I should get over that.