Monday, November 14, 2016

Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon

Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon
Henry Holt © 2016
ISBN 978-1-62779-034-5

A detailed account of the life and music of Paul Simon, the book left me with something of an empty feeling.  Carlin recounts the events of Simon’s live (as well as one can tell) accurately, but there’s a strange flatness to the book.  And some things one might have thought would have been mentioned earlier seem to pop up out of nowhere.  (For example, on p. 352: “Younger brother Eddie was the first to take up the guitar and became the better player of the two boys.”  Why leave this until the next-to-last chapter of the book?  Or, on p. 373—two pages before the book ends: “I heard from his co-manager and brother Eddie a few times…”)

I also came away from the book that Carlin, in the end did not much care for Paul Simon the man (start about half-way down p. 373 and to the first paragraph on p. 374, for one final example of that); I also got the feeling that, much as he tried to praise the music, he mostly got hat wrong as well.  (I’m not even going to try to get into that, because it’s a matter of how his discussion of the music feels, and that’s a fairly evanescent thing.)  (On the other hand, I think he’s much to kind to the songs that make up the failed musical The Capeman, although perhaps I should listen to it again.)

Unless you really a fan of Paul Simon’s music (and keeping in mind Joan Baez’s words from “Winds of the Old Days:” 

Singer or savior, it was his to choose
Which of us knows what was his to lose
Because idols are best when they're made of stone
A savior's a nuisance to live with at home
Stars often fall, heroes go unsung
And martyrs most certainly die too young

I think you can skip this one.  Although I am glad I read it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.

 I cannot follow you, my love,
you cannot follow me.
I am the distance you put between
all of the moments that we will be.
You know who I am,
you've stared at the sun,
well I am the one who loves
changing from nothing to one.

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear --

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

True love leaves no traces
If you and I are one
It's lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love 

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess

Too late to fix another drink –
The lights are going out –
I’ll listen to the darkness sing –
I know what that’s about.

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.
I got no future
I know my days are few
The present's not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I'm finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There's torture and there's killing
And there's all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it's almost like the blues

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

 Sincerely, L. Cohen

Friday, November 4, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Bruce Springsteer, Born to Run
Simon & Schuster © 2016
ISBN 978-1-5011-4151-5

A fairly lengthy autobiography of one of the great pop songwriters and performers ever.  Like all autobiographies, it leave out a lot, but Springsteen if fairly open about things that have gone wrong (his first marriage), his ambition, and his very pronounced efforts to make sure we realize that it’s BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and the E Street Band—that this is not a partnership, however close they might be personally and professionally, it’s his band, and, ultimately, his career.

What remains unclear, perhaps even to him, are a couple of things. 

Where did the ambition come from?  Lots of people played music, lots of people even started bands.  But few of them have the sort of ambition that he apparently had, from the very beginning, from age 15 or 16.  Was it a consequence of the sort of childhood and family life he had?  Maybe, but if it was, he does not show us how, or why.  The only role models, if you will, were the people, the bands, who had made it, and even that is a fairly muted part of the story.  The Beatles, the Stones, Roy Orbison, and more were there, and are a part of the background, but the sense that “If they can do it, so can I” is not really a part of the story.  Maybe that part of his life is still something of a mystery to him.

And where did the songwriting skills—the words, maybe, more than the music—come from?  He makes it clear that he was an indifferent student.  He says nothing about being much of a reader (there is, for example, no mention of any particular feeling for the rhythms and language of poetry).  But if you look at even the first album (Greeting From Asbury Park), yopu find things like this (“Growin’ Up” © 1973):

I stood stonelike at midnight suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

The flag of piracy flew from my mast my sails were set wing to wing
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate she couldn't sail but she sure could sing
I pushed B-52 and bombed `em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules strafed my old high school never once gave thought to landing
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Come down' I threw up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere and you know it's really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared I was the cosmic kid
Well my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars
I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

Or this (“It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” © 1973):

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel its heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said "Don't that man look pretty"
The cripple on the corner cried out "Nickels for your pity"
Them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city
I was the king of the alley I could talk some trash
I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash
I was the pimp's main prophet I kept everything cool
A backstreet gambler with the luck to lose
And when the heat came down it was left on the ground
The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat
It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy
And the sages of the subway sit just like the living dead
As the tracks clack out the rhythm their eyes fixed straight ahead
They ride the line of balance and hold on by just a thread
But it's too hot in these tunnels you can get hit up by the heat
You get up to get out at your next stop but they push you back down in your seat
Your heart starts beatin' faster as you struggle to your feet
Then you're outa that hole and back up on the street
And them South Side sisters sure look pretty
The cripple on the corner cries out "Nickels for your pity"
And them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city

(And I’m not even going to think about “Blinded by the Light” or “Spirits in the Night.”)

And the songwriting only deepened; until you get something like this (“The River” ©1978):

I come from down in the valley
where mister when you're young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We'd ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We'd go down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care

But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

And while that is (maybe) what I think is (maybe) his best song, the following 30 years have seen a lot more high points.  Well, maybe there are no answers.

Springsteen does tell his story well, if episodically, and, as it is an autobiography, we are left, not in the middle of a life, but without an ending.  And maybe the ending is, finally, the music.