Words on Music

‘Flowers in December’

March 23, 2015

“Flowers in December,” by Mazzy Star (1996)

Maybe the most powerful tool in the singer’s toolbox – right there next to talent and ambition – is mystique. Dylan’s got tons of it. So does Bowie, Jagger, Gaga and many others.

But nobody does mystique like Hope Sandoval.

Wait … who?

Hope Sandoval was the singing half of the 1990s duo Mazzy Star, with guitarist David Roback. I would say that I saw her in concert several years ago, after Mazzy Star dissolved, but that’s not literally accurate. Yes, I attended her live concert, meaning I spent a few hours in the same room as her, but I’m not sure I “saw” anything.

Sandoval is famous for performing in darkness. So that night – at the Brookdale Lodge of all places – I listened to her sing while watching only a faint specter of her body occasionally emerge from the shadows, a thin backlit blue halo outlining her head.

Sure, live concerts are all about the music, but in the bargain we expect them to at least give our eyeballs a little something to do. I first cursed the venue for bush-league incompetence. But when no one else seemed annoyed, it struck me: This was her mystique.

To those who love Sandoval, she is a ghostly presence, a soul too tender for this dirty world with a gift for expressing such a refined sense of sorrow, she breaks your heart with a whisper. To those who don’t love her, she floats in formaldehyde, a parody of too-cool-to-care self-absorption.

Count me in the former camp. When she applies that feathery voice to the deliciously chilly ballad “Flowers in December” – “They say every man goes blind in his heart” – I am suspended in a weird kind of hypnosis. There is an ache of desolate longing in most of Mazzy Star’s material that I am powerless to resist and it achieves perfection in “Flowers.”

For the record, I fell in love with Sandoval long before I saw photos of her, but the fact that she’s seriously gorgeous only enhances her mystique.

She never looks in the camera and she never smiles. She is distant, behind glass, unknowable. She is Wednesday Addams in street clothes; Stevie Nicks without the theatricality. She is lost in some place of finely burnished melancholy, what the Brazilians would call “saudade.”

And she’ll take you there, through songs like “Flowers in December.” The song is an aural narcotic – a sneaky and ethereal guitar line, a small, swelling harmonica, a mournful violin and then Sandoval’s hushed voice, descending from somewhere over your head, like the fog in a black-and-white movie.

At the Brookdale Lodge, Hope Sandoval said almost nothing to the audience between songs. The blue darkness of the place even began to feel natural after a while, as if we were all vampires feeding on tears instead of blood. Though our eyes kept trying to discern her face in the shadows, the music took on more flavors and dimension robbed of distractions. There was beauty enough in the sound.

That, boys and girls, is how to do mystique.


Words on Music

“Sweet Old World”

March 23, 2015

“Sweet Old World” by Lucinda Williams (1992)

It’s exhausting to live the way you should live: savoring every morning, tasting a navel orange as if you’d never had one before, feeling the pleasure of a lung-ful of fresh air on a winter’s evening, all those things that envious souls in the afterlife would die all over again just to experience.

It’s even harder to express the sheer intoxicating sweetness of being alive without eventually sounding like a truck-stop Valentine’s Day card.

As we all know Stuff – work, money, routine – gets in the way. We adapt to the ordinary rhythms of life, knowing deep down, in the cosmic sense, that life is anything but ordinary.

I never tire of hearing old Louis Armstrong warble “What a Wonderful World.” It reminds me to enjoy the ride while it lasts. But Lucinda Williams’s lovely 1992 ballad “Sweet Old World” takes me a step or two beyond where Satchmo drops me off.

Maybe it’s because there’s nothing giddy and self-satisfied about it. On the contrary, it bleeds like a wound.

“Sweet Old World” is addressed to a suicide victim, believed to be the poet Frank Stanford, a family friend of Lucinda and her father, the poet Miller Williams. Stanford shot himself at the age of 29 and Lucinda’s lean and bluesy song “Pineola,” also on the “Sweet Old World” album, is a kind of blow-by-blow description of the hours and days after Stanford’s death.

“Sweet Old World” is for more universal purposes. The chorus – “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world” – leaves no doubt that the singer is speaking to someone beyond this world. What’s left to interpretation is whether that person left this world voluntarily. If you’re of an open mind, “Sweet Old World” is a song you can direct at any departed loved one. You can hear it as a hymn to the dead.

But, of course, it is not. What makes the song so heartbreaking is the trace elements of pain and outrage that separates suicide from any other form of death. Suicide may, in fact, be the most mystifying of all human impulses. Given that we are so hard-wired for survival, how can someone willingly kill himself?

In this age of coercive empathy, “Sweet Old World” – released a few months before the most famous suicide of the last 20 years, that of Kurt Cobain – touches on a taboo when it comes to suicide. When you hear of something so awful, you want to understand the dimensions of pain the victim may have been feeling. But there’s also a simmering anger: How could you throw away something so precious? How could you inflict that kind of pain on your loved ones?

Lucinda, famous for her deliberate and precise use of language, finds a middle shade of emotion between empathy and outrage with the line “Didn’t you think anyone loved you?”

But “Sweet Old World” works for me, not because I’m particularly fascinated with suicide, like the funeral-obsessed Harold in “Harold & Maude.” Despite its somber theme, this song always reminds me of the sensations of living, of those things often just within arm’s reach that wake me up to the fleeting pleasures of Now, the bliss of the ordinary:

Look what you lost, she says to the willfully dead:

“The breath from your own lips

The touch of fingertips

A sweet and tender kiss.

The sound of a midnight train

Wearing someone’s ring

Someone calling your name.

“Sweet Old World” might be about suicide, but it’s mostly about it’s opposite. I think of it on weekend mornings, lying on the couch with my nine-year-old daughter, especially the line: “Somebody so warm, cradled in your arm.”

Even sweet old Louis Armstrong can’t touch that.



Words on Music

‘Strange Messengers’

March 23, 2015

“Strange Messengers,” by Patti Smith (2000)

Everybody’s got an opinion on who is the most ferociously honest and fearlessly independent-minded artist in the rock-music realm. My nominee would have to be Patti Smith whose fire and majesty over the course of 40 years of recording have been thrilling for her fans. No one has built a career in popular music of deeper artistic integrity.

If you haven’t spent time with Smith since her late ’70s heyday as a proto-punk urban performance poet, her sound has only deepened and grown more insistently fearless over the years, finding a fertile territory between fury and tenderness.

A great place to dive in is the song “Strange Messengers” from her 2000 album “Gung Ho.” Fueled by a riveting blend of righteous indignation and ancestral mourning, it’s a eight-minute anthem that works as a kind of bookend to the chilling anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday.

Supported by a darkly ominous mid-tempo rhythm, Smith whipsaws us back to pre-Revolutionary America, narrating a vivid picture of the African slave trade by conjuring up the awful image of Africans paraded down the colonial streets “bound in leather, bound in gold.”

The great blessing and the great curse of being an American is the obliteration of history. The Old Country seemed to be trapped in all the bitter resentments from its ancestry, but here in the States, we’ve been encouraged to re-invent ourselves generation to generation. That’s liberating to be sure, but the result is a populace that often doesn’t know where it came from.

“Strange Messengers” works up a real head of steam, and the spell it creates draws from the dark places in America’s history to remind us that the original African-Americans were unwilling immigrants. As the song unwinds, Smith really loses herself in the anguish of the nation’s original sin and becomes a kind of keening widow of American history.

This is one of those songs that I can’t listen to in any kind of background, doing-the-dishes kind of way. It has a kind of awe-inspiring momentum, blending a genuinely moving artistry (“As they turn their necks to a bitter landscape”) and a cascade of references that reward the armchair historian, from crusading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to black slave insurrectionist Nat Turner to the ever-so-slight nod to “Strange Fruit.”

If you think all this backward looking is irrelevant to today’s world, then I lament your blindness. The racial malignancy that plagues us today has deep roots in American pre-history. And yet, Smith, biting out her lines with a palpable rage, also goes after those who willfully sink under the burden of history – “you feel so sorry for yourself, smoking crack. Crack! That’s how you repay your ancestors?”

It’s potent stuff and it’s also the best example of Patti Smith as rock’s last exorcising priestess. It’s also a welcome reminder that buried under the thick layers of commercial swill, rock still has a beating heart spitting out venom in an effort to heal a festering wound.


Words on Music

‘Two Tickets to Paradise’

March 23, 2015

In pondering Eddie Money’s 1978 ear-candy hit “Two Tickets to Paradise,” I must admit that I’d much rather talk about Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” of which “Two Tickets” is kind of a dumbed-down knock-off.

Both songs tap into one of the greatest themes of anyone’s teenage years – “Hey, baby, let’s you and me hit the road and blow this popsicle stand.” But pontificating on Springsteen is like carbon in the atmosphere, we’d all be better off with much less of it.

Lyrically, “Thunder Road” is like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” compared to the colorful picture book of “Two Tickets,” but the impulse behind both songs isn’t that complicated to understand.

If you’re like me, then you had an episode or two (or 300), especially as a teenager, when you looked at your surroundings and became convinced that you were flat-out going to die of boredom and self-loathing, when drinking Drano and a trip to the ER became a more appealing alternative to one more Thursday night dinner with Mom and Dad.

In such cases, the most effective antibiotic is fantasy, specifically the fantasy of zooming down an open freeway headed out of town, sharing a motorcycle with a real or imagined someone who makes your blood race as fast as your wheels.

“Two Tickets” has found its way into that eternal rotation of deathless classic-rock standards and will presumably continue to annoy people in the aisles of Trader Joe’s well into the 25th century. It’s also known as one of Homer Simpson’s favorite songs, so its niche in popular culture is rock solid.

It was a hit in the period just before the advent of MTV, which means it existed only as a song on the radio, rather than a video. That’s significant because back then you had to supply your own visuals when listening to that song. And as an acne-plagued, helmet-haired teen still not able to drive with a hatred of the world that could burn a hole in the floor, I always associated “Two Tickets” with flying.

You could hear it in the fat, soaring guitar lines oozing from the car stereos of boys older than you. The fact that the song was attaining maximum velocity in the early summer, just as the school year was ending, made the ache and longing when you heard it all the more acute.

Even then, I much preferred Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which was released on the “Born to Run” album a few years earlier. But there’s still something more elemental and primal about “Two Tickets to Paradise.”

These days, I still feel the urge to run away from the stifling oppression of my so-called “life,” but when I do indulge that urge, there’s a lot more on-line reservations and remembering medication than there used to be.

If I repurpose the song for present circumstances, I’d have to do a little rewriting:

“I’ve got two tickets to, well, a decent place/

We can’t afford paradise/

Got a good deal on Travelocity/

Though we have to fly United, which sucks/

And be at the airport at 5 a.m./

Where’s that coupon for airport parking?

Think I like Eddie Money’s version better.

Words on Music

‘Year of the Cat’

March 22, 2015

OK, this is hard. I’m feeling kinda vulnerable here. So give me space.

I never dreamed I would say this is public, but here goes:

I love “Year of the Cat.”

I’m going to give you a minute to smirk or wince or groan. Then meet me back here so I can make my case.


Now when I say I love “Year of the Cat,” I’m not saying it ironically, like it’s some cheap science-fiction movie you laugh at while stoned. I seriously love that song. It’s a beauty. It lifts me into some kind of fantastical alpha state that I don’t quite understand. It’s like lolling around on a giant down pillow, while on tranquilizers.

If you’re 35 or under, I might as well be talking about the Code of Hammurabi. “Year of the Cat” was a piano ballad from 1976 by the British artist Al Stewart that has had no staying power, expect perhaps as a staple on the kind of aggressively inoffensive radio stations that canonize Karen Carpenter and Anne Murray and that even dentist offices can’t tolerate anymore. But in its day, it was a big hit and anyone old enough to remember the Gerald Ford years will know it, and probably hate it.

Syrup, schmaltz, cheese, vanilla, Cream o’ Wheat – there are any number of food-related terms that have been applied to “Year of the Cat” in an effort to hurl it into the oblivion of uncoolness.

True, I cannot, at least with a straight face, link it to anything resembling jazz, blues or rock ’n’ roll. I realize that admitting to liking “Year of the Cat” opens me up to suspicions that I also dig Sidney Sheldon novels and reruns of “Dynasty” (I don’t).

But everybody harbors pleasures that would probably cost them street cred for the rest of their lives, and this is mine. Deal with it.

Maybe it caught me at a crucial moment as a kid, but I was always captivated by the song’s cinematic power, built on top of an unbearably lush arrangement, a dreamy piano, an exotic neo-flamenco guitar line, saxophone bleatings that brought to mind some guy in mirror shades and white spandex pants.

Al Stewart’s absurdly effete British vocals were pretty far afield from any kind of American expression of manliness. But his imagery was hypnotic – “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime.”

“Year of the Cat” delivers me to some decadent sun-drenched Greek island and at its center is a woman, mysterious and magnetic – “By the blue-tiled walls, near the market stalls, there’s a hidden door she leads you to.” I don’t know about you, but I’m going through that door.

If all this sounds like some tacky perfume commercial, I can’t argue against it. I’ll allow that “Year of the Cat” very well may be profoundly bad music and if I had heard it after I had gotten my hands on a Ramones album, I might even have hated it too.

But instead I love it, even though it put me on a path toward “Baker Street” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I love it though it may lose me some friends and bring shame upon my children.

I love it enough to declare it to the world and face the scorn of those more sophisticated. It’s a secret guilty pleasure that isn’t secret anymore, and not so guilty either.