Friday, August 27, 2010

Bob Dylan on Tour: A World of Wisdom Breathed into Your Hair

Ontario, CA , Citizens Business Bank Arena, August 19, 2010

Bob Dylan, dapper in a charming suit and hat, consents to paint great poetry in the ears, mind, memory, pulse, heart, bones, eyelids, hair, of anyone hospitable enough to recognize what he's hawking as he tours from joint to joint performing some of the greatest songs ever written by an American.

Blue curtains emblazoned with a graphic eye design drop down before your eyes. I note the kinship with the blue eye backdrop recently used by The Dead Weather live. Incense overtakes you, adding the olfactory to the other senses Bob Dylan incites. (I landed a seat in Row 13 and the scent of Nag Champa stayed in my hair for days after the concert, giving me good old 19th century synesthesia, where the mind makes one sense do the job of another and you smell sound, hear what you taste, feel what you see. Good times.) This durable derangement of the senses, combined with other stellar features of the set, make an evening with Dylan one of the great bargains of these bad times.  He brought a brilliant band, a set list that started with Rainy Day Women, included Just Like A Woman, Like A Rolling Stone, Highway 61 Revisited,  Memphis Blues, Ballad of A Thin Man, Tangled Up in Blue, and concluded with All Along the Watchtower. He brought the magical ability of his poetic songs to transport you through the last five decades of world history.  The same songs also ameliorate something blue in your own past or present human dilemmas.  Dylan is rock music as Picasso, as Lorca, as Dickens, as Kerouac, as Catullus. (Square or cube that Catullus, the great Latin lyricist of eros and anger.) Mr. Dylan owned or feigned a generous mood and was a joy to watch moving from keyboards to guitar to harmonica. But to do his artistry justice, I've got to devote my words here to to his words.

"This machine kills fascists."
There were newcomers to Dylan's work in his audience that night: tweens, teens and twenty-somethings looking for a way into his art. One way to understand his way with words is to get acquainted with the artists who influenced him.  It's easy to Google musicians Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, then browse your way into Dante's Inferno. (Laurie Anderson made a handy CD that keeps you in hell only for an hour. Good intro.)  Treat yourself to Keats, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas.  Search the geniuses named above. That Dylan contains these multitudes and more introduces newbies to the scope what he has achieved for rock. He breathes the whole of our wisdom tradition in your ear, in your hair. The next move after this ante is yours.

Dylan's brassy recorded intro that identifies him as "The Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll"  confirms the rightness of attention to words. Dylan's song craft is very much word craft. On the back of Mojo's book, Dylan: Visions, Portraits, and Back Pages, he admits, " I consider myself a poet first and a musician second.  I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet." Of all the arts, poetry is the cheapest date: no tutus, no paint tubes, no bronze, no Valkyries. Just the language you use all day every day. Words, so like thought itself, are arranged in a poem to produce an effect like having Les Demoiselles d'Avignon stare you down. Except there's no canvas. Poetry's repetitions put you in a hypnotizing Kingdom of the Shades as in La Bayadere, without any corps de ballet. Cheapness is all.

Everything and more has been written about Bob Dylan. But all that matters as you consider his poetry are your ears, your heartbeat, your mind, your associations, as you encounter him recorded or live. Dylan's poetry unfolds itself in several hallmark formats. Attention to how these operate helps listeners savor his sense. When his poetry is plaintive and direct as it is in Love Sick (from 1997's Time Out of Mind), you know your task as listener is simply to understand and withstand his ruthless truthtelling about love and attraction: agitation and utter helplessness are inevitable features of desire. You spend the whole song nodding as he complains about these and asks to be set free from the whole sordid business. Then the take-down of the final line: I'd give anything to be with you. Poetry is the shudder of revelation. Desire owns us. Dylan has proceeded as a sonneteer would and made the last lines turn the preceding ones upside down, inside out, and sideways. (You now understand why his editorializing title is two four-letter words instead of one eight-letter word: it's sicker this way.  He's written "love" and "sick" as  stand-ins for each other and given them all the dignity of other four-letter expletives you know: none.)

Other lyrics associate rhyming lists of extravagant imagery (the guilty undertaker sighs/the lonesome organ grinder cries/the silver saxophones say I should refuse you . . . )  with an antagonistic outer world and contrast this in the same song with a simpler cry from the self: I want you soooooo baaaaad.   Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted "hell is other people." Dylan represents this hell in poetry as piles of complications, obstacles, absurdities. It's a canny, hilarious was of describing what you live. Everyday folks routinely use escalating lists to describe absurd heights reached by boss/spouse/traffic/government on a given day. Our litany of complaints gets delivered with rhythm and repetition we don't consciously recognize. ("And then he . . ., And then he . . . , And then . . .") We puncture this list with a yelp from the self. (Such as Cee-Lo Green's deeply satisfying "FU" or other choice phrases.) Dylan raises your tendency to great art, his indelible voice now breath itself.

Bob Dylan's Tour continues. John Mellencamp opens on some dates. CLICK HERE for dates/tickets/setlists  8/27 Bend, OR; 8/28 Troutdale, OR; 8/31 Missoula, MT; 9/1 Post Falls, ID; 9/3 Yakima, WA; 9/4 Bumbershoot Fest Seattle

His new paintings will be shown at Denmark's Statens Museum for Kunst 9/4/10 -1/30/11, five are featured now in Rolling Stone: CLICK to see Dylan's Brazilian Series

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Brandon Flowers at The Shimmer Showroom: Solo Songs Shine Light on Fear and Fire

This post appears on the Arts page of the Huffington Post CLICK HERE to visit HuffPo's forum for art, music, performance
Las Vegas Hilton, August 15, 2010
The handsome singer, GQ UK's 2008 Man of the Year, who makes his audiences go weak in the knees, stepped modestly to the microphone and started the show with a lilting, serious song about spending time on his own knees in prayer. The crowd of three hundred at The Shimmer Showroom of the Las Vegas Hilton went wild. "On the Floor" in performance shines with the spiritual and familial yearning of my favorite recording of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"  June Carter Cash, after her mother passed, sang a heartbroken version of that country hymn of death, grief, and long-for reunion in a redeemed afterlife. June Carter Cash got mighty praise for her rendition but nothing like the coos and catcalls Flowers got last night in his hometown. The fangirl next to me cried out an earthy "I love you, Brandon" at least fifty times during the forty minute set that offered eight new tunes, one inspired cover of "Bette Davis Eyes" that improved upon Kim Carnes' original stylings, and one song, "Losing Touch" from Day and Age by The Killers that, unlike its original version, featured no saxophone. And no Killers, except for Flowers. 

Brandon Flowers launched himself into stratospheric rock-star success when in 2002 he formed a band with three other unknowns, who found each other through ads in the Vegas papers. The first album, Hot Fuss, featured Brit-pop-influenced catchy fun and a gorgeous, nervous frontman. It sold big. The group's follow-up, Sam's Town, delivered an ambitious mythic reckoning of the Vegas home and of the challenges faced by loved ones that resulted in the Flowers family's move away to a tiny town in Utah to seek sobriety, healing, stability. Flowers moved back to Vegas for his last two years of high school and the run-up to founding The Killers and finding world-class success. A third album, Sawdust, with covers and B-sides appeared in 2007 and Day and Age followed in 2008. After seven tiring years of writing, recording, and touring three of The Killers needed a long hiatus, although they reunited to play together at Obama's White House for a Fourth of July show this year for members of the military and their families. But Flowers, still gorgeous, still nervous, needed to move forward with the songs he'd written during The Killers' extensive tours. The ten-song album, Flamingo, will be out from Island records. September 14. 

Brandon Flowers is a genuine seeker, even if his fans hardly notice. I hope June Carter Cash is smiling down on him. She knew that 'there's a better home a-waiting." She also testified in song, better than anybody, that "love is a burning thing." She wrote the very hot "Ring of Fire."  Flowers used his move into Americana on Sam's Town to open a canny dialogue between desire and rectitude and to create an entire oeuvre based on this polarity. Rock lovers show sustained interest in Hendrix's or Morrison's or Cobain's interrogations of desire and oblivion. They've celebrated the parties Anthony Kiedis or Brad Nowell staged on desire and chaos. They're down with Green Day's palpating how desire might work within politics. But The Killers' fans seem to bypass the mystic and the moralist that reside inside the male model, whom they merely crave.  

As the occasionally maligned lyricist for The Killers and now with this batch of solo songs, Flowers has accomplished something remarkable and little remarked upon. He's critiqued the hell out of liberal rock and roll's reliance on excess and self-destruction as the weapons of choice, best juice, biggest engines, or go-to mode of energy to bring transformation or transcendence to the human self or to change the world, without resorting to its reactionary opposite. Think on that. He rocked these right off their (undeserved?) thrones while still rocking. How about that?

His songs have discredited overindulgence's claims to have its hooks into transcendence. Fast living's ballyhooed so-called 'friending' of creativity is shown to be suspect in his lyrics. Excess's relationship with real love is identified straight-up with tragedy and farce. Examples abound. A study listing specific songs is fortthcoming on this site. There are some conservative-appearing elements in his thought, religion chief among them. But his decency is neither liberal nor conservative. 

Brandon Flowers is one of the oddest and most exquisite people I've ever shared a room with. (And I've been kissed by Bette Davis. Word.) He and I shared The Shimmer Showroom for forty minutes. (The set was too short.) He's odd and rare because he seeks authentic sanctity and it participates in him, illuminating him like a live diamond. He shares qualities with the hallmark seekers of our times, Harry Potter, Dom Cobb in Inception, Bella Swan, because he offers knowledge of alternate realities.  And tougher knowledge, too: human beings may listen but they rarely hear. 

Brandon Flowers plays LA's Troubadour 8/17, Slim's in SF on 8/19, with additional dates in Chicago, NY, Canada, Great Britain and Europe.  For Info CLICK HERE

"Crossfire" is the third track on the  little bigger room PLAYLIST below 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Strange As Angels: Some Songbirds Are Singing Like They Know the Score

Angel's Flight: A still from Asian Kung-Fu Generation's video for "After Dark"

                                                                Just once, 
                                                                everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too, 
                                                                once. And never again. But this
                                                                having been on earth—can it ever be canceled?  
                                                                                  —Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
The Tallest Man on Earth is a big dupe: Where I Thought I Met the Angels   
Josh Ritter articulates a phenomenology that sprouts Wings at Hollywood's Music Box

Kabir wrote: If you don't break your ropes while you're alive/do you think/ghosts will do it after? Brandon Flowers puts himself on the ropes in the video for Crossfire from his solo debut album Flamingo, out September 14, 2010

Music/poetry/meaning exists as one united phrase, one three-part method, in the subtitle of this site. What does this mean? Like the teacher who appears when the student is ready to learn, willing to know, serendipity finds us when we sing "one and one and one are three."

Merge a scrap of song from satellite radio with a scrap of print, found poetry, that you spied on an envelope glimpsed on a desk. Trick these two into suggesting what their relationship means. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," wrote Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. I've had his book open to that poem often and items have fallen hard on world and grandeur: pine needles, tears, the fall-out of a sandwich I was eating, as novelist John Fowles' creation Sarah Woodruff ate, "without any delicacy whatsoever."

We can set down a book of poetry next to the iPod next to the bag of groceries. The book could be Robert Bly's versions of Kabir. I'll bookmark my paperback copy with what is right at hand: "Pick of the Week" Download cards from Starbucks. Kabir is bearing within his depths Jonsi and Broken Social Scene. It's just fine to consider popular music and great poetry in the same breath: snobbery isn't possible once the great poet Kabir is opened to, evoked. He plainly champions listening: If you want the truth, I'll tell you the truth: Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you.

And in another: So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is, /Believe in the Great Sound.

How do we teach ourselves to listen? Glean meanings from the juxtaposition of any two elements that gain your notice during the day. Treat them as if they spoke to you. Play music. Ask questions about it. Antony Hegarty's "Crazy in Love" or Beyonce's reminds us of the most important part of the trick of listening: crazy intensity. The truth is heard by those who yearn to hear, who ache to hear. Kabir again. When the Guest is being searched for/ it is the intensity of the longing . . . that/ does all the work.

Perhaps pop music can school our intensities for a time. This is where, historically, Americans have come to ache and to yearn.  The debate over value, high art versus popular arts, melts away when we emulate the transcendent pragmatism of the humble weaver-poet Kabir who "unites in one body the two rivers of ecstatic Sufism—supremely confident, secretive desert meditation, utterly opposed to orthodoxy and academics, given to dance and weeping—and the Hindu tradition, which is more sober on the surface, coming through the Vedas, and Vishnu and Ram and Krishna." (from Bly's Preface)

"Show me how you do that trick/The one that makes me scream, she said/ The one that makes me laugh, she said," plays on the iPod and on the yellow Playlist cassette device on this site."Just Like Heaven"  The Cure.  Run for the Rilke? But don't automatically consider his your better angels. Robert Smith will author the title of this multi-part meditation: Strange as Angels. Rilke's Duino Elegy 9 must furnish the epigraph: reread above to discover again the stakes  of this life.

Consider four artists, songbirds all, pictured here, singing here. Their work acknowledges the stakes in this life are high:

1. Idaho-born, Oberlin-educated singer-songwriter Josh Ritter will conflate songbirds and angels, and then follow, through a fog, a group of people moving on, stepping away, from the damaged hardscape of our world. Under their jackets, Ritter sings, someone, a woman, sees that these people have wings. "Wings" starts the Playlist.

2. The Tallest Man on Earth, a New Folk Swede, my favorite new voice, sings as if Eeyore, Carol Channing and Domingo "Sam the Sham" Samudio, the Wooly Bully guy, shared a body (no snark here, of course, just gobsmacked admiration and an attempt to be descriptive). TTMOE will admit he has escalated his yearning well past beginner levels "where the safer sorrows burned/the ones with no intent to drown you/ the ones where nothing's to be learned." He's taken the high-degree-difficulty dive off the high board. When a certain group of voices, "brought up by bell towers/and always nurtured by the sound" sang to him, he thought they were angels. He sought them, found them. He's now their prisoner, tied up by "mad girls" who are all about "sin." Lucky for him he has another song or two besides "Where I Thought I Met the Angels." A tough one called "Love Is All" notes it is possible for something or someone to be both "savior" and "sin."

3. Brandon Flowers, in the video for the lead single off his first album done apart from The Killers will appear much the worse for wear for being "caught in the crossfire of heaven and hell." He's all tied up literally. "Crossfire" is the name of the song and it's got "cross" and "fire" in it just like my Kabir has Jonsi in it. Is kick-ass Charlize Theron his avenging angel? Or is the singer's revealing display of wounds and bindings and constraints a waystation of self-correction that leads to turning angelic himself like the J-Pop guys? It appears that the Flowers and Theron characters might like to drive right out of this video and catch up with the sacred group moving on up in Ritter's song.

4. J-Pop stars Asian King-Fu Generation will run shocked again and again through their video of "After Dark," freaking out because Generation Now young men have been utterly defeated as conventional Japanese salarymen because they are metamorphosing into angels.

Kabir says: Let's leave for the country where the Guest is. 

The Playlist--that yellow cassette thing!-- on this site contains some sound to train your heart for Sound.  Enjoy!

1 Josh Ritter, Wings
2. The Tallest Man on Earth, Where I Thought I Met the Angels
3. Crossfire by Brandon Flowers
4. Just Like Heaven by The Cure
5. After Dark, Asian Kung-Fu Generation
6. Crazy in Love by Antony Hegarty
7. Crazy in Love by Beyonce
and much more . . . (Jonsi, Broken Social Scene . . .)
and more . . . 

Just Like Heaven.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Live Force of The Dead Weather

Alison Mosshart duets with Jack White at Coachella, July 12, 2010 Photo by Sarah Zagha Click to view additional images

House of Blues, San Diego, July 19, 2010
Ralph Ellison famously wrote that blues "are the only consistent art in the United States
 which constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go."

And Mae West recommended that, "those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often. "

The Dead Weather takes blues-derived sexual disclosure as far as I personally have ever seen it pushed.

You can handle the truth.

They offer a shocking frontwoman in Alison Mosshart, who is a firm chastisement to singers of both sexes who strut the stage utterly clueless about the dirtiest sexual secret there is: For vast swathes of the adult human population, irrespective of gender identification or sexual orientation, one of the parties in every sexual encounter is always "just like your mother." ("Treat Me Like Your Mother")

Despite and because of this, it was a rollicking fun night in an intimate venue.

Attention has been paid to Mosshart's wild hair, skinny jeans, gold boots and howling command of the stage. Additional attention is due Dean Fertita's acutely expressive guitar and keyboards. Jack Lawrence's bass playing rocks, as does his bespectacled deadpan presence. But this band is more than the sum of its parts. Credit it with way too much gumption for a so-called supergroup. This live set thundered with energy. Two albums released in quick succession (2009's Horehound and Sea of Cowards, May, 2010, Third Man/Warner Bros.) combined with an intense live show betray the truth about The Dead Weather: they expect to enlarge upon blues-rock's means to engage erotic frenzy in depth. All night long.

In two recent films, the electric guitar tribute It Might Get Loud and the White Stripes tour scrapbook, Under Great White Northern Lights, attention-magnet Jack White expounds on his music's debt to constriction as aggressively as he pounds his drums in The Dead Weather's live set. At age eighteen, White heard the most incendiary weapon we've got in the American musical canon: Son House singing the acapella hailstorm that is "Grinning In Your Face." "One man against the world," White calls it. (What a relief that the ever-cruel world gets schooled in this particular bout.) Young Mr. White then experienced a crisis of conscience and creativity. He was terrified that the methods, force, feeling and fury of the blues were denied him as a Catholic seventh son from 1990s Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit. But he was hellbent on taking on the limits inherent in the blues, even as he recognized that there were limits on how he might enter within those limits.

Young Journeyman Jack found an enigma wrapped in a conundrum-in-a-straitjacket. He's been extolling limitation ever since: limitation is the means to mastery. His writing, performing and recording for ten years with The White Stripes evidences varied ingenious, credible, red-and-white ways to sing blues.

The Dead Weather offers up one more way. And it's fierce.

Ellison's writing on music trumpets blues' "assertion of the
 irrepressibly human over all circumstance." But, really, how may any artist access the articulation of personal catastrophe that is the unique genius of the blues when the ruination one is living is merely "irrepressibly human' and hasn't included the cataclysmic racism dealt African-Americans?

Artists are 100% inclusive when their subject is absolutely universal, like overwhelming sexual need and sexual dread. The Dead Weather excels at new demonstrations of harrowing erotic fever, terror, and collapse. On stage they're loud, proud, and crawling in humiliation in front of the backdrop of a graphic blue-and-black eye designed to watch all flesh flinch. The band is tight. And loose.

Sultry, bossy Mosshart aches to relieve erotic obsession in "The Difference Between Us." "Just let me do what I need to. It might be to me. Or to you. Just let me do what I need to." Helplessness boils into tyranny when she admits in "Gasoline" that she "doesn't want a sweetheart, sweetheart," but would welcome "a machine." This high-handed pedagogical approach assures erotic success, which quakes, even as it rocks. She's despotic. And overwhelmed. Forget Van Halen's tawdry old "Hot for Teacher." Mosshart lets us meet the real, and real nervous, thing in "I Can't Hear You." "I'm gonna teach you/And keep you for myself/ Gonna take you by the hand/ And walk you to my house/ So I can hear you." Her way with the words, and her waywardness in working a crowd, are genuine innovations to a rock role long gone limp with cliches. Shocking good! How is it that generations of rock playboys and rappers have flat-out missed all the sexual territory this band so effectively mines?

When Jack White strolls out from behind the drum kit to duet on the evening highlight "Will There Be Enough Water," he and Mosshart transform into two near-identical desiring shadows, each dictatorial, each abject. White's blistering guitar solos, so appreciated by a nothing-but-appreciative House of Blues crowd, take on a different resonance than those performed so satisfactorily under the childish dictates of The White Stripes. Fertita, Lawrence, Mosshart and White all let loose the universally stormy weather adults know all too well.

Dean Feritita jams with The Dead Weather, Birmingham, AL April 26, 2010  Photo by Sara Zagha  More:

Learn more about The Dead Weather. CLICK

Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act, quoted above, is still in print, published by Vintage, 1995.

This post originally appeared July 23, 2010 on Huffington Post. Check out the arts page often: