Sunday, 23 November 2014

Bruce SPRINGSTEEN: Tunnel Of Love

(#353: 17 October 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: Ain’t Got You/Tougher Than The Rest/All That Heaven Will Allow/Spare Parts/Cautious Man/Walk Like A Man/Tunnel Of Love/Two Faces/Brilliant Disguise/One Step Up/When You’re Alone/Valentine’s Day

“I had a certain talent for friendship, but I never had any friends, either because they simply didn’t turn up, or because the friendship I had imagined was an error of my dreams. I’ve always lived alone, and ever more alone as I’ve become more self-aware.”
(Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin, 2001, p 270, end of section 319)

“The laws that govern your private madness when applied to the daily routine of living your life can coagulate into a collision.”
(Tom Waits, interview with Mark Rowland, Musician magazine, October 1987: “Tom Waits Is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)”)

Another Springsteen album, another Annie Leibovitz photo shoot. But these photos are different from the ones on the album before. On the cover he looks up at us, a little like a suspicious Columbo, in smart dark suit and bootlace tie, hands in pockets, or looks across to us with what could be interpreted as either weariness or contempt. He is leaning against a capacious-looking, cream-coloured car, against an unidentified shoreline, presumably somewhere on the New Jersey coast, maybe Atlantic City. Or the car, beach and sea could be a two-dimensional advertising hoarding as per Heaven 17’s The Luxury Gap. On the back cover he has taken his jacket off, rolled up his white shirtsleeves and looks somewhere to his right, beyond the camera, markedly more relieved. On the inner sleeve he is indoors and stares grimly at us, holding his guitar, in a cramped-looking room, wearing dungarees and the working pants from the front of Born In The U.S.A., perhaps the ones where he swears he left his wallet in “All That Heaven Will Allow.”

On the cover itself, however, it looks to be evening, and the sun appears to be setting. He could be anywhere, and from a personal perspective it would be an interesting surprise if the camera moved round 180° to reveal Blackpool Tower*. But he is with a car – or his idea of a car – and he is alone, and possibly not enjoying it as much as you think he might.

Or perhaps he is too much in love with this thirtysomething thing called rock ‘n’ roll and regretful that a music based on youth and impetus has proven so poor an indicator of permanence. The music was intended to be spontaneous, transient, not to be subject to lengthy studies of meaning, purpose and function. But this man has just turned thirty-eight, and there is nothing on this, his new record, which could possibly talk to twenty-year-olds, never mind appeal to them. Whether this was a hindrance or a reproach was not too clear in 1987, a year in which music did everything except stand still.

What is known, what is palpable, is that he is still in love with this music he first heard thirty years before, and still hopelessly entangled in its promised fantasy of escape.  So it is that the opening of “Ain’t Got You” is performed with such fearful fearlessness that it might be the first rock ‘n’ roll record following some unspecified apocalypse. Such gusto does he have that he doesn’t even bother with instruments for the first verse; it is as if he is at home, listening through loud headphones and singing along.

And it’s the oldest story the capitalist wagon of rock ‘n’ roll knows; the man who has everything except what he wants. Got what he wanted but lost what he had (“They gain a peace but they lose one too,” as Samuel T Herring might put it). There is a discreet echo to the singer’s voice, designed to arouse memories of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and even before the acoustic guitar-and-castanets Bo Diddley shuffle waddles into aural view – this is not the only 1987 number one album that will begin with such a gesture – the unusual, almost tortured tension  Springsteen (for it is he) puts on the first half of each line, tearing up the words like unread telephone directories out of his reddening sky of rage, suggests, ten years after he died, Elvis at the end of his rainbow, with nothing left in his life but the thing that drove him to this life in the first place (“But I’m still the biggest fool, honey, this world ever knew”).

Memories too of “I Can’t Get Next To You” – the fast Temptations or the slow Al Green; either will do – in which the singer is nothing so much as God, impatient that He can create everything except the one thing that matters, despite all of His powers; and “I Can’t Get Started,” that Gatsby of a song which became the unwitting anthem of a generation lost by war, a war Bunny Berigan didn’t even live to see, having already destroyed himself with drink (the Mingus/Schuller orchestration, as heard imperfectly on Epitaph, is a tortured jigsaw puzzle of tonalities and anti-harmonies out of which Vernon Duke’s simple melody eventually emerges like an intact butterfly. At the opposite extreme, the song is effectively a beacon of light relief in the middle of No One Cares, the darkest record Sinatra ever made). “Ain’t Got You” is both start and end to this record, or he finishes where he starts, or vice versa.

If the record starts in the manner of a tut-tutting, surviving Buddy Holly, then “Tougher Than The Rest” might take place in the same post-nuclear bar where the radioactive Blondie perform “Atomic” in their video.  The song lumber s along like a big Orbison ballad, but the perspectives are all wrong; the bass synthesiser looms across both its melody and rhythm like a disused, partially destroyed bulldozer in a newly-created desert. Like Johnny Cash, Springsteen is ready to walk the line; unlike either Cash or Orbison, he says to the girl that he knows he’s not perfect, that he’s aware that they’ve both been around – probably been hanging round and annoying each other for years – but Springsteen is sadly pragmatic:

“Well, ‘round here baby,
I learned that you get what you can get.”

The song also includes the first appearance of the recurring adjective “rough” (“If you’re rough enough for love,” “If you’re rough and ready for love”), indicating that this is no blushing romance, this is a cynical, or desperate, bidding, or plea, for love. Max Weinberg’s drums boom unshowily like God’s alarm clock, while Danny Federici’s organ creeps into the picture at the start of the second verse, holding sustained chords like Webb on “Wichita Lineman.” Springsteen’s single-note, low-strung guitar solo is reminiscent of Duane Eddy. Federici’s organ gradually moves to the front of the mix, such that the song becomes more hymn than barroom pickup, and Springsteen’s own harmonica takes the song out, more “Hey Baby” than Dylan, and more “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe” than either (see also Bowie’s “A New Career In A New Town”).

Still, the song holds out some hope, and in “All That Heaven Will Allow,” the singer pleads with the bouncer, or Mister Trouble, or God, to let him into the club where he knows his girl is waiting for him. There is no indication whether he is working at all, let alone have working pants or a wallet to leave in it, or maybe whether there is actually a woman inside waiting for him to come through the door. The style is Ben E King-period Drifters (as if Springsteen wants her to save every dance for him), fast and Latin-ish, but the title is sung and addressed from a different angle every time it appears, and eventually it appears that the song’s not about a dancehall at all, but about where the dancehall might lead him and her, the life and future that they want. Buried deep in its mesh are the following words:

“Now some may wanna die young, man,
Young and gloriously.
Get it straight now, Mister,
Hey buddy, that ain’t me.”

Oh no, rock ‘n’ roll was all supposed to be about “My Generation” and hoping to die before one got old. So what happens when neither dies? You have to see things through and find out how the story would have progressed, or keep making the story up as you go along.

So far, so hopeful.

“How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stitch of land growing smaller and smaller. Or in a balloon swept up on a column of prairie air, the ground widening and flattening, growing less and less distinct below you. You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far away, and all is lost.”
(Richard Ford, Canada. London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p 110, chapter 15)

Throughout “Spare Parts,” Springsteen’s guitar is speedy and attacking, like an ill-treated motorcycle, before it descends into baby-like cries. Something is wrong, and it is wrong from the song’s beginning, with an opening line worthy of Ellroy:

“Bobby said he’d pull out. Bobby stayed in.”

So Janey gets pregnant and Bobby says they’ll marry but Bobby gets scared and runs away. She has the child, never sees him again, and hears of this woman in Calverton who drowns her child in the river. Bobby, now in a “dirty oil patch” (which description sums him up) in South Texas, hears of the birth but resolves never to return. Janey doesn’t know what to do; she weeps, she prays. Finally she takes her child down to the river (“my baby and I” as another song put it) and places him in it, but only up to waist level, as though baptising him. Then both mother and child return home; she puts him back to bed, takes out her engagement ring and wedding dress, takes them down to the pawnshop and “walked out with some good, cold cash.” Life has been shit, but she has no choice but to persist with it, to bury the old dreams and enable two futures. Regaining “normalcy” is her only chance, just as the music is the most straightforward and rock-like on the record. Canada outlines the dire consequences when two people make a mistake, when they’re too young and too drunk to know better, and Bev Parsons stays in. The narrator’s mother dies, in prison and by her own hand, because she is unable to dissociate her reality from the dream which haunted her all her life. “Spare Parts” suggests a way out.

Because what other way is there? “Cautious Man” gives us a comparable story from the opposing viewpoint, though consists of just Springsteen’s voice and acoustic guitar with discreet background synthesiser drones – sometimes, as in the phrase “a thousand miles away,” his voice can sound Vocoderised, as though the awake man is trying to put some distance between himself and his sleeping lover. He has wandered carefully, if aimlessly, through life, and then he falls in love and settles down. But he remains restless; one midnight, while she is sleeping, he steals away, half-intending to resume his life on the road, away from responsibility.

He reaches the outside – but sees “nothing but road” and feels “a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name.” Or, to put it another way, the cold, cold ground (and a different type of coldness from Janey’s “good, cold cash”). He finally realises that there is nothing left for him out there, no future and no life. The fantasy has to be rejected because his mind, his heart, his totality, is now with his wife. It may be that the “God’s fallen light” that he witnesses and inhabits at the song’s end is a signifier of Springsteen’s Catholic guilt (as the ending of “Spare Parts” may also in part suggest), but it is a striking image (which Springsteen sings in the voice of an exhausted wanderer), as well as a warning to anyone foolish enough to reject reality for a wreckage of life based on rootless dreams, as another record released six weeks ahead of Tunnel Of Love made horrifically and comically clear**.

But the first side’s most profound meditation may be its closer: “Walk Like A Man,” a song which would eventually show up the timid likes of “The Living Years” for the flaccid failures that they were in terms of father and son relationships. It is the son’s wedding day, and his father is in attendance – there’s that roughness again as the singer recalls “how rough your hand felt on mine.” He remembers how he had always tried to walk like his father, right from the age of five on the beach, and how his mother would take him and his sister to the church every time “she heard those wedding bells” – those last two words are underscored by a hollow-sounding synthesised whine – and show them the happiest or saddest of visions:

“Well, would they ever look so happy again,
The handsome groom and his bride,
As they stepped into that long black limousine
For their mystery ride?”

The “long black limousine” is a direct reference to one of Elvis’ darkest songs and raises questions about the concept of “happy”; each couple ventures into unknown darkness, as they find out what being together is actually all about, what is involved in building and sustaining a marriage. Now the singer himself is left by his father at the altar, waiting for his bride to appear, praying and hoping that he can finally learn to walk like his father did, all the while knowing that he almost certainly will not. This doubt is a lifetime away from the masculine certainty of the Four Seasons’ 1963 hit of the same name, where the singer’s father warns him away from love and commitment. “No woman’s worth/Crawling on the earth” – no, that won’t wash anymore, and shouldn’t have washed even in 1963 (even if you capitalise that “earth”). What can he do? He can’t walk on. He walks on. Because what other way is there?

The title song is the nearest thing the record gets to an E Street Band – and this was no accident; many of the record’s songs had begun as largely solo demos, and Springsteen had an urge to keep it that way. Co-producer Jon Landau agreed; the other co-producer Chuck Plotkin listened to the songs, worried about Springsteen and asked whether he wouldn’t mind having the band go over them. Springsteen emphatically and angrily did mind, but suggested a plan where individual band members would contribute to each song. This upset the band members more than if Springsteen had kept them out of the process altogether, and although they were called in, hardly any of their work was used in the final product. “Beat the Demo,” they called it. Max Weinberg adds drums and sundry percussion to eight of the twelve songs, but Federici appears on only four songs, Garry Tallent on one (“Spare Parts”), and Clarence Clemons is heard only as a backing singer on “When You’re Alone.” Keyboardist Roy Bittan appears on both the title song and “Brilliant Disguise.” Otherwise it was Springsteen all the way, and many of the musicians were furious about it.

But the band, such as they are on “Tunnel Of Love,” sound like nothing less than Simple Minds, with the song’s jerky introduction, Nils Lofgren’s very Charlie Burchill-esque guitar solo (his only other appearance here, also as a backing singer, is on “When You’re Alone”) and the constant four-chord synthesiser motif, not to mention Springsteen’s own, rather Jim Kerr-ish vocals (his groan on the “fall” in the phrase “they fall in love”). The song again focuses, via its fairground metaphor, on the unknown darkness of commitment, and perhaps outlines a forensic self-examination on Springsteen’s behalf of what really is meant by the word “love.” “But the house is haunted, and the ride gets rough” – that “rough” again – “And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” which draws us back to the ambiguous principle of “Tougher Than The Rest.” Towards the end of the song, it is noticeable how backing singer Patty Scialfa’s voice gradually becomes louder and more forthright and urgent. Weinberg rains down drum thunderbolts, and the song screeches into a freeform pile-up which resolves into the delighted screams of the riders of the rollercoaster at the Point Pleasant Amusement Park (who, incidentally, were coached and directed by engineer Toby Scott and his assistant).

Next comes “Two Faces,” a song worthy of a vengeful, surviving Buddy Holly (“Two faces have I”) where the singer is at war with himself, or his worse self; half of him wants love, the other half to destroy it. The battle is numbing (the slow up-rolling of the word “baby” in the second line of the second verse sounds like the singer is slitting his own throat with a Swiss Army penknife) but the singer’s good half finally triumphs – for now (“He swore he’d take your love away from me…/Well, go ahead and let him try,” suggesting that the Orbison of “Running Scared” was both pursued and pursuer).

“Brilliant Disguise” is a sister song to “Two Faces” but that isn’t the half of this remarkable piece of work.  We immediately note how the line “Out on the edge of time” relates back to the themes and emptiness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town – so it may not be too helpful to label Tunnel Of Love as a break-up album since this was not the first time Springsteen had presented us with such forlorn songs (for what it’s worth, both Springsteen and Julianne Phillips continue to speak of each other with what I think is heartfelt respect, although both are naturally guarded about talking in great detail about their time together).

Nonetheless, both song and performance beg the question: what the hell do you, or I, want from pop music, from love, from life? The song, like most of the songs on the album, proceeds like any immediate pre-Beatles pop record might have proceeded, or perhaps a few and very select post-Beatles pop records – those castanet triples which seem to resound throughout the entire history of pop, Weinberg’s rhetorical Orbison/Spector timpani. “I hold you in my arms/As the band plays,” Springsteen begins as though it were 1961 and he was Ben E King and the debt of the future had yet to incur itself. The doubt takes no time to make itself known: “What are those words whispered, baby/Just as you turn away?”

And suddenly the performance is so far from certain. There is paranoia – whoever is calling her name from underneath “our” willow, the shameful secret tucked beneath her pillow – and in his evaluation of the song, Dave Marsh is right to speak of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” but also of “Suspicion”, the Terry Stafford song covered by Presley in 1962, Pomus and Shuman’s shame-filled sequel to “Save The Last Dance For Me.” He also mentions Gene Pitney’s 1965 single “Last Chance To Turn Around” (a.k.a. “Last Exit To Brooklyn”) as a specific precursor of “Disguise”’s “Is it meeee, baby?,” but I can’t hear it, only one of Pitney’s fiercest and angriest vocals as he surveys the extent of his lover’s deception before heading out of town (accompanied by a bizarre Bubber Miley muted trumpet cry) with lyrics foreshadowing both Scott Walker’s “Duchess” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Bittan’s piano enters deep and dramatically after Springsteen’s “Well, I’ve tried so hard.” When he reaches the middle eight’s “struggling” he sounds at the end of his tether, and the stark imagery of that same sequence points to another, less likely precedent – and the other end of the “Lovin’ Feelin’” anti-rainbow – Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Federici’s high, held organ note at the song’s end, combined with Weinberg’s timpani, removes all ambiguity)***. Finally, they marry, but Springsteen already realises the danger lies within himself, as he slowly turns the song around and asks his lover whom she sees: “Is it meeee, baby?/Or just a brilliant disguise?” (Julianne Phillips is, of course, an actress). Tired of everything, he wanders away from the song at its end, again recalling “Apart” (“Tonight our bed is cold”), and finally crucifies himself: “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of.” In 1987, only Waits’ “I’ll Take New York” touched its self-destructive power.

On “One Step Up,” terminally disgusted with himself, the singer breaks and quits. But everywhere he runs into a brick wall. His home is unhappy, but his car won’t start and so he has no option but to go back to the bar:

“When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be.”

He is even reduced to trying a half-hearted pick-up at the bar but, like the singer of “Tougher Than The Rest” and maybe even “Brilliant Disguise,” he knows that she knows that it’s all bull and jive. Then the dream reappears: “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms/The music was never-ending” – as if the beginning of “Brilliant Disguise” had happened only in his mind, in his mind alone. But another voice joins in on the subsequent “We danced…” and it is the voice of Patty Scialfa. The music then rises to a crescendo of wordless  chorals, as though both dancers were rising out of that old world.

On “When You’re Alone,” she ups and leaves (“Times were tough, love was not enough”) and he is all sneering and accusatory, but sounding so empty attempting either that the conclusion has to be that he is singing to himself. She does come back in the final verse, but the triumph sounds Pyrrhic; the intermediary second verse sounds like the plot of Franks Wild Years in précis. And then the backing singers – Patty Scialfa, from New Jersey, being one of them – form a chorus behind the singer, telling him that perhaps he’s not really alone. Or would prefer not to be seen as such.

But on the closing “Valentine’s Day,” he is entirely on his own. It is an attempt at deep soul with a steady, patient 6/8 tempo, and Springsteen’s own bass prowls and arches beneath the singer as he realises that fantasy and idealisations, like tears, are not enough. What is love, he wonders; it’s the friend of his who became a father last night – he, Springsteen, who on this album tries so hard to walk like his father – and the singer has had enough of façades; he wants home, and her. He is driving down a dark and “spooky” highway, but in the record’s most resonant and candid couplet, he lays it open:

“That ain’t what scares me, baby;
What scares me is losin’ you.”

And again, those dreams, that light of God (dying in his dreams reminding us of Joy Division/New Order’s “In A Lonely Place,” not to mention “The Electrician”), come through with a hymnal organ to underscore their importance. ”Don’t walk away. In silence” was how the song went. There are closing, chiming bells, the bluest and loneliest of Valentines – but, unlike Frank, he at least sounds as though he has a home still to reach and reside. “Now that we’ve found love” asked the O’Jays some years earlier, “what are we gonna do with it?” Recognising it, Springsteen recognises, is not the same thing as living with it, nurturing it, allowing it to grow and flourish. He has to get beyond the fun of the fair and get his hands dirty. It might even be called growing up, that inconsiderate and un-rock ‘n’ roll-like phenomenon that the most searching music of 1987 appeared to want and address more and more. You’ve finally got to learn to live with what you know you can make rise above. That is that thing called love.

*Appendix 1: Blackpool

You may wonder why I should reminisce about Blackpool in the context of an album set in one man’s heart in America, much of it recognisably set along the New Jersey shoreline – if that “dirty oil patch” in South Texas isn’t a roundabout reference to Roy Orbison’s background, and remembering that Newark’s Four Seasons were as much the sound of New Jersey in their day as Springsteen was, and perhaps still is, in his -  and the only answer I can give is that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Blackpool, a place I knew very well in the seventies and which I have not visited since the seventies, and something about the sunset/end-of-the-road twilight gleaming of Tunnel Of Love set me thinking about the place.

Specifically I’ve been looking at Blackpool as it is now via the marvel of Google Street View, tracing all the approaches to the town, and the town itself, as far as fits my memory of them. The overwhelming feeling that I have is one of melancholy. It doesn’t really matter which way you come into town; however you do it, the familiar shape of the Tower will soon come into progressively less distant view.

When my parents and I visited the resort regularly in summer holidays past, we used to lodge somewhere in Egerton Road, part of the elegant North Shore, by far my favourite district of the town (there is even a Carlin Gate to mark the otherwise invisible boundary between Blackpool and Bispham). As a very young boy I used to fantasise about living in the very grand Imperial Hotel, but then I had similar fantasies about living in Buckingham Palace and even in Tower Bridge. Tracing the path from there, I was astonished at how swiftly and how well I recognised the streets, the houses built in a brickwork of sandstone in a shade of red you don’t really find anywhere else. The turning at the top of the road which turned into another road, and you can glimpse the top of the Tower above one of the houses  on the right (the same house used to boast an advertising hoarding for Omega Watches which no longer exists). Dickson Road, always an exciting walk in my younger days, eager to check out the latest American Marvel Comics, which came to Blackpool a lot sooner than they did to Glasgow. Then down to Talbot Road, with its terrific Marks and Spencer and fantastic butcher’s shop which sold the best burgers I have yet tasted, past Yates’ Wine Lodge to Talbot Square and there, facing you, was the North Pier, stretching far out into the North Sea – on an especially clear day, you could go right to its end and glimpse the coast of the Isle of Man.

Just to your left were Lewis’s department store – blue and huge – then the Tower itself, and the Tower complex, and next to that was the art deco Woolworth’s. If you glimpsed up the street that lay between Lewis’s and the Tower then you would see the famous Winter Gardens, which incorporated the comparatively swishy Opera House. Actually we hardly ever ventured into the Winter Gardens itself, except accidentally one summer when we opened a door and found ourselves in an auditorium, with distant acting on a distant stage, and affable-looking fellows standing around at the back laughing and conferring. It turned out to be the Are You Being Served? stage show (of which cast only Nicholas Smith, a.k.a. Mr Rumbold, now survives). There was a fairground of sorts and other such distractions.

The Opera House we went to twice, to see Ken Dodd, once in 1968 and again in 1971. I don’t really remember anything about the 1968 one, but I still have the programme for 1971’s The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular and it brings everything back. In truth it probably presaged the truth about Blackpool in the seventies, that it was already in slow decline from its twenties-to-fifties heyday, the cheap airline/package tour market gradually eating into its numbers of visitors. Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the likes of Sarah Bernhardt paid the town more than one visit (except, on one occasion, when acting in a French play with suboptimal sound quality, one gruff member of the audience regaled Bernhardt with the upbraid: “Speak up, lass! Nobbut a soul can hear what th’art sayin’! We haven’t paid our hard-earned money for that!”).

There was also the Grand Theatre, not too far away, where we went twice; once to see Jimmy Jewel and Hylda Baker in the Nearest And Dearest stage show, and again to see a farce starring Jack Douglas whose title I have long forgotten (it might have been called The Love Nest). But The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular seemed like a last-ditch effort to stage the sort of grand variety show to which Blackpool had been long accustomed.

I also recall it not being that funny. Dodd was only onstage here and there; once near the beginning, and again near the middle for some dreary song-and-dance business with the Diddymen which also involved some admittedly spectacular waterfalls (and there was a full orchestra in the pit). Otherwise the fare on offer could have come from 1911 or 1941; the Tiller Girls, ventriloquism (Jack Beckitt, “supported by WILLIE DRINKALL”), juggling, fire-eating, sleight-of-hand magic (the latter from the highly-respected Johnny Hart, the only name on the bill apart from Dodd’s that I recognised) and lots of stern, doughy songs sung by one Lyn Kennington with themes or titles like “When Knights Were Bold” and “Derby Day.”

But at the end, more or less, Dodd came back onstage, alone, and riffed, improvised or recalled gags from the air, reacted immediately to his audience, for what must have been almost an hour and a half and maybe even two hours. It was staggering. I’d never seen anything like it before, and it was clear that this was what everybody had paid to come and see, and that all the sub-Franz Lehar rictus-grinning stuff that preceded it was merely a warm-up. It doesn’t really matter that over forty years later I can hardly remember one joke that he told; it was about the moment, the here and now, and the thrill and pleasure in watching a master of his art at peak power and enjoying it so hugely.

Or maybe it was just one hour; I was very young and time out of school was a matter of elasticity. What I do remember was that when we eventually got out of the Opera House it was well past midnight and we had to get a taxi back to our boarding house. Dodd’s then-current single “When Love Comes Round Again” was sung on stage, played over the PA as we left the auditorium, and indeed was on sale in the downstairs foyer. It didn’t become a hit record until slightly later, and it remains perhaps Dodd’s strangest single. It was an English version of a 1970 hit by Italian singer-songwriter Sergio Endrigo, originally entitled “L’Arce Di Noé,” and followed Endrigo’s original see-sawing between cheerful singalong choruses and melodramatic verses. In Dodd’s recording, however, the pull-and-tug is almost schizophrenic; now we have the honky tonk piano, the Mike Sammes Singers, the hand-waving singsong (“Love –is-LIIIIIIIIKE an ever spinning wheel”), before these musicians suddenly drop out, perhaps through a trapdoor, the key switches from dominant major to subdominant minor, the guitar goes proto-Portishead on the listener, and we are left with a regally cold string section – although the song ‘s pulse is always constant, the verses pull off the illusion of sounding out-of-tempo – against which Dodd’s voice descends a staircase of grief (“Down the years, many tears have been cried about love and devotion”) with a methodology of phrasing and pause control almost identical in elegance to that of Scott Walker. The strings swell up, the chords mourn like a lamenting Dido – but before the wrecked soul can jump off the cliff, just as suddenly returns the don’t-worry-be-happy-clappy chorus. The overriding arc of love dying and love being reborn isn’t that distant from the overall theme of Tunnel Of Love. Towards the end of 1971, the song, retitled “Love Is Like A Spinning Wheel,” became a hit for American country singer Jan Howard, who in tandem with producer Owen Bradley did it as straight country without any of the melodrama.

But back to the Woolworth’s tower – such as it was  - and beyond that you left the North Shore and entered the Central region, by far the most popular among the largely Glaswegian Fair Fortnight holidaymakers. Far more colourful, and maybe tackier, than the North, the smell of fish and chips combined with candy floss was prevalent all the way down the Golden  Mile. Central Pier was also a far brasher pier than either the North or South ones, with its extravagantly vulgar design and its Peter Webster talent contests. There was a waxwork museum called Louis Tussaud’s, a cinema whose name I’ve forgotten where we’d go to watch morning matinees of seemingly endless Warner Brothers cartoon classics, and lots, but lots, of seafront hotels. Central Blackpool was all about loudness, as opposed to the calming reserve of the North Shore – there’s a great point on the North Promenade where the Metropole Hotel rises up and suddenly, if briefly, there are huge buildings on either side of the street.

Whereas the South Shore always seemed like something of an afterthought, looking as it did rather down-at-heel, primary-coloured paint scraping from the bright houses on the shore. The South Pier looked almost embarrassed to call itself a pier, although it really wasn’t all that bad. Nevertheless I clearly recall the pier’s theatre manager coming out onto the pier deck to address the masses reclining in their deckchairs, imploring them to come inside and see Freddie Garrity in The Jolson Story. “Plenty of seats left!” he repeated, the implication being that all seats were left (which, as I understand things, wasn’t that far-fetched; nobody took up the offer). This was very different from cheerful characters like Frank Carson and Little and Large strolling up the North Pier, waving to deckchairs, beaming and always ready for an autograph and a chat.

There was Pleasure Beach, Europe’s largest amusement park, or so it was claimed in those pre-Alton Towers days, and yes, it had a rollercoaster and a Tunnel of Love (not to mention a Ghost Train). It was probably the only institution in Blackpool which could advertise itself as separate and distinct from the Tower. After that, Blackpool slowly and unspectacularly dwindled down to nothing, at least until you got to Lytham St Annes, with its sand dunes on which you could actually sunbathe (at the opposite end of the town were the infamously windy and often Irish Sea-drenching Bispham Cliffs). And there were the trams, always the indispensable trams, and in autumn, the Blackpool Illuminations which four decades ago were pretty spectacular. Not to mention the local paper, the Evening Gazette, and the exotic novelty of watching Granada rather than Scottish Television.

These memories are all intact, and really I don’t want to spoil them by thinking about what Blackpool has turned into since then. Traversing along Google Street View I saw on my right, on Church Street, a huge and apparently disused club called The Sanctuary. Now wait, I thought; don’t I know this building from somewhere? And then it struck me – it wasn’t remotely the same building, but was the building which had replaced the Blackpool ABC Theatre, a constant in the seventies, and before then, where stars like Morecambe and Wise trod its boards and guitarist Derek Bailey practised his Webern in the orchestra pit.

Then, the all-too-familiar parade of chain stores, and a feeling of slight desolation. Where Lewis’s once stood, there is now a Harry Ramsden’s and a Poundland, amongst many others. Where once there was a Woolworth’s, now stands Sports Direct. Many shops and hotels I had once known and recognised along the shore were now closed, boarded up or turned into other, less attractive things. I am aware that, for a multitude of reasons, Blackpool is a far less pleasant place than it was when I knew it. If I went there now, the thrill of instant familiarity would, I suspect, be swiftly undercut by the same saddening, reddening sunset one sees on the album cover; the time is gone, and I prefer to preserve the place as I remember it.

**Appendix 2: Franks Wild Years

I’m not very clear about Tom Waits’ religious upbringing or beliefs – like Lanark’s Duncan Thaw and myself, he may well have his “own conception of God,” although one of his most apocalyptic songs has to be 2002’s “God’s Away On Business” (“The ship’s sinking,” “it’s all over” etc.) and I note that his wife Kathleen Brennan, who co-wrote that song along with much of Franks Wild Years, was, like Springsteen, raised as a Catholic – but he seems able to raise his head from the mud more surely than Springsteen, forever crucified by his Catholic guilt, manages on Tunnel, and maybe has a happier story to tell.

Franks Wild Years – and this, incidentally, is not a typo; sleeve, spine and label are entirely free of the pardoning apostrophe, implying that Waits is collecting and filing wild years like others do stamps – was staged under the aegis of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, premiering at Chicago’s Briar St Theatre in June 1986. Planned as the third part of a trilogy of albums also encompassing Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, it is perhaps more neglected than either. The original, apostrophe-incorporating monologue appears on the former, is over in a hundred and ten seconds, and is not much more than Waits growling a tale over Ronnie Barron’s Hammond organ and Larry Taylor’s walking bass, a story which doesn’t really have much bearing on what happens on this record, other than the awful, spontaneous urge to abandon a life based on reality and run away in pursuit of one based on fantasy.

Without wanting to waste my time and space and your patience on what a thousand writers have already told you about Waits, I’ll cut straight to the story that the record tells. It begins with excitement and anticipation; “Hang On St Christopher” as Frank – Sinatra? Bascombe? Wheeler? – sets out for Christ(opher) knows where, past The Grapevine, through Reno, further and further away from what he knew. “Straight To The Top” continues with the absurd optimism. But as he goes through “Blow Wind Blow” and “Temptation,” his voice gets higher and more torn, the music less graspable. The first “Innocent When You Dream” – the roughness of his dreams – is bawled as though he is weeping at his own funeral.

As his travels broaden and narrow, and his resources run out, the music becomes steadily more doleful as it becomes more dissonant; in “I’ll Be Gone” he actively welcomes the prospect of suicide, and by “Yesterday Is Here” and “Please Wake Me Up” he is dimly aware that there is no going or coming back. “Franks Theme” teeters in and out of comprehensibility like Carla Bley’s least forgettable nightmare. “More Than Rain” sees Waits pulling down the shutters on the planet. “Way Down In The Hole” is deep soul marooned deeper than Hades, Marc Ribot’s guitar tugging on the song’s perilous strands of logic, a trio of backing singers – a signifier of “soul” music – entering the song only a few seconds before it is terminated.

Side two is nightmare all the way. The Vegas “Straight To The Top” is both pitiful and hilarious, while “I’ll Take New York” is Sinatra refracted through Lynch**** – although Scorsese’s original New York, New York movie hardly said yes to life; Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle are fated to separate and go into their respective musical and emotional dead ends . Then again, you could experience Waits/Franks’ torment, as the lounge music disintegrates around him like the world, the future, his life floating away from him (in his play “What Is The Right Thing And Am I Doing It?,” BS Johnson has Ghent reiterate that the only way he can explain how he coped what he made happen to him is “You had to…float”), as the devil who, as Waits put it, knows the Bible like the back of his hands and flows through the mind, wind and fingers of Jimmy Doyle as de Niro plays him. At the end of the song, he is fluttering, bleary, incomprehensible and unlovable, in the gutter.

There is a grain of hope in the hopped-up “Telephone Call From Istanbul,” as well as some of the album’s funniest lyrics (sample: “Never drive a car when you’re dead” – well, Waits makes it funny) – but “Cold Cold Ground” – the same cold, cold ground into which Springsteen’s cautious man stares – with the aid of David Hidalgo’s accordion, is the first of a pair of great vocal performances that showed D’Arby that he had some way to go; slow, patient, deep, hurt, and genuinely “soulful.” The second is the numbing “Train Song” where he realises that he has returned home, but that it’s not “home” any more, that it is too late for redemption or anything else. Springsteen never lets himself get anywhere near that trap. The final “78” reading of “Innocent When You Dream” sounds played from beyond the grave, as if Frank had expired. All that having been said, Waits is always accompanied by a core of his repertory company of musical players – musically he never sounds alone, as such – and given that the woman who became his wife helped to write so many of these songs, you could argue that the ending here was, paradoxically, happier than Springsteen’s lonely Valentine.

****Appendix 2b: Climate of Sinatra

In 1986, Sinatra’s brassy, Don Costa-arranged “Theme From New York, New York,” reissued by Reprise to promote a routine best-of compilation album, became an unexpected top five hit in Britain (his last such as a solo performer). I am not sure whether this had the welcome effect of drawing curious listeners back to the performance’s original home, 1980’s Trilogy: Past Present Future, a self-explanatory triple album which, in its final third, the Gordon Jenkins-masterminded “Future” suite, constitutes the most exploratory and avant-garde music Sinatra ever recorded. Those who think that Scott Walker was striking out a stubbornly lonely path are directed to “World War None!,” “Song Without Words,” and “What Time Does The Next Miracle Leave?”; the record is Sinatra’s Tilt, his Metal Machine Music, and as brilliant as either.

***Appendix 3: A Love Trilogy: Past Present Future

(a)  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”

There were Springsteen-compatible precedents in Orbison, Pitney and the Four Tops; what else is the knowingly failed barroom pick-up in “One Step Up” but a cold rationalist update of “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa”? But I doubt whether even the fifteen-year-old Springsteen was ready for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Like the opening of Citizen Kane, “Lovin’ Feelin’” plays its cards upfront. There is no introduction or prelude; without warning we are immediately lowered into the pit of the sarcophagus of Bill Medley’s voice, clanging its own hellish chimes of doom. It is like the Last Trump being blown directly into your ear.

No reassurance either: “You never close your eyes any more” is how it begins; did we come in halfway through the story, or record? Those first two words are uttered, as though they constituted the last words of man, before any music begins, and when the music does begin it is distant, like the band are playing in the next room, or on the next continent. The language of what the singer took to be love appears to be no longer valid, and he is having difficulty accepting that.

As he reaches the first chorus a second, higher voice joins him in harmony and their joint “gone, gone, gone” resounds like the sailors crying for bread in Boris Godunov. Then the song lands again, not quite where it was at the beginning – the sound is fuller and there are next-door-neighbour backing vocals, one of which is provided by Cher. A high string line – Nitzsche was indisposed and so Spector grumpily hired Gene Page to do the arrangement – enters into our consciousness like an oxygen tube. Then there’s another pained build-up – you may think these are just little things but SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL’S DYING, the greatest offence that humanity is incapable of bearing – and another chorus, before the rhythm section suddenly drops out, perhaps through a trapdoor.

There is just a vibraphone, and a double bass, and then “Goodnight Irene” harmonising, and then congas – but before even those Medley tries to prove that even Homer (Simpson) can nod – “Baby, baby…I’d get down on my knees for you” (then the wordless choir – is the subtext here “Take Me To Church”?).

But then there is another voice, a higher, more urgent one, which we hear on its own for the first time – the voice of Bobby Hatfield. Restraint versus anger, countenance against fear; two sides of the same man? More percussion enters, then snarling muted trombones; the music just keeps building and building – by the time the singers reach their quatrain of “Don’t, don’t, DON’T, DON’T let it slip away-ay-ay!,” the song, the record, sounds as though it is barely under control.

Then the two singers start to shout at each other – “Baby!” “BABY!” “Baby…” “BAYYYYYYBAYYYYY!!” – why are they arguing? They continue towards their peak of outward mourning: “I need your love,” says Medley mildly. “I NEED YOUR LOVE!” hollers Hatfield, to remind us of how he could stretch out and heighten that “I need your love” in “Unchained Melody,” a song Spector gave him to do alone, as recompense for being absent from most of “Lovin’ Feelin’.” Everything is about to boil over. It’s clear why they are screaming at each other. It’s their version of getting laid.

But instead of a Penderecki-type eruption, we can only go back to the chorus, the “Bring back that lovin’ feelin’,” roared more in forlorn hope than assured certainty (for otherwise why would they hush up and sing “I can’t go on” towards the end?). Another drop-out, and then an intentionally anti-climactic fadeout. Burdon’s “House Of The Rising Sun” wasn’t even in it.

Nor, for a moment, was British pop music. The big chart battle here was between the original and Cilla Black’s George Martin-produced cover. But Cilla and George got nowhere near it; the climactic bridge is cut short (the singer said she didn’t want people to get bored, not too convincingly) but after leading the original in the charts for three weeks, the British public turned around and decided that they preferred “to get bored,” to hear the whole, unabbreviated, unconfined story. It’s arguable that Black’s pop career never regained its momentum after that episode; her follow-up, a far more convincing and adventurous reading of “I’ve Been Wrong Before” – a record which introduced Randy Newman to our charts – was perceived as an audience-testing single and only just crept into the top twenty (a shame because I think her version better than the contemporaneous Dusty Springfield one; her cold harshness suits the song’s shopworn cynicism better, Martin’s strings crouching in the bushes like unexploded grenades).

Perhaps the most convincing cover of the song appears on the Human League’s 1979 debut album Reproduction; coming out of an abstract instrumental called “Morale,” Oakey’s grave voice resonates against giant tick-tocks, like God’s clock. He makes no attempt to reproduce Medley and Hatfield’s original vocal pyrotechnics, but sings it in a state of blank disbelief and premature resignation. The underlying “Morale” motif does not move to accommodate the chorus’ chord changes. It is as if Oakey is raising the question: what’s the look of love, and where did it go?

(b) Love Will Tear Us Apart

It is said that Tony Wilson gave Ian Curtis a copy of the 1978 Frank Sinatra Twenty Golden Greats compilation to give him tips for singing the song, which he sings more quietly and slowly than any other uptempo Joy Division song, and most of the downtempo ones. The music begins where most punk records ended, with a gigantic guitar/drums climax, but this then unexpectedly gives way to Duane Eddy lead bass and Hapless Child string synthesiser. The song’s sentiments are the same as those of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but like Frank and Bruce the routine has now degenerated such that there is no chance of reconciliation or even elementary contact with each other. The music does not attempt another climax; instead Curtis simply muses quietly and regretfully. Eventually the song gives way, and we are left with a single high note of elegy flying above what is essentially “Then He Kissed Me.” It’s not so much that the record closed down the recent past and permitted New Pop to flourish, but that it is resigned to the possibility that there is no future at all. Even the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” hadn’t gone that far. Beyond this only the posthumous ice forest of “Atmosphere” and something awkward called the future.

(c) (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life

(“I” by Kendrick Lamar)

“If the future proves sweet, would it tell us to leap before we move?”
(“The Future (Continued): I’ve Been There” by Frank Sinatra)

Dirty Dancing was released in August of 1987 and could in any other world have been an Elvis movie (I wish that both Elvis and Marvin were still alive to give us their readings of “Take Me To Church”); it is set in the summer of 1963, i.e. before the Beatles changed everything, and the little plot it has hardly gets in the way of the dancing, which is the movie’s point. You remember Patrick Swayze and Baby and don’t recall the name of Swayze’s character or the name of the actress who played “Baby” (Johnny  Castle and Jennifer Grey respectively). Maybe you bought the soundtrack, and even its sequel/appendix, which is full of songs which would have been part of the teenage Springsteen’s canon – “Hey Baby,” “Be My Baby,”  “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “In The Still Of The Night,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Love Is Strange,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”; all these songs of implied deliverance and paradoxical, if retrospective, reassurance; those days before “we” were obliged to grow up.

“Time Of My Life” was written by John de Nicola, Don Markowitz and Frankie Previte, which latter you may remember from early eighties act Frankie and the Knockouts (the same team wrote “Hungry Eyes,” recorded for the film by Eric Carmen). The original choice of duo was Donna Summer and Joe Esposito, but they turned the song down, and so it came to the attention of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Although the Righteous Brothers had a second number one in 1966 with the ostensibly self-produced (though Jack Nitzsche was heavily involved) “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” a record of such desperate intensity as to outdo even “Lovin’ Feelin’,” they faded relatively quickly, only really coming back in 1974 with the terrible “Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven.” So no doubt Medley was glad of the chance to reassert himself. Meanwhile Warnes was busy enough, working with more dangerous characters like Leonard Cohen and Arthur Russell – her Cohen covers album Famous Blue Raincoat was one of 1987’s most emotional records, as indeed was Russell’s solo/multitracked voice-and-‘cello essay World Of Echo – but the film’s music producer Jimmy Ienner prevailed upon her to repeat the “Up Where We Belong” magic.

The song, as Medley and Warnes recorded it, was a lot less ambiguous or ambitious than “Lovin’ Feelin’,” despite a deliberate reference to the latter in the string chart, but it was undoubtedly happier, and at the time of its initial release found an unlikely champion in Morrissey, who reviewed the record on Radio 1’s Round Table show and rated it very highly. It is corny and eighties-sounding, but both singers sound heartfelt, and there is the feeling of closure being attained.  “I’ve searched through every open door/’Til I’ve found the truth/And I owe it all to you” – are we really that far away from a less melancholy Springsteen, out there on the highway in the dead of night, heading home again?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Michael JACKSON: Bad

(#352:  12 September 1987, 5 weeks)

Track listing:  Bad/The Way You Make Me Feel/Speed Demon/Liberian Girl/Just Good Friends/Another Part Of Me/Man In The Mirror/I Just Can't Stop Loving You/Dirty Diana/Smooth Criminal/Leave Me Alone

"Ambition - ambition's a tricky thing, it's like riding a unicycle over a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades - ambition can backfire."   Matthew Good, "21st Century Living," Avalanche (2003)

It is at about this point that things start to change; when my existence, as I view it now, is merely a series of moments, some good and some terrible, and a whole world ebbs away...

The summer - well, what do I remember of it?  Being morbid, wearing black - not all the time, but I remember that - a feeling that I was going to die, that death was in the air.  Wasn't this the summer that I heard that Justine, who I had known briefly at Sheridan, who was in my year at White Oaks, a bright and pretty girl, had died of a brain tumor?  And I remember walking along in the sunshine, listening to The Chameleons' Strange Times and feeling that Mancunian rain right there with me, that forboding sense of doom.

Not that I had any reason to feel this way, at first.

No, at first it was just noticing that my father was starting to mellow out a bit, to be more easy-going, less bristly and set in his ways.  In late August he even read the Melody Maker cover story on Tom Waits and enjoyed it, particularly since (as I can recall) Waits was just making up stuff to amuse himself and the writer.  My father usually had no time for any of my UK/US weekly/monthlies, no time for music that wasn't jazz or classical.  Waits he'd liked though, introduced to him by a tape from his students back in the 70s, and would play that tape at home, so I too could connect back to a Los Angeles of the Copper Penny and the great phrase "colder than a ticketaker's smile at the Ivar Theater on a Saturday night."  Tom Waits meant home, and all the complexities of home.

Then - oh how could I forget this?  The Journalist (as I shall call him) at CFNY was hosting a night at the Krush Club, DJing there, and of course I had to be there.  Had I already sat at the house on Highfield Road or not?  My second year at Ryerson began and I was housesitting, there in Toronto, Ryerson just a streetcar ride away, me with a whole place to myself, though I wasn't there for long.  It was a hot end of summer, and the night at the Krush Club - a small place on Kingston Road - meant sleeping over at this house, as there was no way I could see him there and get home on time.  My first time away from my parents, and it was  Dancing and music, and him greeting me and kissing me, even (my chin or cheek, awkwardly).

So then - a bright and promising start.  I am able to look after myself away from home - yep.  I meet The Journalist, who tends to read bits of my letters on the air - oh yes, and while we don't have long to talk, he likes me.  I have a second year of Ryerson ahead of me, and how bad can that be?


I do not remember - oh, the irony - if Mom and I started to notice it in August or September.  But my father's short-term memory was faulty now.  He didn't remember things too well, and it wasn't like him at all to be forgetful or unsure.  There were no other symptoms, nothing to tell or show, not in the least.  Just that - and the decline was permanent.  He was not going to get better, but being who he was, a Stoic, he wasn't going to go see the doctor about it.  He could still do the things that were important, he could still drive me to the station in the morning and then go teach at Sheridan.  And so he did.

The second year at Ryerson was like being a tiny person walking on a Moebius strip hoping you'd find a way off, or out.  The only thing was to keep going.  We were all put through our paces in television - a medium I was unsuited for, on either side of the camera.  English was taught to us in a haughty way, as if the Augustans and Romantics weren't difficult enough already.  And I endured the three-hour version of Lifeboat that was Media Sociology in a windowless screening room in the Film & Photography building every Friday afternoon, after which the weekend loomed, only for the whole thing to start all over again on Monday, with still more work which seemed besides the point of why I wanted to go to Ryerson in the first place - to learn to write.  (Perhaps it was sheer foresight that led some to drop out in the first semester a year before, since they knew the dreaded second year was going to be an endless and near pointless trial.)

Yes, Friday afternoon, going to Union Station and listening to the radio or a tape on my Walkman, going home to realize yet again that my father wasn't getting better, but slowly worse.

At this time I didn't pay much attention to Michael Jackson - I didn't get Bad as I figured I would probably hear most of it via the slow drip of singles, but in truth I think I didn't even figure that much.  Jackson was always invariably there, somehow, an element of the world, a combination of effort and effortlessness.  He was the biggest star on the planet and pretty much could do whatever he wanted, not like us hapless mortals with our scrambles for good seats on the train, eating chocolate to keep our energy going, reading Spy magazine for some sense of, Jackson wasn't like me, he seemed to have transcended what most people had to deal with.

Only now can I see that really - really? - he hadn't.  But there was no way I, whose life was altering every moment, making me feel as if I was going into a dark place very much by myself, could see the same thing was happening with him, only the death he was frightened of, then resigned to, wasn't his father's but his own.  A living death-in-life, a sort of limbo.  This version of Jackson wasn't the same as the one from Thriller, which in turn wasn't the same as the one from Off The Wall.  I look at him on the cover of Bad and he looks most like...his sister Janet.*  And while Janet was able to go off to Minneapolis to work with Jam & Lewis, Michael stuck by Los Angeles and Quincy Jones, though he shares production credits this time.  He too has more control, so to speak (he had a raised wooden stage built in the studio so he could sing and dance during recording), and yet on the cover it's not just regular (if such a thing can be imagined) ol' Michael but the figure from the "Bad" video. He looks tough; he's wearing black; yet he looks a bit, well, feminine too, androgynous, even.  Even as he's playing the don't-fuck-with-me-pal card, there is something increasingly not quite right going on, and the album explains this, song by song...

You're Not A Man

And it starts with the title song, "Bad."  Sure, it's got A Secret Wish (if Michael didn't know about it, I'm sure Quincy or one of his aides did) in its bones, that snaky, scary sense of menace; but why is he so utterly intent on making sure we know he's bad?  (Bad as the opposite of good, in both senses of the meaning.)  I guess this means making sure people know he's still real, still of this earth, dancing around an actual subway station and looking tough; but if you have to say it so many times...well, is it true?  Or is this some kind of self-talk, wherein if he says he's bad enough times, he'll start to believe it himself?  The "whole world" knows he's bad, but does he?  The song was inspired by a real incident of a kid who'd gotten out of the ghetto to go to a preppy college, who came back home for Thanksgiving and was killed by the boys he grew up with, out of jealousy.  Is that how Jackson perceived the world - not as happy for him, but jealous and angry?  Is this would-be royal uneasy wearing the crown?

You're Just A Product Of Loveliness

And what about the world of the Other?  Jackson expected perfection from himself, it can only therefore follow he wanted perfection from his Other, but is she real?  "The Way You Make Me Feel"  comes off as if he is Pygmalion working with sheer will and nothing else - no clay, no prayers - just on will and feeling alone is he singing to this girl about how ecstatic he is, how turned on he is, but there is something a little too mechanical, hemmed in, workmanlike here.  Even in the song he talks about working, as if sheer fun and joy and that divine SWOON of love have been packed up and boxed away, and once again in the video (Jackson liked to write songs and imagine the video alongside them, so they're actually part of the songs) he has to prove his manliness by hitting on a girl in the street, yelling and trying to look tough, in a way that would have any right-thinking woman blow him off, pronto.  There is nothing sexy about his approach all, and it just reinforces how performed this song feels, how it's not a personal statement as much as a show tune from a musical that would only begin after his death.  It is as if his real self, wise and sensitive and so on, has to provide this bluster so others will approve of him.  It is sad to note that even after the monumental success of Thriller, Jackson still can't be himself (he is by now someone who knows and understands fame, and is perhaps hiding behind it).

Mind Like A Compass

"Speed Demon" is one of the two songs on the album that was never released as a single, which should tell you how much hay was made of this album (I can only wonder if Epic demanded nine singles, all the better to milk the album all the way into 1989 - amazingly, all nine were hits in the UK, which shows just how popular Bad was).  I'm not too sure what this song is about or if it derides or applauds the reckless driver (it's no "You're Gonna Get Yours" by Public Enemy**), but again it's got Propaganda, or rather Art of Noise, as its basis, clanking and pounding away, while Jackson whispers and hisses, like a driver muttering under his breath.  "Eat the ticket" is what Jackson is trying to do - take his fame and own it, but his driver gets away and the man-machine is left behind, only wishing he could zoom away, free of all consequences.

 Just Like In The Movies

"Liberian Girl" is a perfectly nice song, political in its way (Liberia being founded by freed U.S. slaves) and it is a rare moment of calm and quiet on the record, but what does it say that the video is full of Jackson's friends and pals, only to have him come in at the end, grinning behind the movie camera?  He is now the observer and director, and the direction shows most of his friends wondering where the heck he is.*** One way of seeing this is that it's Jackson's world now, and we are all players in it, whether we like it or not.  Of course for Jackson I suspect it was a lot of fun, but the kicker is that we see the dancers for the actual video, there is a woman there dancing and speaking Swahili, but the actual song is swiftly cast aside for the murmurings of his friends instead, as if to say that he and his pals are bigger than the music, that hello, I AM FAMOUS NOW, LOOK AT ALL MY FAMOUS FRIENDS.  (A few sing along with the song, but not very many.)       

You Didn't See Her Eyes On Me

"Just Good Friends" is the other non-single on the album, a duet with Stevie Wonder (originally the album was supposed to be full of duets).  It's one of those itchy 'Michael vs. a Rival for the love-of-a-girl' songs that always sound amiable, if not improbable, and it's all "oh we ignore each other in front of others but in secret we can't be more in love" except it's with the same woman, oh dear, a woman who is still making up her mind about which one of them she wants.  The level of bonhomie here is that of two senior college pals toying with a freshman girl, and the phrase "say we're just good friends" starts to elasticate and apply to the two men just as much as anything else; there's nothing threatening in the song, but you have to wonder what she will think when she finds out that they are, in effect, manipulating her.

"We" Are "The World"

Speaking of manipulation, there's the disconcerting "Another Part Of Me" - a kind of sequel to the "We Are The World" Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Richie, a happy end to the album that hasn't even finished yet.  It does end the weird Captain EO short that he did in '86, wherein Jackson is spreading love and joy throughout the universe, and this is the Captain's anthem.  The royal "we" appears here again, as if us being just another part of him means that we really are part of the MJ Army whether we like it or not.  "This is our planet/You're one of us" is just plain creepy if you're not a diehard fan though, in which case you are all too eager to help send out the message of a "major love" - one that is bound to happen through destiny ("the planets are linin' up"), so why resist?  On the other hand, if we're just another part of him, does that mean that the reverse is true - that he's just another part of us, the listeners?  Not that I can tell, but the next song is kind of an answer.

A Selfish Kind Of Love

"Man In The Mirror" is the one moment where Jackson can look out at others, perhaps less fortunate than him, and decide that he has to make the world a better place, and where better than to start with himself?  I hate to put it this way, but changing yourself should take place somewhere outside the bathroom/bedroom or wherever the mirror is; think of how easy it was for Narcissus to look at his reflection and not change, and how easy it was for Jackson to look and look and change himself superficially, endlessly self-conscious and worried and anxious about how he appeared from a young age.  No wonder the girls in my high school (and others across the globe) identified with Jackson and loved him unreservedly - he worried and fretted about his skin and features and so on as much as us, he self-monitored himself far more than even the vainest boy.
(Those boys who didn't like him then because they were into hard rock or political bands like Gang of Four or The Clash, who looked down on Jackson and his fans, for being too girly - they were there in my high school for sure, and oh how I wish I could quote directly from my journal about how ignorant they were, how they understood nothing about music if they didn't at least respect Jackson.)

There is a pathos here that he could and could not change, that maybe his longing to grow up here and give a damn for others was always going to be secondary to his need to become perfect.  Yet perfection, as Plath said, is terrible and cannot have children.  This is often heard as the ultimate Jackson song/message, but even a choir coming in at the end (Simon Cowell has been chasing this song ever since it came out, to no damn effect, it's safe to say) can't take away from the strain and self-involvement here.  (Telling himself it's going to feel real good, like a trainer saying he'll feel better once the diet/regimen kicks in.)  "Make that change" he says to himself/us in the end (if we're part of him, then we have to change too) - and the song, gospel and heartfelt, dissolves into fairy dust.  It is one hell of a song on many layers, as if we are caught up in the room full of mirrors, not sure exactly where Jackson is, close or far away.

Hee! Hee! Hee!

"I Just Can't Stop Loving You" is a pretty enough song, with more than a nod to The Lexicon Of Love, but the love presented here seems to be running the show, the master to the two puppets.  This is not the grown-up responsible love of, say, George Benson, but the star-crossed love of two kids who are caught up in romance - maybe the idea of romance, more than the actual thing. "You know how I feel/I won't stop until/I hear your voice saying "I do." is a little overwhelming though, as if this great love is all or nothing, as if this is the one chance for love, that the two don't know what they will do if this doesn't work.  All is perfection, again, or it is nothing, and real love, love that actually likes imperfections and peculiarities, doesn't work this way.  Again, this is a love song written by someone who thinks he knows what love is, but has yet to truly get his feet wet in it, let alone dive in.  There is a reason Jackson's fanbase was kids - the songs here are oddly two-dimensional, pure and sweet in their way but utterly flat in others, compelling and memorable but also separated from actual life.

For Those Who Have Prestige

"Dirty Diana" is as unreal as the previous song - how is it that this woman wasn't screened or removed by Jackson's entourage?  Why is this sexual predator of a woman so interested in a man who clearly has no interest in her?  The whole set up - including the "baby" he forgot to phone - sounds utterly hysterical (Jackson's voice here is particularly harsh) and is a sign that there's trouble in store alright.  (The Diana here isn't Diana Ross, though I've been told there are stories...)  What would Jackson do with a woman who had her own desires and urges, a woman who would be more than an object to love, a living doll?  According to this he'd shriek and run away, more or less.  That this is the "rock" song on the album is something of an insult too, as if rock was all about pushy groupies and girls who are bitches, who just want to latch on to someone famous to make themselves famous.  Even as the most famous man in the world, Jackson can't defend himself against one woman -  and seemingly has no protection from her, even if it is (as I suspect) all in his mind.

Dad Gone It!

"Smooth Criminal" is a song that may be inspired by the then-recent Los Angeles serial killer, but it seems to me that there is something a little...personal going on here too.  Not just that Jackson took a CPR course where the dummy he had to practice on would be asked "Annie are you okay?" but that the killer here comes in through the window.  As a child Jackson slept with his bedroom window open, which his father noticed; in order to teach him a lesson, he slipped through the window one night, wearing a mask, and woke Jackson up; the scared child learned never to sleep with the window open, and I think that fright stayed within Jackson, long, long after the lesson.  Annie may or may not be okay, but Jackson's obsession with her and the crime means we never do find out if she lives.  That such a fierce and violent song - in the future there will be blood on the dancefloor, but here it's on the carpet - leaves us hanging brings us to Annie's (and Jackson's) anxiety.  Make one mistake and you're near dead; the girl is the subject, there is no trying to understand the villain, save that he is "smooth" - as smooth and faultless as Jackson himself while dancing.  It seems obvious to me that Jackson is trying to exorcise himself of his fright, that in some way he is Annie, but this is not somehow going to really help.  It is a fixated song and you've got to wonder at what place the narrator is - I mean, is he a first responder?  Is he a neighbor?  There is a kind of remove here that makes this a cold comfort of a song.

Don't Come Lovin' Me

Anyone who bought the vinyl or tape of Bad would have "Smooth Criminal" as their uneasy ending, but those who got the cd were left with the shove of "Leave Me Alone."   The song is one of him rejecting a girl - she has deceived him, and he just wants her to leave him alone; but the video shows a world of conjecture and rumor as a fairground ride, one through Jackson's own brain, a ride he seems to enjoy a great deal; in this world there is nothing but versions of himself, stories about him, an arrogance that is underneath the whole shebang, as the "real" Michael throws off his chains at the end, standing up and looking a little more alive and lively than a doll.  Like so much of the music on Bad, it's memorable without really being lovable or attractive; "Leave Me Alone" especially comes off as mean - instead of attacking the press in a song, he attacks a girl, who I guess stands for the media, one way or another.  My sympathy for Jackson lessened when I saw how bonkers this video was, how Danny-Thomas-in-Kojak-complaint-sheets**** he comes off - when you're the biggest star on the planet, things are going to be said about you.  It's best to ignore them, but Jackson only validates the press, somehow, through this video.  Shouldn't he be...above all this?

Bad is all about how he has no way of getting out of himself, truly uniting with an Other, that he is now "Michael Jackson" and such a singular creation is of course going to be paranoid, fearful, excessively romantic and yet scared of others, the embodiment of someone who really does think he can have his cake and eat it too. Eat the ticket; dress up as whatever he wants to be, put on personas, as a way of hiding his real, actual self, which only pops up now and then here, as his increasingly nerve-wracking squeals and squeaks attest to his stress and strain. As if he is a machine that needs oiling, a machine that is clearly going to do what it wants and it wants, in the end, to be left alone.  It is hard to know just where the real Jackson is, and reading his brother Jermaine talk about how childlike he is, how innocent, is hard to square against this largely violent and angry album.  Jackson is approaching - or is he? - adulthood here, turning 29 as the album appears, and you'd think someone who just wanted to be left alone would...go away.  After the tour, the videos, the huge success of Bad, he could've just retired, but as Larkin said of The Beatles, there was no way to come down; but if this is success, then it doesn't sound as if Jackson is handling it well, and the music isn't as fresh as Thriller, either.  There's a lot to be said for ending a band before it goes stale and predictable, but an individual can't break up; Jackson had no choice but to keep going, if only to satisfy others' and his own ambitions, which were huge.

As you can see, I don't think listening to Bad would have helped me one bit in late '87; listening to the audible struggles of Jackson, and his eventual ear was attuned to other things, and my sympathy for a star of his stature was short, at least then.  I was becoming something other, bearing down, watching my father's illness worsen, and all calamities and shocks of the outside world were pathetic fallacies, trying and failing to be scarier than what faced me every morning and evening across the dinner table.

(Doesn't he look like Billy Mackenzie, if only a bit?)

And that includes the break-up of The Smiths, an event I remember as terrible and yet inevitable; I know a little more now about how it happened, how Marr went off for a break and just didn't come back, and August was a long month as everyone (I assumed) waited for the album.  The pause on the rollercoaster as it reaches the peak, before descending, and the decade ends, in various twists and turns...

I don't know exactly how I felt about Strangeways, Here We Come at the time; grief being my default emotion now, if I felt anything, and now that grief spread out to cover The Smiths.  I knew Marr was itchy to get on to new pastures, I knew they had an unmanagable singer/lyricist, but once I heard this it was screamingly obvious that this was as far as they could go.  Maybe it was the violence of the thing that threw me off, or the repeated deaths, but Strangeways, Here We Come was and still is a beautiful but deathly thing, and it permeates the album like a perfume...

The Land That We Stand On

"A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours" starts with a piano (huh?) and a...ghost?  A reincarnated criminal, hanged a year and a half ago, and boom he seems to come back to his old house.  The past is coming back to claim the present, drag it back, to make the future like the present?  Already the usual chronology is messed with, and the politics of the title are muffled by the dreaded presence of love..."Leave me alone" is echoed here, only now the loved one is pleaded to, the returned one sucombs to love ("lerv") at the end as if it was an anesthetic.  "Troubled Joe" has been in love before - maybe the cause of his hanging? - and "don't mention love" - the whole damn thing is starting again.  Remember that Moebius strip?  Well, here it is again...

And again...

Hair Brushed And Parted

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" is one mindnumbing T.Rextastic song that doesn't and can't end.  It is played with absolute relish, Morrissey narrating a story that gets worse and worse the more it's examined - the hell, what is a "three word gesture"?  What tradition is being adhered to?  There is no way of knowing, the song swirls and swirls around as if it's Infinite Jest arriving ten years early, the narrator is chiding himself for...well, what does he do?  What are these ventures, what are "gilded beams" (arms? legs?) all leads to the point of no damn return - "And now eighteen months' hard-labour seems...fair enough."  It's early, too early for an album to peak, but if Morrissey and Marr regard this as their best album, it's because they went there, to the absolute point, beyond which there is what, silence?  That the narrator isn't sure about what he has done, and wants to do it again - typical him, he messed it up the first time - is scarily echoed by Morrissey's own voice asking the producer, Stephen Street, if he wanted to do the song again.  I remember reading a review of this album and the writer being chilled by this question.  As with "Smooth Criminal" I wonder just what the hell is going on here, but at least the narrator is the predator, the tried and judged and convicted - though he blames "Tradition" for what he does and with that "fair enough"...judges that Tradition to be worth that much.  It's hard to get out of this song and on to the next one, but here goes...

Maybe In The Next World

"Death Of A Disco Dancer" is bleak, looking at the disco euphoria from the viewpoint of one who didn't participate, didn't believe in the "love peace and harmony" it promised, and it seemed extraordinarily sour to me at the time - was it some kind of comment on the chill that AIDS was causing?  "I never talk to my neighbour" - he lives right next to this dying person, and won't get involved.  The music piles up and piles up, Morrissey plays piano, and the band sound as if they too are going, fracturing...there is a kind of exhaustion inherent in this album (there's a picture of a very tired Marr in the cd booklet).  Or are these deaths the result of more violence? With the immanent explosion of Acid House and illegal raves around the corner, it's as if Morrissey is already closing the curtains saying, nope, The Smiths aren't going to be part of that.

I Know It's Serious

"Girlfriend In A Coma" is just too close to write about, in retrospect; but I will try.

Even here, in the hospital, with this sweet air of a song, there is an admission of violent feelings - "there are times when I could have 'strangled' her" - and it is a brief song, as it needs to be.  It is serious, and the narrator's ambivalence is completely understandable.  The agonizing question as to whether she will pull through is, eventually, no.

Again, there is no way out of this, and its being a single meant I heard it a lot on CFNY, whether I wanted to or not.

Nothing's Changed

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" is a wry smile of a song, incredible cartoon violence ("He broke my spleen/He broke my knees/And then he really laid into me") painted as a regular occurrence, the whole song somehow wide and narrow at the same time, again swirling about and free, if only for a moment, and here we are in the hospital again, in out patients, with the patched up narrator getting drunk, unable to stop himself from telling this story, just as other tales here keep repeating ("Tradition") of their own volition.  I sometimes think this album happened to The Smiths, as much as they created it...and there is love, waning, on the decrease, love that never seems to be there and real, as unreliable as Jackson's is unreal.  The song halts and pauses and then stops, as if seeing the edge of the cliff.     

Another False Alarm

"Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" is maudlin, sure, but if this is romance, it is in vain, the arms are not real, and the long intro of crowd noises and music serves to show how indifferent to the world the narrator is, and vice versa.  It is an old story and it goes on (again, "Tradition") and here the narrator is a prisoner of longing and desire, the fierce slashes at the end of strings and band are like whiplashes, as if this is a punishment, as much as any actual imprisonment.  Morrissey sings it in his best 50s style - immediately I can see the intensity here matched by the natives of my own Los Angeles, the lowriders who approve of the sadness, the sincerity, the absoluteness here.

I May Feel Slightly Sad

"Unhappy Birthday" is a spiteful song to...who?  I must have figured it was Thatcher at the time - weren't all songs like this about her?  But no, this is personal - and just as adolescent, if I can put it that way, as Jackson, only with more violence - he has been rejected, threatens to kill his dog, then kills himself - all the while thinking of the Other's death, which is deserved because s/he is "evil."  This is an interesting song, but I didn't really see the point of it, save that it is the flipside of the previous song - here he is after an affair and he is dumped and miserable and maybe actually dead, who knows, and as for Morrissey - I can't really pretend this isn't him, here - well, what did he expect?  And does this song apply to the fickle audience, with The Smiths breaking up and saying well, too bad, we tried our best but you never accepted us?  Endings and more endings abound here, as if the whole band know, unconsciously, that this will be their last album....

What Makes Most People Feel Happy

And after the next song, well, where can they go?  "Paint A Vulgar Picture" is about a dead pop star (paging Altered Images) that is being exploited by an all too happy record company; the star's life is lamented by a fan, who wonders "You could have said no/If you'd wanted to/And could have walked away...couldn't you?" The music business interferes with music, the label cheats the public, the boy ("just a child from those ugly new houses" - the house I lived in was only ten years old) dances at home and is a fawning, boring figure the star encounters, but not as awful as the industry folks and sycophants that seem to have conspired in the star's death.  The narrator holds on to the purity of that dancing, that feeling, which cannot be commodified or branded, as much as the record company would love to be able to do - the star is the "true love" which is only perfect in death, in virtual sainthood.  The trials of being a star were too much ("Please the press in Belgium!") and the rewards too few "sadly THIS was your life."  The Smiths attempted to manage themselves, and thus had to deal with all of this head-on, and Morrissey's capriciousness/lack of enthusiasm for promotion was one of the reasons they didn't, couldn't continue.  But in the star system, not everyone can say no, and here are The Smiths presenting Jackson's own future, though no one was to know it...

Stay Home Be Bored

"Death At One's Elbow" must have seemed like a good idea to Morrissey at the time, but with the harmonica and train rhythms it just seems like a weak leftover from Meat Is Murder and the death is punctuated by a...belch?  As if this really is something old and done and done - this is the story that is told again and again, until it is unbelievable. Morrissey even sings "It's crap I KNOW" as if even he knows this is a load of melodramatic hooey.

This Is My Time

"I Won't Share You" is a love song to...the band?  The audience?  Johnny Marr plays a found instrument beautifully, and the song - for once on this album - has no death, no violence, no bitterness.  Life just "tends to come and go" and the zeal and ambition of Morrissey are paired with Marr's lovely air..."This is my time" echoes Jackson's "All is going my way" from "Leave Me Alone" - but instead of rejection there is acceptance, commitment, attachment...and then the album leaves us, with those dreams and drive of the band's as a gift to the listener.  Is the "we" in the title the band, the listeners, the subjects of these songs?  The title grounds it in Manchester, as if The Smiths would be lost without that grounding, unable to really conquer the world and not lose themselves in the process.

As sad as it was to learn about the end of The Smiths, this album didn't make me feel - now that I have heard it again - well, contented.  It was a confirmation that the world wasn't a peaceful or harmonious place, that death lurked around corners, and the beauty of the music could only make that somewhat bearable.  The whole thing was a Punch and Judy show, in effect, and I needed something that would give me something to go on.  Something that could help me get off the Moebius strip.

I think you already know what that album is.            

In times when you feel embattled, as if you have to fight every day, especially if you know some of those fights are going to be lost - you need music that is most definitely on your side, music that somehow knows and understands.

Music that knows what it's like to hear questions that were only unthinkable a few months previous, if only because the person asking knew the answers - then.

In the fall of '87, this was me, and Document was indefatigably my album.  I don't have any memory of buying it, or first listening to it, or talking about it with others, though of course I did all those things - it got to me so quickly, immediately, that I must have felt, outside of any logic, that I was the only person at Ryerson listening to it, who was really getting it, in need of it.  That is the myopia of grief, I know, but that is how it felt.

Better, Best To Rearrange

"Finest Worksong" is that labor, that getting up in the dark, talking to yourself, bearing up and holding on, just as the bass slinks and the guitars haul the song up what seems like an endless hill.  And here is Stipe as the leader, pleading us to take our instinct "by the reins" as if we are horses led the wrong way, that "what we want and what we need" have been messed up, all is confusion, and only in throwing Thoreau and getting out of the library and rearranging things - by doing, not reading - is anything really going to change.  The contemplation of the previous album is now action - the pastoral is now urban.  I listen to this as I walk through those fancy places in the morning, everyone walking in time.  "The time to rise has been engaged" - how much is this like "Rise"?  How solid a song is this, for me to cling to as everything is indeed fault-ridden, ugly, and so many seem to be okay with it?  There is only one way through this, Stipe is telling me - to listen to my instinct, to keep going.  Isn't that what my father is doing?

The dignity in doing what you have to do, the work being thankless, unnoticed, regular to everyone else.

An Annotated History

"Welcome To The Occupation" is openly political - in Reagan's America, "confusion, primitive and wild" is everywhere, "freedom reigns supreme" and that word "fire" appears for the first time.  The world is on fire, the government is breaking the law, a man even says he broke the law to uphold the law.  If Stipe pleads that you listen to him, it's only because the yuppie paradise and end-of-history folks would never protest, would only say, along with Reagan, "Well...."***** The occupation being two things, the job and the invasion, the takeover, the exploitation.  The blur of the news and the awful governance of a nation...the song flips and flops, taking that confusion and straightening it out, laying it out plain.

Look Who Bought The Myth

"Exhuming McCarthy" is Occupy Wall Street long before it happened - "vested interests, united ties, landed gentry, rationalize" being an ideal if wordy banner.  "By jingo, b(u)y America!"  The Wall Street yuppie walks on coals, sharpens his attitude and mouth, Patrick Bateman looms.  The Cold War will not end, the business of war continues, and McCarthy/PMRC attack the decency of the public, with just one voice - the actual historical voice of Joseph Welch asking McCarthy himself  "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"  Morrissey himself might shake his head at the naivete of such a question, but in the US there is a rawness and freshness that can be damn unsettling but has a fundamental openness about it, and that openness is what I responded to so strongly (and still do) in Document.  The violence here is of the government, of Wall Street ("Greed is good") and how many saw the crash of October coming - I couldn't, though I wasn't all that surprised - and not think, hmm, that was overdue.  The obscenity of a government wailing on about rock lyrics when it was up to much, much worse things...(And how weirdly refreshing it is to hear a typewriter, and how apt that Prince be quoted in the backing vocals, the sardonic horn breaks, the neat mechanical beat mimicing the precision of that "business acumen.")  Meet me at the book burning, indeed.

 Followers Of Chaos, Out Of Control

"Disturbance At The Heron House" could be a fancy term for the White House again, the government, the "meeting of great and simple" who are "trying to tell us something we don't know."  Except these people are stampeding, mindless, standing for "liberty and honor" and too taken up with themselves to realize that the audience of this panicked meeting at the monument already know what has gone wrong, have seen it from the start, and cannot be told anything.  It is all out in the open, just as the main melody returns to itself, these people of the Heron House can only sense themselves, can only serve themselves, and any chaos that happens is really more their fault than anyone else's - a nation looks to the government, who plead plausible denial, forgetfulness, honor over everything...

Not Quite Right  

I had no idea who Wire were at this time, besides the band that did the New-Orderish "A Head" that got some CFNY airplay.  So "Strange" is always this version for me, frenzied and anxious and garage rocky, with something - God knows what - happening that cannot be accounted for, something new and scary.  This album is a documentary of how things were, and if "Michael's nervous" well then that hen's just going to come out.  When all hell's breaking loose, there is value in this kind of chant, handclappy description of a place too bright, too real, unreal...

Offer Me Solutions, Offer Me Alternatives

The rollercoaster is going down the incline and there's no stopping it.  "It's The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine" is the fictive movie that starts with an earthquake and keeps right on going.  The world as something indestructible, despite everything; giddy and joyous at seeing the world - this terrible world of deception and arrogance - coming to an end.  There is no point in being miserable all the time; with the chaos out of control, something good can happen, the possibilities are out there, and Lenny Bruce, long dead, isn't afraid; "listen to yourself churn" is one thing, but "no fear cavalier steering clear" is another.  This probably sounded like a big fun word salad to me at the time, but this is language liberating itself, the promise that if this world is ending, well, that is fine, that something has been let loose, and "feeling pretty psyched!" is the result.  The plea for "Time I had some time alone" is a constant, as being in the eye of the hurricane, surrounded by the debris and mess, feeling it get closer, is too much.  In late '87 everything felt extreme to me, too much, and this song stood for a plunge into and then out of the world.  R.E.M. are not afraid, and thus I trust them...

To Occupy My Time

"The One I Love" is again too close to me for comfort; I wish this wasn't so, and yet that moment is yet to come - but for now, this is the agonized fire of the lover who is using others (how anyone could mistake this song for a love song when it refers to Others as props, I don't know).  "This one goes out" sounds like a radio dedication, and that of course made it - along with the huge hook that Buck plays with utter fierceness - a huge song, the song that brought them to the world, an anti-love song that roughs up any idea of "left...behiiiiiiiind" as being at all sentimental.  FIRRRRRRREEEEEEUUUUUUGHHHHHHHH, FIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRREEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUGHH!!" it ends, collapsing in the ashes of whatever is left, the "another prop....has occupied my time" bringing us back to the occupation, the usage, the wastage, the power games, oh how could anyone find this romantic?  And yet it rose in the US charts, to nestle right in there with Whitney Houston and Belinda Carlisle.  R.E.M. got a foot in the chart door, and many others would follow******...

 Shake The Rug

"Fireplace" is a song I just flat-out didn't understand at the time; this was one of the things I loved about R.E.M. though, that they were never too clear, even if it was now a lot easier to hear what Stipe was singing.  I got that it was about simplicity, about cleaning and clearing in a world that could be crazy, in times that were indeed crazy.  "Hang up your chairs to better sweep, clear the floor to dance" comes from Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, a native of Manchester who moved to the US and considered herself to be holy, a healer, perhaps even the return of Jesus (Morrissey may have ideas about himself, MJ too, but not these).  She was the main female Shaker, and the destruction here - with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin on saxophone as a caustic commentary - is one of starting anew, rejecting the material, throwing everything into the fireplace, including the walls themselves.  Simplicity ("Simple Gifts" is a Shaker hymn, used by Aaron Copland for Appalachian Spring) is one thing, but take that American impulse too far and there's your crazy, crazy world in a nutshell (the nutshells being on the carpet that's emptied into the fireplace).  And all this to a near waltz, dizzying, swirling...

Two Hands

"Lightnin' Hopkins" wasn't someone I knew about in the fall of '87, but for this song; rough, funky, Stipe with extra lemon in his voice, and even now I hear a world sketched out, a musician armed with his music in the "lowlands timberlands badland birdland" - the heys and energy, the roughness of life not painted as bleak but as endless and challenging, the song oddly close to hip-hop.  "When I lay myself to sleep, pray that I don't go too deep" Stipe sings, anticipating Edie Brickell, and that American openness which can lead to insomnia*******, restlessness, the flatlands that never end.  Again, you have to keep going, the American experience is vast, my father was proof of that - born in small-town prairie, a farmboy, who dreamt himself off the farm, who knew badlands and Birdland, who would tell me about being in Georgia, where R.E.M. were from...but I digress...

 A Thumbnail Sketch

What is that noise?  Sleigh bells, a mandolin?  A slow and rustic thing, but wise.  "Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold."  Throw Thoreau.  "King Of Birds" is as pastoral as this album gets, the two Stipe voices weaving in and out, the hundred million birds soar over the world.  "A kingdom for a voice - " how to give a voice to something so natural and spectaular?  Stipe's voice says "everybody hit the ground" as if those birds are swooping to see you, but there is no fear here, just a sense of the bigness of the world, a regard.  "Old man don't lay so still, you're not yet young there's time to teach"  - and with that line, this album is mine, my father not old or young (57), with still some time to teach.  He is not still, though some would have him be like that, but on he went, on he goes, with his point to point observations.  His ability to teach falling back to the 60s, the 50s...time is starting to warp, and yet the birds soar and fly...just as Stipe's voice roughly fades...


And of course it doesn't end nicely, but this is my experience.  The fire comes back as not a fireplace but a firehouse, behind which "the heathens rage" - drunks who are there, ranting on to the boy and girl who gather to listen, "firehouse" just a moment away from "White House."  The Oddfellows preach and drink and there is an uneasy sense that no one is really in charge, that the "blood and rum" are mixed up, that behind the nobility there is something ugly, the "pearl" from Pee Wee's mouth being a rough one at best, and Stipe's AAKCCKKCCCCCAAAAKKKKAAAKKKACCKK" at the end is admirably real, straight, he means it.

Michael just wants a girl/the press to leave him alone, The Smiths are possessive and ambitious, but R.E.M.?  They have brought us into a world that is theirs, beautiful and harsh and chaotic.  As the days darkened, I felt close to this state, the sudden value of things, people, views becoming dimmer and yet more vivid  my sense of everything shifting, as the daughter of a man whose life was, I knew it, coming to a close, though I didn't know when.   

(Though I did not listen to it as intensely in the fall of '87, 10,000 Maniacs' In My Tribe is a modest rejoinder to all of these albums, the hapless SAD-light-box-needing "Like The Weather" a paradoxically warm song, audible tea and sympathy; "What's The Matter Here" addressing child abuse and the conscience of the witness; "Hey Jack Kerouac" looking at the Beat Boys and their own chaos - this genteel and gentle album was an antidote to much of the extremity of the time, and deserves to be mentioned.)

In the meantime, I dutifully attended classes, did assignments, became grimly determined to finish everything, as I could already tell I did not want to get an incomplete and have to repeat anything.  A huge windstorm hit England, the stock market crashed, and my own grades were as ever okay, though I was, throughout this, against it too, beginning to find my voice. I wrote to The Journalist and reassured him that the music scene was not dull or boring, that often these seemingly blah times were proof that something was bubbling under, not visible but there.  Even in my perpetual grind I could sense it; I read about it enough in Melody Maker, and R.E.M.'s breakthrough was proof that a lot of people wanted something else.  (The Journalist was not shy about criticizing the UK charts, which is in part why I liked him.)  I had to have that belief to get through, through a period which I can still only remember in moments, flashes, as reality became increasingly unbearable, but inescapable.  Under such pressure, the real and true stand out, flawed as they can be, and perfection is too exhausting to pursue.  Such was my life, and I wonder now how many others were going through the near exact thing as me.  I could not see them at the time though I can now.     

Next up:  what is love? 

*I may as well say here I did get Control, and yet I am not sure if Michael felt any pressure to top it; considering he had to top Thriller, I'm sure he didn't think about it all that much.  But I do like Control more than Bad.

**I can only wonder what would have happened had Chuck D ever met Michael; it's kind of hard to imagine him listening to Yo! Bum Rush The Show, though Bad is not that far away from it, really.

***"I am, as always, overwhelmed with movie fantasies.  I think of that old stand-by, the star buildup where the camera wends its way through the crowded ballroom as the collectively murmured "Where is the Contessa?" plays on the lips of all assembled.  Finally the camera stops on a woman, facing the other way, her creamy nape and lush hair.  "Contessa," someone says.  She turns around - it's Her! - her first close-up.  "Yes?" she answers, unmindful of her own compelling presence." - David Rakoff, "In New England Everyone Calls You Dave," Fraud

****In an episode of Kojak, former captain Danny Thomas tries to prove he has authority by complaining about scrap paper he found in the wastebasket.  No one is impressed, just as I'm not impressed by Jackson's taking out his (justifiable) anger at the press on yet another fictional girl.

*****In the spring of 1988 I would visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. listening to this song and began to cry at the line "all your fallen heroes."    

******Well-known kitchen god Alton Brown was the director of photography for this song's video, in which Michael Stipe doesn't dance at all, and gives no emotional clues to the song's meaning.

*******When Michael Jackson was preparing for the never-to-be series of London concerts, he was being given medicine that would help him with his insomnia by mimicing sleep, giving him the feeling of being refreshed and relaxed, and he did indeed sleep, but even had this been his only problem, he wouldn't have been able to continue for much longer, as what the body craves is actual sleep, not drug-induced fake sleep.  A body needs to recuperate and regenerate, and it can only do this with ...R.E.M. sleep, so the brain can fix itself up.  (No idea, by the way, if listening to R.E.M. would have prolonged Jackson's life, but who knows?)