A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
There are certain dead giveaway signs of getting old. Do you audibly sigh when settling into a comfortable recliner? Do you find youself going to bed about the same time you used to be heading out for the night? Do you hear youself saying, "man - what is with this music today"?
Well - in the last few years I can plead guilty on all three counts.
To be sure - there are certainly plenty of good contemporary musicians out there. Groups like Jimmy Eat World, The Killers, The Strokes, Cage the Elephant, and individual performers like Joe Bonamassa all offer great stuff. And I am sure there are plenty of bands I have never heard of putting out compelling music as well. But it speaks volumes of today's music scene (and yesterday's) that the number one selling CD in Europe is the re-release of The Rolling Stone's 1972 seminal double album Exile on Main Street, and the number one selling single is a never before released track on that new CD, Plundered My Soul.
So much music today is devoid of anything meritorious. Where is the texture and lyricism and blending of instruments? And what about thematic content, imagery, and story telling that artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison routinely presented? Well, as Donnie Brasco famously said, "FOGGEDABOUDIT". Most contemporary music is driven by the two V's - Video and Volume; and so much of that video is little more than soft porn. Lady Ga Ga may be ga ga, but she certainly is no lady. And I submit her entire career would be impossible without video and YouTube, and if left to rely solely on her music, we would not so much as know her name.
All of this presented itself a few weeks ago when, driving to Michigan at 'O Dark Early - my family asleep in the van - my I-Pod tripped over a classic old song by Eric Clapton called, Promises. It is one of the loveliest songs I have ever heard; a gentle but insistent rhythm guitar, a softly evocative lead guitar, simply advancing chord progressions, and tremulously playful harmonies between Clapton and Marcy Levy; Clapton's musky baritone, honed by countless smoke-filled club gigs in London, and Levy's redolant alto dancing around his lead. Sadly, harmonies have all but disappeared from today's music.
Many of the great rock and blues artists like Clapton also wrote and recorded great country songs. Listening to Clapton I thought of his forays into country music, and the many similarities he shares with Rolling Stone guitarist, Keith Richards.
Both were founding members of the British Invasion that reshaped the sound of America's air waves and the texture of pop culture in the 1960's. Both are legendary guitarists who left their personal signature on the sounds and signs of their time, their claxon-like, textured riffs standing as cornerstones of audible architecture. Clapton was the reculsive prodigy; the strong, silent player. As the decade of The Sixties slammed shut and The Stones dominated the music scence; Richards, with his egg-beater haircut, swaggeringly debauched life style, and gypsy camp fashions, became the personification of the anti-establishment counter culture. Both men descended into the dark labrynth of heroin addiction, and both had the grit to shake off their besotted lethargy, emerging like Theseus, unscathed if not unchanged. And both loved the music of America - the blues and country, and incorporated it extensively into their own work.
Richards insisted on a country influence for The Stones, and it can be heard in little known tracks like Country Honk, Sweet Virginia, You Got the Silver, Torn and Frayed, and Dead Flowers. And Clapton, who turned out such incendiary riffs in the formative years of modern rock, was versatile and gifted enough to also record, amongst others, songs like Promises, a lilting, bouncy track which tells the story of a love that simply ran out of gas; fatigued and stressed by ended promises. It is lovely - full of a world weary wistfulness.
Click on the above link and give it a listen. And compare it to what the rappers and ga ga's are turning out. If you don't find yourself humming or singing along a bit, I might suggest a higher fiber diet.
And while you're at it, play it loud enough so that no one hears you sigh when you sit down in that recliner.