Saturday, January 2, 2010
The four-hour television-special concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the rock n’ roll hall of fame of course boasted a collection of astoundingly good musicians playing astoundingly good music. But I am not interested in writing about musicians or musicality. This is one of the pleasures of writing a blog as opposed to journalism—you don’t have to keep up the farce we call objectivity, or the thinly disguised relativism we call respecting other’s tastes. I’m not interested in the tastes of musicians and music aficionados. I’m not interested in what the Rolling Stones did for style, posturing, or blues songwriting. I love the smooth sound, virtuosity, and courageous racial-barrier leaping of groups like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but that’s not my critical specialty. I love Bonnie Raitt’s honest voice, Stevie Wonder’s songwriting. Paul Simon is a genius and breakthrough songwriter, and Garfunkel has one of the most gorgeously sincere voices I’ve ever heard, but even they were dwarfed by the world-straddling power of what I’m interested in.
What am in interested in? Music that, as Bono put it, “believes the world is more malleable than you think.” And there were only two such manifestations at the 25th anniversary concert: Bruce Springsteen and U2. (We killed off one of the rare others this year—Michael Jackson). Every time a best of the year or best of the decade list comes out, I just shake my head at what the necessary abstractions and lies of objectivity require—including anyone other than these two at the top. The best ten songs of the year were all by Springsteen and U2 (OK, and Dylan). The best 10 albums of the decade were all Springsteen and U2 (Ok, and Dylan). The reasons were on display where they should be on display—at a concert celebrating the best in rock history.
Let’s start with Springsteen. First of all, he doesn’t play in a band—he travels around in a perpetual spiritual battle. If Springsteen came before Hegel, Hegel could have saved me a lot of the headaches and desperation of reading The Phenomenology of Spirit, since he could have written a collection of Springsteen concert reviews instead. Springsteen closed night one with an epic set, not just mining the deepest reaches of various genres of rock n’roll, but celebrating those genres in the exercise of their most ambitious, engorged power. He brought out the most soulful of the soul men, Sam Moore. He knows enough to know where the soul is. Musicians will point to better musicians and songwriters than Sam Moore. But Bruce just looks at faces and bodies. Moore came out, in a shirt reading “SAM IS WHO I AM”, shaking his body outside the bounds of practice, of hipness, of posture, with an unfamiliar stage presence—as if he was infinitely grateful to be on stage and loving every minute of it.
Next Springsteen cared about the world, practically and palpably. There is a name for this that Americans—especially rock n rollers—are afraid of. It’s called being political. He gave a speech about Woody Guthrie and his tradition of topical, ruthlessly critical songwriting, taking issue with the barbarism of nation actually debating whether or not everyone deserves health care coverage. But it is not just the courage to make such a speech. He doesn’t just know who matters in these times—Woody Guthrie—but also writes contemporary songs that update Guthrie for the 21st century, such as “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” While Simon and Garfunkel are playing their hits (as opposed to, say, Simon’s courageous, gorgeous songs (Songs from The Capeman) about a Puerto Rican betrayed by our sick system of crime and punishment), Bruce is playing this modern folk song from one of his least-selling albums, along with the 10-minute storytelling masterpiece “Jungleland”, a strange choice at an all-star concert with short songs and brisk pacing. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” did not rest on its lyrical laurels—Springsteen and revolutionary artist Tom Morello sang and guitar soloed with vein-busting anger more at home in underground hip-hop than rock n roll: “Wherever there’s a cop beating a guy/wherever a hungry newborn baby cries…Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand/or a decent job or a helpin’ hand/wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”
As for U2, Bono sings every note with his entire body, with his entire life. It looked exhausting. Despite the tribute-and-history nature of the gig, the band played four newer tunes, along with one classic, a Springsteen song, and a Stones song. Like Bruce, Bono tends to pick songs that send double-meaning messages. “Stuck in a Moment”, then, was as much about the current state of the music industry, terrified of its own shadow, terrified to return to major risk-taking, as it is an outreach to a suicidal friend. But again, as with Bruce, the true power is in the ability to direct our energies and our attention in speech. “It’s a dangerous thing, this business of building idols, but at least rock n’ roll is not at its best in worshipping sacred cows. It’s about the thousands of voices gathered in one unwashed congregation, like tonight. For a lot of us here, rock n’ roll just means one word. Liiberation. Sexual, political, spiritual…liberation.” Don’t forget the middle child there—political--that’s where the world waits for our help. Those who say “I don’t like talking politics” are really saying, “I don’t like talking life.” The two are forever bound, now. As are U2 and Bruce (OK, and Dylan).
The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon
The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed. That could get us committed (to an asylum). That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do. We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism. If you want in, you're in. If you want out, don't worry--you already are.