Tag Archives: The Rolling Stones

With a Song in My Heart: H is for…

“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.

“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much.  That’s something of an understatement, really.  I detest it.  The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing.  Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again.  And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written.  Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time.  Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something.  You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?

theeffineagles

Yep, right there.  As an aside, there’s a story to this:  The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget.  When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free.  So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement.  And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation.  (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)

At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?

In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour.  It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over.  “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code.  I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend.  Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau.  I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70’s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.

The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats.  It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert.  This should be a big deal, and it isn’t.  I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of.  No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this.  I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts.  The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage.  Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.

And they rock.

By the second song I’m sold.  They’re incredible.  They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years.  They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken.  (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’  “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”)  They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent.  Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers.  Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly.  It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen.  No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing.  Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game.  This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.

Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list.  Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging.  The crowd loses it.  As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile.  Yeah, okay.  This isn’t so bad.

Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me.  A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle.  It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force.  There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration.  Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption.  It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.

With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2’s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

With a Song in My Heart: B is for…

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve, 1997.

Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here.  That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection.  What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.

After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now.  A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case.  I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays.  They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart.  From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on.  If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”  I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend.  Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral.  But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent.  His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter:  “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.”  Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite.  But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks.  As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.

Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it.  Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder.  Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind.  In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is.  I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.