Album Assignments: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

I loved Car Wheels On A Gravel Road when it came out in 1998. Consequently, I started to seek out other Lucinda Williams albums. I bought the subsequent Essence and World Without Tears, and reached back into her catalog for Happy Woman Blues. What all of these records have in common is Lucinda’s utterly unique and compelling voice. She doesn’t sound like anyone else alive. That voice can conjure up incredible ache, longing, and defiance, no matter what song she’s singing. But even with such vocal magic in action, her earlier and later albums didn’t enchant me the way that Car Wheels did, so this month I assigned it to Robby, in hopes that I could revisit it myself and figure out what makes it so special.

I think the first key is specificity, which works through Car Wheels in several different dimensions. The most noticeable of these is specificity of place. I count fourteen different specific place names on this album, all in the American South. Three of them even serve as song titles — “Lake Charles” (in Louisiana), “Greenville” (in Mississippi), and “Jackson” (in Mississippi). Car Wheels, true to its traveling title, is a virtual travelogue of Louisiana and Mississippi, with occasional forays into Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas. Grounding the album so specifically in a set of related locations gives its stories a ring of authenticity — you feel you’re hearing about the lives of actual people in actual places.

It’s not just place names, though. Another area of specificity is all the mentions of individual musical artists. The couple in “Metal Firecracker” didn’t just listen to music — “We’d put on ZZ Top / And turn ’em up real loud.” In “Lake Charles,” another couple, or maybe the same couple, drives through Lafayette and Baton Rouge, in a yellow El Camino, listening to Howlin’ Wolf. That lyric brings together places and music, just as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” mentions Rosedale, Mississippi, and then in the next breath invokes Robert Johnson, who immortalized the town in song. The title track’s lyrics mention voices on the radio twice — Loretta and Hank. Thus Car Wheels gives us musical journeys alongside its physical ones, with music deeply integrated into the lives of its characters, so much so that they’re often on a first name basis with icons like Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams.

Album cover of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

That yellow El Camino from “Lake Charles” illuminates another kind of specificity on the album: specific images. Several of the songs give us vivid portraits of the characters’ lives through the use of small, expressive emblems. The words scrawled on the bathroom wall in “2 Kool”: “Is God the answer? Yes”. The watch, earrings, and bracelet in “Right In Time.” The long, smooth guitar neck and shiny strings in “Drunken Angel.” Queen of them all, though, is the song “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” From the first moment, Williams sets a luminous scene:

Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon
Loretta’s singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon
Car wheels on a gravel road

Immediately, we’re there — sights, sounds, smells, and even time of day. The images continue through that song — a dusty suitcase, a screen door slamming shut, a low hum of voices in the front seat. Engine parts scattered in a yard with barking dogs. The car traveling past cotton fields, telephone poles, trees, and wires, with a child in the backseat hearing those voices, that music. Even in the deployment of a specific phrase, Williams reveals volumes: “You better do what you’re told / When I get back, this room better be picked up.” Who says that but a mother?

Yet even as specific as those images are, it can be hard to discern what the song’s about. Take them sequentially, though, and a story emerges. We start in that kitchen, but then take the child for a ride, to a house once familiar but now a mess. The narrator retrieves a suitcase, and reveals herself as a mother. That mother is traveling to Jackson with the kid, the Southern landscape flying by. She arrives at a broken-down house, and the child is weeping. And between each moment, we return to the chorus of the song and its central image: the car wheels, the gravel road.

I hear a story of a woman who has decided to leave her old life and seek a new one, taking her child with her. It’s like a prequel to the Pretenders song “Thumbelina” — “What’s important in this life? / Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”

And there we have the other bright thread weaving through this album: loss. There are a number of songs on Car Wheels that don’t invoke particular places or artists, but what those songs provide indelibly are powerful emotions of yearning, grief, and loneliness. Again, the titles tell a tale: “I Lost It”, “Can’t Let Go”, “Still I Long For Your Kiss”. The languid sensuality of “Right In Time” is inextricable from the lover’s absence. She takes everything off, moans at the ceiling, but in the end all she can do is reach over and turn off the light. The nostalgia in “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” stands in sharp relief against the deaths of their subjects.

That’s a template for several other songs, with the difference being it’s a relationship that has died. “Metal Firecracker” reminisces about a wild intimacy, but circles back to a heartbroken plea: “All I ask… Don’t tell anybody the secrets / I told you”. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is even more plaintive: “I had a lover / I thought he was mine / Thought I’d always be / his Valentine”.

And of course, it keeps coming back to the title track, where indeed a relationship has died. We feel that pain keenly in specific places, through specific music, lit by specific images, until it winds up in the single image that sums up the whole album: “Little bit of dirt, mixed with tears”.

Album Assignments: Wild-Eyed Southern Boys

My thesis for this one is going to be straight out of the Linda Richman playbook: The “wild-eyed Southern boys” of .38 Special were neither wild-eyed, nor Southern, nor boys. Nor were they 38, for that matter, but the contradictions above are what made them special. Discuss.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant knew each other from their neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and formed .38 Special in 1974, bringing in Jeff Carlisi as a guitarist and third principal songwriter. Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was the band’s fourth album, released in 1981 when Barnes, Van Zant, and Carlisi were all 29 years old. Not in their late thirties, maybe, but not “boys” either — they were seasoned music business veterans at that point, who’d seen a few changes along the way.

One of the biggest of those changes had to do with the band’s southern rock identity. Prima facie, it seems ridiculous to claim that .38 Special wasn’t Southern. For one thing, Donnie Van Zant is the little brother of Ronnie Van Zant, legendary lead singer of the iconic southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Basically, if you’re being asked a trivia question that starts “What southern rock band…”, you can probably just stop listening right there and have an 80% chance of being right with “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” So .38 Special has pretty much the ultimate southern rock pedigree, and every single member of the band is from Jacksonville, so in what way exactly aren’t they Southern?

Album cover of Wild-Eyed Southern Boys

The answer goes back to their previous album, Rockin’ Into The Night. The band’s first two albums on A&M Records were pretty much straight-ahead southern rock, and made pretty much zero impression on the charts. However, with the title track from Rockin’, the band had a minor hit, getting to #43 in the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s the thing about that song, though: it wasn’t written by .38 Special. It was instead written by the main songwriters from the band Survivor. In fact, the song was meant for Survivor’s debut album, but their producer rejected it as “too Southern,” so the scrap went to .38 Special and they made the most of it.

Well, A&M executive Jim Kalodner smelled potential, so he asked Survivor songwriter Jim Peterik to get together with .38 Special and see what happened. (By the way, isn’t it hard to imagine a record company today sticking with a band who had .38 Special’s kind of track record up to that point?) Now Peterik is a pop-rock guy from Chicago, a pretty far cry from Jacksonville, but a funny thing happened when he got together with Barnes and Carlisi at his kitchen table in La Grange, Illinois. Carlisi offered a lick (“It’s kind of a Cars rip-off,” he said), and Barnes offered a title based on some struggles he was having in his marriage. Then Peterik came up with verses, chorus, and a melody, and the result was “Hold On Loosely,” the band’s first big hit and its first great song.

The other great song from this album, and not coincidentally the other hit, was “Fantasy Girl.” Also not coincidentally, Peterik was a co-writer, this time with Carlisi alone. Both of this album’s hits were fueled by a guy who couldn’t have been less Southern, a guy whose greatest claim to fame would eventually be his co-writing credit on Survivor’s massive hit “Eye Of The Tiger,” and to a lesser extent writing The Ides Of March’s one-hit wonder, a Blood Sweat & Tears sound-alike called “Vehicle.” He could play the part well, though. In fact, the album’s title track was written by Peterik alone, not a Southern boy in sight. Turns out he originally wrote the tune for Molly Hatchet, but they rejected it.

Peterik kept contributing to the band past this album, in particular co-writing their 1982 Top 10 hit “Caught Up In You.” One of .38 Special’s later hits, “Teacher Teacher”, was written by Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, a couple of Canadians who I believe are the mathematical opposite of Southern.

I’m not disputing the quality of the music, just pointing out that in order to realize their full potential as a band, .38 Special had to stop being quite so Southern. It took a record company executive to make that alchemy happen, to deliberately inject an arena rock flavor into what had up until then been literally Lynyrd Skynyrd’s far less awesome baby brother. Now, what quality of mood characterizes that kind of approach? Would you call it “wild-eyed”? I wouldn’t. The word that comes to mind is “calculated.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But what turns out to be true is that underneath the surface of their image, this is the album where .38 Special became essentially an AOR rock band with a Southern coating. Protestations of the title notwithstanding.

Album Assignments: Biograph [Disc 3]

Disc 3 of Biograph starts out with a kind of victory lap — one song from each of the distinct and productive periods showcased on the first two discs. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” is from the Freewheelin’ era, while “I Wanna Be Your Lover” has that Hawks sound of his Highway 61 mode. From the Blood On The Tracks period we get “Up To Me”, and “Caribbean Wind” dates from 1981, placing it in what at the time of Biograph‘s release were his “modern” years.

Of these, by far the best track is “Up To Me”. I love the Blood On The Tracks mode in general, and this song shares a sound and a structure with “Shelter From The Storm”, lots of verses that keep returning to a central concept, ringing changes on it as they approach it from different angles. “Up To Me” in particular is just a gem, resonating with themes that mean a lot to me — friendship, loyalty, longing, helplessness. As sometimes happens to me with songs, this one captivated me enough that I wanted to play it on repeat in my car, to learn all the words. So I did — and there are a lot of words! 12 gorgeous verses, and they’re imprinted on my heart now, after about a week of listening.

The rest of the disc is a sort of gumbo, various ingredients combined to make a tasty concoction:

  • Songs made (more) famous by other people: “All Along The Watchtower”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, “Forever Young”. “All Along The Watchtower” was a folksy hootenany on John Wesley Harding, albeit a spooky one. Then Jimi Hendrix came along to transform and immortalize it forever. The version on Biograph is live from 1974, and owes more to Hendrix’s version than to Dylan’s original. As Bob says in the liner notes, “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way.” Tons and tons of people have covered it, and the same is true of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon, and Guns ‘n’ Roses spring to mind. Zevon’s is the most haunting version I’ve ever heard, as he recorded it while actually dying, but I have to admit it took a lot of listens before Axl Rose’s “Ay ay ay ay yeah” left my head. As for “Forever Young”, perhaps it’s a generational accident, but The Pretenders made me familiar with it long before I ever heard Dylan’s original.
  • Songs from the born-again period: “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Solid Rock”, “I Believe In You”. I find most of Dylan’s Christian songs pretty hard to relate to, and “Solid Rock” is a good example. I don’t object to it, but it’s just miles away from my beliefs and tough to connect with. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a little closer to my mind, and I think it expresses a general truth that’s widely overlooked, but Dylan’s quotation of the “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay” routine from the 1970s, which for inexplicable reasons was considered funny at the time, kind of derails the song. On the other hand, “I Believe In You” is genuinely touching and beautiful, even if Sinéad O’Connor’s version eventually placed it in the previous category.
  • Latin-flavored songs: “Romance In Durango”, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”. For a while there in the mid-70s, Dylan was fascinated by Mexico, and a couple of numbers from that period appear on this disc. “Romance In Durango” in particular contains quite a bit of Spanish in the chorus, a dramatic climax, and a catchy tune that stays with you for a long time.
  • Obscure album tracks: “On A Night Like This”, “Time Passes Slowly”. In the liner notes, Dylan says of “On A Night Like This” (from Planet Waves), “This is not my type of song, I think I did it just to do it.” Turns out, it’s not my type of song either — it just doesn’t do much for me. “Time Passes Slowly” (from New Morning) works a little better for me — it reminds me of long mountain weekends, away from everything with no reason to worry. Those have been some of my happier times.
  • A couple more hits: “I Want You”, “Just Like A Woman”. On the other side from the obscure tracks are these reminders of Dylan’s hitmaking power. Both of these songs were top 40 Billboard hits, and each time I hear them that fact surprises me. I think it’s clear that I love and appreciate Dylan, but I’m always a bit startled when I see him achieve sales success. His voice is strange, his musical sensibility eclectic, and his lyrics off-the-wall even in songs such as these. But I enjoy them, and am happy to see that others do too.

Head shot of Bob Dylan in his mid-twenties.

One thing that struck me while listening to this disc was when I’d hear pieces of other people’s songs referenced in some way. The live version of “Heart Of Mine” pulls part of its bass line straight from “My Girl” by The Temptations. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” takes both lyrics and tune for part of its chorus from The Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which was first released as a single by the Stones. No doubt this jumped out at me because I’ve also been listening to “No More Auction Block” on volume 1 of The Bootleg Series, which provided part of the melody for “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

Call them lifts, call them allusions, samples, quotes, thefts — people have called them all those things. Dylan himself minces no words when asked about whether it’s okay for him to borrow words or tunes from others: “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me… All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.” It’s a venomous response, perhaps due to having to give it so repeatedly, but it’s not wrong. Even in cases where he’s wholesale copy/pasted someone else’s words into his songs or his book, he always puts the quote in a transformative context. He has quoted (without attribution) a Civil War poet, a Japanese author, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, old issues of Time magazine, and so forth. But at no point is he writing Civil War poetry or Japanese novels or Time magazine articles, and he generally encases the lines in an entirely new work that allows each source to illuminate the other.

Certainly in the folk tradition, reworking songs and combining them with new words or variations is a longstanding practice, just as Dylan points out. When he or someone like him can take an old spiritual like “No More Auction Block,” give it new words, new melodic filigree, a new chorus, and come out with a song like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” can we really say that’s plagiarism? Sure, we can hear the similarity, but that doesn’t make them the same. Hell, even our own national anthem is part of this tradition — “The Star-Spangled Banner” is Francis Scott Key’s words set to an already extant tune, “To Anacreon In Heaven.” (For that matter, “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” is identical in tune to “God Save The Queen.”)

Dylan’s problem is that he’s partaking of and embodying a traditional structure that predates the matrix of capitalism and copyright in which he lives and earns his living. It was one thing for folk singers of 200 years ago to adapt and rework existing material, but nowadays we have a notion that if you create something, you are entitled to control over what happens to that thing, at least for some limited period of time. (A period which keeps growing, thanks to the efforts of Disney and others.) If you decide, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate one of those more modern creations into your own, you can get in hot water — just ask Sam Smith or George Harrison or Ray Parker, Jr.

But where to draw the line between allusion and plagiarism, between tribute and rip-off? Is it how much of something is included, or the nature of what’s included? What if a few words are changed here and there — how many are enough to draw the line? Do some things belong to all of us more than others? How original does the new work have to be in order to “count” as new work? Who gets to make these decisions?

I think I know what Bob Dylan would say: the artist gets to make those decisions, especially if that artist is Bob Dylan. In a speech accepting his award as 2015 MusiCares Person Of The Year, Dylan said, “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth… I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”

For folk singers, emphatically including Bob Dylan, everything that comes into you is yours, and if it comes out of you in a new enough, creative enough form, then you get to put your name on it. Should he mention his sources in liner notes or other supplemental material? Yes, absolutely. If nothing else he could be using his clout to draw attention to the sometimes much-lesser-known work that’s inspiring him. But should he avoid those quotations, or give songwriting credit to them? I think not. Dylan has earned the right to call his works his own, even as they incorporate the work of others. And if there is some dispute as to Dylan’s ability to create new and inspiring art out of his influences, I would enter into evidence discs 1, 2, and 3 of Biograph.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 20 – Absent Friends

[William Kuskin and Charles Hatfield deserve my heartfelt thanks for their generous and incisive feedback as this post was taking shape.]

I’d like to start today’s entry with a resounding endorsement for Love And Rockets. No, not the band, though they’re pretty good too. I mean the astonishing comic book series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, lovingly known as Los Bros Hernandez.

This comic ran from 1982 to 1996, and pretty much exemplified the alternative/indie comics scene at the time. (Los Bros have since picked it back up and continue publishing 1-3 issues per year.) Being born in 1970, I was a little young for L&R when it started, and spent most of my teens with my head ensconced in Marvel-world anyway. So while I’d heard plenty about the comic, I never read any of it until a few years ago. People, it blew my mind. See resounding endorsement, above.

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s a little Love And Rockets primer. Gilbert and Jaime1 are the primary contributors, with occasional input from third brother Mario. The brothers work separately for the most part, each writing and drawing his own comics, and splitting the page count in a given L&R issue. Both of them draw some miscellaneous experimental comics in a variety of styles, but the bulk of their work focuses on continuing stories in a particular milieu.

For Jaime, that milieu is the Southern California punk scene, specifically a barrio nicknamed Hoppers, set in the fictional town of Huerta and based on Oxnard, California, where the brothers grew up. Gilbert’s continuing stories take place in Palomar, a fictional Latin American town so small and remote that in most of the early stories, the town doesn’t even have a single telephone.

Within these settings, each of them has built a dizzyingly rich cast of beautifully realized characters, in a variety of stories ranging from one-pagers to full graphic novels. I wholeheartedly recommend these comics, and I’m going to be spoiling various Love & Rockets storylines (between 1982 and 1986 or so), as well as the usual load of Watchmen spoilers. (And I guess a couple of 20th century Spider-Man spoilers too, as it turns out.) It’s really worth reading this stuff fresh, so I won’t mind a bit if you wait to read the rest of my post until you’ve caught up on some L&R yourself. Comic Book Resources has a great guide to getting started.

Heartbreak Soup

Now, then. Both brothers’ work is well worth absorbing, but we’re focusing on Gilbert today, for reasons that will become clear in a bit. The first Palomar story is called “Heartbreak Soup”, and it introduces us to many denizens of the town, including a group of childhood friends in their early teens: Heraclio, Israel, Jesús Angel, Sakahaftewa (“Satch”), and the partially disfigured Vicente. We also meet a whole bunch of others, including Jesús’s little brother Toco, midwife and bañadora (bath-giver) Chelo, impossibly pulchritudinous newcomer and rival bañadora Luba, and the boys’ peer Pipo, who has grown apart from them as her sexuality develops.

Cover of the 2007 Heartbreak Soup trade paperback

“Heartbreak Soup” tells a satisfying, self-contained story, but after it ends, the Palomar stories continue, and something interesting happens. The next episode, a little story called “A Little Story”, doesn’t continue from “Heartbreak Soup”, but rather jumps back about 4 years prior, to when Pipo was still happily playing with the boys, and Satch was the new kid in town. The next story, “Toco”, is another short piece, which takes place a few months prior to “Heartbreak Soup”.2

A more major, multi-part story called “Act of Contrition” follows these two. It skips forward about ten years from “Heartbreak Soup.” The boys are all adults, some of whom have left town, some of whom have stayed and married characters who were also children in “Heartbreak Soup.” Instead of one child, Luba now has four, and now she runs a cinema as well as a bath house. Not only that, we meet a new character named Archie, who knew Luba as a teenager, and we get flashbacks to her teen years, well before “Heartbreak Soup”, from both characters’ memories. Post-“Act Of Contrition”, the Palomar strips’ timeline sticks for a while with “Heartbreak” plus 10 years or so, but frequently interspersed with various flashbacks, from various perspectives, to various time periods.

What quickly becomes clear is that the Palomar stories in Love And Rockets won’t be following the traditional comic book approach of serializing an ongoing narrative. Instead, what we get are glimpses into one continuous, enormous, pre-existing story, as seen through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, and skipping around in time at Gilbert’s whim. As comics scholar Charles Hatfield observes, “By opening such gaps between stories, Hernandez was able to sketch in the history of his characters gradually through interpolated flashbacks, a technique that became central to his work.” (Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, pg. 89)

“Interpolated flashbacks” brings us at last to the v2.0 Watchmen annotations, which point out a fascinating parallel between one of the Palomar stories and Chapter 2 of Watchmen:

The structure of this chapter involves an exploration of Blake’s character in segments that alternate between a present-day storyline and flashbacks from five different other characters. The flashbacks are in fact in chronological order, from a flashback to his youth to a flashback to the recent past.

The structure of this chapter is therefore very similar to that of the story “The Laughing Sun”, by Gilbert Hernandez, which appeared in the comic Love and Rockets in 1984 (although there are only four flashbacks there). Since the Love and Rockets story predates Watchmen, it may have been an influence on Moore.

The parallel is undeniable, but can we reasonably claim that “The Laughing Sun” influenced Watchmen? Well, there is a bit of evidence. As the annotations indicate, the L&R story predates Watchmen, which establishes that it is possible for Moore to have read it before penning the chapter. Furthermore, we know that Moore has read and admired Gilbert’s work, because he tells us so in the introduction he wrote to Heartbreak Soup And Other Stories, the first US trade paperback collecting some of Gilbert’s Palomar comics. Moore even refers directly to “The Laughing Sun,” noting “the blood-thick camaraderie that leads to the desperate mountain trek” in its plot. (About which more in just a minute.)

This book was released in August of 1987. Watchmen #2 has a cover date of October 1986, and the final issue’s cover date is October 1987. Based on this overlap, I’d say it’s very likely that Moore wrote his appreciation of Gilbert in the midst of writing Watchmen.3 For as specifically as he cites details from them, the Palomar stories had to be fresh in his mind during that period. Now, would that connection have gone back all the way to issue #2? Who knows? Some of this stuff is ultimately irretrievable, but let’s take a look at the comparison and decide for ourselves.

Stacks of Flashbacks

“The Laughing Sun” is serialized over two issues of Love & Rockets. Like many post-“Act Of Contrition” Palomar stories, it takes place about 10 years or so past the “Heartbreak Soup” baseline. (I’ll abbreviate this baseline HBS, and cite different timelines in relationship to it, so the primary thread of “The Laughing Sun” takes place in HBS + 10 years or so.) The childhood friends from that story have grown up and spread out, but are brought together when they learn that Jesús Angel has fled to the mountains after an explosive conflict with his wife Laura. Heraclio, who still lives in Palomar, reaches out to Satch, Israel, and Vicente, who do not, and all four men come together to search the mountains for Jesús.

As the story progresses, each man remembers Jesús, with each flashback centering on some aspect of Jesús’s relationship with sexuality and women. After he gets the call from Heraclio, Vicente flashes back to a childhood episode with Jesús (HBS – 9 years or so), in which 5-year-old Pipo innocently exposed herself to the two boys, who were then shamed with visions of hellfire by Chelo after she walked in on the incident. On the car ride to the mountains, Satch remembers a preteen time (HBS – 2 years or so) where some older boys told him and Jesús about the Indian women in the mountains who don’t wear shirts — “They all walk around with their fuckin’ tetas out like it’s normal!” The boys swooned with envy of the Indian men.

Panel from The Laughing Sun, in which Vicente remembers himself and Jesus envisioning hell as children. The vision is inside a thought bubble, enclosed in another thought bubble for the memory.

Back in the present, the search in the mountains is arduous, for the weather is extremely hot. (The story’s title refers to how the sun seems to enjoy torturing the town like this.) Heraclio briefly passes out from heat exhaustion, and in the process flashes back to a memory from their teen years (HBS + 1 or so), which reveals Jesús’s crush on Luba, an unrequited affection that becomes a major theme for the character. The search goes on, through many a tribulation, culminating in Israel’s memory of himself and Jesús as adults (HBS + 6 or so), in which he’s incredulous that Jesús intends to marry Laura, and says “Don’t come running to my couch when the going gets too rough!” Jesús’s reply: “Don’t worry! I’d head for the hills first!”

Coming out of the flashback, Israel screams at those hills in rage and frustration, and to his surprise, Jesús replies. The men find him, and in one last trip to the (very recent) past, Jesús tells the story of how his fight with Laura happened. I would make the case for this as another flashback, though it is narrated rather than drawn — it’s just one wide panel with columns of text on either side, and an image in the center of Jesús, superimposed over an extreme close-up of Laura and their baby, drawn fainter to indicate a presence in memory, not reality. This panel echoes the one that opens this half of the story, in which Laura tells her version of their conflict, with a ghostly close-up Jesús behind her. Jesús reveals that their argument was about his sexualized gazes at Luba, for which all the previous flashbacks set the stage.

Two different panels from "The Laughing Sun" -- the first is Laura's recollection of the fight, and the second is Jeusus's.

Thus does Gilbert not only illustrate a character through others’ experiences of him, he also defines the community closest to that character, all while setting up and resolving a mystery quest plot. In “Absent Friends”, Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Alan Moore doesn’t resolve the mystery of Blake’s death, but he does use the very same device to show us exactly who The Comedian is, as his closest community saw him. Again, the flashbacks are from five different characters, moving forward in time. (I’ll use W to denote the main story timeline (1985) in Watchmen as a baseline, similar to HBS above.)

Sally Jupiter starts the flashbacks, remembering back to the time of The Minutemen (W – 45 years) and Blake’s attempted sexual assault of her. The next three flashbacks take place at the funeral: Adrian recalls the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (W – 19 years), Jon VVN night in 1971 (W – 14 years), and Dan the police strike riots of 1977 (W – 8 years). Finally, after the funeral, Rorschach wrings out one last flashback, this one from Moloch remembering The Comedian’s “last performance” (W – a few weeks.)

Just as each of the “Laughing Sun” flashbacks helped paint a portrait of Jesús as oversexed and fixated on Luba, so do the flashbacks in “Absent Friends” center around a theme: The Comedian as a vile man who nevertheless understands many things that others don’t. The vileness is clear — in the space of a few pages, but spanning decades, we see him (nearly) raping Sally Jupiter, murdering a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his baby, and tear-gassing civilians. The other two flashbacks show his knowledge — he sees through Captain Metropolis’s motives in the Crimebusters meeting, and cryptically tells Moloch of the island he’s discovered, in the process alerting Veidt that Blake knows too much. Even in the flashbacks that demonstrate his detestable nature, we also see his insight, such as when he identifies Hooded Justice’s fetish, or tells Dr. Manhattan, “You don’t really give a damn about human beings.”

Just as with Jesús, Blake and his story come into focus through the eyes of the community that surrounds him. The reverse is also true — we learn the nature of the community as demonstrated through its interactions with the central character. In “The Laughing Sun”, the character of that community is cohesive, and that cohesion is crucial to its success — Heraclio is able to speak to the mountain Indians, Isreal is capable of provoking Jesús out of silence, and Satch knows just what to say to make Jesús receptive to being brought home. The flashbacks, too, are mostly of bonding moments between the boys — even the conflict between Israel and Jesús carries a clear loving undertone.

3 panels from part 2 of "The Laughing Sun". In the first, Satch calls out to Jesus, who threatens to run if they approach. In the second, Satch assures Jesus that his baby is not dead. In the third, all four men gaze up at the hills.

In Watchmen, by contrast, the community is fragmented — split by differences in distance, differences in viewpoint. Their flashbacks to The Comedian demonstrate their distance from him too, every one of them injured or puzzled by his actions. In fact, two of those flashbacks (Moloch’s and Adrian’s) are at the heart of the story’s main plot, which serves to drive all the characters apart, only to bring them back together at the end under a heavy layer of irony, tragedy, and fragility. The only one of the main characters to opt out of that final community is Rorschach, just as he is the only one in this chapter who doesn’t get a flashback.

How to Travel Through Time

The stacking flashbacks device is powerful, but it’s also worth a look at how the mechanics of it are executed. “The Laughing Sun” uses two different techniques. The more minor one I’ve already mentioned — a long panel with columns of text on either side of the storyteller, and a fainter image of the story’s subject looming up hugely behind. I see these as flashbacks, but what’s true is that they’re only narrated through illustrated prose, not sequential art like the others, so they have very little disruptive impact on the main story timeline.

The other flashbacks in “The Laughing Sun” all start as thought bubbles4, but with an image inside rather than words. The first of these, Vicente’s, calls attention to itself because the previous panel showed Vicente with a traditional thought bubble that does contain words. Then, within the flashback, each of the panels has scalloped corners rather than hard right angles. The end of Vicente’s flashback highlights the device in a different way, as a thought bubble above Vicente’s head shows himself and Jesús as boys, who themselves have a thought bubble over their heads, with an image of the devil chasing them through Hell. The bottom of this panel has right-angled corners, while the top corners are scalloped. The other three flashbacks follow a similar pattern — thought bubble with an image (and sometimes a word balloon inside the thought bubble), scalloped corners on the memory panels or portions.

Gilbert first used these two approaches — narration over static images and images inside thought bubbles — in “Act Of Contrition.” The next Palomar story after “The Laughing Sun” to contain a flashback was “The Reticent Heart,” which actually announced it with a caption reading “Flashback: A few years before Carmen and Heraclio became wife and husband,” and then later signaled “Flashback within the flashback: Years ago, on a warm, late afternoon in Palomar…” In a 2008 interview, Gilbert revealed his struggles with the device:

I ran into trouble with that a lot. When I first started, I used the old comic-book cliché of writing the word “flashback” just to make it clear for the reader. As my editor suggested, the strip was starting to develop in such a way that it didn’t really need this nudge. So I started presenting a flashback more like in a film. But I wasn’t so good at it. What I thought was a natural, smooth transition from modern times to a flashback wasn’t always identifiable by the reader. In a lot of reprints, I rework transitions to make a flashback clearer. (Your Brain On Latino Comics, pg. 176)5

In Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons show their mastery of those transitions. The chapter relies upon a few different techniques to signal that a flashback is beginning or ending, and by far the most prominent one of these is image-matching. The first flashback of the chapter starts with a bright glare off the Minutemen’s picture, followed by a panel of the camera flashing, and then a panel of the Minutemen posing for that picture, which begins the narration in earnest. Similarly, a panel of Adrian’s impassive face at the funeral precedes a panel of him masked as Ozymandias, in the same exact pose, to begin the Crimebusters meeting flashback. The Crimebusters flashback goes out through the same door, transitioning from a panel of Adrian masked in 1966 to one of him unmasked in 1985. Clever match cuts abound, such as when we go from The Comedian gripping Moloch’s lapels as Blake tells his story to Rorschach gripping Moloch’s lapels as Moloch recounts it.

Panels from chapter 2 of Watchmen, first going from Adrian at the funeral to Ozymandais masked in 1966, then back the opposite way.

Where matching isn’t in place, irony often is, such as in the cut from Sally having just been sexually victimized to the Tijuana bible image of her saying lustily, “Oh! Treat me rough, sugar.” The only transition that approaches a traditional comics technique is the one leading into Moloch’s flashback — captions of Moloch beginning to tell the story overlay an image of The Comedian sitting on Moloch’s bed, not so different from how Gilbert handles Archie and Luba’s flashbacks in “Act Of Contrition.” That’s as far as the connection goes, though — there are no thought bubbles in Watchmen, and certainly no captions reading “Flashback.”

That said, Gilbert made rapid strides in his technique during the two years that separate “The Laughing Sun” from “Absent Friends.” “Holidays In The Sun” (cover-dated January 1986) is a story of Jesús in jail, in which panel transitions slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality with no artificial bracketing. Even within his dreams, Luba’s face changes abruptly to Laura’s via panel transition. By the time of “Duck Feet” (June 1986) and “Bullnecks And Bracelets” (January 1987), flashbacks in Gilbert’s stories begin and end with no announcement whatsoever of the time-shift, sometimes jumping across years in the space of a few wordless panels.

During roughly the same period, there are flashbacks aplenty over on the Jaime side of L&R as well. “The Secrets Of Life And Death Vol. 5” (January 1987) is mostly flashback, with a transition accomplished by a scallop-sided panel overlaying one set in the present. The panels within the flashback look normal (straight corners), except for the one coming out of the flashback, which has one scalloped corner. Then in “The Return Of Ray D.” (April 1987), Jaime accomplishes a transition to the past using the same image-matching technique as “Absent Friends” — three characters in similar poses, but dressed differently (and one transforming from a background figure into a major character in the flashback), with no other mechanical conventions overdetermining the shift.

It’s not impossible that technical influence was flowing both directions between Los Bros and Moore/Gibbons. Certainly as Love And Rockets progressed, their time-shifting grew bolder and bolder, extending to dizzying extremes in stories like Gilbert’s early-90s “Poison River”, which would sometimes rapidly crosscut between years or decades, jumping timelines from one panel to the next without explanation and leaving the reader to piece it together. Even the opening pages of its chapters showed characters at various points in their timelines.

At the very least, it seems fair to say that both Love & Rockets and Watchmen are exemplars of an era in which formal experimentation in comics flourished. They were far from the first to use flashbacks — Harvey Kurtzman in particular, among his many 1950s achievements, used flashbacks to powerful effect in stories like Big “If”.6 Nor were match cuts a new thing — Stanley Kubrick among many others made masterful use of the technique in film. But 1980s comics like Watchmen and L&R brought these sophisticated techniques together repeatedly and consistently, for a wide variety of precisely controlled narrative effects, and thereby pushed the boundaries of comics, leading to a rich artistic payoff for a large number of works, a general expansion of the form’s visual vocabulary, and the increasing sophistication of its audience.

Beyond The Gutters

In his landmark 1993 study Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down a few different ways panels can relate to each other:

McCloud's six types of panel transitions, each drawn wtih an example.

  • Moment-to-moment: Panel A depicts the moment before Panel B, with a few seconds at most elapsing between them.
  • Action-to-action: Panel A depicts the action before Panel B, even if there’s a bit of time separation between them — for example pouring a drink, then drinking it.
  • Subject-to-subject: Panel A depicts one part of a scene, and Panel B depicts a different part, moving time forward as well.
  • Scene-to-scene: Panel A and Panel B are separated by some significant distance in time or space, or both.
  • Aspect-to-aspect: Panels A and B depict different aspects of “a place, idea, or mood.” There is very little sense of time passing between these panels, which is what separates them from subject-to-subject transitions.
  • Non-sequitur: Panels A and B seemingly have no relation to each other.

As McCloud explains it, the space between panels is known as the “gutter”, and the imaginative connection performed by the reader across this gutter, in order to accomplish these transitions, is “closure.” His observation rests upon the fact that comics are sequential, and that the connections between the images in that sequence must be made by the reader.

Rocco Versaci, in This Book Contains Graphic Language, takes this line of reasoning a little further, noticing the ways in which comics can be both simultaneous and sequential: “[U]nlike film, which unspools at a more or less predetermined (and from the viewer’s perspective, uncontrollable) pace, comics creators can play with the design of an entire page by manipulating the visuals within panels and the panels themselves within the page to create additional layers of meaning. Thus, a comic, in addition to unfolding temporally, also exists ‘all at once,’ and this existence is a feature unique to the medium.” (pg. 16)

Watchmen frequently capitalizes upon this “all at once” quality of the page. For example, in Moloch’s flashback, there’s a flashing light outside his window, which alternates between illuminating The Comedian and leaving him in darkness. The panels in the 3×3 grid thus alternate between oranges and blues, as moment-to-moment transitions in The Comedian’s speech. The result is a bright X across the page, complemented by a dark O. This rhythmic alternation also appears in the first few pages of the chapter, this time in scene-to-scene transitions, as rapid cuts between California and New York create these interlocking panel patterns of brightness and darkness.

Pages from Chapter 2 of Watchmen demonstrating the light/dark alternation

What’s at play here is the tension between images all at once, and images in sequence — we see the page all at once, even as the panels are sequential. Hatfield views Los Bros as masters of manipulating this tension: “Gilbert and Jaime freely manipulate time, space, and point of view, collapsing hours or even years into abrupt transitions, splicing together reality and fantasy, and discerning patterns in widely separated events. Relying on the cohesiveness of the total page (and the familiarity of L&R as a series) to guide and reassure their readers, Los Bros pushed the tension between single image and image-in-series to the extreme, transitioning from one element to the next without warning.” (pg. 70)

With his reference to “the familiarity of L&R as a series”, Hatfield gestures to yet another level of tension in comics, in which any of McCloud’s transitions can occur: the tension between single episode and episode-in-series. Because comics stories are so frequently serialized, readers are called upon to perform closure between episodes. Many Marvel comics, for instance, are pieces of a continuing story, and thus have a tendency toward moment-to-moment transitions between episodes — issue #191 is likely to pick up right where #190 left off, at least if #190 ended on a cliffhanger. If one issue wraps up a story, the next issue is likely to pick up on a time not too much later in the title character’s life — a scene-to-scene transition.

Closure between episodes is the connective tissue that holds comic book sagas and universes together. Those connections, taken in totality, form that beloved shibboleth of comics aficionados: continuity. Continuity is our overall experience of a story, as strung out over multiple episodes. Just as certain artistic effects are only possible on a total page, so too can continuity empower dramatic moments, or amplify dramatic blunders. When the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121, it was continuity that made the moment so powerful — readers had known Gwen for eight years at that point, over 90 connected issues. She was a part of readers’ lives just as she was a part of Spider-Man’s life. That is a level of intimacy impossible to achieve within the boundaries of a single book. Similarly, when the “Clone Saga” attempted to assert that the last twenty years of Spider-Man stories hadn’t really been about Peter Parker, it was continuity that led fans to their pitchforks and torches.

Both Gilbert Hernandez and Alan Moore use continuity to their advantage. The time-jumps that happen after “Heartbreak Soup” challenge closure, requiring the reader to figure out where the story occurs in relation to that first baseline. By the time of “The Laughing Sun”, Gilbert seems to have settled more or less into the HBS + 10 zone, but it’s clear that our perspective can come unmoored in time at any moment. By the same token, part of what gives “The Laughing Sun” (among many other Palomar stories) its power is the fact that we know these characters from many positions in time, which enriches and deepens our understanding of their relationships to themselves and each other. Unlike with Spider-Man, though, we do not travel through time alongside them, but rather begin to see their stories from multiple angles at once. Analogous to a comics page, Palomar exists “all at once” for us, increasingly so as continuity builds.

Watchmen is a self-contained story, not an ongoing saga, but still, it was serialized over 12 issues, and Moore certainly uses the continuity of that year-long publication period for dramatic effects. Clearly, the clock that ticks down at the end of each chapter is powered by closure — we know where that clock has been, and our knowledge of the number of issues in the series lets us know where it’s going. Similarly, even as early as Chapter 2, Gibbons draws panels that call back exactly to previous episodes in the series, relying on our knowledge of those episodes to provide the full meaning of the recontextualization. Even the end papers occasionally employ continuity, with part II of Under The Hood ending in Chapter 1, and part III picking up immediately in Chapter 2.

For Watchmen, and to a lesser extent for Love And Rockets, there is an additional level of tension beyond this: the tension between genre instance or invocation and the broad genre as a whole. Watchmen places itself in the superhero genre, as it existed in 1986, and is ready for its readers to come in with certain expectations of how that genre works, its conventions and status quo. Moore takes advantage of this level of reader knowledge to produce surprise, shock, and dismay as his characters and situations contrast with what’s expected, as well as to introduce overtones that call the rest of the genre into question. Love And Rockets, on the other hand, begins within expected comics genres of science fiction and fantasy, then moves quite deliberately outside them, landing in a place that defines its independence partly in opposition to what’s on offer in the rest of the comics mainstream.

Even beyond genre, there is yet one more layered experience available from these books: the experience of multiple readings. Critic Douglas Wolk notices this level in Jaime’s work: “The subtleties of his characters’ interactions really only appear on re-reading… despite the technique Hernandez has picked up from his brother of jump-cuts within each scene, it reads so smoothly that you have to make a conscious effort to slow down and note what else is happening.” (Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean, pg. 200) The same points apply to Gilbert’s work as well.

This is very similar to my experience of reading Watchmen. When I first read it, in the mid-90s, I found it enjoyable but unremarkable, and was surprised that it was praised so highly. That time, I was reading for plot, not really noticing structure, and was coming to it from the context of having already encountered many of its imitators, and daring it to live up to the aura of praise that surrounded it. Then, when the movie came out, the press around that event helped me to realize I’d missed a number of layers in that first reading, encouraging me to give the novel a second look. The result is this project. Re-reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Watchmen has led me to a far deeper appreciation of the book than I had after that first time through, and the same has been true as I’ve reread Palomar stories in preparation for this post.

What God Feels Like

Images, pages, episodes, genres, iterations of reading. All of these contribute to an experience of time connected with a particular work. Past each of these sequences, there is a sense of totality as well, and if you’re not thinking of Dr. Manhattan by now, you probably need to re-read Watchmen. William Kuskin observes a couple of these layers in a 2010 article: “In that he sees time as an object, Dr. Manhattan’s perspective is similar to the reader’s, who can perceive the whole page at one glance and the entire narrative in one turn through the book.” (“Vulgar Metaphysicians: William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and the Medium Of The Book”, in Intermediality and Storytelling, pg. 54)

I remember once talking to my friend Trish about a television show I was watching. She had already seen it; I was catching up on DVD. She asked me where I was in the sequence of episodes, I told her, and she remarked, “This must be what God feels like.” She knew what was going to happen to all the characters, and by extension what was going to happen to me. She saw the entire series in total, where I was currently still living through it in sequence — she looked at me from outside time, knowing I was trapped inside it but would transcend it to join her soon.

A panel from Chapter 9 of Watchmen, in which Dr. Manhattan says, "Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."

Time is a strong motif within Watchmen, starting with the title. Watchmen carries the sense of “guardians”, as in “watchmen on the walls of the world’s freedom,” but the character most connected with time is also the son of a watchmaker, who aspired to become one himself. Their predecessors were the Minutemen, a name linked with the American Revolution but linked also with brevity, and fragmentation of a temporal whole. The watchmaker’s son becomes unmoored in time, seeing it as “an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” I’m still not completely convinced by Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, perhaps because he combines simultaneity and sequence in a way I still don’t understand, despite having looked at many a comics page and then read the panels. For me, the whole design of jewel that is Watchmen was only visible upon re-reading, but that jewel continues to reveal more of itself, the longer I look.

So too are we unmoored in time when reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories. What is sequential for us is not so for the characters — we see them as teens, then suddenly adults, then flashing back to various points in their histories. Their existence in all these timelines is simultaneous for us, experienced sequentially (though out of chronology) but existing side by side at the same time. Gilbert, like Moore, exploits our sequential experience of reading to break apart the sequential time in his world.

Thus, as readers of Love and Rockets, we ascend almost to the godlike status of Dr. Manhattan. We don’t see the whole jewel in advance, and in fact, we don’t ever see the whole jewel at all, but we see enough facets to at least comprehend the concept of the whole. The same is true of Watchmen to an extent — indeed, the same is true of any book to an extent, because we understand the whole after reading, even if we choose to revisit the parts. But what’s special about Love And Rockets, at a level unmatched by Watchmen, is its powerful combination of continuity and nonlinearity — we can spend years and years with these characters, but their years are not ours, because we know so much of their future, so much of their past.

We learn those things not in the traditional way, following a timeline, but rather from above, via synecdoche, seeing the parts that imply the whole. Just as we assemble a picture of Jesús from the memories of his friends, just as we create Blake from our knowledge of who he has been over time, so too do we create the worlds of Palomar and Watchmen by seeing enough facets to understand the jewel. For us as readers, the world of the story (in all four of its dimensions) is our absent friend, who becomes present through our accumulated knowledge.

Previous Entry: Comin’ For To Carry Me Home

Endnotes

1The convention I would normally follow for citing an author’s name is to use last name, such as I do with Moore and Gibbons. However, since I’ll be referring to both Hernandez brothers, I’m defaulting to using their first names as the least unwieldy alternative. No disrespect is intended.🙂 [Back to post]

2The chronology on these two pieces is a bit mystifying to me. They’re reprinted in the Heartbreak Soup collection published by Fantagraphics in 2007, which touts its contents as “assembled for the first time in perfect chronological order.” They show up between “Heartbreak Soup” (1983) and “Act Of Contrition” (1984) in that volume. However, “A Little Story” is dated 1985 (it apparently debuted in the first L&R trade paperback), and “Toco” is dated 2002. Why Fantagraphics considers this “perfect chronological order” is quite beyond me. In any case, I’m leaving this paragraph in as a description of my own Palomar reading experience, which happened in the reprint, but note that for readers of the original magazine (including Moore), Palomar stories jumped from “Heartbreak Soup” straight to “Act Of Contrition.” [Back to post]

3Tipped hat and deep bow to Charles Hatfield for the detective work to match these dates.[Back to post]

4Thought bubbles have fallen out of favor over time in some modern comics, replaced by superimposed captions, images, or sudden panel transitions. Watchmen is a prime example of the no-thought-bubble approach.[Back to post]

5Gilbert’s last remark brings up a problem with the sort of critical comparative work I’m doing here — I’m working from reprints of Love And Rockets, as I don’t have access to the original issues. So if Los Bros changed things for the trade paperbacks, it’s quite possible that some of the mechanics I’m discussing may not have been as Moore saw them. This is an unfortunate consequence of the disposable and ephemeral nature of original comics pamphlets, which can sometimes be recovered via digital (albeit usually illegal) means, but are otherwise locked behind barriers of expense or distance. If you’ve got original L&R issues and can shed light on discrepancies between them and the collections, by all means let me know in the comments! [Back to post]

6Another bow to Charles Hatfield for drawing this line.[Back to post]

Album Assignments: American Beauty

Of all the things for which the Grateful Dead are famous, I’m not sure their albums even make the top five. For me, though, this one was a way into a band I’ve always had a hard time getting into. I’ve spent an awful lot of my life in and around Boulder, Colorado, where I believe lack of enthusiasm for the Dead is technically considered illegal. I can’t help it, though. I’m just not a jam band guy. I find 30-minute versions of 12-bar blues songs interminable rather than exhilirating, and consequently could not care less about the endless vaults of concert recordings, taped with the loving approval of the band.

I dunno, maybe it’s better when you’re stoned, but considering that my pot intake is best measured on a per-decade basis, they just haven’t had a lot of chances with me. Deadhead Nation is a foreign country, and while I have nothing in particular against its residents, I also have no interest in visiting. The iconography, the cult following, the endless soloing… it just leaves me, not cold exactly, but pretty tepid.

Those aren’t my only barriers to this album. Rootsy Americana overall is a tough genre for me to connect with. I have the same issue with The Band — so much of it feels like monologues from the inner lives of white Southern hillbillies, not a terribly sympathetic demographic for me. Especially in election years.

Women in these songs are held either as saviors or objectives, often of pathetic or despicable men. “Sugar Magnolia”, who “takes the wheel when I’m seeing double / Pays my tickets when I speed,” might as well be the same woman from “Up On Cripple Creek”, who’s “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” “You’re my woman now” from “Till The Morning Comes” is an imperative similar to “Jemima Surrender”, except in the former song it seems like maybe he’s going to kick her out the door after the night is over.

American Beauty album cover

Finally, there are the harmonies. I’m a huge fan of harmonies, but I find them frequently getting under my skin on this album. I’ve read that the Dead were inspired by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young during this period, and I can see the comparison, but where CSNY feel like a smooth braid, the Dead have stray hairs sticking out every which way. Jerry Garcia’s unsteady voice doesn’t blend easily those of with his bandmates, who sometimes start or stop singing at different times than the people they’re harmonizing with, giving the whole thing a ragged feel. The top note often wavers in falsetto over the foundation of the harmony, sliding in and out of pitch like a wandering eye.

And yet, even with all those negatives, I found myself enjoying American Beauty quite often. For one thing, the musicianship is just impeccable, and often sublimely beautiful. The pedal steel solo on “Candyman” stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it — haunting, angelic, and with a tone unlike any other guitar solo I’ve ever heard. Similarly, when I put on headphones, laid my head back, and listened to the opening of “Friend Of The Devil”, it took my breath away. It was just so intricate and yet perfectly constructed — it takes a rare combination of songwriters and players to create something so complex and gorgeous. Phil Lesh in particular does a remarkable job with melodic bass lines throughout the album.

Then there are the songs themselves. Unlike the Dead’s reputation for extended jams, American Beauty‘s songs are tight and to the point. “Sugar Magnolia” and “Friend Of The Devil” are straightforward pop singles, and “Truckin'” is a rollicking rocker with a sense of humor. One of the best songs is “Box Of Rain”, which brings together the intricate musical approach and surreal lyrics from Robert Hunter, with lovely images like “walk into splintered sunlight”, and the title itself. “Attics Of My Life”, too, has lovely lyrics, and a great rhythmic motif of finding the impossible present in love:

When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me…
When there were no strings to play, you played to me…
When I had no wings to fly, you flew to me…
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me

The capstone is “Ripple,” easily my favorite Grateful Dead song of all time. That’s not just because it plays during the most emotional scene in the movie Mask, although that is where I first encountered it, and that scene still has a powerful effect on me. More than that, though, this song brings together all the best parts of the Grateful Dead. There’s a gentle, sweet accord among the instruments — soft drums, warm bass, lyrical guitar, and ethereal mandolin. Most of all, there are the lyrics, a heartrending poem about yearning, destiny, love, and the essential mystery of life: “There is a road, no simple highway / Between the dawn and the dark of night / And if you go, no one may follow / That path is for your steps alone.”

Album Assignments: Biograph [Disc 2]

Bob Dylan is often cited as the central figure who brought a literary sensibility to rock and roll. He combined the forms he’d learned in folk music with the driving energy of Elvis and Little Richard. As he says in the extended Biograph liner notes: “The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough. ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ were great catch phrases and driving pulse rhythms and you could get high on the energy but they weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings… If I did anything, I brought one to the other.”

So he did, and so I found myself pondering while listening to disc 2 of Biograph some of the specific literary modes, styles, and approaches Dylan uses in his songs, to elevate them beyond the realm of “Tutti Frutti.”

Collage-style cover of the Biograph liner notes booklet

Epics and Ballads

“Epic” and “Ballad” are two words that have drifted pretty far away from their literary definitions. Now we use “epic” to mean “awesome” (itself a victim of linguistic drift), and “ballad” gets applied to any slow song, especially one about love, especially especially when played by a normally more aggressive band. “Epic ballad” now means something like, oh I don’t know, “November Rain”.

But closer to its origin, “epic” meant an extended poem, generally centering on a heroic figure. Likewise, a ballad in the folk tradition is a narrative set to music, usually in a consistent rhyme scheme and stanza structure, and frequently returning to a refrain at the end of each stanza. Into this frame fit several of the songs on this disc, including one of Dylan’s greatest songs ever, “Tangled Up In Blue.” Most rock songs go verse-chorus-verse, for a few minutes, but “Tangled” goes on and on, verse after verse with no chorus, spinning a love story that spans across miles and decades, to incredibly poignant efffect. Like the traditional folk ballads, it hews to a specific and consistent structure, and each verse lands on the title refrain.

“Isis” fits even closer to the epic mode. It’s a tale of adventure, but with a twist: the motivating force for the hero’s journey is his inability to live within his marriage. So he takes off, “for the wild unknown country,” and there stumbles into a scheme which he fantasizes will allow him to shower his beloved with turquoise, gold, “diamonds, and the world’s biggest necklace.” The scheme falls apart, ending in death and desolation, and the hero returns to his wife. He has no riches for her, but brings instead the conviction he lacked before: “She said, ‘You going to stay?’, I said, ‘If you want me to, yes'”. In the studio version, this sounds a bit diffident, but in the live performance on Biograph, Dylan roars out “YES!”, an explosive climax in the twelfth verse, swept up by swirling violins, guitars, and dobro.

Other songs aren’t quite so narrative, but still follow the ballad form, layering it with a series of moments or images. “Visions Of Johanna” is the longest song on this side, and in its seven-and-a-half minutes layers five long stanzas, the first four of which each follow the same A-A-A-B-B-B-B-C-C rhyme scheme, and each of which ends with some variation on the phrase “visions of Johanna.” In the fifth stanza, Dylan really lets the fireworks loose, stringing together seven B rhymes (showed, corrode, flowed, road, owed, loads, explodes) before landing back on the refrain. The song doesn’t tell a story, but similar to “Desolation Row”, it vividly limns a state of mind.

“Abandoned Love” is a little closer to earth, but not quite a narrative. Dylan uses the song’s structure to explore different thoughts and viewpoints on a relationship, progressing slowly from feeling trapped within it to feeling ready to leave. “Every Grain Of Sand” has a similar lyrical structure, but an entirely different theme, this time expressing Dylan’s faith in a higher power, the “Master’s hand.”

Apostrophe and Dramatic Monologue

When he’s not telling a story or stringing images together, Dylan is frequenly in first-person character, directly addressing someone or something. In other words, he’s in apostrophe mode. In literary terms, an apostrophe is not that punctuation mark that appears in my last name and breaks computer systems. Rather, it’s a poetic mode in which the speaker addresses something or someone who is not there. It could be a dead or absent person, or it could be a personified concept or object, such as death, or autumn, or MacBeth’s dagger.

An example from this disc is “Dear Landlord.” In this plainspoken track from John Wesley Harding, Dylan makes his case to a landlord who is probably not standing there listening, and may in fact be more of a concept or metaphor than an actual human character. Of course, with many of Dylan’s songs it can be difficult to tell whether the party being addressed is present in the poem, which means that many of these songs float in the grey area between apostrophe and dramatic monologue. In the latter mode, the speaker of a poem is a character in the midst of a scene, often interacting with or addressing other people.

Obviously the “From Me To You” mode of address is extremely common in rock songs, including that very song and the vast majority of other early Beatles tunes. What sets Dylan’s songs apart is their emotional and lyrical complexity, their often brutal directness, and their frequent willingness to name a specific character or personification.

Exhibit A: “To Ramona.” The singer addresses his words to a named character, and over the course of five verses moves through a panoply of emotions about her. He wants to comfort her at first, and confesses his ongoing attraction to her, only to immediately run down a list of ways she’s deceiving herself. He deflates her naive hippie notions of equality with devastating logic: “I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one, and no one is better than you / If you really believe that you know you’ve got nothing to win and nothing to lose.” Finally, he gives up, knowing he can make no difference and that she’s just going to do what she wants to do anyway. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” continues where this leaves off, unsparingly detailing the finality of an ended relationship.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” conjures a whole different range of feeling. In it, Dylan writes about music in general, under the guise of speaking to an archetypal character. It’s one of his most romantic songs, revealing a much more joyful love than comes across in most of his love songs. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” is such an indelible image, and one that perfectly and beautifully captures the utter elation of musical elevation.

Back in the realm of human relationships, there’s “more despair, more sadness.” “You’re A Big Girl Now” is one of the most heart-rending songs in Dylan’s entire catalog, an absolutely piercing portrait of a failed relationship. The version on Biograph is both more resigned and even more aching than the one on Blood On The Tracks — it’s amazing that’s even possible. When a relationship breaks, there is almost always one person moving on and one person left behind. This song is told from the point of view of the one left behind, and it evokes that excruciating pain with awful and yet understated accuracy.

On the more triumphant side of sadness are the kiss-offs, and two of Dylan’s best adorn this disc. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is a classic with good reason — it couldn’t be more merciless as a relationship ender, but it does so while surgically dismantling the set of delusions that underpin almost every immature love affair. Then there’s one of my favorites, “Positively 4th Street.” Over a gorgeous-sounding track of joyful organ and chiming percussion, Dylan excoriates a false friend with perfect rhymes and savage honesty. I’d like to quote it, but I’d just end up quoting the whole thing — every word is just that good.

Comedy and Absurdity

Because of his amazing facility for writing powerful and emotional songs, it’s easy to forget that Bob Dylan can also be a straight-up goofball. But think about “Motorpsycho Nitemare”, “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35”, “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”, or some of the wackier songs from Freewheelin’. The guy can be very silly, in a fun way, and we get a little bit of that Dylan on this disc. “Quinn The Eskimo,” for one, is just a strange song but clearly a playful one — lines like “it ain’t my cup of meat” display a Dali-esque absurdity. On the briefer side, “Jet Pilot” merrily saunters through a similarly offbeat realm.

“Million Dollar Bash” is even goofier. I mean, the ridiculous lyrics are one thing, but beyond that is the over-the-top ludicrous way he sings it. He sounds for all the world like an exaggerated Dylan imitator on “I punched myself in the face with my fist / I took my potatoes down to be mashed.” Or, to be more accurate, “I puuuunched myself in the faaaaaaace with my fiiiiiist! / I took my potaaaaaatoes down to be maaaaashed.”

It’s easy for me to rhapsodize about Bob Dylan, but songs like these are welcome reminders that he’s still just a person, and that his idea of music emphatically includes fun, as well as all the deeper, more wrenching emotions of his other songs.

There are a couple of lesser lights on here — “You Angel You” sounds like Dylan was making it up as he went along, and in the liner notes he confirms that he probably was. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is fine, but it’s one of those tracks that was unreleased for a reason. Not awful, but a long way from his best work.

Still, overall, what an amazing collection this second disc is. I think I liked it even better than the first one. Disc 3 is coming up, and I’m less familiar with a lot of its songs. The thrill of discovery awaits!

Album Assignments: All That You Can’t Leave Behind

U2 has had a long habit of reinventing itself. From the coming-of-age concept album Boy they shifted gears into the Christian rock of October, and then dove straight into political anthems with War, hitting the big time in the process. From there, they started a pattern of huge albums followed by offbeat departures, seemingly as a corrective to overwhelming success. After War came a live album and then an atmospheric, abstract record in The Unforgettable Fire.

Thanks to Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Unforgettable‘s sound was a major departure from the martial rock anthems of War (with the notable exception of “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”), but its blurry, impressionistic music and lyrics were jettisoned for The Joshua Tree, a classic stuffed with incredible songs, and not coincidentally an unbelievable hit-making machine. The band pulled back again with Rattle and Hum, a partial live recap of Joshua interspersed with tribute covers of favorite artists, and new songs which felt a bit like outtakes from the last album.

Achtung Baby introduced yet another new sound, this time a buzzy, industrial brand of effects-heavy alternative rock, and while the result didn’t quite reach Joshua heights sales-wise, it wasn’t far behind, and was an artistic triumph to boot. On the heels of that success, U2 threw yet another change-up with Zooropa, an experimental, sometimes almost avant-garde record that once again left familiar territory behind and let the band’s creativity roam free.

Based on this pattern, one would have expected Pop to be another massive album, something to match War, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby. Funny thing, though — it really wasn’t. It was another change of course, yes, but this one had a feeling of desperation rather than exploration. Seeing the members of U2 dressed up as The Village People in the video for “Discothèque”, it almost felt to me like the band had become its own detractors, and had nothing left but to ironize and satirize their own success. All the way through Achtung Baby, stylistic changes aside, what all of U2’s music had in common was commitment and sincerity. Zooropa injected a bit more distance, on an intellectual plane, but Pop was the first record in which the band themselves seemed emotionally detached.

All That You Can't Leave Behind lyrics

This is a long-winded way of setting the stage for All That You Can’t Leave Behind, in which sincerity, commitment, and songcraft came roaring back. This was the album I wanted Pop to be, worthy of standing alongside the band’s other peaks. They waste no time making their mission clear on “Beautiful Day” — as soon as that huge guitar/drum combo kicks in, and Bono moves from his head voice to his chest voice, we know what U2 meant when they said that they were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world.” Application accepted, and by five songs in, you’ve got the job.

After “Beautiful Day”, the album falls into two sections, the first focusing on the personal and the second on the world, the micro and the macro. Songs like “In A Little While” and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” resonate with empathy for loved ones who are struggling. Of these two, “Stuck” is the stronger song, both because of its stirring, heartening lyrics and because of the queasiness-inducing bit of “Little While” in which the speaker seems to be saying he’s known his current girlfriend since she was a baby. (“That girl, that girl she’s mine… When I first saw her in a pram they pushed her by.”)

On the other hand, “Elevation” and “Walk On” both deal heavily with inspiration. “Elevation” lives on the more romantic, sexual plane, though knowing U2 there’s always the chance they’re talking about God, a la “Mysterious Ways.” (However, “the orbit of your hips” would seem to rule against that interpretation.) “Walk On” seems addressed to a personal inspiration for leadership, offering both admiration and encouraging words. That song includes one of my favorite U2 lyrics, one from which I’ve drawn inspiration myself during tough projects: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed to be seen.”

The gem of the collection, though, is “Kite”. So many of U2’s strengths coalesce on this song. There’s a musical warmth, thanks to Adam Clayton’s strong, thrumming bass, and spiraling, swooping Edge guitar. Bono’s performance is breathtaking, rising through calm, through fear, and into a heartfelt declaration of faith. In the peak moments of the song (“You don’t need anyone, anything at all”, “I’m a man, I’m not a child”), the band holds him up to the heavens so that he can reach the power he needs to bring the full emotion across. The metaphor in the lyrics beautifully encapsulates a tenuous but strong connection between people, and the surrender that must come with real love.

In comparison to these songs, the more macro-level ruminations like “Peace on Earth” and “When I Look At The World” feel just a bit more strained, like they’re trying to make a Big Statement. If there’s any group ready to make those grand gestures, it’s U2, and those songs are fine, but I find I like the band a little better when they’re a little closer to the ground. On the other hand, “New York” is thrilling, especially at 2:10 when the song suddenly explodes with energy befitting its subject.

The album ends with a synthesis of the personal and the global, in “Grace.” In some ways U2 has spent its career refining the art of speaking about the spiritual, the romantic, and the political in the same breath, and “Grace” is one of its most explicit attempts to do so. “Grace, it’s a name for a girl / It’s also a thought that changed the world.” The lyrics describe a state of mind, personified as a woman, and in doing so achieve the rock and roll synthesis they always crave most, making love with God to save the world.

Album Assignments: Biograph [Disc 1]

My next few assignments to Robby are taking a different tack than usual. I did a bunch of Bob Dylan research a while back, in support of a Watchmen article, and in the process wishlisted a few different Dylan things, including his 1985 box set, Biograph. Now I have it, and I’ve been listening to it, and thinking about it, and therefore I am hereby expanding the definition of “album” to include collections, including box sets. However, 53 songs is an awful lot to digest, even in two weeks, so I’m following the same approach I took with Art Of McCartney, and considering each disc a separate album for listening/writing purposes.

But I don’t think Biograph was designed with CDs in mind. It was one of the first box sets ever released for a rock artist, and in 1985 CDs were still just a small segment of the music market, albeit a rapidly growing one. So Biograph was released as both a 3-CD set and a 5-LP set, with more or less the same running order. This was back in the days when albums had sides, kids, and what I found while listening to this first disc is that those sides were pretty meaningful thematically. Even though it’s called Biograph, the set isn’t assembled chronologically. Rather than the story of Dylan’s life, it’s the story of many Dylans.

Bob Dylan The Lover

The first five songs on Biograph demonstrate a variety of approaches Dylan has taken to the love song, and unfortunately for me it starts with my all-time most hated Dylan song, “Lay Lady Lay.” I mean, I’m obviously a fan of the guy’s work, but this song is a giant exception, because it irritates the hell out of me every single time I hear it, and I end up saying out loud to the speakers, “Stop!” Stop with the smarmy lyrics. Stop referring to yourself in the third person. Stop, for God’s sake, STOP singing in that horrible Gomer Pyle voice. (Well, I guess I mean the singing voice you’d expect Gomer Pyle to have rather than Jim Nabors’ actual singing.)

Anyway, life gets better fast once we travel back to 1962 for “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, a cut from Dylan’s debut album. It’s a simple blues love song, sung right before the artist got a whole lot more complicated, and stopped recording covers for a long time. In fact, it’s the only tune on this collection for which Dylan lacks a songwriting credit. “If Not For You” flips the other way — like a number of Dylan’s songs, it’s more famous for its cover than the original, in this case the gorgeous version cut by George Harrison. (Not to mention the easy listening version by Olivia Newton-John. No really, not to mention it.)

“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a bit like a continuation of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” — a return to simplicity from post-motorcycle-crash Dylan, and a tender declaration of protection and love, at least for tonight. But for my money, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is the most touching song from this side. Dylan isn’t necessarily known first and foremost for his love songs, and he’s certainly left his share of relationship wreckage behind him in his personal life, but this song is such a sweet, understated offer — to share a burden, to make things a little easier… maybe just to save you a little time. It’s a loving gift, made more so by being offered so nonchalantly.

Album cover for Biograph

Bob Dylan The Folk Poet

One, two, three. “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Masters Of War.” Any one of these songs would have been the absolute tip-top pinnacle of somebody else’s career. In fact, most artists never put out a single song anywhere near this good. Dylan put all three of them out within nine months of each other, two of them on the same album, and laid down about a dozen other stone classics in the meantime. Seriously, is it any wonder the guy was hailed as a genius at the age of 22?

These songs are so absolutely timeless, it feels like they’ve been around forever. I mean, he actually sat down and wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Even though it feels exactly like it’s been passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years, Bob Dylan wrote it on paper, from his brain. “The Times” is still damned electrifying, 52 years on, and hundreds of listens in, for me. “Masters Of War” could have been written yesterday. In fact, in some ways it’s more timely today than ever, with destruction having become ever more corporatized and commodified, and the weapons of war so effectively marketed that now they’re available to anyone who wants to stage their own personal My Lai massacre at the local nightclub, movie theater, or elementary school.

What a gift this man had, and what a gift he gave us. To sing truth in such a universal, compelling way that it can resonate with generation after generation… it’s a special and rare thing. Even a song like “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, which is literally about a story that was in the newspaper a few months before the song’s release, is still spellbinding today in the light of all-too-fresh miscarriages of justice, shining a light on the disgraceful fact that even more than 50 years later, we still find ourselves having to insist that black lives matter. “Percy’s Song” is perfectly paired with it, as it shows the flip side of judicial injustice — where in “Hattie Carroll” a casual and unrepentant murderer escapes with a 6-month sentence, Percy gets 99 years for being at the wheel in a car accident.

Bob Dylan The Rocker

With side two having impeccably established Dylan’s folk credentials, side three opens with a rocker from the same 1962 vintage. “Mixed-Up Confusion” hearkens back to Dylan’s high-school idolization of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, galloping along like it can hardly be restrained. Let a few years flow by, and that same urgent beat resurfaces in the utterly amazing “Tombstone Blues.” Man, this song is just the essence of cool. Like a lot of the tracks on Highway 61 Revisited, you can practically hear Dylan’s sunglasses on his face, as he spits out lyrics as fierce and fast as any rapper. The lyrics themselves are in that surreal Highway 61 mode, throwing archetypes and images into a blender, achieving a startling alchemy as mysterious as it is powerful.

Could Dylan still write in that mode when Biograph was current? “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” says, “Hell yes!” A 1981 b-side left off Shot Of Love (and later reincluded on the CD release), this was one of the songs that rang down the curtain on Dylan’s “Born Again” period, and it’s a very strong return to form. I particularly love:

Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be.

Like “Tombstone Blues”, it strings together thoughts and stories, returning rhythmically to a chorus that evokes desperation and wrongness. “Most Likely You Go Your Way” rocks out in a different fashion, showcasing Dylan’s remarkable facility for reworking his songs in live performance. I’ve only seen him in concert once, but the thing that most impressed me was his ability to rearrange his own songs to make them sound brand new. That’s exactly what happens here, as a rather shambolic tune from Blonde On Blonde becomes a strutting rave-up live, with Dylan shouting out the last word in every verse.

Finally, side 3 ends with “Like A Rolling Stone”, one of Dylan’s most iconic songs, and the one that proved his rock and roll prowess beyond any doubt, much to the dismay of 1965 folk purists. Books and books have been written on this song, so I’ll add nothing except to say that it’s a fitting capstone to this rock side.

Other Sides Of Bob Dylan

Towards the end of the disc, the LP structure starts to break down, as there isn’t enough space on the CD for side four. So let’s look at these last three songs just as encores for the concepts above. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” is a fine unreleased track from Dylan in folk mode, recapturing the mood of Scottish ballads. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was the first declaration of Dylan’s rock direction, as the first song on the electric side of Bringing It All Back Home. And “I Don’t Believe You” puts it all together, as a live rock reworking of a folk original in which Bob the lover is left scratching his head at a sudden rejection.

It’s been a satisfying trip so far, but there’s so much more left. On to disc two! (Well, after my next assignment, at least.)

Album Assignments: Honky Château

In my 2015 music mix, I sang the praises of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Now that Robby has assigned me Honky Château, I’ve spent a lot more time with the song, and I love it more than ever. For one thing, it’s built so beautifully. First we just hear Elton’s voice and piano. He hits an aching falsetto on (appropriately) the word “high” — that falsetto will return throughout the song, punctuating moments of emotion in an extraordinary vocal performance.

Moments later, a tender bass part comes in to support the melody, then soft drums building to that first chorus. A guitar strum brings in the chorus, with sparkling harmonies from the band. The song hits its first peak at the words “rocket man” — a huge cymbal crash gets pierced by reverb-drenched slide guitar, a sound that smoothly ascends the scale into the heavens. Producer Gus Dudgeon puts together a sound here that brilliantly echoes the song’s subject, but without a sterile 2001 feel, because after all the song is about loneliness, not science fiction.

The slide guitar goes up, but also comes down at various places in the song, and the first of these leads into the second verse, where all the instruments drop away and we’re left again with only the vocals and piano, the haunting slide occasionally shooting past like a distant star. Halfway through that verse, a new sound comes in: cascading synths, which step to the front accompanying the line “and all the science” — again, the sound echoing the subject. But just to make sure we don’t get the impression this is turning into proto-new-wave, Elton’s voice hits its most poignant run, singing long, sweet notes on “man” at the end of the verse, reprising the notes he sang on “high” at the beginning of the song.

Then the synth joins the rest of the band as another slide and prominent strum leads back into the chorus. It’s even more emotional than last time, with an even warmer sound somehow. Then the chorus repeats, resolving into a repeating outro of “and I think it’s gonna be a long long time.” Each instrument takes its turn behind those words — the synths, the slide, the rhythm guitar — and we get just a few more of those sweet falsetto notes as the song fades away.

cover of Honky Chateau

Even more than Dudgeon’s production and John’s melody, though, what touched me this time was Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. It’s no accident that he chooses the word “rocket” to emphasize, because I believe Taupin is using the astronaut as a metaphor to describe the touring rock star. He paints a portrait of a man in a capsule, taking a long trip away from home. He’s “high as a kite” for this trip, drug slang for the rock star turned literal for the astronaut. This man may be the subject of popular adulation, but “I’m not the man they think I am at home,” he says. He’s lonely, longing for connection even as he makes his timeless flight.

He’s just a man doing a job, five days a week. That’s a part of the song that’s always confused me — how is an astronaut in space only working five days a week? But it made more sense when I thought about it in context with the metaphor. The rock star may have nights when he doesn’t play. The astronaut may have days when he doesn’t “work” on experiments or observations. But he’s still in space. He’s still on tour. The environment may be exotic, but it’s inhospitable to domestic life — “Mars ain’t the kind of place you raise your kids,” and neither is a rock and roll tour. And it’s going to be a long, long time until he returns to that earthly life.

The contrast between ancient rural purity and modern urban corruption is one that fascinates Taupin in album after album, but it’s especially prominent on Honky Château, from a number of angles. In “Honky Cat” we hear from the smalltown boy who breaks away from his country life and is thrilled to be in the city. Despite all the voices from home that tell him “living in the city ain’t where it’s at,” he decides to quit his redneck ways, and knows the change is going to do him good. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” tells the opposite side, or perhaps just the next chapter in the story. The speaker’s romantic visions of New York, nurtured by the Ben E. King song “Spanish Harlem,” get shattered by the reality of the city, caught between the subway and the starless sky. And yet even in this “trash can dream come true,” he finds people who help him sow his own seeds in the city, the agricultural metaphor settling into an uneasy truce with urban grit.

Elsewhere on the album, the country is celebrated, mainly as it’s personified in women. In “Susie (Dramas)” we get a classic Taupin country portrait, one that would have been perfectly at home on Tumbleweed Connection. Rural imagery straight out of Oklahoma! abounds — fringe on a buggy, a frisky colt, ice skating on the river, and an “old hayseed harp player” sharing the moonshine (in a double meaning) with a “pretty little black-eyed girl.” “Amy” wrecks the dreams of a young kid who adores her from afar and drives her crazy up close. The lyrics don’t reference country imagery in the same way, but Jean-Luc Ponty’s wild electric violin links the song with “Mellow”, another down-home portrait of love where the singer snuggles with his girl in front of a coal fire, occasionally sending her “down to the stores in town” for more beer.

Knowing a little of Taupin’s biography makes sense of this fascination — he grew up in a very rural setting, and in fact his family had no electricity for the first 5 years of his life. It wasn’t until his late teens that he found himself in London, where he suddenly skyrocketed to fame alongside John, who was the Captain Fantastic to Taupin’s brown dirt cowboy. That partnership with John not only gave Taupin the perfect vehicle for his lyrics, it gave him an extraordinary empathy for people in very different circumstances from his own. Nowhere is that empathy more visible than on “Rocket Man”, where Taupin finds the perfect emotional note for both the astronaut and the rock star.

His connection with Elton comes up in a more playful way on “Hercules”. The song is cartoonish throughout, starting with its narrator, a country character who stays gritty up to his ears “washing in a bucket of mud.” This fellow sports colorful ailments like “a busted wing”, and laments how the object of his affection has focused her attention on a “muscle boy” named Hercules. What’s the connection to Elton? Well, it so happens that when Reginald Kenneth Dwight legally changed his name in 1967, it was to Elton Hercules John. There had to have been moments for Bernie Taupin when he felt jealous of Elton John’s stardom, even as he watched his friend suffer under the spotlight, but in this song, at least, his rivalry with Hercules seems like nothing but a laugh. In some ways it’s an extension of “Rocket Man”‘s empathy, taking the hornet’s sting out of what could be a bitter contention, and sowing the seeds for many productive seasons to come.

Album Assignments: The Lumineers

The Lumineers’ debut album was released on April 3, 2012. The #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 that week was “We Are Young” by Fun. Before that it was “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson. Before that was “Part Of Me” by Katy Perry.

What all these songs have in common, along with most songs in Top 40 then and now, is HUGE production. Sure, there may be a piano or guitar at the beginning, and there may be an a capella or rap breakdown somewhere in there, but at least by the time the chorus kicks in, all of these songs are supported by layers and layers of synths, echo, and various digital production tricks to create a thick, dense waveform, a tsunami of sound that physically washes over the listener. This isn’t a bad thing — it can be very powerful, which is probably what makes it so very popular. And boy oh boy is it popular right now.

Compare this to the sound on The Lumineers, whose defining aural quality is open space. Almost every instrument is acoustic, and very few instruments even appear on a given track. Vocals are in the forefront, but they aren’t heavily processed, and they’re frequently accompanied by only one instrument, or none at all. Where the sound level does build, it tends to be from natural timbres — a chorus of voices, stomping feet, clapping hands.

Lumineers album cover

This style gets called a few different things — alt-folk, indie folk, Americana. But it strikes me that in an age dominated by electronic instruments and high-gloss production, the impulse behind The Lumineers has an awful lot in common with punk rock. Like The Ramones and The Clash, The Lumineers reject the dominant form of their time and hearken back to the simpler sound of an earlier era.

But unlike punk, they’re going back a little further, and to a different section of the culture — one more rural, less industrialized. (Also, they’re not quite the pioneers that The Ramones were, rather following in the tracks left by Mumford & Sons, and in a slightly different sense Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. But hey, they’re local heroes, so I’m putting the assignment spotlight on them.) From the way they dress to the simple instrumentation and arrangements, The Lumineers’ image and sound is rooted in the folk music of at least a hundred years ago.

That’s not to say that that The Lumineers entirely reject the modern world — their lyrics mention fast food parking lots, taking a bus to Chinatown, having your car window smashed but the stereo left intact. And there’s even an electric guitar poking through here and there, albeit played slow and solo. Still, even where they aren’t telling explicitly period stories (“Flapper Girl”, “Charlie Boy”), The Lumineers are miles away from the dominant pop sensibility.

That’s the easy part, though. Anybody can look at the charts and declare, a la George Costanza, “I will do the opposite!” It takes something a little more special to have a Top 5 single and two Top 5 albums with “the opposite.” So what’s their appeal beyond punky independence? There are a lot of factors that go into it, but I’d like to focus on three. First, impassioned vocals. Wesley Schultz brings an enormous depth and nuance to his singing. He’s never screamy, never histrionic, but the spaciousness of the songs allows him to bring out the deepest feelings in his characters — the betrayal in “Morning Song”, the dedication in “Ho Hey”, the gratitude in “Dead Sea”.

Second, the musical cleverness. I found myself doing double-takes as I listened to this album, starting tracks over so I could understand how they’d taken me in. “Submarines”, for instance, starts out with a piano just a hair ahead of the beat — a rollicking, syncopated sound. But a few lines in, the piano pulls back behind the beat and changes time signatures from 4/4 to 3/4, altering the feel of the song completely. Then a guitar comes in, and the beat switches back to 4/4, but we hear drums playing triplets behind the next verse. The song keeps switching back and forth, playing the rhythms against each other, percussive chords playing in standard time while voices shout “sub-ma-rines!” triplets in the background. It becomes dizzying, hypnotic, enthralling.

Finally, the poignancy created by the combination of lyrics and music. “Charlie Boy” is a great example of this. The words tell a story of a boy born in 1944, inspired by Kennedy to serve in the military, and killed in the Vietnam War. We hear about his mother’s worry, and the town’s grief (“Meutchen mourn our loss.”) A little research reveals that Wesley Schultz’s uncle was named Charles, born in 1944, and killed in action in Vietnam. His hometown of Meutchen, New Jersey, built a memorial for its three residents killed in the war. This story is told over a a duet of simply strummed guitar and mandolin, accompanied by a mournful cello. It’s a different, deeper mood than “We are young, so let’s set the world on fire”, and rather than overwhelming us with sound, it overwhelms us with emotion.