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.

Album Assignments: Surrealistic Pillow

Most of my memories come associated with a strong sense of place. So it is with the day I bought Surrealistic Pillow. It was my freshman year of college, fall 1988, attending NYU, and one of my pleasures was cruising a circuit of various record stores in the Village. Browsing at St. Mark’s Sounds, I found a used CD of this album along the right-hand wall, for about 6 bucks, and snatched it. I’d owned the band’s greatest hits in high school, and I’d always heard about this album. With “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” on there, it’s gotta be pretty good, right?

Not quite. It’s amazing. That album set me on a Jefferson Airplane binge, or at least as much of one as my poor college self could afford. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Crown Of Creation, Volunteers… they’re all great, but none compare to Pillow. Some of the songs on this album are, for me, transcendently beautiful.

But how do you write about something like that? I don’t think I’m capable of capturing a purely aesthetic experience in words. Maybe language isn’t capable of it. I really believe that some of this music affects me right down to the molecular level, with a feeling of divine elevation that is way beyond language, or perhaps deep underneath it.

Album cover from Surrealistic Pillow

So instead, I’ll just talk about when it happens. It happens when I hear the harmonies in “My Best Friend”, notes and voices blending in ways that are both unexpected and perfect. It happens in “Today” when all the voices come in (around 1:50), like a stage chorus, lifting the lonesome motif into the heavens — “Today, everything you want, I swear, it all will come true.”

It happens during the instrumental intro of “Comin’ Back To Me,” a quiet flute floating like dust motes in sunlit guitar picking. And it happens like crazy all throughout the incredible “Embryonic Journey,” quite possibly my favorite rock instrumental ever, especially in the powerful strums, like the ones around 0:32. Joe Jackson talks about music as “a cure for gravity”, and that’s what this feels like to me — the spirit borne aloft.

Chills of a different kind come from the quiet snare at the beginning of “White Rabbit.” That’s not so much elevation, but a spooky tingle, knowing what’s to come. All this talk of aesthetic transport and I haven’t even mentioned Grace Slick yet. Her voice has an otherworldly quality in “White Rabbit”, perfect for the distorted perception and unreality of the lyrics. “Somebody To Love,” her other lead vocal, projects not so much eeriness but icy authority. For all the hippie trappings surrounding this album, this song hardly feels like a flower child anthem — when she says “You better find somebody to love,” it’s a command, not a gentle suggestion. Then again, with so many people her age being drafted into Vietnam, maybe Slick’s imperative to love, compared to the government’s imperative to kill, is as counterculture as it gets.

Alongside this beauty and mystery is a strong strain of rock and roll. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, “She Has Funny Cars”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are all energizing, lively rock tunes that exude freedom, and “Somebody To Love” itself is hard-charging and uncompromising. Come to think of it, this is the very mix of qualities that I came to love in Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac — loveliness from Christine, spookiness from Stevie, and rock from Lindsey, with all of them mixing into each other on various songs. I didn’t realize it on that fall day in 1988, but by seeking out Surrealistic Pillow, I was digging deeper into the San Francisco roots of a sound I already loved.

Album Assignments: One Lost Day

The Indigo Girls feel like old friends to me now. Within weeks of their 1988 debut, I was listening to them, and I’ve gotten every album they’ve released since. I’ve chased down bootlegs, collected their pre-Epic recordings, and faithfully fetched songs from soundtracks, tribute albums, benefit albums, and live albums. I’ve seen them live more than 20 times. The first time I played my guitar for Laura, it was an Indigo Girls song. Friends sang “The Power Of Two” at our wedding. They’ve been the soundtrack for countless road trips, evenings with friends, and hundreds of ordinary days and nights, sweetened a bit by braided harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, deep emotion.

So now when they release something new, it’s like getting together with people I’ve known most of my life. Somehow we just pick up where we left off. Yeah, of course it’s one way. And yeah, I know all about the difference between a public presentation and the private reality. I know they share what they choose to share, and I know it’s not always about them — heck, some of the time they even distinctly write in character, like “Cold Beer And Remote Control” or “Sister”. They may be writing in character most of the time, albeit less distinctly. I understand that songs aren’t diary entries, that there’s always projection involved, that their lyrics are often quite oblique to begin with. I know I don’t know them, not really. I know all that, and I don’t care. I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about feelings. And how it feels is like we’re catching up.

Album cover for One Lost Day

So what’s going on with Amy and Emily these days? Well, based on One Lost Day, here’s what:

Emily

At this point in her life, Emily is doing a lot of looking back, a lot of evaluating. It seems like no accident that the cover of the album depicts her gazing into a car’s side mirror. Sometimes that rear view takes the form of pleasant reminiscing, as in “Elizabeth”, in which she thinks back on a long-lost friend. Pushing against the grain of today’s commonplace Facebook-driven reunions, she explicitly rejects the notion of reconnection: “I don’t want to look you up, I’m pretty sure it’s just enough / That I remember you fondly.”

Sometimes the recollection feels more painful, more suffused with regret, as in “Alberta,” whose lyrics give the album its title. Where “Elizabeth” recalls joy and carries that into the present, “Alberta” is more fraught — “And as hard as I try I just can’t let it lie / I get the feeling you haven’t quite made it home.” Still, she makes it clear that she’s not wallowing: “Can’t call it sorry, can’t call it sad / Maybe just the same as how a song can take you back / More like that.”

That lyric sums up the tone of most Emily songs on One Lost Day. The songs take her back to a breakup in “Southern California Is Your Girlfriend,” but not with anger: “You just had your plans and they didn’t include me.” Similarly, in “Learned It On Me,” she’s solicited for the kind of reunion she’s avoiding in “Elizabeth.” An ex wants to thank her for how much she learned in the course of her relationship with Emily, because she got all the dysfunction out of her system and now is happy, happy, happy. Not that her ex’s happiness does Emily much good — “I guess I should be happy I’m the course that set you free / I just wish you hadn’t learned it on me.” Even then, she faces the memory with equanimity: “It’s just me and it’s just you / And it’s just the way it goes, and now that book is closed.”

Some memories reach further back, as in “Findlay, Ohio 1968”. Emily’s grandmother really did live in Findlay, and the song is about her memories, but some of the reflections she shares could be from any childhood anywhere in America. The distant outcast girl, the wanderer boy next door, vague impressions of other kids’ household nightmares, station wagon wheels slapping on the turnpike. The Ohio 1968 setting allows Emily to express that strange quality memories can have, the innocence of not knowing what’s coming next, in light of the fuller experience of long life — “In two years time, Ohio would be up in flames” as unarmed college students are mowed down by National Guard rifles at Kent State.

Emily’s songs bookend the album, and while “Elizabeth” is probably her happiest tune in this collection, she also finds a measure of peace in the closer, “Come A Long Way.” As in the others, she’s looking back, but this time it’s a reflection on how much she herself has grown: “All my schemes drowned at the seams / Have left me fine in my own skin.” She’s also come to terms with her religious faith, a faith she’s struggled with in the past, in songs like “Trouble” and “Philosophy of Loss.” “It’s got your name on it” is the recurring verse Amy sings behind Emily’s words, “My name, my shame, my home, everything I own,” and in the liner notes thank-yous Emily makes it clear: “God, it’s got your name on it.”

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers perform at Magnolia Fest at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak Florida on Saturday. October 18, 2014. (Photo by John Davisson/Invision/AP)

Amy

Amy seems pretty happy too, for the most part, though happiness with somebody like Amy is always complicated. She encapsulates that truth beautifully and powerfully in one of the album’s best songs, “Happy In The Sorrow Key.” Over a stirring rock and roll riff, she lays out a travelogue, to England, to Singapore, and to Kingdom Come as she imagines it, each one a spiritual experience of vastness, eternity, divinity. And each time she returns to the contradiction that defines her: “I’m happy in the sorrow key.” It’s a feeling I can relate to myself — somehow the aching, haunting quality of minor key music satisfies my soul in a way that regular do-re-mi can’t match. Amy wouldn’t be Amy without that sense of yearning — it’s what makes her who she is, and she’s happy as she is.

That doesn’t mean her neighbors are doing that well, though. Oh, no indeed. Amy lives in rural Georgia, and she’s been writing about her experiences there for over a decade now. For instance, in 2004’s “Tether”: “I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor / ‘We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong’ / He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter / He said ‘We need a few less words dear, we need a few more guns.'” The theme has continued through a variety of songs, such as “Dirt And Dead Ends”, “Three County Highway”, and the excellent “Rural Faggot” from her 2005 solo album Prom. One Lost Day has a couple more entries in the country tragedy list. “Spread The Pain Around” shows a deeply dysfunctional relationship, the man trapped in his stoicism and alcoholism as the woman struggles to escape but can never quite bring herself to leave. Meanwhile, “Fishtails” tenderly observes a Georgia kid with shreds of innocence trailing, as friends and family lock into familiar grooves of drinking, domestic violence, and desperation.

Speaking of songs that call back to Amy’s solo work, “Olympia Inn” feels like the sequel to “Bus Bus,” from 2008’s Didn’t It Feel Kinder. In “Bus Bus” she’s on that tour bus, feeling lonely, hoping her partner will call, hoping nobody dies while she’s out there. She wonders if she’s pushing her luck, but she’s still hoping to keep the connection. In “Olympia Inn,” things have taken a turn for the worse. She’s on the bus still, or again, but no longer looking forward to that phone call: “She’s gonna call me when she’s down, just to knock me around.” Her stronger connection now is to her driver Johnny, as she pours out her sorrows to him, adding her tears to the pouring rain. She has no regrets about the life she’s chosen — “Oh Johnny, I’ve sung with pleasure / It’s a good life, there is no measure” — but she knows the price she’s paid too, and hopes for a little comfort when it hurts the most. “Hey Johnny, in the morning / When you wake me, call me ‘darling'”.

She also finds solace in activism, and this time around her cause is racial strife, as spelled out in “The Rise Of The Black Messiah.” Sometimes I find Amy’s political songs a bit tiring, kind of like a friend railing on about some justice campaign I don’t feel too attached to. Sure, I support the project, but it can be a bit laborious to hear about repeatedly. This time, though, I’d just finished reading a bunch of slave narratives and postbellum Southern history, as research for my most recent Watchmen article, so I felt a little closer to the subject matter. Even so, I tend to prefer her more personal stuff. She’s passionate, she’s articulate, and I love how much she cares, but I care more about her life than her causes.

“Texas Was Clean” gives me some of that life. Of all Amy’s songs on this album, it’s the one closest to the general nostalgic tone of Emily’s batch of tunes. She takes us to a corner of her heart where she holds a special place for Texas, remembering in pristine reflections how it appeared to her as a child — “as far from the South without getting out.” At first it’s just stray images: “boots on the floor of a barn”, “the gridded green” of a football field, the flickering vision of a horse on her bedpost at night. Then, as life proceeds and expands, she shares another Texas memory from later on — “In the Austin night under vapor lights / You laughed at me then you took me in.” The song itself feels pristine — pure harmonies atop quiet bells and acoustic guitar.

For One Lost Day as a whole, Amy’s songs this time felt just a little bit stronger than Emily’s, but they’re both working at an extremely high level, as they have been for years. It’s another strong album, and another bunch of strong songs, but even better for me, it’s another visit from my old friends Amy and Emily. Always great to hear from them.

Album Assignments: Ramones

Ramones is one of those epochal albums, an album that is said to have Changed Everything. It’s the original pure punk rock record, the one that crystallized a sound which would soon fuel recordings by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and a host of others. Broad generalizations about a scene as complex and multifaceted as rock and roll are always bound to fail, but here goes anyway. When Ramones came out in April 1976, rock was doing its damnedest to become legitimate — singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and James Taylor, theatrical spectacles like Kiss and Alice Cooper, high-fashion glam like David Bowie and Roxy Music, classically intricate prog like King Crimson and Yes, and veterans of 1960s bands working harder and harder to prove their continued relevance. Into the midst of all this grown-up strutting, here come The Ramones with an album that is brazenly, unapologetically, and absurdly adolescent.

Or at least, that’s what I hear when I listen to it today. With all the weight of history it’s accumulated, I find it a little challenging to write about Ramones naively, but the truth is although I knew a lot about it, I never really spent much time listening to it. So when Robby assigned it to me and I put it on repeat, what I kept hearing was, basically, a bunch of smart-aleck kids, but kids who have a fierce and precise dedication to the beat, so much so that everything they do is made to serve that beat.

Ramones album cover

They cranked out one song after another, most of which hew to basically the same formula: brevity, breakneck speed, repetition around a few notes and chords, wilfully dumb lyrics, and above all, a rhythm section that puts a breathtaking rush of energy into every measure. Part of what makes these songs work is the contrast. While the lyrics communicate ennui, or degeneration, or cruelty, or frustrated romance, the music over and over again communicates abandon — joy, recklessness, freedom.

That’s adolescence all over, isn’t it? The songs themselves are like a mental map of a 14-year-old boy in Queens. There’s a fascination with taboo subjects like Nazism (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World”), prostitution (“53rd and 3rd”), and horror movies (“Chain Saw”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”). You’ve got your kid drugs (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), your kid crime (“Judy Is a Punk”), and your kid violence (“Beat On The Brat”, “Loudmouth”). There’s even a CIA-spy fantasy (“Havana Affair”). When it comes to sex, though, the whole thing is quite innocent. Aside from their musical attack, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Listen To My Heart” could have come from 1962. Heck, “Let’s Dance” did come from 1962, and “Judy Is A Punk”‘s “Second verse, same as the first” is a callback straight to Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.”

Maybe it’s a fascination with the British Invasion that explains The Ramones’ phony British-ish accents? For as much as it often sounds like English singers lose their accents when they sing, The Ramones seem to be trying their hardest to come across as English. Listen to the way they sing words like “verse”, “first”, “brat”, or “girl”. Or for that matter, “Hey! Ho!”, which in their hands somehow becomes “‘Ey! ‘Oh!” My favorite manifestation is in “Havana Affair”, in which “banana” sounds like it came from London, and suddenly “Havana” is pure Noo Yawk. On paper the words rhyme, but in the tune they sound completely different from each other.

If they just had their lyrics, The Ramones would be nowhere. With just the tunes and the way they’re sung, they would have a weird charm. But once you get Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums, driving every song like a floored Barracuda, and guitars spitting pure hormonal ecstasy and madness into the increasingly pretentious rock establishment, you get a record that changes history. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

Album Assignments GUEST POST – Robby Herd paints “Art Of McCartney”

Hi all. As I’ve mentioned, the Album Assignments series derives from a biweekly-ish game in which my friend Robby and I trade off assigning an album to each other. I’ve been writing about the experience, and from time to time so has Robby. With his permission, I’d like to share with you his lengthy and imaginative take on The Art Of McCartney. His writing style is pretty different from mine, and sometimes his opinions are too, but I really enjoyed this cross-disciplinary journey through music and visual arts. I hope you do as well. Take it away, Robby!

Claude Monet - Madame Monet And Child (1875)

Claude Monet – Madame Monet And Child (1875)

The Art of McCartney is a perfect title for this Paul McCartney tribute album, an album that has an all-star lineup of artists, new and old. It got me thinking as I began listening to it that each musical artist on the album is also like a visual artist, as they contributed their own unique artistic style to these classic works of McCartney. They offered their brush strokes and paints to their own canvasses, painting McCartney from their own perspectives.

For me, this album symbolizes world famous artists getting together and repainting Monet paintings from their own points of view. McCartney is the Claude Monet of the rock and roll world. His combination of lyrics and music are unmatched, and as years go on his music takes on whole new meanings. Like Monet, if you stand too close, you are not sure about what you see but as you back up and get perspective, those images become more vivid and beautiful. Monet is the master and Paul McCartney is the master. Images of paintings and artworks began to flood my brain as I listened to this tribute album to Monet/McCartney. Here are the artists and the McCartney pictures they painted.

Billy Joel – Maybe I’m Amazed/Live and Let Die

Billy Joel is Paul Gaugin, as he gracefully paints McCartney’s heartfelt lyrics with conviction and respect. Gaugin was a passionate painter who paid very close attention to detail, and Joel is no different with these two classic McCartney songs. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a song that portrays deep devotion for a love that he can’t believe he has. Joel paints this song with much respect to the original, and conveys that meaning with the detail that only Gaugin can bring to his paintings. “Live and Let Die” allows Joel to unleash his emotions a bit, but still in a respectful, detailed way that doesn’t veer from McCartney too much. It works here, and like with any Paul Gaugin painting, I am mesmerized by the beauty and seemingly effortless brush strokes that expose so much meaning.

Bob Dylan – Things We Said Today

Bob Dylan. I could write for days and days about Bob Dylan and the impact he has made on American music. Dylan is Picasso on this classic Beatles song. He is a master painting another master, with his rough voice and fast-paced tempo. Dylan adds importance to this McCartney-penned song, and I felt like I was witnessing something very special and intimate, listening to Picasso paint Monet. Like Picasso, Dylan experimented with many different genres and styles in his life. I pictured Picasso-Dylan painting Monet landscapes in his cubist style throughout “Things We Said Today” and the result was one legend lending his devotion to another legend.

Heart – Band on the Run/Letting Go

Mary Cassatt was a pioneer in the male-dominated art world. She found her own unique voice and talent, painting private moments of women and their children in France. She captivated people and created an intimate relationship with her subjects and her admirers. Heart is Mary Cassatt in “Band on the Run.” They capture the intimate feel that song has when they sing, “but we never will be found.” The Wilsons were pioneers in the music industry, and they have always done things their own way, creating their own place in rock history. They paint both these McCartney paintings with precision and clarity, and make them their own. “Letting Go” is like what Cassatt would have done with “Madame Monet and Child,” to turn it into “In the Garden”. Heart took that intimate Monet painting and turned it into their own intimate portrait, but still honing the original master’s work. They are amazing, how they can cut to the chase with their aggressive lyrics and straight-ahead style. A bittersweet song about wanting to move on but holding onto the past is captured masterfully, like only Cassatt can paint and only the Wilsons can perform.

Steve Miller – Junior’s Farm/Hey Jude

I was struck how good Steve Miller sounds now. His clean, crisp vocals sound like he just came from the same session where he recorded his 1977 classic Fly Like an Eagle album. Miller conjures up clear images for me, as he reveals and unwraps the lyrics on “Hey Jude” like a Norman Rockwell painting. He humanizes Jude and shows compassion in the style that Rockwell was known for. He lends his All-American style to the McCartney tunes and I really enjoyed the ride.

Cat Stevens/Yusuf – The Long and Winding Road

For me, this is the definitive song about the breakup of the Beatles. It’s beautifully crafted and melancholy at the same time. Yusuf brilliantly adds his brush strokes of beautiful tones with intelligence and dignity. Rembrandt would often paint people and his portraits would look into their souls and capture them. This version of “Long” does that for me. It’s full of compassion and conviction. I can tell that the meaning of this bittersweet McCartney song is not lost on the former Cat Stevens.

Harry Connick Jr. – My Love

This one is easy! Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec painted with class and grace, and “My Love” is such a smooth, dreamy kind of song. Connick is right on with the mood of the song and he adds a touch of class to the McCartney love ballad with easy flowing brush strokes on the canvas. As I listened to Connick’s “My Love”, I kept picturing the intimacy of Lautrec’s “In Bed.” A brilliant painting of love and innocence, it parallels the innocent and simple love that McCartney portrays in this song as he is convincing himself that “My love does it good.” This version of “My Love” is Lautrec painting “Water Lilies” with the same paint he used for “In Bed.”

Brian Wilson – Wanderlust

This was one of my favorites on the entire album. Brian Wilson captures this underrated McCartney tune with the enthusiasm of Winslow Homer and his amazing seascape paintings. Wilson brilliantly captures McCartney’s angst of love but at the same time there is that Paul trademark optimistic view of love as well. “Where did I go wrong, my love?” “What better time to find a brand new day?” The song is full of turbulence and uncertainty, and Wilson conjures images of waves and restlessness for our heartbroken victim, but you know that somehow, he will be ok. This version of Wanderlust is Winslow Homer painting the master Monet in a style of “Breaking Wave.” It’s brilliant!

Winslow Homer - Breaking Wave (Prout's Neck) (1887)

Winslow Homer – Breaking Wave (Prout’s Neck) (1887)

Bluebird – Corinne Bailey Rae

This was too light and uninspired for me. She has a good voice, but she seems to not appreciate Monet’s contribution to the world. Rae is Marcel Duchamp, a French Dada artist. It’s emotionless and without heart. Bluebird deserves better.

Yesterday – Willie Nelson

The most covered song in history has a C.M. Russell quality to it. I never grow tired of this McCartney masterpiece. Yesterday is Monet’s “Water Lilies.” It’s beautiful and timeless. McCartney’s Lilies are painted by legendary country and western artist Willie Nelson. His rough voice lends respect and importance to McCartney’s words. He paints “Yesterday” with a quality of western art in a unique style that only Russell could paint “Water Lilies.” I have always loved how Russell can capture a moment in time and at the same time make the moment his own. That is exactly what Willie did here and it really works for me. It’s tender with a western edge.

Junk – Jeff Lynne

The former ELO front man paints a picture of Monet’s “Junk” with sharp, smooth abstract brush strokes like Diego Rivera. “Junk,” which was originally slotted for the White Album, is painted with love and devotion for McCartney. I enjoyed Lynne’s signature on this one and it shows how much the master influenced his music and artistry.

When I’m 64 – Barry Gibb

I found myself enjoying this version with its simple vocals and yet pleasing approach. This is Pop Art. Gibb is Andy Warhol here as he paints Monet. I am always surprised how much I like looking at soup cans when I think I shouldn’t, and Gibb sings “64” like Warhol paints. I know I shouldn’t like it, but I just can’t help myself.

Every Night – Jamie Cullum

“Every Night” is a gem from McCartney’s repertoire that deals with life as a Beatle – trying to create a balance between the rock lifestyle as a member of the biggest band ever and the desire to live a normal life. “But tonight I just want to stay in and be with you” typifies how McCartney felt at times when he was with the Beatles. Jamie Cullum has a thoughtful mix of vocals that betray both the frustration and the optimism that the song produces. To me, he is Paul Cezanne, pleasant and introspective.

Venus and Mars – Kiss

This remake is a perfect marriage as the rock band Kiss takes the McCartney classic and turns “Mars” into a Kiss song. Kiss is Jackson Pollock in this song as the paint/music is coming right at you with no apology. It is unordered and rebellious and that is what Kiss, McCartney and Pollock can be at their best.

Let Me Roll It – Paul Rodgers

This version has conviction and precision. It’s free-flowing. Henri Matisse painted people by capturing their essence, with jazz-like brush strokes that highlighted their bodies but made you look deep into their soul. “Let me Roll It” is Matisse’s “Le Rifain assis” to me. Rodgers and Matisse have always made art that is freelance and loose but at the same time with focus, clarity, and a personal touch. Rodgers/Matisse does a beautiful job here paying tribute to McCartney/Monet with his own unique style but at the same time reverence for his hero.

Helter Skelter – Roger Daltrey

The Who’s front man packs a punch that is fierce, energetic and full of conviction on the Beatles classic “Helter Skelter.” Daltrey takes command of this song and makes it his own rock opera. Camille Pissarro would take a French landscape or a café in Paris and make it his own as well. Daltrey is Pissarro in every way to me in this song. Pissarro, like Daltrey to McCartney, was a contemporary of Monet and he had the utmost respect for Monet, but at the same time was very confident with who he was and his role in the French Impressionist movement. The Who have never apologized for who they are and they have created a very influential place in rock history alongside the Beatles. Roger Daltrey with “Helter” is Camille Pissarro painting Monet’s “Sunrise” in the style of “Eragny.” It’s bold, flaming colors and music coming right at ya. This is one of my favorite tributes on the entire albums as he honors McCartney and doesn’t compromise who is as an artist. That is who Camille Pissarro was and Roger Daltrey is: original, uncompromising and taking a backseat to nobody!

Camille Pissarro - The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

Camille Pissarro – The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

Hi, Hi, Hi – Joe Elliott/Helen Wheels – Def Leppard

Both interpretations of these Mac songs seemed very formatted; they lacked risk and originality. Elliott and the band seemed unwilling to take a risk, and very concerned to not disturb the original versions of the songs. Donatello (not the turtle) was always very detailed with his sculptures and also very concerned about sculpting exact replicas of his subjects, which were mostly historical figures like King David, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I think Elliott’s admiration for his hero got in the way of his creativity and left these two songs uninspired and scripted. I would have been better off just listening to these McCartney songs and skipping these remakes. I’ll take Monet painting Monet over Donatello painting Monet anytime.

Hello Goodbye – The Cure/C Moon – Robert Smith

“Hello Goodbye” has been turned into a melted clock forever by the Cure. The Cure has created a dreamlike world with their music and they scream out Salvador Dali to me. Smith’s haunting, surrealist vocals splash the canvas of “Hello Goodbye” and “C Moon.” Dali could forever change perception of reality and that is what Robert Smith did with these two songs. He distorted the reality of these McCartney staples and put his own stamp on them, and I love it! Smith painted Monet’s “Jardin à Sainte-Adresse” with a Dali brush, and the end result is something new, exciting and unforgettable.

Let it Be – Chrissie Hynde

This McCartney masterpiece is one of Monet’s most famous and honored works. Chrissie Hynde lends beauty, imagination and insight to the canvas. This “Let it Be” pays respects to Sir Paul but at the same time the Pretenders’ lead singer adds spunk and spin to it. Like a beautiful painting that I can’t stop looking at, this version leaves me wanting to hear more of it. Hynde is Georgia O’Keeffe, the way she leaves a gorgeous impression with everything she sings. O’Keeffe’s style lends itself to immediate recognition – the moment you see one, you say, “That is an O’Keeffe.” That is what “Let it Be” is to me on this album. From the first note you say, “It’s Chrissie Hynde, wow, that’s beautiful. ”

Jet – Cheap Trick

Edward Manet would often get confused with Claude Monet because of just one letter that separated their last names. Well, there is no way you can confuse Cheap Trick with Paul McCartney but Cheap Trick to me is the Manet to Paul’s Monet. They are clean and fun and they have never taken their music too seriously. Manet would always paint people with certain a hint of mischief in their faces. His most famous painting, “The Spanish Singer,” depicts a Spanish singer who is playing his guitar in his torn shoes. Manet also caused a scandal when he painted a nude woman in “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” in 1863. Manet never took himself too seriously. There is always an underlying level of light atmosphere in both Cheap Trick and Manet, and “Jet” was performed like Manet paints; with a focus on his subjects but with a level of mystery about what they will do next.

Listen to What the Man Says – Owl City

This version of “Man” is too clean-cut and poppy for me. This did nothing for me. That is exactly how I feel about Keith Haring’s art. Owl City is uninspired Pop Art. This is Haring painting Monet — do I need to say more?

Got to Get You Into My Life – Perry Farrell

This is chaos with form. Farrell puts this magical Beatles song together with an abstract voice. It’s an abstract painting with colliding images, intelligently painted by Wassily Kandinsky. Kadinsky creating a Monet is pleasant to my ears and eyes, and it left me wanting to hear more of Farrell creating his Kadinsky of McCartney.

Drive My Car – Dion

Here is a marriage I thought I would never see: Dion, a 50’s original rocker, singing a McCartney song in 2015. There is nothing surprising here, though, as Dion lays the track with precision and a somewhat predictable singing style. He sings the song with clarity and respect; you can tell there is no doubt that McCartney has influenced him musically and this song was a way for him to pay his respects to the master. Dion is Rembrandt on this classic Beatles tune. Rembrandt would paint people of his time with respect and detail. That is what Dion does with “Drive My Car.” This is Rembrandt painting Monet’s “Self Portrait.” I can see in my mind’s eye the detail and devotion he put into the painting as he sings “Drive My Car” like sending a personal thank you to Paul and his inspiration. Dion was a pioneer in the late 50’s and early 60’s as he created a sound that is present in future works by many artists. The same can be said about Rembrandt. I think it’s fair to say that Rembrandt influenced Monet in a certain way and that Dion influenced McCartney and the way he approached his music as well.

Lady Madonna – Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint is a very respected jazz musician who is known for his unique, smooth voice and beautiful piano playing. He was a major contributor on McCartney’s “Venus and Mars” album and has the admiration of Sir Paul. I found this version of “Lady Madonna” to be understated and filled with beauty and soul. He captures feeling and mood in the song the way Edgar Degas would capture the heart and soul of ballet dancers in France. Degas’ trademark was his paintings of dancers, and I have always thought he was very underrated as a painter. He found beauty in the movement of dancers, and no two paintings of these dancers were alike. Toussaint found a way to create beauty with his jazz piano and velvety voice, and he takes “Madonna” and makes it his own. I was moved by what I heard. Degas adding ballet dancers to one of Monet’s French countryside paintings is what we have here with “Lady Madonna.”

Let Em In – Dr. John

Dr. John is one of a kind. I have never heard a voice quite like his and a style like his. He’s almost irreverent as he belts out the early Wings tune. It’s done with such a different tone that it works for me. This remake reminds me of the pointillism style that Georges Seurat would paint with. The way Dr. John barks out “Someone’s knocking at the door” is unique and it has his signature on it, just like Seurat would lend his signature to the specialized style of pointillism. These styles don’t work for most, but they both work for these art legends.

So Bad – Smokey Robinson

I have never been a big fan of this McCartney song. However, legend Smokey Robinson lends class and importance to this song. Smokey is Da Vinci, as he paints Monet with smooth acryclic paint and years of wisdom. He took a Monet painting that I didn’t especially like and put his own talent onto repainting into a beautiful work that only Da Vinci could paint. For me this is Da Vinci painting “Grainstack (Sunset),” lending it the passion with which he painted “St. John the Baptist,” with all its energy and devotion.

No More Lonely Nights – Airborne Toxic Event

I really enjoyed Airborne’s take on this 80’s Mac tune. They sang this one like Edward Hopper paints. He paints with fresh, exciting colors that capture an ordinary place with new eyes and a new perspective. Take a look at Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and “Hotel Lobby” – that is what Airborne does with “Lonely Nights.” It’s an exciting new take. They seize the moment in “Lonely Nights” and take it! Hopper is a master at capturing moments as well. This is what it looks like to have Hopper paint one of Monet’s later works.

Edward Hopper - Hotel Lobby (1943)

Edward Hopper – Hotel Lobby (1943)

Eleanor Rigby – Alice Cooper

It’s surreal to hear Alice Cooper sing “Eleanor Rigby.” Cooper has always been able to mix rock and roll with fantasy, and this version of “Rigby” was trippy and surreal to me. This is why Cooper is surrealist painter Rene Magritte in this song. Magritte would mix the dream world with the real world, and the result is Alice Cooper singing “Eleanor Rigby. This was the first thing I thought of, as this will be the closest I ever get to seeing what a Monet painting might look like if Magritte painted it.

Come and Get It – Toots Hibbert with Sly and Robbie

This is totally uninspiring and plain to me. This remake lets McCartney down. There is no creativity in this song. It’s plain and unremarkable. This is a Mark Rothko painting. Plain colors stacked on each other. The vocals are stacked on each other and it doesn’t belong on this album. Rothko has no business painting Monet and Toots and company have no business covering Sir Paul.

On the Way – BB King

This might be the best version of McCartney’s covers on this entire album. BB Kings sings with all he has! It’s poetic that McCartney developed this song off of McCartney II as a tribute to the blues and King honors this tune and the true spirit of its birth. There is no better person to play the blues than the King of Blues. King is Van Gogh on this tune as he made “On the Way” come to life with bright tones and vivid images. He paints “Water Lilies” with the fierceness of “The Starry Night.” It’s beautiful and timeless, and it’s a great tribute to BB King and the massive contribution he made to American blues.

Birthday – Sammy Hagar

I have always considered Sammy Hagar a bit on the abstract side. Stay with me for a minute before you scoff at my assessment. Everything he sings he puts his own spin on it and makes it his own. That is what an abstract artist does. “Birthday” is fun and it’s painted with Sammy abstract style and it puts a smile on my face. He is Paul Klee to me, painting Monet in a playful way. It’s like Klee painting Monet’s “Beach at Pourville” like he painted “Dancing Girl” or “Blossoms in the Night.” It would put a smile on my face.

Put it There – Peter, Bjorn and John

“Put it There” has never done much for me. Its tone is mundane and plain and I have never been very interested in its lyrics or musical arrangement and the overall feel for this song from Flowers in the Dirt. This is exactly how I feel about this updated version from Peter, Bjorn and John. It’s uninteresting, and does not do anything for me. I saw an exhibit many years ago of several artists at the Denver Art Museum. One of the featured artists was Carl Andre. His floor layouts and room sculptures left me completely unsatisfied and not interested at all. This is far from McCartney’s best work, but the trio did nothing to add to it. This is Carl Andre interpreting one of Monet’s lesser works.

This album was like walking through a Claude Monet exhibit that honored the great artist with remakes of many of his famous works redone by some of the world’s most famous artists. As I listened, I saw the interpretations in my head and it was one of the most fun journeys I have ever taken inside my head listening to an album. It also reminded me what a genius Paul McCartney is, and how he has changed the landscape of music for so many people. It’s impossible to measure the impact he has made on every person who loves the arts and the inspiration he has given to the world. Yes, the same can be said for Claude Monet!

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 19 – Comin’ For To Carry Me Home

Before you read any further, please heed this warning: Watchmen spoilers ahead!

As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.

However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:

Panel from Watchmen. Close-up on Rorschach shaking sugar cubes from a can onto the counter. Each cube is individually wrapped, with an S stamped on it. Dreiberg is visible behind Rorschach. Rorschach: That's right. Human bean juice. Ha ha. Badge belonged to the Comedian. Blood too. He's dead.

The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:

The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)

Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”

Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels.

First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.

Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.

There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”

Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.

When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.

Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 11, page 3. A bleak Antarctic landscape, with two riders in the very far distance. A fierce wind blows an empty sugar cube wrapper, stamped with an S, into the foreground.

However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2

Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.

However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”

The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.

There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?

A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.

This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 2, page 11. The Comedian's gloved hand holds a lighter, burning Nelson's display of the United States, with labels affixed reading Promiscuity, Drugs, Anti-War Demos, and Black Unrest.

By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.

The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:

Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.

It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.

In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?

There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:

Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.

This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.

Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.

Previous Entry: A Real Rain

Endnotes

1 Negro Spirituals: From Bible To Folk Song, pg. 29. [Back to post]

2 Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water, pg. 28. [Back to post]

3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.

But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]