Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Georgia Theatre: In Memoriam

For those of you who have been away in the remotes of Argentina the past week, the landmark Georgia Theatre burned down last Friday. The cause of the fire is still unknown, and the place was consumed quickly. As I read on a message board, if you take a wooden building that old with no sprinklers, soak it in alcohol for thirty years and light a flame, the results are inevitable.

Even though the Theatre with its frequent jam and cover bands didn't always cater to my tastes, I still mourn its passing. In tribute, I'd like to list a few of my favorite memories about my experiences there:

-The first show I ever legally saw in Athens was Dreams So Real at there, about a week after I turned 18 in 1990. This was when they had that bar smack in the middle of the place when you walked in. It was one of those moments that actually felt as important at the time as it really was.

- Seeing Social Distortion there around 1992 with all the scary skinheads and inadvertently getting my buddy Trey clocked by one (read the gory details here)

- The infamous GWAR show that was shut down for obscenity by the ACC police which ended up with the city defending itself in a (losing) lawsuit

- Dancing onstage with NYC ska band The Toasters and running into my future wife onstage while skanking.

Those are off the top of my head, and I'm sure many more will arise the more I reflect upon it. The last show I saw there was in 2008 when I saw The New Pornographers and got to see and hear Neko Case live, so that's a fine way to bow out. I also had tickets to see Jenny Lewis there July 1st, but that has since been rescheduled for the 40 Watt.

I'm also thankful my son got to experincve the Theatre a mere week before it burned when he saw a Beatles cover band play a special all-ages show (and, no, he didn't have a 32 oz beer). It's great that Quinn has now been to both the 40Watt (seeing Uncle Monsterface last summer) and was at the Theatre. He's an Athenian through-and-through.

So, in the comments, share with us some of your memorable shows and experiences with the Theatre. Hopefully, the preliminary talk of rebuilding will be seen through and we will have more great shows to remember in the future.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Young Americans" / David Bowie / Best of Bowie 1974-1979

Bowie is another one of those artists I enjoy because he keeps things fresh. He may be second only to Madonna (or third to Neil Young) in the many iterations of his musical and performing personality over the years.

My first experiences with Bowie remind me of how I also encountered Bruce Springsteen, through 80’s pop radio. Like many Xer’s, I initially heard of him through the singles “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” (which, if you remember, got lots of press for being scandalous) I recall the media making a big deal about David Bowie suddenly becoming an MTV star, but couldn’t figure out what the big deal was supposed to be about him.

On a totally unrelated note – I distinctly remember being at a neighbor’s house watching the “Let’s Dance” video, and having one of the kids say, “You know he gives blow jobs on stage”. I had NO idea what blow job was, but not wanting to appear lame in front of a cool older kid, said, “Yeah, I know”. Then, of course, he says, “Do you even know what a blow job is?” “Sure”, I say, seeing the hole I am digging for myself yet not avoiding it. “Well, what is it?” And I think that’s the point at which I excused myself and ran home.

Later, I would get the gist of it after Bowies released possibly the most homoerotic video in history, a cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger.

As I grew up and started delving into classic rock via 96 Rock, I started seeing what more there was out there. I heard “Suffragette City” once and remember thinking, “Oh, that’s David Bowie too?” Then all the 70’s hits seemed to start pouring in and giving me a more complete picture – “Fame”, “Golden Years”, “Heroes”, “Space Oddity”, etc. You know all the ones.

This particular song I got off a two-CD compilation “The Best of Bowie”, which I bought because it had some deep cuts there which I found to be just as great as the radio hits (“TVC 15”, “DJ”, “Boys Keep Swinging”). I’ll admit that my Bowie knowledge is not where it should be, and I need to buy some albums to remedy that. I borrowed “Aladdin Sane” from a co-worker once based on liking “Panic in Detroit” which, for some odd reason, a local radio station decided to put in heavy rotation.

Today, much like I mentioned with Cash in the last post, you can hardly find an artist or big-time music fan that doesn’t claim an appreciation for David Bowie. He even got down with the kids in the 90’s with a Trent Reznor collaboration (and the less said about Tin Machine, the better).

In “Young Americans”, Bowie goes Soul. With the opening drumbeats, piano flourish, and especially the saxophone styling (a key element of this song), you can immediately tell you’re a ways away from the glam of “Ziggy Stardust”. The soul touches continue throughout the song with Bowie’s phrasing and delivery, the syncopated beat, and most of all the background singers, who, along with the sax, hit the song’s hook with their “All night / all right” refrain (and check their quick shoutout to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” at 2:14 – “I heard the news today, oh boy”)

I had to take a look at the lyrics for this song. It’s one of those you’ve heard over and over, but don’t have a clue what the words are or what it’s about (at least for me). For instance, I thought he was always singing “She was a young American”, but it’s actually “She wants a young American”. The “she” of the song is a character he follows though the duration of the song, starting with the first verse:

They pulled in just behind the bridge
He lays her down, he frowns
"Gee my life's a funny thing
Am I still too young?"
He kissed her then and there
She took his ring, took his babies
It took him minutes, took her nowhere
Heaven knows, she'd have taken anything

That’s much more serious subject matter than I suspected this to be about. In fact, this seems as if it’s a song that’s commonly misunderstood as a celebration of American youth culture, where actually it’s an exploration of the loss of the American dream (see “Born in the USA” for another famous example). Check out the middle verse:

Have you have been an un-American?
Just you and your idol singing falsetto 'bout
Leather, leather everywhere, and
Not a myth left from the ghetto
Well, well, well, would you carry a razor
In case, just in case of depression?
Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the afro-Sheeners
Ain't that close to love?
Well, ain't that poster love?
Well, it ain't that Barbie doll
Her heart's been broken just like you have

That’s pretty bleak isn’t it? Let’s keep in mind too, that this was written in 1974, right after Watergate (“Do you remember your President Nixon?”) when America was thought to be shooting straight down the tubes. Taking the song from that “loss of innocence” theme, the repetition of “She wants a young American” looks to be a yearning for a more untainted, optimistic outlook for her, and by extension, her generation and entire country. The upbeat nature of the music only serves to make it palatable to the listener and subversively slip that idea within it as you’re grooving along.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"On The Evening Train" / Johnny Cash / American V: A Hundred Highways

As I'm sure anyone who reads this blog is aware, the Rick Rubin produced American series completely revived Johnny Cash's career and changed him from a marginal (but influential) washed-up country artist into a full-fledged American icon. It's hard to recall now, but the prevailing thought at the time when news was coming about about this collaboration was, bluntly, "What the fuck?" That first American album, though, traced a direct line to the biopic "Walk the Line", if you think about it. (And here, I must implore you, if you haven't seen the movie "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and it's Cash / Carter parody scene, please do so posthaste).

But now, do you know anyone that doesn't like Johnny Cash? I think any musician from any genre of music will tell you that, at the very least, they appreciate the guy's mettle, individualism and spirit.

That's right, Mofos...

Rubin's formula for Cash was to basically strip his sound down completely. Most songs in the American series are only Cash's voice, sounding haunted and carrying the weight of years of hard living, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and perhaps a piano or other instrument for shades of color. He also had Cash primarily cover songs by other artists with the exception of maybe one original or re-recording each album. The most memorable of these, of course, is his take on Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt", which, with the incredible accompanying video, Cash made his own forever.

It's a formula that was obviously successful, duplicated by Jack White with Loretta Lynn, and a little less successfully again (commercially, not critically) by Rubin with Neil Diamond.

"On The Evening Train" is a cover of a Hank Williams song, but it's impossible not to read Cash's life into it. Many of the songs on American V deal, literally or symbolically, with death - Springsteen's "Further Up the Road", "God's Gonna Cut You Down", "A Legend in My Time" by Don Gibson, "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now"(a re-recoding of his own song). Of course, with Cash nearing the end of his life during his American recordings, it was only natural for him to explore that theme (though it could be argued that was always one of his major subjects).

"On The Evening Train" has a narrator who is simply watching the casket of his wife being loaded onto a train with his infant son. Even though the song tells us in the first verse "...they're taking Mama on the evening train", it's not until halfway through the song in the second verse that he mentions the "Long white casket in the baggage coach" (harsh!), which is jarring if you don't know it's coming (I didn't).

The lines where you can read again into Cash's life occur in the final verse -
I pray that God will give me courage
To carry on til we meet again
It's hard to know she's gone forever

It' hard not to believe he's singing about June Carter Cash, his longtime wife and love, who passed away before he did. It makes an already sad song even more poignant.

Interestingly, out of the four verses, the first is from a third person point-of-view, while the other three are first person, from the man whose wife has died. Intentional or not? What's the narrative purpose there? Another question - why is the dead wife's casket being loaded on a train? Where is she being buried? Why isn't there a funeral at the place where the family lives?

Anyway, here's the song (nothing happens in this homemade video. It's a train and....a train. But at least you get to hear it.)