Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sax-y Pop Songs of the 1980s

This week brought the sad news of session musician Raphael Ravenscroft's death.  In case you didn't know, he was the man behind the saxophone riff on "Baker Street," perhaps the most iconic pop song sax riff of all time.  I've made my love of this song and its deeper meaning a subject of an earlier post, and I still mean every word.  That 1978 hit must have had a big impact on record producers, since the saxophone suddenly started appearing all over the hit records of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Of course, the sax had been huge in fifties R&B and rock and roll, and Motown players like Junior Walker could use it to wicked effect on songs like "Shotgun."  Pink Floyd brought in Dave Parry on their monumental Dark Side of the Moon album, where his sax really added something extra to their sound on tunes like "Money" and "Us and Them."  However, the only rock band with a consistent sax presence was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, where the "Big Man" Clarence Clemons' honking sax played a crucial role on "Born To Run" and "Rosalita."

Once "Baker Street" hit, the saxophone suddenly became a ubiquitous record producer tool.  In 1979 Supertramp hit it big with their Breakfast in America album, and saxophone offers crucial texture to "The Logical Song" and other tracks.  Other bands that didn't feature sax jumped on the bandwagon.  Take for instance cock rockers Foreigner, who had ridden to fame on sweaty-riffed odes to coitus like "Hot Blooded."  On their 1981 4 album their sound got a post-New Wave update on "Urgent," with its keyboards, metronomic beat, and effects-laden guitar.  What put it over the top was an absolutely savage saxophone solo by Junior Walker.  It screams and wails and communicates burning desire much more immediately than Lou Gramm's typically overblown vocals.  Without that solo I don't think this song is a hit.

As the 80s ground on, the sax was everywhere, often showing up on solo breaks, rather than as the main melodic instrument.  It fulfills this role on Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," where the solo gives the song that extra little degree of 80s-tastiticness to put it over the top.  Similarly, just as "True" by Spandau Ballet gets too frothy for its own good *bam!* here comes the saxophone.  Former Eagle Glenn Frey managed to briefly crawl out of the polyester ooze of the 1970s and nail the Zeitgeist of the mid-1980s with two sax-driven hits: "The Heat Is On" and "You Belong To The City."  I swear that for a two year stretch whenever my mom picked me up from Wednesday night CCD (where public school Catholics like myself got our catechism) this song came on the radio every single time.  Perhaps the DJ on that shift just really liked it.  In any case, the sax riff on this song might be the "Baker Street" of the 1980s.

The one other contender for the title is "Careless Whisper," the song that bridged George Michael's time in Wham! and his solo career.  This is the kind of song that I am ashamed to admit a fondness for, but this saxophone riff cannot be denied.  It dominates from the start, and I've been hearing it at malls and airports for almost thirty years now despite the downer subject matter of the song.  It's a sound so distinctive that when I hear it and other songs with that sax sound I'm instantly transported back to the 80s, whether I like it or not.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Footnote on Suburban Fear

It seems like I'm not the only person out there thinking about the power of fear and its connect to suburban living spaces this week.  Today Sarah Kendzior and Umar Lee published a brilliant article on the dynamics of fear in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area.  They interview many local residents, who are more than happy to cop to their racialized fears and their support of Darren Wilson.  This piece is essential reading.

America's suburbanization is a disastrously failed experiment of massive proportions.  The sprawl contributes to our environmental problems, social atomization, and racial segregation and inequality.  And yet it won't of away, and I now find myself complicit in it as a suburb dweller, mostly because the city I work in (NYC) has become prohibitively expensive.  It is time for progressive-minded suburbanites to push for change in this environment, to challenge segregation and the attitude that feeds it, namely that suburbanites refuse to believe that they share a common fate with urbanites.  If that mental wall can be torn down, maybe some real progress can be made.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Suburbia Is America's Fear Factory

I've been writing a lot about fear these last weeks because the panic over Ebola has demonstrated fear's massive and destructive power in this country.  Fear is what got the PATRIOT Act passed after 9/11.  Fear makes the people of this country accept unprecedented intrusions into their privacy.  Fear has long been one of the most potent factors in the continuation of white supremacy.

Fear's roots run deep and are evident in the most mundane structures of our daily lives.  Nowhere is this more visible than in the vast, endless sprawl of American suburbia, America's fear factory.  Of course, suburban America is hardly monochromatic today, and many suburbs (like the one where I reside) can be racially diverse and relatively open-minded.  However, this is not the case with broad swaths of the sprawl, either here in New Jersey or elsewhere.  For example, I've heard tell of multiple denizens of sprawlville saying that they were putting off trips to New York City because they were afraid of ISIS attacks.  In the very safe and quiet suburb where she works there are people who live in fortress-like gated communities with the belief that the leafy suburban streets are too mean for their tastes.  Back when I lived in Newark and encountered people who lived in sprawlville their faces would scrunch in barely disguised disgust when I told them I lived in Newark.  When I told them I liked it there, they looked like they thought I was deranged.

Those anecdotes are hardly surprising, since suburbia was founded in fear.  Fear of the "other," fear of "them," fear of urban ways of living.  In some cases, like on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, suburbia meant the building of literal walls to keep out the people of color whom whites had taken flight from.  On streets that border Newark in my current town of Maplewood, residents blocked them off, ostensibly to prevent speeding cars taking them as a shortcut, but I wonder.  There's a suburban town where some of my wife's relatives live that's overwhelmingly white, but most of the times I see the cops pulling someone over, the drivers of the cars are African American.

American suburbanites are experts in finding new things to be afraid of.  In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the idea that going to the city meant risking having your ankle tendons slashed by gang members hiding beneath your car.  (This one was widespread in Nebraska when I was young, supposedly it was a common gang initiation.)  Nowadays I hear residents of sprawlville speak fearfully of the much hyped "knockout game."  In the 1970s and 1980s it was the bogus fear of strangers tampering with Halloween candy.  In suburbia no one can be trusted, everything outside of everyone's little castle is a potential threat to fear.  The fear is pervasive and never-ending, built into the very DNA of the place.

A majority of Americans live in suburbs.  While not all of those people live in suburbs according to the stereotype of them as white, middle-class autotopias a la Nassau County, a very large contingent do.  Is it any surprise that we are a country ruled by fear when such a large number of its citizens live in communities whose very raison d'etre is fear itself?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Track of the Week: Genesis, "Carpet Crawlers"

There is probably no genre of music that I have changed my mind over more dramatically than prog rock.  I became enchanted by punk's raw energy as a teenager, and according to punk's interpretation of rock history, I saw prog as apostasy.  Instead of heart and rough power it was all musical wanking, daft lyrics, and overcooked silliness.  Recently I've begun to actually enjoy a lot of 70s prog rock, since despite its drawbacks it often contains a musical complexity and creative daring missing in other forms of rock music.  My growing appreciation for jazz also might have something to do with this change of mind.

Genesis has become my favorite of the prog bands, at least in their Peter Gabriel version.  (Although I will admit a fondness for "Abacab," "Turn It On Again," and "That's All.")  I could also say Steve Hackett version of Genesis, since his guitar playing really blows me away on a consistent basis and was a crucial part of the band's sound before they went pop.  Gabriel's swan song with the band was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, perhaps the strangest and most ambitious rock opera of its time.  It tells the story of how Rael, a Puerto Rican, graffiti artist youth living in New York gets sucked into another realm via the subway tunnels and must confront strange beasts and his own innermost self.  The concept gets a little ridiculous in places, but I tend to focus on the music rather than the lyrics.

"Carpet Crawlers" is ostensibly about horrid creatures Rael sees, but the song is really more a way to transport the listener into a focused mind space.  It has become my favorite to listen to while riding my commuter train into Manhattan in the eerie pre-dawn darkness.  Gabriel shows off his underrated voice in a warm, understated fashion that I find to be sublime when combined with the pretty Debussy-esque keyboard accompaniment and gently keening guitar.  Yes, the lyrical content is indeed daft and the musicianship a bit wanky, but the overall experience I take away from this song is the thrill of brushing against something truly, heart-breakingly beautiful.  Not many other songs can do that for me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Top Ten Road Movies

Back on my old blog I had a tendency to write a lot of listicles, before Buzzfeed ran the genre into the ground via self-parody.  I'm reposting my list of top ten road movies in large part because I recently took advantage of a 50% off sale at the Criterion Collection to finally buy Two-Lane Blacktop, one the great buried treasure of American cinema, and my favorite road flick.  Also, I have been missing the presence of the road in my life.  Growing up in Nebraska, the road was a necessary part of life, since everything was so far apart.  In college I spent most of my weekends in a van traveling to far-flung debate tournaments.  After leaving Nebraska after college coming home meant long drives from Illinois, Michigan, and Texas.  I grew to appreciate them as moments of meditation to the point where I would sometimes drive from Texas to New Jersey when going to stay with my wife for the summer (when we were still long-distance.)  Now that I'm settled in New Jersey in the nation's crowded Northeast corridor with two toddlers not yet up for long stretches in the car, I feel estranged from the road that was such an important part of my life.  My best connection these days are the following ten films:

1. Two-lane Blacktop. First, let me be clear. Other films on this list are better movies than Two-Lane Blacktop, but none is a better road movie. No other film captures the silences and repetition of long distance driving, or that wonderful feeling of entering a higher state of consciousness after driving hundreds of miles. It came out in 1971, and probably does a better job than any other film of capturing the ennui that beset the counterculture after the death of the hippie dream. Yes, the acting by first timers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson is as wooden as the HMS Bounty, but the highly underrated Warren Oates gives one of his best efforts.

2. Five Easy Pieces. A year before Two-Lane Blacktop, Jack Nicholson gave one of his most memorable performances in this story of a declasse musician who goes back home to the Pacific Northwest from the oil fields of Texas. It rates this high for two reasons. In the first place, it contains the best scene ever set in a roadside diner and one of Nicholson's most famous. Second, it gets at the reasons for the prevalence of the road movie in American cinema. America has long been a transitory nation, a nation of mobility and re-invention where the past can be escaped via a flight down the road. The film's finale very aptly and tragically shows how the road can be an escape hatch from responsibility.

3. Smokey and the Bandit. You didn't think these would all be art films, did you? What's more compelling than the quest of two men to haul a load of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in short time while being foiling the "high speed pursuit" of a stereotypically stupid, bigoted Southern sherriff? It's got a soundtrack full of seventies country music goodness from Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings, and Sally Field at her spunkiest. If that's not enough, you get to see the wondrously funky automobile known as the Trans-Am do all kinds of crazy jumps.

4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? In my opinion this is the funniest movie the Coens ever did by a country mile. If you don't think so, then you're just "dumber than a bag of hammers" as Ulysees Everett McGill would say. It might barely qualify as a road movie, but since it's based on the Odyssey, the original road/travel saga, I'm putting it on the list. Just for that and the belly laugh I get during the scenes when George Nelson is outracing the cops. (Just for the Hell of it, watch it in Turkish.)

5. Vanishing Point. If it wasn't for the irksome intrustion of homophobia into the middle of this 1971 flick, it'd rate even higher on the list. It's the story of Kowalski, a former racer, soldier, and cop who has quit the square life because "speed means freedom of the soul." (It also inpired my favorite song by Primal Scream.) He takes some aphmetamines and makes a bet that he can transport a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in only fifteen hours, which makes him a target for the fuzz. The whole way he is guided by another social outcast, a blind DJ and kind of Greek chorus named Super Soul, played to perfection by Cleavon Little (who's most famous for playing the sheriff in Blazing Saddles.) The ending may be the most nihilistic in the history or American film.

6. Every Which Way But Loose. Clint Eastwood playing a trucker + bare-knuckle fistfights + an orangutan = entertainment gold.

7. Almost Famous. Yes, it's more of a coming of age, nostalgia picture, but the scenes in the bus are some of the most sublime road scenes ever filmed.

8. Paper Moon. Everyone classifies The Last Picture Show as Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece, but I think I actually like Paper Moon better. I don't know any other film that manages to so evocatively portray the wide open spaces of the Great Plains.

9. National Lampoon's Vacation. Remember when Chevy Chase was funny? This flick is one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures, if not for the Randy Quaid scenes alone. Although none of my own family vacations were quite this bad, I do have memories of sleeping in our van in a truck stop outside of Toledo (long story) and getting stranded in the Arizona desert.

10. Goin' Down the Road. Just to prove that road movies aren't a purely American phenomenon, Canada produced 1970's Goin' Down the Road, the movie Easy Rider wishes that it could be. This gritty slab of cinematic realism details the adventures of two working class guys from the Maritimes who go to Toronto in search of opportunity, only to find poverty and degradation. The ending, like Five Easy Pieces, shows the road as a tragic means of escape. (Perhaps even better than the film is the hilarious parody by the folks at SCTV.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Politics of Fear and the Silent Majority's Last Hurrah

Despite what many smug liberals I know like to think, conservatives are not stupid.  Their base might be made up of people who think the earth is 6000 years old and humans don't cause climate change, but they know how to win elections a whole helluva lot better than liberals do.  The Democratic Party has tended to assemble coalitions of voters as their base, then acted as milquetoast and non-threatening as possible to grab voters in the middle.  For instance, they court Latinos, but won't move on immigration reform lest they upset bigots.  Needless to say, this approach leaves their base unmotivated and undecided voters less than awed.

Conservatives, however, have expertly used the manifest reservoirs of fear in American life over the past fifty years.  (For more on our fearful society, read this post of mine from a few days ago.)  They know that most voters do not buy into their Randian, libertarian economic philosophy, and that appeals to religious conservatives (especially on gay rights) increasingly make them look retrograde.  However, fear is the trump card that reactionary politicians always have up their sleeve.  There are plenty of non-ideological, disengaged voters out there who in uncertain times will flock to the proverbial man on horseback giving calls for "law and order."

Republican candidates have been quick to use the current instability in the world, especially fears over Ebola and ISIS, in their campaign ads this year.  Somehow these problems are the fault of president Obama, despite the fact that neo-conservatives brought on the invasion of Iraq that created the ground for ISIS to grow in, and that Congress's forced sequestration cuts slashed money going to disease prevention.  The strategy is simple: scare the shit out of the voters so that they will be too afraid not to vote for you.

That strategy was first pioneered in 1968 by Richard Nixon's campaign, which adopted many of the themes of third party candidate (and arch-segregationist) George Wallace, but toned their edge enough to avoid charges of extremism.  Nixon called for "law and order" amidst the protest movements of the day, and would later claim to represent a "silent majority" of Americans threatened by calls for social change.  While Nixon would bring control and order, his ads accused the Democrats of having been responsible for the mounting dissention in American life.

That comes across most forcefully in an ad called "Convention," which involves no words.  A manic soundtrack of "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" plays over images of riots, the Vietnam War, and squalor, interspersed with photos of a smiling Hubert Humphrey complete with jarring, psychedelic sound effects.  It's got to be one of the most manipulative ads ever run, keying in on viewers' fears in a blatant fashion devoid of any larger message other than to fear and hate the Democratic candidate.  In that respect it is similar to Fox News video collages associating the current president with chaos.  That's no mistake, since Roger Ailes runs Fox and also ran TV for Nixon's campaign.

The strategy of fear worked so well in 1968 that Republicans have gone back to this well time and time again.  In 1980 Reagan claimed to rescue the nation from a federal government run amock.  In 1988 George Bush's used racial fears via the infamous Willie Horton ad to defeat Michael Dukakis.  After 9/11 Democrats were routinely accused of being "soft on terror," with the 2002 ads connecting Democratic Senator Max Clelland to Osama bin Laden an especially egregious example.  Conservatives know that most people don't follow their extreme political ideology, and that "values voters" are scarcer and scarcer with each passing year.  However, there is a big, broad middle of the American electorate that cares little for politics, but can be easily roused if it feels threatened.  2014 and 2016 just might end up being the Silent Majority's last big hurrah.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Track of the Week: The Kinks "Days"

The period from September until the end of the calendar year has long been my favorite.  It combines the excitement of a new school year (before I inevitably start to lose energy around February) with my favorite holidays and cooler weather before it gets wearying and depressing (usually in mid-January.)  Unfortunately, in recent years this season has brought the death of someone close to me.  Last year it was my grandmother, the year before one of my best friends, a couple of years before that my wife's grandfather.  This year my cat has been ailing, and after an emergency trip to the doctor last week, I took her home with the knowledge that she does not have much time left.

I've had her for almost eight years.  I adopted her in the dead of my first winter in Michigan, where I was working as a visiting assistant professor.  I had lived with other people all through grad school, and was not adjusting well to living alone, especially amidst Michigan's punishing cold and lack of sunshine.  For the four and a half years that I continued to live alone, my cat was my one daily companion, and a loving one at that.  She came with me to my tenure-track job in Texas, and then again with me to live with my wife in New Jersey.  We have been through a lot together.  She was a comforting presence during yearly bouts with the academic job market and some of the lowest points in my life.  There were days when my alarm would go off and I had practically no desire to get out of bed.  She would playfully mew and bat at my face until I got up, mostly because she wanted a drink of water from the sink, but it helped me survive some depressive troughs.  Since those days she's been remarkably tolerant of my daughters and has learned to live with my wife's dog.  Right now I am just trying to make her last days as pleasant as I can.

Pop music, like most of our culture, doesn't deal well with death.  The best pop song about losing a loved one is actually more literally about heartbreak after the end of a long relationship.  That said, "Days" by The Kinks has such fitting lyrics for mourning a friend.  "I thank you for the days/ Those sacred days you gave me" and "And though you're gone/ You're with me every single day believe me" describe my feelings about my dear friend David's untimely death and the loss of my grandmother.  It's a modest little song that's not musically distinct, but over the years, as I have sadly lost many near to my heart, it has meant more than just about any other song.  So much so that I find it difficult to put my thoughts into words, and beg that you just sit down and listen to it.  As the song says, 'The night is dark and only brings sorrow anyway."