Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year’s Resolution – Part One: A little more NEW with the Old


     I have been having way more fun keeping up with my two music blogs than I had originally thought I would when I started them a few years ago. I’ve received some awfully nice compliments from folks who have stopped by and shared encouraging words about my writing. Really, this is just a side hobby for me. I like to write, but this is strictly amateur hour here. Lester Bangs was familiar with more literature at 20 than I’ll probably ever be (and I passed 20 a long time ago). Passion is passion, though, so I’ll continue to keep having fun.

    As the entries have been rolling by I have noticed patterns in my listening and writing behaviors. One of the patterns has caused me some slight unease. I don’t really seek out “new” music – or if I do, it is very rare and I certainly don’t spotlight anything “new” here. As it happens I did purchase a few new releases, albiet by older artists. It’s still a step in the right direction. Truth be told, I’d have a hard time evaluating totally “new” artists. Music has taken some strange directions over the past ten years at least. Yet I am hopeful that maybe some really new sounds might emerge in the next few years since we are poised to leave the last “cultural decade” behind. (Cultural decades usually start to shift approximately three years into a new chronological decade and run over a few years into the next. For example, the 1960s as we define them culturally didn’t really kick in until about 1964 or so – or so they say……heh heh!)

    So, I’ve decided that I must feature some kind of “new” music more frequently in my posts here. This is indeed a challenge since, to put it bluntly, I like OLD SHIT. I mean really old shit too. Like Greogian Chants are totally fair game to me. Medieval music? Hell yeah! Well, at least on this blog I rein it in a bit. For the really arcane junk please refer to my other blog:

    Anyway, as suspicious as I am about “new” music I think it’s time to give the living and working musicians some attention. In addition to checking out new music I’m also going to give downloading (legally) another few shots (at least). I’ve actually managed to download some great music over the last few years. The trouble is remembering to access those downloads more frequently – I can’t help it – physical media is just MORE FUN for me. If there was a way to make accessing digital files on a computer somehow fun I’d do that more often. I’m convinced that is the big hurdle for the analog-inclined. Sure, it’s convenient. Is it FUN? Not yet, I’m afraid.

    Aside from convenience, downloading can also be cost-effective. Especially during the winter when available funds tend to go towards keeping the heat on, those expensive purchases usually take a back seat. There’s also the matter of instant gratification. Yesterday I read a great article on Guy Clark which I can heartily recommend here:

I’d actually known about Guy Clark for awhile now – since I saw the documentary on Townes Van Zandt “Be Here to Love Me” in 2006. I’ll get to that story in a minute. I’d actually heard a Guy Clark song way before that when I bought a CD of Mallard – Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band without the Captain (they defected en masse in 1975). Taking the lead vocal slot in Mallard was a guy named Sam Galpin. He had a gruff voice, but otherwise didn’t seem to sound very comfortable with the material in general with one exception – a Guy Clark song called “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. On its own – it’s a great song. On the Mallard album, while it is one of Galpin’s more successful vocals, it doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of the music on the record. Although this is one of Guy Clark’s signature tunes I have yet to hear his version (or anyone else’s).

    In fact, until last night I’d never picked up any of Guy Clark’s albums. Courtesy of the article I linked above, I was compelled to download his new album “My Favorite Picture of You”. I had actually seen a picture of the front cover before I read the article which already piqued my interest a few weeks ago. The title song refers to an old polaroid shot Clark is seen holding in front of the camera of his wife Susanna, who was a songwriter herself as well as his muse until her passing last year.

If you’ve read the article I linked you’d already know that and a lot more. Clark has suffered from some pretty serious health issues since the early 2000’s and the voice on the new album is the voice of a survivor. Yet, there are great stories, ideas, insights in every song. With so many people who might pick up a guitar and start writing some words, composing a song, what we listeners look for is a new way to see things – maybe common things that we deal with every day – from a new perspective. With the great catalog of recorded music now stretching back in time over one hundred years, this is no easy feat. One could easily dismiss the new in favor of the concept that “all the great songs have already been written”. Well, Guy Clark’s new album proves that theory to be flat-out wrong.

    The album opens with a laid-back country waltz that’s essentially an ode to country waltzes and the down home pleasures to be experienced at the local hoe-down on Saturday night. The melody sounds like it belongs to a classic song from the days of yore. I love this kind of song! There’s another waltz down the lineup, though it’s a somewhat lonelier story – waltzes have that aura about them. The rest of the program runs the gamut from songs about the inhumanities and indignities suffered by illegal immigrants risking everything to cross the border from Mexico to the US (El Coyote), a song about soldiers coming home from war (Heroes) and the downside of having a good time all the time (The High Price of Inspiration). In each song, there’s a new twist to each of these classic themes. If I were a really astute reviewer I’d be singling out couplets of lyrics to illustrate Guy Clark’s brilliance. But you don’t need me to do that – you’ll notice those beautiful lines all on your own. Just take my word – download this great album. You’ll return to it frequently. Put it on repeat on the ipod. Let it soak in.

       Once you’ve got the new Guy Clark album downloaded, take a few hours out of your time to watch the Townes Van Zandt documentary. This is where I first encountered Guy and Susanna Clark. I saw the trailer for the film online (thanks to the old Bedazzled website). I was so impressed with that trailer I went out of my way to find the documentary. I was so impressed with the documentary it ended up being one of those rare films that I watched over and over and over all throughout a winter of discontent in my life. In fact, I’ve been hesitant to recommend this film to friends because I thought it might say more about me than I’d care to let on – Townes Van Zandt was a brilliant artist, but ultimately a highly self-destructive character the likes of which I don’t have much patience for in my real life, truth be told. Townes wrote great songs, but he was one severely irresponsible guy who ended up hurting a lot of people close to him because of his reckless life.

    But I’m not here to trash Townes Van Zandt the person because I think even he would agree that would be too easy to do. The film goes a long way to trace how folks like Townes develop. He was a romantic figure and the film makes one thing clear – his love of music held the number one place in his heart pretty much above everything else. That’s a very romantic sentiment, but as his son JT says in the film – there’s more to life than just writing songs. Unfortunately, it could be argued that the number two slot in Townes’ life was held by getting high and that’s what ends the film and ends his life. It’s hard to celebrate a man’s life who consistently made such poor choices, even if it was in the name of furthering his art. I sure like Townes’ music, but I’m not a fan of him as a person. I guess this is the conundrum that kept me watching that film over and over for months on end while I was going through a fairly painful time in my own life. And maybe that’s where Townes’ music retains its value. Somehow he managed to write songs that gave the most destitute characters one could imagine a legitimate and literate voice. What’s more disturbing is how, in his better performances, he seemed to BECOME those characters adding to the drama of the performance. Here’s my favorite example – one of the most gut-churning, utterly hopeless songs I’ve ever heard in my life – “Marie”:

That performance gives me chills.

    Back to Guy and Susanna……..they both featured prominently in the Townes documentary since they both featured prominently in his actual life. Some of my favorite moments in that film are of Guy and Susanna playing off each other talking about Townes. They just seemed like the kind of people you’d want to spend lots of time around just because they were so cool. And apparently lots of folks felt the same way over the years since they were known to host the best get-togethers for budding songwriters in the Nashville area.

    So I’d kept Guy Clark in the back of my mind. When I saw the new album cover and read the story – I hadn’t known about Susanna’s passing – well, for FIVE DOLLARS I’m downloading that album. And I’m going to suggest you do the same. Now, if I can only figure out how to make playing music off my computer more fun………..

(For what it’s worth – Townes Van Zandt passed away New Years Day in 1997. Guy Clark is workin’ hard to be ready for some shows in the spring of 2014 – if he’s anywhere near me I’m going to see him! Keep a light in the window……)

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