Sunday, December 12, 2010

Starting over with John and Yoko

Honoring death anniversaries has always seemed creepy to me – whether it’s Elvis Week in Memphis each August or movements to make 9/11 a national holiday.  Isn’t life what we should be celebrating?  Remembering the departed is very important, but don’t we want to remember them in their happiest times?
Upon examining Elvis Presley’s life, he was clearly at his peak in the mid-50s.   Even around the late ‘60s he was riding high as a result of his celebrated comeback special.  Near the end of his life in the late ‘70s he was, by all accounts, at an all-time low.  Emotionally and physically drained, his death came as a result of his own carelessness.
This contrasts dramatically with John Lennon’s death just three years later.  While Lennon certainly maneuvered through his low points – listen to his solo debut album for proof – in 1980 he found inner peace and happiness for the first time in his life at age 40.  The sad irony surrounding Lennon’s death is that he was at the peak of his life – emotionally, physically, and, in some regards, even artistically.

Michael Jackson: This Is It

Elvis Costello once said we all deny our childhood record collections at one point or another.  It is fair to assume our tastes in music change as we mature – otherwise we would still be listening to nursery rhymes well into our ‘60s.  There is no denying, however, that some of the music we listen to in our formative years leaves an indelible mark on us.  While we may sense some shame in admitting to liking certain artists, they are still part of who we are today.
In 1993 it simply wasn’t cool to be a Michael Jackson fan.  Even ignoring the mega-star’s awkward behavior and abuse allegations in the early ‘90s, grunge and alternative rock ruled the airwaves then. The movement was, more than anything, a repudiation of all things ‘80s – the commercialism, the showmanship, the excess, etc.  Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M. were all about “keeping it real.” 
As the grunge scene rose to prominence and a new ethos took hold, a new commercial culture ironically developed around it – a uniform commercial culture.  Now everyone was buying flannel plaid shirts and torn jeans.  Though artists were expected to reveal their soul to us in their music, in appearance they were all the same. What seemed to disappear was individualism.

John Mellencamp: This is Our Country

Including John Mellencamp in the same company as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and even Bruce Springsteen would have seemed preposterous at one point.  How could the once-christened Johnny Cougar, MTV staple and Midwestern pin-up boy, ever match the intellectual wit and cultural significance of the above-mentioned bards? 
Turns out he’s come a long way since “Jack and Diane” and “I Need a Lover.”  Essentially dismissing his early career as a tool for record labels and managers to make money, Mellencamp went to great lengths to explain the mistakes he made early on when he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  in 2008.  He went even further this year by declaring to Rolling Stone magazine, “I’m done being a rock star.” 
 Mellencamp’s maturation is on clear display on his latest album, Trouble No More. He may not have the vocabulary of Dylan or the rabid fan base of Springsteen, but what he lacks in those areas he makes up for in authenticity.

Elton John and Leon Russell

When Songs from the West Coast appeared in 2001, Elton John made it clear he was finished releasing records just to release records.  Though many of his albums from Blue Moves in 1976 to The Big Picture in 1997 generated a hit single or two, what they seemed to lack was consistency – particularly the consistency of his early ‘70s records like Tumbleweed Connection and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Once he regained his grounding with Songs from the West Coast, Elton followed with the country-tinged Peachtree Road and The Captain and the Kid, his strongest albums in decades.  Though they lacked hit singles, they were a gift to music fans eager to hear superstar approach the level of brilliance he achieved in the early ‘70s.
What made Elton so successful in the early ‘70s was not only his high level of quality but also his ability to assimilate a multitude of different styles to create his own form of pop music.  Whether he was channeling the Beach Boys in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or Gamble and Huff in “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton was able to take seemingly disparate influences and mold them into his own style.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Essence of Neil Young

There’s a certain swagger Neil Young carries with him when he walks on stage and starts playing his guitar.  To the untrained eye it may seem something like a drunken stupor, but there’s a definite rhythm to his motion.  This swagger was on clear display when he hit the stage in Mobile, Alabama, back in September to promote his latest album, Le Noise.

The concert, like the album itself, was all Neil - no backing band, just the man himself.  When he opened the show with “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” he captivated the audience with his swagger from the very first note.  Young fans know when they go see the troubadour perform it’s not just for the entertainment value – it is to be challenged.  Not many artists can get away with charging $200 for premium seats without any guarantee of hearing the hits, but Young is one of a chosen few.  To quote the opening song, “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”