Friday, May 14, 2010

Gimme Shelter

Well, we all need someone we can lean on ... and if you want it, you can lean on me.

So true. We all need a refuge ... a shelter ... someone, or some thing, to lean on when the life becomes just a bit too overwhelming.

Through thick and thin, and since I was the littlest kid, music has been my shelter. So it should come as no surprise today that I open this blog by quoting that famous English philosopher, Sir Michael Philip Jagger.

Sometimes, like just scares the hell out of you. Yesterday, for example, the FBI came swooping down into a couple of suburban Boston communities -- Brookline and Watertown -- and in their best "Law and Order" style, to apprehend a couple of people linked to the guy who planted a car bomb in Times Square two weeks ago.

No problem with the FBI. The feds are doing their jobs. But it does reinforce the reality that this is a dangerous world. And it also reinforces the reality that the very definition of "terrorism" contains the word "terror." To wit: Some guy can plant a bomb in Times Square, knowing that it's not going to go off, but be comfortable, at the same time, with knowledge that he'll preoccupy law authorities for a spell ... and scare the hell out of the rest of us as well.

In other words, terrorism doesn't even have to work to qualify as terrorism. Just planting the seed is enough. After all, Sept. 11, 2001, isn't that long ago, and just the very mention of the word "terrorism" sends chills up and down our spines and just jolts us back to that day ... what we were doing, thinking, and -- perhaps most of all -- feeling.

It's days such as yesterday, as I'm watching live coverage of this FBI raid in a quiet Watertown neighborhood, that I most feel the urge to just escape with the iPod and the headphones down to the beach for a walk. Thanks to technology, I cannot exercise without my tunes ... unless I'm swimming, of course ... tough to do laps with headphones!!

The first thing I did after the shock from 9/11 wore off was listen to the final movement of Beethoven's Emperor's Concerto. That may seem kind of odd. In fact, it might seem very odd. But if you listen to it, you might understand why. It is such a triumphant piece ... full of hope and optimism. And it was the perfect antidote for the abject depression I felt over what I was viewing on TV.

Of course, for balance, I also found, and downloaded, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Find the Cost of Freedom," which somewhat muted Beethoven's optimism. CSNY must have felt my pain. A couple of weeks later, they reunited long enough to appear on TV ... and what do you suppose they sang? Yup. "Find the Cost of Freedom."

Paul Simon was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live when the show resumed production in October of 2001. If you recall, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a contingent of New York police and fire department personnel were onstage, as the cast and crew paid tribute to them. When it was Simon's turn, he lit into "The Boxer."

Now, to me, "The Boxer" may be one of the greatest songs ever written, any genre. It's basically about a loser to gets swallowed up in the ways of the Big City, and contains one of the greatest lines ever written: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

Lines like these help make music the refuge for me that it is. I love most forms of music ... symphonic, theatrical, rock, folk, blues, jazz (anything, essentially, except for country/western an disco). But at the end of the day, I most appreciate a song that portrays some sort of honest emotion (which is one reason I've always been a huge U2 fan). Having a great line or two ... words that really make you sit up and think ... helps tremendously. I once read an interview by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, who said that he didn't know what some of his best songs were about when he wrote them ... that the picture only became clearer years later, when he had a chance to reflect back on them. At the time, he said, he was simply writing about emotions and images.

To the extend that I've written lyrics, I can understand that. Sometimes, you put words together for the sole reason that they sound good grouped together. I've also always believed that prose is a form of poetry too. The best writing, to me, isn't simply subject matter. It's about words ... and how they sound in relation to one another.

So today, we're going to go over some of my favorite musical "lines," as it were.

Starting with the aforementioned "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." Isn't that the truth? Doesn't that oh-so-accurately reflect the reality of ... well ... just about everything? Aren't we all guilty, and one time or another, of taking words out of context and disregarding that which doesn't apply whatever preconceived ideas we have?

Another memorable one, to me, comes fro Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," which say, "and when finally the bottom fell out I became withdrawn, the only thing I could think to do was to keep on keepin' on."

Keep on keepin' on. I don't know who came up with that first -- perhaps it was Dylan (Google is no help here). I do know that Dickie Betts wrote a song by that name for the Allman Brothers, but it came after Tangled up in Blue was released, so I'm crediting it to Mr. Zimmerman and if I'm wrong, I'm sure you'll let me know.

At any rate, it's a great line. To me, it sums up the way anyone in a desperate situation strives -- often in the face of great odds -- to soldier on. I can just see someone who's life has just been left in ruins, with the innate understanding that all you can really do, as the saying goes, is put one foot in front of the other and keep going forward. Keep on keepin' on.

Dylan, by the way, is the author of a slew of memorable lines. Another one comes from "Like A Rolling Stone:" "You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns/When they all come down and did tricks for you..."

The song is about a society girl who has fallen on hard times, and who is now forced to understand the people she spent her entire life scorning. The line just kind of sums it up for me: that people who feel compelled to kiss your ass because they have to rarely like it ... and they will exalt over your misfortunes when they finally occur. All office bullies should keep this song near and dear to their hearts.

John Lennon had a great line in the song "Beautiful Boy" off "Double Fantasy," which is the album he and Yoko Ono recorded just before he was shot to death: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

So true. However, I should point out that one night, at a Chinese restaurant, I opened up my fortune cookie to see that line on the piece of paper inside. That was my fortune. I'm hoping (I mean really hoping) that the the fortune cookie people stole the line from Lennon ... and not the other way around!!

Of course, Lennon, like Dylan, has written a great many wonderful lines. Among my favorites: "Living is easy with eyes closed/misunderstanding all you see" from "Strawberry Fields Forever," which, I think, is self-explanatory ... and "Now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured/and now I find I need your help like I've never done before."

Talk about a cry for help! And that was 1965, too, when the Beatles couldn't get any higher.

I've always liked the song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell for the refrain, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." It kind of speaks to what I would call the "malling of America." And all I can think of is that there was once a beautiful oasis amid the concrete of East Boston called Wood Island Park, that was destroyed in favor of a runway at nearby Logan Airport. It's not exactly a parking lot, but you get the idea. We can be very shortsighted sometimes when it comes to preserving our greenery ... and it doesn't help that people who consider that priority come in for a healthy heap of abuse by pro-development types who, very often, take on the personalities of the bulldozers they use.

There's another good line in that song too: "Hey, farmer, farmer put away the DDT/Give me spots on the apples, but leave me the birds and bees."

Graeme Edge was the guy in the Moody Blues who wrote that crazy, hippy, dippy poetry that drove people crazy and (for all I know) has kept the group from being enshrined in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. There's really no reason why they should be excluded. They fit every possible criteria. But some people (Jann Wenner among them, apparently) felt they were a little too pretentious to merit serious consideration.

These people may have a point. They went through a period where they got awfully ambitious and -- maybe just a little -- overreached on some of the cosmic stuff they produced (not sure a five-plus minute dirge on Transcendental Meditation qualifies as a rock song).

However, once they got all that stuff out of their system (not to mention the drugs that may have had a hand in producing such stuff), they turned into a very good band.

The last album they did before their first split ("Seventh Sojourn" in 1972) contained a song with lyrics by Edge (who, by this time, had eschewed the corny poetry for more conventional forms of musical expression) called "You and Me," which had this line (and this one's a real nugget, too, as the song itself wasn't famous): "We're an ocean full of faces, and you know that we believe, we're just a wave that drifts around you, singing all our hopes and dreams."

Understand, the Moodies were either ridiculed as being uber-pretentious, or they were worshiped as "they who had all the answers." They've talked about this mean times (Edge has a memorable line in an interview about "people who come down from the ceiling light."). All they were trying to do, in "You and Me," as well as "I'm Just A Singer" was to, gently, tell these people to back off ... that they were just blokes up on stage playing music. Nothing more.

I could go on forever, but I'm going to leave you with a line from Paul McCartney (in the interest of fairness and because it's such a fabulous song) from "Fixing a Hole:" "I'm taking the time for a number of things that weren't important yesterday."

I love this line. It speaks so maturely to the idea that, as you grow, your priorities change ... and things that just seemed so insignificant yesterday all of a sudden take on a more urgent focus. In his case, he was writing about catching up on things he'd cast aside as unimportant as the group rose to the dizzying heights it attained.

But in all our lives, reassessing priorities is a good, and necessary thing.

Nothing more need be said.

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