music

The Rising

I am sure that if you were to scroll through your Facebook feed on the day I am posting this essay, which is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, you’ll see a lot of images of eagles and flags and people posting their own memories of the day (despite their relevance to the events themselves).  I don’t tend to participate in these displays of patriotism, keeping whatever thoughts I have to myself or to the occasional blog post like this.  I also have particular pieces that I read every year, some that I incorporated into lesson plans back in my journalism teaching days.   But I do post one thing to Facebook on an annual basis, which is this:

If you aren’t familiar with this song or this performance, this is the performance that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gave of their song “The Rising” to open the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards.  The song, which was released on June 24 of that year, was the title track to the album of the same name and won two Grammy Awards (Best Male Rock Performance and Best Rock Song), and even though it didn’t do very well on the Billboard Hot 100, is well known because of its lyrics, which are from the point of view of a firefighter in the World Trade Center on September 11:

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
I was wearin’ the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down here

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

There’s spirits above and behind me
Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There’s holy pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li…

I first heard this song when it was released in the summer of 2002 and eventually bought the album when it came out, which would have surprised nobody at the time because I’m a fan of The Boss and this was the first album he had recorded with the E Street Band since Tunnel of Love in 1987.  I knew going in that the album was about the September 11 attacks, and so I knew it was going to probably be somewhat different, but that also intrigued me because I had not been very receptive to the songs that were being played in response to the attack, most notably Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?,” which I found cloying.  Springsteen had already performed “My City of Ruins,” a song he wrote about Asbury Park, New Jersey, at a telethon on September 21, but many of the songs on the album were written in late 2001 and early 2002, and the entire thing is packaged as both a statement of and contemplation of the events.

springsteen_rising_8x8_site-500x500Maybe it was the fact that it was The Boss that made me consider “The Rising” more than anything else I’d seen or heard about September 11.  The song is not subtle–Springsteen rarely is–but it doesn’t feel as blunt or saccharine as a “tribute song” would.  Instead, Springsteen uses a character to tell us about the events of that day, and he does this through several other songs on the album.  As I mentioned, this one is about a firefighter, but there are others that are from the point of view of other victims, their families, and the average citizen, a presentation that effectively tries to give them a voice while trying to interpret what happened for its audience.

“The Rising” is one of the album’s best pieces, both musically and lyrically.  Springsteen mixes the persona of a firefighter with religious imagery (“I was wearing the cross of my calling,” being a reference to the Cross of St. Florian) and while it does stumble a bit with his “catfish dancing” simile, the song transcends any of its minor lyrical faults through its music, especially the bridge, which is where Springsteen has the fireman seeing visions in “the garden of a thousand sighs” and then describes the sky while a bass line kicks in and the music begins lifting and lifting and lifting until it explodes into the song’s final chorus, personifying “The Rising” in the title.

This is one of my favorite parts to a song ever and this is one of my favorite songs ever because there is something about how Springsteen finds and expresses hope in the face of such a monumental disaster that is more genuine than manipulative saccharine pop or as tawdry as disaster porn.  He is finding humanity in all of this, which is something that often gets lost in memorial after memorial.  Yes, we remember that people died on September 11, but as the years go by, September 11 becomes more and more of an abstract idea and the individuals and the true human toll gets lost.  And it’s sad when this gets lost because that makes it harder and harder to teach to younger generations, because to the students I am teaching right now, September 11, 2001 is about as abstract a concept as the Kennedy assassination or Watergate were to me.  It’s something they’ve heard about, and something–depending on their family’s political leaning–they may have heard about incorrectly.

When I taught September 11 in journalism and later in English class, I focused on the reporting of the day in newspapers, the mis-reporting of the day in history textbooks, and then primary sources and interpretations.  I stopped teaching the unit after a couple of years of students not doing the reading and having nothing to say about it, figuring that they obviously weren’t finding it engaging.  But “The Rising” was always something I finished the unit with because it was about interpretation and finding meaning.

And you do have to wonder to yourself if September 11, 2001 is the type of thing that is open to interpretation.  Now, of course it is because anything is certainly open to interpretation.  But for years there has been a prescribed meaning or interpretation that our culture has been using.  What I have always loved about “The Rising” is that it doesn’t subscribe to that unless you want it to.  Springsteen wants us to take what we’re feeling and go along with this person, then release whatever that is, hopefully healing along the way.

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 64: The Music of the Summer of 1996

Episode 64 Website CoverIt’s time to throw your Sublime CD into the stereo of your teal Mustang and then do the Macarena while downing some Molson Ice because we’re going back to the summer of 1996.  Join me and my special guest–my wife, Amanda–as we take a look at the lineup from the 1996 HFStival and then discuss the music of that summer.

Here’s where to listen:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And below the cut, here are some scans from the HFStival program:

(more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 58: Movie Songs!

Episode 58 Website CoverIt’s time for YET ANOTHER PLAYLIST EPISODE! Inspired by Andrew Leyland’s movie scores episode of “The Palace of Glittering Delights,” I’ve compiled a playlist of songs from movie soundtracks that are both classic and obscure but are in many ways spectacular. I’ve got Simon & Garfunkel, The Bee Gees, Queen, Irene Cara, and (of course) Kenny Loggins. So many movie memories! So many songs left off the list!

iTunes: Two True Freaks Presents Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Two True Freaks Presents: Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

We Were Only Freshmen

thevervepipe-thefreshmanFor the life of me, I cannot remember why I ever liked “The Freshmen.”

Okay, that’s not true.  I just needed a way to start this post and thought I would try to be clever.  Obviously, that doesn’t always work.

Anyway, I have been on a Nineties music kick lately and in my listening came across The Verve Pipe’s only hit, a song my nostalgia for probably bears explaining.

Originally recorded in 1992 but rerecorded and released as a single in January 1997, “The Freshmen” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of the same year and was a complete anomaly in the Top 40, which featured “Mmmm Bop” by Hanson and at least one song by The Spice Girls.  This was not the morose grunge-dominated early 1990s, this was the happy, dawn-of-The-Millennials late-1990s and there were few straightforward rock acts making any dent.  Even I had abandoned most of rock and roll for punk and ska at this point in my life and spent the better part of a summer annoying my girlfriend with The Mighty Mighty BossTones before moving on to a full-blown 1980s pop nostalgia trip.  But I happened to be headed to Charlottesville from Baltimore during spring break in March of ’97 and heard “The Freshmen” on WHFS and thought “This is a song that I need to listen to.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I went to The Wall in the Barracks Road shopping center that weekend and the paid full $2.99 or $3.99 for the cassette single.  That is how much I felt I needed “The Freshmen.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the song is basically a four-and-a-half-minute-long lament sung by the band’s lead singer, Brian Vander Ark, who wrote the lyrics.  In the song, he hints that something terrible has happened and he feels guilty, although he seems conflicted about whether or not he should be held responsible, especially since everyone involved was so young.  At least that’s what I understood in 1997 when I was playing the song in my Hyundai Excel’s tape deck and the video was being played and replayed on VH-1 as well as on the radio at work that summer where I remember one day we tried for the better part of an hour to figure out what the lyrics meant.  I seem to recall my boss, Joe, thinking that the song literally was about someone falling through ice on a lake and dying.  My guess was not as exact but I was pretty sure someone was dead.

Thanks to the Internet, I now know that Vander Ark wrote the song about feeling guilty over his ex-girlfriend’s suicide.  The lyrics also contain something fictional about an abortion, and listening to it nearly two decades later (I lost the cassette single years ago, however), I hear that.  I also hear why I liked it so much at the time–in 1997, it was a throwback to the bands I had been listening to when I was in high school, like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots.  Granted, The Verve Pipe was probably more on the level of Candlebox, but that’s how my mind worked.

Anyway, “The Freshmen” also reminds me of a time when I took myself way too seriously as a writer because I thought that is what writers did.  In fact, I don’t think I fully realized that angst just isn’t my style until after I graduated college because at the time the song was popular, I was still trying to write serious fiction … and was doing that pretty badly.  I mean, we’re talking attempts at drama from someone who had one of the most drama-free and “non-dark” lives in history.

But writing class will do that to you.  You are someone who loves to write and don’t have much to worry about in life, and the sappy crap you wrote about your pookie got old during freshman year (as well as extremely embarrassing), and everyone else in your workshop group has an eating disorder, an alcoholic parent, a dead friend, or an inspirational story about finding God.  Smart-assed commentary about Star Wars or short stories that were inspired by John Hughes movies just didn’t seem to hold up in my mind.

Which is kind of a shame, when you think about it, because that means I found my strengths in writing by demonstrating my weaknesses in writing class–thankfully, I was writing a column in the student newspaper at the time, so I could build on those strengths.  But when you think of it, I shouldn’t look fondly on a time when I wasn’t very good at something.  Then again, there’s something about that time in my life when I tried to be deep on purpose and nothing says that more than the forced earnestness of “The Freshmen.”

The Most Earnest Song of the Nineties

I was in my English 1o advanced class last week watching the pilot episode of My So-Called Life.  Toward the very end of the show, Angela gets home from Let’s Bolt (courtesy of a police officer) and as she’s talking to Brian Krakow, she spots her father, who was supposed to be shooting pool with his brother, talking to another woman.  It’s a gut punch of a moment and as she stumbles toward her house, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. begins to play.

When I heard snide remarks from some people in the class, including, “I can’t take this song seriously,” I had to stop myself from blurting out what I was thinking–“Uh, you think making stupid noises is hilarious.  It’s kind of hard to take you seriously as well”–and eventually made the comment that very few things are more early ’90s than “Everybody Hurts” playing at the end of an episode of My So-Called Life.  And honestly, that fits Angela Chase and that moment because the song itself is incredibly earnest.  In fact, there’s probably no pop song more earnest than “Everybody Hurts.”  It hit at the right time and the right part of the decade and holds up way more than the bombastic seriousness of later Nineties acts such as Live, who got tired incredibly quickly.

I’m going to give my class a little more credit here, however, because there were a number of students who seemed to really enjoy the episode and understood what the scene was trying to convey, an “everything is just now way too real” moment where you, as a person, cannot possibly process everything and yet finding yourself having to figure out what’s going on and somehow react.  The song is there to reassure Angela, and probably the audience, and by the time we see Angela on Monday morning, she’s happier, and can even admit that … “We did.  We had a time.”

Now, if this were the only time anyone in the Nineties ever heard “Everybody Hurts” in any context, I could write a more thorough examination of this scene (Claire Danes’ reaction to seeing her father in the scene is perfect–she’s stunned in a way that is so real that it’s almost uncomfortable.  Later episodes would follow up on this moment), but by the time MSCL premiered in August 1994, R.E.M.’s song had already been a top 40 hit and took its place in the pantheon of 1990s songs, especially with its video that, won four awards at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards and featured an almost surreal traffic jam*.

Subtle, the video is not.  But then again, subtlety was never the point of the song, either.  In fact, Peter Buck said of the lyrics, “the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers,” which is odd for a song that in 1993 was almost an anomaly on the pop charts.  In fact, a look at the Billboard Hot 100 for November 6, 1993 (the week it peaked at number 29) shows the top 40 full of R&B acts with a few exceptions such as “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” which stood at number one and is nothing like this simple mid-tempo piece from an album that is filled with similar pieces (and is easily one of the best albums of the decade).

Then again, what was on the Billboard Hot 100 or playing on Top 40 radio was never exactly the measurement of what I liked when I was in high school, or what any of the cool kids liked, either.  Oh, people I went to school with surely had their nights listening to Z-100 but to my knowledge little or nothing by Nine Inch Nails was charting at the time and the guys I hung around definitely weren’t hearing “Master of Puppets” on the radio.  It was an age of discovering the difference between what was popular and what you liked, and that led me in a much more interesting path than listening to Ace of Base on repeat (I could have, btw … my sister had the CD).

r-e-m-_-_everybody_hurtsI will take a moment to admit here that I wasn’t really listening to R.E.M. that often in 1993.  I didn’t own any of the albums and while I may have checked the CD out of the library at one point, I wasn’t what you could call a huge fan.  I honestly have no reasonable explanation for this except that my musical tastes were way too geared toward what my friends were listening to at that moment and I already took enough shit for listening to Queen that I didn’t want to attract anymore negative attention (I’m serious–I was very insecure in my musical likes).  College wound up being different and in time, I compiled a small collection of R.E.M. songs, including “Everybody Hurts.”

I suppose a number of fans of “Everybody Hurts” would be offended by the student who said he couldn’t take the song seriously, but despite my snarky thoughts when I gave his comment more consideration I remember that I probably thought the same way at one point because the song serves as a reminder of how cool I wanted to be back then. There’s something about being a teenage boy and thinking that being cynical and sarcastic and acting as if you’re above it all comes off as mature when it really comes off as obnoxious.  Being earnest is not intelligent and is definitely weak.

10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden would be the album that helped change me in that particular way (and that is another story for another post), but I came to appreciate all of Automatic for the People and “Everybody Hurts” stands, at the moment, as a beautiful piece of nostalgia and a reminder of those moments of my teenage years when I was a raw nerve who had no idea where he was going or what he was doing.  Because when the strings swell at the end and Michael Stipe starts singing “Hold on,” I honestly can’t help but smile.

 

*A footnote here because I couldn’t find anywhere to put it into the main text, but there is a moment on an episode of Daria entitled “Road Worriers” that parodies the “Everybody Hurts” video perfectly.  I tried to find a YouTube clip but couldn’t.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 53: The Softacular

Episode 53 Website CoverRemember all of the awesome music we used to jam to growing up in the ’80s and ’90s?  Remember all of the important bands that you heard just as they came out and before they became huge?  Well, in this episode I’m going to take you on a nostalgic musical journey that has absolutely NONE OF THAT!  No, it’s time for an honest look at our formative years with 16 memorable soft rock and pop hits from the 1970s and 1980s, the same hits I was forced to endure while sitting the back of my parents’ car on the way to my grandparents’ house.  So buckle up … it’s time for The Softacular.

Here’s the direct link to the episode.

Here’s a link to the Pop Culture Affidavit iTunes feed.

Here is the Two True Freaks Pop Culture Affidavit webpage.

And for your viewing pleasure, here are the videos I could find to accompany everything used in the episode.  I made every effort to find either an official music video or a live performance from the time when the song was popular (after the cut) …

(more…)

Musical Biography or Archaeology?

The cover I made for "Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends," which I originally burned onto two CDs.  The idea for the cover came from a  timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

The cover I made for “Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends,” which I originally burned onto two CDs. The idea for the cover came from a timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement.  The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it).  It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.

I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.”  Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression.  if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program.  Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes.  My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day).  But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster?  She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand).  And some of those other girls?  Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.

Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod.  Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist.  The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life.  Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you.  Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality.  But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.

It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter.  It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”).  But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status.  Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.

Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone.  I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music.  It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car.  Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.

There was a point in my life where everything had meaning.  If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something.  And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important.  “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong.  You simply turn your focus elsewhere.  Adulthood is priorities and responsibility.  It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time.  My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.

I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities.  Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age.  At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening.  If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.

To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix.  I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though.  Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way.  Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.

“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria

It’s a final statement worth a close examination.  If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization.  There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation.  Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity.  Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists.  The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.