Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Real Death Waltz: Thank you, Clarence Clemons

In 1981, Patty Burrell made me, Skippy and Bop, new friends and freshman at East High School in Corning, New York listen to the greatest saxophone solo ever recorded.  It was Clarence Clemons in Jungleland.  We were sitting in the Burrell's back room, three on the sofa, we listened quietly to the whole mesmerizing ten minute song, a story of a boy named Rat out on the streets, who takes a stab at romance with a barefoot girl, but whose dreams gun him down.  He winds up wounded, and not even dead. If you do a statistical analysis of Springsteen's lyrics, the three most frequently occurring words are girl, street and night. Jungleland is pretty much in the mean.   

Jungleland has been one of my favorite songs since that day thirty years ago.  I don't relate to gang violence in New Jersey, it's because I sat with Bop and Skippy when I heard it for the first time, it was the first exclusive piece of information provided to me as a high school student by an actual big sister:  this sax solo is important.  And it is because Patty's tip is right.  That sax solo.  It's important.

The solo starts with a sustained single note, builds slowly to another one, Clarence, a mountain, over piano work of Roy Bittan.  About 16 bars in, Max Weinberg swings it into an anthem, an anthem of the every day, an anthem of the drama of each person's life, an anthem of small things, and Clarence blows this haunting anthem so your heart aches.  It goes on and on.  And just like life itself, you don't want it to ever finish. 

What that song gave me when I was 14 was an outlet.  I am sure that every teenager before 1975 felt the longing and despair and loneliness that I did, but it was never scored so accurately.  I wasn't getting stabbed, but in the quick of the night I was making my honest stand.  We all fucking were.  We were trying to be adults.    Thirty years later and I am still always trying to make my honest stand and I am always finding life wounding, always, I am wounded but not even dead. 

So great was my loyalty to that song, and to Patty and Bop and Skippy that I made my own ritual.  The last thing I do before I move out of any place is listen to Jungleland and think about my life in that place, in all its boring glory, in all its pedestrian wonder.  Listening to Clarence play the perfect anthem of small things transformed my small things into things as huge as the ache in my heart. You see, I am terrible about moving, I never want to move, it's a little death, a little end.  I guess I play that song to mourn the passing of my own life. But this week I play it to mourn the end of Clarence Clemons.   

Where I grew up, Springsteen and Dylan were indisputable geniuses, poets and artists of the highest order.  And you know who Clarence Clemons was?  He was the guy who was cooler than Bruce Springsteen.  There from the beginning (not like the ridiculously late on the bandwagon Patty Scialfa or the questionable Nils Lofgren), Clarence was immutable.  What I felt for Clarence Clemons before he died was more respect than affection.  I believed Patty and I believed Bruce, he was the Big Man, the greatest saxophone player who ever lived. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Key Instructions in Creativity from Johnny Cash

The most beautiful moment in the Cash biopic is when he goes to audition for a small time record producer with his first gospel band.  He is trying, at this point in his life, to hold down a job and be a good husband but he is drawn to the back door of a record producer, he wants to sing.  He forms a band and has an audition.  They sing the song of the time:  I know that Jesus saved me, by his power he forgave me . . .

The producer stops them.  The producer is played by Dallas Roberts with such restraint and integrity that I have to watch it three times in a row whenever I put it on.  The producer says he can't sell gospel.  Cash presses him for an explanation:  is it the song or the way I sing it?  The producer explains that he didn't believe it, he didn't believe Cash singing the same old tired gospel songs.  Cash then objects, gets upset, claims the producer is telling him he doesn't believe in God.  Roberts explains.  This is a song that everyone always sings.  We've already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like you sang it. 

But, Johnny Cash counters, you didn't let us bring it home.

The producer then responds with this speech:
(Everyone who aspires to anything creative should read it once a year) 

Alright, let's "bring it home."  If you was hit by a truck, and you was lying out in that gutter dying and you had time to sing one song - one song people would remember before you're dirt.  One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you're telling me that's the song you'd sing, the same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within and how it's real and how you're going to shout it?

Or would you sing something different. Something real.  Something you felt.Because I'll tell you right now that's the song that people want to hear. 

That's the kind of song that truly saves people.

It doesn't got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash.  It has to do with believing in yourself.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Walking Through A Wall by Louis Jenkins

This is the poem Mark Rylance quoted last night when he accepted the Tony.  I am a sucker for Rylance and for the play and now for this poem:

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jellicle Cats - In honor of Early Night Club



The Song of the Jellicles
Jellicle Cats come out to-night
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright -
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.
Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces,
Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes;
They like to practise their airs and graces
And wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise.

Jellicle Cats develop slowly,
Jellicle Cats are not too big;
Jellicle Cats are roly-poly,
They know how to dance a gavotte and a jig.
Until the Jellicle Moon appears
They make their toilette and take their repose:
Jellicle Cats wash behind their ears,
Jellicle dry between their toes.

Jellicle Cats are white and black,
Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
Jellicle Cats jump like a jumping-jack,
Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
They're quiet enough in the morning hours,
They're quiet enough in the afternoon,
Reserving their terpsichorean powers
To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats (as I said) are small;
If it happends to be a stormy night
They will practise a caper or two in the hall.
If it happens the sun is shining bright
You would say they had nothing to do at all:
They are resting and saving themselves to be right
For the Jellicle Moon and the Jellicle Ball.

T. S. elliot