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Entries in Music (4)


The Passing Of A Trickster

Thursday evening’s news of the death of Michael Jackson has brought an outpouring of grief and remembrance of his music, his talent and his impact on pop music and the world. Others have seen his death as a chance to lampoon and deride Jackson because of his oddness, his lifestyle and the acts he allegedly committed.

The airwaves and video screens of 1980s America were owned by Michael Jackson. He leapfrogged everyone by producing video that were innovative, creative and entertaining. They were events. He was the total package: passion, intensity, sex appeal and a magical aura. But the magic was deluded by the celebrity, and the rumors and legal battles pushed Jackson deeper into isolation, but not obscurity. Love him or hate him, Michael Jackson was a cultural force, defying and redefining the music, dance and social mores of his day. He looked and acted different from anyone else. His songs were both intimate and universal in their outlook and appeal. The Les Trois Freres Shaman

Of all the archetypes in mythology, none is more important than the Trickster. Before the hero, there was the Trickster. Creative, deceptive and disruptive, yet comical, the Trickster is the clever and evil infant Hermes, who stole the cattle of Apollo. He is Eshu of Yorba mythology walk down the road with a hat on, one side black, the other red. He is the shapeshifting, contemptuous Loki of Norse legends. In India, he is Krishna, the blue-skinned flute-playing boy sent to set the world aright by his disruptive, deceptive acts. And Trickster was not only “he.” Trickster godesses, such as Apate and Eris, populate ancient mythology. In the Paleolithic cultures of Europe, the Trickster is the shaman, transformed into an amalgam of animal spirits, a chimeric bridge, envisioning and negotiating between this world and the one unseen.

Michael Jackson was one of the Tricksters of our age. Loved as well as hated, misunderstood and idolized for his actions, Jackson epitomizes the spirit of the Trickster. In his shape-shifting, he became the other--neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, neither gay nor straight. He was defined by his indefinite being, his disruptive appearance, his odd behavior. Appealing to all types of people all the world over, he was known to everyone, but was mystery to all, constantly open to interpretation.

One of his favorite characters from literature was Peter Pan, a child trickster who refused to grow up. Thrust into the spotlight at the age of five, Jackson was deprived of a normal childhood. The rehearsals, concerts and recording studios must have been surreal to a young boy. In a Rolling Stone cover story from the 1990s, one Motown producer remembers that as the other Jackson brothers would go shoot hoops between takes, Michael would stay in the studio and pepper the recorder, engineer and producer with questions. In the recording studio, Michael saw that a new world could be created--a world of song. On stage, his hard work and talent gave birth to delight and magic as audiences adored the young boy, then young man. Jackson felt no need to surrender to adulthood, with its tendency toward banality and stiffness. He became the real-life Peter Pan.

With the appearance of the music video, Jackson found a willing manipulative canvas on which to interpret and expand his songs. Jackson could be whatever he wanted to be: the werewolf/zombie (Thriller); the good kid who was the real tough (Bad); the beguiling magician (Remember the Time). He could poke fun of himself (Leave Me Alone) all on the endlessly changing green-screen of CGI and backlots.

Trickster changes the world, but that change is not always welcome or beneficially apparent. We equally love and vilify the Trickster, as enthralled as we are made uncomfortable by them. Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries in his music and how it was presented. A consummate artist, he had a hand in shaping every aspect of his work. However, that control ended at the studio and stage door. The world of people proved to be a harder place for Jackson to live. For every one person who found inspiration in Jackson’s music, there was another equally ready to highlight any wrinkle, real or perceived. A series of less than successful albums, cancelled tours, botched appearances, and mounting legal problems forced Jackson to seek a space away from the glare of the spotlight. But, the lure of those lights seemed too great. Jackson died while preparing for an incredible 50 shows at the O2 Center in London.

Jackson’s death brings to mind the fragility of life, the fact of impermanence that runs through this world. What will his true legacy be? His music? His videos? His eccentric behavior? Ultimately, the legacy Michael Jackson leaves is the same one you and I will leave--our lives and the people we touched during our short sojourn here. Aside from his children and family, who I suspect will miss him greatly, those of us who were touched by the music and magic of this most unique of human beings have to find what he left for us. What do we do with this man’s contribution?

If you loved the music, the magic of this trickster’s dance, there is only one thing to do. Listen, and then live your life with the passion you heard in the music. Do everything with the intensity and focus you saw Jackson put into his craft. Then do what Jackson himself physically could not because of his fame and notoriety: reach out and do what you can to create a world of beauty, fairness, justice, compassion and vision.

The Trickster showed the way. We ignore him at our peril, and we dishonor the man and the words he sang, the way he lived and the joy he gave.




Together Through Life: Good Time Bluesy Music For All 

Album image from bobdylan.com

I'm an album guy.  I'm also an artist guy.  I listen to records straight through, and I let the artist take me where they want me to go.  

Bob Dylan has been plugging away at this music thing since his 1962 self-titled debut.  He is the preeminent scholar of the American songbook.  I stopped trying to figure out his lyrics along time ago. Dylan's references go too deep, get too personal.  So too with his music: blues, folk, country and early rock and roll show up in his songs.  A new Dylan album is a journey of which I always love to hitch a ride.  

Together Through Life is a bluesy, country-tinged journey through the Southern Delta and Texas.  It's there in the mandolin, steel guitar, accordion, and guitar.  The album sounds like it was recorded at sound-checks and stolen moments backstage.  It feels intimate, like you're in a roadside bar with a beer and pulled-pork sandwich.

The album starts abruptly with Beyond Here Lies Nothin', a rhythm-driven small-stage affair exploding outward, setting the tone for the rest of the record.  Dylan moves through these songs, old-style and heart-felt, sometimes cynical (My Wife's Hometown, Forgetful Heart), sometimes touching (the beautiful waltz-like This Dream Of You), all delivered with sharp arrangement, and Dylan's characteristic wit. No one makes social commentary (It's All Good) like Dylan. It's enough to make you smile.

At the end of Together Through Life is a studio rehearsal of Lay, Lady, Lay from 1969's Nashville Skyline.  It is somehow appropriate that Dylan closes an arc of music nearly 40 years long.  When the rest of his generation of musicians were moving into the sprawling aftermath that was the 1970s, Bob Dylan stepped back, dug deep, and came out with a beautiful, authentic country record.  Bob Dylan still travels that road, grown over with weeds with old oaks hung over, dapples of sun breaking through the branches.  It's a journey worth joining. To hell with the destination. 


Review: U2 No Line On The Horizon (Part 2)

Image copyright 2009 U2

In the late 1980s, I read an interview with U2 in Musician magazine. During the interview, Bono talked about their musical influences, and about the types of songs U2 could do. He then asked, “Well, why couldn’t we do gospel songs?”

Since their first album, Boy, U2 has written songs that have had religious themes. The album October is full of religious imagery, and War has at least three song inspired from Biblical verses, including the powerful 40, which U2 used to close out many of their live shows. Other albums explore spiritual themes, but rely less on the Bible as a literal source. Bono has become more confident in his own voice and experience, even allowing doubt to creep into his lyrics.

The band has often struggled in that space between the sacred and secular. At one time, Bono, Larry and the Edge thought about leaving the band because the lifestyle conflicted with their newfound Christian beliefs. The band held together, though, and the members found a way to make it work, and it has been so much the better, because the years and experiences have deepened the band and their music.

U2 has no shortage of anthems, songs that feel like a call to arms rather than the usual pop fluff. On No Line On The Horizon we find Magnificent. Starting with a guitar and synthesizer riff, the song quickly builds into an high-energy big sounding opera. “Magnificent.” Bono sings, first to you and me, then to God:

I was born
I was born to be with you
In this space and time
After that and ever after I haven't had a clue

Only to break rhyme
This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue


I was born
I was born to sing for you
I didn't have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise ...

Between the two verses, Bono declares, “Only love, only love can leave such a mark/But only love, only love can heal such a scar.”

Love--earthly and heavenly--wounds our hearts, leaves us exposed and venerable. But that same love is the thing that heals us, makes us right and gives life meaning. It is the lesson of the Passion, and that of the Fisher King, that Bono cues in on. The singer has no choice, being the servant of both God and Love, but to sing of these things. And this experience of compassion, grace and awe gives him cover:

Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
The Magnificent

Love of God, and love of Love. The two mysteries in the end become one--

But only love, only love unites our hearts.

Love unites, brings our disparate selves together to magnify the mystery. Like the Grail knight, Bono rides out shouting “AMOR,” and challenges us to take up the standard, be it a cross, or the quest for the one true thing. They are ultimately the same.

Moment of Surrender follows Magnificent. We can hear in the lyrics a need for spiritual awakening, an epiphany; there are three in this song. You don’t have to be a particularly religious person to appreciate these moments. They are common to us all. Their specialness comes when we recognize them.

The music sets the scene: a tone, monotonous and eternal; a clunky, disjointed sound looping through. Adam Clayton’s thick bass makes the song heavy, anchoring Larry Mullen’s slow rhythm. Such is our world at times--atonal, thick with responsibility and circumstance, out of step and out of time. Bono begins with a memory (maybe not his own) of youthful desire and love:

I tied myself with wire
To let the horses run free
Playing with the fire
Until the fire played with me

The stone was semi-precious
We were barely conscious
Two souls too cool to be
In the realm of certainty
Even on our wedding day

We set ourselves on fire
Oh God, do not deny her
It's not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
Oh, believe in me

We ourselves are not enough when there are two, and the two alone are not enough without a third. That third person is the bond that is created by two souls becoming one. Their belief in love becomes a separate person, a spirit in common that is craved and desired beyond all else.

At the moment of surrender
I folded to my knees
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me

To recognize a moment of clarity, a shift in our outlook and direction, is to have the world stop, to be unconscientious of of ourselves, and see only that one thing, that truth.

Bono then moves on recounting life’s dark experiences and the longing to return:

My body's now a begging bowl
That's begging to get back, begging to get back
To my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control

We get cluttered in our lives. Our time is not our own. Every demand takes up too much space. Then, something happens:

I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine
I could see in the reflection
A face staring back at me
At the moment of surrender
Of vision over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me

The realization of his own face, of his soul gazing out, shocks him out of his life to discover the first thing, the dreams and joys, the authentic life. And how that moment changes your view, your perception of others and their suffering, and the joy to come:

I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down 'til the pentecost

Suffering is common to all of us. We feel alone and scared, confused. Jesus’ disciples felt that way through their master’s death, resurrection and departure. But Jesus promised a comforter, a hope. A holy spirit. When the spirit arrived, the follows of Christ become emboldened and passionate. They change their world.

In our own lives, the breakthrough comes. We find our true way of being, the “why” we are here. We can be compassionate and thoughtful. We can love, and see the world as limitless in its wonder. Joseph Campbell called this “following your bliss.” In an interview with Bill Moyers he explained, “That if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”


Review: U2 No Line On The Horizon (Part 1)

I have been wanting to write an extended review of U2's new album. As I started writing, I discovered I had a lot more to say than one post could safely hold. As an act of mercy to the reader, I am dividing the review into several parts. Here is part one.

My first U2 album--and it was an album--was The Unforgettable Fire. I had heard songs off their previous record, War. You could hear the punk edge in Bono’s voice and The Edges’s guitar on War. But, Unforgettable Fire was a different animal. It was ethereal, impressionistic, full of dreams and stream of conscious lyricism, from the defiant In The Name Of Love to the powerful Bad. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had taken the boys from Dublin into uncharted waters, and I was hooked.

25 year later, U2 has seen lots of musical changes, experiments, dead-ends and improvisations. The wonderful illusion of U2 is that they shed styles. Instead, they maintain those previous music styles and recycle them over and over. There isn’t a type of song that U2 hasn’t done, no theme they haven’t explored or exploited. Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam have done it all.

No Line On The Horizon is U2’s 12th studio album. Once again, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are at the faders, along with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite. The rolling stone of styles and themes accumulated over the previous records combine to produce a sparkling, ambitious, if somewhat uneven effort.

I love listening to the “edge” of records. The background interests me: can you hear the room? How long does that echo or flange sustain? There is no shortage of ear sweetened goodies to listen out for on No Line, starting with the title track. The guitars at the start sound like sirens, trumpets calling out. The little quirky fuzz chord in the second verse that counterpoints the rhythm guitar.

Bono growls out, a world-weary soul facing the awesome power of nature and the seduction of the intellect:

I know a girl who's like the sea
I watch her changing every day for me

One day she's still, the next she swells
You can hear the universe in her sea shells


I know a girl with a hole in her heart
She said infinity is a great place to start

She said "Time is irrelevant, it's not linear"
Then she put her tongue in my ear

Nature is a dynamic force here. Bono’s view of the earth is not the mothering type. Nature is volatile, mutable and sexy. She takes just as much as she gives.

Ideas and experiences tickle our mind and our senses. A great idea can seduce like a skillful lover, and demand more of us than we’re willing to give. When we’re open to experience, thinking in new ways, our world changes and shifts--even the parts of our life we are so comfortable with:

Every night I have the same dream
I'm hatching some plot, scheming some scheme

I'm a traffic cop, rue du Marais
The sirens are wailing but it's me that wants to get away

Once we have seen the world differently, in all its beauty and sacredness, and its sublime, awesome terror, it’s hard to turn back. The truth of a thing is troubling, not soothing. But, there is an answer. The epiphany is in the chorus--No line on the horizon. There is no border, no edge. You will never reach a place where there is no awe, no wonder. Our perception of edges, of definite points of place and being are challenged by an endlessly encompassing, infinitely diverse world.

Next time: Magnificent and Moment of Surrender