In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

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A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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The Boss, The Big Man and the Best Rock Song of the ’70s (Revisited)

(6/18/2011: Reposted from two years ago. R.I.P., Big Man!)

When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band…

The rest was history, wasn’t it?

I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born To Run.

It seems appropriate, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, to send a shout out to the Big Man, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment –and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history.

3.54 – 6.13. That is the second it begins and the second it ends: the sax solo that follows what is possibly Springsteen’s finest (and certainly most blistering) guitar solo. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).

More on Born To Run another time, although it’s unclear if anything else needs to be said about it. It does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself: one of the perfect rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born In The U.S.A., is that after two critically praised but commercially D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition and yearning wrapped inside-out each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before they made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.

And the rest is, well, history, isn’t it?

Every element comes together (the lyrics, the energy, the playing, the production) in the creation of rock’s response, mid-decade and post-Watergate (and Vietnam, the ’60s, etc.), to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows or making mistakes (or trying to escape their environment), on Born To Run many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the dreamer in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s The One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

Of course there are also the ones unlikely to get away or win; the ones for whom the deck is already stacked against them and they are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving (pun intended) pulse of “Night” where the everyman (brilliantly identified in the 2nd person since what he is experiencing is so typical and inevitable) escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and harrowing commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere, at night, with the yellow lines racing by beneath him. And while the restrained bordering on elegaic musical backdrop (just piano, bass and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across The River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand (his excitement at this modest sum all that is necessary to delineate his lot in life) there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. It’s neither ironic nor patronizing: the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and as he concedes, “we got ourselves out on that line.” We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became The Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born To Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest –and most important– moment, Clemons does his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

All of this sets up the denouement: while the lyrics (some of Springsteen’s very best) and the majestic piano cascades, courtesy of Roy Bittan, finish what they started, it’s up to the singer to sell this cautionary tale (“In the tunnels uptown/The Rat’s own dream guns him down) turned climactic cry of endurance. And sell it he does. The song could end after the final lines (including the immortal couplet “Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be”), and it would be a tour de force. But as the piano and strings begin to dance in what seems an obvious outro, Springsteen becomes a rock deity. 8.45 – 9.22: those 37 seconds, a wordless cycle of soulful screams, articulate everything Springsteen had spent three complete albums building up to; in that final cry we hear anguish, anger and above all, resolve. There is no fear, not anymore. He has arrived and after this song, there is no chance he could be ignored and even less chance anyone could ever take away his crown.

*Your mileage may vary and yes, I’m being deliberately hyperbolic. Who cares what the best song of the ’70s is, especially since we would never arrive at anything approximating consensus. (Which, after all is a good thing.) Put differently, everyone knows “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song of the ’70s, and “Jungleland” stands guitars and saxophones above “Stairway To Heaven”. In other words, “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song, except for the hundreds of songs (including dozens by Led Zeppelin) that are better. And if that fails to convince you, or makes less than a little bit of sense, I am satisfied that my work here is done.

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2011: Time To Die (Part One: January-June)

2011: In pace requiescat!

The new year kicked off with unfortunate news when word of the great Gerry Rafferty’s passing hit the wires. My tribute to him in its entirety is here. After celebrating the glory of one of the defining ’70s tracks, “Baker Street”, I had even more positive things to say about my personal favorite Rafferty tune:

And then, impossibly, there may be the song that is best of all, “Right Down The Line”. Also from City To City (an excellent album, well-worth acquiring), this is a love song you can believe in. I’m not even certain exactly what I mean by that, but it is definitely not the typical love song that is shorthand for expressing intimacy, like a Hallmark card. This is one of those tunes that actually is capable of conveying the sorts of things you’d like to tell someone special, and since you know you can’t do it more convincingly, or beautifully, it manages to become more than a song. Anyone who has fallen under its spell (and I’ve met many women and men who endorse it) will understand that this is not over-the-top, at least in any superficial or facile sense.

A while back I wrote at length about that old-fashioned courting ritual and rite of passage called the mix-tape. Here is some of what I fondly recalled:

The primary M.O. for mix tapes, of course, was for the intrigue they added to relationships. A mixed tape was de rigueur for establishing, assessing and understanding the various levels of any serious romance. The first mix was as important, in its way, as the first kiss: too early and you could blow it; too late and you may have missed an opportunity to send the right signal at the right time. If you remember mixed tapes you received without the slightest pang of remorse, enthrallment or unforced sentimentality, either the relationship or the tape sucked. Probably both. (My condolences.)

Well, “Right Down The Line” was not first mix-tape material. It was always, eventually a go-to, but you had to earn that one. So, if you ever received a mix-tape from me with this one on it (you know who you are, if any of you are reading this), you were one of the lucky ones. Which, obviously, is not meant to imply you were lucky to have dated me; but rather, you should consider our relationship the necessary impetus, the delivery device for those songs (and this song). And if that’s the best thing you remember about or associate with me, I’m quite happy –and humbled– to greedily ride the coattails of such amazing artists. Of all of the ones I invoked, Rafferty takes top billing, and “Right Down The Line” is a musical memory that will always hold a sacred place in my heart.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying thank you to Gerry Rafferty. Based on what little I knew, and the accounts I’m reading today, his life was not always a happy one and he fought desperately against demons too many of us are obliged to face. Hopefully even in his most lonely moments when he could not see the light, his heart was less heavy knowing how many lives he had improved with the gift he shared. I sincerely hope, if there is a karmic force and any sort of justice in our universe, he is in a peaceful place where he can feel the enormity of what he achieved, and realize that his life meant a great deal to more people than he could ever have imagined.

It’s impossible to put up a thumbnail pic of the incomparable Liz Taylor. Especially this picture. One of the most uninspired cliches, when a famous person passes, is the line “we won’t see their like again”, but in the case of Taylor, would anyone argue with that assertion? One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years is the EPIC Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My lengthy love letter (to the book; to these men) is here. Naturally the sections with Burton deal heavily with Liz and their tempestuous relationship. Here’s a taste:

Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)…my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton. “Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.’” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy. But wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration.

While it was extremely sad to realize Sidney Lumet would not be making any more movies, it seems appropriate to simply acknolwedge the ones he did make (some of the best we’ve gotten, by the way) and salute a life well-lived.

It’s difficult, and pointless, to try and isolate which film was Lumet’s best or most enduring. The fact that he made three of the best movies of the ’70s (three out-and-out masterpieces in one decade) is more than enough. There are already several well-written and worthwhile tributes and summaries of his long, amazing career, and they rightly spend time on the many decades he was active (including this last one when, at the age of 83, he directed the disturbing, outstanding Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead). For me, it was that seminal decade (the ’70s) when he did his best work, and that work does the near-impossible: it totally reflects its time and provides indelible commentary on –and for– that era; while managing to anticipate our world, almost forty years later. This is beyond prescient and bordering on prophetic. Of course, it has as much to do with the screenplays as his direction, but it’s to Lumet’s credit, and indicative of the dilemmas that drove him, that he gravitated toward this material.

Much more, including a tribute to one of my all-time favorite films, Serpico, here.

From April 15 (please read the entire tribute, here):

This hurts.

Of course jazz enthusiasts are (always have been?) a small if discerning bunch, so it’s unlikely the sudden passing of Billy Bang will register as much as it should on the collective consciousness. This is a shame, but it can’t be helped. Those who knew Billy, and those who know and love his work, already miss him, and shall have to console ourselves that a great man has moved to the great beyond.

I fall back on what is, at this point, a somewhat formulaic observation, but I’m content to repeat it since it’s true: the death of any meaningful artist, particularly at a painfully young age (Bang was 63, which might not seem particularly painful or young to you, but it does to me, especially since, as a working jazz musician, he was still relevant, engaged and important to music) is always difficult to endure, but we have little choice but to console ourselves with the work left behind.

In the end that is probably the fairest trade we can expect or ask for: we respect the artist and mourn their absence, but we keep them alive by listening –and responding to– their efforts. This is the only type of immortality we can verify, and it seems more than a little satisfying for all parties.

So…who was Billy Bang?

Check out an overview of his life and career here.

A more detailed, and very touching tribute, from NPR, is here.

Pretty remarkable and very American life. He came up in a time when intolerance based on skin color still held sway, and of course that pain was reflected in his subsequent work. Not being wealthy or connected, he was one of the thousands drafted to fight in Vietnam. Needless to say those experiences played a significant role in his aesthetic. Indeed, he made two masterpieces that draw specifically –and movingly– from those experiences, Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections. For anyone interested in Bang’s work (and sublime semi-contemporary jazz in general) would do well to check out either.

With Billy gone, we’ve lost a beautiful and generous –and brilliant– soul. Please find peace, brother Bang.

An appreciation for the man who improved music, here. Here’s a taste:

Perhaps more importantly, and this is something the younger generation, spoiled brats that they are, can never fathom and therefore never appreciate, is that content was not ubiquitous or readily available back in the bad old days. And I don’t just mean it wasn’t all free for all plugged-in pirates; I mean a great deal of it did not exist. Many albums from the glorious era of Prog-Rock had not been reissued or had fallen out of favor and, in some cases, had never been in favor in the first place. As such, particularly during a time when MTV, hair metal and synth pop reigned supreme (dark days, my wet-behind-the-ears-brethren), “classic rock” was not just considered music made by dinosaurs; it was a dinosaur–it was extinct.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of compact discs led to the resurgence of sales for old music, which prompted the classic rock radio formats that became a huge deal toward the end of the ’80s.

While writing/reminiscing about Jethro Tull on the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s death (here), I recalled the impact compact discs had on me, as a teenage music fanatic. I did/do defend my obsession with music as an addiction, and an expensive one, but also one that has had only positive influence on my life in literally too many ways to count:

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong infatuation with Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn’t live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you’d (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

And so, it was not just a matter of how it all sounded, it was also a matter of discovering all this new (old) shit. In this regard, I reckon I was the right age at the right place at the right time, and my obsession with all types of music coincided with this giant technological leap. If compact discs made more classic rock available, it’s simply not possible to convey what a godsend this format was for jazz and reggae. If you think early Pink Floyd albums were obscure (and they were), getting out of print Blue Note jazz discs or any reggae by anyone other than Bob Marley was a pipe dream (literally). While I may have saved tens of thousands of dollars had all this music been available by some magical computer –which is what it would have seemed like then, and still, to a certain extent, seems like now– I can’t say I regret the inexpressible thrill of discovery and the delight of entire eras of music suddenly within my grasp: I reckon (without sarcasm or snark) that I experienced, on some slight but meaningful level, what scholars or religious devotees are in search of when they dedicate themselves to their monomaniacal quests for enlightenment. For me, the pleasure was never in doubt, the rewards indescribable, and at the end of the day, this was the best investment I’ve ever made. Every single disc I ever bought (except of course the ones that were borrowed or stolen) I still own, they all play, and they still sound impeccable.

My world, in sum, existed with albums and compact discs and then digital files. It still does, and while it’s strange to imagine, I’ll welcome the next technological advancement, if there is one. In the final analysis all of these toys and innovations are delivery devices for the most pure form of expression mankind has been capable of perfecting. For that, I salute the rich life and considerable accomplishment of Norio Ohga.

R.I.P, Big Man.

For my money, “Jungleland” is the best rock song of the ’70s. A detailed deconstruction can be found here.

Here’s a taste:

Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born To Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest –and most important– moment, Clemons does his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up  (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Cheerio to a great teacher and inspirational friend. Full tribute here.

So, what does a former student and fellow human being –who connected with him about matters of music and history– make of this, other than the obvious (the obvious being: there is no way to lessen the blow of an untimely passing like this and no reason to rationalize this grim reminder of how horribly quick our time on this planet always is)?

Well, I will consider the same things I always think when someone who impacted my life passes on. I will think: be grateful that they were here at all, be humble that you had an opportunity to learn from them. Be happy that you are alive. Be eager to keep his memory alive, in words (easy) and especially in deeds (trickier). We have learned little, I reckon, if we let sorrow or regret overwhelm or consume us. We deepen the meaning of the departed as well as our own capacity for evolution if we can do more with the time we still have. I think the death of an admired person can –and should– serve as both an occasion for respect and humility, but also as a rallying cry. We all will die, some of us sooner than we’d like; but the only way it’s possible to defeat death is to keep our loved ones in our lives.

I notice, over the course of the past couple of years, I’ve been obliged to remember the lives of departed artists and it is never a pleasant experience. In a lower moment I may even be tempted to acknowledge the morbidity of this repeated exercise (also knowing that as I get older the artists I admire are also getting older and these occasions will only become more frequent going forward). Then, no matter how dejected I may feel –and the news of Mr. Caddell’s death has set me back in a profound way for the last 24 hours, perhaps in part because Clarence Clemons just died, also the victim of a stroke, and yesterday was Father’s Day– I consider the most important part: I should be celebrating them because their lives were well worth celebrating, and they made sufficient impact on me (and the world) that I was happy to do my humble part to express that gratitude.

Let’s face it: is there any more telling evidence of a life lived well than that it is remembered? Iain Caddell made his mark, and I feel secure in saying he touched the lives of many, many people. He should have had more time to enjoy this world and spread his love, but he made the most of the time he was given. It is something anyone should aspire to and I understand, today: even in death, he continues to guide and inspire me.

Cheerio, then, to a unique and unforgettable human being. (I appreciate –and more than slightly moved– that this particular video happened to be uploaded to YouTube on May 13, 2011; my birthday.)

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a  knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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The Boss, The Big Man and the Best Rock Song of the ’70s (Revisited)

When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band…

The rest was history, wasn’t it?

I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born To Run.

It seems appropriate, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, to send a shout out to the Big Man, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment –and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history.

3.54 – 6.13. That is the second it begins and the second it ends: the sax solo that follows what is possibly Springsteen’s finest (and certainly most blistering) guitar solo. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).

More on Born To Run another time, although it’s unclear if anything else needs to be said about it. It does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself: one of the perfect rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born In The U.S.A., is that after two critically praised but commercially D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition and yearning wrapped inside-out each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before they made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.

And the rest is, well, history, isn’t it?

Every element comes together (the lyrics, the energy, the playing, the production) in the creation of rock’s response, mid-decade and post-Watergate (and Vietnam, the ’60s, etc.), to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows or making mistakes (or trying to escape their environment), on Born To Run many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the dreamer in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s The One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

Of course there are also the ones unlikely to get away or win; the ones for whom the deck is already stacked against them and they are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving (pun intended) pulse of “Night” where the everyman (brilliantly identified in the 2nd person since what he is experiencing is so typical and inevitable) escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and harrowing commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere, at night, with the yellow lines racing by beneath him. And while the restrained bordering on elegaic musical backdrop (just piano, bass and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across The River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand (his excitement at this modest sum all that is necessary to delineate his lot in life) there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. It’s neither ironic nor patronizing: the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and as he concedes, “we got ourselves out on that line.” We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became The Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born To Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest –and most important– moment, Clemons does his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

All of this sets up the denouement: while the lyrics (some of Springsteen’s very best) and the majestic piano cascades, courtesy of Roy Bittan, finish what they started, it’s up to the singer to sell this cautionary tale (“In the tunnels uptown/The Rat’s own dream guns him down) turned climactic cry of endurance. And sell it he does. The song could end after the final lines (including the immortal couplet “Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be”), and it would be a tour de force. But as the piano and strings begin to dance in what seems an obvious outro, Springsteen becomes a rock deity. 8.45 – 9.22: those 37 seconds, a wordless cycle of soulful screams, articulate everything Springsteen had spent three complete albums building up to; in that final cry we hear anguish, anger and above all, resolve. There is no fear, not anymore. He has arrived and after this song, there is no chance he could be ignored and even less chance anyone could ever take away his crown.

*Your mileage may vary and yes, I’m being deliberately hyperbolic. Who cares what the best song of the ’70s is, especially since we would never arrive at anything approximating consensus. (Which, after all is a good thing.) Put differently, everyone knows “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song of the ’70s, and “Jungleland” stands guitars and saxophones above “Stairway To Heaven”. In other words, “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song, except for the hundreds of songs (including dozens by Led Zeppelin) that are better. And if that fails to convince you, or makes less than a little bit of sense, I am satisfied that my work here is done.

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