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On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb

25th June

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Anyone who’s lived enough knows that hindsight’s got a bad habit of separating the bullshit from the real thing. Few things illustrate this truth more clearly than revisiting Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson four years later. It will be apparent to most who’ve given the album a second chance since its release in march of 2004 that listening to it is about as riveting an experience as listening to a second coat of paint dry on your mother’s bathroom wall. It exudes about as much passion for its material as the corporate executives who’ve been cashing in on Clapton’s deplorable laurel-resting for decades. And though Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied, it’s about time to call the old buzzard’s bluff: this ain’t no blues man.

This is “blues” for people who thought Blink 182 was “punk.” That’s probably the reason why, working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble when this drivel hit stores, I watched a succession of soccer moms and burned-out Floyd fans cough up their kids’ gas money to hear Eric Clapton’s ridiculously over-hyped disaster of a “blues” album. “One thing the blues ain’t,” Stephen Stills admonished a fan in the audience on the classic live album Four Way Street, “is funny.” The way he said it, it sounded as if Stills was perfectly prepared to slit the poor bastard’s throat with his pick if he dared utter another sound; coming from the guy who jumped Elvis Costello in an Ohio bar amid a fit of rage after Costello called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger,” the threat of physical violence was entirely real.

(In defense of Costello’s remark, for which he scheduled a press conference to apologize, Salon writes that “There’s no evidence that Costello was a racist — he’d been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was — but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down ’60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for.”)

Another thing the blues “ain’t,” though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be. That’s why it’s the very last genre you should be able to listen to on your way to soccer practice with a legion of snot-nosed kids packed in the back of your SUV. Not because it is explicit–for that is merely controversial–but because real blues is the musical equivalent of a razor to the wrist. A well-delivered blues track, such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail,” should leave you no more settled than a track from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. And if you’ve listened to either Johnson’s song or Cohen’s album, you know what exactly what I mean. Clapton’s album, by contrast, plays like the soundtrack of a walk through the sandbox on Sunday afternoon with a fistful of birthday balloons and clown paint cracking on your chin in the sun. It is, to put it simply, much too polite a record for the blues.

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Robert Johnson

 

It is nothing less than a travesty that Clapton is continually allowed to pass himself off as a blues man when his days as an edgy and innovative guitarist hell-bent on making the blues cool again are so far behind him now as to be the stuff of urban legend. It has been a long time since Clapton was a no-name strapping on his guitar for another session with the Yardbirds, and his recent recordings prove that he has forgotten what it was that brought him to pick up a guitar as a kid. He fails to understand that mere competence does not constitute “Blues” music. Blues comes from within, from a depth in the gut that’s been hollowed out by the kind of real-life suffering that brought the original blues masters — whose genius was not rewarded by millions of dollars in royalties, but by an occasional burst of applause by the roadside — to their chosen craft.

Take Robert Johnson, for example: he grew up in squalid poverty and worked as a sharecropper as a boy, his first child was stillborn and his first wife died during labor, his next wife suffered a breakdown and also died young, he himself was a victim of near-blindness and, finally, he was poisoned to death at the age of 27. Maybe that’s the kind of shit that Robert was fixing for the night he sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to live with. Or take Muddy Waters, who never sold his soul to the devil, but grew up under the care of his grandmother because his mother died when he was five years-old (the age at which he began to teach himself harmonica, beating on a can of kerosene to get a feel for rhythm.) He worked as a sharecropper at the Stoval Plantation and lived in a shoddy wooden cabin about the size of a matchbox, somehow scrounging together enough in wages to buy his first guitar at 17.

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The Cabin Muddy Waters Lived in As A Boy

The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues. Clapton’s lackluster performance on Me and Mr. Johnson–as on so many of his past records–further demonstrates that he is too far removed from that state of the soul to make real music. My disgust with the album has nothing to do with “purism” or a lack of grittiness. I’ll take a clean sound if it’s got soul. I’m talking about modern blues masters like Charlie Musslewhite, John Hammond or even Tom Waits. Clapton, by contrast, compounds weak performances with vocal deliveries that sound as though the man is slipping into a coma as he sings.

I’m sorry, but a guy who puts out albums with liner notes that include catalogs of his own merchandise is the last guy on earth who ought to be cutting blues records. Clapton has made it clear that the tremendous celebrity status he engendered as a young man was so unappealing to him that he is willing to release decades worth of diluted, subpar blues/rock, which he has done. He has proven to be a rather powerful enemy of his own reputation, and has subsequently forgotten how to bring his soul to the microphone. If anybody ought to be keeping his hands off those Robert Johnson records, it’s Eric Clapton. If you want to know what Johnson sounded like, stick with the original tunes and hunt down the stuff that Muddy was listening to while he worked with his bare hands in the fields of Mississippi to save enough for that first guitar: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson or The Mississippi Sheiks.

Nick Cave: The Prince of Darkness Speaks in an Australian Accent (But that Doesn’t Make Him God)

11th April

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“Be mindful of the prayers you send
Pray hard but pray with care
For the tears that you are crying now
Are just your answered prayers
The ladders of life that we scale merrily
Move mysteriously around
So that when you think you’re climbing up, man
In fact you’re climbing down
Into the hollows of glamour, where with spikes and hammer
With telescopic camera, they chose to turn the screw
Oh I hate them, Ma! Oh I hate them, Pa!
Oh I hate them all for what they went and done to you”
–Nick Cave, “Oh My Lord,”
And No More Shall We Part, 2001

There comes a time when a great songwriter’s work eventually builds a monument of such indisputable glory that fans and media alike exchange objective criticism for the kind of polite noise everyone’s making about the latest from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig!! Lazarus Dig!!!, as if to handle their work with the remotest honesty is to befoul the names of the gods. Let me make one thing clear: Nick Cave has without any doubt attained the heights of rock ‘n roll divinity, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be pulled to the ground when he asks for it. And with Lazarus, he doesn’t just ask–he begs.

As with other recent outings by similarly gargantuan lyricists, such as Patti Smith’s Trampin’ or Leonard Cohen’s disastrously unfocused Dear Heather, Cave’s Lazarus exudes a conspicuous polish and complacency that culminate in the most pedestrian album of his career, despite its ambitious “Hey! Let’s tell the story of Lazarus rising from the dead, but throw in some bullshit about Harry Houdini at the same time, just to fuck with ‘em!” concept. When the idea sounds more interesting than the work it produces, it’s probably because the idea actually wasn’t all that interesting after all. And no amount of frenzied bluster and gesticulation in Cave’s dime-store-quality video for the title track can change that (part of the problem is that the whole Fu-Manchu thing Nick’s got going on is more interesting than the song.) It’s all noise and no nuance this time around–the exact inversion of everything Cave fans expect of this otherwise brilliant man.

But it’s too late now–the establishment’s chorus of homage-paying bobbleheads has chimed in en masse, dragging the most tired blurb-worthy cliches from the tomb where they were wisely abandoned several decades ago. “The band sounds better than ever!” Uncut exclaims. Yawn. Has this person actually listened to Abattoir Blues or Let Love In? Really, Uncut? Better than that? Yeah, maybe not.

But it gets better–considerably better, in fact, as with this morsel from Entertainment Weekly: “Cave spits out his woebegone lyrics as if he were a holy ghost-filled preaching machine leading the world’s funkiest revival meeting.” A holy ghost-filled preaching machine? Did this mofo actually WRITE that? The joining of Jesus with Garrison Keilor and a fundamentalist version of H.G. Wells is admirable, but only for its phenomenally tortured language.

And then, of course, we get the usual “the band just keeps getting better with age” motif, exactly the kind of tossed-off drivel a nameless journalist scribbles on a napkin in lipstick in a panicked effort to meet a deadline, prompting countless others to cooperatively bray along in their respective rags–and they have. It’s eminently clear that most rock journalists are paying less mind to the music than to the name on the cover it’s wrapped in.

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The several talking songs on Lazarus (like “Night of the Lotus Eaters” or the title track) are palpably reminiscent of Lou Reed’s many forgotten “fuck you” albums, rubbish like Ecstasy wherein Lou arrives at the unfortunate conclusion that his lyrics are of such majesty as to require only that he stand somewhere close to a mike and read them off his legal pad while the band plays something listenable. It’s this very presumptuousness that undercuts Cave’s performances here, a combination of indifference and indulgence that suggests Nick’s been reading his own clippings. Gone is the gut-deep rave against the world in the brilliant “Oh My Lord” from 2001’s memorably haunted And No More Shall We Part. Gone are the McGarrigle sisters summoning a backdrop of distant ghosts to the misted edges of the song. Gone is the ballsiness of opening an album of ballads with a line like “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.”

Instead we get a self-congratulatory Cave luxuriating in the density of his own chiseled lines while spitting stale similes like “you came on like a punch in the heart,” accidentally stumbling here and there into a vocal melody that almost approximates song. The band accompanies Cave in a drunken nausea of whiny violins and one-chord riffs that condemn most tracks to the monotone rut Cave is so clearly steeped in. At times, as on the entirely discordant “Midnight Man” or “Moonland,” the band simply collapses into an unlistenable jazz of dispassion. When Cave released the jam-packed double album Abattoir Blues in 2004, a mature masterpiece that integrated the blistering abandon of his Birthday Party days with the brooding balladry of Boatman’s Call, he suggested that fans ought to listen to disc one first, and then resort to disc 2 only when they grew hungry for a new Nick Cave album. Well, I find myself famished after listening to Lazarus, and so you’ll understand if I return now to the Abattoir to get my fill.

DeJa Vu: Oh, how we wish it was, John!

29th March

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Let’s put it this way: I’d rather administer a hot-water enema on myself. This is quite simply the most awful drivel to drip from the soul of a graybeard since the last five minutes Paul Simon spent inside a recording studio. I’ll go Run Through The Jungle with John anytime, but I never thought he would get me running from my stereo.

Mr. Fogerty can’t seem to decide who he is: Joey Ramone (“She’s Got Baggage”); moonlight disco singer at a strip club (“Radar”); 70-year-old CCR fan turned Microsoft executive with enough time on his hands to mistake himself for Ritchie Blackmore (“Wicked Old Witch”); some anonymous dude who wishes he wrote “Sultans of Swing” (“Nobody’s Here Anymore”); middle-aged wife-beating beer-gutted Raiders fan who wants to sing about it (“Honey Do”).

This grab-bag of personas gives new meaning to the phrase “pick your poison.” Whether it’s “Sugar-Sugar” or “Rhubarb Pie,” most of these songs are bound to go down about as smoothly as a glass of WD-40. Tragically, Déjà Vu All Over Again is anything but. Blue Moon Swamp was brilliant. It was the kind of southern-fried swamp rock with a sound so real you actually started to wonder whether Fogerty had a real-life bullfrog on bass.

With Déjà vu All Over Again, the only thing you start to wonder about is how you’re going to make the pain go away. As one anemic acoustic ballad after another unfolded during my initial listen, I could not believe my ears. “This is the follow up to Blue Moon Swamp?” I wondered.

Sure, the anti-war title track has its moments, even if it sounds like new lyrics dubbed over the tune to “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” And maybe “Wicked Old Witch” and “In the Garden” come close to actually sounding like a John Fogerty album—which is a good thing, because, I just took a look, and it does say “John Fogerty” on the cover. Just checking.

But when a friend of John’s at Geffen offered him the artistic freedom that had always eluded him in the past and told him to “go make your dream record,” I wonder whether he meant for it to actually sound like a dream? Or was he just being figurative, hoping the record would sound like something that actually makes sense in the real world? I sure hope not.

In fact, all sorts of dreams come to mind with these songs. The overproduced treacle that is “Sugar-Sugar” conjures visions of freshly diapered babies trundling through an endless expanse of pink cotton candy. The far-from-appetizing “Rhubarb Pie” makes me feel like I’m trying to eat a sand and spider sandwich on year-old sourdough.

The torturously discordant “She’s Got Baggage” handily wins the “worst song of John Fogerty’s life” award; it is so awful that I had to skip to the next track for fear that I’d chew the inside of my mouth into a bloody pulp out of sheer agony.

Look, I love John. I really do. But if this is the best he can come up with these days, the man needs a day job. Someone else could have put things like “I Will Walk With You” to tape and actually maintained a scrap of dignity, but, please, not the guy who wrote Run Through the fuckin’ Jungle.

0304: The Tarnished Jewel

29th March

Jewel

When Steve Earle dubbed Shania Twain “America’s best paid lap dancer,” one wonders whether even he could have anticipated the music industry’s latest conversion. As if there weren’t enough “singers” on the scene turning pop music into a boozy night at Hooters, here comes Jewel, the once quasi-sincere folk artist turned “rock’s sexiest poet,” as a recent issue of Blender Magazine tags her. Anyone unaware of the bottomless depths to which the pop music machine is willing to sink for an extra few bucks might consider that particular rag’s cover, showcasing Jewel’s celebrity makeover as she smirks and leans against a wall in as lascivious a pose as the Alaskan-born “songwriter” could conjure, clad from head to toe in leather and sleazy lingerie. If that isn’t enough of an education, then the leather glove on her right hand exposing a few bare, tan fingers is sure to strike you as oh-so-irresistible. If you do actually pick up a copy of the magazine, don’t blame yourself for expecting a story on Jewel’s favorite S & M maneuvers. And, just in case you were wondering, each photo accompanying the article itself is captioned by a list of all the fancy fashion designers whose fishnets and high heels she’s wearing. Some of the brand names, such as New York’s “Trashy Lingerie,” whose products can be found on the Web at — no joke — www.trash.com, and L.A.’s “Retail Slut,” seem hysterically appropriate.

Apparently, Jewel’s 11-million selling debut album of refreshingly understated and heartfelt folk tunes, followed by a few more platinum collections of largely similar material, wasn’t providing enough of a financial cushion. After all, if you think you’ve got problems footing that mortgage bill and car payment, try keeping up with a mansion and insatiable wardrobe. It’s tough being Jewel. Really. Indeed, this is only the latest of several conspicuous leaps taken by talented artists into the surely profitable realm of pop trash and veritable prostitution, Sheryl Crow’s abysmal C’mon, C’mon being the most notable example in recent years. Panicking at comparatively “weak” record sales as of late, Jewel’s entourage put together a recipe for renewal. It goes something like this: extract any semblance of intelligence or tact, dumb down the lyrics because, you know, most people are just morons anyway, and, oh yeah, take her clothes off, and voila! You’ve got sales! As Petty put it on his bitter The Last DJ: “Some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick! Hey, that’s what I call muuuusssiiiicc!!”

One wonders whether Jewel’s billed persona as a once-homeless songwriter risen improbably to the top of the world with no more assistance than a guitar, a voice, and a few good lines, has ever really been much more than a pose. The wistful and phenomenally successful Pieces of You offered some reason to believe that Jewel was indeed representative of the proverbial starving poet gone from rags to riches, but creative efforts that followed did little to further that image. In the introduction to her million-selling book of verse, the poetically titled A Night Without Armor, Jewel cites increasingly legendary American poet, Charles Bukowski as an influence on her own work. But is it any wonder, really, that Bukowski’s name appeared misspelled? Universally panned in countless reviews, A Night Without Armor serves as poetry’s equivalent to Daniel Steele and is the butt of many a joke in classrooms of MFA programs around the country. “I miss you miserably, dear / and I can’t quite manage / to face this unbearably / large bed / alone,” Jewel writes in one of the book’s many prosaic self-indulgences. Surely, this is no Patti Smith.

Now, though, we have 0304 to consider, a fabulously mindless foray into precisely the kind of soupy production and vacuity to which Jewel’s former self seemed the ultimate antithesis. Apparently impressed by fellow pop product Avril Lavinge’s knack for clever song titles, i.e., “Sk8er Boi,” Jewel serves up one hell of a track listing, with songs like “Run 2 U,” “2 Find U,” “Yes U Can,” 2 Become 1″ and the award-winning “U & Me =Love,” the mathematical spelling for “sell out.” To cap it off, the album’s title, reminiscent of Billy Idol’s 1993 bomb, Cyberpunk, is a rather less than subtle nod to the “simple girl in a digital world” (uh, Madonna, is that you?) about whom Jewel sings throughout the album.

Just as Idol attempted to capture in music the early-90’s cultural phenomenon coined by William Gibson, Jewel’s newfound gig is an utterly hip Internet age image being sold to an exclusively teeny bopper audience. It is likely to sell far better than Idol’s tragic swansong, but if it does, the success will be attributable to nothing more than keen marketing.

The writing here demonstrates no interest whatever in disputing the ill reception with which A Night Without Armor was met. Granted, lots of boys will be drooling for Jewel while reaching for the Vaseline jar before long, but even they are unlikely to mistake the monotonous and desperate single, “Intuition,” for the work of a “poet.” Lines such as “just follow your heart baby” and “If you want my love, you can try my love, you can buy my love, just take my hand” aren’t exactly Byron.

Amid Jewel’s newfound cloak of sex and glitter, attempts at political observation like the opening track, “Stand,” seem as incongruous as they are stale, turning in clichés for cash. “Together we can make a stand,” she reminds us. One can almost envision David Crosby hurling into his coffee. Suddenly, it seems so long ago that the charming rookie songster, Tracy Chapman, was Takin’ ‘Bout A Revolution. “Kate Moss can’t find a job,” Jewel croons on “Stand.” Well, here is an “intuition” of my own: any self-respecting listener who makes it beyond the first half of this album will likely be wishing something worse than unemployment on Jewel, America’s most literate lingerie model.