Fifty years ago, in May 1965, Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing It All Back Home was released in the UK. I don’t know for sure when I first began to hear songs off the new album, though it must have been soon after its release since by then I was listening for nearly a year to music beamed from the pirate radio ship Caroline North, broadcasting to sleepy Cheshire from the Mersey Bay. My 17th birthday in September brought a copy of the LP with songs which have remained personal favourites through the years, including ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’. Continue reading “Fifty years of Bringing It All Back Home: through the smoke rings of my mind”
Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)
Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with Ralph Nader. Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians. On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:
I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.
In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.
It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo). Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.
The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others. The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice. The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’. There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.
A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:
If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.
But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter. He elaborates in the CD booklet:
In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine. We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans. We picked ’em all up. I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone. I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.
Seeger never put music to these words. I’d like to share them here:
Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.
But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.
Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.
Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.
Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.
Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.
There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:
In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song. But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within. For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:
No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.
There’s a feature on the Guardian website (The power of photography: time, mortality and memory) which questions whether, now that digital technology allows us to take innumerable pictures, we still cherish them as much as we did when film was precious. The Guardian asked asked writers, artists and critics to pick a shot they treasure, and that set me thinking about the special meaning, the particular resonance, possessed by certain photographs in my own collection.
Most mysterious are those photographs in which I seem to be both present and not present; that evoke memories, but not of the particular place or moment represented within them. There must be a narrative here, but the only one I can now conjure is, most probably, entirely fictional.
It’s high summer and very hot. The dolly tub has been dragged out into the yard behind our house, one of four in a terrace that stands in isolation facing what might once have been a village green bordered by fields but where now (it’s 1952 or thereabouts) a cinema (later to be turned into a church for local Catholics) and a post-1944 Education Act school now face our front door. I sit on the edge of the tub naked, drying my crotch with a towel while my dad, wearing what looks like a natty one-piece swimsuit sits in my pedal car. The sun beats down on the York stone flags, shirts dry on the washing line, and the coal house door is shut.
I think this one must have been taken that same summer. If I’m right about the year, I’m four years old and my mum and dad have been married for five years. There are material things I can recognise in these images – the backyard, the coal shed, those motley window-panes that hide what we called ‘the back place’, a leaky glassed-in extension (where the dolly tub lived, along with the mangle) that meant that you didn’t have to get wet going to the outside toilet. But, though I am present in these images, I have no memory of the moment. So what I can’t explain is why, on that hot afternoon, my mum decided to wear her wedding dress again and my dad sat in my pedal car.
It must have been on the same afternoon that my dad decided it would be a laugh to photograph me in the dolly tub. In this one I seem to be experiencing some awful premonition of the sentiment contained in Larkin’s poem, ‘Reference Back’, quoted by Blake Morrison in the Guardian feature.
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.
Morrison wrote that for him, the chief feeling evoked by looking at old photos is one of sadness:
That most of the people in them are now dead; that the times they commemorate can’t be retrieved. It’s sentimental, I know: time passes; the moment goes even as the shutter clicks. … Worse, though, would be to have none at all.
For me there is a certain melancholy derived from seeing my parents happy and relaxed in these photos: in most of my memories of them they are neither. But it’s not sadness so much as mystery that pervades these photos when I look at them: they’re such familiar images now that it seems as if they record a specific memory of my own, and yet they do not. If these are memories, my parents might have recognised them as moments from their own.
Looking at these photos now is as if we are in Plato’s cave, ‘revelling in mere images of the truth’, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography. We are ‘like slaves in a cave chained to a bench who see only the shadows of puppets and other objects projected from behind our backs and without our knowledge’. For Sontag, photography was an elegiac art:
Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. … All photographs are memento mori…by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
In the Guardian feature, the art critic Adrian Searle observes that ‘there are years and years of my life, places I have been … rooms I have lived in, for which I have few visual records’. For those of us born mid-century or earlier, this is bound to be true. For much of the last half-century cameras were not as omnipresent as they are now in the age of pocketable digital cameras and smartphones. I did not possess a camera when I was a student at university: me and my fellow students did not snap each other at every opportunity and share photos the way they do today. The cost of film militated against the digital Tourette’s that nowadays has us firing off endless shots of the same scene.
Now, though, we record every moment of our relationships and family history. Over the years, like most families, we have accumulated many photos of each of us, but this image of my wife which has a special meaning for me. I was a thousand miles away when it was taken, in the summer of 1982. We had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part. This photo offers more than a likeness: it reveals the soul, as Jackson Browne sings in ‘Fountain of Sorrow’:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
The reason this photo moves me, why it stands apart from most of the photos collected in our shoebox of family snaps, is that it possesses what Roland Barthes called in Camera Lucida (coining a term of his own) punctum. A photograph’s punctum is the object or detail that jumps out at the viewer – ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me … is poignant to me’. The punctum creates a disturbance ‘which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image. Basically it could be anything – something that reminds you of your childhood, a sense of deja vu, or an object of sentimental value. Punctum is very personal and will vary for each individual. (Barthes distinguished the punctum from a photograph’s studium – the element that creates a more general interest in a photographic image. The studium here might consist of a fascinating fashion note: that in 1982 young women wore bright red dungarees!)
A year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road. Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape. One evening, walking up the lane, a badger blundered out of the undergrowth, crossing our path only feet away from us. It was a magical encounter – the only time either of us has seen a badger – and there is no photo, though a handful of images remain of that place, each one bathed in a golden glow (a trick of the exposure or the print process no doubt, but really derived from the sensuality I read back into them).
All that week Rita was reading Mandelstam, a fact I captured in a chance shot. And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer when we met our badger.
Naturally, there had to be consequences and nine months later our daughter was born. So a house was bought and a concreted-over garden was sledgehammered back to green.
Here’s another photo with punctum; it speaks, not just of our daughter’s spirit, but of the perfect happiness of childhood. I’m annoyed that it wasn’t me that made it; this beautiful image was shot on her nan’s inexpensive point-and-shoot film camera. Which just goes to show.
In the Guardian feature, their photography critic Sean O’Hagan worries that he’s never printed a digital photograph: ‘They are stored on my hard disk in their hundreds, maybe thousands. This fills me with a vague anxiety’. I know the feeling, and it is a strange fact that now, when we can (and we do) take as many photos as we like, they so quickly disappear into the cyber-vaults of Facebook or Picasa, or sit similarly unseen on hard drives. The number of images of our three-year old dog alone on this PC hard drive must be in the hundreds.
I think Jemima Kiss, the Guardian’s digital media correspondent, is onto something when she writes:
Photo storage needs to be more automated, and photo-viewing software should also help us more. It can learn which photos we view most often, and let the poor photos recede automatically. Software could summarise the 10 best photos we’ve taken that month, and put them somewhere special. It could identify duplicate photos and suggest the one to keep. Don’t back up all 3,000, just the 30 you really treasure. All we need is some bright spark to fix the problem.
Then, truly, we could sift through our photos and say, ‘I saw this miracle’.
(My aunt Lilian, Hazel Grove, Cheshire, nineteen-thirty-something, taken by my dad; studium with added punctum.)
The rain was lashing down so hard that the windscreen wipers could barely cope as I drove over to Manchester to see Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Etihad Stadium yesterday with an old friend who, at the last minute, acquired a pair of tickets from someone unable to go, and had graciously offered one to me.
What were we letting ourselves in for, we wondered, as the radio gave news of chaos as the deluge hit the Isle of Wight Festival, and flooding across the north as a month’s-worth of rain fell in 24 hours. In Liverpool, as we left, came news that the annual Africa Oye Festival had been cancelled after the stage had begun to sink in waterlogged ground at Sefton Park, and was declared unsafe.
Well, Bruce is The Boss, and he sorted it…minutes before he and his 16-strong band came on stage at 7:15, the rain stopped and, apart from a couple of brief showers later on, no rain fell for the next three and a half hours of the show.
There was no messing about: the band tore into the defiant opening chords of Badlands with a powerful energy that was maintained through the entire show, only pausing for breath during a brief interlude when Bruce sat alone at the piano to play The Promise.
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good
‘Decline, exploitation, war and death all receive an airing … ennobled into fist-punching entertainment,’ wrote Kitty Empire in her Guardian review of the show at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light three nights ago. That is the abiding impression left by this show for me, too. For much of concert, Springsteen’s choice of songs traced a distinct thread, one that raged against the injustices and betrayals of these hard times: the destruction of the material lives of ordinary working men and women, the promise of a better life and the dreams of personal fulfilment crushed by ‘robber barons and greedy thieves’ who ‘ate the flesh of everything they found’ and whose crimes ‘have gone unpunished’.
But Springsteen always ensures that his audiences go home spiritually lifted and with a vision that, standing ‘shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart’ we will one day rise up and leave our sorrows behind:
And all this darkness past
The characters and stories in Springsteen’s songs may be vivid portrayals of ordinary men and women doing their best to get by in a tough world, but the language, the imagery, is intensely spiritual – indeed, as is apparent on his new album, Wrecking Ball, increasingly religious, as the songwriter seems to draw on the deep well of his Catholic raising (as does Patti Smith). Part way through a rendition of My City of Ruins drenched in gospel, Springsteen roared, ‘can you feel the spirit tonight? Kitty Empire again:
Modern-day mass events – gigs, sporting fixtures and political rallies – can’t help but echo many of the ancestral dynamics of faith gatherings. And while most rock’n’roll makes liberal use of religious metaphors, there is a blatant revivalist tinge to tonight’s show, which borrows heavily from soul and gospel. Land of Hope and Dreams turns into People Get Ready. Lyrically, we are never far from Biblical language – a valley, or a mountain; Springsteen takes us down to The River, to some of the biggest cheers of the night, then takes us up to The Rising…
In another review of this tour, Evelyn McDonnell wrote in the LA Times:
Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.
‘Hard times come, hard times go’ is the phrase, delivered as a shamanic incantation part way through the song Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s songs always have been a powerful combination of hard times and joy, but in these times and in this show that blend was paramount. The first six songs all expressed the rage and perseverance that ran like a thread through this show: Badlands was followed by a sequence of powerful songs, beginning with No Surrender, reprised from Born In The USA:
No retreat, baby, no surrender
Then continuing with a trio from the new album Wrecking Ball: We Take Care of Our Own,Wrecking Ball, and Death to My Hometown. I was a bit lukewarm about some of the songs when the album first appeared, but performed live in a stadium setting these are powerful anthems. I understand better now what Springsteen is attemting to do beneath the surface patriotism and flag-waving of We Take Care of Our Own:
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We needed help but the cavalry stayed home…
Where’s the hearts, they run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit to reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea
Wrecking Ball, written in protest at the demolition of Giants Stadium, is now presented as a metaphor for the destruction wreaked on communities by financial institutions,culminating in that incantation of the phrase, ‘hard times come, and hard times go’:
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
When the game has been decided and we’re burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind…
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
Death To My Hometown is as furious and fierce as it gets:
They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones …
So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now
They brought death to our hometown, boys
But if one song stood out in this opening sequence, it was My City of Ruins, a track that I’d almost forgotten. It dates back twelve years, but took on a different meaning after September 11, and as a result it was added to The Rising. But now, post-recession, it regains its original sense. This was a tremendous performance, with Springsteen pushing the gospel exhortation, ‘Come on, rise up’, to the limit:
like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
Come on rise up!
The mid-section of the show consisted of a cavalcade of upbeat numbers, beginning with Spirit in the Night and a rare outing for The E Street Shuffle (with a superb jazzy intro), and several welcome rockers from The River: Two Hearts, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Out on the Street, as well as the title track itself, with its fearful challenge:
Or is it something worse?
Darlington County was peeled off Born in The USA (to be followed later, in the encores, by Bobby Jean and Dancing In The Dark). Waiting on a Sunny Day came just as rain began to fall for a few minutes.
The main theme returned with a trio of songs from the new album: Jack of All Trades, Shackled and Drawn, and the inspirational Land of Hope and Dreams, with its invocation ‘This train’ rising to a crescendo:
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Jack of All Trades seems at first a quiet song out of the mouth of a quiet man, but ends with the threat, ‘If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight’:
Brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
Feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades
We’ll be alright
The banker man grows fat
Working man grows thin
It’s all happened before
And it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again
It’ll beg your life
I’m a jack of all trades
Darling, we’ll be alright
Shackled and Drawn rails against a world gone wrong:
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
The Promise and The Rising were in there, too:
The fight that you can’t win
Every day it just gets harder to live
The dream you’re believing in …
The promise is broken, you go on living
It steals something from down in your soul
There isn’t a Springsteen song that doesn’t, in the end, create spiritual uplift. But on this night, he seemed to demarcate sections of the show to different moods: apart from a sequence of rockers from The River album, he reserved the uplifting, crowd-rousing songs mainly for the lengthy encore, with unavoidable numbers such as Thunder Road, Born to Run and Dancing In The Dark. The encore set opened with the most uplifting song off Wrecking Ball, We Are Alive:
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
Springsteen boasts an augmented E Street Band on this tour – 16 members, including old stalwarts Roy Bittan (piano, synthesizer), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Patti Scialfa (guitar, vocals), Garry Tallent (bass guitar), Stevie Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Max Weinberg (drums) and Charlie Giordano (keyboards). They are augmented by new recruits such as Soozie Tyrell (violin, guitar) and a tremendous brass section, including tuba, trumpet and trombone. But the most crucial new guy is Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, whose shoes he has filled effortlessly.
But Clarence is missed deeply; during My City of Ruins, Bruce took a roll call of the band, asking, finally, ‘Are we missing anyone tonight?’. Everyone in the crowd knew to what he was referring: not just the loss of Clarence, but also organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.
Later, during the encore, came the most moving moment: during the climactic Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, at the line, ‘When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’, Springsteen stopped the music. For several minutes Springsteen held up his microphone, urging the crowd (who really didn’t need any urging) to clap, roar, cheer or cry as images of the Big Man’s career flashed up on the giant screens. It was rock ‘n’ roll catharsis. It was beautiful.
At 62, Springsteen can still strut his stuff – he’s insanely active for someone his age, powering through the show non-stop for nearly four hours. He knows he’s old enough to be granddad to a large section of the crowd (that age profile was pleasing), and makes a point of emphasising it with a knowing grin in Dancing in the Dark when he comes to the line
there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me
There’s a bit of a performance, too, halfway through the encore when Bruce makes out that he’s completely knackered, collapsing to the stage and lying flat out as Steve Van Zandt tries to revive him by drenching him with a huge spongeful of water.
Earlier, just as the rain returns for a brief moment, Bruce goes straight into Waiting on a Sunny Day, with its opening line, ‘Well it’s raining…’.and then urges a young boy to join him on stage to sing a chorus or two.
This, and other moments, drove home what a great showman Bruce is. During Dancing in the Dark, he replicates the famous video at the time of the single release by having a couple of young women pulled on stage to dance alongside him, before each receiving a hug and a kiss. What a memory to take home from a show that was powerful, emotional and memorable for all of us.
The full setlist was:
- No Surrender
- We Take Care of Our Own
- Wrecking Ball
- Death to My Hometown
- My City of Ruins
- Spirit in the Night
- The E Street Shuffle
- Jack of All Trades
- Atlantic City
- Prove It All Night
- Two Hearts
- You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
- Darlington County
- Shackled and Drawn
- Waiting on a Sunny Day
- Save My Love
- The Promise
- The River
- The Rising
- Out on the Street
- Land of Hope and Dreams
- We are Alive
- Thunder Road
- Born to Run
- Bobby Jean
- Cadillac Ranch
- Dancing in the Dark
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
- Twist and Shout
These video clips are from other performances on the 2012 tour, but I’ve chosen them because they are high quality – and capture a few of the high points of what is clearly a crafted show that has retained certain key elements on every night of the tour:
Badlands – Madison Square Garden on 6 April
Waiting On A Sunny Day on 17 April in Cleveland
Tenth Avenue Freeze Out in Boston on 26 March 26 with tribute to Clarence Clemons
And here are two additional nuggets that offer further revealing glimpses of the man. First, at his Berlin concert, Bruce performed When I Leave Berlin, a song from the 1973 album by British folk musician Wizz Jones:
When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
My mind is turning
My heart is yearning
For you and Berlin
Here today but the wall is open call out the soldiers and the guns
Here today the gates are open mothers are in the arms of their sons
When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
I’ll know for certain I am a free man When I leave Berlin
And finally, the other week, Springsteen inducted Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a fine speech that ended with this passage:
In seventies, post-Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long, slow after-burn of the sixties; it’s heartbreak, it’s disappointments, it’s spent possibilities better than Jackson’s masterpiece, Late For the Sky. It’s just a beautiful body of work. It’s essential in making sense of the times. Before the Deluge still gives me goosebumps and it raises me to cause. Late For the Sky, when those car doors slam at the end of the record, they still bring tears. And there was no more searching, yearning, loving music made for and about America at the time. […]
Jackson’s influence and his voice has always been his own. He’s one of the true activist musicians I’ve ever known. World In Motion, Looking East, Lives In the Balance, he followed his muse wherever it took him. Risked his, and he paid whatever the cost. He’s long put his mouth, his money, and his body where his politics are. Lives In The Balance sounds more urgent today than it ever did. […]
Listen to the chord changes of Rock Me On the Water and Before the Deluge, it’s gospel through and through. Now I always thought that in our fall from Eden, besides the strains of physicality and the bearing of earthly burdens, our real earthly task was that an unbridgeable gap, or a black hole was opened up in our ability to truly love one another. And so our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good-standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces that we’ve been given. That’s all we have of human promise. That’s the way we prove ourselves in the eyes of God and facilitate our own redemption. Now, to me Jackson Browne’s work was always the sound of that reconstruction. So as he writes in The Pretender:We’ll put our dark glasses on, and we’ll make love until our strength is gone, and when the morning light comes streamin’ in, we’ll get up and do it again. Amen.
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
The world keeps turning around and around
Go on and make a joyful sound
I first saw Jackson Browne and David Lindley at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in the early 70s, on the ‘Late For The Sky’ tour. ‘For A Dancer’, with Lindley’s shimmering slide guitar, was a highlight of that show. Tonight I saw them together again, 40 years on, at the Liverpool Arena in a truly memorable show, where again ‘For A Dancer’ was a high point.
Browne, Lindley and the band managed to overcome the uncongenial atmosphere of the Arena with a show in two distinct sets. The first comprised an acoustic trio of Jackson Browne with David Lindley and percussionist Tino di Geraldo – one of Jackson’s Spanish musician friends who accompanied him on the Spanish tour, highlights of which are captured on his new live album, Love Is Strange. This was an intimate set – like a well-assembled compilation from an enthusiastic friend with taste, because they took the unusual step of beginning with numbers by other artists – ‘Seminole Bingo’ by Warren Zevon and Bruce Springstein’s ‘Brothers Under the Bridge’.
Hunger in the midnight, hunger at the stroke of noon
Hunger in the mansion, hunger in the rented room
Hunger on the TV, hunger on the printed page
And there’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage
In the absence of light
And the deepening night
Where I wait for the sun
How long have I left my mind to the powers that be?
How long will it take to find the higher power moving in me?
Power in the insect
Power in the sea
Power in the snow falling silently
Power in the blossom
Power in the stone
Power in the song being sung alone
Power in the wheatfield
Power in the rain
Power in the sunlight and the hurricane
Power in the silence
Power in the flame
Power in the sound of the lover’s name
The power of the sunrise and the power of a prayer released
On the edge of my country, I pray for the ones with the least
After Jackson had sung ‘Looking East’ – a song that seems to gain in weight and significance, David Lindley sang the Blind Willie Johnson blues classic ‘Soul of a Man’. Declining the invitation of some scouse joker to embark on their own version of ‘Twist and Shout’ (which, in the Arena’s acoustics, Jackson mistook as a request for ‘Twist and Shite’) they moved on to ‘For Taking the Trouble’ before finishing the set with ‘For Everyman’. Here were guys simply playing together and performing favourite songs that gave a real insight into the roots and branches of their music.
After the interval the second set of just under two hours featured the full band and covered four decades of Jackson Browne’s classic songs. The band were: Mark Goldberg on Lead Guitar, Kevin McCormick on Bass Guitar, with Jeff Young on organ. All have worked with Jackson Browne for many years and are outstanding musicians in their own right. Backing vocals were by Aletha Mills and Chavonne Stewart. Later, David Lindley returned to join the band, and took the lead on his own rockin’ ‘Mercury Blues’.
“I’m just about at that stage of the tour where I’ll play whatever you want”, Browne laughed at one stage,faced with a torrent of calls from audience members for favourite songs. He responded to by playing a beautiful version of ‘Rosie’, Mark Goldberg and Kevin McCormick providing superb backing vocals. It was the band that contributed to an outstanding account of ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’, and the closing run of numbers – ‘Doctor My Eyes’, ‘Mercury Blues’, ‘The Pretender’, ‘For a Dancer’ and ‘Running on Empty’ – were all enhanced by the quality of the band members’ performances.
There was a shimmering version of that exquisite song deliniating a relationship’s end, ‘Late For The Sky’. Remarkably, in the current issue of Uncut, Jackson reveals that he kind of wrote the song backwards – he had the phrase ‘late for the sky’ and wanted to write a song that ended with that line.
With Dylan endlessly touring, croaking out his lyrics in an increasingly impenetrable manner, it’s Jackson Browne that still carries the flame from the times when some of us were dreamers and some of us were fools…making plans and thinking of the future (see, for example, Jackson’s lengthy article for the Daily Mail (really?) on plastic pollution). The only disappointment of the evening for me was – no ‘Before The Deluge’ or ‘The Fuse’.
Brothers Under the Bridge
Soul of a Man
For Taking the Trouble
Off of Wonderland
Your Bright Baby Blues
Time the Conqueror
Giving that Heaven Away
Late for the Sky
My Problem is You
Too Many Angels
Doctor My Eyes
For a Dancer
Running on Empty
I am a Patriot
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on
Running on – running on empty
Running on – running blind
Running on – running into the sun
But I’m running behind
Everyone I know, everywhere I go
People need some reason to believe
I don’t know about anyone but me
If it takes all night, that’ll be all right
If I can get you to smile before I leave
On stage alone (apart from a rack of 15 guitars and keyboards) for close on three hours, Browne sang his way passionately through a huge back-catalogue stretching back over a quarter of a century:
But it’s a long way that I have come
Across the sand to find this peace among your people in the sun
Where the families work the land as they have always done
Oh it’s so far the other way my country’s gone
Across my home has grown the shadow
Of a cruel and senseless hand
Though in some strong hearts
The love and truth remain
(‘Our Lady Of The Well’: his closing song)
Jackson was spontaneous and good natured, responding impromptu several times to requests from the audience. He said how great it was to hear so many people call out for his songs: there were some he hadn’t sung for a while, but he was willing to have a go.
At one point he jokingly asked the audience to talk in northern accents, so he could see if he understood them. He explained that David Lindley had been able to do some interesting impressions of northern accents. When several people obliged, he tried but failed to understand anything, (‘too much echo in here’) and suggested that he might go and walk out on the streets the next day and ask some people to talk to him.
He gave a long explanation of how the word ‘girlfriend’ seems inappropriate for the woman he’s been with for ten years. He found the phrase ‘stunning mystery companion’ in a Spanish magazine, and had written the new song using these words to describe her without realising that they were not all that unique.
A fortnight before the US elections, a segment of the show featured his songs of political commitment:
Don’t you want to be there, don’t you want to know?
Where the grace and simple truth of childhood go
Don’t you want to be there when the trumpets blow
Blow for those born into hunger
Blow for those lost ‘neath the train
Blow for those choking in anger
Blow for those driven insane
Don’t you want to be where there’s strength and love
In the place of fear
(‘Don’t You Want To Be There’)
He described waking up in the morning and wondering how he managed to get himself on a tour when the American election was so close. He hoped that the people could ‘take America back.’ He followed comments on the election and the state of his country by playing ‘Lives in the Balance’, ‘For America’ and ‘I am a Patriot’ to resounding applause.
He said he’d been in the hall most of the afternoon, playing and that he really liked it and it was superb place to play. Throughout the concert, Browne gave the impression of having no set list, seeming to respond instantly to shouted requests from the audience. But this was a probably an impression. Overall, this was a powerful and moving performance that took the audience on a generation’s journey and reflected a soul still searching:
Still I look for the beauty in songs
To fill my head and lead me on
Though my dreams have come up torn and empty
As many times as love has come and gone
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say
It could be I’ve lost my way
Though I keep a watch over the distance
Heaven’s no closer than it was yesterday
And the angels are older
They know not to wait up for the sun
They look over my shoulder
At the maps and the drawings of the journey I’ve begun
(g) = guitar;
(p) = piano
1. The Barricades Of Heaven (g)
2. Never Stop (g)
3. Call It A Loan (g)
4. Sleep’s Dark And Silent Gate (p)
5. The Night Inside Me (g)
6. For Taking The Trouble (g)
7. Don’t You Want To Be There (g)
8. Farther On (p)
9. Black And White (p)
10. The Naked Ride Home (g)
11. These Days (g)
12. For Everyman (g)
13. Lives In The Balance (g)
14. For America (g)
15. I Am A Patriot (g)
16. Something Fine (g)
17. My Opening Farewell (g)
18. For A Dancer (p)
19. Before The Deluge (p)
20. In The Shape Of A Heart (g)
21. My Stunning Mystery Companion (g)
22. Fountain Of Sorrow (p)
23. Rosie (g)
24. Running On Empty (g)
25. Late For The Sky (p)
26. Take It Easy (g)
27. Our Lady Of The Well (g).
I’ve just finished reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida in which he sets out to try to identify what it is that gives certain photographs the power to make you pause, to touch something in your heart. His quest is inspired by leafing through some photos of his recently-dead mother. There are many that are good likenesses, but only one – rather indistinct, taken as a child – that, for Barthes, captures her essential uniqueness.
Barthes suggests that a few photographs have this essential element ‘that rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.’ He calls this the photograph’s punctum: ‘that accident that pricks me…is poignant to me’.
This reminded me of Fountain Of Sorrow, the second track on Jackson Browne’s 1974 album, Late For The Sky:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes