In Memory of Clarence Clemons

I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.

Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.

I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.

In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness—yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.

Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?

There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.

Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In ’60s and ’70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.

So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.

I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.

By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in ’50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?

About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.

Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.

So when Clemmons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.

So with the publication this week of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, also called Born To Run, I thought it’d be a good time to share this early spoken word and music piece that speaks to these things. To hear it, click on the gadget that should appear below.

This Is the Darkness

This is a more difficult piece for me to put out for you to hear. Not because of the quality of the performance by the LYL Band, the performance is fine. Nor do I disagree with the performance, as it does what a performance should do: it represents a physical, working version of the feelings in the piece. The problem with it is, that taken in particular, it can be heard as out of balance.

I wrote this at a specific time in my life, for that matter at a specific time of year and even a specific time of day. When it was written and performed, I was exiting my middle ages, and elements of my life were out of balance. And it was written at this time of year, which in my upper Midwest US means that it is now dark when one awakens in the morning. At this time in September, there is no more promising summer sunlight tempting you to arise early, the sunlight that says the day has already started and you should go and catch up with it.

Perhaps you’ve had the thoughts I had on the day. You know you have things to do, many of them things you would not choose to do at that morning moment in time. How should one view this predicament?

Albert Camus wrote of this famously in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” You can read the concluding section of that work here. It is not long, but if read thoughtfully it is arduous. Was I thinking of Camus when I wrote this? No, I was thinking of my own life; but other people’s stories, in effect, other people’s myths to explain this mystery, show that we hold these thoughts in human commonality.

I will not try to explain Camus thoughts on this, he does this better than I could. I have no quibble with his analysis of the situation, but as I’ve mentioned previously here, I currently suspect all myth of understanding more than it knows. Furthermore, the close association of myth and heroism makes me the more skeptical.

And that’s why I found this piece, one I myself wrote and performed, problematic. Inside it I come to the same consolation that Camus did, but Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” and my piece “This Is the Darkness” can both be easily experienced in an unbalanced way: the absurd predicament is so strong an image that the consolation, our revolt and continuance of seeking right action in the face of that predicament, can seem all too vainglorious.

So let me suggest another myth. One plainer and less heroic. There is a plainspoken yet strange hymn associated with Christianity “Work for the Night Is Coming.” You can hear it sung here in this short video. As I said, this is a Christian hymn, still sung in Protestant Christian churches. Does it mention Jesus or any divinity? No. Does it elaborate any moral code? No, not really. Does it offer a sure explanation of any mystery or absurdity? No, not directly. It simply says “Work, because soon enough you will not work anymore”. In the context of Christian myth, this can be taken to mean heaven or the advent of heaven on earth, but this strange hymn decides not to say either.

Not so strange that this was written by a Canadian—the natural brethren of us upper Midwesterners, someone who would know intimately that the darkness beyond summer is long—but strange in that Anna Walker Coghill was 18 years old when she wrote it. I had to be much older to understand her words.

That’s a lot of context for this piece, but to hear “This Is the Darkness” performed by the LYL Band, use the gadget that appears below:

The Green Fairy

Here’s another piece with the voice of Dave Moore, and I guess you could say it deals in myths. In the notes for the last episode “Print the Myth” I said that myths arise out of the need to explain mystery, and that there are some dangers there. Your explanation, your perfectly good and gripping story, can be just wrong on the facts as we learn more; but also your favored myth may say more about your culture and yourself than you realize it does.

However sometimes we’ve simply forgotten what the questions and cultural associations were that gave birth to a myth, and they become these free-floating, free-associative ideas charged with a mysterious weirdness that defeats explanation. The myth returns to mystery.

Across the world there are demi-human nature-creature myths. I suppose they might have arisen out of explanations for the capriciousness of nature or the randomness of fate. At other times they serve as perfectly good characters to satirize human foibles in demi-human form. I think one of the strengths of “The Green Fairy” is that none of this is quite clear. Within Dave’s piece, we only know that the Green Fairy, like Godot, is coming (and not coming). I think that late summer mystery is its charm.

While producing this piece, I wanted to serve that mystery musically. I treated Dave’s keyboard part in a sort-of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds manner and stayed on the drone with my stringed instrument parts.

To hear The Green Fairy, click on the gadget that should appear below to play the piece.

Print the Myth

A few posts back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.

In that August post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.

When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.

You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here:

“Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”

Myth gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”

One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.

Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one. It was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.

So if you want to hear a couple of poets and musicians constructing a way to tell the story of how the mounds were misinterpreted by Bryant and his contemporaries, click  the gadget below to hear “Print the Myth.”

Home Fires

Previous Parlando readers and listeners will know that a few years ago I renewed my appreciation for the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Here’s another Sandburg selection from his powerful Smoke and Steel collection of 1920.

Sandburg excelled in portraying his modern age, the early 20th century in the United States. His best known poem is the title piece of his Chicago Poems, the “Hog butcher to the world/city of the big shoulders” paean to Chicago, and Sandburg remains associated with Illinois in many minds because of that poem and his birth and youth spent in Galesburg, but even before that Chicago poem Sandburg had traveled widely around the US observing closely the work and lives he crossed. This poem is not set in Chicago, but instead in the fabled Lower East Side of New York City where generations of American immigrants first settled. Immigrants who often came from rural and village backgrounds to the most intensely urban section of America.

Sandburg can compress so much into a tiny portrait such as this. I’ll let you look at Sandburg’s picture without further explanation as you listen to the piece.

Two coincidences interesting to me are attached to “Home Fires.” A few years back I was able to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City and took a walking tour that leaves from there and crossed the Rivington Street mentioned in the poem. I highly recommend the Tenement Museum to anyone who visits New York. Coincidence number two: when another childhood hero of mine, Harry Golden, first visited with Carl Sandburg in the 1950s, he reported that Sandburg read this poem to him.

Musically this is fairly rich setting for me. The core tracks are the LYL Band with Dave Moore supplying one keyboard part (that’s the breathy flute sounding part in the right channel) and I am playing bass guitar and electric guitar. After the initial tracking I added some orchestration using a swelling synth patch, some clarinets, and (of all things) a bassoon. The clarinets and bassoon are synthesizer approximations of the real instruments, but I liked how those colors worked out.

To hear “Home Fires,” use the gadget below to play the audio piece.

The School Year Begins

Tomorrow many US schools begin their school year, so here’s an audio piece about a child going through that first week back in school after what seemed to be an infinite summer.

The schools in Iowa, where I grew up, began a week earlier than the “day after Labor Day” start that is more common elsewhere in the US. I’m not sure why. Maybe farms needed kids more in the spring to summer transition weeks than in the summer to fall interval. Maybe it was an advance allowance for the inevitable “snow days” that would cancel school during the winter, days that if made up in the spring would move the end of the school year into June. Maybe it was, in some way, a gesture to say Iowans cared more about getting down to education than slacking neighbor states.

All I know is that as a kid I thought this terribly unfair. A whole week! My cousins in Minnesota got a whole week more of summer! That next week was always going to be the best week of summer, the one that you got to do whatever you hadn’t done, or done enough of, during the rest of the summer vacation.

Now my son goes to school, and the school yard the kids are walking across to get to the first day of school is like my schoolyard was. Maybe all schoolyards are like this. The grass is still a little beaten down from every independent path the kids have taken too and from, still worn from every recess outside last spring.

To hear the spoken word/music piece “The School Year Begins” as performed by the LYL Band, click on the gadget below this.