Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sometimes It's Scary When You're Right

In my recent post on my No 3. song of all time, Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road", I said that Springsteen is part of a rich tradition of American narrative and myth-making, and consciously draws on a range of popular-cultural sources. I bet he had inspired a few American studies theses (read "cultural studies", for people inside the US, and probably in general--sorry, I'm stuck with my University of Canterbury vocabulary).

I admired the "intertextuality" in Springsteen singing about the radio playing Roy Orbison, and half-jokingly suggested some possible academic paper titles; "He-ro and Automobile: Sexual and Religious Symbolism in Springsteen", for example.

Well, the next thing you know, I discovered this story in the Guardian about a three-day Bruce Springsteen symposium to be held at Monmouth University in New Jersey from September 9. According to the article, "the first-of-its-kind symposium is expected to attract more than 150 papers exploring Springsteen's influence on US literature, sociology, religious thought and politics. Academics will debate his impact on America's memory of the Vietnam war, and its higher education curriculum."

The guy organising it, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvannia State University, is quoted as saying: "When I figured out this was the first broad-based academic activity to do with Bruce, I was kind of shocked".

His paper is an exploration of the various female characters, such as Wendy, Sandy and Mary, that appear in Springsteen's songs (I've always thought one of his major achievements was managing to make a credible rock song with a heroine called Wendy).

"Although she comes in many guises, she's the female face at the heart of the sociocultural nostalgia that structures Springsteen's sense of pastness throughout his work," the paper's abstract explains.

Also presenting is an Italian associate professor called Samuele Pardini, who is discussing the repeated appearances of women called Mary in (Catholic-raised) Springsteen's songs.

According to Pardini, Springsteen "subverts a male-dominated, Italian-American Catholicism in order to subvert a national identity historically marked by the gender and racial conflicts of its class-divided society and to affirm the plural identity of an equal, and therefore free country".

I promise never to be flippant again.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How to Write a Feature Article for a New Zealand Newspaper

Follow these simple steps:

1. Pick a topic based on a "current issue", preferably one contrived by the publication you work for.

2. Find an "expert", preferably a tenured academic, preferably foreign (so we know we can take them seriously) and get them to expound at length on the issue.

3. Quote the "expert" verbatim and fill in the gaps with breathless speculation on how "we" might be affected by the issue.

4. Find somebody else to say something as well, to provide "balance" and to prove you've done your research. Always include several quotes, whether or not they cast any light on the question. If really stretched for filler, ask some of your friends what they think.

5. Don't bother trying to string together enough actual facts with sufficient rhetorical structure to present a coherent argument. This is overambitious and should be left to foreign experts.

The latest case study of this approach appeared in relation to the New Zealand "man drought" which has been the subject of much debate and discussion recently amongst Wellington's chattering classes. I was intending to comment on the subject itself (that will have to be saved for a later post) but got distracted by the greater-than-usual mindlessness of how it was presented in the print media.

A couple of weeks ago, a short article appeared in the Dominion Post and on the NZ Stuff website reporting a study by Australian demographer Bernard Salt which established that in New Zealand there are 53,000 more women than men in the 20-49 age group. While interesting, that's nothing that anyone couldn't have worked out by getting hold of a few spreadsheets from Statistics New Zealand--and remember, this is based on the 2001 census, so we're talking about five year-old data.

But naturally it was presented as sensational news. In relation to the finding that the gap was biggest in the thirtysomething age group, with a 9% female surplus, Salt was quoted as saying that "a 32 year-old woman has as much chance of finding a partner of her own age as an 82 year-old woman".

That's actually mathematically false, before you even make reference to the real world. But [sighs], you can be sure that the article didn't manage to make that point.

When the inevitable feature appeared on the front page of the Dominion Post Saturday magazine, it was accompanied by a photo of a crowd of grim-faced, black-dressed Wellingtonians trudging to work, with some of the silhouettes of the men cut out, leaving white spaces. The article then trawled anxiously through all the demographic statistics, enlisting the aid of no fewer than three experts to help us interpret them - Salt, plus Wellington economists Simon Chapple and Paul Callister.

One of the most irksome things about NZ feature writing is the total inability to provide an informed critical viewpoint. So, when the fallacy of the "same chance as an 82 year-old woman" was finally uncovered two-thirds of the way through the article, it was only thanks to Callister, who "bears some good news: it's not quite as bad as [Salt] portrays it". While both the 32 and 82 year-old groups have around 3,000 more women, the gap is 9% for the 32 year-olds, but 58% in the much smaller 82 year-old population.

If that seems blindingly obvious, the article outdoes itself at the end of the paragraph, offering the following insightful conclusion:
"And a 32 year-old woman has the option of an older partner".
You don't say? Dear me, he could even be younger. Haven't you watched Desperate Housewives?

The three "experts" posit a range of theories to explain the demographic gap, including the higher male mortality rate and the supposition that "young, mobile males are more likely to be undercounted at the census than women" (it's true, male suspects he didn't fill in a census form in 2001). The gap is biggest--43%-- in Asians born overseas, which Callister suggests could be due to women coming to NZ for domestic work or mothers accompanying school-age children.

Salt is sure that the demographic gap in both NZ and Australia is due to the globalised labour market and a slightly higher rate of male migration to the larger economies. He may well be right, though the blatant misrepresentation of the statistics quoted above doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his methods; his view that "women have closer family ties and are more likely to settle down in their home territory" just seems like prejudice (as a random sample, off the top of my head I can think of three female and no male friends who have married foreigners and settled overseas) .

The truth is that nobody really knows. Nor do we know what proportion of people are actually single or "in a relationship", what their goals and preferences are, nor anything at all about their behaviour.

This does not stop the economist wonks from making speculative pronouncements about the future of relationships in New Zealand. Callister informs us solemnly that "I have heard things like, 'There's more choice out there, I can leave you'...You might see people doing that sort of thing more". Chapple meanwhile, "reckons power dynamics within relationships could shift, with educated men in short supply and able to get a better deal from their partner".

This is a slightly scary insight into the thinking of an unreconstructed economist, who believes that the world is the sum of self-interested rational calculations, free from the complex cultural reality in which people actually live, and unencumbered by those nutty things called human emotions . Next time you feel like complaining about being governed by schoolteachers and sociologists, remember that the country used to be run by Treasury types like these.

You can imagine how they'd approach it:
"I'm leaving you, Mary! The demographic balance is in my favour, interest rates are steady, and Jupiter is in Aquarius". If these guys have wives or long-term girlfriends, the unlucky women should seriously consider preemptively ditching them.

In the competition to manufacture psuedoscientific garble, it's Salt who takes the cake:

"Mr Salt says there's already a phenomenon of what he calls "time-share men", who engage in sequential monogamous relationships. "The woman will have a relationship for a few years, then retreat and live by herself for a few years. He forms another relationship straight away and she is out of the ring for a while" ".

I don't know the guy, so I don't know whether he is taking the piss, or whether this is wishful thinking on his own behalf. But Puh-lease. Do I need to point out that both men and women forms relationships, end them, stay single or start new ones for a whole range of reasons, almost all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with a small demographic imbalance. And again, in my personal experience, exactly the opposite pattern as that described above tends to operate.

However, the most annoying thing is not that what these guys say--I'd be happy enough to pompously waffle on too, if someone asked me. What's really tragic is that they're quoted as if they're offering unadulterated pearls of wisdom; the writer completely fails to note that they have no more idea about the future, or even the current, dynamics of relationships than herself, you, I, or the postie. NB: these guys have crunched some numbers. Although they may have "Dr" in front of their name or work for an international consulting company, they do not know everything.

I promise I will comment further on the "man drought" question at a later date with some speculative and personally-skewed theories of my own. In the meantime, here's a plausible one. Men, biologically slightly more predisposed to extreme reactions, have about a 9% higher rate of being driven over the edge by the inanity of what passes for public discourse in this country, and consequently deciding to end it all.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Funding Cuts Short Sighted Says Twilight Golf President

New Zealand Twilight Golf Association (NZTGA) president Baz Ledbetter has lashed out at what he calls "short-sighted" funding cuts to twilight golf training programmes announced by Minister of Education Trevor Mallard, and predicts they may result in many of our most promising twilight golfers being forced to ply their trade overseas.

Twilight golf was among the programmes affected by $163 million worth of recent cuts to private training courses funded by the Tertiary Education Commission.

Speaking as the shadows lengthened across the 18th green at Auckland's Beachlands course, Mr Ledbetter said that the ending of government of support for the training would prove to be a loss, not just for the twilight golfing community, but for New Zealand as a whole.

"This is an extremely short-sighted decision" he said. "Sure, you might balance the books by making budding twilight golfers pay their own way. But where does that leave the country in the long term? We run the risk of losing many of our most talented youngsters, to Australia, to regular golf, or to some other sport altogether. If steps aren't taken to secure our future, twilight golf could go the way of dry-creek canoeing".

NZTGA records indicate that many young twilight golf graduates already head across to Australia, attracted by better earnings and the year-round tropical twilights of north Queensland. It is likely that the loss of funding will only exacerbate this outflux.

Mr Ledbetter said that part of the problem lay in ignorance of twilight golf's specialist training needs. "Some people think that you can just learn regular golf and then adapt it to twilight conditions", he said. But in fact, everything is different--club selection, putting style, ball retrieval. These skills need to be taught from day one. To suggest that they can be learnt as some kind of add-on by the generalist golfer is like saying that nocturnal lawn bowls or naked cricket don't require specialist training."

For now, subsidised access to twilight golf programmes will remain, as the New Zealand Crepusculan Trust have agreed to fund scholarships for a limited number of applicants. "It's a relief to have a stop-gap solution but it's only going to keep us afloat for a limited time" said Mr Ledbetter. "They inserted a sunset clause in our agreement".

It seems that for New Zealand twilight golf, the long-term future is murky. "Where do we go from here?" asked Baz Ledbetter, peering towards the sixteenth fairway. "I'm afraid to say, I'm in the dark".

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Well I'm Glad That's Over

I promise never to do it again. All future top 10 or top 5 lists will be short, punchy, and contained within one post.

When I started out, I truly intended to do my top 10 over the course of 10 consecutive days, with a short commentary explaining why each one gained its place. As it turned out, I couldn't restrain my natural verbosity and ended up writing a mini essay on each song. So I apologise to my regular readers (all 15 or so of you) for making this so drawn out.

It has been an interesting process, though, because I've been forced to think hard about the merits of each song and try to explain what's so great about it. Unfortunately, this may have caused me to end up likeing some of them slightly less--in striving to understand something, you can sometimes destroy it.

It's also missed out more than its captured. As I said, the top two or three songs are pretty set, but the rest are more contingent, and are based on shifting, somewhat arbitrary criteria. Now they're set down, the ones that missed out seem all the more attractive--somewhat as the talented attacking player who can't quite find a role in a winning team seems even more dazzlingly skilful. I therefore feel the need to acknowledge some of the unlucky ones.

Some songs missed out on the shortlist partly because of the mood I was in; it turned out there was no place for great unrequited / jilted anthems like "I Don't Want to Talk About It" (Rod Stewart / Everything But the Girl) or "Walk Away Renee" (endlessly covered; most versions are horrible apart from the Left Banke's 1966 violin-and-harmonies original).

In the category of songs which make you jump on the dancefloor at an 80s disco and drunkenly shout "this is a classic!", there could really only be one entry. Including "Back on the Chain Gang" blocked off sentimental favourites like "Drop the Pilot" by Joan Armatrading, Mr Mister's "Kyrie" and, sadly, "99 Luftballoons" by Nena (star of even more German magazine covers than David Hasselhoff).

Yet it seems strange that "Just Like Heaven" seems to be the only, and not necessarily even the most worthy, representative of all the 80s and early 90s left-of-centre guitar bands I was into. From the UK: the Smiths; the Jesus & Mary Chain; Teenage Fanclub; the Stone Roses ("Fool's Gold", "Waterfall", "Sugar Spun Sister" and the vastly-underrated B-side, "Mersey Paradise"); Suede ("the Wild Ones"); Radiohead ("Fake Plastic Trees"). No room even for the La's' "There She Goes", which definitely has one of the top 5 riffs of all time. From the US: Violent Femmes; Dinosaur Jr; the Pixies; the Lemonheads; Pavement (no "Summer Babe"--Simon Doherty would be appalled).

Dear me, there's not even any Billy Bragg ("Greetings to the New Brunette" a longtime favourite), despite me having a bit of an epiphany after seeing him at the Liverpool Dock Workers Benefit gig in Willesden Green, about how it's possible to remain a totally sound bloke in a confusing world.

"Throw Your Arms Around Me" and "Distant Sun" filled spots for the antipodean mainstreamish guitar sound, shutting out Dave Dobbyn, the Muttonbirds et al as well as the Warumpi Band's "My Island Home" (another word-of-mouth Australian classic). But what of all the Flying Nun stuff from Dunedin and Christchurch I was so into at university? The Clean, the Strangeloves, the Bats, Straitjacket Fits? I had considered this issue and decided that it was more about the sound, the style and seeing the bands live--none of the songs were ever really among my absolute favorites. Then, when it was too late, I remembered--how could I forget?--the 3Ds' "Outer Space". What a classic slab of distorted pop--it probably should have been on the list.

And it's puzzling that there is no spot anywhere for REM ("You Are the Everything", "I Believe"), nor Counting Crows ("Anna Begins", "A Murder of One"), nor even U2 ("Sunday Bloody Sunday", "Bad", "Running to Stand Still"). All could have been there on a different day.

Amongst the guitar-hero rockers, it was bad luck for Led Zeppelin ("Black Dog", "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", "Going to California"), Jimi Hendrix ("Foxy Lady", "All Along the Watchtower"--though that would really have been stetching the Bob Dylan connection) and even Santana (the seductive "Samba Pa' Ti" was the instrumental closest to getting on the list).

The 60s were quite well represented, with Nos 1 and 2. But it's still quite odd that there's no Simon & Garfunkel ("the Boxer", "I Am a Rock"). Not quite room for those Rolling Stones tough-fragile ballads ("Ruby Tuesday", "Wild Horses"). And though I've never been a huge Beatles fan, George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" has long been a favourite, and just missed out (an ex-girlfirend once told me that when she heard it, it reminded her of me...).

For someone who spent so much time playing in an "Irish" band, it might seem surprising that there's nothing in that genre. But of the Pogues' stuff, only "A Rainy Night in Soho" is remotely close. I love the Waterboys' lyrical epics "A Bang on the Ear" and "the Whole of the Moon", yet couldn't squeeze them in. And yes, even a great song can be totally ruined by overexposure. So no "Brown Eyed Girl" (how could it ever survive endless drunk, not particularly attractive women squawking "This is my song! This song is about me!").

Finally, amongst my more recent stylistic preferences, Manu Chao is much more of an album artist--"Clandestino" is not quite the same without the rest of the CD. And though I'm a huge salsa fan, I really just like whatever they play. The only ones that stand out are la India's "Seduceme" and "Un Montón de Estrellas" by Polo Montañez--the latter a recurring presence during nights in the discotecas of Peru and Colombia.

So that's it, qualifications and all. I'm the first to confess certain limitations to my list. It was always going to be guitar heavy; there's only one song with a female vocalist (Sarah McLachlan's live version of "Hold On" was next closest--it's been special ever since it soothed my carnival-working mental and physical exhaustion on a lonely Greyhound driving through the dark Saskatchewan night); and the artists are pretty much all white. But what can you do? Whether your preferences are due to your inherited archetypes, constructed cultural location, or what kind of hymns they had at church when you were a kid, they end up operating at gut level and you're stuck with them.

I'm keen to keep receiving people's own top 10 lists (thanks, Kevin, for your three separate lists). It's certainly an interesting exercise, as you end up creating this little narrative about yourself. What does it all mean? Not even Nick Hornby has a clear answer, and I certainly don't.

Monday, August 15, 2005

No 1. Like a Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan

Yes, how predictable. Pretty much all serious lists of Top Ten Songs put together by music critics name "Like a Rolling Stone" as The Greatest Song of All Time (in the popular votes "Hey Jude" tends to fight it out with a couple of Elvis songs). In a recent poll of rock and movie stars run by Uncut magazine it was voted number one out of the music, movies, TV shows and books that "changed the world". More than one entire book has been written on the song, most recently a 260-page opus by Greil Marcus called Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.

But I'm grown up enough now not to avoid the obvious choice out of sheer contrariness and elitism. If everybody else thinks it's the Greatest Song of All Time, and I can't reasonably disagree, I'll take it on the chin.

And I have to confess that I've never found any song--not "Mr Tambourine Man", "Thunder Road", nor any other-- close to as powerful and exhilarating as "Like a Rolling Stone".

For a start, there's the urgent, crowded spontaneity of the music. One ringing beat on the snare drum and the band bursts in, playing their instruments, as somebody said, "as if they'd invented them". The piano rinky-dinks its way through the verse, the guitar elbows everything else out of the way on the hook into the chorus, and once we get there the organ takes its chance to burst to the fore.

This was the moment in 1965 when Dylan "went electric", alienating a fair portion of his right-on folk fans. Maybe the band was afraid that he'd change his mind and go back, because they play the song like they're never going to get the chance again. Only in the already-mentioned early Springsteen, maybe some Van Morrison, and some of Jimi Hendrix's stuff do you hear musicians sound like they're having such a good time, making it up as they go along and getting it exactly right.

Perhaps it's because I've subconsciously avoided having a copy around for long enough to thrash it into the ground, but "Like a Rolling Stone" always sounds like it was written and recorded about five seconds before I press "Play" on the CD player.

Then there's Dylan's performance, back when he still had a rich, sneeringly nasal voice. These days he'd struggle to nail a recording contract, let alone get on the radio, sounding like that. But in 1965 he was completely in charge, rhyming and alliterating his way through the verses, not even waiting for the band to catch up. And the lyrics are my favourite kind--dense with images, full of offhand references to colourful figures like the diplomat with his chrome horse, the mystery tramp, Napoleon in rags.

But something is incongruous here. I expect it hasn't escaped people's attention that most of the songs on this top 10 list have been sweet, romantic, dreamy or nostalgic--in short, nice. Guilty as charged; I guess I'm a sensitive guy who doesn't really respond at a gut level to the nastier stuff. I dont really enjoy hip-hop, apart from Nesian Mystik; I've never liked heavy metal (apart from maybe Metallica at their riffiest); and I couldn't quite get into the noise / industrial stuff that my friends raved about during university. My favourite Guns n' Roses song is "November Rain".

Yet, "Like A Rolling Stone" is, at face value, an angry, splenetic song. It scornfully tells of an unnamed female antagonist whose life of glamour and privilege has taken a disastrous wrong turn; she's been badly double-dealt, and is now on her way down to the gutter.

It's true that part of the response inspired by the song is a triumphant, seething schadenfreude laced with bitterness at all the kids who thought they were too cool for you at school, and the girls who dissed you at university. I could see this emotion welling up in Jeremy Rathburn when he used to spit out the entire lyric for no good reason after his seventh pint of Guiness down at the Loft bar in Christchurch on a Friday night.

Who does not feel some self-righteousness hearing about how the chrome horse-riding diplomat pulled a fast one on the girl in the song who thought she was so smart:

ain't it hard when you discover that / he wasn't really where it's at
after he took from you everything he could steeeeal...

But is "Like a Rolling Stone" just a long, rousing "f*ck you" to the world? Why is it that singing along to it feels not just like carthasis, but liberation?

A quick flick through the blogs and the reviews tells me I'm far from the first one to think of this, but this is actually a song less of bitterness than of celebration. The singer might be doing some gloating, but by the time he gets to the chorus he's offering welcome and recognition. Since, to be on your own / with no direction home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone... is in fact the human existential state .

There's a point where manipulation and privilege ends, when everything is stripped away and you have to face reality. With "nothing to lose", condemned to be free, the only thing that matters is what you decide to do. Even back in '65, the long-secretive Dylan had the good advice for our celebrity-obsessed generation that losing it all might actually be a good thing:

you're invisible now / you've got no secrets to conceal...

In other words, you can actually live your life, unhindered by the demands and scrutiny of the other "pretty people" or siamese cat-carrying diplomats.

Of course, its not as romantic as it sounds; it gets cold and tiring being out on your own with no direction home like a complete unknown. But the way Dylan howls out the chorus, you feel like you can cope.

How does it feel? Actually, it feels alright

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No 2. Mr Tambourine Man - the Byrds

The arpeggio riff on Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker skips up, then down, the paired strings chiming like bells in the jingle-jangle morning; and the listener is plunged through the looking glass into a world that will never be quite the same again.

Bob Dylan's original version of "Mr Tambourine Man", is already something special. The four double-length verses are inspired, Keatsian flights of fancy, and there's the bewitching melody built on what the Holy Toledos' Mike Gregg called "that irresistible subdominant-dominant-tonic-subdominant chord sequence".

Dylan has commented that he has never tried to write a "repeat" of any of his songs, *except "Mr Tambourine Man"*. Even the consummate songwriter-craftsman was captivated by what emerged from his pen and his guitar in this instance.

The Byrds 1965 cover version transforms the raw material into something unique and transcendent. At 1:58 in running time, it includes only the second of the original verses, the one that starts:

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

But though the other verses were probably trimmed to fit with then-current views on the appropriate length of a pop single, they were already superfluous; everything expressed by their eloquent and poetic words is rolled up into the Byrds' not-quite two minutes of jingle-jangle guitar and choirboy harmonies. In fact, in hindsight Dylan's additional lyrics seem like footnotes to the Byrds' cover version; they go some way towards articulating what the music makes the listener feel and desire.

The recording is a serendipitous coming-together of different individual contributions. There’s Dylan’s words and music, of course. The Beach Boys' producer Terry Melcher helped give the record that Californian feeling of space and light. Extra drive was added by the session musicians who were brought in to play the bass and drums; it was felt at the time that the Byrds' rhythm section was not quite up to the task. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark sang their three-part harmonies, while McGuinn played his jangling Rickenbacker, and added that unforgettable intro / outro riff.

What must it have been like to hear this song for the first time on the radio when it was released in 1965? How many people’s lives were changed by the new world of possibilities it suggested? Even twenty-five years later, when I first listened to the song properly, at the age of about fifteen, it seemed groundbreaking and transformative.

References to taking a trip and "disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind" raise the obvious question-- is the song about drugs? Yes and no. No in that it’s really about something bigger--the quest for authentic, direct experience which breaks through the quotidian and banal. It's part an expression of youthful wanderlust and part a yearning for spiritual insight or artistic inspiration.

Yes, in that this urge is as intoxicating and addictive as any drug. In the headlong rush to, as On the Road's mad hero Dean Moriarty puts it, "know time", the Tambourine Man is that ephemeral figure egging you on. I can vouch for that--I spent most of about seven or eight years hooked on pure Tambourine Man, principally motivated by a desire to chase after the indefinable sense of freedom and adventure suggested by the song. Reading Kerouac et al just confirmed my intentions, and I could make a reasonable case that pretty much every important decision I made until the age of twenty-six was affected by this single-minded romantic fever.

If Dylan's lyrics consciously evoke the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the potent achievement of the Byrds version is that the music turns the lyrics' promise of transcendence into a glimpsed reality. The song itself becomes the Pied Piper, luring the listener off on their own directionless quest. As the twentysomething John Keats said in Ode to a Grecian Urn, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye need to know". Listening to the Byrds play Dylan on "Mr Tambourine Man", this makes perfect logical sense.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

No. 3 Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen

This is where the rule about having only one song per artist really starts to be count. I could make an entire top 10 list purely of Bruce Springsteen songs. The howling, exaggerated anguish of "Backstreets", the folkish tragedy of "The River", the exhilaration of "Rosalita" and the careering escapism of "Born to Run" would be in there, just for a start.

Never considered particularly fashionable or cutting edge, Bruce Springsteen transcends fashion and has made more memorable music than just about anyone else. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones--sure they might have been more "important" and influential, but how many of their songs do you really feel *fond* of, want to come back and explore and revisit? In how many do you feel like you can actually imagine the characters, and wonder about their lives?

In a genre (rock music) which overrates discontinuities, Bruce Springsteen’s songs acknowledge and celebrate a historical tradition of American pop music and popular culture. Woody Guthrie, Elvis, the Motown back catalogue, Phil Spector’s girl bands, West Side Story, westerns and James Dean movies—they’re all rolled into his music.

Inaccurately pigeonholed early on as a new version of the more intellectual, acerbic Bob Dylan, and later dismissed as just writing about “cars and girls”, Springsteen sits solidly in the tradition of American narrative, spinning tales of people growing up, having parties, getting laid, hitting the road, messing up, losing their jobs and trying to get by. He's John Steinbeck with sex; Jack Kerouac with a sense of humour. His songs--especially the early ones—are as full of wacky characters as a novel by Thomas Pynchon or Philip Roth. I guarantee there’s a few American Studies theses out there he’s inspired.

For all that Bruce Springsteen has carried on making great music for over 30 years, in my view it's in the 70s that his genius was displayed to best effect. This was when he and his E-Street band created a warm, exuberant wall of sound, where the piano and organ wrestled for space with the saxophone, drums and guitars, and the musicians sounded like they were having the time of their lives.

It’s also the era when his lyrical creations where at their dense, colourful, verbose best. One accusation that’s been levelled at Springsteen is that he’s excessively bombastic and overblown. Which is probably true, but his charm, wit, skill and sincerity make up for it. Who could possibly expect to get away with a line like this?

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream

Bruce Springsteen could—partly because he invented the clichés, and partly because a few lines later he comes up with:

Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend, I wanna guard your dreams and visions

That’s something Kerouac just wished he thought of. And how’s this, from 1973’s “For You”?

I was wounded deep in battle / while you stood stuffed like some soldier undaunted
For her Cheshire smile, I’d stand on file / she’s all I ever wanted

His internal rhymes, use of language, and snappy ability to create a vivid scene in a few words would put to shame all but the most talented of hip-hop artist--and he’s got empathy, irony and optimism that Eminem and Public Enemy don’t--not to mention the melodies.

“Thunder Road”' is from 1975, its piano-and-harmonica intro easing us in to the classic Born to Run album. As many agree, this goes very close to being the greatest rock n’ roll song ever. Now rock n’ roll, at its core, is a young person’s game. A few manage to soldier on and create relevant music into their middle age. But it requires a fair swag of youthful naivety to think you can reject, and possibly create anew, everything about both yourself and the world around you—a belief which lies behind much of the best and most vital rock music. “Thunder Road” is convinced of this truth.

The song opens with a brilliant cinematic scene, where:

The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays

The radio is playing Roy Orbison (intertextuality in pop music! The American Studies students are having orgasms!) as the protagonist tries to convince Mary to escape with him. He's grown up enough to know it isn't a fairy tale; he tells Mary that you aint no beauty but hey you're alright, and says of himself:

Now I'm no hero, now that's understood / all the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood ("He-ro and Automobile: Sexual and Religious Symbolism in Springsteen", maybe?)

But he's still idealistic enough to promise that the night's busting open, these two lanes could take us anywhere... The tempo rises, the band comes in, and then they're cruising out on the open road, letting the wind blow back Mary's hair. At least in his imagination; at the end of the song he's still on the porch trying to persuade her to jump in the car.

It's a classic song about escape and redemption, making you want to jump in a car and roll down the window whenever you hear it. It's about getting out while you're young, and could really only have been written by someone still seriously young. But while you might get old and tired, the way "Thunder Road" makes you feel doesn't. Very close to my favourite ever.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

No. 4 Distant Sun - Crowded House

As I said at the outset of this list, the top few songs are pretty fixed--that is, I can't imagine not including them on any list I would make now or in the future. These are songs which, each time I hear them, surprise me anew with the minor miracle of their existence. With "Distant Sun" we're now solidly into that territory.

I've always liked songs which achieve a kind of aural onomatopoeia--where the music fits the images suggested by the song title and lyrics. "Distant Sun", with its dreamy, lightly pyschedelic sound, is a case in point, and includes several touches which are unique and perfect. The lead guitar line which weaves it's way between the opening chords with a light tremolo which shimmers like stardust. The bass riff between the end of the first chorus and start of the second verse--a long slide up to the fifth and then descending notes which sound as if they're dropping off into space.

While many of the songs on this top 10 list are about lusting after the impossible and the idealised, the protagonist in "Distant Sun" is older and wearier, trying to deal with real relationships, asking:

Tell me all the things you would change / I don't pretend to know what you want

I've always assumed that the singer is half addressing these queries to himself. He's a poet and a dreamer, but has now grown up, had some of his bubbles punctured, and is in reflective mode. It's hard to believe that the "you" in these lines from the second verse is not self-directed:

Still so young to travel so far / Old enough to know who you are
Wise enough to carry the scars without any blame / There's no one to blame

While there's an elegaic sense of lost innocence here, on another level the song is a celebration of the richness and mystery of life. Neil Finn has said that the "dust from a distant sun [which] showers over everyone" suggests the strange and random connections which exist across time and space. This is the song of someone who's been gripped by youthful wanderlust, stumbled through his share of problems, still doesn't know what it all means, but accepts that the world forms a many-threaded tapestry.

One night in New Plymouth a couple of years ago during a road trip I saw Wellington band Hobnail Boots at the local pub. In the same set they played "Distant Sun", Dave Dobbyn's "Whaling" and Bic Runga's "Sway", all embellished with their trademark harmonies and Jo Moir's gently persuasive violin. Hearing all these songs together played by the same band made me realise there was something shared by their yearning melodies which made me feel a particularly strong connection with them.

The next morning as I walked along the New Plymouth waterfront and looked out at the Pacific Ocean, I wondered if I hadn't stumbled across an emerging cultural identity. Nothing represented by swanndried blokeishness, nor rugby, black boats or buzzy bees, but
rather something to do with living in what poet Allen Curnow called "a small room with large windows"

If the New Zealand psyche has inevitably been shaped by the claustrophobia of being stuck in the small room of a frontier society, it is also affected by staring out through the large windows of the sky and sea. On the surface, New Zealanders are dour, depressive, reticent and crushingly prosaic. But, though no one would ever admit it on public, it turns out we are actually also a nation of dreamers. There's a naiive, questing quality to a lot of New Zealand music driven by a lyrical response to the physical space around us and a desire to know what else is out there.

I've only recently begun to understand this, as I've noticed that I seem to have a far better chance of feeling directly, personally connected to music from New Zealand than from other places. And it's hard to imagine that songs quite like "Whaling", the Muttonbirds' "Anchor Me" and Goldenhorse's "Maybe Tomorrow" could come from anywhere else. Which is something of a revelation, because I've never felt particularly comfortable or at home in the culture here. Yet, people have written these songs which seem to express something about who I am - and they've even become popular, which means other people must have similar feelings.

Just a pity we can't talk to each other about it.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

No 5. Throw Your Arms Around Me - Hunters and Collectors

The song that compelled a generation of antipodean males to show their sentimental side, clapping their mates around the shoulders and letting a tear fall in their beer as they sang along with the chorus.

But you don't need to be a solid Aussie or Kiwi bloke to have fallen in love with this gentle, hummable three-chord ballad, which stretches the word "throw" into seven syllables covering four musical notes (in an interesting twist, it turns out to be the third song in this list with similar vocal feats).

Without quite the same musical versatility and songwriting strength of contemporaries like Midnight Oil and Crowded House, Hunters & Collectors could probably be fairly tarred with that backhanded compliment, "hard-working". But even a fairly ordinary band can summon up an extraordinary song. And it's perhaps in the very simplicity of "Throw Your Arms Around Me" that it's enduring appeal lies.

There's a gruff intensity, awkwardness even, in the opening verse, where songwriter Mark Seymour promises:

I will come to you at night time / And I will raise you from your sleep
I will kiss you in four places / As I go running along your street

He sounds like he'd really rather be whacking in a pallet-load of fenceposts in the back paddock than confessing his love for his girlfriend, and therein may lie the secret to the song's sincerity.

"Throw Your Arms Around Me" was definitely never a pop hit and I'm not sure it was even released as a single. The fact that it's generally beloved across Australia and New Zealand shows that, even in this contrived world of pre-release marketing campaigns and "latest sensations", there is (or was) still such a thing as the modern folk song--one that becomes popular by word of mouth simply because people dig it.

While some songs in this list are indelibly linked to a particular recording or performance, most people would struggle to name their definitive version of"Throw Your Arms Around Me". The slowed-down, slightly bombastic take on the Hunters & Collectors best-of, Collected Works? Probably not. Crowded House used to play it live a lot, and there's a few of their versions floating around, but the ones I've heard tend to be a bit loose or jokey; they wouldn't define the song for you. The original H&C recording? Who even *has* a copy of that these days? I haven't heard it for a while, and from memory it doesn't quite do the song justice.

The time Ben got out the guitar at Mike's party and everyone sang along? No, man, you're thinking of *Rachael's* party...

In reality, everyone probably has their own personal mental recording of "Throw Your Arms Around Me" which is a composite of numerous cover versions and impromptu singalongs, spiced with dim memories of smoky bars and backpackers hostel courtyards.

Somewhere out there is the Platonic Form of "Throw Your Arms Around Me". But even if you can only catch the flickering shadows from the campfire, it'll do nicely.

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