Nov. 4, 2007
The Canary In The Coal Mine...
Warning...the following entry involves politics, music, social commentary, and just possibly Baseball.
I always liked music.
At six or seven, I remember seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, and wondering what was bothering my parents about his performance. I was influenced early by my friend Sean Daly, whose older sister Patty used to let us listen to her records. Then my cousin Betty Jean introduced me to all the popular teen idols of the late '50's. Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Elvis, Paul Anka and the rest covered her walls and resounded from her room in my Grandmother's house.
In the fall of 1963, I was the soon to be impeached president (a whole other story) of the eighth grade at St. Catherine of Siena School in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. I used to read the Star-Ledger every day when I came home for lunch. One day a picture of four singers with hair like Moe on the Three Stooges was in the paper. They were shaking hands with the Queen of England.
Later, in February, I was on the floor in front of our TV watching those four being introduced by Ed Sullivan as "The Beatles!"
As young girls in the studio screamed, four young guys dressed in suits played the songs we had recently heard on our transistor radios. My Dad said they "looked like girls" with their hair, but my Mother thought they were at least dressed nicely.
Songs of girls and young love evolved into far more as the Beatles led a generation on a "Magical Mystery Tour" through adolescence. Their "evil twins", the Rolling Stones, were on the same journey and we kids chose our favorites to follow.
From the world of Folk Music came a new voice.
When Dylan plugged in and started blasting his music, the words and message found a larger audience. Suddenly what was happening in the world was blaring from radios. Teenage love and angst were joined by war and human rights in the airwaves of young America.
No one wrote songs like Bob Dylan.
Rarely was anything stated simply. You had to wade through some bizarre lyrics and images to find your way to his call for a generation to look differently at the adults running their world. But most of us found our way and a generation was influenced by a popular artist in ways that Ed Sullivan could never have imagined.
Bruce Springsteen's mother got him his first guitar after seeing Elvis on TV. The King and others like Roy Orbison exposed the boy who would be called The Boss to the loneliness of teenage love and dreams. Dylan provided the template for the words needed to express himself.
I liked Roy Orbison's sound and enjoyed the musical style of producer Phil Spector and his "wall of sound". Those aspects of music were fused in Springsteen's hit album Born To Run. I enjoyed the wailing sax, screaming guitars, and the pounding drums of that record. Three years later, I had my doubts about "the next Bob Dylan". On his next album, I felt Springsteen showed some lyrical weakness never seen in Dylan.
There was a tendency to repeat words like Promised Land, and darkness, throughout the songs. It was great music, but not Dylan.
As I got older and Dylan receded on the scene, those songs of darkness and promised lands reached me in a way they hadn't before.
As Dylan evolved and his music changed, he continued to sing about the world around him. Springsteen has done the same. Themes have gone from cars and girls, distant fathers and alienated sons, to the wonder of marriage, the pain of divorce, to new love and the beauty of fathers and sons. Topics close to American life run throughout Springsteen songs, so much so that President Regan once tried to co-opt Bruce's words as his message. Born in The USA was a megahit that most people mistook as an affirmation of America. Instead it spoke to the troubled life of so many veterans of the Vietnam War.
Now Dylan is still on the road. His new music is mostly about troubled relationships, and has taken on an almost '40's era sound. Meanwhile Bruce Springsteen has written music to comfort his fellow citizens after 9/11, the effect of fear in causing us to do things we might not have if we felt safer, and now an album in which he gives us songs with happy sounds, but words that are much more than they appear.
He writes and sings about the country and world we are creating for ourselves and our children. Much of what you hear is critical of the turn this country has taken under the direction of the current administration. All of it comes from a place that should surprise no one who has followed this guy's career.
Writers of literature, songwriters, newspaper writers, and other providers of perspective and opinion have been an important part of the fabric of America since the days of Thomas Paine and Common Sense.
If you read the lyrics of the songs on Magic, you enter a world of recovering wounded veterans and their lovers, families preparing to receive their brother and son- killed in action. It's all tied together by a "magician" who tells you to "Trust none of what you hear, and less of what you see."
A father reflects to his son on what a "beautiful place to be born" his town is. Now the son recognizes no one, and much of what he loved is "shuttered and gone". But he remembers his father's words ...
"You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do
And what we won't."
Watching an attorney general nominee say he doesn't know if "waterboarding is torture" makes me think of that verse, and of that father.
Criticized for bringing politics into his music, Springsteen says he is "the canary in the coal mine" .When the canaries started dropping dead, the coal miners knew it was time to get out of the mine.
Many artists today are addressing the same issues.
Springsteen just seems to be doing it better.
At 58 years of age, he still performs at a frantic pace in his current tour, in front of crowds including Charlie Weiss, Pete Carroll, Pat Reilly, Paul Molitor among the more famous names from the sporting world. Minnesota coach John Anderson, Tulane's Rick Jones and some guy from FAU have been spotted at various stops from California to New York and beyond.
Music still lives and carries a message.