They Don't Make a Scotch Tape to Patch Up This Hole
142 · 16 October 97
Joan Baez: Gone From Danger
One of the curses that afflict those of us who loved My So-Called Life too much is that, in a reversal of the ancient mariner's lot, we are doomed to listen. Whatever else the cast, the writers, the directors go on to do, we must experience it. It makes no difference whether their new lives are connected to the old ones; the glint of magic is upon them, and we can spot it through any gloom. So I watched a whole season of Relativity, pining for glimpses of Brian-who-wasn't-Brian, wondering when the show was going to start showing some MSCL-ish quality other than cancelability. I never got over the conviction that Weaver, in ER, was going to toss aside her cane and yelp "I want to par-tay!". I saw, perhaps alone among males to do so voluntarily, How to Make an American Quilt, in which Jordan Catalano wears a white suit and says "Touché", and Angela wears bobby socks and says something I couldn't keep my attention on. I bought a Death book because Claire Danes wrote the intro (it sits on my shelf beside the other Death book I bought because Tori Amos wrote the intro...). And, despite my suspicion that I really wouldn't like it, I saw Oliver Stone's new movie, U-Turn, because Claire is in it.
Only once in my life have I walked out of a theater in the middle of a movie. That was Desperate Living, half an hour of which was more than enough to convince me that "cult" was not, after all, a synonym for "good", and I was not, and would never be, a John Waters fan. U-Turn was very nearly the second movie I abandoned. I hardly know where to begin listing the things I hated about the film. The major characters are, to a person, horrific creatures without a redeeming characteristic between them; the closest any of them come to positive personal development in the entire story is at some point Sean Penn does shave. The structure of the film and the endless plot-loops (like a confused Joe-Bob Briggs summary of all the grisly bits of several Shakespeare plays) suggest that the population of the town is no higher than a dozen, yet the place is littered with political campaign placards (the names on which appear to be self-congratulatory in-jokes), supports a real-estate broker who's done well enough to squirrel away hundreds of thousands of dollars under his floorboards, and somehow maintains an endless supply of product-placement Dr. Pepper. Strangers are so unusual that Penn is spotted immediately, yet two maskless grocery store robbers (never mind the idiocy of robbing a grocery store in a town with a population of a dozen) seem to meet with no comment. The town's most beautiful woman has sexual standards so low that drifters still bleeding from having fingers amputated and her own father are well within the bounds of acceptability. Everybody lies, lies transparently, and lies so persistently that it's a wonder anyone can muster the energy required to hold a conversation that surely will contain no meaning. Nobody seems to consider telling the truth to even be an option, yet they can't make the inductive leap to guess that they're also being lied to. You'd get better dialog out of My Dinner With Elmer Fudd, better pace out of The Castle retold in newspaper Spiderman strips, better characterization in animated-Bud-bottle out-takes, and better storytelling and a more satisfying conclusion out of any comparable duration of low-gain radio-telescope noise. All this would be understandable, if hardly appealing, in low-budget made-for-cable cannon-fodder; in a celebrity-filled, no-expense-spared extravaganza it's reprehensible. The film seems to revel in the misapplication of its abundant resources, hovering in helicopters over scenes not even worth reading about, flinging affected camera tricks at miens that make Diet Mountain Dew commercials seem understated and empathetic, spreading top-quality simulated blood with the exuberance of eight-year-olds let loose with their first cans of Silly String. Liv Tyler is paraded through in a completely pointless cameo just to flaunt the fact that Stone can get Liv Tyler to do a pointless cameo. Claire, as a dim, flighty local and Joaquin Phoenix as her dense, preening, belligerent, cartoon boyfriend are cast in roles that seem to me to have been carefully selected to avoid any of either of their particular acting talents, and Billy Bob Thornton is saved from the necessity of acting at all by being covered in a thick grime so pervasive and mesmerizing that by now it's probably retained an agent and begun soliciting spin-off treatments. Inserting razor-blades into apples would have as much social value, and would be quieter. The only audience I can imagine gleaning anything life-enriching or even entertaining from this soulless exercise in technique and boorish excess is a delegation of desert cacti who enjoy the simple pleasure of watching humans dehydrate. A country where people will like this film, in my opinion, and I'm sure somebody here will, perhaps even you, deserves to have its territory cut into one-foot squares and sold to the Martians as sod.
The worst part of this is I feel somehow responsible. I drove home from the theater gripped by a terrifying existential nausea and the conviction that every controversial thing my generation (however you figure that) has defiantly insisted is harmless has been gathering toward this total abdication of moral responsibility and sense. We claimed that profanity is just language, that graphic violence can be a narrative tool, that wearing jeans to work and putting our feet on the table are not signs of disrespect, that disrespect itself is an outmoded concept. We stood for decadence and anti-heroes and an ethical calculus that sanctions anything you either don't get caught doing, or pretend to not really believe in. We laughed at newsreel footage of breadwinners in tan trenchcoats and gray felt hats filing quietly onto graffiti-less commuter trains, refused to read or listen to anything older than us, howled our right to express ourselves, and anointed as our lords whoever managed to offend our elders in the most public, garish, superficial way. We are the generation, all of us perhaps, who demanded the right to live with our eyes closed, and our mouths in a perpetual indiscriminate grin, and so our faces have stuck that way, just like the last ancient widows of the resistance said they would, before they gave up the fight themselves, and tried to learn to grunt and slouch with the rest of us. I don't want to be a part of this. When we said we were trying to set the human spirit free, we intended to soar aloft with it after its release, not stand on the ground watching it vanish like a mylar Valentine's balloon, the limp string in one hand and the scissors of our own obtuse cleverness in the other.
In this moment of desperate loathing, it seems ghoulishly appropriate to me that I woke up, the morning after seeing U-Turn, to the news that John Denver had crashed his plane into the Pacific and been killed. I grew up on John Denver songs. They, and Harry Belafonte's "Man Piaba", are my earliest musical memories, and they have suddenly come to seem like the soundtrack of however life was before I was old enough to participate in it myself. I gather that John had still been making music all these years, but his only remotely marketable Nineties characteristics were a pair of drunk-driving convictions, and even those were covered, in the press, as if they were a feeble attempt to update his otherwise hopelessly anachronistic image. I hadn't thought of the man for years, but for some reason, in the last few months, I've found myself nostalgic for the sunny reverence of "Calypso", the awe-filled ache of whatever that song about Kansas wheatfields and summer skies was called, even the unselfconscious rural affirmation of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy". Two weekends ago, rummaging through a used-record store's basement of unwanted vinyl, I came across 99-cent copies of his first two greatest-hits albums, and bought them, the first John Denver music I've ever owned myself. He died before I got around to listening to them. I first discovered Andy Warhol in college, when I wrote an art-theory paper about his Absolut Vodka ad (see, this is part of the decline, too), and he died between the time I turned the paper in and when I got the grade back. John Denver's death, though I'm probably the only person to associate the two, leaves me with a similar feeling of having arrived a moment too late, and thus missed a chance to somehow intervene. John was a link to a forgotten world, one of the few nominally public figures left who stubbornly refused (or maybe was just unable) to genuflect to cool. He was the living antithesis, in a way, of U-Turn, as pathetically earnest and sensitive as Stone's film is callow and ruthless. Investigators will find out that his plane crashed because somebody missed a bag of important bolts when they were building it, or he was in a crack stupor, or in a fit of frustration with the state of the world he intentionally swerved to broadside a condor, but his death, no matter how inane or offensive its literal cause turns out to be, has a symbolic value that Stone could only approach by volunteering to sit in a glass box in the lobby of the Library of Congress eating his entire negative, one frame at a time. John Denver's plane dove into the ocean because there was nothing lower than space or higher than the waves left of his world, and the propellers of those hand-made planes just haven't the torque to fight gravity.
My retreat from U-Turn, through John Denver, lands me at the doorstep of Joan Baez's new album, Gone From Danger. Joan was another of the pillars of my musical childhood, edging out Judy Collins for second place, I think, by virtue of the fact that my mother's singing voice was closer to Joan's than Judy's. She is my parents' music, and in my revulsion with my own time, I am nostalgic for theirs. In a world my parents ran, we'd be watching sumptuous adaptations of The Mill on the Floss instead of Sean Penn bleeding into the Arizona dirt. People would hold doors for kindly old women, children could accept homemade cookies from strangers on the street, and the most popular Sega cartridge would be Turbo Canasta. I used to know what was wrong with this picture, and maybe next week the flaw will come to me again, but this week it seems completely compelling. I don't need burglar alarms, or bovine growth hormone, or unsolicited junk email about Finnish virtual-sex web sites. I don't need Marilyn Manson, or belated memorials to murdered ten-year-olds, or robot pets that reduce life-giving affection to pushing a button every twenty minutes. I don't need any of this, surely I don't. Surely a world of gigantic feather beds, lovers arriving to save the prisoner from the noose and endless Thanksgivings already had enough possibility to support infinite gradations of philosophy. How are we richer now that we've filled all the open spaces with junk?
The thing that makes Joan's new album into a tiny powered lifeboat, though, where my two dog-eared John Denver LPs are merely driftwood, is that Joan has found a way to extend a little bit of the past into the present. By recording three of Richard Shindell's songs and two of Dar Williams' (Dar sings backup on three tracks, too, and Richard will be playing guitar on her European tour), she has linked them to her dignified history, as if to assert that they are part of the same tradition, still. Her version of Richard's peerless INS-interrogation song, "Fishing" (richer for my memory of her singing "Deportees"), actually rocks harder than his muted original, Dan Dugmore's sighing lap steel and Chad Cromwell's crisp drums propelling the music along, smoothly, as Joan and Dar wrap themselves around the words like the song has been passed down for generations. Richard's version, in which he is clearly playing the narrator as a role, is sinister and unsettling; Joan's version trades character identification for the love of the song itself. Richard's is about a person's capacity for evil; Joan's is about a person's ability to understand evil and imprison it in a song. His other two songs here, "Reunion Hill" and "Money for Floods", both have female narrators, and Joan steps into them warmly, as if to say "Yes, of course, you're allowed to write with female narrators. But now that you've written them, let me show you how a woman would actually sing them." Mournful bazouki, mandolin and violin help turn "Reunion Hill" into a tale handed down from somebody's grandmother; the slow, delicate rendition of "Money for Floods" turns bitter misanthropy into protest cloaked in fable.
The songs she picks of Dar's are almost important as what she makes of them. I associate Dar, first, with her pointed, incisive songs, like "As Cool As I Am" and "Party Generation", the clever ones like "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York" and "What Do You Hear in These Sounds?", the ones, like "When I Was a Boy" and "My Friends", that admit things you wouldn't normally say aloud. Joan chooses, instead, two of Dar's least self-conscious and, it occurs to me hearing Joan sing them, most old-fashioned songs, the bleak relationship fade-out "February" and the forlorn ballad of inadequacy "If I Wrote You", songs in which the listener finds truths that the narrator doesn't, subtle, indirect songs that are programmatically incongruous in a world of ego and brash declamation. "Here", I think I hear Joan say. "The same eternal spirit lives in you. You can be your own bridge to the past, if you can just see it."
The other five songs fit around these five like an archaeologist's reconstruction of the missing vertebrae. Sinéad Lohan's ringing "No Mermaid", with Dennis Bernside's fluttering piano, seems like a continuation, to me, of the effort Tori Amos began, in "Silent All These Years", to disentangle the mermaid archetype from women's self images. Betty Elders' bluesy "Crack in the Mirror", with thoroughly modern vocal echoes and firm drumming, builds to a saxophone solo straight out of "Baker Street". The simmering "Lily", the one song here Joan and her band co-wrote, reads like her answer, at least musically, to Dar's drum-loop pop experiments. Lohan's "Who Do You Think I Am" is the inverse of solipsistic personality assertion, inviting the listener to participate in the narrator's self-definition. And Mark Addison's jangly, effervescent "Mercy Bound", just before "Money for Floods"' downturn finale, is a reminder that dancing isn't something Kevin Bacon invented to irritate God.
Patty Larkin: Perishable Fruit
Folk music is familial enough that most songwriters' songs eventually get done by someone else, and affectionate enough that they're usually done out of earnest respect. Thus it's not often that you encounter anything as surreal and misguided as the cover of Patty Larkin's "Angels Running" that Cher did on her last album. Patty's songs are ethereal and intricate, and rely heavily on her own distinctive, difficult guitar playing; Cher seems to understand ethereality and intricacy instinctively when she's acting, but for some reason when she dons her singer persona her mind seems to go utterly blank. She turns "Angels Running" into an over-emoted power ballad, the equivalent, if this were food, of the McDonald's McRib sandwich -- processed meat pressed into the shape of a rack of ribs, as if anybody would take a rack of actual ribs and insert them between two buns, bones and all, and bite down on it. It is, in my opinion, the most appalling cover since Keel did "Because the Night". Patty deserves credit just for finding the courage to continue in its wake, bringing more songs into a world where that could be their fate.
Actually though, Patty's own recordings to me share some of Cher's flaws, albeit in extreme miniature. In person, just her and her guitar, she's a dervish, wresting an astonishing array of noises out of the instrument, like it's a monster she's bending to her will. She's a sort of alternative guitar hero, her virtuosity completely devoid of histrionics, and a mainstay of the folk generation in between Joan and Judy and Dar and Richard, with some of the younger writers' self-reliance and some of the older singers' diligent craft. On her studio albums, though, she seems to succumb to insecurity, and surround herself with processor ambience and full bands, as if the world outside of a concert hall is too big, and its acoustics too unruly, for one guitar and one voice to fill it. The albums are quite likable, I think, on their own terms, as relatives of Eddi Reader, or Jane Siberry in her Bound by the Beauty guise, but every time I hear a song of Patty's stripped back to its acoustic state I wonder why she ever does them any other way.
Perishable Fruit strikes a halfway compromise between her live self and her studio self. The arrangements are frequently dense, with an enormous array of guitars, mandolins, basses, cellos and other stringed devices, but this album's ground rule, explicitly pointed out on the back cover, is that it only uses stringed instruments. I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to notice this, without the credits' cue. The string purism doesn't mandate how the instruments are played, so several of these songs find somebody drumming on the back of a mandolin, or playing a guitar with brushes. There is less artificial atmosphere than on Angels Running or Strangers World, but E-bows, slide guitar and other breathy, legato touches give these songs a similar texture. The difference in attitude, however, transcends the ingredient list. Where Patty's previous studio versions could easily feel, if they hit me in the wrong mood, like apologies for themselves, these songs feel like extrapolations, not distractions, from the compositions' acoustic souls. Instead of making over her songs in the hopes that they might pass for something else, on this album she seems to me to have tried to just find out how they grow. What can a one-person song turn into when six people care about it? "The Road" thrums like a suspension bridge harmonizing with the lonely driver crossing it. "The Book I'm Not Reading" alternates jittery, compressed verses with warm, lyrical choruses, ex-Story singer Jennifer Kimball providing a velvety, major-key harmony vocal that Jonatha Brooke would never have written for her. The halting, Siberry-esque "Coming Up for Air" has Jane herself contributing a bell-like backing part. "Angels Wings" throbs with fretless bass and Kimball's doppler-effect fly-bys. On "You and Me" Patty lets her voice suffer closer scrutiny than she usually seems comfortable with, and the result, particularly the little twinges at the ends of lines, reminds me of Abra Moore's first album. "Pablo Neruda", which tells me no more about Neruda than Rachel's' The Sea and the Bells, could be a rough draft for something from Jane Siberry's jazzier period. "Wolf at the Door", which could probably be a club hit if it had a Prodigy-like retro-funk drum-loop pounding through it, has appearances by ex-Knots and Crosses founder Alan Williams and sometime Knots drummer Ben Wittman. The graceful "Brazil" has an unmistakable harmony vocal and some guitar by Bruce Cockburn, and a muttered Shaker hymn at the end for spiritual eeriness. At points the long, evolving "Rear View Mirror" reminds me of Cyndi Lauper's "Hat Full of Stars", and I love the way "My mom and dad bought a house for what he bought that car" leaves off the final "for", as if Patty's as surprised as we are to reach the end of the meter and discover that she miscalculated the line. And the album ends, as if in response to my ill-concealed wishes, with "Red Accordion", a beautifully spare solo piece not unlike Cyndi's "Fearless", just a picked, tinny National Steel guitar fading in and out under an encouraging monologue that contains, to me, two genuinely inspiring insights: "I'll make a fool of myself, maybe that will remind you how", because this is exactly why U-Turn is cowardly as well as false; and "You can't play a polka on ten violins" because, well, every futile task I know to avoid is like a gift of longer life.
Carol Noonan Band: The Only Witness
Alan Williams, already down 2-1 in the post-Knots and Crosses solo-album competition, drops one more behind with this, the third album since the breakup by Knots singer Carol Noonan. I tried to pretend that her first one, 1995's Absolution, was just another Knots and Crosses record, but this was unsatisfying for both of us, and we eventually agreed to a truce under which I agreed not to impose unfair expectations on the album, and it in return agreed to not complain about the fact that I never played it. The second one, unfortunately, last year's Noonan Building & Wrecking, violated the spirit of the agreement by remaking two of my favorite Knots and Crosses songs, "Come Up for Air" and their first album's title track, "Creatures of Habit". These offended me, and the rest of the competent, but conventional, album bored me sufficiently that I didn't bother writing about it, and didn't expect to buy any more of Carol's records. The day of The Only Witness's release, however, driving to work, I heard an intriguing song by a woman whose voice I couldn't quite place, with an odd, circling, flute-like keyboard hook I really liked. The song finished just as I got to work, but another one immediately began, so I was forced to sit there in my car, waiting for the DJ to tell me who played it, trying not to look like a child molester. (Not that I normally look like a child molester, just sitting in my car, but my customary parking space happens to be right against the chain-link fence around the playground belonging to the day-care center on the first floor of the building my company's offices are in. I keep finding globs of damp sand splattered across the side of my car that faces the playground, though, so perhaps I'm not looking menacing enough.) The song, of course, turned out to be Carol's. I thought the DJ said it was called "Memory Lane", which was such an obvious cliché that I could have claimed a poetic-elitist exemption from buying it, but when I picked it up in the store, later that day (after scraping the globs of sand off my car, and growling suggestively at some unimpressed toddlers), I discovered that it was really "Emery Lane", and at a loss for reasons not to give Carol one more chance, I demurred.
The Only Witness is perhaps thus the only one of the three albums that I've listened to fairly. Having given up, and been lured back in purely on a new song's merits, I listen to this one without any of the context I burdened the first two with. Naturally, it fares much better. Carol's plaintive, cathartic harmonies were what I liked best about Knots and Crosses, but her voice, on its own, is confident, polished and emotive, with a pronounced vibrato that verges on shivers, and a hint of New England twang. Her band weaves strong, largely quiet, folk-rock tapestries around her, with no particular radical agenda; the back cover of The Only Witness has a paragraph of liner-notes-ish attempt to explain her style which, except for two uses of her name, is entirely generic, but in fact, her style is a little generic. There are hints of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, I think, the dynamic range of her songwriting shows an awareness at least of folk-rock cross-overs as far as Fleetwood Mac, and her two bandmates, guitarist Kevin Barry and producer/miscellanist Paul Bryan, seem like they're vaguely aware of what else is going on in the world, but Carol, herself, sounds to me very much like she has a comfortable, balanced life, somewhere in Maine where MTV and GenX radio don't reach, and doesn't care (and maybe doesn't even realize) how retrograde this makes her. Her songs all have, to me, the lilting caress of traveling minstrels playing to drowsy villagers around the glowing embers of a bonfire. The topics, when you pay attention to the words, are often painful, broken relationships, loneliness, death, predacity, insupportable guilt and hopelessness, but the villagers would have understood, as we have largely forgotten, that tragedy is one of the ways we celebrate survival, and we gather around pain, not to let it be an occasion for vindictive mob actions, but to promise each other that we are, together, equal to any sadness.
What separates The Only Witness, for me, from Absolution and Noonan Building & Wrecking, which probably had the same abstract cultural values, is that nearly every song here has some musical detail that lures me into its narrative: the dry, ticking hi-hat and resonant guitar harmonics on "Don't Be Afraid"; the odd keyboards and elastic bass of "Emery Lane"; the underwater timpani and raspy mock-cello of "Steadfast"; the warmth of her cover of Buffalo Tom's "Taillights Fade" (Bill Janovitz inventing a harmony part for the occasion), which captures the muted desperation of the original without any of Buffalo Tom's trademark raggedness; the storyteller's cadences in "Queen Jane", more than a little like Loreena McKennitt; the interplay of guitar and organ on the mid-tempo requiem "Not Coming Home"; the sentimental synthetic strings and clipped guitar solo in "Under My Eyes"; the driving drum shuffle and threatening vocal of the near Richard Thompson pastiche "Break Her Heart"; the uncharacteristic vocal frailty of "Unknown Thing", the guitar following the voice in unison, as if it is too weak to proceed on its own. The album moves slowly, but it is useful, every once in a while, to slow down and see what things look like when you let somebody else's weariness dictate your pace, somebody else's sadnesses distract you from your own, and somebody else's era temporarily take you away from the all-too-familiar venalities of your own.