You Never Get Away Clean
222 · 29 April 99
Rick Springfield: Karma
"So, what do we do?", my sister asked me, after reading last week's social-failings rant paper-thinly disguised as a Swedish-pop survey. I think by "we" she meant me and her, but even with the problem reduced to terms that simple, I didn't have much of an answer. Keep doing what we're doing, mostly. Go to Revolution games and cheer like maniacs whether we're winning or losing. Support any Boston restauranteur who is willing to essay Tex-Mex in good faith. Try not to treat the people with whom we interact like machines, or animals, or food. Drive, or in her case ride the train, like the transportation system is a collaborative ballet, not a zero-sum battle game. Try to subject as many strangers as possible to Runrig records. Never get so jaded or self-conscious that you can no longer enjoy children's books. Remember the songs you loved when you were sixteen; forget the tax returns you filed when you were twenty-eight. Obvious stuff, most of it deducible from a combination of basic awareness and a passing interest in self-preservation. But we've been doing all those things for a while, she and I, and the shootings in Colorado last week still happened. If it's hard to see how me learning to recognize the subtle individual virtues of a dozen different mediocre burritos could teach disaffected teenagers two thousand miles away that serenity is a more viable response to persecution than violence, that's because my lunch habits, even when you work out all the butterfly-in-China chaos effects, really can't change much. If we're going to never read another high school's name off of black bands around the arms of professional athletes, we're going to have to adopt, all of us, a broader view of what "we" consists of. It's not enough to do no harm, in our own self-contained lives. If the world is to change, and I think a lot of us have come, at whatever speed, to believe it needs to, then it's going to require a little bit of steering and an enormous amount of pushing. We need solutions whose scale matches the scale of the problem.
When I start to try to think of some, though, I quickly begin to wonder whether there are solutions of scale, or whether scale is in fact one of the components of the problem. Never mind how hard it is to change hundreds of millions of minds (or billions, depending on who you implicate) on even the most trivial issue; maybe accumulations of humanity this large are simply not sustainable, and gravitate to dysfunction of their own accord. Perhaps the only "solutions" lie in disassembling our common culture and replacing it with a hundred thousand micro-cultures, small enough for us all to be participants, rather than just observers, small enough for us to fix when they break. If this is the case, then moving to Manitoba and taking up sprout farming might be my best alternative, after all. Maybe the industrial age was a huge mistake, however understandable, and the key to "it takes a village" isn't the elders sitting around the campfire in the center, it's the wolves and darkness and superstition lurking in the forest around the outside. We know too much, and can reach too far; of course we're going to hurt each other. This seems like a brilliant theory (albeit hardly mine), and a resounding call to simplify your life, right up until the point where you remember that we already tried idyllic, isolated ignorance for a millenium or two, and that produced horrific bloodshed and intolerance, as well.
But the truth is that I don't want to move to Manitoba, and I don't want to be a farmer, so it's frightening, but also exhilarating, to believe that, short of global catastrophe, we could never redecentralize humanity. Most of human progress has been toward bringing us closer to each other, and although this constriction has its attendant perils, I insist on feeling that it's basically positive. Every once in a while there's a moment, like the last two minutes of My So-Called Life, or sound of the crowd shutting up at a Tori Amos concert, or that girl from Brooklyn yelling out the letters of "euonym", when it seems to me like the mass of humanity is reacting with the alertness and emotional sensitivity of people, instead of that of a parade-float Mt. Rushmore made out of cheeseburgers. The reason splitting up into villages doesn't work is that it builds one community at the expense of all the others. It's not enough to feel a sense of community with a few people; those two boys in Colorado had friends. The only way we're going to outgrow school shootings and race riots and "peacekeeping" bombings is if we each feel a part of an interconnected network of villages, some physical and some virtual. How many degrees of separation before you care about somebody so little that you can tolerate their death? We need the two least-connected people on the planet to be one degree less than that apart.
Music can help. It can help a lot, actually. Powerful songs, carefully placed, can alter worldviews. Obscure brilliance can spin a web from one detached person who chances upon it to the next. And a good silly pop song, even one with no intellectual content (or, more likely, one whose intellectual content nobody bothers to notice), can help the world just by providing a few minutes of entertainment that are harmless, at worst, and at best, sneakily, cultivate the notion that the proper human default state is gleeful rapture, not venomous resentment. Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl", from his 1981 album Working Class Dog, is one of those songs that in a universe of my design you could put in a boom box, walk into a DMZ with, and end a war. It doesn't matter if you know the words or sing it phonetically, but the story, if you follow it, does a credible job of confronting jealousy and disassembling it, properly, into admiration and self-assessment, and even if it didn't, falling in love with your best friend's girlfriend is, like the tendency of cellos to drift out of tune, a maintenance problem for a noble enterprise, not a sign of moral decay. Springfield made some other albums in the Eighties, which I didn't buy (but will tomorrow), and I didn't even get a copy of Working Class Dog until some time last year. I bought this new one, though, as far as I can tell his first in over a decade, in the same spirit with which I bought several liters of corn-syrup-less Passover Coke, and with which I wear 501s and Gap t-shirts, and under the spell of which I will go see The Phantom Menace (even though I still think, as I shrilly argued back when I was twelve and my friends and I split along Star Trek / Star Wars lines, that Lucas' shoddily-assembled universe is dehumanizing and unhealthy). I don't want to give up on mass entertainment, any more than I want to give up on cities, and on the possibility that the person next to me on a London subway train will be reading the same book I am. If we can't retreat to villages, then there has to be a way to make mass culture function, otherwise we're doomed. I want to love Rick Springfield for the same reason I want to love the Spice Girls; I hate thinking that most people are idiots.
I haven't found a way to enjoy the Spice Girls' music, yet, but Karma has me as mesmerized as anything I've heard this year, and I've spent so much of the past four months mesmerized that it's a wonder I've remembered to eat. The album is predominantly escapist, and resolutely mainstream, but it is, at least for me, irresistibly effective escapism, at a time when I badly need it. It's easy to forget, as Rick's hits drift into the past, that he was a musician first, then an actor, not the other way around. He wrote or co-wrote all dozen of these songs, and plays just about one of everything on them. Drummer Mike Baird and co-producer Bill Drescher both worked on Working Class Dog and most of the albums in between. Circa 1981 they played spiky power-pop, and by 1999 they've expanded their palette to include traces of Michael Penn's introspection, Robbie Robertson's leathery Americana, Don Henley and Jon Waite's shiny professionalism, Bruce Cockburn's restraint and Peter Gabriel's expansiveness, but the rest of rock has followed a similar course, and almost any one of these songs, it seems to me, could be this year's "Boys of Summer", something we badly need. "It'salwayssomething" is the raspy, bluesy one, cross-breed heir, perhaps, to "The Boys Are Back in Town", "Free Falling" and "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand". "Religion of the Heart" is a soaring ballad worthy of Waite's "Missing You" or anything I've ever heard by Collective Soul. The sparkling "Beautiful Prize", dizzy with slide guitar and wheezy, Hooters-ish synthesizers, finds a middle ground between Sheryl Crow and Tommy Keene. The verses of "Karma" are clipped and edgy, but the choruses burst into astonishing, redemptive harmony; "Shock to My System" is one for soft-rock radio, but the complex, swirling arrangement and Rick's range-jumping vocal part are both absurd overkill if that's all it was meant for. "Free" sounds to me like an attempt to rewrite Berlin's drippy "Take My Breath Away" with the twang of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street". The crashing, reeling "Prayer" suggests that the only thing wrong with Richard Marx was that he didn't sound enough like Art in America. "The White Room" gets becalmed a little, but pulls free for a bridge Sammy Hagar would be proud of. "IN veRonIcA'S HEAD" (I don't know what the weird capitalization is for, but it's carefully repeated everywhere the track is listed) sounds to me like the closest thing, musically, to a direct replacement for "Jessie's Girl" or Tommy Tutone's nearly interchangeable "867-5309/Jenny". "Ordinary Girl" could be a "Biko" for happier times. "Act of Faith", the slow nominal finale, shows me what the Spice Girls' "Say You'll Be There" might sound like if their musicians weren't being paid by the hour. And the unlisted thirteenth track ("Hey Maria"?) borrows the skeletons of "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand", Shawn Mullins' "Lullaby" and Black 47's "Funky Céili" and lashes together a beast that looks awkward when it tries to walk, but can dance just fine when the music starts.
And although none of these has to mean anything if it makes me this happy, people do sometimes get bored and pay attention to the words, so substance is a bonus, and I'm thus delighted to discover all sorts of thoughtful ideas hiding under these glossy tunes. "It'salwayssomething", in a way the same song as Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket", is about not letting eventual failure steal the joy from transient successes, my favorite case study being "Down one, home run, your dog steals the ball". "Religion of the Heart" downplays its heresy with a palliative-sounding "You're just searching in the dark / For something to believe" chorus, but its analogy between a woman dependent on her relationships for her self-image (and thus unable to have deep or lasting ones) and ritual religion isn't flattering for either party. "Beautiful Prize" sounds, on cursory inspection, like a wistful paean to a pretty girl, but listen closer, and you find that "prize" is not a compliment, and the song is about a relationship based on possession, not love. Listen closer still and you discover that she's his daughter, not his wife. "Karma" is more or less a medley of clichés, but they're clichés about accountability and interconnectedness, which I think bear reiterating. "Shock to My System" and "Free" are rather mundane love songs, and "Prayer" succumbs to the very resignation that "Religion of the Heart" lobbies against, but the last four songs on the album are all variations on romantic rescue, "The White Room" and "IN veRonIcA'S HEAD" from breakup-induced breakdowns, "Ordinary Girl" from being dissatisfied with your perfectly good life, and "Act of Faith" (which could be the question to which Beth Nielsen Chapman's Sand and Water is a ten-song response) from mourning. And the most arresting track, for me, is actually the album's introduction, "His Last Words", less a song than a processor-shredded recitation. If I'm reading through the pseudonyms correctly, this is a short passage written by Rick about his father's death, read by him, his brother (?) and his (their?) children. "There were no proud and profound last words, no bright ringing final moment of clarity", one of the kids explains, taking two tries to get "clarity" right. "He just died." We do ourselves no favors, and maybe this is why I liked Patch Adams even though everybody else I know found it cloying, by trying to ignore death. We don't make it go away, we just raise people, ourselves included, who have no sense of its place in life, and thus no way to tell the difference between the things that are worth putting it off for, like great loves and great pop songs, and the things, like shooting the people who made fun of you in high school, that are not.
Nik Kershaw: 15 Minutes
The idea of improving society through mass media faces two major hurdles. One is that the economic stakes are so high that the process generally gets turned over, in whole or in part, to people whose primary expertise is in fiscal prudence, not in recognizing artistic invention or moral utility, and who thus labor under the delusion that because the CD and jewel case need to be mass-produced, the music ought to sound and read that way, too. You and I can't solve this problem, unless one of us has a secret alternate life as a major-label executive, but it can be solved by individuals. It tends to solve itself, actually, at least if outside meddling is the culprit, as each big success gives an artist more authority over what the next one sounds like. The other hurdle, though, is that we have not yet learned how to reconcile the socially-constructive facets of fame (like common experience for a disjunct audience, a podium to which hard-to-capture attentions voluntarily turn, and what William Gibson referred to as the ability to see the edges) with the ugly, corrosive parts (like people who turn into cartoons of themselves, people who take their own lives to avoid turning into cartoons of themselves, and people who have no idea how to behave in public, because all their role models are either cartoons or dead). Andy Warhol's famous fifteen minutes are a sign of misaligned values in both directions: we pay too much attention to people who don't deserve to be famous for any minutes, and not enough attention to people who deserve our continued support. And he overestimated, anyway; who ever gets fifteen minutes? The allowance for pop singers is usually about seven, with the credits running over the last three. Nik Kershaw used up half of his with "Wouldn't It Be Good", which was a minor hit on its own and covered, to no particularly new effect, by former Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink. I haven't thought about him much in the decade-plus since, except to confuse him with Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward, but here's a new album, and I support comebacks.
If there's a British correlate to Rick Springfield (who is Australian in principle, but American in practice), a midpoint on the continuum from Neil Finn (who is from New Zealand, but stop quibbling) to Radiohead, like Rick's compromise between Michael Penn and Don Henley, 15 Minutes probably places Nik pretty close, Neil's humility filled out by some of Radiohead's anthemic texture, and Radiohead's noisy cynicism modulated by Neil's melodic poise. "Wouldn't It Be Good" was no more experimental than "Don't You (Forget About Me)", from The Breakfast Club, before it, so I don't expect anything very weird from 15 Minutes, and that's what I don't get. "Somebody Loves You" sounds like Crowded House crossed with School of Fish, "Have a Nice Life" like Iain Matthews with more electric instruments, "Billy" a little like a Billy Bragg song covered by a much better singer. The slow first half of the drifting "Find Me an Angel" is the album's closest approach to Radiohead, to my ears, but the tender "Your Brave Face" is solid mid-tempo rock, layers of warm, slashing guitars under Kershaw's arching choruses. "What Do You Think of It So Far?" could almost be a Finn song, except Nik builds harmony parts so that the lead seems to be singing a chord, where Neil and Tim usually let each part retain its own identity. There's a little noisy guitar treatment on "God Bless", but it doesn't do much to cover up the meditative, repeating melody, like Jeff Buckley trying to sound like Pearl Jam. Much of "Stick Around" reminds me of XTC at their most focused, but the surging, whistle-laced coda sounds more like the end of a Fish song. "Fiction" is a folk epic waiting to be discovered, with the cyclic flow of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and a chorus melody as sentimental as Dan Fogelberg's "Auld Lang Syne". With nine more guitars and a fog machine or two we could probably turn "Made in Heaven" (not, sadly, a cover of the Big Country b-side) into a Catherine Wheel song. "15 Minutes" itself is cheerfully-grumpy, noise-punctuated acoustic-blues hung from sweeping synth-string chorus-swells. And the album ends, in case you've somehow gotten this far and still don't remember who Kershaw is, with a spare, haunting, acoustic-guitar-and-drum-loop bonus version of "Wouldn't It Be Good", as if Nik is trying to redress the Hughes-commissioned wrong of the Psychedelic Furs' peppy remake of "Pretty in Pink" by unraveling his song in the opposite direction. If fame tends to obscure the very uniqueness that earned the fame in the first place, then maybe the secret, for both the observers and the observed, is to treat the event like the big hill at the beginning of the roller-coaster. Throw up your hands and scream like crazy, but know it won't last, and once you get to the bottom, and nobody much cares what you do any more, then start thinking about where to point all this inertia. If we're famous for fifteen minutes, but alive for a hundred years, that's a lot of time still to be accounted for. Spend some of it trying to salvage the world, but spend some of it singing.
A sadly appropriate postscript: While I was writing this, on Monday night, an email arrived saying that Adrian Borland, another undeservedly neglected New Wave veteran, once of The Sound and lately on his own, had died on Sunday. I'd just spent Sunday driving around, my windows down in laughably perfect New England weather, blasting his song "Stray Bullets", from a Best of 1997 mix-tape I keep in my car, mentally replaying Ivan McKinley's goals from the Revolution game the night before, and thinking that after a thoroughly awful week, with no reason to believe that the next one would be much better, at least we'd been granted a few hours of reprieve. As it turns out, and as I should have known, most of the reprieve was an illusion, less a pause in the march of horrors than a momentary shunting of them away from where I happened to be. But Adrian's songs, like Rick Springfield's and Nik Kershaw's and those of a hundred other neglected souls we sustain by stubbornly tailing them out of the spot light, are reprieves, and songs outlive their authors and outreach them even while they're alive, and so we go on, resting three-and-a-half minutes at a time, both restoring and restored by the faith of people we never actually meet, and then returning to a world as confused as we left it, hopefully one chorus less confused ourselves. That will have to be enough.