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We Will Never Meet Again
Rick Springfield: Alive
Aside from an occasional gleeful invocation of the masterfully confused romantic indignation in "Jessie's Girl", I hadn't had much use for Rick Springfield until, on a random human-potential whim the day of two Colorado teenagers' random human-frailty whim, I bought his 1999 album Karma. The virulent alienation of Columbine and the petulant frustration of "Jessie's Girl" are fairly diametrical, but perhaps for just this reason, Karma became tightly entwined in my attempt to extract sense from that event, a defiant record on which to try to start rebuilding some kind of functional optimism. Crucible experiences are often transient, and indeed the association gradually faded for me, but I kept finding myself pulling the record out anyway, and by the end of the year it seemed like an even more magnificent pop album than it did while it felt like part of my salvation, so I put it in my top ten. I also, after liking Karma, went back and replaced my old vinyl copy of Working Class Dog with a CD. I liked that a lot, too, so I bought Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet, the following one. It had several more brilliant songs, but as I listened to them I remembered three or four others that weren't on either of those albums, so before long (as one could have safely predicted from the start) I'd tracked down more or less everything Rick ever released, straight back to some bedraggled LPs he put out at home in Australia in the Seventies. The early ones were sporadically interesting to me, but the entire run through the Eighties, Working Class Dog, Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet, Living in Oz, Tao, and Rock of Life, left me thoroughly astonished. I'd heard a few songs from each, but one at a time, on the radio amidst other things, I'd been able to dismiss them each as an anomaly. Sure, "State of the Heart" is engaging, for example, but there've been lots of crappy, overproduced corporate shills who managed a couple decent songs. Sitting down and listening to the albums all the way through, however, I quickly realize that there are precious few anomalous Rick Springfield songs, and none of the ones you've heard are among them. He is, I am now convinced, somewhere not far behind Per Gessle as a master of mainstream pop songwriting, and not far behind Tom Scholz as a master of mainstream studio craftsmanship. Maybe those are lower arts than Mark Eitzel's and Richard Thompson's, or Steve Albini's and JD Foster's, but they are no less necessary, and no less worth doing well.
There are a wearying number of minorly different Rick Springfield compilations, none of which I recommend, since the original albums are so good and, with a very small handful of exceptions (I'm not sure I can think of another single album that reaches such polar extremes of my tastes as Working Class Dog does with "Jessie's Girl", which to me is nearly perfect, and "Red Hot & Blue Love", which sends me into a violent rage), so consistent. This new live album, recorded last May, is subtitled "The Greatest Hits", which only adds to the confusion. Live albums often amount to greatest-hits collections, of course, particularly ones by artists who had this many hits. And I don't recommend this as the starting point of a critical reevaluation of Rick Springfield, either, since he does have a wider songwriting range than is displayed in a strict parade of singles. As a demonstration that the old songs are still good, though, and perhaps more importantly, that Springfield himself still remembers why, I find this set electrifyingly reassuring, and if you don't think reassurance can be electrifying, maybe you need to learn to love these songs again as badly as I did. The selection is largely predictable, by nature, including half of Working Class Dog ("Love Is Alright Tonite", "Jessie's Girl", "Carry Me Away", "Everybody's Girl" and Sammy Hagar's "I've Done Everything for You"), half of Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet ("Calling All Girls", "I Get Excited", "What Kind of Fool Am I?", "Kristina", "Don't Talk to Strangers", "April 24, 1981"), the first four songs from Living in Oz ("Human Touch", "Alyson", "Affair of the Heart" and the title track), two from Tao ("State of the Heart", "My Father's Chair"), "Rock of Life" itself, two from the Hard to Hold soundtrack ("Love Somebody" and "Don't Walk Away"), two from Karma ("Free" and "Itsalwaysomething"), and an unnecessary, time-killing cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria". The standout live moments, to me, are the dense, almost Rainbow-grade rock solidity and hoarse crowd sing-along on "Affair of the Heart", the brash acceleration from the hesitant quasi-reggae verses of "Alyson" to the charging choruses, the ostentatious stop-start grind through "I Get Excited", the dead halt the record comes to in the middle for "April 24th/My Father's Chair" (recorded in the shelter of a studio, actually, lest a concert crowd be asked to make the wrenching emotional transition to a Joe-Jackson-esque ballad about Rick's father's death in the middle of a sweaty nostalgia rave), the steady pulse of "State of the Heart" (which I might like almost as much as I like "Jessie's Girl"), the medley (remember when all pop concert albums had to have at least one medley?), the arena roar of "Kristina" (like a cross between Tommy Keene and Styx), and the fact that "Itsalwaysomething" sounds just fine alongside the songs the charts endorsed. And "Jessie's Girl" is just as close to perfect as it's ever been. If this set doesn't quite show Rick's range, it does clearly and repeatedly demonstrate the two qualities that all his hits share. One is that, structurally, most of his verses would qualify as choruses for anybody else short of Wagner. The other is that although his lyrics are rarely good poetry, and frequently simplistic to the point of juvenilia, especially early on, he invests even the most banal desire with enough spirit that I'm convinced, for at least the duration of the song, that however trivial these yearnings, people still have them, and still want to hear them in songs to know they aren't having them alone.
Styx and REO Speedwagon: Arch Allies
REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity was one of the first dozen or two records I owned, and one of the ones I got rid of during the very short window of opportunity between when I got old enough to have records and when I become obsessive enough that I could no longer ever let any of them go. It was remastered and reissued late last year, in nominal honor of its twentieth anniversary, which seemed like a pretty good excuse, to me, to finally buy a copy of it again. Sony also reissued You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish, one of the true lows in rock album-titling, at the same time, and I never owned that, but I vaguely remembered "Roll With the Changes", and it was a slow week, so I bought it as well. Hi Infidelity sounded much like my memory of it, but You Can... was a revelation, particularly the opening diptych of "Roll With the Changes" and "Time for Me to Fly". It's become nearly mandatory to hate the Seventies, particularly any vestige of the early Seventies that had the obliviousness and poor grace to linger into the late Seventies, and I'm usually quite willing to oblige, but I feel compelled to admit that these songs sound wonderful to me, weird hybrids of pretty-boy mincing and arena-metal bombast, and spiritual catharsis somehow overlaid on puerile fear-of-commitment posturing. The historical context has long since ceased to matter. Or perhaps, more accurately, it still matters intensely to these records, but it no longer matters to me, so I can listen to them without the feeling that enjoying them is implicating me in something reactionary. The transformation must not be complete, as I haven't rushed back out to buy the other REO Speedwagon albums, but I did succumb to the new-release temptation of this unholy pairing, a double live album from a joint show by REO Speedwagon and Styx in St. Louis (thus the pun in the title) last summer. If you haven't found a place in your heart for REO Speedwagon, this won't be the album that stakes one, but if I look back on my life, at the end of it, and have done anything that touched as many people as deeply as the combined effect of "Don't Let Him Go", "Take It on the Run", "Can't Fight This Feeling", "Time for Me to Fly", "Keep on Loving You", "Roll With the Changes" and "Ridin' the Storm Out", I'll be pretty pleased with myself.
If the two halves of this album had been sold separately, I wouldn't have bought the Styx half. The only two Styx songs I clearly remembered were "Come Sail Away" and that horrible one in which they speak pidgin Japanese to a robot, neither of which are included here. The joint show ends with combined-band performances of REO's "Roll With the Changes" and Styx's "Blue Collar Man", though, which both are appended, oddly, to the end of both discs in the set, so I hit "Blue Collar Man" on the REO disc, and immediately realize that although I didn't recognize the title, it's one of those stray songs I often find myself humming snippets of almost subconsciously, without stopping to identify it. Encouraged just a little, I go ahead and play the Styx disc. In fact, it turns out I knew most of these: "Grand Illusion" (thought it was Queen), "Fooling Yourself" (thought it was Supertramp), "Lady" (wasn't that Poco?), "Brave New World" (Kansas?), "Too Much Time on My Hands" (Prism? Zebra?) and "Renegade" (this one I really thought was Queen). Even the ones I don't recognize sound like pleasantly half-assed Rush. I haven't bought up any more of the Styx back catalog, either, but given that there was a period when I was pretty sure these two bands represented a nadir of rock history below which you couldn't plunge without resorting to something truly desperate (Toto, say, or the Little River Band; surely their joint tour is next), I guess my cheerful willingness to sing along with this set suggests that I am now capable of liking any album in the rock canon. Or that I have totally lost the ability to discriminate.
Big Country: Come Up Screaming
But given the incredulity which usually greeted my declaration, throughout the Nineties, that my favorite band was still Big Country, whom most people didn't realize lasted past 1984, I believe some would suggest that I lost the ability to discriminate long ago. Big Country are provisionally defunct (Tony announced that he has left the band, and Stuart announced that he's not going to tour any more), but with a web site to rally around, the Big Country releasing machine appears to have a few more records in it just pulling from the vaults. A second rarities collection is supposedly due in April, a covers compilation in March, and the band made a couple of rough, fan-club-ish mail-order auto-bootlegs last year, as well. Up until 1994 there were no official Big Country live albums, but since then various sources have put out the semi-acoustic Without the Aid of a Safety Net, a disc of Radio One sessions, a BBC concert, a King Biscuit concert, the half-covers album Eclectic, the full-scale concert album Brighton Rock, the unpolished Live at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall and a Dutch thing labeled Greatest Hits Live that is actually a literal repackaging of one of the other ones and even I don't have the energy to go back and look up which one it was. It does not, then, on the surface, seem like we need another live album, particularly one recorded in 2000, seventeen years after the band wrote their most famous songs. But this was intended to be Big Country's final tour, and if you don't make a live album of your final tour, you don't get another chance. In admirably expansive leave-taking form, they opt to make it a double-album, and pack it with old songs: eight of the ten from The Crossing (omitting, to my surprise, "1000 Stars" and "Close Action", and essaying both of the draining side-finales, "The Storm" and "Porrohman"), plus "Wonderland", the pivotal Steeltown pair "Where the Rose Is Sown" and "Come Back to Me", The Seer's single "Look Away", Peace in Our Time's signature songs "King of Emotion" and "Broken Heart", the itinerant anthem "We're Not in Kansas" (originally from No Place Like Home, later salvaged and remade for The Buffalo Skinners), one from Why the Long Face ("You Dreamer") and a token handful from Driving to Damascus.
I didn't get to see them one more time before they quit, so I have a personal reason to care about this set, but I still didn't expect much. I've accepted that Big Country now belong to my past. I kind of accepted that even before they did. So I start to listen to this with a large section of my usual processing circuitry disconnected. I already know all these songs, some of them better than I know the songs I've written myself. The count of the number of copies of "Wonderland" I own is the only thing I've felt obliged to update in the bio blurb on the contents page of this column in years. The crowd howls, Stuart says something unintelligible, the band launches into the keening intro to "Harvest Home", and I relax in pleased anticipation of a couple private hours, a valedictory celebration of what Big Country and I have meant to each other that I won't feel obliged to share, write about, evangelize for, defend, rationalize, synthesize or explicate.
And I can't do it. I can't let this be a private moment. I want to, but my muscles won't permit me. By the time the band hits "Where the Rose Is Sown", halfway through disc one, I know that I have to make their case to you one more time. I feel like I'm abdicating some essential critical responsibility, like if I was a real reviewer I'd be spending this time trying to teach myself to give a shit about OutKast, to take Eminem seriously for even a microsecond, or to listen to that PJ Harvey album a second time without nodding off in the middle. Instead, I am going to ask you to put up again with a series of absurd contentions: that Big Country are the best rock band in the history of rock bands, that these are now the definitive versions of some of their best songs, that this is currently my vote for the second best live album ever recorded. I could probably supply rational-seeming arguments for these claims, but they aren't rational assertions, so I won't bother. I will just report. For me, Big Country's songs are the musical externalization of a fierce simultaneous belief in the nobility, tragedy, fallibility and perfectibility of human souls. I have loved some of these songs for only a year or two, some of them since my tastes began to form, and Big Country play them like they know exactly how much the notes matter to me. It's almost unbearable that I can't turn this music up loud enough that the sound blocks out my other four senses. I am torn between the frantic compulsion to track every one of you down and play them for you, and the horrible, gnawing awareness that if I did, some of you still wouldn't be convinced. What a botched design-project people must be if these songs can make me feel this way, yet leave you untouched. If we don't share redemption this fundamental, no wonder we fight over abstractions like religions and copyright law. We invented guitars and drums, and somebody figured out how to coax these songs out of them. That should have been all we needed. Why does the planet still need saving? Maybe it was all a horrible misunderstanding, maybe I told you to give Big Country a chance and you thought I meant the movie, or you confused them with Living in a Box, or you thought I was kidding. I'm not kidding. If you've been putting it off, give Big Country a chance. Do it for me. This is the best they've ever sounded to me, so maybe this record will do what the others couldn't. It's my second favorite live album ever, it contains my new favorite performances of my single favorite song in the world, and you don't have to worry about them betraying you later because they're done already. So? What do you say? No, wait, don't tell me. Not yet. Not while they're still playing, and I can dream a better answer.
Runrig: Live at Celtic Connections 2000
The best live rock album ever, in my useless, untransferrable opinion, is Once in a Lifetime, by Runrig, released in 1988. It would be the height of folly to try to duplicate it in any way, but here's this festival concert album from last year, with new vocalist Bruce Guthro, covering four of the same ten songs from Once in a Lifetime, including "Protect and Survive" in the vitally important second slot. They open here with "Rocket to the Moon" instead of "Dance Called America", and end with "Skye" instead of "Hearts of Olden Glory", but "Rocket to the Moon", "Skye" and "Hearts of Olden Glory" are the other three songs the two sets have in common. Disaster waits, leering.
But then they play some new songs, and I hear not only how they could countenance another live album, but how, for me at least, they had to. I liked In Search of Angels just fine, but if the Guthro incarnation of Runrig is going to win its own separate place in my life, like the Steve Hogarth version of Marillion has, they must build a new mythology that isn't all grounded on Once in a Lifetime and the DID 1993 studio album Amazing Things. The interplay between the live and studio versions of the songs on Once in a Lifetime was an integral part of my understanding of the Donnie Munro era, so this is a start at offering similar perspectives on the new songs. "Big Sky" is spare and open-hearted. "A Dh'Innse Na Firinn" hits an effortless gallop tantamount to flight. "Maymorning" and "The Message" together could be the new heart, for the new Runrig what "Skye" and "Loch Lomond" were for the old, or what "Harvest Home" and "Chance" were for Big Country. And in Bruce Guthro's quiet voice, when he defers to the audience for the second half of "Hearts of Olden Glory", I hear just enough reverence for the version of the song still alive in our memories to believe that we can reach the future without cannibalizing the past.
Hunters and Collectors: Under One Roof
Hunters and Collectors shut down recently, too, as if it were time for every continent to sacrifice one great anthem band. Under One Roof is their farewell live album, recorded in 1998 but it took me two years to give up on my usual sources and mail-order it directly from Australia. I'd expect that the overlap between Big Country and H&C fans, both actual and potential, is significant, the overlap between resistors probably even more so. H&C also have an earlier live album, the 1995 double-disc set Living...In Large Rooms and Lounges, on which they perform nearly all of these songs plus some. H&C live albums are basically self-justifying, as they were another band that came twice as alive when they played for people, but this particular album is essential, I think, for exactly two reasons. The first is that on Living... they didn't try the plaintive "What's a Few Men?", which I consider one of the few truly great war songs written by a generation that didn't live with war. The second is track fourteen of seventeen, introduced by Mark Seymour in the trailing seconds of track thirteen with a glib "I suppose, you know, we couldn't really leave the building without playing this next song". In a routine concert that would merely be banter, self-deprecating acknowledgement that they had one hit bigger than the others. Here, though, in their final show, it's a different admission entirely. The song, as everybody in the room knows, is "Throw Your Arms Around Me", which for once I'm sure I'm not alone in calling one of rock's most timeless love songs (the other three of my top four, at the moment, after a recent falling-out with "Ana Ng" and a slight loss of faith in "Missing You", are Marillion's "Kayleigh", Not Drowning, Waving's "Spark" and Modern English's "I Melt With You"). If this really is the last H&C show, then, it's not just a matter of leaving the building or not, it is the band that made one of the four most perfect love songs in music, and a representative delegation of the people who owe part of their conception of love to it, realizing that it is about to be performed in its native state for the last time. Other believers will keep it alive in other forms, of course (Luka Bloom does it on his new covers album, which is sitting in one of my piles), and maybe each band member who was part of it will play it a hundred more times, individually, at friends' parties, or in their own kitchens for their wives and children. But for the band, this is it. "I will kiss you in four places", Mark sings, and part of the charm of the song lies in thinking of this as goofily circumspect innuendo, but the four places are really seasons, or compass points, or corners of a square planet, or the past, the present, the future and us, never quite contained in any of them.
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