A Waste Of Gunpowder And Sky*

July 4, 2012

Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

– Aimee Mann

I’m not sure when it happened. It was probably some time in my teens when my cadre of friends included one with pyromaniacal inclinations to such a degree that he and another friend brought home dynamite purchased in Tijuana during spring break.

Things exploding accompanied by colorful flashes, once an annual treat of controlled carnage for the senses, was reduced to a common weekend occurence.

Instead of fireworks being the focal point, the Fourth Of July had become a day of overt demonstrations of patriotism and weathermen assuring viewers that it won’t rain no matter which way the wind was actually blowing.

A friend once accused me of hating America and I can’t say that I’ve ever felt truly patriotic, at least not in some palpable fashion akin to someone who’s had an indescribable religious experience.

I explained that I believed there to be a difference between the concept of America and the execution, a distinction that some self-declared patriots seem to have difficulty in making.

The concept is brilliant, but the execution has become a bit muddled and held hostage by portions of the population with their own agendas.

The patriotism I often observe seems to be underpinned by some zero-sum logic – “you’re either with us or against us.”

To hear some people speak, one would almost believe that the people outside our borders are begrimed and oppressed, shackled and yolked with every breath taken under the ever-watching eyes of the nefarious and the godless.

(some certainly are)

But, I’ve traveled a bit and, surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of people out there in other lands who go about there lives much as we do here in the States.

They shop.

They get drunk and suffer hangovers.

They enjoy their sports.

They sing and dance.

They do good things and they do bad.

They bitch about their government and they bitch about the weather.

They love their children.

They’re not much different from us aside from sometimes wearing unusual hats.

My grandparents emmigrated here from Italy and, at least on one side, I suspect they might have been asked to leave.

If great-grandfather hadn’t been a dodgy character, perhaps I’d be an olive rancher right now, wearing a large, floppy hat and fretting over this year’s crop. I’d be nursing the wounds caused by Italy’s recent failure to win the Euro Cup. These words, written in English, might make no sense to me.

Would my life be better or worse?

It likely would be nothing more than different. I suspect, though, that I’d still believe in the concept behind America. It would merely be accompanied by more pasta and more wine.

It’s the Fourth Of July. Americans will celebrate with fireworks and shows of patriotism that, without ackowledgment of the concept behind the country, will be mostly just gunpowder and sky.

It’s the concept, though, that the true patriots have fought to defend, not a flag (or a flag pin) or the fanfare or even a geographic point on a map – the promise held by a concept that many people in many countries strive to fulfill in ways that might be slightly different but not truly that different at all.

Here are four songs for the day…

Aimee Mann – 4th Of July
from Whatever (1993)

I actually had the opportunity to hear this song several years before it was released on Mann’s solo debut Whatever. An acquaintence had demos of most the album and this track, along with the equally somber Stupid Thing, was a highlight of that record.

Bruce Springsteen – 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
from Live/1975–85 (1986)

Possibly more than any other song in the E Street Band’s catelog, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) is closely associated with the late Danny Federici, who played accordion on the wistful song.

X – 4th Of July
from See How We Are (1987)

For all of their acclaim and status as punk pioneers, I’ve never enjoyed X as much as I’ve thought I should.

(does everyone have acts that fall into that category?)

However, I’ve always loved 4th Of July, a sketch of urban life from See How We Are.

U2 – 4th Of July
from The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

Having adopted U2 as my band following War and Under A Blood Red Sky, I was eagerly anticipating The Unforgettable Fire in the autumn of 1984. When Pride (In The Name Of Love) hit radio, my anticipation multiplied exponentially.

And then, I purchased the album the week of release and was confused.

Who was this Daniel Lanois and what had he done to my band? Much of the muscle and jagged edges had been replaced by moody, watercolor soundscapes and experiments like 4th Of July.

I was unimpressed.

However, by The Joshua Tree, this evolution made sense and I grew to fully appreciate The Unforgettable Fire. It is the one album in U2′s catalog that sounds better to me now than it did upon its release.

Apocalypse Now And Then

May 29, 2011

I stumbled upon Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now the other evening.

To be specific – and with the numerous versions of the film I suppose that’s necessary – it was 2001’s re-release Apocalypse Now Redux. I know that I’ve seen portions of this lengthier version through the years, but I haven’t owned a copy in any version since having one on VHS.

I didn’t see the movie in the theater during its original release. I was eleven or twelve and it wasn’t really of interest to me. Instead, it would be four or five years later before I saw the iconic ’70s film.

It was late on a Friday night that a handful of us ended up hanging out in my buddy Streuss’ house after a night most likely spent driving aimlessly around town. With us sprawled about the family den, Streuss popped the tape of Apocalypse Now into the VCR (which was still quite the novelty).

Of course, Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore was a hit and the Do Long Bridge scene was memorably trippy, especially The Roach.

The Roach has about three-minutes of screen time and utters fewer than a dozen words as he cooly dispatches a Viet Cong sniper. Then, after being asked by Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard if he knows who is in charge at the outpost, The Roach replies with a simple, “Yeah,” before vanishing like a well-armed apparition.

(making his appearance even more awesome, IMDB lists Herb Rice, the actor who portrayed The Roach, as having merely three minor credits)

It wasn’t long after Do Long, after Willard, Chief, Chef, Lance, and Clean reach Cambodian waters but well before Hopper and Brando are found, that I think I dozed off. It wasn’t that the movie wasn’t compelling, but it was late and the movie was long.

(I have no doubt that I had never seen a movie running almost three hours before)

I didn’t make it to the end the other night, either. I have the stamina for a three-hour movie (or in the case of Redux, four plus) but bedtime is even earlier these days.

But, as I do whenever I come across Apocalypse Now, I did hang with the crew of the Erebus until The Roach informed Willard and me who was in charge.

Here are four war songs…

X – Country At War
from Hey Zeus!

I’ve noted before that I have never been able to embrace the music of seminal L.A. punk band as much as I feel I should. That’s likely why I held on on to the promo copy I received of the band’s ’93 reunion/swan song Hey Zeus!

But Country At War is a cool rock song juxtaposing the banalities of life on the homefront during a conflict far away.

Paul McCartney – Tug Of War
from Wingspan: Hits And History

Paul McCartney’s 1982 album Tug Of War arrived with great expectations as it found the former Beatle reuniting with famed producer George Martin. As I recall, the album received glowing reviews at the time and became a huge commercial hit driven by the ubiqitous duet with Stevie Wonder, Ebony And Ivory.

The title track is a rumination on conflict that alternates between gentle and dramatic with a lilting melody and a hopeful vibe.

Gavin Friday – You Me And World War Three
from Shag Tobacco

Gavin Friday is probably best-known as a longtime friend of, and occasional collaborator, with U2’s Bono. That relationship once placed me in the middle of a case of mistaken identity with the former in a Dublin hotel.

On the sophisticated pop song You And Me And World War III, the Irish artist croons his way through a wry lyric about more immediate and personal friction.

Bob Marley And The Wailers- War
from Songs Of Freedom

One of the more famed songs by Bob Marley had its inspiration in a speech by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I before the United Nations General Assembly in 1963.

If X’ Country At War expressed the general apathy of a nation toward a far-flung conflict, the punchy War seethes as it demands justice for those who are more directly affected by those far-flung conflicts.

Elvis Vs. Rain Man

April 20, 2011

It all began with Paloma wondering about a co-worker at the record store where we met.

A bit of sleuthing and I had stumbled on a cybertrail that included Scandanavian Elvis impersonators, Presley’s optomitrist, a dodgy German politician, and a military general from Southeast Asia.

The bizarre cast of associates of our former associate has left me bumfoozled.

As I examine the sketchy characters in my mind, it almost makes sense. I can imagine this former co-worker getting involved in some scenario resembling a movie by the Coen brothers.

And each time I’ve sat down to write, I wonder how it all might connect.

It’s a mental hiccup that I can’t shake.

But, fortune smiled. I happened across the movie Rain Man on cable the other morning and I remembered an I idea I had.

Eighteen months or so ago, I was inspired by a viewing of the flick as it is set and was filmed in areas near where I had grown up. Rain Man also features a cameo from my favorite childhood radio station – the late, great 97X.

(““97X, Bam! The future of rock and roll.”)

I decided to remember the station with four random songs from an early ’80s 97X playlist I’d created each time I stumbled across Rain Man on cable.

I thought it might be a semi-regular feature here as I seemed to find the movie while surfing every couple months.

(or so I thought)

And, yet, it’s apparently been a year and a half since such a run-in occurred.

So, as the idea of Elvis impersonators running guns or former co-workers interacting with the leader of some military junta bounce around in my head, here are four random songs I might have heard on 97X, circa ’84, ’85…

The Cure – Let’s Go To Bed
from Greatest Hits

By 1985, I would be well acquainted with The Cure as my buddy Streuss had become damn-near obssessed with the band. At that time, the British act was just beginning to get attention in the States with their album The Head On The Door, but Streuss quickly acquired the rest of their catalog as pricey imports.

I also heard plenty by The Cure on 97X. Let’s Go To Bed wouldn’t make any list I’d make of favorite songs by The Cure (who I do think made a lot of fantastic music), but the surpringly perky track got played incessantly on the station.

Beat Farmers – Happy Boy
from Tales Of The New West

Ninety seconds of pure goofiness, hubba hubba hubba hubba hubba.

X – Burning House of Love
from Beyond And Back: The X Anthology

I want to like L.A. punk legends X.

I really do.

But it hasn’t really happened. I think Exene and John Doe are cool, but the songs that resonate with me are scattered throughout the band’s catelog and tend to be the twangier ones like the stellar Burning House Of Love.

Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come
from In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff

97X was the first place that I think I ever really heard reggae on the radio – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear…even stuff from Musical Youth that wasn’t Pass The Dutchie.

The station also played Jimmy Cliff’s ebullient The Harder They Come. The song is the title track to the ’70s cult movie with Cliff starring as an aspiring reggae singer.

I saw the movie years ago and honestly have no recollection of whether I liked it or not, but the song is a keeper.