Saturday, February 28, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Endgame"

I just saw Ten Thousand Things Theater Company's production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" tonight, and it was amazing! Ten Thousand Things is a small Twin Cities theater group that puts on plays and performs them for audiences that don't get much exposure to theater. They tour each show to men's prisons, women's prisons, shelters for battered women, low-cost senior housing centers, and they get a terrific reaction from their audiences. These people are all very moved by this exposure to art. Ten Thousand Things also performs their shows for paying audiences, which is when I get to see them. Now, you might not think that Beckett would go down quite so well with a prison audience, but his plays probably make more sense to people in prison, because they're all about mindless routines to fill the endless hours of a day. I read "Endgame" in college, and although it's not my favorite play ever, it's stuck with me over the years, just because it's so vivid. Actually seeing it performed made it click on a whole new level for me.

"Endgame" is set in some post-apocalyptic time when everything is running down, as entropy has caught up with us at last. The characters are Hamm, who cannot walk, Clov, who cannot sit down, and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who live in garbage cans. Hamm and Clov are engaged in a daily battle of wits as Hamm, who is also blind, asks repeatedly if it is time for his pain pill, and Clov patiently keeps telling him no. Hamm and Clov, as so many Beckett characters do, are acting out rituals that keep continuing on, day after day, until the inevitable end. Hamm and Clov's rituals may seem silly and stupid and pointless to us, but I think the point that Beckett is making is that all of us have our rituals, and they may seem silly and stupid and pointless to someone else, but to us they may be quite important. By exaggerating the repetition of these rituals, Beckett makes them seem odd to the audience, but if you think about it, they might not seem so odd after all.

Hamm is aptly named, as he is something of a ham, a performer, filling up his hours with meaningless, repetitious stories. Hamm's very first line in the play is, "Me to play." There is something in Beckett's repetition that makes you aware of performance in everyday life. The stories that we have told so many times, certain pet phrases that we repeat, we are in a sense, putting on a show when we present ourselves to other people, we are actors in our own lives.

Ten Thousand Things is able to get fantastic actors for their plays, and "Endgame" is no exception. Barbra Berlovitz doesn't have a lot to do as Nell, but she's still fantastic. (I've seen Barbra in many, many plays over the years, and she's always riveting.) Steve Hendrickson gets to do a little more as Nagg, he tells a very funny story that Nagg has told many, many times before. When he gets to the end of the story, Nagg says, "That's the worst I've ever told it." Christiana Clark brings Clov's weary physicality to the forefront, and she shows us that even though Clov threatens to leave Hamm, and Hamm often tells Clov to go, these two characters need each other, for some reason. Terry Bellamy gives a bravura performance as Hamm, savoring every single word and command that issues from this broken-down man.

There is an emotion in seeing "Endgame" that I never got from simply reading it. It's difficult to explain, I can't tell you why I was moved by the play, but I was. It could just be the simple human need to connect, and since the world of "Endgame" seems like a vast, empty void, even having someone to tell you it's not time for your pain pill can constitute a meaningful relationship.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart"

In honor of the holiday recently past, (Valentine's Day, not Presidents' Day) I thought I should write about a song about love that's been stuck in my head for the last few days. It's Bruce Springsteen's song "Hungry Heart," which was his first Top Ten single, from his 1980 double-album "The River."

It's easy to hear why this was Bruce's first big hit single, it has a very catchy tune, and much fewer words than his early songs! It also has a very simple, hooky chorus. The song starts with a brief drum fill from Max Weinberg, then moves straight into the main melody, played by the piano. Clarence Clemons's saxophone honks away, and the song has a 50's-60's feel to it. Bruce shouts "Yeah!" and then starts singing. But the relentlessly upbeat music is fitted to uneasy lyrics, "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back." Okay, so in the first two lines of the song we've established that the narrator has a wife and kids, and one day he simply up and leaves them. What reason does the narrator give for his actions? "Like a river that don't know where it's flowin'/ I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin'." Well, that's a suitable justification, right? No, not really. Notice how Bruce works in the image of a river, which is also the central image in the song "The River." By comparing his actions to those of a river, the narrator is essentially saying that he has no control over his actions, that nature is shaping his actions, the same way that nature shapes the river. Which brings up an interesting question, are people meant to be faithful and monogamous? I won't go into all that here, but suffice it to say, there are all kinds of answers to this question.

But that question leads us nicely into the chorus, "Everybody's got a hungry heart/everybody's got a hungry heart/lay down your money and you play your part/everybody's got a hungry heart." The narrator is saying, obviously, that everyone has a "hungry heart," meaning that everyone needs affection and attention, no matter where it comes from. And that everyone is hungry, or greedy, for love and affection. Everybody always wants more than what they currently have. It doesn't matter that the narrator is married and has children, he is still susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex. He still wants something more. I'm not entirely sure what the "lay down your money and you play your part" line means, it could be a reference to prostitution, or it could simply be referring to the different gender roles we play, that men usually pay for things.

The first verse also references Springsteen's recurring motif of travel, of escape, of getting away from things, usually by car. Like Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike's novel "Rabbit, Run," Bruce's narrator simply kept driving away from his wife and kids. He is, like Rabbit, running away from responsibility. In the second verse, we discover what he finds once he stops running. "I met her in a Kingstown bar/We fell in love I knew it had to end." Okay, so he meets a woman in a bar, but what does he know "had to end"? His marriage, or this illicit relationship? I'm going with the marriage, based on the next two lines. "We took what we had and we ripped it apart/Now here I am down in Kingstown again." So the narrator and his mistress ripped apart their current relationships to be together. (Is she married too?) And now the narrator is back in Kingstown again, to see his mistress. Because, well, both the narrator and his mistress have hungry hearts.

At the very end of the second chorus, Bruce lifts his voice up on the last syllables of "hungry" and the song changes key upwards. Danny Federici gets a tasty little organ solo that leads us into the final verse. "Everybody needs a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home." Which is true, but the narrator had a home and a place to rest, and he threw it all away. This sounds like more self-justification to me. "Don't make no difference what nobody says/Ain't nobody like to be alone." Okay, so once we get past the numerous grammatical errors in these two lines, the narrator seems to be justifying his actions by saying that people naturally seek companionship. But again, the narrator had companionship in his marriage, and left it. Perhaps the narrator would say that even though he was married, he was still really alone, because it was an unfulfilling relationship. The song then closes with another repetition of the chorus, and Bruce gets in some scatting on the fade out.

"Hungry Heart" is a great example of Springsteen matching an upbeat, catchy melody to lyrics that present something more than just a poppy, upbeat message of "Everything's okay." (Think of "Born in the USA.") "Hungry Heart" asks some tough questions about love and relationships: when are we happy, when are we satisfied, and what happens when we should be satisfied, by society's standards of relationships, but really aren't satisfied. What happens when someone tries to break out of those relationships? What's the emotional fall out from the decision to "just keep goin'"? Do we always want what we can't have? Does everyone really have a "Hungry Heart" that is always searching for something "better," something new and fresh, no matter what the cost is to others? That's kind of a depressing way to look at relationships. But these questions are all worth pondering.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CD's I Bought This Weekend

Well, the Electric Fetus, the best record store in the Twin Cities, had their annual Valentine's Day sale last weekend. I picked up a few things, so I thought I might as well make the list a blog post. I got almost everything used, so I saved quite a bit of money.

Bruce Springsteen, "Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ" Since I have the original vinyl, but lack a record player, I thought I should get the CD and actually listen to this music. I just finished listening to "The Essential Bruce Springsteen" and I'm more impressed with the Boss than I was at first. I'm also just impressed by the physical energy he brings to performing. His Super Bowl halftime show was amazing!

Elvis Costello, "Brutal Youth" I found the Rhino 2-disc re-issue used for $8.99, so I bought it. I really like "All This Useless Beauty," from around the same time period, so I figured I'd give this one a shot. It also came highly recommended from EC expert Holly, so that nudged me towards the purchase.

Billy Joel, "Storm Front" Okay, so Billy Joel isn't very "hip." But, I've been listening to "The Essential Billy Joel," and I've forgotten how much I like his songs. He's really a great pop songwriter. And my Dad had "Storm Front" on cassette, so I have fond memories of listening to it in the car. And I'm an American history nerd, so 8-year-old me loved "We Didn't Start the Fire." And it was only $2.99.

James Taylor, "Gorilla" Okay, so James Taylor isn't very "hip" either. But he's a damn fine singer/songwriter. He's one of those artists where every album is pretty similar to every other album, but they're all pretty good. I love the song "Mexico," from this album, so I'm interested to hear the rest of the album.

James Taylor, "October Road," Yes, another JT CD. This one is really good, and even though it came out in 2002, it's his most recent album of new songs he's written. The first time I got interested in James Taylor was around 2002 when he was profiled on "60 Minutes." I knew nothing about his background, so I was surprised to learn he had battled depression and drug abuse. It gave me a lot more respect for him. I was like, "Oh, you suffered for your art."

James Taylor, "New Moon Shine," And one more from Sweet Baby James. It was only $3.99, and this CD is out of print, so I snatched it up.

Robyn Hitchcock, "Queen Elvis" This was the highlight of my shopping trip! One of the only Robyn CD's I don't have, because it's out of print! I was very excited to find this used for $6.99. It even has a promotional sticker on it, bewilderingly calling Robyn, "#1 Post-Modern artist." What exactly does that mean? Whatever it means, I'm sure that Robyn lives up to it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Best Music I Discovered in 2008

Okay, so this post may be a little late, considering 2009 is nearly a month and a half old. But I wanted to chronicle some of the great music I discovered in 2008. But, since I didn't buy many new releases in 2008, I decided to change courses and write about the best music I discovered in 2008, regardless of when it was recorded.

Freddie Hubbard, "Red Clay"

Okay, this was a re-discovering. I've had this CD for many years, but I hadn't listened to it in a long time when I pulled it out again last summer. It's a great, adventurous jazz album from 1970. Freddie Hubbard was one of jazz's great trumpeters, and here he worked with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Henderson to create a masterpiece. (He also worked with Lenny White, who played drums, but I've never heard of him before. Sorry Lenny.) Sadly, Freddie died in December, 2008. I'm glad I re-discovered his music before he passed away. (Freddie and I share a birthday, April 7th.)

Chris Isaak, "Speak of the Devil"

Why didn't I get into Chris Isaak in the late 90's, when I was going through my Elvis/Roy Orbison phase? I have no idea, but I've finally jumped on the bandwagon. Isaak has a gorgeous, haunting voice, and he emulates the sound of the 50's and 60's without seeming stuck in a timewarp. From the slow sultriness of "Flying" to the all-out rock of "Like the Way She Moves," Isaak is at his best on these songs, which show him to be a great songwriter as well as a great singer.

Robyn Hitchcock, "Moss Elixir"

This is the album that really made me a fan of Robyn's music. I don't know exactly when things clicked for me, but suddenly, listening to this album, I seemed to "get" Robyn. "Beautiful Queen" and "De Chirico Street" are two of my favorites off of this album.

Queen, "The Platinum Collection"

After years and years of forgetting that I liked Queen, and after hearing so many people sing their songs on "American Idol," I realized I needed to have some Queen in my collection. So I bought "The Platinum Collection," a 3-disc set covering their whole career. It was money well spent. It was amazing to hear all the different sounds of Queen, from "Killer Queen" to "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" to "The Show Must Go On." What a brilliant group. And Freddie Mercury had one of the greatest voices in rock.

Nick Lowe, "Jesus of Cool"

It was great to actually hear all of Nick's first solo album, along with lots of B-sides and extras thrown in. Nick is a genius, and extremely underrated.

Mick Ronson, "Only After Dark"

This 2-CD set collects Mick Ronson's solo albums "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" and "Play, Don't Worry." Ronson was the lead guitarist for David Bowie from 1970-73, and he played a vital role in creating four masterpieces, Bowie's albums "Hunky Dory," "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," "Aladdin Sane," and Lou Reed's "Transformer." (That's Mick playing piano and arranging on "Perfect Day.") A sorely underrated talent, Ronson didn't blow his own horn very much, and was apparently quite content in the sideman role. Which is too bad, because he had enough talent and charisma to be a frontman. (Just watch the "Ziggy Stardust" movie for ample proof of both.) As a die-hard David Bowie fan, I don't know why I waited so long to buy Mick's solo records, but they were worth waiting for. Mick sounds uncannily like Bowie on his version of "Love Me Tender." Mick gets to show off his guitar skills on the instrumental track "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," which was written by Richard Rodgers, or Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. I think that David Bowie's music lost something when he parted ways with Mick Ronson at the end of 1973. Which isn't to say that Bowie's music went downhill, but he lost a terrifically talented musical partner. (The arrangement on "Life on Mars" and the solo on "Moonage Daydream" are perhaps Mick's finest moments with Bowie.) And I don't really know how Ronson would have fit into, say, "Young Americans," but I would have loved to hear it anyway. Like many other talents, Mick Ronson died much too young, of liver cancer in 1993 at just 46. Fortunately, he and Bowie reconciled shortly before his death, and he played guitar on some tracks on Bowie's 1993 album "Black Tie, White Noise."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock, "Goodnight Oslo"

Robyn Hitchcock's new CD with the Venus 3, "Goodnight Oslo," is a terrific album, full of great songs. It doesn't actually come out until February 17th, but because Yep Roc is awesome, I got my copy last Thursday! I've listened to it, but I don't know if I can say I've truly absorbed it yet. But I wanted to post a review of it just because it makes me feel like a real record reviewer to do it before the CD is released!

The album starts off with "What You Is," a funky rocker, with the catchy chorus, "It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is and what you isn't, is what you are." One of the great lyrics in this song is "You might have been Columbia, releasing orange 45's." (Robyn also mentions bees in "What You Is," one of his lyrical preoccupations.) "Saturday Groovers" is as uptempo and catchy a song as Robyn has written, about the joys of the weekend. One of my favorite songs on the record is the gorgeous "I'm Falling." Robyn sings, "I'm afraid of loving you, and you're afraid I can't." What a lovely line. "Hurry For the Sky" has a slight country lilt to it, it's an easygoing swinger, not really like any other Robyn song I've heard. "Up To Our Nex," from the film "Rachel Getting Married," is a terrific, poppy song, with horns providing some soulful backing. Again, it's a different sound for Robyn, and it's quite enjoyable. "Intricate Thing" is another lovely little song, "Love between a woman and a man is an intricate thing, you're not just friends, you're not just bodies on the sofa. And when it's over, will you speak to each other again, ever?" Robyn goes on to dissect relationships further, "You got all kinds of seeds that you don't know you're seeding, all kinds of needs that you don't know you're needing, all kinds of signals that you don't know you're reading, little drops of blood that you don't know you're bleeding." Brilliant, brilliant writing, Robyn sums up relationships in four lines. "TLC" features some gorgeous cello work by Jenny Adejayan. And the moody "Goodnight Oslo" closes things out in style. "I've got special powers that render me invisible to everyone but you," Robyn sings.

In short, "Goodnight Oslo" is fantastic, Robyn's writing is as good as it has ever been, and there's no filler among these ten tracks. Order your copy today!

P.S. Robyn is touring the States in April, and he's coming to the Twin Cities! I have my ticket already! Maybe he read my entry telling him he should tour and come here...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bruce's Covers

The AV Club website had a funny and interesting article last week, "The Problematic Cover Art of Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen." In the article, the Boss gets taken to task, and rightly so, for issuing one of the ugliest album covers in recent memory on his latest album, "Working on a Dream." It's just hideous. The first time I saw the cover I was like, "Is that a fan's rendition of what they think the cover should look like? Oh, no, it's the actual cover? Oh dear God!" It's just so cheap and amateurish-looking. At the most, someone must have spent a good 15 minutes on it.

So the AV Club, or more specifically, Noel Murray, dissects Springsteen's many different album covers, good and bad. Murray doesn't really like "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." But I beg to differ, in part because I have the original vinyl. For being a debut album by an unknown artist, it's odd that the cover isn't simply a huge close-up of Bruce. (Columbia saved that for his second album, "The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.") In fact, there's nary a picture of Bruce on the front cover, just his name and a 1950's-looking postcard. (Is it a real postcard, or a fake one designed especially for the album?) But here's where it gets cool. The postcard section actually folds out, to reveal lyrics underneath, and credits on the backside of the postcard, along with a picture of Bruce that looks like a stamp. The credits are hand-written, in the same style as Bruce's name on the front, making it look like a real postcard. I think it's a very clever design, it's certainly very different and eye-catching.

Murray also has a problem with the fact that Bruce uses pictures of himself on his album covers a lot. I don't think that's such a big deal, the photos are generally different enough that they don't smack of useless repetition to me. Although, "The Essential Bruce Springsteen 3.0," which I just got last week, on sale at Best Buy, features no less than 3 pictures of Bruce looking down at the ground. Which is kind of odd. But Bruce is a good-looking guy, so why shouldn't he put himself on his album covers? I think the cover of Bruce's "Greatest Hits" is awesome, just a picture of the Boss from the back, Fender Telecaster draped over his shoulder, ready to rock. It's simple and iconic. But Bruce does have some bad album covers, like "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town." (Although, to be fair, it was 1992.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

I was greatly saddened by the death of John Updike last week at age 76. He was one of my favorite authors, a brilliant writer who truly succeeded in "giving the mundane it's beautiful due," as he once said. Updike wrote beautiful sentences, and he could, and did, write well about anything and everything. His death came as a shock to me; I had fully expected him to live well past 90 and that for the next decade and a half I would still see a steady stream of new Updike books in the stores. No one could ever accuse Updike of wasting his talents, the man was prodigious and prolific in his staggering output. In the library at college I used to marvel at the full row of his books on the shelf. I would sit nearby and hope that through osmosis I would absorb but a fraction of his brilliance. He wrote some 60 books during his 50-year career. He published 846 pieces in The New Yorker. Which, averaged out at 50 issues a year, would be one entirely new piece in every issue for 17.5 years!

I met John Updike once, when I was a freshman he gave a reading at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, not far from the college I attended. (Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois.) My Dad and I and two of my best friends went to hear him read. It was amazing, there's nothing like hearing an author read their own work. He read from Gertrude and Claudius, before it was published. He also read some of his light verse, and I think he read a story from Trust Me. Afterwards, we got to meet him and I got my copy of Pigeon Feathers signed. I said something to him about John Cheever, another one of my favorite writers, and Updike said what a wonderful person Cheever had been. In my brief encounter with John Updike he seemed like a very nice person, with no giant ego getting in the way. Everything I've read about him seems to confirm this. His obituary in The New York Times said, "And though as a youth he suffered from both a stutter and psoriasis, he became a person of immense charm, unfailingly polite and gracious in public."

Like John Cheever, Updike was a master of the short story. My favorite books of Updike's are two collections of his short stories: Pigeon Feathers and Too Far To Go: The Maples Stories. In Too Far To Go, 17 stories trace the story of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, from beginning to divorce, the chronology of the stories paralleling Updike's own first marriage. Like all his best work, the Maples stories are sad, funny, moving, heartbreaking, and very real. I recommend "Sublimating," "Separating," and "Gesturing" from Too Far To Go, and "A&P," and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" from Pigeon Feathers.

There is a study of Updike's work with a wonderful title: John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. That's as succinct and accurate a summary of his subject matter as one could hope to find. Updike had a wide-ranging intelligence, I get the feeling that he loved learning new things and sharing them with people through his writings.

Fortunately, Updike's talent has left us with much to remember him by. Great fiction can make things seem clearer, can help sharpen one's own thoughts and actions, and this is what Updike's work did. Thank you John Updike, for making all of us see our own world a little more clearly.

I'll close with a small sample of Updike's own words, in which he describes the wonder he still feels at publishing a book. "To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another."