Thursday, May 18, 2006

T Bone Burnett's The True False Identity

Most Americans are not what Wayne was in his movies -- a kindly killer -- and even to dream of being such an avenger is a dangerous game for the mind to play. -- John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity by Garry Wills

I don't belong to the John Wayne generation -- my birthday is about five years off the mark. By the time I figured out what movies were for, my celebrity introduction to the Duke came from none other than Richard Pryor (of all people). Equipped with this colorful metafilter at too young an age, I had no hope of understanding what Wayne really meant to people. The closest I came was reading Garry Wills' book, which I heartily recommend.

The Duke as beer-goggled by Pryor & Wills -- a fitting entry point, I think, to the latest T Bone Burnett effort: The True False Identity

Cowboy with no cattle, warrior with no war
They don't make imposters like John Wayne anymore
- Fear Country

Bush the Younger has indeed been a horrible boon for the country's songwriters. The man and his methods have given us a lot to sing about, it seems: this month alone we get to hear directly from two disgruntled Boomer heavyweights -- Neil Young and now T Bone Burnett. But placed next to Burnett's TTFI, Young's Living With War comes off sounding like straight-forward, practical advice: "Impeach and move on." Listening to Young, a guy could even begin to feel ... hopeful.

Burnett's medicine is quite different. It burns, and leaves no sign our condition is going improve anytime soon. A malignant Personality has patiently taken hold of the American visage, and It isn't content with nationalist vagaries and cartoon effigies -- It is personal; It wants your face, too.

Who were you 30 years ago? Who are you now? Can you spot the difference?

Frank who was swank robbed a bank with a tank for a prank
Sam who was glam ran a scam from Siam to Viet Nam...
- Palestine, Texas

I may be too young to recognize the Duke, but I'm old enough to spot hipster stream - of - consciousness narratives when I see 'em. Frank, Sam et al parade by us in shorthand -- tinny echoes of the grotesques who populated Dylan's Desolation Row. This time it's the outlaw as goofball, and vice versa. It doesn't mean anything, unless you want it to. But within the same song, Burnett abruptly shifts gears, and voices a sentiment that is unmistakable:

Presidents come and presidents go
They rise like smoke and they fall like snow
Do you believe the things you say
Your lofty thoughts are filled with hay
What is this faith that you profess
That led you to this colossal mess

Let's dance about architecture for a moment: if it weren't for the music, this here-and-now opining would be jarring and out of place. But it's not. The hipster with his wordplay and the president with his bafflegab are two sides of the same ugly coin. This president, this administration is every bit as contemptuous of the preceeding generation's hard-won wisdom as the Diggers and the Black Panthers were. Several songs later when Burnett finally sings “We're marching up to Zion / That beautiful City of God” in a minor key, set to the industrial stomp and shuffle that's driven so much of this album, the listener can't help but wonder if we're not in fact pointed in the other direction.

As in any Burnett album, there are meditations on love and loss, betrayal and self-betrayal, and a despair that sits close to redemption. Play it, and see if you aren't groping for your own identity. You'll know you're close when you feel the pain -- and relief -- of recognition.

Here is the official T Bone Burnett site, where you'll find all sorts of goodies, including videos of recent performances. Also available on CD is an impressive 2-disc "best of" collection, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett.

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