Thursday, March 26, 2009
Advancing Age & Musical Retreats
I’ve been listening to Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night (e) — the 1987 gala concert that T Bone Burnett orchestrated in homage to Orbison. I get a kick out of the audience response. A ditty like “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)” elicits cheers and squeals over its quirky pauses, even though the song is only a throw-away compared to “Move On Down The Line.” It's like one of those buildings that wears all its guts on the outside for passersby to marvel at. The title is pretty much the entirety of the song’s lyrical content; the rest of it is built up with the standard chord changes, a washtub bass line, snappy work on the snare, and a chorus of sha-la-la-las: elements that clearly inspired the architecture of some of Burnett’s own tuneful musings.
If Orbison is remembered 40 years from now it probably won’t be for bits like that, but for the songs referred to by other, later singers — specifically “Crying” and “Only The Lonely.” k.d. lang visited “Crying” in one of her many signature covers that didn’t just honor the original but vaulted lang into the firmament; “Only The Lonely,” of course, was thumbed-over by Bruce Springsteen during his high testosterone years. Listening to those songs now, I have to wonder if lang and Springsteen aren’t the final word on Orbison. There are worse fates for a singer and craftsman like Roy Orbison.
Life goes on and our yearnings change with the demands of age. To hear “outlaw” Willie Nelson teaming up with Asleep At The Wheel (e), or John Prine singing old timey favorites with his buddy Mac Wiseman (e), is to hear a couple of formerly young bucks belatedly acknowledge debts to the music of their fathers. Funny how that is: Nelson and especially Prine were once infamous for pushing the envelope. Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (l) was the sneer of a young upstart, flinging contempt in the face of Beulah-land patriotism. Hearing him now breezily take pleasure in a hoary old song like “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” is disconcerting. And hearing anyone sing “Old Rugged Cross” is disconcerting.
Then there’s Willie:
She’s got plenty of these and a whole lot of those
And oh my gosh those sweaty clothes!
Oh! You pretty woman!
Just how far back do those lines hail from? I’m guessing my grandparents might have kicked up their heels to “Oh! You Pretty Woman!” A lusty line like, “Oh my gosh, those sweaty clothes!” is disconcertingly prurient, but gives the old song a real bite.
Funny to think I’m tapping my toes to my grandfather’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” (am) but so it goes. Today’s noise is tomorrow’s hootenanny — provided today’s noisemakers have some facility with a good hook and a clever turn of phrase.