Month: February 2015

Bob, Frank, and Warren

It’s been several years ago, and I don’t know who was conducting the interview. I do remember the subject though, and what was said. Bob Dylan was discussing modern music and declared it had no soul. The kids weren’t singing protest songs like he did; and therefore, their music had no purpose. Bob Dylan was an old man, decrying his successors. I wondered if Frank Sinatra had said anything similar about Bob thirty years prior. I feel certain he (or someone of his ilk) had. When looking back from over the hill, the climbers on the other side rarely inspire the elders. As I get longer in the teeth, I’m starting to wonder about the music myself. Is it uninspiring, or is that just what’s on the surface? The good stuff is always hidden. Gold is found inside the mountain, not on top.
My younger, hipper co-workers are always trying to get me interested in the latest music. They know I’m a fan of good music, but few of their mainstream hits ever seem to impress me. I’d rather re-discover a band I knew twenty years ago than listen to anything new. This week, I’ve been listening to Jackson Browne. The clean production, haunting lyrics, and catchy melodies sound as good to me today as they did when I was first introduced to them as a teenager. Browne’s greatest accomplishment is not his own work though, but the work he fostered in a contemporary. Rock legend holds that Jackson Browne was one of the early supporters of Warren Zevon, and helped him get a record deal when few were interested in him. Zevon was a genius. Like most geniuses, he wasn’t fully appreciated in his time. Most people only know him for the hit, “Werewolves of London,” but he was much deeper than that. His dark, sarcastic lyrics have a way of zeroing in on the truth and highlighting it in a way that makes people a bit uncomfortable. My personal favorite is, “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down,” but “Lawyers, Guns and Money” is a close second. Those are two sides of the same coin, one owning personal responsibility for everything that goes wrong, the other denying any culpability for anything. Warren died a relatively young man, at 56, and some of his best work came out in his last few years as he battled cancer and faced his imminent death. His later song, “Genius,” includes the lyrics: “Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man when he was working on his universal plan. He was makin’ out like Charlie Sheen, and he was a genius.” That is both true, and smart, like all of his lyrics. The best man in the world is not without flaws, because they are in the world. Uncomfortable truth; I love it. warren
As I look around the modern scene, I know there are some Zevon-like artists out there. I think you just have to look harder to find them. Back in the day, it took a clear, clean, commercial success like Jackson Browne to notice the rough-around-the-edges Warren and make the necessary connections for him to reach the public. Now, things are more fragmented. Everything is available online. That makes it easy to reach the masses, but hard for them to find you. With all the noise that goes along with universal accessibility, the truly great artists can end up like a thousand needles in a million haystacks. Who knows how many great voices are out there doing work that would resonate with both Dylan and Sinatra. The fact that the mainstream media is not promoting them should come as no great shock to anyone. The corporate machine only recognizes art when it becomes profitable to do so. That’s nothing against capitalism; it’s just a fact. If anything, there’s probably too much talent out there, and it’s cutting into the machine’s normal operation. As the grass roots produce exponential opportunities the media makes safer and safer bets resulting in lower and lower quality on the mainstream products. To look at the world this diverse and beautiful and say there’s no good art is a very narrow minded and cynical view. Shame on you, Bob. There is plenty of good music out there. It just might not be on the radio. The ironic thing about Dylan’s opinion that modern music lacks soul is that he made the statement not long after Warren penned “Genius.” The counter-culture icon looking to the mainstream and seeing nothing worthwhile is about as ironic as it gets. I wonder what Warren would write about that. “Huh. Draw blood!” Rest in peace, Warren, and thanks.