Music and Life

24 Karat Gold Tour Review – Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders at Bridgestone

Some stars burn out. Some fade away. Others smolder, and reignite when you least expect it. That’s what I witnessed in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville this week. For our anniversary, I had gotten my wife tickets to tick a mark on her bucket list and see one of her lyrical heroes, the Gypsy Queen of Rock and Roll, Ms. Stevie Nicks. Personally I have always considered Rumours to be a herculean feat of recording, but I am not the super fan that she is. Still, The Pretenders were the opening act, and they fit right in my wheelhouse. They’re the type of band I love because they were good enough to break into the mainstream, but also deep enough not to achieve the kind of pop music success that ruins so many artists. Front-woman Chrissie Hynde is the type of snarling, guitar slinging, prancing singer that makes a rock show worth seeing.chrissie

As we sat, waiting for the lights to go down Monday night, I was nervous. I’ve seen a lot of bands over the years: Up and comers, prime-timers, and over-the-hill guitar heroes just looking for a place to play. I was expecting this show to fall into that later category. Would they be able to pull it off, or would we cringe with embarrassment when their voices cracked? Would it be so technologically enhanced that we were basically listening to robots animatronically lip syncing to a digitally remastered copy of their formerly great selves? You take a great risk when you go to a show like that. Avoiding it is the safe thing. Not going means you can remember the greatness when you heard them on the radio as a youth; going means you might be stuck with the memory of their later day faltering. If they falter, that is. Not going also means you never know. I like knowing, and life is all about taking risks. This time it paid off as we witnessed one of the all-time, top-five greatest rock shows I’ve seen. The Pretenders opened with a ferocity that sounded and looked like their heyday. I’ve seen enough artists onstage and met enough offstage to know that makeup can do amazing things, but Chrissie looked outstanding. Wearing an Elvis t-shirt and fitted jeans, she looked exactly as she should. Her vocals were spot on as she sang over pounding drums and the hard hitting baselines that give the band their signature sound. The only thing missing from their set was a piano, which would’ve helped on “My City Was Gone” and “I’ll Stand by You.” Other than that, they were perfect; setting the bar very high for what was to follow. They plowed through their set going from hit song to deep track back to hit song with little interruption. And then, it was time for the Gypsy.

As excited as I was, not many people were there for Chrissie. The night belonged to Stevie, and the crowd of what had to be 15,000 or more welcomed her and her technically perfect band to the stage with a thunderous applause that only a superstar can generate. When the music started and she began weaving her spell no one would remember that it was 2016, or that she was 68 years old. All that was evident was that she was doing what she was born to do. The name of the tour is 24 Karat Gold, and it’s appropriate. Her hits have not tarnished over the years. The “old-new” songs, as she called them, were great too. She referred to them that way because she has recorded a number of songs in recent years that have been locked away since her most prolific days of songwriting. Newer songs she’s written are still quite good, even if you can’t sing along because they never had the benefit of being drilled into your brain on Top 40 radio. She was singing them for her, she said; singing them because she liked them. I heard no disagreement in Nashville. When the time came for “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” (the Tom Petty duet) Chrissie joined her onstage and sang Tom’s part. That was a treat in and of itself. The ladies seem to share a deep mutual respect, both complimenting the other. My one complaint from the show was the movie screen and background videos that ran throughout Stevie’s performance which were a bit distracting at times, but complimentary at others. “Stand Back” was one of the standout times when the screen worked, as the stage was transformed to undulating gold streamers that fit the eighties groove that makes the song so fun. That was my favorite song of the night. Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” That goes for a songstress too. Time will catch up to all of us eventually, but in 2016, Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders are still doing what they were born to do. And doing it very well.

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Lyrical therapy

The world is a tough place. Everyone has their own way of getting by. There was a song a few years ago about making a choice between “drugs or Jesus.” There are more options than that though. Some people use liquor, some escape into television and movies, some read, others seek solace in music. Combination cures are popular as well. Lyrical therapy has always been one of my favorites though. I’ve written a few songs; novelties mostly. There’s “Cousin Sally” about an awkward love affair, and then my greatest hit was “Lola’s House.” It’s about a brothel frequented by all the self righteous in the community. Kind of like “Harper Valley PTA,” but slightly edgier. You won’t be hearing either on the radio. Despite my interest in many musical genres, my songs always come out country. Probably because they’re simple to write, and simple is a good descriptive of my musical ability.  It’s been years since I’ve written any songs. Now I mostly escape into other people’s lyrical wonderlands. Drive-By Truckers have one of my recent favorites, “If you’re supposed to watch your mouth all the time I doubt your eyes would be above it.” Classic.

Styx has been stuck in my head the last couple of weeks, specifically “The Grand Illusion.” It works on a macro and micro level because it paints a picture of the illusions in the media and our personal lives. Micro: Long time readers will remember a treatise I wrote several years ago against the Facebook. My opinion on the social platform hasn’t really changed, but last year I needed to get the word out on a local political issue. My business page was not the place to do it. I’ve used FB for years to peddle my stock in trade, but hadn’t used it personally until then. So over the last several months I’ve been experimenting with it, and I must say, I hate it even more than I thought. Between the immodest moms posting selfies of their finely toned abs, the lewd jokes, and the misspelled words, it is a tragicomedy of modern vanity and general stupidity. It’s the place people go to cast their illusions and pretend they have a wonderful life, or to garner sympathy for how pathetic their life is. They also announce to the world when they’re leaving town, who their kids are, and what they’re cooking for dinner. And I let it suck me in. Shame. Macro: The political cycle we are currently in has the media in a tailspin, literally. They spin, and spin, and spin. It’s getting to the point where I don’t believe any of it. They cut their sound-bites, and push their agendas, and can make anyone look bad (or good). Technology has reached a place beyond the imagination of Joseph Goebbels. Had he been afforded all our modern tools, the Third Reich would’ve ruled the world (and it may yet). While “The Grand Illusion” is a subtle reference to personal and political delusions, “I’m The Slime” by Frank Zappa is a more direct indictment of the corporate media and our personal weakness for their trickery. It’s not nearly as catchy though. Zappa is an acquired taste.

Wading through the levels of symbolism in another person’s lyrics can be a wonderful adventure. If you really want to get lost, Pink Floyd is a good place to start. If you want to go to the combination therapy I mentioned earlier, pair Pink with the Wizard of Oz and you’ll be lost for the next couple of years trying to figure it all out. I heard an author on a podcast a while back talking about The Wizard of Oz, and found that there are actually several levels of symbology going on there. His name was Robert W. Sullivan IV and he wrote Cinema Symbolism. I haven’t read the book yet, but based on his lecture it is one that I should pick up. It’s important to remember that these songs and movies (not unlike the article you’re reading now) are sometimes written for reasons beyond their face value. Some fiction is quite true, and some fact is highly fictionalized. Wonderful adventure that it may be, setting out on an expedition through pop art can also be dangerous. Thomas Cardinal Wolsey said, “Be very, very careful what you put in your head, because you’ll never, ever get it out.” Once you open your mind beyond the vulgar surface of things, it’s hard to go back on Facebook and see anything but stupidity and a lot of sad, sad people.

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.