Retrofit Digest: “Stay Free” by the Clash

stay free

(Originally published, Oct 2009)

This is the whole rock ‘n’ roll package. Rebellion. Friendship. Bad luck. Authority. Resilience.

And love.

All that from every loud, crunchy, melodic note of “Stay Free,” one of the best-if-lesser-known gems from the Clash’s “Give ‘Em Enough Rope.” Have you given it a good listen? What you see in this video (a partial in-studio performance from the dramatic film “Rude Boy,” in which the band figured) shows him alone in the studio, in the half-dark, backing track blasting in his cans, his eyes shut as he digs deep for the memories/feelings that animated the nostalgic tale of childhood ruffianism — he and his friend acting up in school; getting booted; one finding his way to a liberated future (“I go anywhere a wanna be!”) while his friend/inspiration heads down a more predictable, treacherous path: (a nicking spree, which gets sideways almost immediately, and ends up with a 3-year bit in Brixton Prison). In the end Mick is thriving with his punk band; the nameless friend is out of jail and headed into an undetermined future.

So watch Jones lean into the story; see how the boasts of rebellion (“Never took no shit from no one/we weren’t fools”) don’t resonate nearly as much as the more softer, more vulnerable memories of childhood friends on a lark: (“You always made me laugh/got me in bad fights/played me pool all night. . .”) And yet the writing’s already on the wall: Mick’s at home working with his guitar while the friend is hanging around a pub, planning a mini-crime wave. It can’t end well for him, and so it doesn’t. Off to Brixton, to where Mick sends typically raw and gutsy letters (and just watch him bite off this final line in the video): “When you lot get out, we’re gonna hit the town/We’ll burn it fucking down… a cinder.”

Then we get to the part that really kills me, right at the end of the vocal captured in the video: the way he signs off with a firm, if gently-worded, bit of advice for his newly-paroled friend’s near-and-distant future:

Go easy. Step lightly.”

(a beat)

“Stay free.”

Then something else happens. The music fades, Mick stares into the darkness, his eyes still lit/haunted by some other, unstated feeling. It’s what he’s not telling us that sticks in my mind: What he knows about this guy’s final destination, perhaps. Or what he senses in the distance between them. Maybe a sense that not everyone gets out alive. That something else trumps even the most jauntily raised middle finger. That even friendship can’t save you in the end.

See what it says to you.

Retrofit Redux: The Eagles’ “Hotel California”

eagles_hotel_california In the worldview of the Eagles, the scope of femininity divides into roughly two categories: The women who give the Eagles cocaine and the women who will give anything – anything – to snort the Eagles’ cocaine. The former are demons (with the moon in their eyes; their lyin’ eyes, their terminal prettiness, their Tiffany twistedness, et. al) the latter just sort of sad and pathetic (they should be home but they’re not; they wonder how it ever got so crazy, they’re afraid it’s all just wasted time, their need to either own or stone the Eagles, with the single exception who is just a friend).

Which would feel a lot more like the warm smell of misogyny rising up through the air were it not for the contempt the Eagles have for other men, what with their brutal handsomeness, their thirst for the blood of certain heroic gunfighter/guitarists; their inaibility to buy the love of the lyin’ eyes woman, their mass production of ugly little homes in the once-sylvan hills surounding the Eagles’ luxe aeries, and on and on).

The Eagles, in short, are handsome, harmonizing, lushly melodic buzz-kills. Suntanned fingers wagging in your face; golden heads shaking; aryan chins turned up as they stalk off to the bathroom to blow their noses.Or nose their blow. Or something.

Odious. Except for the fact that a lot of those bitter, pissy songs also turn out to be so well-constructed, and so well-performed (in the recordings anyway) that it requires vast stores of intellectual discinpline to dislike them. And when it comes to  “Hotel California,” the 1976 apotheosis of their creative careers, I can only say one thing: It’s a great record. Each song a gem in its own particular way, the playing and singing all but flawless, one of those concept albums whose central idea (upscale SoCal showbiz society turns out to be one fucking decadent place) flows from its individual parts, and not the other way round (as per, say, “Desperado”)

Just a smidge of context: ”HC” featured three out of four founding Eagles from their earliest country-rock days, (Henley, Frey and bassist Randy Meisner. Guitarist/pedal steelist, mandoliner, etc., Bernie Leadon had already departed), lead guitarist Don Felder (in place since “On the Border” in 1974) and the surprising debut of the already-famous midwest rocker Joe Walsh as uber-lead guitarist. As musical mergers go, adding the slide guitar-wielding goofball among the sleek SoCal hipster cowboys was not just successful but actually catalytic. More than just a truly distinctive guitar player, Walsh (with his hangdog face and joker’s timing) also added an element of soulfulness into the band. A parodist rather than a scold; a wiseass with a heart of gold. And on “Hotel California” all of that served as a tonic, taking the edge off of the Henley/Frey nastiness, while also goading them to rock a little harder maybe even reveal a little of themselves in the process.

Whatever, it worked magnificently. “Hotel California” was a smash, and a pleasure to listen to, more or less nonstop, on the radio for months, years, decades.

“Hotel California”: Cinematic in scope; epic in length; the “Citizen Kane” of decadence songs, “HC” kicks off the album with a puzzling, even maddening puzzle. What the hell are colitas? The image jumps out from the lyric’s third line (“warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…”), clearly a central part of the narrator’s experience of the elegant, awful world he (and we) are about to experience. So you wonder: Are we really talking about the same wild species of buckwheat known variously as James’ buckwheat and Antelope Sage? Because it sounds a lot more like the dreaded wog hemp. Try the latter. “During the writing of the song ‘Hotel California’ by Messrs, Henley, and Frey, the word `colitas’ was translated for them by their Mexican-American road manager as ‘little buds’,” Eagles manager Irving Azoff wrote to whomever composed the Wikipedia entry for ‘colitas.’ “You have obviously already done the necessary extrapolation. Thank you for your inquiry.”

So that’s interesting. But what really sticks on this song (which I’ve only just become able to listen to for fun, after the dire effects of 35 years of radio-enforced repetition began to ebb) is how the gentle Mexican-flavored opening chords slide so naturally into a kind of m.o.r. rock groove (“House of the Rising Sun” played sideways, by white people who had no interest in the old world sleaze of New Orleans) and then into that climactic guitar jam that ends the tune. In between the lyrics are simultaneously straightforward and metaphorical, traveling from the cool wind of the highway to the Dante-esque boogie on the patio and then to the sinister guy at the front desk who explains the crucial distinction between checking out and actually leaving. I could live without the part about dancing to remember or dancing to forget, and I still stumble over the “we are programmed to receive” set up to the ass-kicking kicker (which one of my fellow Boy Scouts, upon hearing the song for the first time on a car radio, decreed as being “really heavy.”) But who cares once you cross the threshold into some serious ax-wielding?eagles hc artifax

“New Kid in Town”: Success-driven self-pity comes frightfully easy to the Eagles, (by which we really mean Henley and Frey), but this laid-back peek into the life of yesterday’s overnight sensation – addressed to tomorrow’s – is both clear-eyed and uncharacteristically sympathetic. “Great expections, everybody’s watchin’ you…even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.” Think it’s possible that the extent of their empathy relates directly to how autobiographical the song is? Hmmm. But on the other hand, “NKiT” is a shining example of how the Eagles’ increasingly meticulous recording technique (every single note in place, no sonic seams, no rough edges, nothing left to chance) could actually service a song as well-written as this. Consider the interplay between Frey’s electric piano and Felder’s guitar; the way they work together to comment upon and shore up the central melody, the way the background chorus folds together with the organ (deeper in the mix) to breathe another layer of humanity into the song. The real pivot in the song comes in a bridge that captures the conflict between idol worship and romantic love, and how easily they can be confused. “There are so many things you should have told her/But night after night you’re willing to hold her, just hold her/Tears on your shoulder.” At which point the emotional distance implied by the tune’s glossy brilliance cracks open, briefly, to reveal the passionate heart at its core.

“Life in the Fast Lane”: Only just returned to my iTunes folder (another victim of radio overdose) this Walsh-Henley-Frey rocker rides Walsh’s opening riff and subsequent slide guitar commentary into a high speed story of a coked-up glamour couple bound for disaster. Frey came up with the title (which became a near-instant catchphrase to describe high-market, high-performance, high-livers everywhere. Clever turns of phrase sweeten Henley’s typical bile, but the real hook here is all about Walsh’s ass-kicking work on the guitar. That phase effect that comes in near the end hasn’t aged well, and the Need For Perfection saps the song’s chaotic heart (it really wants to be a California ’70s update to “Helter Skelter”). But still. That riff.

“Wasted Time”: Henley goes all out on a ballad, addressed, it seems, to yet another sad-to-pathetic woman who finds herself sans boyfriend, money, passion, a reason for being. Set to a stately, if remarkably simple set of chord changes, the song evokes the collapse of a night, and the raw void of the dawn. “So you’re back out on the street,” Henley croons.  “You don’t care much for a stranger’s touch, but you can’t hold your man…” All of which dredges up at least an inference of prostutition, which edges toward a kind of casual hostility that usually simmers not too far beneath Henley’s songs. But factor in the warmth in his voice (which is, I should point out, one of the richest and most distinctive in popular music) and I begin to wonder if he is, to some extent, singing to himself. He all but answers that question when he goes on to admit that he himself has fallen short of expectations, due to the hours spent “wonderin’ what I left behind.” So if she’s a whore, he is, too. If she isn’t him, they are still the same sort of relentless strivers, pushing relentlessly for something that never seems as satisfying as they imagined it would.

“Victim of Love”: Check out your old vinyl copy and you’ll find, scratched into the play-out groove of Side 2, the cryptic note that “VOL is 5 piece live,” a boast from producer Bill Szymczyk that this tune is in fact a live-in-the-studio recording, with all five Eagles playing and singing with no trickery, overdubs, etc. Which may be true, particularly when you note how wack the drumming is. Henley, for all his strengths, is (by his own admission, I believe) sketchy-at-best in the percussion department. No wonder he’s so eager to point his bony fingers at everyone else’s shortcomings, e.g. this tune’s title character, scolded as per the standards of pre-suffrage society, for partying when she should be home knitting or waiting for gentlemen callers, or some such. “This ain’t no time to be cool,” Henley snaps. “Talk is for losers and fools.” Backatcha, mister, but thankfully the snarling minor-chord stomp the rest of the band creates overwhelms the lyrics. Felder and (especially) Walsh make like gun-slingers, the tracers snap and coil overhead. They could be this unhinged all the time, if they felt like it. But they usually didn’t.

“Pretty Maids All in a Row“: No one ever talks about this song, and you’ll never, ever hear it on classic hits radio. But Walsh’s wistful tribute to youth, naivete and cultural myth is actually the key to “HC”‘s soul. Which is as unexpected as the fact that Walsh’s best song ever (in my book) is a piano ballad, with only the briefest (yet entirely delicious) guitar break. It fades in slowly, a pensive pattern of suspended chords played alongside a kind of dreamy synth-string line. The tune establishes itself after a few bars, at which point Walsh’s vocal seems to call from across the street: ”Hi there, how are ya? It’s been a long time/Seems like we’ve come a long way…” But Walsh, unlike his new bandmates, is less concerned with the trappings of fame and wealth that make him different from everyone else, than with the internal riddles that everyone shares: ”Why do we give up our hearts to the past?/And why must we grow up so fast?” When he does finally address the “wishing-well fools with your fortunes,” it’s not with scorn or contempt, but with “love from a friend/It’s nice to hear from you again.” Together they peer back toward the simple pleasures of childhood whimsy – storybooks, ribbons, bows and pretty maids all in a row. The essence of sweet, untainted youth. A chorus of lovely harmonies carry the song into the sunset, but the poignance hangs in the air.

“Try And Love Again”: Co-founder Randy Meisner was already on the way out, but this solo composition takes the group back to its country-rock basics with this harmony-rich, guitar-led tune. It’s a catchy song, and a spirited performance, and also an object lesson on what the group would lose when Meisner packed up his bass and stomped out a few months later: A high-harmony singer whose voice had a sharp edge and, more importantly, a distinct character all its own. Recall Meisner’s smoothly piercing lead on the earlier smash “Take It to the Limit,” double down with a listen to this song, and you tell me if the honey-sweet, yet un-exciting singing of replacement Timothy B Schmit (who I’m sure is a terribly, terribly nice guy) even comes close.

“The Last Resort”: And it all leads to this: a seven minute-plus tale of immigration, manifest destiny, the American dream and real estate, straight from the moralistic heart of Don Henley. The environmental message at the song’s heart foreshadowed the array of causes and message songs to come. And “The Last Resort” is a kind of one-stop-shop of a rock ‘n’ roll manifesto, taking on environmental destruction, the mistreatment of the red man, consumerism, religious hypocrisy and ill-designed subdivisions with nothing but three chords, an attitude and a thorough recollection of western civ 101. All that, plus a real sense of moral purpose, a nice ear for lean, yet evocative verse, and no perceivable comphrension that the singer’s own high-flying lifestyle (start with the mansion on the hill, tote up the private jets, the unrelenting profiteering the Eagles helped introduce into rock ‘n’ roll, and on and on) maybe fluttered in the face of the narrator’s own dudgeon. What remains (then and now) are mostly questions, paradoxes and stone cold contradictions. “You call someplace paradise/Kiss it goodbye…”

Also on the endangered list: The creative purpose of the Eagles themselves, who would spend years working on their follow-up, “The Long Run,” even cleaner, tighter and almost entirely void of life and spirit. A bile-filled break-up came next, then 14 years of solo work during which Henley shone with more than a small handful of dynamite singles, most of which were, surprise, full of bile and finger-pointing, but still. “The Boys of Summer” was and remains unto itself in terms of sound and feel, and “The End of the Innocence” was just as good. Neverthless, the Eagles regrouped in ’94 for some MTV reunion, then came years of high-dollar touring, another vaccuum-packed album (available at first only to customers of Wal-Mart, for fuck’s sake, and I wonder what the narrator of “The Last Resort” would have to say about that?????

(Note: Originally published in 2010, but back again because maybe you didn’t see it then.)

Retrofit Digest: Amy Rigby’s “Knapsack”

A voice, an acoustic  guitar and that crushing instant when one glimpse is enough to fill your head with blossoms, interlocking fingers, the brush of new lips against yours.

He took my knapsack just inside the revolving door. . .wasn’t looking for anything more than a book/But I looked/Isn’t that what eyes are for?

The opening bars of  “Knapsack,”from Amy Rigby’s brilliant 1996 album Diary of a Mod Housewife, presents a haze of micro-details. Biographies, magazines, the casual glance in his direction, the yearning.

Something about him made me feel seventeen — stop/So I’m not/Isn’t that what life is for?

Yes, and music is for kneading the words and melodies into a performance that projects far beyond the realm of anything that can be expressed in letters or musical notation. It’s not in the airy inversions of the guitar chords or the taut, almost angry way she attacks the strings. It’s not simply a question of the intensity in her voice, and the occasional cracks that make her vulnerability so clear.

It’s in all those things, and way beyond them, too. For while the song’s physical structure — the rhythm, the easy chords, the declarative melody and Rigby’s vocal pitch — are clockwork, the thing feels like it’s  reeling out of control.

Now every day I can’t wait to see him/Gonna ask his name/But every day I just hand him my bag and/Everything remains the same…

For all her yearning, for all her hard-wired need to feel the thrall of love; to be swept up in that adolescent whirlpool of sensation, she can’t let herself do it. She imagines what she’d say to convince him of her appeal —  Hey, listen man/I got a band, I understand what life is for –but she’s really lobbying herself. And losing the debate. He smiles at her but she can’t look into his eyes. She loses one job, lands another in another corner of town; she knows it’s all over, well before she had the courage to let it start.

I’ll think about him when I’m in my bed at night/Deep in my sleep/Isn’t that what dreams are for?

But she can’t stop playing those chords, can’t stop remembering that vision, and that feeling.

He took my knapsack/He took my knapsack/He took my knapsack…