Monday, September 3, 2007

The Perfect Songs, Part XI

Right on, right on, here's another installment in my perpetual series of brief essays on songs I would deem "perfect," whatever that means to me. Songs that stick with you and keep circling about in your heads like bats at sunset. Songs that end up as mix-tape fodder (hey kids, remember tapes?). Here's three more to add to the list* (and I know, more Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams, but hey, it's what I've been listening to lately on the daily commute):

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket31. Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues." This song launches down the track like a locomotive on steroids and never looks back, conductor Dylan taking a gonzo tour of weird America, waving from the engine room. It's from the height of Bob's quest for that sound like "thin wild mercury," the abandonment of the gentler squawk of folk and appropriation of balls-out rock 'n' roll that resulted in his two best albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. "Tombstone Blues" is like the road map – locked into an unstoppable groove by guitarist Michael Bloomfield and the band, it's a tour of the wild psyche, surreal scraps of imagery hurtling by as fast as Dylan can spit them out. The hysterical bride in the penny arcade, John the Baptist, the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse, Gypsy Davey and Cecil B. DeMille – it all rockets along and then collapses with Dylan's cruel, unforgiving line: "Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain / That could hold you dear lady from going insane / That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain / Of your useless and pointless knowledge." Full of more imagery in a mere five minutes or so than most artists manage in an entire career. "I'm in the kitchen / With the tombstone blues."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket32. John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen." Covered in tape hiss, nothing but a guitar strumming along so starkly you can almost see the straining strings, it's like a voice from a time machine. You can hear his foot tapping to keep the beat, and imagine the dusty long-gone room it was recorded in. Hooker's 1948 iconic tune is right there at the birth of rock 'n' roll as we know it, a loose, ecstatic celebration of the joys of music. Hooker was working as a janitor to support himself, imagining the big time, and this tune features keenly observed little moments of the Detroit black community that lend it a kind of vibrant life. It's almost like he's making it up as he goes along – name-dropping the Henry Swing Club and the people of the streets. Still spontaneous and delightful 60 years on. "I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie-woogie / it's in him, and it got to come out."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket33. Ryan Adams, "Magnolia Mountain." I never really got into the Grateful Dead, but I can see their appeal. They're a tie-dyed take on the American dream, all optimism and groove and confidence. I don't hate 'em, but I never quite dug their scene, to use the lingo. So why should Ryan Adams' "Magnolia Mountain," a song crafted wholesale out of Deadhead ideas, ring so true with me? I guess it's a song that dreams wholeheartedly of the magic moment lurking, the sunshine around the corner – but the difference between the Dead and the Adams is that Adams' resigned, older-than-he-should-be voice tells us it's a beautiful scene that's never going to quite happen. Gorgeous imagery of bluebirds singing, love blooming counter with the repeated refrain of "Lie to me," and the dirty morning after. Musically, it's a fantastic song, full of soaring choruses and anthemic guitar. It's only when you eyeball it closer that you see the ache under every cliche, and that's what makes this Deadhead tribute so acute a summation of the promise and the impossibility of the American dream itself. Trippy, eh? "There ain't nothing but the truth up on the Magnolia Mountain/ Where nobody ever dies."

(*To recap: parts one, two, three, four; five; six; seven, eight, nine and egad, ten.)

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