Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Music of Gregg Alexander

The best defense I’ve ever read of a musical performer who’s managed to remain both lightly mainstream and discreetly underground was found, oddly enough, in a thread of comments on YouTube. It was posted by someone who’s clearly a cult fan, in response to an unreleased track by Gregg Alexander. When another listener posted a brief comment criticizing Alexander for singing out of key, the fan stood up for him with a truthful, spot-on retort: “He MADE the key.”

Gregg Alexander (born Gregory Aiuto in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1970) is best known as the songwriter and frontman of the short-lived late-’90s pop/rock outfit New Radicals. Short-lived, indeed; the band released just one album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, on MCA Records in 1998. The album did, however, spawn one hit song that barely grazed the Top 40, “You Get What You Give,” which spent four weeks on the charts, peaking at #36 in early 1999.

A rollicking, infectious pop number not a little indebted to the likes of The Beatles and David Bowie, “You Get What You Give” is authentically inspirational in its message, while also raising an extended middle finger to the music industry and celebrity culture: “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / you’re all fakes, run to your mansions / come around, we’ll kick your ass in.” Sing along, everybody! Ironically, the track garnered a devoted following among celebrity musicians themselves, with none other than Joni Mitchell proclaiming in an interview that “You Get What You Give” was one of her favorite pop songs at the time.

Regardless, Gregg Alexander wouldn’t be nearly as patient with a mainstream career as Joni Mitchell has been. Disenchanted with touring and the public-relations side of the music business, the shadowy, enigmatic Alexander who often appeared in publicity photographs with a hat pulled down over his eyes disbanded New Radicals just days after the release of their album’s less successful second single, the sublime “Someday We’ll Know,” agreeing only to shoot a video for the song. Then he went his own way.

Fortunately, he’s been writing and producing songs for many other pop music acts ever since, and to much acclaim. His most notable accomplishment was winning a Grammy Award in 2003 for co-writing “The Game of Love,” performed by Santana and Michelle Branch. Other artists to whom Alexander has loaned his talents throughout his career include Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s, Ronan Keating of Boyzone, Enrique Iglesias, Taylor Dayne, the UK band Texas, and American Idol cast-offs Justin Guarini and Carly Smithson (recording as Carly Hennessy at the time).

Then, of course, there’s Danielle Brisebois the singer and former child star, who played a character on the TV sitcom All in the Family. Along with working on each other's solo albums, she was Alexander’s closest sidekick in New Radicals and has remained so throughout much of both of their lengthy music careers. In addition to being musical collaborators, they were also on-again, off-again romantic partners, until their personal and professional lives eventually led them to take somewhat more separate paths. (Brisebois has gone on to write hit songs for such artists as Kelly Clarkson and Natasha Bedingfield, and she’s now married to UK guitarist Nick Lashley.)

But before all of Gregg Alexander’s hard-earned success had even begun to come to fruition, back when he was still in his late teens/early 20s, he’d already recorded and released two impressive but little-heard albums for major labels, his mature yet precocious debut, Michigan Rain (A&M Records, 1989), and the rambunctiously conceived, hilariously titled Intoxifornication (Epic Records, 1992). As intriguing as that early music of Alexander’s is, the story leading up to it is equally fascinating. Let me quote the following excerpt from the liner notes of Michigan Rain, written by the famed songwriter and producer Rick Nowels, dated January, 1989:

“In the summer of ’86 I got a message on my answering service from a Mr. Alexander regarding production on a song for a movie. When I returned the call, the voice on the other end informed me that he was a 16-year-old singer/musician from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who has ‘Thousands of songs,’ and would like me to produce one of them for, oh . . . why not a film soundtrack?

‘Can you send me a tape?’
‘Well, I don’t like to leave tapes around.’
‘Okay, play me something over the phone.’

The next thing I knew, I was driving down the freeway to meet Mr. Alexander. We sat in my car listening to his strange home demos, and after 15 minutes I told him we would make an album together. Gregg has been in my life, studio and refrigerator for over two years. Now he’s yours. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the soundtrack to Gregg Alexander’s home movie.”

I still laugh out loud every single time I read this message from Mr. Nowels in the liner notes. I remember trying similar stunts to get interviews with pop stars back when I was the entertainment editor of my high school newspaper, but I never aimed quite as high at age sixteen as Gregg Alexander did. Rick Nowels, at that point in his career, had already written and produced top-selling songs and solo albums for Stevie Nicks and Belinda Carlisle, and he’d soon do the same for Anita Baker, Celine Dion, Cher, Darren Hayes, Dido, Jewel, and Madonna. To grab the attention of someone of Nowels professional stature, especially out of the clear blue, takes not only some serious guts, but also a tremendous amount of talent and luck.

As fate would have it, A&M Records was going through some severe turbulence right around the time of the release of Michigan Rain, so the album got hardly any public attention at all before being almost entirely forgotten. The record label’s confusion is made obvious by the last-minute change of the album’s title, as indicated on the promotional single for the album’s first track, “In the Neighborhood,” which lists the title of the then-forthcoming album as Save Me from Myself, a title shared with perhaps the album’s best song.

For those who took the time to seek out Michigan Rain and listen to its ten playfully ambitious tracks, they discovered a musical and lyrical pop palette that was nearly unprecedented for someone of Gregg Alexander’s tender age. What do the songs sound like? Exactly what you’d expect: finely groomed versions of a 16-year-old prodigy’s bedroom daydreams, funneled through a jangly sheen of ’60s- and ’70s-inspired guitar rock. Alexander was still on leave from high school in suburban Michigan, but on the album’s title cut, he’s imagining himself looking for bar fights, being picked up by some hot babe at a club except that, unlike many of his peers, his particular daydreams are being fully realized and projected in all of their widescreen, Technicolor glory by a chart-topping record producer. Therefore, the song’s catchy choral refrain: “We made the fallin’ snow so hot / it turned to Michigan rain.”

That song and a couple of others the anthemic heartbreaker “Loving You Sets Me Free” and the gorgeous, explosive mini-symphony “Save Me from Myself” could have been massive hits in their late-’80s timeframe, were it not for the deliberately outright quirkiness of Alexander’s howling, pseudo-tortured vocals and coyly over-the-top idiosyncrasies. Religion looms large in other songs, since Alexander was raised, apparently, by conservative Jehovah’s Witness parents. His stance on the punk-lite romp “Sinner Times Ten” is, of course, interrogative, as is the case for most teenagers (“Did we have to bring God into this?”). He's even assisted on this track by the banshee-like background vocals of a young N’Dea Davenport.

In a sense Alexander’s extreme persona throughout the album is a safe embodiment of rebellion, whimsically lashing out against the strictures within which he was raised. As a fictive character in his own songs, he drinks, dances, loves, hates, sleeps around, steals, kills, gets thrown in jail for twenty years. The album’s soaring closing track, “The World We Love So Much,” embraces “all the beautiful things / we’re not allowed to touch” and contains glimpses of epic grandeur, the kind that also hint at what’s yet to come from Mr. Alexander in his later work.

Because Michigan Rain barely even saw the light of day, Epic Records re-packaged half of its songs in 1992 for Alexander’s equally disregarded sophomore effort, Intoxifornication. Two sexy, risqué new singles, “Smokin’ in Bed” and “The Truth,” were released from that album. The lyrics of the latter song make it clear why Alexander’s music was such a hard sell for a mainstream pop audience. His propensity for intense metaphors and point-blank exaggerations run the risk of making the listener take him too seriously. Early in “The Truth,” he croons, “I don’t follow fashion / ‘cuz man it’s such a drag / I got 77 women / and damn am I a fag.” Later, and far more provocatively: “I ask the question / but you are the riddle / I am a Jew / and you’re my Hitler.” What’s clear in the context of his body of work, however, is that Alexander’s lyrics are both sharp and blunt enough to be not just intentionally sensationalistic, but also a clever critique of sensationalism itself.

Two other tracks from Intoxifornication, “I Wanna Seduce You” and “Electric Girlfriend,” seethe with an adrenaline and sexual energy that only someone who’s approaching twenty could conjure up. The effect is youthfully direct and raw (“In you / it feels so good / when I go / under your hood”), but Alexander sings the lines like Disneyland on cocaine. By this point in Alexander’s career, Danielle Brisebois had replaced N’Dea Davenport as his principal vocal counterpoint; Brisebois’ wails, moans, and sighs are as vital to the songs as Alexander’s own. Regarding his penchant for debauchery, Alexander commented in an interview around this time, “I’ve tried most drugs, most positions under the guise of most religions with most genders on most continents.” It’s a brilliant statement that tells you everything you need to know, without really revealing anything at all.

With two self-penned major-label albums under his belt by the time most people are just finishing college, Alexander had experienced the best apprenticeship that he could possibly find in the music industry at the time. He continued to make connections in Los Angeles and London, while living in New York City, where he often made spare cash and tested out new songs as a busker in Central Park and Tompkins Square Park. The two New Radicals singles, “You Get What You Give” and “Someday We’ll Know,” actually garnered a huge following just from being heard on the streets there, well before the album itself had even been recorded.

New Radicals’ sole album-length release, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, sold over one million copies internationally, mainly based on the strength and notoriety of its two aforementioned singles. It’s also, without question, one of the most solid and just plain enjoyable albums in the history of American pop music. The dizzying reach and full-throttle personality of the album’s twelve cuts have never quite been paralleled in the twelve years since those songs first hit the airwaves. From Danielle Brisebois’ unaccompanied opening words on “Mother, We Just Can’t Get Enough” (“Make my nipples hard, let’s GO”), swiftly followed by swirling guitar riffs, bluesy plinking piano lines, and lone hip-hop shouts, we know that we’re not in for the usual pop/rock rollercoaster ride.

This first track, along with most of the others on the album, is about unabashedly finding delight in a kind of controlled excess. Note Alexander’s bombastic vocal attack and improvised rush of quasi-Eastern chanting near the song’s end, along with Brisebois’ breathtaking spoken-word interlude, just prior to an immense breakdown of percussion:

“Social Security number, please.
Credit card number, please.
Money, please.
Money, please.
Money, please.
Soul, please.
Please deposit $85 for the next three minutes, please
(or your call will be fucking disconnected immediately).”

Alexander and Brisebois know they’re making music to be sold to the masses, and they bash that fact about as much as they can possibly get away with on a mainstream, major-label album, right down to the UPC barcode that’s tattooed on Alexander’s hand and shoes in the album’s artwork. Despite their respective successes as songwriters and producers since that time, the sentiment registers as sincere here. Then again, they’re getting stoned in the lyrics of the majority of the songs on the album, too, so it’s not as though their judgment would have been perfectly clear-headed back in those days!

Since the album includes a track titled “Gotta Stay High,” this should really come as no surprise. Surely, getting themselves high fueled the album's manic story-songs “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending,” “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint for You,” and “Technicolor Lover” not to mention the funk-inflected, headlong rant of the album’s title track, on which the lyrics that Alexander sings don’t match up at all with those that are printed in the CD booklet: “I bet you trust your bank / just wait until it tanks . . . / And politics, a fuckin’ joke / Right and left, they’re both a hoax.”

To prove that he’s not all post-adolescent posturing, Alexander shows his softer, less combative side on bittersweet ballads like “Someday We’ll Know” (“Who holds the stars up in the sky? / Is true love once in a lifetime? / Did the captain of the Titanic cry?”) and “Flowers” (“My love is real / as real as the flowers you smoke to get high . . . / as real as our god who has spoken on how we can fly”). The album’s closing number, “Crying Like a Church on Monday,” even fuses pure power-pop with tinges of gospel to achieve its transcendent, melancholy heights.

So with that final, graceful bow, Gregg Alexander largely retreated to studio work behind the scenes. Most recently, with the exception of a track that he wrote with Danielle Brisebois for a new Boyzone album this year, he’s disappeared back into private life, no doubt enjoying the royalties he’s earned from songwriting over the years. I actually like it that way, as much as I love all of his music. It makes his earlier work, in relief, seem even more like the truly ingenious pop music that it is.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Robert Hamberger, The Smug Bridegroom (Five Leaves Publications, 2002)

I’ve always said that the greatest untold story in literature is the tale of what’s been going on for decades now at rest-areas off of every highway around the globe — and between married, supposedly “straight” men. Then in 2005, along came Ang Lee’s cinematic masterpiece Brokeback Mountain, which became an overnight cultural phenomenon — but not a Best Picture winner at the Oscars, although it deserved to be — for the very reason that’s stated above. Sure, the film was adapted from Annie Proulx’s moving short story of the same name, but few people had read her story before the movie’s release.

Leave it to a straight female fiction writer and a straight male film director to be the first people to tell this story to a wide audience and receive international acclaim for it. Such has been the homophobia of our society, and such has been the internalized fear amongst closeted (or formerly closeted) gay and bisexual men, who it seems have been unwilling or unable to tell the story themselves. Society doesn’t even remotely comprehend the depth and complexity of this subject, because society is what still forces many men to endure that difficult life of secrecy today. If the culture failed to coerce such men into covertly leading double lives, so the twisted logic goes, then the heterosexual and familial backbone of the culture itself would crumble.

Nevermind that it’s already crumbling anyway. As gay and bisexual identity has become more openly accepted in cultures worldwide, some — but not nearly all — of these closeted men have gradually ended their deceptive marriages of convenience, and society has begun to wake up to one of its most desperately hidden truths. The timeframe of Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963, and nearly half a century later, it’s obvious that we’re not living in 1963 anymore.

Eight years ago now, a little book titled The Smug Bridegroom quietly made its way into the world. It addresses the aforementioned themes more directly and more personally than either Proulx’s short story or Lee’s film. It’s a collection of poetry, so again, there’s no doubt that relatively few people have read it. This was the second book written by Robert Hamberger, an English poet who was born in East London in 1957. Hamberger, the author of six poetry pamphlets and three full-length poetry collections Warpaint Angel (1997) was his first book, and Torso (2007) is his third and most recent has been publishing his poems since the late 1970s. At that time he was married to a woman with whom he had three children, then he got divorced, came out as gay, and found a long-term male partner seventeen years his senior, who lived with the hardships of heart disease. Hamberger currently resides in Brighton, on England’s southern coast.

The scope of The Smug Bridegroom is vast and impressive, given that Hamberger’s book explores almost his entire biographical trajectory. Whereas many volumes of poetry loosely or even randomly link together poems within several subtitled sections, the four subtitled sequences that comprise The Smug Bridegroom tightly cohere both individually and together, arriving at a structure whose integrity feels completely solid from start to finish. The opening sequence, “Mountains,” involves commentaries on parenthood and the descent into illness of the author’s mother, to whom the book is dedicated. The second section, “Die Bravely,” closely details Hamberger’s marriage, from early courtship to the trials of separation. “The Wolf’s Tale” and “The Rule of Earth,” the latter of which was shortlisted for a Forward Prize and was previously published as a self-contained pamphlet, examine the pain of divorce and coming out as gay at middle age, alongside the poet’s figurative rebirth in a meaningful domestic relationship with another man.

The Smug Bridegroom draws its title from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear himself speaks the lines late in the play’s fourth act, once he’s suddenly realized, in his old age and delirium, that his two eldest daughters have betrayed him: “Why this would make a man a man of salt, / To use his eyes for garden water-pots, / Ay, and laying autumn’s dust. I will die bravely, / Like a smug bridegroom.” These lines also serve as the epigraph to the section that’s subtitled “Die Bravely” in Hamberger’s book. This allusion is affecting and works on numerous levels, conveying at once the deep sorrow that the poet feels about the dissolution of his marriage, the sense of deception involved in “betraying” his wife and children, and the guilty knowledge that he may have intuited he was gay all along on some level, but remained “smug” enough to avoid the open recognition of that fact. In Shakespeare’s play, these lines are also rife with sexual connotations, which are certainly appropriate to the moments of both gay and heterosexual physicality that punctuate Hamberger’s text.

The book’s opening poem, “Mountains,” situates the poet in relation to his parents and to his own children. It’s a fascinating place to stand, both as a writer and as a reader, in the middle of this generational divide. What does it mean to be a son in relation to his beloved aging mother and his absent father? What does it mean to be a father to three young children when one still feels very much like a son himself? Hamberger skillfully evokes and unfolds the intricacies of these relationships, without reducing their infinite nuances: “Looking up (say a year old, sixteen months) / she was a glacier forty foot high . . . / her voice coming from the summit down to me.” Then later:

“At sixteen months

my daughter’s at my feet: far down there,

her cries grapple-hooks pinning their hopes.

Any minute she’ll climb inside me.

I want to be ice. She can’t move mountains.

The season’s shifting. I want to give way.”

All of this is further complicated in that the poet’s mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and nearing her own death. The poem “Mother’s Son” deftly synthesizes fragments from remembered experiences throughout their relationship, from the poet’s earliest memories (“Yanking my hand to Infants that first morning, / me gripping doorjambs and radiators / while everyone gawped”) to disorientingly sad visits to his mother at her retirement home (“Taking my hand / when we walk the corridor saying Allright Dad”). Hamberger carefully arranges these potentially sentimental images and phrases with exactly the right touch of humanity and restraint, making those moments real to the reader, rather than mere cultural clichés.

Hamberger is also terrifically adept when working in poetic form. The sonnet is the most overused form these days, to say the least, but in his hands, each instance of using the sonnet structure fits because he stays true to this form’s song-like origins, while never calling too much attention to his rhyme schemes or metrical patterns. I’m moved by his sonnet “Your First Words” every single time I read it. The poem describes his initial encounter with his wife-to-be, on their very first day at university:

Can I say hello to you?’ We were eighteen

first night away from home, and I said yes.

You thought I looked safe. How could you guess

in years to come I’d sometimes leave the room when

you were talking, annul you like that, how often

I’d stone you with silence. If I managed to impress

that night with quotes from Plath, it didn’t take us

long to learn no-one lives by poetry alone.”

The next few lines adroitly trace the ensuing years of their courtship, hesitant sexual exploration, and eventual coupledom, with a distinctly effective turn at the poem’s close: “Twenty years on I barely know you, but thanks for asking. / Go back to that night and I’d say yes again.” I can’t think of another excellent lyric poem that deals with this theme in the exact same context, nor can I think of another emotionally precise sonnet that employs the form quite so well in contemporary terms. Such an honest poem within the setting of a book like Hamberger’s was long overdue by the time The Smug Bridegroom was published in 2002. As one acquaintance and literary critic suggested when I asked him about it, perhaps the topic of a previous heterosexual marriage is simply too painful for most gay writers to confront in their work.

Even more admiration is due to Hamberger, in that case, for addressing the subject so thoughtfully here. While the marriage itself may have ended, the wife is not disrespected or left out of the picture. Another of the collection’s sonnets, “Five Years After,” again roused my interest when depicting an amicable post-divorce meeting between the poet’s ex-wife, her second husband, the poet’s male partner, and the poet himself, with an embodiment of elation in the poem’s final image:

“We leave them to their new home, as if we’ve granted

each other a blessing, another chance:

regret and anger trickling into grass,

or away into weather we all moved under once.

Next morning you bend to press

seed-potatoes into the vegetable patch. I balance

to paint our hall like a big yellow yes.”

The aspect of Hamberger’s poems that I most enjoy is their capacity for authentic empathy. These moments of connection manage to feel both vivid and relaxed in Hamberger’s poems, the same way that they so often feel in daily life. In each case they are emblematic, as in the sonnet “In Front of the Kids”: “When I cried in front of the kids they asked why. / ‘I’ve made you unhappy.’ That was enough. / . . . My tough / son ran for toilet-paper to dry / my eyes. He said ‘I want to see you’ / and gently held my face between his hands.” Or in the spare and direct poem “The Coming Out Group”: “He said ‘We’ve always been honest / so I told my wife I’m gay. Five minutes later / she was throwing my clothes out the window… / At work they wrote queer on my windscreen. / I’ve lost everything but it’s worth it. / I’m true to myself’, and he punched his chest / once, hard.”

The two most affecting poems in the book for me, perhaps, are printed side-by-side right in the center of the collection. “A Tree in the Wood” might be one of the most devastating poems I’ve ever read on the subject of gay men and suicide. The poem is preceded by a news-article excerpt from the UK magazine Gay Times, which recounts the story of a Conservative councillor and 40-year-old father of two in Leeds, England, who slashed his wrists and hanged himself on the same day that he was scheduled to appear in court to face gross indecency charges subsequent to his arrest for having sex with another man in a public bathroom. Hamberger courageously elects to re-imagine the man’s sexual encounter itself, a way of focusing on pleasure and desire, rather than emphasizing the social punishment for enacting that desire. The sexually charged imagery is powerfully interspliced with images of violence and self-injury:

“If it’s love I must be cut in two:

stop the body to stop its feelings.

If this sense floods my skin for minutes,

eating a man hungry into my mouth,

swallowing swords, kneading his inches,

feeling good alive together in our sweat

my neck must need rope’s love-bites,

my wrists loosening their grip as he shoots

deserve these slits. My blood can wipe me clean.”

This heartbreaking poem is immediately followed by the equally moving sonnet titled “Sisters,” a piece that’s somehow both antithetical and complementary to “A Tree in the Wood” in tone. The poem playfully recalls the poet and two of his boyhood friends, “[t]hree mummy’s-boy first years at an all boys school, / standing out like cockatoos at a wake” as they together sang and mimed songs by the famed British trio the Beverley Sisters: “We sashayed and fingerclicked thirty years ago. / Months before you died we met in London again: / you two gay, me halfway there. Brothers under the skin.”

The book’s final sequence, “The Rule of Earth,” provides a redemptive ballast to much of the darker content that precedes it in the collection. All twenty-one sonnets in this section of the book chronicle the poet’s romantic relationship with his long-term male partner, from their earliest sexual encounter after meeting over drinks at a pub, to their shared everyday domestic life. The trials that they encounter along the way — suspicious suburban neighbors, being tested for HIV together, spells of silence and depression, the older partner’s heart surgery — are all handled with resilient strength throughout the poems. “The Thought” delicately opens with a strategically repeated phrase: “If I lose you. Watch how I bear the thought: / if I lose you. Never to sense again / your palm against my face while we explain / the way this day has gone, each night / across the pillows, talking late / with kisses when we should have slept.”

There’s both an ease and an intensity in the way that Hamberger navigates these lines, qualities that one rarely finds paired together in formal poetry, or in any poetry, period. To me the scene seems perfectly situated, romantic yet down-to-earth, fully envisioned yet without unnecessary adornment. That same calm emotional exactitude can be felt in “Walking Together,” the book’s dream-like closing poem, which I’ll quote here in its entirety, in order to let the poem’s quiet impact register in full:

“I’m learning to slow my steps in time with yours.

There’s seventeen years between us: a gap

I called a challenge once, the way love ignores

any barrier, mountain, distance. I’d stop

a minute to let you catch up in those early days.

Carried away by how often we said

‘Let’s go for it’ when we met, I read that phrase

as my green light, the same light we saw ahead

walking back last night to our posh hotel.

It glowed at the crest of an avenue of trees

still young and green, while a heart-shadow fell

at our feet from a streetlamp through leaves.

We paused, and in that gap I took your arm

for a few yards of dark, with miles to get home.”

Robert Hamberger’s The Smug Bridegroom is one of the finest poetry books of the past decade. These poems are grounded in hard-won truths and are powered by humanely bracing honesty. Their bravery and expert craft deserve widespread appreciation, as well as a long-standing readership.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Patty Griffin, Flaming Red (A&M Records, 1998)

Earlier this month I heard the folksinger Ellis Paul perform in concert, and he gave the perfect description of fellow singer/ songwriter Patty Griffin’s voice, since Patty has contributed vocals to several of Paul’s albums. He said that just as photogenic people never fail to look great on camera, Patty’s voice is “audiogenic” and never fails to sound great on a record. I would have to agree, wholeheartedly. Furthermore, in a 20-year career that spans five self-penned studio albums, Griffin has never written a single mediocre song. There are almost no other musical artists on the planet, honestly, of whom this can be said.

Griffin’s sophomore release, 1998’s Flaming Red, is my favorite album of the 1990s. I love it not only for its daring songwriting and sterling production values, but also for its bracing honesty and surprising yet seamless blending of musical styles. A few years ago, when I played the album for a good friend of mine, the writer Alfred Corn, he remarked that the album is “innovative as all get out.” Alfred’s a Southerner by birth, and his colloquial description of the music on Flaming Red couldn’t have been more accurate. Flaming Red shows an allegiance to no particular brand of music and actively refuses to be tied down to one. The album’s musical palette incorporates elements of hard rock (on the title track and “Wiggley Fingers”), twangy yet radio-friendly pop (“One Big Love” and “Blue Sky”), pensive guitar-centered numbers (“Change,” “Carry Me,” and “Big Daddy”), jazz and piano balladry (“Go Now” and “Peter Pan”), as well as a handful of poignant and finely tuned character sketches (“Tony,” “Christina,” and “Mary”) that perfectly bridge the worlds of folk and pop.

While Patty hails from her tiny hometown of Old Town, Maine, she’s resided in Austin, Texas, for over a decade now, and there’s certainly a Southern bent to her voice and the sound of much of her music. Her songs have been covered and popularized by the likes of such country music legends as the Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris, and she’s performed duets with many other diverse country music performers, from Willie Nelson to Dierks Bentley to Buddy and Julie Miller. Her debut album, Living with Ghosts (A&M Records, 1996), a polished-up acoustic collection of her jaw-dropping home demo tapes, introduced her to the world as a songwriter of the highest caliber, and also as a classic folk performer through and through. Her debut album provided the ideal stripped-down showcase for her stunningly bluesy, larger-than-life voice, which opened the door to the wide array of vocal acrobatics that she employs on Flaming Red.

I was fortunate to have been following Patty’s career for several years already before her first two albums were released. Back in those days, she actually worked as a switchboard operator at Harvard University in the very same department where I was working at the time, so I’d heard about her music and live shows from co-workers. Catching a truly talented performer at that early stage in her career is a rare opportunity; I was able to hear her sing live in 150-seat venues that are roughly 1/20th the size of the large theaters and arenas where she usually plays today.

Just after the release of Flaming Red, I saw Griffin in concert on August 19th, 1998, at Mama Kin Music Hall, a short-lived venue that was owned by Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and located on the famed Lansdowne Street in downtown Boston. (I feel pure shock when I look at my ticket stub from the show: only $10.00!) During her banter between songs, Patty made it clear that this particular venue — a throbbing, smoke-filled bar, with a stage intended for heavy metal acts, among others — was no place for a folk musician. “I’ve always thought of myself as a rock chick,” she proclaimed. And giving herself back that level of artistic permission is what Flaming Red was all about, from the opening burst of pounding drums to the final quiet piano notes.

Like all of the very best albums, Flaming Red is a song cycle, deliberate in its sonic presentation and track sequencing. With that in mind, what follows is my thorough song-by-song overview of the album, with some extra background information (from live performances and otherwise) added in along the way.

The album’s opening title track kicks off the record with a grinding, all-out rock number that’s clearly intended to startle the listener. Think back for just a moment to “Not Alone,” the closing track on Patty’s debut album — recorded solo and acoustic, mostly in her home studio — on which her voice barely registers above a whisper for the entire song; in fact, that song itself is conceived as a whisper spoken between two lovers in bed, and if you listen closely enough, at just before the two-minute mark, you can even hear a siren wailing past her bedroom window for a second. “Flaming Red,” the following song in Griffin’s oeuvre, jolts us out of that drowsy reverie. You aren’t listening to that folk chick anymore. I’m not her, Patty seems to insist. Instead, you’re hearing an in-your-face tale of a “stupid girl” strutting around in red shoes, “bloody pumps — a dead girl, we’re later told — who was “dressed like / She deserved everything that she got.”

It’s unclear how much of this abrupt shift in persona was due to the demands of Patty’s record company at the time, though judging from her first-person comments in concert, the temporary re-tooling of her image was equally of her own devising. It’s worth mentioning that Griffin did record a third album for A&M Records, Silver Bell, which has finally been released but was shelved at the time, sadly, because the label dropped her contract and went under soon thereafter. I have an advance promotional CD sampler from the year 2000 (mailed to me back when I was writing music reviews for Bay Windows) that includes the song “Silver Bell,” along with this printed announcement: “New album Silver Bell due out in September.” That didn’t happen, of course, but it’s revealing that “Silver Bell” is just as much of a hard-rock track as “Flaming Red.” Clearly, the record company had a certain career trajectory in mind for Griffin.

Little did A&M or Griffin herself foresee that Dave Matthews’ ATO Records label would pick her up and release her next several albums, all very much rooted in the mainstream folk vein, with plenty of room for sonic, but always acoustic, experimentation. Her first album not on ATO Records since that that time, Downtown Church, was released earlier this year, and went on to win a Grammy Award; it’s a collection of contemporary re-workings of classic gospel songs, with a few original numbers.

Regardless of these later instances of turnover in musical identity, the new “rock chick” who appeared on the song “Flaming Red” made little or no sense to some of Griffin’s listeners. I’ve talked to several friends who like her earlier and later work, but were nearly turned off of her music entirely by Flaming Red’s first three minutes: I think it’s just way too loud, they complained, or I never like to listen to hard rock music like that. But how personal taste affects whether or not you’ll buy someone’s new album is about commerce, not art. Flaming Red is art, and it’s artfully synergistic. Griffin’s resistance to being pigeonholed at every point on the album’s thirteen songs actually fits the record’s concepts and serious themes of personal change and evolution at every moment as well.

The second song on Flaming Red, “One Big Love,” was the record’s first single, and it couldn’t be more of a departure from the album’s title track. Accordingly, the song is about exactly what its title suggests, but playfully so. As with many radio pop songs, its narrator is hoping to cement that one big love during a seaside getaway on a summer day, but here she spends most of the time thinking about how she’s taking chances by spending that day away from everybody else she knows. Patty’s hook-laden guitar strumming on the song only serves to underscore how she doesn’t really want to be tied down to any one person, nor to being any one person.

It makes unexpected sense that Griffin then swerves into the dramatic monologue titled “Tony,” the first and most powerful of the album’s character-driven songs. The most striking aspect of the song is its gorgeous sheen and seemingly innocuous pop setting, all drum loops and synthesizers and bleeping electric guitars. The lyrics, which focus on the title character’s suicide, are movingly wistful at first, as a woman who’s looking back on her early years remembers long high school days of sitting behind a young gay man named Tony in class, bored out of her mind: “When I wasn’t too busy feeling lonely / I stared over his shoulder at a map of the world.” The next verse is worth quoting in its entirety because it shows how much the singer relates to Tony, and perhaps also offers Griffin’s reasons for writing this unusual pop song:

“I hated every day of high school

Funny I guess that you did too

It’s funny how I never knew

There I was sitting right behind you

They wrote it in the local rag

Death comes to the local fag

So I guess you finally stopped believing

That any hope would ever find you

I knew that story, I was sitting right behind you.”

I first heard Griffin perform “Tony” at Somerville Theater, just outside of Boston, during the year before Flaming Red was released. The concert was actually introduced by the same Tony who had inspired her to write the song. She performed it solo, with only her voice and her acoustic guitar. Just after the portion of the song that’s quoted above, Tony points a gun at himself during the chorus, and then there’s a long breakdown of drums and guitars on the album version of the song.

But in this solo live rendition, which was my introduction to the song, Griffin ripped a string right out of her guitar with a painful metallic screech, right at the same point in the song when Tony pulls the trigger. The ripped-out guitar string was left dangling from Griffin’s guitar as she played out the remainder of the song. The effect was precise, intense, and staggering. I’d never seen a musician do something like that on stage before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. That moment remains one of my most indelible memories ever from a live concert. It’s the same moment when I was realized that the world would soon know Patty Griffin’s name.

Back when Griffin wrote “Tony” in the mid-’90s, one-third of teenage suicides were attributed to being harassed at school for reasons related to the student’s perceived sexual identity. Almost fifteen years later, that statistic has become somewhat less severe, thankfully, and I can only hope that Patty’s direct, heartbreaking song has helped inspire that change, even in a small way.

“Change,” track four on the album, continues with the theme of red-hot and sometimes devastating life alterations, this time in the context of a semi-abusive relationship. The metaphor for the man in the relationship is an angry, growling canine (“Dog comes growling up behind you / sinks his teeth in your leg”), a risky metaphor that would normally fall flat on its face as a cliché in any song. But the upbeat rock-inflected instrumentation and Griffin’s in-the-moment delivery save it from that fate: “And now there’s no name for you / Come to find out none of that shit was even true.” The only way to appreciate how successfully Griffin sings this line is to hear it for yourself.

The album’s most bittersweet song, “Goodbye,” again deals with the loss of a close friend. The track is pensive but not overwhelming, as Griffin walks a tightrope of familiar yet originally expressed emotions: “Won’t see you anymore / I guess that’s finally sinking in / ‘Cause you can’t make somebody see / With the simple words you say / All the beauty from within / Sometimes they just look away.” This kind of straightforward emotional candor, uncommon in the realm of pop music, keeps the song from feeling trite, and at the same time — with the help of some gauzy, atmospheric electric guitar work — keeps it from feeling too heavy. The next track, “Carry Me,” is similarly subdued and dreamy for the most part, with an abstract lyrical through-line that could equally describe being carried off to sleep or being flown away to war. It’s a compliment to her compositional skills to admit that Griffin’s lyrics don’t always need to make specific and immediate sense. As with poetry, her more subtle songs arrive at their own kind of aesthetic meaning through repeated listening.

“Christina” must be one of the most unique songs in the pop music lexicon, in that it’s a tribute to a public figure whom few people hear about, which is also one of the key ideas in the song itself. According to Griffin’s introductory explanation of the lyrics during live performances, the song pays sincere homage as it imagines the life of Christina Onassis, daughter of the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who was, of course, married to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis:

“A piece of the action, pieces of gold

Everyone’s paid well and does what they’re told

For the simple daughter of a simple man

And up in the air, they would write your name there

And love would fall to pieces in the rain

Who would know better than you?

A hundred love letters and none of them true.”

As she always has an innate ability to do, Griffin climbs inside the mind and life situations of the character whom she’s both creating and addressing. The result never seems hokey for a moment, but instead feels haunting and true, especially when, near the end of the song, against a sparkling backdrop of somber yet somehow also cheerful electronic beats, Griffin lets loose a disembodied cry that’s a sonic approximation of what her character must be feeling.

Along with the album’s title track, “Wiggley Fingers” makes for the other surprisingly hard-edged rock number included here, packed full of pulsating guitars and naughty-girl lyrics. The even bigger surprise is that it’s a rock song about, of all things, Catholicism (and why not?) — a tongue-in-cheek jab at the endless litanies of do’s and don’ts that are handed down to Catholic young people, including stipulations of the consequences of those actions: “Old John Paul is keeping a tab / In his big red folder / At night he is dreaming of hollow candle holders / As big as the weight of the world on his shoulders / Amen Amen.” On an album that obviously has plenty of darker moments, this is Griffin’s best chance to let her sense of humor shine through, though even when she’s cracking some harmless jokes at the expense of organized religion, we know that it’s still serious business.

“Blue Sky,” the track that’s probably my second favorite on the album (next to “Tony”), was also released to radio stations as a single, and it’s clear why. More propulsive and a bit less sugary than “One Big Love,” “Blue Sky” is the most wide-open, euphoric cut on the album. This perfect pop song found its ideal vehicle when I played it for my friend Alfred (who’s mentioned above) as we were driving in his car across an enormous bridge outside of Newport when I visited him in Rhode Island for Thanksgiving one year. Just as the opening guitar licks and drum lines throttled into place, we were driving up the bridge and straight into that same huge blue sky that the song describes and celebrates so well.

The next two songs, “Big Daddy” and “Go Now,” are both quasi-jazzy in different ways, slightly brooding and slightly cute at once. The additional guitarists who contributed to the album — Jay Joyce, Doug Lancio, and Daniel Tashian — deserve to share much of the credit on these two songs, as well as many of the others on the record.

But it’s the album’s mournful penultimate anthem, “Mary,” that’s earned Griffin perhaps the highest praise of any song in her catalogue, in part due to a beautiful vocal assist from Emmylou Harris, who’s long been a fan of Patty, and of this song in particular. The lyrics unfold as an incantatory prayer of praise to Griffin’s grandmother, and in them Griffin draws many imagistic comparisons to the Virgin Mary herself:

“You’re covered in roses

You’re covered in ashes

You’re covered in rain

You’re covered in babies

You’re covered in slashes

You’re covered in wilderness

You’re covered in stains . . .

Jesus said mother I couldn’t stay another day longer

He flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face

While the angels were singing his praises in a blaze of glory

Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.”

Griffin continues on to trace her grandmother’s personal sacrifices, her peaceful will to endure, and her serene yet vast omnipresence in Griffin’s life. This phenomenal and deeply felt song fully deserves the devoted following that it’s amassed over time.

The album’s tranquil closing track, the childlike piano ballad “Peter Pan,” takes the form of an imaginary letter, seemingly written by Wendy to Peter himself. It’s more of a denouement, culminating in some lovely orchestration, as well as an open, promising ending to the story: “Hey Peter Pan, I’m going home now / I’m all grown up, you’re on your own now / I’ll think of you all painted with the night / You sit and watch from somewhere / As one by one the lights go out.” In the span of fifty minutes, Griffin has covered many of the genres made available to her in our American musical repertoire, and by the close of the album, she’s made herself believably at home in every single one of them.

I’ve listened to the songs on Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red for over twelve years now, in so many different places and mindsets, and on so many different formats: on the radio, on CD, in stereo, with earphones, on my laptop, with my iPod on shuffle, and most fortunately, live in concert a number of times, at venues both tiny and massive. This album continues to reward me; these songs are all a part of me by now, as close to me as my own breath.