Friday, December 30, 2011

Spring Awakening (Eugene O'Neill Theater, January 10th, 2007)

I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals. After performing in two of them back in high school — Grease and Brigadoon — it was clear that the form itself is often narratively flimsy, and sometimes even narratively non-existent. Almost exactly five years ago now, however, I saw the best Broadway musical that I’ve ever seen in my life, Spring Awakening. More of a pop/rock opera (based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German stage-play of the same title), this musical took the genre to places I’d never seen it go before, with lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik at the helm, alongside an ensemble of exceptionally talented young people in the original cast.

Adding to my excitement was that just a couple of hours before the show, I had the chance to meet Sater and Sheik at the now-defunct Virgin Megastore in Times Square, where they signed copies of the album with the entire cast, who performed two songs from the show as well (“Touch Me” and “Totally Fucked”), much to the surprise and delight of shoppers and onlookers. To own an autographed copy of the original cast recording is even more special, of course, because several of the show’s stars — including Jonathan Groff (as Melchior), John Gallagher, Jr. (as Moritz), and Glee’s Lea Michele (as Wendla) — have since gone on to other high-profile roles on stage and screen.

By the time we’d had dinner at Thalia and arrived at our seats in the packed and bustling theater, I was anticipating the show more than I’d anticipated one in a very long time. (The experience was made a bit more surreal because sitting directly in front of me and my friend was none other than Jerry Seinfeld!) I’d read some reviews of the show, yet I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, though I’d admired Duncan Sheik’s music for a whole decade already.

The musical itself actually began very quietly, barely even noticeably. Lea Michele walked onto the stage while the house lights were still up and stood on a chair (as I recall) to sing the show’s plaintive opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me.” Throughout much of the performance, members of the cast were seated in chairs at the sides of the stage, which was designed like an old-school classroom, with the backstage ropes and pulleys and bare brick walls exposed all the way at the rear of the space. Some audience members had been seated at the edges of the stage beforehand, too, discreetly shuffled in with the ensemble.

The set was dimly lit for most of the performance, appropriate to the age of the story, one that contains a significant share of heavy, shrouded topics. The original play was considered scandalous in its own time for addressing various taboo subjects — sexual desire, masturbation, abuse, suicide, abortion — all in relation to the lives of teenagers. Even in today’s more liberal world, teens are still often treated like non-sexual beings by the culture-at-large; as a result, those kinds of issues tend to get downplayed, silenced, or ignored by the adults in their lives. Sater describes the musical’s genesis in the liner notes of the CD, mentioning that he first gave a copy of the play to Sheik in the wake of the shootings that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999:

“Soon after, I called Duncan with an idea: what if the songs in our show functioned as interior monologues? Characters would not serenade one another in the middle of scenes — instead, the songs would voice only the thoughts and feelings of each character’s private landscape. (This seemed, after all, the point: when we keep the kids out of the conversation, we can’t hear what’s going on inside them.)”

That Sheik’s score sounds so contemporary, both in style and delivery, is the musical’s greatest strength. These repressed German students from so long ago are given an opportunity to express their frustrations and hopes wholly in modern terms; the gift of time itself, and the social changes that history gradually allows, are affectionately granted to them. And to balance out that vibrant expressionism, the narrative threads of the original play are presented, for the most part, impressionistically, lightly binding the songs together here and there for cumulative effect.

I remember that on the train ride back to Boston from New York, I listened to the songs of Spring Awakening for the entire four hours. They hadn’t lost any of their power in the privacy of my headphones, and the pop elements that Sheik had planted in them sounded even more vivid on the recording than they did in live performance. The upbeat harmonies of “My Junk” appealed to me instantly during the show. A quartet of girls sings it to the character Hanschen, played by Tom Deckman, as he admires (ahem) a postcard of a beautiful woman. So many of the musical’s themes travel through the song’s verses: “It’s like I’m your lover, or more like your ghost / I spend the day wonderin’ what you do, where you go… / We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you.” Later, Sater and Sheik tease out the title metaphor further, flirting with the notion of pop music as dreamy spiritual nirvana: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on / Shoot up some you in the You of some song.”

The boys of the ensemble get their spotlight early in the musical, too, through the rollicking schoolhouse rock of “All That’s Known” and “The Bitch of Living,” capitalizing on how conflicted they feel in their adolescent stretches of agony and ecstasy (amply captured by Bill T. Jones’s jubilant, acrobatic choreography). During the appearance at Virgin Megastore, Sheik remarked that “Touch Me” is his favorite song from the musical, and it isn’t hard to see why. With its alternating pulses of longing that are quietly restrained and then suddenly overflowing, the song soulfully approximates the desire for physical intimacy felt by younger people, who are commonly, though understandably, kept at a distance from one another until they’ve reached a certain age. In this way, the bodies of the songs themselves replicate the bodies of the young characters and performers throughout the musical, permitting them access to realms of release and satisfaction that they might not find otherwise.

I can clearly recall and visualize how stunning the staging was for the numbers in the middle of the show, “The Mirror-Blue Night” and “I Believe,” strategically placed at the end of Act One, just before the intermission. The star-like, descending round lights of “The Mirror-Blue Night” perfectly matched the tone and spectral imagery of the song, whereas the simple device of a wooden plank suspended from ropes made an ideal, subtle platform for the prayer-like “I Believe.” Melchior and Wendla consummate their relationship upon the plank, while the other actors sit cross-legged on the stage surrounding them, gently swaying the platform from side to side. (The boys who like guys share a similar moment with “The Word of Your Body” when it’s reprised in the show’s latter half.)

Although the second act opens with Moritz’s song “Don’t Do Sadness,” the musical does proceed in that direction. His character’s increasingly frenetic disposition — which snagged Gallagher one of the show’s eight Tony Awards — spirals downward to a terrible breaking point, and most of the remaining songs refer back to that heart-stopping moment. Sheik’s poignant, guitar-centered score (with orchestrations by Simon Hale) is most affecting in that mode; I never thought any musical would move me to tears, but that happened three times. It’s rare for a piece of musical theater to construct itself around darkness and “the sorrow at the heart of everything” and actually pull it off, at least with an audience that’s willing to be taken there.

“Left Behind” and “Those You’ve Known” are for me the musical’s most powerful songs. Melchior mourns the loss of his friend Moritz with a piercing clarity that only the young are capable of, carried by Jonathan Groff’s pure-as-water vocals: “The talks you never had, the Saturdays you never spent / All the grown-up places you never went… / All things he ever lived are left behind / All the fears that ever flickered through his mind / All the sadness that he’d come to own.” The memories of those who’ve been lost culminate in a scene that's set in a moonlit graveyard, where the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla join Melchior to sing “Those You’ve Known” (borrowing the melody of “All That’s Known” from earlier in the show). At their emotional apex, the song’s poetic lyrics remind me of the countless brilliant people who died during the AIDS epidemic, as well as those who've survived them:

“Now they’ll walk on my arm through the distant night,

And I won’t let them stray from my heart.

Through the wind, through the dark, through the winter light,

I will read all their dreams to the stars.

I’ll walk now with them, I’ll call on their names.

I’ll see their thoughts are known.

Not gone — not gone.”

The show's contemplative yet rousing finale, “The Song of Purple Summer,” reunites the ensemble at the front of the stage, in a line-up that’s reminiscent of “Seasons of Love,” the heartfelt hit from Rent, that other popular mainstay of the contemporary American musical-theater idiom, which Spring Awakening resembles on several levels. But Spring Awakening also holds the distinction of being thoroughly authentic and unique.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Music of Gregory Gray

One of my favorite people I’ve gotten to know a bit via the ether of the internet this past year is a wonderful pop musician with whom more listeners should be familiar. He’s something of an enigma, a nomadic poet and a shapeshifter, but a true gentleman, nevertheless. He’s also one of the only mainstream musicians I can think of who released three major-label pop albums with three different record companies over the span of a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. His name is Gregory Gray — or at least that was his name on record sleeves for a while back in those days.

The singer and songwriter known for a time as Gregory Gray was born in 1959 and raised in the north of Ireland, under the name of Paul Lerwill. He was a member of the bands Rosetta Stone and Perfect Crime before being signed to CBS Records as Gregory Gray in 1985. A self-made artist in the same fashion that his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde championed, Gray was (and remains) a devoted fan of Beat Generation poetry, an eclectic spectrum of music ranging from punk to jazz to folk, and much of the authentic talent that lies on the fringes of popular culture.

There aren’t many people of whom I would say this, but he also has such impeccable taste, and not just in terms of his distinctive personal style. Browsing through his list of favorite videos on YouTube a while ago (he currently posts all of his own new songs and videos there as Mary Cigarettes), I was so impressed by the sharp, hilarious, and consistently brilliant catalogue of the things that he loves. It’s one of the best aesthetic examples of “we are the things we like” that I’ve come across in a long time.

Gregory Gray’s 1986 debut album, the evocatively titled Think of Swans, was completed just before the compact disc revolution began, so the record was released only on vinyl and cassette. Several months ago, I was able to find a pristine promotional copy of the LP from a record dealer in England. I hadn’t actually played anything on vinyl for about 25 years, so I had to track down a record player to listen to the album on as well.

Once I put the needle in place, the sound in my headphones whisked me back to the great New Romantic period of the early ’80s, but without ever fully settling there. Saxophone, guitar, and piano all wander through these ten songs, with some brief, sporadic nods to New Wave rock (on the catchy opener “Life of Reilly”), blues (on “Charlie Gets Hurt,” a tune about a sort of dandy figure), and classic synthpop (on the epic closing number “Seatown”).

David Bowie’s legendary glam persona is certainly a stylistic touchstone here, and he’s one of Gray’s most apparent influences. Even the cover image on the single for the album’s finest track, “Books to Read Twice,” was taken by the late Brian Duffy, who photographed Bowie for his Aladdin Sane and Lodger album covers. The overall tone of Think of Swans is youthful and upbeat, lyrically playful and opaque, delivered with vocals that are always passionately invested. “Johnny Purify,” from which the album’s title is drawn, blends together sonic elements both industrial and dreamlike. And the end of “Seatown,” an ode to jaded Irish sailors, explores the archetypal themes of leave-taking and homecoming, which will re-emerge later in Gray’s oeuvre:

“Life does not begin and end

In this little shanty town

So I’m leaving

But I am not really leaving.”

Gray’s sophomore album, 1990’s Strong at Broken Places on Atco/Atlantic Records, was a much more thoroughly polished commercial endeavor. Produced by Davitt Sigerson — who also produced records for such acts as Tori Amos, The Bangles, and Olivia Newton-John — Gray’s second disc found him crafting his lyrics with more radio-friendly aims, while broadening his sonic palette to include slight touches of funk (“Universal Groove”), reggae (“People Are Hard”), AOR balladry (“Don’t Walk Away from Love”), beach party surf-rock (“The Fun Has Just Begun”), country twang (“Easier Said Than Done”), gospel (“A Hard Man’s Gonna Fall”), and even some rhythmic appropriations of early hip-hop in his vocals at times. His voice itself is truly unique, and it can swerve in seconds from soulful choirboy loftiness to a full-throated howl.

Though the lyrics on Strong at Broken Places are accessible, they still don’t make easy compromises, often poking fun at the music industry and culture that funded the making of the album — meaning, of course, that these songs are quite a bit smarter than the majority of what’s out there in the pop music idiom. As Gray archly sings on “When the Music Turns into Money,” “Fender jangle like a zillion shillings, / Drum machine stamp like a printing machine, / The chorus comes like a train in a hurry, / The singer can’t sing, she’s a tacky young hussy.” The song’s memorable refrain, with its intentional irony fully intact, is “I’m a goldmine, I’m a goldmine, I’m a goldmine.” Only a handful of pop songs succeed at sincerely dismantling the mainstream music business from within it, and this happens to be one of them.

Outsiders of various sorts lurk at the periphery of many of Gray’s songs. One tune on his second disc begins, “All of my friends have settled down, / They talk a foreign language now… / I have always gone astray / And marry every town I stay.” And when Gray sings, “I don’t give a damn, / I don’t give a damn” on the chorus of the album’s opener, you’ll believe him and you’ll sing along, too. His earnest penchant for incorporating catchy chants, riffs, and hooks from song to song is especially noticeable on each of his records: “Cowbells and Linn drums and tambourines play / No matter wherever you go.”

In one of his recent videos on YouTube, Gray mentions how crushed he felt when Strong at Broken Places didn’t garner the commercial attention that it deserved upon its release, to the extent that he contemplated leaping from the seventh-floor balcony of the hotel in Los Angeles where he was staying at the time. Importantly, he acknowledges the necessity of living past such moments of desperation, since we can all move forward to do other things on new days. Given the distance in time that retrospect provides, the question of commercial achievement matters much less now, and this album can still be appreciated for just how solid and ably performed all of its songs are.

On his third and final album in 1995, the jaw-droppingly good Euroflake in Silverlake, Gregory Gray raised the stakes of his own game significantly. His previous album’s producer, Davitt Sigerson, had since become president of EMI Records, so he offered Gray his new album contract. As luck would have it, the famed pop music icon Stephen Hague was enlisted to oversee the album’s production. Hague had already collaborated on massive hits with a roster of some of the UK’s most celebrated musical luminaries: New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Marc Almond (of Soft Cell), Jimmy Somerville (of Bronski Beat), Holly Johnson (of Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and Britpop darlings Blur.

While some of the album’s sterling production values can be attributed to Hague’s contributions, Gray’s singing and songwriting had also strengthened in confidence and innovation by this point. The album’s themes encompass everything from urban malaise to finding happiness in gay relationships to surviving in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. For me, part of the album’s enduring allure comes from Gray’s unabashed openness about being gay in several of the songs, something that’s still a rarity in the world of mainstream pop music today, unfortunately.

In fact, that’s probably what led me to discover Gray’s music in the first place. A gay friend of mine who was a manager at Strawberries Records on Boylston Street in Boston at the time had placed Gray’s CD on the “Manager’s Favorites” listening station in the store, prompting me to give it a spin. I was totally blown away by what I heard, and a couple of the record’s tracks, “Lover, Brother, Friend” and “Three Minute Requiem,” remain among my very favorite songs of all time to this day. (More on those two songs later.)

One quality that really resounds on this album is Gray’s disregard for societal conventions, his dismissal of cultural demands and expectations, again reflected in his love for the Beat poets. Rather than being overly serious, this attitude manifests in a clever humor throughout the duration of the album. The opening track and the album’s single, “The Pope Does Not Smoke Dope,” delivers just as much as its tongue-in-cheek title promises, discreetly underscored by a sleek techno beat and a hopping harmonica line. A sublime meditation on just how little sense the world makes, how things never operate the way that they ideally should, Gray’s verses satirically encourage us to accept the entire disillusioned mess at a more relaxed stride:

“It’s not enough behaving wisely

And having someone you choose to call dear.

It’s not enough to pay the rent on time

And function on fear.

It’s not enough to give yourself completely

To what every day demands.

Who cares if you visit your mother

Whenever you can?”

“I’m Not Paranoid” kicks that adrenaline up a few notches, cruising along on swells of rhythm guitar, punctuated by The Kick Horns’ jubilant trumpet flares and some metropolitan drama: “The DJ’s on amphetamines, / The night goes on forever, / My lover and I are soaking wet, / The police don’t think it’s clever. / They’re waiting in the parking lot, / They’re waiting for some evidence, / They’re waiting for a promotion, / Their pay raise is my innocence.” The segue into the appropriately ethereal down-tempo “Coming Off Drugs” works seamlessly as a kind of come-down in itself.

The album’s fourth track, “Lover, Brother, Friend,” is a song that’s been immediately loved by every single person I’ve ever shared it with. I can distinctly remember making out to it with a boyfriend back when I was in college, just lounging on his bed together in his dorm room, looking out at the thousands of shimmering lights spread over the city. Despite its seeming simplicity, this direct and unadorned love song possesses a magical kind of euphoria that no other song I’ve heard has ever quite matched:

“Dreaming I’m asleep,

Waking up with you

On a hallelujah Sunday,

Far away from fear

Or falling out of love,

New York in a hailstorm.

I’ve been alone every single day.

Satellite, come into my life again.”

Individual identity is another recurring motif on the disc, “I Don’t Know Who I Am” being the most whimsical example (“Too much time for thinking / Makes a person lose their way”), obliterating everything from religion to gender. “Troubled Mind” feels equally lighthearted, swaying along on a breezy island rhythm in spite of its title subject, as does the Peter Gabriel-esque “Town with No Telephone.” “Tough, Baffling Road” turns more downbeat both in its tone and its list of dire but likely predictions (“In the future you’re gonna need a fortune just to stay alive…to keep your clothes on…to have your children”).

Perhaps the album’s most brilliant, unexpected stroke is “Scenes from a Madison Avenue Office,” a dramatic monologue/fantasy that’s spoken from the perspective of a Manhattan business executive, either in person or via the telephone, to a different sort of working girl whom he’s hired for an evening’s worth of her services. The sad bridge of the city’s overheard traffic makes a perfect crossover to the album’s quietly profound orchestral finale, “Three Minute Requiem,” which recounts the years spent in the shadow of AIDS during the decade leading up to the album’s release:

“We live in times

When making love can kill you,

So I’m on my guard,

And life is hard enough.

What kind of fool

Would look me in the eye

And tell me I am wrong

To live my life this way?

I left my home

So I could be myself,

I stumbled into town

Trying to move ahead.

No fear of hate

And no fear of fate,

1975 was a totally different game.”

So much is captured by the heartfelt lyrics of this song, an entire portion of history for an entire subculture of people — and moreover, it closes on a hopeful, open-ended note: “Let there be laughter, / And let the music play.” The song belongs in a time capsule, along with all three of Gregory Gray’s albums. But naturally, each of his albums can already be cherished as its very own time capsule.

To hear and download (totally for free!) Gregory Gray’s excellent, more recent songs that he’s written and recorded independently as Mary Cigarettes — all of which are consistently poetic, atmospheric, refined, and occasionally a bit raunchy please visit and have fun exploring at:

You can also enjoy watching his artfully composed videos here:

Postscript: I start another busy school year of teaching college courses this coming week, so my blog will be on hiatus a bit over the next few months. I’ll plan to write another post or two along the way, whenever I can squeeze some in. And in the meantime, thanks to everyone who reads and comments on them.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

John McCullough, The Frost Fairs (Salt Publishing, 2010)

The debut full-length poetry collection that I’ve most anticipated reading over the past few years is John McCullough’s recently published book, The Frost Fairs. I met John where he resides in Brighton, England, a couple of years ago when I was visiting London for spring break. We had been introduced by our mutual friend Alfred Corn, and John and I exchanged our poems and shared enthusiasms via e-mail during the months leading up to our meeting in person. There aren’t very many people with whom I feel instantly at ease, but John McCullough is one of them.

It’s not difficult to see how the landscape of a place like Brighton has influenced the visionary tone and otherworldly spirit of John’s poems. After my arrival on the train from London, we walked down the steep road to the long beach covered with small round stones, a skeletal ghost of an abandoned pier to our right, and a bustling carnival of a still-active pier to our left. I felt the same way I did the first time I visited Provincetown on Cape Cod, another lively gay coastal town; I was entranced and slightly overwhelmed, yet the place intrinsically made sense to me. The day was brilliantly sunny and unseasonably warm, especially for early March in England. The sunlight reflecting off the harbor by the marina was so intense, in fact, that John left our outdoor lunch that day with a shiny red sunburn on one side of his forehead.

John is an inheritor of some important gay predecessors whose presence stands out in his work: the relaxed formalism of Thom Gunn, the earthy sublime of Mark Doty, the chatty stylishness of Frank O’Hara, who himself appears as a ghost-like image in John’s poem “Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express.” In the midst of watching John re-paint Brighton, I laugh every time I read the lines, “with different kinds / of queen walking different kinds of dog,” because it’s such a precise offhand observation. It also suggests a semi-scientific interest in the world that becomes the central subject matter of many of John’s other poems: clouds, weather, seashores, rock formations, planets, galaxies, or in John’s own words, “what keeps us awake on cold moonless nights, / plotting outer and earthly and inner space” (from his poem “On Galileo’s Birthday”).

The poet whose influence is most apparent in John’s writing, however, in both theme and style, is definitely Elizabeth Bishop, whose poetry John has closely studied. His seriousness about attending to the world’s infinite details, despite the frequent playfulness of the language, comes directly from her. The effect is not imitation, but rather a common understanding of the mechanisms of space, time, and the human heart. The way in which John navigates the relationship between inner and outer realms could itself be a kind of reading of Bishop’s work, as well as an expression of gratitude for the reliable companionship that her poetry has provided him.

When accepting an award, Bishop once referred to her life and travels as “timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world,” an analogue for John’s routine walks around the coast of Brighton. In Bishop’s work and in John’s work, too, the ocean and what inhabits it are never very far away. And neither is the sky, or moreover, the cosmos. Witness how he chisels out the opening stanzas of “The Floating World,” wedding sky to ocean to earth:

“At noon, the sunlight richochets off white cliffs.

The oystercatcher blasts its kleep-a-kleep

but no one’s listening. In ruptured chalk, fossils

of iguanodon and mammoth strive

for attention, claw over hoof. Flattened limbs

stretch wide, a tableau of thirst.”

Of course, somebody did hear the oystercatcher’s call, and then documented it exactly for us. This is a trick that John has down just as Bishop did; his attention is so intimate and engrossing that we forget he’s there — we forget, in fact, that he’s whispering into our ears. His presence in these poems is like the shifting shapes of clouds in his poem “Tropospheric,” or like the soundless, distant tide at night in “Motile,” images that surround us as much as they dwell somewhere within us.

History often queer history takes an equal place in The Frost Fairs. “The Other Side of Winter,” from which the book’s title is drawn, evokes fantastical images similar to some early scenes from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, in which the River Thames freezes during an especially harsh London winter, the legendary “Great Frost” of 1683-84. For centuries, entire festivals would spring up right on the ice during such deep winters, with merchant markets, sports and skating, even theatre and other live entertainment occurring on the surface of the frozen river. John vividly imagines the end of one of these fairs:

“Overnight the Thames begins to move again.

The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,

merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

on islands given up for lost. They race,

switch places, touch the printing press nuzzling

the swings then part, slip quietly under.”

The rest of this magical poem and that’s indeed the right word to describe it is concerned with the male speaker’s encounter with a ship’s sergeant, and particularly with a pipe that the seaman gives to him (“Even now it carries his greatcoat’s whiff”), along with a promise that he’ll write. This is a poem that’s more like a film; I hesitate to give too much of it away. So to see whether or not that sailor’s promise is fulfilled, you’ll have to go and read the poem for yourself.

Also included in the book is “Georgie, Belladonna, Sid,” a poem that incorporates polari, a lexicon of coded slang invented and primarily used by gay men in the early 20th century in London’s Soho district. The poem comes complete with a glossary, so that readers can readily translate lines like, “Sid bats his ogle riahs / in ten minute spells,” and truly appreciate the poem’s mind-blowing close: “Each dusk I vada / the ripped-open, scattered rose sky and pray / to God for the safe return of my blackout.”

“The Empress of Mud” recounts the extraordinary tale of Marion “Joe” Carstairs (1900 - 1993), a rich British lesbian who dressed as a man, raced power boats, and purchased the Bahamian island of Whale Cay, which she then turned into a home for herself and her guests. As John does elsewhere in the book (during a hilarious series of dramatic monologues told from the perspective of a taxicab driver, for instance), he totally reanimates Carstairs’s voice here, in heightened stanzas that also feel appropriately down-to-earth:

“Lonely? I have too many friends to waste time

staring at women’s necks, to write letters

to a moon-faced girl in London, explaining

why I cannot return. There are flamingoes

in my garden. I am in Wonderland.

Perhaps I shall put down a lawn for croquet.”

Not only is this mature, fully realized poem John’s rendition of Bishop’s remarkable “Crusoe in England,” but it’s also perhaps his most distinctive homage to Bishop herself. She, too, was a lesbian who revised and perfected the many places where she lived, if only through her attentive writerly and painterly eye. The poem’s reluctant conclusion And nothing I say or build is good enough” seems to echo both the dedication and self-doubt that Bishop felt towards much of her own work.

At the core of John McCullough’s The Frost Fairs is a hard-won and solid-as-granite foundation, a lasting literary achievement that’s replete with range, control, and ambition. Regardless of how far this achievement carries him and all indications promise that the ascent will surely be a lofty one my affection will remain for the figure at the end of his poem “The Dictionary Man,” the lone boy who’s asleep at his desk, dreaming over the words.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rosanne Cash, The Wheel (Columbia Records, 1993)

Ever since I heard Rosanne Cash in concert for the first time last month in the Berkshires, I’ve been returning to my favorite of her albums, 1993’s The Wheel. It’s obvious to me why I like this album the most out of all the superb records from Cash’s thirty-year catalog: The Wheel is the closest she’s ever come to recording a pure pop album. With a career that began deeply steeped in country music — partly through association with her legendary father, the late Johnny Cash — Rosanne first made her name in that particular genre, though the majority of her songs lean more in the direction of folk. One listen through the selections included on The Essential Rosanne Cash, her excellent two-disc career retrospective released back in May, makes that distinction fairly clear.

The Wheel arrived at an important turning point not just in Rosanne Cash’s career, but in her personal and romantic life as well. As she chronicles in her recently published memoir Composed, she met her future husband and musical collaborator John Leventhal just as she’d begun recording the album, and the two ended up co-producing its eleven songs together. The sonic result is appropriately buoyant, filled with the bliss and adrenaline of newly falling in love, both with a person and with a place. Cash had relocated with her daughters from Nashville to Manhattan just prior to writing the first songs on The Wheel, having divorced her husband of a decade, country musician Rodney Crowell. The album is imbued with the vibrant atmosphere of New York, while the City of Light makes a shimmering appearance on the song “Sleeping in Paris” as well (“I thought I knew which way the wind blows / But now it’s blowing me back to you / And the wind speaks French too”).

Cash’s previous release — 1990’s moody, self-produced, and Grammy-nominated Interiors — had closely explored her divorce, and it also marked her commercial crossover from country singer to mainstream artist. The Wheel was clearly intended, from an industry standpoint, to cement that status. It’s a transition that a number of other female folk/country songwriters and performers had successfully made at right around that time: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega. Chapman’s runaway 1988 hit “Fast Car” is especially useful to consider in this context; in addition to the song’s brilliant, enduring appeal both lyrically and musically, “Fast Car” found an audience largely because of how unusual a fit it was for standard Top 40 pop fare. The very unexpectedness of such a song at the top of the pop charts helped to make it, like Vega’s “Luka” not too long before, an authentic novelty record.

Although the three singles from Cash’s The Wheel — “Seventh Avenue,” “You Won’t Let Me In,” and the album’s title track — didn’t experience similar chart runs, they were all equally worthy of doing so. In fact, The Wheel is one of those rare albums that doesn’t include a single mediocre song. Cash infuses it with a thematic and sonic integrity from beginning to end, endowing the album with the unassuming sweep of an internalized musical, one that’s meant to play on a solitary Broadway in the mind of each individual listener. In Composed, she describes the overarching concept of the album as elemental, featuring “recurring themes . . . of fire and water, wind and moon.” Along with its distinctive pop veneer, this thematic continuity is largely why the album appealed to me so much from my very first listen.

The elemental, earthly through-line of The Wheel, ironically, carries an almost cosmic scope. Love, heartbreak, and rejuvenation are all set against the vast machinery of the universe itself. The central image of the title song is equal parts zodiac, prayer wheel, and celestial pocket-watch. This is best expressed by how Cash chooses to open the album with a series of questions that feel down-to-earth and mythical at once, counterpointing Sleeping Beauty with Persephone:

“How long was I asleep?

When did we plan to meet?

Have you been waiting long for me?

When did the sky turn black?

Do you still want me back?

I’ll pick it all up piece by piece.”

It’s no coincidence that the highlight of Cash’s concert last month for me was her encore of “The Wheel,” performed solo and acoustic. Even without the driving, jubilant rhythms of John Leventhal’s electric guitar from the album version, she managed to give the song its widescreen, propulsive thrust: “And the wheel goes round and round / And the flame in our souls / It will never burn out.”

“Seventh Avenue,” the album’s second track, is my very favorite of Rosanne Cash’s songs, full-stop. I admire how quiet and introspective it feels, an open declaration and a private musing, just like all the best works of art. Anybody who’s spent a night in New York City, or even just a night alone anywhere, can relate to the intimate, emotional scene that she paints:

“The world keeps getting smaller

’Til it closes ’round my room

And everything I feel now

Is hard and fast and true

My window is a spotlight

On the madness down below

It takes a silent figure

To make this place a home.”

Most art that’s created, ideally, comes from within this same space, the silent, darkened room above a street, and certainly, that’s where most songs begin and take shape. This particular song is also born out of pain to some extent, as its gorgeous and plainspoken chorus makes clear: “Now the candles burn all night / Without you / And the moon hangs out of sight / So blue / On Seventh Avenue.” To telescope from a small room out into the heavens seems like exactly the right move to me, the way that gazing up at a star-filled sky feels like looking at everything and nothing at the same time. The great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a wonderful prose-poem about Shakespeare titled “Everything and Nothing.” Likewise, saying that “Seventh Avenue” captures everything and nothing is one of the best compliments that I can give it.

The album continues to balance intensity and ease on “Change Partners,” a soaring mediation on shifting gears to the “new dance” of a different and better relationship (“I’m purified by fire / Renewed by my desire”), via the uplift of a swooning piano refrain. “From the Ashes” takes the rising phoenix metaphor, as well as the sense of euphoria and reawakening, a few steps further, as does a later track, “Fire of the Newly Alive.”

But even love’s new dance has its moments of struggle, as on the melancholy, percussive “You Won’t Let Me In,” which Cash sings “like a girl / On the threshold of her life / In love with the whole world / But staring down each night,” sentiments that are again contemplated on “The Truth About You” and “Tears Falling Down” (“In the cradle of our fears / We sleep without tears”). These darker shades of feeling culminate on “Roses in the Fire,” Cash’s affecting look back at her former relationship, especially potent during an impassioned, point-blank lyrical bridge that’s the emotional vortex of the album: “Oh I’ll kill you if we can’t be friends / I’ll bleed like diamonds running through your hands / I’ll be a bitter taste you can’t forget / And I won’t leave this world until you relent.”

Redemption, however, is the main focus of the album. As Cash famously sings on “Sleeping in Paris,” “A lonely road is a bodyguard / If we really want it to be,” a lyric that she had originally jotted down in a notebook back when she was 17 and revived at just the right moment many years later. A bent for solitude can prevent us from connecting with others, yet it can also protect us until we’re truly ready to do so. The album’s spiritually inclined, ethereal closing number, “If There’s a God on My Side,” returns to a litany of questions that’s similar in tone to the ones that opened the record:

“If there’s a God on my side

Why don’t she show me her face?

If there’s a God on my side

Could she live in this place?

If there’s a God on my side

Is she inside these walls?

If there’s a God on my side

Could she not hear me call?”

The final impression is one of hope and earnest inquiry, but Cash’s obvious mood of uncertainty throughout these lyrics is equally significant and profound. In the context of her life as a whole, I find that element to be quite inspiring. As the daughter of one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American popular music, she was clearly in a privileged position both materially and in terms of preparation for a future career in music herself. But throughout that career, her search through the realm of art and expression has remained resolutely inconclusive, calmly unsure of what exactly she’ll find and how she might grow and change over time. Her willingness to accept the mysterious and the unknown as vital to the act of creating has made her a singer and songwriter of the highest caliber.

Perhaps the finest quality on The Wheel is the sense of immediacy and distillation it conveys from song to song. Cash’s lyrical approach is direct in style and in spirit, maybe because the album is about attempting to shed complexity in the midst of potentially overwhelming emotional complications. The idea that the universe is constantly moving, as a way of keeping our everyday selves unstuck in time, is somehow reassuring and also unsettling. That delicate tension, and the magical energy that’s produced by it, has kept me listening to the sounds of The Wheel nearly twenty years on.