Monday, July 24, 2006

The Name Above The Title Is In My Head

Tonight, it is February 1991. I sit quietly in my apartment, the family sleeping and me ruminating, and I am revisiting John Wesley Harding's brilliant 1991 release, The Name Above The Title. I worked at the record store when I first heard this. After about three listens, I called up one of my best customers and told him to come down and buy it. Ballsy salesman, I was. But I knew his tastes and I knew he'd love this disc. Sure enough, the man we called Boxset came into the store and I played it for him over the store's speaker system. He loved it and bought it. I was a man of influence back then. But then, it's easy to sell greatness like The Name Above The Title.

I've loved and listened to that album for so many years, but it's been a long time since I've even thought of John Wesley Harding. Then today, while driving to work in my car with no working car stereo, one of his songs found its way from the forgotten attic of my brain and within seconds I was singing it loudly with the windows rolled down.

Pick me up and take me to a movie
Give me an ending that I can understand
Sell me a rocking soundtrack, make it groovy
Give me backstage passes to the band
People always whine whine whine
Shut up and pay the fine fine fine
What's the difference anyway
Between being safe and being rad
When the big joke is we've all been had
You won't get to read the news in USA Today

That's from "The People's Drug" and it stayed with me for most of the day. Arriving home after the long night's work, I dug up the album on Rhapsody and pressed "play." It's in music like this that I always find my reward.

Another song I love is "Bridegroom Blues." A stanza:

And he don't believe in Angels
She's been seeing another man
Infidelity runs in the family
But that wasn't a part of the plan
And shepherds watch the flicks by night
At the King's Cross all night show
Something's trying to catch their eyes
But they're too grossed out to know
And the three kings travel like three ships a-sailing
They've got some gifts he'll need
Cocaine for sniffing, money for corruption, and a whole load of videos of I Love Lucy

I hear these songs and it's 1991 again. It's the year of the first Lollapalooza. It's the year I discovered Chris Whitley. My friend, Kirk, turned me onto the protest songs of Billy Bragg and the fun and passionate music of The Waterboys. And, of course, 1991 was the year that Nirvana broke and did their thing. If I recall correctly, it was also the year that my dad took me to NYC to stay at the Hotel Chelsea and find out what a big city was all about. More on that cool trip another time.

I haven't had the pleasure of seeing John Wesley Harding live, but I hope to someday. I've heard concerts of his broadcast on the radio and he's fantastically engaging. Accompanying The Name Above The Title was a beautiful chapbook. Foregoing the sometimes stilted structure necessary for his songs' lyrics to match up with the music, the chapbook told the same stories in a much more loose and free narrative.

Part of the charm of that album was the fact that there was no lyric sheet, only the loose narrative. I was twenty-one at the time and loved the obvious presentation of the marriage of literature and song. Many a night would find me lying on my floor, headphones on, John Wesley Harding CD in the player, and chapbook in hand. Often, a nice bottle of white zin was also at hand. He professed to being against lyric sheets for a reason that just sounds gimmicky now, but then seemed utterly profound.

My connection with The Name Above The Title was this: clever writing, good backbeat, and bravery. I've always wanted my life to exhibit two of those traits. I wouldn't know what to do with a backbeat, but clever writing and bravery in life evade me - but not by much. When I am close to those two things, I am young and strong. My otherwise dull senses awaken and strive for the challenge. "Write like that guy." "Don't take any shit from that person." I am alive and I feel everything, and good music keeps me charged.

Right this minute, the album is coming to a close. It's a studio album and the singer is introducing the band to the fade out of "Crystal Blue Persuasion." And what sounds like a Hammond B3 is doing what a Hammond B3 can do; it is reminding me of its place in music history. I listen to this album now and think of 1991; but that Hammond B3 that closed this album in 1991 made me think of the sixties back then. Great music always reminds us of the past.

But the album is over, it's 2006, and my beer is finished. And I'm off to bed.

Take care, Boxset. You were a great customer and you are a great friend.

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