Monday, April 25, 2011

Puddles of My Guest Columnists Special: David Stern

Welcome back from the holy holiday week and weekend of the Judeo-Christian religions, my Puddlers. Today's post will be starting a run over the next few weeks of a few special guest posts contributed by the non-weekly columnists for the blog. As I've mentioned before, if you ever want to contribute some puddle of yourself to the blog, I would be more than happy to read, review and consider it.

Today's contributor is David Stern of the Sanctuaries who has been on the podcast and has contributed much to my very own life. He has decided to tackle the importance of one specific song and write about it with passion and a narrative—the two focal points of the Puddles of Myself aesthetic. I'll drop the introduction and let you enjoy today's Puddles of My Guest Columnist post.

My Experiences “On Fire”

David Stern

As an appreciator of music, one of the criteria I have—like many of you probably do—for assessing a song’s value to me is how it makes me feel.  Whether the feeling is noticed or is even consciously part of my assessment, the degree to which I feel any emotion and the degree of lucidity of the emotion are directly proportionate to the personal value I give a song.  There is certain music I listen to for the simple reason that I think it sounds cool.  Much of Alvin Lucier’s work is music that I approach with emotions off the court; it is there for sound and sound only.  Pop music however, operates in feeling.  “My Girl,” for example, is a song that has great worth to me because from start to finish it elicits something strong within me; when I hear those first guitar strings plucked over the teasing introductory bass notes and then the finger snaps drenched in reverb that seem to fill any room, it’s all rays of sunshine, nostalgia, warmth, and a few other clear and positive emotions (sometimes I think about Macaulay Culkin getting stung by bees, too). 

While many songs are successful in enhancing what you already feel, the real accomplishment—in my opinion—of “My Girl,” is that regardless of what is already going on inside me, my emotions are slaves to the music.  I think only the best songs, or tracks, have the ability to truly dominate you.  That said, no song has ever ruled me more completely than “I’m On Fire,” the sixth track off of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A..

Before discussing this specific track, I want to talk about my relationship with the Boss.  At some point in high school, when I was less jaded to the idea of the “Boss”, I listened to every Bruce Springsteen album (with varying levels of attentiveness) starting with his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and ending with Tunnel of Love (thank you Napster, Morpheus, KaZaa).  Concerned at the time with only what was considered canonical, I was taking strides in expanding my musical knowledge… trying anyway.  Thing is, I never really fell in love with Springsteen.  In fact, I would say I did not like him very much.  To this day I find there is an element of cheesiness to some of his most appreciated music that I just cannot get over.  “Badlands,” “Atlantic City,” and “Glory Days” are all examples of songs that, to me, have overwhelming schmaltziness and pomp.  I felt that certain songs and sides of Springsteen were heartbreaking, but there was just too much filler for me to really consider him someone I love.  And while my suburban, upper-middle class Jewish high school self just couldn’t relate to his workman’s lyrics, I also found that much of them seemed forced and that they were easy candidates for ridicule.  “Really, Bruce?  By this point in your career you’ve been playing music professionally for over a decade.   Save the ‘I ain’t got a job’ crap.”  (“Working on the Highway” seemed to work almost magically but that is an entirely different Puddle.)

It wouldn’t be until a few years ago that some of Springsteen’s songs would strike chords in me.  Maybe I hadn’t developed the tools or musical muscle needed to appropriately digest what was happening on his albums until recently. “Stolen Car,” the last song on side three of The River, was the first one to really get to me.  On an intellectual level, I was impressed by the economy of its writing.  With the exception of a few chords starting with an E minor near the song’s instrumental fadeout, “Stolen Car” is made up of only G and C—I and IV in the key of G major (Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” in E, is another song that contains only the I and IV chords yet it lacks the depth of “Stolen Car”).  The song also has a binary (AABAB) structure (until the fadeout) with the second B section being slightly altered and elongated. 

Then there are the lyrics.  Without divulging too much or going into detail, Springsteen paints a vivid picture of a love gone bad.  As almost everything the listener needs to know is in the first stanza (“I met a little girl and I settled down/ In a little house on the edge of town/ We got married and swore we’d never part/ Then little by little we drifted from each other’s hearts”), it is the narrator’s lack of specificity that makes the lyrics so relatable; we’ve only heard the first verse and we’ve all already lived “Stolen Car.”  By the time Springsteen describes his fear of disappearing in the pitch black night in the song’s last section, we are acutely aware of the withdrawnness and detachment a spoiled love can make us feel even from ourselves. 

Academic dissection aside, the track hits all the right nerves.  The simple lyrical content coupled with the sparse arrangement makes the narrator’s pain that much easier to feel.  My appreciation and love of “Stolen Car” comes from the sympathetic loneliness I experience after listening to it.  It’s the kind of song that I listen to, get inoculated by, and then ask “how did he do that?” after considering the unornamented material that was used to create it.

As a side note, I must admit a certain preference I often display for what I refer to as “songs that don’t do anything.”  This describes a purely musical aspect of different songs in which chords, verses and choruses, and other musical material seem to morph into each other.  Change seems to be brought on slowly and each section is a miniature meditation.  The antithesis of this is characteristic of songs by bands like the Who, whose chords are punctuating, intentional, and sometimes jarring.  Dana Carvey once joked that when some guitarists switch chords they look surprised as if having just seen a magic trick.  In my opinion, the Who are—and don’t get me wrong, I love the Who—an example of a band whose music lends itself to this “surprise.”  “Stolen Car,” on the other hand, has a certain languidness that my body agrees with, as do the title track off of Paul Simon’s Graceland and most songs by the Feelies (Neu is another great example of a band that employs this but then you’re getting into Krautrock, which I separate from most other popular music).  “I’m On Fire” has it, too.

The first time I ever allowed “I’m On Fire” to get under my skin was in January of this year.  My band, the Sancturies (plug!), were in Nashville recording what is going to be our debut album and companion EP.  During one of our mixing sessions we were graced with the presence of Jake Orrall, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Nashville garage wunderkinds Jeff the Brotherhood.  After chatting in the control room for a few minutes, Jake extended an invitation for the three of us Sanctuaries who were still down there to go to a show he was hosting near the studio.  As soon as the day’s work was done, we armed ourselves with 40s of Old English and headed over.

When we got there, I couldn’t believe how remarkably similar the interior made me feel to being at shows at Death By Audio in Brooklyn.  After all, this was in Nashville where everything had so far seemed alien to us.  Surrounded by tight clothing, beards, the stale stench of spilt beer, and hipsters getting down to crunked out raunch-rap, I was reminded of how Bard College felt when I would visit someone there after graduating from Skidmore: familiar soul, unfamiliar faces.  We had arrived in time to catch the last band, an admitted joke duo who played heavy metal and threw Monopoly money around while wearing suits.  Oh, and there was some fake blood.  In short, everything pathetic and everything fun about a show like that back home was exactly the same.  I was momentarily in Bizarro-Brooklyn.

The band’s set ended when I was about halfway done with my OE and the usual dispersing took place.  I had been expecting some more Major Lazer-esque music to start pumping out of the PA speakers but five minutes went by of overhearing chatter in the otherwise silent room where I could finally enjoy the wall I was leaning on as I treaded in 20 ounces.  As they tend to do when I am nearer to lubrication than moroseness (#stealingfromMadMen ), my eyes followed the movements of a dirty-blond and I wondered if she were the type of person she is because she has good taste or because tight-fitting clothing makes her ass look good.  I wanted to know if I could learn something from her if I ever decided to talk to her. 

And then it happened.  That never-changing barebones drumbeat beneath guitar arpeggios and the haunting synthesizer of “I’m On Fire,” brisk and chilling like January air, started coming out of the speakers.  The opening bars, screaming nothing but focus and forward motion, made me feel borderline psychotic.  By the time Springsteen’s cool, airy vocals entered, I was already as obsessed with whatever was in front of me as the narrator was with his female subject in the second stanza.  “Tell me now baby is he good to you/ Can he do to you the things that I do?/ I can take you higher/ I’m on fire.” I thought it was the perfect song for the moment but I would soon learn that it is the perfect song because it creates moments.

Now, there are always intangibles when judging a track.  This is why cover versions, live versions, alternate versions, and sometimes even studio versions (Tom Petty famously broke his hand by punching a wall after several failed attempts of recapturing the demoed vocal spirit for the song “Rebels” during the recording of Southern Accents) don’t retain the magic of whichever version you originally fell in love with.  The other thing about intangibles is that they are hard to describe.  Luckily, thanks to a rumor I read on the Internet there is a point of reference in the movie Badlands to help ease the ineffability. 

 For those who haven’t seen the movie, Badlands is about Kit (Martin Sheen) who charms the teenager Holly (Sissy Spacek) and, after murdering her father, takes her along for the ride on a cross-country killing spree.  Directed by Terrence Malick, the film uses the big sky backdrop of the South Dakota badlands to illustrate the dispassion of Kit’s violence and his matter-of-fact attitude towards the killings.  It is a well-accepted fact that Springsteen saw Badlands and that it inspired him to write the song of the same name as well as the title track from Nebraska.  According to one possibly erroneous messageboard post, the film also inspired the writing of “I’m On Fire.”  I’m not really concerned with the verisimilitude of some shmohawk’s online claims, but I do see some connections between the two works.

Starting with the obvious, the sweep of the Midwestern sky is present in the sparseness of the track.  There is a stillness in the song, like the stillness that passively observed Kit’s cruelty, that hangs above the male subject who is tempted by “a bad desire.”  In both film and song, the un-judging atmosphere is present before and after the story is told.

Lyrically, there is some ambiguity when it comes to who Springsteen’s character is referring to right in the first lines, “Hey little girl is your daddy home?/ Did he go away and leave you all alone?”  Clearly, the little girl whom he addresses with a rockabilly vocal rhythm is the object of his sexual desire.  But who is her “daddy?”  Considering the competitive sentiment of the second stanza, one might believe that it is the little girl’s suitor.  The fantastic video for “I’m On Fire” supports that idea and suggests that her daddy is really her sugar-daddy.  If the word “daddy” were to be replaced by a word that is not a familiar term for a father, one would be led to believe this even more strongly; the song would fall in line with a long list of others (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and the Beatles’ “This Boy,” to name a few) in which the male character not only yearns for the female, but also shows disdain for her current lover.  Keeping in mind the possible Badlands connection however, the little girl (she was a teenager, after all) and her “daddy” may very well be Holly and her father, respectively.  This notion adds a deeper element of desire and obsession to Springsteen’s character.  It would be one thing to question the love a peer of yours has for the girl you long after, but who has the audacity to compete with her father?

If the song was in fact inspired by Badlands, Springsteen did one hell of a job capturing nearly every aspect of the movie in such short time.  Kit’s sexual and violent desires, his psychosis outlined in the bridge (“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby edgy and dull/ And cut a six inch valley in the middle of my skull”), and the haunting landscape are all in there.  If it wasn’t inspired by Badlands, then Springsteen was still successful in using the song as a vehicle for what happens to be the emotional composition of the film. 

 “I’m On Fire” is not the first song that has changed the complexion of a day for me.  Last March, I woke up one morning and put on Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” had a mental breakdown and called in sick.  Though still an impressive feat, it was more of a function of the song’s mixture with borderline alcoholism, nascent depression, dissatisfaction with work, and the recollected loss of a promising person’s friendship and interest.  “I’m On Fire,” as I recently learned, has the ability to work alone (on me).

I had heard the song several times after that night in Nashville but I hadn’t given it my full attention during those subsequent listens.  The song would be on when friends were around, when I was cleaning my room listening to Born in the U.S.A., or when I felt like hearing it but was preoccupied with other responsibilities (I had been obsessing over the completion of the Sanctuaries’ album).  This past Sunday was different.  I had come home from a short band practice at around 9:30, put my guitar and jacket away, and sat down to listen to music.  Our album and EP had just been finished and I could finally enjoy other people’s songs the way I am accustomed to (without any distractions or other activities going on) and give it my full attention.  The first track I put on was “I’m On Fire.”  Seconds after its fadeout, I was struggling against the thirst I had for forward motion but I quickly lost the fight.  My jacket was back on, iPod buds were in my ears and transmitting the song on repeat, and before I knew it I made a left on Broadway heading north.  I didn’t care or know where I was going but with my hood up and feeling insane I would walk straight until something got in my way.  I took Broadway up until it hit Union Square East and continued on through its transformation into Park Avenue.  About thirty-five blocks after leaving my apartment, what got in my way was Grand Central Terminal.  This whole time, listening to nothing but this one song, I felt hijacked; it wasn’t my decision to leave my apartment and it definitely wasn’t my decision to walk the three miles (roughly) that made up the entire trip.  I was a shell of a person, obsessed with reaching an unknown goal.  I turned left at 42nd and then took 5th Ave south until it met back up with Broadway at Madison Square Park.  I was soon back in Union Square, walking through it scared like it was the set of the “Thriller” video and watching skateboarders as if they were riding some alien vehicle.  I made my way down University, left on 8th St, right on Mercer and then back home.  My iPod was put to sleep and, like nothing happened, I was answering my roommate’s questions about our slightly overdue rent check.  The rest of the night was completely normal.

In addition to the ways in which I’ve been affected by “I’m On Fire,” a remarkable feature it has—for me—is its freedom from context.  As fans of not just songs but of actual bands and artists, us listeners tend to either give or take away appreciation of works based on where they come from and the sometimes-cultural settings in which they are experienced.  On one side of the spectrum there is the whole, “every Beatles song is great” viewpoint (save for “Lovely Rita” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” I am admittedly mostly guilty of asserting this), in which an audience member gets wrapped up in the iconic nature of the greatest band of all time and dismisses what would be duds if other bands recorded them.  On the other side, a band like ABBA, despite having some fantastically written pop songs, often gets unfairly shrugged off for their associations with disco.  It’s true that songs, albums, and all other forms of art do not get birthed in vacuums, which is why I am so impressed by “I’m On Fire.”  Springsteen has never been an artist I have been in love with.  Although I now see his lyrics as portraits of a simple life and I adore a good bunch of his songs, I would never call myself a fan of his.  In a case where context seems like it should work against him, one of his songs has earned more of my personal appreciation and value than perhaps any other.

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