I’m constantly on the lookout for signs of the apocalypse, and I think this might be one of them. Yes, it’s the Oak Ridge Boys covering “Seven Nation Army.” Complete with “bom bom bom” vocal bass line. You can almost hear the four horsemen saddling up.
But this brings up an interesting point. Why is the thought of a song like this being desecrated so horrifying? I’m not even a big White Stripes fan, and I found myself somewhat nervous before pressing play. The actual rendition is kind of cool, in a “what the holy hell” kind of way, but I know White Stripes fans who would take a hostage if they heard this.
I think there is a concept of the sacred in music. It’s been said that you should never meet your idols, to avoid that moment of disillusionment when you realize they’re just people. But isn’t that what we’re talking about? They’re just people, they’re only songs. Right? Believe me, I feel the same way about some records and some artists – they are beyond reproach in my eyes. But should they be? It’s taken me a long time to be able to listen to Sgt. Pepper and hear the flaws. Do the ill-considered moments ruin the album? Or do they make it more human, more relatable?
I remember the first time I met Derri Daugherty of the Choir, one of my favorite bands. Until I actually shook hands with the man, it never really entered my head that this fragile, grand, beautiful music I loved was made by actual people. I used to cringe at human moments in Choir live recordings (the studio versions are unfailingly perfect) – Daugherty missing notes, flubbing guitar sections, that kind of thing. Now I cherish them. I find I’m looking for human imperfection in my music more and more. It reminds me that there are living, breathing people behind those instruments.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s often a good thing to watch your idols topple. Quite a lot of music is based on mystique, on the idea that the artist should be wrapped up in a theatrical enigma. But to me, the best music comes from people willing to put themselves out there and forge real connections, willing to wipe away all pretense and say, “This is me, and these are my songs.” It’s the difference between building a pedestal, and building a bridge.
Take Bob Dylan, for example. I can’t think of anyone more consistently lionized over such a long career. It’s to the point with some acolytes that if you even whisper that Self Portrait may have been a little shabby, they stab you with their eye daggers. And those things hurt. But Dylan himself has always been the guy who lets those pesky imperfections shine through. With his singing voice, he’d kind of have to be, but he’s never made any attempt to sweeten up what he does, and lately, he’s even tossed aside that self-important streak that sometimes infected his work.
Dylan’s latest album is called Together Through Life, and if you can find anything self-important about it, you’ve looked harder than I have. To my ears, this is a good old fashioned blues jam. Ten short-ish songs, all performed with a loose, six-guys-in-a-room vibe – it’s like this thing was written and recorded over a weekend. Dylan produced it himself, under his usual Jack Frost moniker, and he invited a special guest – David Hidalgo, of Los Lobos, who adds New Orleans flavor to every track with his accordion.
As for Dylan himself, his ruined voice has taken on Howlin’ Wolf proportions, and his ease with death-blues lyrics has rarely been more apparent. Opener “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” sets the tone, its loping beat supporting a simple rhyme about love that staves off the darkness. “Don’t know what I’d do without it, without this love that we call ours, beyond here lies nothin’, nothin’ but the moon and stars…” “Life is Hard” could have been overly sentimental, if not for that wizened growl at its center.
The classic here is “My Wife’s Home Town,” and while I’m glad the title didn’t ruin the joke, I’m going to do it here: the full phrase is “Hell’s my wife’s home town.” It’s here that Dylan lets the sinister edge in his voice out – this is a killer little blues gem, coughed out with genuine menace. “One of these days I’ll end up on the run, I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone, I’m going inside, roll the shutters down, I just wanna say that Hell’s my wife’s home town…”
But that’s the exception. Most of these songs are so simple, and so breezy, that the record just zips by. I find it hard to believe anyone would be scouring the lyrics to “Forgetful Heart” or “Shake Shake Mama” for the secrets to the universe. But they do offer glimpses at Dylan the man – “The door has closed forevermore, if indeed there ever was a door,” he gasps in the former. He sounds like death, and he’s ruminating on it, but it’s not getting in the way of his good time on most of this record.
I guess the point for me is that Dylan is refusing to feed his own myth on Together Through Life. This is just a blues jam, from start to finish – if this hadn’t come out with the words Bob and Dylan on the cover, no one would care. This is a fun little record – not as momentous as Time Out of Mind, or even Modern Times. It’s just Bob and his band having a good time, with no indication that anyone thought of this as The New Bob Dylan Album. It’s refreshing.
While Dylan takes the prize for most idolized, I don’t think there’s a modern artist who has done more to spin his own self-myth than Conor Oberst. He’s not even 30 yet, and he’s done everything but proclaim himself America’s most important new songwriter. His seven albums and numerous EPs as Bright Eyes are almost impenetrable cocoons of precious artsiness, every shambling note given weight it can barely hold.
But as he’s grown up, Oberst has started to burst out of that cocoon. His last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s Cassadaga, was his best – it was still pretentious, but the songs deserved it. And then he went down to Mexico, formed a new band, and started a solo career. (Well, you know, kept making solo records, but started putting his name on the cover.) Ironically, these records are the least self-serious, most fun slabs of tuneage Oberst has ever turned out. Where he was once wrapped in layers of mystique, Oberst now sounds open-hearted and content.
I mean, check this out: his second solo record, Outer South, is actually credited to Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, his six-man collective. And they’re not just there to back up their boss – Outer South has 16 songs, and a full seven of them were written and sung by other band members. On these tunes, Oberst plays guitar, or piano, or tambourine, and he sings backup, sounding overjoyed to be supporting his bandmates. And these are not second-rate songs – they’re just as good as Oberst’s numbers.
But then, Oberst’s own songs are miles away from the eight-minute angst-fests he used to turn out. This album is a blast, a rock and roll stomp, an American roots extravaganza with melody to spare. On Bright Eyes albums, a song called “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” would probably be an acoustic snooze-fest, and Oberst would undoubtedly push his voice into an “emotional” scream near the five-minute mark. Here, it sounds like a Jeff Tweedy song that didn’t make Being There, and it opens the album on a strong note.
I don’t know if it’s the case, but Outer South sounds like the Mystic Valley Band laid it down live. The guitars are thick and strong, the muscular interplay is tight, and even the acoustic numbers (like “Spoiled”) rock. Above all, there’s no hint of Conor Oberst the Precious Artiste – the only song that comes close is “White Shoes,” performed with just acoustic guitar and voice. But even that one is restrained, and very pretty. Oberst does shout his way through “Roosevelt Room,” but that song kicks so much bluesy ass, I don’t care.
It’s telling that Oberst opened himself up to light-hearted collaboration here, and ended up with his best album. He even lets guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth get the last word – his galloping “Snake Hill” closes the record. By demolishing his own self-created image, Oberst has expanded his horizons, and you can tell just by listening how much fun he had making this thing. Best of all, he didn’t just churn out simplistic rock songs – these are some of Oberst’s strongest tunes, played with joyous force, and his bandmates have matched his creative fire.
Both Dylan and Oberst have seen the wisdom of toppling their own statues, and coming to you with arms outstretched. They’ve both come up with fiery records that depict them in moments of pure creative ecstasy, enjoying every minute of the loose-limbed racket they’re making. Neither album may fit particularly well with some fans’ ideas of who these men are, but that’s the fun of it. They both know that killing the idol is the first step towards knowing the artist.
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But I must admit, neither Dylan nor Oberst have ever meant that much to me. If Bob Dylan decided to whip up an album of Poison covers, all in a ska style, I’d only be curious, not furious. Same with Oberst. I was born too early for one, and too late for the other.
The artists who really matter to me are the ones I heard as a teenager, the ones who formed who I am today. And those are the idols I find really hard to kill. Tori Amos. Freddie Mercury. Robert Smith. I find I want the mystique, the enigma, the show more often than not. I don’t know why this is, but I want dark, depressing Robert Smith, with the black eye makeup and everything. I don’t even care if he’s really depressed, that’s the Cure I want.
It’s a tough lesson to learn. Case in point: another of those formative artists for me was Jane’s Addiction. I was listening to a lot of Los Angeles metal at the time Nothing’s Shocking came out, and it still baffles me that Jane’s came up in the same scene as L.A. Guns. I simply had no reference point for what Jane’s Addiction was doing, but I loved it. I mean, “Mountain Song”? Where did they even get that? It’s part Led Zeppelin, part hippie carnival, and all killer, a totally crushing piece of music. Even now, the opening “Coming down the mountaaaaain!” makes me grin uncontrollably.
But it was the band’s second studio album, 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual, that cemented it for me. Here was ambition on a scale my 16-year-old mind just hadn’t encountered – massive, heavy, extraordinary, emotional music, performed by brilliant aliens. Ritual was my first major encounter with censorship as well – nowadays the papier mache cover is tame, and can be found anywhere, but in 1990, it was deemed inappropriate, and lead banshee Perry Farrell whipped up a suitable replacement: a stark white cover with the First Amendment printed on it.
Ritual still ranks highly with me. In a Face Magazine feature in 1999, I called it the second-best album of the ‘90s (behind OK Computer, naturally), and while I may not agree with that anymore, I still get chills when “Three Days” starts up, or when “Then She Did” hits that explosive climax head-on. It’s just an awesome record, and I’ve found through the years that it’s kind of like a great magic trick for me – I don’t want to peer behind the curtain and see how it was done.
Which makes the A Cabinet of Curiosities box set somewhat problematic for me. These three CDs (and one DVD) are all about peering behind the curtain, and they bring Jane’s Addiction down to earth with a thud. Rarely has there been such a disconnect between sumptuous packaging and barrel-scraping contents – it looks essential, and it’s anything but. It is, however, revelatory, as long as you don’t mind that the revelation keeps turning out to be, “How did these drug-addled fuckups make this amazing music?”
First, the audio. You get 20 demos, representing almost every song in the Jane’s catalog. “Jane Says” sounds about the same. The rest sound thinner, more like four guys in a room bashing out funk-metal jams. I don’t know what Dave Jerden did to the studio version of “Mountain Song,” but this demo is missing its stomp-you-into-atoms power. Guitarist Dave Navarro will occasionally hit wrong notes, and Farrell will reach for a melody that isn’t there, and I’m reminded again and again that these were people, working on this not-yet-transcendent music.
The demos continue onto disc two, and then you get a bunch of b-sides and rarities. I’m particularly glad to have the Jane’s version of “Ripple,” which appeared on a long-out-of-print Grateful Dead tribute album in 1991. (The whole tribute is fantastic, actually.) I’m less excited to have live slams through Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and their Dylan/Bauhaus mash-up “Bobhaus.” These misfires find them sounding like any other band they might have shared the stage with at that time. I want to scream, “You’re Jane’s Addiction! Don’t do this crap!”
Ah, but the third disc is a complete concert from 1990, the Ritual tour, and damn, it’s monolithic. Just hearing Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins slam through the funk-tastic “No One’s Leaving,” or the jittery mini-epic “Stop,” erases the bad taste the first two discs left. And “Three Days” live is just unstoppable. I know we already have this version on Kettle Whistle, but there’s something about the cumulative effect of this 10-minute monster within this set list. It’s an incredible song, made even more incredible.
The DVD straddles the same line. “Soul Kiss,” an absurdly boring fan video from 1990, leads it off, and shows our heroes in drunken, drugged-out states throughout. At one point, Farrell sets off a bottle rocket in his bedroom, while his adoring girlfriend looks on, just because. This is followed by six crappy music videos – the hideous “Had a Dad” clip is the most egregious. But then, the whole shebang is capped off with live footage, and it’s awesome. Seeing the band perform “Then She Did” and “Three Days” made me wonder how they got it together on stage when they were such fuck-ups in real life.
In the end, they’re still a mystery – the music Jane’s created remains vital to this day, and yet, without each other to spark off of, the four members haven’t been able to match it since. Even Strays, the third Jane’s album (with Flea instead of Eric Avery), is sub-par in comparison. Three-fourths of the equation just didn’t cut it. In this case, knowing the artist better doesn’t help me understand the music. It’s magic, it’s alchemy, it’s something beyond its component parts. Farrell and Navarro have both made solo albums, and when they have said to me, “This is me, and these are my songs,” I have found both wanting. And yet, if the Oak Ridge Boys tried to cover “Ain’t No Right,” I would probably be inexplicably sad.
And maybe that’s how it starts. Maybe this idol worship thing begins in the formative years, and just can’t be shaken. People older than me can’t fathom what I hear in Jane’s Addiction, the same way I don’t understand what people younger than me hear in Bright Eyes. Maybe there are some enigmas that have written themselves onto my pages as they are, some pedestals that will never be toppled. No matter how much Farrell and company try to connect with me, I will likely resist, preferring the myth to the men.
Is there a lesson here? Perhaps it is this: everyone else’s idols are easier to kill than your own.
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Next week, Green Day’s mammoth rock opera 21st Century Breakdown.
See you in line Tuesday morning.