And if California slides into the ocean…

My working and thinking year has begun in the state of California, which has been racked by stormy rains since before I arrived. Here is a place that has been suffering a five-year drought made worse by its status as a farmers’ bastion, where agriculture pumps more water than falls from the sky, creating subsidence and sinkholes and shortages.

When you’re in California, you have to listen to the right music. This is surely a uniquely creative stretch of land even by the standards of 20th century pop culture. And there was a particular stretch of time – say, 1968-1977 – when it may have been the most important contributor of lasting, living cultural artefacts, at least in the so-called “West”.

Warren Zevon began his career in that period. Son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, he was born in Chicago but the family soon moved to the West Coast (Fresno, to be exact). While there, he had the chance to chill with Igor Stravinsky, before quitting high school and high-tailing it to New York City to begin a career as a folk singer.

He wrote what on any given day might be my favourite song, the one I come back to every time I’m here. Desperados Under the Eaves manages in just four minutes, forty-seven seconds to capture the heart of lost humanity. It is one of Zevon’s most personal songs, written from a real situation in the so-called “Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”. Its short lyric, with five distinct sections – they aren’t really verses per se – is densely packed with allusion and literary technique and a hundred listens won’t plumb their depths.

On the surface it’s about alcoholism. There are references speckled throughout: empty coffee cups, shaking hands, and pledges to drink all the margaritas in Los Angeles. But that isn’t the heart of the song; it’s merely a feint, a way of entering a rabbit warren (no pun intended) of multiplying topics through an easy access entrance.

Instead this is about nothing less than the fear of death and the fear of life, the weirdness of being in a place where you feel misunderstood but cannot find another place that offers you a home. It’s a 20th century Californian’s riff on Shakespeare’s song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun“. That lovely song is an epitaph of sorts. This is altogether more in medias res as Zevon ponders on his state of mind: “So sick I am not, yet I am not well” as Imogen puts it prior to her seeming death.

Zevon literally fears the heat of the sun: the first climax of the lyric and music comes with a sudden burst of orchestral fear, and the line “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” He’s suddenly alluding to Christ on the cross: “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?”

The irony is that that burst of feeling comes after one of the driest stanzas on potential apocalypse ever written. He imagines the state of California sliding into the ocean “like the mystics and statistics say it will”, but reduces that monumental tragedy into amusement by suggesting that the hotel he’s in will remain standing, “until I pay my bill”.

He knows all this is going to hell, maybe sooner than we all think. But at the same time he can’t see a way out that isn’t worse. “Heaven help the one who leaves”, he says, and I fancifully read across – a desperado caught between staying and leaving – to the wider cultural atmosphere of the time, one in which the Eagles, that same year, would try to capture the mystical Hotel California.

Zevon is no mystic though and writes achingly about the real. The vignette that comes next sums up the pain, perhaps physical as well as emotional, of his situation:

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands

And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me

But except in dreams you’re never really free

Don’t the sun look angry at me?

And then comes a most peculiar kind of redemption. Whenever I play the ending of this song to people, the invariable response is initially amusement. The idea of an air conditioner humming a hymn is inherently risible. But equally invariably, a deeper understanding eventuates as the coda rises and grows in strength. The warmth and depth of the strings building under Zevon’s layered choir, and eventually taking him over, is desperately moving, and movingly desperate.

“Look away down Gower Avenue.” I’ve never been to LA, but from all I can read of Gower Avenue – or, actually, Gower Street – it’s the most mundane of streets. But maybe it’s that quality of the mundane that qualifies it to be elevated into this most gorgeous of melodies. The normality of Gower is what is being venerated.

It’s a song that I’ll never fathom, and a song I’ll always feel could have come from my own heart.

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The late, great Warren Zevon. Copyright Neal Preston/CORBIS.

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The Sunday Spotify: Take It To The Bridge

The bridge. The middle eight. Whatever you want to call it (and I know there’s a technical difference, but whatever), it’s the twist that can take a song into a different stratosphere. It’s the delicious pre-chorus that kicks you into a different gear, building anticipation for that frisson-filled final refrain. Or, sometimes, it’s the left turn that ensures a song will stick with you long after the last notes have stopped ringing.

The Beatles were probably the best exponents of the bridge in pop history. While the 1960s were the decade in which it was in its heyday, they understood its potential better than anyone. They have so many stellar middle eights that it’s difficult to narrow down to just one; I could easily have gone for track 1 from their debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There”, the downbeat Lennon intervention in “We Can Work It Out”, or the equally breezy McCartney bridge in “A Day in the Life”. But I think their best may be “No Reply”, a relatively unknown early cut with an almost mundane verse that takes off with an unusual bridge.

The instrumental bridge is also a cracking innovation. A fine early example is from Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of “Respect”. The brief sax solo leads back into a verse you didn’t think could top the energy with which the song began – but it does. “Badge”, by Cream, with its guitar arpeggios, achieves a similar effect before Clapton’s vocal and extended guitar solo threaten to develop into an extended outro.

The bridge in Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” is a comparable declaration of intent to Aretha’s from a very different musical era. Here the Queen B has to overcome Jay Z’s usual redundant, overlong intervention, and she does it in spades, soaring up to a spectacular high as the chorus hits back in.

Another way to use the bridge is to make a song more personal. Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” achieves this perfectly. The combination of the almost-weary lyric and the building piano work underneath is entirely captivating and pulls you headlong into the final choruses.

“Senses Working Overtime” by XTC is an example of a song that seems to be made up almost completely of bridges. It’s a perfect introduction to a band that always seems to cherish the unexpected. You never know where you’re ending up, but the ride, verging on chaotic, is always fascinating.

Meanwhile Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” is all verses, save for that driving, slightly-faster middle section that manages to move the narrative forward, achieve a key change and break back into the most triumphant moment song all at once. It’s a very sophisticated moment that shows off the band’s virtuosity at the same time as serving the storyline of the song’s powerful lyrics.

A lesser-spotted version of the bridge can be found in “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush. It’s a song that uses the same three chords throughout, using texture and changing instrumentation, including otherworldly backing vocals, to create difference. At 2:47 the galloping beat is suddenly matched by Bush’s urgent cry, “come on baby/come on darling/let me steal this moment from you now”, added to by equally visceral synth strings and a clatter of percussion. It’s the heart of the song.

Simon and Garfunkel’s finest example of a travelling song, “America”, would be stunning without its middle section. But what a beautiful moment it is: discursive, lyrical, and deeply wistful, leading back into that simple run-down chord sequence and the equally simple, disarming verse beginning ‘Toss me a cigarette/I think there’s one in my rain coat’. Here I’ve used the live version from the Concert in Central Park because the extended outro is stellar, with the purest of high harmonies from Garfunkel soaring into a memorable guitar solo before heading back into that chorus. It reminds me of long car journeys when I was growing up.

Next come two great rock bridges. The first is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, a criminally underrated band whose songwriting was on a par with anyone’s. Here we get a contrasting middle section with a change into a more stilted, broken rhythm and some clanging minor chords, breaking into a tasteful guitar solo that carries us home into the final verse: “guess that’s all I have to say…”

Bob Dylan wasn’t a major exponent of the middle eight but there’s a run of four songs on Blonde on Blonde that show he could mix it with the best when he wanted to. Perhaps the best of the four is “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, here covered expertly by Jason and the Scorchers who use that bridge to great effect.

And finally, it would be remiss to leave off one of the greatest songwriters of the ’90s and ’00s, Elliott Smith. Waltz #2 has one of his most moving mid-sections, with the swooning strings and backing vocals creating a crushing sense of woe that still manages to create momentum. (Bonus: check out those swooping violin glissandos in the final chorus.)

The full playlist should appear below, but in case you can’t see it, it’s also accessible via this link.

So, what did I miss?

Fred Durst: harbinger of perpetual adolescence

Songs about doing things “my way” or it being “my life” have been around forever. Most famously, Frank Sinatra sung about having no regrets, taking the blows and standing tall in 1969, although it was Paul Anka who wrote the words. It’s the most famous example of a popular song that looks back, hence its regular use at funerals; a monument to self-belief verging on arrogance.

To a person my age, it sounds foreign. It comes from an era in which Western popular culture had regained its self-confidence after the Second World War; a time of peace and love when the Beatles were still topping the charts, people were experimenting with new substances and nonconformist lifestyles, and counter-cultural self-expression was often faced with little more than sanguine paternalism.

No, when I think of songs entitled “My Way”, my thoughts turn instead to the peculiar genius of Fred Durst and his Limp Bizkit, the incorrigible scamps who took the impassioned, outward-looking, politically intellectual rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine and made it a vehicle for teenage angst.

“My Way” was released in the early days of 2001, the fourth single from the band’s third album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. The album sold over a million copies in its first week in the US alone, and has since sold 20 million worldwide. In a conversation with friends earlier today, which prompted me to write this, it was remarked upon how, just prior to the invention of file-sharing on the internet, there was a weird lacuna when bands like this could somehow hit the heights. Somewhere between the grunge revolution of the early ’90s, the Britpop movement a few years later and the New Wave revival of the following decade, a Bermuda Triangle for musical and lyrical expression opened up – and Fred Durst charted a course straight into it.

The song itself is a perfect encapsulation of adolescent self-pity. Musically it’s vaguely competent and catchy in the kind of way that enables angry teenagers to connect immediately: simple soft/loud dynamics, crunching guitars and the kind of compressed, maxed-out production that made the new mp3 file format appear to have no effect on audio quality whatsoever.

But it’s the lyrics that really cook. If Sinatra was the old gent looking back on his life with contentment tinged with pride, Durst is providing the ammunition for the 13 year old kid whose parents won’t let him play video games. It’s the emotion today’s young professionals were raised on, and while I don’t subscribe to the well-trodden idea that the so-called “millennials” are all entitled, selfish narcissists, it helps to explain why their response to adversity can be somewhat impetuous.

Just one more fight
About your leadership
And I will straight up
Leave your shit
Cause I’ve had enough of this
And now I’m pissed

A Song for Saturday – Nico/These Days

Jackson Browne wrote “These Days” when he was sixteen years old. That is a fact that never fails to stop me short and wonder what I’ve been doing with all the hours God sends.

But the version he recorded with Nico is the best. The unusual combination of a classic finger-pickin’ style guitar, but played on an electric, mixed with strings and flutes that stay just the right side of maudlin, plus Nico’s oddly flat delivery, should make it something of a clash. But actually the lyric would be too folksy were it not for her detached cool, and the arrangement too smothering without her earthiness.

These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do

And all the times I had a chance to

On Sincerity

I often lament the fact that I have grown up as part of the most ironic generation of all time. The so-called “millennials” are surely characterised most of all by their sub-absurdist approach to everything, whether it is in trivial matters of appearance or in serious matters of the heart or of the head.

As Stewart Lee once put it in If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One (not verbatim, so apologies if this is inaccurate), the last taboo in comedy is someone on stage “attempting to do something sincerely and well”. He says this as he prepares to exorcise the villainy of advertising by playing his favourite song, Galway Girl, which was ruined in and by a well known cider advert.

I often think he’s bang on the money. It’s not just comedy though. It’s the whole of life. People find Lee divisive because he stands outside comedy even as he participates in it. Yet that is how people of my age and younger seem to deal with everything, especially the things that truly matter.

As someone who aspires to be a creative person from time to time, I find this crippling. The self-consciousness that characterises modern life in the UK is suffocating. The temptation to laugh at oneself, let alone at others, is overwhelming. Yet this must be resisted, even in the face of accusations of pretension. The reality is that not everything is pretentious or inherently insincere, however much our absurdist culture likes to think so.

What prompted this? The experience of listening to Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece, released today, entitled Carrie & Lowell.

An album about grieving his estranged mother, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human and to be a complex man of sometimes tenuous faith. It is painfully honest, so much so that at times one feels almost as if one is intruding on something that should have remained private.

I wrote this about it elsewhere:

This album is triumphant: bleak, gut-wrenchingly honest, full of grief and doubt, but at the same time strangely resolute. When I hear it, I don’t want him – or anyone – to have experienced the incidents, situations and emotions that formed him into the person that made this record. But at the same time, it’s quite easily the best record he’s ever made, and probably the best record he’ll ever make. He must feel extremely equivocal about having created it (something that’s apparent in the interviews he’s been doing around the album, but also in some of the moments on the album itself, like the exhausted exhalation at the end of John My Beloved).

It’s times like these that you realise what inferior art is for; to give creations like these the backdrop they deserve, like a diamond on a black velvet display board.

It is not enough to live vicariously through the sincerity – the bravery – of others. Those people who are willing to put their heads above the parapet in creative or cultural terms, and get shot at for their trouble, are meant to inspire us. Ultimately they should challenge those of us who are lazy enough to believe that it’s ok merely to snipe at others and wear a mask ourselves. To my shame, that has described me for most of my life.

I don’t want to do it any more.