It is my brother’s birthday. He is nine years younger than me – next year he can buy cigarettes, but he won’t. I love him – apart from my wife, he is my best friend.
I drove an hour on the interstate tonight. Three years ago I was prepared to swear off rock and roll but I reneged and on the way home, alongside fast moving eighteen wheelers and traveling cars going who knows where and I had my headphones in listening to a deranged folk singer and bombastic, expansive Canadian by way of Texas rock band and everything – and I mean every last thing – seemed possible. And so I am left with sheer exuberance. Sheer, unmitigated exuberance. My wife and son are out of town and sitting at my desk listening to Lou Reed I want to stay up all night, pacing furiously and punching the wall and knocking off half a bottle of Pinot Noir and taking breaks for cigarettes while the dogs pee in the back yard – I’m in a suburb, man, but it’s wild here like Bukowski and Burroughs and Jack Kerouac writing at his mama’s house outside Nashville. That’s what I’m doing – dismantling and reforming my own world, just like Martin Luther the brave monk of Wittenberg.
I will tell you one of my favorite scenes in any movie is backed by a rock and roll song, but it is soft and gentle and a cover song (it is sung, but not by the original artist). Do you remember that scene in The Royal Tenenbaums when Gwyneth Paltrow stepped off the bus to pick up Luke Wilson? And then that guitar picked up and moved into a little gallop and next thing you know Nico is singing “These Days.” My God that is beautiful. Jackson Browne wrote the song, but Nico owned it. No one ever did it better. And Jackson Browne wrote that song when he was sixteen. Sixteen! I was reading Salinger at sixteen, but there was no way I was writing a song that good.
When I was a senior in high school I had a huge turntable – I don’t know where it is now – and every night before bed I would listen to Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled record. I would listen to “Say That You Love Me” and “Landslide.” I wasn’t moping around with “Landslide,” either. I just thought it was a great song. And it is. It is a great, great song.
“Tiny Dancer” may be the best song to come out of the 1970s. Who doesn’t get a smile as wide as Texas when Elton starts singing “Softly…slowly…” and then you try to hit the high note, even if your voice falls flat as it can. That’s right. Everyone does. You do, and I do. We all do.
The thing about rock and roll – or anything, really – is that there is always an artist or a writer or a poet or a baseball pitcher that you haven’t heard of and all your friends tell you must check him out or you have to read her book or whatever. Well sometimes that is a bust. I’ll give you an example. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Now don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine record and better than most of the tripe out there. But it’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s good, it’s very good, but it didn’t change my life. You know what did change my life? Townes Van Zandt’s first album. Tom Waits’ Closing Time, and the first time I listened to Leonard Cohen sing “Chelsea Hotel” and croon “I need you…I don’t need you” for the first time. That’s when you realize that everybody and his mother aren’t just buying hype, but that instead that thing, whatever it may be, is in fact the best four minutes of a man singing and playing his guitar that anyone ever recorded.
One more. John Phillips’ solo record. The song April Anne. Steel guitars and pianos. Maybe the seventies really were a better time. I doubt it, but this song comes close to convincing me.