Guitar hero

There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” that goes something like this:

Campbell, the faded country-crossover musician battling Alzheimer’s disease, is in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The doctor asks him to wiggle his fingers like he’s playing the piano, to which Campbell retorts, “but I’m a guitar player.”

Somehow, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, a lucid, wise-cracking Campbell sparkles with trademark Southern sass, right down to the folksy pronunciation of “GIH-tar.” And then just as quickly, the fog returns.

It was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, having watched my father spend his final years succumbing to Alzheimer’s, only to fire the occasional spark of humor or recollection. For anyone desperately hoping to see the return of the person they knew, it’s easy to be seduced by notions of an unexplained reversal, or perhaps a miraculous misdiagnosis. But my siblings and I knew the diagnosis to be correct, and we also knew there was no reversing the course of this disease.

I was in the doctor’s office with my dad when the diagnosis came. It was matter-of-fact, even cold, considering the weight of such news. Dad took it with puzzled acceptance and his trademark good cheer. I’ll never know whether he really understood the implications. I didn’t ask. It would be devastating to process, and he could be excused for shrugging it off the way he would a poor glucose test. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, we had lunch at his favorite diner, the “dad jokes” flying fast and furious. I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but even then, he scored a couple of direct hits that had me cracking up. For a moment the old Dad sparkled, and for a moment I entertained notions of a reversal or misdiagnosis.

“I’ll Be Me” features an eerily similar doctor’s visit for Campbell, who meets the presentation of MR scans and medical mumbo jumbo with the too-eager “uh-huhs” and “oh yeahs” of a student in biology class. Like my dad, he didn’t show it, but I suspect he knew what all of it meant. And yet, he responded by launching a last hurrah tour and agreeing to have filmmakers document it. The burning question is why?

His reasons weren’t clear to me, but perhaps Campbell wanted to give Alzheimer’s a face. Not just one face, but many faces — the sufferer, his family, friends or anyone else affected by the robbing of a person’s mind in the most brutal and heartless way imaginable. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the increasing difficulties Campbell has with touring, and the accompanying headaches his family navigates in managing their erratic headliner. There are some very uncomfortable moments in “I’ll Be Me,” and I struggled with the family’s insistence on going forward with a tour that reduced this once-great performer to a lost, confused, occasionally angry high-wire circus act robbed of his most important remaining possession — his dignity. I had to take it on faith that the entire venture, while endlessly skirting disaster, was in accordance with Campbell’s wishes.

When Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, I immediately thought of “I’ll Be Me.” I was aware of his tremendous musical legacy, beginning with his early days as a Beach Boys fill-in before breaking through with solo hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind.” His defining “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a radio staple during my youth, made him a bona fide pop star, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered what a marvelous GIH-tar player Campbell was. And yet, it was “I’ll Be Me” that gave real meaning to his death. I felt not only grief but relief at the peace that had finally come to him and his family.

Performing artists succeed as pop stars because of their ability to effectively convey common themes. Through their expression of universal emotions, we feel less alone, and that’s why we listen to them. Before I watched “I’ll Be Me,” I stupidly regarded our family’s experience with our dad as somehow unique, a bizarre and embarrassing dysfunction that outsiders couldn’t comprehend. The film was a revelation, and perhaps that answers the “why” that nagged me as I began to recognize so much of my father on the screen. Campbell was conveying — in fact demonstrating — an experience that’s more universal than any of us imagined, and most importantly, true to his chosen vocation, by sharing his pain and loss, he made me feel less alone in mine.

A different drum

It’s often puzzled me that I’ve never heard a decent cover version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Yes, it’s the Beatles — arguably the best recording act the world has seen, and not to be taken lightly by prospective imitators.

But like many of the Beatles’ best-covered songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Come and Get It”) “Helter Skelter” is written from the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll playbook. It has the horsepower that should make lesser bands sound better than they are. With its buzzsaw guitar intro, blood-curdling vocals and the refrain’s killer machine-gun riff, it’s a muscle car just begging for a worthy rock act to test drive. And many have tried. It’s not that they’re bad. They simply are missing something, and I think I’ve figured out what it is: Ringo Starr.

History has been kind in assigning proper belated recognition to Ringo Starr, but he still ranks alongside producer George Martin as an overlooked staple of the Beatles arsenal, a critical piece of their musical machinery in the vein of McCartney’s Rickenbacker bass or Abbey Road’s magical mixing board. Ringo was much more than that, and “Helter Skelter” shows why.

We only need to listen to the aforementioned pretenders who’ve come up short in taking on this formidable classic: Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Motley Crue and, yes, U2. These are no slouches. Yet each one focuses too heavily on the front end of the Beatles’ original — the guitar and vocals — while, you guessed it, overlooking Ringo Starr’s unique contribution on the rhythm side. As a result, the drummers tend to follow the frenetic pace of the song — like that muscle car, it’ll go as fast as you want it to. And that’s where the problem lies. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to write the loudest, brashest song he could, and the guitars and his vocals do their part to make that happen. But what Ringo adds is the mayhem. He doesn’t pace the song, he bludgeons it. He smashes his way around the requisite fills, abusing his kit with such primitive fury (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) it likely got Keith Moon’s attention. And it keeps the song from gaining too much form, which is exactly the point.

It’s a lesson on how a great drummer can make a song better by working against its grain, becoming a counterbalance of sorts. On the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, Ringo takes the opposite approach. The song opens with an unfathomable soup of organ and strings before he counts in with a steady beat to provide much-needed structure under the wash of instruments and John Lennon’s lyrical stream of consciousness. Many drummers would say “this is a trippy song, I need to be trippy.” Not Ringo. He played straight man to Lennon’s clown in the same way he took a high-octane, quarter-mile McCartney rocker for a punishing off-road ride. It’s a rare talent indeed, and rare talent, especially when unrecognized, defies imitation.

Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.

Hitwomen

Say what you will about “token” minority appreciation months — I always seem to learn something by indulging the concept. For instance, in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d run down a short list of the female recording artists who have expanded my musical horizons, and I found myself naming name after name after name. After name. It turns out they’re not a subset of popular music. They’re an integral part of it, pushing songs up and down the charts, innovating, regressing, occasionally blowing our minds, and yes, occasionally flopping. It occurs to me that the story of women in pop music is really just the story of pop music. They’ve been playing right along with the men, and although I didn’t know it, I’ve been listening the whole time.

As I said, whittling my favorite female artists down to a list of 10, or 50, or 100 is a ridiculous exercise. But since I want to pay tribute to women whose music means the most to me, I narrowed the field to those who wrote the music they recorded, highlighted by the one song that epitomizes their talents. Make no mistake: These are musical giants by any measure. Consider the five I’ve named here not as a listing of “best women in music,” but a sampling of the very best artists in pop music who happen to be women.

Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (1963): She’s best known for recording Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” but Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Jackie DeShannon was no slouch with the pen, composing the classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and co-writing “Bette Davis Eyes,” later a chart-topping hit for singer Kim Carnes. “When You Walk in the Room” echoes many of the female-oriented hits of the early 1960s — notably the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — that regarded love with a tentative shyness and anxiety of a teenager*. To cite individual lines does an injustice to the entire piece, which paints an agonizing portrait of a lovesick wallflower whose world lights up when the man of her dreams enters her room. Painfully, she keeps her distance, observing from afar what she believes is unattainable. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, an ode to teen awkwardness that presumably fades in adulthood.

*It should be noted The Searchers covered “When You Walk in the Room.” Like most great love songs, the lyrics are not specific to gender or, for that matter, sexual orientation.

Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris” (1974): I was never big on Joni Mitchell as one of the folk mothers of the ’60s, but her influence on the genre is undeniable. Her “Woodstock,” covered famously by both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, became a touchstone for a generation defined by that legendary music festival. In the 1970s, Mitchell moved toward fuller, jazz-infused instrumentation that produced such hits as “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.” The latter recounts an excursion to Paris she made with friend David Geffen, during which the ascending record executive, accustomed to dealing with “dreamers and telephone screamers,” was able to forget his cares, if only briefly. One can imagine Geffen letting his responsibilities slide away on the Champs Elysees to the refrain of “I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” That Mitchell nailed him so precisely is a credit both to the depth of their relationship and her songwriting mastery.

Liz Phair, “Mesmerizing” (1993): For a few albums in the 1990s, Liz Phair was so original, so genuine and so refreshing. I’d never heard anyone like her. She talked about sex, love, relationships, marriage, divorce and children in absolute frank terms. She gave the listener unfiltered access to what was on her mind, turning from schoolgirl sweet to shockingly filthy in the same stanza. Her 1993 debut “Exile in Guyville” carries so much interesting baggage, as titles such as “F–k and Run” and “Divorce Song” indicate, but “Mesmerizing,” in which Phair lyrically empties both barrels in a blaze of defiance and hurt, showed me a new way of recording music. It’s sparse, with little more than an electric guitar, a hint of percussion and her world-weary voice. But it holds up. Phair grew more polished in follow-up albums, including the excellent “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” but slowly fizzled into obscurity the further she strayed from the cut-to-the-bone sound that made her so, well, “Mesmerizing.”

Carole King, “It’s Too Late” (1971): Carole King is a no-brainer for this list; it’s just a matter of which song to single out. Luckily, as hugely productive as her years with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were, those were collaborative efforts and don’t count here. Her extensive solo catalog doesn’t make the job a whole lot easier, but given the enormous impact of her landmark 1971 album “Tapestry,” let’s start there. Even then, with a loaded track list that includes the wrenching “So Far Away,” I basically had to flip a coin to arrive at “Too Late.” First off, I’m a sucker for major 7 chords, which she throws liberally into both songs. The tiebreaker then is the latter’s unique appraisal of why a relationship failed, best summed up in the line, “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” Maybe it’s the female perspective. Maybe it’s just great writing. Either way, there’s a keen understanding that breakups aren’t always about what went wrong or who’s at fault. Sometimes unhappiness and foolishness just happen.

Stevie Nicks, “Silver Springs” (1977): As part of the rock ‘n’ roll soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks had a treasure trove of intraband relationships and dalliances to mine for writing material. She did not waste them, crafting soul-baring songs like “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara” and “Landslide.” How it was that “Silver Springs” led an orphaned existence as a B-side left off the group’s 1977 “Rumours” album will forever be a mystery to me, as it’s one of her finest efforts, both as a writer and singer. Aimed squarely at bandmate and ex-lover Lindsey Buckingham, “Silver Springs” explores betrayal, musing over what could have been before devolving into the obsessive ranting of a stalker. If it’s not clear from the line, “And can you tell me was it worth it/Really I don’t want to know,” how emotionally devastated this woman is, the refrain seals it with “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me.” Nicks alternately voices pleading, scorn and finally desperation as she pledges to “follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you.” And haunt it does. It’s rare to see heartbreak so powerfully written. It’s even rarer to see it so expertly illustrated.

A change in tune

In his 2012 autobiography “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend relates a revelatory tidbit from the recording of the Who’s breakthrough hit “My Generation.” According to Townshend, the song’s multiple key changes were added at the suggestion of a producer who felt it would otherwise be too monotonous.

That’s saying something for a cut that’s 3 minutes, 18 seconds long. But it shows a canny understanding of the lightweight nature of pop/rock hooks. Good ones immediately catch the ear (and hopefully produce a sale) but often lack staying power. A key change — or in the case of “My Generation,” three key changes — can enable recording artists to extend the 10-15 second essence of their song to a marketable 2-3 minutes.

In most pop music, the general idea of a key change is to elevate emotional impact. It’s not so much a change in tone (from talking to shouting, for instance) as a change in landscape. It’s like staging the scene of a film on a busy city sidewalk, then having the actors recite the same lines in the middle of a forest. While conventional filmmakers typically don’t have that option, songwriters do. After a key change, a song will move through the same chord structure but at an altitude that sheds a different light on the vocals or instruments. Done well, it forwards a sentiment that other songwriting techniques can’t. It can convey new levels of joy — think The Carpenters’ “Close to You” — or profound sadness, as in Classics IV’s “Traces.” Either way, the effect on the listeners is liberating. The first two verses establish a set of parameters before the third shifts them to a new plane. Limits, once comfortable but quickly confining, suddenly become possibilities.

It’s a powerful songwriting tool, and the temptation to overdo it is natural. Last spring, as “research” for a feature I was writing on Barry Manilow, I listened to a dozen or so of his best-known love songs and found that every one of them employed a key change. Manilow was savvy at recognizing, like the Who, when the droning of a refrain needed a kickstart. Unlike the Who, the consistent need for that crutch did not spur Manilow into more sophisticated songwriting. It became a standard part of his playbook, and that of subsequent romance-heavy pop artists like Air Supply.

But it’s not just schmaltzy acts doing it. My Manilow experiment prompted me to monitor more broadly the music I hear at home, in the car, even at the grocery store, and it’s amazing how often key changes occur. Just last week I caught an episode of late-’70s TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and amazingly, the opening theme song climbs a half-step between the first and second of its two short verses. I have to admit, it works. And why wouldn’t it? After all, “WKRP” was a series dedicated to the classic AM radio era, an era defined by catchy pop hooks that, from “My Generation” to “Mandy,” made their way up the charts thanks to a boost up the scale.

When a demo will do

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska” was a singular phenomenon. The release represented a thematic reversal for Springsteen’s career, both in its lyrics and sparse musical arrangement, but in a greater sense that arrangement signaled a stunning break from conventional wisdom with its rejection of traditional studio production techniques.

Springsteen recorded “Nebraska’s” tracks on a simple 4-track cassette device in his New Jersey home. The intention was to re-record these cuts with his band for the next studio album, but Springsteen decided to stick with the original demos, which would become the defining sound of a dark and barren album. It was a gutsy move for the Boss, who would quickly resume full-throttle studio productions with 1984’s  more commercially viable “Born in the U.S.A.” For one album, listeners were treated to a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll — 40 minutes of a man and his guitar (and harmonica) fully exposed against a stark and depressing lyrical landscape.

I’ve often wondered why albums like “Nebraska” are the exception rather than the rule. True, a demo recording is a first draft of sorts, but you could argue it’s the truest representation of the artist’s vision before a production team refines the song into something more palatable to public consumption. “Nebraska’s” rough edges comprise its greatest charms and in many ways outline the themes the album explores. The uneven mixing and flat instrumental and vocal tones exude a sense of loneliness and distance — and at the same time an intimacy — that fits the mood of the album, which is perhaps why Springsteen chose to go this route. A full album of, say, Britney Spears demos probably wouldn’t work out so well and would be better off in the hands of a skilled producer.

Occasionally I’ll hear demo versions of well-known pop hits that slip out of the vaults, either unintentionally or via official “stripped down” re-releases. Some leave me amazed at the voodoo that studio engineers do so well in turning a humdrum guitar-and-vocal piece into something truly remarkable. But more often than not, I’m disappointed at the intrusion of so much polish at the expense of the heart and soul of a song put forth in the artist’s original recording. When to turn on the studio magic and when to lay off is obviously the artist’s call, in consultation with his or her producers and/or collaborators. But my suspicion is that commercial concerns weigh heavily into these decisions, leaving me only to wonder how “Nebraska” would sound had Springsteen not had the audacity, and more importantly the clout, to follow his instincts.


Here’s an example of a highly polished, fully produced recording in John Lennon’s original studio release of the single “Woman,” from 1980’s “Double Fantasy.” The acoustic guitar is softened, presumably to suit the mood of a love song, and the voice is equally sweetened to puppy-love levels better suited to a high school dance.

Now listen to the “stripped down” version re-released in 2010. It’s technically not a demo, but a “remastered” version of the above studio recording that focuses on a simpler arrangement. The guitar isn’t so effected, and the voice, though not always in perfect tune, is pure John Lennon. This is probably more faithful to his original conception of the song, if not the demo he would’ve provided to the producer.

Tuning in

What can art teach us about politics? More than you’d think. Signals offered in creative expression can tell us a lot about the mood in the real world. But you have to be listening.

Clearly I wasn’t, and many of us weren’t, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning victory in last month’s presidential election. Few pollsters, media analysts and pundits on the left or right saw it coming. Count me among them. Right up through the early evening of Nov. 8 there was no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

Well, there was a small blip that, in retrospect, might have been a clue for me. That came in July, when rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore predicted a Trump win in what I dismissed as Moore’s typically outlandish political pessimism designed as a call to arms for complacent liberals. As an unapologetic partisan, Moore blurs the line between art and politics, but I’ve seen enough of his films to acknowledge his unique grasp of blue collar America. “Roger & Me” cataloged the human cost of Michigan’s disappearing industrial economy at a time when most of the media were focusing on the tech-driven economic revival of the 1990s. While terrorism and security dominated headlines in the early 2000s, “Sicko” called attention to what would become the defining policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency — health-care reform. From the perspective of 2016 blue collar America, neither economic transformation nor crippling health care costs have been adequately addressed by leadership. Despite his annoying penchant for spinning the documentary form into screed, Moore has demonstrated an effective finger on the pulse of a disaffected constituency that was likely to buy into Trump’s vision and, as it turned out, was instrumental in delivering crucial swing states for the Republican.

In the aftermath of November’s election, Moore’s prophecy forced me to recalibrate my antennae for this constituency. It’s not an alien one, in fact quite familiar — generally (but not exclusively) white, lower educated, rural-based and highly vulnerable to the forces of globalization. It’s a group of people with whom I’m well acquainted through the music of John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Like Moore, both artists embrace liberal politics, and both have an uncanny understanding of the issues affecting this demographic. Listen to “Pink Houses” and you’ll hear the despair of people for whom America represents a failed promise. Given Mellencamp’s political leanings, I’d assumed his descriptions to be grounded in a liberal vision, but listening more closely, those lyrics outline a displaced class of people — high school educated industrial laborers and farmers — for whom a Trump presidency is a plausible alternative.

Springsteen has long billed himself as the voice of the working man, and nowhere was that voice more authentic than on his landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” album. The songs document the symptoms, on a human scale, associated with the demise of the manufacturing sector that once fueled the Rust Belt. But what they’re really about is a loss of a way of life. Where do people who took a union job out of high school at the local factory fit into an economy that suddenly requires new skill sets or new education levels? The hard answer, of course, is they don’t. They must adapt, and it’s those who haven’t who are susceptible to the Trump message. You can argue that it’s beyond the power of any president to control or roll back economic transformation, but it’s not a matter of choice for the characters in “Born in the U.S.A.” The world changed, and they feel abandoned. The implicit social bargain of blue collar America has been broken. As Springsteen says in “My Hometown,” “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”

It goes without saying the clues offered here could never tell the whole story of the 2016 presidential race. There are too many complex forces in play in any election to lazily point to a few movies or songs as definitive social barometers. But after an event that many of us swore we didn’t or couldn’t see coming, let me be the first to admit that I missed — or disregarded — signals hiding in plain sight within the pop culture. After all, I’d been hearing it for years. I just wasn’t listening.