POPOFF! COMMENTARY: WHEN THEY GO

POPOFF! COMMENTARY: WHEN THEY GO

This is piece I have been working on for some weeks and with the recent passing of three major musical icons, Loretta Lynn, Gal Costa, and Christie McVie I feel this piece is even more timely. Even if I still don’t quite know what my ultimate point is other than you can’t take it with you go so enjoy it now.

I don’t think the US mainstream quite understands what a cultural pillar Loretta Lynn is within the music world and broader pop culture landscape. Country music (outside of Dolly, Willie, Johnny, and maybe Emmylou) has a PR problem it can’t seem to shake sometimes. But Loretta Lynn was one of the early female musicians of any genre who did it her way and refused to tow the traditional corporate line while telling the blunt truth in her lyrics. And it should be noted she never tried to hide her country roots to appeal to a larger base, she had NO SHAME in being country.

Loretta released her first single “Honky Tonk Girl” in 1960. And for comparison that was about the same time Motown was revving up the Hitsville machine writing classic songs for the Supremes, Marvelleettes, and Martha and the Vandellas. Songs like, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Nowhere To Run” among countless others. But by ‘66 (the peak of the Supremes, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and other female 60s icons) Loretta had released the back to back tell it like it is anthems, “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”. The difference is, all those amazing Motown hits were written by men. In the 60s Loretta largely wrote every lyric she sang. Many of the great “female” anthems have been written by men or teams of them over the years. But Loretta penned her own kind of, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” that nobody else was writing but many would later try to emulate with songs like “Kerosine” by Miranda Lambert, “Goobye Earl” by The Chicks, and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”. She also knew how to get to the point in a two and half minute song. She said it in more eloquent word than this, but basically, “People listening on the radio or in a rig driving cross country didn’t have time for poetry.” This also highlights the important distinction between poetry and hit songwriting.

And all that awesomeness and badassery that Loretta brought to her life and ours was heard on December 1st at The Frieght & Salvage for a Loretta Lynn tribute night. Proving, not only the brilliance of Loretta as a songwriter and activist but also that the Bay Area has strong a thriving country music community and scene. I never saw Loretta live but on Thursday I got pretty close I’m sure. Yes they covered the hits, “Fist City, “The Pill”, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, and the treasure trove of duets she did with Conway Twitty. But they also pulled deep cuts, one of my favorites being a gorgeous duet she did in 2016 with Willie Nelson, called “Lay Me Down” a song about how we all go at some point that I posted above.

I don’t have much to say about the show other than it was phenomenal and worth every dollar of the $32 I spent. Again, seeing the local community of musicians who all knew each other and the energy and joy the put on that stage performing songs from one of our US music icons was a total high. And it inspired me to reach out to the Laura Benitez one of the performers who organized the event to see if she would want to organize a similar event again for women’s history month to celebrate many more of the great female songwriters in country and folk music that maybe haven’t been as celebrated as Loretta but were equally important. Here is one of the deeper cuts performed last night.

At the beginning of November Gal Costa passed. This is a name many in the US will not know. But in Brazil her name is as common to hear in music circles as The Beatles or Madonna or Taylor Swift. A feminist, music revolutionary, and major figure in the tropicalia movement of 60s Brasil. She was one of the premier song-interpreters of all Brazilian music akin to our own Linda Ronstadt and helped bring to the mainstream some of the most important Brazilian songwriters of her generation just like Ronstadt in the 70s. Political songs and controversial and banned album covers are just a couple aspects to her career that make her legendary. After her 60/70s political period she would become one Brazil’s biggest champions of their own great songsbooks of the 30s/40s/50s. Recording what many consinder the definite version of, “Aqualera Do Brasil”. A song I first heard thanks to the Disney cartoon Three Caballeros.

You can research her legacy on-line to go deeper (as I suggest you do) but that is one more icon I will never get to see live. She came to San Francisco some years back and for some reason I never got my act together to see her. I regret it. If people are not going to be seeing Loretta Lynn songs live on stage in the US that much anymore… Gal Costa songs… yeah… But with my platform here are a few favorites of mine to get you started. My favorite being “Sonho Meu”, My Dreams, a duet she did with Maria Bethânia another female music legend from the same era.

And then just this Wednesday November decides to close out it’s tab by taking Christie McVie. This one shocked many people. Loretta’s passing was sad but she’d stalled death for long time so as they say, “It was only a matter of time”. Christie’s was in a way left field she was by today’s standards still young. But in Fleetwood Mac it was McVie who wrote my favorite songs in their catalog, “Songbird”, “Don’t Stop”, and “Everywhere”. In fact going back and looking at their catalog of singles McVie wrote the lions share of all the hits, classic rock and AM radio standards that everyone knows at this point. “Over My Head”, “Say That You Love”, “Little Lies”, “Hold Me”, “You Make Loving Fun”. And yet it felt like the US mainstream always treated her as a passenger on the mystical gypsy train helmed by Stevie Nicks or the child in the middle of the nasty divorce between Nicks and Buckingham. Even though she joined the group before Stevie and Lindsay. And this is all after her start in the solid blue rocks band Chicken Shack. I don’t know if she cared one way or another and maybe that’s just my own misconception. But that is a piece of the Fleetwood Mac puzzle that will never be put back. They will never have the chance to perform again with all the original members after booting Lindsey one more time. There is no “Let’s get the band back together” this time.

I will never get to experience her music in my face first hand. But similar to the Loretta tribute show filled with local talent I also saw another local act recently Fleetwood Macrame. A cover band that frankly, is damn solid and certainly worth the ticket price to sing-a-long all the songs you know with like-minded folks and have a beer at a local bar. That’s not nothing. In fact it was a total blast.

And I can’t complain too much for I have seen some legendary artists others might not have seen. In the past couple years alone I’ve seen some major icons of music that, frankly, I never pictured myself ever seeing live; Björk, Roxy Music, and Elton John. All fun and surprising and yes, even sad in their own way.

The one common factor at all these shows was I was not the oldest person there, not even close. Björk was of my peers generation so it skewed closest to my age range while Roxy Music definitely skewed older with some youngers brought along by their parents. And Elton John while having an older fan base drew across generations and definitely felt the most youthful in terms of energy in the audience.

Of these three Björk is the outlier in terms of a catalog of roof-raisers, bangers, and sing-a-long feel good stadium blow outs anyone in the mainstream could sing. At this point her concerts are theater spectacle art pieces. Ever in her own lane and beholden to no one or no thing other than her own artist whims. So it’s hard to compare her catalog to the other two and she is much younger than either Elton or Byran Ferry. But still she has an esteemed legacy and it does make me wonder what of that legacy will persist when she goes and the fans go.

Jamey Johnson a very well respected country musician of the modern era was asked once why he plays so many covers of songs by people like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings at live shows since he first came to prominence as somebody writing original songs.

Townes Van Zandt’s not around anymore to sing his songs, so somebody’s got to sing them. Vern Gosdin, he’s not here today. Neither is Merle Haggard, and neither is George Jones. And without people like me out there covering those songs, they just stop. If nobody was singing Johnny Cash, there’s a whole generation that would grow up without Johnny Cash. And if you ask me, that’s not going to be a good world. That’s why it’s important the young artists today, they learn those songs. It’s important that they pass them along, that you pay respect, but that you also pass along the ministry of those important singers. They had a lot to say that matters. It’s not all love songs and beer songs and party songs. It’s also life songs.

That was a statement I completely connected to as a music fan and as somebody who persistently and actively champions the music of our elders and bygone music stars who came out WELL before I was the active music fan I am today, let alone alive. It is why started PopOff! to begin with. The only way we got to the musical landscape we have now is because of what came before it.

But does it REALLY matter? This is what I find myself asking more and more. As a HUGE country music fan the wealth of great new music being served every month just in the country genre is staggering. I can’t keep up and I also haven’t even heard all the great stuff that came out before I ever became a die hard two-stepper. It is truly an abundance of riches but I also find it bittersweet because so many of the new acts I love will never be heard beyond bar stages. They will never have the legacy of a Loretta Lynn. So when they go, there likely won’t be a Jamey Johnson (or me) to carry on their great songs. Loretta may have passed but hopefully people will still be performing her trailblazing classics for months (and hopefully years). Or at the very least playing the records! Likewise I would hope the same for Gal Costa, and Christie McVie.

But take somebody like Elton John where every single song he performed that weekend at Levi’s Stadium had people singing along to every word. A catalog of pop standards that is almost unmatched outside The Beatles. And though he is not dead he is done performing… and attending that show felt like watching your local historic venue get demolished. It was over and that was it. There is no going back. Unlike a venue however, we still have the albums to play but how long will these songs carry forth. There are many kids in their teens and 20s who don’t know who Elton John is, to say nothing of Cole Poter, Billie Holiday, Ella or even Mozart.

Some ten years ago or more now I was tutoring writing in SF and I was teaching the class of older elementary school kids about music and mentioned Missy Eilliot. They didn’t know who she was. And this was shocking to me because Missy was still fresh in my mind with classics Get Ur Freak on and Work It still in the conversation. And she was still YOUNG. But the kids had all moved on to Nicki Minaj…

I don’t know if it is sad, so much as life going on. There are only a few artists I regret not seeing when I had the chance to; Dr. John, Hugh Masakela, and Prince. And of those three I’m pretty sure most people only know one name. Thankfully, concert footage is around for all of them. But to be in the space with such forces of music is just a whole other galaxy. So when I saw Roxy Music, yeah Bryan Ferry’s voice wasn’t what it was but the band was tight and got me dancing and doing the sing-a-long. I could say I saw Roxy Music. But so what? OK. I had a great time with some great people… sure. I guess that’s all that matters.

But part of the reason I’ve given mainstream pop over the past 10-15 years so much shit is because I’ve seen Ray Charles, I’ve seen Daniela Mercury, Irma Thomas, B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Bonnia Raitt, Gloria Estefan… I’ve seen some of the best at their best so the bar is set high and these are not obscure names but icons. And every time a legend leaves us I feel like the bar lowers a little as a piece of musical history dissipates and is remembered less and less by future generations.

Folks like Joan Baez, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen have a staggering catalog of classic American songs but how long will they permeate the landscape. Sure parents will pass on the music to their kids (if the kids accept that inheritance) but the pool does start to thin out. There will come a time when the Elton classic, “Tiny Dancer” is some old obscure song that only music history nerds know about. And only a few of them will know it is a song about L.A. “Rocket Man”, Bennie and the Jets”, “Candle In The Wind”… Will these songs become the new “classical music”?

This reminds of that joke in film Star Trek Beyond, about the Beastie Boys, “Sabotage” being classical music.

That time is not far off. And I am don’t think this kind of music has the same pool of wealthy backers the way jazz and classical does funding the building of acoustic wonders where the music is performed as people sit quietly respectful.

The thought of people not knowing about Kate Bush terrifies me. Stranger Things got one of her songs back in the limelight and I do hope SOME kids pick her up. But that one song doesn’t even begin to describe her work and her importance to people as varied and Tori Amos, Taylor Swift, Hellion and countless others. But Kate Bush is kind of avant garde so she sits outside a lot of the mainstream like Björk. But it gets even scarier to think about somebody like Janet Jackson or Annie Lennox and their songs fading from history and the legacies with them. Ugh. The thought of Janet Jackson songs being treated with quiet respect in a concert hall is the stuff of nightmares.

I guess ultimately it is me reckoning with my own mortality. As I said I am pretty up to date on new country acts but that doesn’t make any difference to Life, which is marching me towards some kind of end no matter how current my music tastes. And I suppose, dwelling on this further, it is why music fans in general (especially on-line) seem to regularly take large steaming dumps on current pop music. They are really just wrestling with their own limited time on Earth and the fact the music they love may not live on except in fragments like an ancient Grecian urn. I mean to really get despondent we don’t even have any recordings of ancient Greek music is more of less just GONE and I wonder if the ancient Greeks wrestled with the same stark reality about their generations Bob Dyaln or just accepted it as fact of life.

I can stay youthful and I can avoid becoming that cliché classic rock fan but I too, like the songs, “More Than This” or “Army Of Me” will move on at some point no matter how many times I play them or post them.

I also think outside of my own mortality I’m just sad that so many people will never know these songs or artists I so cherished that shaped me and that shaped the larger music realm. Knowing the effect of artists I love like Tom Petty or Roy Orbison or The B-52’s had on me, I just wish that for everyone. And I guess everyone has their music that effected them in similar ways so these kinds of connections are always happening but weirdly in our social media world they seem harder to find outside of Stan culture and it’s wars. You are either in or out. There seems to a smaller and smaller cultural standard that “we the people” all abide by as some barometer of the music of a genre or era. What will a throwback 2020s night of hits look like when the charts are dominated by 3-4 artists thanks to streaming and the generation of youth for who this is their music are so divided due to musical allegiances and Stan wars?

The other thing I have been considering here and I also touched on in my piece about American music for the 4th July is how we quantify and categorize greatness. And does it even matter. We have what is called the Great American Songbook, also known as pop or jazz standards. Songs from the 20s tin pan alley and Broadway of the 20/30s up to songs from the early 50s. That was the era when songwriters were the superstars (i.e. Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, Jerome Robins, and the aforementioned Cole Porter) and singers were just the means for delivering those songs. This is the bedrock of songs of the modern music era that most pop songs that came after stand on and yet it is a niche sphere now. Where once these were the mainstream staples.

The Hot 100 singles chart seems to be the new book of standards but even so classic rock of the 60s and 70s has quickly headed the route jazz has gone in the cultural dialogue and I’m even seeing the music of the 80s (especially non pop hits) going this way as well. Michael Hutchence isn’t alive and I can’t just let great songs like, “Don’t Change”, “Original Sin”, “Never Tears Us Apart”, “Devil Inside”, “Suicide Blonde” and my favorite. “Elegantly wasted” just vanish from the cultural lexicon.

But that means I am not giving space and time to something new in my life something present and vital and now. There is space for both but not much space and it gets smaller as time moves forward.

As somebody who LOVES music as much as I do and LOVES so many genres and eras… I should be feeling gratitude for all of the excess. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but sadness and bittersweet seem to be forefront at the moment.

It used to be we didn’t have so many options so as a country/people we were all on the same page. TV is prime example of this. When there were only 4 Channels we were all more or less seeing the same shows and the same news casts and getting the same information. Variety shows, a staple of 60s and early 70s TV, were one of our cultural educators. Sure you may have tuned in for The Beatles but you also often got Opera, science, political comedy, dramatic readings and other cultural art in the same show. It made people more well rounded through exposure to different kinds of acts and different kinds of people. American Bandstand helped bring African American artists to the mainstream public as civil rights was ramping up. But now with so many options, ironically, I find people are less curious musically and play it safer than ever with playlists and circular algorithms when it comes to what they choose to listen to. It seems, in my limited experience on music boards, my peers had broader musical tastes back when you had to spend your own money to by albums than many music fans today who just stay in one lane because it’s comfortable. There were always the people who hated Madonna or Mariah Carey but the landscape was such you still heard those songs and as time went forward you maybe even came to like some of them after being force fed them for years (like learning to love broccoli). I am hearing less and less people say they, “like all types of music”. I’m also seeing more and more a lack of understanding about what genre labels actually mean (i.e. punk, country, folk…) and how they evolve, but that’s a whole other piece to be written some other time.

Just now it occurred to me, one of the reasons for this feeling is that I use music to connect to others. It is one of the main tools I’ve used in my life to put myself out there and find my tribe and when the music I love starts becoming older and older history it is harder to find people that connect on the same level. Certainly there were Roxy Music fans at the Chase Center… BUT- I wasn’t connecting with most of them because the youthful energy wasn’t there as they sat in their seats instead of stomping about to all the glam action like me and my friend. The rest of the audience and I knew the same songs but we certainly did not react the same way to them. It was somewhat similar when I saw Elton John.

All the youthful energy is found with younger acts and younger crowds these days. And I’ve been told to let the kids have it and stay in my “place” as an “old fuck”. But what these people don’t get is staying in one’s “place” is what makes you an, “old fuck”. I want to be dialed into to what’s new and banging on the dance floors and who’s moving people with the next batch of great personal songwriting. It’s out there, especially in country music but you have to turn a blind eye to the charts because those are not serving anybody but the Stans at this point.

Maybe too, for me at least, this has to do with arenas as a venue and how the energy can’t really be properly built up because it floats out in the larger space and gets lost and so is not as in your face as it was when I saw Heaven 17 at Bimbos or Muna at the Fillmore. But I didn’t feel that loss of in your face at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass despite being some distance from the stages at times in an outdoor setting. In fact Rhiannon Giddeons managed to tear the roof of an outside venue singing the pasty Cline classic, “She’s Got You”. So strong energy can be created and maintained in larger spaces.

Well this rambled and rolled and I’m still not entirely sure what I was after here other than a stark realization that nothing lasts forever. And no matter how many vinyl LPs or 45, CDs, or Mp3s we hoard to try and hold onto the music and keep it present in out lives you can’t take it with when you go. And my best memories of music are not listening at home to my vast collection but a clubs, and concerts, and house jam sessions. Those, you had to be there” moments that become memories. But I can’t take those either even if those memories do create a bigger emotional response.

I really don’t want to be alone in my music world I want to be in a space where all generations mix. Where young and old give back and forth in music conversations, “Oh if you like X you’ll also like Y”. I see it in very small pockets when I go to shows and message boards. But not nearly as much as I want to or as much as I remember happening. But something is better than nothing and I can only control myself and all I know how to do with any real skill is enjoy the music while it’s here. So if you have music you love that altered your DNA share it with others. It might change their lives. And if it doesn’t, so what? It changed yours and that’s all that really matters, right?

Lastly, you know me, I’ve be playing Gal Costa on my shows well before her death. I will continue to do so going forward and I’m proud to say the same is true for Loretta and Christie McVie. As long as I stand the records stand and I will put a needle to them.

Rest in power ladies.

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