now playing: elton john, “tiny dancer”
shaping up to be another long night at work – the drives that we ordered for our now long-suffering UNIX machine arrived today, so here i sit, as the Adaptec card writes a brand spankin’ new RAID-10 stripe onto the drives…39% complete…
got an email from someone who i only really correspond with in matters regarding a common hero late this afternoon, and it was not good news…
with the words that i have at my disposal, i’m still not sure how i would go about trying to explain how important this guy has been to me…i know that there are those who think of this music as hokey, sentimental crap, and that’s ok. i’m alright with that. to each his own.
see, here’s the thing…
i pretty much missed the whole punk thing. i never got it. still don’t.
when the clash hit, i was blissfully unaware of them, until such time as rock the casbah hit, and by then i was in high school and DJ’ing at one of the radio stations in my hometown – and it was an adult contemporary station. by that point, my tastes were pretty much carved in stone. and i didn’t care for the loud, angry shit at all.
i’ve heard the whole “revolt against the corporate dreck that the music business had become” argument, and it’s a powerful argument. but i never made peace with how you effectively backlash against the status quo by sucking. the mindset was apparently that if there were already all these bands who were commercially successful as a result of writing good songs and playing them well, then the way to start the revolution was to go out and be awful. and a lot of them were.
i don’t get the clash. i don’t get television. i don’t get lou reed. i don’t get david byrne (then or now. hell, especially now.)
even now, i listen to radio stations like wxpn and i hear one song out of maybe six to ten that i can tolerate. it used to be one in every three or four, but we’ve again come full circle in many ways to those halcyon days in the late seventies when the punk movement made it hip to suck ass.
let’s look at lucinda williams, for instance.
every critic on the planet has had to lunge for their collective thesauruses to find new words to use to shine lucindas’ ass, and i can’t stand her. she can’t sing for shit, first of all…and while she used to write good songs (something about what happens when we talk and sweet old world, for instance), she seems to have given that up in the wake of her critical success.
yet people fawn over her.
don’t get it. nope.
now, i don’t know why i got off on this tangent in the first place, but now that i’ve come down this street, i want to stress that it’s not that i have a bias against anything recorded in the past 20 years, or anything of that nature. i love counting crows, for instance. i love lori mckenna and michael tolcher and train and sarah mclachlan and shane nicholson and…and….
well, you get my point. i’m not an “era snob”.
but some people are, and those are the ones who’ll be shaking their heads when i talk about what a huge influence dan was on my formative years.
everything that i wanted to be, he already was. he wrote amazing songs, and his voice did them justice. he was equal parts composer, musician, and artist, and he gave me the drive to broaden my horizons and listen to other types of music that i wouldn’t have given time to, otherwise (and yeah, i fully realize the irony in that statement, considering the first part of my little stream of consciousness rant…).
as i found out what little there was to know about him at the time, i was even more intrigued…his father was a classically trained musician, and a conductor and teacher by trade. his mother was a trained singer. he spent his adolescent years in peoria, illinois, not really fitting in with the social classes that i believed to exist in every high school, and ended up playing in bands through high school, doing beatles and buffalo springfield songs. as he matured as a musician, he was drawn to songwriting and the acoustic guitar, and gravitated to a favorite spot over the river where he found his feet as a songwriter. left home, struck out for the city with his then-manager, irving azoff, who shopped him around LA, trying to get a deal for him for months before he finally ended up with a deal with columbia, where he cut his gorgeous debut album, home free.
his lyrics were literal poetry…abstract imagery, but literal enough to conjure a common wistfulness or a shared experience, and sung with equal parts conviction and sincerety.
“The places dash and the faces dart
Like fishes in a dream
Hiding ‘neath the murky banks
of long forgotten streams
The lines of life are never long
when seen from end to end
The future’s never coming
and the past has never been…”
(from in the passage)
“…Every time I try to put
This puzzle into place
There always seems to be
A piece that’s missing
And through the eyes of someone else
I look into my face
And can’t believe the sorrow
There I see
I can’t believe this lonely man
(from lost in the sun)
“…Pressed in the pages
Of some aging text
Lies an old lily, crumbling
Marking a moment
Of childish respects
Long since betrayed and forgotten.
Times stills the singing
A child holds so dear
And I’m just beginning to hear
Gone are the pathways
The child followed home
Gone, like the sand and the foam…”
(from the sand and the foam)
as an alienated teenager fixated on rock and roll and belonging nowhere in particular, i found something to relate to in what he said, and the enigmatic image he projected…i identified with the reclusive artist persona, as i felt that this was something that we actually had in common. he got me out from behind the drums and lit the fire inside me to learn guitar, to pick up a pencil and write songs, to be willing to make mistakes and learn the craft of songwriting and to find the words inside myself to express what i felt, even if those early efforts struggled just to be worthy of amateur status.
when he came to memphis my senior year in high school, there was no way in hell i wasn’t going. a buddy of mine who was also a fan knew how to get there (i didn’t), so i bought the tickets, he bought the gas, and we went.
i couldn’t believe how his voice seemed to fill the entire auditorium. it was just him, guitar and piano…and one of the first things i noticed was that when he played the songs, his accompaniment was perfect – it was the first glimpse i’d gotten of what the process was – i’d always thought that the songs probably started with a rudimentary chord progression, and all the frills and accents were added on later. what i learned was that songs like make love stay started out with the chord progression and melody completely intact, and that the arrangements on the recording were done to complement the songs as they were written. i noticed that while a lot of his songs did have the traditional folk fingerstyle accompaniment, he mixed fingerpicking with strumming for dynamics, and he wasn’t afraid to snap a bass string with his thumb for good measure, and that he actually tuned his guitar differently to play certain songs…i knew those weren’t the basic chords that he was flying by in some of those songs, like once upon a time and longer and so on…he was just an amazing musician, and that two and a half hours changed my life. it set me on the path to become a better guitarist, to stretch my voice and lose the timid delivery that had been a subconscious barricade for me…
it’s no exaggeration that i wouldn’t be the musician that i am now if it weren’t for him.
i’ve known…forecasted, even…that there’d be a time when the years would force the human side of my heroes to the surface, and i’d have to stand by and watch them start to fall, one by one. last year, we lost warren zevon and just last month one of my heroes whom i’ve been fortunate enough to call a friend as well, george grantham from poco was felled by a stroke onstage, two songs into a show in springfield, mass. (he’s doing much better and has returned to nashville just this past week, although he’s still hospitalized at this point, by the way).
i can see the age in my own eyes when i look in the mirror with some strange mix of regret and anxiety…but as time goes by and the cultural landscape under my feet continues to shift and mutate into something that i fail to recognize sometimes, nothing drives home the passing of the years quite like seeing my heroes age.
if you’re not too cool to do so, say a prayer for dan tonight.