' ' Cinema Romantico: State of the Union

Thursday, June 27, 2019

State of the Union

Recently on the blog I name-checked Sheryl Crow’s 25-year old “Leaving Las Vegas” as a personal favorite. That’s because if I almost exclusively listened to rap in the early 90s, Crow’s tune, which strongly appealed to me for reasons I could never quite express then, and still sort of struggle to now, was a gateway to the glorious avenues of so many singer-songwriters I hold near and dear – Ani D. to Lucinda to Neko and on and on – and a line back to Bruce Springsteen, who I’d listened to in the 80s, of course, but not with similar intensity. And while I heard “Leaving Las Vegas” live – in person, on TV, and through various recordings  it never matched that original version, the ragged production and Sheryl’s voice, which really sounded like she’d been “dealing blackjack ‘til one or two” before she laid down the vocal track.

The master recording of “Leaving Las Vegas” perished in the 2008 Universal fire, along with countless other recordings, a terrible event which only came to light earlier this month through Jody Rosen’s stellar reporting for The New York Times. If so much lost was more culturally significant, the revelation of “Leaving Las Vegas” being gone was nevertheless the one that took my breath away and truly gutted me, like seeing Notre-Dame burn. “The metaphors we use to describe this mass of digitized sound,” writes Rosen, “bespeak our almost mystical sense that recorded music has dematerialized and slipped the bonds of earth.” But that’s not true, as Rosen painstakingly, beautifully details, writing “It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself.” He continues: “It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits.”

A recording, not a digital file, prevents it from becoming ephemeral. And it makes me think of Buddy Guy in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker profile of the legendary bluesman talking about playing the blues on top of Louisiana levees, the wind carrying the sound, and how a recording, just like Monet with an easel and an outdoor scene, could bottle up a moment like that and make it live forever.


Fourths of July, unlike humankind, are not created equal. If some are filled with joy, this year’s make me want to take cover. And if Independence Day, as the moniker suggests, is about celebrating our declaring independence from Britain, it is also about celebrating what American declared itself to be, and what it strives to be still, falling short just as often as succeeding. America is an idea, and that idea takes root in America as a place, and that place is comprised of people, for whom the government is intended to work, not to prop up a Cult of Personality using people as props to help put a metaphorical bolt on the door to the place and to turn the idea into one of fear and hatred, which seems antithetical to home of the brave, though bravery these days, it seems, is tantamount to nothing more than threatening obliteration via Twitter. In current hands America has become less a promissory note than a patriotically correct brand, a corporation that has merged with The T*ump Organization, willing to strip everything beautiful about it and sell it for parts, where climate change is both a hindrance to this corporation and a reason for it to ramp up production.

I have no doubt T*ump would not care one lick about the Universal fire, if he even knows about it at all, since every breath he draws is further evidence of his philistinism, where artists matter only to him if they have kissed the ring, dismissed as overrated or phony if they haven’t. But the Universal fire is maddening, saddening evidence of the precarious nature of everything, and evidence of how much we stand to lose – nay, of it potentially already being lost – without even knowing it, those rallying cries of how we’ve survived worse than this looking more circumspect with each passing day, like we are in the part of the movie that is the flashback to how the really bad thing at the beginning of the movie came to pass.


Earlier this month I attended my friend Jaime’s Walt Whitman bicentennial birthday party. It was a lovely afternoon along the shore of Lake Michigan, spent in the company of good friends, appreciating, discussing, considering art. I’ve only read a little Whitman, and can’t confess to knowing that much about him, so I was content to mostly sit back and listen, and I was moved by Jaime talking about how, despite the current state of things, where lamenting what America has become, and what it might never have been at all despite our fanciful foundational ideas, the prevailing mood du jour for so many, she was inclined to celebrate the good she still saw in our ostensibly United States.

In the run-up to this soiree for Uncle Walt’s 200th, she asked all the attendees to name the American artist for whom they had the most affinity. I answered Bruce Springsteen, who got me to read Whitman in the first place. And as people that afternoon talked about how Whitman very consciously positioned himself as the bard of America, I thought about how Springsteen sometimes gets that label now, which is why politicians from Both Sides Of The Aisle™ are always playing “Born in the U.S.A.” at campaign rallies. Of course, as even Bruce agnostics should be able to advise by now, that song’s lyrics are less than jingoistic, an honest reckoning with America’s past, just as the sonic short stories on the undervalued “Ghost of Tom Joad” still function, 20 years on, as a reckoning with America’s present. And if Springsteen frequently puts our no holds barred optimism under the microscope, he has not given up on the people, the place, the idea, evinced by his own explanation of how he writes lyrics: “The verses are the blues, the lyrics are the gospel.”


His “Living Proof” has become the nearest and dearest Springsteen song to my heart in the last decade. Not the album version, mind you, but the one he recorded for “Plugged”, his alteration for the MTV Unplugged series, recorded with his nameless post-E Street backing band that might not have rocked as hard but had a sonic expansiveness on this track equal to any great E Street recording. And it’s funny: earlier this year, the Springsteen camp, as it often does, released a concert recording from that same post E Street tour where “Living Proof” sounds slightly different, less filled out, a more stuttering bass line, and an absence, at least as I could hear on the mix, of the concluding synthesizer. That sprung to mind when I read about the Universal fire. Because listening to that other version, I kept missing the little nuances that make the “Plugged” recording so astonishing, Shane Fontayne’s litany of delightful guitar fills that provide the song personality it lacked on the “Lucky Town” record, Zack Alford’s echoing, insistent snare drum evoking a really worked-up preacher’s refrain of “Amen”, Roy Bittan’s synth at the end bringing to life the cleansing “rain pouring down on our roof”, and the rumbling groove of bassist Tommy Sims, so unlike anything else in the Springsteen canon, especially the notes he uncorks after the first stanza of the last verse which sounds, dammit, like this whole heavenly, “To the Wonder”-ish firmament opening up around Bruce’s jubilant words, such a majestic sound I want to go check on the master right now because it needs to last forever.

Cinema Romantico’s taking a vacation starting today and through next week to spend 4th of July week under the cover of analog, as best we can, away from the social media scrum and terrible tumult of a clown who only ran for President, it’s become clear, to make himself the center of attention all the time, all 327 million of us be damned. I’d rather spend the week with the person I love, tuned into the things that truly make this country great, celebrating Bruce Springsteen’s America, the one where, as the citation on his Presidential Medal of Freedom stated, everyone has a place, one gloriously stretching out beneath the sky of that Tommy Sims bass line.

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