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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.

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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 1

Croton-On-Hudson, NY

I met Rodriguez only three weeks ago, on a lazy post-graduation morning. It shattered my views on American ballads and protest songs in one, jaw-dropping experience. I wanted to watch the documentary Searching for Sugarman for a year, since I saw the poster and the mysterious aura around it in the streets of Tallinn. Only three months ago, I was concentrating on Viktor Tsoy’s Russian lyrics, which are bare-boned and melancholic. Then Rodriguez blew my mind.

Rodriguez, Sixto, Jesus, whatever his name, is better than Bob Dylan, better than Johnny Cash. Who’s Neil Young? Why is Paul Simon not showing up, overshadowing this little known songwriter? How does a blue-collar working man-turned musician (and/or the other way around) get to #1 in someone’s 2014 ranking by releasing only two albums in 1970 and 1971?

The quick answer is: I have no idea, but it did.

I saw the documentary, almost in tears for both the story and the depth of the lyrics in his songs, masterpieces of songwriting. I’m of course not a musician or a songwriter, but my brain and my ears keep exchanging high-fives. Every word is spelled out as if it was the last one coming out of Rodriguez’s mouth. Every song has a rhythm that fits the verses, which are built carefully, like a domino structure: once you hit play, something beautiful unravels. Here’s my take on “Cold Fact“, released by Sussex in March 1970 in the United States, which sold only a few thousand copies until success hit back in the 90s and after the release of the documentary. Thirty minutes of awesomeness buried deep in radio station archives, until better PR got it to the masses.

The repetitiveness of Sugar Man closely resembles the addict hailing the pusher for more. This song is the formal entrance by Rodriguez into your veins. Only Good For Conversation brings you to a harsher sound of protest towards some customary behaviors, more to come, undoubtedly. Crucify Your Mind is the masterpiece: Was it a huntsman or a player / That made you pay the cost / That now assumes relaxed positions / And prostitutes your loss? Again, the entrance punches you at each pause. Then a long title that would never make it through radios, charts, or memories This Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues, a protest song that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York only because it has a better weather-related verse: Public gets irate but forget the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining […] I opened the window to listen to the news / But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues – try to get more contemporary than that. Hate Street Dialogue is against the state’s monopoly on the use of violence against its own citizens: A dime, a dollar they’re all the same / When a man comes to bust your game. / The turnkey comes, his face a grin / Locks the cell I’m in again. There’s one or two things Johnny Cash could learn from Rodriguez’s crude images here. Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, that’s the first verse of Forget It, about love that has worn out. No begging, like to the local sugar man, just forget it. Inner City Blues is another angry song which repeats the album title Cold Fact over and over, while building clever braids with lyrics that could make sense even if you listened only to one every two verses. Will it ever all be straight / I doubt it, says Rodriguez, while making again Christian references. Then comes the bass. The supporting band for his first concert in South Africa played the riff for minutes, while the crowd was cheering  their idol, before he could finally open the song with the now-famous verse I WonderI wonder about the love you can’t find / And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine – an uneasy song, less lyric-focused but an incredibly catchy tune. Like Janis is again a great ballad with snappy and clever verses that are better served with the music. A bit more disturbing to the ear is Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme) is a surprising blues track with an actual nursery rhyme within. Help your kids to dream with a Biblical tale about hate, says Rodriguez. Once more, a protest song follows. Rich Folks’ Hoax has an ironic take on the class-system: Rich folks have the same jokes / And they park in basic places. Jane S. Piddy is a weird song that will be repeated in its concept in the second album. Among incredibly poetic lyrics, random name-dropping happens. Who are all these people, nobody knows and nobody cares, I guess that’s the message.

I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears
The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears
Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers

If this has not been enough for you, then don’t bother to wait for the next post, which will take on Rodriguez’s second and last (so far) studio album.

Скоро кончится лето – Кино

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

I’m writing my dissertation, that’s why I’ve been so proficient in procrastinating. But it’s crunch time, so I promise this will be my last post until I’m done with my academic writing.

When Viktor Tsoi died at 28 in a car accident in Latvia, the Baltic country had just declared its independence from the USSR. It was June of 1990, a time of change, or “перемен” as Tsoi would have sung it if he had lived to see it. A truly Soviet character, Tsoi was a Korean-Russian with some roots in Kazakhstan’s former sleepy capital of Kyzylorda (his father was born there). A profoundly uneasy artist, who even sounded dark when he sung his less-than-happy songs with his band, Kino.

Every 21st of June, the former Soviet youth celebrates its own Christmas. The birthday of Tsoi revives the Soviet rock scene from Almaty to St. Petersburg. Even a street artist was able to get away with painting a mural in his honor in Almaty, avoiding the ever strict Kazakh police. But I digress. I conducted a very quick analysis of the lyrics sung in the most famous songs by Kino. As I casually listened to the words used, it became clear that the choice made by Tsoi in the 80s was more original than many other songs that usually play in my iTunes.

A mural for Viktor Tsoi - Almaty (Arbat) 2014

A mural for Viktor Tsoi – Almaty (Arbat) 2014

Next to very Soviet words like звезда (star), война (war), земля (land), вперёд (forward), город (city), there are several ones related to natural phenomena – солнце (sun), трава (grass), снег (snow), огонь (fire). Other recurrent words reference the body: кровь (blood) and глаза (eyes). The choice of verbs is also interesting: молчить (to be silent), спать (to sleep), встать (to wake/stand up), остаться (to stay/be left). One very peculiar word that comes up often is брод (ford, “a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across” tells me the dictionary).

Often, Kino’s songs address uncomfortable situations that disturb the “normal” living experience. When Tsoi talks about being stuck in either an Elektrichka (“Suburban Electric Train”) or on a Trolleibus going East, you can feel the problems that the singer was facing within. You won’t find любовь (love) or сердце (heart), except in their un-romantic meanings. “Love” is used in the locution я не люблю to say “I don’t like”, whereas “heart” is more often the source of pain than excitement.

There is so much sub-text in Kino’s songs that I should dedicate a month to it, not 30 minutes. But time flies, so I’d better go back to my dissertation, listening to Tsoi’s tunes, of course.

Alma-Аға

Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s been 3 months since I moved to Kazakhstan and almost 4 months since my last post.
There are reasons for this. Shortly, I’ll list them below.

– I am successfully continuing my collaboration with the newspaper ‘L’Indro‘, where I publish two weekly columns on the post-Soviet region, covering mostly politics and economics, with a pinch of energy, of course. With the newspaper I also got to experience the “press pass” for the first time and talked to several fellow journalists at KIOGE in Almaty and KazEnergy Forum in Astana.

– I am also on the lookout for opportunities to publish stories in English again.

– I was interviewed twice. Once by ‘MilanoFinanza‘, the ‘Financial Times‘ of Italy. The long interview was on one of my favorite topics: the future of energy in Russia. It occupies the first 4 pages of a special issue of the weekly magazine that was distributed at the G20 in St. Petersburg in September. The last interview, was taken today, with a journalist from Barcelona working for the new information platform Extramurs, “planetary” news in Català. We discussed about the Arctic and the geopolitical challenges around it. I probably talked too much about energy, but I structured my answers around the vicious circle Global Warming – Northern Route – Oil&Gas Drilling – Global Warming… If we leave it to the Smithian invisible hand of market forces, we’ll pretty soon live an eternal summer.

– I enrolled in 6 graduate courses at KIMEP University. The most challenging of which, is Kazakh language, of course (look at the bad pun in the title, Alma-Ata, Alma-Mater…)

– I am in the process of finishing 2 academic publications. One is a comparison of the effects of EU accession in Bulgarian and Lithuanian nuclear energy policies (edited volume, published by Brill, The Netherlands). The other is a paper on my dissertation topic: bringing Gramscian concept to the study of energy and foreign policy in the case of Caspian pipeline politics (edited volume, published by ibidem, Germany).

– I will also finish up my economic research on Nord Stream as soon as I get my last interviews back.

Work, work, work… But life in Kazakhstan goes well nonetheless. Nice and warm here in Almaty. I met several beautiful people that accompany me in the everyday struggle against Soviet-era bureaucracy.

A highlight was the meeting with an Italian singer that has captured the ears and the hearts of many Kazakhs: Son Pascal. Originally, I approached him for an interview. Then, soon after we developed a fresh friendship. I’m sure our adventure at the sauna last week with the two oldest Kazakhs alive, talking about the internet (?!), open-heart operations (?!), and wives (?!), was not the last.

Oh, and most importantly, the NEW PROJECT that I’ve been working on for 2 years now will see the light before the end of the year. It’s going to be awesome and it will make me happy. I will soon share the details.

Queen Rocks Live

Glasgow,UK

What prompts you to embark in a long and expensive bus trip in the easternmost outskirts of Glasgow on a nice and sunny Sunday? Of course, the greatest band that has ever performed live. Let me be clear on this: Queen is the band that has taken live gigs to the craziest level of entertainment. I probably haven’t been to as many concerts as you, reading out there, but I’ve seen plenty of Queen lives. I also went to a couple of “Queen” concerts in 2005 and 2008, trying to experience half of the joy that Queen fans could have felt in the 70s and 80s. Half as the lineup: Roger and Brian are the only left since Freddie’s death and John’s departure. Half as the fun: Paul Rodgers as a singer is OK, but the way he mocks Freddie and over-does the final verses is unbearable. I liked how Queen managed to do in the last album what they’ve done their entire career: put everyone’s input so that each component’s quality would be shown at his best. Unfortunately, the presence of Paul made the quality of the album plummet with respect to previous Queen albums. And Brian perhaps exaggerated in his astronomy complex.

I grew up with Queen. Freddie Mercury was my personal English teacher. I avidly asked for CDs as Christmas and birthday presents. I recorded VHS tapes with their shows, I bought some. Soon came the internet and I started downloading their most obscure gigs, the quality of which was so poor you could barely hear the music (thanks anyway, WinMX). I also downloaded videos with my old friend 56K modem, which needed an entire day to obtain the Bohemian Rhapsody videoclip, that I now have in every possible format and have seen one million times (yes, my generation didn’t have YouTube. We paid for stuff back then, be it the original price or the connection time).

Now Queen split up with Paul Rodgers and is perhaps dropping “nostalgia” and concentrating on good memories. That’s how Hungarian Rhapsody came to the world’s screens this past week. Yes, you go to a movie theater and you watch a “live” concert 26 years after. Why? Because it’s awesome.

First of all, a cinema gives you a better sound and video quality than your laptop or even your “home theater”. Second, it’s just like a concert: you find yourself surrounded by strangers who share your same feelings about the band. You’re not forcing your family to watch something on YouTube with you. And lastly, you pay due respect to the giants of live rock (who in fact look like giants on that huge screen). It’s the closest to Freddie you can get. If you’re not a creeper.

The concert in Budapest is preceded by some footage from 1986 (approx 25 min.) that explains better the reason why Queen put together the album “A Kind of Magic” and why they finally decided to go on a European tour. That same tour that featured Live at Wembley and the concert at Knebworth (yes, you nerd, you know what I’m talking about). And they were directed to Hungary because the smuggling of rock music, the opening of the Eastern Bloc, and the growing new audience basin had just ripened the situation for an epic concert on the Danube. The whole concert was filmed by a Hungarian director by the name of János Zsombolyai, who did a great job in fading in some backstage stories during the concert.

At the time, it was a big deal in so many ways: their stage was the biggest ever created, their audiences were the biggest a rock band attracted, it was their first time beyond the Iron Curtain, Freddie came in with a two-sided British and Hungarian flag for We Will Rock You and he sang a folk song in Hungarian (the rehearsals and backstage are fully provided in the movie). Here’s a sneak peek:

Tavaszi szél vizet áraszt, virágom, virágom // Minden madár társat választ virágom, virágom.

Yesterday, it was a big deal for me. I spent 2 hours on a bus getting lost to get to the cinema (ended up paying £5.30 for all the bus tickets I wasted), together with a Bulgarian friend we talked about music and politics under communism, and then we came back to the city after a full 6 hours journey to the past. The turnout at the movie theater was not especially great, but it taught me one simple thing: I was born in the wrong decade.

Thank you for your music, Freddie, Brian, Roger and John.