Blunderbuss. Jack White.
2012, Third Man. Producer: Jack White
IN A NUTSHELL – Eclectic, multi-genre-spanning debut from The White Stripes’ front man combines odd lyrics, cool guitar and a grab-bag of instruments into a rock and roll stew, with only a few rock songs included. Very impressive musicians and songs. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was even more rockin’, with even more guitar.
“I don’t care what people say, Rock and Roll is here to stay!” – Danny and the Juniors, 1958.
Has there ever been an art form so obsessed with its longevity as rock music? In 1958 Danny and the Juniors proudly proclaimed in song that Rock and Roll would never die, and since then countless acts – from The Who to Neil Young to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne – have repeated the claim.
Can you imagine this happening in another art form, this obsession with lifespan?
“Señor Picasso – your new masterpiece for 1909, what is its title?”
“I call it, ‘I Don’t Care What People Say, Cubism is Here to Stay.’ And if you don’t think it is, you can kiss my indistinguishable, stylized, angular ass!”
It’s been part of the snarling, adolescent, anti-authoritarian bent of rock and roll since the beginning to tell the listener, “Screw you!! We ain’t goin’ nowhere!” The message sounded like it was directed to every parent, teacher, cop or judge who dared to listen. But in reality it was mostly other teen-agers listening, so instead of the message being about defiance, it was actually about community, an us-against-the-world rallying cry.
It’s understandable why this message was included in 50s rock and roll. Since the days of ragtime piano white kids had always been warned about the dangers of black music – just as they would be all the way through hip hop – but they were listening to it anyway, and now they were making it (!) and getting it played on the radio (!!).
Imagine the shock on Officer Farnsworth’s face as you not only sing a rock and roll song, but sing a rock and roll song ABOUT how you’ll never stop singing rock and roll songs!! True, Officer Farnsworth wasn’t really listening, but all the kids at the Record Hop could just feel the look on his face as they rocked and rolled, and somehow that feeling made the music sound even better.
“Rock is dead, they say. Long live rock!!” The Who, 1974.
By the early 70s, fifteen years or so into the rock era, a message asserting rock and roll’s longevity probably sounded misplaced to the casual music fan. The Who invoked the nebulous “they,” as purveyors of this strange notion that the most popular music form of the day is “dead.” And maybe Village Voice critics and a few angry teenagers and a moody art student or two were saying it, but to most people it probably sounded like a lark.
But once again, this view ignores the intended listener – the rock music fan. Rock and Roll had morphed into “Rock,” and the Rock Music fan in the early 70s probably wasn’t reading The Village Voice and probably wasn’t all that interested in shaking up the music establishment. The rock music fan was drinking beer, smoking “grass” and souping up a ’57 Chevy in his driveway. He (not to be sexist, but the message was directed mostly to males … but that will have to be a different blog post) was tired of hearing bullshit, fruity songs about fathers and sons sung by sensitive assholes strumming acoustic guitars or by cheesy assholes wearing leisure suits and tuxedoes. He just wanted some tunes that kicked some ass, and he wanted to feel secure that just because the world seemed to be going down the toilet, the music he loved wasn’t going to be flushed away any time soon. “Long Live Rock!!” Roger Daltrey screamed, and The Fan pumped his fist right along and felt that old burst of heat and light rising up from his midsection that he’d felt since the first time he heard The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” Roger and Pete and John and Keith didn’t think rock music was going anywhere, and this made The Fan feel better than ever.
By 1979, the sentiment was sounding desperate. Neil Young cut two versions of the song, a rocking version called “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and an acoustic version called “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” The rocking version – with its references to punk rock – may have ensured some old time rock and roll fans that everything was in good hands, but the acoustic version, in Young’s distinctive, plaintive voice, is reminiscent of a Sympathy Card, reminding one that even though a loved one is no longer with us, the memories will live on. Certainly a nice thought … but also confirmation that, indeed, rock and roll was dead.
As with the teens in 1958, and the rockin’ dude in 1974, listeners in 1979 were moved by the feelings the songs (particularly “Out of the Blue”) conjured. “Okay – I acknowledge that the music has changed, but the feeling it gives me, that Rock and Roll spirit that I hear, that’s still alive inside me.” It was still a message of longevity, but the message had previously been about the music, and how it was bigger than the listener. Now the message was about the listener, and how the music would always be there for him/her.
“Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution. Rock and roll ain’t gonna die.” – AC/DC, 1980.
“You can’t kill rock and roll. It’s here to stay.” -Ozzy Osbourne, 1981.
Within a few years, both AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne were reiterating what had been repeated over the past 25 years. But at the time both acts were considered “Heavy Metal,” fringe acts from a genre nowhere to be found in the popular singles of the day (1980, 1981, 1982).
Heavy Metal was/is “identity rock,” like punk or straight-edge, and identity rock makes no apologies in stating that the music is bigger than the listener. Saying that the music was never going to die was what metal listeners wanted to hear, and it raised all the feelings in the listeners that they had come to expect from the music. But considering what the popular music charts looked like at the time, their affirmations felt like the lyrical equivalent of a young soap opera doctor losing his first patient, futilely attempting resuscitation by pounding on the body’s chest.
“They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating.” -Huey Lewis and The News, 1983.
If AC/DC and Ozzy’s songs were the equivalent of pounding on a dead body’s chest, Huey Lewis’s earnest – yet sadly oxymoronic – effort was the equivalent of dressing the body in a tuxedo and performing a ventriloquism act with it.
“Hey, Rocky, what’s this I hear that you’re dead?”
“Whert? Nee dead? I dern’t know whert yr talking a-doubt. I’n nert dead! I’n alai-zh, shee?” [Stiff arm awkwardly waves.]
It was Weekend at Bernie’s on the radio, but true rock fans weren’t listening to Top 40 radio all that much anyway by 1984 so – gratefully – this desecration of the corpse of rock and roll was perpetrated away from the consideration of most of its fans. (And this isn’t to say Huey and the boys didn’t believe what they were singing – I mean, people do respond to grief in any number of ways, but … anyway … let’s just move on, shall we?)
By the early 90s, popular rock acts were no longer preaching an “us-against-the-world” message to listeners – ensuring them that the spirit would live forever – but were instead making fun of them for listening in the first place. The deal was that if you were cool (and for the life of me, I somehow believed I was) you understood the irony that Nirvana was singing a catchy, sing-along song mocking the Frat-boy/Jock types who sang along, and who (probably) still believed that the heart of Rock and Roll was still beating, and who therefore banged their heads along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one minute, Winger’s “(She’s Only) Seventeen” the next, and EMF’s “Unbelieveable” the next. The message was still about community, but now it was an exclusive community: not “us-against-the-world” but “some-of-us-(and you know who you are)-against-the-world-(which includes some of you).”
It was an acknowledgement that rock was dead, but that its smirking spirit was still around, giving the finger. And that those feelings the music brings – the old light and heat from the midsection – feelings a listener could still get from a few bands out there, were different from the sensations that other music brings, or that other people feel. Others might recognize it, sure, but they “know not what it means.”
“Party like a rockstar. Totally, dude!” – Shop Boyz, 2007.
By the 2000s, rock and roll was just another form of old-timey music, like jazz or swing or tin pan alley or hymns. The Shop Boyz rapped about rock stars in the same way The Eagles sang about a cowboy, in ‘Desperado,’ as an archetypal metaphor (or simile, in this case) to whom the listener can relate. Rock and roll had become a thing of the past, and even though a rock song, with actual guitars and drums and singing, might appear on the pop charts once in a while, the songs tended to be by acts like Train or Nickelback or Magic!, and they sounded like imitations of the real thing.
Rock and roll was now just a history lesson. And those of us who had felt those old feelings it could bring were left, mostly, with our oldies stations and our old CDs, doing shit like making up lists and spending (wasting?) time reminiscing through blogs about them while new art forms (apparently) expressed those feelings for the next generations.
As a fan of rock music, it’s been difficult to see the genre move out of the public’s daily consciousness. After all, the music always meant so much to so many people and was far more than just something to listen to. Rock music was politics, rock music was art, rock music was identity, rock music was community, rock music was theater, emotion, anarchy, religion. Rock music was life. And as ridiculous as Huey Lewis sounded, I am still trying to keep that heart of rock and roll beating as long as I can.
I’ve written before about trying to stay up-to-date with the now-sounds of rock, even after its death. One of the acts in recent years that caught my ear – that caught millions of listeners’ ears – was The White Stripes, the guitar and drum duo of Jack and Meg White, a divorced couple who pretended to be siblings, and who played blues-based rock in a loud, shambling, raucous style. I bought a bunch of their albums, and was immediately impressed with Jack White’s guitar playing and singing.
But too often, the songs sounded to me like demos – unfinished ideas that would’ve been incredible with a little more work. I suppose this “low-fi” aspect was some of their charm, and what attracted many listeners – a sort of immediate, unfiltered sound that was in direct opposition to much of the hyper-produced music popular at the time. But when I listened, I wanted something more. Just as many rock fans seek out early demo versions of their favorite artists’ popular songs, I wished I could find full-instrumentation, produced versions of The White Stripes’ drum-and-guitar-only gems. As the band progressed, they moved toward this direction, but they broke up after 2007’s Icky Thump. I remained a fan, and looked forward to hearing what would come from Jack and Meg.
Jack recorded a few records as part of the supergroup The Raconteurs, and I became a fan of their records immediately. (He also formed The Dead Weather, who sound good, but who I don’t know much about.) And when I heard he’d release a solo album in 2012, I was ready to buy it.
I love Blunderbuss because of its diversity of styles, catchy songs, interesting instrumentation and outstanding performances. White assembled an all-female band to play on most of the tracks, and they are in fine form throughout, particularly the rhythm section of drummer Carla Azar and bassist Bryn Davies. Together, the band moves easily through the blues, rock, pop, americana, etc, handling the songs in such a way that makes them sound … familiar.
I don’t mean familiar in a bad way, as in phony or derivative. I suppose “timeless” describes the sound better, although that word sounds a little pretentious. The album sounds like a record that would have been considered great had it been released any time between 1965 and today. It’s a record that makes me think a lot about my long-dead buddy, Rock Music.
The record is interesting right off the bat, starting with the lead song “Missing Pieces.” A simple six-note electric piano riff is built up to full instrumentation, an introduction that is compelling, but leaves the listener unsure what could be coming next. There’s a lot of space, and as Jack begins singing the song turns into a slow groove. I’ve always loved Jack’s voice – it has (dare I say?!) a touch of Robert Plant to it. He can both howl and croon. And his guitar playing is always excellent. “Missing Pieces” features a terrific guitar solo, followed by an equally excellent electric piano solo, also played by White. The lyrics of the song speak of the dangers of people who will take too much from you, and contain the cool lines to end the song “And when they tell you that they just can’t live without you/ They ain’t lyin’, they’ll take pieces of you.” The song has a 70’s R&B feel to it, and that’s the first of many genres found here.
White’s lyrics can be very good, but they can be very strange, as well. (Which I don’t mind!) The next song on the album is the straight-ahead rock number “Sixteen Saltines.”
I have no idea what it’s about, and the video doesn’t help with interpreting the lyrics – unless the song is about disturbed youth doing disturbing things. It does sound like it might be set in a school (“She’s got stickers on her locker/ And the boys’ numbers there in magic marker”), but then spiked heels in a lifeboat are mentioned as well. Wikipedia says (without reference) that the song is meant to be reflections by some dying guy eating saltines in a life raft. But – as with many of the songs – despite the strange lyrics, the song is really strong. It has a nice keyboard riff that breaks up the verses, and the guitar is once again excellent, including a dueling guitar solo that White plays with himself that is reminiscent of two-guitar attacks from a variety of older bands, from the Allman Brothers to Judas Priest. It’s raucous fun, especially performed live!
White’s guitar work is on display throughout the album, and it’s one of the things that keeps me listening again and again. He seems to never play the expected lick, or a cookie-cutter solo. The song “Freedom at 21” – a riff-rock number with modern production, sounding like the 1970s and 2010s at the same time – features a fine example. The solo – at 1:44 – is squawky noise and flash and sounds very cool. (The song also features a video that appears to have been directed by a horny 16 year old boy.)
But the record isn’t all guitar. The song “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is piano driven, grand and important-sounding, like a Freddy Mercury demo of an Arena Rock monster – the kind of song that one can imagine being played twenty years from now, on some kind of PBS fund-raiser special, by Jack White accompanied by a symphony orchestra, violinists and cellists sawing away mindlessly, thinking of the paycheck they’re earning. But even on a song like this, White throws in a terrific guitar solo that, to me, makes the song interesting. Also interesting, as always, are the lyrics, running together here like a Hubert Selby, Jr., novel and sung-spoken in a style reminiscent of early hip hop.
Another “non-guitar” song – and still another style, as well – is the song “Blunderbuss” – a tale of two sides of a love triangle set to a waltz. White’s band, including pedal steel guitarist Fats Kaplin, are a single unit, dancing together on the 3/4 beat.
And White’s voice – which I’ve always loved for its variety and expressiveness – is terrific here. It sounds great, as well, on the popular duet “Love Interruption,” sung with Ruby Amanfu.
The lyrics describe a desire for a love that can change a life, yet also state a desire to remain unchanged by love – an inner conflict that is the basis of many great songs, not to mention many desperate lives. White also pens songs about external conflicts, as well, as in the harsh and angry “Hypocritical Kiss.”
So, we’ve heard guitar rock, arena rock, a waltz, some piano ballads … what about some blues, you ask? How about this version of “I’m Shakin’,” a song by Rudy Toombs. [ref]Toombs also wrote “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” covered in the 80s by George Thorogood.[/ref]
How about some McCartney-esque pop/rock songs? White offers “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” my favorite song on the album (which sounds like it might be a lament about how hard it’s been to be Jack White of The White Stripes?) and “Trash Tongue Talker,” a raucous rave-up with some lyrics about monkeys jumping on the bed. How about a little Western-Swing, sort of Americana-ish-type song? Try “Take Me With You When You Go.”
Listening to Blunderbuss takes a listener to all kinds of musical places. One nifty place is what sounds to me like an 1880s San Francisco saloon. The song “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” sounds nothing like my long dead friend Rock Music, but it sounds great nonetheless.
And it makes me feel happy and makes me want to have a fun time and sing along really loudly, all feelings I associate with first hearing – or, more accurately, first CARING about – Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. Feelings I associate with Rock Music. But if this song isn’t a rock song, and if rock is dead, anyway … then maybe the spirit IS inside me, and maybe it never was about the music after all. Maybe music felt this way to everyone ever since some Neanderthal banged a rock way back when.
Blunderbuss shows me that whether rock is dead or not doesn’t really matter. This album could have been a hit at any time over the past 40 years, so who cares what we call it? It still conjures that light and heat inside me.
“Long Live Rock! (Be it dead or alive.)”
Freedom at 21
Weep Themselves to Sleep
Trash Tongue Talker
Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy
I Guess I Should Go to Sleep
On and On and On
Take Me With You When You Go