Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bruce Springsteen - The Ghost of Tom Joad

The Ghost of Tom Joad, the album, is Bruce Springsteen’s eleventh studio album and was released in 1995, so this is a later day piece of music from the Boss.

Springsteen has always held strong left leaning political beliefs and this translated into the messages of his music with some reoccurrence throughout his career and to no surprise this only became more and more important to him the older he became. What I find very endearing about Springsteen is his passion for sticking up for the less fortunate, and while most of us would normally consider the political left as compassionate for the poor and minorities in the chaos that is political discourse we often find a lot of hypocrisy and contradiction, however the Boss has always been very consistent in these two overall simple messages, socialism is good, and caring about other people is worthwhile, with a strong focus on the later. We need not even presuppose political signalling from Springsteen as he often writes songs about compassion for a wide range of people, such as homosexuals in “Streets of Philadelphia” and professional wrestlers “The Wrestler,” two very different groups of humans with very different problems, and there is nothing necessarily political about either of those two songs. When we talk about the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” we are affectively talking about both endeavors simultaneously, because the people in need in this song are the poor, so we are talking about political considerations that actually consider everyone, and the struggles of people worthy of our empathy.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” has a very obvious literary reference but I did not pick up on it right away, in fact I was introduced to the song and album before I was introduced to the literature, but I suppose this is yet another example of my musical knowledge preceding my literary knowledge. I read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” recently and instantly, on page nine to be precise, our protagonist reveals his name to be Tom Joad, and I paused and thought “where have I heard that name before?” It was very easy to piece together the order of inspiration soon then after.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad from
1940's "The Grapes of Wrath."
For those who do not know “The Grapes of Wrath” tells the story of very poor Oklahoman family heading to California to find work because the banks have taken over all the land they used to own. Tom Joad was recently released from prison and is the eldest child of the Joad family, though his father and uncle are still alive Tom very much functions as the head of the family, with Ma Joad very much taking second in command in many ways. Tom Joad was in jail for murder, and while he is not a violent man he never backs down from anybody and he is constantly standing up for what is right instinctively, and we are led to believe the person he killed was a result of a combination of Tom trying to do the right thing and accidently using too much force and killing the man while subduing him. The point is the character Tom Joad is always eager to help, and his willingness to put his family first combined with his ability to get things done, ever dirty things like killing a man, makes him a natural leader of his family, also something of an interesting loose cannon.

In “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Springsteen the chorus is as follows:

“Well the highway is alive tonight,
But nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes,
I'm sitting down here in the campfire light,
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.”

Why the ghost of Tom Joad? Well when you get to the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” Tom has a little speech to his mother that explains the significance of his ghostly presence in Springsteen’s song:

“Tom laughed uneasily, ‘Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one-an’ then-‘”

‘Then what, Tom?’

‘Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.’

At the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” Tom Joad realizes that if he really wants to make a difference for his poor family then he has to stand up for all poor families, it is not enough to help the Joad family along when the whole situation is against everyone. He makes this unusual promise to be there whenever anyone needs the hard helping hands of Tom Joad. He indirectly indicates he intends to help with the unions and help the working people, and he intends to do what he can to stop the police when they actively prevent folks from trying to better their lives. Basically Tom Joad swears to be a socialist hero somehow everywhere to everyone.

Springsteen capture’s this message in this verse:

“Now Tom said,
‘Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy,
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries,
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air,
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there.

Wherever somebody's fighting for a place to stand,
Or a decent job or a helping hand,
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free,
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you'll see me.’"

The parallels between Steinbeck’s word and Springsteen’s are very obvious when comparing these two parts and it makes sense that Springsteen would invoke the character of Tom Joad and the final symbolism his character is meant to represent. “The Grapes of Wrath” was originally published in 1939, right at the tail end of the great depression. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was released in 1995, where poverty was, and is, still an ongoing issue and Springsteen, being the caring individual that he is, refers to the folk hero of Tom Joad and his promise to be there for all of us struggling and writes this great song about searching for that endearing and everlasting spirit of charity and assistance.

It is possible that Springsteen has some additional specific meaning when he sings about searching for the ghost of Tom Joad, but more than anything a general truth, where is the compassion in government, but also ourselves? Again it is very possible I am missing something specific Springsteen is attempting to stab at, but the left leaning Springsteen is likely actively calling for a variety of social programs and improvements to help the downtrodden, however the idea of a single man, appearing everywhere to help when needed, that sounds an awful like Springsteen himself. In many ways Bruce Springsteen is a real life Tom Joad, I wonder if he is aware of that.  I am sure if it were logistically possible Bruce Springsteen would literally be there whenever a cop is beating up some guy or hungry babies crying.

- King of Braves


Rage Against the Machine did a cover of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that was very popular as well:

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Derrick and The Dominos - Layla

You have heard it on the radio before, Eric Clapton’s greatest, most famous song, “Layla.” Only it is not a Clapton song, at least not technically, technically the artist credit for “Layla” is Derrick and the Dominos.

Derrick and the Dominos is a band that consists of Eric Clapton on lead guitar and lead vocals, Jim Gordon on drums and piano, Carl Radle on Bass, and Bobby Whitlock doing a little bit of everything. The band existed for a single album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” and then dissolved. A combination of exhausting touring and drug abuse casually caused the four gentlemen involved to go their separate ways.

If you look at Clapton’s history it is full of stories like Derrick and the Dominos, the guitar legend wandered from group to group and from project to project almost like he was in a daze and at some point in the seventies he stopping trying to be part of any group altogether and finally settled into his solo career. The end result is that there are surprisingly few studio albums Eric Clapton can claim, at least in comparison to the massive number of live, compilation, and collaborate albums he was involved in.

However Derrick and The Dominos is a very important moment in the history of Clapton’s music, it produced his most famous work “Layla” and that song tells a story.

Lovers of folklore may be knowledgeable enough to recognize the name Layla or Laila as the female half of lovers from the Persian poem “Laila and Mujnun” by Nizami Ganjavi. The story is, Qays and Layla meet when they are children and as they grow older Qays becomes obsessed with Layla’s love and the community begin calling him “Mujnun” which means “madman,” and as a consequence Layla’s father forbids her from marrying someone who is considered mentally unwell. Layla is then married to someone else and when word reaches Mujnun this drives him even more insane and he ends up wandering the desert. Layla dies, in some versions from heartbreak from not being with Mujnun, and in some versions Mujnun find her remains, or burial in the desert, and writes poems on her grave. It is then assumed Mujnun also perishes. There have been many adaptations of the story throughout India, Arabia, and all former Persian territories.

Layla and Majnun
It is very similar to Romeo and Juliet. Some versions, including the Hindi film “Laila and Majnun” take on additional similarities to the Shakespearian story having Layla’s father refuse to let her marry Qays because he is from a rival family, and street brawls between family members result in important character deaths like Majnun’s father much the way Tybalt killed Mercutio. Also in the Hindi film Majnun places a piece of jewelry on Layla’s ankle while she sleeps as a sign of his affection for her, and I thought maybe this could be referenced by the famous song line “Layla, you got me on my knees,” but I am probably reaching.

The theme of love causing madness interested Clapton and he created a song dedicated to this love struck insanity. Clapton was experiencing a little love induced madness himself, so while “Layla” the song is certainly about this Persian poem, it is also a smokescreen, because Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is very much about a very real woman whom Clapton was going insane with desire for, Pattie Boyd.

Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton's Layla.
In 1970 when Clapton wrote the song “Layla” he was madly in love with Pattie, but there was a problem she was already married to one of Clapton’s friends, George Harrison, of the goddamn Beatles. Perhaps I should let Pattie herself set the scene:

"We met secretly at a flat in South Kensington. Eric Clapton had asked me to come because he wanted me to listen to a new number he had written. He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard. It was Layla, about a man who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who loves him but is unavailable. He played it to me two or three times, all the while watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was: 'Oh God, everyone's going to know this is about me.'

I was married to Eric's close friend, George Harrison, but Eric had been making his desire for me clear for months. I felt uncomfortable that he was pushing me in a direction in which I wasn't certain I wanted to go. But with the realization that I had inspired such passion and creativity, the song got the better of me. I could resist no longer."
- From “Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me” by Pattie Boyd

Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd and George Harrison, 
Call it a hunch but it is probably very difficult to have an affair when you are a super famous rock star and even harder when you are wooing the wife of one of the Beatles. I am not sure how exactly Pattie responded to Clapton putting “Layla” out on the radio, but it seems to me that he kind of forced her into a very compromised position, the whole world was going to know that Clapton was throwing all of himself out there to her, publicly, and she had to either break his heart or leave Harrison; she chose the latter.

Bold Mr. Clapton, bold.

From all reports Harrison seemed completely neutral about the whole ordeal. In 1977 the couple finally broke up, seven years after the release of “Layla,” so I suppose Harrison had a while to brood over the situation, he supposedly gave Pattie permission to leave and moved on without any issued whatsoever. As for our “madly” in love couple, the chase proved to be better than the catch. After nine years of marriage Eric and Pattie separated and they too were forced to move on. I think I would like to read Pattie's book, she must have some interesting insights to offer being married to two of the greatest guitar legends ever.

There is one more thing that “Layla” is about, and to me at least is the most important part, the piano and guitar outro.

Drummer, Jim Gordon, was playing the piano when Clapton heard his melody and asked him to include it on the song “Layla,” and it is this piano part that is the best part of the entire song, and is shockingly sometimes overlooked. Case in point the original radio version of “Layla” was just over three minutes in length and cut out the entire instrumental outro of piano and guitar. This was a huge mistake for a variety of reasons, but mostly because everyone was missing out of the best part. Sure “Layla” is one of the most powerful desperate love songs of all time and is just raging with emotion, but despite that the piano at the end is the best part and not including that on the radio release may have been a factor into why the radio edit was largely ignored, granted the studio doing nothing to advertising Derrick and the Dominos album and not pushing the single “Layla” at all probably had more to do with the single’s initial flop, but still. It may seem strange that the studio would not advertise work done by Eric Clapton, but their reasoning at the time was that anything Clapton did would sell itself, and evidently they were wrong.

One would think that the guitar of “Layla” is some of Clapton’s finest guitar work, but the truth is guest guitarist Duane Allman, of the Allman brothers, was playing the lead guitar on this track, and the most famous guitar rift is openly lifted from Albert Kings “As The Years Go Passing By.”

Albert King - "As The Years Go Passing By"

It is weird that Clapton’s best guitar song is sort of not his guitar work, but I guess that just speaks to how great Duane Allman was. Allman passed away in 1971 when he was involved in a motorcycle crash. His death would prompt radio professionals to start playing an assortment of his work on the radio including the full version of “Layla” which then become a huge hit.

There is a lot to discuss when talking about “Layla.” We have a epic reference to ancient Persian poetry, this bizarre love triangle involving two of the greatest guitar legends ever, we have this unusual attitude from the produces regarding promotion, and we have some amazing work by underappreciated rock stars Jim Gordon and Duane Allman, and most people have no idea all of this is going on, all at once, in a very famous song that we have all heard on the radio.

- King of Braves