Monday, November 23, 2009

Adam Lambert: DID YOU SEE THAT??

Okay: The Voice was a little rough but that was TOTALLY NOT THE POINT.

25 yrs ago Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary on TV (pretty novel at the time) and Michael Jackson blew everybody's mind with his moonwalk. This weekend Motown celebrated its 50th anniversary, and coincidentally everybody’s mind got blown again– but not by Motown. That happened on the American Music Awards, of all places.

America, meet Adam Lambert. Again.

Wow. Wow wow wow. ABC Television did its best to “bleep” some of those visuals but Adam was operating waaaay over their heads. The producers gave him the finale – maybe because they figured the kiddies would be in bed by that time? – which comes with the weight of its own expectations, on top of the promise of the boy’s sheer talent. The pressure on Adam was significant. But he is a pro – seizing the moment, recovering a slip seamlessly, layering shock on top of surprise.

Do I like s&m as a subject of art? Not especially. And yes, there’s an unapologetic s&m theme, both in the lyrics and unsurprisingly in the choreography, but Adam Lambert’s message to his audience is not just about sexplay. Imagine all those people who haven't seen him since he "lost" Idol? The next message they get from him is the unequivocal “For Your Entertainment” (pardon the paraphrase, I'm going from memory) -- you thought I was so soft and sweet ... it's gonna get rough for you ...
If that song isn't a shot across the bow of everything everybody thinks of American Idols, nothing ever could be. I DID NOT GET ON TV TO BE AN AMERICAN IDOL, I GOT ON AMERICAN IDOL TO BE ME.

I applaud him for every career-risking (career-making) step of it, and damn you I WON'T even stumble, I'll roll with every hazard you throw at me... That was breathtaking. In part because it was on the typically bland and pandering American Music Awards. If his much-celebrated vocal technique was a little ragged last night, well, we can forgive him: his vocal performance was quite secondary to his arrival as a significant cultural force.

Bono's had rough vocal nights that made people cry. (Hell, he's had laryngitis!) Springsteen has had rocky technical nights that he carried on sheer passion. And that's what Adam did, on adrenaline and voracious creativity. And you know what? that kind of go-for-broke, to-hell-with-pretty attitude onstage is where his rock'n'roll lives... there’s a little bit of punk in that brand of audacity. It proves his cred, for all the clubby buzz about the album.

The guy’s got ****ing stones, man...

The queer community's gonna be, Yay, Adam, standing up for us! and the artsy community's gonna be WHOA, Adam, what a throwdown! and the AI tweenies are gonna be too embarrassed to say they don't really get it to each other, but they might just ask their moms why Adam's got those boys on a leash ... and the rest of us rock'n'roll grown-ups are just gonna say, okay, the boy's got more balls than I was willing to give him credit for. AND THEY WILL ALL BUY HIS RECORD. Even if some of them have to smuggle it into the house (like my dad wouldn't let me go see Rod Stewart only after he saw him on Midnight Special in pink spandex. I guess a lot of little girls won't get tickets to Adam's first tour. LMAO)

Wow, again. That was insane. That was the "insanely good" his fans wanted it to be, but even they couldn’t have expected this. He didn't have to prove he could sing pretty. The whole world already knows that. What he needed was to break through every last box that people thought they could put him in. The enemy of the Artist is the very idea of "nice." People now know ... or at least, suspect ... that as gentlemanly as he may be, his art has no intention of being nice.

Watching him sing made it clear for me that he wasn't after all singing about S&M, he was singing about his art, about creative freedom, and the imagery was his symbol for the rough and dangerous ride ahead (and okay, yeah, he also likes naughty sex). I am so thrilled for him, and proud of him, and a little protective of him -- because he was naked out there, man -- that was 110% of him.

This morning I caught his little post-show interview with Access Hollywood. Completely calm, assured, a little cheeky, and utterly unconcerned about any viewers he might have alienated. “If you were offended … then maybe I’m not for you.” Shrug.

I think we are witnessing the making of a superstar. Done and done.

The legend begins…

Friday, November 13, 2009

IT MIGHT GET LOUD; or, a Note of Contrition to Edge from a Rock'n'Roll Penitent

File under: ZooTV Confessional.

I think I’ve been taking Edge for granted all these years. Not his art, or his virtuosity, or his unmistakeable personal style … we all know Edge is as much “the sound of U2” as Bono’s vocals. But I think – well, this is Confession, so I know – that I have failed to connect Edge the man (read: his heart) with the interplanetary fire, rage, and tenderness that come out of his guitar. It's as if the guitars were playing the man. I’ve failed to feel the soul of Edge as I have so painfully and gratefully felt the soul of his literate bandmate, Bono.

Until I saw this movie. If you’re a guitar freak; if you’re a rock’n’roll fiend; if you’re a fan of White Stripes OR Raconteurs OR U2 OR Zeppelin, you will love It Might Get Loud. It’s built on a High Concept: find 3 rock guitar icons of 3 distinct generations; let each of them talk about The Guitar; and then put them together in a room, with a bunch of their favourite instruments and amps. It’s a little bit precious, a little bit self-conscious… but the 3 musicians are young Jack White, Renaissance man and demographic representative of a generation that knows not the liberating magic of the electric guitar; Jimmy Page, snowy-haired Lord of the Sex-Drugs’n’rock’n’roll Manor; and our beloved soft-spoken guitar geek, Edge.

Purely from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven angle? Jimmy Page picking a mandolin while sitting at the blustery gates of Headley Grange nearly 40 years later? Crikey. You tell me what happens to you, but I got chills and hot flashes and little starbursts behind my eyes watching him. Not only for the surreal flashbacks to Going to California and Battle of Evermore, but for the new appreciation of the depth of his mastery and the breadth of his musical voice. What a thrill.
Similarly, Edge gives us typically understated commentary on his visit back to Mount Temple Comprehensive School ... after so many years of reading about the place, I confess it was a total fan-thrill to actually see the ordinariness of the linoleum hallways, the lockers and the little classroom that he and Paul (soon to be "Bono Vox"), Larry and Adam, used to learn how to play their instruments. Edge takes us to THE bulletin board, where Larry put up the notice ... and he kind of smirks at the anti-climactic banality of the thing. Very Edge. Very Irish. Delicious.

Jack White was a bit of an unknown quantity to me, going in. I knew a couple of White Stripes songs, and liked them a lot for their unapologetic guitar-rock thrust. There isn’t a lot of that in hit music these days … not that I listen to radio much anymore, except by accident. However, my movie companion is a fan of Jack, and set me up to expect to like what I saw. I did. Having spent some valuable time on my own spiritual journey with Robert Johnson and the hellhound myths of the Delta, I instantly wanted Jack White to succeed at whatever he next attempts. I liked getting to know him.

But our dear Edge: who is every bit the cultural icon and innovator that Jimmy Page is, but with a much LONGER Top 40 resume! – our dear Edge … the zen guy. The techie guy. For all that Jack is an upstart (just 10 years in the game), he and Jimmy were clearly guitar kin, both reincarnations of Delta bluesmen handed Marshall stacks and MTV. U2 has never been a “roots” rock’n’roll band, Rattle & Hum notwithstanding. Their basis was never the blues and 3 chords, a sex-thrust and a bent blue note. No, the evolution of U2 was a military punk tattoo out of the clouds, a swirl of sensation resolved into a growing-up boom-cha! Edge is not historical kin to Jack or Jimmy. But he is like them, channeled through his guitar music.
In this movie we learn a lot about Edge the U2 member, and a little about Edge the wealthy rock star (yoga accessorized with a Blackberry?), but he talks relatively little about his “feelings” about things. The most heat you will hear in his voice is nearer the beginning of the film, when he is trying to explain that the guitar “… is my voice.” As compared, we should infer, to the ubiquitous Bono’s verbal and theatrical arsenal, i.e. Himself.

And so, taking him at face value, I endeavoured with the film’s considerable help to hear Edge at the centre of U2’s songs – to hear not merely “the guitar sound,” but Edge’s song within the collective that is U2. (After all, it’s just as important to sift out Bono’s own “songs,” his poetic impulse, to better appreciate the collaboration that is a U2 recording.) My favourite scene is the source of the film’s title, when Edge is standing in a small room, guitar strapped on and encircled by electronic boards and cords and switches and pedals. He explains that most of what people hear is his experimentation with the effects of amplification. Magically from his fingers comes that rubbery pogo-spring riff that opens Elevation … until he turns off everything electric, and picks the same strings on the guitar. *pinggggg?…. pinggggggg* Chuckling, he enacts a mock meeting with the band: “Hey, guys, listen to this great new riff!” *pinggggg?…. pinggggg*
Immediately I was reminded of the many live versions of Bullet the Blue Sky we’ve heard and seen – Edge’s solos like an apocalyptic judgement of rage and death, which never fails to chill my viscera, from a shadowy source that sometimes scares me. But the chasm between that sound and the gentle demeanour of the guy in the toque breaks off the emotional connection that should be made between me and that artist. And that does an injustice to him.

Not that one ever forgets that Edge’s sound is front and centre … but since seeing this documentary, I’ve consciously listened to those sounds in the same way I listen to the lyric-less Beethoven or Mozart. My weakness is for words, so I readily default to sympathies with the lyricist. But we already know that often, Bono’s words come after the music has started to take shape; that Bono finds words that reflect the essence in the band’s musical sketches. So now I’m listening for Edge’s voice, within the orchestra of U2 sounds. How does Edge feel about, for example, the Spirit’s Mysterious Ways? How does he feel about information overload – in the graceless squawk of Numb, or the breathless seduction of (Even Better Than) The Real Thing? In every song there’s a man in dialogue with his world, musically; a man who is clearly a reservoir of deep connection to pain – hear in the patient chick-a-chick of Bad, the unconditional love of the friend who lets you cry; a man whose read of the world’s senseless waste aims his machine-gun guitar at the people who can make it stop, in Sunday Bloody Sunday.
And Mofo – I can’t even.
Edge’s book of poetry is in many ways more graphic and profane than Bono’s, even as they serve the same sacred Muse in musical praise and prayer. Against Edge’s characteristic personal restraint, his creative voice is a gift I never properly received, until now. (Forgive me, Mother Muse, for I have sinned…) Thanks to Davis Guggenheim, the director of It Might Get Loud, I have repented. And thanks truly to a humble man who lays his heart out in a global spotlight, without strutting, posing, embarrassing himself or imploding, an artist of conspicuous audacity who draws no attention to himself …
Edge, you are an enigma and a master I haven’t properly honoured, not really. But that’s changed now. Thanks for letting us in.

Okay, everybody, we all get to do penance: Turn it up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009