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23rd Street Lullaby

Nyack, New York.

For days after the Presidential election, one friend couldn’t stop crying. She stuck a sign on the back of her car: “Citizen in Exile.” Another started looking into getting Canadian passports for his kids. Another spent hours compulsively analyzing ways to reorganize the Democratic Party.

I listened to 23rd Street Lullaby by Patti Scialfa.

Before the vote, people kept telling me this was the most important presidential election of my generation. I didn’t think so. I would have said that was 1972 when we re-elected Nixon in the teeth of the Vietnam War. Or, maybe Reagan’s first victory in 1980: a consolidation of values and alliances that still seems to be in the driver’s seat.

As far as I could tell, what made the 2004 election important to people around here (the Northeast) was their dislike of George W. Bush. A typical political conversation began, “The man’s an idiot — a dangerous idiot.” I was supposed to know which man and to agree; otherwise, the conversation stopped. It was like joining a club, and the not-so-secret password was anti-Bush.

I didn’t mind going along. I didn’t like his policies, or what he appealed to in voters. But I kept thinking the conversation might move on from there. Sometimes, trying to jump it forward, I’d say something to the effect of, “Fine. He’s an idiot. So we elect the guy who isn’t Bush. Then what? Pull out of Iraq, lobby for national health, close nuclear power plants?” It turned out I was missing the point. The point was Bush; the solution was getting rid of Bush. If we won, we’d have time to address issues. If we lost if we lost, it was all over.

23rd Street Lullaby came out in June of 2004, right about when Kerry secured the Democratic nomination. I didn’t start paying attention to the cd until later that summer. In the 1970’s and 80’s, Patti Scialfa made her living as a back-up singer, and her music reflects that. Sha-la-la’s punctuate the melodies; a Hammond B-3 organ comes washing through; and the complicated beats have clearly been laid down by a drummer, not a drum machine. All of which might have made the cd sound old-fashioned, except the rock&roll pieces fit into 21st century arrangements. Instead of sounding old, the music sounds like it has history. That, anyway, is how I heard it, listening all through the presidential campaign and even harder after November 3rd.

23rd Street Lullaby opens with the title track. Which doesn’t take place on 23rd Street and isn’t a lullaby; it’s a seduction. We’re in a smoky bar. The beat’s a funky shuffle. A woman leans forward and, her voice throaty with flirtation, whispers to a man that she has an apartment, a bottle of wine, and a place for him “under her fingertips.” The song’s delirious with possibilities, but just as they’re about to take the risk, it ends. The next cut starts with a bass line that sounds like Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”(1973), and the present tense has vanished. Suddenly, we’re looking back on New York City in 1988, the summer of seduction. The singer wants to return to that time and place because there, she says ­ her voice edgy ­ she’ll find a missing part of herself. We don’t know what, but we do know (she keeps insisting) that she won’t be able to find it. Time has rushed by: “You can’t go back.”

Meanwhile, the music’s busy undercutting that truism. These songs sound like the era they’re describing. More accurately, they sound like someone remembering that era. Right before Scialfa declares “You can’t go back,” a guitar chord rings like some punkish garage band, then descends into a lead line that’s almost surf music. And the heart of the cd, Scialfa’s distinctive voice, is a passionate merging of past and present. She’s taken Ronnie Spector’s delivery (the tough girl with the distinctive tremble), added Bob Dylan’s tone (his edge of world-weariness), and forged them into an adult voice. In fact ­ and this happens all over the record ­ the music evokes three time periods at once. There’s Scialfa in the present, looking back. There’s the Chelsea section of New York City, 1988 as the lovers meet. And there are references ­ like the string sections that could be Phil Spector’s, or the mention of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” ­ to what were oldies in ’88: the music that the lovers would have returned to, what the past sounded like back then. Call it the history of history, or just the story of how rock&roll remembers and re-uses itself.

In the space of two songs, 23rd Street Lullaby has opened the kind of conversation I couldn’t manage to have about the recent elections. For one, the music has established that there is such a thing as history, and that it’s important. More, it’s already demonstrated why. By making old grooves fresh, by singing about the past with an intensity that demands attention, Scialfa defines history as the thing that leads to where we are now. It may be unreachable — you can’t go back — but it’s still with us. History has answers.

Where pop music has often had trouble with history (and maybe politics has had the same trouble?) is that to invoke the past is to imply you’re old. And old ain’t hip. “Rose” is Scialfa’s answer to that: a tribute song to a waitress who’s pushing fifty and (gasp) still looking good. The song’s set in a diner where Rose and the young singer work side by side. All the girl wants is to go out at night and party, as if that could somehow free her from spending the rest of her life on the graveyard shift. But Rose ­ whose life has been spent doing exactly that ­ has ended up with a kind of wisdom. The American Dream may be, as the next song puts it, to “take what you’re given and then ask for more.” But Rose is proof that you don’t always get more — and that there’s still a certain grace available. It’s a grace as effortless and as complicated as the song’s interlocking drum slaps and electric bass. You want to know how people keep on keeping on? How we get through the last defeat, electoral or otherwise? Look at the hips of the 50-year old waitress, keeping time to the jukebox as she sets down the next tray of food.

Scialfa’s cd isn’t political; it’s a love story. But there’s a kind of politics to its love. What may be the raunchiest and, at the same time, most inspirational song is “Love (Stand Up).” Gulping for air, the beat pushing her forward almost too quickly for the words, Scialfa’s whole focus is on the pleasure “under my tongue.” Hunger turns into need. “Give me hope,” she cries out, “and give me strength,” while the background chants, “Stand up!” We’re beyond the seduction, have entered the bedroom now, and what the singer finally wants ­ as real as her lover’s body ­ is his deepest core: his “soul understanding.” It is, of course, an impossible demand. And, as the music builds, the only one worth having. The thrill of the song is its refusal to compromise: the politics of all or nothing.

Again, perspective shifts. The bedroom recedes, but this time we go back even farther than 1988. “Yesterday’s Child” calls up the girl who will become the lover. The song twists time in a peculiar way: it’s a ballad from a middle-aged singer to what could be her younger self. The singer (now Rose’s age) still has her “imaginings,” where there’s “no struggling, or suffering.” But age has taught her that those dreams haven’t and, maybe, can’t come true. What she toasts is the innocence and courage to dream them. As the next song puts it, we just keep “stumbling to Bethlehem.”

The obvious Christianity at work here and elsewhere — talk of divine judgment and church bells — doesn’t sound like the kind that both of our recent presidential candidates kept trotting out. 23rd Street Lullaby asks us to “forgive before we blame.” It doesn’t profess rectitude, and it isn’t marching towards glory; it’s stumbling. The musical equivalent is in the record’s consistently stunning rhythm tracks. Scialfa and co-producer Steve Jordan have congas cross with back-up singers cross with hand-clapping and bass lines. The music’s dense with grooves, not insisting on a beat as much as suggesting alternatives, and the late night, bar-band mix lets you hear the players feeling their way. By not only admitting but embracing “mistakes,” 23rd Street Lullaby ends up suggesting a set of values. That a drummer doesn’t always keep perfect time is his or her virtue. That folks try to do right and screw up is why, in a world of hurt, we need to help each other.

The song “Each Other’s Medicine” makes that explicit. Its opening, acoustic guitar line sounds like it was lifted off Dylan’s meditation on lost love, Blood on the Tracks. This is a lullaby, almost babyish in its refrain. He’s “twisted up inside;” she’ll catch him when he falls. But it’s a pragmatic, hard-nosed lullaby. She proposes, in the chorus, that they be each other’s medicine, but she dedicates each verse to diagnosing just how and why he hurts. Willing to “settle for token kindness and sympathetic words,” too “paralyzed to receive,” he’s closed himself off. Again, the emotional politics are uncompromising. As long as they’re fighting for the best they can imagine, she’ll accept him any which way. What she won’t do is settle for a world “locked down shut with fear.”

It’s that kind of world that, it seemed to me, both candidates were describing in the last election. Fear runs things, and the choice is about how we should respond. In some ways, Scialfa’s love story has the same plot. After all, these songs are about two people who didn’t work it out. We never get to see the end of the affair, but somewhere between “Each Other’s Medicine” and the next cut, “Romeo,” fear wins out. He leaves; she ends up in somebody else’s arms; a cold rain is falling. You get the feeling years have passed between the two songs. While she still thinks about him, she doesn’t believe he’ll actually come back: this is, pointedly and repeatedly, not a record about miracles. But lying beside her current lover, she calls up the man she used to love and asks him to remember.

“Remember how we’d listen to the radio?” How the girl groups sounded? Up through the song rise the harmonies of Scialfa and backing vocalist, Soozie Tyrell, doing a gentle impression of the Ronnettes. “Ain’t no one in this world for me but you.” She pledges herself to the truth of that old rock&roll ideal. The music they listened to ­ still listen to — is living evidence that they were trying for something honest and worthwhile. When you lose that kind of struggle ­ not a calculated contest with candidates saying what they think people want to hear, but a battle for the truth ­ on some level, you don’t lose at all. It’s devastating, and you don’t get over it, but you also can’t lose.

I link this to politics; Scialfa doesn’t. But she does tie into a broader and older history. Separated from her lover, empty inside, she walks along the edge of the city trying to find her “state of grace.” As she spots the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor, she starts thinking about her grandfather: an immigrant who managed to make his way in a new land. It sounds like a non sequitur. But Scialfa connects his search for something better with hers. His history ­ a construction worker riding a jackhammer in the dark — transforms the city streets into sacred ground. A wailing violin calls up the past. And the sorrow of the music carries the underlying conviction that “all lost things” (love? ancestors? the connection between the two?) “are someday found.”

The cd ought to end with the next song, “Chelsea Avenue.” Soft with regret, it keeps returning to the same cry, “Didn’t we love to love to love?” It’s the conclusion we might expect: win some, lose some, and learn something in the process. But that’s only fitting if the goal is another cliché: doing the best we can. Those aren’t the politics of 23rd Street Lullaby. What these two loved wasn’t the self-reflective act of loving; it was the flesh and blood reality of each other. The object wasn’t to learn from the process, or to settle for the lesser of two evils, but to get to that “soul understanding.”

So, after “Chelsea Avenue” throbs to a close, there’s another and final song. Opening quietly over solo piano and women’s voices, “Young in the City” is all about loss. She took the chance, gave herself, risked everything ­ and failed. The city’s become the landscape of that failure, and, when the singer says it looks pretty, she means back then: when they were young. It can’t ever look merely pretty again, the same way she can’t look at the “sweet blue ocean” without seeing where the dirty Hudson meets it. The song is almost a drone until, at the bridge, it finds a new melody. “I held you in my fingers,” Scialfa declares, “now I hold you in my past.” And for an instant, the music stops all together.

If we believe in history ­ believe an accumulation of events and forces have brought us this far ­ then the once-every-four-years presidential election is a kind of lie. It tempts us into thinking that on a single day, with the single act of voting, we can somehow change the direction of the state. I was disappointed that, in 2004, the country opted for what seemed to me the meaner, smaller-spirited alternative. But it didn’t strike me as cataclysmic. “Been a long time coming,” as the old blues song puts it, “Gonna be a long time gone.” So, what I listened for, after the vote, was some evidence of how to continue, how you deal with the day-to-day wins and losses and still keep your highest ideals in sight.

It’s at that moment of silence in the bridge of its last song that 23rd Street Lullaby culminates. He isn’t just part of the past; she holds him in her past. When the music starts up again, she seems just to be repeating how much she misses him. But listen. “Once I watched you walk on water,” Scialfa sings, “Now I watch you walk across the room.” Have we shifted back in time? Or, is she remembering him so vividly that he’s in the room again? Or, is it possible that he never actually left? That she lay in his arms all along, but they became “somebody else’s” as the years went by, and they lost track of what they were aiming for? Because the lovers set impossible, naive goals ­ grace, truth, understanding ­ their story can’t end with “win some, lose some.” Instead, this final song ­ by hurting so badly, by not escaping the past — leads you almost inevitably back to the start of the cd. To go over, once again, how this happened. To remind yourself what it feels like to have that much at stake. The cumulative effect of 23rd Street Lullaby isn’t to soothe or to mourn, but to challenge.

DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Most recently, Wolff wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His next book, 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA), will be coming out this summer. He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

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