March 3, 2010

A brilliant mistake

Last time we met, as we were parting ways, I blurted out that it might be time for you to watch the Coen Brothers’ recent movie, but I mistyped the name. The actual title is “A Serious Man.” I wrote “A Simple Man.” When I reviewed the record later, I was disappointed in my lapse, but it’s the Chinese character that says: Crisis equals opportunity. My mistake told me there might be something worth investigating.

The first thing I thought of was Hal Hartley’s “Simple Men” (1992), a quirky “road picture” telling the story of two brothers trying to find their famous fugitive father, a former baseball hero, more recently a suspected terrorist. One of the brothers is a thief, and as the movie opens, his gang deposes him, just as they successfully complete a heist of computer equipment. Thereafter the brothers hit the road together.

Most of the action takes place in a little country store, where they wait (with their father’s current girlfriend and a couple locals) for their father to come around. They say things like “What is it that makes a man dangerous anyway?”

It ends with a soliloquy about falling in love (“It’s like sticking an ice pick in our forehead, but we keep doing it”), as the outlaw brother surrenders to the authorities in order to see the woman he loves one last time; as he lowers his head to her breast, a voice (a police officer) says, “Don’t move,” and the credits roll. This was a pleasant diversion, but it didn’t quite take me where I wanted to go.

Then, last Tuesday night, I saw Jonathan Richman at Zanzabar. Richman is notoriously child-like in his lyrical approach, making me think perhaps this was “the simple man” I was looking for. Indeed, one of the first songs in his set, “Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild,” described a kind of beauty often overlooked by our mainstream: Being simple in that way, with a need for nothing more.

He ended his main set with “When We Refuse to Suffer,” in which he endorses the embrace of pain and denounces the myriad of ways the modern world allows (encourages) the avoidance of discomfort, from air conditioning to anti-depressants. He’s preaching to the choir, I thought. I agreed with all of his clever positions, even the one about SUVs; I drive a 1989 Honda station wagon.

And then, as if the skies might open, the new Clem Snide CD, The Meat of Life, showed up in my mailbox. Like magic! (Actually, it was because LEO’s music editor called the label and then brought the CD to my house. It was the culmination of a plan that had begun several days earlier when I asked him if he could get it for me. A coincidence? Suffice to say, the man deserves a raise.)

I didn’t expect these new songs from Eef Barzelay and his pals to fall in line with my search for all things Serious and Simple, but The Meat of Life is as devastating a consideration of those extremes as I might want to know.

When I last spoke to Eef (at an in-store performance at ear X-tacy, on the occasion of the release of his first solo album, Bitter Honey), he was a young father, and his marriage was secure. That said, I can only hope that some of the perspectives within the songs on his new album are fictitious, as they describe one of the most painful romantic situations imaginable: At one point, he sings, Hope that you never forgive me, forever deny me your smile, ’cause I met this woman in Denver, and now she is carrying my child. Thereafter he describes the perfect love that he has had with the song’s listener and explains how one perfect, clearly remembered afternoon with her was, All I should want from this life. Elsewhere he suggests various reconciliations are possible, but overall the album is an emotionally wrenching experience.

Is this the kind of suffering Jonathan Richman would advocate? The full-blown embrace of life-changing mistakes? Or might we learn from such frightening stories and find a way to relate them to our own difficult choices?

For next time: Yes, it is definitely time to see “A Serious Man”; the Academy Awards Best Picture-nominated retelling of the story of Job is loaded with Biblical allusions and references to rejection/acceptance of God and magic. Poetry!