Like many of my fellow Americans, I spent Friday the 11th in mourning. I set aside some time for a moment of silence before I dedicated my own mini-memorial to a fallen idol: a genius who transcended his field and became a colossus in American life; a hero whose questionable politics were often forgiven by his generous, eternally optimistic public persona; and a man whose footsteps were so deeply imbedded in the country's cultural pathways that they were no longer recognizable through the scrim of history.
I played Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music full-blast for two hours, and I mourned for Ray Charles.
I know that Charles has kept a low profile in the last few years, but with a little imagination, it is easy to retune the chorus of Ronald Reagan hagiographies from the commemorative issue of Time and make them sing praises for the Genius: "What remains is Charles' largeness and deeply enduring significance." "If Charles were not the greatest popular musician, he was one of the best actors of the popular musician we have ever had." "Charles utterly remade the American musical landscape." Forget the Gipper. At least Ray Charles' blindness didn't do irreparable damage to the country.
In fact, I'll always prefer Ray Charles to Ronnie the Populist, because, even at his most cartoonish, Charles rejected the illusions that gave Reagan life. Brother Ray shilled for Pepsi, made small talk with Big Bird, and sang for the Republicans because that's what he wanted to do, and those were the people with the dough. Besides, he'd created enough masterworks to coast anyway. He had a leader's honesty, not a leader's image. Charles knew art couldn't be faked.
This isn't supposed to be a political article, so I am sorry if I keep conflating presidents and presidential elections with creative works of lasting significance. But thanks to new releases by Mekons founder Jon Langford and stand-up comic David Cross, I can't help it. The two opposing pictures of the U.S.A. that emerge from Langford's All the Fame of Lofty Deeds and Cross' It's Not Funny provide more specific cultural assessments and truer alternatives to the way we live now than anything I've heard from the two dolts running for the White House.
The musician takes the braver path. Although All the Fame of Lofty Deeds is supposed to be a concept album about a disillusioned country singer, it's a portrayal of the country's convulsions every bit as accurate as the Mekons' 2002 OOOH! The twist this time is that Langford has decided to believe that the sun will shine again someday. (Ray Charles would approve.) But it's a long, hard climb. Langford warns on the opening track, "You have your reasons to believe in people/But people aren't all the same," and images of surrender and oblivion are everywhere: Langford sings and writes about going over the cliffs, living lies, and moving to Switzerland. At the end, though, he's smiling in fellowship at his backup band during (what else?) a pedal-steely cover of "Trouble in Mind."
This conflicted yet exalted spirit comes across in both his passionate, warm vocals and the disembodied roots rock that frames them. Langford's a stylistic cosmopolitan -- there's some Nashville honky-tonk, some Depression-/recession-era banjos, some saloon piano, some slide guitar, some accordian, some dobro, and even a youthful blast of punk guitar. The music is skillful yet casual, intimate yet absolutely solid and certain. It's some of the best white blues I've heard since the Rolling Stones' heyday, and it reinforces a portrait of a country that is "not stupid/Even though it's silent/It still has eyes and ears/It just can't find its mouth."
As seasoned pros who have been in their respective games long enough to earn legendary status, Langford and Cross share an obsession with youth. Langford mournfully insists that "the country is young," on the brilliant U.S.A.-as-enfant terrible metaphor/song of the same name. On the other hand, fellow fortysomething Cross concludes a stand-up tirade against al-Qaeda and American gullibility when he whines, "Are we a nation of 6-year-olds?" Recorded earlier this year in Washington, D.C., the best bits of It's Not Funny refine the most scathing, hilarious, and intelligent political consciousness since Bill Hicks (who earned his bread by brutalizing Bush senior in his stand-up comedy 15 years ago). Courageous and smart, Cross has provided the country's loud mouth that Langford's seeking, and while that may get him panned in the New York Post, it has earned him raves in the alternative press and dinner plates at at least one former presidential candidate's fund-raisers.
No, Cross' looks at race and privilege are far too barbed and accurate for any political affiliation. Just listen to the way he says "facts" in any routine, in any context; this man cannot comprehend why the truth is ignored, but he will not be silent. That is one definition of heroism, I think. He's also the only comic I know who's making anything out of the devastating, confusing days after 9/11. In a striking bit about the "useless information" of the terrorist threat levels, he imagines the following domestic conversation: "Honey, the terrorist alert has been lifted to orange." "Oh, what should I do?" "Well, get the bread out of the oven and let's eat dinner." And the anguish Cross finds in such everyday absurdities boosts him into greater, more outlandish hyperbole and more sharply imagined scenarios. His closing bit, George W. Bush's rewrite of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, is an appropriate protest similar in tone and structure to Richard Pryor's horrifying "Bicentennial Nigger" routine from 1976. But Cross' stunt is far less effective than his portrayal of a soldier in Afghanistan who is told to pray for President Bush while bullets whiz around his head.
So let's pretend these are the aesthetic options for the future of the country. If you had to vote for an artistic stance that would sustain you for the next few years, what would you vote for? Langford's burr and finger-popping tunes or Cross' flabbergasted yelps? Some deeply sarcastic outrage or some weary compassion? Music with an undeniable beat and connection to history or contemporary comedy that still hits you in the brain and guts after a dozen listens? Or maybe there's a third-party alternative somewhere in the middle? My sincere hope is that Langford's vision wins out and Cross doesn't need to make a record like this every year. Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic about anything beyond the original fire that burns within these two fearless creators.