Sunday, July 07, 2013
I just heard the best record I'm going to hear this year. It's not even scheduled for release yet, but when it is, you owe it to yourself...
"I'm a child of Cleveland, Ohio, but I became an adult in Kent, Ohio."
Ohio is the secret music capital of America, and Chris Butler came out of the most underrated scenes of the rock era, the one that arose around Cleveland and Akron in the early '70s, the most visible products of which were Devo, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys (not to mention Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders). Butler's best known as the creative force behind the Waitresses of "I Know What Boys Like" and "Christmas Wrapping" fame, for whom the late Patty Donahue was the public face. Before that, he played in Tin Huey, a band of which Butler's contemporary, Pere Ubu mastermind David Thomas, recalls thinking, "This is the mark, the standard, we're going to have to beat." More recently, Butler's been in the Guinness Book of World Records for recording the world's longest pop song, and gained notoriety for owning the childhood home of mass murder Jeffrey Dahmer.
More to the point, Butler was a student at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when, in 13 seconds, the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds into a crowd of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four. Butler was present that day, and his friend Jeff Miller was among the dead. The day was a defining event in Butler's life, and Easy Life is his attempt to process the emotions that have haunted him for the past 40 years. It's best heard as the soundtrack to a theater piece; the spoken interludes between the songs give the piece a substantial chunk of its impact, and the climactic song "Beggar's Bullets" even includes stage directions. It's a masterful piece of work, powerful and poignant in a way that should resonate for listeners too young to share Butler's memory of the historical events he describes.
Butler is the trickiest of songwriters, masking prog rock grandeur and dynamics with an exuberant pop sensibility and keenly observed lyrics that are funny because they're so true. For the first three quarters of the hour-long Easy Life, he vividly evokes the feeling of being a young college kid, experiencing freedom and discovery, talking about ideas with his friends in bars, playing in a band, falling in love, getting jilted. Because it's 1970, he's caught up in the social upheavals of his time, and views them in the context of those of the past that he's studying in his classes. At times, this mature man's take on a young man's vividly recalled inner life can be heartbreaking, as when Butler remembers his barroom claque, "All looking for something, that slippery whatever that's always missing. We're sure this is only temporary, though. We are too young to know that's what life is."
The loss of innocence comes like a punch in the gut. A reprise of the title song, which opened the piece, foreshadows it. "I have never ever felt that way ever again," Butler the narrator says, "of being swept up and pushed along by history towards a singularity...SHIT HITS FAN." The Dylanesque, solo acoustic "Beggar's Bullets" interpolates "Captain Trips Bums Clevo (What A Short, Dull Trip It Was)," a spoken account of a Grateful Dead concert, which leads unexpectedly to the big affective payoff. The denouement carries more weight because of everything that's preceded it. The bitter questions Butler spits out at the end of the song hit even harder. As crowds all over the world rise up to speak the truth to power, they remain sadly topical, too.