Monday, February 24, 2003




Ehh, it wasn't excruciating. Your typical industry backpat with the predictable victors (it looked like Norah Jones was the only person who didn't think Norah Jones would sweep - not a slur on her, really: she seems like a lovely girl, and Come Away With Me is an unfailingly pleasant CD, though it says something that I hear it at least twice a day [it's piped through the overhead play system at work] and I can't tell you what a single song on it sounds like apart from "Don't Know Why." I'm a little disappointed to discover that she didn't write the Song of the Year, too, if only because now, whenever I hear it, I'm going to have the image of the songwriter - a guy who looks like the product of a Wes Anderson/Todd Solondz genetic splice - in my head instead of the modest comeliness of Ravi's kid), and a bit too slickly run if you ask me: don't they realize, now that two-thirds of the commercial television programming schedule is made up of car crashes both symbolic and literal, that the main reason a lot of us check out any live TV event is the secret hope that something horrible, obscene or simply bizarre (Soy Bomb, come home, all is forgiven) will accidentally happen?

But no matter. There were some redeeming features, although with several days between me and the event, most of them are growing fuzzier and more indistinct - did Sheryl Crow really scream "Fuck the Army!" before taking off her top and leaping into an acoustic version of "Kick Out the Jams" Sunday night? Did Kid Rock catch a glimpse of Celia Cruz and turn to stone? Did Dylan convert to Druidism and renounce going electric? Ah, my mind is playing tricks on me, as the philosopher said...

Of course, the most important stuff about the event has more to do with what didn't happen than what did. By now, you've surely heard the rumor that the august body that controls the Grammys stated in no uncertain terms that anything having to do with the impending unfriendliness in Iraq was verboten. (That means the bravest moment of the night was Fred Durst's halting, mealy-mouthed pro-peace adlib. Not quite the act of blows-against-the-empire sedition that rock 'n roll is supposed to pull off as easily as an underage groupie's leopard-skin underclothes, but good for him anyway - better an earnest buffoon than a thuggish one. I guess.) But how about the fact that not a word was mentioned on behalf of the dead and injured fans of Great White, a band with an actual Grammy nomination to its name? (One more, I'm pretty sure, than the subject of the night's big tribute - but I'll come to that in a minute.) Oh, you say that doesn't bother you, that an aging and fattening hairband and what remains (quite literally) of their fanbase don't really amount to the flatulence brought on by devouring a hill of beans in this crazy world? That, tragic as the incident was, it bears no relevance to what goes on in the platter-spinning world of 2003 and would only harsh whatever mellow the rest of the show established? Okay, fine. What about how, in the memorial montage that immediately preceded the big musical climax of the evening, they inadvertently spelled John Entwistle's name with a superflous 'h'? Now you're offended, right?

Okay, whatever. It's taken me almost a week to finish this damned post - time constraints and unbearable fits of anxiety have conspired to make it so - and in that time, the only thing that really stands out in the memory was the rousing, moving moment when a small group of gentlemen, each one legendary in his own right, stood in a line on stage and paid impassioned homage to a fallen fellow traveller. I mean, Timberlake just nailed the rhythmic complexity of "Stayin' Alive" with his human beatbox routine, didn't he?

I'm kidding, yes, but only just - to be brutally and wimpily honest, 'N Sync's tribute to the Bee Gees' Maurice Gibb was probably the second-best musical moment of the evening for me. Most of the rest of the acts seemed to suffer from bad-monitor syndrome or sheer nerves or unnecessary appendages (like saddling Coldplay with a full orchestra). This, however, was just right - froth meeting froth on its own terms and rising to the same level together. Maybe not a great rock 'n' roll moment but surely a great rock 'n' roll awards show moment.

So, does that make the highlight of the evening, the guitar-slinging quartet of (from right) Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and some schmatte-wearin' Silvio Dante lookalike trading lines and licks on the Clash's "London Calling" in honor of the recently-deceased (at least now his bones will have a chance to catch up with his teeth) Joe Strummer, a great rock 'n' roll moment? Yeah, I think so, though maybe not quite for the intended reasons. I haven't heard or seen the performance outside of the context of the show, where, frankly, the rousingly familiar strains of those stomping opening chords and the frisson of seeing some familiar faces belting out those exciting, if slightly confusing (if the sun's moving in, then why would the ice age be coming?), apocalyrics would have been tonic to this showbiz-sated soul at the end of three hours' manicured energy and Teleprompted excitement even if, in reality, this was just a slightly noisier version of the same, a sop to the aging punks and self-satisfied hipsters who spend the whole evening bitching about what a sad, industry-sponsored joke this all is, even though they tune in every single year without fail instead of heading out to a club or somewhere else where, even on a Sunday night, the action really is. Strummer's dead now; he's safe to lionize in the usual manner (one more dead punk and we'll be able to do a decent-sized series of postage stamps - Gob On These!), and the axe-carrying pallbearers on stage moved onto Respectable Street ages ago. (Never woulda thunk it five years ago, but Miami Steve was the coolest guy up there - the Sopranos connection helped, natch, but also his commandeering a weekly hunk of syndicated radio time to play his favorite garage rock records - the Ramones finally get the regular-rotation play they've always deserved! - and, not least, the actual performance he gave that night; he alone decided to affect a sneering Brit-punk voice [more Rotten than Strummer, but no matter] and he cut loose near the end with a rubbery, feral solo that moved right up to second place on my list of all-time great Grammy moments.)

Not that the other three were slouches, mind you. (And if they were, there's no way they could slouch as well as Little Steven - all those years of sidling up to el Jefe's microphone to contort and emote have given him the roundest shoulders in the biz.) Grohl was mostly just there, like he was the 104th caller in some radio station promotion, awed to be in the presence of the big boys even after this many years in the bidness - the goofy everyrocker schtick may get old soon, but it still plays well. Elvis Costello seemed in better and more robust voice than I expected, given his penchant for overemoting like a brute when the tempo gets into the red, so maybe new gal-pal Diana Krall taught him something about breath control and projection to go along with whatever it is she did that led him to make that mildly (if inscrutably) lecherous comment while co-presenting the Album of the Year award a few minutes later. And then there was Bruce. His performance here was of particular interest because he volunteered - indeed, leapt at the chance and probably nearly tore his designer working-man's dungarees in the process - to take Strummer's place when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame indicts - er, inducts the Clash next month, so this could be considered a public rehearsal. And the funny thing? I had never really noticed before, but despite the predictable initial scoffing that greeted the selection from certain corners (my own included), the guy from Asbury Park and the yob from - ehh - Yobland (trying to get this damn thing done at last - no time for geographical-origin research) wind up having more in common than we thought. Similar passions? A matching set of public ideals? The same U.S. label? Well, yeah, all that, but look at the important stuff - the way each man stands at the microphone, the way that guitar slung around each man's neck is there as a percussive prop as much as anything, the way every vocal utterance seems to be pulled up from their feet and yanked out with a fair amount of pain. Give Bruce some anti-vitamins, damage his dental work, shave the sides of his head and throw him in some second-hand combat gear and he'd almost be a dead ringer (sorry) for Joe. Is that not enough for you? Okay, um, Bruce's early stuff was Dylan-influenced, and Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, and, ah, Strummer's real first name was Woody... Springsteen co-wrote a hit record with/for the NYC punk chick who once banged Joe's bass player... one was born in the USA while the other was bored with the USA... okay, you got me. This all seemed much more airtight when I thought of it two goddamned weeks ago.

But, all that aside, you couldn't miss the eerie significance of the chosen song. It may only have been chosen because it's such a simple stomping rouser (or was it a rousing stomper? Where am I?), but, in an evening where precious little of consequence to the outside world was even alluded to outside of guitar straps and singers with the intelligence quotient of same, "London Calling" actually registered as a protest song, a howl against the seemingly inevitable cataclysms that await us over the next few months... or it did, at least, until I thought about the words a little more and recognized them as almost resigned ("London is drowning and I live by the river"), a short hop, skip and a jump away from apathetic if one even bothered to move. Which made it even more apropos. Can't escape the feeling that every gesture right now is a hollow one and that attempting to accomplish anything amounts to nothing more than sand castles at the foot of the tsunami. That goes for awards shows, but then, it always did - when this total negation winds up sucking up songs you loved performed by singers who once spoke to you, well, that's when you start gearing up for the End Times and accepting the cessation of all things good and bad with an all-encompassing indifference.

That's probably why my favorite Grammy moment of all time was the one two years ago when Steely Dan won Album of the Year for Two Against Nature. The camera dutifully panned to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen when their names were announced, and as they got up from their seats, they sighed.

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