This past week, I started watching the show "True Detective" on HBO...The show follows two detectives (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) from a 90's era homicide, brought back into the station in 2012 to explain what went down--and why the same patterns are emerging in new crimes, though the original suspect was caught. The show features masterful performances by both leads, and is gritty and dark-as-they-come...and both of the albums from this week would be perfect on the soundtrack. Both of these albums deal with isolation. In the case of At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash puts on a show for maximum security inmates full of songs of murder, drugs, prison breaks, and execution. For The Wall, this rock opera (our second so far in the list) deals with Roger Waters' feelings of isolation from Pink Floyd's fans--and ultimately from his life's entire cast of characters.
88: Johnny Cash -- At Folsom Prison (1968)
My younger brother is a huge fan of Johnny Cash. I loved a couple of his covers from his American Recordings albums (Hurt and If You Could Read My Mind are amazing). Sure, I saw Walk The Line. That's pretty much the extent of my exposure to Johnny Cash before this week.
Listening to At Folsom Prison for the first time, I was struck by the content of all of the songs. I didn't think the prison staff would allow him to sing songs that would possibly rile the audience in any way. Instead, every single song is steeped in that criminal world. Not once in an exploitative way--Cash is imbued with an empathy that is unmistakeable. Instead of any hint of fear on his part (or June Carter's for that matter), he is full of an utter joy that is infectious.
His vocal performance is not perfect. He admittedly shoots his voice out in the fifth song, Cocaine Blues, and spends the rest of the sets (this album is actually culled from two performances on the same day--while most takes that made it on the record were from the first set) paying for it.
One of my favorite songs here is Long Black Veil. He recorded the song on his TV show a year later with Joni Mitchell. At Folsom Prison, he breaks up in the second verse, laughs, and says "Did I hear someone applaud?" (after the narrator refers to sleeping with his best friend's wife). To me, this is one of the most compelling things about this record--he's not taking himself so seriously. This is especially interesting when you realize that this album is meant to be a comeback for him, as his career had taken a nosedive due to his heavy drug use. The stakes couldn't be higher, the audience could potentially be Hostile (with a capital H)--and he's cool throughout.
Another stand-out track of the album, as luck would have it, is The Wall. He laughs during the middle of this super-dark song too...
I watched a documentary about this album (available on YouTube). The last song on the album is Greystone Chapel, written by a Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who was sitting in the front row completely unaware. Cash befriended Glen, helped him record an album while in prison, was instrumental in getting him released, and met him at the gates the day he was. The documentary goes on to tell the rest of the tragic tale, but the story underscores Cash's empathy for, and perhaps identification with, these men at Folsom.
87: Pink Floyd -- The Wall (1979)
I had never heard a Pink Floyd album until last year when I was convinced to give "Dark Side Of The Moon" a spin. I reluctantly gave it a chance, secretly sure that I would hate it. It didn't take three listens for that record. Upon first listen, I knew was wrong. I became obsessed with it and bought it on vinyl. Quite honestly, it is probably that experience that opened the door to this whole project. If I was wrong about that album, how many others was I missing out on? The answer, obviously, hundreds.
So, when The Wall came up this week--I was primed to be instantly blown away again.
I was not.
Wait--hear me out.
I was not instantly blown away. This one did take the proverbial three spins. And, honestly, I had to read about some history to get what the inspiration for the album was for all of the dark narratives to coalesce and start to make sense. From wikipedia:
It was first conceived during their 1977 In the Flesh Tour, when bassist and lyricist Roger Waters's frustration with the spectators' perceived boorishness became so acute that he imagined building a wall between the performers and audience. The album is a rock opera that centers on Pink, a character Waters modelled after himself, with some aspects based on the band's original leader, Syd Barrett. Pink's life experiences begin with the loss of his father during the Second World War, and continue with ridicule and abuse from his schoolteachers, an overprotective mother and finally, the breakdown of his marriage. All contribute to his eventual self-imposed isolation from society, represented by a metaphorical wall.
For me, rock operas are a bit too grandiose and theatrical, and hard to take entirely seriously. But this one, unlike Tommy, has enough personal reflection and revelation that gives it an emotional core that keeps my interest. Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2 (AKA "We Don't Need No Education") is one I've heard before, but within the context of the album, setting the stage for why Pink chooses to isolate himself, it takes on a much more serious weight. Then, like a one-two-punch, the song Mother details his codependent relationship with his mum. Mother should he build a wall? Goodbye Blue Sky is the answer.
Young Lust has a sexy, rebellious strut. If I'm reading it correctly, this is where Roger Waters starts to reveal his marital deficiencies and borderline tendencies. His pathetic delivery of Don't Leave Me Now is hard to listen to, though the last minute is beautiful. Hey You is perfect (even with the line "and the worms ate into his brain"), as is Is There Anybody Out There. Nobody Home beautifully details his feelings of alienation amidst all of fame's excesses. Comfortably Numb--what even needs to be said about this classic? The vocal line in the beginning of The Show Must Go On is worthy of putting on a continuous loop--comes in around 0:05, and sounds like a blend of vocal and sweet guitar lick.
I watched the film that was made for this album last night, which is also available in its entirety on YouTube. Dated? Yes, completely. Still riveting? Um, yep. I live for this bizarre shit.
Once again, I love this project. I am so glad that I finally got to hear both of these records.
I have the utmost respect for Johnny Cash, and enjoyed this record. I don't know that I'll add it to my personal collection. I will probably explore the American Recordings based on the brilliance of this live set, though.
I love The Wall. Though it's not the kind of record I would want to put on all that often. It's brilliant. I believe. And I'm OK to not listen to it again for a while--in the same kind of way that I loved Breaking Bad, but am relieved to be out of the dark places it took me. I am wiser for having been shown the place, but I'm not going to take up residence any time soon.
86: Bruce Springsteen -- Born In The USA (1984)
85: Aretha Franklin -- Lady Soul (1968)