The Struggle Is Real: Meditations Upon Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”

By Michael W. Harris

Jackson Brown is one of those artists who has the tendency to drift in and out of my playlists without much thought. His songs will simmer in the background for weeks or months before exploding to dominate my listening for a solid month. His easy acoustic melodies and plaintive voice paired with an equally longing piano is the perfect companion to certain moods.

In many ways, it is a perfect fit for feeling of mono no aware that I wrote about almost two years ago. There is a wistful sadness to many of his songs, especially the ones I gravitate towards, that captures the peaceful resignation to the inevitable passing of all things. Not a rage against the dying of the light, but an acceptance, nigh an embrace of it, that is at the heart of mono no aware and much of Japanese thought.

For me, nothing captures this feeling in the work of Browne more so than a pair of couplets in his 1976 song “The Pretender,” off the album of the same name:

“Out into the cool of the evening strolls the Pretender,
He knows all his hopes and dreams begin an end there.”

And:

“Are you there? Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong only to surrender.”

The resignation found in these lines, the walking into the night, knowing that it holds all of his ends and beginnings in equal measure, the giving into the forces that would beat him down into submission and compliance…it is a deep, cynical view of the world, jaded even, that is the darker tinge of mono no aware. It is not the peaceful acceptance of the Japanese mold, but a more Western resignation. Not full of rage, but contains a simmering resentment none-the-less. But it also does not detract from the other wistful qualities of the song.

So, if these lines are about a submission to something, it begs the question: a submission to what? Continue reading “The Struggle Is Real: Meditations Upon Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender””

Two Minutes of Perfection: The Beatles’ “For No One”

By Michael W. Harris

Back when I was teaching rock history at the University of Colorado, I used to end my lecture on the Beatles with the summation that they were the most influential band in rock history. Full stop. That every artists who was serious about writing and recording pop music, regardless of how they actually felt about the Beatles, would have to at least reckon with them and form an opinion. Love them or hate them, if you were to be a serious pop artist, you had to know the Beatles to either be influenced by them or to reject them.

However, before I ever taught that lecture, I also had to form my own opinion on the group. Sure, as any musician living in a post-Beatles world, and especially as one who grew up listening to rock of the ’60s thanks to my parents, I “knew” the Beatles. I knew the big hits from their early years, knew the weird tracks from the White Album (and would also tell you that it was actually called The Beatles when I wanted to be pretentious), and listened to Sgt. Pepper’s on a semi-regular basis. I absolutely adored Abbey Road and would sing the praises of the medley that took up side two, and was divided as to the legacy of Let It Be. But I did not truly know their entire catalog and was woefully understudied when it came to any of their pre-Sgt. Pepper’s albums. I “knew” the Beatles, but I didn’t really know the Beatles.

So, when I finally set about teaching my first semester of rock history and planned to spend a week’s worth of class time on the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I faced the fact that I had to finally sit down and listen to their complete catalog. In doing so, I stumbled upon a two-minute-Mozartian-miniature of perfection. A simple, lilting, wonderfully lyric and floating tune from Revolver titled “For No One.” Continue reading “Two Minutes of Perfection: The Beatles’ “For No One””

An Autumnal Playlist

By Michael W. Harris

The first frost has hit the Boulder, CO, area, and there is snow in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Playoff baseball is here, and jackets are being brought out from storage. And a subtle change in music selections has taken hold on my iPod.

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Fall colors appearing in Boulder in September.

I have never been a person whose musical tastes shift that much with the seasons. I don’t have “summer jams” that I break out every summer, and my personal “Top 100” playlist, carefully curated, is a mix of many different styles and time periods. I consider myself a musical omnivore and will usually give most music a try, even if it takes a few years to finally getting around to listening to it.

But in the past few years, since I moved to Boulder from Longmont and have started spending more time walking places—especially to work and back—I have found myself adjusting the music I listen to when the autumnal chill starts to creep into the air. Continue reading “An Autumnal Playlist”