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The Growth of the Artist
08/20/2003

I'm a fan of personal songwriting, so it shouldn't be surprising that among my favorite things is to spot what I consider to be personal growth in a musician.

Among the soundtrack-albums of my late teens was Jeffrey Gaines's self-titled first album. One track that I never thought much about, but that came to be a tremendous detractor as I gave the issue that it addresses some thought is "Choices." Here are some select lyrics:

And if there weren't so many
Unwanted children in the world today
Then maybe I could understand your view
But as long as there's so many
Children without a happy home
Then leave my choices alone ...

Please respect that it's
My life, my mind and my body
And leave my choices alone
Forcing me by law to follow suit

Considering that this album came out in 1992, this is a prime example of protest in keeping with the victorious side and the safe view — made all the more egregious by the morally fatuous nature of the view and the protest. And to be sure, by Gaines's third album, Galore, his "social interest" songs hadn't moved beyond facile parroting of the popular view. There is the anti-war "A Simple Prayer," which has an admirable, if simplistic, message, and would stay on the admirable side of that line if it weren't for lines such as "the noblest of things is to die in their war," which begs the question, "Who are they?" We can guess the answer, and we can be reasonably sure that it won't prove thorough consideration of the way human society operates.

But the song on this album that has kept me from spending my ever-more-limited dollars on Gaines's two subsequent albums is "Praise or Blame":

All throughout history
You've made sure your conscience be clear
But there are two sides to every story
Here's what you don't want us to hear

That they once had harmony
And you could not understand
How they could live so free
You drove them off of their land ...

They once were royalty
But you could not measure their worth
Until you sold them like property
The salt of their sweat fed the earth

The "you" in this song is obvious: it's me, representative, as I am, of "whitey." It's hard to understate the degree to which this song accepts a popular rewritten history that is not dangerous in the least to sell as a song. The Indians were prancing around the forests of this continent like wildlife — only more spiritual and peaceful — until the Big Bad White Man came and crushed them; those who became slaves in the new world had been ripped from their thrones by invading white people, not sold to the Europeans by fellow Africans, rival tribes and "royalty." The suggestion that Gaines is revealing some deliberately hidden "second side" is laughable — albeit a nervous laughter, because part of what makes these travesties of history so horrifying is that they weren't as simplistic as we now pretend them to have been, and good and bad did not as clearly align with black and white. Frankly, this song is easy repetition of an offensive line that is not worthy of a mature man, much less a talented songwriter.

However, what intrigues me on this album, and what has kept me continually debating whether to give Gaines's later work a chance, is the song "Right My Wrongs":

Those things I thought
Well, I was a baby
Just what I was taught
So how can you blame me

I really want to right my wrongs

The words I said
A mockingbird was I
I was easily led
And never asked why

I really want to right my wrongs

It used to be I could justify anything
And never stop to worry about the pain I might bring
No one could have told me 'cause I knew everything
But I woke up this morning and I felt like changing

Now, I don't know whether Gaines had abortion in mind when he wrote this song, and it certainly seems that he doesn't realize the extent to which these words apply to other songs on the very same album. Nonetheless, it opens the way for hope that he'll come to see what he's been missing, and by extension, it opens the way for hope about all those millions of young adults who are guilty of the same intellectual (and physical) offenses.

Jeffrey Gaines is best known for his live cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." I remember, when I first became familiar with Gabriel's version, that I was disappointed to learn that the lyrics were meant to be ambiguous as to whether they were about a lover or about God. At the time, I regarded anything more profound than interpersonal love to be so much superstition, and I'm still at a loss to explain the aversion that I had, then, to indications that anybody actually believed in God. Jealousy, maybe.

Does Gaines know the backstory to that song? I don't know, but the references to spirituality and God permeate Galore. Those times when I consider catching up on my Jeffrey Gaines collection, it is because I recognize the path that he appears to be on, and I'm curious to see whether he maintained course. Perhaps one reason that I reach for other CDs than his on those rare occasions that I splurge on my former obsession is that I'm afraid to find that he's turned back.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 11:32 AM EST