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Looking Backwards towards the Basic Blues

Lately I’ve been mulling over this relevant Jimi Hendrix quote: “Blues is a part of America. When music goes too far out and is in danger of becoming a technique, people always come back to basic honesty … The blues will never die.”

“Basic honesty,” is what I keep coming back to. I think that’s what we all want from our rock, our punk and our R&B. In these days of New Metal, Fisher-Price punk, pseudo-“anti-Britneys” and generic, soulless R & B, true music fans are hungry ñ starving ñ for something authentic and something a little more dangerous.

Bruce Springsteen is one of the most authentic artists you can trust.With The Rising, his first with the E Street Band since 1984 he’s tackled the sensitive subject of 9/11 with a mix of solemn reflection and optimism ñ but without the jingoism of Toby Keith. It’s not exactly a concept record about that tragic day and everything that came with it (though there are plenty of allusions to victims and loss). Instead, The Rising looks to themes that Springsteen has called on before: the human spirit that gets trampled on and somehow ñ through the power of family, friends, love and rock and roll on Saturday nights ñ rises again. As he explained the songs in a recent interview, his songs are structured in such a way that “The verses are the blues and the choruses are gospel.”

Authenticity and bluesy honesty are also making a return among the new rock class of 2002, namely with The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, and others that will follow. Despite the “new” title, there’s plenty of talk of how much they borrow from old artists and genres. “The Hives are just doing the Stones and the Stooges,” people say, or even worse, “The White Stripes are just stripped down Led Zeppelin.” So what? That’s exactly where rock needs to be again. Enough of shoegazing, self-deprecating and whiny “rock;” Instead the genre needs boisterous, bold and rude boys and girls who aren’t afraid of theatrics and actually admit that they want to be famous. Rock needs musicians that are in love with Son House, Howlin’ Wolf and Mick and Keef. Because, like Jimi says, the blues won’t (and shouldn’t) ever die. Rock needs a return to raw sexuality, brashness and danger. Because we need to be all shook up again. We need to be impressed, rather than underwhelmed.And we’re finally getting what we need.

Check out the White Stripes’ Jack White and his wailing rock-blues version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” or the Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist stomping stage act, as he poses and boasts old-blues-man-style. Or even look at The Strokes and their drunken, punky New York City kid arrogance. And just try to get “Hate to Say I Told You So,” or “Fell in Love With a Girl” out of your head.

The best part of all these young, fresh fellows is their devotion to the most exciting part of blues and rock: its mythology and presentation. Look at the way they dress: The Hives, in matching colored shirts and ties, the White Stripes strictly in white and red uniforms.

The Hives have done their part with mythology by claiming they were “put together” by a guru named Randy Fitzsimmons. No one has been able to find this mysterious Mr. Fitzsimmons. More attention has been turned to the White Stripes and their adamant claims that they are brother and sister. They are actually former husband and wife, but they refuse to back down. Like Bob Dylan and his outrageous lies about his roots, and Robert Johnson who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil, pop music (specifically blues, folk and rock) has always championed mystery and mythology from their entertainers.

The most inspiring thing to come from these band’s arrival is their ability to woo the mainstream. And it is a good thing that the White Stripes and Bruce Springsteen are a part of MTV’s Video Music Awards. The fact that Meg and Jack White (and the Hives, Strokes, Shins, the E Street Band, as well as others) are taking it to Billboard charts means that music heads aren’t the only ones who are ready for this revolution. It means that an 11-year-old girl could see a White Stripes video, fall in love with the raw power of blues, and start her very own revolution someday.

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