Listening to “House Gone Up in Flames” with me before The Nightwatchman’s recent mostly acoustic concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, my eight-year-old daughter remarked, “It’s this, it’s that. What is it?”
When you’re eight, you expect riddles to have answers, which is why an eight-year-old has no business in the blasted landscape that is The Nightwatchman’s home turf. He creates as vivid a sense of place as any songwriter I know, and it’s a lonely, God-forsaken wasteland, criss-crossed by lonely stretches of blacktop where junked cars serve in a pinch as confession booths.
“Are there any hopeful Nightwatchman songs?” Tom Morello, the Fifth Horseman’s alter ego, asked me after the February 16 show. “Sometimes you’re hopeful that you’ll take a lot of them along with you to Hell,” I offered.
But of course there is hope in The Nightwatchman’s world–there’s a faith in world-wide rebel songs, that one swallow flying away will make the other 99 fly too, that the lightning will in fact come. But what you base that faith on is the riddle that can’t be answered, can only be enacted. As The Nightwatchman sings: “There’s a sign along the highway–but it’s too dark now to read.” You find the road by driving it.
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room is an architectural and acoustical jewel with a 50-foot floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the urban splendor of Columbus Circle and Central Park South, with the towers that house billionaires on Fifth Avenue in the background.
Jazz at Lincoln Center is not, in fact, at Lincoln Center, but instead is up in the Time Warner Center, the most valuable building in the most expensive city in the richest country in the world. “Allen” is Allen & Company, a secretive investment bank that helps the likes of Rupert Murdoch gobble up more media outlets.
As The Nightwatchman remarked at the beginning of the show, it’s a long way from Zuccotti Park.
Can you really speak and make lightning when you’re singing about Union Town in what amounts to the Fabled City’s living room? One of the beauty things about The Nightwatchman is that he really is unco-optable.
The song “Stray Bullets”–which he played to devastating effect after explaining the circumstances under which it was written–is about a group of GIs in Iraq deciding to stop fighting the insurgents and hunt down their commanding general instead. They are never, ever going to use that as the soundtrack for an ad for SUVs.
Meanwhile, at the actual Lincoln Center, three blocks away, there’s a David H. Koch Theater, where the New York City Ballet performs. So when The Nightwatchman ad-libs, “And when we put the Koch brothers on trial, I’ll be in the front row”–I thought, well, these would be the right venues for that.
This is music, indeed, that saves the hammer for The Man–and hammers hard and true. But The Nightwatchman is not the proverbial guy who’s only got a hammer–or a branding iron. His opening number, “Saint Isabelle,” is a tribute to Tom’s late aunt and a promise to all fallen comrades; it had me in tears by the second chorus. “The Garden of Gethsemane,” as The Nightwatchman noted, is a song that acknowledges that for every moment of certainty we get a thousand moments of doubt.
Any Australians in the audience got a sneak preview of Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming tour of Down Under, with Morello backing him on guitar. The Nightwatchman’s cover of “Ghost of Tom Joad”–featuring I believe the only electric guitaring of the evening–didn’t sound like anything you would have heard the E Street Band play, or Rage Against The Machine for that matter. It struck me in its spacey beauty like something Steve Miller would be proud to play.
Of course, no Nightwatchman concert would be complete without the performance of what he calls the alternative national anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.” If there were members of the 1 Percent in attendance at the show, they maintained their cover, since as far as I could tell there was 100 percent compliance with the Nightwatchman’s injunction to jump the f*** around.
The singing of the censored verses isn’t much of a revelation to me at this point–my daughter goes to a New York City public school where they sing those lines proudly–but I was struck for the first time that I live on the New York Island, one of the parts of the country specifically singled out by Woody Guthrie as having been made for you and me.
Take that, Allen Room.
By Jim Naureckas