Some albums can instantly transport you from wherever you are and whatever you’re doing to a very specific event or period of time. Near the top of that list of albums is this amazing masterpiece from Joe Walsh, recorded after the James Gang days but before the huge solo success of The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. I’ve treasured the carefully maintained vinyl for years, but now there’s a crisp remastered CD and I took the plunge.
The perfect album for that perfect summer.
It was the perfect marriage of band, attitude and producer. Walsh, Kenny Passarelli and Joe Vitale – who made a couple of under-appreciated albums himself – recorded with Bill Szymczyk (whose parents must have been Scrabble fans, but I digress) in Colorado’s Caribou Ranch. Somewhere between a concept album and a suite, I remember being immediately floored by the opener “Here We Go”. Acoustic guitar seemed to echo from down the hall as Walsh sang about the sunrise, the bass and drums and tasteful electric guitar accents filling in around him in best Big Star fashion. Ebbing and flowing organically only to slide into…synthesizer? More piercing guitar, delicate solo piano, then a whistling wind. Wind? Okay…then a heartbeat as the segue to “Midnight Visitor”, picking up the Western theme with a slow musical gallop, which morphs into…calliope organ…then back again..wind, guitar and Walsh’s plaintive vocals. Wind yet again as a musical bridge gently bringing us into the minute-long “One And One” where you are surrounded by Beatle/Rundgren harmonies (what?) now seeping through the walls, sliding you into the gentle bass/piano/flute instrumental “Giant Behemoth”.
Then the centerpiece of it all; multiple movements of “Mother Says”, with guttural organ dueling Walsh’s whining guitar. The naked beauty of “Birdcall Morning”. The raw power of “Turn To Stone” (which would become a hit, eventually) and the surprisingly sensitive “I’ll Tell The World About You”, one of the most beautiful songs anyone ever wrote about anyone else…or is it? You listen to this album enough times and you can hear everything from The Band to Pink Floyd, but always as a small spice in the stew, never as the main ingredient. There’s a difference between songs and music composition yet this, somehow, is both at once. I’ve listened to this album on everything from speaker racks to headphones, loud and soft, wide awake in broad daylight and eyes closed in a dark room. How can something sound so majestic and so personal at the same time, no matter how you drink it up? I guess if music marks the important points in your life, that’s bound to happen on occasion.
Time won't bring back all the time gone by...
One summer between college years I shared a house with a few friends, a large corner lot surrounded by wraparound porches, hedges framing a peaceful green lawn. It should have been the ideal place to enjoy the only three months of decent weather that Syracuse, New York, has to offer. Unfortunately, one of the upstairs housemates was the girl I was in love with, who just broke up with me…to be with one of my roommates I’d be living with all next year. And now I got to see her every day. Thanks, God.
Two blocks away, another group of friends had rented a Victorian house that was a little more communal. Where mine had multiple kitchens, bathrooms and entry doors on each floor – my bedroom had a private entrance and deck – the house on Concord Place was centered around a big living room with a fireplace, where something was burning 24/7 from June through August. I think only five people really lived there, but it seemed that there were always twenty. That wan’t counting one or two sprawled on the grasssy island in front, staring up at the sky, looking for the Aurora Borealis, sometimes in broad daylight. (Hey, it was a different time.) I probably spent more time there than at my own place, and I can’t count the nights I fell asleep on the couch, watching the fire, some classic album eminating from the huge speakers washing over me like a warm and friendly rain. On many of those nights, that album was Barnstorm.
We had plenty of parties, talked deep into the night about everything under the sun, invented games to play and pooled our meager funds for cookouts and kegs and whatever was needed. Lifelong friendships were formed and nurtured, secrets were shared, confessions were made. Those of us who didn’t sleep much usually wound up in that great room, conversation slowing until eventually we were just staring into the crackling fire in silence, the warmth of the flame juxtaposed with the warmth of the friendship. At the risk of sounding ancient, people listened to music differently then; a good album was something you would focus upon with complete attention. And many nights at Concord Place, I did.
Being young and finally living on my own, it was a time of great change and self-examination…and all the emotional angst that goes with it. After all, I had just left home for good, and while I relished the break from that life, I did know I’d miss it too. I was thrilled to be spending the Summer hanging with some of my best friends and sharing great times, yet freshly wounded from what I was certain was the most devestating heartbreak in recorded history. I floated between the buzz of anticipation for life’s next challenge and the nervous realization that when the Summer ended I would be facing some important decisions that I still felt ill-prepared to make. I’d snap out of it and leave that Big Chill cocoon long enough to work the shift at the restaurant, then right back into that place that seemed light years removed from the bustle of the real world. It’s funny to look back after all these years and remember that no matter what else happened there was always a quiet time every day when I had the chance to just…think…and dream…and hope…and wonder. (Cue Daniel Stern voiceover, fade to black…) Like many people, I thought that life was so much more complicated then, when it was really just inexperience making the routine seem like the extraordinary. So I got through it, I got over her, and when the magical Summer came to an end, I got on with it.
But all it takes is a whiff of that sweet guitar at the start of “Here We Go” and I am back to Concord Place in a heartbeat, nestled in that big couch, smiling and dreaming. Clarkie’s tending the fire, Siege is tending the garden, David and Kevin are tending the tunes. Mike’s on the porch and Cass is on the front lawn, keeping his eyes open in case those green lights dance across the sky tonight. Because you just never know when magic will tap you on the shoulder…
Barnstorm is dreamy, organic, massive, rocking, pensive, epic, mind-numbing, celebratory, cosmic, heartbreaking and at certain points in time as close to a religious experience as one can handle. And I guess for me, it’s a soundtrack to that favorite movie that took three months to make, one day at a time, many years ago.