Songs From the Capeman
(Warner Bros. Records)
Forget Happy Days. Rock 'n' roll and doo-wop pounded through the commercial and racial barriers of the '50s because turmoil churned beneath America's placid Leave It to Beaver surface. Racism, drugs, unemployment and juvenile gangs plagued the life of urban teens then as much as they do today, and that's the grist for Paul Simon's musical play, The Capeman.
With angelic doo-wop and Puerto Rican salsa as the primary colors, Simon paints a compelling musical picture of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican native who, at age 16, stabbed two white New York teens to death in a gang rumble. In the liner notes, Simon writes, "Salvador Agron looked like a rock 'n' roll hoodlum; he looked like the 1950s."
Lucy and Desi may have been the decade's favorite couple, but their inter-ethnic romance must have seemed a fantasy on the streets of New York where Puerto Rican, black and white gangs warred with each other. Agron ran with a gang called the Vampires and wore a cape as part of his hip wardrobe. It made him easy to identify as the killer.
Playing the role to the hilt, Agron betrayed no remorse after being captured. Sound bites (included on the album) of his interviews with Gabe Pressman, a bulldog New York TV reporter, show two worlds colliding. Agron flippantly refused to take Pressman's questions seriously, which made him the essence of evil to mainstream viewers. In the opening song, "Adios Hermanos," Simon sums up the situation: "Well the 'Spanish boys' had their day in court/And now it was time for some fuckin' law and order." Agron was sentenced to death, the youngest person ever condemned in the Empire State, but Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
After that introduction, the songs are arranged in a cycle that flashes back to Agron's life before the fatal rumble and then moves on to the relationships that develop after Rockefeller's unforeseen act of mercy.
"Killer Wants to Go to College" depicts Agron as a model prisoner seeking an education. In "Time Is an Ocean," Agron reflects on how becoming a writer saved his sanity in prison. Agron was released in 1979. Simon says Agron, who died in 1986, never again was involved in violence.
Simon's lyrical reach occasionally exceeds his grasp here, and it takes a while to accept his vocal portrayal of Agron. But Capeman's authentic doo-wop and Latin fusion more than compensate for any awkward moments.
The new album feels like the capper in a trilogy that began with Graceland and continued with The Rhythm of the Saints, positioning Simon as a latter-day George Gershwin, cribbing musical styles from different places and eras. The difference between Gershwin and Simon is that, despite claims to the contrary, Simon credits his collaborators and inspirations. Gershwin left them unidentified.
Nostalgia for the '60s aside, Simon's last three albums beat just about anything he produced with Art Garfunkel. Songs From the Capeman confirms that he is one of the few baby-boomer musical icons to actually improve with age.
Please Do Not Disturb
(Bar None Records)
Sadness can be beautiful, and for Juliana Hatfield, it's practically a necessity. Just as Morrissey's misery is mandatory, Hatfield has established a sort of emotional effacement. With lyrics of loneliness and guitar-driven grievances, the baby-voiced songstress attracted much-needed attention with songs like "Feed Me" and "Everybody Loves Me but You." In 1992, her debut album Hey Babe provided the zenith of her critical acclaim.
With moderate sales, Hatfield drifted with the indie label Mammoth, but could not stay afloat in the major-label waters of Atlantic. In 1993, Become What You Are made a few ripples with the singles "My Sister," "For the Birds" and "Spin the Bottle"--the latter is featured in the alterna-flick Reality Bites. The album represented a commercial peak, but sales and exposure were much lower with her follow-up, Only Everything. As a result, Hatfield's major-label push turned out to be a walk on the plank.
And heaven knows she's miserable now. Hatfield's new indie release reflects her most recent frustrations and withdrawal--there is a closed door that reads "Please Do Not Disturb" on the cover of the CD.
But simplicity is beautiful, and on the other side of that door, Hatfield is much more at home. The new songs arrive in a package without printed lyrics or polished production. The din of disappointment rings loud and clear, but her newfound sanctum is sonically soothing.
In the first song, "Sellout," Hatfield feels belittled and betrayed by the business. She cries, "You said that I was the real thing . . . so, why don't you want me?" As if to beg forgiveness from her fans, she proclaims, "I was only trying to make it and now I can't fake it anymore. . . . It's not a sellout if nobody buys it/I can't complain 'cause nobody likes it." It's the perfect inside joke: "Sellout" is actually the album's catchiest cut. Hatfield also punctuates "Get Off" and "Give Me Some of That" with more than an implied sense of bitterness. The gritty songs about manipulation and undeserved fame are served up with Marshall-driven malevolence.
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Unhappy and unplugged, Hatfield remembers deceased singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley on "Trying Not to Think About It," and drowns in her sorrow much as he did in the Mississippi River. Likewise, "The Edge of Nowhere" reaffirms her new horizon--one in which "the world ends and the sun disappears."
The album's true prize, however, is the honest "As If Your Life Depended on It," which captures all of Hatfield's quintessence with vivid lyrics of reckless desperation. She sings, "No one to go home to/Your life is boring, too/So, you're living for the guy that you just met." Her words of depressing dependency breathe in slow motion while the music's mood is equally murky.
What is really sad but true is Hatfield's ironic struggle to find a place in an MTV generation that has become dominated by female singer-songwriters. Fortunately, she is one of the few precious gems that does not need to be polished or magnified. Commercial success may never come to knock on Hatfield's door, and that is exactly what Please Do Not Disturb says so well.