© 2002 Daniel De Lone
© 2002 Daniel De Lone
Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum is standing at the crossroads. As 2002 ends, the musician and poet, scholar and Harley-Davidson historian is re-releasing no less than five albums recorded over the past 15 years, even as he returns to the studio to record Navigator, a new CD with Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo. One way doubles back to the past and the other pushes toward the future.
Out of the Garage
Rosenblum is fond of remarking that “if Chaucer were alive today, he’d release a CD box set. He wouldn’t write it down!” In common company with the author of Cantebury Tales, who wrote in an age of plagues, violence and upheaval, Rosenblum’s songs and poems are populated by convincingly persuasive characters on a pilgrimage—a journey whose goal is the illumination of the spirit, or at least the shedding of light on some particle of existence. Rosenblum’s geographical coordinates are less precise than Chaucer’s, whose travelers were shuffling toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Nor do Rosenblum’s narrators have the compass that guided the Old West figures, the Jesse Jameses and the John Wesley Hardings who sometimes cross their paths. Nowadays the wilderness is around and inside us. The frontier is within, although getting there involves a physical act. Jump on the saddle of a Harley for a ride past the end of the night!
To date, Rosenblum’s musical magnum opus is No Freedom Honey (2000), just reissued in a package with Places to Go (2000) and Spirit Fugitive (2001). Although it was recorded over several years, in several studios with many musicians, No Freedom Honey comes across at once raw and polished, and as a complete whole—an album with consistency and contrast, with flow, rather than a collection of songs. Even the bonus tracks, the alternate takes tacked onto the end, are enlightening, showing how songs themselves can be pilgrims in the process of becoming.
Contrast “Coming off the Prairie” from No Freedom with the sketchier, earlier version on Free Hand. Not only is the former a fully fleshed arrangement, a country-rocker with a touch of saloon piano, but Rosenblum’s vocal has become confident as he considers the obligations of manhood. “I’m Here” could have been a monster if unleashed, but somehow, finds greater meaning in its restrained performance. In the swaggering blues rocker “Cut to the Bone,” the imagery of the black ship coming to dock, and the hovering menace, is closer to Bertolt Brecht than to Rosenblum’s familiar Americana.
Although not everything on No Freedom Honey can be called blues (witness the delicately filigreed title track, a gem among love songs), the blues is another element that connects much of Rosenblum’s work over the years. With him, it’s not the connect-the dots variety of blues that has become altogether too common since the ‘60s. For Rosenblum, this bedrock American music is a deeply felt inspiration.
According to Rosenblum, his friend Little Steven Van Zandt (who may play guitar on a track or two of Navigator) has been after him to shorten and simplify his songs. “ He told me, ‘Take these five-minute songs and make them three-minute songs. Ok, four minute songs,” Rosenblum recounts. “I don’t want to get away from the narratives that come at me, but I am trying to find rock ’n’ roll roots.”
Growing up in Appleton during the ‘50s, Rosenblum was electrified by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran before he turned to the folk-blues revival of the ‘60s, which has continued to color his recent recordings. In order to get back to those roots, he thinks he may use John Fogerty and Neil Young as models.
“I’d like to morph the blazing clarity of Fogerty with those moments when everything implodes in Neil Young,” he explains. “Little Steven says I should go after the garage sound. I think that what I’m looking at is more of a driveway sound—the route of the garage rather than the garage itself!”
Whatever its sound, Navigator will likely continue the themes that have long preoccupied Rosenblum, especially the balance of freedom with the responsibility on the quest for experience. Even the title is a clue that the ghosts of the past will lead the way into the future. A pilgrimage, especially a long one over uncertain terrain, needs a navigator.
Out of the Garage
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