Perfect Sound Forever

Keep Rock and Roll Alive:
Marah still sound new while steeped in the past

By Kevin Parker (August 2003)

"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
- William Faulkner

Saturday, April 19, 2003. Marah is playing the second of four shows at Philadelphia's Tin Angel. The venue is a small, narrow space where the tables come right up to the small, narrow stage. At times, it becomes so intimate that Marah's lead singer, Dave Bielanko, moves from singing onstage to singing on the floor in front of it. Without an album to promote, Marah has delved deep into their catalogue, drawing from all three of their albums plus other rarities and new songs. Rather than ramming through their set list tonight, Marah is indulging it. The arrangements shift and meander; they are played with a sense of discovery.

Dave has just concluded the final chorus of "Roundeye Blues," but the band has not finished. The lights have dimmed and the volume has dwindled, but they play on. "Roundeye Blues" is a devastating song about a Vietnam veteran, and many critics - including Greil Marcus - cited it in their reviews of Marah's second album, Kids in Philly. Whenever they have played it live, Marah has stuck close to the recording version, rarely embellishing it - except, that is, for tonight. Serge Bielanko hands his guitar to Marah's tech and grabs a wireless microphone. He steps from the stage onto one of the small tables as a single spotlight finds him. The fans seated at the table grab their beers and cigarettes and hold the table steady for Serge. He closes his eyes, and he starts singing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Serge makes his way from table to table, all the way to the soundboard and back up to the stage again. I am off to the side, transfixed.

This, I say to myself, is something new.

That cannot be? Can it? The narrator of "Roundeye Blues" is a Vietnam veteran - a character featured many times before. The song even has a classic (some might say clichéd) I-VI-IV-V chord progression, reminiscent of so many late ‘50's and early ‘60's records. Even the song it's paired with, "What's Going On," is over thirty years old. How could this simple medley of two songs connected by the Vietnam War signify something new for rock and roll? On what, exactly, have these six (in the current incarnation of the band) Philadelphia musicians stumbled? Somehow, using the same tired elements as countless other bands, Marah is making a statement no one in the great conversation of rock and roll has made before.

Inspired by the work of writer Bill Erhart, "Roundeye Blues" tells an elliptical tale of a veteran that cannot let go of the past. He has trouble sleeping, the grisly experience of war never far from his mind. The song's images are plentiful and powerful: "last night I closed my eyes and watched those tracers fly... like fireflies on a windy night;" "over by the windowsill, the moon is still on my cigarettes and wine;" "the choppers filled with your gut-shot friends." It is not a diatribe against the uselessness of war, or a protest against American foreign policy. The song's only concern is the trauma one man experienced at a young age - a fact brought home at the end of the recorded version when Dave Bielanko quotes an entirely different song, "So won't you please be my little baby?"

In less than three minutes, "Roundeye Blues" reminds its listeners that any war is the aggregate of personal tragedies. Conflicts are not about troop movements or shock and awe; they are about people - about the pain they suffer and the pain they inflict. Once one has taken the time to understand the immense suffering latent in just one of those stories, one realizes every war has thousands - possibly millions - of identical stories just like it.

As good as "Roundeye Blues" is, it quite easily could have been a failed song. As I stated previously, this is not a new (or even current) subject, and the sound of it is not new either. The reason the song does not fail - far from it, in fact - is Marah knows this, too. Beyond that, Marah uses the fact that this is an old theme to make the song even better: they succeed in making an old subject new again by recognizing the fact that it is an old subject. The narrator knows Vietnam is long gone, but he is still haunted. Rather than pretending the year is 1982, the song, written in the late 90s, uses its late date as an advantage. You can hear the distance between then and now, recognizing the decades lost only makes the song more affecting. Musically, it evokes what Springsteen was after with the "Born in the USA" found on Live in New York City: "I'm ten years... I'm fifteen years... I'm twenty-five years burning down the road." "Roundeye Blues" does not mention the time that has passed; it is that time. That is why the song is not eclipsed by "What's Going On." "What's Going On" is from another era, from the time of the Vietnam drama; "Roundeye Blues" is from the end. In the interlude between the songs, as Serge is stepping onto the first table, the music travels backwards. The listener feels the distance traveled by the narrator of "Roundeye Blues."

Then, something else happens. "What's Going On" is suddenly transformed into a Middle-Eastern flavored dirge, and the audience is brought back to the present. We are listening to a rock concert; concomitantly, American troops are occupying Baghdad. The Vietnam Vet - a look at history - suddenly becomes prophetic. It is not difficult to imagine future veterans waking late at night, with cigarettes and wine on their windowsills. By looking backwards, Marah has also looked forward - even beyond the present the moment.

It is a simple lesson that Marah taught me that night, but the simplest lessons often prove the most elusive. If a new band is ever to enter the rock pantheon, they have to prove - or at least convince the listener - that what they have to say has not been said before, that what the band is saying is entirely new. As rock and roll ages, its traditions become longer, its audience fractures even further, and the experiments become even more desperate; it is not difficult to believe sometimes rock and roll has nothing new left to say. (As much as I enjoy electronic music, or whatever one wishes to call it, the frightening implication of that music is that the only way to make a new statement is through pastiche.) Marah, however, reminded me rock and roll will always have something new to say because tomorrow is always a new day. As long as the music addresses the present - no matter what instrumentation, lyrical conceits, or chord progressions it employs, then it will be new music. Most artists either fall prey to history and collapse under its weight, with music that is all foundation and no structure, or they fall prey to the present and the music sounds hollow because it has no history - all structure without foundation. Marah's best music presents an exhilarating paradox: it is informed by the past, showing how it has shaped the present coupled with rock and roll's promise of something better, out of history's grasp. Elvis and Chuck Berry did that and so did the Beatles and Aretha Franklin. But the sound of that paradox in 2003 belongs to Marah.

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