Quiet Desperation and Attitude

August 1999

Thoreau, in Walden, observed that

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

This may seem a stretched connection, but I recalled the quote last Thursday night as I had the pleasure of escorting my daughter Stacy and her friend Rochelle to the Brian Setzer Orchestra (BSO) concert. (At my request.)

If the name doesn’t ring your bell, Brian Setzer led a punk-ish, rockabilly-throwback group in the early ’80s called the Stray Cats. They had two notable hits which still get some radio airplay, “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut”.

However, Setzer loved the old Big Band sounds with full brass sections, and he loved rock and roll. In the mid-’90s he formed his own 18-piece ‘orchestra’, which he fronts and leads with electric guitar and vocals. BSO helped legitimize the genre that’s loosely called the new “swing” movement, along with groups like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Make no mistake, BSO is definitely all about the band’s leader, Brian Setzer. Think Glenn Miller, sans trombone, with bleached blond pompadour, full body tattoos, earrings, about a dozen different guitars, and attitude that would make Madonna blush.

The music was great … wonderful … terrific … but it was that ATTITUDE that really grabbed me.

From the opening band, BR5-49 (introduced as “The Mother of All Hillbilly Bands”), ATTITUDE circulated the arena as if piped in with the air conditioning. Far from “hillbilly”, these five guys played the tar out of first-generation-ish “rockabilly” tunes, as befitted Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley. They seemed intent on whipping the audience into a state of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, hip-swinging ‘tude, just as their ultra-cool upright bass thumper whipped his strings like Alfalfa’s mother beat her rugs.

Then as the arena darkened, just to set the proper mood, BSO was introduced by the full two-minute “See the USA in a Chevrolet” jingle sung by none other than that goddess of ’50s radicals – Doris Day. The curtains parted (or were they blown off?) with an amplified opening blast from the golden-jacketed band, seated behind bright green music stands, alongside a pair of huge, cheesey rearview mirror dice, in front of a shimmering, glistening backdrop.

Like I said, this was all about ATTITUDE …. Setzer’s outrageously showy guitars …. his outlandish costumes …. the band rising en masse in mid-show to disrobe their gold blazers to reveal matching bowling shirts … then throwing their jackets back against the curtain … Setzer singing a doo-wap tune without backup singers, using his sax section instead, circled round him providing the harmonies …. and the hammering, relentless, pounding, thunka-thunka-thunka bass lines under the jubilant brass and Setzer’s electrifying guitar(s).

And even the crowd had ATTITUDE like I’ve seldom seen …. the floor was open for dancing, and there were probably two dozen swing-attired couples putting on a show themselves among the crowd.

In the midst of soaking this in, I wondered why it was that this ATTITUDE should be so palpable … is it because so few of us ever really let loose and exhibit our ATTITUDEs? I wondered how many of us are content to just go through the motions … to follow the steps … to play the notes as they’re written … to color inside the lines …

Thoreau’s words came into my awareness, I suppose, because this ATTITUDE I experienced seemed to contrast so starkly with its absence in my ‘normal’ daily life. How do I show *my* ATTITUDE? When? Under what constraints, and restraints? Why not more?

Perhaps some degree of the “quiet desperation” comes from our trying so damn hard to NOT show our ATTITUDEs … we expend too much of what could become ATTITUDE in our resolve to follow the instructions … to adhere to the guidelines … to stick to the path … to make the mold fit.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

I don’t think Thoreau was just talking about percussionists.

Thoreau went to the woods near Walden because, in his words:

“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach … I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …”

So what does Brian Setzer have to do with Henry David Thoreau?

He deeply sucked marrow. 🙂

Stacy, this one was for you.