David Baerwald's "Triage"

A Twenty Year Old Reflection of Our Current Times
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I can define my life by certain records that appear at different times in my life. “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the first four albums by The Band; “Court & Spark, “ “Late For the Sky” and several more. It is the darker ones that I take with me wherever I go and have them there when I need a dose of reality. Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” “Street Hassle” and “New York”; Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” and “On the Beach,” “The Who’s “Quadrophenia” and David Baerwald’s “Triage.” It is hard to comprehend that the latter is 20 years old this year.

David Baerwald TriageRadio listeners of many genres were exposed, at times over-exposed, to a brilliant LP/CD in 1987. David Baerwald and David Ricketts, a/k/a David + David, unleased “Welcome To the Boomtown” at a time when college radio, public radio and popular radio were mostly intertwined by playing music that crossed boundaries’. You could hear Joni Mitchell followed by the Butthole Surfers then Warren Zevon and Billy Bragg. Who could have known that the period ending circa 1990 would be the last gasp of DJ or audience-selected playlists and lead into the Clear Channel/SFX death knoll and flannel-grunge for the next generation?

“Boomtown” went platinum and stayed on the charts for a year. Heck, my younger brother even bought a copy without hearing it first from me. Unfortunately, David + David never produced a follow-up. David Baerwald released “Bedtime Stories” in 1990, an excellent record following the successful formula of social consciousness and romance of “Boomtown.” 1992 saw the release of Baerwald’s second offering, “Triage.”

I was on a trip through New England with a friend and picked up some new cassettes (no in-vehicle CD players way back then), for the road with no certain destination. “Triage” was among those and it did not leave the deck for the next few days. The “no certain destination” rang true for the music on “Triage” also. The giveaway that it was not going to be an easy listen began with the cover – a bloody hand in front of an American flag. What was inside would fit perfectly against the backdrop of today’s personal crisis, social ills and political chasm.

The strum of a guitar, quickly followed by a solo trumpet, drags the listener in and this is where you stay for the next 51 minutes. The setting is the after-midnight zone when good things rarely occur. Instrumentally, the music track would fit on a cool Chet Baker record but those faint of heart should consider reading the lyrics first. You are introduced to downtrodden hookers, rent-boys and big bucks sugar daddies, urban violence, police brutality and egomaniacal millionaires in the aptly titled, “A Secret Silken World.”

“I took a ride with a sadist on a Saturday night
His teeth were like diamonds in the dashboard light
He knew a place nearby; we took a right at the light
And I smiled because I'd never ever been there

He said "When I was your age I was a millionaire.
Those were the days of Woodstock — I was there.
It's such a drag about the forest; such a shame about the air
But when I was your age I was a millionaire."

The narrator could be Donald Trump sizing up a high-class hooker, Eddie Murphy picking up a drag queen or most any Congressman trying to impress a rentboy. By the song’s conclusion, the deed is done and the money guy once again tries to tie in a bit of social consciousness but it always being about him…

“I see my own reflection
There's no escape
Do you think it's wrong?
Do you think it's wrong to love your own reflection?
All those hungry people
It's such a drag
Let's get something to eat”

After repeated listens over the past couple of days, it is hard to believe that David did not just write those lyrics – they were written over 20 years ago but could be the soundtrack of the times. In many cases, they are more appropriate today. It is in the second song, “The Got No Shotgun Hydrahead Octopus Blues,” where the venom starts to flow.

 “We got government by ignorance and lots of lobbies in a line

 And stick-twirling painclerks out punching in their time

Dread damaged Democrats dangling for a dime
And paid-for paperboys there to keep the public blind

Us we got nothing no reason no clue
Just the got no shotgun hydrahead octopus blues

We got drug war arms pimps with all their paydolls in a row
The cold war cowboys need another row to hoe
Air Force C-130s flying out of Mexico
Machine guns going one way and cocaine coming home

Us we got nothing no reason no clue
Just the got no shotgun hydrahead octopus blues

The time is ripe for pure dissent
If you got money from the mob and muscle from the government…

You blow off one head you get another dozen
The money gods of Washington got a lot of waiting cousins
Bellies full of Cutty Sark and faces ripe for mugging
The tyrant and the mob are joined up like a witch's coven
And the whitecoats and the technocrats are warming up their ovens

Us we got nothing no reason no clue
Just the got no shotgun hydrahead octopus blues…”

1992 mirroring 2012 minus the Afgans and Iraqis. I intended to quote only portions of these songs but, just like the record, they must be taken in their entirety. The third track, “Nobody,” tells the story of a young vet who goes into law enforcement and sees the dredges of around him unfold:

“I go armed to the teeth and I wander the streets
Confirming my worst suspicions
Lie awake in my bed disguising my dread 
As concern for the human condition
I'm a God-fearing man but I got blood on my hands
And I deal with the public and I do what I can
To keep these thoughts of a plague at bay

The streets are filled with boys all crazy in the noise
Every single one a dupe of advertising ploys
All blown out on dust and high-caliber toys
And they keep me in terror and they keep me employed
And I'm nobody
I am nobody

A federal team arrived at the scene
To impede my investigation
The president beamed to every TV screen
Good news about the state of the nation
No rumors of war, not like times before
so why do I sleep behind a bulletproof door
Drinking my thoughts of the day away

My precinct crew has come unglued
And those little envelopes keep coming on through
I talk too much and I drink too much
But I'm paying my mortgage and paying my dues
And I'm nobody
I am nobody

I got out of the army, guess I didn't know what to do
Came home, joined the police force
I was still a young man; seen too many movies
So I asked for the gang squad
Of course what I didn't expect was seeing children lying dead
And standing helpless on the side
You ought to hear their mamas cry
To nobody

And everywhere I go I hear somebody say
The drugs are brought in by the CIA
So who am I working for, who do I protect?
Who do I talk to, there's nowhere to connect
And who am I?
I'll tell you who I am
I am nobody”

The next two tracks see the brutality and chaos hit their peak. “The Waiter” presents a character who could be an actual waiter with a sinister bent or a mob hitman serving a last meal to an unsuspecting designee for whacking. The repeated line, “I am your waiter, I am ordinary and I hope you enjoy your evening” sets up the next verse of descriptive meal choices and literal waiting.

“Aids and Armageddon” covers all the bases of the early days of the epidemic when no one wanted to talk about it but is well aware of the risks in sex, drugs and ignorance. The soft refrain of

“You know when I found her she was hiding from the powers that be
She thought living was dying ungracefully
Our love affair ended the day she tried to kill me
She said "You know you're gonna die"
I said "Yeah, but not yet"”

“The Postman” begins with the ranting of Abbe Hoffman at the 1968 Democratic Convention riots segueing into the introduction of the candidate, LBJ. The whirl of helicopters and peppering of George H.W. Bush bringing together the horrors of Vietnam and the first Gulf War keep the soft strum of the guitar and beautiful melody in the zone.

While the tone of the last four tracks seems to soften there is the quiet chaos framing each character and the people he either cares or cared about. “A Bitter Tree” move the wars in the world and city streets to the home or house. A drunken, naked father causes a son to reflect:

“Forgiveness, forgiveness
Has never meant a thing to me
Seems like a bitter apple
At the root of a bitter tree…”

“China Lake” begins as a peaceful recollection of a traditional family gathering on Labor Day. Not satisfied to let peace lie (literally and figuratively) for too long, Baerwald introduce the character of a brother, Richard, who seemingly is lost in thought or PTSD from being on a battlefield. “A Brand New Morning” moves the vet to first person reflections:

“I've got no sorrow; I've got no war
I can't go through that nightmare anymore
I don't like weapons; I don't like drugs
Maybe it's time to be settling down

She's still sleeping; the dogs are up
The sun is rising shining down on me
A pale blue mist in the backyard
The sun is shining down on me

I don't know why I take it so hard
We're all living in a house of cards

It's a brand new morning; it's a brand new day
It's a brand new morning and I'm here to stay”

The closer, “Born For Love,” finds our protagonist in his most positive and optimistic frame of mind of the entire record. There are some doubts but ending a song cycle this shattering with a declaration for love is quite disquieting but perfect.

“Every morning when I rise
I wipe the sleep out from my eyes
Ask myself the question why oh why
Was I born

I go out wandering the ripped up streets
Bodies on the sidewalk huddling for heat
The whole world looking like some losing streak
Why was I born?

I get home and you're not there
But your clothes are hanging and your scent's in the air
If it aint an answer I don't care
Why I was born

I was born to love you
I was born to love you
I was born for love

Last year I saw those pearly gates
Tried to shove my way through; they said you gotta wait
You've got to get some questions straight
Like why you were born

They said what do you think, that it was made for you
Why should anyone care what it is you do?
The course gets set you got to see it through
That's why you were born”

I got up; I saw them all
All God's creatures great and small
It came in clear as a local call
Why I was born

I was born to love you
I was born to love you
I was born for love…