4th Favorite Album: Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom

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Let Me Come Over. Buffalo Tom.
1992, RCA Records/Beggars Banquet. Producer: Paul Q. Kolderie, Sean Slade and Buffalo Tom.
Purchased CD, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom, is an album split evenly between spirited rockers and subtly seething quiet numbers, each one performed with emotion and power. Singer/Songwriter Bill Janovitz uses his voice to great effect, making the listener believe in everything he says – even when it’s obscure. Bassist Chris Colbourne and drummer Tom Maginnis provide steady backing for Janovitz’s rage and pathos and joy. Every number requires repeated listens, and brings the power each time.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

One summer, either 1971 or ’72 or ’73, when I was 4, 5, or 6, my dad became assistant coach of the Ebenezer team in the local “Teener Baseball” league. It’s a league for kids 13 – 151, and it’s traditionally been the first experience for baseball players on “the big diamond,” the baseball field the same size they use in the Major Leagues.

The author, front, and his dad, top left. Circa 1972.

Because I was the young, baseball-loving son of the baseball-loving assistant coach, I was immediately made the team bat boy. If you’re unfamiliar with baseball, let me explain: when a player hits a ball, he drops his bat and runs to first base. The bat boy comes onto the field before the next batter and brings the bat back to the bench where the players sit. Very often there is no bat boy, and the next batter simply tosses the castoff bat towards the bench. But if you have an enthusiastic, 5-year-old coach’s son on the bench, it’s kind of cool to let him race out among all those big kids and grab the bat. (It can be scary, too.)

It was an honor to me, and I still remember how proud I felt to be entrusted with this task2. I felt a bit older than my years, and not just because I got to pick up bats in games. At practice, sometimes the older kids let me bat, and they’d cheer for how hard I hit the ball and how fast I ran. Sometimes they’d play catch with me. Sometimes they’d forget I was nearby and I’d hear them swear or talk about girls.

The entire experience was thrilling, as if I was given access to a world that kids my age never got to enter. Those Teeners seemed so big and mature, and I revered them. I still recall many of their names: Kevin Garmin, Dennis Natale, Jett Conrad, Chuck Fasnacht, and my favorite: star pitcher Scott “Honey Bear” Miller. Over the next few years more names cycled through as I continued my bat boy duties. Falk, Rittle, Groff, Witters, and so many younger brothers of players from previous seasons. All these big kids were doing stuff I couldn’t wait to do myself.

The Author, 1982. C/CF. That uniform was VERY uncomfortable in the heat and humidity.

Eventually I joined a Teener team of my own. Not Ebenezer, however. A series of … let’s say “issues” occurred, which led me to join an upstart crew in the summer of 1980, called The Orioles. I had finally arrived at “The Show.” Okay, I know that “The Show” means the MLB, but even though I played baseball another few years, even into college, I was never as successful again as I was as a Teener. Plus, it’s the league I always strived for, so for me, it was “The Show.”

My time had come. There I was, out on those same baseball fields I’d traveled to with my dad, sitting on the same benches in the same dugouts, this time with a uniform of my own. Why, my dad even helped coach the team one year, when our elderly Coach Bosh, who had coached my dad in the 50s, asked him if he would. I felt really happy to be living the Teener Ball Life.

When you’re a kid, the big kids are doing all the fun stuff. Driving cars, going to late-night movies, hanging out at The Mall … all you can do is wait. And eventually it’s you, and the people your age, who get to do these things, and it feels great. Your time has come.

Making music is another one of those things that older kids and adults did. In the 70s, the hairy grown men and sultry adult women making music felt as distant to me as the Ebenezer Teener team had. But by the early 90s I was in a band, writing songs, and realized that – holy shit! – my time had come! The people making music were now my contemporaries!

Many of these new acts connected with me because they took the music I grew up around – The Beatles, 70s AM radio, funk, Johnny Cash, disco, classic rock, metal, new wave, punk, even Saturday morning cartoons – and threw it all into a virtual blender of guitar, bass, drums and synths to create something new, but familiar. It was a sound for me, by my cohort, tuned to my tastes. I’d resisted new music for a while, but once I dove in, I stayed under for a long time.

Around this time I’d gotten my first place on my own, in a little cabin in a lakeside getaway village called Mt. Gretna. I was earning some decent money as a chemist, and I felt – suddenly – grown up. And for music, I turned to other new grown-ups, like me. Of course, Nirvana was in the mix, and my buddy’s band, Gumball. Dinosaur Jr., with J. Mascis’s furious guitar, was a favorite. Relative old-timers Sonic Youth were in heavy rotation by the lake, as were Scotsmen Teenage Fanclub. Brit shoe gazers Ride3 and twin Boston acts The Lemonheads and (#19) Juliana Hatfield were favorites. This is also the height of my hip-hop knowledge, as new grown-ups like De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, and slightly older kids Beastie Boys and Public Enemy spent significant time in my CD player. Then there was the “Greatest Hits,” of sorts, the soundtrack to the 1992 movie Singles.

But my favorite album among these new contemporaries, the one that connected with me immediately upon first listen, was Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom. I bought it at a little record store4 where my band sold copies of its first cassette. At the same time, I picked up Green Mind, which came with a bright purple t-shirt that my daughter now likes to wear.

Let Me Come Over stuck with me from the very first notes of my very first listen. I still remember sitting in my cottage hearing the rumbling, introductory three-note bass line of the opening song “Staples.”

That’s bassist Chris Colbourn opening things up, with guitarist/singer Bill Janovitz building a structure of guitars around him. It’s all very simple, rather repetitive, but the band really makes it work. Janovitz is a cagey vocalist who sings with emotion to get the most out of his voice. He does cool things like subtly hesitating as he sings his first “Staple …” Drummer Tom Maginnis has a very Ringo-esque habit of slightly speeding the tempo when needed, as he does here about 0:40, as the second verse begins. Colbourne provides terrific vocal harmonies in verse two, and I love when the chorus first hits, about 1:20. Janovitz provides a noisy guitar solo. The band’s lyrics are usually a bit obscure, displaying Janovitz’s poet tendencies, but this song seems to be about someone who’s love has left and he has no idea why. I tend to shout along to all the songs on this album, even though I don’t know any of the words. It’s a record that demands to be played LOUD!

Next up is a moving song about either a horrible childhood or a lost love, “Taillights Fade.” It’s one of the band’s most popular songs.

This one really shows off all the features that I love about the band. The loud guitars, the emotional vocals, great drum fills. Janovitz really gives his all to the vocals – for example, at 0:46, and each time it repeats. I saw the band live in 1994, and it remains one of the most powerful rock shows I’ve seen. I love the descending bass after each line, and the dense guitar throughout. (By the way, “Cappy Dick,” who can’t help our protagonist even with assistance from Jesus Christ, was a comic sea captain who provided kids activities in the Sunday Comics for years.)

I love the sequence of the album – how it alternates between rockers and slow songs. After a sad song like the last one, the raucous entrance of “Mountains of Your Head” sounds particularly excellent.

The ringing guitars, the driving drums, the descending riff … I love this song. The voices of Janovitz and Colbourne blend so nicely on lyrics that seem to be about a lovers’ quarrel perhaps? (“What’s on your mind? / If it’s on your tongue you should speak.”) By the third verse it sounds like 13 guitars are strumming along, a dense sound that Maginnis’s drums keep grounded. There’s a nice little piano added at the end, too. The song leads into another beautiful, softer number, “Mineral.” Janovitz belts and emotes on lyrics that, to me, sound like a reflection on an unhappy childhood? Once again, numerous guitars chime and grind throughout creating a powerful soundscape. This song reminds me of being blown away at the 1994 SF concert …

Since I like the sequence of Let Me Come Over so much, I’m going to go straight through, which means that my probably-favorite song on the album is up next, the Faulkner retelling, “Darl.”

Perhaps another reason I love this album is that I was reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying around the time I got it, and this song is a frenetic first-person account (just as in the book) of the character named Darl. It’s sung by bassist Colbourne, with great harmonies from Janovitz. I love the syncopated melody, and – once again – how Maginnis quickens the pace when needed. There’s a cool guitar solo about 1:25, too. It’s a fast, fun, head-banging song that always sounds great.

The band changes gears once again with the swaying, sea-shanty-esque “Larry.” Like Led Zeppelin, Buffalo Tom has a fondness for song titles that are not part of the lyrics.

I don’t know what Larry is about, but Janovitz’s voice is as affective as ever, particularly around the 4:00 mark. It’s a sad, evocative song, and I don’t know why, but it really moves me. By the end it fades to squealing feedback that seems to sum up everything that’s come before. How can feedback summarize a song, you ask? I don’t understand it, either, but I sure do feel it. And I don’t feel it for long before the band bashes me with the riff-heavy “Velvet Roof,” a song that again, for some reason, again reminds me of a sad childhood. Maybe it’s the “scraggly hair and messed up shoes,” but I wonder if it’s about a kid’s memories of a crazy mom? Anyway, it’s a great guitar rocker with excellent work by the rhythm section.

I’m Not There” is not a song I enjoy, and I’ll leave it at that. But it does serve as the entry to “Stymied,” a mid-tempo, densely-packed, melodic song with a cool rhythm and bass guitar, that may be about a big lovers’ fight. Many of the songs on Let Me Come Over seem to be about violence and anger, and one of the best and most oblique, lyrically, is the terrific “Porchlight.”

It’s a story song with an upbeat, bouncing rhythm that seems to tell of, maybe, a guy who saw two friends (including an ex, perhaps?) die in a house fire (while making eggs?), one of whom left a voicemail for him earlier in the day? The lyrics have that Steely DanBelly thing I love so much of telling a story that kind of makes sense but maybe not? The music and melody are catchy, and once again – Janovitz’s vocal performance makes the song. Around 1:00 he punches the words “chill” and “king” in a significant way, then his voice cracks a bit on “I ain’t here on business.” (Was it a drug deal, [“It’s all work, anyway”] and that’s why he ran away?) Janovitz’s voice is always perfectly imperfect, and that’s why I love it. He sounds like a guy who has to get these thoughts and feelings out RIGHT NOW. Plus he writes awesome songs.

Like the lovely “Frozen Lake.”

If you’ve ever loved and lost, and found yourself pining away for that other person, well, “Frozen Lake” just might be the song you play fifteen thousand times in a row. I may or may not have done this in the fall of 1992. For me, “Porchlight” and “Frozen Lake” are the climax of the album. One fast, one slow, both examples of what I love about the album. That’s not to say “Saving Grace,” with its driving punk angst, or “Crutch,” with its layered, rippling beauty, and poetic lyrics, are lesser songs. They are both outstanding, a fitting closure to an amazing album.

Let Me Come Over is the sound of me realizing my time is now. It’s hard to believe that “now” is so many years ago, but the feeling of arriving stays with you forever. It combines the excitement of running onto diamonds and grabbing heavy, wooden bats for big kids, the anticipation and longing for a time when you’ll get to play, too, and, finally, the pride in handing your own bat to another coach’s son a few years later. You’ll feel it forever, even when it’s gone. You’ll never forget the feeling that your time is now. It feels, to me, a lot like Let Me Come Over.

TRACK LISTING:
“Staples”
“Taillights Fade”
“Mountains of Your Head”
“Mineral”
“Darl”
“Larry”
“Velvet Roof”
“I’m Not There”
“Stymied”
“Porchlight”
“Frozen Lake”
“Saving Grace”
“Crutch”

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5th Favorite Album: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC

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Oranges and Lemons. XTC.
1989, Geffen Records. Producer: Paul Fox.
Purchased vinyl, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC, is a collection of sounds and styles and ideas that delivers thoughtful, fun song after thoughtful, fun song. Main songwriter Andy Partridge keeps his mighty pen of cynicism largely sheathed in this effort, instead producing uplifting songs about the power of love – tempered, of course, by his biting wit. Bandmates Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are excellent, as always, and the production is over-the-top in a way that sounds like just the right number of kitchen sinks has been thrown in.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

It’s not shocking to learn that I – a man who has spent the last 7 or 8 years maintaining a widely-read blog about all the records I like – was a child, in the 70s, with a very strong connection to music. The connection included (and still includes) physical reactions to the sounds. A friend and I were recently discussing the first time we experienced chills washing over us simply from hearing a song. It happened when we were kids, and for him it was CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” For me, it was The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

The technical term for that sensation is “frisson,” and it’s a regular, physical part of my music-listening experience, as are dancing5, laughing, whistling, singing, and even tears. The tears usually come from a lyric and melody that combine to heighten each other’s impact. For example, when I listen to The Replacements‘ “Here Comes a Regular,” I’m almost always on the verge of tears.

As a child, however, the experience of hearing a song could be too much for me to bear. The potential physical impact scared me, so I’d turn off these scary songs before I could find out what they might do to me. I was a 70s AM radio kid, listening to WLBR 1270-AM at the time, and it played only the blandest, mellowest, dentist-officeiest pop music of the era. The songs that frightened me WERE NOT the loud, horrorshow pieces that were popular then. WLBR didn’t play, so I didn’t hear, or even know about, Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I didn’t know about the scary punks or the creepy art-rockers.

The songs that scared me were the sad songs, and I’m not talking about the kitschy, melodramatic story-songs of the 70s. Songs like “Run Joey Run” or “Billy Don’t Be a Hero“or “The Night Chicago Died” seemed goofy to me even as a young boy – which isn’t to say I didn’t love them! And I could recognize the point of sad love songs, so these didn’t scare me. The sad songs that scared me were the ones that seemed to express adult concerns that I couldn’t understand. Oblique lyrics (to my 7 year-old mind), when coupled with a minor key, made me feel like things were somehow out of control. When singing grown-ups expressed concerns about things I didn’t understand, I felt a physical response that made me turn off the music.

I found the phrase “There’s got to be a morning after,” from “The Morning After,” the theme to the disaster-film The Poseidon Adventure, quite upsetting, as it seemed ludicrous that a grown-up would even raise the question of whether a new day would come. The Sandpipers’ folky hit, “Come Saturday Morning,” made me wonder why the prospect of visiting a friend would seem so … foreboding. And “MacArthur Park” (the Richard Harris version, not Donna Summer’s disco hit) was just … weird. I still feel residual Willies6 from these songs, even just hearing a few seconds while I prepare the link.

A classic scary song for me is the Diana Ross smash, “The Theme from Mahogany.” (It’s interesting that 3 of the 4 are movie songs, where emotional impact is paramount.) “Do you know where you’re going to?” the song asked, and it wasn’t the improper grammar that disturbed me. As a 9 year-old, I found this question too psychologically loaded, too philosophically complex, to bear more than even one verse. (Until just now, I’d forgotten, or maybe I never knew, that the song included the upbeat middle section!) It’s a song that made me shiver as a child, a different sensation than the frisson I described, and it still makes me unhappy, even as an adult. See, as a 52 year-old man, I STILL don’t know where the fuck I’m going (to)!

Thirty (!) years ago I certainly had no idea where I was going (to), but I had somehow decided to pursue a Biology Education degree, and so it looked like I was going to teach school. It seemed like a decent plan – there were plenty of teaching jobs, I’d always loved school, I’d get my summers off … So, I knew where I was going (to), but the destination, the (to), didn’t feel right. As much as I thought teaching would be great, and I’d be a good teacher, something about it felt like the wrong path for me. But I stayed on the path nonetheless.

My ’76 Plymouth Duster. (And tree).

In the Fall of 1989, my destination every weekday was the Elizabethtown Area High School, in Elizabethtown, PA, where I student-taught Biology classes with a creepy teacher who went to prison for his awfulness. I wore dressy clothes my sisters had picked for me, and drove a bright blue ’76 Plymouth Duster to school every day. That Duster had come with a fancy tape-deck, state-of-the art in 1989, that was probably worth more than half of what I’d paid for the car. Tapes in rotation for my morning commute that year included Vivid, by Living Colour, and Green, by R.E.M., and Oranges and Lemons, by XTC. Pretty soon it was whittled down to simply Oranges and Lemons.

I’ve written before about seeking out Beatle-esque bands in college and becoming an XTC fan. When Oranges and Lemons was released in the Spring of ’89, I went out and bought it on vinyl. I loved it, and part of loving a vinyl record for me in those days included immediately duping it onto cassette so it became portable. It’s a positive record, with upbeat songs celebrating life and love, and dollops of cynicism and doubt to keep things level. As I drove in my Duster each morning, aimlessly drifting toward a future of standardized tests and testy parents, the songs and messages on that cassette soothed my undiagnosed depression. They helped me make it through when I didn’t realize I could take control and decide for myself where I was going (to). The album resonated then, and as I got older and had kids and learned to manage my mental health, it just got better and better.

The opening track is one of the most affirmative and philosophically optimistic songs I know, and it sounds super-cool, too. The Middle-Eastern sound salad of “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

What a start! The song is a welcome letter and instruction manual, of sorts, (“Don’t hurt nobody/ Unless, of course, they ask you”) to newly born babies on planet Earth. It is crammed full of instruments and sounds, and gives the feeling of walking through a Moroccan bazaar (I assume.) I got into XTC as I looked for Beatle-y musicians, and this song is similar to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band7, in that beneath all the sounds, the rock instruments are doing fabulous stuff. The whirling electric guitar behind the vocals in the verse (0:15), the chop guitar in the chorus (0:42), the Colin Moulding’s bass throughout, and the excellent Middle Eastern guitar solo by lead XTC-er Andy Partridge (2:15). The song has numerous details that encourage multiple listens, and it’s a fabulous introduction.

The song effortlessly flows into what may be my favorite song of all time, the brilliant “Mayor of Simpleton.”

Speaking of “frisson,” this song almost always delivers it. The precisely meandering bass line is (dare I say?) McCartney-esque, the call-and-response vocals are beautiful, and I love the melody. But the lyrics make it for me, as Partridge ingeniously describes why he’s too dumb for the woman he loves, and why it doesn’t matter. “If depth of feeling is a currency/ Then I’m the man who grew the money tree /And some of your friends are too brainy to see /That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay.” For a person like me, who shivers and tears up at songs, those words resonate. The band put out a clever video for the song, and tried to make it a hit, and while it only hit #72 on Billboard‘s pop charts, it did reach #1 on their “Modern Rock Chart,” whatever that is.

XTC is an interesting band that started as a 5-piece then dwindled over the years. By the time of Oranges and Lemons, it consisted of Partridge, Moulding, and Dave Gregory – each of them guitarists and multi-instrumentalists. Partridge handled the bulk of the singing and songwriting, but Moulding contributed several, including the lilting “King For a Day.”

Due to Partridge’s extreme stage-fright, the band stopped playing live in 1982, but to support this album they made videos and did a few TV and radio performances, usually performing Moulding’s songs. This song has great vocals, including Partridge’s ringing harmonies, and terrific drums by session-man Pat Mastelotto, whose work on the entire record is great. The lyrics also express the view, shared by the band and expressed throughout the album, that money and consumerism isn’t as important as love and art. It has a tremendous bridge (2:10) that seamlessly leads back into the chorus. Sometimes, as my friend Johnny has pointed out, “Colin has Clunkers.” But this song stands out. “Cynical Days,” however, is a Colin Clunker. And Partridge’s “Here Comes President Kill Again,” while promoting a world-view I support, is rather boring.

Another blatant expression of the power of love is the aptly titled “The Loving,” which argues for a Christ-like love for all people. Partridge doesn’t refer to Christ – like me, he’s an atheist – but what he describes is just that. His call for love is more specific on “Pink Thing,” a celebration of fatherhood and his newborn child. (It’s been pointed out that the lyrics very well may refer to his penis. I prefer the former interpretation.)

It’s got a cool calypso beat, with nice guitar figures in the background, and the chord change in the chorus (“That man isn’t fit to enter heaven …”) is fabulous. As usual, the band’s harmonies are tops, and the jazzy guitar solo at 1:55 is really cool, and the ending (2:40 – 3:48) is great. In addition to addressing his child, Partridge assesses his relationship with his dad in the South African-themed “Hold Me My Daddy,” a song Partridge claims he and his father chose not to discuss.

The songs on Oranges and Lemons have a variety of styles. Colin Moulding gets introspective on the rolling, bouncy “One of the Millions,” a bit of an anti-self-help song that tumbles along on a terrific bass line and has some great transitions between acoustic and electric. The angry she-done-me-wrong songMiniature Sun” is a jazzy, barely-fit-together number. “Chalkhills and Children” is a dreamy ballad that sounds like it could have fit on the band’s previous album Skylarking. And nearly all the songs throw as many sounds and instruments as possible into the mix, including the fabulous “Merely a Man.”

The song opens with a ranging bass line and percussive dual rhythm guitars that together are almost (almost!) funky. The guitars are really cool, and again they approach (but only approach!) the late-era Beatles’ knack for putting multiple cool guitars low in the mix. Nifty guitar fills (1:00, 1:30, etc) abound, and Partridge does some near-scatting on lyrics that are as uplifting and once again espouse the power of love. By 2:00, a trumpet fanfare is added, multiple voices are singing along, and it begins to sound like several guitars have been added. It’s a cool song, probably over-produced, but I love it.

I really love what I think of as an XTC throwback song, “Across This Antheap,” which reminds me of their song “Meccanik Dancing” from the 1978 album Go 2.

XTC started out as an angular guitar band on the definite New Wave edge of the punk movement. By Oranges and Lemons, they’d transitioned into an arty pop band (I’ll refrain from making another Beatles reference … oh wait, I think I just did?), but this number, a long diatribe against a modern life that can trample the human spirit, shows the band still has a foot in the 70s scene – despite the languid intro, and trumpet and violins.

When I was student teaching at Elizabethtown High School, it was the fall semester, which meant I was listening to the album around Halloween. It makes sense, then, that the song “Scarecrow People” remains lodged in my brain.

It’s a warning about global environmental catastrophe, which, obviously, has gone unheeded. It uses the album formula of cool guitar and bass, with lots of noises thrown in. There’s a bridge, at 2:00, that transitions to a weird guitar solo at 2:24, then builds beautifully into the final verse, at 3:00. The song is more evidence that the songwriting on the entire album is brilliant.

The other song I remember as Halloween-y, and one of my favorites on the record, is the freaky, warbly “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” a collage of sounds that is the band at their most inventive.

The plodding, physical bass supports all sorts of percussive sounds, including an acoustic guitar that sounds detuned, a xylophone that sounds like dancing bones, and – as usual – excellent harmonies. It’s a song about the universality of human beings, and includes Partridge’s usual wit. The song always takes me back to the fall of 1989, driving my Duster to school each morning, but not really knowing where I was going (to). It turned out I never taught professionally, but Oranges and Lemons made my daily drive amazingly enjoyable. Elizabethtown Area High School was only a temporary stop on a 30-year ride that has had multiple stations along the way, and continues moving forward.

But maybe the destination doesn’t really matter much. Back in the mid-00s, when everyone was getting GPS consoles to put onto their dashboards, I instead got a subscription to Sirius satellite radio, and a bulky radio unit to stick onto the dash of my ’98 Saturn wagon. I realized then what that choice says about my outlook: I may not know where I’m going (to), but I’m sure going to enjoy the ride.

TRACK LISTING:
“Garden of Earthly Delights”
“Mayor of Simpleton”
“King For a Day”
“Here Comes President Kill Again”
“The Loving”
“Poor Skeleton Steps Out”
“One of the Millions”
“Scarecrow People”
“Merely a Man”
“Cynical Days”
“Across This Antheap”
“Hold Me My Daddy”
“Pink Thing”
“Miniature Sun”
“Chalkhills and Children”

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6th Favorite Album: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements

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Pleased to Meet Me. The Replacements.
1987, Sire Records. Producer: Jim Dickinson.
Purchased CD, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements, is a showcase for the songwriting genius of leader Paul Westerberg. From rip-roaring rockers to jazzy torch songs, the album covers a lot of territory. But the star of the show is Westerberg’s songs and their touching, evocative, subtle lyrics. The excellent rhythm section of bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars provide the muscle, and Westerberg’s guitar almost matches lost ‘Mat Bob’s past heroics.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

You can’t believe everything you read. A big part of growing into adulthood is learning to understand what is, and is not, likely true, and what gradations exist in between. Right now I’ve got kids aged 20 and 15 years old. I’ve watched them come of age in a time where, for example, there is not just journalistic slant, but there are networks dedicated to telling lies to people and presenting it as truth, parroting elected officials who seem to make up stories daily. And they’re not just getting information from networks or traditional media. Nowadays there are a bunch of social media platforms that give any boob with a cellphone a place to present any old story as fact.

Not to sound too grandpa-Simpson about it, but in my day, if you wanted flat out, unprocessed lies, you didn’t (always) turn to the President. If you wanted the best in fiction-as-non-fiction, your best source was always: The Weekly World News.

Back in the 80s, The Weekly World News was what was called a “checkout tabloid,” a magazine printed on newspaper that sat among other such publications, like National Enquirer, Star and Sun, near the checkout lines in supermarkets. However, whereas those others often ran stories that largely dealt with celebrities, and that had a whiff of possible truth, Weekly World News focused on, well, lies. My friend Dan and I used to enjoy reading the stories and laughing our asses off. We had friends who claimed to believe the stories – “They couldn’t print it if it isn’t true!” one classmate angrily scolded us – but nobody really did.

These stories were easy to identify as false. However, I prided myself on also being able to sniff out falsehoods in any publications, particularly music publications. For me as a high schooler, any publication that could dismiss the genius of Rush, such as Rolling Stone regularly did8, could not be trusted. So when that magazine gushed about the genius of the band The Replacements, I scoffed. Rolling Stone loved The Replacements, and that was evidence enough for me that the band sucked.

The band did not suck. I’ve written about them twice now, and to recap: I joined a band, and the guitarist loved The Replacements, and pretty soon I did, too. As I was becoming a fan, the band was breaking up, and just about the time I was buying all of their CDs, they were releasing their final one, All Shook Down. As a new fan, and music-crit skeptic, I didn’t fall for the assessments of that record, which ranged from “meh” to “eh” to “ok, I guess.”

I thought (and still think) that All Shook Down is a great record! The song “Nobody” is one of my all-time favorites, a clever story of a guy who’s sure his ex is still holding a candle for him – just as he clearly is for her. “Attitude” is a fun ditty reflecting on main ‘Mat9 Paul Westerberg’s main problem in his life. “Merry Go Round” and “When It Began” were the supposed hits, “My Little Problem” was the rockin’ duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano.

Bob Stinson

But – as much as I loved the record, when I began listening to the band’s earlier output I understood the critics’ tepid assessment. All Shook Down is great, but those earlier records were brilliant. And Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite of those. Fans who were onboard the ‘Mats bus from the beginning often dismiss this album because original guitarist, Bob Stinson, brother to bassist Tommy, had left the band before it was recorded. I understand their point of view, but as someone who came to the band late, without the baggage of Bob in my own perception of the band, with a classic rock background and a latecomer to punk, Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite Replacements record.

I remember the first time I heard any part of the record. Dr. Dave and I have a cover band, JB and the So-Called Cells, and in 1991 we played at a bar in Hershey, PA, called Zachary’s. The band we opened for, Blue Yonder, played a song of theirs that was okay, but that had a super-catchy refrain: “I’m in love/What’s that song?/I’m in love/With that song.” I told a friend it was a good song; he told me, “They ripped off that chorus from The Replacements.”

The song they ripped off (or honored, you might say) is the wonderful “Alex Chilton,” still one of my favorite songs ever.

It opens with a metallic guitar fanfare from Westerberg, and stellar bass and drums from Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars, respectively. The rhythm section keeps this song teetering on the brink of collapse the whole way through. The lyrics are a tribute to Alex Chilton, who as a teenager hit #1 on the charts as a singer on The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Westerberg salutes Chilton for his work in the power pop outfit Big Star (“I never travel far/ Without a little Big Star”), who wrote and recorded some of the best guitar pop ever, and are largely forgotten by casual music fans. I love Stinson’s bass behind the chorus, and in the pre-chorus, leading up to Westerberg’s guitar solo at 1:50, and Mars’s habit of adding an extra snare hit some places, like at about 2:17. But what makes the song brilliant is the chorus: “I’m in love … with that song.” It’s perfection.

One of the great things about The Replacements is their ability to meld rip-roaring, punky music to meaningful lyrics that evoke real feelings. The band was famously dysfunctional, and sabotaged every break they ever got. And Westerberg wrote about it in songs like “I Don’t Know,” in which backing vocals by Stinson and Mars offer the band’s reaction to all the hype surrounding the band at the time.

“One foot in the door/ the other one in the gutter,” Westerberg sings. “The sweet smell you adore/ I think I’d rather smother.” Clearly the lyrics show mixed feelings about success. The song opens with weird laughter and goes right into a sax-driven rave-up. It’s a bit restrained from some of their earlier tracks, and the inclusion of horns (I’m sure) pissed off a lot of longtime fans. But the band addressed those fans’ concerns on the opening track, “I.O.U.,” in which Paul states: “I.O.U. nothing.” They really didn’t give a fuck about expectations. “I.O.U.” is another rave-up, this one showcasing Westerberg’s lead guitar work. He spent his teenage years trying to be the next Guitar Hero, until he decided he’d rather write songs, so he has some chops. Longtime fans would likely complain he should’ve kept Bob in the band for his guitar skills, but as Paul states in the song: “You’re all wrong and I’m right.”

Another song about being in The Replacements is the soft, jazzy “Nightclub Jitters,” a torch song about the impersonal nature of playing gig after gig. Tommy Stinson’s upright bass stands out on this track, which also features Westerberg on piano and a sultry sax solo. It seems like a departure for the band, but they’d been putting surprises on punk albums since “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” on Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg’s lyrics aren’t always self-obsessed messages from the band. In the song “The Ledge,” he takes on the topic of teen suicide, which was too hot of a topic in 1987 and got this video banned from MTV.

Stinson’s pumping bass and Mars’s driving beat propel the song headlong beneath a Peter Gunn-style guitar riff. I like the dual guitars on the song, and the fact that the band throws in a couple three/four measures in the chorus. Westerberg again shows off his guitar soloing ability, including an outro solo after the sound of someone leaping. Vocally, Westerberg always carries a tune as if he’s going to drop it, and while it sounds good here, I like it best when it’s applied to his more personal tracks. For example, on the mid-tempo gem “Never Mind.”

The title, and the attitude it signals, would end up being the rallying cry (or whimper) for Generation X, and it expresses the what’s-it-matter-anyway? feeling behind many of Westerberg’s lyrics. In this case, he can’t find the words to apologize, so decides to move on. (I’ve read this song is about his decision to fire Bob from the band.) Westerberg has an Elvis-Costello-esque gift for a clever turn of phrase, in this case “your guess is (more or less) as bad as mine.” The music is good, but this is one in which the melody and lyrics carry the load.

Westerberg’s lyrics also often rely on one catchy phrase, repeated for maximum effect. In the case of “Valentine,” it’s “If you were a pill/ I’d take a handful at my will/ and I’d knock you back with something sweet and strong.”

I like that after the introduction, Mars’s drums (0:22) seem to speed up the song slightly, providing some punk energy to this now-she’s-gone love song. It’s catchy as hell. The guitar work is pretty cool, if a bit buried in the mix, and Paul pulls off some (dare I say?) Bob-esque riffs (2:45) throughout. Westerberg’s voice is brilliant as ever, particularly on the last, desperate verse (2:20), where he moves the melody to a higher pitch. The song doesn’t match the old punk fury from the band’s early days, but they do include a couple rockers on Pleased to Meet Me. “Shooting Dirty Pool” is a bit like a Rolling Stones deep cut10. It also features a 13 year-old Luther Dickinson on guitar. “Red Red Wine” is NOT the UB40 song.

One of the things I love best about the ‘Mats is that every album has at least one Paul solo piece (basically) that is earnest and moving and demonstrates that there’s a deep well beneath all the crazy antics. On Hootenanny, it’s “Within Your Reach.” On Let It Be, it’s “Androgynous.” On Tim, it’s “Here Comes a Regular.” On Pleased to Meet Me, it’s “Skyway.”

It’s a simple acoustic guitar song about a boy watching a girl in the skyway of Minneapolis, the city’s elevated walkway system. But there’s so much more than that. He lacks self-confidence, wearing his “stupid hat and gloves,” waiting for a ride out in the cold, while she walks indoors with the office-job types. He dreams of meeting her, but when she finally ventures onto the street, it’s the same day he’s finally gotten up the nerve to go inside, and so they miss each other. But one gets the sense the diffident protagonist believes it’s his only chance, and he’s missed it. It’s a sweet song, and Westerberg’s delivery is perfect, as is the spare arrangement. It’s another favorite of mine.

Still another favorite song of mine (I know there are several, but that’s why the record is up here at #6!) is the celebratory “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

A simple 6-note riff opens the song, and it’s the foundation for all that follows. It’s another lyrical gem, describing a guy on the road who CAN’T (hardly) WAIT to get home to see his loved one. The imagery is fantastic, from being too drunk to write, to riding in a filthy band van11 to my favorite: “lights that flash in the evening/ through a crack in the drapes,” gorgeously describing someone waiting at home for him to arrive. There’s a horn section throughout that many fans dislike, and even some orchestral instruments, and I think it all adds to the song’s celebratory vibe.

So listen, you can’t believe everything you read. You can’t even believe this write-up. Go listen to The Replacements and decide for yourself. There’s lots to choose from, from the hardcore punk of Stink to the classic line-up double-live For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986. And just as I came to realize that the music critics were right all along, you might come to realize that Pleased to Meet Me is a tremendous record.

TRACK LISTING:
“I.O.U.”
“Alex Chilton”
“I Don’t Know”
“Nightclub Jitters”
“The Ledge”
“Never Mind”
“Valentine”
“Shooting Dirty Pool”
“Red Red Wine”
“Skyway”
“Can’t Hardly Wait”

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7th Favorite Album: Reckoning, by R.E.M.

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Reckoning. R.E.M.
1984, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.
Purchased Casette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: Reckoning, by R.E.M., is the work of a band doing its own thing, establishing a sound that would define them: thumping drums, jangly guitars, melodic bass, and poetic lyrics. This is the foundation from which the Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe legend grew, a bit more muscular than their debut. Whether blazing through danceable, upbeat numbers or creating somber moods, Reckoning shows a band discovering its power and unleashing it on the world.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

“Be Yourself” is perhaps the advice that most parents would place at the top of their list of “lessons to be ingrained in their children as they grow to adults.” It’s a realization that materializes in many adults only after years of heartbreak and embarrassment12. We look back on our former selves, cringe and hope nobody remembers, (or write a blog about it), and vow to pass the lesson onto our offspring so they might avoid the same sort of humiliation. “Listen,” we say, “don’t get caught up in all the popular crap, and all the trendy styles and Jones-Keeping-Upwith. Don’t go along with the crowd just to fit in. BE YOURSELF.”

Children since Neanderthal times have responded with “But Orbuk and Kongko very cool; have nice stick and rock.” They’ve spent their teen years13 chasing the contemporary versions of the best animal skins and clubs and shiny leaves and trying to fit into the cool clan. Then one day (hopefully) they finally realize that their own path is the best path and settle into a gently-regretful adulthood. It’s always been true that one of the last parts of the human brain to fully develop is the part that says “Hey, I’m cool with just being me.” (At least I think the science says that.)

One reason, besides simple personal embarrassment, that many parents may look back and cringe is the fact that, in retrospect, it’s clear that many things considered “cool” in our youth were patently ridiculous and silly. When we think of our younger selves, we can recall recognizing “Wait, this doesn’t seem cool. This is utter bullshit.” But we can also recall thinking, “But, I guess since everyone else likes this, it must be ME who’s the weird one.” When we reach adulthood we realize: almost everyone our age ALSO thought it all was utter bullshit. But we all just went along with the crowd.

A case in point from my teenage years of the early to mid-1980s is Popular Music. Nostalgia is all well and good, and it can be fun to look back on the popular music of the 80s and revel in the wackiness and the computers and the poppiness of the era’s hit songs; and the bizarre-looking and, at times, courageous, musical acts; and the ubiquitous movie soundtrack songs. I myself listen to Sirius/XM’s “80s on 8 Big 40 Countdown” every weekend, even though it often plays songs I’d rather not remember. I find masochistic joy in reliving some of those crappy 80s hits.

But let’s face it: much of the music was bullshit. Well, let me rephrase that. The music – the notes and melodies – may have been just fine. The bullshit came because the notes and melodies were processed through a corporate Apparatus that quite unsubtly packaged and delivered its sounds and performers in a style that the Apparatus perceived to be following the cultural trends of the era14. But at the same time the Apparatus was creating those trends, thus engendering a phony, dog-wagging, entirely UN-organic, carousel of advertising and popular culture that enticed teens to hop aboard and just go with it, and deny their own natural understanding, which was: “This is bullshit.”

I’m quite sure this cycle continues today, and has always been part of Corporate America’s means of marketing products. However, in retrospect, having been a teen in the 80s – the MTV boom-days – the weighty hand of corporate nonsense is so evident in the popular music that it seems unbelievable that I didn’t recognize it at the time. But it never really dawned on me that styling was part of a marketing department’s role. I just took it for granted that if you were a man who played music, you didn’t look normal, like me. You looked like Billy Idol or Prince or Mötley Crüe or Elton John or Rush or Michael Jackson. I just didn’t see many “normal-looking” folks making music.

Okay, there was Huey Lewis, but come on. He already looked like he was about 50 years old in 1983.

Also in the 80s, I found myself drifting toward 70s-era Progressive Rock, featuring songs that were 20 minutes long, multi-part suites with 10-minute organ solos, played by mostly British bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or North American versions, like Rush or Styx. The more difficult it was, the more I liked it.

Of course, there were plenty of normal-looking folks making rock music in the 80s, playing songs that didn’t require a PhD in Fretboard-shreddery to play. Sometimes they’d show up on MTV, late at night. But they didn’t register with me: if you weren’t a technically brilliant musician, or a crazy-looking, leather-clad freak, I didn’t really think you were a musician. Until a night in 1983, (or maybe early 1984, on a rerun) when I stayed up late to watch my favorite comedian, David Letterman, and he introduced a band that looked suspiciously normal (except for the singer, who had a certain affect to him.)

I liked these normal-looking guys the first night I saw them.

I was hooked from the minute I saw them, and for years (pre-YouTube) I wondered if I’d really seen it. They played two songs, and the singer sat on the stage, ignoring Dave, between them. The songs were infectious and fun and fresh: so fresh that one song was “too new” to have a name. The bass, always my favorite part of rock music, was prominent and played great counter-melodies. The guitarist wiggled and gyrated. The singer just stood and mumbled. I’d heard their song “Radio Free Europe” before, and I knew their weird name – R.E.M. And now I knew I loved them.

But as much as I loved them, their normalcy was, well, WEIRD. This wasn’t the kind of stuff that everyone else I knew listened to. I could easily share my love of 70s hard rock or 80s metal, and my fascination with progressive rock was on the normal bell curve of typical, rural Pennsylvania teen music appreciation. (The left-hand tail, sure, but it was there.) But this little, jangly, frantic group of guys in jeans and shirts – no leather, no feathers, no spandex, no makeup, no multi-zippered jackets or single, sequined glove – seemed like they might be too weird. I bought the new cassette, Reckoning, but I didn’t tell any of my friends. I listened, but was more comfortable sharing my “enthusiasm” for the new Alan Parsons Project single or Rush album. But at home I couldn’t wait to see the MTV piece on them.

I wish now that I’d have sought out other fans, and let myself be, well, myself. (Eventually I did. In college, my high school friend, Josh, and I revealed to each other that we both loved the band!)

The song “too new to be named” on that Letterman show immediately became a favorite of mine. With it’s 12-string opening riff and bouncy beat, and a melody of garbled lyrics that falls on a desperate wail of “I’m sorry!,” the song “So. Central Rain” is a song that sticks.

If you like direct lyrics sung clearly and loudly, you won’t like much of what R.E.M. has to offer, at least not from this era. “So. Central Rain” is apparently about trying to reach a girlfriend to apologize, but if you pick up on that from singer Michael Stipe, I applaud you. The opening 12-string riff, by Peter Buck, is beautiful, and then bassist Mike Mills enters. His bass lines are McCartney-esque: melodic, widely ranging, and often – as on this number – taking the lead. Drummer Bill Berry’s heartbeat bass drum pulls it all together. R.E.M. were never afraid to boost their studio sound with instrumentation. In this song, a piano, played by Mills, is prominent. The band also uses harmony vocals brilliantly, with both Mills and Berry lending their “aahhs” on this track. I love Mills’s riff, about 0:50, which brings the band back into the second verse. This song is sad but happy, and remains a favorite of mine.

Part of the allure of R.E.M. for me has always been the mysteriousness of their lyrics and vocals. In the 80s I was deep into Yes, and their vocalist, Jon Anderson, despite having a vocal style directly opposite Stipe’s, strung apparent nonsense words together. Stipe does the same thing. Can anyone tell me what a “Harborcoat” is? Is this song about a chilly, elderly, Soviet couple? It doesn’t really matter to me – the song sounds super regardless of its meaning.

The song displays Mills’s penchant for counter-melody bass, and is the perfect example Buck’s fast-strumming, arpeggiated technique. Berry’s drums, particularly hi-hat work, are terrific. At 1:17, when three voices blend in the chorus, I get chills, every time. In the second verse, the backing vocals (Berry, I think?) at times obscure the main vocals in a cool-sounding way. There’s a nifty, noisy, harmonica-infused bridge (2:38), then after another verse, Buck’s guitar riff gets more muscular (3:22) to bring it all home. It’s a fantastic song, displaying everything I love about the band.

As does the next song, “7 Chinese Bros.”

The title is taken from a children’s book, Five Chinese Brothers, adapted from a famous Chinese legend, Ten Brothers, about ten brothers with amazing abilities who use them to help their family. One of the brothers can swallow the ocean, thus the lyrics in the chorus. I love how the bass enters at 0:11, over top of Buck’s riff. The drums thump throughout, and Buck’s arpeggiated guitar in the chorus is just super cool. Mills’s bass always appears in unexpected ways, such as at 1:38. I do love Stipe’s subtle vocals on this song. (A version of this song called “Voice of Harold,” with lyrics read from the back of a gospel record, appears on the rarities album Dead Letter Office.)

My favorite song on the record is the driving, danceable “Pretty Persuasion.”

It’s a fun, upbeat song, written early in their careers, with lyrics that don’t say a lot, however, the title says it all. The opening guitar line is pure Buck, shimmery and flowing. Mills’s high-pitched bass enters, then Berry starts his heartbeat drums. The backing vocals are sweet and the melody is catchy. It’s the kind of R.E.M. song I love. The band sort of replicates it with “Second Guessing,” another fast-paced song, with obscure lyrics. I love Berry’s drums in this song, little things like the quick fill at 1:27 before heading back into the verse. Also, this record SOUNDS really good. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter15 produced it, and they really gave it a full, deep sound.

As a teen, I really loved the faster songs, and I didn’t think much of the slow songs. As I’ve gotten older, these slow numbers have grown on me. In particular, I really like “Time After Time (Annelise).”

It’s a subtle song, with bongos and light guitar. It definitely shows off Stipe’s vocals, as he sings about (possibly) teen suicide? The song builds nicely, and has a cool guitar solo/break about 1:59, with what may be a sitar in the background? The song “Camera” is another slow song featuring Stipe, this time about a friend who died in a car crash. “Letter Never Sent” is mid-tempo, but it shows off the entire band’s vocal abilities, as counter-melody backing vocals from Berry and Mills highlight Stipe’s meandering melody. The lyrics sound beautiful. As usual guitar and drums sound great, and Mills’s bass provides still another melody to follow.

It says much about a band that they can get me to appreciate a song style I don’t usually like. In this case it’s country (or maybe country-rock?), in the form of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.”

It opens with a weird, funk-like bit of a song, the type that would fit nicely on Dead Letter Office (on which the band drunkenly covered “King of the Road.”) It’s a straightforward piece, with some piano thrown in and great harmonies in the chorus. Buck plays some tasty figures over top of Stipe’s lyrics, which take a dark turn in the bridge, where he admits he never really treated his wayward girlfriend all that great. This song was apparently written by Mills in a punk style, then the band got hold of it and created this version. Good job, men!

The album closes on a rip-roaring romp through America, a song reminiscing about old touring days in a van, apparently, with manager Jefferson Holt (“Jefferson I think we’re lost!”)

“I don’t see myself at 30,” Stipe sings immediately, and the song has a sort of free-wheeling, independent, young-adult vibe to it, sung by guys who aren’t concerned about reaching old age. Thirty-five years (!) after the album was released, with R.E.M. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and roundly regarded as sort of godfathers of alternative rock, this sentiment is kind of funny. But the song still kicks ass, a frantic and loose number with a nifty guitar. A great album-ender.

Just be yourself. What a good lesson. R.E.M. didn’t look like the other 80s pop music acts, they didn’t sound like anything else, and they didn’t seem to care what anyone thought about it. As a teenager in 1984, this was more frightening than any of the weirdoes I regularly saw on MTV. As a 51 year old with kids, this is far more inspiring than I recognized at the time.

TRACK LISTING:
“Harborcoat”
“7 Chinese Bros.”
“So. Central Rain”
“Pretty Persuasion”
“Time After Time (Annelise)”
“Second Guessing”
“Letter Never Sent”
“Camera”
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
“Little America”

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8th Favorite Album: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse

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Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
1979, Reprise. Producer: Neil Young, David Briggs, Tim Mulligan.
Gift, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is a brilliantly bi-polar record. A collection of intense, lovely, solo acoustic songs coupled with some raucous, electric barn-burners played by a band nearly out of control. As usual for me, this record is all about the guitar, Neil’s spiky, clashing, dirty squawk. But the acoustic numbers also strike a nerve, as Neil’s distinctive voice delivers the emotion in his imagery and stories.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

Part Two.

(Sort of. I mean, I didn’t intend for this to be a continuation, but it’s a very similar theme from the last post, so let’s just call it Part Two.)

When we last left our intrepid hero, he was leaving his big-city college for the more familiar environs of a university set in the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky. He’s 20, still does not know what the word “intrepid” means, and he won’t know for another 31 years, when he looks up the definition for a little-read blog that he writes and realizes it does not describe him at all, yet likes how it sounds so he doesn’t change it.

We don’t pick up the story immediately, but we move ahead a few years, when his band has broken up and he is working long hours as a chemist in an aspirin factory. In a mere 30 years he’ll be sitting in his New England home, writing a little-read blog about himself and his taste in music and how the two relate. Back then there is no way to know this. At that point, he just realizes two things: 1) he doesn’t know what the word “intrepid” means; and 2) he has to get the fuck out of the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky.

Our hero has many interests and wishes to have opportunities to pursue these interests. Acting, stand-up comedy, writing … these are activities that lend themselves to being part of larger communities of people with similar interests. If he’d wanted to pursue opportunities in growing corn and raising dairy cattle, the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania’s farmland would have been the perfect place to meet other farmers and find a great opportunity for a career. However, those hills generated a relative lack of performance-oriented folk. And neither dairy cattle nor their farmers are generally known to be particularly excellent audiences for comedy, so our hero needed a new place to live.

Luckily for our hero, among the gang of fun chemists (and dull chemists) working in the aspirin factory was a guy named Weenie. He was actually named Bill, but they called each other Weenie, and along with two other goofy chemists, Rod and Wayne, who were also called Weenie, they did such things as invent the Weenie Of The Week Award, celebrating the most humiliating laboratory error of the week, and which included its own statuette, which looked like a dick. Weenie Bill was still a partial owner of a home in San Rafael, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and as it happened, he needed a tenant for the summer of 1993.

While not in the thick of city-dwelling performer types, San Rafael was close enough to San Francisco and its varied assortment of creative artists and flat-out weirdoes that a decent start could be made on a career in humor and performance. It was a nice home, with housemates vouched-for by Weenie Bill, and although it was 3-frickin’-thousand miles away, it was much warmer than Chicago, which was another potential choice. (Of course, Chicago was home to the Second City improv conglomerate, and the decision to reject that city may have left lingering regrets in our hero as to whether he, had different choices been made, could have become, on the one hand, a huge TV and movie comedy star, or, on the other hand, dead of an OD at 32.)

As our hero prepares for his 3,059 mile drive (Southern US route) to California, his Weenie buddies, who by this point think of his pending journey as evidence of his intrepid nature, even if he himself still doesn’t really know the word’s meaning, throw him a going-away party. At the party he’s given many cool items, including a pair of Chuck Taylors, his footwear of choice back then, a great book called Connections, by James Burke, and a CD: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been a Neil Young fan for a long time, and I’ve always admired his changing styles and approach to music. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work with his long-time garage band, Crazy Horse, featuring drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. While Neil Young solo can be folky, or country, or retro, or electronic, or 70s rocking, or 80s rocking, or 90s rocking, or 00s rocking, or big band (!), Neil Young with Crazy Horse is almost always loud and rocking and full of Young’s signature squawky-raunchy, electric guitar. I knew some of the songs on Rust Never Sleeps, but not all of them, and Weenie Wayne assured me that even though it wasn’t the typical 7-minute-guitar-solo-filled Crazy Horse record, that it would work its way inside me.

This is not the actual car I drove across the US. But it looked a lot like this one.

I brought a CD player along to accompany me and my 1985 VW Jetta on that drive across the US, and I first gave Rust Never Sleeps a listen on the first morning of my trip. Then I listened again. Then every morning, five or six days from Lebanon County, PA, to Marin County, CA, (I don’t really remember exactly) it became the first CD I’d select every day, part of my routine. I’d get up, get on the highway, and Rust Never Sleeps would put me further ahead of my old life.

So if you know the album, you’ll understand that the song that spoke to me most deeply on that journey into the new is the Crazy Horse-less acoustic number “Thrasher.”

It opens with a brief harmonica arpeggiated chord, then Young’s fabulous 12-string guitar begins strumming. I’ve read that Neil added overdubs to the songs on this album after recording, and I sometimes wonder if a second guitar was dubbed in on “Thrasher.” I’ve watched many videos of Neil performing the song, some from 40 years ago and some from more recently, and he never seems to play it live with the same flourishes and runs that are evident on the album. But be that as it may, the guitar is excellent – ringing and lovely. But it’s the song’s lyrics that make it a favorite16 for me. I’d love to do a line-by-line breakdown of the song, as others have, but that could be boring and pretentious and self-indulgent. But then again, this entire blog is likely all three of those things, so it could fit right in.

Instead, I’ll just point out that the song is about leaving behind the fearful, stuck-in-the-past folks (“they were hiding behind hay bales”) and striking out on your own (“hit the road before it’s light”) to experience the unknown that lies ahead. While some folks may hide from the new (i.e. the thrashers), it can inspire others (“when I saw those thrashers rolling by … I was feeling like my day had just begun.”) Those left behind may be too worried (“poisoned by protection,”) or too comfortable (“park bench mutations”) to act, but you just have to move on (“they’re just dead weight to me, better down the road without that load.”) It may be tempting to live in the past (“the motel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar,”) but only by pursuing your dreams will you live a life fulfilled (“When the thrasher comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun, Like the dinosaurs in shrines, But I’ll know the time has come To give what’s mine.”)

With each morning that I hopped into the Jetta, I was increasingly sure that my move was the right thing to do. Rust Never Sleeps pointed the way. The first half of the album17 is acoustic, just Neil, his guitar and his harmonica, and the songs are brilliant. I’m usually more of a music-guy than a lyrics-guy, but the stories and words on Side 1 are some of my favorite, right from the opening classic, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”

It opens with the unforgettable riff, and claims that rock and roll will never die (as I’ve written before, immortality has been Rock and Roll’s obsession since the beginning). The minor key, and Young’s plaintive voice, make the song’s lyrics sound uncertain, like a warning, like this indestructible rock and roll could crumble if it’s not allowed to change and make room for the Johnny Rottens18 of the world. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he sings, a controversial sentiment. John Lennon hated the lyrics. Kurt Cobain eventually included the words in his suicide note, which freaked out Neil19. But the idea that rust never sleeps (“it’s better to burn out/than it is to rust”), so you’ve got to stay active and curious to avoid it, is an idea I can get behind. This is one of the few songs on this live album in which you can clearly hear the audience.

Another great acoustic song I love on Side One is the lament/fantasy “Pocahontas.”

Young’s chopping acoustic guitar starts off, and Young carries the tune in his own warbly style. The song comments on the horrors of the American genocide of Native Americans, and wishes for an opportunity to speak with Pocahontas, and Marlon Brando, who famously refused his 1973 Best Actor Oscar® over the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. As the song builds, harmony vocals are added, along with some squawks and squeaks. It’s a lovely song.

The acoustic side is rounded out with “Ride My Llama,” a strange ode to Martians, weed and, well, riding a llama. It’s a cool, simple song that is fun to belt along to. The sweet, traveling love songSail Away” features Nicolette Larson on backing vocals, who had a 1979 hit with her yacht-rock version of Young’s “Lotta Love.” “Sail Away” is a song that would have fit perfectly on Young’s smash 1992 acoustic album Harvest Moon.

Neil stomps on the distortion pedal, to the delight of (l-r) Talbot, Sampedro and Molina.

Side Two of Rust Never Sleeps is all Crazy Horse. Thick, crunching guitars, long solos, desperate harmonies, sloppy-great drumming. It’s four guys having fun, like teens in their first garage band, working up a sweat and playing their hearts out.

The first song on Side Two is one of Young’s all-time classics, a song he originally wrote for Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Despite calling Neil out by name in “Sweet Home Alabama,” the two acts were very friendly with one another.) It’s the story of a young man left alone to defend his home from invaders, “Powderfinger.”

This is a song that begs to be played LOUDLY. Neil opens it with his voice, but the simple, two-guitar riff, first heard at 0:43, is what hooks the listener and always pulls the raucous Crazy Horse together before each verse. Young and Sampedro play beautifully sloppy guitar lines behind the verses, then Neil solos at 1:48, a signature, meandering affair. At 3:34, after the tragic end to the story, Young plays another searing solo, then the band, which provides background “oohs” throughout, harmonizes on the last verse. It’s a great song, and it’s fun to play as a band, as my buddies and I in Tequila Mockingbird recognize.

Welfare Mothers” is a noisy, riff-based stomp. He asks for us to “pick up on what he’s putting down,” and it seems like he’s putting down the 70s free-love ideas, or perhaps a social system that doesn’t take care of its vulnerable citizens, or the high price of laundromats. Whatever the case, it’s a fun romp with cool drums from Ralph Molina, and more crunchy solos, particularly the one beginning at 2:46 until the end. I could listen to Crazy Horse play all day.

Neil backs up Devo and the band’s crib-bound character, Booji Boy.

In the late 70s, Young became fascinated with the punk movement, and even more so with the punk-adjacent techno music of bands like Kraftwerk and Devo. (He directed and starred in a movie with Devo, 1982’s Human Highway.) There’s a punk energy in the unmelodic verses and changing tempos of “Sedan Delivery,” a slam-dance of a song about – well, I’m not really sure, but maybe drugs and the associated culture? The band is having a blast playing and singing, and the guitar does not disappoint.

The first side of the album seems important and serious, and the raucous second side gets away from this spirit a bit. However, Neil brilliantly brings the two sides together by finishing the album with a soaring, electric version of the album’s opener, this time titled “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”

It’s a great move. The introductory guitar sounds like a malfunctioning industrial machine, and the three notes punctuating it are distorted to an unrecognizable chord. Molina’s drums are pile drivers. Each verse is answered with a ferocious, wicked, metallic solo. The solo at 3:12 is particularly – unusual and excellent. The lyrics are nearly the same as “My My, Hey Hey,” with a change or two thrown in – – for example the album name, “Rust Never Sleeps” added, and Johnny Rotten’s name emphasized. It ends with the crowd noise that had been mostly removed in the rest of the record.

If there’s one thing I know about the word “intrepid,” it’s that it describes Neil Young’s artistic efforts. “Characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance.” I’d say that’s as good a description of Neil’s output as any. He’s been making his own music his own way for more than 50 years. It’s connected with millions of people over the years. Rust Never Sleeps was the soundtrack to one of the biggest events of my life. It inspired me to forge ahead. It still sounds great and important, and it continues to make me feel a little – (dare I say?) – intrepid myself.

TRACK LISTING:
“My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)”
“Thrasher”
“Ride My Llama”
“Pocahontas”
“Sail Away”
“Powderfinger”
“Welfare Mothers”
“Sedan Delivery”
“Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)”

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9th Favorite Album: Countdown to Ecstasy, by Steely Dan

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Countdown to Ecstasy. Steely Dan.
1973, ABC. Producer: Gary Katz.
Purchased, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: Countdown to Ecstasy, by Steely Dan, is a showcase for musicianship – a collection of songs from the days when Steely Dan was a band. Leaders Donald Fagan and Walter Becker write great songs, but talented guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias steal the show. The songs are fun and diverse and Fagan’s voice sells each and every one. They may be a dark, sarcastic duo, but Fagan and Becker write songs that their talented friends can devour.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

My favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, was fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin’s20 old axiom, “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes.” However, she always pointed out that Mr. Franklin21 mistakenly left out one other guarantee in life. “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes,” she’d say, then add, “… and CHANGE! Everything changes!” For many folks, change may be scarier than either taxes or death.

I now believe Mrs. Meyers was even smarter than Ben Franklin22 in her assessment. As researchers push against aging and death, and billionaires, most of whom inherited or finagled their dough, convince more and more dumb Americans that taxes are bad, one can imagine a world where death and taxes become an uncertainty. (This confluence of events could hilariously lead to five quintillionaires remaining alone on Earth after devastating the planet in their race to “win,” lying atop their piles of money, unable to die23.) The fact that our relationship to death and taxes has the potential to change only proves what Mrs. Meyers said: change is certain.

Very little from the culture and society I knew in 1983, as a 15-year old in Mrs. Meyers’s history class, remains as it was back then. Everything has changed. Some things have gotten better, some things have gotten worse, but very little is the same. I’m fascinated by this change over time, and I’m happy it’s happened. In fact, it gives me hope that people can continue to improve their lives. You see, I’m one of those people who is not scared by change, but, in fact, am rather comfortable with it.

Now, for sure, the 1983, teenaged me would be horrified by all that’s changed since then. At that time I was a small-town kid, scared by the world around me and subconsciously trying to allay those fears by mocking, resisting and remaining willfully obtuse to anything new or different around me. Computers, gay people, strong women, the DH24, non-English speakers25, non-comedy movies, city-people, cats, non-Christians… At that time I wanted the world to be exactly what was in my head at that moment, and (I thought) I wanted it to stay that way forever.

My adulthood, however, has been shot through with change. I moved about 6 times in my early 20s, finally arriving in San Francisco, and moved three times in 8 years while I was there. Then I moved to New England and moved 5 times in 5 years before landing in my current home. I have worked at about 11 different companies since college, not counting the half-dozen or so little jobs I had before I joined the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve done stand-up comedy, acted in plays and performed improv for years – the one place where my love of never really knowing what the hell is coming next found a perfect setting. My adult life has been more about resisting stasis than resisting change. And one of the first big changes involved Dr. Dave.

Dr. Dave (l) and author on stage at Zachary’s, Hershey, PA, ca. 1990.

Dr. Dave has been mentioned frequently in this space. He’s my longest-serving best friend – we met just about two-and-a-half years after Mrs. Meyers’s history class, as freshmen in the Toxicology program at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. We bonded quickly over music, particularly The Beatles and Yes, plus the Phillies, Columbo, Caddyshack and the ridiculousness of a career in toxicology. And a million other things. But within two years he had jettisoned toxicology for pharmacy26, and I jettisoned the small private school in the city for a larger, public university in the country.

Given the nature of our personalities, our interests, and our friendship, it only makes sense that on the last day before I left the school forever, Dr. Dave drove me around the city of Philadelphia, the windows of his LeCar27 down, blaring the Steely Dan classic from Countdown to Ecstasy, “My Old School.” The lyrics expressed all the regret I had about choosing that school in the first place, and the refrain, “I’m never going back to my old school,” was the exclamation point on my entire time there.

I’m sure we were both a little sad that we’d be seeing less of each other, but moving apart wasn’t all bad. It allowed us to keep in touch (pre-internet) in goofy ways, like writing letters to each other on notepad paper shaped like pills, capsules, suppositories, hearts, livers, and other vaguely medical shapes, all courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, which showered undergrad science majors with weird gifts. (For years I had a small, clear-plastic-encased musculo-skeletal foot with the words “Roche – Naproxen®️” emblazoned across it.) We kept in touch, and visited each other, and played music together, and as our lives changed, and we changed, we stayed connected.

Dr. Dave (l) and author at Candlestick Park, ca. 1995.

Our musical tastes have certainly grown in different ways, but because we’re friends, Dr. Dave graciously compliments my blog posts on albums he thinks I’ve rated too high, or too low, and I do my best to listen to Classical music now and then. But no matter how much our lives changed, the connection has remained because deep down we are still the type of guys who love Columbo and Caddyshack and would drive around the city singing a fuck-off song to a place we’re happy to leave behind. And what a song it is.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got into Steely Dan because my eldest sister had a milk crate of 70s albums, and their record Aja was one of them. That was an entree into the world of Steely Dan. By my senior year of high school, I had Countdown to Ecstasy on vinyl, and a few others as well. The world of Steely Dan started out in 1972 as a rockin’, dirty, guitar-driven place that, as the 70s progressed, was further gentrified with each album until the decade ended with a sound that, frankly, was so sparkling clean that it was unrecognizable as rock28. Countdown to Ecstasy is the band’s second album, when they were still mostly a guitar-based rock band with jazzy overtones, instead of vice versa. And “My Old School,” with its phenomenal guitar work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, is a straight-up guitar jam, despite the prominent horn section (which was absent from this American Bandstand appearance …)

It opens with a few piano chords, a horn fanfare, and a cool drum intro, then singer/keyboardist/band co-leader Donald Fagan starts singing about a college drug bust. Steely Dan’s lyrics are black licorice – you love them or hate them, with no room for middle ground. I love them. They’re clever, but not in an Elvis Costello-esque wordplay style. Costello is like a witty TV show; Steely Dan is like a layered crime novel29, where nothing is what it first seems, and characters are waiting to double-cross our typically less-than-upstanding protagonist. References to Gino and Daddy G, the Wolverine to Annandale, oleanders in bloom … they all create a world for the listener to step into while guitarist Baxter plays guitar lines and solos that, frankly, still astound me. I was going to list all the cool guitar parts I like – but it basically amounts to the entire song! Co-leader Walter Becker is a great bassist, drummer Jim Hodder is fast and creative, and I still think of this song as one of my favorites.

Another of my favorites (and the album only has 8 songs, so they’re all favorites, really) is the album opener, “Bodhisattva,” which is like a jazz piece – a repeating chord progression over which the band takes solos and Fagan sings a few lines about a Buddhist spiritual guide.

When my son was in middle school he had a basketball coach who told the boys, “I want you to have fun playing hoops. You could have fun out there by throwing basketballs at each other and goofing around, but I want you to have fun by playing the game the right way. When you do something the right way, you experience fun a whole different way.” On “Bodhisattva,” Steely Dan sounds like a bunch of musicians having fun The Right Way. Guitarist and founder Denny Dias30 plays a solo, at 1:35, that is wide ranging and fun and an incredible 54 bars long! A full minute. After some more vocals and a back and forth between keyboards and guitars, Skunk gets his due, as well. He plays the outro solo beginning at 4:09. Two lead guitarists – as fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Judas Priest, or Thin Lizzy can tell you – is twice the fun.

But for an act that values “chops,” and makes songs like “Bodhisattva” sound easy, they have a way with a melody as well. “Razor Boy” has a catchy melody, and Fagan’s nasal voice delivers it perfectly. The vibraphone and pedal steel guitar give the song a caribbean-yet-country feel. The lyrics are typical Steely-Dan-opaque, sort of accusatory, somewhat menacing.

A particular style of Steely Dan lyric is the story song – full of characters and events, but obliquely described, much like “My Old School.” Another one is “The Boston Rag,” in which something happens to a dude named Lonnie.

Just what “The Boston Rag” is, one never finds out. But we do find confirmation that “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias are guitar maniacs Check out, for example, the solo beginning at 3:18, (Dias) and continuing at 3:48 (Baxter). Also, Jim Hodder’s drums in this song are very cool, very understated but key to moving the song along.

Speaking of songs in which the lyrics are indirect and ambiguous … what the hell is “Your Gold Teeth” about?

The music has a groovy, calypso feel, almost 60s jazz. It’s a real showcase for Fagan’s keyboard playing – the solo at 2:44 is really top notch. And it leads into an angular, tough guitar solo by Dias. The song’s melody is singalong catchy, but what am I singing when I sing about tobacco they grow in Peking? The year of the locust? And who is Cathy Berberian,31 and what are these roulades she sings? And how can I sing along to that last verse, where Fagan shows off his vocal skills?

Steely Dan would cease to exist as a touring entity and become a “studio only” band just a couple years after Countdown to Ecstasy. But although the band was filled to the brim with musical talent, on this album they were already bringing in hired guns when needed. Rick Derringer plays slide guitar on the funky Hollywood dis tune, 32Show Biz Kids.” He basically plays a solo through the whole song, answering Fagan’s lyrics with tasty fills. Then about 3:00 he takes over for the remainder of the song.

Although Steely Dan has an air – perhaps more than an air, a dark, dense cloud – of detached cynicism about them, they could pull the heartstrings with their songs and stories. Case in point is the lovely “Pearl of the Quarter.” Baxter pulls some beautiful pedal steel guitar, adding a sadness to this country-esque tune. It’s a rather tired story of a regretful man who fell for a “lady of the evening.” But the descending chords of the chorus, and the guitar overcome the story to create a true feeling of regret. Drummer Hodder’s crisp rolls and syncopation sound great.

The final song on the album is the wonderful “King of the World,” a dark vision of the end of times33. It’s a perfect Steely Dan album closer.

The song, for me, is really the Denny Dias show, as his guitar demands your attention from the opening four seconds, when a faint, wah-wah riff enters below the shuffling high-hat. He plays a delayed, waterfall sound behind the vocals, then nicely mimics the ham radio of the lyrics (0:38). There are great harmonies in the chorus, and with every verse, Dias builds on what he did before – but you have to listen closely. Once again, this song sounds like a group of musicians having fun. There’s a very 70s, hooting organ at 2:00, and bassist Becker plays a cool line behind it. Throughout it all, Dias lurks in the background. Then, at 4:17 he goes nuts with a jazzy solo that sounds like it went for three minutes, but the song fades out.

Steely Dan was a band that changed over the years, from a touring rock band to a studio collection of jazz/rock musicians. Sure, I like the early rockin’ stuff, like Countdown to Ecstasy. But I like the later stuff, too. Look, things change, people change. Dr. Dave and I have changed. But there’s another old saying, too: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The author (l) and Dr. Dave (far r.), c. 2018, still as cool as they were back in 1986.

TRACK LISTING:
“Bodhisattva”
“Razor Boy”
“The Boston Rag”
“Your Gold Teeth”
“Show Biz Kids”
“My Old School”
“Pearl of the Quarter”
“King of the World”

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10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

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The Bends. Radiohead.
1995, Capitol. Producer: John Leckie.
Purchased, 1999.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Bends, by Radiohead, is a mighty collection of guitars and weird sounds and swooping, swerving melodies. The band writes mini-symphonies, and singer Thom Yorke delivers them with power and conviction. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood throws a million different things into the background, rewarding multiple listens. The band evokes many emotions within a single song.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

“Life is Suffering,” they say the Buddha said, but it’s very likely this is not true. Sure, Life IS Suffering – that is definitely true – but it’s doubtful the Buddha said these words. From a historo-linguistic point of view, he most certainly never said those three exact words, as certain as he never said, “Bro, check this out,” before speaking them. He didn’t speak English. But from a less ridiculous, more theological and philosophical perspective, it seems34 that he didn’t mean what those words together connote.

Still, I’ve always found solace in the words, despite my misapprehension of them. The fact that the basic state for humankind, perhaps for any-kind, all the way down to bacteria and viruses35, is suffering is an inspiring thought because it allows one to take pride in one’s happiness and in the simple joys, as they’re evidence that you’ve done work to overcome life’s basic state.

Of course, I’m a man in a (somewhat) advanced Western society, basking in all that my privilege affords me, so I try to stay aware of the myth that my suffering is just like everyone else’s. It isn’t. And the gap between my suffering and that of people in different situations than mine has very little to do with anything I’ve done. I’m the right collection of chemicals fortunate enough to be placed on the planet when and where I was, and then I didn’t fuck up my good fortune.

“What the heck are the blues?”

Still – I’ve had some shitty times. My blues are real to me, and my pains, well, they hurt. I’m lucky that they’re not compounded by the bullshit that society lays on those who don’t look like me, love like me, earn like me, or live like me. But this luck doesn’t do much to lessen the suffering that I, as a member of “Life,” endure. But there is something to help me endure it: music.

As a nerdy teen who listened to nerdy music, I spent hours in my room listening to records. The Blues are probably the natural state of most teen-agers, and it’s useful to find something to help them through it: books, music, comic books … For me, it was comedy – whether TV, movies, radio programs, stand up albums, funny songs – and rock music. In the 80s, when my concerns were acne and school dances and making the basketball team and trying to get out of band practice, well, a little rock music could help me work my way through it all. One meditative excursion through “La Villa Strangiato” or “Starship Trooper” or Gaucho or Van Halen II could perk a kid right up.

It also has helped me in adulthood. When my oldest kid was little, and I was moving into my mid-30s, I started to grow frustrated with almost everything about my life. Like many new parents, I was stressed out, unsure, lost in the care of others, feeling the weight of responsibility, and generally wigging out. My wife and I had recently moved across the country and we were both seriously questioning the decision. Everything about the “old life” seemed golden. Everything about the “new life” seemed horrible.

I was astounded by the deep love I felt for my kid, and this definitely helped guide me. But virtually everything else seemed to suck. My career was boring to me. I was trying to “make it36” in the stand-up comedy business, but family life seemed to be throwing up insurmountable hurdles. I fought often with my wife. And I drank too much, and even felt the pull of opioids, after a tumble down some steps gave me three broken ribs, a chest wall injury and a prescription for Percocet. The usual things that people turn to in such times – family, friends, therapists, community – weren’t really doing much for me.

But music was there for me. In particular, the Radiohead album The Bends.

I’ve probably written this before, but when I first heard Radiohead, in 1992, I thought they sucked. Their song “Creep” was all over MTV and the radio, and I couldn’t stand it. (Although Chrissie Hynde later did a version that I love.) At a party, in 1995 or ’96, a friend told me that The Bends was one of the best new albums he’d heard recently. I kept my mouth shut about how bad they sucked.

Then, in 1997, I saw the strange video for their excellent song “Paranoid Android,” and I picked up their record OK Computer. I became a fan37. I remembered my buddy’s praise for The Bends, so I went out and got it. It was just fine, but I didn’t become obsessed until I had that rough patch of life in the early 00s.

I’d listen to it regularly, always on headphones. I don’t even remember now how it became so important, or when, exactly, I started listening. But I have memories of lying down, baby asleep, house quiet, and letting the music work its magic. It soothed me, expressed feelings that I felt but didn’t understand, and kept me sane. I took to thinking of it as my “CD of Restraint,” akin to a chain that a werewolf attaches to himself while in human form to prevent his horrible, transformed lycanthropic self from running wild through the glow of a full moon.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if, without the record, I’d have gone on some killing spree, or would have awoken to find myself devouring a live goat at sunup. I don’t think I was that desperate. But it definitely helped my mental state at the time, from the opening winds of “Planet Telex.”

Phil Selway’s drums- in particular the strong bass drum – immediately grab the listener. Then Colin Greenwood’s bass enters with a loopy line, and all the sounds build to singer Thom Yorke’s entrance. His thin tenor sings lyrics that, frankly, probably resonate with anyone feeling down and out and wishing to wallow a bit. The chord pattern in the chorus, beginning at 1:20, is beautifully sad. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood adds cool guitar through the third verse, beginning at 1:55. I love the verses, and chorus, and how the band uses dynamics – a characteristic of most all Radiohead songs. When the bass re-enters about 3:40 and the song recedes with a little guitar riff outro, I find myself asking, “Was that the perfect song?”

And the band follows it up with another great song that hits you from the get-go. The title track, “The Bends.”

“The Bends” showcases Radiohead’s orchestral tendencies38 with an opening fanfare full of pomp. They scale things back so Yorke can sing – and once again, listening to the lyrics, I can see why I connected with them at the time. But despite the sad lyrics, the song is powerful and aggressive – as at 1:02, when another orchestral-sounding riff and bass set the stage for Yorke’s pre-chorus, then the guitars play simple chords as he sings. The band builds up to the chorus39 which Yorke sings with more power in each successive verse. This is another song that just sounds perfect to me – all the different pieces – and has one of my favorite guitar solos ever, beginning at 3:03, as Jonny goes back and forth between single notes and chords over top a furious band. It’s simple, but it’s wonderful.

After a couple barn-burning, aggressive songs, the band scales things back with “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” “High and Dry” shows the band can pull off the sad, acoustic numbers with ease – and while adding their own signature: guitar sounds, noises, and dynamic changes. It’s a lost-love song, and Yorke sings it well. The previous songs were sad but powerful – this one’s just sad.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is also sad, although the lyrics are about plastic surgery.

This is another of my favorite songs on the album. I think there are five or six favorites out of 12 great songs. It’s a showcase for singer Yorke, who sings sweetly until he opens things up, about 2:25, when he starts to really emote as the band goes nuts behind him. Then, at 3:34, he wonders if he could “be who you wanted, all the time.” It’s a song that still speaks to me, 25 years (!) after its release. (On a comment on the Official Video for this song, someone40 stated “Radiohead is the one band that can make you cry and cure your sadness at the same time.” I know what he means.)

The next song, “Bones,” returns to the guitar rock sound, albeit with a mid-tempo groove thanks to Selway and Colin Greenwood. I love when Yorke shouts “You got to feel it in your bones!” It’s a straightforward rocker that the band makes their own.

After rocking out, then slowing down, then rocking out, the boys mix things up with a song that seems to be one thing but – gloriously – can’t decide which it really is. It’s called “(Nice Dreams)” and it’s another favorite.

It’s a sweetly-swinging, 6/8 singalong song, almost like something you’d sing at camp as a kid. Swirling sounds support Yorke’s mystical lyrics. There’s great countermelody backing vocals the second time through the chorus, at 2:07. Then at about 2:24, it sort of goes a bit nuts, with Jonny squawking all kinds of squawks – or maybe it’s second guitarist Ed O’Brien. Then the song fades away – rather like a dream. A nice dream, actually. Perhaps a (nice dream).

The next song, “Just,” has a great groove, and nice doubling of the guitar and vocals. It’s one of the few songs on the record with lyrics that seem kind of angry. Jonny’s soaring guitar is really terrific, and the band again goes between soft and loud – they may be the band that does the most with dynamics outside of Pixies. In 2001, the Classical Music critic for The New Yorker magazine profiled the band and made connections between their songwriting and some of the “tricks” used by classical composers. Maybe that’s why the songs sound so good?

My Iron Lung” is another song, like “(Nice Dreams),” that has a section in the middle that comes out of nowhere, as if a different song was dropped in. This isn’t a criticism! I like it. It opens with a cool guitar riff, and a pumping, simple bass line that pushes it forward. It’s mid-tempo and peaceful, and builds in power, but nothing prepares the listener for the raucous section at 1:55. And while the lyrics say “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” this album means too much to me for me to agree. Even my least favorite song on the album, “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was,” is a song I like. The final song on the album, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” is another I don’t love … but it’s still very good.

Sulk” has all the majesty and pomp of the best Radiohead songs, its four-note guitar riff chiming like symphonic violins. Yorke emotes and howls the tale of disintegrating love.

“Black Star” is another of my favorites on the album. It has a swerving melody that Yorke sings at the top of his register. Jonny plays some terrific lines behind the verses. This song also has a harmony vocal, which is kind of rare for Radiohead, but it also has a tricky time-signature change, which is more common for them. It’s a song about things falling apart, and when the lyrics “this is killing me” appear at the end, it’s easy to see why it connected with me during the rough times.

I’ve had more rough patches since those days nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve had some amazing patches, as well. Either way, music has been an important tool in helping me through the pain and the glory. I often wonder if I’d like this record as much if I hadn’t stumbled onto it at that particular time. Who knows? Life is suffering, so I try to just accept the good things when I find them.

TRACK LISTING:
“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“Bones”
“(Nice Dreams)”
“Just”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Sulk”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

 

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11th Favorite Album: Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

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Damn the Torpedoes. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
1979, MCA. Producer: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
Purchased, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, is a collection of just 9 songs, but for Tom and the band that’s plenty to demonstrate their expertise. Petty writes simple songs that seem like they’ve always been in the air, and guitarist Mike Campbell adds exactly what’s needed. The Heartbreakers give each song the right spirit and feel, whether it’s a rockin’ ride or a subtle swing. And the record is only one of many excellent TP&HB albums.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.

But looking back over the first 89 albums, I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve only questioned the placement of one record. True, I realized mid-way that I’d probably missed a few of my favorites, and so I dealt with the issue of a static list in a dynamic world. But all-in-all, I’ve felt like I’ve done a reasonable job of listing those albums I love, and why. Number 11, however, marks my first egregious mistake.

I’ll divulge now for the sake of this album write-up: Damn the Torpedoes is the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on my Top 100. I really don’t understand how that happened. He’s got so many records that I love, that I’ve listened to so much, it just seems like there must be more than one Petty album on the list, right? So for album #11 I’m going to discuss several of his songs and albums, because there’s no way only one of his albums should be on my list.

First let me say that you should all go watch the 4 hour documentary by Peter Bogdonovich about Tom and his band, titled Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s excellent. It tells the story of Tom, a young Byrds and Beatles fan in the 60s, forming a hard-working, popular local Gainesville, FL, band, Mudcrutch, in the 70s, to World Domination as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Throughout it all, Petty just seems like a decent guy who likes to write and play songs. Who, in fact, doesn’t just like to write songs but admits that he’s never had writer’s block or any trouble at all writing songs. They just sort of come out of him.

And the amount of good stuff that comes out of him is rather astounding. Also rather astounding is the fact that he ended up in the same town, at the same time, as Mike Campbell, The Heartbreakers’ guitarist. Campbell has a sound that is unmistakable, the “Tom Petty sound,” playing leads and riffs that are typically spare, typically simple, and always cool. Take, for example, “Breakdown,” from the band’s 1976 first, self-titled album.

Listen to that little figure at 0:07, and then the main theme, an 8-second riff starting about 0:14. It’s classic Campbell. Also classic on that debut record is one of Petty’s most popular, enduring songs, “American Girl,” featuring another typical Campbell sound, the chiming guitar. Petty’s ability to meld singalong melodies with a ferocious backbeat is on display, as is his gift of telling a story, drawing well-defined characters, in a few lyrics. The band was more popular in the UK at this point, and released the single “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” there – and lip-synched it on TV! (Plenty of animated stars, but no keyboardist Benmont Tench in that performance.)

One of the great things about Petty is that in addition to all the hits you’ve heard on the radio41, he has so many terrific songs that were never huge. On that debut, there’s “Mystery Man.” On the band’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, there’s the rocking’ “Hurt,” and one of my favorite all time songs, “No Second Thoughts.”

I love the bass sound, the gentle drums and the harmony vocals. Also, I’m always impressed by Tom’s ability to write little novels in his songs. His nasally voice is used to great effect here. This album also contains the great radio tracks “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” An interesting fact (to me, anyway) about the high harmonies on most TP&HB songs: they’re sung by original drummer Stan Lynch!

After Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the band kept cranking out incredible albums. In 1981 they released Hard Promises, an album I had for years on vinyl. The band’s classic, “The Waiting,” is found on this album, a song that has some of my favorite Mike Campbell guitar, and great lyrics. But my favorite on the album is “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).”

It’s got the great, subtle, Campbell guitar, cool lyrics, and a nice bass line from guest bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The album features a duet with Stevie Nicks, “The Insider,” but doesn’t feature the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was recorded at the same time, but wound up on Nicks’s album Bella Donna. My picks for little-known gems on Hard Promises are “Nightwatchman” and “Letting You Go.” If you love Campbell’s guitar, listen to that “Nightwatchman” song. You’ll thank me!

Up next in the TP&HB discography comes 1982’s Long After Dark. I bought this cassette from the Columbia House Record Club back about 1983. I was a huge MTV fan, and this record featured the Mad Max-inspired MTV hit in “You Got Lucky,” a song that on first listen didn’t sound much like the band’s previous stuff, but still sounded good.

That spare Mike Campbell guitar is heard throughout, but on this song keyboardist Benmont Tench plays a synth, instead of the typical organ, giving a sort of 80s edge to the song. But it’s basic rock, and it has all the stuff I love about Tom and the band. The straightforward “Change of Heart” is also on Long After Dark, and it’s one of my favorites of his. My stand-out unknown track on this one is “We Stand a Chance.”

The next two records, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), from 1985 and 1987, respectively, scored a few hits, and one huge MTV blockbuster. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were fine songs that got lots of airplay42, but “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” written with The Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, had the iconic video (that in my opinion was better than the song itself!)

I remember my friends and I being impressed with the sitar sound, and I always liked the female backing vocalists. Of course, Mike Campbell’s guitar shines. The band also put out a live album in 1985, Pack Up the Plantation: Live, and included a scorching version of the old Byrds’ hit “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star.”

A few Tom Petty memories: 1) my best friend in high school, Dan, had an older brother he called Nature Boy who looked EXACTLY like Tom Petty. 2) My two older sisters went to Philadelphia to see Tom Petty in concert around 1983, and some would-be mugger attempted to steal my sister’s purse, but my other sister pounded on his back and drove him away! 3) Also, everyone – I mean everyone – in 1989 was listening to Tom Petty’s debut solo album (i.e. without The Heartbreakers) Full Moon Fever.

This record had hit after hit. Of course “Free Fallin'” was huge, but also “I Won’t Back Down,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “A Face in the Crowd” … all were hits. And “Love is a Long Road” got lots of airplay. He also had a few hits around this time with the supergroup he helped form, The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.).

So, that brings us to 1989, meaning he’s still got 30 years of music (almost: RIP Tom) ahead of him. Those first 13 years were incredible, but he kept doing what he’d done all along: put out great rock records. Into the Great Wide Open was a hit album in 1991, and it actually made me angry at Mr. Petty for some time.

A classic TP lyric was lifted from this song.

You see, he ripped off the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from The Replacements’ song “I’ll Be You,” after the band opened for him on tour. But I’m over it now. Anyway, the 90s saw great songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “You Wreck Me.” The 90s through 10s saw great albums: Wildflowers43, the She’s the One soundtrack, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, a Mudcrutch reunion, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. He kept cranking out great music well into his 60s.

I first remember Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a middle schooler, and in my mind they were lumped in with all the “skinny tie” bands back then. This was around 1979 to 1981, and acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and The Romantics were playing a punk-ish brand of guitar rock called “new wave.” It seemed that any act with a bit shorter hair and decent clothes that wasn’t playing blues-rock was painted with that new-wave, skinny tie brush – from Huey Lewis to Rick Springfield to Quarterflash to Tom Petty. (Even Billy Joel got into the act.)

In 1980, the songs “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were all over the radio. But I didn’t buy the record until years later, after college, when my cover band with Dr. Dave, JB and The So-Called Cells, began playing lots of Petty songs. It was then that I realized that not only do so many Petty songs SOUND great, they’re also REALLY FUN TO PLAY! This has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the man and his band.

Damn the Torpedoes comes out swinging with the smash hit “Refugee,” a song that will always remind me of playing backyard baseball and football up the street at the Starr’s house – it is the sound of 7th and 8th grade.

It starts with cool organ from Benmont Tench, a nice little guitar piece by Campbell, and then Tom’s signature vocal stylings. At 0:25, there’s a classic Mike Campbell bit where he slides back and forth between 2 notes, a subtle nugget that puts his signature on the song. (At 0:58 the video shows a close up of his left hand playing it again.) Petty sort of scats his way through the verses (albeit with real words), cramming syllables where they shouldn’t fit in as he begs his girl to stop pulling away. My favorite is the last verse where he suggests, “Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.” At 3:00, he also offers his signature scream, which has always reminded me of 80s shouting comic Sam Kinison.

Petty’s vocal stylings are used to great effect when he mumbles his way through the verses of the next song, the classic “Here Comes My Girl.”

I love the cool guitar slide at the beginning, and the rumble of Ron Blair’s bass. But in the verse, it’s Petty’s voice that carries it, talking the lyrics until 0:50, when he once again spits out the lyrics like a soundcloud rapper, flowing to the lovely chorus. It’s a heartfelt love song in which Petty describes how she makes him feel44. It’s one of his best vocal performances. Let’s face it, he’s not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but his voice is passionate and expressive. Stan Lynch’s harmony vocals through the chorus are terrific, too, as is Campbell’s squiggles and Tench’s piano in the verses. You could listen to most any Petty song a thousand times and hear something new in the mix each time.

On “Even the Losers,” Petty’s at his best in terms of melding great lyrics with great music. His description, through characters’ actions, of first love and how it crumbles is succinct and accurate and connects emotionally.

“It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me?” I love Campbell’s Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo, and once again Stan Lynch’s high harmonies hit the spot. The song brings back many memories of early relationships; as Tom sings, “life is such a drag when you’re living in the past.” (By the way: if you ever get time, and I know I already assigned homework with that other documentary, try to watch this documentary on The Making of Damn the Torpedoes. It’s really good.)

My favorite song on the album is the track “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”

One thing I’m always amazed by with Tom Petty is his ability to make a very simple riff so damned catchy! In “Shadow of a Doubt,” it’s four notes, played before each line in the verse. For me, those four notes make the song. It’s probably got my favorite Mike Campbell stuff, his wizardry allowing the listener to unearth new nuggets with every play. The band really rocks, and my favorite version of the song is this live version from the old early-80s Saturday Night Live competitor ABC’s Fridays. The lyrics are funny, discussing a girlfriend that Tom can’t figure out, someone who speaks in French while she sleeps! It’s got everything a Petty fan could ask for.

The rave-up “Century City” follows, a straight-ahead rocker about the good times ahead that Petty could probably write in his sleep. The song opens with what I believe are sounds from the old Defender arcade game. Also, I think Springsteen lifted the melody for his song “Pink Cadillac.” The band shines, as always. They also shine on “You Tell Me,” a groovy, piano/bass driven song about a scorned lover with great interplay between Campbell and Tench. Both of these songs are cool, and demonstrate that even the songs that weren’t hits are always worth a spin on a Tom Petty album. Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t tremendous.

“Don’t Do Me Like That” was a huge hit, a top ten Billboard smash, and the biggest hit for the band to that date, peaking at #10 in February, 1980.

The opening drums and piano sound important, the little organ riff sounds cool, and Tom’s fast-talking near-rap vocals about his best girl treating him bad are singalong-worthy, even though they’re hard to sing along to. Stan’s harmonies in the chorus are key, as is his little fill at 0:49 heading into verse 2. Campbell plays some sweet licks behind the vocals throughout, which are necessary, as the song doesn’t have a featured guitar solo. But the genius of Campbell is that he doesn’t require a solo to stand out. On the rocker “What Are You Doing In My Life” Campbell plays a slide guitar. Its honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies give it a country-rock feel. It’s another deep cut worth hearing from Petty, this one about a stalker fan.

The album closes after just 9 songs, an economy that I wish more artists would strive for. And it closes on the lovely, if lyrically ambiguous, “Louisiana Rain.”

The lyrics are vignettes of a traveling life, and they remind me of Bob Dylan45. In the chorus, the lyrics are reflected in the acoustic strumming, which somehow sounds like rain falling. It’s a simple song with a great melody and cool guitar, including more slide guitar from Campbell. It’s one of those album-ending songs that wraps up the experience neatly, and sticks with a listener, inviting a second, third, and many more listens.

The rhythm section, Stan (L) and Ron (second from right) wear the band t-shirt. That’s dedication.

Look, what can I say. Writing about 100 different albums is challenging, but even more so is SELECTING those records. If I look back at my list, there aren’t any records about which I’d say, “Damn, I should pull that one off the list46.” Yet there seems like there should be more room for Tom. He was a musical gift to rock fans, and as good as Damn the Torpedoes is, there is so much more. Go out and listen to him. I think you’ll agree.

TRACK LISTING:
“Refugee”
“Here Comes My Girl”
“Even the Losers”
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
“Century City”
“Don’t Do Me Like That”
“You Tell Me”
“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”
“Louisiana Rain”

 

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12th Favorite: Give the People What They Want, The Kinks

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Give the People What They Want. The Kinks.
1981, Arista Records. Producer: Ray Davies.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, is the band’s thumping, guitar-driven version of new-wave rock music. Singer/songwriter Ray Davies is a master of deep, witty lyrics set to catchy melodies, and brother Dave plays a terrific guitar throughout. The songs are angry and funny and full of emotion. I don’t think it was meant to be a rock-opera, concept album, but since I first heard it almost 40 years ago, it’s always sounded like one to me.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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You probably know we are living in The Information Age, but did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary47, the term was first coined by Robert Leghorn in 1960? I first recall hearing the term in 1983, in 10th grade history, when my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, asked if we knew what age we were living in. Some of us guessed the Nuclear Age or the Space Age. She said no, those were generally considered to be just a little earlier, and then she told us, “You are living in the Information Age!”

I was unimpressed. Most of the other ages – Bronze, Iron, Stone, Industrial, Nuclear, Space – conjured images of strong people working hard, or smart people creating new things. Men and women from these past ages seemed heroic48. And even those less-heroic Middle Ages at least included some mysterious, bizarre people and activities that were interesting. But THE INFORMATION AGE? How boring. It sounded like a world of encyclopedia salesmen.

This era is also known as “The Digital Age,” or “The Computer Age,” and these terms provide an image that, while definitely not as cool as a dude in a tunic smelting some copper, would have at least provided more context than “Information Age.” “Information” is a term so inclusive that it loses any meaning. But what I’ve come to understand from living through the transition to the information age, is just how information-starved I really was back in 10th grade. Specifically, a little more information certainly would’ve been helpful in my pursuit of good music.

Billy Joel summed up the problem of pre-Information-Age music fans quite succinctly, and in rhyme, in the song “It’s Still Rock n Roll to Me.”

It doesn’t matter what they say in the papers/ ‘Cause it’s always been the same old scene/ There’s a new band in town/ But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine/ Aimed at your average teen

-Billy Joel

In those days, the two easiest means of finding out about bands and music were a) the radio, and b) siblings and friends. One problem49 with (a) was that if your family listened to boring 70s AM radio, and you lived in the middle of nowhere, far from big cities and college towns and the diversity of radio formats they offered, you weren’t exactly hearing the cutting-edge new stuff. The problem with (b) was that it all depended on what your sibling liked. You could borrow friends’ music and listen, but again, you only found out what your friends liked.50

But I had a different way to find out about new music. Beginning in about 1979 or 1980, my family was a member of the Columbia House Record Club. Click that link, or do a little web-searching on your own, and you’ll find out all about the club. Basically, it was a mail service. You bought 12 records for a buck51, then agreed to buy 6 more records over the next year. It was one of those deals, like adjustable-rate mortgages, that if you stayed on top of things, you could maybe make work, but if you didn’t pay attention to, you’d get screwed big-time. The deal you agreed to with Columbia House was that whatever crappy record they sent you each month, you would buy – UNLESS you sent them a postcard to say you didn’t want it. I spent my high school years terrified of running out of postcard stamps, diligently rejecting every Olivia Newton-John, Debarge, Alabama, Night Ranger, etc., album they tried to send me.

Each month they also sent a little booklet52 containing a list of hundreds of albums available for purchase. At 12 years old, I had a back door into this exclusive Club (I’ll just call it “The Club”) because my older sisters were members. (I don’t mean to brag.) I pored through that booklet regularly, figuring it was how the savvy music-enthusiast performed research. What I didn’t recognize as a 12-year-old was that the booklet provided the absolute least amount of information possible about a record to still qualify as “information.” The Club had to cram as many album descriptions as possible into a flimsy, 4″ x 6″, 6-page booklet, which included sections for Country and Western, Jazz, Easy Listening, and Soul, in addition to “Rock and Roll,” the genre of listener my sisters had self-identified as in their first purchase. So, the Music Guide editors ruthlessly enforced a character limit per album description53.

Only a few of the listings would include a picture of the album cover. Most just were represented by a bulleted blurb. In either case, the artist and album name would be listed in bold-face, and sometimes truncated. For example, the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album You’re Gonna Get It! might be listed as “T. Petty/Heartbreakers, ‘You’re … Get It’

Next would follow entirely unhelpful bits of reviews from music magazines, literally single words that meant nothing to a music fan. “Exciting!” – Crawdaddy. “Rollicking!” – Cashbox. If no positive words could be culled from any reviews written about the album in any recognizable magazines, then The Club staff would add a few empty, pseudo-tantalizing phrases to the description: “Hitmaker Petty at it again.” “‘American Girl’ rocker impresses.”

Finally, a few song titles would be listed – but only the shortened titles of singles, and then some other few-lettered songs. For example, “Listen…Heart,” “Need … Know,” “Hurt.” These words meant the singles “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know,” and the song “Hurt,” because it’s only four letters long.

I don’t know if nepotism played a role, but by 1982, the spring of my freshman year of high school, I was allowed entree to The Club. I found a 12-for-a-penny offer sheet – probably inside the Sunday Parade magazine, next to a classically unfunny Howard Huge cartoon – and scoured my sisters’ Music Guide for the details that would guide my initial selections.

I quickly realized it was a waste of time. Instead, I just chose 12 cassettes containing songs I’d heard on the radio, or that I knew my friends already liked. I still remember the titles of most of those first 12 selections. And I still remember the date they arrived: Friday, March 5, 1982. I was at a school event that evening, telling my friend Bruce about my new cassettes, when he told me that John Belushi had died that day.

One cent bought me some Greatest Hits cassettes: The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Yes. I also chose Crimes of Passion, by Pat Benatar; Business as Usual, by Men at Work; Permanent Waves, by Rush, and Get Lucky, by Loverboy. And I picked two albums that have appeared on my 100 Favorite Albums: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police; and Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, the album that sent me down the path of love for hooky, guitar-driven, fast-paced rock..

The Kinks are surely one of the most well-known and important bands of The First British Invasion in the ’60s, not to mention in the entire history of rock music. Guitarist Dave Davies is sometimes credited with “inventing” heavy metal on the song “You Really Got Me.” His brother, bandleader/songwriter Ray Davies, was McCartney-esque in his ability to write songs in most any style, including mod pop, British music hall, even disco. His lyrics could be funny, biting, insightful and moving.

By the early 1980s, the aging British bands of the 60s and 70s were trying to stay modern and MTV-ready in any way possible. The Stones tried disco. The Who cut their hair. David Bowie went full-on Top 40. Paul McCartney, well … I don’t know exactly what that was. But The Kinks, who’d always sort of done whatever they wanted, musically, continued to just be The Kinks.

From the first time I heard Give the People What They Want in full, until this very day, I’ve thought of it as a concept album, as a story of a man’s descent into madness over the pressures placed on his artistic soul by the heavy weight of corporate and economic realities. I’ve never heard Ray Davies speak of it in those terms, but when he writes a blog, he can dispute my take on it. The lead track, “Around the Dial,” begins the tale with a story of a missing DJ.

It’s difficult, in 2019, to express how important radio DJs were in 1950s-80s American culture, but they really were influencers, taste-makers, and local celebrities. The song opens with a radio being tuned54 followed by crashing power chords. I love the sound of Mick Avory’s drums on this record – it’s a live, Albini-esque, In Utero sound. The song’s a driving number, and Dave’s lead guitar nicely answers the vocals throughout the verses. I like Jim Rodford’s bass line, too. The song is basically a punk song, and at 2:00 Dave actually hits some of those ringing, Ramones-style chords. There’s a nice bridge at 3:06, then that radio tuning sound comes back (3:38) and we head to the end. Ray’s voice is excellent, his ability to enunciate and shout in tune is pretty terrific. The character singing the song doesn’t know what’s happened (“Was it something that you said to the corporation guys upstairs?”) but the second song provides a pretty big clue.

The title track indicates that those corporation guys wanted the DJ to play some whack, bullshit, popular crap.

Ray Davies is clearly dubious of entertainment for the masses. “Blow out your brains, and do it right /Make sure it’s prime time and on a Saturday night.” The song has a great guitar riff, and nice dueling guitar parts leading up to the first verse. The guitars sound like they’re in a Replacements song, a band that was just getting off the ground in 198155. It’s a raucous, lovely mess of a song, with great vocals and thumping bass.

The next song, “Killer’s Eyes,” opens softly, and in the Give the People What They Want Rock Opera I’ve built in my head, the DJ is considering his own dark thoughts, and his companions’ are concerned that his leaving his job is an ominous sign. (It’s actually about Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.) It’s got a great chord progression, and more great, subtle lead guitar from Dave, and I love Ray’s last run through the chorus, at 3:30.

Of course there’s biting wit in all the songs, but it wouldn’t seem like The Kinks if there wasn’t at least a bit of light humor in the proceedings as well, and “Predictable” provides it.

Dave’s cool-sounding guitar opens the song, which turns out to be a sort of reggae song with a rock beat. It’s about a man who’s life has gotten, well, predictable. (In my concept album, the DJ is questioning his home life, pressure mounting.) I like how the guitar and bass transition to the chorus (0:30), and the double guitars throughout. Ray’s girlfriend at the time, Kinks-enthusiast and superstar Chrissie Hynde, provides backing vocals. I also think it’s not unintentional that a song called “Predictable” is rather repetitive.

In my story for Give the People What They Want, the DJ is not only feeling “Predictable,” he’s also angry that his wife is too materialistic. (This will be important later!) It’s summed up in the terrific “Add It Up,” one of my favorite tracks on the record.

It’s an aggressive song, with Dave’s alternating chiming guitar and power chords driving it. Rodford’s bass sound is rich, especially on the little runs (0:42) he fills in. Ray’s voice is awesome in this song, ranging across a difficult melody, at times with delicacy and others with rage. Hynde coos the “Cartier! Gucci!” backing vocals, and Dave harmonizes on the “Add it Up” choruses. It’s a pounding song that always prepares me for the next one, the album hit, and the Sound of Freshman Year, Fall 1981, “Destroyer.”

This song was everywhere that fall. It had everything teenage boys of the era loved: loud guitars, shouting lyrics, and a singalong hook. As a fan of The Kinks, it’s cool to hear the band reference both “Lola,” the band’s 1970 hit about a surprising date, and “All Day and All of the Night,” the band’s 1964 hit, from which the guitar riff is borrowed. Dave’s guitar really shines on “Destroyer.” The tone is great on all the little fills he plays throughout. There’s cool piano in the background, and the band’s backing shouts add to the power. Lyrically, the song’s about mental health, and in my story the DJ finally cracks. On the rest of side 256 we will find out what happened to him!

In “Yo-Yo,” the DJ’s wife is realizing something’s wrong with him. Dave’s guitar arpeggiates behind Ray’s voice on what starts as a soft number. But at 1:24 it’s back to power chords as we get the DJ’s crazy take on things. It’s a cool guitar song, particularly through Verse 3 (beginning 2:28). The song transitions into “Back to Front,” a rave-up with excellent guitar. Dave Davies isn’t often mentioned among the Guitar Greats, though Rolling Stone ranked him at #91 all-time, but he’s a furious, inventive talent. In this song, the DJ’s friends have had enough of his bullshit. Everyone has left him.

Even, we find out, his young daughter.

“Art Lover” is one of those songs that, if one doesn’t listen closely to the lyrics, sounds really creepy, if not downright horrifying, as a grown man eyes little girls. By the end we realize he’s a parent separated from his child, trying to get a glimpse of what he’s lost. It’s a sad song. And as someone who finds himself missing the days of parenting toddlers – long days at the playground, relaxing with a coffee while making sure nobody breaks an arm – I do find myself looking at active little kids with a sense of loss, and I try not to look creepy about it.

But maybe The DJ lost the kids for a good reason? “A Little Bit of Abuse” suggests he took out his frustrations on his wife. (At least, in my very specific reading of the album as a story of one DJ’s descent into madness.) It’s a bluesy, gritty guitar song, with great harmony vocals throughout. The lyrics actually offer a very 70s/80s view of spousal abuse, in which the battered partner shares blame because they stay. This idea can come from a place of encouragement (“You DO have the power to leave!”), but it also misses the complexities of the issue.

In any case, “Art Lover” and “A Little Bit of Abuse” are a one-two punch of desperate sadness. What could follow? Well, how about the song that may be my favorite (non-Beatles) song of all time: “Better Things.”

It’s got a cool sound, cool guitars, great melody, and lyrics that offer nothing more than simple kindness and a blessing: “I hope tomorrow you find better things.” Everything’s gone down the shitter for our DJ, but everyone – even he – can hope for improvements. I love how the guitar answers the melody throughout, and the ringing sounds Dave pulls from it. To this point in The Kinks’ career, many had grown accustomed to Ray’s cynical lyrics. It may have been shocking to hear him earnestly wish, “hoping all the verses rhyme/ and the very best of choruses, too.” It’s a song that, when I’m feeling down, can bring me deep, deep joy.

So, I don’t know. It’s true, we’re in the Information Age, but was all of this stuff I just wrote here TOO MUCH information? Does anyone care about my Columbia House memories? Did anyone need to read about a story I invented for an album I really, really love? Maybe not. But this is, after all, the Information Age. I’m here doing my part, the equivalent of an ancient Pict, grooving in a forest, making bronze tools. I’m providing information, and the information is this: Give the People What They Want is a record I love!

TRACK LISTING:
“Around the Dial”
“Give the People What They Want”
“Killer’s Eyes”
“Predictable”
“Add It Up”
“Destroyer”
“Yo-Yo”
“Back to Front”
“Art Lover”
“A Little Bit of Abuse”
“Better Things”


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13th Favorite: American Idiot, by Green Day.

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American Idiot. Green Day.
2004, Reprise Records. Producer: Rob Cavallo and Green Day.
Purchased, 2004.

IN A NUTSHELL: American Idiot, by Green Day, is a punk rock opera, and the band offers up the variety of sounds and styles that an opera requires, all while keeping their punk attitude and spirit in place. Billie Joe Armstrong can write hooks and riffs in his sleep, and supported by Tre Cool’s frantic drums and Mike Dirnt’s bass and, especially, vocal harmonies, he creates songs I want to hear again and again – even if I don’t really understand the story. But that’s opera for you.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Ah, politics. How I hate politics. I hate politics because I am, by nature, someone who wants to get along with people and who seeks to avoid conflict. If I can engage someone in conversation about music or books or movies or sports, I can generally steer things away from politics. This tactic reveals something about me that I’m not thrilled with, and that I’d like to improve, but that is true, nonetheless: I can be quite judgmental. I won’t judge you for the sports teams or books or movies or music you like (very much). I probably will judge you for your politics57. It’s a character flaw, and I am working on it and have learned to get past it.

I generally don’t write so directly about politics on this blog. And even though I have done so in the past, don’t worry – you can read this post without feeling the tut-tutting, scolding, finger-waving author on your shoulder, telling you what a lousy person you are because you disagree with him about tax law. You see, this post will not be about politics. It will be about political music.

I was a kid in the 70s, during and just after The Vietnam War, so I certainly was aware of political music from the time I was aware of music. I grew up in a very conservative area in Pennsylvania, and my family was conservative58, and so we just didn’t discuss the political nature or the situations that necessitated writing such songs as “For What It’s Worth” and “War” and “Get Together.” Most folks I knew liked the songs, ignored their messages, and mocked the hippies that sang them.

The vast majority of the political songs tended to come, politically-speaking, from the Left, where a long tradition of protest music wound its way from folk music into rock. There was at least one popular 60s political song from the Right (here’s a second version), but most musical conservative viewpoints came from Country Music, which my family hated, and so which I never listened to (although that’s changing). In the 70s, most “protest” songs (if you will) that commented on The Left came in the form of novelty songs like “The Streak” and “Junk Food Junkie” and “Disco Duck.”

Growing up, and even through high school and college, I disliked the lyrical content of most political songs (except the novelty songs, which I loved). At that time in my life I often disagreed with the lefty sentiments59, and I also felt uncomfortable that many of the songs seemed designed purely to piss off half the listeners. The ones I did appreciate were songs like “Fortunate Son,” by CCR, which seemed to have a message that everyone60 could get behind.

Also, by this point the 80s were in full swing, which was NOT an era of protest. The hippies had become yuppies, and coffee-achievers, and they put Deadhead stickers on their Cadillacs. Popular “protest” songs were now just cheesy pop songs in disguise. The real protest songs were unheard on radio, confined to sub-genres and underground styles. But by the end of the decade, the burgeoning and suddenly popular hip-hop scene brought back a healthy dose of the sounds of protest.

Throughout all this time I was happy that the protest songs had taken a backseat. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. But in 1991, R.E.M. changed my perspective. I was watching that year’s MTV Music Awards and the band cleaned up for their video for “Losing My Religion.” With every win, singer Michael Stipe appeared onstage in a different t-shirt bearing a statement for a cause he supported: handgun control, rainforest conservation, safe sex, etc. I’d always been an R.E.M. fan, and in watching that show, I understood the desire for certain people to use their platform to raise awareness. Since then I’ve made peace with musical protest. Whether or not I agree with the sentiment61, I no longer feel uncomfortable that they’re putting it out there.

But despite my newfound acceptance of such efforts, the 90s weren’t exactly a hotbed of protest songs. The Gen-X/Slacker/Whatever era was in full swing, and detached indifference and woe-is-me angst were all the rage. Oh Well, whatever. Never mind. Also, mainstream hip-hop had pivoted away from violent (perhaps) protest to pure violence. The Lilith Fair era late in the decade could certainly be seen as a protest against a male-dominated music industry, but the music wasn’t uniformly dissent-rock62, and stuck mostly to the popular 90s personal-problems motifs.

Since that 1991 epiphany, I began to reconsider the nature of some of the music I’d loved my whole life: The Beatles, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Lynrd Skynrd, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. They’d all been political, at least in some points in their musical careers. Some of them were subtle in how they expressed it, some weren’t. But it’s only natural that most artists would feel compelled to put their beliefs and ideas and opinions into their art. It’s just, kind of, what they do. So I’m no longer put off by music with a message. Unless I think the song sucks.

Of all the acts who began hitting the charts in the early 90s, Green Day may have been the least expected to release a political statement album. Their breakout album, 1994’s Dookie, was terrific, but the songs focused on getting stoned, living in squalor and, well, getting stoned. But then again, they came from the East Bay DIY Punk scene which is inherently political, and they were always champions of social causes like gay rights.

Dookie was the first I’d heard of them, and I became a fan right away. Many of my friends dismissed them as a 70s punk ripoff band, and maybe they were, but their melodies and energy had me hooked. And even though they opened the door for a wave of bands ripping off bands who were ripping off bands who were ripping off 70s punk, I thought they were carving their own musical path. Through the 90s and early 00s they put out great records, including 2000’s excellent album Warning, which was, at times, almost a folk-rock album. My wife liked them, too, and for a while she took such an interest in front man and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong that I took to calling him her boyfriend – a nickname I still use when I discuss him with her.

By the time 2004 rolled around, and W. was the USA’s figurehead63, I was ready for more Green Day music, and I was ready for an artistic expression of political outrage and resistance. However, I certainly didn’t expect I’d get both in one package: American Idiot. As with many Rock Operas and concept albums, the story in American Idiot doesn’t always hew exactly to the purported theme. In fact, a very conservative guy I worked with when it came out loved the album because the message was so muddled that he could listen and not even worry much about what he was singing along to64. Even the song “American Idiot” has a title that could describe anyone of any political viewpoint,

The album opens with the kind of catchy, simple guitar riff that singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong seems to write in his sleep. It’s straightforward, and drummer Tre Cool pounds a vicious beat throughout, and changes things up when they need it, like about 1:09. Armstrong plays a catchy guitar solo, and things wrap up nicely. The lyrics bemoan the American media and how it fanned the flames of paranoia after 9/11. It’s an opening blast that can’t be ignored, but it also could’ve been part of any previous Green Day album.

“Jesus of Suburbia” follows, and it’s this 9-minute, 5-song suite, with its multi-part story of alienated teens, that lets Green Day fans know this won’t be a standard, smirking Green Day album.

Part 1, “Jesus of Suburbia,” opens with guitar fanfare, and once again Tre Cool keeps a cool beat. I’ve always thought one of the secret weapons of the band was bassist Mike Dirnt’s playing and harmony vocals. He’s one in a long line of terrific harmony-singing bassists: Paul (of course), Michael Anthony, Randy Meisner, Mike Mills. The album doesn’t feature his playing as much as some previous records, but he provides the backing “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs” and they sound great.

The song transitions to part 2, “City of the Damned,” nicely at 2 minutes with some piano flourishes. The chorus is catchy, and the shout-along background vocals provide some oomph. The dynamics shift between chorus and verse, then remain loud for part 3, “I Don’t Care.” It includes a fanfare, and, at 4:31, a violent, crunching litany of complaints, then finishes with a hooting “I Don’t Care!” At this point, I always think, “man! That song was awesome!!” Then the terrific part 4, “Dearly Beloved” begins, and I’m a bit more astonished.

It’s a bouncy, folky song with glockenspiel and more Mike Dirnt harmonies. Folks on YouTube, commenting on the video version of this song, say “Jesus of Suburbia” reminds them of a “punk ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” I guess I could see that. Especially as part 5, “Tales of Another Broken Home,” plays. It’s an operatic song that really stands on its own. Excellent syncopated drums at 7:00, to begin the pre-chorus, and the continued harmonies, have me singing along whenever I listen. The guitar solo, about 7:55, starts very simply, then moves to a cool riff. The final bit of the song, with soft piano and vocals building to the end, is quite satisfying. The first time I heard this 9-minute opus, I thought, “Holy shit.” And I still think it whenever I hear it!

Even the songs that aren’t part of named suites often run together, for example “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” both of which hit the pop charts, with the latter being Green Day’s biggest commercial hit ever.

“Holiday” is another political song, and this time it connects and captures some of what it felt like in the early 00s to question a war that today has been proven to have been based upon lies. It’s got the classic Green Day/Armstrong riff and melody. The spoken word portion is great, and the refrain “Just cause,” which was a term thrown around quite a bit back in the day, is used to great effect. But it’s the melody, the riff, and the drums that I love.

“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is one of those songs that just stays with you. I don’t know if it’s something about the chord pattern, or the sounds, or the sad-sack lyrics to which anyone who’s had a bad day can relate. This is a song that Dirnt’s harmonies really shine on, and the little touches of piano and a constant feeling of swelling help make it resonate. The outro riff (7:30 in the video above) sounds like Classic Rock 101, reminiscent of The Beatles “She’s So Heavy,” which is perfectly fine by me.

“Are We the Waiting” is a power-ballad of a song, without the mushy love of those 80s power-ballads. It’s got cool girl-group drums and a nice arpeggiated guitar line. The song is one of a few on the album with shout-along lyrics designed especially to connect with angsty teens (and adults who remember being angsty teens!) I’m not sure who the Jesus of Suburbia is, even after listening to this record a million times, but when Billie Joe sings that the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie, the 15-year old in me knows just what he means. And the disgust he feels gets him ready to bang his head right along to “St. Jimmy,” a song about a character in the story. It’s an aggressive punk song, with great drum fills as it changes (4:40) to a Beach Boys-esque number.

At this point in the American Idiot story, I’m not too concerned about whether it’s a cohesive narrative. I’ve decided to just enjoy it. “Give Me Novocaine” and “She’s a Rebel” continue the slow song about sadness/fast song about wild abandon pattern that’s been established. “Extraordinary Girl” is straightforward pop about a girl, with terrific harmony vocals. Then comes one of my favorites on the record, “Letterbomb.”

I like the tinny guitar that opens it, and the energy and melody. I like the guitar line throughout, and (of course) the harmony vocals. But what I most love, as a Cheap Trick fan since middle school, is how Green Day cribs a bit of the melody from Cheap Trick’s “She’s Tight.” The lyrics involve a part of the story where (I think) a realization is made and someone leaves town.

It sets up one of Green Day’s biggest hits, the song of loss (written for Billie Joe’s father, who died of cancer when he was 10) “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Much like the bands 90s hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” this is a song that many punk diehards will detest out-of-hand, despite the thumping choruses. However, it is a testament to the band’s range and power. And it’s understandable why the song became so important to so many non-punks.

After all this, the band still has time for one more epic, multi-part suite that tells the end of the story, and – shockingly – sends the band into near prog-rock territory! It’s the formidable (and somewhat exhausting?) “Homecoming.”

It starts with distorted vocals and guitar on “The Death of St. Jimmy,” and “East 12th St.,” and in both, the band recapitulates all that’s come before: melody, harmonies, cool drums, Beach Boy oohs, shout-along lyrics. “Nobody Likes You” repeats the melody of “Letterbomb,” and “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” gives drummer Tre Cool a few seconds at the mic. By the time “We’re Coming Home Again” ends – with tympani, chimes and as much pomp as punk can muster – I’m reminded of Abbey Road‘s side two medley. I reach the end of American Idiot feeling like I just experienced something great.

And it finishes with a perfect album closer, “Whatsername.”

Despite its dance-beat opening, there’s a kind of sadness, a finality to the song. It’s about an old girlfriend who’s left, a character in the opera named Whatsername. I hear something Westerbergian (songwriter from The Replacements) in the song – a sense of trying to seem fine despite the pain. The harmonies at 2:36 often bring chills to me, and after Armstrong’s last verse the song ends suddenly, which somehow seems fitting after 20 songs of so much drama. “Whatsername” feels like the coda the album needed.

I don’t like discussing politics. I do like discussing music. What’s great about American Idiot, and most of the political or protest songs that I’ve loved, is that you don’t have to agree, or even care, about the themes and statements to appreciate the music. Maybe I’m an American Idiot for saying this, but I think American Idiot is an incredible record no matter what your political beliefs may be.

TRACK LISTING:
“American Idiot”
“Jesus of Suburbia”
~~i. “Jesus of Suburbia”
~~ii.”City of the Damned”
~~iii. “I Don’t Care”
~~iv. “Dearly Beloved”
~~v. “Tales of Another Broken Home”
“Holiday”
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
“Are We the Waiting”
“St. Jimmy”
“Give Me Novocaine”
“She’s a Rebel”
“Extraordinary Girl”
“Letterbomb”
“Wake Me Up When September Ends”
“Homecoming”
~~i. “The Death of St. Jimmy”
~~ii. “East 12th St.”
~~iii. “Nobody Likes You”
~~iv. “Rock and Roll Girlfriend”
~~v. “We’re Coming Home Again”
“Whatsername”


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