Category Archives: Albums 100 – 91

91st Favorite: Some Girls, by The Rolling Stones

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Some Girls. The Rolling Stones.
1978, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: The Glimmer Twins
Purchased ca. 1988.

album some girls

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – The Stones prove they can play most any style of 70s rock you want: disco, country, new wave, blues, punk … it’s all in there, and they do it all amazingly well. An awesome guitar record that bears repeated listening from a band at the peak of its abilities and confidence. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had an emotional connection to more of the songs.

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In 1991 I was playing bass in a band called The April Skies, and we got booked to play a few shows at the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan. manhattanThe CMJ Music Marathon is sponsored by what used to be called the “College Music Journal,” an organization for college radio stations to introduce new music and bands, and help aspiring music industry collegians learn about the business. The Marathon was 3 or 4 days of music industry seminars and discussions, and 3 or 4 nights of concerts throughout Manhattan – some of which I was sober enough to completely recall 25 years later. We saw great concerts by just-beginning-to-break, early 90s alternative big-wigs like Blur, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Matthew Sweet. bandsWe saw even better concerts by unknown bands, like the fabulous Berserk, out of Baltimore, whose song “Giant Robots” remains one of my all time favorites.

I also got to meet, and speak briefly with, guitarist Vernon Reid, reid of Living Colour, who asked our band if we’d “heard the new Nirvana album [Nevermind] yet?” We said we liked it, and he said, “It’s like …” and he paused for a bit, slowly extending his fist to nearly-arm’s-length, and then extending it fully with a jerk, “… BOOM!!” (There have been worse ways to describe it, I guess.)

Also, Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier – who looked like she must have been 45 years old, I swear – signed an autograph for me. To give to my sister. I swear!kier

It was a lot of fun, and – even though the Dean of American Rock Critic Assholes, Robert Christgau, didn’t think so – a great experience. But strangely, of all the memories that stick with me from the experience, one of the most-enduring was a poster I saw plastered onto walls and fences all over lower Manhattan advertising the new album by a rapper named MC Lyte. The album was called Act Like You Know.mc lyte

I was not much of a rap fan then, and aside from a single album by De La Soul, I didn’t own any hip hop. What attracted me to the poster was the name of the album. It stopped me in my tracks: Act Like You Know. It struck me, like a slap in the face, that here was some advice that I had been searching for for 24 years. The title was a revelation; in the words of Evan Dando, “the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete…” MC Lyte was at the Marathon, too, and drummer Mark and I stood in line to get her autograph. I didn’t know anything about her music, I just wanted to see her up close. She was short.

The phrase “Act Like You Know” was a revelation to me. Like all humans, I had been in a number of uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unfortunate situations throughout my life. My response to all of these, regardless of the circumstances, chiefhad been to stand as still as possible, making as little sound as possible, staring as straight ahead as possible, trying to blend in to any background possible. I was like “The Chief,” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I didn’t know any other way to act. But here was a suggestion that sounded like it just might work …

See, my parents themselves didn’t know how to “Act Like They Knew.” If presented with an uncomfortable social situation – which for them could encompass watership downanything from getting the wrong order from the pizza shop, to being asked if they liked their kids’ elementary school – they never considered acting like they knew what to do, or how to respond. They had no trouble simply standing there, looking confused, smiling a little, and making the situation logarithmically more awkward by the second for everyone involved. My parents basically taught me to freeze at any inkling of trouble. They may as well have been cottontail rabbits. I guess it could have been worse – they could have been opossums, and I could have spent my adolescence falling to the floor to play dead whenever a girl talked to me. (To be fair, they taught me all kinds of other useful stuff, like how to be polite and how to take a fish off the hook without being stabbed by the outstretched, spiky dorsal fin.)

crappie

“Act Like You Know” is a simple idea, and actually not difficult to master. Whenever you find yourself in a situation in which you feel like you have NO FRIGGING IDEA what you should do, or how you should act, Act Like You Know what you should do, and do it. It’s a childhood game – we all loved to play “Let’s Pretend” when we were little, and most of us didn’t need help from others to learn it, and “Act Like You Know” is just an extension of that.

A pretty girl asks you if you’re going to the dance this Friday night? Pretend you’re a suave, worldly bondJames Bond-type gentleman, smile a little bit and say, “I think I am. Are you?” It beats saying, “Uh … I get really sweaty at dances,” which may or may not have been a response I uttered in high school when I found myself in such a situation. (Whether I did or not is beside the point.)

Your boss asks you if you can write up a report on flange-modulation in the thermal duct industry? Pretend you wrote your Master’s Thesis on flange-modulation, and tell him he’ll have the report in a week. (Then get to the library REAL QUICK and figure out something to say!)

airplaneA flight attendant tells you the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated due to food poisoning and asks you if you can land the plane? Pretend you don’t speak English and babble some gibberish until she asks someone else. (Let’s not go overboard – Acting Like You Know doesn’t give you superpowers.)

I’ve come to believe that one of the key attributes of successful people – and you can define success however you want – is their ability to Act Like They Know. The instances where “Act Like You Know” could have helped me in my early life are multitudinous. Here are a few examples:

When L., an attractive 11th grade feature jugheadmajorette, who had asked a friend to ask me – a freshman trombone player – to ask her out, ended our miniature golf date in her car by saying, “You can kiss me goodnight,” and I grinned and said, “Uh, goodnight!” and ran out of the car. Without kissing her. Somehow – and I remember this plainly – I wasn’t sure she really wanted me to kiss her goodnight, and instead of Acting Like I Knew what the words “You can kiss me goodnight” meant, I ran away like a bunny.

When Dr. Dave’s warm, friendly South Philly family would greet me with a hug or – heavens above! – his mom or grandma leaned in for a kiss on the cheek, I – being from a place where folks barely say hello to people they know, let alone move their faces within a foot of near-strangers – stood there like Hymie, from Get Smart!, hymiegenerating endless comments from Dr. Dave’s mom such as, “Boy, he’s a shy one, isn’t he!” and “Look at him just stand there like that!” Instead of Acting Like I Knew where to land a greeting kiss, or how long and tight to hug, or what to do with my hands … I just stood there.

Of course, the danger in Act Like You Know is that you can overdo it, or use it in situations where it’s not warranted, and find yourself becoming a dreaded Bullshit Artist. tarlekBut as often as not, you’ll find the people in any given situation with you are Acting Like They Know at the same time you’re Acting Like You Know, and you are all simply figuring out the situation as you go along. The bottom line is this: in a society, there are only basic guidelines to follow on how to interact with others, and very, very few hard-and-fast rules; and even these – don’t breathe on other people, don’t squeeze other people, keep your clothes on – are so basic that if you are either mentally healthy or properly medicated, you don’t have to worry about breaking them. So relax, pretend, engage.

friendly

Although it’s true, as I’ve written before, that almost all rock music is based on what came before it, it is also true that popular musical styles are always changing. Since the 50s, teens have been the main consumers of popular music, and if there’s one thing teens want more than anything, it’s to be different than the old fuddy-duddies who came before them.

So while popular music since the 50s may have kept the typical structure of 4/4 time, strong backbeat, repetitious melody and standard instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars, keyboards), it also changed dramatically to include rock and roll, folk rock, guitar pop, music evolvespsychedelic rock, R&B, blues rock, funk, heavy metal, disco, prog rock, punk rock, new wave, noise rock, hip-hop, electronic music, and a million other sub-genres that meld any or all of the above.

Within this changing landscape, it can be difficult for a band to sustain a career. One day your sound is cutting edge, the next day you sound and look like somebody’s prank. It may be even more difficult for an established band to navigate the changing musical landscape. Some bands hop on every trend and try to meld themselves with the latest sound – a situation perfectly satirized in the brilliant film This Is Spinal Tap.

ac aeroSome bands, like AC/DC, just keep doing the same thing they always did and ignore the changes around them, whether it’s 1976, 1990, or 2008.

Some bands, like Aerosmith, do a weird thing where they try to act like they’re doing the same thing they always did, but actually completely change everything about themselves from, say, 1973 to 1998. Styles change, tastes change, and it’s not easy for a band to Act Like They Know what to do in any given environment.

70s

The 1970s was a decade of wild diversity and change in the popular music industry. Singer/songwriter folk, funk, glam rock, Philly soul, punk rock, disco, blues rock, progressive rock … they all simmered together in the 70s musical stew. Right now, in 2014, it’s difficult to remember, but there was a time when not only a) people listened to music on the radio, but also, b) that radio station might play a song by Gloria Gaynor, followed by John Denver, followed by Bad Company!

In that era of the musical buffet, The Rolling Stones – an aging dinosaur of 60s blues rock – hit the studio in 1977 and emerged with a record that demonstrated perfectly how a band can Act Like You Know. Some Girls is ten tracks of The Stones playing disco, new wave and punk – along with their usual country and blues – and they manage it all with a nonchalance and ease that says, “Don’t worry, folks. We know what we’re doing.”

1978

Throughout the Stones’ history, they’ve Pretended several times, and the results didn’t always fool anybody. (See the psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request) But they get it right on Some Girls.

I’ve written before about my history with The Rolling Stones and how I had heard so much of their music on the radio over the years that I rarely felt compelled to buy their albums. I also didn’t have many friends who were Stones aficionados. I knew many Beatles maniacs, some U2 crazies, and a few Doors Fans but none of my friends were really Stones people.

In 1987, I transferred from one college to another, and one of the first friends I made at the new school was a smart, funny guy named Dean Z. Dean and I were both education majors, and we’d spend our time laughing, arguing politics (at the time I was a Conservative prick; hard to believe, considering that now I’m such a Liberal prick) and talking about music. Dean was the first big Stones fan friend I had. He did an AWESOME Mick Jagger impression, and I have vague memories of being at parties with him, and the two of us performing – typically at the very end of the night, when only the most drunken, keith 2014depressed, socially-inept audience remained – a Mick/Keith pantomime to “Start Me Up,” or “Gimme Shelter,” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” He was a great Mick; I did a mediocre Keith impression, but come to think of it, so does Keith these days. Dean’s friendship inspired me to finally buy an album, and so the next summer – having a love for the song “Shattered,” and a memory of being frightened by the album cover as a 10 year old – I went out and purchased Some Girls.

When I listen to Some Girls, the first thing I notice is all the guitars!! Mick is credited with playing the guitar on five of the ten songs, and the third guitar (in addition to stalwarts Keith Richards and Ron Wood) provides a solid frame onto which Keith and Ron can hang their cool, dueling licks and solos.

The guitar layers are particularly well-displayed in their cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” mick guitar The Temptations’ version of the song is remembered (obviously, I guess, as they were a vocal group) for the vocal harmonies, and beautiful falsetto of lead singer Eddie Kendricks. The Stones, however, Act Like They Know how to play a harmony-laden soul song, turn it into a guitar song, and make it work as such. I feel like with every repeated listen I hear another guitar riff that I hadn’t noticed before. The song itself is a masterpiece of lyrics and longing, and Mick does a great job interpreting it in his unmistakable “Mick” manner. The vocal harmonies from Keith are excellent, as always, and – in what is a constant throughout Some Girls – drummer Charlie Watts smashes 8th notes on his kick drum repeatedly. By the end of the record, I start to think of it as “Charlie’s kick drum record,” as he works those 8ths frequently, throughout. Here, the Stones play it live – and Mick does a lot of guitar-holding:

The most famous song on Some Girls is no doubt “Miss You,” which turned out to be the last of the Stones’ 8 number 1 hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. miss you On this song, the Stones Act Like They Know how to play disco music, and once again they pull it off amazingly well. The song reached number one in the summer of 1978, sandwiched between #1 hits “Shadow Dancing,” by Andy Gibb, and The Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady,” and surrounded by such 70s fare as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and Frankie Valli’s “Grease.”

{Side note on 70s Awesome-osity: holding down the #19 and 20 spots were Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” and Heat Wave’s “Grooveline“!}

I find it impressive that a rock and roll band from the 60s could hit number one in this environment, not by offering a nostalgic piece of recycled British Invasion, but by embracing the style of the day and making it their own. Many acts have tried this tactic over the years and failed miserably (Fairly recent example: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell). keith ron 2The song itself has been heard so often in the past 36 years that you might think you never have to hear it again. But as with “Just My Imagination,” it has lots of cool guitar flourishes and riffs from Wood and Richards that are easy to miss without paying close attention. When you listen again, pay attention to their dueling guitars – you’ll hear the song differently. Out in the front of the song is Bill Wyman’s disco bass line. Just as Charlie Watts’s kick drum is featured throughout the album, so is Wyman’s bass. wyman He plays interesting lines, and adds flourishes to all his parts. In “Miss You,” the bass is one of the signature parts in the song, hopping around Mick’s vocals like a playful puppy.

Since I’m focusing so much on the guitars, I should mention two songs that for some reason in my head always get lumped together: “Respectable” and “Lies.” On these two, The Stones take on punk rock. Both songs have a breakneck pace, driving guitars, and Mick shouting and garbling his vocals. And again, the third guitar of Mick’s provides a foundation for Ron and Mick’s leads and fills. What I really find interesting about both songs, and what makes the song – to me- really feel like a Stones Take on punk rock is Charlie Watts’s drumming.

wattsIn many punk and new wave songs the drummer plays “ahead of the beat,” smacking the snare just a millisecond before the beat, giving the song a propulsive feel. A good example is Pete Thomas’s drumming in Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” However, in the Stones’ version of punk and new wave, Watts hits the snare just a bit behind the beat, in a bluesy fashion. The songs remain aggressive and driving, but continue to have that Stones-Thing happening. And Watts’s kick drum is on display again – pounding out eighth notes like a hammer, especially furiously on “Lies.” Just for fun, here are the Stones on Saturday Night Live in 1978 playing “Respectable.” (Added bonus: the Russian commercial that plays before it.)

Other highlights of these punk songs are Keith’s harmony vocals on “Respectable,” and Mick’s strong vocal performance on “Lies.” Wyman’s bass parts roll along nicely as well.

Speaking of Keith’s singing, I have to mention my favorite song on the album, “Before They Make Me Run” sung by Keith.

I love Keith’s barely passable (and at times barely audible) vocals, and the loose feel of the song. And most anyone can relate to the sentiment keith ronof the lyrics – in jobs, relationships, or any scenario: “I’m gonna walk before they make me run.” Mick isn’t credited with guitar on this one, but Keith and Ronnie again do their dueling thing beautifully.

Other songs on Some Girls include the slow, raunchy blues of the title track, in which Mick describes the pros and cons of various types of women in lyrics that raised quite a controversy at the time, and for which he later apologized. It’s got great electric guitar and harmonica throughout, and nice acoustic guitar layered deep in the mix.

Beast of Burden” is another slow blues, and probably the second most recognizable song on the album. It’s got one of my favorite Bill Wyman bass lines, and an outstanding harmony vocal performance by Keith. tour t shirt

When the Whip Comes Down” is a rocker with my all my favorite parts of the album thrown in: lots of guitars, cool bass line and Charlie’s hammer kick drum. (Also worth mentioning is the song’s lyric couplet “When the shit hit the fan/I was sittin’ on the can.”)

Far Away Eyes” is a great Stones country song, with kind of a jokey vocal performance by Mick.

The song that got me into this album in the first place is “Shattered,” which closes the album. On this driving song, with it’s loopy bass line (played by Ronnie Wood) and Mick’s shouted, hiccupping vocals, the Stones demonstrate their mastery over the angular New Wave style of music that bands like XTC and The Cars were pumping out in the late 70s. Charlie’s drums again lag just a bit behind the beat, giving the song a definite “Stones Sound.” It’s a song about the stress of living in New York City (“To live in this town/You must be tough tough tough tough tough!!!) complete with Yiddish lyrics and descriptions of late 70s urban decay. This video fits the song perfectly:

The entire album – from “Miss You” to “Shattered” – has a grubby, dirty 70s New York City feeling.

70s subway

Many of the songs make reference to NYC, and as the Cultural Capital of the World it is the city where the disco and punk explosions were the biggest and loudest. The Stones were Acting Like They Knew in the place where it was most difficult to pull it off, and the result is an album that doesn’t sound like they were Acting at all. They Knew all along

TRACK LISTING
Miss You
When The Whip Comes Down
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
Some Girls
Lies
Far Away Eyes
Respectable
Before They Make Me Run
Beast of Burden
Shattered

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92nd Favorite: Fly By Night, by Rush

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Fly By Night. Rush.
1975, Mercury. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown
Purchased ca. 1984.

fly by night

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Mind-blowing musicianship on display in intricate, powerful, fist-pumping anthemic rock and multi-part story songs. If you don’t mind complex songs about discredited philosophical theories and allegorical battles between mythological beasts, played by virtuosos and sung by a harpy-esque voice, you will LOVE this album! It is amazing. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it didn’t include the song “Rivendell.”

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just like plannedNo one sets out to be a dork. There isn’t a time in a young nerd’s life when he or she makes the decision that, “Dammit! Scorn, derision and an adolescence spent alternately falling for hurtful pranks and sitting alone wondering how to transform myself into some version of me that is less likely to be hated is the life I’m going to lead!!” Dorkdom isn’t a choice. Dorkdom simply is.

As with all human characteristics – from athleticism, to intelligence, to sexuality – there is a range of dorkocity, a spectrum ranging from the IN (Infra-Nerd) region on the low end (aka “What the fuck planet did that guy come from?!”) upward through an array of math aficionados, sci-fi and comic book lovers, arching across Renaissance Faire participants, role-playing gamers and subscribers to GAMES magazine and Popular Mechanics, and terminating in the AH (AdHuman) region (aka “She seems a little weird, right?”). It is a sort of Rainbow of Rejects.
reject rainbow 2

And while all American kids at one point or another feel like they are weird or not right, like they can’t wait one more second for the bullshit of adolescence to end, once and for all, only particular kids live with that feeling all the time. These are the dorks. The nerds. The geeks. Like war, or famine, or any other human hardship, you only really understand nerd-dom if you went through it.

And all nerds know they are a nerd. If you think you might have been a nerd, you weren’t. Simply having a fondness for comic books or Sudoku doesn’t count. This public service announcement from Portlandia explains:

All nerds understand. No matter where you fall on that Crescent of Kooks, sad nerdyou know the dread of waking up, getting dressed, looking in the mirror every day and thinking … “Oh, hell. What’s the use?”

But there’s a secret to dorkdom that many non-dorks overlook, and that keeps (most) dorks from getting so depressed that we take drastic actions against ourselves or others. The fact is – nerds have FUN!!

People tend to think that nerdhood is a result of poor social skills, or extra, yet misplaced, intelligence, or a lack of physical coordination. And while those conditions may well-characterize 99% of nerds, they are merely co-infections. funThe real unifying aspect is a desire to have fun. Nerds may wish for popularity when they are home alone, trying to sleep, thinking of that boy or girl they like who won’t even say hello to them; but when a nerd is with his/her friend or friends (admittedly a small group, but undoubtedly a tightly-bound one) the desire for popularity goes out the window. The main shared goal is to have a lot of fun.

Nerds aren’t too shackled by others’ opinions of what is or isn’t cool – they just know what they like – and they do it. This singularity of focus – doing what one wants to do – is a valued trait among adults, but among kids and teenagers it can be a socially fatal flaw. The terrifically awesome TV show Freaks and Geeks featured classic adolescent nerd life in every episode (thus the “Geeks” in the title), and in one of the best scenes ever, uber-nerd Bill gets to share “Seven Minutes in Heaven” with popular-girl Vicki, and he gets a chance to describe how a nerd can have fun even all by himself:

Nerds have fun. I had an opportunity to share this wisdom with my son when he was about 9 or 10. He had been invited to a classmate’s birthday party, nerd-dara boy with whom he was friendly, but who didn’t share my son’s interests of sports, sports and sports. As a nerd myself, I immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the boy. My son was skeptical of the giant chess board painted on the back yard, and the adults dressed in Harry Potter-ish get-ups, the juggling slack-rope walker and the tree house transformed into a miniature Elizabethan castle.

slack ropeBut when the afternoon spent in a role-playing treasure hunt ended – a hunt whose clues were embedded in a life-size chess game, and that relied on accosting costumed bad guys with plastic swords and rescuing a damsel in distress – my son exclaimed, “That was the BEST BIRTHDAY PARTY EVER!!” Nerds have fun.

My own dorkdom started early. Thanks to two older, very intelligent sisters – who enjoyed the blackboards my parents hung in our basement, and used them to full-effect while forcing their little brother to be a “pupil” to their co-teachers every single fucking time they played “classroom” – I was taught to read at a very young age. eggheadSo by kindergarten I read at quite a high level. This was no big deal, except for the fact that – as happens to nerds and geeks throughout their typically miserable educational experience – the teachers turned it into a negative. martinMrs. Confer (who I liked very much) excused me from class a few times a week to go read books with the first and second graders. My little classmates would watch me leave the room with looks that said, “What’s wrong with that kid, that he doesn’t get to color and play with blocks? He must be weird!”

In the early grades, being a “smart kid” was seen as a positive, and I was respected among my peers. Then “education” screwed it up again. Beginning in fourth grade, all the “smart” kids were rounded up and placed in the basement together for a few hours each week, where a few young, well-intentioned aides called us “gifted” and made us create and think and solve and shit like that, instead of just being normal kids playing on the playground.

bonesIf that weren’t bad enough, right about that time my parents decided it would be a great idea for me to learn the trombone.

Now, it may seem hard to believe, but there was a time and place when playing the trombone was really cool! Unfortunately, that time and place was 1912, in River City, Iowa.

And as slow-to-progress as rural Pennsylvania might be, by 1976 trombone playing was no longer cool. Even the Amish found it uncool.

amishMy life of dorkdom was well under way.

And by high school, my nerd credentials were firmly established:

credentials

On that Rainbow I described above, I was lucky enough to be on the normal side slope, in the AdHuman region. Similar to the oft-described hierarchy of skin tone among African-Americans – a prejudice among a group of people already dealing with prejudice from the larger society – there is a pecking order among geeks, as well, and those folks at one end of the Array of Errors are proud to be not as geeky as those at the other end. I was big and rather athletic and could amuse other kids with jokes, so my Hawaiian shirts and bright orange Chuck Taylors were typically seen by my peers as mere oddities, not as an invitation to pummel.
orange chuckhawaiian shirt
And like all dorks, I continued to have fun. I enjoyed playing trombone in the marching band, made some great friends – including Dan K., a trumpet player, and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother, and who shared my love of David Letterman, Bullwinkle cartoons and Hawaiian shirts. spnge pat

The marching band traveled to football games and band competitions and parades by school bus, and seating on the buses was assigned by groups of instruments. So, for example, clarinets and saxophones and trumpets might be on one bus, French horns and majorettes and flutes on another, etc, etc. For an entire school year, you rode on the buses with the same group of kids.

In my first year of band, the trombones were assigned to ride with the drum line. Now, if you accept that there is, indeed, a hierarchy of nerds, and you assume (probably rightly so) that all sexy drumthe members of the marching band are part of that hierarchy, then the very far edge of that hierarchy – on the fringes of actual adolescent coolness – would undoubtedly be the drum line. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the only ones whose lips don’t touch their instruments (usually) or because they get to carry their instruments around in a sexy fashion but the drummers were pretty dang cool.

On these marching band bus rides, the drummers had a boom box to play music, and they played one musical act more often than any other, a band I had never heard before, but that would become one of the biggest influences in my life, my first real band-crush – necessitating hundreds of dollars of cassette buying, hours of daily listening, and round-the-clock having my frickin’ mind blown, dude! – and most definitely ensure that my nerd-hood was here to stay: Rush.

rush double

The first two things you notice about Rush are 1) the singer tends to sing like a frightened teen girlslasher screaming in a slasher movie; and 2) the songs usually last longer than a typical slasher movie. These are two obstacles that many listeners never can – or even try to – surmount.

But if you can get over those two aspects (for me, the voice was just another high-pitched 70s dude in tight pants, and the musicianship was SO GOOD that I didn’t mind spending time listening) the next thing you’ll notice about the band is how well each of them plays their instruments. Bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart are each recognized as rock virtuosos, and I think as a young musical nerd, this is what really endeared them to me. Here were three guys who had spent hours and hours mastering their instruments, three guys who didn’t seem like they were trying to do the things the popular acts were doing, three guys who seemed to be doing what they were doing simply because they were having fun doing it – even if nobody else thought it was cool. Simply put: three dorks. How could I not fall for them?i heart rush

I bought Fly By Night on cassette sometime in high school, and it grew on me slowly. I was a fan of Rush’s radio hits, like “Limelight” and “Spirit of Radio” and – of course – “Tom Sawyer.”

Fly By Night has one song – the title track – you’d hear on the radio back in the 70s and 80s, and I often found myself fast-forwarding through other songs to listen to that one track. But at some point in college I started to listen more to the entire album, and I played that cassette until its squeak-filled demise.

Fly By Night starts off with the track “Anthem,” and it is an immediate display of the muscular musical chops of all three members.

You don’t start a song like that without feeling pretty damn confident in your talents. This rush 1 initial display is a sort of fanfare, an opening statement common to Rush songs, and part of the repertoire of any so-called “progressive rock” band, like Yes or King Crimson or early Genesis. The main part of the song opens about 35 seconds in, with a cool Lifeson guitar riff, and then Lee’s vocals kick in.

The vocal melody is a nice, bouncy line sung/screamed in typical Geddy fashion. Rush is an unusual band in that the singer for the band isn’t the lyricist. Neil Peart is the main lyricist, and Fly By Night was the first album on which Peart was a member of the band. peart 1 Much in the way many listeners don’t care for Lee’s voice, or the band’s long, complex songs, Peart’s lyrics have long been derided. In these formative years of the band, Peart – always a voracious reader – was digesting the writings of libertarian nut-job, gekkoand hero to the greedy, Ayn Rand.

The lyrics to “Anthem,” named for a Rand novella, are typical Rand bullshit, but one of the great things about the band is that with the incredible virtuosity on display, and Lee’s near-indecipherable keening, it’s hard to make out what the lyrics are all about anyway! About 2:20 into the song, there is an extended instrumental section.

lifesonWith most bands, these sections are simply referred to as “guitar solos,” and while it is true that Lifeson takes a lead here, and plays a spectacular, interesting solo, the playing of Lee and Peart behind him is so great that it’s hard to think of it as a guitar solo.

[Side Note – as I write about these guys, I find myself traveling back in time to my 10th grade self, my jaw slack with wonder as I consider just how frickin’ AWESOME THIS BAND REALLY IS!!!!metal dude Sorry. I’ll get back to the album now.]

Next up is the nerd anthem “Best I Can.” It’s a short song, by Rush standards, only 3:24, and it is a straight-ahead, 70s rocker – the type of song you might hear on an album by Bachman-Turner-Overdrive or Bad Company. I call it a Nerd Anthem because the lyrics – which are also typical 70s rock lyrics expressing what seems to have been a common desire among young male rockers in the 70s: Being Left Alone to Rock! – feature the chorus “I do the best that I can/I’m just what I am.” This couplet expresses the nerd life very succinctly. The musicianship on display, as usual, is what sets this song apart from typical Bad Company/BTO fare. The main riff is herky-jerky and odd, and as always, Peart finds a way to squeeze in extra beats and fills where there doesn’t possibly seem to be enough room.

rush 2The initial trio of short songs if is finished off by the almost funky number “Beneath, Behind and Between.” Now, it is true that the only band out there who may be less funky than Rush is perhaps – PERHAPS – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but this song has a syncopated rhythm – the kind of rhythm that Rush seems to be able to write and play in their sleep – that almost has a danceable beat every few measures. The lyrics are a reflection on the lost promise of The United States as its Bicentennial celebration approached.

The title track of the album is one of Rush’s best-known (i.e. “radio-friendly”) songs.

It’s a catchy number that sounds pretty simple, until you listen to the (as usual, awesome!) playing behind the melody. geddyThis is also a good song to point out the fact that Geddy Lee plays some of the trickiest, wide-ranging bass parts in rock, and does so while he sings! In later years, he also played keyboards and synth-pedals (AND BASS!) while he sang! And he plays the parts live, too – it’s not recording-studio manipulation. As someone who has played bass and sang (neither even a quarter as well as Mr. Lee does) I can attest it is extremely difficult to do what he does! “Fly By Night” is a classic rock staple, and the lyrics about movin’ on are a well-established musical theme. It also had a renaissance of sorts a few years ago when Volkswagen used it in a commercial.

The album has a couple songs, “Making Memories” and “In the End,” that are nice, classic-rock songs, the type that I tend to forget about, but when I hear them I think, “Hey this one is pretty good!” “Making Memories” is acoustic-driven, with a bit of a hippy vibe. “In the End” is a stomping, crunching slow rock song, the type of which would’ve scared the shit out of me when I was 10.

Fly By Night also includes a song that defines Rush and its music – an example that helps explain a) why so many people love this band and b) why so many people do not.

The song is an 8 minute, multi-part story/song about a fight between evil and good, as personified by two mythical beasts: “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.”

The album actually lists the parts of the song, as you might see movements of a symphony listed in a concert program (I imagine.)

I. At the Tobes of Hades
II. Across the River Styx
III. Of the Battle
a. Challenge and Defiance
b. 7/4 War Furor
c. Aftermath
d. Hymn of Triumph
IV. Epilogue

The music includes:
– a simulated dog fight (MYTHICAL dogs, I should say – not Michael Vick insanity) as interpreted by bass and guitar (1:51 to 3:50);
– a crazy call and response of drums and full band, culminating in a complex riff that ends in a very nerd-satisfying pattern of six notes, then five, then four, etc, down to the final ONE NOTE (3:51 to 4:42);
– a quiet interlude of Lifeson coaxingrush pot haunting tones out of his guitar, and building to a slow jam, off which the scent of freshly sparked doobies can almost be detected (4:43 to 7:34); and
– a final reprise of the main melody and a final wind chime (which, on the vinyl version, was cut into the runout groove so that the chime would continue to play on if the listener didn’t have an automatic return. This is all very technical “vinyl” stuff you may not want to know) (7:35 – 8:39).

This creation, this eight and a half minutes of sonic wonder and power, is the type of song that inspires Rush-heads to create artwork of their own …

fan art

… and inspires most others to run for their nearest Lou Reed, Chuck Berry or Joni Mitchell album, hoping their bleeding ears don’t foul the headphones.

ear pain

This type of Epic music causes many people to criticize the band for taking themselves and their music too seriously. However, what these people are missing is the fact that Rush are nerds – and as nerds, they are HAVING FUN! The song is not a serious exploration of good vs. evil! The song is actually based on a story one of their roadies told about being in a room with two dogs who didn’t like each other, and how scared he was. It was a funny story, and lyricist Peart transformed it into a tale of Mythical beasts with funny names (“By-Tor” = “biter”), the way nerds will do. Evidence that the band doesn’t take themselves very seriously includes the following animation that accompanied the “dog fight” movement during some concert tours, projected behind the band to amuse the audience while they played:

The virtuosity displayed by the band, to my ears, never sounds pompous or stuffy – it sounds to me like three guys who enjoy playing together, just HAVING FUN. guitar funI don’t detect a sort of “hey, look how great we can play!” attitude in the music. To me, it sounds like, “man, we sure do like to play our instruments!”

(The band is actually quite funny, and there are various clips of them being goofy all over the web.)

But many folks don’t understand. And they probably never will. They look at Rush, and hear them play, and they think, “Who the hell are THESE guys? And what the hell do they think they’re doing!!?? I just don’t get it!!!”

But maybe it takes a nerd to understand a nerd. If you know, you know. And being cool doesn’t really matter when you’re hanging out with your friends. If you’re having fun with friends, you’re as cool as can be.

dan me

Track Listing
Anthem
Best I Can
Beneath, Between & Behind
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Fly By Night
Making Memories
Rivendell
In the End

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93rd Favorite: Songs In the Attic, by Billy Joel

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Songs in the Attic. Billy Joel.
1981, Family/Columbia. Producer: Phil Ramone
Purchased ca. 1988.

album cover

nut IN A NUTSHELL – Eleven songs recorded live by Billy and his band. Joel sings his heart out and pounds the keys, but the star of the record is Billy’s band, who sound tight and electric and powerful. These songs weren’t well known when the record came out, but have become some of Joel’s biggest favorites. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it wasn’t so piano-focused. I’m more of a guitar guy.

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I am the youngest of three siblings, the only boy. But I swear I wasn’t spoiled!

Okay, I probably was, but not too badly. My sisters are 5 and 3 years older than I am, and I always tried to see myself as their equal – not as the younger, dumber brother. But try as I may, I was always the younger, dumber brother.

70s 1Because they were older, I turned to them to know what was cool in life. Here is a photo that shows I learned my cool lesson well. A huge part of my coolness lessons included music. Almost any music “the girls” liked, I was bound to like as well. And music played a big role in our lives.

I’ve written before about my early musical life but I’ll reiterate a bit here, in case you haven’t quite memorized everything I’ve written just yet.

Music was always a part of my family life. My dad’s father had been the leader of a German Oompah-type band called “Die Lauterbach German Band,” which had quite a following in the middle of the 20th century around the Pennsylvania Dutch region in which I grew up. Here’s a poster for the band, with a close up of the bass drum showing my grandpa’s name.

photo 2photo 1 (1)

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My dad played trombone as a youth, even performing with his Lebanon High School marching band at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC around 1954. broadwayMy mom was a music appreciator, with a strong love for Johnny Mathis and Ricky Nelson as a girl and a bent in her later years for Broadway musicals, especially Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel. When I was a kid, my mom and dad both played albums (lots of brass bands and Broadway) and listened to music on the radio throughout the day.

We had an old upright piano in the back room of our house (which was therefore called “The Piano Room”) and my sisters and I each took lessons for varying lengths of time. My eldest sister also learned the saxophone, and I took up the trombone.

We talked a lot about the songs we heard on the radio, and discussed the pros and cons of them. To this day I associate most 70s songs with spending time with my sisters. Many of pool these songs are what the three of us now refer to as “pool songs,” songs that immediately bring to mind our daily summertime trips to the local pool – songs like Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” Firefall’s “You are the Woman,” and Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right.” (By the way, I don’t expect you to watch every video I post, but if you get a chance please open that Starbuck link and go to the 1:52 mark to see a man in a funky 70s open-chested unitard play a crazy xylophone solo – it says everything you need to know about the 70s).

Both of the girls were wild about music. As a child I listened to music nearly constantly, just by walking around the house. discoLiz, the middle child, was a huge Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 fanatic, and lover of Elton John. Anne, the eldest, became a 70s rock chick, owning classic albums and 8-tracks by Foreigner, Steely Dan, and The Beatles. And both of them were HUGE disco fans. It didn’t seem incongruous back then for someone to like both rock and disco. Of course there was the whole “Disco Sucks” movement in America but at our house music was music, and if it sounded good to my sisters, it sounded good to me.

And of course, both of them were way into Billy Joel.billy 70s Liz had all the albums, and followed him religiously into the 90s. She remains an expert on all things William Joel. Anne had a couple of his 8-tracks, and made plans to see him live at the Hershey Arena during his 1979 tour … plans that were thwarted by a little incident at a nuclear reactor near my home, Three Mile Island.tmi See, when the accident happened, in March of ’79, people had to be evacuated. And those people had to go somewhere. And there just weren’t a whole lot of large buildings suitable for holding thousands of radioactive refugees in the area at that time, so The Hershey Arena had to be put to use, even if it meant canceling a few Hershey Bears games and a Billy Joel concert … So Anne didn’t get to go to her first concert, and she didn’t get to buy either of these really cool shirts … (the second of which sort of gives the impression John Belushi will be performing.)

tour shirttour shirt 2

As I said, I tried to do all the things my sisters did, and picked up on most all of their tastes, (though I never got into CHiPS the way Liz did) learning to love rock and disco and pop and pretty much anything my sisters played.

So, I had heard a lot of Billy Joel in my youth, and I owned a few tapes that I made from my sister’s albums. I liked Glass Houses and Turnstiles and liked a lot of his radio hits. But I was never a huge fan – I never felt compelled to rush out and buy Billy Joel albums.

I got a new perspective on all things musical when I met Dr. Dave, who I’ve written about frequently, in college in Philadelphia. red wagonI have a memory of driving in a car with him – either his huge fire-engine red station wagon, or his little white LeCar – and the live version of the song “Miami, 2017,” from Songs in the Attic, playing lecar on the radio and him just gushing about how great it was. I really liked it too, and soon I went out to the local record store and bought the album.

“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights go Out on Broadway)” is the first song on the album, and it is immediately recognizable by the blaring sirens that open the song, and which are set against a beautiful, rolling, quick-paced piano phrase that is most memorable. This opening is perfect, as the song itself is a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, devastation and hope. The lyrics describe a future (the year 2017 seemed so far away in 1976, when the song was written – I’m sure people thought we’d be wearing uniforms and flying around in jet packs by 2017) in which New York City is being destroyed because … well, it seemed like the natural progression for New York City in 1976. nyc 76

But despite the horrible events that are described – Bronx blowing up, Manhattan being sunk, maybe worst of all the Yankees being rescued by the navy – the song plays like an ode to the strength and resilience of New Yorkers, and became a sort of anthem. This was most evident in Joel’s performance of the song in the Concert for 9/11, just weeks after the twin towers collapsed in 2001.

At first the song seemed to me to be an odd choice to play on such a night, but despite the eerie similarity between the lyrics of the song and the recent events in Manhattan, it is clear from watching the performance, and the crowd’s reaction to it, and Joel’s words to the crowd after the song, that it’s a song about fortitude and community, and that maybe the lyrics aren’t exactly what they appear to be about at first.

Many people dislike Billy Joel. Some actively hate him. A few years ago, a respected (apparently) journalist, Ron Rosenbaum, penned an item for Slate.com calling Joel “the worst pop singer ever.” The article basically confirmed everything I already knew about critics in general: they are failed artists struggling to use academic arguments in an attempt to rationalize their obvious jealousy of others’ artistic successes. This guy Rosenbaum never made it in a purely creative outlet – and he did (unsuccessfully) give it a try – and so takes out his anger on someone whose material he dislikes.rosenfailure

I have no problem with Rosendouche stating that he hates Billy Joel and then outlining why. I think that would be a great read! Instead, he tries to make an objective case that Billy Joel is the worst at something that is not quantifiable. And he uses phrases like “We hate you,” as if the 150 million albums Joel has sold were all bought by Billy’s parents, and the rest of the world knows the secret.

Again, I don’t care if he likes Billy Joel. Some of my best friends HATE Billy Joel. I myself am not even what one would call a huge fan of his, even though I like some of his songs. But I just CAN’T STAND the position phony baloney critics take, as if they know things that the rest of us don’t know. Ron – GROW UP! Just say “I hate Billy Joel.” You don’t have to be RIGHT or WRONG about it – it’s a fucking OPINION, YOU MORON! Sorry. I get carried away. But the man doesn’t even write persuasive arguments. Frankly, they’re amateurish.

rosenloser He calls Billy Joel a misogynist, yet speaks wistfully of an earlier version of Bruce Springsteen – you know, the one who wrote that paean to date rape, “Fire.” He is outraged – outraged! – at Joel’s deriding, with a wash of superiority, a would-be hipster in the song “Captain Jack”, yet loves Bob Dylan, writer of “Like a Rolling Stone” – a song that derides (with superiority in abundance) a former girlfriend (but not in a misogynistic way, I guess). The funniest part of the piece (for its transparency is pretty funny – I can see Rosenturd in his footy-PJ’s stomping around the room while he thinks up his arguments) baby rosen is when he condemns Joel for calling out Hollywood phonies and big shots in fancy cars in his songs. This is ironic because for Rosenfailure’s lone artistic endeavor, the celebrated (just kidding!) mystery novel Murder at Elaine’s, he chose to satire … phony celebrities!! (Then again, maybe it wasn’t an artistic failure – maybe he didn’t want anyone to read it and was happy it never even made it to paperback. Even though, well … EVERY mystery ever written gets published in paperback!) He likely pretends to wear it as a point of pride that his masterwork was widely unread, as – obviously – commercial success is evidence of a lack of artistic merit, and says things to his friend [I doubt he has more than one] like, “I’m SOOOOO GLAD that M.A.E. [his pet name for his magnum opus] wasn’t more popular,” then goes home and puts his head in the oven. (But only because he’s a drama queen – he’s too chicken to turn on the gas.)

Sorry – critics like this asshole always get me riled up. It’s part of the reason I started this entire project. I wish critics would just say, “I like this, but I don’t like that,” instead of trying to pretend that their opinions are facts.

rosendouche

Anyway, my point here is that as many people as there are who adore Billy Joel – and the man was recently a Kennedy Center Honors recipient so it’s a pretty sizable number – there are people who dislike him. And if you do, this might be the one Billy Joel album you could stomach. One of the things I like about this album is that it doesn’t sound so much like a Billy Joel solo album as it does an album by a rock band that just happens to have Billy singing.

70s bandThe album’s liner notes give a great summary of the band’s history, and Joel’s desire to capture the band’s live energy on record. There is no between-song chit chat on Songs in the Attic, or drum solos or other aspects of some live albums that are supposed to make you feel like you’re at a concert. It’s simply the songs, recorded live. The following video of the track “Everybody Loves You Now” shows the band as a band, and offers a good example of what you’ll hear on Songs in the Attic:

This song sounds like one of Billy’s “eff you” songs. Billy has a few song types that he frequently writes: love songs, character studies, big picture songs and “eff you” songs. This one begins not with furious piano pounding but with furious guitar strumming – for this album is a band effort as much as a solo album.guitars The drums kick in, Billy starts thumping the piano, and starts to sing. Now, one of the things I like about Joel’s singing is that he puts his all into it. He’s not restrained or subtle in any way, and this might be a reason that some people don’t like him. But I like that he puts his heart into it – whether it’s a love song, or an “eff you” song, he sings like the words are the most important words ever sung.

eff you I always thought this song was a kiss off to a former flame. But when you read the lyrics a different story emerges. They seem to taunt a performer who has finally made it big after a long struggle, reminding the performer that he will now be surrounded by phonies and if he doesn’t watch himself he’ll be sucked into their world and become one of them. The song may be an eff you to a former flame, maybe he was dating another singer on the verge of stardom, but it very well could be a warning to his young self to be careful in the big bad world of entertainment. As with “Miami 2017,” Joel’s words aren’t always what they seem at first listen.

Another song on the album that is an “eff you” song is “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”

The song opens with drummer Liberty DeVitto liberty pounding out a 60s girl-group beat, and it has a Supremes/Chiffons type of feel throughout – from the beat to Joel’s vibrato. (As a teenager, Billy actually played piano on the demo track of the classic Shangri-Las song “Leader of the Pack,” so it’s familiar territory for him.) The lyrics sing of Bobby and Johnny, the former in a hot new rent-a-car and the latter with a style so right for troubadours. troubadour

Bobby is trying to fit into the scene in a car he doesn’t even own and Johnny is a singer being tricked into sitting with his back to the door, a reference to mobsters and wise guys (knowing Joel’s history of dealing with shady characters in the recording biz, I’m quite certain they’re record executives). The narrator has seen enough and is moving on. The singing, the girl-group beat, the sing-along melody together make this one of my favorites in the Joel catalog. And I prefer this live version to the original.

Speaking of Liberty DeVitto, he is one of my favorite drummers in rock. He isn’t the fastest or fanciest drummer, but he plays with an energy that I like, and adds enough cool touches to make me like him. For example, the song “Los Angelinos”

opens with an electric piano riff, and DeVitto answers it with one snare hit, then two, then three, then four. nerdI don’t know why I find this cool – maybe because I’m the least coolest person on Earth – but I do. “Los Angelinos” is a Joel “character study” song, and these may be my favorite type of song by him. Songs in the Attic features a few of his best early ones.

Like “Captain Jack.”

“Captain Jack” is a song that, when I was a young teen, I wondered how it ever got played on the radio. For one thing, it is very long – over 7 minutes. Big Top 40 hits, like The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” or The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” were sometimes that long, but very few non-hits were played that were over the 7 minute mark. (A couple are Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and Lynyrd Sknyrd’s “Free Bird.”) For another thing, it is extremely dark, lyrically. It’s a slice-of-life about a young man trying to be cool but failing, and listening now in middle age I recognize its unmistakable description of a man battling depression. captain jackIt mentions drug use, pornographic magazines, masturbation, apparent suicide … lots of stuff that I, as a 14 year old, didn’t realize could be included in song lyrics. Musically, it follows the soft-piano-verse/big-rock-band-sing-along-chorus format that makes it a perfect live song. On the recording you can feel the audience’s frenzied response. I was a young man trying unsuccessfully to be cool (not the dude described in “Captain Jack,” but That Dude I’ve described previously) and the lyrics definitely resonated with me. As I got older, the line “you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed/and that’s too long” particularly angered/prodded me.

Other “Character Study” songs on the album include “Streetlife Serenader” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the lyrics of which, equating the young piano-slinger Billy Joel to the young gunslinger billy the kid Billy the Kid, my friend Dan once submitted in 11th grade English when he was assigned to write his own ballad for a unit on poetry! (I don’t remember what grade he got.)

Some of Joel’s best-loved works are his love songs, and Songs in the Attic includes two: “She’s Got a Way” and “You’re My Home.”

billy 70s 2

“She’s Got a Way” has become one of Joel’s most popular songs over the years, but in 1981 it was still not widely known. It is one of two songs on the album that feature simply Billy and a piano. If you’re one of the Joel haters, you should skip this song. I think this song has a nice melody and words, but it’s not the style of love song I enjoy. The lyrics are too direct for me, almost as if Joel himself had been assigned homework to write a poem about his girlfriend. I prefer love songs like “You’re My Home,” with its heavy use of metaphor, to describe his feelings.

The remaining Joel-type songs on the album are the Big Picture songs “Summer, Highland Falls” and the album’s closer, “I’ve Loved These Days.”snl 78

“Summer, Highland Falls” has an intricate piano line played very quickly, and Joel – who has a fondness for words and always packs them densely within a song – crams as many multi-syllabic words as possible into 3 minutes. Dr. Dave used to say he needed a thesaurus to figure this one out, but I heard an interview with Joel recently and he stated the song is about depression and bi-polar disorder.

yuengling Whatever the intention, I’ve always liked the words and melody together and associated them with the struggle we all have with any relationships – parent-child, spouses, friends, romantic. Random note about this one: I may have gotten tipsy and listened to this song a million times as a younger man. MAY have.

“I’ve Loved These Days” is a great album closer, a mid-tempo anthem with dynamic changes that makes good use of the entire band. The lyrics describe people having a good time, but maybe not behaving at their very best – self-indulgent, short-sighted, selfish. But despite the fact that our actions may not always represent the pinnacle of what humanity has to offer, Joel sings, it’s still all part of being alive, and all one can do is appreciate this fact. We can focus on the negative in our lives, but in doing so we dismiss a lot of the positive.

This is the spirit of this 100 Favorite Albums blog. These 100 albums may not be The Best, they may be flawed, and they may even represent to some people – particularly frustrated would-be novelists – the worst of what popular music has to offer. But I find a lot of good in them. They’ve meant something to me. I’ve Loved These Albums.

TRACKS
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Summer, Highland Falls
Streetlife Serenader
Los Angelinos
She’s Got a Way
Everybody Loves You Now
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Captain Jack
You’re My Home
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
I’ve Loved These Days

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94th Favorite: New York Dolls, by The New York Dolls

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New York Dolls. The New York Dolls.
1973, Mercury Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren
Purchased ca. 2004.

albm cover

squirrel IN A NUTSHELL – Frantic, fervent, fabulous Rock and Roll. The double guitar attack and against-the-guardrail vocals create a nearly out-of-control mess that is at once inspiring and hilarious. The boys write catchy songs, too, and make music that sounds like it should be the dance mix tape at the coolest rock and roll high school party in town. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – there was a little more variety. It’s all three chords, hang onto your hat, and let’s go! but it could use a change of pace.

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Everybody knows That Dude. (Or That Chick.)

drunk guy That Dude who is a little out of control, kind of crazy, maybe not really scary in a way that makes you fear for yourself, but definitely scary in a way that you worry for him. jokerThe severity of That Dude-ness ranges from “gets a little wild when he has to much to drink” all the way up to “probably psychotic, and he really needs professional help.”

That Dude is typically in his 20s, hospital party still unfocused career-wise, usually without a long-term girlfriend (although sometimes That Dude dates That Chick …), and has a tendency to drink too much alcohol or consume too many drugs. You never are sure what That Dude might do, but you know that – whether you end up accompanying him to the Party of the Century, or the Hospital – it will be a memorable time, and you’ll likely have good stories to tell.

charlie sheenThat Dude isn’t ALWAYS out of control – people who are constantly out of control are too self-centered to maintain a friendship, and are more drama than they are worth. (Even if – again – they leave you with a good story.)

That Dude is generally a nice guy, fun to hang out with, interesting to talk to … but has a streak of “holy shit!” in him, particularly when a few drinks (or many) are involved. That Dude has a few close friends, but tends to easily skate along the surface of different groups of people, until he crashes through, making a splash, providing a story or two for all to tell, and then disappears beneath the surface, leaving folks to ask years later, at parties and reunions, “Remember That Dude? Remember that time he …”guests

That Dude is envied by shy, retiring folks with low self esteem; mocked by confident, goal-oriented folks with ambition and drive; feared by uptight, moral folks with no self-awareness; and tolerated by artsy folks with holy-shit-streaks of their own.

That Dude seems like a dude who is so comfortable with himself that he doesn’t give a shit, but just lives his life like he wants to live it and doesn’t worry about what others might think. This is how “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges’ great character in the fine Coen Bros. movie The Big Lebowski, is portrayed.

dudeBut That Dude is different from “The Dude.” For one thing, That Dude is a lot younger, and a lot wilder, than “The Dude.” He is a lot more out of control. “The Dude” shuffles around a grocery store in his bath robe and discreetly swigs half-and-half. That Dude sprints through the produce department in his underwear and grabs three limes and juggles them out the door.

That Dude is more focused on impressing others, as well. His act requires an audience. “The Dude” got that half and half because he needed to make a White Russian for himself. That Dude stole those limes because a friend said he needed them for margaritas at his party, and That Dude wanted to make it interesting.limes

That Dude is also drunk more often than “The Dude.” Although “The Dude” drinks throughout The Big Lebowski, he never appears drunk and is certainly always in control. But That Dude … well … anyway.

“The Dude” truly is comfortable in his own skin. That Dude is desperately uncomfortable, and trying to figure out why.

That Dude may become “The Dude” later in life, but it’s only one possibility for him. No one is ever really sure what ever became of That Dude.

chewySo … what DID ever happen to That Dude? He was so crazy! I wonder if he survived into adulthood? I wonder if he got arrested? I wonder if he got killed in some freak accident, like maybe he tried to balance on top of a trash bin to enhance his impression of Chewbacca but fell off and was accidentally strangled by his fuzzy sweater? (As his drunken comrades laughed hysterically, thinking it was another part of the wacky bit?)

So many possibilities… I wonder if he’s writing a blog about listening to all his CDs and ranking his 100 favorite?

I was trying to recall That Dude who I knew. “Everybody knows That Dude,” I claimed at the top of this post, but do I remember That Dude from my past? Nobody jumped out at me, so I kept thinking. It took a while, but finally it came to me.

I was That Dude! Indeed I was. I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth. That Dude was me. Ask anybody who knew me from age 19 to about 25. It’s actually rather embarrassing. I want to rush out and tell everyone who knew That Dude that nowadays I’m just me. I have a strong desire to tell folks who knew him that That Dude is gone, and that he didn’t turn into “The Dude” and he didn’t strangle himself with a warm sweater. That Dude is dead, but I’m still around.

blahI know all the psychological reasons behind why I was That Dude, but blah blah blah. Who cares?

All I know is that there are a million stories about That Dude, and I can’t seem to recall any of them right now. There were injuries, there were close calls, there were inappropriate moments, there were embarrassing stunts, there were police, there were accidents (never in a car, luckily), there were fights and ejections, and long trudges through the rain, and climbing in windows, and above all … there were lots of really funny friggin’ times … But I’ve lost touch with That Dude. He hasn’t come around in years.

I think about That Dude whenever I hear album #94, The New York Dolls’ self-titled debut. The music immediately brings to mind a funny, out of control dude who you are compelled to hang with, just to see what might happen next.

dolls 4

It could be ugly, it could be beautiful, but you won’t forget it – whether you wind up in a hospital bed (with a rock and roll nurse!!??) or having the time of your life.

New York Dolls is an album of energy and fun, with a double guitar attack, driving drums, and vocals that don’t really carry a tune as much as drag it along behind, while it writhes and pounds the dirt. It is straight-ahead rock and roll, and get out of the way ’cause it’s stopping for no one. The songs are catchy, the music sounds good, and every song makes me want to get up and … and … I don’t know, just get up and do something out of control!!

But before I get into the record, let’s just hear, and watch the band perform, the first song on the album: “Personality Crisis.” This is a live version of the song, so it doesn’t sound exactly like the record, but it gives a good idea of what’s about to unfold:

nice dayThis album was released in 1973. Go back and look some more at this band, and listen to the song. And think about 1973. 1973 was “Have a Nice Day.” It was “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” And The Partridge Family.partridge

The top three songs for 1973 were Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”

Try to put yourself in a place where those are the top three songs of the day, close your eyes and travel back to a time when Tony Orlando orlandwas popular enough to get his own TV show, to a place where The Carpenters and Helen Reddy are cranking out top ten hits like they have a secret machine … and when you get there, slowly open your eyes and watch that New York Dolls clip once again.carpenters

++++++++++++++++++++HOLY SHIT! The singer’s in high heels! shocked ladyThe bass player wears blue leather boots up to his crotch!! They all wear makeup and have haircuts straight out of a Saturnine beauty salon, and nobody on stage is even ATTEMPTING to actually sing!! This music must have sounded like it came directly from hell in 1973, with Satan himself in purple glitter ass pants and painted nails.

To give a little more perspective, here are a couple bands who 3 years later shook up the music industry with a new style of music called “punk rock,” The Sex Pistols and The Ramones:

Now watch The New York Dolls play “Bad Girl” three years earlier:

The Sex Pistols and Ramones sound downright tame compared to the Dolls three years before.

dolls playThis band was ahead of its time, and even though the music press liked them, that didn’t translate into album sales. America virtually ignored them. The band put out a couple albums, then splintered into punk rock and solo projects (The Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s band, Johnny Thunders’ band), Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen) and didn’t ever reach mainstream success (of sorts) until well after the band had dissolved.

I had heard of The New York Dolls at times throughout my musical life, but it was just a name of a band to me, I didn’t know anything about their music. I had heard they dressed up in women’s clothes in the early 70s but that fact didn’t make me interested in what their music sounded like. Then, during the horrible 80s, a horrible song by a horrible singer was released, and like a fart in an elevator or the Ebola virus, there was no escaping it. 1987’s smash hit … “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter. “Who is this evil person, and why is he doing these horrible things?” I wondered. It turns out he was none other than David Johansen, former lead singer with The New York Dolls, and he now had a new generation of music fans believing him to be Satan incarnate. (Except unlike our parents, we were right!)

Actually, I recognized his face from his days as a solo artist. His solo band used to get some serious MTV airplay in the first year or two of that channel, with cover songs that I never liked. So between Buster Poindexter and the crappy cover songs on MTV, I figured there was no way I was ever going to listen to The New York Dolls – there was NO WAY that shit could’ve been good, right??

nirvanaIn the early 90s I lived with a very cool, very great guy, a punk rocker named Eric. He owned a million CDs, most by bands I had never heard of. I thought I was a pretty educated music lover, but seeing his CD collection opened my eyes. He had Nirvana CDs and singles well before Nevermind. green riverHe had Green River CDs well before Pearl Jam. His own band, Gumball, was making a name in New York City, and he became part of the 90s “grunge revolution,” which I’m sure he never meant to do. But anyway, I listened to some of his stuff, bands like Stiff Little Fingers and The Plimsouls, and I really liked them. But I shied away from his New York Dolls records. I didn’t trust Buster.buster “It’s really good,” Eric assured me, but … “Hot Hot Hot” kept rolling through my brain. My brain said Not Not Not.

Skip ahead a few years, and I have this boss, and he is very boss like, seems straight-laced and mellow, and I assume he’s likely a country-western fan, or maybe a light-jazz kind of creep, but one day we get to talking about music, and it turns out he’s a punk rocker!boss He tells me of seeing the Ramones in the 70s, and how he followed The New York Dolls all over New England. He said he thought I’d like them, but I remained skeptical. Then one day he heard me playing a CD by The Replacements, and he said to me, “You really should get The New York Dolls’ first record. Tell you what, I’ll bring mine in.”

He brought in the CD, I listened to it at work in the lab, and went out and bought it for myself within the week. It is just that good.

All of my damn record reviews talk about “melody” and “guitar,” so much so, in fact, that I felt it necessary to place the words in quotation marks because they’ve started to sound like phony baloney terms used by HR professionals and sales weasels. It seems every album on my list so far is all “Melody” and “Guitar.” So why should album #94 be any different?? (At least I know what I like!)

johansenAlthough you’d be hard pressed to really describe what David Johansen does for the Dolls as “singing,” you certainly can say he carries a tune (sort of.) At the very least, he gives the impression of the tune that should be carried by you and your friends as you sing (or shout) along with him. In the song “Looking For a Kiss,” the simple tune bounces along from Johansen’s lips, and he screams and grunts and sounds really … enthusiastic! I mean that in an un-ironic way. He sounds very happy to be shouting out these tunes.

But what makes a tune like “Looking For a Kiss,” or “Subway Train“work for me are the guitars! Both Sylvain Sylvain sylvainand Johnny Thunders play interesting fills and riffs behind the lyrics. On their surface, these songs sound like three-chord blast-throughs, with the guitars bashing out power chords. But listen closely, and you’ll find that’s not the case. “Subway Train” has dueling guitar solos from about the 2:00 mark all the way until 2:30, and they continue to wail once Johansen comes back to the verse. And while one guitarist makes subway sounds, the other supports with arpeggiated chords that sound better than a pounded out power chord. The band has two guitar players, and they use them both effectively. thundersFor me, the guitar work of the Dolls is what sets them apart from The Ramones or The Sex Pistols or many other punk bands.

Another song with excellent guitar work is “Vietnamese Baby.” This song also features lyrics that seem to deal with issues facing soldiers returning from Viet Nam – a rarity for the era. peach Most songs about Viet Nam were more focused on stopping the war, and on the evil of war, but very few actually dealt with the plight of the returning soldiers. It’s another straight ahead rocker, with furious pounding drums, and it gets me singing along whenever I hear it.

In fact, all of the songs on the album feature furious, pounding drums except one – the slow ballad (well, a Dolls version of a slow ballad) “Lonely Planet Boy.” This song even features acoustic guitar and a saxophone buried in the mix. It’s a song of loneliness, and Johansen does a good job on the vocals – not attempting to croon, but letting the emotion come from his natural vocal style. It’s a welcome slow song, surrounded by all those 100 mph burners.

bo diddleyOne of my favorite songs on the album is a cover of a Bo Diddley song “Pills.” The album version is great, but there is such terrific footage of the band playing these songs live that I thought I’d share another. Here Johansen wears his best Oscar night strapless sequined number at a club in NYC.

The Dolls always have good backing vocals. I mentioned in my post on album #95 how much I love Keith Richards’ backing vocals, and Johnny Thunders has a bit of Keith in his vocals, as well. They’re kind of strained, sort of in tune, but always sound great. I read on the interwebs that Johnny idolized Keith, and I guess I can hear that in the vocals, and probably in the guitar as well (although – who wasn’t influenced by Keith??)
dolls 3
The New York Dolls were only together a few years, and they only put out two albums during their time together. I don’t know an awful lot about them, but it seems like they were a rather “hard-partying” band. In this clip of them playing “Trash,” in 1974, the havoc that’s been wreaked among the band is clearly evident in Johansen’s face. The song also features Thunders’ guitar and backing vocal work.

The band was clearly out of control by the time their second album, Too Much Too Soon, was released in 1974. They never fully lived up to the promise of their 1973 debut. Then again – maybe they did. Maybe the path they took was expected. Just like That Dude, maybe a change was necessary for the band to make it to adulthood. Maybe that’s why I identify so strongly with the record.

conversationI can hear the conversation taking place at a reunion somewhere …

“What ever happened to That Band?”

“Oh my god!! I forgot about That Band! Remember that song “Jet Boy” about the dude’s gay lover who steals his girlfriend?”

“Holy shit! That was crazy! Or what about the song “Frankenstein (Orig.),” listed that way on the album, with “Orig.” in the title, because they were pissed that Edgar Winter had a hit by the same name!!”

“I wonder what ever happened to That Band? I had forgotten all about them.”

dolls 1The New York Dolls are worth remembering. And the album New York Dolls is unforgettable.

TRACKS
Personality Crisis
Looking For a Kiss
Vietnamese Baby
Lonely Planet Boy
Frankenstein (Orig.)
Trash
Bad Girl
Subway Train
Pills
Private World
Jet Boy

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95th Favorite: Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling Stones

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Sticky Fingers. The Rolling Stones.
1971, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: Jimmy Miller.
Purchased ca. 1996.

sticky album

95 nutIN A NUTSHELL: (Whoa! No pun intended!) If you ever wondered, “So, what’s the big deal about The Rolling Stones?”, listening to this album will provide the answer. It has rockers, blues, hit singles, country, and sounds like a rock and roll band at the peak of its powers. Plus, the songs and lyrics and performances are excellent. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I would have listened to it more over the years and really connected with it; it would certainly be higher on a list of “Best Records.”

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daffyEver since I was a small boy, I’ve known in my heart that I was destined to become … Hmm … Let’s start over.

porkyWhen I graduated from Cedar Crest High School in 1985, I had my whole life ahead of me and I knew my future held … um, my future held … Okay, hold on. Give me one more chance. I will nail this opening.

I graduated from Millersville University of Pennsylvania in 1989 with a degree in Biology Education and big plans to … well, I planned to …

daffy porkyGod damn it.

When I was a kid, me and lesterthe only thing I really ever imagined myself doing as a grown-up was exactly what I’d been doing since kindergarten: trying to make people laugh. To the right is an early picture of me trying to make people laugh with a “Lester” ventriloquist dummy (of Willie Tyler and Lester fame) that my mom truly believed was my ticket to stardom, I guess, because she has frequently brought up over the years her disappointment with the fact that even though she bought me that dummy, I never learned to throw my voice. (Not a joke, by the way.)

I’ve written before about my comedic ambitions, and I won’t rehash it all. But I will say that when I was 16 and told my parents that I wanted to be a comedian when I grew up, my dad freaked out to such an extent that it took almost 15 years for me to get over it and consider it seriously again.

With my only plan (vague as it was) squashed, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had a few thoughts, and a couple deeply suppressed dreams, but basically, I went with the flent. (The phrase “Go with the Flow” is so hard to conjugate.) areermanagement.com/tools-resources/career-articles/why-is-it-important-to-have-a-career-development-plan/” target=”_blank”>I’m not a bum out on the street.

I’ve traveled a wandering path, but I’ve taken away valuable life-lessons at each stop. Since 1985, I have held the following jobs and/or pursued the following careers:

melSandwich maker/ice cream scooper – worked at a family run restaurant. Learned to appreciate the hard work required to properly clean a commercial grade grill. Learned to hate both customers and preparing their damn food.

Gym attendant – made money at college refereeing intramural sports (the rules of which I was iffy on, at best) and counting assists for the basketball team. Learned to hate seemingly subjective volleyball rules, and shoot-first point guards.

Night-shift chocolate factory candy packager – living near Hershey, PA, had its advantages. We were allowed to eat as much on the job as we wanted, but would be fired for taking any out of the building. Learned to appreciate the value of a college education. Learned to hate the night-shift and all-you-can-eat chocolate.
chocolate

Grounds-crew worker – otismade money in college mowing lawns, spreading mulch and collecting garbage. Learned to appreciate garbage collectors. Learned to hate going to work drunk/hung-over. (In truth, I kind of learned that at the chocolate factory, too.)

Corn sex therapist – worked for corn seed company walking around corn fields and facilitating reproduction between specific plants with the use of corn condoms (i.e. paper bags.) dekalb Not too different from the popular Midwestern profession of corn-detasseler. Learned to appreciate punk rock and thoughtful punk-rockers (Eric V! One of the most important people ever in my life!)

High school substitute teacher – pretty much what it sounds like. Learned to appreciate substitute teachers. Learned to hate adolescents.

kotter

archie 2Landscaper – spread mulch, planted trees, laid sod while working for the most racist, sexist, hateful bigot I have ever encountered. Learned to hate other races, sexes. (Just kidding! Learned to hate that asshole Gary who was my boss.)

Waiter (drinks only)/Doorman – Learned to appreciate good tippers. Learned to hate drunks.

Bassist in original rock band – spent 2 years in The April Skies chasing that elusive record deal. Learned to appreciate the meaning of the word “dedication” and having a job at which I COULD show up drunk.

the april skies

QC technician, aspirin factory – worked in the analytical chemistry lab making sure that what Bayer said they put into their aspirin was really what was in there. Learned to appreciate that chemistry is actually pretty cool. scienceLearned to hate showing up at work on time after driving 3 hours from Manhattan in a gasoline vapor and cigarette smoke clouded VW bus at 2 in the morning.

Local tabloid stringer – wrote the “Cook of the Week” column for The Hershey Chronicle. Learned to hate bosses who don’t pay for weeks on end until finally you show up at their office and demand money from them and they hand you cash out of their wallet just to make you go away.

High Performance Liquid Chromatography column packer and tester – Learned to appreciate that there are all kinds of weird jobs out there. Learned to hate Bay Area traffic.

Actor – a few plays, a few little movies a lot of fun. Learned to appreciate how hard it is to earn money in the arts. taxi Learned to hate rejection.

Playwright – had a play and a half produced for actual paying audiences. Learned to accept rejection.

QC Chemist – the Very Big Pharmaceutical Corporation of America. Tested all kinds of stuff meant to be injected, inhaled, swallowed and rubbed onto people and animals to cure their ailments. Learned even more about analytical chemistry. Learned to hate having to learn even more about analytical chemistry.quincy

Improv Actor – Flash Family and Big Boned Theatre. Got on stage and made stuff up and finally made some (very little) money doing what I’d been doing since kindergarten. Learned to appreciate that, apart from mimes and morris dancers, nobody has less of a chance at making money in the arts than improv actors. Learned to hate analytical chemistry even more.

Analytical Chemistry Method Developer for biopharma – oh for Christ’s sake, not chemistry again. Learned to appreciate that if you’re going to have a family, you’re going to have to earn some money. Learned to hate most PhDs.

Stand-up comic – experienced artistic success, if not financial success, telling jokes to strangers.jerry Learned to appreciate that comedy fame has nothing to do with talent – as evidenced by all the great comedians you probably haven’t heard of – and very much to do with luck. Learned to hate joke thieves and audiences who won’t shut the fuck up.

drysdaleAnalytical Chemistry Lab Director – for a biofuels startup company. Learned to appreciate that there’s a whole lot of complexity in a simple blade of grass. Learned to hate well-off venture capital big-wigs who do their jobs poorly, causing many not-so-well-off science little-wigs to lose the jobs that they do very well.

Quality Director for blood donor testing – still learning.

I’ve had such a schizophrenic work history, I might really need a psychiatrist!

bob newhart

“Why,” you are likely asking yourself right now, “do I give a hoot about your work history, and what does it have to do with your favorite albums??”

Well, album 95 is by The Rolling Stones, who in 2012 celebrated their 50th year as a band, meaning that as of today, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have had the same job for 52 years. 52 years!!! I’ve had jobs I didn’t hold for 52 hours! They’ve been doing this for, well, 52 YEARS!!! This to me is beyond astounding! Even Ron Wood’s comparatively meager 39 year continuous work history (he joined the band in ’75) is amazing.

stones 1

I myself had a stretch of nearly 8 years in which I held the same job, and I consider that to be noteworthy. Most people don’t hold a job for 52 years. The only example of someone who comes close are the waitresses at The Melrose Diner in South Philly, who used to wear (and maybe still do) little coffee-pot pins on their uniforms stating the year they started work. Last time I visited there, in the early 90s, one of the women wore a “1935” on her dress. Most people who hold a job for 52 years are typically viewed with equal parts admiration, skepticism and pity. Think of what you would say if someone told you, “That guy’s been a dish washer repairman for 52 years!”

Immediate reaction:
“Really! That’s incredible! He must be in his 70s. Wow, what devotion!” (Admiration).ol lonely

Next reaction:
“But he can’t really still be able to repair a dishwasher, can he? At 72? Don’t you need some strength and flexibility?” (Skepticism).

Finally:
“Geez, do you think he needs the money that badly that he still crawls around under dishwashers and pulls out clods of wet food?” (Pity).

Such are 2/3 of my feelings about The Rolling Stones in 2014. It’s quite impressive that they’ve been around for 52 years. And I’m skeptical that they make music anywhere close to as good as they used to. But I don’t pity them one bit – getting to play music for people is a much better way to earn money than fixing appliances.

I’ve been aware of The Stones for about as long as I’ve been aware of music on the radio. Even as a young child in the early 70s, I knew that there was a Rolling Stones, just as I knew there was a Beatles and an Alvin and the Chipmunks. stones w mick tThey were like water or clothing or school or TV shows – things that were just part of the world around me that I didn’t think too much about.

As my musical tastes began to be refined, I grew more aware of the band. I listened to classic rock in the 80s, and The Rolling Stones were ubiquitous. “Start Me Up,” “Satisfaction,” “Paint it Black,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Angie,” “Emotional Rescue,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” … these are just some titles that I quickly rattled off without thinking, and there are dozens more titles that have been heard by rock music fans millions of times. It almost seemed pointless to me to buy a Rolling Stones record because I heard so much of their music in a day back in the 70s and 80s.

So I didn’t buy any. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? stones cow

After my record collection had grown some, it occurred to me that I should probably pick up a Rolling Stones record or two, just to see if there was more to them than what I heard on the radio, and I happened to find a used vinyl copy of Sticky Fingers at my favorite SF record store, Streetlight Records. I put it on and realized there is more to The Rolling Stones than what you hear on the radio. Much more…

Sticky Fingers is the first Stones album to feature guitarist Mick Taylor, who joined after founding guitarist Brian Jones left the band. micksTaylor contributed a lot, but he left the band after 5 years. His tenure is a length of time I can relate to, and it would rank as my second-longest stint at any job, if I were Mick. (I find it interesting that all the Micks in rock and roll were British: Jagger, Taylor, Jones, Jones and Fleetwood.)

Sticky Fingers opens with one of the most familiar of Stones songs ever, “Brown Sugar.” It is a great song, with an outstanding riff and driving tom-tom beat, and it’s probably playing on the radio somewhere in America right this very second. It’s an impressive song, too, keith singingin that it is probably the highest charting song ever (and certainly the only song played regularly in dentist offices) that lyrically celebrates the rape of slave children. The song also features what I feel is an underrated – very underrated – component of The Rolling Stones’ sound: Keith Richards’ harmony vocals. Pay attention to the “Lady of the house/wonderin where it’s gonna stop” lines. Keith has a reedy, whiney tone that sounds like it’s probably a smidge out of tune, but to me those harmonies just make the song.

Keith’s harmonies are also on display on the Country tune “Dead Flowers.”

This song is a simple country tune, and while the song itself is bouncy and upbeat for Country, the lyrics darkly speak of finding solace in heroin after an angry breakup. (And – to be fair – finding forgiveness, too.) Keith supports the chorus with a shaky harmony mick taylorthat fills out the vocals. But the simple song also has wonderful Keith Richards/Mick Taylor guitar work which somehow sounds country, but not twangy. There is a raunchy sound on the guitar on this track (the video above is live, and so sounds a little different from the version on the record) and though it’s a simple 3-chord song it holds up on repeated listens for me mainly because of the guitar.

While we’re on the topic of dark lyrics, let’s take a listen to the track “Sister Morphine,” shall we?? (And why not throw in some Salvadore Dali images to watch while we do?!)

Listening to Mick Jagger lyrics – whether about rape or heroin abuse or death by drugs – one tends to forget that he’s Sir Mick Jagger, international celebrity. In 2014, Jagger’s name still often gets thrown into the mix of tabloid-y stars, as it has since the band’s early days, and he has reached a point of saturation at which he now almost seems like the tabloidKhardashians or finalists on The Bachelor – people who are famous for being famous. But Mick was (and maybe continues to be – I haven’t listened to a new Stones album since Undercover, in 1983) a fantastic lyricist. “Sister Morphine” is a first-person account of drug withdrawal (and death?) that is direct and chilling, and coupled with Keith’s acoustic rhythm guitar and guest Ry Cooder’s incredible electric slide guitar (Mick Taylor was not present during recording, according to what I’ve read – although I’m no Stones expert) creates a spare, haunting song that connects with me as a listener. It’s the type of song that would’ve scared the shit out of me at 8 years old – around the time Scooby Doo scooby was having the same effect on me – and now it’s one of the first songs on the album I’ll choose to play.

But Mick doesn’t just write good lyrics about sad, bad topics. One of the most enduring and popular Stones songs appears on Sticky Fingers – “Wild Horses.” I’ve read that Keith wrote the song about the pain he felt having to leave his newborn son, Marlon, to go on tour, and that Mick took the original lyrics and made them more universal. Whatever the story is, the lyrics offer a nice précis on the universal feelings of sadness and frustration and regret in any unwanted separation. And I know I’m starting to repeat myself here – and since Keith is known as one of the greatest rock and roll guitar players ever, and Mick Taylor joins him in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 40 guitarists ever, it shouldn’t be a surprise, really – but the guitar work is special on this song. The interplay between acoustic and electric, and how it supports the song without intruding on it, makes it a joy to listen to. The band does a good job of not letting the song get too sappy, of finding a bluesy feel to the sadness, not a maudlin feel. Maybe because they wisely resisted any temptations they may have had to add orchestra.

But they do know how to use an orchestra well, as the fabulous “Moonlight Mile,” which closes the record, demonstrates!

The middle to end of the song – when the orchestra picks up the riff, and the song builds, then falls – is one of my favorite parts of the entire album. The orchestra riff isn’t even a main melody in the song until the band finds it at around 3:35, and when the orchestra picks it up, it provides the perfect coda to the song and the album!

Okay, this review is getting to be pretty long now, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,”

which is probably my favorite song on Sticky Fingers! charlieIt’s a simple riff, and the band sounds hot and tight, like it just started jamming and the engineer flipped on the “Record” switch. It’s a showcase for the famed Stones rhythm section of Charlie Watts on drums and the retired Bill Wyman on bass. wymanNeither of them is particularly flashy – on this song, or on many Stones songs – but they hold down a groove like no others, and place enough cool parts in songs (such as Watts’s double snare hit to echo Jagger’s question, “Can’t you hear me knockin?”) to satisfy. The song builds for a few minutes, then shifts suddenly to a Latin-flavored jam, complete with bongos, congas and a raging sax solo by longtime Stones sax man Bobby Keys. (In Keith’s autobiography Life it is clear that the only member of the Stones entourage who was as wild as – and maybe wilder than – Keith was Bobby Keys.) bobby keysAfter Keys’s solo it’s Mick Taylor’s turn, and he plays a solo that is among the best ever in recorded rock and roll.

Two other great songs are “Sway” which again features that Keith harmony style I love so much, and “Bitch,” which is fantastic pop rock song whose title may suggest it has the most troubling lyrics on the album, though they have nothing on the opening track… Rounding out the record are the slow blues tunes “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues,” both of which sound like they were written on somebody’s back porch hanging off a shack in deep Alabama, reminding the listener that indeed, the Stones started out as a straightforward blues band.

early stones
This album is excellent. If I were naming “Best Albums,” it would certainly be higher on the list. But the name of the list is “Favorite Albums,” and I never established that deep connection I did with some other (well, I guess 94 other) albums in my collection. If you don’t have this record, I would strongly suggest you run right out and get it. And if you hold your job for 50 years, compare the best work you did on your job to Sticky Fingers, and see if your work performance measured up. If it did, nobody should complain that you can’t do as much in your 52nd year as you did in your 9th. Some work is so good it can’t be topped!

stones final

TRACKS
Brown Sugar
Sway
Wild Horses
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
You Gotta Move
Bitch
I Got the Blues
Sister Morphine
Dead Flowers
Moonlight Mile

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96th Favorite: De Nova, by The Redwalls

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De Nova. The Redwalls.
2005, Capitol Records. Producer: Rob Schnapf.
Purchased ca. 2006.

de nova

nut 96IN A NUTSHELL: As “Beatlesque” as Beatlesque can be, these four Americans know their way around melody, harmony, song structure and – best of all – lead guitar that supports the song throughout. The album presents a bit of a conundrum, as their Beatles sound is what I love, but it also probably limits my enjoyment. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had 3 fewer songs, and one or two of the remaining had been more “Redwallsesque.”

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Imitation has always been inextricably bound to rock and roll music. Nothing that has come down the pike (aside from a few unlistenable things) has been truly original – it has all been based on something that came before. (And even the unlistenable stuff is a mutation of previous, listenable music!) When I was a kid, they said that “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and his Comets, was “the first rock and roll song,” as if Haley had gone to bed one night as a classical guitarist, then sprung from bed the next morning and suddenly pooped out a backbeat, 12-bar blues and a simple, repetitive melody.

haley cometsAnd listeners were supposedly suddenly hypnotized by a sound the likes of which had never been heard before, as if Poseidon himself had risen from the sea and unleashed his magnificent ichthyological ensemble on terrestrial beings everywhere. under sea

Other smarter, better writers than me have discussed at length the dangers of simplifying historical narratives (and for a historical topic as insubstantial as popular music, danger is probably too strong a word), but nonetheless I’ll point out that describing a single song as “the first” of any genre will obviously leave out much of the story.

Bill Haley had heard all kinds of music in his life, I’m sure, and “Rock Around the Clock” probably sounded like much of his musical repertoire, and similar to what he had been hearing among his musical colleagues, particularly his black colleagues who couldn’t get their songs heard by the white populace – artists like The Four Blues. Much has been written about white American musicians co-opting black American music, (far less has been written about black American musicians co-opting white music, but it has been done) and while it’s true that societal racism was at work in popularizing white artists like Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis while many African American artists went unrecognized, something that’s not considered very often in the discussion is the fact that these artists – both white and black – were making music that sounded the way it sounded not because they were trying to cheat someone else out of recognition or money (at least not until Led Zeppelin, anyway) but because it was what they liked and what they heard around them. Musicians tend to play the music they like to hear, so it makes sense that “new” music will sound very similar to “old” music, and that white cats who dug the new sound (in the parlance of the times) would reproduce it in their own way. I doubt that anyone in the 70s really thought the “first rock and roll song” was by Bill Haley – I think it was more about hyping up the TV show Happy Days than anything else.

(Random thought – look at that Bill Haley and His Comets photo again. Can you imagine there was a time when a rock and roll band had use for an accordion player in the mix?? Although, when I l look closely, it appears to me that maybe he’s being phased out of the band)

Another reason musical artists copy others (although, as Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”) is because the listening public wants to hear what they know. Acts from Bill Haley in the 50s through Radio Disney artists of today have benefited financially from having a recognizable sound that becomes distinguished precisely because it is not distinguishable.

beatlemaniaIn the 60s, the wave of Beatlemania was followed closely by ripples of Beatle-somia. other bandsActs like The Dave Clark Five and The Knickerbockers capitalized on their Beatle sound, and Hollywood executives put together a mock-Beatles band, The Monkees (complete with animal name and misspelled long “E” sound) that was wildly successful (in large part because of the quality of songwriters they hired.) Even big-time artists with careers of their own took a shot at incorporating That Beatles Thing, such as The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album Their Satanic Majesties Request.satanic maj

In the early 70s, the sensitive singer-songwriter James Taylor began pumping out his string of earnest, mellow hits and before you could say “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” sensitivethe airwaves were flooded with story-songs sung by a dude with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. They didn’t all sound like James Taylor, but this fact was actually part of the imitation: each artist’s singularity was what was being marketed at the height of “The Me Decade.

Whether musicians are consciously trying to sound like what’s come before, like Kingdom “wir klingen genau wie Led Zeppelin” Come or whether a band just had a sound that some record exec thought sounded like, say, Led Zeppelin, one of the best ways to get some traction as a musical act is to sound like another musical act.

(A quick aside: Musical imitation also remains a booming industry in the nightclub concert circuit. lez zeptragedySo-called “Tribute Acts,” whose members imitate other bands with varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, are some of the highest-grossing unsigned acts performing today. I’ve seen both Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute act that is remarkable in both its power and its musical chops, and Tragedy, an as-good-as-it-sounds Heavy Metal Bee-Gees Tribute Band, which melds metal and disco and both acts put on some of the best shows I’ve seen. There’s a tremendously interesting book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band, by Steven Kurutz, which I highly recommend!)

(One more thing here: One of the first “Tribute Acts” I remember was Sha-na-na, sha na na
a group in the 70s, named for a distinguishing musical feature of 50s doo-wop music, who covered 20-year old rock and roll songs, and who [after warming up the crowd at Woodstock just before Jimi Hendrix (!)] parlayed that narrow ability into a successful TV variety show – one of the most successful syndicated TV shows of all time! zimacostnerTo put that in perspective, imagine a few pierced guys dressed in flannel and thrift shop clothes today calling themselves, say, “Distortion Pedal,” and having a hit TV show on which they perform old hits by Bush and Lit and Fuel in between telling corny jokes about Zima, “Virtual Reality” and Kevin Costner. It boggles the mind.) (And it sounds like a great skit idea for Portlandia! Someone call Fred and Carrie!)

As has been well-documented here in this blog, I am a Beatles fan. To summarize, I really like The Beatles. beatles fan Billions of people are, or have been, Beatles fans over the past 50 years or so. I won’t go into details, but if you want you can read this dude’s BA thesis, written a few years ago by a student at a Marasyk University in the Czech Republic.

Since I like The Beatles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the years I’ve enjoyed many acts that have been described in the press as “Beatle-esque.” Cheap Trick, XTC, and Matthew Sweet beatare a few acts whose albums are close to my heart (and possibly part of my Top 100??!!??) – acts that don’t exactly sound like The Beatles, but that clearly were strongly influenced by them. I know I like the sound, so I keep my ears open for acts described as “Beatlesque.”

At some point around 2005, probably on a message board about Stand-Up Comedy, I became aware of the existence of a young band from the Chicago area called The Redwalls that had a serious Beatles thing going on. band I think a friend’s band may have opened for them somewhere in the Boston area. I checked out the name on Youtube, and came across what has become one of my favorite songs ever: their first single from De Nova, “Thank You.”

What first captured my attention in this song was Andrew Langer’s guitar. It had become very rare, by 2005, to hear modern bands play the style of lead guitar heard on this song. I believe it was the influence of Grunge and 90s punk that caused the lead guitar to become so diminished in rock music. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day might throw a guitar solo into a song once in a while, but if they did, more often than not – as in the guitar solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the solos sounded ironic, lead guitarlike an outright mocking of the idea of a “Guitar Solo.” Even less popular than the Guitar Solo was the idea of a “Lead Guitar,” that is, a guitarist who plays something other than chords and rhythm throughout the song. Lead guitarists like Don Felder, from the Eagles, and Jeff “The Skunk” Baxter, from The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and George Harrison would fill up songs with all sorts of interesting fills and figures that added color and texture to a song. Part of the ethos of punk and grunge was to strip away all the frills and leave behind the power of a simple, loud song. I can appreciate this aesthetic, but I also really love a well placed, cool-sounding guitar. And “Thank You,” and the entire De Nova album, has this type of guitar work throughout.

The next thing that really drew me in to the song was the melodic, boop-de-dooping bass work of Justin Baren, one of the two brothers who lead the band. He plays a true Lead Bass, in the manner of classic rock bassists such as Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Lines of melody that have their own path, but juxtapose perfectly with the guitar and the vocal melody. The vocals, on this song and throughout, may be what cause most listeners to immediately state “Beatlesque.” Logan Baren has a nasally, distinct voice, with a hint of a British accent (maybe he was hanging out with Madonna, another American with a British accent), that calls to mind at once John Lennon. lennon There have been other singers that sound a lot like Lennon, but Logan Baren may be the closest match who is not genetically linked. He sings in a deadpan style, but somehow he sounds sincere. The lyrics in “Thank You” are a nice reflection on a longtime love, and the entire piece works on all levels.

I immediately went out and bought the album. I was not disappointed by the rest of the songs.

The Redwalls have a bit of a political bent to some of their lyrics. The song “Falling Down”

is a screed against political censorship which humorously, and blatantly, uses several “words you can’t say on TV” to make the case for freedom of speech. This album was released around the time of that Great American Dark Nightmare of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Nipple,oops which, if you don’t remember, caused politicians across the political spectrum to take action to protect the nation’s youth from naughty words and glimpses of boobies while, shockingly, doing nothing to prevent lousy halftime shows at every Super Bowl since then. [Except Bruno Mars in 2014, which was actually pretty good.] “Falling Down” is a mid-tempo song with a bouncy drum beat, nice guitar work, and the Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmonies that are featured in most Redwalls songs. The voices of the brothers Baren, who trade off lead vocal duties, blend perfectly.

The songs “Glory of War” and “Front Page” also go political, offering a Redwalls take on war and violence and disarray in the modern world. Their political songs’ lyrics are not so overt, and don’t make you feel as if you are attending a political rally. The songs are good and catchy, and after a listen or two the lyrics start to come into better focus. The band definitely takes a “first, make catchy songs” approach to their work, and sound like they’d rather shoehorn an odd lyric into a good song than take the song in an odd direction. But their lyrics are never bad.

A close second for my favorite song on the album is “It’s Alright,”

which starts out as a straight-ahead rocker in the verse, lyrically referencing The Doors, but in the chorus (around the 50 second mark) throws in a tempo change, stellar harmonies, and drum break which sound – I’ve been trying to avoid the “B-esque” word, so I’ll say – Liverpudlian! liverpool In a great way. Again, the guitar work is nice throughout the song, continuing to be one of my favorite aspects of the band.

The Redwalls show their peace and love leanings in the excellent song “Build a Bridge.”

The song offers the cool hippy sentiment “Build a Bridge/and bring both sides together.” It starts out with a simple piano and builds to include horns and orchestration, and this makes the peace lovesong sound important, epic. The catchy sing-along chorus brings to mind the end of the night at a jam session with friends, in which anyone in the room is invited to join in. I think this band has a tremendous songwriting talent, for making the kind of song that makes the listener feel like part of the same club. Some bands can present music that makes me, as a listener, feel not cool enough to “get it,” but The Redwalls invite you in.

So? What are you smirking at? Because this band isn’t all that original? Okay – so what?!? The band obviously likes The Beatles, and so do I! I don’t mean to be defensive. It’s not the only thing I like about them – I like their songs, their harmonies, and especially their guitar. So what if they throw in backward guitar that could have been lifted off Revolver, in songs “Back Together” and “How the Story Goes“? What does it matter if a song like “Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling,” with its sleepy lead bass, oohs and ahs, and close harmonies, sounds like it might have been cut from the side two medley of Abby Road ? Is it so wrong to have an affinity towards the best band ever? Does it really matter that “Rock & Roll” sounds like it might have been played in The Cavern Club in 1963? I don’t mind at all. The Redwalls are Beatles-ish, but I think they have enough of their own thing going, too. And they don’t pick obvious Beatles songs to cover live, so I like that, too!

Besides, if you’re going to pick a band to copy, you might as well pick the best!
simpsons

TRACK LISTING
Robinson Crusoe
Falling Down
Thank You
Love Her
Build a Bridge
Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling
On My Way
It’s Alright
Front Page
How the Story Goes
Back Together
Glory of War
Rock & Roll

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97th Favorite: Empty Glass, by Pete Townshend

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Empty Glass. Pete Townshend.
1980, ATCO. Producer: Pete Townshend and Chris Thomas
Purchased ca. 1997.

empty glass

squirellIN A NUTSHELL – Driving guitar rock with emotional lyrics and energetic vocal performances. Lots of catchy songs, and a few that grow on you with repeated listening. Great background vocals and harmonies, and interesting song structure, give the songs an operatic feel. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had even more guitar.

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I grew up in a rather small town in a made-up state in the 70s. Generally, this meant my sisters and I experienced typical American life about 15 to 18 months after everyone else did. “Hey, TIME magazine says there’s a hot new fad called “Pet Rocks!” Not in our town. Maybe they’ll show up at The Mall next summer, as the rest of the nation buys their first Bean Bag Chairs. I’m surprised the Bicentennial didn’t happen in my town in 1977!

Living life in my town was like watching a DVR’ed TV program, only we couldn’t see the green bar in front of us showing how far behind we were.
dvr

But we could tell. We were behind the curve. I heard about things like ATMs and home computers and microwave ovens, but nobody I knew really USED those things – they seemed to be part of the made-up Hollywood world, the type of thing that Johnny Carson made jokes about, but that “real” people didn’t use, like plastic surgery, dresses for men and airplanes.

So considering how behind-the-times we seemed, it’s surprising that we had Cable TV in my little part of town for as long as I can remember. antenna 2 Cable TV was introduced in the US as early as the late 40s but hardly anyone had it. In the 70s, most of my friends and relatives still had unsightly antennas on their houses, which pulled in TV signals broadcast through the atmosphere and delivered those signals to a heavy wooden box with a bulbous blue screen protruding from it.

tv set

(Basically, it’s magic.)

And those signals weren’t always clear. Depending which way the house’s antenna was pointed, and which channel you were trying to watch, if you wanted a clear picture and sound the antenna had to be adjusted. This gave the viewer three options:

1) Shinny up the side of the house, crawl onto the roof and move it around, while a partner watched the TV and shouted, “A little more! A little more! STOP!! No! Too far! Go back! STOP!! No! Too far!” …

adjust

2) Buy a futuristic automatic antenna adjuster device, adjust 2like my grandma had, upon which you turned a dial marked with the four cardinal directions, and somehow the TV antenna moved, enabling you to get perfect(ish) reception, which in turn allowed you to make a list to keep on top of the TV with cryptic tuning instructions like “Ch. 15 – WNW. Ch 27 – E. Ch. 8 – SW +4” …

or 3) Forget the adjustments altogether, and just find one “best position” for your antenna, where most of the “good” channels got the least-poor reception, and where the “lousy channels” didn’t come in as clearly. (Although, the lousy channels always seemed to have some kind of super-receptive-power that enabled you to always be able to clearly view boring shows like Big Blue Marble or Masterpiece Theater even though over on the “good channels” every episode of McHale’s Navy or Baretta seemed to be constantly phasing in and out of static and snow!)

It made TV viewing frustrating.tv broken But my household didn’t have to deal with all the frustration. We had a big, black, ropy Tarzan-vine of a cable looping onto the side of our house from the heavens (I guess) which carried brilliantly clear pictures and sound directly into our TV set. I don’t know if my neighborhood was part of some consumer test group, or if someone on the Township Board of Commissioners had blackmailed a TV executive somewhere, but for some reason cable TV was the only aspect of 70s life in which my family was AHEAD of the curve.

It wasn’t Cable TV as is commonly thought of today, with 2,713 individualized networks catering to every interest known to (or conjured up by) humans. There were only a few channels, all of them “Broadcast TV,” all of them found on either the VHF or UHF dials on a conventional television of the day. uhf vhf

But with Cable TV, these broadcast stations were wired directly into our living room, meaning the signals were always clear. Meaning, also, that we could receive signals not only from the handful of channels available from local cities, like Lancaster and Harrisburg, but that we could also receive clear signals from channels in the faraway big city of Philadelphia! aussie2This meant I got to watch shows like “Wee Willy” Webber, and Dr. Shock’s Horror Theater and watch commercials for Krass Bros. Clothing (“Store of the Stars!”) and Tastykakes (“All the good thing’s wrapped up in one”) and Frank’s Soda (featuring Patty Smyth and her band Scandal, years before She Was The Warrior) all from 100 miles away. It’s easy to see why I watched so much TV.

In the 80s, Cable TV started to expand beyond UHF and VHF channels. Suddenly Cubs baseball games were always on, and there were channels that showed movies (without commercials!) or showed ONLY SPORTS – which sounded like a great idea – sports all the time – darts2but before ESPN had broadcast rights for major American sports, they showed sports like Australian Rules Football and Darts and the opening round of the professional slo-pitch softball championships (!!) so it wasn’t very impressive. None of those new channels impressed me, really, except for one:

mtv

All Day, All Night, All Music, they said, and that’s what it was. It began broadcasting on August 1, 1981, and by October of that year, my family – which had been years behind every other technological advance and breakthrough product since before the advent of indoor plumbing (my parents’ childhood homes both had outhouses until well after WWII) – was among the vanguard consuming the product responsible for the downfall of substantive, meaningful popular music and the recording industry as a whole.

And I loved it.

When people discuss early MTV and its music, the focus is frequently on interesting-looking bands, typically English, who played catchy pop, but made their reputation as much through their looks as their music.newwave But one of my earliest MTV memories is seeing a music video featuring an older, shaggy guy playing guitar in a pool hall while harassing the players, and angrily singing a driving, catchy song that ended with a series of ascending chords, played with larger and larger windmill motions, building up the anticipation for a final exclamation that just … felt awesome!! (In the parlance of my 14 year old self). rough

The video is for the first song off Empty Glass, “Rough Boys,” one of my favorite songs of all time. I didn’t know what the song was about (and I still don’t know for sure), but that really didn’t matter. I just knew that the power and energy seemed to encapsulate my emotions about life as a teenager in my little town. And watching Pete play and sing as he jumped around the tables intensified those feelings. I’d jump around myself as I watched, as long as my sister wasn’t around.

I’ve read, maybe in Townshend’s excellent autobiography Who I Am that the song is a response to the punk rockers of the 70s (the album states the song is dedicated to his kids, Emma and Minta, and The Sex Pistols), an attempt to capture some of their anger and energy, and lyrically the song describes Pete’s desire to better understand where that anger and energy comes from.

“Gonna get inside you
Gonna get inside your bitter mind”

With its lyrics about leather and tough boys and biting and kissing, much has been written and discussed about Pete’s sexuality and how this song fits into the topic. I don’t remember being aware of all this as a teenager, I just remember loving the song. And I still do.

Pete Townshend is, of course, a founding member and chief songwriter of The Who, probably the third most famous rock band to come out of the 60s, along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

who 60s

When I first heard the songs on this record (or – more accurately – watched them, on MTV) I was aware that there was a band named The Who, and I knew some of their songs, but it didn’t really register with me that Pete was part of that band. Many listeners, I’m sure, immediately compared Empty Glass to albums by The Who, and reviewed the record in the context of Pete as a Famous Musician and Songwriter. To me, Pete was just another British guy on MTV making cool songs and videos. Not unlike Thomas Dolby or Gary Numan.

dolbynuman

(Kidding!)

The next video I remember from this record, and the biggest hit of Pete’s career, was the song “Let My Love Open the Door,” a catchy, keyboard-driven song with a solid, danceable backbeat, that reached Top Ten in the US in the Fall of 1980.

This well-known song was quite different from anything else in the Top Forty that week, with lyrics that are typical of the entire Empty Glass album – heartfelt and emotional, and not shy about human feelings. The deeply spiritual Townshend has said that the lyrics are meant to be about a larger love than person-to-person, intending them to be about God’s love in times of crisis or doubt. As an atheist, I can’t go there personally, but I appreciate the intent. For me, the lyrics have always been a strong testament to the power of friendship and family, and how we all need others in our lives to make it through the days. Plus, it has an infectious beat and a cool hook. And the video – like most Townshend/Who videos from this era – was simple footage of the band playing – the type of video I always found most inspiring back in the day.

playing pete

These two songs were favorites of mine for a long time, but I never thought about buying the album until I noticed it kept popping up on various “Best Of” lists of 80s albums. I’ve written before about my general distrust of Best Of record lists, but when I saw a used copy of the LP in a record store in San Francisco, I picked it up to hear what the hubbub was about.

Pete’s solo songs have an operatic quality about them – probably not surprising, since he’s the father of the Rock Opera.

tommyquad

And I Moved” is a song that displays these operatic qualities. Granted, the only thing I know about Opera is what I learned from Bugs Bunny, bugs opera so maybe it’s not operatic, but it sounds grander than most rock songs, and even though it’s a mid-tempo song, it has a weightiness and a quick, driving drumbeat that makes it sound important. It’s a somber song, with oblique lyrics, and upon first listening I disliked it. But as I’ve listened more, it’s grown on me. As with all the songs on the album, Pete’s sings with The Three E’s: Energy, Emotion, Earnestness. Throughout Empty Glass, he sounds as if he believes his words are the most important words he’s ever known. This could be a negative if performed by the wrong singer, or with the wrong material but it works for me on this record.

Also operatic, to me and Elmer and Bugs anyway, is Pete’s frequent use of backing vocals that answer the main melody, like The Chorus in a stage musical, providing background information or counterpoints to supplement what is sung in the main melody. (All of the songs have excellent, interesting backing vocals, something that is often missing in rock and roll created after the 70s.) Pete used this technique with The Who frequently. It’s on display in the song “Gonna Get Ya,” a march of sorts, with a compelling bass line and Pete’s urgent voice. There’s an extended instrumental section in the middle that again, as in the ascending chords in “Rough Boys,” builds the song to an emotional, frantic finale. (My only quibble with this song are the shouted words “Girl, I’m Gonna Do Ya!”, which sound creepy, even coming from a Rock Icon).

bloody

Pete’s plaintive vocals can, at times, almost make me feel bad for the guy. In the song “I Am An Animal” the vocals and lyrics flip among anger, hurt and sadness, and the quality of his voice is such that I just want to give him a big hug. He clearly has more on his mind than sex and drugs and rock and roll, and offers the listener a candid glimpse into his emotional life. But he spares us further direct microscopic examinations of his hurt and sadness on the album, which is a good thing. We all have met people who are “over-sharers,” and know the awkward experience of wondering, “Do I put an arm around this person I met five minutes ago who is now sobbing to me about his colon issues?” But despite Pete’s emotions on display throughout the record, he never makes me feel uncomfortable as a listener.

The best display of emotion is the song of furious anger, “Jools and Jim.” This is Pete’s response to some rock critics who in the late 70s had questioned the relevance of 60s and 70s rock to an audience now steeped in punk rock, and in doing so mocked Who drummer Keith Moon’s death. moon

“Typewriter tappers/you’re all just crappers …. Typewriter bangers-on/you’re all just hangers-on …” he sings (or shouts, really), and he goes on to ridicule the lack of spiritual and emotional depth of critics in general. But even in the middle of his fury, the thoughtful Pete slows the tempo and offers to meet the two for drinks, “’cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me …” I think it’s rare for a rock musician to display such depth and self-awareness, especially a famous, wealthy rock musician whose head is on the mythical Mount Rushmore of Rock. Even in the middle of a rage, Pete is thoughtful. My only complaint with this song is that the song ends with the curious phrase, “Oklahoma! Oklahoma! Oklahoma! OK!”

Animated-dancing-red-question-mark-picture-moving

I have been on a quest for nearly 20 years to find out why this state slogan is put here, and what it has to do with the rest of the song. It is one of my Great Unanswered Questions of Rock, and if anyone can send me the answer, or post it in the comments, I will be forever in your debt. This song is also one of my favorites on the album, a great tune to blast at high volume, and proof that Pete, nearing 40 years of age, could still hang with the young guns on the scene.

My town was ahead of the curve on cable, but I was late to this record. I may have given the impression that Pete is very serious throughout the record, but the songs are truly great. And just to show that he could tone down the seriousness at times, here’s a (likely) drunken Pete with a goofy video from the record for a song called “Keep On Working.”

TRACK LISTING
Rough Boys
I Am An Animal
And I Moved
Let My Love Open the Door
Jools and Jim
Keep On Working
Cat’s In The Cupboard
A Little Is Enough
Empty Glass
Gonna Get Ya

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98th Favorite: Chutes Too Narrow, by The Shins

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Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins.
2003, Sub Pop. Producer: The Shins and Phil Ek
Purchased ca. 2004.

98

nutshell

IN A NUTSHELL – Guitar pop, with a touch of folk. Soaring vocals wind through complex, memorable melodies, singing beautifully obscure lyrics about … well, they could be about whatever you want them to be about, but the great thing is that YOU WILL KNOW what they mean to you. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was a little more rockin’.

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Like many Americans, and probably people all around the globe, I really enjoy a good amnesia story. I enjoy movies like Memento
memento and Spellbound, which offer a dramatic take on amnesia.

I’ve enjoyed episodes of favorite
skipper and not-favorite sitcoms that have used the condition as a (somewhat) comedic device. Best of all, I enjoy true-life accounts, such as the amazing first-person story I recently heard on the radio of David Stuart Maclean’s battle with amnesia brought on by a medication’s side-effect – a story that he put into a new book, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, that I will be reading!

It should come as no shock that the Hollywood versions of the disease are much different than what happens in real life. And while it may be fun to watch movies about CIA-created assassins

bournespotless

and the unexpected consequences of experimental medical techniques, I can attest to the fact that real-life amnesia is not so interesting or- frankly – as scary as modern entertainment would have you believe. It’s so mundane, in fact, that it happens every day to hundreds of millions of people around the world, and happens for years at a time, but they barely even mention it to one another.

It is called being-a-parent-of-infants-and-toddlers. It is well-documented.

I have two kids, teen(ish) aged now, born about 4.5 years apart. So just as I was recovering from amnesia from the first one, the second one arrived and – like that giant wave at the seashore that you can’t tell is behind you as you groggily stand up from being wiped out by the first one – clobbered me all over again.

waves

There is so much that I do not remember from those early years. I know we had family routines, operating procedures that allowed us to get little kids fed, dressed, to school, daycare … but I don’t remember how we did it. I can’t even imagine trying to do it now.

We must have bought diapers, right? I do remember changing them … but did they just magically arrive in our house through some mysterious portal, along with all the footy-pajamas, bath time foam, bath foamsippy cups, Wiggles videotapes and Hulk Hands? hulk hands And what did those little buggers DO all day, anyway? Play, I would imagine? They must have played. But did they just crawl all over the place? Wouldn’t they have bumped into stuff, fallen down steps and repeatedly hurt themselves? And, okay, I remember putting their Huggies underwear on them, but other than that, did they dress themselves? If so, what did they do about their feet? How smart were they? How did they communicate? And what did they eat? The more I think about it, the more my life with toddlers raises the same questions I have about early hominids.

early man

All this amnesia is clearly caused by lack of sleep. If you don’t have kids, sometime – for kicks – spend 3 to 7 years sleeping only in three hour blocks at night, and 20 minute catnaps during the day once or twice a week, and after that time see if you remember anything. Lack of sleep is damaging to brains. Books have been written about this concept.sleep

At some point, during my own 7 years of amnesia, I must have picked up the CD Chutes Too Narrow, by The Shins, and I sure am glad I did so. I don’t remember when, where, or how I even heard of this band. I know their music was featured in the movie Garden State but I also know I watched that movie just because I liked the CD, so that’s not how I heard of them. I did, for a time during the amnesia – in a last-ditch effort to maintain some tenuous attachment to modern coolness – subscribe to that old magazine Blender

blender

and it’s possible I read about them there. I honestly don’t remember.

But somehow this CD is a part of my life, and even though pacifiers, internal GPS maps of neighborhood playgrounds, an appreciation of Caillou, caillou and all my Laurie Berkner CDs are long gone, Chutes Too Narrow remains.

The band’s singer, songwriter, guitarist, (and only member of the band remaining from this album in today’s lineup) is James Mercer.

mercer

The thing you’ll notice first about him is his high voice. The album kicks off with “Kissing the Lipless,” a straight-ahead rock song, a bit on the folk-ish side, with a careening melody that requires an impressive singer to carry. And it’s a good example of the type of songs you’ll find on the album.

There are enough guitars in there to keep me interested, and that melody – again, the melody – is not simple, but still sing-along-worthy.

In a similar vein is “So Says I.”

There’s a 60s-ishness to both of these songs, with acoustic guitar carrying the song and electric guitar filling in. And there is Mercer’s voice again – soaring and gliding.

I started becoming interested in rock music in the heyday of the High-Pitched, Scrotal-Pinched Male Rock Singer. This trend in music probably started with Robert Plant, plant of Led Zeppelin, and the howling that is so prominent in songs like “The Immigrant Song.” Of course, Plant could do so much more with his voice than simply use the high register, but a wave of high-pitched wailers followed him. The 70s were the heyday, with bands like Rush, Yes, Kansas, Triumph, Queen, and Styx (who had a pair of singers … but not a single testicle between them. Apparently) …

pinched

Heavier late 70s/80s bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions … all these bands had singers that sounded like they’d aged out of the Castrati choir, but were able to put their attenuated secondary sex characteristics to lucrative use singing about drugs and chicks and warlocks and Satan in guitar rock bands.

So I grew accustomed to the high-pitched male vocalist, and for years sang along to all these artists in an Alvin and the Chipmunks chips style that sounded perfect in my head, but that I knew was more Rainbow Brite than Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. So I have a level of comfort with a high-pitched dude singer, and Mercer can really get up there. But he doesn’t wail – he’s more in the Roy Orbison/Michael Jackson vein, guys who just have high pitched voices.

mj roy

“Turn A Square” is a rocker (well, a Shins rocker, anyway … not exactly AC/DC) with a catchy guitar riff that carries the song, and which features Mercer’s vocal range, offering a good jumping off point to discuss one of the reasons I love this album: lyrics.

I’m a fan of lyrics – all types of lyrics. I like lyrics that are serious and direct, such as “Yesterday,” by The Beatles. I like lyrics that are goofy and nonsense, like “I Am The Walrus,” by The Beatles. beatles I like lyrics that are sophomoric and crude, like pretty much any David Lee Roth lyrics from Van Halen. I like minimalist lyrics – like in Nirvana’s “School,” which has 10 words in the whole song. As long as the lyrics are good, I like them. The difficulty is in determining what “good” is. “Good” to me just means they fit well with the song, and they aren’t too ridiculous. (Unless, such as with Van Halen, ridiculous lyrics are simply the best type to put with the music being played! But even ridiculous lyrics can be bad. See Album #99.)

But of all the lyrical styles, my favorite are probably the oblique kind, in which you hear what the singer is singing, and you know what the words mean, but they conjure an image in your mind that you can’t be sure was the intention of the singer.
imagination

It’s a touchy business, writing lyrics in this way, as whenever you leave something up to interpretation, you’re giving each and every maniac, or meth addict, or fundamentalist, or shop teacher or any other nut job out there free reign to come up with any meaning they see fit. And if you get too weird, and you’re not John “You Can Syndicate Any Boat You Row” Lennon, you can just turn everyone off completely. My favorite oblique lyricist is Donald Fagan, from Steely Dan, and Mercer’s lyrics have a lot in common with his.

Mercer does a wonderful job, I think, of conjuring images and letting the listener take over meanings. “Turn a Square” has nice lines about meeting a girl wearing tennis shorts, and the effect it has on him

“Just a glimpse of an ankle and I/
React like it’s 1805”

but then it strangely turns into a lament about the effect she has on him:

“It gets worse every time that we talk/
Can’t afford to be just one in a flock/
But that’s your lot/
When you’re after such a well-made lock/
Who was classically trained to give up”

Frankly, I have no friggin idea what this all means. But it sounds good when he sings it, and it makes me want to sing along. I kind of get the feeling from the song that he met a girl, likes her, but is unsure if the effect she has on him is good or bad … but for all I know the lyric could be about a good bowl of chili he once ate.

shins 2

Almost all of the songs have a quality whereby I want to sing along, and I try to sing along, but there are so many words packed in, and their meanings don’t help give a context to what I should be singing about, so I end up listening to, say, “Kissing the Lipless” and belting out, “You told us of your new life there,” followed by mumbling “with the bum-de-bumming rounds/ or ba-bum-de something sound/with a secret to be found/ defrayed remembrance/ever seeking something some-something doo-de-criminal.” Then finishing it up with a hearty, “it’s HARD TO LEAVE ALL THESE MO-MENTS BEHIND!!”

But even the obscure lyrics have some nice gems. The song “Young Pilgrims,” a soft acoustic song,

contains the nice lines

But I learned fast how to keep my head up ’cause I/
Know I got this side of me that/
Wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just/
Fly the whole mess into the sea.

Maybe it should be worrisome that I connect with those lyrics.

Pink Bullets” is another beautiful, mellow song. In this song, the lyrics tell of a romance that ended too soon (I think):

When our kite lines first crossed, we tied ’em into knots/
And to finally fly apart, we had to cut them off/
Since then it’s been a book you read in reverse/
So you understand less as the pages turn/

All of the songs, both slow and fast, blend the instrumentation perfectly. Acoustic guitar drives most of the songs, but the electric guitar adds nice fills and solos. A few of the songs are embellished with strings, and keyboards are thrown into some, but it’s basically a guitar record. Guitars and melodies – I think you’ll notice a theme through my 100 albums. Guitars and melodies.

I can’t remember getting this CD. But songs like “Saint Simon” and “Fighting in a Sack” have stuck with me. I remember them more than I do lullabyes, legos, and La-La-Loopsy. And I didn’t even have to tattoo the reasons why all over my body!

memento tattoos

TRACK LISTING
Kissing the Lipless
Mine’s Not a High Horse
So Says I
Young Pilgrims
Saint Simon
Fighting in a Sack
Pink Bullets
Turn a Square
Gone for Good
Those to Come

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99th Favorite: Back In Black, by AC/DC

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Back in Black. AC/DC.
1980, Atlantic Records. Producer: Robert John “Mutt” Lange
Purchased ca. 1981.

album b in b

nutIN A NUTSHELL – “Stiff-cock Riff-rock.” Big riffs, cool guitar solos, and – best of all – killer melodies are featured across ten songs about sex and drugs and rock and roll. Music that sounds like a pair of hormonal 13 year old boys were asked to write lyrics and guitar riffs for catchy pop tunes. In other words, just about perfect. Would have been higher on the list if I was still 13.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A few years ago, a good friend of mine – a bit older than me, but a huge rock music fan – asked a bunch of us assembled friends, “What was the first great rock record you ever bought?” The answers – all from friends a bit older than myself – were typical Baby Boomer favorites, albums like Blue, by Joni Mitchell; Tea for the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens; Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. I didn’t answer immediately – I had to think.

I only bought a few records as a youngster, most at department stores, which – believe it or not, kiddies – used to have an actual Record Department! I distinctly remember the old Record Department at Hill’s Department Store, in the Hebron section of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. It was in the near right corner of the store, as you walked in the front entrance. (Or in the near left corner if you entered from the Mall that was built onto the store in the late 70s). I would look through the racks of albums while my mom did her shopping, and sometimes I was allowed to buy something.

I tried to think of the albums I’d gotten in such department stores, and I remembered trying to decide whether to buy Elvis Costello’s Trust trust or REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity hi infidelity and deciding that my folks would be worried about me if I came home with Elvis Costello, seeing as he was weird looking and seemed to be trying to make a statement with his songs, and so deciding REO was the safer choice. (I didn’t seem to notice the woman in underwear on the cover – which may have also caused concern – and I don’t know what that says about my 13-year old self!)

But my friend had asked what was the first “great” album I bought, and I couldn’t honestly say I thought Hi Infidelity was a great album.

My parents really had a big influence on my music purchases as a middle schooler, because my brain next delivered a record store memory of nearly buying Devo’s Freedom of Choicedevo front but then noticing the back cover, in which Gerald V. makes the old “in-out, in-out” sign with his fingers,gerald v and wondering if my folks would flip out if their 13 year old son brought home an album with such filth on it, so instead I bought …

Back in Black, by AC/DC,” I said.

My friend’s face twisted into a mask of confusion.

“What are you, thirteen years old?” he asked.

surly 13

Back In Black actually did come out when I was 13 years old, and I remember it caused a bit of a sensation in my school. I was in 8th grade, listening to whatever was played on WLBR, AM-1270 – pop songs by Elton John, Captain and Tennille, Seals and Crofts. I had a couple Village People cassettes, but I was never really a fan, and I no longer listened to them – they were silly artifacts of my 6th grade self!70s stuff

My sisters were music fans – American Bandstand, top 40, some 70s rock, disco – and through them I knew that WLBR didn’t exactly have the hippest playlist. Friends would mention artists like Pink Floyd and Queen and Van Halen, but I had no idea where to hear music like that until a couple friends in church got me to start tuning the radio to 104.1, WTPA – a ROCK MUSIC station – when my mom wasn’t around. I liked some of the songs, but some of them were too long, and some of the lyrics were a little more unsettling than “Crocodile Rock” or “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Into this era of musical uncertainty dropped a black album that pre-dated that other famous black album, Smell the Glove.

Back in Black suddenly became the album that everyone at Cedar Crest Middle School had to have – one of the first 45albums I really remember as an album, in which a band went into a studio and recorded some songs. Before that I mostly thought of music in terms of singles, 45s, and figured once an act had a bunch of 45s, they probably packaged a bunch together into an album. In the case of Back in Black, it was clearly cool to buy The Album, not just a 45 or two.

However, I didn’t become an immediate fan.

I bought the album, listened a couple times, but I generally found the music too loud and screamy, and I was put off by comments from an adult near me.

In 8th grade, I had a “hip” music teacher/band director named Mr. Meyers, who closely resembled The Burger King,burger king and made students as uncomfortable with his “coolness” as The Culps ever did. Anyway, it was early 1981, and I remember we had several lessons about rock music, and he played us what I suppose he thought were fresh, new hits – like 1972’s Frankenstein, by The Edgar Winter Group – and was disappointed that we didn’t go wild for the songs. He asked what rock music we’d rather hear, and it seemed like the entire class said “Back in Black.” He scoffed and said, “We listened to that album in the other class, and it’s the most basic, simple, uninteresting music I’ve ever heard.” He seemed like he knew music, and I’d found it a little screamy anyway, so I decided I’d put it aside and find other works.

That was probably when I bought Hi Infidelity.

Flash forward to my college years, and me at one of a million parties. I notice some really great songs playing: songs that are raucous and fun, with huge, killer riffs, but that have great, hook-y melodies with cool breakdowns and nice changes. I could tell from the screamy voice it was AC/DC, but it wasn’t until the mega-popular song “Back In Black” came on that I realized which album I was hearing. Soon after that party I pulled out my copy of Back In Black, put it on the turntable and re-discovered what I’d been missing. I’ve been a fan ever since.

The guitar is what I notice first about Back In Black. Each song on the album is built around a riff, a guitar pattern that repeats throughout the song, a hook that pulls the listener in. This pattern is established immediately (well, after 20 seconds of tolling bells) in the opening cut, “Hell’s Bells.”

But – as with any repetition in music – there is a point at which a “cool riff” turns into a “tiresome riff,” and guitarist brothers Angus and Malcolm Youngyoung bros know how to keep the riffs fresh. For example, in the “Hell’s Bells” video above, at about 1:17, the boys change the riff slightly to play behind singer Brian Johnson’s melody. When the chorus comes around, and the original riff returns, at about 2:01, it sounds bright and new.

And Brian Johnson sings some great melodies! Each of these songs has a catchy melody that could be hummed by your grandma, crooned by a lounge singer, or pilfered by today’s top 40 producers. These songs play on in my head because the melodies are so strong. His voice – a seemingly oxymoronic shrill growl – might have to grow on some listeners, but he uses it effectively in the band’s arrangements. It’s hard to imagine a different voice – say, Lionel Richie or Michael McDonald – singing a song like “What Do You Do For Money Honey” – and having it sound as good as it does when Johnson belts it.

This song also displays the album’s winning formula of big riff, thumping beat and melodic vocals that AC/DC nails every time. It’s a formula that sounds simple,hair 2 and that was the basis for an entire genre of embarrassing music from the 80s.

But it’s proven difficult to maintain over an album’s worth of music. Part of what makes AC/DC successful with this formula is that they don’t overdo anything they do. Those hair-bands from the 80s all made careers (of sorts) out of attempting to have guitar solos with the most notes, drum fills with the most beats, singers with the most operatic trills … But listen to AC/DC and you’ll notice that neither lead guitarist Angus, drummer Phil Rudd, nor especially singer Johnson are particularly showy.

Angus – in his school-boy outfit and wielding a red Gibson SG guitar –
angus is one of the most recognizable Guitar Gods in rock, and he has an unmistakable sound, as well. What I like about him – apart from the awesome riffs he writes – is that his playing is never overdone. As I’ve written before, sometimes I think overdoing it is okay. But AC/DC songs don’t need it. As heard here in the song “Have a Drink on Me,” (beginning at 2:21) Angus’s guitar solos never use 10 or 20 notes when 3 or 4 will suffice.

Drummer Phil Rudd is similarly restrained. He’s not big on long fills, and he doesn’t have a set of dozens of finely-tuned toms. But he is a pounding machine, and plays difficult rhythms easily. The well known title track has a riff with a tricky rhythm to it, stuttering syncopation and a guitar pattern off the back beat, and Rudd plays along effortlessly. Also, the drums on this album really SOUND good; there’s a depth to them, and they just sound COOL.

Angus’s riffs are awesome, and he sounds like he’s having fun playing them – like the schoolboy who just got off the bus and cranked his amp as loud as it could go before his parents came home. There’s a raunchiness to them, and they are perfectly complemented by Brian Johnson’s equally raunchy lyrics. There is an 8th grader’s fascination with genitals, alcohol, drugs, Satan and rock music running throughout all of these songs, and while that hardly sounds like a positive aspect, the humor (and Johnson’s screech) makes them work.

I never thought much about the lyrics until, sometime in my teenage years, my sister pointed out the misogyny of the lyrics “She was a fast machine/she kept her motor clean/she was the best damn woman that I’d ever seen,” from the song “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It’s true: most (all?) of the album’s librarianlyrics about women sound like a horny, inexperienced boy’s imaginative boasts to his gullible friends. The song “Given the Dog a Bone” describes a blowjob (several blowjobs?) with phrases that resemble graffiti (complete with misspellings) erased from a middle school text book at the end of the school year: “She’s down on her knees/… at ninety degrees/Blowing me crazy/’Til my ammunition is dry/She’s using her head again/I’m given the dog a bone.”

Clearly, even though Johnson (heh heh! Johnson! [Sorry – channeling my inner 13 year old here])b and b has a way with melodies, he isn’t exactly Lord Byron. Usually his double-entendres and bad puns are humorous enough, and the songs otherwise so great, that their content isn’t as off-putting as one would expect. However, on the song “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” the lyrics reach a nadir.

First of all … “Let Me Put My Love Into You”??? I suppose that’s a metaphor? Or is it a simple request? I guess it could be a pronouncement of a desire to grow spiritually closer to, and form a deep lasting attachment with a significant other, such that two become one. Probably not, though. The worst lyric of the entire album (which is, granted, filled with lyrics that are certainly in the running) is contained in this song: “Let me put my love into you, babe/Let me put my love on the line/Let me put my love into you, babe/Let me cut your cake with my knife.” Jesus H. Christ!! That’s the best he could come up with? So much is wrong with that line. Okay, I don’t want to divulge too much personal information in this blog, but I am comfortable putting out there that I, for one, don’t find knives cutting, no matter how beautiful they or a cake may be, to be particularly sexy imagery.KNIFE

Secondly, a knife isn’t even a very good metaphor for the male anatomy! At least, anyway, males who haven’t suffered a significant injury or congenital birth defect. And lastly, and maybe worst of all, IT DOESN’T EVEN RHYME!! Come on, Johnson!! (heh heh). To fit with “Let me put my love on the line,” why not use “Let me drill a shaft in your mine,” or “In your shrubbery let me plant my pine,” or “Let me soak my pickle in your brine.” Or why not get rid of the stupid pretense (I mean, look at the song title!!) and just say “Let me put my penis in your va-jine.” There were so many ways to go.

pickle barrel

Johnson’s cusp-of-manhood sentiments are better employed in songs like “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” “Shake a Leg,” and “Back in Black,” in which a defiant, us-against-the-world attitude is taken. He pushes back against the “middle men” in “fancy clothes” who sit on the fence, too scared to get off their arses and come face the band. In the title track – which lyrically and sonically sounds like a direct precursor to the Gangsta Rap hits that would follow in the next 10 years – he boasts “I’m in a bang/With a gang/They’ll have to catch me if they want me to hang.” Together with Angus’s ripping riffs and Rudd’s pounding drums, these Johnson lyrics elicit all the silly outrage and indignation that is felt at 13, back when it didn’t seem silly at all.

Back in Black at its best is exemplified by the song “Shoot to Thrill.” Great hooks, great riffs, great melody, cool drums, and boasting young teen lyrics (“I got everything/All you women might need to know”).

Back in Black is the 4th best selling non-greatest-hits album ever in the US, with 22 million units sold. It’s clearly made an impact on lots of folks. It made an impact on me because even though I’m no longer 13, sometimes it’s lots of fun to go back and visit that time.

TRACK LISTING:
Hells Bells
Shoot to Thrill
What Do You Do For Money Honey
Given the Dog a Bone
Let Me Put My Love Into You
Back In Black
You Shook Me All Night Long
Have a Drink on Me
Shake a Leg
Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution

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100th Favorite: Boys and Girls In America, by The Hold Steady

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Boys and Girls in America. The Hold Steady.
2006, Vagrant Records. Producer: John Agnello
ADDED TO MY COLLECTION: ca. 2011.

album cover 100

IN A NUTSHELL –
nut
Driving guitar rock with a 70s feel. Great, wordy lyrics tell stories about young adults, warts and all.
Singer might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Would have been higher on the list if I’d listened to it more
– it got overshadowed in my collection by other albums by this band.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This record is by my favorite band from the “new life” era that was created for me when my “old life” was suddenly, and coldly, ripped away by the announcement
expectant – and the subsequent associated all-encompassing thoughts, plans, activities, and emotions – that my wife was pregnant.

In the late 90s, my wife and I lived in San Francisco, in a neighborhood that had been named among “the hippest” in the US and Canada by the Utne Reader. Probably NOT because of the fact that we lived there, but who knows? We are extremely hip.

couple

We went to multiple Farmers’ Markets each weekend, ate brunch at Boogaloo’s or Spaghetti Western, or some other equally-funky cafe, spent our evenings going to pottery class (her) or performing improv (me), saw several movies a month, cooked healthy food, hiked in Marin, or rode our bikes to the beach (on a squiggly route that actually avoided all of The City’s hills). We checked our Juno.com email accounts every couple days (preferably at times when we weren’t expecting phone calls, since the dial-up internet tied up the phone) by launching a program that was separate from our Netscape browser, on a computer with 512 MB of memory (that we thought was way more than we’d ever need) that our tech-savvy friend had recently loaded with cool sound clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Cities and towns were finally starting to recycle, decent (not excellent, but at least drinkable) coffee was finally becoming available everywhere, and Greg Louganis had recently come out, and it didn’t seem to alter my parents’ appreciation and admiration for his diving accomplishments. Life, both within our relationship and in the Clinton Blow Job world around us, was bulging with hot, squirming, exhilarating potential. The Dream of the 90s was alive and well.

I was making an effort to stay up-to-date with music and musicians, to find new acts I liked and discover records I’d overlooked. I can remember feeling proud that I had purchased several CDs released in 1997 (including Dig Me Out, OK Computer, and When I was Born for the 7th Time) and it wasn’t even 1998 yet.

Then mid 1998 hit, and a baby was due, and that old life gradually, but surely, ended. Somehow, music – which had always been extremely important in my life – became less so. Well, that’s not exactly right. NEW music became less important to me. I continued listening to the music I knew, and started to buy more CDs from the artists I’d always loved, but I wasn’t keeping up to date on the latest records by the newest bands. Suddenly, finding a decent rocking chair (no, wait … a decent GLIDING rocking chair (with gliding ottoman!!)

glider

god forbid my kid be forced to rock like everyone rocked for millennia before him) became more important than finding a decent rocking band.

And for a good 8 or 10 years, I didn’t really know much of what was happening in music. I picked up some music I liked from newer acts, like The White Stripes and The Strokes,
white stripes

strokes

but I didn’t become a “fan” of any newer acts, not in the way I’d typically dived into musical acts in the past, the way I did with Yes or Rush or The Beatles or R.E.M. or The Replacements or Elvis Costello. I wasn’t able to invest the time and energy into a band the way I had in my “old life.”

listening

Sometime around 2007, after getting tired of all my whining about not knowing any new artists, my young, hip sister-in-law, Johanna, gave me a bunch of new music to listen to, and among the batch of records was Separation Sunday, by The Hold Steady. I got hooked on it, and have become a fan of the band, almost like back-in-the-day.

There are two things about The Hold Steady that draw me to them: instrumentation and lyrics. And both characteristics are grandly on display on Boys and Girls in America.

The band employs a double guitar attack, with some keyboards thrown in – not loopy, atmospheric, techno keyboards, but recognizable piano and organ sounds. Most of the songs are driving rock, reminiscent of 70s classic rock, but not blues based – they don’t sound like they’re trying to emulate The Allman Brothers, or Grand Funk Railroad. Although the instrumentation is 70s rock, the songs are more pop-punk in structure.

Here’s a video for the first song on the album, “Stuck Between Stations,” which is a great example of what you get with The Hold Steady:

The song has guitars and bass cranked up loud, thumping drums, and nice piano fills, and displays the typical Hold Steady vocal style of cramming lots of words into a small space, and nearly singing, but mostly speaking, in an energetic fashion.

If you watched that, you probably noticed the band’s … well, distinct-looking singer, Craig Finn.

craig finn

Mr. Finn continues the long line of nerdy lead singers that tend to populate many of the bands I really like, like Elvis Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and Geddy Lee of Rush.
elvis costello

andy partridge

stipe

geddy lee


Craig Finn has a voice that probably will divide listeners, some finding it interesting, others dismissing its nasally, speaking-not-singing qualities. I like it, but more than his voice, I love his lyrics. The Hold Steady tend to sing about stupid young people trying to have fun, but oblivious to the fact that maybe their “fun” won’t feel like “fun” the next day. On initial listening, many of their songs seem to be about partying, getting high, being young and indifferent and simply out for a good time. For example, check out “Massive Nights.”

But if you look at the lyrics – and more importantly, listen to how Finn sings them – the good times don’t really sound like they’re all that good. The song describes a drunken, druggy prom date between the singer and a girl, and intersperses the story with reminiscences of all the “massive nights” he and his friends have had (“we had some massive highs/we had some crushing lows/we had some lusty little crushes/we had those all ages hardcore matinee shows”), but ends with an image that – whether a true description of events, or a metaphor for either a sex act or drug use or lost hopes – leaves the listener feeling that maybe those massive nights were massive because they were intended to obscure real problems:

“she had the gun in her mouth/she was shooting up at her dreams/when the chaperone said that we’d been crowned the king and the queen”

But the best part of the song is that it sounds great, and is fun to sing along to! It’s got a bouncy beat, nice harmony background vocals and those 70s guitars. It has a great energy, and even if you’re not some dork who’s into lyrics, there’s a lot to like about the song.

Another track in a lyrically similar vein is “Chillout Tent.”

In this story, which is probably familiar to all fans of live music who were young and dumb once upon a time, two college-age kids, a boy and a girl (the album is named Boys and Girls in America, after all), separately attend an outdoor concert, and after nearly overdosing end up meeting, and finally making out, in the venue’s infirmary, or “Chillout Tent.”

“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.”

The boy and the girl seem indifferent to their near deaths, and instead sing about the “cool girl” and “cute boy” they met, while enthusing that the nurses at the tent “gave us oranges and cigarettes.” The chorus is sung in the first-person, by guest vocalists Elizabeth Elmore (of the band The Reputation) and Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum), adding to the overall impact of the song, another one in which young people make bad choices but intend to party on, nonetheless.

But wait! Despite the lost dreams, bad decisions and next-morning regrets, the album isn’t a bummer! I over-analyze these things, I know. It’s a rock record, with strong songs, pounding beats, and in-your-face 70s rock guitars. The best part of Boys and Girls in America is that it’s a fun record, and nearly all the songs are sing-along gems – despite saps like me poring over lyrics and putting interpretive turds into this punchbowl of great songs.

punchbowl

Chips Ahoy” is about a horse race, and the singer’s attempts to get romantic with a woman who seems far more interested in horse racing than romance, despite his attempts to get her high.

You Can Make Him Like You” is a straight-ahead rocker that sounds to me like a feminist call to arms, mocking the notion that a woman should leave the “difficult” parts of life – like knowing directions home, or intellectual pursuits – to her man.

First Night” is a piano ballad about missing an ex, featuring characters who appeared in songs from their previous album, Separation Sunday.

hold steady concert poster

There’s a humor to the band (if you watch to the end of the video for “Stuck Between Stations,” you’ll see it), and a desire to have a wild, fun time – even if the wild fun has consequences. I don’t know why songs about youthful bad decisions make such a connection with me. There are many parts of my younger self that I’d like to forget (as I’ve written about before), and even though the lyrics to these songs can make me cringe with self-recognition, I am strangely drawn to them.

The band is frequently compared to Bruce Springsteen. I never really “got” Springsteen, maybe because when I first became really aware of him, his ass was ubiquitous in America, and I decided he was too popular for me to like; or maybe because my first serious girlfriend, M, of New York Cheesecake fame, was a Springsteen nut, and I was too immature to deal with her love for another man. But I know people who love him tend to love his songs for the stories of lost youth, faded glory and ambiguous memories set to a driving beat and hooky melodies. And if that’s the case, then I understand the comparison completely.

The album has a youthful energy, and evokes in me memories of what it was like to be young and free and unencumbered. Maybe that’s why I got so into them after my “old life” was left behind – to help me remember those feelings. And maybe the lyrics’ subtext of the ugly truth behind the memories appeals to me because I know that the “old life” wasn’t really always as wonderful it seems. In fact, I’ve had some “Massive Nights” of a different kind as a dad.

bedtime

TRACK LISTING (and some lyrics):
Stuck Between Stations (“She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”)
Chips Ahoy!
Hot Soft Light (“It started recreational/It ended kinda medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles”)
Same Kooks
First Night
Party Pit
You Can Make Him Like You (“You don’t have to deal with the dealers/Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers/It only gets inconvenient/When you wanna get high alone”)
Massive Nights
Citrus (“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”)
Chillout Tent
Southtown Girls (“Southtown girls won’t blow you away/But you know that they’ll stay”)

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