Category Archives: Albums 70 – 61

61st Favorite: Songs for the Deaf, by Queens of the Stone Age


Songs for the Deaf. Queens of the Stone Age.
2002, Interscope. Producer: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine.
Purchased 2003.

songs deaf album

61nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, pounding rock and mellow, moody offerings plus everything in between are found on this excellent album. The musicianship is top-notch, featuring Nirvana/Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums and Josh Homme’s terrifically distinctive guitar work. Drums, guitar, melody, diversity – my list’s usual suspects – are once again featured here.
Brains are funny.funnybrain They’re not “funny Ha Ha,” but they’re more “funny weird” [i.e. Not funny at all]. The brain is the most important organ in the body, beating out the heart and lungs on the basis of the fact that while there is something called a “Heart and Lung Machine,” that takes over for the heart and lung when needed, there isn’t a comparable Brain Machine. (I said “Comparable,” so this sweet device, retailing for $25, doesn’t count.) When the brain stops working, that’s the end.

sherlockThe brain stands alone atop the hierarchy of organs in higher organisms because it is the one organ that is so complex, that functions so mysteriously, that nobody knows for sure what all it does, how it does what it does, or, especially, what its potential could be.

Consider for a moment how well we understand other organs. The heart, for example, has a straightforward purpose and a manner of operation, and both can be summed up pretty easily. Purpose: get blood through the body. Manner of Operation: contract and release in rhythmic pattern. The same can be said for the lungs, even heartlungsthough it’s more complex: Purpose: bring oxygen into the body and put it into the blood. Manner of Operation: diaphragm movement causes suction, oxygen moves in and gets to bloodstream through tiny capillaries[ref]Okay, okay, obviously the heart and lungs are more complex than that, but the whole point of a summary is to leave out the details![/ref].

Those organs were pretty simple, I did them from memory[ref]A long time ago I earned a BS in Biology. I’m hoping research since then hasn’t proved that hearts and lungs work differently than we thought back in the 1980s.[/ref]. How about if I pick an organ I don’t know much about, google[ref]I didn’t capitalize it, just to piss off Google![/ref] around a little bit and try to summarize it. Pancreas. Purpose: produce and release enzymes to help digest foods. pancreasOkay, that was easy enough. Manner of Operation: uh, okay. This gets just a little bit more complex. Well, a lot more complex. But basically, some chemicals are released in the gut in response to what we’ve eaten, and those chemicals tell the pancreas to squirt some pancreatic juice[ref]Which is really a thing![/ref] into the intestines. So, it’s pretty complex, but it’s not hard to understand. And all vertebrates have a pancreas, and they all do pretty much the same thing, so it’s a pretty routine function.

Okay, now let’s think about how the brain works. Guess what!! You already are, just from reading that first sentence! musclebrainIn fact, you were probably thinking about brains and how they work since you first saw that goofy brain with Groucho nose and glasses, above. Your brain is like that – doing shit you’re not even aware of all the time, even while you sleep. Your brain does so much stuff that we still don’t know what all it does. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that you are your brain.

If that’s the case, then when we go through our two-step “Purpose” and “Manner of Operation” process to describe organ function, it’s complicated right off the bat. Purpose: well, how about EVERYTHING. Manner of Operation: let’s try something here. Imagine a large painting of an orange hanging in a museum, orangethe only painting on this particular wall, and that as you stand there looking at it, the color starts to ooze outward until the shape of the fruit is no longer recognizable. You calculate that the fruit had taken up about 60% of the canvas before it disappeared into what is now simply an orange-colored canvas. That orange color continues to spread off the canvas and soon takes up an entire wall, and when it takes up the entire wall, the wall begins to vibrate and then hum. As you back up a few steps, that hum turns into a woman’s voice singing The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” but the voice is out of tune, and as the wall sings, it dislodges itself from the surrounding building and begins a slow, soundless, controlled collapse. And as it collapses you watch it retract into an actual orange which plops onto the floor in the middle of the museum where the wall used to be. You walk over to it and pick it up and sniff it, and it smells like an orange, and you peel and eat it and it tastes delicious. And now imagine yourself doing that again when you’re 90.

brainwhatOkay, how the #*$%@!! did your brain just do that?! Visualize the impossible? Conjure an orange smell? Hear a song – out of tune?! Your brain did that without breaking a sweat! Hearts pump, lungs inflate, pancreases respond to chemical levels … But what did your brain just do? Are there elves living within your ears that get a message from a surly witch living in one of those folds in your brain, and do the elves pass pictures behind your eyes, and smells behind your nose, and songs inside your head? That sounds as plausible to me as any other explanation!

Humans have known about the brain for a long time, and for most of that time people – besides me – have understood oliverthat elves weren’t involved in the brain’s function. It’s hard for a simpleton like me to understand, but the fact is that the brain does everything it does through chemicals and electrons and energy, just like every other organ, and scientists are learning more about the brain every day. To better understand brain function, research is often carried out on people whose brains do things out of the ordinary, often due to injury or illness. Like the woman who developed extreme empathy after brain surgery; or the woman who has no fear; or the person who sees beards on everyone[ref]I swear I did not make that up![/ref]. (If you’re interested in reading about weird stuff like this, I suggest the Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.)

brainmusicThis makes me wonder: has anyone ever studied someone with a brain that associates music with every memory of their entire life? Sure, it’s not as debilitating as Aboulomania or as strange as Foreign Accent Syndrome, but it could indicate some sort of brain malfunction, couldn’t it?

Consider the following Case Study. Subject: A forty-nine year old whitemauimap American male, with a history of good health, married, father to two teen-aged children. Symptomatic Episode: In late 2002, subject was thirty-five years old and had been married for six years to a woman, J., and had one four-year old son. J’s family included relatives living in Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands, and frequently mentioned as one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. The grandmother of J., after a long and fulfilling life, fell ill and died. Because the grandmother spent winters in Maui with her grown children, the family planned a ceremony to be held on the island to commemorate her long life and spread some of her ashes.

The Subject flew with his wife and child to Maui in December, 2002, for a week of billeting with relatives, honoring the family matriarch, and general island vacation fun[ref]While the matriarch’s passing caused grief, she was elderly and had lived a very full life, and so the occasion was seen as a joyful celebration for the gathered extended family.[/ref]. Subject and his immediate family attended several relatives’ gatherings, including trips to the beach, an excursion to Mount Haleakala, a whale watch, a Christmas/Hannukah gift exchange, and several rousing games of Sardines with the many children in attendance. Subject and his immediate family also spent several hours together exploring the island, driving to Hana, and generally experiencing the natural splendor that is Maui.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”Subject and son in Maui. Subject appears to be in a location, and with people (including his wife, the photographer), that will make this trip among the most memorable experiences in his life.”]

Brain Affliction: As described above, the subject spent a week in Maui, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with his closest loved-ones and extended family celebrating the life of an important person recently passed, and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events with them. However, when asked to reflect on this time, the strongest persistent memory of this trip continues to be (as stated in the Subject’s words) “That trip was the first time I heard the song “No One Knows,” by Queens of The Stone Age.”

Discussion: The Subject’s brain appears to be otherwise normal, although certain functions that were tested did land on the extreme end of the scale. For example, appreciation for both old Three Stooges short films and Bugs Bunny episodes (including all of the associated Warner Brothers cartoons[ref]Except Pepe LePew.[/ref]) was extremely high so as to be noteworthy. doctorSubject is also extraordinarily handsome, which doesn’t factor into this research but really must be noted. The subject’s constant internal (mental) and external (verbal) references to rock music and, to a lesser extent, music such as jazz, show tunes, Tin Pan Alley and only the most well-known classical pieces, does not appear to interfere with his life. He has consistently been employed in professional occupations, has established meaningful, caring and reciprocated relationships with others, and generally moves through his life experiencing joy and happiness. While his focus on music is strange to others, bordering on alarming[ref]See the outstanding paper by Dr. Peart, et al, “The Lack of a Connection With Reality, Limited Social Skills and Poor Hygiene of Fans of the Band ‘Rush'”; Journal of Rockin’ Pneumonia, Boogie-Woogie Flu and Associated Musical Afflictions, 1987.[/ref], it does not appear to have hindered him. Others may not understand why a song by a rock band would appear to sit atop a hierarchy of memories of time spent with family on a so-called “Paradise on Earth,” but for the unafflicted masses the best way of processing this information is to just listen to that goddamn song and tell me it’s not un-fucking-believable.


I’d say the researcher above is stretching things a bit – I wouldn’t necessarily say that hearing “No One Knows” sits “atop a hierarchy of memories” from Maui. But it is true that I clearly remember lying on the couch of the guest apartment we stayed in, relaxing in between once-in-a-lifetime events by watching MTV[ref]The channel was showing videos, so it must have been very late at night, or very early in the morning.[/ref], when the following song showed up.

I love everything about this song. I love the four introductory guitar notes at the beginning, and I love the riff that carries grohl joshthe introduction and the harmonics at 0:13 that signal the beginning of the verse, and the little run at 0:56 that signals the beginning of the chorus. I love singer/guitarist Josh Homme’s singing, and the whispered voice that doubles the vocals periodically throughout the song. I particularly love the drumming by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who joined the band for this album and tour then left to continue leading his main band, Foo Fighters. I am particularly blown away by his fills during the choruses – for example, from 1:10 – 1:30, and again from 2:35 – 2:58. I love the background vocals beginning at 1:40. I love Nick Oliveri’s direct and pulsing bass throughout. I love the raucous instrumental break, from 2:59 – 3:14, and how it leads into a bass guitar interlude for 5 seconds, giving way to a very unique, Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo from Homme atop furious Grohl drumming for 15 seconds, and then back to Oliveri’s bass pulse at 3:38, and a final verse at 3:47 to a confident final four notes. Homme’s lyrics are about bassistworshiping someone from afar, but don’t seem too creepy. It is one of my favorite rock songs of all time. I’m sure that there are parts of the Maui vacation that I can remember in just as great detail.

I went out and bought the CD immediately after returning from our trip. Songs For The Deaf is sort of a concept album, put together to mimic the experience of changing the radio dial on a long drive through the desert. The first song, “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” begins with a car starting and radio commercials blaring. Between songs, DJs from a variety of phony radios stations (including “KRDL,” “KLONE,” and “Banning College Radio”) introduce the next cut. At first listen, I was disappointed by the rest of the songs. I didn’t play it much. But sometime in the mid-2000s I began pulling it out of my CD case more frequently, listening to it a lot in the lab I worked in at the time. The songs are strange but sound cool. There’s a diversity of styles, and all the musicians are talented. Plus it’s a loud rock record, with aggression and power, and records like that – while not always appropriate in every situation – sound particularly awesome when the time is right.

I think the next song that really connected with me was the album’s second single, “Go With The Flow.”

This is a driving, straight-ahead rocker with none of the subtlety or instrumental interplay found on “No One Knows.” But it does have a terrific melody, and a great solo guitar throughout – played by guest artist Brendon McNichol. (Drums are provided by Gene Trautmann, not Grohl on this song.) The lyrics seem to be about the end of a relationship, and Homme’s quiet yet intense voice handles them perfectly.

The band goes back and forth between simple, driving songs and more complex, almost orchestral-sounding pieces – such as “A Song For The Dead.”

This one starts with a cool introduction, including nasty-good fills from Grohl. It sounds like it’s going to be all hellbent fury, josh 1but after a minute the song becomes slow and groove-heavy, featuring excellent guitar fills every two measures from Homme. Josh Homme, the leader of Queens of the Stone Age (aka QOTSA), is a multi-instrumentalist and an interesting guy. He’s also the creative force behind the band Eagles of Death Metal, sadly famous for being onstage during a terrorist attack in Paris in late 2015 (although Homme wasn’t onstage, as he typically doesn’t tour with that band). He’s got a guitar style all his own that he claims is partly due to his training as a Polka guitarist for the first several years of his josh 2tutelage on the instrument. He’s strongly featured on this one, and he’s free to play because he gave up vocal duties to Mark Lanegan, a sometime member of QOTSA who is mostly famous for his Seattle grunge roots with the band The Screaming Trees. It’s a song about driving your car to forget your problems, and like most of the songs on the album, it sounds great loud while you’re going really fast! Homme’s guitar solo from 2:55 to 3:38 is weird and sounds like no one else.

Lanegan also provides lead vocals on the unusual but very cool “Hangin’ Tree.”

I’ve said it several times before, but I always love songs in unusual time signatures, and this one is set to a brisk 5/4 beat. Grohl’s drums are fantastic, as is – once again – Homme’s guitar. But what I love most are Lanegan’s vocals, giving the sparse lyrics a sinister feel that is augmented by the spooky backing vocalizations. The song breaks into 4/4 for the guitar solo at 2:15, then falls right back to the 5/4 groove.

Many of the songs are unusual, but a few are straight-ahead rock songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical rock record – although even these are QOTSA-fied. For example, “Another Love Song,” sung by bassist Oliveri, would sound right at home on most any 60s pop album. Kind of.

You can almost see the Laugh-In go-go dancers dance while oliverithe song plays. Almost. As with most songs on the album, it features cool backing vocals and a great guitar solo. And the bridge, from 1:55 – 2:23, is cool. Oliveri handles the break-up lyrics with ease. He also sings another “normal-sounding” song “I’m Gonna Leave You,” another break up song with a nifty-yet-simple bass line and a great break and guitar solo around 1:54.

The album has 14 songs, and there isn’t really a loser in the bunch[ref]I’m not a fan of Six Shooter, but it’s pretty short.[/ref]. qotsa headsThere’s the arena-rock-style stomper, “Do It Again,” with it’s chant-along “Hey!” The return to the slow-groove of “God Is In The Radio,” another Lanegan-sung song that frees up Homme to range freely on guitar. The noisey-yet-mellow “Sky Is Fallin’” is a finely crafted song with cool harmonies and more great Grohl drumming. The band, and Homme in particular, goes a bit Middle Eastern in “A Song For The Deaf.” As I wrote earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the album when I first bought it, but it really grew on me. One song in particular that I found myself loving, much to my surprise, is the aggressive machine-gun beast that is “First It Giveth.”

josh bassistI like the harmony and backing vocals of the song, and once again, Grohl’s drumming stands out. The video shows a band on the verge of careening out of control, which accurately reflects the song. By the end, the guitars almost sound out of tune. It’s a song that Homme has said is about the effect of drugs on creativity and music.

The final song may be the most interesting of all. “Mosquito Song” opens with a folky acoustic guitar riff that almost sounds lifted from an early 70s Traffic or Led Zeppelin song. The lyrics seem to explain that we are all just a feast for the insects of the world, and the softly distorted voice of Homme sounds perfectly creepy singing them. As the song builds, an accordion joins him, then a piano and violin, then horns and tympani and military drums. It’s a great song, and a mellow way to end the record after so much aggression, power and noise.

Okay, so look – Songs For The Deaf is NOT the most memorable part of my trip to Maui. I swear! I look at pictures from that trip and I’m right back on that island paradise: snorkeling with little fish (that tried to eat my chest hair!), drinking fresh coconut juice at a roadside stand at the insistence of my kid (who took one sip and refused to drink any more!), seeing double and triple rainbows almost everywhere we looked! And also sharing memories of a wonderful woman in her favorite spot on the island: her garden. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I’m so happy I was able to go. But my brain is what it is – and my brain can’t help but remember that song that I heard … I don’t know how, or why, brains do what they do. And maybe mine is malfunctioning. But I don’t want to be cured. I’m happy that mine can remember Maui AND associate it with great music.

Track Listing:
“You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire”
“No One Knows”
“First It Giveth”
“A Song For The Dead”
“The Sky Is Fallin”
“Six Shooter”
“Hangin’ Tree”
“Go With The Flow”
“Gonna Leave You”
“Do It Again”
“God Is In The Radio”
“Another Love Song”
“A Song For The Deaf”
“Mosquito Song”


62nd Favorite: Pretenders, by The Pretenders


Pretenders. The Pretenders.
1980, Sire. Producer: Chris Thomas; Nick Lowe.
Gift 1984.

pretenders album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, melodic, unusual punky pop rock that sounds unlike anything else. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work shine on an album that combines power and sweetness and grit and beauty. The band moves from jangle pop to tough punk to slow-dance grace, and never sounds like a copy of anything else.
diaryIf you’ve read this blog before, you’re very aware of what I’m about to type in the sentence after the next one. If you haven’t read it before, the next sentence may be the last of mine you’ll ever read. In this blog about records and music, I write just as much about me and my life as I do about the records and the music.

It’s kind of a weird thing to do – a private citizen who’s celebrityaccomplished nothing noteworthy to anyone outside a few friends and family[ref]The kind of noteworthy things everyone does: work a job, have some kids and pets, go on a vacation once in a while.[/ref] documenting things that have happened in my life. Who really cares? I’m a huge fan of rock music autobiographies[ref]Only AUTObiographies, generally speaking. (The recent book on The Replacements, Trouble Boys, by Bob Mehr, is an exception. However, the band cooperated (for the most part) so it was sort of like an autobiography.) I want the story told in the person’s own words. I accept that I may be getting a whitewashed or distorted version of facts, but it’s the trade-off I accept for reading the artist’s perspective. Besides, I’m more interested in insight into the creative process and what shaped an artist’s life than hard-hitting facts about their personal lives.[/ref], and what makes them interesting is the fact that the people writing them have done something terrific, moving, outstanding … something that has boredtypically touched the lives of millions, and reading their words can offer insight into their work.

I, however, have not done anything even remotely similar. The closest I’ve come to reaching millions is the time one of my funny phone calls made it on the air on WEEI radio’s old afternoon feature the “Weiner Whiner Line” back in the early ’00s[ref]Brief recap: Ivan Rodriguez, big-league catcher long rumored to have been a steroid user, returned to Spring Training significantly slimmer than previous seasons. Around the same time, Terri Schiavo’s family was battling for the right to remove the feeding tube from her brain-dead body. I called the show and said, “What happened to Ivan Rodriguez? He’s so small! Either he went off steroids or somebody removed his feeding tube.” A buddy at work told me he heard it. I was so proud.[/ref]. And (much like this blog) hardly anyone even knew it was me who did it.

importantSo why do I write so much about a bunch of mundane memories, stories so insignificant that very often the other persons featured in them have only a vague remembrance of the events I describe? It’s partially because I have a super-inflated ego, a borderline delusional sense of my own level of importance in the world, which demands I impart upon any unwitting reader an amplified version of all the characteristics that make up my “self.”

monetBut that’s only part of the reason. It’s mainly because this music has always connected with me on a deep level. Music informs my life and helps me make sense of it. There’s a soundtrack playing inside my head while I make my way through my life and, just like a movie soundtrack, it’s full of songs that color the events and enhance my feelings. My experiences are inextricably bound to the music that plays in my head during them, so I can’t really discuss the music I love without also discussing my life events that go with that music. It would be like displaying a black and white rendering of a work by Monet: you’d get the idea, but it wouldn’t really be the same. (Given Monet’s abilities vis-a-vis mine, a closer analogy might be watching an infomercial with the sound off.)

So music is part of all aspects of my life, both the good and the bad. bagheadThis means I’ve written about some pretty unsavory characteristics of myself – or rather, my past selves. I’ve changed a lot over the years. But the music has remained with me. In these posts I’ve talked about my past problems with alcohol and self-control, my past intolerance of others and flat-out bigotry, my nerdiness, and – maybe most embarrassing of all – my love for albums that aren’t very good. However, there are parts of my life that I won’t write about. I don’t write directly about individuals in my family, or other people I know. I try to refrain from writing about how wonderful I am – I figure that will come through on its own. I’m also not going to write about sex[ref]You’re welcome.[/ref].

I’m not a prude, and consider myself pretty “sex positive,” as they say, but my thoughts on the topic are not something I want to broadcast to the world at large, nor do I think I can write well about it. However, this creates a problem for prudeme when writing about music, as music does relate to all aspects of my life, so …

A big issue with writing about sex is the fact that discussing attraction and romance in a thoughtful, respectful manner is a precarious ledge along which to travel, and as a heterosexual male, one stray word from my own personal unskilled hands could easily send the piece off a sheer cliff into a glorified version of a “Letter to Penthouse Forum[ref]Although, to be fair to myself, I probably could complete a paragraph on sex without using terms like “bodacious ta-tas” or “luscious (anything).”[/ref].” Additionally, this blog is about rock/pop music, which has always been aimed directly at the teen market. So, even songs I didn’t hear as a teen can frequently stir teenage-based thoughts and emotions, and it is simply a fact that teenage feelings of attraction are different than what adults feel. In trying to delve back into those teenage feelings and document what I find, I risk coming up with nothing more than “That chick was hot!” and “I figure I’ll never touch a breast.”

But yet, I want to write about all these records honestly.

Anyway, look: some music, and some musicians, I do associate with feelings of physical attraction, and most of those associations are from a time in my life when I was in my teens and early twenties, and – at the risk of sounding like a sexist jerk judging women like livestock at the Farm Show – even barracudathough I am now approaching 50 and no longer base my opinions of these artists (who are now approaching 70) on what they looked like, I still can remember what I once felt, and songs from that era can still generate these feelings. To boil it all down: when I hear an old song by Heart today, there’s still a part of me that thinks “Man, those two are hot!!” (To be fair to myself, there’s an even larger part that thinks, “Man, this song is awesome[ref]Pre-1982 Heart only.[/ref]!!) So I’d like to write a little bit about sex and music – without discussing sex and without sounding sexist. In only about three sentences, too, since I’ve already wasted all these words on a rambling (though not particularly digressive) caveat. I’ll be as careful as possible so I don’t drop off that cliff.

I remember being grossed out by Cher’s sexy costumes on the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour TV show. I was not yet 10, and whenever she came out to sing (and make fun of Sonny) with her belly exposed, or in skin-tight dresses, I was horrified. By middle school, disco music was in full swing, and despite the often blatant sexual nature of the songs, I was clueless about their meanings and didn’t think much about the general attractiveness of the singers[ref]Although I did think The Village People were cool-looking guys, and was dumbfounded by the gullibility of a friend who told me he heard they were gay.[/ref]. The middle solidgoldschool years were also the era of Blondie, a band with songs I liked but with a singer whose attractiveness – once again – I didn’t really think that much about[ref]Even though my dad clearly felt strongly about her looks. He’d always recognize their songs and ask my sisters and I, “Hey, is that Blondie?” with a certain level of interest that was never matched in any of his other very few references to the existence of rock music.[/ref]. Sometime around 8th grade, the pop-music TV showcase Solid Gold debuted, airing locally in my town just before Saturday Night Live, and it featured The Solid Gold Dancers, who … well, I’ll not venture further out onto the ledge: suffice it to say things were changing with me, and I tried not to miss an episode.

As I’ve mentioned often in this blog, MTV was a big turning point in my musical appreciation. It launched in August of 1981, coinciding with mtvmy freshman year of high school – which was right about the time I also started noticing things about girls and women (including The Solid Gold Dancers) that I’d never considered before. In those early MTV years, the channel played songs I liked sung by women who were cute, but that I didn’t find particularly attractive. They also played songs I didn’t particularly like sung by women I found rather … captivating, let’s say. There were also a few videos of songs by women that my 14 year old self just couldn’t fit into its tiny little concept of men and women and attraction – even though – confusingly – I found them rather attractive just because they were making music.

And then there was Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders.
The Pretenders had several videos in rotation on MTV in 1981 and 1982, and all of them featured lots of shots of the band playing, including leader Chrissie Hynde strumming that guitar and singing. To that point in my life, I could have easily pointed out girls and women that I considered “pretty,” but Chrissie Hynde didn’t look like those people. She wasn’t ugly, but she seemed tough and dangerous, like she didn’t give a damn whether I thought she was pretty or not. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And she played that guitar, and sang so sweetly, but at times with such force and such emotion, on lyrics that were direct, not demure, that were at times shocking to a naive 14-year old boy from small town Pennsylvania.

The band’s biggest hit video to that point was “Brass In Pocket,” andwaitress it featured Hynde acting as a waitress in a diner, serving the rest of the band members and their girlfriends. I hated that video. I didn’t want to see her act, I wanted to see her SING and PLAY! When she acted, she was just another person on TV. When she sang and played, she was CHRISSIE HYNDE. I found her compelling, but I couldn’t really explain why. I’d figure it out soon enough.

Chrissie Hynde has always been the leader of The Pretenders: chief songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist. The band has had some tragic setbacks, including firing original bassist Pete Farndon in 1982 due to heroin abuse, followed two days later by original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s death from a cocaine overdose[ref]Hynde wrote the lovely “2000 Miles” about his death.[/ref]. Farndon himself died a year later. The band has had lots of lineup changes, but Chrissie Hynde has always been there. And the album Pretenders had the first, and most memorable, lineup.

64 mustangThis was another album that I originally found in my oldest sister’s collection – however not in the milk crate full of vinyl, where I discovered so many other records. Pretenders was on a cassette she owned. I had seen it but hadn’t played it, until dawned on me one day that this was the band I’d fallen in lust with on MTV. Then I played it a lot. I also have a memory of listening to it with my sister while she drove me around in her sweet ’64 red mustang. She eventually moved to California and took the cassette with her, but she sent me a copy for a birthday present.

The album immediately announces itself, and Chrissie Hynde, with the raucous and raunchy “Precious.”

Four drum stick clicks, a little background chatter and that driving guitar riff begins. chrissie guitar 2The bass kicks in around 10 seconds, and the band is off and flying. Hynde’s voice is tough but sweet on a song that doesn’t really have much of a melody, and at times is almost a rap. If you’ve read Hynde’s recent autobiography, you know that she had a pretty violent life as a young woman in Cleveland, associating with biker gangs and doing way too many drugs. “Precious” is about her escape from Cleveland; while others stayed, as she states in one of the most famous “f-bombs” in rock history, she had to “fuck off.” The Pretenders’ songs often have unconventional structures and time signatures, and “Precious” doesn’t hew to the typical “verse-chorus-bridge” pop song format, but just charges ahead. It’s fast and direct, and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar is unusual, with effects such as the flanging, featured at 0:44. It’s a perfect first song for a first album.

“The Phone Call” is up next, and it’s got an unusual sound, too.

For one thing, it’s in the time signature of 7/4 (withchambers an extra 6/4 measure before the chorus (if you will)) which is odd enough, but switches to 4/4 (with stray 2/4 bars every fourth bar, for good measure [ref]Get it? Ha! Anyway …[/ref]) in the instrumental section. It all creates a cool, noisey, aggressive sound within which all those extra beats are barely noticeable. This is a testament to excellent drummer Martin Chambers, who handles it all with no problem whatsoever. I never knew what the barely audible, again mostly melody-less vocals were singing about, but I believe they are also about Hynde having to get the hell out of Cleveland to save her life. It’s evidence of the band’s, and Hynde’s confidence, that she’d place two such unusual songs 1-2 on the first record. It makes a listener wonder what’s coming next. And next up are two songs that have always blown me away.

The first is “Up the Neck.” And it features the inimitable guitar sounds of James Honeyman-Scott.

His guitar riff alarm opens “Up The Neck,” and after 10 seconds he begins to play ascending notes that draw me right into the song. Pete Farndon’s simple, catchy bass joins Hynde’s vocals and by 22 seconds in, jamesa perfect guitar pop song is under way. While she’s singing about what sounds to be a one night stand that turns violent, Honeyman-Scott’s guitar continues to produce little chiming flourishes that are unmistakably his, and unmistakably cool. Honeyman-Scott is one of those guitar players with a sound all his own, who you can identify simply by listening. Others in this category are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham. At 1:15, when the ascending riff returns, he adds even more curlicues to it. It’s the perfect complement to Hynde’s sweet and aggressive (and suggestive: “the veins bulged on his … brow …”) vocals. He plays a coolly simple solo, as well. It’s a song I always listen to with enthusiasm that is only eclipsed on the album by the next song: “Tattooed Love Boys.”

I probably overuse the term “chiming” to describe a certain sound a guitar can make, but it perfectly describes Honeyman-Scott’s chrissieguitarguitar riff on this song. His chimes begin a charging, aggressive song with snarling vocals and a crazy time signature of either 15/4, or 7/4 + [2 x 4/4] (if there’s a difference). That time signature gives the song a hiccuping, rough-edged sound that makes it far more compelling than it would be in a typical time signature, and Chambers again shines behind the drums. The extended guitar section, from about 1:18 to about 2:11, with its stops and starts and one-measure guitar solos, never fails to astonish me. I feel like I could happily listen to this song on a continuous loop.

One of the great aspects of early MTV was how the channel would reward a viewer for watching in long chunks of time. You knew that if you just watched long enough, and sat through enough bullshit and goofy crap (terms I use endearingly, as I enjoyed the bullshit and goofy crap, too) you’d get to see a a video you loved. For me, “Tattooed Love Boys” was such a video. And it wasn’t played frequently, so I had to watch a lot. (I HAD TO!) pretenders_2This video, with the band covered in sweat and manhandling their instruments, drove me crazy. It wasn’t just the playing: much of my fervor was due to Hynde’s performance – her wielding that guitar, dancing and moving, her voice, openly singing about a crazy, rough sexual experience involving what sounded like several men, in which she seemed to brag about, and take delight in, her role. In her recent autobiography, she has deflated my (and I hope everyone’s) fascination with the what-sounded-sexy-back-then lyrics by revealing that the song actually described a brutal gang rape by a group of bikers she thought were her friends, including a boyfriend. It’s still one of my all-time favorite songs, but I hear it differently now.

“The Wait” is another song that floors me every time, again with the crazy time signature, again one of my all-time favorites.

This is a song sung at a furious pace, with Hynde spitting out peteunintelligible lyrics about, well, something, I guess, scratching guitars in the verse, and a terrific walking bass line in the chorus by the under-appreciated Pete Farndon. At 1:47 a quiet, sultry bridge begins, then at 2:14 empties into another excellent guitar solo from Honeyman-Scott, finished off with Hynde’s grunt of approval at 2:47. It’s a song that makes me bounce around whenever I hear it.

Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders don’t just play the crazy-rhythmed, furious punk songs. They also manage the typical pop song quite nicely, as evidenced by the wonderful “Kid.”

Along with great harmony vocals and a driving beat, what I love about this song is – once again – Honeyman-Scott’s incredible solo at 1:35, culminating in a lovely harmonic, and backed by Chambers’s tribal drums. pretenders 3The band also covers The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and serve up their big hit, “Brass In Pocket,” both excellent, straightforward pop pearls. There’s also the instrumental, video game-inspired “Space Invader,” featuring sounds from the old arcade game recorded when it was a newfangled thing! The songs “Private Life” and “Lovers of Today” are a pair that I never loved (although, as always, the guitar work in “Private Life” is top-notch) but tolerated so that I could get to the last song.

“Mystery Achievement.”

It’s a perfect song to end an incredible album. The drums and bass get the song pumping, and soon enough Hynde is singing mysterious lyrics and Honeyman-Scott is throwing in his signature sounds. At 3:00 the band plays an extended instrumental section, with echoing drums and guitars and then an incredibly cool solo that pulls out at 4:23 and breaks into a nifty, ringing two-note riff behind the chrissie2vocals. It’s a song that demands repeated listening, and leaves the listener exhausted but satisfied by the very end.

Some lyrics from that last song, “Every day/ every nighttime I find/ Mystery Achievement/ you’re on my mind,” begin to describe what it’s like when you’re 13, 14, somewhere around that age, and you start to recognize something, some thing, you’ve never recognized before, even though you feel it must have been there all along. Maybe it was a face that inspired it, or a body, or a movie. For me, it was a singer in a band. I couldn’t explain it then, I can’t explain it now. The only thing I know for sure about it – even after all these years – is that it led me to a tremendous rock and roll record.

Track Listing
“The Phone Call”
“Up The Neck”
“Tattooed Love Boys”
“Space Invader”
“The Wait”
“Stop Your Sobbing”
“Private Life”
“Brass In Pocket”
“Lovers Of Today”
“Mystery Achievement”


63rd Favorite: Turns Into Stone, by The Stone Roses


Turns Into Stone. The Stone Roses.
1992, Silvertone. Producers: John Leckie; Peter Hook.
Purchased 1992.

turns into cover

nutshell63IN A NUTSHELL: From sixties-sounding psychedelic pop to hypnotic dance grooves, Manchester’s The Stone Roses pump out gem after gem in this collection of singles and B-sides from the band’s early years. Guitarist John Squire is masterful, drummer Reni conjures sick beats and sweet harmonies, and the band is in top form throughout – except for a couple duds.
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages.”
– Jack, Lord of the Flies

“Can’t crow before I’m outta the woods, but there’s exceptions to the rule.”
– “Diamond” David Lee Roth, “Little Guitars”
On the whole, in my life, I’ve been a pretty fastidious rule-follower. My parents were rule-followers, and they taught their children to be rule-followers. This obeyhelped my sisters and me grow into conscientious and respectful adults, however, only after several years as boring teenagers. We’ve come to understand, I believe, that rules often have gray areas, subtleties and complexities that make following all of them all the time rather difficult. However, this hasn’t prevented our default rule-worship outlook to seep into conversations between us as adults from time to time, such as the following exchange from a few years back:

ME: This show I’m in is actually making a little money now! I’ve gotten a little bit of pay, a few bucks a night – not enough that I’d declare it on my taxes, but still something.
SISTER (who had just become a CPA): I need to stop you right there. Don’t tell me anything else about this. As a CPA, if I hear of any wrong-doing or attempts to evade taxes, I am obliged to report that information to the IRS.

I was the type of kid who found it frustrating and upsetting that kids around me either couldn’t or didn’t care to follow the rules.

unruly“Please take one handout, and pass it to your left,” a teacher might say, and I’d dutifully do so. Meanwhile, it seemed like everyone around me was asking, “What’s this for? How many do I take? I don’t want this big stack of papers!!” They’d talk while directions were given, goof off while they were supposed to do something, then interrupt the whole class because they hadn’t paid attention. I couldn’t wait to become an adult, when (I assumed) everyone would follow directions like they’re supposed to.

Then, at the first meeting I attended as a young professional, the entire handout scene above was repeated, but only with grown-ups this time.

My mom[ref]I say “my mom” instead of “my parents” because, really, in the 70s most dads weren’t involved in most aspects of parenting.[/ref] didn’t have a lot of rules, or methods for enforcing rules, but she had a lot of expectations. What I mean is, we didn’t have chore charts, or swear jars, or rewards for good grades. My sisters and I were simply expected to help out when asked, to not swear and to get good grades.

[captionpix imgsrc=”×294.jpg” captiontext=”My mom kept my sisters and I under control by dressing us in hideous costumes as punishment. (Actually, this was fashionable 1976 Easter finery.)”]

Now that I’m a dad, I have no idea how she pulled this off! My kids have rebelled against every family directive, battled every parental edict, and presented complex foundational and procedural arguments challenging teenboth the internal family logic and the standing in the greater society of each and every rule my wife and I have crafted. It has been exhausting.

When I reflect on these parental challenges, I wonder if we made a mistake in not spanking our kids. (Continuously.) My sisters and I weren’t spanked often, but it happened enough times in our young childhood that it did what spanking proponents advise it does: it made us stay in line so that it didn’t happen again. It was the classic deterrent. In my family, it wasn’t called “spanking,” which sounded fancy to my ears, the kind of thing kids with butlers would get. It was called “paddling,” spooneven though it was always delivered with an open hand, never an implement. (My mom liked to threaten us with a wooden mixing spoon that was extra terrifying because it had been stained with red food coloring, earning it the nickname “The Bloody Wooden Spoon,” a nickname my mom detests to this day because threaten as she did, she never really walloped us with it – that I can remember.)

The discipline led to a pretty strong rule-abiding streak through high school. It’s what kept me from joining most other high schoolers at parties where alcohol flowed. Well, that and the fact that I had no friends. But mainly, it was the rules thing[ref]I eventually demolished that rule when I went to college – which I think is evidence against deep seated rule-following, but that’s another story.[/ref]. A fondness for rules is also a big reason I consider myself a punk rock poser, despite my experiences with a rock band.

bonnieclydeMy rule-questioning really only began in earnest when I made the decision to move to San Francisco, which seemed pretty outside-the-rules to me when I did it. It was in San Francisco that I met a woman who at first seemed to be breaking every rule in her path – or at least significantly questioning them. She wasn’t dishonest, and she wasn’t an anarchist[ref]Despite my parents’ concerns.[/ref], but if there were rules that made no sense she had no qualms about ignoring them. Sure I’d driven over the speed limit and jay-walked a few times, but this woman was the first person who ever made me think about where rules come from, and who it is that is making them and what they mean to me. Her rule-questioning impressed me so much[ref]Along with other things, as well.[/ref] that I ended up marrying her!

Eventually we found ourselves raising two kids, a scenario that elicited the question: how do we go about instilling a healthy understanding of rules to them? finsterWell, I jokingly said above that we should’ve spanked our kids, but I don’t really believe that. We didn’t spank, and my reasoning was always, “I’d never hit anybody else, why would I hit these little beings that I love? (Even when they are huge pains in the ass. Which they can be, let’s not kid ourselves.)” And I think the evidence has backed us up on that decision.

We’ve bought into the late 20th/early 21st century parenting strategy of “consequences.” Of course, this strategy is much easier to implement when you have a two year old who you can outwit, and whose temper tantrum will last 15 minutes until she gets bored and starts drawing or playing with her dolls. It’s orders of magnitude more notobeychallenging when you have a 17 year old with car keys who typically goes to bed two hours later than you do.

We’ve tried to have rules that are consistent with who we are as people. For example, my wife and I have a tendency to swear – perhaps a lot, who am I to say?? But anyway, I don’t believe that words are “good” or “bad,” but rather “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” We’ve instilled in our kids that they can use any words they want, but they’d better be sure what’s acceptable when they use those words. I’ve always said, “I don’t care if you swear, but your teachers do. I’m not going to tell the teacher ‘My kid’s allowed to swear.’ I’m going to take the teacher’s side.”

So, anyway, my kids haven’t (yet) gotten into serious trouble. They’ve been able to follow rulebookenough of the rules around them that we get good reports about their behavior from the schools, their friends’ parents, coaches, etc. They have a lot of time ahead of them, so they might fuck up someday, but so far it’s been good. I think they have a healthier attitude about, and less stress related to, rules than I did as a teen ager.

I bring all this up because there was a time in my life when – in each and every situation involving them – I would have thought, “rules are rules, and darn it – I just have to follow them!” And at that point in my life, Turns Into Stone would not be found on this list of favorite 100 albums. You see, the rules I established years (!) ago plainly state “compilation albums are ineligible.”

Now, it is true that I’ve already had a compilation album on the list, Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA. HOWEVER – alexI didn’t know that it was a compilation album until I started writing about the record! At that point, my rules committee[ref]I am my rules committee.[/ref] got together, and after several days of careful consideration they reached the conclusion that because of my lack of knowledge at the time of compiling the list, an exemption would be granted allowing the inclusion of the record. This is not unlike the time I was on the game show Jeopardy!, and in answering a question about a Gene Kelly movie, I said “American in Paris,” and Alex Trebek, douchebag that he is, went to the judges for clarification that indeed, this was an acceptable response for a movie titled An (emphasis mine) American in Paris.

In the case of Turns Into Stone, I am fully aware that it is a compilation album, and I DON’T CARE! TAKE THAT, Alex Trebek and your dumb judges!!!

See? I don’t care about the rules! But before you think I’m just an out-of-control Anarcho-Syndacalist with no regard for a decent societal structure, I’d like to offer a bit of reasoning. The Stone Roses, you see, signed two EXTREMELY BAD contracts as a young band in the late 80s. bandofyearOne was with their svengali-manager, Gareth Evans, a bombastic blowhard who’d fit perfectly as that idiotic, bigoted man-baby Donald Drumpf’s running mate. Evans, in turn, signed a contract with Silvertone Records that was so bad that a UK court eventually voided it. During the time that this court case was running its course, the band was precluded from recording any new material. The band’s first record had been a huge success in the UK (and a big hit on US college radio), so Silvertone Records wanted to capitalize on the success. They compiled several of the band’s singles – songs that never appeared on any other album – and released it as Turns Into Stone[ref]There’s a great BBC documentary about all this called Blood on the Turntable.[/ref].

The fact that none of these songs appeared on any other album[ref]For the most part. I mean, “Elephant Stone” is remixed here, and “Fools Gold” is the 12″ single version.[/ref] is what I roses_1like to call a “mitigating factor,” and so I have no qualms about including it. My rules committee, however, was furious about it, and even held an emergency meeting to consider its options. I testified at the meeting and stated plainly that even if they ruled against me, they’d still be left with the problem of STOPPING ME from including it[ref]I almost included a quote from Andrew Jackson, 7th president of the USA, here, but it’s from such a horrible US tragedy that I don’t want to make light of it.[/ref]! They did rule against me, and when I announced my decision to include the record despite their ruling, several members of the committee resigned in disgust. It was a tumultuous couple of weeks, but when the band phoned me with their support, I knew I had made the correct decision.

I bought this CD when I was living alone in a really cool part of Pennsylvania called Mt. Gretna. It’s an artsy gretnacommunity in the woods, full of summer cottages, some of which have been winterized, and a big lake for swimming and a big ice cream shop for gorging. I lived there during the summer of ’92, in a one-bedroom cottage, and it was great. I’d go play gigs with my band, go work at the aspirin factory, and come home and listen to records until I went to bed. I listened to Turns Into Stone so much that summer that when I listen to it today, I still smell the pine trees and honeysuckle, and feel the cool night air seeping through the day’s waning, humid sunlight. I can almost see the lightning bugs starting to flicker.

A song that elicits similar warm, carefree feelings is “Mersey Paradise.”

It opens with a nifty guitar figure from John Squire, the drums and bass crash in, and then Ian Brown’s distinctive, Mancunian voice enters. This song has a 60s British Invasion sound, but updated with prominent drums. “Mersey Paradise” exemplifies everything I love about this band, and this album particularly[ref]If you’ve read other album reviews by me, you may know what I’m going to mention: Guitars, Drums, harmonies.[/ref]. Squire’s guitar is full (although quite trebley in this song) and fills all the spaces, and his riffs and lines are interesting and sound cool. Brown’s lyrics describe a rather renibrowndepressed young man along the banks of the Mersey River[ref]Which was popularized in the 60s song by Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers in the song “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” The river stretches from Liverpool to just outside Manchester.[/ref] considering suicide in the river (his Mersey Paradise). Dark lyrics for such a sunny song! Drummer Reni, who helped popularize that “Madchester” beat that was so ubiquitous in music from the early 90s, is one of the most creative drummers of the era. And he also is responsible for the band’s “secret weapon”: the killer harmonies evident throughout the band’s body of work. I love Squire’s guitar solo, at 1:51, and how the band comes out of it with harmonies blazing, culminating with Brown’s breathy “Oh yeah …” at 2:20. It ends cleanly and perfectly, as a perfect pop song should.

Another 60s-style guitar pop song is the beautiful “Going Down.”

Singer/lyricist Brown this time spins a lovely description of that joyful lightness one experiences during the early phase of a romance, when everything seems perfect. His love, Penny, who lives just thirty minutes away at No. 9, listens to Jimi Hendrix on her record player[ref]Which, of course, was manufactured near Manchester, England[/ref], manitastes like sunscreen, and calls to mind great art[ref]Jackson Pollock, in fact, whose paint splatter artwork has inspired John Squire’s visual arts endeavors, and was adopted by the band in their album covers and electric guitar painting.[/ref]. He sums up the feeling of new love in the final stanza: “To look down on the clouds/You don’t need to fly/I’ve never flown in a plane/I’ll live until I die.” Reni provides amazing harmonies throughout, sometimes in counter-melody. Squire’s guitar is cool, yet restrained, but the hero is bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield, particularly at 1:43. It’s not intricate or challenging – it just sounds cool. And that’s what I like about all Stone Roses songs: they sound cool!

Guitarist Squire is not well-known in the US, but in the UK he is regarded as one of the greats. He plays a funky style, with great tone and creative licks. “Going Down,” above, mentions Jimi Hendrix, and in the song “Standing Here,” Squire shows his love for the man in his opening riff.

His guitar throughout the song is complex and requires repeated listens squireto catch all the neat little bits he throws into the mix. Drummer Reni provides a shuffling beat that keeps the song bouncing along while Brown sings of unrequited love. I particularly like how the band stops and starts around the lyrics “I don’t think you think like I do,” for example around the 1:28 mark. It’s a subtle thing, one of the many small aspects of the song that makes it so enjoyable to me. The song turns into a different song around the 3:09 mark, with an extended coda with nice bass work and the repeated refrain “I should be safe forever in your arms.”

These 60s style pop songs, featuring clever guitar and groovy bass and drums, make up one side to the band’s recorded material. brownAnother example of this style is the lush “Where Angels Play.” It’s one of Brown’s best vocal performances on the record, featuring a wide-ranging melody and a catchy “there’s something happening” bridge. Brown is notorious for being a disappointing singer in concert, but as a solo artist he’s had several top ten songs in the UK. He’s built a career on stage presence and confidence, and on the Stone Roses’ studio work, he sounds terrific.

Another style of song that The Stone Roses perfected is the catchy-guitar-rock-song-that-also-sounds-sort-of-danceable-but-sort-of-not-really-but-is-regardless-really-cool[ref]I coined that term myself. You’re welcome.[/ref]. Two examples are featured on Turns Into Stone, including “The Hardest Thing In The World.”

This song again has the ripping John Squire guitar, the bouncy Mani bass and classic Reni backing vocals. It’s a song I belt out whenever I listen to it, singing about life on the road[ref]I think.[/ref], and I play air guitar and air bass and air drums and sing harmonies, as well.

Another in the same vein, and my favorite song on the album, is “What The World Is Waiting For.”

It’s a guitar and bass workout. Reni provides the funky shuffle, and Brown sings about the folly of financial pursuits. It’s getting repetitive, I suppose, but I love listening for all of Squire’s tricks he pulls. There’s so much happening on his guitar, supported by a brilliant rhythm section, that I always find something new each time I listen.


The Stone Roses also were known for lengthy, groove-oriented jams, with repetitive drums and bass and plenty of space for Squire to create his unique soundscapes; these songs were perfect for the ecstasy-fueled raves common in “Madchester” and elsewhere at the turn of the 80s/90s decade. Turns Into Stone contains a number of these, and the most familiar is “Fools Gold.”

This is a hypnotic song that I find can transport me, and make me move. The melody is catchy, with lyrics again featuring an anti-materialism theme. roses_concertThe first 5:40 contains the melody, with vocals and cool guitar, and then the final four-plus minutes are a canvas for John Squire and his wah-wah pedal to go to work. Throughout, Reni and Mani work their magic. Two other songs in the hypnotic-groove category are the rangey, guitar-workout “One Love” and the smoldering[ref]Pun intended.[/ref] “Something’s Burning.”

The other songs on the record include a Peter Hook remix of “Elephant Stone,” from their debut album, that I think sounds ridiculously lame; and a backward version of “Where Angels Play” (another type of song The Stone Roses recorded, thankfully in far fewer numbers than the other genres) titled “Simone.”
So there you have it. My rule-breaking selection. I’m awaiting lawsuits and a barrage of negative press from this selection, but I will hold firm. Apparently those paddlings I had as a child didn’t keep me in line like my parents hoped they would! But this is how I roll. In the words of Ian Brown, from “What the World is Waiting For”:

Here comes the wise man
And there goes the fool
You see that burnt out world that he is living in
I don’t need to look for the rules

“Elephant Stone” (12″ version)
“The Hardest Thing In The World”
“Going Down”
“Mersey Paradise”
“Standing Here”
“Where Angels Play”
“Fools Gold” (12″ version)
“What the World Is Waiting For”
“One Love” (12″ version)
“Something’s Burning” (12″ version)


64th Favorite: Nevermind, by Nirvana


Nevermind. Nirvana.
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.

nevermind album

nutshell64IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
dudesI used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes[ref]And my arguments against them certainly weren’t coming from an angle of concern.[/ref].

I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud martyof my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.

My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay teachrelationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader[ref]The Googles tell me it was titled “Some Of My Best Friends Are …,” and debuted in October, 1976.[/ref] with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.

As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? san franThey were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant[ref]Of course, I mean it was irrelevant to me in my appreciation of people as human beings. As a characteristic that has caused people to be excluded and degraded, thrown out of homes, beaten, killed, etc., it is quite a relevant distinction![/ref]. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!

Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to ellenawaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”

When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. holding handsBut if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors[ref]Assuming, of course, that I’m not a teen-age boy in an 80s movie who moves in next door to a sorority house whose residents regularly pillow-fight.[/ref]? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.

cobain screamSo, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”

As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. kidpunkI came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.

In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at sliver diveyour grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.

Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.

Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release withnirvanaband2 a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation[ref]Generation X!! We were cool once, too, Millennials and Post-Millenials!! Although, to quote most Gen-Xers … “Whatever.”[/ref], were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us[ref]And don’t let people fool you. MOST folks were content radio-listeners in 1991. The college radio/punk thing was still way underground. You talk to 50 year olds now, and they all claim they were a fan of college radio all along. Like how 200,000 people attended Woodstock, but 12 million claim to have been there. Be skeptical.[/ref], Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.

Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.

It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write[ref]Of course, in 1991, Nirvana were three out of a few hundred thousand people who’d ever heard a Pixies song. However, it’s true that the Quiet-Loud-Quiet structure featured in “Smells …” is so related to the Pixies that a documentary about them a few years back was called loudQUIETloud.[/ref]. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after kurt upsideour set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching nirvana watersome spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.

Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people[ref]I’ll never forget the local AOR DJ Hawaiian Chris James blasting the band on the air for its lyrical nonsense every time he had to play the song.[/ref] and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.

While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”

The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! kurtsingsBut what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.

The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”

kristThe vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.

“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs[ref]”Smells Like Teen Spirit” is another one.[/ref] without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided grohlexcellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”

“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.

“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feministTerritorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was nirvana band1always pleasing.

I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out[ref]Cobain wasn’t too happy about some evil folks’ reaction to it, either, as he described in the liner notes to the album Incesticide.[/ref]. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end[ref]In a futile attempt to mimic the album, in which a final hidden track plays ten minutes after “Something In The Way,” I’ve put a footnote here to mention the real final song, “Endless, Nameless.” While the rest of the album today sounds tame and acceptable, this one STILL sounds like INSANITY!!![/ref].

orlandoJust as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA[ref]Shamefully, it wouldn’t happen in any other country.[/ref], were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.

But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. orlando2 I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.

nirvana3Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.

Track Listing
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“In Bloom”
“Come As You Are”
“Territorial Pissings”
“Drain You”
“Lounge Act”
“Stay Away”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)


65th Favorite: Close to the Edge, by Yes


Close To The Edge. Yes.
1972, Atlantic Records. Producer: Yes and Eddie Offord.
Purchased ca. 1984.

close edge

hamster nutIN A NUTSHELL: A progressive-rock masterpiece full of music and performances that demand repeated listening to take it all in. There are only three songs on the album, but they are epic, twisting tales reminiscent of mythical sagas. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re of a mind to experience something different, and allow yourself to be carried away by it, you and your fellow travelers be rewarded handsomely at the end of your Quest.
{Blogger’s Note: This is an epically long post. Somehow, it only seems right.}

footballThe house that I grew up in has a good-sized backyard, large enough for running deep post patterns for my dad’s tight spirals. It was a good size for family cookout croquet matches, although the lawn’s gentle slope demanded an accounting by players in the strength and speed of their strikes, or else a seemingly flawless ball rolling toward a wicket could lose steam and curl away in the final foot of approach.

wiffleIt was also perfectly-sized for wiffle-ball games, and featured a (somewhat-but-not-perfectly-maintained) forsythia hedge that bounded the back of the property providing a natural, albeit difficult to reach, home run fence[ref]To increase the number of home runs in the imaginary league I played in, the commissioner authorized the use of a bit of electrical tape wrapped around the wiffle balls to give them enough weight to more easily reach the fence. In games with real people, such taping was disallowed, as it significantly decreased the unpredictability of pitches – the main effect/fun of the balls’ “wiffling” holes.[/ref] for the backyard ballfield.

Beyond this hedge was an undeveloped lot owned by our lovely neighbors, the Rank family. It was perhaps an acre[ref]I say “perhaps” because I have no earthly idea how large an acre is. I could just as accurately say, “It was perhaps four square miles.”[/ref], groundhog about the size of a large, but not huge, lot for my rural area. The field, which my family always referred to as “The Field,” was an empty pasture of scrubby grass, and The Ranks allowed us to use it for stuff like family volleyball games, pitching a tent for mid-summer “camping,” and the hours of fungo sessions my dad held with me. It also featured a pile of wooden, creosoted telephone poles stacked to one side. Mr. Rank worked for the local electric company, and I don’t know if the forty-foot long poles were pilfered from his workplace (That’s a joke – Mr. Rank was an honest man.) or if he stored them as a favor to the company, but I do know they provided a great cover for the many grundsows[ref]Pennsylvania Dutch term for “groundhogs.”[/ref] who lived among them.

Beyond the The Field, about 60 yards from our hedge, was a decent-sized woods. woodsLarge enough to spend the afternoon exploring, but definitely too small to be a forest, this long rectangle of old trees ran parallel to our homerun hedge, extending about an eighth of a mile, all the way from Kercher Ave. on the west to Kochenderfer’s Church on the east. It wasn’t very deep, but it provided plenty of cover for traveling deer and all the kinds of wildlife associated with a Pennsylvania woods. My family always referred to these woods as “The Woods.”

modhairI was 20, in my sophomore year at college, and I peered over the hedge across The Field, scanning The Woods. The bear was much larger than I thought a bear would be, and it agilely galloped back and forth in front of The Woods from which it had emerged. It was shaggy, too, its black and brown fur seemingly longer than bear fur should be, like a Mod-Hair Ken version of a bear. It also seemed shabby and sloppy, its fur matted in some places, and with swaths missing in others. It was a bear, but there was something strange about how it looked and acted. And it shouldn’t have been in The Woods. Not these woods. A deep feeling of dread welled up within me as I watched this animal in The Field. But I knew that Butch was a Pennsylvania Game Warden, and that he would know what to do. I alerted him and strung my recurve bow while I waited.

All of the men around me in my childhood were hunters. It was the tradition where I grew up, archerysuch that to meet a man who didn’t hunt, at least in some capacity, was a curiosity akin to meeting a visitor from a foreign country. At 20 I was still struggling with my hidden distaste for hunting, but I did enjoy archery. It was something of a pastime in my family. My dad and mom had gone shooting at archery courses while they were dating, and my sisters and I had our own little bows as kids. The Field, with its distance apart from houses and unpeopled woods beyond it, had always been a safe site for a couple of hay bales and a target – often handmade by my sisters and me from the cardboard circles inside frozen pizza packages – for archery practice. So I was comfortable shooting my bow in this field, although I’d never shot an animal with one before[ref]This isn’t entirely true. I had once, as a child, fired an arrow at a groundhog and actually hit it! However, the very low draw weight of my kids’ bow, coupled with the dull target point on the arrow only caused the startled gopher to scurry back under the telephone poles wondering what kind of bird had just attacked him.[/ref].

I nocked an arrow – a target arrow, with a dull metal point and feathers that had been mounted and cut by my dad on his own basement fletching apparatus – buzzardand as I drew back the string, a lazily flying large bird, with a large beak and small wings, caught my eye. It glided high in the air, set against the late afternoon sun like an image from a child’s drawing. An instinct deep within me, vestigial from the genes of scores of generations of hunters before me, took control of my body and sent that arrow flying, scoring a direct hit. The bird fell to earth, pinned to the ground in the middle of The Field, a lepidopterist’s specimen magnified.

I closed my eyes in frustration and fear. gamewardenHadn’t I just called Butch, the Game Warden? Didn’t I know that hunting without a license was a crime? Couldn’t I foresee that Butch would have to arrest me? I had put Butch in a difficult position. As my aunt’s son-in-law, he’d feel compelled to let me off easy, but he also knew that he had a job to do. The feeling of shame was immense, paralyzing: for myself, my actions, my callous indifference. And now that shame colored this entire sequence of events. I returned from the house with my dad’s hunting license pinned to my shirt just in time to see the bear make its charge toward the pinned bird. Or was its target my hedge, my yard, me? I threw my bow to the ground and sprinted into The Field to find out.

antMy heart boomed in my ears and I couldn’t even feel my legs moving as a manic energy carried me toward what felt like certain death. It was exhilarating and frightening, and stood all my hairs on end. The charging bear’s sloppy, shaggy fur horrified me, but the horror dissipated when a tranquilizer dart dropped the beast in a heap. Butch had arrived in penguintime to fire a payload of M99 into its neck. He and I looked at the bear. Before either of us could speak, it began to wriggle and shake. It curled and uncurled, twisted like a wet towel being wrung, and it growled as it grew into an ant the size of a mid-sized sedan – an ant that retained the shaggy, shabby coat of fur. Butch, the game warden, looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest penguin I’ve ever seen.”

I awoke. I laughed to myself.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. daliI generally remember my dreams, at least for a little while, and many – such as this one – have remained with me for years. As a child I learned to appreciate the sagas and images my unconscious brain chose to share with me. Whether the dreams were incredibly wonderful[ref]Such dreams typically featured girls being romantically interested in me, or finding myself in possession of extraordinary basketball skills and dominating a game – a type that I still have, and in fact had this past weekend![/ref], incredibly scary, or just plain weird, I’d awake and in an instant think to myself, “That was really cool[ref]I used to love telling others details of my dreams, but I’ve learned to quell that desire. If I can’t help myself, I’ll just offer a brief, “I dreamed last night I shot a bear,” and leave it at that. I don’t tell them to anyone anymore. Except for my wife. Spouses are legally required to hear about each others’ dreams and pretend to be interested.[/ref].”

What fascinates me about dreams is probably what fascinates everyone about them. The feelings are so real – the dread of seeing a threatening animal, the shame of breaking the law and troubling a relative, the excitement of rushing toward potential death – while the actions are so absurd, and the information so inaccurate. It’s true my family liked archery, and The Field and The Woods lay beyond my wiffle ball field, but Butch wasn’t a Game Warden. I couldn’t shoot a bird out of the sky. Birds and bears and ants and penguins don’t exist in any way close to how my brain depicted them for me. Dreams seem real and unreal at the same time, and that may be the best way I can describe why I find myself liking Yes’s Close to the Edge so much: it seems real and unreal at the same time.

I got into Yes in high school. The band is 80swell-known for its long history of changing members and musical styles. I became a big fan during their 80s version, a reinvention from their history as a progressive rock, AOR staple to a flashy, top-40 competitor to Madonna/Michael Jackson/Huey Lewis. It was a bad era for music on the radio. Sure, some of the songs are fun to look back on, or fun to hear at an oldies dance, but a look at the top 100 songs of, say, 1984, reveals that, for the most part, even the songs by the respectable artists would – in the parlance of the time – “gag me with a spoon[ref]For the record, I don’t remember anyone saying this, other than Moon Unit Zappa on her dad’s hit “Valley Girl.”[/ref].”

My reaction to the music around me was to start exploring the music of the past two decades, and so, being a fan of the “new” Yes, I decided to check out the “old” Yes. I immediately was sucked in to their musical world of intricate and wide-ranging guitars, complex rhythms, strange lyrics, and harmony vocals. In a simile I’m sure I’m not the first to make, their songs are the aural equivalent of fantasy novels like The Lord Of The Rings or the Narnia books. Their musical worlds draw on the recognizable to create the beautifully bizarre. My attraction to the music was intensified because I was the type of nerdy teenager drawn to remarkable displays of talent – jugglers, magicians, pro athletes – and the virtuosity displayed by the Yes band members was striking and daunting. These guys could play parts on their instruments more complex, and faster, than almost anything I’d heard, AND they’d sing harmonies while doing it!

[captionpix imgsrc=”” alt=”album inside” width=”500″ height=”249″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-8411″
captiontext=”Yes enhanced the otherworldly feelings conjured by their music by having artist Roger Dean conjure Other Worlds and draw them as album art. This inside gatefold from the vinyl version of Close To The Edge shows a world that’s, well, close to the edge.”]

They were also decidedly NOT of the “Less-Is-More” mindset when it came to songwriting. Why not change key in the middle of a verse? Why not have an organ solo last three minutes, AND have a guitar solo last four minutes … in the same song!! Why not pause an upbeat song and play five minutes of slow, moody passages before returning to the upbeat part again? Yes has always pursued a path that interested themselves yes concert2musically, and what’s resulted are several full-length albums (even double-albums) containing a few 20-minute songs!

Close To The Edge has exactly three songs. Now, you may remember buying several cassingles back in the 80s and early 90s, and so think “What’s the big deal? Lots of cassingles had a third “bonus track” song on them!” But the difference is that Close To The Edge is a full-length LP. The title track is nearly 19 minutes long, and took up the entirety of Side One on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album. Why don’t you run to the bathroom and maybe grab a snack before we dive into this behemoth! And don’t worry: it’s true that dreams can be unusual, hard to understand, even scary, but I will be your guide through this dreamscape of songs, so you have nothing to fear. We will get close to the edge, but I’ll make sure you don’t fall over.

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you this: I’m not sure I’m as huge of a YES fan, as I am a huge STEVE HOWE fan, the band’s extraordinary guitarist. He plays innumerable styles: finger-picking, classical, super-speedy fret-burning, subtle soundscapes … there’s nothing he can’t do. The first part of the song “Close to the Edge” steve howeis titled “The Solid Time of Change.” Indeed, Yes songs are so long, and have such varied parts, that the band actually titles the different sections of the songs to keep things straight[ref]If you ever want to get an idea of what Punk Rockers in the early 70s were revolting against musically, just listen to a Yes album and you’ll get it. But I don’t care, I still love them![/ref]!!! “The Solid Time of Change” begins with an aggressive solo by Howe. Actually, the solo starts at about 56 seconds because the band – in typical, over-the-top fashion – begins the song with about a minute of woodland sounds of birds, insects, a stream … The peacefulness is broken by the beautiful cacophony of Howe’s guitar. The solo begins with an introductory cadenza, then reaches full furor at 1:21, as the bass, drums and organs pound away behind him. And it wouldn’t be a Yes song without singer Jon Anderson piping up in the middle of an instrumental section with a vocalization – here it’s an “AAh!!” at 2 minutes. After this, bassist Chris Squire amazingly doubles Howe’s guitar solo part, an ascending digital workout. Another “Aah!!” and more craziness from Howe and the whole band, as the energy increases, straining the limits of rock music (and, frankly, good sense – it’s sections like these that are dreamlike to me) until we reach the 2:57 mark, at which point Howe plays a melody that will serve as a touchstone for the entire 19-minute track.

stopwatchYou see, here we are, three minutes into a song – a length of time greater than some of the best rock songs ever recorded – and Yes haven’t even reached the main melody of the first section of the first song!!! Being a Yes fan takes patience and concentration, but you are rewarded for your efforts. Patience because the songs are so long, and concentration because sometimes – if you’re not paying close attention – it’s difficult to hear how all the parts fit together[ref]In fact, the 70s-era Yes albums I don’t particularly care for are – for the most part – the ones that really sound to me like a jumbled mess. I’m sure that “jumbled-mess” point varies for each listener.[/ref]. Usually the bass, drums and keyboards are each playing ridiculously intricate parts at the same time. But at 3:00 of “The Solid Time of Change,” a very nice section of pop-rock jon andersonnormalcy is exhibited. It’s a bit baroque sounding, with individual instruments playing frilly, light parts. After another minute, just after 3:54, the vocals begin – harmonies by Anderson and Howe, with Squire joining on the chorus. Anderson is one of those helium-voiced 70s singers that pose a large problem for many rock fans. But really, if you’ve listened this far – 4 minutes of woodland sounds, weird guitar, a jumbled knot of instrumental chaos, and faux-baroque powdered-wigcraft – don’t let a high pitched man drive you away.

One of the reasons I find Close To The Edge so dreamlike is that for a good two years of my life, I would come home from college classes and play it in my headphones and fall asleep – well, sort of asleep. I’d travel along that strange sleep/wake border, and Close To The Edge was my traveling music. So Howe’s guitar parts are ingrained in my head, and the solo he plays at 4:54 is one of my favorites. It’s actually two different solos that he plays over top of each other, and when Anderson picks up singing the next verse, he continues to fill in with nifty figures and runs.

We’re now at the 6:00 point, still not as long as “Hey Jude” or “Hotel California,” but then again, bill brufordthis song isn’t yet a third of the way complete!! The song has now entered Section Two[ref]Out of a total of four, so don’t fade away yet![/ref], titled “Total Mass Retain.” This is actually a pretty cool, nearly funky section, with syncopated bass and drums. It’s only a bit over two minutes long, but it may be my favorite part of the song. If you listen to only one section of this song, it should be this section. You’ll hear how each instrument plays a different part, how drummer Bill Bruford somehow manages to keep it together, and how they sing harmony while they play this stuff[ref]I recognize vocals are recorded separately from the instruments, but I’ve seen them live, and they do indeed sing and play at the same time.[/ref]!! It probably sounds ridiculous for me to say, but there’s a fifteen second section – from 7:10 to 7:25 – that gives me CHILLS when I hear it, every time! Maybe it’s from the years of subliminally listening while sleeping. I don’t know. But it has an effect on me, dear reader.

There’s some more powdered-wigcraft from 8:00 to 8:30, rick wakemanand then … Okay, I get it. You’ve been listening to the same rock (ostensibly) song for 8 and a half minutes – about as long as CCR’s “Suzie Q” – but we’re not even at the halfway point. You might need a break. Now would be the time to take it, as we enter Section 3, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” It’s a subdued, magical hippy-trippy section, with water drip sounds and a medieval forest vibe. It has some nice harmonies, but I feel like they could’ve skipped this section and gone right to keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s second (yes, SECOND!!) pipe-organ solo. I’m hoping by now it doesn’t surprise you that Yes would decide on TWO pipe-organ solos in this song, actually played on an organ at a famous church, the Monty Python-esquely named St. Giles-without-Cripplegate church (I shit you not.) This second solo starts at about 13:10.

We now enter the fourth and final section of this beast of a song, this veritable giant, dangerous, shaggy ant/bear-but-really-a-penguin of a song that I’ve listened to a million times and will listen to a million more: the rather heroically, if strangely gendered name of “Seasons of Man.” chrissquireIf you haven’t been listening to the song in its entirety, and you really want the full Bombastic Yes Effect, tune in to 13:10 and listen to the majestic build of the pipe-organ, the tension Wakeman creates up to about 13:55, where a synthesizer takes over and builds things up some more til it all flies apart in a fury at 14:12. (There are three notes at 14:12 – I think on guitar – that always remind me of the bells rung by the Philadelphia trolly cars at intersections in the mid-80s.) Howe reprises the melody he first posited way back in Section Two, this time in a minor key, and at the 15:00 mark, Wakeman returns with a blistering synth solo. We’re approaching the end of the song, and I still haven’t mentioned as much as I should have about bassist Chris Squire. Brother/Sister, if you’re a fan of bass guitar at all, you need to go back to the beginning and just listen to the crazy stuff he plays throughout the whole song, all Four Sections (while participating in three-part harmony, I should add!) What he does is truly stunning.

The song returns to another verse/chorus from Anderson, with harmony vocals and dazzling instrumentation, and concludes with a return to the gentle woodland sounds. Good heavens, I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted!! You’ve just made it through a song even longer than the famed “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and Yes didn’t even pad thingssleep with a three-minute drum solo, like Iron Butterfly did! You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss the song’s lyrics at all. Really, at this point, what is there to say? Jon Anderson writes very strange, yet cool-sounding lyrics, stringing words together like an 8 year old at summer camp with a lanyard and a new bucket of beads. I just listen and think, “Whatever, dude, sounds great …”, but if you’d like more insight into them, here’s an article in which he discusses them in-depth. He says stuff like “[The line] ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’ – that means your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.” I’ll take his word for it. I like singing along, I like the mood the lyrics create, but I haven’t done enough drugs to allow me to attempt to decipher meanings!

Okay, look, we’ve still got two songs left, and they’re both epic, grand pieces of progressive rock. It’s been a long haul already. I don’t know about you, but I’m moving on. Please join me – we’ll do this together. Let us consider TRACK TWO (which indeed marks the beginning of SIDE TWO of the vinyl/cassette) … “And You And I.”

Believe it or not, this puny 10-minute song single ayaiwas actually released as a single! It was released as “Parts 1 and 2,” with the first quarter on Side A and the second quarter on Side B. It begins with Steve Howe tuning his 12-string acoustic guitar, and at about 1:12 flows nicely into a 70s singer-songwriter type of song[ref]Well, an odd dreamlike, Yessified 70s singer-songwriter type of song.[/ref] with a lilting melody, and (of course) strange lyrics. This first section is called “Cord of Life,” and lasts until about 3:47, when part two, “Eclispse,” begins. Similar in feel to the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section in “Close to the Edge,” this passage is another psychedelic, ethereal journey howe andersonto the center of a British hippy’s mind. I particularly like Bill Bruford’s bass-drumming (of all things) in this slow passage.

Section Three begins (about 5:48) with a return to Howe’s acoustic guitar. It leads to the jaunty[ref]And could there be a 70s prog-rock album that didn’t have at least ONE jaunty song/section?? British prog-rockers were all about the jaunt![/ref] section, “The Preacher, The Teacher,” which I love for two reasons: 1) Steve Howe’s guitar, of course; and 2) Anderson’s kooky lyrics, such as “There’ll be no mutant enemy, we shall certify/Political ends our sad remains will die/Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you.” The famous Dr. Dave and I have spent hours giggling over lyrics like these. If you’re gonna be a big Yes fan, you can either defend Anderson’s poetry to all critics, or – like Dr. Dave and me – admit they’re pretty silly, but belt them out nonetheless. Or, like Hollywood impresario Joss Whedon, name your production company after them. Section Four, “Apocalypse,” consists of the final 50 seconds of the piece.

We are almost there, nearly experienced this entire, fantastic sphere of Yessian reality, but I know you must be tired. You may need a break. So here’s a cool clip of the early 70s Monday Night Football theme song for you to watch.

anderson 2The final song on this sojourn to the very edge of … rock music? Rock instrument virtuosity? Human listening endurance? SANITY!!?? Well, whatever the edge is, we are close to it, and as if things haven’t gotten crazy enough in the 30 minutes of music we’ve been enjoying, the band, and Anderson in particular, has now had to make up a new word to properly express what it is that is inside them. Thus, the song “Siberian Khatru.” Jon Anderson says Khatru is a Yemeni word meaning “as you wish.” (How Siberia fits in remains unclear.) Yes fans have other ideas about the word. Heaven knows, the lyrics themselves offer little, if any, insight[ref]I have to mention here that I once heard a radio interview with Jon Anderson in which he discussed his lyrics. All I can remember is that at one point he said, “I never claimed to be a master of the Sanskrit language, however …” and that was about when I tuned over to the Phillies game.[/ref]. But we are in a dreamland, folks, and it doesn’t have to make sense to pick you up, give you a shake and kick you in the ass. And that’s what this polyrhythmic song does just fine.

Again with the Steve Howe Guitar. And again with the Chris Squire Bass. And the Bill Bruford Drumming, and the Rick Wakeman Organ. At about 25 seconds in, Howe begins playing a little riff that he’ll return to throughout the song, and at 52 seconds he hits the main riff of the song, with Wakeman doubling on organ, while Bruford and Squire play around them. It all sort of doesn’t fit, but fits perfectly – like a shaggy bear tranquilized by my cousin’s husband.concert2

Anderson starts in with the melody (he may write goofy lyrics, but he sure writes great melodies) and the guys sing their harmonies. It’s a groovy song, with a strong, strong early 70s feel, and at billboard3:03 Howe blesses us with a brief sitar-esque solo, which ends in some major powdered-wigcraft: harpsichord (!) and bass interplay between Wakeman and Squire. Howe rejoins at 3:30 for an airy, breezy answer that breaks into a traditionally-picked solo at 3:48. It all leads to Anderson, at 4:14, gently inviting us to hold down a window to reveal an unspoken Khatru. (No, really. Look, you’d better be listening to this song, because it sounds WAY better than I can describe it!!) At 4:50 they’re rockin’ again, and you’d think they’d just go with it for a while. But we’ve learned that these dreams of Yes take all kinds of twists and turns, so by 5:21 they’re getting all slow and trippy again, and Bruford plays some furious, FURIOUSLY TIGHT rolls on the snare. At 6:21 they snap out of it, and return with typical abandon to their intricately crafted parts. But then at 7:21 they interject a hiccuping, yesbandvocal section, a part that, if this song really was a dream, is the part where you start to realize you’re dreaming, and if you liked the dream you try desperately to remain inside that world, and if you don’t like the dream you make the firm decision to wake up. It’s a sense that we’re reaching the end. By 7:37, the dream’s landing gear is down[ref]Why not throw an airplane metaphor in here, you know? It sort of fits.[/ref], Howe plays some of his coolest shit, as does Squire, and we gently glide our prog-rock ship into its proper berth.

There you go, dear reader! You are out the other side. I hope you didn’t find the dream too disturbing. I expect you may have found it weird, or it may seem like a place you don’t wish to revisit. Some of you may have enjoyed it greatly and hope to return again. I encourage you to do so, and find your own hidden paths and vistas within its alien world. Like our dreams, music is personal. It’s hard to say what it is about music that makes it relatable or moving. Close To The Edge is very different than many of the other albums on my list. But I love this bearantpenguin of an album, and it is with me forever.

Track Listing
“Close to the Edge”
~~i. The Solid Time of Change
~~ii. Total Mass Retain
~~iii. I Get Up, I Get Down
~~iv. Seasons of Man
“And You And I”
~~i. Cord of Life
~~ii. Eclipse
~~iii. The Preacher, The Teacher
~~iv. The Apocalypse
“Siberian Khatru”


66th Favorite: Aja, by Steely Dan


Aja. Steely Dan.
1977, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Bootlegged from vinyl ca. 1983; bought ca. 1992.

aja album

66 chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: Jazz/Pop/Rock fusion that’s complex and gets more rewarding with each listen. The musicianship on display is outstanding and the songwriting is excellent. The lyrics – obscure and strange, yet somehow meaningful – could occupy a semester’s course in American Lit. But intricate though the songs may be, they always retain a pop appeal.
In retrospect, childhood is very much like blacking out from drinking too much alcohol.passed out Maybe you’re one of those lucky, normally-functioning people with typical psychological issues that, 2 fingerswhile filled with traps and binds that can derail important aspects of your life, have at least never caused you to wake up in the lobby of a strange apartment building in your underwear, with no recollection of how or why you went there, your medulla oblongata – the only portion of the brain with some bit of functionality remaining after half a bottle of Two Fingers tequila and a couple six-packs of beer – having apparently made the executive decision that your beer-soaked pants were more necessary to keep your head off the tiled floor, than to keep your flabby legs and tighty-whitie-clad behind protected from strangers’ view. Perhaps – unlike me – you’ve never had the experience of blacking out from alcohol consumption. Well, reflect on your childhood and you’ll have a decent facsimile.

Surely you’ve experienced someone connected to your past – a parent, a friend, a sibling – santatelling a story from your childhood[ref]The story doesn’t have to be embarrassing, but if it is it really adds to the faux blackout experience.[/ref] that is confirmed by everyone else, but that you have no memory of. “Really? I hid behind the dryer for the entire party? I couldn’t recognize that Santa was Uncle Bob?!” Maybe you’ve seen photographs to prove it really happened, and maybe your brain has made those photos into fake memories, but no matter how you try, you can’t really piece together what you were thinking or why you made those choices. These fully blacked-out memories of childhood are like myths of ancient gods. The best you can do is memorize them and appreciate they were real to certain people in the past, but there’s no point in trying to make them part of your reality.

More troubling, in a certain regard, are the many parts of childhood that you do remember, but which make no sense in retrospect. These memories peanut butterare scenes from the boozy night that your brain captured before its memory-retaining functions began fully aborting – the lip-synching to old Wham! songs to entertain folks you don’t know; the argument with the history major dude over the legitimacy of the Ancient Astronaut Theory; that jar of peanut butter and the very large spoon. These events from a blackout are like those incidents from childhood that you know happened, but that have never made any sense – your uncle coming to stay at your house for a week; your friend’s mom always insisting you leave his house before his dad came home; your parents suddenly dropping you off at their friends’ house to play with that weird girl, and your aunt picking you up after dinner there and telling you mom and dad are busy, so you’re having a sleepover at her house.

willisThese experiences, the ones that don’t make sense, help make adulthood seem very mysterious to a child. Adults do things that don’t make any sense, and when you ask them why, they say “It’s complicated,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” Or if you do badger them enough to get a story, it’s one that doesn’t add up in your 8 year old brain. “Mom had a procedure, and the doctor helped her, and she’s okay now, but she’ll be sad for a while,” said dad. Geez – I don’t know what a procedure is, or why the doctor helped, but if it was just going to make her sad, why did she decide to have it in the first place??

Kids are generally kept in the dark by parents, just one of the many ways griffinadults treat children poorly. But as a parent, and in defense of parents’ actions, I’d like to say that the fact is that children are self-centered, unsophisticated louts who – even if they are capable of understanding some of life’s complexities – will usually be bored by any serious topic as soon as they realize its impact on their own life is merely tangential. I’m not being mean – it’s just the way kids’ brains are built. So as a parent, you try to give kids enough true information that their brains can handle[ref]There are lots of things kids just don’t understand. Irony comes to mind – particularly on great shows like Family Guy, where the distinction between laughing WITH Peter Griffin and laughing AT Peter Griffin is blurred in such a way that is pleasing to adults, but difficult for kids. Of course, you could pause the show every two minutes to explain, but I preferred the “You can’t watch that until you’re older” method. At least for the first kid. All subsequent kids are assumed to be the same age as the oldest, just to make household management simpler.[/ref] while avoiding outright lies that a) mess with their heads; and b) are difficult for you, the liar, to keep straight!

So, between kids’ brains, parents’ information-filtering, and the fact that almost EVERYTHING ELSE IN A KID’S LIFE seems really friggin’ cool to a kid, adulthood is a vast, incomprehensible realm of mysterious responsibilities, strange customs and boring “fun,” and kids’ fleeting experiences there – waiting in line with mom at the bank, going to the auto parts store with dad – are so weird and dull that they’re happy to return to their Matrix of childhood.

When I was a kid, probably up through 7th or 8th grade, I never really cared much about the “adult world.” It was full of stuff that didn’t make sense – like barbershop quartet concerts, scheduling septic tank pumping, and an quartetoft-mentioned-yet-unfulfilled desire to visit the Strasburg Railroad. It was a bizarre world, like Narnia, but with far fewer sword fights, lions and centaurs. But, naturally, as I moved through high school, the world of adults became more interesting while remaining largely indecipherable. Sure, everyday concerns like paying insurance premiums and tidying up after myself now made sense, but other facets I’d never considered – relationships (both romantic and with friends), jobs, the future – made adulthood a puzzle that, no matter how much I resisted or how long I procrastinated, I was going to have to delve into and solve.

Through high school, I felt like I was rushing at an inevitable, boring coyoteadulthood just like Wile E. Coyote toward a phony tunnel painted on the side of a desert plateau. Music was one of the ways I resisted. Albums were a deep pool of teenage rebellion I could submerge within. I liked music that the adults around me hated: Van Halen, U2, Rush and R.E.M. and Yes. Nothing too crazy, I know, but then again, I wasn’t all that rebellious. I FELT rebellious, but I was a good student, never got in trouble, never went to parties, obeyed my parents, went to church … But still, my love of music made me FEEL like I was a rebel, flipping the bird at my parents and adulthood. I’ve written before about my oldest sister’s milk-crate of 70s albums that she left at home when she moved to California. That crate was one source of weapons to arm my (admittedly feeble) internal rebel army, containing 70s Arena Rock Classics from bands like Styx and Kansas and Journey[ref]I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder how different I’d have turned out if that crate instead contained albums by The Ramones and Iggy & The Stooges and The Buzzcocks. Would I be MORE well-adjusted, and so write a crappier blog, or LESS well-adjusted, and so would have already attained my artistic dreams (while admittedly be dead now from a drug overdose)??[/ref]

There was one album that was quite different from the others in that crate. Its songs were definitely rock, definitely of a nature that my brass-band and Bacharach-loving parents wouldn’t have cared for. But while the guitars and drums were intricate and cool, there was a complex, jazzy nature to the music as well, making me feel that I’d better listen a second (and third) time because I likely missed something the first. Also, the singer’s nasally, indifferent voice didn’t sound like the seemingly nut-viced, castrati-esque screechers in the other albums. what doesBut perhaps the biggest difference was the lyrics! No songs encouraging me to keep believin’, or asking “…let’s live together,” or encouraging a wayward son. The lyrics were unusual, bordering on incomprehensible, but they drew me in. They definitely meant something, they weren’t the word-salad efforts I’d heard from bands like Yes and R.E.M. There were clearly characters, obviously actions were taking place, or had taken place, but the stories were obscure. As with the music, the lyrics made me want to listen again. I wanted to know more.

This album, Aja, by Steely Dan, reminded me of adulthood. And while it is true that I was diving into music, in part, to avoid it, this record cast a different light on that supposedly boring road of adulthood that lay ahead, and made me think dan_1that maybe there were aspects of it – bends, rough patches, hidden paths off into the brush – that I hadn’t considered. The music sounded like something whose comprehension required a certain level of maturity, and the lyrics – hinting at bitterness and resignation, yet celebrating friendships and good living – reminded me of those inscrutable explanations from mom and dad; but these stories seemed like they hinted at truths about life. Listening to Aja made me feel like an adult, like I was in on that big mystery that had loomed before me for so long. The other records were an escape from the inevitable: Aja offered a new perspective on it.

dan_2Steely Dan are, effectively, the songwriting team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In the early 70s they had a regular band behind them, but as the years went by they stopped touring to focus on recording, so the duo dropped the band and began making records with session players they’d hire – typically jazz musicians, but always people who could read the music charts they’d write for the songs. They’ve built a dedicated fanbase over the years full of the types of people who maintain online dictionaries of the band’s lyrical references and databases of all kinds of Steely Dan content. Some folks consider Aja the best album they ever made.

Becker and Fagen got me thinking about adulthood right off the bat with the song “Black Cow.”

Now, as someone who grew up in rural PA, you can bet I’d seen my fair share of big black cows,black cow but it made no sense for a band to write a song about one. The song opens with a very stylish bass figure, and starts the album with a subtle, “chill” kind of vibe. It’s got a bit of a dance groove, and jazzy guitar chords from jazz great Larry Carlton accenting each measure. When the vocals begin, those guitar chords turn into background phrases that are reconfigured throughout the entire song – the type of sound that made me want to listen again. It’s a mellow song, the type that non-Dan fans might dismiss as “background music,” but a close listen reveals a lot happening throughout. The backing vocals are very strong, as are Donald Fagan’s lead vocals. I’ve read that he never felt he was a good singer, but I appreciate his laconic style. As the narrator tells his story, it becomes clear that the black cow he’s talking black cow 2about isn’t the type I saw down the road at Showers’ Dairy Farm. He tells a tale of being fed up with the party-girl woman in his life. He’s had enough of her druggy lifestyle (“you were high/it was a cryin’ disgrace”), her lies (“you change your name”), the all-night talks to get her through (“I’m the one/Who must make everything right/Talk it out ’til daylight”) … “Finish your childish drink and leave,” he tells her[ref]I’m not sure if it’s an ice-cream, non-alcoholic Black Cow – owing to her childishness, or the alcoholic Kahlua drink, owing to her party-girlishness, but either one works in the story.[/ref]. Coming from a family with parents who didn’t drink, didn’t argue, didn’t lie, didn’t talk things through all night … well, this was a snapshot of adulthood that I found intriguing. Finally it seemed like some adult was letting me in on the way things really were.

The next song, the title track “Aja,” offered even more grown-up sounds, and lyrics that confused more than they enlightened, but still made me think I was on a path to understanding.

This is a song that – for many Steely Dan fans – is considered The Masterwork: the perfect fusion of rock and pop and jazz[ref]If that description makes you nauseous, you are not alone. Like many artists with albums on my list, Steely Dan is an acquired taste.[/ref]. I’m not going to spend much time breaking down the song, as it’s too complex a song for me to do well, and other writers have done a find job of it already. But it’s 8 minutes of music that, as with the opener, sounds “chill,” but takes a variety of excursions, with excellent solos by guitarist Denny Dias, an original dan_peanutsmember of the band, super-session-drummer Steve Gadd, and jazz titan Wayne Shorter on sax. The complexity of the music has always drawn me in, as have the strange lyrics that, as with most Steely Dan songs, has a narrator who knows exactly what he’s talking about and seems not to care whether you do or not. I, along with many Steely Dan fans, have spent time trying to decipher their meaning. Lines like “double-helix in the sky tonight/throw out the hardware/let’s do it right” are ripe for interpretation. I’ve always imagined it’s a simple story of a man trying to fit in among glamorous, upper class people (“up on the hill/they think I’m okay/or so they say”) but who finds that he always feels better with his girlfriend, Aja (“Aja/when all my dime dancing is through/I run to you”), who is Chinese (“Chinese music always sets me free/angular banjoes sound good to me”). That’s what I think now, but as a teen-ager facing adulthood the possible meanings seemed endless.

Next up in my peek behind the curtain of adulthood is the paean to losers, “Deacon Blue.”

The song opens with some nice chords and Fagen’s nasal voice, “This is the day/Of the expanding man…” The lyrics go on to describe a man imagining his life as a jazz saxophonist, in which he beds many women, steps up to bandstands to take solos, and drinks enough booze to die in a car crash. But it’s a dream he knows he’ll never attain. My own father dan5seemed forever saddened by perceived lost opportunities and dreams unattained, and “Deacon Blues” spoke to me about adulthood at a gut-level, in a way I didn’t understand intellectually[ref]I wasn’t really sure back then whether the guy really was a sax player – and if so, how did he die so often and keep coming back?[/ref]. It made me think there was something sad, yet beautiful, about being a grown-up, that maybe there was more to those people carrying their unattained dreams with them, the “losers of the world,” than I understood. It sort of made them seem like winners just for continuing to carry that baggage. Musically, I love the little guitar licks throughout the piece, again played by Larry Carlton. And, although it sounds like damning with faint praise, I again LOVE the backing vocals. It’s a song to which The Wall Street Journal devoted page space last year, almost 40 years after its release, and probably one of the most unlikely songs to make the U.S. Top Twenty in 1978. I have in my head an idea for a movie script in which a man in his 50s decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. The film ends with him approaching the microphone at his first appearance at an open mike night, and “Deacon Blues” plays over the closing credits. I don’t know anything else about the story, but I know it will be a terrific ending.

Becker and Fagen next do their version of 70s funk in one of their most famous songs, “Peg.”

This is a song that – overplayed though it may be – always puts a smile on my face. It reminds me of being ten or eleven, and listening to songs on AM-1270, WLBR. It’s a “Pool Song,” so designated because it’s the type of song my sisters and I remember being played at the A-C Pool, dan4where we spent many summers in our youth, and where WLBR played over the loudspeakers all day. And although it brings back memories of childhood joys, a close listen of the song reveals it’s as “adult” as all the others. The lyrics, which seem to speak of the narrator’s relationship with a starlet of some sort, are again obscure, and the music is more complex than most of the other disco tracks of 1977. It starts with a cool fanfare[ref]Which sounds horn-like, but I believe is actually Don Grolnick on the Clavinet.[/ref] set over descending electric piano chords, and a sweet bass guitar backing, then the main song is introduced by perhaps my favorite three snare hits in all of pop music (at 0:13). The drums, by session man (of course) Rick Marotta, keep the song bouncing along, and – together with Chuck Rainey’s popping bass – provide a rhythm funky enough to be sampled by everyone from hip-hop artists like De La Soul[ref]My hip-hop knowledge begins in 1989 and ends in 1991. This song still sounds “dope” to me.[/ref], to horrible, videogame-sounding, Norwegian techno doofuses. And of course, only a duo as obedient to their own muse as Steely Dan would interrupt a dance groove with Club Potential by inserting that cool, undanceable intro back into the song (1:26). That break is followed by a phenomenal solo by guitarist Jay Graydon, the 8th or 9th guitarist brought in to try to meet the demands of Becker and Fagen. About the only thing I don’t like about the track is the prominence of full-throated 70s/80s yacht-rock singer Michael McDonald.

It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this album. I really love “Aja” for its drum breaks and style, “Deacon Blues” for the feeling, and “Peg” for the groove. But maybe my favorite of all is the album’s closer, “Josie.”

That guitar opening is so spooky-sounding. I had a friend who used to play those opening chords on his guitar, and they are difficult chords – stretching the hand into stress positions for sure. It’s got a great groove, and again bassist Chuck Rainey shines – throwing in subtle sounds and nice slides. Jim Keltner’s tight drumming carries the song, and Walter Becker himself plays the guitar solos throughout. Lyrically, it’s another song that sure seems to be about something … Sometime in college I read that it was a song about an orgy. If so, dan6it’s certainly the least-sexually-described orgy ever in the history of orgy descriptions. I researched Roman prayer[ref]Wikipedia plus one other website is what I consider “research.”[/ref] (since Josie “prays like a Roman/with her eyes on fire”) and I guess the orgies of Bacchanalia might be what Fagen is referring to. But since wild parties of all types are often referred to as “Bacchanals,” it seems to be stretching things to say the song is “about an orgy.” To me it sounds like everyone is just really excited that Josie is back! I think – as with almost every Steely Dan song – the lyrics are written quite brilliantly in that, as general as they are, they are sung with a purpose so as to seem specific to each listener. In other words, the guy[ref]I’m pretty certain it was a dude who wrote the piece.[/ref] who said the song’s “about an orgy” had an orgy in mind, so that’s what the song became for him.

The songs “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” are in the vein of the others. Both have a groove: “Home At Last” is a slow jam about finding one’s place (and one of the few songs I’ve heard tip a hat to that piney Greek wine, retsina), while “I Got The News” is a bouncy gem with typically coded lyrics that will mean something to you.

Adulthood is weird. Even as an adult it’s weird. It’s like sobriety after years of blackout drinking. You find yourself doing all sorts of things you never thought you’d do, and – even worse – enjoying things you never thought you’d enjoy!! roadrunnerThe mystery continues to unfold throughout your years, and if you thought it would all make sense by the time you were a grown-up, well, you were sorely mistaken. That tunnel painting on the side of the plateau that you’re rushing towards will become an actual tunnel, and you’ll enter it and run through it and never understand how it happened. And when you turn to look back through it you’ll see your teenage self bracing for impact. I don’t understand how I got here on the other side, but I know that music – including Aja – helped ease the way.

Track Listing:
“Black Cow”
“Deacon Blues”
“Home At Last”
“I Got The News”


67th Favorite: Skylarking, by XTC


Skylarking. XTC.
1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.

skylarking album

67nutIN A NUTSHELL: A concept album exploring the cycles of life. Lush orchestration, witty but deep lyrics and full of catchy melodies, this album could be compared to some by a more famous British band, but it stands on its own merits. Some songs run together, some stand on their own – and perhaps their most famous song, “Dear God,” is featured as well.
Consider the term “Beatle-esque.” (Or perhaps it’s “Beatlesque,” which is admittedly easier to type, but just doesn’t look right.) beatlesque It is a word that is thrown around a lot in pop culture, probably the most common Pop-and-Rock-Music Related “-esque” word there has ever been. A quick check of the googles returns 25,400 results for “Beatle-esque,” as compared to a surprisingly small 4,470 for “Rolling Stones-esque[ref]A search of ‘Rolling Stone-esque, without the pluralizing ‘s,’ returned only 1,950, but I went with the plural version to avoid confusion with comparisons made to the magazine.[/ref],” a stout 10,500 for “Bob Dylan-esque” and a surprisingly strong showing of 7 for “Men Without Hats-esque.”

It’s a term that to this day continues to becheaptrick thrown at artists that you’d expect, like Cheap Trick, artists you wouldn’t, like Stone Temple Pilots and Kiss, and even artists who severely cheapen the term. But like many terms popularized in the media, it is usually a lazy piece of shorthand that without context for the reader could indicate any number of things. The band were innovators in many ways – musically, of course, but also in terms of style and culture and – some would argue – everything! So what does it mean to be “Beatle-esque?”

beatlesI’ve listened to my readers, and both of them[ref]Hi, mom and dad![/ref] have said, “enough with the Beatles stuff.” But the issue of what the term means is supremely important to Album #67. Without delving a bit into the concept, I’d simply be writing some stuff about a record, instead of boring you regaling you with insights and stories from my boring fascinating life. Certainly my interest in the term is largely what brought me to Album #67, so I want to take a little time to consider its meaning.

adeleWhen you consider that The Beatles released their first single in the UK, “Love Me Do,” in October, 1962, and their final album, Let It Be, in May of 1970[ref]Which, in fact, was about 8 months after John Lennon told the others he was leaving the band.[/ref] it is shocking to realize how many different styles the band packed into such a tiny window. For comparison’s sake, let’s say theirs’ was an 8-year recording career[ref]Even though it was really closer to 7 years.[/ref]. As I type this, it is now 2016. In February of 2009, the Grammy awards were held celebrating the recording industry’s achievements for 2008. The Best New Artist award was handed to Adele. In the past 8 years, she’s released three albums, and each has been wildly successful by sticking to a winning formula of heartfelt ballads and a few upbeat pop songs sung by an extremely talented vocalist. In the same span, The Beatles released 13 albums[ref]Various record companies released different versions of these albums in different markets, pushing the total number of records released in those 8 years to a staggering 24.[/ref] and twenty-four singles that weren’t on any album. The hit songs were as diverse as “Please, Please Me,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Come Together.” I’m not trying to make a case for or against either artist. Both have their merits, and the music and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, so any comparisons will be challenging. However, it is easy to see that – given the breadth of diversity in their respective musical careers – the term “Adele-esque” is going to be a more precise descriptor than “Beatle-esque” will ever be. So let’s look at some of the meanings of “Beatle-esque.”

When The Beatles burst onto the scene, they sort of beatles1combined the sweet harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the greasy stomp of Eddie Cochran with the wild abandon of Little Richard. They were a group of four that wrote their own songs and played instruments while they sang, which was rather unique[ref]One of the reasons people criticize Beatle-fandom such as mine is because they find the band is always being credited with “being first” when they were really one of many. I recognize this – I’m sure they weren’t the first to do all the Beatle-esque things they did. However, for many reasons, they became the most-remembered and my favorite. I welcome anyone annoyed by the Beatles Were First tone of this post to go write their own about Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.[/ref] in an era of mainly vocal-only groups and solo artists with backing bands.

By 1965, the charts were packed with Beatle-esque bands such as mosquitoesFreddie and the Dreamers (seen here doing a dance that was definitely NOT Beatle-esque!) and Herman’s Hermits. And mop-top inspired characters were popping up on shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters[ref]Causing Grandpa Munster to blow cigar smoke out his ears! In a positive way.[/ref]. Beatle-esque bands like these have continued through rock history. The line of bands with jangly guitars, a rock beat and harmony vocals stretches from The Byrds through R.E.M. to Franz Ferdinand and college rock bands of today, like The Twerps.

The other very Beatle-esque characteristic of the Beatles boybandsfrom the early-to-mid-60s era was their image as cute-boys-who-sing-and-act-charmingly-goofy-and-a-bit-naughty-yet-non-threatening-to-preteen-girls. While The Beatles made terrific music, they also starred in movies that inflated this image, bantered with reporters in a disarmingly snide manner, and offered witty quips whenever the opportunity[ref]Especially if the opportunity was somewhat inappropriate![/ref] arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands[ref]Who used to play/hold instruments, but eventually just gave up that charade, but are now doing it again (i.e. 5SOS).[/ref] – from The Bay City Rollers to New Kids On The Block to One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer (and even Boys Who Cry!) – has continued. I guess the band has to take some responsibility for all of them. However, they obviously found the phenomenon troubling. You see, by 1965, they were clearly a worldwide phenomenon, and the entertainment industry was capitalizing on the whole enchilada, music and image. The next year The Monkees debuted on American TV, both singing and acting Beatle-esque. But by 1966, the only thing not Beatle-esque was The Beatles.
The Beatles famously stopped playing live after their August, 1966, performance at Candlestick Park[ref]A show that Paul, a guy I used to work with, had attended. He even brought in the ticket stub to prove it![/ref] and continued peppersmoving away from the catchy guitar pop they’d mastered, toward a more experimental and studio-affected sound they’d already played around with on songs like “Rain” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” and (most weirdly, so far) “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To.” Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever[ref]My favorite song since about fourth grade.[/ref],” and “I Am The Walrus” got more strange, songs like “Penny Lane” and “The Fool On The Hill” got less rock ‘n roll, and the sound culminated in the formerly-un-Beatle-esque but now definitely a new-definition-Beatle-esque album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. I’m not saying The Beatlessatanic were the originators of psychedelic, orchestral music in rock, but works by new artists like (The) Pink Floyd and established artists like The Rolling Stones were nothing like the Mop Tops of 1964, yet were now being called “Beatle-esque.” This line of Beatle-esquetry traveled through The Electric Light Orchestra[ref]Who John Lennon called “Sons of The Beatles.”[/ref], served as the ontogenesis for prog rock, was heard in some late 80s pop songs, and has continued through 90s bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Tame Impala today.

letitbeFinally, after Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles became an anything goes, kitchen-sink, music-first-image-later band, unbound by styles or labels and as such helped engender the use of the term “artist” to describe pop/rock musicians. This Beatle-esque characteristic of dedication to artistry has continued to touch musicians from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to Beck to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar.

So “Big Fuckin’ Deal,” right? The point is, if you go looking for something “Beatle-esque,” there are very few artists who won’t – in some way – fit the bill. I know from several experiences that you may find something great! But usually not[ref]Please click this hyperlink. I’m begging you.[/ref]. I’ve written before about the fact that my reaction to the horrible music of the late 80s was to seek out new music from classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s that, unfortunately, turned out to be every bit as horrible as the rest of the 80s music I was hearing on MTV and the radio. As a huge Beatles fan, part of this frantic search (which unfathomably ignored the actually awesome music being produced at the time!!) for good music caused me to search for bands described as – you guessed it[ref]Assuming you’re still awake.[/ref] – “Beatle-esque.”

As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, wmmrI’d been familiar with the band XTC for many years. They were one of many new artists that were suddenly part of my consciousness, and it seemed like their catchy number “Senses Working Overtime” was played routinely[ref]Maybe not as much as “Jessie’s Girl” or “I Ran,” but still pretty often.[/ref]. But by 1986 they’d escaped my consciousness. That year I was in the gym playing pick-up basketball at PCPS, in Philadelphia, when WMMR played O and Lwhat I thought was a rather disturbing song called “Dear God,” with children’s voices bashing religion, and when I heard the announcer say it was XTC, I thought, “Wow, that old MTV band is really desperate for airplay, being controversial just to get it.” But I did find the song intriguing and catchy, and I grew to like it. Three years later I kept hearing XTC referred to as Beatle-esque, so I went out and bought their LP Oranges and Lemons on vinyl the week it was released. That album made me a fan of the band. After a drunk guy in a Skylarking t-shirt told me at a party that Skylarking was even better than Oranges and Lemons, I went out and got it on vinyl as well.

Skylarking has many hallmarks of a “concept album:” many songs xtc_1related to a main theme (cycles of life), that are connected to each other (many run together with no break between them), and containing first-person lyrics sung from a definite point of view. The record was produced by longtime artist and producer Todd Rundgren, who suggested the idea of a concept album, but who famously did not get along with the band, causing a rift that exists to this day! I find the album is best-appreciated if one can listen to it from start to finish. However, as with all great albums, the tracks are strong enough that they stand out by themselves, or in any order.

The album opens with nature’s sounds of summer, various chirps, croaks and whistles that eventually set the rhythm for the first two tracks, “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass.”

“Summer’s Cauldron” sounds to me like a hot summer day, when the humidity is so dense that you mouldingjust want to lie in the shade, close your eyes and wish for a breeze. Colin Moulding’s bass is gooey and thick behind the bugs and birds and Todd Rundgren’s melodica, and Andy Partridge sings mostly nonsense lyrics that still perfectly describe the feeling of a summer’s day. After the first verse and chorus, Partridge’s voice is doubled an octave higher, and backing vocals and counter melody from Moulding and Dave Gregory are added, increasing the song’s summer lushness. It builds to the 3:22 point, where the second song, “Grass” begins.

XTC songs are usually written and sung by guitarist Andy Partridge, and the ones that aren’t are written and sung by bassist Colin Moulding. “Grass” is one of Colin’s songs, and it’s an ode to, let’s say, the youthful physical expression of fondness and attraction set in the great outdoors[ref]Although, the term “teacher’s pet” is a little strange, as it implies an inappropriate nature to the hijinks, and the phrase “you are helpless now” is also a bit weird … maybe I shouldn’t look too closely at lyrical content from records I love now that I’m a parent of a daughter … But then again, I think all young couples have played this faux-struggle-as-foreplay game with complete consent.[/ref]. It’s a natural segue from the first track, and features orchestration (including pizzicato violins behind the verses that sound great) that helps continue the summer feel. It ends with the outdoor orchestra of bugs and birds that began the song, completing one of many cycles on the record.

Another Colin song, “The Meeting Place,” follows, and it’s sort of the enantiomer[ref]This is a ‘mirror image’ in chemistry. I have to use this knowledge somewhere.[/ref] of “Grass.”

This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a meetingplace winter rendezvous, with coats on the ground, where someone might hear. The song has a nice circular guitar riff, and in the second verse Partridge sings a counter-melody that I love. It’s a great number, and gives the listener a feeling – together with “Grass” – that a love songs may abound on this album. Band leader and renowned prickly cynic Andy Partridge dashes those ideas immediately with the caustic next song, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”

Nobody writes biting, revenge lyrics quite like Partridge. xtc membersHe’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics[ref]Actually, come to think of it, he’s kind of John Lennon-esque![/ref]. It’s a catchy song with cool vocals and more great bass guitar from Moulding. Third XTC member, Dave Gregory, plays a marvelous, bouncy guitar solo starting at 2:06. This song does call to mind for me a breakup I had many years ago with a Supergirl. When I first heard the song soon after I thought, “Yes! This is perfect!” So many years later now, and I don’t remember why it connected. But I still like the song – cruel though the lyrics may be.

The rich, orchestral linked-together songs continue with two rainy spring-themed songs: the lovely “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” and the rather whiny “1000 Umbrellas.”

What I love about both these songs is are the lyrics. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” presents lovely imagery of the colors on a rainy day. And the music behind it sounds like a warm, drizzly late-spring morning. xtc_4At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement[ref]Almost lifted directly from the end of “Glass Onion“![/ref] transitions the tune to “1000 Umbrellas,” a song that I don’t love despite it’s super-clever rhyme scheme and wordplay from Partridge.

The song that was a terrific closing number to Side One when I had the album on vinyl, and that is now just a cool song in the middle of all the tracks, is the celebration of Mother Nature “Season Cycle,” a fun, catchy number with lyrics that manage to rhyme “cycle” with “umbilical” in a way that you’ll love if you’re an Andy Partridge fan, and despise if not.

I love the background vocals on this song, and of course the lyrics. They ask who could be responsible for something so glorious as the world we inhabit. He lands briefly on the idea of a supreme being, but rejects it quickly[ref]A rejection he’ll make even more strongly in a few songs.[/ref] and finally decides it’s so beautiful that Earth and heaven are one and the same. One of the reasons I took to Partridge’s lyrics when I first heard them is that at the time I was questioning the religious beliefs I’d grown up with, and this song mirrored thoughts I’d come to on my own – that the world around us is so wonderful, why would we ever seek to imagine something better, or more beautiful? The idea of a “better place” sounded silly to me, as it (apparently) sounded to Partridge, as well.

The cycle of life among humans is explored on what was once Side Two. xtc_3Whereas Side One mostly described the world around us, Side Two describes us within the world. “Earn Enough For Us” and “Big Day” both take a rather dim view of the human experience of marriage, while “Another Satellite” takes a similar view of relationships. “Earn Enough For Us” is what passes for a guitar track on this album, a driving pop rock number with a somewhat McCartney-esque bass line and lyrics describing a common worry for men in the late twentieth century and today, despite rising gender equality in America.xtc_1Big Day” is a Colin song that points out that the glory of the wedding can fade pretty quickly. “Another Satellite” is a cool-sounding song on which Partridge uses his venomous lyrics and astrophysical wordplay to target a would-be suitor – and makes the listener think that maybe Supergirl did the right thing in dumping his ass.

The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a nifty jazz piece with lyrics that either argue for more introspection, or advise against it – depending on your outlook. Colin’s “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a deceptively light, tribal take on the deep topic of humans’ historical urge to punish others to elevate themselves. Colin’s other song, “Dying,” is what my friend Johnny might refer to as one of “Colin’s Clunkers.” See, it seems like every XTC album has a song or two by Colin that, well, just don’t live up to the typical XTC standard. Thus Johnny, a big XTC fan, coined the term “Colin’s Clunkers.”

The most famous song on the album, the one I heard on the basketball court back in the day, is Andy’s slam on religion and belief, “Dear God.”

It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because of the lyrics – which thoughdear god biting and focused on Christianity, are an honest questioning of the nature of faith – but also because I like the acoustic guitar riff. This song was incredibly controversial for a song that wasn’t really a hit. It was even controversial among the band and producer Rundgren – though not because of the content. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to the listener to have a child sing a verse, but that’s my only quibble with it. When I first heard it, I thought it was a blatant attempt at publicity by the band. But after I became a fan, I realized it was just an artist expressing his view – one not too dissimilar to that “Smart Beatle,” John Lennon. And as an atheist myself, I find it nice to hear some non-religious viewpoints out there in the media once in a while. Whatever your viewpoint, it’s a song most listeners won’t forget.

So, is the band, and this album “Beatle-esque?” Well, they’re definitely not a boy band, but they do make some catchy guitar pop songs, and they sure threw in a lot of orchestral pieces on the songs, and I think they’ve got an artistic drive to what they do … But really – what does it matter? Being a Beatle fan brought me to XTC and Skylarking, but it isn’t what kept me listening. I kept listening because I love the music.

Track Listing
“Summer’s Cauldron”
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“1000 Umbrellas”
“Season Cycle”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“Big Day”
“Another Satellite”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”
“Dear God”
“Sacrificial Bonfire”


68th Favorite: The Clash, by The Clash


The Clash. The Clash.
US Version: 1979, Epic. Producer: Mickey Foote.
Purchased ca. 1994.

the clash album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: A record full of energy and fun, even if the lyrics are serious. Strummer/Jones is one of many binary characteristics of the group and their sound, and these create a tension and uniqueness in their sound. It’s a record of quick songs, with different styles, and all of them sound like they could fall apart any second, but it’s hard not to love the chaos.

vyvWithin social groups there are few condemnations as malicious as the epithet “Poser.” Attacks on appearance, style, family members, taste, intelligence … all of these can be mean and hurtful. But the term “poser[ref]Or “Poseur,” for those who prefer a Continental panache to their hurtful terminology.[/ref]” assesses all of these characteristics – a person’s total self-image – and dismisses them entirely in a single word.

It is a word that at once a) observes the distinction between “us” and “them;” b) emphasizes that line of demarcation; and c) unconditionally places the object of the term on the “them” side. But the Poser is not only one of “them,” the Poser is even worse: rosenberg a spy, possibly a double-agent; a non-believer simply playing a role among strict disciples of the faith – whether it be punk rock, skateboarding or football team fandom – who is quietly mocking the devotees by constantly sitting on the edge of the conviction pool even though dressed as if ready to take the plunge. To people who have their entire “self” completely invested in an identity as part of a group, there may be no greater crime.

costumesEven people apart from a group tend to sneer at The Poser. In mainstream, Wonder-bread, American society for the past fifty years, about the only thing worse than being a real hippy or punk rocker or Wiccan has been to be a PRETEND hippy/punk/witch. Google the words ‘why people hate posers‘ and you can read all about their reasons. People don’t appreciate it when they believe someone is trying to be something they are not. To be a poser is to be reviled. But like everyone else, each poser has a unique story, and maybe the poser’s story is useful in understanding any particular Pose.
no posers
When I was twenty-two, I nearly died. Not in some “Oh my gosh, reapermy fly was down for the entire job interview!!” kind of way, but in a “Do we know his next of kin?” kind of way. In a way in which friends are screaming “Holy shit!! OH MY GOD!!! HANG ON, E!! HERE THEY COME!!” while you – shivering and naked in a cold, dark forest campground at midnight, resting your head against the cool metal of the hood of your friend’s light-duty pickup, hear faint, distant sirens. In a way in which, as your friends’ shouts begin to sound muffled and slow, as if they’re shouting under water in a slo-mo replay, and the darkness you see inside your eyelids turns yellow and bright, you start to feel as if you’re weightless and floating and warm and you know that everything is going to be just all right for the rest of …

In a way in which you wake up on a hospital bed shivering so hard that you feel you might rattle off the edge, and you discover the joy of warmed blankets, while your buddies stagger into your emergency room and joke and laugh and say “You really had us worried there, E!” fishingYou were with your friends – five neighborhood buddies who you’ve played pickup sports with since fourth grade – because one of them invited you to go on their annual early Spring weekend fishing trip out to a secluded campground at Raystown Lake. Sure, it’s nearly a three-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, and it’s supposed to be unseasonably chilly, even for the last weekend in March, and you’re not really much of a fisherman[ref]Despite your dad’s best efforts, including days and days of early-morning fishing trips as a child over to Speedwell Forge Lake.[/ref]. But it’s an opportunity to drink beer in the woods and joke around. And besides – you’re a year out of college, supposedly looking for a biology teacher position, but still working at that dumb summer job that’s been extended through winter, and you have no idea of what else you’re going to do, either this weekend or the rest of your life. So you say, “Why not? Let’s fish! What’s the worst that can happen?”

Of course, since you’re going to the woods toinhaler drink beer, and since both the woods and beer have at times given you asthma attacks like the ones you’ve had since you were a kid, you are sure to pack your trusty inhaler. You never had an inhaler as a kid, but when you first got one in college you were AMAZED at how quickly and thoroughly it knocked out any wheeze of any size. It’s often called a “rescue inhaler,” and it’s rescued you many times over the past few years.

You had fun the first night, Friday, even though you drankfishfail a lot more than you probably should have – not uncommon for you. Saturday was too windy to be enjoyable in the boat on the lake, and it seemed to suppress the appetite of the fish, as well, but you and the guys goofed around some more, hiked up a big hill/little mountain, and generally had fun. And as the day wound down, and a new fire was lit, and more beer passed around, you weren’t feeling all that great, so you finished your one measly beer[ref]Which elicited much gentle mocking from the gang.[/ref] and climbed into your sleeping bag fully dressed, inside the old, moldy canvas tent J. brought with him.

Having had asthma since you were a child, you’re very familiar with the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps and diarrhea – a peculiar symptom of your outbreaks ambulancethat your doctor has told you is particular to your body’s response to allergens. But upon returning from the dark campground lavatory, everyone else having gone to their tents, the embers in the fire pit still smoldering, you just know that the puffs you’ve had on your inhaler are not going to stop the tingling wave now rushing up from your diaphragm, you know that this is a different feeling than any you’ve had before, that the electricity running down your arms and legs isn’t a usual asthma symptom. So, hoping the others aren’t passed out from too much booze, you wake them up with squeaky gasps trooperintended to be shouts and let them know they’d better get an ambulance out here to the wilderness pretty damn quick. Emerging groggily from the tents, they’re all a little confused, but when you start disrobing because you’re so fucking hot, and then lean against a truck and defecate because you’ll never make it back to the latrine, well, they start to figure out that it isn’t a prank. And T. – who’s recently graduated from State Trooper school, and so trained in emergencies – takes over the situation and sends D. off to the payphone located way over at the campground’s main building. And you just lean against that cool truck and try to breathe, even though each breath feels like you’re trying to suck a billiard ball through a drinking straw[ref]You also crack a very dark joke or two, which greatly disturbs your buddies. You’ll feel bad for that later, as it was probably weird for them to hear you make jokes about death while you were dying, but you won’t feel sorry: a comic must stay true to his muse.[/ref]. And the next thing you know, you’re shivering in the E.R.

So that’s what I mean when I say I almost died. And before it happened I’d always had vague notions of doing creative things. I’d dreamed of being a stand-up comic, but I also wanted to act in plays and write songs in a band and write stories and … geez, I don’t know, just get out and make stuff and do stuff and say yes to life. questionBut I felt trapped in my little Pennsylvania town, and I had no idea how or where or even if people did these kinds of things that I wanted to do. But lying in intensive care for 3 days gives a person a lot of time to think. I realized that the rest of my days were a gift from my friends, the paramedics, and the ER staff. It was time to take advantage of that gift and look for opportunities to do the things I’d always imagined. My decisions over the past 27 years or so have been greatly influenced by the belief that I’d better say yes today, ’cause I might not have the chance tomorrow. I’ve kept a grainy photo taken the morning I left on that trip as a sort of reminder of my gift.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”The author (L) and J. (R) in what was very nearly the last picture ever taken of the author. Photo by author’s mom, through her kitchen window.”]

So several months after the camping trip, when an opportunity to join an established rock band came along, one that kangolwas writing its own songs and playing out regularly, I couldn’t say no. It was the pre-Nirvana era of jangly college rock and trippy guitar pop, and this band, The April Skies, was ambitious and good. I dove in head-first, started wearing clothes like the other guys did, cut my hair in weird ways[ref]In my defense, I was going bald early and knew I didn’t have much time left to experiment with it.[/ref], and began listening to music I’d never listened to before. I discovered The Replacements, The Pixies, and The Stone Roses, and I found I really loved them. I wasn’t doing it to be cool or to be part of a group, I was just enjoying myself. I took a temp job at an aspirin factory so I could take days off when the band played out of town.

That’s where I met R., who, it turned out, despite being a genius-level chemist basically running part of the analytical ramslab at the ripe old age of 23, and despite looking perhaps more like a Romanov than a Ramone, was a soaked-to-the-bone punk rocker. He was intrigued by my band and our music, which I typically described as “pop-punk-alternative” and hearing this he said, “You must be a Clash fan, right?” Now, obviously, I’d heard of The Clash, and I knew such songs as “Rock the Casbah” and “London Calling” and “Train in Vain” (aka “Stand By Your Man”), but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I told him. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t turn away in disgust, he never once uttered the word “poser.” He simply said, “I have to bring you something.”

The next day he brought in the CD box setclash broadway The Clash On Broadway, an extensive compilation that had recently been released. I knew about the superhuman reviews and comments and opinions that had been stated about the band for years. I figured they were probably pretty good. I had no idea they were as amazing as advertised. I took that box set home, and I must have played it 4,000 times if I played it once. I couldn’t believe how fun, tuneful, serious, loud, diverse and incredible the band was. As one did in 1991, I immediately transferred the CDs to cassettes, and I played them relentlessly. The Clash were actually better than advertised. And if R. had simply dismissed me as a “poser,[ref]Which maybe I was, but I think the term “Dilletante” is more apt, although even that makes me sound far less devoted to my artistic pursuits than I’ve been.[/ref]” I may have never found out. I began buying Clash albums, and their self-titled debut[ref]Okay, it was their debut in the U.K., but in the U.S. it wasn’t released until after their SECOND album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, so technically wasn’t their U.S. debut. The U.S. version also has a few different songs and a different running order. The version I bought is the U.S. version. Whew![/ref] was one of the last ones I got.

strumjonesIt’s been observed many times over the years that The Clash’s main songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones followed a blueprint established by The Beatles’ Lennon/McCartney, and it’s a pretty decent analogy. Strummer was Lennon’s rocker with a poet’s soul, and Jones was McCartney’s melodic, musical genius. And The Clash kicks off with a song, “Clash City Rockers,” that immediately establishes the beauty of this configuration.

After a quick run-through of the song’s chords, Strummer starts spitting out lyrics strumjones2in something close to a tune, but with an insistence that implies more concern for lyrical content than melody. Then, at about 28 seconds, Jones brings a (relatively) nicely sung melody to the song, and backing vocals, that keep it from being a simple shout-fest. The lyrics are a type of celebration of the new (in 1977) punk/D.I.Y. culture, and include a couple tweaks of contemporary music like Disco and David Bowie in a parody of a British nursery rhyme. There’s an energy to the entire song, an energy that continues through the album, that makes it feel important and necessary.

Of course, the band became well known for their politically-charged songs, as in the title-says-it-all “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”

What I really love about this song is Mick Jones’s guitar work. Just as he made “Clash City Rockers” more interesting with his vocals, he raises this song with the cool fills and leads he plays throughout. At 15 seconds, he throws in a syncopated riff that plays nicely against the driving rhythm of Strummer’s strumming and becomes a counter-melody for the song. He also again adds harmony vocals that lift the song to something more than angry lyrics and a couple chords. There’s a definite synergy to Strummer and Jones, which to my ears makes the whole greater than its parts. But there are other parts besides Strummer and Jones.

simononBassist Paul Simonon and drummers Tory Crimes[ref]Nee Terry Chimes.[/ref] and Nicky “Topper” Headon were the rhythm section, with Crimes leaving the band after recording The Clash[ref]Although it’s a bit more complicated, as Headon re-recorded some drum parts on the US version. It’s like a friggin’ soap opera.[/ref]. The drumming is great throughout the album, and Simonon’s bass is particularly strong on the reggae and reggae-influenced songs, for example “Police & Thieves.” It was written and originally recorded by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin, and is one of my two co-favorite songs on the record. Simonon plays sloppily but melodically, a style that perfectly suits the band. And the lyrics of this cover, expressing a view held by many people on the fringes of society, fit perfectly for a band like The Clash, as well.

strummer fingerThe left-wing, populist lyrics are a mainstay of The Clash. And as great as they lyrics can be, one of the beauties of the band is that their locution and pronunciation are so poor when singing that even if you’re annoyed by such views, they’re easy to ignore because you can’t understand them most of the time anyway! A song that combines all the characteristics I’ve described is the wonderful “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” my other co-favorite song[ref]Although, there are so many greats here it’s hard to pick one.[/ref]. It has intelligible vocals by Strummer, with lyrics about wealth distribution, racial harmony, and put-downs of a system out to value profits over people, excellent harmonies and cool guitar fills by Jones, a strong, reggae bass line and terrific drumming.

All of these songs, the entire album, have a nearly-off-the-railsclash concert feeling that gives them an immediacy, like hearing your favorite band live playing a song they just wrote. But the production and arrangements make the songs sound complete and finished. It’s one of many dichotomies within The Clash[ref]Poet Strummer/Musician Jones; Great Lyrics/Unheard Lyrics; Punk Rock/Good Production; etc, etc.[/ref], and they create a great tension that elevates the band. Take for example “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song about drug laws and prison. It’s got a raucous fury to it, but it starts with a drum beat that almost sounds like a drum machine. It’s controlled chaos.

Similarly, “Hate & War” is a pop song with a slight disco feel, but it’s thoroughly 70s punk rock as well.

And speaking of punk rock, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention clashthe straight-ahead, safety pin through the lip, 11-inch mohawk songs that also reside on The Clash. They sound powerful and angry, especially when placed alongside the more melodic efforts. I’m talking about songs like “White Riot,” and “London’s Burning,” and “Career Opportunities“. It’s an album chock full of great songs. Complete Control and Janie Jones are two others that stand out, along with a cover of the great 60s gem by The Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law.” And “Garageland” has one of the great opening lines in rock n roll.

The Clash is a record for everyone. Fun songs, great energy, thoughtful lyrics, diverse sounds and styles … It’s a record that gives the appearance of being a punk rocker, but there is so much more to it – which is an excellent lesson. Many things in life are more than what they appear to be. That mild-mannered chemist might be a punk rocker. Your goofy friends might be heroes. And there might even be more to that “Poser” than his outward appearance suggests!

Track Listing
“Clash City Rockers”
“I’m So Bored With the USA”
“Remote Control”
“Complete Control”
“White Riot”
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
“London’s Burning”
“I Fought the Law”
“Janie Jones”
“Career Opportunities”
“What’s My Name”
“Hate & War”
“Police & Thieves”
“Jail Guitar Doors”


69th Favorite: Jailbreak, by Thin Lizzy


Jailbreak. Thin Lizzy.
1976, Mercury Records. Producer: Jon Alcock.
Gift ca. 2003.

jailbreak album

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: A Classic Rock touchstone, featuring a song you’ve heard everywhere. Leader Phil Lynott writes stories about people searching and backs them up with powerful dual guitars. It’s another case of guitars, melody and drumming – the typical story for my favorite records. And nobody’s more surprised it’s in the top 70 than me!!
Have you ever taken on a “simple project” around the house? If you have, garageI’ll bet the initial idea you had[ref]Or that was “suggested” to you by a spouse.[/ref] was easily described in one simple sentence. “I’m going to clean out the garage.” No matter how cluttered and messy your garage is, you could easily conjure images in your head of “before” and “after” scenarios and imagine the work needed in between the two: “I’ll lug some stuff out, I’ll pack some stuff in boxes, I’ll put it all back inside, I’ll go drink a beer.” This is the stage of the project at which the wise folks among you will take a considered look the level of clutter in your garage and decide that the apparent quick, direct path to completion – “lug, pack, restore, beer” – is a fantasy, and just skip ahead to that beer.

In reality, the path to completion on virtually ANY project is never quick and direct. Using garage cleaning as an example, we’ll start with the “lugging” phase. Before you can lug that cardboard box of shopping cart wheels that you got for a dollar at that flea market – (Remember that feeling? “Don’t worry, honey! All these wheels for a dollar?! – I’ll make some fun things for the kids!”) – you’re going to have to take it off the top of that ugly dresser garage 2that your spouse got for free from the side of the road – (Remember that feeling? “You’re never going to refinish that thing! Who cares if it’s free, we don’t need it!”) – but to get close enough to the box you’ll have to lean across the old snowblower – the one you didn’t get rid of when you bought the “new snowblower” because “parts!” – and that means you won’t have the right angle to get your hands under the box of wheels, which – as you’ll recall from the near-disaster of placing the box on top of the old dresser – is REQUIRED because the packing tape holding the bottom of that box together is about 60% scuffed off the box, meaning that box is just waiting to vomit 23 two-pound wheels all over everything the moment it’s lifted. But you can’t move the old snowblower because it’s helping to stabilize the ugly dresser, so if it moves, the whole mess comes down.

will hunting
You’re going to have to solve about 14 of these mensa-admission level logic problems, spelunkand do so within 30 minutes if you expect to have any shot of keeping this to a single-day project. And as you spelunk your way through the caverns of junk you’ve amassed over the years, it may be helpful for you to consider this: if your garage has this much crap in it, and it’s so poorly organized, what makes you think it’s worthwhile to even try to make a fresh start of it? This project is already a failure.project fail

As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” And who can argue with that? The point is that just as the simple steps of “lug, pack, restore, beer” are a wild underestimation of the project of cleaning a garage, most personal projects are far more complex, and require many more decisions, than can adequately be planned out in one’s head, and therefore – as Burns so eloquently put it – gang aft agley[ref]Which translates, roughly, to “Get totally fucked up.”[/ref].

Take, for example, a hypothetical plan to … let’s say … listen to all of your CDs and then rank them and select the top hundred favorites to write about in a blog you’ll update regularly. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? daffyLet’s make it simpler by saying you have pretty many CDs, but by no means an exhaustive list of classic albums from the past 50 years, or the number that a typical audiophile would have. So maybe you have, say, 357 CDs. This is the point at which – again, if you were a wise individual – you would say to yourself, “Okay, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll get to it some day,” and then you’d go get that beer. Because this is a problem destined to gang aft agley.

The biggest agleying issue I’ve faced has been just how friggin’ long it takes for me to put together a goddam post!!! That’s due to two things: 1) I have a full time job and a family; and 2) I’m a windbag, with no editor.

blahThe lengthy time to post causes a secondary, more abstract – yet possibly larger – problem: I finished listening to all my CDs in late 2013, so my list is stuck in time. I’ve bought a few records since then, some of which could be Top-100 level albums. But now that my list is complete, there’s no way to integrate these new records into it. If The Stooges’ Raw Power, which I recently got, would be, say #37[ref]It’s a really, really great record! How did it take so long for me to hear it??[/ref], then each album lower than that would bump down one. Since I’m now writing #69, I’d have 30 albums on this website out of order. Additionally, my #100 is now #101, and so should be removed from the list. Listen, it’s taken me this long to get here, I can’t just suddenly decide to add MORE RECORDS to the project!!!

So I can’t add any new records – the list is “As-Of-January-2014,” and that’s just how it has to be. But there’s also a BIGGER issue with the list: it assumes that the decisions I made about each record were actually ACCURATE at the time I listened! Let’s take a quick look[ref]Remember, I have no editor and I’m a windbag, so by “quick look” I mean … well, we’ll see what it means. I have no idea. An editor would have cut out this footnote.[/ref] at the process I used for making my list.

carradioI listened to my CDs in my car on my way traveling to and from work. I recognize factory-installed sound systems on 2007 Toyota Corollas aren’t exactly the highest fidelity, audiophile quality systems on which to hear music. However, I have a life. I couldn’t spend 25-grand on state-of-the-art sonic accessories[ref]Which wouldn’t improve my experience anyway. Or maybe it would.[/ref], quit my job and sequester myself away from my family for six months while I worked on my artistic masterpiece[ref]Which you are currently reading. Makes even more sense now, right?[/ref]. Besides, my car is where I hear most music anyway, and this method leveled the playing field for comparing music by ensuring they’d all be heard on the same lousy system.

I selected CDs randomly and listened to each only once (again, I have a life), gave it a rating of one through five, and jotted a few notes about what I liked. That’s not a lot of information upon which to build a serious case for the merits of one album vs. others. So that’s a source of error.

favorite thingBut the biggest source of error in my evaluation of my records was the algorithm I developed for translating my 5-points-plus-notes evaluation system into a measure of “Favorite.” The algorithm is this: I just sort of went with what I felt. Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t trying to find the BEST, I was trying to find my FAVORITES. There were a few records that I recognized as excellent works of artistic vision and inherent merit that just, you know, didn’t do it for me. Then there were records that I recognized were probably not going to wind up on many critics’ lists that I just LOVED! There were a few records I’d rarely listened to that blew my socks off in that one listen. But it’s hard to make a case that a record I’d heard once or twice should be considered a “favorite.” It was a struggle, and I spent a few weeks arranging and rearranging the albums into what I hoped was the most precise list possible.

Until – at a certain point – I decided: Who gives a shit? It’s a fucking made up list of pop records that a few caseydozen friends are pretending to read! And so I didn’t put more thought into it. There are bound to be records misplaced throughout the list, right? I don’t listen to the albums again until I’m ready to write about them, at which time I get a chance to confirm whether I still agree with placement.

The biggest placement error on the list so far has been The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, which landed at the rather lowly level of number 95. I’ve listened to that record a lot in the time since I published the post and it has certainly climbed my list of favorites since then. I’m guessing it would now fall somewhere in the top 35 … but there’s nothing I can do about it now. True, it sucks, and I’ve been in a back and forth with The Rolling Stones’ lawyers about it, but as I’ve explained in several phone calls with Mick and Charlie[ref]And by text with Keith, who was rude at first but eventually understood.[/ref] the list is set.

thin lizzy bandNumber 69 on my list, the excellent Jailbreak, by vastly under-appreciated Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, is probably my next biggest mistake. But their lawyers won’t be contacting me: you see, I think this one should be lower on the list – maybe in the 90s, or even in the dreaded “Buffalo Bill Near-Miss List” of record numbers 101-110. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great!

Thin Lizzy is a band whose name I knew before I ever knew any of their songs. thin lizzy logoThey’re one of those 70s bands with a distinctive, stylized script logo that I’d often seen sewn onto the denim jackets of some of the scary rocker kids around my town. I didn’t know that I knew one of their songs until sometime in Middle School when I realized they sang the catchy, oft-played 70s rocker “The Boys Are Back in Town[ref]More on this later.[/ref].” That song always sounded Southern Rock to me, and so I just figured they were a bunch of white guys from Alabama or Florida or some other place I’d never live in a million years making kickass double-guitar boogie rock. I was quite surprised to learn sometime later that they’re actually Irish, and led by an Irish black man, Phil Lynott.

phillynott fingerPhil Lynott played bass guitar and sang for Thin Lizzy, and he wrote most of the songs as well. I watched a documentary about the band, and he seems to have been a quintessential sad, brilliant artist. His reputation in Ireland is immense, and he is held in esteem there as “Ireland’s First Rock Star.” I didn’t know any of this information when I heard their songs on the radio. AOR radio used to play the songs “The Boys are Back In Town” and “Jail Break” in the 70s and 80s, but given Scary Rocker Kids‘ love of them, I always figured they were some metal band[ref]Nothing against metal, but it was never a genre I got too deeply into.[/ref]. I got the first inkling that I may be interested in them when I lived with my punk rock friend Eric, and I noticed he owned a copy of Jailbreak. At some point in the 2000s, the band I’ve played in since the late 80s, JB and The So-Called Cells – featuring the phenomenal Dr. Dave on lead guitar – decided to play “The Boys are Back in Town,” and Dr. Dave loaned me the CD so I could learn my part. I listened to the other songs as well and thought, “this is a great friggin’ record!!”

back coverI didn’t listen to it much in the next several years, but when it came time to work on this project, I duly pulled it from its sleeve in one of my nerd-binders full of CDs and brought it to the Corolla for an official listen. In that one listen, I was blown away. I don’t know if it was the traffic that day, the weather, the blend of the morning’s coffee, or what, but after one listen I gave it exceptionally high marks. But when it came time to look at all my ratings of all my records, and compare them with each other, I realized that I didn’t remember much about Jailbreak. As highly as I had rated it – a rating that may have landed it in the top 20 based on number and comments alone – when I looked at it next to some other albums I loved, I just couldn’t justify placing it so high up on the list. When everything shook out, it landed here at 69. So there you are.

And it is definitely the kind of music I tend to really like! Jailbreak is full of dual-guitar majesty, fantastic drumming, and strong melodies – confirming yet again that guitar, drums and melody are the way to my musical heart. The album opens with the riff-rocker title track, “Jailbreak.”

The standard M.O. for 70s hard rock songwriting is on display, and it’s a fine, fine example. Led Zeppelin were masters of it; AC/DC has made a 45 year career out of it. Aerosmith, too. It’s a two-step process: 1) take a cool-sounding guitar riff; and 2) build a song around it. What makes this one interesting are the little things happening around the riff. For example, a lot of cool wah-wah guitar – first heard right around the 15 second mark. brian downeyAnd the drumming by Brian Downey, with lots of fills and hi-hat flourishes, and techniques that aren’t flashy but are kind of mind-blowing on repeated listens – like the fill around 43 seconds to lead into the first chorus. Lynott has a distinctive, growly voice and he uses it well throughout the song and the album. In this song, as in many on the album, he takes on the persona of a character and describes his circumstances. The tale of breaking out of prison is one that connected strongly with teens in the 70s – and probably of any era. There’s a nifty instrumental breakdown starting at about 2:13 that sounds like the rock band version of a jailbreak – even without the sirens that are added to the track. It’s a strong, very cool opener on this underrated album.

The biggest draw for me about the album may be the twin guitars played by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. One of the best examples of their cool-sounding interplay is the song “Angel From the Coast.”

“Dual guitars” in classic guitar rock, as heard in bands from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Judas Priest,thin lizzy guitars 2 are typically featured two ways: 1) playing the same riff, but in harmony; or 2) playing two separate parts. Gorham and Robertson do both throughout the record. On “Angel From the Coast” one riff starts off the song, and the second guitar comes in at 7 seconds with a separate counter-riff. Later, around 1:26, their harmony work is featured in a guitar solo (duet?), which by 1:42 turns into a true back-and-forth between guitars. They sound great together, like they’re having fun playing off one another, before they dive back into the opening riffs. Anytime a band features two guitars doing things like this, I’m going to give them a good, long listen – as will others: I think noted guitarist and former cover-band player Eddie Van Halen may have lifted the main riff for one of his songs. Lynott’s voice is rocking as ever on (dare I say? Bob Dylan-esque) lyrics with sad imagery of desperate people. This Angel From the Coast appears to be a heroin shipment.

The band’s most famous song, “The Boys are Back in Town,” also features excellent dual-guitar interplay, along with some excellent bass work by Lynott.

I think this song warrants its place as a 70s hard rock mainstay, still heard and played in 2016. thin lizzy band 3 It’s a cool sounding jam, and its lyrics are in the typical Phil Lynott style – taking the point of view of someone and telling a tale. What I find interesting about the narrator in this case is that he’s apart from the action, describing someone else’s deeds. One gets the feeling that the narrator isn’t really part of the gang of boys who are coming back to town this summer, but just a local admirer. I’ve heard rumors that the song is about Viet Nam vets returning home, but I’ve also heard Lynott wrote it about the band’s rowdy fans. Either way, it’s a song that’s established itself in popular culture to a degree that could easily sour it for some people. but the fact it’s been overplayed doesn’t change the fact that it’s an excellent song!

Lynott’s storytelling lyrics are also on display in the softer, slightly jazzy “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.”

I particularly enjoy Brian Downey’s drumming on this song, which features his tight rolls and distinctive fills.phil lynott Also, there’s a terrific guitar solo that I’m not sure which of the stellar guitarists plays. Another bouncy, less rock and roll song is the breezy “Running Back,” which is not about Walter Payton or Jim Brown, but is a musician’s lament of leaving love behind to hit the road. It’s a song direct from the 70s, with a chill electric piano and a blaring sax solo which – to my ears – really neuter a potentially great rock number. Another soft number, albeit with great, subtle guitar work from Gorham and Robertson, is “Fight or Fall,” a call for unity in the vein of The Youngbloods’ 60s hit “Get Together.” The rocker “Emerald” is a shout out to the ancient tribes of Ireland, and “Warriors” is a boastful 70s riff-rocker. The album shows that Lynott was a versatile talent, a songwriter with a knack for melody and lyrics, and also a terrific bass player and singer.

Thin Lizzy was a great band, and Jailbreak would have been a very good record with just those songs I’ve listed. But what I think inspired me to rate it so highly is “Cowboy Song,” one of my all-time favorite songs. I don’t know if it’s the great riff – played in harmony by both guitars and bass – or the sad Desperado lyrics, but something about this song connects with me.

If you click on that video, be sure to listen at least well past the 44 second mark, the point at which the song’s riff starts. thin lizzy band 2It’s a simple musical figure, but it’s super-catchy and has a yearning quality that suits the wanderer’s perspective of the lyrics. Lynott’s voice is expressive, and there’s a tinge of sadness – he clearly relates to roaming the land, taking whatever gigs he can find, while he searches for that woman he once knew. It’s a song I could listen to on repeat, a song I’d likely place on a CD to take on a deserted island. It’s a song that speaks to me loudly enough to bump a very good album up to a top 70 album!

So, look. We all make mistakes in life. But we don’t have to regret all our mistakes. I love Jailbreak, and I’ll keep listening to it. Ranking it at #69 may have been an error, but it’s certainly better than dropping a box of shopping cart wheels on a snowblower. And how many mistakes in life can we say that about??

Angel From The Coast
Running Back
Romeo and the Lonely Girl
The Boys are Back in Town
Fight or Fall
Cowboy Song


70th Favorite: Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions


Imperial Bedroom. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1982, Columbia Records. Producer: Geoff Emerick.
Purchased ca. 1998.

album imperial bedroom

squirrel nutIN A NUTSHELL – The new wave/punk angry young man finds new ways to showcase his caustic wit in this collection of polished, orchestrated and highly produced numbers. The Attractions are as excellent as ever, and Costello’s voice is at its finest as he takes the first of many steps away from the music that defined his early career.
f and g cast

One of the best TV shows in the history of TV shows was the short-lived and perfect Freaks and Geeks. I think the reason I love it so much is because it’s basically the story of me and my freshman year of high school. It was set in suburban Michigan, not too dissimilar from the rural/suburban Pennsylvania region where I grew up; in a public high school, like I attended; and took place in 1980, just about the same time I started high school.

bootsThe focus of the show is the journey undertaken by a high school junior and academic heavyweight, Lindsey Weir, as she embarks on new friendships with the “Freaks,” the kids in school who seem to be into nothing, except drinking and drugs and smoking and cars and loud rock music. These “Freaks” were a constant population in 80s suburban public schools, and every school seemed to have their own names for them: “Druggies,” “Burnouts,” “Burners.” At our school they were called “Treads,” which someone told me was because they typically wore work boots with big treads on the bottom (and usually with red laces, for some reason). Most of them (though not all) were in the lower-track[ref]A euphemism for “not college-bound.”[/ref] classes, and at my school they were most rock shirtsoften found in the Smoking Lavatory[ref]Yes, indeed. My school had a lavatory where, if your parents signed off on it, you could obtain a pass to go to a lavatory in which smoking (cigarettes, ostensibly) was allowed. The pass also allowed you to smoke in the back row of the parking lot. My school was famous for it. It sounds unbelievable, and ridiculous, but my sisters attended school before these lavs opened, and they (non-smokers both) were THRILLED when they were introduced, as it meant the rest of the lavs would now be smoke-free, a state they rarely maintained before the Smoking Lavatories were opened.[/ref]. Their uniform consisted of old jeans, concert tee-shirts (or three-quarter sleeved jerseys), and a denim jacket or army coat.

Lindsey has a younger brother, Sam, who starts his freshman year at McKinley High School that same year. This is the character with whom I identify. I was a geek, and I had a few close friends, just like Sam. Each episode had a Sam storyline, and each one resonated with me. Stories such as liking a girl who doesn’t like you back, being scared that a tough Tread-girl will beat the shit out of you, or the utter agony and dread associated with gym class showers[ref]My kids, in 2016, cannot BELIEVE that we were forced to shower (naked!) with each other back then. Is showering after athletics really so weird?[/ref] were seemingly lifted directly from my life. The writing on the show was excellent, the actors were brilliant[ref]It’s remarkable how many members of the teenaged cast became stars as adults.[/ref], and these two things paired with the show’s setting (not to mention its IMPRESSIVE use of carefully chosen, era-specific music) made it the absolute perfect show for me.

velourA classic, cringe-inducing episode, titled “Looks and Books,” involves Sam trying to change his fortunes with girls, or, rather, one girl, Cindy Sanders, by changing up his wardrobe. He’s certain that his typical turn-of-the-decade duds – the jeans, corduroys, velour v-neck sweaters and striped t-shirts – aren’t doing enough to get Cindy to notice him. So he heads to the coolest store in the mall, to see if the awesomely fashionable staff can help him out:

Sam buys a “Parisian Night Suit”, and in one of the most free and wonderful performances I’ve seen by an actor, John Francis Daley, as Sam, imagines just what the suit will do for him. It’s not a dream sequence – the imaginings take place in his head. And as uncomfortable as it may be to glimpse what’s going on inside young Sam’s head by peeking into his bedroom, I hope every one of you, dear readers, has felt this way over something or someone at some point in your life:

And just as I hope you all felt as happy as Sam in the previous video, I hope you never have had to deal with the crushing, deflating, terror of real life stomping all over your dreams… as occurs – quite painfully – in this next clip, as Sam quickly realizes that not everyone immediately grasps the sophistication and strength of his new apparel:

I myself wasn’t the type to take big risks with my wardrobe, such as the one Sam takes with his Parisian Night Suit. I went along with the trends, to be sure, and in 4th grade maybe I’d break out something a little flashy.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”In fourth grade I wasn’t afraid of bold sartorial choices. (This outfit was not a punishment – I chose it. Even the shoes.)”]

But class photos from 6th through 10th grade demonstrate that – apart from dabbling in attempts at feathering my cowlick-ridden hair – I’d found a look[ref]The word “style” would really be overstating things.[/ref] and I went with it.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”Collars and stripes were in! Every year! Apparently. Re: the hair, I know what you’re thinking. I’m as dumbfounded as you are.”]

Earlier, I stated I hoped you readers never went through such an will rogersexperience as Sam did. But to be honest I hope something like this has happened to you because it means that – simultaneous-teeth-and-buttocks-clenching embarrassment aside – you went out on a limb and tried something outside your comfort zone. There are a million great quotes about the necessity and humanity of taking risks. There’s a very Will Rogers-y quote by Will Rogers that goes, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that is where the fruit is.” Perhaps my favorite is by the writer Annie Dillard who said, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” I didn’t jump off many style-related cliffs, like Sam did, but I did stumble off a few and find my hastily assembled wings fail me before I splatted on the pavement.risk

mesh shirtIn my freshman year I once wore to school a mesh t-shirt that we got for being on the basketball team – a style that was frequently worn by many boys in school. But I hadn’t noticed that even though the holes in the mesh were very tiny, on a silky white shirt they created a see-through effect that, when coupled with the shirt’s tight fit on my chubby frame, presented a strongly amusing appearance to many other kids in my class. (Apparently.) There were jokes galore at my expense that day – for several days, really. One boy called me Cheryl Tiegs for the next several weeks. I never wore the shirt to school again – even though as a bit of proof that I had in fact made the Freshman basketball team, it was a memento of one of my proudest achievements to that point in my life[ref]I just want to point out that I’m laughing as I write this, not crying. I’ve gotten over it. Sort of. No, really, I have.[/ref].

supermanBut this is a far different experience than Sam had. I had simply overlooked some information about a common garment. Sam made a conscious decision to take the bold action to reveal, through a wardrobe change, his secret identity as Super Hip, Super Desirable Young Man. The feelings he showed in his awkward mirror dance are joyful, human expressions of self worth, and he hoped to demonstrate to his classmates his worth as a suave, sophisticated, modern young man of style. He had a lot more invested in his decision to wear a Parisian Night Suit than I did in my mesh shirt. I had my pride on display; Sam displayed a previously concealed Self. (Not to mention a really goofy-looking, powder blue jumpsuit.)

When it comes to a musician’s “wardrobe” of styles, Elvis Costello is well-known today for being a Halloween-Costume type of performer, brodskyhaving released albums of multiple styles over the past 40(ish) years. Country-folk, New Orleans jazz, classical, jazz/pop, lush 60s-style pop, string quartet with voice … these are some of the styles Elvis has worked in over the years, and there are other records in the discography that are not really in any category. But in the early 80s, Elvis was very much a poster boy for the punk/new wave sound that the UK had been exporting to the US by way of independent record stores, college radio and videos like the ones being shown on that new channel, MTV.

elvis iconBecause of his iconic look, featured on the cover of his debut album, My Aim Is True, and consisting of short hair, big, black spectacles, an ill-fitting suit and pigeon-toed stance, I recognized Elvis Costello before I’d ever heard a song of his. I’ve written before about my first introduction to punk rock as a middle schooler, via MAD Magazine, but the basic story is that it scared the shit out of me. And Elvis was British and looked weird – not nearly as normal as other rock performers of the 70s – so I just assumed he was a scary punk rocker. To an 11 year old buying Village People cassettes, it was a commonsense deduction.

village people At some point in 8th or 9th grade I was watching a dumb movie on TV called Americathon, in which the US president[ref]Played by Three’s Company‘s John Ritter.[/ref] holds a telethon to raise money to keep America from being sold to Native Americans. A performer called “The Earl of Manchester” sings a song on the telethon, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a good song.” It was Elvis Costello, in his film debut, playing the song “Crawling to the USA.” This piqued my interest, and I began to flip through his records at record stores and department stores, wondering if I should buy. As I’ve written before, I worried what my folks would think of the smart-assed Brit, so I decided to go with AC/DC and REO Speedwagon instead[ref]As the sci-fi/fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon has written, “The worst decisions in life we make are always the ones we make out of fear.”[/ref].

spinningElvis became a guy whose songs I heard on the radio, and whose videos I watched on MTV. I liked some songs, didn’t think much about him, and went on my merry way. I did see him and The Attractions live in Philadelphia in 1986 as part of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, in which audience members spun a gargantuan carnival wheel with song titles stamped on it, and the band played whatever came up. It remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. But still, I didn’t rush out and buy his records.

I really became a fan in the mid 90s, when I bought the Rykodiscbest of release The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions – one of at least 10 “Best of” records that Elvis has released over the years. Then I started buying – and listening constantly – to his records. Imperial Bedroom is a record that I bought after I’d thoroughly digested his first five albums: My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!, and Trust.
elvis snl2

Imperial Bedroom is the Parisian Night Suit of Elvis’s early records. This is the record on which he took a chance and revealed his secret identity[ref]One of many, obviously.[/ref] as crooner and front man for an orchestral pop outfit. Some people were taken aback – unsure what to make of this fellow who they thought they’d had pegged. Any fan who’d gotten used to aggressive, guitar-and-organ driven numbers, with lyrics spat derisively into the mic, was in for a big surprise upon hearing the 15 tracks on this new record[ref]Indeed, Elvis had released Almost Blue, an album of country music standards the year before Imperial Bedroom was released, but this seemed more like a fun side project for him than a seriously considered, personal work.[/ref]. Unlike Sam’s Parisian Night Suit, however, most people understood the strength and sophistication of Costello’s new style.

The record opens with the subtle, splendid “Beyond Belief,” a very mellow opener, especially after five previous (mostly) rockin’ album openers.

This is another song that would be high up in my Championship Vinyl Commemorative Top Five List of Side One Track Ones. I love how it opens with elvis attract 11a faint vocalization while drummer Pete Thomas’s high-hat jangles, and Bruce Thomas (no relation) strikes a declarative single bass note. Elvis sings, softly and closely, an incredibly wide-ranging melody, with more words-per-measure than some folks put into an entire verse. The song builds gradually, with Pete double-timing the bass drum at about 48 seconds[ref]Ordinarily I’d state it as “the second verse,” or “last half of the verse,” but the song’s structure doesn’t fit neatly into such descriptions – which is another thing I love about it![/ref], and keyboardist Steve Nieve holding a note that turns into a swirling, calliope-esque background for the rest of the song. Meanwhile, Bruce Thomas has been striking single bass notes, and Pete Thomas is frantically pounding, and the whole thing escalates to a gunshot sound at 1:09. So we’re just over a minute into the song, and already it’s clear that this record is not going to be made up of simple verse-chorus-verse-bridge rock songs, and straightforward rock band sounds. The entire song sounds like something different, a pop song from another world. Also, the song’s lyrics are particularly clever and full of allusions and puns, and seem to describe a character drunkenly meeting a woman at a bar and leaving with her – and regretting it as it happens.

elvis guitar

Elvis’s lyrics are generally either loved or hated because of their slick (too slick?) wordplay – but I’m a guy who appreciates the puns and wit[ref]And who can correctly and precisely use unusual words like “identikit.”[/ref] The next song, “Tears Before Bedtime,” describes one side of a deteriorating relationship in clear, direct language, and a phrase that anyone who’s argued with a partner can understand: “How wrong can I be before I am right?”

There’s so much I like about this song. It really shows off the band’s abilities. In Costello’s recent autobiography, he continually (and hyperbolically) praises elvis attractionsThe Attractions as the best band ever assembled, and they truly are talented. Nieve’s beep-booping keyboard takes center stage, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear a ska-sounding rhythm chop supporting the whole thing. This is also played by the multi-talented Nieve. At about 1:48 it’s particularly clear, until Bruce Thomas’s catchy run brings the whole band back in for the chorus. I also like how Elvis’s vocals are sung in many voices, as if he’s playing different parts. It’s very much a sing-along song for me.

There are a few songs about crumbling relationships on the album, and another one that again features a rather non-Elvis arrangement is the sweet-sounding sob story “The Long Honeymoon.”

On this track, Nieve adds a gentle accordion steve nieve to accompany a samba beat[ref]Or maybe its rumba. Or bossa nova. Anyway, its Latin-y sounding. I watched a bunch of instructional videos on rhythms, and I couldn’t tell which one it was![/ref], which together with Elvis’s vibrato gives the song the feel of a sleazy 60s lounge-singer. Which – given the tale of a husband stepping out on his wife – fits perfectly! Elvis isn’t well-known as a guitarist, but he plays a great solo on this song that fits in tone and style. One gets the sense Mr. Costello was having difficulties at home while he was writing Imperial Bedroom – a fact he confirmed in his book.

The discord in his personal life is likely the source of a song in which he asks for forgiveness: “Human Hands.”

It’s a quick, bouncy piano-based number with some elvis attractions2catchy horns arranged by the album’s producer (and engineer on some of the best Beatles albums), Geoff Emerick. I love Elvis’s vocals on this one, which is once again a wide-ranging melody. It was the presence of Emerick as producer that helped guide Costello to stitch together this Parisian Night Suit of an album. Emerick’s work on albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road is legendary, and according to his book (and Costello’s book) he played a significant role in coaxing Costello to trust himself and take some stylistic risks. It is in this risk-taking spirit that comes the lushly orchestrated “…And In Every Home.” The score for the orchestra was written by pianist Nieve, who attended London’s Royal College of Music. The song seems to be another one about an unhappy home

Emerick’s touch is also heard in the harpsichord backing and flanging vocals in the lovely lament about teenage love, (and the lack of information that can make it so weird and challenging) “You Little Fool.”

There are a few “classic”-sounding Costello songs on the album. elvis attractions concertThe Loved Ones” would have fit nicely on an earlier record and features a call-and-response chorus that has Mr. Emerick’s fingerprints all over it. And “Little Savage” sounds like a lost track from his 60s-themed album Get Happy! But most sound like nothing he’d done before. Take “Pidgin English,” for example, with its orchestration, multiple voices and distorted drums. This is the second song on the album to feature the words “PS I Love You” at the end, this time sounding like an epitaph – perhaps another clue to the status of Costello’s love life when the songs were written.

Besides the opening track, my favorite song on the album is “Man Out of Time.”

The song opens and closes with snippets of earlier versions of the song, when it was a raucous rave-up, but as recorded for Imperial Bedroom, it’s a grandly sweeping epic. It features wonderful keyboard work from Nieve – organs and pianos adding shading behind the verses. Elvis’s singing is again evocative and personal-sounding. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about – many have suggested it harkens to an old British political scandal. Whatever they mean, the lyrics make for excellent poetry.

elvis attractions 2So there you have it – Elvis Costello’s Parisian Night Suit. He boldly put it on and strode through the high school halls of 80s New Wave and dared the others to laugh. I’d like to think that Sam bought Imperial Bedroom in his junior year at McKinley High and was inspired to go out on some other limbs. Maybe the Parisian Night Suit wasn’t right for him, but I hope he kept trying to get the right presentation for all of his Secret Identities[ref]Yes, I recognize he’s a fictional character.[/ref]. Elvis Costello has made a career of it, and this first secret identity on Imperial Bedroom may have been his best.

Beyond Belief
Tears Before Bedtime
Shabby Doll
The Long Honeymoon
Man Out of Time
Almost Blue
…And in Every Home
The Loved Ones
Human Hands
Kid About It
Little Savage
Boy with a Problem
Pidgin English
You Little Fool
Town Cryer