Category Archives: Albums 80-71

71st Favorite: Purple Rain, by Prince and The Revolution


Purple Rain. Prince and The Revolution
1984, Warner Bros. Producer: Prince and The Revolution
Purchased: ca. 1990

prince album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Classic 80s soundtrack from one of the decade’s biggest stars combines funk, rock, and R&B with some super-catchy melodies. The drums sometimes sound like they’re programmed by Casio, but it’s still an all-time dance party classic album.

sue prince

A NOTE TO READERS: Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson is quite diligent about removing any versions of his songs from the internet. He’s sued fans for posting videos, his record company sued a mom for posting a short clip of her toddler dancing to his song (the mom countersued and won), and he’s just been generally hostile to the notion of his music (or his versions of others’ music) being played without him being compensated.

Now, as a person who believes art has value and should be valued, I am fully on his side in his wish to get paid. Sure, sure, he’s a kajillionaire and it’s not like he needs more money. But I think anyone who makes art should be compensated. It’s hard to think of any other item besides music that the general public just assumes they should have for nothing.

However, as a person writing a blog about music on a (somewhat) regular basis, the fact that I can’t easily get videos of his songs is super-annoying. So this is my warning to you, dear readers: don’t be surprised if ALL THE LINKS to ALL THE PRINCE VIDEOS in this blog aren’t working when you try to listen.


Cardboard has a very distinctive smell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it just from having a few boxes around your house from Amazon deliveries, and stores like BJ’s and Costco, where they make you cram your purchases into weirdly shaped, practically useless cardboard containers instead of bags.

But if you’ve ever spent a little time in, for example, warehousea 240,000 square-foot warehouse, stacked 30-feet high with cardboard boxes – a warehouse that includes a sizable section reserved for thousands of flattened, ready-to-build cardboard boxes that – as part of your job – you will fold, origami-by-numbers style, into a wide array of box types to contain a broad range of soon-to-be-expired chocolate products – you’ll know the smell of cardboard. Even today, on the morning after a pizza delivery, the ancient brain part I share with muskrats and weasels will immediately extract that cardboard scent from the surrounding pepperoni and sauce; and as I carry the box to the recycling container the smell carries the summer of ’87 back to me in striking detail.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”My distant relative reminisces about his youth”]

I turned 20 in the summer of 1987, and it was a year of transition for me. My sophomore year at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science had just ended[ref]Well, almost ended. The program I was in, Toxicology, was designed by sadists, or drunks, or genius-level Asbergerian science nerds (or all three in combination) and so required that in addition to taking 18 credits per semester, students also attend summer school after both the Freshman and Sophomore years in order to remain on track to graduate on time. After two semesters of Organic Chemistry crammed into eight weeks the previous summer, I knew I had to get out before another lost summer of Pharmacology in Philadelphia.[/ref], and I had decided that in the fall I wouldn’t return, but would instead matriculate at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

get job I needed a summer job, and I wanted one that paid the most money. I applied and interviewed at several places, and I took jobs and quit jobs at both Sears and Rent-A-Center before I got the call that changed my life: it was The Hershey Company saying that I was the man for their Chocolate Factory job. At $4.50 an hour (75¢ more than either of the other places) it was a bulging wage, the magnitude of which indicated just how much money the chocolate industry was raking in.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many experiences that, when divulged in conversation, spark the imagination of trebekmy interlocutor such that a smile crosses their face and the single word “Really?!?” is spoken, drawn out to a grin, and paired with twinkling eyes, so as to imply the unspoken words “I want to hear more about that!” These experiences include appearing on the game show “Jeopardy!”; being a professional stand-up comic; and playing at CBGB’s with my old band. However, none of these experiences elicits as much excited anticipation from a listener as does the statement, “I used to work at The Hershey Chocolate factory.”
It conjures wonderful imagery in a person’s mind, of drinking from chocolate rivers, eating vibrant flowers and gloriously floating amid bubbles of Fizzy Lifting Drink. I’m surprised I was never asked, “Did you have your own Oompa Loompa?”lifting drink

Chocolate has a strong effect on the brain, and a residue of that effect is the insistent belief, often spoken directly to me, that working with the stuff eight hours a day is some sort of a dream job. However the truth is that after a oompafew 8 hour overnight shifts in a warehouse folding cardboard boxes and stuffing Hershey Kisses into clear plastic tubes[ref]Those candy cane stocking stuffers are made by hand.[/ref], even a jolly little Oompa Loompa will find himself searching Trivago for flights back to Loompaland – Snozzwangers and Vermicious Knids be damned!!

To earn those exorbitant wages I worked third shift at a Hershey Chocolate warehouse[ref]Perhaps peoples’ responses to me would be less joyful if I’d state “I worked at The Hershey Chocolate Factory … Warehouse.”[/ref], 11 pm to 7 am, from Sunday to Thursday night. At first glance, this schedule sounds terrific! “Why, that’s basically Friday, Saturday and Sunday off!” But in reality, those three days are camouflage for what amounts to, basically, nearly – but not quite – one measly day of rest.

3rdshiftYou see, after four days spent sleeping, and five nights spent awake, you’ll arrive home from work at about 8 am on Friday. Your body will want to go to sleep that Friday morning, as usual. No matter what you try to do to try to manage your body’s need for sleep – nap, exercise, coffee, alcohol – you are unlikely to enjoy a “day off” on Friday. Or if you do stay awake to enjoy the day, you won’t be able to enjoy that Friday night, like all of the other college students at home for the summer. You’ll have to sleep at some point, so you’ll have to choose: Friday night or Friday day. On Saturday the effects of your Friday choice will kick in, either by being unable to get out of bed until mid afternoon, or by falling asleep in early evening[ref]Again, attempts to mitigate these effects through naps, exercise, coffee and booze may work once or twice, but will not be an effective strategy over the course of an entire summer.[/ref], thus wiping out a good deal of that day, too. damocles Then you’ll spend all day Sunday reflexively counting the hours and minutes until it’s time to leave the house at 10:30 pm for your “Monday,” a Sword of Damocles preventing you from experiencing much of anything that could be described as “relaxing.” It all boils down to not quite a full Saturday to relax.

That summer demonstrated that I never wanted another third shift job again. I could tell it was unhealthy and I felt miserable. golfAbout the only positive aspect of it was that my dad was also worked 3rd shift that summer[ref]Which he did for years, and so after my summer of hell I understood a little bit better his general grumpiness during those years.[/ref], and so several times during those few months I met him and some of his colleagues after work to play golf. Then again, in retrospect, while it was indeed nice to hang out with dad, I don’t know if the experience really classifies as “positive:” walking 5 miles in the morning heat and humidity, inhaling cigar smoke from dad’s buddies’ cheap-o cigars (smoked to “drive off the bugs,” which therefore chose to swarm around me), frustrating myself by playing a ridiculous game at which I was horrifically bad, all while nursing the compounding effects of irregular sleep patterns. But it was the best thing about the summer of ’87.

The warehouse was uniquely situated with regard to 80s American social groups. It sat in a town, Hershey, with quite a bit of wealth, and it was within a 15-mile radius of both urban Harrisburg and rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. The summertime workforce drew from the populations of all of these areas, so students from Williams and Bryn Mawr anticipating their fall semesters abroad folded boxes alongside Harrisburg Area Community College part-timers and Evangelical pastors-in-training at Lancaster Bible College.

We worked on boring, little assembly lines, syrupemptying large containers of soon-to-expire chocolate products, and placing their contents into smaller containers and specialty displays. For example: if a box of 24 Hershey’s Syrup bottles was due to expire in two months, we’d empty the box and bundle sets of 8 bottles with an ice cream-themed cardboard display box that someone on second shift had origamied. They’d be shipped to stores in the hopes that syrup eaters would find them more enticing if they were presented in a different setting than simply crammed next to jars of Nesquik powder and Fluff on the Giant Foodssugary shit shelves. fluff

We Oompa-Loompoid workers were randomly sorted into teams each factory lineSunday night and each team was assigned a “line” (i.e. “Mr. Goodbar,” “Hershey Kisses,” “Kit Kat”) on which it worked for a week at a time. There were only a total of about 30 people on the night shift and we got to know each other in the shallow-yet-sometimes-too-deep way that one gets to know someone when jabbering together as a means to stay awake all night. goodbarYou’d get to talking with someone, never making eye-contact, just focusing on opening boxes of Mr. Goodbars and sliding the box to the hands next to you, and soon enough the conversation with … Jess? Jen? … you’d never get it straight, but anyway, your tale about a crazy party you attended freshman year might segue into her story revealing she had a bowel resection as a nine year old.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”That curly haired girl from Muhlenberg College hasn’t had a solid BM in ten years”]

One thing we did share was music, as each line was allowed a boom box. boomboxIn those (mostly) pre-individualized music days, we shared music as a group might share a large cauldron of soup. In this diverse group, few people enjoyed the same kind of soup, so at the beginning of the week a general soup-cooking order was established – Bill will make Chicken Noodle Tuesday, Jane and Ted will make tomato on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday we’re all gonna have to eat Gladys’s nasty Borscht with Lentils and Okra – (i.e. Contemporary Christian Music or Christian Rock.)

Most folks selecting the music were, sadly, Top 40 aficionados, so WINK 104 was the usual music choice. I can still recall the hit songs from the summer 87 summerof ’87 without having to double-check my facts on Google. And I still get nauseous from each of them, like someone getting a whiff of tequila the morning after barfing from drinking too much. “Who’s that Girl,” by Madonna. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. “I Want Your Sex,” by George Michael. “Shakedown“, by Bob Seger. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston. “Mary’s Prayer,” by some guy[ref]Okay, I checked, it was “Danny Wilson.”[/ref]. I think those were the only 6 songs played that summer.

Other people brought cassettes to play, or tuned in to classic rock or Christian rock.

prince singNow, by 1987 I was very aware of the musician named Prince. When I was in middle school he had a hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” that my sisters loved, and that I liked, too, in my 12-year-old disco fan way. By the time I got to high school, he was well-known as a freaky-looking, sexually ambiguous R&B singer, whose hits “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette” were in constant rotation on MTV.

By the summer of ’87, he was just some guy making music that I never really cared for much. It’s true, as my friend Josh had pointed out back in high school, after we sat through a slideshow by Josten’s that used a Prince song as background, that he was obviously a phenomenal guitar player[ref]A fact that he is not ashamed to share.[/ref] and I was a fan of guitar. But I still wasn’t interested. Apart from the few songs MTV played, I didn’t listen much to R&B, and Prince’s songs were way too sexual-sounding for me to get into. prince guitar

But a whiff of cardboard box today can place me back at the exact moment my opinion of Prince was altered. I was on a line at the warehouse, opening and sliding boxes in the middle of the night, when someone (I think the blonde woman with acne scars – that’s all I remember) who had control of the boom box for a night brought along a cassette of Purple Rain to play. I remember that the energy in the line picked up immediately, and most everyone around me sang along to every song, did little dances as they worked, performed the “I Would Die 4 U” hand motions when appropriate, and generally had a blast. It seemed that with every passing song I thought, “hey that one wasn’t too bad …” then girded myself for the follow-up that I assumed I’d hate. But it never really came. I found myself moving from grim acceptance of that evening’s poor soup choice – a soup I’d never really tasted much of at all – to wondering where I could get the recipe. It really just took one listen. Or maybe two, as I recall that the general consensus was that the cassette should be played again immediately.

prince smokePurple Rain is the soundtrack to a supposedly very bad movie starring Prince. It appears on every list of best-soundtracks-of-bad-movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen the movie, so I don’t know how bad it is, but I do know that the soundtrack is very, very good.

If I were on the staff at Championship Vinyl and asked to name my all-time, top-five Side One, Track Ones[ref]Kiddies, this was from back in a time even before CDs, when records had two sides.[/ref], Purple Rain’s opener would definitely be on the list: “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Try this link: []

It’s one of Prince’s most famous songs, still receiving airplay today on Oldies stations that, for the sake of their vain, faint-hearted listening audience (i.e. me) don’t refer to themselves as Oldies stations. The eulogeic introduction, with steady and swooping organ, oddly sets the stage for the song’s theme of celebrating life. A drum beat enters at about 40 seconds, and the spoken words start to swirl and echo, disintegrating around the instrumentation. The beat is simple and driving, and it carries the song throughout. A good dance song[ref]I am aware of the silliness of a nearly-50-year-old non-dancer describing a good dance song by referencing a 32 year old song, but I stand by my statements![/ref] requires that kind of simplicity, and it meshes well with the simple four note hook that the keyboards play. I’m always a fan of the stuff going on in the background in songs, the things you might not notice on first listen. (This is one of the joys of being a Beatles fan.) And what I like in this song is the distorted guitar answering the keyboard’s hook throughout. It’s a simple riff, but it sounds really cool back there. The entire song is fun and bouncy, prince guitar 2and who doesn’t like shouting along to the words “Let’s go crazy!” in any song? Prince also has a knack for knowing where to go – chord-wise – when moving from verse to chorus, as demonstrated at the 1:32 mark. These changes make his songs seem … I don’t know how to explain this well, but almost like they are part of nature, like they existed and he just unearthed them somehow. This is another bit of pop-music genius that he shares with the Beatles[ref]Or perhaps, more precisely, Paul McCartney[/ref].

As fun and danceable as this song is, it’s very much – to me – a guitar song, as well, due to the crunchy riffing and two strong solos. The first appears at 2:40, with Prince wailing like the hair metal boys who were just starting to pop up around 1984. Then he reenters with a stunning cadenza at 3:54. This is the part of the song I remember impressed Josh back in high school. It also helps to bring the song to a dramatic close, one suitable for a song that began with such an unforgettable opening.

prince logoPart of my problem with Prince songs has been – and continues to be – his use of drum machines (or anyway, drums that sound like machines.) Even in a great song like “Let’s Go Crazy,” the drums aren’t much to write about. The second track on Purple Rain, “Take Me With U,” at least begins with some cool drum flourishes:

Try this link: []

The bass drum plays a heartbeat, which is particularly noticeable against the opening lyrics, “I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart.” As with “Let’s Go Crazy,” another catchy, simple riff – this time played by synthetic orchestra – carries the song. The cool, hard-to-detect, interesting bit in this one is the very subtle acoustic guitar (0:21, 0:30, etc) that provides an answer to the riff’s melody, an answer that later in the song is played by violins (or, anyway, synthetic violins.) It’s a prince pointcatchy duet with Kardashianesque[ref]Meaning famous for being famous.[/ref] 80s personality Apollonia, and again showcases Prince’s ability to create songs with changes (0:47) that have a truly “natural” feel. A great sing-along song about true love, it always struck me that in the bridge, Apollonia sings “I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion …” and not, “I don’t care if we spend the night in your apartment you share with 3 other people, in which you have a bedroom off the kitchen in a converted pantry …,” a living arrangement I once had. It suggested a bit of a gold-digger attitude that confirmed Apollonia probably wasn’t the woman for me.[ref]My wife of twenty years – a big Prince fan – never seemed to mind that I lived in a pantry.[/ref]

And maybe the fact that I think of myself as an underdog is why I always liked the next song, and found myself a little surprised that Prince wrote it:

Try this link: []

“The Beautiful Ones” is about a situation that I find it hard to prince jacketbelieve Prince has ever found himself – falling for someone who’s not interested in him. Musically, it’s the kind of song that made me write off Prince for many years – full of synthesizer blips and noises, sung in an overly emotional, falsetto voice. But I came to enjoy the song over the years, mainly because I connected with the lyrics, having spent many teen/young adult years feeling like I always fell for girls who had no romantic interest in me. I never blamed it on The Beautiful Ones, however; I always just figured I was a loser. So, when Prince goes nuts vocally from 3:20 through the end of the song, I could relate to the emotions expressed – the anger, frustration, sadness.

As much as I liked the songs on Side One, Side Two of Purple Rain was always my favorite side. It’s only four songs, but they are great ones.

revolutionMy least favorite of the bunch is probably Prince’s biggest hit ever, the number one song of 1984, “When Doves Cry.”

Try this link: []

There’s not much to say about it. It’s a decent song, but I’ve heard it too much in my life to leave it on the radio if it comes on. However, I’ll say this: it’s pretty cool that a dance song has NO BASS in it! As a bass player myself, I find that pretty astonishing. If you never noticed, give it another listen! Also – Prince is a kook. Who thinks up a creepy line like “Animals strike curious poses/they feel the heat between me and you”? AND makes it sound so good? The line always reminded me of this classic Jonathan Winters bit.

Up next on side two is “I Would Die 4 U”

Try this link: []

prince lisaApart from the fact that it particularly annoys me that Prince always uses “U” and “4” and “2” and “B” for the words “You” and “For” and “To/Too” and “Be,” this is a fun song. There’s not much to it in terms of instrumentation, although I do like the tiny bass glissando at the beginning of the song. Prince again writes a catchy melody, and he delivers its desperate lover lyrics perfectly. I particularly like the vocal bridge from 1:24 to 1:40, delivered rapid-style, harkening back[ref]At least in my warped mind.[/ref] to some train passengers’ lament about Professor Harold Hill.

The song runs directly into “Baby I’m a Star,” its second half.

Try this link: []

Both songs have fake-sounding drums, and limited instrumentation. They have barely a hint of guitar, they’re repetitive and over-produced, with layered synthesizers carrying the bulk of the background. Given my typical taste in music, I should hate these songs. Yet somehow I love them. prince listenBoth are fun, with a bounce-along beat and shout-it-out lyrics. In both songs, Prince absolutely kills the vocals. In “Baby I’m a Star,” he produces some of his signature squeals and screams (2:30 – 2:38), and what sound like several different voices advise a girl to hop aboard his unstoppable train to stardom early.

The title song closes the album. It was another smash for Prince.

Try this link: []

It’s an epic ballad with wailing guitar and lost-love lyrics emotionally delivered. It’s the kind of song that all those bullshit, poufy-haired, over-produced, extra-cheesy, L.A.-hired-gun-songwriter-written, 80s “power ballads” strived to be. But “Purple Rain” is the real deal. Astoundingly, the song was recorded live (with overdubs added later), something I’m sure none of the hair bands who cranked out “power ballads” ever attempted. It’s sometimes mentioned as the best song from the 80s and features more demonstrations of Prince’s guitar prowess, and another shout-along chorus and closing “oh-oh-oh.” I don’t know what purple rain is, but I do know that the early 70s folk band America mentioned it in their big hit “Ventura Highway,” as well. Somehow I doubt Prince lifted it from them.

Before I close this out, it’s worth mentioning the song “Darling Nikki,” a song whose lyrics (well, actually just one word) caused the era’s snooty, Washington, D.C., busybody housewives to insist that records be labeled if “Explicit Content” was found anywhere within – a practice that continues to this day, even online. PMRCIt caused all kinds of hoopla, with congressional hearings that were carried live on the then-new, and still-boring, cable channel C-Span. (If you have the time, please watch Frank Zappa Dee Snider and John Denver testify before congress. They make the goofballs in congress look incredibly silly.) I always found it odd that this one word in one song raised such a ruckus, while in the same era Cindy Lauper had an entire hit song about the word and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a huge hit that offered sexual advice seemingly direct from the Playboy Advisor, yet nobody seemed to care. In 1984, Prince definitely had a firm grip on America’s … mind.prince leap

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the cigar smoke. Maybe it’s just a really great album. Something about the record hooked me that summer. You never know where you’ll find enjoyment. Amid cardboard and chocolate and people whose names I’ll never remember, I discovered a classic, mid-80s funk gem. And I think of it whenever I open an Amazon package or a pizza box.

Let’s Go Crazy
Take Me With U
The Beautiful Ones
Computer Blue
Darling Nikki
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m A Star
Purple Rain


72nd Favorite: Let It Be, by The Replacements


Let It Be. The Replacements
1984, Twin/Tone. Producer: Steve Fjelstad, Peter Jesperson, Paul Westerberg
Purchased: ca. 1992.

letitbe album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Excellent rock songwriting, with terrific lyrics and strong performances. Leader Paul Westerberg is a treasure, and the band plays in a ragged style, almost as if trying to hide their talent beneath a layer of punk patina. The album has some of my favorite songs from the last 40 years. But for a few so-so songs, this would be top 20, easy.
kendrickAs 2016 begins, my son is nearing 17 years old and is quite a music fan. He likes a lot of different musical styles, but his favorite is hip hop, which – given my advanced age – all sounds
kind of the same to me.

steviewOur tastes do cross paths at a few places. He loves the “Stevie Wonder Channel” he made on Pandora, and since I’ve played “Oldies” in the car ever since he was a baby, he has a fondness for 60s and 70s classic rock and pop.

Because he knows I’m a music fan, he is always on the lookout for new songs that I might like. He’ll often play a song for me and say, “Dad, I think you’ll like this one …” Typically he picks songs[ref]Always hip hop songs.[/ref] that have a strong bass line and a discernible melody in the chorus. When I do like a song, it makes him happy. If I don’t like it he’ll argue a bit, then tell me I have no taste.

80snerdThe other discussion he enjoys having with me regarding new music is the “What would people think …?” discussion. As in, “Dad, what would people think of this song when you were in high school? Would it just be totally crazy?”

The answer varies. For the hip hop songs, I think the answer is almost always “Yes, it would sound crazy,” because when I was in high school the only “hip hop” we knew was “Rapper’s Delight,” and a little Run-DMC, which sound quite different from anything by, say, Future. But some non-hip-hop songs from 2015, for example “Uptown Funk,” would’ve fit in quite nicely at my school’s Friday night dances after basketball games.

A good example of what it looked like when the author “boogied” during 80s high school dances.

But my usual answer is “I don’t remember how crazy it would sound.” It’s not that grandpaadvancing age is calcifying the once robust, agile fluidity of my cortex … Okay, that’s partly it. But mainly the reason I can’t remember is because of the fact that as music evolves, sounds that once were unusual or “crazy” come to sound normal, like they’ve always been there. So I don’t recall what sounded crazy, and when.

There is music all around us – in stores, on TV, in our cars – and our ears and brain recognize it as Music. And of course we listen to music for pleasure – buying it on Spotify or iTunes, or even on old-fashioned CDs and previously-old-fashioned-but-now-new-fashioned vinyl and cassettes.[ref]Which is ridiculous. OK, vinyl, sure, that makes sense because of the sound quality and all. But cassettes just sucked, and no one should be buying them anymore. Once those hipsters’ beards get all tangled up in a squeaking tape, and they find themselves searching for songs using FF and REW buttons, they’ll understand why not all that is retro is good.[/ref] And our ears and brains adapt to the changes in popular music rather readily.

ears musicSome may argue that the more music changes, the more it sounds the same. Recording technology has certainly improved, but while music professionals might notice profound taylor bandchanges in music recording technology, without the thoroughly trained, hypersensitive cochlear apparatuses of a professional, can one really distinguish the sonic improvements in, say, Taylor Swift’s latest record as compared to her first in 2006? I don’t think so. Improvements in technology don’t change the fact that Taylor Swift makes catchy ditties with typical song structure and recognizable musical sounds, just like hits from 2006 and 1986 and 1946. Even Benny Goodman could have played “Shake It Off,” but his version would have come with a full big-band complement of trumpets and saxophones. Good Time Charlies in 1938 would’ve swung their chicks right along to a snappy number like that.

awful musicBut consider a few words in that sentence a few lines up: “recognizable musical sounds.” How do we as listeners adapt to new musical sounds and incorporate them into our personal basket of “recognizable” musical sounds? When does a “crazy sound” stop sounding crazy?

When truly new-sounding music hits the masses, the tendency is for it to be rejected by a large segment of the music-appreciating public. But if the new sounds can gain a foothold with a critical mass of music appreciation pioneers, the sounds begin to be heard more often, rite springand the next thing you know you can’t tell why you ever thought the new sound was so cacophonous in the first place; it’s now quite mellifluous[ref]If Mrs. Petrey, my 9th grade Language Arts teacher, is reading, I want her to take note of the vo-cab words in this sentence.[/ref].

This initial mass rejection of new sounds before subsequent mass acceptance has a distinguished history[ref]If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, the following discussion may be reminiscent of a previous album discussion. Hey, look, I have 100 of these things to write. If I don’t repeat myself at all along the way, I REALLY AM the genius I suppose myself to be!![/ref] Probably the most famous example is that of riots in 1913 Paris over a wild new ballet by Igor Stravinsky.

Around the same time, the American media was observing a new kind of popular music, and railing against this “Satan’s music,” called “ragtime.” joplinRagtime was the first American music to cause a “true upheaval which had moral and economic consequences, other than musical consequences, in American popular culture,” according to composer and historian Max Morath. troubleIt’s the kind of music that Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man called “shameless music/That’ll grab your son and your daughter/With the arms of a jungle animal instinct.”

Now that it’s 2016, and Ragtime music is over a century old, and we’ve all grown up with its old-timey sounds[ref]Sounds which were used, anachronistically yet to great effect, in one of the best movies ever, The Sting.[/ref] in our lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when this music could have sounded devilish and crazy. It’s difficult to conceive of what it was like to experience that change of sound. And since these changes were taking place at the very dawn of recorded music, it’s difficult to get a good idea of the popular music landscape into which this “shameless music” was thrust.

So let’s jump ahead to Rock and Roll, music from an era that started well after “The Charts” were firmly established, tracking America’s music listening and buying habits, thus providing a clearer window to peek through into the world of the listening public.

zenithImagine it’s 1955, and you’re listening to your favorite song on the family Zenith radio, Tony Bennett’s beautiful 1954 Number One Smash “Stranger in Paradise.” You’re thinking of your sweetie, and the fine times you’ve had together, the finer times you hope to have. Music, you think, can’t get any better than this … As the song ends, and your warm feelings are lingering, the DJ announces the next number, featuring a new sound coming out of Philadelphia, and heard in the new Glenn Ford film, Blackboard Jungle.

It’s Bill Haley and His Comets, performing “Rock Around the Clock!”

You nearly leap out of your chair with fright!!! “This isn’t music!!!” you scream. “Where are the violins? This guy can’t even sing – he, he, … he BARKS!! And what the hell is that sound at 44 seconds in??!! It sounds like a bumblebee caught in a tin can? cannibalAnd where are those drums coming from, some kind of voodoo ceremony, or cannibal dance? I mean, I like Big Band Swing okay, but I’ve never heard anything like THIS!!”

Watch that video, and check out the woman dancing at 50 seconds. Could you ever fathom pants that tight moving in that manner along to Tony Bennett or Mario Lanza? This new sound[ref]And the reaction of listeners to it!![/ref] must have sounded downright insane.

You, the Tony Bennet lover, might think that that crazy music was just a fad when Doris Day sets things back to normal in 1956, but in 1957 Elvis Presley comes along, and the next year Chuck Berry is duck walking all over the airwaves with that electrified guitar, and he’s not even trying to sing in any way that you recognize as singing! elvis etcFolks like Little Richard aren’t even trying to sing words; they’re just making up gibberish, and by now that Bill Haley song from 4 years ago doesn’t sound too crazy at all. In fact, compared to Chuck Berry, it sounds downright QUAINT! And once Pat Boone comes along to rephrase these songs in a way a Tony Bennett fan can really appreciate, you’ve become very accustomed to the rock and roll sound. Maybe you’re not a fan, but it no longer sounds like something from an outer space jungle insane asylum.

This script for the introduction of “new sounds” to popular music[ref]And ANY music, as a little research demonstrates, although I don’t know diddly-squat about opera or classical or jazz music.[/ref] is repeated often. The Beatles entered the American airwaves and sounded different from the usual fare and were immediately dismissed by many critics and other music fans. unionjackBut in another year “The British Invasion” is in full swing, clogging the airwaves with anything vaguely Beatle-esque, and by 1968, nobody can remember what sounded so crazy about the 1964 version of the band.

Likewise, punk rock sounded like screaming knackmaniacs tossing electric motors down a marble staircase when compared to popular hit songs of the era, and most people didn’t get it. But by 1979, the top song of the year is “My Sharona,” a nifty new wave song whose success couldn’t have happened without listeners’ collective ears getting broken in by that edgy, repetitive, stripped-down punk sound.

All those examples of listeners’ ears adapting are from either before I was born, or before I began paying attention closely to musicalnirvana sounds. However, I clearly recall an adaptation my ears made that, in retrospect, renders cute my ears’ first confused apprehension of a new sound. It occurred in the very early 90s, near the end of the dreaded scourge of Hair Metal. In an era of phony-baloney, pretend-loud, pseudo-aggressive music by bands like Warrant, Kurt Cobain’s indecipherable mumbling and screaming, over the band’s boom-boom crunch in Nirvana’s famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded gloriously unholy and new[ref]At the time, I was unfamiliar with the long line of similarly unholy bands that had come before Nirvana. Including The Replacements.[/ref]. However, listening to the song twenty-five years later[ref]Holy frijoles!! TWENTY-FIVE FREAKING YEARS??!![/ref], it’s hard to remember what sounded so wild about it.

The point is that peoples’ ears are ears2only ready for new sounds when they’re ready for new sounds. Some folks get onboard earlier than others; some folks can hear the music in the noise more clearly than others. Music only clicks with the listener when the listener is ready, either after priming by the sounds of an evolving genre, or because a listener is just out there searching for something new. And when I hear The Replacements today, it’s hard to imagine how crazy I thought they sounded at first.

Although, to be fair, I’d never actually HEARD them when I thought they sounded so crazy. I should have learned from Billy Joel: “there’s a new band in town/but you can’t get the sound/from a story in a magazine/aimed at your average teen.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.13.46 AMI have a recollection of being in high school and reading a little about The Replacements in an issue of Rolling Stone.

At the time, a friend had recently tried to get me into the mid-80s punk rock music by playing songs by a band called The Meatmen, from an album called (rather hilariously) We’re the Meatmen … And You Suck! In listening back to this song today, it’s hard to believe how crazy, unmusical and uninteresting it sounded to me in 1985. It sounded like guys who had picked up guitars and meatmenjust started whacking away on the necks and shrieking along. It was amusing in that way, amusing enough that a couple friends and I actually made up and recorded some songs for fun in which we did just that. And although the Rolling Stone article stated, quite accurately, “The Replacements mix country and blues with hard rock Rolling Stones-… style,” the description didn’t register. All I knew was that I’d already heard some of this new “punk rock,” and I thought it sucked and that the people who played it sucked. (Spoken like a true Rush fan!)

mats bandI heard about the band again over the next several years, read their name in articles, saw some records in record stores[ref]Record stores were stores that sold records. Yep, just records.[/ref] and all along thought they were lousy, screaming creeps banging unrelentingly on their instruments. And maybe they were. But I still wish I’d given them a chance back then.

I was finally forced to actually listen to the band when I joined a band myself, The April Skies, which featured a lead guitarist/songwriter, Jake, who had a Replacements obsession. Maybe obsession is too strong a word. Call it a fascination. Or a condition. Nah, it was obsession. He talked about them all the time, and at rehearsal he often played a simple riff over and over, a catchy little thing that went like this (7 seconds in):

When I finally heard the full song – during a long drive in a van on the way to a faraway gig – I was blown away. The catchy melody, the interplay of bass and drums, the singer’s expressive voice, the lyrics evoking a young person’s desire … it sounded like the perfect song. How could this be coming from a band I knew, just KNEW – from reading a short article and hearing a couple songs by a completely different band six years ago – to be a bunch of talentless losers??

“I Will Dare” features lead guitar from Peter Buck of R.E.M., who were traveling the same College Radio circuit as The Replacements in 1984. paul hairAlso, Replacements’ lead singer and main songwriter, Paul Westerberg, plays a catchy mandolin to end the song. I love everything about this song, from Chris Mars’s four-on-the-floor drumbeat at the beginning to Westerberg’s plea, “Come on!” before the second chorus, to guitarist Bob Stinson’s sort of out of tune run at 3:11. Westerberg has a distinctive rock voice that strains against years of cigarette soot to reach the correct notes, but reach them he always does. If I were writing about my top 100 songs of all time, I think “I Will Dare” would break the top ten. I remember being young and experiencing all the feelings this song expresses, the thrill of the danger in seeking reciprocated love, the desire for a call on Thursday – or Wednesday, better still! And no songwriter can turn a phrase better than Westerberg (“How young are you?/How old am I?/Let’s count the rings/Around my eyes”). More times than not, I’ll get chills listening to this song. It just has that effect.

paul singWesterberg has a talent for mining a deep vein of a particular form of 70s/80s suburban teen angst, from the days before the internet brought everything everywhere right to your fingertips. It’s a mixture of boredom (“There’s nothing to do in this town…”), doom (“… and I’ll never get out of here…”), doubt (“… and I’m such a loser, nobody will ever like me …”) that is spiked with deep pride (“… but all those folks from other places who think they’re better than me and my town can kiss my ass!”) A good example is the beautiful “Unsatisfied.”

There isn’t a whole lot to the lyrics, but put chrismarsto this tune, and sung in Westerberg’s moving style, they say so much more than their content. Westerberg adds a wonderful lap steel guitar to the song. I don’t know of another song that makes me feel so much like I did as a fifteen year old in rural Pennsylvania, even though I didn’t hear the song until I was in my twenties!

The topic of teenage angst is handled even more directly in the sweet “Sixteen Blue.”

It’s the third song I’ve written about, and still there’s nothing on the album that sounds like The Meatmen, mats concert 1nothing even reminiscent of the boast Westerberg made in that Rolling Stone piece: “A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin … You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat.” These are great, straight-ahead rock songs. “Sixteen Blue” has some really nice lead guitar courtesy of Bob Stinson, mirroring the sadness of the lyrics.

But despite a yearning for something new, something to break up the monotony, The ‘Mats[ref]This nickname comes from concert-goers at early shows mistaking the band name for “The Placemats.”[/ref] aren’t the types to go in for something new just to keep up with those around them.

In the song “Answering Machine,” our protagonist, the Unsatisfied, Blue Sixteen year-old, hoping that a special someone Will Dare with him, is thwarted by a newfangled object in 1984.

The song expresses a “What is wrong with these people?” mats band dresssentiment, an exasperation that no one else can see just how useless a useful machine can be to a human seeking connection. The song features just Westerberg and his guitar, and this arrangement enhances the song’s emotional and informational message[ref]For those of you too young to remember the advent of answering machines, realize that they were very strange at first. Nobody expected a machine to answer a phone, and as a caller, you often found yourself talking over the outgoing message for a while until you noticed. People tried to make their machines interesting, but until everyone got used to them, they were really annoying!![/ref].

mats tommy leapThe band also expresses their contempt for another 80s touchstone, Music Videos. The rousing, punky “Seen Your Video” was an attack on the MTV generation, on style over substance, and a poke at R.E.M. (or so I’ve read – either in All Over But the Shouting or Our Band Could Be Your Life, two books I HIGHLY recommend), friends of The Replacements who were just getting some attention on mainstream radio, and were starting to make videos for their songs.

It’s an instrumental (mostly) that’s catchy and aggressive, with nice guitar lines throughout. This is the first song I’ve mentioned here that even smacks a bit of punk rock. But there are others on the album.

“Favorite Thing” is a raucous ode …

a raucous ode to … something. Punk rock? Rock and roll? The way Westerberg sings it, I always thought it was to a person, but the lyrics seem to be about a lifestyle (“It’s really hip, with plenty of flash”), a desire (“Wanna be something/Wanna be anything”), perhaps even a future (“I think big once in a while”). Once again, it’s that 70s/80s small town adolescent, wishing for something but not sure what.

Another fine, funny punk song is about bass player Tommy Stinson’s health problems, “Tommy Gets his Tonsils Out.”

“He gets his tonsils out?” you may ask. “How old is he, twelve??!” tommyWell, actually, he was twelve when he joined the band in 1979, and he dropped out of school three years later to go on tour, after the band’s manager obtained legal guardianship of him so Tommy could legally enter the bars they played. He’s led a very Rock and Roll life. This song is plain fun, with witty lyrics gently teasing the young teen. It’s somewhat of a throwback to some of the band’s earlier, rougher, punkier tunes, but it’s a much tamer and mainstream sound than the early songs.

mats fingerAnother humorous song is the raunchily titled “Gary’s Got a Boner,” dealing with another teenage angst-filled topic, sex. “We’re Coming Out” is a barn-burner about … something. The band also covers the Kiss song, “Black Diamond,” which I generally skip over.

I prefer the less punky songs on the album, something that might annoy long-time, hardcore ‘Mats fans. But the album, and its famous album cover, definitely has a punk feel – especially the title. Giving an paul guitaralbum the same name as an album by the greatest band ever is a pretty “punk rock” thing to do. Also punk-rock is the embrace of the “other,” particularly in one striking case – the song “Androgynous.”

It’s a song that I used to mistake as a case AGAINST boyish girls and girlish boys, bob skirtbut a close reading of the lyrics reveals a sophisticated, sincere and broad-minded take on the issue of gender identity. “Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?” Westerberg asks, a prescient view of societal changes to come in the next thirty years after this recording. “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls/will be laughed at/the way you’re laughed at now,” he sings, and sure urinals still exist, and girls still play with dolls, but more and more “unisex” restrooms are found nowadays and toys are becoming much less rigidly gender-specific. The song’s become a bit of an anthem in the LGBTQ community, performed last summer by Miley Cyrus, Joan Jett and transgender singer Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, to raise funds for Cyrus’s “Happy Hippie Foundation” for homeless, LGBTQ and vulnerable youth.

As someone with close relationships with people whose gender and sexual identity has been a source of significant personal struggles, the fact that a song by a favorite band of mine has become such an anthem makes me very happy.

mats busIt’s hard to believe how radical an idea androgyny was in 1984 – the simple fact that a boy could want to look girlish and a girl look boyish (even if they’re a straight couple, as the song describes) was rather shocking back then. And it’s hard to believe how shocking 80s punk music sounded to me back then. When my son asks me if a song from today would’ve sounded crazy back then, all I can think is that so much sounded crazy back then – both in music and society – and it’s a damn shame we let that so-called craziness prevent us from trying to understand. I probably missed out on some damn fine music, and others probably missed out on a whole lot more.

I Will Dare
Favorite Thing
We’re Comin’ Out
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
Black Diamond
Seen Your Video
Gary’s Got a Boner
Sixteen Blue
Answering Machine


73rd Favorite: Extraordinary Machine, by Fiona Apple


Extraordinary Machine. Fiona Apple
2005, Epic. Producer: Mike Elizondo, Brian Kehew, Jon Brion
Purchased: ca. 2008.

album 73

nutshell 73IN A NUTSHELL – Jazzy pop songs with strong vocals, nice piano and creative instrumentation; introspective, wordy lyrics express a wide range of emotions in catchy yet unexpected melodies. She’s a performer reminiscent of Randy Newman, but with lyrics directed at herself, not society. It’s not an album I would’ve predicted to appear on this list 10 or 15 years ago.
A Series of Open Letters to My Younger Selves

To: Me (1976)

bicentennial glassesBoy, this Bicentennial stuff is pretty neat, isn’t it? I have to say, for a nine-year-old, you did a good job of Christmas shopping. That set of coasters stored in the shape of a stylish, plastic Liberty Bell was GREATLY appreciated by Mom, just so you know.

Liberty BellSo, I’m writing to discuss music with you a little bit. I know you’re a fan of WLBR, and “Sir Duke” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” And the fact that your favorite song is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” well – it brings a tear to my eye! But remember, just recently, when you were at Dr. Eisenhauer’s office? The dentist, near the Post Office? And remember how you were SHOCKED when Dr. Eisenhauer asked the receptionist to turn the radio to a different station because he “can’t stand that Barry Manilow!”?!?!


You must recall how – stunned at this revelation – you told your mom and sisters all about it, asking them, “How can anyone hate Barry Manilow? He is so good!!” They seemed to agree, especially Liz.

Gentle fact here, pal: lots of people hate Barry Manilow. He has some hard core fans [ref]In fact you’ll meet a very, very (very) attractive woman (girls won’t seem gross to you by this time, trust me) in college who will be obsessed with him, and you’ll tell her this story about Dr. Eisenhauer late one night at a bar after dancing with her. She’ll laugh and state many times how funny she finds you, but don’t worry, she won’t kiss you. She won’t even think about it. Not in the least. Ever, in the two years you’ll know her.[/ref] and has always been popular with them.


And it’s true he will have had lots of hit records and an extremely successful career in pop music. But many people find him sappy and insincere – although most everyone recognizes his immense musical talent. Strange to hear, I know, but musical talent won’t necessarily equal popularity[ref]As a trombone player, you’ll understand this completely by the middle of 6th grade.[/ref]. And lots of musicians are very talented but never achieve success like Barry. It’s weird.

Anyway, someday you’ll change the station when he comes on, too! It’s true. But the point is this – there’s music out there for everyone – and the stuff you like now might not be what you like later on.

A couple things from the future: enjoy Happy Days while you can, ‘cause it’s about to get pretty ridiculous.


Also, Good News: your favorite team, The New Orleans Saints, WILL win a Super Bowl some day! Bad News: Not until you’re 42. (Secondary Good News: you’ll live at least until you’re 42!)

To: Me (1982)

mtvMTV, buddy!!! Is it the COOLEST THING EVER, or what??! I can’t believe your house gets it, but almost nobody else does! Take that, Rich Kids living in Mt. Gretna, who don’t get it!! High five![ref]I can’t remember if “high fives” are a thing yet – I think they are. If not, just slap my hand way up here. OUCH, no, I said my HAND![/ref]

I’m here from the future to tell you that it’s not weird for you to be so obsessed with Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”I was obsessed enough with Chrissie Hynde as a 15 year old that I would have made a million of these collages, given 2015 tools. However, I wasn’t so obsessed that I did so with available 1982 technology, so I’m not a nutjob.”]

It’s understandable for you to spend (waste) your hours watching bullshit videos from The Producers and Phil Collins and Juice Newton just so you can MAYBE catch a glimpse of “Talk of the Town” or “Message of Love” or – the Holy Grail – “Tattooed Love Boys.” Chrissie Hynde is worth those hours spent.
sex ed

I know your parents have no words to describe what you’re feeling, and that they’ve spent their lives pretending they’ve never felt it, and that they hoped to at least get you and your sisters out of the house before you three ever acknowledged its existence, (don’t worry I won’t mention its name) but it’s totally normal. It’s not a bad thing! It’s not a weird thing!

Your friends can talk all they want about Cheryl Tiegs or Heather Thomas or Christie Brinkley – they’re just pretty faces (and etc.; let’s be honest, it’s not just the face.) But Chrissie is a talented MUSICIAN, modelsand believe it or not, you’ll come to realize that her appeal (let’s call it) is as much about her musical abilities – that is, who she is as a person – as it is about her looks. She fronts a KICK-ASS rock band, plays guitar and sings the songs really cool, and that just heightens the whole “appealing” thing.

And if Chrissie played shitty music, you wouldn’t be so obsessed.[ref]Just look at Missing Persons, as a counter example. Sure it’s cool to watch a half naked woman with blue hair singing, but you ain’t running out to buy her records, are you?[/ref]Keep judging musicians – both men and women – by the music they play, not by their looks, okay?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I agree – it’s too weird to discuss this with you. But listen, on a somewhat related note: if that really pretty girl, J., whom you’ve liked since seventh grade, upon returning to the high school lockerslate at night after performing in a parade together with the marching band, asks you if you want to “go for a walk around the lockers,” an area of the school which is – of course – darkened, because it’s 10:30 at night (which means – by the way – that you have a good half hour to spend on such a stroll, since your mom isn’t going to pick you up til about 11) … well, when you DO go for this walk, at least try to hold her hand, or something!! YOU’LL NEVER GET A CLEARER HINT FROM A GIRL, YOU IDIOT!![ref]Well, this is debatable, actually.[/ref] If you just go for a fast lap hallwayaround the lockers with her, and blather on about David Letterman and Steve Martin, and how your band uniform makes you sweat and itch, you’ll NEVER get another chance to possibly kiss her!! EVER! [ref]Goddamn, where did this kid grow up, Plymouth Rock ca. 1623??!![/ref] And this fact WILL haunt you for years. I’m not kidding. Years.

To: Me (1998)
Nice San Francisco apartment, nice girlfriend, good job (I guess science wasn’t too bad a choice …), pursuing theater and comedy … it’s all working out pretty well, my friend!

sf skyline
I know there’s been talk about starting a family, and I know that scares the shit out of you. As it should. new dadSo, listen, others will give you all types of advice about the pros and cons of fatherhood, what changes to expect, what it all means, blah blah blah. But I’m gonna tell you something nobody else seems to consider – something I know you’ll want to hear: How Will Fatherhood Affect Your Musical Life?

family music1) Most of the albums you buy in the next ten years will be by Raffi, The Wiggles, and Laurie Berkner. You’ll be bummed out not only by how persistently catchy the songs are, but also by how easily you’ll come to recognize them AND by how long you’ll remember them – word for word!!![ref]Although to be fair, when a song’s only words are “Hot potato. Cold Spaghetti. Mashed Banana,” it’s not much of a challenge to memorize.[/ref] Everyone will tell you you’ll come to hate these songs.
But the horrible truth that no one else will tell you is this: you’ll find many of the songs enjoyable. See, what’s fucked up about parenthood is this: even though the songs, in a vacuum, are really horrible, just as you think, you won’t be experiencing them in a vacuum. You’ll be experiencing them through your children. So while “Having Fun at the Beach,” or “I’m Gonna Catch You” are – in and of themselves – the aural equivalents of chugging a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup[ref]Oh, and you’ll be asked to chug Mrs. Butterworth at least five times in a row before you can move onto the Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima bottles, which will each require a minimum of five chugs as well.[/ref], syrupswhen you see your kids bopping their heads to the songs, or belting out the lyrics along with the record, or working up a sweat in front of the TV set while they dance along to the videos for twenty or thirty minutes, it will become IMPOSSIBLE to separate the songs from the good feelings of seeing your kids really, really happy. It’s just how it is. Your kids will have an affect on your music appreciation – and not just with Kiddie Songs.[ref]One highlight – your plan to play your kids They Might Be Giants albums, which have always seemed to you like kids’ songs for grown-ups, will be proven GENIUS, when the band releases several kids’ albums that you’ll buy not just for the kids!![/ref]

2) The albums you buy for yourself for the next … fifteen or so years will sometimes go unlistened-to for weeks, or MONTHS!! cdsYou’ll be so excited to get that CD in the mail[ref]That’s right, mail. has more than books these days. Oh, and if you can figure out and make peace with “digital music” sometime in the next few years, then you won’t have to even deal with the mail![/ref] and then continue to find it lying around the house, unopened, for the next several weeks. You’ll start to listen, but find yourself tied up with soccer practices and dance practices and Little League board meetings, and PTO meetings, and homework, not to mention home ownership, and work (fucking science), and family time, and spending time wrestling/playing/dancing/arguing with your kids, and the next thing you know there will be another CD you HAVE TO BUY, but you still haven’t really heard that last one. They’ll start to stack up. And your ridiculous, it-seemed-smart-at-the-time plan to borrow them from the library will fail miserably, as well.

3) As they get older, you won’t like most of the music your kids like. But they’ll continue to like a lot of the music you like, so you’ll feel a little bit successful as a cultural guide for the youth.
But watch out: just as it happened when they were toddlers, you’ll find yourself experiencing music through your kids, so a catchy song that you otherwise would hate will become a Song the Makes You Think of Your Daughter or Son, and next thing you know you’ll be buying it on itunes.[ref]Yeah, get ready for a thing called “iTunes.” You know that Apple computer at work, and how you hold a grudge against it because the company basically stole the Beatles’ company name? Well, anyway. Get ready.[/ref] Don’t say I didn’t warn you that someday you may find yourself wiping a (manly) tear from your eye

when you happen to hear a goofy song by Carly Rae Jepsen or LMFAO at just the right (wrong?) time.

Okay, that’s about all I have time to tell you. But here’s a bit of advice: that condo in SF with no parking that seems too expensive, at $165,000? It is NOT too expensive. In another 3 years it will be worth 10 times that. I shit you not.

Carry on, younger selves!! Somehow you’ll make it to November, 2015, without all this sage advice I just gave you.

+++++++ ++++++++ ++++++++

criticSo I began putting together this list of favorite albums mainly in opposition to all the “best of” lists that music magazines and music critics are so fond of publishing. I always think “best” is a strange attribution for art, and I tend to believe that any critics who believe they can identify “the best” of anything are nothing more than bullshit artists. I tend to dismiss much criticism. But there are times when I’ll hear a critic’s take on something and find myself interested. (I’m sure it happens far more often than I’d like to admit!)

Fiona Apple is an artist who, by the mid 2000s, I hadn’t thought much about in years. I knew her by her breakthrough 90s hit, “Criminal,” a pretty cool, bluesy pop song that didn’t make much of a lasting impression with me – other than the fact that the video was very controversial, as it featured a scantily-clad

– not to mention unhealthily skinny – Apple, looking regretful or intimidated, while singing and sprawling and disrobing amongst, or clinging to, random unconscious young bodies in dimly-lit rooms. fiona criminalIt all seemed to suggest a teenage booze and drugs party gone horribly wrong – the type of party that gets ripped from the headlines to be fictionalized on an episode of Law and Order: SVU. I heard her name a lot, but she seemed to me to have gotten lots of press from basically one song, and I tended to dismiss her as one more artist in a long line of critic-adored 90s musicians onto whose bandwagon I could not muster the enthusiasm to hop.

fiona elvisBut sometime around 2006, I saw a performance of hers that caught – and firmly held – my attention. She appeared on TV with one of my favorite performers, Elvis Costello, singing one of my favorite songs of his, “I Want You.”

My first thought when I saw she was performing was, “Where’d they dig her up? Who’s coming out next, Duncan Sheik?” But her obvious talent, the weight of her performance, the commitment to the song … it all worked together to make me think, “There’s more to this singer than I previously thought.”

Also around that time I heard a review of Extraordinary Machine on NPR’s Fresh Air that made me fiona applethink I would like it.[ref]Although it also made me think, “What the hell has become of me that this album seems interesting to me??[/ref] I was the father of a young daughter, thinking a lot about the great wilderness of future that lay ahead for any child – but especially a girl – and the reviewer’s description of the album made me think I could gain some insight from Apple’s perspective on life on this particular album.

The program also played a bit of the album’s title track, “Extraordinary Machine,” and that was enough to send me to iTunes to download the record.

The orchestral arrangement of the song, coupled with a slyly placed chime, drew me into the song immediately. I also really like Apple’s lyrics, and how the long run of words that end each verse (i.e. “I still only travel by foot and by foot it’s s slow climb/but I’m good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time”) seem to fiona singnot quite fit into the structure of the song, but actually are packaged in such a way that they do, just right – like a week’s worth of belongings packed into an expert hiker’s small rucksack. Also, the message of the song, particularly as expressed in the chorus, (“Be kind to me/Or treat me mean/I’ll make the most of it/I’m an extraordinary machine”) is a message of strength and resilience, with a touch of grace-under-pressure and a belief in one’s self. These are traits that parents wish for all their kids, but at the time I first heard them, as the father of a young daughter, the song pretty directly expressed many of the hopes I have for her. It’s become one of my favorite songs, not just because of the influence fatherhood has had on my musical tastes[ref]As I explained to myself several times above.[/ref] but also because of this:

oboeSomething you should know about me, that perhaps I’ve kept secret through the first 27 albums I’ve reviewed, is this: I’m a sucker for the oboe. It gets me every time. Throw an oboe into a song, and I’m probably gonna listen more than once.

Fiona Apple is a piano player, and the next song on the album, “Get Him Back,” is a bouncy, piano-driven number.

It’s a straight-ahead rock number, but what lifts it to another level are Apple’s vocals. fiona piano 2Her phrasing is jazzy and cool, and the melody itself, which takes some unexpected turns. For example, the “…kill what I cannot catch” line always seems to surprise me by NOT rising in pitch in a way I think it should – and that makes it sound great! Apple’s lyrics sometimes tend toward the “you-did-me-wrong,-you-bastard!” variety, but on “Get Him Back,” she’s blaming herself for basing her judgment of a new suitor on the last two jerks she dated.

In the NPR review, Ken Tucker compares Apple to Randy Newman, and I think this is an apt comparison. Both are piano-playing songwriters who keep a thesaurus in one pocket and vial of potent irony in the other. However Newman tends to focus his songs outwardly, on society, and takes on different personae when he sings in the first person. But Apple’s focus sounds deeply personal. One never gets the feeling that her lyrics are meant to speak for anyone other than herself.

fiona pianoThe most direct of these on Extraordinary Machine may be “Parting Gift,” a spare song featuring simply Apple’s piano and voice that was recorded – according to Brian Kehew, the track’s producer – in one take.

Despite the slow pace and emotive singing, the lyrics are actually quite humorous, a bit mean, but yet reflective. Apple has a reputation for being “a tragic victim waif,” which she herself has complained about. But lyrics like those in “Parting Gift” demonstrate she’s much more complex than whatever image has been put forward for her. She’s angry and derisive, yet funny and wistful and taking full responsibility for whatever’s happened. Plus I like how – once again – she packs many words into a small space (“but we went on wholehearted, it said stop”) and makes it sound unhurried and natural.fiona arms out

As I’ve stated and restated, I’m more of a guitar and drums guy, with lyrics taking a backseat in my music appreciation. But sometimes lyricists stand out to a degree that really strikes me, and Apple’s lyrics do so on this album.

For example, I love the rhymes on the track “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).”

Apple constructs rhymes like this in many songs, sounding, to me, like the way Chuck D put fiona concertwords together, or Bob Dylan. The rhymes occur in unexpected places, but fit the flow of the song. “Tymps” also has a nice tick-tock pace and great background instrumentation. And once again, the lyrical content shows Apple to be less angry than frustrated. I think the “angry” label was something sort of thrust onto Apple (and many 90s women acts) as a way to categorize her, but it doesn’t really fit. Or often – as with “Tymps,”she sounds angry at herself.

Which isn’t to imply there’s anything wrong with being angry in song! The song “Oh Well“ shows a contemplative, smoldering side of anger, while one of my favorites on the record, “Window,” is more of a physical expression of it.

It’s one of the more straight-ahead rockers fiona sing 3on the record, and the music is well played and cool, but the star of “Window” is Apple’s voice, once again jazzy and soulful, with excellent phrasing. She stretches single syllables into multiples expertly, and – as always – sings with a distinct point of view, which enhances the connection with the listener.

Her voice is the star on all of the songs, really. One of my favorite vocal performances on the record is the song “Not About Love,” shown here with a funny video featuring Zach Galifiniakis.

It’s a multi-part piece, with lyrics that are accusatory, reflective, and funny (“I miss that stupid ape”) all in a brief 4 minutes. The song starts with a rhythmic piano and syncopated drums, and Apple’s husky voice comes in with a rather awkward melody, almost a yodel, that works because of her control. fion bandAfter a couple bouncy verses, there’s a slow dirge part, followed by a frantic piano playing part At about 2:52, she sings a verse that’s almost scat-singing, an impressive vocal performance. My wife makes a Swedish dish sometimes, called “pitta-panna”[ref]Likely spelled incorrectly here.[/ref] in which all the leftovers are thrown into the pan and cooked together, with a fried egg thrown on top of everything. It’s delicious. With it’s diverse sections, “Not About Love” is the pitta-panna on the album, and that scat part is the yummy fried egg.

Better Version of Me” is another bright, jazzy pop song. Like the other songs I’ve discussed, it has great, wordy lyrics and a real “Broadway” feel to it. (Which, if you’ve read other album write-ups of mine, you know is a compliment coming from me.) “O’Sailor” is a track that sounds unlike most any other pop song you’ll hear.

It’s got a nautical feel to it, and that video is almost seasickness-inducing. It’s another strong melody, with unusual instrumentation, and again sounds like it would be at home on a Broadway cast recording.

Please, Please, Please[ref]Not the James Brown song, although I’d love to hear her sing that![/ref]” and “Red, Red, Red” demonstrate the breadth of Apple’s songwriting and performing, as they’re just about polar opposites of each other.

The album closes with “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” an uplifting, positive way to end an album chock full with emotion and personal expression.

It’s another theatrical production, with full orchestra – and one imagines our protagonist and her love interest dancing across the stage as she sings – but brief, with lyrics letting the listener know that even though there’ve been some troubles along the way, she’s gotten through them and is doing Better Than Fine. fiona matchI’ve read that Apple’s biggest pet peeve is having people around her worry about her, and this song, together with the opening track, are her means to allay others’ concerns. They’re great bookends to a really cool album.

When I was nine, and enjoying Barry Manilow, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is a talented songwriter and pianist, just like Barry.

fiona back coverWhen I was fifteen, and obsessed with MTV, guitar rock, and Chrissie Hynde, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is an attractive woman whose looks are deeply enhanced, in my estimation, by musical talent.

When I was thirty, and buying albums I’d barely ever hear, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, when you have a little daughter and you hear songs like “Extraordinary Machine” or “Window,” or “Not About Love,” it’s hard not to think about the strength and talent you hope she’ll one day possess.

Musical taste is weird. It’s fluid and difficult to predict. So I say keep listening, and try not to totally reject anything. You never know who you’ll be one day, or what that person would like to hear.

Extraordinary Machine
Get Him Back
O’ Sailor
Better Version of Me
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
Parting Gift
Oh Well
Please, Please, Please
Red Red Red
Not About Love
Waltz (Better Than Fine)


74th Favorite: Nothing’s Shocking, by Jane’s Addiction


Nothing’s Shocking. Jane’s Addiction
1988, Sire. Producer: Dave Jerden, Perry Farrell
Purchased: ca. 1991.

n shocking album

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Hard-to-classify hard rock. Tribal rhythms, 80s guitar hero pyrotechnics, and vocals that sometimes sound like they come from a different universe combine to form an interesting and entertaining collection.

WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I’m not doing “W.B.H.I.” any longer. Basically, they’d all be higher if I liked them more!
deathIf I had to choose one great lesson I have learned in life, one truth whose derivation was hard-earned and challenging; a single fact obscured, perhaps, by the larger objectives of daily living, but whose immense value nonetheless has been evident over the course of a lifetime; just one entry on Life 101’s Grand Syllabus, the immeasurable merit of which, on my deathbed, I’d entreat my children and my children’s children (etc.) to understand fully and well, it is this:

If a movie director fucks up the meaning of a philosopher’s quote, you still might hear something pretty worthwhile anyway.
I know. Cliché.

I have been a quintessential “struggling artist” for most of my adult life, so in addition to (a) being highly critical of any work by anyone else, and (b) maintaining a complete mental list of how others – family, friends, fellow artists (especially) – have conspired to block my efforts toward a thriving career, I am also (c) quite jealous of the good fortune of anyone who has been successful[ref]By “successful,” I mean anyone slightly more successful than myself, by any measure whatsoever. One more dollar earned, one more cool gig, one more published piece.[/ref] in The Arts. It is natural, then, that I would attach the blame for misunderstanding a quote to the Big Movie Director as opposed to myself. But maybe I misunderstood what the Movie Director was saying.

linklaterThe Movie Director in question is Richard Linklater, a familiar name among movie fans, whose films include titles well-known even among casual movie fans. [ref]His hilarious Jack Black vehicle School of Rock is most likely playing this very second on VH1 or Comedy Central or one of those movie channels that seem to pop up like dandelions among the front lawn of my Verizon channel guide every Spring.[/ref] Among his best-loved films are the trilogy of “Before …” films: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. I haven’t seen these films, but I know they feature Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as a before sunrisecouple whose story is told over three films made over 20 years. (A neat trick that Linklater modified in the 12-year making of his celebrated film, Boyhood, in 2014.)

The philosopher in question is Friedrich Nietzsche, no doubt a top-ten all-time philosopher. I know he’s Top Ten because I know diddly squat about philosophy and philosophers, and if you asked me to name 10, he’d be one I’d name[ref]Quick check: Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus, Schopenhauer, Kant, Donne … hmm I guess he’s actually top eight …[/ref]. He’d also be one of the few neitzscheI know anything about, as I recall some teacher somewhere (probably in the lone Philosophy class I took in college) telling our class that Nietzsche wasn’t a Nazi at all (as he’s often credited), but that the Nazis had misinterpreted and co-opted him. Also, I remember he’s the one who said, “God is dead,” which actually turns out to be relevant to album #74.

So, anyway, at some point in 1995 I was reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine about the handsome, multi-talented young movie star Ethan Hawke, starring at the time in the newly released Before Sunrise. In the article, Linklater speaks about what the film – a movie described in the piece as “essentially a two hour conversation” between a couple – is meant to be about.

But you take an intuitive leap with people. It’s like ‘Why not?’ Little leaps of faith, that’s the microcosm of the movie. What does Nietzsche say? ‘When you say yes to a moment, you say yes to all of existence.’ There’s something optimistic about that.

bookcaseNow, dear reader, think of all the magazine articles you’ve ever read, of all the novels you’ve ever read, the non-fiction books you’ve ever read, even the backs of cereal boxes and tweets from celebs and FB posts from acquaintances of friends’ relatives that somehow show up in your feed. Consider your reading history and try to pick out a tidbit that has stuck with you the longest, or that has inspired you deeply.

Would it shock you to learn that you had it wrong? Let’s say you’d based life-decisions on that reading but found out later you’d interpreted it incorrectly, would it change your opinion of your life’s choices? Would you do anything differently? Would it matter?


As I mentioned earlier, I know diddly squat about philosophy. The only philosopher I can quote verbatim is the rocket-fuelled Spinal Tap keyboardist Vyv Savage.

That being said, I have always associated Album #74 with what I understood to be a quote from Nietzsche. In my brain, the quote was “Say yes to one thing, and you say yes to everything.” That’s how the Nietzsche quote, as quoted by Linklater, lived on in my brain. That’s what I thought those walrus mustachioed lips had uttered.

pennsyltuckyI was not quite thirty when I read the quote, and as a person from a rather reserved family, who grew up in a community that did everything it could to keep its denizens from being themselves or trying new things, but who nonetheless felt a need to go out and pursue as many dreams as possible, the quote seemed to substantiate my life decisions to that point (e.g., joining a band and writing songs, leaving my small town, moving 3000 miles away, doing stand-up comedy, acting, etc).

“Say yes to one thing, and you say yes to everything.” To me, that “quote” meant that anytime a yes/no decision was required of me, I had to consider the fact that saying “no” was a wall. Saying “yes” was an entryway.

lady tigerAs is the case with all entryways, there are both known and unknown experiences on the other side of a door. Sometimes the best thing about an entryway is the fact that it has a door and a lock and so whatever is on the other side will stay over there, and you won’t have to go deal with it. Stuff that, sure, you won’t experience first hand, and so you may not fully understand it, but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s why people don’t break INTO penitentiaries[ref]Of course, this isn’t a great example, as there are many good souls who DO willingly enter prisons to perform amazing acts of kindness and grace for the people inside. But at its basic level, as of 5:37 a.m., it’s a pretty good metaphor.[/ref].

doorBut for most decisions in life, when presented with the choice of a wall or an entryway, I’ve found I’d rather open the door and walk through. Finding a wall is almost always frustrating, whereas opening a door is always revealing, a presentation of options, paths, experiences … a feast for a curious mind. Say “yes” to opening a door, and you say “yes” to everything that is beyond it. “Say yes to one thing, and you say yes to everything.”

I have tried to say “yes” as often as possible in life.

I recall, soon after coming across this tidbit, explaining it to a friend. “It’s a quote by Nietzsche,” I said. “Say yes to one thing, and you say yes to everything!”

“Wow,” she said. “That sounds pretty positive for Nietzsche. I thought he was all about how terrible life is?”

“Geez, I don’t know,” I (most likely) said. “I saw it in a magazine. It sounded cool. They said it was Nietzsche.”

I didn’t give its attribution much thought. I just used it as a guide when life decisions popped up. I’m only going to be on Earth a short time – I might as well say yes to as much of it as I can[ref]While, of course, hurting as few other people as I can. And (I hope) getting ripped off by scammers as little as possible.[/ref]
n beitzcheMy love of Nothing’s Shocking, by Jane’s Addiction, is bound tightly to a “say yes” experience I had several years before I knew who Richard Linklater was. I knew I had to write about it, so as I began to write this piece, I did a little research into my (second) favorite Nietzschian quote.

So here’s why you can trust mostly nothing I’ve ever written about my life experiences over the past 26 albums: I began my quest for facts about this anecdote – the one that’s seemed so important to me over the past 20 years – by searching for a RADIO INTERVIEW with JOHNNY DEPP in which he quoted Nietzsche!! I was sure this was where I had heard my “favorite Nietzsche quote.”

First I found a few references to the actual quote and its interpretation. Often referred to (I now have learned) as “the Nietzschean affirmation,” the idea appeared in Nietzsche’s book Will to Power[ref]Not to be confused with the shameless one-hit-wonder duo that mashed up Lynyrd Skynyrd and Peter Frampton in 1988.[/ref], and is quoted here from a 1967 translation by Walter Kauffman and R.J. Hollingdale:

If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.


Kind of a mouthful. He goes on and on like that. !Snore! I know, right? But reading a little bit more (just a little) and thinking about it, I think I now understand[ref]Inasmuch as anyone can claim to “understand” the writings of a person considered to be one of the most brilliant thinkers in Western philosophy after simply scanning Wikipedia and another website or two.[/ref] that the idea he discusses here is really about living in the moment and appreciating that – for good or for bad – everything (truly everything, as the words “all eternity” imply) has come together to bring us to the point we are at now, and the only way to experience joy in life is to love and accept everything about life – the pleasure, the pain, the struggle, the wonder – at this very instant. So by “saying yes” to this moment right now (sort of), we are in fact “saying yes” to everything (sort of.)

earthMy main problem with this philosophy is that it forces us to accept (not to mention love) not only that hit song by the band named Will to Power, but also the male singer’s teeth and hair, (skip to 1:30 in that link) all of which have, apparently, helped bring us to where we are today at this very moment.

My secondary problem with this philosophy is that it IS NOT “Say yes to one thing, and you say yes to everything.” Which – as stated previously – has ONLY been the MAIN GUIDING IDEA around which I’ve BUILT MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE.oh no

Don’t worry we’ll get to the album. Please continue to love and accept this very moment.

So, after hearing that the philosophy was fucked up, I immediately started this piece by bashing Johnny Depp for being so dumb. I went looking for the radio program on which I heard him say it, but I found nothing. So I kept googling and refining searches until eventually I landed on this.

rolling stone

“AHA!!” I thought, “it was Ethan Hawke who was the pretty boy mangling Nietzsche!” No problem – I can just find+replace “Johnny Depp” with “Ethan Hawke,” problem solved. Then I read the article, for old times sake – to see just how stupid this handsome young fool was – and found that it was Linklater who said it, after all. At which time I began to love and accept that very moment, and my own faulty memory, because it was all part of the eternity that led me to be writing these words.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”This picture of Johnny Depp is all that remains from an early draft of this post in which I blamed him for mangling Nietzsche and screwing up my Life’s Guiding Principle”]

Clearly this post is already too long for me to begin to get into the existential crisis engendered by leading one’s life according to a non-existent philosophy. However, I can say this: I think I’ll stick with it. It’s seemed to work pretty well so far. It helped me become a fan of Album #74, Nothing’s Shocking, a good 6 years before I ever read the words “When you say yes to a moment, you say yes to all of existence.”

teachersYou see, sometime in the winter of ’89-90, I was a recently-graduated Biology Education graduate living with my parents in the house I grew up in, waiting for my Pennsylvania State Teaching License to come through so I could wade into the teaching career pool[ref]Actually, plunge head-first into the cold, murky, student-shark-infested waters of the deep end of the pool: SUBSTITUTE teaching.[/ref]. In the meantime, I had taken a job at a pizza shop, delivering pizzas.

One chilly afternoon, having parked my car after delivering the lunch-rush pies and subs, I was walking along Seventh St., back to the shop when I spotted a guy spongebob pizzaabout thirty yards away walking towards me. In a step or two I recognized him. It was a young man named Cary, and he hadn’t recognized me yet.

Cary (who is nowadays a very successful folk-singer in France) had been two years behind me in high school, played trumpet in the marching band (not low brass, like my trombone, but brass nonetheless), and had been friends with my first-ever girlfriend, V. I didn’t dislike him, but he had always been an extroverted, talkative, smiley guy, and my weird Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing[ref]Cary’s family was NOT PA Dutch, but had moved to the region.[/ref] caused me to immediately be suspicious of such people. I hadn’t seen him in the 4 plus years since I’d graduated high school, but still my initial reaction was to nonchalantly cut across the street and continue on my way to avoid his friendly bullshit.

But for some reason I thought, “Oh, don’t be silly. You’re supposed to be an adult, and adults stop and chat and be cordial.”

So I said “Yes” to spending two minutes with Cary.

grown up

In our brief conversation (during which I remember liking that he was so friendly) I learned he was a guitar player who sang in a band, and that they wrote their own songs. I said I played bass, and he said we should jam sometime. I gave him my number.

The doorway of saying hello to Cary led into a vast room of increasingly interesting doorways I also opened by saying, “Yes.” I eventually joined his band, helped write and record songs, played in cool clubs around the Mid-Atlantic region, rethought my perception of people in the world, moved to San Francisco, met my wife, etc. etc. etc. I said yes to one thing, and so said yes to everything.

jane 1Including Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking. You see, one of the first times Cary and I got together, in his tiny apartment with a shared bathroom down the hall, he said to me, “Do you like Jane’s Addiction?” I had read about them in Rolling Stone, but – having to that point remained staunchly anti-any-music-produced-after-1979 – I hadn’t heard their music. He told me, “They’re so good. You should listen to them.”

Eventually, as our friendship grew, I listened to a lot of music that, had I never said hello, I otherwise might have never heard. But Jane’s Addiction was the first band he mentioned when we got together to jam, and so it sticks in my brain as the first thing I stumbled upon when I said “yes” to Cary.

The album is not too dissimilar from Appetite for Destruction, by Guns ‘n Roses,
which came out just the year before Nothing’s Shocking. But whereas Appetite is kind of a heavy metal album with definite punk rock influences, Shocking is more of an alternative rock album with definite heavy metal influences.

These albums are very similar, but different. brett brosThey’re like siblings, the George and Ken Brett of late 80s rock, with one far more successful than the other, but both extremely good.

Jane’s Addiction is led by frontman/agitator and entrepreneur Perry Farrell. And his vocals are distinctive and interesting throughout, from the very first two songs, which have always seemed like one long song to me: “Up the Beach/Ocean Size:”

“Up the Beach” displays guitarist Dave Navarro’s 80’s Guitar God ambitions alongside a slow groove provided by rhythm section Stephen Perkins (drums) and Eric A. (bass). dave n 1Navarro doesn’t play as fast as some of the fret-tapping, fire-handed Big Hairs of the era, but with much feeling and soul. Farrell’s vocals are distorted and spooky – a technique used throughout Nothing’s Shocking. Just as guitarists use pedals and electronics to shape their sound into something recognizably guitar, but different, Farrell shapes his vocals. The effect gives the band a unique sound, and makes a listener wonder, perry 3“Why didn’t anybody do this in the first thirty years of rock music?”[ref]Okay, I’m sure SOMEONE did, but it sounds pretty novel in this record.[/ref]

“Ocean Size” begins (3:01) with a subtle acoustic guitar, a bit of misdirection for the listener that is violently knocked aside by Farrell’s screeching, echoing “Three! Four!” “Ocean Size” is a riff rocker, fairly straightforward, perry 1but the clarity of the bass and drums, coupled with the vocal sounds, and subtle background harmonies, signal the album is going to be different. Navarro definitely continues the guitar heroics with some 80s shredding beginning at 5:10 and again at 6:44. The song starts and stops and features what will also be a signature on the album: Farrell’s lyrics that are sometimes deep and sometimes goofy, but always unexpected. It’s hard to think of another album in which the first two songs better set the table for what’s to come. The songs don’t all sound the same, but if you find the first two songs annoying, you probably won’t enjoy the rest.[ref]But I really think you should try. I’m here to help.[/ref]

“Had a Dad” follows:

It opens with rapid-fire drums, and you should keep listening to the drums throughout. Stephen Perkins is an excellent drummer, throwing in odd beats and giving Jane’s Addiction a sort of funky flavor that helps keep them from sounding too Heavy Metal. For me, his drumming co-stars with Farrell’s vocals on the album. This song was one of the first Alternative songs of the era to address a familiar theme for 70s kids: the lack of a father. jane 4From Nirvana to Everclear, many bands of the 90s took on the topic, whether indirectly or head-on. Farrell, of course, takes it on sideways, with a direct statement of loss, then an oblique reference to his lost father as god (“if you see my dad/tell him my brothers/have all gone mad/and beating on each other” at 1:25). After another Guitar-Hero burst from Navarro, it’s repeated, leading to the very Nietzsche-an statement “God is Dead!” If you consider the hair-metal era that this album came out in, it’s easy to see why this music confused the record labels and why it wasn’t an immediate smash hit[ref]It peaked at #103 on the albums chart.[/ref]. With the funky drumming and bass, the weird lyrics and vocal effects, the record execs figured the excellent guitar shredding by Navarro was not enough to pull listeners’ ears away from White Snake or Bon Jovi, so the album was buried. (Here’s a rare clip of the band playing an early version of the song a few years before the album was released.)

Song four, “Ted, Just Admit It,” is the tour de force on the album.

The song’s title refers to serial killer Ted Bundy, whose voice is heard at the beginning. The song’s lyrics, an indictment of TV-obsessed culture and the boundaries it pushes, are the source of the album title. perry 2It is a great song, with multiple themes and melodies, multiple tempos, and some cool bass guitar work by Eric Avery, particularly coupled with Perkins’s tribal drumming. Avery doesn’t play intricate lines, but what he plays sounds cool and integral to the song, similar to how the lines of U2’s Adam Clayton fit into their songs[ref]He’s also the source of much inter-band strife, it seems, and has been their “former bass player” for years now.[/ref].

The bass and drums of Avery and Perkins are again featured on “Standing in the Shower Thinking,” which is about Standing. In the Shower. And thinking.

Navarro shines as well on this song, shredding better than his poofy-haired counterparts in other bands of the day. This song reminds me of how far ahead of the times they were, with their interesting rhythms and strange vocals. It’s the same for “Mountain Song,” as well, a straight-ahead rocker built around a simple bass riff.

It’s such a rocking, heavy, kick-ass tune. But what was passing for hard rock in August, 1988, was late-era Def Leppard. America’s ears weren’t ready.

Neither were they ready for my favorite song on the album, a romantic, slow song that blows contemporaneous hair-band “power ballads” – which were very much in their heyday – out of the water. The song is “Summertime Rolls,” and it is sweet and salty, like everyone’s favorite treats.

It opens with a bass line so quiet that it can be missed if you’re not listening for it. It continues throughout the song, creating a subtle groove with Perkins’s cymbals and drums, a groove that turns more persistent around 3:25, when the band kicks things up a notch. The vocals throughout are strange and distorted, with harmonies that sound incongruous, but somehow work perfectly. Navarro’s guitar sounds Middle Eastern, and lazy and warm – just like a summer day. The lyrics tell of lazy summer days, young love, acting goofy and feeling “so, so serious” about your boyfriend or girlfriend. The words conjure feelings without explicitlyjanes 3 describing them, a common trait of great lyricists, I think. Back to my original story of saying “yes” to talking with Cary, this song was one of the first I learned when I joined his band, and we covered it regularly. It builds beautifully, to a satisfying end. It’s a song that clearly demonstrates that this band ain’t your typical late 80s guitar act.

Idiots Rule” is a track with very cool horns, played by the very cool duo of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea[ref]Credited under his actual name, Michael Balzary.[/ref], on trumpet, and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore on sax. “Pigs in Zen” is a grinding riff rocker, whose lyrics include some of Cary’s favorite sayings of the day: “Some people should die. That’s just unconscious knowledge!” and “I’m in the midst of a trauma!” Both songs are excellent hard rock numbers by this hard-to-classify band.jane 2

I probably must mention the song “Jane Says,” as well, as it’s one of the band’s most popular. But to me it sounds like a song by someone else. It’s repetitive, with steel drums that sound out of place, as if included at the insistence of some Record Company BigShot. And while the lyrics do paint a compassionate picture of a sad person, I’ve now heard it so many times I can’t muster much concern for Jane any longer. I haven’t bothered to look for her wig in years.

But her wig is part of her, and part of “Jane Says,” which is part of Nothing’s Shocking. And so, according to Nietzsche, for real, I must accept her wig as part of the greater Everything that has made me say “yes!” to life. And according to some movie director, I should say “yes” to her wig, and see if the door that wig opens has something good waiting on the other side.

Either way, I’ve said “yes” to Nothing’s Shocking, and I’ll keep saying “yes” to as much of life as I can. It’s worked out pretty well for me.

Up the Beach
Ocean Size
Had a Dad
Ted, Just Admit It …
Standing in the Shower Thinking
Summertime Rolls
Mountain Song
Idiots Rule
Jane Says
Thank You, Boys
Pigs in Zen


75th Favorite: Astoria, by The Shys


Astoria. The Shys
2006, Sire. Producer: Dave Cobb
Purchased: ca. 2007.

album shys

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Driving, poppy guitar rock by a band with a knack for melodies, sung by a singer with just the right amount of desperation and sneer in his voice. Sometimes the songs border on formulaic, but excellent performances save them.

WOULD BE HIGHER IF – More of the songs were as good as the very best ones on the record.


I used to be pretty dang hip.backus

Pretty dang hip enough to write a sentence like “I used to be pretty dang hip,” immediately indicating that I probably wasn’t all that hip, as nobody since 1870s-era Colorado prospectors has said “pretty dang” anything in earnest (likewise the term “hip,” but substituting 1940s-era Bebop royalty for Old West claim-jumpers), yet leaves open the possibility that perhaps I was rather “hip” after all, bebopsince I am savvy enough to state it in such a preposterous way.

Having been a nerd my whole life, I’ve written a lot about the idea of “coolness” in this blog.

Having never been cool, I’ve been forever obsessed with the notion, much like sports announcers who’ve never played sports can seem to be over-the-top loony about dudes playing with balls.

However, although they’re often conflated, latest music“Hipness” is a different quality than “coolness.” Being cool is being cool. But staying “hip” is all about knowing what’s new and not missing what’s coming down the pike.

Being very hip is like being very good at that hot-for-a-moment video game, Guitar Hero, in that you are aware of what’s ahead,fonz and you’ve got it covered at exactly the right moment.[ref]Thusly providing a perfect negative example for hipness, as well, as referring to “Guitar Hero” in 2015 is decidedly UN-hip.[/ref] When that hot new director/writer/musician is becoming all the rage, the hip folks[ref]I won’t say “hipsters,” as that meaning has changed dramatically over the past few years.[/ref] out there were already familiar with them, and are already eying who’s on their tails. This is much different than being “cool.”

A “hip” person can be very uncool – for example, the music nerd who has rarely spoken to another human, but who’s just downloaded the latest tunes by Sauce Twinz and Silver Matter onto his phone in his parents’ basement. And a cool person can be quite un-hip – for example that popular girl in my high school in the 80s who sometimes wore a Barry Manilow t-shirt.

barryIn my twenties I tried to stay on top of the music scene and keep abreast of what new stuff was out there. I subscribed to Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, and later on Blender. I watched MTV 120 Minutes, and later, when MTV stopped showing videos altogether, MTV2. I frequented record stores and paid close attention to their “New Arrivals” shelves, and their chalkboards with funkily-calligraphed “Upcoming Release Dates” listed. I went topatchouli see concerts, and paid attention to the openers, and took the Xeroxed music ‘zines handed to me by shaggy, good-natured dirtbags while I waited in line and tried not to inhale their patchouli oil and BO.

I was Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” personified; billy idolI was on a bus, on a psychedelic trip, reading murder books …

As I moved through my thirties, my quest for hipness took on the subtle acridity of desperation. It was no longer about the music, but it was about me – and the inescapable, quickening pace of middle age. It became imperative that my musical tastes NOT recede into the realm of oldies. I hoped to will myself to remain “young”[ref]Whatever that means.[/ref] by frequently stripes hold hivesscouring away the inactivity-induced gunk in my brain’s music-processing gears with sonic blasts of new guitar rock. I introduced new music as often as possible. I kept those gears spinning on fresh blasts of White Stripes, The Hold Steady, The Hives, Franz Ferdinand …

I believed I was staying hip …

I maintained my machinery in this way into my forties housewife– perhaps not as diligently, but always with the intention of staying hip and warding off “Oldies.” Like a young, 60s
housewife in the swelling tide of the Women’s Liberation movement desperately trying to ward off feelings of personal discontent by fervently cleaning her house, I kept seeking out guitar-based rock to stay young. It was challenging work keeping those gears clean – work for which a father of active, free-time-sucking elementary school age kids is ill equipped – but I did my best.

But as I approach 50[ref]What the fuck?[/ref] I’ve come to realize this: the level of griminess of my mental musical gears plays no role whatsoever in my hipness. And in fact, I’m not even equipped to stay “hip” – musically, anyway. My music-appreciation machinery works perfectly well for guitar-based rock music, and it always will. gearsBut guitar-based rock music isn’t the kind of music that makes one “hip” in 2015. I can clean and polish and lubricate my gears all I want, but the fact of the matter is that they aren’t connected to the proper chains and pulleys to stay musically hip. In fact, the gears, chains and pulleys performing the tasks of popular music comprehension and appreciation were long ago replaced by software, fiber optics and WiFi. axel fThe transition started in earnest right around 1985, when “Axel F.” topped the charts. Even then it didn’t seem like much of an upgrade to me.[ref]I specifically recall complaining about the suckiness of “Axel F.” to friends a year or two younger than me. “It’s not even made my real instruments!” I said. “That’s what makes it so cool!” they replied. They were Early Adopters of the new music appreciation technology.[/ref] My apparatus worked fine! Why change?

My machinery can still be used to comprehend and appreciate parts of some new non-guitar rock music. My 16-year-old son will at times say, “Dad, listen to this! I think you’ll like it!” kendrick tylerThen he’ll play me some hip hop song by Kendrick Lamar or Tyler the Creator or someone else, and I’ll say, honestly, “This sounds pretty cool!” and I’ll bop my head along to it for a while. Just like how old cordless home telephones used to sometimes pick up snippets of local radio stations, somehow my mind’s appreciation apparatus can decipher enough of the song to make some sense of it. But it is fleeting, and I quickly find myself looking for a melody to hum. And then it goes away.

loudMy dad, in the 70s and 80s, would every now and again hear one of his kids’ songs and ask, in a certain way that indicated he may begin whistling along to it at any moment[ref]My dad was a TREMENDOUS whistler. Alone in the basement, tying fishing flies or crafting muzzleloader rifles, he’d turn on the radio station that played watered-down symphonic versions of 40s and 50s standards and unleash a concert-ready stream of improvised solos that astounded and entertained, loud enough to, at times, interfere with my M*A*S*H viewing in the living room above his lair.[/ref], “Hey, who’s this playing?”

But the songs he noticed always had some connection to the music he understood, if not enjoyed. It may have been a Lynyrd Skynyrd honky-tonk or a mellow jazz throwback, but it was always something that his own apparatus could decipher. (He was also keenly debbie harryinterested in all things Blondie, but I suspect Debbie Harry may have triggered different apparatus within him than music appreciation.) However, let’s be clear: whistling along to Chuck Mangione in no way made my dad “hip.”

I am now 48 years old, the age my dad was when Jane’s Addiction released Nothing’s Shocking. I think he had as much ability to appreciate “The Mountain Song” as I do the latest by 31 Grammy.

He wasn’t hip, and neither am I.

The fact is, being a fan of guitar rock is simply band geeksno longer a method of staying hip. Rock music has become like jazz was when I was a kid. There were some folks who liked it back in the 70s and 80s, and some folks who were awesome playing it, some folks who still listened to it – even a few kids my age, mostly the band geeks who I associated with – but Miles, Coltrane, Thelonious, Dizzy … their most popular stuff had been made decades before and they weren’t going to be replaced. Everyone new was just rehashing their old stuff.[ref]This is from the perspective of someone who knows very little about contemporary jazz in the 70s and 80s. But ask someone today to name a few jazz artists, and they’re likely to name the same folks that would’ve been named in the 80s. Or 70s. Or 60s. Or 50s.[/ref]

rock godsAnd really, that’s where we stand with rock music in 2015. Since the heyday of the late 60s and early 70s, everyone’s been rehashing the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, James Brown, Janis Joplin, The Ramones, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.[ref]And of course, those artists were simply rehashing what they had heard in their youth. But they were lucky enough to be born at the right time, so they get the glory of being listed in my incredible blog.[/ref] Or they’ve been combining elements of those artists. Everything that’s new in rock music isn’t really “new” – at least not in a way that’s keeping me hip. And nothing is going to keep my favorites from becoming oldies, either.

There’s new stuff out there – as there always must be – and folks from newer generations than mine are making it, using instruments I don’t recognize as such, and assembling the apparatus to appreciate it. And it sounds better to them than guitar rock, just as guitar rock sounded better to me than The Dorsey Brothers[ref]Which touches on the reason I felt a little awkward taking my 16 and 11 year old kids to see a Foo Fighters concert this summer. When I was in high school, my folks took me to a “Jimmy Dorsey Band” concert. I remember having to pretend it sounded good to me to please my folks![/ref].

Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!” we all used to say, long liveand I guess the music hasn’t really died. But my son told me recently, “Rock music is good because it’s the music that everybody likes.” This statement reveals that indeed the music hasn’t died, but the spirit has. Rock music was never supposed to be the music everybody likes. It was supposed to scare you. Oh well. Time marches on. I keep marching in place.

Luckily for me, while I was sitting around trying to will my music to remain relevant, there were artists out there who didn’t care what was popular or hip or making money. They just wanted to play their guitars loud and shout some melodies into a mike. And I found a great place to hear them sometime around 2006 – Satellite Radio.

As a longtime fan of Howard Stern, undergroundI rushed out and bought a Sirius receiver when he moved his show there. Howard and his gang of weirdoes remained funny, but just as good were all the channels of music available. One of the best channels for new (and old) music that is right in my wheelhouse is Little Steven’s Underground Garage, programmed by Bruce Springsteen’s Mobster-playing sidekick, Steven Van Zandt.

It features “Garage Rock,” which is a term that casts a wide musical net to encompass everything from 50s Rock and Roll, to old Stones and Beatles to unknown 70s proto-punk, to 80s throwback bands, and grunge and new guitar acts. It was on this channel that I first heard – while driving in my hip Saturn station wagon – a song that immediately knocked my socks off [ref]As a hip person might say. In 1963.[/ref]

The song was The Shys’ “Never Gonna Die, and was featured as one of the “Coolest Songs in the World This Week” on The Underground Garage, so it got played quite a bit. The song has everything I like in a guitar rock song. It opens with a guitar call like an alarm ringing, drums that kick in to support it, then the whole band plays the riff and a desperate-voiced, coolly straining singer shouts a salute to youth, young love, and having enough fun to be stupid about it. I heard this song a couple times on Sirius, then got on the Amazon machine and ordered a copy of the album, Astoria, immediately.
shys 2

I was hooked on the album from the start, particularly the song “Two Cent Facts,” my favorite on the record.

It’s got a lead guitar line throughout, behind the vocals, a feature that I almost always take to, and a pretty awesome guitar solo at 2:00. The drums drive it along, and it has a catchy, sing-along melody. The vocalist, Kyle Krone – also the main songwriter and guitarist in the band (with help on songwriting by keyboardist Alex Kweskin) – is one of those rock singers who infuses his take on a song with much emotion. kroneIt’s a style that makes me feel young and emotional myself. He also hesitates a little bit on a few lines, and all together, his style is slightly reminiscent of Roger Daltry’s voice in “My Generation.”

As shown in both “Never Gonna Die” and “Two Cent Facts,” the band has a serious knack for catchiness. Krone knows what he’s doing as a rock songwriter. On “Call In the Cavalry,” he turns a simple little riff into the basis for a pub rock shouter.

It’s a simple song, with snotty brit-punk vocals [ref]Even though the band is from California.[/ref] Krone’s raspy voice always sounds good to me, especially singing these teenage fun-seeker songs, just a tad out of control, shys 1perhaps, but it seems to always suit the song. The band plays loud guitar pop songs that are fun to sing along to. It’s this way throughout Astoria – seemingly one fun rock song after another. However, songs like “Call In the Cavalry,” and the rocker “Having it Large,” also serve to demonstrate the inherent problem in a songwriter who can so easily deliver catchy hooks: the songs can sound a little like a beer commercial. I could easily hear a voice over either song …

beer party

“The nighttime is calling you. Are you ready to answer? New from Budweiser! Your favorite cocktail flavors in a light beer!! Apple-tini! Cosmopolitian! Sex-on-the-Beach! Each in a satisfying light beer! It’s new BUD LIGHT BARF!”

There’s a fine line between a great, catchy song and a beer jingle. To me, Astoria stays on the great-fun-song side of that line. This album is in some ways the flip side to Album #76, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. shys 3My appreciation for that album was all about the emotional and spiritual connection I feel for it, a connection that at times I’m just not in the frame of mind to indulge. I appreciate Astoria for its raucous fun and mindless joy, which is also something for which I have to be in the mood.

But not all the songs are mindless. Astoria features an honest-to-goodness “protest song,” a rally-the-people, Spirit-of-1969 call to action, called “The Resistance.”

It’s got a cool little backward guitar section in there, that as a Beatles fan I greatly appreciate. I also like the subtle reference to The Beatles’ own protest song, “Revolution,” in the lyrics “Count me out, count me in.” The song’s guitar riff is very cool, and the whole song has a rock and roll spirit that I really appreciate. But is it a formulaic “protest song?” In a way, you can almost hear the boys at rehearsal saying, “Hey! Let’s write a protest song!” Maybe it is out of a can, but I think the band does it really well and I love the result.

They also move away from the pub rock thing in the bluesy, classic rock-sounding “Waiting on the Sun.”

There’s lots of great little lead guitar doodles behind the vocals. krone 2The guitar has that Gibson sound, a rock and roll sound that always connects with me. Once again, Krone’s voice carries the song. He puts his all into it, singing lyrics that offer the Morning After response to all those previous Happy Party songs. He’s a talented guy who’s released a couple solo albums, and at least one pretty great solo Summer Pop Song.

On Astoria, he also composed the multi-part punk/pop epic “Open Up the Sky,” which closes the album. This song features a slow section, a fast section, some gibberish sounds reminiscent of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” and an extended guitar solo (about 4:30 to the end) by Krone to close out the song.

But I like his punk/pop rockers the best. The album title track is a particularly good one.

I’m a sucker for a song with a bouncy bass line. And when a little bit of organ is thrown over the top, I’m typically going to stick around to hear more. It’s all put together well here, and Krone uses his desperation voice, warning a girl that “the spotlight is fucking contagious,” and reminding her that she’s his “Astoria.” The neighborhood in Queens? Maybe. The US’s early 19th century Pacific Coast colony attempt in northern Oregon, which failed miserably? Possible, I guess. shys silhouette

But what does it all mean? I don’t know. The great thing about rock and roll is that it doesn’t have to make sense. With a good rock song, you can sing along and dance and shake and that’s enough. If you have the correct apparatus in your head, it will always sound good, even when you’re so old you shake and dance without meaning to. The music will take you right back to what made you feel so good in the first place. I’ve realized now that finding the music that keeps you young is NOT accomplished by staying hip and updating your apparatus. The music that keeps you young is the music that turns the gears you’ve had all along.

Never Gonna Die
Call In the Cavalry
Waiting On the Sun
Having It Large
The Resistance
Radio Rebellion
Two Cent Facts
Alive Transmission
Madly In Action
Open Up the Sky


76th Favorite: Band of Gypsys, by Jimi Hendrix


Band of Gypsys. Jimi Hendrix
1970, Capitol. Producer: Heaven Research (Jimi Hendrix)
Purchased: 1998.

album cover

nutshell 76IN A NUTSHELL – Masterful guitar work over soulful grooves creates a listening experience that is divinely spiritual. At least for me. Deep and meditative.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It’s so groovy to float around. Even a jellyfish will agree to that.

I’ve always been a bookworm. A word-nerd. I developed a love of reading at a very young age, fostered[ref]Or hammered into me?[/ref] by two older sisters who took our childhood games of “School” – in which I was invariably the pupil – quite seriously. My choices were learn to read or be expelled. I learned to read.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”Always the eager student, the youthful author (right) is taught a lesson by his sister, Liz.”]

A love of writing quickly developed from this love of reading. I liked the stories I read and decided it would be fun to come up with my own. The first piece of writing I remember feeling really proud about was a fifth grade assignment in which Mr. Keesey[ref]Still one of the greatest teachers ever – he played guitar for us and had a class-assembled wooden tower in his room, atop which we could play games. He also tried to get us all to call him “Jim,” but nobody could hurdle the discomfort this caused after years of strict Rules of Respect, so we all just called him “Mr. Keesey.”[/ref] had us pull cool teachertitles for stories out of a bag, and we were free to write anything about it. I pulled the title How I Won the War[ref]I told you he was cool!![/ref] and wrote a story about sailing a hot air balloon over the Confederate troops in the Civil War and dropping bombs on them. It was so good that Mr. Keesey read it aloud to the class. I still remember how embarrassing it was when he read my sentence, “Back at the hospital, the nurses were helping me (fixing me up).” I should have done better. But more than that, I remember the other kids laughing at the funny parts and Mr. Keesey saying I had a future in writing.

From there it continued. Just as I imagine athletes must remember games going all the way back to their childhood[ref]Tangent: I briefly met former Phillies outfielder Milt Thompson, and mentioned I saw him hit one of the longest home runs I’d ever seen at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. He immediately said, “Off of Dave Burba. One-one count. Fastball inside.” The home run in question occurred 13 years earlier.[/ref], I Ralph Write can remember stories I wrote going back to that Mr. Keesey story all the way up until yesterday. In eighth grade I wrote a funny story in which I was a CIA agent assigned to find President Reagan’s jellybeans. In twelfth grade I wrote a suspenseful story in which I foretold my own death in a dream. After college, I wrote a weird story in which Satan himself tricks me into becoming a fan of the then-perpetually-awful New Orleans Saints.[ref]I sent it to Sports Illustrated, and a nice editor wrote me a nice letter saying it was really good, but not appropriate for their readers. Even though I was a reader, and I’D have liked to read something like that. Anyway. I’m not bitter.[/ref]

Throughout my life I’ve kept writing – whether anyone has read anything I’ve written or not[ref]They haven’t. (Except for you, my excellent reader!! I love you, mom.)[/ref]. I think I’m pretty good at writing, and if nothing else I’m SURE that when it comes to communicating, I do it much better through writing than through speaking. Even when I did stand-up comedy – typically thought of as a speaking-heavy form of communication – my act was very dependent on scripted jokes, honed through performance, with very little in the way of ad-libbing. I feel very confident about my writing ability. I might not write better than a lot of other people, but I write better than I do a lot of other things.

sponge write

But all the confidence in the world won’t help you if you can’t figure out what to write about! Entire books have been written about “Writer’s Block” – a well-known condition that has prevented writers both famous and obscure from starting or finishing their works. The authors of these books on Writer’s Block no doubt cured their own cases by using the subject as their topic – certainly an effective palliative for the malady’s typical cause: “I Don’t Know What to Write About!”

But I’ve been having a different problem, a problem I’ll still file under Writer’s Block, but caused by something else. Clearly I know what to write about: I spent more than a year listening to all my albums specifically so that I WOULD have a topic to write about. My problem – which has caused this blog to go un-updated for a bit longer than mullusual[ref]Although, summer has always made it difficult to keep up with my usual two-week turnaround. There’s just too much else to do besides hunching over a computer clackity-clacking.[/ref] – is that I don’t know how to translate my feelings about Band of Gypsys into words. I have a lot to say about the record – but I don’t know how to say it on the page.

There is a famous quote, attributed (possibly incorrectly) to Mr. Barth Gimble himself, comedian Martin Mull, that goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And it truly can be as ridiculous as that quote makes it sound. There is much about the topic that can’t be put into words.

Music has invisible tendrils that insinuate themselves into one’s heart and soul, and press buttons there causing lights within to brighten and dim. slayer carlyMusic feels important and necessary in ways that might sound goofy and strange to those whose buttons and lights operate differently. Your favorite songs might not have the power to stop everyone else in their tracks, but they mean something special to you. Nobody else may get why “Call Me Maybe” brings a tear to your eye, or how it is that “Raining Blood” makes your heart swell until it feels like it may burst through your chest and actually rain blood upon the room. And you could write 1,000 words about both songs and the reader still wouldn’t necessarily “get it.”

Still, I’ve pursued writing about these records because … I don’t know, really, but I like them, and I figure I’ll just say what it is I like about them. Okay, true, most of the time it’s “guitar sounds cool, the drummer’s really great and I love the melody.” earOver and over. A few records have broken out of that mold, but for the most part my attraction to these records has been pretty consistent. And in all cases, I’ve been able to go through songs and state, “hear that riff there? That sounds cool. And those lyrics – I like them, as well.” This is because my love for these albums is almost entirely about my ears: what I hear goes through my ears and in my brain and makes me happy. True – some of the songs also reach my heart or soul[ref]I mean “soul” in as clichéd and non-religious a manner as possible. I don’t think I have a soul, per se, but I do feel like there’s some connection I share to certain people and art and personal endeavors, and whatever that connection is, that’s what I mean.[/ref], but usually this touch is something I can translate into words, even if they’re as vague as “it really moves me.” I feel like I can generally convey what I like about the songs, even though I realize I’m not ever going to truly put the reader into my ears and brain and heart and “soul.”


But some music seems to bypass the ear and brain altogether (I said “seems to”), and shoot directly into the regions of one’s self that are difficult to describe, or even fully locate, but that are typically referred to as “heart and soul.” These nameless, indescribable regions inside are the destination of Band of Gypsys, an album attributed to Jimi Hendrix, but actually recorded as a live performance by the band that Jimi called A Band of Gypsys[ref]“The Fillmore is proud to welcome back some old friends with a brand new name: A Band of Gypsys,” famed concert promoter Bill Graham announces as the album begins.[/ref].

jimi fireMuch like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, I feel like I’ve known Jimi Hendrix for my entire life. Before I knew what songs he sang or whether he was alive or dead, I could identify him as that African-American man in fringed clothes and a huge afro cinched by a dangly bandanna who did crazy stuff with his guitar. “Jimi Hendrix” was an identifiable form or shape, like a flower or a fireman. It was the costume my friend Andy wore to a Halloween party in 7th grade.

As I got older, I began to know more about him. In high school, my good friend Josh[ref]Who has appeared in these posts previously.[/ref] claimed that the only music he owned, and the only music he listened to other than the radio, was by Jimi Hendrix. (That is, until 1983, when Stevie Ray Vaughan appeared and released Texas Flood, which he immediately bought.) I listened to his songs on the radio (I’d say “Fire,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze” were most often played on AOR back in the 70s and 80s) and I liked him okay, but I never bought any of his records. experience

Then I went to college, and – as with so many musical aspects of my life – Dr. Dave helped guide the way. My recollection is that he fairly insisted that I listen to more Hendrix than I had by that point. I eventually bought the three studio albums by his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They are excellent albums. I played them a lot.

In the late 90s, I heard an interview on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” with a popular author of crime novels named George Pelacanos. He was discussing his latest book, King Suckerman, and it sounded really good. king suckermanI went out and bought it. Early in the story, one of the characters in the book, Marcus Clay, who owns a Washington, D.C., record store in 1976, discusses Jimi Hendrix with record store employee, Rasheed X.

Rasheed mentions that he thinks Hendrix’s music – which throughout his career had resided within the mostly Caucasian Rock Music genre – was headed toward soul and funk music when he died, and as proof offers up the album Band of Gypsys. This brief bit of dialogue – which really had nothing to do with the plot, but was simply a humorous vignette to provide background on two characters (astutely demonstrating the characters’ relationship, their in-depth musical knowledge, their perception of identity and their respective positions on the intersection of politics and business in 1976 Washington D.C., all in less than a page) – was enough to make me think I’d better go out and buy Band of Gypsys.

band gyps backBand of Gypsys is a live album, documenting 4 shows in two nights by the band at The Fillmore East, in New York City. The recordings took place on December 31, 1969, and January 1, 1970 – as unconditional a transition between the 60s and 70s as there could possibly be. bog2Hendrix was performing with a drummer and bassist perhaps unfamiliar to fans of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, respectively[ref]Although they are the rhythm section that supported Hendrix at Woodstock, so they weren’t unknown.[/ref]. While my research shows they did play a few songs familiar to Hendrix’s fans, it was six new songs that made it onto the record: four Hendrix compositions, and two by drummer Miles.

The songs are lengthy, with simple structures that lend themselves well to extensive jamming and soloing by the band. Most of the songs are built on a single riff that serves as a sort of departure point and landing spot for Hendrix’s virtuosic flights.jimi guitar

These flights are what connect so deeply with me. I have a hard time putting into words what it is about Jimi’s playing that sets him apart from so many guitarists, that causes his sound to vibrate within me. I asked Dr. Dave himself – one of several guitar-playing friends, but the one I’ve known the longest – if he could explain it (“on the record”) from a guitarist’s perspective, and he put it this way:

At first blush the answer seems very easy but as I put pen to paper it becomes impossible to word it. Let’s face it, who’s to say Tommy Scholz isn’t a great guitarist – but is he great like Hendrix? Of course not. This situation is pretty abstract and I guess it is why it’s difficult. (Heck, you yourself touted the guy from Sonic Youth. How do feel about what you wrote last week and this question?)[ref]I knew Dr. Dave would hate that Sonic Youth made this list.[/ref]

… Hendrix for me makes me realize I could never be (not just play) like him. Everything about his style of singing, voicing, guitar playing, choice of words, diction, mood is what touches something inside me.

I might hear a tune in the car and immediately get into this funky feeling that makes me keep beat and make a grooving face. Visceral. Yes, visceral. Nothing by Hendrix is forced. It’s more intuitive, devoid of an intellect (if you will) despite his genius.

Yea, that’s it. I’ll go with that. (Oh, and he is fucking awesome!)

flying v jimiSo even a guitar player has a similar reaction to mine upon hearing him. Dr. Dave didn’t say “the way he plays a suspended 9th chord …” or “his deft plectrum work …” or “the glissando he plays beneath the arpeggiated blah blah blah …” No, he used the word “visceral.” This is the exact word I had in mind about Band of Gypsys when I asked Dr. Dave his opinion.

There is a response generated within me to the music, a response that I haven’t been able to adequately state on the page. I’ve spent some time trying, and I’ve been unhappy with the results. The writing never captures what it is about the music that makes me so happy.

davey and gI think of how a religious Christian person must feel about the Bible. Sure, I could write a hundred thousand words about what Jesus says, and what the stories mean, and the effect it has on me, but the book itself is going to be so much more important and meaningful to me than anything I could write for you. The best I could really do to try to make you understand is to ask you to read the book for yourself.

So I think all I can do is place links to the songs here, and let you hear for yourself. I’ll mention a few things about each song, but I can’t really say anything about them that Jimi doesn’t say twenty-three times better with his guitar.

So as famed director Marty DiBergi said, “… enough of my yakkin’. Let’s boogie!”

The first song on the album is “Who Knows.”

It’s a riff-rocker, featuring drummer Buddy Miles as co-lead vocalist. Jimi’s solos – at about 2:50 and especially the one at 6:39 – are two of the many indispensible Jesus parables of this Bible of a record. bog 1 Also – for a “WTF?” segment that always amuses, but somehow gets less weird with each listen – check out Miles’s scat-solo from 4:47.

Next up is the classic song “Machine Gun.”

Jimi dedicates it to “the soldiers fighting in Chicago …” presumably the Chicago 8, who were on trial at the time of the recording, and “oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Viet Nam …” It’s a clear anti-war song by a US Army veteran. The solo that BOG jimiruns from around 4 minutes to 7:45 – offering a sonic description of a battlefield that by 5 minutes becomes the most beautiful or horrible guitar solo I’ve ever heard – well, I just sat here for 7 minutes trying to think of what to write about it. I should just refer to these passages like people do with Bible verses: “John 3:16.” For example, “In the Book of Band of Gypsys, I think Machine Gun 4:00 – 7:45 says it all.”

The third song is a fun one written by drummer Miles, “Changes.”

Changes, 2:02 – 3:06.

Next up, “Power to Love,” which was renamed “Power of Soul” on the reissue.

jimisingThis song has riff that almost sounds like a mistake, and excellent singing and playing together. Hendrix has always been an underrated singer, I believe. His guitar prowess can overshadow an excellent vocal style. How he remembers lyrics like “reap the waves of reality,” and words about jellyfish floating, while at the same time playing the things he plays … it seems super-human, like walking on water. Power To Love 3:00 – 3:49. Way cool key change from 5:19-5:25.

Up next, Message of Love, which was renamed Message to Love in reissue.

Holy cow. Holy Jimi. Message of Love 1:13 – 2:42.

The closing song is “We Gotta Live Together.”

Amen and amen.

I suppose one would think that the more an album’s invisible tendrils push one’s impalpable buttons, the better it will be. However, just as an album full of catchy, fun pop songs might be too much of a good thing, the same can be said of those tendrils and buttons. Sometimes you might not want to feel music, you might just want to hear it. This is why the album isn’t ranked higher on my list. My appreciation of Band of Gypsys is definitely linked to my mood. There are times in my life when this album would be Top Ten, hands down, and times where it might not scratch my favorite 10-dozen. Like many people from all faiths, sometimes my religion is imperative and sometimes I almost forget.
I don’t expect you to fully understand – it’s a record that’s meaningful to me for reasons I can’t adequately explain – but whether it moves you or not, I think we can agree that Hendrix’s guitar work is astonishing. Dr. Dave once visited a new guitar teacher who, when told that his prospective student was interested in playing like Hendrix, responded, “Really? He was mostly just a showman.” Dr. Dave restrained himself from responding with violence, but this is the kind of statement that makes me want to go Jihad on someone. But then I think of Band of Gypsys, Chapter Machine Gun, Verses 4:00 – 7:45 and I know that violence isn’t the answer.

Track Listing
Who Knows
Machine Gun
Power to Love
Message of Love
We Gotta Live Together


77th Favorite: Dirty, by Sonic Youth


Dirty. Sonic Youth.
1992, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig and Sonic Youth
Purchased: 1992.

album cover

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – Crazy, noisy, punky rock that sounds orchestral, powerful and catchy – even if not everyone in the band can actually sing or play their instruments properly. The sound is the thing, and this record has sounds galore.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had a little more diversity, and if some of the really lousy songs had been left off.
tromboneWhen I was a freshman in high school I played trombone in the marching band. I’ve written about this before, but to recap: the trombone players rode on the same bus as the drummers, who were nearly to a person obsessed with Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush. This meant I heard a lot of Rush, and the music took hold and I became a fan.


My oldest sister had, by this time, moved out of the house, and I noticed that she’d left behind an old milk carton crate, milk crate1a forgotten must-have from the album era, highly prized and often-stolen from convenience stores and dairies because they were seemingly designed by record companies to be the perfect size to store a few dozen albums. In fact, some states outlawed these crates’ use for containing anything other than milk, such was the burden that crazed album enthusiasts placed on the dairy industry in their attempts to hold all that rock!crate warning

But anyway, I found my sister’s old crate of albums, and somewhere in that red, Turkey Hill-labeled, high-density polyethylene treasure chest I noticed a particular album by a particular Canadian band

exitIt was a live album, Exit … Stage Left, and it was a veritable Greatest Hits package, with live versions[ref]And Rush being perfectionists, the live versions of their songs sounded almost identical to the album tracks, something that – at the time – was important to me as a listener.[/ref] of the biggest and best songs from the band’s late 70s/early 80s heyday.

record playerI played it regularly on my family’s old record player in our musty, unfinished basement, but I soon found this situation very limiting. I needed to listen to the music in places besides my dank basement. I wanted to play it on my mini-“boom box,” so I could take it with me. I’m sure ifmini boombox I had asked the good folks at Mercury Records, the record label selling Exit … Stage Left, what I could do about this problem of mine, they’d have happily told me, “Don’t worry! We sell cassette tapes of all your favorite Mercury artists! Just head on down to your favorite record store and pick one up for $7.99! That’s a buck less than vinyl!”

exit cassetteBut that seemed ridiculous, and a waste of money, since I had the music right next to me in my sister’s milk crate! I needed a way to get that music off the vinyl myself.

For you youngsters, this all took place in the early 80s, well before the dawn of digital music. It’s common nowadays to think that Napster and Limewire and other such services were the beginnings of music theft. But these sites merely made it easy. In the analog days of the 70s and 80s, if you wanted to steal music you turned to cassettes.

maxellWe didn’t really think of it as “stealing,” though, did we? It felt more like borrowing

Analog record-to-cassette “borrowing” is to digital music “file sharing” what an intricately planned heist is to online credit card theft. Both are crimes, but one takes planning, resourcefulness and creativity, while the other simply requires a modem. A criminal who pulls off a bank heist, while surely a crook, can be viewed with some healthy admiration. Okay, sure, I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up to be one, but I can review everything that went into scoring a heist and think, “wow, that person really worked their butt off to get that dough!”

However, an online thief is simply a lazy turd.

And as much as I’ve been guilty of both music-related crimes (allegedly), I think it holds true that digital music theft (while now thoroughly ingrained in modern culture) is for lazy turds.

In the case of the planning and execution of the crime of stealing music analog-style, the first thing you needed was a cassette recorder. In the early 70s, cassette tape recorders became a bit of a fad.

tape recorderThey were handheld, with a cool microphone that you could thrust in front of a friend or parent to play investigative reporter, a Presidential Current Events-inspired pastime for kids in the Watergate era[ref]A far more wholesome Presidential Current Events-inspired pastime for kids than any that came 20 years later from the Lewinsky scandal.[/ref]. However, as The Brady Bunch superbly demonstrated, a misused tape recorder had the power to hurt others, as well.

pete bradyAnd there was no greater misuse of a handheld cassette recorder than that of trying to record music. I recall dangling that microphone in front of a radio playing a favorite song, or placing it on the floor in front of the stereo console, then listening back to the tape and thinking, “This sucks.” The product was fuzzy-sounding, monaural, and immune to modification by playback controls such as treble and bass. Plus if you happened to cough or speak during the recording process, your tape was ruined.

These recordings sucked so bad that it soon became clear to electronics manufacturers that the public demanded – copyright law be damned – that their pirated music sound as good as possible. And the average listener didn’t have the dough to spend, or time to waste, on hooking up high-falutin’ reel-to-reel contraptions to the family stereo. So the stereo manufacturers started building cassette recorders right into the console itself, where it could perform its recording magic within its electronic guts.

cassette console

This meant a music thief could simply drop a blank cassette tape into the console, place a record on the platen, and press record – a simplification that inched the practitioner closer to the Lazy Turd status of thieves.

Except for one thing: The Blank Cassette Tape itself!

You couldn’t just drop any old tape into the console. The blank cassette had to be chosen carefully. The first consideration was the length of the tape, measured by time. [ref] I’m focusing solely on recording full albums here. I’m got getting into mixtapes or bootleg live recordings. If analog music thievery is a heist, then recording an album is a simple stickup, while a mixtape is a tunnel-beneath-the-walls exercise. And live bootlegging is The Sting.[/ref]

tapesThe cassette tape manufacturers provided options in 30 minute increments, from 30 up to 120. The tapes were called “C-30,” or “C-60,” etc, depending on their length, but for most album recording projects, 90 minutes was perfect. This provided the thief with two 45-minute sides to load up with music.[ref]And for a long time, it seemed like bands and record companies were in collusion with the cassette manufacturers, as almost every album clocked in at just under 45 minutes.[/ref]

timerFor a double album, like Exit … Stage Left, one 90-minute cassette would hold the entire 77-minute record, but it wasn’t perfect. There would be about 4 minutes of blank space at the end of each side of the cassette, meaning that on playback I’d have to fast-forward at the end of album sides 2 and 4 before flipping the cassette to hear the next side. This fast-forwarding was stressful on the physical tape, and helped to degrade the sound on the cassette quite quickly.

I wrote earlier that this process never really felt like “stealing,” but everyone knew it was. The cool 80s New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (of “I Want Candy” fame) actually recorded a paean to album theft by cassette called “C30 C60 C90 Go!.” It was the world’s first cassette single, and included a blank Side Two so folks could record their own “B” track. The big record companies weren’t amused.

thiefAnother consideration in theft planning was blank cassette quality. There are certain products one can buy whose quality is generally independent of the manufacturer. Store-brand plastic utensils, or yellow mustard, or spiral-bound notebooks will most likely be indistinguishable in performance from their more expensive, name-brand counterparts. Cassettes, however, did NOT fall into this category. Buy a set of 5 Ames-brand 90-minute cassettes for the price of one Maxell tape, and you’ll find yourself with about 30 total minutes of decent-sounding music. The rest will hiss and fade and sound not much better than that product from the dangling microphone[ref]Albeit without the incidental coughs, farts and room conversations.[/ref].

But back to my quest to get live Rush onto my boom box. I bought some 90 minute blank cassettes[ref]Brand X – this is how I know they suck[/ref] and planned my heist for a weeknight when I didn’t have band practice or much fly tyinghomework. Our stereo was in the basement, so that my dad could listen to his Big Band albums and whistle along while he tied fishing lures or built muzzle-loader rifles down there. I went downstairs and got to work. I popped in a cassette, played the records (loudly, so I could enjoy them) and pressed the “Record” button. Seventy-seven minutes later, the deed was done.

cassette cover
I finished the job by meticulously writing song titles on the blank cover provided with the cassettes, and by gently placing cassette stickers (also provided) on both sides of my cassette. And there it was: the music from a vinyl album was ready to be played on my mini boom box. I climbed the stairs satisfied.

When I opened the basement door my dad was seated at the kitchen table, near the top of the stairs.

“I don’t know what you call that crap,” he said, “but it sure isn’t music.”

“It isn’t music,” he said. I am still confused by his words.

Knowing my dad, and how indirect he always was with his communications, I think what he meant to say was: “I’m angry because I wanted to go downstairs and tie fishing lures, angry dadbut you were blaring music down there so I felt uncomfortable, and I don’t feel like a father should have to ask a son to turn off music – I feel like my son should know not to play loud music when I want to be in the same room – so now I’ve just been sitting and stewing up here, and eating 4 apples and hunks of Muenster cheese, and the more I hear that guy screaming on that record, the more it makes me think I’m a failure for not going down and telling you to turn it off, and not getting you interested in tying flies, and not teaching you to like good music in the first place, but I don’ t know how to express all that bullshit so I’ll just claim it isn’t music instead of addressing what I really feel, which is hereditary-based depression manifested by indecision and self-doubt.”

Instead he said “It Isn’t Music.” It still doesn’t make any sense.

Because what IS music in the first place? I’ve spent too much time already blabbing about stealing music to delve very deeply into this question, but I do have a few thoughts.

Clearly, music is sound organized in such a way so as to be pleasing to hear. sitarBut “pleasing” is only pleasing because you’ve been conditioned to find it so. Consider that there are a billion people in the world who recognize this as some of the most pleasing music ever produced. And there are 2 billion people who instantly recognize this as pleasing[ref]Not to say everyone in China or India LIKES these songs – just that they’re recognizable as pleasing, even if an individual doesn’t particularly care for it.[/ref], too. Even more astounding, there are billions of people on Earth who DO NOT recognize THIS as pleasing!!! Furthermore, consider all the billions of Homo sapiens who have ever lived on Earth, and those still living today, come to think of it, and think if “pleasing” would be the word chinese musicthey’d use to describe this! Clearly, music doesn’t have to be pleasing to a listener to be considered music.

My dad was wrong: that crap he heard WAS music, and he knew it was music. It just wasn’t pleasing to him.

I hear stuff all the time that makes me wonder, “who in their right mind would ever find this pleasing?[ref]I’m not going to get into modern pop music right now, or my own kids’ listening habits. Suffice it to say I don’t like most of it, but I also believe that I SHOULDN’T like my kids’ music. I’m sure I’ll say more about this somewhere in Albums # 76 – 1.[/ref]” In particular, I’m thinking about “avant garde” type stuff, by artists who I admittedly have never allowed myself to explore too deeply. The Sun Ra Arkestra, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, or Captain Beefheart.

avant gardeI have a low tolerance for such noisy and, to my ears, nonsensical stuff. However, as with all art, I have a respect for the artists performing it. I like the people who do the weird stuff[ref]Please click on this link. A friendly woman named Rachel emailed me to ask me to link to her page on Matthew Barney, an artist who – going by what I’ve seen and read, not by what’s been explained to me – I’ve never understood. I’m more of a Dogs-Playing-Poker kind of guy.[/ref], even if I don’t appreciate their art.

. I think of them as modern day PT Barnums, daring critics to admit their stuff is bullshit and thus risk being seen as not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it,” and in the process shining a light on the ridiculousness that is Arts Criticism in the first place.


Of course it could just be that I’m not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it.” Or maybe my tastes just differ from the people that like that stuff.

A band that fell into this category of musical PT Barnum for me was New York City’s Too-Cool-For-You Sonic Youth. I first started hearing their name in college, in the late 80s. I heard they were punk, loud, noisy … As a prog-rock and Beatles snob at the time, they sounded exactly like the type of band I’d hate.

sonic youth 1
I recall in the Fall of 1989 seeing part of an episode of a great old TV show of the era, the late Sunday night NBC program Night Music, hosted by David Sanborn, in which eclectic musical acts played live. The episode featured, among others, The Indigo Girls and Sonic Youth. I don’t know why I watched, but it was most likely to see The Indigo Girls, whose song “Closer to Fine” was currently being played on rock radio. I remember seeing this performance by Sonic Youth and thoroughly hating them.

“That’s not music,” I’m sure I thought.[ref]Re-watching that clip, I think I still agree with myself.[/ref]

About six months later I’d become friends with one of the biggest music taste influencers of my life, punk rocker Eric V. His band mate at the time, Don, had performed on that episode of Night Music, banging on the keyboards with Sonic Youth. band standingEric and I shared a house and worked together and got to be very good friends. I never got him to share my enthusiasm for Van Halen or Yes or Rush, but he opened my ears to many, many acts I grew to love: The New York Dolls, Nirvana, The Plimsouls, Stiff Little Fingers

He initially failed to get me interested in Sonic Youth. I’d seen too much of them on TV the year before to be swayed. But they had a new record out, he said, called Goo, and he was sure there was some stuff in there I’d enjoy. He played me the songs “Dirty Boots,” and “Kool Thing,” and I went out and bought the CD. A couple years later Dirty hit the stores, and I bought it the first week it came out.

band drumsticks

Sonic Youth are an unusual band in that the guitarists, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, don’t tune their guitars. Well – they’re tuned, but rarely in a traditional fashion. And they don’t always play chords or notes, per se, with those alternate tunings. thurston 2They are just as likely to bang them against the ground or smash them together, or rub tools against their strings, or simply shake them in front of an amp and let the feedback howl and wail. Or they may wedge a few items among the strings, then play some chords that way. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell they do to get the sounds they get. What I do know is that when Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore was asked to be part of The Backbeat Band in 1993 – a band comprised of alt-rock 90s stars hired to record a soundtrack of versions of early Beatles (non-Lennon/McCartney) hits, like “Twist and Shout” and “Money” for the film Backbeat – Moore claimed he couldn’t remember the last time he played traditional chords on a traditionally-tuned guitar.

smell the horseAll that craziness can cause outrage among some music fans. The brother of frequent 100FaveAlbums character and long-time friend of mine Dr. Dave and some friends saw Sonic Youth open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 1991, and returned from the show with palpable fury in their voices, hatred in their eyes and a sense of accomplishment in their demeanor at having booed the band off the stage after a few songs’ worth of tool-gouging, amp smashing ridiculousness.

I’ve never seen the band live, and I don’t know what I’d think of them live, but I do know that when I hear what they produce on record, much of it sounds soaring, symphonic and powerful, with great melodies and some of the best rock drumming I’ve heard. All these characteristics are on display on Dirty.

The album opens with “100%.”

This is a great song both to open the album, and to introduce a listener to the sound that is Sonic Youth. It’s a catchy, poppy song in which the noisiness is mostly relegated to the background. (Except for the first 15 seconds of the song!) steve shelleyThose 15 seconds end with Steve Shelley’s drums bringing order to the chaos, a role he expertly fills throughout the album. The Sonic Youth noise can sound disorganized, but when the band puts breaks into a song – for example, at 0:50 and again at 1:53 – it demonstrates there is a scheme to what’s happening, and also helps reorient the listener’s brain to it. And Shelley continues to provide the order. Kim Gordon’s bass also is key in Sonic Youth’s musical plan by keeping the noise tied to a backbeat. But I wouldn’t enjoy all that noise if the melody wasn’t catchy, and what I love about this record is that most of the melodies are. Thurston Moore sings this song, about the band’s deceased roadie Joe Cole, who was killed in an armed robbery. The band also salutes Cole on the cool-sounding, stream-of-consciousness groove of “JC“.kim bass

Sonic Youth melodies can come from the vocals or from the instruments – even through all that background tumult! A good example is my favorite song on Dirty, “Sugar Kane.”

“Sugar Kane” opens with an orchestral flourish, sounding like a disturbed symphony’s fanfare, then breaks into the four-note riff that drives the song. But those weirdly-tuned guitars make that riff sound full, and the extra embellishments by guitarists Moore and Lee Ranaldo stand out against them. It’s a very musical noise. lee 2Moore again carries vocal duties, singing about … well, I don’t know. Cocaine? Love?[ref]The song title is taken from Marilyn Monroe’s character in the 1959 film Some Like It Hot, if that information helps shed any light on the meaning.[/ref] But when he gets to the chorus, at about 1:10, the guitar plays a repeated, noodley line that has always drawn me right into the song, and then the band exits the chorus (1:25) with two emphatic chords and a flanged exit back to the verse. After two verses, another common Sonic Youth tactic is employed – the noise/freakout interlude. These freakouts often sit where other bands would insert a guitar or piano solo. This one starts at about 2:32, with that disturbed fanfare from the beginning of the song. There is a bit of guitar soloing in there, and it all collapses around some church chime-like amplifier noise (3:20), and then softly plucked guitar lines (3:30) softly bring the band back to the melody. I find all this noise and fury and changing dynamics quite compelling and stirring. It’s very classical-music-sounding to me, which probably indicates how limited my knowledge of classical music is! concert 1Within that noise, sounds emerge that are big and important, like a symphony. I may not have any idea what notes the band is playing, or how I’d ever try to reproduce it on my own guitar, but it is a sound that connects with me. And if it does all that, it must be music, right?

Perhaps the most symphonic-sounding songs on the record is “Teresa’s Sound World.”

The song builds and releases (eg 1:37 to 2:37) throughout. The lyrics are teresas ampagain rather indecipherable. Yet all that cacophony somehow connects with me. And while it sounds like random noise, there’s nothing random about it. A photo of Ranaldo’s prepared amp used for “Teresa’s Sound World” shows that there is some method to the madness.

But not all Sonic Youth songs contain inscrutable lyrics. Another side of the band – befitting their punk rock roots – is their fierce, kim thurstonleft-leaning, socially-conscious lyrics.[ref]If you’re not a fan of their politics, the good part about all that noise for you is that often the lyrics and their message are buried beneath it.[/ref] Bassist Kim Gordon, wife (until recently) of Thurston Moore, frequently sings the political songs. My favorite Kim song on Dirty is “Shoot,” an abused woman’s perspective on domestic violence, and her dream of retribution.

kim singsThe music behind the lyrics is menacing and creepy, and explodes into violence, particularly between 3:00 and 3:40. As always, Shelley holds it all together. Gordon isn’t exactly a singer – I guess she’s more of a vocalist. But I’ve stated many times that I’m comfortable with vocalists that aren’t talented singers. Her delivery in this song enhances the effect of the lyrics. Gordon also “sings” the feminist anti-objectification/harassment song “Swimsuit Issue.”

My favorite Gordon-vocal song on the record is “On the Strip.”

It’s a straight-ahead SY song, with good harmonies, and a great guitar hook behind the “Hold Tight” lyrics of the chorus. It also features a patented SY noise-break (2:46 – 4:27) that sounds as much like a plane crash as anything on a pop album since Pink Floyd included the sound of an actual plane crash on The Wall.

“Youth Against Fascism” is a political song sung by Moore, railing against the first Bush presidency and its first Iraq war.

It features Fugazi mastermind, Ian MacKaye, steve shelleyplaying a scraping, keening, guitar line beneath the vocals. It’s a catchy song with a catchy vocal hook, “It’s the song I hate! It’s the song I hate.” In fact, even with all the noise, it may be the most “normal” sounding song on the record. Shelley lays down a great drum beat, one can hum along and shout the chorus … It’s so normal, you could imagine Fall Out Boy covering this song, which may mean it’s very bad, or very good. I’m not sure. But it’s definitely not something you’d typically hear about a Sonic Youth song.

thurstonOther tracks I must mention on this lengthy album – so long that it would just BARELY fit on a C60 cassette if I were back in my parents’ old basement stealing music – include “Chapel Hill,” the opening riff of which always makes me smile. Once again I have to call out Shelley’s drums, and the noise break around 2:20 in which he kicks up the tempo to a furious pace, then settles it all back down to a really cool ending. “Wish Fulfillment” was written and sung by guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and is one of the most emotional songs on the record. “Purr” has a great guitar riff and lots of energy, while “Drunken Butterfly” is a crazy-sounding song with lyrics pulled from old songs by the band Heart (?) and a cool video featuring puppets of the band.

Dirty is music. I’m sure of it. Just like Benny Goodman or Carole King or Mongolian throat-singing or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music[ref]Okay, maybe that’s stretching things.[/ref]. Even if my dad wouldn’t have recognized it as such.

But it doesn’t matter who else recognizes it. No one else will appreciate a song or album exactly the way you do. And that’s what makes music great! It is personal – you are the only one who gets to decide what your ears and brain perceive. Others will tell you The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson are great, and Nickleback and Taylor Swift are terrible. But you get to tell them they’re full of shit. And you are correct. Even if nobody else agrees.
band 1

You alone get to decide the music that’s worth stealing. (But support the artists – minimize your thievery, okay?)

Track Listing
Swimsuit Issue
Theresa’s Sound World
Drunken Butterfly
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On The Strip
Chapel Hill
Creme Brulee


78th Favorite: Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman


Good Old Boys. Randy Newman.
1974, Reprise. Producer: Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman
Purchased: circa 1992.

good old album

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Piano tunes with Broadway-esque orchestrations about characters from the American South. The lyrics are funny and sad and always pack a punch, and if you’ve got mixed feelings about your own hometown, this record will likely connect with you.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had more guitar, more rock. It’s sort of like listening to a Broadway cast recording or soundtrack – which isn’t surprising, since Newman has written songs for almost every movie ever made since 1992.
We all have to come from somewhere. Whether we are born in a location and stay there forever, or we move with our family every year, or if we have no family and nowhere to go, there is a feeling inside us that we have come from somewhere – even if we don’t know where that is.

poetryFor those of us who know where we came from, and who stayed there a while, our hometown helps define us. For some it states exactly who we are. Others work hard to prove it never can. Your hometown sets boundaries. It is the meter and rhyme scheme of rest of your life. You can say whatever you want to with your life, but you’ll always say it Iambic pentameter and AABBCC when you do. If you come from nowhere in particular, you’ll live your life in free verse.

lebanon paperA hometown can be the source of anxiety and stress in adults. At times you’ll find yourself reflecting on the good things about where you grew up, and proudly state “That place made me what I am today!” But then you’ll see the negatives and sheepishly murmur, “but I’m not like those people …” while wondering, “Or am I?”

I have written about my hometown extensively over the course of this blog. The history of its industry, the hard-working people who lived there (and the types of graffiti they created), and even what they did for entertainment. And like many grownups, in some ways I love the place I come from, and in some ways I can’t stand it. pa map 2

Lebanon, PA,[ref]Perhaps you remember it as the location of David Letterman’s fictional “Home Office” in the early 1990s?[/ref] my hometown, is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This fact often evokes the question from others, “Are you Amish?”
amish I’m not Amish, but I grew up in “Amish Country.” This means it was not unusual to see a horse and buggy driving on the roads near my house, although it would have been unusual to see one out my front window.[ref]Although I seem to recall it did happen once or twice.[/ref] Amish people were just other people in the community. My doctor, Dr. Eiceman (who was not, as his name suggests, an amalgam of 70s NBA greats Julius Erving and George Gervin) had a hitching post at his office for his Amish patients. Learning to drive as a teenager included instructions on dr icemansharing the road with horse and buggies.

However, far more common than the Amish were people from other Anabaptist sects. These other sects were mainly Mennonites and Brethren with a sprinkling of Moravians[ref]Who might not really be Anabaptist, depending on who’s telling the story.[/ref], too. Some of these people dressed a little differently than most other folks – wearing bonnets and hats very similar to those worn by Amish women and men – some drove cars that had no chrome, a good deal of them worked in local Farmers’ Markets.

When I was a kid, in the 70s and 80s, hex barnthe area was mostly farmland. Corn was the biggest crop, and it seemed to grow everywhere – plentiful and common enough that while driving to the pool or baseball games, my sisters and I could easily distinguish the “baby corn” at the beginning of summer from the “teenage corn” mid-summer (“knee high by the fourth of July!”) The Anabaptist religions of the region were evident in the cornfields by the multitude of Bible verse signs displayed in them, mostly warning others to shape up now or be judged later by an angry god.
road sign
My family is “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which is a culture, not a religion. One didn’t have to be Amish or Mennonite to understand what “Schmeis de gaul nibbe der fens fennig hoy!“[ref]Throw the horse over the fence some hay.[/ref] meant. This is a sentence from the Pennsylvania Dutch language, my dad’s parents’ mother tongue. His mother – who I only remember as a thick, round, gray-haired woman wearing cat’s eye spectacles and long, plain dresses, sitting in her stuffed chair, watching Lawrence Welk on a Saturday night – was clearly more comfortable speaking “Dutch,”[ref]My mom’s sister would be very upset if I didn’t mention here that the language “Pennsylvania Dutch” should really be called “Pennsylvania German,” as the term “Dutch” is a mispronunciation of the word “Deitcsh,” which means “German.” She’s quite vigilant about this.[/ref] than English. The happiest I remember seeing her was when her brother “Bench” – short for “Bench-a-min,” which is how one pronounces “Benjamin” with a thick Pennsylvania Dutch (German) accent – would visit and the two would sit in the living room or front porch and carry on zestful conversations in a dying language that sounded like the bad guys in a World War II movie.
[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”My dad (right) with his mom and dad, 1958. They likely offered their congratulations to him on high school graduation in a language I don’t understand.”]

The Pennsylvania Dutch culture, by thehex signs 1970s, was mostly residual, evidenced only in the hex signs on barns, the rich, egg-anchored foods and “Dutchified” phrases[ref]”Rutch over, I need a seat!” meaning move over. “Kids, don’t be so schuschlich,” meaning stop rutching around.[/ref] spoken in a sing-song accent that sounds like a combination of German, Yiddish and Irish accents – but nothing like that at all. But there remained a fierce pride in the heritage, and a desire to retain as much of it as possible.

The Pennsylvania Dutch people are, generally speaking, disinclined to get to know strangers. We are brought up to be skeptical of differences and resistant to change. (You might ask my wife – who grew up near Boston – about how difficult it aint dutchcan be to find a place among the insular PA Dutch.) But we are also taught loyalty, and the value of hard work. A self-deprecating sense of humor is endemic among us, and we like to have fun. (And my wife can also tell you about how much we like to laugh, as well!)

But it is this insularity, rigidity, and extreme resistance to change that I find to be the source of most of my anxiety about my hometown. There was a thick coat of racial prejudice over the region when I lived there. I don’t think of it as extreme – I rarely heard the “N word,” for example. But then again, there weren’t many African-Americans around. However, the Puerto Rican population in the city of Lebanon was quite sizable, and I heard the term “Spick” thrown around all the time. So maybe it’s just easy for a white guy to call this “not extreme;” maybe the fact that there were no lynchings doesn’t mean the bigotry wasn’t extreme.

differentBut the point is that anyone who was a little different – whether by skin color, dress, actions, or looks – was viewed with great skepticism. As I got older and started to understand who I was, and what I valued, it became increasingly difficult to stick around that place.

When I was 23, I joined a band, The April Skies, that performed in big cities on the East Coast, and I found myself regularly interacting with musicians, artists, and other creative types – exactly the types of people that my hometown might frown upon. I was hanging out with The Gays, The Lesbians, The Blacks, The Tattooed, The Drug Users, The Green-Haired. Some were funny, some were douchebags. Some were smart, some were idiots. freaksBut they were all just people, and after getting to know so many different ones, it became even harder to hear the comments, and feel the hostility, directed by so many people from my small town – small people with small minds who had never ventured more than a few feet away from their small houses – toward people they had never met from groups they had only conjured in their minds. (i.e. “The Gays.” “The Blacks.”)

When the band broke up a couple years later, the first thing I thought was “I’m getting the fuck outta Dodge.” I moved to San Francisco, and for years I was embarrassed about my hometown. tofu waterIt came out in my creative pursuits, evident in the play I wrote, and had produced, “Tofu Water,” about my town and my difficulties with it. But then again, I loved identifying with the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and even spoke some Pennsylvania Dutch in my stand up comedy act, and proudly enjoyed the laughs.

In my personal life, my feelings were equally conflicted. I couldn’t wait to go back to visit my hometown, but I’d be there two days and couldn’t wait to go home. I looked forward to introducing my own kids to the region, and showing off places and people and memories from my childhood, but then always felt relieved that my own kids wouldn’t be raised in such a place. My hometown became a difficult conundrum. A source of equal parts pride and embarrassment. I found I both admired and disdained the people. I both extolled and mocked its values. I wanted to hold it in me forever, but forget it ever existed.

And I think it’s because of the opposing force of these feelings that I connect at such a deep level with Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.

short peopleI had heard of Randy Newman since I was a kid. When his breakthrough song “Short People” hit the airwaves in 1977, I thought he was a comedy singer, like Jim Stafford or Ray Stevens. I thought the song was mean[ref]However, as with many Newman songs, a closer listen reveals the opposite.[/ref] and so I decided I didn’t like him. I saw him at some point as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live (likely in December, 1979, although it could have been a rerun of the October 18, 1975, episode) and realized he wasn’t a comedian, and that I still didn’t like him. In the 80s he surfaced in my world again when he had a minor hit with “It’s Money That Matters,” featuring a signature Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) lead guitar. I liked the sound of the song, but its smug, clever lyrics annoyed me. I was a fan of irony for sure – David Letterman was my idol at the time, after all – but there was something about Newman that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like David Letterman was with me, and we were mocking others. But Randy Newman seemed to be mocking me, and I didn’t like it.

I’ve written before about my old friend, A., who I’d like to call a former girlfriend, but who was really just … well, someone I hippy chickchauffeured to the airport to meet her new boyfriend, I guess. But anyway, she introduced me to many artists, and – hippy chick that she was – even though it was 1992 at the time, most of those artists were from the 70s. At that time, being in a band and all, I was trying my hand at writing songs – even though I could just BARELY play guitar. I wrote a song called “All You Can Eat Night at the Local Woodchuck Lodge and Men’s Club” which I played for her. I don’t remember much more of it than the title, but it was a song making fun of the Small Town attitudes of many folks from my home town. It featured a first-person narrator who was aggressively bigoted, and used his bigoted language in the lyrics.

I played the song for A. who immediately said, “Do you know the song ‘Rednecks,’ by Randy Newman?” I didn’t, so the next time we got together, she brought Good Old Boys with her and we listened. The album immediately struck a nerve. I soon went out and bought it.

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, randy 6but spent a great deal of time in New Orleans as a kid – living there and returning for summers until he was almost a teen-ager. Good Old Boys is both a celebration and a condemnation of the US South, written and sung by someone who clearly understands the people there, who genuinely admires a good deal about them, but who is also deeply conflicted about it all.

The first track sets the tone for the entire album. “Rednecks” is a simple song with deceptively simple lyrics[ref]Sensitivity warning: the “N-word” is used throughout.[/ref] that seem to be directly condemning rampant Southern racism.

It tells the story of a Southern white man watching former segregationalist governor of Georgia Lester Maddox interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show[ref]An event that really happened on December 18, 1970.[/ref], and getting so angry at Maddox’s treatment by the host that he writes a song about the joys of being a redneck. cavett maddox At first, the joke seems to be that all the joys he mentions are not admirable – being dumb, drinking too much, being a racist. The casual listener (particularly a snooty Northern liberal who feels nothing but derision toward the South – which is a decent description of me as a 25 year old) finds himself laughing at the disgusting man. Then the narrator compares the South’s African-Americans to the North’s, pointing out that the Northern blacks are free … “Free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City, and he’s free to be put in a cage in the South Side of Chicago …” It’s a remarkable song. In a brief three minutes it attacks both prejudice and hypocrisy, and forces the listener (well, this listener, at least) to consider his relationship to both. Musically, it’s got a catchy, sing-along melody with instrumentation befitting a song by a man who would go on to write loads of music for films. n wordThe blatant, repeated use of the “N-word” is likely offensive to many people, and I certainly understand why. To my ears, he’s writing from the point of view of someone who would speak the word in this manner, so it makes sense he’d use it – and informs the listener about the character of the man. But that’s my perspective – everyone will have their own personal view.

The next song, “Birmingham,” is one of the songs on the album that truly captures the dual, opposing feelings I have toward my hometown.

This entire album will be challenging for me to write about. It’s one of the few records on my list whose lyrics are the main reason I love it. A perfect record, to me, will have music I love paired with lyrics I love. Good Old Boys has music that I can appreciate, but what really brings me back to it are the lyrics. And I’m not sure how to write about them without just saying, “Look, read the lyrics,” and leaving it at that!

birminghamIn the case of “Birmingham,” the lyrics paint a simple picture of a simple man who loves his hometown, set to a catchy melody with another sing-along chorus. He works in the steel mill, like most of the men I knew as a kid, and doesn’t have much to complain about. There doesn’t seem to be much objectionable about him – except he reminds me of the many closed-minded jackasses I knew in my youth, as I was asking myself “Is this really all my hometown has to offer?” People who – when I mentioned I was moving to California – would scoff and say things like, “My cousin moved out there and moved back in 6 months. Said it’s expensive and full of assholes.” I hear the narrator, and I think, “Ha, another song about a dumb redneck!”

But really, this reaction is all about me. randy 2 The guy seems like a good person, going to work and enjoying his life. He’s a simple man, content, and good for him! But I sure do feel superior to him. Does that make me a bad person?[ref]Why do I like this record? Two songs in, and both have made me feel like a dick![/ref] But part of my reaction is also because the music has a hint of sadness to it. The lyrics are “Rah! Rah! Birmingham!” but the slow pace of the song and the horns and orchestra behind it seem to say, “Is this really all Birmingham has to offer?” Newman does a terrific job throughout this record of having the music enhance and comment on the lyrics. It’s a characteristic that makes him a natural to write all those Disney songs.

In the case of “Louisiana, 1927,” the music – a simple melody played by strings – immediately conjures images of Dixieland, with a tune that sounds straight out of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.

It is a sad song about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The narrator (every song has a narrator) tells of watching the rains come and water rise, “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” President Coolidge comes to visit, but doesn’t offer much more than words. It seems nature and the world outside are conspiring against the state, leading to the refrain, “Louisiana/Louisiana/They’re trying to wash us away/They’re trying to wash us away.”


All hometowns have an “us against the world” component to their collective consciousness. People want to belong to a group, and they want that group to thrive and be respected for it. “Louisiana, 1927” puts you on the “us” side whether you’re from the state or not. The song also became the unofficial anthem of the New Orleans flood of 2005.

randy 3Newman is not what one would call an excellent singer in the traditional sense. He sounds like he needs to blow his nose, for one thing, and he tends to speak his words as much as sing them. But because his songs are always sung from the point of view of a character, a commenter who has a story to tell, it often works perfectly. He uses it to great effect on the romantic ballad “Marie.”

In “Marie” the narrator is a drunken man who’s finally expressing his love to his long-suffering wife/girlfriend, Marie. Newman sounds a bit tipsy as he sings, and his voice almost cracks and nearly misses notes. He’s as much an actor in this song as a singer. The melody is slow and sad. The narrator tells Marie how beautiful she is, and how long he’s loved her, but between these statements of love he admits he doesn’t listen, he hurts her, he has to be drunk to tell her of his love … romcomIt’s a sad love song because he obviously knows he can’t give her what she deserves, and she has clearly stayed with him despite this, and as much as that can be portrayed in stories as a romantic situation (basically, every Rom-Com that’s ever been made …) to me it sounds like a life of daily misery. As with “Birmingham,” it’s the pace and instrumentation of the song that add to the sadness. Also – this couple reminds me of so many couples from my hometown, people who settled for a situation out of convenience or low self-esteem. This record keeps connecting with me.

This type of relationship is revisited on the album in “Guilty,” featuring another couple (the same couple?) who sound better off without each other. The couple finally marry in “Wedding in Cherokee County.” And they sound like they are doomed to a long marriage of mutual torment. After all, on their wedding night she laughs at his mighty sword!mighty sword

But how much is too much? Can an artist really record 12 songs about the mixed feelings engendered by one’s hometown? Well, it’s really 10, as “Naked Man” is sort of a novelty song that might take place anywhere people typically wear clothes.

It’s catchy and fun, and its story of a little old lady who’s purse is snatched by a man in the buff was actually based on a true story Newman heard from a friend. randy 1It’s a favorite of mine because it’s so upbeat and bouncy. And it may actually be commenting on a stereotype of the deep south and it’s ways, as a close reading of the lyrics reveals there may be something going on between the naked man and his sister.

Another character with a story to tell about his sister appears on “Back on My Feet Again,” one of a few songs on Good Old Boys featuring The Eagles’ Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon on background vocals.

The narrator sounds completely unreliable right off the bat, randy 5and the story he tells of his sister and “a negro from the Eastern Shore” of Maryland, and the lyric “open the door and set me free,” makes it pretty clear that the doctor he’s speaking with is a psychiatrist at a hospital. This song is my favorite on the record because it finally features[ref]That is, if the word “features” can mean an instrument plays quietly in the background[/ref] a guitar. If you’ve read many of these posts, you’ll know that I like to discuss what the instruments are playing throughout a song, and that I love guitar and drums. But this record is all about the piano and the orchestration, the lyrics and the feelings a melody can carry. So when a guitar appears, a slide guitar soloing in the background throughout the verses and the chorus, my ears perk up and pay attention.

randy 7Politics are covered on the songs “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” a terrific song about the working poor, and “Kingfish,” about the populist 1930s governor and senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long[ref]Newman also includes a version of Long’s campaign theme written by Long himself[/ref]. Both songs are great, and I particularly like “Kingfish” because when the chorus, “Here come the Kingfish, the Kingfish,” comes around the music takes a sinister turn away from the upbeat tales of all the good things the governor has done. Once again, the music helps inform the listener about the lyrics.

The album closes with “Rollin’.”

It sounds like another look at the character from “Birmingham,” again proclaiming that life is good, and he ain’t gonna worry no more. But the source of his comfort is the whiskey he pours. The song connects with me, as does the whole album, because it offers a look at people you can’t help but feel sorry for. In this case, a guy who doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but who just seems lost, or maybe extremely limited, stating that life is good while his condition indicates otherwise.

randy 4But again – maybe that’s just my perception. Taken at face value, the character’s words make him sound content, if not downright happy. I associate these songs with my hometown and the people I knew there, and how sad it all seemed to me. But that perception is my own. The people where I grew up might not be sad, they might not be limited – in fact, they might even be happy to be there! It’s condescending of me to assume that because it’s not where I wanted to stay there’s no reason anyone would want to stay.

You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. But that has nothing to do with home. It’s because of you. Good Old Boys always reminds me that I can’t go home again, and that makes me both happy and sad. I’ll let the Birmingham-born southern writer Walker Percy sum it up:

“It’s one thing to develop a nostalgia for home while you’re boozing with Yankee writers in Martha’s Vineyard or being chased by the bulls in Pamplona. It’s something else to go home and visit with the folks in Reed’s drugstore on the square and actually listen to them. The reason you can’t go home again is not because the down-home folks are mad at you–they’re not, don’t flatter yourself, they couldn’t care less–but because once you’re in orbit and you return to Reed’s drugstore on the square, you can stand no more than fifteen minutes of the conversation before you head for the woods, head for the liquor store, or head back to Martha’s Vineyard, where at least you can put a tolerable and saving distance between you and home. Home may be where the heart is but it’s no place to spend Wednesday afternoon.”

Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
Louisiana 1927
Every Man a King
Naked Man
Wedding in Cherokee County
Back on My Feet Again


79th Favorite: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police


Zenyatta Mondatta. The Police.
1980, A&M. Producer: The Police and Nigel Gray
Purchased: circa 1981.

album cover

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Ska/Reggae/Punk rock played by guys who really know how to play! Catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms are laid on top of performances that get more impressive the more you listen.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – The songs were more diverse. I like that “Police Sound,” but it can get repetitive.
happy daysIn 1974 the TV program Happy Days hit the American airwaves. Happy Days was a situation comedy set in 1950s, dawn of rock n’ roll Milwaukee, about a teenager, Richie Cunningham, and his family and friends. It was a typical sit-com of the day, featuring gentle humor and everyday story lines that made it popular with both kids and adults. It rarely, if ever, pushed boundaries or courted controversy, and until it “jumped the shark,” in an episode that spawned the phrase “jumping the shark,” it was a funny family TV program of the type rarely seen these days on network TV.[ref]However, The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have continued to churn out mostly weak versions of these types of sitcoms.[/ref]

According to wikipedia, the program began fonz posteras a mid-season replacement show. I was in first grade, and I don’t remember watching it then. But by 4th grade it was my favorite show. My favorite character was the cool tough guy, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz.” On my bedroom wall I had a Fonzie poster that I selected as a prize for selling boxes of PTA fundraiser candy. [ref]A poster that, as of April, 2015, is selling for $150 on e-bay![/ref] My favorite t-shirt stated “I’m the Fonz.”

fonz t-shirt

I begged for a Happy Days lunch box, prominently featuring The Fonz, but I already had a “Yankee Doodles” lunchbox that celebrated the Bicentennial with clever cartoons, so I couldn’t get one. lunch oneLike most of America at the time, I was battling a huge case of Fonzie Fever. How bad were the national symptoms of this malady? Consider that in the 1976 US Presidential race, incumbent Gerald Ford’s campaign included a picture of an uncomfortable-because-my-undershirt-is-showing Ford dressed as a leather-jacketed “Fordzie” character. (Try to imagine the 2012 Obama campaign doing something similar. “Barack-y Stinson,” from How I Met Your Mother? Eew.)


The Fonz introduced to me, and to most Americans, a concrete version of the concept of “Cool.” The Fonz proclaimed himself cool, and he did “cool” things – like choose to not comb his hair because he was already perfect, or start broken juke boxes with a simple punch (or a snap of the fingers, when necessary[ref]Post-shark jump only.[/ref]), or show up to parties with a bevy of women with a group name (e.g. The Aloha Pussycats, The Hooper Triplets.)

beatnikHe changed how we talked, as well. Fonzie established the term “cool” in its current usage. Before The Fonz, there were “Cool Cats” playing jazz, or tightrope walkers who were “Cool as a Cucumber.” But after The Fonz appeared, your new jeans could be “cool,” your plans to go to the mall could be “cool,” you kid’s art project could be “cool.” Fonzie made “Cool” so very cool.

Of course, Happy Days and The Fonz didn’t invent the concept of “Cool.” According to the interwebs, “cool” originated in the 1930s with jazz musicians, and was popularized in the 40s and 50s. The excellent Miles Davis albumbirth cool Birth of the Cool featured recordings of the Miles Davis Nonet from 1949 and 1950. The title refers to “Cool Jazz,” a style of music that sounded relaxed and in control, as opposed to the furious pace and excess displayed in Bebop. In 60s sit-coms, “cool” was usually among the terms used in dialogue to quickly identify characters as beatniks or jazz enthusiasts.eddie

In popular culture, the term gradually moved away from shorthand for jazz into a concept that non-beatniks could embody, as well. The Peanuts comic strip introduced Snoopy as the character “Joe Cool” in the early 70s. joe coolBut there remained a negative association to the term, a sense that anyone who was “cool” was arrogant or a fool. The humor of Snoopy’s Joe Cool character comes from the fact that he’s unaware of how wrong-headed his “cool” choices are. (Asked by Linus how his chemistry test went, Snoopy replies “Joe Cool can’t worry about chemistry when he’s busy hanging around the student union.”)

But Fonzie was the first pop culture figure to present “Cool” as a positive characteristic, as something to aspire to. Sure, he was a goofy caricaturefonie – with his thumbs-up salute, his “Aaayyy” and his “Whoa,” his leather jacket and superhuman abilities[ref]Again, post-shark jump only[/ref]. But there was something about being Fonzie that connected with people. He revealed an underlying desire among people to be “The Man,” or “The Woman.” To be – in a word – cool.

But being “Cool” is very hard to accomplish in real life. The words “Cool” and “Fool” share 75% of their letters, but there is certainly a better than 95% chance that any individual trying to be “Cool” will instead look like a Fool. And this is why the concept of “Cool” – as embodied by The Fonz – is so elusive. What feels “Cool” to you, on the inside, while you’re “in the moment,” can easily appear silly (or worse) to those around you; and so you make sure you’re not discovered trying to be cool. not coolThis self-censoring creates a cool-restrictive feedback loop. You spend time monitoring yourself, and how you’ll look, and now you’ve ensured you’ll never be cool. No one so self-conscious ever can be. The fictional world of Happy Days solved this problem by telling you Fonzie was cool, and having the characters all go along with it, finding his silly phrases and hair and superheroic thumb cool, too. We were allowed to watch a cool guy be cool – with no one giggling behind his back – and we loved it. Milwaukee loved it so much, they erected a statue of The Fonz.[ref]Although it looks more like Captain Kangaroo than Fonzie.[/ref]
fonz gang

Personally, I believe we should stop monitoring ourselves and gauging our cool against potential goofiness. It feels good to feel cool, despite what others think. Here are a few instances in my life where I felt cool – even when those around me disagreed.

paper airplaneThe time in first grade when I folded a paper airplane and tossed it repeatedly into the air, coolly reflecting on how I’d finally made it out of the kindergarten wing, and was now in all-day school and riding the bus both ways with kids as old as ten and eleven. (Mrs. Hower did not seem to care about my inner reflections, and yelled and made me stand up and throw away my airplane, and my tearful walk to and from the wastebasket did not feel cool.)

dramaThe time in 8th grade when I got the part in the school play I wanted, a sidekick character who got a lot of laughs. I felt so cool to be recognized for my Bill Murray-esque talent. (Even though my friend, C., pointed out before the first show that the casting notes at the beginning of the script called for the role’s ideal actor to be “overweight and loud.”)

naismithThe time the coach of my son’s 7th grade basketball team asked me if I wanted to help coach the team – a role I’d served in for some of his other teams. However, this team was a “select” team, so I felt very cool to be asked to help in a way that would mean more than babysitting and yelling at kids to stop playing on the pile of mats. (An invitation my son insisted I turn down, lest he have to deal, once again, with the sight of me wearing “those BLUE SWEATPANTS!!”)

walkmanThe time in 11th grade when I got a knockoff version of a SONY walkman and I blasted my eardrums with Zenyatta Mondatta in the backseat of the car while my parents got lost in Philadelphia driving to visit a prospective college. (Causing my dad to eventually scream, “Take those stupid things off your head!!!”)
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goofy policeThere is something about The Police that I have always found extremely cool. It probably sounds ludicrous today to think of The Police as “Cool,” (as this spoof points out) but in my world they still are. Maybe it’s because of my age when they emerged on the scene (about 12 years old). I was aware enough of the world in 1979 to know what “punk rock” was. Punk was supposed to be the new, cool music. However depictions of the genre – such as the MAD Magazine send up of punk rock[ref]Featuring the classic band Johnny Turd and the Commodes.[/ref], or news pieces about crazy punk rock teen-agers which were frequently on TV – frightened me, and kept me from buying albums I saw by bands like The Sex Pistols and turdThe Clash and The Ramones. However, The Police – who were often lumped in with the punks – were different. They seemed safer, somehow. They were odd and British and snotty enough to mildly annoy and worry my parents, but they weren’t going to start a war in my household.

When their first US single “Roxanne” hit the airwaves in 1979, it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. Sting’s voice was whiny and high pitched,roxanne and the way he sang the word “Roxanne” didn’t really sound like singing at all. It was a repetitive song, but super catchy. I liked it because I thought it sounded cool. And I thought I was really cool for liking it. Of course, when I told the coolest kid in our neighborhood, Dominic, how cool I thought the song was, he mocked me for days.

But I remained a secret fan. And when I was finally able to convince my mom, during columbia housemy freshman year of high school, to let me join the Columbia House Record Club (a pretty cool club for music loving teens in the 70s and 80s that didn’t rip me off because I ALWAYS sent back my monthly selection on time!) one of the first 12 cassettes I ordered for a penny was Zenyatta Mondatta.

band 2

The Police Sound is a sound of contradictions – perhaps borne of the band’s notorious intraband discord. It sounds punk-y and basic at first, but closer listening reveals it’s full of excellent musicianship. It sounds spare and open, but those spaces are filled with complex playing. It sounds bouncy and fun, but the lyrics can be very serious. Zenyatta Mondatta is the band’s third album, and it follows the template of the first two, Outlandos d’Amour and Regatta de Blanc, with reggae-influenced, driving rock songs featuring Sting’s multi-tracked vocals and close harmonies, and the jazzy guitar and intricate drumming of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, respectively.

The album opens with one of the most famous rock tracks of all time, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

It may be hard to believe now, but when this song came out I had no idea it was about a teacher and a student having a … thing. I was thirteen, not really aware of song lyrics other than the chorus, and not really paying attention to what the words were saying. I was on a baseball team with some older kids – 14 and 15 year olds – and at practice, during a discussion of contemporary music (at which time the song “Funky Town” was officially declared excellent) some 15 year old (Joey Smetana? Mark Allwein?) mentioned, casually (as 15 year olds will) “‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ is about some teacher fucking his student.” I felt a little queasy hearing this, but also happy to be part of the club who knew this (apparently) hidden detail. The song also enhanced my knowledge of literature, as I eventually read “that book by Nabokov.”

The song opens with a low, held bass note and some distant, simple guitar notes. Then that bass note just hangs there for several seconds – it’s a very compelling, spooky opening – until it modulates, and the cymbals and kick drum begin. When the lyrics begin, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t noticed the story being told, but let’s just say I wasn’t the most “with it” thirteen year old. police friendsThe song displays all the standard Police bits that define their unique style, particularly in the chorus (first at ~0:57). Stewart Copeland’s syncopated drumming (check out what the cymbal is doing) and Andy Summers’s sparse, moody guitar behind Sting’s high pitched shout. One of the things I like most about the song is the countermelody that the bass plays during the “Don’t stand so, Don’t stand so …” It’s a bouncing line that goes up in pitch when the vocal pitch drops – the type of little choice that makes songs interesting. After the first chorus (about 1:13), Sting’s bass line and Copeland’s drums become frantically syncopated and it’s really Summers’s guitar[ref]Okay, and the snare drum.[/ref] that holds the song together rhythmically through the verse.

It’s a really great song that has been played so much over the years, it’s easy to forget how great it is. It’s famous for having been illegally used in a UK deodorant commercial and for a video[ref]A video played nearly hourly, if my 1981 memories of the first few months of MTV are accurate.[/ref] featuring the beautiful young men of the band jumping around in a school.

sting beat That video also got me, and many American youths, interested in the British band The Beat (known as “The English Beat” in the US).

What “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” demonstrates in The Police sound is that there is always a lot more happening in their songs than what you hear the first time through. Sting writes such catchy melodies, and the band’s arrangements sound so good, that the details are often lost on first listen.

An excellent example is the second song on the album, and my favorite, “Driven to Tears.”

The song opens with a snare drum, stewartwhich is perfect for this song because the drumming on it is amazing. Stewart Copeland is widely recognized as one of the top drummers in the rock era and his work on “Driven to Tears” exemplifies why. Pay attention to the drums, and imagine your own hands trying to hit all those drums and (especially) cymbals with sticks the same way. Sting’s bass line is simple and – once again – bouncy, and Summers is as ethereal as ever in the spaces. The lyrics consider the responsibilities of Western, wealthy people towards Earth’s less-fortunate people, and is one of Sting’s first directly socially conscious songs, presaging his later extensive work with social action charities. Andy Summers also plays one of the weirdest guitar solos in pop music on this song, as well. It starts behind the vocals, at around 1:35, and only takes another 15 – 18 seconds, but it’s as memorable a 15 second guitar solo as I’ve heard. “Driven to Tears” is repetitive, which is usually a characteristic that causes me to skip a song, but The Police do so much within the repetitive framework they build that I never get tired of the song. Here’s them playing it live, back in the day.

The Police are clearly influenced by reggae, which can be a somewhat repetitive, meditative musical style. The song “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” is one of the more repetitive songs you’ll hear on my list of 100 favorite albums[ref]I’m desperately trying not to repetitively say “repetitive.”[/ref], but it just sounds so cool to me!

I often complain to my teenage son that much of the hip-hop music he likes sounds too repetitive to me. He tells me my music is the same way. Maybe he’s right. In this song, Sting’s melody saves the day. It makes the chorus a sing-along favorite. The lyrics explain to a sweetheart (or friend) how they brighten an otherwise tiresome, worn-out world. The verses cram lots of words into a little bit of space, which is another facet of the typical Police sound.

This wordiness is also on display in “Canary In a Coalmine”

It’s another short, punchy song about a person extremely faint of heart. The rhymes are funny, and Summers plays a nice lead guitar line throughout the song. I think of this song and “When the World is Running Down …” as two halves of the same song, maybe because they are next to each other on the record.

band facesSting has been pilloried in the press over the years for his lyrics. And certainly publishing them in a collection called Lyrics by Sting[ref]Available on Amazon for $2.06 (hardcover) or $0.02 (paperback). Yes that’s TWO CENTS![/ref] might not have been a good way to tamp down this derision. Further, it couldn’t have helped his case to include statements like the following in the book’s foreword:

Publishing my lyrics separately from their musical accompaniment is something that I’ve studiously avoided until now. The two, lyrics and music, have always been mutually dependent, in much the same way as a mannequin and a set of clothes are dependent on each other; separate them, and what remains is a naked dummy and a pile of cloth.

Or even worse, this:

My wares have neither been sorted nor dressed in clothes that do not belong to them; indeed, they have been shorn of the very garments that gave them their shape in the first place. No doubt some of them will perish in the cold cruelty of this new environment, and yet others may prove more resilient and become perhaps more beautiful in their naked state.

(Wait … doesn’t the mannequin give shape to the clothes, not vice versa? Oh well.) And it probably doesn’t help my case for being considered “cool” to acknowledge that I’ve always sort of liked many of Sting’s lyrics.[ref]For The Police, anyway. I don’t know a lot of his solo work.[/ref] For example, I thought mentioning Nabokov in a pop song was kind of cool. And as someone who often finds himself tongue-tied in conversation, with thoughts in my head finding no clear path to my voice box and mouth, a song of Sting’s that has long been a favorite is “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”

It’s all about how hard it is to find the right words. The bass, guitar and drums are all sounding good in this one, and the soft, gauzy verse coupled with the percussive chorus fit together nicely. police singingThe band’s two-note “Ba-Ba” before the (vocal) “De do do do …” are an example of how a tiny bit of music can become a signature of a song. I recall my sister, Liz, and I banging our heads to these two notes – just to gently antagonize my mom, who by 1980 was finding popular music far, far too crazy to even comment on any more. The song was also ripped off in a commercial for a classic turn-of-the-decade Designer Jeans brand, Baronelli.[ref]Designer Jeans commercials in 1979-80 were very strange, and even a young Boston Celtics Legend might turn up on one.[/ref]

But if you aren’t a fan of Sting’s lyrics, the band includes some other songs for you to appreciate. There’s Andy Summers’s grammy award-winning instrumental “Behind My Camel.” According to Summers’s excellent autobiography, One Train Later, Sting hated this song and refused to play on it, and went so far as to bury the recording in summers 1 the garden outside the studio in hopes of keeping it off the album. (Sting has confirmed the story.) It’s a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo that I like well enough, but that to my ears doesn’t really show off the best of Summers’s technique. There’s another instrumental, this one drummer Copeland’s composition, “The Other Way of Stopping.” Another near-instrumental is “Voices Inside My Head,” which features words written by Sting, but only 10 of them, so probably not enough to be hated. I actually like Summers’s guitar on this song more than on “Behind My Camel.”

If you want a non-instrumental, non-Sting-lyrics song, Zenyatta Mondatta has one of those, too, in the excellent Copeland piece “Bombs Away.”

This song has everything great about the band, and album, in one song. Sting’s bass line is funky, tricky and propels the song forward, as usual. He typically plays a fretless bass, which as an amateur electric bass player myself, I find pretty incredible. Copeland’s sting fretless drumming, from his kick drum to his cymbals, is excellent and as melodic as a few drums can be. Summers again shows off his subtle genius by nicely doubling the chorus melody, and in his deft background picking, and in another weird, Middle Eastern solo (~1:34), this one stretching out for more than 15 seconds. He also stretches further on the outro solo, starting about 2:17. The Police weren’t a typical “guitar hero band,” like Van Halen or summers guitar Queen or AC/DC, but Summers states his case here, playing this last solo like he’s finally been allowed off the leash.[ref]In an admittedly Police fashion.[/ref]

The remaining two songs are “Man in a Suitcase,” another frantic, sing-along ska song featuring cool double tracked harmony vocals by Sting, and more tight, intricate drumming. And “Shadows in the Rain,” a slow groove of a Police song. This one is very meditative and sparse.

The album doesn’t have a lot of diversity of sound – something that I typically look for in my favorite albums. But it does have a sound of its own … a cool sound. A sound that takes me back, makes me feel good, and makes me happy. For me, it’s a celebration of feeling “cool.”
band 1
And we SHOULD celebrate feeling cool! It’s a great feeling! Go ahead and toss a paper airplane, or act in a play. Go wear your blue sweatpants. Or listen to Zenyatta Mondatta. Who cares if you look like a doofus to others. You’re allowed to be Fonzie in your world. You must cherish your own version of a supernatural thumb.

fonz final thumb

Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Driven to Tears
When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What’s Still Around
Canary in a Coalmine
Voices Inside My Head
Bombs Away
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Behind My Camel
Man in a Suitcase
Shadows in the Rain
The Other Way of Stopping


80th Favorite: Freedom, by Neil Young


Freedom. Neil Young.
1989 Reprise. Producer: Neil Young and Niko Bolas
Purchased: 1990.


chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL – Rock chameleon Neil Young explores the meaning of America’s favorite word – Freedom – in a diverse set of songs full of strange sounds, unexpected choices and musical structures that help elucidate meaning from the lyrics. He is a man free do do anything, and he makes the most of his opportunity.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – The melodies were a bit stronger, and a couple acoustic songs went electric.
oh the places“You can do anything you want,” my parents often told me, “if you put your mind to it.”

To be honest, I don’t remember those exact words being spoken – it wasn’t like a parenting mantra for them. But it was definitely a belief system that they tried to instill – the idea that I shouldn’t be limited in my pursuits by anything (other than my own lack of interest.) However, I’m not sure they actually believed in that belief system. Or rather, it wasn’t a belief system they acted upon.

There are many folks on Earth who claim to believe in a god, but when challenged to put that faith into action – even basic action – choose to defer. “If you’re a Christian, why don’t you go to church?” “If you’re a Jew, why do you work on Yom Kippur?” “If you’re a Pastafarian, how come you don’t drink beer?”

pastafarianThese are the types who show up for church only on Christmas and (maybe) Easter; or the aunt and uncle who sometimes come to a Seder, but who don’t even belong to a Temple. When asked if they believe, they’re sure to say “Yes, of course!” But when probed on the subject, they’re sure to say, “Mind your own business.”

prayerMy folks took this approach with the religion of You Can Do Anything You Want. They instructed my sisters and me in its creed, and never dared come out and say it was bullshit … but they didn’t actively assist in any life pursuits, either. As kind, loving parents, they naturally knew there was no reason to tell a 12 year old boy, “You’ll never play baseball in the big leagues.” But when told by that same 12 year old, “I want to be a doctor,” neither did they say, “Well, make sure you take college-track courses in high school.”

In fact, they didn’t have many examples from their own lives of people who did Anything They Wanted. People they knew got jobs as steel workers, or in some other industry related to steel. PA mapSince the turn of the 20th century Lebanon had been a big Steel Town, a little brother between Pennsylvania’s twin steel cities Bethelehem and Pittsburgh. The old Bethlehem Steel Plant (pronounced “Beth’-lum Steel”) was central – both geographically and economically – to the City of Lebanon.

It was a sprawling, military-base-looking series of redbrick buildings that spanned a good two to three city blocks in length and a city block or more in width. The plant straddled Lincoln Avenue, and there was an MP-like guard in a hard-hat standing in a little guard box near where the street crossed the railroad tracks. Beth SteelThe guard would direct the flow of traffic as needed, ensuring no cars would crash into any of the forklifts, light trucks, or men that were busy loading up railcars to ship steel around the globe. There was an inspiring, martial urgency that I could feel humming around me whenever my family drove down Lincoln Ave. Even on Saturday nights, when my family took this route home from visiting my Grandma’s house, hurrying to make it back by 10 pm for The Carol Burnett Show, that guard and the hustle and bustle surrounding him were evidence of the round-the-clock importance of whatever it was that was happening inside those brick buildings.

steel foundryMost kids’ dads worked at The Beth’-lum Steel. Many other dads worked at the Lebanon Steel Foundry or Cleaver Brooks, a manufacturer of industrial boilers, or Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. Still others – like my dad, and my uncles, and their friends, and most of the grown men I knew – worked inside the dozens of machine shops, tool and die shops, pattern shops, and other associated metal working businesses situated within the county.

deer hunterLebanon was a Steel Town, and this didn’t necessarily mean that everyone traipsed into and out of the Big Factory every 8 hours, like a scene from The Deer Hunter or All the Right Moves.

But it did mean that almost everyone worked in a job that owed its existence to Big Steel.

beth steel 2

So in this context, what would it really mean to my parents that “You can do anything you want”? Theoretically speaking, sure, you could go be a doctor or a lawyer. But practically speaking, why would you do anything else except for Steel? You’re really going to spend $8,000 a year to go to college for four years[ref]More years, and more money, if you’re really serious about this “Doctor” or “Lawyer” thing …[/ref] when you could make almost twice that much right now with just a high school diploma?

steel workerThere was a perceived safety in steel, and there were enough people inside those brick buildings whose steel paycheck was paying off a few costly semesters of college they’d dropped out of to make it seem like college was the risky path to choose. The religion of You Can Do Anything, when put into actual practice, sounded like a choice for suckers. Like asking a Christian to be good and go to church each Sunday when he can just ask Jesus to forgive his sins on his deathbed and wind up in the same place.

From WWII up until about 1981, the American Dream was really at its height for families in my hometown. Most families were single-income, and that income earner likely only had a high school diploma, yet he[ref]Despite the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement, those single earners were overwhelmingly male.[/ref] earned enough to buy a house with a yard in a safe neighborhood.

70s dreamSo there wasn’t an enormous financial motivation to following one’s dreams. No one was getting rich, but very few were mired in the dire straits that can sometimes force a person to dream big and do everything possible to attain those dreams. No one thought that this hard-earned American Dream of Middle Class comfort could evaporate so quickly. It seemed like Steel had always been there, providing jobs and glory, and that it would remain so forever. No one expected that by 1984 it would end.

My own dreams didn’t necessarily include going to college. I wasn’t exactly sure whether Bill Murray, John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd had gone to college, and they were what I dreamed of becoming.

snl 78I took all the college prep courses in high school, mainly because the Guidance Counselor (such as he was) had told me it was the best choice for me. Still, my mom remained unsure. Before my sophomore year of high school, she had a lengthy discussion with me about whether I should take general ed courses instead, and start attending Vo-Tech. She suggested plumbing might be a good trade for me to look into.

I didn’t know if the Vo-Tech offered Saturday Night Live training courses, but I knew for a fact that the Vo-Tech kids mostly scared the shit out of me, and there was no way I was going to get on a bus with them each day and risk getting beaten up just so I could learn how to pipe poop. I convinced her that college was my dream path, but didn’t mention Saturday Night Live.

I kept that dream inside my head, where it more resembled a nighttime, sleeping dream than what one would call an “aspiration.” I had vague notions of making people laugh and performing, but actually penguindoing so seemed about as real as dunking a basketball against a team of giant penguins in capes. It never occurred to me to investigate a path to attain it. One time I did discuss my dream briefly with my parents, but their angry response ensured I never asked again. It seemed more productive to just write a letter to SNL to see if they’d bring a 16 year old from rural PA, with no stage experience[ref]Except for playing trombone solos in church, which I did emphasize in my letter.[/ref] in for an audition. I still await their reply, and assume that no formal decision has yet been reached.

My parents’ response was evidence that while You Can Do Anything You Want was the theory, in actual practice it was When We Said “Anything” We Didn’t Really Mean to Imply “Anything.”

These circumstances left me with a lifelong fascination with those who did go on to follow their dreams and Do Anything They Wanted. And perhaps the strongest example in rock music of a person who not only does what he wants, but also does what he wants regardless of trends, expectations, common sense or record company threats, is Neil Young.

Neil paris

The late 80s were a tough time for my lifelong love affair with music. Having grown accustomed to the Classic Rock sound of AOR radio, and falling particularly hard for the 70s prog rock shenanigans of Rush and Yes and the like, but being disgusted classic rockby the pseudo-heavy-metal Hair Bands that proliferated and too timid to give a chance to most anything that didn’t feature the guitar front and center, or that wasn’t heard on any radio stations I could get, I waded chest-deep into the murky waters of Eighties Records from Sixties and Seventies Bands. In doing so, I missed out on lots of excellent bands while they were at their creative peak, and paid lots of money to listen to a lot of crap.[ref]Some of which, admittedly I still have a taste for.[/ref]

Raise your hand if you rushed out to buy that Emerson, Lake and Powell record in 1986! (You know, the band formed when elpowellCarl Palmer – the “P” in 70s prog rockers ELP – was replaced by Cozy Powell after a quick search through the likely small stack of applications received that met the requirements of a) 70s Rock Drummer Still Alive in 1986 and b) Last Name Begins with “P.”)

And raise your other hand if you ALSO had no idea who Husker Du was in 1986!

knee to bellyGreat! You are now in perfect position to be kneed in the solar plexus, which is how I feel when I realize what the fuck I was listening to in the 80s, and what I COULD HAVE BEEN listening to instead![ref]Although I should point out that this time was also spent getting DEEPLY into The Beatles, so it wasn’t all wasted.[/ref] I’m sure I’ll dive more deeply into this topic in future posts, as it’s a sad, desperate era in my musical timeline soothed only by the balm of the flagellant-like spectacle of writing about it in embarrassing, humorous detail for public consumption. But suffice it to say that when you realize you spent money on an album like the 1987 Jethro Tull release Crest of a Knave but didn’t know The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me (also from 1987) was even a thing until sometime in the mid-90s, you get the same mortified feeling you have waking up in your underpants on a stranger’s couch, vague memories of tequila shots and police cars swimming below the surface of your mind, suddenly aware that you’ll never again get a chance to NOT barf into that guy’s washing machine.60s 80s

But during this dark time in my life of music appreciation, Neil Young’s 1989 gem Freedom appeared.[ref]Most likely prolonging my stay in the chilly, but unpleasantly-warm-in-spots 80s Classic Rock pool.[/ref] I was in the best cover band ever at the time, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, playing bass next to Dr. Dave and his guitar, and we immediately learned a couple songs from the album to add to our repertoire.

For long-time Neil Young fans, the album opener is quite exciting. It’s a live recording of just Neil and his acoustic guitar, the sounds of an enthusiastic audience cheering along as he belts out a new song, “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

It’s something Young also did 10 years earlier on the excellent album Rust Never Sleeps.

On Freedom, this choice sets up the entire work. It is an opening plea: you have been given a gift, listeners in the Western world. Don’t blow it, like others have, using it to proliferate environmental destruction, machine guns, wasted lives. Create something good. Then he goes on to show us what one man can do with this freedom.

His use of that freedom is displayed on the very next song, the epic slice of life narrative “Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)”:

It’s an acoustic guitar driven riff rocker, but it immediately signals it will be unusual with the loud organ and vaguely out-of-tune guitar notes that begin the song, then fade out in the first 5 seconds. It’s a musical choice that is reminiscent of neil acoustic2the opening chord of The Beatles’ “Her Majesty.”[ref]The song was famously intended to be placed between two other tracks on Abbey Road, but was spliced out, leaving it with an introductory note that was actually the final chord from the previous song.[/ref] The lyrics tell several tales from the gritty city, almost like a darker, less goofy version of the film Slacker set to music. Each of the vignettes describes a crime, or a lost person, or both, evoking sadness and hopelessness. Except for a verse about a music artist and a record producer who conspire to build a hit song by hiring an outside songwriter. I find it wonderful to know that Neil lumps these two in with corrupt cops, drug dealers and arsonists. It’s evidence of his commitment to Anything He Wants to Do, his faith in following his muse, that he considers hiring folks to touch up his work just more Crime in the City.

To my ears, what really makes this song a Neil song, as opposed to just another acoustic guitar ballad you might hear on Sirius/XM’s The Coffeehouse, are the recurrence of that initial organ note and out of tune guitar after each verse (for example, around 1:25 and 2:56), and the way those organ/guitar notes turn into very brief waltz interludes after the third (~4:25) and fourth (~6:03) verses. This is a strange song. There isn’t a chorus, but horns enter in the middle, helping to build the energy and keeping it from ever becoming boring. Plus there’s Neil’s subtle acoustic soloing throughout. This is a song by a man who can do whatever he wants on a record, and his artistic vision hits the jackpot here.

The Latin-flavored “Eldorado” is similar in structure and sound to “Crime.”

It begins with a gentle Spanish guitar sound and grows more electric. Neil’s always interesting, signature electric guitar soloing is featured throughout. neil guitar3His electric guitar solos, throughout his career, remind me of Thelonious Monk piano solos. At first they can sound out of tune or mistake-filled or simply weird, until the music continues forward and your brain catches up, and you realize what the instrument has been saying fits perfectly. It’s a definite kind of genius. “Eldorado’s” lyrics are once again dark tales of a dangerous life. And this time the strange interjections of sound aren’t waltzes, but thunderous claps of pegged guitar noise (~4:48) that appear from nowhere, like sudden summer storms.

Young’s fascination with strange blasts of sound, even in otherwise un-blastful songs, shows up repeatedly on Freedom, a preview of what would come on his next few records with his band Crazy Horse – 1990’s Ragged Glory and the live albums Arc and Weld. The noisiest two are “Don’t Cry” and his remake of the 60s hit “On Broadway.”

“Don’t Cry” features an anvil and more cloudbursts of sound from Young’s guitar, including a shotgun sound that reappears throughout (for example ~1:01).

The guitar solos are ugly noise, but they fit a song with lyrics about an ugly breakup. neil guitar2It ends with Young’s always edgy voice and a final shotgun crash of electric tumult. His version of “On Broadway” also uses the ugly sounds of his guitar as a comment on the ugly sights on Broadway ca. 1989.

Times Square in 1989 was a far different scene than that of today – a rundown fortress of seedy porn theaters and seedier people. And Young’s version – with his caterwauling vocals and the band’s sloppy playing and more solo guitar that sounds like jet aircraft falling linda ronstadtfrom the sky – reflects that seediness, doing away with the “If I Can Make It Here …” wonder featured in other popular versions of the song. The whole thing devolves into Neil screaming over the din for someone to “Gimme some crack!” It is a brilliant mess.

Proving that he can Do Whatever He Wants, Young also places some extraordinarily romantic and moving soft numbers on the record as well. Two are duets with Linda Ronstadt, her full, gorgeous voice sounding extra beautiful when paired with Neil’s thin tenor. “Hangin’ on a Limb” is the first of the two.

It’s a song about a traveling musician’s love for a woman, written as only a traveling musician can. “There was something about freedom/he thought he didn’t know,” they sing, reflecting the pull the road must have on some performers. The song offers a different perspective on what it means to be free, a path that isn’t without sacrifice or negatives. It also includes much sweet acoustic soloing from Young.

The other Linda Ronstadt performance comes on “The Ways of Love,” written from the perspective of two people in a new love, aware of the fact that this new love – wonderful though it is – is crushing others who now have been displaced.

It starts with one of those rolling acoustic riffs that Young features in many songs (e.g. “Needle and the Damage Done“) and that sound so inviting. A nice lap pedal steel guitar fills in, as the drum alternates a snare and a tom, giving the song a Western feel. As in “Broadway” and “Don’t Cry,” Young uses the music and arrangement to support the meaning of the song, this time falling into a regal march during the chorus (~0:46), as the vocals sing “Oh! The Ways of Love,” implying that this love is so grand, so important, that the feelings of others who’ve been left behind – sad though they may be – are simply insignificant. As with “Hangin’ On a Limb,” the lyrics here show a different, negative aspect of freedom that is often unconsidered.

neil guitar

Two other romantic songs, balancing out the noisiness, are “Wrecking Ball” a soft piano-driven piece about a desire to meet a woman at a dive bar and spend the night dancing, and “Too Far Gone,” which seems to describe the morning after the evening spent dancing at The Wrecking Ball.

The song “Someday” has some of Neil’s most poetic lyrics, poetic in the sense that I don’t always know what they mean (Rommel’s ring?) but they speak to me nonetheless, especially when put to music like Neil produces. “We all have to fly/Someday.”

My favorite song on the album is “No More,” one of the tracks J.B. and The So-Called Cells played back in the day.[ref]And still do, when we get the chance![/ref]

It has a bouncy bass line from bassist Tony Marsico. But the bounciness doesn’t indicate a happy song. In fact, this is an anti-drug song in a minor key, describing the downward spiral of drug abuse. That bounciness just serves to outline the false happiness that drugs can bring. Neil’s electric guitar throughout the song is inspired, grungy wonder.

Freedom closes with an electric version of the acoustic opener, “Rockin’ in the Free World,”[ref]Again, just as he did on Rust Never Sleeps.[/ref] a hit for Young on MTV back in the day, and another prominent song in the J.B. and The So-Called Cells’ setlist.

Neil Young is a wild man in this video, crazy hair, crazy pants, crazy guitar. He bashes and jumps around, putting everything he has into a little movie for a TV network. He is free. He’s free to rock, to create, and he just did it over the course of 12 different songs, and he thinks you can, too. neil acousticYoung is free both politically and creatively – he can’t really be censored by anyone but himself, and he makes the most of the opportunity by making record that no one else would make, that sounds like no one else would sound. He is a Bodhisattva in the religion of You Can Do Anything You Want, guiding us lesser travelers toward what each of us truly can be.

“We all have to fly/Someday,” he sang. Maybe that Someday is soon for me. While I await that reply from SNL, I’ll do what I can to keep Doing Anything I Want.

Rockin’ in the Free World (Live Acoustic)
Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)
Don’t Cry
Hangin’ on a Limb
El Dorado
The Ways of Love
On Broadway
Wrecking Ball
No More
Too Far Gone
Rockin’ in the Free World (Electric)