Category Archives: Albums 90-81

81st Favorite: The Wall, by Pink Floyd

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The Wall. Pink Floyd.
1979 Harvest/EMI. Producer: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie and Roger Waters
Gift ca. 1984.

The-Wall-high-resolution-png

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – Audacious Rock Opera describing a sad descent into madness, but with terrific songs and absolutely amazing guitar by David Gilmour. It’s as iconic an album as there is in the rock era, with several songs still played on the radio today.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – This record honestly could fall anywhere between Top Ten and 150. My feelings about it are SO dependent on my mood and how much time I have to spend and what’s going on in my life. So I guess it would be higher if I’d written the list another day!
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My dad has always been a hard worker.

micrometerHe was a tool and die maker back when he was still working – a profession that seems easy to learn, but is difficult to master, and that certainly has never paid a wage proportional to the knowledge and skill required to perform the duties. He spent forty hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for almost 50 years, standing on concrete floors in poorly ventilated machine shops whose temperature was controlled by opening or steel poodleclosing a garage door at one end; hunched over drafting tables and hot, loud machines, grinding and cutting metal to ludicrously exact specifications – tasks that most days sent him home covered with little curls of metal embedded in his clothes and balding head, like he’d been sitting all day petting a steel poodle.

Evenings and weekends he worked some more – fixing our cars, redoing rooms in the house, making repairs, maintaining our yard. For “fun”, he did more work: building engines, crafting muzzle loading rifles, making fishing lures… washing machine 1He most certainly identified with the diligent Ant in that Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper. My mom has always been an Ant, too. She was a housewife, and she didn’t delegate her “responsibilities” very much at all. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry (at a Laundromat in winter, or using a big old wringer washer and galvanized steel tubs in the summer), made beds, shopped, banked, paid bills, registered kids for school and community groups, made appointments, chauffeured kids … Later she got a few part-time jobs – cafeteria lady, waitress, bologna factory worker – and STILL did all the other stuff she’d already been doing.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/sue-in-bologna.jpg” captiontext=”This photo of my mom and her two colleagues hung in the lobby of the Weaver’s Lebanon Bologna Factory store (on Weavertown Rd.) for years! It might still be there.”]

My folks would watch a little TV in the evening, and go for drives in the country on a Sunday afternoon, but that was about the extent of their R&R. They were ants, and the work had to get done – whether it had to get done or not.

ant grasshopperYet somehow, they ended up with a big Grasshopper for a son.

I wouldn’t say I’m lazy, but those around me probably would. I’ve been known, at times, to do some hard work, but like that grasshopper, I’d much prefer to be singing and dancing.

I always thought that my aversion to hard work was a problem, a blight on social order. I seemed to lack some sort of gene, and I felt second-class because of it. But then I read a book that changed my perception of myself. When my kids were little, I read them the best book in the world – much, much better than that stupid ant and grasshopper fable. Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

hero frederickIn this book – which was deviously hidden from me as a child – all the mice work really, really hard to prepare for winter, just like the ants in Aesop’s fable. Meanwhile, Frederick just sits on his ass and watches the weather. The other mice get annoyed, and ask why he isn’t helping, and he keeps saying “Don’t worry, I’m helping, I’m getting … words and colors and warmth!” All the other mice are pissed. But they don’t lock him out of the den – like the mean old ants did with that fun-lovin’ grasshopper. Instead, when the winter gets desperate and dark, they ask, “Hey, slacker, where’s that warmth and color you were gathering?” And Frederick responds. He tells them wonderful stories and keeps them all amused and happy while supplies grow thin. And then all the other mice are like, “That Frederick don’t work for shit, but he sure can tell a story! He’s all right!”

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/frederick-talking.jpg” captiontext=”Frederick is the perfect role model for young, lazy goofballs.”]

Frederick is a celebration of The Charming, Lazy Bullshitter. This sounds like a knock but I mean it in a positive way! Charming, Lazy Bullshitters (CLBs) get a bad rap, but that’s because there are so many folks who TRY to be the CLB, but who just really don’t do it very well at all. But if you’re fortunate enough to have a GOOD CLB in your midst, you’re happy to know him or her.

To be the good kind of CLB, you have to be friendly and inconspicuous. This is where the Grasshopper went wrong. He danced and sang and told the ants they were saps for working. Of course they thought he was a dick – he WAS BEING a dick! But Frederick was quiet, contemplative. When the other mice challenged him, he didn’t say “Suckers!” He convinced them that he was actually doing work – and he did so nicely.

fred chow lineThe good CLB doesn’t take much away from the group, either. Once winter came, Frederick didn’t cut to the front of the line, or eat more food than anyone else, or say dumb stuff like, “Hey, who ate the last kernel of white corn? I was saving that!!” In fact I think he probably took even a little less than his share. He clearly knew how to work his angle, so I guarantee he played it cool in the chow line.

The most important aspect of Frederick’s CLB act – and the most difficult part to master, and probably the point where most lousy CLBs fall down – is pryor et alin the payoff: the stories he shares. He clearly has some skills with words, and the mice around him love the tales he tells. He’s like Richard Pryor or Joan Rivers or even Aesop, back in the day.The stuff he comes up with is so good that the other mice shake their heads and wonder, “Where does he come up with this stuff!!??” He keeps those mice so enthralled that they even forget they’re all starving together!!

Good CLBs don’t always end up as professional performers. Many workplaces have the guy who doesn’t do Jack Squat and who everyone else complains about – the bad CLB. Equally common – but far more difficult to spot – is the good CLB. laughing officeThe guy who asks you about your weekend, and spends fifteen minutes discussing the awesome Pentatonix concert you went to; the woman who remembers everyone’s birthday and talks about the celebration you had; the senior director who comes over to the cubicles and tells funny stories about things that happened at the company before you were hired. These are the people who you enjoy around the office, but don’t know what it is they actually do all day. They are the workplace lubricants, making it easier to accomplish your tasks, even though they aren’t really helping you do any actual work.

An example of Charming Lazy Bullshitting just occurred here, in this blog post, as I spent the last several paragraphs blabbing about some unrelated topic instead of actually typing up some stuff about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “But wait,” you say. “You do that with every album write up!” To which I say, “Indeed! But this time I don’t have a point! I’m just trying to avoid hard work.”

hard work

Because, you see, writing about The Wall is going to be hard work, and I find hard work to be … hard. Considering The Wall and describing its place among all the records in my collection creates a challenge that is unique to Rock Operas: whether to judge the work as a musical story, or as a collection of songs. Or figure out something else.

You may think it’s not such a big deal, but that’s most likely because you’ve never decided to sit down and waste spend years of your life considering which 100 albums are your favorites, and how to rank them from 100 to 1, and then writing about your endeavors for a few dozen folks to not read. If you’ve ever attempted such a task, you know what I’m talking about.

To most readers, it probably seems that The Wall should simply be judged for what it is: a rock opera – a singular narrative told through a collection of rock songs.rock operaBut if judged as a Rock Opera, then I have to consider the story. My appreciation of a story is greatly affected by my mood – much more so than it affects most collections of songs. There are times I listen to The Wall and find it almost overpowering in its emotion and depth, and other times that I get to “Goodbye Cruel World” and I think, “Man, I hope he finally ends it all here and just moves on to the good songs.”

So if it’s a record I can’t appreciate any old time, and there are other records I COULD listen to any old time, then I can’t rank The Wall as highly as those others – even though when I’m in the mood, it may be among my favorites.

“Okay, okay, enough already,” you say. “So big deal, then, just judge it on its songs, what’s the big whoop?”

The Big Whoop is this: some of the songs on the album – on most ANY Rock Opera album – are pretty lousy as simply songs. Works on The Wall such as “Stop” and “Vera” are very short fragments, rather unlistenable to me outside the context of the album. So if I judge it as just a collection of songs, the record will be too harshly judged.

the wall wallI discussed this dilemma with the famous Dr. Dave. He made a very wise point (as he nearly always does) – stating that surely the fact that a band attempted such a work of artistry should merit some consideration. This was, I think, Dave’s cut-the-bullshit-and-admit-the-record’s-fucking-awesome way of guiding me in my thoughts.

It’s hard to overstate how HUGE a record The Wall was when it was released in late 1979. I was a 12 year old 7th grader, listening to AM radio and curating my Village People cassette collection whenvillage people The Wall arrived, and even I could feel its presence everywhere. I remember B., a friend at both school and Sunday school – one of the rare crossover friends – who had older brothers and was therefore always a step or five ahead of me in musical awareness. He proclaimed the album a masterpiece in 7th grade, and I was excited to tell him I had seen a commercial on TV for it. He asked me what song was on the commercial and I replied, “Something about a wall.” He was unimpressed.

My oldest sister – a high school senior that year – purchased the record on vinyl soon after it came out. I remember my other sister and I being perplexed by the fact that The Wall contained sounds such as people talking, and a baby crying and a plane crashing – evidence to us that a) it was some kind vinyl wallof strange music (crying babies? Crashing Planes??!!) and b) maybe our big sister wasn’t the same girl anymore who used to play Barbies with us on snow days.

There was a mobile home park near my house across the street from Lions Lake (now “Ebenezer Lake”), and it sat on land about 8 feet higher than the road, Jay St. That eight feet of earth was held back from the roadway by a retaining wall made of white cinder blocks. Soon after the release of The Wall, a well-rendered, spray-painted graffito showed up on this wall stating “Pink Floyd The Wall” in an approximation of the script on the album cover. It looked really cool! So cool that it seemed to be repainted every so often, enough that it was legible a good 15 or 20 years after its first application.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/the-wall-lebanon.jpg” captiontext=”The most important and memorable graffito of my life appeared on this wall ca. 1980.”]

So before I had ever even listened closely to the album – I’m counting neither my aural glimpses through my sister’s bedroom door, nor the time I listened to “Program One” of the 8-track tape repeatedly on a malfunctioning Mego 2-XL Talking Robot toy that my cousin had – I was well-aware of the album’s existence as a cultural marker.

The album was an enormous hit, and several of the songs frequented AOR radio stations in the 80s and 90s, and are still played today on rock oldies radio. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” even spent four weeks at Number One on the Hot Singles chart in 1980, surrounded by such fare as “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl,” by The Spinners, and “Desire,” by Andy Gibb.

It wasn’t until sometime in my senior year of high school that my good friend Rick, appalled that I had never listened to The Wall, recorded it on cassette tape for me and I finally listened to it for the first time. floyd cassetteI recall being blown away. I listened to that cassette a lot, and I finally went out and purchased the CD as part of my First Grand Conversion of Musical Formats in the early 90s.

It’s difficult to describe The Wall briefly and do it justice. It is a double album length rock opera about a rock star, named “Pink” (aka “Mr. Floyd”), and his descent into madness, as told through flashbacks to his childhood and deep dives into his troubled psyche. It’s quite an audacious undertaking by the band, and a testament to Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s founder, bassist, main songwriter and guiding creative force for The Wall, that the end result succeeds so well.

There is much to love about the album – its songs are cool and interesting, they’re diverse, and the musicianship is terrific. But what I think I love most about the record are two things: the interplay between Roger Waters’s and David Gilmour’s voices, and Gilmour’s amazing guitar work. Waters and Gilmour have had their differences over the years, but their singing voices always seem to get along.

roger dave

A song that features both aspects is the aforementioned “Mother,” where Waters sings Pink’s lines, and Gilmour sings the title role:

The song has other characteristics that I love. For one thing, the “Pink” lines are in 4/4 meter, but the “Mother” lines are in 3/4. This subtle shift makes the song more interesting, but also works extremely well as an storytelling device, juxtaposing the two characters and rendering musically the distance between them (one of the first “Bricks” in Pink’s “Wall”). Also, I like how the Mother’s lyrics slowly turn from loving to creepy. gilmour 1Gilmour’s wonderful, evocative lead guitar work is featured in “Mother.” At about 2:52, the band snaps out of Mother’s 3/4 and Gilmour plays a typically understated yet direct solo – saying so much in so few notes. Gilmour is one of those rock guitarists – like Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler, Eddie Van Halen, or Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – whose sound is immediately recognizable. His guitar work connects with me on some level that is hard to describe; it’s like I know what he means when he plays.

One of the most famous songs on the album also features the shared vocals and stunning Gilmour guitar: the scary description of Pink’s debilitating drug use – which nonetheless immediately became an anthem for recreational drug users upon its release – “Comfortably Numb.”

Waters sings the verses and Gilmour sings the chorus. The music feels a bit dreamy and floating, and sounds like I imagine having “hands just like two balloons” might feel. But Gilmour’s hands are definitely nimble enough in the solos. gilmour 2He plays two this time, (2:04 – 2:34 and 4:31 – end) and the sound and feel of both amaze me with every listen – even 35 years later. When asked what effects he uses to get that “Gilmour sound” on “Comfortably Numb,” Phil Taylor, Gilmour’s guitar technician of more than 40 years, said this: “It think it’s just pretty much him. He is obviously using a couple of effects, like a Big Muff and a delay, but it really is just his fingers, his vibrato, his choice of notes … I find it extraordinary when people think they can copy his sound by duplicating his gear. In reality, no matter how well you duplicate the equipment, you will never be able to duplicate the personality.”

A third song featuring my two favorite components is “Hey You,” with the boys sharing vocal duties, and Gilmour being Gilmour, and also playing some wonderful fretless bass.

“Hey You” is a sad song and since The Wall tells a sad story, all of the songs have varying degrees of sadness to them. Many are slow songs. I’m not typically a fan of collections of slow, sad songs, but they work here as a part of the larger story. But there are a couple of rockers on the album, and even with their tinges of sadness, I could listen to them any time.

“Young Lust” is a reflection of Pink’s desires as he makes his way in the world.

But with it’s reference to needing a “dirty woman” – just the type of woman “Mother” said she’d never let get through to him – it sounds more sadly desperate than sexy. It has (again) fabulous guitar playing, showing that Gilmour can evoke anything with that axe. roger bassAlso worth mentioning is Roger Waters’s’ bass playing on this track. He is the main visionary, songwriter and singer in the band (and particularly on The Wall) and sometimes it seems like “bass player” is indeed the fourth item on his To Do list. But on this song he plays a sort of funky, bouncy, 70s-sounding bass line that helps give the song a feeling of fun. The song ends with Pink calling his girlfriend and hearing a man answer – the type of non-musical addition that challenged my sister’s and my view of music back in 1980.

Non-musical additions such as this certainly add some emotion and context to the songs, helping to place them squarely into the narrative of the piece as a whole. But such additions – to my taste – can sometimes takes away from the songs. There are times when I’d rather hear more of the actual song, and perhaps have another verse help carry the narrative. For example, the very good “One of My Turns” uses TV clips and the sounds of a room being destroyed.

However, the song is rather short, and ends before I want it to end. It makes sense as a narrative pieceone turns (Pink wigs out (one of his ‘turns’), his lady friend leaves, he suddenly finds himself alone) but I’m a music fan, and I want to hear more music. I want another Gilmour solo, I want more vitriolic lyrics spat with gusto through Waters’s snarl. I think the narrative could’ve been achieved with another verse instead of the added sounds.

gilmour 3Similarly “Goodbye Blue Sky,” is excellent, and deserves to be a lengthier song, but instead has been whacked down to a measly 2 min 48 seconds, with two verses and a single chorus, in order that it fit into the structure of the record.

I understand that not all songs can be “Hey Jude” length – no matter how good they are – but several songs on The Wall sound – to my ears – incomplete.

And then there are the final six songs, Side Four of the vinyl double album. It contains the songs “The Show Must Go On,” “Run Like Hell, “Waiting for the Worms,” “Stop,” “The Trial,” and “Outside the Wall.” This is where the album really gets too theatrical for my tastes. Now, as I’ve said before, I grew up listening toni tennilleto my mom’s Broadway musical cast recordings – Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady – and I appreciate the craft and musicality of good show tunes. However, I’m really a rock music fan, and Side Four sounds too much to me like show tunes. Again, the songs fit nicely into the story of Pink, and the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals throughout the songs (featuring none other than Toni Tennille, of The Captain and Tennille fame) are really cool. But in terms of songs, the only one that connects strongly with me is “Run Like Hell.”

Ah, David Gilmour. I know, I know, again with the guitar. But he is a genius, you gotta admit. nick masonI should mention drummer Nick Mason here, who seems like a solid drummer, but who I never think about much. This song lets him play a nice, fat disco beat. While I’m at it, I’ll mention keyboardist Rick Wright, who was fired from the band soon after the recording of The Wall. There isn’t a lot of standout keyboards on The Wall – it’s mostly supporting instrumentation. Which, given my love of Gilmour, is okay with me.rick wright

Of course, the biggest song on the record, the one that struck a chord with listeners worldwide, even in the midst of a global, near-debilitating case of Disco Fever, was that ode to the terrors of elementary school, “Another Brick in The Wall, Part II.” (Here it is paired with the introductory song, actually called “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.”)

There’s a little something for everyone here. Even the sunniest, most well-adjusted folks on Earth probably had a few miserable moments in elementary school. So this is the song where we all get to tell the teachers, “Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone!” It actually conveyed a punk rock sentiment that was somewhat controversial even as late as 1980. It’s a really cool song, with Mason and Waters providing a rhythm that sounds just funky enough (of course, not really funky) to attract the era’s disco-infected masses. Need I even mention that it also has amazing guitar work by David Gilmour? Probably not, but it does.

roger waters sing bass

The Wall was clearly a massive creative undertaking that took substantial work, patience and sustained attention to detail to create. It is exactly the sort of thing a Lazy, Charming Bullshitter such as myself could never do. It tires me out just thinking about it. But I think Frederick would agree with me that us Lazy, Charming Bullshitters are forever grateful for the hard workers around us, such as Pink Floyd. As long as they keep doing the heavy lifting, I’ll do my best to stay out of their way and blab about it afterwards.

TRACK LISTING
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
Mother
Goodbye Blue Sky
Empty Spaces
Young Lust
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
Goodbye Cruel World
Hey You
Is There Anybody Out There?
Nobody Home
Vera
Bring the Boys Back Home
Comfortably Numb
The Show Must Go On
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Stop
The Trial
Outside the Wall

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82nd Favorite: The Joshua Tree, by U2

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The Joshua Tree. U2.
1987 Island Records. Producer: Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno
Purchased ca. 1989

The-Joshua-Tree

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – All of the sonic characteristics you’ve come to expect from U2 – weird ringing guitars, thumping drums, Bono in full-on Bono-mode. It’s a collection of so many great songs and cool sounds that it’s hard to believe they’re all on one record.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – There was a bit more diversity of sound – and if the last two songs were placed differently on the record.
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mad jawsWhen I was a kid in the 70s, my sisters and I loved to read Mad Magazine. Mad in the 70s was The Simpsons or South Park of its day – irreverent satire that was equal parts childish and intelligent. It introduced Real World concerns to my 9 year old mind – like war, sex, racism, abortion – and did so with humor and wit and real intelligence. Mad Magazine made me want to learn more about the world even while I was laughing at the funny drawings of naked people and politicians.

Mad artists, like Don Martin, Dave Berg and Al Jaffee are still well-remembered by my sisters and me, and even today many conversations among us include the words, “It’s like that Mad Magazine bit, where …” The magazine is a touchstone.

alfredOne of the best-remembered pieces from our childhood is a two-page spread written by Tom Koch entitled “Rewriting Your Way to a PhD.” The piece brilliantly shows the progression of a boy’s story about visiting his uncle’s pig farm, beginning as a “What I Did Last Summer” essay by an eight year old, through secondary school refinements, and on into college and grad school, where that same story becomes a PhD thesis on pig farming.

porkyIt cleverly reincorporates a second-grader’s perceptions – the pigs’ tiny eyes, his uncle’s aroma – into increasingly complex essays. I have a memory of my sister reading it aloud to the rest of my family, and us laughing and laughing, ultimately reaching the highest goal possible for Family Laughter – the point at which my dad’s entire head turned bright pink and tears flowed from his eyes, forcing the removal of his glasses. When we reached that point, we knew that whatever the topic, it was destined to become a part of family lore.

We’d all been in the familiar circumstance of “improving upon” past school projects and handing them in to unwitting new teachers. The piece is particularly close to my heart because in three years of middle school I wrote a total of 8 book reports on the same two books – The Yogi Berra Story and The Don Drysdale Story. (I had two different English classes in 8th grade, providing me an extra go-around with both!) books

My sisters and I still use the expression “Pigging it” when referencing a project at work in which we blatantly pull ideas from previous projects. As in “I didn’t have this year’s report ready, so I just took last year’s and Pigged it!”

sister work

As funny as I find the Pig piece, it also demonstrates an obvious (it would seem) truth: people improve as they age and gain experience. When you’re a second grader writing about your uncle’s pig farm, you have neither the skills nor brainpower to put together a decent essay. But with just a few years of growth and learning and experience, you can write a college level essay!

Think of all the things you like to do: woodworking, cooking, banjo playing, crosswords. Whether you are an expert, a novice, or somewhere in between, you can look back on the progress you’ve made from a year ago and most likely see marked improvement. And the more experience you have, the better-developed you expect your talents to be. As you tie off that last suture on your latest kidney transplant, you aren’t thinking to yourself, “Man, I was so much better at this when I did it the first time.” (If you are, keep it to yourself.)

And your patient is likewise happy to know this isn’t your first. In people’s minds, Age + experience = improvement.

Except when it comes to rock bands.

surgeon

To many people, the worst thing any rock act can do is make a second record. The only thing worse than a second record is a third record.

I remember going into a record store in 1994 in San Francisco, a store on 16th St. in The Mission District called “16th Note.” A cool song was playing, and I asked the (hipster, naturally) clerk what it was.bee thousand

“It’s the new record by Guided by Voices,” he said, almost making eye contact, but straining to remain aloof in the empty store.

“I never heard of them,” I said. “Are they local?”

The clerk suddenly looked at me, like a drill sergeant eyeing a new recruit. “They’re from Ohio,” he said with a dollop of disdain.

“I like this song.” I smiled.

He scoffed, audibly. “It’s okay. But their old stuff was so much better.”

Twenty-one years later, it’s hard to take that guy at his word. By 1994, it’s true, the band had recorded about half a dozen records. But only one of them was released on an actual record label, and all the others had pressings of a few hundred. Okay, maybe this guy had been their neighbor and was acquainted with their catalog.

Or maybe he was just some record store douche who enjoyed lording his (supposedly) exceptional musical tastes over everyone else.

cool musicA statement along the lines of “Their early stuff was much better” can say so much more about the person speaking than it does about the band itself. In the case of the record store guy, it said, “I think I’m better than you at listening to music.”

“The early stuff was much better” can mean that a listener wants you to know they’ve been at it for the long haul. They may state it as a way of welcoming you into the club (“Let me play the good stuff for you!!”) or they may mean it as a way of stating you’ll never truly be part of the club (“Even if I play the good stuff, you’ll never really understand.”) Either way – welcoming or hostile – it’s evidence of a listener’s “Artist Clubhouse” mentality.

Many listeners form a deep emotional attachment to particular musical artists. This attachment can be particularly strong when the artist is new and not widely known. Fans of new acts have to work hard to listen to their music. This was particularly true before the dawn of digital music, long before services such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp allowed anyone with a mobile device to hear all the music from any band anywhere.

woolworthsIt used to be that if the radio didn’t play it, you had to find it in a record store big enough to carry obscure artists, because you sure wouldn’t find it in the record bin at Woolworth’s or JC Penney’s. And it was especially, triply difficult before MTV started playing weird, foreign bands in the early 80s, giving access to acts that just a year earlier would’ve faded quickly into obscurity. Before MTV (and for MTV era bands who didn’t look cool) non-radio bands were only accessible through word-of-mouth and extensive touring.

As a listener, having to work to find a band (whether by going to a concert or clicking on a “Suggestions For You” button on your music app) makes them a little more special to you. You’ve paid your dues, so to speak. Just like when you join a club. But the Artist Clubhouse feelings are tricky to manage. Because whether the year is 1973 or 2014, when you catch an artist that few people know about (yet?), when you experience a new band who excites you and moves you, you feel tingly and giggly and want to share the band with everyone you know. (Well … most everyone …)

You have power. A power borne of knowledge. Knowledge that few recessothers hold, but that everyone will eventually HAVE TO know. You are like the first kid on the playground who knows – for real – how babies are made, and you get to decide which of the other kids can be trusted with the knowledge.

And which ones will just ruin it by telling everyone.

Because you don’t want EVERYONE to know since once EVERYONE knows, two things will happen: 1) It will no longer seem all that cool and 2) You will no longer be held in esteem for bringing the knowledge – you’ll just be one more kid who knows how it’s done.

That’s the inherent conundrum in liking an Unknown Band: you want everyone to know how great your New Favorite Band is, as their continued success likely depends on more and more people knowing about them. BUT – you don’t want EVERYONE knowing about them because then they won’t seem as cool. And neither will you, as you won’t be one of a couple hundred, you’ll be one of millions.

clubhouseThe old clubhouse can’t hold that many people. And in such a big club you’ll certainly have trouble continuing your duties as Club doorman AND password-creator AND Keeper of the Member List.

Once the club is that big, you’ll find yourself wistfully thinking back to a time when You Alone Held the Key. This may influence your opinion of the band’s new songs, and make you wish for the old days. “Their old stuff was better,” you’ll say.

key

However, it isn’t ALWAYS the Artist Clubhouse mentality that causes folks to lament a band’s newest work. Sometimes a band does change significantly in ways that you, the listener, just can’t appreciate.

I think most music fans are willing to give their favorite artists a break when they try new things. We humans are always changing, so it’s natural that a musician would reflect it in their art. neil youngSome musicians are constantly changing, and this change itself excites the fan base. A good example of this is Neil Young. His releases have included many genres: rock, country, new wave, 50’s rock and roll, blues, folk, whatever it was that Trans was … and his fans either love them or hate them, but either way can’t wait to see what Crazy Ol’ Neil will put out next.

But what about a band like, say, Genesis? If you only know Genesis as the purveyor of a string of Big 80s pop hits, with seemingly good-natured elf Phil Collins goofing his way through the videos, you may be surprised to learn that just ten years earlier they weren’t a Three-Suburban-Dads-Looking synth rock band, but were a full on Five-Hippies-Multiplexing-Drugs-Looking prog rock band!

genesis

If you’re a huge fan of “Throwing it All Away” or “Follow You, Follow Me,” it may trouble you to click this link.

And if you were a huge Genesis fan in 1974, going out to watch their crazy stage show, with front man Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower or a transvestite fox or a lymph node thing or just a plain old weirdo, altering your mind on whatever psychotropic substance you liked in preparation for their 16-minute songs featuring intricate guitar/keyboard/drum/bass interplay, then certainly when you heard “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” in 1986, it would be understandable to hear you say, “Well … their old stuff was better.”

I myself don’t like to think of art in terms of “Better” or “Worse.” I try to think of it as “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like.” And the fact is – better, worse, whatever – some bands just leave some listeners behind as they grow. For me, the band Radiohead comes to mind. They went from Rock to Not Rock over the course of 15 years, and more power to them. But I couldn’t stay on that carnival ride. Their old stuff was better. I liked their old stuff.

u2 band 1

Thoughts of music fans, and their interest in a band’s “old stuff” will – for me – forever be attached to U2’s The Joshua Tree. This record came out in 1987, my second year in college. I had gotten into U2 in high school, and they were one of three contemporary bands (R.E.M. and Van Halen being the other two) whose new records I looked forward to. Most of my other favorite bands‘ best days were behind them.I had loved U2’s album War, and most of The Unforgettable Fire, and I was hoping – as was rumored – that the next record would be a return to the helicopter guitars and anthemic vocals that I loved so much about the band.

I can still recall the Spring of ’87, leaving the PCPS gym and crossing Woodland Ave. with my girlfriend, red rockshaving heard “With or Without You” for the first time on the gym’s PA system, and asking “What was that song?” And her replying, “U2’s new one. It’s really bad.” And me saying, “I’ll say. Man. Their old stuff was so much better!” That’s the opinion I held about The Joshua Tree for a long time. “Their old stuff was better.”

As I said, I was waiting for “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Part II,” and – let’s be honest: “With or Without You” is not that!

Of course, the song became a huge hit, their first Number 1. But to a guy waiting for something different, the song sounded like some crappy ballad. Maybe it still does. But to my ear, the song has improved greatly with age. (Maybe because I turned it off the first million times I heard it in the 80s and 90s!) The song has a lot of what most U2 songs offer – cool sounds and an impressive build-up to a sonic release point. I find a lot of U2 music sounds very similar, and usually that’s a bad thing for me. But with U2 I find it easier to take.

u2 concert

Many of their songs – fast or slow – have a march beat to them, as if John Phillip Sousa were whispering in drummer Larry Mullen’s ears; and chiming guitars from Edge that often don’t sound all that much like guitars; and a simple Adam Clayton bass line that finds the right notes underneath it all to support what’s happening up top.

singersAnd then there’s Bono. He sings with an earnestness, with a commitment to the lyrics (whatever they may be) that is, obviously, ripe for mocking. But there are far worse things to be than earnest in this world. Bono’s a conduit between Bruce Springsteen in the 70s and Eddie Vedder in the 90s – the wailing white guys who are gonna belt it out, and believe the shit out of it, regardless of what you or I might think.

“With or Without You” has all of these characteristic time coverU2 features, and also that classic U2 build, this time finding the apex at about 3:01, with Bono’s wailing “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” I’ve gotten over the fact that it doesn’t sound like an outtake from War. And after I heard four or five more songs from the record – The Joshua Tree was a HUGE HIT on rock radio – I decided that maybe it was as good as the old stuff after all!

The track that really caught my ear was the opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s a scene in the movie (and book) High Fidelity in which the record store geeks select their Top Five “Track 1, Side 1” songs. “Where the Streets Have No Name” would definitely make my Top Five.

It seems a little silly now, but I remember my friends and I LOVING that video, feeling inspired by it, somehow empowered by it. We didn’t know what the lyrics were about – and it seems theories still abound – but something about the band on a roof, with throngs of Los Angelinos tying up traffic, and police not sure what to make of the whole thing, Bono singing “burning down love, burning down love” … just trust me, it meant something to us in 1987. roofThe coolest thing about the song, to me, is The Edge’s intro and outro guitar riff. It’s just six notes played over and over, but with delay and effects it ends up sounding like he’s playing four guitars at once. edge guitarOnce the lyrics begin, Edge switches to his typical “Chukka-chukka-chukka” guitar strum that is unmistakably the U2 Sound. This song also has a familiar build and release, to about the 4:54 mark.

The Chukka-chukka-chukka of The Edge is also prominent on the excellent “In God’s Country.”

I love Adam Clayton’s bass line in this song. adam claytonAs all his lines are, this one is simple (I count four distinct notes), but it provides a nice counter-melody to the vocals – it’s usually the melody going through my head when I think about this song. There is also a noise at the end of the line, a percussive clunking – like someone with a sinus problem making glottal noises. I don’t know if it’s a bass noise – I don’t know what it is, but it’s always interested me. The song is propelled forever onward by the guitar, bass and drums, a particular kind of energy that I associate with U2 songs.

I’ve always found Bono’s lyrics somewhat perplexing, sometimes amusing. They’re often political, and frequently deeper than I guess I can go. sleep drugI figure the depth has to do with him being Irish, as Ireland has a long history of symbolic verse and allusive poets. In the case of “In God’s Country,” the lyrics are really pretty, with lots of desert imagery. Although for years I thought he was singing “Sleep comes/Like a Drum” and I wondered how drumming and sleep could ever be related – or if the point was that they WEREN’T related, and therein lay the point! I was quite relieved to learn the actual lyric is “Sleep comes/Like a drug.” It makes much more sense.

A different type of song on the record, and probably my favorite, is the bluesy (for U2) style of “Trip Through Your Wires.”

A word should be said here about The Edge’s singing. He’s sung lead on a few U2 songs over the years (most memorably “Numb,” from 1993’s Zooropa) but I really like his work as a harmony vocalist. For me, he’s up there with The Stones’ Keith Richards and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony as all-time great rock harmony singers. These skills are on display throughout “Trip Through Your Wires.” It’s a simple song, a love song (I think) and also features Bono playing harmonica. There’s not a lot to the song, yet I find it larry mullenirresistible. It’s a slow song, with lots of space, and features a cool break filled by Mullen’s bass drum triplets. In addition to sounding different from typical U2, the song also does NOT have the typical “U2 buildup.” It’s one of their least flamboyant songs.

concert 1

Another great, simple slow song, which includes my favorite vocal performance on the record, is “Red Hill Mining Town.”

It’s a song about the plight of miners during the UK coal mining strikes in the 80s. It’s got Bono’s earnest vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars and Clayton’s understated bass and Mullen’s Sousa drums and that patented build and release (4:00). It’s got the whole U2 package.

There are so many great songs on The Joshua Tree. One that I often forget about, but then hear and think, “I love this song!!” is Bono’s ode to a dead friend and his New Zealand home, “One Tree Hill.”

This song features The Edge’s guitar trickery, but it’s more subtle this time, and holds up really well on repeated listens. In fact, I find I hear something different in his guitar each time I listen.

Of course, the album’s biggest song was the worldwide super-smash hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

I worked in a Hershey’s Chocolate warehouse (it wasn’t a warehouse made of chocolate, but it was where chocolate was warehoused) in the summer of 1987, third shift – 11 pm to 7:00 am – for three months. u2 1987A diverse group of people worked there, with diverse musical tastes – including Contemporary Christian, Country, R&B, Heavy Metal and College Rock – and there was only one radio. So – of course – the radio station that was least offensive to the most number of people was selected to accompany the drudgery of chocolate factory work: Top Forty. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was making its climb that summer, all the way to the Number One spot in August, which means Top Forty radio played the song about twice every hour, every day. That means I heard it about 16 times a night. It was like being inside a bunker under siege by US forces.

still haventTo this day, when I hear the song’s quiet opening notes and that gentle tambourine I flash back to the smell of cardboard boxes, old chocolate and hot forklift engines; to the uneasy feeling of sleep deprivation and forced chit-chat with people whose names and faces I knew I’d forget when the summer ended. I can’t really hear the song objectively anymore, but I feel like I should at least mention that it’s on this record.

So, The Joshua Tree was not exactly like what had come before from U2. And time has shown that the band had a lot more changes up its collective sleeve in the 25-plus years since its release. One song that hinted at where the band would go next, sonically, was the intense and noisy (and INCREDIBLE-to-see-them-play-live) “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

I’ve seen U2 play this live several times, and it’s always intense and excellent. In some ways, this song is the one I was looking for in 1987 when I was hoping for a return to War. It has a million guitars, sounding like jets and devastation. The lyrics, about the US’s role in El Salvador’s civil war, echo the sounds. The song is driving and powerful, and Mullen and Clayton’s rhythm section nails down a musical feeling of unsettling dread. But the song’s sound has a fuller quality to it than was heard on previous records. It has a depth of sound – whether from more overdubs or more synthesizer use, or just better production methods – that had been missing from previous albums. In the band’s next album, 1991’s Achtung, Baby, this fuller sound was built upon, with more synths and overdubs coming into play. I see “Bullet the Blue Sky” as the transition song – a bridge between the 80s U2 and the 90s U2.

tour

It’s clear that in The Joshua Tree, U2 was not simply “Pigging It.” True, they built on what came before, but it was different and new. But maybe – come to think of it – they were, because maybe all development is “Pigging It.” We tweak and change, we hope we’re improving, but it’s the perspective of the reader/listener that decides what’s good. I’m sure that second grader’s mom MUCH preferred the essay about his uncle’s farm to his windy blabberfest about swine. In 1987 I thought “new” U2 meant “bad” U2. But at some point it became “the old (good) stuff.” And nowadays, I don’t think it’s Bad or Good. It’s just what I like!

TRACK LISTING
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Exit
Mothers of the Disappeared

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83rd Favorite: News of the World, by Queen

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News of the World. Queen.
1977 Elektra. Producer: Queen
Purchased ca. 1997

News-Of-The-World

mouseIN A NUTSHELL – A 70s Rock record with much more on display than “70s Rock.” The band shares songwriting and musical duties, taking on a number of musical styles, and it tackles them all while displaying the characteristic “Queen Sound.” WOULD BE HIGHER IF – “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” weren’t on the album.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’ve been a sports fan since I was a little kid. My dad was somewhat of a high school sports star in the late 50s, excelling in both football and baseball for the Lebanon High Cedars. newspaper This was an era when local newspapers abounded, and since the digital age was a few decades away, you had to see the stories in print or miss them forever. So, my mom kept a shoebox of newspaper clippings of my dad’s athletic feats, chronicled in the Lebanon Daily News, and my sisters and I loved looking through that box to read all about a guy who seemed much cooler and more confident than the guy who lived with us. The clippings helped inspire me to play sports, as did my dad’s continued role in the community as a Teener Baseball coach, which also provided me the opportunity to be a batboy surrounded by men of 13, 14 and 15 years old.

batboy 1

My family was a family of sports fans. We loved the Philadelphia Phillies, a passion that originated with my mom’s mom, Gram Bender, who watched and listened to games religiously until her death in 1991. We were huge Penn State Football fans, as well, watching the games on TV on autumn Saturdays, and reliving them again on The Penn julieState Football Highlight Show, with Ray Scott and George Paterno, the next morning before church. And while my sisters weren’t encouraged to play sports (after all, this was real-life 70s in rural PA – not an American Girl story set in 70s San Francisco) it was expected that I would play.

So I played football, basketball and baseball, and enjoyed (nearly) every second of it.

Here’s a picture of me in my Ebenezer Midget Football practice uniform, ca. 1976. Note that the uniform appears to have originally been bought by the organization ca. 1956, at the Dawn of the Facemask. [captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img031-297×300.jpg” captiontext=”The fabric of these pants was likely carcinogenic. Luckily I only wore them for one season, after which the team bought new ones.”]

Here I am after I made the Ebenezer Midget Baseball team, also in 1976.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img030-287×300.jpg” captiontext=”Believe it or not, this is how infielders were instructed to field grounders in 1976. I guess that Disco Dancing style affected everything.”]

Here’s a shot my mom took to “show off my number,” but which I’ve always thought of as the “pee on the tree” shot.
img029
But I hear you, dear reader. “So yeah, yeah. You liked sports, big deal. What’s the point? And will you ever write about the album?”

The point is, as deeply as I loved sports, I had several other interests as well. (And yes, this will tie into the album. I swear.) School, TV, making model cars, comedians … I also liked music – both listening to it and making it. My sisters and I were encouraged to play instruments, trombonesand we all took piano lessons and at least a little bit of a second instrument. I myself played the trombone from fourth through twelfth grade – played the concerts, marched in the parades, and performed at the football halftimes and the marching band competitions.

I had lots of interests, and it never occurred to me that some people would believe that certain interests were incompatible with others.

For example, music and sports.

Where I grew up – and there’s really no other way to say it – playing an instrument was thought of as “gay” for a boy, and being an athlete was thought of as “not gay.” gay band And while I think the term “gay” in this case meant simply “effeminate” or “weak,” and didn’t imply discernable sexual activities or appetites, I also believe that many struggling, closeted, self-loathing (and married) gay men in positions of authority existed (and probably still do) who looked to stamp out any perceived evidence of residual homosexuality in others in a pathetic attempt to crush some recurring seedlings of humanity within themselves, a humanity they couldn’t bear to allow to sprout, let alone flourish and thrive. In other words, lots of male coaches who should’ve just gone and blown some dude instead of inflicting their internal dramas on kids who just wanted to both play music and play sports.

coach spikeOne such example may have been my freshman high school basketball coach, Coach Spike, a wee little man who – like many men in the early 1980s – attempted to pull off that Patented John Oates Look. As with many tiny men, he deflected attention from his small stature by trying to look and act both cool and tough. A youthful history teacher in his late 20s, he relished the fact that several people had at times mistaken him for a student at the school – mustache notwithstanding – but connected these misapprehensions only to his arch coolness, not to his schoolboy height.

As a fourteen year old freshman, I myself hadn’t played a lot of organized basketball. Back then, there weren’t today’s numbers of attempts by parents to amplify a child’s limited evidence of intrinsic athleticism into a modest leg-up on the competition for future University admissions by spending thousands of dollars to form “travel” youth sports leagues. I just played in the driveway with neighborhood friends, and a little bit at the YMCA. In both cases the fact that I was a bit taller than most of the other kids seemed to obviate any need for actual coaching.screech hoops

So at basketball tryouts my freshman year, I lacked a lot of the polish of some of my teammates. However, I was rather tall, pretty athletic, and displayed a nerd’s gift for dutifully following instruction, so it wasn’t a surprise that I made the team. (My disdain for Coach Spike aside, he did know his sports and he was adept at coaching technique and skills.)

I didn’t play a whole lot in games, which was okay with me. I knew that others on the team were much better than me, and it was actually a relief to not have many opportunities to make a fool of myself during games. But I loved practices, and being part of a team, and I could tell that I was improving. Feeling pretty proud of my progress, I looked forward to being a part of next season’s JV team. After the last game of the season, the last of several blowout losses, a long-faced Coach Spike – weary from the losses and clearly not comprehending how his brilliant coaching could have been so mishandled by us sorry bunch of 14 year olds – gave a rambling speech about us boys as a team and as individuals, and what to expect in the years ahead.

I doubt if anyone else on the team remembers much of the speech, but I still remember one particular line. “Some of you guys really have a lot of high school basketball ahead of you. And some of you guys … well, you should just stick to the band …”

spongebob band

Let me state clearly here that out of 14 boys on the team, there was precisely ONE of us who was also in the band. I understood. He clearly meant to single me out to the team as both a) a lousy basketball player and b) a sissy musician probably lacking What It Takes to ever succeed.

This theme of sports and music as incompatible was repeated the following basketball beefseason when, as a sophomore on the JV team (having ignored Spike’s directive) I was told by my coach that the varsity football coach, a doofus called “Beef,” had asked him about me and my interest in playing football. I found this extremely exciting, being scouted for my athletic ability! Beef was also a (universally recognized awful excuse for a) Guidance Counselor at the school, and sure enough I was soon called to his office to “discuss my academic plans for eleventh grade.” {cough cough} We discussed no such topic. He immediately began quizzing me about my experience playing football. I don’t think I mentioned my carcinogenic pants, but I told him I’d played before. Beef also mentioned my JV coach’s strong assessment of my attitude and effort. “We’d love to have you play next season,” he said with a beefy smile.

“I’d like to,” I said. “Would I be able to also stay in the band?” I asked.

Beef immediately frowned, as if he’d just bitten into mealy apple. “Maybe for one year,” he said. “Maybe.” Then he chuckled, trying to invite me into a little joke of his. “I mean, you’d have you choose between band and football, though, right? Right?” I knew my parents really wanted me to stay in the band, and more than this I realized Beef was a jerk – a grown up version of all the teen-age jerks I knew. I decided to stick with the band.

trombone eric

So why bring this up in the context of Queen?

queen band 1

Well, it confuses me that so many people would find incompatibilities where they clearly do not exist. Musician and athlete are clearly compatible skills, as evidenced by NBA Champion/Tuba player Malik Rose; deceased NBA Forward/jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale; Guided by Voices genius/high school athletic hall of fame member Robert Pollard; or MLB Center Fielder/jazz guitarist Bernie Williams. Heck, Super Bowl kicker Steven Hauschka and former NCAA basketball hero (and Celtics bust) Pervis Ellison even played the trombone, just like yours truly did!!

But my frustration isn’t really with the single example of music and sports. It’s with people limiting themselves or (worse yet) others based on ideas not founded in reality. It’s with people carrying preconceived notions around with them and using them to randomly set boundaries. It’s with people choosing to never allow possibilities, to never say “Let’s see what happens,” or “Let’s give it a try” because they are halted by their own limited attitudes. brainI think people should widen their experiences and interests as much as possible. You’re a human being, with a brain with more computing power than it can ever use, that can comprehend and appreciate limitless sensory inputs. Why not push those limits and see what happens?

On the album News of the World, Queen explores their limits and succeeds in producing a record full of different song styles, with members taking on tasks outside the norm, allowing themselves to see what happens when, say, the drummer plays all the instruments and sings, or the lead singer sits out a song, or this Arena Rock Behemoth of a band takes on the blues or jazz or lite rock. And it works. Nobody said, “But you’re Queen. You can’t do that!” Or if they did, they were ignored. And that’s what I love about this album.

In the late nineties, I began to consider my CD collection, and I started to grow concerned that I had no albums from many Classic Rock acts I’d loved from radio play. Acts like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Queen. So I went on a little purchasing spree of AOR staple acts. I had read an interview with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash in which he expressed his appreciation of News of the World. So, seeing a copy at my favorite local record store, I decided this would be the place for me to start on my Queen shopping list.

queen 75Queen is one of the few acts in rock and roll, the few artists in any medium, probably, for whom the descriptor “bombastic” seems to be an understatement, yet who are brilliant precisely because of this grandiosity. It is a difficult perch on which to balance, and songs like the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the artsy, studio enhanced romp “Bicycle Race” likely cause some listeners to lose interest quickly. But News of the World demonstrates that there was a lot more to this band than over-the-top arena rock. Many think of the band as pretentious, over-produced 70s dinosaur rock.

To those people, I offer this selection from News of the World: “Sleeping on the Sidewalk.”

I’ve enjoyed playing the “Name the Artist” game on this one with friends over the years, and none have yet guessed correctly. While one-of-a-kind superstar Freddie Mercury doesn’t appear on the song at all, making it hard to guess the group, the piece does offer lots of what I really love about this record: the sound! I’m not an expert in sound engineering by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something about the way this record was recorded that seems to make each instrument ring out clearly, hyper-distinguishable.

Guitarist Brian May (who sings the song, brian mayabout the trials and tribulations of a professional musician, in an unruffled, blasé style) plays very crisply, even in this bluesy, raw recording, and his guitar has that crunchy hint of distortion that is easily identifiable. This guitar sound is heard throughout the record, and always draws me in. Another key aspect heard here, and throughout the album, is John Deacon’s bass. He has a very clear, neat sound that I can instantly recognize as the “John Deacon sound.” It’s not just the tone of the bass, but it’s also his style of throwing in extra notes and the percussive sounds of his fingers on the strings. For a song that doesn’t really sound like Queen, it sure sounds like Queen!

But maybe the bluesy stuff isn’t drawing you in, maybe you’re more of a punk rocker. You might enjoy this track, penned by drummer Roger Taylor (who also played rhythm guitar and bass on the song): “Sheer Heart Attack.”

It’s a punk-styled song, but the sound is certainly less raw than the contemporaneous punk music in 1977. The lyrics seem like they’re actually making fun of punk rockers. roger taylorAnd the flanged drum fill at 2:55 is nothing you’d ever hear on a Sex Pistols song. So it’s not really punk. But as an aggressive, driving rave-up, I think the song works. And it’s different from anything you might expect to hear on a Queen record.

“But no,” you might say, “blues and punk doesn’t do it for me right now. I’m in more of a mellow, 70s light-rock mood, but with a Latin feel. I doubt there’s anything like that on the record.” And you would be wrong. How about “Who Needs You.”

This mellow song, written by bassist John Deacon, has great vocals from Mercury –freddie using his “indoor voice” this time, not the operatic flash typical of many familiar Queen songs. He sounds just the right level of hurt for Deacon’s “I Will Survive“-esque lyrics. Both Deaconjohn deacon and May play Spanish guitar on the song, throwing nice Latin runs into the background. May’s electric guitar, again featuring the distinctive “May sound,” adds wonderful color to the bridge, behind Mercury’s vocals. And his nylon-string acoustic solo is beautiful. Of course, the backing harmonies are tight and choir-like – a hallmark of the “Queen Sound” throughout their career.

But maybe 70s soft rock is still too modern-sounding for you. Maybe you prefer pop standards from the mid-twentieth century, crooned with a simple piano and bass arrangement. For you the band offers “My Melancholy Blues,” a Freddie Mercury solo number about, well, The Blues.

queen band 2

I don’t know a great detail about the inner workings of Queen, how the members got along, or how they created their songs. But the fact that the members switched instruments and shared roles says to me that they were a band who – at least for this one album – put their egos aside and let the music guide them. Many bands I admire had this same flexibility, with members switching roles easily: The Beatles, R.E.M. It demonstrates an openness, a lack of false boundaries.

football trumpetThey seem like people who wouldn’t have a problem with a trombone player being on the football or basketball team.

Queen sure didn’t have a problem with members’ multiple roles. Check out the song “Fight From the Inside,” written and performed entirely by drummer Taylor (with some lead guitar work by May, and backing vocals from May and Mercury.)

Taylor’s lyrics are, I think, meant to sort of inspire young people to stick up for themselves. It’s a straight ahead rocker, and demonstrates there’s a lot more to Taylor than simply drums and a pretty face.

As much as Queen is most identified with Freddie Mercury, and perhaps Brian May, may mercuryall members shared quite equally on the songwriting duties on News of the World. Bassist Deacon contributed one of my favorite tracks – a song about sticking up for yourself and chasing your dreams – “Spread Your Wings.”

It features everything I love about the Queen sound. Deacon’s bass, May’s guitar, Taylor’s cool drum fills, Mercury’s belting. May’s guitar solo in the final minute is subdued yet powerful. And by the way – how cool is it that Deacon wore a Chicago Blackhawks jacket for the video?

queen leap

Guitarist Brian May wrote my two favorite songs on the album. The first is another rocker whose lyrics compress the ups and downs of romance into two verses, “It’s Late.”

Queen’s sonic bombast is on display here – Freddie’s flash, the multi-layered backing vocals, crushing drums, howling guitar – but it seems a bit muted somehow, reigned in, making the song seem more powerful to me. Deacon’s bass work is up and down the fret, but never ostentatious. May’s sound is May’s sound, and he plays a variety of solos throughout. The buildup to, and execution of, the “It’s late, it’s late, it’s late” chorus (for example, just around 2:55) can give me chills. And I love the middle jamming section from about 3:20 to 4:30. The song teeters on that sonic rock edge between Big and Too Big, and for me it leans the right way.

freddie deadMy co-favorite song is “All Dead, All Dead,” a sad song sung by May, and all the more touching given Mercury’s early death in 1991, at age 45.

(The fact that its lyrics are actually about Brian May’s boyhood cat doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the song.)

May’s vocals are heartfelt, and his guitar work is subtle and interesting. As usual, Deacon’s bass support offers more than simply support, but features prominently in the composition.

News of the World – it must be said – features the smash hits “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” two of May and Mercury’s most famous songs, both of which certainly make the Jock Rock Hall Of Fame. I’ve heard these songs so much in my life that I’m now done with them. But they’re there if you’re interested!

queen last

This record makes me happy. It makes me happy to know that no “Coach Spike” ever told drummer Roger Taylor, “maybe you should stick to drums;” or told bassist John Deacon, “maybe you should stick to writing rock songs.” There was no “Beef” to tell Freddie Mercury and Brian May they’d have to make a choice between rock or jazz and blues. And the band rewarded all of us with songs for everyone – even songs that meathead coaches like Spike and Beef can forever appreciate.

TRACK LISTING
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Sheer Heart Attack
All Dead, All Dead
Spread Your Wings
Fight From the Inside
Get Down, Make Love
Sleeping on the Sidewalk
Who Needs You
It’s Late
My Melancholy Blues

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84th Favorite: Moondance, by Van Morrison

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Moondance. Van Morrison.
1970 Warner Bros. Producer: Van Morrison
Purchased ca. 1992

Moondance-Van-Morrison

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – Excellent songs with exceptional singing. Morrison is a true master of his instrument – his voice. The songs range from poppy and bouncy to mellow and romantic, and Van performs them all phenomenally. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It was more rockin’, but it’s not that style of music.
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Mrs. Meyer taught me US History in tenth grade, and she was the inspiring type of teacher that kids remember 32 years after leaving her class 80s glassesand include in their little-read blogs about albums they like. She was a heavy-set woman with short reddish hair and she wore those owlish 80s eyeglasses with lenses large enough that folks used to personalize them with tiny monogram stickers. (Placing monograms on items was a big fad in the 80s, believe it or not – very preppy). She loved Teddy Roosevelt and the idea – frustrating as it was – that if people would just learn a little bit more about history, the depth of peace and love and understanding in the world would grow exponentially. monogramsShe wasn’t a Dates and Names type of history teacher, she was a Big Picture type. And as she wiped tears from her face while teaching difficult lessons revealing the perpetual continuum of human brutality toward other humans, she would frequently ask us to remember her personal axiom that “there is always at least one good thing about every person.”

Considering the multitude of evil deeds and horrible carnage that a history teacher must learn, master, describe and contextualize for students, this statement is quite astounding. It probably says more about Mrs. Meyer – that she held out hope for humanity to build on small goods even in the face of huge evils; that she was a warm, optimistic teacher – than it says about history. This woman could teach about The Inquisition, European Colonialism and Western slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust … and yet find it within herself to pronounce, for example, “But remember! Everyone had at least one good thing about them … even Hitler helped establish the Volkswagen.”

vw bus

Many people may be appalled by this statement, finding it reprehensible to throw a dumb car brand into the equation of the deeds of a man responsible for so much death and misery. But Mrs. Meyer wasn’t trying to balance historical scales or diminish horrific acts. She was just using a historical fact to provide some perspective to history and some insight into the complexity of human beings. And – I think – it made the lessons more bearable for her to teach. It also – whether intended or not – provided some of her students with insight into dealing with difficult facts in their own lives: find something good.

buddhaThe Buddha, in his wisdom, stated that life is suffering, and while the meaning of this statement has been misinterpreted over time to make it sound like words from a depressed misanthrope, the truth remains that much of life is difficult – there can be no doubt. And it can be helpful to navigate the difficulty by looking for positives among the many negatives. This is especially true from adolescence to young-adulthood, when negatives seem to abound. And while it may be difficult, in the moment, to seek the One Good Thing about, for example, basketball busbeing a high school sophomore and getting an attack of diarrhea on the high school basketball team bus filled with juniors and seniors, while traveling to a game 21 miles away (by the way, let’s call that a hypothetical example) … 32 years later one may be able to mitigate the (again, hypothetical) humiliation and embarrassment of such a situation by asserting that at least it provided evidence of certain teammates’ thoughtfulness – people who unexpectedly could be trusted with secret information, like where soiled underwear might be hidden among teenage boys in a visiting (i.e. girls’) locker room. (If this were a true story, perhaps that place would be the small feminine hygiene product disposal trash can under the sinks.)

Some may call this One Good Thing technique pure rationalization. I call it looking on the bright side of life.

Looking back on one’s life, there can be a temptation to ask – over and over again – “why did I do that?” Or “why did that happen to me?” The shoulda-coulda-wouldas grab hold and shouldainvariably present one’s imagination with only the greatest of all possible outcomes from regretful moments in life. For example: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda gotten that record deal and then woulda had a bunch of hit songs and been millionaires!” Rarely does the imagination present the situation as: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda kept playing dive bars for another 8 years and I woulda been an alcoholic 33 year old still living with my parents.” Even less likely: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda driven into a lake in the middle of the night and woulda all died.” All three scenarios are equally as likely in the deep, dark forest of Whatmighthavebeen. But our minds like to torture us, so we only imagine the best.

A better way of reviewing such regrets (for we all have regrets, even Mrs. Meyer, I’m sure; like those big owl glasses, for example) may be to consider The Past as simply The Past, and tease out The Good from all that really did happen. For example: I played bass in a band in which I made friends for life, played songs I helped write to appreciative people, and now have fun memories and stories to tell.

bettyMany people tend to beat themselves up particularly over past romantic relationships. “I shoulda stayed with X, I coulda gotten married, I woulda been happy,” or “I shoulda left X years earlier, I coulda spent the time more productively, I woulda gotten that MBA.” My own romantic regrets are not so grand, but are more along the lines of “I shoulda put a different song on that mix tape,” or “I coulda caught something from her,” or “I woulda broken up if I thought I coulda gotten another girlfriend.”

I myself have reconsidered my regrets over the few girlfriends I have had, and replaced the Shouldacouldawouldas with One Good Thing. Here are a few examples …

V. – first girlfriend. High school. I was a senior, V. was a sophomore. Both of us Marching Band members, our relationship consisted mostly of sitting together at football games, walking in the halls together and speaking on the phone. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve told her sooner popcormthat I was getting bored with sitting together, walking the halls and talking on the phone. Instead I just sort of blurted out one day that I was breaking up with her – and didn’t give a reason. Based on this, I can see why she may have thought that I broke up with her because “things weren’t physical enough” (which – much to her credit – she called me to ask me about directly a couple weeks afterwards). But honestly – I was actually terrified of things getting more “physical;” the goodnight kisses we shared were scary enough to a dork like me!! One Good Thing – V.’s house was the first place I ever tried microwave popcorn, and it was awesome.

girlfriendM. – described somewhat in a previous post. Longest relationship ever (~18 months) apart from the 21+ year relationship with current wife. Regret I’ve Left Behind – That’s tough to whittle down. I guess that I should’ve been thinking more rationally during those ~18 months?

However, she was really very attractive (very attractive) and that made it hard for a dork like me to think rationally. One Good Thing – Introduced me to Woody Allen movie Manhattan and the music of Todd Rundgren. (For 18 months’ worth of distress all I could come up with was a movie I’ve seen twice and a guy whose songs I don’t turn off when they come on the radio.)

A. – So, I had known A. for many years. She had been my buddy Rick’s girlfriend reo ticket(and as such caused me to miss most of Cheap Trick opening for REO Speedwagon at Hershey Stadium because she was late, and then I had to sit through REO’s entire set because somehow a foreign exchange student was with us and she was interested in them, thus ruining my first concert experience ever because I MISSED Cheap Trick and WATCHED REO Speedwagon) cheap trickand she was very good friends with my buddy Josh. (Rick and Josh being two of the three previously-described “coolest members of the CCHS graduating class of 1985.”) At some point in my early twenties, while my confidence was at a high point, I thought, “I haven’t seen A. in a while. I always liked her. I wonder if she’d go out with me?” So I called her up, and sure enough we made a date to go see Batman Returns.

For the next three months or so we were kind of dating, but not really. map to PHLIt was very strange. We’d spend lots of time together, and stay at each other’s apartment sometimes, but then we wouldn’t speak for several days. At a certain point, I wished to better define our relationship (i.e. be a couple) and she wished to keep it as-is (i.e. not be a couple). So, that was the end of that. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve said “No,” when, months after we “broke up,” and having not spoken together in weeks, A. sweet-talked dorky me into driving her to the Philadelphia airport (1.5 hours away) to pick up her “friend,” who turned out to be pretty obviously her soon-to-be-new-boyfriend. One Good ThingMoondance, by Van Morrison.

record coupleA. may have been the biggest music fan I ever dated (if that’s what you call what we did), and even though she was a bit too enamored of The Grateful Dead for my tastes, and I was too much into Nirvana and Pearl Jam for her, we did have a great deal of musical interests that overlapped. We played records for each other, which was lots of fun – except for the time I played her John Lennon’s album Plastic Ono Band, which closes with the song “My Mummy’s Dead,” Lennon’s childlike lament for his dead mother, only to find out that A.’s freaky reaction to the song and quick departure from my apartment afterwards was due to the fact that she’d tragically lost her own mother as a teen … doh

But anyway … A. was a BIG big fan of Van Morrison. She used to play many of his records, but the one that really stuck with me, the one that – even after that memorable 3 hours in the car spent a) hearing about how interesting her “friend” was (“Environmental Law! Portland, Oregon! Box of Rain!!”); and b) listening to this interesting fellow ignore me while flirting and giggling with A. in the back seatchauffeur (“We haven’t seen each other in so long, do you mind if I sit back here with him??” “Uh … no! Of course not!”) – even after this, the album that I went out and bought so I could listen by myself, was Moondance.

After 16 albums on this list, I think its clear that a pattern is emerging in my favorite albums. They’re mostly bands, mostly guitar oriented, mostly rocking. I’ve also shown a proclivity for disregarding vocal ability, as many acts with acquired-taste singers, like Rush, The Hold Steady, and Sleater-Kinney, dot the list. Moondance completely obliterates this pattern.

It’s a solo record, with some guitar, but very understated and mostly acoustic, containing van guitar songs that have some bounce and pop, but that never really rock. And as for singing … Van Morrison is among the best singers I’ve heard. The sound of his voice is striking. Have you ever been to a wedding reception or other large party, and in the midst of enjoying yourself had a friend come by and introduce you to someone? And has that person ever been an incredibly beautiful woman or incredibly handsome man? I don’t mean just pretty or cute, I mean the type that – regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – makes you fumble a bit for words as you ask, “How do you know Mary and John?” The type that after he or she walks away, you and your date look at each other and – again, regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – say to each other, “Holy shit!” It’s happened once or twice to me. This is what Van’s voice is like. Just a few words at the beginning of any song, and I find myself thinking, “Whoa. Now this is singing.”

van sings

It’s not the technicality of the singing, or the perfection of the notes, and it’s not as if he’s performing vocal feats like covering multiple octaves or flying through difficult cadenzas. It’s that I feel what he’s singing, and it conveys to me what he’s feeling. It sounds weird to say it, but there’s a truth to it, an openness that allows the listener into Van’s world. van bandBut it’s never embarrassingly emotional, or burdensome to the listener – he somehow pulls off the emotion with a touch of restraint that leaves me wanting to hear more, not less. There are few artists whose voice I want to hear more of – I often think of the vocals as just a means to carry melody while I focus on guitar, bass and drums. But I feel like I could listen to simply the vocal tracks of Morrison’s and be perfectly happy with it. That being said, the backing band on Moondance is phenomenal.

The album opens with “And It Stoned Me,” a childhood slice-of-life subtly delivering a message on the wonderful joys of everyday life, and how the simple things can be divine.

The horns are pleasant, and the band sounds good, but I can tell I’m a fan of the singer because during the acoustic guitar and piano solos, which are very nice and light, (2:14 to 2:54) I find myself thinking, “okay, let’s get back to the vocals!” which is something I almost never think during an instrumental section! The structure of the song is basic, but I love how at the end of the pre-chorus (“Oh, the water … Oh, the water”) during the “hope it don’t rain all day” part, the song slows a bit, creating a tension that echoes the lyrics. van croonsThe lyrics of the pre-chorus are different each time through, recalling the part of the story that has just been sung, and each time through Van’s evocative delivery, coupled with the slight change of pace, enhance the feeling of the lyrics and place you right in the boy’s mind. You can feel the story unfolding as if Billy was your friend, and you spent that day with him, fishing in the rain, swimming, drinking the water … and you can understand why such mundane activities were all so special. Through Morrison’s singing, magic is created out of something simple – and when you think about it, that’s the whole point of “And It Stoned Me.”

Another magical track, in which everything comes together to create something bigger than the sum of the parts, is the song “Into the Mystic.”

The lyrics conjure a romance as lasting as the sea, and as in “And It Stoned Me,” the music van fringereferences and reflects the imagery perfectly. Supporting the magic this time is John Klingberg’s gentle-waves-lapping-the-shore bass line, rolling as insistently as the waves. Van’s voice starts softly and builds throughout first verses. Then the musical stakes are raised by the minor chord struck as Van sings of the fog horn blowing, and the payoff comes stunningly as he pounces on the “rock your Gypsy soul” line. This rarely fails to bring me chills. “Into the Mystic” is a song whose meaning I can’t express well in words, but that I understand when I listen to it. It’s about love, but it’s more than that. I suppose this inexpressible quality is what makes it sound magical to me.

Another sum-greater-than-the-parts song is “Everyone,” which has a simple, Elizabethan-sounding melody and so-inscrutable-they’re-almost-pointless lyrics

But somehow, held together by Van’s singing, a vision of hope and friendship and a happy future emerges in the song. It sounds downright jolly. It’s a song I find running through my head frequently even though I don’t think of it as a favorite on the record. It’s got too much flute, for one thing, and I’ve never been much for the flute as rock instrument. (Maybe okay for jazz, in certain settings.) But it’s catchy, and the words of the chorus are certainly easy to remember! (The title track, maybe the most famous of all of Morrison’s tunes, also uses the flute effectively. It’s also not a particular favorite of mine.)

My favorite song on the record is definitely “Caravan.”

The acoustic guitar behind the chorus, through the “turn up the radio/switch on the electric light” section, is my favorite guitar on the record. van stepsI love parts of songs that are easy to miss, that you might only catch on the third or fourth trip through the song. As always, Van’s singing is masterly, evocative. It brings so much clarity to a song whose lyrics’ meanings are obtuse, as usual, even wringing meaning out of the tune’s many “La la las”. And when the horns punctuate the bridge, and Van calls out “Turn it up! Turn it up!” my heart feels just what he’s saying – it knows exactly why we gotta turn up the radio, why this caravan is so special, and why I want that electric light on when I’m with Emma Rose – even if my head’s not really sure. I could listen to this song on a loop all day.

van band 2Although it’s a vocal record, the band behind Van is excellent. I’m not sure who all played what on every song, but two songs that feature the band nicely are the bouncy, bluesy “These Dreams of You” and “Come Running.”

It seems natural that someone who uses dreamlike imagery in most of his songs would write a song like “Dreams of You,” whose lyrics describe odd dreams of Canada and Ray Charles and a lover who’s let him down. There’s a nice sax solo, and the band sounds like it’s having fun playing the song. “Come Running” is almost a companion piece, it’s lyrics describing the hope for a lost love returning – in fact, running back. Again, the band sounds like it’s enjoying the poppy bounce.

Of course, Van Morrison’s voice lends itself beautifully to love songs and romance. That voice is always deeply suggestive of any subject matter, and easily bears the full weight of words’ meanings. This makes a love song like “Crazy Love” extra special.

If you listen closely, you can hear Van breathing and bumping the mike as he sings. van faceIt’s an intimate song, and he sings it that way. Morrison has a definite Motown sound that’s very evident on popular numbers of his like “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Domino.” And like these songs, “Crazy Love” – in the Quiet Storm vein of R&B – is a song one could imagine Smoky Robinson singing. The song and its performance make a guy like me think, “man, I’ll bet Van Morrison never had to worry about being a dork around girls. They were probably crawling all over him.” (Which isn’t to say he hasn’t had any relationship regrets of his own.)

The album closes with one of the best album closers ever, “Glad Tidings.”

Another bouncy tune, a fun and uplifting song that seems to be about staying positive, and having an optimistic outlook. There’s nice electric guitar work beneath the vocals, and the horn section and rhythm section sound great. But like the entire album, this song is all about Van’s incredible vocal ability. Once again, lyrics that are indirect are given clarity through his voice.

“But meet them halfway with love, peace and persuasion
And expect them to rise for the occasion
Don’t it gratify when you see it materialize
Right in front of your eyes
That surprise”

He asks the listener to look on the bright side, to not just find the good in others, but to expect it, and you’ll be surprised by the payoff when you do. It sounds like a sentiment Mrs. Meyer herself would have loved to hear.

mrs meyer pic

TRACKS:
“And It Stoned Me”
“Moondance”
“Crazy Love”
“Caravan”
“Into the Mystic”
“Come Running”
“These Dreams of You”
“Brand New Day”
“Everyone”
“Glad Tidings”

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85th Favorite: 90125, by Yes

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90125. Yes.
1983, ATCO. Producer: Trevor Horne
Gift, 1983.

90125

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL – Quintessential glossy 80s rock from 70s Prog Rock kings who somehow manage to cram all the characteristics of Prog (weird song structures, harmonies, virtuosity, bizarre lyrics) into 4 minute pop songs. If I hadn’t played it every day in 1984, it probably wouldn’t make the list! WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had played it four times a day. Or if it had fewer sound effects, samples and Casio-esque keyboards.
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(Parts of this post were originally posted in March, 2013)

First, let’s hear Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters’ front man, Dave Grohl, on the concept of GUILTY PLEASURES:

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. [It’s] not cool.” Don’t think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why not? Fuck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.”

Amen.

I recall a discussion from early in my senior year of high school, in the fall of (gasp) 1984 (!!),with friends Rick and Josh about a report we had recently heard.

class of 85
The word from the radio, or maybe MTV, was that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin! Duh!!) had reunited to cut an EP. This was Earth-shattering good news. I myself was giddy with excitement.

plant pageNeither Rick nor (especially) Josh would ever be described as “giddy,” but they were both interested, though also cautioned (especially Josh, as he has always been wise beyond his years) that there was a decent chance the EP would suck.

I was incredulous at the suggestion. “How could anyone imagine this EP could suck!!???” I wondered. “Weren’t Robert and Jimmy half of the greatest hard rock band in the history of this world and Middle Earth?? Weren’t they such a kickass band that even their slow songs fuckin’ rocked?” I chuckled at the suggestion that anything produced by such a collaboration could suck. Sure, based on their post-Zeppelin output, I didn’t expect the EP to be as good as Led Zeppelin. But clearly, there was no way it would suck. Even the new band’s name, “The Honeydrippers,” boded well, as in my adolescent mind it was somewhat reminiscent of the vaguely raunchy lyrics from Zep’s “The Lemon Song.”

walkmanI chuckled to myself. “You’ll see,” I thought. “This will blow your walkman right off your belt clip!”

I have a memory of watching MTV when the channel unveiled the World Premiere of the video for The Honeydrippers’ new song. Maybe it’s a purely conjured memory, but in my mind I can see Mark Goodman welcoming viewers to the unveiling of “the first single from the new EP titled The Honeydrippers, Volume 1” (which indicated to me that more great volumes could be on the way!!), “Sea of Love!”

marc goodmanThis was it!! Page and Plant, together again!! YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!” my 17 year old brain screamed, “ROCK AND ROLL!!!!!!!!!!! Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!! Long Live Rock!! I need it every night!!!”

And I settled myself down to watch Glorious Rock Majesty unfold:

Okay, I don’t expect you to watch every second of every video I post. But just watch the first minute. Twenty seconds is enough to realize that this is NOT going to be another “Immigrant Song.” And by the 42 second mark, when a coiffed, mustachioed and generally hairy dude in a Speedo appears, waving beaters over – but never actually playing – a xylophone, it was clear to my teenage self that everything I thought I knew about Plant and Page was completely wrong. This was not Hard Rock. This was not Rock and Roll. For Christ’s sake, this wasn’t even Soft Rock. This was not any kind of Rock that I could even imagine. This was music that my PARENTS would appreciate, and if there’s one thing I know that my parents DO NOT appreciate, it is ROCK MUSIC.

parents

beavisThis was … this was … THIS WAS BULLSHIT!! My wiser friends were right – there had been a chance the music could suck. And suck it did.

At the time I claimed to like the song, out of some sense of loyalty to Plant and Page, or maybe a kind of faith in Led Zeppelin. I claimed to like it, but I knew … It Sucked.

It took me a long time to realize that it didn’t really suck all THAT bad, and an even longer time to realize why such (apparently) debauched Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll guys like Plant and Page would make an entire EP of songs like this one.

It’s because it’s always high school in your brain. “Sea of Love” might have sounded schmaltzy and lame to me, it may be light years away from “Out on the Tiles” and “Achilles Last Stand,” but it’s a song Plant grew up to, a song that must have stirred something in him as a teen recordyouth that continued stirring throughout the intervening 25 years. What the song continued to bring to him was something my 17 year old, mostly-id brain couldn’t understand. But for Plant, the connection was still strong.

Your youth just stays with you, and you can’t really explain why.

elderly danceOne part of youth that has stayed with me (without me even realizing it until recently!) is the Yes album 90125.

It is an album that I hadn’t listened to in at least 25 years when I started this project. In fact, I had forgotten about it entirely, until I was trying to put together a list of albums that I figured would have been Top Ten for me back in 1984-85. I remembered I used to play the cassette, which one of my sisters got me for Christmas in 1983, regularly. For a long stretch I played it daily. I loved that cassette – every song.

I stopped listening to it sometime in college. During and after college, my musical interests began to change. I had grown to love The Beatles, but became less interested in other classic rock – especially acts that stressed virtuosity – and more interested in college-radio acts.

new bandsI became obsessed with melodic, punkier music by bands like REM and XTC, or Elvis Costello and the Attractions. By the time a friend loaned me a box set of The Clash (a band I’d heard before, but never really took seriously [after all, they had no intricate, 5 minute guitar solos, no confusing time signature changes, and their singer didn’t sound like his nuts were in a vise]) my entire perspective on music had been altered radically.

So I never thought much again about 90125 – or if I did, I scoffed and mocked my younger self for ever being so silly as to listen to it. 90210I reached a point where I couldn’t remember whether 90210 was the TV show and 90125 the Yes album, or vice versa. I also held a bit of a grudge against the album, actually, as it had been my entree into the bizarre, bombastic and rather ridiculous world of Progressive Rock, or “Prog Rock.” For a while I was quite embarrassed by a two-year deep dive I had taken into Prog Rock’s multi-chambered, cavernous world of Moogs, Mustaches and Music School Maiar. But in the interest of being as thorough as possible in documenting my musical tastes, I bought a used copy of the disc ($1.99!!). And when I put it into the CD player in my car, and the songs began to play, a wave of good feelings returned.

Obviously, not everything about adolescence is memorable, fun or positive, but I found myself enjoying the music, and thinking about old friends and old times that I hadn’t thought of in years. I sang all the lyrics to songs I hadn’t heard in 25 years or more. It all came back to me, including what it was I liked about the album. (Which isn’t always the case for me, when listening to favorites from my youth.) I felt like Plant and Page must have felt when they heard music from their teenage years, my parents’ teenage years. It stirred up that youthful excitement with just one play. Just as the younger me couldn’t understand why they’d play crap like “Sea of Love,” I don’t expect most readers to understand why I love this record. But I’ll try to explain it.

90125 is very much, extremely, entirely and in totality a Time-Capsule-1983 work.

83

On grand display are synthesizers, multi-tracked and hyper-compressed guitars, flanging drums, and computer-generated sounds and effects of the type that today are easily embedded in everyday items such as greeting cards and bottle openers, but at the time seemed to have been created by a DARPA-funded team on loan from NASA. The music at times sounds entirely created by robots playing instruments that have been loaded with Artificial Intelligence.

robots

There’s a sterile quality to the album, apparent even in the album artwork. It has a sound that, were I to first hear the record today, I would find unappealing. I’ve become more devoted than ever to the sounds of instruments I can identify, with minimal effects placed between the artist and the listener. But I’m also a fan of songs and melody, regardless of how they are produced, and the great songs and melodies on 90125, coupled with the punch of memories and reminiscence, make the record a favorite – even though I’d forgotten about it for years!

The record opens with one of the most iconic 80s songs of all time, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” I feel confident calling it iconic (even though it didn’t make VH1’s Top 100 Songs of the 80s) because it is a song that exemplifies the 1983 rock sound, just as “Great Balls of Fire” says 1957, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” says 1967. “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” like Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” is a song that sounds like it could only have ever been a hit during one particular 10 -month stretch in history, from Spring of ’83 through Winter of ’84.

yes 83

It also has one of the more “artsy” videos of the era:

What the song really has going for it, beneath all the gunshot sound effects, synthesized string section blasts and drum samples from the band Funk, Inc., is Chris Squire’s super catchy bass hook (the same riff that’s played on guitar to open the song.) Probably the last adjective one would ever use to describe the band Yes would be “funky,” but in fact, this song does have a bit of funk to it. Enough for it to have been sampled by a few different hip hop acts, going back to 1985. As strange as it feels to write this, it’s a Yes song to which one might dance. (And in fact, a dance remix version of the song hit #9 in the UK a few years back.) It’s strange to write it because most Yes songs recorded in the 15 years prior to 90125 were … well, let’s just say NOT conducive to (non-interpretive) dancing.

There are many places for you to read about the varied history of the band Yes, but – befitting an act whose album artwork and musical stylings albumsconjure images of multi-part Fantasy Novel sagas – it would take up the equivalent of two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to completely tell the story. (There is a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted solely to band members present and past! It even has a chart showing the timeline of all 19 members!!) trevor rabinSuffice it to say that the 90125 edition of the band had an 80s pop sensibility, but tried to keep the Yes sound (distinct vocals, inscrutable lyrics, excellent musicianship) intact. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was proof that the concept could work … for about 10 months. It has a catchy melody over the bass line, and if you don’t mind nut-in-vise male singers, then Jon Anderson’s vocals sound good, too. Trevor Rabin’s guitar work is mostly buried under all that computerese, but he is a great player and his solo on the song is weird and cool.

The next song on the album is “Hold On,” which caught enough of the tail end of that 10-month stretch of history to reach number 27 on the singles chart.

The main feature of this song is the vocal work among Anderson, Rabin and Squire (who, if you checked out that earlier chart, you’ll see is the only consistent member through all versions of the band). Its lyrics are a simple yet uplifting message about strength in hard times. (Although – as with all Jon Anderson lyrics – don’t look too closely at the lyrics because even seemingly direct meanings can be derailed by passages like this:

jon 2“Talk the simple smile
Such platonic eye
How they drown in incomplete capacity
Strangest of them all
When the feeling calls
How we drown in stylistic audacity
Charge the common ground
Round and round and round
We living in gravity”

When you’re a Yes fan, you learn to just deal with these types of lyrics, like a fan of Woody Allen movies just deals with the fact that he married his step daughter.) But another cool feature of the song is the bass and guitar work of Squire and Rabin. musicianThe song sounds like a basic 80s pop song, but if you are a fan of 70s bombastic Yes (as I am) you can pick out the musicianship on display beneath the 80s gloss and (frankly) fruity keyboards. Both players mix in some interesting fills and complex runs, and while I’ve never been a big fan of drummer Alan White (I much prefer the jazzy Bill Bruford in my Yes music) he also produces some rhythmic moments that aren’t your typical Madonna/Michael Jackson 1983 sound.

phys maxmax(Side Note: If you’re interested in Awesome 80s Style – including the strange hybird look of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” video crossed with the Mad Max movies, check out this clip of Yes playing “Hold On” live in 1984!)

Continuing with the uplifting theme, the next song is “It Can Happen.”

(It’s TOTALLY worth watching a little bit of that video, too, just to see the haircuts and outfits. This is classic 10-months-in-’83-’84 fashion.) I want to dislike this song, with its multiple sections of varying tempos, repetitious, nonsensical it-can-happen lyrics and background-keyboard whirr, but I can’t. The melody is catchy, there’s enough guitar and bass to keep me interested (especially the repeating high end bass flourish Squire adds), and the song builds nicely throughout. squireWhen it finally reaches the last chorus after the guitar solo (about 3:27) I find myself fighting the urge to pump my fist and shout along, as I probably did every day for that 10 month stretch. It shouldn’t be surprising that Yes crammed about 12 different melodies into a 4 minute song, as previous Yes albums included songs that lasted the entire side of an album, with multiple, named sections. But the fact that they were able to do this and produce hit pop songs with the formula is pretty astounding.

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Another characteristic of the “classic Yes” sound from all those 70s albums is the vocal harmonies. Part of the reason people like me begin to get obsessed with a band like Yes is the virtuosity. Yes displayed incredible instrumental abilities throughout its run (all 19 members, I suppose … although I only know about a dozen of them …) and on top of that, sang tight harmonies on difficult melodies WHILE THEY WERE PLAYING! It was like Crosby, Stills and Nash singing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” while playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on their guitars. (And I’ll admit, some of their songs sounded about as deranged as this description. But it was impressive.) This type of yes 84musical wizardry causes some people (the nerds, like me) to bow down and worship and causes other people (the punks) to want to hock a loogie at the band (and not in appreciation.) Anyway, this prog-rock staple of vocal harmonies was placed into a pop song format on the song “Leave It.”

(Another time-capsule video worth watching a bit of. The editing on this video was CUTTING-FRIGGIN-EDGE in 1984). It’s a song about being on the road, I guess, but once again, we’re dealing with Yes and sometimes the lyrics are best left un-read. Regarding the vocals, even though they are enhanced with studio effects, the singing on the song is pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that the band later released an a capella version of the song, which inspired a capella groups from every high school, college and community choir to record their own versions. Here are six of the millions.

Songs like this bring up the point that most of the cuts on this album – whether played by robots, or by guys with their nuts in a vise – just sound cool. Were I to hear them today for the first time, I may not appreciate the sound, but the 17 year old me found them really cool, and for some reason that sense is still with me today.

coolThis is why these a capella groups cover this song in particular, and why the album itself was so popular. According to Wikipedia the album sold around 6 million copies worldwide. It didn’t sound much like anything else out at the time (I can’t think of any other pop records that might have had a song like “Changes,” with its shifting 4/4, 6/8, 4/4, 12/8 time signature) but then again it sounded EXACTLY like everything else. The Yes sound was made palatable to the masses, and they liked what they heard.

“Our Song” is what passes for a Yes barn-burner – the closest the band ever gets to real Rock and Roll.

I keep saying one should ignore the band’s lyrics, but I can’t stop harping on them. They’re so amusing! I think this song is about the city of Toledo, and that the song is in the key of C. I know the lyrics rhyme “Britannia” with “grabs ya.” But whatever the lyrics, I sing along to this song all the time, and I don’t give a fuck what it really means. The guitar and bass work are really great, playing together like co-leads, like dueling guitars in a Southern Rock band. It’s a rocker and probably my favorite song on the record.

“City of Love” and “Hearts” close out the album. “City of Love” is a dark, throbbing guitar workout, with all the components I’ve already discussed on full display: excellent guitar and bass, tight harmonies, fruity keyboards, silly lyrics (“Justice/Body smooth takeover”), great melodies, and shiny production.

Hearts” is a sort of Yes 80s power ballad, in the same way that “Our Song” is a Yes rock and roller. That is to say – it’s not REALLY a power ballad. It’s slow and has some seemingly romantic lyrics (although: “Be ready now/Be ye circle” ??? I don’t envision many teenage girls in 1984 writing that on the back of their notebooks.) And it has a really great sing-along chorus, and multiple rocking guitar solos – all staples of the 80s power ballad. But it’s not exactly a song a couple could dance to, with its plodding, hiccuppy drums and strange keyboard interlude. But still, it’s a song that sounds really cool. As the entire album does.

90125 sounds like nothing else. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, upon listening again after so many years, I don’t know if I’d love it so much if I didn’t have such a strong, almost Pavlovian, response to it. But there’s no denying that it is a unique record, a melding of styles that shouldn’t fit together, but that somehow do. It’s the Centaur of rock records – a combination that sounds ridiculous, and is ridiculous, but somehow seems to fit.

centaur

TRACKS:
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
“Hold On”
“It Can Happen”
“Changes”
“Cinema”
“Leave It”
“Our Song”
“City of Love”
“Hearts”

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86th Favorite: Made in USA, by Pizzicato Five

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Made in USA. Pizzicato Five.
1994, Matador. Producers: Maki Nomiya, Yasuharu Konishi, K-taro Takanami
Purchased 1995.

Made-in-USA-PNG

nutIN A NUTSHELL – 90s Japanese dance pop that sounds like the soundtrack to an Austin Powers movie if it starred Hello Kitty instead of Mike Myers. But I mean in a really, really good way! It’s fun and energetic and full of happiness. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be higher than 86, but I do love it!
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“Hold on to sixteen as long as you can/ changes come around real soon make us women and men.” – John Cougar (nee Mellencamp)

“Bullshit.” – Me.

At a certain point in life, you have to grow up. That point will be different for everyone. kids adult Some folks – the FBLA types, who attend high school wearing business attire – are ready to move to grown-up-hood by the time they’re 14. Others find themselves in their twenties beginning to tire of their mom continually putting their good sweaters in the dryer, and realize that maybe the problem isn’t really with their mother.

sweater

But regardless of the actual age it happens, eventually, your best bet is going to be to embrace the reality that a) you’re going to have bills due each month; b) you’re going to have to work a job(s) that pays you enough to cover those expenses; and c) you’re going to enjoy (a) and (b) more if you find a close friend or friends to spend your time with.

As a forty-seven year old, I am aware of several people around my age who are still desperately clinging to some winnowing thread of adolescence. In men, this usually manifests as a compulsory need to find someone/anyone to go out drinking with, who also has a connection to a coke dealer, loserand who especially won’t mind if you crash on his TV room floor a couple nights a week. This “adult-escent” is the guy who stopped hanging out with you and your friends twenty years ago – right around the time you all got real jobs and steady partners – but who you still see around town occasionally, when you’re out for a drink with friends, and who invariably wobbles up to you and says “it’s been too long, man!” and asks, “how’s your kid?” – followed by, “oh, you have two now? I just never had time for a wife and kids – too busy,” and then introduces “my buddy, Chase,” who is 20 to 25 years younger than you, and who has been standing there touching his goatee repeatedly, twitchier than a nervous squirrel.

Obviously, such a guy has more issues than simple Peter Pan Syndrome. peter panBut any urge to grow up has been blunted, whether by drugs and alcohol, or over-parenting, or simply genetics, and the end result is a character who conjures more of the bad memories of adolescence than the good ones.

In popular American culture, growing up is often seen as a negative. Pop songs have long advised listeners to stay young and die before you get old. To relish one’s youth. Movies, television, advertising, books … all have celebrated the creativity, humor, beauty and innate wisdom of childhood.

kids

Many of these celebrations of youth are an expression that the childlike characteristics of wonder, joy, honesty and friendship should be held onto in one’s adult heart. This idea can be the germ of a really good movie (or a really bad one.) And we all could probably use a little childlike grace in our adult lives.

But such pop culture endeavors miss a huge, important fact about children. You see, children aren’t simply beatific, golden vessels of kindhearted love and altruistic intent. Children are actually selfish, irrational, shortsighted assholes, too.mean kid

They are just like every awful boss you’ve ever had – demanding, inflexible, prone to obnoxious outbursts, and masters of manipulation and emotional blackmail.

These negative traits aren’t a result of poor parenting, no. They are wired into every normal human that is born, and the purpose of parenting is to rid the little person of them as thoroughly as possible so that he or she can reasonably function in a society with others who may or may not continue to exhibit these traits as adults. Parents wring these negatives out, they gently wipe the negatives off, they trick them into going away, they hassle them out so they’re not inclined to return. selfish prickThey frighten the negatives into hidden corners and shame them into dark, locked closets. They embrace the negatives until the negatives are no longer fun, they facilitate open dialogues about the negatives until they are too bored to stay. In short, they do everything they can to remove the childish from the child. This is what parents do. They have to do it because if they didn’t, the world would have even more selfish pricks than it already does – truly a shocking thought.

What I’m saying is that children are overrated. Childhood is overrated. Don’t get me wrong, there are some positive things to be said about both, but the Cult of Children sometimes obscures the reality that being a grown up is pretty fuckin’ kickass, too.

Ask any child. Go ahead, ask them what they want to be. They want to be GROWN UPS. They pretend to be grown ups. They try to act like grown ups. They make their Barbies and Lego guys be grown ups. Has anyone ever heard 7 year olds playing with Legos say, lego guys“Okay, this green guy is Tommy, and he and Danny are going to have their moms call Dylan’s mom to see about a play-date.” NO! Tommy and Danny and Dylan are always full-grown MEN, working together as full-grown men, doing full-grown manly stuff, like building space stations and surviving slow-motion 1000 mph crashes as their winged motorcycles smash into dinosaurs and Patrick Star, causing a debris field of small animals, bent Yu-Gi-Oh cards and a Spiderman leg.

Maybe people tend to discount the joys of adulthood because childhood dreams – barbie vetlike crashing winged bikes into dinosaurs, or running a clothing shop/veterinary clinic for pop stars and their pet bunnies – rarely come true. This may cause a young adult to feel lied to. But when you get past the fact that most kids have an impractical (to say the least) comprehension of what adult life is like (which, by the way, is another negative about kids – a warped view of life), and really think about life as an adult, you realize that it’s actually usually a pretty fun time.

Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA is on my list of Favorite 100 albums because – as goofy and lighthearted and carefree as the music may sound – it reminds me of being an adult. More precisely, it reminds me of coming to the realization that I AM an adult. I listened to this record a lot at a time in my life when it struck me: “This Is It. I am a grown up. This right here is my dinosaur wing-bike crash.”

In January 1995, a few weeks before the 49ers beat the Chargers in Superbowl XXIX my girlfriend, Julia, and I moved in together in a cool 2 bedroom apartment in a house in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco.

sf map

I had been living on my own for several years, in various places, with roommates and without roommates, so it wasn’t simply being away from my parents that caused the Grown Up feelings. I think it was a sense of permanence, that I had met a person with whom I’d probably spend many years, and that together we’d decided to merge our lives.

There was a large kitchen/dining room area in the very center of the apartment, and it was the perfect place to put our stereo and collection of vinyl albums and CDs. Anything playing on the stereo was easily heard throughout our home.

Now, Julia likes music and knows what she does and doesn’t like, however she’s not what one would call a “music enthusiast.” She likes funky soul fishboneand punky rock, and though she isn’t one to go out and buy herself music or follow bands, if she was, the act that I think would best describe the type of artist she’d follow would be Fishbone. Fun, melodic, energetic music. That’s what she likes. She’s a big fan of most anything by Prince, whose music usually falls into this category.

Some of the music that I liked to play wasn’t especially appealing to Julia, dont likeso I started widening my sphere of record-buying to include music I though she’d like to hear, too. Our good friend Ximena, who somehow always knew about new music first (and was particularly savvy about cool female Japanese acts, for some reason) told me about Pizzicato Five, and I went and bought Made in USA on her recommendation. I liked it a lot, and Julia did too. That CD spent a lot of time in our player while we went about the ordinary tasks, and spent extraordinary times, being grown-ups together.PF 3

It turns out that Made in USA breaks one of the rules I established for my Favorite Albums list: it is a compilation album. However, I didn’t know that until I started writing this post and reading up on the album! pf 6According to the extensive research I did, Pizzicato Five was a popular Japanese band who were part of a new wave of Japanese music called Shibuya-kei, which ”is known for eclectic and energetic compositions that often pay homage to late 1960s English-language Pop Music.” The American label, Matador, took some songs from each of their earlier Japanese records, put them together and called it Made in USA, a reference to the Japanese town of Usa, which was rumored in the 1960s to have been renamed so that cheap items for export to America could carry the meant-to-confuse label of “Made in USA Japan.”

Because I didn’t know the album was a compilation album until earlier this month, I have asked the judges to allow it into the list despite it being against the rules. After careful consideration they have agreed by a vote of 1 to 0. I’m glad they did, although this is the type of record that demonstrates perfectly why I would make a lousy music critic (and, in fact, why I think music critics – maybe all criticism? – is 99% horse shit). I can’t listen to the record “objectively,” whatever that means, as it is so wrapped up in so many memories from my life. I think it’s a great record – but if you’re not me, you won’t like it for the same reasons I do.

web bubbleSan Francisco in the 1990s was very exciting, and the neighborhood Julia and I lived in was particularly so. We were there as the World Wide Web grew from a opalescent puddle in Silicon Valley into a gigantic bubble surrounding the globe, and many of our neighbors were the people doing the huffing and puffing to keep the thing inflated and growing. We left just before it burst, kicking ourselves over not buying that $165,000 modest home near 22nd St. in 1994 (which didn’t have parking!), the one that would have been worth about $1,000,000 by 2000, when we left.

But while we were there, we had a blast together, and with our friends. That’s what Made in USA reminds me of – having a blast with Julia and our friends, and it made the list because of the great memories it conjures.

The first song on the album is “I”.

This swingin’ accordion-driven pf 7number (and you’ll hear that “swingin” and “accordion-driven” turn out NOT to be mutually exclusive) sets the tone for the record. If you, the listener, can get into the charm of Maki Nomiya’s sweet voice, and ignore the fact that the words are in a foreign language; if you can appreciate the light jazz-combo, 60’s bounce of the song, and don’t find it too cutesy; if you can appreciate an accordion, and not immediately discount it … if you can do all these things you’ll likely appreciate the record. If you can’t, there might not be much for you here.

This song reminds me of going out to amazing restaurants in San Francisco, like Farallon, The Liberty Cafe libertyand Cafe Jacqueline.

The feeling of dressing up, going out and enjoying a meal with someone you love is definitely a grown-up feeling. Contrast that with the nasty food kids enjoy, like Kraft mac n cheese, frozen pizzas and a squirt of ketchup on warmed, breaded nuggets of “chicken.” One point for adult-hood.

Next up on the album is a number that continues to make its way onto any playlist I create that requires an invitation to dancing: “Sweet Soul Revue.”

It’s got a funky Motown-sounding bass line, and nifty TSOP-sounding horns and violins, and a backbeat that doesn’t quit. The melody is catchy, but – as with most of the songs on the album – it’s difficult for me to sing along to. But Nomiya does throw a hearty “Bay-bee!!” into the chorus a few times, allowing non-Japanese speakers such as myself to shout along a little bit.
PF 1
This song reminds me of throwing parties at our house, and trying out recipes for cocktails, main dishes, desserts, at a time when we still had time and money to subscribe to – AND READ – Bon Appetit, Saveur and Cook’s Illustrated.

We’d have friends to the house and talk and laugh and eat and drink, then clean it all up and plan the next one. Parties like that are a reminder that kids have to go to bed way too early, and whineyif they don’t they turn into insufferable whiners. Staying up til 3 am, and remaining well-mannered and fun (except for the occasional over-indulgence, which in itself is an adult thing) is very grown-up.

Another great dance song on the album the oddly-yet-perfectly named, “Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond.” Listen, and you’ll see what I mean:

It’s the sound of 60s supermodel sensation Twiggy leaving a Carnaby St. boutique to meet Sean Connery’s tuxedoed 007 at a Soho club for drinks. twiggy jbRight? But if they spoke Japanese? And did the Watusi to sample-filled 90s dance music? Well, anyway, that’s how it sounds to me. It has violin samples and rolling tympanis – a lively dance song that’s fun and adventurous. It’s a movie song, and Julia and I saw a lot of movies back in the day.

Artsy-fartsy movies, like Jeffrey, Suture and Secrets and Lies. Funny movies, like Flirting With Disaster Grosse Pointe Blank and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or dramas, like Elizabeth, Boogie Nights or Shine.

Basically, the kinds of movies children don’t like. And that’s another thing about kids – all the lousy movies. For each gem, like The Lego Movie, there are fifteen turds, like Planes. (Actually, that’s probably a better ratio than you get with grown-up movies, but most grown ups are smart enough to know that NOT EVERY movie will be good. Kids think they’ll all be awesome.)

Pizzicato Five doesn’t just do catchy, funky dance numbers, it can also throw in a slow love song, as well. Take, for example, “Baby Love Child.”

Even a slow groove is made interesting by this group. They include samples of horns and voices, some turntable scratches, and keep the drums and bass as funky as ever. And as always, Nomiya’s vocals and interesting vocal style draw the listener in. She may be too cutesy for some, but I find the cutesiness fits with the style of the songs. The lyrics on this song (in English!) are unusual. Instead of the typical love song pronouncements of “I love you, I want you,” the subject and object are reversed, becoming “You love me, you want me.” It’s either an interesting lyrical device, or a result of poor translation. (Probably the former.)

The song conjures memories of just spending time with J. bernal slidesOur neighborhood, Bernal Heights, had a beautiful path up the side of the hill, with stairs built in, and also slides, to make the trip back down faster! We would hike up to the top of the hill and walk around the top – a bit of open space in the middle of the city (or, “The City,” as SF is known by locals.) This was a favorite activity of ours. We would also go to farmers’ markets on weekends, or spend a morning reading the paper at one of The City’s seemingly thousands of pre-Starbucks independent cafes. (Muddy’s, Muddy Waters, Common Ground, Java Source, Martha and Bros. …) We would visit cool SF places, like the Musee Mecanique, and Camera Obscura or go to Fort Funston to watch the hang gliders or to The Golden Gate Bridge golden gateto walk and enjoy the sunshine (although it is MUCH LONGER than I ever imagined, so I never walked across the entire span. Plus the cars go really fast and are really close to the walkers. And on the opposite side of the speeding traffic is a 220 foot drop.)

the wiggleOr we’d ride our bikes across The City to Golden Gate Park, and then on to Ocean Beach, on a circuitous path called “The Wiggle,”designed to miss the 43 or so hills in San Francisco. Or we’d just go to Noe Valley or Hayes Valley or Market St. or North Beach or The Haight or The Mission, or any other neighborhood in The City, shopping, planning, spending time.

Another mellow song is the swirling, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding “Magic Carpet Ride.”

Despite the mishmash of sounds on Made in USA, the band definitely has a way with a dance beat and song structure. gg parksThe build into the “Magic Carpet Ride” chorus swells in a satisfying way. This song is one of the few sung in English, and the lyrics have a typical “we’re in love, life’s a magic ride, let’s take it together” sensibility. But honestly, you don’t listen to Japanese pop music for the lyrics. You listen for the spirit of the music, because it’s joyful and fun, and it might remind you of all the time you spent with a loved one in the great outdoors, visiting exciting areas around the Bay Area. Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, Mt. Tamalpais, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, the Pacific Coast Highway, Half Moon Bay, the Berkeley Hills, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Sierra Nevada … San Francisco is a place where you could wake up and go to the beach, then drive an hour for a hike in the woods, then drive two more hours and go downhill skiing. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound, and Julia and I enjoyed spending it outdoors as much as we could.no cal

We had time to spend, if not much money to spend, and it was wonderful to spend it together. It was the kind of time that kids HATE. Which is one more thing that The Cult of Children forgets: kids are always BORED. “I’m bored! This is boring!” Few kids appreciate the value of time well-spent with a friend, or friends. And NONE appreciate spending it with someone of the opposite gender! Kids are so weird. Who wants to return to that lifestyle?

San Francisco had an exciting nightlife, as well, and we’d spend evenings out on the town. The Mission District alone had so many fun, cool bars that we didn’t even have to drive to spend a fun night out. Blondie’s, The Lone Palm, Bruno’s, Dalva, the Albion, Casanova Lounge, Radio Valencia, the Latin American Club, the 500 Club, the 3300 Club, the Elbo Room, the Make Out Room, and the bar where Julia and I first hung out together, the El Rio. It’s the kind of nightlife that one might be reminded of when hearing a song like “Go Go Dancer,” a raucous, goofy mix of sounds with a heavy dance beat.

It’s worth pointing out here that kids can’t legally drink alcohol – another strike against them. How “wonderful” could childhood really be if no booze is allowed? Ever been invited to a friend’s wedding, then find out the reception will be dry? boringThat quickly waning smile on your face – corners of your mouth receding to form a tight little line between your lips – as you consider the prospect of three people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide, while everyone else shovels food as quickly as they can so they can leave and hit a bar somewhere – it’s the same fading smile you get when you stop to consider whether childhood was really as great as everyone makes it out to be.PF 4

Of course, adulthood isn’t all wonderful. There is the drudgery of going to work every day, the anxiety of having to get something repaired but not being able to just have your parents do it, the pressure of having to prepare food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Similarly, Made in USA isn’t entirely wonderful. Pizzicato Five seems to have a childish streak of their own that keeps them from knowing when enough is enough. The songs “This Year’s Girl #2” and “Catchy” start fun, but both seem interminable by the end – repetitive silliness reminiscent of some kid telling you the “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” knock-knock joke over and over. It’s cute at first, but wears thin real damn quick.

But the record closes with a joyous song that ties up everything nicely. In the same way “I” set the table for the album, “Peace Music” provides the perfect close:

It’s a catchy, happy 60s pop song with 90s samples that makes me wish I knew Japanese so I could sing along. There’s also a slight wistfulness in the melody – the sound of something good coming to an end.pF 5

Obviously, I find myself doing some heavy cataloging of memories when I listen to Made in USA. And the memories are all golden, perfect. The music sounds like nothing had ever gone wrong. But of course, that’s just a trick of memory – one of the downsides of adulthood. So I’ll say one final good thing about kids and childhood: at least kids are too young to have any memories older than, say, four years. So they can’t look back at the past and distort it in their minds. They are capable only of living in the present – the place we should all try to stay. Listening to Made in USA makes living in the moment difficult for me. But that’s what makes it so great.

Track Listing
I
Sweet Soul Revue
Magic Carpet Ride
Readymade FM
Baby Love Child
Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond
This Year’s Girl #2
I Wanna Be Like You
Go Go Dancer
Catchy
Peace Music

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87th Favorite: Blunderbuss, by Jack White

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Blunderbuss. Jack White.
2012, Third Man. Producer: Jack White
Purchased 2012.

Blunderbuss-PNG

nutsIN A NUTSHELL – Eclectic, multi-genre-spanning debut from The White Stripes’ front man combines odd lyrics, cool guitar and a grab-bag of instruments into a rock and roll stew, with only a few rock songs included. Very impressive musicians and songs. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was even more rockin’, with even more guitar.

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I don’t care what people say, Rock and Roll is here to stay!” – Danny and the Juniors, 1958.

danny juniors Has there ever been an art form so obsessed with its longevity as rock music? In 1958 Danny and the Juniors proudly proclaimed in song that Rock and Roll would never die, and since then countless acts – from The Who to Neil Young to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne – have repeated the claim.
picasso
Can you imagine this happening in another art form, this obsession with lifespan?

“Señor Picasso – your new masterpiece for 1909, what is its title?”

“I call it, ‘I Don’t Care What People Say, Cubism is Here to Stay.’ And if you don’t think it is, you can kiss my indistinguishable, stylized, angular ass!”

It’s been part of the snarling, adolescent, anti-authoritarian bent of rock and roll since the beginning to tell the listener, “Screw you!! We ain’t goin’ nowhere!” The message sounded like it was directed to every parent, teacher, cop or judge who dared to listen. But in reality it was mostly other teen-agers listening, so instead of the message being about defiance, it was actually about community, an us-against-the-world rallying cry.

It’s understandable why this message was included in 50s rock and roll. Since the days of ragtime piano white kids had always been warned about the dangers of black music – just as they would be all the way through hip hop – but they were listening to it anyway, and now they were making it (!) and getting it played on the radio (!!).

50s danceImagine the shock on Officer Farnsworth’s face as you not only sing a rock and roll song, but sing a rock and roll song ABOUT how you’ll never stop singing rock and roll songs!! True, Officer Farnsworth wasn’t really listening, but all the kids at the Record Hop could just feel the look on his face as they rocked and rolled, and somehow that feeling made the music sound even better.

Rock is dead, they say. Long live rock!!” The Who, 1974.

the who rockBy the early 70s, fifteen years or so into the rock era, a message asserting rock and roll’s longevity probably sounded misplaced to the casual music fan. The Who invoked the nebulous “they,” as purveyors of this strange notion that the most popular music form of the day is “dead.” And maybe Village Voice critics and a few angry teenagers and a moody art student or two were saying it, but to most people it probably sounded like a lark.

57 belairBut once again, this view ignores the intended listener – the rock music fan. Rock and Roll had morphed into “Rock,” and the Rock Music fan in the early 70s probably wasn’t reading The Village Voice and probably wasn’t all that interested in shaking up the music establishment. The rock music fan was drinking beer, smoking “grass” and souping up a ’57 Chevy in his driveway. He (not to be sexist, but the message was directed mostly to males … but that will have to be a different blog post) was tired of hearing bullshit, fruity songs about fathers and sons sung by sensitive assholes strumming acoustic guitars or by cheesy assholes wearing leisure suits and tuxedoes. He just wanted some tunes that kicked some ass, and he wanted to feel secure that just because the world seemed to be going down the toilet, the music he loved wasn’t going to be flushed away any time soon. “Long Live Rock!!” Roger Daltrey screamed, and The Fan pumped his fist right along and felt that old burst of heat and light rising up from his midsection that he’d felt since the first time he heard The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” Roger and Pete and John and Keith didn’t think rock music was going anywhere, and this made The Fan feel better than ever.

Hey hey. My my. Rock and roll will never die.” – Neil Young, 1979.

By 1979, the sentiment was sounding desperate. neilNeil Young cut two versions of the song, a rocking version called “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and an acoustic version called “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” The rocking version – with its references to punk rock – may have ensured some old time rock and roll fans sympathythat everything was in good hands, but the acoustic version, in Young’s distinctive, plaintive voice, is reminiscent of a Sympathy Card, reminding one that even though a loved one is no longer with us, the memories will live on. Certainly a nice thought … but also confirmation that, indeed, rock and roll was dead.

As with the teens in 1958, and the rockin’ dude in 1974, listeners in 1979 were moved by the feelings the songs (particularly “Out of the Blue”) conjured. “Okay – I acknowledge that the music has changed, but the feeling it gives me, that Rock and Roll spirit that I hear, that’s still alive inside me.” It was still a message of longevity, but the message had previously been about the music, and how it was bigger than the listener. Now the message was about the listener, and how the music would always be there for him/her.

Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution. Rock and roll ain’t gonna die.” – AC/DC, 1980.

You can’t kill rock and roll. It’s here to stay.” -Ozzy Osbourne, 1981.

acdc ozzyWithin a few years, both AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne were reiterating what had been repeated over the past 25 years. But at the time both acts were considered “Heavy Metal,” fringe acts from a genre nowhere to be found in the popular singles of the day (1980, 1981, 1982).

Heavy Metal was/is “identity rock,” like punk or straight-edge, and identity rock makes no apologies in stating that the music is bigger than the listener. Saying that the music was never going to die was what metal listeners wanted to hear, and it raised all the feelings in the listeners that they had come to expect from the music. But considering what the popular music charts looked like at the time, their affirmations felt like the lyrical equivalent of a young soap opera doctor losing his first patient, futilely attempting resuscitation by pounding on the body’s chest.

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They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating.” -Huey Lewis and The News, 1983.

hueyIf AC/DC and Ozzy’s songs were the equivalent of pounding on a dead body’s chest, Huey Lewis’s earnest – yet sadly oxymoronic – effort was the equivalent of dressing the body in a tuxedo and performing a ventriloquism act with it.

“Hey, Rocky, what’s this I hear that you’re dead?”
“Whert? Nee dead? I dern’t know whert yr talking a-doubt. I’n nert dead! I’n alai-zh, shee?” [Stiff arm awkwardly waves.]

It was Weekend at Bernie’s on the radio, but true rock fans weren’t listening to Top 40 radio all that much anyway by 1984 so – gratefully – this desecration of the corpse of rock and roll was perpetrated away from the consideration of most of its fans. (And this isn’t to say Huey and the boys didn’t believe what they were singing – I mean, people do respond to grief in any number of ways, but … anyway … let’s just move on, shall we?)

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his guns, but he knows not what it means.” – Nirvana, 1991.

nirvanaBy the early 90s, popular rock acts were no longer preaching an “us-against-the-world” message to listeners – ensuring them that the spirit would live foreverfrat boys – but were instead making fun of them for listening in the first place. The deal was that if you were cool (and for the life of me, I somehow believed I was) you understood the irony that Nirvana was singing a catchy, sing-along song mocking the Frat-boy/Jock types who sang along, and who (probably) still believed that the heart of Rock and Roll was still beating, and who therefore banged their heads along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one minute, Winger’s “(She’s Only) Seventeen” the next, and EMF’s “Unbelieveable” the next. The message was still about community, but now it was an exclusive community: not “us-against-the-world” but “some-of-us-(and you know who you are)-against-the-world-(which includes some of you).”

It was an acknowledgement that rock was dead, but that its cobain ghostsmirking spirit was still around, giving the finger. And that those feelings the music brings – the old light and heat from the midsection – feelings a listener could still get from a few bands out there, were different from the sensations that other music brings, or that other people feel. Others might recognize it, sure, but they “know not what it means.”

Party like a rockstar. Totally, dude!” – Shop Boyz, 2007.

shop boyzBy the 2000s, rock and roll was just another form of old-timey music, like jazz or swing or tin pan alley or hymns. The Shop Boyz rapped about rock stars in the same way The Eagles sang about a cowboy, in ‘Desperado,’ as an archetypal metaphor (or simile, in this case) to whom the listener can relate. Rock and roll had become a thing of the past, and even though a rock song, with actual guitars and drums and singing, might appear on the pop charts once in a while, the songs tended to be by acts like Train or Nickelback or Magic!, and they sounded like imitations of the real thing.

I imagine it’s similar to how Chuck Mangione or Kenny G. – when they hit the pop charts in the 70s, 80s and 90s, with what was called “jazz” – must have sounded to fans of jazz from the 40s and 50s.

jazz

Rock and roll was now just a history lesson. And those of us who had felt those old feelings it could bring were left, mostly, with our oldies stations and our old CDs, doing shit like making up lists and spending (wasting?) time reminiscing through blogs about them while new art forms (apparently) expressed those feelings for the next generations.

As a fan of rock music, it’s been difficult to see the genre move out of the public’s daily consciousness. After all, the music always meant so much to so many people and was far more than just something to listen to. Rock music was politics, rock music was art, rock music was identity, rock music was community, rock music was theater, emotion, anarchy, religion. Rock music was life. And as ridiculous as Huey Lewis sounded, I am still trying to keep that heart of rock and roll beating as long as I can.

only rock n roll

I’ve written before about trying to stay up-to-date with the now-sounds of rock, even after its death. white stripesOne of the acts in recent years that caught my ear – that caught millions of listeners’ ears – was The White Stripes, the guitar and drum duo of Jack and Meg White, a divorced couple who pretended to be siblings, and who played blues-based rock in a loud, shambling, raucous style. I bought a bunch of their albums, and was immediately impressed with Jack White’s guitar playing and singing.

The songs were aggressive and clamorous, but sometimes sweet, and almost always catchy as hell.

But too often, the songs sounded to me like demos – unfinished ideas that would’ve been incredible with a little more work. I suppose this “low-fi” aspect was some of their charm, and what attracted many listeners – a sort of immediate, unfiltered sound that was in direct opposition to much of the hyper-produced music popular at the time. But when I listened, I wanted something more. Just as many rock fans seek out early demo versions of their favorite artists’ popular songs, I wished I could find full-instrumentation, produced versions of The White Stripes’ drum-and-guitar-only gems. As the band progressed, they moved toward this direction, but they broke up after 2007’s Icky Thump. I remained a fan, and looked forward to hearing what would come from Jack and Meg.

raconteursJack recorded a few records as part of the supergroup The Raconteurs, and I became a fan of their records immediately. (He also formed The Dead Weather, who sound good, but who I don’t know much about.) And when I heard he’d release a solo album in 2012, I was ready to buy it.

I love Blunderbuss because of its diversity of styles, catchy songs, interesting instrumentation and outstanding performances. White assembled an all-female band to play on most of the tracks, and they are in fine form throughout, particularly the rhythm section of drummer Carla Azar and bassist Bryn Davies. Together, the band moves easily through the blues, rock, pop, americana, etc, handling the songs in such a way that makes them sound … familiar.

female band

I don’t mean familiar in a bad way, as in phony or derivative. I suppose “timeless” describes the sound better, although that word sounds a little pretentious. The album sounds like a record that would have been considered great had it been released any time between 1965 and today. It’s a record that makes me think a lot about my long-dead buddy, Rock Music.

The record is interesting right off the bat, starting with the lead song “Missing Pieces.” A simple six-note electric piano riff is built up to full instrumentation, an introduction that is compelling, but leaves the listener unsure what could be coming next. There’s a lot of space, and as Jack begins jack organsinging the song turns into a slow groove. I’ve always loved Jack’s voice – it has (dare I say?!) a touch of Robert Plant to it. He can both howl and croon. And his guitar playing is always excellent. “Missing Pieces” features a terrific guitar solo, followed by an equally excellent electric piano solo, also played by White. The lyrics of the song speak of the dangers of people who will take too much from you, and contain the cool lines to end the song “And when they tell you that they just can’t live without you/ They ain’t lyin’, they’ll take pieces of you.” The song has a 70’s R&B feel to it, and that’s the first of many genres found here.

White’s lyrics can be very good, but they can be very strange, as well. (Which I don’t mind!) The next song on the album is the straight-ahead rock number “Sixteen Saltines.”

lockerI have no idea what it’s about, and the video doesn’t help with interpreting the lyrics – unless the song is about disturbed youth doing disturbing things. It does sound like it might be set in a school (“She’s got stickers on her locker/ And the boys’ numbers there in magic marker”), but then spiked heels in a lifeboat are mentioned as well. Wikipedia says (without reference) that the song is meant to be reflections by some dying guy eating saltines in a life raft. But – as with many of the songs – despite the strange lyrics, the song is really strong. It has a nice keyboard riff that breaks up the verses, and the guitar is once again excellent, including a dueling guitar solo that White plays with himself that is reminiscent of two-guitar attacks from a variety of older bands, from the Allman Brothers to Judas Priest. It’s raucous fun, especially performed live!

jack guitarWhite’s guitar work is on display throughout the album, and it’s one of the things that keeps me listening again and again. He seems to never play the expected lick, or a cookie-cutter solo. The song “Freedom at 21” – a riff-rock number with modern production, sounding like the 1970s and 2010s at the same time – features a fine example. The solo – at 1:44 – is squawky noise and flash and sounds very cool. (The song also features a video that appears to have been directed by a horny 16 year old boy.)

But the record isn’t all guitar. The song “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is piano driven, orchestragrand and important-sounding, like a Freddy Mercury demo of an Arena Rock monster – the kind of song that one can imagine being played twenty years from now, on some kind of PBS fund-raiser special, by Jack White accompanied by a symphony orchestra, violinists and cellists sawing away mindlessly, thinking of the paycheck they’re earning. But even on a song like this, White throws in a terrific guitar solo that, to me, makes the song interesting. Also interesting, as always, are the lyrics, running together here like a Hubert Selby, Jr., novel and sung-spoken in a style reminiscent of early hip hop.hip hop jack

Another “non-guitar” song – and still another style, as well – is the song “Blunderbuss” – a tale of two sides of a love triangle set to a waltz. White’s band, including pedal steel guitarist Fats Kaplin, are a single unit, dancing together on the 3/4 beat.band 2

And White’s voice – which I’ve always loved for its variety and expressiveness – is terrific here. It sounds great, as well, on the popular duet “Love Interruption,” sung with Ruby Amanfu.

The lyrics describe a desire for a love that can change a life, yet also state a desire to remain unchanged by love – an inner conflict that is the basis of many great songs, not to mention many desperate lives. White also pens songs about external conflicts, as well, as in the harsh and angryHypocritical Kiss.”

jack seated

So, we’ve heard guitar rock, arena rock, a waltz, some piano ballads … what about some blues, you ask? How about this version of “I’m Shakin’,” a song by Rudy Toombs.

How about some McCartney-esque pop/rock songs? White offers “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” my favorite song on the album (which sounds like it might be a lament about how hard it’s been to be Jack White of The White Stripes?) and “Trash Tongue Talker,” a raucous rave-up with some lyrics about monkeys jumping on the bed. How about a little Western-Swing, sort of Americana-ish-type song? Try “Take Me With You When You Go.”

Listening to Blunderbuss takes a listener to all kinds of musical places. One nifty place is what sounds to me like an 1880s San Francisco saloon. The song “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” sounds nothing like my long dead friend Rock Music, but it sounds great nonetheless.

And it makes me feel happy and makes me want to have a fun time and sing along really loudly, all feelings I associate with first hearing – or, more accurately, first CARING about – Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. Feelings I associate with Rock Music. But if this song isn’t a rock song, and if rock is dead, anyway … then maybe the spirit IS inside me, and maybe it never was about the music after all. Maybe music felt this way to everyone ever since some Neanderthal banged a rock way back when.

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Blunderbuss shows me that whether rock is dead or not doesn’t really matter. This album could have been a hit at any time over the past 40 years, so who cares what we call it? It still conjures that light and heat inside me.

“Long Live Rock! (Be it dead or alive.)”

TRACK LISTING
Missing Pieces
Sixteen Saltines
Freedom at 21
Love Interruption
Blunderbuss
Hypocritical Kiss
Weep Themselves to Sleep
I’m Shakin
Trash Tongue Talker
Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy
I Guess I Should Go to Sleep
On and On and On
Take Me With You When You Go

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88th Favorite: Dig Me Out, by Sleater-Kinney

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Dig Me Out. Sleater-Kinney.
1997, Kill Rock Stars. Producer: John Goodmanson
Purchased 1997.

dig me out album

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Peppy punk pop from a band with no bass, two guitars, a cool drummer and a voice that gets better each time you listen. They seem to have a formula for good songs, and can pull them off without sounding formulaic. Emotion and urgency and lots of fun. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I was pissed off more often – it always sounds best when I’m in a lousy mood!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Just gotta get used to it/
You irritate me, my friend.”

-The Who, “Another Tricky Day”

Is there a more existential crisis-inducing phrase than “You’ll get used to it”?

Whatever “it” may be, the phrase implies that this thing you now find annoying or terrifying or disgusting or risky or unconscionable will – with just a bit of time and repetition – become, at worst, tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable. When someone you trust tells you “You’ll get used to it,” the implication is that you will be changing, significantly.

This is frightening for a few reasons.

The first is that most people – well, people who are free from mental illness – spend most of their time feeling pretty satisfied with who they are at this moment. satisfaction They may have some characteristics they’d like to improve – drop a few pounds, volunteer more, finish that degree – but on the whole, they feel like they know themselves pretty well and feel good about who they are. Informed that a change is coming, many people will naturally wonder if they’ll still like themselves after the change.

For the sake of this ridiculous blog, let’s use the following ridiculous example: From now on, all peanut butter will have to be CHUNKY instead of SMOOTH. peanut butterIt’s just how it’s going to be. People decided there could only be one type, and after much debate the decision was CHUNKY. In an imaginary place, where people will have cared enough about peanut butter textures to participate in public debates on the matter, many folks will have a self-identity strongly tied to their peanut butter choice. There will be folks who’ve always thought of themselves as the type of person who only likes smooth peanut butter, and more than this, they’ll have enjoyed viewing themselves as a “smooth” type of person. smug peanut butterThey’ve likely considered Chunky-lovers to be, well, a little arrogant, with their whole “oh, MY peanut butter has real hunks of peanut blended right in” demeanor and their “you actually have to CHEW to eat my peanut butter” condescension. lice pick

So telling a smoothie “You’ll get used to Chunky” will elicit more than just feelings of disappointment over having to either chew bits of peanuts or comb through their peanut butter sandwiches with a lice pick before eating. It will elicit feelings of despair that “I’m losing my identity, and one day I’ll become a CHUNKY-LOVING ASSHOLE!!!”

Getting used to Chunky is about so much more than simply mouthfeel.

I understand the fear of becoming what we despise. Among the types of people who used to annoy me were fans of the time-wasting game Sudoku, sudokuwho would constantly tell me how much fun the game is. “Ugh,” I’d say. “I don’t really like math games.” Invariably, the reply would be, “But it’s not really math!” I would smile and repeat, inside my brain, “It’s not really math! It’s not really math!” in a satisfying elementary-school-playground-mocking voice.

Eventually, curiosity (and great respect for a number of the game’s enthusiasts) drove me to an iPhone app that included a convenient version of the game. I played a game or two to kill some time, and before you could say “addictive personality type” I became hooked. It wasn’t long until I heard next genmyself repeating to an acquaintance those dreaded words “… but it’s not really math.” I cringed a bit, in a familiar manner – the same as I’d cringed when I heard myself say “… but The Next Generation isn’t really Sci-Fi,” or “You know, back when I was your age …” I had become a member of a club I’d resisted – or more than resisted, a club whose existence I’d actively agitated against!angry dad

When you “get used to something,” you risk joining such a club.

Another reason “You’ll get used to it” is frightening is because the implication is that the speaker may know you better than you know yourself. In addition to feeling satisfied with ourselves, we also all like to believe that we are complex individuals, with intricate emotions and beliefs, inscrutable to the outside world. “True,” we think, “you may have known several other Smoothies who’ve grown accustomed to – and maybe even eventually preferred – chunky peanut butter. But you don’t understand the depth and elaborate nature of my own devotion to Smooth.” We don’t want to believe that our attachment to Smooth is as tenuous as every other peanut butter eater who’s ever slathered some Wonder Bread. “I am different!” we confidently declare.

It’s shocking to find out that our human nature can be so predictable, so identical to those around us. I remember when my kids were small – 2004 or 2005 – taking them to some kind of chain krustyrestaurant – Applebee’s? Uno’s? Whatever … it was some kind of restaurant whose name would cause most of my fellow New Yorker-reading parents to gag on their homemade hand-rubbed organic cage-free quinoa-infused root vegetables (a reaction that is the most enjoyable part of eating at such a place). But it was cheap and the kids could get actual vegetables with a meal, so it worked great for us when nobody wanted to cook. As my family sat down, I heard Roxy Music’s “More Than This” playing.

“Wow,” I thought. “This is a rather obscure, somewhat hip song for such a place to be playing.” As we ordered, I noticed that now The Smithereens were playing, and again I thought, “All right, Big Chain Restaurant! This location sure does play some great songs!” 120 minutes

A parade of similarly obscure but cool 80s and early 90s songs followed, bands from Talk Talk to Material Issue, and I ate my food amid happy memories of MTV’s 120 Minutes, drinking Natty Bohs, nat bohand passing out in neighbors’ doorways. I imagined the cool restaurant manager who must have painstakingly scoured his record collection to put together such a nice selection of songs, and I wondered if I should ask the waitress to talk to him [her?] so we could compare musical notes. As I sat there bobbing along to the music, record collectionreassessing my disgust with conglomerate-owned restaurant chains, reassessing my disgust at myself for patronizing them, and enjoying the fact that the place included tater tots on the menu (and who else but me would order tater tots, right!?!), I looked around and noticed that a fair 70% of the patrons were – like us – white families consisting of parents in their mid-30s with children under 6. A significant proportion of the parents bobbed their heads along to JoBoxers as they admired their kids’ placemat artwork. And ate tater tots.

“Am I really this predictable?” I wondered. ” Can I really be such a true distillation of my demographic???”

As “Don’t Let’s Start” popped up next on the now-obviously-computer-generated playlist, I dejectedly signed my receipt and shuffled out to the mini-van.

minivan

This is what “you’ll get used to it” implies – that you can be known. That you already ARE known … That some big corporate boob can hire flunkies with spreadsheets to write a couple algorithms and come up with a music playlist that will help to herd you and the rest of the flock through a little doorway to a plateful of warm, greasy slop. tatertots(And delicious tater-tots, let’s not forget.) Repeatedly.

The term itself – “used to” – is an odd one to see written. When spoken, the words flow together. “Eustu,” we say. “I’m eustu it.” As spoken, the meaning of the individual words are lost, and we’re left with a phrase that we hear and recognize as “accustomed to.”

But when you see the words written, you’re forced to reckon with what the term really entails. “Used,” it says. To use. To be used. I, a human, have been used. I have been used, and now that use has left me different. Like a broken tool, I have become the product of use. Through use I have been inured. A callous has been worn onto my soul, a scar on my very being. My former self no longer exists. I have been used.

metaphor

As in the sentence, “I have gotten used to Eric’s overwritten paragraphs.”

To get used to something doesn’t usually connote a positive development.

Perhaps most offensive of all, “You’ll get used to it” also implies that your tastes and opinions are insignificant. “But wait,” you say. (Whine?) “I REALLY LIKE smooth peanut butter! I don’t WANT TO get used to Chunky!!” Maybe your dad gave you a jar of Skippy Original on his death bed, and so the issue hits protestclose to home with you. Maybe you’ll indignantly hold onto the affront, start to agitate, politically, for Smoothie rights, or work with the Smoothie Underground. You could come to personify the struggle for Smoothie inclusiveness. And good for you, if your feelings on a matter are so strong. But it could also be true that some of your tastes and opinions are, when viewed objectively, indeed insignificant and could use a little bit of reconsideration.

Because after you’ve gotten used to something, you may actually find it enjoyable, and you may realize you didn’t have to give anything up when you came to appreciate something new. Beets, Little League baseball, dance recitals, Microsoft Excel, driving standard transmission, What Not to Wear, Senior Residential Communities, Unitarian Universalism, Ikea … wntwthese are all aspects of my life that twenty years ago I would have told you I’d never get used to, but that have come to be, if not enjoyable, then certainly more than just tolerable. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be open and resist the urge to immediately say “No.” If you’re unsure of yourself, that can be a scary idea – like a teenage boy, considering if he could accept the fact that a friend is gay, wondering, “But what if he asked me out on a date, and I accidentally said yes, and he accidentally kissed me, and I accidentally liked it?!?”

And sometimes you have to give some things more than just one chance. People continue to change, and those changes can allow you to appreciate more of life, leave you exposed to richer experiences and a wider array of possibilities. As you get used to more things, you have more opportunities to experience more things. It’s what you might call “maturation.”lifecycle And some of the things you get used to will become – with experience – important favorites. And if you’re ever inclined to make a list of favorite things, you may wish to include it on the list.

Such is the case with album #88, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out.

In the late 90s I approached 30 … and then rushed right by it, into middle age, like spotting a gas station on the highway, down an exit you just passed. Up through about 1995 I kept a close eye on what was happening musically. I saw lots of great shows by a lot of cool bands of the era – acts like The Lemonheads, Hole, Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. … 90s bandsI bought a lot of music, too, and attempted to find new acts to share with and impress my friends – acts like Guided By Voices, The Sea and Cake, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion …
sea and cakeBut sometime in 1996 I noticed that I hadn’t seen a show in a long time, and I hadn’t bought a new CD since Neil Young and Pearl Jam put out Mirror Ball.

I was very active in theater and comedy at this time, and somehow all that activity pushed aside my music appreciation. As my 30th birthday approached, I saw my musical drawdown as convincing evidence that I was becoming an Old Fuddy-duddy, and I vowed to kick my music awareness into a higher gear to forestall the inevitable. fuddyduddyI bought more music magazines, and started frequenting a record store where all the workers were utterly pompous assholes, and most of the music they sold was entirely unlistenable, but which sent out a cool new thing called an “e-newsletter” listing new albums via this cool new thing called “email.”

I vowed to get back on musical track.

By the end of 1997, I realized I had failed. The only new records I bought that year were Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams (hardly a new artist), When I Was Born for the 7th Time, by Cornershop (a cool record, but hardly evidence of a deep dive into the now sounds of ’97), and Dig Me Out (which I hardly even liked.) But even though I didn’t buy a lot of new records that year, I liked what I got … eventually.sk band 1

What I found most memorable about Dig Me Out on first listen, and what you will too, is that the lead singer tends to shriek and warble. At the same time. Don’t believe me? Try the opening track, particularly about 30 seconds in:

At first listen, it was hard for me to appreciate the song because I kept being distracted by that shriek. The track has a great opening riff that is strident and memorable, like some kind of call to arms. The drums begin a tom-tom pounding and within a few bars the song is barreling ahead with pace and urgency. Corin Tucker’s vocals mimic the guitar pattern, and are intense and powerful. When she begins the “Dig me out! Dig me in!” the third time, the vocals have a shrill nature that might be hard for some listeners to hang with. It was hard for me to hang with, I know that!

janetBut the drumming on the track is excellent, and the song’s two melodies – the first one aggressive, the second one sweet – work together in a satisfying way. This is a great song with great guitar and drum performances.

There was something about the music on the album that pulled me in, but I was also repelled by Tucker’s cacophonous singing style. I played it a few times, but it wasn’t in my main rotation of music. Over time, I began to see the album show up on “best-of” lists, and friends whose tastes mirrored mine also spoke highly of it. When I mentioned my difficulty with Tucker’s voice, most said … “You’ll get used to it.”

corin singNow, I like some annoying singers that others find really objectionable, and I dislike some annoying singers that others find unassailable, but I can’t really tell you why certain annoying singers are okay and others aren’t. I guess that it mostly has to do with the context in which the voice is presented. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m a big guitar/drums/melody guy, and I love songs with energy. Sleater-Kinney fits the bill there, and the more I listened to the band, the more I did – indeed – get used to Tucker’s voice. sk band 4It fits with the music, and certainly brings out the emotions of the songs. The entire album sounds best when I’m pissed off and I have it cranked loud. I’m not even sure what all of the songs are about, but when I’m in the right/wrong frame of mind, and I hear her start to wail, I want to go out and KICK SOME ASS! (A statement which – if you know me – may have just caused you to fall over with laughter.)laughter

Slowly the album worked its way back into my music rotation, and when I was re-listening to all my CDs to create this list, I was struck by just how great I think this record is, and how much I really love listening to it!

The one song on the album I always loved is probably the catchiest song on the album, “Little Babies.”

The lyrics are either about the joys of motherhood or the oppression of women rockers by their male counterparts, depending on who’s listening. And the counter-melodic backing vocal provides a cool undertone to the lines – however you wish to interpret them. (I tend to think the latter interpretation was intended …) carrie 2I like how the band kicks right into the song with no buildup, giving it an urgent sound. And the drums in the verse are coolly sparse, but interesting, using the toms to accent the vocals. It’s a fun, danceable song – even though the band doesn’t have a certain key necessity for playing dance music …

Sleater-Kinney is a three-piece band – two guitars and a drummer. As a bass player myself, this lack of what I think of as “complete” instrumentation saddens me. However, the arrangement suits the band’s songs. They are aggressive, fiery songs and I don’t find myself missing the bass in them.

As if to show me that they can, indeed, play dance songs, they named one of their songs “Dance Song ’97.”

This is probably my second favorite song on the record. The drums propel the song, and the piece again features the characteristic Sleater-Kinney motif of catchy guitar riff and cool melody. janet 2This one also features some moody keyboard thrown into the chorus, as well. It’s a very poppy, danceable song, even without a bass. The lyrics are straight-ahead “you’re the one that I want” lyrics, the type that are right at home in a “Dance Song.”

A song that greatly demonstrates the interplay between the three instruments is the song “One More Hour;”

To set the tone, there’s a bouncing guitar riff, carriea line that might be played on the bass in a different band, and a cool, hiccupping snare beat to support it. The second guitar enters with a discordant flourish, and Tucker sings a song about the end of a relationship.

The song features another thing I like about the band’s songs, which is a counter melody from the backing singer, Carrie Brownstein. In many songs, while Tucker is ferociously belting her lines, Brownstein provides a balance – in both lyrics and melody. When this album came out, it was still a big deal, culturally, that Tucker and Brownstein had previously been in a romantic relationship together – they were both women, after all (!!) – and that this song was apparently written about the breakup. But many bands – Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, The White Stripes – have former couples in them, and nearly 20 years later, the “Oh my goodness, they’re lesbians!” angle has been filed down significantly. The stresses endured by former couples rocking together have generated some cool songs over the years and this is another one.

(I didn’t find a lot of great music videos or live clips of songs from this record, but here’s one that I like of “One More Hour,” with the band playing in a record store.)

carrie janetSleater-Kinney has a “riot grrrl” reputation – a label that connotes to many songs decrying the patriarchal hegemony, and destroying the gender-dualistic paradigm. But as with most labels, this one doesn’t exactly fit. Most of Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics are indirect and open to interpretation. And many feature that most time-tested theme since the 1950s – a simple desire to ROCK!

For example, the driving “Words and Guitar.”

This is a song that captures everything I’ve been writing about the band – the voice – particularly strident and keening here – the dueling guitar lines playing off each other, and Weiss’s interesting drumming. It also has the countermelody backing vocals from Brownstein, which I love.

Another song from the tried and true “let’s rock and roll!” genre is “It’s Enough,” which is an ode to the magical pull of a great rock record.

It’s easy to hear why some macho dudes machomight feel threatened by the band and toss them into the Riot-Grrrl pot. “That chick’s screaming about feminism and shit like that. They’re always angry. I don’t like them.” But as with most bullshit concerns some men have with feminism, those concerns are not based in fact, but more likely a projection of more personal fears.

corin sing 2While the style of the music does have an angry edge (and I must say again that I enjoy this album most when I’m pissed off) most of the lyrics on the album don’t particularly have much venom in them. The lyrics aren’t patriarchy-smashing, penis-chopping, Lifetime TV Movie-inspired anti-man rants. They’re really oblique and open to interpretation. Even songs whose titles sound like they might be polemics – like “Things You Say” and “Not What You Want” and “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” have lyrics that are indirect and unexpected.

Also, the stereotypical Riot-Grrrl band would have, according to the way some tiny-dicked men describe it, no sense of humor. However, guitarist Carrie Brownstein is now most-recognizable as a comedienne starring in, and writing, with Fred Armisen, the hilarious TV show “Portlandia.”portlandia

Here’s a funny little clip.

The songs on this record all have a definite “Sleater-Kinney Sound.” sk band iconThey hit on a formula that works – excellent drumming with a fast, driving beat, dueling guitars and multiple vocal parts create songs with energy and urgency, that evoke big feelings. The only song on the record that doesn’t exactly fit this bill is the, well … I guess it’s kind of Sleater-Kinney’s version of a ballad? Maybe? It’s called “Heart Factory,” and it’s Sleater-Kinney with a slower pace:

Dig Me Out is a record that took me more than one listen to appreciate. It has a lot of what I look for in a rock record, but it was hidden beneath a voice that kept me away. When I finally “got used to” the voice, I found I didn’t mind saying I’m a Sleater-Kinney fan. sk band 2I also found I wasn’t much different than I’d been before – a fan of rock music. I got used to it, and everything was fine. Existential Crisis?

“It’s just you having fun/
No crisis!!”
– The Who, Another Tricky Day.

TRACK LISTING
Dig Me Out
One More Hour
Turn It On
The Drama You’ve Been Craving
Heart Factury
Words and Guitar
It’s Enough
Little Babies
Not What You Want
Buy Her Candy
Things You Say
Dance Song ’97
Jenny

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89th Favorite: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, by Johnny Cash

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At Folsom Prison. Johnny Cash.
1968, Columbia Records. Producer: Bob Johnston
(1999 Reissue)
Original purchased ca. 1994. Reissue purchased ca. 2004.

at folsom album

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – A magical recording of a red-hot Johnny Cash and his band (and friends) in concert for 2,000 inmates at Folsom Prison. The song selection and honest, direct performance create a palpable sense of love and understanding between performer and audience that is captured distinctly. Truly an album that is greater than the collection of songs. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was more rock ‘n roll and less country.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It might shock those who know me today, but I went to church a lot when I was a kid. My family were members of the Covenant United Methodist Church, and we went there religiously!

cricket

But seriously, we did attend church nearly every Sunday. I was a bit of a skeptic even as a child, asking my mom one Sunday morning – in an attempt to get out of going to my ages 3/4 Sunday School class – “Why do I have to go to Sunday School? Jesus never shows up.”

Another person who never showed up was my dad. He’d drop off my mom, sisters and me at the church in the 1962 Ford Fairlane fairlane and hightail it out of there faster than you could say “my dad moves in mysterious ways.” He’d return in two hours to bring us back home, and my sisters and I would ask, “Daddy, where did you go?”

“Daddy goes to his own church,” my mom would answer for him. This seemed perfectly reasonable to my preschool mind – after all, my parents had had their own individual lives before they met, I assumed, so I figured that when they got married, they’d tested out each others’ church and come to the realization that each was happier attending their own church. So, there you go – forget the fact that they spend all of their time together, every minute of every hour outside work in each other’s company … on Sunday mornings, Daddy goes to his own church. I’d routinely ask them if I could go with dad to his church some Sunday, instead of mom’s, but they never answered directly.

churchFinally – after weeks of inquiring – my sisters and I were told that, just for this one week, while the girls went to church with mom, I’d be attending Dad’s Church, a church which apparently did NOT require me to don my blue striped suit to attend. We dropped them off that sunny Spring morning, and two hours later, we men-folk pulled up to Mom’s Church in the peacock blue Fairlane, and as the women-folk crawled into the car, I happily announced, “Daddy’s church is fishing!!!

After that day we kids were stuck attending Mom’s Church, and only Mom’s Church, every Sunday morning.

(This episode is one of the more damaging pieces of evidence on the daunting pile that I’d love to say doesn’t exist, of proof that being the sole boy (and youngest child) in our family had clear and significant advantages. The only real evidence I can offer to the contrary is the fact that, as adults, I’m just as fucked up as my sisters are.)

Eventually my dad gave up his church – or, rather, he rescheduled the services to Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings – and he joined the rest of us in attending Mom’s Church. I didn’t mind church too much. The hour-long worship services in the sanctuary were BORING, but you got to stand up and sing sometimes, and some of the bouncier, rockin’-ish hymns were fun to hear (especially as sung by my mom, who my sisters and I thought had the most beautiful voice!)

Sunday School came after worship, in the vaguely Pine-Sol and cookie-scented classrooms. It offered an hour of Bible lessons and Arts ‘n Crafts with a Jesus-y theme – jesus art time spent with kids who were my “church friends” – kids that I only interacted with at church, who I thought it would be weird to see outside of church, and who all heeded a tacit agreement among ourselves – even though we spent an hour each Sunday laughing together and learning about Christ-ly living – that we would barely acknowledge each other if encountering one another in the hallways at school, or the Lebanon Valley Mall.

Sunday School students were a little bit like Gay Bar patrons in the 70s, with less beer and fewer cowboy hats.

gay bar

Our church was not the stereotypical “Fire and Brimstone” church, with lessons about Hell and sin and trembling before God. Our church was very much focused on Jesus, and what he was about and how he acted. The lesson each week – regardless if the topic was friends or anger or Christmas or sin – was basically the same: “You know, Jesus really handled himself pretty damn cool in a sticky situation. You should try to do the same.”

cool jesusI thought he sounded awesome. Jesus was the cool grown-up who, when all the other grown-ups were shushing the kids and telling them to keep quiet because the adults were talking, said, “Hold on, man! Don’t yell at the kids – bring them to me, I’ll hang with them for a little while. Hey, you kids wanna play Chase!?”

jesus children

(I’ve tried to be That Grown-Up when I’m around a bunch of kids. It’s friggin exhausting.)

And when Little Person/tax collector Zaccheus climbed up a Sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus – shocking the morals of the first-century crowd, who gave him and his tax-collecting ass all kinds of shit – Jesus was all, zaccheus“Everybody, chill out! Yo, Zack! Come on down, and you and I will go get a bite to eat!” This further pissed off the crowd, who were all, like, “Seriously?” and “I know, right??!” This made Jesus seem really friendly, but a little bit punk, too.

When a gang of bullies was going to throw rocks at a girl they thought was being mean and trying to kiss boys and stuff, Jesus stepped in and said, stoning“Dudes! As if you guys don’t run after the girls sometimes and try to do stuff to them, right? How about this: anybody who’s never done that stuff can throw a rock. Okay? Okay?? Well??” And the bullies were all mumbling, and dropped their rocks and shuffled off.

He just seemed so nice – like the nicest, fairest teacher you ever had, who never treated the popular kids better, never yelled at the class when they were noisy, and even spoke kindly and gave hugs to that big weird kid with the thick glasses who made noises and always had that snot around his nose. He said you should love your enemies, you should turn the other cheek if you get hit, you should forgive the people who hurt you, and then when everybody told him how cool he was, he was always humble and gave the credit to his dad.

And on top of all that, he did magic!! He healed lepers, walked on water, fed a whole mob of people with, like, just a trout and a bun. He even brought a dead guy back to life!! He was like a hairy, friendly, hippy magician – just like Doug Henning!

doug henningBut I was less impressed with all of Jesus’s magic tricks than I was with how nice he seemed. I mean, I was 7, 8 years old … I’d been around the block. I knew magic was magic, and I’d seen guys on TV slice Cher into pieces and put her back together, or catch bullets in their teeth, and I knew a friend’s uncle who could pull a quarter out of his ear. I myself even got a magic set for Christmas that made little foam rabbits disappear beneath plastic cups. Magic was just magic, I figured, even 2,000 years ago, and even though you never knew how the trick was done, there always was – clearly – a trick. So, that water-into-wine business didn’t matter to me. But the kindness stuck with me.

My family continued to go to church. For a few years in Middle School, after a family crisis, we got VERY earnest in our devotion. trombone jesus(That’s a whole other story that has EVEN LESS to do with Johnny Cash than this story does!) But that fervor eventually waned, and by the time high school ended I wasn’t showing up at church very often – only when I had a trombone solo as part of a service.

By the time I graduated college, I didn’t think about religion much anymore. I was still very impressed by kindness and peacefulness, and I began reading books about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and lesser known peace advocates like Chief Joseph and Abdul Gaffar Khan.

I still thought of myself as a Christian, however, just because … well, that’s how I was raised. And then one day, cornfields while working in the corn fields with my friend Eric V., who introduced me to so many great bands, we were having the kind of talk that walking 8 hours in the summer sun in humid Central PA through an itchy field of razor-sharp corn plant leaves can sometimes engender: a discussion of religion. At some point (and he and I worked in tandem all year round, and lived together, and commuted together … and I like to talk, so you can imagine there were far more conversations between us than can be crammed into one blog post, even one as endless as mine tend to be) I stated that I still thought of myself as a Christian.

“Really?” he asked. “Why do you say that?”
“Because,” I answered, “I think that Jesus really demonstrated a great way for people to live together, with kindness and love.”
“Do you think he died for everybody’s sins, and came back to life?”
“Well,” I said, “no, I don’t think that really happened. I think they just made up that story to sort of propagate his myth.”
“Because that’s Christianity,” he said. “If you don’t think that story is true, you don’t sound like you’re a Christian.”

I had to agree that disbelieving – and even snickering at the thought of – such a core tenet of a a belief system did call into question how firmly I believed.think I wrestled for a while with what I should call myself, and still clung – tenuously – to the Christian label, even though I never went to church or worshiped or thought much about faith. I felt like, since I believed in “The Golden Rule” I might as well check the “Christian” box. Then, in deep conversation with another important friend, Bill D., I stated my belief in the golden rule, and he laughed at me.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“Oh, I thought you were joking,” he said. “You really believe that – do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
“Yes,” I answered. “I do. Don’t you?”
“I think you should do unto others what they want you to do unto them,” he said. “Maybe people don’t want to be treated like you do. Isn’t it better to meet their wishes, instead of putting yours onto them?”

God DAMN this fucking religion bullshit is complex. I officially went Atheist.

I was young then, without a family, so I had lots of time to think about the kind of shit that seems important when you don’t have other people in your life who depend on you. I thought a lot about what was important to me, and what I kept returning to was this: kindness. Things like being nice to kids, inviting little weird guys in trees to dinner, standing up for people in trouble. Unlike magic, you don’t have to go “Ta-Da!!!” after doing these kinds of things. Put whatever label on it you want, meet with whatever group of people you want, in whatever structures you see fit; sing whatever songs, chant whatever chants, listen to whatever reliable speaker you think does the trick; tell whatever stories, old or new, that you want to hear, and wear whatever goofy clothes or hats or accessories you want … do whatever it is you and your group feel you have to do, and if your main message is kindness and love, then it sounds okay to me.

superbest friends

Just don’t try to make me wear your goofy hats.

For someone like myself who worships kindness, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison is a record greater than the sum of its songs. It is a live recording of two concerts Cash played at the prison in 1968. I first heard it in the early 90s when I began dating my wife. roommate partner Her roommate, Randy, had 5 zillion vinyl albums in the living room, and – quite remarkably – seemed to play them all – a different record played every time I visited. (In retrospect, I wonder if he was trying to find the album that would drive me away? Not that he was interested in my girlfriend, or that he and I didn’t get along, or anything like that, but we all know how annoying the Roommate’s Significant Other can be …)

I knew who Johnny Cash was. He had a TV variety show when I was really little that I sort of remember my folks watching. tv show He was also perhaps the greatest villain on my favorite TV show ever, Columbo. I knew he sang “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” and “A Boy Named Sue.” He was the man in black, and sang in a very deep voice. But he was a country singer, and so I had always dismissed him as someone whose music I probably wouldn’t like.

When I heard the album playing, I immediately knew it was Johnny Cash – his voice is truly unmistakable. The songs were okay – mostly short, twangy country songs in a spoken/sung style – but what stood out to me was the energy coming from the audience on the record. I’m not a huge fan of live recordings – the songs tend to not sound as good as the original versions, and if they do sound good it just makes me frustrated that I didn’t get to SEE the live performance. (I’m looking at you, Live at Hollywood High.) But this live recording was different – from the announcements by the prison staff, to Johnny’s between-song banter, to that fabulous crowd reaction – it captured something about the performer that made me want to listen again.

in concert

I bought the CD soon after my wife and I moved in together and I no longer had access to Randy’s 5 zillion records. I usually only listen to it if I have enough time to listen to the entire disk. For me, it’s similar to a concept album, like The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in that it has good songs, but there’s more to it than just a collection of songs.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is credited with saying “The degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have never entered a prison, so I am not in a position to judge. babyfaceHowever, it is apparent from media reports, books, TV shows, and simply conversations with friends and acquaintances that the treatment and well-being of prisoners is NOT a major concern of most Americans. Prisoners remain a group in America that nearly everyone – rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, Blue Collar or White Collar – seems to feel good about hating. Good folks who donate to charity, thoughtful folks who strive for inclusiveness and tolerance in their lives, decent folks who place others’ needs before their own … each of these groups is largely made up of people who would be happy to forget about the 2.4 million people behind bars in America.

And on the one hand, it’s easy to see why people want to forget. There are people behind bars who have done such incredibly horrible things to other people – babies, children, elderly, etc – that I didn’t even want to find appropriate links. It’s incredibly easy to hear about such crimes and find oneself thinking, “After hearing that, I don’t care WHAT happens to that guy,” and feeling happy that someone else can think about the particulars. And easier still to convince oneself that “those people deserve anything and everything that happens to them behind bars.”

What is difficult to do is to remind oneself that the people in prison are just that – people – and treating people kindly is a good thing to do. johnny stage 1 Johnny Cash entered Folsom Prison in 1968, with his band, The Tennessee Three, along with guitarist Carl Perkins (of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame) and The Statler Brothers and Johnny’s wife, June Carter, and treated the people there kindly. Despite their evil deeds, he understood they were people. His son, John Carter Cash, has said, “He knew that he was singing for murderers, rapists, and killers but he also knew that he was singing for people that were suffering greater hardships than they were due.”

Cash’s love of people is what shines through on the record. He selected songs that would resonate with the men in the prison – songs of longing and regret, songs of prison life, songs of violence – and performed them directly and honestly, like one of the guys.

The show opens, naturally, with a simple “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash,” and the band starts in on the Cash original “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The lyrics offer the perspective of a prisoner watching a train roll by the prison day after day, and how sad it makes him to see all the free people moving past his window. He imagines riding the train far away from Folsom, and his miserable life inside. What makes the song resonate, however, isn’t that he’s bummed out to be in prison, it’s his admission that a) he killed a man in Reno (“just to watch him die”) and b) he knows he has to stay at Folsom. He’s not bragging about the killing (even though the lyric does elicit some whoops and hollers from the prison audience), and he’s not blaming anybody else for his predicament. He’s just describing the common human feelings of regret and loss, from the prisoner’s perspective. It’s a human song, but what makes it fun to listen to is that the band is HOT! Drummer W.S. Holland plays some of the fastest, tightest rolls I’ve heard, and he really makes these train songs (there are a few on the album) swing. And the lead guitar (I don’t know if it’s Carl Perkins, or Luther Perkins (not related), the guitarist for The Tennessee Three) is crisp and twangy.

This is the first of several songs about prison from a prisoner’s perspective. All are lyrically grim, but – as with Folsom Prison Blues – some of them are bouncy songs, fun to sing and hear. Take, for example, “Cocaine Blues.”

This song has lyrics that would make any Gangsta Rapper proud (although you’ll be hard-pressed to find the same proportion of critics of Johnny’s country (white) lyrics as you’ll find of rap (black) lyrics …) And Johnny sings them with gusto and charm, and makes the entire ordeal of murder, running from the law and being condemned to life in Folsom sound like downright fun. This might sound like a dangerous or ill-considered choice of songs to sing in a prison setting, but the whoops and cheers that are heard from the audience throughout the song make it clear that Cash is connecting with them, freeing a little bit of them through song. Clearly the prisoners know they are (mostly) in Folsom for a reason, and most of them are likely regretful and full of shame; and the lyrics reflect on the poor choices and bad decisions that were made, and – as with “Folsom Prison Blues” – don’t offer excuses or blame others. But the chance to hear a rousing song that touches on humankind’s darker nature, a side that everyone has, and most can keep in check, but that doesn’t go away when you’ve gone to prison, is welcomed by them all, and the connection with the singer is palpable.

f u johnnyJohnny holds this connection to the audience throughout the recording, whether reminding the crowd between songs that the show is being recorded, so “you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’,” or telling them that the last drink of water he had from Folsom tasted like it had “run off Luther’s boots.” He sings “Joe Bean,” a song of a man being hung for a crime he didn’t commit (although he did kill 20 other men apart from the one he DIDN’T kill …) and “I Got Stripes,” with wife June Carter Cash, a straightforward song about prison life. It’s the selection of songs that makes the album great, as much as the performance of the songs. One of the most daring is the (literally) gallows-humored Shel Silverstein song “25 Minutes to Go.”

It’s a sound of joy – difficult to fathom, given the lyrical content – but joy nonetheless. Johnny Cash is giving the prisoners joy in these songs, and they are grateful – the gift of joy might not sound like a great gift, but it is something these people have craved.

But Cash doesn’t just rouse the audience with funny songs of murder and death. He also touches on regret and sadness, a theme everyone can relate too, but maybe none as much as a prisoner. The heartstring-tugger “A Picture of Mother” describes the friendship that arises between prisoners. stir crazy 3 It’s a simple, honest song that addresses something that is rarely considered in the media – friendship among inmates. One of the ways society propagates the de-humanization of prisoners is by the indifference to – and downright mocking of, sexual assault of prisoners. “Prison Rape” has become a punch line to such an extent that the simple concept that friendships can develop among prisoners is almost never considered outside the context of “prison marriages” or dangerous gangs. But Johnny leaves the prisoners’ humanity intact as the song reflects on the simple fact that when your friend is leaving you and you’ll likely never see him again – as in the case of one man being freed while another has years remaining to serve – it is a cause of mixed emotions. While Cash sings, a hush settles over the crowd, and no whoops are heard in this song until the final words are sung.

The prison song “The Wall” is another song that must resonate deeply among inmates.

Its grim description of despair and loneliness is broken up in the middle by Johnny’s giggling at an unheard comment from the crowd. There are a few places in the record where Cash laughs, or talks to individual inmates, and these were not removed from the final record. It all adds to the feeling of connection between performer and crowd that is experienced throughout.

Other tear-jerkers include “The Long Black Veil,” a song about honor among friends, and the consequences of bad choices; “I Still Miss Someone” – not necessarily about a prisoner, but particularly poignant here; and “Give My Love to Rose.”

Perhaps the saddest song is “The Green Green Grass of Home,” in which an inmate is released and visits his hometown, his family and friends, only to wake up and find he has been dreaming. When I listen to these songs I wonder what it must have been like to be a Folsom inmate and watch this concert unfold. It must have been a resounding, emotional, life-affirming experience – the type of thing that I imagine few – if any – prisoners ever experience during their detention. These considerations – and the fact that you can feel them throughout the recording – make this record truly greater than the sum of its parts.

But Cash also gives the boys some levity and laughs, too. The concert I’ve described so far would’ve likely led to a mass suicide at Folsom. johnny juneHe garners big laughs from the crowd with songs such as “Dirty Old Egg Suckin’ Dog,” and “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” And he gets the crowd excited with fun numbers “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” “Orange Blossom Special,” (again featuring Holland’s machine gun drumming, and exceptional harmonica work from Cash), and the famous song “Jackson,” sung with his wife, June Carter Cash, whose appearance on stage, and charming banter, (Johnny: “Boy, I like to watch you talk!” June: “I’m talkin’ with my mouth! It’s way up here!”) nearly brings down the house.

The album ends nearly perfectly, with the gospel song “Greystone Chapel,” written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley.

sherley

Cash had never heard the song until the day before the concert, then taught it to the band the night before the show and debuted it at the time of the recording. It has some of the best country-twang electric guitar on the album, and the performance by the entire group – Johnny, June, The Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins and The Tennessee Three – is alive and heartfelt. Its story of salvation of the sinner through the acceptance of Jesus Chris – this time set in the Folsom Prison chapel, called Greystone Chapel – is a common gospel theme. It ends the concert with a message of hope, the type of hope that lifers in prison must cling to – that a better place exists for them, even if it is on the other side of death.

The idea that another place exists after death has never made much sense to me, and I’ve never had much use for the rest of the “magic” associated with religion. But the kindness and humanity on display in this album creates its own kind of magic, a magic that I love to revisit. Perhaps this magic is the same magic that Jesus created when he was showing love to the children and tax collectors and prostitutes. Maybe the stories of fishes and loaves and water into wine grew from the fact that he was touching some human part inside people who had never before been shown their own humanity.

Maybe in 2,000 years people will be talking about a different JC, and folks will offer up At Folsom Prison as evidence that Johnny Cash once melted prison bars and freed a couple thousand men using just a guitar and his voice.

cash heaven

TRACK LISTING
Folsom Prison Blues
Busted
Dark as the Dungeon
I Still Miss Someone
Cocaine Blues
25 Minutes to Go
Orange Blossom Special
The Long Black Veil
Send a Picture of Mother
The Wall
Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog
Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart
Joe Bean
Jackson
Give My Love to Rose
I Got Stripes
The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer
Green, Green Grass of Home
Greystone Chapel

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90th Favorite: Appetite for Destruction, by Guns N’ Roses

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Appetite for Destruction. Guns N’ Roses.
1987, Geffen Records. Producer: Mike Clink
Purchased ca. 1990.

album

chipIN A NUTSHELL – Punky, bluesy rock and roll with fantastic guitar work. Varied, multipart songs and interesting production and arrangements make it a candidate for repeated listening. Axl’s voice can get old, and you’ll have to bear with some lyrical clunkers, but for loud guitar rock, it’s hard to beat this one. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – all the songs were nearly as good as the five best on the album.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
kids 1Among the earliest Rules for Life we learn as schoolchildren is this: “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” This rule is so clichéd that simply writing it feels wrong – like using a question mark where it? doesn’t belong, or mispeling a word. Equally clichéd is the assertion that it’s one of the first Rules for Life children recognize as being utter bullshit. It’s been shown again and again that covers of books (and their analogous counterparts in non-published realms) are actually very useful in judging contents.

This fact is precisely the reason I, as a boy, read so many Matt Christopher books

matt christopher

and so few by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

wilder

When it came to music, I found cover-judging to be equally useful. My sisters had many albums, and my 9 – 12 year old self could readily identify by their covers which records would be worthwhile hearing, and which were clearly awful. Pictures of the band on the cover were always the first clue. For example, pictures of dour faced long-haired dudes in women’s winter coats, who look like they may have been drawn by the same guy who drew the covers for the Narnia books, were definitely BAD.

foreignernarnia

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Hairy guys who reminded me of the scary grown-ups I’d once encountered at a campground shower – guys who owned vans and swore and who weren’t at all embarrassed to talk about their dicks in the presence of a seven year old boy and his dad – were absolutely BAD.

england dan

Spacesuit-wearing black dudes, no matter how smiley they were, were nearly as scary as the hairy cock-talkers, and so were BAD as well. (This was rural PA in the 1970s – I lived in a rather bigoted area, and I was part of the culture, warts and all)

bros johnson

Bands with ridiculous costumes were BAD …

kiss

But bands with AWESOME costumes were AWESOME.

village people

Albums without pictures of the band were a bit harder to decipher. For example, an album may have a really nifty picture on the front, that made an eleven year old want to know more about the music inside …

crime of cent

But then turn it over and … scary hairballs are present – even (un)dressed in a way that REALLY reminded you of a campground shower.

crime back

Some albums had covers that were so boring you just KNEW that the music had to be horrible.

wall

While other covers were so FUN, that you could just tell the album would be chock full of hits!

kc

Okay, I guess you can tell that my cover-judging didn’t always work so well for albums. (Unless you are a big Village People or KC and the Sunshine Band fan.)

But the point of this is that I’ve had a tendency to base my decisions on immediate first impressions, and – just as Malcolm Gladwell writes – I’ve been forced to reconsider many opinions because of it. Including the Guns n’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction. My first impression was NOT based on the album cover. It was based on the rock music culture present in the late 80s.

1987

… Keep in mind the state of popular music by the late 80s. Today, in 2014, we’ve become accustomed to the fact that the popular music industry has splintered into multiple genres, and we can listen to only the ones we want. The music delivery systems available today – Pandora, Spotify, all the Radio Apps, satellite radio, music channels on Cable systems, etc, etc – allow every person in America with the proper means to listen to individual slices of different musical categories whenever they wish.

I have Sirius Satellite Radio in my car, and I switch frequently between 80s alternative music, classic rock, (both well-known and obscure), garage rock, 90s alternative, and popular oldies that don’t always seem so old. Plus I’ll sometimes turn to the jazz, folk or bluegrass stations.

And these stations only represent a tiny, late-twentieth century white boy slice of all that is truly available.

cicis

Music listening today is a buffet. Not unlike CiCi’s Pizza, but with far less diarrhea.

Music listening in the 80s was a prison mess hall – you had no say in what was served. The only choice a listener had was in the type of radio station he or she chose, and (except for Classical, Country or Oldies) your choice was either Top 40 or Album Rock.

left ofSIDE NOTE – There was also College Radio, a term that in the 80s meant exactly what it says, but eventually came to define an entire genre of music (well, genres [plural], really) and then exploded into the “90s alternative” behemoth. The only problem with College Radio in the 80s was that if you didn’t live within 2 miles of a college (and I didn’t) you weren’t hearing it.

mtvSUB-SIDE NOTE – Then, 30 years ago, MTV came on the air, which I’ve written about before. This delivered all kinds of fad sounds and weirdos to my teenaged attention, but you had to watch for hours and hours to hear the really good stuff. And unlike radio, you couldn’t listen in your car, where most radio listening occurs, plus the visual component made it a poor choice for background music, so you didn’t hear as many songs as you would on the radio.

So, anyway, you had Top 40 or Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and by the early 80s I was – for the most part – an AOR kind of guy. This meant lots of 60s and 70s rock, like The Stones, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Lynrd Skynrd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, CCR, Clapton …

aor

What stands out most about that list (apart from their impressive woolliness (except Elton)) is that by the early 80s all of these acts were either dead (Hendrix), defunct (multiple), dead and defunct (Skynyrd), wheezing into middle age and coasting on their reputation (Stones, Who), or had completely transformed to Top 40 pop (Elton). AOR was quickly becoming an Oldies radio format.

The search for new blood took radio programmers and music industry types to a sub-genre of music that shared a few characteristics with those AOR stalwarts: a blues-based, guitar-driven style of music, although rooted more in Black Sabbath darkness than Beatles sunnyness. It was called Heavy Metal. At the beginning of the 80s, bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and The Scorpions began finding their way onto AOR stations. metal
Programmers selected the catchy songs from their albums, leaving out the pounding ones, as AOR tried to stave off the dreaded “Oldies” label.

What you may notice about these metal bands is that while they have the hair of the 70s bands (except for Judas Priest’s Rob Halford) their dress is more stylized than their AOR counterparts. Spandex pants, lots of leather, tank tops and patterned, loose jacket/shirt items … While the guys in the 70s acts dressed like your high school aged neighbor working on his car in the driveway (Elton and Beatles’ “Peppers” outfits notwithstanding), the metal guys dressed like no one you’d meet on the street. Unless your street was Castro Street.

castro (Okay, hang with me here, folks. Don’t worry, I’ll edit all this stuff later, I swear.)

So, it’s the early 80s. AOR is trying to stay modern by playing pop-sounding Heavy Metal by guys dressed in fancy outfits. MTV is now emphasizing the visual aspect of performers, making the appearance of the acts as important (or more so) than the music they’re putting out. top 40Plus, Top 40 programming remains a stew of musical forms of the day, a place where acts as different as Olivia Newton-John and Blondie can both hang out in the Top Ten alongside The Commodores and The Charlie Daniels Band, and record-buyers are accustomed to catchy pop, regardless of genre.

This confluence of music, tastes, radio, and television – swirling like thunderclouds around the heads of the ever-present, cocaine-binging record executives desperately trying to squeeze more dough from the listening public’s pockets – smashes together, creating a Perfect Storm that unleashes on the world one of the great musical disasters of the late twentieth century: HAIR METAL.

perfect storm

The spectacle of hair metal was awful. It consisted mostly of goofy songs about sexy chicks and partying played by guys with bleached and teased poofy hairdos, who wore tight leather and spandex pants and danced around making faces of agony and pretending they were playing heavy metal music, while in reality they played the same schlocky pop songs that radio counterparts like Madonna and Huey Lewis were putting out.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m as big a fan of schlocky pop songs as anyone, and some of the Hair Metal songs were really catchy and fun to listen to. What bothered me was that these acts were playing Phil Collins pop, but pretending they were AC/DC. And now these same poofy pop songs were being played on AOR stations, alongside Hendrix and Cream, where DJs were keeping a straight face while saying shit like, “Here’s the next single from the band Nelson, and it’s a real hard-rocking one …”

Everyone was casually pretending that hair metal bands were rocking hard, even as all the evidence said otherwise. It was as if MTV, radio, people at parties, and even some of your friends, were all conspiring in some intricately plotted and precisely executed prank against you.

You: “Dude, this song by Firehouse sounds pretty much just like a Whitney Houston song, right?”
Other Person: “What? No! No, no, no. This is rock and roll! Whitney sings that pop crap!” [Other Person snickers and winks at some unseen person behind you.]

firehouse

Hair Metal was having a weird effect on existing bands, too. Take Def Leppard, for example. In 1980, they were kind of a mini Judas Priest, a British heavy metal band with a penchant for melodies, but whose songs stomped and crunched. Here is the song “Wasted,” from their debut album On Through the Night.

By 1983, they were on the pop path, but still keeping one foot in the hard guitar rock world … barely …

By 1987 they were firmly in “Who’s Judas Priest?” mode.

In their defense, Def Leppard was a new(ish) band trying to make a career of it, so you could argue they were trying to stay afloat.

But what to make of 70s AOR stars like Ted Nugent, and members of Styx, and Journey, among others, who formed new bands like Damn Yankees and Bad English for the sole purpose, it seemed, to go on TV and pretend to rock hard while belting out turgid power ballads written for them by Diane Warren – even though 10 years earlier they ACTUALLY WERE rocking hard? (Depending on your definition … but still …) trumanWere they in on the prank, too? Was I in a musical Truman Show?

(The Diane Warren reference begins to touch on the concept of the “Power Ballad” that spewed forth from the Hair Metal scene like pus from a lanced boil. I don’t have space to write more. I’ll just leave it at “pus from a lanced boil.”)

So this is the musical environment into which a long-haired, motorcycle riding, chain-smoking, shaky alcoholic 26 year old – who spent his time hanging around the Millersville University student housing complex looking for freshman girls instead of a job – walked into with a copy of Appetite for Destruction under his leather-jacketed, wobbly, under-the-influence arm. Dickhead Doug, as I called him, was a self-professed metal-head, but admirer of Hair Bands, a man of indiscriminate rock music taste, who could break down, track by track, the Metallica album Kill ‘Em All, while in the next breath speak of the majesty of the new Lita Ford album. The man’s rock knowledge ran deep, but his ability in 1988 to distinguish musical shit from Shinola was quite suspect. (As was mine, admittedly – but if you’re reading this blog, you know that already.)

During the Winter Break of 1987-1988, I was awoken in the wee hours of the morning by this song blasting at ultra-volume in my living room:

Aroused from a deep sleep by that clarion call of an opening riff, which I had never before heard, I was disoriented and rather scared. And it was being played LOUDLY – as in the neighbors won’t have to call the cops ’cause they’ll hear it themselves 4 miles away LOUD.

The thing about Dickhead Doug was that he wasn’t my roommate at the time – he was the brother of a roommate’s girlfriend, and – it being college, and us being college-aged guys – it was just sort of okay (sort of) that he’d at times wander into our apartment. He often slept off his drunks on our couch. I guess we’d given him a key? Who knows. Anyway, he was (rather) welcome to use our apartment. However, no matter what arrangement we’d all made, it was NOT OKAY for him to come in and BLAST his HAIR BAND BULLSHIT FANTASY HARD ROCK DEBARGE-SOUNDING CRAP at 2 in the morning!!

dudeI went to the living room, angry, and he greeted me with a huge grin on a shining face, as if to say “I knew you’d love this band!!” It turned to a look of shocked disbelief when I made him turn it off. He made the case, earnestly yet drunkenly, that this album was going to be enormous, one of the biggest ever, that it was a defining statement of hard rock, carrying the torch of heavy, guitar-based rock and roll, pouring gasoline on that torch, and thrusting it boldly forward to scorch the musical landscape of the cusp of the 1990s.

crueI seemed to recall he had said the same thing about Motley Crue’s Girls Girls Girls just three months earlier.

He turned the music off, but assured me I’d be hearing more from this band. I went back to bed holding a huge grudge against Guns N’ Roses, and I held it for many years. I continued to believe – even as the evidence said otherwise – that the band was a poofy hair band playing sappy pop, and that their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was severely over-rated, an example nothing more than marketing success.

Sometime around 1990, before the band’s Use Your Illusion records came out, after repeatedly hearing from friends that the record was actually good, I finally bought the cassette and realized I’d been entirely wrong.

Appetite for Destruction is a terrific blend of heavy metal riffs and punk rock attitude, full of songs that are allowed to develop and grow, and whose interesting structures hold up well on repeated listening. The musicianship of the players is excellent (except for the drumming …) and if you can bear Axl Rose’s at-times screeching voice, and his violent lyrics, you’ll find the melodies are catchy. As usual, it’s Guitars and Melody with me …

gnr 1The album opens with the aforementioned “Welcome to the Jungle,” Dickhead Doug’s wee-hour alarm bell. This song has become ubiquitous in North American macho culture, with that opening riff and swelling, menacing introduction pumping up the crowd at everything, it seems, from high school football games to women’s professional lacrosse, from tractor pulls to church services. (The sound on those links may no longer work: it seems Axl Rose has an army of people scrubbing the audio from any unauthorized use of the song – even in homemade videos!!)

It’s become so ubiquitous that you may forget how great a song it really is. It’s got several parts that sound cool on their own, and when put together make an excellent rock epic. That build up at the beginning, that starts with Slash’s reverb-y riff and grows to an explosion of the main riff, gnr 2and the guitar pattern, with Axl’s lyrics of the harsh Big City … it’s a tremendous rock song. I love Axl’s stuttering “n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-knees.” I love how Slash has a mini guitar solo between verses, and how things sort of cool off in the mellow “When you’re high” section. There are very nice, quiet guitar parts there, which finally ends with a fabulous Slash solo. Then it goes into the middle “Jungle Section,” with drummer Stephen Adler pounding out a tribal beat on his toms, while bassist Duff McKagen rolls back and forth on a scale and guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin squawk and scratch, until Axl asks the musical question, “You know where you are?” Answers it for the listener, “You’re in the jungle, baby,” and finally declares, “You’re gonna die!” leading to the final “Welcomes” and the cool signature riff, and Axl spouting one of the best hock-a-loogie “Hooah”s in popular music history, certainly ranking alongside that of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax.” axl teaseI should have known the song was brilliant immediately, even at 2 in the morning, but I was stuck on the belief that it was just another hair band song (despite what my ears told me), a belief egged on by the appearance of Axl in the video – Someone had teased his hair up like all those other pretty-boy singers pretending to rock, and even though the hair looked out of place on him, I figured a Whitney Houston-esque power ballad would follow shortly.

However, the next song I heard from them was something different.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a song that many folks have tried to shoehorn into the “Power Ballad” genre. The song is a love song, and it came out in the 80s, but it bears little resemblance to a typical hair band power ballad. There is no acoustic guitar intro, no violins, no head-sway-inducing sing-along chorus that testifies to the depths of one pretty man’s love for one pretty woman (despite what he’s sung in the album’s other 9 songs about bangin’ lots of chicks) … The song is actually a rather up-tempo, rockin’ number – okay, mid-tempo – that sounds more like the Stones than Air Supply. Much like “Jungle,” the song has an introduction that instantly became a recognizable, classic riff. And the guitar is very cool throughout the whole song. During the verses, there’s a clean, arpeggiated guitar part beneath the vocals that is one of those little things slash 2 that makes the song for me – the type of thing you don’t notice at first, but pick up on with repeated listening. The Beatles threw in millions of these little things, and as a huge Beatles fan, I’m always listening for such things in any song. Slash also plays a terrific, long, multipart solo in the song. And McKagen’s bass lines support the entire piece, and also hold up well in repeated listening. On this album the band always has something interesting going on in the songs, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. The guitar noises underneath the “Where do we go” section, the acoustic strumming that’s heard throughout. Sure, the lyrics are a bit corny, but what do you want from Axl? Fucking poetry?? Come on – you know better.

axl finger

The next song I heard off the album was Paradise City.

This song is a straight-ahead arena-rock song, with a heavy, grinding riff. The song again demonstrates GnR’s penchant for blending disparate parts into a single song. It has an intro, verse/chorus, “so far away” bridge, and galloping outro/solo section to finish it all. Axl even throws in a referee whistle near the beginning (at 1:20), I guess to signal the rest of the band that it’s time to change. This is a song whose lyrics I don’t understand – something about a guy on death row, maybe? slash 1They don’t make a lot of sense (“The surgeon general says it’s hazardous to breathe/I’d have another cigarette/ But I can’t see/Tell me who you’re gonna believe.” Wait – what?) But whether I understand them or not, they are fun to sing along to. In this song, Slash’s guitar is the star. The main riff is cool, the riff in the bridge is cool, and the solo that finishes off the song is truly mind-blowing. It’s fast and wild – at times it seems out of control, almost like some kid monkeying around on a guitar pretending to play – but it always hangs together. I enjoy listening to it because I always hear something different each time.

By this point, I was thinking maybe GNR was a little more than a typical hair band. But I remained wary – a poofy Whitney Houston song could be around the corner. But the next song I heard, “Mr. Brownstone,” was NOT a Whitney song.

This is my favorite song on the album. It’s short and sweet, a basic 3 minute pop song. I love the drums and the riff, and the tune is great. Duff’s bass has a cool, crunching sound to it, and once again – as with most of the songs on the album – there are little guitar things going on in the background that make the song enjoyable with repeated listen. I especially like the rapid fire vocals of the “I used to do a little” section. It’s a song about the band’s struggles with heroin and it’s an example of some of Axl’s better lyrics.

Axl was frequently castigated (and rightfully so, I think) over his misogynistic, homophobic and racist lyrics. But some of his lyrics are rather insightful. For example, the song “It’s So Easy” was frequently cited as an example of Axl’s misogyny and attitude of violence. And the song’s lyrics can certainly be read that way. The song could be seen as some asshole bragging about paradise how easy his life is, treating people badly and not giving a shit about it. However, my take on the song is this: the lyrics say “it’s so easy/when everyone’s trying to please me.” This lyric, to me, puts the onus on the people around the singer of the lyrics. He’s saying “everyone’s trying to please me, and because of that, it makes it so easy to be a misogynist, hateful dude.” There are stories all over the news about privileged kids, or athletes, who have had people fawning over them their entire lives, and who become complete pricks. In my opinion, “It’s So Easy” is taking a swipe at the enablers and hangers-on who help create such a situation, not glorifying the violence it leads to. Plus, the song really rocks.

Some other parts of the album that I really love include the song “Nightrain,” with it’s blues-rock riff and classic, blues tough-guy lyrics. Although, he states he’s been drinking gasoline, and I sure hope that’s just a hyperbolic boast. I once siphoned old gasolinegasoline out of a snow blower and accidentally ingested about a teaspoon and felt sick for days. If he’s really been drinking gasoline, I can say for certain that’s where his bad attitude is coming from.

I also love the album’s closing number, “Rocket Queen,” which is a pretty straight ahead rock song for four minutes, then switches to a mid-tempo jam for the final four minutes. It’s another GnR song with great guitar and bass lines, and multiple parts that blend together nicely, and it would be one of my favorites, except it includes recorded sex-type noises in it, and songs that do that (“Hungry Like the Wolf,” etc) always make me a little uncomfortable. And I always wonder about the producer’s decisions in these songs: “You hit that D7th suspended chord, just before going into the bridge. Do you think a pre- or post- orgasm moan sounds better for that part?”

Songs like “You’re Crazy,” which plays like a straight-ahead punk rock song, and the pounding riff-rock of “Anything Goes” (which has an awesome talk-box dueling guitar solo, beginning about 1:45) are songs that set this album apart from other hard rock albums of the era. iz duffThe guitars and bass on the album – courtesy of Slash, Izzy and Duff – are excellent throughout. But I do think this may be the best record with the worst drumming ever. Let me clarify – the drumming isn’t awful, it just doesn’t add much to the songs. Considering the other excellent musical performances on the record, the drumming on these songs is rudimentary, to my ears. As I’ve mentioned, the songs have lots of sections, and therefore changes, which should provide lots of opportunities for interesting fills. But drummer Stephen Adler uses basic fills – for example, the two snare hits in “Paradise City” at the end of each verse. I feel like he could have added much more to the songs. They’re big songs, they need big drums.

I admit my response to this album was colored by my initial impression of the band, which was formed by everything I heard EXCEPT the music! The album had the misfortune of being released among (and promoted as part of) the shittiest pop genre of the last 60 years (including EDM). And I fell for the marketing. So I have to be more careful – no matter what book covers say about their books.

bok cover

TRACK LISTING
Welcome to the Jungle
It’s So Easy
Nightrain
Out ta Get Me
Mr. Brownstone
Paradise City
My Michelle
Think About You
Sweet Child o’ Mine
You’re Crazy
Anything Goes
Rocket Queen

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