Tag Archives: 70s rock

54th Favorite: Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac

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Rumours. Fleetwood Mac.
1977, Warner Bros. Producer: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut.
Purchased, ??? (Seems like it’s always just been there).

IN A NUTSHELL: One of the most popular and enduring albums in rock music history, I’ve heard it so much that it’s hard to tell if I like it, or if I just find it familiar! But I think it’s because I like it: Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing throughout is what keeps me coming back, along with the terrific vocals from Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The rhythm section is top-notch, too, although the thin, wimpy drum sound is hard to take.
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{Portions of this piece were first posted June 6, 2013}

If you saw The Mona Lisa tomorrow, for the first time ever and with no prior knowledge of it, and it was hanging inside the screened-in porch of your uncle’s fishing cabin, between one of those paintings of dogs playing poker and a Bob Ross mountainscape, would you recognize it as a masterpiece?

Okay, in that context maybe you would. But if she wasn’t “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world,” would you look at her and immediately decide, “Oh. My. God. This painting HAS TO BE the most famous painting in the world!”?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts that my mom would make was something called “No Bake Cheesecake,” by Jello. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my mom wasn’t a great baker. She was, and remains, an excellent baker of cookies, cakes and those twin Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies Shoo-Fly Pie and Whoopie Pies.

But she has never been the kind of baker to go much beyond the types of desserts that a mediocre sports announcer might describe as being “in her wheelhouse.” So back in the 70s, to add some variety to our menu of desserts (which also served as our breakfast menu) my mom would “mix things up” by mixing up things like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake.

I loved it. Then again, I loved all of the pre-packaged, imitation foods of the day: Tang, Space Food Sticks, Spaghettios (with Franks!) and perhaps my favorite of all non-desserts: Mug-O-Lunch. I never thought of Jello No-Bake Cheesecake as anything other than simply cheesecake. It was the only cheesecake I knew. The texture of the filling was creamy, a little stiffer than pudding, but not as firm as, say, imitation butter in a tub, and this very sweet, yet slightly tangy mass was plopped and spread into the loving embrace of a margarine/graham cracker crust. “Cheesecake” was officially my favorite dessert.

When I got to college I started dating a woman, M., who, by any standard available, would be described as “out of my league.” In addition to being more popular and more attractive than me, she was also far more worldly and came from a much wealthier family than me. We didn’t have much in common, but somehow we stayed together for about a year and a half. (If pressed, I’d attribute the tenacity of our relationship to mental illness, alcoholism, self-loathing, lack of communication skills, and an appreciation of a well-told joke; each distributed between us in relatively equal, though constantly varying, proportions.)

I went out to dinner with her and her family sometimes, typically near her parents’ home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and often at very nice restaurants. This fact alone attests to the differences between M. and myself, as “going out to dinner” in my family had always meant subs or pizza, McDonald’s or The Red Barn. We just weren’t a family that spent much money going out to restaurants.

At one of my first fancy restaurant dinners with M. and her family I was excited to see “New York Cheesecake” listed on the dessert menu. I loved cheesecake, and even though it seemed pretty pricey, I knew her family was the type that wouldn’t object to me ordering a slice.

When it arrived, I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I didn’t know what the fuck this tannish-gold, giant wedge of not-quite-set Quikrete was that had been placed in front of my face. But my hosts saw my look of distress, clearly, because someone asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Although I hadn’t been completely domesticated by this time in my life, I did have enough couth to understand I needed to be tactful and polite. Thinking quickly, I remarked “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t had the New York style before.”

I ate the cheesecake and pretended to enjoy the lightly-sweetened density of what I now know to be a well-made, tasty cheesecake, but my mouth yearned for the sugary, creamy pudding of the Jello brand. I told everyone I liked it but I vowed to never order New York Cheesecake in a restaurant again. Maybe I was the crazy one, preferring the boxed, No-Bake dessert to what the rest of the world knew to be authentic cheesecake, but that’s the version that was familiar (and delicious!) to me. I knew it, I was comfortable with it and I really liked it!

Just as with taste in cheesecakes and other delicacies, one’s appreciation for art is subjective. Some people don’t like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake, just as others claim The Mona Lisa isn’t really even all that great in the first place. Taste is subjective, unstable, prone to drifting. Your mood can affect your tastes; your friends can affect your tastes; your station in life can affect your tastes. Is it really surprising, then, to think that simple familiarity could affect your tastes? We’ve probably all had the experience of songs “growing on us” with repeated listenings, and I’m sure we’ve all grown weary of many others.

I thought about the effect of The Mona Lisa hanging inside your uncle’s cabin because I’ve been having trouble clarifying my impressions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. Now, I’m sure many of you just cringed at my comparison of a 70s soft-rock album to a work of art by Leonardo DaVinci, but in terms of familiarity, I think the comparison is reasonable. Various websites list Rumours as having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and as of December, 2016, it is the 6th best-selling non-greatest-hits record ever in the US. Ask a few friends to name 5 famous paintings and 5 famous rock records, and I think there’s a good chance The Mona Lisa and Rumours would both make most lists.

As may be the case with seeing The Mona Lisa today, it is hard to appraise Rumours solely on its artistic merits without constantly recognizing “Hey, this is Rumours!” There are so many songs on the album that have been played so frequently throughout the years since its 1977 release that the album has almost become part of the ambient world: the birds chirp, cars drive by, “You Make Loving Fun” plays, someone coughs, the sprinklers turn on …

Try this test: I will name a song and then give you a line and see if you can sing, or hum, at least 75% of the entire song in your head. (Bonus points if one or more of the songs plays in your head the rest of the day!)

“Dreams” – Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
“Don’t Stop” – Don’t stop/Thinkin’ about tomorrow.
“Go Your Own Way” – Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do.
“You Make Loving Fun” – Sweet, wonderful you/ You make me happy with the things you do.
“The Chain” – And if you don’t love me now/ you will never love me again.
“Second Hand News” – Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass/ And let me do my stuff.
“Never Going Back Again” – Been down one time/ Been down two times.
“Gold Dust Woman” – Well did she make you cry/ Make you break down/ And shatter your illusions of love.

These are songs from my entire radio-listening life – some (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Don’t Stop,” “Dreams”) were soft-rock hits from childhood, played on WLBR, AM-1270, in the 70s; some (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News”) were Album-Oriented Rock staples, from my teen and young adult years; still others (“Never Going Back Again,” “Gold Dust Woman”) have been played on Oldies radio (or what is euphemistically now called “Adult Album Alternative” radio) for years. I can’t remember NOT having this album. I think my sister had it in her famous milk-crate of music. In high school I had a cassette tape of it, and soon after I began buying CDs, I bought it on CD. After all this time, I don’t know if it’s Jello No-Bake or bakery-fresh: I’ve heard it too much to tell anymore. It probably should be either higher or lower than #54 – based on whether familiarity has either enhanced or devalued my love of it – so right near the middle of the list is probably perfect placement.

The album begins subtly, with the approaching rumble of acoustic guitar that opens “Second Hand News.”

One of the things I love about this song is that acoustic guitar – particularly the four little chords Lindsey Buckingham plays after the first line of verse, there at 0:08 and again at 0:12. Little guitar things like this are found throughout this album, placed there by the renowned perfectionist Buckingham. He is an underrated guitar player, a name that doesn’t spring to mind among the Jimi Hendrixes, Eric Claptons and Eddie Van Halens of the world, but folks who know realize he’s got the goods. Fleetwood Mac is an excellent vocal group, with three top-notch singers in Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, each of whom is equally comfortable on lead or harmony. On this song, Nicks’s harmony vocals in the chorus (particularly 1:08 – 1:12) really make the song. Buckingham plays a cool, compression-heavy guitar solo that begins about 2:31, but before getting there, as the vocal harmonies and rhythm section are building, several guitar parts ring and sustain in the background. Again, these are the types of little touches on songs on this album that I love. The lyrics are a plea to an ex to keep certain privileges available to the singer even after the breakup. We’ll hear more about this and other breakups throughout Rumours.

In addition to singing, Buckingham, Nicks and C. McVie also write songs. Each has their own style, and since I started with Buckingham, I’ll stay there for now with another breakup song, “Go Your Own Way.”

This time the song starts with an electric guitar approaching the listener, and a chiming acoustic guitar once again provides subtle support (0:05). This song may be overplayed, and you very well may be tired of it, but let’s take a second to consider the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, a “Fleetwood” and a “Mac,” respectively. This song is really theirs, with McVie’s fun, rolling bass line propelling it, and Fleetwood’s tribal drumming carrying it. I like Fleetwood’s drumming, although I don’t care for the drum sound on this album. It’s thin, as if it shouldn’t be noticed, with a snare that sounds like a kid slapping water in a pool. But the actual drumming is really great. McVie is one of my favorite bass players because his bass lines are generally cool-sounding, but blues-based and in the pocket, with their “coolness” emanating not from virtuoso dexterity, like The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea or Geddy Lee, from Rush, but from their simplicity. There’s nothing special about the bass line behind the “You can go your own way” chorus, and that’s what makes it special! This song is a break-up song, once again about Nicks, and has fantastic electric guitar, with goodies through the entire song (like that ringing feedback at about 0:54) and a terrific solo at the end (2:39).

Do me a favor and go ahead and google ‘fleetwood mac rumours band turmoil‘ and read the 288,000 results – that way I don’t have to cover it all. Basically, long-term couple Nicks and Buckingham, and husband/wife John and Christine McVie were splitting up during the writing and recording of Rumours. This means all of the songs pack a wallop of emotion, as the band members were playing on sometimes venomous songs written about each other. This is like having two couples setting their court-ordered marriage-counseling transcripts to music and handing them around to say, “here, sing this.” AND – having the other band members take the transcripts and complete amazing performances despite the pain and anger and, frankly, awkwardness. Nicks tells her side of the story on the extremely popular “Dreams.”

Nicks truly has one of the all-time great voices in rock. It’s a smoky, husky voice, strong yet delicate, as at about 0:35, where she sings “it’s only right.” The rhythm section again is on display, and a two-note bass line has never sounded better. Fleetwood’s drums are still thin, but his part is great, particularly the “heartbeat … drives you mad” at 0:52. And as is the custom in a Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham era) song, Buckingham’s guitar is the unsung hero of this piece. True, it’s Nicks’s voice that triumphs on this warning about regret to her ex, with particularly nice overdubbed harmonies against her own lead vocal, but the subtle, eerie guitar sounds that her ex provides really add shape and color to the piece.

Buckingham and Nicks may be thought of as the John and Paul of Fleetwood Mac, but the band’s George wrote most of the hits. I’m referring, of course, to keyboardist Christine McVie who, by my (Wikipedia) count, wrote eight top-20 songs for the band: “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” “Think About Me,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” and two from Rumours, including “You Make Loving Fun.”

This song is often thought of as a yacht-rock, mellow, 70s-Love’s-Baby-Soft-Rock, but I’m here to make the case that (as is getting to be a theme here) it’s actually an awesome guitar song. Sure it has that uber-70’s, squawky Hohner Clavinet sound right off the bat, but by 0:12, Buckingham is overlaying super-tasty little guitar figures – the kind of stuff that’s lost when heard on AM waves through a transistor radio, especially when those lush harmonies of the chorus (0:50-0:59) are so very strong. The second verse of the song is a straight-on guitar solo, coming out of a nifty Buckingham noodle at 1:19, and when the chorus returns, he keeps pumping out the sweet riffs, particularly at about 2:40, after the “you, you make loving fun” vocals. The outro of the song begins at 2:50, and of course features more guitar. I also want to point out how much joy I get from the bass note that John McVie hits during “believe,” in the chorus, for example at about 1:54-1:55. I don’t know music theory – is it a 7th? A 9th? A suspended-myxolidian-13th? Who knows, but it sounds really great and makes me smile – and shows the immense professionalism of J. McVie, as he shines on a track on which his wife’s lyrics are a love letter to the man with whom she was having an affair. (Awkward!)

Her other big hit on the album is “Don’t Stop,” which – frankly – I never need to hear again – although it does have some great Buckingham guitar, but then again, what song doesn’t? Well, “Songbird,” for one. This McVie song is a beautiful solo piece for her (with a few touches of acoustic guitar.) I can’t hear it without remembering a friend, a jazz musician and man of immense talent and extremely good looks, who sang this song solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, to his new bride at their wedding. I remember thinking, “Great. He just spoiled weddings for every unmarried couple here: no man will EVER live up to that!”

Although I think of this record as the prototypical 70s rock record, and that was an era of studio excess and hours of recording, there are a few relatively simple songs on the album. For example, Buckingham has (basically) a solo performance piece on the poison-pen kiss-offNever Going Back Again,” which features his lovely fingerpicking guitar style. One of these simple, (relatively) production-light songs is my favorite on the album: the Stevie Nicks-penned “I Don’t Want to Know.”

The Nicks/Buckingham vocals are terrific on this song about all the feelings involved in a breakup, and the sense that all you can do to survive is to remain ignorant. There’s another cool Buckingham background guitar riff, heard, for example, at 0:29, and J. McVie plays another simple, damn-near-perfect bass line. As diverse as this record is, this is the song that best captures the entirety of Rumours, lyrically, musically, and instrumentally.

But the song that defines the spirit of the album is the only group-penned song on the record, attributed to Buckingham, Fleetwood, McVie, McVie and Nicks, a song that touches on both the discord between the couples and the strength of the quintet, “The Chain.”

It opens with an ominous-sounding bass drum behind a twangy acoustic guitar. Of course, multiple guitars are layered on top as the band harmonizes, and an electric piano enters during the chorus. The first part of the song is angry, accusatory, referring to a partner’s indifference to “The Chain.” This collective pain and anger is the theme of the album, really, but what elevates this song is the second half, beginning about 3:05. John McVie plays another simple line, and Buckingham wails on another highly compressed solo as the band affirms: “The chain will keep us together.” When people speak about the album, they often ask “How could this band go through all that turmoil, and still produce such a great album?” And this song answers the question: The Chain keeping them together is The Music. The first half’s accusatory declaration, “I can still hear you saying that you’d never break the chain,” which implies a sort of dare to the partner (“Oh, what? Now you’re just going to leave the band because of this??”) is answered by the second half response: “The chain will keep us together.” The Music is more important than anything to them, even love, or even a sense of emotional self-preservation. That’s hard to believe for non-artists like you and me, but simply the level of commitment to one’s art that is required for success such as theirs.

Maybe the answer to The Fishing Cabin Conundrum is this: WHO CARES? The Mona Lisa can be good, and so can Jello No-Bake Cheesecake. It doesn’t really matter if I like Rumours because it’s been so ubiquitous in my life, or if it’s because I think the songs are excellent. The fact is, it’s been a part of my life, and I like it. As Stevie Nicks sang, “I don’t want to know the reasons why …”

Track Listing
“Second Hand News”
“Dreams”
“Never Going Back Again”
“Don’t Stop”
“Go Your Own Way”
“Songbird”
“The Chain”
“You Make Loving Fun”
“I Don’t Want to Know”
“Oh Daddy”
“Gold Dust Woman”

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

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

album cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo 2photo 1 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

tour shirttour shirt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rosendouche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like “Captain Jack.”

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

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

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

billy 70s 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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95th Favorite: Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling Stones

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

sticky album

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

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

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

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

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

daffy porkyGod damn it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kotter

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

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

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

the april skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality Director for blood donor testing – still learning.

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

bob newhart

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

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

stones 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stones final

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

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

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

album cover 100

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

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

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

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

couple

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

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

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

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

glider

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

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

strokes

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

listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

craig finn

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

andy partridge

stipe

geddy lee


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

punchbowl

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

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

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

hold steady concert poster

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

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

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

bedtime

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

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