Tag Archives: Vocals

28th Favorite: Star, by Belly

Share


Star. Belly
1993, Sire Records. Producer: Belly, Tracy Chisholm and Gil Norton.
Purchased, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Star, Belly’s debut record, sounds different enough to be interesting yet retains enough jangle and melody to stay hooked into mainstream rock. It’s truly a showcase for leader Tanya Donelly’s voice, with songs that allow her to vary between sweet purrs and powerful belts while harmonizing beautifully. Guitarist Thomas Gorman’s charming riffs stay in the background so the vocals can shine.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Obsession. [uh b-sesh-uh n] Noun. The domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. (From Dictionary.com.)

I’ve heard stories, both troubling and hilarious, regarding individuals’ struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I don’t want to minimize this awful disease by claiming my idiosyncrasies are symptoms of it. Also, I’ve had sufficient (mild) diagnosed disorders of my own, and so I don’t want to allege any maladies to which I don’t really have a claim. However, in the everyday vernacular used outside a clinical psychiatric setting, I can say without hesitation that I can get obsessed by things.

Foods, shows, writers … in almost any area of human endeavor I can at times find myself pursuing the same ancient, midbrain impulse that compelled my ancestors toward water and shelter instead directed solely on one more Kurt Vonnegut novel or another tube of Tangy Buffalo Wing-flavored Pringles. I can fixate for days at a time, accomplishing work duties and household tasks using some robot-like space in my cerebral cortex while any remaining mindpower is drawing plans for obtaining, building scenarios for experiencing, and reliving satisfactions I’ve received from well-written, deftly humorous pages, or crunching, savoring and fashioning-duckbills-from those unmistakeable potato-paste pressed chips.

Obsessions of this nature generally aren’t harmful, apart from inducing a series of unpleasant visits to the bathroom and a tongue that feels as though it’s been repeatedly scraped against a cheese grater. (In the case of the Pringles, not the Vonnegut.) The effects aren’t long-lasting and often the obsession isn’t, either. A few days after binging, I’ll usually find myself disinterested in what I once desperately craved, and the balloon of desire that once swelled to inhabit nearly every cranny within my consciousness will have burst and withered to a flaccid swath of plastic among all the disregarded and obscure ephemera of my past. Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles? Did I really ever find these edible?

Some past obsessions leave me regretful, with painful memories. Girls from high school, disgusting foods and time-wasting TV shows fall into these categories. Some leave me feeling wistful yet confused, as I’ll never again understand what I found so compelling about, for example, word-search puzzles. Others make me happy to recall, as I retain a bit of love for them, even if I no longer feel the magnetic pull they once imparted.

Some of my biggest obsessions have been with individual songs, and these past obsessions fall into all of the above categories. I’ve written many times about my childhood of music and record listening. I’ve been a music fan since I was really young, and I’ve gotten obsessed with many, many songs over the years. The earliest were cuts off my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert record. But the first song I remember being truly obsessed with, and listening to over and over, was The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which my sister had on a Beatles Greatest Hits (aka “The Blue Album”) 8-Track Tape.

It was sort of spooky sounding, with pinched, distorted vocals and instruments that sounded angular, watery and weird. The drums were somehow spooky, too, particularly throughout the choruses: mesmerizing and tribal. When they combined with the swooping orchestra it created a sound I’d never heard before. I listened as much as I could, which was easier to do – given my proximity to my sister’s 8-Track – than listening to some of the other songs I was obsessed with around that time. I didn’t have the records for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” or E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” To hear these, I had to listen constantly to the radio, hoping some DJ would find the psychic wavelengths I was sending and answer by spinning the disc. At some point, my other sister recorded “Mr. Blue Sky” from the radio, so at least then I could sometimes sneak a listen. I still enjoy all of these songs, although I wouldn’t say I’m still obsessed.

My freshman year of high school coincided with the launch of MTV, so while I was a fan of heavy rock like Rush and Van Halen, and proggy art-rock like Yes, I spent lots of time watching MTV. And many of my song-obsessions were MTV-video-based. I got obsessed with dozens, I’m sure, the charms of which usually wore off quite quickly. But some have lingered as favorites.

MTV played songs I’d never hear on the radio, so I stayed glued to the screen for hours at a time to catch “Save It For Later,” the ska-tinged English Beat number, with its happy, bouncy beat offset against minor chords from the strings and Dave Wakeling’s distinctive vocal style. Most of the bands with songs I obsessed over were British. When you watched MTV, you had to watch at the top of the hour, as that’s when the VJs would announce, “Coming up this hour videos by Talk Talk and Roxy Music,” bands whose names were never mentioned on the radio stations that reached my antennae. I’d hope for “It’s My Life” and “More Than This,” two songs I couldn’t get enough of. Two songs that were far too weenie and soft and synthesizer-based to share with my hard-rock friends, so I kept my interest to myself. I also obsessed over an obscure single called “Bears” by the obscure metal band Zebra, one of the hair-band clones with a nuts-in-a-vice singer that were becoming popular in the mid-80s.

College was when I really got into The Beatles. I’d say I was obsessed with all of their songs and albums. But what I remember playing most of all was the album Abbey Road, particularly the Side Two medleys, beginning with “Because,” and ending with “Her Majesty.”

These aren’t songs that were played on the radio much, as they are short pieces that blend into others. You’d occasionally hear the Joe Cocker version of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.” Every once in a while, if a DJ needed a smoke/bathroom break, you might catch the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley. But songs like “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Because” were new to me. I practically wore out my Abbey Road cassette. Also during college, I went through a long stretch of playing the Led Zeppelin song “Fool In The Rain” every day. It’s a song I think is just fine today, but my fascination with it is akin to that of the Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles: did I really need to hear it every day? Just after college, it was the Concrete Blonde song “Joey” that burrowed into and resided within me for several weeks. Johnette Napolitano’s voice, the shimmery, distorted guitar, the 60’s Phil Spector drums … I’m over it now, but I still like the song.

So many other songs triggered my faux OCD in the years after college. I’d regularly dive into a song and wallow there through five or ten plays, and dive in again the next day for weeks at a time. There were two on the Singles movie soundtrack, the first and longest-lasting (I’d say I’m still somewhat obsessed, although I don’t play it five times in a row anymore) is Chris Cornell’s solo piece “Seasons.”

It wasn’t just the voice – one of the best ever in rock, I’ve said – and it wasn’t just the acoustic strumming, and it wasn’t just the hazy lyrics. It was all of it together. I’d generally play it along with the epic Singles track “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” from the tragic band Mother Love Bone. Other songs that commandeered my senses during the 90s were “Regret,” from New Order, a band I’d always dismissed but who I grew to appreciate in my late 40s. Another soundtrack song that remains today one of my all-time favorite songs is from the ubiquitous 90s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, Maria McKee’s beautiful “If Love Is A Red Dress.”

Since I’ve had kids, most of the songs I’ve become “obsessed” with are songs that my kids have loved. I guess you could say I was obsessed with The Wiggles and The Laurie Berkner Band in the early-to-mid 00s. Never the type of parent to roll my eyes at my kids’ music, I generally tried to get into it a little bit, and tried to never mock it. So I found myself listening a million times to the songs they listened to a million times, which meant – perhaps – I did become a bit obsessed with, say, “That’s Not My Name,” by The Ting Tings.

I never loved Mika’s “Grace Kellyor Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as much as other songs on this list, but they are ingrained in my mind the same way as the others. However, they elicit fond memories of my kids’ childhoods as opposed to fond memories of time spent playing and re-playing them. I can’t really hear them without my mind flipping through an imaginary photo album of my two kids being goofy, funny, wonderful children.

So, you may ask, what’s this got to do with Belly’s record, Star? Well, I made my way to this album through a song I may have been most-obsessed with ever.

Tanya Donnelly, the singer/guitarist/leader of Belly, got her start in the successful 80s college-radio band The Throwing Muses, playing and singing alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Back in the early 90s I’d heard the band’s name many times. The morning DJs on my local Rock Radio Station at the time used the band as a punchline, incorporating it into lists (“… playing all your favorite rock, from bands like AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Throwing Muses, Aerosmith …”) and fake giveaways (“… first place gets the latest Throwing Muses record; second place gets two Throwing Muses records …”). They were presented as some worthless, sissy, college band, unfit for the macho rock played on the 100,000 Watt Flamethrower, or whatever bullshit tagline marketing had thought up to appeal to the Monster Truck enthusiasts and squealing-guitar fans (myself included) who listened. But I never heard any of their songs.

That is, until 1991, when their album The Real Ramona was released, and I heard Donnelly’s composition “Not Too Soon” played at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ. My band was playing there, and I was drunkenly dancing to Matt Pinfield’s DJ set after the show, and for some reason I heard the song and it immediately grabbed me. It’s the only CD single I’ve ever purchased.

A friend at the time who had some connections in the music industry pointed out to me that The Throwing Muses were “finally putting Tanya’s songs out there,” and said that he thought she was the more talented of the stepsisters. To this day I don’t know anything else about The Throwing Muses except for this song, so I can’t say whether his assessment was accurate. All I can say is that after playing this song a billion times, I was extremely ready to go out and get the first album by Donnelly’s new band Belly. When Star was released, I bought it right away.

Belly was getting a lot of airplay from their lead single, the cool, jangly “Feed The Tree.” It’s a good entry point to the album, as it’s got most of everything the album has to offer, plus a super-catchy melody.

For me, the defining characteristic of Belly is Donelly’s voice. In this song, she transitions from gentle, through spirited to full-on belting while providing harmony vocals all throughout. The first two verses are rather quietly, but as she enters the second chorus (1:23) she sings more fully. I also like how she glides up and over the “me and feed” lyrics (1:41), adding an extra note. By the final chorus, at 2:37, she lets loose with a healthy belting voice. Thomas Gorman’s guitar in the song is also really cool, particularly the dripping riff during the first verse (0:26) and elsewhere, and the solo at 1:46 – recorded in an era when guitar solos were about as untrendy as spandex. Her lyrics are also rather Steely Dan-ish in that they tell stories using imagery and indirect phrases (“This little squirrel I used to be/Slammed her bike down the stairs/They put silver where her teeth had been/Baby silver tooth she grins and grins”) but yet still get across a story with feeling – even if you’re never sure what the story is.

A good example of her lyrical style is on the barn-burner “Slow Dog,” which seems to be about a dog that may have been hit by a car and so needs to be put down? According to Donelly, it’s actually about all the ways we punish ourselves. Either way, I sure love singing along to “Maria carry a rifle …”

Gorman’s guitar riff is angular and harsh, and his brother Chris’s drumbeat gives the song an urgency, then turns into a fast shuffle for the choruses. Donelly’s harmonies are really cool over the little guitar figures. It’s a driving song – meaning it’s always driving forward AND I like to listen while I drive. It’s a shout-along melody, with the fun “ah – ah” sections in the chorus. It’s another song that I could see myself being obsessed with, and one of my favorites on the record.

Another song in a similar vein – angular guitars, driving beat – is “Angel.”

This song, however, is much stranger, with starts and stops, and a minor key that gives the song a bit of an eerie sound. I like the guitar line throughout the song and also the harmony vocals. The lyrics are about as obscure as lyrics can get, although the line “I had bad dreams/so bad I threw my pillow away” is pretty cool. This is a record with many odd songs that somehow not only work well, but improve with every listen. “Low Red Moon” is a track that also has an eerie vibe, with Donelly’s sweet voice carrying long stretches (0:18 – 1:14) of empty space that’s afterward filled by pounding drums and shimmering organ, and her full voice. I’ve grown to love this track. “Sad Dress” is another odd one that’s grown on me, a song in 6/8 that bounces above a buzzing guitar. Donelly’s voice is the star, once again, although Tom Gorman does play a nice little solo. The lyrics could be about drug use? Date rape? Simply a bad date? Regardless, if you wish to chew off your foot to get out of a dress, something unhappy is going on.

One of my favorites on the record is a catchy, punchy number that takes a little while to get going. “Full Moon, Empty Heart” features Donelly’s beautiful voice for a minute, then takes off.

There’s a lot of cool guitar feedback and other sounds behind her voice, particularly during the chorus. The lyrics are, well, geez, I don’t know: out the window backwards. It’s an interesting little song that, once again, took a few listens to catch on with me. I think it’s a testament to the record that repeated listens reveal more to enjoy.

One song I’ve loved since I first heard it is the fun, sing-along number “Gepetto.”

The lyrics are all imagery and Pinocchio, with the line “That kid from the bad home came over my house again/Decapitated all my dolls” taking me back to the bullies I knew as a kid. The song has a great beat, and fun “sha-la-la” backing vocals. Belly and Donelly have a penchant for bouncy, fun songs, but they do throw in an aggressive tune once in a while. The ferocious “Dusted” is a good example. It’s short and direct (well, apart from lyrics that may be about a kidnapping?)

I really love the rockin’ and/or weird songs on the album. Some of the slower songs on the album don’t do much for me, although Donelly’s voice and strange arrangements always make things interesting. One gentler song I do love, however, is the ditty about strained relationships (perhaps with frogs and birds?) “Untogether.”

It’s just a simple acoustic guitar with a little steel guitar in the background, but her voice carries it. And the lyrics – once again, I’ll compare them to Donald Fagan’s Steely Dan lyrics – are inscrutable, yet presented as a narrative that the listener should clearly understand. I like how she does that throughout the record. “White Belly” is another slower song that has cool guitar, and once again leaves some empty space for guitar lines (about 1:53) and vocals (2:34) to fill in. Donelly’s voice is great because it can be both airy and powerful, sometimes in the space of a few measures.

The album closes with an entreaty to a significant other, or listener: “Stay.”

The wobbly guitar effects and 60s girl-group riff provide a platform on which the song can build, and it does so subtly and steadily. Donelly’s harmony vocals are outstanding as always, and new sounds are continually incorporated, including a guitar solo about 2:00 that sounds like a violin, and then (I’m pretty sure, though none is listed on the credits) and actual violin. I don’t know who Solomon is, but I’ve grown to love not knowing what her lyrics mean. By about 4 minutes, Donelly proclaims “it’s not time for me to go,” and whenever I listen to this record, this part always makes me want to start it again, back at the beginning.

Most of my obsessions start off intense, then fade away like like so much Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringle-dust in the wind. They’re never long-lasting, and they’re difficult to understand when they’re done. My love for Star is sort of the opposite. It took a little while for me get into the album, but there was always something about the songs and the voice that made me want to listen again. The more I listened, the more I loved it. It’s a different sort of obsession.

Track Listing:
Someone To Die For
Angel
Dusted
Every Word
Gepetto
Witch
Slow Dog
Low Red Moon
Feed The Tree
Full Moon, Empty Heart
White Belly
Untogether
Star
Sad Dress
Stay

Share

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

Share

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

n shocking album

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

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

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

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

linklaterThe Movie Director in question is Richard Linklater, a familiar name among movie fans, whose films include titles well-known even among casual movie fans. Among his best-loved films are the trilogy of “Before …” films: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. I haven’t seen these films, but I know they feature Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as a before sunrisecouple whose story is told over three films made over 20 years. (A neat trick that Linklater modified in the 12-year making of his celebrated film, Boyhood, in 2014.)

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

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

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

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

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

path

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

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

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

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

lady tigerAs is the case with all entryways, there are both known and unknown experiences on the other side of a door. Sometimes the best thing about an entryway is the fact that it has a door and a lock and so whatever is on the other side will stay over there, and you won’t have to go deal with it. Stuff that, sure, you won’t experience first hand, and so you may not fully understand it, but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s why people don’t break INTO penitentiaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First I found a few references to the actual quote and its interpretation. Often referred to (I now have learned) as “the Nietzschean affirmation,” the idea appeared in Nietzsche’s book Will to Power, and is quoted here from a 1967 translation by Walter Kauffman and R.J. Hollingdale:

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

sleep

Kind of a mouthful. He goes on and on like that. !Snore! I know, right? But reading a little bit more (just a little) and thinking about it, I think I now understand that the idea he discusses here is really about living in the moment and appreciating that – for good or for bad – everything (truly everything, as the words “all eternity” imply) has come together to bring us to the point we are at now, and the only way to experience joy in life is to love and accept everything about life – the pleasure, the pain, the struggle, the wonder – at this very instant. So by “saying yes” to this moment right now (sort of), we are in fact “saying yes” to everything (sort of.)

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

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

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

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

rolling stone

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

This picture of Johnny Depp is all that remains from an early draft of this post in which I blamed him for mangling Nietzsche and screwing up my Life's Guiding Principle

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

teachersYou see, sometime in the winter of ’89-90, I was a recently-graduated Biology Education graduate living with my parents in the house I grew up in, waiting for my Pennsylvania State Teaching License to come through so I could wade into the teaching career pool. In the meantime, I had taken a job at a pizza shop, delivering pizzas.

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

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

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

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

grown up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Had a Dad” follows:

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

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

The song’s title refers to serial killer Ted Bundy, whose voice is heard at the beginning. The song’s lyrics, an indictment of TV-obsessed culture and the boundaries it pushes, are the source of the album title. perry 2It is a great song, with multiple themes and melodies, multiple tempos, and some cool bass guitar work by Eric Avery, particularly coupled with Perkins’s tribal drumming. Avery doesn’t play intricate lines, but what he plays sounds cool and integral to the song, similar to how the lines of U2’s Adam Clayton fit into their songs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share