A Heart-Acheing Work Of Staggering Genius

Writing at Vulture.com, Caryn Rose ranks all 314 Bruce Springsteen songs 1 from worst to first.

First things first:  Rose found a break on one of the primary laws of Springsteen-fandom; there actually is a song worse than “Mary, Queen Of Arkansas” (from 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park).  I won’t ruin the surprise.

But otherwise, it was a herculean job.  And by the time you get to the top 100, it had to be hard to rank ’em.  But she did a decent job.

I said “decent”. Not perfect.   There is no way “41 Shots” (#22) outscores “She’s the One (#24), among many other examples.

I’m here for the perfect.  I’ll do the real top 10.

  1. Born to Run
  2. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  3. This Hard Land
  4. Racing In The Street
  5. Thunder Road
  6. The Promised Land
  7. Rosalita
  8. The River
  9. Night
  10. Atlantic City

Still, a noble – and needed – effort.

1 That is to say, songs written by Springsteen that appeared on commercial releases.   Sorry, Seeger Sessions and forty years of “Steel Mill” bootlegs.

Some Say A Man Ain’t Happy, Until A Man Truly Dies

“Prince is like your generation’s version of Elvis dying”.

That’s what my daughter said as I was eating dinner last night.  And she’s got a great point.

We’ll come back to that.

Everyone in the Twin Cities, it seems, has a “when I met Prince” story.  Mine’s pretty mundane; it was a First Avenue, not long after I moved to town.  I probably noticed the people Prince was with long, long before I noticed Prince himself – he was, like, 15 inches shorter than me.

My better “Prince” story was more of a one-degree-of-separation tale:

The other guitar player in my band worked at a coffee shop located by where all the Twin Cities record labels were based, and where groups like Husker Du and the Replacements were based. He did it for the music networking.   One day I was having a cup of coffee, and my guitar player introduced me to a new waitress, a dizzyingly attractive latin-american woman. She was a musician. I started trying to work whatever magic I had at that time of my life.

“I have a demo tape I’m going to give to Prince”, she said.

You and me and every other musician in town I thought; “I’d love to hear it sometime”, I said. She played me something on her Walkman. I resolved to come back and talk more.

A few weeks later, news made the rounds that she was dating Prince; they lived together for a bit, and he produced at least one album for her.

So close, but yet so far.

I Was Working Part-Time At The Five And Dime;   More seriously?

If I had a nickel for every blog post I’ve begun over the years with “They didn’t have much “black” music in North Dakota when I was a kid”, I could skip a year’s worth of pledge drives.

But the confluence of MTV, Top40 radio making it to Fargo, and kids from out of state moving to North Dakota when I got to college, introduced me to the radical notion of someone who was:

  1. A black guy
  2. From Minneapolis
  3. Who played funk that rocked,
  4. and rock that was intensely funky
  5. that was completely marinated in S
  6. E
  7. X

And so I listened.

And as I got into my early twenties, and started to ponder where it was that I wanted to start my adult life, and thought “a music scene that can spawn the likes of not only the Replacements, the Hüskers, but this…:

(Unfortunately, not the version shot at First Avenue – the idea that there was a club like that place looked in the movie was a part of the draw, too)

…and I was sold.   If that was a city that could keep that kind of a polyglot scene happening, it was the place for me.

So while my “when I met Prince” stories may be among the Twin Cities’ most underwhelming, I can at least say that he affected my life that much.

Has Anybody Heard About The Quake?:  First things first – Prince was an astounding musician.

Let’s start with the fact that he was the most criminally underrated guitar player of all time.

No, really:

Prince was scandalously underrated as a guitarist.

And as a bassist.

And drummer.

And keyboardist.

And…well, he was generally recognized as an excellent singer. Although in fact he was really several singers; a crooner, a Little-Richard-style rocker, a James Brown-style R&B raver.

He was, in fact, not just a one-man band (he recorded all the instruments and vocals on his first several albums, up through 1999, and many of his recent albums, and many more of the thousands of songs reputed to be “in the can” out at Paisley Park), but a one-man-band composed of some of the best musicians in the business on their respective instruments.

And he played over 20 of them.  In addition to writing all his own music, producing something like 60 studio albums (and, legend has it, enough backlog to release an album a year for several decades – as of the early 90s)

White, Black, Puerto Rican, Everybody Just a-Freakin’:  Back to my daughter’s remark that started the whole thing; the idea that Prince was my generation’s Elvis.

In his prime, Elvis (and the rest of the Sun Records lineup) did something that the best genres in American music before – folk, jazz – did; wantonly mix “black” and “white” music into an all-new form.  Ditto the Beatles, at least early on.

And after the Beatles drifted into psychedelia and Hendrix died,  black and white music seceded from each other in the early seventies.   They stayed in their neutral corners…

…until Prince, touring with a band that was two black guys, two white guys and two white women, became simultaneously the best R&B band on the planet and, pound for pound, one of the best rock and roll bands, too.

In a half-decade that saw some of the most glorious genre-bending that we’d seen since the Rascals were passing for “black” on the radio, Prince and the Revolution were the bleeding edge of the fashion curve.

No, really; check out his halftime performance at the 2007 Super Bowl; he invoke and mixes and eventually purees Queen, James Brown, Hendrix, Ike and Tina, Creedence Clearwater, Clapton, the Foo Fighters, and his own catalog into an explosion that had to have had James Brown dancing in his grave:

Forget the building in Cleveland; this is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be.

Purple Reign:  I made it downtown for some of the party yesterday (it’s where most of this post’s photography comes from).  For all I know, the block party may still be going on in Minneapolis.  Part of me wishes I could have been there.

In a sense, I was – from 1985 through the late eighties.  It was an amazing time. Ask anyone who was there; we’ll tell you about it ’til your ears bleed.

But in a way, the party came to everyone;  it was a big night for purple around the world:

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome

San Francisco City Hall

The Melbourne, Australia Arts Center (or Centre)

The Prince George’s County (Maryland) Hospital

image1

The Mississippi River in Minneapolis

As my friend Erik “The Transit Geek” Hare put it, he’s so huge, he owns an entire color.

 

Open Letter To Bruce Springsteen

To:  Bruce Springsteen
From:  Mitch Berg, Longtime Fan
Re:  Beliefs

Bruuuuuce,

As everyone knows, I’m a longtime fan – at least in part because you are, or at least were during your heyday, the writer of some of the most evocative music there is for conservatives.

Now comes news that you’ve cancelled your concerts in North Carolina, because of (the liberal media’s distorted version of) a rest-room bill.

Some, especially on my side of the political fence, will no doubt criticize you for this stance.

I, however, come to praise you for it.  Because, given that there are no doubt contractual obligations involved with your North Carolina appearances between your promoters, your production company, the venue and the countless vendors involved, not to mention tens of thousands of tickets for the event, you would seem to be risking a lot…

…to stand up for a businessperson’s right to not serve people they morally disagree with.

Kudos!

That is all.

Roots

When I was a kid, country-western was trying its darnedest to cross over with pop music; the Nashville power-brokers were pushing to try to rake in some of that Top 40 money. From the early seventies to the mid-eighties, C&W was sodden with bloated pop pretenders – the Eddie Rabbits and Ronnie Milsaps and Lee Greenwoods and Barbara Mandrells that peaked during that lost 15 years, not to mention the legit country singers – Dolly Parton among others – who bottomed out during thqt woebegone stretch.

Standing athwart that current, yelling “stop” before Waylon and Willie, before the Highwaymen and Dwight Yoakam and all the Outlaws of Country, much less the “country roots” revival of the late eighties, was Merle Haggard.

Even before I worked my first country gig (KDAK in Carrington ND, in 1982), I was drawn to the fact that Merle was a legendary anti-hippie:

And while he was never a flashy player, he was no slouch on the guitar.

Anyway – if you’ve been under a rock or on a ballistic missile sub on patrol, Haggard passed away yesterday at 79, leaving behind a C&W scene dominated by American Idol winners and frauds like “Florida-Georgia Line”.

Just when we needed him most.

What Was Once Bigotry Is Now PC

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

Oh, thank God.  I was so afraid that my ongoing failure to comment on Black music was evidence of my exclusionary hatred of all things Black motivated by racism; but now it turns out I was simply being respectful of a culture that I don’t understand. 

Separate but equal.  Got it.  Good to go.

Joe Doakes

I guess I’m an appropriator.

Tough.

Things Everyone Liked That I Hated, But Found Something To Like Anyway

When I was in high school and college, music majors – and the high school kids who planned to become music majors – weren’t supposed to like rock and roll.

But the music kidz were always given a pass for Chicago.  The band’s pseudo-jazz roots made Chicago sort of a safe space for young people in the seventies who wanted to be accepted by both their music teachers and their rock’n roll-listening friends.

And so every time a new Chicago album would come out – for the first eleven albums, they were just numbered – the music kids would flip rhetorical cartwheels; “it’s like rock and roll, only better!“, I remember our high school stage band’s star sax player hyperventilating.  “Terry Kath is one of the great guitar players!”, others would exclaim as I practiced windmilling a la Pete Townsend.

I didn’t buy it – not even at the depths of my need to be accepted.  Oh, the part of me that appreciates technical skill could listen to Robert Lamm (keyboards), Terry Kath (guitar), James Pankow (trombone), Peter Cetera (bass), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Walter Parazaider (reeds), Danny Seraphine (drums) and Laudir D’Oliveira (percussion) [1] and go “there’s some musical skill going on here”, all right.

But when it came to the part where the music was supposed to grab me in the liver, Chicago did not.  Part of it was that jazz, at least jazz from after about 1950, has always bored me stiff; how is a watered-down second-generation copy an improvement?   To be fair, it was the same problem I had with Blood, Sweat and Tears and all of the other jazz-rock fusion experiments; neither needed the other to be valid music.

Part of it was Peter Cetera’s soggy contralto voice.   There.  I said it.

As to those who said Terry Kath was one of the great guitarists ever – in a league with Hendrix, Beck, Page and Clapton?

Terry Kath was a great guitar player in the same sense that I was a “great aeronautical engineer” because I’d built a nifty model of a Supermarine Spitfire.  I was not!  I had simply pieced together a bunch of plastic parts to make a scale facimile; Reginald Mitchell was the engineer.  Likewise, Terry Kath took the bits and pieces of a bunch other great guitarists’ styles, mixed in some technical chops of his own (all respect due), and put it on a record.   Oh, Jimi Hendrix once told Parazaider that Terry Kath was better than he was; Hendrix had a bit of a drug problem, you know.

“But Mitch – have you heard “Free Form Guitar”, off of the first Chicago album?”

Yes. Yes, I have. I have not only heard it, but I played something exactly like it, or maybe much better, in Voorhees Chapel at Jamestown College in January of 1985, at three in the morning, with an Ibanez SG with a Duncan “Jeff Beck” pickup, hooked up to Fender Deluxe and a Big Muff fuzz pedal and room and space to crank my amp to 11, after six or seven cans of Strohs. And so has every other guitar player, given the chance.

So when the music majors, and music majors-to-be jabbered on about Chicago, I usually mentally checked out.

Except, of course, when I didn’t.

All of Chicago’s worst ingredients – the soggy droopy horns, Danny Seraphine’s indifferent drumming, and of course Peter Cetera, full stop – are on display in this live version of “I’ve Been Searching So Long”:

And yet I have always loved the song. Why? The vocal interplay in the bridge? A part where the droopy, treacly horns actually complement the song itself? Terry Kath’s guitar fills during the big finish? Sure, why not?

Because every once in a while, skill plus craft breaks the right way, and you get decent music.   Because Terry Kath may have just assembled other guitarists parts into his own songs, but sometimes it just plain worked.

Oh, it’s been a long time since Chicago had “decent music”; after Terry Kath’s death in 1978, the band turned into a hit machine; after Cetera left in 1984, it turned into an adult-contemporary elevator music production house; since about 1990 it’s been a nostalgia act (only Lamm and the horn section remain from the band’s heyday).

And the music majors?  They were wrong.  No genre needs to be “better than” another to have merit; no genre’s merit is measured by the degrees its practitioners have.

 

[1] – Yep, I can’t remember my kids’ social security numbers, but I can recall all the members of Chicago’s “definitive” lineup by name and instrument without going online.

RIP David Bowie

David Jones – who had to change his surname to “Bowie” after the Monkees debuted in the UK, almost fifty years ago – passed away yesterday, way too early, at age 69.

He’s been a longtime candidate for one of my “Things I’m Supposed To Love…” bits.  I have always been ambivalent about Bowie’s music – and like a lot of music I started out as ambivalent about, it’s probably something I should look into further.

Historically?  It probably doesn’t help that I first encountered Bowie at at time when he was at his most pretentious – and I was, personally, at my most pretentious in my disdain for pretense.  And even some of his biggest fans will cop to the fact that, especially earlier in his career, a lot of style had to cover for not all that much substance; he started out as a pretty rudimentary lyricist.  And, duh – rock and roll is more about style than substance; never let anyone tell you rock and roll is “poetry set to music”; it’s doggerel set to music slathered in style!

But it wasn’t my style.

So one way or another, Bowie had very little music that really, truly grabbed me where I lived, at least initially.

But it’s not quite that simple.  It never is with music, is it?

Continue reading

National Holiday-Fodder

Elvis Presley was born 81 years ago today.

And while normally I’d write something…

…to talk about why it mattered to me (because that’s who the blog is about, after all)…

…I figure I’ll just throw some vids out there – including a fairly cool fifties-era live vid from the decks of the USS Hancock, which I’d never seen…

…and let Sheila O’Malley – a certifiable Elvis fanatic – do the writing – including this piece here, on what may be one of his best performances, “If I Can Dream”, the finale from his legendary 1968 “comeback” special:

Happy 81st, Elvis!

“That’s The Way I Like It Baby, I Don’t Wanna Live Forever”

Lemmy Kilmister of Mötörhead dead at 70.

Lemmy was lead vocalist, bassist, principal songwriter and the founding, and the only constant member of Motörhead since the band’s formation in 1975. To date, Motörhead have released twenty studio albums and achieved 30 million in sales worldwide. Their last record, Bad Magic, was released in August 2015.

Over forty years, Kilmister was simultaneously one of the gödfathers of speed metäl and pünk.

Motörhead saw far more commercial success in the UK, though they achieved a cult status in the US. Their ferocious hard-rock style rejuvenated the metal genre in the late 1970s and inspired everyone from Metallica to Guns N’ Roses to Dave Grohl. Albums such as Ace of Spades, Orgasmatron, and Rock N’ Roll were critically lauded, though ironically the band’s only Grammy Award came via a cover of Metallica’s “Whiplash”, which they recorded for a tribute CD.

They were cult figures in the US – but I remember going to Europe in 1983.  And while that was a great year for a lot of bands – U2, Little Steven, Duran Duran, Madness, Big Country and many others – what band did I see in the most graffiti, all over Europe, from Scotland to Switzerland?

Yep.  Mötörhead.

Kilmister bragged of drinking a bottle of whiskey a day for the past forty years, and was a vocal advocate of amphetamines.  As such, he makes Keith Richard look like Pat Boone.

And that’s the real kick in the teeth.  Rock stars – in the romance of the genre – aren’t supposed to die of cancer at 70.  They’re supposed to go out in a blaze of alcohol-and-drug-fueled glory at 29.

We’ll always have “Ace of Spades”.


RI whatever passes for P in your worldview, Lemmy.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Have Found Myself Liking A Lot: Berlin

Oh, yeah – I didin’t much care for synth-pop.

No, I did not.  Not much at all.

Part of it was that synthesizer-based pop tended to sound like an electronics class experiment:

OK, so that’s the artsy, German, “now is ze time on Schprockets when ve dance!” strain of the form.

But let’s be frank; even synth-pop that emphasized the “pop” largely sounded like it’d traded in what passed for “souls” for circuit boards.

Now, of course there was synth-pop that sounded like it was written and performed by humans, that used all the cool electronic beeps and squawks as vehicles for the sorts of emotional stimuli that music, left alone and in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, actually elicits a human response.

But it was all largely academic, because I just didn’t care that much.  While the late seventies and early eighties were the heyday of synth pop, they were also the glory days of a lot of genres that I unabashedly liked:  Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes were ushering in the air of the guitar hero with panache; post-punks like Big Country, the Alarm and U2 were showing the world that a couple of guitars, a bass and drums and a singer with some balls could still rip the roof off of any room in the place.  Prince and a lot of his compatriots and imitators put rock and pop and funk and electronics into a big blender and hit “puree”, with glorious results.

And so it came to pass that I didn’t listen to Berlin a whole lot.  Oh, I heard them, of course; you couldn’t escape “Take My Breath Away”, when Top Gun was the biggest movie in the world.  They had a few other songs that mostly came and went in my consciousness, mostly in college or working one bar or another back in the day.

And I’m not exactly sure what it was that caused me to listen again.  But it occurred to me  – unlike the vast, vast, va-ha-ha-haaast majority of synthesizer pop, Berlin at its best had that immutable, utterly subjective quality that makes music migrate from my frontal lobe, where I appreciate music on an intellectual, techical, logical level, as a musician (or, more often, don’t appreciate it, to be perfectly honest) and migrate back to a deeper level; to my hypothalamus, or medulla, or heart, or liver for all I know; the part of me that says “this music has soul“.

And at their best, they did:

I’ve seen a few synth-pop bands over the years – I mean, I was in the Minneapolis music scene in the eighties, right?   And the thing most of them had in common was that they’d bury their noses in their electronics, and treat the act of creating music – the most evocative of art forms – like they were playing a video game.  Being tied to a keyboard, generally, implies being more or less stationary (Jerry Lee Lewis notwithstanding) and, at least in a sense, hiding behind an instrument; it’s a very different stance than playing the guitar.

And in terms of performing music live?  Most synth-pop bands were hapless, stiff, dismal.  On the other hand, at the height of their game, Berlin could take synth-pop and make it sizzle live:

Most of it had to do with the lead singer, Terri Nunn, who had a knack for throwing in little asides into her performances that filled what could have been dry, soulless electronic beeping and squawking with blood and flesh and passion; she was no Levi Stubbs, but her knack for the loaded interjection filled the same role in Berlin’s very different medium as Stubbs’ did for the Four Seasons.  A better comparison, perhaps?  Terri Nunn and Chrissy Hynde could do each other’s stuff at Karaoke night and have one of those “OMG, we sound just alike!” moments, and the comparison is about a lot more than just vocal timbre.

And it took me – kid you not – 33 years to discover it.

Because I was just too damn cool for it.

Speaking of too damn cool – it was exactly that, discovering (in this 2003-vintage VH1 epi of “Bands Reunited” – that Berlin grew up to be…

…pretty much a bunch of workadaddy, hugamommy schlubs like the rest of us:

Well, most of them did.  Not Terri Nunn.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

I can’t remember the band that was playing the first time I went to the First Avenue, in Minneapolis, when I first moved here in 1985 – although I have some fairly clear memories of my first impressions of the bar itself.    It was probably one of any number of punk bar bands that were vying to be “The Next Replacements” – not much unlike the band I’d be starting myself in future months.

But I do remember clearly the first concert I went to: October 15, 1986 – Richard Thompson.   It was on tour with this band…:

…and it was on my list of my top three concerts, ever.

I also remember the last concert I saw at the First Avenue (and the last club gig I attended at all, until I saw Katrina “and the Waves” Leskanich last spring at the Amsterdam); yep, it was Richard Thompson, in September of 1997.  There were two other gigs – ’88 and ’90 – in between.

And so when I got a late tip that Thompson was coming to town this past Wednesday, I had to check it out.

It was a chilly night in downtown Minneapolis – which, in my memory, was always what it felt like on concert nights in Minneapolis when I was in my 20s:

7th Street, Wednesday night.

The, er, disconcerting part?  The first time I saw Thompson, the average age in the audience was 25-40.  On Wednesday, it was more like 50-60…:

…although there were a gratifying share of twentysomethings in the house.   Upside?  While concerts with bands catering to twentysomethings routinely find themselves getting patted down or run through metal detectors, security was pretty irrelevant at the Thompson gig.

The opening act – Richard Thompson, doing a solo acoustic set – was predictably amazing.  And when I say “amazing”, it’s not just an idle conversational space-filler; I’m not a bad guitar player, but every time I see Thompson, I say that very quietly, and go home afterward and ponder starting over on the instrument from scatch, just to try to get it right.

How amazing?   I’m one of tens of thousands of guitarists who’ve tangled their fingers into bloody spaghetti trying to conquer his most famous acoustic tune, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, which see:

That was a fairly simple rendition, by the way.   He closed his solo set with the song – and he’s taken up jamming on the bass part, throwing in a few dramatic, swooping descents, all the while picking the high part.

All the while singing the song.   I can barely think the three things at the same time, much less pull them off on the guitar.

No, I can’t describe it any better.

After the acoustic set, the Richard Thompson Electric Trio – drummer David Jerome and bassist Michael Faraday (or so it sounded from the stage – I didn’t catch his name, and can’t find a reference to him online) – took over.

This being the first time I’d seen Thompson live in almost 18 years, it was a little odd seeing him without some permutation of the band he’d been touring with since the seventies; the first four times I saw him, the band was some combination of Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Pegg or Danny Thompson on bass, Pete Zorn/Clive Gregson/Christine Collister on guitars, keyboards, backup vocals and (with Zorn) sax.  That group of musicians was pretty much Thompson’s comfort zone for many years.

So the new band was a switch; Faraday (?) is a very solid, steady bass player – a human low-frequency metronome through the often-frenetic modulations in Thompson’s music.

Jerome, on the other hand, is a trip.  Formerly with Better than Ezra as well as a dizzying range of session work with everyone from KD Lang and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to the Toadies and John Cale, he’s also been Thompson’s go to drummer since 2002’s Mock Tudor album.   Live, with an extremely stripped down kit, and plenty of room to stretch out in the power trio format, he’s every bit as eclectic and all over the map as Thompson himself – sort of an improvisational jazz drummer in an Brit folk-rock world.

Which often lends the band a feeling that everything could spin out of control, like driving too fast along a cliffside road.  And yet, it never does.

The show was notably light on older material – which makes sense; how does someone who’s never had a “great hit” do a greatest hits tour?

Still, an artist like Thompson, with a body of work going back almost fifty years, could easily fill two hours with stuff that’d keep a crowd of long-time fans (like yours truly) happy without doing anything after 1990.

But with a few exceptions – “Valerie” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” from the solo set, and “For Shame of Doing Wrong”, “Wall of Death”, “Did She Jump (Or Was She Pushed)” and a madcap rave-up of “Tear-Stained Letter” with the band, most of the show was stuff from this past decade, mostly the last few albums.

And I could scarcely be happier.  While it’d be fun to curl up with songs from I Want To See The Bright Lights or Shoot Out The Lights or Across A Crowded Room would be fun and comfortable, that’d make a Thompson tour just another Rolling Stones tour, without the piles and piles of money.  If you’re not in it for the megabucks (not that Thompson doesn’t earn a respectable living as a touring cult favorite with a decent-sized fanatical following), I can see where staying creative can get pretty vital.

I’ll take a run at one highlight; the song “Guitar Heroes”, which Thompson dedicated with a wink and a nod to “Steve Vai and Joe Satriani”.  The song has nothing to do with either of them; the song jumps from its own (minor-key rockabilly) theme into stylized passages from “Melodie au Crepuscule” by Django Reinhardt, “Caravan” by Duke Ellington (with Juan Tizol on guitar), “Brenda Lee” by Chuck Berry, “Susie Q” (the pre-Creedence version) “F.B.I.” by the Shadows.

But it’s hard to pick a highlight; like all Thompson shows, I spent most of the evening, slack-jawed, realizing that no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to play a guitar like that.

Which, I guess, is comforting in its own way.  After three and a half decades, five shows, a couple dozen albums, a marriage, three kids and three careers, at least that’s stayed a constant.

 

1963

In the orthodox rock ‘n’ roll canon spread in the late 70s and early 80s by the curia of rock critics – the likes of Dave Marsh, Griel Marcus, Robert Christgau and the rest of Rolling Stone’s round-table of critics – the nadir of popular music was the six-year stretch between Elvis departing for the army, and the Beatles landing in New York.

The reason – this according to a claque of people who build careers “criticizing” an art form that was immune to criticism – was that for those six years, control of the pop music industry reverted back to what had it had been before the rise of Sun records and “black” radio; groups of full-time, professional “song pluggers” cranking out music by the bushel basket in the Mad Men-era equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, in places like the legendary Brill Building, where is songwriters cranked out songs in bulk lots, matched them up with casting-agency generic singers, who recorded the songs with groups of anonymous studio musicians with all of the ceremony of running groceries past the scanner, applying mass production tactics not much different than Eli Whitney or Henry Ford had brought to their products.

According to this mythology, on the other hand, 1954-58, and again after 1964, music was the production of legions of plucky songwriter-performers, during Elvis’ heyday, and again from the Beatles through roughly Woodstock.

According to their orthodoxy, music in the early 70s started slipping, with the creative process falling into the hands of  “corporations ” , From which it was saved first by the punks, then by the “new wave” and then…

… well, it doesn’t matter. History has gone on. The curia has obsolesced itself; who on earth reads Rolling Stone anymore, much less remembers, much less pays attention, to Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau or Dave Marsh?

Of course, both impressions were an illusion; a few songwriters, whether working in a song mill in Manhattan or in a row house in Liverpool, have always hoarded a disproportionate share of talent and sales.  And plucky independents have always existed and upset the machine on occasion.

I list all of that background by way of saying something that would otherwise sound like the ravings of a curmudgeon; for all of the “critics” caterwauling about music before ’54, from ’54-’58, or during the early ’70s, the notion that every generation of parents has held – that all music sounds the same – has never been more true.

It’s not just a curmudgeonly illusion; it does largely sound the same, because most of what passes for popular music today is written and produced by, literally, the same five people.

The Summer Of 1985

Years ago, I was working in an “oldies” station.  Still being in the middle of a radio career, and trying to keep my options open (I’d always wanted to do news and talk, and was chafing with life as a disc jockey – but “when in Rome…”, as they say), I asked the station’s program director what it was that made a song an “oldie”.

He replied that music directors operated on two key bits of psychology:

  • People are intensely emotionally attached to music that connected with them during puberty; music mixes with raging hormones to create a powerful, almost chemical bond.
  • People are also mentally and emotionally attached to the music that was in their lives when they were in their late teens and early twenties – but for slightly different reasons.  It was the music that was current, and on their minds, and affecting their emotions, about the time their brains were finally, belatedly getting formed and becoming adult.

I was sitting in a Culver’s the other day.  They were playing Sirius FM’s “Original MTV Veejay” station – the station where Martha Quinn and the rest of the original MTV VJs (no, I can’t remember anyone but Martha Quinn) voicetrack the songs that were in vogue from 1981-86ish.

And for some reason, they played a 4-5 song sweep of nothing but music that was on the radio and MTV when I moved to the Twin Cities, 30 years ago next month.

And, just like my old program director said, it was incredibly evocative.  I remembered how it felt driving across the prairie for the last time as a North Dakota resident, listening to Rain on the Scarecrow.  Driving down 494 and turning onto the Southtown Strip for the first time as “Money for Nothing” played on the radio.  My first rush hour on 494 at Cedar, racing to my first job interview in the Cities to the tune of “Shout”, in WLOL.  Watching MTV after a long day of cold calling and seeing “Take On Me” for the first time.

And I started writing this post on my phone.

(Warning:  immense number of embedded videos below the jump.  You’ve been warned).

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The Street’s Alive, Secret Debts Are Paid

Born to Run  – for my money, one of the ten greatest albums in the history of American rock and roll, and of that list, one of my 2-3 favorites – turns thirty years old today.

No, wait – 1975?  That’s forty years go.

Ouch.

I’m going to re-run a post I first did on the album’s thirtieth anniversary.  Which is, itself, kind of a chronological whack in the head; I’ve been blogging long enough to cover two decennials of this album.

But it was one of my favorites when I first wrote it, and I’m glad to put it out there again.


Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run thirty years ago today.

Thirty years. The album is twice as old as I was when I first heard it.

Amazing.

borntorun_front.jpg

I hear the album today, and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. If Rock and Roll is a matter of crystalline moments that still cut and shine through the tarnish of the years and the background noise of everyday life, Born To Run is the mother of all diamonds.

I remember being a seventies-addled junior high kid, watching the guy at Mother’s Records in Jamestown – the one across from the high school – drop the needle on the first copy of Born To Run I ever saw, on the one hand thinking “no way it’s better thanBoston“, on the other hand looking at the sleeve – a 26 year old Bruce leaning on a 33 year old Clarence (with a Fender Freaking Telecaster Squire, in the middle of the heyday of the Gibson Les Paul, no less!), presaging the joy and tension and just plain ENERGY in the album, and thinking “Wow. That’s rock and roll”.

Clarence Clemons, Bruce, and Miami Steve, at Bruce’s UK debut in support of Born to Run, at the Hammersmith in London.

And then – Thunder Road:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch. As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again

A girl! Dancing on the porch! Sign me up!

Outtake from the Born to Run cover photo session.

All prelude of course, to the burst of energy to come that washed over me, that shot a chill up my spine:

With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
This two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks…

Bruce has done better albums (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love), he’s had records that sold more albums (Born In The USA) – but no album, before or since, has ever had moments like Born To Run.

It breaks my heart just a little that two of the three guys in this 1975 pic – organist Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons – are gone now.

Moments – it’s a prosaic word, but in the world of Mitch, as applied to Rock and Roll, it has a very specific meaning that, for purposes of explanation, I should make clear; a “moment” is something, some tiny snippet of a song, that sends a chill up your spine, that rattles you to the core of your being. They can be huge and dramatic (Roger Daltrey’s scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”), or light and subtle (Susannah Hoffs’ cooing “to a perfect world” at the end of “Dover Beach”, from the first Bangles album); they can be part of a great song (the final “to bring the victory Jesus won…” in U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, the murderous guitar hooks in Big Country’s “Where The Rose Is Sown”, the bridge in Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’”), a mediocre one (the final coda in the Alarm’s “Blaze of Glory”, the bridges in the Babies’ “Isn’t It Time”), even a crappy one (Neil Schon’s entrance in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”), it can beat you over the head (the beginning of Barry Goudreau’s blazing final solo in Boston’s “Long Time”), it can seduce you (the mournful, whispered chorus of Richard Thompson’s “Jenny”, Aimee Mann’s transclucent last line of the last verse of Til Tuesday’s “Coming Up Close”). You get the picture.

Moments are ephemeral, unpredictable. Most artists never have one (Laura Brannigan and Dee Snider searched their whole careers in vain); most albums never send a single chill up a lonely spine. A single such moment can redeem an otherwise mediocre career; the world could forget the Monkees, Roxette, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cars and Abba tomorrow, but I’d love them for a grand total of maybe fifteen seconds worth of moments among them (brief snippets of “I’m A Believer”, “It’s All Over Now”, “These Are Days”, “Bye Bye Love” and “SOS”, two-second flares of pop brilliance that are all I need). A talent for such moments – the ability to create more than one or two on a couple of albums – is a rare thing indeed, almost mythical. Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Chuck D, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Westerberg, Chrissy Hynde (until about 1985), Bono/The Edge, Stuart Adamson, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs, Aimee Mann – it’s a small, select list.

The Born to Run era E Street Band; Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Bruce, Roy Bittan, Danny Federici, Gary Tallent.

And in no album are there more such moments jammed so tightly together, moments enough to define the careers of a dozen other artists, moments that, thirty years later, still thrill and chill and drag you out into onto the Jersey Turnpike of the mind in Dad’s jalopy. None. Ever:

  • Thunder Road – “…roll down the window”, “it’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling outta here to win…”
  • Tenth Avenue Freezeout – “While Scooter and the big man bust this city in half!”
  • Night – Almost too many to count – the frenetic opening, the raw harmonies of the first verse, the bridge (“Hell, all night, they’re busting you up on the outside…”)
  • Backstreets – The crescendo when the entire band joins, the exit from the bridge (“…but I hated him, and I hated you when you want away – whoooooah”, raw with aching and longing and unrequited pain)
  • The title cut – Again, too many to catalog; “Boom” Carter’s half-bar drum intro, “Beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones…”, the moment when Bruce counts off the beat to the last verse…
  • She’s The One – The band stomping into the Bo Diddley beat from the intro, heavy enough to crush rocks but deft enough to dance to – in fact, impossible not to dance to.
  • Meeting Across The River – All the sly little moments that tell us the song is about a couple of desperate losers looking for the big break; “Here, stuff this in your pocket, it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend…”
  • Jungleland – Too many to list; the first “Down…in…Jun…gle…Laaaaand”, the glorious guitar solo, “…in the parking lots the visionaries dress in the latest rage…, and of course, the song’s cornerstone “…and the poets down here write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be…”

Born To Run is the encyclopedia of rock and roll – one moment at a time.

And thirty years later, it still crackles like static from the speakers, feeling barely controlled, throbbing with potential energy (“Backstreets’” ominous buildup) and thundering with explosive release (“Night”), careening from smokey barroom to dragstrip to rumble to backseat like one of those lost weekend evenings from your teens – or the teenage years you imagined other people having – packed into a sleeve.

Born to Run is one of those rare records that feels as good today as the day it was released; it hasn’t aged or dated itself one iota; one of those bits of art that will long outlive its creator.

One moment at a time.


My writing has changed a bit in the past ten years.  So has Bruce’s.

But Born to Run has stuck with me, through my own 35 or so years of over-the-top fandom, like few other albums ever.

Politics?  Who cares.  I mean, yes – between 1975 and 1987 Bruce wrote a cavalcade of songs that couldn’t resonate with conservatives more if he had campaigned for Steve Forbes in 2000 – but again, some things are just more important than politics.

Anyway.  I’m outta here for the rest of the day, hanging out with the Duke Street Kings.

Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay

It was sixty years ago today – when Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets officially reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  This is generally regarded as the beginning of the “Rock and Roll Era”.

Mark Steyn wrote about the song – and its sixteen-month path from recording to the top of the charts, and music history – last year.

Read Steyn, of course; it’s worth it.

The parlor game for me, of course, is noting what parts of pop music history are before and after the half-way mark of Rock and Roll history.

Music that was released closer to Rock around the Clock than to the present day?

  • All Rolling Stones albums up through Undercover.
  • All of Prince’s albums before Sign O The Times
  • Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms
  • Tears for Fears Songs From The Big Chair
  • Every Springsteen album up through Born in the USA  – and Live ’75-’85 is coming up pretty soon, here.
  • Every Bob Dylan album you probably remember
  • All Tom Petty albums up through Southern Accents 

And the 1/3 point?   July 9, 1975?  Anything before then is half as far from the beginning of the era as from today.

  • Who’s Next
  • The entire Beatles’ catalog
  • Born to Run
  • Pretty much the entire Stax/Volt catalog
  • Every song Bachmann Turner Overdrive ever put on the Top 40
  • The first three Rush albums
  • The entire singer/songwriter fad

And the 1/4 point?  Music that is three times as far from today than from the beginning of the era, before July 9, 1970?

  • Tommy
  • Everything “Sixties”: Hendrix, the Doors, the entire hippie thing.

Anyway – read Steyn.

I’ve Seen All Good Bassists

Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.

Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.

Much Noise, Signifying…:  Speaking for me?  Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.

As to the former, the musical talent?  It was always the band’s long suit.  I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:

Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984.   It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.

But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).

But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.

Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?

Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music.   Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:

It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song.  In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.

But it wasn’t the last.

So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan?  Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:

The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin.  They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.

And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.

The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do.  Far and away.  Assassinate me?  Bring it.

No Respect: I  wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes.  The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:

In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”

Of course, the Hall of Fame – for whatever it’s worth, which is really not much – is dominated by critics.  And critics have always savaged the band, except for their brief flirtation with New Wave during the Rabin years.  Dave Marsh wrote in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide:

Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …

Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide.  And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.

At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…

…are the rock critics.

RIP Chris Squire,