That’s Rock And Roll

In the whole history of pop music, the whole “hypstr chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over campfire-style guitar-strumming” is the third worst genre ever hatched (behind only “hypstr chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over plinky pianos” and, worst of all, “hypster chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over ukuleles”).  Wanna call that part of the “war on women?”  I’m OK with that.  The genre is that bad.  Someone’s gotta say it.  I’ll take the hit for the betterment of humanity.

On the other hand?  If you are a progressive, this song is the call to action you need…:

…because if you are a “progressive”, Elizabeth Warren – Cherokee chieftain that she is – is the only intellectually honest choice for President in 2016.

You don’t have to believe me. The out-of-tune chick warbling partly in-tune over the politely-strummed, co-op-approved campfire guitar has spoken.

Daydream Revisionist

Longtime friend of the blog “Barry” emails in regard to my muted rip on the Monkees last week (which, in my defense, was less a rip on the Monkees than an example of how pop culture likes to follow up success with as many copies of the successful as they can paste together):

In defense of the Monkees I offer the following article from CNN, a source I know you regard as unimpeachable:
My opinion that the Monkees are underrated is suspect, however, because when you go to the dictionary and look up “nerd” you find my picture. FWIW.

barry

Barry and the CNN piece are right, of course – and there’s a big potential series of music posts in the whole story.  The Beatles were among the first superstars to write their own music; the Monkees were among the later products of an entertainment industry that had specialized trades to do that sort of thing.

Anyway, read the whole thing…

Things I’m Supposed To Like But Never Really Did: Billy Idol

For every Beatles, there’s gotta be a Monkees.

For every New York Dolls, there’s a Kiss.

For every Springsteen, there’s a Meat Loaf.

Indeed, for every Madonna, there’s gotta be a Martika or a Keedy or a Regina.

For every artist in popular music that makes changes by him or her or themselves, there’s going to be some record company’s attempt to create the same thing only bigger and better. 

And so for Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, there was Billy Idol.

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Today’s Musical Palate-Cleanser

If you’ve got sixteen minutes to spare, here’s an answer to the question “so was the E Street Band ever any more than three chords and a big finish?”

That’s “Kitty’s Back” – a deep deep cut from 1974′s The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle,from 1975′s legendary Hammersmith Odeon gig.  

It’s frustrating, sometimes, to observe that the E Street Band hasn’t played anything like this in a couple of decades.

When Scooter And The Big Man Busted This City In Half

It was July 1, 1984.  I took off from Jamestown at around 5AM in – what else? – my ’73 Monte Carlo with a 396, Fuellie heads and a Hurst on the floor, and drove through a long, hot July day.   Poring over my Amoco map of the Twin Cities – where I’d never driven before – I got to Saint Paul, pulled off the Marion Street exit and parked up by the Cathedral (where a friend of mine had parked the car when we drove down to see The Who in 1982), and made my way down Kellogg to downtown Saint Paul around 2 in the afternoon.

I wandered down to Saint Peter and then Wabasha street, back in the days when there were still stores between Fourth and Sixth streets across from Dayton’s and Ecolab,  dazzled by the hustle and bustle of downtown Saint Paul.

I did mention I was from North Dakota, right?  And that “hustle and bustle” were very relative concepts?  Compared to Fargo – the biggest city I’d ever spent serious time in – Saint Paul was kinda hustly and bustly. 

In those days, anyway. 

Some of the landmarks from my wandering are still there; the Coney Island still has the exact same hand-scrawled paper “Under Renovation” sign today that it had back then, I think; I thought about eating at Mickey’s Diner, but it was too crowded and I wanted a damn beer.  Others – the Burger King/Taco Johns in the funny glass building on 5th, across from Daytons; Daytons itself; Brady’s Pub, where I stopped for a burger and a beer for lunch, Gallivan’s - are long gone.

After lunch, I wandered down Fifth to the Plaza in front of the old Civic Center. 

The old Saint Paul Civic Center.

 It was getting toward three in the afternoon; I heard some noises inside, and it sounded like the band was getting into its soundcheck.  The plaza – including the long row of stairs leading to the endless rank of doors – was thronged with people, mostly looking for tickets.  I walked past, listening to the sound of a bass guitar tuning up.

And I figured “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

I walked to the very leftmost of the long row of doors that overlooked 7th and Kellogg, and gave it a furtive tug, expecting to find it locked.

It wasn’t.  It pulled open a few inches; I could hear someone tapping on a drum set.

Understand – I was never much of a rule-breaker.  I was always terrified of being in trouble.

But I checked to make sure nobody was watching, inside or outside, and slipped indoors.

I hustled across the concourse to a gate, stepped inside…

…and saw the E Street Band, down on the stage, a level below me.  Nearest me was the Big Man, with his sax, wearing sweats and a cap.  Danny Federici was on the riser behind him, checking registrations on his Hammond.  Nills Lofgren was warming up downstage.  Max Weinberg tapped drums as the sound guy rang out the room.  Gary Tallent played some scales; Roy Bittan noodled on the keyboard.   Then they stopped, chatted, and then Max counted four, and they launched into an instrumental of “Glory Days”, as the sound crew adjusted levels.

I grabbed a seat, and watched the band, and listen to the sound guys tweaking the levels, and just marinated in the whole wanton lawnlessness of it all.

About the time the song ended, someone tapped my shoulder.  It was a roadie, in a black t-shirt and jeans.  I half expected to get my ass kicked – and it would have been worth it, honestly.

“Excuse me, sir…”

“Yeah, I know”, I responded, getting up.  “I’ll leave”.

The roadie nodded.  “Thanks”.  He was downright polite about the whole thing.  “Hey, before you go – how did you get in?”

I showed the roadie the unlocked door, and he thanked me as I stepped back out onto the plaza.   I walked down to Kellogg…

…as a white Olds Cutlass with a “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band “Born in the USA Tour 1984″ Tour” decal rolled past.  In the passenger seat was Bruce.

I waved.

He waved back.

I walked down to Paddy McGovern’s for another beer.  I had some time to kill.

So technically that – and not the actual concert, still 5-6 hours away – was the first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live. 

———-

Eventually – the doors opened at 7, I think – I got into the building legally, found my seat (row 59 on the floor),  and waited for the show.  And waited.

And waited.

And finally – right around 9PM – the lights went down, the crowd got on its feet, the band filtered onstage in the dark, and a spotlight picked out Springsteen at the mike.  He counted off four, and Bittan’s skirling synths and Weinberg’s drums kicked off “Born in the USA”.

The rest of the show?  It’s a blur – and yet vast swathes of the show are as clear in my head as if I’d just seen the show:

  • Born in the U.S.A. - In its full, bombastic glory.
  • Prove It All Night - Nils Lofgren – who was a world-class guitar hero and solo artist for over a decade before joining the E Street Band – got to take an extended solo, trading licks with Bruce during an explosive, eight minute version of those Darkness-era classic.  
  • Out in the Street -  This was where Patti Scialfa ran out onto the stage and made her debut; it took me completely by surprise (I had avoided reading any reviews of the show’s first night, two nights earlier).  
  • Reason to Believe – As I recall, it was a sort of rockabillyish arrangement of the Nebraska classic. 
  • Atlantic City - I had always dreamed about doing a full-band arrangement of this song.  This one was it; huge, thunderous, everything I’d thought it should have been.
  • Open All Night -
  • Mansion on the Hill  – Open All Night and Mansion on the Hill were kind of a test; after the powerhouse opening, switching to a couple of numbers with just Bruce and Nils on acoustic guitar.  Some of the crowd wanted to rock – but for the most part, people stayed tuned in.
  • Darlington County - After the downbeat Nebraska segment, the party started again. 
  • Glory Days
  • The Promised Land Then as now, one of my favorites.
  • Used Cars
  • My Hometown - along with Used Cars, another slower sweep – although My Hometown was a gloriously intense full-band arrangment.
  • Badlands – Aaand the reward to everyone for hanging in there during the quiet part of the set; the roof may not have come off the Civic, but it sure came off of me.
  • Thunder Road

I think the band stepped out for a brief intermission here. 

  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Hungry Heart
  • Dancing in the Dark 
  • Sherry Darling
  • Nebraska
  • Pink Cadillac
  • Fire
  • Bobby Jean
  • Ramrod
  • Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)  – We didn’t quite realize how lucky we were; they stopped performing this one on tour not long after, and only played it rarely live for many more years.

And then the band left the stage.

And returned a few minutes later to play an encore:

  • I’m a Rocker  – It had been kind of a light, trifling garage-rocker on The River – but here, it was an epic, thundering anthem.
  • Jungleland  – The lights came down, and Bruce started the first verse…and forgot the words.  And as he stole a look at a cheat sheet, the crowd of 18,000 finished the verse until Bruce got back on top of the lyrics.
  • Born to Run (segue into) Street Fighting Man  – This medley alone was worth a blog post of its very own.  The band tore through “Born To Run” the way it was meant to be torn through.  And then – as the band vamped through the ending of the song, Bruce counted four, and the house lights came on, and the band ripped into a full-electric version of by far my favorite Rolling Stones song.  And I stood on my chair – I hadn’t actually sat in it since intermission – and looked around at 18,000 people dancing in the aisles.  And I got a little dizzy from the sheer sensation of the whole thing; it may have been the most perfect rock and roll moment I’ve seen.

They left the stage again – but the crowd would have none of it.

  • Detroit Medley  – of which not much needs to be said.

The concert let out around 1AM.  I debouched onto the street with the rest of the crowd, and made a beeline for my car, up by the Cathedral.

And as I walked up Cathedral Hill, I thought – yeah, it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.

And as I walked up a side street toward my car, I looked back at Saint Paul, all lit up and teeming with people and knew it; I just had to start angling my life plans toward getting out of North Dakota after I graduated.

(For those who were around at the time?  No, it was the second night of the tour.  I didn’t get tickets for the first night, June 29, at the Civic – the opening night of the entire tour.  The one where they filmed the “Dancing in the Dark” video, in which a very young Courney Cox, planted in the audience, was introduced to the world via a “live” vid produced by Brian DePalma. Sure, you remember it.

But it was pretty cool anyway.  Here’s a fanpage with a ton of scanned memorabilia from the June 29 show, and a much less complete set of swag and quotes from the show I was at.  And here’s the complete audio from the June 29 show – the opening night of the Born in the USA tour, two nights earlier).

Oh, yeah – the ticket?  For 59th row on the floor?  $16.50.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Kinda Like Anyway: Madonna

I can’t stand Madonna.

Madonna the expert player of the media? Forget Madonna, I’m over Lady Gaga, and I’m bored with whatever comes next. Whoever it is. Already.

Her “signficant artist” phase? Her coffee-table photo book “Sex” got all those pretensions sent back to the clubs pronto.

The original Madonna, of “Holiday” and “Like a Virgin” fame?  She came out during my too-good-for-dance-club music phase, and oozed “manufactured pop treacle” to me. 

Nope. Don’t much care about Madonna.

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Things I’m Supposed To Hate But Kinda Like: Alanis Morrisette

Yeah, I know – she was the “woman who rawks”-du-jour about this time twenty years ago.  She was the Annette Funicello of the Grunge generation – or as a rock critic dubbed her, the “Queen of alt-rock angst”.

And I hate angst.

Well…other peoples’ angst.  Mostly.  Not so much my own.

But I digress.

And her musical heyday was, to be blunt, not my own.  I’d just gotten out of a couple of years of working in bars, and was pretty much tired of music everyone else liked, and had three kids to take care of instead of listening to music.  So when my stepson brought home a copy of Jagged Little Pill, I pretty much disliked it even before I heard it.

But seeing that she’s turning 40 (!) on Sunday, I figured it’d be a good time to unpack this particular love-hate relationship.

She tends toward the shrill – but it’s a really intense kind of shrill, one that wears me out.    There are times it seems like she does the same half-dozen songs forty different ways.

But every once in a while she writes a song I wish I could have written myself:

And in her day – I discovered right after her day – she had one of the best touring bands in the business, which took what could – should – have been a live train wreck suitable only for women’s studies classes and feminist coffee shops and turned it into some damned fine, solid, in-tune-and-on-beat, tight performances:

That’s Taylor Hawkins on drums – currently with the Foo Fighters, and likely the best drummer to come out of the alt-rock genre. The bass player? Chris Chaney, one of the most underrated bass players around (and wasting away in the current incarnation of Jane’s Addiction).  And a couple of guitar players, including a guy with a Fender Jaguar, which was very au courant in Seattle in the nineties, and not a bad instrument if you couldn’t handle a Jazzmaster.

Anyway – I know it’s wrong.  But them’s the facts.

Rethinking The Seventies: Boston

It’s one of the driving forces behind radio station formatting; people tend to become most attached to the music that they heard in adolescence – from about 12 to the early-mid 20s.  That’s the time of one’s life when hormone-addled emotions grab and internalize emotional markers for the rest of peoples’ lives. 

Music is, of course, one of the most emotionally immediate art forms.

And so for the past sixty years, radio stations have banked their economic futures on playing music that resonate with each succeeding demographic group’s musical emotional markers. 

If you’re one of the first wave of Baby Boomers, then, the Beatles were Top Forty radio when you were in your teens and twenties; as you moved through your thirties and forties, they became “classics”.  And as you slide toward the tail end of your big-money earning years, they become “Oldies”.  And in 10-15 years, you’ll start seeing “nostalgia” stations playing sixties music.

Presuming music radio still exists, of course.

But as I’ve noted in this series – at least in re yours truly – there’s a separate emotional motivation – the one that leads to staking out one’s own identity.  In my case, it involved seeking out music that everyone at Jamestown High School wasn’t already listening to – at that time, the punk, new wave, and other non-top-40 stuff that was starting to make waves by the mid-late seventies – and eschewing the stuff that was popular at the time – the Linda Ronstadts, the Bee Gees, Barry Manilows, Andrew Golds, Eagles, Olivia Newton Johns,  Kisses and Bad Companys and Seals and Croftses and whatever else dominated the charts during that post-Watergate, post-Beatles, pre-Reagan era.

And at the intersection of those two emotional drives was Boston.  Or at least their first album.

On the one hand – it was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies.  You look up “overproduced” in the dictionary, you see a drawing of Tom Scholtz, the group’s founder / guitarist / keyboarist / songwriter / dictator / superego / producer / electronic research engineer / sole remaining original member.  There was not a spontaneous bit of music, or an unaltered natural sound, anywhere on 1976 debut album.  It was the product – in both senses of the word – of Scholtz’ manic vision and Epic Records’ marketing plan.  And that was the stuff that teenage punks were supposed to eschew up and spit out

On the other hand?  It was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies.

To a generation of kids, discovering the big wide world and out-of-town radio and girls is inextricably tied in with Tom Scholtz’ shimmering acoustic guitar; with Barry Goodreau’s mega-multi-tracked guitar pyrotechnics; with Brad Delp’s every-bit-as-enhanced-as-Kim-Kardashian’s-butt vocals; above all, with the overall sound, which is no more spontaneous than a meal cooked by a molecular gastronomer…

…and no less gloriously perfect.   

And for all of Pete Townsend’s purported dabbling into psychoacoustic research into patterns of sound that humans can not resist, it’d be hard to find a better example of any such phenomenon than “More than a Feeling”, “Long Time”…

…and probably half a dozen other moments on the first album 

If I were an eccentric billionaire, I might well pay a couple of psych grad students a few grand to determine whetherBoston- or especially “More than a Feeling” and “Long Time” – don’t have some sort of pavlovian, autonomic response among a generation of guys from 45-53 or so. 

And so while the obnoxious teen punk Mitch Berg didn’t say it too loud?  In a place that punk never talked about, even with his closest musical friends, Boston – and Boston – got quietly grandfathered in on the list of “music I’ll keep listening to with unironic joy”.  And there was always a copy of Boston lying around somewhere – a cassette in an unmarked case, in the case of an, er, friend of mine.

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Reconsidering The Seventies: James Taylor

In the wake of the breakup of the Beatles – who were probably the last musical group in history on which nearly everyone in the music-fan world, black, white, “serious”, pop, alt, mainstream – agreed, many different currents in pop music battled for public mindshare.

One genre that’d been largely waiting in pop music’s wings since before the Beatles got of the plane in New York was the various incarnations of folk music – both the “impure”, Bob Dylan strain that was mixing in rock and roll influences, and the more purist variety that was horrified by Dylan’s experimentation.

Naturally, over time, both subgenres mixed, frayed, developed orthodoxies, and apostates from those orthodoxies, and…well, became pretty much like any other genre of music.

And with the disappearance of the Beatles, and the retirement of the Formerly Fab Four to their single neutral musical corners, and the rest of the British Invasion either moving to consolidate their niches in pop culture (the Stones, the Who) and the deaths Hendrix and a slew of other sixties’ pioneers (Janis Joplin) and overrated hangers-on (Jim Morrison), some space appeared for some of those subgenres to make a move for center stage, as it were.

And of all of folk’s subgenres, one – the “Singer/Songwriter” – was most perfectly placed to reflect the zeitgeist of the decade.  The seventies were a mewling, neutered, utterly un-funky decade, clogged with self-doubt and angst and anxiety about what one really, reallywas - and so were the Singer-Songwriters.

Loosely modeled after Bob Dylan, but with an extra helping of bathetic sensitivity and a little light on the inventiveness and the insight, the singer-songwriters were a little like the nebbishy folk musicians that’d clogged Greenwich Village and Haight Ashbury and Cedar-Riverside a decade earlier – but they’d skipped “Howl” and read “Bell Jar” instead.

They were many; John “Welcome Back Kotter” Sebastian, Dan Fogelberg, John Denver (soon to be subject of one of these pieces), Jim Croce (ditto), Jackson Browne (yep),  John Prine (probably), Lobo and Terry Jacks and a zillion similar (not a chance).

But towering high above all of them, at least on the decade’s sales charts was James Taylor.

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Tech We Can Use

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

Dear Apple,

I need a mood-sensing iPod to play only songs that fit my mood; otherwise, I must click to skip songs that don’t fit my mood and that annoys me, which puts me in a bad mood. For example:

Doctor My Eyes

Doctor Wu

Does Anybody Know What Time It Is (Chicago Transit Authority album long version)

Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina (Patti LuPone version)

and

Don’t Cry for Me, Eileen

should Not be followed by Helen Reddy scolding me “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Steve Jobs would have understood this. Get on it, please.

Joe Doakes

All I know is come tax time, my MP3 player ran “Money Changes Everything”, “Gimme Some Money” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” back to back.

Reconsidering The Seventies: The Who

One of the key tenets of being a late-seventies, early eighties musical “rebel” was rejecting not only the bland corporate rock and jet-set superstars of the seventies, but affecting a studied boredom with the sixties.  The Beatles were fun, but they were old news. The Stones had turned into a multinational enterprise more famous for their glam lifestyle than any actual music they’d done since 1972 or so.  Don’t even start talking about the Moody Blues, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers…

But there were two survivors of the British Invasion that still demanded respect.  The Kinks (of whom more later), who were sort of like the garage band we all wanted to have, run by Ray Davies, the same too-clever, too snarky, too-cool-to-be-a-hipster kind of guy we all aspired to be (or better yet, little brother Dave, the guitar anti-hero who spawned many a punk imitator)…

…and The Who.

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Idle Musical Thoughts

I mentioned this on the show over the weekend – this past Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the recording of “rock around the clock”, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That song’s appearance on the Billboard top 40 later on in the year is generally considered the beginning of the “rock ‘n roll era” – and, more significantly, the beginning of “youth culture”, the existence of a separate culture for adolescents in this country, something that never really existed before.

Having a nice round number like 60 makes it very easy to play the mental game is played for years regarding music history; seeing what side of pop music history’s “halfway point” different milestones fall on.

The halfway point in pop music history, as of last Saturday, was April 12, 1984.

What that means is “Hungry like the Wolf” by Duran Duran, “I Ran” by Flock of seagulls, “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, Thriller by Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen’s first six studio albums – up through Nebraska (and in about six weeks, Born in the USA) are all closer to the beginning of rock ‘n roll history than to the present day.

You can also break rock and roll history up into thirds; 1974 and 1994.  That means “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, “Imagine” by John Lennon, the entire golden age of Motown and Stax, Who’s NextDark Side of the Moon, and most of the Rolling Stones’ best stuff is twice as far from the present day as it was from “Rock Around The Clock”.

Or maybe into quarters?  1969, 1984 and 1999 are the cutoffs.  That means Woodstock, Tommy, most of the Beatles’ catalog…pretty much everything “Sixties” is three times from the present day as it was from the beginning of the era.

I think I’ll stop this train of thought at the next station…

Reconsidering The Seventies: Fleetwood Mac

In the seventies, back before Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen completely rebooted the sales charts, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac was the ultimate, inescapable soundtrack of the last half of the decade.

And as such, being the hipper-than-thou, too-literally-cool-for-school wanna-be rock’nroll animal, I hated it.

Hated the nasal yawping of Stevie Nicks.  Hated Christine McVie’s banal cooing, and Mick Fleetwood’s shaggy dissipation and calculated (or coke-ulated) English off-beatness.  Hated especially Lindsay Buckingham’s “Look at how avant-garde I am, while selling 13 million copies!”, and John McVie’s…well, no.  I always liked John McVie.

It was a few years later – when Nicks basically adopted the Heartbreakers as her backup band for her first couple of solo albums – that I started to think maybe they deserved a chance.  But it was just a start.  And I didn’t follow up on it…

…until about 2009.  When I saw a Fleetwood Mac concert on TV.  And they were…pretty good musicians.  And they did a…

…well, pretty fair live show.

And I did a little digging.

Less Than The Sum Of History:   Fleetwood Mac’s history, for those who pay attention, reads a little like Spinal Tap:  the band has actually gone through four major line-ups, and innumerable minor changes to boot.    And while I knew about all of them when I was an obnoxious teenager, I never really paid much attention until recently.

Fleetwood and McVie started in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – the band that also launched Eric Clapton, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, “Cream” bassist Jack Bruce and original Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar, among dozens of others – during the British blues craze of the mid-sixties, when a generation of young Brits looted and pillaged the American blues tradition.  Also starting with Mayall were guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green.  Spencer, Green, McVie and Fleetwood started “Fleetwood Mac” in 1967 (McVie’s girlfriend, keyboardist Christine Perfect, left blues-rock band “Chickenshack” and joined the band after an album or so, and married McVie in 1969).

I did say blues, right?

That’s Spencer, an over-emoting Kirwan and Green, from about 1969.

Green and Spencer then went on to have a couple of classic seventies-style drug-induced meltdowns, leading the band to reform with a dizzying array of other musicians – including this line-up with singer-guitarist Bob Weston and American singer-guitarist Bob Welch, which yielded some progressive-y blues…:

…and some scandal (Weston banged Mick Fleetwood’s wife Patti Boyd, who would also be the fulcrum of the long feud between George Harrison and Eric Clapton)…

…leading Fleetwood to fire Weston, Welch to leave for a brief solo career, and the rapidly-divorcing McVies and Fleetwood to settle on a new front line, the American duo (and also-splitting-up couple) of Nicks and Buckingham.

Which was the band’s definitive line-up, the one that gave us Fleetwood Mac and Rumours and superstardom and excess…

…but we’ll come back to that. Here’s one of their big singles, “Go Your Own Way”

…and “Second Hand News”…

…and the big kahuna, “Don’t Stop”…:

On the “con” side, it was the ultimate manifestation of ’70′s California pop music; the first cousin of everything the Eagles, Jackson Browne and all the other west-coast pop artists I trained myself to detest were doing.

On the “pro” side? They were very good at it. Fastidious musicianship (even from a band that built sand castles out of cocaine); a style that got more unique over and music done as a craft rather than a nihilistic “art” form…

…that I had pretty much adopted as my thing at the time.

The song that started me thinking that there was something worth listening to? “The Chain”:

Suddenly, the notion that I’d grown up with – that Fleetwood Mac was a soulless, bloodless, hits-in-their-sleep Brill Building pop corporation – was self-serving, short-sighted, solipsistic and just plain dumb; it’s a great song.

So I’ve actually listened to some Fleetwood Mac over the past few years. Not gonna shell out $200 for the concert…

UPDATE:  as you can see from the comments, the “stub” version of this article – and the entire series – has been floating around my drafts folder, and occasional accidental publications, for four and a half years. 

But I’m finally getting it written!

Reconsidering The Seventies: Baseline (Reboot)

(NOTE:  I first ran this piece almost a year ago – April 17 2013 – fully intending to follow through and write this series.  And then…I didn’t.  But now I am.  So I’m going to re-run the piece from waaaay back when, and try to do a new piece roughly every Friday).

As I noted when I started this series a week or so ago, part of the reason I didn’t care much for most of the music of the seventies was because, in my drive to be just plain different than everyone around me, I figured if I was in for a dime, I’d best be in for a buck; go all-in with the punks and whatever else was cooler-than-thou.

When I was a kid in the seventies, I was too tall, coulda used a few pounds; the athletic gene skipped a generation (or at least the “willing to put up with coaches” gene did).  I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t especially smart, I wasn’t “in” with any crowd.  I had greasy hair and terminal social awkwardness.

But I did read Rolling Stone.  I knew what the cool kids were listening to in New York and LA and Chicago, and I sought it out; the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Generation X, to be sure, but all sorts of other stuff that was “alternative” in its day; Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, all of them were off the beaten pop path at that point.  That they all became the top forty within half a decade is one of the glorious things about early-eighties music.

And I buried my teenage identity in pretty much anything that the kids in North Dakota weren’t listening to.  The guys?  They dug Bad Company, Shooter, Trooper, Rush, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss and the like; the girls were into Dan Fogelberg, Styx and the Bay City Rollers and God only knows what else. The music geeks thought Chicago and Alan Parsons and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were just dreamy.

So I was pretty insufferable.

But it needs to be added that it was, in many ways, a terrible, terrible decade for pop culture.

Maybe it reflected a hangover from the turmoil of the sixties.  Maybe it was a measure of a society floating aimlessly and beginning to decay after a couple of decades of purpose and dynamic growth.  Maybe it was just all those baby boomers.

But like polyester clothes, The Brady Bunch and the Chevette, much of the music of the 1970s was a reminder that times were really not good.

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Things I’m Supposed To Like But Can’t Stand: The B-52s

I first heard about the B-52s in probably tenth grade.

“They’re so fun!”, I was told.  ”They’re, like, a party band!”

I was directed to listen to “Rock Lobster”.  They were indeed a party band.

I hated party bands. And I hated the B52s.

“But Mitch!”, you might respond, “how could you possibly hate the B-52s?  They were fun!”

Music wasn’t supposed to be fun.  Not to me, anyway. I was an over-tall, under-coordinated, anti-popular kid, a fish-out-of-water, sick of high school cliques and pecking orders, all hormoned-up with no place to go, already banging my head against the bars of small-town life.

Music for me was about channelling explosive adolescent rage.  I listened to the Who, and the Clash and Generation X and the Sex Pistols (and the bleeding passion of Beethoven and the crusader-esque purposefulness of Händel and the over the top expressionism of Tchaikowski, for that matter), and Springsteen in my rare introspective moments.  For me, music wasn’t about dancing; it was about breaking things and people, and furious adolescent angst.  The sound in my imagination at age 15 was me windmilling an open A5 chord on a Les Paul Standard through four Marshall stacks cranked to 11.  No wussy third tones.  No subtlety.  No shelter.  Certainly no murtha-farging “parties”.  Just pure un-subtle angry noise, blowing away the things that broke my heart and the lies that left me lost and brokenhearted…

…whatever they were.    It was a song, so they weren’t so much something I “knew” as “felt”. 

And I didn’t feel “party”. 

But I’m digressing.

The B-52s?  Yeah, they were “fun”.  And I was not.  I was very, very un-fun.  They played intentionally cheesed-up Farfisa organs, and I was all about the teeth-clenched throb of a Hammond B3 through an overdriven Leslie speaker.   They were lightweight, eggheaded college kids, and I was not.  They went to parties, and God knows I was never invited to parties.  Screw ‘em.

Oh, yeah.  Lead singer Fred Schneider’s voice annoyed the bejeebers out of me.  No, it wasn’t “homophobia”; at that age, I literally didn’t know what “gay” meant (and even if I did know what it meant?  I loved Freddy Mercury’s voice).   I didn’t actually know that guys could dig guys until college.  (Note to my 3-4 high school friends who, it turns out, were gay?  Even though you were all the girls’ best friends, and you actually did sit by the piano before play practice playing show tunes?  Hand to God, never figured it out until after high school.  And figuring it out didn’t make me like y’all any less – or show tunes any more).  So no, it wasn’t that Schneider was gay, even if I had known at the time what that meant.  No, it was that his voice annoyed me like few other sounds ever have.  I could literally listen to fingernails scraping on chalkboards all day long – but Schneider’s voice sent me racing for the volume knob.   And it still does.

But time went on.  My tastes in music broadened.  I lived a little more life.  Moved to the big city, started a career, ended a career, maybe mellowed out ever so slightly, knocked around, worked in bars…

…when “Love Shack” came out:

Nope. Still hated the B-52s. Part of it was residual disdain for “Party…” anything.

Part of it was that I had to play the damn song so ungodly often. I was at KDWB at the time; we’d play it every couple of hours on the air. Then I’d work my money gig, at the bars, and play it at least once a night, 4-6 nights a week, sometimes more. But then I played a lot of music way too much back then; I actually bought a car that had no radio, I was so sick of music.

But even with that context, the B52s still annoyed me half to death.  That voice.  That beat.  That contrived retro-sixies triviality.  Blech. 

And they still do.

Except for anything involving Kate Pierson.

Then, all is forgiven.

That is all.

I Will Confess…

…I’ve pondered the idea of this band covering this song:

…although it was more one of those “what if Napoleon had a B-52 at Waterloo” sorts of things.

Oh, yeah – it’s the E Street Band playing “Highway to Hell” in Perth Australia, as a tribute to native Perthian Bon Scott.

(Closed circuit to Tom Morello; lower your damn guitar.  You look like you need more fiber in your diet with your guitar cinched up around your ribcage.  That is all).

Pay Me My Memorial Down

Leni Riefenstahl was the world’s first notable female filmmaker, and the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.  She created innovations in the technique and aesthetics of film still used not only in cinema, but in the filming of crowds and athletic events; some of the techniques you see at the Super Bowl are evolutions of techniques Riefenstahl pioneered in filming the 1936 Olympics.

But it’s not considered polite to applaud Riefenstahl in public with out an emphatic verbal “asterisk”, because of her association with the Nazi Party.  Her best-known work, Triumph Des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is an epic documentary and one of the world’s best known and most influential pieces of propaganda.

And so Riefenstahl was ostracized for the rest of her long life (she died at age 101 in 2002) as a Nazi impresario, for her association with a regime that killed 11 million people directly and triggered a war that swallowed tens of millions.

I write a fair amount about music in this blog.  And when a major musical figure passes away, I often try to write something.

And in his way, Pete Seeger was one of the most important figures in popular entertainment, ever.

Not necessarily because of his music.  Oh, he had a few classics of American folks music, to be sure.  And dozens of forgettable songs – but that’s true for any songwriter, or any artist in any genre for that matter.

Many conservatives writing about Seeger’s passing note that he was a committed Communist.  It’s true – he was, and in a way that seems straight out of Orwell, as during this episode after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in 1939:

In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”…The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.

For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?

It’s impolite in polite society to laud Riefenstahl after her association with a regime that murdered over 10 million people.  Fair enough.

So why does Seeger escape any questioning for doing so much to support a regime that may have killed five times as many?

But as Howard Husock noted in his classic essay on Seeger, his most lasting impact on American culture may have had little to do with music.

Because there was a time when Hollywood’s political ideals weren’t all that different than the rest of the country’s.  Seeger was a vital part of a movement that changed all that:

Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser… Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.

This led to the creation of the “Popular Front”, whose mission was not so much to assault capitalism as to co-opt it.  And one of the institutions it marked for co-option was the entertainment industry.

And Seeger was a key cog in that machine:

It took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.

 

It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.

Seeger did not, himself, “make Hollywood leftist”.  But he was a key part of that transition.

Forget his music.  That was his real legacy.

The Buzz

I’ll admit it – handbell choirs were one of those things that swept protestant churches in the 1980s that annoyed the bejeebers out of me.  They were everywhere.

But as with many things related to music (and disaster preparedness) [1] the Mormons have it all over the rest of us goyim.

Case in point; a handbell choir doing “Flight of the Bumblebee”:

[1] And, lately, videography; the last few years of vids from the Mormon Tabernacle’s music department have been visually stunning.

For The Tourists

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey - Bruce Springsteen’s first major-label record.

In those forty years, he’s released seventeen studio albums (#18 due in mere days), been bootlegged more than almost any other artist, written a staggering amount of material, developed a repuation as the best life performer in the business, and been recognized as the best American songwriter of a generation…

…and gone through some creative doldrums (1990-2000) that make even the unabashed fanboys (like yours truly) rub our heads and change the subject to Darkness on the Edge of Town.  

And even for a committed fanboy, it’s hard to explain to a newbie exactly what it’s all about.

Steven Hyden – who notes that he attended the same concert at the Target Center that I did, back in 1999 – takes a “Hot Or Not”-style whack at the oeuvre, giving an “Overrated”, “Underrated” or “Properly Rated” to an assortment of mileposts in Springsteen’s career; the studio albums, live albums, outtakes collections, live performances, members of the E-Street Band, videos, and various bits of pop-culture ephemera. 

And I’m only going to quibble with Hyden on three of his ratings;

First:  Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez was a lousy drummer.  Listen to “Kitty’s Back” or “Incident on 57th Street” or even “Rosalita”, from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; the beat speeds up and slows down without warning, and that’s what they decided to put on a major-label release.  How much worse were the out-takes? 

Second?  While “Fire” is a good song, and “Light of Day” is a great one, “Because The Night” is still the best Springsteen song not originally released by Springsteen:  It’s just a fact.

And while Hyden and I agree – Darkness on the Edge of Town is both of our favorite Bruce album - Hyden focuses on its rock-critic-friendly cynicism and world-weariness.  For me, it’s nearly the opposite; the record resonates for anyone who identifies with deep isolation, with a place outside the American mainstream, whether you’re across the river from Manhattan or across 100 miles of sod from a city that gets more than two TV channels. 

(And while he’s right – Live from Hammersmith Odeon is far and away the best “official” live release of Bruce’s career, the very unofficial “Live at the Capitol Theater”, recently posted in its entirety on Youtube, may count as another essential, if lower-gloss, live recording worth listening to)

On the other hand, Hyden distilled perhaps the iconic image of the young, male, non-Jersey Springsteen fan in his review ofBorn to Run:

There’s a particular brand of vanity that exists in certain kinds of young men between the ages of 19 and 27 where it’s vitally important to present a façade that is equal parts masculine, feminine, tough, and sensitive. For instance (and this example is purely hypothetical and not at all autobiographical), this certain kind of young man may drive around alone late on rainy nights — he actually chooses to drive when it rains because it is appropriately evocative for his inner emotional geography — while listening to Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland.” And when he feels himself starting to cry, he will look in the rearview mirror in order to stare at his own tears. He knows he will never tell anyone that he cries alone to the sounds of the Big Man’s titanic blowing, but he guesses that strangers will sense it, and this will make him appear soulful. (Forgive him. He is a little naive and very silly.) It doesn’t matter that the lyrics of “Jungleland” have virtually nothing to do with his life — he’s pretty sure that the only people for whom “kids flash guitars just like switchblades” represents reality are Danny Zuko and Kenickie. But this song is still his avatar, and he’s confident it always will be.

And on some of those dark, rainy nights, he still just may.

(Except for the crying.  Because – dude).

Anyway – you be the judge.

Harmony

Phil Everly died over the weekend.  He was 74.

Rock and Roll, we are told, started as a blender-mix of rockabilly and R&B.  Elvis put a rockabilly delivery onto a rhythm ‘n blues beat.  Chuck Berry sped up the blues to rockabilly speed.  Johnny Cash did rockabilly over a persona that could have made Howlin’ Wolf go “wow.  That’s the blues”.

And the Everly Brothers brought the final piece of the “billy” half of rockabilly – the tight, keening vocal harmonies that characterized bluegrass music – out of the holler and onto pop radio.

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Things I’m Supposed To Hate But Like A Tiny Bit Of: America

Since the subject was Crosby, Stills and Nash, it’s probably time to turn to one of their seventies Cali-pop offspring; America.

The band – three American air force brats who met in England during the mid-sixties – generally wrapped up all that was the worst about the entire California pop scene that Crosby, Stills and Nash helped spawn; oblique, tired-sounding minor-key noodling wrapped in ornate three-part harmony that never made me want to dance, sing, fight, cuddle or do much of anything but change the station.

Ventura Highway?  Horse With No Name?  Muskrat Freaking Love?   Whatever else they did?  Never could stand it.  Bores me stiff.  Move along.

Except for Sister Golden Hair:

Why, of all of America’s somnolent oeuvre, do I like “Sister?”

I dunno.  Because it has a beat?  A slide guitar?

Maybe because the vocal harmony harkens back to doo-wop more than Haight-Ashbury?

Dunno.  But in a band whose entire catalog works on me faster than an Ambien/NyQuil speedball, “Sister Golden Hair” makes me smile.

Why ask why?