When Making Your Weekend Plans Two Months Out

It’s the working cover…

Looking for an early Sunday night out?  Block out the evening of November 12 at O’Gara’s in Saint Paul for my band, “The Supreme Soviet Of Love“, and the album release party (and only live date) for our first (and maybe only) album, See Red. 

Doors open at 5PM.   The opening act (“Elephant in the Room”) opens the show with a set of covers from the ’60s through the ’90s.   The SSOLs set begins at 8PM sharp.

Need a sample?  Here  you go

Anyway – I’ll post the EventBrite later this month.

I’m not quite gonna call it “The MOB Winter Party” – but if any Mobsters wanna show up for a drink or two after the gig (and before teardown), I’m totally there.

They’re Out There Somewhere

So it was 20 years ago today that “Mmm-Bop” by “Hanson” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

You remember it:

I was married and had three kids to take care of at the time, so I didn’t have much time to be the music snob I’d been ten years earlier.   I thought it was bubblegum – but bubblegum with enough of a groove that I couldn’t not like it, really.

And apparently I”m not the only one.

Because the Hanson brothers are doing a 25th anniversary show.

At the First Avenue.

And it’s sold out.

Dancing With The One That Brung Him

Steve Van Zandt – or “Miami Steve”, “Silvio Dante”, or “Little Steven”, depending on the era where you first ran into him – has had a peripatetic career; from a freelance sideman and producer, to Springsteen’s long-time guitar player, to leader of several incarnations of his own band, to small-screen consigliere, to one of America’s better disc jockeys, to Netflix’s first binge material, he’s been all over the place.

Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I know it’s only a guy playing underground rock and roll, but I like it.

Along the way he hed a solo music career that spanned five albums –  the first of which, Men WItbout Women, one of the great rock and roll records of all time, from 35 years ago.   Featuring a band of “white soul” greats – Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, the Miami Horns, and various menbers of the Jersey Shore musical mafia – the record was drenched with so much raw heart and energy the needle barely stayed in the groove.

It was one of the great records of the eighties – and was followed up by an ever-drearier series of collections of garage music and worldbeat which were fairly forgettable, and featured an ever-more-strident politics that seemed to dumb down the actual music.

Flash in the pan? Or just 35 years early?

Well, we’re done with that.

“Soulfire” boasts a righteous blend of drums, back-up vocals and horns that pulse with Little Steven’s nimble guitar playing. The rocker unleashes an array of six-string tricks, from a steady disco-tinged vamp to an arena-sized solo, while his mighty vocal performance reveals tinges of Bruce Springsteen’s bombastic howl and Bob Dylan’s weary croon.

“I wrote it several years ago with one of the Breakers, a Danish band on my label Wicked Cool,” Van Zandt tells Rolling Stone of “Soulfire.” “And although this is my first album ever that is not overtly political, the lyric happens to be quite relevant. The song felt like the obvious centerpiece of an album that is conceived to not only reintroduce myself as an artist, but also serve as a summary of a lifetime of work. It’s the spiritual center philosophically on an album that contains many of my musical roots displayed for the first time like blues, jazz, and doo-wop. That combination ended up being a very accurate representation of where I’m coming from and who I am today.”

Yadda yadda yadda.  Just book a damn gig in the Twin Cities already.  And then shut up and take my money.

 

Early Birds

A regular reader writes:

Turns out it’s not just older working people who want earlier music shows. Though I do think it is ok to have late bar hours, but the bands can start and end earlier.

It links to a CBC bit suggesting that maybe, just maybe, starting music earlier in the evening will help buck up the attendance at live music shows:

Not the same market, perhaps, but I’ve noticed that one of my bands (website here, for your band-booking pleasure) draws acceptable enough audiences when we start playing at 7 or 9 – but starting at 9:30 is pure death.

That might have something to do with the fact that the only young people at our show are the children of some of our audience members.

Anyway – more on the subject to come.

Life Imitates Blog

Ten years or so ago, during the heyday of the political blog, some of us – conservatives with fond memories of the punk era in music – quipped “conservatism is the new punk”.

In places like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it’s still pretty true; conservatives and conservatism are the counterculture, the disruption, the sound of the gleeful underdog that makes the establishment froth with rage.

And life today is imitating us.

Continue reading

Bullet The Cement Sky

If you remember my “Twenty Years Ago Today” series from way back when, you may recall that one of the things that drew me to the Twin Cities, 32 years ago this fall, was the music scene.  While I had not the foggiest idea at age 22 what I wanted to do for a career (and happened back into radio by blind luck), I did know I wanted to be a musician.  And so the fact that Minneapolis had a thriving music scene in 1985 played as much into my decision of where to move after college as anything.

I’d been writing music like a madman ever since I moved to the Cities; between December of 1985 and the following Christmas, I probably wrote 60-70 songs, and probably cut demos of 30-40 of them on my Fostex X-15 four-track cassette deck.

A Fostex X-15 tape deck. With it, a cheap drum machine , and a bass and my guitars, I recorded dozens of fairly elaborate demo tapes for the music I was writing like a madman at the time.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to take out an ad in the City Pages, and start an actual band.

That November, I found three guys.  That December – 1986 – we had our debut gig, and the old “McReady’s Pub” in downtown Minneapolis (where the Gateway parking ramp now stands).

And thirty years ago today, the gig that, ever so briefly, made me think like I’d made the right call, and might just be on my way.

The band was “Tenant’s Union” – and we’d gotten booked to play “New Band Night” at the Seventh Street Entry.

The Tuesday night gig was normally a dead end for bands; you got $20, and you played in the reverse order that the band showed up in.  We got there first, so we were the last band up -which ordinariy meant you just played for the dumbest drunks.

But this wasn’t just any night.

For starters, it was the day U2’s The Joshua Tree came out.

Which didn’t really bear on the gig, so much – it was completely unrelated. However, I’d picked it up on my way to work at KSTP that day, and had jacked my brain up into an expanded level of adrenaline-soaked frenzy listening to “Where The Streets Have No Names” and “In God’s Country” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” all day.

So I was pretty jazzed.

Second – and much more important?

It was Saint Patrick’s ‘Day.

Part of that meant that half the band – a couple of brothers from a large family of 100% Irish descent – were on an emotional tear.

And part of it meant that “Boiled in Lead”, the legendary Twin Cities traditional Irish band – would be playing the main room.

Now, Boiled In Lead was a great band.  Indeed, they still are.

But I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care how Hibernian you fancy yourself or how much Guinness you drink or how much you say “ting” instead of “Thing” – people can only stand so much Bodhran drum and uilleann pipe music before they need a break.

And the only place to take that break that night was over to the Seventh Street Entry.

And so by the time we got on stage, the place was packed to its capacity.

High-budget stuff, huh? It’s our poster for our Saint Patrick’s Day 1987 gig at the Entry. From left to right, it’s Matt on bass, Corey on guitar, WIlly on drums, and me over on the right on guitar, harmonica and occasionally keyboards.

I have no idea what that “capacity” was.  I’m sure the number has grown over the years; in my mind, there were a solid 200 people there that night.

It took me a bit, but I remembered the set list from that night:

  1. Tiger Tiger (A song by Willy, the drummer – yes, it was a William Blake reference.  I told you he was Irish).
  2. Five Bucks and a Transfer (My song about having…well, the title says it. It shamelessly stole the beat from The Pretenders’ “Message of Love”, but it was a way better song, if I say so myself.  And I do say so myself).
  3. Switchyard Blues (think The Who covering Mose Allison.  I played a VERY mean harmonica that night)
  4. Espresso Corey (he other guitar player, Corey’s ode to working in a crappy coffee shop back before everyone was doing it)
  5. Ride Shotgun (wherein I pilfed the riff to “Jackson Cage” and the harmony guitar part from Big Country’s “Tall Ships Go” to grand effect)
  6. Blood On The Bricks (the Iron City Houserockers’ classic)
  7. Oh Suzanne (a bald-faced mash note)
  8. Fourth Of July (a song I still play at the occasional open stage night)
  9. Long Gray Wire (a song I’d written in about five minutes in the car on the way to practice one night.  Still one of the coolest experiences of my life.  Great tune, too)
  10. Great Northern Avenue (a song I’ve quoted on this blog before, and still by a long shot the favorite song I’ve ever written)

And we were smokin’ hot.  The sloppiness of our first two gigs had been replaced by a fearsome tightness and confidence…

…although we’d still not gotten over the nerves entirely.  We played very fast that night.  Between the speed, the tightness, and the fact that we were very loud, some thought we were a speed medal or thrash band; some people started moshing out on the floor.

This I didn’t expect.

It was a spectacular success.  Musicians who saw us asked us to open for them.  Other bars started booking us.  People paid a little bit of attention.

It didn’t last – it rarely does.

The band soldiered on in one form or another until 1989 – and did a one-off gig under a different name in 1996, at the Turf Club.  Then came marriage, kids, careers, adult life.

There’s never much point in dwelling on the past.   But taking five to remember one of the highlights can’t be all bad.

Postscript:   One of the songs – our big finale, as it happens.  It’s a different band, here, but it’s basically the same song, all full of country-mouse chip on the shoulder and carpet-bombing “wall of sound” guitars that I put on that four-track cassette back in the summer of 1986.

And you might surmise there’s another musical project underway.  And you’d be right.

More on that later.

Starting Decade Five

It was a wet, cold, slushy March evening in Jamestown, ND.  I was in the basement of the FIrst Presbyterian Church, at a church youth group meeting.

Notable fact about the group:  one of the group’s leaders, a student at Jamestown College, would eventually have a son named Jared, who’d become an all-star defensive tackle for the Vikings.  The guy who eventually became Jared Allen’s father was no slouch of an athlete himself; he was one of the very few people from that NAIA Division III school ever to get a walk-on tryout with an NFL team – I think it was the Rams, and I think he got as close to making the cut as anyone from an NAIA III school ever did.

But the story’s not about  him or his future son.

The kids in the group were what passed for my “best friends” at that socially awkward time of my life, probably, sort of.  Which isn’t to say that cliques didn’t find their way into the group.  Immune to cliqueishness as I’d always been, some teenage angst was inevitable.

And for whatever reason, I had a nemesis at the youth group.  Her name was Cindy.  She didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual.

And I watched, teeth clenched, as Cindy uncased a guitar and started strumming out a song of some kind or another.

I will play guitar.  And I will play it better than Cindy, I resolved to myself.

I went home that night, and dug through the closet in the room I shared with my little brother.  There, I muttered.  The guitar.

It was a guitar that someone had left in my dad’s classroom back in the mid-sixties.  It’d sat in Dad’s locker, forgotten, for several years, before he brought it home – this on the day of the first moon landing, as I (possibly falsely) remember.

And after a little dilatory plinking, it spent the next eight years doing what most guitars do in the hands of little boys; it served as a machine gun, a fort for toy soldiers, an aircraft carrier for toy planes – pretty much everything but a guitar.

But those days had passed.   I needed a guitar, and a guitar it would again be.

It’d take all my stingy, cheapskate resourcefulness to make that happen.  The guitar had been a very cheap guitar even when brand new – a “May-Bell”, the kind of thing you got in the Sears catalog for $19,99 back in the sixties;  it was apparently part of a long line of cheap instruments.

Not my guitar, but close.

Its years of abuse had left it the worse for wear; there was a crack in the back and another in the front; it had two remaining strings, and it was missing three tuning heads.

I wasn’t completely green at this; I had played cello since fourth grade, and had picked up a few tricks, and had a few contacts.   I gathered my paper route savings and went to work.

And so on Monday, March 14, 1977, I walked into Midwest Music – a tiny little hole in the wall on main street in Jamestown.  I bought a pack of strings, dug through an odds and ends box for some parts to assemble some one-of-a-kind tuning machines, and a little tube of wood glue to try to repair the cracks.

I also bought a copy of the Gene Leis “Nexus Method” guitar book – basically a chapter on how to hold the instrument, a chapter on how to read chord frames, and then 20 pages of photos of chords.

Gene Leis, who passed away in 1993, but whose advice -make your chords automatic – are words to live by If you can find a copy of Leis’ “Nexus” guitar method book, you could do a LOT worse.

It was a fortuitous choice; the book’s tag lines said “If you don’t know your chords you’ll never play enough guitar to be dangerous”, and I took it to heart.   It was a brilliant maxim, and it served me well.   And I had one huge benefit – four years on the cello had taught me out to keep time, what intervals and chords were, and how music fit together.

The maxim was good.  Unfortunately, for all my cheapskate ingenuity, the MayBell was another story.  While I did a serviceable job repairing it, it was pretty much a disaster of a guitar.  It wouldn’t stay in tune (the wood glue didn’t really fix the cracks, and more importantly didn’t give the structure enough rigidity to stay in tune at all).

It was there that serendipity stepped in.

My dad had spent the previous year on sabbatical from his job at the high school, teaching in the education department at the college up on the hill.  One of his students was a young woman who was a music and education major from rural northern Californnia, who had just dragged her fiance – who, in a fun example of the circularity that seems to plague my autobiographical stories in this blog, was the future father of Jared Allen (whom you met in the second paragraph above).  They had broken up; Mr. Allen had a new girlfriend and a new best friend from the football team (a guy from Crystal, MN named Mick Burns, who is now a Presbyterian minister in Virginia) who asked him to come down and help with the youth group at the church…

…but I’m digressing.  Jared Allen’s future father’s ex-fiance, Jenny, who’d become a bit of a friend of the family, noticed how gamely I was wrestling with the jury-rigged MayBell, and noted that she had a Yamaha classical guitar that she’d tried learning to play once upon a time, and didn’t have time for, and that I could borrow until she graduated from college.

And so I set to work with a vengeance and, armed with the knowledge of what a guitar sounded like when it could actually stay in tune, and 20 pages of chords to learn, I started learning music.

And ran quickly up on a reef of ignorance; I just didn’t know that much music, other than the classical stuff I played on my cello at school.  My parents, God bless ’em, weren’t musicians, much – and when the radio was on around the house, it was usually tuned into CBW in Winnipeg, because it was the closest thing to NPR you could get in rural North Dakota at the time.

had heard a few songs by one artist, though – John Denver.  And so I grabbed a copy of the sheet music for his Greatest Hits album.

And for probably six months, I sat in my room most every night and woodshedded on that album. “Follow Me” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were the first songs I ever managed to play coherently – and from there, my musical world kept expanding; “Back Home Again” was where I had my “ah hah!” moment on how fourths and fifths play together, and how to do a rolling sixth (which you use in every Chuck Berry song, and thus most everything the Rolling Stones and Mike Campbell ever played). “Take Me Home, Country Roads” taught me how relative minors work – and you can’t play anything on Born to Run without relative minors!  I got to “Sunshine On My Shoulders” – and discovered the perfect song for learning the basics of fingerpicking. The whole thing is a languid eighth-note pattern – like drumming your fingers on the table, once you learn your chords. And “Rocky Mountain High” is a great little workout on how chords fit together.

And so by the middle of that summer, I could play…a bunch of John Denver songs. It seemed like it took forever – and occasionally felt like it. My fingers did, occasionally, literally bleed. In retrospect, it was blazingly fast; anger was a great motivator!

But even then, I knew – knowing how to play John Denver wasn’t going to land me any babes.  And so I started branching out.

I found a copy of the sheet music for “Sundown”, by Gordon Lightfoot, and learned how to play moving chords fluidly in a progression.

And right after that – in July of ’77 – while sitting and listening to the radio in my room, I heard Styx’s gloppy, pompous faux-art-rock classic “Come Sail Away”. It was inescapable back then, let’s be honest.

And as I played along with the big, climactic guitar part, I strummed a “C” – and then an “F”, and a “G”, and then back to the “F” – and it all clicked; that’s how the song went together.  I learned it by follow a standard chord progression (1 to 4 to 5 – the progression you use for everything from “Louie Louie” to “Wild Thing” to  “Twist and Shout” to “Born to Run”), and back, without needing to buy sheet music for it

And it was like the floodgates opened.  By that fall, I would sit in the chair in the corner of the room I still shared with my brother, doing homework, with my guitar at my feet, and listen for any songs to cross the radio that I wanted to learn; I’d pick apart the chord progression, faster and faster, and pretty soon be playing along pretty fluently; by early winter, I knew most of the KFYR “Torrid Twenty” every week.  I learned hundreds of songs – some that I still remember;

Why yes – learning this song DID make me edgy back then. And it’d be months, maybe a year, before I learned who “Bruce Springsteen was”.

“Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder, “Fooling Yourself” by Styx, “Logical Song” and “Give A Little BIt” by Supertramp,  “Help Is On Its Way” by the LIttle River Band, “Three TImes a Lady” by the Commodores, “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” by Meatloaf, “Dancing Queen” by Abba, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas (fingerpicking and all), “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan, “Still the One” by Orleans, “Night Moves” and “Hollywood Nights” and “Mainstreet” and  “Still The Same” by Bob Seger, “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle, “Because the Night” by…Patti Smith (it’d be months before I learned who Bruce Springsteen was), “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne, “Wild Fire” by Michael Murphy, “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon – and learned them so indelibly I can play all of them, note for note and word for word, today – even the one hit wonders (Nick Gilder?  Really?  Yes.  Yes, I can).

And sometime in the next year, it led me to my next big project; learning how to be a lead guitar player.  And after hours of trying to decipher how it was done, I had my first victory; the solo from “More than a Feeling”, by Boston.

If you were an adolescent in 1977 and this song doesn’t make your heart go “poing”, I’m not sure you were an adolescent in 1977.

And once that fell into place, the whole musical world opened up to me; by tenth grade, I was not just a greasy-haired dweeb.  I was a guitar player.   I had an identity, and it was damn fine.

And it started forty years ago this past Tuesday.

One thing that ended not long after that anniversary was my junior-high enmity with Cindy.  We actually became friends through high school and then college.  And around college graduation, I mentioned to her that she was the reason I started playing guitar in the first place.

“Huh”, she responded  “I think I quit the guitar right after that”.

Anyway – I got hooked.  About a year after I rebuilt the Maybell – just before Jenny graduated and needed her guitar back – I bought my first guitar, a Ventura acoustic that I still have (although it needs some TLC).  Then, the summer after 9th grade, my first electric, a 1961 Fender Jazzmaster.  I still play that one; God wiling, I’ll hand it down to my son, also a guitar player, someday.

And eight years later, it led me elsewhere.

More later today.

Teenage Wasteland

One of my blog resolutions (besides “laughing over the online graves of so many liberal blogs”) is to spend a little less time on politics this year, and a little more on some of my other main subjects – history and of course music.

The band I played in back in 1987. This was the poster for the gig I wrote about in this story, almost ten years ago.

Music’s gotten short shrift lately; I wrote a grand total of thirteen posts about music all last year, and three of them were obituaries.

So it’s time to do a sort of musical palate-cleanser, I’m just going to reprise something that was going around social media the week of New Years; the top ten albums that affected you as a teenager.

Which is of course, a curve-ball; there are albums that have had a bigger influence on my life than some of these; “Shoot Out the Lights” by Richard Thompson, most of the Dire Straits catalog, and so on.

But here’s a start, in rough ascending order.

Gordon Lightfoot, “Gord’s Gold”

Yep. You heard that right. Loved that album back then. Still do.   Part of it was just that Lightfoot had a real way with a hook.   Part of it was that I learned a lot about playing acoustic guitar from listening to him.

And part of it was because even then, I very counterintuitively liked Lightfoot’s persona.  Not sure why that very un-teenagery image grabbed me, but it did.  So sue me.

Styx, “The Grand Illusion”

This one’s going to be a little counterintuitive.  If you know me, it may even come as a shock.

I detest Styx. Especially anything sung by Dennis DeYoung. However, one of the defining things about my identity as a teenager – really, the first part I liked – was as a guitar player and a rock and roller.

And “Come Sail Away”, “Fooling Yourself” and “Miss America” were the first songs I figured out how to play on guitar by ear, without any help or sheet music or anything. And once I figured them out, the dam broke and I learned *hundreds* of songs just by listening to the radio. Indeed, throughout high school my evening homework-time ritual was to tune in KFYR in Bismarck and listen as I did my reading and math; if I heard a song I liked, I’d grab my guitar and figure it out along with the radio.

And so as much as I loathe Styx, being able to play “stump the band” with the best of them was a yuuuge influence on me as a teenager.

Pretenders

Yeah, I’ll cop to it; the album had the whole “Chrissy Hynde meets teenage hormones” bit.  And you had the same issue, back then (assuming you’re a straight male of a certain age, a lesbian with impeccable taste, or a hetero-curious gay guy, I suppose.  I dunno).

Anyway, the album (especially James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar parts) was just as manic and all-over-the-place as I was back then. Listening to Honeyman-Scott, I started to think “maybe I can do this “lead guitar” thing.

And that was a very, very big thing for me.

And did I mention Chrissy Hynde?

Boston

To a genation of hipper-than-thou punks, “Boston” was to music what WalMart was to shopping.

But even at the nadir of my hipper-than-thou punk phase, I loved this album. The *sound* of the record itself was just freaking thrilling. I think even before I knew anything about *producing* music, I was drawn to the whole idea of production as art, and this record is why.

Case in point:  the wall of guitar feedback from 1:49 to 1:57 of this song.  Feedback was nothing new – Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend had made it an art form – but this particular little squall was a simultaneously a raw blast of power combined with a subtle harmonic progression (like opening up the drawbars on a Hammond organ) and and rhythmic, like using feedback as a drum fill.  It was a little production filigree, a gorgeous little instrumental aside that turned a run-of-the-mill seventies pop-rock song into something you could dissect for hours, and years, and write about (ahem) forty years later, and always find something new in.   It was about as organic as Splenda – it was the product of layering guitars like a Phil Spector “wall of sound”, and more high-tech processing than a Queen album.  But who cared?  It – among many similar little bits of production magic – was just glorious and made you feel glad to be alive.

Also – “More than a Feeling” was the first guitar solo I ever learned how to play.  I sat down when I was probably 15 and learned the whole thing, note for note, like someone trying to learn how to order food in Japanese phonetically.

And once I knocked that out, I was a lead guitar player – ergo, for the first time in my high school life, I was cool.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Damn the Torpedoes”

This album was, and is, my audio encyclopedia of everything that is great about rock and roll.

Seriously – it’s hard to even count the number of ways this album smacked me, 37 [koff koff] years ago.

But goodness knows I’ve tried; this article here did as good a job of it as I’ve ever managed to pull together myself.

And the song “Even the Losers” gave me hope, back then; sometimes, even us losers did get lucky.  And it probably did the same to you.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, “Men Without Women”

Men Without Women is a glorious record in its own right – all huge hooks and raw, blazing emotions and pure brilliance. It’s still one of my three favorites of all time.

Beyond that? There wasn’t a lot of musical diversity in rural North Dakota when I was a kid. Seventies R&B never really spoke to me.

And I listened to Mw/oW, and a light went on over my head, and I wandered into the back room at the station I was at at the time, and dug out a bunch of Sam and Dave and Smokey Robinson and Four Tops records, and felt that clicking sound when ideas drop into place.

Mw/oW opened the door, first to Stax/Volt, then Motown, and an entire new world of music.

John Denver’s “Greatest Hits”.

When I was 14, I was a little too tall, coulda used a few pounds.  I was a junior high loser, never made it with the ladies…

…’til I decided to give myself a “cool” transplant and teach myself the guitar.  And I figured, using my analytical sense, that I needed to learn to play something.

I’d heard a few John Denver songs.  They sounded accessible.  And so I bought a copy of his Greatest Hits for $3 in a cutout bin, because I figured (correctly) it’d be a good way to each myself at least something on guitar.

And it worked!

“Follow Me” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were the first songs I ever managed to play coherently, reading from book of sheet music. “Back Home Again” was where I had my “ah hah!” moment on how fourths and fifths play together, and how to do a rolling sixth (which you use in every Chuck Berry song, and thus most everything the Rolling Stones and Mike Campbell ever played). “Take Me Home, Country Roads” taught me how relative minors work – and you can’t play anything on Born to Run without relative minors!

“Sunshine On My Shoulders” is the perfect song for teaching yourself the basics of fingerpicking (the whole thing is a languid eighth-note pattern – hard NOT to play right!). And “Rocky Mountain High” is a great little workout on how chords fit together (and, I discovered after thirty-odd years of being too cool for it, not a half-bad album or song); combine that with your finger-picking from “Sunshine”, above, and kablooie, you’re Mark Knopfler.  Just like that!

So while I hushed up about the whole “I own a John Denver record” thing by about eighth grade, it was that record that was the key to playing the guitar, and playing the guitar was the key to whatever self-confidence I had as a teenager – including the self-confidence I needed to walk up to Bob Richardson and apply for my first radio job.

So it’s kind of a big deal.

The Clash, “London Calling”

Mostly first and second takes, recorded rough and ready, it was sort of the “do it yourself” album that spoke to my chaotic nature, making me think “I could do this!”.

Also, nobody else at Jamestown High School was into the Clash in 1979.  Which made me, for the first time in my life, way way way ahead of the curve.

Maybe the last, too – but let’s not get side-tracked, here.

Also, so good that I thought “I am going to have to get much better at what I do to do this”.

Bruce Springsteen, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”

I know, no surprise, if you’ve read this blog at all.  But I don’t care.

If you’ve known me *since* high school, you probably remember me talking about this album. The best album ever written about isolation – which certainly spoke to a kid in one of the most isolated places in the country.

Still my favorite album of all time.

The Who, “Who’s Next”

But let’s forget about “all time” here.

I was a nerdy, gawky, athletically inept teenager in a town that revered athletes. This album showed me that the guitar I was plinking away on could be my weapon of mass destruction, my full contact sport, my identity.  With a windmilling slash at my Fender, I slew dragons.

If you knew me in high school, you knew I wanted to be Pete Townsend.   I had enough gashes and bruises on my hand from “windmilling” accidents to prove my dedication.

Apropos not much.

The Day The Massed Choral Music Died

Say what you will about Russia and its history:  not good for the proverbial little guy, lots of death and misery, in a demographic death spiral…

…but if they do something well, it’s massed choral music.

And so I pay my regards to the Alexandrow Ensemble – known to generations as the Red Army Choir, during the Soviet era – whose military plane crashed in the Black Sea en route to entertain the troops in Syria.

As the big choirs go, they were bigger than most:

And the land of Tolstoy, Solzhenitzyn and Dostoyevskii writes even does jingo as an epic production:

RIP, Alexandrow Ensemble.

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.