Carry On Wayward Renegade, All Along The Watchtower

It’s not something I think about that much, but I do from time to time — why do Classic Rock stations sound the same, year after year? I wrote about this on my moribund blog a number of years ago and, based on recent listening to market-dominant KQRS, this list of faves hasn’t changed a bit:

In thinking about this list, a few things are worth noting:

  • The majority of the songs on this list are written in a minor key. If rock and roll is supposed to be uplifting, this group of songs isn’t it.
  • Of the bands listed here, the happiest band appears to be ZZ Top, who made their name initially as a bare-bones Texas blues trio, until they made their fortune hawking classic cars and leggy models. Make of that what you will.
  • Think back to any of the years listed here. Would you have had any interest in listening to songs that were recorded as long ago from that moment as these songs are from today? I didn’t hear much of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys or the Andrews Sisters in 1983, for example, nor do I recall seeking such things out. In fact, I’m more likely to seek out Bob Wills today than most of the songs listed here, right or wrong.
  • In my youth I was reliably informed that rock and roll was supposed to be about rebellious youth and revolution. While their politics were dodgy at best, the Clash was right about this much — you grow up and you calm down; you start wearing blue and brown. And so has the music of our youth.

Gil Scott-Heron, who doesn’t get much airplay these days, argued back then that the revolution will not be televised. But rest assured it will be monetized.

Delp and Goudreau

This is a CD I’ve been meaning to get around to for a long time, and finally checked off that box. It features two members of Boston, Brad Delp and Barry Goudreau. It was recorded in Goudreau’s home studio and released in 2003. The cover and reverse photos were taken on the beach near Goudreau’s home.

Delp was the clear, high, strong voice of Boston, and while Goudreau (on guitar) was sometimes overshadowed by Tom Scholz, he was part of the founding of Boston and, pun intended, instrumental in the sound of the first two Boston albums that together have sold over 30 million copies.

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One Place That Ain’t Looking Through Me

About a decade back, I heard an interview on All Things Considered with Sarfraz Manzoor, who’d just come out with his book Greetings from Bury Park – his memoir about growing up as a British-Pakistani in Luton, in the Midlands, and getting immersed in Bruce Springsteen’s music. And I think I sat in the garage for a solid half hour, catching the whole fascinating story; someone who couldn’t have come from a more different culture than me, getting pulled on the same musical and personal odyssey by the same bunch of records.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you can see the grab. Right? I don’t think I need to restate the obvious.

I caught the show the other night.

First things first: This isn’t Mama Mia with Springsteen music. While there is the requisite act of the movie where Manzoor’s fictionalized version of himself, “Javed”, gets the same burst of recogniton while listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, the musical epiphany only opens the door to all sorts of conflict in real life – which, in turn, illuminates all sorts of the musical themes.

Any description of “musical epiphanies” from ones’ teenage years is bound to swerve into the cloying and mawkish at times. Teenagers are cloying and mawkish, and it doesn’t matter what culture they’re from. And so the movie’s occasional short-cuts through plot points, via lyric drops or the occasional borderline production number that might – hell, probably will – come across as cringingly sentimental to the non-belever comes across as cringingly autobiographical to those who’ve (raises hand) been there.

So – did I enjoy the movie? Yes, but that wasn’t my main takeaway. It’s more accurate to say I felt a lot of it in the pit of my stomach. The movie took me back to a lot of things from my teens and twenties, in pretty much the same way Manzoor remembers them. That’s a good thing.


And – no spoilers, here – the music isn’t necessarily the most important point of the movie. There’ll be another post about that before too long.

Cons? Yep, there were a few.

It’d be impossible to do a movie about eighties Britain, especially as a Pakistani, without throwing in some of the politics of the era. And Manzoor’s memories of the era include a lot of the prattle of the anti-Thatcher left – which sounded at the time every bit as intolerent and libelous as Big Left’s cant against conservatives (to say nothing of Trumpkins) today. The infantlism of today’s campus “progressive” seems modeled on the prate and gabble of European lefties of the era. That, and the occasional bout of Thatcher-bashing were to be expected. That wasn’t unexpected, or especially dishonest. On the other hand, the rest of the movie – which imparted a lot of humanity on Manzoor’s very traditional Pakistani family and most of the movie’s other, very disparate characters – had me expecting much better of one of the side-conflicts; when “Javed” met his (inevitably left-wing) love interest’s (inevitably) Tory parents, they were portrayed with all the nuanced humanity of a Joe Piscopo sketch on SNL. It was a throwaway – and the movie would have been better had it been thrown away.

So do I recommend it? If you’re not a Springsteen fan, you may not “get” it. Or then maybe you will. Who knows?

If you are? It’d be interesting to see what you think.

ASIDE: By the way – the movie reminded me that my theory – Springsteen is America’s best conservative songwriter – has been completely vindicated this past year. I suspect this would be to the chagrin of a former regular commenter – but alas we’ll never know.

More coming in the next week.

Stay Hard, Stay Hungry, Stay Alive If You Can

I got an email from MPR the other day.  It was actually a combo email from MPR News and “The Current” asking what song we thought best summed up the state of the nation during this election season.

I wrote back with my suggestion – a song that has layer upon layer of significance to our nation, our society, our zeitgeist and the election itself.  A song that’s all about dreaming a big dream, and having those dreams run up on the rocks, and hitting that moment where you have to think “was that a dream or was it a mirage?”.  A song about that moment when you have to decide – do I drown, or do I sack up and carry on?

A song about truth and consequences.  A song that, on a work week after a long trip across the prairie, reminds me of the huge swathe in the middle of this country, the square states full of bitter gun-clinging jebus freaks like me that are, in fact, my home and background and blood and my past.  And that is, with a blessing and a tailwind, may be our nation’s future.

The song is “This Hard Land” by Bruce Springsteen.

It’s a song he wrote during a John Steinbeck jag, for Born in the USA, and that should have been on the album (be honest – would anyone miss “Downbound Train?”) and was in its day one of the most sought-after bootlegs in Springsteen’s oeuvre.

So many layers to this song, and to the reasons I chose it.

First verse?

Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds Ive sown

Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land

Thomas Hobbes, the 18th-century British intellectual who was one of the patron saints of conservatism as we understand it today, couldn’t have expressed better the fundamental conservative ideal that “life’s a bitch”, that there are forces that are bigger and more powerful than men and their dreams.

But well return to that.

Now me and my sister from germantown

We did ride

We made our bed sir from the rock on the mountainside

We been blowin around from town to town

Lookin for a place to stand

Where the sun burst through the cloud

To fall like a circle

Like a circle of fire down on this hard land

America is a land of myths.  Mostly big and glorious ones – like the ones that drew our forefathers, like the singer and his sister, from their old homes, the Germantowns and Norwayvilles and Saigon Centers, to This Hard Land.   Much of what America sees as its own self-image – whether the wilderness of the Badlands or the wilderness of the tradiing floor or the inventors garage or the moon or the neighborhood or the entrenched beliefs of the human heart – is about the epic American dream of going where your ancestors have never gone before, of being something they weren’t.

And over the past seventy years, it’s become about the marketing of those dreams, whether via John Wayne or “Hope and Change”.

But like all dreams – and their cousins, the myth and the chimera – they run afoul a brutal reality:

Now even the rain it don’t come round

It don’t come round here no more

And the only sound at nights the wind

Slammin the back porch door

It just stirs you up like it wants to blow you down

Twistin and churnin up the sand

Leavin all them scarecrows lyin face down

Face down in the dirt of this hard land

The prairie is dotted with the remains of old farm homes from families that just didn’t make it, flindered remains of their back doors still slamming in the wind.  Just as America is dotted with businesses that tried and failed, leaving behind empty buildings, rusty frames, doors drifting back and forth in the desultory breeze.  And yes, the wreckage of government initiatives like the one that’s dominated our political life this past presidential term, a dream – a chimera from a brief majority four years ago – of an undertaking that, despite the fervency of its dreamers’ beliefs, has failed as completely as the sodbuster in the song.  Whether through poor design, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being fundamentally wrong or – like the singer and his sister – just from suffering a bad run of luck in the face of a merciless and uncaring Nature, all of human existence is a tough grind dominated by forces we don’t, by ourselves, control.

Being human, we attempt to control them anyway – to bring order to the chaos, and to tame the untameable:

 From a building up on the hill

I can hear a tape deck blastin’ “Home on the Range”

I can see them Bar-M choppers

Sweepin’ low across the plains

Its me and you, Frank, we’re lookin for lost cattle

Our hooves twistin and churnin up the sand

Were ridin in the whirlwind searchin for lost treasure

Way down south of the Rio Grande

Were ridin cross that river

In the moonlight

Up onto the banks of this hard land

It’s human nature to try to bottle up and contain Nature, whether the nature around us or the nature inside us.

And it’s one of the great dividing lines in human nature, the one between those who are content for their “home on the range” to come recorded, to have the almighty Bar-M or The Almighty  or The One out looking for the strays, for those who are just fine being Julia“…

…and those whose dreams, or mirages, embrace the chaos that ensues where life and Nature, natural and human, are in conflict.

And the last verse is for them:

Hey frank wont ya pack your bags

And meet me tonight down at liberty hall

Just one kiss from you my brother

And we’ll ride until we fall

Well sleep in the fields

Well sleep by the rivers and in the morning

Well make a plan

Well if you can’t make it

Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive

If you can

And meet me in a dream of this hard land

Whether it’s the pioneer seeking more elbow room from all the other settlers and their choppers and tape decks, or from bouncing back from a failure, or a big part of a nation taking a deep breath and saying “this is not the path we want”, or, I dunno, Atlas shrugging for all I know, this verse – with allusions to Okies loading up their trucks and bidding their relatives goodbye, or immigrants climbing on the boat and wishing their old lives auf wiedersehen, or men kissing their wives and kids and mustering down at Liberty Hall as the drums and the hobnails rattle on the wind, or a people saying “thanks, Julia, and all the best to you and that mysterious niece and/or nephew that appeared a few frames back, but I’m looking for something a little more…epically mythical” – is the American myth; the idea that we are a restless pack of strivers looking for a newer, better, freer horizon.

Beyond that, in terms of politics today?  Every generation dreams of leaving a better world to their kids, as I do for my kids and my new granddaughter. We have a distinct chance, as things go, of leaving them a world that my ancestors in the Dust Bowl would look at and whisper “there but for the grace of God…”.  And unlike the the Okies, our immigrant forefathers and protagonist in “This Hard Land”, this time there’s noplace to ride away to to start over.  We’re stuck with this hard land.

For me, the song also is further evidence that Springsteen – my favorite American R&R songwriter since Johnny Cash – is America’s best conservative songwriter. Looking at his prime output from the height of his muse, there’s a case to be made that once you peel off the rhetoric and the Hollywood and the political dross of the past decade, his music was fundamentally conservative.  And I’ll make the case, since American conservatism’s most important non-electoral mission is to engage in this nation’s larger non-political culture.

More on this after the election.

Anyway – ask a question, you’ll get an answer.  Usually.

UPDATE:  Hobbes, not Hume.  Sigh.  It’s been a few years.

UPDATE 2:  Welcome, Bob Collins’ readers!

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Just Like A Spirit In The Night

Someday if I ever made a movie of my own life,  most of the soundtrack would probably be Springsteen songs.  I associate one song or another with most of the big milestones of my life – teenage angst, love found and lost, hope, determination, grief, whatever you got.

The E Street Band is just a tad greater than the sum of a bunch of great parts; the beating heart of the Weinberg/Tallent rhythm section, Miami Steve’s raw, sloppy-yet-perfect backup vocals, the Big Man’s sax garnishing the whole thing…

…but under and around and occasionally soaring above it all was the soul of the E Street Band’s sound – Danny Federici and his Hammond B-3.

Federici passed away yesterday at age 58 from complications of skin cancer after nearly forty years of playing with Springsteen:

It was Federici, along with original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez, who first invited Springsteen to join their band.

(“Child”, with Springsteen, Federici, Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez and Vini Roslin)

By 1969, the self-effacing Federici — often introduced in concert by Springsteen as “Phantom Dan” — was playing with the Boss in a band called Child. Over the years, Federici joined his friend in acclaimed shore bands Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and the Bruce Springsteen Band.

Federici became a stalwart in the E Street Band as Springsteen rocketed from the boardwalk to international stardom. Springsteen split from the E Streeters in the late ’80s, but they reunited for a hugely successful tour in 1999.

Federici and Springsteen were half of “Steel Mill”, a first-generation metal band (of all things) that predated the E Street Band by a couple of years, and whose bootlegs have been for thirty years among the most sought-after in the boot business. 

  It’s no accident that the Springsteen moments that I remember the most are, most often, the ones most keenly-accented by Federici’s raw, understated, yet always dead-on playing:

  • The figure in the chorus of “Incident on 57th Street” (The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle); it’s only three notes repeated eight times, dissolving into a high, fat wash of chords keening above the raw longing of Bruce’s vocals; “Puerto Rican Jane – oh won’t you tell me…”, but without it, it’d be just another lovelorn guy baying at the moon; Federici’s part adds and accents the tension, the hope, the passion. 
  • “Jungleland” (from Born to Run);  The huge swell as Bruce roars “From the churches to the jails, tonight all is silence in the world…” signals that this song is going downtown to rumble.
  • “Sandy”, from E Street Shuffle, featuring Danny on an unforgettable accordion part

  • The Farfisa part that propels the choruses of Born in the USA’s “Glory Days” (and is virtually a sample of the even cooler part on “I’m a Rocker” (The River).
  • “Backstreets” (from Born to Run); Federici does two things that stand out in this song – one of my favorites, and easily the best “breakup” song of all time.  From the bridge (“Endless juke joints and Valentino drag…”) to the end, of course, Federici’s B3 howls with all the anger and longing that this angry, longing song deserves; the organ is the atmosphere.  But it’s at the beginning – the long intro Federici shared with pianist Roy Bittan – that is the most ingenious.  The organ part starts low, mournful and sad, with broad chords behind Bittan’s eighth-note riffing.  But then, when the band comes in, Federici swells up into a higher register, playing a nervous, jittery pentatonic counterpoint behind the rest of the band.  It’s so subtle you have to listen hard for it – and you usually sense it rather than hear it.  But it adds the angst-y undercurrent to the intro; while the rest of the band broadly thumps away, the organ twitches and twists in the background like all the unanswered questions behind any lousy breakup. 
  • “Jackson Cage” (The River) – Federici is the propulsion behind this, one of Bruce’s rawest sprints, almost challenging Weinberg to keep up. 

And of course, the entire album Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Dave Marsh once wrote that Born to Run belonged the Clarence Clemons and Roy Bittan – but Darkness belonged to Federici (and the low end of Weinberg’s drum kit, the toms and bass).   Marsh was right, as he usually was (when not writing about politics, anyway); Federici has almost too many great moments to catalog; the burst of howling joy in “Badlands” (especially the roaring swell in the second verse – “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king…”), the fatigue-ridden last-call motif on “Factory”, the indigo atmospherics in the title cut…

…and, perhaps best of all, “Racing In The Street”, which constantly dukes it out with “Darkness…” for the title of my favorite Bruce song.  The song is the flip side of “Born To Run” – it’s about growing up and realizing after you’ve driven your suicide machine through the mansions of glory, that party’s got a morning after – the rest of your life. 

And the final coda, after the last chorus – “tonight my baby and me are gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands…” – is entirely driven by Federici; slow and mournful at the beginning, and then brightening like the sun rising in the east over The Shore, as another day begins as things pick up tempo and life starts up again.

Federici was the quietest member of the band, the one who stayed the most in the background, the one whose career was most-closely tied to the band.


  Unlike Nils Lofgren, he had no previous solo career; he never forged much of a second career, like Steve Van Zandt’s acting or Max Weinberg’s now-long career as a bandleader, or for that matter Gary Tallent’s as a producer; he didn’t have the force of a supersized personality like Clarence Clemons to boot doors open.  His single solo album, the jazzy and largely instrumental Flemington, was and remains obscure.  He reportedly took the E Street Band’s extended hiatus, from 1990 to 1998, the hardest; rumors among the E Street fan hive had it that he had a bit of a drinking problem; the band’s reunion and tour in ’99 was, the rumors had it, a huge boost to his life. 

Whatever.  The fact remained that whatever the rest of the E Street’s bands parts brought to the table, Federici added the atmospherics, the foreboding, the tingle of anticipation…the soul of the band.

RIP, Danny Federici.

Music Appreciation

Among people who care about, or at least listen to music, the argument is eternal; were the eighties a vast wasteland, or among the greatest periods of the rock and roll era?

The answer, of course, is “neither”.

Music – specifically, genres of music – conform only loosely with calendar decades. But there are most definitely eras in music, periods when popular music had dynamics that acted differently on each other, to help create music that was more – or, often, less – memorable.

And in American/Western popular music in the past fifty-five or so years, the two main dynamics have been the style and relative dynamism of “White Music” and “Black Music”. The different styles of “White” music (starting with country, rockabilly and folk) and “Black” music (R and B, Blues, Jazz, early Rock and Roll) have spent the past sixty years (as regards the rock and roll era) mixing and mingling and, occasionally, returning to their neutral corners; each of those movements affected popular music; generally, the parts of popular music that were the most dynamic and interesting were the parts where “White” and “Black” styles mixed and mingled the most, a place that’s changed, or even flashed into and out of existence, from time to time throughout the past fifty or sixty years.

So, with an aim toward retiring the whole, age-old, misleading “what decade is better” meme, let’s look at how popular music has really ebbed and flowed; in cycles of 5-7 years driven by events, rather than in ten year cycles driven by the calendar.

By the way, I’m only looking at mass-market popular music, here. Keep your observations on the vitality of Finnish Zombie Metal to yourselves.

Era: Pre-Rock and Roll (1948-1953)

  • Events: World War II ends; veterans start creating the “baby boom”.
  • White Music: Traditional pop music, with some light jazz/big band overtones. Peggy Lee, the Lettermen and other traditional, factory pop prevail.
  • Black Music: R and B, and the first “rock and roll” – still heavily blues based – starts percolating. Very few mainstream white artists copied it (although the likes of Pat Boone did, in fact, start to cover R and B in a very “cleaned-up” form)
  • Results: Largely-forgotten music, either because it was outside traditional marketing (black) or just pretty forgettable (white).

Era: Early Rock and Roll (1954-1958)

  • Events: With the Eisenhower era in full bloom, and the Greatest Generation becoming established and running a very stable, prosperous ship, kids – including the nascent “Baby Boom” – were developing the spare time and disposable money to develop a “youth culture” with – for the first time – it’s own music.
  • Black Music: R and B morphed into what white kids recognized (and can still recognize) as “rock and roll”, as the likes of Chuck Berry started overtly influencing white artists…
  • White Music: …like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and so on, who brought black music to a white mass audience (and opened up the white mass-market audience for black artists’ own work) for the first time.
  • Results: The first golden age of Rock and Roll, caused by the mixing and mingling of white and black music and the first “youth” culture in history.

The Brill Building Era (1958-1962)

  • Events: The world got a little crazier, with the Soviets launching Sputnik and the Cold War threatening for the first time to reach out and touch Americans at home. The Eisenhower era ends in a recession.
  • White Music: After Elvis is drafted (the legend goes), white popular music re-trenched into its pre-1953 pattern, with sanitized pop artists like Fabian, Bobby Rydell and the like performing very traditional pop (with very well-scrubbed R’nB overtones).
  • Black Music: Back underground!  A new generation of black performers – James Brown, Sam Cooke – as well as the Motown label, were just getting started.
  • Results: Largely-forgettable pop music, memorable more for its novelty acts than its hits.

The Golden Age of the 45 (1962-1968)

  • Events: Youth culture metastasized as the boomers went to high school, then college.
  • White Music: The Beach Boys dragged pop back from its nadir. Bob Dylan makes folk music a big business. The Beatles re-packaged R’nB, the Rolling Stones put blues on the Top Forty, and suddenly “Black” music was the mainstream…
  • Black Music: …even when performedy by black artists. Jimi Hendrix puts the blues on the Top Forty, and Motown and Stax/Volt bring R’nB to a mass audience.
  • Results: Black and white music cross-pollinate, spawning the most creative period yet in popular music.

The Album Age (1968-1972)

  • Events: The protest movement begets the “Summer of Love”, which begat the descent of (the most-publicized part of) boomer “youth culture” into navel-gazing, self-referential irrelevance.
  • White Music: Awash in drugs and self-referential navel-gazing, white music splinters into shades of ultra-white (the singer-songwriter genre with its sublime and ridiculous extremes), drug-induced-stupid (the Doors), art-rock (sublime examples like The Who, ridiculous ones like Emerson Lake and Palmer) and blues-influenced music (Cream, Led Zeppelin) that would eventually morph into “metal”.
  • Black Music: As Hendrix drugs himself into irrelevance, Motown and Stax/Volt pulls away from crossover with white music, creating a golden age of R’nB – the peak of Motown and Stax/Volt’s sales, influence and creativity, with the likes of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Otis Redding the Stylistics and others driving the agenda.
  • Results: As the boomer “youth culture” splintered, so did music as a whole, as black and white music both fragmented into niches that would reflect their audiences, and be reflected in their genres.

The Malaise Era (1973-1979)

  • Events: As western civilization tried to commit suicide, music became both more escapist and more fragmented.
  • White Music: Escapist pop both loud (glitter rock, Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, Boston, Foreigner), not so loud (America, Captain and Tenille, Fleetwood Mac) and inane (Alan O’Day, Rupert Holmes, the Starland Vocal Band) dominated the Top40 charts. The only real sources of dynamism, besides the punk/new-wave breakout that started in the early seventies and peaked in about ’77, was the loved/hated cross-pollination…
  • Black Music: …with black/gay disco music, itself a product of R and B’s collapse into excess.
  • Results: The golden age of the Big Rock Star, the Top Forty Hit, and the homogenization of radio.

The Alternative Era (1980-1986)

  • Events: Ronald Reagan engaged the Soviets and put the “F*** Yeah!” back into “America”. The malaise lifted. American culture got a new lease on life.
  • White Music: The splintering of punk and new wave, as well as a rapid plummet in the cost of technology, brought an unprecedented wave of creativity. The seventies pop establishment was pushed aside; artists like Dire Straits, Talking Heads, The Cars, the Police and Tom Petty, fringey underground figures in 1978, dominated the charts by 1982. Pop, Rock and R’nB mixed and matched and interbred in a thousand different styles.  One of the best R’nB/Dance Rock bands was six Australians; one of the best rock and roll bands of the era…
  • Black Music: …was also one of the best and most influential R’nB bands of the era, with two black guys, two white guys and two white women led by a 5’4″ black guy from Minneapolis blurring the lines between rock, pop and R’nB so adeptly that huge swathes of the pop audience stopped keeping track. The first big rap hit was performed by three white guys from Brooklyn; the next, by a couple of black guys who looped a white band who got started by dressing up the the blues and R’nB in glitter-rock clothes.
  • Results: The best, most creative era in pop music since Sergeant Pepper, a time when black and white and pop and rock and dance and metal and everything in-between mixed and matched and interbred and just plain made things fun.

The Style-Over-Substance Era (1987-1992)

  • Events: The Berlin Wall fell. History ended.
  • White Music: Hair metal supplanted the variants of new wave, synth-pop, roots/heartland rock and power pop that had dominated the charts during the Reagan administration. Grunge came, grumped about, and flamed out in a depressive “poof”.
  • Black Music: Black music morphed into primarily hip-hop, and ceded rock to the white boys. And with the likes of Public Enemy, NWA and the DOC, became a hell of a lot more interesting than the white music of the era.
  • Results: Unbelieveably dull. Seriously. “Kill Me” dull.

The Return Of The Seventies (1993-2000)

  • Events: With history all over, people could focus on having fun. Unfortunately, if you judge by the music of the era, they failed.
  • White Music: In the pre-Ipod, pre-Napster era, white music returned to the seventies. From the boy bands (N*SYNC, Backstreet boys) to pop-rock (Alanis Morissette, Gin Blossoms), “safe” was the word.
  • Black Music: R and B and hip-hop became almost inseparably intertwined – and almost-insufferably dull. The inventiveness of Public Enemy and the wry combativeness of NWA was replaced with the dull, thudding thuggishness of…well, just about everything in the genre.
  • Results: Rock and roll was dead. Pop music was largely no more interesting, in general, than it had been between 1957 and 1963.

The IPod Era (2000-Present)

  • Events: History started again.
  • White And Black Music: Everything is available for free. While major label music is safer and more constrained than ever, technology promises (and so far it’s just a promise) to let musicians outflank the major-label system.
  • Results: Damned if I know.

So as we see, there really are no “decades” in popular music, merely cycles of 4-7 years. The best of those cycles – 1954-1958, 1962-1968 and 1980-1986 – were times when the usual divides between “white” and “black”, and “underground” and “mass market” got scrambled beyond conventional recognition.

The other times? Business as usual.

That should settle that question once and for all.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XL

Tonight was the big night. Sunday, December 28, 1986. It was going to be a huge night on two fronts.

The evening would kick off with my band’s first gig at Williams’ Uptown Bar on Hennepin in Minneapolis.

Then, after load-out, I’d race out to KSTP to do my show. I was going to interview a childhood idol of mine.


When you play in a dinky garage band, it’s easy to dream big. Sitting in your home studio writing music, or standing around in the basement listening to your band’s progress, and especially standing on stage in front of an appreciative crowd (or “crowd”), it was easy to think “next stop, the big time”. The optimism that accompanies the sort of muted arrogance that makes one think that anyone actually cares to hear what you write makes it easy to think, on reading one’s lyrics, hearing one’s practices, and seeing people watching you play, that you’ve got it going on.

But loading-in usually levels that out nicely.

Turns out I was the only driver in my band. The other three guys bused everywhere. And while we didn’t have a lot of equipment by the standards of the bands I’d played in high school (where we had to haul a PA system along with our instruments), there was enough – two guitars and a bass, their amps, a drum kit, and a Crumar T1 organ – and it didn’t haul itself, and it wasn’t going to fit into the back of my Jeep. I’d managed to borrow a van from one of my roommate’s parents, though. I got to the band’s house, and we started hauling our gear out of the stinky basement into the frigid late afternoon.

The good part – it was only about five blocks to the bar. The bad part – we were early.

The headliner that night was a group called “Bathyscope”. The name meant nothing to us – yet. What we did know was that they had a ton of gear – guitars, bass, two keyboard players (whose equipment is always heavy and bulky) and a drummer with a huge kit, and a box packed solid with other percussion instruments and stage props – and bigger pretensions, it seemed, in getting it set up and soundchecked. It took them a solid ninety minutes to get their gear up on stage, soundchecked, and ready to go.

Then it was our turn. As the opener, we were supposed to put our gear in front of the headliners, plug in, and grab a sound-check – if we had the time. By the time Bathyscope got off stage, it was 8:25. We were supposed to go on at nine.

We pulled, hauled and plugged, and got our stuff set up and more or less ready by about ten ’til, and started our soundcheck – a few bars of one of our songs. People were filing into the joint. The Bathyscope people – who looked, except for the drummer, to be distinctly “uptown” by the standards of Minneapolis in the day – were not visibly impressed with our Iron City Houserockers-Via-Lou Reed vibe.

But it didn’t last long. Will, our drummer, stopped in mid-song. I turned – he was frantically fiddling with something under his snare drum. I walked over.

“My hi-hat’s broken”.

Five minutes until we’re supposed to start. Crap.

Our options were two: Borrow a couple of pan lids from the kitchen, or hope someone would come through for us.

Bathyscope’s drummer – a big guy who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, the only black guy in the room – came up on stage. He and Will conferred back behind the drum kit – and then he reached back to his own rig and grabbed his hi-hat. They turned to moving Will’s broken ‘hat out of the way, and putting his in place.

And we were on. Larry Sahagian, sitting at the sound board, went on the crackly, on-its-last-legs PA system and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – Tenant’s Union”.


The gig itself – well, it was rough.

Turns out that excitement does make people go a lot faster than they think they are. The tapes we heard after the gig were shocking; it sounded like we were playing 50% faster than we were supposed to. The sound was garbled, my voice sounded like a fractured, out of breath yelp, and we sounded more like four guys playing at the same time than a band of four guys playing together.

The crowd was worse. There was a decent house, about 3/4 full…

…that seemed pretty uninterested in us. The clapping between songs was muted and wan. We weren’t dying – just gravely injured.

Still, I had fun; to me, there’s never been a feeling quite like working a room, even if it’s not perfect. We played ten songs, eight of them mine. And, rough as we were, by about the sixth or seventh song we started finding whatever groove we had; we were loud, (too) fast, and even though things were rough, we had a certain power to our delivery that felt like climbing on a big motorcycle, one that may need a tuneup but still makes the air crackle with power just a little bit.

During the third to the last song – “Five Short Words” – one guy back at the bar stood up with a look of recognition and a broad smile on his face, and started clapping along. I played the whole song directly to him – might as well reinforce success – and filed the guy’s face away for later.

After the tenth song, we were done. There was scatted clapping as we unplugged and started hauling our gear out of the way and Bathyscope started moving theirsinto place.

We hauled our gear out to the van, and sat down to watch.

And figured out quickly why the crowd hadn’t really dug us. “Bathyscope” was a jazz-pop band with very arty aspirations. The lead singer, a (how do we say this in our politically-correct age) aggressively gay guy dressed in an untucked tunic with laurel wreath (!) on his head, danced about the stage like an oversized dwarf from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” scene. They set their amps and keyboards (and their stage props) on – I’m not kidding – doric half-columns. The band was modestly tight – the drummer was amazing, and the rest of the band was not great, not bad – and extremely ornate in that music-major-y kind of way. It was very unlike our thrashy din.


As they finished their set, the singer announced “Come see our art next Saturday at the Riflesport Gallery!”

Double Um.

Before we left, I walked back to the bar. The guy who’d been clapping walked up to me.

“That song you did – that was a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wasn’t it?”

It was.

Six weeks work, and our fan base is a fellow English major and Russian Lit geek.

I also saw Larry Sahagian, who paid us our twenty bucks. “You guys did all right, but you were totally the wrong band to open for these guys”.

Anyway. At least none of our friends had seen us.


We went back to the basement and loaded our gear downstairs. By the time we were done, it was 12:30AM. I had to race out to the station to get on the air. I got there at 1AM – a little late, given the obsessiveness I put into show prep at that point in my “career” – but I got down to it.

Among my various geekinesses as a child and teenager was a fascination with fighter planes and aerial combat. I knew a little bit about many of the world’s classic dogfights. The protagonist of one of my favorite dogfights – a Navy F-4 ace from the Vietnam War that I’d been reading about for years – had just written a book. I had booked him for a phone interview from his home in LA.

After five months of doing the show, I was starting to settle into a bit of a groove. The awkard halting of my first couple attempts at guest interviews had been replaced by a little confidence and a tad of polish – which is damning by faint praise, but whatever – and at least I knew the subject matter for this interview pretty intimately.

The interview went…very well. It clicked as well as the gig had not. I knew the material in the book, and the guest appreciated it. I knew things about his story that, clearly, he wasn’t used to radio interviewers knowing. And the callers surprised me; one of the callers had even served on the carrier, the Constellation, with the guest during the Vietnam war, and added a lot to the commentary.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it went well – I heard the following week from the PR agent that the guest had had more fun on my little show than with any other interview he’d given.

I could have told her that.

I drove home that night – exhausted, cold, and giddy. The music career needed some work, but was off and running. And for the first time since July, I was starting to feel genuinely confident as a talk show host. I felt, for the first time, like I could fill in for any of the daytime hosts, and not embarass anyone in the process.

I could see the top of the world from where I sat in my Jeep.


Postlude: It’s interesting to me, twenty years later, to note that I had one degree of separation with both fame and infamy that night (three, if you count Larry Sahagian, whose band the Urban Guerillas was about to release their proto-grunge classic Attack of the Pink, Heat-Seeking Moisture Missiles.  But for the benefit of those who weren’t marinating in Twin Cities underground music twenty years ago, I won’t count that).

The personable, friendly, good-samaritan drummer for Bathyscope went on to much bigger and much better things. He turned out to be Mike Bland – at the time an Augsburg student, who was gigging for a few bucks on his way to a career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in the business, as well as stints with Prince and the New Power Generation and Soul Asylum.

The author and fighter pilot? Well, he was Duke Cunningham – still a hero, in those days, known for shooting down five North Vietnamese jets, including three on one climactic day, long before his political career and eventual status as poster-boy for Congressional corruption.

I knew ’em both when.