Things I’m Supposed To Love, But Can’t Stand: REM

Yeah, yeah, I know – most important American band of the last twenty years, bla bla bla.

Save it.

REM – Michael Stipe, Pete Buck, Mike Mills and the long-departed Bill Berry – have been critical darlings and, for the most part, commercial powerhouses for a generation now (it used to really bug my stepson that after a jag of feeling hip that he’d gotten the new REM record, I pulled out my copy of Murmur from my sophomore year of college. Psych).

Well, good for them.

Here’s the maddening thing about REM; I can scarcely listen to a single one of their albums all the way through.  Pete Buck once described the band’s is-it-a-stereotype-or-is-it-a-cliche style:”Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things. That’s what everyone thinks and to a certain degree, that’s true.”  REM’s music is all oblique this and badly-enunciated enigmatic reference that and sophomore poetry-class the other thing, and always, always Michael Stipe prancing around going “hreydee-yo hree murrup” and “and nuh freyn konnukter fez, ryever ape, pake a mape”…

Mind you, I don’t mind oblique, enigmatic and sophomoric per se. And I can’t knock the band itself; Mills and Berry were an excellent Watts ‘n Wyman-style rhythm section; Mills has a distinctive yet perfect backing vocal style; Pete Buck is…well, perfectly functional given his chosen limits. And Michael Stipe is a good singer with an excellent (albeit not Bono-like) and distinctive voice.

But most of REM’s music invariably bores me stiff…

…except that every album (that I bothered listening to, which hasn’t happened since 1998’s Up, includes one, and only one, song that I just absolutely love, love love – which always comes out after  the dreary, minor-key mid-tempo southern-mythology-sodden ballad.

Album by album:

  • Murmur – was entirely dispensable – except that life without “Radio Free Europe” would be a lot poorer.  But it’s more a visceral thing – the rhythm section’s tight snap, the cool (if inscrutable) hook line, the zing of the thing.  Certainly not the lyrics, as delivered by Michael Stipe  “Sigh this elf if radio munna slay/Reason it muld paw ish utta pray/poodat poodata poodta up your wah/Mrs. Islecumfray ah haul.  Raving station, be fly…”
  • Reckoning led off with the “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, or as Stipe pronounced it, “Um Hawry”, which makes me nod off a bit 25 years later – but followed up with “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”, which was a really good song.
  • Fables of the Reconstruction – Produced by Joe Boyd, who produced Richard Thompson’s classic “Shoot Out The Lights”, Fables breaks the pattern only slightly: lead-off single “Driver 8” didn’t suck, and follow-up “Can’t Get There From Here” is actually IPod-worthy.
  • Lifes Rich Pageant – Not even Don Gehman – who’d just produced John Mellencamp’s classic Scarecrow, could make most of this album less tedious – except for the gorgeous “Fall On Me”.
  • Document – “The One I Love” almost made me pound my ears out with a potato masher.  And “Exuming McCarthy” may have been the dumbest anti-Reagan song in a decade full of standouts.  But “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” jumps in at last minute and staves off self-mutilation.
  • Green – What if the Brill Building was in Athens, Georgia in 1988, instead of Philadelphia in 1962?  You’d have gotten “Stand”, and most of the album.  Except “Orange Crush”, which, dude.
  • Out of Time – I used to wonder if “Losing My Religion” was a self-parody; if I were going to write a spoof of REM, it’d sound just like LMR, and have just about the same lyrics.  But I still love “Shiny Happy People”, although having Kate Pearson on board helps.
  • Automatic for the People – Small breach of protocol: “Everybody Hurts” and “Man In The Moon” don’t suck.
  • Monster – Bla bla bla “What’s the Frequency KennetH” bla bla bla.
  • New Adventures in Hi-Fi – Broke the pattern again – all of it sucked.
  • Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate – never heard any of ’em.

But as with most of these “things I should love but don’t” pieces, it’s not so much the artist as the artist’s fans. And it’s not just that REM fans are just this side of Grateful Dead fans in terms of worshipping.  No, it’s the damage they did.

An alt-rock radio program director I once knew summed up alt-rock in the late eighties: “There are two types of music”, said the learned sage; “Noisy rock, and Jangly rock”.  The poles of his universe were Dinosaur Junior on the one hand, and REM on the other.  And this program director was hardly alone.

So for a couple of years in the late eighties and early nineties, alt-rock diverged into two miserable paths: sludgy, mopey glop that eventually morphed into grunge, and jangly, folky music in a zillion nearly-identical permutations (The Connells, Wednesday Week, Aztec Camera, Let’s Active!) that eventually morphed into…

…well, landfill.  Nobody remembers any of it.  Not even – be honest! – most of what REM did.

Well, some of it, we do.  Only we can’t make out the damn words.

Things I’m Supposed To Love, But Can’t Stand: The Simpsons

Yeah, yeah, I know – funny show, groundbreaking comedy, yadda yadda.

Look, don’t get me wrong; I like The Simpsons.  I liked Life In Hell, the  comic that brought creator Matt Groening to scuzzy, underground prominence in the eighties.  I liked The Tracy Ullman Show, on which The Simpsons started as a series of interstitial shorts.  I even enjoy watching the show, usually (except for the last five or ten years, when the show hasn’t been nearly as good as the first ten or fifteen years, or whatever).

No, it’s not The Simpsons I dislike, per se.

But The Simpsons are a lot like Star Trek; it’s not  the show itself that bugs me.  It’s the fans.

Over-the-top Simpsons buffs – the people who sneak show references into the most mundane bits and pieces of everyday life, who sit around cafeterias and trade show trivia for day after day, who answer serious questions with vaguely-appropriate Homer quotes – remind me of Star Trek fans, the kind that’ve adopted “Gene Roddenberry” as their worldview and live the creed in their daily lives.

They’re just like the Comic Store Guy…

…oh, crap.  Now I’ve done it.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: Rocky III

Conventional wisdom is that Rocky is the only part of the franchise worth watching (or was, until Rocky Balboa, the sixth part of the series, came out).

But I beg to differ, from the CW and from most critics; I loved Rocky III.

The film featured Sylvester Stallone and “Mister T” – both of them at the brink of the “caricature” phases of their careers (from with Stallone only emerged in the mid-nineties, and T has not), but not quite there yet.

I saw this film about the same time I was drifting toward conservatism.  And that may have been one of the reasons I loved it; Rocky, the old-school plugger and ex-kneebuster from Philly (along with former foe and now-teammate Apollo Creed) were the old school; T’s Clubber Lang represented all that was gauche and vile about modernity.

And yet, for a film that basically was a cartoon, I loved the Clubber Lang character; T played it with visceral, uncompromising anger that went – I thought, and still think – way past the material.

Look, Mister T will probably never do Shakespeare in the Park – but after watching Clubber Lang, I was always disappointed he wound up on “The A Team” and chattering “I Pity Da Fool” for the rest of his career.

Rocky was, of course, a classic – one of my favorite movies ever.  Rocky II was, of course, utterly predictable; there was never a moment of suspense; you knew Apollo Creed was going down (and even though I’ve seen Rocky at least a dozen times, it’s still got suspense).

And even though I was a Republican by that time, Rocky IV was too obvious a “morning in America” Cold War movie even for me, the newly-minted Reagan voter; I knew the entire plot as I walked into the theater; First Blood was a much better movie.  I have yet to see V, and Balboa was another whole thing altogether (a great movie, but just…different).

But Rocky III?  I felt that one.

It’s a wrecking crew.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: Katrina And The Waves

Ask a random sample of people who were thirteen or older during the eighties “what is the decade’s most tiresome icon”, and you’ll get a lot of answers, depending on where one was at the time; Boy George, “We Are The World”, “Choose Life” T-shirts, Don Johnson, the “Flock of Seagulls'” dude’s haircut, the training scene from Flashdance…

…but as they go through their own personal lists, eventually most of them will get to “Walking On Sunshine“, the too-big-to-measure one-hit-wonder by Katrina and the Waves.

And it’s true; “Walking…” was very overplayed.

But the reason tragedy wasn’t that the song overstayed its welcome; it’s that it became synonymous with the group that played it.

And that’s a shame – because Katrina and the Waves were a really, really good band.

Even people who are sick to death of “Walking on Sunshine” admit that Katrina Leskanich, the band’s statuesque lead singer, had a voice and a half.  Of course, you have listen harder to hear that guitarist Kim Rew, in his first big gig after leaving the Soft Boys, had a way with bending and strangling chords into ad-hoc passages may not have been “Solos” in the Steve Vai sense of the term, but were really, really good.

But here’s the real cool thing about The Waves; they did something that very, very few bands had done since John Fogerty left Creedence Clearwater Revival, and that had become an almost lost art in the meantime; they wrote small, perfectly-crafted, three -minute pop songs that were shimmering little gems of pop perfection.  Perhaps your world was falling apart at 10AM; perhaps it’d still be falling apart at 10:04; but from 10 to 10:03, you could smile and go “dang, that’s cool”…

So yeah.  Forget the “Sunshine”.  Dig the wave.

Things I’m Supposed To Love, But Can’t Stand: Joni Mitchell

My whole musical life, from the mid-seventies on, whenever someone has wanted to portray themselves as the kind of hip that transcends mere temporal hipness, they’ll claim to be Joni Mitchell fans.

Joni Mitchell fandom has gone through a couple of phases; its original stretch in the late sixties through the mid-seventies, when Mitchell was putting out albums that got all sorts of attention, of course.  And then in the late eighties, when Prince confessed to being a huge Mitchell fan.

And today, in an era where quirky art-school girls with guitars is a booming genre, I’m hearing more would-be hypstrz claiming to be huge Joni Mitchell fans.

She always bugged me.

No, no – I know she’s an iconic songwriter, an amazing singer, and had been for almost forty years the leading voice of her particular genre.  She’s a spectacular talent with four decades of great material.

It  just happens to be a genre, and material, that leave me utterly cold.

Part of it is the whole “folk-jazz” thing.  Folk music is a form that I go hot and cold on, depending on the singer and the subject material.

And jazz?  Well, to paraphrase the Supreme Court wag, “I don’t know how to define what jazz I like, but I know it when I hear it”.

And while I know deep down inside that it’s wrong, and that I probably need to reset my internal musical CPU, I also have to cop to it; whenever Mitchell starts singing, I shut down a little inside.  “Oh, goodie; another overly ornamented pseudo-jazz reflection on romantic ambiguity, delivered via lovely-yet-grating high-alto warble that just grates the desire to sit still and analyze the deadeningly-oblique lyrics right out of me”.

I know.  It’s wrong.  Maybe I’ll work on it when time permits.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: Barney

I know, I know.  Barney’s irritating.

My apolitical friends hate Barney because of his relentless, up-beat cheeriness and, of course, the voice.

My “conservative” friends – or at least some of the ones that look too hard to find political significance in life’s pettiest minutuae – detest him because of his cushy, relentlessly PC world.

And truth be told, there’s much about Barney, the long-running PBS show for toddlers and pre-toddlers, that’ll drive you nuts. The music is relentlessly simple.  The supporting cast – Baby Bop’s voice and sing-song delivery will drive you to cheap liquor, and the kids at the fictional daycare are, let’s just say, not gifted actors.

But my various friends and I all have one thing in common.  We’re not two years old.

Too obvious?  OK.  Most of my Barney-hating friends and acquaintances had never spent a day at home with a pre-toddler.

It’s hard to explain to them; I owe that purple dinosaur my sanity.

Let me explain.

Years ago, when Bun was a baby, I was working nights.  Her mother worked days.  So during the day, I watched the baby.  Indeed, Bun was a pretty active baby – so I didn’t do a whole lot but watch the baby.  Bottles, diapers, doing stuff – there wasn’t a whole lot of time for luxuries and dissipations like going to the bathroom.

But every day, I could count on two half-hour breaks in the action, where baby Bun would be glued so firmly to the screen (also strapped so firmly into the Snugli) that I could go grab a glass of water and a quick (quick!) trip to the bathroom without fear of getting jolted to reality by a squall of screaming. Bun was mesmerized, which was thirty minutes of being tethered to the baby by 25 foot cable, rather than a three foot leash.  Barney was on twice a day back then, and those two showings were my little rewards to myself that kept me going through the day.

So yep.  I owe that dinosaur.  Bigtime.

And whatever you want to say about the tone of the show (as an adult, and not the show’s audience), the theme song was the first song Bun ever learned.  And there’s nothing in the world more cute than a toddler singing her or his first song – it wouldn’t matter if it were a Throbbing Gristle song.  Although thankfully it wasn’t.

So anyway.  Step off the dinosaur.

Things I’m Supposed To Love But Can’t Stand: Seinfeld

I’m not sure why I hate Seinfeld.

I know; it’s funny; hilarious, even.  I watch it, and I laugh.  Sometimes really, really hard.  Even at Kramer.  The show is well-written, no doubt about it.

And yet I find myself gritting my teeth and getting antsy when I watch it, just like I do when I’m behind some yapping, whiny, self-centered dolt in the line at the grocery store – the kind that argues over the price they thought they saw on the shelf.  When I’m not laughing, the show irritates the bejeebers out of me.

Part of it is, yuks aside, watching Michael Richards has, for me, always been like listening to fingers scratching on chalkboards.  I’ve had an almost-visceral distaste for Richards ever since Fridays, the abortive ABC whack at Saturday Night Live’s market back in 1980. Richards/Kramer is funny, occasionally? Sure.  Irritating?  Always, always, always.

But the biggest problem I’ve always had with Seinfeld is the overall attitude of the show.  If Seinfeld were a person, it’d be fussy, uptight, nit-picky, whiny, infantile and grating.

Watching too much Seinfeld for me would be like being snowbound in a hotel room with Mike Gelfand.

So I laugh.  And I grit my teeth.  And, usually, just don’t tune in.

Things I’m Supposed to Love But Can’t Stand: Glenn Beck

Note to Glenn Beck:

I actually like your TV show, if only because it’s better than most cable-TV methane-fests.

But on the air?

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Beck.  You’re a conservative, ergo right about everything underneath all the schtick.  Duly noted.

But if people were to take your hyperbole seriously, Glenn, we’d all be moving into bunkers in the mountains; I certainly want to after listening to you for an eveing.

So I say, Glenn Beck; lead the way.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: Gordon Lightfoot

To the musical hipster, Gordon Lightfoot has for almost thirty years been synonymous with getting a kiss from your great-aunt.

Let’s do try to set the record straight, here.

Lightfoot is one of the last, longest-living (commercially, anyway) survivors of the folk music boom of the early sixties. But I always took to Lightfoot because, while most of the “folk” music I heard was either screechingly, mawkishly self-righteous (Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez) or self-consciously archaic (all of Pete Seger and Woody Guthrie’s many, many imitators) or groaningly over-literate (Bob Dylan’s many, many, many imitators), Lightfoot was just a guy who wanted to entertain a crowd.  He was just a hard-drinking Canadian guy who looked and drank like the guy who refinished your driveway and sang songs about being hungover and unreliable.

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t follow some of the trends of the times – but even those shots were more interesting than their contemporaries.  Amid the suffocating masses of “protest” folk songs, songs like “Don Quixote” and “Circle of Steel” were deft, oblique yet engaging.

Unlike most of his folk contemporaries, his shots at pop stardom, “Sundown” and “Carefree Highway” and “Summer Side of Life” and many others, were refreshingly un-suffocated by the conventions of folk that weighed down so much of the rest of the genre.

Lightfoot comes in for particular abuse for his biggest, best-known hit, “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”.  Some call it “boring”.  Well, people are entitled to their own opinion; “Fitz” is an example of one of the most-abused folk forms, the “Really really long historical ballad” (which Lightfoot has done before, albeit without quite the same sales). But I always loved the song, partly because being from North Dakota, maritime lore is in my bones, and partly because the notion that, in 1976, when disco and dreary singer-songwriter treacle and Bachman Turner Overdrive ruled the airwaves, the notion that a five minute song about a shipwreck would sell a zillion songs should have been a plot for one of those “a couple of underdog guys hatch an improbable plot to make a zillion bucks in a scheme that everyone says has got to be a flop” movies.

So yeah.  I’m supposed to hate Gordon Lightfoot.  But I don’t.