It was my 15th birthday. We were having dinner at my grandma’s house.
That was our family tradition – Grandma Bea lived four blocks away, so we spent a lot of time there. I knew it was a blessing at the time, and that’s only grown moreso over time.
I actually remember two presents: the Avalon Hill game “Gettysburg”, which was actually three games in one (introductory, intermediate and incredibly mind-warpingly complex – and you can probably guess the one I went straight to) from my parents…
…and, from my little sister, this album:
…which fairly scandalized Dad, gave Mom a chuckle, and drew a “kids these days” roll of the eyes from my Grandma.
Hard to beliieve Who’s Next turns fifty today.
Of course, I played that album nearly white over the next few years. In its day, it was the perfect album for channeling adolescent angst into a fury of…well, activity, anyway. Rolling Stone, in one of its periodic “Best Albums” lists that came out in the magazines tween years, referred to it as “a mature. punk’s War and Peace“, which is the sort ofwannabe-Hemingway dross that passed for rock critiicism then as now…
…but it wasn’t wrong.
More than a few of my high school classmates remember me as “the kid who was always dropping Pete Townsend references” – sometimes literally (I could slip a lyric into nearly any situation) or physically (when I played in garage bands, I scissor kicked and duck-walked and windmilled away, and in one gig, when I cut my thumb on an exposed thread on a toggle switch on my guitar, just like Pete, it was the most joyous injury of my life.
I mean, has there ever been a more perfect explosion of adolescent energy?
And yes, of course they were caricaturing themselves – but then, what explosion of adolescent energy, angst and unfocused emotion isn’t, really?
Townsend has spent going on six decades exploring the world of the angry, angsty adolescent – he may be the world’s oldest t twenty-year-old art student, even today; even as The Who turned into a disappointment (after the death of Keith Moon) and then a nostalgia act after John Entwistle’s passing, he kept mining that same vein – often brilliantly. But I can’t say The Who grew with me.
But then there are days that there is no substitute for putting on Who’s Next and smiling at the sky.
Charlie Watts, one of the most estimable drummers and reluctant superstars in rock and roll history, dead at age 80:
A jazz aficionado at heart, Watts helped them become, with The Beatles, one of the bands who took rock ‘n’ roll to the masses in the 60s with classics like (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Get Off My Cloud and Sympathy for the Devil.
To me, Watts was always the prototype for the likes of Max Weinberg – the guy who keeps the insanity of a kinetic stage show firmly anchored. Even during my years of ambivalence about the Stones (I was a Who and Kinks guy), Watts mastery of his craft stood out.
Jagger and Richards could only envy his indifference to stardom and relative contentment in his private life, when he was as happy tending to the horses on his estate in rural Devon, England, as he ever was on stage at a sold-out stadium.
Watts did on occasion have an impact beyond drumming. He worked with Jagger on the ever more spectacular stage designs for the group’s tours. He also provided illustrations for the back cover of the acclaimed 1967 album “Between the Buttons” and inadvertently gave the record its title. When he asked Stones manager Andrew Oldham what the album would be called, Oldham responded “Between the buttons,” meaning undecided. Watts thought that “Between the Buttons” was the actual name and included it in his artwork.
To the world, he was a rock star. But Watts often said that the actual experience was draining and unpleasant, and even frightening. “Girls chasing you down the street, screaming…horrible!… I hated it,” he told The Guardian newspaper in an interview. In another interview, he described the drumming life as a “cross between being an athlete and a total nervous wreck.”
And it occurs to me that as that entire generation of rock stars – McCartney, Starr, Jagger, Richard, Ian Hunter, Ron Wood, and on and on – slide into their eighties, the carnage is going to get pretty intense, one of these days.
Not many people ask me what my dream job is. But if they did, my response might be to spend half my day as a network talk show host, and the other half as a music producer.
And by “producer”, I mean, “fly by the seat of the pants creative type” – sort of like Jon Landau, moreso than the “frequency-chasing audio engineer” type, your Jimmy Iovines or Steve Lillywhites or Brendan O’Briens.
I’ve never much liked the entire “Seventies Midwestern Arena Rock” genre.
But among the bands in that genre, it’s Styx that’s always gone beneath and below the rest, the one whose impression to me swerves from apathy into active dislike.
It’s not that they couldn’t play. They certainly had live game.
But unlike REO Speedwagon, or Head East or Trooper or April Wine (I know, they’re Canadian, but they fit the genre) or Michael Stanley Band or any of the others that were more or less like them, Styx’s Dennis DeYoung spent most of the late seventies and eighties whining about how awful being a pop star was, how degrading the machinery of the stardom industry was, and what mindless sheeple the fans were.
To which I eventually responded “OK – then go to work in a meat processing plant and quit your whining”.
We’ll come back to that.
This is the Sinead O’Connor I suspect most of us remember:
This is the response I suspect most of us, even us Protestant goyim that found, nevertheless, much that was admirable about JPII, would have loved to have made:
Thirty years and change along, and it turns out it wasn’t (just) rabid anti-Catholicism. Turns out she really, really, really loathed being a pop star, and she also had some serious mother issues:
In the book, she details how her mother physically abused her throughout her childhood. “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well,” she writes…O’Connor was 18 when her mother died, and on that day, she took down the one photograph on her mom’s bedroom wall: the image of the pope. O’Connor carefully saved the photo, waiting for the right moment to destroy it.
“Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another,” she said. And when she tried to call attention to child abuse through her fame, she was vilified. “People would say that she’s fragile,” Geldof said. “No, no, no. Many people would have collapsed under the weight of being Sinead O’Connor, had it not been Sinead.”
Of course, being an “artist” (I put the term in scare quotes not because O’Connor isn’t one – she was an exceptional singer – but because the term has been stretched far beyond meaning these days) means being able to pass the abuse on without ever having to adopt any sort of adult coping skills, which is one of the reasons people go into being one in the first place.
The piece is an interesting read, although kind of depressing by the time you get to the end and really digest it.
Oh, yeah – I said I’d come back to Styx and Dennis DeYoung. I have a habit of saying “we’ll come back to that”, and I don’t, always. I should go back through a few years of this blog’s history and finish some of those threads.
Actually, for all the whining about the pop star life he had (and still has), and how vocally I dislike most everything he has ever written, in or out of Styx, DeYoung would seem have avoided the most cliched pitfalls of stardom; he’s abstemious and rigorously healthy, as devoutly Catholic as O’Connor is, well, not, and he’s been married to the same woman for 50 years; he used to take his family on the road to avoid, y’know, all the problems that families get when Dad is on the road all the time. And as whiny as most of his music was, in interviews he’s always been one of the funniest, most genial, and seemingly audibly well-adjusted, grateful people in the music business.
We didn’t have access to a lot of contemporary popular music in the home I grew up in . It’s not that my parents discouraged it, but they discouraged it; I’m pretty sure my Mom wanted me to be a classical musician.
That started to change, a bit, in sixth or seventh grade. I got a cast-off sixties-vintage Emerson transistor AM radio, and turned into WDAY in Fargo and, eventually, KFYR in Bismarck. Through junior high, I taught myself guitar by learning to play by ear along with the “Torrid Twenty” on Tuesday nights. If you tell me the top couple hundred songs from about 1977 to about 1980, I pretty much know them all. Try me.
But I was a reader. So I took a little time off from reading history at the high school library (which I went to when I couldn’t get away to go to the city library), and read whatever I could find.
There wasn’t much.
I remember one book from the early seventies – I couldn’t begin to remember the name of the author or the book but it was some pop critic and cultural academic who bemoaned the vapid excesses of glam rock – he didn’t much care for Elton John, as I recall…
…and in the last chapter, made his case for the future of popular music.
And that future was…
Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield.
Truth be told, I got put off the song so hard by that particular book, I have somehow managed to go, lo, these past four or so decades without hearing it so much as once.
But it popped up on Youtube last weekend. And curiosity overcame me.
On the one hand, now I can see where “punk” came from.
On the other hand, that’s (checks video)…
…twenty five freaking minutes I won’t be getting back.
Because he’s been one of the essentials for nearly six decades – a career getting up there into BB King or Les Paul level duration. He started out as a blues legend in his late teens, did some of the best music of any kind in the late sixties and early seventies, became a poster guy for the dissipation of stardom in the seventies and early eighties…
…and then it got intense.
For my money, here are a few of his best. my fave from the “Cream” years (from Cream’s 2005 reunion:
Has anyone ever written about trying to steal someone else’s wife as Clapton did about trying to heist Patti Boyd from George Harrison?
From his relatively fallow, drunk-all-the-time period (in this case, with original backup singer Marcy Levy back from forty years ago)?
And for my money, my favorite Clapton song ever. Most people go straight to “Layla”, but I keep going down the track list from that same album, and arrive here:
Keyboard player and co-lead singer Bobby Whitlock said about the recording of Keep on Growing:
The sessions started out with the four of us. Eric, Carl, Jim and me. Derek and the three Dominos.
When we started the recording process we treated it the same way that we treated our live performances. No different. We always started out where ever we were with a jam or two. No matter if it was Royal Albert Hall or the Speakeasy. In the studio nothing changed in that department. We jammed before “I Looked Away”, then into the song. Then we jammed before and into “Bell Bottom Blues”.
The third song was about to go down, so we did our usual jam and it was astounding! It had a groove like never before. Then suddenly Eric said, “Let me put another guitar on it!”
He did as I was standing in the doorway of the control room and looking at him through the glass about eight feet away from me. The song ended and he said again, “Let me put another one on.” He played the second over-dub without listening to the first one. When that was finished he said, “Let’s do another.” He put the third guitar part on without listening to the other two over-dubs while he was recording. When that one was finished he said, “Just one more.” Eric heard only the original guitar while he was doing the over-dubs. He could hear what he had already done in his head. When he was finished he got up and walked in and said, “Let’s hear what they all sound like together.”
It was amazing what we heard back. All of the guitars blended together as if they had been worked out long before the session. It was incredible standing there watching and listening to Eric the master at work.
I felt like a fly on the wall. I thought that was akin to watching Rembrandt at work. What a very special moment for me. And now you all! When we had finished listening to it Tom said that it was going to the can because we didn’t have room on this record for an instrumental. I said to them, “Give me twenty minutes!” I took a yellow note pad and a pencil out into the foyer of Criteria and my relatively short life fell out of me, words and melody and all, so fast that I could hardly get them down on the paper.
When I was finished I went back into the studio where Eric and Tom had been waiting in the control room for me to finish. The mike was there waiting for me, so I walked up to it and started to sing the song. I got half way through the first verse when I stopped it and said to Eric, “Hey man come on out here and let’s do our Sam and Dave thing to it.” Eric came out and we did it first run through.
First take! That was it! And the song “Keep On Growing” had been born.
I mean, if this song had spawned from weeks worth of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Born to Run” or “Be My Baby”-style studiomongering, I wouldn’t have liked it any less. Learning that part of the story after all these years?
It’s been a while – but my band, “Elephant in the Room”, is back in business.
After a year where we had precisely two, somewhat surreptitious gigs, we’re back in an actual bar, for the first time since February 29, 2020.
After a couple years of playing in the far northwest and far eastern suburbs, onSaturday night, we will be going north, playing at the Back To The SRO Bar and Grill in Oak Grove. It’s about 10 miles north of Anoka:
I’m not sure what the Covid rules are, other than the fact that we are playing from six until 10 rather than our usual nine until one – which isn’t entirely unwelcome.
Anyway – I’ve been there before, the food is pretty good, and the food and beverage prices have that “edge of the metro“ not-so-priciness about them.
Stopped at Kwik Trip for a bathroom break on my way up North for the weekend. Store music was Me and Bobby McGee, by Janis Joplin. I looked around at the employees and the customers, and realized the song was older than anybody in the store.
Worse than that – a few years back, when my kids were at home, one of them was watching a music video. It was some Australian boy band doing a cover of “What I Like About You”, the 1979 hit by The Romantics.
And it occurred to me – a band at that time (2016) covering “What I Like About You” would have been the same as a band in 1979 covering a song from 1942.
While I remain resolutely apathetic about celebrities’ political opinions, let’s look below the surface. Say what you will about rap , but at a time in the election season when celebs are supposed to be threatening to move to France, you’ve got three incredibly successful black men, actively telling their own community that the party that has considered their votes their property for two generations, doesn’t deserve ’em.
So what? Other than a lot of adenoidal progressive white and academic black critics saying Cube, Kanye and Fifty Cent were never all that good anyway, , I mean?
I’m wondering if part of the reason Biden – who, the media polls tell us, has an eleventy-teen digit lead over Trump in Minnesota – is spending to much money in an ostensibly safe state is the Democrats are worried about the black vote slipping away?
Remember – it’s been estimated that if the Dems’ take of the black vote ever drops below 80%, they are sunk nationwide. Not the whole black vote; one in five.
After Western Stars – his album and concert film from last year – I read an interview in which he seemed to be saying the days of the eighteen-month tour of four hour rock and roll revivals were done, and that he was a different place. Ironically, he skipped the tour the year before all communal fun got tanked by the Blue City Flu.
But Bruce did actually plan a tour in support of Letter To You – a very rock and roll album, recorded in five frenzied days with the E Street Band. Until, y’know, Covid:
There may be no bringing together the E Street Band right now, a group almost big enough to constitute a mass gathering in its own right. But Letter to You sounds live enough to make you feel a little guilty listening to it, as if you’re violating quarantine. That makes the album feel all the more precious, and the lack of a tour all the more painful. Letter to You is the first time since Born in the U.S.A. that Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded live in the studio to this extent, and possibly the rawest album they’ve ever made, with close to zero overdubs. “It’s the only album where it’s the entire band playing at one time,” says Springsteen, “with all the vocals and everything completely live.” (A few of Springsteen’s twangy guitar leads, played on a Gretsch, are among the only exceptions.)
“It was really like the old days,” says drummer Max Weinberg. “Just pure musical energy, with the hard-earned musical and professional wisdom of guys in their 70s, or close to 70.” It also happens to bethe most classically, unabashedly E Street-sounding album since at least The River. It’s a late-period rebirth of sorts, and it started with thoughts of death.
And the piece officially notes something I’d wondered about starting with Tunnel of Love: originally, the band would hash out songs in the rehearsal space or studio, the old fashioned way, arranging the songs on the fly with the input of the entire band. But along about the time of Nebraska, Bruce started recording everything as demos, himself, at home or later on in a home studio, basically giving the band faits accompli that sounded…
…well, not like the E Steet Band anymore.
And with Letter To Youbeen rol, that seems to have rolled way, way back:
Springsteen kept making demos even after he resumed recording with the E Street Band on The Rising (which, somehow, is now 18 years old, a fact Springsteen finds “mind-boggling,” since “that’s one of my new albums!”). But last year, he finally saw a reason to stop. “When I demo, I start putting things on to see if it works,” says Springsteen. “And suddenly, I’m locked into an arrangement. And then the band has to fit themselves into an arrangement. And suddenly, we don’t have an E Street Band album. So I intentionally did not demo anything.” Bypassing his studio, he captured the songs only on his iPhone, in quick solo-acoustic renditions, to make sure he remembered them.
The whole Rolling Stone interview – less, of course, a few puerile paragraphs of progressive palaver – is worth a read.
Anyway – Happy Birthday, Bruce. It ain’t no sin that I’m glad you’re alive – and kicking. Looking forward to the next tour.
While I haven’t probably kept up with all of Pete Townsend‘s work since “White City“, I have to say if I were to put together a list of his most overlooked solo/non-Who work, my list would look very much the same as this, and more or less the same order.
“The Sea Refuses No River” is far and away his most underrated song. And “White City Fighting” should have been a hit.
I’ve never much cared for the “progressive-rock” band Yes (except for their 1985 reboot, saying which always starts an argument with my Yes-fan friends). And in saying that, I’ll stipulate a lot of that disdain was my own adolescent “too cool for school” arrogance about music.
But “a lot” ain’t everything. “Progressive Rock”, with its orchestral pretensions and acid-fueled subject matter, annoys me almost as much in retrospect as it did then.
Of course, they knew it. One of the things that probably got me off on a bad foot with Yes were a series of interviews I read with guitarist Steve Howe; with his academic background and classical guitar training, Howe came off like he was working on a cure for cancer, rather than…songs.
Keyboardist Rick Wakeman – he of the Gregg Allman hair and flowing robes and mad-scientist stacks of keyboards – is inseparable from Yes (although he’s left the band a few times, so Yes is clearly separable from him). In the seventies, Wakeman was practically a synonym for bloated pretension.
And they were right – but as always, there’s more to it.
…in the guy. Not the seventies Yes albums, or Wakeman’s (not making this up) ice show about the legend of King Arthur – although reading about the guys he produced it all with just gets more and more interesting.
And to circle back to Steve Howe? I saw this a few years ago, before Squire’s death – a “rig rundown” of Howe and Squires instruments, amps and other gear. And Howe comes across as a pretty dang likeable…
…well, not so much a “bloke”. Maybe more of an affable old professor who’s taken to genial chats about his favorite light reading.
There are times I kick myself for having sorted so much of the world out according to cliches I picked out of Rolling Stone.
…and about 3-5 years before it became pretty clear that it was more the rule than the exception in top-40 pop music, and probably ten years before technology started doing the things that Milli Vanilli’s producer had to get humans to do.
Just saying – had Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan come along ten years later, they’d still be megastars.
(And before all the Billy Joel fans start beefing – Joel’s had two good moments in his career – and “Piano Man” was neither of them. There’s this song – which he wrote for Ronnie Spector, who covered it with the E Street Band in the background…
…and one whole, glorious album where I managed to mostly forget it was Billy Joel doing the singing.
And with that, I return to this blog’s official status quo: Bob Dylan is an eccentric genius, and Billy Joel is a talented douchebag.
He’s iconic for his technical prowess on the skins, of course – and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
And along with those immense technical chops came a taste for really, really big drum kits.
Big enough to serve as a cultural punchline for people from a certain generation – in this case, one of the kids in Freaks and Geeks, perhaps the only retrospective sit-com my generation is ever going to get. It sure got this right:
Over the years, when looking for drummers in bands, when I hear from people claiming to be influenced by Peart’s style, I can feel the back-ache setting in from a long, kit-heavy load-in and load-out even on the phone.
But for me, the most important thing about Peart – who replaced John Rutsey, who died even longer before his time – had little to do with drum technique.
My favorite drummers have tended to be either the human metronomes (Charlie Watts, Max Weinberg) or power-driving madmen (Keith Moon, Johnny Badanjak, Kenny Aronoff). Technical virtuosi like Peart, and Stuart Copeland of the Police, interested me less for their drum chops than for their place in the chemistry of theit various bands. Copeland took the edge off of some of Sting’s interminal pretension and self-importance…
…and in a genre where bloated pretense was the coin of the realm (Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, King Krimson), Peart was part of an ensemble that simultaneously wrote some great prog-rock (admittedly a genre I care very little about) and had a rollicking sense of humor on the subject, about the genre, and about themselves:
Then – Saturday night, we’re back at the Stillwater Bowl and Lounge. Don’t let the name fool you – it’s a fun room, good crowd, and they have those edge-of-the-metro food and drink prices that make going out a *lot* more fun!
I have a subscription to Sirius XM radio in my car, but I’m going to cancel it. This morning, I heard a song that triggered me so bad, I can’t even. I was listening to the 70 station and some guy came on making fun of homosexuals, using stereotype words like Sugar Plum Fairy and encouraging me to take a Walk on the Wild Side. And then he started using racial epithets, claiming the colored girls go doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo-doo, doo, doo-doo, doo-doo…. Sure, I could have changed the station, but why should I have to? Why are they allowed to put hate speech on the radio? The radio I’m paying for! That’s it, I’m done, I’m canceling my subscription and starting a Twitter boycott. Joe Doakes
Lou Reed, being a New York “artist”, was given a pass on all that.
Not something as trivial as “a conservative who wrote music” – but someone who, at his best, wrote music that resonated deeply with Conservatives, for reasons that were utterly conservative, and for many of us utterly profound.
Ann Althouse once noted (with a hat tip to regular commenter Macarthur Wheeler):
“To be a great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist like Dylan or Picasso may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath, where it counts, there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world and focusing on that.”
His best music – Nebraska, Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love and The Rising, but especially the “Holy Trinity” (Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The RIver) were just that; stories about the struggles, yes, but also the strength and worth of individuals; their failures and their redemptions, sin and consequences, and forgiveness.
And for anyone that misses the point, I’d urge you to watch the Netflix version of Springsteen on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning one-man show that closed last year, in which Bruce admitted – with deference and joy – that the best music in his career was about his father; that he, a guy who’d never punched a clock in his life, had written a 45-year-long litany of tales of sorrow and inspiration and warning and cool rockin’ daddies about Douglass Springsteen, his father, and his mother Adele, who plugged away for decades, sacrificing and slogging away to keep their three kids fed and sheltered.
A few months back, I went to the movie Blinded By The Light – and noted that I felt it in the pit of my stomach more than enjoying it (although I enjoyed it a lot).
Now, the protagonist (it’s closely based on a true story) was the opposite of me, socially and politically; a Pakistani Brit who skewed plenty left, like Brit teenagers do. And yet I felt it in my liver; the discovery, and the epiphany, were the same for both of us.
“See, Mitch – those traits are universal and human, and progressives can gel with them too!”. Artistically? Sure, why not? But let’s debate what “Reason to Believe”, “Johnny 99” or “My Hometown” are really about first. Or, for that matter, the implications of what Sarfraz Manzoor wrote about – being seen as a person rather than a caricature or, dare I say, an “identity”. Then we’ll talk.
Because “progressivism” is about perfecting humanity; conservatism is about living with, dealing with the consequences of, clawing back from, and sometimes, just sometimes, triumphing over mankind’s, and one’s own, imperfections.
Ric Ocasek, founder and driving force behind seventies new-wave/pop earth-movers the Cars, died yesterday. He was…
…75? Yep. Apparently he spent the better part of 45 years lying about his age. He was well apparently a member of the Class of 1963, and halfway through his thirties and a veteran of years and years of playing in bars in Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor and finally Boston by the time The Cars, their incandescent first album, landed in 1978.
It’d apparently been a rollercoaster year for Ocasek – inducted into the Rock and Roll Halll of Fame in 2018, in the middle of being separated from his wife of nearly 30 years, onetime supermodel Paulina Porizhkova – a marriage that was the subject of myriad “Beauty and the Beast” jokes when the 45 year old Ocasek and the then-23 year old Porizhkova married in ’89.