Things I Largely Don’t Care For, But Am Chagrinned To Find I Don’t Madly Dislike

I never cared much for late’80s-early ’90s Hair Metal.

If I were a rock historian, I’d say Hair Metal was a snapshot of a particular era – the cha-cha days of the late Reagan / George HW Bush years – and a particular place, a very prosperous and dissolute Los Angeles.   You’ll note that was a time of my life I was neither especially cha-cha nor prosperous, nor, I hasten to add, a the angry teenager I’d been 5-7 years earlier who’d marinated his brain in the Clash, the Kinks, the Who and the like.

So the whole genre sort of left me cold.

Poison?   A lite-metal boy band.

Motley Crue?  A bunch of yobs trying and failing to ape Alice Cooper. And that’s if you leave out Vince Neil’s role in the death of “Razzle” (more below).

Cinderella?  Please.  Waterboard me.

But as with all episodes of this “Love and Hate” series (click the tag below for some history), I’m writing this not to bury hair metal, but to praise it.

Well, some of it.

And I know what you’re gonna say.  “Everyone likes Guns ‘n Roses.  That’s a gimme”.

And indeed you’re right:

Beyond that, though?

When I was at KDWB in ’90-92, listening to the night shift, it occurred to me “Slaughter doesn’t totally suck”:

I mean, if you’re in the mood for some Robert Plant lite. And I was.

Skid Row? Not sure why I didn’t hate them; more relatable to me? Less contrived? More interesting? I have no idea anymore.

But hate them, I did not:

And why not Hanoi Rocks – Finland’s greatest band, and the band that is to hair metal what Creedence Clearwater was to the sixties; a solid rock and roll band with a way with a hook and a single:

Of course, the band took a solid shot in the, well, hairdo when drummer “Razzle” was killed in a car crash with Motley Crue’s Vince Neil; Crue went on, while Hanoi Rocks slowly fizzled, in one of rock history’s greatest injustices.

So yeah – can’t stand LA Hair metal.  Except when I can.

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.

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.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Secretly Enjoy

I know, I know.  ABC was a Brit synth-pop band, famous for their haircuts and their beeping/squawking genre.

Worse?  It was part of the generation of “British Soul” that gave us a few useful apeings of sixties and seventies American soul music (Simply Red, Allison Moyet, Eurhythmics) and a whole lot of dreck.

And ABC, over the course of three major US albums (and many more in the UK) a bunch of the eighties music I’ve filed under the “I’d just as soon forget” file; The Look Of Love, Poison Arrow, When Smokey Sings, and on and on.

ABC – it’s really mostly singer Martin Fry, honestly – could largely be forgotten with no great loss…

…except for “All Of My Heart”, the third and least-known single off of their US platinum-seller Lexicon of Love…

…which is a song Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or the Four Tops (or, in the deeper recesses of my imagination, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes) could have done with a straight face.   Of the whole mediocre raft of eighties Brit synth-“soul” singers, Fry was one of precious few that could carry Smokey’s gig bag (in the same way that Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall could at least hint toward the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs’ vocal chops).

And it doesn’t get much better than that – among eighties Brit “soul” haircut pop.

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

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

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

For every Springsteen, there’s a Meat Loaf.

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

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

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

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

I can’t stand Madonna.

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

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

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

Nope. Don’t much care about Madonna.

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

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

And I hate angst.

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hated party bands. And I hated the B52s.

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

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

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

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

And I didn’t feel “party”. 

But I’m digressing.

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

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

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

…when “Love Shack” came out:

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

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

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

And they still do.

Except for anything involving Kate Pierson.

Then, all is forgiven.

That is all.

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

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

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

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

Except for Sister Golden Hair:

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

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

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

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

Why ask why?

Things I’m Supposed To Love But Usually Can’t Stand: Crosby, Stills, Nash, And Occasionally Young

Ever since I’ve been involved in music, it’s seemed there’s been one crowd or another telling me who I’m supposed to like.

In college, the music majors all dug the Alan Parsons Project.  “It’s like…above rock”, they mewled.  Perhaps it was; it was also beneath interesting.

There were others.

(Below the jump, because of all the videos)

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Things I’m Supposed To Like Less But Like More Anyway: “The Office” (US)

OK, TV hipsters.  Here’s your red meat.

The Office (US) is better.

And by “Better”, I mean “Oh, shut up. Who needs to choose? The Offices are two very very different shows built around the same basic premise, and why compare?”

The US Office lasted nine seasons – two of them short ones, but most of them with twice as many episodes as the entire run of the British series.  That’s a lot of hours of TV – which doesn’, in and of itself, make the US version better.  Hell, Laverne and Shirley and The Brady Bunch were on the air forever, too. 

Both shows started with the same premise – strangers stuck in an artificial environment.  Ricky Gervais’ British version ran for 14 episodes of over the top absurdism.  The American version had to fill in a few other things to fill all that time; characters that developed over time, stories that had legs, nuances and subreferences and a depth to the writing that may not have been as explosively outrageous as the Brit original, but keeps a lot better over time; I have watched most of the US episodes several times – because there’s a reason to keep going back; I’ve seen each Brit one twice, and after two years I can probably think about doing it again, maybe. 

So put a sock in it, hipsters.

Things I’m Supposed To Love But Am Less Crazy About: “The Office” (UK)

Ask any hipster; the stuff that nobody but they have seen is infinitely cooler than the stuff everyone else knows about.

And if you talk television, one of the things hipsters and the too-cool-for-thou all agree on is that the British version of The Office is sooooo much better than the American version (which just signed off the air after nine seasons).

They’re wrong.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen all fourteen episodes of The Office (UK).  It’s funny.

In fact, it’s almost too funny. 

And that’s part of the rub.

The Brit original, starring Ricky Gervais – who’s credited as creater for the series on both sides of the pond – aired for two six-episode seasons on the Beeb, along with a two-episode “retrospective” that tied up all the loose ends that’d been left. 

The series – there as here – was about what happens when you pack a bunch of very disparate people into the artificial environment of the modern office.  Also, about Ricky Gervais’ flair for the outrageous. 

The show reminds me of “Fawlty Towers” – John Cleese’s classic seventies-era BBC series about a bumbling, henpecked hotelier.  In “Fawlty”, Cleese’s protagonist, Basil Fawlty, would spend each episode spiraling down a vortex of self-induced and ever-more-absurd social pratfalls, aggravated by Fawlty’s arrogance and provincialism, ending inevitably in a classic volcanic meltdown.  It was ingenious stuff; the comic tension building as Fawlty’s ineptitude and duplicity built on each other to almost superhuman levels of absurdity.  There’s no way to explain it.  If you haven’t watched it, find it and do. 

And you might just find as I do – that you can only watch Fawlty every couple of years. Fawlty Towersis to comedy what Fourth of July is to fireworks; if you do it every day, it loses its impact. 

Gervais’ British Office is the same.  The David Brent character is like Fawlty – it’s all so gloriously over the top that the comic tension is almost unbearable. 

And it is the show.  Oh, there are other layers, nuances in the show – but they can only get developed so far in a show that only lasted fourteen episodes.  The “Tim and Dawn” romance is rushed and perfunctory, basically to give a breather from Brent’s antics. 

It’s hilarious – and, likeFawlty Towers, it wears me out. 

Which is fine.  But sometimes I want more…

…which we’ll come back to in a bit here.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate But Don’t: Cold Weather

Yeah, I know – commuting in the winter sucks.  And shoveling and hauling kids to the bus stop and winter heating bills and spinouts and having the whole city shut down by blizzards are all trying.  I get that.

But given a choice between this reeking, stinking, bug-infested, malarial, allergy-ridden, dripping, moldy, plague-ship weather like we have now, and the crisp, bracing zip of a cool winter day – say, anything above 10 degrees – there is only one sane choice, now, isn’t there?

I’m not talking sloppy, dirty, road-boogery-y, long-overstayed-its-welcome, hacking cough and tickle in the back of the throat on top of cabin-fever-y February weather.  I’m talking December, maybe early January, when the pollen is a distant memory and the cold is just a cool, bracing tang in the air.

It’s a scientific fact that, in the long view, most peoples’ memories of winter are like this…

…while to most normal people, the kind of heat wave we’re in now is a lot more like this:

And the household pests!  In this kind of weather…:

…versus the winter:

Seriously, it’s hardly a choice.

Things I’m Supposed To Love But Can’t Stand: Stinking Tropical Heat

Maybe it’s all the Beach Boys songs that are such a part of our shared cultural heritage.

Maybe it’s the residual effects of the American school system’s three months off in the summer.

Maybe it’s Madison Avenue’s effect on the cultural zeitgeist.

But Americans are supposed to love summer.

To Americans, summer is fun; barbecues, baseball, boating at the lake, fun fun fun in Daddy’s T-bird…

…and, fact is, I like all that.

But for most Americans, summer looks a lot more like this…

…with, on weeks like this, a heaping helping of this:

Don’t get me wrong.  I love summer – provided I can be violently physically active, preferably biking (with its built-in breeze).

But I’m:

  • one of ten Minnesotans whose family didn’t accumulate some kind of lake property back in the fifties, so summer is a matter of trying to stay functional between bouts of  non-misery
  • not a teacher
  • battling hay fever that is intensely aggravated by the heat and humidity, so when I say “stob” I really mean “dode go”
  • a cold weather baby

…and you can have this hot, steaming, humid, mangrove-swamp-dwelling dripping crap.

That is all.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: “God Bless The USA”

There was no more dismal period in any genre of American music than country music’s ordeal from about 1975 to about 1990.

Pushed by Big Nashville’s urge to cash in on the big money in pop music, “crossover” was the watchword and goal and driving force behind Nashville’s main efforts during that whole stretch of time.  Some country artists – Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbit and Barbara Mandrell and a whole lot of equally-forgettable tripe – existed purely to capitalize on the trend.  The trend swallowed up years from the careers of some otherwise great country artists; who knows what could happen if Dolly Parton could get the years back that she spent trying to be a pop star?

And some of the best country music of the era – indeed, some of the genre’s only music of the era that anyone has reason to remember – was specifically done as a reaction to that whole noxious trend; “The Outlaws”, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Junior, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and a few others who stuck to and extended on country’s twangy roots, were about the only products of the era worth remembering.

Lee Greenwood was very much in the former group.

Is he country?  Is he Vegas?  Is he new wave?  He’d just as soon you not worry about it!

Having worked in Country radio a few times – in 1982 and 1984 and 1991-92 – I can remember what an utterly dismal thing country was, in that wretched era before Garth Brooks and Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam and Holly Dunn and the whole crowd of “back to the roots” singers paradoxically made country a colossal success by dragging it “backward” twenty years.  Lee Greenwood had been one of the big offenders, doing treacly, overproduced glop whose only connection with “country” was a little arklahoma twang in his voice and, of course, a relentless tugging on the heartland’s heartstrings.

Which is what gave us “God Bless the USA“.

And make no mistake about it; “GBTUSA” has everything that made Lee Greenwood such a lowlight of “country” music for that entire dismal period of time; lots of violins, but nary a fiddle to be found; electric guitars, but none of them pedal steel; lots of vocals, but the most generic voice imaginable.  That cloying sense that the song is trying hard to push every button you have.

Perversely, though?  It works.

Well, maybe not for you.  Indeed, as John Edwards once said whilst running between a hair appointment and a date with his mistress, there are two Americas; one that hates “God Bless The USA” and is mildly creeped out by everything it stands for, and another that may or may not be silently amused by the song, but still gets a thrill in its heart from all of its glorious, mawkish sentiment.

And it is gloriously, over the top mawkish; if your heartstrings aren’t rated for 2000 points of pull, they will snap like Nancy Pelosi’s facial muscles when someone pops a paper bag behind her.

But aside from being perhaps a perfect lab experiment showing the absolute limits of emotional button-pushing in song, the song has been adopted – intentionally or not – by that second America, as a sort of huge, glowing middle finger aimed at the first one.  Because when Greenwood and his background singers – it could be the Red Army Choir, for crying out loud – wind up and attack that last big finish, it challenges you not to say “Yes, Chauncey Boston-Cosmopolitan, the idea of America transcends its problems; the promise of this experiment supercedes its mistakes; it is a concept deserving of loyalty for its own sake; we are a shining city on the hill, and we are the best attempt at a nation that this world has ever seen, viewed objectively and ethically.  You have the right to disagree – but in the meantime, shut your impotent babbling pseudointellectual piehole, because I’m gonna sing and wave the flag for a moment”.

A symptom of obstinate, unthinking jingoism?  A thud-witted rejection of the reflexive dialecticism that “educated” Americans are supposed to embrace (and which many do, most of them with little more literacy than the most jingoistic redneck), that believes to every good there must be an equal yet opposite evil?


But let me say in response that there ain’t no doubt I love this land.  And, in conclusion, God Bless the USA.  Or, as the kids today say, “America; F*** Yeah”.

Whoosh.  Dang, I’m stoked. 

There. I believe I settled that.

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

If you converted all the critical plaudits Radiohead has gotten over the past fifteen years or so into liquid form, and poured them into all the world’s supertankers, then an awful lot of supertanker crews would be frantically bailing their overloaded vessels out to keep the keels off the harbor floors.

Now, I’ve been around music a long time. I’ve listened to a lot of it.  I’m about as openminded as it gets.  I dig music on two levels; on the one hand, there’s music that grabs me in the liver, that connects with me emotionally right where I live and breathe.  It’s the stuff I wear on my sleeve in this blog – stuff like Springsteen and Tchaikowski and Emmylou Harris and Richard Thompson and Prince and the Clash and Gustav Mahler and Sam and Dave and piobaireachd and Iris Dement and the Iron City Houserockers and middle-period Public Enemy and the Black Watch Pipes and Drums, and all kinds of stuff in between.  Stuff that grabs me in the soul.

And then there’s stuff that misses my soul to one degree or another, but which I admire from a technical perspective as a musician, much like a programmer might admire good code or an engineer a perfect gusset plate, as great technique for its own sake.  Stuff like Yngwie Malmsteen or or Alban Berg or Rush or Bela Fleck or Miles Davis or Charles Mingus or Rimsky-Korsakoff – stuff whose pure technical excellence I admire and enjoy to a degree, but which doesn’t grab me by the liver and say “this explains a key part of what life is about!”.

And at the juncture of neither of these avenues lies Radiohead.

Now, if you’ve followed this “Thing I Like/Things I Don’t” series over the past few months, you’ll know this is the point where I launch into a detailed explication of why, even though I know I should  like something, and indeed find things in his or her or their body of work that I do appreciate, there is a paradoxical hitch that keeps me from liking it, or interferes with my appreciation.

But not here.

Because while I’ve tried, and King Banaian (as Radiohead-y of a Radiohead fan as exists) has tried, and other ‘head fans have tried, I can’t honestly say I care about them on either level.

And as with most of these love/hate articles, it’s not that I couldn’t or won’t be converted.  And I’ll cop to the fact that the period from the band’s major-league debut up through what their fans call their “creative peak” (whatever that was – and if you get five Radiohead fans in a room, you’ll get seven answers to that question) happened at a time when I didn’t listen to much music at all, so it never really had a chance to get ingrained in my head, one way or the other.

It’s just that in a decade and change of (sorta) trying, nothing has pushed me in one direction or the other.

OK.  Not much of an article.  Sorry.  I’m a creep and I don’t belong here…

…er, wait.

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

Yeah, I know – Frank Zappa was a really great guitar player…:

…although I never really cared for him there, either.

Over the years, I’ve been told “the Mothers of Invention were the best band of the sixties!”

Which was, of course, rubbish; they were just another big, self-indulgent jam band, like the Grateful Dead without the pot-headed geniality but with all of the snide, smarter-than-thou precociousness that the world would soon call “Frank Zappa”.

Frank Zappa’s greatest trick was convincing the world that “shallow, smarter-than-thou aping of people with real talent” was “groundbreaking”.  If we accept that Frank Zappa was the love child of Jerry Garcia, Jello Biafra and Weird Al Yankovic, then ask yourselves these questions:

  1. Can three people have a love child?
  2. If those three people could have a love child, would it be a good idea?

Oh, no doubt about it; Zappa was a clever fellow.  “Sheik Yerbouti”, his disco parody album from the late seventies…

…was one of the best visual gag/puns of the decade.

But his music?

“But he was so clever!”

No, he wasn’t.

“But he was a groundbreaking innovator”.

No, he was a dyspeptic crank with a creative streak.

“But he was a musical genius”.

No, he was a musical footpad with a cult following.

“But he was funny…”

Yeah, I know – don’t eat yellow snow.  Got it.

From the day I checked The Mothers’ “Weasels Rip My Flesh” out from the Jamestown Library, to the day he passed away (lamentably young, I’ll add), I detested his music; I’d rather be forced to listen to early-period Pink Floyd than any of Zappa’s various incarnations.

But disliking music is a fairly ambient thing.  My visceral dislike for everything Zappa represented was cemented years after my ennui for his music was set in stone.

Back in 1980, Zappa appeared on the New Years’ Eve edition of ABC’s old SNL knockoff Fridays, doing a “Top Ten Albums” countdown.  Predictably, he hated every album on the top ten (except for the recently-murdered John Lennon’s dismal Double Fantasy, which he called “a testimony to the good taste of the American record-buying public”). 

Now, #5 for the year was Styx’s vacuous Paradise Theater, an album I personally had no time for.  I’d developed a cordial dislike for Styx by this point, especially anything involving Dennis DeYoung, inflamed by having had to play the sappy, treacly, unbearable megahit “Babe” about a million times at my radio job in the past year). 

But what did Zappa mention in his review?  DeYoung’s whiny “woe is me” over the travails of being a spoiled rock star?  The trite bombast of everythign DeYoung touched?  The conceit of doing a concept album about a theater at all?

No.  He said – and I remember it word for word, 28 years and change later: “Styx.  They grow wheat where these guys come from”, before flinging the album away. 

Yes, Frank F****ng Zappa.  They grow wheat where Eddie Cochrane came from, too.  And they grew cotton where Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry came from.  Bruce Springsteen comes from tomato country.  Jimmy Hendrix?  Apples.  Liverpool was big for oats and potatoes.  And Frank Zappa. who was not fit to carry any of their gig bags, obviously came from wherever they grow bumper crops of ass***es.

Frank Zappa – rest his soul – was a waste of musical time.   He bores me.  Of him, no more shall be said.

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

Oh, I suppose after having written a long piece about my ambivalence about single-malt Scotch, you’re thinking “there Berg goes; he’s talking about grain alcohol.  That explains a lot”.

Perhaps it does:

Eveclear is a pure grain alcohol.  198 proof (that is to say, 99% alcohol) in its standard form (it’s diluted to 175 proof in Minnesota), Everclear is a common request from Minnesotans whenever I go back to visit North Dakota; it’s the main ingredient in homemade schnapps.  More importantly, some of my most treasured memories – or fragments of memories, anyway – started out with shot after shot after shot of the delicious, clear beverage.  Which also doubles as a lamp fuel if you’re stranded in the woods…

…oh, OK. I’m yanking your collective chain.  No, while you can drink the stuff, it’s really stupid to try.

No, I’m actually talking about the band:

Everclear, a Portland-area punk band led by Art Alexakis, had a brief Top-40 heyday in the mid-nineties.  They had (by punk band standards) a fairly brief swerve through “underground” success – which I mostly missed, other than reading snippets and hearing things from friends who still had time and energy to keep up with music; my kids were little, I was changing careers around and trying to teach myself a new trade, and music barely qualified as background noise for the most part.

But the band struck it big in 1996, vaulting out of the underground with So Much For The Afterglow, with a troika of singles, “Everything To Everyone”, “I Will Buy You A New Life” and “Father Of Mine”.

Now, before I heard any of this, I started reading (on that new “web” thing I’d just discovered) the usual punk kids, doing the same thing they do every time a punk band gets mainstream success and income; “Sellout!”.  That, I expected.

The part I didn’t expect was the sniveling some of the punk kidz were doing about the music itself; “boring stuff about parents and being a father”.

So I cocked my ear to it.

Turned out Alexakis was about my age (actually eight months older), had (unlike most rock and rollers) a kid or two, and that the singles that were starting to leak out on the radio were about…

grown up stuff.   Having kids.  Trying to be a decent father and feeling really inadequate at it.  Trying to keep a relationship from fizzling out.  Y’know – stuff that actual grownups do when they have left the club scene and packed their guitars and amps lovingly away in the closet and have to get on with real life. Stuff that was real to him and, I add in retrospect, me, at the time.

Santa Monica” is, along with “A Man In Need” and “Tunnel Of Love”, perhaps the best song ever written about watching a relationship crumble from the inside; the song has a wistful, doomed hope in clinging to the familiar (“we can sit beside the ocean, leave the world behind, swim out past the breakers, watch the world die”) that, no matter how many times its repeated, rings hollow; we know as well as the singer does that there’s really nothing to be done about it – there’s just too much ugly behind the hope in the chorus (“I am still dreaming of your face/Hungry and hollow for all the things you took away/I don’t want to be your good time/I don’t want to be your fall-back crutch anymore”).

But rock and roll is crawling with great breakup songs, from “Backstreets” to, yes, “The Breakup Song”.

What Rock and Roll does not have many of is songs about being Dad.

I was sitting in a cube at my job in 1996 when “Father Of Mine” came on the radio.  Alexakis’ real father left his family when he was young – I didn’t need to read anything to figure that out.  What catches you – or at least what caught me, 13 years ago – about the song is the blood-curdling anger that Alexakis feels for his own father and, above and beyond that, the fear-laced hope that he won’t pass the baggage from that horror, and well as fresh horrors of own, on to his own kids.

Having little kids of my own at the time, the song caught me between the eyes.  The song was as angry as anything the Clash ever did – but the anger wasn’t a vehicle adolescent posturing and puerile politics.  It hit me where I lived, not at age 16, but 33, and the anger and the fear were no different for me, and it hit me just as squarely as “London Calling” had, half a lifetime earlier.  Maybe moreso; this was my life.

It still is.

And for that brief moment, once in history, old punks didn’t die; the anger just grew up and got some purpose.  Just like the old punks.

Alexakis has never come close to that peak since then.  The band went the way of all punk rock bands, self-destructing not long after their brief heyday.  And Alexakis did  embrace puerile politics, eventually; he was a delegate to and entertainer at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and a reformed Everclear released a single, “Jesus Was A Democrat”, last year.  I don’t even like it when people claim Christ was a conservative; the less said, the better.

But we’ll always have 1996.

Things I’m Supposed to Love, But Can’t Stand: Single Malt

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I get single-malt Scotch.  I know why people drink the stuff.

I get that the Scots (from which I’m at least partly descended) inherited from their Viking raiders and conquerors and eventual ethnic partners (from whom I’m also descended) a taste for taking perverse pride in aescetic self-abuse; the descendants of the Norse express this by eating lutefisk and living in Bemidji; those of the Scots, by professing a yen for haggis (or, really, any Scots cuisine) and, I suspect, drinking single-malt whisky.

And again, don’t get me wrong; I have enjoyed single-malt scotch in the past; a friend of mine broke out a bottle of 30-year-old Laphroaig at a party once, and I’ll confess I genuinely enjoyed it; smooth, nuanced, genuinely enjoyable.  I’ll also confess I had had two Pims, a couple of Newcastles, and two vodka sours before we got to the scotch (yes, I was in George Jones mode, and no, I was not driving), and I could have probably found good points to drinking Drano by that point.

And I’ve tried – oh, lord, I’ve tried – to develop a taste for lesser marques of single-malt whilst more sober. Oban, Glenfiddych, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Macallen, Talisker, Glenwhinggyggherfachgger, and only Robert the Bruce knows what else.  I’ve read the critical reviews of the different brands, tried to wrap my head around the whole aesthetic of trying to find the differences between the nuances of the various brands (“was the shepherd who whizzed in the peat bog from which the water to brew it was drawn a diabetic, dehydrated or drunk, or all the above?” seems to be the big distinction), even learned to play the bagpipes.  And so far, the best I can say is that it makes cigars taste smoother.  (Not to take anything away from that, either…)l.

And while I’ll cop to not having time, money or interest in trying to ape the more foppish manifestations of bobo epicureanism, I do have a palate.  I can give a very literate critique of beer, wine, even vodka.  Don’t get me started on vodka.  Better yet, come on over to Moscow on the Hill on Cathedral Hill, put down the credit card, and do get me started; Moskva Na Cholmye‘s vodka collection, aka “Around The Warsaw Pact”, is second to none; every bit the work of genius that Williams’ “Beers Of The World” has been for the past 20 years.  I’m not a Coors-swilling yahoo (although after a weekend of yard work and paint-scraping, it has its place); I can tell good vices from bad vices.

But single malt, thus far, leaves me cold, Jimmy.

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

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Joe Soucheray has been for over 20 years one of my favorite columnists in the Twin Cities, first as a sports writer, then as a general columnist.

And I certainly like the idea of a talk show that’s focused on “conservative” principles like common sense and deflating the puffery of some of the more cliched, insufferable parts of Minnesota liberal society, while upholding the obverse.  Soucheray is sort of a curmudgeonly centerish-right retort to “Lake Wobegone”, in a way.  This is good.

And one can not argue with success; while Soucheray’s original rise to prominence probably had something to do with having Rush Limbaugh as a lead-in (at a time when talk radio was exploding from moribundity to prominence), there’s no arguing that he’s built a talk radio juggernaut.  At KSTP’s peak, Soucheray was one of an unstoppable ratings 1-2-3 piledriver punch; Limbaugh, Souch, Jason Lewis.

Today – after five years of KSTP-AM listening to consultants who assure management “Conservative talk is dead!  Really!  Honest!  Any day now!”, and having shed Limbaugh, Lewis, Bob Davis, Dave Thompson and the rest of the leftovers from the station’s glory days – Soucheray is carrying the station pretty much singlehandedly.

That ain’t chicken feed.

And Soucheray’s on-air foil and sidekick, The Rookie, has done what precious few people in the radio industry get to do anymore; developed from an annoying backslapping yahoo into one of the wryest, funniest, most talented sidekicks in the business.  Anywhere. 

So what’s the problem?

Part of it is that it feels Soucheray has been repeating the same show for over a decade now, with the same components plugged in over and over and over and over.  When the Northern Alliance got started, I tired to kick off a parody of GL’s endless, ongoing bit where guys call in from their garages, and turn on and rev engines on the air.  I wanted to have it go something like this:

CALLER: “Hey, Joe…:

MITCH:  “It’s actually Mitch, but go ahead…”

CALLER: “I got an engine from a 1974 Charger for ya…”

MITCH: “er…OK, start ‘er up?”

[Caller starts a small chainsaw: “REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”]

MITCH: “Er, thanks, caller…”



MITCH: “You’re on the air…”

CALLER:”Hey, Joe, yeah, I got Don Garlits’ original 451 hemi top-fuel rail rod, there!”

MITCH: “Um, it’s still Mitch, but OK – kick it…”

[Caller starts a small chainsaw: “REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”]



MITCH: “You’re on the air…”

CALLER:”Yeah, Joe, I got me a 1952 MIG-15 jet fighter”

MITCH: “Er, I’m…ah, who cares.  A MIG-15?  Cool.  Go ahead, rev ‘er up”

[Caller starts a small chainsaw: “REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”]

And so on.  Note to Joe: all engines sound the same over the phone.

And the bit about ‘Foghorning” kids’ names that, apparently, aren’t what you’d find in a Catholic Parish in 1955?  Yeah, Joe, try insulting kids’ names to their parents’ faces, m’kay?

But the worst – and by worst, I mean “most objectionable to a conservative” – part of Garage Logic is the constant invocation of “The Mystery”.

Sit down for a minute, Garage Logicians.

If someone were to present to you an overweight, shrieking single mother of five wearing a “Wellstone Action” button, who were to say “I and my people are being disempowered and kept in poverty by racism that wants to keep us down!”, what would you say?

“Take some personal responsibility”, right?

So replace a few words. 

Change the sentence to “I and my people  common sense and traditional values are being disempowered and kept in poverty  marginalized by racism a huge impersonable, undefinable but inescapable “mystery” that wants to keep us down!”, then what’s your response?

That the comparison has escaped “Garage Logicians” for almost two decades amazes me.

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

Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against being wealthy.  In fact, all I really want is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.

But maybe it’s because I grew up one generation removed from the Dust Bowl in a place where wealth was something people kinda kept to themselves.  Perhaps it’s all the baggage of my obsessively-modest Scandinavian anscestory.  It might be that family life on a single middle-class income doesn’t allow for much in the way of excess.

But I’ve never much cared for conspicuous consumption.  And I suspect that even if Premiere Radio hired me to replace Limbaugh in 2016 (which would be a swell idea, if any Premiere execs are reading this!), I wouldn’t change a whole lot.

And by the opposite token, while I do like the environment (especially on weekends like thsi past one in the Twin Cities), the environmental movement is pretty much out of control in this country; the Global Warming scam is only the latest of the con games they’ve played to try to wrest control of society from  the democratic process (for a detailed chronology of the various scams, just look up Paul Ehrlich’s bibliography).   I believe mankind would have to work very hard indeed to destroy the environment.

But that doesn’t mean he should try.

In recent years, conservatives have found some wry ways to stick fingers in the eyes of their liberal nemeses.  I participate (enthusiastically) in things like National Ammo Day, the Tea Parties, and of course Talk Radio (which proves every day that liberals only care about the First Amendment when it comes to saying naughty things and waving ones’ privates in public).

And so I get the spirit behind things like “Carbon Belch Day“, and groups like “Minnesotans For Global Warming” – with a nudge and a wink.

But I get the impression that there are more than a few conservatives who miss the “nudge and a wink” bit.

Look – wealth is good.  Indeed, in the long run wealth, spread over the world, is the only thing mankind can do that will positively affect the environment.  Remember forty years ago, when the same crowd of people who are ramming “Global Warming” down everyone’s throat were doing the same thing with “overpopulation”  (I do.  It gave me nightmares when I was seven years old), and demanded the same sort of response (global government action)?  And yet the only thing that actually slows population growth is prosperity; when people don’t need to have kids to ensure their own survival, they have fewer of them.  Likewise – even if we assume that mankind does have an effect on global temperature, it is only generalized prosperity that will prompt the parts of the world that are doing the actual polluting (China and India) to worry more about smog and less about feeding their populations.

Still – and I’m going to take a moment to enforce my theocratic constructs on you – God does ask us all to be good stewards of His creation.  When you’re out hunting, not only should one not slaughter wantonly (state fish and game rules notwithstanding), but one should dispose of their beer cans and jerky wrappers properly.  Likewise, just because one can wreck something, doesn’t mean one should wreck something (a lesson that’s hard to get across to teenagers, but should be quite this hard for adults).

I talked with one “conservative” a few years ago who said it was every conservative’s duty to buy a Hummer, keep their homes at a constant 68 degrees, and create as much trash as possible.

I demurred – not so much because any of them “cause global warming” as…:

It’s expensive as hell, and when it comes to money, I put the “Conserve” into “Conservative”; Hummers are a lot of money that I’d much rather spend on other things. I don’t even have AC; at any rate,the free market has a way of moderating this sort of behavior, at least for me; it’s expensive as hell.

And excuse me but, um, why?  I mean, if spending money and time for the hell of it brings you joy, then knock yourself out, I guess, but I never quite got it.  I’m not going to tell you not  to do it, but it really has less to do with politics than with finding a high-sounding justification for “gluttony”, in the “seven deadly sins” sense of the term.  And naturally, since we have free will, you have every right to be a glutton.  Just tread carefully when trying to ennoble it with some higher purpose it doesn’t deserve.

After 9/11, as the US got ready to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq,the left launched any number of deeply stupid symbolic protests; “Naked Unicyclists for Peace” and the like.  As if unicycling naked – by any definition more of a narcissistic attention-getting exercise than an actual political act of any use – was somehow raised to a form of high political purpose by tacking “…for Peace” onto the end of it.  In other words, it falsely ennobled narcissism and self-centeredness (with, usually, hilarious-yet-nauseating results).

So in all honesty, what makes gluttony-dressed-up-as-politics any better (other than “not having ageing ex-hippies riding unicycles in the nude, of course)?

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

No, not “The Beatles” as in “everything they ever did”.

The Fab Four that got off the plane at LaGuardia and appeared on Ed Sullivan?  They were one amazing band – all exaggerated backbeat and fearless looping harmonies and everything that was good about skiffle and white-boy R’nB all rolled into one.

The band that did Rubber Soul and Revolver?  With the fascinating harmonies and stuttering rhythms (“She Said”) and the palpable sense they were wallowing in the pure joy of being able to create music for a living? Amazing stuff.

Even Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has its joys.   But between the grooves the rot was showing.  Where once there was joy and wit and the pure fun of playing rock and roll (even very inventive rock and roll) in front of a crowd, there was a new, introverted, baroque sensibility creeping in.  And while Pepper was a great record, it only got worse.

Over the rest of the band’s career (and it’s kinda funny to think that “the rest of their career” was only three more years, and their entire career as a superstar band was shorter than the run of That Seventies Show), though…

…well, I’ll cop to it.  I can’t stand most of it.  Sure, there are enjoyable, even fantastic, moments.  But there is no Beatles album after Pepper that I can listen to all the way through without tuning out and looking for something else.  From the self-indulgent baroque noodling of Abbey Road to the self-indulgent psychedelia of Magical Mystery Tour to the self-indulgent self-indulgence of The White Album, everything the Beatles did after Sergeant Pepper bores me stiff.

Espectially White Album.  After a lifetime of hearing friends tell me how absolutely freaking essential it is, I just have to respond for the record; The White Album is the most overrated record ever hatched upon the world. Not boring.  Not bad.  Just overrated.

You can disagree.  I expect many of you will.  Go for it.  But after thirty-odd years of trying, I can not find a way around it; The White Album doesn’t even rise to the level of “doing nothing for me”; it just falls flat.

Perhaps it’s the sound of John Lennon seizing control of the band; Lennon/McCartney were geniuses – together.  Separately?  McCartney was a featherweight popster, and Lennon was a misanthropic mope.  Up through Sergeant Pepper, they cancelled each others’ worst characteristics out.  After?


Every time.

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

Yeah, I know – Jazz is the only American art form.  It ties together all of the strains of American life from the civil war to the present the late 1950’s.  It’s the apogee of American music.

And I’m straining to think of any American jazz in the past forty years that’s really grabbed me.

And when I say “grabbed me”, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate all music in one or both of two ways.  One of them is, as a musician, appreciating technical virtuosity and musicianship.  The other is, “does it grab me in the liver?”  And most jazz of the past fifty years is the former; I can appreciate virtuosity, and – better yet – musicianship.  I can appreciate Miles Davis or Larry Carlton in about the same way I do Steve Vai; yes, indeed, they are very good at what they do.  Of course, nothing they do grabs me by the liver and says this tells you something about life, love, the universe, and everything, the way Darkness On The Edge Of Town or “Boulder to Birmingham” or “I Cover The Waterfront” or Mahler’s Tenth Symphony or “Duke’s Place” or “Hand of Kindness” or “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down” do.

Or the way jazz did, for a long time; stuff from the twenties through the fifties, Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Benny Goodman and Count Basie and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington and the Dorseys all made music that was intricate and inventive and accessible.

Two things, I think, happened to jazz.

First: it ceded “accessibility” to the rest of pop music, and became a tight-knit, self-referential little club full of people who were all in on the same joke and loved keeping the uninitiated out of it.  Sort of like Simpsons fans who’ve shot too much smack.  Along about the time of Elvis, pop took the “accessible” route, leaving jazz – the form of the day was “bebop”, all quirky and technical and really really dull if you weren’t actually busy playing it yourself – to those who really cared about, well, quirky and technical and just plain holier than thou.

The other?  It became “art” more than just music.  Jazz became an audio museum more than a living, breathing art form. 

And I know – the jazz buffs will squawk “but jazz is alive and well and living and breathing”, to which I answer “Really?  When was the last time you saw a bunch of kids get together in a garage to start a jazz band to set forth and take over the world?  No, not a bunch of prodigies like the Marsalis brothers, normal people? When was the last time you saw a kid play air saxophone in the hall at school?  And no – I don’t mean that music has to aspire to the lowest common denominator, or be a “do it yourself” thing with no barrier to entry; most of music would be better if kids actually learned how to play these days.  But there you have it – how long has it been since you heard a normal, regular kid say with a straight face he aspired to play like Brandford Marsalis or Joe Pass or Charlie Parker?

How long has it been since a jazz – not “jazzy”, not “jazz-inflected”, but jazz – album captured the imagination of anyone who isn’t a musician in the first place?

Put another way; once people started getting National Endowment for the Arts grants to do jazz, and once it became the province of college music departments, jazz became to music what Latin did to languages.

Put another another way:  When was the last time jazz was any couple’s “song?”  Indeed; most jazz of the past fifty years is exactly like the scene from Jerry McGuire, where Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger are gettin’ happenin’, and for whatever reason Cruise took the advice of the creepy jazz-fan friend (!) and put on some Miles Davis mix CD to help close the deal on the big seduction – and stops in the middle of the hot scene, and breaks up laughing; “What the hell is that?”, as Davis honks and blats abstractly away in the background.  Jazz has been a mood-killer since Charles Mingus supplanted Billie Holiday; Nine Inch Nails is better date music.

So jazz is fine.   I just…can’t stand it, too.

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

I called Jason Lewis one day, during his first stint in the Twin Cities, probably close to ten years ago.  He’d just said “Rap isn’t music!” – hardly an original idea among talk show hosts.  “It’s just rhythm”.

I called in, and got on the air quickly; Joe Hansen always got me on the air pronto back in the day.

“Jason”, I asked, “were Gene Krupa’s albums “not music” just because they were mostly a single drummer playing solos?”

There really was no answer, of course.

So yeah.  I like rap.

And when I say I like rap, I mean “I disdain the vast, vast majority of rap, and I can honestly think of maybe three rappers in the past ten years that haven’t bored me stiff, and the rise of gangsta rap has pretty much killed most originality not only in rap but in most of R’nB, which has largely adopted the thudding bass/tinkling ornament/big attitude style that west-coast rap adopted ten or fifteen years ago or so, and it’s not like I’d know most originality anymore anyway because I really don’t go out and actively find much new music in any genre anymore, certainly not like when I was a nightclub DJ and had whatever was left of my brain marinading in new music all the dang time”.

But yeah.  There’s been plenty of rap that I liked.  A lot.

Run/DMC’s King of Rock de-mystified the whole thing for me as a college kid in North Dakota.

It’s when I realized “Hey – it’s not some strange cult ritual! It’s – like – music!  Only without guitars and stuff”

It’s hard to say “Leave aside all the references to Louis Farrakhan and militant Afrocentrism on Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions Hold Us Back; it’s like staying “ignore all the George Harrison on that Beatles album”, or “dig Simple Minds, but ignore the parts where Jim Kerr preens”.  It’s everywhere; militancy and all the most bombastic trappings of black anger as of 20 years ago jumped from the grooves and pimp-slapped you from almost every cut; by the time Flavor Flav brought the comic relief (on the hilarious “Cold Lampin’ withe Flavor”), you need it.  Chuck D at his peak (and this album was his peak) made Kirk Hemmett seem laid-back.

But listening to Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was a little like listening to Phil Spector the first time.

Alan Shocklee produced it – and he was to rap, in those days before the courts clamped down on the use of samples and loops, what Spector was to producing Rock and Roll; the king of everything.  And while the material was raw and angry and really, really provocative, and I think my Jewish friends had a point about the anti-semitism hidden in all that black militancy, and the group really did start to believe their media after not very long at all, the album had the two things that all the best rap had twenty years ago; great production, and really sharp, intricate wordplay delivered flawlessly.  Someone once called Chuck D the Bob Dylan of Rap.  I think it sticks.

And before the courts shut down looping and sampling (a court decision in the early nineties required artists to pay royalties to whomever had written the songs from which ones’ own song sampled), there was time to squeeze out one more great production masterpiece – one of the two best rap albums ever done by white guys:

The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique is like a jazz album – all fluent interplay between instruments, where “instruments” means Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D’s voices and the avalanche of loops, drops and samples behind ’em.  If you’ve never listened to it, then curb your preconceptions and give it a shot.   And if you don’t like it?  Well, fine, but don’t come whining to me.  The album capped a brief flash of time where the thing that makes any kind of music fun and interesting – cross-pollination – was happening, when white/black amalgamations like Third Base and House of Pain were doing great stuff (shaddap about Vanilla Ice and Snow and Gerardo if you know what’s good for you), if only briefly. 

The late eighties were an awful, dry spell for music; if you get a copy of Paul’s Boutique, Tunnel of Love, Appetite for Destruction and Nation of Millions, you’ve got most of the good stuff. 

Well, that, and maybe one more:

It’s tempting to blame NWA’s Straight Outta Compton for all of its’ successors’ excesses.  It was the first really big ganster rap album.  And after the ghastly crimes against culture that the genre has given us (and, worse, given right back to “urban” culture”), it’s tempting to try to make a case for censorship.  And it launched the “west coast” rap “mystique” that has inflicted so much stupidity, criminality and really bad music on the world (to say nothing of Dr. Dre’s producing career – of which more below – and Ice Cube’s acting career).

But if George Jones made it safe to visit the world of the regretful cheater and the wistful drinker, and Merle Haggard and Gretchen Wilson and Hank Williams Junior made it possible to vicariously line-dance through the world of the budweiser-pickled redneck, and Born to Run gave everyone a taste of roaring down the turnpike in a suicide machine (even if you were just a schlubby high school kid), Compton  – whatever you think about gangster rap and the ills of urban culture – is a lyrical thrill ride in the theme park of the wanna-be badass.  And – here’s the wierd part, if you’ve listened to what’s passed for rap this past decade and a half – it’s fun.  I mean, if you can get past all the prattling about killing cops and the gleefully-casual misogyny, it’s just plain fun to listen to.

Which most of rap since then has not been. With two exceptions – both of ’em crackers from Detroit:

Eminem is to the vocal technique of saying things real fast to a beat, and around a beat, and in between the parts and sides and, I dunno, underneath the beat, what Eddie Van Halen is to the guitar; with both, you hear them start a passage, and you wonder “how’s he going to get to the end of this?”  And then – both of them do, and only with style, and you go “Dayum” from wondering it all.  Don’t believe, me?  Try to copy either of ’em.  Get ready to feel very humble when you’re done.

And Kid Rock?

If Eminem is the Van Halen of rap, Kid Rock is the Ian Hunter.  He’s been around forever, he’s done everything, he brings an air of gleeful excess to the whole thing, he goes outside the form just for the pure fun of it; he’s the first person I’ve seen try to tie redneck rock’n roll and sh*tkicker country/western into something like rap, ending up with an amalgamation that doesn’t really match any style at all, and who really cares anyway?

So yeah. I’m “supposed” to hate it.  And most of it, I do.  But not just because it’s “rap”, but because most of it, like most rock and roll or most C’nW, is garbage.

As with most things in life, it’s best to focus on what’s not garbage.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Don’t: “Courtesy Of The Red White And Blue”

It wrenches the needle off the jingo meter.

It still provokes somber tut-tutting from our betters about the knee-jerk ignorance of NASCAR America.
And nowhere in American pop culture after 9/11 did the id of the vast mass of America between the Hudson and the Sierra Madre get expressed better.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t competition.  Springsteen’s The Rising evoked loss, commemorated heroism, and opened the faucet on the best evocations of spirituality during times of tragedy in American pop music history. Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Big and Rich’s “Eighth of November” took very different approaches to illuminating the best in American, and human, character against horrendous odds.

All well and good.

And it’s true; there are times when diplomacy and nuance and meeting your enemy halfway and being aware of ones’ own faults is essential – even in wartime.
But there are some times, some moods, when putting a boot in someone’s ass, the American way, is all that will suffice.  There are times when, like Churchill’s “Dunkirk” and Reagan’s “Shining City” and “Brandenburg Gate” speeches, I just need to hear it.

There is no substitute.

So kudos, Toby Keith.