Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Still Rotten

On one hand, how could your band refuse a chance to appear on American Bandstand? It's reach was monstrous, its path as mainstream as it got, and its cred totally corporate. Later in his career Dick Clark marketed himself as America's oldest teenager. Truth was, he was more America's youngest oldster. Hip on culture Dick never was––he always came across more as a friend of the parents than of the Now Generation––but on business Dick was mogulsville, baby. (Dick Clark Productions just sold in September for an estimated $370-$385 million.) American Bandstand, while never a significant organ of the music industry, did have stamina and that accounts for something. While the guest list didn't often stray far the most middling of the mainstream (Barry Manilow didn't do its theme song for nothing, you know) you'd think for a band like Public Image Ltd (PiL) it might've been an honor to get such national air time. But when your leader and figurehead is Johnny Rotten/Lydon, a personage whose brain always seemed deprived of serotonin, well, to borrow a line from Hubert Selby: You didn't really expect him to behave, did you?

"Something interesting and special" indeed.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Music that Matters, Pt 3

22. My musical reactionary dad's playlist didn't vary in over 80 years, so the endless sound loop of his big band records may've had a retroviral effect: Ellington, Basie, Shaw, Dorsey, Goodman, etc: Especially Mood Indigo, Ellington's Victrola romp from the '20s when pop music had banjos instead of ProTools. Poignant and compelling like a hunchbacked 6'10" cross dresser in stiletto pumps.

23. Iggy Pop, Funtime and the whole of The Idiot: This record loomed large in my senior year of high school, its proto-industrial sound would later remind me of those Marxist academic malcontents who insist our institutions were designed to make us compliant consumer sheep who hate unions and non-conformity. Funtime was aware of all that but instead focuses only on getting drunk and laid. Intimations of literacy and sophistication from a guy who once sang Cock in my Pocket.

24. Billy Holiday, Strange Fruit: Hearing this you might actually believe Billie sang this under a tree while a dead body dangled from it. THIS is selling a song.

25. Cream, Sunshine of Your Love: I was eight or something when this was on the radio so for me this is the guitar lover's ur-riff. I kind of imprinted on this. By today's standards it's the sound equivalent of a cave painting but for old people like me this is the O.G. balls on shizz, or whatever the current expression for really cool is.

26. Ray Charles, What'd I Say: My twelve-years-older brother played Charles around the house when I was a tot. Charles' voice is at once sexy and friendly, which might be creepy from a guy in a plaid blazer but for Charles it works. The electric piano is way sexy too but not in lingerie-and-heels way, more of a handcuffs-and-dripping-candle-wax way. This is the sound of people having a good time.

27. Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits: I heard this on my parents Magnavox console, a record-player hidden in a cabinet as big as a combine harvester. At one time these appliances occupied living rooms across America like a Levitz designed Berlin Wall. When my parents were out my older sister threw this on and loud. Funk: Like Emma Goldman said, what kind of revolution is it if you can't dance to it? (The much sampled Sing a Simple Song here.)

28. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions: A synthesizer is easily the most abused instrument in Western music (and whatever it is Kenny G. plays); Stevie understood the synth's potential in a way that no one else did (except maybe Eno). Not to mention that amazing underwater Clavinet sound of his. Generally speaking, Stevie is a giant but for three albums in the 70s he was nearly unstoppable. For me this was the best of the lot. (Too High here.)

29. The Zombies, She's Not There: For many years I only knew this song from the car radio; Even through crackling AM static, flutter and distortion this song was the epitome of cool. Still is.

30. Magazine, Secondhand Daylight album: A British band most of my friends never heard of, though several of the members went on to do other things (which they also never heard of). For 2 1/2 albums they were the best band in the universe as far as I was concerned. Long ago I saw them at a toilet of a club called the Cuckoo's Nest. The band played a slow opening instrumental while the singer stood staring into the audience for several minutes wide-eyed and wordless, like maybe he'd just seen his grandparents in Nazi uniforms fondling the gym teacher. You might've expected him to be heckled but no one did. The lesson I took from that moment was sometimes you just have to stand and withstand. Doing it on your own terms is always sexier. (Feed the Enemy here.)

31. The Doors, Five to One: The Waiting for the Sun album was a birthday present from my sister (R.I.P.) and the first record I ever owned. As a child I assumed someone other than Morrison sang this because the voice sounded too otherworldly and dark, even for a guy with Oedipal fantasies. (Now I realize he was just rollicking drunk.) The net effect was a phantasmically insane vocal in both mind and sound. Clearly, he was digging somewhere behind the gates that only a fifth of whiskey can tear down. In the song's last quarter Morrison looses a scream that sounds like the damned on their first day in hell: Awe-inspiring, ugly, beautiful, and god damn if I'd want the to live the life that could produce such a thing.

The Doors in my neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Music that Matters, Pt 2

12. King Crimson, Starless: A five minute guitar solo built on one note that—seriously—will make you wonder why every other guitar player uses so many.

13. Thelonious Monk, Well You Needn't: Monk plays the piano like it's another kind of drum. Monk's chords and offbeat strikes make you realize that our hearts probably speak in angular chords played at weird intervals too.

14. Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows: For me, pretty much the best lyric ever written. Cohen's lyrics are like the best guitar solos you've never heard. Amazing to think that his great moment of enlightenment was "I have to sing." You could imagine his superego responding "you fool, with that voice?" leading to an ego versus superego brawl like two poets on a bender ending with the ego triumphant; years follow playing folk clubs and dodging beer bottles and eventually the result is this song. This is the voice of a brilliant frog. (A great song when someone else sings it, too.) 

A respectable rendition by Concrete Blonde here.

15. Steely Dan, Black Friday: Maybe it's true that only absurdity can properly describe our tragedies ("...with nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos"). Black humor also helps. And Fagen's voice serves both masters perfectly.

16. Jacques Brel's If You Go Away: I don't care who sings thisSinatra, Neil Diamond, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Cher (Hell, even Sonny couldn't ruin this)—it's a song that (nearly) transcends the singer. (Streisand covered it first.) It's also the most elegant exploration of psychotic obsessive-compulsive love stalking you'll ever hear. A real weeper out of the right mouth.

17. XTC, Dear God: Beautifully uncomfortable stabs of one person's truth that pretty much captures my religious views as well. Try this attitude at your next sales meeting or job interview: People will be too scared of you to say no. 
18. Velvet Underground, Venus in Furs: An amazing combo of a bondage lyric, eerie slurring viola, a beat that chugs like a room-sized cloud of bong smoke, and a primitive oiled-up-around-the-campfire vibe that works even though it sounds as if it was recorded with a mic stuffed into a tooth filling. Listening to this you might think you could make music like this too. You'd be wrong, of course, but it does give one hope.

19. Blue Oyster Cult, Hot Rails to Hell: A favorite band of mine in high school which exploits the Satisfaction riff again (sort of inverted) but what else should a hot rail to hell sound like? A perfect song for the drive to my teenage hellhole minimum-wage pot scrubbing job.

20. Roxy Music, Song for Europe: Bryan Ferry's vibrato is like your hands on ten cups of coffee following a week-long fast at gunpoint. I love how this song kind of explodes at the end. People with better ears than mine say he sings a little sharp. I say we should all be so sharp.

21. Jeff Buckley, Grace: Somewhere in the song's last minute Buckley's voice trips off into insanity: Not the insanity of the homeless guy cursing outside my window at three in the morning, but the kind of genius insanity that only comes from deep breaths of the infinite blowing out a voice that was thousands of years in the making. There's an old rabbinical tale of a man who gets his wish to see the face of god. Afterwards, his friends come to visit and find him hiding under his bed for the unspeakableness of what he saw. There's a moment in Grace where Buckley sounds like he saw it too. Even the most disillusioned cynics may get chicken skin on this one.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Music that Matters, Pt 1

Some years ago you may've seen this forward viralizing Facebook:
"The So-called Life Changing Record List": Think of 15 albums, CDs, LPs (if you're over 40) that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life. Dug into your soul. Music that brought you to life when you heard it... etc, etc.

No true fan could refuse a taunt like that. So
with a music fanatic's sense of duty, I wrote my own version. Now five years old, this little rant would eventually become the seed for creating this modest little blog. Over time the list grew bigger and bigger until it eventually became the bloated mastodon of joyous self-indulgence it now is. The first ten are posted below with more installments to follow. 

Understanding that music is often at least as much an emotional experience as an intellectual one, often it's the context, associated memories, time of life, etc, that can make a sound archetypal for one person while only water torture for another. To wit: Had it not been for The Cars' Just What I Needed wafting up from the radio downstairs as I was losing my virginity it may've only remained the bubblegum rocker that it is to millions of others. Instead, it will always be the plaque over my gateway to awkward coital bliss. Also, the music of my generation, rock music in particular, became all the more personal for me as my unnerved Swing Era father pretty much took me to task for it my entire life. Culture through music, he was sure, was eddying its way down civilization's toilet bowl. (While some lamented society's doom with drugs and sex, for my dad it was Pepsi-cola.)

As far as the So-called Life Changing List is concerned, I strayed from the original list-of-albums concept and turned it into something more like a compilation of abrupt first kisses that grow into torrid musical love affairs.

1. The first time I heard The Doors at six years old: A hard bossa nova groovelike The Girl From Ipanema as a streetwalkerthat gives way to the hypnotic falling bombs of "break on through to the other side!" For tiny me, it was a kind of Pentecostal moment. 

See Jim lip-synching uncomfortably here.
2. The Rolling Stones, Either The Last Time's hounds of hell fade out on the "no no nononos!"–a sound not found in my parents record collection--or the guitar riff from Satisfaction, the pissiest guitar sound ever. Both sum up perfectly the sound of teenage angst which for me started somewhere around third grade. (See it performed here semi-live without the hounds-of-hell fade.)

3. Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols: All of it but especially Holidays in the Sun: Note the eruption of a break that follows the "over the Berlin waaaaaallllll." Say to yourself next time you think you've done something especially well, whatever it is: Have I thrown down a slab of my great passion as authentic as that? If the answer is yes, then you've been all you can be.

4. Radiohead, OK Computer: The slow burn of Exit Music for a Film. Sometimes a pouty, abstract, and turbercular-looking young Brit is the perfect vehicle.
5. The Beatles, moments by the megaton but especially: A Day in the Life, the "ah-ah-ahs" following "then somebody spoke and I went into a dream." Sucks you into the ether like a wind tunnel at mach III. 
6. Diamonda Galas, the banshee wails of Do You Take This Man: If you haven't heard her she's a brilliant and amazing sick puppy. If the history of female anger could be summed up in one voice, this is the one. (Not that I haven't heard enough female anger in my lifetime, but here, at least, it's interesting.)

7. Lee Hazelwood, Some Velvet Morning: I played this around the house and soon three year old daughter was singing "some velvet morning when I'm straight," most likely the greatest opening line ever. My three year old understood that line's intent about as much as the Bush men-folk do syntax, still, a broken man's lament from the mouth of a babe can be sickeningly cute.

8. 16 Horsepower, American Wheeze: A song about God–not that toga-wearing "purpose driven life" pansy, but the blinded psycho who might've had Abraham go all West Side Story on son Isaac—sung over the hardest bandoneon you'll ever hear and a slide guitar that might've been played with a pitchfork: Magic. This isn't mascara and black leggings style goth but the true demented Gothic: With torches, inbreeding, and a mania for bloody holy-vengeance. The fact that an irreligious soul like me can love this can only be proof of its inherent genius.

9. P.J. Harvey, Rid of Me: Describes wanting someone to a sick excess and then hating them for it because, as it turns out, they don't want you. And then, taking the only appropriate action under the circumstances which is to make their life a living hell. A kind of deep humiliation that requires a distorted guitar and a country girl wail from the bottom of the well for the proper goosebump. 

I don't know if this is definitive but you'll wonder how this petite Dorsett farm girl squeezes all that sound out.

Another version from her performance on Jay Leno and her famous sheep castration story.

10. House of the Rising Sun: a great song done by many but I prefer The Animals version. A little opera about blaming parents for one person's boozing, gambling and whoring mess. Pray our kids don't sing this about us one day. (Fortunately, unlike the parent in the song I'm not a gambling drunk. But then my girls aren't in high school yet. [My eldest began this year.])

11. Led Zeppelin, the fade out shrieks of Whole Lotta Love: About Plant's singing I remember my older sister complaining "This guy is so in love with his voice," like it was a bad thing. The whole outro vamp fade of the song becomes a circle jerk between Plant and Bonham to see who could swing their banana the hardest. (Page's guitar does its territorial pissing all over the rest of the song.) Plant's wail is a castrato howler monkey's from the treetops and Bonzo pounds his sticks with a methamphetamine abandon and that may be his balls hitting the kick drum. The bluesmen Zep stole from, particularly Muddy and Wolf (and Willie Dixon who successfully sued for songwriting credit), did plenty of banana swinging of their own but were loath to bare their chests for real, unlike these guys. Whole Lotta Love may be the apotheosis of the testicular form and anyone who would cover this version without understanding that should be pilloried. (The TV singing shows have provided too many egregious examples.) 

Though, I suspect both P.J. Harvey and Diamanda Galas would have the huevos to do it justice.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"We're Not Coming."

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Pistols in 2006. As you'll see, they chose not to attend. (While Mr. Rotten gave them the respect of a handwritten note, you'll note that the style of his writing and singing are very similar.)

Wiki devotes a line to the matter but more space to the general controversies of the institution itself which, you may not be surprised to know, operates more like a business and less like a museum.

Also noted that if an artist chooses to attend, induction comes with a price.