Friday, April 6, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: "Heroes"

All three of our loyal readers may have noticed it's been a bit somnolent 'round these parts for the past year or two, at least in comparison to the first four years of the blog—the dropoff is pretty precipitous.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons for that. Life, as it will, intrudes. Novelty wears off. We run out of semi-pseudo-insightful insights to inflict upon an innocent world. The anti-Christ took office.

But upon reflection, a large part of it's because the death of David Bowie hit us pretty hard. Hard enough that a good friend who knows me well pinged me the next day and asked, simply, "so, nothing but Bowie or no Bowie at all?" The answer was pretty much no Bowie at all, for nearly a week. I just couldn't. (DT, on the other hand, went the opposite route, listening to pretty much nothing but DB.) This is the hardest I've been rocked by a musician's death since Kurt Cobain, in no small part because—to some extent, as with Cobain—it was so unexpected.

Fuckin' Bowie, man. He headfaked us yet again. After his heart attack in 2004, he virtually disappeared almost entirely for nine damn years. A very few live appearances here, a very few guest recordings there, a delightful turn as Nikola Tesla, but nothing substantive. And it seemed like that was that. And that was okay. Bowie had by that point more than given us more than anyone could ever expect from one artist.

I've been listening to an awful lot of Bowie recently—surprise surprise, I know, that I should have turned away from my temporary Thin White Duke asceticism and gone entirely in the other direction—and I realized that on his last tour, when he wanted to reward the audience by playing an old favorite (out of, say, 25 songs played on a given night, often no more than half and sometimes quite a bit less would be from his most popular period, with the majority being "newer" material completely unfamiliar to the casual fan),

And then out of nowhere he released a single and then an album and then just before his death his most acclaimed new album in decades...and then he's gone. Brilliant and unpredictable to the last. Dammit.

***

Here's a piece I wrote a few years back about the song which is often my favorite Bowie song, as well as the one I generally think is probably his best. When it comes to an artist of Bowie's stature, best is rarely easy to definitively pin down, and varies according to whatever metric the judge is going by. And when it comes to our most-beloved artists, which song or album is the favorite doesn't always track with what's the best. And yet this song, more than almost any of his others, is almost always in my personal top five for both categories, and often in the pole position.

***

So I read one of those “best of” lists recently. Silly as those lists tend to be, I do love them so, and not just because they frequently give me an excuse to get angry. But this one—a list of “best covers ever”—was worse than most, if only for the inclusion of The Wallflower’s version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

A great cover brings something new to the table. Sometimes, as with the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout,” it brings an irrepressible energy, and perhaps the greatest single vocal from one of the greatest singers in rock history, a performance so powerful you can literally hear his voice shredding by the end. Others successfully recast the composition itself, pulling it from genre to another, as with Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” a reconceptualization so effective that Bob Dylan himself adopted it.

The Wallflowers do none of this. Instead, they perform the song as though it were a full band karaoke.



It’s a fine performance, in some respects: the drummer is your typical 90s post-grunge drummer, which is to say, he bashes enthusiastically. The aural background relies much more heavily on mildly distorted guitars than Bowie’s original, with its emphasis on synthesizers. If the musical backing doesn’t add to anything to our understanding of the song, neither is it especially embarrassing.
That’s left up to singer and bandleader Jakob Dylan. He starts the song with the kind of jaded, slacker ennui that’s practically a parody of the era. Later, when the “emotional” part kicks in, he can finally be arsed to sing above a seductive whisper, but even here his voice has a kind of blank, dead-eye stare quality to it. It seems to imply he doesn’t mean any of it, but his phrasing of the final chorus, with its long, drawn-out assertion that they can indeed “be heeeeeeeeroes” would belie that interpretation. The result is a bunch of pretty sound and half-hearted attempts at fury which mean less than nothing.

Generic mid-90s and flawed as their version is, it’s made even worse by the video, a mix of lip-synching and footage from the Godzilla remake. Bowie, of course, was one of the first artists to realize and explore the possibilities of video, as well as the most nakedly savvy about the potential for commercialization of not just one’s art but one’s own self, as when he sold stock in his own back catalog. But this video make it absolutely blatant that the Wallflowers viewed the song as nothing but commerce, with not even a nod to actual art, as Dylan sings about being a hero while casually dodging Godzilla’s tail—a particularly humorously unironic bit of stupidity, as Dylan is, in fact, doing nothing heroic, not even bothering to warn his band members that they’re about to be crushed to death. It’s crass and vacant, which makes its inclusion on any “best of” list perplexing, to say the least.

Compare and contrast Bowie’s various versions. His original studio version has a cold, mechanical backing, made up largely of washes of synthesizer, and highlighted by Robert Fripp’s slippery lead guitar. His opening vocal, detached and chilly, fits in perfectly, its resigned air somewhat frightening.



As the song progresses, his emotions begin to change, to become rougher and more open. In the second verse he laughs gently, as though the idea of making plans when the future is so uncertain—and the most likely outcome unpleasant—is darkly ironic, yet all the more attractive for that. “We can be heroes,” he says to the song's fantasy queen, “forever and ever. What you say?” The only response is Fripp’s echoing guitar lines. Come the third verse, Bowie takes his doomed daydream even further, wishing his dream girl could swim like a dolphin, convinced they could be heroes if only she could.

And then he gets to the fourth verse and Bowie lets loose vocally in a way he rarely had before or would after, taking the melody up an octave and almost shouting his determination that they should be rulers, if only for a day. The fifth verse clues us in to what it is that has him so beaten down, and yet determined to fight back—he and the female to whom he's singing are standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and soldiers are firing and reality has crashed down and there’s no chance they’re going to make it: they’re never, ever going to be king and queen, they’re not going to swim like dolphins and they’re not going to be heroes. And, yet, in his refusal to meekly acquiesce, even if in his own heart, there is something heroic, something noble, in his defiantly doomed stand.

Or so it seems. Because after you think the song’s over, a last verse comes in out of nowhere. “We’re nothing,” he admits. “And no one will help us. Maybe we’re lying.” There’s a reason the punks never turned on Bowie, the way they did the Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—this is every bit as true to the spirit of punk as anything by the Clash or the Pistols.

It’s instructive to note how Bowie himself has approached the song in subsequent years. During his fabulously successful 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, he approached it, as with most of his catalog, in a sort of Elvis-Goes-to-Vegas manner. But whereas that same approach was horrifying when Dylan tried it in the late 70s, in Bowie’s case it felt more like an affectionate look at his own history, sharing it at last with the mass audience he’d so long craved and sought; because Bowie was so famous and critically acclaimed, it's easy to forget that until the Let's Dance LP, he'd only ever had one real U.S. hit single, and that had been eight years earlier: an eternity in pop terms.

The performance is kicked along by Tony Thompson, the most dominant, aggressive drummer he’d ever play with; Dennis Davies is one of the most underrated drummers in the history of rock and roll, with a resume only a handful of drummers could match, while Zach Alford and Sterling Campbell may actually have been more technically accomplished, but couldn't compete with Thompson's accomplishments and the subsequent power he held, in terms of both importance and prestige. If the performance is a long way from its origins, it’s still enjoyable—the jaunty horns may undercut, rather than provide a fruitful juxtaposition of, the lyric’s theme…but, on the other hand, you know: horns. Horns are pretty much always good. And pastel, smoothly dancing Bowie was such a change, such an enjoyable new character from the chameleon.



But compare that to his acoustic performance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit in 1996. Proving—as though there were necessary—that acoustic doesn't have to mean laidback, Bowie is intense, whispery, almost defeated at times, all of which is appropriate to the song and never less than gripping. This is, perhaps, sorta kinda what the Wallflowers were going for, and proves that, with the proper approach and a ton of talent, it was indeed possible...just not by them.



And then there's Bowie's treatment of the song on his 2003 Reality tour. Only about a third of the songs during a typical show were from the most popular parts of his songbook, with the vast majority being pulled from his less than blockbuster albums of the 1990s and 2000s—an interestingly deliberate act of non-pandering. “Heroes,” would be one of the last songs of the show, and it’s presented almost as a gift to the fans, a thank you to them for sitting through, say, the lesser known “Never Get Old,” rather than, say, “Space Oddity.”

There's quite a bit of self-assured banter with the crowd before he cues the band. But note the way he enters concurrent with the band, rather than allowing the typical musical intro to tip off the crowd. The backing is relaxed, sparse, and laid back, almost an unplugged treatment, with few of the prominent synths and, initially, none of the classic guitar hook. He smiles, he croons, a master toying with…something. The song? The crowd? His own mortality? Although he couldn't have known at the time, this was, after all,  Bowie’s last tour.



But then the band ramps up a bit after the first chorus and by the time of the second verse, he seems to get more serious. The playfulness disappears, replaced by a more searching demeanor. This isn’t the Bowie of the 1980s revue. This is closer to the tormented Bowie of the 70s Berlin grimness.

After the second chorus, the band is fully kicked in, and by the third verse, Bowie himself seems intense, searching. And the fourth verse has Bowie utterly committed, but with a kind of fierce joy.

We get to the triumphantly repeated chorus, and he grins and claps…and then comes that final verse, and for the first time, he grabs the microphone and walks away from center stage. “We’re nothing,” he sings, off to the side and closer to the audience than before. “And no one can help us. Maybe we’re lying…you’d better not stay. We can be heroes, just for one day.”

And boom. The music ends on his drawn out last note.

The band kicks back in for another round of sing along, and Bowie joyfully holds the microphone out for the crowd to sing along—but it’s an odd place to have ended, even if the moment’s swept away.

That’s with the hindsight of repeated viewings, though. What strikes you immediately is just how happy, how beautiful, even how, yes, triumphant Bowie seems during those final moments.

Of course, one of the things that always must be kept in mind when analyzing David Bowie is how openly chameleonic he is—he’s always been open about being fascinated by the idea of personas, changing them every album or two. He’s interested in approaching rock and roll the way a writer approaches a novel—as a means to tell a story and explore various ideas, and not just to sing one’s diary. With his theatre background, it’s impossible to know when, if ever, he “means” something, the way we always assumed, when we were teenagers, our musical heroes meant the things they sang. So with Bowie, when you find an especially impassioned performance, it’s simply not possible to ascertain whether he was really that passionate during that particular performance or whether he was just doing an especially convincing job of being passionate.

David Bowie’s a genius when it comes to synthesizing disparate elements in a larger and more effective whole, and with this song he reached the kind of rarified air only the very greatest can ever hope to even glimpse. That lightweights like the Wallflowers even considered attempting this song illustrates as well as anything could just how hopelessly overmatched they were before they even started.

As a wise man once said, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Monday, April 2, 2018

That's All Right, Mama / Blue Moon of Kentucky / Glad All Over

It's always so pleasant—if (or perhaps because it's?) rare—to see footage of George Harrison openly happy. But it's not surprising that so much of that rare footage tends to happen when he's playing with one of his idols.

Such as this great clip of George—along with Ringo, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, a pair of Stray Cats, a David Bowie lead guitarist and Roseanne Cash—harmonizing with Carl Perkins on "It's All Right,  Mama" before playing a remarkable version of the original Scotty Moore guitar solo. Later, Clapton plays one of his more country solos ever, which is great, of course.

But the star is George. I mean, sure, the star is Perkins. But George's harmony vocals are fantastic throughout, and he takes over for "Glad All Over," easing the older master into the song, seldom taking his eyes off his hero, and seldom not grinning.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

#9 Dream

Some people are simply born with more or higher quality raw materials. Some of those people do little or nothing with those materials. And some of them work with and on them until they get to the point where they can literally write an utterly perfect pop song in their sleep.


Because there's never enough examples of artists who don't understand their own work as fully as others do, here's John Lennon talking about this song:
That's what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I'm not putting it down, it's just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I'd had.
"Churned that out." Completely in keeping with John Lennon being the only person in history who didn't like the sound of John Lennon's own voice.

Friday, March 9, 2018

She's Gone

It must kinda suck to be John Oates. I mean, there are worse fates than to get to be an extremely successful, working musician your entire life, with absolutely no financial worries once you're in your late 20s. But no matter how much money in your bank account, it must suck to be a musical punchline. I assume Ringo is too removed to know how often he's (stupidly) mocked, or maybe he's just so easygoing and balanced it doesn't bother him. But we know it took a toll on perhaps the most commercially successful white male singer of the 80s, as Phil Collins spiraled down into depression and alcoholism, in large part because of how reviled he'd become, for pretty much no fault of his own. And then there was that devastatingly funny "I'm Oates" Behind the Music MTV parody Saturday Night Live did. It really captured what most people—understandably—thought of Oates's contribution to Hall & Oates, the most commercially successful white male duo ever.

And then you see a video like this. And you realize Oates isn't anything like Wham!'s Andrew Ridgeley. He's more akin, perhaps, to The Who's John Entwhistle—extremely talented, a good writer, a good singer, a great player, who happens to be in a band with a phenomenal talent.


I mean, how many times had you heard this song before you realized how many of the vocals were Oates? And once you see him sing them, you have no choice but to accept that he is a no kidding truly good soul singer. He was simply both lucky enough and perhaps unlucky enough to be the musical partner of one of the greatest white male soul singers ever.

Even the video itself gives an indication of what happened: note how much more evenly the vocal duties are split during the first half of the song, and then how Daryl Hall takes over more and more as the song progresses, if not quite to the extent he would in the 80s, where Oates would seem to largely be just one of the half-dozen backing singers onstage.

I'm sure cashing the enormous checks made it easier to bear, but as a fan of great pop, I wonder how much better some of their later, wonderful hits might have been if this kind of call-and-response, give-and-take had continued.

(It's also interesting to note how ragged they are at the beginning; it's hard to imagine them ever having to find their way into a locked groove in the 80s, but here it takes a while, and it seems to be Hall whose timing isn't quite solid.)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monkberry Moon Delight

I knew the name of this tune for literally decades before I ever heard it, due almost entirely to the largely negative reviews of the entire Ram album I'd read over the years. So as a Paul fan with a limited income, I gave it a pass in favor of other stuff. But then Al Gore invented the internet and I was able to hear a few tracks and decided it was more than worth a serious listen and what do I discover but perhaps his second best studio album ever?

Now, I'm not going to go quite so far into revisionism as to claim it's better than the fantastic Band on the Run, but damn if Ram isn't a great LP; only Macca could release a collection this strong and have it not just overlooked but actually panned, rather than universally lauded as a peer of Pet Sounds when it comes to pop gems, as it should have been.

"Monkberry Moon Delight" isn't my favorite track on the album, but it may have been the biggest surprise, given that the title always made me assume it'd sound more along the lines of, say, the impossibly bittersweet "Junk," or the lovely, tender "The Back Seat of My Car." Instead, it's Paul in Little Richard mode and my god can McCartney rock when he wants to.

The lyrics may be the kind of nonsense Paul slapped down when he couldn't be arsed to work up something legit—or, perhaps, was stoned enough that he thought they did make sense at the time—and which only serve to illustrate how difficult it really is to pull off the sort of Carrollian wordplay John Lennon and Kurt Cobain were so good at. But when you've got the voice of a rock god it doesn't really matter what you're singing, as long as you're singing like that.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Purple Rain

You know, whenever my fellow whiteboys refer to Bruce Springsteen as perhaps the greatest bandleader in the history of rock and roll, I have to smile sadly and die a bit inside, thinking about how much better at every single aspect of being a performer Prince was. I may (I, in fact, do) prefer Springsteen as an artist, and brilliant as The Purple One was as a songwriter, I think Bruce is better. But when it came to the live show, the Artist Formerly and Again Known as Prince was very simply the best.

But today I was thinking of how justly lauded his guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was, and how fitting the great Nils Lofgren's solo was in tribute, as Nils—like Prince at the Hall—quotes extensively from the original while adding his own touches and infuses the entire thing with his own inimitable style. It's searing, it's soaring, it's lovely. As befits Prince.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

I Saw Her Standing There

I actually find the Who—despite being one of the five greatest bands in rock history—a bit hit or miss when it comes to their covers. When they're on, they're phenomenal but, for some reason, many of their covers are just kinda okay. And when you're dealing with a band of their stature and ability, just okay is not something that really passes muster.

But this...this is pretty damn glorious. And its tossed-off character makes it clear that had they practiced it even a tiny bit and then given a damn about the final performance—meaning, if any three of them, much less all four of them were sober—it could literally have been the greatest cover of any Beatles song ever. And that is a high damn bar to clear.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ray of Light

Thanks to this Rolling Stone article, I discovered that this big and great Madonna hit was a cover. Who knew? Obviously, many, but not I.

But as I read elsewhere, it's not so much a cover as a reimagining, really. Not a deconstruction, but a dramatic reinterpretation, not only changing its setting from its folky original to a new and insanely propulsive dance beat, but also moving it from a dark, minor-inflected feel to the upbeat version that's best known today.


It's worth noting that the track features future Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, but (sadly) not former Bodast bandmate Steve Howe. Ah, well. Such is life.

Of course, great as the original is, and Madge's reinvention, the finest version remains the phenomenal Sex Pistols mashup.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ray of Gob

One of the first and still the single greatest mashup I've ever heard. What we have here is no less than one of the truly great supergroups ever, in itself an extreme rarity: two disparate yet tremendously important artists, Madonna (perennially underrated by rock and roll fans due to her choices of genres and her gender) and the Sex Pistols (perhaps the most underrated famous band ever), coming together to create something unique and brilliant. In other words, it's two great tastes that taste great together. It's a shame that they never actually existed in reality.



It's worth remembering that Madonna came out of the underground, and something of a street urchin, the kind of poor, struggling artist which many of the early middle-class punks could only wish they were. Stripping away the original's dance beat and replacing it with the incisive, searing guitar of Steve Jones and the feral, punishing drums of Pete Cook works so much better than it should. And yet if you didn't know any of the original tracks, you'd have no idea this was a mashup. It takes two (or, really, three) brilliant recordings and manages to create an entire new and equally brilliant piece of art by mashing them together. This isn't why the internet was created, but it should have been.

Madge should really do a short run of club dates backed by only a small punk combo.

And I feel like I just got home

Monday, February 19, 2018

Boys

So how on earth did I miss this? It is awesome and very nearly rock and roll happiness personified:


I am incapable of hearing that song without thinking about how staggeringly homoerotic it is and how delightful it is that it literally doesn't seem to have ever occurred to the lads, and once it finally did, in the 00s, Ringo was all, "the hell with it—I'm Ringo: I do what I want."

To which I can only say: damn skippy. Rock on, Ringo.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I'm obviously engaging in hyperbole when I say this is approaching war crime territory...but not by much.

Monday, January 15, 2018

RIP Dolores O’Riordan

Well, this one hits surprisingly hard. Although never close to being one of my favorite bands, The Cranberries nevertheless created some absolutely top-notch pop, a commodity that is always in demand and eternally short supply.

Damn.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

two years down the road

And still no easier.


Who knew that The Man Who Fell to Earth was also The Man Holding the World Together?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

I know this is not the greatest thing ever. Objectively, I know this. But neither the heart nor the soul always listens to objectivity.

I mean, I shouldn't love this so deeply. It seems the kind of rather facilely hep take that usually repulses me. But that voice, that kind of nerdy, insanely white voice that was such a massively formative influence on me growing up, covering what is often my favorite Bob Dylan song ever...I just...