Monday, March 20, 2017

Johnny B. Goode

This is one of the greatest, most apropos covers I've ever seen, up there with Springsteen covering Dylan and R.E.M. covering CCR, from the trademark Green Day energy and sound to the oddly appropriate lackluster approach to the lyrics.

Long live rock.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

RIP Chuck Berry

"If you tried to give rock-n-roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"—John Lennon

Chuck Berry is gone. He died today at the age of 90.

In a musical genre where old age is much more wishful thinking that anything based remotely in reality, Chuck beat the odds and fooled 'em all, like he always did. He outlived basically everyone who came up with him in the early days of rock-n-roll and so damn many who came up under his influence. 90 years in rock-n-roll is an ice age, and era, so much more than a lifetime. And still it hurts so much that he's gone. Gone too soon. RIP Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And damn.

It's hard to say that Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll, because so many people played a part in this magical and in many ways still indescribable invention that we now call rock-n-roll. Did Chuck invent it? Did Elvis Presley? Did Roy Brown and Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner? Did Hank Williams? Did Ike Turner? Did Jerry Lee Lewis? Hell, did the amazing Big Mama Thornton?

Yes to all. And no to all. Rock-n-roll emerged from the lava, from the magma. Thanks to giants like all of those mentioned above and others. Thanks to people with the talent, the vision and, yes, the balls of Chuck Berry.

Here's what we know. If Chuck Berry didn't invent rock-n-roll—and I am not contending he did (see above paragraph)—he sure as hell refined it. He did what Miles Davis did to jazz. What Marvin Gaye did to soul. What Johnny Cash did to the American songbook and what Michael Jackson did to pop. He wasn't the first, but it's really hard to argue that anyone did it better. And in Chuck's case, that anyone did it better for longer.

Here is what I will say tonight, while mourning a man I never met (I saw him in concert once in the late 1980s, something I now am just so damn grateful for) but have listened to devoutly and worshipped since I was just a young white boy in Catholic high school 30+ years ago.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll guitar.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll songwriting.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll as therapy for the twisted, haunted soul.

And Chuck Berry invented a sound. A sound so unique, so whole, so complete and so overpowering that the only way to describe it is "the Chuck Berry Sound."

What Chuck Berry did was he took everything his brilliant ears and body ingested and made it into something more. The blues and doo-wop and boogie woogie and jazz and country and gospel and the sweetest soul sounds you ever heard. And he took them all and he added those elements that only he had, those tortured and lovely and brutal things lurking inside his brain, and he strapped on his Gibson guitar and he mixed them all together in a musical jambalaya that no one had ever tasted before, and he hooked us in one bite. From the opening, ear-splitting strains of "Maybelline" on through, he fed us rock-n-roll like no one had ever heard or imagined before. And in doing so he foretold so much of what was to come. From the Beatles and Rolling Stones who worshiped him to Jimi Hendrix who bled him, from Stevie Wonder who channeled him in unimaginable sensory ways to Chuck D. and the forerunners and geniuses of rap and hip-hop who used his streetwise tales and too-cool-for-school skat-a-tat lingo to blaze their own trails, Chuck Berry saw it all. Maybe he's not  the father of rock-n-roll (or maybe he is). But to me, anyway, he is more. He's the father of the 20th century sound. And beyond.

As an equal parts musical fanatic and sports fanatic, the best comparison I could always make to Chuck Berry was Magic Johnson. Outsized and overbearing, playing the same old game in a way we never imagined it could be played. To picture Magic is to picture Chuck—the effervescent smile and devilish gleam in their eyes, always one step ahead of everyone else, seeming to make it up as they go but always in such dynamic and rhythmic control, 1,000 different ways to wow us waiting at their fingertips. And at the end, a wink. And a promise of more to come. Magic Johnson leading the fast break and firing a no-look pass was the first cousin to Chuck Berry's duck-walking across the stage and stretching it all out in the spirit of unbridled musical ebullience.

The songs explain it all far better than I ever could. The sheer fun of "Too Much Monkey Business." The epic travelogue of "The Promised Land." The torrential sadness of "Memphis." The very  raison d'etre of rock-n-roll stardom that was "Johnny B. Goode." The statement of purpose(s) of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock-n-Roll Music." The rumbling fever of "Downbound Train." The rebellion of "School Days." The outright glory gush of "Back in the USA." The aching of "Carol" and "Nadine." The youthful joyride of "You Never Can Tell." The naughty wink of "My Ding A Ling." On the tale rocks, on the train rolls. Take those Chuck Berry creations and dozens of others and put them under glass. Paint them in oils. Preserve them in amber. Their likes we will never see again. And that we did get to see and hear them, for 60+ years, makes us so lucky. So damn lucky.

Hail, hail rock-n-roll, Mr. Berry. Thanks to you our hearts are beatin' rhythm and our souls will always, always be singin' the blues. 


This cover is interesting in its execution, yes, but also because while it's obviously immediately recognizable, I can't help but feel if it were the only version you knew, it'd be nearly impossible to reverse-engineer it to get the original.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pigs (Three Different Ones)

So I'd known this existed for a while but hadn't watched it until just now and hokey smokes is it ever so much better than I'd anticipated. Roger Waters' voice sounds surprisingly supple, the band is expectedly red hot, and the graphics are not surprisingly top notch.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Achin' To Be

This post is not exactly going to be one that in the business world they call a "value-add." There's not a ton of new ground I'll be covering here, and I hope that is OK with you, dear reader(s).

It's fairly obvious and simplistic. Just my favorite song by one of my absolute most favorite bands that ever lived.

I listened to the song (actually to the entire Don't Tell a Soul album this morning) on my ride into work today. No real reason why, other than it had been a while. And this was the first Mats album I ever fell in love with; my love affair with everything else they did would literally come seconds later. But "Achin' To be" always struck me as a great rock-n-roll band at their very very greatest.

Did it rock as hard as the Replacements were capable of rocking? Nope.

Was it a touch more produced than a lot of their vintage stuff? Yep.

Was it representative of their total work? Which is to say if an alien landed tomorrow and gave you one song to define for him or her who the Replacements were (and wouldn't that just be an awesome reason for an alien coming to Earth? Seriously!), would this be the song you'd play? I don't think so. I really don't. Not with this out there. Or this. Or even this. Or this. 


Still it is just so raggedly beautiful, so jaggedly heartfelt and, yes, aching. There's not an ounce of strut or pose in the band here, particularly not from the inimitable Paul Westerberg. His voice is tired and raw, as it always was, but there is a longing underneath. Like these are words he just has to get out and has only a tiny window of time to do it. The rest of the band is perfectly in form; Tommy Stinson does his thing by adding some pop to the loping bassline, Slim Dunlop adds a few small country licks into the mid-tempo mix, and Chris Mars kept perfect time just the way Chris Mars always did. Combining that with Paul's peerless songwriting and shattered glass voice, this is what I mean when I say while this might not represent the quintessential Replacements song, it does show them doing it as well as they ever could.

And if you're like me and buy into the theory that Paul really was singing about himself here, only with flopping the gender and putting it into the third person to throw us all off the trail, then read these lyrics again. And tell me you're not achin' to be right there with him. Hearing every single syllable and, what's more important, getting it. Getting it all.

Well she's kinda like an artist
Sitting on the floor
Never finishes, she abandons
Never shows a soul
And she's kinda like a movie
Everyone rushes to see
But no one understands it
Sitting in their seats

She opens her mouth to speak and
What comes out's a mystery
Thought about, not understood
She's achin' to be

Well she dances alone in nightclubs
Every other day of the week
People look right through her
"Baby doll, check your cheek."
And she's kinda like a poet
Who finds it hard to speak
The poems come so slowly
Like the colors down a sheet

She opens her mouth to speak and
What comes out's a mystery
Thought about, not understood
She's achin' to be

I've been achin' for a while now, friend
I've been achin' hard for years

Well she's kinda like an artist
Who uses paints no more
You never show me what you're doing
You never show a soul
Well I saw one of your pictures
There was nothing that I could see
If no one's on your canvas,
Well I'm achin' to be

She closes her mouth to speak and
Closes her eyes to see
Thought about and only loved
She's achin' to be
Just like me

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Orange Crush

You know, even as a huge fan, I find it easy to forget just how hard these guys could rock.

But, man, they really did tear it up at times.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Follow You, Follow Me

I was reading a discussion the other day about who the greatest prog keyboardist of the 70s was: Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman? And what about Patrick Moraz? Where does he fit in?

I don't nearly enough about keyboards or Emerson to have any kind of an educated opinion. I know I certain prefer both Wakeman's and Moraz's playing, given that Close to the Edge is absolutely one of my favorite albums ever, and Fragile's not far behind, and for that matter, I have recently come to appreciate Relayer despite the fact that Bill Bruford doesn't play on it, but he didn't play on the two albums he made with Moraz and I like those too. Meanwhile, I've never had much desire to hear any ELP beyond what was frequently on the radio and didn't even enjoy that handful of tunes all that much.

Still, there's no question that when it comes to technique, Wakeman, Emerson and Moraz stand head and shoulders above the other most famous prog keyboardists, Tony Banks and Rick Wright, and that's assuming you even consider Pink Floyd a prog band. (You should.) Both are certainly fine players, but neither come close to the kind of technical excellence so freely displayed by Wakeman and Emerson.

And yet. For all their unquestioned chops, and for all I adore Close to the Edge and it and Fragile have enriched my life, I have never heard Rick Wakeman play anything as lovely, as melodious, as absolutely perfect for its setting as the solo Banks plays from 2:49-3:10, never mind Keith Emerson.

And we haven't even touched about the stuff he wrote with Genesis—which is to say, most of Genesis' output. (That's at least a slight exaggeration. Sometimes he only co-wrote stuff.) But, I mean, "Cinema Show"? "Apocalypse in 9/8"? "After the Ordeal"? I mean.

So. Best keyboardist? By most criteria, Banks isn't even close to being in the running. But I would surely pick just about anything he ever wrote with Genesis over not only just about anything ever written by Wakeman or Emerson, I'd pick just about anything he's ever written over just about everything written by those guys.

(Full disclosure: Rick Wakeman seems like he's been pretty much one of the coolest guys on the planet since at least Hunky Dory.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hushabye Mountain

I'll tell ya, I'd pay good money, or give up one of my kids—and possibly all of 'em (hi, Max!)—for an album of Dave Gilmour singing minor key Dick van Dyke songs.

Toss in him doing "Pure Imagination" and I wouldn't have to pay anything, 'cuz I'd die of happiness.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I Write the Songs

Oh, 70s. You sweet, sweet, naïve decade. When a guy who looks like this jamoke can become a megastar with a song like this...that he didn't even write.

My guess is that Beach Boy Bruce Johnston had absolutely no problem with few people knowing he wrote the song claiming he writes the songs, and even fewer problems cashing the many enormous checks.

You know, I've never understood the main criticism that song seemed to get, which is the absurd arrogance of my man Bears claiming he invented music, when it's crystal clear that the song's narrator is, in fact, God, or at least some omnipotent being. Which, yes, Barry Manilow is damn close to being, but even he's not quite all the way there.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

RIP John Wetton

First Chris Squire, then Greg Lake and now John Wetton. The list of great prog bassists from the 70s is getting mighty short. (Mike Rutherford and Roger Waters, you guys take care of yourselves, hear?)

Wetton had an interesting career. After being in perhaps King Crimson's finest lineup—with sincere apologies to the early 80s version—he toured with Roxy Music and then joined the big at the time but seemingly now virtually forgotten Uriah Heep, before forming prog supergroup UK with old Crimson bandmate Bill Bruford. When that didn't pay off with the kind of financial windfall many were expecting, he tried again, this time with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Yes and Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes and of course prog rock's answer to Buddy Rich, Carl Palmer. And boom: the money finally rolled in.

It wasn't really prog, of course, more like AOR pop rock, and that's fine; there's never too much catchy music around. But it was easy to forget just what a fine musician Wetton was when he was playing material as catchy but unchallenging to someone as proficient as he. So to remember him, we're going with this odd one-off supergroup, combining Steve Hackett, guitarist for almost all of the best Genesis albums, Ian McDonald, a member of the first King Crimson incarnation, later founding member of Foreigner, and the writer of this song, Chester Thompson, former drummer for Weather Report and Frank Zappa and, of course, touring drummer for Genesis, and Wetton himself.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Love Is All Around

In which one utterly kickass trailblazer suitably salutes another utterly kickass trailblazer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Oddfellows Local 151

I mentioned the other day that the show in Charlottesville on R.E.M.'s Work tour was one of the best I'd ever seen. And this song—from a different show—was one of the highlights. It's one of the very, very few times Michael Stipe played guitar on stage, which alone made the performance special. But it's more than just that rarity. There's so much to love about this, from the murkiness of the lighting, which suits the music so perfectly, to the way the geometric lights blaze on the chorus, to the way Mike Mills and Bill Berry add harmony vocals on only the words "boy and girl" and only the second time through.

And yet, bizarrely, one of the things which is really vital to the song taking off is the style with which he plays guitar. He doesn't play at all while singing, and only some of the time during the instrumental sections, and yet his contributions are significant. He plays like a rhythm guitarist who's rarely played guitar. Which isn't to say he plays badly, just that he approaches his parts almost like a percussionist or keyboardist, adding textures without following a set pattern. When strumming, he concentrates more on sharp upstrokes, or vicious sixteenth note triplets, adding not so much a chordal bedding for Peter Buck's distorted but cutting leads, as an almost Sonic Youth-like din. Check out the way he stiffly but rapidly walks over to Buck at one point, mimicking (perhaps mocking) the traditional stage mannerisms of stadium rocker guitarists such as Keef and Woody or Don Felder and Joe Walsh, gunslingers staring each other down, or perhaps smiling in brotherly bonhomie.

It all works so well. And while I loved R.E.M.'s later tours, and understand why they brought more and more auxiliary musicians on tour with them, I often find myself wishing that they'd instead found ways to arrange the songs so they didn't sound just like the amazing studio recordings but were transmogrified so they could be performed by the original four members. Since, as this clip (amongst so many others) shows, there was a magic that happened when these four guys got together to play. Just look at how in this one song, Stipe's guitar—again, the first and only time he played it on an R.E.M tour—added more to the performance than all the times Mick Jagger or Bono played guitar on all those songs on all those tours combined.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


This is just about the greatest guest spot I've ever seen. Dude's really, really good...and then a guy who just may be the greatest living pop musician gets up with him. Phenomenal.

Of the many amazing things about this, one of the most amazing is that when it comes to the first chorus, Stevie—who has probably not had occasion to sing harmony on it since he first recorded it, roughly 10,000 performances again—immediately takes the harmony, rightly assuming that the dude wouldn't know it and would sing the melody. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Like the Weather

Another cold and rainy day in San Diego brought this song to mind.

I'd never seen the video before—despite owning the album back in the day, as most faithful R.E.M. fans seemed to—and was immediately struck by Natalie Merchant's dancing.

I remember the first time I encountered 10,000 Maniacs. My pal Dave and I saw them open for R.E.M. in Charlottesville on the Work tour (and that show, as well as a later one in New Haven, still count as two of the best concerts I've ever seen). Despite eagerly anticipating the headliners, we were fascinated by the openers.

The band played catchy, accessible folk-rock type songs and were fronted by a singer who spun and whirled and twirled, the centrifugal force causing her long skirt to create utterly fetching patterns. The main thing, though, was that Dave and I spent their entire set—except, perhaps, when Michael Stipe came out to duet with her on one song—debating whether or not she was speaking English. There were times we were sure she wasn't, times we thought she maybe was, as a clearly English word would suddenly emerge, and most of the time we just couldn't tell.

Those are my main memories of my initial exposure to 10,000 Maniacs: the Stipe duet, the language debate, and the image of her whirling, twirling skirt. So when I saw this video for the first time, I saw surprised by her dancing. Not that it wasn't of the übër-polished, complex, technically impressive style pioneered in videos by the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Janet Jackson, and later made an imperative by stars such as Britney Spears and Beyonce. It's that it was...well, so utterly graceless. Given that I have two left feet, I don't look down upon anyone for not being able to dance well. In fact, I've sometimes wondered if we've missed out on some fine pop stars over the past 10 or 15 years because, despite their other talents, they weren't able to dance. (Adele is an argument that there's nothing to worry about, but I'm not sure one possible exception, no matter how popular, can count for too much. Then again, I'm just talking out of my ass and, anyway, none of this is something which causes me to lose a lot of sleep.)

No, it's more that her dancing reminded me of something, but I just couldn't quite figure out what, until my good lady wife made the connection.