Friday, April 24, 2015

She Doesn't Exist

What if Syd Barrett had been able to overcome his addictions and his illness? What if we were able to have so much more of him to appreciate than just one Pink Floyd record, two collections of demo-like songs and a series of weird, wild and sad stories?

He was of course a prodigious talent, with as much raw ability as a songwriter and performer as anyone coming out of the UK in the mid-1960s, if not more. He had what remains one of the most identifiable voices in music, that crystalline cocktail of menace, madness and sweetness. It's painful to think what he could have done had he remained healthy, just as it is impressive to measure all of his considerable gifts.

But I like to think that had he been able to be around as a functioning performer long enough, he may have eventually come to work with this guy. Who clearly had an affection for Syd's music.

And if they made music together? I have little doubt it would have sounded something like this.

This is my favorite Robyn Hitchcock song, and not just because Michael Stipe is part of it. It's the way these two very big and very different musical figures mesh so wonderfully together in such an understated way. And how downright lovely the result is. (With Peter Buck, who worshiped Robyn Hitchcock long before becoming a household rock-n-roll name himself, on guitar!)

Many have always thought of Robyn Hitchcock as the evolutionary Syd Barrett, myself included. He sounds like him, he writes like him, he seems to inhabit those strange, lurking spaces that Syd also seemed so fond of finding.

And when I listen to song like "She Doesn't Exist," which even lends a bit of a nod to the classic 60s Zombies song "She's Not There," which also sounds like the kind of thing that could have made Syd Barrett happy, I can't help but think that maybe we're listening to one more great tune Syd never got a chance to do.

As Papa once wrote, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Waiting

Well, this is pretty awesome. I'd never before noticed how much Eddie Vedder sounds like Tom Petty, but he really does. Quite a bit less nasally, quite a bit more vibrato, and with a range that's at least half an octave lower normally, and yet if you didn't know better—if there were no video and you were just hearing this in the car on the radio, like back in prehistoric times—it'd be easy to think this was simply the best version you'd ever heard Petty do of one of his very best songs. Obviously, Vedder does put his own stamp on it, and having the redoubtable Heartbreakers playing doesn't exactly hurt. Nor does the cool atmospheric breakdown before Petty himself takes the bridge.

This is one of the best guest appearances I've ever seen, thanks to one artist who knows how to share generously and another who's never been shy about proclaiming himself a star-struck fan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Seasons in the Sun

It's easy to look at this as a popular rock band sneering at the saccharine pop of an earlier era. But even without knowing that a young Kurt Cobain had actually loved the song, you can tell, and not just because the adult Kurt smiles a few times. Because while this is more than a little reminiscent of the way The Replacements would butcher a song live, Nirvana took up studio time, rather than drunkenly stumbling into it on stage and, more importantly, they don't just do a verse or two or half a chorus or part of a riff—they do the entire song, largely get the lyrics correct (sorta), and despite swapping instruments, even navigate the key change (something you can see pleases Dave Grohl).

Jesus, what an artist. What a band. What a loss.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Jack and Diane

So I’m listening right now to a 1984 acoustic show performed by John Mellencamp. It’s after his first real popular album came out—which was something like his fifth or sixth album, but the first bunch pretty much tanked and if that doesn't just drive home how long ago this all was?—and it’s really surprisingly enjoyable. The show is just him and his acoustic guitar and if he feels like breaking off a cover after a minute and a half—or if he screws up one of his own songs and has to ask the audience for the next line—well, then, he does. He’s not much of a guitarist, to put it mildly, but then he himself has said he never really wanted to be. I remember seeing an interview with him where he said something about how he "never wanted to make the guitar howl and scream; I just wanted to be able to play well enough to write my own songs." And from the evidence of this low-key show, that’s pretty much exactly what he did.

And in the middle of the last song, "Jack and Diane," he deviates from the recorded version of the song. I’m nowhere near enough of a fan to know if this was normal for him or not, but it's a really striking moment. He's already stretched out the key line—"long after the thrill of living is gone" several times, repeating it over and over again, with the odd result of not ramping up the tension, as would be the expected result, but softening that truly harsh line, a line he later said he wrote off the cuff and kinda regretted. It's a sweet bit.

But here, towards the end of the song, over the normal chord changes—actually, I think he simplified them for his own convenience, as he very much did to the already extremely basic changes on his cover of "All Along the Watchtower"—he sings softly, in an almost intimate whisper, as though truly no kidding trying to reach out and make a connection, "Just a little secret between me and you."

And that’s one of the keys to rock and roll, isn't? Mellencamp's singing that in front of a small but rabid midwestern crowd and good golly it surely feels like he means it. That’s a conundrum that’s at the heart of rock and roll and one reason it’s so incredibly powerful. Because in the middle of two or twenty or eighty thousand people all screaming and dancing and clapping, you’re caught up in the power of the moment, of the communal chaos…and yet at the same time it’s a personal communion between you and the artist. Just the two of you. And somehow that goes for each and every one of those twenty thousand people there. He’s speaking for you and for himself and to you and listening to you all at the same time and doing that with twenty thousand others simultaneously. I don’t understand it. And yet there it is. As a man much smarter than me once put it:
"Rock is art and a million other things as well—it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well. I don't think there's anything to match it."
And there aren’t many set-ups more powerful than "just a little secret between me and you…" It opens up a universe of possibilities and somehow at that moment all of them seem likely to be good. Very, very obviously, that’s just not always the case. And yet hope springs eternal.

Maybe that's the promise of rock and roll. Eternal hope. Eternal youth. And sex, of course. But I guess that that's redundant.
Little ditty about Jack and Diane
Two American kids doin' the best that they can

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Like a Rolling Stone


"I don't believe you.
"You're a liar.
"Play fuckin' loud." 

Well. There 'tis.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Crush on You

Sometimes I don't understand my fellow hominidae.

For reasons which escape me, many hardcore Bruce fans not only don't think "Crush on You" is a fine song, they actively dislike it, thinking it's the weak spot on the otherwise magnificent River album, and a low point of his recording career.

Which is just asinine. The song is, at worst, an enjoyable throwaway, certainly no less good than fun frat rock songs like "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" or "Wooly Bully" or "Nobody but Me" or "Wild Thing" and how much less vibrant would our lives be without those gems?

I mean, musically, this is just great down and dirty gutbucket rock and roll right here.

And lyrically?
My feets were flyin' down the street just the other night
When a Hong Kong special pulled up at the light
What was inside, man, was just c'est magnifique
I wanted to hold the bumper and let her drag me down the street
Okay, the "Hong Kong special" line may not have aged terrible well, but rhyming "c'est magnifique" with "drag me down the street" is seriously sheer gold.

Admittedly, the chorus
Ooh, ooh, I gotta crush on you
Ooh, ooh, I gotta crush on you
Ooh, ooh, I gotta crush on you tonight 
is not likely to make Bob Dylan nervous, but then again, I submit my beloved "Louie Louie" and trust the point is made.
Sometimes I spot a little stranger standing 'cross the room
My brain takes a vacation just to give my heart more room
For one kiss, darling I swear everything I would give
Cause you're a walking, talking reason to live
And there 'tis right there, reason enough—far more than, in fact—for the song to exist. "My brain takes a vacation just to give my heart more room" is, no two ways about, great damn writing. That sums up, in one line, the effect of love—let's call it love, shall we?—on humans, or at least humans of the young male persuasion. That is exactly what it feels like and no denigration intended to its forefathers but if forced to choose I'd hold out as long as I possibly could but in the end I believe I just might take it over some other famous lines expressing the same sentiment, such as "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" or "da-doo-ron-ron-ron" or "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-tee-da" or "de-do-do-do-de-da-da-da."
Well, now she might be the talk of high society
She's probably got a lousy personality
She might be a heiress to Rockefeller
She might be a waitress or a bank teller
She makes the Venus de Milo look like she's got no style
She make Sheena of the Jungle look meek and mild
I need a quick shot, Doc, knock me off my feet
Cause I'll be minding my own business walking down the out!
And again, although the song needs no further justification, "she makes the Venus de Milo look like she's got no style " is simply wonderful writing. It's good enough, in fact, that the conclusion of the couplet, which is a fine line on its own—"she make Sheena of the Jungle look meek and mild"—seems a mild let-down by comparison. But no matter. A song with lines as fine as the two best here is more than good to go.

Springsteen himself said, during a soundcheck back in November 2009, in preparation for playing it for only the second time since the few dozen times he performed it back in 1980:
"Yes, folks, it could have been...let me think...'Loose Ends' could have been 'Take 'em As They Come' could have been 'Roulette' could have been 'Where the Bands Are' could have been...But instead it two three four!"

Later that same night, after playing the wonderful version embedded right above this very line, you can hear him crow, "a hidden masterpiece!" Sure, he may have been speaking with a healthy dose of sarcasm, but then again, he may not have been. And either way, he was very nearly right.

Friday, April 17, 2015

J. Mascis/Bob Stinson

I came to Dinosaur Jr. way too late.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I came to them just in time for their glorious 2007 reunion record, Beyond. Just before that, really, which gave me time to devour the perfect Green Mind and other magnificent records like Bug and You're Living All Over Me. But in terms of the late 80s, early 90s? I missed it all. I knew who they were, just didn't pay attention.

That was dumb.

What's funny is the first time I ever heard Dinosaur Jr. or J. Mascis incendiary guitar (I wish I could remember what song it was) was in the early 1990s. And my first thought, upon hearing it, was, "Since when does Bob Stinson play in another band?"

I was (still am, of course) an avowed Replacements nut and this wasn't too long after they'd shuffled off that mortal coil in 1991. Bob was long deposed, naturally, as their lead guitar player and, well, I just plain missed the band like crazy. And couldn't believe their eight record output would be all I would ever have of them.

So imagine my surprise when I thought (erroneously) that Bob Stinson had joined a new band. It was like, "Dammit! No one tells me anything anymore!" (Which isn't true. Scott tries to tell me stuff. I just don't listen. To him. Except when I do. Like here.)

Anyways, this is the Replacements song that popped to mind when I first heard what J. Mascis could do to a guitar. This was exactly what his guitar style and playing reminded me of. It's as early Mats as you get, and while it's a rager of a tune, it's not even the best known song on the single it spawned; the lovely and forlorn country shuffle "If Only You Were Lonely" was its B-side and seemed to always delight fans even more.

But just five seconds in, listen to Bob's guitar. That heavy, hyperbaric sound, menacing as hell and yet clear as a damn bell. That was Bob Stinson's sound, when he did it right. And that is J. Mascis sound. Who always does it right.

Bob Stinson's been dead 20 years this year, which is crazy enough to think about. The Replacements legendarily continue to not get the mainstream props they deserve, even as the non-essential masses continue to love them and laud them. (Another year snubbed by the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame! Yippee!)

But man did Bob Stinson create a very distinct and very essential sound for them. And man did J. Mascis pick up the ball and run with it with Dinosaur Jr.

(Here's an example of a great J. solo that reminds me of Bob Stinson. J. starts right in with that sound from the very beginning, and then we hear it again with a solo at the 2:01 mark. Obviously this isn't that one I first heard; this came out at least 15 years later. But I think it's a good example of what two peas in a pod these two really mighta been.)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

This is what I'm talkin' 'bout.

R.E.M., like the Replacements, covers an artist of roughly equal stature—not that they were really Creedence Clearwater Revival's equals...yet...but time would prove that eventually they would both be two serious contenders for the title of Greatest American Rock Band Ever—putting their own stamp on the original material largely through dint of their innately unique sound, without taking major liberties, yet making it clearly their own.

Like the 'Mats, R.E.M. had a great, nimble rhythm section and a guitarist of considerable distinction, as well as a vocalist capable of greatness who treated lyrics as though they were of no enormous import.

The result is a wonderful cover that could have been even greater if Michael Stipe had bothered to actual learn the words. (Given that this is how he treated his own material, of course, it's somewhat understandable, if still a little disappointing.) Still, more than worth it for how the band, largely although by no means entirely due to Peter Buck's guitar, transforms this Vietnam lament from the Bay Area swamp band into a gentle American Gothic air so southern you can practically smell the kudzu.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Radio Free Europe

This is in its way a very small tragedy—or, maybe more accurately, a symbol of a small tragedy.

This album is a semi-legendary document from the independent rock scene of the 80s, a bootleg of a drunken (surprise surprise) November 11, 1984 Oklahoma City show put on by The Replacements with remarkable fine audio quality. It's a surprisingly enjoyable listen, once you adjust to the fact that they jump from song to song like someone restlessly switching radio stations, rarely finishing any song, even their own. But they don't even bother with many of their own originals, only playing 5 'Mats tunes out of the 24 (or so) songs on the record.

Which is fine, since the covers are delightful if you're a child of the 70s or 80s, and remarkably well played, given how hammered the band very clearly is. This was a band of good musicians who knew their material very, very well—well enough that they were able to rip through credible versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy songs, even though intoxicated enough to barely stand; really, Paul Westerberg's vocals are generally the weak point, although it's notable that he's got the melodies and phrasing down cold, even as the lyrics and key often elude his grasp.

But then they turn their sights on peers and friends R.E.M. And you quickly realize that they could have done a staggeringly great cover of [early] R.E.M.'s signature tune—in Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars, the 'Mats've got a rhythm section that can match even the great Mike Mills/Bill Berry combo—one of the greatest and most innovative of all time—and in Westerberg and Bob Stinson they've got a pair of guitarists who are, if not quite as unusual and imaginative as Peter Buck, certainly more technically accomplished at the time, and by dint of numbers, significantly more powerful.

This could have been one for the ages. This could have thrown shade on The Who covering The Rolling Stones back in 1967. This could have been more like Otis Redding covering the Stones, if not quite like Aretha Franklin covering Otis Redding: one great artist covering another great artist, bringing new insights to great material already done magnificently.

Instead it is what it is: a kinda fun sloppy sad little mess. Ladies and gentlemen, the Replacements.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Good Times Roll

Ric Ocasek was so tall and thin that he actually makes this clip appear as though the film has been damaged or intentionally distorted, until you see Elliott Easton and Benjamin Orr and realize, no, it's just that despite the larger public profile, it's Ocasek and not Bowie who was an alien.

There were so many amazing things about the Cars, among them the absolutely wonderful and still somewhat under-heralded playing of Easton and Greg Hawkes. But obviously Ocasek's songwriting is the primary (although far from only) ingredient. This song is a great example: melodic and driving with good lyrics, it's a song that, true to its title, seems to extoll that very notion of letting the good times roll...and yet it does so at a plodding pace with vocals that sound as if they're coming from someone chronically depressed or perhaps simply sociopathic. And somehow it all works. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Great Gig in the Sky

I am so tired of this kind of pop culture appropriation and recycling. It's so often so damn lazy and then you've often got the hip snarky new version in your mind when you hear/see the original whether you like it or not...I was a fan, but I'm kinda over it.

And all that goes right out the window when it's as amazingly well done as this.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hey Deanie

If I recall correctly, Dave Marsh once gave Shaun Cassidy a not entirely blistering overview for one of the Rolling Stone guides, saying the singer was a notch better than the other teen idols of his era. I remember thinking at the time that Marsh, one of my favorite writers, had really missed the ball on this one, and that for his Lovin' Spoonful and Crystals covers, if nothing else, Cassidy deserved all the scorn one could heap.

Yeah, as usual, Dave knew better. This is a pretty great damn pop song. And I was trying to figure out what it was reminding me of, in a good way, when I discovered it was written by Eric Carmen, writer of the incredible "Go All the Way" (and, yes, "Hungry Eyes") and shares the same guitars.

On the other hand, the added crowd noise at the end, when he couldn't possibly be more alone in a studio, is ridiculous, as is the amount of eye shadow he's wearing. But I admit that could just be my extreme jealousy over the fabulousness of his "what would Dorothy Hamill's hair look like if she grew it out?" hair, which is fabulous.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Go All the Way

There are many notable things here. The fact that lead singer Eric Carmen copped not just Paul McCartney's way with melody and penchant for power pop but also his singing mannerisms, with those puppy dog eyes peeking out from beneath lhasa apso hair and the way he nods and tilts and bobs his head strategically. That someone apparently had to sedate the drummer with massive quantities of valium before this take. That a double neck guitar, famously heavy and unpleasant to wear, is required for absolutely no discernible reason but doesn't it look cool?

But most of all that joining the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, the jackalope and the MPDG is the girlfriend of the song's protagonist who is only slightly less likely to exist than any of those.

And who cares? Those crunchy chords driving that insanely catchy melody...the lyrics could be about the yeti marrying the mothman while the ceremony's overseen by a chupacabra and I'd be all in.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Oh Abraham

This is a big week for Abraham Lincoln. A great big round anniversary. 150 years.

150 years. 150 years yesterday that he put the Union back together by ending the Civil War. 150 years ago today he allowed General Lee to peaceably address his troops and then leave on his way. 150 years next week that he was murdered by some dirtbag loser. Damn.

Here's a great song about him by a terrific songwriter in John Gorka. Not just honoring who he was, but lamenting what's become of the party President Lincoln once built. Funny thing, and not at all funny in a "ha ha" way, is that this song was written 14 years ago. And things have just gotten so much damn worse since then.

Oh Abraham look at all the money now,
Oh Abraham good night.
It's your party but I'll cry if I want to.
I wouldn't care how much they have
If they would only do what's right.

Right on, John.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Magic Bus

Remember in Trading Places, in the climactic scene at the end, when Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and Valentine (Eddie Murphy) pull off the one of the greatest screw-you vendettas of all time by cornering the market on Frozen Orange Juice, making themselves rich while simultaneously bankrupting those evil Duke brothers?

Sure you do.

Well my favorite part comes between the :46 mark and the 1:00 mark of this clip, when Valentine nervously prods Winthorpe to make his move, only Winthorpe calmly and assuredly waits, waits, waits...and then POUNCES.

I love that. He knew exactly when the time was to make his move, not a moment sooner. He knew he'd be fine showing patience and biding his time; he knew the whole plan was safe and in place while he hung back and waited. And then when he did make his move...everything changed. For good.

I love that. Mayhap I've already said that, huh?

Anyway. Think about that, about the nearly uncommon patience to hold back for just the right moment, when you listen to this amazing little piece of rock-n-roll perfection. Particularly right around the 2:25 mark.

There is already so much to love about this surprisingly understated song up to that point. As Dave Marsh once said (I paraphrase) Pete Townshend pretty much puts on a clinic in what the right person can do with an acoustic guitar. Roger Daltrey's voice is commanding throughout, showing even a strain of sweetness on some of the verses. But Keith Moon...

...Keith Moon is only sorta there for the first two-thirds. I mean, he's definitely there. The woodblocks that set the jaunty pace for the song right from the beginning are all him, giving a slightly modified Bo Diddley foundation to it all. But what of the rest of it? The legendary fills? The crashing mayhem of constant cymbal abuse he brought to so many of their songs that became perhaps the defining characteristic of The Who's music? It's not really there. Moonie is hanging back, setting the pace but not really taking us on those majestic and terrifying Wonderland journeys he so often chose to do. Even when the music comes full flourish at the 2:05 mark, he's still missing out on a lot of the fun.

Only no, he's not. He's just playing possum. Biding his time. Fooling us all into thinking he's not here. Because at the 2:25 mark, GLORY BE does he make an entrance!

With no warning of an impending storm, Moon rolls in, literally, like the Tasmanian Devil we always knew he was. His playing is so violent, so chaotic, so jolting that it changes the entire marrow of the song. Which exists for its final minute on a plain it was not remotely near until Moonie picked up the sticks and gave his drums the what-for he knew they deserved. And it's perfect. "Magic Bus" is a great song for the first 2:24. It's an even greater song after that. Thanks for that, mate.

Just like the cool and confident Winthorpe, Moon knew the time was coming. But only he knew exactly when that time was. And what to do when it got here.