Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Crossroads, and How I Learned to Love Rush Again

The death of Neil Peart and the amazing outpouring of affection that followed sent me onto something of a Rush listening/watching jag over the past few days.

My thoughts on the band were fairly simple. I was a big fan until I was about 14 and then my attention turned elsewhere. From that moment on I always appreciated/admired their talent and connection to the fans, and I continued to like those songs with which I was familiar (you know, six or seven really well-known tunes). I had just decided the music wasn't exactly for me.

Funny. Even at age 51 and set in our ways, we're able to learn new things. And change our lines.

Because after a few days of listening to Moving Pictures, then Permanent Waves, then 2112, then Signals, then Hemispheres and then, most recently A Farewell to Kings, I have to say, this is music for me. Without question. The mindbending precision. The chops all three have. The songwriting. The integrity. I spent nearly 40 years not really appreciating it, but damn, I do now. It took a re-listening to the Side 1 suite of 2112 for the first time since the Reagan Administration. And Alex Lifeson's advanced mathematics on "La Villa Strangiato." And the joyous musical wonderland explored in "Xanadu," led by vocals from Geddy Lee that remind you just what kind of singer he truly is. And the brilliant, signature-bending ride (not to mention the songwriting) that is "Spirit of Radio." And yes, "Limelight" and "YYZ" and "Tom Sawyer." There is so damn much good here; unfortunately I spent all these years not paying much attention. But I am paying attention now.

And it hasn't just been listening. I watched Beyond the Lighted Stage the other day and, I have to say, I have never seen a better rock doc. Their openness (even the legendarily shy and reclusive Neil) is staggering, and the material is so comprehensive that you get exactly why these three worked as a band for 40+ years. And you walk away with the sense that Neil is one of the smartest people to ever play rock-n-roll, and Geddy and Alex are just two of the most decent people in rock-n-roll history.

I've watched a few concert snippets online as well and reached the same conclusion. Terrific stuff. And I watched their induction to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 and thought it was amazing. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins couldn't have given them a better or more reverent intro. And Neil, Geddy and Alex knocked it out of the park with their speeches. And yes, to me, Alex's ballsy  "blah blah blah" speech kept getting funnier and funnier.


But it was the end of that night in 2013 that is the impetus for this post. It's long been one of my favorite rock-n-roll moments, and very possibly is my favorite jam session I have ever seen. The sheer talent onstage is staggering. Watch, and a few observations will follow.



I love this clip, and this version of a truly legendary piece of music, so much it is difficult to say.


  • Not sure how this is possible, but on a stage that had all three members of Rush, the Wilson sisters. Dave and Taylor, John Fogerty, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Darryl McDaniels and Chuck Freaking D, Gary Clark Jr. still manages to emerge as the coolest person on the stage. Damn does he have charisma!
  • To that end, following Chuck and Darryl's awesome intro, I love how they gave it to Gary to take the first verse and get them out of the gate. THAT'S respect.
  • I also love how it doesn't take Geddy long to pick up the hip-hop beat on the bass and start to flesh it out.
  • Dave and Taylor still have their old school Rush kimonos on for the song. Bless their hearts.
  • Taylor + Neil = about what you'd expect. Which is to say, yes please.
  • So cool to occasionally see Chuck and Darryl running around the stage in the background. Adds to the level of fun they are all having.
  • Good GOD can Annie Wilson sing!
  • Around the 1:48 mark, as Ann sings, Tom and Gary exchange a look which seems to speak to how much they love this.
  • Ah, Chris Cornell. Hard to believe's not with us anymore. But it felt good to see him belt it out. And the extended shots towards the end of him and Tom together are very cool.
  • There are quite a few times where you see Geddy in the back just grooving along quietly on the bass. And that struck me. This is a guy who spent 40+ years as a front man, so it might've seemed a little weird being "behind the scenes" for a little while, if you will. But Geddy seems to be enjoying himself.
  • Little random moments. Darryl watching Tom play and looking kind of amazed. Chuck holding his mic up to Geddy's bass. Geddy laughing with Chuck at the 3:00 mark.
  • Alex's solo. SWEET JESUS is that man a monster player.
  • While Alex is playing, his oldest and probably closest friend in the world gives Tom Morello a look and reaction at the 4:27 mark that likely explains exactly what Geddy thinks of Alex.
  • Two different solos for Mr. Morello. Both done in his thoroughly unique way. And no one seems to be complaining.
  • And Geddy is given the final verse. And naturally, he nails it. You can't spend a career as a master prog player without having an advanced understanding of the rock-n-roll basics. Geddy proves it there. And his high five with Fogerty at the end is a little silly and a lot sweet.
It's a damn shame, once again, that it takes a death to spur my listening to some great musics. But I am glad this brought me back to Rush. Very few bands possess this advanced level of talent. None of them have a greater connection to or appreciation of their fans.

THAT is one hell of a legacy. One that deserves plenty of attention be paid to it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

You Either Die a Hero or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain: Robbie Robertson and the Band

This guy.

So thanks to the footage—and the subject matter—this looks like it'll be utterly riveting...in parts. And because of the damn guy being interviewed, the titular character, the villain of the piece, it's going to be equally insufferable in parts. I mean, I nearly punched my computer screen twice just watching the trailer. Every word that comes out of his mouth feels like it's been written and rewritten and rehearsed a dozen times before the cameras even started rolling. (And thanks to The Last Waltz, we know that's far from unlikely.)

As anyone who's perused Reason to Believe even a bit probably realizes, both Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton are in my list of Top 10 Favorite Artists ever, and Van Morrison's way the hell up there, and his recent dumb comments notwithstanding, I'm a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But it's highly telling that the ones interviewed for this here documentary—or at least who are most prominently called out in the various pieces about the film and in the trailer—are all...solo artist types. They've either never really been in a band or it's been a long damn time since they were and when they were it was for brief periods before imploding.

(Although Springsteen is right on the money when he says:
"There is no band that emphasizes becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band."
and nothing makes that more crystal clear than Robertson's perfectly fine but lightyears from legendary solo career—a solo career that's now 43 years long, well over four times as long as the Band's career.)

"Something got broken and it was like glass—it was hard to put back together again." Yeah, d-bag: and you were the one who broke it. You broke The Band. One of the greatest bands ever, and you destroyed it. You knew—or maybe you didn't really know yet—how amazing the chemistry was between these five incredible musicians, and yet you decided you had to be the leader, and virtually the sole songwriter, despite how vital the songwriting contributions of the others (especially the fragile as crystal Richard Manuel) was.

Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt working with those guys was hella difficult, especially once the drugs and drink really started to take hold. But come on, man. Enough with the revisionism. "We thought, let's come together one last time: The Last Waltz." No, homeboy. The others were very clear about it over the years: You decided. They wanted to keep going. Hey, if you want to quit a band, you get to. But don't lie about how and why it happened.

I mean, even the damn title: Robbie Robertson and the Band. They keep talking about how magical it was when these guys got together, and yet the guy who broke them up still needs to have his damn name in the title, even though it runs counter to the precise thesis of the damn film.

Feh.

You know what would be great? Not just for this documentary—although hell yeah it would've—but in general? Interview guys from bands that were or have been together for a really long time about how goddamn hard it is to keep bands together. Interview the guys from, say, U2 and REM and Pearl Jam and Rush and ZZ Top about what it's really like to be in a band with the same guys for decades. 'cuz there's a reason so few bands stay together for that long.


Footage looks amazing, of course. Can't wait to see it.

(For a much more accurate view of what The Band was really like, check out this video of a 1970 concert. There's little indication of Robertson's future narcissism, and absolutely no indication that he or anyone thinks of him as the band's leader; just the opposite, in fact–if you didn't know better, you'd probably think it was Rick Danko, who sings or co-sings all four songs [including a little ditty he wrote with some jamoke named Bob Dylan] and whose ability to sing beautifully and with such a unique timbre while playing completely independent, deep, finger-busting funky grooves remains astonishing. Or listen to Levon Helm singing "The Weight" for what must already be the thousandth time. This has to be at least the 10th live version I've heard him do, and I don't think I've ever heard him sing those so well known lines the same way twice. What a monster musician. Like all the rest of The Band.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

RIP Neil Peart

One of the giants of drumming died today. Apparently Rush drummer Neil Peart had been fighting brain cancer for years and told next to no one. Which is about as Neil Peart a thing as I can imagine.

There have been few big-name drummers who cared more or thought more deeply about drums and drumming than Peart. He may not have had the ability to make odd time signatures swing as effortlessly as Phil Collins, nor Bill Bruford's restless desire to never, ever repeat himself—to name two of the three other major prog rock drummers of the 70s—but no one ever strove for perfection like Peart. He'd spend months writing and rewriting and tweaking and honing and finally recording his parts, wondering if a flam here would be more effective or perhaps a ruff would work better or maybe it should simply be played as clean straight notes. And, of course, once the final part was settled, he'd meticulously recreate it night after night in concert, live, with tens of thousands of adoring eyes on him, and tens of thousands of adoring ears listening to every ghost note, every hi-hat bark, every perfect 32nd note paradiddlediddle.


And Peart, notorious perfectionist owner of staggering technical abilities, every one of which he worked relentlessly at, was open about how often he made mistakes. And, sure, he was almost certainly the only one who ever noticed them, but that's not entirely the point: the point is, he did notice them. And whereas a Collins would think, well, that sucks, but the show must go on, and push it out of his mind, and a Bruford would think, well, that didn't work but was really quite interesting, I wonder if there's anything to be learned from that, Peart would obsess over it, determined to do better next time. And the time after. And the time after.


And few professional musicians have ever dedicated themselves to reinventing their technique as late in their career as he did in the 90s, studying with master instructor Freddie Gruber, and changing up his approach to the drums—an idea which would have have been, was, beyond absurd to the generations of drummers would have given their left splash cymbal to have had half Peart's original technique.


But when I think of Neil Peart's drumming, I don't think of the title track to 2112, or the beloved instrumentals like "YYZ" or "La Villa Strangiato," I think about "Spirit of Radio," both because it's one of his finest lyrics, and most of all, because of the sense of humor and obvious love for music that comes through in every measure.


There are places where he seems to almost anticipate the gospel chops of the next century in his (perhaps Steve Gadd-inspired) linear fills, and it changes time signatures more often than most drummers change their socks, but it's the places where for measures on end he plays...the bass drum. Just unadorned quarter notes on the kick drum. The kind of thing he could have played after one lesson as a kid. Hell, the kind of thing he could have played before taking a single lesson. But it was right for the music, so monster drummer Neil Peart—who wrote the part—played the simplest thing possible. What's more, besotted (as the rest of the band was, along with pretty much everyone in the world was) at the time by the Police (and in Peart's case specifically the playing of the band's utterly dissimilar Stewart Copeland), he goes into...reggae. About as un-prog-like a musical style as is imaginable. But it felt right, it fit the song, so into reggae they went, by god.

Sure, there are those other parts where it goes into 7/4, 'cuz hey, that too fit. (And most amusing of all, when the song leaves 7/4 and goes back into 4/4, that's actually the measure which feels wonkiest, as the beat is displaced, ala "Sunshine of Your Love" or "Bell Bottom Blues." A tricksy bagginses, that Peart.)

The world has moved on. And we're unlikely to see the likes of a prog god like Neil Peart ever achieve mass popularity again. So pour one out for the reclusive percussionist, even though he'd probably hate it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Stairway to Heaven

Talk about What Might Have Beens.

Every few years I rewatch this video and it's pretty much always the same. Or, well, the video's always exactly the same, but my reaction is pretty much always the same. Which is that with Steve Winwood on keyboards, Bill Wyman on bass and Simon Phillips on drums, this instrumental version of "Stairway" should be phenomenal.

But, sadly, Jimmy Page was deep in the throes of his heroin addiction and his playing—which even at his most incendiary and risk-taking best was rarely precise live, to put it mildly—is shockingly sloppy. Just listen and you'll hear fumbled notes, slurred chords, terrible timing, and some embarrassing intonation.

What's more, the recording itself isn't always as clear as would be ideal. Or, perhaps, given that Jimmy wasn't at his finest here, maybe that's not the end of the world. Still, a bit of clarity would have been nice, and having the audio properly synched with the video would definitely be a plus.


And yet. And yet when Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck come in at the end of the solo, it can't help but become nearly glorious, as Beck plays and plays with the last phrases of Jimmy's famous solo over and over on his Tele, and Clapton plays Robert Plant's original vocal line on his Strat. In some ways, it makes it all the sadder how much greater this could have and should have been. On the other hand, we get to see Clapton, Beck and Page, all three of the Yardbirds famous lead guitarists, playing the most famous song any of them ever wrote, and even at sub-optimal conditions, that's pretty damn cool.

Monday, December 30, 2019

RIP Neil Innes

Whenever I think of my favorite musical artists ever, Neil Innes never comes to mind. And yet the man who wrote "Knights of the Round Table" and "Brave Sir Robin," among so many others, probably brought me more joy than all but a tiny handful of musicians.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Owner of a Lonely Heart

I am amazed by this video. Amazed that it took me nearly 40 years to witness its majestic awfulness. Amazed that this was made by the same band at roughly the same time as the other video they did for the same song—a video that would be (justifiably) played to death by MTV. Amazed that they decided to cut away from Trevor Rabin just as he's about to sing the echo to the title in the chorus. Amazed by the comments it's engendered:
That looks like something a junior-high school band did for their drummer's aunt's public access cable TV show.
"MOVE YOURSELF."
Hardly moves
The ratio of awesome music to awkward visuals is staggering
No parrot has been harmed in the making of this video, several stylists and visual artists died during production though.
The setting sucks. Was the whole budget spent on the parrots?
Mom! Dad's singing in the living room again.
The singer even looks like he rushed from his summer job at the Thrifty Drug ice cream counter and forgot to take his nametag off.
If you mute it, the singer appears to be a daytime kids TV presenter talking over educational concepts for the kids who were too ill to go to school.
When every contestant in the "world's least cool man" competition wins!
Holy shit this is bad. They must have felt amazing in the studio: "look Trevor Horn is making us sound like the future". And then they made this.
Good god that’s awful. I couldn’t get through the whole thing but assume the sand worm from Beetlejuice came along and ate all of them.
Now I know why so many serial killers like prog rock
I mean...just look at this thing. Are any of those comments wrong? Or even unfair?


(Okay, this one may be a little unfair. But funny!)
I feel sorry for their lonely hut. Someone should move in.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

57 Channels (and Nothin' On)

I just read a piece on the Bruce Springsteen song "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)" because when you're a fanatic, it's the kind of thing that'll happen to you every year or two: you'll read a piece or a post or comment about some Springsteen song, no matter how rare or forgotten.

But there are few songs in the Springsteen oeuvre that remain as low key controversial as this one. Despite being released as a single not long after he'd more or less ruled the rock world globally, it didn't even come close to hitting the Top 40. (Although it did go Top 10 in Norway.) It was from an album—Human Touch—which was the first not good album of his career and remains his only album to be actually pretty bad. What's more, it didn't fit on that album, and definitely shouldn't have been the third song on the first side.

Which isn't to say it's not a cool song. I, in fact, love it. It's like little else in his extensive catalog: dark, mysterious, dangerous sounding, with a slinky bassline that's one of the most prominent on any Springsteen album ever. (Coincidence that Bruce himself played the bass on this track, as with one of his other most notable bassline songs, "Blinded by the Light"? I think not.) What's more, his delivery has a certain sprechstimme-like tone to it, with the lyrics largely spoken, and a melody only ever so delicately brushed on: it almost bears more resemblance to hip-hop than to the heartland rock which made him a household name, and perhaps slightly precursors "Streets of Philadelphia" in some ways, although that song's vocal is far more traditional.


I mean, come on: that's cool.

But then Springsteen did something he alone amongst major rock talents had never before done: he went on Saturday Night Live.

And hardcore Springsteen fans did not care for it.

The various opinions my fellow Bruce fans have had of his appearance on Saturday Night Live have made for fascinating reading, largely because most of them are so totally different from my own experience.

Unfortunately, video of the performance is almost impossible to find these days: every once in a while, some hero will upload it, and it'll be gone within a few days, if not sooner. So you're going to have to settle for the audio, which gives an excellent idea of how it was, but definitely doesn't tell the entire story.


Springsteen kicks right into "57 Channels," a song many consider to be a throwaway, not without some justification, but what I've always considered to be one of his more amusing songs, and with a skeletal arrangement that I loved from the first; to put it another way, it certainly isn't the strongest track on the album—and given the weakness of the record, that's saying something—but would have made an absolute killer B-side; and had it been thusly released, I think it'd be beloved and a bucketlist item for hardcore Springsteen fans.

Regardless, on SNL the song took on a different persona. It still has that sinuous, slinky bassline and Bruce murmurs the words in a voice somewhere between a seductive lover and a psychotic killer.

But when he gets to the chorus, he begins whooping the title an octave above its melody on the album. On the original recording, he does something not entirely dissimilar, echoing the title an octave higher at the end of the bridge, in a call-and-response manner. He then does it again in the outro, this time in harmony, but in both those instances, the vocal is quieter and full of echo, as though coming from a distant, empty room.

Watching it live, I literally started laughing; I loved it, even if it seemed a bit incongruous, and thought it was an extremely ballsy choice to have made for his first appearance on SNL. Most of all, however, I think it was the look on Bruce's face that did it for me—he's barely able to suppress a smile, and by the end actually gives up all pretense and bursts out laughing.

But it was the guitar breaks that really brought the song to life or, to borrow an overused sports cliche, took it to another level. Bruce attacked his Tele like it had just insulted his mother, wrenching horrifically atonal, dissonant screeches of pain from the guitar. It was absolutely unlike anything I'd ever heard him do before (even taking into account his experimental, guitar-heavy pre-"Greetings from Asbury Park" work). It seemed as though Bruce had been listening to Nirvana or Sonic Youth or his old friend Neil Young.

It was, to my ears, utterly glorious.

Most of the hardcore Bruce fans did. not. like it. Interestingly, however, one of my closest friends loved it. This friend has never really cared for Bruce; when younger, his tastes generally ran more towards edgy, punkish stuff such as Minor Threat; about the most "mainstream" band he liked was the Replacements. He found, however, that Bruce's performance on SNL gave him a completely different view of Bruce, one that made his better-known stuff take on a different sheen. Ironically, this friend's second-favorite Bruce performance was the acoustic "Born in the U.S.A." Bruce did on Charlie Rose—night and day, you would think, but perhaps more closely related than at first glance. All of this convinced him to go pick up "Nebraska," which he thought was overwhelmingly powerful.

I'm not saying "57 Channels" was one of Bruce's greatest performances ever, nor that it's one of his best songs, and I'm certainly not saying I'd like him to perform that way all the time. But it seems to me that this performance was one of those rare times that this extremely conservative artist (I obviously don't mean that in a political sense in the slightest) throws caution to the wind and does something musically that is completely dissimilar to what he's done before and what's expected. And while it may not have been completely successful, it was audacious and commendable. And it's a shame he didn't follow this path a little longer: a grungy Springsteen would, in retrospect, have probably been a fantastic fit.

Friday, November 8, 2019

2+2=?



Thanks to Scott's brilliant recent post about the possible end to Bob Seger's career, he's had me in a Bob Seger sorta mood lately. Which is a pretty darn good mood to be in, I'll tell you what.




And it got me thinking about those early, early years of his, years I didn't even know existed until maybe a decade ago. I had no idea before then he was an active recording artist in the late 1960s, prolly because I just so easily associated him with the 1970s and early 80s, when he dominated the rock-n-roll landscape with his Mt. Olympus voice and irresistible tunefulness like few artists of the era did.

Hell, I figured "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," a song that would have been a career-topping triumph for just about anyone, came out around the same time as "Turn the Page."

Wrong. Bob recorded that song in 1969, on an album of the same title, in a band called the Bob Seger System. And it's a pretty damn good album, one I was wholly unaware for so long. It's a portrait of an artist in his infancy, just starting to feel his way through a space he would one day dominate. Not unlike Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in 1953. Or the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961-62. You can hear it forming and know something unreal is soon to be here.

Never is this more apparent than on the finest song (minus the title tack) on the record, an anti-Vietnam War scorcher called "2+2=?" Which, no lie, is great enough to stand alongside any, and I mean ANY, anti-war song of the era and hold it's head way up high. It just never received the airplay or fame so many of its contemporary songs did. Which is a shame.

The anti-war song is as essential to the American Songbook as Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building or anything that came out of Sun or Stax or Chess or Motown. Some of them held gospel roots ("I Aint Gonna Study War No More"), some were imported from across the sea ("Mrs. McGrath," "A Nation Once Again") and some were staples of the folk movement ("Bring 'Em Home," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") And they stay with us generations on.

But the Vietnam era, during which I was born but was never old enough to fully understand, had so many anti-war and protest songs that they seemingly have helped to define the era. Whether you were for or against that war a half-century ago, one thing many could agree on—and I have heard this from people who favored and opposed the war, from people who fought in it and protested against it—was the music. From the sublime to the screaming, from the nightmarishly forboding to the largely ridiculous, the music of the Vietnam Era remains an essential part of it. Maybe you weren't alive for it, or like me barely alive for it, but you can still get the feeling of those years when you hear John Fogerty scream "I ain't no senator's son" as "Fortunate Son" starts to burn, or hear Merry Clayton's primal and unforgettable howl at the apex of "Gimme Shelter." Like the best in music and art, it can transport you. And it does.

"2+2=?" is like that every step of the way. Listen.




It starts off a little off-kilter, with a distant five-note bassline that seems to take a second to establish a rhythm. And then Bob Seger, the possessor a voice so overpoweringly potent that he has in fact nicknamed it "The Mountain," begins to sing. Somewhat hushed.

Yes it's true I am a young man
But I'm old enough to kill
I don't wanna kill nobody
But I must if you so will


Damn. THAT is how you start a song, and THAT is how you get people's attention. His voice builds, filled with what sounds like a genuine mix of fear, dread and anger. Those early lines have a cornered animal trait to them, seething and waiting for a chance to attack.

And then that chance arrives within the first half-minute, when Bob introduces a guitar that seems to channel the very best of Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds. The six-note run remains through the rest of the song, snaking through it like razorwire and offering such a discordant, chaotic tone the song truly becomes a nightmare ride. And it all serves as the backdrop to one young man's plea, one small but monstrous voice who makes it clear he is so much smarter than the warmongers give him credit for, and he sees through everything they are doing. As sure as 2+2 equals 4, he sees it. And he hates it.

Yes it's true I am a young man
But I'm old enough to kill
I don't wanna kill nobody
But I must if you so will

And if I raise my hand in question
You just say that I'm a fool
Cause I got the gall to ask you
Can you maybe change the rules

Can you stand and call me upstart
Ask what answer can I find
I ain't sayin' I'm a genius
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind

Well I knew a guy in high school
Just an average friendly guy
And he had himself a girlfriend
And you made them say goodbye

Now he's buried in the mud
Over foreign jungle land
And his girl just sits and cries
She just doesn't understand

So you say he died for freedom
Well if he died to save your lies
Go ahead and call me yellow
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind

All I know is that I'm young
And your rules they are old
If I've got to kill to live
Then there's something left untold

I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules not the soldier
That I find the real enemy

I'm no prophet I'm no rebel
I'm just asking you why
I just want a simple answer
Why it is I've got to die
I'm a simple minded guy
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind
2+2 is on my mind


Right towards the end comes perhaps the perfect capper to the song, where Bob stops the music cold in its tracks and stays silent, as if a sniper has felled him, for a full five seconds. Like a lone voice of dissent silenced by forces far larger and far deadlier than he ever could image. But no. He emerges once more to be heard, singing absent any music for a moment—"2+2 is on my mind!"—before the music once more resumes its harrowing breakneck pace and rides this masterpiece to its rightful conclusion.

Scott has very rightly talked about Bob Seger's crazily underrated prowess as a songwriter, and "2+2=?" is case in point. Because I have a hard time thinking anyone, and I mean ANYONE—be it Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan—could ever top a set of lyrics as heartbreakingly poetic as:

I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules not the soldier
That I find the real enemy


I'm no prophet I'm no rebel
I'm just asking you why
I just want a simple answer
Why it is I've got to die


Bob Seger does not offer a stand on class or race in this song. Like most great songs of its kind from the era, it never mentions Vietnam or, for that matter, any country. It uses no proper names or offers anything all that specific about the narrator or his background. It doesn't need to.

Instead he bleeds anger, frustration and pathos in a little under three minutes. The man singing this song is young but smart. He is bold enough to stand up to forces he know can crush him, but he still has his voice and he is going to use it. He is just one man. Singing for everyone. In a voice for everyone.

Bravo.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Straight Time

See, that's the thing about Bruce Springsteen. You can listen to one of his songs for literally decades and then one day a line hits in a way it never has before and you suddenly realize the subtlety, the deftness, the intricacy of his writing all over again.

This quiet deep cut off 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad LP, for instance. It tells a tale of an ex-con, and the push and pull he feels as he's buffeted by various forces: his wife, his shady family, his soul-killing job, his desire to stay straight, the siren call of the illicit life.
Got out of prison back in '86 and I found a wife
Walked the clean and narrow
Just tryin' to stay out and stay alive
Got a job at the rendering plant, it ain't gonna make me rich
In the darkness before dinner comes
Sometimes I can feel the itch
I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line
I'm sick of doin' straight time
My uncle's at the evenin' table makes his living runnin' hot cars
Slips me a hundred dollar bill, says
"Charlie, you best remember who your friends are"
I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line
I ain't makin' straight time
Eight years in, it feels like you're gonna die
But you get used to anything
Sooner or later it just becomes your life 
Kitchen floor in the evening, tossin' my little babies high
Mary's smilin' but she watches me always out of the corner of her eye
Seems you can't get any more than half free
I step out onto the front porch and suck the cold air deep inside of me
Got a cold mind to go tripping 'cross that thin line
I'm sick of doin' straight time 
In the basement, huntin' gun and a hacksaw
Sip a beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor 
Come home in the evening, can't get the smell from my hands
Lay my head down on the pillow
And go driftin' off into foreign lands


Like many of the tracks on the album, the song ends somewhat unresolved, with the final lyrics being not an expected return of the title, but just half of another verse (although, interestingly, harmonically it does resolve to the tonic, unlike some of the album's other songs).

It's that last full chorus which is the key to the song's greatness:
Kitchen floor in the evening, tossin' my little babies high
Mary's smilin' but she watches me always out of the corner of her eye
Seems you can't get any more than half free
It's easy to sympathize with the narrator, as he suffers that horrible feeling of not being trusted by the one person in the entire world who should trust him unconditionally.

Except...except.

Mary’s watching him, yes. But why?

Is it because as an ex-con he can never be fully trusted?
Or because she's his wife, and she can tell that her husband is teetering on a precipice, and he's slipping?
Is he slipping because no one fully trusts him, not even his wife? Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Oh, you don't trust me? Well, then I might as well go back to my old ways.
Is he simply paranoid? Is she watching him because it’s hardwired into many species to keep an eye on their spawn at all times? After all, he is doing something that's at least a bit dangerous with their children.
Or maybe she's just watching him play with their kids because it makes her so damn happy to see?
Is it all just an excuse? Is he simply looking for a reason to go back?
Or is it even all just unavoidable? As he himself says earlier in the song:
You get used to anything
Sooner or later it just becomes your life
No way to know for sure. Every possibility is there, and more, all laid out in fewer than 250 words—about half the number of words in this post...and that's excluding the quoted lyrics. Springsteen's lyrical concision is staggering—we know who this guy is, what he's gone through, what he's going through, and we're pretty sure we have a pretty good idea what he's going to be doing shortly, even if he himself pretends he doesn't know yet.

That's some sweet writing. And it's just another track off one of his least-known albums. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Famous Final Scene


It's weird to see Seger relegated to the AOR arena-rock dinosaur category by people who've listened to music made since 1990; sometimes it feels like the only ones who give ol' Bob his due are the ones who loved him in the 70s and 80s and have pretty much stopped listening to anything since. And it's jarring, because he was so big—in the late 70s, he was more commercially successful than Bruce Springsteen, despite really only breaking through because (the younger) Springsteen paved the way.

But Seger is an authentic artist and a true believer; he was already making records when the Beatles were putting out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he wrote one of the all-time great anti-war songs, "2+2=?" (which is an absolute banger), and his first authentic hit, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" came out in 1969. He was a local star who time and again almost seemed like he might hit the big time without ever actually doing so. Until the kid from New Jersey sent the record labels looking for the Next New Dylan™ and lo and behold Capitol discovered they had a real live peer already signed to their roster. Live Bullet set the stage and Night Moves blew the damn thing wide open.

And why not? As Dave Marsh wrote, only Springsteen and Jackson Browne could write as well as Seger, but Seger could obviously sing rings around them both. Which is no slight on either of them: Bob Seger can sing rings around all but a tiny handful of white rock and roll singers ever. As Bruce Springsteen himself said recently, "Really great singers, people who have a really great instrument, like...Bob Seger has a great instrument."

(It turns out that Seger himself doesn't entirely disagree; he's got a nickname for his own voice, and that nickname is "The Mountain" and it's completely and totally warranted.)

Ironically, that long-ago chart success and that amazing voice may have actually served to ultimately obscure just how excellent a writer Bob Seger is. In fact, I think Bob Seger may be the most underrated great writer ever. There are a number of reasons for that. In part, I suspect his midwestern roots didn’t allow him to seriously discuss his writing, the way Springsteen or Browne did theirs. (In this way, he reminds me, oddly, of The Replacements.)

He wasn’t nearly as prolific as Springsteen—again, that's not a slight, since there have been very few artists ever who were as prolific as Springsteen was for the first few decades of his recording career—nor as obviously erudite as Browne. And unlike those guys Seger almost always had at least a few covers per LP, which I suspect had a psychological effect on the listeners and their view of the artist.

And when you heard Seger sing a song, the very first thing you noticed wasn't the guitar or the drums or the arrangement or the lyrics: it was that amazing voice.

Finally, his final few songs to really capture the public's attention were the likes of the absolutely terrible "Shakedown," one of his worst songs ever, and which naturally therefore went to #1. Then there was "Like a Rock," which was turned into a commercial at the exact time that things like "selling out" were a topic among passionate rock fans. And finally, there was "Old Time Rock and Roll," which he co-wrote but didn't take a songwriting credit for, meaning he wasn't able to stop it from being used for...well, everything, including more terrible commercials.

(And then he took years off to hang out with his family, and disappearing from the public eye at that point in time certainly wasn't the best move from a critical point of view.)

All of which means that while Bob Seger was ginormous in the late 70s and early 80s, he's basically unknown by younger listeners, unless they know him as the guy who sang that cheesy reactionary "Old Time Rock and Roll" that's been used to hawk burgers and such. Which is a shame, because he should be viewed as a rock and roll Willie Nelson or Muddy Waters or something: an artist who once upon a time was one of the very best ever, whose best work absolutely stands the test of time.

 "Feel Like a Number" perfectly captures how powerless and faceless one can feel in modern society. "Night Moves" is a remarkably powerful yet unsentimental look back at the freedom and naivete of youth. "Turn the Page" allows the listener to actually sympathize with how difficult being a traveling musician can be, while not denying the benefits. "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" pulls off the difficult feat of paying tribute to the music itself while not sentimentalizing it and yet managing to be a great example of its power. "Against the Wind" is a simply devastating look back at the roads not taken, and which really probably should have been. And there are a dozen other examples just as good.

But as I said, it seems as though he's perhaps done with that, and if anyone's earned the right to retire, it's Bob Seger. He created some of the greatest American rock and roll songs and albums ever—Night Moves and Stranger in Town are both nearly flawless—and he seems to have always stayed true to himself.

So. So long, Bob, and thanks for all the fish. Here's hoping the afterparty is everything you could ever want.



Think in terms of bridges burned
Think of seasons that must end
See the rivers rise and fall
They will rise and fall again
Everything must have an end
Like an ocean to a shore
Like a river to a stream
Like a river to a stream
It's the famous final scene
And how you tried to make it work
Did you really think it could
How you tried to make it last
Did you really think it would
Like a guest who stayed too long
Now it's finally time to leave
Yes, it's finally time to leave
Take it calmly and serene
It's the famous final scene 
It's been coming on so long
You were just the last to know
It's been a long time since you've smiled
Seems like oh so long ago
Now the stage has all been set
And the nights are growing cold
Soon the winter will be here
And there's no one warm to hold 
Now the lines have all been read
And you knew them all by heart
Now you move toward the door
Here it comes the hardest part
Try the handle of the road
Feeling different feeling strange
This can never be arranged
As the light fades from the screen
From the famous final scene

Election Day Bob Dylan Listenings

Well I'm just average, common too
I'm just like him, the same as you
I'm everybody's brother 'n son
I ain't different from anyone

- Bob Dylan, "I Shall Be Free No. 10"

You all know what to do. Go vote...and even listen to a little of Mr. Zimmerman—that uniquely American voice which pretty much drills down to the marrow of who we are every time it soundsto give you a little additional motivation. I know it always helps me.

(And a question. Does Bob Dylan ever get true credit for being as funny as he is? Seriously, if there has been a funnier songwriter over the last half-century or so, I'm really not sure who he is. This song is a pretty solid example of that).



Sunday, November 3, 2019

the indefinable yet undeniable mystery and existence of intermusical chemistry

There are some experiences that cannot be fully understood unless one has actually engaged in or partaken of them. Having children is perhaps the most obvious. Being on a sports team that was completely in synch. Being part of the cast of a play. Being in a band that clicks. There is an indefinable yet undeniable mystery to the existence of chemistry in some groups of people devoted to a common goal which are inexplicable and yet absolutely indisputable to anyone who's actually experienced them.

I have only seen maybe one example better than this clip. Here's Sting and Stewart Copeland, famous bandmates and antagonists in The Police, playing together for the first time in 24 years. And Copeland is trying to explain that there's this one place in this one song that it's absolutely imperative they play a certain way. And Sting has no idea what he's talking about, and Copeland can't nail it down specifically—the drummer knows precisely what he's talking about, he just can't remember where it is exactly, or even, really, what it is.

And then they play the song. And when that indefinable bit comes up Sting knows instantly. And possibly even more incredible: Copeland knows that Sting knows the very moment Sting knows.



You can see it in the video—Copeland is already smiling, pointing at the singer, knowing that Sting has recognized the bit as soon as they started playing it, before Sting even says anything.

I've watched this exchange a dozen times over the past decade and the level of musical understanding between these two guys who haven't played together in 24 years never ceases to blow my damn mind.

Sting is a great writer, a great singer, and a great bass player who has created some great material as a solo artist. But The Police had a 5-year recording career, during which they released five albums. He's had a 34 year—and counting—career as a solo artist, during which he's released at least 13 studio albums. So the Police account for a mere 8% of his recording career, and he's released nearly three times as many solo albums as he did when he was with the Police. And yet to this day, Police songs make up between 33% and 50% of pretty much any of his setlists this century—and that's even including tours when he's got a new album to push, when there'll be an unusually heavy emphasis on new material.

Statistically, that's clearly out of whack. And yet obviously it makes all the sense in the world. Because the Police songs aren't just the crowd faves—although they are—they're also (subjectively, of course) the best stuff. And that's because, as an unusually insightful critic once more or less wrote:
If a great artist like John Fogerty or Neil Young or Sting writes a song and brings it to ten different bands, it’s going to sound recognizably the same yet very different, depending upon whether the drummer is Al Jackson or Ringo Starr or Keith Moon or Steve Gadd or Bernard Purdie or Dave Grohl or Carter Beauford. And if that great artist has been writing songs for that same drummer for ten years, well, that drummer is going to be part of the song the artist hears in his head as he’s first writing, before he ever brings it to the studio. John Lennon may not—couldn’t possibly—have known what Ringo was going to play on “Come Together,” but the sound of Ringo’s drums, the feel he was going to bring, if not the exact pattern, was already in John’s mind, already ingrained in his DNA.
Sting cannot have known what Stewart Copeland or Andy Summers was going to play on any given song he brought in—they were too unpredictable, in the very best sense, as musicians, with such individualistic voices, that there was simply no way to imagine ahead of time what parts they might come up with, other than to know they'd be great and characteristic and different from anything they or anyone else had quite done before.

(Seriously, there's no other guitarist in the world who would have listened to "Every Breath You Take," which has the same chord progression as "Stand by Me," and thought, "Right, you know what would go well here? A bunch of arpeggiated add9 chords, voiced in a way that's somewhat reminiscent of Bartok's string quartets." And yet Summers did and it's his guitar part that's very nearly every bit as memorable as Sting's wonderfully disturbing lyric.)

But Sting did know, down in his bones, that whatever they were, Copeland's drum parts would be great and characteristic and different from anything they or anyone else had quite done before. And because they were in a band together, and Copeland was not "merely" a [crazy talented] hired gun, he could and would then fight for those drums parts. And unlike the absolutely brilliant drummers Sting would later work with—titans such as Omar Hakim, Manu Katché, Andy Newmark, Vinnie Colaiuta and Josh Freese, among others—Sting couldn't simply fire Copeland. Because in the context of the band, they were equals, more or less. So Copeland got to have a say in how the song ultimately sounded. [And you can see how this pains Sting, when he has to negotiate on the existence of flams. Flams, of all things!] So it's not a coincidence that such a high percentage of the songs that they worked on together went on to make up the shortlist of his all-time classics. Because that's how chemistry works. Sometimes it explodes, and sometimes that's exactly the most optimal result.

Also, it sounds so much cooler with the flams.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Moonlight Motel

Imagine you're Bruce Springsteen. Just for a moment, imagine that.

You've written "New York City Serenade." You've written "Jungleland." You’ve written "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Wreck on the Highway" and "Reason to Believe" and "My Hometown" and "Valentine’s Day." You’ve written "My Beautiful Reward" and you’ve written "My City of Ruins." You’ve written "Matamoros Banks" and "Devil's Arcade."

You've written some of the greatest album closers in the history of rock and roll. And not just because you're one of the greatest writers in the history of rock and roll—although you are—but because you not only understand the importance of sequencing, but are also a master of it.

And yet somehow, after all those—or perhaps because of them—years later you are still capable of writing "Moonlight Motel."

And then…you sit on it for five years. You just leave it in the can.

Because you're Bruce Springsteen.

If you're any other artist, you rush the thing out. Maybe you don't even wait for the rest of the album. You shove the song in the world's face and you scream, "Lookit! Lookit! Look what I can do! Look what I did!"

But you're Bruce Springsteen. So you don't do that. You just...wait. Until you've done a bunch of other stuff and you feel like the time is right to finish up this project and you do and it's a damn masterpiece.

And not of course it is. It's not a given.

There are a lot of truly great artists—absolute titans—who peaked and never again came close to being that great again. In fact, perhaps only Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash have ever come close to doing what Bruce Springsteen has done this century, which is to continue to write and record and release albums which can stand shoulder to shoulder with their very finest work—their very finest work being fine indeed: masterpieces, in fact.


The [mainly younger] guy who once wrote things like:
My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned
and
You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above
and
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
and
It was a small town bank
It was a mess
Well, I had a gun
You know the rest
and
They prosecuted some poor sucker in these United States
For teaching that man descended from the apes
They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight
If they’d seen me chasin’ you, sugar, through the jungle last night
and
They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re dyin’ now
The hands that built this country we’re always trying to keep down
and
If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true
Ma, you couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through
and
41 shots—and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river to the other side
41 shots—my boots caked in mud
We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood
and
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up
and
As I lift my groceries into my car
I turn back for a moment and catch a smile
That blows this whole fucking place apart
and
Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time, to find we're just like all the rest
can still—can now—write a verse like this:
Now the pool's filled with empty, eight-foot deep
Got dandelions growin' up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign, says, "Children, be careful how you play"
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret promised I'd never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
Obviously, as always, context matters. Coming from one of the most popular American musicians ever, after a long career, delivered in a weathered voice, makes it all the more powerful. But this would be a great song if it were written by some one-hit-wonder.

And the only thing that could be even better than all this?

Is that he says he's going into the studio with the E Street Band soon for a new album.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Twist and Shout

I used to work with a guy who had pretty good musical taste if a bit narrow perhaps: he seemed to mainly like stuff from the 60s and 70s and although we didn't talk a ton about music, I don't recall him ever mentioning anything more recent than those fine decades. But he was a Bob Dylan fanatic, so there's that.

But he did once mention, approvingly, another colleague's remark that the Who were unquestionably the greatest rock and roll band ever, with the reasoning being that the Rolling Stones were a blues/R&B band, and the Beatles were, by their own admission, a pop group. Meaning of The Big Three of British bands of the 1960s, only The Who were really a rock band.

Which I think is a fine illustration of the proverb "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Yes. It's true, the Beatles—especially, I think, John Lennon—called themselves a pop group. As was the custom of the day. (Along with wearing an onion on your belt.)
"When I was a Beatle, I thought we were the best fucking group in the god-damned world. And believing that is what made us what we were... whether we call it the best rock 'n roll group or the best pop group or whatever."
Well, there 'tis. Even John Lennon himself called the Beatles a pop band.

Then again, Pete Townshend referred to The Who as a pop band writing and playing pop music:
For six years on our pub and club circuit we had first supported, and later played alongside, some extraordinarily talented bands. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers were so authentic an R&B band that it was hard to believe they weren’t American. The Hollies, Searchers, Kinks and Pirates changed the face of British pop, not to mention The Beatles or Stones. The 1964 Searchers’ hit ‘Needles and Pins’ created the jangling guitar sound later picked up by The Byrds. The Kinks had brought Eastern sounds to British pop as early as 1965 with the hypnotically beautiful ‘See My Friend’. And there were dozens of other transformative influences all around us.
and
What had happened to The Who’s blues roots? Had we ever really had any? Did John and Keith feel a strong connection to blues and jazz? Was Roger only interested in the kind of hard R&B that provided a foil for his own masculine angst? Though we enjoyed our recording sessions, The Who seemed to be turning to solipsism for inspiration. My songs were pop curios about subjects as wide-ranging as soft pornography and masturbation, gender-identity crises, the way we misunderstood the isolating factors of mental illness, and – by now well-established – teenage-identity crises and low self-esteem issues.
and
The Who had worked ceaselessly for almost four years. We had enjoyed a number of hit singles. I had delved deeply into my personal history and produced a new kind of song that seemed like shallow pop on the surface, but below could be full of dark psychosis or ironic menace. I had become adept at connecting pop songs together in strings. Still, The Who needed a large collection of such songs if we were to rise in the music business at a time when the audience was expanding its collective consciousness, and the album was taking over from the pop single.
and
My songs for Tommy still had the function of pop singles: to reflect and release, prefigure and inspire, entertain and engage. But that vein – of promoting singles apart from a whole album – had been thoroughly mined by the time we released Tommy. Change was necessary for us, which of course meant taking a lot of criticism on the chin. If the naïve, workmanlike songs I wrote immediately before Tommy had been hits I might never have felt the need to try something else. I might have kept my operatic ambitions private. There’s nothing I admire more than a collection of straightforward songs, linked in mood and theme only by a common, unspecific artistic thesis.
and
In this surge of hope and optimism, The Who set out to articulate the joy and rage of a generation struggling for life and freedom. That had been our job. And most of the time we pulled it off. First we had done this with pop singles, later with dramatic and epic modes, extended musical forms that served as vehicles for social, psychological and spiritual self-examination for the rock ’n’ roll generation.
Even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards referred to the Rolling Stones writing and recording pop songs:
I knew ["Sympathy for the Devil"] was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It’s all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different.
and
I like the song ["Wild Horses"]. It’s an example of a pop song. Taking this cliché “wild horses,” which is awful, really, but making it work without sounding like a cliché when you’re doing it.
But those are simply the opinions of the artists in question and who are they to be considered experts?

No, I think the only thing that matters is the factual record. Which is to say, watch this live performance from the Beatles' first U.S. tour:


There they are, a pop band covering a pop song...but there is no way to listen to John Lennon's vocals and say that they're anything other than rock and roll. And that's before you even talk about the way Ringo is bashing the kit—25 years before the grunge explosion, there's Ringo showing Dave Grohl and the rest the proper way to play the ride cymbal (which is to crash it relentlessly, apparently).

Pop group. Please.


(Not that there's anything wrong with being a pop group.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Bastards of Young

one hell of a function
I have a confession to make, one I've never told anyone, even co-blogger DT: I never liked "Bastards of Young" all that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I liked it okay. Of course I did: it was the Replacements. But on the magnificent Tim, I lumped it in with the likes of "Lay It Down, Clown" and "Dose of Thunder" rather than with, say, "Little Mascara," "Here Comes a Regular" and of course "Left of the Dial." But there was something about it I just found always threw me off a bit.

It was DT, of all things, who got me to come around to it, but pointing out the brilliance of Paul Westerberg's lyrics, something I hadn't paid a lot of attention to on this one. And brilliant they unquestionably are.


God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons
Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground, there'll ain't no beer tonight
Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function
It beats pickin' cotton or waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Now the daughters and the sons
Unwillingness to claim us, ya got no war to name us
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
If it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Daughters and the sons
Take it, it's yours

There's so much there. First of all—and I'm not being facetious here—that in 1985 Westerberg made sure to include both males and females there in the chorus was unusually woke. But beyond that, the deftness of the lyrics was, even by Westerberg's standards, remarkable. The LP's "Kiss Me on the Bus" had already proved that if post-punk had a Cole Porter it was, against all odds, this high school dropout turned janitor turned college rock icon. But the lyrics here, for all their caustic incisiveness, never came within a lightyear of mere cleverness for cleverness's sake. There's a wounded heart on the sleeve quality to them that's undeniable, starting with the very first line:
God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
As if it weren't already obvious just how self-referential this was, the next two lines make that abundantly clear:
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
And it holds out little hope that things will get better, as a later slogan (correctly, generally) put it:
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
(Although perhaps that's not entirely true, or perhaps Westerberg himself thought he was painting too bleak a picture, as the song ends with the repeated exhortation to "take it, it's yours.")

Once you become aware of these lines, the song can never again be viewed as just another of their rave-ups, a chance for genius but untameable guitarist Bob Stinson to wreak his glorious havoc.

(Also, take note of the quiet yet oddly powerful discordant sound right after "die to please"—perhaps a guitar pick scraping one of the wound strings?)

But it was only a few days ago, listening to the live Inconcerated set that came with the Dead Man's Pop boxset that I realized what it was that had originally thrown me off for so long. It was the mathematical imbalance of almost the entire song.


The song opens with two bars of solo guitar before the rhythm section bashes into play. The entire band (well, theoretically—Bob Stinson apparently only played the [amazing] solos on the record, all of which he recorded in a single afternoon) then plays for five more measures before slipping into the first verse.

The first verse itself is made up of two 7-bar phrases, for a total (obviously) of 14 measures. Get that? This isn't a 12-bar blues nor is it a standard 8-bar pop song format. Although it generally uses the same chords in blues, albeit just with standard major (and one minor) chords and not the dominant seventh chords typical of the blues, it's clearly not a blues, as it doesn't follow the standard blues changes anywhere.

It feels more or less like a typical pop formula, except by going with 7 rather than 8 measures per section, it throws the listener off, by setting up expectations which are then tossed aside, as the next section is suddenly rushed into, rather than gliding in right on time, as with the overwhelming majority of pop songs.

But then there's the chorus, which has 12 measures and not the standard 8, nor the now semi-expected 7. So once again, we're off-balance.

We then go into the bridge, a staple of pop music, and here they give it 4 bars. A nice round number, except that as the bridge is often called (especially by Brits such as the Beatles) "the middle eight" it's, once again, a very much not normal length.

Prodded by the greatly underrated drumming of Chris Mars, Bob Stinson then rips into one of his signature solos. But even here, even with the band member most notoriously resistant to trying new things, the solo takes up 11 measures: not 7, not 4, not 12.

Then we're back for the final verse. And the first two lines take up the by-now expected 7 measures, but the last two take up a normally normal but to us by now abnormal 8 measures. Usually that would be unremarkable, but by this time the listener has almost started to become accustomed to the unbalanced nature of the number of bars, so it feels like time is stretched uncomfortably, the tension rising almost but not quite imperceptibly.

Then we're into the chorus, which should be 12 measures, going by the form the first two times it was played. But this time it's an almost expectedly askew 11 measures and not 12...the first time through. This time the chorus is repeated, albeit sans lyrics, and this time it's only 10 measures, not 12 or 11, thus kneecapping even our already abbreviated chorus unexpectedly.

And then the outro comes smashing into our faces out of nowhere, an almost musical equivalent of the visual spectacle of the Who destroying their instruments.

Almost everything about the song is aslant, a musical representation of the scarred, twisted world the lyrics depict. Not bad for a band of drunken clowns, as they were often viewed (including sometimes, sadly, by the band themselves).

Altogether, it's an astonishing recording of an astonishing composition, and rock-solid proof all by itself of why so many think they were one of the greatest American bands ever, as well as a terribly sad example of why they should have been so much better known, and how much they could have accomplished had they not been so insistent upon shooting themselves in both feet every time a decent opportunity came their way.