Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why I Hate ABBA (Part 1, I think)

“I can’t do disco, man. I’d rather sell vacuum cleaners. They make better music!”Dr. Johnny Fever, “WKRP In Cincinnati

I don’t hate disco. Far from it, actually.

But I do hate ABBA.

Or, okay. Given that I am a practicing Christian who genuinely does try (and usually succeed) at loving his fellow man, I suppose I shouldn't (and therefore don't) technically hate anything or anyone.

So, okay, I'll amend that thought. When it comes to ABBA...how to put this properly...I...um...I...

...no. No. I hate them.

I was out the last night at a gathering and was talking with a couple of very cool pals before I left. We were talking about music and the stuff that did it for us. We mentioned all of our favorites and talked about what it was about music that pressed our buttons. Soulfulness, honesty, talent to be sure, connection with the fans, as well as that indescribable something that sets off tripwires in our brains and draws us forever to certain bands and certain singers. Certainly I've had many of those, one of which I wrote about it depth here a few months ago. It was a cool discussion, one I hope we continue.

But when we got around to discussing stuff we didn't like, I instantly offered up, "My absolute basement is ABBA. Nothing is worse than that for me."

They didn't object, but they were surprised. And one of them asked why. He was just curious.

And I...I had no real definitive answer.

I mean, I talked in broad strokes about how sanitized and phony it sounds to me, even telling him, "I'd rather listen to a truck backing up for three hours." I talked about how soulless it was, how squeaky clean and detached. But I didn't have that absolute locked down Grade A reason for it. Something like "They killed my whole family and left me alive to be haunted by it when I was a child." Or something maybe a little more harsh.

So. Why do I hate ABBA so damn much?

Hmm.

It's easier first to say what the reasons are not.

It’s not the super-heavy production. Hell, tons of legendary artists have had high levels of production gloss placed atop their music. Like, say, The Beatles? Or U2? Pink Floyd? Or Bruce Springsteen ever since he discovered Brendan O’Brien? And the results with all have been pretty amazing. So it’s not that.

It’s not that it's so wrapped up in disco or dance. Hell, I really like good disco. And dancing is good! I mean, no, I can't do it, and I dance like an arthritic goat on ice, but it's still a very good thing. As for disco, sure, there was a lot of slop offered up in disco's mid-70s heyday, but any moreso than all the lousy hair/glam rock of the late 80s? Nope.

And despite all the bad stuff, there were simply rock solid awesome tunes like "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Turn the Beat Around" and "Jungle Boogie." Not to mention supreme artists like Donna Summer and Chic and, hell, the Bee Gees? No, no. The outright hatred of disco (despite Dr. Fever's noted objections above, which were obviously done for comic effect) were often rooted in homophobia and racism, and the blanket dismissal of it all (again, Johnny Fever made his comments in a sitcom for laughs, and plus he was a whacked out old rocker, so I'll excuse it) was highly unfair. So disco, dance music? No. Not why I can't stand ABBA.

It’s not that it’s pop. Again, weren’t the Beatles pop? Wasn’t Elvis? Isn’t U2? Hell, wasn’t REM and Nirvana before too long? All of them charted, and high. So no, it’s not that ABBA was so very pop.

It's not even that it sounds so...cheesy. I like cheese! (Scott doesn't, but that's just an issue for him to work out in psychotherapy). Musical cheese can be enjoyable and filling, if not exactly healthy. But take Barry Manilow. While my love of him isn't quite as far-reaching as Scott's (he knows Barry will one day come for him), I genuinely appreciate and enjoy Mr. Pincus. He's talented and he sings well and he has a good voice and seems to enjoy himself and seldom take himself too seriously. Cheesy can be good. Yes, it can be bad too (see Diamond, Neil).  But that's not the reason.

It’s not even the ridiculous costumes ABBA wore. Because lots of bands had ridic...



...

...

Okay. Maybe the costumes had a little to do with it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

All You Need Is Love

Watching the Christianist below, I thought of the words of a few noted philosophers. Not so much my normal standbys of "seventy times seven" or "turn the other cheek," notions so radical that virtually none of even the most dedicated of that philosopher's adherents are able to really follow them fully.

No, instead, I listened to this sad little man, and I thought:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. In the end, cowards are those who follow the dark side. 

Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.



Or, to put it another way: it's easy—all you need is love. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brand New Day (Please)


It will never make sense. Ever. It happened 60 miles away from me and 3,000 miles away from Scott, but I can say with certitude that it hit us both equally. Which is to say, it devastated us. And our families. And everyone we know. And everyone we don't know.

We pray. We try to give comfort where we can and find comfort where can. And we hope - we hope - that someday soon we do better. That we are all able to do better by our fellow citizens. We have no choice.

Tomorrow is a brand new day. And may it please, somehow and someway if only for a fleeting moment, be a better one.


Friday, December 7, 2012

David Bowie on the Pixies

I'm not sure I agree with everything he says here but I'd still pay a pretty penny to hear David Bowie talk at length about, well, pretty much every artist there is or ever was.


Looking at this and how damn gorgeous a physical specimen he is, in addition to his obvious intelligence and musical talent and sheer charisma, his absence from the public stage these many years suddenly struck me as especially ominous. He's going to be gone one day, hopefully not for a long time, but...but in the meanwhile, I hope someone's getting his autobiography out of him in some fashion.

And just because, here's Frank Black and the Thin White Duke getting fashionable. Of special note is just how much Reeves Gabrels shreds it here, and—in stark contrast to the late and not at all lamented Tin Machine—in a good way.



They're doing it over there but we don't do it here. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Your Time Is Gonna Come, Loser

The mind is an odd thing. How many times have I heard each of these songs without hearing the connection between them?

The other night, I was hit with the urge to put this on one (along with the out-of-the-blue suspicion that my daughters would love it instantly—I was right).



The moment the drums kicked in, I started wondering what it was reminding me of. The vocals added to the mystery. But once the chorus kicked in, I got it.


Because I think of Beck as being part of the whole alternative rock scene with his emphasis on irony and collage, the incredibly obvious comparison to Led Zeppelin never struck me before, but both are musical omnivores whose deepest, most lasting bedrock loves are the blues. Layer some hip-hop beats, or Joni Mitchell-inspired acoustic guitar over that foundation, and the results can be gloriously transformative, bringing something new to the table while retaining the utmost reverence for those that came before.

You can't write if you can't relate and my time is a piece of wax. 

You're a loser, baby? Not to worry—your time is gonna come.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Frank Zappa

Scott recently sent me a post from RockTownHall.com entitled “Did Frank Zappa Actually Like Music?” Here’s the link.  

The point was yes, he was an amazingly proficient guitar player who attracted crazy-talented musicians to carry out his musical visions. But does it sound like he was really enjoying himself? Was he emotionally invested in it?

And I have to say, after thinking about it…no. I don’t think he really did. I don't he was as crazy about music as he should have been. And I don't even think it's that close.

I think he liked being good at music—he liked playing the guitar and tossing off killer riffs and creating intricate sounds with monster studio players. But with a few exceptions—most notably his earliest stuff with the Mothers of Invention—his music, while to be appreciated, always left me a bit cold.

Take the Joe’s Garage albums, no doubt one of his most popular recordings. At the outset he has three absolutely Grade A rock songs, bawdy and nasty and rock-n-roll to the core: “Joe’s Garage,” “Catholic Girls” and “Crew Slut.” And at the end you have a stunningly gorgeous piece of extended guitar work called “Watermelon in Easter Hay” that goes on for close to nine minutes and is mind-boggling in how moving it is. And throughout you have this dead-on statement about the evils of censorship. But in that middle 60% of the album(s) you mostly get sexual innuendo-rich musiporn. You get extended sophomoric jokes that only he seems to be in on. And it’s not bad—it’s just…cold. And it’s a shame.

Or take this clip from Saturday Night Live in 1978, when he first gives a monologue and then offers up soon-to-be-hit “Dancin’ Fool.”



Zappa comes across as 100% too cool for school throughout, starting with his cue-card focused monologue reading and extending all the way through this somewhat funny song. But rather than deliver it with the drollness we hear on the Sheik Yerbouti record, he delivers everything—monologue, lyrics, and particularly the interplay with the young woman at the end—with this clipped, detached, “let’s get this over with” level of apathy.

Zappa comes across as the eye-rolling senior at a freshman party, who doesn’t need to be there but keep showing up anyway, if only to point out how stupid this all is.

Which is a damn shame, really. Because holy crow could the man play. Check out the studio version of one of his finest hours, all the way back from his debut album Freak Out! in 1965. Yes, it’s got a social pulse—a rather hard look at the Watts riots of that year. But there is a soulful menace in Frank’s voice—save for the sarcastic “Blow your harmonica-phone!” at the end—that propels the song every bit as much as the thunderous bass and chaotic guitar.



He sounds pissed, and he sounds invested. Once more, the man had chops most could only dream about. He was an intelligent and thoughtful advocate for free speech and he attracted only the very best of the best of musicians for when he felt like playing. It’s just a shame we didn’t hear more stuff like his in the quarter-century of his career that followed. More music that sounded like he cared, rather than just reminded us how smart and talented he was.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

With apologies to my family and friends, this year I think I'm most thankful to have discovered that this brave new world has such creations as this in it.



I've got to be free...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Such a Long Way To Go

If there was ever an award given called, "The Greatest Six Word Backing Vocal Line For a Hideously Bad Song In Music History," I think it would be this right here.




(I have watched this about 5 times now and I cannot stop laughing. The way he runs in there? The way he looks straight up at the mike and so earnestly belts it out? The soundless argument with the engineer? God SCTV was funny!)

Seriously though. Christopher Cross gets a backup singer as great as Michael McDonald in the studio to somehow help to help rescue this musical equivalent to a bowl of stale mayonaise, and all he asks him to do is SING SIX FREAKING WORDS???

What a waste. And how amazing is it he makes it in there for that final time? Thought for sure he'd miss it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bob Dylan and Election Day

For a number of years now I have tried to make it a point of listening to Bob Dylan on Election Day. Not that Bob (to the best of my knowledge) has ever really come out and injected himself into political races. But something about the way he writes, something about the universal iconoclasm of what he’s been doing for half a century just makes me want to listen to him when each major election roles around. It makes sense because even decades detached, Dylan seems to get the sheer brilliant chaos that accompanies this country around every corner. And on Election Day, for me, it works.

In 2006 it was just as personal as it was political. I was in my 10th year of working in politics and I felt the oncoming need for a change. And the same time the country was starting to make a change as well; the Senate and House went back to the Democrats that night and the repudiation of the Bush/Cheney years was beginning to take hold. So with all of this going on I put on his transitional masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.

In 2008, knowing that full level of change was about to be realize with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first ever black President, I went lo-fi and obvious, listening to The Times They Are-A Changing.

In 2010, with things swinging back to the right and the Tea Party entering a period of full-bloom, I went back to Bob’s beginnings and listened heavily to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The album is an odd but lethal cocktail of whimsy, nihilism and pure prescience, and I used it as a chance to re-ground myself in this latest new reality. And one song, well, stood out amidst all the madness of the day. “Down the Highway.” For me it was wistful hopefulness.

Well I’m bound to get lucky, baby,
Or I’m bound to die tryin’.

Alas…no. Didn’t help in the end.

This year I dug back into vintage mid-60s Bob again, playing bits and pieces of Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing in All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited to get myself primed for the historic night. And various disparate lyrics stood out to me.

One struck me when thinking about voting and the absolute necessity of that right:

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind.
— "Chimes of Freedom," 1964

One about the President, facing his last ever Election Night:

Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.
— "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," 1965

And even one about the challenger:

You try so hard but you just don’t undertstand
What you’ll say when you get home.
Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?
— "Ballad of a Thin Man," 1966

And today, with the election once more behind us and a decisive victory at hand, I specifically wanted to hear one song. One somewhat buried track from the magnificent Bringing it All Back Home.

The rumbling blues of “On the Road Again.”

Where Dylan captures the sheer indescribable madness all around him and wonders how in the hell anyone can put up with it.

I wake up in the morning there’s frogs inside my socks,
Your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox,
Your Daddy walks in wearing a Napolean Bonaparte mask.
And you ask why I don’t live here?
Honey, do you have to ask?

Your grandpa’s cane, it turns into a sword,
Your grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board,
Everything in my pockets your uncle steals.
And you ask why I don’t live here?
Honey, I can’t believe that your for real!

Well there’s fistfights in the kitchen, they’re enough to make my cry,
The mailman comes in, even he has to take a side,
Even the butler, he’s got something to prove.
And you ask why I don’t live here?
Honey, how come you don’t move?

That is the vibe I got last night from watching the returns come in and the Electoral Map got bluer and bluer, and Senate candidates who actually made lame excuses for acts of rape and called legitimate dissent un-American and allowed millions and millions of nameless, faceless “dark money” to be spent on their behalf with little regard for the truth kept losing and losing.

And I thought, “Why are they all losing? Why is America saying no to them?”

And my answer, inside my head? “Honey, do you have to ask?”

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Great Writing

And here we have a perfect example of outstanding writing: it gets right to the point, says its piece, and gets out. Kind of like a Miles Davis solo. 


No wonder Miles and Teo worked so well together. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kashmir

I've been wondering: how does watching bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and self-proclaimed golden gods Led Zeppelin turn into what are undeniably old men affect our view on aging? I mean, look at these guys:


Let the sun beat down upon my face

They're old. (Well, three of them are.) They look great, each in their own way. Jimmy Page looks incredibly cool (if incredibly sweaty), John Paul Jones appears to be a decade younger than the others—closer in age to whippersnapper Jason Bonham—and Robert Plant looks like one badass beach bum who's barely been out of the sun since the 70s. He looks cool. He looks great. But he's old.

Does seeing the cute Beatle get increasingly jowly and obviously dye his hair make us feel our mortality all the more, or is the fact that he's still playing (wonderfully) to stadiums full make us feel like there's no need to get put out to pasture at the ripe old age of 64?

I don't know. And I'm not really going anywhere with this. I just wonder what effect, if any, it's had on those of us who grew up listening to rock and roll as time marches on, both for us and for the bands we listened to back when we was young.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Here Comes the Flood

Sure, PG was using it metaphorically, but even there, the need for community shines through.



Lord, here comes the flood 
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood 
If again the seas are silent In any still alive 
It'll be those who gave their island to survive 
Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Road and the Sky

For my peeps on the east coast. Stay dry, my friends.



Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead? 
They're going to wash this planet clean like the Bible said 
Now you can hold on steady and try to get ready 
But everybody's gonna get wet 
Don't think it won't happen just because it hasn't happened yet

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sugar Ray Macca

I like pop. Melody is, as no one says, my jam, and pretty much regardless of style or trends, in the modern era, at least, pop equals melody. The beat may vary, the production certainly does, but melody is a constant in the majority of pop music.

So I liked Sugar Ray. What can I say? I did. Not enough to give them any money, but when one of their three or four songs I knew came on, I enjoyed them. I know it's not cool to admit it—hell, it wasn't cool to admit it back when they were selling millions of records, it certainly ain't cool now. But it's been a mighty long time since I cared what people thought of my taste in music, and back when I did care, I had the metabolism of a jackrabbit and, what the hell, even back then, back when I cared, I really didn't care much. I mean, listen to this intro:



It's "Ventura Highway" with a nice groove and less ridiculous lyrics. And if the band's sense of humor isn't exactly on a Monty Python level, well, I give 'em credit for not just trying to look cool. Is frontman Mark McGrath kind of annoying? Sure, but a lot of that may just be how much I wish I had his looks (certainly his hair and his abs). And, yeah, his voice is kinda nasally, but on the other hand, I found out not too long ago that he lived, for at least a little while, in the same small Connecticut town as me at the same time. So, you know: represent, my brotha.

Same goes with (what I think was?) their last hit:



Again, catchy melody, decent enough lyrics, prominent acoustic guitar set against a cool beat: for a guy like me, what's not to like? (Answer: the silly Robbie Robertson-like conducting of the other band members during the lovely acappella intro. Just...no.)

And here's my point. Tonight it hit me that Sugar Ray's basic DNA can be found right here:



Oh, sure, sure. I know, I know. "Band influenced by Beatles" isn't exactly news. Even to be influenced by a former-Beatle's post-Beatles work isn't exactly earth-shattering. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about having been influenced by the Fabs, although clearly the band was. I'm not even talking about having McCartneyesque influences or bits and bobs. I'm talking about this specific post-Beatles Paul McCartney song being the basis for Sugar Ray's biggest hits.

It's all there, save the nasally voice. That's Sugar Ray's entire hit template, one sub-3:00 tossed-off ditty, later sped up slightly. I mean, jeez, listening to the section from about 1:42 until the end, it feels like Sugar Ray owes a certain British knight royalties.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Newbie's Live Dinosaur Jr Primer

So my old college roomie, Dave, is going to go see Dinosaur Jr in a few weeks. Once I was able to get past the blinding jealousy, I was filled with excitement for him, getting to see one of the great American bands of the 80s and 90s and, what the hell, this century so far, not to mention the absolute best band reunion ever—I don't think it's even close.

Dave knows some Dino Jr and obviously likes what he's heard 'cuz duh how could anyone not? But as he's not a huge, long-time fan, I looked at recent setlists and decided to put together a very brief primer for someone going to their first DJ show: just a handful of tunes he's likely to hear live, maybe a third of their total set.

Let's start with their current single, the delightfully crunchy yet as always ever so melodic "Watch the Corners," with the brief, sudden and (hitherto) unexpected acoustic interlude, from their new album, I Believe in Sky. 



They've also been playing the slower, grindier "See It On Your Side" a lot this tour, again from the new album.



Going back to their second album, they almost always play "The Lung." (My writing that, of course, means they're probably about to drop it from the set.)



But they go even further back, playing "Forget the Swan," off their 1985 debut, almost every time out, including an oddly large percentage of TV appearances.



Maybe their best-known song—other than their utter killer cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven"—is their sadly autobiographical yet utterly transcendent "Freak Scene."



'cuz when I need a friend it's still you. Now you're fired. See you in fifteen years. 

And that's about it. I could add the insanely catchy "Little Fury Things"—the very first Dinosaur Jr I ever heard and three seconds in I swear I knew I was going to be a fan for life—or "Out There" which, if not my very favorite DJ song ever is certainly Top 3. I could say to prepare to be amazed by the ferocity and dexterity of J Mascis's soloing or how he wears his heart on his sleeve in his lyrics yet can barely seem to be arsed to actually sing them, much less talk to the audience, or the bizarrely chordal bass playing of the much more outgoing Lou Barlow who never seems to have been told that the bass is traditionally plucked and not strummed. And Murph's drumming? How he seems to want to destroy his drum kit as quickly and violently as possible? His glorious tonsorial style? His overall diaphoretic appearance? In fact, I could go on for hours about Dino Jr, something Dave well knows.

But I won't. Instead, I'll just leave with one last, incomparable and utterly perfect pop song.



Good golly. I may need to borrow her cigarette.

Oh...and bring earplugs. Seriously, trust me on this. You're welcome in advance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

God Bless the Child

(NOTE: Out of respect for some of the people mentioned in this post, many of whom I haven't been in touch with for 15 years and wouldn't know how to get in touch with today, I have changed their names. Just FYI.)

About 15 or so years ago a friend of mine got me involved in doing some acting for a local theatre company. I hadn’t acted since high school and, well, I wasn’t exactly a star back then. In fact the last show I had been in before 1996 was 10 years earlier during my senior year of high school with “Anything Goes,” (Scott was in it too, only with a much bigger part) and I was literally in the very first scene and then didn’t appear again before the curtain call. It was not resumé material.

But for whatever reason my friend Kathy, a method-trained actor for whom theatre was not just a break from her job as a therapist but also an extension of it, thought I would enjoy acting and had a part for me to play. It was in an original show called “The Man Who Knew Trotsky,” a Jewish family systems drama written by a friend of ours, and I played a large role as a troubled 30-something Jewish man who was married to a junkie stripper and was having an affair with his estranged older brother’s girlfriend. No, it didn’t exactly hit close to home. I don't have an older brother. (Hee!)

Anyway doing the show was an eye-opener and for a little while I got very into doing plays. I did about five of them in an 18 month period before it was time to take a break. It was indeed therapeutic and fulfilling and felt extremely healthy.

But the last show I did with Kathy was a show she had been wanting to do for years and years, a show about the Vietnam War. It came to be called “Who By Fire,” named after the haunting Leonard Cohen incantation, and it was the story of Vietnam veterans by Vietnam veterans. That was the hook as well as Kathy’s biggest challenge; she wanted it to star Vietnam veterans who would then tell their own stories. Whether or not they had any formal acting training was irrelevant—Kathy would (and did) take care of that. But it was to be a series of vignettes, 15 to 20 in all, about their tales from combat and their struggles after the war. Many would be them telling their very personal stories, and some would have these vets telling the stories of others. It was powerful stuff.

Kathy was an amazing director and remains an amazing person, and she pulled it off. She found a few Vietnam veterans who were willing to tell their stories. Some were deeply, deeply opposed to the war now and were opposed to all wars and had a intense (and well-earned, it seemed) distrust of the government. All lived with the memories of the war and all were haunted by various ghosts. Kathy drew their stories out of them gently, lovingly, and shaped them into one hell of a formidable acting troupe.

One in particular—we'll call him Bob—was severely troubled by the war and struggled for years and years. Bob was (and I hope still is) a loud, music-loving, ultra-liberal, long-haired, wisecracking force of nature whose experiences in Vietnam scarred him in ways that non-military folks like myself can really never, ever imagine. But he was also a blast to work with and he took to the stage with an almost unnerving natural grace. Many of the stories that made up the play were his own, a couple of them funny but several absolutely terrifying.
 
At the time I was not yet 30, married but not yet a father, and I was to be both Kathy’s assistant director as well as play a role in many of these vignettes. In one, called “Kid” and based on a story from the book Nam by Mark Baker, I played a deeply troubled kid trying to live with what he saw in Vietnam. In another, Ernie (another vet) and I recited a very powerful poem written by a friend of mine called “A Word With a Hero,” written to a dead enemy soldier whom the author had killed, and containing this amazing bit of writing (which we recited at the base of a model of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall that served as the backdrop for the entire show):

Now the people who sent you there to meet me are gone
And the people who sent me there to meet you are gone…
…and everyone just wants to be friends.
Why didn’t they think of that first?
Before we met that day?

The most grueling part that I was in was also written by Bob, and was the story of a badly under-qualified 2nd Lieutenant (played by me) whose panic and terrible planning got a large number of Bob’s fellow soldiers killed one night. It remains the single hardest thing I have ever done in my relatively brief acting career, and it stays with me to this day.

“All these men are dead because of you!” he screamed toward the end of the scene, slamming my head into the stage while I turned into a puddle laying on the ground. “Because of YOU!”

Again, doing “Who By Fire” was one hell of an experience. But one of the coolest things Kathy did was ask Bob, Don and Ernie—the three main players and all of whom had served in Vietnam—to pick the soundtrack for the show. To score it. They dove into the task with glee, coming up with not just the stuff of the era you may expect (like the Doors “The Unknown Soldier” and Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”) but also with eclectic choices like Ray Charles’ iconic “America” and B.B. King’s epic “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But best of all is a song Bob chose for a skit called “C.O.” Which was a story told by Don about a conscientious objector that had been stationed in his unit. It was a matter-of-fact story about a man who would not fight and would not carry a weapon, yet who still served his country and served in Don’s unit. He was ostracized by many of them, but he still served, quietly and with a sense of purpose and focus and patriotism that Don made clear to us.

For this portion of the show Bob chose a piece of music that you maybe wouldn’t think would fit, but did so beautifully. Billie Holiday’s wondrous “God Bless the Child.”

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own


Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own

Money, you've got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you're gone, spending ends
They don't come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don't take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own
He just worry 'bout nothin'
Cause he's got his own

It’s a socially conscious song dating way back to 1941, about poverty and want and the exclusion of those who haven’t got, brought to life by Holiday's angelic voice. But it’s also about being alone and forgotten, and the ability some of us have to deal with that and still forge our way forward. It was written at least a decade before anybody ever heard of Vietnam, but the words seemed to apply 100 percent to this conscientious objector I had never met, yet seemed to know quite well by the time the five-minute vignette had ended.



Because in this specific context it came through as a song about personal dignity in the face of unthinkable adversity, of a sense of pride and perseverance permeating into the darkest reaches of the human soul. He and the other C.O.’s were alone out there, isolated, thousands of miles from home and even farther away from many of those they served with. Still, they carried on. They got their own.

God bless them.

Monday, October 15, 2012

John Denver

This past weekend was the 15th anniversary of John Denver’s death in a plane crash. I can still recall being home from work for the Columbus Day holiday and IMing (ah, those  AOL days!) with a friend about the news. It was jarring to learn, even though I really hadn’t thought about John Denver or his music in years and years.

But certain artists, like certain songs, are imprinted in you, as Scott recently wrote. And once the imprinting takes hold, it very seldom lets go.

[That sound you just heard was Scott doing a Victorian swoon and falling to the floor, unconscious. So stunned to learn that yes, I actually read his posts.]

But with John Denver there was certainly a connection that went way, way back to well before my musical tastes were even formed. It goes back to the early 70s and being barely 6 or 7 years old and hearing his music play in the house. Our house was a split level, with the TV room (we called it the family room) downstairs and the formal living room, sans TV but with stereo speakers, upstairs.

My dad had a pretty expansive stereo system back then and it was also housed in the family room—I recall it being seven different pieces, not including large speakers up in said living room and smaller speakers up on shelves in the family room. But there was a custom-made cherry-wood stereo cabinet that was the size of a couch and maybe four feet high, and in it it held my dad’s turntable, receiver, dual-casette deck and 8-track player (yes, Virginia, it was the 70s), along with separate equalizer and Dolby system components as well as an old reel-to-reel tape player my dad had from, I am guessing, dating back to the 60s. The cabinet also held his entire cassette, 8-track and record collection—there were easily a few hundred of them in there.

But with the speakers upstairs and down, and the general openness of the split level design, a record or tape being played on my dad’s stereo system would be heard throughout the entire house, even up in the bedrooms on the top floor. Easily. If music was on, everyone heard it.

And this is where John Denver (and others) crept into my subconscious, where he still resides today. My parents were big fans of his and his music would play throughout the house on Saturdays and Sundays, or maybe during family events or holidays. And sure, by the time I was 10 I was ready to never hear him again.

But as it is with music, time brings with it revisited and reclaimed appreciation. The same way we can hear, say, “Free Bird” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” today and recognize them for the sheer musical masterpieces they are (whereas when they played non-stop on FM radio 25 years ago we grew dead tired of them and wouldn’t have minded if we never heard them again), so too can the music of our childhood become desirable again.

The truth is John Denver was a fine songwriter with a very nice, clear voice and a wonderful sense of melody. He didn’t write angry or confrontational and he met no one's definition of dangerous or edgy, but his songs—particularly his love songs—always came through with a sharp sense of confidence, a singer-songwriter in command of his material. His was a decidedly American sound and, born out of the American folk movement as he was, it certainly sounds like it belongs to an American era of the past. But play the songs today and they interestingly enough do not sound dated. That’s impressive in itself.

Case in point—maybe his finest song.



Sure, it’s sentimental and makes a play for the heartstrings. But it’s also honest and on-point, and it possesses such a damn lovely guitar lead and gently moving vocal line that it’s easy to forgive any melodrama that may come with it. And it stays inside you for a long time—it did with me anyway. And the main reason? It’s not necessarily rooted in Pavlovian conditioning or even subdural trickery. It’s way simpler.

It stays with us because it’s good, sweet music. Period. That’s something Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. left as a lasting legacy. And imprinted, I am guessing, in many, many of us.

Thanks for that, sir. Greatly ‘preciated.

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's a Tragedy

So much bad music. So little time to mock it.

OK. As always I overstate. There is so, so much good music out there, in so many shapes and sizes and colors and forms.

But let’s face it—there’s some pretty bad dreck out there too. After all, John Mayer and ABBA are still working.

Again with the trashing of those two? Don’t you have better things to complain about, Dan?

Sure do. Because the type of song I am thinking about today was a particularly noxious genre, one that mercifully largely died out before either of us were born, yet still bubbles to the surface every once in awhile. Or at least did. Fortunately, with one remarkable exception (that to come later) the genre largely ceased to exist by the mid-70s.

I am talking about what was known as “The Tragedy Song.” Not songs about tragedies, mind you. Because there are too many wonderful tunes that deal with death and tragedy to really list here. But the list would certainly include “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “For a Dancer” and “Wreck on the Highway” and even “Ziggy Stardust,” songs that all deal with tragic events and examine them through a lens of anger, regret, fear and the rest of the honest emotional spectrum. Many other examples of really good, really sad songs abound.

That’s not what this is about.

The “tragedy song” was a fad at the turn of the 50s into the 60s, and involved a perfect little story of a perfect little couple so totally and hopeless in love with each other. Only then, one of them dies. End of story.

Only it’s so not. Because here’s the thing—in every one of these songs, and mercifully there weren’t that many of them, but just enough to make it a legit fad—the way in which the person dies is so mindbendingly horrific and irredeemably stupid that the listener really can’t help but laugh at the idiocy. And what’s more, the songs are cloaked in layers and layers of maudlin sap and whiny pap. We’re kinda glad the person is dead because it means the song will soon be done, and we wouldn’t mind the narrator joining the dead love.

My dad was in college during this era and he has confirmed that, yes, these songs were huge and, yes, these songs were ridiculous. He even has a very funny story of a piano player in his fraternity house who turned one of these songs into a rollicking barroom singalong, which always got the room howling. Good!

Case in point is the Mt. Rushmore of musical tragiporn, “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning in 1959. The couple is soooo very in love and soooo happy. Until one night when their car stalls on some railroad tracks, and a train is bearing down on them. They get out safely, only the girl goes running back and promptly gets crushed to death by the train barreling down the tracks. And why did she do something so stupid?

It really is kinda hard to believe.

What was it you were looking for?
That took your life that night?
They said they found my high school ring
Clutched in your fingers tight.

She ran back to get his high school ring. Which apparently meant so much to here she wasn’t even wearing it at the time!

Somewhere Charles Darwin heard this song—although only if he’s unfortunately in hell, which I doubt—and smiled, nodding. Survival of the fittest is working like a charm.

The song went to Number 1.

Then there was Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” a year later, which went Top 10, although not to the very top, mercifully. Once again the couple is deeply in love, happy and smiley and ready to live forever. Only Tommy, the hero (for lack of a much, much better term), can’t afford to buy her an expensive wedding ring ($1,000!).

So he does what any sensible young man would do. Finds a cheaper ring? No. Gets a job to pay for it? No. Takes out a loan? Buys it on layaway?  Borrows from his parents??? No, no and NO, Mitt!!!

No, he does what any sensible young man would do. He enters an auto race to win the $1,000 first prize. You really had to ask?

What happens? C’mon, you know what happens!

No one knows what happened that day
How his car overturned in flames
But as they pulled his body from the twisted wreck
In his dying breath they could hear him say
“Tell Laura I love her…”

Also? Tell her Tommy was an idiot and she’s probably way, way better off.

There's plenty more, unfortunately.

In “The Last Kiss” (covered stridently decades later by Pearl Jam) awful driving is again the cause, this time the girl dies because her lover somehow couldn’t see a stalled car in the road up ahead. More bad driving takes the guy in “The Leader of the Pack,” which actually is quite musically enjoyable in the hands of the Shangri La’s, if you overlook the general overwrought silliness of the lyrics.

In Pat Boone’s hideous “Moody River” he arrives for a date to find out that his girl has inexplicably killed herself. Although she was dating Pat Boone so, well, I repeat myself. And in “Patches,” a girl named Patches kills herself and leaves her lover so very sad that Patches is dead. And gives no real reason. Although it possibly had something to do with her parents naming her “Patches.”

Again, it’s not that these are sad songs. Tons of amazing sad songs have been written over the years, ones that stay with us forever. It’s that these are melodramatic little soap operas, designed to lose us in the all-encompassing crippling gloom and not just tug at our heartstrings but to freaking tear the suckers out of our chest. They come with all the subtlety of a Yanni keyboard solo, and they are obnoxious in their efforts.

Fortunately, the trend began to die out by the mid-60s; maybe because the Kennedy assassinations and Vietnam War gave us real things to worry about. Or more likely just because the trend had run its course, just like disco did in the late 70s and glam metal would in the late 80s. (Both of which are preferable musical genres, BTW—yes, even glam metal).

But every once in a while the tragedy song would rear its ugly head again. Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” in 1968 may very seriously be the Worst. Song. Ever. So misogynistic and manipulative and craven in literally every little awful corner of it. “Seasons in the Sun” in the early 70s is so whiny and intentional it leaves us openly rooting for the guy to die by the end of the song. And “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” well, it's to anti-war songs what Karl Rove is to hip hop.

But, and here comes the big twist I have so clearly telegraphed, there is one song—released in 1992—that returns all of the conventions and pitfalls that once shaped the classic “tragedy song” motif. And actually works well.



Richard Thompson delivers beautifully with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” because the song is what all those other songs are not—unsentimental, unflinching and unapologetic. James the Bad Guy knows he’s a bad guy and doesn’t care, much like the narrator of Eddie Cochrane’s legendary “Summertime Blues” (in my estimation the first true punk rock song) knows he’s a lazy little bastard but still doesn’t care.

What’s more, James’ love—the lovely Red Molly—knows he’s a bad boy and doesn’t try to change him. She accepts him and his fate, come what may. Plus she gets a really cool bike out of it, something that the corpse girl in “Teen Angel” was never able to promise her fella!

And then of course there is that mesmerizing acoustic guitar work that Richard tears through, so intricate and precise. It’s as good as an acoustic guitar can sound; so much harder than most ballads, yet still soft enough to create a lovely and singable tune.

So thank you, Mr. Thompson, for bringing a forgettable motif back for one final go-round, only finally doing it right.  No sap, no pap, no tears and very, very little human idiocy. Plenty of bad behavior, sure, but at least it’s acknowledged.

Let’s just hope Red Molly wasn’t killed by a runaway train on her way home. Or died in a hastily arranged motocross race.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bastards of Young

With the news that Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson got together and recorded an EP to raise money for their fellow ex-Replacement Slim Dunlop's medical bills, old, vintage 'Mats videos were posted like, well, like a Replacements semi-reunion was in the offing.

The problem is that unlike their friends and peers R.E.M., there's very little professionally-shot live footage available of the 'Mats in their prime. There's a fair amount of amateur stuff but it's...well, it's even more hit-or-miss than the Replacements were live.

Here's an exception. Much, maybe all, of this 1989 concert seems to be up on YouTube, and although it's from a hand-held camera, it's certainly watchable and the sound is surprisingly good. But it's...well, it's live Replacements. Which means for a lot of it they seem to be bored, listless, even when playing then-new songs like "I'll Be You" or covering killer tunes like "Another Girl, Another Planet."

But then there's this. Rather than getting bored halfway through—or even earlier—the band picks up speed as they go, coming out of Slim's solo like rabid gorillas, tearing through the last verse and final chorus. Tommy appears coolly ecstatic in his Kinks outfit, Chris Mars is pounding away behind them vengefully and at one point it looks like Westerberg's playing his guitar so hard he breaks a string, and rips it away before going right back to punching the chords again.



And you watch this and you just think...dammit. If only. If only. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

God's Comic

STORY IDEA! Quick, Scott, take this down!

(Scott shakes head, backs away, runs out door and across parking lot)

Fine, I'll do it myself.

Anyway, the story. God is fed up…and seeking revenge!

That’s right, this is a story of God hisself (or herself, but for arguments sake and to true everything up with what comes later, let’s say hisself. Or Hisself, I guess) looking to get back at all the peeps who have royally fucked up His world.

Like for realsies get back at them. Not just frogs and boils and all that jive that has totes been done before. No, this God is comin’ hard for their souls, stalking all of us ungrateful bastards like a steroided up Omar Little of The Wire.

Fun idea, no?

Even more fun. God in this story isn’t replete with the flowing beards and the glowing and the choruses belting out “Hallelujah” behind him. He won’t even look like George Burns. Or Alannis Morissette. (I’ll leave Morgan Freeman out of this one, because we all know if He is in fact a He, he looks just like Morgan Freeman.) But, no, this God will be kinda tacky. Like waterbed tacky. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber-listening tacky. The kinda Guy who enjoys reclining with a trashy paperback and drinking off-brand cola. It’ll almost be like the Real Househusbands of Heaven. Or mayhap the Republican National Convention.

So that’s what God will look like in this story.

And what’s His plan? How will he get back at the world for all of the upfuckery?

Oh, it’s a sinisterly delicious idea. He appoints a gatekeeper—St. Peter is getting far too old anyway at this point—someone who will have 100% of the authority over Whose Soul Gets Saved and Whose Soul Gets Sent to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks. One dude will own all that awesome power. Just one. Forever.

Only. Only it won’t be no Captain America-Steve Rogers-flag-saluting-squared-jawed-church-every-Sunday-Golden-Boy motherlover, neither. No, God’s Self-appointed sole arbiter of Who Gets Saved is going to be a lousy, shiftless, lazy boor of a drunk, the worst souse you ever stepped over in the gutter on your way to pee against an alley wall. This disgusting, drooling little waste of human oxygen is going to be God’s Bad Cop. And if you want to get into heaven, you gotta get through him.

Kind of a crazy little story, no? But isn’t it kinda one you may want to hear? Or at least have someone try and tell it?

Dear DanWill you get to the point please? Love, Dan.

Well, you’re in luck. Because this story exists, in songform. And it only takes a little more than five minutes to tell, with an acoustic shuffle that ticks along like a drunk taking a stroll in the park, backed with a glompy brass band and a fun little snare to keep it on track. And it works magnificently.

Because it was written by Elvis Costello, as part of his deliriously perverse 1989 solo effort Spike.

It’s called “God’s Comic.” And in a canon of exemplary material he’s been churning out since 1977, it still stands out as one of his finest hours.

Here. Have a listen. And don’t worry; it’s not what really awaits us on The Other Side.

(We think.)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sweet Dreams/Blue Monday/I Feel Love

Good Lord. Would that this had actually happened: Donna Summer fronting New Order would have been maybe the greatest supergroup of all time.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Imprinting

Imprinting is a funny thing. When DT and I were in high school, every year there'd be ducks that would come and nest and lay eggs and raise little ducklings. You'd be trying and failing to concentrate on, say, trigonometry because there'd be a momma duck leading a row of ducklings around the courtyard right outside the window and how on earth could trig compete with that?

(Also, you lost all respect for your very nice trig teacher when she mentioned that René Descartes was not only a mathematician but a philosopher and his most famous insight was the saying, "I exist, therefore I am," and you looked around the room, slack-jawed, and saw all the other students writing that down and wondered if you were the only one who'd watched Monty Python sing "The Philosopher Song" and how was it possible that Monty Python were a more reliable teacher than the very nice woman who was paid to teach trig at your high school and yet the evidence was inescapable?)

Every year there were strict warnings, more from the fellow students than the teachers or administrators, not to touch the ducklings, no matter how adorbs they were, as if you did, the mother would from that point on refuse to have anything to do with the duckling, as the slightest touch of a human would embue it with the human's stench forever and ever and it would die a horrible death of starvation and neglect. Years later, I was told that such a horrific scenario was not, in fact, true. Be that as it may, the result was that no one, as far as I know, ever did actually touch one of the ducklings. (Although, yes, it is possible one young jackass jumped out the chemistry window and tried to catch a duckling but found the little bugger too fast and yes he was kinda relieved to fail at least that one time.)

We've all seen the videos of ducklings or goslings or whatever having imprinted upon a creature that's clearly not its mother—another kind of bird or a deer or a person or a scooter or whatever. It's a real thing, something which isn't news to most music fans.



Hey! Hey! DT! Check it out! A new live Bruce album! Yeah, another one! I know! Isn't it great?! Let's go get! Oh, wait, I think it's over here! No, no, it's over here! It's over there now!

What we first liked or at least first heard tends to have a long and lasting impression upon us. Even if we later grow out of our, say, Barry Manilow phase, there's often a lingering fondness for his fluffy cheese (ew) that never quite dissipates entirely. Or we find ourselves so sick of and turned off by an early love (hello, Doors!) that you very much run in the other direction. Either way, those earliest impressions make a big impact on us and our development.

Which can make objective listening a difficult thing. A good friend, hearing some later Elvis alternate takes without the huge backing choirs and strings, wondered why he always preferred hearing songs stripped down. Part of it, maybe most of it, I think, is the simple novelty factor of hearing something as familiar as "Suspicious Minds" in a new way (and also too, admittedly, much as I love the official release, more and clearer Elvis does tend to be better Elvis to my ears).



This is why I often prefer hearing R.E.M.'s "Finest Worksong" in one of its alternate mixes, with the cool guitar intro and horns. Meaning, if we only knew the barebones version of "In the Ghetto," would the full orchestral version be spine-tingling or would it seem hopelessly overwrought? (I love both but if forced to choose would instead eat a downy little baby duckling.)



And so "Talent Show" by the Replacements. I loved the official release from the first and all these decades later still love it. But it's hard to deny the power of the original studio demo. The question I can't answer is, if this was the version I'd imprinted on, would the official version seem terribly soft or would it feel as though a rough masterpiece had finally been brought to completion.


As the boys themselves said on the previous album, I don't know. I understand why they did what they did and I think, conventional wisdom be damned, it was a fine idea and done quite well indeed, commercial failure aside. But it's hard not to feel something was lost in the process and impossible to know how I'd feel if the order had been reversed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Small Blue Thing

Suzanne takes your hand. And she leads you to the river.

OK, maybe Leonard Cohen's Suzanne did that, but not Suzanne Vega. Though the lovely and brilliant Ms. Vega does take us somewhere with her quirky and exquisitely crafted songs and stories. And that somewhere is always impressive, whether she's wearing rags and feathers or not.

Scott and I have talked a lot about Suzanne over the years, and admittedly he knows infinitely more about her than I do. But I still love her stuff, her voice, her meticulous attention to every word she sings. And on more than a few days I put on one of her albums and soak in the wondrous artistry.

Today was one of those days, on the drive into work. And the album was her first. And the song that stood out today was "Small Blue Thing," the musical equivalent of a perfect little piece of blown glass. Delicate, singular, complete.

Today I am a small blue thing
Like a marble, or an eye
With my knees against my mouth
I am perfectly round
I am watching you

I am cold against your skin
You are perfectly reflected
I am lost inside your pocket
I am lost against
Your fingers


Very few people can write lyrics like this - it's like an extended haiku, deeply personal and oblique and laden with sharp, focused images. And what I admire is how confident Suzanne was that they would work as lyrics, how wonderfully they would play against bell-clear guitar notes and how they would spring to life in her wholly unique voice.

Here's a terrific live performance that really does demonstrate the fragile, specific beauty of "Small Blue Thing."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Moonlight Feels Right

Indeed it does.

I make no apologies for my unfettered love of cheesy 70s Top 40. I was a kid, so there's the sentimental element, and surely (hopefully) that's the strongest pull, but I'm also, at heart, mainly about melody, and that's something that, for better or worse, it pretty much all had in spades. And lyrics have never been my primary concern, which is very, very important when listening to 70s Top 40. What's more, a surprisingly large bit of it was surprisingly funky and, I mean, come on: melody and funk? I'm so there.

This is many things but funky is not one of them—not unless you're talking about the fashion sense.



Oh 70s. 70s 70s 70s. Just...no. No. No.

GOD. Those little laughs at the very end of each verse is so stalker who wants to get caught...but not. quite. yet.

Never mind the smooshing of the word "Chesapeake" into two syllables.

Never mind the line
I finally made a tricky french connection
You winked and gave me your ok
Never mind the line
The eastern moon looks ready for a wet kiss to make the tide rise again
You could even never mind the line
I guess you know I'm givin' you a warnin' 'cause me and moon are itchin' to play
Although the cumulative effect of all that greasy sleaze is to make the guy seem slightly less like a low-grade stalker and slightly more like an actual active serial killer at work.

But just as much so...the look. That just was not a good look, mister singer man. It's not shocking, when viewing this, that the band didn't go on to another dozen smash hits.

On the other hand, the singer's look is certainly way better than the marimba player who solos at 1:47—I think I caught something from merely watching him. I mean, what are the odds he didn't drive a van with an airbrushed painting on the side, shag carpet inside, and a sign saying "If the van's a-rockin', don't come a-knockin'!"?

Having said that, he really does rock that marimba pretty hard, I must admit. But I think I counted three keyboard players in the band, in addition to the marimba master, and I must say, that seems like maybe just the eensiest bit of overkill, considering what other bands, such as, say, The Band, were able to do with a mere two.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Broken Chairs

I was late to the Built to Spill party, as I've been late to pretty much every party since about 1990. But the first time I played Keep It Like a Secret, having little idea what it or they would sound like, we clicked instantly. They're one of those bands that I think I would have bonded with down to the roots of my soul (do souls have roots?) had I first heard them when I was a teenager.

But "The Plan" grabbed me from the first, and then "Center of the Universe" absolutely sealed the deal. The rest of the album veers from the merely wonderful to the absolutely fantastic. But it's the final song, "Broken Chairs," to which I return again and again. The opening is cool enough—a couple Hendrix-like licks followed by a sort of blues rock jam—but gives little hint of the maelstrom to come.

It's nearly a minute before the real song begins, although there's no way to know that the intro is just that, merely a cold opening. But when it moves into the minor and songwriter Doug Martsch starts singing it crosses into an entirely new place. A verse, some guitar and then, oddly, whistling.

And that's it. No chorus, no bridge, no breakdown, no turnaround. The whole thing just repeats, essentially treading this same ground musically again. Lyrically, it's...I don't know even know, as mere snippets of words appear out of the murk, evocative phrases such as "my head's a dictionary of long spring days and the speech of crows who themselves are mirrors of apprehensions" or, the only really clear phrase, repeated several times, "well, all right."

But that's not the point—or maybe "well, all right" is the point. The point is howling guitars howling over a circular chord structure played by howling guitars which speak more eloquently than any but the very finest lyrics are likely to be able to. And, well, that's very all right indeed.



In the fallen sun...well, all right. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Sad, Strange Case of John Fogerty v Neil Young

So I’m watching Hard Rock Calling 2012 and I’m hit all over again, as I am not infrequently, with the thought: how great is John Fogerty?

I mean, pretty much any way you slice it, the guy was the real deal, the complete package: phenomenal writer, great guitarist, distinctive and effective singer, rock-solid producer, and prolific as few others have ever been. How great was John Fogerty? So great that this boy from the Bay Area made most folks really and truly believe, without even trying, that he was from the deep south. How great was John Fogerty? This great: he not only wrote a song with the word “chooglin’” in the title, he then went on to sing the word in the song nearly seventeen thousand times—and he almost made it work, even. Oh, and in his spare time, he casually invented the grunge look 20+ years ahead of schedule.



Creedence Clearwater Revival released a stunning seven albums in under four years—but even that’s deceptive, as the final album was a thrown together mess released after what was, for them, a crazy long quiet period of nearly a year and a half. In other words, just looking at what could be considered their middle period, CCR released great five albums in two years. That is, to quote the great Luke Skywalker, highly unlikely. And yet.

From CCR’s first (of three!) 1969 album, Bayou Country, with “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou” to their second 1970 album, Pendulum, with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” Creedence’s run is virtually unsurpassed. And with Fogerty writing and singing the overwhelming majority of the band’s output—as well as producing, playing the guitar solos, the keyboards and even the damn horns—this was very clearly his band.

And then it was over. CCR broke up acrimoniously in 1972. John Fogerty released a pair of solo albums that were pleasant enough and then he disappeared, reemerging with a new album in the 80s, a record that at the time seemed like a glorious return to form but which hasn’t aged terribly well. He’s released a few things since then, but nothing that can even approach his glory days.

And it’s an incredible shame. A shame of almost unparalleled proportions in rock and roll.

Is that overstating the situation a bit? Well, let’s put it like this: consider another rocker, almost exactly the same age and who came up at very nearly the same time.

In a bit over five years, from very late 1966 to early 1972, Neil Young released seven albums: three with Buffalo Springfield, ranging from okay to great—and on which he wrote only about a third of the songs—and then four solo records, ranging from good to great. Like Fogerty, Young wrote, sang, played and produced. Unlike Fogerty, Young was in not one, but two bands, and left both because he was too strong a presence and too determined to do his own thing to fit comfortably within the confines of a band, an organization which by design requires a certain amount of compromise.

Think about the solo career Neil Young has had. From the commercial success of Harvest to the dark night of the soul that is Tonight’s the Night. From the apocalyptic scenarios of On the Beach to the gentle country-rock of Comes a Time. From the gutbusting crunch of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to the more subtle explorations of After the Gold Rush. From the I’ll-see-your-punk-and-raise-you blistering of Rust Never Sleeps to the live exploration of his back catalog with the same focus of Live Rust. And that’s just his output of the 70s.


Since then he’s gone on to release records which, improbably yet really do, equal his best work, albums such as Freedom and Ragged Glory. He’s had more than his fair share of failures, but to be sure, but most of those came from a surfeit of ambition, and if you’re reading Reason to Believe, there’s a better than even chance you’re as big a fan of the noble failure as we are.

So. Two guys with similar musical background come up at the same time with the same skill set and find roughly equal commercial and critical and artistic success. One of them goes on to hit even higher heights while the other just sorta…fades away. Sure, he still tours and he still sounds pretty darn good and from time to time he'll even release a new album. But compared to his initial four year burst of supernova-like power, well, to misquote the great Stevie Wonder, he hasn’t done nothin’.

That’s harsh but it’s also unfortunately true. And don’t get me wrong: anyone who created “Green River,” “Fortunate Son,” “Bad Moon Risin'” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” can rest with complete and total comfort on any laurels they want—that’s an oeuvre right there of which anyone could and should be insanely proud, the kind of catalog most very good artists would sell their souls to be able to claim after a lifetime of hard work. That Fogerty did that at all means he’s earned every right to consider his work here done. That he’s got twice that many again that could easily have been named is just mind-boggling.

And yet clearly he himself doesn’t feel that way, otherwise he wouldn’t have released as many solo albums as he has over the years. He’s tried to equal or top his best work, and good on 'im for doing so. And the result is that he hasn’t even made it out of base camp, much less summited again the very peaks he used to scale so effortlessly.

Why not? Who can say? People are complex and people are a mystery. Some just burn incredibly brightly and then are done, like (to switch to sports) Bo Jackson. Some artists are good but have one truly monumental work in them, like Roger Maris in 1961. (Hello Matthew Sweet!) Sometimes artists just get on a hot streak and, as they say, the baseball looks like it’s the size of a basketball. Fogerty has said that the legal issues around CCR, both with the label and his former bandmates, caused enormous problems for him, emotionally, and surely that’s much, maybe even most, of it. It also seems as though Fogerty had a sort of hip-hop like immediacy to his stuff, reacting to and commenting on his times, and once he hopped off that merry-go-round, he found it hard, if not impossible, to get back in the groove—another thing he has in common with even the greatest of athletes and coaches.

But what I think it comes down to is this: the auteur theory started to gain traction in the late 60s with the rock press. And it certainly does seem to make more sense in rock and roll than in film, at least to me. Someone like John Fogerty or Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg writes, sings, plays and produces their own music and at least two of those three artists have produced full band recordings all on their own, playing all the instruments themselves, with some terrific results.

But judged in the context of their careers, those recordings can be seen for what they are: wonderful anomalies. Because rock and roll is about many things—for a pleasant diversion, google “rock and roll is about” and see just how many things it’s apparently about—but two of those things come down to the seemingly mutually exclusive but actually inherently intertwined individualism and community. It’s about finding a community where you can be yourself, and finding people who can help you find yourself and your own voice, and who care what you have to say.

If a great artist like Fogerty or Young 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 Stewart Copeland or Manu Katché. 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.

That’s what the rest of Creedence Clearwater Revival did for John Fogerty. They gave him a sounding board, a launching pad from which he could and did for a brief while go almost anywhere: blues, country, R&B, pure rock and roll. And without them, it turns out, he was lost.

Neil Young was never part of a band anywhere near as long as CCR was together—Fogerty met Stu Cook and Doug Clifford when they were all in high school, nine years before their debut album finally came out—bouncing from group to group as a kid. And Buffalo Springfield was only together for just over two years, and even then the band was less a reality than a creatively fruitful business arrangement. Instead, Young has always been a solo artist, albeit one who sometimes finds it interesting to be part of a theoretical group dynamic.

Yet even Neil Young, classic solo artist, has found himself drawn back, again and again, to the somewhat ham-handed ragged glory that is Crazy Horse. Why? Because while there’s never the slightest doubt who the creative shot caller is, Young understands that there are certain times you need the magic brought about by the bone deep familiarity playing with certain musicians over a long period of time will generate, and that for the most part there’s no equal for that spark when it comes to creating the very greatest rock and roll. No one is ever going to confuse Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot with the late, great Donald "Duck" Dunn, with whom Young also worked, or Jack Bruce or Stanley Clarke or Paul McCartney. And Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina is almost certainly the least good drummer Neil Young ever chose to record with, by a very, very long shot. And yet ol' Neil just can't quit them—time and again he goes back to them, to these less than technically stunning musicians, clearly recognizing that they give him something no one else can or does, and that he at least sometimes needs in order to create the very best music he can, to bring out the best he has to offer and make it sound just the way he hears it in his head.



Creedence Clearwater Revival was a great band. Stu Cook, Doug Clifford and Tom Fogerty were a great rhythm section—an usual rhythm section, but a great one. But more than that, they were the right rhythm section, the right band, the perfect foundation for Fogerty to build his masterpieces upon, and the spark that helped Fogerty conceive those masterpieces in the first place. That’s why John Fogerty created a remarkably large, diverse and powerful body of work in the brief period Creedence Clearwater Revival was a recording band, and why in the thirty years since Fogerty's done nothing that even approaches it, not even close. Because clichéd though it may be, it's nonetheless true: sometimes the whole is ever so much greater than the sum of the parts and because, as Pete Townshend wrote but didn’t sing, sometimes it really is the singer and not the song—and that applies to the band as well.