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 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. 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 unusual 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.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paul Westerberg—10 Examples

As in, 10 examples of why he was the finest songwriter of his generation. Someone who could be sad while being funny, lonely while being whimsical, and achingly poetic without being sappy or trite.

While he wrote many terrific songs as a solo artist and continues to do so ("Dyslexic Heart," "First Glimmer," "Century," "These Are the Days" and "It's a Wonderful Lie" being some of my favorites), for the sake of simplicity...and a touch of laziness...I am limiting this 10-song sampling to his days with the Replacements.

So here we go. Ten examples of why there will never be another Paul Westerberg.

10) "I'll write you a letter tomorrow; tonight I can't hold a pen."—"Can't Hardly Wait" (Pleased to Meet Me, 1986) Such a terribly lonesome line, we can hear in Paul's voice how difficult it is to get this idea across. "Can't Hardly Wait" is an easy candidate for being among the greatest Replacements songs ever; this opening line is sorrowfully and graphically perfect.

9) "There was liquor on my breath, you were on my mind.""If Only You Were Lonely" (B-Side to "I'm In Trouble," 1981) The first time they ever slowed it down; a B-side to a single that went nowhere. This acoustic country shuffle is probably the first tale of longing in a career that would come to be defined by longing, fear and emptiness. Paul's wordplay genius surfaces for the first time here, blending in nicely (if not ironically) with the alcohol-fueled problems that played such a large part in the band never exploding into the mainstream as they should have.

8) "Staying out late tonight, won't be getting sleep. Giving out their word, 'cause it's all that they won't keep.""Color Me Impressed" (Hootenanny, 1983) There is some serious prose at work here, what with the word-trickery and turning a well-worn idiom appropriately on its head. It played into the band's nihilism, as if to say, "Sure, I can tell you what you want to hear, but I won't mean a word of it."

7) "If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side at the swinging party down the line.""Swinging Party" (Tim, 1985) As much as any, I always hear this song as the band's statement of purpose in stepping away from their earlier, more reckless incarnation and into the post-punk world they would shape and reign over. The move also coincided with Bob Stinson's being sacked from the band. But this gorgeous ballad lays out the legendary fear that so often stood in the band's way, embraces it, and swings back and forth with it, over and over again.

6) "How young are you? How old am I? Let's count the rings around my eyes.""I Will Dare" (Let It Be, 1984) The band's first anthem, and one of the best. More word games and tuneful cheekiness, this song (and album) announced to the world that music was changing, courtesy of this foursome from Minneapolis.

5) "You're still in love with nobody. And I used to be nobody...I ain't anymore.""Nobody" (All Shook Down, 1990) Technically this could maybe even be called a solo track, because so little of All Shook Down involved the entire band. But this mid-tempo rocker, a lamentation on watching an old flame take to the altar with someone else, pours straight from his jagged heart.

4) "Everything you dream of is right front of you. And everything is a lie.""Unsatisfied" (Let It Be, 1984) This song is so sad and so lost that it would probably even leave Leonard Cohen bummed out. But Paul channels his inner Leonard as well as his inner Lennon in this aching cry of honest defeat, the song that very well may be (as Scott suggests) the long-awaited answer to the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction." Not to mention the kind of lyric that wouldn't seem out of place in a Nirvana song a few years later.

3) "Well, you wish upon a star that turns into a plane.""Valentine"(Pleased to Meet Me, 1986) How great is this line? Seriously. It's wry and it's dour and it's just so very, very Paul Westerberg. A remarkably underrated track in the middle of a great album, this opening line gets things moving in inimitable fashion.

2) "A dream too tired to come true, I'm left a rebel without a clue.""I'll Be You" (Don't Tell a Soul, 1988) He said it first. Many would come to use "rebel without a clue" in the years that followed (including, unfortunately, 1989 tourmate Tom Petty) but it's all Paul's. And this knockout little couplet sums up the very best of the kind of wordsiness constantly kicking around inside Paul's head. Gotta dream? Nah, too tiredI'd rather just rebel. Against what? No idea. Ladies and gentlemen, The Replacements.

1)"If I don't see you there for a long, long while, I'll try to find you left of the dial.""Left of the Dial" (Tim, 1985) The very essence of the band, and everything that made them great and seminal and everything that held them back from the bigtime, can be found here, in very likely the finest song Paul ever wrote. It was inspired out of, no surprise, a sad storydriving on tour with the band in the early days and hearing a friend's song come on the radio, only to have the station fade before the song finished. "Left of the Dial" became an anthem for the college rock genre, a reassurance that somewhere out there was a place for the music we like, the music that moves us. "Which side are you on?" Paul asks over and over again. Whatever the answer may be, we always know where we can find the Replacements. On the left side of the dial, playing their hearts out. For us.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Enter Sandman

There are many things that make Metallica not only one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time, but one of the greatest bands period. Their versatility and willingness to take chances—even though their track record is far from spotless—is but one of them. So radically recasting perhaps their best known song in front of tens of thousands of fans is, no two ways about it, ballsy.

Hats off, gentlemen. Well done.

I tuck you in...warm within...take my hand...we're off to never never-land 
So sweet.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

She's Gone

Even without the restrictions of MTV to push against, this very early Hall & Oates video is shockingly challenging, frighteningly explicit and almost maniacally intense.

The horrific realism of the Satanic representation is enough to make anyone a believer.