Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Here's hoping you and yours get to play in any and all reindeer games you desire, sans the prejudiced wait.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Run Run Rudolph

If this doesn't inspire visions of sugarplums, well, the absinthe probably will.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

All Along the Watchtower


Given the enormous amount of competition, it's not easy to even be in the running for fiercest version of "All Along the Watchtower" ever...and yet dadgum if Neil Young and Pearl Jam don't do a pretty swell job of grabbing one of those coveted spots.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Not Ready to Make Nice

Reading all these enthusiastic defenses of the Duck Dynasty guy's right to free speech—true yet, impressively, mistaken at the same time—makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about how pretty much that exact same demographic so vigorously and tireless defended the free speech rights of the Dixie Chicks back when those mouthy lil' gals had the temerity, the cheek, the unmitigated gall to mildly criticize the most powerful man in the world.

Good times.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I'm really digging the new Republic of Wolves album, No Matter How Narrow. It sounds like...I can't quite get it. Definitely like an American XTC, but there's someone else in there that's so familiar but which I can't quite place. Doesn't matter. They sound like them and they sound great.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Subjectivity and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

So Peter Gabriel, KISS and Nirvana got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Say, which of these things is not like the other?

(hint hint: of the three artists mentioned,
these two guys are the ones who have
a lot in common)
When a band as polarizing as KISS still is—after all these years—getting discussed, the conversation can get heated. They've got a lot of fans, and generally speaking, if you're a fan of KISS, you're a pretty hardcore fan: in my experience, there aren't a lot of people who like KISS a lot but don't love 'em. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.

I don't quote a Broadway musical offhandedly. While I'm glad that the Hall is taking fan fanaticism seriously, there's an obvious downside to this, as well. To wit: KISS's 2012 album, Monster, sold 59,000 copies its first week. Justin Bieber's 2012 album, Believe, sold 374,000 copies its first week. Would KISS's fans agree that the Beeb belongs in the Hall, since he's so wildly popular? How about if his popularity—which seems like it's about to collapse any second now—keeps up for another 25 years? Or, more accurately, what if in a few more years his popularity plummets to a fraction of its current state for a decade and a half and then, to everyone's shock, his comeback tour is a monster success, and he's able to more or less ride that goodwill for another decade? How's about then?

I'm guessing most KISS fans wouldn't think so. (I'm also guessing Gene Simmons himself would say the Beebs should indeed get in.)

Popularity is a non-inconsequential factor for inclusion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can't analyze the importance of Elvis Presley or the Beatles or Michael Jackson or Madonna or U2 without talking about their popularity: it's a big and important part of their legacy. But obviously that's not the only factor, or the Velvet Underground wouldn't be in the Hall, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without the Velvet Underground wouldn't be an entity worthy of serious discussion.

So that brings up the issue of quality. Of good versus not good. Or even good versus bad.

Ah, but when such issues are raised, the "s" word is rarely far behind: subjectivity. "It's all subjective," you'll hear. "What's good to one person may be considered bad by another and so on and so forth."

Which is, of course, absolutely true. And...well...unfortunately, somewhat facile. Even when said in good faith—and for what it's worth, I think it's nearly always said in good faith—it's, if not a strawman, at the very least distracting, adroitly leading attention away from the heart of the matter.

(Whether something is facile or not is, of course, also a matter of complete subjectivity.)

Look, here's the thing: it's the rare person who doesn't believe that some works of art are inherently good or bad. You might like stuff you or others think is bad (hello, Osmonds), and you might dislike things you concede are good (hey, Ginger Baker). But to claim that it's all subjective is to believe that a random Hallmark greeting card is the artistic equal of King Lear, or that "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" is the artistic equal of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, or any given Cathy cartoon strip is the artistic equal of the Sistine Chapel. And I've yet to meet the person who would make those arguments in good faith.

So. There are standards. There is good art and there is bad art—and just because, incidentally, something is bad doesn't mean it's not art. "Lick It Up" may suck, but Gene Simmons' own claim to the contrary, it is art. It's just terrible art.

But if there are standards, what are they? Well...that's where things get a bit trickier, at least for me. I'm not saying, not for a moment, that I'm The Ultimate Arbiter or What Is or Is Not Good™. Far from it. I'm not claiming my personal opinions are right and all others are wrong. I'm simply saying that there is a difference in quality between, say, The Beatles and Nickleback, or between Billy Ray Cyrus and Willie Nelson. And while I'm not the naïve romantic I was in my youth, I also believe there's such a thing as art and that while it often (always?) crosses paths with commerce, that they are not inherently the same thing.

So let's take a look at what the Hall itself says about such matters:
To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.  
We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.
Unquestionable musical excellence. Oy. If we accept that there is such a thing as a way to judge unquestionable musical excellence, that'd seem to be an unleapable hurdle for KISS right there. Unquestionable musical capability, sure. They can all play. And to their credit, they seem to rehearse with the kind of obsession rarely seen outside a James Brown band. Paul Stanley's an okay singer, from a technical point-of-view, and Peter Criss actually had a surprisingly soulful voice. But he was and is just a remarkably pedestrian drummer of the sort rarely seen outside the original Eagles. And obviously neither of the others are much of a singer, although Ace Frehley was certainly a fine guitarist, if well short of the Page/Beck level to which he was often and absurdly compared back in the day. (Oh, 1970s, you were a cute 'un.)

As to the second set of criteria, only "influence" and "length of career" would seem to apply, and unfortunately, neither are terribly convincing. Sure, they've been popular for a long time, and good for them, since hard work accounts for much of that. (Nostalgia, knowing what the fans want and willingness to give it to them, and good timing account for most of the rest.)  As for influence, musically they mainly influenced subsequent hair metal bands, with their inspired combining of pop progressions, cadences and melodies out of the ABBA songbook with ostensible metal trappings. So a song that disco-era Rod Stewart could have written is played with explosions and a demon spitting blood and breathing fire. I guess that's an innovation? Unfortunately, it mainly inspired the likes of Poison and Ratt and Warrant and Skid Row.

Perhaps their biggest influence on subsequent artists was their stage show, and that's nearly unimpeachable. Except that all they did was take what Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls had already done and simplify and magnify it for the masses. Which, hey: David Bowie's just warmed over Lou Reed with some Eno and some Philly soul thrown in, right? The difference is that 1) no, he's not but 2) even if he were, he created some brilliant art out of those influences. KISS created enormous bank accounts. Meanwhile, P-Funk were mining more or less the same territory on their stage shows. The difference being, of course, that P-Funk were monster musicians creating some indelible art. So it could have been done. It just wasn't.

Which is why I quoted West Side Story up above. Because more than anything else, KISS is like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. They both borrow the appurtenances of rock and roll but are really Broadway productions: tons of spectacle, sing-song melodies and the same amounts of professionalism and improvisation. You want a show? You came to the right place. As Gene Simmons said:
"Kiss is a Fourth of July fireworks show with a backbeat."
And what higher praise? What could possibly be more rock and roll than that?

Simmons also said:
"Anyone who tells you they got into rock n' roll for reasons other than girls, fame and money is full of shit." 
Thus, I think, revealing more about himself than he meant to. Not that he's ever hidden his ambitions—more than he's unable to comprehend that anyone else might ever have different motivations. If they claim they do? They're clearly lying. No one could ever transcend the most base desires.

He also said:
"The root of all evil isn't money; rather, it's not having enough money."
"Whoever said 'Money can't buy you love or joy' obviously was not making enough money."
which must have just made his family feel swell.

And most telling of all, he said:
"If someone offered me a billion dollars for the Kiss brand I wouldn't sell. We now have 3,000 licensed products. There's no limit to what Kiss can do. We have everything from condoms to caskets—we'll get you coming and we'll get you going."
Yeah. Hey, did you notice what he didn't mention there? That's right: create a great album.

Look. I liked KISS when I was a kid. In fact, for a while there, I pretty much loved 'em. In college, my band, Übërsphïnctër, covered a couple KISS songs and we were only pretending to be ironic—in reality, it was a hoot. And even now I have some residual fondness for them and can listen to a few of their songs with some pleasure.

But beyond the fact that they were openly, cynically a cash grab with no pretensions towards even attempting to create great art...they simply weren't very good. Their musicianship was admirably adequate, their melodies jejune and their lyrics...oh, their lyrics. Even for a genre and a decade that can often seem fairly horrifying with 20/20 hindsight, KISS's lyrics are repulsive for their level of misogyny. And sadly, they don't seem to have improved significantly with middle-age. Not that that should be especially surprising. After all, this is the band whose leader once proudly ridiculed the very the notion of artistic ambition:
"I'm sick of musicians saying 'I don't care what you want to hear, I'm gonna play whatever I want 'cause I'm an artist.' You're an artist? Paint my house, bitch!"
(When it comes to horrifying misogynistic lyrics, of course, it's not like we're living in paradise at the moment, given that one of our biggest and best stars, Kanye West, released the odious Yeezus just this year, featuring lyrics so vile even KISS would have been taken aback.)

I remember reading a piece once which said that the third album—back when artists were allowed three albums, even if the first two didn't do well—was when you knew whether or not you had a serious artist, one with something to say and staying power. As the saying goes, you have your entire life to write your debut record, and a few months on the road to write the follow-up, hence the typically problematic sophomore album. But then it comes time for the third album, and it's make or break time. Do you really have what it takes? Do you have a The Who Sell Out or Learning to Crawl in you? How's about an Electric Ladyland or Born to Run? A London Calling or Dirty Mind? A Ladies of the Canyon or Fables of the Reconstruction? A Hard Day's Night or Zen Arcade? A The Times They Are a-Changin' or Let It Be?

Let's take a look, then, at the opening tracks off those vital third albums from a trio of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

Here's Peter Gabriel's:

I know something about opening windows and doors
I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors
I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers
Slipping the clippers
Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires
The sense of isolation inspires
Inspires me

It's a brilliant opening to a brilliant album. Creepy in a way rock and roll almost never had been before, Gabriel has the stones to get inside the mind of a stalker terrifying a homeowner, while drummer Phil Collins and producer Hugh Padgham casually invent the sound of drums for the entire coming decade. Later on, the album will do something not dissimilar with a Lee Harvey Oswald-like assassin in "Family Snapshot," visit a patient in a mental institute in the ricepaper sketch "Lead a Normal Life," take a catchy stab at geopolitics in "Games without Frontiers," and what's perhaps a tortured prisoner of war in "I Don't Remember" before, oh, yes, introducing millions of white fans to hero Steve Biko in the overwhelming "Biko." Gabriel went on to much higher heights, commercially, with 1986's So, but he never got better, because you cannot get better than this record.

Then there's this, featuring one of the most famous opening couplets in rock and roll:

Teenage angst has paid off well 
Now I'm bored and old

After changing the pop landscape in a way only a tiny handful of artists ever had before, with Nevermind, Nirvana decided to try going back to their punk roots for one of the most abrasive rock and roll albums—no, Metal Machine Music doesn't count—ever, and a remarkably bold, defiant gesture towards not just their label or the record industry but to a huge percentage of their own fans. As the Rolling Stones and the Who have proven again and again over the past several decades, no matter how much you got in the bank, it's never an easy thing to leave money on the table, yet that was precisely what Nirvana was determined to do with this album. And they did. In Utero sold 15,000,000 copies less than its predecessor. As they suspected it would. And twenty years later, it's widely (if erroneously) considered the best album of the band's career, with blistering rock and roll such as "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Rape Me," not to mention "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"and "tourette's," alongside gorgeous, heart-rending tracks like "Dumb," "Pennyroyal Tea" and "All Apologies." And the opening cut laid the entire thing bare right from the beginning. Gone were the double- and triple-tracked guitars and the arena-rock friendly drums. In its place were plain, crunchy instruments placed front and center with a minimum of sonic sheen. And the lyrics were straightforward, saying, hey, look at me and my suppurating warts: how you like me now? The entire band always loved pop too much to ever be as punk as they dearly wanted to be...but that's pretty damn punk anyway. And, far more important, it's great.

And then there's this:

I'm feelin' low, no place to go 
And I'm a-thinking that I'm gonna scream 
Because a hotel all alone is not a 
Rock and roll star's dream

But just when I'm about to shut the light and go to bed
A lady calls and asks if I'm too tired or if I'm just too dead for

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no

My plane's delayed and I'm afraid
They're gonna keep me waiting here till nine
Then a stewardess in a tight blue dress says
"I got the time"

But just as I'm about to take my coat and get my fly
She says "Oh please," she's on her knees
And one more time before I leave I get some

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no, no

In my home town, I'm hangin' 'round
With all the ladies treatin' me real good
A sweet sixteen lookin' hot and mean says
I wish you would

But just as I'm about to tell her "Yes, I think I can"
I see her dad, he's getting mad
All the time he knows that I'm in need of

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no

Room service, well maybe baby, room service


Nice job, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Well done.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

First Ballot

So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while finally nominating the great and influential Replacements this year, still did not find them worthy for induction.

Such a damn shame. Peter Gabriel, Nirvana and the Replacements. Three of my all-time favorites. Would've been awesome to see all three go in together. Especially considering the influence that this:

...had on this:

Oh. And KISS got in (of course they did), as did Cat Stevens.

Cat Stevens.


And I suppose I should say "Who cares" to all of this, right? To follow the lead of Johnny Rotten and remind everyone what a joke the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame is.

Only, well, I just don't believe that. I love the idea of a Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame existing. Just love it. I love that someone has thought to quantify the unquantifiable and label so many deserving artists (and yes, some undeserving and, yes, some OH MY GOD HOW DID THIS HAPPEN???????) ...


...sorry. Where was I? Yeah, I do love the idea of so many deserving artists being worthy of the label "Hall of Famer."  Particularly in a business where stats don't always show the true import and impact and, well, greatness of a band or artist. I really appreciate that the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame exists. I just think it's a damn shame that one band is not in.

A Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame without The Replacements is like the Football Hall of Fame without Gayle Sayers. Neither had particularly long careers. Sayers never played on a winning team; The Mats never had a gold album. Both went away in what should have been their primes. And both, when they were around and doing their thing at the height of their game(s), were breathtaking to watch. Exhilarating. In sports parlance one final time, both changed the way the game is played. For good. And for better. Sayers is a member of that exclusive club; he was a first-ballot member. The Replacements should have been. Only aren't. Damn.

So. Good for KISS, I guess (but, man, they were really not that good, even in their crazy-popular prime). Good for Linda Ronstadt and Hall & Oates, who brought plenty to their respective tables. Good for Nirvana, whose brief and astounding presence resonates still. GREAT for Peter Gabriel, so long deserving of the honor.

I don't hate the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Not one bit. But for as long as that building stands in Cleveland and The Replacements are not honored inside of it, something is missing. And it will always make me a little sad.

"Don't break your neck when you fall down laughing."

Friday, December 13, 2013

Glen Campbell, shredder

Been on a tiny Glen Campbell kick of late—tiny because as I really only know his half-dozen or so greatest hits. But I've long known he's a killer guitarist—but have never really seen any evidence of it. Not that I'm doubting, it's just that, you know: it's one thing to learn that Jimi Hendrix was an amazing guitarist and another thing to actually watch video of him playing.

Yet while there are thousands of Glen Campbell videos on YouTube, most of them are like this:

or this:

Which, hey, groovy. I unapologetically enjoy me some Bread and goodness knows I'm interested in Toni Tennille's love, muskrat or otherwise. (I'm pretty sure she's saying the final four words direct to me, for instance.) And he does get some sweet playing off there—if you can stomach the dialogue—but when you're looking for evidence of Glen Campbell's abilities as a shredder, well, neither of those are going to help you out much.

This, on the other hand...

It's still not really what I was looking for, but, yeah. Damn, yo. Boy could play.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hold On

I more or less missed Wilson Phillips. I knew of them, thanks to Rolling Stone, but when they were hitting it big I was finishing my first senior year of college and living in a house without cable, so no music television, and pop radio wasn't really a part of my life at that point. (Few things were, aside from beer, comics, Springsteen, R.E.M. and my girlfriend.) ((You'll note schoolwork was nowhere on that list, which may explain why I needed a second senior year of college.))

But "Hold On" was big enough that even I heard it, even if I barely noticed that I did. So the first time I really truly remember paying any attention to it was during its utterly glorious inclusion in "Bridesmaids." Its use was fantastic, but then, of course, so was the song.

I've never liked self-help songs. Take Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It," for instance. (Please.)

While I liked his An Innocent Man album, in general—although his dancing here makes Springsteen's in "Dancing in the Dark" look practically Michael Jacksoneque (and Rodney Dangerfield's acting makes his own turn in Caddyshack appear Laurence Olivieronian—this one track always struck me as an only slightly less unctuous "Dear Alex & Annie" sermon.

(Good golly, how adorbs is Annie? [And thank goodness she and Alex had their names on their shirts—otherwise, how could we ever have told them apart? Also, and this is true, DT dressed like Alex until he was nearly 20. Sadly, it's still his best look ever.] I can't believe "Dear Alex & Annie" was created by the great Lynn Ahrens, writer of many of the best Schoolhouse Rock songs, as well as, later, several major Broadway shows. But we don't care about Broadway. Schoolhouse Rock, on the other hand...)

Which is why (heresy alert) I've never cared for one of the more beloved songs amongst my cohorts, by one of my very favorite artists ever.

I like the verses. I like the music. I like how attractive both singers are. I even like the philosophy. But the lyrics to the chorus just set my teeth on edge and the preciousness of Bush's vocals, which can be so effective in other contexts, Not for me. The entire thing, together, is just not nearly removed enough from dear "Dear Alex and Annie." It's the only song on So I skip every. single. time. I'd take ten "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)"s, or even a dozen "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)"s over a single "Don't Give Up." I'm a monster, I know.

Which is why I was surprised to hear this cover of "Hold On" and discover it wasn't like biting on tinfoil. It was...well, it was awesome.

Why does this work so well? What's the secret? Is it the seriousness of the vocals? Is it that the bar is set lower? Is it that it's got no pretensions—it's not a groundbreaking Serious Artist performing a Message Song, or a wannabe badass rocker hearkening back to his late 50s/early 60s roots for a lark? Is it just that it's just a great take on a fun pop song?

I'd reckon it's all the above. And most of all, it's got the best melody and a good beat and you can dance to it. And that's usually the trump card, after all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo

This is awful.

See? Didn't I tell you?

Hm? Why did I post it, then? Well, because I wanted to make DT listen to it, so I wouldn't be alone in my misery. Worked, too.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Come Together

I'm always surprised to rediscover what a fine harmony vocalist Bruce Springsteen is. You wouldn't think it'd be an especially well-used weapon in his arsenal, given how long he's been the unquestioned leader of his own band and/or a solo artist. But homeboy can harmonize.

Apparently, Rod Stewart and Elton John were supposed to perform this, but Stewart wasn't able to make the show, so at the last minute, the producers asked Springsteen...who declined. They went to Rose, who then talked Springsteen into it. Not damn bad for no rehearsal. It was also the last time Rose performed in public for six years. Pretty okay way to go out.

And who in 1988 would have expected to ever see the singers of "Welcome to the Jungle" and "One Step Up" happily performing together?

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Look, I'm human. I like this—how could I not? Catchy pop song by three sisters with a cool origin story.

But I don't get the constant name-checking of classic Fleetwood Mac. There's some Mac there, of course—it'd be surprising if there weren't—but to my ears it's very clearly filtered through the much more recent and much much direct influence of Wilson Phillips. Sure, both have a classic SoCal sound, but there's still a big difference, and this is much more the latter than the former.

Which isn't to say it's not great stuff. 'cuz it is. The Clash is great stuff. So is Pink Floyd. So is Madonna. But that doesn't make it correct to say that any of the three sound like either the first or second great Miles Davis Quintet. 

Friday, December 6, 2013


It was February 11, 1990. Early on a Sunday morning, as I recall. I was sitting in my college apartment watching CNN, wanting to see it for myself that the unimaginable news was true. Nelson Mandela was going to be freed.

A few weeks earlier my roommate and I had gone to see Donald Woods, the prominent former South African journalist who had to flee the country with his family for speaking out so forcibly against apartheid, speak on campus and we met him. My roommate asked him, "What do you think will happen if Nelson Mandela dies in prison?"

Woods, though, was adamant that would not happen. That the government would not let it happen. But I don't think we believed him. To us the idea of Mandela going free, being free, was just unthinkable. It seemed he would be a prisoner forever, that this was a wrong that could never be righted.

Then came February 11, 1990. In those early morning hours. Those images on the TV screen. That proud, thin black man with white hair and a weary smile, emerging from darkness. Unreal.

I was an English major. Writing was all I did then; articles for the school's daily newspaper, commentaries, short stories, poems, even a one-act play. So I got up from the TV, after witnessing this staggering event, and I wrote.

This is what I wrote:

February 11, 1990


Remove the chain running heart to fist
and walk.

Break the light with a silent shadow.

All you’ve known forever
is time.
Now, time is what you breathe,


Face the season-burnt country
so long your longing,
wasted by earth-scorched tears
running rivers through the fire of your soul.

The change you only dreamed
is before you now, screaming.
Sweeping a mournful hand
across the dust of shattered bones and dreams.

Biko is gone.
Botha is gone.
Sobukwe is gone..
They all turn mixed eyes to you.


Ready to create.
New friends – new enemies.
New vision – new blindness.
New triumphs – new tragedies.

But more than all,


Mandela's death yesterday really couldn't have come as a shock to many. He was 95, he'd been sick. But watching more images on TV last night, those of people holding signs outside his house, shouting their appreciation with even a sense of joy for all he was able to do, put me in mind of this: 

This is the way the great man deserved to pass on. Not violently and young like King, without ever getting to see the true results of his heroism. Not locked away in some horrible prison, as we thought he would remain forever all those years ago. But like this. Safe. Old. Surrounded by people who loved and cared for him, and with an entire country celebrating him outside, a country he had saved. That he had lived to save, to see change before his very eyes, to see his wildest dreams realized.

It's hard to imagine anyone being more deserving of the gift of long life, of old age, more than the man they called Tata. Or "Father."

This is a music blog, I know. So here is some music. The first a stunningly beautiful song that was the theme song to the not-quite-but-nearly-great movie about Steven Biko and Donald Woods from 1987, Cry Freedom. This played during the film's closing credits and it caused me to go out and buy the movie soundtrack within just a few days. (It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song that year. It lost out to "I've Had The Time Of My Life." I have nothing at all to say about that.)

Anyway, that's the first song. The second is one of defiance and protest from the same year, which became a hit and at the time became a rallying cry. One whose demand seemed, again, impossible when it was released. But it wasn't. Nelson Mandela proved capable of the impossible.

Rest in Peace, Tata.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

South of the Grapevine

Outstanding...almost. The parts that work are pretty great but the riff really needs to move to another chord when Marvin does for it to have really taken off. Then again, that's just life in the mashup world, and it does add a certain tension. (Since both these songs are oh so lacking in tension.)

Actually, I think the section with the backing vocals is the most effective. Still, if nothing else, it highlights that a voice like Marvin's seemingly works irrespective of genre or context, and illustrates the obvious yet (these days) easily overlooked blues roots of metal.

(H/T: the killer Dangerous Minds

Saturday, November 30, 2013

It Better End Soon

Oh my God.

I just [re]read Lester Bang's review of Chicago's fourth LP, At Carnegie Hall.
- in 'It Better End Soon - Second Movement' Walter Parazaider takes of on a long and wildly eclectic flute solo, starting with 'Morning Song' from Grieg's 'Peer Gynt Suite', shifting abruptly into 'Dixie' to cheers from the audience, and thence to 'Battle Hymn Of The Republic' complete with martial drum rolls.
I thought it was satire. I didn't believe there could possibly really be a song called "It Better End Soon," much less that there would be multiple movements, much less one entire five minute flute solo, much less one with that many disparate quotes.

Oh my God.

More horrifying, of course, is the fact that upon listening I realize I actually recognize this.

Oh, 70s. So much to answer for.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Mark Kozelek has said that he recorded the Sun Kil Moon album Admiral Fell Promises after listening to a lot of Andrés Segovia. That's as may be but boy howdy but it sounds like he'd listened to a lot of Steve Hackett in his day as well. (The fact that he's covered both Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and post-PG Genesis also makes me suspect this.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

This Boy (isolated vocals)

It was 50 years ago this week that this was released:

And sure, all it did was change rock-n-roll forever. Along with a good chunk of 20th century culture. The most important band to ever exist let loose with (almost inarguably) their greatest single, and thus launched a career that would crazily keep reaching new heights over the six years that followed. Heights that even the greatest of rock-n-roll bands to follow never really were able to equal.

That's what "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the A-side, did.

What the waltzy B-side, "This Boy," did? Was display for the first time the harmony calisthenics the Beatles were capable of delivering. Listen to this (mostly) isolated vocal track of John, Paul and George creating something so intricate, so deftly layered it's damn near impossible to tell who is singing what part. Or for that matter where the melody starts and the harmony ends. Astounding.

They would do the three-part harmony thing again, of course. And do it to perfection. On tracks like "Nowhere Man" and "Yes It Is" and, at the very very end of their career as a band, the lush splendor of "Because." But it bears remembering just how many different arrows the Fab Four had in their collective quiver. Harmonies this spectacular? And from guys this young (John was 23, Paul 21, George 20)?

This boy remains impressed. He surely does.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Feelin' Alright

Two great tastes that taste great together? How's about a little hot buttered soul and some crazy horses?

I'm not sure I could love this much more. Maybe if they'd done a whole album together, ala Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And by "album," I mean "enormous run of albums."

[HT: the wonderful Round Place In The Middle]

Friday, November 22, 2013

All Right Now

Not so much.

I grew up on classic rock. AOR was a mainstay. Despite owning all the Beatles LPs, for instance, whenever one of the local rock radio stations would hold one of their "all Beatles all the time" holiday weekends, playing every Fabs song in alphabetical order, I'd leave the radio on for the duration. Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doors, Black Sabbath, the Eagles, Deep Purple, Styx, these were my lifeblood in junior high and high school.

Even at the time I had more sophisticated tastes as well. In addition to the Beatles, there were the Rolling Stones and the Who, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie and Jackson Browne and Pink Floyd. There was also a fair amount of prog, which, hey: the heart wants what the heart wants. Later, I got into jazz and punk and post-punk and alternative and classical and so on and so forth.

I was a music fanatic pretty much since I can remember. Sousa music in the park on the Fourth? I'm there. Cocktail pianist at someone's wedding reception? I'll just sit and watch. And yet for the first few years after I graduated college, I more or less did without music, as my stereo and CDs and LPs were down in Greensboro, North Carolina and I was up in New York City. So I had a walkman and a few dozen tapes, but that was about it. And this when grunge was just starting to explode, so there was some mighty interesting stuff happening, and I missed much of it.

A few years later, I got back into music again for a few years, from around 1993-1995. But then life intruded once more and I pretty much had to duck back out. And when I resurfaced, in the late 90s, I found myself consumed by jazz, listening to almost nothing but for a few years. After that, it was classical, which was almost all I listened to for several more. (Oh, Shostakovich, you are the seductive one.)

And then it was the mid-Naughts and rock and roll pulled me back. I caught up on a lot of the stuff I'd missed and more: thanks to a pair of books (1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die), I got invested in really investigating some major artists I'd only had collections of before (Aretha Franklin, the Byrds) or artists about whom I'd heard for literally decades but never listened to before (Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, both of which...WOW. Hawkwind and Tim Buckley, which...not so much).

But I also made a point out of seeking out current artists. So I fell deeply in like to love with the Decemberists and the Wrens and Bon Iver and Iron & Wine and Smith Westerns and Kathleen Edwards and Japandrois and Low and Janelle Monáe and Tennis and Real Estate and Camera Obscura and Kanye West and so on and so forth. There is so damn much damn good music coming out these days. I decided that, no hard feelings, Steve Miller Band, but I really don't need to ever hear you ever again; I listened to you for literally hundreds of hours growing up, and that was good enough. If I ever need to hear "Fly Like an Eagle" again, I can almost certainly "hear" the entire thing from beginning to end with my mind's ear.

But after a few years the excitement of discovering started to wear off just a bit, and I had to realize there was one problem with most of today's best artists, or at least, the ones I'd discovered: almost none of them...welll...rocked. They were often exquisite, gorgeous, sophisticated, warm and inviting...but sometimes you just really wanna hear someone kick out the jams, you know? Sometimes you wanna hear "That's the Way" and sometimes you need to hear "Achilles Last Stand." And give 'em their due: classic rock often did just that. It rocked.

So much as I didn't particularly want to listen to Bad Company again (cf. Steve Miller Band), I had to admit my appreciation for their rockitude, for Paul Rodgers' killer voice, for the great (so great!) drumming of Simon Kirke, for the killer riffs of Mick Ralphs. So when "All Right Now," by Bad Company's predecssor, Free, came on the other day, I kinda smiled. It's got that great voice, that great (so great!) drumming, and the absolutely fantastic guitar riff by Paul Kossoff.

And then I listened to the lyrics.

There she stood in the street
Smilin' from her head to her feet;
I said, "Hey, what is this?
Now maybe, baby,
Maybe she's in need of a kiss."

I said, "Hey, what's your name?
Maybe we can see things the same.
"Now don't you wait, or hesitate.
Let's move before they raise the parking rate."

All right now, baby, it's a-all right now.
All right now, baby, it's a-all right now.

I took her home to my place,
Watchin' every move on her face;
She said, "Look, what's your game?
Are you tryin' to put me to shame?"
I said "Slow, don't go so fast, don't you think that love can last?"
She said, "Love, Lord above,
Now you're tryin' to trick me in love."

All right now, baby, it's a-all right now.
All right now, baby, it's a-all right now

Maybe it's because I've got a bunch of daughters. Maybe it's because the world has changed. Maybe it's because I have. But these lyrics are just so damn rapey. And I don't think it's an either-or proposition, not in a million years. But if it is? If I have to choose between rock that rocks but is rapey or rock that doesn't rock but isn't? I'll go with today's more laid-back artists, in a heartbeat. 'cuz no matter how great the voice or riff or drumming, this is just gross.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Seriously. Ow.

Things hurt.

That is best wisdom I would impart to any young-un...hell, anyone under the age of, say, 23, really. About what it's like when you hit your 40s. Or beyond. There's one very easy thing I could tell them.

"Things hurt."

Because they do. They so, so do.

Knee. Ankle. Neck. Thumb. They just hurt. That's today's list. And for no damn reason.

It used to be the legs were super-sore after playing a couple of hours of basketball or something. But nope. I hurt my thumb the other day opening a beer bottle. And I don't mean "hurt" like I cut it or something. No. I strained some kind of muscle or ligament or sinew or whatever the hell is inside the hand that makes the thumb work. And it still hurts. Hitchhiking may never be the same again.

So. That's really all I had to say. Things hurt.

Except this. Here's a great raw version of a great song about getting older gracefully. Which I'd like to think is still possible. Just as long as I don't run too hard, don't reach too far down, and, of course, use a bottle opener from now on.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Good Day's Work

Here's how the story goes:

One Friday in June of 1984, Johnny Marr decided to write a song, as one is wont to do when one is the 20-year-old musical mastermind of The Smiths, for Morrissey to later add lyrics and a melody to. It'd been a week or two, perhaps, since their last single, so it was high time.

He thought it should be something up-tempo, and he had a little portable 4-track, so he went to work. A bit over an hour later, he had this:

That same night, he was alone and feeling a bit melancholy. So he decided to write another song, a slow one this time. He came up with this:

The next day, he went into the studio with the outstanding Smiths rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Believing it's a good idea to write songs in groups of three, Marr thought he'd see if they could maybe recreate the swampy vibe of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle"—a difficult task, made exponentially trickier by the fact that he'd never actually heard CCR's recording, just The Gun Club's cover of it. Undeterred, the band jammed for a few hours and, intoxicated by the results—even then, they already had a pretty good grasp of what they were creating—nailed the basic track. That night Marr added roughly a billion guitar overdubs later, this was the result:

Really, that's not a good day's work, or a good weekend's. It's not a good month's or even a good year's. That's a pretty sweet career, right there. In about 36 damn hours.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want

I have such a crush on Johnny Marr.

I think it's almost certainly unwarranted. As with other gunslinger prototypes like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page and the Edge and Peter Buck, he's probably not nearly as cool as he comes off. (In the case of Keef, that's unquestionably true.) He's probably nearly as prickly as—or maybe even more than—the lead singer. I mean, in this case, he's the guy that broke up the band, breaking the hearts of the other three in the process. But by dint of his literal and figurative position in the band—hanging back, partially in shadow, cool composer/creator of the musical tapestry as the frontman dashes around, trying to engage the audience, the attention-seeking sod—the guitarist is the cool one.

I know this. And yet. I still have such a crush on this most unlikely, unusual of guitar heroes. And now that he's finally started singing, some 30 or so years later? And he's not bad?

I mean...the beauty of that composition (oh, major 7ths, you are so lush and so lovely), the delicacy of the intricate picking, the odd changes, the soaring, searing countermelody that only enters in the final 30% of the song, the musical asceticism...the bastard's like a Britpop Debussy of the electric guitar.


Saturday, November 16, 2013


Back in the early 90s, this Reivers tune was one of the covers my college band—Übërsphïnctër, although when playing some of the local country joints, we went by Gööbërsphïnctër—would generally play twice: once during the first set, when pretty much no one but our girlfriends (hi, honey!) were there, and then again during the third set, when the place was packed with students too drunk (hi, honey!) to know if they'd heard it before or not. (We didn't have enough original material for three sets, and didn't know enough covers.)

The rest of the band used to grin malevolently when it came time for this one, gleeful to see how fast my imaginary friend Chris could strum the opening chords, and then watching as I (never a terribly fast drummer; my skills lay more in my rapier wit and movie star good looks. Okay, okay, I had the only place at which we could hold band practice) tried desperately (and failed) to keep up. Hint: Chris was generally at least 30% faster than on this here recording. Why didn't I just switch from playing eighth notes with my right hand to quarter notes? Pride. Arrogance. Stubbornness. Most of all, of course, stupiditity. (It never even occurred to me until just now.)

And I press my heart into your hand—it's my gift from Araby.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ghost Riders in the Sky

Way leads to way and one moment you're reading an article on the Forex scandal and suddenly you realize you've gone from there to the wiki entry on Blazing Saddles and then you're watching a video of clips from what's often considered one of the worst superhero movies ever and that's saying something.

But damn if this doesn't look pretty good. But, of course, Sam Elliott plus the sound of Frankie Laine can make pretty much anything look decent.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New York City Serenade

I'm one of those (seemingly) relatively rare hardcore Bruce Springsteen fans who doesn't feel that he's always better live, that his songs only truly come to life when he performs them in concert. And as I wrote here, I think his original studio recording of "New York City Serenade" is one of the most gloriously perfect things he's ever done.

But sweet flying spaghetti monster, is this an impossibly wonderful version.

He sounds fantastic, and judging by how much he stretches it out—but never too much, not even close—he's having a good time. And the string section appears overjoyed. Roy and Max are superb and it may be the best and most interesting bass playing I've ever heard from Garry; listening to this, you can see how much he picked up from James Jamerson (about whom he once wrote a book).

Never a song he's played often, this version sounds like they'd played it dozens of times, rather than this being the first time the E Street Band had played it in four years.

I'm just staggered by how beautiful this is. Someone sent it to me a few days ago, but I didn't really pay attention; for whatever reason, these days (unlike years past) I'm much more interested in listening and relistening to Springsteen's studio stuff, especially his more recent releases, than his live performances. But I finally clicked on this, intending to let it play as I worked. But damn if I wasn't unable to pull my eyes off the screen for a moment. Simply mesmerizing.

Homeboy's still got it. He's singin'.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Moon River

So I found myself rewatching Eddie Vedder inducting R.E.M. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as one is wont to do when unable to think of the correct cover copy on a Tuesday night, and was struck by how adorably awkward he comes across, as well as how heartfelt. I was surprised that he devoted such a disproportionately large amount of time to Michael Stipe, at the expense of the others—two and a half times as much to Stipe as to Peter Buck or Mike Mills, and never once actually mentioned Bill Berry's musical contribution to the band. Which is odd. You can understand a lyricist devoting extra time to a band's lyricist, but it's surprising that multi-instrumentalist Vedder, of all people, would give such short-shift to the musical part of a band, and most especially this band of all bands.

Also odd was that he said, "If R.E.M. had a secret weapon, I would say it was Mister Mike Mills." While accurately pointing out that Mills plays bass and keyboards and is a wonderful writer, he goes on to isolate Mills's vocals as the key to R.E.M., describing them as almost co-lead vocals, rather than "merely" backing vocals.

What's odd isn't that that's inaccurate, by any means. What's odd is that there's nothing secret about it. It's blindingly obvious to anyone who's ever paid any attention to R.E.M. It's like describing Scottie Pippin as the secret weapon of the Chicago Bulls during their six title run. Wasn't really much of a secret there.

The importance of Mike Mills to R.E.M. cannot be overstated. He's a great bassist, creating melodic, inventive lines. He's a wonderful keyboardist, adding invaluable, gorgeous textures. And he's a lovely singer, with his secondary vocals providing intricate and surprising counterpoint to Stipe's voice. But a secret weapon he was not. Their true secret weapon, so secret that as astute a listener as Eddie Vedder completely missed it, was the guy who can be seen adding the lowest harmonies at the beginning of this gorgeous cover.

That's their secret weapon. And that's why, no matter how hard they tried—and they tried—they never created an album post-1995 as good as their pre-1995 albums.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Political Science

I do loves me some Election Day! I truly do.

And I love Glen Phillips' voice. I think I could listen to him sing the ingredients on the back of a bottle of laxative and still be heartily entertained.

So in honor of today and all that it connotes, here's Glen. Doing more than justice to Randy Newman's magnificently wry "Political Science."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Rock Show

There are several things that can be definitively stated as fact after watching this clip.

1) Joe English was one hell of a drummer. I'd love to know whether Dave Grohl realizes he was influenced by English, since his fills seem a clear precursor to the stuff Grohl did with Nirvana.

2) Jimmy McCulloch was one smooth-lookin' dude, apparently influencing the look of Tony Manero.

3) bouncy, happy arena-rock-era Paul McCartney, sporting an absolutely fabulous mullet is, no kidding, awesome. Someone playing bass that well is amazing. Someone singing that well is almost unbelievable. Someone doing both at the same time, having also written these complex pop songs, and conveying an unreal sense of unbridled joy all the while, is just...


Thursday, October 31, 2013

We've Only Just Begun

I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who gets Karen Carpenter and Curtis Mayfield confused.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You Better Run

How many times did I watch/hear this as a teenager?

(Oh so many and not near enough is the correct answer.)

And then I'm informed that this exists:

I had no idea. 

I'm not worthy of writing on a music blog.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Don't Like Mondays

I just learned that the school that inspired this song is only a bit over a mile from here. I've passed it I don't even know how many hundreds of times.

I'm more than a little uncomfortable with Bob Geldof's introduction to the song, true though it may be. But once he starts singing, I think it's the best performance I've ever heard him give. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RIP Lou Reed

“It always bothers me to see people writing ‘RIP’ when a person dies. It just feels so insincere and like a cop-out. To me, ‘RIP’ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honors.” — Lou Reed

Friday, October 25, 2013

Beatle Birthday

So. Tomorrow's my 45th birthday.

No. That really is not a shameless attempt to solicit "Aw, that's great! Happy birthday!" Seriously. I had little to do with my being born, other than, y'know, being there when it happened. But I am saying it strictly for mercenary reasons. I am writing a post about it. Sort of.

The Beatles were the first rock-n-roll band I ever got into in a big way. Way back when I was 11 in the summer of 1980 and discovered the one Beatles record in my dad's collection, The Blue Album. Before then it had been all teeny pop stuff and movie soundtracks and, well, music just wasn't that big a thing to me. That all changed when I learned, within a few hours, the existence of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life" and "Revolution" and, most important to me in my early years, "Come Together" (which was my first ever "favorite" Beatles song.)

A few weeks later I bought The Red Album and by the time the fall rolled around, I was a full-fledged Beatlemaniac. That birthday that year, my 12th, was the first one for which I ever received Beatles albums as gifts. They were American releases and LPs, of course, so I got Beatles '65 and Magical Mystery Tour. Later that year I got four more albums for Christmas—Meet the Beatles, Abbey Road and two compilations (Hey Jude and Love Songs)—and really, was there anything better for a young music fan in the pre-CD era than seeing that distinctive shape of an LP gift-wrapped and waiting under the tree? I think not.

(That also was the year, lest I forget, John Lennon was killed. So within about six months of my newfound superfandom, even before that magical Chirstmas morning where all those perfect squares laid waiting for me under the tree, I knew for certain that there would never be any hope of a Beatles reunion. Which really bummed me out.)

But for me, because of those first initial gifts that came 33 years ago tomorrow, I always think of the Beatles on my birthday. It's another birthday entirely, really—the birth of my musical tastes.

So today and through the weekend I set out with one goal in mind, musically—to listen to every Beatles album, in order, by the time Sunday night gets here. It's a daunting task—by my best estimation it's right around 10 hours of music, stretched out over 210 songs (if I listen to the 27 songs from Past Masters that don't appear in some form on any other releases, which I plan to do. At the end).

So far I've made barely any headway—I am only up to Paul's rather stunning vocal take of The Music Man's "'Til There Was You," six songs into their second album, With The Beatles. It'll be what I listen to in the car and at home. I have (checking clock) about 60 hours to get this done. But I wish to do it. Because it's my birthday, after all. A time for wishes!

So. From this:

(And wow - how discordant and downright subversive is George's guitar solo, huh?)  

To this:


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On the Radio

I never understood the whole "disco sucks" thing. I was only about 11, I guess, when it first started popping up, and while by then I was listening to more Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen (and, yes, Kiss and Aerosmith) than Top 40, I didn't understand how someone could listen to this:

and not hear how obviously fantastic it was. Never mind that clearly the Rolling Stones and David Bowie and Pink Floyd and the Kinks saw the potential in disco. How does someone who thinks of himself as a music fan listen to this song and manage to miss its greatness? The melody, the vocal, the lyric and, yes, the beat. It's incredible stuff. How hard do you have to try to not hear that?

[I just finished reading the second day of the Donna Summer tribute on PopMatters by Christian John Wikane. Here's the first part. Do yourself a favor and click through and read it. It'll be time well-spent.]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Swingin' Party

If you're going to cover a great song, own it. Make it yours. Play it harder, softer, faster, slower, more ornate, stripped down, instrumental, a cappella. Toy with the melody, the harmony, maybe even tweak the lyric. Find something in it the original performer—even if that was the writer—maybe missed. Unless you're Elvis, where hearing you sing is its own reward, bring something to the table or don't bother.

That's not to say this approach'll always work, of course.

I don't know how I feel about this. If I didn't know the original, I might very well like this far more than I like most electronic dance music. Would I love it? Maybe. Would I dislike it? Possibly. I do love the way it ends, though.

Monday, October 21, 2013

American Skin

As mentioned previously, it was an exhilarating two weeks over at the outstanding One Week//One Band music blog, where a dozen or so very impressive writers wrote exhaustively about 40+ years of Bruce Springsteen's lesser-known (but still extremely high quality) works. One of the more prominent writers was (as you have seen) my pal and compadre here at Reason To Believe, who offered some amazing takes on some amazing songs.

My turn finally rolled around at the literal very end; I got to serve as the anchorman (so to speak) with my post on "American Skin," Bruce's most misunderstood song ever, as well as one of his best.

Here is a quick tease:

And if you actually listen to “American Skin” and get past self-serving lip-service, you find a song steeped in empathy and begging for understanding. Is there anger? Maybe in the background, but it’s nowhere near the dominant emotion here. Sadness is. And in that sadness we find desperation, resilience, loneliness, fear, frustration and maybe, just maybe, a gleam of salvation. There are also, very critically, bits of religious imagery and that fractured Catholicism that Bruce has carried with him his entire career. But even that is different this time around—because this time that Catholicism is meeting head-on with his, for lack of a better term, Americanism. So while he’s talked about baptism before in unsettling terms (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Reason to Believe”), it’s never quite like this. Where it’s not just water, but in “each other’s blood.” 

There is no good vs. bad paradigm laid out here. Springsteen takes us on a journey “across this bloody river, to the other side.” He takes us down to the darkened, unforgiving streets that he knows so well and used to bathe in such romanticism (“Incident on 57th Street,” “Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade”). But the romance is gone now. It’s replaced by hard reality of human judgment and human error. He begins the story with hints of atmospheric allegory before bringing it down to earth.

41 shots, and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river
To the other side
41 shots, cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule,
Praying for his life.
Is it a gun? Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? This is your life.
It ain’t no secret – no secret my friend.
You can get killed just for livin’ in
Your American skin.
It’s amazing the criticism this song received from those who clearly never heard it, or if they did, were unable to truly listen. Because there’s not some deep-hidden reveal that you need to listen to dozens of times to catch. It’s in plain sight, what he’s singing about:

You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule
Praying for his life.
These are not the sentiments of someone who is seeking vengeance or blame—Springsteen literally puts the focus on the officer who so clearly made a mistake and realizes it, and gives him such humanity. Rather these are the sentiments of someone who sees something much bigger at play here and knows we are all a part of it. All of us who walk around in our American skin share in it.

Here is the link to the full post.


This was originally published on the music blog One Week// One Band, found at

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Part Man, Part Monkey

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Part Man, Part Monkey."


Rock, country, folk, jazz(ish), pop, blues, rockabilly, metal, torch, surf, frat, prog, R&B, punk, soul—by the late 80s, there were few genres Bruce Springsteen hadn't at least given a try. One exception: reggae. Until "Part Man, Part Monkey."

The song made its debut the first night of his Tunnel of Love Express tour, and remained part of the set through to the tour's bitter end. Its topic—love or, at least, lust—fit the tour's general "love" theme better than some of the more well-known songs and was a highlight each night. Among other things, although moody and atmospheric, it fit the band musically much better than many of the quieter, more intimate Tunnel of Love songs, which—although brilliant songs off an absolute masterpiece of an album—never quite made the transition to the stage effectively. Not so "Part Man, Part Monkey," despite what would have seemed an awfully foreign music milieu. Clarence Clemons' sax, in particular, worked especially well, something that could not uniformly be said by that part in Springsteen's musical development.

The first verse lays out the scenario, and it's a funny look at a bit of American history every American (hopefully) knows:
They prosecuted some poor sucker in these United States
For teaching that man descended from the apes
They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight
If they'd seen me chasin' you, sugar, through the jungle last night
They'da called in that jury and a one two three said
Part man, part monkey, definitely
Okay. So far, lyrically, this is a fairly standard humorous Springsteen song. (Which is to say great—in fact, I think it's one of his very funniest ever.) But the second verse takes a surprising turn:
Well the church bell rings from the corner steeple
Man in a monkey suit swears he'll do no evil
Offers his lover's prayer but his soul lies
Dark and driftin' and unsatisfied
Well hey bartender, tell me whaddaya see
Part man, part monkey, looks like to me
So while the final couplet there fits in with the first verse (as well as having a nice nod back to "Louie Louie"), the first four lines become suddenly serious. They still address sexual desire, but instead of a witty history lesson, they suddenly bring contemporary politics and religion into the mix. And instead of Springsteen's Catholicism popping up as it so often does, it's taking aim right at evangelical Christianists, and it's not complimentary.

The bridge goes even darker, but now it shifts its focus to the singer himself:
Well the night is dark, the moon is full
The flowers of romance exert their pull
We talk awhile, my fingers slip
I'm hard and crackling like a whip
And just like that, humor's nothing but a distant memory. Springsteen's singing here of lust more directly and intensely here than he ever has before. "Blinded by the Light" had all the scattershot focus of a horny puppy, while "Fire"—which seems a tad, well, rapey when viewed with 21st century eyes—kept its humor (albeit frustrated humor) from beginning to end. (Switching genders by having it sung by The Pointer Sisters also helped make it less disturbing.) "I'm on Fire" seemed like a sensual ballad verging on torch the first few dozen times you heard it, until you realized this guy wasn't just turned on, he was nearly out of his mind with desire, and the correct answer should have been "hell, yeah, my daddy's home. And he's holding a loaded shotgun."

But here the singer isn't just aroused, he's making his move. Do his fingers really slip? Or do they "slip"? And how's this little oh-my-goodness-would-you-look-at-that-how'd-that-happen? received by the object of attention? Is she a willing participant in this game? Here's hoping, because the singer sounds like he's not to be easily deterred.

The final verse ties it all together:
Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire
Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire
Well the man on the street believes what the bible tells him so
Well you can ask me, mister, because I know
Tell them soul-suckin' preachers to come on down and see
Part man, part monkey, baby that's me
Here we've got religion and sex all bound together in one sweaty, confusing, tangled ball of yarn. Springsteen had never approached either subject this way before, and never has since, practically entering into Prince territory—only with anger, rather than ecstasy. Prince sang of sex and God tied together some sort of glorious virtuous circle. The singer of "Part Man, Part Monkey" finds sex base and dirty...and he likes it.

Musically, too, it's far from Springsteen's usual fare. Obviously, most of that's due to its reggae beat. And while Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent are never going to be confused with Sly and Robbie, they acquit themselves surprisingly well. Max's playing—especially his initial entrance—back in 1988 was odd and effective, and Garry's bass line is unusually busy for him. Clarence's sax is interwoven throughout the song's fabric in a way that it had almost never been since the Born to Run album. "Part Man, Part Monkey" is also in a minor key, another relative rarity for Springsteen. What's more, it's a blues, one of the very few Springsteen's ever written. And, live, it ended with Patti Scialfa singing a bit of Mickey & Sylvia's 1956 hit, "Love Is Strange." It certainly is.

Springsteen later recorded a studio version of the song for Human Touch, the recording turning up as the b-side to "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." (Tangent: I can't believe he released "57 Channels" as a single. I love the song, and think his performance of it on SNL is still one of his best TV performances ever, but it should have been a b-side itself—and a great, great b-side it would have been.)

The recording is a wonder, crystal clear, and with the anger turned up even higher. Whereas Springsteen would occasionally burst into laughter when singing the song on stage back in 1988, here there's no trace of comedy. Superstar guest drummer Omar Hakim's snare cracks like, well, a whip, and David Sancious returns to add some magnificent keyboards. Springsteen himself plays the bass, and as is his custom when he plays the bass himself, the lines are busier than Garry's, and mixed more prominently. Clarence's sax is nowhere in sight, replaced by what may be Springsteen's first slide guitar on record.

And that's another unusual feature of this unusual recording: Springsteen's guitar is uncharacteristic in several ways. His guitar tone is much cleaner than usual; for a guy so closely associated with Telecasters, it's ironic that his tone is generally much muddier than the famously twangy Tele sound. Springsteen also plays more bends on this recording than he usually plays in any given song, and far few triplets (a live Springsteen guitar solo hallmark). And the solo itself is one of his most aggressive, something of a cross between "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Cover Me."

And above it all is the kind of forceful vocal performance expected of Springsteen (although largely missing on the Human Touch LP), but with that certain extra edge brought on by the confrontational, accusatory lyrics. The anger is undercut, or leavened, slightly by what I think is the first appearance of what has become a common feature of Springsteen since in the past few decades, his countryish yelp—an interesting juxtaposition against the blues with reggae beat of the instrumental backing.

The Human Touch album is widely considered Springsteen's worst ever, and with good reason. Among many other problems, it seemed rather by the numbers, and surprisingly soulless—especially surprising and disappointing given how many songs were literally soul songs. "Part Man, Part Monkey" wouldn't have fit on the album very well, but perhaps if a few of the songs on there had shown the kind of emotion this recording did, the album would have been considerably improved.

In the end, "Part Man, Part Monkey" is not only one of Springsteen's funniest songs, it's also one of his angriest songs ever. And given that it's something of an attack on radical Christianists, it could have been his most controversial song ever (or at least until "American Skin (41 Shots)"). Perhaps it's a good thing he buried it on a b-side. But then again, in 1990, the song seemed something of a parody, a laugh at how absurdly backwards people were in the dark ages of the early 20th century, as well as a poke at the then-recent spate of televangelists who'd been caught in scandals, often literally with their pants down. That was then. By the early days of the anti-science 21st century America, unfortunately, "Part Man, Part Monkey" now seems horrifying prescient.


The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two for the Road

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Two for the Road."


"Two for the Road" is one of Bruce Springsteen’s shortest songs—of his officially released material, only "Held Up without a Gun," "The Big Payback" and "Johnny Bye-Bye" are shorter. (And it’d beat at least "Payback," if it didn’t have such an unusually long fadeout.) Perhaps that’s because this Tunnel of Love-era b-side is one of his relatively rare completely straightforward love songs.

Or at least so it seems. But is it?

The song opens with a sweet updating of the Carl Perkins classic, “Blue Suede Shoes,” but rather than a cautionary declaration of independence, Springsteen’s is just the opposite, a lovely invitation to his new love to join him in that most sacred of Springsteenian places: the open road.
It’s one for the money and one for the show
I got one kiss for you honey so come on let’s go
I didn’t see it coming but girl now I know
It takes one for the running but two for the road
The second verse is even sweeter, with lyrics that would almost seem to verge on greeting card territory but, thanks to the deftness of his writing, don’t actually.
One thousand dreams whispered in the dark
But a dream’s just a dream in one empty heart
It takes more than one to rev it up and go
So let’s get it running, we’re two for the road 
Two one-way tickets and a diamond ring
Hell it don’t matter what the rain might bring
When this world treats you hard and cold
I’ll stand beside you, we’re two for the road
Slight mixed metaphor aside—if they’re headed for the road, how can he can stand beside her or anyone or anything?—it’s a lovely bridge.

The final verse, too, has some slightly confused writing, with him promising to be with her in spirit when he can’t be in person… but then saying he’ll also be there in person, which doesn’t quite track. And taking into account what a considered writer Springsteen tends to be, it seems possible that the lyrical confusion is not entirely accidental. (Either that, or he decided early on it was destined to be no more than a b-side and thus not worthy of too much further revision.)
When you’re alone my love’ll shine the light
Through the dark and starless night
I’ll hold you close and never let you go
C’mon now girl ‘cause we’re two for the road
Well it’s two to get ready, babe, c’mon let’s go
Me and you, girl, we’re two for the road
Although the harmony vocal of its doubled vocal line seems to feature an early-Elvis style of reverb, and its opening paraphrases Carl Perkins, in many ways it’s Springsteen’s most Buddy Holly-like song, melodically, calling to mind songs such as “Words of Love” and “Well All Right” and, especially in what sounds almost like a celeste in the background, “Everyday.” And yet, as with so many of the songs from the Tunnel of Love era, “Two for the Road” reveals a darkness hidden in its ostensibly sweet message and by its beautiful melody and arrangement.

It’s almost always tricky to look at an artist’s work through the lens of biography, but withTunnel of Love it’s nearly unavoidable, given that upon its release Springsteen was one of the most famous people—not just in rock or entertainment, but in the entire world—married to a (then) famous young model-actress wife. His marriage had been front-page news, so when he released an entire album which dealt with the trials and tribulations of love from a mature, adult point of view, it was darn near impossible not to notice that few of the songs seemed to present long-term relationships in even an ambiguously positive light. (As DT has pointed out, the simple “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes seems especially harsh in retrospect, although I suspect that’s not even remotely what the artist intended.)

So. Is this sweet song a case of Springsteen whistling past the graveyard? Or was it written in the first blush of their whirlwind romance, and only later turned out to be a dream that became a lie because it didn’t come true? Springsteen had been writing more and more about love for the past few years, but most of the songs had a twist, such as “Hungry Heart,” wherein the singer simply walks away from a relationship he claimed he’d known from the start was doomed, even as he admits no one like to be alone, or “Working on the Highway,” where love seems to be nothing but trouble (to put it mildly—and that’s without even considering its original title of “Child Bride”…although I guess I just kinda did), or “The River,” with love’s tragic inability to survive the harsh economic realities of trying to provide for a young family in the midst of a crippling recession.

At first, “Two for the Road” seems to have little in common with any of those (although it does have a slight similarity, thematically, to “Cover Me,” where love is nothing more than the last desperate hope for refuge from an ugly world). This quiet b-side appears to take one of his most common themes, albeit one he’d been getting away from, that of running, moving, going going going. Here they’re going together, which is a sweet updating—as well as, perhaps, a callback to running away with Rosie—and which would seem to make all the difference. Until you look at the lines more closely and realize the lyrics rely on variations of “darkness” and “blindness” a disconcerting number of times, given how short the tune is. And through the singer’s insistence on getting gone, you can almost see this longtime loner, blindsided by this unexpected new relationship and the discombobulating power of his emotions, nervously tapping his foot, anxious to keep moving, unable to settle down and just let it all be. And in the context of the album, you have to wonder: is he lying to himself? Is he trying to convince himself as much as woo her? Does he even believe what he’s singing?

I tend to think he doesn’t. I also don’t care. Because while I find those questions fascinating, for the two minutes the song lasts, intellect and introspection and analysis are all out of the window. All that matters is one of Springsteen’s prettiest melodies and most tender recordings and as long as it plays, I believe it’s true love and that he’ll never ever let her go and she’ll never want him to.


The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.