Monday, December 29, 2014

CCR and the Importance of the Rhythm Section in Rock

So a while back I wrote this, about how vitally important the right rhythm section is, how it's like the foundation for a building—if it's doing its job, there's a good chance you'll never even notice it; but if it's not...

That piece has since gone on to become one of our dozen most read items. (At least in part due to people searching for proof that Neil Young was once in CCR. That's CSNY, people. Yes, they're both acronyms.)

But then I read Rob Sheffield say largely the same thing in about 5% the number of words and I wonder why I bother:
[Creedence Clearwater Revival] stood apart from the San Francisco psychedelic bands, partly because of its blue-collar earthiness and partly because their drummer didn't suck. Fogerty's spit-and-growl voice was the purple-mountain majesty above the fruited plain of phenomenal rhythm section Doug Clifford and Stu Cook, California's answer to Wyman and Watts.
Yes. Yes. Exactly. The American answer to Wyman and Watts. DAYUMN. Maybe that's why he writes for Rolling Stone.

Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. John Fogerty. All have created solo albums, some of them many times. And not one has ever come within shouting distance of what they were able to create with their regular rhythm section, despite working with musicians who are, objectively, far, far more skilled. There are plenty of other factors, of course, but after a while, it becomes hard to deny it's no coincidence.

(Good Lord, what size are Clifford's hi-hat cymbals? Those damn things look like they're at least 16".) 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)

Somehow, and I'm entirely sure how, I've lived for decades without being aware of this recording. That is a tragedy—fortunately, retroactively rectified by the downright saintly Chris Barton the Good—but I'm going to do my part to ensure none of you suffer that same fate a moment longer than absolutely necessary.

You just know that when they heard it, John grinned at Paul, feeding off his delicious envy, and rightfully so. Sure, the great Fats had done "Lady Madonna" (an early and groundbreaking experiment in meta) and "Lovely Rita" (less obvious and hampered by an overstuffed arrangement but with characteristically awesome singing by the man himself).

But. Still. Both are good to great songs. Neither inherently superior or inferior to John's "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)." Except that "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)" is simply so goddamn out there. And having the great Fats Domino cover such a crazy song? Is just so very, very.

Monday, December 22, 2014

RIP Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker has died at 70.

What a voice. What a performer. What a loss.

Rock-n-roll's vast and wondrous history has those occasional voices that come around and sound nothing like anyone before or since, voices which demand people snap to attention and take notice. Joe Cocker had one of those voices.

And rock-n-roll's vast and wondrous history is filled with those...what's the word?...those moments. Those times when the sheer power of the art form that is our beloved rock-n-roll comes to the fore and leaves something that is magical and indelible.

Joe Cocker gave the world (at least) one of those moments. Right here, a little more than 45 years ago.

Rest in peace, mate.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's the End of the World as We Know It/We Didn't Start the Fire

I will move heaven and earth if I have to, but I will see this played at DT's funeral.

Thank God someone finally found a way to bring that awful R.E.M. up to the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington's level. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014


TV on the Radio is one of those bands I wished I loved. I respect them enormously, find them fascinating, and certainly enjoy them to a certain extent—just not as much as a band of their calibre deserves.

Which might explain why I like TV on the Radio's new album more than most reviewers. (The same holds true for their previous album, Nine Types of Light.) I've been especially taken by the final track, the title song. I could happily listen to that chorus for hours.

Rain comes down like it always does
This time, I've got seeds on ground

Friday, December 12, 2014

Drift Away

Why should Scott have all the fun?

All his recent great talk here about "Bruce Springsteen: Master Cover Artist" is inspired indeed. I've only seen a small sampling of his vast canon of covers in the times I've seen him live over the years. But those ones I have seen? Priceless. And usually as enjoyable as seeing any number of his greatest original songs done live.

I've been lucky enough to see him do "Mountain of Love" and "Sha La La" in "Stump the Band" moments, not to mention "I'm Bad I'm Nationwide" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do." And a whole bunch of others as well, like "Chimes of Freedom" and "War" and "Hard Times Come Again No More."

But whether he's seizing Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl" for his own or performing a mind-bending version of Bob Dylan's "I Want You" on that same epochal night at The Main Point in 1975 where this happened, it's the way Bruce does the covers that just separates him from the pack. It's how devout these renditions are, how reverent. And it's about Bruce offering that same connection to someone else's work as he offers to his own. That's the intangible factor here; every corner of these songs has meaning to Bruce Springsteen. And he wants the audience to feel that meaning, just as he does.

(Isn't this the case with every performer? I've actually seen Michael Bolton perform "Dock of the Bay" live and, well, trust me. Just no.)

So here another personal favorite, largely because I was there with my son and two buddies when it happened two summers ago in Foxboro. What's fascinating here is "Drift Away," Dobie Gray's sensual, loping soul standard from 1972, not only comes on a whim following a request from an audience member, but it comes well past the 3-hour mark in this concert. At the end of a long, wonderful night of music. This came after a stunning encore version of "Jungleland." After "Born to Run" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and after an extended "Dancing in the Dark" in which a worn down Bruce pretended to go to sleep on stage. Still he had more to give, and breathed just a little more life into an audience that had to be as exhausted as he was. And he nailed it. Because of course he did.

Talk about getting lost in rock-n-roll.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Never Can Tell

Once upon a time, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were one of the great bar bands of all time—only the Beatles were clearly better (although The Band themselves, back in their gin mill days, when they were known as The Hawks, might very well have given both a run for their money, but as far as I can tell, few if any recordings from those days have survived). In the 1970s, Springsteen would pepper his shows with covers, even after he had three or four or even five albums out, so it clearly wasn't for want of material. And his choice of covers tended towards the unusual: rather than obvious crowd-pleasers like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Who, Springsteen tended towards 1950s early rock, like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Elvis, or 1960s frat rock, such as "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" by The Swingin' Medallions or proto-soul like "Cupid" or raucous pop such as "Do You Love Me" by  The Contours.

He continued adding covers to his concerts for the rest of his career, many of which—his transformation of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," for instance, or his cover of The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "The Chimes of Freedom"—were transcendent. But he tended to add fewer covers as the years went on, and he had more and more original material to sift through. So for a long time, covers tended to be many of the same early rock songs he'd first covered in the 1970s, and largely relegated to the encores.

But a few years back, Springsteen started a new feature called "Stump the Band," where audience members could bring signs with requests. Springsteen would grab a half dozen or so, shuffle them around, maybe consult with Steve Van Zandt, and then play a couple. The results were almost uniformly well-done—no surprise, given the level of talent and experience on stage—and the entire thing was a lot of fun.

But every once in a while, it was more than that. This July 2013 concert in Leipzig, for instance. He and Steve try to figure out a good key for it—they never do seem to quite agree—and then Springsteen gives the horn section a rough arrangement, which they pick up on remarkably rapidly; impressive in any context, but in front of 75,000 or so fans? Insanity. The look in the eyes of the horn section as he's giving them their cues seem to indicate they're aware of the pressure.

Meanwhile, the casualness of Springsteen as he runs through a brief semi-rehearsal and then just kicks into the thing is slightly surreal. This is a guy who's very comfortable being one of the largest rock stars in the world for 35 years. The open rehearsal just suddenly ends with a "are you ready band? Here we go!" and boom. They're off to the races and, rock and roll veterans or no, you'd swear they'd practiced the damn thing dozens of times.

It's a first-rate cover, with lots and lots of room for each member of the horn section, and the redoubtable Professor Roy Bittan to let loose—in fact, one of the biggest "are you kidding me?" moments comes at the end of the very first line, when the professor kicks in with some amazing piano riffing, followed moments later by Nils on some smooth slide guitar (balanced later by some stinging leads courtesy of Steve).

But as Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin pointed out, one of the very coolest bits of the entire experience comes towards the very end, when Bruce holds up four fingers, indicating they should all go to the IV chord, rather than the expected I, a slightly usual move harmonically. Not surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a single misstep.

And you can tell Springsteen's feelin' the spirit. They've been going for eight minutes, but he's not done. After a remarkably successful outing, he decides to go one more round, and yells at everyone to kick back in. Which they do, perfectly. Another quick run and they're out, for good this time.

It all seems so effortless, which it is, if you're blessed with mind-boggling levels of talent, superhuman drive, and put in tens of thousands of hours of practice. Perhaps the only sign that it's not quite as easy as it seems, are the pit stains on Springsteen's shirt, although calling them that is deceptive, as by the end, his shoulders, ribs and a third of pectorals are also soaking wet. The price you pay.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mountain of Love

As further evidence—as though any were needed—of the qualification of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as one of the very finest cover artists of all time, we present this specimen from February 1975.

Springsteen and crew rip into this Harold Dorman song as though it were their own composition and there are label executives in the audience and this is their very last shot at a record deal. In reality, they already had a record deal...although they were on the verge of losing it, if their next album—the band's third—tanked the way their first two had.

Fortunately, the album they were recording at the time was a little something called Born to Run. Unfortunately, the recording process was long, arduous, frustrating and at that point wasn't producing anything near the quality they needed or knew they and the songs had in 'em.

All of which is to say it was probably an amazing relief to take this band, full of piss and vinegar and clearly feeling their oats, with relatively new members Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, out to play in front of a rapturously adoring audience of already devoted fans. Which just might explain why they attack this song with the ferocity of starving wolverines and the precision of top-flight neurosurgeons.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Hung My Head

What an odd choice. Out of Sting's entire oeuvre, this is the song to cover in tribute? And yet it works beautifully. Much of that is because stylistically it's much more in Bruce Springsteen's wheelhouse than most of Sting's work. (Not to mention in terms of vocal range.)

But a lot of it's due to the fact that Springsteen gives it his all here in a way that used to be standard for him when performing covers, but which has become, alas, increasingly rare over the years. (Although not entirely unheard of.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 8, 1980

I was only 12, a huge new Beatles fan and was convinced they would someday soon get back together. They had to. I didn't know everything about them, but that much I understood. They would get back together. They would.

And then my Mom walked down the hallway as I was brushing my teeth on a dreary Tuesday morning and told me John Lennon had been shot and killed the night before in New York City.

Sad as I was, I don't think I could have possibly comprehended how big a loss this was. I'm still not sure I do.

Nor do I understand how John was never really in love with his singing voice. Sure, maybe being around Paul McCartney and that wondrous voice can be intimidating as hell, but anyone who can sing like this really doesn't need to feel inferior to anyone.

John Winston Ono Lennon. Gone 34 years ago today. One more thing I don't think I will ever, ever understand.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

R.E.M.'s "Country Feedback" = U2's "One." Really?

 Yes. Really.

So Scott recently sent me an email entitled “R.E.M. = U2.”

And the first line read, “'Country Feedback’ = their “'One.’”

At first I wondered if he’d been drinking, which was unlikely.

Then I wondered if I’d been drinking. Which was all but a certainty. But then I am getting off-topic.

But really, at first I thought he was nuts. “One” equaling “Country Feedback?” In terms of quality and import? The two tracks being similar enough to equate their places in the band’s respective (and expansively amazing) catalogues?

“One” and “Country Feedback,” essentially brothers of other mothers? Impossible!

Or was it?

I mean, sure, for all their differences the bands have run remarkably similar paths. They are arguably (not here, of course—here there is [almost] no argument) the two greatest bands of their generation, as well as the two most important and successful of that same era. Both had big personalities out front—no one in the game is as big as Bono in that sense, but Michael Stipe has surely (and surprisingly) become one of rock’s more outspoken and articulate spokespeople over the last 30 years, making a rather shocking transition from his days as a shy, barely audible art student. And both emphasized the band as a unit, more than the personalities within it, better than any band since The Beatles. R.E.M. and U2 are filled with talented and innovative band members, but the band always always always comes first. Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe and Bono-Clayton-Edge-Mullen Jr. are inseparable forces that make R.E.M. and U2 what they are.

There are plenty of more similarities from two bands that really came to be rock’s standard bearers in the 1980s and beyond. Monstrous albums, a commitment to sound and style that really remained unwavering and identifiable throughout (you know the sound of an R.E.M. or U2 song—you just do) and ability to keep evolving yet staying true to their roots and core mission.

There were differences as well, of course. They sound very little alike, even as they both fall so decidedly into the rock-n-roll genre. R.E.M.’s sound was firmly rooted in their southern backgrounds and leaned as much on the Byrds and other folk-rock ancestors as their beloved post-punk peers and punk-era forerunners. Meanwhile U2 emerged from Ireland birthed by both the new wave-crazed British movements of the late 1970s as well as the same blues heroes who inspired like the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and blended it with unbending political intuition and a certain Catholic stridence. In the case of both bands, these innovative and unique backgrounds and influences—Southern Gothic with punk leanings, Celtic Fire with blues leanings—created their sound and made them who they are.

So all of that is good, great, super. Their best albums (War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Murmur, Document and Automatic For the People) from their first decade or so all belong, at the very least, on any Top 100 of all time list, likely much higher than that. Both bands hit and hit and hit. And they did it almost in direct parallel to each other, at least until Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997.

But back to the initial premise here. “Country Feedback” being the R.E.M. equivalent of “One?” And vice versa? What the who?!

In this corner we have “One.” A modern epic from Achtung Baby that easily stands as one of the five best songs U2 ever did. Even its title—“One”—seems huge and important. It was a radio and video success. Peripheral fans and hardcores hold it in similar reverence, and my guess is it remains one of the first songs you think of when you think of U2. At least I do, and I don’t think I’m alone.

And in this corner you have “Country Feedback,” the penultimate track from R.E.M.’s Out of Time album that came out the same year as Achtung Baby (1991). It practically has a working title – “Country Feedback” just screams “placeholder,” doesn’t it? Obscure and oblique, it had virtually no radio or video presence and is known mostly to just the hardcores. Yet…hmm…among those hardcore fans, list after list of R.E.M.’s finest songs always seem to include “Country Feedback” way up at the tippety top of the best the band ever did.

So there is that similarity. Hmm. Hmmm. Let’s look further.

Both songs sound wholly unique for their respective bands. Both abandon the trademark sound of each—“One” loses the reverb, “Country Feedback" loses the jangle—and instead goes the quiet, more introspective route. And both belie the larger sounds that surround them on their albums—“One” has none of the heavy industrial pulse that beats through so much of Achtung Baby, while “Country Feedback” loses the mandolin and genteel breeziness that dominated so much of Out of Time. So there’s another one.

Here’s yet another, this one a huge one. Both songs start quiet but quickly, declaring their intentions from the first 15-20 seconds. And both songs keep building, building, building to something much bigger, grander than their hushed beginnings indicate at the outset. “One” soars louder and higher, “Country Feedback” keeps gaining dirge-like menace as it plods along. And most important, neither ever break down in the middle only to start again (like, say, two of their other greatest songs, “Losing My Religion” and “Bad” do) and neither ever retreats to the quieter beginnings. Both songs end high and big—“One” with Bono’s melodic howling, “Country Feedback” with Peter Buck and Mike Mills filling the studio with the funereal moan of the guitar and organ. Both songs end and almost literally the opposite place where they began.

And here’s one more, which convinced me that Scott’s initial assertion of the equivalencies of these two songs was, in fact, right on the money. (Whereas initially I thought he was nuts). Both songs are dominated, first and foremost, by the vocals. Which is odd for two songs instilled with such precise and intricate musicianship.

But “One” is Bono’s forum and “Country Feedback” is Stipe’s. I have talked about the epic nature of “One” and I mean it, but it felt funny declaring something that runs only 4:36 as “epic” in the rock oeuvre. After all we’re talking about a category that has longplay standards like “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” leading the “epic” parade, right?

Not really. Had “One” added an extended intro and outro, sure, it would have fit easily into the same six-minute-plus form as those two songs. But that would have defeated its purpose. “One” is about the vocal and needs to have the vocal as its center. “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” each feature wonderful vocal turns from Ronnie Van Zant and Don Henley, respectively. But is either the first thing you think of when you think of those songs? Or are you more aware of Gary Rossington’s gorgeous minute-long slide lead in and Allen Collins’ mindblowing five-minute finishing solo? The same applies to the dueling guitar work Joe Walsh and Don Felder offer at the beginning and end of “Hotel California.” Those guitars, in both songs, are the set-pieces, despite the awesome vocals.

In “One” it begins and ends with Bono. While Henley and Van Zant take on either side of a minute to start singing in their songs and finish up several minutes before the end of the songs, Bono first shows up a mere 14 seconds into “One” and stays virtually until the end. His plaintive lyrics—fracture and loss and who we are and what we do to each other – take hold for more than four minutes of a song that runs just 4:36. (Conversely, Henley is only heard for about 3 ½ minutes of the 6:30 “Hotel California,” and Van Zant only 3:45 of an almost 10-minute “Free Bird.”) Perhaps more than any song in U2’s magnificent canon, “One” belongs to Bono, and showcases his voice as instrument better than any.

The same can be said for Stipe in “Country Feedback.” His singing starts in the first 10 seconds and keeps up, becoming more and more desperate by the second and remains, pretty much, until nearly the end. He is still heard moaning a “Crazy what you could have had” as the song winds to its discordant and unsettling close. Like “One,” the backing music is mesmerizing and superior. But this is Stipe’s show. I cannot think of an R.E.M. song where Stipe is more in command, more out there in front and overpowering, than “Country Feedback.”

And again, the song runs just 4:10, nowhere near the traditional “epic” length as mentioned above. Sure, it could have been. It could have started murkier, with 30-40 seconds of lead-in, and it could have stretched out at the end to the six-minute mark if it had to. But why? “Country Feedback” accomplishes all it needs to accomplish in its tight 4:10 time-frame. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” shows an entirely different direction for the band, just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” builds and builds and never comes back down. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is a part of a groundbreaking album that launched the band in the 1990s. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is an epic experiment in understated, unnerving lyrics that allows its singer to stretch his range and let his voice become the very embodiment of the words he is singing. Just like “One.”

And lastly, “Country Feedback” stands easily among the very best songs R.E.M. ever did. Just like “One” does for U2.

“Country Feedback” is R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “One.”

Scott was right.

Scott. Was right.

Damndest thing, huh?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Disappear Always

I just heard this for the first time today and I feel comfortable saying it's the greatest song ever. (Narrowly edging out "Where Damage Isn't Already Done.")

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where Damage Isn't Already Done

The greatest song ever? Seventy-four million experts were polled and the results were unanimous:


[Results may or not be scientifically accurate. Or the polling not entirely fictitious.]

Friday, November 28, 2014


Jefferson Holt, the first manager of R.E.M., once said:
"They'll hate me for this," he says, "but to me the first time I saw them was like what I would have imagined of seeing the Who when they first started."
Taking each band as a whole, there are probably more stylistic differences than similarities—although both did go downill markedly once they decided to move on without their originals drummers—but one of the things both have in common are extremely distinctive lead singers and outstanding backing vocalists.

Note, for example, that at this early, pre-Murmur concert, Mike Mills is the one singing the wordless "ah"s in the verses, while Bill Berry is the one singing the (mixed too loud here) "lighted"s in the chorus. It's that melding of the three different voices singing different parts that's a not inconsiderable part of their magic.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I fell in love with this song the very first time I heard it—in fact, it may have been the first Peter Gabriel-era Genesis song I loved unreservedly. I've heard it hundreds of times since and if anything that's only grown stronger.

But watching Steve Hackett play it now, I don't understand how it was written. How do you write something like this? I honestly don't understand. I get how "Hey Jude" was written, or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or even "So What" but this is just beyond me.

Lovely little trolling of his erstwhile bandmates at the very beginning too.

(And, yes, I know its genesis, if you will, in the prelude to Bach's first cello suite. I still don't get it.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Running with the Devil

Talk about running with the devil: smooth jazz is, without question, Satan's tunes of choice. It resembles music but with absolutely everything good stripped away.

But as with most things, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Por ejemplo.

If that's not my all-time favorite Van Halen performance—and it may very well be—it surely comes powerful close. As well as being an interestingly instructive look at the power of a record producer.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blow Away

This is such a horrible video. Even granting that the medium was in its relative infancy, it's still pretty terrible, thanks to George looking typically tense and awkward as he's being forced to mime in extreme close-up, dance, and frolic with, among other absurdities, a giant bath toy duck.

If you've never seen this before, no, that's not a typo. A giant bath toy duck.

But saying he was "forced to," despite appearances, isn't actually right. The video's director was Neil Innes, best known for sharing a birthday with me and for working extensively with Monty Python—so much so that he was sometimes known as The Seventh Python, and not without reason, writing or co-writing many of their songs, and appearing as (among other characters) the lead minstrel following Brave Sir Robin around in Monty Python and— the Holy Grail. Oh, and of course, he was the creative mastermind behind something called The Rutles. So I guess it's safe to say George—producer of (and actor in) Monty Python's Life of Brian, had some idea what he was getting into when he tapped Innes to direct this thing.

But that's not why I posted it. I posted it because it came up in my playlist this morning and listening the opening few seconds I realized that while no one in the world would put George Harrison in a list of the Top 10 Best Slide Guitarists, I will say that he very well may be the single most distinctive slide guitarist ever. His tone, his style, his melodic approach bears no resemblance I can hear to Elmore James or Duane Allman, leaning instead on his pop instincts, as well as perhaps his beloved Indian music—which, given the slide's ability to glide to or lightly touch upon notes a regular fretted guitar can't, might have allowed him to more closely approach Indian music's use of microtones.

Also, the goofy smile he gives the very first time he sings "be happy" is itself reason enough for this video. This horrible, horrible, wonderful, glorious video.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Baby Don't You Do It

Good golly but these gents occasionally would commence with the musical kicking of ass. I'd love to know what Holland–Dozier–Holland thought of this assault.

Also a pretty clear template for "The Real Me."

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Dear Dhani—

You've done a marvelous job with your father's legacy. But it's really time for a spiffy official video release of this tour.


Reason to Believe

PS: I really like "Staring Out to Sea."

Thursday, November 6, 2014


This is, unbelievably, probably (only) the third best song on Hunky Dory, which was, unbelievably, David Bowie's fourth LP.

And he was all of 24 when he wrote this. Sometimes I can't even.

I mean, the slightly crazy chord changes which, especially towards the end, have a circular quality that makes them seem as though they'll go on forever (and I'd be just fine with that). The metaphysical lyrics which, okay, might betray his age in spots ("knowledge comes with death's release" sounds powerful deep when you're 24 or younger but is more likely to elicit a sardonically raised eyebrow much later) but still manage to be kinda shockingly literate yet not pretentious or clunky. And, most of all, that melody. My God, that melody.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Not Dark Yet (An Election Day Bob Dylan Fix)

"It's not dark yet. But it's gettin' there."

As I have indicated before here at Reason to Believe, Election Day brings me invariably to Bob Dylan. Not sure why. Maybe it's because he sees things that most of the rest of us never see. Maybe it's because he can make cynicism so irresistible. Or maybe it's just because he's been making music for more than 50 years and that is indeed one of the truly enduring things about the Republic over the last half-century.

I remember when Krispy Kreme came to New England a decade ago and everyone went gaga over it. I mean, hell, me too. Warm glazed donuts? Yes please. Why should only the south have something that you can only otherwise get by sticking a cold glazed donut in the microwave. (Yeah, I know—Krispy Kremes were orgasmic. I get it.) Cars lined up by the dozens to get inside the restaurant to buy 'em. There were two kinds of donuts once they arrived: Krispy Kremes and get the hell out of my face with that weak nonsense you're calling a donut. Krspy! Kremes! Forever! That was us.

But then suddenly one day a few years ago...poof. Krispy Kreme was gone in these parts. As if it had never been here. And time moved on. And now I just realized I have taken something of a digression off this Election Day topic.

The point, I guess, is unlike Krispy Kremes, Bob Dylan endures. He's endured Goldwater and Nixon, Afghanistan and Iran-Contra. He's gone from mockingly calling himself a "song and dance man" to hawking Chryslers on TV. But he keeps making music. All these 50+ years down the road and he's still making damn music. And there's something decidedly American about that, isn't there?

So Happy Election Day and go and do your civic duty today. And to make it worth your while, here's one of the best songs he's written in the last 25 years (from his exceptional 1997 album Time Out Of Mind), yet one that given how prolific he is probably wouldn't make it even into his all-time Top 50.

But still. This is a great song. Listen to it. Then go vote. Then listen to it again. Because this is Election Day. And Bob Dylan, like democracy, is still here. Even if Krispy Kremes aren't.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

ABBA: a rebuttal

This is one of our three most popular posts.

We now present a brief counter-argument from a new guest blogger:

Friday, October 31, 2014

Favorite Song Friday: You

The conventional wisdom has it that George Harrison, with his first proper solo album, All Things Must Pass, recorded not only his best LP, but in the view of many, the best solo record by any former Beatle ever. It sounds crazy, the idea of anyone recording an album better than something John Lennon or Paul McCartney could put out—sorry, Ringo; you know I love you—until you actually listen to All Things Must Pass, at which point a coherent, convincing rebuttal becomes significantly harder.

The conventional wisdom has it that George was then more or less tapped out. His next album, Living in the Material World, was good, maybe even very good, but not great, and certainly not the masterpiece All Things Must Pass was. And from then on, more or less, each album got weaker and weaker, some featuring a few good tracks and lots of filler, and a few not even that.

It's not entirely without merit. When Harrison played his one (sadly all too brief) post-Dark Horse tour in the early 90s, the bulk of the set was drawn from his Beatles days, his first solo LP and (unfortunately) his most recent, Cloud 9, with the 7 albums that came in between represented by at most a song each, and in most cases, none at all. Which would seem to indicate George himself had a pretty decent idea of the relative merits of each of his releases.

But then there's this utterly perfect pop gem. Originally written for Ronnie Spector, and recorded for but not released on All Things Must Pass, it sat in a drawer, forgotten, for half a decade before George finished it off for 1975's Extra Texture. Which just.

How could anyone lose track of a song as flawless as this? Its sparse lyrics say all that need be said, which manages to avoid Harrison's tendency to get a tad preachy. And while Phil Spector could undoubtedly have made it sound like, well, a Spectorian grand production, it actually doesn't sound all that much like a Spector song at its base. Instead, it sounds like the perfect missing link between vintage mid-60s Motown and soon to be released smash hit with all-time great bassline "Silly Love Songs," by fellow former fab Paul McCartney.

Although a hit at the time, "You" has been forgotten over the years, which is a shame. (On the other hand, given what a punchline "Silly Love Songs" has become, maybe there are worse fates.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Warmth of the Sun

Still I have the warmth of the sun
Within me tonight…
My love’s like the warmth of the sun
It won’t ever die.
           —The Beach Boys, “The Warmth of the Sun”

I asked Reason to Believe partner Scott sometime in 2006 how he was ever able to get through his (many, many years earlier) infant daughter having leukemia. It was foreign to me how young parents like Scott and his wife could get through that.

He said, “You get through it. You just do. There’s no practice or manual for it. You have to get through it, so you do.”

It made sense then, a bit. But it makes total sense now. Now that my lovely wife has been diagnosed with—and has undergone surgery and his now recovering from—breast cancer.

Scott and I have known each other for more than 30 years, dating back to our freshman year of high school in 1982. What’s funny is since 1990 or so, we’ve seen each other exactly once—when my family made a trip to the West Coast in 2007 and visited with him and his lovely clan. And in between, for a good 15 years or so from the early 90s to 2006, we lost contact all together. So small, insignificant life events—you know, weddings and child births and moves and career changes and what not—we kinda missed out on all that.

We re-established contact in 2006 and have basically been in cyber-contact every day since. Ours is the utmost in modern day friendships, especially considering (as he likes to point out) we can communicate regularly without ever having to see each other! So it was after we got back in touch in 2006 I learned long, long after the fact that his (now very healthy) oldest daughter had had leukemia as an infant, and that retroactively hit me with the sense of dread and sorrow and fear. And I had to ask how they endured that.

“You get through it. You just do.”

Yeah. You do.

Nothing prepared me for my wife (I like to refer to her as the Prime Minister, because she benevolently rules all and brings joy to a grateful people) having cancer—hell, certainly nothing prepared her for this. And with that in mind I basically did the very clichéd but necessary gut-check—“okay, tough guy. Time to step up. She needs you. Get to it.” So I did.

Providing comfort and support and love, that’s a given and it’s easy. It comes with the vow I took 22 years ago—“In sickness and in health.” Got it. But caring for someone after invasive surgeries? Performing somewhat nursely functions that, seriously, I never saw myself being equipped to handle? Being able to ask the tough questions of surgeons and doctors, evaluate the answers and determine next steps with the Prime Minister in real time?

I know nothing about medicine and, honestly, way too little about cancer. But this is all stuff that’s on me now. Her job is to get better, and she’s doing it like a damn champ. My job is to act as, often at the same time, caregiver, watcher, comforter, scheduler and doting husband for my wife, as well as basically being the spokesperson to the many, many friends and loved ones who want to know how she’s doing and the kind of progress that’s being made.

Scott said years ago, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.”

Damn was he right. That’s what I’ve done. That’s what the Prime Minister has done and my family has done. Today, eight days after her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, she’s doing well. Her prognosis is excellent, but the pain of recovery is very real. She’ll be healthy, which is the goal. But recovery is not easy. She has to endure that physical pain. I have to do whatever I possibly can to support her while she does.

It was a few days after her surgery that I stepped outside to do some errands and was struck by the immense and gorgeous sunshine. Had this been July, rather than late October, it would have been a portent for a 90 degree day and something very much expected, so I would have thought little of it. But this is Connecticut and the leaves are all turning their oranges and yellows and reds and are covering my yard and every yard around us and the sun is just not that high in the sky anymore this time of year, so the expectation of having a warm, sunny day is just not there. Particularly since the few days which preceded it were grey and, eventually, torrentially stormy.

But this morning and day were perfect, and that sun just instantly elevated me. My mood was already good—my wife had gotten the news that the surgery got all of the cancer and there was no need for anything else invasive—but I didn’t expect to feel that comfortable glow on my face when I stepped outside. It was, in all seriousness, as surprising as being hit with a snowball. Only so much more pleasant.

For whatever reason, as I walked to the car, I began to hum to myself the lyrics that sit atop this post, part of The Beach Boys’ 1964 pretty and melancholy song “The Warmth of the Sun.” It’s not a song I think about, really, ever. I know it a little, nowhere near as well as I know other Beach Boys songs (including the A-side single to which “The Warmth of the Sun” was the B-side, “Dance Dance Dance.”) But it was still something I knew and something that popped into my head as I walked through a daylight I never expected.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

I kinda hummed this over and over again as I went through my day, enough to make the Prime Minister ask me (tell me, really) to kindly stop.

But here’s why I still can’t shake it. It’s a sad song with a wisp of hope, but only a little. It’s a song with an overwhelming and timeless image of comfort—who doesn’t know the extreme satisfaction we can get of being warmed by the sun?—but it is wrapped in a feeling of loss and emptiness. It covers both sides of the fabled coin; it gives you the good and the bad together and leaves it to you to sort them out.

I knew the lore of the song, that it was written by cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love of The Beach Boys on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And I assumed it was written as a somber reflection of all that was lost that day.

Only…not really. The truth is the song was written that day, but in the early morning hours before Kennedy was killed. Later it was recorded and released, coincidentally, on October 26, 1964—50 years prior to the day I started singing it while walking to my car in the sunshine, seemingly out of the blue.

So the lyrics and melody were done before the tragedy occurred, yet listen to the recording (or really, any retelling of it since, including the rather stunning one I’ve posted below from Brian Wilson and Eric Clapton) and you hear that pervasive sense of sadness. The song wasn’t written as an elegy to the late President, but in many ways it was recorded that way. And remains today as a sweet, simple meditation on fragility and longing, fleeting beauty and the hope that something as elemental as the warmth of the sun can carry us through and keep us going.

That’s how I hear it, especially today, especially after these months of living with a loved one with cancer, months of testing, diagnosis, delay, worry, fear, anger, frustration and, ultimately, meaningful resolution. We get there, because we have to get there. It’s how in my house we have endured her illness and kept our heads up and remained optimistic. It’s how we look to a great future of health rather than a sour recent past of disease. It’s how we move forward. We moved forward because we have to move forward.

But we can’t do it alone, and we don’t do it alone. It would take pages and pages for me to explain how grateful I am to the hundreds of people—really, they number in the hundreds—who have offered their prayers and support, not to mention the gifts and the meals and the flowers. Who have reached out to us to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder. They are our church community, our friends of 20+ years, our neighbors, our work colleagues, our amazing family and the people who maybe know us a bit more peripherally through social media. They have all been there. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done and I doubt I’ll ever be able to.

Much like a warming sun we don’t expect to feel on our faces, they have all been there. And we have felt the glow, the heat, the comfort that we hoped for but knew was never a guarantee. I think now that’s what Brian Wilson was trying to get across—that through the struggle and the pain, something can linger that either pushes, pulls or carries you through to something better. Or, at least, warmer. And it makes such beautiful sense to me now.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

Scott said, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.” And he was right.

And there are factors that help you to get through. Sometimes they are the angels in your life. Sometimes it is the unceasing love you feel for your spouse and family, a love you know will prop you up when you need it. Sometimes it is undying faith in God and His grace. Sometimes it is friends sending flowers, meals, prayers, well-wishes and smiles.

And sometimes it’s just a day you walk outside and feel, unexpected but so very much appreciated, that warmth of the sun.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

RIP Jack Bruce

Well, this is a bummer, if not entirely unexpected—after all, it was his close call with death that led to the previously impossible to even imagine Cream reunion in 2005.

Jack Bruce's (very) relative lack of commercial success post-Cream has always been a mystery to me. In that band of ferocious talent and even more ferocious egos, he was the main driver, musically (if not personally—that'd have to go to the most overrated drummer in not just rock but all musical history, one Ginger Baker). Jack Bruce wrote far more songs than the other two, he sang most of them (although Eric Clapton sang more and more towards the end of the band's short life) and, of course, he was an amazing bassist.

So why did he achieve but a fraction of Clapton's success, given all that? Some of it is clearly that he followed his muse, and his muse wanted to go in some uncommercial directions, such as fusion and complex, almost prog-like hard rock. But even so, he released enough albums clearly designed to be palatable to a broad rock and roll market with only limited success. I'm going to assume, then—Paul McCartney and Sting aside—it's a matter of the primacy of the guitar in rock and roll.

I don't know. But when you've written and sung a song as grand as this, not to mention a good half dozen others, you've had an amazing career right there.

Also, because it's Clapton's guitar that gets all the attention on this particular track, check out the bassline and don't drop your jaw on the floor:

I think bars 65-66 are my favorite. (Seriously.)

Monday, October 20, 2014


I walk into the living room and hear the sweet sounds of Wayne Shorter and see the 13-year-old
staring at my computer intently. I slowly peek over her shoulder. She's starting at the iTunes window.

She side-eyes me and says, "I need to practice piano, but there's only a little over a minute and a half left of the track. And it's against my personal beliefs to stop a song in the middle if you can possibly avoid it."

That's my girl.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


In case you ever wondered what classic rockers sound like when they're asleep.

If you made it all the way through all 27 minutes of that without falling asleep yourself, you're a far stronger (or more caffeinated) person than I.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Viva la Vida

I have to say, I don't entirely get the hatred Coldplay engenders. I get that a lot of people are turned off by their open attempt (success?) at being the biggest rock band in the world, as it's been decades since such naked desire for popularity has been cool. But their music seems to be the flashpoint just as much as their ambition. And try as I might, I cannot remember almost any of their biggest hits, even after I made a point of listening to several of them many, many times in a row, in a futile attempt to create some lasting impression of the band.

Which is when I realized what I really, really don't get is the love of the band. I know people who like them. I also know people who like them a lot. I've even encountered a few people who love them, and that I really don't understand. Maybe they just have much better memories than I. In fact, I'm sure they do. In fact, I think I probably said that before, somewhere in the first paragraph.

On the other hand, when you actually see the band, rather than just hear them? The hatred becomes far easier to understand. I just watched the Coldplay episode of Austin City Limits and good golly are they annoying visually. And by "they," of course, I mainly mean, "Chris Martin." Which is too bad, since I really liked his induction of Peter Gabriel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But none of that can take away from the fact that this is, no kidding, one of the greatest pop songs ever. It is utterly perfect, and deserves a place with the Beatles and Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys and Prince and even Carly Rae Jepsen. It is flawless. Naturally, I place most of the credit for that producer Brian Eno, but whatever. It's a gem and a half.

Yeah, I didn't use the official video. Remember what I said about visually annoying?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Paranoid Eyes

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think people tend to associate the word “beauty” with the music of Pink Floyd too often. At least I don’t.

Pink Floyd is one of the greatest and most important rock-n-roll bands in history for myriad reasons. That's a given.

The sheer audacity of Roger Waters’ vision and propensity to not only aim for the fences so many different times, but to reach them. David Gilmour’s jaw-dropping guitar ability. The fact that Waters-Gilmour-Mason-Wright made one damn fine, tight and meticulously instinctive band. And that unique atmospheric quality attached to so much of Pink Floyd’s work—think of how recognizable and distinctive that decade-long thread running from Meddle through The Wall (and even through The Final Cut) is. It’s hard to think of a band with a more identifiable sound or feel, or a band more in command of that sound and feel.

But beauty? Sure, there’s plenty of it in their songs. Parts of “Echoes,” the gorgeous guitar run in “Fearless,” Gilmour’s impeccable solos that play out “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” and “Comfortably Numb,” the sentiments of loss and regret that permeate every inch of “Wish You Were Here.” It’s there. I’ve just never looked at a Pink Floyd song before and had my first response be, “That’s beautiful.” I’m more apt to be amazed, or floored, or sometimes even bewildered or startled than to notice the outright beauty.

But it’s there. 

And here’s a very, very deep cut from very, very late in their career that clearly shows how capable these guys were of creating something that, first and foremost, was beautiful. Even though, yes, David Gilmour doesn’t play on it, and even though, unfortunately, Rick Wright was no longer part of the band at this time. It still has the Pink Floyd name on it. (Just like “Yesterday” has the Beatles name on it and is without question a Beatles song, even though Paul is the only Beatle who's there.) And it’s still a beautiful and moving little song.

Mayhap you agree? And if not, well, listen anyway!

("The pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high. And you hide hide hide, behind brown and mild eyes.")

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1968: it was a very good year

I tend to get irritated whenever someone talks about music today sucks, and how much better it used to be and yadda yadda yadda. That's, of course, exactly what people said in 1956 about the golden days before Elvis, Chuck, Buddy and Little Richard appeared, and it's what Elvis said when the Beatles appeared and so it goes.

On the other hand, you run across information like just some of the albums released in the final few months of 1968 and it kinda staggers.

September 1968
The Who—Magic Bus
Miles Davis—Miles in the Sky

October 1968
The Jimi Hendrix Experience—Electric Ladyland

November 1968
Neil Young—Neil Young
The Beatles—The Beatles (The White Album)
The Kinks—The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
Van Morrison—Astral Weeks
Elvis Presley—Elvis (soundtrack to his comeback special)

December 1968
The Rolling Stones—Beggars Banquet

...okay. Okay, sure. BUT.

Yeah, I got nothin', except maybe to point out that just November alone would have made 1968 a damn good year. When you can list five out of the dozen plus major releases and Neil Young's solo debut is the weak spot by far? That's, uh...that's a pretty list. And, again, that's just from the final third of the year, so not even talking about, say, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, White Light/White Heat or Lady Soul, all of which came out in the month of January 1968. Crazy.

Sing us out, Raymond.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Big Red Sun Blues/Dry Lightning

I admit it, Lucinda Williams didn't really come across my radar until suddenly Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was seemingly everywhere—and by that, I mean, was being lauded in every music magazine I read, although I've still never heard a single note of her music on the radio. Undoubtedly I'm not listening to the right stations.

Maybe because the praise set the bar too high, or I just wasn't in the right place for it at the time—I was in my nothing but jazz phase at that point, I think—Car Wheels didn't do much for me, much to my disappointment. But I believed the non-hype, so I checked out what I'd heard was her first major critical success, her self-titled LP from 1988. And although I approached it with some trepidation—my understanding was that she didn't fit comfortably in the country scene at all, being far too much her own artist prone to go her own way—that still implied she was at heart country-based, and that's the one major American music for which I still have something of a blind spot. So imagine my delight when I discover a wonderful album that sounds, to my ears, more than anything like a slightly (but only slightly) more country female Jackson Browne.

Until it came to "Big Red Sun Blues." Which I loved from the very first.

Everything is goin' wrong 
it's not right anymore
We can't seem to get along the way we did before

Sun is hangin' in the sky
sinkin' low and so am I
Just for the love of someone and a big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

True love to hold is worth everything
It's worth more than gold or any diamond ring

But this little diamond and a heart that's been broken
Are all I got from you big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

Look out at that western sky out over the open plains
God only knows why this is all that remains

But give me one more promise and another kiss
And I guess the deal's still on you big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

But the thing is...I knew this song. Except I couldn't, because it was an original, and I'd never heard it before. And yet I did. From where? The bassline, which sounds like the Drifters? Not quite.

And then I realized.

Lyrically, they may not have a whole lot in common, but thematically they surely do.

I threw my robe on in the morning
Watched the ring on the stove turn to red
Stared hypnotized into a cup of coffee
Pulled on my boots and made the bed
Screen door hangin' off its hinges kept bangin' me awake all night
As I look out the window the only thing in sight

Is dry lightning on the horizon line
Just dry lightning and you on my mind

I chased the heat of her blood like it was the holy grail
Descend beautiful spirit into the evening pale
Her appaloosa's kickin' in the corral smelling rain
There's a low thunder rolling 'cross the mesquite plain
But there's just dry lightning on the horizon line
It's just dry lightning and you on my mind

I'd drive down to Alvarado street where she danced to make ends meet
I'd spend the night over my gin as she'd talk to her men

Well the piss yellow sun comes bringin' up the day
She said "ain't nobody gonna give nobody what they really need anyway"

Well you get so sick of the fightin'
You lose your fear of the end
But you can't lose your memory and the sweet smell of your skin
And it's just dry lightning on the horizon line
Just dry lightning and you on my mind

I'm going to guess I'm not the only one who can see the similarities between the two sets of lyrics, and that's before even mentioning that the bit about "the piss yellow sun" being not only a skewed echo of the "big red sun" but the line in the song that gets mentioned the most.

Circumstantial? Sure. Hard to hear? Nope.

Friday, October 3, 2014

You Missed My Heart

RtB mainstay Chris Barton thanked us recently for reminding him of just how much he loves the Osmonds and how no earworm could possibly be more welcome than "Crazy Horses." It was, of course, our pleasure, but if hard Zeppelin-influenced rock isn't so much your jam, we offer as a light alternative this ever so warm and comforting Mark Kozelek ditty.

For those who prefer their pop slightly more stripped down, the same tune in a more barren package. Different vibe, same lovely story, and both distinctly Osmondian in tone.

I broke into her house, saw her sitting there
Drinking coke and whiskey in her bra and underwear
I saw him in the kitchen hanging up the phone
I asked him nicely once to pack his things and go

He gave her a reassuring look and said he wouldn't leave
But I asked him one more time and this time pulled out my shiv
I stuck him in the back and I pulled it out slow
And I watched him fall down
And as the morning sun rose

He looked at me and said
"You missed my heart, you missed my heart
You got me good, I knew you would
But you missed my heart, you missed my heart"
Were his last words before he died

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Crazy Horses

Okay. So it's easy (and largely justified) to laugh at the Osmonds. A very white version of the Jackson 5, with amazing teeth and less good songs (and dance moves).

It's also easy to single out "Crazy Horses" as one of the exceptions, given its critical re-establishment this century, due to (perhaps initially ironical) covers by younger bands.

But it also stands up. This is one badass jam.

The brothers wrote and played everything on this album themselves, in a bid for critical respect. It didn't seem to work much at the time, but history has proved kinder. And props to the boys for being pro-environmental, whether trendy or not. As my imaginary friend Chris said:
It really tries to be be "of the time" while also having a very dorm-room-at-3am vibe -- "Man, did you ever notice that cars are, like, really just a kind of crazy horse?"
The reason you don't see a drummer in this video is that they're lip-syncing to the studio version, and the drums you're hearing are really being played by lead singer Alan. Which, given that drummers are usually, you know, behind the drums, might explain his what-if-Joe-Cocker-were-in-great-shape-but-still-tripping-balls dance moves...except that Alan was also the band's (and The Donny and Marie Show's) choreographer.

Wayne, on lead guitar, looks remarkably like Jimmy Page. And if he's not got Pagey's chops—no sin, by any means—his solo is actually pretty cool. Not exactly a masterclass in technique, it's interesting in how catchy, yet slightly raunchy, it is, while not echoing any melody heard elsewhere in the song, but rather providing some sort of basic counterpoint. Not bad.

And then there's Merrill, playing the bass and singing the lines right before the chorus. Okay, sure, his teeth might be beyond perfect—boy, howdy, they sure look like they are, even by Osmond standards (which, apparently, are still considered The Gold Standard in dental school)—but homeboy sells this damn song, with range and grit. And check out the bit after the solo, where he repeated "what they've done" line: he sings that not four times, and not eight, but seven, holding on the final, a nice bit of asymmetry that works to build the tension for the final chorus.

The keyboard horse effect does get pretty old, though. But we'll put up with it, if that's the price to be paid for a guitar riff that awesome.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Valentine/Drain You

So Tommy Stinson recently said this:
It may have been time, but the timing was less than ideal. The year the Replacements wandered off into the sunset, Nirvana dropped "Smells Like Teen Spirit," effectively ushering in the alternative-music revolution that would dominate rock culture in the '90s. It was the unlikely triumph of underground culture, and it's hard not to think the Replacements, having been key players, wouldn't have benefited somehow from that breakthrough. 
"I'll be honest with you," Stinson says. "I never really got the connection, to be frank. I didn't hear anything in Nirvana or any of the so-called grunge bands that had anything to do with us. I really didn't. In my mind, we were more a sort of rock and roll, sort of almost rootsy punk-rock kind of band. That stuff was more metal-leaning to me. Having people make a lot of to-do about them sounding like us or any connection, I think, was a bit of a misstep in the journalistic world. Aside from wearing flannel shirts."
Which just...

I mean.

Tommy. Tommy.

I love you, brother, I really do, as much as one guy who's never met another guy can love that second guy. But I'm going to say you're a mite too close to see what's pretty obvious. Which is that this, amongst many other things:

pretty clearly helped give birth to this:

Now, look. Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to say you guys are on the hook for a paternity suit or nothing. The breakdown, por ejemplo, pretty clearly owes way more to, say, early Led Zeppelin than it does vintage 'Mats (or even later LZ)—although if, Kurt Cobain's underrated guitar playing aside, Nirvana had had a Bob Stinson in the band, that breakdown might (would) have sounded mighty different. And I loves me some Chris Mars—one of the great drummers of the post-punk 80s, and a fine songwriter in his own right—but he ain't no Dave Grohl: them's some bigass drums being played on this song, sounding (as always) far more like John Bonham than someone from Sonic Youth or Hüsker Dü or R.E.M. or, yes, the Replacements.

But the drum part itself? That could have been written by one Christopher Mars. The melody? Paul Westerberg, without question. The bass? Well, okay, that doesn't sound much like Tommy Stinson, I'll grant you, although Grohl's harmony vocals kinda do; Tommy was and is a great bassist, but Krist Novoselic—one of the most important and most unheralded bassists in history, Iggy Pop perceptively aside—doesn't seem to have been much influenced by him, at least to my ears. Even Cobain's voice has that Westerbergian ability to be sweetly vulnerable one minute and then gravelly and rock as all get out the next second.

Sure, Nirvana was heavier, although much of that was simply that they were of their time as the Replacements were of theirs. But the basic DNA underpinning each band? It might be too much to say they were twin brothers of different mothers...and then again, it really might not be.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Misfits/Sixteen Blue

DT and I were speaking recently of the various ties between bands, influences of older artists on younger, as well as contemporaneous artists sometimes symbiotic relationships.

I've been in a Kinks mood recently, and I'm always in a Replacements mood, which may be why, upon hearing this song for the first time in 20+ years, it sounded so clearly proto-'Mats.

Tell me that doesn't sound like the blueprint for this.

From the lyrical thrust to the arrangement down to the melody to even the playing, with its pop elegance juxtaposed against a country background; I mean, even the first few seconds of each sound like, at most, first cousins—appropriate, given the genetic bonds at the heart of each bands' genesis.

It's no coincidence that the Replacements would bear more than a few similarities to the Kinks: both were fronted by amazing lyricists but massively aided and abetted by a sometimes unheralded group of musicians with whom they grew up. Both had aspirations far beyond "mere" rock and roll, but Cole Porter be damned, neither could help but return to balls to the wall rock again and again.

Paul Westerberg once talked about how maybe some bands had done the ballads better, and maybe some had done the hard rock better, but that no band had ever done them both as well as the Replacements. As a diehard fan, I find it hard to entirely disagree...but when listening to the Kinks it's hard to entirely buy in, either.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

You Really Got Me/Destroyer

Well, this is kinda fascinating. Here's one of the all-time great bands, during their 2nd or 3rd or perhaps 4th, depending upon how you're counting, career renaissance playing a talk show in Australia. Think about that: they were doing well, commercially, at this point in time, and yet they were playing a talk show at about the same time the Rolling Stones and the Who were playing outdoor stadiums for around 75,000 people a pop. This from the band that no less an authority than Pete Townshend said was the third member of the Holy Trinity of British Rock, along with the Beatles and the Stones, and not the Who.

And yet. Here they are playing a talk show (which would be cancelled just a year later). And damn if they don't give it their all.

Watch Ray Davies shimmy and shake at the beginning like a young Roger Daltrey tying to be James Brown. Check out Dave Davies with his angelic high harmonies and his effortless mastery of the fretboard, showing later imitators from arena rock bands like REO Speedwagon just how it's done, from the originator of the proto-punk riff, one of the most impressive transitions in rock. Note Mick Avory dressed like he's auditioning for an AC/DC tribute band and observe as he seems to be having trouble keeping up with the tempo.

And then there's the song itself, utilizing the riff of "All Day and All of the Night"—itself a rewrite of "You Really Got Me," a lesson Townshend learned well when he himself then brilliantly rewrote it for "Can't Explain"—and adding lyrics that are either a sequel to "Lola" or at least a continuation of the story from a slightly varied point of view and brought up to date, going from the beginning of the anything goes in the Me Decade to the frantic stress of the 80s, one of the more interesting deconstruction of a famous rock band's own mythology by the very rock band in question.

And, of course, it kicks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RIP Christopher Hogwood

Well, this is a bummer.

Christopher Hogwood was one of the first conductors I followed, when I was just getting into classical music. Never as famous as Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan, he was one of the pioneers in the "historically informed performance" movement, wherein avid scholarship was applied to compositions, in an attempt to replicate as closely as possible the performance practices of the day, so you could hear, say, a Mozart symphony performed the way Mozart would have heard it—which is what Mozart would have had in mind when composing it. So orchestras were smaller, instruments which had fallen out of favor (such as the valveless trumpet) brought back, tempos often quite a bit brisker, and even the sound of a note itself changed, as a A, for instance, was tuned to something like 430 cycles per second, rather than the 440 cycles per second that's standard these days.

What's all that matter? Maybe not a lot. Except that, for me, coming from a rock and roll and jazz background, I found Hogwood's recordings to simply sound more alive and vibrant than most others.

Take a really easy example. Here's one of the best known classical compositions ever, and one which, no matter how overplayed it is, I still find delightful, the Canon in D, by Johann Pachebel.

Sounds great, right? Sure, it might conjure up visions of a lightbulb commercial or perhaps a middle grade piano recital, but it's still a lovely piece of music.

This, on the other hand, is Hogwood's version.

Note how—even if you don't listen to classical music—you can easily hear how much smaller the orchestra is, how much lighter a tone the reduced forces brings, how much more clarity there is, how much easier it is to pick out and follow individual lines, not to mention how much quicker the tempo. Rather than the lush tones to which one had become accustomed, whether aware or not, this was rougher, more aggressive. It was, frankly, a pretty punk approach.

This wasn't for everyone. A lot of people just plain liked their Beethoven weighty, not fleet of foot, and understandably so: there are times that I myself like to hear Otto Klemperer trudge through Beethoven's Seventh like a drunken argentinosaurus trying to make its way through an especially stubborn tar pit. But for me it was a revelation. The idea that this was the way Bach or Beethoven would have expected their music to be played was a thrilling idea. But at the end of the day, what worked for me most was that it simply sounded wonderful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I could watching a thousand hours of this and never get tired. I wish this guy'd do one for every track.

I never cared for Low as much as for Heroes, which I know casts some suspicion on my status as a Bowie fan. But I did always love this song.

Monday, September 15, 2014

All Along the Watchtower

Welcome to another installment of "All Along the Watchtower" Watch, wherein we listen to various versions of, well, "All Along the Watchtower."

Here's one I've always liked. Although the great Stereogum thinks it's failure, I'll be so bold as to disagree. Andy Partridge sounds remarkably like Bono doing a half-assed Bob Dylan impersonation, and considering this was released two years before U2's first LP was even recorded, that's not only all the more impressive, it makes one wonder if XTC wasn't perhaps a bigger influence on U2 than is commonly acknowledged. (I don't actually think so.)

Admittedly, the scat singing at the end doesn't really work, and the harmonica seems an odd choice for a sort of punkish take on the classic, albeit more in the angular Wire school of intellectual punk, with perhaps some ska influences mixed in there as well. Still, a worthy addition to the canon.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


"Confirm thy soul in self control. Thy liberty in law."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Selling Out

 So I ran across this very amusing piece a few days ago, and it reminded me of a series of posts I wrote to a mailing list back in the days of yore, when mailing lists were the main way people passionate about a given topic exchanged ideas and information—which is to say the prehistoric days around the turn of the century.

I don't recall what started the entire discussion, but it could have been the then-fairly-recent commercial automobile, maybe?...featuring Peter Gabriel's song "Big Time." Or maybe it was Led Zeppelin definitely shilling for a car company. Or Pete Townshend...shilling for a car company. Before he sold perhaps his greatest song to a cheesy cop show. Which was before he sold perhaps his second greatest song to another cheesy cop show.

Whichever it was, it seemed just such a betrayal by one of our greatest artists, something I found shocking and upsetting. Ah, but I was so much older then...

Look. I get it. I do I mean, yeah yeah, it's all very meta, the way Gabriel is saucily taking the piss out of the entire venture by using that song, of all his songs, to shill a product. So mighty clever. As Pete Townshend, now vying with the Glimmer Twins for the poster boy of what used to be called selling out, once said:
For about ten years I really resisted any kind of licensing because Roger had got so upset when somebody had used "Pinball Wizard" for a bank thing. And they hadn't used the Who master—and what he was angry about was, he said that I was exploiting the Who's heritage but denying him the right to earn. Who fans will often think, "This is my song, it belongs to me, it reminds me of the first time that I kissed Susie, and you can't sell it."
And the fact is that I can and I will and I have. I don't give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie. If they've arrived, if they've landed, if they've been received, then the message is there, if there's a message to be received. 
I think the other thing is, though—and I'm not trying to sideswipe this, this is not the reason why I license these songs, it's not the reason why I licensed "Bargain" to Nissan—it was an obviously shallow misreading of the song. It was so obvious that I felt anybody who loved the song would dismiss it out of hand. And the only argument that they could have about the whole thing was with me, and as long as I'm not ready to enter the argument, we don't argue. Well, I'm not ready to argue about it. It's my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.
[Emphasis added.]

Isn't that just adorable. "Sure, I took millions but you were all in on the joke, right? If you were a real fan, you'd have gotten it."

And that sums up Townshend so wonderfully right there, the way he manages to be absolutely right and completely wrong at the same damn time, even as simultaneously compliments and denigrates the hell out of Who fans. As counterpoint, I present this quote taking the opposite stance:
I had such grand aims and yet such a deep respect for rock tradition and particularly Who tradition, which was then firmly embedded in singles. But I always wanted to do bigger, grander things, and I felt that rock should too, and I always felt sick that rock was looked upon as a kind of second best to other art forms, that there was some dispute as to whether rock was art. Rock is art and a million other things as well—it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well. I don't think there's anything to match it.
[Emphasis again added.]

Let's see now, who said that? Oh, that's right: it was Pete Townshend. Calling his older self full of shit. (To be fair, Pete often calls himself full of shit, not infrequently in the same interview or even breath.)

So. Seems that once upon a time, at least, there was such a thing as the concept of selling out, and that some artists considered this a bad thing. Some of those artists later went on to do the very thing their earlier selves had claimed to find abhorrent. Life's a funny thing, innit?

First of all, let me point out the blindingly obvious, which is that the world has changed since I wrote much of this, 10 long years ago. For the majority of artists—including, yes, major gazillionaires like the Who and the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and so on and so forth—the only way to get their new stuff heard is by licensing it to a commercial, and that goes quadruple for almost any act younger than U2. So I get that.

The concept of selling out is so old-fashioned that I'm not sure some of today's artists are even aware that it was even a thing, much less thought of negatively. So I may not like that the only way I'll hear a new song by, say, Camera Obscura or Real Estate or The War on Drugs is when they license it for a television show, but I get it. Hey, times have changed, the world moves on, and an artist has to make a living. I oh so very much get that. Trust me, I'm nobody and I've totally sold out more times and more cheaply than I can bear to remember.

But it seems to me that there's a big difference between writing a song with a commercial in mind (Stevie Wonder's commercial for a local soda of which he was extremely fond) and a song which, theoretically, was written from the heart (say, "Bargain").

The first is a simple act of craftsmanship and has a long history, and if that history isn't normally thought of as noble, well, at least some truly great artists have contributed to it. And when it's simply an exercise, there's seems to me no great crime against High Art, whatever that may be—it's just providing a service, and if the end result is of a high enough quality, we're all better off: there are always going to be commercials, so better good commercials than bad and, really, is it all that different than Bach writing The Art of the Fugue as a try-out for a club he wanted to join?

The second one, however, seems to me a betrayal of everything that truly great rock artists believe in and stand for. I'd have no moral qualms with Pete Townshend or Peter Gabriel giving up rock to write commercials; I'd be saddened, maybe, but otherwise, hey. But to write a song from the heart and sell it to the fans with the implicit promise (and I believe that promise is indeed implicit in everything those guys said in the first few decades of their careers) that this means something to me, this is what I really feel, this is a small slice of my soul...and then sell it to a soulless corporation for a big chunk of change, when neither of those guys is exactly on their way the poorhouse, seems a despicable act.

Do you really believe that's not the exact pose the Rolling Stones were attempting (quite successfully) to sell in the 60s and 70s? In retrospect it's pretty clear that Jagger, at the least, was almost certainly never some true believer—but they worked hard to embody the total rock and roll image, which included giving The Man the finger. But if you don't believe that they tried to make their audience believe that they somehow embodied a higher version of Integrity than the pop stars of yore, as well as the business men of the day, you're either kidding yourself or don't know your rock history. 'cuz that's exactly to a T what those middle-class kids posing as rebels were doing.

Now, do I deny that it's their right to do whatever they want with their work? Of course not. In fact, let's say that again, for those in the back, just to be perfectly clear: it's their work and they have every right to do whatever they want with it.

You know what? To make this unmissable, let's say that one more time:

It's their work and they have every right to do whatever they want with it.

But. For them to deny that every fan who gave them their money and spent hours and hours listening to their work, work that was presented as one thing, and then to turn around and sell that same piece and allow it to be used in such an utterly different and contradictory way, is a rejection of those very ideals that made them attractive to us fans in the first place. It's a con job. It's saying, here, check out this thing—it's a small slice of my soul. And you take it as such and perhaps it forms a small part of who you are. And then ten years later they sell it to an SUV commercial. That's bait and switch. It's a fine technique for making money. It's impossible to reconcile with Art or Truth.

Once again, as Townshend himself said: "Rock is art and a million other things as well: it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes."

It's a two-way thing. You give us your music, we give you our money, but in rock and roll that's not where the deal ends. There's, as Pete Townshend himself said, more—there's feedback and an identification thing that is perhaps unique to rock and which most of the great bands have acknowledged and utilized. Townshend himself obviously did (and this is not the only time he said something along these lines, just the one that was close at hand). Or at least he did before H+P offered him a couple million.

Look, he and they all have the right to do it. But that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do. I'll still enjoy their music and sometimes be touched by it and often marvel at their artistry. But I can no longer believe that they are the pure artists they would have (or have had) us believe they are.

And here's the thing: if artists as diverse as The Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, R.E.M., The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam have all refused to license their songs (it's extremely notable that McCartney has no qualms about licensing the songs of others he owns—Buddy Holly, for instance—but refuses to let the actual Beatles recordings be used) giving up in some cases mind-boggling amounts of money, then the very notion that there's something distasteful about the practice isn't absurd. You can disagree with my argument and maybe you're even right, but these artists obviously agree with me to some extent. And when someone passes up tens of millions of dollars to avoid doing it, it's something that needs to be at least given the benefit of some thought rather than dismissed out of hand.

Now. You'll note that all my examples are of extraordinarily wealthy rock stars. I don't begrudge Gary US Bonds whatever he made for those beer commercials in the early to mid 1980s, or Southside Johnny, who did one as well, or B.B. King for whatever he's done—XM Radio? Sirius? And maybe a hotel commercial too, right? And diabetes medication. And a fast food chain. And maybe a few others. God bless you, good sir, say I.

But do you really think at any point in the past twenty-five years that any of them (toss Etta James in there too) has in their best year made even a third of what, say, The Stones have made in their worst year? When real life (paying the mortgage, say) runs up against ideals, real life wins. I mean, duh. But when you're sitting on a hundred million in the bank, I kinda feel like staying true to the ideals you espoused which got your that fortune in the first place just isn't asking too much.

Neil Young clearly feels the same way, given how openly he savaged his friend Eric Clapton in an award-winning video:

As pal DT once said,
Robert Klein once joked, you may recall, that imagine how set for life Neil Armstrong would have been had he stepped onto the lunar surface and exclaimed, "Pepsi Cola!" Some moments need to exist for themselves, and art needs to exist for itself. If it's good enough or, hell, even mainstream enough, it will take on another life and turn into a moneymaker. And to that I say, "Groovy."  
Two last points and then I'll allow this self-righteous rant to die a merciful and deservéd death. The first is Tom Waits seems to agree with me and, as a general rule of thumb, if Tom Waits agrees with you, you're probably on the right track:
Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.
When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.
Finally, I think Berke Breathed's Bloom County summed it up nicely—and when in doubt, always go with a drawing of a penguin: