Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two of Them

I've seen this picture for years. Only never really looked at it until very recently.

The single most dynamic and important partnership in the history of 20th century music, caught in freeze-frame magic at the literal beginning of their superstardom. This photo, after all, was taken upon their arrival in New York City in early 1964 and stands as one of the earliest captured moments of what we now know as the British Invasion. Just by the time and place alone, not to mention the brilliance and magnitude of the two men pictured, this photo stands as one of the most iconic in the history of rock-n-roll.

But look a little closer, as I did recently, and note some fascinating details. The looks on their respective faces stand to represent, I think, a pretty accurate look behind the curtain at each of them.

There's John Lennon at 23, the sly rapscallion, effortlessly doffing his cap as he glances off to his right, offering a sneaky grin that has even the tiniest hint of a sneer attached to it, as if he's in on a joke only he can understand.

There's Paul McCartney, two years younger at 21 and a touch more innocent, his hand warmly draping his friend's shoulder, his smile more open and playful, his mouth reflecting a bit more than John's the sheer wonder of the moment.

And each of them is looking at something totally different. John's glance is sideways, Paul's is upward and straight ahead. Each fully aware of what this moment means, even if no one else does yet.

This is their first time on American soil—the United States being the holy grail for British pop artists, a territory desperately desired by all yet never before conquered by any. And keep in mind, this is a mere 13 months after their first British hit, so while they've been stars in the United Kingdom and Europe for a while, it's not like it's truly old hat to them yet.

And yet in both of those faces, the sense of total confidence, to an almost defiant degree. And clearly neither of them is spooked by this moment. Instead both know not only exactly why they belong here, but also exactly what's to come before too long. Maybe they can't see the full future. Maybe they can't yet see Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Maybe not. But they definitely see something. And they know it's going to be huge.

This is a photo of two men who know that greatness is just about to come within reach, and they know they are ready to grab it. And never let go.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Racing in the Street

Bruce Springsteen's New Year's Eve show from 1980 has been legendary among his fans since...well, pretty much since he was performing it at the time. 38 songs and nearly 4 hours long, he and the E Street Band sang and performed like it was their first and last show, in terms of energy, and like James Brown was standing off-stage with a taser, in terms of quality. Although professionally recorded, the entire show's only been officially released recently, although various tracks have shown up in various places over the years—the live boxset, some compilations, charity records and such.

Picking out highlights from a show this great is easy and difficult—there are plenty to choose from, but so many, it's tempting to just say "listen to the whole damn thing." But even so, some things stand out at you. Such as the great Professor Roy Bittan's closing solo on "Racing in the Street." His piano has a curiously tinny timbre, almost like a tack piano. But that doesn't obscure—if anything, it might make it easier to hear—the brilliance of his playing here.

Bittan casually invents melody after melody in his closing solo that, any one of which could have graced a hit single in the 1970s. Seriously, listen to his phrases, almost any of them. Now imagine a singer from the late 1970s, like Jay Ferguson or Michael Martin Murphey or Andrew Gold or Dan Hill or someone like that. Can't you just hear one of them basing a song around some of those phrases? They sound like the third and fourth lines of a five line stanza, something that follows the main melody and sets up its return. And he's doing it more or less on the fly in front of nearly 18,000 people.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Favorite Song Friday: America

Paul Simon is a great songwriter—that’s pretty much a given.

The man also has a serious predilection for being an uninformed, self-important tool, but hey, not all songwriters are saints which walk among us. And as a songwriter—despite at least one heartily misplaced sense of rivalry that hopefully by now he has forgotten about (though I doubt it)—he remains on a very, very short list.

(No, that’s not a height joke).

One of my favorite songs he ever wrote is, in fact, one of his greatest: 1968's “America,” from the wondrous Bookends album.  It’s such a beautiful piece of music and a such a personal and moving story; two young lovers making their way across the country in search of…something. It’s a heartfelt travelogue where the search is everything, to the point where we really don’t even know what the destination is. Nor do we need to, I don’t think.

And as much as any Simon and Garfunkel song, "America" I think truly shows just how essential Arthur Garfunkel was to the final product. Sure, Paul did the songwriting, played guitar, took an awful lot of the lead vocals. But listen to what Arthur's voice does to this song. His harmonies make it soar and lend it a level of soul that is almost impossible to imagine would be there without him.

But a recent listen of the song had me thinking about the songwriting first and foremost, and what an unusual turn it was for Paul Simon. This is one of the best examples I have ever heard of blank verse, minimalist songwriting, and it's not something Paul did too often.

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes
And Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

"Kathy," I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've come to look for America

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, "Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery
She read a magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

"Kathy I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why"
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

Now one of Paul's trump cards has always been to take an array of songwriting styles and make them work.

"Homeward Bound" is more of a straightforward rhyme scheme, with some internal rhyme for good measure ("...all my work comes back to me in shades of mediocrity..."). 

"The Boxer" goes for poetic flourish, particularly in the final verse, which is astounding when positioned with the straight narrative that largely proceeds it. It is also largely unrhymed until the end of each verse, which is incredibly difficult in its own right.

"The Sounds of Silence" has no chorus (like "Homeward Bound" does and which the "Lie la lie" part ably represents on "The Boxer") and instead depends on a series of couplets which lead up to a steady reveal at the end of each verse. 

"Graceland" embraces pop as much as it does its African sensibilities and stands as a more traditional, middle-aged update of the search we first hear about in "America." 

But "America" is written blankly as a straightforward narrative, not a rhyme in sight, and it works to a tee. It sounds like something Hemingway would write, if Hemingway were a songwriter.

Just look at the fourth stanza as a perfect example. It's downright journalistic, no images or metaphors to describe what's happening, just plain voice, first-person reporting, and it's staggering in its simplicity. Particularly considering Paul Simon's gift for being such an intricate and imagistic writer.

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat."
"We smoked the last one an hour ago."
So I looked at the scenery,
She read a magazine,
And the moon rose over an open field.

It's helped, of course, by an irresistible melody and, again, some of the most breathtaking interplay between the two singers we've ever heard. And it sets up for what follows; one of the saddest and most devastating lines rock-n-roll has ever produced. No drama, no bombast, just one more simple statement. And it hits like a hammer.

"Kathy I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

It's a gift to write like this, because it's so hard to mesh blank verse with melody and make it work. It's an even greater gift to have this be only one of the types of writing at which you excel. Paul Simon, flaws and annoyances aside, once occupied some very rare, very special terrain as a songwriter. He surely did.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Come Closer Together

I love this so damn much. And while it's the absolute height of hubris to presume to know what John Lennon would have thought about anything, I'm nevertheless going to say I suspect John Lennon would have loved this. But not as much as Chuck Berry, and not just because he'd be thinking about how much money it might bring. (Although that too.)

Once you get past the amusement factor at these two oh so disparate sources being mashed together, what strikes you is how well the textures actually combine: Ringo's drums and Trent Reznor's drum machines, George's lead lines and NIN's keyboards, and the interlocking vocals. And if the lyrics seem perhaps a bit crude for the lads, well, they may be less creepy than hearing Lennon whisper "shoot me."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

After the Gold Rush

Sweet flying spaghetti monster.

When the least extraordinary thing about this performance is the glass armonica solo—seriously, a damn glass armonica solo!—you know something serious is going down. Dave nails it when he says, "this is gonna be very good."

Check out—no, revel in—the slightly ragged opening. That could have been an ominous precursor, a sign that one or more of them were (improbably but not impossibly) off this night, or that there were technical problems. Instead, they snap together almost immediately, and the roughness smooths out, making the perfection that follows all the sweeter for its more earthly origins.

Monday, March 23, 2015

It Don't Matter to Me

I'd already liked Phil Collins—if you were a fan of mainstream rock in the early 80s, that was almost inevitable, to some extent, and if you were also a fan of pop, it was a foregone conclusion. Genesis was hip but not too popular or poppy yet; they had a handful of hits on both Top 40 and classic rock radio, although probably nothing that went back more than four or five years, so the overkill and backlash was still quite a ways off.

What's more, I was a drummer, so while I was sorta kinda offended by a drummer who left his post to prowl enemy territory (i.e., the front of the stage), and was not nearly as blown away as seemingly everyone else by "In the Air Tonight"—drum machine? heresy!—I loved his style and his chops. His voice was likeble, maybe a bit slight but with a bit of soul, and his self-deprecating humor delightful. Not to mention he had a way with melody, and I'm a sucker for melody. Boiled down, Collins wanted to be a funkier Beatles, like the Fabs + Stevie Wonder, with maybe just a hint of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and damn if that doesn't sound like one hell of a great recipe to me.

So I liked him. I liked his first solo album and I liked the Genesis albums Duke and Abacab. But what really pushed me over the edge into full-fledged fandom was this song.

First, the horns. I loved horns. I loved horns. I was already a huge fan of Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton and other guitar-oriented musics, but horns in a pop song? Guitars were the nouns, drums the verbs, bass the adjectives, but horns were the punctuation. Question marks, commas, exclamation points, m-dashes, ellipses, even the oh so often misunderstood semicolon. Necessary, sure, but even more than that, they made the sentence, the song, come alive.

But even more, in this case, was Collins' drumming. I already heard him play more complex stuff, songs in 7/8 and 9/8, and later I'd hear much more technically impressive stuff from his stint in the fusion band Brand X. But his use of syncopation here blew my little white suburban mind. So casual, so assured. His use of ghost notes and moving the expected 1st note on the snare forward from the 2 of the measure to the e of the 1 just thrilled me. I had no idea you could do that!

Now, if I'd listened to more funk, I'd already have known that, of course. And while cultural appropriation is something of a hot topic these days, I give props to Debussy for introducing the gamelan to a wider audience, rather than criticizing him for not inventing Balinese music. I applaud David Bowie's efforts to spread the gospel of the Velvet Underground, both through covers and from utilizing their advances in his own songs.

Either way, the drums blew me away, both the syncopation and the musical stings and stabs—the way his drums play with, in and around, the vocal and the horns is just delightful. The snare is the most obvious, but his hi-hat work is fantastic, subtle and ever changing, using different shades, opening it, sometimes only slightly, in unexpected places.

It was amusing to later find out that the Phenix Horns, the horn section of the mighty Earth, Wind & Fire, found Collins' music some of the most challenging they'd ever played, largely due to his unconventional use of horns and odd phrasing, as well as his inability to write or read notated music, but listening to him put them through their paces here it shouldn't have been a surprise.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Stayin' Alive

So this actually happened?

I assumed it was a parody, and was impressed by how on the money the Ozzy impression was (although I thought there were a few bits where they didn't get him quite right), and then discovered that, no, it's really him and Dweezil. Turns out this was released during the years where I had almost no access to new music or radio or TV or any of those things in the paleolithic period before the internet.

All of which is to say my life is slightly better now than it was an hour ago.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Metal Machine Music for Airports

This—a mashup of Brian Eno's transcendentally serene Ambient 1: Music for Airports with Lou Reed's famously abrasive Metal Machine Music—is absolutely brilliant...in theory.

It's actually not too far from what Eno has done in other contexts and it's not hard to imagine Reed would have at least been amused by it.

The problem is actually one of execution: the mashup has the industrial noise classic as loud or louder than the ambient track; if the mixer had just pulled the fader down a bit, it would have actually gelled quite nicely, giving the Eno some extra texture and creating something new and fascinating. Instead, it's nearly as unlistenable as the original Reed. Which may, of course, have been the creator's point. Rendering this entire post moot.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Original White Stripe

Great visuals. But something about it always seemed familiar to me. What could it have been...or who...


Oh. That's right.

Everything old is new again.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hotel California

Don Henley wept. (That's a good thing.)

That is exactly how I wanted it to be.

Friday, March 6, 2015


People, man. People. You see or hear the things others say and do and just shake your head, wondering how on earth they could be so foolish, ignoring—or trying to—how guilty you are of the exact same damn thing.

That Roger Waters wasn't fully cognizant of how integral David Gilmour's contributions to his artistic successes just boggles the mind. I can understand Roger being proud of his own lyrical prowess—and well he should be. I understand that Gilmour could be lazy, something David himself has admitted. I get that Roger wrote more and more of the music as well, and it wasn't entirely his own megalomaniacal tendencies (although those certainly contributed), and that by the time you've composed most of The Wall you're feeling pretty confident in your own abilities. I get that.

What I don't get is how someone can forget that they wrote this:

which is certainly a nice piece of writing, with good if not yet finished lyrics and a decent melody, but which musically doesn't sound any more advanced than the stuff he'd been writing three or four years earlier. And then the phenomenal guitarist/outstanding singer and excellent keyboardist/good singer and, yes, even the not technically accomplished but stylistically identifiable and tasteful drummer—your best friend—in your band turn it into this:

and you don't think, huh...maybe I've got a pretty good thing going, but instead, sod 'em—I'm going solo and I'll show them...I'll show them all!

32 years down the road and Roger Waters has yet to record a single song as notable as any of dozens he created in the last decade of the band. (Nor, for that matter, has David Gilmour or Rick Wright.) It's a thing that happens, when musicians begin to fancy themselves auteurs, and it's a shame. For them and for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Promised Land

Hell yes, I wanna know what it sounds like when Sleater-Kinney covers Bruce Springsteen.

Oh. Huh. Yeah, that's about right: a bit rough, more than a little ragged, and totally kickass.

[H/T: Legends of Springsteen]