Thursday, February 24, 2005

45s Sidebar: Songs for Swinging Hetero Males

Gentlemen, let’s talk.

Looking for the perfect musical aphrodisiac? You may think it’s April Wine pounding out "Feel Like Makin’ Love," but it isn’t—for the love of God, it just isn’t.

The path to Multiple O(rgasm) is best trod with Multiple O(ptions). Unless you plan on referring to your newfound love as "the old lady," none of these involve classic rock. Painful? Just remember that your own taste in music means nothing. If single heteros based their CD collections entirely on their own desires, how many men would spend money on Joni Mitchell? Not many. Face it, Court & Spark is on your shelf to seduce, just as Miles and Trane are there to provide visitors with insight into your cosmopolitan tastes and down-with-all-races outlook.

There’s no shame in this. Being Americans, we must consume. But the wise man consumes with purpose. He is respectful of time-tested ways, and learned in history.

Having all the possible aphrodisiacs on-hand can get expensive. So learn her personality, if time allows, and choose accordingly. By the way, this advice is not intended to replace the thoughtfulness of a clean bathtub. Remember to floss. Wine, not beer. And try not to mention your band/paintings/screenplay until at least halfway through the first date.

Blatantly sexual, and therefore suitable for every kind of dancing from spasmodic rave to close-and-slow to striptease, Prince’s music is irresistible to both genders. Whereas it may serve as mere good music for you, though, it lies somewhere between hypnosis and Pentecostal revelation for women. Play it safe and buy 1999 and Purple Rain. Add Around the World in a Day for hippy chicks, Dirty Mind if you’re very confident or paying $200 at the end of the night.

Exile in Guyville
Hardly a romantic album, but then like almost every man who owns it you’ll be displaying it, not playing it. Owning Exile in Guyville sends a flurry of messages. It can mean you admire great kick-ass femme music regardless of the ruin it wreaks on your self-esteem. It can offer you the opening to claim you liked it before Spin did—a blatant lie but also a good test of the woman's gullibility. Okay, maybe you haven’t listened to it since 1995, but a certain kind of woman never stopped. To understand this disc’s appeal, keep in mind Liz Phair represents an ideal, albeit one a lot of women won’t cop to sharing: she’s an indie rock goddess who vented women’s rage to universal celebration, defined cred despite growing up privileged, and now has sailed off into a beautiful bourgeois sunset provided by appealing to thirteen year-old girls. Talk about having it all.

Okay, this breaks the classic rock rule. But pure catnip if she studied classical music. This is the best Led Zeppelin seduction song. "Whole Lotta Love" works if you met in a women's prison, maybe, and if you are courting there, too. Otherwise, avoid it until you get to know one-another, preferably in the non-Biblical sense.

Natalie Merchant
Is your potential lady love a touch granola? Able to discuss soy products at length? Passing sensitive? The Beautiful If Brittle Voice of her Generation possesses great powers, especially among those turned off by anger. Underestimate her at your own risk. Tip: try not to look at the cover of Motherland and comment, "Nice rack."

James Taylor
So obvious the very inclusion may be insulting. Of late there’s been a helpful Taylor-related development in late-night cable viewing. Time-Life Music features Sweet Baby in its ubiquitous Singers and Songwriters infomercial. Thus, even if the two of you are watching TV on the couch, James Taylor can work his mojo! Best of all, he also appears in the Carol King clip. If you work the Carly Simon connection into the conversation, he’s essentially in the room for a half-hour straight.

Acceptable substitute: Cat Stevens. Unacceptable substitute: Dan Fogelberg.

PJ Harvey/Lucinda Williams/Beth Orton/Bjork Continuum
We live in the most open era ever for women to record, get attention, and actually be heard. The quartet mentioned above is but a representative sample—you may have to attend a listening station somewhere to gain a working knowledge of credible Women’s Voices. If you’re too lazy, break it down this way: Harvey for the edgy music connoisseur; Williams for the motorcycle enthusiast; Orton for the folkie you want to steer off Joni Mitchell; Bjork—well, Bjork is so out there her listeners defy easy classification. But if you're going to give Bjork space at your Sugar Shack, be prepared. Her fans are biggggg fans. Get acquainted with her music, tiger, because if you try to bluff here, you're headed to Lonelyville.

Al Green
Finally, the aural love potion for all generations. Those of you finalizing the second divorce may daydream back to days of braless splendor and the baby boomlet single-handedly inspired by this man. For the rest of you, Green is a great idea under any circumstances, including impending apocalypse.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Rock star dream

The Beatles had reunited for a concert. It took place in an old-time music hall, and John was still dead, but that is where reality ended, because George yet lived. Despite appearing on the same bill, all three surviving Beatles were to play by themselves, one at a time. Those of us in the audience waited with bated breath to see if they would do a Fab jam as the fourth segment of the show. Even more ridiculously, Paul led off the show. Now within any reality, even that of my subconscious, we can rest assured McCartney would headline. Has my training with the inverted pyramid sank so deep that it has mucked up this dream? Worse, Paul began not with a Beatles song but with mellower Wings hits. (I cannot recall which one. I think "My Love" or "Just Another Day" or some mash of the two.)

I am in the lobby as the show starts, getting coffee, when I inadvertently demolish the coffee urn. McCartney is playing through tinny Hamburg-era amps and I'm sponging up spilled java! Then I can't get back to my seat. Suddenly George starts playing. That means Ringo is closing the show!!! Even in the throes of REM sleep I cannot believe this, no one in the hall can believe it.

When I wake up, I go into the kitchen and eat grapes.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Are you ready for the country?

The Associated Press article on Country Music Television’s greatest songs list asked, "Is Tammy Wynette’s1968 classic ‘Stand by Your Man’ truly the best country song of all time?" The answer would be: Hell, yes.

The CMT list cheats the early days of the genre in favor of too many songs from the last ten years. Most of these lists do. In country’s case, that imbalance is best understood when you remember the genre has never been bigger than it is now. Not in the days when "Hee Haw" pulled ratings and a not-so-genial hack like Porter Waggoner had a TV show. Not a decade later when Burt Reynolds was introducing yankees to Coors and hot rod death traps. Seeing Garth Brooks and Shania Twain selling more albums themselves than the entire genre moved in the 1960s has to be pretty heady stuff for CMT’s old-timers.

Alas, a certain number of objectionable choices are inevitable. This being modern country music, there are nods to schlock ("God Bless the USA," "Delta Dawn") and to slick ("Smoky Mountain Rain," "The Gambler") and, alas, to The Eagles ("Desperado"—I mean, you put "Tequila Sunrise" here or just forget it).

Could I elaborate on the entire hundred? Did Minnie Pearl wear a funny hat? Could other songs be Number One? Absolutely, starting with Hank Williams’ "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" (it came in at #29). But at least these experts were smart enough to keep Ray Stevens off the list.

1. "Stand by Your Man," by Tammy Wynette
George Jones agreed with this choice. George Jones is the earthbound god of country music, the man who put the philosophy espoused in this song to the test (with Tammy, no less). If he’s going to show up to an interview—no sure thing—we must heed his praise. The only unfortunate thing about the choice is that it provided the media another excuse to talk about Hillary Clinton. Could no one call up a music historian, or Loretta Lynn, or, hell, Lyle Lovett, to elaborate on why this song was legendary enough to pop into Hillary’s head in the first place?

2. "He Stopped Loving Her Today," by George Jones
A perfect storm of a country song: man loses woman; man spends life pining away for her; man exhibits disturbing obsessive behavior; and then throw in a funeral at the end of the song. The woman shows up, of course. Masterpiece! All it’s missing is a dog! Besides having the most admired voice in the history of country, Jones paints the corners of a lyric like few others. Listen to the perfectly controlled raging river of emotion when he sings, "First time I’ve seen him smile in years." That chill you feel is the recognition of genius.

3. "Crazy," by Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson
Nelson wrote the song and once joked the original title was "Stupid." It would have been great that way, too. A contender for Number One, "Crazy" is a classic ballad. Cline’s version would pass muster on any pop or standards album—then, or now. If it’s A7 on the jukebox at your favorite bar, you can bet the print on those two buttons has faded from overuse.

4. "Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash
Cash is all over the list, and rightly so. None of his songs can really eclipse "Folsom Prison Blues" (#25) because singing the line "I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die" inside Folsom Prison is the perfect merging of music and moment. But June Carter Cash co-wrote "Ring of Fire" and that Mexicali horn drove the man she wrote it about straight to superstardom.

5. "Your Cheatin’ Heart," by Hank Williams
Inarguable. A song that should be on that gold platter we sent into deep space.

6. "Friends in Low Places," by Garth Brooks
I don’t mean to pick on Garth, the only contemporary artist in the Top Ten, because as a phenomenon, he cannot be denied. The genre will still be trying to pay back what it owes him fifty years from now, when Shania Twain’s third clone has bought Mars. But, really, the man’s ballads deserve recognition more than this so-so attempt at honky-tonk cred. A Brooks ballad is a thing of cynical beauty: a mix of time-tested Eagles country with a voice that never misfires on its quivers. If, however, CMT intended this to represent the contemporary affection for shitkicker anthems, then it should have chosen Travis Tritt’s "Here’s a Quarter," a funnier and more rollicking tune.

7. "I Fall to Pieces," by Patsy Cline

8. "Galveston," by Glen Campbell
This selection boggles me. Campbell has one undisputed classic: "Wichita Lineman." Three minutes of mind-blowing immortality and it isn’t even on the list! "Galveston" isn't even as good as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

9. "Behind Closed Doors," Charlie Rich
A pleasant surprise. Rich’s relatively short time in the spotlight—undone by his faithfulness to jazz and bullheaded integrity, among other things—shouldn’t be taken to mean his was a minor talent. An excellent darkhorse selection.

10. "Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
That’s what you call a Marvel Team-up. One of the most popular country songs ever, "Mommas" nonetheless cannot hold a candle to Jennings’ classic "Luckenbach, Texas." And if you prefer to place Willie up high—a fashionable attitude these days—then "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" shouldn’t be down at #23. (Actually, it shouldn't be down at #23. Hey!)

Surprising Omissions Dep’t: "Great Speckle Bird," by Roy Acuff; the entire Alabama catalog (this is a band with upwards of 50 #1 hits!); "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA," by Donna Fargo; and, really, only one Merle Haggard song?

Sammi Smith

Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" is one of the great country ballads, and country knows from ballads. In its time it was a strange combination of forces. Smith had scored a couple of country hits. Songwriter Kris Kristofferson, now well-known as a Renaissance Man, was then still under suspicion for his hippy credentials (not widely appreciated in Nashville) and rep as a free spirit (also not widely appreciated in Nashville, but tolerated once one achieved success, lest the establishment repeat certain epic embarrassments, i.e. banning Hank Williams from the Opry).

Recorded with crack musicians, and tinged with a bit of jazz, of all things, "Help Me Make It Through the Night" is music for grown-ups. Country has a long tradition of songs that deal with the compromises men and women make with one-another—women have to put up with more, not surprisingly, including death on many occasions. This song helped steer the genre toward new, adult themes, while at the same time linking it to similar songs found across the length and breadth of American popular music.

If you've spent any time in the relationship wars, it's likely Kristofferson captured a feeling you recognize. Maybe you've exploited it; probably you've felt it sincerely on a few occasions. "Help Me Make It Through the Night" is the soundtrack playing in dark bedrooms and the tiny flame of a cigarette, the song amidst the four a.m. church bells, the voice in your head saying, "It's sad to be alone." In other words, it is profound truth.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The flame burns oyster blue

There's a bar game called "Bad Band, Good Song." One person tosses out the name of a band/artist hated by a quorum of those present. Everyone around the table then admits to the song by said band/artist that he or she likes. In a harder-drinking version, any person refusing to answer downs a shot of Jägermeister, meaning that the moment Genesis is mentioned blood alcohol levels rise appreciably.

During one memorable session, someone present brought up Blue Öyster Cult. At first most of us could not decide whether they were a bad band. Not a great one, but not bad. As an experiment we submitted BÖC to the process. The first contestant blurted out "Iron Man" as his favorite, to much howling derision. Eventually we let up on him because (1) Black Sabbath and BÖC often played the same speedways, (2) he was drunk, and (3) it was clear from his follow-up explanation that he meant "Godzilla," a real BÖC song. He got it all confused, he said, because he considered Godzilla a superhero. Why? Marvel Comics published a Godzilla comic. Pause for more derision.

The rest of us split right down the middle. Half chose "Burnin' for You," and all mentioned the video with the guy standing next to a burning trash can. I voted with the other faction for "Don't Fear the Reaper." We could be like they are, baby! Though had I known BÖC put out a song called "Golden Age of Leather," that would've gotten my vote.

Obviously, this shows the gathering had but a casual acquaintance with BÖC, a band with more than two songs, nay with many albums, to its credit. To be honest, I consistently and inexplicably confuse them with Nazareth.

Here's the question. Does the split between "Burnin' For You" and "Don't Fear the Reaper" reveal a deeper sociological truth? For instance, you can tell a lot about a person by their choice of "Penny Lane" or "Strawberry Fields Forever." The songs represent a psychic divide, like liberal vs. conservative, Flemish vs. Walloon, spit vs. swallow. Does choosing "Burnin' for You," then, also reveal something? Something that ought to be asked about on a first date, for instance? Is it the sign of a sensual nature, say, as opposed to the thanatos-laden "Don't Fear the Reaper," obviously the choice of a neg-vibed basket case destined to call you up in the middle of the night from the cold nexus of a freak-out?

Or vice-versa?

Speed-daters, take note.

Funky, funky Yorktown

For years the divisive issue of rock in our schools has played a high-profile role in the culture wars. Now, as we again ponder the question, this blog, like Tolstoy, cannot remain silent. In the first editorial in our history, we declare that America should allow rock in schools.

No doubt some disapprove. Having eliminated evolution from our classrooms, having gotten ride of the First Law of Thermodynamics and left us in a universe where energy can be destroyed at will, these people would deny our children the chance to acquire truly useful knowledge. Kids, your instincts are correct. Outside of a handful of fields, algebra is useless in adulthood. Number of times I've used it in the last ten years? Zero. Number of times I have been called upon to discuss Nine Inch Nails? At least twice.

Music goes back to the dawn of our great nation, to that day when the Minutemen blasted the redcoats off the Plains of Lexington with righteous punk rock. Look how many musicians are descended from the Founders. Dinah Washington. Herbie Hancock. Aretha Franklin. As this kind of talent merely descended from the Revolutionary Era, we can be sure that the men of the Continental Congress jammed hard when the day's work was done, the night's ale was quaffed, and James Madison brought out his banjo.

Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans" covered the only memorable moment in the War of 1812. The Stones commented on antebellum slavery. Everyone from The Band to Guns 'N Roses had a say about the Civil War. No doubt some crazy alt-rock group has even explained the Treaty of Portsmouth. It is woven into our national fabric, this thing called rock, from the folkie trios who welcomed the stinking crews of New Bedford whaling ships to Neil Armstrong cranking Axis: Bold As Love on the way to the funky Moon. Hey, we didn't start the fire. Do we have any right to keep it from our children?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

White hunter, Green Day

Earlier this week Neal Pollack, writing in Salon, expressed an unorthodox opinion:
There's lot of lifetime achievement tonight, probably too much, as Led Zeppelin gets a lifetime achievement award. In a case of reverse irony, Green Day wins best rock album immediately after. They're a band far better than Zeppelin, though the sex to their music goes at a much less seductive pace.
Naturally this created outrage—more than the daily amount, that is—on the Salon letters page.

Having read the column in real time, I either gave Pollack too much credit, or I picked up on a sly attitude that apparently went over the head of a Salon readership always attuned to the opportunity for outrage. Look, I like overwrought as much as the next guy, but when an average sampling of letters about the story use words like "shock," "stunned," "my heart froze in horror," "authoritarian diatribe," and the inevitable "Green Day isn't the Sex Pistols" commentary (true enough, as they do not have a unmusical and violent retard as their bass player), I have to call bullshit.

One of the writers accuses Pollack of bias. In a humorous opinion column! Does the Southern Poverty Law Center now track hate speech against Led Zeppelin? Another writer claims Green Day sounds like the Clash in 1978. Hell, if that's true, there's no basis for criticism!

What is unfortunate is that Pollack appears to be too chastised to lay into that kind of self-contradictory "informed rock opinion." Or maybe he has other things to do.

Put aside the relative merits of the two bands for a second. You know what? Green Day is more relevant, right here right now. Zeppelin last put out an album (a mediocre one) during the Carter Administration! Page has since spent a generation playing with inferiors while Plant, when he records at all, covers 1950s hits. While I'll make fun of Green Day, and have no idea why they've been transformed from a leading critical anti-christ to a Band That Matters, a certain kind of punk is mainstream now, i.e., it is pop, and we all need to get good with that. A lot of people who cling to their Ramones t-shirts cannot admit "their" music was appropriated, not by Green Day, but by The Man in the 1970s. Neither the Clash, nor the Sex Pistols, nor the Ramones played on the disco-era equivalent of Kill Rock Stars, and since the Salonistas mentioned those groups instead of cred-heavy SST bands, that's the level I'm going to argue on.

After years in the wilderness, punk hit the radio with Nirvana. Naturally, the marketplace demanded a pop spin-off from the genre, a slightly easier listen than the Dead Kennedys. That's what happens with mainstreaming. That's why Led Zeppelin sells better than a real bluesman like Leadbelly. For better or worse, that's also why we have Green Day. I don't mind Zeppelin loyalty. I like Zeppelin! But reflexive "Zep is great, you naive prat!!" nonsense? I thought Salon readers prided themselves on sophisticated argument.

A related digression: putting aside the band's apparently self-evident greatness, what about Led Zeppelin's influence, that mysterious commodity taken so often as a sign of Zeus status in rock circles? Granted, untold thousands of guitarists have imitated Page, and with good reason. But, really, how many Zep descendants walk the Earth? Black Sabbath, not Led Zeppelin, gets credit as the ur-metal band. As for other blues-based rock (like Dave Matthews), they either rip off the blues straight or doodle like the Dead.

Let's be honest. Zeppelin's children do not dominate pop music. The offspring of the Clash, REM, Grandmaster Flash, Whitney H., and (the horror!) the Eagles do. If one cares enough about music to rant to Salon, then presumably one cares enough to try and figure out which of today's bands will be talked about a generation from now. Green Day may or may not be one of those bands. But I am confident Zeppelin won't enter into the discussion. They'll be as relevant in the year 2060 as Bing Crosby is to rock fans now. Some find that sad. I don't. That's rock and roll—impatient, moving forward, the emphasis on the "roll."

Ask the Bolshevik

Dear Bolshevik,
Did the Soviet Union ever have a song that paralleled "American Pie," you know, with hazy allusions and Boomer nostalgia and all that? —PAPERBOY

A: In fact, a USSR singer did release such a song in answer to Don McLean's—ah, how do you say?—smash hit. I can hear it now. "Pravda on the doorstep/We're deader than Ptah-hotep."

We of course did not have Chevys to drive to the levee, but instead East German autos built of plywood that we took down to the abandoned hydroelectric complex. "Whiskey and rye" became "vodka and vodka." And our singer removed that verse about the Bible, for obvious reasons. Allow me to reprint another verse here, translated by myself:

Oh, and while the premier was looking down
The commissar renamed another town
The courtroom was adjourned
Ten guilty verdicts were returned!
And while Lenin talked to a nark
The firing squad practiced in the park
And we lost some fingernails in the dark
The day the music died.

Dear Bolshevik,
What kind of music did Stalin listen to? Surely if he'd been around in the 1980s no one would have dared to invite the Scorpions to Moscow. —B.D.

A: Stalin had dismal taste in music. After he banned jazz we had to listen to Shostakovich. After he banned Shostakovich, we had to listen to Georgians. I do not mean Charlie Daniels or REM. I refer instead to Georgian bards from the Caucasus Mountains, men with long beards and long songs to sing, yogurt-fortified nonagenarians every one of them, and as often as not playing harps or funny little Zorba-esque guitars. Needless to say, the chance of meeting women was small at such concerts.

Get in the ring

When you need to move many copies of your music magazine, you do a story on Guns 'N Roses. Spin knew it. Mojo continues the tradition. This month: a bold promise that the long awaited Chinese Democracy, aka Axl Rose's Smile, is at last going to hit the shelves in the spring. Spring of 2005, that is. Has our lost leader returned? Maybe being replaced by Scott Weiland does wonders for your motivation.

On newsstands now. If you're lucky.

[Tipped by MAH.]

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Number one with a bullet

More than one person has asked, "Where are the anti-war songs?" I would ask, "Where is the next Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler?"

In 1966, Sadler answered the anti-war tunes of the time with his own Number One smash, "The Ballad of the Green Berets," the story of those fighting soldiers from the sky. Before there were red states there was red-blooded, and Sadler's martial musical salute to the Special Forces—drums, trumpets, death, but somehow no whistling—gave supporters of the war a chance to stand with America's best, those trained to live off nature's land, trained in combat, hand to hand! Two million people bought the album and it still drums up passions today, as this review from Amazon shows:

...his life of service helped assure that certain miserable pukes for human beings could freely review his music on Amazon and cast him as something evil.

Nice try, kids. Someday you'll have to pay for your own internet service in order to post insults and bullcrap, and stop living off of your parents to get cheap thrills by hating all things American.

In Vietnam the Green Berets were the hip soldiers. John Wayne knew it—that's why the celebrated WWII draft-avoider featured them in his movie. So which elite military force symbolizes the Iraq War? I can't hear "Delta Force" without thinking of the Chuck Norris movie. The SEALS? Certainly that opens the door to some sea imagery, though seals are not exactly the fiercest aquatic mammal out there. The Rangers? Elite antiterrorism teams unknown to this blog?

I believe even supporters of the Iraq War would admit it could use a PR boost. Someone better than Toby Keith must be willing to throw down some jingo-pop. Clearly I am not suggesting John Ashcroft write another song. But maybe a "We Didn't Start the Fire" sort of thing, featuring randomly shouted references from the past three years. Just one of many possibilities! And please, no more pro-war country songs. That isn't controversial. That's shooting fish in a barrel.

Monday, February 14, 2005

45s: Playing doctor

"Jessie’s Girl," by Rick Springfield
Written by Rick Springfield

TV has sold a lot of records. Back in the late 1950s Ricky (later Rick) Nelson played his rockabilly stylings from the platform of Ozzie and Harriet, a sitcom so old it was broadcast in Sumerian. Over the years the industry perfected the TV-music selling machine. There were the Monkees, then an army of teen idols all named either Bobby or Cassidy, and so the process continues today, with a legion of woman-childs, all with the same voice, all with the same reconstructed nose.

Considering that history, Rick Springfield accomplished something quite rare. He used TV to launch an excellent pop song.

In doing so he shunned both cover songs ("More bland, Mr. Willis, more bland!") and the cocoon of violins-chorus-echo that has for years covered up weak TV voices (Ringo's, too). Fate put Springfield in an odd place. More than teen idol. Less than rock star. But no matter. As Dr. Noah Drake, internist at General Hospital, he took his androgynous good looks into the hearts and hearths of women five times a week. I’m just not sure how you get through the death march of a residency with hair that good.

Fortunately, Springfield brought more than his soap opera looks. If "Jessie’s Girl" is one of the best hits of 1981, and it is, he owes New Wave and especially the Knack—that celebrated hybrid of garage band and novelty act—for making stripped down guitar pop palatable to the kids. Granted, a lack of competition helped. The state of guitar pop on the Billboard charts was so grim that fans of the genre sought comfort with Greg Kihn’s "The Breakup Song."

To mention New Wave is not to suggest "Jessie’s Girl" is New Wave. Anyone making that statement should expect David Byrne to show up at his/her house and shoot out his/her porch lights. Better, then, to attribute the bare-bones sound to a guess that Springfield's label told him to make the album for thirty grand, and then threw in coupons for discount hoagies as a gesture of magnanimity. Stripped down without money sounds like Springfield’s Working Class Dog. Stripped down with money sounds like Candy-O.

When "Jessie’s Girl" broke through, Springfield became the latest overnight sensation to have taken years to succeed. He had kicked around long enough to have done troop shows in Vietnam and enjoy teen idol success in his native Australia. In the U.S. he celebrated a minor hit ("Speak to the Sky") in 1972 and, more ominously, a thirtieth birthday in 1979. If this lacks the cred caché of growing up in a shotgun shack, it at least suggests Springfield had thought about music prior to curing what ailed America’s female population on GH.

Don’t let the Grammy Award fool you. "Jessie’s Girl" is a good little number. Simple, to be sure, but, please, this is pop music. Springfield’s voice is decent if not distinctive—one of the benefits (and the drawbacks) of being a professional actor. The song’s greatest virtue by far is its sense of humor. On the surface the lyrics report yet another instance of that sad moment, known to us all, when we realize we desire a friend’s significant other from her suede-blue eyes right down to her nuclear boots. But listen more closely:

And I'm lookin’ in the mirror all the time, wondering what she don't see in me
I've been funny
I've been cool with the lines
Ain't that the way love supposed to be?
A hook is one thing, but genuinely funny lyrics? Niiice. Yes, the narrator is a moron, albeit a moron smart enough to credibly rhyme "cute" with "moot."

Let us offer praise—not as faint as it sounds—that Springfield, on "Jessie’s Girl" at least, was good at what he did. He ended up having a six-hit run devoid of sugary strings and odes to dead spouses. Keep in mind the music was not a product of the TV show, a strange thing in these matters. In fact he took the soap opera gig—a leap from a guest spot on Battlestar Galactica, no less—because Working Class Dog was tied up by record company politics. It is thus possible he saw some of the cash generated by his songs, unlike David Cassidy, a bitter fame casualty, or the aforementioned Monkees, four men with little to show for all those hits except pay stubs and much-abused Don Kirshner voodoo dolls.

Twenty-some years on most of Springfield’s albums remain in print and he’s sold millions of them. RCA got a pretty good return on its investment of those hoagie coupons.

Video, video. Like many videos of the time, "Jessie’s Girl" looks like it was recorded on film stock rescued from gamma ray bombardment. Once we roll ‘em, Rick looks intense, Rick looks pensive, Rick uses his actor’s training to lip-synch more plausibly than many contemporaries. The narrow tie is a nice touch that visually suggested angry New Wavers; smashing a guitar into a mirror suggested the behavior of same. Yes, the video brought shrieks from the females at home. But if I may reference the Knack one more time, hey, sometimes the little girls know.

In memoriam, a few years on

Three years ago yesterday, Waylon Jennings departed this mortal coil.

Essential country singer. A man married four times by age 31. The only non-rocker to enjoy Pamela Des Barres in the seminal (so to speak) rock groupie book I'm With the Band. He sang with Willie, fought with Chet Atkins, obsessed on Hank Williams, gave up his seat on Buddy Holly's death plane (alas for the Big Bopper) and named his son Shooter. Talk about a survivor. This man lived through being the roommate of Johnny Cash!

Like many of you I too once despised country music. Yea, back in the dark days of youth, when I was worrying over mulleted Irish messiahs, I too dismissed both country and western, and consigned Waylon to a unique Hell whereas he dwelt within a molten lake unable to grab the cool Coors dangling from a tree just out of reach.

True, the man hosted The Dukes of Hazzard, a show even nostalgia cannot redeem. Yet the theme song (I'm trying not to reach here) expressed a Waylonesque philosophy of life, such as it existed beyond multiple wives and immense belt buckles and a Richards-ian coke habit. I will not bother to quote lyrics from the Dukes theme song, because I know it is going thru your head now, and because I refuse to accept that as his best-known composition.

Too much country music is awful, lacking ambition, trite; things Jennings himself railed against in songs and interviews. But mainstream rock music suffers from the same problems. Jennings, passing through the early days of rock, changed the way country sounded, even the way it was made. A thumping rhythm section and funky lead guitar usually dominated; but he ranged wide, from straight ballads to honky-tonk rave-ups to cover songs that revealed his eclectic tastes and fearlessness—think Allman Brothers, think (if you dare) Stevie Nicks. He fought long and hard to get there. When he started out, the genre was such an industry—with all that the word implies—that few before Waylon had managed to gain any control of their own music.

Dismiss him at your own risk. Here was a man capable of humor, as in the sublime "The Wurlitzer Prize," maybe the only country song ever to feature a tribute to Neil Diamond (and, for you songbird-loving but country-disliking doubters out there, one Norah Jones considered worth covering). He interpreted Kristofferson better than Kristofferson and Willie Nelson almost as well as Willie his own self.

Raise a glass. Better yet, find a jukebox with "Amanda." And "Luckenbach, Texas." And "Old Five and Dimers Like Me." One dollar for three songs, eleven minutes, and a thousand tears.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Turn me on, Uruguayan guru

Paul is not dead. True, the voice is a bit thinner. He is in the early stages of the Old Woman Face syndrome that has already struck down Paul Simon. But as far as we can ascertain, using the empirical methods scorned by the Bush Administration, he remains in that half of the Beatles still alive.

But a few flat-earthers continue to believe The Cute One died in 1966, prior to Sgt. Pepper's. Like any conspiracy theory, the Paul Really Is Dead school produces evidence to prove its point. Some consider this in bad taste. But such energy is devoted to the enterprise! Here we have not just the theory written in detail, but a number of matched photos and morphing photos.

I'm not sure what I like most. The b&w imposter pic has a great "I steal atomic secrets for the Soviets" vibe. But maybe page four deserves the top prize for showing Paul's head growing by at least 25% between the infamous "Butcher" cover and a pose in the Pepper uniforms. Growing physically, that is—let's pass on the temptation to make a joke about McCartney's healthy ego.

Sure it's all utter rot, as the Brits say. But what if McCartney faked his death? You know, like Jim Morrison. (Because if there's anyone who hated fame and universal love, it was Paul.) Some Doors fans believed that Morrison had dropped out, not died. I dig it. My theory? Jim ran away to Uruguay, there to act as poetic Pied Piper to the groovy grandchildren of Nazi war criminals. I bet he teaches still—guiding Aryan seekers on vision quests with strange plant juices and Amazonian toad secretions.

Is it possible Paul paved the way? He was always good with money. Maybe he got in on the Uruguayan real estate boom and bought cheap land for a hacienda. Hey, we know pot grows pretty well down there. How hard could it be to work as an absentee Beatle? Build a studio, record, then send off the tape to Abbey Road. The others then add their parts, if any. Remember, there was a lot less collaboration going on after Pepper's. Don't dismiss the idea too easily. Really, if you were Paul McCartney in the late 1960s, would you move to cold and rainy Scotland?

[Heads-up credit to James Tiberius for the conspiracy theory site.]

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Annual tribute to the Grammy Awards

That Rod Stewart has wasted his talent is, by this time, inarguable. Yet in ancient times a different Rooster walked the earth. In those days blue-eyed Brit soulsters came—Joe Cocker, and right there onstage from the looks of it—and went—Steve Winwood, though unfortunately not for long. But when it came to charisma and sales and—no kidding—taste in material, Rod Stewart humbled them all, and that doesn’t even take cocksmanship into account.

Stewart once got the press to pay attention to him by insulting Sting, something the rest of us do in obscurity. Perhaps feisty after another transfusion of whatever penicillin-derived goo courses through his veins, and needing ink for a new stage show featuring his music, the Mod vented:

"Stewart, who has sold more than 100 million albums, said it was astounding that he had never won a Grammy, America’s prized musical award. ‘They tend not to give it to the British unless you’re Sting.’

"‘The sun shines out of his arse, a pure jazz musician, Mr. Serious who helps the Indians.’"

Stop and think a moment. Rod Stewart is complaining he’s never won a Grammy. He’s complaining he’s never won a doorstop handed out to towering talents like Sheryl Crow. And, well, Sting. There can be but one response.

Rod, you little bitch.

We come not to praise Sting. On other days we’d bury him, and just as deeply. In fact both men have followed career arcs so similar one cannot help but wonder if Stewart’s attack is misplaced self-loathing. Bleached blonds crib from black people (Stewart from Americans, Sting from Jamaicans), show rare gift for humor (Stewart’s rueful, Sting’s brainier-than-thou), and after surprising pop success become superstars. Soon the Rooster was singing love songs to soccer teams while Sting, having long kept his jazz proclivities in the realm of mood music, where they belong, ditched the two other peroxidites in his band to dream of sax solos and blue turtles.

One more time. Rod Stewart is ON THE RECORD complaining he’s never won a Grammy.

Stewart has now presented every symptom of a performer suffering from Stayed Too Long Syndrome. Innumerable greatest hits collections? Check. The album of standards? Check in triplicate, and counting. My God, he attacked Sting as part of his shilling campaign for a stage show based on his songs. A stage show is the phase of STL Syndrome where one exhibits blindness and dementia!

Yet he insults others? If only he used those balls in his singing.

Does Rod remember, in the part of his brain as-yet-undevoured by spirochetes, that he ever recorded a song as sweet and real as "You Wear It Well?" For that matter does he remember any of Gasoline Alley? Singing over fiddles rather than the violins of E.Z. Listening and the Pure Pabulum Orchestra? Sit down for a shocking history lesson, children. Right up there with the Abe Lincoln Was Gay rumors.

Rod Stewart rocked.

The single "Every Picture Tells a Story" is one the great sloppy rave-ups to ever hit the Top Forty. Seemingly recorded off a live take, the song is soaked in enough testosterone and lager to power a skinhead production of "Glengarry Glen Ross." So completely has Stewart demolished his talent it’s impossible to believe he could ever communicate the laddish joy of being surprised by a conquest (his own) into lyrics like this:

I firmly believe that I didn’t need anyone but me
I sincerely thought I was so complete
Look how wrong you can be
The women I've known I wouldn’t let tie my shoe
They wouldn't give you the time of day
Yes, as hard as it is to believe, Rod Stewart could once sing a line where he sounded like a man.

Look, an artistic move into pop, done right, should not be condemned. But abandoning one's talent to pursue Linda Ronstadt’s career does not qualify as branching out. Neither does murdering a Tom Waits song and then claiming Waits didn’t know how to sing it properly.

Confidential to Rod: while you undoubtedly used "pure jazz musician" with the proper spite, keep in mind Sting’s pretensions seem to be confined to scoring the lead track on "Pure Moods Volume 14," while you inflict yourself upon the cream of American songwriting. As for the Indians, at least Mr. Serious has once or twice in his life reached out a hand expecting something other than a fistful of under-ripe ass.

I can overlook "Hot Legs." Give me two beers and I’ll love "Young Turks." But you’ve forced me to defend Sting, Rod. This I cannot forgive.

Eat a peach ... slowly

Today I heard a DJ make a joking reference to Cass Elliott choking to death on a sandwich. Sigh. We have a lot of 'jays here in town with a simply breathtaking lack of originality. Either the Midwest does not attract radio talent, or radio is, as I've long suspected, the very lowest tier of show business‡, with most (though not all) of its slots filled by those who combine a performance jones and a Tom Arnold-level of "talent." No wonder people think Limbaugh is a genius. He can actually deliver a line he made up himself.

Back to Cass. Dying via sandwich—inherently funnier than choking to death on your own vomit? Allow me to argue the answer is no. Only Hendrix's iconic status has saved him from similar mockery. Hey, we all eat sandwiches. We're warned from the time we start solid food not to choke on them. We're all fat, according to the latest statistics. Ergo, Cass Elliot's fate could befall to anyone.

By contrast, how out-of-your-mind do you have to be to overcome the millions of years of evolution that led to the gag reflex? I agree death by vomit is a classic rock demise, right up there with being shot in a hotel room, poor piloting skills, and electrocution via your own guitar. If the universe must thin the rock star herd, then let it provide occupational hazards. But Cass Elliot jokes? From the looks of some of our on-air "talent," they themselves should be worried about the hazards of lunch.

‡ Admitting that most radio is to show business what most blogs are to literature.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Cleanin' out my closet

One of my blind spots as a music fan is a sadly undiscriminating love of British pop, particularly its 1980s manifestations. Where this comes from escapes me. Having come of age in small and modest-sized Midwestern towns, I spent my formative years with a peer group that broke into three camps:

1: Country
2: Nugent
3: Nugent's better cousins, i.e. Van Halen

In that atmosphere, admiration of British bands could be hazardous. Let me set the scene. I'm hanging with friends, there's a lot of solo Hagar and Def Leppard and even a little REO in the air. Some arguing. Some air guitar. Deep down, though, about the only thing I can contribute to the discussion is an enthusiasm for "Tainted Love" that I myself do not understand. I wisely remain quiet. Some unfortunate teens are tortured by worries over their sexuality. I felt immense guilt because I secretly listened to my dad's Squeeze albums.

Once the family moved to an urban area (East Side Story and all), I could address the feelings more openly. That is, I liked Eurythmics without fear for my life. Yes, God help me, I spent legal tender on a twelve-inch Paul Young remix single. Despite the changes in peer group, though, my shame sometimes returned in the dark of the night. It still does. My only comfort is knowing I never owned any Culture Club.

In the end this Anglophilia led me in productive directions, to the Jesus and Mary Chain, for instance, and across the Irish Sea to U2. I know that's a bald attempt at salvaging cred. But it's necessary, since very soon I'll be posting about the Pet Shop Boys.

Giving mafias a bad name

Few things are more pathetic than the posse that won't let go, and when it comes to parasites who cling remora-like to some fading figure of fame, none surpass the Memphis Mafia. Lamar Fike, Billy Smith, Marty Lacker, and the unbearable Sonny and Red West continue to exist solely as living eyewitnesses to the private life of Elvis Presley. Keep in mind, these are grown men (a bit overgrown, if you ask me). They chose a career—an entire existence—as Elvis's friend. As perpetual twelve year-olds, feuding over the King's too-generous gifts, vying for his favors, pimping him their so-called songs as one more added contribution to his collapse. My God, are you guys even men?

Having been granted life by the mercy of the Almighty or the mad chaos of Darwin, after a dozen individual and public betrayals of their benefactor, unburdened by the shame of their own roles in the King's decline, these five have chosen to celebrate their own so-called lives with a Memphis Mafia website. Keeping in character with its subjects, it barely functions. Let us hope parasites get a retirement plan, so that we may never hear from them again.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Her share of ups and downs

OK, we got this idea for our new credit card ad. Picture a rugby scrum with the English national team. Dirt, sweat, grunts. Then Gladys Knight leaps out of the fray and runs for daylight!

Keep in mind a lot of highly-paid executives approved this idea.

If this was a public service announcement instead of a Super Bowl ad I'd figure poor Gladys owed community service after a firearms violation and was at the mercy of whatever agency worked pro bono on that week's literacy campaign. In fact, huge amounts of money and good taste on the part of Tina Turner seem to be the only rational explanation for Gladys' participation. Is your ad a success if journalists use words like "mystifying" and "crazy" to describe it?

On the plus side, Gladys showed some major giddyup. It looked like they dropped her into the image with computers, but even if she was against a blue screen she showed good form for a full-figured sixtysomething in an evening dress and, I believe, high heels. Alas, an obvious stunt double scores the diving face-first try. Worse, from the back she (?) looks like Martin Lawrence in Big Mama's House. That's okay, of course. I don't want Gladys getting hurt for this madness. But come on, a little dignity.

Papal lip-synching controversy

A controversy sprang up over the weekend when news reports claimed the Pope did not make his own blessing at a recent Vatican appearance, but instead used pre-recorded material:

The Pope seemed to choke on the first few words of his blessing before recovering.

Vatican watchers and Italian media said he had probably received the assistance of a pre-recorded tape played by Vatican audio technicians when it became clear he had not recovered sufficiently well to be able to speak.

TV station Sky Italia said in a report the Pope's brief blessing was "probably recorded".

Journalists' suspicions were raised when the Pope's inaudible words at the beginning of the blessing were quickly followed by silence, clicks, and then a much clearer-sounding, though still very hoarse, John Paul II completing the blessing.

The Pope's manager later issued a statement saying it was a mix-up with the cardinals in the band. Whether or not a recorded blessing holds the same spiritual power as a live blessing remains in dispute. But it is accepted Church doctrine that other quasi-religious forces such as The Funk and The Groove can be transmitted via recordings.

"Thanks, Super Bowl"

McCartney's song list, played live from the fifty yard line:

"Drive My Car"
"Get Back"
"Live and Let Die" (with fireworks extravaganza)
"Hey Jude" (with expected crowd participation, cut off after about 90 seconds)

Congrats to those who had one of these songs in their McCartney betting pool. Sympathies to those of you who drew, as I did, "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey."

Friday, February 04, 2005

45s: Gun For Hire

"Dancing in the Dark," by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Written by Bruce Springsteen

If any force ever tested the inexhaustible love of Springsteen fandom, it was "Dancing in the Dark," the debut single from Born in the U.S.A. Of course no force can shake that love, but "Dancing in the Dark" remains perhaps the only moment in his career when even a tremor of doubt crept in. Synthesizers? Ass-shaking? For God’s sake, a 12" dance remix?

Mind you, the doubt took on that venomous "George Lucas has betrayed us" tone. Years later, a Springsteen-loving friend sneered to me that "Dancing in the Dark" was the zenith of the artist’s achievement—if that artist was Don Johnson.

What led the faithful to such heresy?

By 1983, Bruce Springsteen had critical acclaim, a cult of personality, and the best live show in the business. What he lacked was success in the Top 40. As his low-fi high plains masterpiece Nebraska faded away, the Boss—to his consternation—had scored only two hit singles. The first, "Born to Run," was rightly proclaimed an instant classic. For his trouble, he got to watch second-raters like the Pointer Sisters and Manfred Mann take his songs to, as it were, The Promised Land.

The more pointedly commercial "Hungry Heart," maybe the ninth best song on The River, rose into the Top Ten powered by studio doodadery and a marketing blitz. Meanwhile the superior title track, while it scarred me, barely scratched the Top 100. His attempt off Nebraska, "Atlantic City," is second to no song in his catalog. It disappeared without a trace. Just as well. Had it risen to the Top Ten it would’ve been Casey Kasem's biggest bummer since "Seasons in the Sun."

Among Springsteen fans, "Dancing in the Dark," to date his highest charting single (Number Two), became the single stain on the Boss’s reputation. I agree that if you drop it into a typical Springsteen song list it vanishes. Taken objectively, all you can say is it’s a foot-tapper nearly undone by a monotonous beat and a synth-heavy arrangement so virulent it would infect his entire next album.

But the problem isn’t that Springsteen conjured a dance hit. The man always wanted to get asses shakin’. It’s the lyrics. They deserve praise. But, mister, they found their way into the wrong song. To understand the possibilities, imagine a slower version, one with acoustic sympathies, or better yet something brooding along the lines of "Brilliant Disguise." That would do justice:

Messages keep getting clearer
Radio’s on and I’m moving ‘round the place
I check my look in the mirror
Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
Because, let’s be honest, it’s difficult to connect Existentially to a shaking ass. Sure, getting those jiggling parts to jiggle has been music’s goal since the Cro-Magnons greased back their hair and sent those square Neanderthals out to bury their 78 RPM stone disks. But what possessed a master of artist-listener connection like Bruce Springsteen to put a cry for help to a dance beat, when one of his many, many songs about a girl would’ve provided more appropriately mediocre subject matter?

Maybe there was something in the air. Prince famously boxed Springsteen out of the top spot with "When Doves Cry," a truly brilliant piece of booty-moving personal confession. Contrast the two, though, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Springsteen is reaching—while Prince is immersed. The public, for once, got it right.

"Dancing in the Dark" is what happens when you play for the highest jackpot in rock: to become Beatles Big. Madonna Big. Nirvana Big. Except that unlike others who inspired pop culture to add the suffix –mania to their name, Springsteen went all-in with a substantial body of work and powerful mythology already defining him. To his credit, he tried to weave the themes that supported that myth into his play for a hit. What resulted was one of the most freakish hybrids to hit the Top Ten in the '80s.

Video, video. As we all know, "Dancing in the Dark" launched the career of a spritely youngster who will appear on our televisions via reruns for the rest of our natural lives. As befitting a mass media coming-out, the video was top-notch all the way, filmed by a Real Director (Brian DePalma) who wisely decided to just shoot Springsteen in front of an ecstatic mob. Despite his own protestations, the Boss became a sex symbol. Was it the biceps? The fact he chose a tomboy with a flat chest as a dancing partner? Those who understand the myth know the answer is "both." Those who don't? They want to hear "Glory Days" again.

If I had a hammer....

....I'd hammer in front of a microphone, and sell that album, and make a million bucks!

One of the best bits of news to cross the desk in some time came when a friend pointed out that downloads are available from the Smithsonian/Folkways collection, the aptly-named nation's attic. The site is a must visit for more than just you folk freaks. It is for those of us who want the sound of a steel saw on their iPod. Not that Irish music with saws. Real saws. Operated by men in mills to cut wood.

The possibilities! Blow your kids' minds with the sound of an electric typewriter. Get relaxed to the sound of wind in the ionosphere. Want more? There's baseball crowds and (animal) mating calls, spoken Chinese poetry and avant-garde jazz, Leadbelly's children's album (!) and the music of Afghanistan, back when it had music. Of course there is also some more conventional noises from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Bill Monroe and the inevitable Pete Seeger—no doubt recorded during a break from one of his hobo supergroups.

I love this sort of thing. Just as I would love to have an attic. Do I need the sound of swimming children on an iPod? Granted, no. I'll get enough of that in parenthood. But sounds of the carnival midway? Track Four, the Motordrome Barker? Cue that motha up! Because I'm never hearing that again. I'd visit Afghanistan before I'd go to another carnival.

Ask the Bolshevik

Dear Bolshevik,
Today I read in the paper that North Korea's communist dictator, Kim Jong Il, has declared long hair to be "unhygenic" and "anti-socialist." I'm confused. In my youth men with short hair often mocked the long-hairs as communists. Can you sort it out for me? —T.E. IN EL PASO

A: No man with Bert's Sesame Street hairstyle should comment on the 'dos of others, let alone dictate fashion to an entire nation. I admit surprise that Kim allowed balding men to grow an extra two centimeters (over the five cm. limit) to cover baldness. That is a rare glimpse of humanity in the man who implemented the Eat Your Socialist Neighbor policy for his starving and dwarvish people. As for your question, communist leaders, like megalomaniacs of all political stripes, usually get preachy and become very conservative. An inevitable by-product of their psychology, if you Ask the Bolshevik. Most of them both repress and are repressed, if you know what I'm saying. Have you noticed they all wear boots? That I don't understand at all.

Dear Bolshevik,
My husband and I are about to have a child, our first. We wish to name him after a blues legend, in the hopes he'll be musically inclined. Fortunately we have a last name (Jones) that opens up a lot of possibilities. But is naming the kid something like Blind Lemon flirting with disaster? Or just disrespectful, assuming he's not going to be blind? Don't suggest Big Mama. We know it's a boy. —FIXIN' TO BURST

A: Why would you consider any name except "Howlin'"?

Dear Bolshevik,
How do rock stars get health insurance? Drug abuse, poor sleeping habits, exotic cross-pollination of syphilis and gonorrhea—can you get more high risk than these people? Surely no company will allow them to self-insure. What up?—UNINSURED

A: If you ever watched Behind the Music, you perhaps remember that several musicians—I'm looking at you, members of Bon Jovi—never referred to the band. They referred to The Organization. Now Bolsheviks would add several more words to that title. Say, The Organization for the Liberation of Toilers and the Promotion of Hair Care Products. Anyway, there's a recognized evolution from band to organization—lawyers, becoming a corporation, taking a much bigger share of the concessions. No matter what happens, though, as long as two people remain in the band (maybe this is why the keyboardist stuck with Axl Rose?) you have enough for what exploitive insurance companies call A Group. I don't have to tell you, Uninsured, that group coverage is very good. One of the ways the capitalists enslave workers, of course, but very good.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Zimmerman to tour with legend

Dylan has announced his upcoming mini-tour and he's going out with a real piece of Nashville skyline real estate:
Joining Dylan on the trek are country legend Merle Haggard and his band the Strangers, as well as folk-soul singer-songwriter Amos Lee. The tour will consist of multiple-night performances, including three in Seattle and Oakland, and five in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Merle Haggard and the Strangers ... with Dylan as a chaser. A lot of legend on stage. A lot of brooding backstage.