Wednesday, November 30, 2005

That ain't klezmer

The high-paying private command performance is one of the more interesting dark corners of the rock world. As the mass media has reported, and the blog world has photographed, defense contracting mogul David H. Brooks (not the New York Times columnist) tossed an epic bat mitzvah over the weekend that featured Kenny G. horning away for arriving guests, and performances by the kind of talent list that usually gets together to save waterlogged Asian countries. As if forty-five acoustic minutes from Tom Petty and then a sweet blast of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry wasn't enough:

The party cost an estimated $10 million, including the price of corporate jets to ferry the performers to and from. Also on the bill were The Eagles' Don Henley and Joe Walsh performing with Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks; DJ AM (Nicole Richie's fiance); rap diva Ciara and, sadly perhaps (except that he received an estimated $250,000 for the job), Kenny G blowing on his soprano sax as more than 300 guests strolled and chatted into their pre-dinner cocktails.

"Hey, that guy looks like Kenny G," a disbelieving grownup was overheard remarking, though the 150 kids in attendance seemed more impressed by their $1,000 gift bags, complete with digital cameras and the latest video iPod.

And there were Jumbotrons. Did we mention the Jumbotrons?

I will leave the pooh-poohing to those idealists who believe that defense contractors have souls, or rock stars shame. That said, I do feel the need to wonder aloud the obvious question: would a 13 year-old girl have any interest in the majority of these performers? No, wait, I meant the other obvious question: do the majority of these performers need the money? Besides Joe Walsh? I mean, okay, it's obvious he's got a lot of neurological damage to repair, and those black market stem cells don't come cheap.

Granted, if a millionaire defense contractor called me up during a time of war and offered me seven figures to play a bat mitzvah, AND I could use the open bar, AND I could hit on foxy Jewish suburban moms, then hell yes I'm performing, I'm performing with koalas on a trapeze, I'm performing in the sexual sense of the word, if necessary. But I am me. All that I own and all that I am, and this includes my kidneys, doesn't equal what Nicks put up her nose on July 8, 1978.

No judgment here. It merely interests me that, for example, Henley and Nicks, a pair of people all over two of the hugest-selling albums ever, would leave the hot tub in Telluride and backyard Chinese garden in Taos (respectively) to shlep to Manhattan for, let's just pretend, $750K. I know even they can't be infinitely rich. Nor can the others mentioned. Infinite is big. But can it be worth it? I mean, really? What if someone shouts for "Leather and Lace"? Then is it worth it?

No doubt I underestimate the expenses of the Boomer rock star lifestyle. That Chinese garden doesn't grow itself. I like the idea of multi-millionaires serving other multi-millionaires. "Follow the money." The rest, as the wise ones say, is commentary.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tuesday News Wire

The unbearable unbearableness of being Billy Joel. Or listening to him. The uneven rock writing on Slate spikes high and hilarious with a tale of one fan's disillusionment with Long Island's gift to supermodels. A taste:

All this came to a head in my freshman year of high school when I discovered Elvis Costello, who, a friend informed me, "writes songs about why people like Billy Joel are just so bad." I didn't want to believe it; surely, I told myself, it was possible to be a fan of Costello and Joel, both of whom, after all, had a way with a tune. Later that year, I went to my first Costello concert. Midway through the show, Costello sat down at an electric piano and began playing a series of cheesy cocktail-jazz chords. "I'd like to sing a Billy Joel song for you now," he said dryly, as laughter rippled through the audience. "It's called 'Just the Way You Are.' " When I returned home that night, all the Joel albums got stuck away in the back of a closet.
The article ties in with the new Joel boxed set, eighty (!) tracks of singer-songwriterdom, odes to exhausted 1950s nostalgia, and Tourette-ish tours through history. But when you've got eighty tracks, you can toss in your heavy metal experiment, your reggae version of "Only the Good Die Young"--in other words, just about everything.

I've always found Joel an interesting example of a musician who, for all his sales and an avid fandom, had a chance to be a contenduh and... missed. In his case, and here I'm agreeing with the article, I think it's because he could never accept the limits of his talent. Joel can do pop melody. But the man simply cannot rock. He cribbed Springsteen's blue collar vibe and sax solos. No go. He tried synthish New Wave stylings. Also no go. He went back to freakin' doo-wop. No go, no go, no go, even if he did sing all the parts. Probably the closest he came were with a couple of his New York vignettes, songs that at least had the virtue of earnest storytelling and some not-bad whistling. Some good writers built careers around tunes that share a chapter with "Just the Way You Are" in the American pop songbook. Pianist, know thyself.

Rock Hall of Fame surprises world with good picks. I am giving Skynyrd a break here, because they're the Led Zeppelin of the South (Red Zeppelin?), and maybe the Hall can redeem its existence by having Neil Young induct them.

It's clearly a transitional year, as the Hall cleans up past oversights in preparation for the upcoming avalanche of college radio/indie icons. Years after Ozzy used his last coherent sentences to lambast the Hall, Black Sabbath is in. Some have noted the lack of respect for metal on the Hall ballot. While Sabbath should be in, who, for the love of Satan, deserves to share the metal display? Deep Purple? Blue Oyster Cult? Dio? I don't know, kind of borderline, aren't they? The stage couldn't hold all of Purple's frontmen anyway.

Miles Davis isn't rock, Bitches Brew is just one album, but what the hell, he arguably has a place on the Mount Rushmore of American music. Put him in the Baseball Hall of Fame while you're at it. I'm a Blondie fan, and thus on-board. The Sex Pistols require no comment.

Jerry's toilet up for auction. Given his diet, that had to be a much-abused bathroom furnishing.

Smart man praises Loggins & Messina. Yes, it happens in America. Warning: you'll have to scroll.

Having an iPod is not enough.

Martha Stewart blockbuster holiday box features caroles, hymns, recipes. Forget Blackie Lawless; the real WASP is back!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sunday News Wire

Teen People and those Neo-Nazi cuties. If it wears nail polish and sings, it must be worthy of a profile in Teen People. But please, at the publicist's request, let's leave out the love songs to Rudolf Hess, the famed secretary for Mein Kampf who, in one of WWII's weirder moments—and that's saying a lot—parachuted into Scotland without the Fuhrer's orders to make peace with the British.

Lynx and Lamb Gaede are twin pop star-white supremacists, big in Idaho, and lookin' to break through to the Big Time. Long story short: after seeing a feature about the twins on Primetime, the edgy geniuses at Teen People decided to give some play to the girls. It got out, there was horror, and the magazine killed the piece. As one blogger succinctly put it: Black babies, both of them, by 19.

A New York Daily News editorial slapped down their stage mother thus:
It is only in the court of public opinion that Gaede can be held to account for polluting her daughters' little brains and starving them of a belief in human equality. Someday, they might well look back on her with horror. For now, she deserves a national shaming.
No argument, but the real issue here is that the story got so far through the Time, Inc. editorial machinery that the Teen People web site put up a teaser (since removed). And mind you , this wasn't an expose; in fact the story got attention because someone at the magazine told Frau Gaede that it would run without "certain words." That would be bummerish words like "hate" and "Nazi" and "supremacist."

A junior staffer is going to get canned over the promise. But, Jesus Christ, what SENIOR STAFFER okayed a feech on a neo-Nazi pop duo? The thriving "white nationalist" music scene deserves a look, but a fluff piece? What's next, the Cool Lifestyles of the Polygamy Girls story on living in the Utah town that throws out all the teen boys to reserve the new meat for the middle-aged men? Fashions of Suicide Bombers? Awesome Cannibal Side Dishes For Your Sleepover?

History-minded addendum: The white supremacist affection for Hess is truly odd, for here was the most hapless of the Nazi leaders, a prison buddy of Hitler's and by many accounts a repressed homosexual (oh, the sad irony). Maybe it is because of his long imprisonment, where he became simultaeously a neo-Nazi icon and a pity case. My theory is that it's easier to find rhymes for "Hess"—mess, oppress, wore a dress—than "Heydrich."

Michael Jackson releases anti-semitic rant in bid to become even more repulsive. It's working.

Chicago's Jeff Buckley tribute draws cultists, raves. A well-kept secret is out. The bummer: this place is three blocks from my home!

Milwaukee restaurant owner "Arnold" "Pat" Morita RIP; gave Anson Williams first break. Morita was also very funny during the early episodes of M*A*S*H. That is, the only period anyone on the show was funny.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Biggest LPs 100 years ago today

George Will (spoken word)
"Airplanes: A French Boondoggle"

Bingham Sisters
"Opium Yum Yum"

Prof. Elias Johan Waynestutter
"Recording of Brawling Irishmen"

George Will (spoken word)
"Why Child Labor Is Good for Our Youth"

Enrico Caruso
"Live At Budokan"

Herbert Jefferson Waverly
"Done Killed All the Indians Rag"

George Will (spoken word)
"Women: Too Hysterical and Moody To Vote"

Wednesday news wire

Hanson oppressed by The Man. When I first heard of this I slapped my head and thought, "The albino twin sons of Rick Nelson survived and want a comeback." Of course, that was Nelson, of "Love and Affection" fame. Wrong family, wrong era, wrong everything. The sibs in question are the "Mmm Bop" boys beloved of women now in their Twenties but, you got it, they want a comeback. The Man, unfortunately, does not take the platinum-selling band seriously. In response, Hanson has put out a documentary chronicling their frustrations and, you saw this coming, they've gone indie.

Thirty years after Born to Run, Jon Landau still insufferable. Fortunately, this article doesn't mention him. It's all over the genius of the concert DVD, though:

What's so great about it? Let's start with the hats.

Springsteen, the skinny, scraggly-bearded street gypsy... sports a Rastaman-style oversized wool cap to go with his gold-hoop earring and leather jacket.

His band mates Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, and Steve Van Zandt - now "Little," then "Miami" - go for a snazzier sartorial strategy. They're macked-out in broad-brimmed pimp hats - the latter two are in open-necked shirts, Saturday Night Fever-style, while the Big Man sports a white bow tie.

I was thinking the Boss stole the hat from Sly Stone, but Rastaman works, too.

Chris Whitley RIP. Shocker. Only 45 years old.

Move over, former paradigm: iTunes the seventh-leading music retailer. Finishes ahead of Tower and Borders. But Satan is still strong, for Wal-Mart remains No. 1.

Rundgren to join half of the Cars. Best-known member Ocasek is not interested; soundalike (but singer on their best songs) Benjamin Orr is deceased. With Paul Rodgers already scooped up by Queen, what's left but to get a semi-cultish idiosyncratic guy like Todd Rundgren to front your new wave oldies act before it moves into a third decade of defunctitude? In the story Rundgren hints he's a little sick of people who want a Utopia reunion. Todd, baby, that's not what this is about. Just tour by yourself, shit, you can play all the instruments, and you don't need to be covering "You Might Think" at your age, no one does—something Ocasek clearly understands. It's not that the Cars were bad; it's just that you really can't have a reunion without two of the main guys in the band. Even the drummer won't come back! Better that you entitle the show, Rundgren Sings the Hits of the Cars, and get Elliot Easton to play guitar while you wear big sunglasses. If you really want to get in the spirit of the band, bleed yourself of all charisma whatsoever. But when it comes down to it, come on, you're Todd Rundgren. If you really need to pay the bills, there are telethons. Let us help.

Monday, November 21, 2005

45s: Guilty pleasure Seventies super-hits

"My Maria," by B.W. Stevenson

The few people who remember B.W. Stevenson mistakenly think he sang "Convoy." (That was C.W. McCall.) Depending on who you ask, "Buckwheat" Stevenson was either a bluesy rocker wrongly steered onto a country label or a minor figure in country music’s Outlaw movement, the loose alliance of independent and shaggy C&W legends like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. If the latter, Stevenson is so minor that the All Music Guide to Country doesn’t list him in its 500+ pages.

He was a hard-luck case. After paying the dues, Stevenson recorded "Shambala," a sure hit—but, unfortunately, for Three Dog Night. But he broke through in a far more charming way with "My Maria," two minutes-and-thirty seconds of pure gold. This countrified rocker shows off an excellent voice that moves from Hank Williams, Jr.-like depths to a near-yodel on the chorus. The Tex-Mex in the arrangement adds unexpected encouragement to shake some ass. I only list "My Maria" as an embarrassment because my enthusiasm for it leads me to make over-the-top statements on its behalf. I will control myself and just say it's a hell of a great 45.

"When Will I See You Again?," by the Three Degrees

The Three Degrees once appeared on Sanford and Son as the (Redd) foxxy vocal trio managed by Fred Sanford. How a Philly soul group got to Watts was left unexplained. Why anyone would chose a codger like Fred to oversee their business affairs stretches the bounds of dramatic license.

Though the group had minor hits, the Degrees got their big break thanks to Soul Train host Don Cornelius. When the World’s Greatest Voice asked Philly soul masterminds Gamble & Huff for a theme song, the result was the hit "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," an early disco touchstone by MFSB with the Three Degrees lending vocals. Soon after the Three Degrees turned loose "When Will I See You Again" on a grateful radio audience. Atmospheric, and with a terrific lead vocal and multi-layered misty sea of the ooh/ahh we demand of vocal groups, it is instantly recognizable from the first note. A subdued and groovy organ—fighting through the inevitable strings—keeps us on-course for a big emotional finish. This is what ABBA might sound like if ABBA had soul, and I mean that as a compliment.

Bizarre addendum: Like many minor soul groups, the Three Degrees maintained their popularity in the United Kingdom long after fading in the U.S. In fact, the hits continued into the mid-1980s. So beloved were the Degrees that they were guests at the Princess Di-Prince Charles wedding.

"Silver, Blue and Gold," by Bad Company

A reader once asked why this blog is so negative. Was I the blogger who cannot love? I admit, I wondered over the answer. I solicited a suggestion for what I might do to begin to balance the scales. The suggestion: take on the challenge of praising a song by a band I constantly make fun of.

That brings us to Bad Company, the most successful of Paul Rodgers’ many projects and his karmic reward for turning down the chance to join the lengthy list of Deep Purple ex-vocalists. Being a Midwesterner, I have never lived out of range of at least two classic rock stations, and Bad Company defines the genre. (As the saying goes, it doesn’t have to be good to be a classic.) I heard "Silver, Blue and Gold" for years before I knew who did it. The song always sounded to me like watered-down Allman Brothers—I never bothered to investigate who or what that might be. I’m not proud of this, but I find the "Don’t forsake me ‘cause I love you" break hard to resist, possibly because it’s the only line in the song that isn’t a cliché. Well, almost. And it’s unlikely "My rainbow is overdue" will be repeated enough to become one.

Monday news wire

Bono proclaims own immortality. A friend once perfectly summed up U2's Rattle and Hum: "They're assholes, but they know they're assholes. They revel in it!" Indeed. Sometimes, in my generous moments, I have wondered if that hasn't been an ongoing tongue-in-cheek act, because I can't quite believe Bono would say this 100%seriously:
The Irish rocker also predicted that his music will still be around in 100 years, explaining that his songs occupy "an emotional terrain that didn't exist before our group did."
Mind you, I hope he's serious, because such a boldly expressed deficit in humility would leave me gasping in laughter. While I appreciate his charity work—sharing a table with Jesse Helms can't be easy if you have all your chromosomes—and have come to feel awe for the band's demolition of their exhausted trademark sound with Achtung Baby, I continued to laugh at Bono as the greatest Rock Star of our time, even as I suspect that underneath he is dicking with me.

Note, I didn't say best singer, best frontman, best nothin' musical. But as a celebrity, he embraces the Rock Star image so totally it almost has to be self-caricature. Doesn't it? Charity work, star-fucking, hiding Salman Rushdie (himself a caricature of an Important Writer), turning up at every Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame function including the changing of the urinal cakes—truly, Bono leaves no cliché untouched. To paraphrase the Emperor Palpatine, we will watch his career with interest.

Glitter resurfaces, seems to still be disgusting. "Rock and Roll Part II" is a malignant enough legacy, but word out of Vietnam is that Gary Glitter has allegedly continued his pedophilic tour of the developing world. If found guilty of rape, he faces long years in Vietnam's no-doubt progressive prison system or even the death penalty.

Capitalist system, crazy collector says early Zimmerman poetry is worth $78,000. Like any of us want our college poetry unearthed.

Link Wray and the Springsteen connection.

Friday, November 11, 2005

45s: Three the hard way

The superfluous third greatest hits collection is almost by definition a sign your career is over, for how many artists can keep the hits comin’—or the lungs breathin’—past a Volume Two?

Before going on, let’s first define "greatest hits collection" by the process of elimination. We don’t mean the unending repackaging of greatest hits in the indiscriminate bargain-basement found-it-at-a-truck-stop way record companies do ill to the likes of, say, George Jones or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Nor do we mean Very Best or Essentials collections. Nor do we mean the cynical rifling of the same body of songs for almost-yearly "new" hits discs, a habit pushed beyond good taste by the Who and John Lennon’s widow.

In other words, the greatest hits disc we refer to is official and multi-million-selling. In the case of the Eagles (Volume One, or the Abstract Skull Album), it is the best-selling album of all time.

Those artists venturing beyond the numbers used in binary language employ certain ingredients in the recipe. Take Billy Joel. He uses as a centerpiece a freakish late-career hit—"We Didn’t Start the Fire"—then mixes in a couple of songs missed in previous collections—"Keeping the Faith" and "An Innocent Man"—and fills it out with tunes that were only hits in the most generous application of that abused adjective. Of course, there’s also a Dylan cover. That’s a must.

Elton John, the personification of shamelessness, has also scored the hat trick. To his credit, though not to the public’s, his Volume Three does contain more hits than filler. Not blockbusters, but plenty of recognizable Eighties fare like "Sad Songs" and "Nikita," along with "Mama Can’t Buy You Love," the last coke-fueled trickle of his earlier glory days. No Dylan, but then, no tributes to Princess Di, either.

Speaking of Dylan, he covers himself gratuitously on his own Volume Three. While he undercuts my thesis by including stone-cold classics like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Hurricane," he is a special case, and not a hitmeister in the conventional sense, anyway. Not to be outdone, however, Dylan does fulfill one of a Volume Three’s classic criteria: the new, unreleased song! (exclamation point not mine). Yeah, like there’s not enough unreleased Dylan floating around.

Others, in brief….

Madonna’s Volume Two substitutes for a Three because (1) it includes her Evita era, and show tunes are a sure sign your career is finished; and (2) she released one of the truly great greatest hits albums and should be called out for tampering with perfection. "Ray of Light" could have waited until the two-disc Essentials album…. It’s astonishing the Beach Boys made it past a Volume One, let alone to a third disc covering their ill-fated Brother label. Join them on a rudderless journey* beginning after Brian vanished into the sandbox and ending with the band’s sad elevation to oldies act and ego-gratification vehicle for Mike Love.… Manilow? That one word says it all.… Then there's John Denver, with the inevitable Placido Domingo providing the Grandstand Duet endemic in the Volume Three genre…. We do not insult Conway Twitty on this site—well, except for his perm. While any artist should retire after their Greatest Hits Volume Three, Twitty showed true class by dying…. Please welcome George Michael and Elton John pinch-hitting on Queen’s baffling third package. Though the Elton-Axl Rose duet might've redeemed it...

* A trustworthy friend swears to me some of the Brother stuff is good. If true, a collection of it sounds like a wiser investment than finding all the albums. Any disc with "Sail On, Sailor" cannot completely suck.

This post is an entry in the series Helpful Signs Your Career Is Over. The first is here.

Off-topic weekend post

John Fowles, a "cantankerous man of letters," died November 5, at age 79. If asked to come up with a list of, say, twenty favorite novels, not that anyone will ever do so, I can think of only two writers with a chance at placing two books: Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, and Fowles.

Many readers rightly beware the description "postmodern novel." Fowles, if he did nothing else, proved such a novel could be actually readable by writing The French Lieutenant's Woman, a dandy of a book. Obsessive love, Victorian Era naturalists, out-of-nowhere cameos by famous poets, a daring conclusion—that's entertainment, and I am not being ironic in the least. As for The Magus, it remains, ten years after, one of the most amazing reading experiences of my life. I've pondered that book for hours, but have not picked it up again for fear of corrupting my intitial dizzied, awestruck reactions. Let me add I don't pretend to have understood more than about fifteen percent of it. I look forward to a re-reading later in life to see if I can add a few percentage points more.

In short: The French Lieutenant's Woman is readable and enjoyable; The Magus is more cryptic, quite a project, actually, but a hell of a mind-fuck, too, and the main character is a cad, always an enjoyable scenario. Yes, Fowles is now a dead white guy. But some of them, even a few of the postmodernists, knew how to write.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Stop your sobbing

Massive computer problems in the process of being solved.

Gord's watery gold

We ring the bell twenty-nine times for this, the anniversary of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot, of course, immortalized the event in one of the most unusual songs to ever hit the Top Ten, a epic fourteen verse motha that pays attention to factual detail and should not be attempted by anyone with respirtory problems. I am not proud of this lapse in historical memory, but for years I thought the song, in the great folkie tradition, had to do with some long-ago event. I don't know what, the expulsion from Arcadia or the War of 1812, at any rate, something pre-Civil War. I was shocked to learn shipwrecks, for God's sake, still took place as late as the 1970s. Hurricane westwind or no, the Great Lakes form a decidedly unromantic group of waters, too unromantic for a Lightfoot song, certainly, and I say this as someone who lives about two football fields from her lapping and polluted shores.

Then again, if we're still dealing with pirates, there's gonna be shipwrecks. By the way, pirates--pretty cool. Sonic weapons--awesome! I don't want many jobs on the cruise ship, but gimme the chance to blast nogoodniks with a concentrated beam of, what, Jackson Browne? Mariah Carey? Liz Phair? Does Cheney know about this thing?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Off-topic midweek post

Discussed: changes that occur when you drink two fertility-enhancing glasses-a-day of lukewarm Chinese herbs with the taste and the consistency of clay.

The toilet silts up after urination.

My yang is raging.

I now boast 1.2 billion sperm, but virtually all of them are male.

Good side effect: every morning I experience Coleridge’s hallucination of Kublai Khan. Bad side effect: dry mouth.

The city keeps tearing down my yurt.

Lately I have the unwise urge to discuss concubines with my wife.

Harmony with the universe? Really dull.

I say things like "Doesn’t Yao Ming look like a Chinese version of Drago from Rocky IV?" and other Chinese-themed statements that are best kept to myself.

I’m literally shitting bricks. Upside: I've begun to carve The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Yesterday I put an ad on Craigslist entitled "Wanted: Eunuch Manservant."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bush nominates Coldplay fan

The political world and its observers are a-flutter over the President's (latest) choice for the Supreme Court, a process that is turning into a 2005 version of the Rolling Stones' search for a replacement for Mick Taylor. As bloggers ask what can be done to stop the man Mr. Bush thinks is Ron Wood--liberals can only hope Alito participates in as many significant decisions as Woody has significant albums--it is clear that a discussion of "the issues" won't work. Because it never does. The issues! Ha! What percentage of Americans cares about the issues enough to be motivated, one way or the other, by knowledge of Alito's positions or judicial philosophy? Hint: it's way less than the president's approval rating.

No, no, reasoned arguments and logic and all that other high-attention-span crap have next-to-zero chance of tripping up the president's Alito Shuffle. If the Nominee's nomination is to be opposed, it's gonna take dirty pool.

And dirty like coast-to-coast commercials saying he likes Progressive Rock, indeed, that he attended seven Asia shows in the early 1980s. Not enough? How about his advocacy of George as the greatest Beatle? Saying that he owns three Stone Temple Pilots discs, but only one by Nirvana (Nevermind, natch). That Belinda Carlisle is his favorite Go-Go. That he thinks Sinatra peaked with Capitol. That Shonen Knife makes sense. That Tupac's death has been explained. That, in his considered judicial opinion, Carly Simon album covers are obscene, but "The Spy Who Loved Me" is not. Dig up that so-called brief from 1999 where he challenged Associate Justice Souter to a mic battle, then punked out.

And so on. Why at this point would liberals, or anyone else opposed to Alito, rely solely on detailed explanations of "positions" and "philosophy"? Trust me, about 5% of the people care about a radical swing to the right in American political life. But a guy who likes Coldplay so much he owns the bootlegs? That at least has the potential to galvanize some opposition.