Friday, March 31, 2006

45s: Soulless wonders

"High Enough," by Damn Yankees
Written by Jack Blades, Tommy Shaw, and Ted Nugent

On occasion, my financial advisor tells me it is time to raise some income fast. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a little short this month. "The good life costs," she says. Etc. Because I am me, I pound out some writing, or wash some dishes, or put down the bag of quarters meant for laundry on a bird named Muy Diablo at the local cockfights. If I were an aging arena rocker c. 1989, though, I'd call a member of Night Ranger and suggest we record a power ballad of such breathtaking soullessness that cassette tape will not reproduce it. Indeed, to this day, Jack Blades cannot see his reflection in a mirror. True story!

Pure craft can, of course, get you a record deal, no inspiration necessary. Add to that a sales history in former lives—Blades in Night Ranger, Tommy Shaw in Styx, the Nuge as the Nuge—and you draw enough marketing support to take a shot at MTV. But whatever was going on musically in 1989, it is hard to believe there was a demand for Damn Yankees. Aerosmith, superior as both frauds and moneymakers, had come back; Guns 'N Roses, a genuine Real Thing, ruled the world. Yet the musical confusion of the time was such that a second-tier band's bassist, the second-banana in a defunct art rock band, and a guy second-generation-removed from Java Man could so transparently work on behalf of their 401(K)s.

"High Enough" was insidious. Ballad part here. Power part there. Cue the love-song cliche—"There's a fire in my heart"—and layer on some nonsense metaphor—"To fly me over yesterday," a line only Albert Einstein could use with authority. As for that guitar solo, Nugent proves he can play in his sleep.

Nothing is left to chance or, God knows, to subtlety. The emotional climax has the whole power ballad menu of soaring harmonies, building melody, and Nugent's guitar at full screech. Then the Yanks unleash a synth hurricane that whooshes into the headphones and carries off what remains of their shame. If "High Enough" has not moved you by this point, you have either sociopathic tendencies or good taste.

It is hard to be disappointed in a member of Night Ranger. For God's sake, that's the name of someone's first band, but it ceases to be cool around age fifteen. It took the better part of Boogie Nights to redeem the group's one memorable song from being forever confused as a late release from Loverboy. So Blades is just showing consistency.

Shaw is another story. Yeah, yeah, I make fun of Styx, too. But Styx is a classic rock standard bearer for Illinoisians, not unlike Nugent or Seger for natives of Michigan, and thus for me appeals on a purely tribal level. If Styx can be defended—and I make no such claim—I present to the jury Shaw's straight-ahead cock rock like "Fooling Yourself" and his good harmony voice. Having been at the top, and endured plenty of bullshit† from Dennis DeYoung, Shaw might have wanted another shot. But this?

Speaking of shooting, nothing but nothing explains Nugent's participation. No one ever accused Ted of originality—fortunately for them, as I don't think he would appreciate it. It doesn't get any more rock than a (literally) red-meat conservative with a confessed taste for teenaged girls who hit the stage in a Tarzan outfit. Yet Nugent's sense of humor deserted him here, just when he (and we) needed it. Or did it? Maybe that's why he looks so amused in the video. Instead of singing about pussies purring he can't believe he's getting away with this shit. Who can blame him? Like the song says, "Yesterday's just a memory," and the Motor City Madman acts like a man at peace, confident no one will remember the song, and sure that this month and for many months ahead the bills will get paid.

Video, video. Is that Ted's barn?

As uninspired as the song. In fact, certain shots almost show the cases of beer bought with the video budget. Nugent expresses the apathetic mood best by chewing gum behind a shit-eating grin. The rest of the band, including the drummer, perform for the camera. At least there's no dry ice.

† Damn Yankees deserves one DeYoung-related grain of redemption. Shaw told Behind the Music that for a time the Yanks paused in their stage show while Nugent played the first few chords of "Babe," in order to drive the audience into raw-throated rage. A hurt DeYoung later confronted Shaw about it, and the Yanks desisted; but you could see Shaw still thought it was kind of funny.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

45s: Feelin' Groovy

"What I Am," by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians
Written by Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow

In 1988, "college radio" meant many things. None were more important than "superior to mainstream radio." As the mainstream was Phil Collins, however, that phrase means little; such a definition also includes truck-driving songs and beer jingles. College radio was, of course, far more—the launching pad of 1990s Alternative Nation, for one thing. A gathering place for second-generation hippies, for another.

Some punk-besotted critics sniffed at college radio. God forbid there be music from people able to (1) enunciate, (2) play their instruments, or (3) ovulate. Unfortunately, the artists hurt their own cause by converting so many old rhetoric assignments into songs. To her credit, Edie Brickell has rolled her eyes over wordage like "Choke me in the shallow waters/Before I get too deep." Suzanne Vega, we await your confession.

Smoothly played, and then impeccably polished at the Geffen hit factory, "What I Am" was inescapable in its heyday, a hit with the students and the contemporary adults, and thus on heavy rotation up and down the radio dial. Folk-rock (or if you prefer folk-pop) always has a following. Certainly this was less abrasive than anti-folkies like Michelle Shocked, while at the same time it stayed blissfully free of any message. Are you kidding? It made no sense at all.

The band acquitted itself all-too-listenably, in particular with the understated guitar. Perhaps here we have a case where commercialism made a contribution, for it is easy to imagine that the New Bohos, like all Dead-influenced musicians, longed to be a jam band. Consider the result if the song’s neo-groovy wah-wah guitar solo went on for eighteen minutes. "What I Am" would never have hit the charts, and I would instead have to write about Tracy Chapman.

As for Brickell, well, when articles mention a singer’s "unique phrasing," and it’s not about Frank Sinatra or Willie Nelson, be careful. Part of Brickell’s appeal as a singer in those days was the fact you could sing as well as her, if not better. "What I Am" reaffirmed the idea, dearly held in rock, that anyone can make a bundle with a hit song, something we had forgotten in the years since other community college poets like Jim Morrison made the scene:

I'm not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean
Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box
Religion is the smile on a dog
In the wrong hands such, uh, material would have come across as the misheard lyrics of a Patti Smith composition sung by the least self-aware coffeehouse singer in Austin. Yet Brickell played it smart. Her singsong indulged neither gravity nor outright goofiness. Either would have turned "What I Am" from hacky-sack soundtrack to major buzzkill. Accident? Or canny design? It is hard to attribute the latter to any twenty year-old, as that is the age of Maximum Seriousness. Then again, maybe Brickell was just that groovy.

When it comes to the women's revolution in rock, Brickell obviously deserves no praise compared to, say, a Chrissie Hynde. But she and the other Earnest Young Women of the late 1980s deserve some small recognition. Not a statue or their name on a major hydroelectric project. Not quite that. After all, every revolution has its share of second-raters. You need them, too. Because when the movement becomes the mainstream, they'll far outnumber the true believers.

Video, video. Leggy hippy sways in front of five guys who look like they would rather play jazz fusion. All in all, a video as inoffensive as the song and thankfully lacking in "cinematic" values, plot, or mushroom-cloud imagery. Due to its heavy airplay, "What I Am" made Brickell a poster child. She was the neo-hippy chick you wished you were dating or, if you already dated a neo-hippy chick, she was a friend’s far-cooler girlfriend, a woman who scored better weed, took fewer meds, and was less apathetic regarding her hair (wherever it grew). So cool she did the cute album art! No doubt today Brickell still doodles cat pictures and tells her kids to avoid MSG and hand-crafts her husband's holiday cards ("Dear Art, Good luck with the acting career, hahahahaha!").

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Requiem for a Buckeroo

Like many people, I knew Buck Owens best from his epic stint as co-host of Hee Haw. Perhaps unlike many people, Hee Haw reruns were a constant part of my upbringing, and therefore I have witnessed far more hours of Buck than, say, Michael J. Fox or Ted Danson, neither of whom played a smokin' red, white, and blue guitar. I can't say I'm any expert on his music. Like Tolstoy and single-malt scotch, it's something I've wanted to explore, and haven't gotten to yet. But he was a little part of my life, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

Buck was an amiable co-host, pretty good at faking laughter at skits he hadn't seen, and, as I learned in adulthood, a major country and western figure. No yokel, this man. Owens helped invent the so-called Bakersfield sound, a rockified style out of California that mounted one of the first major artistic challenges to the pop-country hegemony established in Nashville. (He shared the distinction—and one wife—with Merle Haggard; Haggard also played bass in one of Owens' early Sixties combos for a few weeks after getting out of prison.)

Owens knew four instruments, including sax, before he taught himself guitar at sixteen. Twice a father at aged 20, he paid his dues playing for Bakersfield oil workers. Going electric opened up some session gigs, but he got buried by the Fifties rock avalanche and went into radio. In time, and with brilliant collaborator Don Rich in tow, Owens went back to music and owned the motha.

His first Number One, "Act Naturally," is a terrific song—upbeat despite the subject matter and genuinely humorous to boot. Of course , it's better known in its Beatles incarnation, as Ringo's song on Help!, but no tears are necessary. Owens tore off a Beatlesque fifteen straight country #1's, including a B-side and an instrumental. The cover also helped Owens get the attention of rock fans. Eventually he played venues like the Fillmore West, even Carnegie Hall. CCR reffed him. Buck even recorded his own version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a rite of passage in the early Seventies.

Gary Kaufman,
in a Salon piece I printed out and kept for years, summed Owens' decade up:
He was no poet. His lyrics were simple and direct, relying more on clever wordplay than deep insight. Merle Haggard had since stepped out of his shadow to become the bard of the working man. (Not to mention marrying Bonnie Owens, who had a few minor hits of her own.) George Jones was a far better singer, and even his own boy Don Rich was a better guitarist. But Buck Owens owned country in the '60s.

Owens broke ground by opening a studio, founding a song-publishing business, and recording whole albums that made a statement—virtually unheard of in country at the time.

As he bought up radio stations, Owens also went multimedia and headed for the big exposure offered by TV. After doing okay with a TV show of his own, he landed on the cornpone Laugh-In that was Hee Haw. According to my All Music Guide, Buck initially only had to shoot a couple of times a year. The producers then sprinkled his bits into later programs, leaving Owens a lot of time to pursue his career for real. Alas, the death of Don Rich was a huge blow to his music but, more significantly, to his personal life. That tragedy and Owens' typecasting as the Hee Haw yuckster eventually undercut his career.

Lean years followed, though he continued on the TV show. The sound he pioneered became hip again at the end of the 1980s and Dwight Yoakam, one of his truest heirs, helped Owens back on the comeback trail. Since then, Owens regained his cred and a lot of the respect lost over time. As it should be. Buck Owens, RIP.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

You're the Charlie Brownest

Reader Crispy brings up a pop moment:

I don't know why, but the synapses in my brain fired an arc across mylong term memory and I remembered a scene from the show The White Shadow. In it, the entire team were a band playing at a school dance. What were they playing? "Charlie Brown", the '50s novelty song. A predominantly black, inner city high school basketball team in the late '70s was playing "Charlie Brown."
I was a big White Shadow fan the moment I saw Coach Reeves once played for the Bulls. If memory serves, the show had a pic of Ken Howard with real Bulls center Artis Gilmore, a man with one of the supreme 1970s sports 'fros. My White Shadow post could run to 10,000 words, but for now let me throw out a few points: (1) way ahead of its time, not only one of the decade's best dramas but a forerunner to today's dramas with large casts and a blurring of episodic and serial television; (2) Salami driving the Motel California--genius; (3) was everyone on the team was named after a president?

Chrispy's note, however, did not ring a bell. I went to the all-knowing oracle. The Internet revealed to me that the Carver stalwarts, in fact, sang "Charlie Brown" and in the shower, though I don't think they did both at the same time.

Let me add my voice to the chorus of disbelief: you've just passed through ten full-on awesome years of soul music and these poor disadvantaged kids have to sing "Charlie Brown????" Look, no offense, but I have to think, at the very least, Earth, Wind, and Fire. I don't expect a granny network like CBS to okay Parliament/Funkadelic, or to pay for the rights to Stevie Wonder's latest, but a Fifties comedy song with a wacky sax? The actors must've been very let down. Then again, the execs probably wanted them to sing Loggins and Messina.

One must ask the obvious question: how is it possible that the people most responsible for shaping our pop culture were so laughably out of touch with pop culture?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

45s: Lust on Your Diners Club

"We’ve Got to Get it On Again," by the Addrisi Brothers
Written by Don and Richard Addrisi

I first heard "We’ve Got to Get it On Again" twenty years after its appearance in the Top Forty. I picked up one of the then-new Rhino Have A Nice Day compilations. Volume Eight, to be specific. I wanted to prove to myself that "Sylvia’s Mother" by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, one of the childhood oft-plays on my old plastic record player, actually existed. (Unfortunately, it does.)

On the charts, the early 1970s continued the chaos of the previous decade, except those noisy counterculture types took themselves out of the running through dying, disbandment, or taking enough heroin to kill a whale (though not a David Crosby). A strange democracy emerged to throw the Osmonds next to Aretha on A.M. playlists. Novelty songs proliferated; one-hit wonders flourished. Not an abundance of risk-taking to be heard, mind you, but there’d been enough of that. The masses the Sixties were supposed to liberate turned out to want a diet of weepers and toe-tappers and singalongs, with a great like Al Green thrown in to deflect the wrath of a Vengeful God.

One of the safest and therefore most popular undercurrents of the time was supper club pop. Truth to tell, this sub-genre flowered amidst the counterculture in the martini-soaked soil of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, in Herb Alpert’s brassy kitsch, and in a Top Forty still tolerant of show tunes. To the horror of the world, however, the same dirt yielded triffids like Engelbert Humperdinck, with the invasion led by none other than Elvis Presley, a neon-lit He That Must Be Obeyed reborn in spangled jumpsuits and cotton candy hair.

As the Sixties, its Bacharach, so the Seventies, its Fat Elvis. But a pair of brothers—scions of a trapeze act, and set for life after penning the Association mega-hit "Never My Love"—wisely reached into a different honey pot for inspiration.

Any mention of the Addrisi Brothers’ 1972 hit—and there aren’t many—brings up the supperstars of the supper club, the Righteous Brothers. Certainly Don and Dick Addrisi paid their dues. Their first Vegas gig came in 1958, two years after Lenny Bruce (!) helped them get a manager and a year before a minor hit landed them on American Bandstand. As their authorship of "Never My Love" shows, they had a knack for the kind of love songs that lend themselves to orchestration and slick production—two hallmarks of the supper club genre. If the photo in the Have A Nice Day liner notes is indicative, they also brought the Presleyesque jumpsuits and hair to the candlelit table.

"We’ve Got to Get it On Again" rolls out Righteously with a "mmm mmm mmmmmm". There’s enough echo to suggest a recording session at Lascaux Cave Studios. A rise-and-bass-drum-plunge—shorthand for Pure Instant Drama—sucks the listener in. You don’t do this sort of thing without horns. The Addrisis bring ‘em out on a chorus infectious enough to require quarantine. Hear that tambourine in your right earphone? How about that acoustic guitar? Who says the Sixties ended?

Whichever Addrisi sings lead has an agreeable jingle singer sort of voice. The second—perhaps it’s the first double-tracked?—works the higher range on harmony without resorting to Vegas bathos. In fact, the brothers stay in control throughout, defying Wayne Newtonian physics by expressing emotion with inflection rather than screaming. Wonder if that confused ‘em in the showroom.

The lyrics admittedly fall short of Bacharach/David. You’re hardly plowing new ground when you rhyme "desire" with "fire," not that it bothered Bruce Springsteen. But the brothers rally in mid-song, beginning verse two with more Pure Instant Drama and a jolt of Sex:

We never laughed
We used to know so many happy songs
We never kissed
In the penetrating way that used to turn me on
In a far better universe than our own, Karen Carpenter drops "penetrating" into "Superstar."

For those unfamiliar with the song—presumably everyone—here’s the chorus:

Once there was fire in our lives
Silver sparks that used to fly
We’ve got to get it on again
Work it out together
Learn to love again
We’ve got to make a try

Not exactly poetry, but passable for the genre, and certainly more bearable than dumbassery like "Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me." Why does a song like "We’ve Got
to Get it On Again" peak around Number 30 while Mac Davis, mixing the same
popcraft with seven herbs and countrypolitan spices, goes to the top of the charts?

The alchemy of public taste rejects all attempts at understanding. You may as well ask why supper club pop is usually, despite its name, rubbery whitefish instead of prime rib.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Lou that you do

In my ongoing search of late-night TV for future role models, and the achievement of Zen thereby, I have come across the greatest of them all. Idol, thy name is Lou Grant.

Smart, unapologetically grouchy, a functioning alcoholic in a tough business, limited physically in attractiveness but willing to get in there and pitch—I feel like we have so much in common now! Mr. Grant clinched my respect in that famous episode where he must fill in for Ted Baxter, who is at the moment on strike (reluctantly) with his co-workers.

The first night Lou suffers a terrible case of stage fright and humiliates himself before all of Minneapolis, including his much-amused staff watching at a bar.

Having learned a lesson, Lou prepares for the second night with several drinks before air time and, in that drunk’s fantasy common to our mass media, performs like a seasoned pro while under the influence. This includes additional belts during the commercials.

Mary is amazed, the FCC is none the wiser, and Ted is threatened to see a real man delivering the news in his place. As he should be. I mean, Lou Grant doesn’t hate Ted because he dislikes people. On more than one occasion, for instance, Mr. Grant expresses that Murray is a great newswriter. He hates Ted because as a real man he is offended that a preening incompetent like Baxter succeeds.

And real man describes Mr. Grant. At turns angry and self-pitying, but clearly good at his job, bluntly honest, and funny, he puts our contemporary "real" sitcom men to shame—yeah, I mean neo-Fred Flintstones like the King of Queens and Belushi, or the mama’s boys on Everybody Loves Raymond, a show where the only real man is Ray’s wife.

I’m not saying every supposed real man on TV sitcoms has to conform to the Lou Grant archetype (even if two of the funniest—Red on That 70’s Show and Hank Hill—do to varying degrees). That wouldn’t fly on Scrubs, for instance. I’m just asking that alleged real men act more like Lou and less like stereotypical crumb-covered proletarian slobs. Do you think any of those buffoons, those third-rate Kramdens, could survive a divorce, let alone emerge from one to date a swingin' Mary Richards and teach her a new meaning to the phrase, "You’re gonna make it after all?" As if.

Of course, Mr. Grant cleaned up and headed to L.A. to do drama. Not as funny then, and certainly his dressing habits improved, but his going legit doesn’t dent my respect in the least. We all mellow. He kept several virtues and you can tell he still hates spunk. That’s what matters.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

45s: Thar she often blows

Sailors have provided songwriting grist ever since Australopithecus played the drum solo from "Moby Dick." Usually rock songs of the sea are a salt-scented twist on road imagery, The Greatest Cliché in Rock™. On selected other occasions the genre provides a chance to salute 19th Century opium junkies beloved by the songwriter while he/she was an undergrad. Such is the case, for example, with Iron Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," though I can't remember if Coleridge gets thanked in the Powerslave liner notes. Let us survey this hoary rock tradition in drive-by, or rather sail-by, fashion.

"I'm Your Captain," by Grand Funk Railroad
The pride of landlocked Flint, Michigan, beneficiaries of a baffling popularity seemingly based on the perception they were a harder-rocking Three Dog Night, GFR (later Grand Funk) put together a, uh, varied career with songage that ranged from bland cock rock like "We're An American Band" to one of the many remakes of "The Locomotion." Truly their bloated FM-radio masterwork was "I'm Your Captain," GFR's journey into Coleridge and seagull-sound effects. What does it have? Glad you asked, sailor. Suspense! Pipes! Yearning for dry land! To say nothing of the aforementioned seagulls, symbols of either death or deliverance, and of a happy ending, assuming either of those events is cause for celebration.

"Sail On, Sailor," by the Beach Boys
This gem, part of the driftwood that floated out of Brian Wilson in the late Sixties, was laid down in the post-Brian years—a time in the Beach Boys' career variously described as "underrated," "forgotten," or "hit an iceberg." The product of at least five writers*, admirably sloppy, indeed sung by temp band member Blondie Chaplin after Dennis Wilson laid down one take and went surfing, "Sail On, Sailor" is a contrast to the lush Brian Wilson arrangements, but a real nice melody shines through. Real nice? It's the last Beach Boys single worth listening to, not only for its quality, but as a hint of directions the group might have taken had numerous impossibilities happened. Like Brian staying straight and sane. Like Mike Love being less of a megalomaniac asshole. Or Dennis taking music seriously. Or dogs not licking themselves, or real pudding being fat-free, or gravity being optional.

* This is disputed by one of them, Van Dyke Parks.

Old Spice Theme Song
Pipes are underused, aren't they? Not that Jethro Tull should take that as encouragement for a comeback. An instantly recognizable little ditty, and great for whistling, too! Though that guy is only a sailor in an alternate universe governed by the rules of a J. Crew catalogue. The Skipper on Gilligan's Island is more plausible.

"Orinoco (Sail Away)," by Enya
The "I Want To Hold Your Hand" of New Age music. In the early 1990s, many people were stunned to hear some unknown named Garth Brooks was selling billions of records. Before Garth, and in a more hobbit-friendly genre, the explosive-and-baffling phenom was Enya, Kate Bush if Kate Bush listened to "Rhiannon" non-stop for eighteen years, the first New Age superstar (you sit your ass down, Yanni), owner of a voice of some uniqueness and a vibe borrowed for every movie with swordplay that has come out since the turn of the century.

Were you aware the song has verses? I wasn't. "Orinoco (Sail Away)" is about many exotic places with coastlines. Mind you, I only know this because I looked up the lyrics on the Internet. Though I've heard it hundreds of times courtesy of party hosts, girlfriends, and generally amok Karma, I wasn't really aware a song with lyrics and everything existed outside of that hypnotic motha of a chorus.

Really a fascinating pop culture phemonenon, in a bent way I cannot articulate. On her last album she and her lyricist invented an entire language for her to sing in. And Floyd thinks they were high concept. Slate has a take worth reading. Stunning trivia: "Enya has sold more records than any Irish artist besides U2..." The elf-like Van Morrison hangs his head.

"Come Sail Away," by Styx
Proving this sort of thing has always sold, here's "I'm Your Captain" with the gulls replaced by synthesizers and Death replaced by UFOs. (Trading up? You decide.) Dennis DeYoung starts us out in a ruminative mood. It is immediately blasted to pieces in a messed-up British accent that would get you flogged on a Royal Navy vessel. This gives way to so-called rockin' as angels from flying saucers—that's right, Whitley Strieber, angels from flying saucers—invade the song. Just incomprehensible. Even "We Will Rock You" related somewhat to "We Are the Champions." Worse still: DeYoung using the word lads. Damn your eyes!

"Beyond the Sea," by Bobby Darin
Darin was no stranger to the life aquatic. "Splish Splash" gave him one of his biggest hits. A more sophisticated number, "Beyond the Sea" took Darin into Nelson Riddle territory, a journey so terrifying he soon went off the deep end—pardon the term—before an unsuccessful reinvention as a folk singer later in the 1960s.

"Brandy," by Looking Glass
She wears a braided chain, made of finest silver from the north of Spain. I don't know if this was a groovy pop group with a good producer or a Blood, Sweat, and Tears knock-off with a lot of luck, but "Brandy" is justly a fixture on oldies radio (one of the few). Whiskey, smooth-talkin' sailors, and the sea—you better believe she saw its rage and glory. Great chorus, too.

"Sail On," by the Commodores
Getting mellow after laying down the funk. I'm so mellow thinking about it I'm giving something related to Lionel Ritchie a pass for the first time and moving on to...

"Cool Change," by the Little River Band
Getting mellow with whales and albatrosses. But mere cabin boys of kicking back compared to....

"Sailin'," by Christopher Cross
Anyone could have a giant hit or three in the early Eighties, unless they were good. Chris Cross made John Denver look like John Lydon. A brief-lived phenomenon thanks to an early-career Grammy coronation, Cross delivered just what the Grammy committee likes: sales (no, not sails). If my memory's right he had an all-star cast helping him out—recent Doobie Brother Michael McDonald comes to mind—and it could be that Cross was one of those studio figures who leveraged big-name friendships into an album deal, ala Toto. Otherwise, I am at a loss to explain such hugeness. Particularly the appeal of that voice. I would make a joke here if I weren't having a seizure.

Updated: Don Henley also appeared on Cross's first album. Jesus, it's like the Nexus of horrors where they imprisoned General Zod.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," by Gordon Lightfoot
Now here's your captain. Written from the other side of Lake Superior, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" unleashes numerous forces of nature: the thunder of the Lightfoot voice, the hurricane west wind of Lake Superior, some absolutely ringing electric guitar. The truest sea shanty to hit the Top Forty since Eddie "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Sea Cruise" (the song that brought the fog horn to pop radio), "Edmund" crashes and sprays for an epic seven-plus minutes of complex lyrical structure and the daring decision to not even use rhyme:

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

I know, the real rhyme here is "pride" and "side." That sort of thing is nothing in a folk song, but on AM-radio it is a level of complexity equal to the rhetoric of Aristotle. And Lightfoot knows no fear on the straight-up rhymeology either, as one verse later he's playing "feelin'" off of "Cleveland." This song is everything "I'm Your Captain" and "Come Sail Away" wants to be. And it's true!

Thursday, March 09, 2006


In brief, so as not to turn this into an official Death Pool blog: writer Stanislaw Lem died the other day.

Unlike the media, I'm not going to label him a "science-fiction writer"—not that I have anything against that trade. It's just Lem transcended sci-fi about as much as Kurt Vonnegut or J.G. Ballard does. He used the plots and settings, the space stations and rocket ships, the astronauts and the demented AI tinkerers. But while obviously seduced by scientific and philosophical ideas, Lem's real landscapes, at least in the non-comic novels I've read, were interior. Though we cannot know all the workings of the Nobel in Lit committees over the years, it wouldn't surprise me if Lem is the only "science-fiction writer" to have gotten serious consideration over the years.

Solaris is his best-known and most respected work (at least in the West). Both difficult and heartbreaking, that book. Love and regret here, the intersection of fear and wonder there. Others appreciated him more for his satires like His Master's Voice, an insider account of the human foibles you'd expect when you gather a bunch of geniuses into an enclosed place. Lem also worked broader humor—think sentient potatoes and a revolt of robot washing machines—but usually stayed on the darker side. A unique writer and a major figure outside the States. RIP.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Thursday News Wire

Because I'm too tired to blog fo' real....

World music icon Ali Farka Touré RIP. Farka means "donkey," a relevant nickname for a survivor, as in only survivor of his family's ten kids, of a lot of jobs before turning to music. His Talking Timbuktu, another of the Ry Cooder world music collaborations, found listeners here in the 1990s, but he'd already been around awhile. A fascinating life, even if you know nothing of his music. Bonus saying from his native Mali: "When you give your trousers to a monkey, the trees will end up with lots of scarves."

Record labels commit to committing slow suicide. You like downloading those early singles off forthcoming albums? Better start liking something else, 'cause the labels are tired of you not spending money on their full-length CDs. Not only does the decision reflect a short-sighted obsession with banking on a few huge blockbuster releases, it will just encourage illegal downloading. You know, that thing where no one makes money. Another excellent decision! Let's bring back reel-to-reel next!

Elvis' scarf roadie dead. Charlie Hodge, by name, guitarist known for bringing the King his water and tossaway scarves, by game.

Yanks continue to foil British Invasions. Why can't the can't-miss Brit bands make it here? The Wall Street Journal, and no I'm not kidding, tells us why via Coolfer. (The entire subscription-only article is in the Coolfer comments.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Not so special

If you go to the Museum of Television and Radio, know what you want to see. Or else you’ll end up like me, looking through the database in search of just what it is from the history of television you feel like watching that afternoon.

And wondering how you ended up choosing an episode of the Midnight Special from 1975.

Just selecting from the Midnight Special universe was hard enough. Choose a classic-era Zeppelin performance? Or indulge the urge to experience Postmodern Mindfuck #574, i.e., an episode that featured host Richard Pryor interacting with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Olivia Newton-John, and Wolfman Jack?

I think you know the answer.

As a child, I saw a lot of the Midnight Special. My dad worked nights. On Fridays, my mom waited up for him. Hating to be alone, she allowed her nine year-old son to hang out, too. Once Johnny Carson ended, the Special was introduced by the cartoonish Wolfman Jack. On occasion it featured that good rock ‘n roll the older kids listened to—and, more often, that pop I devoured as fast as Top Forty radio could spew it out. Seeing an episode again these years later was—if I may slangify here—a gas. A minor gas, neon maybe, but enjoyable, and a welcome empty-headed contrast to the 9/11 news coverage I also checked out.

Richard Pryor kicked things off from a place in the audience. The audience, you dig, was sitting on the floor. The sideburns were many and the bras were few! After a few minutes of joshing with Richard Pryor, Jr., the host introduced Bobby Blue Bland, a man able to throw down soul so effortlessly you can actually spare a moment to concentrate on his tangerine suit. Suddenly, what began as ironic viewing turns into actual enjoyment!

Not for long, however. When we cut to the fresh-faced ONJ (she’s as cute as about eight buttons), it all goes downhill. The woman is clearly in a darkened hall. One red-haired guitarist, having lost a bet, stands in for her entire band and fakes playing guitar about as well as Justine Bateman. (With far less enthusiasm, too.) ONJ performs two of her big hits, "Let Me Be There" and "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)". On both the redhead must lip-sync the deep voice that echoes ONJ on both hits. I bet he got very drunk after the taping.

Alas, when Pryor reappears he tries to act as if ONJ is on a nearby stage. Oh, Richard. Why did America ask a man of your gifts to do these things? And The Toy?

Pryor’s comedy must also suffer canned applause appearing out of nowhere. Just explosive applause—right in the middle of a joke! Or a mention of white people! Or black people! Or anything! Jesus. Hadn’t TV been around awhile in 1975? Didn’t they know how the volume nob worked?

Even the Wolfman—in his own way a genius—endured poor editing. Here the din of applause that greets the name "Linda Ronstadt" is as absurd technologically as it is conceptually. Also, the audience members surrounding the Wolfman are so obviously NOT IN THE SAME AUDIENCE Pryor is hosting.

Finally, and with some regret, I must say the shared Pryor-Hamlisch moments came off as less mindfuckish than hoped. Pryor was gentle, Marvin a pro—a nerdy Jewish pro in a powder blue turtleneck with a jacket of apparently-virgin dark blue denim. He performed the themes from The Sting and a mostly-instrumental The Way We Were, with Marv giving us a taste of his voodoo by singing the last verse. Did I mention the museum's consoles gave you fast-forwarding power?

Appealing to the widest possible audience was part of the Midnight Special booking strategy. And talk about a rainbow coalition. In addition to the performers mentioned above, the other guests were Boz Scaggs, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and blaxploitation auteur Melvin Van Peebles taking a weird turn as a singer. Did the director of Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song really dance so badly?

Monday, March 06, 2006

The world is now like bad dope

Back from out of town and checking in with Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, activist folkster and surprisingly good friend of now-disgraced congressman Randy "Duke" "Top Gun" "Don't Call Me Richie" Cunningham:
But the two men hit it off at the convention, mostly because Cunningham agreed with the stated goals of Yarrow's organization: To reduce “the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict upon each other by behaviors such as ridicule, bullying and – in extreme cases – violence.”

At one point during the convention, Yarrow sang his famous song “Day is Done” and invited Cunningham on the stage.

“I gave him a big hug,” Yarrow recalled. “He said, 'That's the first time a man has hugged me since my dad.' ”
I expected something more like, "Save that shit for the trees, commie." No, no, just kidding. If there's one brave stance to take in this world, that's to say you love kids. Because kids are pariahs, our most oppressed and hated minority group, miniature and despised.

Whoa! Not so by everyone! This tidbit surfaced later in the article:

In November, when Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, Yarrow got in touch and asked what he could do to help. More than three decades ago, Yarrow had his own legal problems when he was convicted of making sexual advances toward a 14-year-old girl, a crime for which he served three months in jail.

Fortunately, if you're a folk singer sent to the big house the other inmates just assume you got busted for a protest or a labor uprising.

(News tip from Reader Stu)