Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wrapped in a World of Imaginary Grace

The feeling is gone... this means nothing to me.

In college, I knew a girl named Eleanor who was famous for having won a prestigious art scholarship (endowed by Andy Warhol with a selection committee headed by Picasso's long-time mistress). In most years, no student in America was good enough to win the scholarship; in good years, there was one. My year, it that was Eleanor.

She was pretty famous for the scholarship, but even more famous for the cult of personality (which she actively encouraged) that emerged around her. And also the fact that she wore stockings and flapper dresses.

I met her in a class on experimental German cinema and we hit it off. (I impressed her with a bilingual pun about the 15-hour version of Berlin Alexanderplatz.) Then she asked me if I thought the stockings were sexy. I did and told her so. She said she only wore them as an ironic statement. But the sexiness wasn't ironic (even if her awareness and mockery of it was). After class most nights, we'd climb up on the roof of the art building (she had a key, naturally), where she'd smoke Gauloises and we'd both drink generic beer.

She told me about the semester she spent in Vienna and how she'd fallen in love with an impoverished Duke who wrote her sonnets while she filled sketchbook after sketchbook with charcoal drawings of his penis in repose. She claimed that he was impotent and had told her he could only make love again after his family regained their long-lost fortune.

Oddly, this passed for a normal conversation at the time.

Then I'd tell her stories about fin-de-siecle Vienna (a phrase I'd learned just weeks before) and describe the meeting places of the great poets, writers, and artists from nearly 100 years earlier. She'd nod, offer me a cigarette (which I'd always decline), and tell how she'd been to that pub and this cafe, and how the alleyway I'd described had been rebuilt and was now part of some resort hotel.

She invited me one night to this bar downtown that she claimed was hosting a combination "funk night" and 80s video dance party. I couldn't say yes quickly enough, hoping this would lead to our magical moment together (during which she would fall completely and irreversibly in love with me). I spent hours trying to figure out what to wear, going for a combination of splashy and nonchalant, but ultimately looking like the dork I really was (only with mousse in my hair).

Eleanor, as usual, looked amazing (but also as if she'd closed her eyes, reached into her closet and thrown on whatever she touched). The one thing I remember is that she wore huge hoop earrings and a gigantic purse that matched their color.

When we got inside, I slowly realized that Eleanor was only half-right about the music. There were no synth drums or 80s tunes, just hardcore funk jams and long-forgotten R&B songs from the early 70s. Just about then, I noticed two things: we were literally the only White people in the place and Eleanor was completely wasted. She later opened her purse -- which was stuffed with about five pounds of marijuana. "Shhh..." she whispered. "Don't tell anyone."

And then she wanted to slow dance. To James Brown. Perhaps because there weren't enough people staring at us. I remember feeling out of place; her wonderful quirky nature suddenly felt crazy and dangerous. I convinced her to leave after about an hour; ten minutes later, there was a huge fight and two people were stabbed. But I didn't know that until days later.

As we walked home, I just wanted to escape; I'd given up on finding our perfect magical moment together. She stopped in the middle of the block and it took me five steps to realize she wasn't keeping up. I turned to see her posed under a streetlight, looking adorably quirky again. And she waved me over and I forgot to be annoyed with her. And then she gave me the sweetest, most amazing kiss, and I forgot I'd ever been annoyed with her. "I stop the world and melt with you," she declared. And for a few minutes, she really did. (Link for Gmail subscribers):

And there was nothing else in the world that mattered. It was just the two of us, nowhere to go, nothing to do but kiss under a street light. With five pounds of marijuana at our feet. Her arms wrapped around me, my heart wrapped in a world of imaginary grace.

She led me back to her small, dirty apartment off-campus. And while she went into her bedroom to change out of her flapper dress, I looked at her books and her record collection. And we were talking the whole time, even though I was in a different room. It was a fairly typical student apartment. But there was no art -- no drawings, no paintings, nothing to indicate that a prestigious scholarship student lived there.

And then I saw her passport. And picked it up. The photo was amazing, of course.

And she was telling me, from the other room, about Vienna and how she'd felt freer sexually there than she could ever feel in America. And I thumbed through her passport, looking for the stamps. But they weren't there.

I put the passport down just before she came out of the bedroom. And she poured us both drinks and I wondered where she'd been the semester she wasn't in Vienna. And why the lies poured so easily out of her. And why she thought she couldn't impress people just by being herself.

And she kissed me again and it felt great. But it also felt bad. And she asked me if I wanted to go in her bedroom. And I really, really did.

But I knew I couldn't.

Her stories were great. But they weren't real.

And I needed the real thing. Because the fake stuff, no matter how wonderful and titillating and exotic, would soon feel much worse than having nothing at all.

"Can I show you something I learned in Vienna?" she asked. And my body was screaming yes but my heart said no. And I followed my heart.

A few weeks later, Eleanor took off in the middle of the night. She never finished school and the story slowly leaked out over the next several weeks. She hadn't painted or drawn anything in more than 3 years. But her professors were so impressed with her scholarship and her prizes that none of them would fail her even though she refused to do any of her work. They listened to her, watched the crowd around her, and believed. Or at least wanted to believe.

And her "semester abroad"? There were different stories -- she got pregnant; she worked in a coal mine; she walked every mile of Route 66. I wanted to believe every larger-than-life story about her (even though I knew deep down the truth would be simpler, sadder, and far less poetic).

Years later, when I finally got to Vienna, I couldn't stop thinking about Eleanor. It was cold and cloudy, a city wrapped in mystery and filled with promise. I'd like to say I thought I saw her around every corner (or at least under every streetlight), but it just wasn't true.

Which makes it exactly the type of story she would have told. But that means nothing to me... (Link for Gmail subscribers):

Monday, June 29, 2009


I get emails.

Joan writes: I noticed that since you wrote about "Here Comes the Kónguló" it became the number 1 song in Iceland. Coincidence? I think not!"

I'm not sure I did that much, but if my blog can help push Hafdis Huld to the top of the charts, I'm all for it.

As many of you know, that song is actually about "Spiderman" Alain Robert, not about the superhero Spiderman.

Terry writes: Do you ever worry that the girls you write about will hunt you down and kill you while playing the song you associate with them?

It never crossed my mind until just now.

And I'm also a little scared of you, Terry.

Sal writes: John or Paul?


Sal writes (back): Ramones or Sex Pistols?


And finally Sal writes: Theremin or tuba?

There are some things a gentleman never discusses.

If you've got a burning question that you don't want to leave in the comments, shoot me an email.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pushing Too Hard on... Gene Hackman?

Michael Jackson made me think of Gene Hackman.

This all makes perfect sense, although perhaps only in my head.

So Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett die on Thursday. And I find out two days later that Sky Saxon, leader of legendary garage rockers the Seeds, also died that day.

"Pushing Too Hard" was featured on one of my favorite albums Nuggets, a great two-record set of the finest psychedelic and garage music of the 60s. (The record was assembled by Lenny Kaye, who selected the tracks and wrote great liner notes. I remember distinctly having a two-hour argument in college between 2 and 4 in the morning about what made Lenny Kaye cooler: Nuggets or playing lead guitar in the Patti Smith Group... although I can't remember which argument won out.)


This made me think of the great Australian band Hoodoo Gurus, whose 1984 debut album Stoneage Romeos was named for a Three Stooges short and was dedicated to characters from Get Smart, F-Troop, and Petticoat Junction. That album features a great rave-up celebrating all things Nugget-y called "(Let's All) Turn On," which kicks off:
Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction
No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot, Sky Saxon
That's what I like...
(and just gets cooler from there, name-checking everyone and everything that made Little Steven want to host the Underground Garage radio show).

But I digress (again).

So... I go onto YouTube to look for Hoodoo Gurus videos and find a song I'd never heard of called "Gene Hackman." I played it (and you should too) because I thought it was the same as the Robyn Hitchcock song "Don't Talk to Me About Gene Hackman." But it's not -- it's a totally different song (which -- as far as I can tell -- first appeared on 1998's Electric Chair album).

Hitchcock's song is a hidden bonus track on the Jewels for Sophia album... and, due to YouTube's recent frenzy of take-downs, I couldn't find it there. But here's a link to a live recording.

Both songs came out in the very late 1990s, both by musical artists I love (and started loving around the same time in the 1980s). Both songs are fun (and very much in character with their creators), but they couldn't be more different. And yet, both of these songs are about the exact same thing: the fact that Gene Hackman seemingly was in every movie that came out for a period of 3 or 4 years.

What are the odds of that?

Probably about the same as Michael Jackson, Sky Saxon, and Farah Fawcett all dying on the same day.

(On a related note, I'm happy to report that Gene Hackman is still alive and well...)

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's a Suicide to Choose

Another band that should've been huge.

If you lived in Boston (or almost anywhere in New England) in the mid-to-late 1980s, you couldn't escape from O Positive.

Their sound was laid back but insistent, desparate but hopeful, grounded but oddly ethereal (like a harder-rocking Death Cab for Cutie). The band -- led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Herlihy and guitarist Alan Petitti -- performed up and down the East Coast, building buzz wherever they went. They signed with Throbbing Lobster (a Boston-based garage-oriented indie label) and released an EP in 1985 called Only Breathing, which was played a lot on cool local radio station WBCN, constantly on cooler station WFNX, and occasionally even on Boston's uncool stations. And while a lot of people compared O Positive to REM, it was clear that there was something entirely different going on.

The first track, "With You," was a tale of a relationship that seemed doomed from the start. I'd get lost in the song every time I heard it (and not just because the captivating intro lasts for over 40 seconds before the vocals kick in). At the time, I never could quite figure out if the singer was berating himself or his girlfriend with lines like "It's your five-week anniversary/Put a rope around my neck" or "Smoke a cigarette/Think it'll get you through it" and best of all: "I could love you/It's a suicide to choose." I bought the EP at the Newbury Comics upstairs in the Garage in Harvard Square in Cambridge (and picked up the great Don Dixon-produced Dumptruck album at the same time). And then I went downstairs and bought a tabouli and feta cheese stroller (a pita wrap that you could eat while walking around) from a place called Stuff-Its. (The Garage and Newbury Comics are still there, but Stuff-Its and O Positive are both long gone.) (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

O Positive switched to Link records for the 1987 EP Cloud Factory (and Link later released the two EPs together on one CD). I've always thought the highlight of Cloud Factory was the great song "Up, Up, Up" (which struck me as a sequel of sorts to "With You," with the same singer looking back fondly at the doomed relationship he tried to escape from in the earlier song). Epic signed the band soon after, eager to capitalize on their growing fanbase (and hoping to find a group that would be as influential as REM). But their 1990 album ToyboatToyboatToyboat sounded a bit too slick and watered-down and the band parted ways with Epic after disagreeing about their future direction. Another indie release and a live album and the band was done. Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Years later, I thought back on a woman I knew who loudly and violently denounced anyone who smoked as weak and pitiful. While I don't like smoking (and have never smoked myself), the virulence of her attacks was shocking. When I learned she'd been a heavy smoker herself, the attacks seemed even stranger. Millions of years after the fact, I remembered how much she'd scared me. And wondered if I was just to weak to love her. Suddenly, in a moment of crystal clarity, I understood what "With You" mean (at least to me) and why it stayed with me after all those years.

When it's a suicide to choose, a little part of you dies no matter what you do.

Unrelated Postscript: Dave Herlihy, who is a huge star in the alternate universe with the best music, is now an entertainment lawyer in this universe. But you can tell he's still cool because his photo on his website shows him posed in front of a shelf of law books with his guitar.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

There's Demons Closing In From Every Side...

The chair is (still) not my son.

Has there ever been anyone who achieved so much, had so much talent, then so completely disintegrated in public over so many years in attempt after painful attempt to achieve what he once was able to do almost effortlessly?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Attention, Hipster Doofi

And you know who you are...

When it's nearly 100 degrees out...

And it's so hot that you're wearing shorts and flip-flops...

Do you really need to wear that wool cap? Do you really think making yourself sweat while wearing it convinces anyone you're cool? Is there nothing else that you can do to brand yourself as a hipster doofus?

I'm just asking...

Monday, June 22, 2009

There is No Real Perfection

Someone in Badfinger must have done something awful in a past life.

When I was in High School and college, I was obsessed with the band Badfinger.

I might add that most of my college friends had musical obsessions, ranging from the fairly normal (Springsteen worshippers) to the obscure (Robyn Hitchcock aficionados) to the downright weird (Richard Harris, as a singer not as an actor). In that crowd, being a Badfinger freak didn't seem so strange.

Now, rarely in history has a band seemed as doomed as Badfinger. Yeah, they were discovered by the Beatles, signed to Apple Records, had a hit off a song Paul McCartney wrote for them, appeared on John Lennon's Imagine album, George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and on Ringo's "It Don't Come Easy" single. In addition, they had a string of hits -- power-pop masterpieces with chiming guitars and great harmonies -- that remain classics to this day. But they also had a manager who ran off with all their money, multiple lawsuits, and a record company that pulled one of their greatest records a week after its release (and its rave review in Rolling Stone), then rejected their next record (again for financial impropriety, and again a minor masterpiece). Pete Ham, the group's leader and chief songwriter was so despondent that he hung himself, declaring in his suicide note that the group's manager was a "soulless bastard." Years later, Tom Evans, the group's other major songwriter would hang himself after being sued by a promoter.

And, although I seem to say this a lot in this blog, there's an alternate universe out there where Badfinger became huge stars, filling stadiums and selling millions of records well into the 1990s... and even if I can't live in that alternate universe, I'd give almost anything to be able to pick up their radio broadcasts.

But back in this universe, Badfinger's music was unavailable (except if you had enough patience and got lucky in used record shops). I haunted local used record stores for Badfinger albums and was thrilled when -- after at least six years of searching -- I was rewarded with my then-musical Holy Grail, a used copy (in very good condition) of Straight Up, their amazing 1971 album produced half by Todd Rundgren and half by George Harrison (who also plays the slide guitar solo on "Day After Day").

(Parenthetically, I should add that one day when my girlfriend at the time -- yes, the one who liked Michael Bolton -- called me and told me she'd found a copy of Straight Up exactly one month after learning that it existed. I very specifically recall thinking that she didn't deserve to own an album like that, that she hadn't sacrificed enough to find it, and probably wouldn't really be able to appreciate it.)

If the Badfinger saga sounds like something ripe for Behind the Music, it was (although, appropriately enough, Badfinger's Behind the Music seemed doomed -- it literally was years behind schedule and was scrapped three or four times before Paul McCartney agreed to appear in it and it was revived). Unfortunately, I didn't have cable when it first aired. It was rarely repeated (Behind the Music had mostly run its course by then) and has never been released on DVD. (And of course, VH-1 rarely shows anything other than dating shows these days, so I thought I'd never get to see it.)

I still believe in the magic of the internet. So check it out before they take it down.

And in the meantime, here's a little taste (and those of you who know me might recognize that, yes, the opening guitar riff is the ringtone on my phone):

And if you're interested, Dan Matovina's sadly out-of-print book Without You: The Tragic History of Badfinger is pretty great... and taught me something about Badfinger I never knew before: I saw the last concert Tom Evans performed (in Providence, Rhode Island) before he killed himself.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Alternate Universe Father's Day

Happy Father's Day.

I'm a father in several alternate universes, but not in this one.

Then again, there are alternate universes where Bolton (the English city) is world famous and Michael Bolton runs a small auto-supply business in Chicago.

When I was in college, I fell in love with someone who was totally and completely wrong for me. She dumped me over an argument about the relative merits of Michael Bolton and the Buzzcocks (but in retrospect there may have been other issues as well).

The first time around, the Buzzcocks (led by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto) released a series of amazing records that combined the ferocious energy of punk with a strong sense of melody (and were collected in the great Singles Going Steady collection).

I should have known that my college romance was doomed when we fought about the Buzzcocks' crowning glory, "Ever Fallen In Love with Someone." She felt that Pete Shelley's vocals were unlistenable and ignored everything else. Over the course of 30 years and multiple breakups and reunions, Shelley's singing certainly got better. At the same time -- as you can see from this 2006 Craig Ferguson appearance -- the band's full-frontal attack and the inherent power of the song never went away. (Unlike the ex-girlfriend, whom I haven't spoken to in an eternity that still doesn't seem long enough.)

I thought of this ex recently when I saw a sappy TV report on Father's Day which featured an aggressively sappy and over-the-top Michael Bolton song. She probably loved it and probably sang along with her wimpy husband and their daughter.

Meanwhile, in a different alternate universe where I'm a father (with a much more suitable woman), my son asks me how you know when you're in love. And the only possible answer is this:

(By the way, I read this post to my cat, who says some people should only be parents in alternate universes... or are better suited to raising pets than children. He then demanded salmon and lobster wet food and meowed a gorgeous harmony vocal.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Straddling the Fine Line Between Cool and Stupid

It's Not Often That Words Fail Me.

But this is one of those times (h/t to One Poor Correspondent).

Just watch this.

Yeah, that's Ringo Starr looking horrible in an unkempt beard and dorky glasses. And, yeah, the girl is a pre-Princess Leia Carrie Fisher. And, yes, that's Sir Paul McCartney playing kazoo.

My only explanation: The 70s were a lot weirder than anyone thought.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Singer, Not the Industrial Solvent

Laser beams and invisible shields.

If I were an alien visiting from another planet (which, according to some of my friends, isn't that far from the truth), I'd think that "Exene" was an industrial solvent, maybe something that was added to the band X as part of an elaborate and messy industrial process whose end result was impassioned music.

That might not be entirely wrong.

My first exposure to seminal punk band X was when my friend Mason played me their 400-mile-per-hour cover of "Soul Kitchen" (originally by the Doors). I was hooked on the energy and on the bizarre back-and-forth vocals. And then there was Billy Zoom, whose unmoving stance on stage was a stark contrast to the machine-gun pace of the music. (And what's not to love about a punk band whose drummer is named "D.J. Bonebrake"?)

And the cool factor of two married co-lead-vocalists singing these songs as if their lives depended on it was matched only by the cool factor of two divorced co-lead-vocalists singing these songs as if our lives depended on it.

X on David Letterman in the 1980s:

Two weeks ago, Exene Cervenka, co-lead-singer of X, announced that she has Multiple Sclerosis.

Exene's bandmate and ex-husband John Doe told Spinner "She's great. There's a lot of people that live with this. We take care of our own. She realizes that this is another challenge. She's got a lot of support and it's all good. We'll take good care of Exene, don't worry."

Here's wishing her the best going forward.

The quote at the top of this post comes from "Leave Heaven Alone" -- from Exene's fantastic, quieter, and more introspective 1989 album Old Wive's Tales.

(And, just in case you're wondering: record company employees get healthcare benefits that are heavily subsidized by the company. Artists and musicians -- who provide the music that have benefited those record companies for decade after decade -- do not.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Here Comes the Kónguló

Is he strong? Listen, bud: He's got radioactive blood.

When I was in first grade, we took a class trip to a nature preserve. The next day, our class wrote up a booklet about the trip and our teacher mimeographed it and we all took it home. (Although, in retrospect, it's more likely that we all talked about the trip and our teacher wrote up the booklet.)

I don't remember much about the trip (or first grade in general), but I do remember a long discussion in the booklet about how some people could see thin threads from the spiders in the trees. I was one of the ones who saw nothing. But I knew the theme to Spiderman by heart.

In my mind, the people who could see the spiderwebs somehow had a window into another world -- and perhaps that other world was magical and amazing in ways I could only imagine. When I finally could see the spiderwebs, I was disappointed that they brought me to no new worlds and offered little that was magical or amazing. For that, I'd have to turn to music.

Because in rock 'n' roll, any freak can be a superhero.

Things are a little different in Iceland, where the Icelandic Spiderman seems a wee bit incompetent (hat tip to the I Heart Icelandic Music blog):

Bonus 1: Three Danish teens scat Spiderman:

Bonus 2: the original cartoon theme:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Blog Post

My friend Jennifer held a party every year to celebrate Johnny Rotten's birthday.

It's not Johnny Rotten's birthday today (that was back on January 31st), but it is Jennifer's birthday -- so please celebrate it as you see fit. For me, it's more of a generic celebration.

After the Sex Pistols imploded, billionaire Richard Branson decided to cash in on Johnny Rotten (who bucked the marketing program and went back to his given name: John Lydon).

This was long before Branson was knighted (in 1999 for "services to entrepreneurship"), back when Branson ran Virgin records (first as a string of record stores -- later to be known as Mega Virginstores which, oddly enough, sold no virgins -- and then as an actual record label).

It was years before Branson's Virgin Records would lead to a long-simmering feud with XTC that caused the band to go on strike for six years (a strike that may have been more effective if anyone had known about it at the time).

And it was almost a lifetime before Branson would douse Stephen Colbert for insufficient zeal in promoting Branson's airline.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Branson
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorStephen Colbert in Iraq

In 1978, Branson thought Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band would be huge, if he could find the right musicians. So Branson flew Lydon to Jamaica and they spent weeks scouting local reggae players. Branson then flew Devo to Jamaica and tried to convince them to bring in Lydon as their new lead singer (they declined, although I still salivate at the thought of Johnny Rotten singing "Whip It").

What finally emerged from the ganja smoke was Public Image Ltd., where Lydon chanted (rather than shouting or really singing) over dub/reggae music. They edged away from the avant garde and closer to traditional songs and song structure over the next four records. Meanwhile, in the United States, there was a craze for "generic" brand products (sold in white packages with a distinctive blue typeface that had the type of product, such as "Beer" or "Breakfast Cereal").

By 1986, PiL had become a fairly standard rock band (albeit one with an off-kilter sound). As the music became more mainstream and commercial, it also became less distinct; maybe this was the type of meta-joke that let Lydon laugh all the way to the bank. The band parted ways with Virgin and Branson, signing to Elektra. Ginger Baker and Steve Vai (whom Johnny Rotten would have spit on a decade earlier) played on the new album, the generically titled Album (which was also known, depending on the format as Cassette or Compact Disc), with its single "Rise" (released as a 45 with a sleeve that just said "Single"). And even when Lydon proclaimed "anger is an energy," it came across less as a snarl and more as a tired grumble.

And, because it was 1986, it was inevitable that there would be a video (and perhaps unavoidable that it would be marked by the simple title "Video"):

It was ironic that Baker, drummer for Cream, one of the groups Johnny Rotten labeled as dinosaurs, participated... especially after Lydon, years earlier, made an April Fool's joke of announcing that Baker was joining Public Image Ltd. But the bigger irony was that, by completely subsuming music to product, Lydon obscured the fact that he had finally created something that could stand as music (and not just as attitude dressed up in musical clothing).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Happy Half-Birthday!

Or Maybe Half-Happy Birthday!

This blog launched 6 months ago with a post explaining the difference between collectors and music lovers (complete with video from High Fidelity. (To celebrate tonight, I'm wearing a half a birthday hat and half-blowing through a half-decent noisemaker!)

This was followed by posts on:

So to celebrate, check out those early posts (or any of the others in the archives on the left side of the screen.

And welcome (or welcome back) to all the readers from all over the world (although none yet from Wyoming or Tennessee). And whatever I did to piss off the people in the island nation of Mauritius (who dropped in once and then never returned), I'm sure I didn't mean it!

And the four people from Homeland Security who visited after I mentioned the TSA, I'm guessing this post will finally bring you back.

Also, I should mention that there are 12 terms that return only this blog when you Google them.

And, as 120 people know, Clicks and Pops can be experienced on your iPhone!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Surrealistic Pillows (Watching They Might Be Giants Watch Themselves)

Doc will solo!

So I'm sitting with John and John from They Might Be Giants. They're watching themselves on TV and sitting on my crappy $20 couch near the one window with an ocean view. (My ex-girlfriend recently claimed the couch had fleas, but I'm pretty sure you only got fleas with the $10 couches).

I'd been a They Might Be Giants fan going back to Don't Let's Start and thought their smart-ass geek-rock (with accordian) was often perfect. Plus, they name-checked the dBs and the Young Fresh Fellows on their new album (and had written a song about James K. Polk), so their bona fides were well established in my book.

The Johns had been plugging that TV appearance for weeks ("and Doc will solo!" they'd proclaim). This was before they had a real band -- it was just John singing and playing guitar and John singing and playing accordian live to prerecorded backing tracks (bass, drums, etc.). And every night my ex-girlfriend's uber-cool brother would control those backing tracks; "it's like remixing an album live every night," he said.

Now, I'm sure it was much cheaper not to bring a band on the road (plus, it was weird and quirky, just like They Might Be Giants). But obviously they wanted a real band and the freedom that would bring to change tempos and not limit their performances to preset times and rhythms.

That afternoon, they were in Burbank in front of hundreds of cheering fans and gushing guest-host Jay Leno. (I was at my crappy day job being cheered by no one.) But by 11:30 at night, they were in my small apartment on the beach on my crappy $20 couch (with or without the fleas) watching themselves on TV. I glanced at it, but mostly I watched them watch themselves. It was surreal -- and they gripped our couch pillows (which may have cost more than the couch, come to think of it) in horror. I think they'd been on TV before, but nothing on the scale of The Tonight Show.

After, they had absurd crticisms about their perceived physical flaws ("my forehead is enormous!") which no one else noticed.

Watching that performance now, it's clear they kicked ass that night (as they did most nights). And, as promised, Doc did solo. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

But I wondered if, in their minds that night on the couch, what they saw looked more like this. (And which of the Johns was the fez-wearing shark?)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ludwig Wittgenstein of Rock

I was obsessed in college with a girl who was obsessed with Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We were taking a class whose name escapes me. But we read Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. And the professor apologized that we were reading 12 books in the semester since we easily could have spent an entire semester on any of those 12 books.

Everyone in the class had a crush on her. At the time I thought she didn't realize this, but looking back I'm not so sure.

Anyway, I pursued her and we seemed to have an amazing connection. I loved that she preferred me to the other guys in the class and I desperately wanted to be the guy she already saw me as. For weeks, we'd hang out talking until the middle of the night (about the most important and most trivial of topics) and soon fell into a relationship. We dated for most of the semester and it was wonderful.

One night she told me she hated Neil Young because after she lost her virginity, the guy drove her home and "Like a Hurricane" came on the radio. And she heard the line "You could have been anyone to me" and realized he didn't love her and never would. I told her he was an idiot, but wondered if she'd missed the overall point of the song by focusing on that one line.

In class, we read Ludwig Wittgenstein's masterpiece, a dense, hard-to-understand work called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The book is all about language and how people communicate and the fact that when different people use the same words they often mean different things. Language that is not based on observable facts is inexact and it has a foggy cloud of possible meanings. The best we can hope for as people as that our foggy clouds overlap enough that we can approximate communication.

Bertrand Russell wrote an introduction to the book and most publishers were only interested in it because of Russell's introduction. This greatly pained Wittgenstein, who felt that Russell completely misunderstood and misrepresented his work, yet no one would read it without Russell's wrongheaded description.

Now, this girl had read Wittgenstein before. And she had very strong opinions about what he meant. So, after we'd both finished our final papers for the class (we both wrote on Wittgenstein), I made the mistake of comparing Neil Young to Wittgenstein. As proof, I brought up "Like a Hurricane." I said that, when words can't convey what Young means, the guitar takes over, bringing you to that place he wanted you to go all along. If Young could make it happen, the guitar solo on this song would continue forever in some realm where Young and his dream-girl find ultimate love and happiness: "that perfect moment when time just slips away between us on our foggy trip."

I finished and felt very pleased with myself and my arguments. We sat in silence for a long time and I thought we were perfectly in synch, time slipping away, and the two of us united and happy.

And then she got up and told me I was worse than Bertrand Russell and I had completely misrepresented everything Wittgenstein ever meant. And furthermore, Neil Young's commitment problems had made life a living hell for David Crosby, who simply wasn't as strong as everyone thought. As she was walking out the door, she turned back and said "I can't believe you'd take my ex-boyfriend's side."

And I suddenly wanted to slide into the fog of that guitar solo, because I knew that Wittgenstein was right -- she and I used the same words and meant drastically different things. Or else she was right and I just didn't understand Wittgenstein or Neil Young. And maybe that's the best proof anyone could ever offer that Neil Young is the Ludwig Wittgenstein of rock 'n' roll.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

And that's midnight to you

Squeezing Out Sparks is a masterpiece.

Stung by mistreatment from his first record company and the lack of his early records to capture his band's sound, Graham Parker ditched Mercury Records (leaving behind the scathing "Mercury Poisoning") and lit out for greener pastures.

Determined to make a record as fiery as his legendary live shows with the Rumour (Bruce Springsteen once famously said that Graham Parker was the only performer he would pay money to see), Parker ditched the horn section, dialed down the R&B shadings, and delivered a near-perfect album that combined the familiarity of pub rock, the raw power of punk, and the angularity of new wave with literate imagery and wordplay rarely seen in rock.

Someone could write an entire book about Squeezing Out Sparks (and if I had more time I'd do it myself).

Although the album was a critic's favorite, it barely registered with American recordbuyers -- maybe they felt their "angry young man from England with great lyrics" quota had already been met by Elvis Costello.

Parker would spend much of the 80s and 90s bouncing from record label to record label (Atlantic signed him, ordered him to write with "more commercial" songwriters and told him what he really needed was the big 80s drum sound popularized by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins and featured on nearly every rock album of the 80s; when Parker balked, Atlantic dropped him without releasing anything) trying to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Squeezing Out Sparks while searching in vain for the superstardom that would have been his in a more righteous world. By the end of the 90s, Parker was recording for indie labels and still giving great live performances (even if the dream of superstardom had faded away). And if his latest records don't quite measure up to Squeezing Out Sparks, they're still great -- Parker recently has been alternating between a more mature and resigned attitude and rip-snorting angry anthems that could stand with his earliest work.

But I digress.

Squeezing Out Sparks explodes with energy from the start. "Discovering Japan" is a frantic rocker about the strangeness of foreign cultures. Or the uncertainty of relationships. Or how the spreading globalism destroys what's precious and unique. Or how the horrors of war leave their mark on countries and their people. Or the inherently doomed nature of romance. Or all of the above and more, set to a pounding rhythm and scorching guitar work.

The lyrics fit in perfectly with the music and seem jumbled without it ("As the flight touches down/My watch says 8:02/But that's midnight to you"). It's the type of song you could listen to again and again, hoping to glean some understanding of what must be a very important message (and wishing for footnotes that explain everything) before you realize that the real message is something that can't be put into words (and can barely be translated into music). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

It's possibly the perfect way to open an album.

But, then, snuck in just before the end of Side 1 (from back when there were two sides to recorded music -- kids, ask your parents), there's this:

What the hell is that doing on an album of screaming rock songs?

"You Can't Be Too Strong" is filled with disturbing imagery and simple instrumentation that play up the words. Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone knocked the entire album on the basis of this song, which he misinterpreted as an anti-abortion anthem. It's not. And it's definitely not a pro-abortion song, either.

It's ultimately a sadness-drenched song about a man unable to face up to his responsibilities. The song examines the choice the man's girlfriend makes to terminate her pregnancy, recognizing with regret her decision will have a profound respect on a lot of people (and implicitly, that none of her choices are really very appealing). More than anything, it's an lament about the weakness of the original man (and, Parker has claimed, based on his own experiences). Allmusic.com does a much better job of capturing the song's complexities.

Perhaps years later, that's still the relationship that haunts "Discovering Japan" and the disconnect and jumbled memory of that song echoes the disconnect and pain of "You Can't Be Too Strong":
But lovers turn to posers
Show up in film exposures
Just like in travel brochures
Discovering Japan!

Geeky Bonus: When Squeezing Out Sparks first came out in 1979, Arista shipped it to radio stations with a bonus disk called Live Sparks, which contained live versions of all the songs in order. When Arista remastered the album for a CD re-release in 1996, they included Live Sparks and live versions of "Mercury Poisoning" and a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" all on one CD. Needless to say, if you don't have the original LP, that's the version to buy.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Driving Through Snow with a Time Machine

Like most really weird things, this started late at night.

Driving through the snow, caravanning.

We weren't exactly heading to the same place, but there were mountains and the road was curvy.

I was driving a Chevy Citation, which was a gutsy little front-wheel drive car. And she was in a Jeep with four-wheel drive. I was 22.

It was dark and the road was slippery and I was listening to a cassette tape someone had thrown through a wormhole from the future and the tape was playing the long version of this song, the one that builds forever before the vocals start:

And as the tension built and built, she speeded up. And by the end of the song, I was at an intersection. And there was no way of telling which way she went.

So I got out of the car... and I looked down the road to the left: darkness and trees. A quiet town and a warm motel room on my way somewhere else. And the girl in the Jeep? Long gone.

And down the road to the right: the Jeep parked in front of a bar. A long conversation over pitchers of beer. Wonder and passion. And heated arguments. Long periods without talking and recriminations and massive hurt feelings. And more arguments and long silences. And I got back in the car and steered to the right.

Surely the wonder and passion would all the bad stuff. Right?

Wrong. Of course, it took years to figure out how wrong. Years that erased the magic and wonder. So I bought that Death Cab for Cutie cassette and built the time-machine and put it in the tape player of the Citation back when I was 22. But this time I wrote "this is a warning from the future" on the tape. That would get my attention, right?

And I stood there in the woods... all those years ago again.

And I watched the Jeep go right.

And waited.

Ten minutes later, the Chevy Citation pulled up. And I watched myself get out and look down both roads. And I wondered why I'd ever worn such a stupid hat.

And I heard this song coming from the tape deck. And knew I'd never pay attention to the warning. So I watched the Citation go off to the right. And hoped this version of me would figure out a better warning system.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fedora? No (My) Way

Frank Sinatra always seemed old to me.

When I was growing up, the Rat Pack already seemed impossibly old and out of touch. And my friends and I puzzled over why people would ever pay attention to them.

Growing up, there was only one kid in school who listened to Frank Sinatra (and he would regularly wear a fedora, suspenders, and powder-blue boat shoes instead of scuffed-up jeans and sneakers). The school bullies thought his retro act was so weird that they left him alone (perhaps for fear of catching the virus that caused worship of Nelson Riddle).

So while most of our contemporaries needed a backbeat and electric guitars, my fedora-wearing friend was content with a big band and old Sinatra albums. And only the old albums. If you made the mistake of mentioning "My Way," he'd scoff and dismiss it as crap.

It was a feeling Sinatra shared.
And yet that song fueled his live act for nearly 30 years (and stoked demand for that live-act in the post-Beatles era).

Sure, Sinatra was too much of a showman and too musical to ever completely destroy a song. But still I can't help wondering if Sinatra, when he was doing this...

...would have been happier doing something more like this:

And more importantly, what would Sid Vicious have looked like in a fedora, suspenders, and powder-blue boat shoes?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

An Incredible Simulation of Music News

So I guess there's a new version of the Sims starring the Beatles. (Let's hope there's a cheat-code involving Yoko Ono!) I'm not a huge fan of the Sims, but this does look pretty cool.

Meanwhile, the entire "literal video" idea goes full-on classic rock with the promo film for "Penny Lane":

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ukelele + Vintage Zep t-shirt = Irony?

I hunt for the weird shit on UkeTube? so you don't have to.

I live in Los Angeles, which is well-known as an irony-free zone. But even the most hardened Angeleno will tell you that the surest recipe for irony is to combine a ukulele with a vintage Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Because happy, shiny, ukulele picking can turn the saddest dirge about junkies overdosing into a toe-tappin' happy tune!

Finland is not known for surf music (and, as a nation, they've never quite recovered from the fact that the Beach Boys snubbed them on the Holland album). So you may ask yourself what would Finnish Tweens know about surf music played on ukuleles... and the answer is plenty!

And it's hard to mention Ukuleles without posting something from the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (whose cover of "Shaft" is well worth a look), so here they are with Kaiser Chiefs (who might be my favorite recent band even if they didn't send me special videos on my birthday) doing a kick-ass version of "Ruby."