Friday, July 31, 2009

Genius is Pain

No one listens on the left of the dial in the middle of the night.

So if you happened to play something that used profanity, chances are no one would notice. Or so went the reasoning of the soon-to-be-dismissed DJ on one of the eight college radio stations I could pick up in Junior High School.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Although it may be hard to believe these days, Rolling Stone magazine and the National Lampoon were once serious cultural touchstones (and considered "dangerously subversive" by mainstream society and the media).

But let me back up further.

The 60s ended with a series of enormous events, any one of which would be enough to set off pop-cultural earthquakes: astronauts walked on the moon (or on a soundstage in Arizona, depending on what you believe), Woodstock brought half a million people to a farm to listen to music in the mud, Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge into shallow water at Chappaquidick Island (simultaneously killing a female campaign worker and his chance to ever become President), Monty Python's Flying Circus premiered on British television, and the Rolling Stones hired the Hell's Angels as security for a free concert (where the Angels killed a stoned Black guy with a gun who may have been trying to make Mick Jagger's fantasy of being assassinated while onstage come true).

And also the Beatles had kind of broken up, but were keeping that fact under wraps until they could finish the Let it Be album with Phil Spector.

Paul McCartney finally spilled the beans a week before his first solo album came out when he issued an "interview" (conducted by and with himself) where he declared that the Beatles had broken up. John Lennon, who wanted to announce the breakup himself months earlier but had been talked out of it by Paul, was pissed.

Lennon and Yoko Ono went to Los Angeles and underwent "primal scream therapy" with Arthur Janov. Lennon was encouraged by the sessions to confront his past traumas and he channelled some of that energy into his first real solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a record of stark, powerful, confessional songs unlike anything that came before (or has come since).

Lennon also gave a sprawling interview to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone where, over the course of nearly three hours, he put down George Harrison, called Paul's album "rubbish," insulted Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, and talked openly and candidly about his past and his talent. The interview took the happy mop-top Beatles image (and even the hippy-dippy, peace-and-love psychedelia of the Beatles' later years) and tore it apart. Lennon's words are shocking in their honesty and sometimes make him seem like a huge jerk. You can hear the entire interview (unedited except for boosting Wenner's off-mike questions) here.

Around the same time, Harvard grads from the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine launched the National Lampoon. The Lampoon immediately hit a chord with the counterculture, who were desperate for comedy that spoke to them (unlike the sanitized comedy on American television, which seemed permanently stuck in the early 1950s). Sex, music, war, protest, and drugs were all fair game for the Lampoon, which took particular delight in satirizing rock stars (in all their glorious excesses).

The National Lampoon magazine led to off-Broadway reviews, a radio show, and a handful of records featuring writers and performers like Tony Hendra, Melissa Manchester, John Belushi, Michael O'Donoghue, and Christopher Guest. The first and best of the records was National Lampoon's Radio Dinner (which has now been out of print for a shamefully long time).

All of which brings me back to Junior High. Years after the Beatles broke up (and years after Radio Dinner came out), I was listening to a college radio station late at night when the DJ decided to play a National Lampoon song that I've thought for years was called "Genius is Pain." The real title is "Magical Misery Tour" (and most of the lyrics are taken from Lennon's own words in his Rolling Stone interview).

Although I wasn't familiar with all the references, I recognized instantly how biting and funny and sad this was (and how much it must have meant to fans of the magazine, who had to be completely torn up over the Beatles breaking up).

So from that night in Junior High until today, I remembered that National Lampoon parody but had never heard it again. My used-record store searches were doomed because I was searching for the wrong song title (and probably just glossed over the title "Magical Misery Tour"). But now, thanks to the YouTube, here it is (in all it's very NSFW glory and with my added warning not to play it around young children).

Later, I learned that the DJ was kicked off the air -- not for playing a record filled with dozens of profanities (that part, apparently was fine), but because the program director didn't think the song was funny. (To be fair, the program director also didn't like Monty Python, the Rutles, and the best of early Saturday Night Live, so his judgment definitely should not be trusted.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kongulo Kab

The Internet Was Made For Stuff Like This.

No, not porn.

Two years ago, Hidden Fruit (Gen Stevens and Chris Pattinson) and Just So Films (Jonny Madderson and Will Evans) came up with an idea that would either be completely brilliant or totally stupid. Hire a London cab, put famous musicians in the back seat and film them performing one song in one take with no editing and no overdubs.

This isn't an idea that can sustain for 60 or 90 minutes, but it makes a perfect 3-5 minute diversion. Ideal for the Internet.

There have now been more than 90 of these Black Cab Sessions (their slogan: One Song, One Take, One Cab), most great examples of the wonderful results you can get from a good idea and a budget in the high single digits. The series trends heavily towards indie rockers (Death Cab for Cutie, the New Pornographers, Okkervil River) but also features some old school rock stars (Brian Wilson, Richard Thompson).

The performances range from giddy to ghastly (there's no room for a full band and nowhere to hide performance weaknesses in a London cab), but many of the performers take a goofy glee in singing from the back seat of a cab driving through busy city streets.

One of the more recent episodes features Iceland's own Hafdis Huld, who seems to be having so much fun (despite being stalked by a crazy street person) that it should be against the law. Here she is singing her ode to Alain Robert (the French skyscraper climber nicknamed "Spiderman") Iceland's #1 hit single "Kongulo":

Hafdis Huld from Black Cab Sessions on Vimeo.

(See the official video for "Könguló" here.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bagel Chips from the L.A. Fireball

There are few great bagels outside of New York.

On a very sad day many years ago, my favorite bagel shop in Los Angeles closed. Their bagels weren't great, but they were pretty good.

In the weeks and months that followed, Mrs. Clicks & Pops and I went to a variety of bagel shops. We weren't very impressed.

Then we found a bagel place that was pretty good. Not amazing, but at least as good as the one that closed. The staff was cool and the bagels were always toasted exactly right. The only problem was the location.

It's not that the new bagel place was too far away, but it was on a corner that's difficult to drive to if you can't remember exactly which street to turn down. And this was in an area where most of the streets looked the same (and had similar names).

We needed a mnemonic device.

And then I realized that the street our new favorite bagel place was on was the same street (several miles and major intersections away) where my college friend Tom Spath lives. That's an interesting fact, but it's not quite a mnemonic. So, out of nowhere, I loudly proclaimed "I've got it! Tom Spath is a giant bagel!" I think we laughed at this for about 20 minutes.

(Note: Tom Spath is actually not a giant bagel. He's a human being, not made of water, eggs, and flour, not available in a variety of flavors with several toppings, not giant, and certainly not baked in an oven, sliced lengthwise in half and run through a slow-moving-conveyor-belt-type industrial toaster to lightly brown his surface while leaving his insides chewy.)

After thinking up the mnemonic, we never again forgot what street the new bagel shop was on -- all we had to do was say "Tom Spath is a giant bagel" and we'd know how to get there.

About a month later, we saw Tom Spath and told him about the new bagel place and our fantastic mnemonic device. He was not amused. Actually, that's an extreme understatement. Tom wasn't quite insulted, but he certainly lacked the appropriate amount of glee at this most clever of all mnemonic devices. If he had his choice right then, we would have forgotten the whole thing.

But his lack of reaction got under our skin. If he had laughed, we likely would have moved on to finding a way to remember which Trader Joe's has the parking lot where people are the least stupid. But instead, over the next few months, we would concentrate on Tom's reaction more and more, sometimes trying to figure out some variation that would amuse him. Eventually, my rock-star wife began singing little songs about Tom as we drove to the bagel place, expressing details of Tom's life in bagel-centric terms. I quickly joined in, hoping to make up for my lack of singing skills with amusing lyrics. (I should mention that this entire endeavor quickly got out of hand; at one point, there were probably 10 or 12 verses and at least two bridges and we'd stop only because it took far less time to get to the bagel place than to sing the song.)

Since Tom was so unamused when we told him our mnemonic phrase, we didn't mention the song to him.

At least not until it was recorded (and whittled down from an "Alice's Restaurant"-length epic to a lean-and-mean 83 seconds).

And then we kind of had to tell him. He was apprehensive at the idea, but loved the song when he finally heard it.

So, although this explanation is longer than the song itself, in the words of the late Paul Harvey: "Now you know... the rest of the story." (Link for Gmail subscribers)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Judge Not (Lest You Be Judged By Your Record Collection)

Digital music has robbed us of the opportunity to examine the records (or even CDs) of new friends and acquaintances.

These days, it's considered rude to poke through your friends iTunes libraries (or so they tell me when they catch me).

But as important as what music people had was how it was arranged: randomly, in order of preference, by year, by genre, or alphabetically by artist name (and if it's the last one, should Andy Partridge get his own category or be filed with XTC? And do you consider Alice Cooper a band and file it under "A" or a singer and file it under "C"?).

Regular readers may not be surprised that my favorite way of arranging music is this:

And, as a special 100th post bonus, my favorite video of all time that features a drummer dressed up as a lion (and add 20 coolness points for the 45rpm adaptor painted on his bass drum).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kid Blue

Some people were born to sing.

Melissa made a beeline for the record crates and started thumbing through my albums, nodding in appreciation at some, shaking her head with disbelief at others, and then pausing and pulling a record out and holding it up to her face.

"People tell me all the time that I look just like her." I looked from Melissa to the picture on Louise Goffin's first album (Kid Blue). I couldn't see the resemblance, but said nothing.

"And I sing like her, too. Everyone tells me I have the voice of an angel. Or a bird who soars over the mountaintops." My roommates and I exchanged glances. Doubting her. And trying to remember whose friend Melissa was and how she wound up at our apartment.

Melissa didn't sing that night. But a few weeks later, I was at her apartment, looking through her records. Which were awful. "I just have the Bay City Rollers to be ironic," she said. I counted 9 albums of irony, but there may have been more.

And a few days after that, she dropped by with a deck of tarot cards and asked if we could listen to Kid Blue while she read my cards. "Some people were just born to sing," she said, then carefully dealt the cards and studied them. Finally, she smiled. "The cards say you're going to sleep with me," she said. "And the cards are never wrong." (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

If ever there was someone born to sing, it's Louise Goffin. The daughter of legendary songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King, was raised around rock royalty, got her first record deal at age 16, and opened for Jackson Browne when she was 17. She had a voice that could reach into your chest and grab you by the heart and never let go. The song "Kid Blue" should've been a hit... and her cover of the Shangri-La's "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" made the Aerosmith version seem like... well, the Bay City Rollers.

When Goffin's album came out, she was 19 and the critics harped on how her record wasn't as good as Carole King's Tapestry (which featured backing vocals by James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and was produced after King had nearly a decade as a hit songwriter under her belt). After a couple of other albums in the 1980s, Goffin's priorities shifted (as indicated by the photo to the right, borrowed from Goffin's MySpace page) and she got married and started a family. After 13 years away, Goffin signed with Dreamworks records and released Sometimes a Circle in 2002, which was smooth, confident, and totally out of touch with what most fans wanted.

Goffin and Carole King re-recorded King's "Where You Lead," which served as the theme for The Gilmore Girls, a TV show set in the type of music-obsessed world where someone like Louise Goffin could have been a big star. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

And Melissa? Today I know that sometimes the tarot cards are wrong (even if they weren't that night). I do remember the shock of waking from a nightmare of animals being tortured and finding Melissa singing to me. Her voice was beyond awful. If she sang like a bird, it wasn't a bird soaring over mountaintops, but a bird howling with existential agony after crashing into a craggy peak.

Yes, some people are born to sing... but Melissa (despite her unwavering and completely misplaced confidence) was not one of those people. (I never told her -- I guess it wasn't in the cards.)

Bonus: Here's a recent Louise Goffin song called "Pink Champagne." If there were any justice in this world, this song would have been a huge radio hit. (Then again, if there were any justice in the world, there would be a lot more great radio to listen to.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Top Ten Facts About the Weakerthans

Leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense.

The Weakerthans, whom I've mentioned here and here, performed last night in L.A. Much of the crowd sang along for good portions of the band's 100-minute set, which reminded me again of the sheer power and joy of great music played well.

In honor of the show, here's a list of my 10 favorite facts about the Weakerthans:

10. Head Weakerthan John K. Samson is the Seth Green of Canadian Rock. While his bandmates jump around like goofy and gleeful teenagers doing ironic impressions of arena rock moves, he stands still, vaguely amused by the chaos swirling around him (like Oz waiting to tell Giles and Buffy that he's really the one in charge of the Scooby Gang).

9. It's hard not to love a four-piece band that tours with a fifth musician who plays keyboards, guitars, and trumpet.

8. Their Spring 2009 tour was called the "Rolling Tundra Revue."

7. Their song "Aside" was the third-best thing about the movie Wedding Crashers. (Here's a taste, in a fan-produced video that's gotten nearly 150,000 hits.)

6. The band's second album Left and Leaving was voted the 6th best Canadian album of all time (behind two Neil Young albums, and one each by Broken Social Scene, Sloan, and Joni Mitchell. Their third album is even better. And the latest one is even better than that.

5. They have written the first (and perhaps only) great rock song about curling:

4. Samson collaborated with Inuit throat singer Nikki Komaksiutiksak on a song called "Keewatin Arctic" for Canada's "Record of the Week" club where musicians from different backgrounds are put together semi-randomly and given one evening to right and record a song, which is mixed and made available for download that same night. Hear (or buy) "Keewatin Arctic" here.

3. Crowds around the world will sing along to any song that has a simple, memorable chorus, like the one in "One Great City": "I hate Winnipeg" (with Londoners happily singing in this video).

2. The "Civil Twilight" video, which I've posted before, is shot in one continuous take. A penguin (although perhaps not the same one who taught Samson French in the song "Our Retired Explorer") makes a cameo as one of the bus riders.

1. There's nothing quite like crowding with hundreds of people in a small Hollywood club on a day when it's 105 degrees (but a dry 105 degrees) to hear a Canadian band singing songs about winter in the Great North. Good thing Los Angeles is an irony-free zone (with great air conditioning).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Springsteen Tests Your Lactose Intolerance

Here I am down in Kingstown again.

Some songs carry with them clear and vibrant associations, even if the associations make no sense.

When I first heard the Bruce Springsteen song "Hungry Heart," I wasn't thinking about the great Flo & Eddie (from the Turtles) backing vocals, or Springsteen's own vocal, which was sped up slightly to add urgency to the track. I wasn't thinking about how Springsteen wrote the song for the Ramones, but his manager (who had seen the future of rock 'n' roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen) said it would be a big hit and wouldn't let the Boss give it to someone else to record.

None of that.

What I thought about was the opening lines:
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back.

Instantly, the first time I heard it, I changed the lyrics in my head to:
Got a wife and kids in Monterey Jack
I put them in cheese now they'll never talk back.

It made little sense thirty years ago. And it makes even less sense now.

But I still can't think of that song without thinking of those lines which aren't even in the song and make no sense in or out of context.

For me, "Hungry Heart" is and forever will be the cheese song.

(Video filmed in 1995 in a small Berlin cafe.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Terry and the Lovemen Conquer Black Sea

All part of decency's jigsaw, I suppose.

A couple weeks ago, I went out to see a band that was scheduled to start at 10:30. This served two purposes: 1) It proved that I'm not old, and 2) It let me see an XTC tribute band -- which calls itself "Terry and the Lovemen (Luke Adams, Jon Button, Zak Shaffer, and Danny Delamatyr) -- perform XTC's Black Sea album in its entirety. In order.

The cover of Black Sea shows the band wearing diving suits, but I always thought of it as "the Green album" because the first pressings came wrapped in a green paper bag (for reasons that escape me). I still have the vinyl and it's still wrapped in the paper bag (and that's probably what kept me from completely wearing out the record).

The band, whose members are session and touring musicians with great credits, were amazing. And they were having a great time, playing fantastic (and surprisingly difficult) music.(Link for Gmail subscribers.)

When you hear a song live that you know really well, what you're hearing blends with your strong memories of the music, creating a hybrid experience that blends the recording you know with the show you're seeing. (This partially explains why tribute bands do so well and can be so much fun.)

Now, Black Sea is an album I know backwards and forwards (especially side 1 of the vinyl). The album built on the strengths of Drums and Wires, but featured better songs and tighter performances. The chance to see the album performed live (even if it wasn't by XTC) was too good to pass up -- even if it meant going out to see a show that wouldn't start until 10:30.

By the way, the name "Terry and the Lovemen" has great meaning for XTC fans. It was an alias used by XTC when they re-recorded an old B-side for the XTC tribute album A Testimonial Dinner (which also included XTC songs redone by Joe Jackson, Sarah McLachlin, and They Might Be Giants. And it also was one of the alternate titles for the album that would become Black Sea. Drummer Terry Chambers vetoed that title, but he was long-gone from the band by the time of A Testimonial Dinner, so the band dusted off the name. (More trivia: according to Andy Partridge, the list of performers who wanted to appear on the XTC tribute album but couldn't includes: Elvis Costello, Sting, Tony Bennett, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Bjork, Barenaked Ladies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, INXS, Shonen Knife, the Chieftains, and Al Kooper.)

Virgin Records chief Richard Branson was still pushing to make Colin Moulding a sex symbol (and portray XTC as Moulding's band, despite the fact that Andy Partridge wrote most of the songs) and decided Virgin needed a video for Colin's song "Generals and Majors." Branson decided they should shoot a video starring Branson (filmed at Branson's country estate). To Branson's credit, he allowed the band to appear as waiters serving him, then had them pretend to play guitars while bouncing on a kids-party inflatable castle in the driveway.

Virgin also had XTC record a more radio-friendly version of Andy Partridge's song "Respectable Street" (eliminating the words "abortion," "sex position," and "wretching" in a failed attempt to please top 40 stations and MTV).

As for Luke, Jon, Zak, and Danny that night? They were amazing and really fun. My only regret is that more people weren't at the show. And that they didn't play the kazoo solo from "Sgt. Rock (is Gonna Help Me)."

I'd go see them again in a heartbeat -- only next time I'll be sure to bring a kazoo or two.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

World Shut Your Mouth

Haul me out of the water, haul me onto the land.

She never was one to listen to anyone else.

It was enough for her to listen to the voices in her head (and, yes, I mean that literally).

So that summer evening, she stood on the rocks, daring me to stop her from diving into the water. The shallow water. With the underwater obstructions and many jagged rocks. She knew what was below her. But didn’t care.

“It’s too shallow,” I yelled from the sand. She didn’t care.

“It’s getting dark. Come inside.” She still didn’t care.

The car stood 100 yards away, tape deck blasting Julian Cope. This was back in the days when we made tapes. And cars could play them.

“Come in with me,” she yelled, smiling, then peeling her clothes off.

I shook my head, turned away, walked a few steps back towards the car. I looked back over my shoulder, just as she jumped.

Julian Cope - World Shut Your Mouth

When he was 20, Julian Cope formed a punk band in Liverpool with his buddy Ian McCulloch (later of Echo and the Bunnymen); they disbanded without playing a note.

Cope then formed The Teardrop Explodes, who flirted with success before disbanding after a few years and three albums. His first solo album was called World Shut Your Mouth, but it didn’t include the song “World Shut Your Mouth” (which was Cope’s first real hit and appeared on his Saint Julian album. By the way, if you're looking for perfect examples of poppy 80s new wave music, all you need is Saint Julian (and maybe its follow-up My Nation Underground).

After some minor college hits (and much world-wide speculation about just exactly why he needed the strangest-looking microphone stand in the history of music), Cope started feuding with his record companies (who felt his music had too much insane ramblings and not enough hooky, poppy songs). During one such record company feud, Cope privately released an album only in Texas, using the proceeds to hire an attorney to get Roky Erickson (the former leader of the 13th Floor Elevators who traced his mental problems back to the first time he took LSD) out of jail.

Cope fought with various record companies about his refusal to follow greedy marketing plans. He continued to record and perform in the U.K., but by the mid-90s, most fans thought his glory days were long past.

Julian Cope - Charlotte Anne

I stood there, shocked, until I heard the splash. Then I ran back to the water, searching as the sun disappeared. And I dove in, fully clothed, searching for her. She surfaced a few second later, laughing. I was furious.

“You could have killed yourself,” I said, shaking with fear at her near-miss.

“But I didn’t,” she said, and ran naked back up on the rocks to retrieve her discarded clothing.

When we broke up, she took my copy of Cope’s Peggy Suicide with her, saying only “I need this more than you.” To this day, I can’t hear “Beautiful Love” without thinking of her… or the day she jumped off the rocks.

She’d have many other close calls over the years, somehow escaping each time (through luck or because death himself was afraid of her madness), but that was the only one I personally witnessed. It was enough to scare me off for good.

Bonus 1: "Five O'Clock World"

Bonus 2: "When I Dream" by the Teardrop Explodes (special low-tech video version).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Trying to Aneasthetize the Way that You Feel

It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.

Boston's WBCN radio announced today they will shift to an All-Sports format next month. (I guess because there far too many radio stations that still have a brand name and a history and far too few outlets for idiots to talk sports.)

A long time ago, WBCN was a classical music station (the call letters even stood for Boston Concert Network, dating back to a period when concerts meant cellos and violins instead of two guitars, bass, and drums).

That all changed in 1968, when they switched to a free-form rock station by playing "I Feel Free" by Cream. Boston's student population embraced the new WBCN and the staff clearly loved music more than anything. For WBCN, free-form radio was more than just a slogan -- for many years as other stations became heavily formatted by radio consultants relying on surveys and test results, WBCN let their DJs play what they wanted. By the late 1970s, the station was one of the few places outside college radio that played punk records.

For 10 or 15 years, WBCN was easily the best thing to listen to in Boston and probably one of the ten best stations in America. It was inevitable that the glory days couldn't last forever and by the time WFNX arrived (and was trumpeted as everything 'BCN used to be back when it was great), WBCN was starting a slow decline. The station backed off from alternative music, put their DJs on ever-tighter leashes, and hired programming consultants. They embraced grunge in the 90s and switched to a harder rock format in the past 10 years, mixing in "classic" songs from its history (and always including a heavy emphasis on local Boston bands).

Additionally, here are three true facts about me and WBCN:

1) Morning DJ Charles Laquidara used to call people up on their birthdays. One morning, he read a letter I'd written asking him to call my girlfriend and wish her a happy birthday. He spent five minutes making fun of the fact that I'd neglected to include her phone number. (It's just as well, the relationship was doomed.)

2) In Los Angeles, we lose great radio stations all the time. In the past 15 years, they always promise to continue as webcasters, then close their digital doors for good a few months later. WBCN plans to continue playing music on the web; here's hoping they can do better than LA's late, lamented 101.9 (World Class Rock) or Indie 103 (home of Jonesy's Jukebox). (Link for Gmail subscribers).

3) WBCN played a crucial role when I lost my virginity. This may already be too much information, so I'll leave it at that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

With the Rolling Truck Stones Thing Right Outside

Purple before Prince.

I remember little about the first junior high dance I went to. The clearest thing about that night isn't the girls (although I remember a few of them), or the dancing (ditto), or even the ribbons hung over the school gym (which might have depressed me if I'd looked closer). What do I remember? Deep Purple.

I'm reminded of this because Deep Purple is in the news this week. (No, really. They are.) Apparently, the band played a concert in Russia last October and has been fined for not first licensing their own songs from the Russian Author's Society.

The $1,000 per song fine is to be paid to the rights-holders of those songs, which happens to be... the band Deep Purple. (Techdirt noted: "Common sense just died.) All I know is this is the strangest thing to come out of Russia since Yakov Smirnoff. (Maybe even stranger -- who knew Deep Purple was even still around?)

When I was in junior high and high school, the stoners all loved Deep Purple, cranking the well-worn vinyl their older brothers and sisters left behind when they went to college. Most of their albums folded out, too -- which was handy for rolling joints (although I don't know if that added to the band's stoner-appeal).

Here's what I do know: at the first junior high dance I ever went to, the first song I danced to (played with long-haired abandon and little noticeable skill by a very bad local band who were probably just a few years older than the kids dancing) was this:

A girl named Rachel asked me to dance. I remember next to nothing about her, except that it was both fun and terrifying to dance with her and she kept moving closer to the makeshift "stage" until we were right in front of the band. And the song ended, she said thank you and we retreated quickly to opposite ends of the gym.

My friends all teased me about Rachel and urged me to go talk to her, but I didn't. Like it says in the song, Swiss time was running out. When the band took a break, she made a beeline for the stage and flirted with the guitar player (no doubt asking him probing questions about effects pedals and what kind of pick he preferred). My buddies and me watched this and decided immediately to form a band. None of us played instruments, but that didn't stop us from spending weeks picking a name and designing a logo. It was so perfect that we had no choice but to break up the band without playing a single note.

Oddly enough, if you go to Montreux, there's a sculpture by the shore of Lake Geneva honoring the song (and including the notes to the never-to-be-forgotten guitar riff). I imagine you'll find Rachel there, too. Or your Rachel. Whoever she may be.

(She'll be easy to recognize, even after all these years; she's the one hanging on the arm of the aging guitar player...)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Let Me Whisper in Your (Right) Ear

Now we know.

Thomas Dolby was onto something.

It's not just poetry in motion. There are clear and obvious electrical, chemical, and scientific causes and effects of everything. Even love. (Maybe especially love.)

Now, what Dolby was trying to tell the world in 1982 (with a little help from Andy Partridge, Lene Lovich, and Bruce Wooley) is finally proven: If you want something, ask the right ear. Requests to the right ear are twice as likely to be granted as requests to the left ear.

So the next time you ask for a raise (or a dance, or a phone number, or anything else), blind them with science.

I'm sorry to report that I plan to use this information for evil, not for good. I wonder if it matters if the listener is a lefty... (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

And of course, there's no guarantees in science, so you have to take the risk that things might wind up like this:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

God's Late-70s Attempt to Save Rock and Roll

God sent Ellen Foley to save rock and roll, but the Devil sent the Clash to stop her.

My friend Gina was a rocker chick. And also a Bible-thumper. She didn't think the two were at odds and fervently believed God loved catchy hit singles, preferably with swooping sax solos, rhythmic keyboards, angelic harmonies, and blistering guitars. Given the right singer and the right guitar, she'd say, you can practically touch heaven (or at least get an idea of what it sounds like).

To hear Gina describe it, God got cranky in the mid-1970s. Rock was in bad shape and the radio was dominated by Disco, self-indulgent singer-songwriters repackaging an angst they lost four Jaguars ago, and songs by coked-up bands still coasting on a reputation they'd earned more than a decade earlier. Punk fluttered up, but acted more like a time-release drug (one that would take 15 years to fully activate).

So God sent down something bombastic and wondrous in the form of Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley, the only chick singer who could match him note for note. When Bat Out of Hell sold a bazillion copies, Epic signed Ellen Foley to her own record deal (and, as Gina told me, God was very pleased).

Ellen Foley's first album Night Out -- produced by Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson -- was a revelation. The songs swoop and jump and Ronson's guitars take you from the seventh circle of hell all the way up to heaven and back in under 4 minutes. Foley's vocals were passionate and rough (but polished up with harmonies from Rory Dodd, who also sang on Bat Out of Hell).

And God was very pleased. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

More than that, Foley was cool as only rocker chicks can be cool. She covered the Rolling Stones at their bitchiest on "Stupid Girl" (and was tough enough that she didn't have to change the gender and water down the song).

Then (since rock and roll had not yet been sufficiently saved), Foley spread God's word, singing on an Iron City Houserockers album (produced by Ronson, Hunter, and Steve Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band), and doing a duet with Hunter (as seen... um... here). For the first time since Saturday Night Fever, music seemed to be getting back on track.

But, said Gina, the Devil had other plans for Foley.

She started dating Mick Jones from the Clash, sang on their Sandinista album, and decided that her second solo album (The Spirit of Saint Louis) would basically be a Clash album (with production by Jones, credited on the sleeve only as "my boyfriend" and songs co-written by Jones and Joe Strummer). Songs like "The Death of the Psychoanalyst of Salvador Dali" left most fans scratching their heads and few wanted to hear Clash songs (which weren't quite good enough for Clash records) sung by Ellen Foley. The album never caught on and was in cutout bins within months.

And, Gina explained, because the Devil can multitask, the Clash soon started to fall apart (although Jones would channel his troubled relationship with Foley into the song "Should I Stay or Should I Go").

Foley's third solo album Another Breath tried to recapture the sound of her first album, but slick producer Vini Poncia was no Ian Hunter (and certainly no Mick Ronson) and the record -- despite featuring songs by Ellie Greenwich and Desmond Child -- never quite worked.

So Foley retired from rock and roll to raise kids (and take the occasional acting gig)... emerging last year with a new, bluesier band called Ellen Foley and the Dirty Old Men.

And that, Gina explained to me, is why God had no choice but to turn to Bruce Springsteen to save rock and roll.

Monday, July 6, 2009

We Gotta Get Out of Here

Sometimes You Just Have to Leave Town.

During college, I had a friend named Penny. She played the drums and was one of the coolest women I'd ever known. She worked at the college radio station, wrote freelance record reviews for Rolling Stone and was on a first-name basis with every touring rock drummer who rolled through town (but she never broke her strict "don't sleep with touring musicians" rule).

She was also a little impulsive and once invited me to drive from New England to South Carolina because she wanted to visit a particular beach-side barbecue shack. We were late-night BBQ buddies and she kept telling me I needed to go below the Mason-Dixon line to get real BBQ. Besides, she told me, sometimes you just gotta make a break for it and get the hell out of town. (I had a final the next day and passed on the chance; channeling Ellen Foley, she asked teasingly if I was gonna stay home and watch the reruns of the Muhammad Ali/Marlene Dietrich fight. She made the drive in record time but was arrested on the way back on charges of transporting live chickens without proper permits. She used her one phone call to contact me and I wired her $100 for bail. But that proved unnecessary; Penny charmed the arresting officer by telling stories about Ginger Baker until he dropped the charges, got her phone number, and let her go with a warning. They got married four years later but split up after a few years when he started touring as the bass player in an indie rock band. "I should've married you," she told me when her divorce came through, "at least you can't play an instrument.")

In my senior year, I decided one night that I had to get out of town, so I called Penny and told her I was driving to Montreal. She laughed at me and said there was no decent barbecue in Montreal -- and besides, I needed to get finish a paper for a philosophy class we were both taking.) I drove all night -- in a red VW bug whose floorboards were slowly rusting out and whose driver's seat had been stolen a few months earlier. I didn't quite make it to Montreal because I ticked off a border guard who then refused to let me into the Canada because I didn't have enough cash (Penny never did pay me back for the "bail money" I sent).

Penny dropped out after that semester; I drove back to New England, finished my philosophy paper in one uninterrupted two-hour stint at the keyboard, and graduated. Years later, Penny would finish her degree... but I still get terrified whenever I enter Canada.(Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hey Babe, It's the Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day

For a few minutes in the 1980s, guitarist Billy Zoom left the band X and was replaced by Dave Alvin of the roots-rock band the Blasters. Alvin had previously played with X's D.J. Bonebrake, John Doe, and Exene Cervenka in the acoustic-country collective the Knitters.

Alvin wouldn't last long in X, but he did bring in an amazing song he wrote -- a sad and poignant look at the City of Angels that's worth revisiting more than once a year.

And another version (sung here by Alvin himself) for your holiday listening pleasure:

Ironically, by the time X got around to recording the song, Alvin was already gone (replaced by guitarist Tony Gilkyson) and X itself would soon be gone (although they'd resurface and vanish again several times in the 1990s).

For years, one of my favorite radio stations would play this song every July 4th at noon. They played it from vinyl and the record was filled with clicks and pops that perfectly amplified the song's story of disappointments and the sad shimmer of hope. A few years ago, that radio station upgraded all their equipment and their library. When they played the song at noon on the 4th of July, the sound from a shiny, newly remastered CD free from surface noises.

It just wasn't the same.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Looking for Lewis & Clark

Maybe it wasn't the explorers, but Gary Lewis and Gene Clark.

Like most stories, this one begins with a song.

In this case, the song was "Looking for Lewis & Clark" by the Long Ryders, complete with its self-referential lyrics and homage to the Kingsmen.

I was working at my first job out of college (a soul-killing endeavor made almost bearable by great co-workers who lived to savage the company's management during beer-soaked lunch hours at a local pub) and was looking for an apartment in Watertown, Mass. Apartments in the area were notoriously hard to find, so unscrupulous brokers charged obscene "finder's fees" and kicked back half to greedy landlords. One broker's teenage daughter drove me to a series of crappy apartments while trying to get me to comment on whether or not I was in favor of "nipple rouge" (I'd never heard of it and kept trying to change the subject). She had a Long Ryders mix tape that she played as she drove us around in a crappy Pinto whose left front light was missing. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

I would have cut the afternoon short after the first crappy apartment, but I liked listening to the Long Ryders and wasn't sure exactly how I was going to find a place to live. Plus, I could always steer the conversation away whenever she brought up "nipple rouge" again. (For the record, she brought it up seven times.)

In the early 1980s, Sid Griffin, Greg Sowders, Stephen McCarthy, and Barry Shank formed the Long Ryders, bringing a Graham Parsons/late-era Byrds country feel to the growing L.A. psychedelic movement known as the "Paisly Underground." (To cement their ties to the Byrds, the Long Ryders even got ex-Byrd Gene Clark to sing on a song on their first full album.)

The teenage wannabe broker chick didn't care about any of that. The only thing she knew is that her boyfriend loved the tape, then broke up with her because she wouldn't agree to wear nipple rouge. Finally, when the second side of the tape was nearly done, she told me there was one more apartment she could show me. (Link -- with bonus panda dancing -- for Gmail subscribers.)

The last apartment she showed me was down a hallway that stunk from cat piss. I tried not to make a face, but I guess I failed. She smiled the kind of smile seen mostly these days on the faces of delusional contestants trying out for American Idol and said: "And the best thing about this place is you can have pets!"

I didn't rent any of the crappy apartments in Watertown. But I did drive into Harvard Square that evening and buy the first Long Ryders album.

As for the band, they were invited to open for U2 on the Joshua Tree tour, but were plagued by personnel problems and broke up instead.

I never saw the wannabe teenage broker chick again, so I never got to tell her that she got the best of the deal -- getting rid of the loser boyfriend and gaining a Long Ryders tape. In an alternate universe, the Long Ryders would have been huge stars and the wannabe teenage broker chick and her new boyfriend (the one who didn't care if she wore nipple rouge or not) would've been in the front row in front of 50,000 other fans. (And if she really wanted to be a broker, she wouldn't have to show apartments that smelled like cat piss.)

Bonus video -- The Long Ryders cover NRBQ's "I Want You Bad":