Thursday, September 30, 2010

Non-Summer Rerun

It's too late for summer reruns... but I couldn't get this song out of my head, so I'm reaching back into the archives (originally published January 5, 2010):

I was making great time...

...until the car caught fire.

I was trying to make it to Cleveland. And from there sleep and a good days drive into Massachusetts.

But I was also trying to save money, so I was on a small deserted highway a few miles from the turnpike (because I didn't want to pay tolls).

I saw smoke coming from under the hood, but there was no good place to pull over, so I thought I'd crest the small hill first.

When smoke started pouring in through the steering column, I figured it was time to pull over. And when the flames licked out at my legs, I knew things were getting serious.

I thought I could put the fire out. Maybe blow it out.

But when the windshield started to melt, I gave up on that idea. I was having an out-of-body experience. Shocking. And surreal.

I should've gotten my bags out of the back, but I was afraid the gas tank would explode. (It eventually did, but minutes later.)

And as I was trying to process what was happening right in front of me, a guy with a cell phone pulled up and called 911 (and this was back before everyone had cell phones). We stood and watched flames engulf the car. And waited. And saw the gas tank explode.

The fire truck came a few minutes after that. They put the fire out quickly, but everything inside the car was gone. I knew the car used to have windows and tires, but I couldn't see any sign of them.

I finally realized I wasn't going anywhere near Cleveland. My plans flickered in the night, then vanished in the smoke. It was all like a dream, like the darkest dream in the world.

I wanna be Robyn Hitchcock in a future life.

Not just because I want to have floppy silver hair and be a cult hero traveling the world with a guitar and a bunch of stories.

Not just because I want to have everyone in my band switch instruments and record an off-kilter, we-can't-really-play-these-new-instruments version of "Rock 'n' Roll Toilet" as a CD bonus track.

And not just because I want to throw myself a huge party when I turn 50 and recreate a concert that's still whispered about decades later.

Among the many, many reasons I wanna be Robyn Hitchcock is so that I can call up my favorite band and convince them to get back together and make their first record in ten years. Which they will insist that I produce. So I'll come to town a week earlier than I need to finish my album and bang out their record in five wonderful days.

Oddly enough, I believe this might just be possible. Because everyone has to believe in something.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nightmare Cover

I was gonna post something over the weekend... then I saw this. And I've been having nightmares ever since.

I mean, if you're gonna cover the Ramones on Ukulele, you may as well do it right.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dreaming of Willow

Not Willow from Buffy, Although We've All Had Those Dreams

In the 1970s, anticipating the cash that would rain down upon them from the not-yet-built oil pipeline, the good citizens of Alaska voted to move their capital city. They wanted a capital city that could be reached by road (unlike Juneau, where you had to fly in or arrive by boat), but didn't want to move the capital to Anchorage, the state's largest city (and home to more than half its residents).

This fueled a lot of land speculation as investors prepared for the wealth that would come when the new capital was built.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that future. Despite planning commissions and architects and schemes of various types, Alaska never moved its capital. So you still have to fly or sail to Juneau (which still is not on the road system).

The investors were stuck with land that quickly plummeted in price when it became clear in the early 80s that not much was going to be built in Willow beyond a few stores and gorgeous houses on lakes.

Today, Willow is probably most famous as being the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Technically, there's a ceremonial start in Anchorage, but it doesn't count. The real race begins the next day up in Willow, population about 1700. It may never be the state capital, but for one day a year, it's the dog mushing capital of the world.

At some point while Alaskans were contemplating moving their capital, my father was offered a job in Anchorage. He turned it down for a lot of reasons. And I find myself thinking a lot these days about how different life might have been if my family had moved to Alaska from New York.

I posted this song before -- but I have a related announcement coming in a few days, so the time just seemed right to post it again.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Without and Until

It's Great, It's Strange

Joan played clarinet.

In High School, she was a star. No one played better. And no one was smarter.

There were definitely girls who were prettier, but that didn't matter to her.

We were friends briefly at the start of college. She lived across campus in one of the two dorms that was segregated by sex.

Well, kind of. There were four floors -- two male only and two female only.

It certainly wasn't unusual to see guys on the female floors or girls on the male floors -- but I guess it gave some people a sense of propriety. Or modesty. Or something.

Joan had a crisis the first month of school. She discovered that she wasn't that great at the clarinet and was encouraged not to join the band. She felt lost in most of her classes (and realized for the first time in her life that there were people who were smarter than her). And her roommate wasn't necessarily prettier, but was lots more fun and outgoing.

Joan felt lost.

She called me late one night and told me she was going to drop out and go back to Chicago. She said there was a train she could leave in a couple hours that would get her there in a couple days.

I went over to the single-sex (by floor) dorm and talked to her for several hours about all kinds of things. Music. Her dreams. The guy we both knew who had a southern accent so thick we both thought it was a put-on.

After a few hours, she played a little clarinet for me. It sounded pretty good -- but what did I know about the clarinet?

At some point her roommate came home and we all sat around talking about our classes for another hour or so.

Joan never brought up the train that night.

But I stayed there until ten minutes after it was scheduled to leave.

Let's Active - Waters Part
Uploaded by EMI_Music.

(Side note: yeah, that's Don Dixon with the metronome at about 1:50.)

About a week later, we had lunch together. And I asked if she was still thinking about going home, if she still thought about getting on the train to Chicago.

"I was never going to get on that train," she said. "I just wanted you to come over and talk to me."

"You could've just asked me," I said. "I would have been happy to come over."

She shook her head and told me that girls don't do things like that.

I was floored. Is this really the way girls act when you get out of High School?

We drifted apart after that.

I never again went over there late at night. We stopped having lunch together. And she dropped the one class we had together.

Just before she left for Christmas vacation, she came over to my dorm and gave me a present -- a jazz clarinet cassette.

I carried that cassette around with me for two years, but never even took off the plastic (never mind listening to it).

It was like an artifact from a planet I didn't understand (and wasn't sure I wanted to understand).

Ironically, I'd lose it on a train in my junior year. Maybe someone took it from my knapsack. Maybe it just fell out. It took me a week to realize it was gone.

At which point I looked up at the stars, wondered what had happened to Joan, and hoped that whoever found the cassette would take off the plastic and enjoy it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mobilze Some Laughs with Just one Call

Nothing matters but the weekend from a Tuesday point of view...

When I got to college, I bonded over music almost instantly with Sarah, a total Beatles freak who also worshipped the Ramones. No doubt my bizarre collection of punkish vinyl from the 60s (and my Badfinger obsession).

But there were always things she loved that I just didn't get.

And things I loved that were perplexing to her.

One of them was the one-hit wonder The Kings. Amazingly, the band is still going strong after more than 30 years, still playing "This Beat Goes On/Switching to Glide."

Yeah, the lyrics are shallow, the boasting is sophomoric, and the Bob Ezrin production lends a late-70s synthy blandness to the proceedings.

But I never could resist the hook. From the first time I heard the song while driving through the woods in Western Massachusetts in my Mom's car. I pulled over to listen, wondering to myself what the hell band this was.

As I was sitting on the side of the road listening, an Amherst police department crusier pulled up behind me and a rookie cop questioned me about why I had stopped. When I told him, he listened to a snippet of the song and sneered. "That's the Kings," he said. Then a moment later, he added: "I hate this song," walked back to the cruiser, and drove off. I bought the album two days later.

When I went to college, I lugged the record with me (along with albums by Badfinger, the Beatles, Joe Jackson, and the original double-LP vinyl release of Nuggets. When Sarah's little brother Alec came to visit, he made a point of thumbing through all my old records. Mostly he nodded approvingly. Then he pulled out The Kings are Here and taunted me with it. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.

"I love that song," I said.

Alec stared at me, then looked over at Sarah. "I thought he was cool," he said, then shook his head. "I thought he cared about music. I guess not." With that, Alec put the record down on the floor and left the room.

Years later, Alec would join a country rock band that played Skynyrd-like songs with the intensity of the Sex Pistols. They got a record deal and toured all over the world.

Guess he showed me who's cool.

And maybe this song has slipped from the unabashed love column to the guilty pleasure column. Maybe Alec and the cop were right. But when the needle drops onto the vinyl, the chugging T-Rex-ish guitar starts, and the organ kicks in, it's like I'm back on Route 9 again, pulled over on the side of the road, listening carefully and wondering "what the hell is this anyway?"

Update: John Picard, who plays guitar with the Kings under the nom-de-axe of Mister Zero and co-wrote this song, noted in the comments that the video for this song, which Warner Music had taken down (to call them overzealous about this stuff is being kind) is back up. So please click here to enjoy the video (and a very short Dick Clark intro).

And pop over to their website to order a 40-minute documentary about the making of "This Beat Goes On/Switching to Glide" on DVD.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Been Around the World and Found That Only Stupid People Are Breeding

I Wanna Publish Zines and Rage Against Machines

There was a period of about three years in the 1990s when nearly every big studio movie released in the U.S. included this tasty little song by Harvey Danger.

Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta

Sadly, the band is gone now. They broke up, reformed, and broke up again.

But the song lives on -- and if you've ever had a day job where your boss is so stupid and incompetent that they wouldn't recognize good work if it fell on them like a piano from 5 floors up, it deserves another listen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Just for One Day

Nothing Will Drive Them Away

Over on the Pleasant Valley Sunday blog, Mister Pleasant posted the rare U.S. single mix of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," which I'd never heard before.

Great flange effects, weird phased vocals, odd instruments that wander drunkenly in and out. It's a pretty great and adventurous approach to a very familiar song that makes it really jump out all these years later.

Speaking of David Bowie, I was listening to his great song "Heroes" today.

Really listening. Maybe for the first time. Which is weird since I've heard the song thousands of times on the radio in the past few decades.

I knew it was recorded in Berlin -- part of Bowie's trilogy of Berlin albums he made with Brian Eno. I knew the song had a swirling swath of synths and Robert Fripp weird-ass guitar parts. And I knew it was a lot less of a traditional pop or rock & roll song than a lot of his 70s hits.

But I'd never really listened to the words.

It's the story of two doomed lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. He bravely proclaims that they can be Heroes.

And yet...

The vocals are so filled with yearning and desperation. The singer doesn't believe what he's singing for a minute, but hope to convince himself (and his lover) by the sheer act of singing these words.

Not only does the vocal fit in beautifully to the music, but the desperate tone fits in perfectly with the ironic lyrics. And Bowie must have known this because he put the title in quotes to draw attention to the fact that it was never quite what it seemed.

But even the singer's resolve falters. By the end of the song he declares: "We're nothing, and nothing can help us," adding "Maybe we're lying -- then you better not stay." But as the guitars and Eno's detuned low-frequency synth notes swallow up the couple, the singer ambiguously wants something (maybe anything) just for one day.

Years later, the song would largely lose its irony. The Berlin Wall would come down (and the very idea of what Berlin means artistically would change drastically). Bowie would sing the song unironically at Live Aid (which he says is his favorite version of the song) -- that version leaves me cold, although I think it's cool that the band included Thomas Dolby on keyboards and former Soft Boy Matthew Seligman on bass). Bowie would sing the song at the Concert for New York City following 9/11 -- again without the irony. And despite its failure as a single in the 70s, the song has found a second life through commercial and film licensing (and at thousands of sporting events).

But for me the original version is the one that resonates. We've all had moments of intense longing and desperation. Moments when we speak our desires as loud as we can, knowing the chances for success are practically zero but hoping against hope that the proclamation will carry us through.

Even if it's just for one day. (Click for the higher-quality YouTube version or watch the 9th generation copy below.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Three Blind Mice -- I Might As Well Be Asking Them For Stable Advice

I Don't Want to Change the Course of History...

On a sunny day in early September anything is possible.

The school year opens with a wave of possibilities. You see old friends, you talk about your summer, you dip your toe into a bunch of classes.

And the girl in the shorts playing Frisbee? She's important, she's part of it.

No one knows who she is, but the future unfolds in front of you and it's clear she'll be part of it.

So you watch for a while. And you imagine your life together stretching out before you -- one long extended wonderful life.

And mentally you laugh at yourself stretching your imagination so far into the future when it's based on nothing.

Then, uncharacteristically bold, you get up and march over there. Determined to talk to her, put a verbal down payment on that future together.

But when you get there, she's gone. And no one knows who she was or where she came from.

All that year you look for her, rushing over whenever anyone's playing Frisbee. But you never see her again.

Until 15 years later, you spot someone who looks just like her, playing Frisbee a thousand miles away. And you're halfway over to her when you realize it's not the girl you saw before. Because the girl you saw that one time is 15 years older.

And so are you. Even if you still feel the same. (Embedding's disabled, so you just have to click for a cool-ass video of long, uninterrupted steadicam shots.)

(h/t to Peter's Power Pop for turning me on to Thirsty Merc.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

"I Never Died," Says He.

It All Amounts to Nothing if Together We Don't Stand

Happy Labor Day.

In between enjoying the day off, back-to-school prep, and barbecues, try to take a few minutes and think about what this holiday is all about.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

High School Never Ends

Her CD Changer's Filled with Singers Who Are Mad at Their Dads

Even with High School (and college) becoming smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror of memory, the end of summer still makes you sad.

The back-to-school ads mock you, even if you don't need notebooks or pens.

Summer vacation is over. Even when you have no summer vacation anymore.

When I was a kid, they said everything will change when you get to college.

Well... yes and no.

"You should stop listening to that music," she said, the first week of freshman year.

And you want to ask why, but she's beautiful (and she's talking to you for reasons you don't understand), so instead you just nod.

"It's high school music. You have a chance to start over. Make yourself into something different. Someone cooler."

Because that's what she did.

So you try for a little while. You hide the old albums. You try to go along with whatever's new and trendy.

You hope she notices.

But she won't. And after a few weeks, you notice that you never see her anymore. She's always off somewhere with her new friends. Doing something cool.

Because she's still her. And you're still you.

You wouldn't have liked her in High School. You shouldn't like her in college.

If you think about it, that would stop you.

But it won't. Because you won't.

And that's the real circle of life.

Still, to paraphrase George Santayana (who, I'd like to claim, is Carlos Santana's real father, "those who do not learn from High School are doomed to repeat it all through the rest of their life."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

In 22 seconds

Exactly one month late for Peter O'Toole's 78th birthday

Back to music tomorrow.

But it's late summer and I'm too hot and too tired. So I go flipping through channels on cable and up pops Peter O'Toole.

I've probably seen The Stunt Man a dozen times. It's a great movie about movies (like Inception, only without the cool special effects and dreams-within-dreams-within-etc.).

It's a movie about what we see and what we want to believe.

Every time it's on cable, I'll watch it all the way through to the end. And Peter O'Toole is amazing (he should've beaten out DeNiro to get the Oscar for this).

So this is a movie I've seen a lot.

But I'd never seen this:

If you can get past the 70s hipster style, Richard Rush is pretty great here (and very meta).

But if you really want something cool during the dog days of summer, you need a tall drink of this: