Friday, February 27, 2009

John Lasseter Wants to Be an Anglepois Lamp (Yeah!)

A Tale Told By a Lamp, Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying an Obsession with Robyn Hitchcock.

Did John Lasseter (writer/director of Cars, Toy Story, A Bugs Life, and Executive Producer of Wall-E) listen to much music by Robyn Hitchcock (eccentric British singer/songwriter famously obsessed with fish, death, sex, and insects) and the Soft Boys? Is there some kind of DaVinci Code-like clue that will explain the inspiration for everything Lasseter (whose obsession with visual in-jokes is well-documented) has done?

I can't say for certain. But signs point to yes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Alternate Universe Prom

I never went to my High School prom.

Partly because I didn't have a girlfriend at the time. And partly because I hated getting dressed up. But mostly because of the music. Sappy power ballads and crappy "dance music" played by a third-rate band or a bored, clueless DJ? "Celebrate good times, C'mon!"? Thanks. But no.

So I didn't go. And I might never have given it a second thought. Except for the music (which I was sure sucked because most of my classmates had musical taste that ran the gamut from mainstream pap to dreck).

A few months go by and a friend of mine tells me I should've gone to the Prom, I would've loved it – the Prom theme was “White Punks on Dope.” By the Tubes. Which suddenly made sense to me. It was literally like a light bulb suddenly appeared, shining brightly, above my head.

See, I grew up in a college town filled with angsty, disaffected White kids whose parents worked at the local colleges. In my High School, we never bothered to read Faulkner because we were too busy reading Kurt Vonnegut. Political correctness may not have been born in my hometown, but it definitely bought its first free-range organic kale snacks there.

Knowing my Prom theme transformed my view of my hometown. So for years, I would brag about my hometown, using our Prom theme as proof of what an amazing, progressive place it was. My only regret? Not going to the Prom.

For more than 15 years, I told people that story... and everyone would chuckle or nod, amused at the idea of a school cool enough to select “White Punks on Dope” as their Prom theme (and perhaps secretly wishing they'd gone to my Prom, too).

Then, a few months ago, I tell a friend this story and she stares at me, confused, then asks what the Prom theme really was. "'White Punks on Dope.' By the Tubes," I say. She shakes her head sadly and looks at me with pity. "No way in hell that was your Prom theme. Proms are official school events. School officials have to approve the theme. And there's no school official who would approve a theme like 'White Punks on Dope.' No matter how cool and amazing you think your school was."

And then I realized the worst part: the High School friend who told me this months after the Prom must have been joking with me. And I didn't realize it. Maybe this person was cruel or just didn't want to take away my enjoyment by telling me the truth. (And I can't even remember who it was to double-check.)

Suddenly, the story I'd told myself and others for years is just wrong. And in retrospect, my High School is just a lot less cool.

But in an alternate universe, there is a school somewhere that would select "White Punks on Dope" and have the school officials approve it. I'd give almost anything to live in that world -- even go to the Prom.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tidal Wave of Music (with Zombies)

I had a strange dream last night.

The ghosts of every dead rock star who'd ever rebelled against the overblown and the boring came back as zombies intent on hunting down and killing Hugh Jackman.

While Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix feasted on Australian brains, Peter Gabriel rose up and sang (the entire song, not just a 70-second snippet). And he didn't need any stinking robotic backing zombie dancers, either.

Then a tidal wave of new and interesting tunes rose up and washed away everyone who's ever sung on the Disney Channel or appeared on American Idol. (Info on artist Jean Shin and the Sound Wave Exhibit is here.)

Unfortunately, it was just a dream. When I woke up this morning, the clock radio was playing this:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Banjos Direct Us to the Apocalypse

The Mayan calendar ends after 2012.

Which some people think means the end of the world.

If you're looking for signs of the apocalypse, you can find them all around. But until recently, it seemed that music would offer us a way to rediscover beauty that would steer us away from the edge.

But a quick check of the interwebz indicates that the musical signs of the apocalypse are out in full force:

From Swedesplease: Swedish twee rockers Barbara Flor have remade Nena's end-of-the-world nightmare "99 Luftballoons" as a shoegazer classic complete with whistling.

From Cover Freak, proof that when the Devil comes a-calling, look for him to sport a banjo: Hayseed Dixie takes "My Best Friend's Girl" by the Cars on a hayride to hell. And because the end of the world knows no borders, Japanese girl-band Petty Bookabanjo-thrashes (with heavily accented English) Petula Clark's "Downtown".

A quick check of YouTube reveals at least four versions of "Stairway to Heaven" played on the Banjo, including this one (perhaps inspired by the beer cans in the background, and featuring a pal holding up a lighter in front of the camera) by Sean Ray.

Of course, if more banjos sounded like this, we'd all be playing Banjo Hero on our Xboxes.

On the other hand, there might just be hope for the U.S. and the world as long as talented classical musicians from the former Soviet Union continue to come to our shores. Here's a version of the "Star Spangled Banner" played on electric cello (which looks like a cello neck that's been separated from the instrument's body):

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Outside Looking In

Outsiders understand more than insiders can.

I drove past my old apartment yesterday. Stopped for a second and looked up in the window -- the one window that had a tiny sliver of an ocean view. Somewhere up the street, someone was playing the Hair soundtrack.

It was a neighborhood of outsiders when I lived there. Homeless people slept in the alleyways; the streets and the sand were not quite safe after dark. We recognized each other and our fellowship of not quite belonging -- like we were members of the same tribe of outsiders.

Outsiders and outcasts gather. Rejected by the cool kids, driven to carve out their own identity far from the warm embrace of the mainstream. Until that identity somehow becomes mainstream. And this is the irony of rock and roll -- the outcasts, haunted by unhappy childhoods and various demons, create something so compelling that one day the hippest and coolest of the cool (the ones who might, a few years earlier, have beaten up those very same outcasts) want in.

I once saw Milos Forman near my old apartment. He was the ultimate outsider -- a Czech who lost both parents to the Nazi death camps and was more sympathetic to the outcasts and madmen of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus than the cool kids who ran Hollywood. Only an outsider like Forman (and writer Michael Heller) could make sense of Hair and transform it into something more coherent than James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot's raggedy collection of songs. I was born too late to be a hippie, but I've seen several great (and one horrible) production of the play and loved the movie version.

I guess not everyone in my old neighborhood thought we were a tribe. One day my upstairs neighbor was robbed at gunpoint. A week later, a homeless man was stabbed to death 20 feet from my front door. I moved out shortly thereafter.

The last time I was in Iceland, there was a production of Hair at the National Opera House, but I missed it by 6 days. In Iceland, they really are their own tribe -- in a country with fewer people than live within the city limits of Toledo, most people are just 2 or 3 degrees of separation from every other Icelanders -- so I wondered what a country bombarded by images of all the cool kids in Europe and America would have done with a show like Hair. I'll bet it was amazing.

Back in my old neighborhood, I looked up at my window, the one with the fragment of an ocean view. For a second I thought I saw myself from years ago looking down. But my past self didn't recognize my present self... and my present self didn't understand how my past self could afford the neighborhood as it is now (with million dollar condos and a complete absence of homeless people). Milos Forman and the hippies were nowhere to be found, so I put my car back in gear and drove 4 miles inland back to the present.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day (now with extra moping and aliens!)

Everyone needs love. Even Goths.

Even jangly mope-rockers. Which means, yup, even fans of the Smiths & Morrissey.

Which brings me to this video of comedian Dave Hill at a speed-dating event aimed solely at Smiths fans. As Hill says "You really can't lose. Unless you don't like the Smiths and Morrissey, in which case you could lose." (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Speaking of Valentine's Day, I am slightly ashamed to admit that I first knew the song "Only You" from the Ringo Starr cover (and not the great 1950s version by the Platters). (I blame the aliens in Ringo's space ship.)

And by the way, how wild does your night have to be that you would wind up in the morning in a bathrobe on top of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood with two statues, a space ship, and a singing alien? (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Toot and A Snore (and 2 TV Commercials)

An important part of the mythos of John Lennon is the 18-month "Lost Weekend" he spent in Los Angeles after separating from Yoko Ono. The official account is that Lennon drank, got high, and screwed around with May Pang while getting nothing done. While the drinking, drugging, and screwing are certainly true, Lennon actually got a ton done during that Lost Weekend.

Sure, he was thrown out of the Troubador when he and Harry Nilsson drunkenly heckled the Smothers Brothers (with Lennon wearing a tampon on his forehead), but during that 18 months, Lennon also:

  • Produced the Nilsson album Pussy Cats,

  • Recorded a bunch of oldies with producer Phil Spector (as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by Morris Levy from Roullette Records, who claimed Lennon stole parts of "Come Together" from Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" -- but agreed to drop the suit if Lennon recorded three songs Levy's publishing company owned),

  • Spent time with his song Julian (whose grade-school drawing reportedly inspired the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"), whom he hadn't seen for years,

  • Wrote and Recorded the Walls and Bridges album (which featured Julian drumming on one song),

  • Recorded his single to hit #1 in his lifetime (not counting the dozens of Beatle singles), "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" (with Elton John on piano and vocals),

  • Performed three songs with Elton John live at Madison Square Garden,

  • Co-wrote and sang on David Bowie's song "Fame,"

  • Wrote, sang and played on Ringo's "Goodnight Vienna,"

  • Hosted a weekly jam session at a rented house in Santa Monica (almost everyone who participated in these jam sessions is now in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame),

  • Fought back against attempts by J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon to have him deported,

  • Reunited with Paul McCartney in the studio for a jam session that also included Stevie Wonder, Bobby Keys, and Jesse Ed Davis (widely bootlegged under the title A Toot and A Snore in '74,

  • Recorded a radio commercial for Tower Records,

  • Appeared on the Grammy Awards and made bad jokes with Paul Simon (when Art Garfunkle accepted the award for Olivia Newton John, who won Record of the Year, the first thing Simon said was "I thought I told you to wait in the car"),

  • And made these two TV commercials (links one and two for Gmail subscribers):

Not bad for a "lost weekend."

PS: Ringo, the aliens want their cheap special effects back.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Best Rap Performance (1984): Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was God's gift to rap music.

In the summer and fall of 1984, I was chasing after a girl named Diana. And she loved hip-hop music, so I vowed to be more open-minded about it. She also loved Ronald Reagan (and I tried to tolerate that).

On August 11, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was doing a microphone check for his weekly radio address and (not realizing he was being recorded) said:

My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

Within weeks, Reagan's voice was sampled and used in several hip-hop songs, including "See the Light, Feel the Heat" by Air Force 1 (Elliot Sokolov & Jack Waldman, mixed by Arthur Baker):

Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads and Bootsy Collins from Parliament-Funkadelic had a similar idea, producing the funkier "5 Minutes" and releasing it under the name Bonzo Goes to Washington:

These songs confused Diana -- she loved them musically, but wasn't happy that they were basically making fun of her hero. To prove to Diana that my musical tastes were broader than they really were (and perhaps also to needle her about Reagan), I bought both of these records.

Also around that time, the review "Rap Master Ronnie" (written by Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau and Elizabeth Swados) premiered. In this show, Reagan and his closest advisors rap about his politics and work habits. Diana and I saw this show together. She hated the politics and thought the music was weak. I loved the show and bought the soundtrack album.

These records have more in common than Ronald Reagan, rap music, and a girl named Diana. All 3 were ignored by the Grammy Awards. And I've dragged all 3 along to every new place I've lived. But I haven't listened to any of them in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, rap music survived and thrived (blame Reagan).

That's not to say that I never want to listen to music about Ronald Reagan. That urge strikes me every 4 or 5 months. And when it happens, I dig out my vinyl copy of Animal Boy by the Ramones. Just to listen to this:

This album came out long after Diana and I were through. Incidentally, Diana hated the Ramones. And that's fine with me.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Answer Records

It seems like a lost art.

For decades, it was fairly common for songs to reference or answer previous hit songs.

So Irving Berlin had a hit with "God Bless America" and Woody Guthrie recorded the socialist answer record "This Land is Your Land." Neil Young knocked the South in "Southern Man" and Lynyrd Skynyrd responded with "Sweet Home Alabama." And when David Bowie released a record called Low (no e), Nick Lowe put out an answer record called Bowi (again, no e).

But, if you take rappers dissing each other back and forth out of the equation, the answer record seems to have all but died out.

Six months ago, we had a rare fall rainstorm in L.A. And the latest in a long line of L.A. radio stations that pop up, play great music, develop a fiercely loyal following (and then abruptly change format to ranchero music, chasing after higher ratings that never materialize) played this song by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (which I'd first heard years earlier on a Boston station that briefly played the best music in the world before starting a long decline into pre-programmed mediocrity). Then the station played a second Lloyd Cole song (link for Gmail subscribers):

And I was transported from a car in rainy L.A. to a record store in Boston in 1984, where I stayed, watching the rain come down, listening to every second of both sides of the first Lloyd Cole album Rattlesnakes (which combined brilliant wordplay with insanely catchy jangle-pop music). "Dance music for English majors," someone wrote at the time, damning and praising the music in equal measure. When the needle came off the record at the end of side 2 (after the song "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?"), the only thing left was to buy the record, walk out of the store in the rain, and marvel at the confidence you need to end your first album with such a great rhetorical question.

But maybe it wasn't rhetorical. Maybe Lloyd Cole was trolling for an answer record.

22 years later (but next on the radio that rainy L.A. afternoon), Glascow-based Camera Obscura responded with "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken," aping some of the sounds of Rattlesnakes, but updating it in a surreally poppy way. If it were raining and I were in Boston, I'd have stayed in the store and listened to their whole album... but I was late and it was raining in L.A., so I had to settle for the 21st century equivalent: coming home later and watching the video on YouTube 18 times in a row:

Friday, February 6, 2009

Slipping Through the Cracks of Possibilities

This part of the day bewilders me.

The light of day is for working. Accomplishments. Getting things done.

Night is a time for unwinding. Romance. The thrill of the hunt.

The times between are where possibilities blur together. It's not quite light, not yet dark. Between the certainty of the day and the nagging doubt of night is a window of opportunity where plans are hatched. Schemes are born. Ideas emerge that would never work in daylight and could never fly at night.

And the tail-chasing. Analyzing endings and beginnings. Replaying it all to try to come up with a different result.

Between the sunset and certified darkness
Dusk comes on and I follow
The exhaust from memory up to the end

Civil twilight, that period after sundown where there's still enough light to see, is where possibilities live. Between the certainties of day and night, we can slip between worlds. Make real changes. Move forward in ways that are hard to imagine.

Couple that with a change in seasons and you've really got something. An opportunity. A period of immense challenge and confusion.

Those periods are scary as hell. Filled with doubt. And simultaneously the most hopeless and hopeful parts of life. (Link for Gmail subscribers).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Musical Incompatibility

We should have a song.

When you're shooting the rapids of love, these might just be the scariest five words in the English language.

When she first said them, we'd been together for about a month. We were on a bus and it was raining. I watched a raindrop make its way up the bus window for about 30 seconds before I answered. "What do you have in mind?"

Over the past weeks, I'd marveled at her record collection -- an impossible mix of British Invasion, punk, self-indulgent singer-songwriter crap, prog, several records by the Time (but none by Prince), and treacly AM drivel. Her steadfast commitment to Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols was only matched by her passionate embrace of all things Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.

And now she wanted to pick a song?

I watched her as she ticked through her mental Rolodex of songs and wondered if the old 45s she bought at flea markets would triumph over the vinyl she inherited from her brother when he went to college (most with the plastic wrapping still intact, warping the records slowly as the seasons changed) or if the second-generation cassettes she'd taped from scratched CDs of albums her friends bought at the mall would come to haunt my dreams with their low-fi hiss (not to mention the distortion from sitting in a glove compartment through three hot summers).

I wasn't sure that any song qualified as our song. There weren't particular songs playing when we met or on our first date. We didn't both harbor the same unquenchable thirst for the same music. We'd never gone to any concerts together (and it didn't look like we ever would). So why do we need a song? Is there some rule that every couple needs a song?

"Every couple who are in love needs a song," she answered, as if she could read my thoughts.

And as the bus rolled through huge puddles at the bottom of the hill where Route 9 makes its way back into town, she started to smile.

By the time the bus reached our stop, she'd come up with a song. And I knew, deep in my heart, that I was doomed (link for Gmail subscribers).

"Really?" I asked. "A song about muskrats? You think I'm a rodent?"

"It's a metaphor," she said.

"For what?" We stood in the rain as the bus pullled away and after a long time she asked if I had any ideas.

Yeah. Not to force the idea of having a song down my throat.

But I had to come up with something. So I did (link for Gmail subscribers):

We broke up the next day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Plea for a Cat Named Spot

Like most stories, this one starts with a song.

Actually two songs.

The Weakerthans, a fantastic Canadian band from Winnipeg (which as you know is the capital of Manitoba), has spent the last few years creating a library of smart, inventive power pop songs.

My first exposure to the Weakerthans was "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue" (download it for free here), an amazing song about a depressed cat-owner (told from the perspective of the cat).

As a new cat owner (and someone who frankly always preferred dogs), I got a lot of insight into my cat's inner life from this song. Before long, I'd completely bonded with my cat (and not just because he has thousands of MySpace friends -- now including Neko Case -- and gets emails from my favorite Icelandic bands). Of course, it helps that Sitka is a tuxedo cat who has a lot of doglike traits (he likes baths, riding in cars, playing fetch, etc.) And, like Virtue the Cat, Sitka has a lot of insight into the human condition:
All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV,
And frankly that thing doesn't really interest me.
I swear I'm going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood
If you don't stop the self-defeating lies you've been repeating
Since the day you brought me home.
I know you're strong.

A few months ago, I started seeing signs in my neighborhood. Small signs on telephone polls and larger signs -- all laminated so they'd still show up in the rain and all featuring a photo of a cat who looked almost exactly like Sitka. The signs were missing-cat posters for a cat named Spot. And he was exactly Sitka's age.

You could almost hear the agony and fear of Spot's owners in the signs. So I went out looking for him. Around some of the construction sites in the neighborhood. In bushes. Up and down some of the streets. And when I came home, I told Sitka how upset I'd be if he ever ran away.

Judging from the posters, Spot's different from Sitka -- he's an outdoor cat (who apparently was comfortable wandering into apartments around the neighborhood). But this time he got out without his collar... and his owners are worried.

Sitka would want me to remind all pet owners to have their pets microchipped -- and to make sure they always wear their collars (even if they're indoor pets). Sitka even said he'd gladly give up his favorite toy mouse if it would help Spot make it home safe and sound.

Which brings me back to the Weakerthans, whose latest album Reunion Tour contains a sequel song, again from the point of view of Virtue the Cat. But between "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue" and the new album, I've had a cat for 6 years. Even though my cat is doglike, I've grown to appreciate the cattish parts of his personality as well. So now I can't think of anything sadder than "Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure" (link for Gmail subscribers):

And as for you, Spot: your humans miss you so much and are so worried and sad. It's time to make your way home... and if you're lost, know that there are people searching for you. So let someone in the neighborhood find you... and bring you home.