Thursday, April 30, 2009

D-Bag Tax: A Modest Proposal

There are two things my father always told me.

You're improperly dressed.

And You can't stop people from being douchebags.

(If you're unclear on the concept of douchebaggery, a douchebag is much more than a jerk. It's a jerk with a sense of entitlement that borders on narcissistic personality disorder. So a jerk will cut you off in traffic, but a douche will do it while on the phone and will be generally surprised if you point out to him that there are other people on the road.)

You look around these days and you can't help but notice that there are more douchebags than ever... and that the economy has gone into the toilet, leaving us with deficits that are worse than poetry written by teenagers.

Here's how to deal with both these problems:

Since, as my Dad noted, you can't stop people from being douches, but you can take advantage of their douchebaggery. So, while I'd be happier if everyone would stop their douchebag behavior, I'm prepared to let douchebags go on being douchebags to their douchebag heart's content.

But let's let douchebags pay the full cost of their own douchebag behaviors. Through a national Douchebag Tax.

I'm not saying it should be illegal for people to be Douchebags... just that we should let the free market help regulate the douchier among us.

So you want to drive a Hummer and justify it because you have to drive kids to soccer practice every seven weeks? A real douche move, but no problem. From now on, every time you start up your 8-mile-per-gallon, 4-ton beast, you pay a $100 Douchebag Tax.

And you want to park your huge SUV in a "Compact" space? Yeah, it's douchey, but as long as you pay a fine of $100 per hour, no one will complain. Need two spaces so no one will scratch your new car? $200 per hour, no dirty looks from fellow motorists, and your Douchemobile remains ding-free.

You think the law about not talking on hand-held cell phones while driving doesn't apply to you because your conversations are, like, really important? Sure, that makes you a douche, but for $250 per call, feel free!

You want to complain in the press that the financial crisis has lowered the value of your seven vacation homes and the nasty people losing their jobs give you mean looks when you get into your chauffered limo? No problem. As long as you pay a $500 Douchebag Tax for every person your firm put out of work.

You cut in front of someone in line at Starbucks because your time is more valuable than other people's? Pay everyone in line $100 and they'll gladly praise you for your mad douchebag skills.

Think it's okay to talk loudly on your cell phone in public? Fine. $500 per conversation. And an extra $1000 if you're in a public restroom.

Do you have a great health care plan paid for by your work but you still loudly pontificate that letting others have access to health insurance is socialism? That's some leaky douche logic, but I'm glad to have you spout this madness for only $750 per incident.

Now, we're going to need some special fines for especially douchey behaviors. Let's say you ruin the world economy by inventing new financial vehicles (and selling them to your douchebag clients), only to notice later that the cascading failures of your inventions threaten to suck up all the money in the world 20 times over? Clearly, you're a Master of the Universe Douche. That's fine, but it will cost you both arms and one of your legs (because the douche punishment must fit the douchebag crime).

And finally, you think the very idea of a Douchebag Tax is a douche proposal? Think that a blog post using variations on the word "douche" more than 30 times is excessive? I'm happy to support your right to voice that kind of douchebaggery. For $1,250 per conversation.

Now, the Douchebag Tax (soon to be enumerated in the Douchebag Reconciliation Act of 2009) may not immediately balance the budget and pay for free healthcare and unicorns for all Americans, but it's a start.

(And, hey, if it can keep a few douchebags from douche behaviors, that's okay too.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eternal Moonshine of the Vitamin-Powered Sugary Mind

Like most stories from my 20s, this one starts at 3:30 in the morning.

The middle of the night has always been my favorite time for grocery shopping. Stores are less crowded, clerks are more amusing (and more easily amused), and the other shoppers present plenty of opportunity for observing Life's Rich Pageant.

So it was 3:30, I couldn't sleep, and I was craving grilled cheese, which meant it was the ideal time to go shopping. At the time, I shopped exclusively in a gigantic food warehouse store that had a parking lot with 600 spaces. When I pulled in, there were four other cars in the lot -- another advantage to late-night shopping.

As I wandered through the bulk section, assessing my need for yogurt-covered pretzels at $4.99 per pound, the sound system in the store switched off. The lighting levels dropped about 30%. And then they started playing Aerosmith, and the piano sound bounced around the store, careened off the charcoal grills, got absorbed in the 36-packs of double-ply toilet paper, and echoed slightly in the spice aisle.

And as I grabbed a package of seedless Rye, I noticed something in a nearby aisle. A barefoot hippie chick in tie-dye and cut-off shorts was very slowly swaying to the music, staring at the selection of breakfast cereals (all sold in quantities designed to provide family breakfasts for the next six months).

As I stared, I was transported. Driving through the dark hills of Western Massachusetts late at night, listening to the radio, hearing the devils howling at Steven Tyler's heels and hoping they would stay in the woods long enough to let me get home safely.

When the song ended, the hippie chick collapsed in a ball by the Quisp boxes. And I felt weird that I'd been staring, wanted to get out of the store as soon as possible and let her have whatever private moment she was having, and go back outside where it was 40 degrees and sensible people wore scarves and coats instead of cut-off shorts.

I turned, then heard a quiet sob. And paused, knowing I'd have to go talk to her, knowing she was undoubtedly crazy, and suddenly wondering if it might be better to shop earlier in the night -- maybe at 1am instead of 3am.

And I went up to her. Stood awkwardly. Stared at what she was staring at. Then finally asked if she was okay. She looked up at me, smiled, and said "I was just thinking that Steven Tyler would be so much happier if he ate more Quisp."

I looked at the boxes, nodded, and said "yeah, probably, I mean it is the vitamin-powered sugary cereal." I tried to think of something else to say that would express concern while also allowing me to leave soon. But I couldn't think of anything so I looked down. And the hippie chick was gone. Concerned, I quickly looked in adjacent aisles. She was nowhere to be seen.

When I paid for my bread and cheese, I asked the clerk if he'd seen the hippie chick. He frowned at me, said "Dude, you're the only one who's been in here in the last three hours."

As I drove back to my apartment, the local classic rock station played "Dream On." I switched the car radio off (even though that violated nearly every belief on which I'd constructed my life). Let Steven Tyler's Quisp-fueled demons chase someone else home for a change.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strat Like a Harley

The first Meat Loaf album might just be the perfect music for teenagers.

It's loud. It's bombastic. It paints love and sex as life or death struggles from Paradise Lost or a Wagner opera.

And it erects the sonic equivalents of Iwo Jima monuments to young lust. In short, it's what every parent fears and what every teenager thinks he or she alone has discovered. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Jim Steinman provided the songs (think Wagner having fever dreams that mash up Phil Spector and Bruce Springsteen anthems), Todd Rundgren produced the tracks (and paid for the recording himself), and the musicians included Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band, Willie Wilcox, Kasim Sulton, and Roger Powell from Utopia, Edgar Winter playing sax, Ellen Foley and Rory Dodd singing, and Todd Rundgren himself playing the "motorcycle guitar" on the title track (which, on the album, goes on for nearly 10 glorious minutes).

The other thing about this album that teenagers recognize with great embarrassment decades later is that it's hilarious -- why else would NY Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto be providing the play-by-play in "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," one of 3 songs on the record that are more than 8 minutes long?

The other day, I hauled my vinyl copy of this album out of storage and listened to it. (The record sure beats Tums for relief when you see this commercial.)Yeah, I cringed more than once. But I also laughed more than once and marveled at some of the music all over again. And while I know it's possible to defend this record, it's a bit of a guilty pleasure -- one that I share with almost 40 million people around the world (including about 200,000 new ones every year).

By the way, if you're in Germany, stop in and visit Charles Altmann and bring your vinyl copy of Bat Out of Hell. What better way to listen to an album with a "motorcycle guitar" than on a turntable built out of parts from an actual motorcycle?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day on Sesame Street

Happy Earth Day.

Sometimes Sesame Street just gets it so right.

And other times, they just get it so very, very wrong.

(Is it just me, or does that frog look like he must have been snorting something besides moss from the lily pads?)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beat Surrender

If you put the Who, the Kinks, Smokey Robinson, and the Clash in a blender, and added a shot of ginseng, you'd wind up with the Jam.

There are some inexplicable holes in my music collection. It amazes and astonishes me that I never owned a record by the Jam (although I wore out a cassette that had Sound Affects on one side and This is the Modern World on the other, listening to it every day as I drove to and from my first post-college job).

The Clash had the political cred and the Sex Pistols had the punk cred, but it's hard to think of any English band to emerge from the mid-1970s who had more musical cred than the Jam.

Initially, the Jam were considered yet another punk band. But their musical ambitions were always a little grander. They wanted to be a Motown band. And a Pub Rock Band.

And in an era when they're contemporaries wanted to bury "dinosaur" bands like the Who, the Jam secretly dreamed of being the Who. But they didn't entirely take that ambition seriously and were willing to mock their Who-obsession by calling their third album All Mod Cons. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

But then things changed. And the band started becoming a faster, more punk version of the Kinks, chronicling the uniquely British details of their lives. This made them superstars in the U.K., but ultimately probably made it much harder for them to break through in the U.S. (which they never quite did, despite incongruous appearances on shows like American Bandstand):

While their music always retained the same propulsive drive, they moved into more of a soul sound before finally calling it quits in 1983. Maybe all they really wanted was to finally be Martha and the Vandellas:

Paul Weller wound go on to found the Style Council and a solo career and his bandmates Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton wrote a book about the Jam that slammed Weller. Buckler and Foxton recruited a singer from a Jam tribute band and toured as "From the Jam" in 2007. Weller insists he'll never get back together with the Jam and described reunion tours as "just embarrassing and sad."

Maybe so. But to this day, when I'm feeling sad there's still nothing that cheers me up quite like the doomed-but-also-hopeful tone of the Jam's "Monday."

And (like the song goes) I will never be embarrassed about that again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tax Day!

What to do with that tax-refund money burning a hole in your pocket?

Maybe blow 80 bucks on a special box (a Box of Vision, no less) and some booklets to hold re-mastered Beatles CDs due to be released later this year?

Because nothing says "I have way too much money" like buying one of these babies, specially built to hold CDs and Digipacks!

Of course, the CDs and Digipacks are not included, but if you've got 80 bucks to waste on this, you probably don't care...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

They Call it "Dueling Banjos" for a Reason, People!

Before the Internet, I'd have had to learn about this stuff on the streets.

But now people can email me and I can search YouTube for... well, almost anything.

And so in some kind of harmonic convergence of weirdness celebrating misguided musical adventurousness, two separate people emailed me about versions of "Dueling Banjos" that feature the tuba.

I guess it has been a rough winter and everyone's gone a little stir crazy... so here we go:

Even I know that it's not cool to be barefoot in church wearing pants cut off at the knees, but tell that to the people in this Violin and Tuba version:

Flute and Tuba version:

And, as if that weren't scary enough, here's a version on pre-programmed Organ and Tuba:

This all makes me nostalgic for the days when Tubas were seen and not heard!

Monday, April 13, 2009

It's the End of the 70s....

Apparently, Los Angeles can convict celebrities of murder.

But only if it's been more than 30 years since they were famous (which explains O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake).

Spector, who dubbed himself the "first teenage millionaire" and invented the "Wall of Sound" with dozens of instruments dubbed down to mono tracks, produced amazing hits for the Ronnettes, Ike and Tina Turner, and others. In a Freudian slip that speaks volumes, he also famously claimed that the title "To Know Him is to Love Him" came from his own tombstone (realizing what he'd said, he said he meant his father's tombstone).

Spector is also the producer brought in by John Lennon to salvage the Let it Be project, which he did by overdubbing strings and pissing off Paul McCartney.

After a bunch of high-profile production work for Lennon and George Harrison in the 1970s, Spector was brought in to produce End of the Century for the Ramones -- an idea that was just crazy enough to work (although, in the end, it didn't).

Over the past 30 years, there have been widespread reports of incidents involving Spector pulling guns on various musicians. So when he was accused of shooting a woman in 2003, many people wondered why it had taken so long for someone to die because of one of Spector's guns. And sadly, he's better known in the past 20 years for his bizarre hairpieces than for anything musical.

It's the end, the end of the 70s
It's the end, the end of the century...

(Link for Gmail subscribers)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

No Place Like Utopia

I was a big fan of Utopia.

Not the three-keyboardist prog period. And not the heavy metal period. But the brief New Wave/Power Pop period (which lasted from about 1980 to 1982).

A couple days ago, I heard "Set Me Free" by Utopia on XM Radio. It was like running into an old lover years after the passion had cooled. You can see things more objectively (the good and the bad) and hopefully you leave the encounter with some good feelings (and not still be crazy after all these years).

Adventures in Utopia was all over hipper radio stations in 1980, with its mixture of anthemic space ditties and straightforward pop-rock. Flush with cash from some afterschool job I can't remember, I bought the album new instead of hunting down a used copy.

The band was always seen as a Todd Rundgren side project (and most of its fans were Todd-heads), but it's secret weapon was always Kasim Sulton, who sang the band's one real hit "Set Me Free" (which barely crept into the Top 40 in 1980).

Utopia's next album Deface the Music was a collection of Beatle soundalike songs that sounded exactly like what might have happened if Todd Rundgren had joined the Rutles. In a masterstroke of shitty timing, the album came out just before John Lennon was killed. And suddenly the idea of clever fake Beatle songs seemed much less appealing (especially when compared to real Beatle songs people already knew and loved). I saw them at a club in Hartford touring behind this album; the show was half-full, but the concert was amazing. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

For the next few years, Rundgren alternated solo albums and Utopia albums with Utopia never quite breaking through and usually playing second fiddle to whatever directions or passions were important to Rundgren. Ironically, Todd's solo albums proved much more popular than Utopia records just as Utopia was finally developing a signature sound and group identity that wasn't based on Rundgren. But Utopia never regained the momentum they had in 1980 and each successive album was less successful (artistically and commercially).

Swing to the Right, a concept album that grew out of Reagan's election, failed to catch fire with audiences. Utopia was more notable for being a three-sided album than for the music itself (it came on two vinyl records, but the second record had side 3 on each side). The ironically named Oblivion sunk like a stone (perhaps because it traded the Utopia sound for a generic arena-rock sound that sounded like Asia on a bad day). I bought all these records; like a gambler on a losing streak, I figured my luck had to change (and the few good songs on each album kept my hope alive like an occasional winning hand). By 1986, they'd faded away which ultimately may have been a good thing (but it left me feeling like I was at a casino that closed just when I'd deluded myself into thinking my luck had changed).

Ironically enough, after college, I lived down the block from a club called Johnny D's; I always wondered about the place but never went inside. And then tonight, I found this video of Kasim Sulton singing "Libertine" at Johnny D's in 2008 and it sounds as good as it did back in the day.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Smells Like Teen Ukulele Spirit

I never really understood why people worshipped Nirvana.

Maybe eight ukuleles and tuxedos would help.

Or a swing arrangement by the "Havin' My Baby" guy (link for Gmail subscribers):

Or a banjo version from Patti Smith and Sam Shepherd:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Just Like Moses Malone

Squint your eyes, tilt your head, and she's a superstar.

In an alternate universe, Karla DeVito is a superstar.

You may remember her from the video of Meat Loaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" (although it was Ellen Foley who actually sang on the song). Or from her song "We Are Not Alone" from The Breakfast Club.

But whenever I think of Karla DeVito, I think of her goofy and amazing debut album Is This a Cool World... Or What?, which came with a poster that had doodles, photos from her childhood, and handwritten lyrics. And the music was pretty great, Cyndi Lauder-esque goofiness, great pop musicianship from players like Anton Fig, Paul Shafer, and G.E. Smith, and powerful vocals that sounded like the love child of Kate Bush and Linda Ronstadt delivering a message from God. The album had a goofy song about a female pirate (perhaps explaining Broadway appearances to come) and some great covers (CCR's "Almost Saturday Night," the Grass Roots' "Midnight Confessions").

And then there's the title song. Which celebrates the coolness of modernity (circa 1981): French sunglasses, call-waiting, and a "house for my mother, just like Moses Malone." And she even dresses like a hippy chick, a Bobby Soxer, Alice in Wonderland, and a sad clown in the video. I dare you not to like it. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Karla DeVito might easily have become the Queen of MTV, but instead she followed Linda Ronstadt onto Broadway for a revival of The Pirates of Penzance. To capitalize, Budweiser made a commercial with DeVito singing a version of "Cool World" mashed up with the then-current Bud jingle (link for Gmail subscribers):

A year later, DeVito married Robbie Benson (her Pirates co-star) and had two kids. She recorded a second album in 1986, but the songs weren't quite as sharp and Bob Ezrin's slick, synth-heavy production bludgeoned all the humor out of the record (which never made it to CD).

The other day, I dragged my vinyl copy of Cool World out of storage. The poster is frayed, the cover is worn, the price tag is partially shredded (but hanging in there). But the music is still amazing -- a goofy, fun artifact from the alternate universe and coolest of all possible worlds, just before Karla DeVito became the Queen of MTV.

Just like Moses Malone.