Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Hi, all.  I did an interview about this very blog and the bands I play for, and if you're looking for something to have in the background while you make waffles this weekend, may I humbly suggest... me!  Talking about music.

Hope you enjoy.

Listen and/or download here:

Friday, August 27, 2010

SONG #142: New Year's Day

U2, War, 1983

We start today with one of my favorite bass player jokes.  

A band is on stage playing.  The singer is singing, and thinking "I'm gonna totally hit on that girl in row five when we're done."  The guitarist is playing, and thinking "I think I need some new pedals.  Maybe a new amp.  I don't have the right tone tonight."  The drummer is playing, and thinking "This sucks.  I should have gotten more money for this gig."  And the bass player is playing, and thinking "A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A."

I think of that joke when I listen to early U2 records (and especially when I watch early footage of the band).  As much as I think Adam Clayton's playing fits the early U2 albums like a glove, and he's obviously a crucial aspect of the band's personality (and apparently kept them from disappearing into hard-core Opus Dei Catholicism) he's not the most dextrous player in the world.  Nevertheless, he's a great example of a guy who wrung just about all he could from his talent (his real talent seems to be being a famous rock star-- he does that side of his job admirably), and even though he's the worst musician in the band, his contributions to early U2 are invaluable.  

"B (Sunday) D (Bloody) G (day!)"

In fact, this album and the first Violent Femmes record are what I learned to play the bass to.  I bought a bass in the summer after 8th grade and came home with it knowing only how to play "Smoke On The Water," so I pulled out the two albums with the bass playing I most admired and started playing along.  By the end of the summer, I had both those albums covered, moved on to Who records, and that was basically that.  I didn't really play much bass in high school-- I got to when our bassist did lead vocals for a few songs-- but I finally had the chance in college to dig in to the instrument more thoroughly, and these days it's definitely my instrument of choice.

My first bass.

"New Year's Day" was such an important song to me on so many levels.  I heard it for the first time right before a weeklong class trip into the woods of Wye Island.  That week was easily the most unhappy week of my young life-- I was in the depths of 8th grade awkwardness as deep as one could go-- and when I got home, I took a 45 minute shower, made my folks drive me to the mall, and I bought War.  That kid on the cover said it all; that is exactly how I felt.  I even looked a little like him, only far less tough and able to stand up to a camera.  I played that record out for the next month.  Literally, I ended up needing to replace it from overuse a year later.

I don't know if I have the critical perspective necessary to make this assertion, but this song seems to stand head and shoulders over every U2 song that came before it.  I love the first album Boy, and some of those songs have aged extremely well, but it sounds like a young band's first record.  While that's part of its charm, the recordings lack a little confidence and muscularity in the playing.  The second U2 album, October, is one of the worst second albums ever made by a major artist.  It's close to being a career killer.  Only "Gloria" survives as a listenable track.  Some of the songs still translated live, it's true, but it did not suggest a band on the rise.  In fact, it seems as if the band considered breaking up for a number of reasons.

A lot was riding on War, then, to solidify the band, and "New Year's Day," the pre-release single, had to deliver.  The first five seconds tell you that the band has upped the ante in every way.  First, there's the sound of the track.  Those bass notes are enormous-- they fill up your speakers and headphones.  Those piano keys play a perfect, instantly memorable tune, and then Bono and the drums come crashing in.  The drums finally sound as big as Larry Mullen's playing.  The production here, by Steve Lillywhite, is as important as any of the band's contribution.  Lillywhite's long career was made right here.  It's also the first album on which Mullen recorded with a click track, and the difference is immediately noticeable.  Gone are the time fluctuations from the early songs, and it gives this track the propulsion it needs to last over five minutes.

Edge's playing is much grittier here as well.  A lot of the guitar part sounds improvised and designed as a response to the vocal line, and while there's nothing complicated going on, Edge's choices are terrific.  The two note figure that rests underneath the line "I... will be with you again," for example-- it's just four notes, but it fills up the sound without cluttering it.

The other great thing about "New Year's Day" is that it's not a "safe" single.  Unlike "I Will Follow" from the first album, it doesn't even seem like an attempt to write a hit.  It's almost six minutes long, and it's close to a full minute before the vocal starts.  Moreover, it's a piano-based song, one of the few in the band's catalog, so it doesn't even introduce the band's signature delay-pedal sound.  Instead, Edge chicken-scratches through the breaks with some of the funkiest (and perhaps the only funky) playing of his career.

Despite all the rule-breaking, it's such a singalong.  Bono's vocal is tremendous here, one of the best of his career.  Those high notes he hits near the end are lost to him now, and probably because of how much gusto he put into them as a kid.  It's hard for me not to scream along by the end, even though I never had those notes in the first place.

Say what you want about U2 (and I'll have plenty to say later about their more recent catalog) but this song encapsulates pretty much what there is to love about rock music.  A great track for the first day of school, don't you think?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

SONG #141: Stand Up

Al Green, Call Me, 1973

Hello again!  Thanks for indulging my vacation-- I almost wrote a blog or two on the road, but I had really let my brain settle in at about 80% functionality, and I figured I better wait until I got home to try to communicate anything.  Not that I'm at full strength today-- I just took a two hour nap this afternoon after sleeping in.  Hopefully, you had a chance to read some old blogs in my absence.  More likely, you just now thought, "Oh, right!  That blog!"  Either way, back to business.

Most of the time, vacation for me means not much music.  I'm surrounded by people I rarely get to see, and by the time I put Will to sleep, I can barely keep my eyes open.  The one musical moment that does stick out from the last two weeks happened at the beach with the blog gal's family.  My sister-in-law Annie (who is a real writer-- her book's being excerpted in Time Magazine in a month or so) was cooking, and had Pandora playing on her laptop, and one fantastic soul song after another came on.  I went in to compliment her on her taste, and when I discovered it was a free internet radio station, I thought of how much easier it is now to hear music than when I was a kid.  

Take today's artist, Al Green-- when I was in high school, no Al Green records were in print.  Crazy, but true-- he hadn't been put on CD yet, and the Hi Records catalog was in shambles.  So if you're me, and you want to check out this "Al Green" you've been hearing about, you either have to listen to soul radio and hope you get lucky (and there's no soul radio in the 'burbs), go to a used record store and pay way too much for a used copy of one of his records, or just put him on the "to hear someday" list.  It was a great day in the reissue-crazy 90s when I finished my "to hear someday" list (not sure who the last artist was-- maybe German art-weirdos Can).  My sister-in-law is not a record collector, but thanks to Pandora, she's extremely well-versed in classic soul.  That's a beautiful thing about the internet age, and it reminds me why not everyone has a 20K iPod.  If you don't mind someone else playing DJ, you don't need one.  

The other thing that struck me as I casually listened to Pandora's choices for an hour was that, one after another, they were soul artists who had incredible hot streaks, and then completely crashed and burned.  My one decent epiphany of the vacation (other than I need to be more careful when I bodysurf at 40 than at 30, and that ice cream always tastes better dipped in chocolate) was that soul singers share a remarkably similar career arc to comedians.  Both seem to discover their voice, absolutely own their art for about five years, and then lose their touch utterly and completely.  That doesn't happen in other fields-- painters don't have five year hot streaks, nor do writers, or even other genres of musicians.  It seems particularly to plague comedians and soul singers.  As Howard Cosell used to say, let's go to the videotape:

Visionary, great comedians who suddenly lost it and became shockingly unfunny:

Bill Cosby-- Owns the 1960s.  By 1979, his standup is wretched.  His TV career follows the same pattern-- The Cosby Show was solid (if unwatchable in reruns), but all other attempts were cringeworthy.  Plus, there's Leonard Part 6.

Richard Pryor-- Owns the 1970s.  As funny as a person has ever been.  Then, suddenly and tragically not funny around 1982.  Legend forever tarnished by The Toy, perhaps the most misguided film by any major comedian.


[ney-der, ney-deer]–noun: the lowest point; point of greatest adversity or despair."

Robin Williams-- Amazingly funny from late 70s to early 80s.  If you haven't heard his first comedy album, Reality... What a Concept, try to find it.  I think it's genius.  And then... have you seen a Robin Williams movie lately?  Hoo boy.  Low point by far: Patch Adams.  Absolutely unforgivable.  That movie was so manipulative and cloying and awful that I felt like I'd been emotionally harassed by it.  It's the film equivalent of the date-rapist preppy guy in 80s teen flicks.

"Your terminal illness is funny if I put this red nose on!  Watch!  I'll show you!  Knock knock.  (Who's there?) The angel of death.   HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!  Want me to do a funny genie voice?   Hello?"

Eddie Murphy-- Owns the early 1980s.  Replaces Pryor as funniest man on earth.  And then... wow.  He now seems to be in a race with Burt Reynolds to see who can make more terrible movies.  By my count, it's still a landslide at 40-23 Burt*, but Eddie has decades of crud ahead of him.   Eddie does have nine good movies, but only two since 1988.  And Norbit and Pluto Nash should each count as -10.

What can you say here?  Truly-- what possible caption could communicate what's going on in this photograph?

Jerry Seinfeld-- Owns the early 1990s.  Has had the good sense to go into semi-retirement just as he started to grate.  If he comes back, I believe we're in for some serious schtick.  How quickly have Seinfeld reruns aged, by the way?  It's crazy-- they look and sound and feel really old already.  It's like watching Love, American Style.

There are plenty of other examples (George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, David Cross, etc.)  Needless to say, I'm pretty scared to see what Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle do next.  They both feel like they're staring at the abyss to me.

So there you go-- comedians seem to be able to put their finger on the pulse for about five years, and ride the zeitgeist, and then they're not only done, but totally superfluous.  Once they lose their connection, their ability to hear the hidden rhythms in our society, they can't communicate at all.

It's the same with almost every soul singer that I love.  Here's an incomplete list off the top of my head, but enough of one to make my point:

Aretha Franklin-- After scuttling for years, she strikes gold at Muscle Shoals in 1967 with Atlantic, and is the greatest singer on the planet for about five years.  Then she rides the "Freeway Of Love" to the all-you-can-eat diner for the next 40 years and counting.

Eddie Murphy in Norbit.  No, wait  That's the other... oh.  Oh, dear...  um...

Bill Withers-- Makes a series of terrific sides in the early 70s; by the end of the 70s, he's the worst kind of sappy, syrupy hack.

Bonnie Raitt-- Don't think she's a soul singer?  Listen to her first five albums or so.  Then do yourself a favor and STOP LISTENING!  It gets really sad really quickly.  I'm thrilled for her that she had a resurgence and made some dough-- she seems like a terrific person-- but I'm not a huge fan of those records.

Lauryn Hill-- I think the Fugees record and Miseducation are great.  Ms. Hill then seems to have gone quite mad.  The MTV Unplugged 2.0 record is among the worst I've ever heard.  It's like watching someone pretend to be a star in her bedroom through a two-way mirror.  So disconcerting.

Otis Redding-- Now, Otis dies at the height of his fame, so he's a different story, but my guess is that the 70s would have been very unkind to him.  Perhaps my favorite singer of all time, by the way.  If I had to pick one voice, it might very well be Otis Redding.

Stevie Wonder-- If you count Little Stevie Wonder and Grown-Up, Artistic Control Stevie Wonder as two artists, then he belongs here too.  Stevie will get his own blog someday.

Prince-- Again, Prince needs his own entry, but if you take away his work from 1980-1987, would you even consider him a good artist?

Curtis Mayfield-- Starting to see a pattern here?

Donny Hathaway-- Or here?

Mable John-- See Blog #8.

Sly Stone-- See Blog #79.

See what I mean?  There's something going on.  What is it about comedy and soul singing that links them in this way?  Why are these careers impossible to maintain?  

Here's my theory: to be a great comedian, you have to be willing to reveal everything about yourself.  You have to be unafraid to admit to your greatest weaknesses and faults.  While you're usually likable because you're so funny, you also usually reveal yourself to be miserable at the same time.  Comedians are rarely having a good time-- it's what allows them to tune in to society's foibles in ways that the rest of us can't.  The greatest comedians always make me feel smart because they make me say "Yeah!  I noticed that too!" to myself, and then incredibly dumb because I needed them to point out the importance of that insight I knew but had done nothing with.

Great soul music does the same thing to me.  The best songs make me feel smart because I can get lost in the music and agree with all the musical choices being made, and emotionally smart because they make me feel consciously in ways I had felt only subconsciously .  And then, at the same time, I feel dumb because I needed a song to show me how I was feeling.  That's my admiration for both forms.  They give me that sense of catharsis that we've been searching for since Aristotle coined the term; both forms make me feel better because they explain to me why I wasn't feeling better to begin with.  

And that's why I think you burn out after half a decade-- who can keep up that kind of honesty and pace and openness and rawness?  Things get in the way-- for example, you make money, or you get married, or you have some kids, or you finally go to therapy, or you're consumed by your demons, or whatever.  Any one of those changes can disconnect you from the secret voices you were hearing.  You need someone else to carry that load.  And so the torch keeps being passed to the next brilliant misanthrope who tears him or herself open so we can see ourselves.

Now... I told you all that to tell you this.**  The thing that struck me about that Pandora playlist was that you could let all that music blend together so easily and use it as a nostalgia soundtrack.  In the early 80s, the movie The Big Chill suggested that 60s soul music was invented for 30-something white people to listen to at reunions while they cooked dinner together and realized the existential nightmares their lives had become without peace rallies and flower power.

Boy did I hate The Big Chill.

To Pandora and my sister-in-law's credit, in the hour I listened, I mostly heard songs on the 20K list.  Nevertheless, great soul music and good soul music sometimes is difficult to separate.  It has a sound and a feel, and if all you're listening for is that, then it's easy for lesser artists to slide right on by.  Same with comedy-- any good comedian can hang in there for five minutes.  "Hey-- I was just on a Jet Blue flight, and I was wondering what would happen if that crazy flight attendant was the pilot???  I think it would go something like this..."

Which brings us to this Al Green song.  I've chosen this song so you can ask yourself this same question-- is this song good or great soul music?  This song is from Green's best album, but is not a song that's ever received significant airplay.  

The truth about Al Green's work from this period is that it all sounds the same-- there's a very specific aesthetic to the Hi Records catalog, and every song follows it.  On the Al Green records of the early 70s, I think they hit on a pitch-perfect approach.  The first thing you'll notice is the drums.  These are the most straightforward, untreated drum tracks you'll ever hear.  It's hard to play that slow and simple and specifically, but these tracks pull it off over and over, with the bass offering small rhythmic alterations with extremely tasteful fills.  Then there's that fantastic guitar-- just a hint of distortion, bubbling around the beat and vocal, emphasizing the most melodic qualities of the electric guitar.  The final touch are the horns, always understated but essential-- you might not even notice them in the verses until your second time through the track.  Listening to early-70s Al Green makes me feel like I'm moving in slow motion.  It's as slow as a song can be and still be dance music, but it's serious dance music-- if the term wasn't woefully underused, I'd say "Stand Up" is, more than anything, sexy.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is Al Green's voice.  He's got such complete control over the songs from 1971-1975 that what he does sounds effortless.  I can tell you that these songs are hard as hell to reproduce, though.  Trying to cover Al Green songs will make you feel pretty unfunky pretty quickly, especially if you have to try to sing them.  Green holds notes forever with painful dexerity-- I don't know how he keeps notes going using so little breath.

Robert Christgau says "Stand Up" is the "subtlest black identity song ever."  Interesting reading-- it does sound like a call to arms to take advantage of the moment-- "tomorrow's about to come."  I like the reading of the song as a more laid-back "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" or "We Got To Have Peace," but Green's work is rarely that overtly political, so I read it more as a song about being and living in the present, which would thematically connect it to his best love songs.

You can argue that this tune is a not-as-good rewrite of one of Green's hits, and maybe you're right, but to me, I think that misses the point.  Al is so tuned in to his art in 1973 that songs like "Let's Stay Together" or "Here I Am" are pouring out of him.  It's good to pause and appreciate all the songs from that moment, because it's never coming back.

Irregardless***, it's nice to be home.  Time to do eleven loads of laundry.  I think I'll put on my Motown's Hits To Do Laundry To playlist...

* Thank you, IMDB.
** Thank you, Bill Cosby.
*** Thank you, Massholes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

SONG #140: Friends

Elton John, Friends Soundtrack, 1970

Forgive a sentimental fool his indulgences.

This track is a forgotten Elton John song from an even more forgotten film.  He agreed to do the music right before he exploded as a solo artist, and this album isn't usually included in his discography.  There are actually two great tracks on here-- this one, and a song called "Can I Put You On," which is on Elton's 11-17-70 album (by far his best, I think, but that's another blog.  But seriously, 11-17-70-- check it out.)

I've always had a soft spot for this tune-- I think the album cover is hilarious, it knows when to end (only 2:23, probably the exact length of the film's credits.  It used to be that a film's theme song had to be under three minutes for that reason) and it features Elton's pre-fame singing voice.  I love Elton's performances on his early albums, before he's a parody of himself and singing through a Donald Duck costume.

On his early records, John strikes me as a somewhat shy talent.  It's part of what makes those albums great.  The guy's obviously phenomenal, but he still has a memory of being unknown and a regular person.  Compare the singing on "Burn Down The Mission" to "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting."  They're both uptempo tracks, but the singing on the first one is earnest and in love with the music he's playing.  Just four years later, he had become an entertainer first and a musician second, and I think that's why he lost that quality and balance that made him special in the first place.  In a list of "Artists who lost their way," John would definitely make the top 10 (other finalists-- Rod Stewart, R.E.M., The Outfield).

On this song, John is at his most charming, unassuming and effortless, and while it's a breezy little tune without much heft to it, I think that chorus is a winner every time.  Try listening to it this morning and not singing "Making Friends!" spontaneously later in the day-- can't be done.  I like all the dramatic touches-- the string section on the first chorus, the late entry of the drums in the second verse, the introduction of backing vocals in the second chorus.  It's classic Elton John before there was such a thing-- it's like having a glimpse into the rough draft of a great book.  Just a year later, he had this formula perfected.

I actually chose "Friends" today, instead of obeying the rules of the shuffle, not just because I wanted to look up weird photos of Elton on Google (here's a few more):

uninhibited (adj) 1.not inhibited or restricted.  2. not restrained by social convention or usage

but because I've been overwhelmed by the response to the blog this past week. I've gotten hundreds of comments from old friends and new, and it's been great to hear from all of you.  I'm humbled seeing the faces of so many folks who are checking in and sticking with my ramblings.  Moreover, this song's sense of the passage of time and the resulting fragility of friendships resonated with me as I looked at the number of people who I haven't talked to in so long who are revisiting these songs and stories with me.

I'm on the road for the next several days, but I'll be hoping that "the day will be a lighter highway" for you, and I'm hoping to be back at it this weekend.  Thanks again for reading, and sometime this week put your favorite album on and enjoy some summer.

Too maudlin?  Perhaps, but I needed to offset the snarkiness of last week.  Maybe I'll do "Lonesome Loser" by the Little River Band next as an antidote.  See you soon--

(Yay-- it only took 140 songs for me to figure out how to embed a link.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

SONG #139: Angry Eyes

Loggins and Messina, Loggins And Messina, 1972

Some songs you need to keep close to you for completely random reasons.  Here's the story with this one, a hilarious country-rock monstrosity from the days of sleeveless, cable-knit sweater vests, awesome beards, and mid-song bass solos.

It is the summer of 1992.  I am driving across the country from California after my first year of teaching to go back home to Maryland for a few weeks in the summer because I basically can't figure out what else to do.  I am driving by myself, so I want to do the trip as fast as possible.  We are in the days before iPods or satellite radio, so the entire passanger seat of my car is a pile of tapes and CDs.  I don't have a CD player in my car (too fancy for me) so I have to use a Discman and one of those cassette adapters, which means I have to change the batteries every four hours or so-- there's also a huge stack of AA batteries in the glove compartment.

This is the itinerary that I follow:

Phase 1-- San Francisco to rest stop somewhere in Nebraska on I-80  (20 hours)

Sleep in back of car for six hours.

Phase 2-- Nebraska to Indianapolis, IN (spring for truly tragic hotel room) (17 hours)

Phase 3-- Indianapolis IN to Annapolis, MD  (11 hours)

That is a dumb, ill-advised way to travel across the country, but I was young and broke, and it made every conversation with every gas station clerk and Dairy Queen window attendant (and the cop who gave me a speeding ticket for going 68 in a 65) extremely meaningful.  Luckily, midwesterners are incredibly, genuinely friendly, so I had long conversations about corn-infused gasoline (Gasohol) and life in Iowa while filling either the car or me up.

On the way home, I've even dumber:

Phase 1-- Maryland to Champaign-Urbana IL to stay with friend from high school (hey, Sally).  (12 1/2 hours, plus a day of hanging out)

Phase 2-- Champaign-Urbana IL to... San Francisco.  Non-stop.  (34 hours)

You read that correctly.  I drove for 34 straight hours, by myself, from Illinois to San Francisco, across some of the most boring real estate in the world.  Why?  Because I could, I guess.  It was the kind of decision that a lonely, bored 22 year-old makes.  I thought I'd get back home and have more summer in CA.  Instead, the effort of doing that ridiculous leg made me sick as hell for a week.

Somewhere around 4am of that night, in the desolate Wyoming darkness, I realized that I wasn't what one would call completely awake.  I decided to see how long I could go without blinking.  I made myself blink at 45 minutes to make sure I wasn't dead.  I had entered a completely zen, half-life state.  I just guided the car's headlights in between the lines of the road.  I had not seen another vehicle, even a truck, for hours.  At 5am, I decided that I better pull over, so I paid attention for the next exit.

Have you been through Wyoming on I-80?  You get about five chances to pull over in the entire state.  I had just passed Rawlins, and the next town was Rock Springs, about 100 miles away.  The interstate was under construction, so there was no shoulder, and no rest stop.  Moreover, when I had last pulled over for gas at Midnight, a huge, filthy, drenched (it had been pouring) obviously insane hairy guy in a camoflage poncho with a hand-written sign saying "EAST" had asked me for a ride (happily, I was headed "WEST"), and he'd spooked me a bit about trying the "sleep in the rest stop" plan again.

So I had to grin and bear it-- I had gotten myself into this stupid mess, and now it was time to see how much I wanted to survive.  I was out of junk food and caffeine.  The Discman's batteries had given out, and I couldn't reach or find replacements.  Desperate, I turned on the radio for help.

Have you ever listened to Wyoming radio?  Not a lot of choices, especially in 1992.  Here's what scanning the dial got me on FM:

Bone-crushing static.
Bone-crushing static.
"Some people seem to think that the words of Jesus... are about peace.  WRONG!!"
Modern country music.
Bone-crushing static.
Bone-crushing static.
"Fiery pits of HELL!!!"
Modern country music.

That's it.  Two stations, equally unappealing.  The religious barker would have turned me away from God, and the modern country music would have made me crash the car on purpose to try to meet Him.  I began to panic, and switched to AM.

Scan... nothing.  I go around the WHOLE dial once without catching anything, but then my radio pulls up a miraculously clean signal of a station playing the very end of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps."

This song is what comes on next, and I'm a fan for life.  After these eight minutes, I feel like I've had a nap and a shower.  When I hit Rock Springs at 6:30am, I just kept on going and going and going until I was home.  "Angry Eyes" was my guardian angel.

If you had asked me to predict which song would do that, it would not have been this one.  Loggins* and Messina are responsible for two of my least favorite songs-- the "I'm so in love with you honey" song that people make bands play at weddings, and "House At Pooh Corner."  I have particular venom for that one because I've heard six or two thousand (I lost count) a cappella groups sing it, and I really dislike a cappella.  It's not just because in college the a cappella groups would draw 800 people to a show while the rock bands played to... the other fourteen surly guys in the other rock bands.  Well, maybe that's the main reason.  But I still hate it-- all the cutesy arrangements, and swaying back and forth, and "Let's all wear suits that we got for our Bar Mitzvahs" outfits, and the "Let's have the guy who can't sing do percussion" beatboxing, and the skits, and the cheesy, Broadway arrangements that ruin songs we all love-- I saw a group do "Where The Streets Have No Name," and half the band "sang" The Edge's guitar part through the whole thing by going "Dunka-dunka-dunka-dunka" over and over.  Some nights I still wake up screaming.  Yes, I'm bitter and judgmental, but so was Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, and he was right about a lot of things also.  

Irony is when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.

So those of you who were in a cappella groups, feel free to write in and defend yourselves.  Or, I can keep your identities secret, and you can continue to live taunt-free adult lives.  Your choice.

Back to Loggins and Messina.  Under any other circumstances, this terribly conceived song whose faults are numerous would never have garnered much attention from me, but it's precisely those faults that attracted my attention enough to pull me back into the land of conscious thought and safe driving.  

"Angry Eyes" is a really funny attempt to be a bunch of different genres all at once.  It starts off as a classic 70s swamp-rock tune, all Doobie Brotherish, but Loggins' twangy vocal puts us right into country singer-songwriter world.  The chorus invents the sound The Eagles would shamelessly rip off for the next eight years, and the lyrics are right up Glenn Frey's misogynistic alley as well (see Blog #17 for a more complete Eagles analysis)-- "Well I bet you wish you could cut me down with those angry eyes."  The lyrics to this song are a total throwaway.  Woman looks angrily at man.  Man notices.  Fini.

That covers the first minute, and the 2:25 single version never leaves that territory.  But at 5am, that DJ on that little tiny AM station wasn't about to be bothered changing a record that quickly.  I thankfully got the full, 7:45 minute album version,  'cause that's where the fun stuff is.  Things get very weird and quickly at 1:15.  Without warning, we get a full horn section playing a Steely Dan-style chart for twenty seconds, right into a BASS SOLO.  A bass solo ninety seconds in.  I can understand having a bass solo in a twenty minute epic, but after ONE chorus?  That's just lazy.  That's followed by a soprano sax and xylophone dueling solos section that continues for the next two minutes.  I am not inventing this.  You're listening to it, right?  Doesn't it sounds like the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" played on the instruments they gave you to mess around with in elementary school music class?  That's when I really perked up in the car.  I thought I was hallucinating.  "Is that a... a xylophone?"  And it is.  NOT a vibraphone, the much more cool, electrified option, but an old-fashioned, "OK kids, now we're going to learn Pop Goes The Weasel" XYLOPHONE!  Needless to say, I was intrigued.

The guitar returns at 3:00, but the sax isn't done hitting that high note.  We get not one, not two, but three "WAAAAAAAAAAAA!!" from the sax player.  It cracks me up every time.  "Not yet!  Not yet!  This is my moment!"  By 3:30, we're in classic 70s guitar solo land.  This could be a Chicago track at this point.  At 4:00, the guitar starts to lose ideas or interests in things, and he plays a bizarre, angular figure that, in a live context, would mean "I'm done.  Someone else take it."  No such luck-- the band just keeps on goin', so the guitar has to also.  For another full minute!  It's the most tired, "I wish this were over" guitar solo I've ever heard on a studio recording.

At 5:00, the drummer suddenly switches to double time randomly, but no one in the band follows.  He tries again.  Strike two.  What is going to save this endless tune?  A FLUTE SOLO at 5:25!!  Seriously, were instruments just lying around?  Did the guitar player put down his guitar dejectedly, having failed the band and the track, see the flute, and think, "Ah, what the hell?"  Now we're in the Jethro Tull wilderness, all jazzy guitar single note arpeggios and a meandering flute.  It has been FIVE MINUTES since the band sang the chorus.  At this point, we're heading into prog-land.  This one minute section wouldn't be out of place on a Yes record.

And then... after almost six full minutes of some of the most random jamming committed to tape, we're back to the beginning!  The band gives us 45 seconds of pop-country rock, and even tries to join the drummer in double time for the last few seconds, and we're out.

It killed me, and I found myself blurting out the chorus randomly for the next twelve hours.  I couldn't wait to get home and tell people about this crazy track.  

And now I have.   


If I asked you to name the one song that got your heart racing, NO ONE would mention this one.  It's a time capsule relic.  But I don't care-- for the rest of my life, singing "Angry Eyeee-zzzzz!" will be like getting a Vitamin B-12 shot.

I always wonder who that DJ was who played me that song, who was bothering to broadcast anything to that empty section of Wyoming nothingness-- he must have been broadcasting from his car, since I was in the middle of nowhere and the signal faded to nothing five minutes after this tune.  I drove on and away, bringing, gratefully, this little piece of unforgettable detritus with me.


*  Kenny Loggins also wrote the theme songs for Caddyshack and Footloose, which deserve a loving blog of their own.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

SONG #137 & 138: Red Barchetta, Subdivisions

Rush, Moving Pictures, 1981
Rush, Signals, 1982

Hahahahahahahahahha!!!  Thank you, iPod.  I promise to be snarky in the next post, and you give me TWO Rush songs in a row?  Feed me, Seymour...

Let's just start with this question--  who of you reading this blog likes Rush?  Raise your cyberhands.  Go ahead-- no one can see you.

Thank you.

Here are my guesses about those of you who said yes.

1.  You are men.  Or, at least, males.  I have never met a woman who likes Rush.  Moreover, I have met several who HAAAAAAAAAAAATE them.  Give most women a choice between a long gynecological exam with Dr. Hairyarm and listening to two hours of Rush, and they'd say "Hmm... where did he get his medical degree?"  *

2.  You are musicians, and by that I mean that you had formal training on some instrument.  That way, you can appreciate the musical dexterity of Rush even when they're singing about celtic ruins, the apocalyptic future, or determinist philosophy.

2a.  If you are not a musician, you are at least 37 years old.  You had to be in middle school or above when this record came out to appreciate it as a pop record, something to listen to casually.

3.  You are a proud, defensive Canadian.

4.  You like at least two of the following:  science ficiton, 19th Century German culture, 70s horror films, independent comic books, Arby's Roast Beef.

5.  If you do not meet the above criteria, you are related to bassist/singer Geddy Lee, however distantly.

Rush is as much of a punch line as a band.  These poor guys are the band that NO ONE will invite to join the club.  They're like Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Cusack and the other guy in Sixteen Candles-- just not invited to the party.  And there's no Jake at the end to make them feel cool-- just a bunch of aging Star Trek nerds calling for an encore of "By-Tor And The Snow Dog."

They're not invited to the classic rock club with Zeppelin or the Stones or Aerosmith or even ZZ Top because they're too close to prog rock.  There is no Rush song about getting high or laid or sticking it to the man.  Lyricist Neil Peart is a smart, smart guy, and prefers to write lyrics about Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.  Not that his lyrics are good-- most are wonderfully awful in a totally egghead way.  

Normal person:  Dude, did you fart?

Neil Peart version: My olfactory senses indicate the release of toxins from your system in a most distasteful way.  Beware our technology-driven future!!!

For all of their prog-rock leanings, though, Rush is excluded from that King Crimsony club as well for being silly.  We'll talk about their sense of humor in a minute.  There's no room for humor in prog-rock, so while fans give the time of day to Emerson, Lake and Palmer (at some point, we'll get to Tarkus), Rush is on the outside looking in.

They're certainly not invited into the art-rock band pantheon either.  Bands like Queen are forgiven their symphonic leanings and musical decadence.  You can't tell me that Freddie Mercury isn't equally weird as a frontman as Geddy Lee.  But no luck for Rush.  They remain one of the most critically hated successful bands of all time.  

Though people have told me that apparently there are new bands who list Rush as an influence, I could find no evidence of that on the net after 45 minutes of solid searching.  I did find some hilarious Rush fan sites, though, and most of them are run and inhabited by... you guessed it... the people I described above.

Rush is not in the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame, and as long as Jann Wenner controls who gets in, never will be.  Say what you want about whether Rush deserves it, but my argument is that if The Eagles get in, than you've set the bar low enough for Rush.  Or Molly Hatchet.  Or A Flock Of Seagulls.

In the Megan Slankard Band, when you make a mistake, you are outed by having me work the bass line to "Fly By Night" into the song as a musical insult.

They are, perhaps, the most uncool rock band of all time.  Guys in The Little River Band say to one another, "At least we're not Rush."

AND YET:  here's some trivia for you.

1) Name the only bands in history to have more consecutive gold albums (500,000+ sales) than Rush.

Answer:  The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  That's it.

2) Which of these artists has sold the most albums: Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Green Day, The Police, Motley Crue, Steve Miller, Rush?

Answer:  you guessed it: Rush.

Rush is a HUGE band.  For all of the grief that they take, and for all of the people claiming to hate them, SOMEONE is buying Rush albums.  40 million of them and counting, to be exact.

So I find Rush both hilarious and fascinating-- they are the band no one will admit to liking who millions of people secretly like.  They are the "shameful 1am stop at a Quickie Mart to get a snack" band.  They are the Hostess Ding Dongs of rock music.

So let's try to figure out what the deal is here, dammit.  

And let's start with some honesty.  


I kinda like Rush.  Matter of fact, there are about three dozen Rush songs on the list.

I was surprised also.  I've always assumed that I didn't like them.  And here's the thing-- I don't, in a lot of ways.  For example--

a) Geddy Lee's voice.  Lee might be the only singer who has improved with age.  As rock singers age, they frequently have to lower the keys of the songs, and it's usually a bummer.  Have you seen U2 lately?  Bono's lost the top five notes of his range.  But with Geddy Lee, that's a WELCOME change.  He's never sounded better, because in his youth he had one of the most shocking screeches I've ever heard.  On early Rush albums, Lee's voice is almost cartoonishly high and whiny.  He ruins some early songs for me with his voice.  Check out "Bastille Day."  The vocal is just all kinds of grating.

b) Neil Peart's lyrics.  I'm about to defend the lyrics to "Subdivisions" in a minute, and I actually like the lyrics to "Freewill," but a lot of his work is just absurd.  We'll deal with the lyrics to "Red Barchetta" in a minute...

c) Production choices.  Look, I played a synthesizer in my first band (a Roland Juno 106, which is suddenly in vogue again-- thank you, MGMT), and I know that we were all fired up about them in the 80s, but man, have some of Rush's albums aged poorly.  Rush's mid-80s albums are exactly what music should NOT sound like.  I cannot hear them without cringing.  I put on "The Big Money" for the Blog Gal the other day, and she looked at me as if I had just peeled off my skin to reveal another human being underneath.  It was mostly a look of total CONCERN-- there must be something wrong with me even to know about that song, let alone play it, let alone ON PURPOSE!

d) The "Goofy" factor.  The band has a irrepressibly nerdy sense of humor.  In concert, songs are sometimes introduced by little comedy videos.  Rarely are they funny-- they most resemble a middle schooler's extra credit project.  The dichotomy between the super-serious album art and lyrics and then the live presentation of that material is just downright confusing.  One does not inform the other; instead, they end up detracting from both.

That should be enough nails for the coffin, right?

But then, it turns out there are these mitigating factors:

a) Rush has one of the most organized catalogs in rock history.  The band, for its first 25 years, followed this formula:  4 studio albums, 1 live album.  Go check it out-- it's a riot.  An album every year for four years, followed by a live album with songs from those four albums.  The archivist in me truly appreciates that kind of anal organizational apporach.  It's easy to keep track of Rush.  No b-sides, no lost sessions, etc.

b) Neil Peart's drumming.  This guy can really really play.  Every drummer I know can play the fills from the end of "Tom Sawyer" out of genuine homage.  Moreover, he's an inspiring figure.  When Rush is on tour, he has the bus pull over 100 miles before they reach the venue, and he road cycles to the gig, and then plays drums for three hours.  Moreover, he lost both his daughter and his wife within 10 months of one another, and wrote a moving book about working through his grief.  He's a good guy.

c) Production choices.  Unlike the 80s albums, Rush's 70s albums are fascinating to me in their simplicity.  This band is a trio, and on most of their 1974-1978 output, there are almost no overdubs.  Of any kind!  There's the occasional sound effect, but on some of their twenty minute, side-long songs, seventeen minutes of it is a three-piece rock band playing together, without any studio trickery.  They're almost like a punk band in their musical approach.  Once again, consider "Bastille Day"-- the music mostly sounds like The Damned from a few days ago.  I'm not kidding.  They're the only band of their kind that took that approach-- most bands approached the invention of 24 track recording in the 70s like kids in a candy store.  Old Rush music is actually, to my shock, aging well because it lacks the extraneous overdubs that clog a lot of the music of that period (and Rush's later efforts, sadly).

d) The "Goofy" factor.  Geddy Lee appeared on a Bob and Doug Mackenzie single (please tell me you remember the film Strange Brew) for SCTV at the height of his fame.  In the album version, the boys thank Geddy for appearing, and he says, "Well... yeah, you know, my manager called me, and well... ten bucks is ten bucks."  He's a humble, down-to-earth, friendly, funny guy.  Canadian to the core, I guess.

(Here's a clip from the film.  I still know it by heart from 27 years ago.

Best line in this clip: a tie between "Ok Ok, you boss me around..."  and "I believe they'll be no charge on this to for a... a beer, thank you."  Also love that the mouse they supposedly found in the beer is still alive.)

Max Von Sydow's greatest moment.

And finally-- Rush has been together now for 36 years with no changes to the lineup, no drug problems, no fighting, no Behind The Music embarrassments.  As we've all learned as we've grown up, nerds tend not to burn out and make for happy, productive adults.  Rush might be uncool, but they're one of the most high-functioning, happy success stories in rock history.  In interviews, they come off like a bunch of dorky junior high school friends.  They're the antidote for so many other sad outcomes.

So let's turn to two of Rush's biggest hits (the pod actually spit up "The Trees" instead of "Subdivisions," so I'm cheating a little bit).  "Red Barchetta" is from the band's biggest album, Moving Pictures.  It was everywhere when I was in fifth grade, and we knew it was a big deal because of the way the vinyl looked.  Most albums came with the normal corporate logo in the middle of the album, like this:


Check out Moving Pictures in contrast:

A specialty label!!  That's how you knew the band mattered.  Hell, even Dylan and Springsteen didn't get that treatment.

In the early days of MTV, the band provided videos for four of the album's tracks, and so they were on all the time (the channel didn't have very many choices yet, since it was totally racist in its programming until Michael Jackson).  We all knew this album really well.  It was a pop album for all intents and purposes, as hard as that is to imagine.  Even girls could tolerate it for a few months.

"Red Barchetta" starts with a chimey guitar figure, countered by Geddy Lee's oustanding bass intro.  Listen from about 0:15-0:35-- that is what I call a cool bass fill.  Things start to get dodgy quickly after that-- the song seems to be a ballad, and the lyrics seem to be telling a fictional story about an oppressive future:

My uncle has a country place
That no one knows about.
He says it used to be a farm
Before the Motor Law.
And on Sundays I elude the Eyes,
And hop the Turbine Freight
To far outside the Wire
Where my white-haired uncle waits.

Nothing more exciting than a song about an old man's secret farm.  Who's ready to rawk???  

The music picks up here, though.  Peart finally kicks in after a full verse of "Here comes the beat... Psych!" drum fills, and guitarist Alex Lifeson gets a chance to riff it up a bit.  No help in the lyrics department, though.

Jump to the ground
As the Turbo slows to cross the borderline.
Run like the wind
As excitement shivers up and down my spine.
Down in his barn
My uncle preserved for me an old machine
For fifty-odd years.
To keep it as new has been his dearest dream.

So it's a song about driving an old car.  Umm... that's sorta been done before, guys.  Like a billion times.  In iconic fashion.

I strip away the old debris
That hides a shining car:
A brilliant red Barchetta
From a better vanished time.
We fire up the willing engine
Responding with a roar.
Tires spitting gravel,
I commit my weekly crime.

Aha!  See-- in the horrible future, though cars are no longer allowed, our rebel character is going to pollute the air anyway.  Sorry, but in these days of global warming, a "Motor Law" sounds like a good idea to me.

At 2:30, we get the third musical idea in the song.  It's pretty cool, the kind of chordal riff that Pete Townshend likes to employ.  It's supposed to convey the thrill of driving, and it's certainly musically the best moment yet.  But--

In my hair
Shifting and drifting
Mechanical music
Adrenaline surge...

Well-weathered leather,
Hot metal and oil,
The scented country air.
Sunlight on chrome,
The blur of the landscape,
Every nerve aware.

Hoo boy.  If you have to say "Adrenaline surge" in a lyric, chances are there's not much surge happening.  The same rule applies to "Can I kiss you goodnight?"  If you have to ask, it ain't happening.

Out of the wreckage, though, comes the guitar solo at 3:20.  Here's the Rush sound I was taking about from the 70s.  There's just guitar, bass and drums.  The solo isn't even overdubbed!  Suddenly this song is completely empty, and you have three great players improvising together.  For about 25 seconds, Rush sounds like a badass, adventurous trio.  All three players are on fire.

Sadly, just as quickly, we're back to the silliness:

Suddenly ahead of me
Across the mountainside
A gleaming alloy air-car
Shoots towards me, two lanes wide.
I spin around with shrieking tires
To run the deadly race
Go screaming through the valley
As another joins the chase.

Now it's about an old, luddite car in a race with an air-car.  Damn technological advances.  Cars running on air.  How stupid!  The future is deplorable if we're not still dependent on fossil fuels.  Who's with me?  Peart seems confused at what he really wants here.

Drive like the wind
Straining the limits of machine and man.
Laughing out loud with fear and hope
I've got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm
To dream with my uncle at the fireside.

Just when you're ready to toss this song in the "forget me" bin, back comes Geddy Lee with another fantastic bass fill from 5:15-5:45.  As much as I think this song is absurd, Lee's playing on the intro and outro knocks me out every time.

So the song stays on the Pod, even though it makes me laugh, and not in the good way.

That leads us to "Subdivisions."  Here's where I reveal what an inconsistent person I am.  Sonically, this commits all the sins I was talking about earlier.  HUGE synthy keyboards!  The guitar is buried under a layer of murk.  There are even two keyboard solos later in the tune.  The album cover is a great combination of dumb and dumber.

It's my favorite Rush song.

Why?  What's wrong with me?  Why should you EVER listen to me about anything?  Here's the deal-- these are Peart's best lyrics.  They are pretentious as usual, but he is DEAD ON.  Here's the first two verses:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

That perfectly describes the American suburbs of 1982.  I lived near three large "planned communities" who were still advertising themselves on TV when I was a kid.  They were places designed so you didn't have to make any choices.  There's the grocery store.  There's the gas station.  There's the pizza parlor.  There's the green outdoor space.  There's the freeway ramp.  There's the school.  There's cable TV.  Don't like it?  What's your problem?  These lyrics strike me as the perfect summation of the insidiousness of that approach to life.

Crofton, MD-- staying white out later since 1964. **

The robotic, synth-driven backing track fits these lyrics like a glove.  You feel like you're gliding through this description without taking root.  Then, for the chorus, the band drops the keyboards and Lifeson comes in with a tough guitar lick (and Lee drops another outstanding bass fill at 1:40 as a lead-in).

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help disprove the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

And now it's a song about social subdivisions.  Obvious, sure, but still effective.  The song becomes a mirror for the song "I Love The Night Life" from Blog #98.  Here's the same idea five years later, but Reagan is president, the disco party is over, and now we're in basement bars and the backs of cars drinking warm beer and waiting to go see Footloose.  Depressing.  Just like this song. 

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights

"Subdivisions" is the perfect soundtrack for America's early-80s hangover and submission to the "Morning In America" pitch.  When Lifeson finally tears into a guitar solo at 4:20, it sounds like an angry, helpless performance.  And listen to the end when Peart starts hammering the cymbals off beat.  Great, but ultimately powerless to elevate the track to some kind of uplifting finish.  What would Shakespeare say?  The band is full of "sound and fury, signifying nothing."  Peart would say "The band fails to establish a suitable sense of catharsis."  I say "Dude-- cool tune."

Great, totally weird stuff, this song triumphs over its own worst impulses.  Is Rush a great band?  Kinda.  Sometimes.  For a bunch of Canadians.  Sorta.  

How's that for a firm critical stand?

LINK:     (Red Barchetta)      (Subdivisions)

* After writing the draft of this blog, I went out for dinner with friends, and my buddy's wife... loves Rush!  I was floored.  So now I have to add the addendum that you're either male... or Deb.  :)

** Credit to David Cross for the joke.  Also--,_Maryland