Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SONGS #99 & 100: Here My Dear; When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?


Let's hear it for Song #100! 

Divorce and/or breakup has, at times, brought out the best in artists.  Surviving such an emotional and gutbusting experience can lead artists to extraordinary self-reflection:  Blood On The Tracks and Sea Change, for example.  And then sometimes people go a little nutty, and channel narcissistic depths and wild delusions as on this long, wild, weird album, best revealed by these two tracks.  Marvin Gaye was a brilliant man in many ways, but one of the poor choices in his life was marrying his boss' sister, Anna Gordy, when he was one of the most desirable bachelors in the United States.  Their marriage was tumultuous at best, and after a few years, it came apart, and the divorce settlement that followed included a truly inspired line item; Anna would receive all of the royalties from Gaye's next album.

Let's review-- a couple breaks up, with alarming public acrimony, and the lawyers come up with the idea that the wife gets the profits from her husband's next venture as part of the settlement.  Wouldn't you expect the husband in that scenario not to put his full heart and soul into the project?  If Tiger and Elin go this same route, he's gonna shoot a 226 in the first round of the Masters, playing with a set of plastic Fisher-Price clubs.  "Sorry, honey-- I tried."

That actually was Gaye's original intention-- to go in and make the worst album he could, sell four copies of it, and stick it to Anna one last time.  But once he started recording, the self-reflection that came with ending something so central to his identity shook him up.  So instead of phoning in a terrible album, Gaye dug deep into his psyche, and poured out every ounce of anger, regret, love, self-loathing and acceptance into a double album, easily one of the strangest releases in rock history.

When it came out, this album was flayed by critics.  People mocked and completely rejected it.  If you read my last post about another 1978 song, I think part of the reason critics slagged this record is that people didn't want to think that divorce would hurt that bad in 1978.  Divorce was just a part of growth, right?  People can move on, and everyone can stay friends and be polite and restrained with one another, right?  

Well, no.  At least, not Marvin Gaye.  

Take a look at the inner artwork:  think he's a little bitter?  Take your time-- it's like looking at a map of subconscious dysfunction.

At the same time, Gaye's also obviously trying to move on and move forward.  It's that tension between picking through the ruins and looking ahead that defines the whole record.

I recommend listening to the whole album at least once, because there are few listening experiences like it.  It's like intercepting someone's goodbye letter, and not some hastily scribbled, drunken kiss off, but one agonized over, meticulously crafted.

The album starts with the title track, with these lyrics, which I've tried to decode:

I guess I'd have to say this album is dedicated to you.
Although perhaps you may not be happy, this is what you want, so I conceded.
I hope it makes you happy.
There's a lot of truth in it, babe.

These are barely lyrics, don't you think?  He's essentially just talking to her, with a soul groove in the background.  Classic passive-aggression.  "Well, here's what you asked for.  I did my best."  There's such tension between the backing track and the vocal here.  The softness of his voice belies the rawness of his feelings.

I don't think I'll have many regrets, baby.
Things didn't have to be the way they was, baby.
You don't have the right to use the son of mine to keep me in line.
One thing I can't do without is the boy whom God gave to both of us.
I'm so happy, oh, for the son of mine.

Such anger here.  "No regrets, but I double-dog dare you to try to put our son between us."  You can feel some seething, unfinished business crawling to the surface here.

So here it is, babe.
I hope you enjoy, reminisce, be happy, think about the kisses and the joy.
But there were those other moments too, the times that were cloudy and grey.
But you taught me that was life.
May love ever protect you, may peace come into your life.
Always think of me the way I was.
Ha, I was your baby.

Regret.  "I wish you happiness, except when I hope that you get hit by a bus, which is less and less often."  My favorite part of the song is that single "Bad" in the middle of the verse.  It's wonderful understatement.  You know that "bad" doesn't even begin to cover it.  "Cloudy and grey" my foot.  I also love the way he lets go and holds on at the end of the verse-- good luck, but don't forget about me.

This is what you wanted.
Here, dear, here it is.
Here, my dear, here it is.

It's a mesmerizing start to the record.  I can't imagine what Gaye's ex-brother in law and boss Berry Gordy thought when he first heard it.  It's the 1978 equivalent of a TMZ-intercepted text message.  It must have killed Gordy to release this record, and must have made Thanksgiving with his sister unbelievably awkward.

"When Did You Stop Loving Me" is the third track on the album, but its lynchpin.  It's reprised twice later on the record.  It also starts with a spoken reverie, this time about commitment:

You know, when you say your marriage vows, they're supposed to be for real. I mean... if you think back about what you really said, you know, about, honor and loving and obeying till death do us part and all. But it shouldn't be that way, it should, it shouldn't be lies because it turns out to be lies. If you don't honor what you said, you lie to God. The words should be changed.

Ouch!  At that point, though, the true genius of Marvin Gaye, his singing, takes over, and the record moves from curio to something much deeper.  That "Oooooo!" that opens the first verse is when the whole album takes off to truly adventurous territory.  The groove is kept simple, not as cluttered by big strings like many 70s soul tracks.  Listen to the bass and drums lock in and establish the rhythm for Gaye and the band to work with.

Ooo now as I recall, we tried a million times
Again and again and again, and that isn't all
I gave my love to you each time to make amends
Suddenly I start to realize I can't make it
Pretty birds fly away, I had to leave you for my health's sake
What to do? Make him pay,
for leaving you, my fine, is to pay forever
So if a fresh new love comes in, I won't say those words again
Instead I'll say I'll try to love and protect you
With all my heart as long as you want me to baby
Ooo if I love again I'm gonna try a new way this time

This song has one of the most complicated vocal melodies I've ever heard in a pop song-- Gaye is pushing himself here.  And the lyric is an open book-- there are few songs more revealing or stripped of metaphor.  Because the song is so complicated, instead of humming along, I just find myself sucked in time and again, feeling almost voyeuristic.

Memories of the things we did; some we're proud of, some we hid
So when two people have to part, sometimes it makes them stronger
Do you remember all of the bullsh*t, baby?
You say you love me with all your heart
If you ever loved me will all of your heart
You'd never take a million dollars to part
I really tried, you know I tried, oh baby
Although we tried, all of those promises was nothin' but lies
I really tried, you know how I really tried, we really lied, didn't we baby?
And on top of that you have scandalized my name

It's such a great case study in how hard it is to let go; he's trying so hard to me magnanimous, but he's so mad about the money and the stories swirling about him.  The effect isn't pretty; given the chance to come off as regretful but resigned and respectful, he can't help but take pot shots when she has no chance to retort.

What I can't understand is if you love me
How could you turn me into the police?
Didn't I love you good and try to take care of you?
Best that I could
You were so divine
And your love was like mellow wine
Pains of love, miles of tears,
Enough to last me for my lifetime
Broken hearts last for years, soon break away to the noonday sunshine
One thing I can promise, friend: I'll never be back again
But I'm not really bitter babe
I wish you all the luck and all the love in the world,
good love in the world (good luck in the world)
But I know you'll never be satisfied
No, you still want me standin' by your side

That line about the police gives me the chills every time, especially in a verse that suggests that she'll spend her whole life wishing she'd never left him.  The arrogance here is punishing, and while I think this song is as honest as a song can be, it's clear that Gaye hasn't figured things out.  "But I'm not really bitter babe" is almost hilariously revealing of Gaye's intense bitterness.

Memories haunt you all the time, I will never leave your mind
Got judgement on your side; you've said bad things and you've lied
Still I remember some of the good things baby
Like love after dark and picnics in parks
Those are the days I'll not forget in my life
I'd rather remember, remember the joy we shared babe
I'd rather remember all the fun we had
All I ever really wanted was to love you and treat you right
All we did was fuss and fight
It don't matter baby, take a lesson from them all
I never thought I'd see the day when you'd put me through what you put me through
You tried your best, you say I gave you no rest

For some reason, the line about the picnics always gets to me.  I imagine Marvin Gaye, international pop star, millionaire, heading down to the park with a few sandwiches and a frisbee with Anna to just sit for a few hours.  It's a heartbreaking line about how much Gaye craves normalcy in his life even though he's been famous since he was a teenager.  It's also a great reminder that a relationship is made up of a million insignificant moments as much as 2-3 big ones.  Whatever was the last straw for this couple, they'll remember that moment forever, but Gaye's got a sense that what he'll most lose (if not miss) is their casual, daily initmacy.

When did you stop loving me? When did I stop loving you?

Anyone else think Gaye's genuinely asking here?  I don't think he has answers for these questions either.

What a wild song!  What a wild album!  Check it out.

Interestingly, the record is coming to be seen as a lost classic now.  I wonder if we've just become more conservative again, and Gaye's pain seems more real and natural to us now then it did at first.  Gaye's own horrible death at the hands of his father in 1986 also makes him a much more sympathetic voice in hindsight.  Whether you feel like Anna deserves such infamy (only the "Elizabeth" of the Counting Crows catalog has been more publically revealed) or not, this album stands as an example of what love can do to you.  Here, My Dear is rock n roll's equivalent of Van Gogh cutting off his ear.

LINK for Here My Dear:

LINK for When Did You...:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SONG #98: I Love The Night Life

Alicia Bridges, Alicia Bridges, 1978

As you can probably tell, I spent some time tracking down the original artwork for the songs on the list.  This album cover was one of the most difficult to track down.  It's become a really obscure album, to the point where I couldn't tell you if there are any other worthwhile Alicia Bridges tracks.  It's probably a question I'm comfortable leaving unanswered.

When I was a really young kid, I loved disco.  To my eight year-old ears, there was no difference between Kiss and disco.  They were both melodic and fun, and so while I was in the Kiss Army and going to see Boston in concert, I also listened to Q107 out of Washington DC on my clock radio.  They played the top 40 almost exclusively, and in 1978, that was mostly disco, and I'd stay up until 2am with the sound barely on and my ear pressed to the speaker listening so I wouldn't wake up my folks.  My mom can sleep through a nuclear attack, but Dad slept like a terrified woodland creature.  Any noise-- ANY-- and he was up, on full red alert.  He was a formidable opponent, but over the years I learned how to listen to music and read until the wee hours.  (Now, of course, he's lost a little hearing, and he sleeps like an absolute log.  I think I could solder things in his room these days without bothering him.)  As a result, there are about a dozen disco songs that are part of my DNA, and this is one of them.  In fact, some days it is my favorite disco tune.

What did disco in was the repetition of the groove, I think-- by 1979, there were thousands of songs with the exact same beat at the same beats-per-minute.  Disco became so ubiquitous that it was no longer fun, and it burned itself out.  There was without question a racial element to the backlash as well.  Disco put white rock guitarists in the background for the first time since The Beatles, and people got pissed.  The "Disco Sucks" movement was pretty suspect, especially since eight years later those same angry white kids would turn the Beastie Boys into heroes for co-opting rap.  (I think rap has fallen prey to the same issues that befell disco, by the way-- how many more songs imitating Doggystyle do we need?  It's been almost twenty years, already-- can we please shake things up a bit?)  In any case, there was a moment when disco most definitely did not suck.  Instead, the best singers and players of the decade were making disco records (check out the bass on this tune, for example), and some rock bands made some great disco music (The Stones' "Miss You," anyone?)

"I Love The Night Life," I'd argue, could go in a time capsule with the Schoolhouse Rock DVD, a can of Billy Beer, an IUD, and a Doonesbury comic collection and sum up the feeling of the late 70s pretty well.  It captures the slickness and tired, jaded atmosphere that permeated America.  I remember feeling like everyone seemed bored in the late 70s, even as a kid-- the cocaine hangover was just starting to throb, the economy was in the toilet, Carter was struggling as a President, clothes were absolutely ridiculous, Happy Days was the funniest thing on TV (watch a Happy Days episode when you have a chance-- NO SHOW has aged more poorly.  Leave It To Beaver is an edgy dramedy by comparison.  Seriously!  Were we mentally ill?  I can't believe I was ever able to tolerate that show, let alone enjoy it)... it was not the best of times.  I remember making friends with a kid down the street who had three older brothers.  One drove a Camaro with racing flames and worked at a fish restaurant.  The second had a green AMC Gremlin and worked at Safeway.  The third had Scott Baio feathered hair and worked at an Orange Julius at the Severna Park mall.  They shared a bedroom, and they had in it:

a) the Farrah Fawcett Majors and Cheryl Tiegs posters that inspired puberty across this great land of ours;
b) a stereo with an 8 track player that had Frampton Comes Alive stuck in it, so they just kept listening to it;
c) some horrible skunkweed pot plants growing in the closet with a sad little gro-lamp;
d) a blacklight poster of the frog sitting at his desk saying "I'm so happy I could just sh-t";
e) an oil painting of the virgin Mary.

Little did I know I was visiting a museum.  Please understand-- they were HIP!  These were not ironic things purchased at a yard sale-- THIS IS WHAT COOL KIDS DID IN THE 70s.  Be thankful, younger readers.  Trust me.

Back to the song (it's a blog about songs, remember?)  Listen to the first ten seconds a few times and appreciate how muted it all is.  The drums are so laid-back, it almost sounds like an Al Green groove.  And there are those 70s electric keyboards and jazzy guitar tones.  The only other song that sounds more to me like 9pm New York City getting ready to go out is Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out."

Bridges does not have a great voice-- she's sharp in a few places-- but she's the perfect voice for this lyric.  It starts with a proto-feminist declaration:  "Please don't talk about love tonight / Please don't talk about sweet love."  She's been dogged, and rather than offering forgiveness, she's declaring independence.  "Please don't talk about all of the plans / We had for fixin' this broken romance."  It's the less dramatic, more realistic version of "I Will Survive."  In Gaynor's track, being left is operatic drama.  Here, you get the sense that Bridges has been here before and will be there again.  Besides, she has the solution for her pain:  "I want some action, I want to live / Action, I got so much to give / I want to give it / I want to get some too."  As long as she can hit the disco and get some, she'll be fine.  Does that not sum up the pre-AIDS sexual revolution?  If it feels good, do it... and then when it feels bad, take a deep breath, turn up the radio, and do it again.

I'm suggesting a dark undertone to the song, I know, but that's where the power comes from for me.  I fully believe her when she says "I love the nightlife / I got to boogie on the disco 'round."  In that four minutes on the floor, everything is fine.  The release of music and fun and casual intimacy is a genuine balm.  Sadly, life is not lived in four minutes arcs, and there's a next morning when you wake up and realize that you left all your money, morality and a piece of your soul at Studio 54 the night before.  We now call that moment the 80s.

Not that I had ANY idea about any of that in 1978, with my innocent little ear pressed to a mono AM speaker.  To me, it just sounded like fun and freedom.  I wanted that action to, whatever it was, somewhere away from my aluminum siding prefab house in the redneck suburbs of Annapolis.  Like so many 70s kids, we had no war to protest, no cultural revolution to fight.  We were safe, well fed, covered by health care, educated, and booooooorrrrrrrred.  I thank Alicia Bridges for letting me know that somewhere in the mysterious night hundreds of miles away, there was fun to be discovered as soon as I could grow up and join the party.

And you're welcome in advance for the clip-- truly classic.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SONG #97: The Ballad Of El Goodo


I wanted to wait a few days until the initial buzz had subsided to put in my own words about Alex Chilton, who died last week at 59.  Like so many others, those two Big Star records are crucial for me, and there was no doubt which song I wanted to write about when I heard the news.

I bought both Big Star records at Olsson's Books and Music in Alexandria, VA in the fall of 1986 on a 2 for 1 CD reissue, just before the Replacements put out "Alex Chilton" on Pleased To Meet Me and made it much easier to find Big Star music.  The Radio City album had been on my radar for two years ever since I'd read about it in a book, but it was out of print, and I'd only ever seen one vinyl copy for thirty bucks, which was out of the question.  Twice a year, though, my friend Red and I would drive from Annapolis to Alexandria just to go to Olsson's to look for albums that we couldn't find in Annapolis (even though there were plenty of record stores, their selection was pretty hit and miss).  I usually went with $50 to spend and a list of about 25 albums to look for.  On a great day, I'd find three of them.  This time, though, I hit the jackpot-- CDs were just starting to go mainstream, and old catalogs were finally coming out en masse.  I can't remember everything I got that day, but I know I went home with copies of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, The Band's Music From Big Pink, and the two Big Star albums.  I'm sure there's never been a better day of music shopping in my life in terms of what I brought home-- three of my 100 all-time favorites are on that list.

What was great about that haul was how much it challenged me.  All four albums ask so much from their listeners.  They are complicated and thoughtful and beautiful all at once.  When I first put in the Big Star, I was eager to hear Radio City, but figured I'd listen to the CD in sequence, and so my first exposure was "Feel," from #1 Record.  At first, I was put off by the sound-- the vocal was histrionic and high, and the guitars were super-trebly and distorted.  I had been expecting something less metallic in its sonic tone, but I had to admit that, by the bridge, the song was rocking, especially when the horns and keyboards came in.

And then came track two, this song.  The name of the track was off-putting, and I'm usually not much for slow songs on first listen, but those chimy guitars pulled me right in.  I think these first five seconds are as pretty as music gets.  On 98% percent of records, they'd have put this moment on an acoustic guitar, but it's much better on that chorusy electric.  The acoustic comes in later as glue with the rhythm section, and it's so much more effective that way.

After ten seconds, in comes that voice.  Chilton had already been a teenage star, singing "The Letter" with The Box Tops.  Check it out here:   .  My favorite moment comes at about 55 seconds, when he cracks up because of the funny faces the organist is pulling.  Even here, as a teenager, Chilton seems tired, done in by the starmaker machinery.  And even here, at sixteen, he's got a remarkably emotional voice.  He's an effortlessly communicative singer.

Chilton is 23 or something on "El Goodo," and he sounds even more wise and world-weary.  There's not a better "ooohh" in rock music, I'd argue, than the one at the top of this song.  The lyric suggests perseverance, ("guns are meant to be stuck by") and they'd need it, as Big Star's career was one of the most tragically mismanaged in rock history.  It's incredible to hear this record and think that it only sold 2,500 copies in 1972.  It's one of the five best albums of that year, which included Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and the Stones' Exile On Main Street.

When the drums kick in at 0:40, the thing that overwhelms you is the beauty of the production.  Listen how big and deep the drums are, how clear the bass line is, how perfect the background vocals are.  Drummer Jody Stephens' fills are both inspired in their precision and how they fit into the song.  From there, the band adds angelic background harmonies to verse two.  By the second chorus, I'm always, even after 24 years of listening, amazed at the sound coming from the speakers.  Nobody made records that sounded this good in 1972.  It's a marvel of sonic attention and careful playing, and while Ardent Studios' engineers did an astounding job capturing sounds onto tape, the band basically self-produced the tracks.

The bridge adds more pathos and tension to the song: there's a beautiful dip to the relative minor and the "hold on" refrain.  Listen to those picked guitars all through the bridge weaving in and out of each other.  R.E.M. is unthinkable without this album.

In the final verse pass, Chilton loosens up on the vocal, pushing himself a bit, and you can almost hear his disbelief at the great band he's fallen into.  Already sure that fame has passed him at such a young age, this track sounds like a band fully aware of its good fortune to have found one another.  "Ain't no one gonna turn me around," indeed.  If I had gone into the studio and made a record this good, I would have called myself Big Star also (they're named for the grocery store chain across the street from the studio).  And why not call the record #1 Record?  How could music this good not be a hit?

It never was, of course.  Instead, Big Star was perhaps the first truly important "cult" rock band.  By the time they were "rediscovered" in 1987, it seemed like it was too late.  Co-founder Chris Bell had died a decade earlier, and Chilton had disappeared, releasing only a series of truly weird recordings, starting with Big Star's "3rd" album, and then a few solo recordings that are more embarrassing than revelatory.

Amazingly, there was a second act to this play.  Drummer Stephens and Chilton got together with members of the Posies and toured as Big Star in 1994 completely successfully.  That reunion remained in place off and on until last week.  Chilton seemed happy and healthy, and it was like having an old friend get back in touch after years away.  They even tried to make another album of new music together a few years ago, but Chilton had lost his songwriting touch-- later in life, he sounded as comfortable singing "Volare" as his own stuff.  Though the band finally got the recognition they deserved, Chilton never quite came back fully from the disappointment of his commercially failed youth.  Without being too maudlin, he definitely died partially from a broken heart last week: broken mainly because of how he'd mistreated it for decades, but also broken because mistreatment was the only way Chilton knew to quiet the voices of rage and frustration in his head from having had the brass ring in his hand twice and not holding onto it.

On a live album based on a 1974 radio broadcast, Chilton is being interviewed by the DJ host, who says that Chilton must be thrilled by the reception to their new album, complimenting him on the excellence of the band's catalog.  Chilton is quiet for a moment, and then says, "Thanks.  I hope it sells."  When I heard that at 24, I thought Chilton was jaded and missing the point.  Now I completely get it.  You can't eat your great art.  If Big Star were happening in 2010, they'd be fine.  They'd have the internet and a niche audience already in place, and Chilton could be content with shadow fame and the occasional commercial or film placement for his tunes.  But back then, the band's failure meant dissolution, disillusionment, and obscurity.  No one asked Chilton to write songs for other projects; no one offered him a soundtrack deal.  He just disappeared back into the shadows of Memphis, and never really fully returned.  

Chilton's death reminds me that we'd be well-served to be happy with the choices we've made, be ready to celebrate our successes even if they're small and anonymous, and be capable of recognizing a great moment in our lives even if no one else is there to tell us that it's great.   The great irony for me of Chilton's life was that his songs chronicle those small, defining moments better than almost anyone:  check out the first verse of "Thirteen":

Won't you let me walk you home from school?
Won't you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I'll take you

How perfect is that?  THAT is thirteen in a nutshell.  The fact that Chilton could articulate our pain without reconciling his own is the true sadness in his passing.  I'm glad the new box set came out in time for Chilton to read its rave reviews, but I'll bet they drove him crazy at the same time.  

So thanks, Alex.  We'll miss ya.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

SONG #96: Radioactive


There are just some songs and albums that you can't shake.  You know empirically that they are not good.  If other people were to recommend them, you would scoff knowingly, confident in your superior taste.  "Are you kidding?!  THAT??"

And here I am, a man who has decided that his taste in music is so developed, inclusive and researched that he should share his wisdom with the world, having to admit that The Firm's "Radioactive" came up on shuffle, and not only did I not react with embarrassment, or hit the skip button, or make a note to remove it; I quietly said "Yes!" to myself and turned it up.

Such is my relationship with this forgettable, mockable album from the mid-80's.  Everything about this project seems like a setup for a series of jokes.  The Firm is the first band Jimmy Page put together after the end of Led Zeppelin.  He spent the first three years of the 80s composing the Death Wish II soundtrack.  I am not making that up.  Seriously.  After leading perhaps the greatest rock band of the 1970s with a meticulous hand, he spent two years in dark rooms trying to communicate with the ghost of Alesteir Crowley and composing... the Death Wish II soundtrack.  It's the "II" that makes it so unreal.  Death Wish... II.  

How on earth did that come about?

"Hey Jimmy.  How are you, baby? It's Bob Schmob from Atlantic Records."

"Ummmmm..... (mumble, blink).  Light and shade... frickin' Plant never calls me...."  (Silence)

"Well, sounds like you're keeping busy!  Listen, you know who Charles Bronson is?"

"Was he in Deep Purple?"

"No.  He's an American film star.  Well, not a star, really. He's an American film presence.  Did you ever see Death Wish?"

"I don't have a death wish.  It's just a natural interest in the macabre and the black arts." (Sound of vomiting).

"Sure, baby, sure.  Anyway, Death Wish is a movie in which a 15 year-old girl gets raped for like half an hour by a bunch of bikers, and then killed.  So Charles Bronson finds out and spends another hour hunting them down and killing them in slow motion.  It doesn't bring the girl back, but it's violent as hell.  Truly despciable stuff.  Really."

"Mmmmmmm..." (Page composes great lost guitar riff, loses consciousness for five minutes.)

"So anway, naturally we're making an unwatchable sequel, and we thought it would be a GREAT chance for you to get back in the game!  What do you say?  Want to announce your re-arrival as the greatest guitarist of your generation by composing incidental music to a glorified snuff film for a second rate film studio?"

"Ummmmm... sure, mate.  MOLOCHSATANLUCIFERRISINGBEELZEBUB!!" (Three teenagers in a high school math class in Illinois draw pentagrams on their Trapper Keepers involuntarily).

After that shockingly failed to kickstart his career (it had the opposite effect for Danny Elfman, who used his work on Death Wish III  to become Hollywood's most in-demand composer**) , Page formed The Firm with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company.  They hired two journeymen British pros for a rhythm section, and released The Firm and toured the world.  It was the first sustained work Page had done in five years.

Everything about The Firm screams "80s RAWK BAND."  How awful is that logo?  It looks like a logo for an auto parts store.  And what about the name?  It begs for jokes about the middle-aged rock stars out front.  "They should have called them The Flab!"  And check out this publicity photo:

How lost does the bassist Franklin look?  He looks like a nephew that is only in the band because the regular bassist has shingles.

While the band played huge, 15,000 seat arenas, they refused to play Zeppelin and Bad Company material.  Naturally, audiences were a little nonplussed at coming to hear these two guys and getting an 80 minute show featuring NOTHING they really wanted to hear.  They actually made a follow-up album, Mean Business (get it?  They "mean" business and their business is mean!  Classic!!) and then disbanded due to the fact that no one knew they were still a band.  Page went on to make an embarrassing solo album, and then an album of songs with David Coverdale called Coverdale/Page that brought his sanity into question (not even Page/Coverdale?  Really?  That's like Paul Simon deciding to replace Garfunkel, and calling the band Oates/Simon).

And here's the hell of it-- I like this album.  Genuinely.  Not just this song-- I like SEVERAL tracks on this album.  I enjoy them over and over and over.  What happened to me?  And where do I get off slagging the Eagles and voluntarily listening to The Firm?  Let me count the ways.

1)  I bought this record on the same day that I bought Tom Petty's Southern Accents.  Deciding what records to buy was a huge deal for me in 1985, because I didn't have a lot of money, so I tried REALLY hard to like every record I bought.  It was clear very quickly that Southern Accents was a LOT better, but it killed me to buy a bad album, so I just stuck with it.  If you listen to an album fifty times, you'll find something to like about it if you try hard enough.

2) My friend Caroline really liked it, and she almost never bought music, and I wanted to be supportive.  It's like when your friend who doesn't pay any attention to music buys a record, and you want to be encouraging, and you find yourself saying "Yeah, that Susan Boyle can certainly sing.  And what a story!"

3)  I like the colossally dated bass sound.  Franklin plays a fretless bass that's chorused and flanged to death.  As a result, the bass on this album sounds so out of place that I think it's great.  Listen to the top of this track and the harmonic bass fill that opens it.  Then listen how much finesse and fretless sliding Franklin brings to this pop/rock song.  It sounds like Jaco Pastorius wandered high into the wrong studio.

4)  I love the "whaaaa???" guitar solos all over this record.  Check out the one we get at the midpoint of this track.  It actually sounds as if Page has started the solo on the wrong fret or set of strings.  It is chromatic and weird and fairly sloppily played, but for me it's the most interesting musical moment.  For some reason, it feels like really honest playing from Page.  By 1979, his solos had become completely bizaare-- check out "In The Evening" sometime.  His playing on that is a glorious train wreck, and there's more of that here.  

5)  Don't you think this song was written in about eight minutes?  After five years of silence, Page returns, and does so with a series of tunes written in the cab on the way to the studio.  The most careful thing about this band is the logo-- it's the only carefully designed aspect of the whole project.  The tracks themselves are barely holding together.

So there you go.  A vote for The Firm.  Hopefully the Pod will give me my street cred back tomorrow.  Knowing my luck, it'll punch up Rupert Holmes.

** No.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

SONGS #86-95: PINKERTON (whole album)

Weezer, 1996

One of the side benefits of compiling a 20K song list is that you also end compiling a list of your favorite albums by default.  If you keep 5+ songs from an album, chances are you like it.  If you keep all the songs, then it's one you really love.

If you haven't done this exercise with your own collection, I highly recommend it, because you discover how much you love certain albums more than you think you do.  If you had told me that Weezer would put a whole album in my iPod, I would have been surprised, even though Pinkerton has been one of my favorite albums of the last five years or so.  But if I'm honest about how much I like these ten songs, and how well I think they hold together, then the whole album belongs right here.

I cannot pretend to have purchased Pinkerton in 1996, instantly loved it, and waited for the rest of the world to catch up.  I did buy Weezer's first album before "Undone" or "Buddy Holly" exploded.  I bought it because of "My Name Is Jonas."  I was browsing CDs at CIty Discs in Greenbrae (now a David M. Brian, like most good record stores) and the track title made me laugh out loud, so I listened to it (City Discs was the first CD store in town that let you listen before you buy) and liked the first thirty seconds enough to pick it up.  To be honest, I was unimpressed at first.  The songs seemed too slow to me, and as a result the album felt a little long.  Once they blew up, I shelved it and didn't listen to it for about ten years.  Now that the songs aren't being pushed down my throat, and I'm a little older and don't need all my rock to be 100 miles an hour, it's a solid listen, but if they'd never made another album, I probably would have forgotten it altogether.

When Pinkerton came out, I wasn't enough of a fan to buy it without checking it out first.  This time, the first song title made me laugh, and not in a good way.  "Tired Of Sex?"  Well, good for you, famous musician.  And the reviews were scathing, some of the worst a major band has ever received.  I think it's a tie between Weezer and Train as to which benign band got savaged more by critics in the 90s.  The reviews of Pinkerton went beyond music criticism.  If you go to Rolling Stone's website now, you can see their five star revisionist history review from 2004, but in '96, everyone HATED this record.  So I never bothered to buy it or even listen to it.  Stories of Rivers having a breakdown, joining a cult, even going to Harvard (yeah, right) started to circulate.  I wrote them off for good.

Flash forward to 1998, and I'm at Camden Market in London trolling for European bootlegs to take home.  One booth is playing something that instantly grabs my attention.  It's got a great, jagged guitar riff and the band sounds like it has a sense of humor.  When I roll by later, it's obviously the same record, and this time it's a loud, terrific pop song.  I ask the guy who it is, and it's Weezer.  By that time, I was out of money, so I just said "Huh.  Weezer." and promised myself that I'd remember to check out the album back home.  I didn't.

In 2000, Weezer re-emerged, and I thought "Hash Pipe" was the greatest single I'd heard in a long time.  I went to buy the "Green" album, and there was a copy of Pinkerton in the used rack for a dollar, so i grabbed it.  Even then, it took a week or so before I actually put it on, and when I did, I had what I imagine is most people's reaction: just what was wrong with this album in the first place?  It turns out that "Tired Of Sex" is as honest a diary entry of a song as anyone can write, with bold, loud drums production and an unforgettable keyboard drone.  

From there, the album just cooks.  "Getchoo" is the song that Husker Du never had the sense of humor to record, "Why Bother?" is one of my favorite unrequited love songs, and "El Scorcho" is the song that I'd loved back in England.  Great song after great song, with weird, wonderful production choices.  It feels a little claustrophobic, which is perfect for all of these bizaare, confessional songs.

If you need a place to start, try "Pink Triangle," which I think is a little slice of genius and sums up so much of Cuomo's (and my) generation's awkwardness with sexual identity.  I can remember back in college a major incident involving the desecration of a pink triangle.  In the melee that followed, it was clear that sexuality was still more of a concept than a feeling for a lot of people.  I moved to the Bay Area a few months later, and in my first years in the city, I dated a few bisexual women.  I fell pretty hard in one case, and when she told me that she was going to go "strictly women," I was crushed.  When I heard Rivers sing "Everyone's a little queer / why can't she be a little straight?," a decade later in this song, I burst out laughing, because it was EXACTLY what I had felt.  I was happy for her, and sad for me.

In addition to being a great story about unrequited, confused love in a bisexual age, "Pink Triangle" also explores that space between who we think we are and the symbols we choose to represent ourselves.  Personally, I feel like the pink triangle served people in a similar way to the "3" on the back of a pickup; it revealed a cultural reference point more than anything, and since Pinkerton is all abut Cuomo's sense of distance from everyone, it would make sense that a song about discovering that your new crush is gay and that your place in the world might not be what you think it is would focus on the symbol of sexuality rather than the person herself.  That's what dominates this album-- Cuomo spends the whole record trying to make connections with people and completely failing.  The record feels lost, and it was; it didn't sound right in 1996, it said what it had to say without Generation X irony or detachment, and it eviscerated the idea of rockstar "cool."  

Cuomo comes off as a neurotic narcissist who is an island unto himself.  Which he was, and is-- Pinkerton is the sound of the voices we have in our own heads at 1:30am when we're alone with our own crazy thoughts, obsessing over the things that have bothered us for decades.  Think of it as a male, rocking, singalong version of Joni Mitchell's Blue.

Finally, in a completely unrelated note for you college basketball fans, I picked Butler to the final four.  

LINK:    (Pink Triangle)