Thursday, September 07, 2006
I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
My local radio station (Philly’s WXPN) posits the following - Who are the greatest musical artists of all time?. And truth be told – I have no idea. It all depends on your vantage point – when were you born, where did you grew up and who were your co-conspirators and influencers (did I just make up a word?). It is well-known and heavily documented (by me and my brothers) that your musical tastes are developed between the ages of 10 and 25. By 25, music for most folks becomes less and less important as they have real lives and tend to them like normal human beings. And then there’s the rest of us. My musical formative years, according to my theory from 1967 to 1982, certainly informs every one of my choices. I was weaned on a steady diet of my older sisters’ Beatles, Stones, Monkees and Motown records. Add Elvis and Chuck Berry… and the die was cast.
So what follows are my favorite musical artists of all time. Are they also greatest? They are to me. My vote comes from the heart (David Jo and not Elvis!) and not my head (yes I know Chuck Berry wrote the book, gave us the template… but I’m still puttin’ alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo on my list). As Yo La Tengo recently and succinctly put it – I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.
1. Bruce Springsteen – When Bruce Springsteen walked out on the Tower Theatre stage in December 1975, this vote was locked up. Without a doubt Bruce is my favorite rock musician… I make no apologies. I honor and respect Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, Chuck Berry – but you can only have one favorite. His songs are literate, passionate and joyous - and with that other worldly yowl he was the rock and roll savior I didn’t even know I needed. He was the next step in a logical lineage that went from Elvis to Fogerty to Bruce, continued on with Westerberg and Earle and still lives today in my current favorites Jesse Malin and the Hold Steady. His output has been all over the stylistic map – the “new Dylan” of Greetings, the channeling of Van Morrison on The Wild, The Innocent… and the ultimate statement Born to Run, which melds rock’s first 20 years and spits out something that sounds completely original. BTR was almost bettered by Darkness on the Edge of Town, where the lovable losers searching for a way out realized they weren’t going anywhere… and that realization somehow became heroic. Since Darkness Springsteen has made a few classics (Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Rising) but has always been consistently challenging. As a veteran of many Springsteen shows, his true genius has been delivering magical, mystical, galvanizing revival meetings masquerading as rock concerts… it’s at these shows that he cemented his # 1 rank. Maybe if I had seen the Beatles….
2. Rod Stewart – Before banal disco cash-ins and the strafing of American pop classics, there was a time when Rod Stewart may have been the greatest of them all. In the heady days from 1969 to 1973, he was the driving force behind 7 stone classics (the first 4 Rod Stewart records plus the three Faces records). Every Picture Tells A Story was the first album I ever bought. To this day, I walk a little taller when I hear “I combed my hair in a thousand ways, But it came out looking just the same”.
3. The Beatles – Way to go out on a limb. I really can’t add much to the Beatles lore. All I can say is they produced the greatest pop music the world has ever seen. Don’t even try and argue with me – as I said before, I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. They had the greatest songwriters, the greatest harmonies, the right producer and melodies that seem to have sprung forth from pop heaven. How about this... I think the Beatles are underrated. I still play Something New, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Beatles For Sale, Abbey Road, Help, Let It Be and they still thrill me – every time. And oh yeah… “In My Life” is the greatest song ever written.
4. Creedence Clearwater Revival – The American Beatles. They were timely and political without preaching...wrapped up in absolutely perfect 3 minute songs. John Fogerty is right up there with Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, Springsteen and Westerberg on the short list of great American rock songwriters. In three years they had 13 top 10 singles (they rivaled the Beatles for the artistry of their A and B sides) and then band democracy, bad career decisions and a classically bad early contract sent Fogerty to the sidelines with artistic and emotional difficulties that have never fully healed. Six albums in three years and they were done.
5. Bob Dylan – The greatest American songwriter. His influence is pervasive in just about everyone else on this list. His 1962 to 1966 output should be required listening for any rock novice. He’s made great records since but nothing touches those records. They seem too good… how did he string those words together? Where did that melody come from? Omigod… that voice – possibly the greatest in all of rock for serving the song? That voice forever broke the mold of how people could sing. You’re welcome Tom Waits. Tip your hat Mr. Springsteen. I’ve pored over his lyrics, studied his records… obsessing over every detail. I still hear new ideas in 40 year old records and I’m never truly sure what he’s on about. And if you get me drunk enough, I’ll show you the one poem I ever wrote… in high school. Inspired by Dylan, I’ve not read it in at least 25 years. That’s how good Dylan is… he got me to write poetry.
6. The Replacements – What if you combined the Faces’ drunken outrageousness with Springsteen’s working class romanticism, mix in Dylan’s prodigious lyrical gifts and then add Beatle worthy melodies? You just might have the Replacements. Bursting out of the heartland with punk’s fury but aspiring to be Rod Stewart, Paul Westerberg led the finest American band of the 1980’s. My god… Let It Be, Tim, Pleased to Meet Me… these records are American classics. This is the band I wanted to be in… and I still do. (Paul… call me).
7. Jackson Browne – Late For the Sky was my high school and college soundtrack – always there when I needed a friend. First date… play some Jackson. Trying to seal the deal… a little Jackson. Friend sick… commiserate with Jackson. Heartbroken… wallow with Jackson. If he only wrote “For A Dancer”, he earned a place on my list. But there is so much more. If you think I placed him too high – play Jackson Browne, For Everyman, Late For the Sky and The Pretender next week. Then come back here and we’ll talk. Because…quite honestly – I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.
8. The Hold Steady – Two scorchers already and the next one promises to change your life. Don’t worry… I don’t really think these guys are better than the Rolling Stones. The truth is… I always wanna hear the next great song, the next great band. Right now, theses guys are it. Rock and roll endures – when someone tells you there’s no good bands anymore, play them the Hold Steady. If they don’t like them… beat their ass. When I was a kid, I remember fretting that maybe there wouldn’t be any more good songs. It amazes me that I still find manic pop thrills 30 years later. This spot could just as easily have gone to Jesse Malin, Rilo Kiley, Lucero or The Format.
9. Steve Earle - Without Steve Earle, I would never have considered listening to Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and George Jones. Without the genre bending Guitar Town (1986), I’m sure I would have missed so much great music. Since hitting rock bottom in the early 90’s, he has been possibly the finest American songwriter over the last 10 years. His comeback from a severe drug addiction and a jail term have been one of the great second acts in pop music.
10. The Rolling Stones – Excepting Dylan… no one artist has made as many great records that have wormed their way into my heart. Mick and Keef… Keef and Mick. They have been able to adapt to the musical landscape and remain relevant in ways no other bands have. The Beatles may have produced the greatest records, but the Stones are the world’s greatest rock and roll band.
11. The Clash – With apologies to London Calling, the Clash’s 1976 debut is the essential punk record. Seemingly sprung forth fully formed, The Clash crystallized everything I loved about music and seemingly destroyed everything I hated about it. Joe Strummer was punk’s soul and conscience… I miss him.
11. David Johansen – Once referred to by one wag as a “fun junkie”, David Johansen was the linchpin of the mythically brilliant and influential New York Dolls. While sometimes tagged as a second rate Mick Jagger, David Jo is Mick’s equal as rock showman. His first solo cd alone would merit his inclusion on my list, with unfathomably great songwriting including the great Dolls breakup song “Donna”, the celebration of music that is “Frenchette” plus the great side openers “Funky But Chic” and “Cool Metro”. Essential.
11. The Persuasions – Formed in Brooklyn over 40 years ago, the Persuasions have carried the a cappella torch with their breathtaking, often thrilling vocal arrangements. Lead singer Jerry Lawson is an R&B blues shouter in the great tradition of Otis Redding… you owe it to yourself to check out his singing at least once. (Personal note: When my wife and I got engaged, we went to see the Persuasions a few weeks later in a small club. We scrawled a request on a napkin noting our recent engagement. The band brought the two of us up on stage, sat us on chairs and promptly serenaded us with an astonishing version of the Dreamlovers 1961 hit “When We Get Married”). Pretty cool.
11. Uncle Tupelo – Could mixing the bracing rush of punk rock with the staid conventions of country music really have seemed a good idea in 1990? I guess if you lived in Belleville,Il it did. Uncle Tupelo delivered 2 radically different but gifted singer-songwriters while crafting four uniformly excellent lps from 1990 to 1993. And then they were gone. And no one has been able to carry that alt-country flag better than Uncle Tupelo… and Tupelo off-shoot Son Volt’s Trace may be the genre’s defining statement.
11. X – The best American punk band had it roots in the same country traditions as Uncle Tupelo. The gloriously ragged yin/yang and teetering on the edge of collapse harmonies of John Doe and Exene, the pulverizing staccato riffs of Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake’s big beat combined to make X the quintessential American band of the 1980s. Think Jefferson Airplane… with better songs and anchored by Doe’s world weary blues croak.
11. Marshall Crenshaw – A new wave Buddy Holly? His first record is an enduring classic that he's never bettered. Every record since then has contained a few gems…. and his uncanny knack for short, concise pop nuggets has rarely faltered. While keeping a steady touring schedule, Crenshaw has not released a new studio record since 1999’s snappy return to form # 447. Perhaps it’s time for a rediscovery of this unsung hero?
11. The Ramones – Loud. Fast. Rules.
11. Prince – Up there with Stevie Wonder in the r&b pantheon, has anyone been as consistently innovative and challenging while shifting mega units as Prince? He makes the list for that incredible 80’s run from Dirty Mind (1980) through Lovesexy (1988). He’s a master soulman, a classic rocker, he brings the funk, an R&B balladeer, bandleader extraordinaire, ace producer, shit hot guitarist, top echelon songwriter. And he’s only 5’2”!
11. Elvis Costello – Possibly the only artist (along with Bowie) to give Prince a run for his money for stylistic jumps over the last 30 years, Elvis Costello is a celebrated songwriter and an underappreciated singer. His early troika (My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces) started his now long career with a big bang he’s never quite equaled. But each Costello rlease remains an event - Elvis is King!
11. Scott McClatchy – How can you watch your little brother make three excellent records with little acclaim and not put him on your list? This is the same guy who couldn’t sleep without a light on… and he does what I wished many times I could do… plays guitar and writes great songs. He truly makes me proud.