Monday, July 30, 2007
I was nine years old, that day in August 1977, forced indoors by a central Illinois thunderstorm. As I lay on the living room floor, watching a rerun of Family Affair, the crawl came across the bottom of the screen: Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, has died in Memphis at age 42.
I didn’t understand the full import of the news, but I knew it was big.
My parents were no huge music fans, but Elvis was a presence in my house. My dad had a box of old 45s that included “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Treat Me Nice” (which are pretty much the same song now that I think about it), and Mom plopped me in front of the TV to watch the Hawaii concert with her just a few years earlier. Though I was just shy of five years old that night, I knew how I liked my music (namely concise and catchy), and the sweaty man in the heavy jumpsuit doing karate moves in the Oahu heat just confused me. Still, he was the only rock and roller getting two hours of prime time on one of the few stations that came into our home. That made him even bigger than the Brady Six, whose “It’s a Sunshine Day” was as close to televised rock stardom as I could recall.
And he was dead. And I was sad. And I wasn’t quite sure why. All those songs that had become genuine American cultural artifacts – “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel” – hung in the air for days, vibrant non-stop memorials crackling out of AM radios. A palpable pall had descended; the first superhero for a new generation was gone.
Listen to “Jailhouse Rock”
Then the sordid details began to trickle out. On the toilet. Drug addicted. Paranoid. Fat. Isolated. Estranged from all but his enablers. I didn’t have the wherewithal to piece it all together then, but I knew that something sadder than mere death had happened.
It was clear that Elvis had died too soon. Or too late.
For those too young to recall him in his prime, he was frozen in time as a caricature, the bloated carcass of rock’s past, a symbolic sacrifice in the year of punk rock. He became a punch line, an apparition spotted eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches at southern truck stops, the pill popper who asked Nixon for a narc badge, the half-assed actor in all those bad films, the Vegas staple who paved the way for Wayne Newton as much as the Beatles. In short, he became about as un-rock and roll as you can get.
Later, to make matters worse, the historical revisionism set in. Elvis became either the cunning cultural pirate who stole the popular music of black America and repackaged it for the masses, or the rube marionette who danced at the hands of Colonel Tom Parker and industry powers.
But the reality, as it almost always is, was much more complicated, and luckily, the reality of Elvis is captured in Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, Peter Guralnick’s two-part Presley biography, as fine an example of personal history as I’ve ever read, rock and roll or otherwise. They paint a picture of a man neither terribly sophisticated nor easily manipulated, but one so advanced in terms of race as to be a man out of time. Elvis made little distinction between styles of music; he simply knew what he liked, and he was as comfortable with the African-American religious tradition as he was with the music of the South’s rural whites. In his first Sun Studios session, he recorded the rhythm and blues chestnut “That’s All Right” and the bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and made them sound like they belonged together. Even now, more than fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine many artists could pull off that feat and make it sound so effortless.
Listen to “Blue Moon of Kentucky”
Of course, we also have the recorded tokens of the man in his youth, when he was the antithesis of what he later became. Riveting, authentic, vital, electric. He was not a music biz creation, for man cannot create what he cannot imagine. He was a revelation and a revolution, a vessel that channeled something else, something new, an energy that poured through and out of him.
Elvis was inducted into the Army in 1958, and sent to Europe. If he had never returned, he would have been Buddy Holly times one thousand, an icon unburdened by aging. He would have been James Dean and Jimi Hendrix rolled into one. Or if he could have pulled out of that mid-1970s tailspin, perhaps he’d be here today. Maybe he would have had a late-career renaissance like Bob Dylan. Maybe there would have been one more NBC comeback special in him.
But it was not to be. We lost him too soon. Or too late.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Friday morning, early: The alarm goes off and I gather myself into the shower, and then it’s off to the airport. Hit the drive-thru at Caribou Coffee for a pick-me-up. They are not selling the McCartney album. Then a short jaunt up I-29 to Kansas City International. It’s a remarkably easy airport to navigate for two reasons: (1) the entire thing is laid out in one big circle encompassing three smaller circular terminals, which translates into lots of curb space, with gates right inside the door; and (2) there aren’t many flights. When it came to airlines, we always hitched our wagon to losers. The last one to make KCI a hub was Braniff. Their motto – “On the wings of bankruptcy” – failed to generate consumer confidence.
I board a Southwest flight for Chicago with continuing service to PHL. I’m in group A, which allows me to nab a prime aisle seat. We take off on time and I pull out The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and begin reading. While enjoying Chabon’s prose, I fear that my moment of zen will be destroyed when the handsome silver-haired woman in the middle seat begins to engage me. She’s headed to her daughter’s bachelorette party in the Windy City. Two minutes into the conversation, it comes out that I’ve written a book about college basketball and that she’s the former New Jersey girls high school basketball career scoring leader. That begins sixty minutes of intensive hoops discussion. She thinks Kevin Durant isn’t strong enough for the NBA; I think he’ll be just fine. It’s powerful, artful discourse. The trip is already a success.
We make our descent into Midway and touch down. Hard. The flight attendant comes on and says the teeth-rattling landing “wasn’t the pilot’s fault, it was the asphalt.” Not even 10:00 a.m. and the day’s first ass joke has been made, and not by me. My wife loses two dollars.
Friday, mid-morning: All but four of us get off the plane, and then a flood gets on, including the large speechless lug who takes the middle seat. I stick my nose in the book and plow ahead. Jews. Alaska. Murder. How come I can’t come up with this stuff?
Around 1:00 p.m.: We touch down in Philly and Kurt, who I’ve known since fifth grade, meets me at the curb. WXPN is on the radio, “I Melt With You” is on WXPN, and we’re on the road to Center City. We arrive at my home away from home, a narrow row house that redefines “urban” for the Midwestern rube. I make some lame crack about how long it takes to mow the grass, and Kurt says “Philadelphia is my front yard.” “Dude,” I say, “there’s a drunk passed out on your lawn.”
Friday, mid-afternoon: Kurt and I hit the bricks to run a couple of errands, and then it’s on to the Nodding Head brew pub, where we are to meet our virtual posse. We sit at the bar where we’re greeted by a genial, talkative bartender with a shaky understanding of heartland geography (despite repeated assurances, he cannot accept that someone from Kansas City might live in Missouri) and a deeply held belief that the ultimate expression of American cuisine is franks and beans. He says that the nice couple from Baltimore that we’re looking for left a bit earlier. But we wait for Trip and his entourage, the first Teenage Kicks summit just moments away.
They’re running behind, so we order our first beers of the weekend. My esteemed colleague, who spent more than half his life in Coles County, Illinois, starts in on the hayseed routine. Throughout the next three days, I’m subjected to inquiries about indoor plumbing, bestiality and backwoods dentistry. Highbrow stuff. As the stars of this reality show have proved, the great cities of the northeast are populated by only the most sophisticated people.
Cell phone rings fifteen minutes later, and it’s Trip, who says he’s parking the car. Moments later, the man and his younger brother Scott, international recording star, walk up the steps and into the bar. A moment that should be very weird is not. I warmly embrace my internet friend (henceforth known as my Russian bride), and the Brothers McClatchy immediately begin treating me like a surrogate for baby sibling Kevin, who is hundreds of miles away. The entire weekend is a variation on the “pull my finger” trick. These are my people.
Gifts are exchanged, stories are told, beers are consumed and dinner is served (I go with the muffuletta, not exactly Philly’s most famous export, but satisfying nonetheless). Trip seems convinced that our legend will grow if we just hang out at the bar all night and skip the rock and roll show in Camden. We have no legend, I explain, nobody cares. He looks at me like my hair is on fire. About that time, Pat Feeney, proprietor of Main Street Music in Manayunk, and known hereafter simply as “Feeney” arrives, nearly sixty minutes after the appointed hour. “Feeney time,” I’m told.
Friday, early evening: After finishing off a discount pitcher of a Scottish ale (an inadvertent pour, apparently), we take the subway to the ferry, which is teeming with girls old enough to attract attention and young enough to ensure incarceration. John Mayer is in town and he’s dreamy. He’s also playing right next to our festival.
We cross from the Keystone State to the Garden State, and walk up the steps and through the gate as Cracker is finishing its set. That leads to a yawning silence during our first twenty minutes at the fest. This allows me to meet, in rapid succession, Mary and Kevin (the nice couple from Baltimore), Mezz, Alan, Schiff, the Rhode Island Papineaus, Ann, Mr. Ann, Bruce, Jim, Barb, Kat, Nanner, Robin and Sax. Disarmingly nice people. The guitar player from Fountains of Wayne sashays past. He sets an impossibly high bar for men’s footwear.
He and his band play a predictably fine set, professionally-written songs rendered faithfully. About forty minutes in, I turn to Trip and say that they’ll play “Stacey’s Mom” within the next two songs. “But I don’t dig that one much,” he says. “Not a likely consideration,” I reply. Sure enough, “Stacey’s Mom” is next, followed by “Radiation Vibe,” and then something else, and then it’s over.
Kurt and I head over to the other stage and catch Earl Greyhound, a band I know nothing about. It turns out that they’re a sexually and racially integrated power trio that brings the rock, and the bass player appears to be the female Phil Lynott. Don’t know how it translates to disc, but onstage they’re the real thing.
Back to the main stage for the Fratellis, one of my favorite young bands. The drummer is a maniac, and the singer is unintelligible through his thick Scottish brogue during the between-song patter. All the songs (and more) from the band’s one and only album are here. Scott points out the similarity between “Henrietta” and Bowie’s “TVC15,” and I’ll never hear the song the same again.
Friday, late: After the Fratellis polish off the show with “Chelsea Daggers,” it’s back to the ferry and the gorgeous backdrop of Philly at night. Our group, now swelled to near double-figures, wanders the streets in search of a bar, and we’re finally whisked into Eulogy (uplifting name, folks), a hipster’s paradise full of pricey and obscure beers (my favorite kind). The main floor is full and we’re ushered upstairs, a narrow room with a bar and several small tables of diners. Our arrival makes for quite a crowd around the bar, but they seem content to serve us. (Note to the waiter with the sharp elbows and the schmucky attitude: I know our presence made it harder for you, but with a simple “pardon me,” I would have been your best friend all night, gladly directing traffic. Instead, the petulant posturing and pouty eye-rolls made me content to stand like a stump). After a round or two, Kurt looks at his watch, reminds me that he has an eleven-mile training run scheduled for 6:30 a.m., and we grab a cab back to the house, to catch some sleep before getting up and doing it all again.
Saturday morning: Kurt and Claire go out for their run bright and early, so I hang with little Hugh, genius in progress, who fills me in on all the things his daddy sometimes doesn’t do right (putting soiled diapers in the pail, returning the toaster to its rightful place). We have some cereal and read some books while we wait for his parents to return, which they do in all their sweaty glory. Showers for all, and then we shuffle around the house a bit until Claire is called into the office. Kurt, Hugh and I hit the streets for a cup of coffee and a tour of Philly’s gorgeous urban parks. We make a sharp left when we stumble upon a glassy-eyed man with a forty-ounce bottle who is trying to pick a fight with a passing dog.
Early afternoon: Soon it’s off to Monk’s. From what I can tell, Philadelphia is America’s capital for Belgian beers, and Monk’s is Philly’s capital. We have a liquid lunch interrupted by mussels and burgers (I have the Antwerp). Actually, I have just two brews, one of which – the Grand Cru – I cannot fully wrap my mind around. But hot damn, do I feel sophisticated. As a bonus, Claire escapes the office and joins us, the sweet that balances Kurt’s bitter.
Mid-afternoon: After a quick trip to the house, it’s out to Manayunk to Main Street Music. We walk in, pay appropriate respects to Feeney, Trip introduces me to his wife, Cathy, and all my worst fears about the weekend materialize. Clearly, my Russian bride has some sort of sinister powers that could be unleashed on the Midwestern test subject at any moment. There’s no way that guy gets a woman like that. No. Freaking. Way. The term “better half” was invented for this couple. I’m also introduced to Dave, who is working behind the counter and seems busier than the current volume of clientele would mandate. (Trip later tells me that Dave thinks I’m angry about a post he left on this blog long ago. “Why would he think that?” I ask. “Because I told him,” Trip replies).
I peruse the bins and compliment Feeney on his fine selection of, uh, “imports,” and I snag new releases by Sarah Borges and Jason Isbell, plus a Style Council compilation. I go to the register and Feeney gives me the “I’m with jackass” discount (the store’s best), and he also slides me a burn of a yet-to-be-released disc by a significant artist. When I question the business sense of giving away highly anticipated albums, Feeney’s eyes say “at least you won’t download it.” (note to RIAA: unwad your panties; I’ll be purchasing said disc when it becomes available).
Out the door and across the street to Rita’s, where I have my first “water ice,” and it’s better than it has any right to be, this dramatic improvement on the snow cone. I go with the mango flavor, which I’m told is among the best, and it does not disappoint.
Saturday, early evening: A baby sitter arrives to match wits with the young genius, and Kurt, Claire and I embark on a walking tour of the city. It really is remarkable in ways that locals probably fail to contemplate all that often. There’s architecture that dates back a couple hundred years or more, and, oh, by the way, it’s the cradle of western democracy. Eventually, we make our way into a new upscale Mexican restaurant, where Claire samples a flight of tequila, and Kurt and I go for Dos Equis on tap (he has the amber, I favor the lager). The guacamole prepared at the table is sensational. My entrée, the mushroom-stuffed cactus leaves (yes, plants filled with fungus), is not unpleasant, but it makes for a better story than a meal.
Saturday, late: Kurt and Claire’s friend George invites us to a wine bar called, appropriately enough, Vintage, and Trip agrees to join us. Not much of an oenophile, Trip sticks to Yuengling, while I sample a big, fruity rose (it’s not just for losers anymore!) and a completely satisfying pinot noir. Earlier in the evening, and unbeknownst to me until days later, Trip placed a phone call to my wife to unearth embarrassing facts to casually work into conversation. He discovers that I used to wear red Converse high top shoes, and that I’m afflicted with a chaste longing for Food Network personality Giada DeLaurentis. That’s it. People, don’t hire this man as a private detective. For his part, Trip volunteers that he doesn’t eat cheese in any form (no cheesecake, no pizza, no nothing). Can conversation get any better? It’s like A Moveable Feast.
Sunday, late morning: I pack my bags, load them in the car, and we head out for a late breakfast at a place called Jones (I have some very fine pancakes), where we’re met by Trip, Cathy and ten-year-old Sean, America’s foremost professional football fan, who is rocking his sharp new Missouri Tigers cap. Within seconds of meeting, he begins to pepper me with questions about whether certain active players will one day make the Hall of Fame. “Tom Brady?” Absolutely, I say. “Reggie Bush?” Too early to tell. “Peyton Manning?” Even if he gets hit by a bus tomorrow. “But I don’t like him,” Sean says. That’s not among the criteria, champ. “But he’s not that good-looking” one of the ladies offers. Again, not among the criteria.
I’m seated next to Cathy, sporting her brand-new Teenage Kicks t-shirt. Trip tells me about the time, long ago, when she kissed David Johansen full on the mouth at a Buster Poindexter show, and the time, years later, when she planted one on Paul Westerberg at one of the Replacements’ last gigs. Cathy blushes appropriately but proudly, and Trip says “wasn’t there a third time?” It is a tribute to the frequency with which Cathy kisses rock stars that she can’t quite remember when that would have been.
We finish breakfast and head out into the third straight glorious Philly day. It’s just a short walk to the Liberty Bell, and the line isn’t long, so we head inside. It’s a humbling thing, to see this symbol in the shadow of where our great documents were signed and where George Washington once lived. Better yet, there are competing water ice carts just outside, and we make a stop for the weekend’s final sampling of Philadelphia culture. Magnificent.
With flight time approaching, we head back to the parking lot and say our goodbyes to the McClatchy family, with thanks for a great weekend. Trip and I are grateful that we no longer have to tell people that we know each other through the, (hem, haw, jeez), internet. There are warm embraces all around. As Trip, Cathy and Sean wander off to the next parking lot, the first Teenage Kicks summit is complete.
Hugh climbs into his seat in the back, and demands that the old man sit next to him, leaving Claire to drive while I ride shotgun. As we try to pull into traffic, we’re let in by the kind people in the Subaru – Trip and family, it turns out – one last gracious act in a weekend full of them. We take a left, drive up the block, and stop at a red light. I’m looking left and talking to Claire when there’s a knock on my window. I turn. It’s Cathy. I open my door and she leans in and plants a kiss on me. “The third rock star,” she says.
Sunday, mid-afternoon: We arrive at the airport, and it’s hugs and thanks for my hosts, as good a pair of friends as you could ask for. After that, it’s smooth-sailing the rest of the way, with easy check-ins and on-time flights. There’s a chicken burrito and a citrus green tea in Nashville, and nary a talkative fellow traveler to be found, leaving me ample opportunity to reconnect with the Yiddish policemen. At one point, our protagonist gets busted peeking down his ex-wife’s blouse. Days later, I inform my wife that if we ever divorce, I’ll do the same thing, and so I apologize in advance.
Sunday night: With the sun fading in the west, we land feather-soft in Kansas City. I gather my things and pass through the jetway and into the terminal, where I make eye contact with a three-year-old and six-year-old who run to me with smiling faces and outstretched arms. Philly was great, but it’s never been better to be home.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
What are the most iconic images in rock and roll? I've always been partial to this shot of Johnny Cash taken prior to a concert at San Quentin prison. Legend has it the photographer asked Cash for a shot "for the warden" and this was the result. He's flipping off authority, the Nashville establishment and record buying public soon to abandon him, not to mention you and me. No other image captures the essence of rock and roll any better.
Here's 21 more... what other rock images have been seared into our collective consciosness?
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
As some of you know, despite undertaking this venture together for nearly a year, Trip and I have never actually met. Kindred spirits, we’re bound by common interests – rock and roll, college hoops, our families – despite being separated by half a continent and half a generation. Still, I feel like I’ve known him forever, and as this day approached, I thought hard about how to best commemorate it.
There’s a moment in High Fidelity when Rob, looking for purpose after his break-up with Laura, decides to arrange his albums autobiographically, in the order in which he bought them. “I pull the records off the shelf, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor,” he says, “look for Revolver, and go from there; and when I’m finished, I’m flushed with a sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am.” I have endeavored to do something similar for Trip, who, despite a far greater domestic contentment than Rob, has found deep meaning in the soundtrack of his life.
What I’ve come up with is 100 songs spanning 50 years. One song from 1957, the year of Trip’s birth, one from 2007, and two from each year in between, arranged chronologically. No artist appears more than once, and that includes artists in different incarnations. Uncle Tupelo isn’t here because Wilco and Son Volt are, and Rod Stewart’s presence ensures The Faces’ absence. The hope is to account for as broad a range of expression as possible in the limited space allowed.
The goal also is to reflect Trip’s sensibilities as accurately as possible, without respect to any historical rock orthodoxy. That’s why Badfinger’s “No Matter What” made the cut for 1970, and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” did not (Van was but one of many regrettable casualties; earlier this week, and too late for inclusion, I learned the special place David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” holds for Trip). Still, if anything, the songs cling too close to consensus. There are not nearly enough of the sorts of bubble-gummy one-hitters that he so notoriously loves.
Trip is already intimately familiar with most of the music here. Any effort to capture the man without “In My Life” or something from Every Picture Tells a Story, Late For the Sky or My Aim Is True would fail. So the obvious choices are here, and from about 1965 to 1986 or so, I think I’ve pretty much nailed him cold. But I’ve taken a certain artistic license with some of the rest, in those years in which I’m not so certain, and have given my best interpretation of the man. Does he love “This Song” by Ron Sexsmith? I don’t know, we haven’t talked about it; I’m not even sure he knows the tune. But it seems like one that he’d love, and I’m willing to wager he does.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll catch a flight to Philadelphia, where I will present the collection to Trip in person. And after catching sets by Bob Mould, Cracker, Fountains of Wayne and the Fratellis, we’ll make our way to a watering hole, where we will hoist a pint or two to birthdays and friendship, and perhaps to Craig Finn and Feargal Sharkey. And when the next round comes, we’ll hoist one to you in thanks for sharing this space with us.
(Special thanks to our friends Mary Z. and Lou P. for their input on song selection, and to Lou for the ridiculously fantastic cover designs)
Based On a True Story: Fifty Years of Trip McClatchy
Buddy Holly and the Crickets – Not Fade Away
Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode
Little Richard – Good Golly Miss Molly
Ray Charles – What’d I Say
Chan Romero – Hippy Hippy Shake
Barrett Strong – Money (That’s What I Want)
Everly Brothers – Cathy’s Clown
Dreamlovers – When We Get Married
Elvis Presley – Little Sister
Booker T & the MGs – Green Onions
The Drifters – Up on the Roof
Kingsmen – Louie Louie
Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
Beach Boys – Don’t Worry Baby
Kinks – All Day and All of the Night
Beatles – In My Life
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna
Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
The Who – I Can See For Miles
The Doors – Soul Kitchen
The Band – We Can Talk
Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along the Watchtower
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising
Velvet Underground – Pale Blue Eyes
Badfinger – No Matter What
Jackson 5 – The Love You Save
Joni Mitchell – A Case of You
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story
Rolling Stones – Loving Cup
Stevie Wonder – Superstition
Gram Parsons – Return of the Grievous Angel
Sly and the Family Stone – If You Want Me To Stay
Big Star – September Gurls
Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky
Patti Smith - Gloria
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
Graham Parker and The Rumour – Fool’s Gold
Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
Elvis Costello – (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
Television – Marquee Moon
Cheap Trick – Surrender
David Johansen - Frenchette
Undertones – Teenage Kicks
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Here Comes My Girl
The Clash – Clampdown
The Jam – Going Underground
X – The Once Over Twice
Pretenders – Message of Love
Marshall Crenshaw – Mary Anne
Richard and Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights
R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
The Plimsouls – A Million Miles Away
U2 – Pride (In the Name of Love)
Replacements – Answering Machine
Run-D.M.C. – King of Rock
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
Steve Earle – Someday
Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs
Prince – I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man
John Hiatt – Have A Little Faith In Me
The Persuasions – Soothe Me
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
The Pixies – Here Comes Your Man
De La Soul – Say No Go
Sinead O’Connor – The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance
Neil Young – Days That Used To Be
Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend
Nirvana – In Bloom
Los Lobos – When the Circus Comes
Freedy Johnston – Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know
Liz Phair – Divorce Song
Urge Overkill – Sister Havana
Oasis – Cigarettes and Alcohol
Pavement – Gold Soundz
Son Volt – Windfall
Ben Folds Five – Alice Childress
Buzz Zeemer – Break My Heart
Wilco – I Got You (At The End of the Century)
Whiskeytown – Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight
Old 97’s – Barrier Reef
Lucinda Williams – Drunken Angel
Lauryn Hill – Every Ghetto, Every City
Fountains of Wayne – Amity Gardens
Beth Orton – Stolen Car
Marah – Point Breeze
PJ Harvey – You Said Something
Alejandro Escovedo – Velvet Guitar
Ron Sexsmith – This Song
Bright Eyes – Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Beck – The Golden Age
Jesse Malin – Wendy
White Stripes – Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine
Rilo Kiley – Portions For Foxes
Drive-By Truckers – Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
New Pornographers – Sing Me Spanish Techno
The Hold Steady – Banging Camp
Scott McClatchy – Burn This
The Format – She Doesn’t Get It
The Ike Reilly Assassination – When Irish Eyes Are Burning
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
For a span of about 18 months, two years tops, MTV wasn’t just the best thing in the history of television. It was the best thing in the history of civilization, ranking just ahead of Coen Brothers films and coconut Jelly Bellies. Then music biz heavy hitters (see, e.g., Jackson, Michael; Joel, Billy) discovered how to exploit it, and it fell to the level of Tuna Helper. By the time Road Rules came around, well, it was still better than genital warts, though not by much.
But back in those earliest days, as Mark Goodman and Nina Blackwood trumpeted the power of the mystical “stereo TV hookup,” it was a path to higher consciousness, operating on a simple premise: if you make a video for your rock and roll song and give it to us for free, we will play it. And with the industry establishment demonstrating its typical foresight – “video, meh, there’s no future in that” – much of the airtime fell to acts that couldn’t get arrested on American radio, including heavyweights like Squeeze, XTC and Elvis Costello, and fleeting curiosities like Ph. D and Robin Lane and the Chartbusters. And though you had to wade through the odd Cliff Richard video or the collected works of Triumph to get there, you were occasionally treated to the harrowing tale of roly poly fish heads.
If you were of a certain age, and I mean a really particular age – born in 1968, say between February and July – this was more revolutionary than I can possibly convey. Old enough to be aware, yet too young to have hipster prejudices, I sat transfixed before the tube at a time before internet and round-the-clock media. MTV was the first instantaneous portal to culture outside the norm, and with its arty, rebellious leanings, it conveyed a rather innocent air of decadence. “That MTV is sick,” my buddy Kurt’s mom once ruefully intoned. “Yes it is, Mrs. H,” we replied with smiles, “yes it is.”
The MTV of 1981 and 82 was where I first learned that there was something better than – or at least different from – the codified orthodoxy of Journey-Styx-Supertramp (bands, for the record, that also appeared thanks to no-budget performance clips). It’s where I first pledged that I would one day marry Martha Quinn (MJQ, if you’re out there, call me). And it’s where I discovered that a new wave of bands could fulfill and delight me as much or more than I ever could have imagined.
Here are a few favorites of the era:
Monday, July 16, 2007
Bobbin' in the Wind:
Subterranean Homesick Bob:
Newport Bob Fest, 1965:
"Judas!" "I don't believe you . . . . I'm Bob"
Rolling Thunder Bob:
Just Call Them "The Bobbys":
In conjunction with the balloting and countdown, XPN has asked a few terrific bloggers (and us) to contribute some ruminations on moments that affected the world generally and ourselves in particular. It’s our privilege to participate, and we start with Songs That Changed Everything, recordings whose impacts go far beyond their three and four minute lengths. The list below is far from definitive or comprehensive, but all of the songs, in their own way, are essential.
Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right” (1954). This song was not a hit or an overnight sensation, but it was the beginning of an accidental revolution, the unanticipated, inconceivable product of the confluence of a guileless kid, a savvy producer and two backing musicians born for the occasion. Elvis Presley was a 19-year-old nobody when he stepped inside Sun Studios on July 5, 1954, and there was no expectation that a single, much less a career, would result from the session designed to produce a gift for his mother. But when he launched into Arthur Crudup’s 1946 rhythm and blues chestnut, guitarist Scott Moore and bassist Bill Black joined in, and Sam Phillips captured it all on tape, simultaneously preserving and creating history. It was the perfect fusion of black and white, urban and country, past and future, and it changed the culture. Forever. (Michael)
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958). Let’s answer a question with a question. How important is this song? Well, how important is the electric guitar? Before “Johnny B. Goode,” there had been other prominent rock guitars – Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Scotty Moore. But the dominant instrument in early rock and roll and the jump blues from which it sprang had been the piano. Think Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry did nothing less than change the music’s definition with an epic whipsaw riff and a lyric that mythologized a backwoods six-string prodigy. The Beach Boys appropriated that riff for use in their early singles. The Beatles were built on its foundation. And the Rolling Stones made a career out of continually rewriting it. It is the wellspring from which all else flows. (Michael)
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964). Inspired by Dylan’s early protest songs, Sam Cooke one-ups him with a flawlessly delivered statement of purpose that serves as a message of hope for the nascent civil rights movement. “It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die”… not many lines are more devastating than that. (Trip)
Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967). The Queen took Otis Redding’s song about traditional gender dynamics, turned it inside out, and fashioned a declaration of independence for women. A far cry from “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” or “Stand By Your Man,” it’s a demand for nothing less than equality in a relationship, and by extension, in society, opening the floodgates for strong female artists and songs about empowerment. More than just a feminist manifesto, though, it’s the quintessential soul single. The drums pop, the bass bounces, the guitar cuts deep, and the greatest singer we’ve known nails it to the wall and dares anyone to defy her. (Michael)
Friday, July 13, 2007
But before we get to the first one, you should know some things. We love artists. We believe what they do is as valuable as making widgets (and more valuable than consulting), and that they deserve to be paid for it. Our goal here is to expose people to music they might not otherwise hear, not to give away artists' work for free. We also believe in honor, and we're quite certain that we have the most honorable readers on the web. So, please, if you hear something here and you really like it, support the artists and buy it.
With all that said, we start in the most obvious of places. If you've ever wondered where we got our name, please let us introduce you to our theme song.
The Undertones - "Teenage Kicks"
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Combine those with choice tracks from lesser albums (Ron Sexsmith, Modest Mouse, Ted Leo, to name a few), and friends eagerly anticipating my year-end mix (and, really, who isn’t?) should be in for a treat.
If forced to pick a favorite disc from the year’s first six months, I’d probably choose Lily Allen, Sloan or Ike Reilly. Got a favorite, or two, or ten? Let us know in the comments (now accessible to all, not just Blogger users!).
And just when you thought the year couldn’t get any better, along comes July and a fierce new offering from Spoon. Musings on that one later.
Monday, July 09, 2007
The unassailable? How can you can criticize an event for trying to educate people to make subtle changes (eco-friendly light bulbs, less air conditioning, public transportation, etc.) in their consumer behavior that may have a great impact on a potential climate crisis. It’s simple… do something. If you do nothing, shut the hell up. So kudos to all involved for trying to get the message out.
But Al Gore using rock music to deliver his message? The same rock music that he tried valiantly to censor in 1984. And if you think the PMRC was just Tipper and her “ladies club”, Al Gore was an integral part of the committee querying folks like Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider, trying to make the ridiculous and sensational into some kind of universal boogeyman coming to take our children’s souls. I’m sure the record companies and accountants of W.A.S.P., Venom and Mercyful Fate are forever in debt to the PMRC, who raised awareness of their execrable music and propelled their records into many more homes than they could have ever dreamed.
Mr. Gore was recently quoted referring to Madonna as “incredibly nice” after meeting with her in her home in London. A far cry from when the PMRC compiled a “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs that represented the type of music they wanted to see banned. Included on the list – “Dress You Up” by the “incredibly nice” Madonna.
And the music itself? I’m sorry… except the Police, Beastie Boys, Bloc Party, Corinne Bailey Rae, Justin Timberlake, Crowded House, Kanye West and Keith Urban, there was very little to get excited about. KT Tunstall? Jack Johnson? James Blunt? Toni Collette? Snow Patrol? Give me a break. It’s probably just me and my myopic vision of popular music, but that lineup was the lamest roster for any large scale benefit.
But you know, I saw Lucero last night with 300 friends and we decided that maybe rock and roll can save our soul, so what do I know?
Saturday’s impromptu live blogging fizzled out due to a small dinner party I hosted that night (and not to brag, but if you’ve ever wondered who, among men aged 35-44 in Kansas City’s northern suburbs, makes the best focaccia bread, it just might be me).
- As I lifted my head from time to time during food prep, one thing that struck me is how many of the day’s heavyweight acts – the Police, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Genesis, Duran Duran, RHCP, Metallica, Roger Waters – either did or could have played Live Aid twenty-two years ago, and how these same acts are responsible for some of the top-grossing tours going. I realize that it’s partly due to the economic power of the Baby Boom and Gen X demos, but I also think it says something about the durable power of the rock star. And sometimes that durability sneaks up on you. Consider that Dave Grohl, who played at Wembley on Saturday, has been part of the public consciousness for as long as Led Zeppelin had been when they reunited to play Live Aid. Note to the music industry: Time to invest in artist development. It might not pay off tomorrow or next year, but when I come looking for acts to play Trip’s 75th birthday extravaganza, you’ll be glad you did.
- I only caught a couple of songs, but I thought the Police sounded great. They create such a massive sense of space, and Andy Summers reminded us that he’s a first-rate colorist on “Can’t Stand Losing You.” It’s good to know that a song about suicidal despondency can still bring a crowd to its feet.
- Though I’m still not a fan, I’ll confess a growing, grudging respect for John Mayer. After perfecting a template for massive commercial success, he took a left turn into seemingly less lucrative territory simply because he wanted to. And he’s turned into an awfully good axe-slinger, though he could use to tone down the guitar face a bit.
- Even if you agreed with every word she said, could Melissa Etheridge’s rants have been any heavier handed? Missy, friend, I’m already watching. You. Don’t. Need. To. Hit. Me. Over. The. Head. She talks like she writes and plays.
All in all, I thought the show suffered from a lingering ambiguity (OK, so we’re supposed to do exactly what now?) and a lineup that failed to generate much sustained heat, but the rampant cynicism directed at it seems over the top. I’ll grant that the Black Eyed Peas might lack a comprehensive understanding of the science of climate change. But, so? There are probably some kids who watched the show and for the first time considered how they might generate less waste or consume less energy. Can someone explain how that’s a bad thing?
Saturday, July 07, 2007
The Pussycat Dolls are one of the greatest music biz concoctions ever. It's like Menudo for strippers. Interchangeable parts in hot pants. One of the girls demands more money, you replace her with another who'll work for tips. Genius!
from Al Gore's monstrous head - I'm truly afraid of it. I've been out most of the day, but earlier a non-descript bunch of polite young lads graced the TV screen and as they sang "If I lay here / If I just lay here" and my son asked me who was singing and I answered with absolute certainty "The Fray". Of course it was the just as innocuous Snow Patrol. Is it too much to ask that million selling "rock" groups at least be distinguishable from one another?
After watching Fergie and Duran Duran grace the Wembley stage, it strikes me that the organizers have executed a subtle and brilliantly conceptual move. They've recycled last week's Concert for Diana.
If they can do that, surely you can put your empties at the curb.
Contrary to popular belief, Shakira's hips actually do lie. I could have sworn I heard them saying they want me, but I think we all know that's not true. Her hair also lies. The Hamburg humidity left it limp and lifeless.
And the guys from Snow Patrol are leading by example. If you wear a knit hat like the guitar player or a sweater like the singer, you can turn down the heat in your home and help save the planet.
Did anyone really want Genesis to get back together after twenty years to hear "Invisible Touch" played live one more time? Note to Phil: Dropping the f-bomb in the middle didn't make it any edgier.
And was that really Toni Collette belting out T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution"?
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Despite all the talk about the studio wizardry that went into making Sgt. Pepper's what it is, what's most striking to me about hearing these new recordings is how sturdy the songs are. While George Martin no doubt elevated the original recordings to uncharted territory, I'm relatively certain that I could have taken the band into the studio with guitar, bass, piano and drums, said "whenever you're ready, start playing and I'll push this record button thingy," and walked out with something entirely unforgettable.
Craig and Tad, if you're looking for that sort of production expertise for the next Hold Steady album, call me.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
1. The Monkees, More of the Monkees
2. The Monkees, The Monkees
3. Soundtrack, Dr. Zhivago
4. Soundtrack, The Sound of Music
5. The Temptations, Greatest Hits
6. Soundtrack, A Man and a Woman
7. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, S.R.O.
8. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream and Other Delights
9. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Going Places
10. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
So while the intelligentsia were tuning in, turning on and dropping out to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the rest of America was listening to three records by the king of hepcat lounge lizard music, two by the Pre-fab Four, three movie soundtracks and a package of previously released Motown singles. Sometimes you can only see the revolution in the rearview mirror.