They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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Props on Pops (Revisited)

I have written more than once about my mother (here and here) but I haven’t said a great deal (here) about my old man. That is, in part, because he is still very much with us, and our story is still unfolding. For a variety of obvious reasons, I hope that continues to be the case for a long, long time.

But anyone who knows me understands that my relationship with the old guy (Pops, to me; Jack, to others, Pa, to his two grandchildren), which I’m happy to report has always been more than solid, is a non-negotiable facet of my existence. Certainly, after what he and I (and my sister and her husband) went through during and after the death of my mother, things could never be the way they were. On literal and figurative levels. When I talk to others about this inevitable part of many people’s lives (e.g., losing a parent long before it’s expected or acceptable), I usually offer the opinion, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, that the crisis either pulls families closer together or pushes them farther apart. At least once a day, on some level, I’m grateful that our family had the foundation to rally around one another and work together on healing, a process that is measured not in years or months or even weeks but in days and sometimes minutes. We went through it, together and we’ll go through it, together.

Enough. There are plenty of things to say about Pops, but today, on the occasion of his 68th (EDIT: 69th!) birthday, I would like to acknowledge, and celebrate, the bond of music that we (like my mother and I) share. Pops is no aficionado, but he has (some) game and I always am pleased to recall the handful of original LPs I happily stole from his collection. One of my earliest musical memories, along with the old Fantasia coloring book sessions, was Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece, the soundtrack of Superfly. It is not an overstatement to suggest that this album set an aesthetic tone early in my formative development that made me more open (and, of course, susceptible) to all types of music. But no need to linger on the nuances; the nitty gritty of the situation is that holding the original fold-out double album of this blaxploitation classic was a seminal ’70s experience. It was immensely gratifying to give the old man a copy of the remastered reissue of this bad boy on his birthday in 1998.

Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”:

Another one that was in his slight but not unimpressive collection was the original pressing of Janis Joplin’s last joint, Pearl. I even have a picture of him, on his birthday (must have been ’71), happily holding the album up. Shame on me and not getting my scanner set up yet (stay tuned, and be forewarned). Of the “big three” who left us that unfortunate year, Pops never cared much for Jim, and never fell deeply in love (as he should have) with Jimi, but he did –and does– love Janis. Who could blame him?

Janis Joplin, “Get It While You Can”:

Wonderful memory: remember back in the ’80s when radio stations (even before “classic rock” stations became all the rage mid-decade) used to do their Top 500 countdowns on holidays (often either Memorial Day or Labor Day but occasionally July 4)? I used to live for those things and would listen, dutifully scribbling down the entries. Anyway, back in the early ’80s it was very unusual to hear unedited, long songs on the radio. So a song like Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” was one of those rare treats you’d catch a couple of times a year, if you were lucky. I didn’t own that album (yet) but that only made it more of an event if/when it came on. During one of the countdowns, on July 4, this one came on and Pops and I were heading back from the pool to cook out pre-fireworks. The famous “talk box” section was yet to occur, so we pulled up in the driveway and Pops simply let the car idle. Too enraptured in the moment to even miss a few seconds before we could dash into the house and turn it on the stereo, we sat there, in our soaked swimsuits and savored the moment. These are the types of shared encounters that, I suspect, sustain the father-son relationship a decade down the road when curfews are being tested and new boundaries are being established.

Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do”:

1980: there weren’t a ton of bands (or albums) that all of us could enjoy (and by all of us, I mean my parents and me because my sister was never on board although, by 1980 she was already a teenager, so we’ll forgive her), but Bob Seger’s Against The Wind definitely made the cut. In fact, that may have been the only album (aside from The Beatles’ Blue Album) that we owned on LP (mine), cassette (hers) and 8-track (his). Pops has always had a thing for Seger and insists he is a better live performer than Bruce Springsteen (he has never seen either in concert, so we’ll forgive him).

Bob Seger, “No Man’s Land”:

Speaking of 8-tracks…

The Ford Grenada (speaking of the early ’80s!) sported an 8-track and anyone who lived then may recall the not exactly cutting edge way this “technology” handled the transition from one “track” to the other: if a song had not ended before the next “track” was programmed, it would just fade out where it was, then click, and fade back in (I’m sure the artists at the time were thrilled with this development and the ways it butchered their songs). There are more than a handful of albums we owned that, to this day, I can remember (and still, not without some fondness, hear) where these transitions occurred. One of the albums from that era that warrants a serious reexamination is Pat Benatar’s debut In The Heat of the Night. That album holds up remarkably well (indeed, the only two songs I don’t listen to these days are the two hit singles, the generic FM paint-by-numbers anthem “Heartbreaker” and the egregious Blondie rip-off “We Live For Love”). I’m serious. If you haven’t listened to this one in ages, or never owned it in the first place, I’m sure you can –and should– get a used copy real cheap at Amazon.

Pat Benatar, “In The Heat of the Night”


Another band whose catalog we owned on 8-track was Heart. Speaking of another band that deserves a sustained critical endorsement (mental note): their first five albums were solid, and while Little Queen and Bebe Le Strange are minor masterpieces and the first album, Dreamboat Annie, has one of the great first sides of the ’70s, for my money their finest hour is 1978’s Dog and Butterfly. This one got much play in the Grenada and it still gets a lot of play at my crib. When she was in top form, as she is throughout this album, there were few voices as compelling and out and out sexy as Ann Wilson’s. (Pops had the LP version of Little Queen and I used to happily gaze at that front cover for hours. Still gives me a little tingle even today.)

Heart, “Mistral Wind”:

Pops is from Boston (as was my mother), so in addition to the accent he’s never lost (much to many of my friends’ delight), we cruised up north each Christmas and most summers. These were eight or nine hour jaunts (more if traffic or weather were issues and one or both invariably were) and I recall fantasizing, as a ten year old, how amazing it would be to just kick back and watch movies in the back to pass the time. I think of this now and how lucky today’s snot-nosed little brats are (not that I’m bitter or anything) to have video-on-demand installed into the headrest in front of them.

We got through those trips the old-fashioned way: painfully. Lots of reading, Mad Libs and music. Especially music. By the time I got to high school, sis was in college (ironically, in Boston) and moms usually flew the friendly skies, so it was a mano a mano adventure for many years. My father, being very much a man of routine, had (and has) his favorite discs (then cassettes) for each trip. Many, which we fortunately agreed upon, were mandatory, such as CCR (see below), Skynyrd (ditto), The Beatles (see above), Heart (ditto) and a handful of rotating flavors-of-the-year (I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from his infatuation with the Fine Young Cannibals circa 1989).

Funny story: one of the worst fights we almost got in was not due to alcohol, drugs, or a pregnant cheerleader, but whether or not we could (should) listen to the full (and, in hindsight, insufferable) 18 minute version of “In-A- Gadda-Da-Vida”. The fifteen year old me voted yes. Let me explain: this was the summer of either ’85 or ’86 and I was already long past the point where I took music a bit too seriously. At his request, I brought along one of my mixtapes (a long lost art I could have done graduate work in or made a career out of, had the world ever been kind enough to offer graduate degrees or paychecks for such consequential and benificent endeavors). Anyway, that song came on and about half-way through my pops –because he was sane– grew tired of the interminable organ and drum noodling, and since (although he is a seismologist, has a profoundly anti-technology acumen) he could not figure out how to fast forward the tape (you know, that fast forward button) he told me to move things along. I invited him to do it himself if he was so eager to get through the song. Hilarity ensued. Not one of my finer moments, but it was a matter of principle. And, considering I really did like that song at one time, and had not done any drugs, this proves two things: one need not be stoned, only immature, to find pleasure in Iron Butterfly; and I was, clearly, already pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of the whole music thing.

Iron Butterfly, “In A Gadda Da Vida”

Usually, there were no issues regarding music. Mostly because it’s not that difficult to fill up nine hours. The trips almost always kicked off with CCR, not only one of the all-time great American bands, but absolutely perfect road trip music. Full props to the old man for having an original LP copy of the almost-immaculate Cosmo’s Factory, which I spun like a squeaky clean Jeffrey Lebowski.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Long As I Can See The Light”:

Otis: Because sometimes you have to break out the big guns.

Otis Redding, “Pain In My Heart”:

I knew I liked Skynyrd (I remember when “That Smell” got played on the radio in ’77/’78, and thinking that nobody else sounded like they did) but I did not know I loved Skynyrd until I asked for –and received– the double LP Gold & Platinum for my 12th birthday. This one has the (incredible) live version of “Gimme Three Steps” and, of course, the ultimate (live) Bic Lighter anthem “Free Bird”. Later on I crafted a mix that incorporated more material from the very overlooked Second Helping, but that original cassette copy kept us energized, and sufficiently southern, as we headed north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Simple Man”:

More on the musical memories, and Pops, another time. For now, it’s good enough to give credit where it’s due, celebrate a beloved father’s continued health, and acknowledge 68 (EDIT: 69!) well-lived years. Most of all, it’s nice to know this particular story is still being written.

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May 3: Props on Pops

I have written more than once about my mother (here and here) but I haven’t said a great deal (here) about my old man. That is, in part, because he is still very much with us, and our story is still unfolding. For a variety of obvious reasons, I hope that continues to be the case for a long, long time.

But anyone who knows me understands that my relationship with the old guy (Pops, to me; Jack, to others, Pa, to his two grandchildren), which I’m happy to report has always been more than solid, is a non-negotiable facet of my existence. Certainly, after what he and I (and my sister and her husband) went through during and after the death of my mother, things could never be the way they were. On literal and figurative levels. When I talk to others about this inevitable part of many people’s lives (e.g., losing a parent long before it’s expected or acceptable), I usually offer the opinion, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, that the crisis either pulls families closer together or pushes them farther apart. At least once a day, on some level, I’m grateful that our family had the foundation to rally around one another and work together on healing, a process that is measured not in years or months or even weeks but in days and sometimes minutes. We went through it, together and we’ll go through it, together.

Enough. There are plenty of things to say about Pops, but today, on the occasion of his 68th birthday, I would like to acknowledge, and celebrate, the bond of music that we (like my mother and I) share. Pops is no aficionado, but he has (some) game and I always am pleased to recall the handful of original LPs I happily stole from his collection. One of my earliest musical memories, along with the old Fantasia coloring book sessions, was Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece, the soundtrack of Superfly. It is not an overstatement to suggest that this album set an aesthetic tone early in my formative development that made me more open (and, of course, susceptible) to all types of music. But no need to linger on the nuances; the nitty gritty of the situation is that holding the original fold-out double album of this blaxploitation classic was a seminal ’70s experience. It was immensely gratifying to give the old man a copy of the remastered reissue of this bad boy on his birthday in 1998.

Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”:

 

Another one that was in his slight but not unimpressive collection was the original pressing of Janis Joplin’s last joint, Pearl. I even have a picture of him, on his birthday (must have been ’71), happily holding the album up. Shame on me and not getting my scanner set up yet (stay tuned, and be forewarned). Of the “big three” who left us that unfortunate year, Pops never cared much for Jim, and never fell deeply in love (as he should have) with Jimi, but he did –and does– love Janis. Who could blame him?

Janis Joplin, “Get It While You Can”:

 

Wonderful memory: remember back in the ’80s when radio stations (even before “classic rock” stations became all the rage mid-decade) used to do their Top 500 countdowns on holidays (often either Memorial Day or Labor Day but occasionally July 4)? I used to live for those things and would listen, dutifully scribbling down the entries. Anyway, back in the early ’80s it was very unusual to hear unedited, long songs on the radio. So a song like Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” was one of those rare treats you’d catch a couple of times a year, if you were lucky. I didn’t own that album (yet) but that only made it more of an event if/when it came on. During one of the countdowns, on July 4, this one came on and Pops and I were heading back from the pool to cook out pre-fireworks. The famous “talk box” section was yet to occur, so we pulled up in the driveway and Pops simply let the car idle. Too enraptured in the moment to even miss a few seconds before we could dash into the house and turn it on the stereo, we sat there, in our soaked swimsuits and savored the moment. These are the types of shared encounters that, I suspect, sustain the father-son relationship a decade down the road when curfews are being tested and new boundaries are being established.

Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do”:

 

1980: there weren’t a ton of bands (or albums) that all of us could enjoy (and by all of us, I mean my parents and me because my sister was never on board although, by 1980 she was already a teenager, so we’ll forgive her), but Bob Seger’s Against The Wind definitely made the cut. In fact, that may have been the only album (aside from The Beatles’ Blue Album) that we owned on LP (mine), cassette (hers) and 8-track (his). Pops has always had a thing for Seger and insists he is a better live performer than Bruce Springsteen (he has never seen either in concert, so we’ll forgive him).

Bob Seger, “No Man’s Land”:

Speaking of 8-tracks…

The Ford Grenada (speaking of the early ’80s!) sported an 8-track and anyone who lived then may recall the not exactly cutting edge way this “technology” handled the transition from one “track” to the other: if a song had not ended before the next “track” was programmed, it would just fade out where it was, then click, and fade back in (I’m sure the artists at the time were thrilled with this development and the ways it butchered their songs). There are more than a handful of albums we owned that, to this day, I can remember (and still, not without some fondness, hear) where these transitions occurred. One of the albums from that era that warrants a serious reexamination is Pat Benatar’s debut In The Heat of the Night. That album holds up remarkably well (indeed, the only two songs I don’t listen to these days are the two hit singles, the generic FM paint-by-numbers anthem “Heartbreaker” and the egregious Blondie rip-off “We Live For Love”). I’m serious. If you haven’t listened to this one in ages, or never owned it in the first place, I’m sure you can –and should– get a used copy real cheap at Amazon.

Pat Benatar, “In The Heat of the Night”

Another band whose catalog we owned on 8-track was Heart. Speaking of another band that deserves a sustained critical endorsement (mental note): their first five albums were solid, and while Little Queen and Bebe Le Strange are minor masterpieces and the first album, Dreamboat Annie, has one of the great first sides of the ’70s, for my money their finest hour is 1978’s Dog and Butterfly. This one got much play in the Grenada and it still gets a lot of play at my crib. When she was in top form, as she is throughout this album, there were few voices as compelling and out and out sexy as Ann Wilson’s. (Pops had the LP version of Little Queen and I used to happily gaze at that front cover for hours. Still gives me a little tingle even today.)

Heart, “Mistral Wind”:

Pops is from Boston (as was my mother), so in addition to the accent he’s never lost (much to many of my friends’ delight), we cruised up north each Christmas and most summers. These were eight or nine hour jaunts (more if traffic or weather were issues and one or both invariably were) and I recall fantasizing, as a ten year old, how amazing it would be to just kick back and watch movies in the back to pass the time. I think of this now and how lucky today’s snot-nosed little brats are (not that I’m bitter or anything) to have video-on-demand installed into the headrest in front of them.

We got through those trips the old-fashioned way: painfully. Lots of reading, Mad Libs and music. Especially music. By the time I got to high school, sis was in college (ironically, in Boston) and moms usually flew the friendly skies, so it was a mano a mano adventure for many years. My father, being very much a man of routine, had (and has) his favorite discs (then cassettes) for each trip. Many, which we fortunately agreed upon, were mandatory, such as CCR (see below), Skynyrd (ditto), The Beatles (see above), Heart (ditto) and a handful of rotating flavors-of-the-year (I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from his infatuation with the Fine Young Cannibals circa 1989).

Funny story: one of the worst fights we almost got in was not due to alcohol, drugs, or a pregnant cheerleader, but whether or not we could (should) listen to the full (and, in hindsight, insufferable) 18 minute version of “In-A- Gadda-Da-Vida”. The fifteen year old me voted yes. Let me explain: this was the summer of either ’85 or ’86 and I was already long past the point where I took music a bit too seriously. At his request, I brought along one of my mixtapes (a long lost art I could have done graduate work in or made a career out of, had the world ever been kind enough to offer graduate degrees or paychecks for such consequential and benificent endeavors). Anyway, that song came on and about half-way through my pops –because he was sane– grew tired of the interminable organ and drum noodling, and since (although he is a seismologist, has a profoundly anti-technology acumen) he could not figure out how to fast forward the tape (you know, that fast forward button) he told me to move things along. I invited him to do it himself if he was so eager to get through the song. Hilarity ensued. Not one of my finer moments, but it was a matter of principle. And, considering I really did like that song at one time, and had not done any drugs, this proves two things: one need not be stoned, only immature, to find pleasure in Iron Butterfly; and I was, clearly, already pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of the whole music thing.

Iron Butterfly, “In A Gadda Da Vida”

Usually, there were no issues regarding music. Mostly because it’s not that difficult to fill up nine hours. The trips almost always kicked off with CCR, not only one of the all-time great American bands, but absolutely perfect road trip music. Full props to the old man for having an original LP copy of the almost-immaculate Cosmo’s Factory, which I spun like a squeaky clean Jeffrey Lebowski.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Long As I Can See The Light”:

Otis: Because sometimes you have to break out the big guns.

Otis Redding, “Pain In My Heart”:

I knew I liked Skynyrd (I remember when “That Smell” got played on the radio in ’77/’78, and thinking that nobody else sounded like they did) but I did not know I loved Skynyrd until I asked for –and received– the double LP Gold & Platinum for my 12th birthday. This one has the (incredible) live version of “Gimme Three Steps” and, of course, the ultimate (live) Bic Lighter anthem “Free Bird”. Later on I crafted a mix that incorporated more material from the very overlooked Second Helping, but that original cassette copy kept us energized, and sufficiently southern, as we headed north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Simple Man”:

More on the musical memories, and Pops, another time. For now, it’s good enough to give credit where it’s due, celebrate a beloved father’s continued health, and acknowledge 68 well-lived years. Most of all, it’s nice to know this particular story is still being written.

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Six (Not So) Easy Pieces

rock

Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from my good friend (and music lover, high school English teacher and soccer coach) Marc Cascio, who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:

In his brilliant book…Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:

“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).

What would you guys choose, and why?

(Before I share Marc’s list, and my own, I’ll make a few comments about Levitin’s. It manages to underwhelm because it is at once too safe and yet also too…ambitious? Not sure if that’s the right word, but in my opinion, Levitin fell into the same inevitable trap most music aficionados will have difficulty avoiding. Trust me, once you try, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Levitin does an admirable job of trying to span time and genre: he includes the obligatory pre-Elvis rock staple; in this case, a seminal tune by Little Richard, the man who, along with Chuck Berry, arguably did more than anyone else to invent rock and roll, or at least provide the blueprint for the type of music that became rock and roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and a billion other British white boys tried their damndest to evoke and imitate that distinctive sound. Sure enough, he picks one from The Beatles, and he happens to pick one of the worst songs by the Fab Four: a rather limp cover of the great Chuck Berry. Why not just list Berry’s version? That would seem to at once to give Berry his well-warranted props and also avoid embarrassing how lame The Beatles sound by comparison…particularly when there are many dozen essential, inimitable songs The Beatles would go on to create, all of which, in their own ways, did as much to define and expand the possibilities of rock music as anyone who has ever picked up an instrument. So two issues: are we properly concerned with the stepping stones and giving adequate acknowledgment to the forefathers? After all, without their guidance the British invasion would have never made it across the pond. But if we go down that road, we would certainly be obliged to include at least a song apiece by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. So, if we are trying to distinguish between the blueprints as opposed to the archetypes, shouldn’t we focus purely on the six songs –recorded by whoever, whenever– that “capture all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Returning to Levitin’s list, his desire to include different genres is laudable, but that brings up myriad issues: he goes after punk (Sex Pistols) and synthesized pop-funk (Prince) and…well, hard to say what ground he’s covering with Clapton (mawkish soft rock?) and it’s difficult to find fault with any list that ever includes Jimi Hendrix. But what about country-rock? Or heavy metal? Or folk? Or blues, which is like the oxygen without with the primitive rock amoeba could never have oozed onto shore. Or…you get the picture. The only way I can see avoiding this dilemma is by copping out and constructing multiple lists that address the prototypes (Chuck Berry et al.), the genre-spanning mavericks (The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few) and the various incarnations that incorporated the fads of the time (from prog-rock to death metal). And that would be a worthwhile exercise, but the task at hand is to, as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible).

pete-townsend-415x334

Here is Marc’s list:

“Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “Think” (Aretha Franklin), “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles), “Meeting Across The River” (Bruce Springsteen), “May This Be Love” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Kashmir” (Led Zeppelin).

That is a pretty solid list. It is, in many ways, more satisfying, in my estimation, than Levitin’s. But even Marc (understandably) attempts to cover the basics (with Berry), the essential soul element (Aretha) and the heavyweights (The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and while those are two of the more influential songs by either band, perhaps the ultimate dilemma is paring down both of those band’s catalogs to pick just one song: the best Beatles song? The most important Led Zeppelin tune? The one song by either band that most satisfactorily speaks for what rock music can be? Good luck with that).

But as anyone who has read Utopian literature can attest, (or anyone who has a favorite sports team or preferred religion, for that matter), one person’s nirvana is another person’s perdition. So perhaps any list will say more about the person making it, and the person responding to it, than the actual songs themselves. Plus, it’s not as though there is any truly objective mechanism to determine which songs signify the sine qua non of rock and roll. Plus, how rock and roll is it to agonize over what songs actually define rock and roll? Perhaps the ultimate point (at least for the types of dorks who enjoy making and comparing lists like this in the first place) is to react and respond; there is no Aristotlean list, or any type of Platonic ideal. Rock, after all, is dirty, imperfect and immutable. The only thing that counts, in the end, is authenticity.

the-clash

And with that, here is my imperfect, dirty, but very authentic list:

(I can’t even begin without a caveat: my first list included John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, because to me, this one has all the elements; this is the primal DNA, bringing in boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, and folk element: this is the sound so many early rockers hoped to imitate, even the ones who didn’t realize it. But anything that is not purely rock and roll simply cannot be included on this particular list…)

1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)

Despite what was said above, any list of essential rock songs simply cannot fail to include Chuck Berry. End of story. Plus, of all the early Berry hits, this one brings in some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar –a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock and roll song, this is rock and roll.

2. “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Yeah boy. Creedence had already dragged folk and blues through the bayou and paid their obligatory dues at the altar of psychedelic inspiration, and once that was out of their system, John Fogerty locked in and began writing tight, compact, perfect rock songs. He is firing on every cylinder here: the piss and vinegar of the chorus, the sociopolitical import of the lyrics (same –and true– as it ever was, more than four decades later) and the irresistible groove: it is angry, indignant and indelible — and it’s all over in two minutes and nineteen seconds.

3. “Rocks Off” (The Rolling Stones)

It was a down-to-the-wire decision to pick this one or the runner-up, “Brown Sugar”. Either one would suffice, but this one (almost impossible when considering “Brown Sugar”) actually does rock more…and it has “rock” in its title. “Brown Sugar” is a bit dirtier (sonically and lyrically) and has one of the ultimate rock and roll riffs of all time, but “Rocks Off” has every element of what makes The Stones the consummate rock band: the whole history of music is crammed into virtually everything they recorded between ’68 and ’72, and it’s all on ugly, beautiful display here. You really could offer this one up to someone who has never listened to rock music and simply say “Here you go”. There is no guarantee that they’ll like it, but there is no question that after only one listen, they’ll get it.

4. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)

Kind of like Beethoven emulated Bach and ended up, in many ways, being better, Bruce Springsteen wanted to sound like Roy Orbison (including name-checking him a few lines into this, the first song on his masterpiece Born To Run), and wound up transcending him. This is the complete package: the harmonica, piano, guitar and glockenspiel (!), this song is an entire lifetime in under five minutes. It also has one of the best beginnings and endings of any song, ever. And if Chuck Berry was singing to hopeful sock hoppers just getting their driver’s licenses, The Boss was talking to young adults who had already graduated but were still capable of dreaming.

5. “London Calling” (The Clash)

Punk? Please. The Clash always represented the melting pot that rock music, at its best, can be. Joe Strummer is God. The Clash was the only band that mattered. Any further questions?

6. “Tattooed Love Boys” (The Pretenders)

In part because it was impossible to pick between “My City Was Gone” and “Middle of the Road” (or “Back on the Chain Gang” for that matter…holy shit, was Learning To Crawl a fantastic album or what?), but also because of the many, many songs that kick much ass by the great Pretenders, it’s hard to top “Tattooed Love Boys”. While Chrissie Hynde was undoubtedly the baddest bitch on the block, she is also an uncommonly gifted writer and her vocals go toe-to-toe with anyone (male or female) who has ever stepped up to a mic.

Anyone who knows me can guess that I’m already disappointed with my own list. How could I not be? The inherent limitation of picking only six songs is infuriating. It also, I reckon, is the point. It would be less interesting, or perhaps less fun, to have more flexibility. And then: how much easier would this task actually be if you had ten songs? Twenty? In some ways, it might be even more difficult because then the (unavoidable) omissions would seem even more glaring. (What, no Sabbath? No Skynyrd? No Halen? No Who? No Beatles? No Doors?  No Floyd?  No Zep? No Heart? No Boys? No Neil? No Rush? No R.E.M.? No Smiths?  No Brains? No SK? No LC? I know…)

So: the only way this exercise is worthwhile is to share it. And see what other people think. I’ve shown you mine; show me yours.

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Don’t Call It A Comeback or, I Sold My Soul for Old Milwaukee

As the famous Canadian philosopher Neil Peart once opined, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.

The CD is dead; long live the LP!

Check it out: Best Buy To Devote Retail Space to Albums on Vinyl.

New York After a successful test in 100 of its stores, electronics and media retail chain Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) plans to set aside eight square feet of retail space in each of its more than 1,000 stores for vinyl records, according to the New York Post. The space equates to about 200 albums. Vinyl sales were up 89% in 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

If this is true, maybe it’s time to bust out a few of my favorite things*? (Well, I would if I could. But they are all gone; all sold to the lowest bidder during what we’ll call a transitional period in my formative years.)

   

   

   

   

*All part of the original collection, some inherited from my father and friend’s fathers, as well as ones I procured, new and used. Of course, this topic is an unfortunate reminder of how many old-school LPs I practically gave away to used record stores in college. But what was I supposed to do? As the wizened Talmudic scholar Qohelet (also known as Ecclesisastes) advised, “Rejoice O young man in thy youth…” How did I know that the precious LPs I was trading in for beer money would someday be worth some serious coin (what I sold for Old Milwaukee I could now sell for Blanton’s, not that I’d be overly keen to sell out so easily these days…and, needless to say, those beer runs never resulted in any clam bakes or made-for-TV moments; come to think of it, that’s probably not such a bad thing).

Then again, as the famous philosopher from NYC W. Joel sagely observed, “There’s a place in the world for the angry young man”. True enough, but what about his vintage vinyl collection?

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They Will Rock You (They Are The Champions)

Part One: Introduction (and Apology)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

 

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

 

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

 

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M.  3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

 

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

 

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

 

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

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