All Hail the King: Chuck Berry Reinvented Music, and America

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It’s not important whether or not Chuck Berry “invented” rock ‘n’ roll, and the crucial thing isn’t that he perfected it. It’s that we call rock ‘n’ roll would sound much different and be a lot less unique and ecstatic if not for the template he provided.

As large as Berry looms in American music history, getting a handle on the immensity of his importance has, until now, been somewhat difficult. Certainly, the Matryoshka Principle applies, as it must with any progenitor: when you’ve indelibly influenced the artists who have influenced the artists who have influenced the artists, this succession of homages (intentional or not) is at once unequivocal but somehow insufficient. When we stop and consider the masters, whose earliest stuff sounds ancient, even derivative (think The Beatles’ earnest but stiff efforts, or even The Rolling Stones’ more convincing but still saccharine and stylized imitations), as desperate attempts to replicate Berry, it puts things in more appropriate perspective. Chuck Berry is pater familias of a whole new American music; he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll—he just made it inevitable.

To younger ears, some of the hits may sound a tad redundant, variations on a recurring motif. If so, the same could be said about the parables within the New Testament. And like that slightly momentous text, these themes are meant as both foundation and instruction manual. All of which is not to say Berry wasn’t an extremely perceptive and versatile pupil: he’d studied the blues, jazz and country music that, thrown into an aesthetic blender, rock music overflowed from. Henceforth, it would forever be a gumbo of competing and complimentary source points, but Berry’s first-person flights of fancy still represent its most undiluted potential.

Recorded in May, 1955, “Maybellene” signifies the proverbial Big Bang: a blueprint for the type of music that became rock ‘n’ roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and myriad opportunistic white boys tried their damnedest to evoke that singular sound. In addition to being the first salvo, it’s arguably the most significant, as it merges much of what came before and hinted at what we’d be hearing much more of—from Berry and others: 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 ‘n’ roll song, this is rock ‘n’ roll.

While Elvis seems to have a stranglehold on the spurious “King of Rock” crown, history won’t forget that Chuck Berry did not simply (!) write the modern songbook from which a million simulations sprang, he himself was the prototype, the complete package to whom all contenders must defer. For example, where both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis played piano, Berry stood center stage, yielding the instrument that would underlie rock’s evolving ethos: electric guitar. His guitar is like an M.C., introducing each of those consequential early singles, and it rides shotgun, rhythm and lead, equal billing to Berry’s confident voice. Never a work-in-progress, Berry arrived fully-formed, like a clay god formed on Olympus. Another crucial distinction: Berry sang the songs he wrote, becoming in effect the first rock frontman, incorporating swagger, charisma, perfect hair and the devilish glint to offset the angelic voice. Or, if you like, all the assets of Lennon/McCartney (or Jagger/Richards) rolled into one.

Enough can never be said about the fact that Berry was the original triple-threat: musician, singer and lyricist (add in the stage antics, including his epic duck walking, and you have the magic recipe emulated by diverse legends ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to Prince). While justly celebrated as rock’s first “poet”—and certainly a prototype for subsequent singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan—the whole “elevating lyrics to poetry” approbation is not erroneous, but it still misses the mark: Berry’s songs are straight-up short stories. What transpires in the three minutes (or less!) of condensed pop perfection like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “You Never Can Tell” is narrative. The song serves as a vehicle for adventure or escape or deliverance is something Bruce Springsteen has made a career out of, and compared to the early work of The Beach Boys, Beatles and Stones (all of whom covered or outright copied Berry), what Berry achieved between 1955 and 1961 seems like literature.

The smart money, then, predicts that time will only affirm and reinforce Berry’s place at the top of the pantheon. With his death, it also seems likely we’ll get a more thorough and nuanced assessment of Chuck Berry’s cultural importance, which runs the clichéd spectrum of good, bad and ugly. Before, during and especially after his commercial peak, Berry was at once a trailblazer in matters of race and perhaps racist America’s most conspicuous casualty.

Did Berry, often depicted as his own worst enemy at times, simply pay the price for breaking a law (however racially inspired and enforced)? Or was he another irresistible target for a white establishment intent on keeping black men—regardless of or else because of their popularity—in their place, like Jack Johnson before him and Muhammad Ali after him? Is there any reason it isn’t a bit of both? If any icon of the 20th Century could be said to contain multitudes in the Whitmanesque sense, it’s Berry.

Let’s hope that Berry’s indiscretions and defects, somewhat glossed over since most of his life occurred before the proliferation of tabloids, not to mention the internet, will not now dominate discussions of why his music will endure. However understandably, we hate being reminded that so many of our best artists tend to be repugnant people. As such, it would be more than a little ironic if a man who paid the price in all the most hackneyed, but very real, ways—whether against “the man” or white bands making millions from his formula, or being yet another musician cheated out of more millions by the charlatans who’ve often run the music business—ends up being posthumously besmirched for character flaws too many white artists have had overlooked or forgiven.

Much has been made of the fact that Berry, embittered and paranoid, showed up, alone, at gigs, demanded payment (in cash) up front, and didn’t care if amateurs he’d neither met nor rehearsed with shared the stage. Was he selling out, or just honest enough to acknowledge he was already an oldies act, and shrewd enough to know that he was the draw? To be sure, audiences would not have continued showing up, decade after decade, if he routinely dispensed incompetent performances. Plus, what does it say about a man who didn’t want, or couldn’t abide, either the comradery of regular bandmates or hangers-on? Perhaps Berry lasted—and thrived—as long as he did because he was tough enough not to need anyone else. Not unlike Jackie Robinson, Berry broke barriers, and while he made good money during his career, his American Dream extracted a heavy toll.

How much easier would it have been if he’d been willing (able?) to play the game; if he could ingratiate himself the way we demand of our artists, and athletes? That he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—isn’t a tragedy; if he had, it’s worth wondering whether he would have made the same music. Every time his amply documented quirks and recalcitrance are recalled, we should never forget the original line in “Johnny B. Goode” was not “country boy” but “colored boy”. With a combination of talent, dedication, and tenacity, he willed himself to be that brown-eyed, handsome man, a king within a segregated state.

We never could quite catch him, and now he’s gone…like a cool breeze? No, that’s too easy, but also inaccurate. The cool breeze is what he became; what he invented. That was the persona he perfected, equal parts shield from and artifice for the world, a world that could never fully fathom or appreciate what he meant, what he signifies, as an artist and American. He was the cool breeze. But he took that air with him and what’s left is an arid void, silent, and more than a little sad. It’s also something awe-inspiring and unconquerable.

This article originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/24/17.

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

5/8/2011:

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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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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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius

 

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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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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