Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #10 & #9 (Revisted)

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

9. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Stupid title. Silly cover. Blatant attempt to steal some thunder from The Beatles, who were possibly at the height of their critical and commercial influence following Sgt. Pepper. So what? The fact of the matter is that this is far from a failure, no matter how many people want to slag off this lesser Stones album. Perhaps time was on its side, or there has been some retribution, equal parts ironic and inevitable, which has seen Sgt. Pepper taken down a few pegs, while there isn’t quite as much venom spewed about Satanic. This was certainly not the Stones effort that spilled over with hits (again, so what?) but taken one by one, there is much to like—or at least defend—in lesser-known tunes like “Gomper”, “The Lantern” and “Citadel” (think Iggy Pop listened to that one a few thousand times?).

And then there are the winners: “She’s A Rainbow” (which gleefully rips off Arthur Lee and Love’s “She Comes in Colors” more than it does anything from Sgt. Pepper) and the band’s unique, convincing and corny stab at psychedelia, “2000 Light Years From Home”. And then the masterpiece that inexplicably brings together both Kiss and Wes Anderson: “2000 Man”. It may not be “A Day in the Life” but if you had to listen to one song once a day for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? I know which one I’d go with (and my kids, they just don’t understand me at all).

The historic import of this one is not inconsiderable, either: up until now The Stones were forever in the Fab Four’s shadow, enjoying (or being consigned to) being bad guys and competing as best they could. This was the last time they played the underdog role and beginning with Beggars Banquet their albums were never compared unfavorably with The Beatles’, or anyone else’s for that matter. On this album, even though it sounded very little like Sgt. Pepper, imitation was still the sincerest form of flattery. Its ostensible failure likely caused the band to realize that the rules they had been following were largely self-imposed, and once they got outside that box nobody could stand in their way. They took their lumps, upped the ante and then gleefully kicked every other act out of the way.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine*: Part One

Merry Christmas to me.

So, a year or so ago I did something I’d been meaning –and promising– to do for ages: I acquired a turntable.

I knew it was inevitable. I still had that blue milk crate in my old man’s basement. I still had about one quarter of the albums I used to own; the ones I had not given away, lost or sold for (literal) pennies on the dollar back when I, like everyone else under the age of 30, was convinced that albums were irrelevant and traded them in, cheap, to acquire more compact discs. The story has a happy ending, sort of: I still have all the CDs I bought, going back to 1986 (ask anyone who has been to my place), and I tended to keep the LPs that meant the most to me, either for sentimental or aesthetic reasons. As a result I typically sold albums of more recent vintage, invariably by more forgettable acts. Since LPs did not have nearly the street cred, or value they would gradually accrue after a couple of decades, it was the “hit” albums that had a better chance of being sold at used record stores circa 1988.

Sidenote: it’s important for younger people to know, if impossible for them to understand, how different the world used to be. By the time the mid-’80s rolled around, some of us embraced digital technology like it was the Holy Grail. The act of purchasing an album meant immediately making a recording of it on a thing called a cassette (ask your parents): the reason for this was that from the first time you played a new album it would never sound that good again. Things like dust, time and repeated listens invariably caused skips and old-fashioned wear and tear. So in essence, you made a “pristine” copy on a demonstrably lower-fidelity solution (cassettes, which gave birth to thing called mixed tapes, of which more, HERE), in order to preserve that unsullied sound. Thus, when compact discs arrived, the notion of hearing it for the first time, every time was about as inconceivable, and magical as time travel (much more on that phenomenon and all it entailed, HERE). Listening to a compact disc was, for old-timers, what seeing Blu-ray was like for today’s lucky punks, only ten-fold (hundred-fold? million-fold?); it was like listening to the voice of God. And, if like me, the musicians you listened to were worshipped like gods, it all made a sick, wonderful sort of sense.

Of course, in recent times, turntables have assumed a new life, in part inevitable hipster bandwagon jumping, understandable nostalgia and the ceaselessly cyclical imperatives of trends and fashion. As such, people have increasingly asked me: Do you rock old school vinyl? I had to answer, no, but not for lack of trying. Not anymore. And in the meantime, I’ve had the opportunity to raid a good friend’s attic, I’ve had a colleague with a thing for estate sales scoping out the stacks, and above all, the aforementioned milk crate. With the turntable fully functional, and being home for the holiday, I made the sentimental journey down those wooden steps and there it sat, resilient yet filthy after about a quarter-century of neglect. I poked through, holding my nose as the dust flew in every direction. I also held my breath, figuratively: I had little recollection of what I’d saved and what I’d consigned, unwittingly, in the full flowering of arrogant youth, to the dustbin of history. Almost miraculously, so many of the wonderful memories were staring back up at me, wise eyes that had been abandoned for too long, ready to forgive, forget and air it out on the wheels of steel. There they were, the ones I’d bought, the ones I’d received as gifts, the ones my best friend’s father, a rehabilitated hippie, gave me in the early ’80s, and the handful my old man (not an aficionado, but not without a little game, of which more HERE) held over from the great old days.

It was information and memory load, in a good way. To think that my 7th grade nephew helped me lug the heavy crate to my car was, if not full circle, at least semi-full and not without its own unforced poetry.

What follows is a celebration, in two parts, of some of the finds that have provided the most delight and joy. To be certain, all of these are available in my digital library, and some receive repeated airplay. But the tactile sensation of seeing them, touching them, and then listening to them…let’s put it this way: when’s the last time you heard a needle easing down onto an LP? That impossible-to-replicate crackle, and then the warmth of that sound? For me it had been at least since high school and that is entirely too long. Hosting good friends for cocktails the other night I was struck by one thing above all else: how often I had to keep getting up to put a new record on. In a world of discs, iPods and shuffling playlists, it is arresting to recall that, at most, albums typically lasted 20 minutes per side. During the course of a lubricated evening, that is a lot of 20 minute intervals (and a lot less depending on how old the album in question is). That will inexorably lead to sobering thoughts: how old we are, how young we were, how much slower everything seemed, and mostly the irretrievable reality that we used to spend a great deal of time with analog sounds and hard-cover books because there were no other alternatives. It’s, as always, better to have more options and enjoy the best of all worlds. But it’s nice to take that long, strange trip down the yellow-brick road and remember all the things you realize, as you listen, you never really forgot.

*Incidentally, this milk crate was a gold mine of sorts, but the title comes from a great song full of inscrutable (if evocative) images and lines, by one of my all-time favorite bands. (Much more on them, HERE.) That line provided the title for a double LP collection that figured prominently in young Murph’s musical evolution. That’s it in the front row, peaking out at my old man’s original pressing of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Respect!

So, in chronological order, let’s take a look at ten original album covers, and feature a personal favorite from each album.

(Rescued/redeemed from a box in an attic. To have some original Beatles vinyl is like finding dinosaur bones. Sound quality: tolerable!) “Think For Yourself”:

(From my boy’s old man, handed over like an heirloom from another family; you can still smeel the skunk weed in the grooves. Figuratively.) “White Room”:

(This is actually a pretty medicore effort from Jim’s “Fat Elvis” period, but appreciate the misleading original cover, and the fact that it does not exist with this cover, even on CD.) “Universal Mind”:

(From the Jack R. Murphy archives; he was appreciating Creedence when The Big Lebowski was still a pup.) “Ramble Tamble”:

(Another one from my 5th grade best friend’s father, an original with the actual zipper on the cover. Believe that shit.) “Moonlight Mile”:

To be continued…

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #10 & #9

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

9. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Stupid title. Silly cover. Blatant attempt to steal some thunder from The Beatles, who were possibly at the height of their critical and commercial influence following Sgt. Pepper. So what? The fact of the matter is that this is far from a failure, no matter how many people want to slag off this lesser Stones album. Perhaps time was on its side, or there has been some retribution, equal parts ironic and inevitable, which has seen Sgt. Pepper taken down a few pegs, while there isn’t quite as much venom spewed about Satanic. This was certainly not the Stones effort that spilled over with hits (again, so what?) but taken one by one, there is much to like—or at least defend—in lesser-known tunes like “Gomper”, “The Lantern” and “Citadel” (think Iggy Pop listened to that one a few thousand times?).

And then there are the winners: “She’s A Rainbow” (which gleefully rips off Arthur Lee and Love’s “She Comes in Colors” more than it does anything from Sgt. Pepper) and the band’s unique, convincing and corny stab at psychedelia, “2000 Light Years From Home”. And then the masterpiece that inexplicably brings together both Kiss and Wes Anderson: “2000 Man”. It may not be “A Day in the Life” but if you had to listen to one song once a day for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? I know which one I’d go with (and my kids, they just don’t understand me at all).

The historic import of this one is not inconsiderable, either: up until now The Stones were forever in the Fab Four’s shadow, enjoying (or being consigned to) being bad guys and competing as best they could. This was the last time they played the underdog role and beginning with Beggars Banquet their albums were never compared unfavorably with The Beatles’, or anyone else’s for that matter. On this album, even though it sounded very little like Sgt. Pepper, imitation was still the sincerest form of flattery. Its ostensible failure likely caused the band to realize that the rules they had been following were largely self-imposed, and once they got outside that box nobody could stand in their way. They took their lumps, upped the ante and then gleefully kicked every other act out of the way.

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Memorial Day*

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts. “You got a problem? I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off. He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip. He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers. He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling. Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see?

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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Hubert Sumlin, R.I.P.

Another giant of whom we’ll never see the likes of again has left the planet. R.I.P. Hubert Sumlin.

I’ll resist the urge to say it’s the least they could do, since at least they are doing something, and acknowledge this nice gesture by the Glimmer Twins (who owe a great deal to Sumlin and his former employer).

You can usually measure an artist’s legacy by the people who worship said artist. If the names Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix mean anything to you, it should provide some manner of perspective for how huge and influential this understated guitarist was –and will remain. Like all great artists (musicians or writers) he knew instinctively to do more with less and use silence as strategy. Although he was remarkably proficient (listen to his grease-in-a-frying-pan lead on the immortal “Killing Floor”, later covered to excellent effect by a young Hendrix) he also had the smarts to step back and let the almost overpowering presence of Howlin’ Wolf run rampant. The result is the cool and effortless grace that so many subsequent rock stars trying to play authentic blues –including some of the ones listed above– have ably imitated but never duplicated.

The Wolf, of course, would have still been a supernova without the (amazing) band he assembled; he was too much of a force of nature, musically and otherwise, to settle for less. But he was wise enough to employ and retain Sumlin, who gave those old Chess classics their distintive edge and inimitable swagger.

 

Back in June 2010, while celebrating the centennial of the great Howlin’ Wolf’s birth, I had this to say:

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolf?

Plenty of people, and for good reason.

Fortunately for us, we are not sketchy record company executives or anyone else who may have unwittingly crossed his path during the Wolf’s  prime. Chester Arthur Burnett was big and he was a bad man (the same way James Brown and Charles Mingus were bad men: they knew they were geniuses and they suffered fools poorly, as geniuses are obliged –and allowed– to do). Unfortunately for us, he is gone and has been for over a quarter of a century. Indeed, he moved on to that great pack in the sky early in 1976 — a very appropriate year for this most American of blues legends. June 10, 2010 marked his centennial, and he remains an artist who cannot be imitated and whose unmistakable growl can probably never be adequately explained or understood.

Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.

I never had the opportunity to watch Wolf live but it does not take too much to imagine what he looked and sounded like, particularly during the ’50s. Considering there are few, if any, more menacing and addictive singers on record; it’s at once easy and impossible to get a handle on how unsettling (and ecstatic) it would have been to sit in a small auditorium and not believe your own eyes and ears.

Along with his ace guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Wolf made some of the most covered (if essentially uncoverable) blues classics of that era. Many lesser men took a crack at numbers like “Sitting On Top of the World”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster” (think Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, to name a handful of the more opportunistic pups). Despite how embarrassing many of these efforts sound in comparison to the original versions, most of these bright-eyed white boys were paying genuine tribute to the man they admired. And Wolf, benefitting from the publicity these bands provided as well as his own shrewd business acumen, was one of the very few blues immortals who actually earned money during his lifetime.

You read advice like this all the time (and no matter how enthusiastically I endorse a particular artist, I try to dispense it judiciously) but if you’ve ever taken someone’s word for it when they say “your life is lacking if you don’t have this” take my word for it and drop the ten bucks on this indispensable document. It’s not just that you are depriving yourself of one of the singular voices of the last century, you are actually missing an important chunk of America itself. Put another way, touchstones like “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Sitting On Top Of The World” endure less as (merely) American songs and more as components of this country’s unique sensibility. Believe your ears because they are, in fact, even more than that.

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Say It Ain’t So, Colicchio

colic

After having the cock of one of the world’s largest corporations in your mouth, there’s nothing quite like a refreshing Diet Coke to wash it down. Right Tom?

Ouch.

Listen, I’m not getting my priggish panties in a twist about anyone seizing the opportunity to shill for sick amounts of money. That is the American way. Certainly, it’s fair to ask any celebrity at what point it behooves them to wipe their asses with hundred dollar bills instead of ten dollar bills (particularly in the no longer rare instances where recovered iconoclasts, with no apparent sense of irony, urinate on their legacies by becoming what they once despised). By the same token, it’s fair to ask: would any citizen, if offered unbelievable bucks to proclaim their desire to buy the world a  Coke, turn it down? Most wouldn’t, and it’s because most citizens are not already wealthy. For the ones who already have more money than they can count, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that their lust for filthy lucre has torpedoed their self-respect. So what?

Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Top Chef(I’m especially a fan of Padma Lakshmi) and despite the whole reality show silliness and inflated self-seriousness of the judges, there is no question that these people have dedicated their lives to food. The stakes (being “top chef” is obviously subjective and one wonders how transparently camera-ready the contestants are to be chosen to compete in the first place) are subjective and almost irrelevant (though not to the winner who gets a nice sum of money and, in this day and age, the certainty of a book deal or at least sufficient clout to attract investors for the financing of their own restaurants), but the focus is on preparing good food, period. That is its own reward (for the contestants, for the viewers) and any emphasis on healthy eating is undeniably a positive development in our fast food nation. Therein lies the proverbial rub. Let’s get real: just being on a network show (no matter how benevolent or banal the show in question might be) involves an acknowledged endorsement of corporate interests (hence the product placements in the Top Chef series, “brought to you by the Glad family of products”…). That’s the nature of the game, and anyone who claims there is a way to entirely avoid some semblance of compromise is naive about how information (no matter how benevolent or banal) gets disseminated to a large audience. Therefore, if everyone one sees on TV has to some degree sold out, what’s the problem?

To bastardize Orwell, some sell-outs are less equal than others. For instance, the astute reader might point out that the aforementioned Ms. Lakshmi has herself pimped product, including a notorious (and yes, very sexy) commercial for a poor man’s McDonald’s.  Here’s the thing: I have no…beef with that for two reasons. One, Lakshmi not only avows that she actually does, on occasion, enjoy a greasy burger, but one can actually believe she is telling the truth. But two, and more importantly, she is not pretending that the disgusting mass-produced slop is anything other than what it is. Indeed, she is celebrating her willingness to periodically enjoy a meal that is, aesthetically and organically, virtually opposite of any of the meals she judges on her show. This is neither hypocritical nor offensive.

padma

If Colicchio had a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up (to paraphrase Eddie Murphy pretending to quote Richard Pryor),it would be difficult to single him out for any unique offense. Even the commercial from above is pretty innocuous. For whatever it’s worth, I would never have noticed it, much less been outraged by it. It is actually the advertisement I saw in a magazine the other day (which I can’t seem to find online, so if anyone can track it down, send along and I’ll include in this post), which features Colicchio improbably enjoying a Diet Coke with what looks to be a delectably healthy portion of salmon. Even this is trivial, but it’s the text of the ad that invokes nausea: Good Taste Is Knowing How To Eat Right.Oh really? So, unlike Padma, you are not content to throw it out there that you enjoy the occasional (or regular) caffeine fix in your chemical swill; it’s actually part of a healthy meal? That’s just how you roll? Allow me to call bullshit, and feel free to supersize it. Let’s check out the ingredients in one of those invigorating diet cokes:

Carbonated water. Okay.

Caramel color. Hmmm.

Aspartame. Now we’re talking. (This is not the soiled detritus from Satan’s kidney, but it is certainly controversial)

Phosphoric acid. Sounds healthy to me!

Potassium benzoate. Only the good kind.

Natural flavors. You know, from the cola fruit (maybe the same thing that flavors the Cola slurpee?)

Citric acid. If you insist.

Caffeine. What’s not to love?

Sounds like the foundation of any refreshing and salubrious beverage to me.

Maybe Colicchio had no idea that his appearance in this ad was going to present Diet Coke as misguided propaganda for healthy eating. In all fairness, and in respect to his integrity, there is every likelihood that he showed up and was under the impression that he was merely going to exchange his name (his brand as an aficionado of elevated cuisine) to sell more product, for money. A little quid pro quo: you take their money, they take your soul, no harm no foul. I’m sure he is outraged by the way this pernicious corporation has appropriated his status as a man of wealth and taste. I’m sure he would be more than happy to set the record straight, if he could just get that cock, I mean coke, out of his mouth.

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See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me…Sell Me

There is a reason The Beatles are considered the greatest band ever. It’s simple, really: they are the greatest band ever. After them, it’s a fair fight for second place, and fans of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Kinks can duke it out for eternity. (And that’s just the British bands.) It would not be terribly enjoyable, or edifying, to argue about which band warrants consideration as runners-up, but since The Stones tend to be the ones most often considered just under the fab fours’ thumbs, how about The Who? Who knows what might have happened if Keith Moon had not kicked off for that great pub in the sky? (Based on what these other bands did, or did not do, after 1980, it’s safe to propose nothing terribly earth shattering was portended.) But the output from their first decade goes toe-to-toe with any of these other bands’ best work. And if you want to go deep, what tri-fecta can possibly touch Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia? In terms of albums released in a row, that is a tough list to top. The Stones, of course, came close with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street (and in terms of the precursors, I would personally rank The Who Sell Out as every bit as good, if not slightly better, than the somewhat overrated Beggar’s Banquet). What else do you got? I wouldn’t fight to the death arguing that Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper aren’t the most important (if least perfect) consecutive albums to drop in rock history. Of course there is also the entirety of Hendrix’s studio output (while he lived, that is; the good, the bad and the ugly that still spills out of the vaults is a mostly positive mixed blessing), Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland. Fans of the underdogs will get plenty of mileage endorsing The Kinks’ Face to Face,  Something Else by the Kinks and The Village Green Preservation Society.

Inspiring? Pete Townshend, arguably, is the ultimate rock hero. He had the Lennon & McCartney songwriting skills, he was no Hendrix but he played the hell of those guitars he ultimately smashed into splinters (still more punk rock than some poser spitting into the crowd); he had Ray Davies’ lyrical chops and he represented the blue collar sensibility of the down-and-out working stiffs many years before the blokes from Birmingham called themselves Black Sabbath and took on the world one sacred cow at a time. And he was always a thinking man’s Keith Richards, content to swim in the scum but never letting it stall his creative engine. He makes those siblings from Oasis seem like the sissies they are: for all their squabbles did either of them ever beat the other into the hospital as Roger Daltrey did after Townshend whacked him with his guitar in the studio? And I love him for kicking Abby Hoffman offstage, literally, during Woodstock when he interrupted The Who’s set to rant at the crowd (nevermind the fact that his whining was well-warranted, since he was calling legitimate attention to John Sinclair’s ludicrous imprisonment, and nevermind that Hoffman later claimed the incident did not go down the way it was portrayed, begging the question of how and why the audio could have possibly been altered or misconstrued).

Influential? This, of course, was the band that made an album entitled The Who Sell Out. Aside from the fact that it was, in many ways, a blueprint for their subsequent masterpiece Tommy, it was an incredible album in its own right. Also important, it displayed the restless sensibility of the band’s principle songwriter, who always had his foot on the pulse and remained a step or two ahead of the crowd. A few years after he sang about hoping he died before he got old on “My Generation” and a few decades before he did get old, and began selling his songs to the highest bidder, he predicted all of it. Of course, he did so tongue very much in cheek, his sardonic wit and impish eye for human foibles firing on all cylinders. The band actually recorded mini commercials in between tunes (cool) that were actually fucking brilliant (cooler). In addition to the one that still scorches, “I Can See For Miles”, the album was brimming with inspired, offbeat slices of life. Consider “Odorono” or “Silas Stingy” or the not quite fully baked but enduring “Tattoo”. Or this personal favorite, which manages to hint at all the grandeur just over the horizon, “Someone’s Coming”:

Indeed, if there had been no Tommy, the bet here is that The Who Sell Out would be considered one of the seminal mid-to-late ’60s rock documents. As such, it is easily counted amongst the band’s better work and has been cited, covered and worshipped; it even inspired one of the truly eccentric yet satisfactory experiments of the new century. Petra Haden (daughter of Jazz legend Charlie Haden) had the audacity to record an entirely a cappella reimagining of the album, naturally entitled Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. To say this would not be everyone’s cup of chai is understating the obvious, but for those with a more adventurous sonic palette, its joys are bountiful.

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”:

Led Zeppelin, to their eternal credit, did what The Who were unable to do when they lost their drummer in the late-’70s: they stopped making music. As such, their legacy is intact, and they can take credit for never making a sub-par album. The Who, on the other hand, plowed ahead (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me) and made some mediocre albums before they pulled the plug. Little did anyone know that The Who were about to sell out (literally and figuratively) in 1989, going on the road once again to celebrate their 25th anniversary (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me). As far as I’m concerned, if bands want to play and people want to pay to see them, rock on. It was, nevertheless, a bit pitiful to see the man who crowed about selling out and dying before he got old turning his “rock opera” into a family-friendly Broadway production in the ’90s. And then there were the commercials. I don’t exactly lose sleep over old rebels letting their back catalogs get pimped out by rapacious PR firms, but I believe Bill Hicks delineates what is at stake better than anyone else could.  

So Pete Townshend wants to allow his songs to be used in order to hawk Hummers or HPs or… high performance headlights? Whatever. No matter how old and opportunistic he becomes, nothing Townshend can do will dampen my enthusiasm for his earlier work; that is the stuff that matters: the rest is between his soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.

Still, it was disconcerting to see Townshend get his knickers in a bunch when Michael Moore asked to use “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the conclusion of Fahrenheit 9/11. Don’t get me wrong, I often find the oleaginous Moore as nauseating as the next guy does, and I agree with his politics. I ultimately think he’s a cause for good, and many Americans would do well to recall that he was among the first, and loudest, public critics of the Iraq catastrophe long before the supine mainstream media took it upon themselves to connect the obvious dots. A man who makes movies like he does (ham-fisted and disgustingly self-satisfied) warrants a regular and healthy dose of ridicule, but he was targeted for telling the truth and for that alone he has eternal street cred. Plus, his movies contain gems of insight that usually emerge from the gratuitous commentary, too-cute-by-two-thirds editing and distracting presence of a man who should stay behind the camera at all costs.

Townshend, taking time away from his research project, made a big fuss about what a hack and a charlatan Moore was, which sounded like he was protesting a tad too much. However, whether he intended it, or whether he likes it, coming as it did in the summer of an election year, he gave the Republicans considerable fodder. That was unconscionable. For a man who was at one time progressive to license his songs to sell SUV’s is lame enough; to take a principled stand against a filmmaker who is trying to expose the lies and crimes that were, at that time, killing hundreds of American soldiers (not to mention the countless innocent Iraq lives) each month, is a large, ugly stain on Townshend’s legacy.

 

Which brings us back to the future. To see (and hear) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” being used in the latest Will Ferrell production, a remake of ’70s TV show Land of the Lost is…disappointing. Aside from the fact that the film looks predictably terrible, the idea that Townshend is happy to sell it is…revealing. Listen, I could care less if Townshend decided he was a hardcore conservative (though he may not appreciate the way Republicans in this country would have treated his little kiddie porn peccadillo); certainly it would sting a little bit to see him embrace the ultimate intellectual devolution. Again, it would not distract me in the slightest from worshipping the music he made when he still had a brain. But to allow a song that allegedly meant something to him at one time (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”, albeit a precious sort of political song, is still a timeless indictment of the system and our endless capacity for using our illusions) to shill mindless Hollywood dross? It’s more than a little disgusting.

And yet, in the final analysis, there is something quite appropriate about this turn of events. The movie is about dinosaurs and perhaps Townshend recognizes that he too is a dinosaur. He used to roam the earth and lesser creatures trembled at his presence. Now, his integrity is extinct, and he is himself a bit of a cartoon, alive mostly through memories and on TV, via the songs in the commercials that pimp product. And of course he will live forever inside the machines that play music, keeping his former soul safe and enshrined.

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Taking It To The Streets?

In today’s NYT, Sudhir Venkatesh (author and Sociology professor at Columbia) contributes an op-ed entitled Too Down To Rise Up, In it he posits the intriguing, and depressing, theory that perhaps too many of us are too preoccupied to rise up in any real (i.e., compelling) fashion. Preoccupied, as opposed to distracted; it’s not that people are uninformed, it is, perhaps, that a great many people are too engaged. The only explanation for this seeming dichotomy is the electronic machine you are reading (and I am composing) this text on. Venkatesh points out that, between our blogging, online news surfing and (mostly) innocuous navel gazing, we are firing on all intellectual cylinders, including ones we couldn’t conceive pre-Internet, but what we are lacking is a primal, collective forum for expressing that awareness and those feelings. Despite the well-documented populist rage, albeit a white collar rage, that we’re reading about (in mostly staid reports inside mostly staid mainstream publications), most of the ire, directed outward, dissolves in the ether. Put another way, is it pretty much impossible to rage against the machine when you are plugged into the machine? Hardcore bloggers would bristle at the suggestion that their concerted efforts to absorb and disseminate information and affect change can ultimately be shrugged off as inaction. Certainly, they could correctly point to the recent election to illustrate the ways in which online organization paid undeniable dividends in terms of galvanizing and directing energy for a common cause. There are millions of other minor examples that one could accurately invoke. Nevertheless, where the Internet has radically democratized, and advanced the retrieval and dispersal of information, and it obviously serves as a powerful organizing tool, does it not, by its nature, necessarily mute and muffle a more unmitigated, more human response?

But if American anger remains corralled on the Internet, into e-mail messages to Congress and in sporadic small-group protests, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will do much to assuage the anger of taxpayers. Administration officials certainly don’t seem concerned that rage will heat up and overflow; after all, anticipating unrest would mean a broad and intensive campaign to shore up housing, food and welfare safety nets. The proposed budget contains a few such line items, but a comprehensive, coordinated program to prevent violence and defuse anger would need sustained commitments from mayors, service providers and civic leaders.

That we are too smart, or soft, or satiated for our own good is debatable, and there is probably a refreshing amount of gray straddling the extreme of either being aggressive or supine. But perhaps a more disconcerting possibility is that our collective reticence is already accounted for in the eyes (and intentions) of our politicians and the still-resurgent masters of the universe. Maybe it’s an intrinsically understood (and eagerly embraced) condition of our contemporary status quo that the people making the Big Decisions recognize that our capacity for outrage is several degrees more docile than it was a few generations ago. Oh we rant, we rage, we howl; but the sound of a million citizens tweeting is not going to shake, much less raze, the foundations of the temple.

But these days, technology separates us and makes more of our communication indirect, impersonal and emotionally flat. With headsets on and our hands busily texting, we are less aware of one another’s behavior in public space. Count the number of people with cellphones and personal entertainment devices when you walk down a street. Self-involved bloggers, readers of niche news, all of us listening to our personal playlists: we narrowly miss each other. Effective rebellions require that we sing in unison.

It would not seem especially effective, or intelligent, to make a case that what we need most is more anger, or the type of unified uprising that (invariably) results in violence. But it does seem fair to propose that in our current state of affairs, when the usually (take your pick) quaint or radical word populist has again gained cachet, it would be to our considerable detriment if we failed to harness some of this outrage in a productive way. It wasn’t until people let their voices be heard, in a tone that conveyed genuine indignation, that Obama began to acknowledge the inconsistency (or, worse, the consistency) with which the AIG bonuses had been handled. The point being: without any vocal demand for accountability, we can remain certain that our elected officials won’t feel unduly obliged to be accountable. Venkatesh’s piece today is a timely and invaluable reminder that even while our inboxes glow and our ire is evident, we may still be acting in accordance to the script that was already written for us.

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