22 January 2007

Music of the '80s that Matters: R.E.M.

Preface: (Simul-post)
Before George W. "Shrub" Bush has a chance to finishing beginning the end of the world as we know it, let me get this on record.


Michael Stipe, a military brat known for his surrealistic lyrics (protest or otherwise), saw the broken Viet Nam veterans around him. He saw them leave, and he saw them come back.

Follow me, don't follow me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
Collar me, don't collar me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
We are agents of the free
I've had my fun and now its time to

Serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me)
Coming in fast, over me


[The following is spoken, Viet Nam-era, U.S. Military radio exchanges,
barely understandable over the din of deafening, whirling chopper blades.]

High on the roof,
thin the blood,
another one climbs on the waves tonight,

comin' in, you're home
We'd circle and we'd circle and we'd circle
to stop and consider
centered on the pavement stacked up all the trucks jacked up
our wheels in slush and orange crush in pocket
and all this here county
hell any county
it's just like heaven here and
I was remembering and I
was just in a different county
and all then this whirlybird that I
headed for
I had my goggles pulled off I knew it all
I knew every back
road and every truck stop

Follow me, don't follow me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
Collar me, don't collar me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
We are agents of the free
I've had my fun and now its time to

Serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me)
Coming in fast, over me

(Orange Crush from the 1988 R.E.M. album Green)

Orange Crush, aka Napalm (i.e. gasoline jelly) defoliating the triple-canopy rain forest of Viet Nam -- all so that the "agents of the free" can kill Victor Charlie before the communist dominoes fall in Southeast Asia. Go on man, check the label on that shirt you're wearing -- says made in China, don't it. Agents of the free my ass.

I've listened to the song "Orange Crush" hundreds of times and could never dig those lyrics out. It was the anger in Michael's vocal, buried in a mix of crashing power chords, driving military -march rhythm, and chopper blades that started me on my quest to find out what exactly, other than orange soda, "Orange Crush" was.

And that's just one 4 minute track from Green.

The album blasts out of the starting gates with track one, "Pop Song 89", a rocker that, I think, is a surrealistic commentary on the break down in inter-personal communication that Michael Stipe saw rising. While nobody could have seen a modern phenomena such as "hooking up" back in the late Eighties, "Pop Song 89", listened to today, is an indictment of "Generation Next" social interaction.

In a word, timeless.

Before I rave on, let's introduce the band. With Stipe are drummer
Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, and multi-instrumentalist/bass-player Mike Mills, each providing post-punk texture to the fabric R.E.M. weaves.

And before I move away from Green, I've got to mention a diversely-instrumented, acoustic song that, in Michael's lyrics, captures a struggle that I (and a lot of my friends, you know who you are) deal with every day we draw breath. That never-played-on-commercial radio (now or then) masterpiece is "World Leader Pretend":

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
I know the barricades, and
I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I used them well

This is my mistake. let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I proclaim that claims are left unstated,
I demand a rematch
I decree a stalemate
I divine my deeper motives
I recognize the weapons
I’ve practiced them well. I fitted them myself
This is my world

And I am world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It’s high time I’ve razed the walls
That I’ve constructed

Other than saying this roots rock, alternative folk record contains the stellar, metaphorical train song "Driver 8", the hypnotic lyrics-buried-in-the-mix song that made a college-legend out of the meteor "Kohoutec", and the truly reconstructed, oral-tradition fable "Wendell Gee", I'll let Albert Massa, writing for Amazon.com, take over here:
R.E.M.'s third full-length recording, Fables of the Reconstruction delivers the purest distillation of the band's early sound. With the exception of the horn-laden, radio-friendly "Can't Get There from Here," the songs form a connected soundscape. Nearly transparent production highlights the glittering guitar arpeggios, active bass, and the disciplined, patterned drum lines, with organ and spare string arrangements adding texture to several pieces. And then there are the vocals: dense harmonies of voices calling out to each other, a rich humming and howling around Michael Stipe's central mumble. A careful listener can discern most of the lyrics, though what exactly they signify remains unclear. The album is best contemplated in its entirety, and the songs reward careful, repeated listening. This is a seminal alternative album, its material evocative, its ultimate meanings elusive. If your CD collection has room for only a few R.E.M. albums, Fables should be one of them.
Since I don't have an editor handy, let me wrap this up. Another of the "few R.E.M. albums" you should own is Life's Rich Pageant. To mention just 3 of its gems, "Cuyahoga" blasts you with an environmental catastrophe:
Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down.
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
Cuyahoga, gone
.... (Emphasis Added)

To comprehend "The Flowers of Guatemala", you have to know what was happening there in the early 1980's -- it's a mystical, genocide-chronicle song set in an Eden of flowers:

I took a picture that I’ll have to send
People here are friendly and content
People here are colorful and bright
The flowers often bloom at night

Amanita is the name
The flowers cover everything
The flowers cover everything

There’s something here I find hard to ignore
There’s something that I’ve never seen before
Amanita is the name they cover over everything

Contra pose this with the cover version of "Superman"-- it will have you dancing and feeling 8 years old again -- and you have a rock & roll roller-coaster of an album.

Bottom line: The music R.E.M created in the 1980's -- Rapid Eye Movement dream-sleep that is truly poetic, eclectic rock -- still matters today, just as much as it did to me and my friends on a road trip where there was nothing on the radio until we entered NYC airspace -- then "Radio Free Europe" came on the box and we were dancin' in on our seats.

20 January 2007

Ahmet Ertegun, Requiescat in Pace


For remembrances of the man behind the men and women who played most of the soundtrack to my life, see Elegance and Grit: Ahmet Ertegun, the music-business giant, remembered by those who loved him best.

In these days when giant corporations rule the popular music world, Ertegun stands alone as a role model on how to behave as a gentleman with great taste in our music -- and he had the power to do something about it.

18 January 2007

The Blogosphere, Dream Covers, and Rock Celluloid


I've been looking for an excuse to rave about this film for a while, one of only two DVDs I own; now I've got it.

Every Wednesday, the floridacracker posts a new photo of Duane Allman. And every Wednesday a crew of Duane's ultra-fans comments on both a fine new photo and also a broad range of topics that flow from the comment interchange.

Yesterday, regular commenter/guitar player csason wrote, in part "... I've always wondered how 'The Weight' would have sounded with Janis on vocals instead of 'Retha. ..."

I hadn't had my coffee yet. I read and wrote my response comment so fast I suppressed my knowledge that Aretha Frankin had indeed done this song with Duane on guitar (from his Muscle Shoals studio musician era. (So shoot me if I don't let facts get in my way.) Csason's comment inspired this, corrected-here, response from me:

If your unhappy with 'Retha on vocals singin' "The Weight", here's an alternative to check out. In Martin Scorcese's film The Last Waltz -- The Band's last concert in 1978 at Winterland, Scorcese adds a few studio tracks to enhance what has been called the greatest concert movie ever (more on that below). On one of those filmed studio tracks, The Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris are aboard with Robbie and the boys to cover "The Weight". All the right people on stage take a verse. Mavis Staples' verse is as close to [the perfect way to sing this classic] as we may ever get. FYI.

Bottom Line: The Last Waltz CD set and DVD are both essentials. The Last Waltz link above explains more about this once-in-a-lifetime concert celebration. Further, on the DVD, Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson overdub a commentary on the film in the "bonus material." What you can learn about the craft of film-making from Scorcese and how great a human being Robbie is alone make this DVD a sound investment for any serious collector. And I haven't even discussed performances by Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, and Joni Mitchell, among others.

Finally, my top three rock films:

1. Albert and David Maysles' Gimme Shelter

2. Woodstock (The Director's Cut)

3. The Last Waltz

Honorable Mention: The Concert for Bangladesh

16 January 2007

Chances are we’ll make it back ….

If you want objectivity, stop reading here.

Just after midnight on October 30, 2005, Sheryl Crow entranced this viewer with her debut of the song “Good is Good” on SNL, from her new release Wildflower. Forty minutes later she had unplugged the electric guitars and proceeded to reinvent, Nashville-style, her classic “(Are you) Strong Enough (to be my man)”, from her first album Tuesday Night Music Club.

A few weeks later, I got my hands on a copy of Wildflower. After listening to 3 and a half of the album’s cuts, I had to turn off the stereo. I was swirling in the eye of The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much Too Dream Last Night".

As I have followed her solo career, I always thought Ms. Crow was work in progress, growing with each release. I am now ready to risk a prediction.

Double-clutch gear shift. Sir Isaac Newton spent an enormous amount of time calculating the date of the Second Coming / Judgment Day / the front wall fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

By 2060, the year in which Newton calculated the Apocalypse would occur, Ms. Crow’s body of work will rank with Jimi’s, Hank Sr.’s, Ms. Cline’s, and Mr. Lennon’s.

I’ll betcha my guitar.

Thanks for reading.

14 January 2007

I Heard a Good Joke Today

Photo by the incomprable Annie Leibovitz, circa and (c) 1975

If there is a global nuclear war, what will survive?

Cockroaches and Keith Richards

12 January 2007

Johnny Cash's "American Recordings"


Strip it bare. Find the essence, the core, the soul of a song and record it before you die. Rick Rubin's production efforts on the American Recordings series does this flawlessly for the twilight of Johnny Cash's career.

As Wikipedia put the backstory,
.... Although he was no longer sought after by major labels, Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin and offered a contract with Rubin's American Recordings label, better known for rap and hard rock than for country music. Under Rubin's supervision, he recorded the album American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his guitar. The album featured several covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin, and saw much critical and commercial success .... Cash released a sequel, Unchained [1996], and enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. ... [In 1997, serious illness] forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) contained Cash's response to his illness ....
These albums are digital gold (this review covers the 1st four of the five album series).

Take the unnerving, brutal realism of "Delia's Gone". As with Willy Nelson's "I Just Can't Let You Say Good-Bye", Cash explores the darker side of love where the timid simply will not tread.

With "The Man Who Couldn't Cry", Cash delivers a hard-edged parable that made me feel like I was listening to a secular preacher.

Unchained (1996) is an eclectic set of covers mixed with superb Cash originals. Add Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as the back-up band and you have the perfect crossover album.

Two more thoughts and I'll wrap this up. I got an 80 minute, 24 song sampler of these 4 albums from my godson -- he's on the verge of turning 30. My chronic fears about the pop dung young people listen to today are now gone. I've been working as a song-miner for 40 years, but the next generation's safe if they can turn me on to material this good.

Finally, one song from this album series does something rare: what Jimi Hendrix did with Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", what SRV did with Jimi's "Little Wing": covering another outstanding singer/songwriter's original and making the cover version definitive, the best version of the song ever done. I stand here to testify that Johnny Cash's cover of U2's "One", from American III: Solitary Man, is the definitive version of this song. I can't believe I'm writing this, but Bono, Edge, Adam, Larry, sit down and take notes. The Man in Black has stolen this song from you. From now on, for me, "One" is a Johnny Cash song that U2 wrote and popularized.

08 January 2007

Does Rock Exist (Part Two)?

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
- Peter Townsend

(Part one of this post is entitled “The Day the Music Died”, posted immediately below.)

I’m writing now not so much about the music, but rather the state of mind, the communion between the artists and their audience - a communion that was in theory counter-culture.

But the world I see around me consists in too large a part of unreflective baby boomers who are slipping right into molds cut by their parents: overwhelmed by their kids — and slaves to their mortgages (and the jobs that pay those bankers), SUVs, credit card debt and all the rest of the rat race that North American culture is now.

Where has my counter-culture gone? Part of it is underground, the tip of this melting iceberg visible in blogs, in chat rooms, in coffee houses and community radio stations. Bars have a small but passionate group of patrons who want to turn off the TV, turn on the jukebox and talk rock music or sing along, without the 714s and with or without the JD.

And money, like everything it touches, is clawing at the soul of rock n’ roll in whole new way. I’m not inside the business, so I can’t comment on what the artists endure. But as part of the “rock community”, I’ve paid my dues and earned my say.

Think about what’s become of the great rock (classic rock if you must) anthems and songs. They’re showing up in TV commercials: The Stones selling financial planning, Led Zeppelin selling Cadillacs, others featuring The Spencer Davis Group, The Who, Bob Dylan, and old Motown classics. It all started with the Beatles’ “Revolution” turning up in a tennis shoe ad. Now, gradually, methodically, they’re selling off my culture.

Erik Erikson (1968) wrote eloquently of a youth identity crisis. That crisis could be the fuel that makes rock burn, but a lot of great rock is made by artists over 40. Now that I’m over 40, am I doomed to preach a dying counter-culture gospel? To twist Neil Young’s timeless poetry: old man take a look at your life, aren’t you a lot like they were?

04 January 2007

The Day the Music Died?

(Repost from Carnal Reason with one comment also reposted)

In August of 2006, Larry King did an hour-long interview with Sheryl Crow on CNN. While most of the interview was devoted to other topics, most important of which was a thorough discussion of Ms. Crow’s recent fight against stage one breast cancer – she caught it early and is apparently out of the woods. A toss-off question toward the end of the interview inspired this post.

King asked Sheryl how she would categorize her music: rock, pop, country? Part of her answer didn’t surprise me; she settled on the category country. The reason it didn’t surprise me is that, as a hard core rock fan, I, recently, have been drawn more to the work of artists such as Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, who are among those redefining “country music”. Sheryl went on, however, to close her answer with a verbal stinger missile: she didn’t think rock existed anymore.

Does rock still exist? I think it’s a very good question. U2’s last album and Bruce Springsteen’s second to last album both strike me as recent great rock and roll albums. When their around, Keith Richards and the Expensive Winos is a great rock and roll band. But what has happened to good old rock and roll?

There’s grunge, there’s pop, there’s reggae, there country/rock, there’s hip-hop. And there’s a lot of white noise out there these days that people call rock. Sounds more like post-punk dithering to me. (And bye the bye, punk is dead; anybody who disagrees needs to go back to The Sex Pistols and The Clash and do some homework.)

Swing music became the music of it’s generation; Sinatra and Co. the music of another. Is rock destined to be born with Chuck Berry and die with U2?

Is rock dead? What do you think, all you “young dudes”?


Francis W. Porretto said:

From a not-so-young dude (54) who’s watched, and has been sporadically involved in, the popular music scene for more than forty years:

Rock was, at its inception, a grab-bag category intended to cope with the diaspora of up-tempo styles that succeeded blues and “traditional” R&B. Strictly speaking, the category was never coherent in any perceptible way. Its promulgators attempted to apply it, with variations, to just about everything that wasn’t “crooner,” jazz, or big band.

In other words, “rock” was a wild shot loosed at a target on the move, and rapidly on the move at that. It took only seven years to go from the R&B-derived style of the Beatles to the symphonic-progressive sounds of Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes. But this is the nature of dynamic art forms: They keep changing, as artists innovate and popular taste mutates. Popular music is the most dynamic of them all.

It would be impossible to produce a static taxonomy of contemporary popular music that would still be definitive five years from now. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out Radiohead!